When the most famous woman in the Universe goes missing, the PULSE Council summons every ship under their command to find her. Captain Zara and her famous crew must take the Moonlighter on a heart-racing journey across the stars and risk life and limb to find her.
Stella, still reeling from her torturous Trial, must overcome her fears or risk her nightmares derailing her career and possibly costing her life. Now the only Human aboard her ship, she quickly finds out just how alien her new crewmates are.
Finding themselves under siege by mercenaries, pursued by a pirate army, haunted by a mysterious energy creature and marooned on a ghost planet, the renowned Moonlighters might just have bitten off more than they can chew.
As the crimson sunset fell across the horizon of Gantak IV, the temperature fell accordingly, sapping the air of the swelteringly humid conditions they had endured all day and ushering a cool evening breeze.
“It’s getting late,” said Feenix, her eyes darting between the view ahead and the chronometer on her dashboard.
“It’s finally starting to cool down a little,” Attica shouted. The grinding of tyres on dirt had been drowning out her partner. “I hate these hot planets.”
“Oh come on,” Feenix replied. “This is lovely. The sun on your neck, the wind in your—”
Does Attica actually have hair? Her partner was sitting in the left-hand passenger seat wrapped from head to toe in clothing, leaving only a narrow section of her face, across her eyes, exposed to the sunlight. Even then, she still sported a compact pair of goggles to obscure her further. Feenix had never seen Attica without her head covered by a hood or bandana and decided she would stop short of mentioning anything to do with appearances.
“The sand keeps covering my lenses," Attica argued.
Feenix, relieved her previous comment had gone unnoticed, squeezed the accelerator further. She reached one of her four long blue arms down to her side and shifted into a higher gear that shunted the vehicle forward violently as their velocity increased. “That’s part of the fun! The Thrill! I just wish we had something faster. I can’t have any fun in this rust bucket.”
“It was the only thing they had left big enough to carry us.”
“Yeah, well, it sucks. We should be doing twice this velocity.”
“Sometimes I forget what a junkie you are behind the wheel, Feenix.”
The discordant beep of the proximity sensor prevented Feenix from issuing her witty and readily prepared response.
“Attica, this is it,” she said, wiping the dust from the display on her dashboard. “Life forms ahead.”
“Pull up early,” Attica ordered. “Make them walk to us.”
Feenix kept the hands of her upper arms on the wheel and spun the vehicle to the left-hand side while yanking up on the brake control with her lower left arm. She squinted as a spray of sand kicked up over the side of the vehicle and sprinkled their faces.
A small outpost was ahead of them in the distance. The rusty looking shelter was flanked by two makeshift hangar bays on either side and a lengthy, worn-out landing strip in the center. In between the now-stopped vehicle and the outpost were a pair of armed guards leant up against a small hovercraft. As Attica had predicted, the figures walked towards them, weapons at the ready.
One of the guards approached the driver’s side of the open-air vehicle and placed her arms on the door while the other continued to circle them.
“Where you headed?” the stranger demanded.
Feenix ignored the question, deferring to Attica who did all the talking.
“We’re looking for somewhere to refuel,” Attica answered. Still hoping to make it back to Ocal Town before sundown.”
The guard moved around the vehicle to eye her curiously. Feenix shifted uneasily in her seat. She knew the guard was trying to figure out just what species Attica was, and she wasn’t sure how her partner would react to being examined so noticeably.
“Take off the hat,” the guard insisted.
Attica, to Feenix’s surprise, obliged without protest by removing the black-and-white striped garment she had wrapped around the top of her head to reveal her shiny, hairless skin. The guard was startled slightly by her translucent forehead glistening in the evening light as the pulsating black liquid that bubbled beneath it swished back and forth.
That answers my hair question.
Peering up at the fading sun once more, Feenix wondered whether it was even safe for Attica to expose herself to the elements like this. After all, her skin was barely half a millimeter thick and the liquid beneath would boil at anything over fifteen degrees.
Though not many people besides me would remember that.
“Gokaran,” Attica said. “I guess you don’t see many of my kind outside the core, right?”
The guard scratched the jet-black skin on her neck, clearly unsettled by Attica’s appearance. She was a Greil. Feenix could place any species she laid her eyes on, though it was hardly difficult in this case. Greil were fairly common and distinguishable, with few species bearing such distinctively colorless palettes married with an intimidating facial bone structure.
Equally identifiable was her Noxican partner. They were another of the universe’s most plentiful species, spotted by the thick horn between their eyes.
“What’s your business in Ocal?” said the Greil.
“We’ve got a buyer there for this ore.” Attica gestured over her shoulder.
The Greil swiveled to her own partner and nodded, indicating that she wanted the cargo searched. The back of the vehicle was a flat storage section covered by a large sheet that was strapped to the side plating. The Noxican unclipped the sheet and swept it aside. She revealed what appeared to be a hefty quantity of large rock shards, some interconnected and others splintered away. After a careful examination of the materials, she pulled the sheet back over and fastened it once more.
