Backworlds Book 5
Home is worth the fight.
War is coming. A horde of merciless aliens poise just beyond the Edge. In a matter of weeks they will devour the worlds.
Racing ahead of the apocalypse, Craze returns to the Backworlds to warn them and plan a defense. Only he can’t go home. Banned from Pardeep Station, he must wage a more urgent battle. His moon is under siege, and his friends are dying.
Bad things come in threes, and the galaxy is no exception. An old enemy returns, attacking moons and defenseless globes, leaving a wake of destruction. Worse than that, they threaten to join forces with the alien horde.
Defeat seems inevitable. Craze may not be able to stop it. Yet home is worth the fight.
Edited by: Kelly Schaub
Cover by: EDHGRAPHICS
Edited by: Kelly Schaub
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Copyright 2013 M. Pax, all rights reserved
War was coming. In the guise of a murderous genocidal cloud, a living ship, an alien with no soul and less mercy would devour the worlds. Craze examined every millimeter of space out the rear of the ship. Black streaked by at a frightening speed, punctuated by squiggles of light that put an ache in his jaw. The enemy or a star? He checked each line of brightness against a star chart.
“Is it safe?” Captain Talos yelled from the command console, guiding the spacecraft through a starway created from unlicensed technology provided by a Backworlder who didn’t want to be known.
“I don’t see anythin’ outside of normal.” Craze swiveled around in his chair, the dark curls of his living hair coiling tighter. “What’s on your sensors?”
“Nothing. That doesn’t mean nothing.” From a race of Backworlders called the aviarmen, Talos excelled at navigating and sensing where the ship headed. Did his innate skill know of the danger, or was it simple paranoia?
Paranoia couldn’t be discounted. Craze had seen firsthand the despicable things the alien cloud had done to Backworlders — experiments that would scare the sting out of a sting beast, using Backworlders like mugs of ale to be consumed with little thought, manipulating thoughts until the victim willingly followed the alien. That single alien, a living ship, had destroyed more people and worlds than Craze could count.
Another friend sat beside him and checked out sectors of the cosmos, scowling at the voids of space, daring the alien to come forth. If that didn’t summon the murderous genocidal Quasser, nothing could. “I don’t see anything either.” Dactyl’s brown eyes narrowed to slits and his mustache twitched.
“I’m taking us out then. Brace for the Edge, mates.” Captain Talos took the unsanctioned engine offline, and the Olvis Deluxe skidded out of the starway, hurtling toward the moon, Ronu.
Little vouched for the broken globe except for a brilliant gleam that made Craze’s eyes water. Covered in eons of ice, a blaze burning with cold, it shone like a second sun. A mere bit of rock spinning about a grander orb with grander sister moons, Ronu held no visible distinction, yet it held great prominence by marking the border of the Backworlds, the Edge.
In the distance, blue burst like a newborn star, the Lepper, the official starway. A week’s travel from Ronu, it either spit out an arriving ship or took in a departing one. From this far away, Craze couldn’t tell which. A wake gleamed like diamonds and stretched from the icy moon out toward the Lepper. Ice. Large chunks of it.
Captain Talos swerved the ship to avoid a collision, jerking everyone steeply to the left. “Buckle in. There’s a lot of debris.” He checked the database. “Not normal for these parts.”
Craze hiked up the legs of his tan coveralls and leaned forward. What did not normal mean? In answer, his tab — a data and communications device the size and thickness of a card — peeled in a storm of transmissions. Chime after chime after chime of messages gushed into his inbox. And not only his, his shipmates’ tabs did the same. Why so many? Craze always had a healthy amount because of business, but he had never been this popular.
His hair rose, waving restlessly. He had to pet it to get it to settle down. The pings kept coming. He pulled the device from the pocket of his coveralls and watched the counter reach three hundred then continue climbing.
Those messages signaled home. Craze and his cohorts had been out of touch with the Backworlds for five months. He craved familiar places and threats, those he understood instead of those steeped in unfathomable realities he couldn’t distill. A pang twinged in his chest from being so close to the dusty Backworld most dear to him, Pardeep Station. His enmity for dust had mulled into unabashed adoration while out among horror and death.
