Expansion & Conquest by Jonathan Prideaux
She had been queen for many years before that fateful trip to Third Earth, the same trip that had stranded herself and five others on the miserable planet for eighty years, and yet Queen Luna found herself bored out of her mind. How was it that she now found the trappings of power to be so tedious? Had the time on Third Earth truly awakened a need in her tiny frame for excitement and adventure?
Two long months had passed since her time on that planet. Two months since her new captain of the fleet discovered evidence that they were still alive. Naturally, the Icewalkers had been focussed on Chilla's return, but they were pleased to see Luna on the throne too. At least, that's what they said when people were looking. She was an astute judge of character and sensed some resentment from some of the higher class. They were loyal, though, and would fall in line easily enough. The same could not be said for all of the other moons.
Currently, Luna sat in the spacious office in the palace behind a crescent shaped desk poring over paperwork. Her beast of burden, the Guardian known as Amok, lay curled by the fireplace, warming his body. She envied him. Things were simpler for him, all he had to do was smash things and protect Luna and he would be rewarded with candy. He didn't need to sort out food shortages and mining rights.
A rap at the door caught her attention and a timid secretary poked his head in. "Ehm, a delegation from the Psions is here to see you," he said.
There was nothing for it but to admit them, she couldn't think of a viable reason not to. Wanting to go home was not a viable reason. The door opened further and a pair of Psions entered. They were tall and lean, like most of their race, with light robes on. Luna had seen the male of the pair before, and even if she hadn't recognized the face, she would have recognized the heavy pendant that he wore around his neck. Mystan Benekasbeel, one of the high priests that governed the desert moon. Behind his expressionless face she smelled a schemer, one with ambitions for power and a heart of stone. She could almost admire him if he didn't couch his words with falsehoods.
The woman was easier to read. The golden circlet around her throat marked her as an initiate, training for higher service within the temple. She was young and wide-eyed. If she was working with Mystan, the innocense would be stripped from her in no time.
Amok raised his head from the floor and regarded the two carefully. Much like Luna, he could read people well, often falling into two categories; friend and not friend. These two, he sensed, were the latter.
"My apologies, my queen, for disturbing you, but we felt it prudent to come in person," Mystan said, bowing before her. "We are concerned because the Icewalkers are not following through on their end of a trade agreement. I realize this must seem a petty concern to you, compared to the other matters you are working on, but we desperately need those crystals."
The complaint sounded familiar, and Luna rifled quickly through the papers on her desk. There it was. The Icewalkers had sent a message complaining of something similar, that their shipment of food wasn't received. She started to say as much when Amok lurched to his feet, crossing the distance, and grabbed the two Psions gruffly. His actions spoke loudly. One of them had tried to manipulate her mind telepathically. The Guardian was in tune with Luna, and could usually sense when someone was doing such, it was one of the reasons she liked having him around. "What are you doing in my mind?" she asked.
"I'm sorry!" the Psion woman gasped, struggling in vain to free herself. "I just wanted to get a gauge of your emotions. To see which way you'd rule."
"To gauge my emotions? What do you suppose my emotions are now?" Luna said, scowling. It was truly a terrible sight to behold, and those who had been on the receiving end of it knew what it meant.
"I apologize for Lura's haste, my queen," Mystan said, knowing that fighting Amok was pointless, and confident that she would release him. "It's not uncommon for a telepath to do that during meetings. It helps us know when someone is angry and defuse the situation before it turns bad. Obviously, I have not coached Lura well enough to know not to do so in your presence. As she is learning, it can prove dangerous."
"Indeed it can. Since both you and the Icewalkers have similar complaints, I'm going to turn your issues to a moderator, so that I don't have to deal with such a trivial matter. Amok, show them to the door."
Amok grinned and carried them through the heavy doors and shut it on them. He walked over to his mistress and was rewarded with a delicious candy cane. As the beast settled back down in front of the fire, Luna's thoughts again turned to how simple things had been back on Third Earth. In fact, she mused, Third Earth might even be the solution to her problems.
* * *
Shade laughed as she came to a stop in the middle of the thick jungle on the Dark Moon of Plundarr. It had been many, many years since she had been able to run and jump so freely, not for at least thirty years. In fact, she felt at least sixty years younger and was loving every minute of it. She'd taken ill a while ago, thanks to someone poisoning the water supply, and somehow that had opened her mind up to the spirit of some long dead entity.
She didn't actually know much about it, when she really thought about it, but it seemed friendly enough. It had offered to restore her to youth and grant her incredible strength in exchange for a chance to experience being alive again. She couldn't fault the spirit for that, could she? But Shade had rejected the deal, initially. The temptation for youth and a chance at revenge were strong, but she had questioned the motives of the spirit. Something didn't feel right.
A few days ago, while she had been relaxing with her father, Red Eye, on the Royal Moon, the spirit had urged her to return to the Dark Moon so it could share something with her. A token of its kindness. Once she'd landed and it explained where she would need to go she'd been crestfallen. Such a journey would take its toll on her feeble frame. And that, she thought wryly after the fact, was probably the point. The spirit covered her body, de-aging her and invigorating her with such energy that she'd travelled for almost a full day with barely a break. She rested the palm of her hand against a thick tree trunk and wondered, not for the first time, where she was being led.
