Captain Jette Jones, Star Ranger
Issue #19 – Fate of the Stars
By Callidus and connie k
All rights reserved. “Captain Jette Jones, Star Ranger” © 2021 All characters and stories are not to be reproduced in any form without the expressed written permission of the authors.
Captain Jette Jones and her allies clash with Suzerain Supreme Zeta and the powerful and mysterious Goddess of Darkness over the destiny of the galaxy.
As Jette springs her plan to liberate Serpens Caput, little does she realize she is on a collision course with the Goddess of Darkness …
Captain Coral Pace sipped her third cup of coffee as she stared at a distant cluster of stars through the observatory window of Science Station Seven. She checked her hand comp for the 30th time.
“Captain?” Dr. Alei called from the doorway with Lt. Downing. “I’ve given all the scientists and staff their physicals and we’ve unloaded our supplies. Both of which they didn’t really need. How long are we going to sit here?”
The captain of the Star Ranger Patrol vessel Roosevelt didn’t move. “Any word from the Olympus Mons or the Ajaye?”
“Nothing, Sir,” Downing replied.
Pace drummed her fingers on the table. Where are they?
“We’ll stay here another 24 hours. Then take a wide arc through Elliptical Grids H-17 and H-16 before heading back.”
“That’s awfully close to Te’ Sareez, Captain.”
Pace moved to the window. She knew very well she was putting her career in jeopardy, but her former captain was out there somewhere. She wasn’t going to budge. She owed her too much.
“More wine, Oni?”
Onimanina Hartley put her hand over the offered glass. “No. I have something else in mind.”
She took the glass and slid off the bed.
“Already? You are insatiable.”
Hartley flipped the woman onto her stomach and tied her wrists to the corners of the bed with silk scarves. She gave the ass a playful slap.
“Oh, Oni, what you do to me,” the woman said breathlessly.
“You haven’t seen anything yet, Maxima. You’ve been a very bad girl.” Swat! “It’s time for your punishment.”
The silver-haired woman’s ass wiggled. Swat! Hartley straddled her back.
“Now, Maxima, you’re going to tell me everything I want to know.” Swat! “Everything you know about Jette Jones.”
“Ow!” Maxima squealed. “That’s too hard!”
“And the Primons!”
Maxima stiffened. “What? Wait … Oni? No, I can’t!”
Hartley forced her legs open and began thumbing her asscrack.
“Tell me! Why did you help Jette go back to Te’ Sareez? You let her ship through after I’d ordered her to stay away!”
“Stop! You know I can’t. Let me up.”
“Tell me now. And I’ll let you up. But first I’m going to make you talk. And maybe I’ll let you cum … Madame President.”
Hartley’s fingers rubbed against the tender flesh roughly. She pinched at her clit.
“Okay! Okay. We believe the renegade Primon is making her move, perhaps to seize control of the entire galaxy. She’s … ohhh … she’s been amassing an army, across a dozen solar systems. But Te’ Sareez is the focal point. The center. From where she will unleash … oh, gods, Oni … that’s where we believe she is located.”
Hartley began kneading the president’s asscheeks. Then slapped her ass harder.
“I knew that already,” Hartley said angrily. “We use the same spy drones as you do, Madame President. But why there? Why now? And why Jette?”
“I … I can’t.”
“Okay! Alright!” Maxima was panting, tears running down her cheeks. “There have been only two times in recorded history when we’ve encountered the Primons. The first time was 19 years ago when the renegade engaged the Star Rangers. The second time … oh, please stop …” Hartley’s fingers were busy between the folds of Maxima’s pussy. “The second time was four months ago. With another Star Ranger – Jette Jones. It’s no coincidence!”
Hartley’s fingers stopped. The president of the United States of Earth gasped for air. “The Galactic Systems League is terrified. They were not going to make an offensive move against a Primon.”
“So you did nothing?”
“No! We found another way.”
Hartley began wringing her flesh once more. “Tell me!”
Maxima’s voice wavered. “It’s an old strategy. Don’t fight your enemies. Make them fight theirs.“
Hartley shook her head in disbelief. “So you allowed Jette to go there, to face her, hoping to draw out the other Primons?”
“It was the only way!” Maxima sagged on the bed. “If we’d sent a fleet the renegade could’ve retaliated directly against Earth or another planet on the GSL council. It had to be Jones, by herself.”
Hartley was furious. She stabbed her thumb into Maxima’s rosebud.
“What is it you’re not telling me, Maxima!” Hartley furiously fucked the submissive president with her fingers with her thumb deep in her ass. Anger and lust and shame seeped out between her spread legs. “There’s something else!”
“Stop! I’ll tell you!” Hartley stopped. “We had the three Star Ranger vessels Jones enlisted to help her turn back.”
“You hung her out to dry?!” Hartley roared.
“Only two of them did! We believe the Roosevelt is still on her way to Te’ Sareez. When she gets there, the SRC, USE and the GSL will be committed.”
“And we’ll have a galactic war on our hands,” Hartley said quietly. “Against an enemy with more power than we can possibly imagine.”
“But the Primons –”
“You fool! She’s one of them! Which side do you think they will take?”
Hartley climbed off Maxima and dressed quickly.
“B-but…” Maxima sputtered, trying to justify herself. “They told Jones that they wanted to get rid of the renegade!”
“They said they wanted her returned!” Hartley stared at her disbelief. “That could mean anything! You don’t understand their motives anymore than hers.” Hartley pulled her uniform jacket across her shoulders.
“You’re not going to leave me like this? At least let me cum!”
“You got yourself into this situation, Madame President. You can get yourself out of it. The SRC is not beholden to the GSL. It’s an independent body. And I’m its supreme commander. The GSL Council and the USE won’t be calling the shots for the military under my command any longer. I gave you more latitude than I should have. But those days are over. You’ve interfered with my ships and countermanded my orders for the last time.”
Hartley reached the door, almost regretting the end of their covert relationship.
“I’m on the GSL council! We’re responsible for trillions of lives!” Maxima called after her. “We made a choice so we could avoid war!”
“And when The Goddess of Darkness, or whatever she calls herself these days, makes you an offer to avoid war what will you choose then? Instead of using this time to gather our forces and formulate a plan you’ve gambled with the fate of the whole galaxy.”
Hartley looked back at her. One last time.
“If I were you, I’d call up some of your member planets that have a military. You’re going to need them. You underestimate the Primons, Maxima. And you’ve certainly underestimated their renegade. But I’m going to do everything in my power to stop them both. And get Vice Commander Jones out of there.
“I don’t much like the idea of humanity becoming a slave race.”
As soon as she reached her apartment, Hartley accessed the SRC historical archives. She had read these reports before, but now they took on a new sense of urgency — and dread – as she viewed the video recordings.
The computer noted the time and date – it was 19 years earlier.
Captain Jane “Mac” McCormack activated the recorder drones hovering above the enormous ship as it plowed its way through the asteroids and rubble of Elliptical Grid BR-6.
She and her platoon of Star Ranger Marines had been deposited on the exterior hull of the ship by the troop carriers – one of which burst into a thousand fragments of electric flame at that very moment.
The Marines were drawing fire from all directions as they hurried in their spacesuits toward a smoking hole in the center of the large craft. Dozens of robotic arms firing photon charges swiveled from every corner of the ship’s hull, while circling above the fearsome Black Widdom attacked the Rangers relentlessly.
