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Brighter than a star it blazed, spewing out deadly radiation in all directions throughout the turbulent Styx Nebula. But the Pharon spaceship Destroyer for the Faith drove straight for its burning core, oblivious to the possible damage to its equipment and crew.
"Prepare to grapple," ordered the Death Priest in command of the vessel. Most of the control-room slaves hurried to obey, but one, more decrepit than the rest, did not move quickly enough for the priest's liking. Without warning, a wickedly sharp, meter-long devotional blade sliced through the air — and the slave's neck. A dust cloud rose where the curved diamond blade severed mummified head from torso, only to be quickly vacuumed away by the relentless flow of air through the control room — designed to prevent contamination rather than to hold down the ever-present, throat-tightening stench of death. The slave's carcass thudded noisily to the deck. Fluids dribbled from sundered life-support hoses until three other slaves stripped the corpse of its back tank and dragged the pathetic remains out of the way. Another hurriedly took its place at the control console.
The Death Priest sheathed his blade at his side, adjusted the greasy gray bandages around his head, and turned back to the array of sensors in front of him, his quick mind calculating the approach vector and the amount of damage his ship might sustain in his quest to capture this bit of errant matter.
It had to be a piece of the Vorack itself, that swirling eye of bleeding energy responsible for their captivity in the peculiar chaotic region surrounding it. Other racesmight fear the power of the Vorack, but the Pharon reveled in it. Their homeworld was located close to the energy vortex at the heart of the Maelstrom, constantly bathed in the Vorack's erratic radiation. Destroyer for the Faithhad picked up the intense energy blasting outward from that speck of strangeness several days ago, and the priest had ordered his crew to follow.
The Pharon had detected such fragments of pure power before, but never had a ship been close enough to pursue them. Until now. With this incandescent tidbit harnessed to the will of the God-king, the Pharon would have sufficient energy to do anything they liked: move their planet freely throughout the Rings, a mobile fortress to conquer all the other races; harness it as a directed-energy weapon; even, perhaps, use its power to return them to true life. It was the Vorack, after all, that had revived the Pharon from their tombs after their homeworld had been drawn into the Maelstrom. Who was to say that, tamed, it could not do more?
The ship had followed the mote for days as the priest studied it, trying to discover the best way to capture it. As nearly as the sensors could determine, the energy source itself was microscopic. It was encased in a solid globe of some sort of crystalline structure that seemed to contain most of its immense power, allowing only enough radiation to leak out so that their instruments could detect it. But the Pharon knew he had to act quickly. The powerful speck might be a piece of the Vorack, but the crystal encasing it almost certainly was not. That could mean other races might be aware of it — might even have captured and then lost it — and could very well be in pursuit. Perhaps even the hated Shard, those crystalline abominations. The Death Priest had to capture the mote quickly, surround it with a force field to contain its deadly radiation, then return it to the homeworld for the glory of the God-king.
"Slayer!" barked the Death Priest. Immediately the enormously tall, prodigiously strong warrior, outfitted in shining, exquisite golden armor that contrasted horribly with the sickly gray of his skin, came to his side. The Slayer clacked his battle claw in anticipation of his orders, and the control room filled with the whine of the energy weapon at his right hand, charging to full capacity for even more widespread slaughter.
"At your command!" the Slayer snapped. His voice came out in a croak; the vocal cords had decayed. He nodded his small head once, then stood ready for orders. One baleful dark eye stared at the priest from between heavy wrappings.
"Assemble a squadron and launch them with force grapples," the priest commanded. "Fasten the cables around the crystal, then reel it close to Destroyer for the Faith.But do not bring it aboard until the hold is evacuated and ready." The Pharon chafed at the need to keep the inner force-shields lowered until the mote was aboard. Leaving them down rendered the ship vulnerable to attack. But they had to be lowered until the crystal was safely contained in the hold's internal electromagnetic field.
"At once," the Slayer said. The deadly soldier spun, knocking a too-slow control-room slave from his path, then hastened to the launch tubes amidships, where four small, torpedo-shaped vessels would be sent on their mission. It was possible that, once outside the protection of the ship, the slaves aboard the squadron would be crisped by the radiation emanating from the mote. But the Death Priest cared little how many of the crew were lost; the Slayer cared even less. Compassion was as extraneous to their makeup as life itself — and, with all the inferior races struggling to survive in the chaos of the Maelstrom, there were always new slaves to be had.
Confident that the Slayer would fulfill his mission with dispatch, the priest turned his attention back to the speck from the Vorack, the quintessence of death and power, and indulged in a small smile of triumph. He would return to the Pharon homeworld and bask in the God-king's favor. High Priests, soldiers, Slayers — he would be elevated above them all with this gift. How this treasure had come loose from the Vorack meant less to the Death Priest than how he could use it. Conquest. Pain to the living. Destruction to anyone or anything in his path. Glory to the God-king!
Turning his head slightly, the Death Priest glanced at the sensor screen centered on the Vor-stuff. The external polarizers strained to hold down its blinding, pure white light, and still the intensity was excruciating. Space bent reluctantly around the edges of the pellet from the heart of the Maelstrom, corrupting light and mutilating time.
