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The Skull God of Traskos

Joel Jenkins

The gleaming solar sails of the freighter, Primelia, began to fold as the star ship settled into orbit around the hazy yellow globe of the planet Traskos Seven. The blazing red of the dying sun shone fiercely against the segmented metal sheaves as they retreated into the gleaming titanium masts; which were then unstepped and hydraulically lowered to the surface of the deck where the turbulence of entering the planet's dusty atmosphere would do them no harm.

The barbarian priest stood alone on the deck, the hood of his brown cloak pushed back, letting his vision sweep from the boiling carmine flames of the sun to the infinite void of space, and the unending points of light that spilled in snowy trails of white across the tarry sky. A small planet called Acheron, orbiting one of those stars, had been Asher's home until his people had foolishly defied the wishes of the Phoenician Imperium. Now his world was a decaying and lifeless husk devoid of all life; much like Traskos Seven was soon to become.

Asher shrugged his broad shoulders and folded the massive trunks of his arms as he contemplated the sand-plumed skies of Traskos. Once, he was told, it had been a thriving planet, but the sun was in its last years of life. In the years preliminary to the day the sun would supernova, it began to convulse in its death throes—casting gouts of scorching death to the planet and killing anything that had not taken refuge below the planet's surface. A steady stream of freighters and passenger ships had left the planet, moving billions to more habitable solar systems where they could continue their lives and rebuild the vast cities that had been reduced to ash-covered ruins on Traskos.

"Not much of a vacation spot," suggested a voice from behind him.

Startled, Asher's hand instinctively went to his waist and his bastard sword leaped from the oiled scabbard at his side. He whirled as he drew, making the unsheathing and the attack part of one continuous movement. His assault came with unexpected quickness for such a huge man, but his opponent reacted nearly as swiftly; drawing a scimitar and managing to parry the blade that licked hungrily toward him.

When Asher saw whom it was that he had swung on, he dropped the tip of his weapon. "Never sneak up on me like that," he said gruffly as he resheathed his blade.

The second man was a head shorter than Asher and his dark skin stood in stark contrast to the barbarian's ivory hue. Shadrak was not quite as massive as Asher, but still displayed a prodigious amount of highly developed musculature. He wore a bandana over his head, which did little to constrain the black dreadlocks that spilled down his neck and halfway down his back.

"It wasn't my intention to surprise you," answered the newcomer. "If you hadn't been lost somewhere between galaxies you would have heard me coming long before I spoke."

Asher pushed back a stray lock of his blonde mane and frowned. "I don't like this planet. It doesn't have much life left in it, and this sun will do nearly the same to it as the Phoenician planet crusher did to my home planet."

Shadrak nodded. "The captain says that his sensors show another solar flare building. It will hit soon, but by that time we'll be behind the planet and Belzath will be selling his stolen gravity wells to the smugglers who work for the Callistos Empire."

"Hopefully some good will come of this excursion then. The Callistosians are weak and they desperately need to be better equipped. Although, I'm sure Belzath is asking far too much for the gravity wells. All the same, I'll be glad when we are away from this god forsaken planet."

Shadrak laughed. "The crew was talking of some death cult that is apparently still hiding out somewhere on Traskos. They refused to evacuate when everybody else left the planet. Evidently they worship some sort of skull-god that has promised to lead them to a better life when they die in the supernova."

Asher shrugged uncomfortably, shifting the weight of his massive frame from one foot to the other. "That is all we can hope for really," he said. "That when we leave this life we deserve to go to a better one. Of course, I don't see any sense in hurrying it along."

"That is right," answered Shadrak. "We'll all die soon enough as it is." He paused as his mind wandered back. "When I was impressed into service for the Phoenicians, they drilled us until we believed we were expendable—that we had no other purpose than to die for the Overlord. Of course, the reason that they drafted me was because they had heard the stories about the Krathek manipulating people with their minds, and through some accident of birth, I had a rare genetic structure that made me resistant to psychic suggestion. Ironically, it also made me more difficult to indoctrinate."

"I'd willingly die for the right cause," pondered Asher. "If my death could serve to bring down the Phoenicians I would gladly lay down my life."

As if in response to his words a cerulean crack appeared in the sky about a hundred leagues from the position of the Primelia. It started as a thread, but it broke open a swirling maw that gushed red vapor and brimstone from its mouth.

Shadrak stepped to the edge of the freighter's deck, standing against the metal railing that circled the perimeter, and he appeared as though he might slip and plunge into the void of space beyond. In reality the open deck was encircled by a projected containment field that sealed in the atmosphere and served as a shield that was both effective in deflecting torpedo attacks and in refracting laser strikes. Now, the ebony warrior pressed his scarred hands against this invisible barrier and leaned against it to watch the strange fissure open in the blackness of the sky.

"It's a warp hole," muttered Asher in awe.

Peering intently into the gap in space, Shadrak made no response. Among the writhing tendrils of unholy power that reached from the ruddy hues of the warp, he could see the silver hull of a Phoenician warship emerging. Its prow was high and bristled with gun and torpedo ports. A score of gleaming masts thrust upward against the roiling red backdrop of the warp, the sails furled and the pulse engines driving the massive ship through the lava seas that boiled endlessly in this space between dimensions.

"It's the Phoenicians," yelled Shadrak as he leaped from his precarious position at the rail. "They're dropping a warship through the warp. They'll be right on top of us!"

A surge of hatred rushed through Asher. He wanted to turn the Primelia around and face down the warship, but he finally let his logic win out. The freighter was armed with only a few torpedoes and one laser. It would be as a gnat going against a giant. The gnat might be fortunate enough to prove an annoyance, but if he hung around for too long he was sure to be swatted.

Shadrak ran by Asher and down a grated ramp into the bowels of the freighter. The metal walls were thick with grime and many of the overhead panels had been removed to facilitate the ongoing repairs that the ship always seemed to need. Bunches of cabling drooped from their moorings, fixed to an ancient network of electronics and phosphagenic relays that ran the ship.

Though he had a few seconds head start on his sprint to the helm of the ship, Asher was soon alongside him matching him stride for stride in the narrow corridors that were cluttered with worn out ship parts and crated supplies that had long since been forgotten and left to molder.

In a few moments a bulkhead hissed open and the two warriors found themselves in the cramped cockpit of the freighter. Captain Krav turned to glance at them. His heavily jowled face was slick with sweat. An array of lights from an overhead computer panel cast a sickly green aura on his complexion. "What do you two want?" he snapped.

"There's a Phoenician warship warping in behind us," said Shadrak with a grimace.

"Tell me something I don't know," answered the captain. He turned to a svelte man dressed impeccably in a blue flight uniform. "I don't know how I ever let you talk me into smuggling gravity wells, Belzath. They're hot. Way too hot," he growled.

Belzath scratched absently at a thatch of thick graying stubble on his chin. "There's a sandstorm kicking up on the surface. Take the ship down and see if we can lose them. They can't bring that monstrosity of a ship into the atmosphere to follow us." He stepped to the door and began disappear into the dim corridor beyond.

"Where are you going?" asked the captain.

"To man the laser, just in case we need to use it," answered the smuggler.

"An exercise in futility!" snorted the captain. He spoke to his emaciated helmsman, and in response to the orders the wispy-haired pilot engaged the pulse engines and pounded his way toward Traskos' atmosphere.

A shriek of pain echoed through the cockpit. At the right hand side of the chamber, in a niche webbed with cabling, a man, naked except for a sheath of leather around his loins, arched his back and screeched in agony. His flesh was covered with tattoos that marked him as a member of the order of the navigator. He was a calculatrex; one who psychically mapped the space in the warp and guided the ship through to its destination. These men and women were bred for their special abilities and trained in the cryptic paths of warp navigation. They were implanted with psychotronic jacks which fed directly into the neural pathways of their brain, and through which they could become one with a ship's navigational computers.

"What's wrong with him?" asked Shadrak.

Captain Krav shrugged. "An overload of psychic energy from the warp. It takes five to ten calculatrexes to open a hole that size. My guess is that he just isn't equipped to handle the energy coming out."

Before the captain could finish speaking Asher took two steps over to the calculatrex and grabbed hold of the wiring that fed into the man's brain, but before he could tear the circuits loose, a spasm of blue energy rippled along the navigator's body throwing him to the floor in a tangle of arcing cables. A wisp of smoke slipped from the man's open jaw and the smell of burning flesh tainted the air.

Asher jerked back his hand, his palm stinging from the energy that had ripped through him and taken the life of the navigator.

The Captain scowled. "Good thing I've got another one on board—and let me tell you, she is much better looking than this one."

The freighter began to rock and heave as it plunged into the atmosphere. Asher and Shadrak braced themselves as the gravity of the planet increased its hold. Shadrak critically watched the helmsman's efforts, he was doing a competent job bringing the ship through the atmosphere, but any moment the Phoenician ship would clear the warp and open fire. If the pilot was using evasive maneuvers, he might have a chance to get the ship into the cover of the sand storm before being obliterated by a barrage from the warship, but it was obvious to Shadrak that this pilot was green- and that such maneuvers were beyond his capabilities.

He stepped forward and put his hand on the helmsman's shoulder. "I'm taking the yoke. I can get this brick to the ground in one piece."

