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Greetings from the universe of Relic Worlds!

Relic Worlds is the series which follows Lancaster James in his hunt for powerful ancient artifacts scattered on myriad worlds across the galaxy.  He is trying to piece the clues together to understand what happened to alien life in the universe.

This is a serialized story, so each book is broken into several parts.  Book 3, part 1 has been released at long last!  In it, Lancaster James is beginning his search for three pieces of an ancient artifact which have been scattered across multiple planets.  When pieced together, this powerful relic is supposed to reveal some of the most crucial information man has ever found.

To get a better look at the book and to purchase it on Kindle for only 99 cents, click HERE!

Part 2 will release in three months, followed by part 3.  A final full paperback version will release soon after that.  This is the format I intend to use with all Relic Worlds books from now on.

As I did last month, I am including chapter 1 in this email to give you a good idea of what the book is like.  If you'd like to catch up with the series, you can find everything at: www.relicworlds.com
 
I hope you enjoy the book, and happy travels, everyone!

- Jeff McArthur
www.relicworlds.com

 


 

Chapter
One
 
Ruins of the
Zeborno

 
With each wall of foliage bypassed, a new host of colors exploded with vibrancy.  Acajou tree roots gave birth to deep blue trunks which faded lighter as they reached toward the dotted canopy and the winking sunlight above.  Verdant branches stretched from these columns and tangled with their neighbors whose colors faded slowly through emerald to golden jasmine and peridot; from pale flaxen to sallow platinum.  Wrinkled palms of citrine saffron and tangerine orange grew from bushes whose stalks looked like hidden flames of scarlet and crimson.  Violet vines with pastel pink tips hung from oblivion above, and everywhere clung a thick mist which blended the chromaticity into a light dissolve.

Lancaster James had to force himself not to be distracted by the beauty of it all and to focus on the task at hand.  He had to also keep an eye out for carnivorous animals who may take him for a meal.  He had spotted vividly hued insects crawling along stems and buds, and zipping through the air between branches, but he had not seen any larger animals.  Lancaster had, however, heard movement just beyond his eyesight, often accompanied with fluttering chatter or low whooping animal noises.  He even occasionally spotted the vegetation moving.  Something was nearby, and he needed to be cautious.

Lancaster was searching for ancient walls or other signs of ruins that might have been left behind by the Zeborno, a bygone species that had gone extinct millions of years ago, but whose civic remains had proven fascinating.  Lancaster had gone to several of their worlds over the past few years tracking down some of their most important artifacts which had belonged to their seats of power.

Inside five of them he had found carved crystal shards.  At the tips of each one was the symbol of the faction from which it had come.  They all snapped together to form one large clear stone.  The bottom seemed to form together a flat-like foot, and the symbols pointed in a similar direction, yet on separate trajectories.  What the crystal did or was intended for, Lancaster did not know.

However, when he had gotten all five pieces to Saberaux University, researchers there discovered patterns in the hieroglyphics carved into the relics.  They determined that these symbols were providing coordinates to a world that had been recorded by astronomers, but never explored; Wredgyua DC0K C8-2.

Lancaster was certain there would be an important lost Zeborno city on this planet; and within that city, a pantheon, inside of which should rest an artifact known to human historians as the Scepter Sonaga; the symbol of the seat of power of the Zeborno.

The deduction that this was the location of a lost Zeborno city was confirmed by LiDAR images from orbit which revealed fragments of walls scattered somewhere in these chromatic woods.  However, it was harder to locate something once on the ground than it was to look at it from an overhead map.  Lancaster knew he was close, but had not yet found any trace of the lost city.

Presently, he heard other sounds that were more familiar to his ears.  These were not noises from nature, but the low rumbling of human machinery.  They were coming from beyond a copse of trees, so Lancaster crept toward it to sneak a look.

Nudging aside some orange and purple leaves, Lancaster immediately spotted the source of the noise.  A squad of recon drones were weaving through the woods approximately three meters from the ground, each equidistant from one another.  They were moving over the land like they were laying carpet, covering every inch in their long line; stalling occasionally as a pair of them swooped into a crevice or hole to record what was present before moving on.