He missed his tavern, friends, and acquaintances, which didn’t surprise him, those things mattered. What did stun him was pining for the howls and scrapes of a roaring dust storm and the way the fine dirt crept into every crevice of everything he owned, including his flesh. The known. The mundane. He wanted it back, every irritating iota of it.
Waiting for his tab to stop pinging before scrolling through the news, Craze left his station for the command console and leaned on the back of Talos’s chair. The aviarman’s tab rang nonstop from the pocket of his long beige coat.
“Why we gettin’ so many pings? Want me to get yours?” Craze asked.
“Nah, leave it. I’ll scan through them after we land. We’ve been out of touch awhile.”
The contacts came in too rapidly for Craze to determine if they came from one source or many. What had happened while he was gone? He didn’t regret venturing off world. The journey had returned a friend, someone well-loved who had been missing. Craze smiled every time he went to the med bay to check on Lepsi and saw him breathing, healing. Lepsi hadn’t spoken. He stared at the ceiling when his eyes opened without a sign he recognized anyone. He wasn’t right, not right at all. Neither were the nineteen others Craze had rescued from that alien nightmare.
He’d prefer skipping Ronu to go straight to the Lepper and straight home to Pardeep, however, he and his friends had made a promise in exchange for the unsanctioned technology that moved them at Lepper speeds without the Lepper. To fulfill the vow, they had to pause on Ronu to wait for the captain who’d lead them to the Backworlder who didn’t like to be found. Craze didn’t want to break his word to someone who had so much to offer. Mostly, he wouldn’t mind a rest on Ronu. He’d welcome different hums, different people, different walls, and solid ground. He preferred life planetside to life on a ship.
Hmm, what distractions could he expect? Craze magnified the view of the moon on the console. The abnormal chunks of ice surrounding Ronu gave it a clunky sparkly ring, and a fresh crater in its icy surface near the docking facility marred its shine.
“Looks like the debris isn’t so weird,” Craze said. “That’s a meteor impact.”
“It could be.” Talos studied the damage to the moon. “I hope they is OK on Ronu.”
“Me too,” said Captain Dialhi. The Olvis Deluxe belonged to her. Her fingers hit colored blips on the console and an image of the docking facilitator’s office came on screen. She gave her captain license and vessel identification. “Everything all right down there?”
The channel remained silent and the screen devoid of humans. Dialhi tried again. “You OK? Do you need assistance? May we dock?”
A gal with thready hair appeared, pale and shivering. “My sensors read twenty-five life signs on your vessel, Captain.”
“Correct. Twenty is Backworlders we found stranded beyond the Edge. The rest is crew ready to help however you need.”
The gal sat quietly, her gaze fixed on the floor. “What kind of help?”
“We’ve ideas ‘n strong backs to do whatever you require. What do you need?” Dialhi’s gray eyes didn’t blink, giving the thready gal her undivided attention.
Trembling like dust in a storm, the gal took a deep breath. “Docking berth three.” She slapped off the link, and the screen went dark.
“Not as friendly as usual,” Dialhi said. “That meteor strike must have really rattled them.”
“I don’t think it was a meteor, love.” Talos ran a slender hand through his short blue hair. “The ice debris trails out a long ways, as if the meteor had burst out of Ronu ‘n traveled to the Lepper. As far as I know, meteors don’t make travel plans.”
“Well, that makes no sense.” She dabbed dribbles from her cheeks. The towel she wore around her neck seemed capable of absorbing a waterfall
Talos patted her wrist, his gaze never leaving the charts and gages. “The Ronuans will tell us what happened when we land.”
“Why’d they pick that shattered globe to settle? Others offer more promise.” Tall and burly, Craze gave Talos a good bump when shifting his position, pointing out a rounder moon with a few straggly clouds. “Like that one.”
Lanky, Talos stretched his seven foot frame and kicked at Craze’s boot. “That one oozes arsenic gas from its mantle through its volcanoes. It’s toxic.”
“Oh.” Space travel had never been Craze’s thing, and he obviously still didn’t have the hang of it. Leading the rescue of the enslaved folks and saving two friends from certain doom, however, had given him more of a voice among his shipmates and more of one in his own calculations. He’d come to know more than brewing malts and tending bar, and he understood more than the need for more chips and greater prosperity. He flexed his shoulders, and his living hair shook loose its curls in favor of lazy waves.