The pilot licked his lips nervously, and looked back hesitantly at the captain. Shadrak began to strengthen his grip on the slight man's shoulder, in preparation to tear him from his seat, when he felt a metal cylinder pressed up against the back of his neck.

"You think I'm going to turn the stick over to some drifter, just because he says he can fly my freighter?" The question was purely rhetorical, so Shadrak didn't bother responding. His personal force shield was shut down. Even if he reached down to the unit mounted to his belt and activated it, the gun was already within the bubble that it would project. If the captain happened to miss his target the bullet would ricochet around on the inside of the force bubble until it hit him anyway.

"You two get out of here," demanded the captain. "I don't want to see either of you again until you disembark." He waved his gun in the direction of the doorway. Shadrak didn't need any further invitation, and he and Asher left the cockpit. The ebony drifter reached down and activated his personal containment field, bringing up the force bubble around him. The only indicator that it was on, was a slight shininess in the air around him. The field had refractive qualities that would deflect laser fire and it would also reject kinetic energies that intruded too quickly; high speed projectiles would be shunted away leaving the occupant unharmed.

"Do we take the ship by force?" asked Asher.

Shadrak shook his head. "Even with me piloting, our chances would be slim. We're getting off this ship."

The ship lurched throwing the two adventurers into the air and against the bulk head. The hull rang with the pounding explosions of a barrage of warheads from the Phoenician warship. An eerie sound, like the cracking of warming ice, reverberated through the ship. It was the sound of the containment fields buckling. Once they fell, the freighter would be at the mercy of the Imperium ship. In the next few moments, the captain would be ordering all the portals sealed so that the vacuum of space would not suck away their atmosphere and pull them gasping, like fish out of water, into the void.

The grinding gears of the portal doors sounded in the corridors.

"They're shutting the bulkheads," said Asher. He regained his feet and sprinted down the greasy metal plates of the corridor. Ahead, the hall ramped up to the open upper deck. As their feet pounded metallically up the grated ramp, they saw the cylindrical hatch rolling into place- already halfway across the circular portal. Several crewman and a few other vagabonds who had paid for passage, like Shadrak and Asher, were slipping through the opening, their figures limned by the boiling yellow clouds of explosive near misses by the pursuing warship.

Asher easily slipped his large frame through the narrowing opening. The thick adamantium disc was nearly shut when Shadrak dived through. It caught his boot heel as he came out the other side onto the outer deck, the circular movement of the disc threatening to drag his foot into the seal where the portal would be seated airtight, against the oxygenless and freezing air of outer space, or the atmosphere of whatever planet they might be on—hospitable or otherwise.

Shadrak pitted his immense strength against the inevitable pull of the machine, but he was fighting a losing battle. His left foot was locked tightly in his boot, and it was a matter of seconds before it would be crushed by ten tons of pressure. He refused to give up, but was losing hope when a large hand gripped him beneath each armpit and heaved him backward. The buckles of his boot bent and the seams split, releasing the Rigellian's foot, and spilling both Shadrak and Asher backward on their posteriors. The door rolled shut, mashing the boot into a polymeric extrusion as it sealed tightly into place.

Shadrak had no time to thank Asher for his rescue. The Primelia rocked with the turbulence of entry into the envelope of gritty air that surrounded Traskos Seven. Little more than a hazy shape in the dark sky, the Phoenician warship rained down fire upon the freighter. A dual laser beam of pulsing amber ricocheted off the outer shield, refracting and splitting into a rainbow prism that briefly spanned the horizon. Blossoms of red and yellow bracketed the freighter. Shadrak figured it would be only moments before the Phoenicians cracked the containment field of the Primelia; it was functional, but old and obsolete by modern standards. Even the most technologically recent freighter probably wouldn't be equipped with a power plant capable of throwing up a shield that could fend off the advances of a full-blown warship.

Gathered at the rail, a dozen men had realized the futility of the Primelia's flight and decided to abandon ship. Scrambling to their feet, Asher and Shadrak, who strode unevenly on one bare and one booted foot, joined them. As they approached, they each adjusted their personal containment fields, by a dial that stood on the fist-sized units that they wore at their waist. First they tightened the molecular frequency of the containment field so that nothing could get in or out. At this thicker consistency, they could maintain an air supply of about thirty minutes within their protective bubble. With this accomplished, they needed to penetrate the ship's containment field. By standing in close proximity to invisible wall their containment field unit could pick up the frequency that the force field operated on—and that frequency could be adjusted, and matched closely enough by the personal force field, that the wearer of the unit could slip through the outer shield without affecting its integrity.

The grim assemblage at the ship's edge finished adjusting their fields and, two and three at a time, slipped through the ship's force field, leaping into the hazy ribbons of Traskos' atmosphere. Shadrak and Asher sprang by a fresh-faced crewmen who had been convinced by several of his more experienced shipmates that the ship was surely doomed, and that abandoning it was their only shot, albeit a long one, at survival.

As Asher left the ship he saw the youngster attempt to jump through the containment field, but his own personal field unit had been misadjusted and he rebounded from the ship's shield, not able to leave its protective envelope. A moment later a proton warhead cracked the Primelia's defenses, penetrating the invisible sphere and turning it into a ball of ricocheting blue energies. The boy screamed as the flesh dissolved from his skeleton, and then his very bones were eaten away by the raw energy unleashed from the warhead.

The rear third of the Primelia disintegrated into cascading streams of nuclear particles that trailed out behind the doomed ship. All this was strangely quieted by Asher's own containment field, somehow muting his own sense of its horrifying reality. Somewhere above him he made out a dim scream; a piercing whistle that grew louder and louder.

Asher recognized the sound. "Anti-personnel cluster bombs," he muttered as he straightened out his body and arrowed toward the surface of the planet that was still many miles below. The Phoenicians had spotted the mass exodus from the Primelia and were bent on killing every single one of the escapees. The bombs were designed to decimate troops that abandoned their ship and each cluster contained a hundred of the nasty heat seekers. Roughly a dozen of them had escaped the Primelia's fate, but the only real hope for Asher to survive was to rocket past the other ship-jumpers and hope that they absorbed the brunt of the missiles. It was a slim chance, but Asher had talked to seasoned veterans of the Fifty Wars, who had claimed to have survived the anti-personnel bombs in just such a manner.

Already, quite a few of the jumpers began to employ their anti-gravity harnesses and their descent was slowing to a relative crawl. This was a reasonable idea in most cases. It helped avoid the build-up of friction that would heat the protective containment field and the air enclosed within. Shadrak and Asher whipped past these laggards, grit from the planet's surface rattling against their force bubbles and the air friction already making their shells uncomfortably hot.

The whistling grew louder and the warhead burst above them, sprouting a hundred red petals that traced out a smoky search pattern in the purple-hued sky. These smart bombs zig-zagged across the horizon, homing in on their hapless targets. A series of explosions boomed an uneven staccato as the heat-seekers tore apart body after body of the jumpers. A flash of white heat and a gout of crimson and there was only flapping scraps of flesh and a scarlet haze hanging in the air.

There were two or three score explosions, many of the missiles striking the same target, but the sky was still thick with heat-seekers. Finding no more targets they zoomed lower, toward the three remaining survivors of the onslaught. The sick relief of having their lives spared at the expense of the others was short-lived. Falling about a hundred feet away from each other, Asher and Shadrak could see a flock of heat-seekers angle in their direction. Another half dozen pinpointed the distant form of the third jumper.

The heat inside the force shell was building. Shadrak took shallow breaths of the stifling air and adjusted the dial on his grav harness until his fall slowed to a crawl. He had only moments now before the missiles took him. He dropped his shielding and a gritty wind gusted through, nearly blinding him. He reached for one of the half-discs on his harness, triggered the fuse with his thumb and hurled it up and to his right with every bit of strength he could muster. He had nowhere to plant his weight, so every bit of the throw came from the arm. Immediately, he cut the anti-grav unit and brought his pcf shield back up to full strength.

Shadrak plummeted like a stone. The plasma grenade arced up and exploded in a ball of super intense heat. Immediately the cadre of missiles homed in on the explosion and veered off course to be consumed by the boiling ball of plasma. Their explosions created a red inferno that reached outward, growing geometrically and blotting out the purple sky.

Turning his attention to the planet's surface, Shadrak was surprised to find that he was quickly coming up on the scorched desert of Traskos. He dialed up the anti-grav all the way, but was still falling way too fast for a comfortable or safe landing. He struck hard, casting up a plume of black sand into the air, and his containment field leaving a rounded impression where he hit. The force field did little to cushion the jar of the landing, and groaning, Shadrak shut down his shield unit and fell, on his hands and knees, into the hot sands. The air was intensely warm, but breathable despite a sulphurish taint.

A little dazed, he finally came to his feet and cast about for the huge blonde man that was his traveling companion. A few hundred feet away, he saw Asher trudging toward him. The dying sun beat down, filtering its intense rays through the purple atmosphere.

"Nice work," said Asher, his eyes hollow and haunted. "I thought I was going to be joining the rest of my people in the afterworld."

"You look a little pale. You holding together alright?"

