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  • Writer's pictureFrank Romans


Updated: Feb 21, 2023

from the upcoming novella, Devil's Blood.

He tries to run over the rocky terrain and stumbles. “Can’t that son of a bitch pick a planet that’s not a wasteland?” he complains. There is nowhere to hide, so he stops, turns, and faces the direction of his pursuer. “I’m fucked,” he thinks and draws his weapon. The big man appears over the hill and slows his pace when he spots Paul. For an instant, the two men stare at one another across the slope of boulders, then Mastema advances.

Paul aims and fires two short laser bursts, which ricochet off an invisible protective shield. Mastema counterattacks with a ball of fiery energy let loose from his hand that explodes on impact as it hits the ground. He smiles, reaches over his shoulder, and pulls a weapon from its sheath. The long dagger is sparking with energy and resembles a flaming sword. Paul knows this weapon. Mastema killed Anu with it, and he has trained for this moment. He unsheathes his weapon, which sparks to life in his grip, crackling with electrical impulses and flame. “So, it is to be hand to hand,” he mutters as they continue to advance. He is thinking of how medieval this is, two warriors facing one another in close combat. He mumbles to himself, “Old school.”

Mastema has a clear size advantage, standing four or five inches taller, but he is unaware Paul is outfitted with all Ameraulde’s latest technology. He is overconfident and underestimates Paul’s ability. “Are you prepared to die, Paul Robbins?” the big man sneers. “I thought you were trying to surrender,” Paul taunts. Mastema only grunts, chuckles, and says, “So be it. Death it is.”

He lunges at Paul, who deftly sidesteps the blow and counters with a backhanded swipe that narrowly misses. The thrusts and parries rain sparks and fire when the weapons touch, and from the fireworks, grunts, and yells, it sounds like a major battle. They continue to fight and probe for weakness, but both are highly skilled combatants. Exhaustion is now the issue, giving chances to exploit any mistake. Mastema gains the advantage with an acrobatic move worthy of the finest gymnast and knocks Paul to the ground, cutting a deep wound on his arm. Paul momentarily loses grip of the dagger, and Mastema seizes the opportunity and steps on the handle. “Now you die, mortal,” he barks as he prepares the death blow.

Paul has other ideas and fires a laser burst through his holster into Mastema’s foot, seizes the dagger when Mastema steps back and thrusts it upwards into the big man’s groin. Mastema falls backward, screaming in pain, and Paul stands to kill him. In an instant, with a glare of hatred, Mastema lurches through an open portal behind him and is gone.

Paul is bleeding profusely and needs medical attention. “At least I know I hurt the bastard. Maybe he’ll die.” His abandoned hovercraft is at least two miles back, left where he first realized he was being stalked. His search team had separated to cover more ground, and soon after, the hunter realized he had become the hunted.

It was a long journey from Ameraulde through the Triangulum Galaxy to reach this deserted planet, but the intelligence was correct. Mastema was here, and it was as if he had expected them. “Never mind all that,” he grimaces. His arm hurts like hell. “I’ve got to get back to the ship.”

Paul trudges back, finds his hovercraft, and powers the engine. The steady thrum of the machine is comforting, and he transmits a message to his team. “This is Robbins. I found the target and engaged. He is wounded and escaped through a portal. Returning to the ship.”

When the ship is in sight, he transmits again, “Pursuit; this is Robbins. Do you copy?” Commander Zorn renamed his ship Pursuit in honor of their mission. “This is Pursuit. We copy.” “Yeah, I’m going to need some medical attention. Be there shortly.” He was getting a little dizzy when he anchored his craft. Medics were standing by and rushed him to the medical unit. A robotic doctor’s assistant put him to sleep and worked on his arm. When it was over, he awakened, and his concerned friend was standing by the bed, “How are you feeling?” Zorn asks. “Groggy and sore, but otherwise ok.” “Good. Tell me what happened.” Paul power-inclined the bed, and Zorn sat to hear the details of the encounter with Mastema.

“We split up to cover more ground. It wasn’t long until I sensed someone was following me, just a feeling.” “Go on,” Zorn urged. “I got off the hovercraft and tried to circle, but the area was too open. I tried to speed up to get more ground between us and saw him. I was certain it was Mastema but couldn’t confirm it because he was too far away. He kept gaining on me, and there was nowhere to hide, so I turned and faced him.”

Commander Zorn changed the subject, “He cut you deep, and you lost some blood, however, the doctor says you’ll be sore for a while but should heal nicely.” Paul said, “Well, I hurt that son of a bitch worse. I shot him in the foot and might have removed his balls with the dagger. I am assuming that animal had balls.” They both laugh, and Zorn says, “He’ll go somewhere to heal. If we can find that location promptly, we’ll finish him. We have another problem to discuss.” “Oh? And what is that?” Zorn looks stern and replies, “I can’t believe I have to say this. We may have one or more traitors aboard this ship. I think they are sending messages to Mastema. He might have been aware of our movements, which is how he knew we were here. I have no proof yet, but I wanted you to know. Get some rest, my friend, and we’ll talk more later.”

Paul stares at the ceiling and thinks, “This is just great. Is there no end to the influence of this prick? Now I must worry about who is trustworthy on this ship.” The robot slides toward him and says, “A sedative is prepared for you.” Paul responds, “I don’t want…,” but it is too late. The sedative is administered.

Later, he is released from sickbay and goes straight to Pursuit’s main galley for coffee and something to eat. He sits alone and rebuffs the offer to sit with others, pretending he is not feeling well. After eating, he goes to his quarters to think and is joined by his ever-faithful friend, Dozer. “Hey, boy. Did you miss me?” He pats Dozer’s head and rubs behind his ears. The dog has been adopted as the ship mascot and gets much attention from the crew. Paul thinks it hilarious that this intelligent dog has learned to push the buttons to open doors and freely roam the ship. Teaching him where to do his business had some equally funny incidents. Why is it always so amusing when someone steps in dog shit? That is no longer an issue, as Dozer has mastered opening the doors to the correct locations, where a computerized machine does immediate cleanup and sanitation.

