Ardulum: Third Don

by J.S. Fields

$6.99

The planet wakes.

Atalant is torn between two worlds. In uncharted space, head of a sentient planet, the new eld of Ardulum now leads the religion she once rejected. Emn is by her side but the Mmnnuggl war brewing in the Charted Systems, threatening her homeworld of Neek, cannot be ignored. Atalant must return to the planet that exiled her in order to lead the resistance. She must return home a god, a hypocrite, a liar in gold robes, and decide whether to thrust her unwilling people into the truth of Ardulum, or play the role she has been handed and never see her family, or her world, again.

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Ardulum: Third Don

Book Info

Author: J.S. Fields

Series: Ardulum

Release Date: June 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-948608-74-9

Format: ePub, Mobi

Cover Artist: Natasha Snow

Category: Literary/Genre Fiction

Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Word Count: 106100

Book Length: Super Novel

Sex Content: Explicit

Pairing: FF

Orientation: Bisexual, Lesbian

Identity: Cisgender

Warning: Contains scenes of graphic violence and depictions of gore.

Excerpt

Ardulum: Third Don
J.S. Fields © 2018
All Rights Reserved

Prologue

January 12th, 2061 CE

“I’ve just lost my last engine! We’re making repairs, but if we can’t dodge another hit—” The audio cut off. A small, blue light on Ekimet’s console went dark.

Inside the Neek’s main temple to Ardulum, Ekimet laid zir head in zir hands and, not for the first time, tried to will the light to come back on. It didn’t work. It never worked. All the power of Ardulum, and Ekimet couldn’t save even one Ardulan life.

The andal bench upon which zie sat lacked cushioning, and the wood was warm through Ekimet’s gold robes. Zir tailbone hurt from sitting and waiting—and zir heart hurt from watching and trying to coordinate a battle zie had no skills for. No one in the room did. The Eld had ensured that.

Ekimet brought zir head back up. Next to zir, Miketh tapped on the andal table, a thin sheet of bioplastic just beyond her reach. Her black hair had lost its red highlights. Ekimet hadn’t noticed until now, and zie didn’t have time to consider what it meant aside from neither of them having gone outside in a month.

The High Priest of Neek was on the other side of the wooden table. He was supposed to be helping, inasmuch as he could as a subspecies Neek amongst Ardulans. Right now, however, he sat, eyes unfocused, wringing his robes as he whispered, “Seven. Seven Ardulan cutters and fourteen skiffs lost.”

“Central, copy? Copy, please!” The Neek accent was clear over the transmission and startled Ekimet. It was a settee pilot, one of the Heaven Guard.

“We hear you, guard,” Miketh answered. Her hand shook as she reached for the bioplastic sheet. It was just far enough on the other side of the table that the high priest had to push it towards her. “Report?”

“The Mmnnuggl pods in orbit, both big and small, are now guarded by at least four of the oval ships the Ardulans can’t seem to hit. There are Risalian cutters out here too, and a bunch of ships I don’t recognize. No matter how much interference we run for the Ardulans, it isn’t making any difference. Nothing is making a difference. The Mmnnuggls are picking off the cutters one by one.”

“Is your squadron still intact?” Miketh asked. “No Neek casualties?”

The voice came back confused. “No, no casualties to report on our side. The Mmnnuggls only seem interested in…” On the computer console in front of Ekimet, another pale blue light went dark.

“We lost another skiff,” Ekimet reported in a monotone. “Only four remain, along with two cutters.”

“One cutter,” the guard reported hesitantly. A red light went out on Ekimet’s console. “A group of four pods just disintegrated the largest one.”

Ekimet squeezed zir eyes shut. There were over forty Ardulans on each cutter and two per skiff. It had been less than an hour since the Mmnnuggls had engaged the Ardulan fleet. What was happening? That the Ardulans and Neek would lose had never been in question, but they weren’t meant to lose like this.

Ekimet leaned towards Miketh and the speaker. “Tell the remaining cutter to—”

One of the skiff pilots cut into the feed. “We just lost our last cutter!” The last red light on Ekimet’s dash went out. “Ekimet, we have to land. We haven’t got a chance with the—” The line went dead. The final three blue lights died in quick succession.

There was silence for a long moment, followed by the uncomfortable shuffling of feet. The Ardulans were dead. Every ship the Eld had sent, every Ardulan onboard, was now scattered in fragments across Neek space. Ekimet and Miketh were…they were stranded. Again. They, and the Neek planet, had no protection.