"Onwards, you'll see," the spirit's voice rumbled in her ear. The voice was deep and made the air around her vibrate. Seeing no other viable option, she continued.
* * *
There was an old weathered sign swinging in the gentle breeze on the Royal Moon, as Psychro of House Myntaello entered the bar. The faded image on the sign resembled a black cape draped on a coatrack. 'The Nightcloak Bar & Grill' it read. He'd heard good things about the place, the kind of place that seemed to attract its fair share of single women; something he was in the market for tonight. He scanned the crowd for prospective dates to take back to his hotel room. There were lots of men, mostly younger, though a few old codgers dominated a table by the corner.
A woman dressed in a skintight black outfit caught his attention first, though the red gang marking on her chest suggested she was more trouble than she was worth. A half Psion, half Tigress woman was certainly something unique in a place like this, but she wasn't quite what he was looking for. Then he saw her; a pretty young woman sitting at a table by herself. She wore a purple shirt that was fairly modest, and a lengthy black skirt. There was an air of mystery about her and she seemed to have presence. He ordered a drink for himself, another for her, and walked over.
Her eyes locked onto his even before he was at her table. That face, he knew it now. She was that actress. He'd seen one of her movies and had even fantasied about her later that night. She'd been in the news recently, too, involved in a romance with former king, Tycho. Everything was coming back to him now; Tycho had been seeking a consort and she had been one of his prospects. Then there'd been abductions and attacks. When Tycho had abdicated the throne he had also ended their courtship, which just meant that she was back on the market. He'd never been with an actress before, and that sent a thrill of excitement through him. If only he could remember her name. Eluosi! That was it.
Oozing as much charm as he could, Psychro placed the spare drink in front of her. "I know a beautiful woman like you probably has a boyfriend around here somewhere, but I figured you might like another drink." He was part Psion and part Icewalker, and the former had granted some measure of smooth-talking, it was a gift he'd used on many unsuspecting women over the years.
She looked from him to the drink and back again. "Boyfriend? Ha! I'm through with men," she replied. "I gave my arm for my last boyfriend and look where that got me. I'm nearly penniless thanks to that bastard. I only came here to have a quick drink before going back to Professor Erdwin."
"Really? I just came from seeing him," Psychro replied. Erdwin was one of the finer genetic engineers on the Royal Moon, and her visiting him made him curious. Of course, explaining to her that he'd gone there to see if he could genetic engineer the perfect sex object was out of the question.
She snorted, so he continued. "Of course, I'm only really on this moon because of my sister. I'm a very loving person when it comes to my family, I don't know what I'd do without her." He watched her closely to gauge a reaction and was starting to doubt whether he'd be taking her home or not. "I can see you're going through some difficult times. I understand that. I only want to help you through this difficult time."
Instantly his brain warned him that he was in danger. Her face contorted in to a snarl and she pulled her sleeve up. "You understand?" she asked, "You understand what it is to sacrifice everything in the pursuit of a dream and to have that dream taken away from you, along with your heart, by some uncaring bastard? For ten years I was a star on the stage and on the screen and now look at my arm. Do you think anyone wants an actress with an arm that looks like this?" The arm was riddled with scars and it bore an unhealthy looking greenish hue. From appearances, she could scarcely move it at all. Confident that he had seen enough to get her point, Eluosi stood and walked out.
Gracefully, though everyone in the bar had seen what had happened, Psychro took the drink from the table and walked over to another woman. "Can you believe that?" he asked. "I tried to offer her a drink and she yelled at me."
"You poor dear," she replied, "let me show you that not all women are like that."
* * *
The summons to the capital of the Lunar empire had caught Alluro by surprise. He had been revisiting his old home moon; swimming in the lake, exploring the sprawling dunes, seeing the vast graveyard where so many of his ancestors had been placed. But Luna was insistent, and a royal request could not be denied.
He was pleasantly surprised to find Tug Mug on the same ship. The two, along with Luna, Chilla and Red Eye, had kept in contact with one another over the few months since they had returned. Almost everyone they'd ever known, prior to landing on Third Earth, was dead, and the mutual ties to the past they carried had drawn them closer.
Along the way, the duo speculated as to why Luna would call them in. Was she too feeling lonely, or just needed people to boss around. Tug Mug remarked that he'd heard rumours of something big being in the works and that she probably wanted them to be part of it.
* * *
"What is this place?" Shade asked in wonder, looking around. Her spirit guide had led her to a place where the trees grew especially thick. She had a suspicion but wanted it confirmed.
"You know," the spirit replied. So, she was in the forbidden place. It was a place of great power, she could feel the energy flowing all around her. But it was also a dangerous place. Many in the early history of the moon had been drawn to this spot and been driven mad trying to manipulate the magical power. Controlling her hand, the spirit touched the nearest of the trees, forcing them to bend out of the way, revealing a path. Shade shook nervously, she'd been mad before and didn't want to be in that state of mind again. "I am with you," the spirit soothed, warming her with its presence. "I will protect you. Inside you will find what I want to show you."
* * *
The Lunar ship docked at the royal spaceport, allowing Alluro and Tug Mug to disembark. Unlike his companion, Tug Mug hadn't been back to the capital since their escape from Third Earth. He had spent much of the last few months catching up on all the drinking and carousing he'd missed while he was gone. The city had changed so much, in his eyes, since the day they'd left that it felt like a new city entirely, gone were most of the building he'd known, and the few still standing were considered historical monuments. Unchanged, however, was the gleaming palace.