One by one, the Marines fell. A blur flew past McCormack. It was Cadet Crabbe, only recently added to her crew. A segmented, spidery leg was embedded in her chest.
“Let’s move!” she shouted, rallying her troops. “Get to cover!”
Just ahead of her as she ran, one of the spiderwomen dove and wrapped its legs around a Marine. Its poison-filled tail slammed through his uniform. His scream of agony cut short as he collapsed. The spiderwoman’s head snapped toward McCormack.
She fired, but the flying spider dodged the beam. Its legs fanned out like wings, ready to smother her.
Suddenly, the spiderwoman’s blonde head exploded, green blood splattering against McCormack’s helmet.
Lt. William Jones hurried to his captain.
“You all right, Sir?”
“Keep moving!” she shouted as they dove through the opening into the ship’s interior. The pair managed to find cover behind a wall on the secondary deck of the ship.
They tried to catch their breath now that they were out of range of the guns. McCormack was bent over, hands on knees, sucking in air. There was a boom! She looked up – her ship, the Sutherland, had been hit. She grimaced as she watched her ship break apart.
The fighting had stopped above them. A half-dozen of the Black Widdom circled the deck slowly, looking for survivors but there were none. There were no more Marines. No more ships. They were totally alone.
McCormack and Jones hunched down, their eyes alert for any movement.
“They’ve known every move we made. They know it as soon as I think it.” McCormack looked Jones in the eye. “She knows what we’re thinking.”
Jones swallowed hard. He realized in that moment he was never going to see his wife and daughter again. But there were other lives to consider now. “Makes it pretty hard to sneak up on her, Cap’n.”
McCormack stiffened as if struck. A sly smile grew with a gleam in her eyes. Jones read the look on her face and began nodding.
The captain pulled off her tactical backpack and opened it. She handed Jones a small, silver device with two buttons on it – red and black. She spoke slowly and carefully. “I’m going to take this pack of explosives inside this ship, Lieutenant. I need to get as deep inside and as close to the center of this ship as I can. Give me two minutes. Then hit that button and detonate.” McCormack’s eyes squinted with intensity at her first officer. “You understand what I’m saying?”
There was no hesitation. “Yes, Sir. I do. Two minutes.”
McCormack stomped her gravity boots, spun around quickly and began running, her head tilted upward. There was no need for goodbyes. Jones watched her disappear around a corner 30 meters away.
The last of the spiderwomen disappeared into the darkness of space. McCormack raced to a door, which opened on its own. Down a long corridor, down a set of stairs, she jogged onward into the bowels of the ship, which shuddered slightly from the dozens of impacts against its hull from the space rocks in its path.
She pivoted quickly and fired, catching a strange creature she had never seen before as it tried to sneak up on her. She reached a large door, larger than any other on the ship, with unfamiliar markings on it. This was the spot. She took a deep breath, slammed the wall button and entered.
Dozens of those same odd-looking creatures filled the room, some clinging to walls, others from the ceiling. They looked to be fur-covered, but as she stepped fully into the room, she realized the fur was really a gelatinous coating, which dripped slowly off their apelike bodies.
She raised her weapon slowly. The creatures didn’t move. She took off the explosive-laden backpack and placed it carefully on the floor. She stared at it hard, no longer paying any attention to the slimy creatures which surrounded her.
The ship rumbled again and there was a flash of blinding light. The room appeared to be engulfed in flames, but there was no heat. As her eyes adjusted, she saw a female figure sitting on a blackened pyre as if it were a throne.
Her voice boomed. “Humans. You are all so weak. When you show courage, you are weakest of all. Across countless millennia I have observed your kind. Among all that exists in the universe, humankind is among the most insignificant, yet you deem yourselves special.
“Tell me, Captain Jane McCormack. Why is this so?”
“If you can read my thoughts, you know the answer. It’ll be the last thing in your head when I blow you to smithereens.”
A sudden gust of hot wind hit McCormack, pushing her back. She fought her way forward, toward the backpack but another surge of air burned at her skin and kept her slowly sliding backward. Summoning all her strength, McCormack leaped for the pack, but was slammed to the floor as if pushed down.
She forced her eyes on the pack, concentrating, even as the burning air began melting the suit off her body. The pack began to vibrate then collapsed into itself, turned to dust and blew into the air.
McCormack’s head dropped.
“Enough of you,” said the woman of fire with distain.
With a wave of her hand, McCormack was incinerated.
Lt. Jones had entered the room and rushed forward. By the time he reached the empty space where his captain had been, the steaming air had stilled.
“I almost forgot about you,” the fiery specter said.
“Can you read my mind now, you bitch!”
The apparition appeared to smile smugly. “Crude. However, it would be interesting to see how you’d do that.” Jones clutched the detonator in his shaking hand. “A feeble effort. That device is useless if you have nothing to detonate.”
Jones looked down at the device. Then he stared right into the heart of the Goddess of Darkness.
“Funny thing about the human mind,” he said calmly. “Just because you think about something doesn’t make it true. Those weren’t the explosives. This is.”
He pressed the red button.
The explosion gutted the huge ship in an instant, the creatures inside caught in the blast. The ship split in half, sending what remained of the Black Widdom to their deaths. The two powerless chunks of metal collided on all sides with space boulders and small asteroids … before disintegrating just 50,000 miles from the three enormous sapphire-and-purple asteroids which had been in its path.
The recording ended.
Hartley wiped her brow, feeling its wetness. Her heart was racing in her chest. She moved to another console and flipped a series of switches.
“This is Rear Admiral Hartley. This is a Code One priority. Prepare the fleet. All carriers, this is a red alert. Prepare for action. This is not a drill. I repeat, this is no drill. Star Rangers! The day we have prepared for has arrived!”
Eleven Caretakers stood silently in the doorway of the large, domed chamber. Their matrices all glided in the exact same languid rhythm as they watched the proceedings with detached curiosity. All except Sigma. The green lines of her matrix flickered at odd intervals as she watched Epsilon commune with their creators.
The chamber was a hollowed-out globe, with the doorway at its hemisphere. The twelfth Caretaker stood upon a glowing blue disc of energy in the center. Ribbons of unimaginable power rippled all around Epsilon, forming a pocket of hyperspace that could be shared between the physical world and the place where her makers resided.
“… she also said we have to act now, before the next phase of the renegade’s plan begins.”
The energy ribbons flickered in colors that no human eyes had ever seen as the faceless multitude of voices spoke. “Why does she believe this?”
“Zeta, under the guidance of the renegade, has halted only long enough to replenish her army,” Epsilon replied. “Her next assault will occur soon.”
“It is not our concern.”
Epsilon’s matrix flickered in frustration. “If that happens, if she succeeds, billions could die.”
“All living things are fated to die, Epsilon. It is the natural order.”
“But these deaths will not be a part of natural order. The renegade must be stopped now!”
“Now is precisely the incorrect moment to act. You do not fully understand, Caretaker. The renegade’s motives are of more than conquest. Let her conduct her wars, let her deploy her armies to distant star systems. Let her attention be focused on these mundane pursuits. Time will deliver our opportunity.”
“By then it will be too late!” Epsilon shouted.
“The humanoids are prodigious. Their numbers will recover in time.” The ribbons shifted in rhythm. “Epsilon, you have other lifeforms to attend to.”
