(To see the first snippet, visit http://www.justinsloanauthor.com/prime-enforcer-snippet-1/)
Kalan gazed up at the small hut built into the mountain high above them. “Are we sure about this?”
Jilla nodded. “As sure as we can be.”
They were in the heart of Chmara, a city built on the side of a steep mountain. The city was connected by a complicated network of steep ladders, elevators, and boardwalks rather than roads. The rocky terrain made it a near-certainty that anyone who stepped off the walkways would take a quick and violent trip to the bottom.
Like many of the less expensive homes in the city the one they were approaching was set far back from the main boardwalks, which meant a long climb up a ladder to get to the front door.
“I don’t like it,” Bob complained. “If this guy looks out the window and decides he doesn’t want visitors, he could drop a rock on our heads.”
“Maybe that’s the point,” Kalan said. “Works better than a Keep Out sign.”
The team had been working leads for weeks, trying to dig up any information that would give them a clue about where to find this so-called Lost Fleet. While Valerie focused on tracking down Talrok, Kalan and Jilla were working their network of connections from their days on SEDE, the prison ship they’d both grown up on. SEDE babies, or “sabies,” tended to look out for one another and share information.
Jilla knew a guy who had gotten post-prison work in the largest shipyard in the system, which had led them to a network of pirates who tracked the movements of large ships. That had brought them to the bottom of this mountain. The Skulla male living in the house at the top of this ladder was a former smuggler who had supposedly had dealings with a mysterious fleet from outside the system.
They were here to see if there was any truth behind the rumor.
“Well, better get to climbing,” Kalan said with a sigh.
Wearl’s voice came from the apparently empty spot to his left. “I’ll go after Kalan. That way when I look up I will see a truly inspirational view.”
Bob nudged Kalan. “I think she means your ass.”
“Yeah, I got it, Bob.” With a sigh, Kalan grabbed the ladder with both hands and started climbing.
At the bottom the ladder seemed sturdy enough, but the higher he went, the more it began to sway. The gentle breeze got more severe, and it rocked the ladder. Kalan clutched the thin wood and tried not to think about the thousands of feet of sheer rock below him.
“Hey, I just thought of something,” Bob called when they were about halfway up. “Maybe this ladder wasn’t built to hold four full-grown adults at once, especially one Kalan’s size.”
“Shut up, Bob!” the others shouted.
Despite the human’s misgivings, all four made it to the top with nothing more than a few worrying groans from the ladder. All the same, Kalan was relieved step onto the boardwalk outside the small house.
A Skulla male was standing there with his arms crossed and his tattooed face wrinkled into a grimace. He offered no greeting as they approached, just looked at the tattoos on Kalan’s and Jilla’s forearms that marked them as sabies. When he turned his attention to Bob’s tattoo-free arms, his grimace deepened.
“Who’s he?” he asked.
It was odd hearing such a gruff voice come from such a small creature. Kalan tried to look as nonthreatening as possible, hoping his friendly smile offset the fact that he towered over the Skulla by more than three feet.
“This is Bob,” Kalan said. “He’s from outside the Vurugu system. Don’t worry, he’s harmless.”
The Skulla grunted noncommittally. “I’d invite you inside, but…well, I don’t like having people inside my house. We can talk out here. I’ll help you if I can. It’s my duty, after all.”
“And you carry it out with such joy,” Wearl said sarcastically, but thankfully the Skulla man couldn’t hear her. Unlike the rest of them, his translation chip hadn’t been enhanced to allow him to hear Shimmers’ voices.
It was for the best, Kalan thought. Almost everyone got a bit uncomfortable in the presence of Shimmers, but former residents of SEDE much more so. They’d felt the cruelty of Wearl’s fellow Shimmers firsthand.
After they’d made their introductions Kalan told the Skulla what they were looking for, and asked what he could tell them about the mysterious fleet.
“Sure, I remember them,” he said. “One of the oddest groups I ever dealt with. Trying to remember what they called themselves. The Lapcords? The Lampers? Something like that. They were as tall as Kalan here, but they were wispy things. Looked like a light breeze might blow them over. Their skin was as orange as anything. I did like their leader, though. He was one of those guys who inspired confidence. You knew right away he could handle himself, and you trusted him.”
