The southern continent of the planet Lokir was a broken bowl of dried clay. Moonlit dunes of sand, colored an ethereal steel blue like a dark ocean, sprawled and rippled in every direction. Deep cracks and crevices scarred the earth where rivers once flowed. Insurmountable mountains guarded the horizon.
The surviving denizens of the planet called this place the Aloysius Bowl.
To brave the wastes of the Bowl in daylight was an agonizing, blindingly hot ordeal, but only the truly desperate dared to trek the dunes after sunset. When night fell, the darkness sapped all the warmth and left a deep, black chill in its wake. When the moon rose, so too did the desert’s death toll.
Deep within the desert, the cold moonlight ignited the crest of a tall dune. Atop this dune stood an old house, its walls long pockmarked by whipping sandstorms. Its ancient timbers creaked and moaned in the wind.
Once, this house had been a quaint family cottage on a riverbank. The frontier had been wild and green in those days, teeming with life and growth. Time and darkness had long since smothered that life, and the cottage had withered along with it. Only the truly desperate would have called that old shack their home.
Only the truly desperate tried to make a life on the dead world of Lokir.
James, the very model of true desperation, darted up the dune’s slope breathlessly. His clothes were tattered, and the night air chilled his pink, sunburned skin. His fingers twitched above the pistol holstered at his belt. As he climbed the sandy crest, he kept checking behind him, as if expecting to be ambushed and cut down. On this day, that was a very real possibility.
He was a young man of willowy frame, his hair dark but sun-bleached. The revolver at his hip seemed almost comical at his malnourished waist, bobbing against his thigh with every step he took. Wisps of unshaven whiskers clung to his face, which was coated with sand, salt, and sweat.
His head swimming with exhaustion, James came to his front porch—sanctuary, at last.
He reached for the doorknob right as a heavy crash rang out from inside the house.
James’s twitchy fingers snatched his gun from his holster.
A muffled voice from inside called out, “Hello?”
Dak Vao had gotten here first.
His stomach flipped and he instinctively turned toward the desert to run, but he steeled his nerves. James could not leave without his father’s journal. He treaded lightly across the porch, careful not to let the boards creak under his boots. He ducked down under each window until he reached the back of the house. He chanced a look through the windowpane.
Darkness and silence.
The backdoor was ajar, so James pushed a little, testing it. It gave way without a squeak. He opened it and sidled inside his home. James moved through the darkness like a quivery phantom. Squinting in the weak moonlight, he saw that no furniture had been disrupted, none of his scant possessions stolen, and no Dak Vao.
His little house was empty. Had James just imagined things? He certainly hoped so.
James stood up straight, exhaling with relief. Someone from behind him asked, “Excuse me?”
“Please don’t kill me!” James cowered, holding his hands up in surrender.
“Lord Valkyrin!” The voice was strange, artificial, and definitely not human. Searing blue light shined in his face. “I’ve been looking for you.”
“Ah, jeez!” James shielded his eyes. “Look, I don’t know who you are, but if you’re gonna rob me, you’re wasting my time! You want sand? I got sand. That’s about it.”
“I know the drill—I’ll kick my gun to you, you rob me blind, and then you just be on your way, okay? I want no trouble!”
“I have no interest in your sand, my Lord. I have been sent to find you.”
“Huh? Find me? Who the hel are you?”
“Lord Valkyrin, don’t you recognize me?”
James opened his eyes a little, but the blue light stung him. “Hey, friendo, you’re a little bright!”
“Oh, allow me to attend to that.” When the lights faded, James opened his eyes again.
A shiny cube about the size of his fist floated at James’ eye level. Inset in the cube’s faceplate was a cluster of three tiny bulbs, glowing a dim sapphire. The triad of lights zoomed in on him with a mechanical whir, scrutinizing him.
James frowned, scrutinizing the cube back. “Okay, what the hel are you?”
“Has it been that long?” The bot dips, as if it is bowing. “Nova, my Lord. At your loyal service.”
James notices the dust and dents in the cube’s chassis. “You’ve seen better days, little buddy.”
“That is not my name. When I said you may call me Nova, what I meant to say is, my name is Nova, and you should refrain from referring to me in any other manner. In regards to your astute observation about my condition, I hit the planet’s surface a little harder than I calculated. Clearly, I was not designed for deep space orbital landings. Now, Lord Valkyrin, you must come with me. The galaxy is in grave danger.”
“Hold it. The galaxy? My Lord? You’ve got pretty low standards if you think I’m a lord!”
James could hear the buzz of complex subroutines running inside Nova’s boxy silver chassis. “Are you not Lord Valkyrin?”
