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More enemy fire deflected off the Rubicon’s shields, causing both the ship to bounce in space and Cade’s stomach to bounce into his chest. He wrapped his hand around a strap that hung from the cargo hold wall, steadying himself as he swallowed his insides down. After taking a deep breath, he looked over and saw Kira smirking at him.
“What?” Cade asked, agitated.
“Nothing, nothing at all,” Kira said. “I just didn’t know you were so delicate. But it’s fine. Totally cool.”
Cade groaned. “You know, even by our standards, this is excessively stupid.”
Kira put up her hands. “Hey, don’t look at me. This is your friend’s idea.”
“Huh?” came Mig’s voice from the back of the cargo hold, where he was tinkering with something or other. “Is Cade complaining again?”
“I’m not complaining,” Cade said. “I’m just … processing. Verbally. I’m verbally processing.”
“Verbally processing your complaint,” Kira said. “We got it.”
“You know what? I’m ready. I am ready to jump out of this ship now.”
“Such a sensitive Chosen One.” Mig snickered as he stepped in front of Cade and started fiddling with his grav suit. “I’m just going to shut this clasp. If you’re going to leap into the cold, deadly abyss of space, it’s best if your enclosure is airtight.”
Cade rolled his shoulders, unable to find any comfort inside the cumbersome exoskeleton. Grav suits were nothing new; crew members used them all the time, especially on larger starships, to make exterior repairs. But in those instances, the grav suits were tethered to the ship. They moved slowly and safely.
Mig’s version was neither slow nor safe. He’d reinforced Kira’s grav suits so the exterior was harder to penetrate, but Cade was less concerned with the ramifications of taking enemy fire and more concerned with the suit’s propulsion capabilities, which, thanks to Mig’s upgrades, could now power a small starhopper. Having that kind of power right beneath his feet and hands didn’t sit well with Cade. Especially since he was supposed to use that power to propel himself through space and hope nothing went wrong—and in this case, wrong could send Cade careening off into space, where he’d die a long, excruciating death. Cade had one fear in life, and that was it. He could take on a squad of Praxian drones with hands so steady you could rest your drink on them; he could fly any ship through a furious dogfight with a smile on his face. While he didn’t relish the idea of meeting the sharp end of a quanta staff or being incinerated by an enemy starfighter, at least those ends would be quick. But confronting the vast, emptiness of space? Where he’d float for days and do nothing but think? That scared the crap out of him.
The ship was rocked by enemy fire again, and Cade nearly lost his lunch.
“You know,” Kira said, “if I could hand over the control of my ship to your cranky drone, you should be able to handle this.”
“I never thought I’d say this, but for the first time, Duke is actually the least of my problems,” Cade said.
From over his shoulder, Cade heard 4-Qel’s heavy gait as he lumbered down the cargo hold’s ramp. He “whistled” a monotone tune as he joined Cade, Kira, and Mig.
“Personally, I’m excited,” the drone said. He’d been equipped with the propulsion units, but he didn’t need the grav suit. Because, apparently, nothing could kill him.
“So you like the idea of hurtling through space with a questionable amount of control over your body?” Cade said. “Why doesn’t that surprise me?”
“I’ll be like a graceful speck among the cosmos, as close as I will ever get to being united with the fabric that binds all sentient life.”
Cade and Kira shared a curious look.
“Or,” 4-Qel continued, “a weapon of massive power, out to exact my destructive purpose.”
“That’s more like it,” Kira said.
Mig punched in the code on the cargo hold’s control panel. The hold’s door lowered slowly, revealing a deep blackness punctuated by pinpricks of stars.
“From here, the drop to the Kundarian trade ship should take no more than two minutes,” Mig informed the team. “Use the suit exactly like I showed you; let it do most of the work, and you’re good.”
Mig joined Cade, Kira, and 4-Qel, and together they walked toward the lip of the cargo door. In just seconds, they’d be jumping off it; Cade tried to convince himself that he was relieved to finally have it done with. He’d been sweating this solution to liberating the Praxis-occupied Kundarian vessel ever since it was conceived, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t bring himself to liking it. In fact, he hated it.
“Oh, one other thing!” Mig yelled over the din of the cargo door’s hydraulic system. “Do not forget that last thing I told you!”
Cade shot a panic-stricken look at Mig. “Wait, what?” he asked. “What last thing?”
“Huh?” Mig said, holding his armored hand up to where his ear was, beneath his helmet. “Sorry, I can’t hear you.”