He seemed to warm up to them as he spoke. His arms were still crossed tightly over his chest, but his expression had softened.
“Anyway,” he continued, “they came to me looking for a strange collection of items. They wanted enough supplies to keep them feed for over a year, and a bunch of parts for their ships. They didn’t want to deal with the local government on the planet they’d settled on, and wisely so—those stingy bastards would have made them pay through the nose.”
“Did you get them the supplies?” Kalan asked.
The Skulla looked at him like he was the biggest idiot ever to fly the galaxy. “Of course. I was very good at what I did. That’s why I’m able to live the lifestyle you see before you today.”
Bob raised an eyebrow. “Yeah. So luxurious.”
The Skulla didn’t seem to notice his sarcasm.
“Can you tell us where they are?” Jilla asked.
“I can tell you where they were then. I can give you exact location, in fact. Wait here a minute, and I’ll embed it for you” He opened the flimsy door and disappeared inside his hut.
Kalan glared at Bob, willing him not to say anything stupid the male might overhear, and thankfully he stayed silent.
The Skulla came out and tossed a chip to Kalan. “There you go. I put the exact location on there, though I must warn you that it didn’t seem like they would be keen to get unexpected visitors, if you know what I’m saying. And they have the weapons to make those visitors feel very unwanted.”
“Thanks for the information,” Kalan replied, “and the tip. By the way, what’s a Skulla like you doing living way out here?”
The Skulla grinned. “Let’s just say I had some family-related issues back home. Arguing at the dinner table. Disagreements about inheritances. Them hiring assassins to kill me. That sort of thing.”
“Sure,” Bob said, “that sort of thing.”
“Anyway, moving here was the best decision I ever made. No one talks to me. Like, ever. I haven’t spoken to another living being for eight months before today. It’s been heavenly. I was even thinking about moving farther up the mountain. That way any visitors would have to—”
Something slammed against Kalan’s chest, knocking him backward. The blow was so unexpected, so out of nowhere, that it took him a moment to understand what had happened. He reeled backward and struggled to keep his balance, but ultimately failed.
He fell on his ass and glided over the edge of the boardwalk, but as he fell into open air he threw a hand out and caught the top rung of the ladder. He held on with all his strength as gravity pulled him downward and the ladder groaned noisily, but it held.
He twisted and got his feet onto a rung, and scurried back up in time to see Jilla slammed backward, again apparently by nothing. He dashed over and caught her before she too tumbled over the edge.
“What the hell?” she shouted.
“My thoughts exactly,” he replied.
Then Wearl said, “Hello, sisters.”
Kalan’s mind reeled. Shimmers. They had been attacked by Shimmers.
Another disembodied voice, this one a bit higher-pitched than Wearl’s, said, “You are no true sister to us. You have aligned yourself with an enemy of the Shimmer people.”
“Who, him?” Bob asked, pointing to the Skulla.
The Shimmer spoke again. “Kalan Grayhewn led a breakout on SEDE and freed one of our most important prisoners. This was an affront to our honor that cannot be ignored. We are taking him back to SEDE, where he will remain for the rest of his days.”
“Ha,” Jilla said, getting to her feet. “That prisoner he freed is now the leader of the Vurugu System, which means he’s your boss. I don’t think he’ll take kindly to you throwing his rescuer in prison.”
Another Shimmer answered her statement. This one sounded a bit older, and had a gravelly but feminine voice. “Sslake does not need to know about this. Kalan will be in SEDE, so he won’t be able to tell him, and the rest of you will be dead.”
The Skulla was watching the proceedings with wide eyes. He looked confused, which was to be expected, Kalan supposed. He couldn’t hear the Shimmers, so to him it seemed like these people were having half a conversation. “Are you all okay?”
The Shimmer ignored him. “Kalan Grayhewn, you will come with us now. If you fight, you’ll die a thousand slow deaths before our—”
Her voice was choked off.
“I’ve got her by the throat,” Wearl shouted. “The other one’s standing to the left of the door.”
Jilla immediately drew her pistol and squeezed the trigger, blasting the wall of the house.
“Six inches farther left!” Wearl yelled.
Jilla corrected her aim and squeezed off another round, and the Shimmer shouted in pain.
“Got her in the arm,” Wearl said. “Shoot her again.
The Pallicon fired, but something slammed her backward.
