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Authors: Janelle Taylor

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BOOK: Moonbeams and magic
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"Auken won't raid using any ship except his. If you're worried about our safety, loan him your cloaking unit until they learn how to attach one of those Destructoids to his

ship like Tochar uses to protect Tochara. Of course, after his Adika is armed with one of those new beamers, we can attack and destroy any vessel and location; they'll be helpless against us."

Moig had spoken a horrifying fact she and her superiors realized all too well, as the villites had stolen the only three Destructoids in existence, weapons with formidable capabilities and impossible to replace. "Auken's ship lacks the power to operate and the means to install my type of cloaker," she explained. "We've been fortunate to come and go undetected, Moig, but our luck could jettison any preon with galactic leaders weary of our costly raids, especially the Kalfans and Serians. I don't even want to imagine what would happen to us if Sekis or I-GAFqts got their eager hands on us."

"Tochar agrees to Auken's wishes, so we have to obey their orders. Don't worry, Vedris," Moig soothed, "we won't get caught; Tochar knows many secrets."

There must be a special reason for using Auken 's ship when we raid for moonbeams, our most dangerous and profitable treks. If not, wed use mine. "I know, but if the Adika's cloak is penetrated, we'll be tracked to Noy; and Tochar tries to appear innocent of our daring raids."

"Wouldn't matter if we're tracked; Noy's in the Free-Zone. It's closer to the Thracian and Ceyxan galaxies than to the Federation. The UFG's I-GAFqts and Kalfan rangers don't have any authority beyond the boundary. Besides, nobody can invade Tochara, not with our defense system."

Starla knew that the Thracian—of which Icaria was a planet—and the Ceyxan galaxies had tolerated the villite strongholds on Noy and several other small planets in the Free-Zone because the pirates provided them with things they wanted and because the villites wisely did not operate in their sectors. Yet, if those empires changed their minds, the stronghold of Tochara was impregnable, even by star-ships. But I-GAF teams from the United Federation of Gal-

axies—made up of Maffei, Seri, Kalfa, Androas, and Py-ropea—could decide to challenge the nefariants who preyed on their solar systems. A bold course of action could not be undertaken, however, until matching weapons were built, which could not happen until white crystals of the same size and power were found either in Seri or Kalfa. "For now, we seem to be safe, but who can say what the future holds?"

"Tochar's too smart to endanger himself, his stronghold, and men." Moig's strong tone reflected his confidence in the leader.

Not his hirelings, you brain-lacking yema; he sends us into great peril on every raid! "That's why I hired on with him: he's the most powerful leader beyond the UFG boundary."

Four days later as Starla and Moig sat chatting while eating, she received a message from her android on the bridge. "What is it, Cypher-T?"

"We are approaching the stargate portal. We will enter the Free-Zone in twenty preons. No interceptor is registering on our rear sensors. There are no instrument malfunctions. There are no obstacles in forward view."

"That's good news, Cypher-T; continue on course. We'll join you soon." Starla looked at her repulsive companion. "Well, Moig, we'll reach Noy in three deegas and complete another successful trek."

Starla remained quiet and alert as she listened to Moig's report to their leader, an attractive male with nape-length blond hair and piercing black eyes. Tochar was four hapaxs taller than Starla's own height of sixty-nine hapaxs. His lean, sleek body and commanding aura implied virility and power, but an evil and avaricious air exuded the alien male.

She knew it was dangerous to cross or challenge him, as some men had learned the hard way before their painfiil deaths, but she was willing to take that risk in order to defeat him. With his band of thirty Enforcers, he ruled and controlled this settlement. It was one of several on the planet, but none other had his impenetrable defense system. He existed in luxury in a large and magnificent abode on the side of a low mountain; yet, despite his power and wealth, he could not live or travel where he willed because of his past criminal activities. He was forced to habitate in the Free-Zone, a man who sat atop the worst pile of villite debris in the universe. Starla had a healthy fear of him, but she would work for him until she achieved her goal for coming to Tochara and hiring on to his nefarious band.

Tochar smiled and said, "A superior job as usual, Starla. You continue to impress and please me. I was smart to take a chance on you."

Starla forced a smile in return. "Thank you, Tochar, but I would like to settle one matter now: no more killing unless our lives are in jeopardy."