James squints. “No?”
“Oh, my mistake, sir. Could you point me in the right direction, then? It is extremely vital I find him, but I don’t seem to remember why. But I will make a log—it is additionally vital that I remember why I am looking for Lord Valkyrin immediately.”
“Hey, wait a sec!” James’ eyes lit up. “You’re from Before, aren’t you?” James, excitement surging through his brain, felt a host of questions start to bubble up.
His eyes landed on the shards of his glass desk lamp, which glinted on the floor like diamonds in the moonlight. He frowned as a dark realization eclipsed his mind.
The other questions had to wait.
“Hold on. Did you knock my lamp over?”
“The lamp?” Nova’s light blinked. “Oh, the lamp. Yes, I bumped your lamp. I considered apologizing, but I calculated that it was not a particularly nice lamp—”
“Okay, well, nice talking to you, Nova, good luck with all that. Gotta go.” He sprinted into his bedroom, his heart pounding. How much time had he wasted already? He cursed the bot for distracting him.
Nova buzzed after him, his lights flickering. “I do not understand. If you say you are not Lord Valkyrin, then logically, you must take me to him. It’s very important. Did I not mention I’m saving the galaxy?”
“Yep,” said James, fumbling through his dresser blindly.
“You seem to have something else on your mind, sir.” He then asked, in an incredulous tone, “Do…do you not care about the galaxy?”
“Not right now.”
Nova chirped an angry, mechanical melody. “What.”
“Godsdam it, where did I put it?” James ripped out the drawer and dropped down to rummage through the next one.
The bot flew right in his face, his lights blazing blue.
“Hey! Would you knock that off?”
“I require your rapt attention.”
“Sorry, no time, little buddy.” James swatted Nova away.
“Are your audio receivers malfunctioning? My name, as I said before, is Nova. If you must know, the N stands for Neurometric—”
“Okay, you’re zooming up the wrong tree, Nova.” His fingers found something small, tough, and leathery under the bed. “Oh, thank Odin.” James retrieved a frayed journal from under the bed. He tucked it in his jacket and turned to go.
Nova flew out and blocked his path.
“Can you tell me where to find Lord Valkyrin or not?” Nova started to orbit around James’ head. “Sir? Sir?”
“Would you shut up already? I need to get the hel out before—” A chill ran down his spine as he heard his front door creak open. “Oh, shit,” James whispered. He looked at Nova. “Stay quiet.”
“What is the matter?”
“Where shall I situate myself for the purposes of concealment? I do not prefer confined spaces, so I would rather not—excuse me, sir!”
Nova buzzed in James’ grip after he snatched him from the air. James set the bot down on his dresser. “If anyone asks, you’re my alarm clock. Now shut up.”
All sound was swallowed by the howling desert wind. Maybe the gale had opened his door? He certainly hoped so. James had what he came for. Time to leave the chirpy bot and get on moving.
He strafed into his living room, trying to make a soundless break for the back door. He chanced a look at the front entry, seeing nothing at first, but then, in the glow of the moon, James saw there was a gaunt-faced man watching him from the doorway.
“Wa-wa-we-wah,” crooned the man.
James screamed and froze up.
The intruder in the pinstripe suit shambled inside, his gaze fixing James in place. His head was starkly bald, except for the thick, bushy beard that clung tightly to his jowls. His mouth twisted in a permanent grin that showed few teeth and large gums, splotchy pink and stained with dark tobacco. Nestled in the crook of his right arm slept a jet-black terrashark. It purred as the man stroked between its twin fins.
James took a moment to compose himself. “Uh, Dak! What a…surprise.”
“You are looking like you have seen a ghost, dear Hammez.” Dak Vao ran a finger down the spine of James’ tattered sofa. “I am admiring your scant furniture, Hammez, but I’d rather be admiring the fortune you have promised me.” Dak pointed out a broken end table, where dirty stacks of mismatched dishes stood. He inspected a dusty plate. “Hmm. What fine china you have.”
“Why are you here?” James asked dumbly.
“Why am I here, instead of in Shantytown, where I was expecting you to bring my money? Oh, what a good question, Hammez! Let us discuss so that I might remember.” Dak Vao dropped the plate back on the table with a clatter. “Have a seat, boyo.” He gestured to the sofa, invitingly.
James, for a moment, considered making a break for it. He knew that taking a seat was a bad move, but something in Dak’s eyes told him that running away would be worse. James sat down. Trying to play it casual, he crossed his boots up on the little coffee table. As he leaned back, the bulge of the gun dug into his hip.
