One day a long, long time ago, a species fought for survival. Not long before that day their survival had been assumed to be infinite—they were the strongest and cleverest, had superior technology, and controlled the universal traffic and economy.
The chilling space-bullies were a physically unique and intimidating species. The average adult stood over twelve-foot tall, used all eight of their legs to walk, and any of the eight could double as an arm. Their solid, smooth, and scaly upper bodies culminated with the head of a snake—sharp, pointed teeth on bottom, four fangs on top, a small slit for a nostril, and bulging, beady eyes with no eyelids. They were hypnotizing in every sense of the word.
But just as seasons change, so did their place in the hierarchy of races. Their overbearing methods developed many enemies who rose up to overthrow their high-handed oppression.
Because of this revolution, the towering creatures with eight legs that ruled the universe are now no more than monsters that fill our horror stories and haunt our dreams. But before their overthrow, they had one last mission, designed and fulfilled with the purpose of providing an opportunity for a future return to dominance.
“Are you sure we can trust him?” Zryolk’s fourteen-foot ten-inch frame was incongruent with the doubt in his voice. “If he doesn’t come through for us we won’t survive the day, let alone complete our mission.”
Captain Criswal didn’t respond. Instead, the captain’s mind seemed to be as far away as his gaze at the monstrous planet that lay in front of them. Zentron was the largest planet among the known universes, although very few were even aware of its existence. The inhabitants of Zentron had gone to great lengths to keep their existence unknown.
Zryolk was about to repeat his question when the captain said, “If he doesn’t, our last act as a species will be to obliterate their planet.”
The opportunity to destroy another species sounded exhilarating; doing so at the expense of his own race didn’t.
Pharghtang’s previously unnoticed presence and squeaky voice seemed to bring the captain’s focus back into the flight deck of his spaceship.
“Yes, Minion?” The captain used the term degradingly, but Pharghtang always took being called the captain’s minion as a source of pride. Zryolk assumed Pharghtang and his dumb, scrawny, nine-and-a-half-foot-tall body was so desperate for a connection with others that he created one in his own mind by accepting the putdown as a sort of pet name.
It explained why Pharghtang seemed to enjoy being picked on by the soldiers. Pharghtang wasn’t a soldier, but a gopher—primarily for the captain, but in practicality for anyone who felt like abusing him at any given moment.
As the primary pilot for Captain Criswal, Zryolk had plenty of opportunity to be around the minion. At first Zryolk had tried to get to know Pharghtang, to understand why he thrived on the negative attention. He had had to abandon his attempt when Pharghtang was completely uncomfortable with the positive attention and of being treated with respect. Although it didn’t satisfy his inner curiosity about Pharghtang, Zryolk was happy to treat him as an underling.
Pharghtang cleared his throat, which made his voice a little less shrill, but it definitely still classified as squeaky. “The troops are ready and on standby.”
“You are dismissed.”
Pharghtang bowed to the captain as if he were king, then scampered from the room.
The captain paced the flight deck. Zryolk focused on flying the spaceship.
“We’ll be in position in less than five minutes!” Talistian, Zryolk’s co-pilot, spoke to the captain, but said it loud enough for everyone on the flight deck to hear.
“Very well. Everyone be prepared.” The captain sat down in his elevated chair, located in the center of the flight deck. “Charks?”
“Yes, Captain?” the quiet and unassuming lady in the back corner replied.
“Get in contact with General Merkes immediately and give him a status update. If one little thing goes wrong with this plan, we will let him know and we’ll destroy this planet to the point there will be no evidence it ever existed.”
“Yes, Captain.” Charks began talking into her transmitter.
Zryolk knew Captain Criswal wasn’t excited about their plan, and had made his disagreements known. He also knew the captain would fulfill his orders, as much as he disagreed with them. For better or for worse, this was now their best option to ensure a resurgence to power one day.
Talistian spoke again. “Captain—Xandor, our contact from Zentron, is available.”
“Put him up on the big screen,” the captain ordered.
Immediately two large green faces appeared on the front window of the flight deck.