"Leaving a witness behind does place us in jeopardy, Starla. You and Moig acted wisely to eliminate any possible threat to us. As a reward for your extra task, please select any four weapons you desire from those you delivered to me. This," he said, as he handed her payment for her job, "should be an ample cut for your services this time."

Starla accepted the bag of crozes and thanked him again. It wasn't necessary to count or examine the gems, as they were spendable anywhere she traveled. "You are most generous, Tochar, and I appreciate your faith in me. If that's all for now, I'll take my leave and get needed rest."

"I will summon you when your services are required again. It will be soon, Starla, and at that time your cut will be even larger."

"I stay ready to comply." Starla nodded farewell and, af-

ter selecting the four weapons she wanted from several open crates nearby, departed.

She stepped from the trans-to at the base of the high ridge and headed toward the grid where her shuttlecraft had landed—a ten-preon walk away—leaving a landrover for Moig's use for transportation into the settlement. En route, Starla scanned the area below her still-elevated position where Tochara stretched out for a long distance in the canyon.

Since her arrival, she had learned that Noy was a world of semi-desert to arid desert terrain in various shades of red. Nature had sculpted many rocks, cliffs, ridges, and knobs into rugged and unusual formations. The oppressive red cloak was rent only by an occasional splotch of light or dark gray rock, so hard it rarely crumbled enough to add its shade to the fiery-colored soil whose dust was a nuisance. According to the weather or the time of deega, even the sky was a pale to vivid red. In every direction, mountain ranges—whose odd configurations seemed to have ruptured the ground almost violently during an upheaval eons ago— provided boundary markers. Thick-walled structures with formidable defense weapons sat on two flat-topped bluffs. Starla glanced at those sites with a feeling of hopelessness before returning her thoughts once again to a study of the locale.

Due to a lack of fertile soil in this wilderness, some food plants and fruit bushes were grown in containers inside enclosed domes and were watered by a crude system of pipes and pumps from sources owned and controlled by Tochar. However, the majority of supplies was imported, usually after being stolen by bands of nefariants who either lived or traded there, which created a steady flux of space traffic. Caves found inside three ridges possessed springs and pools of fresh water; they were guarded and their valuable resources dispensed by Tochar's thirty Enforcers, as were the two defense sites. Though rains were infrequent, when a

deluge came, it sent torrents of water gushing down the upheavals and washes, and was absorbed by dried mudflats and hardy red plants.

Tochara was one of many colonies on the secluded planet and, from what she had been told, was the best and safest place in the notorious Free-Zone; it was a vivid contrast to the mutant-roaming wastelands and other crude villages and harsh landscape where even the plants and animals were hazardous. Though noisy, the area was unlike the profound and eerie silence beyond it where only the wind was heard.

The story was that Tochar had arrived with his large band of villites two yings ago and conquered the lesser armed and unskilled inhabitants who had created the colony after fleeing oppression in an alien world. The original occupants who were not slain were sold into slavery on other planets which still allowed the barbaric practice.

Starla was glad there were no children here, as birth control with Hex was an easy task and these were not family people. There were few pets and none were permitted to roam free. Abode builders were wealthy because materials had to be imported and were expensive. Still, in many areas where the unkempt and less successftil raiders dwelled, it was smelly and dirty and cluttered. They lived in huts and shacks made of such usable scrap materials as metal and discarded wood. Lacking advanced technology, fuel for cooking sent gray and pungent smoke drifting upward where it was devoured quickly by a hungry red atmosphere, as were the ftimes from generator-created electricity from stolen fuel.

Most of the inhabitants were rough and lawless men— dregs of the universe, people from many planets and galaxies, pirates, smugglers, traitors, adventurers, bijonis, and those males and females who earned their subsistence by satisfying the villites's needs. Most clustered and worked in groups for defense and profit during raiding treks, though all were ruled and levied by Tochar and kept regulated by

his mighty band of Enforcers. The inhabitants' goals appeared to be eating, drinking, partaking in risky deeds, fulfilling sexual desires, and having a safe haven. All facets of life and the inhabitants here were primitive and coarse when compared to the people and places Starla loved and missed. Yet, a strange camaraderie flourished among them—an odd respect, affection, and loyalty to each other, and unflinchingly to their leader. That same type of bonding was true even for the carnivorous desert mutants— Skalds — and for colony fringe scavengers.

