Angel thumped the control panel of her ship before her and cursed as something began to bleep in annoyance. She ran a hand through her blonde hair as a screen flashed up a damage report.
“Come on!” she said as she hit the panel again, as if she could somehow make the damage disappear or repair itself.
She had thought that Zenok’s assassins had hardly landed a blow on her ship, but she had been wrong. Before she managed to escape from them, one of them had hit her starboard engine. For a while it had responded to commands but now it seemed to have frozen up entirely so that she was stuck with only half power.
“At this rate it will take me a few weeks before I can get home,” she muttered. And that wouldn’t be good. No doubt the assassins were still after her.
Sometimes being AC Free wasn’t as glorious or as spectacular as people imagined. It was dangerous work, but Angel didn’t care about this. She was willing to do anything to help other people, especially if also irritated Zenok. He had been the cause of her parents’ death when she was just a child. She did not even remember them.
She tried to coax the sluggish ship forward but her speed was slow and then another panel began to bleep angrily as it demanded attention. “Don’t do this to me,” she whispered. “Please.”
If she remained here then they would find her again, she did not doubt it. Zenok really had it in for her now. He had obviously not been pleased with her work at liberating all of the slave camps that he owned.
She frantically tapped at the controls before her to bring up a map of the local region. She was still pretty close to Saturn and the planet’s rings of ice and rock should be able to hide the ship, especially if she used the cloaking mechanism.
She sighed, knowing that her friends and Tarkansay would be worried about her. She wouldn’t be home for a few days and it was bound to cause speculations. She did not want any of them knowing about her secret life as AC Free. It might put them in danger and she needed to keep her head down as much as possible so that Zenok didn’t find her. It would be much easier for him to find Angel Cantrell than AC Free.
“I don’t have a choice,” she said grimly as she turned the ship around and plotted a course to Saturn. She knew how to repair the engine, or at least how to get it to work long enough for her to get home. She would have to make up a story of how it all happened on the way back.
She stared at her map again, wondering what would be the best place to set the ship down. If she was going to use one of the rocks in the rings then she would need an environmental suit.
She shook her head and sighed again as she examined a few likely candidates and then another panel began to emit a slow beep.
“What now?” She snapped to herself, angry with everything that appeared to eb going wrong. However this time it was not another depressing report of the damage her ship had sustained but an incoming transmission.
Her heart lurched slightly. ‘They’ve found me,’ she thought anxiously. She pulled up another screen and swore as she saw it was blank. It appeared that her scanners were out as well. She was a sitting duck in the fox’s den.
She reached over and touched a button that would allow her to hear the transmission, dreading what she might hear.
“Angel? Are you all right?” a calm voice asked in concern.
Angel’s eyes snapped open and she gasped in surprise. “Tarkansay?” she asked, smiling in joy at the sound of her best friend’s voice. She hit another button and Tarkansay’s blue, alien face flashed up. “Tarkansay, thank god it’s you!” she cried.
“Angel, what’s going on? I saw you sneak off yesterday and when you weren’t back this morning I decided to come looking for you. What happened? You’ve been attacked!”
“Tarkansay, it’s a long story but I got attacked by Zenok’s men. I don’t know why,” she lied. “I need help. Can you help me out with some repairs?”
His blue eyes narrowed slightly and Angel continued to stare at him levelly with as much innocence as she could manage. Eventually he nodded. “ I can dock with your ship. Slow down and I’ll come aboard.”
Angel nodded and smiled, knowing that there was more relief in her face than there should be. “I’ll see you in a moment Tarks,” she said as she closed the transmission and slowed her ship so that he would be able to dock with her.
He always seemed to follow her around. She had known him for as long as she could remember and he was always there. He seemed to have designated himself as her loyal watcher or something.
He was bound to suspect something and she would have to be good to convince him that nothing was happening. Zenok’s men had unnerved her slightly. She was used to outrunning his men, she did it all the time after she had liberated a slave camp or destroyed his outposts, but she had never had this much trouble before. He had sent the serious men after her now which meant that she had well and truly pissed him off. Despite the danger, she could not help but smile slightly. Zenok had always held women in low regard and Angel could not help but be a little smug about the fact that she, a woman, was able to cause him so much trouble.