“My lords?” The settee pilot was back. “The Mmnnuggl forces are leaving the engagement zone. Their allies are following. The Heaven Guard are still in orbit. Would you like us to follow instead of simply watching and reporting?”

“No!” Miketh said quickly before Ekimet could answer. “You have no weapons. Don’t make a threat you can’t carry through. Just…just come back.” She looked at Ekimet, moisture beading in her eyes. She hastily wiped at it with the back of her hand. “Just come home, okay?”

Relief flooded the pilot’s voice. “As you say. I’ll tell the rest of the Heaven Guard.”

The transmission ended. Miketh sniffed, and Ekimet did the same, although zie was far too well trained to let tears form.

“Is it over?” The high priest pushed his chair back from the dark andal table, his eyes on Ekimet’s chin, never higher. “Will they leave? What do they want?”

We are about to find out. Miketh pointed at the yellow line streaking across the dash. Call for you, Eki. We both know how this ends.

Indeed. They’d been sent here to die, the same as the fleet. Sent to appease the Mmnnuggls. Sent to keep Ardulum safe. Ekimet slid zir finger across the yellow line, and an audio feed beeped. Zie could have turned on the Neek’s archaic hologram projector, but…zie couldn’t look at a Mmnnuggl. Not right now. Not with so many dead bodies floating above zir.

“You have lost,” a monotone voice said over the comm.

“We understand that. Only two Ardulans remain, and we are prepared to surrender. We…we thank you for not harming the Neek forces.”

A low trill resounded before it changed to words. “Only Ardulans harm unarmed civilians. Only Ardulans would use a seeded planet of primitive sentients as a sacrifice.” The Mmnnuggl screeched. “Do you think we do not see a ruse when we see one? We have no hands and no feet, so therefore we have no minds?”

Ekimet tried to cut in. “We never meant—”

You are of no concern to us. Two Ardulans mean nothing.” There was a whirring in the background, and then a new voice came on.

It didn’t have the usual clicking undertones of a Mmnnuggl accent. This voice, although deep and throaty, carried Common with ease. “Call your planet,” it said. “Call your planet and tell them to send the Eld of Ardulum and the flare named Emn. You have one week to comply.”

“One week!” Miketh said, her voice unusually high. “The Neek operate on stable wormhole technology. The time frame is unmanageable. Beyond that, if you aren’t bargaining with Neek lives, what is your collateral? The Neek planet is self-sustaining. They don’t care to travel. If you think Ekimet and I will get frustrated enough to call the Eld here so you can slaughter them, you’re as dumb as we thought!”

Laughter, biped laughter, came from the other end. “Underestimating the Nugels is a really, really stupid thing to do. One week, Ardulans. I suggest you start moving the Neek people to the cities. In one week, if we don’t have the Eld and the flare in-system, then we are coming down to the planet. Well, the smaller pods are, anyway. They’ll come down in the middle of the night when all the little Neek children are tucked snugly in bed, and they will set your forests on fire.”

“You will destroy the Systems if you destroy the andal of Neek!” Miketh exclaimed. “Their entire cellulose infrastructure is rooted in this planet. What happened to not harming the defenseless?”

Chittering rose up from the feed before the male voice drowned it out. “The whole of the Charted Systems is behind this decision. They understand the threat Ardulum poses. Physically, the Risalians are here, along with Minorans, the Oori, and more than a dozen other species from the Systems and the Alliance. A week is plenty of time to move the forest-dwelling Neek out of harm’s way. The Nugels are going to have their vengeance, Ardulans, and we will find the altered Ardulan woman. You just have to decide how much of your planet you want burned.”

 

Chapter 1: Mmnnuggl Pod

So help me, Neek, if I ever get out of this mess and find you alive, we are getting so damn drunk on Oorin whiskey that we’ll be pissing blue for a week. Just like a fucking Risalian.

—Etched note found in a cell of the Mmnnuggl pod Bysspp at Xinar Station’s shipyard

 

December 12th, 2060 CE

He’d lost the Pledge. He’d lost his clothes. He’d lost his crew. The strange pellet food his Mmnnuggl captors were feeding him had significantly reduced his bulk, but Yorden Kuebrich, captain of the exploded tramp transport Mercy’s Pledge, was going to get off this damned Mmnnuggl pod with his remaining crewmember, no matter how many beings he had to injure to do it.