Another familiar sight was Red Eye, who was waiting for them. He flashed the Darkling a grin and bounded over to him. "Eet's good to see you, Red Eye," he said, soliciting a chuckle from the other man. Luna's band of Lunataks had had their differences, but time apart had made their relationships stronger.
"And you too, Tug Mug. I see you've put on weight," Red Eye replied, gesturing for the pair to follow him.
"I have. Thank you for noticing. Do you know why Luna has called us?"
"Perhaps. I've got my suspicions, but nothing concrete. She's planning something though, anyone of importance has been summoned to see her."
"That's what I've been hearing too," Alluro interjected. "Two of the high priests of Psion took an earlier shuttle. Is Chilla here too?"
"She and a delegation of Icewalkers arrived last night. But, you know Luna, she will keep us in suspense for as long as she can," Red Eye nodded.
The trio walked through the city streets. It was busier here, close to the palace, and the store owners were more flamboyant and desperate to catch their attention. Tug Mug stopped briefly at an Icewalker vendor's stand and purchased a pair of 'meat-on-a-stick'. It was hazardous to do so, since Icewalkers weren't picky about what (or who) they ate, but Tug Mug assured the other two that it was delicious.
The guards at the front door to the palace gardens checked their identification and, once it cleared, admitted them. "Guest quarters have been arranged. I can take you there if you want," Red Eye said. "Luna's meeting isn't until this evening, so there's plenty of time."
"Why don't we drop our stuff off and then go somewhere and catch up? Eet's been too long," Tug Mug said, decidedly.
* * *
The trees continued to bend in her wake, resuming their positions once she had gone by, leaving Shade little choice but to continue on. Even though it was pitch black, Shade could see fairly well thanks to her natural heat vision. It warned her before her other senses that she was coming to the end of the tree line. She stepped out into a wide clearing and gazed around in wonderment. It was unlike any clearing she'd ever seen before, with the trees arching overhead to create a dome. At the heart of it was a small broken structure, oval in shape and made of some strange stone. She cautiously walked closer, mindful that the spirit was with her and examined it more closely. The rock felt warm, though it didn't register as such, and was slick with moisture. Across the doorway was a pillar that had probably stood to the side. Some force had cracked it near the base, causing it to topple. She could still access the door if she needed to.
Shade felt pressure to open the door, as she'd suspected she would. She crawled over the pillar and tried the handle. Instantly she withdrew her hand, a powerful shock raced across her fingertips. But the door was now open. The spirit urged her to venture further inside, trusting it to guide and protect.
* * *
Psychro pulled on his pants and looked smugly at the now empty bed. The woman, what had her name been again, had left some time ago, lamenting that she would never find another man who could do the things he'd done. She'd invoked three of the four Lunar gods' names, if he recalled; one short of his record. Now that it nearing mid-day, he figured he should rendezvous with his sister. Psikaris was the other reason he was in the capital, she and her boyfriend were going to be part of some big meeting and she wanted him there too. What kind of meeting required a pair of mechanics was the next question. He would worry about the answer to that later, for now he wanted some lunch.
* * *
The oval structure was bigger inside than Shade had originally thought. A short hall led to a narrow flight of stairs with no railing. She followed this down several stories and came to a wide open expanse. The power she'd felt before had grown stronger the deeper she'd gone, and now was an audible hum. Above, aside from where the staircase reached up, she could see the roots of the trees, reaching down like clawed fingers through the earthen ceiling. At the heart of the chamber was a deep pool of water. It was here the spirit guided her to look. "No!" she said firmly, the walls and hum swallowing the sound of her voice. "No!" she thought to herself instead, knowing the spirit could read her mind. "I'm not going any further until you tell me what's going on."
All around her person the spirit shifted, a disconcerting experience, and she sensed it laughing. "You're protesting now? Now when you need me most? If I left you, this place would consume you in seconds." The malevolent undertone disappeared and the spirit grew friendlier again. "This pool is a seeing pool. With it you can see anything that has happened in the past. This is all I wish to do to you, show you what has happened."
* * *
"You're a fool!" Chilla hissed. Luna's crew had been standing face to face with Mumm-Ra, the ever living source of evil. He had brought their ship down on Third Earth, and they had wanted vengeance. But things soured quickly, the Lunataks had underestimated how powerful a sorcerer Mumm-Ra was. Red Eye and Chilla found a hiding spot in Darkside, while Mumm-Ra harassed Tug Mug, Alluro and Luna.
"Surrendering might be worth while," Red Eye repeated. "Perhaps he will let us live if we agree to serve him."
"An Icewalker does not serve anyone," Chilla snapped, "and if you betray us, I will kill you myself."
"You? Kill me? Try it!" Red Eye's sidewinder, a disc that could shoot fire, pointed at her. A blast of flame from this short range would probably result in her death. Her eyes narrowed dangerously and she readied a breath of cold air. Moving quicker than he could react, she encased his throat in ice. He gasped and clawed at the collar, trying to get air back. He would never find out whether Chilla would have left it there or removed it, because Mumm-Ra caught sight of their bickering and had smacked them around too. Soon all six Lunataks would be encased in molten lava.