Epsilon’s matrix flashed brightly though her voice quieted. “The renegade is your mistake. Yet you will make the living beings of the galaxy pay for it.”
“That is so.” Epsilon held her breath, daring to hope. “But the decision has been made. We will not move against the renegade at this time.”
The ribbons of light vanished. Epsilon’s hands were trembling fists.
Theta called to her. “Shall we return to our duties?”
Epsilon studied the eleven faces waiting for her answer. She locked eyes with Sigma and something passed between them. Their matrices shifted and, for a moment, locked into an identical pattern. Sigma nodded.
“No,” Epsilon finally answered. “First, there is something I need to share with all of you.”
Elexa Dyne landed her cruiser with ease in an open area about half a mile from the capital city’s center on Serpens Caput. No one seemed to pay the ship much attention now that the Black Widdom had taken over the city and lorded over the defenseless citizenry.
Vice Commander Jette Jones stood up.
Elexa tugged her sleeve as they both climbed out of the cruiser. “We better go quickly. I still say this is a bad idea. I wish I could be sure what’s going to be coming up behind you.”
Jette gave her a forceful nod but that wasn’t good enough for Elexa. She took Jette’s face in both hands and kissed her hard and long.
K’wari fought back a laugh as she watched Riesga and Carpenter sitting stiffly still and wide-eyed, neither wanting to betray their feelings about seeing their commander … well, like that.
When they broke the kiss, Jette’s eyes said more than thanks for the lift. Elexa winked as she hopped back into the cockpit. K’wari got out to join Jette.
“I’ve got your back, Commander!” Elexa called. She turned to Riesga and Carpenter. “Okay, ladies, who’s next?”
The air was filled with the sounds of night. The insects’ song was punctuated with the chirps of small rodents and the occasional cry as one of them was snatched up by a watchful raptor. Jette moved through ancient trees that were taller than the Artemis and nearly as thick.
“It’s no wonder the rebels have been able to hold out in here all this time,” K’wari said from behind Jette. “This forest is quite formidable.”
“Almost as formidable as these flies.” Jette swatted away another of the tenacious insects.
“I spotted some orange pengu moss a way back. It’s a natural insect repellent.” K’wari motioned behind them. “I could double back and gather some for us.”
“We’ll make do.” Jette glanced over her shoulder. “You’ve developed quite an appreciation for flora since the last time we flew together.”
K’wari could see Jette smirk in the half-light. “And I see they rehabilitated your sense of humor along with your body.”
The Star Ranger smiled. “The surgeon corps can work wonders these days.”
“Jette?” K’wari slowed. “Do you have concerns about me being on this mission?”
Jette turned as she stepped over a large root. “No. But you do seem different. Since Tholvan.”
“I am.” K’wari replied. “I can only describe it as … clarity. My life, my mission, all of it is in such sharp focus now.” She walked alongside Jette as the path widened. “I hope you don’t mind me observing that you seem different as well. I’ve never known you to disregard orders like this.”
“A leader from my planet long ago said that ‘war is too important to be entrusted to generals.”
K’wari nodded knowingly. “I believe he also said that war is a series of catastrophes that results in victory.”
Jette raised an eyebrow in surprise. “Quite a library you all have on Indora.”
“Do you believe that we are at war?”
“I’m afraid we’ve been at war with the Goddess of Darkness for a very long time. We’ve only just realized.”
Jette stopped suddenly. They looked ahead to a small clearing in the trees. The path beyond slopped up at a steep angle and the top of the hill was dotted with trees looking down on them.
Jette checked her hand comp. “We’re here. These are the coordinates.”
“Perfect spot for an ambush.”
“Or a meeting,” a voice called to them from the trees above, “so that we can be sure the people walking into our forest are, in fact, our old friends and allies.” A woman in simple robes stepped out from behind a tree and smiled down at them.
“Sovereign.” Jette bowed.
Diamanti made her way down the hill, leather-bound warrior women emerging from the trees around her. The queen of Serpens Caput put her hand on Jette’s shoulder warmly. “Welcome, my Vipera Berus.”
Jette smiled sadly. “I wish it were under better circumstances.”
Diamanti shook her head. “On the contrary, your arrival is a great and hopeful thing. There is something you need to see, Jette.”
The holo-map glowed softly and cast green-blue light on the cave’s walls. Jette and K’wari studied the image as it zoomed in and revealed a vast, manufactured structure beneath a small mountain.
Diamanti pointed at the glowing lines. “This weapons cache is left over from the last system-wide conflict, nearly two-hundred years ago. It’s stocked with munitions, supplies, vehicles and even a wing of star fighters.”
“Weren’t such caches destroyed as part of the armistice?” Jette asked.
“Those caches Serpens Caput admitted to having were destroyed. But this one was secret then and has been kept that way since.”
K’wari pulled her arms into her robes. “What good will weapons do without an army to wield them?”
“We have any army, Vicar. We’re only lacking the tools to fight.” An older woman at Diamanti’s side looked at her. She pushed her short salt-and-pepper hair behind one ear and straightened her uniform. “We’ve only enough arms for a third of our people.”
“This is Uthea.” Diamanti gestured to her. “My intelligence and counter-espionage minister.”
“What army are you referring to?” Jette asked. “The queen’s message said that your forces were scattered all over the planet.”
“A bit of misinformation, in case the enemy is monitoring our comms,” Uthea said with pride. “We’ve had small cells all over the planet doing hit-and-run attacks to make it seem like we’re scattered.”
Diamanti cut in. “Meanwhile, we’ve spent months slowly gathering our people in the caverns here, while we force Zeta’s army to spread itself thin trying to contain a planet-wide rebellion.”
“Clever,” K’wari replied. “But dangerous. Massing your forces in a single location means they only have to beat you once to finish you.”
Jette turned back to Diamanti. “What do you have in mind once you get the weapons?”
“We’re envisioning a pincer. Our freshly supplied army on the ground surprises the Diamond Warriors and Black Widdom. Then, once they start pulling their forces together to counter us…”
“A wing of Star Ranger ships hits them from above.” Jette studied the topography. “It can definitely work. But only with air support.”
“In your message, you said you weren’t coming alone, Commander.” Uthea gave her a hard look.
Jette took a deep breath. “Not every Star Ranger captain is going to ignore a GSL directive to stay out of Te’ Sareez. Only the most dogged. Which is exactly the sort we want. We’ll have the ships in three days, as promised.”
“In the meantime,” K’wari said, “we should scout this facility with a small force. Verify the equipment is still there and is battle ready.”
“I agree.” Diamanti smiled. “I suppose you have some idea of who?”
“My queen,” Uthea interrupted, “I must insist that this mission be Caputian military only. This is a highly classified facility. Before we let anyone else inside, we must be sure that any sensitive material or information is secure.”
Diamanti thought a moment and slowly nodded. “Very well, Uthea. You’ll assign two of your people, then?”
“I’ll go myself. I can’t spare any of my people.”
“And I can’t spare you.” Diamanti answered back.
Tiani, one of the queen’s personal guard, stepped forward from the shadows at the edge of holo map. “I’ll go my queen.”
“Thank you, Tiani, I’ll sleep better knowing you’re with her.” The warrior bowed her head and stepped closer to Uthea. “Recon the facility and report back here tomorrow night during our usual communication window.”
