Ian Lotus is a man with a mysterious past — and a secret that could reshape mankind's destiny. The object of an interplanetary manhunt, Lotus must stay one step ahead of his pursuers, including the military, an invading alien fleet, and an interdimensional being of tremendous power.
In a distant region of the cosmos, at the edge of human-occupied space, four craft dropped out of hyperspace in a brilliant, blinding burst of light. Traveling in a tight, diamond-shaped formation, the spaceships were all identical and undeniably alien in design. The vessels streaked through the void with almost purposeful determination, their destination plainly obvious: a gargantuan, circular ring made up of matching, metallic spheres.
The occupants of the ships were the Parsnaak — huge, reptilian creatures whom nature had seen fit to bless with fierce dispositions and the unrelenting desire to slay and conquer all that they encountered. The bodies of most of them bore the scars of battle — some from their enemies, but often from one another — a testament to the savage nature of their race.
The bridge of the lead spaceship was occupied by several Parsnaak, most of whom were standing at their duty stations. (Sitting on duty made one lazy and inattentive. It was a habit to be embraced by lesser, weaker species — not the Parsnaak.) Standing at the commander’s terminal was General Bota, a cagey, ill-tempered veteran of numerous campaigns. His large frame brandished more marred flesh than any of his fellow Parsnaak, including a missing piece of tail and an eye that had been replaced by a cybernetic implant. Even unblemished, however, he would have cut an imposing figure.
“Helmsman,” Bota said in a gruff, authoritarian voice. “Status.”
“Approaching the Chronos Ring,” came the swift reply.
General Bota turned his attention to the viewscreen, which currently showed a line of large metal orbs ahead of them, stretching out as far as the eye could see to either side. The general knew that those spheres comprised an unimaginably colossal halo around the region of space inhabited by humans. They formed the Chronos Ring.
Bota absentmindedly growled. The Chronos Ring was the bane of his people’s existence. It was all that kept them from enslaving the entire human race. They had conquered far more formidable enemies throughout their history, so the fact that homo sapiens had thus far been able to escape subjugation to Parsnaak rule was an injustice that rankled.
“Bring us to a halt,” the general said, displeasure evident in his tone.
The lead ship quickly came to a halt, as did the other three in their convoy. The general drummed his fingers in agitation, his claws audibly clicking on the command terminal, then looked towards his first officer.
“Lieutenant Xarn,” Bota said.
The lieutenant, who had been staring at the viewscreen, pivoted immediately towards his commanding officer.
“Sir?” Xarn said.
“Any sign of our ‘allies’?” the general asked, uttering the last word as though it sullied him just to say it. (And perhaps it did. The Parsnaak were rumored to consider alliances as a sign of weakness.)
Xarn nodded at a young Parsnaak standing at a monitoring station.
“Ensign, report,” Xarn ordered.
“Scans reveal nothing,” the ensign replied. “No other ships of known origin in range.”
“Navigation,” Xarn said, turning to another member of the bridge crew, “are we at the proper coordinates?”
The response was almost immediate. “We are in exact position.”
“How long until our rendezvous?” the general asked. Xarn gave a response that was roughly the equivalent of three minutes. Not a great length of time by any stretch of the imagination, but General Bota was not known for his patience. He grunted irritably, but said nothing.
Xarn turned once again to the viewscreen, staring in almost rapt fascination at the Chronos Ring. They were probably as close as they could safely get to it; any nearer, and the Ring was likely to activate, with the spheres turning their weaponry on the Parsnaak ships. That was the Ring’s purpose, after all: to protect humanity from its enemies — in particular, the Parsnaak.
To that end, the Ring was constantly in survey mode, scanning the occupants of each and all approaching vessels (and blasting into atoms those it deemed a threat). It was the Ring that had saved humanity from absolute defeat in its war with the Parsnaak, the one weapon that had finally forced Xarn’s race back. Mankind may have been the enemies of the Parsnaak, but the first officer had to give them this much credit: the Chronos Ring was an engineering marvel.
From what their scientists had been able to discern, the ring wasn’t a single circlet. There were at least two such bands, and they seemed to operate much like the gimbals on a gyroscope — slowly spinning in an orbital loop that encircled humanity’s protected area of space, while at the same time rotating around it along some undefined axis.
“Bah, this is a waste,” Bota blurted out with a scowl after about a minute, displaying the reputation he had for impatience. “This is a hoax of some sort, and I am not a humorous creature. Someone will pay for this. Turn us around; we go home.”
The helmsman moved to obey. It appeared that the general was getting into one of his “moods.” In any case, it would not do to get on his bad side.
“Delay the order,” said Xarn, catching everyone on the bridge by surprise. It was well-known and understood that one didn’t question the orders of one’s commanding officer, let alone override them. Even more, doing so with General Bota was not only foolhardy, but dangerous.