* * *
The water rippled and Davyn of House Iespyk, one of Chilla's grandsons, snickered quietly at the edge of the water reservoir. "I wonder how many Darklings will die today," he whispered, pouring the poisonous contents of his bag into the liquid below. "Doesn't matter, every one of them deserves it. I wish I could kill them all." He looked up sharply, hearing voices, and bolted into the brush. Many would die as a result of the tainted water, but Davyn himself would be caught trying to escape. He'd been burned at the stake, denouncing Darklings everywhere.
* * *
Shade watched as the pool showed Nitro of House Iespyk, Chilla's son, stood at the bedside of his own son. "I have decided, at great expense, to grant you the use of the Icewalker flagship, the Honour Of The Moon. A hero of Chilla's stature deserves nothing less than the best we can offer. Remember that you are representing me on this mission, as loathe as I am to admit that, so do not screw this up," he said, a scowl on his face, showing that he didn't like the boy very much.
"And what of the others? There are wanted posters for the rest of the crew. If they live still?" the son, Knave, asked.
"If they live, eliminate the Psion and the Darkling. They could give our enemies an advantage we do not want them to have. Luna may have her uses. She could be a powerful ally to our cause. The Graviton I leave to your discretion," Nitro replied.
* * *
The water rippled one last time. This time showing her father, sleeping soundly in his bed and the same Knave, creeping towards him with knife extended. She watched in horror as he drew back the bed sheets and cocked his arm, ready to drive it into Red Eye's chest. He almost succeeded, except that another, whose form she couldn't make out, grabbed him and pulled him roughly out of the room.
* * *
Lunch consisted of Bovine Mutant sandwiches and steamed vegetables. They were a rare breed of Mutant, kept mainly for their delicious flavour. Psikaris wasn't a huge fan of them, but both her brother and boyfriend, Cameo, were. Cameo was not currently present, he'd been asked to be at Luna's side early to go over a few things and so she and Psychro were left alone. The two were in Psikaris' living quarters, a place much more spacious than the shared cave they'd had on the Ice Moon.
"I gotta give that boy of yours credit, he makes a mean burger," Psychro noted, wiping his lips on a cloth napkin.
"It's an old family recipe, he says. And he has a name," Psikaris chided. She'd always looked up to her brother. Although she wasn't a fan of his womanizing he was the only real family she had left, and she loved him dearly.
"Yeah, yeah. So, has he been treating you well?"
"He's been a proper gentleman. He doesn't even mind that I missed our one month anniversary for a symposium on heat sinks," she replied, chewing on one of the vegetables.
"If I find out he was with someone else that night," Psychro's voice trailed off dangerously. As much as she loved her brother, he was equally protective of her, bordering on being over-protective.
"Cameo's not like that," Psikaris assured him, surprised at how defensive she felt and banishing the seed of doubt she had. "I trust him. Anyway, I'm glad you came. I've heard bits and pieces of what Luna has planned, and I want you to be in on the ground floor. This is big, but I can't tell you anything yet."
Psychro recognized her attempt to diffuse the tension between them for what it was and let it pass. He also saw her excitement about whatever this project was and smiled at her. If she was this interested in something, it had to be important. "I'm honoured you thought of me. It's good to have my little sis in high places."
* * *
"Why did you show me all that?" Shade asked, finding herself seated on the ground by the pool of water, exhausted from the visions. She felt drained physically and emotionally by what she had seen. So much hatred towards her family and people from that one clan of Icewalkers.
"I merely open your eyes to the truth. Your father keeps dangerous company. The House of Iespyk has tried to kill him a number of times, and nearly killed you as well. With my help, you can protect him. You just need to trust in me," the spirit whispered, somehow heard over the constant humming. "He needs you, Shade, and you need me. He is with two members of that family now, unguarded. Unprotected. Unsafe. You must go to him at once, and I can help you. Trust me."
Her heart trembled, and her legs felt weak. She wasn't sure if it was her imagination or not that made the air around her go still. Shade knew the spirit spoke the truth, that her father needed her. She needed to be there before his blood was spilt, and there was only one way to do that. "I accept," she said. Immediately the power of the spirit seemed to grow, Shade's body felt even stronger than before and then she felt lighter than air, soaring through an opening in the dome that she swore had not been there before. Soon Shade was flying across the moon, travelling high above the tree tops to the nearest space port.
* * *
"So then I said to her, Gravitina baby, eef you want to ride the carbine all you gotta do ees ask," Tug Mug said, taking another gulp of beer. The trio had found Chilla and secured a quiet table out of the way at a local bar. "How about you, Alluro?"
"My sex life is none of your business, Tug Mug," Alluro snorted, which meant that he hadn't had any. Alluro was the first to brag whenever he had a conquest. His table mates laughed at him. "I haven't been looking either. Too much has changed on the Psion Moon for me to indulge myself like that. I've been trying to catch up on eighty years of advances. Even for me, there's a lot to learn."
"Een other words, you need to learn new pick-up lines," Tug Mug said.
"At least you're lucky," Chilla said, her mood gloomy and dark. "I'm an important figure on the Ice Moon. I'm expected to have a trophy mate, even if I already have a son, a son that's older than me, mind you."
