CHAPTER I - Raid on Zanula V


The ship dropped out of hyperspace inside the planet’s defensive shield, exactly as planned. It was a difficult, dangerous manoeuvre, banned by Stellar Corps, but Shebana knew it was their only chance. She’d discussed it with her crew and offered each of them the option to withdraw from the mission. Everyone decided to stay. She looked at her navigator and gave him her best smile, “Good work, Francesco.” The young man blushed. She knew he had a crush on her, but what could she do?

She turned to the pilot, “Take us in, quietly as you can. He’ll have plenty of defences.”

“I don’t know how you expect to land a starcruiser quietly, captain, but I’ll do what I can.”

She opened the intercom, “Commander, we’ll be landing in two minutes twenty, get your troopers ready. I’ll be joining you shortly.”

“You sure I can’t persuade you to stay on the ship?”

“No chance, I’ve been waiting centuries for another shot and now we have him cornered.”

“OK, you’re the boss. I’ll see you in a minute.”

Leaving the bridge in Francesco’s hands, she entered the turbolift. She spoke into the microphone, “Cargo deck, pronto.” As the lift descended she examined herself in the mirror. She wasn’t vain, but she reckoned she looked pretty good for fifty-three. Shit, fifty-four! She’d forgotten her birthday last week. They’d been at Carlton Station preparing for the mission and she’d managed to let the event slip by unnoticed, as was her preference. Not that fifty-four was considered old these days; not in the central systems, anyway.

She’d come a long way since she’d been born in the ancient city of Shanghai during the long hot summer of 3185. Her parents called her Suki but, by the age of five, she knew her true name. By the time she reached puberty, she had full access to her memories. As an ‘Awoken’, she was inducted into the Institute in Amundsen at sixteen and entered the Stellar Corps eight years later.

Thirty years! She stared deep into her dark brown eyes. Thirty years it had taken her to track him down. She’d performed her duties in the Corps, done everything they asked of her, but all the time she’d quietly pursued a mission of her own. They didn’t understand at Stellar Command, but she knew. Mortimer, Mamboja, whatever name he was using, was the most dangerous being in the galaxy. And now she’d finally found him.

He was called Manumas now. She calculated he was about a hundred and ten years old. Young for him, she smiled wryly to herself. In typical fashion, he’d found a position of power.  This time, he was master of a slave planet.

She found it hard to believe slavery was tolerated anywhere in the galaxy in the fourth millennium. Technically it was illegal, of course, and that law was rigidly enforced in the central systems, even in the outer belt. But here on the edge it seemed the Corps was willing to turn a blind eye.

Thinking of the tens, even hundreds, of thousands of unfortunates bred for a life of subordination beyond the reach of civilization made her blood boil. Well, Zanula V would soon be a free planet, she’d see to that. As soon as she’d dealt with Manumas, she’d make sure the population were set free.

The turbolift arrived at the cargo deck and she stepped out. For a moment she watched Bassari preparing his troopers for the assault. He was magnificent, beautiful even. Genetically enhanced, he stood at two metres ten, shoulders as broad as the length of her arm. She felt a thrill of excitement as she recalled their last night together. It had been a good birthday, after all.

“Commander,” she shouted, “are your people ready?”

“Yes, captain, good to go, forty-five seconds to docking.”

“Excellent,” she quickly donned her assault armour, took the safety catch off her blaster, and replaced it in her holster. As the seconds ticked down she moved closer to Bassari and whispered, “Take care, my love, I need you in one piece.”

He looked down at her from dark blue eyes set in a deep brown face and said what he always said before battle, “I will do my best, my queen.”

She smiled back and gently brushed his arm, careful not to be seen by the ground assault team gathered in front of the cargo doors. Stepping away from Bassari, she announced, “You have ground command for the attack. I’ll follow your lead.”

He nodded then turned to face the door, “OK, people, get ready. We can expect heavy resistance. Speed is our best defence. Good luck everyone.”

The ship landed with a sudden bump. Bassari was off and running before the doors were fully open, the sound of his charging feet accompanied by a whooshing noise as the air pressure in the cargo deck was forced to match that outside. Shebana followed close after him. The troopers fell into line behind her.

They made their way through metal corridors, twisting and turning at each junction, following the plans they’d studied meticulously during their journey across the galaxy. At first, she was pleased by their rapid progress, but then she began to feel nervous. This was too easy. There were no guards, no defences, something was wrong. “Bassari!” she hissed; “slow down, this isn’t right. It feels like a trap.”

Slowing to a walk, they continued onwards, warily watching for signs of ambush or hidden weaponry. There were none. Eventually, they emerged into a massive, open space, cathedral-like in size. No guards, no weapons, but at the far end, raised high above the floor, was what could only be described as a throne. In it sat a tall, dark figure smiling broadly down at them. He might be called Manumas this time, but his smooth pale skin and long dark hair were unmistakable. Whatever name he was using, he was undoubtedly Mamboja.

“Welcome friends, how wonderful it is to see you again after all these years. Especially you, Shebana, you look stunning as always, my dear; and Bakara, my old friend, always nice to see you... such tremendous entertainment, as ever.”

Shebana and Bassari exchanged glances. He raised a quizzical eyebrow. He was not an Awoken, Manumas’s greeting had left him puzzled. She wished now she’d told him more, but... She turned to face Manumas as her nemesis continued, “As you can see, I offer no resistance. Your weapons are quite unnecessary, I am completely unarmed.”

“Bullshit, Mamboja, do you think I’d trust you for a millisecond. Hands up, you’re under arrest for at least eighteen violations of the Stellar Code, including practising slavery, probable murder, smuggling, rape, unlawful incarceration, unlicensed human cloning, genetic manipulation, illegal mining operations...”

“Yes, yes, my dear, I get the idea. I expect you’ll be wanting to put me away for a long time. Perhaps I should get some rest first,” he raised his arms and closed his eyes.

Shebana crept forward, keeping her blaster trained on Manumas. Suddenly, she heard screaming behind her. She lowered her weapon and turned to see the floor on fire beneath her troopers. They were burning alive. Bassari had turned back too. He took a step towards the troopers then gasped. He held his hand before his eyes. It was transparent, growing fainter each moment. She watched in horror as his whole body started to fade away. He looked at her in desperation. “My queen,” he whispered, before he disappeared altogether, wiped from existence. She turned to face Manumas. The slave master opened his eyes and grinned down at her, “Welcome to my new reality, Shebana.”

Her head was spinning. The room started to dissolve. She tried to lift her blaster. It dissolved too. She began to fall, but she never hit the ground.