“You missed, shapeshifter!” the Shimmer shouted as she crashed into her.
“Let me go!” the Shimmer Wearl was choking croaked.
“You just told me you’re going to kill us all and capture Kalan,” Wearl said, “so I think not. I don’t want to die, and he’s way too sexy to spend his life in a cell.”
Jilla tried to get up, but something hit her in the face and rocked her head back.
Kalan had about had it with these invisible bitches. He ran toward Jilla and leaped at the space above her.
He slammed into the Shimmer with all his weight, and she let out an “Ooof!”
He wrapped his arms around the Shimmer as they hit the ground and locked his hands.
“Unhand—” the Shimmer he was holding groaned, but that was as far as she got. Fists beat against his sides, but he only squeezed harder.
As soon as she spoke, revealing the position of her face, Kalan headbutted her. His forehead connected with the Shimmer’s face, and something cracked.
“Ha!” Wearl said. “You broke her nose.”
Kalan felt something wiggle against his side, and realized too late that the Shimmer had pulled her hand loose. Her fist connected with his eye, and his head rocked back.
Jilla crouched next to him and pushed her gun forward until it connected with something solid. “Is this her head?”
“Yep,” Wearl confirmed.
Jilla pulled the trigger, and the creature in Kalan’s arms stopped struggling.
“Just a second,” Wearl said. There was a crack, follow by the thump of something hitting the ground. “Okay, mine’s dead too. Broke her neck.”
Bob looked around, a bit perplexed. “Is that all of them? I didn’t get to kill any.”
Wearl chuckled. “Hey Kalan, your shirt is covered with blood.”
“What?” He looked down at his chest. His shirt felt wet, but he didn’t see anything. “I take it your blood’s invisible too?”
“Invisible to you.”
The Skulla was staring at the hole Jilla had put in his wall. “Will someone tell me what the hell is going on?” he asked through clenched teeth.
“Invisible assassins tried to kill us,” Bob said.
“Huh.” The Skulla stood and crossed his arms again, his mouth a thin line. He looked like he was trying to decide whether to believe them, and after a moment he continued, “I think it’s time for you to leave.”
He’d get no disagreement from Kalan.
The team thanked him again, and apologized for putting the hole in his wall. Kalan gave him all the coin he had on him, a substantial amount he suspected would go far beyond covering the damages. He could probably buy a whole new house.
That was one nice thing about running with Valerie’s Elite: they weren’t short on funds. Sslake had paid them well for their role in freeing him and returning him to power.
As they descended the ladder Jilla asked Kalan, “You okay?”
“Aside from a black eye, I’m great. You?”
“I’m fine. I meant are you okay mentally. You just found out you’ve been declared an enemy of the Shimmer race.”
“So?” he asked.
Jilla paused as if she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “You know what that means, right? The Shimmers won’t stop. They’ll keep hunting you. Chase you across the galaxy if they have to, and eventually they will get you.”
“She’s right,” Wearl, who was below him, said. “We are a persistent race.”
“Wonderful,” Kalan muttered. “Hey, why aren’t they mad at Bob? He was involved in the breakout too.”
“Don’t bring me into this!” Bob said. “I’m just here to fight for justice and stuff.”
“Bob didn’t grow up under their care,” Wearl explained. “You represent something they deeply fear. Think about how many sabies there are in the galaxy, and imagine if they all got together and used what they knew to take the Shimmers down. You didn’t merely insult their honor, you also threatened their business. They can’t afford to let you run free. They have to make an example of you.”
Kalan reached the bottom of the ladder and stepped off, glad to once again be on semi-solid ground. “You know what? I’m not going to let it distract me. We’ll deal with the Shimmers later.”
“Kalan,” Wearl said, “the fact that they found us means they know you’re in this part of the system. And if those two were following procedure, they contacted their commanding officer to say they’d found you before they attacked. The full might of the Shimmers’ force will probably be on the way here soon.”
“Then let’s make sure we’re not here when they arrive. We got the information; that’s what matters. Now, somebody contact the Grandeur to let them know we need a ride.” He paused for a moment. “And tell them I need a clean shirt.”
From PT – I hope you enjoyed this brief look at what’s coming up in book three. You won’t have to wait long to read the rest. Not long at all… stay tuned!