Uthea seemed pleased as she bowed low. “Of course, my queen. It will be done.”
Flock moaned as her fingers circled the wet folds of her sex. Shimmering spider silk was wrapped around her wrists and ankles like cuffs, marking her as property of the leader of the Black Widdom.
Her hair was damp and matted against her face. Her eyes were slits, but they never looked away from the image of Queen Zeta. The holo projection was taller than the real Suzerain and it towered over Flock, smirking down at the blonde woman as she touched herself.
Araneae’s slave was reclined on couch in her dark lair. The walls, the floor, everything, covered in sticky, white filaments, making the room look more like a spider’s nest. Flock’s legs were spread wide as she masturbated to the visage of the woman who had methodically controlled her mind for six months — Zeta.
In a barely audible voice, she begged, “Please, my Queen. Not again!”
In response, the holo image turned around, teasing Flock with the supple flesh of her smooth, pert ass. She cried pitifully as the heat between her thighs spiked and she felt the beginnings of a delicious, sizzling orgasm.
Suddenly, Flock’s wrists and ankles began to vibrate.
“No!” Flock wailed.
But it was too late. The tiny strands of spider silk stuck fast to her wrists, barely thicker than a few hairs, stretched into the darkness above her. The silk lines went taught and Flock’s hands were pulled wide, her fingers slipping out of her dribbling pussy. Her ankles were pulled even wider as the hint of a mind-blowing orgasm fizzled and faded away.
“Noooooo!” Flock cried as she bucked her hips. “Please let me cum!”
“Mmmm. Zeta does know how to make her playthings devoted. I’ll give her that much.” The voice from the darkness was smooth and sharp. Each syllable felt like fingernails dragging lightly across her neck and her shoulders. She shivered, feeling the dampness of the couch on her ass. “Too bad she can’t make you equally as obedient. Not like I can.”
There was a scuttle of feet as the spiderwoman emerged from the shadows and walked through the holo projection. Flock looked up weakly. Her eyes traced over the spiderwoman’s four lower limbs as they moved in smooth concert as they stopped in front of the couch.
Araneae smiled down at her. The spiderwoman’s torso was a segmented array of hard black shells overlapping each other. The leader of the elite Black Widdom arched her back and the wedges of natural armor withdrew revealing cool, grayish skin and well-defined abdominal muscles.
Above that were eight breasts, four on each side of her chest, following the line of her rib cage. Each pair went up in size from delicious to perfect to big to oh-my-gods.
Flock stared into the face of her captor. The eyes seemed to glow a pale blue.
“Zeta is finished with you,” she said as the holo projection winked off. “And my Goddess hasn’t given me permission to claim you as my own. Yet.”
Flock whimpered as her own nipples swelled.
“A pity for us both, really.” She moved closer, unnaturally stiff, and leaned over her captive. She traced a finger over Flock’s torso and the sheen of sweat her masturbation had left. “But, perhaps, if you’re a good and effective soldier in the coming engagement, that will change.”
Flock’s voice was hoarse. “I … I’ll fight. I know how. I’ll obey.”
“Mmmmmm, we’re going to make sure of it. But first, nutrition. You’re looking a bit dehydrated.” She hefted the largest of her breasts and brought them close.
Flock moaned, knowing what was coming. Gray liquid was already forming droplets on the huge nipples. Flock’s mouth opened hungrily as she eagerly sucked it into her mouth.
“Your lips are delicious.” She stepped back, her black armor recovering her torso. “It’s time for another lesson. I’ve got to re-educate you on how to fight the way we fight.
“It’s going to feel so very good. Eventually.”
The spider-silk released Flock’s limbs and her hands immediately went back to the folds of her sex. She returned to rubbing feverishly, mindlessly, as she had so many times before.
Araneae smiled with dagger sharp teeth. “I hope there’s enough of your brain left after all of this for me to break, personally.”
There was a whisper of movement outside Jette’s tent. The fabric parted and Diamanti stepped inside.
“Sovereign.” Jette rose before her.
Diamanti held up a hand. “It’s all right, Jette. It’s just us. Let me just be Diamanti. For a little while.” She smiled wearily and Jette grabbed a couple pillows and made a place for them to sit on the thick carpet.
“Enjoying your accommodations?” Diamanti asked as she adjusted her robes and sat down.
“Yes, thank you.” Jette motioned to the low table and desk comp opposite the bed and the small toilet and shower combo tucked away in the corner. “It’s more than I need really.”
“You’re Vipera Berus. Luxury comes with the title.” Jette leaned over and moved the bucket that was catching a slow drip of condensation seeping in from the cave. They laughed softly together.
Diamanti appraised her surroundings. “It’s bigger than the weather station satellite we were stuck on all those years ago. When we fought together for my people against the Diamond Warriors. As I remember, we managed to pass the time.”
It was impossible, now, for either of them not to think about those days. How they passed the time. And fell in love.
Diamanti tried to end the awkward moment. “That’s before it all started going wrong.”
Jette looked down, the memory pushed aside roughly by the reality.
“Oh, Jette, I’m sorry!” Diamanti clutched Jette’s wrist. “I was talking about all this madness with Zeta. I didn’t mean … us.”
Jette reached out and gently brushed the purplish bruise around Diamanti’s eye.
“It’s all right.”
Diamanti tried to change the subject. “The other officer who was with you then. How is she? Coral was her name?”
“Coral Pace,” Jette answered, nodding. “She’s doing well. She’s got her own ship now. The Roosevelt. She’s a fine captain.”
“I don’t doubt it. I hear she trained under the very best in the Star Ranger Corps.”
Jette tried not to bow her head, but it tilted just the same. “I’ve got the makings of another one now. Lt. Riesga is going to be an outstanding captain one day.”
“I think she’d do just about anything to make you proud,” Diamanti replied earnestly, and it made Jette smile.
They sat in silence a little while longer. There would be no passing the time together on this night and neither of them knew why. Diamanti gathered herself up.
“I came to alert you to our latest intelligence reports. They are on your computer now. The brief version is the deployment of Zeta’s forces is looking very favorable for our plan over the next few days.”
Diamanti nodded formally. “Well, I should turn in. Our forces train daily and the rising call comes early. Good night, Jette.”
“Good night, Sovereign.” Jette stood as the queen lifted the tent flap. “Diamanti?”
The queen turned. “Yes, Jette?”
“Speaking of my crew, I’d like to ask a favor.”
Tiani groaned, her eyes squeezed shut as Uthea’s teeth and tongue molested her neck. Uthea sat with her back against a giant tree, her boots dug into the soft forest floor. Her legs were spread wide, bent at the knees. Tiani sat between Uthea’s muscular thighs, her head bent back. She offered up her neck to the spy master.
“You almost gave the game away back there.” Uthea breathed hotly in her ear. She held Tiani’s arms captive in a forearm lock with her right hand. Her left hand forcefully squeezed Tiani’s exposed breast. “Our queen might not be pleased if she knew why you were so quick to volunteer.”
Tiani’s breath was ragged and husky. “I had to see you again.”
Uthea smiled as she pinched the nipple tightly. Tiani whined quietly, her eyes rolling up into her head. Uthea bent forward and sucked Tiani’s earlobe between her lips and made out with it softly.
Tiani’s body melted in bliss as she cooed softly. Then her body tensed.