“Satisfied?” Attica asked sarcastically.
“What’s so great about rocks?”
“Depends what kinda rocks.”
“Whatever. Look, enough playing.” The Greil raised her voice. “You know the score. Pay up. Or you’re going nowhere.”
Attica laughed as she let her glassy grey eyes fall upon the Greil. “That would eat into my profits somewhat. I think we’ll pass.”
The Greil drew for her weapon, a large rifle that hung at her waist, and pointed it at Attica. Feenix felt a bead of sweat trace its way down her back as she bit her lip. She knew she wasn’t in danger. She knew Attica had the situation entirely under control. But this was the first time they had encountered any armed opponents during their search, and the anticipation plucked at her nerves. Her hand slipped down over the trigger of the pistol on her thigh.
“It’s nearing the end of our shift, and I’m not in the mood for wisecracking idiots like you.” The Greil pushed the tip of her weapon against Attica’s temple and added, “So, what’s it going to be?”
Attica smiled once more but, this time, raised her hands in surrender.
“See this?” She gestured with her head towards a small metal device in her left hand. “I call it the party pooper. You see, it emits a dampening field with a radius of about twenty meters. Unfortunately, anything operating with an energy signature between point four and point eight terrions just won’t work within its range.”
The Greil squeezed the trigger against Attica’s head in a panic only for the weapon to click loudly and harmlessly in response.
Feenix noticed the Greil’s heels begin to inch back in the sand, but in a flash Attica reached beneath her seat and withdrew a weapon of her own.
“Now this,” she said, gently waving the weapon she brandished from side to side. “Is a reliable firearm. It holds twelve rounds of asken plated bullets that fire at a muzzle velocity of two-thousand meters per second.”
Attica raised her weapon towards her opponent’s face. “You’re going to tell me everything I want to know, or you’re going to see just how much damage it does at this range.”
“Uh-uh.” Feenix whipped out two pistols of her own and pointed them at the Noxican who was foolishly attempting to edge around her side of the vehicle.
“I wouldn’t if I were you,” said Attica. “My friend is very excited and itching for some action.” She returned her attention to the first guard. “I hope your partner doesn’t plan on doing anything stupid. Now, how many in your outfit?”
“Fuck you.” The Greil spat on the ground in protest.
“Wrong answer,” she replied, raising her weapon to point at her target's head. “You’re from Greil right?” Attica shifted her eyes up and down, taking in the midnight-black skin and formidable-looking musculature that lined the Greil’s uncovered neck and arms.
“I quite like your planet. Not too hot. Plenty of rain. Your people are real hard asses and that bony exoskeleton of yours is impressive, but—” Attica paused as she lowered her weapon towards her hostage’s right leg and pulled the trigger.
The sound of the shot was muffled by the silencer at the end of her weapon while the outcry from the recipient of the attack more than compensated in screams of agony.
“Are you aware that just above the shin you have a surprisingly fragile segment of bone that, when impacted correctly,” Attica continued, “shatters quite astonishingly?”
Feenix kept switching her attention between her own target and the screaming Greil who was grasping at her leg. The metallic looking black bone had been fragmented around the shin and was leaking streams of white blood.
“So, that is my third favorite place to shoot a Greil,” said Attica. “Answer my question or I’ll take you to the top of the chart.”
“We’re three companies!” the injured guard squealed.
“Three?” Attica probed.
“Yes! We’re from Domek company and we’re partnered with the Jameen and Raleons.”
“Maybe five hundred of us in total.”
“Five hundred!?” Feenix exclaimed. “That’s more than we bargained for.”
“Indeed,” Attica said. “And why have you halted your attacks on the Osani village?”
The Greil was still struggling to cope with her horrific injury as Attica pressed on with her questioning.
After a few seconds of continued struggle, the Greil managed to come up with some more information. “There’s an armed group there. From PULSE. We’re waiting till they rotate out before our next attack. We don’t want to mess with PULSE soldiers.”
The annoyed look on Attica’s face was enough for Feenix to know it was the revelation they had been waiting for.
“No. You don’t,” Attica said ruthlessly, as she squeezed the trigger once more and fired a second bullet into the Greil’s skull.
As soon as the sound of the shot echoed across the plains, Feenix unleashed her own stream of fire into the Noxican, riddling her with bullets.
“Let’s head back,” Attica said. “Denzo will want to know they’ve been avoiding us.”
As Feenix started up the vehicle, the proximity sensor erupted to life once more in a symphony of alarms and whistles.
“Multiple contacts.” Feenix found herself startled.
“Can we outrun them?” asked Attica.
“In this rig?”
“Okay okay. How many?”