Dak had not disarmed him.
Grinning, Dak sat down in a wooden rocking chair that faced the sofa.
James said, “Listen, Dak, I’m sorry I didn’t show for the meeting…”
“Oh, yes, I am remembering now. Oh, boy, oh boy. Little Hammez didn’t show. Little Hammez got busted!” His gaze grew dark, like gathering stormclouds. “Little Hammez fucked up.”
“Dak, I tried to get your money. It’s just, you know…those Chip Blitzes are getting harder to break. They keep upping the security protocols. But isn’t that my problem? I’ll get you the money.”
“Ah, money, money, money. Three years is a long time to be owing me money, Hammez. I consider myself a thoughtful, patient man. But this virtue is not unlimited; no, it is not. And you were trying to run away from me, no?”
“No,” says James, a bead of sweat trickling down the nape of his jacket.
“Yes. You have tarnished my good will, Hammez. My poor, wee-wah heartstrings are simply pulled fit to break, seeing it come to this! I am no longer convinced of your reliability any more; no, I am not. I wanted my money quicklike.” Dak leaned forward in the seat, looming even as he sat hunched. “But now I must think…how best to deal with you?”
“Oh, yes, I would want it done right. No messes, no strings attached. How to do this thing?”
“Uh, wow, Dak…this is heavy. Any chance I could get an extension on that debt?”
Dak lashed out and grabbed the edge of the coffee table, pulling it closer to him and out from under James’ legs. James’ boots hit the floor.
“Do you like that?” Dak said with a leer and a smirk.
Dak pulled the table farther away. “Do you like it, Hammez? Do you like that, at any moment, I can pull the table away from you?”
“I don’t get it.”
“It is a metaphor. For the control I have over you, Hammez. Did you really make me spell it out for you?”
“I’m a little too distracted for metaphors.” Steeling himself, James stood up. His right hand started to twitch, but he tried to keep it casual, yawning exaggeratedly. “Well, Dak, it’s getting late. I think I, uh…I think I better turn in.”
Dak looked up at him, amused. “You think you are going to bed, hmm?”
“Oh, no,” said James as adrenaline coursed through his blood and he drew his pistol, “I think I’m going to end your whole—”
A hand, like the fangs of a viper, whipped out from nowhere and wrenched down on James’ arm. “You din’t really ‘spect the boss to come alone, did ya?” cackled a voice. The red light of a cigarette illuminated a pointed, wide-eyed face in the dark. The cackler sneered as he blew out a puff of smoke.
James broke to the left, but another hand, like an anaconda’s head, clamped down on his shoulder. A voice boomed, “Yeah, you thought the boss is a dummy, huh?” A glowing cigar tip cast its light upon a wide-faced brute with trunks for arms.
James, trapped, laughed nervously. “Hey, Dak, you gonna introduce me to your boys?”
“What good are introductions to a dead man, Hammez?” Dak stood up slowly from the chair. The shark began to stir, mewling, but Dak calmed it with a stroke down its spine.
“I wouldn’t know,” said James. “I’m not a dead man.”
“Clever until the last, dear boy.” Dak clicked his tongue like a command. “Wah, wah.”
James’ breath came out in a hard choke as Cackle’s fist struck him under the ribs. “So ya like taking people’s money, huh?”
Flecks of blood flew out James’ mouth as Boom’s fist clocked his face. James crumpled to the ground, gasping for air. Red globs sloughed from his lips onto his sandy floor.
“Get him up,” says Dak Vao.
Boom hoisted James off the floor, wrapping his corded arms under James’ armpits. He turned James to face Cackle, who was about James’ size and stature, but Cackle was older and he hit much harder. Cackle popped his knuckles. James’ bleary eyes scanned his surroundings, desperate for a way out, but a swift haymaker scattered both his thoughts and his blood. Red speckles of blood sprayed Cackle’s neat white jacket. The thug retched, clawing at his face to wipe away the mess. “Stupid bastard bled on me!”
“Enough playing around,” says Dak, waving a hand. “Tear him in half now.”
“Uh, hey, boss?” said Cackle. “Easier said than done, am I right? I skipped bicep day this week, ya know.”
“Then help your brother tear him in half, you doof. Just spill his liar’s blood already.”
“You got it, boss,” said Boom. “One half-man, coming up.”
As their grips tightened around his arms, James went lightheaded from hyperventilating.
“Beep-beep, beep-beep,” chirped Nova’s voice in the other room. “It’s four a.m., time to get up. Beep-beep, is this the correct sound?”
They stopped pulling. “The hel was that?” asked Cackle.