‘Makes you wonder how the hell he got that son of his,’ she mused. She couldn’t imagine Zenok ever being nice enough to a woman to get that far. Unless she had been raped… The smile faded from her face. It was common knowledge that the emperor had a son, but nothing was known about him at all and there had never been a mention of a mother at all. Maybe she had died…
As hard as Angel tried, she couldn’t actually feel that sorry for Zenok or his son. The brat was probably spoilt rotten and just as malicious as his father. Everyone was always talking about how when he grew up he would probably be helping his father out.
It was several more minutes before Tarkansay finally docked to her ship and she smiled as she waited by the hatch. When it finally opened to reveal her friend she grinned and ran into his arms, loving the way his tall frame always made her feel safe.
“Tarks!” she cried.
“Angel, are you all right?”
She nodded. “I’m fine, but unfortunately my ship isn’t.”
Tarkansay pulled away from her and slung a bag down onto the ground as he cast his eyes about the small vessel, his gaze lingering on a few smoking panels. “Why did Zenok’s men attack you? He doesn’t normally attack ships as small as yours.”
Angel shrugged. “I have no idea.” She picked up his bag and pulled it open, grinning as she saw a bunch of tools that she could use to help fix her ship. It would be much easier with Tarkansay’s help.
“Are you sure, AC Free?” Tarkansay asked quietly.
Angel froze and her mouth opened slightly. She gulped slightly and then laughed. “Why are you calling me that?” She held up hr head high.
Tarkansay sighed and ran a hand through his fluffy, blue hair. “I know,” he said quietly. “Like I said, I followed you yesterday and I saw you liberate that woman’s slave camp. I’ve suspected for a while. It couldn’t be a coincidence that you were never around whenever AC Free made an appearance anywhere.”
Angel folded her arms defiantly and raised her chin. “What makes you so sure?” she said, unwilling to give in just yet.
“Tarkansay’s blue eyes stared into her own and she knew in that second that she was foiled. Her shoulders sagged slightly. “I guess I’m not very good at keeping a secret identity, huh?”
Tarkansay smiled weakly, but there was a strange gleam within his eyes. “No one else knew, it was just me and that’s only because we’re best friends. Why didn’t you tell me?”
Angel fiddled with the strap of the bag. “I didn’t want you involved and I didn’t want you to get hurt. If Zenok thought you knew anything, then God knows what he would do to you.” She had never wanted any of her friend to be hurt, especially Tarkansay. He’d done so much for her in the past and she would never forgive herself if he died because of her.
Tarkansay slowly approached her and placed his hands on her shoulders his head looming a foot above hers. “Angel, I’m worried about you. I’ve always tried to keep an eye on you. Your adoptive parents always made me watch over you and this AC Free business is dangerous.”
“But I like to help people!” Angel cried. “Zenok should not be allowed to do the things he does! Someone has to help those who suffer! My parents died because of Zenok and I am going to stop it form happening to others!”
“Are you sure this isn’t about vengeance?” Tarkansay asked as he watched her eyes carefully.
Angel was appalled. Did Tarkansay really believe she had started this for revenge against Zenok? She had wanted to be AC Free because she wanted to help people. If Zenok got pissed off then that was an added bonus but the most important thing was that she helped people. “I can’t believe you’d say that,” she whispered. “This is about helping people!”
“Okay, calm down. I’m just worried about you. I was supposed to take care o you and”
Angel rolled her eyes. Tarkansay was usually very good-natured but she could see that he was both upset and angry about her not telling him about AC Free. She could understand in a way, he was supposed to be her best friend and he did try to look out for her. She had a strange suspicion that he had known her real parents but he had always waved that conversation aside.
“Tarks, we can fight this out later but first we have to fix my ship before Zenok’s geeks come back looking to finish what they started. Are you gonna help or what?”
He stared at her and again there was that glitter in his small blue eyes. He nodded and Angel turned away from him back to her control panel. “The best thing we can do is to set both ships down somewhere so that we can hide and keep out of the way. I was thinking of the rings.”