A patrol craft cruised overhead, its engines whining softly. Both women scrambled to their feet, hugging the tree tightly and keeping their eyes fixed on the sky. Fortunately, the ship was traveling too fast to spot anything in the forest below.
Uthea smiled. “Thank you, whoever you are, for being so consistently impatient to finish your shift.” She tapped the hand comp strapped to her forearm. “Alright, with their abbreviated patrol, the next fly over should now be in 22 minutes. We’ve got that long to reach the mountain.”
Tiani nodded curtly, pulling the leather of her uniform back into place over her breast. She followed as Uthea led them to the edge of the forest. The trees were growing thin as the pair approached a wide swath of open ground ahead. On the far side of the field was the base of Vaultier Mountain.
“That rock wall.” Uthea pointed. “That’s the access point.”
“The entrance will surely be hidden.” Tiani crouched beside her. “How will we know where it is, exactly?”
“I know where it is,” Uthea replied. “The military never loses a valuable secret.” She tapped her hand comp. “Two kilometers, 20 minutes. Ready?”
Tiani bounced on her feet and stretched her supple legs. “Let’s go.”
They jogged into the clearing, getting a feel for the ground as they gradually picked up speed. Then they were running flat out, racing across the open ground. The moon shone brightly and soon they were running in Vaultier’s shadow, over halfway to the finish.
“I don’t see an entrance.” Tiana called out.
“It’s there,” Uthea said, pointing, “where those two faces meet and form a thin triangle.”
“I don’t see any—” Her eyes went wide at the sound of a distant whine, growing louder. She checked her hand comp. “The patrol! They’re early!”
“Move!” Uthea growled and willed even more speed from her legs. Tiani followed close behind, her boot heels digging into the clay earth. The rock wall was 20 meters away. Tiani chanced a look over her shoulder and could see the patrol ships’ searchlights through the trees behind them.
“Do not stop!” Uthea yelled as they closed to 10 meters. Then five.
“What are you doing?!” Tiani shouted as Uthea ran full speed toward the rock wall.
“Do NOT stop!” Uthea cried as she tapped her hand comp.
Uthea appeared to run headfirst into solid rock … and vanished. Tiani hesitated, then followed. She found herself in a dark corridor made of steel.
Uthea slowed to a stop and bent over, breathing deeply. Tiani glanced behind them and saw the section of rock they’d run through was a shimmering holo projection. Uthea tapped her hand comp and there was a flicker as the force shield reactivated.
“This way.” Uthea activated a torch light on her hand comp. The passage was wide enough for eight people to march side by side. She hugged the right wall, brushing it with her fingers as she led them forward. “There’s an access door. Sixty meters ahead.”
Tiani shook her head. “How’d you get the codes? For the holo-shield?”
“Classified report on this place. It’s how we first found out about it.”
They walked in silence until they finally reached the massive door. “This’ll take a minute.” Uthea opened a control panel and began tapping buttons. With nothing else to do, Tiani activated her own torch and had a look around. The passage was barren. She looked down and frowned.
“Uthea? Someone has been here! Look, there are footprints in the dust leading out!” Her torch tracked the trail as it led back the way they’d come in.
“Yes, those are mine,” Uthea said from behind her. Her lips tasted the flesh of Tiani’s neck once again. The warrior woman moaned, then jumped as she felt a pinch in her left butt cheek.
She fell unconscious to the floor.
Meanwhile, the Roosevelt has left the science station behind and is enroute to the Te’ Sareez system at top speed …
The face that stared back at Captain Coral Pace was grim as she waited for the 10-minute time delay on the transmission.
“I’ve ordered the Olympus Mons and the Ajaye to come about and rendezvous with you at EG H-16. You are to continue on to the Te’ Sareez system from there.” Pace noticed that Admiral Hartley was wearing the uniform of a ship’s commander. “The Roosevelt will spearhead the attack at the serpent’s head, Serpens Caput. If Vice Commander Jones is on Caput, as we suspect, then the main ground fighting will be there. The Ajaye will advance to Soma. The Olympus Mons to Serpentarius.”
“Understood, Sir. What about Kauda?”
“If our spy drones have current information, then Zeta has moved the bulk of her fleet there. At the serpent’s tail. And so will I. I’ll bring the fleet carriers in from behind and open a second line of attack.
“Unfortunately, it will still take us two full days at maximum speed to get there.”
Pace knew what Hartley was going to say before she said it.
“You’ll have to hold your space until we arrive, Captain. Good luck. Hartley out.”
Pace sat back in her chair. Her eyes slowly wandering among her possessions in her quarters, holding them in her memory, as if looking upon them for the last time.
Across the stars, the renowned Vicars of Yasu race toward Te’ Sareez to join the fight to save humanity …
“… and a number of the ship’s food servitors are offline but we should have those back in a day or two.” Odell looked over the top of her tablet as she delivered the report. “Don’t worry, we’ll keep everyone fed until then.”
Zicash shook her head, her orange fin wobbling. “Transporting thousands of Vicars across space in a single vessel was never going to be easy. Anything else?”
Saclyite leaned forward. “We received a message from Indora. They want to know what we’d like done with Tholvan. The suggestion has been made to return it to Zozash.”
“Let’s not be hasty,” Odell said quickly. “I mean, well, maybe we can keep it?”
Zicash’s fin bristled. “You want to keep a million-year-old plant, a multi-cerebral superior lifeform, so you can …?”
“Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, Zicash,” Odell replied with a smile.
Zicash sighed. “Let’s focus on helping the Te’ Sareez system, shall we?”
The door slid open and Baras rushed through. “Lights,” he said hoarsely. The room dimmed in response. He tapped frantically at a hand comp. The three women looked at each other in concern.
Saclyite put a hand on his shoulder. “What’s wrong?”
“I haven’t slept.” They could all see the redness in his eyes. “But I finally found something.” The table’s holo projector switched on and an enlarged hologram of Sha-shara’s rayff appeared.
“I’ve been asking myself, ‘Why did she tell K’wari to give it to the earth woman?’ Then, I started really studying the etchings.”
Zicash pointed at the engravings on the hilt. “It’s common for Vicars to ornament their staffs with iconography depicting their Journey with a rayff. Then pass it on for their nemate to do likewise.”
“I don’t think this rayff was passed to her. I think she built it.” He was tapping at his hand comp again. “As the Superior Father, I have access to all of the writings of my predecessors. At some point, Sha-shara documented a series of unusual meditations. Listen to this:
‘It happened again today. As I deepened my meditation, I felt a sense of traveling at great speed. I found myself somewhere I had never been. There were beings there. They are just like the stranger I met when I was young. I asked what they call themselves and I suddenly knew the answer: we are Those Who Came Before.’
“The Primons.” Zicash’s fin stood straight up. “The White Mother met a Primon when she was young?”
Odell snapped her fingers. “I know this story! The second year on her Journey of Discovery. She spoke to a stranger wearing a cloak. They talked for hours about the history of the galaxy and this person knew it all. Knew it as if they’d been there. When they got up to leave, she caught a glimpse of something beneath the cloak. She said it was like looking into the universe itself.”
Baras pointed to a section of the rayff that looked like ripples of fabric etched with stars. “Now listen to this:
‘Strange vision today. A dissonant note in a triad of consensus. A star grows bored with eternity then burns cold and vengeful. A beast evolves into a man who rages at three moons for the claws and fangs he has lost.’”