Lancaster got a good look at the logo on the back of one of them; Lupid Industries.  Corporations often sent drone scouting parties to get the layout of land they were considering mining or colonizing.  More recently they had begun sending them to see if there were valuable or powerful artifacts to be found.  Instead of doing the research and leg work that Lancaster did, they simply sent out as many of these automated probes as they could to as many planets as possible until they stumbled upon something.

Lancaster decided that he needed to warn his partner, who was flying his ship in orbit so he could monitor Lancaster’s progress in relation to where they had located the ruins.  He stepped back from his spying position and pulled out his Talki.

“Little Jack,” he said in a hushed tone.

“It’s the same as I told you earlier, the ruins are still fifteen degrees to the northeast,” came the impatient response.  “You’ll get there in ten minutes if you stop hailing me…”

“I’m not hailing about that,” Lancaster interrupted.  “I just spotted recon drones.”

Silence on the Talki for a moment.  Then on the other end, “That means someone will regress back for them.”

“That’s right rip.  Keep eyes around here,” Lancaster said.

“You want me to…”

“Nope.  As you said, I’m only ten minutes out.  I’ll get this done adjontly.”

“Famous last words every time,” Little Jack concluded.

Lancaster pushed through another wall of foliage, cutting a couple branches as he went.  He stalled, noticing the sap that was seeping from one of the leaves.  It was neon blue, and it dripped slowly off the end.  Lancaster was used to exotic trees, but there was something… organic about this.  Unsure whether it was poisonous, he gave a wide berth to the cut leaves and tried to continue on without slicing the foliage as often.

Lancaster stepped into a soft-hued clearing with a few smaller trees and brambles scattered about.  It was like a private room with walls of plant life in every direction.  Lancaster peered as best he could in the direction he needed to go.  More woods.  They were all beginning to meld together and form mirages in his mind.

He turned in another direction and it seemed as though the woods had shifted somehow, like they were not as they had seemed a few moments before.  He turned back in the direction from which he had come, and he couldn’t locate the path he had tread.  Looking in the direction he was going again, the foliage was different from what he had seen earlier.  He was certain of it.  One of the trees was now blocking the very gap he had been planning to walk through.

Lancaster turned in the second direction he had looked, and those trees were now closer.  So were the ones behind him.  In fact, there was little left of a clearing.  Had they all been doing this since he entered the woods, Lancaster thought.  He wondered about their consciousness, and whether they had an intent.

He pulled from one of the many pockets in his jacket a particle scanner and he aimed it at one of the nearby trees.  He had to get fairly close, so he watched the branches to make sure they weren’t reaching down to grab him.  They remained, and the information he got back revealed muscles within the tree’s core.  Scanning more of it, he found the muscles connected to nerve endings in the roots, some of which came close to the surface, or broke through.

It seemed that where he was standing now there were several roots crisscrossing just below the surface.  The trees had stayed still in the time since he had stopped moving, so Lancaster theorized that his footfalls were causing this movement, so he was more careful now as he continued forward beyond the wooded wall on the opposite end of the former clearing.

He had woven through the woods for a handful more minutes when he glanced over his shoulder to discover that one of the barricades of colorful woods he had passed was thinner than usual, and bore a resemblance to a facade crumbling on one end.  Lancaster stepped toward it, exaggerating his steps to avoid landing on plant life.  When he arrived at the radiantly yellow, orange, and red vines and weeds, he continued with care to brush enough aside to peer underneath.  As he expected, the plastic metal and stone mixture revealed itself.

Lancaster smirked out of one side of his mouth as he rubbed across several sections of the wall.  His hands moved more animatedly as more and more of the former building was unveiled.  He spun round, taking in the surrounding area, noticing other tall, thin mounds which rose up suddenly out of the ground.  Shaking slightly now, Lancaster pulled the Talki up to his lips.  “Little Jack, I register I found it!”