“I have a better idea. We disengage your ship from mine and I’ll set my auto pilot to hide my ship in the rings. We can land your ship on the planet. It’ll be easier than working in environmental suits.”
“Sounds good to me,” Angel replied. She slipped into her seat and prepared to disengage. “Do you have everything I need.”
“I won’t be needing anything anymore,” Tarkansay replied vacantly.
Angel turned to him in confusion. “What?” she asked curiously. Tarkansay suddenly looked almost sad and he was watching her very carefully. He smiled when he saw that she was watching him and shook his head. “Nothing.”
Angel skilfully steered away from Tarkansay’s ship while eh set up a remote link to instruct the computer to hide the vessel in the rings. Angel set a course for the surface of Saturn, grimacing as she saw the readout on the planet. “This place is a giant desert! Have you seen the chemicals in the atmosphere as well? No wonder people living here don’t have a good life span!” She shook her head sadly. Many people had actually fled to hostile planets like Saturn since Zenok had began to conquer various planets. It was safer to stay on planets which were of no value to anyone and therefore would not be attacked by his fleet.
Angel steered them towards a deserted plain that was relatively close to a town in case they needed any spare parts and urged the damaged ship forwards. Tarkansay watched from behind and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Angel…” he said as they began their descent. “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” Angel asked blankly as she turned her head to stare at her friend.
Suddenly Tarkansay’s fist hit her face hard and she cried out in pain as she was flung from her seat to the floor. She gasped and touched her hand to hr bleeding lip. She stared up at her friend and her eyes widened as she began to tremble. “T-Tarkansay?” she stammered.
Tarkansay sighed as he slipped into her seat and the glittering look in his eyes was suddenly showing her that he wasn’t the friend she had thought he was. “AC Free,” he said as he shook his head. “You’re such a meddlesome woman for the emperor.”
“You work for Zenok?” Angel cried. Her heart was lurching inside of her chest like a lopsided and dying animal as it limped over the lump terrain. She felt sick and dizzy, but above that was the pain. Tears stung her eyes at the betrayal. “Why?” she whispered. “You’ve known me for years! I’m your friend. You can’t turn me over now!”
“Angel, I’ve known you since you were adopted by your parents. We are good friends but…” he turned towards her. “The emperor is paying me a great deal of money to destroy AC free. I’ve tracked her for too long and now I find it’s you…” He shook his head. “How could you do this?” eh snapped viciously in a tone that Angel had never heard before. “Why? I never wanted you to get hurt and now you do this!”
Hot tears streamed down Angel’s cheeks and then she gave another cry as the floor of the ship suddenly tilted as Tarkansay tilted the ship into a nose dive heading towards the planet’s surface.
“Tarks, what are you doing?” Angel gasped as the g force pressed her to the floor of the ship.
Taers were still falling. She had always prided herself on being strong but this… ‘Tarkansay? Why?’ Why had he done this? He was in the pay of Zenok? He had probably been looking for AC Free ever since she appeared and of course, working for the fleet gave him the perfect opportunity so he was Zenok’s ideal spy.
Didn’t he care that AC free was his best friend? Didn’t he care at all?
“Tarks,” she said as the ship began to accelerate towards the surface. “Tarks, what are you doing?”
“Zenok wants you dead, AC. He wasn’t it guaranteed your dead and so I’m being paid to go on this little suicide mission. He didn’t trust any other method of getting rid of you.”
“How can you be paid to go on a suicide mission!” Angel screamed, desperate to make Tarkansay see sense.
“The money will go to my family. You know how poor they are AC, it will help them a lot… and it means you will be out of the emperor’s hair.”
Angel pushed herself to her fete and then sprang at Tarkansay with a scream of rage, but he turned and flung out one arm which easily cast her back to the ground. She gave a cry of pain as her head hit a console and she pressed her fingers to her face to feel an oozing cut. “Tarkansay! Don’t do this! How can you work for Zenok?”
“He has good ideas, Angel. You should listen to them. He could be a powerful ruler.” Tarkansay was so calm, even though the speed of the shuttle was accelerating and the cockpit was growing hotter with each moment. They were going to die…
“A dictator more like it!” Angel said. Her eyes frantically steered about the shuttle until she spotted Tarkansay’s bag full of tools. She stretched out her hand and wrapped her fingers about the handle. “Tarkansay, stop this now or I will make you!”