Red Eye touched her hand sympathetically, surprised when she didn't immediately snatch it away. They'd had a very brief conversation about this already. Both had lost spouses during their time away and were still coping with the grief that came with it. Both had children who they would outlive. He hadn't even considered the possibility of replacing his wife, it was too soon. Traditionally a Darkling grieved for a year, and that meant another ten months. He could see a cutting reply coming from Tug Mug and gestured the Graviton not to make it. Chilla was in a foul mood, taking her husband's death very hard even still. It was rare that anyone got to see the loving side of the Icewalker woman, and Ren had been one of the lucky few.
"Luna's under the same pressure, Chilla," Alluro said. "As queen, she will be expected to produce an heir. Especially with all the bloodshed there's been since we left."
"I wonder who the lucky man will be," Tug Mug chortled. Red Eye gave Alluro a nod of thanks. He'd also seen Tug Mug's impending remark and known that Chilla would not appreciate it. Now that the Graviton was otherwise distracted, the tension was eased.
* * *
Being careful to make no sound, Zanaya crept through the sparse jungle towards a particularly tall tree. Up there was the hive of the Darkside bees. Sky Tomb's computers spoke highly of the flavour of the sticky honey they made, with an additional note from Red Eye that the meat of the bees themselves was quite succulent.
There were many hand holds, allowing her to climb the tree with ease, even in her condition. Already, she could feel her body changing to accommodate the baby that was growing inside her, and she cursed the goddess that had made this happen. She had seduced Knave in order to get information out of him, but she had also angered Lunis, goddess of the Icewalkers and of fertility. Her punishment had been to make his seed take root and experience every single complication known to Lunarkind. More than once, she had considered aborting it, but figured the consequences for that would likely be worse.
Desperately she clung to the tree, as another wave of nausea overtook her. When it passed she resumed her climb, finally reaching a narrow ledge outside the bees' hive. Gingerly removing the pack from her back Zanaya scooped a healthy portion of the honey into a container she'd packed. Even though she possessed innate camouflage powers, she was still nervous about the bees. A single creature that size would do considerable harm if it stung her.
Seconds passed as Zanaya watched the bees flitting to and fro, knowing there had been a disturbance but unable to locate it. She waited until one was flying almost directly beneath her and jumped, knife bared, driving the blade deep into the bee's head while extending her camouflage to it as well. It landed on the ground with a sickening thud, the bee's soft hide absorbing the impact for her, though she was momentarily stunned. She collected as much of the bee as she could carry and carted her prizes back to Sky Tomb.
* * *
A quick glance at his monitor told Cameo everything he needed to know; his people were in their positions and all was quiet. Luna was inviting all manner of important dignitaries and had been insistent on going over the security for the event with himself, captain of the fleet, and a Royal Lunatak named Taurin who commanded the ground forces. Cameo had taken his new posting to heart and was working on familiarizing himself with all the pilots.
He had been assigned an office near the air strip, which is where he currently was, observing the flight patterns of his people. His people. That still sounded odd to him. He'd been a fine pilot back on the Ice Moon, one of the few career tracks open to someone with his mixed blood heritage, but had been promoted swiftly upon risking his life on Luna's behalf and showing unswerving loyalty. She respected that, and was willing to overlook the fact that his father was a Solarian.
"Grey wing, tighten your formation, you're drifting," he spoke into the headset he wore, spotting the anomaly. Perfect. Luna had briefed himself and Taurin already on the meeting she was planning; it was what allowed them to be informed but also be vigilant for those who might try and take advantage of a situation. Luna was ambitious, perhaps too much so, but it just might work.
* * *
Shade stepped out into the open, the spirit allowing her to revert to her elderly form. There was a ship on standby waiting for her, and it wouldn't do to reveal her secret quite yet. "Take me back to the Royal Moon," she said, a little harsher than she would have liked. She was in a hurry, though, and social niceties could wait.
"Yes ma'am," the pilot said, helping her into the ship.
Moments later the tiny ship was arcing through the atmosphere, streaking through space towards the Lunar capital. Shade didn't watch her home moon fade from view, she kept her eyes focussed in front of her, trying to urge the ship to go faster, get her to her father's side. He needed her.
* * *
A lone Mutant warrior was creeping closer to Skytomb. Knave could faintly smell the sweat and fear of the canine as it walked through the rocky terrain. Knave and Zanaya had been abandoned on this primitive planet that the inhabitants called Third Earth. There was question in his mind whether this had been a deliberate act or simply a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time; he suspected the latter but wouldn't doubt the former. Ever since that day he and Zanaya were taking shelter in the former Lunatak fortress.
He growled as he remembered the woman. She had manipulated his emotions to get information, and the only thing keeping her alive was the fact she carried his child. Once the whelp was free from her womb he swore to take his revenge.
The Mutant's presence was curious. Certainly the Skytomb files indicated that the Mutants and the Lunataks had a working relationship. Both parties had been stranded on the planet, with limited numbers, and had realized that working together increased their odds. Of course, Mutants being Mutants, these alliances were only temporary and were peaceful only until it was more useful to be otherwise.
Knave had gone out to forage when he had heard the whine of the creature's aircraft and he'd sprinted back to base. Sure enough, the jackal was staring at the door to the elevator, wondering how to get inside. Knave counted himself fortunate, on one count, that he was of mixed race, with Cheetah blood running through his veins. He closed the gap between himself and the Mutant in record time, tackling him into the dust. "You're not in friendly territory, Mutant," he growled, venting some of his frustration at Zanaya on the man.