“Greetings, and welcome to Zentron,” said the man with a large nose and wrinkled skin.
“Dispense with the insincere formalities,” the captain bellowed. “We know you don’t want us here anymore than we want to be here.”
“We have been able to keep our existence hidden from all other species for thousands of years. Of course we don’t want you or anyone else here.” The woman’s tone of voice was as fiery as her long red hair. Set against her green skin, her hair was stunning. In fact, Zryolk thought she was about the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. “You threatened our family and our existence as a species,” the woman continued. “What are we supposed to do?”
“Exactly as we require,” said the captain slowly. His eyes locked for several tense moments with hers.
The man squirmed in his seat and cleared his throat. “I am Xandor, and this is my daughter, Limon. I apologize for her directness, but your presence puts our family in a dangerous position. If any of our people find out we are helping you, well, they won’t be understanding.”
Captain Criswal seemed to lack sympathy for their precarious position. “My assistant will keep General Merkes updated on our progress. If at any time this mission goes bad, he will order an assault on your planet. All our troops throughout the universe will be contacted with your location and given instructions to abandon their current battles, locate your planet and destroy it beyond recognition.
Limon scowled. “You can’t afford to abandon your battles. You’re on the verge of defeat as it is.”
Zryolk gasped in shock at her irreverent boldness.
Captain Criswal roared. “Understand, greenie! If you betray us, our last act as a species will be to eliminate yours.”
An awkward silence followed, and Zryolk could swear that Limon’s face now matched the color of her hair.
Captain Criswal broke the silence. “Now, do you have the facility prepared so we can hide our merchandise?”
“Everything is as you requested,” Xandor said diplomatically.
Neither Xandor nor Limon wanted to help the Snaders secure the means by which they could regain dominance in the future, but the man didn’t show his discontent.
Zryolk would have felt the same way were they in opposite places. The Snaders were used to—in fact, preferred—that others didn’t like them or want to cooperate with them. They prided themselves on instilling fear in order to get what they wanted.
“Good.” The captain stood and began to pace as he spoke. “We’ll be landing in a few minutes. We need to transport our package into the secure area as quickly as possible to ensure not being detected.”
“Understood,” Xandor said before the screen went blank.
Half an hour later Captain Criswal and Zryolk stood outside the spaceship on Zentron. Charks was with them maintaining contact with General Merkes on the radio. They wore special bodysuits that covered every inch of their skin to protect them from the cold. Although the bodysuits were thin, they were impenetrable by the cold.
Captain Criswal didn’t understand how, but even with his face covered by the bodysuit he could see through it clearly and could breathe without restriction.
Pharghtang, distinguishable only by his small size, drove a large ten-wheeled vehicle out of the spaceship and stopped just short of where the captain and Zryolk stood. The red, rectangular vehicle required two engines to haul the trailer and the weight of the load it carried.
The trailer was thirty feet long and twelve feet wide. With the weight of the cargo, it traveled less than a foot off the ground.
Captain Criswal shuddered as his gaze froze on the trailer’s freight, a box thirty feet long, seven feet wide, and five feet high. It was made of a special metal that was two feet thick on all sides. The rectangular metal box had several slits on each side, with red and white smoke constantly flowing out.
Twenty troops marched behind the trailer, each wearing identical black bodysuits as the captain. They split formation—half going on each side of the trailer—and lifted the heavy coffin-shaped box. Pharghtang carefully pulled the vehicle forward so the trailer cleared the box, then made a U-turn back toward the spaceship.
Pharghtang drove the vehicle back into the spaceship, then returned to join the others.
Although it was night, three bright moons—two half and one full—lit the sky. The land was flat, the ground frozen, and they could see for miles. There wasn’t anything in sight.
Where were their hosts?
“Are you sure we have the correct spot?”
Zryolk double-checked his hand-held computer. “This is the exact spot Xandor instructed us to meet them.”
“Well, where is that no-good s—”
“Captain!” Pharghtang pointed. “They just came out of nowhere!”
Criswal didn’t hear what Pharghtang said because he had seen exactly what Pharghtang and the rest of the crew saw—Xandor and Limon appearing out of nowhere.