In payback for the kick, he tousled Talos’s hair, rubbing harder and harder until the captain winced. “I don’t want to stay here long. No more than a week. Understood?”
Talos pushed Craze off and straightened in his seat. “Go sit down. What? Is you seven years old?”
“I just want to go home.” Craze returned to his usual chair, but didn’t sit. He tired of sitting and talking. Except for the occasional threat of death, space offered little other amusement.
The bridge of the Olvis Deluxe curved in a transparent horseshoe atop a U-shaped silver hull. The clear-walled bridge allowed a view in every direction but under the ship. Two command consoles were placed at the front and the crew stations in rows behind. Captains Talos and Dialhi shared command and a whole lot more.
Dialhi had blue hair to match Talos’s, only hers fell to her shoulders and had a slight curl. Where he was lanky, her features had a roundness. Spheres made up her nose, cheeks, chin, and head. From a race of Backworlders called Sprinklers, she shed three gallons of water every day, a boon on a world like Pardeep, otherwise her dripping plunged into the realm of nuisance.
The Olvis veered and descended toward a platform spread out like a flattened artichoke at the top of a slim tower. No other structure graced the moon, which was so much like home Craze yearned to be setting down on Pardeep for the three-thousandth time.
The pinging on his tab stopped at four thousand thirty-nine messages. He scrolled through them, isolating those received from Rainly. The last contacts came in at a rate of two hundred thirty-seven a day, then they had stopped. All pings had ceased at that point except for one from Meelo.
Pressing his thick lips together, Craze tapped on his tab to play Rainly’s last message. A miniature version of her appeared on half of the device. News scrolled across the other half. Her pink eyes lasered out from two weeks in the past to strike him in the heart.
Of a rare race of Backworlder, a Cytran, she had chrome skin and cybernetic limbs. From his dealings with her, he had ascertained the rest of her to be wholly human. Maybe more than human. She felt things so deeply.
Sorrow edged her chrome cheeks and moistened her pink eyes. She swiped at them. “I’m sorry I have to break my promise to you that I’d stay until you returned, but this is urgent. I have to leave Pardeep. I hope someday you forgive me. Please! Please don’t forget me.”
Craze had counted on her to look after his business and Pardeep’s well-being. He had reason to worry. An ambitious hire-on of his had delusions of becoming the next planetlord since landing on Pardeep. Each syllable of Rainly’s message slammed into Craze’s mood with a thunk. His hair coiled tightly, and he breathed heavily through his nose. He hit Meelo’s message icon. Maybe she had better news.
Tiny as a midday shadow, her weak-colored eyes and perky nose peeked above the high collar of her black wool coat. Her straw-hued hair stuck up with as little care as always, and she waved a small chapped hand. “R-rainly left. Her ‘n her twin took Talos’s ship ‘n went off without a good-bye. She mentioned being called ‘n said if she didn’t go she’d be shut down. She didn’t say by whom, but she headed toward the Line.”
The Line separated the Backworlds from the Foreworlds, the enemy who wanted to exterminate every Backworlder drawing breath. No one knew why. The Fo’wo’s had created the Backworlders then regretted it. Why would Rainly go there? Craze yanked up the leg of his coveralls and shifted his weight.
Meelo blinked rapidly. “Y-your hire-on, Nahv, took advantage of the power vacuum. He’s taken over Pardeep ‘n called in reinforcements. I don’t know who they is, only that they took control of the Lepper ‘n the tower. Find a way back. OK? We need you. You can ping me once to this code.” The combination of symbols and numbers scrolled across the side of Craze’s tab. “I’ve bunkered with some others under my ranch who want Pardeep’s new management gone in the worst way. The smartest thing to send would be how to get into the armory.”
She jumped, glancing over her shoulder. Her soft voice dropped to a desperate whisper. “I-I gotta go.”
Craze’s cheeks went as cold as the voids between the stars, and he shook his tab. Meelo’s message echoed in his head and spun out spindly fingers that clasped onto his throat. Five years ago his father had said, “Time for you to go.” A prodder held to his ass, Craze had been sent off with a wave and little else. How could it happen again?
He stared at his shipmates, and his voice came from far away, as if lost in another dimension, one where his father had changed all the rules. “We can’t go home.”