Asher nodded. "I always look a little pale compared to you," he joked in a deadpan. He sighed. "It's the Phoenicians; they just slaughtered a dozen people right before my own eyes, not to mention anyone left onboard the Primelia." He paused, his chest heaving and fist clenching. "And there was nothing that I could do about it. I couldn't do anything but turn tail and run."

Shadrak looked at Asher and knew that he was facing the last of a race that had been obliterated by the Phoenicians. He spat out a mouthful of dark grit and brought his eyes up to meet those of the sole survivor of the Asherian tribe. "I've no love for the Phoenicians, either. They impressed me into service to do their dirty work—and I'll be damned if I'll ever bow to them again. We'll find a way to make the Phoenicians rue the day that we were ever born. I promise you that."

Asher chuckled. "That's what I like about you Shadrak; who else would make grand promises for the future while stranded on an empty desert planet?"

"We will be dead men if we don't find some shelter," admitted Shadrak as he gazed at the black sands, the scorched and empty landscape extending in every direction for as his far as his eye could see. He looked at his chronometer. "A solar flare is scheduled to hit in under three hours."

Asher lifted a brawny arm in a seemingly random direction. "I think we should go that way," he said.

"What makes that direction any better than the rest?"

"Call it intuition, if you like," answered Asher. "But I call it divine guidance. My father was the high priest of our clan and I, as the only one left, have inherited that mantle."

Shadrak tightened up his sword belt, lowered his head and began striding in the direction that Asher had indicated. The hot wind howled and tore at the two as they trekked across the dusky dunes that rippled in the blasts. "I, for one, am counting on divine guidance," answered Shadrak. "Although I tend toward optimism, I think we need all the help we can get."

Their shield units were useless for keeping the blowing sand at bay. A complete and airtight bubble could only be brought up when it wasn't necessary for a person's feet to stay in contact with the ground. The wind kept up a constant and scathing barrage that threatened to scour the flesh from their bones. The sun hung, a raging violet globe, glowering in the sky; gathering its energies for the next flare that would sweep across the planet, incinerating all foolish enough to be caught unsheltered.

The landscape was an unceasing vista of dark dunes. Occasionally a charred piece of cylindrical and thorned vegetation thrust its limbs above the gritty surface, but there was little to break the monotony of the eternal sea of sand. Each footstep sank, and the desert sucked at their feet as though intentionally retarding their progress. Their anti-grav harnesses had been exhausted of power during their jump, and they were of little use to speed their strides across the soft dunes.

An irregular metallic speck appeared on the horizon, visible only momentarily when the sand-filled gusts died.

"What do you think that is?" asked Shadrak, as they forged toward it.

Asher shrugged his broad shoulders. "It could be anything. At this distance it's hard to say."

As they trekked nearer to the glistening object it became apparent that it was an escape pod. Its surface still smoldered from its accelerated descent through the atmosphere and footprints were clearly marked in the wind-protected sand at the pod's open hatch. Alongside these marks were two long imprints that were each about two inches in width and ran perpendicular to each other for about three yards.

"It looks like someone else made it from the Primelia in one piece," said Shadrak.

Asher shook his head. He was from a barbaric world where technology had not yet obliterated the skills necessary to survive in the wild. "Not one person," he grunted. "Two; a male, and a female. Can you see the smaller footprint and how the imprints press only lightly into the sand?"

"Next you'll be telling me how much she weighed," said Shadrak wryly.

"About a hundred and ten pounds," answered Asher without hesitation.

"You're kidding me, right?"

Asher smiled and shook his head.

"I don't remember seeing any women aboard the Primelia, though."

"No, neither do I," said Asher. He thought for a moment. "Although, before you tried to take over the ship and got us booted from the cockpit, the captain did say something about a Calculatrice being aboard."

"What about those long marks?" asked Shadrak, indicating with his finger.

Asher furrowed his brow. "I'm not positive. I'm guessing they loaded up a grav-cart while it was on the ground.

Shadrak raised an eyebrow. "I remember something else that happened before we got kicked out. Belzath left the cockpit. I'm willing to bet that he had the escape pod packed with the gravity wells and was ready to jettison the pod at the first sign of trouble."

"And in case he managed to find another ship, he brought the calculatrice with him. They're necessary for warp travel, and if he manages to find a ship somewhere, he might need one."

"Probably he sent a signal to the Callistosians to get a pick up." Shadrak took shelter behind the pod. "Although in this kind of storm, there is no telling if communications devices will work or not."

"They didn't," deduced Asher. "If they had made contact they would have stayed here, but instead they pushed their grav-cart out into the desert."

Shadrak checked his chronometer yet again. "We've got an hour and a half before the sun flare."

"Would this pod protect us if we closed it up tight?" asked Asher.

The ebony man shook his head. "It would serve more like a frying pan than anything else. We need to find some tunnels and get under the earth."

"Let's get moving then."

They followed the disappearing trail of footsteps, but soon the track was wiped out by the shifting sands. Asher led them, at first following the same course, but then veering to the east and blazing a twisting trail between mounded ridges and charcoal encrusted outcroppings of rock. Shadrak didn't question the changes in direction. He didn't necessarily believe in Asher's God, but he had faith in the blonde barbarian and trusted his judgment. If Asher put his faith in some all powerful God, then so would he.

The blazing heat threatened to sap the vitality from them even before the solar flare came. The wind swept away the moisture from their sweating bodies before it could cool their skin. Finally, they halted atop a large black dune, the elements whipping Asher's cloak and pulling at Shadrak's thick pants. The dread-locked warrior checked his chronometer and glanced apprehensively at the sun. Fifteen minutes left. He looked to Asher.

"Where to now?"

Asher stood still and closed his eyes for a time. He made no move for close to a minute. Shadrak impatiently watched the needle of his clock tick off the seconds- each moment bringing them closer to their doom. Finally the blonde giant's eyes flickered open. "We're here," he said.

Shadrak raised his eyes incredulously. "We're in the middle of nowhere!"

"Below us," said Asher.

Looking downward, Shadrak watched the wind pick up the sand from around his feet; one booted and the other bare except for a ragged and sand-filled sock. "I don't see anything," he said.

"I don't either," answered Asher. "Yet—" He started down the side of the dune, sliding and leaving two long gouges with his feet. Immediately the sand began to sift into the trail, and the path began to erase itself. Shadrak clambered down after the unlikely looking priest as he began to circle the dark hillock.

"I don't believe it," said Shadrak as he halted next to Asher.

Hidden beneath the upper dome of the dune was a bunker constructed from Tavitite. The blue metal was pitted and scarred, its protective paint peeled and blistered. Black sands were mounded up against massive double doors, above which an optical unit was bolted into the bunker wall. They could see that at one time the unit was able to scan from the left and to the right, but the solar flares had fused the gears and it was now fixed to one camera angle that pointed away from where the two wayfarers stood.

Shadrak shifted his weight to his right foot and let the sole of his left cool down. He wished that he still had his other boot to buffer the heat of the sand. Still, such was a minor worry. First they needed to figure out a way to get inside this small fortress.

Removing a fist-sized packet from his harness, Shadrak adjusted a few dials and handed the mag-bomb to Asher. "I've got a plan," he said.

Asher hefted the explosive in his palm. "I could have thought of this, but first let's assume that if someone is in there they may be friendly and willing to let us in."

"Agreed," said Shadrak.

Moments later Asher strode alone across the sands. He came up to the massive blast doors and laid a heavy fist to its metal. "Please give me shelter!," he cried. "The solar flare is coming soon." He continued his pleas, repeating them over and over again. He wondered if the bunker were empty or if his cries were falling on deaf ears. His silent question was answered, when a lilting laugh mocked them through a crackling loudspeaker. "Go away infidel. The god of the skull does not shelter unbelievers. Go thy way and be burned."

This answer satisfied Asher that they had no chance of a friendly reception. He removed the explosive packet from beneath his brown cloak, brandishing it high so that anyone viewing the monitor would be sure to see it's blinking red light and the time sequence that digitally counted toward zero. "Fine," he yelled. "Then I will open the door myself!"

He pushed the bomb against the bunker door, where it attached with a clank, and quickly retreated out of sight of the camera. He had displayed almost four minutes on the timer and hoped that the occupants of the bunker would come running out to shut down the bomb. If no one opened the doors, they would actually have to blow them off their hinges and see if they could find shelter within.

Shadrak crept up beside Asher. A row of throwing knives glistened in the harness that crossed the warrior's broad chest. At his side he gripped the pommel of his scimitar. Asher withdrew the blade of his bastard sword several inches, so that the hilt, which he held tightly, protruded from beneath the thick cloak that he wore.

"Maybe we should have just thrown ourselves in the sand and pretended to worship this skull god," whispered Shadrak.

Asher looked sideways at his companion. "I think not."

"Of all places, this is where your god led you," complained Shadrak, in a half-serious tone.

"He got us to shelter. Now it's up to us to do the rest."

"I'm with you," decided Shadrak. "It's only fair that we do a little bit of the work."

Tense moments crawled by and then the earth began to rumble. The heavy doors began to inch backward, opening up and sliding back into the massive walls of the bunker. As soon as the double doors had slid open wide enough for a man to slip through, a half-dozen men garbed in scarlet robes leaped through, mantras and chants on their rouged lips, and hatred seething in the eyes behind their golden masks. The first through the gap lifted a forearm that writhed with muscle and pointed out to the desert expanse. "Shoot the heretics on sight," he bellowed. "They are hiding out there somewhere."