“You want a prize?” Little Jack asked.

“I want you to confirm that I’m within the expected area.”

Little Jack was silent for a moment, checking his scopes against the LiDAR.  Lancaster was definitely where they had suspected the Zeborno city to be.  And it shouldn’t be too large.  The Zeborno were known for splitting up into smaller communities rather than grouping into large metropolises.

Something else the Zeborno were famous for was their mastery of horticulture.  They were known to have elaborate gardens during their heyday, and over the centuries, some of these gardens had evolved into some of the most complex plant life ever witnessed.  These woods could quite possibly be a by-product of their work; and if it was, there was all the more reason for Lancaster to be cautious.  He avoided the walls which seemed to be several plants deep for this reason.

Despite his caution, his hip brushed against a large plant with several stems which opened up their petals as Lancaster jumped back in surprise.  They each puffed out of their tops a cloud of dust and seeds.  Lancaster covered his mouth, expecting a gas attack.  This was one place recon drones were definitely superior.  But much to Lancaster’s amazement, the plume formed into symbols which hovered above the flowers like holograms.  There were four in all.  He tried to read them; tried to translate, but he did not understand their language.  As they melted away, Lancaster photographed them and ran them through the image database for a match.  One of them slightly resembled a letter in the Zeborno alphabet, but there was no other match.  He supposed they must be the language of the plants.

He then heard the language of the drones as the low thudding approached.  Lancaster took cover behind one of the walls, then peeked out a side to spot where they were.  The squad was approaching the cluster of rubble walls, but were not heading directly toward him.  Lancaster would just have to stay out of their lines of sight.

Lancaster remained low as he dodged among the stone barriers.  He listened for the whirring noises to hear where the drones were so he wouldn’t have to expose his head as often.  As he maneuvered, he also searched for the building that would most likely hold the Scepter Sonaga.  If the ruins he was hiding in were any indication, the temple was likely no longer in any discernable form, and his prize might be gone.  But he needed to confirm it one way or the other.

Then he spotted the most likely candidate for his search.  Sunk halfway into the ground was a platform which raised up on one side like a ramp.  A blinding light reflected off a surface about midway across the platform.  It was a window; and from the looks of it, one with colors.  That was a definite clue of a building of importance for the Zeborno.  Lancaster found the walls underneath the ramp, and then, on the tallest side, he found an hour glass shaped entryway.  There was no door; it had rotted away.  But the walls, made of the stone-cement, metal and plastic mixture that several alien civilizations had come up with which preserved their most important structures for millennia, were still intact.  Either this was the resting place of the Scepter Sonaga, or that building didn’t exist.

Lancaster reached into his pack and placed his hand on the crystal antique he had brought with him to make sure it was secure.  It was.  He peeked around some ruins to make sure the drones weren’t near.  They were busy checking out some holes they had found.  So Lancaster hurried to the building, then stepped down into the darkness of the entryway.

The shifting spectrums of light that emerged from Lancaster’s Illuminator led the way as he watched for traps.  Many of the species whose items he was taking had left behind protections for their valuables.  Whether to keep them safe in hopes they would return, or simply to ward off those who shouldn’t have them, Lancaster did not know.  But he had to be cautious whenever he entered important old buildings like this.

His foot reached the bottom and landed on squishy moss nestled in exposed roots.  Lancaster detected no danger, so he continued onward, into a small chamber with a couple dark passageways on the opposite end.  Lancaster maneuvered through one of these passageways and found himself in a stone corridor which wound its way further into the building.

It felt close and damp here, and moisture hung in the air.  As Lancaster moved forward, he felt thin tendrils brush past his shoulders.  Lifting his Illuminator, he could see they were branches and roots, but they felt like fingers reaching out to him, readying themselves to grab the anthropologist.  Lancaster kept the light forward, again watching for traps, and trying to ignore the creepy feeling.

