“A slave?” asked Aris.
“Yes, a slave,” answered Owis, bemused why the Earthman’s facial features had suddenly shrivelled up.
“Why in Gaia’s name did you do that?” asked the renegade cop from the human-infested Milky Way.
Owis thought it obvious, but explained, “This is the slave capital of the Dark Galaxy.”
“The Kocubani’s last words,” said Owis, drinking. “It mentioned slavery, right?”
Aris replied, “The deceased Kocubani pointed us to Brinner’s Moon. Doesn’t exactly specify anything about owning a slave.” The human hadn’t touched his beverage. He seemed genuinely outraged.
Owis uttered, “Slave I have been and shall remain, To a cruel tyrant, I’m tied with invisible chains, Yet always I put on the same brave face, Forever a slave, Forever I gaze.”
The Earthman sat at a bench, wedged in a booth that overlooked the rail terminex of Brinner’s largest city, Llegamos. In seven megahours, the sun will rise and the entire city’s population will either migrate deeper underground or take the railships to escape the harsh radiation from the red-dwarf star, Obirus.
Aris asked, “Can this slave interpret it better? Does it speak?”
Owis looked at the slender, dark mauve humanoid. He’d seen these in every galaxy he’d ever visited. Reliable and resourceful, their loyal nature was legendary.
“No,” said Owis. The old bounty hunter looked up at the sky through the weathered glass. The trio of interstellar cruisers was shining brightly as they converged over their location. “If war breaks out between them, we will lose all chance in finding the citadel.”
Aris finally downed his drink and said, “We could be on the wrong planet.”
“Heaviest of realms, is what that Kocubani said.” Owis had no doubts. Brinner had the highest habitable gravity in the known Dark Galaxy.
Aris glared at the bounty hunter. “Before you shot it.”
The bounty hunter looked at the slave and stated, “The mere mention of slavery can only bring us here.”
“That doesn’t really help us.”
“Not my fault the Kocubani didn’t elaborate,” said Owis.
“You killed it, so yes, it kinda is your fault.”
“It was gonna kill us.” Owis wished the human would drop it. “We should leave. Between the coming dawn and the firestorm brewing up above, our window of opportunity to find the citadel is closing fast.”
“That’s if the myth is real,” said Aris as he stood up and picked up his exo-suit. “A low-class railship is outbound in an hour. It’s affordable, so we should buy passage and scavenge the outskirts for more clues.”
The Brinnerian indigene watched the two outlaws gather their gear. The trio exited the skybar and rode the western platform down to the crowded Terminex. On 1.708g Brinner, hundreds of steel tracks crisscross the moon’s equator, converging at the main spaceport. Railships, each powered by a spectrum of energy sources, resupplied and repopulated, then headed west, towards the endless night, until a Brinnerian year later, reentered the Central Terminex from the east.
“Are you thinking of keeping this slave?” asked Aris.
“I paid for it.” Owis studied the thin Brinnerian. Its only possession; a staff strapped to its back. Metallic, yet transparent, it shimmered under the Llegamos city lights. It also quivered, unnaturally.
Aris noticed it too. “Never seen that before.”
“This region of the Dark Galaxy is a relic hunter’s dream. I tell you, the Citadel is real.”
“Can it do anything we can use?”
“It’s from a technical caste,” said Owis, elated that the human had dropped its arcane bias towards slavery. “Proficient in Nestor Class mechanics and Quantelectronics.”
Owis stepped onto the next platform. Aris and the slave followed. Cheaper than all the other fares, the 224 Eclipse Line was also slower; catching the shadow of Obirus b as it meandered across the red desert.
“What if we’re wrong?” asked Aris. “There’s nothing on the Genixo records that even resembles a citadel.”
“We don’t know what it is,” said Owis as they boarded the town-sized railship. “It’s older than the universe. It could be anything.” They paid for crate-sized accommodation and got comfortable inside. Owis, even though a mechalogue and didn’t require sleep, took a long while to get into a state of slumber. It found it a useful meditational exercise, but this time, memories of past escapades, non-stop treachery, and near-death experiences haunted it.
“Wake up,” yelled Aris. “Sodality troopers have found us.”
The rear of the stationary railship was smouldering metal. “Where are they?” Owis poised for action.
Aris pulled at their gear. “Troopers come. Troopers gone. Must get going. Get into your exo-suit.”
“On foot, we won’t survive,” reasoned Owis. “The eclipse will outpace us.”
“There’s another railway less than fifty clicks across the desert.”
“Where’s the slave?”
“Waiting for us down below.”
The two outlaws climbed down to the lower decks. Panicked residents scrambled towards the front assisted by the railship’s guards. Upon reaching the lowest platform, a brigand blocked them from disembarking. Resentful for being left out of the recent carnage, Owis killed them. After jumping onto the sand, they both trekked out into the open and found the slave waiting on a hilltop.
“Why doesn’t it escape?” asked Aris.
“They are a synergetic race,” explained Owis. “Slavery is actually a misnomer.”
Aris lead the march out into the desert, under the eclipse of a gas planet; a great emerald ring, the edges glowing green as the light passed through its torrid atmosphere. Dawn was coming. In a short megahour, hell would arrive.
They entered a black leafless forest. Owis knew life festered all around, hibernetic, cyclic and prolific. Sunrise brought on the long sleep; the indigenous ecosystem had adapted to the local celestial power play perfectly.
“How could any civilisation arise in such a place?” asked Aris.
“Brinnerians live in the polar regions,” explained Owis. “According to the Genixo records, that region is most suitable for spontaneous sentient progression.”
“And yet,” spoke the slave, its voice as clear as any basic Dark Galaxian dialect. “We are not from this world.”
The two outlaws froze, unable to speak back to it.
The slave pointed to the gas giant. “Obirus means tyrant, in a language older than time.”
For Owis, the answer to the riddle finally seemed to make sense.
Aris seemed to realise this too. “Brinner isn’t tidally locked.”
“But that moon is,” said Owis, pointing to a shining star. However, the jubilation was short-lived. The air screamed, and sporadic lights sent the tree shadows running as ten Trinary drop-ships pounded into the ground. Within seconds, ten squadrons of drones burst from the attack pods and surrounded them, giving the two outlaws and the Brinnerian little scope of a practical defence.
“This doesn’t look good,” stated Aris.
The slender slave reached for the staff and launched at the belligerents. It swung it like a sword and cut one drone in half. At the same instant, the same weapon appeared in four different locations and chopped up a quartet of drones. By the time the enemy unleashed a dozen shots, the slave had slashed its way to wiping out the Trinary detachment.
Owis recognised the time sword. He looked over at Aris and, with a grin wider than Obirus, said, “Do you believe in myths now?”