“One second there was nothing, and the next those two greenies were walking toward us,” Pharghtang explained to the troops holding the front of the box.
Xandor and Limon approached the group walking on two legs and casually swinging two arms. The captain had always thought it strange that other races could balance so well with only two legs. He couldn’t imagine functioning without eight interchangeable appendages.
With their green bodysuits on, at first the captain couldn’t tell Xandor and Limon apart. As they neared, he saw how Limon’s hair puffed up her bodysuit on top, where Xandor’s bodysuit fit snuggly over his bald head.
Captain Criswal stepped forward. “I am Captain Criswal. I thought your people didn’t have the ability to teleport.”
Xandor nodded his head. “That is correct; we are not able to teleport.”
Zryolk stepped up beside Criswal. “But the two of you appeared out of nowhere!”
“We are using the same technology to hide the building behind us that we use to hide our solar system,” Xandor explained. “The building is there, but a bubble shield causes anything looking at it to see the landscape in its natural surroundings.”
“Why bother hiding the building?” Zryolk asked. “Our radar indicated there isn’t anything living near here.”
“Yes, the size and rotation of our planet makes living conditions on much of the planet impossible,” Limon said. “Our home is one the other side of Zentron. By way of land, it is over three hundred thousand miles away.”
“Even so,” Xandor continued, “we can’t risk this facility being discovered. Otherwise our, uh, arrangement would quickly be compromised.”
“Shall we proceed inside?” Limon offered.
“Just so we are clear,” Captain Criswal said as he nodded to his left, “Lieutenant Charks here is responsible for keeping General Merkes periodically updated. If at any time our plan is compromised, he will immediately issue a command for all our troops to attack and destroy your planet.”
Limon glared, but to her credit held her tongue. She turned and walked with Xandor behind her. General Criswal motioned for his men to follow.
When Xandor and Limon reached the spot where they had appeared, they disappeared. Everyone in the visiting party stopped.
Captain Criswal sensed the reluctance they all had about passing the point of disappearance. He swallowed hard and took the last three steps quickly, before he could consider what other options he might have. As soon as he crossed into the invisible bubble he saw Xandor and Limon, thirty feet ahead, waiting in front of the building that had been invisible to them a few seconds before.
The building looked like a domed roof. Xandor pressed a code into a number pad on the side of the building and the whole front wall (at least from their angle) began to lower. Once everyone was inside, Xandor shut the wall.
Captain Criswal, Zryolk, Charks, and Pharghtang stood at the far end in the center of the room with Xandor and Limon. The peak in the room allowed them to stand up straight. The box took up the remaining length of the room. The accompanying entourage on either side holding the box had to bend over because of the sloped ceiling. The troops set the box down on the ledge that ran down the center of the long room.
Once the door had shut, a steady hum began and the floor slowly descended. After several minutes they came to a sudden and jerky stop. A few seconds of quiet, and the humming noise began again. A ceiling crossed above, gradually entrapping them in a boxed room.
“Captain Criswal, this next part could be rather disturbing, as—”
“Yes, Xandor, we all know exactly what to expect.”
Xandor grunted, and Captain Criswal smiled at his frustration. He was tired of Xandor’s proud touting of his innovation. He just cared that Xandor did what the Snaders required. How he did it didn’t concern the captain.
He gave the captain a nod, which the captain hoped meant that he understood the time pressure they were under, and began typing in a code to the transmitter he carried with him.
Air began to blow into the room from all directions. The pressure of the air pushed on all sides of his body. It was unpleasant, but expected.
In spite of their preparedness, several of his troops complained. Their panic was short-lived, because within seconds they couldn’t move a muscle. The extreme air pressure was necessary to keep everything and everyone from being tossed around during descent, and to keep them from imploding from the force of the drop. Nothing would be able to move.
Even though he didn’t have eyelids, the captain wasn’t able to see much. His gaze was frozen on the box. As the air continued to thicken, visibility decreased. There was virtually no peripheral vision, and seeing straight ahead was quickly becoming impossible as well.