Shadrak could see the shimmer in the air around the cultists, indicating that they each wore a personal containment field. A gun would be useless against them, and they were at too close of range to use a plasma grenade without risking their own lives- which meant they would have to resort to hand-to-hand combat even though they were outnumbered three to one. The sixth cultist emerged wearing a heavily armoured containment suit as wide as two people. Its armoured plating was jointed with mechanical servos that moved the two-ton suit forward in plodding footsteps that sank deep into the sand. This was the bomb expert, Shadrak presumed.

The robed protectors of the bunker had moved forward and fanned out, with their backs to the spot against the bunker where Asher and Shadrak had pressed themselves. The two intruders began to move through the sifting sand toward the opening in the bunker when the leader wheeled and shouted savagely, his green eyes glittering as he spotted his cornered quarry.

"Go," said Shadrak, giving Asher a small push.

But Asher was no longer there. His muscles galvanized instantly into action, and he bounded cat-like across the sand, slipping behind the armoured bomb-expert, before the ponderous suit could be turned to face in his direction. This put him directly behind the two-ton behemoth and between the jagged interlocking jaws of the blast doors. Reaching beneath his earth-colored cloak, he pulled loose a long knife and pressed the point to the articulated waist joint of the bomb suit. He pushed the entire half-yard of blade through the joint and into the body beyond. A piercing scream resounded within the confines of the armour. Ever so slowly the torso began to lean backward, pincering the blade between thick plates of armour and snapping it in two.

While Asher was occupied with the bomb expert, Shadrak lifted a foot long knife, gripping the heavy-edged blade between his thumb and forefinger. The big cultist was charging toward him, black sand spraying up from the tread of his shoes. Shadrak waited until the man was seven yards away and hurled the knife. It rotated twice and slipped through the cultist's containment field, pinning the sprinting man in the center of the forehead. His jaw fell open as crimson gushed down his face, his momentum carrying him headlong into the sand.

The fortress' other defenders turned now, their jaws set in fervent determination. Most of them saw the shimmering halo around Shadrak and determined that they were going to have to meet him face to face. They lowered their carbines, letting them hang by their straps, and reached for short blades that were girded with twisting purple sashes that roped around their waists. One cultist either failed to see the containment field around Shadrak or he just didn't care. He lowered a repeating laser rifle and began spewing viscous shards of deadly light in the ebony warrior's direction. The gun screamed repeatedly as it hurled its deadly beams, and the scent of ozone filled the air.

Shadrak's dreadlocks flailed behind him as he sprinted lopsidedly toward Asher and the gap in the blast doors. The dark sands burned beneath his bare left foot. Laser shots ricocheted wildly from the contortions of the priest's field, scattering in all directions. Screams echoed against the bunker's walls as beams seered through flesh and fused bone, one of the cultists, who evidently was without the protection of a containment field, catching stray pulse from the shootist's foolish attack.

As Shadrak joined Asher behind the tottering mountain of armour, the cultist began peppering his dead ally with a constant barrage of laser blasts that began to eat away at the metal plates of the bomb-expert's suit.

Asher threw his weight against the back of the armoured bomb-defuser, attempting to keep it upright. "This guys insane! He's killing his own men."

Hunkering behind the dead pile of armour, Shadrak removed a plasma grenade from his belt. "It's working in our favor, though." He pulled the pin and squeezed the mantle tightly.

"How many of those do you have left?" asked Asher.

"This is the last one," sighed Shadrak remorsefully. "I hate to see it go." He flipped it over his head, and the armoured helmet of the man they were hiding behind. The grenade dropped in the sand just behind the line of cultists that were hanging back due to the untamed barrage from their cohort. The grenade hissed as it triggered, a super-intense ball of expanding power devouring everything within twenty feet. It was pure energy and had no kinetic force or light that a containment field could repel or deflect. It devoured three of their attackers and took the left arm of a fourth.

When the mass of unleashed energy subsided, it had eaten the armour from the front of the bomb expert's protection suit. Relieved of this supporting structure, the bomb expert crumpled forward in a tangle of metal plates and pulped flesh.

The grinding gears of massive machinery began to rumble, and the blast doors began to roll closed, pushing aside sand that had fallen over the tracks of the thick rails upon which it rode. Someone inside had actuated the gate and was closing out both the intruders and their companions, sacrificing them to the solar flare that was only minutes away. Panic flashed across the faces of the two remaining cultists and they dashed toward the doors.

Asher and Shadrak were only feet away, and they easily stepped through the jagged maw of the gate, before they were able to enmesh and lock out the outside world. One of their attackers got to the gate and began clamber through the engaging teeth of the doorways. Asher whirled and prodded him back with the tip of his bastard sword. As he withdrew the blade, the teeth of the gate linked and inexorably crushed the screaming cultist who was caught between. Crimson gushed like water as the two doors ground to a close.

Quickly, the two interlopers ascertained their surroundings. The relief from the relentless gaze of the sun was immediate. The air was at least twenty degrees cooler in this dimly lit antechamber. The sulphurish smell of the outdoors had been replaced with an oily scent that permeated the air. The floors were constructed of concrete now stained with a variety of fluids. In some places cracks spidered outward from the heavy metal construction of the walls. Thirty feet overhead, mounted air scrubbers whirred, and massive ventilation pipes were bolted to the bluish tavitite. The room appeared to be empty of life. A small monitor flickered by a control panel in the left-hand corner of the room.

Shadrak glanced at the monitor and found the view of the landscape empty except for several bodies- the others having been devoured by the plasma grenade. The one-armed cultist was still unaccounted before. Possibly, he had fled, afraid of being caught in the blast of the mag-bomb attached the bunker door. Shadrak checked his chronometer. If the mag-bomb had actually been set to go off, it would have blown twenty seconds ago. He had disconnected a critical wire before setting the timer. It had served its purpose well, but he hated to leave a perfectly good explosive behind.

For the moment it appeared that they had escaped detection by anyone within the facility, but someone had shut the doors. Either this person had been extremely confident that he had closed everyone out and departed the scene, or he had gone to warn the other residents of whatever mad house this was.

"I never expected that we would actually see this rumored death cult that you spoke of on the Primelia," said Asher.

As he spoke the air inside the bunker became intensely hot. Shadrak watched in dread fascination as the monitor's image suddenly distorted, showing a seething wall of scorching heat. A red-robed figure staggered into view of the monitor, his flesh withering and becoming charcoal black as they watched him fall to the earth, a desiccated husk.

With a thump from above, great coolant systems kicked in and began pumping frigid air into the bunker. "That's where I would have been if you hadn't led me to this bunker," said Shadrak, his eyes still on the monitor and the sizzling corpse.

Asher shook his head. "I can't take the credit."

Shadrak clapped him on the shoulder. "Well, thank your God for me."

Nodding, Asher threw back his cloak, shaking the dark desert sands from it and revealing the ashen skin of his massive frame. "Let's look around and see if we might be able to find a way off this planet."

"That would be nice," said Asher, "but if these skull god worshippers are really welcoming death in a supernova, then why would they have any crafts capable of leaving the planet?"

Asher smiled sardonically. "Some gods preach death, but like to have a handy means of escape."

They slipped into the southernmost of four egresses, following the tavitite hallway that glistened in the cerulean twilight glow shed from the globe lights that floated overhead at irregular intervals. Their footsteps echoed hollowly as they crept through the long shaft, deeper into the complex. The walls were slicked with perspiration, dripping in sickly splays toward the glazed cement floor. Shadrak's bare left foot splashed in pools of damp, and he passed through a drizzling waterfall of moisture that leaked from above. The hallway began to sink deeper, declining further beneath the desert sand, and finally it ended abruptly in a small cul-de-sac, a bank of closed hatches encircling the open area.

Asher examined the locking mechanisms, which consisted of an illuminated plate. "These are identi-pad locks, right?"

"Not bad for a backwater barbarian," commented Shadrak. "Pretty soon you'll have a better handle on lock technologies than I do."

"I highly doubt it," laughed Asher.

Shadrak grinned as he set to examining the door locks. As a youth he was forced to fend for himself on the streets of Shahrazar, a space-port city on a small planet in the Rigel system. The city was a cesspool where the scum of the galaxy came to play, and Shadrak had gleaned a starveling existence by emulating the petty street thieves that were his only role-model. Asher had lost his family to Phoenician genocide, but Shadrak had never known his father and wished that he had never known his mother. As a consequence of his miserable upbringing he had been exposed to and learned a variety of illicit skills as a young man.

"I've seen this model before. It's programmed to accept only certain palm prints as identification. No one else gets in—unless you know its weakness." Shadrak took the pommel of his scimitar and viciously struck the plate. It shattered, throwing a shower of hissing sparks and continued sputtering as the ebony warrior resheathed his blade, and then carefully inserted a throwing knife into the cavity that he had created. "If you hit it hard enough, you'll shatter the plate and the scanner unit inside. Then you can reach in and pop out an insulation plate and reroute a bit of the wiring."

Shadrak pulled the insulation plate free and let it fall. It clanked on the cement floor as he pulled several wires loose and began changing their circuits. "This stuff is primitive enough that I can do this. The more modern technology doesn't even use wires, just light relays that instantly transfer information. You can still crack them, but you have to be carrying the right equipment."