His room—all low ceiling, jagged floor, and vomit-green lighting—stank from his sweat and various other bodily excretions. His guards had kept him fed, but little else, and after a week of captivity, Yorden was done. If the spherical Mmnnuggls weren’t going to tell him what was going on, where they were, or why he was locked in a cell, then they could all go to hell.

The round door to Yorden’s room was open for his meal interval, the edge of the sliding biometal just peeking out from its wall pocket. A lone guard nervously chittered just beyond the opening. Normally, the guard would have brought the meal to Yorden’s door, opened a lateral gap near the floor, and slid the plate through it. The door, it seemed, was having a bad day, and the Mmnnuggl had been surprised when it had rolled back into the wall instead. Yorden was delighted. Either he’d finally jammed enough plates into the door’s mechanical lock to break it or ramming his fist into an interface panel—after getting a decent look at the ship’s schematics, of course—during his last escape attempt had affected a lot more systems than he’d thought. Either way, he’d take it.

The pellet food, balancing on top of the guard, rolled onto the floor as soon as Yorden stepped into the open doorway. He supposed he did make for a disconcerting sight—all greasy skin and hair that likely deserved its own zip code. The Mmnnuggl was clearly hesitating, but if she didn’t like his naked buttocks, she could bring him some clothes.

The guard now levitated just beyond Yorden’s reach, her purple-black, ball-shaped body rotating counterclockwise. Her pale, Terran-like ears were curled tightly and lay plastered on either side of her spherical form. From her body dripped a viscous purple goo—a sedative the Mmnnuggls wore anytime they were around him. Probably a good idea, too, since the last time the door had “malfunctioned,” he had backhanded one of the smaller spheres and—he? she? they?—had hit the wall hard enough to black out.

Yorden dared to take a step forward, just out of the doorway. In response, the sphere increased the speed of her rotation, the goo splashing out horizontally and landing closer to Yorden’s bare skin. He took another step, challenging the guard. She eased back and chittered nervously.

When Yorden remained still, the guard slowed her rotation. The goo no longer splattered. Huh. So, drugging him was clearly not the first tactic for keeping him imprisoned. Did he have some sort of value he wasn’t aware of? Did the Mmnnuggls have a biped zoo that he was being shipped to? Maybe there was a black-market trade in Terran organs, and sedatives could spoil their quality?

Yorden shivered. That was a very unappealing thought, one that he did not want to linger on. Instead, he looked up. The ceiling was clean of goopy sedative and so, too, was the top of his guard. To keep the pellet food from being doused, no doubt.

“I’m leaving, and so is my crewmate,” Yorden growled at the Mmnnuggl. “I’m no one’s carnival attraction. Get out of my way. I’m not playing anymore.”

The sphere let out a short, high-pitched shriek, but stayed where she was.

Yorden took another step forward, putting himself once again in range of the goo. “Let me out.”

No verbal response came from the sphere. Instead, she began to spin again, the sedative spraying outwards.

Yorden took a running leap and launched himself forward, as if he were belly flopping into a pool. The guard had just enough time to squeak before Yorden’s gut smacked on top of her. His mass crushed the sphere, sending purple sedative and purple Mmnnuggl innards across both the floor and his torso.

Yorden groaned at the impact and scrambled around on hands and knees for a few moments before he managed to stand up, careful not to splash any goo on his head. The Mmnnuggls had never adjusted the concentration of the sedative to his physiology. The damn stuff only worked if it was applied directly to his head, specifically near his orifices, and even then, its effects only lasted a few minutes. Covering his chest and hands, it would have little effect. He hoped.

Clearing away the purple slick as best he could, Yorden recovered his breath and limped down the hallway. If he’d broken something and got caught, the Mmnnuggls would fix the damage. They’d fixed the bones in his hand after he’d crushed them punching the interface panel. They’d fixed his tibia when he’d tried to soccer kick one of his guards and had landed wrong. They’d fixed his ear when one of the younger Mmnnuggls—the ones with the red-tipped ears—had bitten off part of it during a heated exchange in which Yorden had demanded clothes and the Mmnnuggl had told him that no one cared about his reproductive organs.

He was tired of playing nice.

And he was sick of the low-ceilinged Mmnnuggl pods. Yorden’s back was already aching from his stooped posture even though he’d only passed, what, four wall panels? Five? It was hard to tell. The corridor was divided into sections approximately four meters long and was Yorden’s only real way of measuring distance on the damn ship. These panels, the ones Mmnnuggls used for their ship communications, were completely black, barely illuminated by the pale-green lighting. It was, however, bright enough to see that the corridor was deserted.