He then felt the tiny fingers of something else feeling around other sections of his back, and on his legs.  Lancaster slowed and shone his light down his body.  He saw little except shadows of movement until the light spectrum shifted through black light, at which time bright neon colors on top of long bugs appeared crawling all over him.  One of them, attracted to the light, was scurrying up toward his torso.  Lancaster took in a breath to avoid panicking, and he scooped the bug off with his Illuminator.  He then set the hand device to 600 nanometers and flashed it at high intensity down his legs.  It worked.  The powerful light stunned the creatures and they fell off the front of his legs.

He now felt more crawling along the back of his leg; a couple of them were on his butt, and a couple more had made it onto his jacket.  He didn’t know how dangerous their bites could be, so he didn’t want to anger them before they were off.  So he held the Illuminator over his back and flashed it a couple more times.  He felt most of them fall off, and he stepped forward to get away.  The last couple he slowly swiped off with his hat.  Lancaster looked inside his hat before placing it back on his head, and he continued through to the next chamber.

Now he came upon a much larger room.  Again, flora and fauna had claimed the floor and lower walls, while roots had claimed the upper walls and the ceilings.  The occasional chromatic vine slithered down from above, forming natural pillars randomly about the chamber.  At the far end was a large, solid metal door stuck into the stone wall.  Next to it emerged a line of decorative horns at about Lancaster's eye level.

Scattered across the room in a seemingly random fashion were statues of three-legged beasts bearing bludgeoning weapons as arms with spikes as fingers.  Lancaster recognized them as mythical animals in Zeborno lore.  Halfway across the room was a row of pedestals made of a solid marble that stretched lengthwise across the space.  A group of them on the left were bathed in a colorful light that beamed down through the stained glass window above.

Lancaster was cautious of this illumination as he approached it, and the ground confirmed that he was making the right decision.  Along the path of the beam of sunlight throughout the day ran a solid line where there was no vegetation.  The edges of the plants which grew into the beam’s path were singed, and the bare floor was exposed along its length like a dug out road.  This course ran directly along the path of pedestals, which told Lancaster they held some sort of significance.

He bypassed this line and approached the door on the opposite wall.  Dirt was heaped so heavily upon it that many wouldn't have even recognized it as unique from the stone wall, but Lancaster was used to searching for such things.  He also noticed patterns in the shapes of the dirt; the sign of carvings beneath.  Scraping away the muck, Lancaster uncovered shapes on the door.  He then used an X-ray setting on his Illuminator to get a reading of the rest of it.  The engraving appeared to be a crowning ceremony of some sort.  At least that's what Lancaster believed it to be.  Translating the meaning of alien activities was difficult, considering their differences not only in cultures, but in biology.  He got a snapshot of it to take back to the university for study.

Lancaster's attention was drawn to the horns.  Next to them he spotted some more etchings.  He dusted them off, finding one engraving next to each horn.  As he did, he found that dust was also scraping off of separate small carvings above and below in straight columns.  Lancaster took another X-ray snapshot of these, and found that each horn had a column of symbols next to it, as well as lines cut into the walls vertically up and down from the horns.  Some of the symbols seemed oddly familiar to Lancaster, but he couldn't put his finger on it.

Now more on the alert, Lancaster noticed a few other carvings peeking out of the layers of dust like islands sticking out of an ocean.  They were all along this far wall, and none hung on any of the other walls.  Lancaster cleared all of them, using a compressed air blower to shoot off the grime from those he couldn't reach.  Again, some of these looked vaguely familiar, and they all had tiny holes inside them.

Though all of this was fascinating, Lancaster was still stuck, and he had to find his way through the door.  So he returned to the pedestals lined up along the center of the room.  He searched for carvings on their trunks, but they had none.  So he opened up his trusty notebook and turned to the tab labeled Zeborno.  From there he quickly found all of his information about this mysterious ancient race.  What caught his attention was a reference to a time of day for which he had never found an explanation.

Though the pedestals had no symbols, their top surfaces had an indentation in the center, and a bump on one side.  Each pedestal along the path of the light appeared to have the bump at a new point along the surface, as if it was marking points on a clock.