“Look at these ovoids,” Saclyite whispered. She pointed to a cluster of three, then a much larger single ellipse, then three more. “A ‘dissonant note’ could represent the renegade Primon K’wari spoke of.”
Baras continued reading.
“Traveled again during meditation today. There was a vast beach with a wave as tall as the sky racing towards me. I called out and asked what I was supposed to do. A voice whispered back: turn the tide. And then I was back in my body.”
He pointed to the holo image. “There. Waves at the bottom of the hilt. The last thing she carved.”
“These are her visions of the future.” Odell’s eyes swept over the holo image. “What if she saw a way to defeat this Darkness? The answer could be right here in the rayff itself.”
The four contemplated that in silence a few moments, then Baras got to his feet. “I’ll transmit what we’ve discussed to K’wari. Tell her to start examining it. Perhaps our victory lies within this riddle the White Mother has left us.”
K’wari opened her eyes at the sound of approaching footsteps. “Good evening, Jette.”
“How’d you know it was me?”
K’wari smiled as she unfolded her legs and stood up from her meditation. “I know the sound of Star Ranger boots.”
Jette looked over the edge of the small outcropping of rock they were positioned on. Below them, on the floor of the vast cavern was a city of tents arranged with military precision.
“Did they get you provisioned?”
“They offered.” K’wari nodded toward the improvised bed roll she’d made with her robes. “I don’t need anything more than I already have.” She gazed across the rebel camp. There was a handful of people moving about and a few lights glowing from within the white fabric shelters. Otherwise, it was quiet with only the cave’s own sounds of wind and water to accompany the darkness.
“I like it here. It reminds me of the temple I stayed in when I first arrived on Indora.”
“Reminds me of survival training. That was on Mars. After Star Ranger school. Six weeks of maneuvers and drills, working and sleeping underground.”
“Did you enjoy it?”
Jette smiled. “Very much. That was the last leg before I was assigned to my first ship. I knew the next time I saw stars I’d be flying among them.”
K’wari tilted her head. “This feels like small talk before you tell me something important.”
“I spoke to Queen Diamanti. About Flock.” K’wari regarded her silently. “There’s a good chance Zeta will have her on the front lines.”
“Diamanti is going to direct Caput’s forces to capture her, alive. Then turn her over to my custody.”
“And then she’ll face judicial proceedings? For what she did to you? For aiding in Zeta’s uprising?”
“I’ll make sure she gets whatever care and treatment she needs,” Jette said reassuringly.
K’wari looked away. “She was trying to tell me. Before Indora. I was too distracted to hear her.”
“You’re thinking it’s your fault. What Zeta did to her. What she did to me. It’s not, K’wari. It’s not even Zeta’s fault, maybe. The Goddess of Darkness is behind all this. She wanted to split us apart. I think she’s afraid of us all together. And she’s got good reason to be. In three days, we’re gonna push back. Hard.”
Jette put a hand on her shoulder. “You came back from it. She will too. We’ll make sure of it.”
“Obedience is rewarded, obedience is rewarded,” Flock whispered over and over.
She was lost within herself. A never-ending loop of reward and denial, obedience and need. Flock was ready to cum. The spider silk had once again pulled her hands away from her sex and she moaned pitifully. But she didn’t beg. She knew better now. She knew this torment was good for her. It would help teach her. She was so eager to be educated.
“I’m an obedient slave, I’m an obedient slave,” she chanted. The words teased her pussy in place of her fingers.
Araneae scuttled into the light on four of her limbs. “Soldier, report.”
The spider silk went slack, and Flock was on her feet and at attention in an instant. “This soldier is yours to command. This soldier will obey. This soldier will serve. This soldier will fight. This soldier will be rewarded.”
Araneae smiled, as she made a soft clicking sound with her mandibles. “Very good. Tell me, my most loyal soldier. How will you be rewarded?”
Flock trembled with fresh erotic heat. “One kill, one orgasm.”
“And how many orgasms do you want, soldier?”
“All of them!”
“How many rebels will you kill?”
“All of them!”
Araneae seemed satisfied. With the talons of one leg, she tore the spider silk bonds away from Flock and beckoned her follow.
Flock marched down the wide metal corridor behind her commander. They turned and entered another chamber. Two human women were inside. One wore a Caputian military uniform. The other was naked and struggling between two spiderwomen who held her fast in their iron grips.
“I’ll kill you, monster! Let me go and fight me!”
Araneae regarded this with amusement. “And who have you brought to us, Uthea?”
Diamanti’s military advisor turned with glassy eyes toward the Black Widdom leader. “Tiani, one of Queen Diamanti’s equerries. She is of the Warrior breed.”
Araneae’s eyebrows went up. “Delicious. We will soon have two servants from the queen’s inner circle.”
“Never, abomination!” Tiani spat out with fury. “I’ll will myself to die before you turn me like Uthea!”
Araneae considered this. “I believe you would do just that.” She nodded to another spiderwoman watching nearby. “With fighting spirit like that, I think we’ll add you to our ranks instead.”
Tiani scoffed. A fourth spiderwoman returned, holding something in her hands. It was shaped like a wide bowl and matched the color and sheen of the spiderwoman’s black armor. Inside was a mass of something shiny, black and writhing.
The spider soldier brought it closer and Tiani’s eyes were suddenly full of fear. She turned her head away, but the two spiderwomen holding her forced her head forward.
“No!” Tiani screamed.
Araneae’s armor withdrew, and she played with two of her nipples as she watched. “What other news, Uthea?” she asked, not looking away.
“The Vipera Beras, Jette Jones, and a Vicar of Yasu have joined Diamanti. They plan to seize the weapons cache in three days’ time.”
A shudder passed over Flock, but her glazed eyes never wavered.
“Hmmm. That won’t do at all.”
“What shall I do, commander?”
“Nothing, Uthea. I’ll handle it. Watch your friend’s conversion and enjoy your reward.”
“Yes, Commander, thank you!” Uthea’s nipples tented the tight fabric of her uniform.
“Soldier, reward this spy.”
“Yes, Commander,” Flock said dully. She approached Uthea.
“She’d love you to worship her ass.”
Flock pulled Uthea’s pants down and her supple ass spilled free. Flock knelt and took both checks in her hands, caressing them like a familiar lover. She parted her lips, pushed out her tongue and pressed her face into Uthea’s eager flesh.
As she made out with Uthea’s rosebud, Flock’s eyes drifted to Tiani and what was happening to her. Flock was glad her mouth was occupied and her mind was under control.
Otherwise, she’d have been screaming in terror.
There was someone in Jette’s tent and her hand darted to her rayvolver as she shot up in bed.
“Commander Jones, it’s Zizuhala. Sorry to wake you.” The silhouette of the tall warrior woman stepped closer until her face caught the soft light of the desk comp near the bed.
“What time is it?” Jette wiped the sleep from her eyes.
“Very early. Queen Diamanti needs to see you at once.”
Zizuhala led Jette through the large command tent. There was a flurry of activity as they entered. Jette noticed the intelligence branch seemed especially busy. There was a constant stream of traffic in and out of the connected side tent that housed them. Jette paused for a rebel courier who rushed past her and jogged through the entrance to the Queen’s inner sanctum.
Queen Diamanti stood at the holo table studying a map of the weapons cache beneath the small mountain. A half-meter tall holo projection of Uthea stood beside the three-dimensional map.