Around the next bend, Yorden began to slow. The lighting here was a bit brighter and more of a neon green than a lime, but that might have just been his eyes playing tricks on him. He was bad with color. The corridor was also empty, and that was odd. The security alarms would usually sound by now. Maybe they’d installed a new color-based alarm system instead? Regardless, the hall should have been swarming with Mmnnuggls. Yorden began to walk more cautiously, listening for the telltale whirring of spherical bodies, and wondered about color, interfaces, and how the Mmnnuggls managed to pilot the damn ships in the first place, especially since they didn’t have hands.

Except, thinking about pilots was dangerous, and he had been consistently trying to avoid it. Yorden rounded a corner to a new hall, checked behind him for signs of a pursuit, and tried to force out thoughts of the Pledge’s destruction. The loss of his crew. The loss of his pilot and friend.

A whirring sound caught in Yorden’s ears, and he froze, trying to discern what direction it was coming from. He backed against the nearest panel and tried to steady his breathing, but his mind refused to stay focused. An image of his pilot tormented his vision. The exiled Neek he’d picked up in an alley on Mars had flown the Pledge for him when no one else was anatomically capable. She’d never asked awkward questions about the cargo, never cared if they sidestepped a few laws. She was good with antique guns, amazing at maneuvering a retrofitted Terran shuttle through space, and could drink him under the table when she cared to.

And she was dead. Dead along with his Journey youth, Nicholas, and Emn, the Risalian-Ardulan-whatever child they’d inadvertently ended up with during their last haul. There was only one member of his crew left alive, and she was here, on this Mmnnuggl pod. She was imprisoned in the med bay, the door of which was at the end of this hall, according to the schematics he’d peeked at. He hadn’t been able to save anyone else, but he was going to get the Ardulan woman out and return to the Charted Systems so he could retire into the peaceful bitterness he’d always envisioned.

The whirring faded, and Yorden chanced a look around the corner. The hall was empty, and the light had reverted to its normal lime green. Maybe he’d gotten lucky and some external force had the Mmnnuggls occupied. Maybe a Risalian cutter was trying to blast them out of the sky! That was a delightful thought.

Yorden took a few steps back and ran at the metal door to the med bay. He slammed his shoulder into the center, denting the biometal aluminum. He hit it again, and the door pushed in further, this time opening a gap at the bottom large enough for Yorden to grab the metal and start prying it open.

He eventually managed to create a vertical opening wide enough to crawl through if he sucked in what remained of his gut and prayed a little bit. A sharp edge cut his outer hip as he pulled himself in, and Yorden cursed the Mmnnuggl biometals that were so much sharper than the Cell-Tal products he was used to.

The med bay was dim, the track lighting turned to low. Yorden straightened—as much as the ceiling allowed—and let his eyes adjust. There were no Mmnnuggls present that he could see, but given their dark bodies, he didn’t trust his vision in this gloom. There was also no way of knowing if Salice, the Ardulan woman who had been pulled from the wreckage of the Pledge with him, was still being kept here. She’d been hooked up to wires and machines the last time he’d managed to get this far, but the Mmnnuggls could have finished their research. Perhaps they had found the answers they were looking for. Perhaps she was dead, like the rest of his crew. Like his pilot. Maybe like everyone on the ship since there wasn’t a damn beach ball in sight.

“Ardulan!” Yorden hissed as loudly as he dared. After a silent moment, he tried, “Salice?”

A biped with dark hair slid from the shadows. She was thinner now than the last time he’d seen her, but she looked more alert, which was an improvement. She was nude as well—the Mmnnuggls had no concept of clothing—and as she walked towards him, Yorden could just make out the black hexagons that spanned the right side of her torso. It was her Talent marking of Aggression, and apparently it was the only place on her body not under scrutiny by Mmnnuggl medics. Yorden tried to count the pinpricks that peppered her translucent skin. He’d seen more of the Mmnnuggls’ handiwork the first time he’d stumbled upon the woman, and he’d even had a chance to speak to her another time before the Mmnnuggls had corralled him back to his room. She’d not spoken back, of course: the Ardulans the Risalians had bred were mute by design, but she could mime, and the wounds on her body told an explicit story of their own.