The blonde priest kept an eye out down the hall. Dripping condensation echoed eerily and Asher wondered that they hadn't encountered any more of the skull god's worshippers. "Either we've wandered down a hall that doesn't get much traffic, or this is a really small cult, and we've already killed them all."

"I'm hoping for that last one," commented Shadrak as he finished up his makeshift rerouting. The panel hummed, and then the door slid open with a whoosh of stagnant air. The two intruders coughed, and slowly entered the adjoining chamber. The only light in the room was that which filtered in from the glow-globes from behind and that which filtered through a dusty window in the center of a door on the exact opposite side of the room. Between the two doors were tilting stacks of crates, their dark forms casting even deeper shadows.

The portal behind them slid shut and they groped their way through the room, stumbling over boxes and paraphernalia that had been left in the narrow aisles.

"Look," said Shadrak, holding a stale smelling crimson robe aloft. "There are a stack of them here."

Without taking time to discuss it further, Asher found a robe that would fit and shrugged himself into it, while Shadrak did likewise. Once they had twined the purple rope around their waist and donned the golden masks they looked as though they were meant to be in this underground bunker. Neither of them could find a robe that was quite large enough, so each time they moved they threatened to burst a seam somewhere, but they didn't figure a bad fit would tip off a cult member that they were imposters- or so they hoped.

"Look what else I found." Shadrak proudly displayed a boot.

"Does it fit?"

Slipping his toes into the footwear, Shadrak quickly found that it was at least a size too small. He removed his foot and slit a hole in the side of the boot tip. This allowed his toes to spill out the side, and made for a more comfortable fit. He found a roll of duct tape and wrapped it a few times. "That ought to do it."

"It ought to be better than cutting your bare foot open. When I was a child, I used to run around the forest barefoot. I built up thick calluses, but still— I don't know how many times I gashed my foot on a sharp rock." Asher made it through the treacherous aisle and peered through the grime of the window.

He laughed. "What did I tell you? Things are looking up." The room beyond was a massive landing bay. The ceiling arched high overhead and then, on the far side, slanted downward with massive double gates that served as the exit and entrance for air traffic. At the moment, they were shut tightly to guard against the solar flare. Inside the bay itself rested three space ships. The smallest was a scow with a low prow and flat bottom. It was strictly intended for travel inside the solar system and clearly wasn't equipped with the essential warp engines that would crack open the spatial barriers.

Dwarfing the scow was a freighter slightly smaller than the Primelia. Its masts were stepped back and laying flat on the deck. The hull was rugged and utilitarian and its boxy form bulged with odd shapes and additions wherever the designer had an afterthought. Several gun turrets jutted from the rear and another rested at the bottom, just below two torpedo silos.

The third ship was a sleek pleasure craft, the name Exodus inscribed on the side, that must have been hijacked before it escaped the solar system. It was a combination of beauty and brawn. It's prow needled out ostentatiously, and when in position its masts would furl majestically. Its hull cut a deep draft through interstellar waters, plunging thirteen levels. It was constructed for speed and maneuverability.

Each time Asher saw a space ship, he automatically would compare it to the primitive water-going vessels of his home planet, and in those ships utilitarianism came first. From a distance the craft seemed unarmed, but close-up Asher could see the circular lines of a half dozen pop-up turrets that were currently withdrawn into the hull. In addition, there were the marks of a score of torpedo silos—their hatches shut tightly. The deck of the ship was bolstered by an array of weapons to repel borders. Asher wondered how the ship had been taken without a mark being made on its smooth lines.

Miniscule in comparison to the ships, a half dozen men and women, attired in the skull god's robes, attended to a variety of tasks. Several of them were intent on a diagnostic panel that was hooked into the scow's computer system, while one was attending to something in an open panel beneath the pleasure craft, and the others fetching tools.

"Take a look at this," interrupted Shadrak. He knocked on a wooden crate.

"I think we've found a way out of here," said Asher.

"Good, but we might want to take this with us."

Asher peered at the inscription on the crate. The jagged hammer of the Phoenician empire was burned into the wood, below it was a stamped inscription that described the contents, and accompanied by an identifying code. "Gravity wells?" he whispered. "Do you think—"

"I think they got to Belzath and the calculatrice. There are two crates here marked as gravity wells, and both are dated as produced in the last Imperial cycle. They wouldn't be here unless the cultists caught Belzath."

"Are they really gravity wells?" asked Asher.

Shadrak looked at him strangely. "Why wouldn't they be?"

The pale warrior shrugged. "I don't have a complete grasp on the technology of it, but aren't the Callistosians capable of producing their own gravity wells?"

"They do build their own, but they are extremely expensive to make. Single man fighter ships almost never include a gravity well just because they aren't necessary in a short range ship."

"So what advantage would they have by buying them from Belzath as opposed to making their own? From my conversations with the smuggler it sounded like he was planning to charge plenty."

"You're right," admitted Shadrak. "Something doesn't add up. Unless he were planning to cut the Callistosians a really good deal, there is no advantage to using a Phoenician gravity well." He grabbed hold of a slat and exerted his considerable strength. In a moment the slat shattered, and he took hold of another- following this process until he had opened up the side of the crate. A minute later he had retrieved and unwrapped a cylindrical object from the box. He laid it out on top of a shipping container.

"I've seen gravity wells, and that is definitely a gun of some sort," concluded Asher.

"A gravity well would fill the entire crate, but there has got to be at least a hundred of these things packed in that one box." Shadrak examined the black gun metal and the wide bore, and pulled loose one of the oversized clips that fed the shotgun-sized weapon. He was surprised to find the clip fully loaded. Carefully he withdrew one of the cartridges and held it up for closer examination.

It was finned for stabilization and a heavy dart-head capped each shell. "I've heard of this," murmured Shadrak. "I thought it was just a rumor. No wonder the Callistosians want them. If they don't find some way to defend themselves against these, they are doomed."

"What are they?"

"The cartridges contain a slow-burning propellant which will allow the ammunition to travel slow enough to penetrate a containment field. Each bullet is tipped with a miniature explosive, set to be triggered as soon as it hits its target."

"I see," said Asher. "A weapon which the Callistosians don't currently have, and don't currently have a defense against, either."

"The Phoenicians will wipe them out with this."

"We've got to get this to the Callistosians," said Asher.

"Maybe we can take them with us when we get out of here. Now where is that ship you were talking about?"

"She's a beauty," said Asher, pointing through the window at the gleaming pleasure craft. "Think you can fly her?"

"I can fly anything short of a Destroyer," answered Shadrak matter-of-factly. "But those things have intense security locks. Without equipment there's no way I could break us into that thing."

"Look more closely at the belly," suggested Asher, "behind the tool rack. The ramp is already down."

Shadrak grinned evilly and chuckled. "We may survive this yet."

Shortly after, two cultists emerged from the storage chamber pushing a grav-cart loaded with crates marked as Phoenician gravity wells. They moved directly toward the belly of the cruiser, past the supports, and under the thick plates of armour riveted to the ship's exterior, so that, up close, it resembled the scales of a fish. They walked within fifteen feet of a robed mechanic who stared upward into an open hatch, squinting beneath his golden mask as he adjusted something with a hand spanner.

"What's the problem with the ship?" asked Shadrak brazenly.

The worshipper responded without looking in their direction, slowly and in an unnerving monotone. "I'm adjusting the containment field—a weak spot was discovered."

"Umm—praise be to the skull god," answered Shadrak

Asher winced, but the cultist's suspicion didn't appear to be piqued.

"Yes, praise be to the god of the skull," came the monotone response.

The duo reached the ridged rampway that extended into the bowels of the ship, and were about to push the grav-cart into its dark recesses, when a piercing siren ripped through the hangar. Immediately footsteps sounded within the belly of the cruiser and a quilt-work of voices filtered out. Suddenly a group of eight cultists swept from the dimness and down toward the two intruders. Shadrak reached into his robe and put his hand on the hilt of his sword and Asher barely restrained himself from charging up the ramp and hewing down the front ranks. Still, the oncoming worshippers of the skull god didn't seem particularly alarmed by their presence, in fact, they made no hostile move or cry as they moved uniformly forward. The two warriors hesitated, and suddenly they were engulfed in a wave of red robes that carried them along toward the exit of the hangar. No one spoke, and other cloaked cultists joined them as they progressed further into the depths of the complex. They took bewildering twists and turns through dim, sweaty chambers and finally emerged in a great hall that throbbed with humanity.

The ceiling of the antechamber was lost in a hazy blue mist that floated sinuously in the air, tendrils snaking down to the crimson-cloaked mob below as if to siphon their life-energy. Open pillars lined the Tavitite walls, which were scrolled with hideous carvings that spoke of unknown horrors from the warp. The air was thick, humid, and reeked of human perspiration and, vaguely, rotting orange rind. Pressed wall to wall were entranced worshippers, swaying as if to some inaudible tune.

As they entered the room Asher could feel something twisting inside his head; some discordant note that was sounded and bent his very perceptions. He reeled, momentarily losing his balance, then was swept with Shadrak to the center of the murmuring throng.