“Hiding someone in your room, Hammez?” asked Dak.
James shook his head. Then he nodded. “I, uh, maybe. What?”
Dak nodded at Boom. “Go have a looky-loo.”
Boom released James and stomped off into the bedroom. He poked his head out after a moment to say, “It’s some cheap-ass alarm clock, boss.”
“Then turn it off, yes? It’s ruining the moment.”
“Sure thing, boss.” Boom chomped his cigar and turned back in.
The little bot shot out like a bullet and smacked Boom in the forehead, sending his cigar flying. “Huh?” He stood back up, dazed.
Dak squinted. “What just happened?”
“Something just hit me in the face, boss!”
“What?” Cackle looked around in the darkness. “I can’t see shit!”
A moment later, Cackle’s nose was streaming blood. He howled in pain and cupped his nose with his hands. “My nose, boss! He broke my fuckin’ nose!” James took his chance and wriggled free of Cackle’s grip.
He darted away and ran smack into Dak Vao. With his free arm, Dak wrangled James by the neck, pinning him. Caught against Dak’s arm and his dingy-suited chest, he took a breath and almost gagged from Dak’s musk of soured tobacco.
“Wa-wa-wee-wah!” Dak declared. “Whoever is beating up my men, I am advising you to stop at once.” He held the shark up to James’ eye level. “Or else Winston will be having a midnight snack of Hammez’ face.”
The terrashark’s eyes opened, beady, red, and hungry. With a mewl and a hiss, it unhinged its jaw, revealing a gaping mouth with rings of teeth like a thousand razors. Its fleshy neck frills spread out and fluttered in anticipation.
For a moment, there was silence. Had Nova abandoned him?
Then, with a “Wahoo!” louder than any thus far, Nova struck again.
Nova barreled into Winston, who shrieked in pain. Nova bounced up from the shark and uppercutted Dak, then, pinball-like, ricocheted off Dak’s chin, clocked Boom between the eyes, and knocked Cackle to the ground from a hit to the forehead.
Dak was winded, but he kept a steel grip on James. With a surge of rage and adrenaline, James needled Dak in the stomach with his elbow, hard. Dak coughed and James broke free.
“Come with me, organic-who-is-not-Lord-Valkyrin!” Nova hovered by the door, a beacon of hope.
James leapt over his sofa, breathing in the cold desert winds, which he realized was tinged with acrid smoke. Glancing at his wall, he saw Boom’s lit cigar, which had set fire to one of his meager curtains. Cackle swiped at him from the ground but James dodged deftly. No time to worry about the fire. He ran.
“You are dead, Hammez!” cried Dak after him. “Dead! Dead! We-wah, dead!”
Dak’s shouts persisted even after James and Nova fled from the house. James hustled down the slope of the dune, not choosing a particular direction, just running, letting his panic and momentum carry him forward.
“Oh dear,” said Nova, swiveling to look backwards. “Your house.”
James glanced back. The dry wood of his east wall was crawling with amber-colored flames. The fire was spreading swiftly through the rafters. He clutched his jacket in sudden panic and felt the bulge of the journal; he hadn’t dropped it.
Had Dak and his crew escaped, or did they get trapped in the flames?
In case of the former, James ran harder.
After a minute his legs turned to lead and he collapsed onto the cold sand, rolling over on his back and catching his breath. Each gasp seared his heaving chest.
He stared up at the uncountable ocean of stars, glimmering like grains of bright sand.
Nova moved in and blocked his view.
“You’ve seen better days, little buddy,” said Nova, in a spot-on impression of James.
James then became aware of the pulsing soreness in his stomach and face. He touched his mouth and looked at his bloody fingers. He lay there in the sand and moaned. “Yeah, no shit.” He closed his eyes a moment. “Thanks for saving my life back there.”
“I’ve never saved anyone’s life before. I will have to do it more often. Well, Hammez, it appears you are now in my debt.”
“Great, what else is new. Also, that’s not my name.”
“That is the title the shark man used on you.”
“I know, and it’s actually James. Dak doesn’t know how to say some words.”
“James, as I said, to repay the debt of having saved your life, you will now take me to Lord Valkyrin.”
“I’ll get right on that.” James sat up and looked around. He felt small all of a sudden as he sat there in the middle of the vast desert. “Oh, shit.”
“I have no idea where we are.”
“Is that bad?”
“If you want me alive to help you find this Lord, then yes. It’s very, very bad.”
Nova’s lights dimmed. “Oh, shit.”
A gust of icy wind drowned out any other sounds. James shivered.
–written by Chris Barrett