Lancaster determined which of these matched the time in his notes; a post soon to go under the searing gaze of the sunlight.  Lancaster ducked as he approached the pedestal.  Squatting to the same level, Lancaster reached forward and placed the crystal relic onto the indentation, facing the symbols toward the wall.  He looked around to see where those carvings were, then adjusted the crystal to line the symbols up with their doppelgangers in the room.

A crackling sound was accompanied by the faint smell of smoke.  Lancaster removed his hat and saw that the top was sheared off, and the ends were singed.  The sunlight was moving down to his pedestal, so he needed to stop messing with the artifact, hop out of the way, and wait.

He did not have to wait very long, about ten minutes; during which time he stepped to the side where he could watch the wall unimpeded.  He discarded his hat; something he was used to doing enough that he had a stash back on Little Jack’s ship.

As soon as the first light hit the crystal, it glowed white hot.  Then a band of colors shot forth from the prism, one color emerging from each of the shards, escaping through the symbols and shooting onto the hieroglyphs upon the wall that Lancaster had uncovered.  A few moments later, the large metal door began to lift, accompanied by a loud, creaking cry.

The chamber beyond was lit up with colorful spotlights which emerged from small holes on every wall.  These were evidently the continuation of the beams from the prism, which bounced around inside the walls before being released into the royal chamber.  Some of these beams combined into beautiful chromatic spots of light in patterns across the floor.  A couple of these lights were directed upon the altar in the center of the room.

Like the first room, several statues of mythological Zeborno beasts stood about the floor, only these did not have weapons carved into their arms.  Instead they wore colorful monocles.  The altar itself was made of a rare dark stone found only on the hardiest of asteroids with sparkles of Vega diamonds which twinkled like stars.  A few rows of palladium silver ran across the top, out of which several silver lines dropped down like long teardrops.  Thin, platinum wings arose off the corners of the shrine with what looked like faces in their ruffles.

Upon the altar sat Lancaster’s prize.  A scepter made of starlight gold and lined in utherion silver, one of the rarest metals ever discovered.  Chromatic jewels surrounded a bulbous head, and thin wings flowed down one side.  The Scepter Sonaga; their symbol of leadership.  Anthropologists at the university had theorized that it had been placed here when a terrible illness was wiping out the Zeborno population.  They might have left this here for whomever survived, but none of the Zeborno did.

Lancaster studied the room carefully for more traps.  The Zeborno had protected far less important finds with far more security, and this was the most important artifact of all.  However, some traps degraded with time, and the difficulty with finding this location in the first place could be security enough.

Lancaster made it all the way to the altar without incident.  He ran the Illuminator over the shrine in every wavelength, from X-ray to infrared.  It was too solid to have anything sinister inside.  Lancaster scanned the floor around it, as well as the walls which were further away.  To his surprise, there was nothing; not even traces of a former trap that had degraded with time.

At last, certain that it was safe, Lancaster reached forward with both hands ready to grab the scepter.  But as soon as his fingers tapped the light, a searing heat burned them and he yanked his hands back.  His fingertips were burning red and smoldering with smoke.  He licked at them to cool them down as he remembered that the Zeborno had somehow figured out how to manipulate light into beam energy that could kill a person.  He wouldn't be able to take the scepter until the light went out, which was not an option because the door would likely close at that time, and there would probably be some other trap at that point.  The only other option would be to alter the light.

Lancaster looked around the room to see what he had to work with; and his eyes quickly settled on the colored monocles of the statues.  He chose one and approached it.  It bore wings, three legs plus a tale, and a large, heart shaped torso with a head of serpents emerging from its center.  Each serpent had an eye, and one of them bore a green monocle.  Lancaster studied it carefully, and though it was made of fine craftsmanship, there was little else on it of note.