The courier handed a tablet to his queen. Diamanti motioned for the young man to standby while she looked it over. Then she turned to Jette. “Commander, there’s been a development.”
“What’s happened?” Jette could see stress and frustration on the sovereign’s face.
Diamanti motioned to the holo-image of her field commander. “Uthea, the Vipera Berus is here. Please brief her while I read the latest report.”
“Yes, my queen.” The holo image turned slightly to face Jette. “Tiani and I have accessed the weapons cache. Everything is in order and we’ve verified the inventory is complete.”
“What’s the bad news?”
Diamanti handed the tablet back to the courier. “The bad news is we intercepted a communication from the Black Widdom to the ground commander of the Diamond Warrior’s forces. They’ve found our camp. They’re mobilizing to attack.”
“How much time?”
“Ten hours, maybe less.”
“We’ve got to evacuate, Jette said firmly. “Split the army up, retreat and regroup later.”
Diamanti nodded. “I was also thinking of splitting the army up. But not to retreat. We counterattack. Evacuate the rebel army to the weapons cache and arm ourselves. Then we split into two fronts and smash Zeta’s forces between them.”
Jette cupped her chin in her hand. “Risky. Very risky. If we do this, we’re fighting on their timetable instead of ours. And without air support.”
“We may never again have the opportunity to pull our forces together like this.” Diamanti said quietly.
Jette took a deep breath. “Then let’s do it. Now.”
“There’s just one thing. We need someone to lead the second front.”
Jette nodded. “I have just the person.”
Although the sun shone brightly, the canopy was so dense that only narrow shafts of light reached the forest floor. The rebels welcomed the cool shade of the woods as they made their retreat. Diamanti refused to follow her army at the rear and Zizuhala would not allow her to lead at the front. So, Diamanti marched in the middle of the long, wide column of rebel troops with Zizuhala on one side and Jette on the other.
The three of them looked up at the sound of engines whining past overhead.
“Third time they’ve flown over us in the past two hours,” Zizuhala said.
“It’s all right,” Diamanti put a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“We’re not hiding at this point,” said Jette. “Making a tactical retreat.”
“On our way to victory,” Diamanti added quickly. “If we can get there in time.”
Jette tapped her hand comp. “K’wari? How’s the second column fairing?”
The Vicar’s voice crackled over the tiny speaker. “We’re maintaining pace about an hour behind you.”
“Keep me informed of any changes.”
Zizuhala frowned at Jette. “Are you sure it is a good idea to stagger the arrival of our forces?”
“It’s the last thing they’ll expect us to do. The first group arrives and seemingly seals themselves inside the mountain, ready for a siege. Zeta’s army moves in to trap us. Then K’wari’s force uses the weapons we already have to engage their rear. And while they’re scrambling to aim their artillery in the other direction, a freshly armed rebel attack force comes charging out of the mountain. Zeta’s forces are caught between a hammer and anvil.”
“It’s a good plan.” Diamanti gave Jette a reassuring smile. “How did K’wari take the news she’d be leading the second force?”
“She was concerned that your people might resent an off-worlder leading them.”
“They leaped at the chance to be led into battle by a Vicar of Yasu. It’s like the legends of old come back. When the three queendoms of Caput rose up against King Farrek and his army of wheeled towers.”
Jette took a deep breath. “Let’s hope our battle ends like that one did.”
Zizuhala’s hand comp suddenly exploded with static. “Repeat!” She held it to her ear.
“My queen, the head of the column has reached the edge of the forest. The Diamond Warriors are on the Istur Plain, marching from the East. They are very close.”
“Trying to get ahead of us,” Jette growled.
“We’ve got to move, now!” Diamanti opened a channel on her own device. “All units, double time! Make for the mountain with all speed!”
They began running. The wave of rebels moved through the trees like a flood of water. The ground shook with the staccato rhythm of their march.
“Almost at the treeline!”
Without needing to communicate it, Zizuhala moved into position ahead of Diamanti while Jette slipped in behind her. Whatever happened, the rightful queen of Serpens Caput would be protected between them.
The distant blaster fire began just as they ran into the sunlight. On their right, less than a kilometer away, a dark blue line was making its way across the rolling plains towards the mountain. Behind the Diamond Warriors, mighty siege vehicles were kicking up a dust storm as their treads moved them closer to their target.
“Faster! Keep moving!” Jette pulled her rayvolver from its holster and placed her other hand on Diamanti’s shoulder to urge her forward.
The rebels were smart enough not to stop and engage. Instead, they ran across the open ground toward the rock face. As the first unit arrived the holo-projection deactivated and the hidden entrance was revealed. A great cheer rose up as the rebel army raced forward. Soon, they would have the weapons to turn the tide.
K’wari held up a closed fist and barked “All stop!” into her hand comp. She marched to the head of her fighting force and the units quickly obeyed the order. The forest around them moved gently in the breeze but there was no bird song or insect noise.
Then they heard the distant rumble of artillery.
“Vicar?” Leezah, who’d volunteered to be K’wari’s executive officer, was at her side. “Shouldn’t we follow?”
“Not yet,” K’wari switched channels. “Jette? Do you have the position of the Diamond Warriors?”
The signal was breaking up and K’wari only caught fragments of the reply. “Marching across … last we saw … east and moving … over?”
“Copy, I’m moving to engage.” She called up a map on her hand comp, showing it to Leezah. “If the Diamond Warriors are to their east, that puts them north of us. About here.”
The XO nodded, pointing at a group of curved lines. “There’s a series of hills and slopes here. We could place long range units atop them and move our ground troops into position without being seen until the last moment.”
“Agreed. Give the order to turn north and make all possible speed. We’ve got to be in position by the time Diamanti’s force rearms.”
The tunnel was long and wide enough that the entire column was able to fit inside. Once the last unit had crossed the threshold a call went out and the force shield and holo-projection reengaged. Their rear was protected for the time being.
Further up the column, Zizuhala was pushing her way through the densely packed corridor. “Make way for the Queen! Make way!” She shoved soldiers aside as she carved a channel in the sea of rebels. She led Diamanti and Jette to the enormous door leading into the mountain.
Diamanti stepped forward and found Uthea waiting at the control panel. “Open it up.”
Zizuhala looked around. “Where is Tiani?”
“Already inside,” Uthea replied without looking away from her work. She tapped buttons and there was a great hiss as the door opened and began to retract up into the ceiling above. Inside the weapons cache, lights began switching on.
Diamanti turned to Jette. “Give the order to begin operations.”
Jette tapped her hand comp and tied into the main channel. “Listen up, rebels. We’re going to start arming infantry first, then our long-range units. You all have studied the map and inventory, so you know where we’re going. Let’s keep calm and do this smooth and swift.”
With Diamanti now leading the procession, the rebels moved into the interior of the mountain. The corridor began splitting off on both sides leading to dozens of storerooms stocked with rations, medical supplies and bivouac gear.
All that could wait.
Diamanti beelined through the hallways to the main hangar on the ground level. The vast chamber could’ve held a small town. Its floor was covered in an array of colored lines forming grid squares four meters on a side. Every other square was filled with equipment cases stacked three high.
Jette tied her hand comp into the internal speakers. “Let’s move, rebels! Purple lane: rifles, red lane: repeaters, yellow lane: long arms. Get to work!”