Shadrak, too, felt some strange power worming its way into his skull. It was a disconcerting snake that hissed in his consciousness, attempting to beguile his way inside so as to warp reality. The ebony warrior pushed it away, but it gnawed at the back of his skull waiting to find a chink in the Rigellian's mental armour.

The crowd murmured out a chant in some tongue that neither Asher nor Shadrak recognized. Asher looked nauseous. "We've got to get out of here," he grimaced.

Shadrak nodded and tried to work his way backward through the crowd, but without physically pounding his way out, he found that he was at an impasse. The cultists pressed tightly, as if barely resisting the urge to surge forward.

Ahead was a brown-encrusted altar composed of black hematite stone. It gleamed in the sickly swirl of citrus mist. Behind it a sheer column of the same stone reflected the images of the chanting horde. Asher followed its upward thrust until he lost it in the blue haze that obscured its final reach.

The mob began to cantillate itself into a miniature frenzy, leaping in place and frothing at the mouth. A dull ache spread at the back of Shadrak's skull. He glanced at Asher and found the huge man's face wracked with pain.

"Whatever you do, don't give in," advised Shadrak. "That blue haze is some sort of psychotropic drug that is being fed into this hall." His own natural resistance to psychic attack had kept him relatively unaffected.

"Do you think we could cut our way clear?" asked Asher through gritted teeth.

Shadrak shook his head dubiously. "It may come to that, but see if you can ride it out. There are just too many of them. I'm afraid we'd be ripped limb from limb."

The inaction galled Asher, but he had to admit that Shadrak's analysis of their situation was fairly accurate. One surge from the mob, and the weight of sheer numbers would sweep them under a tide of human flesh.

As if on cue, the crowd began to moan. All eyes were fixed on the dais. Asher watched as a strange creature materialized from within the hematite pillar. The thing stepped out on the dais and raised his arms high, spreading the wing-like flaps that ran between his latisimus dorsi and triceps. The beast swiveled his skull-like head and viewed his devotees with red eyes that gleamed dully in sunken sockets. Leathery black skin was stretched like parchment over the sinew, muscle, and bone. Long claws gripped the dais, extending from each of the creature's eight toes. Its six-fingered hands were capped with suction cups that opened and closed as if in obscene symphony.

"A Krathek!" muttered Shadrak. He recognized the creature from briefings while he had been impressed into the Phoenician military. Though few had ever seen one of these aliens, they were said to possess great psychic power, and this Krathek had obviously taken great care to augment that power by use of drugs and brainwash techniques. The drugs had not taken full effect on Shadrak, so he saw the Krathek rise from a trap door in the dais behind the altar. From the awed expressions of the crowd, and even Asher, he knew that they had seen something even more astounding than the alien itself.

The Krathek unhinged its bony jaw and let words boom from vocal cords that sounded like an untuned violin. "Worship me!"

A cheer of adulation boomed through the hall. When the tumult died, the Krathek spoke again. "Bring me the sacrifices!"

Several followers escorted a man dressed in a black environmental suit up the stairs and to the low altar on the dais. The prisoner's footfalls were heavy and his limbs hung loosely, his head facing the floor. For one moment he looked up and regarded the crowd. The line of his face and the graying stubble on his chin brought a shock of recognition.

"Belzath," spit out Asher.

"He's alive after all. I guessed that they had killed he and the calculatrice."

The men supporting the smuggler left his side and retreated to the crowd at the base of the dais, out of sight of Asher and Shadrak. Belzath stood alone, gazing blankly out at the murmering throng.

"Kneel!" commanded the skull god.

To the bewilderment of Asher, Belzath obediently went down to his knees. "What's going on?" he asked.

"It's mind control. The Krathek is forcing Belzath to obey. We've got to do something." Shadrak reached into his robe and tried to pull his sword loose, but the press of bodies retarded his draw. In that instant the Krathek seized Belzath at the neck with both hands. The smuggler convulsed as the suckers clamped onto his neck and bit into his flesh, greedily siphoning the life-blood from his veins. In less than a minute the body had been desanguinated, the flesh withering and paling; the Krathek roaring with pleasure as he fed his consuming hunger.

Shadrak and Asher had their blades freed now, and pressed forward through the crowd, but before they could reach the dais Belzath had been drained of life. Despite the fact that the two interlopers held their blades aloft to avoid entangling them with the cavorting bodies, the skull god's devotees were too rapt in their worship to notice.

Two cultists brought forth a second victim. This one did not come so willingly. The exacting mental and psychic training that was required of a calculatrice had honed her mind to a fine-tuned thing, capable of freezing out psychic attack, much as Shadrak had been able to resist the effects of the drug-filled air within the hall.

The woman struggled wildly, almost throwing off one of the burly cultists from her arm. Her dark hair flew out behind her, and her olive skin, marked with the traditional tattoos of her guild, was slicked with sweat. She wore a synthetic leather skirt and halter top. Her hairline had been shaved back above her left ear, revealing the input jacks necessary for her profession. It was difficult not to notice her beauty of form and face, but it was a lust for blood for which the crowd shouted.

The two warriors struggled to reach the dais in time to stop the next inevitable execution.

The Krathek raised his crimson-tipped hands above his head and the crowd suddenly fell silent. "I sense that there are unbelievers among us."

The crowd hissed out its venomous hate. The Krathek slowly began to lower his right hand until it pointed directly toward Asher and Shadrak. The press of flesh cleared away from them. The cultists, loathe to be accidentally associated with the two intruders, shrank away as if their touch were poison, leaving a circle of empty space around them.

Now that they were able to, the pale and dark warriors each lowered their weapon into a useful position in front of them.

"Show your faith in your god," demanded the Krathek. "Destroy the unbelievers!"

A great cry went up from the crowd and they surged forward, hungry to appease the wrath of their god by slaughtering the two interlopers. The psychotropic air was bending Asher's mind and it seemed as though a wave of hyena-headed snakes were rolling in to destroy him, but still he didn't submit to the mental impulses that pounded at his brain, demanding that he take his own weapon and destroy himself.

Asher sent out a fervent prayer to his own god to see him through the impending bloodshed, and steeled himself for the grim work ahead. Reaching down with his right hand, Shadrak grabbed his projectile pistol and emptied the gun into the crowd. Flesh ruptured, blood and brains splattered, bullets ripped through dozens of people until their momentum was spent. The majority of cultists had let down their containment fields during their worship and so the bullets had effectively ripped through their ranks.

The gun was empty now and Shadrak didn't have time to reload or even reholster the automatic. He dropped it to the ground and let his blade travel in a deadly arc that felled the most eager of their attackers.

Asher's bastard sword cleared his sheath and he moved toward the dais, heaving his blade in a deadly semi-circle that cleared a crimson path. Shadrak's barrage of bullets kept the rear momentarily clear, and Asher's sudden charge took him half way to the dais. It was a risky maneuver that could easily have back fired, but the cultists were surprised and cleared a path for him while they reached for their own weapons and turned on their force shields. Still, several did not move aside quickly enough and Asher bounded through them, cutting them down before they had a chance to defend themselves.

Shadrak glanced behind, saw Asher's attack and deduced that he was making a run for the dais. He quickly backpedaled, keeping the crowd at bay with the point of his scimitar. To his left, an emboldened cultist stepped forward with his blade held high. Barely glancing at this foe, Shadrak pushed the sharp edge of his blade upward, cutting across his attacker's exposed throat. The man's head flopped backward and he fell in a gory, gurgling heap.

A moment later Asher and Shadrak stood back to back, and their brief respite had ended. A mass of screaming, gibbering, and frothing cultists descended upon them. Though the mob carried weapons there was nothing skillful or measured about their attack. Some were hurled forward by the weight of the crowd, unprepared, and easily cut down by the unbelievers. The two warriors hewed madly to the left and the right, but the bodies came faster than they could cut.

Asher's blade locked in a skull, and before he could wrench it free the blade was wrested from his grip by the mass of pushing flesh. Defenseless, he lifted a corpse in front of him and charged forward, using his considerable strength against the push of the mob. The tips of several blades penetrated his makeshift shield, as his enemies attempted to hack through. As strong as the blonde barbarian priest was, he was faster, and he was losing this test of force. If possible, it was best to use the enemies' strength against themselves. He suddenly ceased his resistance and let the shielding body twist out of his grasp. Toppling like ancient domino pieces, robed cultists cascaded forward, leaving a heaving stair of fallen bodies to the dais. With awesome agility, Asher leaped across these bodies as though they were steps. He bounded over a thrusting sword and dagger, and finally found himself on the dais, face to face with the shriveled black visage of the skull god.

The Krathek grimaced—or perhaps smiled—exposing brown encrusted teeth and fangs. His breath smelled like decomposing flesh. Suddenly the pain that wracked Asher's mind was increased ten fold, and disoriented and in vertigo he cried out and sank to the mercifully cool floor of the stone stage.