The general fixed a cold stare on his first officer. Without warning, he leaped over the command podium — displaying a speed and agility that belied his age — at the same time drawing a blade from the scabbard at his waist. Faster than one would’ve thought possible, he had the tip of the weapon at Xarn’s neck.
“Have a care when countermanding my orders, young Xarn,” the general said. “I’m quite fond of you, but I’ve killed others who I loved for less.”
Xarn was careful to make no sudden moves. “I meant no disrespect, sir, but our orders say that we wait until the rendezvous time.”
It was true; their orders had come directly from the Arch-Sodal. Even a respected commander such as General Bota would be well-advised to obey, to the letter, a command from the Parsnaak ruling body.
Still, the general continued to stare at Xarn menacingly, as if he didn’t care what their orders said. Then, quite unexpectedly, Bota burst into a fit of laughter. Still full of mirth, he put away his blade.
“Very well, then,” the general said. “We wait.”
“A wise choice, General Bota,” said a disembodied voice that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once.
All of a sudden, the entire bridge was on high alert. Weapons were drawn, and almost everyone was in a fighting stance. Like the rest of his crew, Bota had instinctively drawn his blade and lasergun. He looked around but could see no one.
“Who’s there?” the general demanded. “Show yourself, coward.”
The ethereal voice laughed. At the same time, a shimmering outline — humanoid in appearance and framed in a blue glow — slowly became visible a few feet in front of General Bota. The bridge crew, seeing the form of some creature but no physical body, stared in shock.
“What manner of being is this?” Xarn asked.
“One beyond the comprehension of your minuscule brain, soft-hide,” the shimmering outline answered.
This response — to a question that was more rhetorical than sincere — enraged Xarn. However, it wasn’t the taunt regarding his intelligence that galled him, but rather the last word, “soft-hide,” that was the true insult. It implied that he was flaccid and weak…like a human.
Furious, Xarn pulled the trigger on his already-drawn weapon, firing twice at the glistening figure. Their odd visitor took no evasive action. Much to everyone’s surprise, the shots passed through the glowing silhouette without hindrance. Almost immediately, there was a scream of pain on the other side of the figure, and one of the crew dropped to the floor, coughing blood and holding both hands to its abdomen, where the first officer’s shots had struck.
“Put that away,” the general said to Xarn, and then ordered two other bridge officers to escort the wounded crewman to the ship’s medics.
“Now that we’ve gone through the formalities,” the shimmering shape said, “perhaps we can get down to business.”
“Very well,” Bota said. “Why have you asked us to meet you here?”
“Because I have a bargain for you, one which I am sure you Parsnaak will find more than equitable.”
“For several generations now, the humans have had an advanced technology that has kept them from being conquered by your fleet. I will give you the means to defeat them.”
“Impossible. We have conquered worlds, entire civilizations. We have the combined genius of the best and brightest from a hundred races, and none of them have been able to match the technology the humans have imbedded in the Chronos Ring.”
“Nevertheless, I will give you the means. Now, proceed forward.”
“Are you mad?” Bota asked, almost in disbelief. “The Chronos Ring will destroy us.”
“My dear general,” the voice said, laughing. “Where is your bravery? Your courage? Your faith?”
The general harrumphed. “Bravery and courage I have in ample proportions, but only a fool believes in something not tested. I’ve seen what the Chronos Ring can do. Your faith, then, is for the foolhardy.”
“You are quite wise, General Bota,” the figure conceded. “But I’m sure you didn’t get that way by constantly being in the vanguard.”
“Quite right,” the general agreed, scratching his temple in thought. “Hmmmm.”
Hit with a sudden inspiration, Bota turned to a crewman. “Ensign, get me Captain Pok on the second ship.”
“Yes, sir,” the ensign said. A moment later he added, “Captain Pok on the comm screen.”
The image of Captain Pok appeared on the screen. Like Bota, he was a soldier who had earned his rank — mostly by dint of battle.
“Sir?” Pok said.
“Captain, I want you to attempt to pass the Chronos Ring,” Bota said. “And leave your comm open.”
Pok looked unsure for a moment, as if he perhaps hadn’t heard the general correctly. However, he quickly recovered.
“Yes, sir,” the captain said, with about as much enthusiasm as someone about to face a firing squadron. With clear reluctance, he then gave the order for his vessel to move forward. His crew seemed about as eager as the captain to obey Bota’s command, but orders were orders.
“Change to exterior view,” Xarn said, and the view on the comm screen changed. It now showed Captain Pok’s ship breaking formation and heading towards the Chronos Ring.
General Bota and the rest of the bridge crew watched in anticipation as Pok’s craft closed the distance between it and the metal spheres.
“Pok is an outstanding warrior,” the general noted. “I shall not relish seeing him blown to bits.”