Lancaster ran the Illuminator over it set on X-ray and found that it was hollow with machinery inside.  He then ran the particle scanner over it since it would give him a more thorough view of the inner workings.  It revealed that the statue had joints at its limbs and on the monocle.  Gears caused it to move, which were in turn operated by an underground system.  In studying this piece of the equipment, Lancaster noticed an indention in the floor, and he blew away more of the dust to reveal a track that led from the statue to one of the colorful beams of light.

Lancaster grinned again widely out of that same side of his mouth, proud in the knowledge that he had figured part of it out.  He then ran the particle scanner along the floor, following the apparatus to the wall that separated the royal chamber from the room in which he had entered.  Going onto the other side, he found that the gears went directly into the part of the wall where the decorative horns emerged.  Remembering the vertical slits in the walls above and below the horns, Lancaster used his fingers to clear them out to their full distances.  From this, it became clear to him that the horns themselves were levers, and the symbols beside them marked points to move them.

That's when he remembered where he had seen these symbols before.  Certain ones matched hieroglyphs he had noticed on the artifacts he had collected on the Zeborno aristocratic worlds.  He had gone to five of them, and there were five levers here.  He quickly remembered which symbol was on the first artifact, and he matched it with one of the symbols on the first vertical row.  He grabbed the horn, and he pushed it toward the correct symbol.  The lever moved slowly at first, its ancient bones clicking one by one until it fell into place with a thud.

A slew of clicking began in the wall, then the floor, then on into the next room where he heard a cackling of mechanical noise and the moaning of ancient machinery.  Lancaster hurried to the door and looked in.  There, one of the statues was moving, drifting toward one of the lights as it stretched out its monocle.  The lens hit the light, causing it to bounce into a hole in the ceiling.  That light then came out of the ceiling through another hole, projecting a green pattern onto the altar.  Lancaster could not make out what the image was supposed to be, but it looked like it was part of a bigger picture which would only be complete with the other colors added.

And so he hurried back to the wall of horns and he moved the second one to the hieroglyph that matched the second artifact.  He didn't need to look these up because he had spent so much time with them while finding these relics.

The rod clicked into place, the machinery clattered to life, and one of the statues maneuvered into place and beamed a yellow light into the ceiling, which then splashed a yellow pattern onto the altar.  Now giddy, Lancaster hurried back to the board and moved the next horn into place.  He heard the gears rattle, the chains clank, and the rusty roar of the statue moving.  He ran to the door to watch it move into place...

Nothing.  None of the statues were moving.  But he had moved the lever.  And more importantly he could hear the...

Lancaster suddenly realized, he could indeed hear a statue, and it was behind him.  It was still moving in fact.  A shiver ran down his spine as he heard its feet clang across the floor right behind him.  He even felt the ground shake a little in its wake.

He leaped to the side just as the statue's giant club hand came down, smashing the floor.  Looking up, Lancaster saw the giant metal beast with its indifferent expression pulling its mallet back out of the ground.  Lancaster could hardly move, he was in such awe of the mechanical animal.  The statue, though, wasted no time.  It had been programmed for this.  While its weapon hand raised slowly, its other hand swatted at Lancaster.  Lancaster dodged, but in the wrong direction, and now the robot was between him and the console.  He tried to run past, but the statue-bot had its weapon ready, and it swung at him, smashing a part of the wall, whose chunks crashed into Lancaster, sending him rolling across the floor.

The statue-bot followed quickly after.  Lancaster noticed the thick dust in the air, and the fact that the bot seemed to be using sight to detect where he was, so he began to run one way, further into the thick of the dust.  When it seemed that Lancaster had disappeared from view, he gave it a moment, then doubled back and ran the other way.

The ruse worked.  The statue-bot was charging into the thickest of the dust cloud, and Lancaster had a clear path to sprint to the horn lever.  The bot figured out its mistake a moment later, and chased after him.  Lancaster reached the wall and pulled the lever before the bot could get to him.  It froze in place just under a couple meters from Lancaster; its body contorted into an assault position, ready to pounce.

Lancaster sighed with relief, and waited a few moments to make sure the statue was done.  Now with some time, he pulled out his notebook and checked each artifact and their corresponding symbol to make sure he had the right one before pulling each horn-lever.