While waiting for the shuttle door to open and the steps to extend, she glanced at Tochar's abode, which overlooked the leader's domain. The rectangular, bilevel structure had been built on a wide rock shelf and nestled against a lofty peak high off the ground for defense and for observing his stronghold. Most of its many chambers had views of three directions through floor-to-ceiling transascreens made from a material visually impenetrable from the exterior, even when the interior was illuminated at night. A generator-operated trans-to carried the owner and his visitors to and from the remarkable location.

As she loaded the weapons and closed the door, Starla recalled other things she had learned. One alien slave and several robots tended to Tochar's dwelling and needs. A well-endowed and sultry female named Palesa sated his carnal cravings. A forceful and wicked alien from the planet of Icaria in the Thracian Empire, Tochar fed his lusts on riches and power, and within Palesa's sensuous body. He seemed to care nothing for politics elsewhere or conquest of any planet, but Starla feared that deega would come. His sole deprivation lay in being unable to enjoy freedom and safety anywhere he yearned to travel, at least until he obtained the capability of mounting a moonbeam laser weapon on his ship. She knew from the fiendal's record and from her observations that Tochar was clever, careful, greedy, and dangerous. He stayed in Tochara—beyond any galaxy's

boundary and authority and attack ability—while his small band of spacekis foraged the nearest sectors for goods he sold at high prices. He remained safe—his life and possessions protected—and seemingly innocent of those raids.

Discovering Tochar was indeed her target was a quick and simple task; but uncovering his distant partoers and capmring him or luring him away and into a trap seemed difficult but heady challenges.

Starla prepared the shuttle for lift-off to return to her ship. She hated Tochara and those who lived there; she could hardly wait to be gone from them. At least she had her ship—clean, safe, comfortable; she didn't want to imagine having to quarter herself in the crude settlement and was relieved the head fiendal had not insisted she do so.

She landed the shuttle in the docking bay of the Liska and joined her companion on the ship's bridge. She ordered a drink from a servo unit and sat near the control panel. She looked at Cypher and took a deep breath.

"You are tired and your spirits are low, Bree-Kayah," the android noted, having been programmed to communicate as a person. "Explain."

"After spending three malees under Tochar's probing gaze, I know he's responsible for the pirating of moonbeams we were sent to investigate, but I still don't know how he obtains facts about their transport schedules and routes. Having hirelings or parmers in Seri and Kalfa is the only way be could know when and where to strike at those secret cargoes. Only men in power have access to those facts and to untraceable communications, yet, no one in either of those locations has fallen under suspicion or been caught sending word to him. Until I earn these villites' complete trust and acceptance and gather those facts, we can't finish our mission and leave."

The young woman almost leapt to her feet to pace the deck, an unusual action for her, and one the android grasped and evaluated.

She continued. "This assignment is crucial, Cypher; moonbeams are too powerful to fall into enemy hands; their uses in weapons, medicine, and defense are awesome. Researchers find more uses for them during every make that passes. No wonder the Thracians and Ceyxans and other galaxies will pay or do anything to get their hands on as many as possible. Once those crystals' full potential is known and put to use by those who aren't in the UFG, the balance of power between the galaxies will be destroyed and our worlds will be threatened by conquest or destruction, or subjected to brutal raids. We can't fail Maffei or our allies. At least Tochar doesn't suspect a female agent is working against him. If he's on the alert for a spy, he shouldn't even glance in my direction. Correct?"

The android observed, recorded, and analyzed her words and mood. "He trusts you because you passed his truth serum test. He does not realize you are immune to it; all Elite Squad members have been rendered immune to it. The false identity and record you were given cannot be dis-proven. He believes you are a rough and tough loner who seeks wealth, adventure, and survival, and have committed many daring and illegal deeds to obtain them. Bree-Kayah Saar of Maffei is unknown to him, to those in Kalfa, and to all in Seri except their supreme ruler; that is why Raz Yakir and your Supreme Commander selected you for this mission."

BOOK: Moonbeams and magic
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