Tarkansay tutted. “I’m sorry Angel. I did warn you that Zenok wanted AC Free dead but you didn’t take the hint. I’m sorry but this is how it has to be! I work for Zenok!”
“I thought we were friends!” she felt like sobbing. Tarkansay had been her friend and yet that had all been a lie…
“We were, until I found out what an irritating and interfering little bitch you were. You just couldn’t keep out of Zenok’s business could you? You had to try and ruin it!”
Angel was gasping in the heat as they began to burn up and she could see the sandy planet through the windows of the ship. She screamed and then flung the bag of tools at Tarkansay’s head. He gave a grunt of pain and his hands flew to his head. Angel leapt to her feet and then slapped his face hard. He tried to reach out with his long arms to stop her but she kicked her knee up into his groin.
“Sorry Tarks, but I’m not ready to die today,” she said as he slumped to the floor. She leant over the controls but it was too late to pull the ship up.
Her eyes were blurred with tears and her head was aching from where she had hit the console. She thumped the buttons in front of her, trying to slow their suicidal descent. She watched as the speedometer showed the ship’s speed as they slowed, but they were still going so fast. She could see the mountains below her and the sandy desert rushing up to greet them.
She screamed and flung herself to the ground, covering her face as she prepared for the inevitable impact.
Nick sat along in the steaming desert just outside of Saturn’s largest city. In the day the temperature was stifling and only a fool would dare venture out into the open and steaming hot plains of the dry desert, but now in the evening the heat had begun to dissipate slightly.
The view was beautiful though and it clamed Nick’s turbulent mind as he watched the miniscule orb of the golden sun fading and sinking beneath a cluster of orange rocks. Dancing beams of light were cast over the plains and the desert sands seemed to twinkle as the sun picked out the tiny speckles of glass that were mingled in with the sand.
Once Saturn had been nothing more than a gaseous planet incapable of supporting life but after years of experimentations, scientists had changed that so now Saturn was as solid as Earth. Unfortunately at first, the planet had been nothing but an ice cap because it was so far from the sun and so further experiments had been conducted. Thousands of different chemicals had been pumped into the air that were designed to trap the sun’s heat and light. They had worked too well and the planet was now mainly a desert. Cities were expensive to build and needed huge cooling systems installed within them and this meant that there was only eight cities and towns on the entire planet. The rest of it was abandoned and left to the wild life of shrivelled cacti and sand beasts that lurked in the dusty mountains on the horizon.
Nick leaned back against a rock and allowed his eyes to close as he felt the fingers of the sun stroking his face as if they were trying to wipe away the tears. He couldn’t stop them. They had arrived the moment he had run from the stranger Howard’s place.
He knew the prophecy that Howard had referred to. He had been taught to recite it every day back on Earth when he was under the watch of Demitrius. Thousands of years ago there had been three realms that made up the universe, one of the gods, one of the demons and one of the humans. They had lived side by side and worked together, but there had been problems too. Many people were consumed with greed and lust for power and they had strived hard to be in control of all three realms. Wars had sprung up between groups of people and slowly the universe had begun to sink into chaos.
Then someone had saved them. Someone had used three enchanted rings, which were said to have been stolen from the gods themselves, to create barriers between all three realms and separate them to prevent any more wars between them. This saviour had passed the rings on to his descendents, making them promise to keep them safe. He warned them that every millennium, the barriers between the worlds would weaken and the only way to restore them was to use the powers of the rings. The rings could restore balance in the universe again and could be used to vanquish evil. It would be utterly chaotic if the barriers were to fall again and Nick had always been told that war would consume everyone.
He was one of the descendents of the saviour. There had been three of them originally. Triplets. This millennium the saviour would be not one person, but three. They were the only people who could unlock the powers of the rings.
But the rings did not only possess the powers to restore order, they could destroy it as well. If the rings ever fell into the hands of a malignant personality then that person could use them to control everything. Nick could not remember the exact details but he had a distinct feeling that a ceremony was involved and the mixings of bloods… it had never sounded very pleasant.