"How can I use it fully?" the Death Priest murmured aloud, lost in contemplation of the mote's potential. Such a resource could not be squandered.
"We are ready for launch," came the Slayer's corrupt voice over the ship's communications system.
"Launch now," the priest ordered. He felt a moment of satisfaction as the four small ships blasted away from Destroyer for the Faithand went into tight orbit around the Vorack-stuff. Four force grapples would be positioned, each interlocked with the other three, their beams directed toward the incandescent speck. Then lines spun from single-crystal monofilament steel, almost impossible to break, would be woven through the rings mounted on the force grapples. The combination of the material with the energetic would ensure proper entrapment of the gift from the Vorack.
As the small ships jockeyed into position, an alarm clangor startled the priest from his intense contemplation. The Death Priest's head whipped around so fast that his elaborately crafted life-support tank shifted on his back, sending him reeling off balance. One hand shot out, hooked the edge of a control panel, and steadied him. His deep-set eyes widened in surprise. Then a gut-wrenching fury began to build.
As he had feared, he was not the only hunter in the cosmos with a hunger for a piece of the Vorack.
* * *
Without need of instrumentation, the Shard drove its vessel through the murky dust of the nebula filling this portion of space. It was difficult to tell where the sharp, curved edges of the alien's crystalline shell ended and the smooth walls of its ship began. The Shard itself lay motionless in the center of its tiny vessel. It needed no controls and wasted no physical movement as it speared through space toward the source of energy it had detected only a few hours ago. Piezoelectric nodules on the glassy surface of its body fed commands directly to the ship, which responded instantaneously to the Shard's desires.
Even the Shard's body felt the strain of the ship's intense acceleration. Ignoring the sensation and the warning signals from its vessel, the alien dispassionately scanned the data being fed into its body by the ship, calculating the best course to intercept the mysterious energy source, coolly weighing risks and alternatives.
The signal it thought it had detected earlier came again. It was not the only being to have discovered the powerful fragment, after all; a Pharon ship pursued it closely, and was in fact about to capture it.
That was impermissible. A bare flicker of anger touched the cool surface of the Shard's mind. Bad enough it was forced to exist in a universe filled with shambling hulks of flesh, the disgustingly biological organisms that infested the Maelstrom. But the Pharon were a double insult: once dead, now restored to a semblance of life they did not deserve. Their rotting flesh, their mockery of life, their very existence was an affront to the Shard that could not be borne.
And now they dared to claim a source of unknowable, immeasurable power for their own. A force so powerful it might even lead the Shard to the freedom they had hungered after for so long — escape from the Maelstrom, and from the loathed crystalline cells of their bodies. If this tiny shred of raw power really was from the Maw, perhaps it held the key to unlocking their prisons.
The cube-shaped hull of the Shard ship heated as the Shard raced through the inky black nebular gases, then slowed and masked its approach as it came within range of the Pharon sensors. The electrostatic charge on the hull oscillated to chaotically stir the nebular gases around it, shutting off direct visual observation. The Shard cooled the hull until it matched the temperature of the gases around it; EM pulses from sensing lidar were absorbed by the crystalline structure of the ship's shell. Then it lowered its internal voltage until even the most sensitive Pharon equipment would pick up only nebula-filled space. All this took place in a matter of seconds, the ship obeying the Shard's unspoken commands instantly.
The Shard lay quietly for a moment, its ship undetectable, sorting through its options.
Problem: The Pharon.
Goal: The Maw-stuff.
Solution: Destroy the Pharon.
The crystalline humanoid tensed and relaxed, generating electrical currents all over its quicksilver surface. The outer surface of the spaceship shimmered and transformed, turning pearlescent and highly reflective— and, the Shard knew, instantly alerting the Pharon enemy to its presence. One more command, and lasers lashed out from the side of its ship, blasting the four Pharon vessels attempting to capture the mote into dust.
From half a hundred ports on the Pharon ship lanced ravening beams of energy, licking tentatively at the smooth hull of the Shard ship before reflecting away. In its crystal cocoon, the Shard rocked only slightly from the impact. As the energy bounced off, superheating and ionizing the gases around the ship, the Shard had time for only one flash of apprehension as it detected one reflected laser beam's new course— aimed straight into the core of the Maelstrom-stuff.
Just as it had deflected from the crystalline surface of the Shard's ship, the laser bounced ineffectively off the globe surrounding the microscopic pinpoint of light. But it lashed back at the two warring ships with a thousand times more power, feeding off the unthinkable amounts of energy contained within the mote's crystal prison and sending a shock wave of pure destruction through the Shard and Pharon's battlefield.
The Pharon ship caught the brunt of the explosion, positioned as it was between the Shard vessel and the mote. It was hurled far off its original course, spinning and tumbling helplessly deeper into the nebula. The Shard was also buffeted by the wave front of radiation, but it was shielded from the worst of the blast by its hapless foe. The Shard struggled to regain control over its vessel, its body generating higher voltages to better command the ship's damaged circuitry. Slowly, the ship came under the Shard's dominion again, and it headed back for the mote from the heart of the Maelstrom. It noted with quiet satisfaction that the Pharon ship had come to rest deep in the Styx Nebula, lying silent and apparently dead in space.