Many of the fallen cultists had now regained their feet and Shadrak cast about for Asher only to find that he was left alone amid a swirl of licking blades. He felt a sting across his shoulder as a sword drew blood from behind. With no one at his back, they would toy with him; killing him at will. There was nothing to do now, except to kill as many as these fanatics as he could before he went down. Unless—

His anti-grav harness had been drained dry during his descent from the doomed Primelia to the scorched surface of Traskos. But if there was just a bit of residual energy lying in its power cells, it might be enough. He whirled like a wild man trying to keep the fiends at bay for one moment longer, and he slapped the activation switch to the anti-grav harness. He heard a hum as it kicked in, an inkling that there might be a tiny bit of energy left in the depleted power cells. An anti-grav harness never completely allowed someone to escape the confines of gravity, it just allowed one to valiantly resist its effects. Shadrak gathered his powerful legs beneath him and leaped. Gravity's pull was weakened for one brief moment and he soared high over the heads of the howling crowd. The energy cells gave out ten feet over the dais and gravity ripped him downward to meet it. His jolting landing rolled him painfully across the hard stone surface of the platform, and he bowled over a shocked cultist who had hold of the struggling calculatrice.

Moving with desperate swiftness, Shadrak untangled himself from the devotee and came to his feet. Fear shone in the fanatic's eyes, fading to blank oblivion as the ebony warrior brought his blade across the man's throat.

The ravishing calculatrice broke free of her last captor's hold and stumbled to Shadrak's side. "Help!" she implored.

The warrior from Rigel moved forward. The warp navigator's former captor was now off balance, and attempting to bring his straight sword into play. Shadrak's blow caved in the man's rib cage, cutting through bone and into the organs beneath. With a horrible cry the cultist staggered off the edge of the dais and disappeared into the shifting crowd below.

Having dealt with one unbeliever, the skull god left Asher curled in pain upon the dais, and turned his attention to the man who stood before him—the disguise of cultist robes tattered, hanging, and showing the dark skin beneath, the golden mask ripped away revealing the narrowed eyes that glittered with deadly intent.

"Come bow before me," rasped the Krathek shrilly.

Shadrak could feel the pressure building at the back of his skull; knocking, pounding to be let in. He ignored it. The Krathek's mind tricks were not going to work on him. For one heartbeat he lowered his head and let the creature think that he was going to submit, then he leaped forward, lashing out with his scimitar.

Surprised, the skull god stumbled backward, fending off the blade with his right hand. The scimitar chopped through the upraised forearm, splattering a black ichor that began seeping from the stump. The Krathek roared in rage and pain, and moving more swiftly than the eye could follow, he closed the gap between he and the ebony warrior.

With alien strength, he grabbed hold of Shadrak's thick neck and the creature jerked him bodily into the air with his remaining arm, so that the warrior's feet dangled above the rough stone floor. Shadrak's blade had come loose during the sudden attack. The beast was inhumanly strong and though he used both hands, he could not pull the ever-tightening iron grip away from his throat. His airway was closed off, and Shadrak knew that the beast had strength enough to snap his neck.

Though starving for air, Shadrak lifted his feet and pounded both of them into the Krathek's bony chest. The skull god staggered back, but his grip was unslackened. Shadrak realized that he had only air enough for one more such assault. He mustered his energy and struck again. The Krathek was forced back several steps, but did not release his deadly hold.

Suddenly a titanic blonde figure rose up behind the skull god, a cultist's straight sword in his white-knuckled grip. The blade came down, splitting the skull of the Krathek and spattering its viscous black contents across Shadrak.

The ebony warrior fell to the ground where he thankfully took in the citrus tainted air.

"Strange," said the barbarian as he leaned on his sword. "Suddenly my headache is gone."

"Their's isn't," answered Shadrak, looking at the crowd beyond the dais. They'd been under the psychic influence of the Krathek for far too long. They had become dependant upon his psychic presence, and now that it was gone, whatever mental faculties they had retained were swept away by his death.

They turned upon each other, gibbering shrilly as they fought tooth and nail. Some broke down and cried among the carnage, others wandered aimlessly, while yet others stormed the dais to take revenge upon those who had murdered their obscene god.

The calculatrice rushed over to their side. She pressed a trigger switch hidden in a niche near the hematite icon. A slight humming vibrated through the stone floor, and a trap door began to sink beneath the stage. "This is how the creature appeared. Maybe we can get out this way."

Asher shook his head in bewilderment. "I saw something completely different. I thought he came through the pillar."

Shadrak jumped onto the dropping platform, and the woman jumped down beside him. Asher followed shortly, just as a horde of cultists swarmed onto the stage. As soon as they had sunk beneath the floor level a panel closed above their heads, shutting out the lunatic cries of the frenzy above.

Shortly, the platform halted and they found themselves in a narrow and low corridor. Shadrak led the way, followed by the calculatrice, and Asher—who had to duck his head to negotiate the hall.

"We've got to get to that ship," said Shadrak.

"You've got a ship?" exclaimed the girl.

"No, but we found one in the complex that looks like it might be able to get us out of the solar system."

"I'm a warp witch," said the calculatrice, referring to herself by the deprecatory term used by the slavers who bought and sold those with psychic powers to negotiate the warp. "Maybe I can help."

"If you don't mind, we'd certainly appreciate it," answered Shadrak.

"Under galactic law, I'm considered salvage from a destroyed ship. You legally own me." She said this in a defiant tone, as if she were testing them. What she had told them was technically true, she could legally be considered their property. Of course, neither Asher nor Shadrak were too concerned about legalities. They were both considered wanted men by the Phoenician House.

"I think I speak for both of us, when I say that we're not interested in owning anybody," answered Shadrak. "Of course, it might be in the best interest of all of us to cooperate, so we can get off this blasted planet."

The calculatrice glanced back at Asher to see if he agreed with this course of action. Bewildered that someone would even question his desire to leave Traskos Seven, Asher answered by opening his hand and nodding. "I'm all for getting out of here!"

"I'd be happy to help however I can," she said.

"Now that we've settled that.." said Asher, "I suggest that we take this corridor to the right."

"Is that divine inspiration?" asked Shadrak.

"No. I just paid close attention when we left the hangar."

"Good enough for me. Let's try it."

They negotiated dank corridor, after corridor until a flight of stairs led them upward to blank panel that moved aside as they neared it. It emptied them out into a wet corridor that both Shadrak and Asher immediately recognized. The hall panel slid shut behind them and became indistinguishable from any other part of the blue metal paneling.

Wasting no time, they found the storage room that Shadrak had broken into, and broke in a second time. Once here, they paused for a moments of reconnaissance by peering out the grit coated window and into the docking bay.

Crimson robes crowded the bay, the cultists prowling about in packs armed with dagger and long blade. Although deranged, forty or so of the death worshippers had understood that this would be the logical destination of their quarry and had staked it out rather well.

Shadrak dug into the crate of smelly robes once again and began handing them out.

"You think it will work twice in a row?" asked Asher.

"Well, it didn't work so well the first time did it? Maybe we'll have better luck on our second try."

Shadrak and Asher replaced their bloody and tattered vestments with the stale robes from the crate, and the warp witch donned a skull worshipper's robe for the first time. The ebony warrior took this opportunity to make introductions.

"I'm Elisheba," said the calculatrice. "I want to thank you both for what you did back there. I thought that I was doomed."

"We thought we were doomed, too," said Shadrak. "Fortunately, we were able to reach you. We weren't quite fast enough to save Belzath, though."

"You knew Belzath?" she asked, her eyes narrowing.

Asher shrugged. "We knew him from the Primelia. Barely acquaintances, really."

"He kidnapped me from the Primelia," she explained. "He wanted a warp witch to help him get off the planet. He signaled some people that were planning to purchase his gravity wells, but evidently the sand has a metallic content and when the wind blows it can create magnetic fields that interfere with communications. The only people who our signal reached were the cultists. They ambushed us and brought us back here."

"We bailed out of the Primelia just before the Phoenecian warship blew it up," said Shadrak. "I was fortunate that I only lost a shoe. When we found the gravity wells, we assumed that the cultists had killed you. They seemed pretty gung-ho to send us to unbeliever's hell."

"Evidently they were saving us for something special," said Elisheba. She shuddered. "I can't say I'm going to miss Belzath, but I'm not so sure he deserved to die such a horrible death."

"I'm curious," said Asher, as he pulled a too tight sleeve over an arm. "The calculatrices that I've met have been very distant and have little to say."

Elisheba made a face. "I'm considered damaged goods. They try to breed and train the emotion out of us so that we become nothing more than a piece of equipment used to do a job. With about four percent of the trainees, they are unable to do this. We are sold at cut rate prices as flawed merchandise."

Shadrak took a moment to gaze at the warp witch's perfect profile, and finally tore his gaze away and glanced at his chronometer. "We've got ten minutes until the next solar eruption. We'd better get moving."

"The sooner I leave this place, the better," said Asher as he opened the door. They filed out, and immediately they could hear the broken and incoherent chanting of the cultists that roamed beneath the shadowed underbellies of the ships. Shadrak was tempted to take a straight line to the cruiser's entry ramp, but he didn't want to appear as though he had too much direction or motivation. He wandered toward it in a zig-zagging course that took him away from the other bands of wandering death worshippers, and then back to the ramp. At the base of the entrance, the grav-cart still hovered with its load of weapon-packed crates. Asher grabbed hold of the cart and gave it a shove that coasted it up the ramp and into the dark interior of the ship.

Elisheba started up after; as she reached the mouth of the ship a lunatic cry went up, echoing in the vast hangar and increasing as more and more throats joined it. The cultists rushed across the hangar in a mad effort to stop the interlopers from escaping.