“It’s time,” Yorden said, trying to remove the gruffness from his voice. Not that it mattered. Salice always seemed immune to tone. Being bred and raised as a non-sentient slave would do that to a person, Yorden supposed. The next time one of the markin approached him for a hauling job, they were going to have a long talk about the cost of the Charted Systems’ perfect peace. In retrospect, Yorden had seen the Ardulans before, when visiting Risal or signing contracts with Cell-Tal. He’d just…he’d never connected the dots. He’d certainly never realized the Risalians had been toying around with sentients. That was unconscionable.

Salice nodded her head in deference.

“You…” Yorden trailed off. He wasn’t good with women like this. He wasn’t good with anyone like this, but he was especially bad with women. Neek was more abrasive than he was, with a seedy vocabulary to match. That he could deal with. Flirty women he could deal with. This…this stoic silence that bordered on subservience was maddening. Yorden had no desire to be the woman’s owner or master or whatever word the Risalians had programmed into her. He’d thought giving her a name might help, but Salice seemed as unaffected by her surroundings now as when he’d first stumbled across her in the med bay, and just as willing to follow his orders without question. They’d have to chat about that if they ever got free.

“Remember the plan? You can still voodoo the lasers, right?”

The woman nodded, and Yorden thought he caught a flicker of interest in her eyes before they blanked. That was enough for him. He grabbed Salice’s hand and pulled her towards the door. The whirring was back, as was the neon-green lighting, but the sound was much louder now as it filtered in through the gap. No Mmnnuggls came through the opening, however, even though it was large enough to fit just one Mmnnuggl.

“They never seem to like it when we’re together,” Yorden muttered. He got to his hands and knees and did his best to peek out into the hallway. His greasy hair fell forward into the opening, and he jerked back, cursing. So much for stealth. If lasers weren’t already being fired, chances were that not injuring him was still a high priority. Either that or they didn’t want to risk damaging Salice, their prized lab rat.

Yorden poked his head out into the hall. The door slid open another handspan as a Mmnnuggl repeatedly swiveled against a panel just to his left. Five Mmnnuggls waited at the far end of the hall, massing in a column, each spinning in the opposite direction from the one it touched. Three were covered in purple sedative.

“Surrender or the Terran will be killed!” a monotone Mmnnuggl voice boomed.

“Surrender or the what now?” Yorden stood and turned back to Salice. Her eyes were unfocused and pointed towards the ground. He swung her arm experimentally, but she did not respond. “Did you…” Yorden stamped his foot and hissed. “Did you acquiesce to this pseudo-medical bullshit so they wouldn’t kill me?! What the hell?”

Salice didn’t respond.

“You…you could have toasted this whole damn ship. Saved yourself the—you know.” He gestured to a patch of particularly angry welts near her breasts. When she still didn’t acknowledge him, Yorden changed tactics. He wasn’t going to lose another crewmember, no matter how frustrating the circumstances. They could debate self-sacrifice later.

Yorden got down on his knees and looked up, trying to catch Salice’s gaze. Her head jerked slightly when their eyes finally met, and Yorden offered her a tense smile. “Sorry. Ignore the yelling.” He pointed at the door. “We need to escape. I need your help.”

Salice opened her eyes wide and blinked three times in quick succession.

“Excellent.” Yorden stood, and Salice followed him with her gaze. “If you can make sure they don’t fire at us, I think I can deal with the sedatives. We need to reach the cockpit and take control of the pod, maybe see if we can fly it somewhere. You on board with that? We’re going to have to rile them up to do it.”

Salice nodded slowly, as if she was still digesting Yorden’s words.

“Good.” Yorden turned back to the door and pounded on the tortured metal. “Hey, NUGELS!” He slammed his shoulder into the door and then ran his fingernails slowly down the surface. Both he and Salice cringed. “You’d better get in here, you titha droppings! I’m a smelly, angry biped, and I’m going to wring Salice’s neck because I have hands!” For good measure, Yorden grabbed a fistful of round, foreign objects from the counter and threw them at the door. They clinked pitifully to the floor, but the smallest exploded in a short puff, splashing acidic slime that inadvertently disintegrated the remains of the door.

The acid had been unexpected, but they’d cope. What other choice was there? Yorden stood his ground, filling the doorway, and growled. There was no more lingering. The column of spheres—now comprised of six Mmnnuggls after the one by the door joined them—rushed forward, their ears curled tightly back.