"But we Mutants have always been friends of the Lunataks," he yelped, twisting to try and see who had pinned him.
"What do you want?" Knave said. The records indicated four Mutants, and that meant that he and Zanaya were outnumbered. Proving his superiority over the jackal was key in convincing the others to stay away.
"It's been too quiet lately. Vultureman swears he saw a ship in the area and figured you might have left. Let me go, please," the canine, Jackalman if Knave remembered the entry correctly, said.
His stomach growled. Food had been scarce, and the hunt had gone poorly. Mutant flesh wasn't considered gourmet, but it would do in a pinch. Yet, killing Jackalman now would encourage the others to come and investigate. "Luna left, but Skytomb is still Lunatak property and we still live there. Now you should be going too." Knave loosened his grip and stepped back, letting the Mutant stand and brush himself off.
"Well, it's been nice meeting you. If you need anything, just call," he said, scurrying hastily to the parked vehicle.
He watched Jackalman leave for a minute and re-entered Skytomb. Maybe there was some food left in the storage hold.
* * *
Tycho, one time king, held the formal document in one shaky hand. A courier had delivered it less than an hour ago and insisted that he read it immediately. He would have done so anyway, it bore the seal of the royal court of law.
He could hardly believe the contents of the document; Eluosi was challenging Luna's right to the throne, stating that she would have been married to Tycho if not for Luna's return from the dead. In fact, that seemed to be the crux of the argument, that Luna had 'died' eighty years ago and therefore should no longer be eligible for the throne. Barring that, Eluosi was demanding a large sum of money, one that would certainly curtail Luna's plans.
He stared incredulously at the signature at the bottom of the page. Cyril Takin. He was easily the most expensive, and best, lawyers in the moons. Eluosi had money from her acting career, but surely she couldn't afford his price tag.
About the only thing Tycho was certain of, was that Luna would have to be told about this at the right time. She was an old school ruler, and that meant that there was only one way to handle such a challenge. Luna would hire an equally pricy assassin and remove Eluosi entirely. That's the way things were done, and people tended to turn a blind eye towards the practice. Tycho didn't want Eluosi to die. He did feel bad about what had happened to her, had been blaming himself for her injury since the day it had happened, and she certainly deserved to receive some kind of compensation.
It was the timing that bothered him most, he decided. He and Luna were about to meet with important people from all the moons to discuss Luna's latest idea of fostering unity. There was tons of work to do and she wouldn't want any distractions. He couldn't afford the distraction either, especially with only another hour before the meeting would take place.
Carefully, Tycho folded the document back up and placed it on his desk. He would discuss the situation with his closest friend, Darius, later.
* * *
For such an announcement, Luna had chosen the royal audience chamber. It was spacious and allowed for everyone to have room to stand without being crowded. It also afforded Luna the ability to be the centre of attention in comfort.
Psychro cast his eyes around the room, recognizing many of the faces. There were many high ranking officials present, along with a handful of tradespeople and dignitaries from the various moons. He spied a Paeder of House Snowskin, current captain of the Icewalker fleet, and waved. He'd seduced her before her posting and remembered her as being very loud. She flushed brightly and turned away.
The doors swished open again and he found himself breathless. One of the most attractive Icewalker women he'd ever seen had walked in, escorted by a Darkling, a Graviton and a Psion. "That must be Chilla," he thought to himself, drinking in her flawless body and making it his goal to meet her. She took a seat near the front of the auditorium, which made sense as she was an old ally of Luna's.
Another set of doors, more ornately furnished and located near the raised dais opened, held by two Royal Lunataks in the purple garb of the royal guard. Tycho entered first and announced Luna's approach, though the sound of Amok's fists and feet on the floor did a better job of it. The queen was helped off Amok and placed in the large, and heavily cushioned, chair. The brutish creature settled at her feet, barring anyone from getting to his master without going through him.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Luna began, capturing everyone's attention. "Thank you for being so prompt. Over the last two months I have seen our people fractured, unable and unwilling to work together. This must change. When I was ruling eighty years ago, we understood that it was only by co-operating that we could be strong. Our greatest strength is our diversity and the power we have at our disposal. Over the last two months I have also heard complaints of food shortages, a lack of resources and land. I intend to change this as well."
Psychro glanced around him and noted that she had the complete attention of all. She continued. "What we need is to expand our borders, and I happen to know of a planet ripe for the taking. Third Earth. We will send five hundred people there to build a new city. The planet's only serious threats are nine Thundercats, and surely five hundred Lunataks can crush nine Thunderians."
A ripple of laughter swept through the room, though one person was not amused. "Have you forgotten Mumm-Ra?" Alluro asked pointedly. "He encased us in lava the first time we tried to take over. What's to stop him from doing that again on a larger scale?"
"A fair question. Mumm-Ra needs us to destroy the Thundercats. He won't act until that is done. But, for all his power, even Mumm-Ra can't resist the might of the Lunar empire. And you, Alluro, are going to help ensure that."
"You've got to be kidding. You expect me to lead the attack on Mumm-Ra? Not only is that suicidal, but it's not happening either. I refuse to leave the Moons of Plundarr because you want revenge." Alluro's eyes narrowed. Psychro knew enough of the man to know that such fear and doubt in his abilities was rare.