“What last thing? You didn’t—” Cade looked over and saw Kira practically bursting as she tried to hold in her laughter.
“Oh, hilarious,” Cade said. “Real mature.”
“Still can’t hear you,” Mig toyed.
“Then read my lips!” Cade yelled, and then he mouthed, very clearly, a pointed obscenity.
But then the noise stopped as the door was completely lowered.
“All right, boys,” Kira said. “Time to fly.”
* * *
The space above the planet Kundar was punctuated by streaks of light screaming across the sky. Kundarian freedom fighters engaged Praxian Intruders with the goal of drawing them away from the trade ship that’d been hijacked by the evil Praxis kingdom weeks earlier. It’d been sitting inert since, a bargaining chip against the Kundarian freedom fighters who were waging a bloody ground assault against Praxis’s occupation of their planet. Praxis’s deal with Kundar was simple: Surrender, join the kingdom, and the trade ship carrying essential supplies would be released from orbit. Kundar’s answer, as evidenced by the dogfight taking place over their planet, was clear.
Resistance to its imperial ambitions—ambitions that wouldn’t settle for anything less than complete control of the entire galaxy—was new to Praxis. The kingdom used to be able to rely on its War Hammer—a massive starship that had the power to drain the energy from a planet’s nearest star, leaving it dark, cold, and dead—to be the ultimate deterrent, but Cade and his friends changed all that. Defying the odds, defying orders to relent, Cade, Kira, Mig, and 4-Qel pulled off what had previously been an unthinkable task: They blew the War Hammer into a million little pieces, and that strike wound up being the opening salvo in a war across the galaxy.
But Praxis wasn’t about to relinquish its control so easily.
In the wake of having the crown jewel of its fleet blown out of the sky, the evil kingdom doubled down on its assault of neutral planets like Kundar, forcing more and more worlds to fly Praxis’s bloodred flag. Praxis smothered planets with numbers; no system could match its air and ground forces. The planet’s enlistment rate was ten times higher than the next highest planet, and if that wasn’t enough, Praxis also conscripted ancillary forces from the planets they annexed. Still, the destruction of the War Hammer proved that sometimes might doesn’t matter; sometimes sheer numbers aren’t enough. Not when you have willingness. Not when you’re fighting for what you believe is right. And that’s why Cade was hurtling through space at a clip he didn’t even want to think about, soaring toward the Kundarian trade ship so he and his friends could free it from Praxis’s control and, from there, aid the planet’s freedom fighters in their efforts to evict Praxis from their home once and for all. Cade and his friends—referred to as the Black Star Renegades, a moniker Mig anonymously spread through the galaxy because he said it made them sound “more legit”—had become Praxis’s fulcrum, balancing its agenda of conquest and control with the hope for freedom. The hope to resist and win.
Below Cade, Kundarian starfighters, with their sleek dual engines and chromium shells, executed evasive maneuvers as they deftly flew circles around Praxis’s Intruders; the Kundarians unleashed proton blast after blast, but only as a defensive measure and to keep the Intruders off-balance. The barrage filled the space with innumerable points of light; to Cade, it was like looking through a kaleidoscope while high on kerbis. Still, it kept Praxian fighters away from the trade ship for the time being. This little plan of Mig’s was plenty suicidal already; the last thing Cade needed was to navigate his way through airspace that was littered with both enemy and friendly fire and the flaming wreckage of countless starships. That’d be the only thing that could make this worse, Cade thought.
Until things got worse in a way Cade didn’t anticipate.
The Kundarian trade ship was in Cade’s sights and coming on fast. But as he got closer to the vessel—shaped like a crescent moon with a bulbous command console in its center—Cade noticed small disks launch from the ship’s starboard side. Dozens of them spun in Cade’s direction. Hundreds of them.
His heart sank into his guts.
“Guys!” he yelled into his comms. “We’ve got incoming!”
“Damn it,” Kira snarled. “Razor drones.”
Destruction didn’t even begin to describe a razor drone’s purpose. Cade had to make up a word because no existing word appropriately captured the razors’ single-minded penchant for carnage. Annihilatory. That would do. The drones were designed for one purpose and one purpose only: to magnetically attach to the hull of a ship and tear it to shreds. Which was bad. Because ships without exteriors to keep them, among other things, pressurized and stabilized? They tend to fall from the sky. Uncontrollably. And the people inside fare even worse than the ship after it crash-lands.
Copyright © 2019 by Michael Moreci