“Four hover crafts. Four, maybe five, hostiles per vehicle at least. And closing fast.”
“Well. Guess it’s plan B then.”
Four vehicles swept into view exactly as the scanners had indicated and bore down on them. The hover crafts encircled the smaller wheeled machine as several women stepped out and drew their weapons.
“Kill them both,” a voice cried out from somewhere in the group.
Feenix, despite the increasing danger, kept her cool and followed Attica’s lead. Her partner had already started to disappear beneath the dashboard and out of sight.
“Anytime now, Roxy!” Feenix shouted, as the sound of an energy blast detonating just above her head shook the vehicle.
One of the pedals pressed awkwardly into Feenix’s back as she tried to squash her way further down. Unlike Attica, she was far too tall to fit completely and her pulse began to race once more at the sight of one of their assailant’s heads moving closer to the vehicle.
Feenix stared down the barrel of the gun as the woman readied her weapon. No sooner did she take aim, however, did the vehicle rumble in response and begin to rock from side to side. A boulderous fist shot through the side of the craft and grabbed the now helpless woman around the throat. The grip loosened after a brief squeeze as the woman’s limp body collapsed to the ground, her neck broken.
The silence was followed by the sheet that covered the back of the vehicle bursting free. The previously inanimate stone formation in the rear coalesced into an enormous rock-like being and rose to its feet where it towered above the surrounding attackers.
“PRAXAN!” The shout came from somewhere amongst the now panicked group, who were a combination of manic fleeing and wayward shooting.
Feenix had closed her eyes involuntarily as the bullets and energy blasts bounced off Roxy’s stone skin harmlessly and ricocheted about. When she opened them once more, Roxy was poised in a squat position before leaping two dozen meters into the air. The sudden relief of weight from the bounding Praxan sent the ground car toppling over.
Feenix poked her head out from the now inverted vehicle and watched the carnage unfold from beneath the cover it provided. Roxy landed atop one of the hover cars causing the vehicle to explode instantly as the giant Praxan crashed through it in a torrent of flame and smoke. The smoldering dead bodies of the occupants and nearby fleeing attackers were sent barreling in all directions as Roxy took off at a sprint towards a second vehicle.
She struck through the cars plating, weaving her enormous fingers around the engine and crushing it between her fingers while the driver desperately tried to pull away. The now-helpless woman shrieked as Roxy lifted the car with one arm and sent it hurtling into the third vehicle, the collision igniting them in a metal-chewing, fire-cracking blowout.
The final hovercraft managed to escape with the remaining attackers onboard. Or at least, they thought they had escaped. As the craft attempted to pick up speed and disappear into the distance, the thundering of Roxy’s heavy footsteps sent her closer and closer.
At a full sprint she easily caught up with the rushing car and clamped her hands around both sides of the vehicle. She twisted her arms, flipping it over and sending the occupants into a horrific crash. Their bodies were strewn all around the terrain, some alive and some dead, as Roxy strode terrifyingly from woman to woman to finish them off.
“One minute, forty-eight seconds,” said Attica. “Roxy must be in a generous mood.”
“She didn’t have to flip us over,” Feenix replied. “That was more drama than I needed.”
After completing her series of executions, Roxy made her way back towards the others and tipped the vehicle back up onto its wheels.
“Thanks,” Feenix said. “But you could have at least warned us first. What if this thing had fallen on top of me? Or what if you dislodged the engine, and it blew? And what if—”
Attica cut Feenix off, “What is it Roxy?”
The towering Praxan was ignoring Feenix’s stream of questions, her gaze fixated on the horizon.
Attica reached into the pack at her waist and whipped out a thin circular eyepiece. She placed it against her right eye, then grimaced. “Feenix, check the proximity sensor. Long distance.”
Feenix jumped back into the vehicle and flipped the starter switch. To her relief, the engine juddered into life immediately as power returned to the dashboard. She toggled the range of the proximity sensor to achieve as much coverage as possible. The scan would be far less detailed across such a wide area, but at least she could identify whatever was coming their way.
Feenix’s eyes widened in alarm as she glared at the sensor. “Uh. Incoming.”
“How many?” Attica asked.
“Lots. Too many. Even with Roxy.”
“Shit. Time to go then.”
“We’ll never outrun them in this!”
“Would you relax, Feenix. You’re supposed to be the superstar pilot, remember.”
“This isn’t a ship! And I can’t make this scrapheap go any faster. And…”
“Oh, would you just shut up and drive!”
Feenix sent the vehicle barreling off as Attica settled down into the passenger seat and Roxy leapt into the back. Despite her complaints, the outdated wheeled vehicle ate up the turf beneath them as they blazed back across the plains. It still wasn’t enough, however, as their pursuers gained ground on them.
“Hm,” Attica said. “We’ll never outrun them in this.”
“That’s what I’ve been saying!” yelled Feenix.