When his vision reached the point he couldn’t clearly make out anything through the thick air the captain heard a loud roar, sounding not unlike his spaceship when it roared to life. The roar meant they were already moving toward the core of Zentron, quickly picking up speed. In less than a minute the rumble reached its peak and they were moving at top speed. They would cover the ninety thousand miles in about twenty minutes.
The captain had done the math when they’d first learned about the mission. They were traveling at forty-five hundred miles a minute, or two-hundred and seventy thousand miles an hour. That was not fast for an interstellar spaceship, but completely unheard of for planetary travel. He remained frozen and could not tell at all that they were moving. The thick air secured them during the journey, protected them from being hurt at the extraordinary fast take-off and speedy travel.
The one question the captain never got a satisfactory answer to was what they would do if there was a problem during their travel to the core of Zentron. The answer given him, which he didn’t like, was that there was nothing they could do. They had been assured, however, that Xandor and Limon had done everything possible to ensure there would not be any issues. Being frozen by the thick air prevented them from reacting to anything that might go wrong. In reality, there wasn’t anything that could be done at these speeds, and he didn’t want to trouble his mind over a very unlikely event. But now that he had twenty minutes of nothing but his own mind, that’s all he could think about. Well, that and peanuts. He hadn’t had any peanuts since they left on their journey nearly a year ago.
Fortunately, they arrived safely.
At the end of the journey the roar slowly faded until it went silent altogether. The air immediately began decompressing and within a minute everyone had full control of their bodies again.
The wall nearest the captain lowered. Xandor and Limon led them into a room that was about the size of the captain’s flight deck. The room was completely empty, except for a long slab of stone in the center. The captain knew from his training that the core of Zentron was twenty times the temperature of the hottest sun of his home planet. Without the invisible protective barrier—he couldn’t fathom how it kept such heat safely and securely out—they would have disintegrated early into their journey downward.
The heat would not bother the casket. It was frozen with a special chemical that would protect it in any conditions, even the most extreme heat and cold.
Captain Criswal was impressed with the arrangements. He would never admit that to Xandor.
The troops walked their cargo to the center of the room and set it carefully onto the foot-high slab, built to be the perfect size to hold the box, then stepped back and a curved tube rotated from below, encasing the box on the table within glass. The tube melded, and within seconds was seamless. Although a few slits allowed smoke to roll out, there was no visible means of opening the glass tube.
Xandor told them all to stand back. A glass case lowered from the ceiling and encased the tube. The glass was three feet thick on all sides, including the top.
It would take a pure-blooded Snader to open the glass cage and release the box and its contents.
Limon stepped directly in front of the captain. “It’s done.”
She handed him a square box half the size of Captain Criswal’s humongous hands. “We call this The Key because it is the only way to open the glass case around your casket.”
“How does it work?” Captain Criswal asked.
“In order to activate The Key it needs to be in contact with the glass case.” She pointed out the faint outline where the box was to be placed. “One of the sides of The Key will open. A Snader must insert a finger…”
“Or toe or tongue,” Xandor quickly added.
“Yes. Then The Key will poke the finger, or toe or tongue, and test the blood. If the blood is pure Snader blood, then the transfusion can begin.”
“What happens if the person isn’t a pureblood?” Zryolk asked.
“They don’t get their finger back,” Xandor said.
Some of the men cringed, but Captain Criswal smiled and nodded his understanding. He admired the box with a reverent awe. This had been a surreal assignment and now that they were near the end, he was overwhelmed with the magnitude of what he held.
“You understand the procedure for releasing your item?”
The captain thought she meant it as a statement, but it came out as a question.
“Yes, of course.” He looked up at Limon, then over to Xandor. “And you understand the consequences if we return and are not able to access this box.”
The captain meant it as a question, but it came out more as a threat.
“Of course.” Limon didn’t try to hide her disdain of the threat. “What’s in the casket that is so valuable?”