Shadrak and Asher turned and walked up the ramp. When they reached the top Asher hit a button on the inside wall and watched as the cultists scrambled to get aboard before the ramp closed. One made a leap and grabbed hold of the rising lip of the walkway. He slowly pulled himself up and onto the ramp. Before he could get his footing Shadrak sent a throwing knife winging toward him. It struck the cultist in the right shoulder. He cried out in pain, but his grim determination kept him coming, and he leaped through the doorway. Asher impaled the man in the middle of his leap, the straight blade punching through the robes, his abdomen and exiting his back. The blond priest let his victim fall to the floor, where he struggled like a pinned fly, horrible cries issuing from his mouth. The door clanked shut and hissed as the seals were pressurized.

Asher pushed an open palm toward Shadrak. "Lend me one of your knives."

Shadrak placed a throwing knife in the pale man's palm, and Asher leaned over the dying men and drew the blade across his throat. It was a merciful gesture that ended the man's misery.

They passed through sleek and quiet corridors layered in dust as they searched for the cockpit. Once they found it down a dim corridor at the top level, Shadrak seated himself in the pilot's chair. In the rear of this room, Elisheba found the warp closet; a niche that was built specifically for warp navigators. She perched on a ledge, with her legs crossed, and strapped herself in. Then she began hooking up and rerouting a daunting array of wires. She pushed back a stray lock of glossy black hair and pressed an input and output jack into her skull.

"I'm in," she called out. "Bring me online anytime you need."

"Thanks," said Shadrak. He took a moment to familiarize himself with the controls. The array could vary enormously from ship to ship. Under normal circumstances he liked to spend some time in the cockpit and get acquainted with a ship. Today they were going to be flying without that safety net.

Asher had lagged and was peering out a portal. He watched as a group of robed figures moved over to a welding unit and began to wheel it in the direction of the Exodus. He sprinted to the cockpit entrance and shouted in. "They're bringing out the laser welder. Better bring up the containment shield. If we give them a few minutes they'll crack this thing wide open."

Shadrak reached to activate the containment field. He brought the power systems online and then the generators that would throw up the force field. Nothing happened.

"They've fired it up," called Asher, giving a play by play as he peered through the window.

"The shields are malfunctioning," yelled Shadrak. "Get to a turret and see if you can dust them off."

Asher scrambled down adjoining hallways and access tubes, all confusing because of his unfamiliarity with them.

Knowing that it might take some time for the blonde warrior to locate a turret in the right location, Shadrak quickly powered up the pulse engines. He turned on the exterior scanners and ran through a series of views until he found one that showed the welding team beneath the ship. That they were insane, was obvious by the fact that none of them wore safety goggles to save their eyes from going blind. The devotees of the now-deceased skull god cranked up the intensity of the laser welder and began to turn it toward the ship.

Shadrak grimaced. The pulse engines weren't fully powered up yet, but they couldn't afford to stay put for one second longer. If the welders cut a chunk out of the ship, the integrity of the airlocks would be compromised. That wouldn't be a big issue with the containment fields working, because they would effectively trap breathable atmosphere, but since they were offline the structural integrity of the ship was crucial.

He pulled the thrust lever back to full. The ship rolled like a wounded duck making its ungainly way into the air. The pulse thrusters settled above the welding crew, the full force of its wake focused downward. Its pounding fury pulped flesh and bone into a sickly crimson wash that rippled and sprayed across the tavitite floor.

The Exodus hung unsteadily in the air as Shadrak found the signal that would open the gates to the outer world. The beacon went out and the massive doors began to retreat. The blazing purple sun spread its fingers into the docking bay as tons of black sand sifted and spilled into the chamber. He checked his wrist chronometer and synchronized it with a time dial on the ship's control panel. Six minutes until the next solar flare. If they were caught out in the open, and not well beyond the next planet, the ship would serve as little more than a giant oven.

Asher finally located a turret and locked himself into the seat. He pressed a switch on the console near the seat and the round chamber emerged from the side of the cruiser. Immediately he saw the sun spilling into the hangar through hazy clouds of sand. The Exodus lurched, rolling over and leaving the blonde barbarian hanging upside down in his seat. He peered through the steel crystal panes of the turret as he hung on to the targeting mechanism for the hundred-millimeter rapid-fire cannon, trying to orient himself.

Across the expanse of hangar that swirled with sand, next to the freighter, a heavyset cultist hoisted an atom splitter rocket launcher. Each missile contained a warhead with a shaped nuclear charge. Asher had seen them used, and knew that without the Exodus' protective field one warhead could crack this ship in two pieces.

Asher had no time to lock onto his target; he adjusted the huge cannon with a few light touches on the targeter, which in turn aimed the massive barrel as responsively as if he were directing the aim of an arrow from a bow. He pulled the trigger and let loose a barrage of massive shells.

The blonde priest didn't hit the cultist, but he hit everything around him. Chunks of flooring and freighter erupted. Red hot shrapnel filled the dusty air, slicing through the intended target who pitched to the floor. The dying nerves in the man's fingers processed his last request and fired the missile launcher. The rocket propelled warhead slammed into the floor of the hangar, the nuclear charge triggering with a blinding flash brighter than the sun. With a tremendous roar it broke the floor open, splitting the bedrock base of the bunker asunder. Debris boiled from the fissure like smoke. The tavitite walls of the underground structure creaked as gigatons of weight shifted, exerting pressures that began to twist beams and bend metals.

Though the nuclear detonation was miniaturized and shaped, the blast rattled the Exodus, jarring the teeth of its occupants as the shockwave hit it.

"What was that?" called Elisheba, shifting her exquisite form on her seat in the warp closet.

"I don't know," answered Shadrak, "but I've got a bad feeling about it." The pulse engines were nearing a third of peak efficiency now. He engaged them to full output, and the thrusters hammered out a deep coughing staccato that pushed the cruiser, bucking, toward the bay doors. Shadrak wrestled with the ship, bringing the Exodus under control just in time to avoid slamming into a wall. He guided it through billows of tarry smoke to the narrow bay opening and through the wind borne trails of dark sand that ribboned in the air.

The Exodus emerged from the chaos below and rocketed through the atmosphere of Traskos. Shadrak checked his pulse engines. They were still at a third power. He did some quick calculations. They weren't going to have enough speed to escape the solar flare, or even get behind the planet and into its dark side, where they would be protected.

"Elisheba," said Shadrak. "I need you."

"I'm here."

"We have four minutes before the solar flare hits. Can you plot a warp course out of here in that time?"

Elisheba pursed her full lips, as she considered her options. Warp courses could take hours to plot, and the longer, more complex courses could take days of calculation. "Put me online," she said. "I'll see what I can do."

Shadrak brought her online, and Elisheba immediately sank into a trance. In the meantime the warrior from Rigel set a course that skirted the edge of Traskos' atmosphere. Unless the pulse engines suddenly came fully capable he knew that it was a futile effort; and they still hovered at about a third power.

Fortunately the warp engine appeared to be fully functional, and if Elisheba was able to plot a course in time, they might be able to escape into the relative safety of the warp.

The minutes ticked away and, shortly, Asher climbed into the cockpit and, with a sigh, dropped into the co-pilot's seat. "I must say, that was rather close."

He looked at Shadrak and saw the grim set of his jaw, and turned to find that Elisheba was deep in trance. "Are we still in trouble?" he asked.

"Solar flare," answered Shadrak. "The pulse engines are barely functioning and if we don't jump into the warp soon, we'll be wiped out."

Asher watched the hand on the dial click toward toward zero. "When we hit two seconds make the jump—whether Elisheba has finished plotting or not."

"If we run into something in the warp we're as good as dead."

"We're as good as dead right now," responded Asher. "Here, we've got no chance of surviving. If we jump into the warp we've got at least one in a thousand shot at survival."

"That good?" commented Shadrak, a touch of sarcasm edging his voice. He watched the clock tick to seven seconds, and he laughed. "Why not? We don't appear to have much to lose. Let's make the jump."

They waited for the signal from Elisheba that the plotting had been finished, but it never came. At two seconds Shadrak engaged the warp engine. Ripping open the fabric of space, the Exodus plunged through into the hellish maw and skimmed over its burning seas of fire. As the warp closed behind them the sun erupted with a fury that reached inside the exposed lair of the skull god and turned his worshippers to ash.

A few moments later the Exodus emerged from the warp unscathed, and on the dark side of the planet Traskos. Elisheba's long lashes flickered as she came out of her trance.

"We're alive?" she asked.

Shadrak whooped. "You did it! You brought us out right behind Traskos."

Elisheba shook her head, as if bewildered. "But I was still a good minute away from finishing my calculation."

"It was good enough," said Asher with a smile.

"Impossible," said Elisheba.

"We've been given a second chance," said Asher. "I suggest we do something with it."

Shadrak raised an eyebrow. "What have you got in mind?"

"The destruction of the Phoenician empire," answered Asher. "The Callistosians are waiting. I say we begin by delivering the weapons in our hold."

Shadrak mulled it over. "I like it," he decided.

Elisheba shook her head. "Insanity!" Several minutes later the warp witch winked and asked with a smile: "We start now?"