Back in his room, Zorn’s voice comes over the intercom, “Paul, are you in your quarters?” Paul responds, “Roger that, I just got here.” Zorn says, “Stay there. I am coming to you.” A few minutes later, a bell chimes, and Paul lets him in. Zorn wastes no time and begins, “I have been giving this considerable thought, and if Mastema is injured as bad as you say, he will likely travel into the Ninth Dimension to Dreen. There are healing waters there to hasten his recovery. It is an educated guess at best; another problem is the long journey. However, if you could travel through a portal as soon as possible, we could confirm he is there. You can select a small team to go with you, and Paul, we can’t discuss any of this in front of the crew.” Paul mulls it over for a minute, then answers, “I believe it best to go alone. I don’t want to watch my back, wondering if I can trust who is with me. I’ll take Dozer. He’ll be my early warning system.” Zorn nods, “Understood.” Then he grins, “Take some time to heal and get ready, but hurry.” Paul laughs, “Sure, thanks for your concern. Now get out.” Zorn is laughing, too, “Dinner tonight in my quarters?” Paul answers, “Ok, you’re paying.”

Commander Gordan Zorn is Paul’s newly gotten best friend. They trust one another completely and have the utmost confidence in their respective abilities. Gordy, Paul’s nickname for the Commander, took him on a first spacewalk after departing Ameraulde. Using an Earthling phrase he learned from Paul, Zorn jokes, “Time to lose your virginity.” The experience was both terrifying and exhilarating. While Paul practiced activating the protective aura from his uniform, Zorn was patient. He and Howard had laughed about his superhero costume and the technological marvels of Ameraulde. This protective covering encased him in what he could only describe as an invisible spacesuit when activated. He performed his first solo venture after making several tethered trips with Zorn and other crewmembers, followed by some untethered outings. When his ability improved, Dozer was added to the equation. After Paul completed the first unhooked solo with Dozer, he returned to the ship, where a grinning Gordy said, “I have been waiting for my opportunity to tell you this, Paul. You look like Bork Roberts, my friend.” Paul laughed, “Thanks, Gordy, but you have fucked that up. It’s Buck Rogers.” Zorn laughed at his mistake, “Well, whoever he is, you did well.”

Paul rings the buzzer at the Commander’s door. Zorn opens and motions him inside. Commander Zorn’s quarters are lavish compared to his own, there is a separate room with a sleeping area and lavatory, a large living room with a dining space, a wet bar, and a desk. “I have sparkling wine, beer, or a special gift from your uncle, Pappy Van Winkle bourbon whiskey. He said it is the best.” Paul smiles, “He’s right. Let’s have a shot of the Pappy.” Zorn pours and raises his glass, “To Howard,” he says. “To Howard,” Paul answers. They clink their glasses and sip.

They wait until dinner arrives before discussing Dreen. Once alone, Zorn says, “Seriously, Paul. How is the arm feeling? I don’t feel good about you running into Mastema again and alone, especially if you are not fully healed.” “I appreciate that Gordy, but remember, he is hurt worse than me.” “Maybe so, but here is my suggestion. When you go, make it for reconnaissance and surveillance only. If you find him, return to the ship and assemble a support team.” Paul says, “I don’t know if I trust that, considering some of them could be our traitors. Let’s wait and see what I find. Maybe he’s not even there.” Zorn replies, “I have a feeling he is. I know Dreen is where I would go if I were a wounded fugitive.”

“Let me tell you about the people of Dreen,” he continues. “They are small in stature, reminiscent of children in many ways. Dreenlings are kind, generous, and innocent; however, they are superstitious. It can turn vicious and deadly if they sense a threat or danger. If Mastema is there and injured, they will innocently help him. If they feel you are there to harm them or him, they might misunderstand the situation and turn on you. I am only recommending that you exercise caution, which I know you will. We will arrive there as fast as Pursuit is able.”

As the spacecraft continues toward Dreen, Paul’s wound is rapidly healing. He tells Zorn he is healed enough and plans a portal jump to Dreen with Dozer. “Very well,” Zorn says. “If you are certain. Remember what I said about recon only.” Paul nods, “Roger that. I’ll try to keep a low profile.” “When will you go?” Paul considers the question and answers, “In forty-eight hours.”

Pursuit is a large ship equipped with everything conceivable to make a long voyage more palatable. Galleys serve excellent meals of infinite variety, there are extensive exercise facilities, a game room for entertainment, and quiet areas for meditation, prayer, or solitude. Paul’s cabin is spacious and well-appointed, although not near the Commander’s comfort level. The ship covers the distance between destinations with unbelievable speed. He knows the terms lightyears, speed of light, hypersonic, and the like. Gordy tried to explain it to him, but for Paul, it was incomprehensible. Palladians mastered cosmic travel, and he was only a passenger along for the ride.

His ability to portal jump has some limitations and dangers. Depending on his location, some jumps may be a bridge too far. Failsafe mechanisms are supposed to be in place, and although extremely rare, there exists a possibility of catapulting yourself into nothingness and certain death. This is the point of using Pursuit and not relying on portal jumps alone.

With only forty-eight hours to prepare, he must learn about Dreen and its people. “Digion, details on Dreen and Dreenlings.” Digion is the onboard source that gives every shred of information wanted on any topic. Paul thinks it is like talking to an invisible person. Digion answers, “Here is a holographic display of Dreen’s history and the people.” A 3D movie begins to run in his quarters, and he immerses himself in the subject.

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