“Only the most valuable item in the universe,” the captain shot back. “And it isn’t a casket.” He positioned himself in front of Xandor and Limon and stared them down. “Just to make sure we have been clear, you are responsible for keeping our cargo safe and secure. No matter how long it takes us to return for it—the days or years that pass—you are to be prepared for our arrival to reclaim our package at any time. And if you are not, or if something has happened to our possession, we will destroy every living thing on this planet.”
“We were promised that if you ever returned for your package and it helped you return to power, that your people would allow us to live in obscurity.” When Xandor spoke it was with a lot of doubt.
“Of course,” the captain said without conviction.
Charks informed General Merkes that the merchandise had been secured, and they were about to return to the spaceship.
Within thirty minutes they were on the ship making preparations for take-off. Another ten minutes and they were leaving Zentron. Charks gave General Merkes the all clear.
The captain sat in his chair on the flight deck, satisfied that their successful effort on Zentron would provide them with the opportunity to someday once again conquer and rule the universe.
With the considerable distance they needed to travel and the necessity to avoid the warring areas, it would be months before they would return to their home planet. Most likely by then the war would be over and they would be facing a mandatory exile.
They had only been en route a couple of hours when the alarm on the spaceship started blaring. The captain had returned to his bunk to update the ship’s log, and was deep in thought when the alarm went off.
Before he could call down to the flight deck, he heard Zryolk’s voice speak to him over the intercom. “Captain, we have company, and they’re closing in quick.”
“Notify everyone to prepare in case of an attack. Contact the spaceship and let them know we’re friendly; we don’t want any trouble. I’ll be right there.”
The captain rushed to the flight deck.
“Captain on deck!” Pharghtang shouted.
Captain Criswal was quickly updated on their unexpected guest that was nearing.
“It’s like they came out of nowhere,” Zryolk explained. “One minute the radar was clear, the next we had a spaceship coming at us from the side only a few minutes away. I can’t explain it.”
The captain took his seat and pulled the overhead monitor down to eye level. “They aren’t the ones that appeared out of nowhere, we were.”
“What are you talking about?” Zryolk asked.
“We don’t have time for that right now,” the captain said. “Have you contacted them? Do we know their intentions?”
Zryolk looked at Charks, who shook her head. “We’ve been sending out messages, telling them we don’t want any trouble, but they aren’t responding. We don’t know what they intend.”
“Let’s continue straight, but steer gradually away from them.”
Charks continued her attempts at reaching the spaceship, with no response.
They veered away from the other spaceship and thought their message had gotten through as the other spaceship seemed to back off. But after a few minutes it started to quickly close the gap between them.
As the ship neared they could read the words on the side.
Freedom — Peace — Justice
It was one of the council’s spaceships.
The captain had a feeling he knew their intentions. He stood. “Zryolk, I have to step away for a moment. You are in control.”
He quickly left the flight deck and returned a few minutes later with the council’s spaceship almost upon them.
Pharghtang yelled, “Captain on deck!”
The captain resumed his seat. “Full throttle!”
“Sir, we can’t outrun them,” Zryolk said. “It’s a council-sanctioned ship.”
The captain looked up at the big-screen monitor on the front window and saw the council’s emblem on the front of the ship. He knew Zryolk was correct.
It was at that moment the other spaceship opened fire.
“Full throttle!” The captain shouted again, this time with extreme urgency.
Immediately Zryolk took their spaceship to maximum speed. They quickly created some space between them and the council’s spaceship, but it wouldn’t take them long to catch back up.
“Charks, tell the troops in back to open fire.”
“Yes sir!” Charks abandoned trying to contact the council’s spaceship to call the battle room in the back of the spaceship.
“Zryolk, I need to speak to you outside.”
Talistian took over the piloting duties as the captain led Zryolk through the door to the hallway outside of the flight deck.
“Zryolk, I need you to prepare the escape pod for me.”
“But captain…” Zryolk looked astonished.
The captain had expected as much, but didn’t have time to explain. “I need you to trust me. The fate of our race depends on what happens in the next few minutes.”
“Okay, sir.” Zryolk nodded his head.