The Shard stopped a few kilometers away from the fragment, its quick mind studying the emanations, calculating the best way to take the crystal globe into tow. The Pharon ship was no longer of concern; it had been badly damaged and was in no position to claim the potent speck for its own. Now it was only a matter of time.
The mote would belong to the Shard.
* * *
The Death Priest forced himself to stand. His senses were fogged, and the confusion in the control room further stunned him. Destroyer for the Faithhad sustained incredible damage when the Vorack-stuff had unleashed its wave of malevolent energy. In that split second, the Pharon ship had suffered more destruction than any enemy vessel had ever delivered. Slaves all around the priest were dusty, smoking ruins. Corpses piled on corpses along the bulkheads until the few survivors could barely force their way back to their stations.
Somehow, this wall of charred, undead flesh had protected the Death Priest. His interleaved metallic armor had grounded more of the EMP burst, and his devotion to the God-king had sustained him even further. The priest survived. The lesser castes died. So it was written.
"Slayer, report!" barked the Death Priest. When he received no answer, he checked his few working sensors and saw that communications to the hold were down. He spun, lost his balance in the slippery life fluids on the deck, and went to one knee with a clatter that sounded louder than the alarm bells ringing throughout the ship. He refastened a vital hose that had come loose from his sustenance tank and took a moment to calm himself.
Regaining his feet, the Death Priest ordered a badly damaged slave to go to the hold and fetch the Slayer. The slave picked its way through the litter of bodies, trailing body parts and a long length of hose from its life-support pack. The priest did not care if the slave returned as long as it fulfilled its mission before it went to its final rest.
The few sensors still working on his control board showed that the Shard vessel had come to rest only a few kilometers away from the mote. The priest clenched his fists in impotent fury, his rage building until it could no longer be contained.
Screeching, wild with anger, the priest yanked his scythe from its sheath at his side and began hacking wildly at the pile of unfortunate slaves. Oily fluids spurted from hoses, and decayed bodies simply fell apart at the impact of the blade.
But his fury could not sustain itself for long, and the priest slowed and finally stopped, his wickedly edged scythe dangling forgotten from his hand. His rage had changed nothing. His ship was devastated, his crew was dead, and his mortal enemy was in possession of the greatest prize the Maelstrom had ever offered up. Defeating the Shard through force of arms was not an option. If he had any hopes of salvaging triumph from this defeat, he would have to calm himself and think.
"At your orders, Burning One!" barked the Slayer in his diseased voice, hastening into the control room.
"Preserve our inferiors aboard Destroyer for the Faith," the priest ordered with icy calm. "We will need them to defeat the Shard."
"They are not necessary," the Slayer said angrily. "Let mefight the Shard!" The Slayer brought up his battle claw and clacked it open and closed several times, undoubtedly visualizing what it would be like if a crystalline Shard were trapped in its savage jaws.
"We will get the Vorack-stuff," the priest said, beginning to regain control of the ship and get reports from all quarters. There was damage, substantial damage, but not so much that it could not be fixed. Unfortunately, most of the crew had perished in the battle. This would prolong the time spent repairing the ship. "You must have patience."
"The Shard has what we want," the Slayer said single-mindedly. "Kill the Shard, gain our reward."
"True," the Death Priest said. "What would you like to use to kill it?" He gestured at the smoking ruins of the control room, the heaped bodies of its trained slaves, and waited, eyeing the hulking Slayer with a certain degree of amusement. The Slayer had been trained for one task only: killing. The priest could consider the situation from other perspectives, ones subtler than a rapid-fire laser cannon or a head-removing battle claw. Engaging the Shard ship again would mean only their destruction — and the loss of their prize forever. There had to be other tactics than full-scale, all-out combat they could never win, no matter how determined or enthusiastic the Slayer might be.
"I will have the surviving slaves start repairing the ship. Then we can attack," the Slayer said.
"Begin the repairs," the Death Priest ordered. "I will let you know when to launch the attack. To do so before the ship is ready is to fail."
"I am pious!" the Slayer insisted.
"Defeat is blasphemy," said the Death Priest, reciting the God-king's Prime Dictum. "We will not stray from the path of righteousness. I will not permit it. Go — see to the repairs."
The priest turned back to his sensors as the Slayer swept out of the control room, attempting to analyze his enemy's next move. The area of space where the ancient enemies had vied was a desolate sector of the Outer Ring, the part of the Maelstrom farthest from the sustaining energies of the Vorack. Aside from the nebula in which his crippled ship now floated, the only objects of interest were a small moon and the greenish blue planet it orbited. The Shard ship, maintaining its proximity to the mote, was inexorably drawing closer to this insignificant orb. The priest began coaxing faint radio signals emanating from the distant planet, setting his computers to analyze the content and syntax of those primitive transmissions. Until his ship was repaired, he could do nothing but watch and wait.
Perhaps, if he was very lucky, the crawling primitives that infested the planet and its satellite would blow the Shard out of the sky for him.