“Yeah, yeah. What do you think? Through the valley?”
“Huh?” Feenix mumbled, glaring at Attica rather than keeping her eyes on the road where they belonged.
“Come on. We can make it.”
“Do you wanna drive?”
“Don’t act like you don’t love it. And if we make it, I’ll tell Eki how awesome you were.”
When Attica nodded, Feenix hammered down on the accelerator. She swung the car towards the enormous range of mountains at the far side of the plain. In the center were a number of small openings that led into the maze of tight paths through the valley and back out towards the Osani village.
Feenix had avoided the shortcut on the way here, suggesting that navigating the numerous sharp turns combined with the precariously balanced and weathered rock formations was a terrible idea. And that was if they drove slowly. But she knew Attica was right. They couldn’t outrun their pursuers or make it back to the village before they were caught.
As she trundled the vehicle up the slight incline and into the valley, the screech of tyres and the hum of hovercrafts could be heard closer and closer. As soon as their three-wheeled buggy cleared the opening they were met head-on by a five-meter-wide boulder that forked the road in two. Feenix whipped the car to the left in an attempt to evade the obstacle.
The rear bumper of the buggy scraped the edge of the giant rock as they barely avoided obliteration. Attica smiled gingerly at Feenix who scowled back in silent irritation. The Gokaran’s smile went from slight to a wide grin as the sound of metal colliding with stone echoed behind them.
Feenix shifted the vehicle left and right as she steered through the hazardous surroundings. Rocks tumbled down from overhead while they scraped and scratched their way down the narrow passageways. A few of the plummeting rocks pummeled the pursuing crafts behind them diminishing their numbers by the minute.
As she brought the buggy up through one of the wider trails, a faster vehicle swept up beside them as its occupants brought their weapons up to fire. In an instant, however, Roxy snapped forward and kicked at the side of their car with enough force to send it hurtling into the desert valley walls and spiraling into a deadly crash.
“Down Roxy!” Feenix shouted, as she rounded the corner to find a horizontal rock formation arching over the path of the buggy ahead.
Roxy didn’t react in time as she crashed into the low bridge and shattered it to pieces.
“Never mind,” Feenix said, as the vehicle bucked under the collision and miraculously avoided tipping over backwards.
The path began to decline steeply as they neared the exit to the other side of the plains. Despite the buggy picking up speed, the next pursuer’s hovercraft slammed into the back of them as both vehicles raced out of the valley and back into the open. Attica swiveled and fired a bullet that caught the driver in the shoulder as several of their pursuers opened fire in retaliation. Roxy stretched her arms wide to absorb the weapons fire while Attica fiddled in her pack in search of something.
A few seconds later, a tiny metallic object landed with a clink on the bonnet of the hovercraft as a single beep denoted the impending detonation. The explosion blew off the front of the craft, sending it into a nosedive that ended in another calamitous wreckage. Roxy sat back down in the rear and watched as several more pursuers gained ground on them.
“Is that you girls?” an excited voice questioned over the radio.
“Yep,” Attica replied, holding down the response microphone on the dashboard. “And we’re coming in hot. Can you frighten them off?”
“Did you leave the big one here?” the voice replied.
“Of course,” Attica enthused.
“Sweet! Give me a minute, honey.”
Though the high-octane chase was sending an adrenaline-filled surge of energy through her, Feenix exhaled in relief at the sight of the high-walled settlement, known as Osani village, that was fast approaching ahead. The large gate in the center of the great stone barricade lurched open in response to their impending arrival, subliminally urging her to hurry through to safety.
Atop the towering walls a lean lilac skinned woman burst out of a hatch and peered down at the approaching vehicles. She seemed to be taking in the distance between the pursuit vehicles and the almost-safe buggy while she clambered to her feet and hauled an enormous projectile weapon above her head, resting it on her shoulder. She held on to two wide reaching handles on either side of the gargantuan half-meter-wide muzzle and peered down the scope. A confident smile flickered across her lips as she squeezed the dual triggers on each handle.
“Woo YEAH!” The joyous scream caught Feenix’s attention before the thunderous crackle of a miniature warhead launch rang in her ears. The payload screeched as it tore through the air and impacted the surface between the cars. The ground burst open as huge chunks of debris cracked up out of the detonation sending vehicles, dust, and flame crashing around like a tornado. When the dust had settled, half of the pursuing vehicles were left in ruins while the remaining few had already spun and fled back off into the distance.
“Boom!” said Shay, the rocket-launcher wielding woman. “Did anyone see that? Tell me someone saw that?”
Feenix drove the buggy in through the gates as they slammed shut behind her. Yanking up on the brakes she finally brought the smoking vehicle to a stop as the engine sputtered out of life, and the smell of burnt tyres filled the air.
“Hey girls. We’re back,” said Feenix. “And I think we found the bad guys.”