Luna seemed unimpressed. "You will go, Alluro, or you will find yourself in shackles for the voyage. You see, fellow Lunataks? It's such attitudes that make the universe think we are weak, that we are content to hide on our moons while those who offend and attack us are left to do as they please. Have faith, Alluro, I would not be sending you if I did not have confidence in you. Tug Mug, Chilla, and Red Eye will be accompanying you. The four of you will act as advisors to Tycho. He has agreed to govern in my stead until such time as an appropriate successor is chosen."
"You have the support of the Icewalkers," Chilla hissed. "My people are ready to go to battle, especially against those disgusting Thundercats." Psychro listened and smiled at the sound of her voice. It was as harsh as the moon itself, and he loved it. Conquering her would be a challenge.
"As are the Darklings. The Thundercats have opposed us too often to go unpunished," Red Eye said, clenching his fists. "And I crave to revenge myself of the demon priest Mumm-Ra. Encasing us in lava was a crime he must pay for."
"I suppose, as long as eet's not a permanent posting," Tug Mug said.
"Once Third Earth is ours, Tug Mug, you and the others are free to return to the moons again. Your expedition leaves in two months. Each moon is to send a hundred people. I leave it to you to decide how to choose your delegates, and I will provide you with a list of specialists that we will require," Luna said, drinking deeply from a glass of wine at her elbow.
There were plenty of questions fielded as soon as she opened the floor for it, questions of how they would find food, what materials were already present, and so forth. Psychro listened to it all with interest. Psikaris had been right, this was something he wanted to get in on. The money that he would make off this kind of venture was enormous. And besides, Chilla was going to be there too.
* * *
There was a lavish reception following the meeting, varying kinds of appetizers served with glasses of wine, beer, and water. Luna was pleased, overall, with how the meeting had gone. There were dissenters, people claiming that war on such a distant planet wasn't feasible, but Lunataks were a proud people; they didn't take kindly to insult and most considered there to be a blood debt owed to Mumm-Ra, assuming he had blood.
It would be a tremendous undertaking, though. Once the Thundercats detected their operation they would doubtless investigate. They were an honourable race, taking it to a disgusting extreme, and that would prove their downfall. Luna was reasonably certain that if Tycho preached peace they would leave them alone, granting the Lunataks time to mass their forces and plan a proper attack. They might even offer to help, a concept she found somewhat amusing.
Mumm-Ra was a different story. Like the Thundercats he would investigate the goings-on in Dark Side, Alluro was right about that. And Mumm-Ra would be harder to convince to leave them alone, especially since Tycho had no experience dealing with the devil priest. The first time she'd seen him, she had been shaken by his size and raw power crackling around him. It was only with time, and seeing him defeated countless times, that the fear had been worn away.
She engaged in small talk with the other delegates until she spied Alluro at her side and groaned inwardly. She'd hoped his questioning was over. Luna guided Amok and the hypnotist to a quiet corner. "You still have questions, Alluro?" she asked.
"I do. You remember that the Thundercats and Mumm-Ra aren't the only threats on Third Earth, right? Mumm-Rana, the Tuskas, Warrior Maidens, and who knows what else is out there. Five hundred Lunataks are strong, but we're not enough to take over an entire planet, Luna," Alluro said.
"We don't need to take over the entire planet. Not at once. We will content ourselves with the destruction of our enemies and then fortify ourselves. We will send more of our people to Third Earth if we need to." She sighed heavily. "Listen closely. I told you earlier that I had faith in your abilities, and I mean that. Tycho needs someone who will question his decisions and you fit the bill." The two stared at one another for a long time, a mental battle of wills taking place. Finally, Luna broke the stalemate. "What will it take to get you to co-operate?"
Alluro stepped back, startled by the offer. "I want power," he said, finding his voice, "Mumm-Ra doubtless has all sorts of magical artifacts that I can use to augment my own naturally brilliant abilities. Anything we find belongs to me."
"You ask a lot. We will build a city in the desert of the sinking sands and you will govern that region. But only once I see the rotting corpses of the Thundercats," she replied, leaving it unsaid that if Mumm-Ra wasn't destroyed that him finding a city next to his pyramid would be disastrous.
* * *
The food was good, Psikaris acknowledged to herself, especially the ones with the green filling. She wasn't certain what they were but they were delicious. She, along with a handful of engineers, were gathered and listening to Sore Gore of the Gravitons talk about the latest engine modification idea he'd had. He was one of the most famous Gravitons because, unlike his kin, he was remarkably skinny. Such a keen mind for mechanics he limited himself to only three meals a day and rarely consumed alcohol. This made him the target of ridicule to his people, though they firmly respected his mind. Psikaris was hoping that he would be one of those to go on the Third Earth expedition as the chance to pick his brain would be a delight.
Then, out of the corner of her eye, she something that was about to interrupt her conversation. She'd been out with her brother before and knew well the look on his face. He'd selected a target and was about to make his move. Psikaris could scarcely believe the target in question. She excused herself politely and tried to cross the crowded floor to either intercept him or minimize the damage.
She could see Psychro placing his hand on Chilla's shoulder, turning her away from the conversation she was having with Red Eye. He clearly said something to her as Chilla snorted derisively at him, then her brow furrowed and she shoved him away. Psikaris was close enough now that she heard Chilla say "Better hypnotists than you have tried that, and if you ever try it again..." as she breathed ice around his feet.