“Get ready,” he whispered. “We—” His words were cut off when Salice crashed into his back and made them both fall, prone, to the floor. He heard a crack, felt a sharp pain on the left side of his ribcage, and heard a laser shriek above him.

Yorden was still trying to recover his breath when Salice sprang to her feet, grabbed the top Mmnnuggl, pulled them to her chest by their ears, and then launched them at the others. The Mmnnuggl hit the middle of the tower, and all six spheres smacked into the bulkhead and dropped like stones to the floor. Purple liquid leaked from an ear of the one Salice had grabbed. They vibrated and then lay still.

The largest sphere recovered and floated back to Yorden’s height before careening towards him, their front strategically covered in jagged crystal shards.

“Incoming!” Yorden yelled. He bobbed left, but the Mmnnuggl quickly adjusted. Not wanting to end up with a shredded face, Yorden raised his hand and tried to spike the top of the Mmnnuggl like a volleyball. There were no shards there, but there was a reinforced metal plate. The Mmnnuggl skittered sideways while Yorden shook his hand in pain. Beach ball body armor. Of course.

The sphere rotated once and then came at Yorden again, but they only managed to brush Yorden’s torso as he dodged away. It was close: one of the crystal shards had shaved off a bit of his chest hair. He took the opportunity to grab the Mmnnuggl by both ears and crush them between his hands.

Fittingly, the purple blood smelled like old volleyballs. Yorden tried not to vomit. Luckily, the remaining spheres remained motionless on the floor, which meant maybe they were done with Mmnnuggl blood for a while. Yorden stepped over the prone spheres and motioned for Salice to follow. As the Ardulan stepped carefully over the unconscious Mmnnuggls, Yorden’s mind locked on the sedative still covering his chest from his cell guard. Avoiding hand-to-hand conflict would be ideal. These Mmnnuggls had no laser guns—not ones that Yorden could extricate and use, anyway—but they did have sedative. They had an excellent opportunity.

Yorden grabbed one of the unconscious spheres by an ear and rolled them over his chest, coating the Mmnnuggl in the remains of the sedative. The spheres seemed to have spread a clear coat of something on themselves before applying the sedative, so without it, the chemical would be effective against them. Of course, he could be wrong, but it didn’t hurt to try.

“C’mon.” Yorden gestured down the hall with Purple, the Mmnnuggl he decided to name as such due to them being covered in the stuff. “I think the cockpit is this way.”

Salice did not respond, which was not unexpected, but she did follow him on silent feet down the hall and into the adjoining one. A Mmnnuggl—small, with red-tipped ears—stopped in their tracks as the two bipeds came into their field of vision. The youth chittered nervously and then began to edge towards the interface panel.

“Don’t do it,” Yorden warned. He held Purple aloft and swung them gently by the ear. “Just go back to your business. Keep coming and I’ll either knock you unconscious or flatten you. Maybe both.”

The Mmnnuggl, it seemed, was unimpressed with the threat. The sphere accelerated to the panel and connected. The panel lights flashed. Before Yorden could react, Salice bounded to the youth and pulled them from the interface. She cradled the sphere to her chest, placed her hands on either side, and exhaled. The Mmnnuggl dropped immediately to the ground, unmoving and maybe even dead.

“How are you doing that?” Yorden hissed, trying to figure out if he should encourage the proactive behavior or have a conversation about killing young sentients. “Can you just kill any sentient at will? I thought that weird telekinesis only worked on electronic weaponry.”

Salice’s eyes settled on the sharp corner of the communications panel. She took the Mmnnuggl at her feet, lifted them over her head, and then brought them down quickly on the corner, slicing a large gash down the middle of the sphere. Streams of purple goop ran from the wound and pooled onto the floor. There was the smell of old volleyballs again, and Yorden’s stomach rolled as Salice reached her hand into the gash and began to fish around. Purple ichor squished out around her wrist and fell in sloppy dollops to the floor, staining her bare feet.

A smile threatened to appear at the corners of Salice’s mouth as she pulled her hand from the pulp. Squeezed between two of her fingers was a large, metallic chip. She held it up for Yorden to take, keeping the lacerated Mmnnuggl in her other hand. Instead of grabbing it—there was no way Yorden was touching that macerated thing—he leaned in and inspected the item.

“There is some really fine cellulose circuitry in there,” he said finally. “Must be how they do their ship interfacing.” Yorden looked back at Salice and frowned. “Are you trying to tell me that this is a weapon? Or maybe that it is close enough that you can access it the same way as a weapon?”