The rebel units began moving swiftly into the rows and columns of weapons. Diamanti looked at Jette with a hopeful smile. “Almost there. We’ve just got—”
She was cut off by a deafening explosion. A flash of heat and flame to their right sent half a dozen bodies airborne. The shouting had just started when a second explosion went off ahead of them. Zizuhala crashed into Diamanti and drove them both into the ground as the blast roared through them.
Jette caught the shockwave in the chest and was thrown backward into a stack of weapons cases. She fell to one knee and caught herself with her hand.
“Bombs!” A voice cried out. “The cases are rigged with bombs!”
Diamanti was on her feet in an instant, her eyes filled with rage. “What’s going on?!”
Jette got to her feet, her stomach sinking. “It’s a trap!”
There was movement suddenly above them on the mezzanine that looked down on the main hangar. Blonde spiderwomen with gleaming black armor moved into position along the railings, pointing huge photon rifles and plasma cannons down onto the helpless rebels below.
K’wari frowned as she looked across the plains at the rear of the Diamond Warrior’s formation. “Why have they stopped firing?”
Leezah looked through a pair of scopes. “They’re holding position. Not even setting up siege lines.”
K’wari closed her eyes in concentration, searching for something in the darkness of her mind and beyond. Her eyes shot open.
“Zizuhala!” Jette yelled. “Get Diamanti out of here!”
“No one is going anywhere, Commander Jones.”
Suddenly there was a flicker of gold and purple on the railing above. Zeta stepped forward, smiling down at them. The doors leading into the hangar suddenly slammed shut. The rebels were locked inside.
“Orders?! Orders?!” Shouts arose everywhere as the rebels tried to organize themselves to counter this treachery.
“Stand fast!” Diamanti called out. “All units, stand fast!”
“Very wise, Diamanti.” Zeta said loudly. “If only you’d been that sensible before you organized this insurrection.”
There was an angry buzz above them. A spiderwoman, her four insect limbs vibrating too fast to see, flew down over the rebels and snatched Diamanti by the shoulders and lifted her off her feet!
“NO!” Zizuhala leaped and grabbed Diamanti around the legs. Both women were carried high into the air by the vicious Black Widdom fighter.
The spiderwoman looked down and smiled savagely as one of her human limbs kicked out and slammed Zizuhala in the face. The warrior woman held fast but a second kick left her dazed. Her hands slipped and she fell to the ground.
Jette’s rayvolver rose up instinctively and she had the flying monstrosity in her sights, but she dared not fire. Diamanti was dropped onto her knees before Zeta. Two spiderwomen quickly cut Diamanti’s clothes from her body and a large, steel collar was placed around her neck.
Jette’s thumb spun the selector dial to precision shot mode. Her finger tightened on the trigger.
“Feel like taking a shot, Captain? Or is it Commander now?” Zeta’s eyes burned down into hers. The control light flashed red on Diamanti’s collar and she suddenly howled as an energy shock racked her body. “Want to take a guess what happens to her if you kill me?”
Jette’s eyes were filled with rage, but she didn’t waver.
“Go on! One shot to kill your enemy and your lover. I bet you’re weighing some terrible choice, aren’t you? Something about one life against an entire star system?”
“That’s just about right!” Jette shouted back.
“But have you also considered the bombs? Am I worth every life in this hangar?”
Jette took a deep breath. “What more do you want, Zeta?”
“What I’ve always wanted.” Zeta glared at Jette. “You.”
“And you’ll let them live?” Jette’s finger came off the trigger.
“I will deactivate every bomb in the facility if you submit to me, right now.”
“Deactivate the bombs, Zeta. Or we just go through all this again.”
Zeta nodded. “Deactivate the bombs,” she said casually.
The tall spiderwoman at Zeta’s side tapped a hand comp strapped to her forearm. The display showed an array of red icons turn white. Jette tossed her rayvolver to the floor.
Two spiderwomen flew down and took Jette by the arms. She didn’t resist as they flew her up to the balcony and held her before Suzerain Supreme Zeta.
“I’m all yours, Zeta. Now let these people live.”
A heavy collar closed around her neck. Jette was pushed to her knees.
“There,” Zeta said taking a deep breath. “Everything finally in place.”
Jette looked at Diamanti, but the queen wouldn’t meet her eyes. Then Jette saw something out of the corner of her eye. One of the Black Widdom. The blonde hair, the armor … Flock!
Her shipmate stood with the enemy, her golden battlesuit now a dark black. Her face … empty.
“Now, I’m afraid,” Zeta looked down at her captives, “comes the part where the predator does what’s in her nature.”
Jette’s body tensed. “The promises of a Suzerain are meaningless?” she barked.
“I promised to deactivate the bombs. Not to leave an army and a storehouse of weapons intact to threaten me at some later date.”
“You snake!” Jette hissed.
“On my planet, that’s the highest compliment one can be paid.” Zeta raised her staff and struck the floor with a mighty crack. The spiderwomen from above took aim at the defenseless rebels trapped below.
“I have a better idea, Zeta.”
“You’re trying to stall, Commander. There will be no second assault. I’ll see to that.”
Jette stood, stepping away defiantly from the hands of a spiderwoman grabbing for her. Zeta shook her off.
“Maybe. But if you do this, I’ll tell the Goddess of Darkness everything.” She raised her voice to make sure she got Zeta’s attention. “Everything! Everything you said to me when I was in your bed, while she was waiting for you to deliver me to her.”
“You wouldn’t dare!”
“Wouldn’t I?” Jette shot back. “I don’t think she’ll be very happy to hear that you chose me over her.”
Zeta fought her burning anger. She waved off the spidery soldiers, who lowered their weapons, some reluctantly.
“Hold them all here.” Zeta turned to Jette again. “For now. It is time the Goddess of Darkness met my reward.”
She stepped forward, inches from the edge of the precipice and raised her hand.
Two Diamond Warriors bracketed Jette as they marched her through the dark corridors of the Caputian Palace. Zeta strode triumphantly ahead of her. Jette eyed her new rayff dangling from Zeta’s belt.
“Zeta, don’t do this!”
Zeta stopped as she reached the door to the throne room. She motioned to one of the blue-skinned fighters and he unlocked the cuffs around her wrists. The metal collar, however, stayed on. “Don’t be silly. Now that you’re here, I want the Goddess of Darkness to see my prize.”
“Zeta,” Jette said more urgently, “this isn’t going to turn out the way you think.”
Zeta stood in front of Jette. “It’s not going to work this time, Commander Jones. Besides, if you give me any trouble, I always have this.”
She banged her staff on the floor, gently spinning the gleaming purple orb on top. Jette forced her eyes lower. Zeta let out a pleased chuckle as the door opened.
The throne room was filled with smoke. Zeta waved her Warriors to wait outside – no other eyes were allowed to see her goddess.
Through the smoke, the fiery figure of a woman emerged. She was more than eight-feet tall, but her body was flawlessly proportioned. The glowing orange face was beautiful, yet its malevolence was equally striking. Even Zeta dared not look at her too long.
Jette looked at the flaming image with awe. The Goddess of Darkness sat back onto her nightmarish throne – chunks of stone and glass cut into twisted, deformed grotesques. Inhuman shapes melted into each other with features of horror and despair frozen in time.
Jette Jones, the heroic Star Ranger who had never known fear … was afraid.
To be continued …