The crowd murmured at the incident, looking and hoping to see if it would escalate. Under other circumstances it might have, if a glob of thick black goo didn't strike Chilla, coating her in the sticky substance from her feet to shoulders. "Death to House Iespyk!" a female voice shouted from near the ceiling.
Psikaris looked up in time to see a woman clad in black, wearing a silver mask and dark blue cloak, fly through a crescent shaped window. Psikaris reached her brother and quickly helped him free himself from the ice, while others worked at assisting Chilla. Security personnel arrived and demanded that Psychro come with them.
* * *
"I'm telling you, I don't know who that woman was. I was making a pass at Chilla when it happened," Psychro said, pleading with the grim faced Royal Lunatak that stood on the other side of the bars from him. He'd been unceremoniously dumped in a holding cell a few moments ago. Psikaris had tried to follow but had been barred from entering. The questions were all the same, suspecting him of being a diversion while the real assailant got in to position. "This is all a big misunderstanding. I want to go out with her, not kill her."
The officer stepped back and turned to a young Psion standing nearby. "There's an easy way to learn the truth," the Psion said, taking a seat on the floor. Psychro barely had time to comprehend what was about to happen before he felt the invading mind, sifting through his memories. It felt dirty, and that in turn brought other memories to the surface. Just as suddenly as it had begun, the contact ended. The Psion scowled at him. "You are disgusting."
"Does he know the woman?" the guard asked.
"It wouldn't surprise me. There are many women in his mind, including your sister. Most of them naked. But if he knows anything about the attack I couldn't find it. I can vouch for his intentions towards Chilla. I don't believe he would hurt her. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to take several showers," the Psion replied, dusting himself off and taking his leave.
"See? Completely innocent. I guess I can go now?" Psychro asked hopefully.
"For now. And stay away from my sister."
* * *
The transition from frail elderly woman to energized young woman and back again was exhausting. Shade settled on a park bench in the palace courtyard catching her breath and mentally chastising the spirit within for its theatrics. She hadn't had a plan when she'd approached the domed reception hall and looked through the window on the roof. Her father was there, mingling with the hated Chilla. The woman was getting agitated and her posture indicated violence was coming. The spirit begged her to let it take control, to protect her father from her oppressor and send a clear message.
She'd felt the spirit adjust her outfit further and jump into action. It was disorienting at first, having no control over what she did, it was like watching the events unfolding on a video screen. She wondered whether the spirit could make such a situation permanent. "A bit melodramatic of you," she thought.
"Perhaps. But the showmanship was necessary. Chilla and her kin will be too busy seeking us to carry out their plans. Your father is safe now, thanks to you," the spirit whispered in her ear.
A guard, patrolling the area for the attacker, approached Shade's position, causing her to momentarily tense. "You'd best come inside, ma'am, there's dangerous people about," he said, offering his arm.
"What a nice man you are. Your mother must be proud," Shade replied, playing it up a bit as she accepted his help. There'd been a time when she hadn't needed such help, it seemed so long ago.
* * *
Where was she, Knave fumed as he stood in the control room of Sky Tomb. Zanaya had been gone on her foraging run for hours now and should have been back. It was difficult to gather anything since they were confined to a single vehicle; the Lunattacker. She was also the only one who could venture outside of Dark Side, given that the only land route out was through the Fire Rock Mountains. Fire rocks were just a local name for a substance called Thundrainium, a mineral that was deadly to Thunderians. Knave had never encountered Thundrainium before, and had no desire to do so now, even if his Icewalker half might afford him some immunity to the stuff.
The Thundercats were able to get through, though. Sky Tomb's records spoke of a Forest of Mists that the Thundercats used to enter, and how only powerful lights could pierce the fog. There was another way, though equally as dangerous as the Thundrainium; the Valley of Chains was said to have a tunnel that reached through. He slammed his fist on the control panel, was there no safe place on Third Earth? What had happened on the planet to be so backwards in the first place?
"Control panel bothering you?" Zanaya asked. Her pose indicated that she had been in the doorway for quite some time. She was good at that, not being seen, and he hated how often she used it.
"I'm just frustrated," he said, choosing to end that conversation. "How was your hunt?"
"My kill is sitting in the kitchen, waiting for you to do something about it," she replied simply. There was no need to elaborate, they'd argued at the beginning over who would do what, and Knave had chosen cooking, fearing that Zanaya's assassin background would provide her with the means to poison him. There were flaws with the logic, not the least of which was that she could still poison the food, but she let it go.
As much as Zanaya hated to admit it, she needed him, and the happier she could make him the better. Zanaya knew of many of the complications and side effects that could befall a pregnant Psion and knew that she would be emotionally and physically drained by the time she was due. He would need to help deliver the baby and provide her with food and drink. After the child was born she would be unable to stop him from killing her.
"It's about time. I was worried you might have wandered off to betray me again," he said, coming very close to her. Close enough that she could feel his cool breath on her face, the stench of meat offended her senses but she didn't give an inch.
"I would never do that to you. I love you, remember?" Knave snorted and left. Idly Zanaya sauntered over to the Sky Tomb computer to see what he had been looking at when she'd entered. An entry on Fire Rock Mountains. Thundrainium. That was something she hadn't considered. A wicked grin played across her face. Maybe she could handle him after all.