Salice nodded. Yorden had no idea which answer she was affirming, but it really didn’t matter.

“Helpful. All right. Let’s keep moving.”

They passed through the next several corridors without seeing any Mmnnuggls. A final turn brought them to a wide doorway leading to what appeared to be the cockpit. Inside, the walls were covered with more paneling, which currently showcased a star field and, as Yorden had suspected, a Risalian cutter. Shots flashed and illuminated the cabin, although neither vessel’s laser fire appeared to be having much effect.

Within the cockpit, about fifteen Mmnnuggls swarmed, all swirling in different speeds of agitation. Yorden couldn’t tell any of them apart—their nondescript purple-black bodies and ridiculous ears were all utterly uniform. He’d thought he might at least be able to tell the sexes apart, if not the genders, after all the squishing and disemboweling, but their insides looked as similar as their outsides. What was different now, however, was their frantic chatter and how not a single one of them had noticed either Salice or Yorden gaping at them. It was the perfect advantage.

Together, the pair launched into the cockpit. Salice wasted no time in hurling the Mmnnuggl body at the largest cluster of spheres, breaking the group apart and sending them spiraling in all directions. Yorden targeted another large group and raced towards them, arms outstretched, with Purple held as far away from himself as he could manage. Mmnnuggls screeched in alarm. When he thought he might be in range, he moved Purple off to his side and gave them a hard shake, trying to direct the sedative outward in a rocking motion. Loud splats followed, and the whirring of the spheres directly in front of him became erratic. Two crashed into one another while spinning at high speeds and then dropped to the floor, swirling drunkenly.

“Huh,” Yorden muttered under his breath. “Salice, you—duck!”

A dented Mmnnuggl was charging towards Salice’s back. Yorden dropped Purple and shot one of his hands out, hoping to smack the Mmnnuggl before they impacted. He missed, but Salice turned to face him a moment later, her arms around the sphere in question, purple blood dripping from the Mmnnuggl’s ears. Her face was impassive, eyes slightly unfocused. Yorden took a step back, concerned for her mental state.

Three screaming Mmnnuggls zipped past his field of vision and crashed into bulkheads, followed by a fourth that was missing an ear. Yorden glanced over at Salice to see a smug expression on her face and the missing ear in her left hand. He considered a quip about bowling balls, but thought better of it. Instead, he picked up One Ear and tossed them back to Salice, who caught and immediately pitched them at an undulating, chittering tower of five Mmnnuggls in the center of the cockpit. The tower broke apart, but before Yorden could congratulate Salice on her aim, something struck Yorden in the small of his back, and he stumbled. Without thinking, he scooped up Purple, launched them over his head, and then slammed himself onto his stomach to avoid any splatter as he heard the telltale sound of goop hitting its target. He counted to five and then sat up. The Mmnnuggl behind him spun wildly around and crashed into one of the black wall panels, bounced off, and disrupted another spinning tower of spheres. Yorden heard an impact, and two more Mmnnuggls rolled past his feet, hitting the wall and remaining still.

Silence filled the cockpit. Wary, Yorden stood up and turned slowly in a circle and took in the scene. Mmnnuggl bodies lay in small piles on the floor. Some had ears that were twitching—others lay motionless. The final Mmnnuggl was hovering right around Yorden’s shoulder height, pressed tightly to what Yorden assumed was the main console. On the viewscreen, the space between the Risalian cutter and the pod was dark. A momentary ceasefire? Unsure, Yorden looked for Salice and found her far away, grinning wildly, covered in Mmnnuggl blood, and surrounded by more bodies.

“Strike or a spare, you think?” Yorden asked, mostly to himself. He debated incapacitating the remaining sphere, but then decided against it. They weren’t engaging him, and he and Salice would need a pilot if she couldn’t figure out how to fly the pod.

Yorden carefully picked his way over to Salice and gave her a firm clap on the shoulder. “Nice work, partner. See if you can pilot this piece of crappy metal, would you?”

The remaining Mmnnuggl tracked Salice’s movements, their ears curling and uncurling as she slid her fingertips across the smooth, black paneling. When the Ardulan turned back to Yorden and shook her head, the sphere chittered. On the viewscreen, Yorden saw a laser beam shoot from the cutter, and this time, the pod jostled.

“Risalians!” chirped the sphere as they began to vibrate.