Nick sighed and covered his face with his hands. Once he had not been alone, he’d had two siblings. A family. He’d had it all until Zenok had come. At once Demitrius had recognised him as a threat to the order of the universe and he had been correct. He had tracked down the triplets and the rings and then had moved in for the kill…
Nick had been told that he had been the only one to survive. Demitrius had rescued him and looked after him, telling Nick that he was especially important now because his siblings were dead. When the millennium came, it would be up to him to save everyone.
“He lied to me,” Nick whispered as he thought of Howard’s words. His siblings were alive and they had been separated for their own protection.
He rubbed his eyes slightly. He had always thought about them and wondered what they were like. He had a few vague memories of playing with two other children but they were so faint that he was not sure if they real or a part of his imagination.
He reached into his pocket and slowly pulled his ring from it. He watched as the dying sun’s rays sparkled upon it and he felt a surge of anger boiling in his stomach. “This is your fault. Without you they would never have separated us.” He wanted to throw it away. It was a curse upon his life. It had always trapped him. Demitrius had kept him separate from all other children and made him work and train all day so that he would be ready when the time came to use the powers in the ring. He had never been free. His life had all been planned for him because of this cursed trinket.
He ran his finger over the familiar jewel and then clasped it in his hands. “I’ll find them,” he breathed. “My two triplets. My family.”
But where should he look? The galaxy was huge and so many places had already been destroyed because of Zenoks’ greed for power. For years now he had been building his army and slowly moving in to conquer various planets. There was no telling where they were now…
And it wouldn’t be easy with Zenok’s men after him. The first week he had spent away from Demitirus had been great. For the first time he had felt free and he had lived and explored his own life. And then he had realised that he was being followed. Imperial guards of the emperor seemed to shadows his movements. He had made the mistake of running and then the real chase had begun. For the next six weeks they had not left him alone. He had to use hoods to disguise his distinct hair and travel in stealth as much as he could. He knew what the emperor wanted. He wanted the ring. He wanted the power to control all.
They would follow him wherever he went and the problem would be if he led them to his siblings. Maybe they didn’t even know who they were? Maybe they lived their own lives with families and they would not thank Nick for disrupting that peace…
‘Maybe the emperor has already found them…’
If the emperor was looking for Nick, then surely he was looking for his siblings as well?
Nick slowly stood up and slipped the ring back into his pocket. He had to find them before Zenok did. He had to hurry to them. He gulped for a moment in the warm air, his heart beating loud against his chest. He had never believed in his destiny or his own inheritance before. He had always laughed inwardly at Demitrius’ assumption that he was to be some kind of saviour. Now though he was actually stepping out on the path to his destiny.
He turned and stared back at the city gates behind him and his brow furrowed as he thought Howard, the warlock. He had heard Demitrius speak of him before and he had always spoke highly of him, but could Nick trust him? Zenok had so many followers now and there was no telling who Nick could trust…
It didn’t matter anymore though. He probably wouldn’t see him again. All Nick was concerned about now was finding his family.
He began to march determinedly back to the city. He would catch the next transport off of this planet and return to Earth, his former home. He knew Zenok had attacked the place shortly after he left but there had to be someone alive form his old colony who could tell him where to start looking. Maybe even Demitrius himself was alive…
“I’ll find you,” Nick whispered. “I’ll find both of you before Zenok does.”
How hard could it be? They were triplets so surely they would all be identical.
Suddenly a loud roaring filled the air. Nick gasped as the ground shook slightly and then threw himself to the ground, expecting an attack of the emperor’s guards and their weapons’ fire. He covered his head with his hands and try to lie as flat as possible. The rumbling continued and then developed into a screech. Nick raised his head slightly in confusion and gasped as he something silver and trailing an orange trial of vibrant flames screaming through the sky.
“Oh God,” he whispered as he saw the ship glowing red as it began to burn in the hostile and chemical atmosphere of the planet.
He held a hand up to his eyes to shut out the glare of the setting sun and his eyes widened as he saw the ship disappear over a slope about a mile ahead of him. The ground shook again and there was the dull sound of angry flames and disturbed rock.
The pilot had just crashed.