“You worry without cause, General,” the shimmering outline stated in a tone that seemed to imply boredom.
“Really?” Bota asked. “Then explain that.”
The general pointed to the viewscreen, which showed several of the spheres which made up the Chronos Ring opening large gunports and extending the barrels of weapons.
“Sir,” said the ensign manning the comm. “Pok’s ship is receiving an incoming message…from the Ring.”
“On the speaker,” Xarn ordered.
A moment later, a computerized voice echoed throughout the bridge.
“Attention, alien craft. You are entering an area of space under the dominion of species homo sapiens. Our sensors indicate the presence of a Parsnaak — a species hostile to homo sapiens — aboard your vessel. In addition to this, records indicate no authority for your ship to enter human-occupied space. Any attempt to come closer will be met with hostile force of an extreme nature. Attention, alien craft…”
As if the automatic warning (which kept repeating) wasn’t enough, one of the spheres suddenly vanished, reappearing almost immediately next to Pok’s ship, weapons ready to fire. It was a reminder that each sphere in the Chronos Ring also had its own hyperdrive. It was just another reason why the Ring was such a formidable weapon.
“They will be destroyed,” Xarn said pitilessly.
“No, they will not,” said their mysterious visitor. “Watch and learn.”
The shimmering outline made a vague gesture, and onscreen, Pok’s ship began to exhibit a blue glow. Suddenly, the message from the Chronos Ring stopped. At the same time, the weapons on the spheres withdrew. Pok’s ship passed safely through and came to a stop inside the Chronos Ring.
“Unbelievable,” muttered the ensign at the comm.
“Now, General,” said the disembodied voice. “Send your remaining ships through.”
Bota wasted no time giving the order forward, and a few moments later, all four of the Parsnaak ships were inside the Chronos Ring.
Despite the success Pok had experienced, there was a tangible sense of relief among Bota’s crew — a feeling that quickly turned to elation as they realized what they had accomplished. They were the first Parsnaak in generations to enter human-occupied space.
“At last,” the general said. “At last we can crush the humans.”
“Sir, we should attack now,” Xarn suggested. “They won’t be expecting us; their defenses will be down. You’ll be the hero of the ages: the Parsnaak who broke through the Chronos Ring.”
“Yes, yes!” Bota exclaimed, an ambitious gleam in his eye. He was already envisioning the parade in his honor. “Prepare to attack! We’ll strike before the—”
“Not so fast, General,” interjected their visitor. “The bargain I made with your leaders was that I’d get your ships through the Chronos Ring. In return, the Parsnaak do a favor for me.”
The general gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “We will keep our word, but Lieutenant Xarn speaks the truth. We should wage an attack now. Sitting behind their precious Chronos Ring, the humans have grown fat and weak.”
“You don’t want to defy me on this,” the ethereal voice said in an oddly menacing tone.
“Defy you?!” Bota shouted, suddenly livid. “This is my ship! I give the orders.” He turned to a crewman. “Ensign, tell the other ships to line up in battle formation.”
Before the ensign could reply, the shimmering outline made another vague gesture. As if on cue, one of the spheres in the Ring opened a gunport and fired. One of the Parsnaak ships was hit and exploded immediately. The force of the blast rocked the three remaining ships. After a few moments, the vessels became stable again, but found themselves now manned by suddenly-somber crews.
“I will ask you again, General Bota, to remember our agreement,” the bodiless voice said.
“I will remember,” Bota declared. “Now, what do you require for the secret of the Ring?”
“A small thing, really,” said the strange visitor. “But I now feel that some degree of insurance may be required to keep you mindful of your obligations.”
General Bota was about to ask for an explanation, when suddenly another glimmering outline appeared. Unlike the first, however, this one soon took on an actual physical form. It was humanoid in appearance, but dark, huge, and impressively muscled.
“This is Obsidian,” the bodiless voice announced. “Obsidian, a demonstration, if you will.”
Obsidian immediately dropped to one knee, and then pounded a fist down at — no, through — the solid metal floor. All around him, mouths dropped open.
“By Krako’s light!” Xarn screeched.
Their odd visitor laughed. “By all means, call on your gods if you think they can help you, but let me inform you that Obsidian is an Enforcer of the highest rank. He will assist you if necessary — and ensure that you do not become forgetful of your primary mission.”
“Which is?” General Bota asked.
“There is a man,” the disembodied voice said. “I want you to find him and kill him.”
“That would seem a simple enough task for a being of your power. Why come to us?”
“I have my reasons. You will find the man in question on the planet Muse. This is what he looks like.”
The image of a man — tall and well-muscled — appeared. Young and handsome, his most striking feature was a wisp of white hair extending up from the center of his forehead into an otherwise all-dark head of hair.
“Find this man,” the shimmering outline said in its strange voice. “Find him, and kill him.”