Salice, without prompting, placed her hands flat upon the interface next to the quivering Mmnnuggl before closing her eyes. The pod’s laser fired in a long, continuous stream. It hit the cutter’s cockpit—a direct impact. A smile grew across Salice’s face as the ship, still not retaliating or moving, broke apart, sending blue bodies cartwheeling into space.

“Hey, wait, wait!” Yorden ran to Salice and pulled her from the paneling. “It would have been nice to talk to them before—”

“Terran Yorden Kuebrich,” the sphere spoke in crisp, unaccented Common. They shivered—or lurched, Yorden couldn’t tell which—and then rotated once clockwise. “We appreciate your assistance with the Risalians. However, you destroyed our physical forms, which will take a great deal of time to repair. How? You control the Ardulan construct? How? We hypothesized that you were under her protection. She only acquiesced to testing upon the condition that you not be harmed.”

Yorden ground his teeth and glared at Salice. Her eyes were unfocused again, although a smile still played at the corners of her mouth.

“Terran Yorden Kuebrich,” the sphere said again. “Do you control this Ardulan?”

Did he? Why the hell did it matter? God, he wasn’t dealing with another set of religious fanatics like the Neek that were completely obsessed with Ardulans, was he? Or maybe another species bent on their control and manipulation? Yorden didn’t care for either option, but since he’d been making a lot of correct assumptions recently, he rolled the dice one more time.

“Yes, I control her. I, uh, control all the Ardulans. Sure.”

The Mmnnuggl stopped spinning and tilted to the right. Their coloring changed—Yorden had never seen that happen before—from near black to a delicate lilac. A strange buzzing rose up from behind Yorden. He turned halfway, careful to keep watch on the remaining sphere, and saw four more Mmnnuggls appear in the cockpit doorway. Another two joined—and then another four. They stacked in the circular entryway, buzzing the same four notes and slowly changing to the same soft purple.

Yorden held a hand out to Salice, who slid through a puddle of thick Mmnnuggl blood and moved to stand just behind Yorden. He was three for three. Religious fanatics it was, then. He’d heard enough about Neek culture, and had plenty of experience from his own youth, to know how this could play out.

“So,” Yorden drawled, wondering how thickly he had to lay on the flowery language. “Salice and I require a…a more impressive ship. This one isn’t cutting it. Take us somewhere we can get an upgrade.” Of course, there was no guarantee the Mmnnuggls would let them go anywhere in a new ship, and there was the pesky problem of how to pay for it, but at least their reasons for not shooting him and for keeping Salice alive were becoming clear.

“Xinar Hub is the nearest commercial spaceport,” a large sphere said from the middle of the pack. “I am Wnn, a secondary male. I will fly you there if you will discuss with us your methods of Ardulan manipulation.” The other spheres twittered in response and spun. “We are interested to learn from you, Terran Yorden Kuebrich. We would also learn to control this species.”

He looked over at the Ardulan, hoping for some indication that she was either in on the ruse or would be willing to help him squish the rest of the Mmnnuggls and figure out how to fly the ship. She met his eyes, and while there was clear emotion in hers, Yorden couldn’t read it. He’d just have to keep improvising.

“Sure. It’s intricate. A lot of it is the beard, really. There’s magic in body hair. You’ll have to work on that. How about we get into the details after you lay the course for Xinar?”

“Prepare the drive for Xinar,” Wnn told the sphere near the interface in crisp Common. “Plot our exit one hour at lightspeed from the station. This will give us time to communicate with Terran Yorden Kuebrich before we release him.”

“Before you release me and Salice,” Yorden said. “She’s mine, remember? She comes with me. Alternatively, we could just kill you all.” Yorden crossed his arms over his chest. “Your choice.”

Wnn pushed forward through the clogged doorframe and rose to Yorden’s eye level. “As you wish, Terran Yorden Kuebrich. A release for you and your subservient Ardulan.”

The ship jostled slightly and the star field blanked as the ship entered the tesseract. The Mmnnuggls dispersed to the black paneling, each attaching to a section and starting to vibrate. Wnn stayed in front of Yorden, but dipped slightly in height. That much Yorden understood. He’d sat through enough ceremonies with bitter herbs or candle lightings to see where this could lead. The trick would be to make sure he remained on the mystical side of Mmnnuggl dogma. If the Ardulans had fallen out of favor with a species this easily swayed to fanaticism, there was a doctrinal vacancy. Yorden had no problem filling such a position temporarily, especially if it helped get Salice and himself back to the Systems in one piece.

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