“Call me on the secure phone when you reach the pod.” The captain referred to the phones that he, Zryolk, Talistian, and the General carried that were dedicated solely to communicating with each other, in case of emergencies similar to what they were undergoing.
“Yes, sir!” Zryolk said, then disappeared down the hallway.
The captain returned to the flight deck just in time to see the council’s spaceship open fire again. He hurried to his seat and buckled in.
He gave the orders to retaliate, and the battle was in full force. They were sustaining a lot more damage than they were delivering.
The captain felt his phone vibrate, indicating that Zryolk was in the escape pod. He pulled down the monitor suspended above him and connected his phone. A soundproof glass tube surrounded him, giving him privacy so no one could hear what he was about to say.
“Zryolk, are you in the pod?”
“Yes, but there’s a problem. The door has shut and locked. I can’t get it to budge.”
“I know. Listen to me carefully…”
“You know?” Zryolk’s voice was filled with bewilderment.
The captain continued. “I left The Key in the escape pod for you. I need you to take it and keep it secure. That Key is the only way we can retrieve what we just hid in the core of Zentron. Without it we will never be able to return to power. In fact, without it we likely will not exist as a race in the distant future.”
“Captain, you can’t give up on this battle.”
“The fate of this battle will be determined in the next few minutes and we both know that our chances are slim, at best. We cannot take the chance of losing control of that key—or worse, having it destroyed. It has to remain in our people’s hands. In a few minutes you will be alone, carrying with you the secret of what we did today along with The Key. Keep it. Pass it down to your children. Entrust it only to those worthy of protecting and one day rescuing and unleashing our secret weapon. One day we will escape from the oncoming exile and begin again at overthrowing the corrupted forces of the universe. It’s now your responsibility to have in place the method and the person capable of the sacrifice it will take to provide the leadership we will need. I am not understating it when I say the future of our race now lies in your hands.”
“Captain, I-I-I don’t know what to say…” Zryolk’s voice cracked from emotion.
“There isn’t anything to say.” The captain took a deep breath. “This is a time of action, and now you know what is required of you. I can’t think of anyone I trust more for this task. It’s not a small burden, but it’s now yours to carry alone. For that I am sorry.”
“Sir, for you, for our people, and for our Lord, I will dedicate my life and my descendants’ lives to protecting The Key.”
“I knew you would,” the captain said. “Are you secured?”
The captain programmed a code on the screen floating in front of him. The escape pod disengaged from the spaceship and started hurtling away, quickly putting distance between it and the spaceships.
But the captain didn’t have time to watch. He had to act quickly before the council’s spaceship could send their own posse after Zryolk.
He removed the tube from around his head and began barking out orders.
“Talistian, transfer the controls of the ship to me.”
Immediately on the monitor in front of him flashed a message that the co-pilot was transferring all the ship’s controls to him. The captain accepted and began to steadily and quickly slow the ship’s speed. The council’s spaceship behind them also slowed down to avoid a collision.
The fighting remained intense and the slower speed was causing them to take more damage. The captain wasn’t worried about the extra damage. He knew they weren’t getting out of this alive. His focus was on preventing the council from sending anyone after Zryolk, which he knew they were in the process of doing.
When the captain had slowed down as much as he thought he could risk, he sped the ship up to full power. He knew his crew would wonder what he was doing, but he didn’t have time to explain, and in a couple of minutes it wouldn’t matter anyway.
He increased his spaceship to full speed, and as he expected the council’s ship sped and began making up the ground.
“Charks, connect our intercom to the council’s spaceship.”
“But captain, they have yet to respond,” she replied.
“It doesn’t matter,” the captain said. “I know they can hear us.”
In no time Charks told the captain, “Okay, sir. We are connected.”
When the council’s spaceship had closed the gap, and before they could slow to a trailing speed equal to his own spaceship, the captain slammed all of the engines into reverse. This caused an immediate and dramatic decrease in speed—one which the council’s spaceship had no chance of duplicating.
The captain screamed into the intercom so the last thing everyone on both spaceships heard was, “For the Snader Lord!”
The council’s spaceship plowed into the captain’s spaceship and both exploded, destroying all involved.