Soon he had locked them all into their correct locations, and he walked over to the doorway.  Inside the other chamber he saw that each beam of light hit a monocle, which then bounced the light into a hole in the center of the ceiling, which then beamed down onto the altar.  Each one provided a different color, and they combined into a single, chromatic hologram which hovered over the top.  Lancaster recognized the design; it was the same as the carving on the door.  Now he could make out a few details he hadn't noticed before, including a Zeborno hand reaching for the scepter.

Lancaster placed himself at this side of the altar.  He removed his jacket and tied it around his waist, then rolled up his sleeve.  He began reaching in at the exact point of the Zeborno hand, trying to keep it aligned along the same track.  He was able to break past the light barrier this time without being burned, but the hairs on his arm sizzled as they brushed by the edge of the border.  This was made all the more difficult by the fact that Zeborno arms were thinner than human ones, even though this one was exaggerated in size to allow for extra room should an arm shake as it entered.  He had no such luxury.

Slowly, Lancaster stretched his arm, careful not to shake it.  His hand was only inches away when he noticed the light beginning to dim.  This could mean that he wouldn't be as severely damaged by it, but it also meant something much more devastating.  The light was leaving the crystal on the pedestal.  That meant...

As if on cue, the crackling of stone and the moaning of metal combined to announce that the door was closing.  Without regard to his safety, Lancaster reached the rest of the way in and nabbed the scepter, then yanked it out.  As he did, his arm passed through the light, searing it severely.  There was no time to acknowledge the pain.  He had to get out.  Lancaster scooped up his jacket and dashed for the door.  When he reached it, he slid underneath, emerging a little more than a second before the door slammed shut with a deafening bang that echoed through the otherwise silent room.

The light had indeed abandoned the crystal, so Lancaster yanked it off its pedestal and approached the exit as he put on his jacket.  He was admiring the craftsmanship of the scepter when he was stopped in his tracks.  His forehead had nearly bumped into a hovering recon drone.  There were ten of them in two rows of five hovering near the entrance.  They had evidently heard the commotion and come over, stalling just before going inside.

A polite, professional voice, much like a secretary, emerged from the center drone.  "Greetings stranger.  You will now deposit the item you are carrying into my receptacle."  A claw-like tray emerged from the bottom of the drone and reached toward Lancaster.

"The hades I will," Lancaster grunted.

A small gun emerged from each drone, all of them pointed at Lancaster.  Then the center one said again, "You will deposit your item into the receptacle.  You will then place all weapons, and other valuables into the receptacle."

Lancaster scowled at them, but he knew he was caught.  With nothing more to do, he placed the scepter into the tray and said, "I haven't got any weapons or valuables."

"You seem to have forgotten that you have an item of incredible worth in your right pocket.  Kindly hand it over or we will shoot you into oblivion."  The voice was still as cordial as if it was offering a side dish with his meal.

Scowling, Lancaster reached into his pocket and grabbed the crystal made up of the relics he had found on each of the Zeborno planets.  He was losing everything.  The ball felt heavy in his hand.  He wasn't certain he could lift it enough to place it into the tray, but somehow he found the strength.

As soon as the items were pulled back to the drone, it said, "Thank you.  You are now under the authority of Belladon Corp.  Any resistance or attempts to escape will be met with lethal force.  Do you comprend?"

Again, the voice was so conciliatory it was difficult to take it seriously.  But the ten guns trained on Lancaster explained what he needed to understand, and he nodded, and followed their orders.

Though outwardly Lancaster obeyed the recon drone's orders; inwardly, he was trying to think of how he was going to contact Little Jack to come get him without being spotted.  Worse yet, he would have to get onto the ship before he was shot down...

They were all stopped by a humanoid creature standing in their way.  Lancaster recognized it immediately; it was a plant.  It stood on four vines while several more hung down from its torso of tangled weeds.  Its closed head of petals was pointed toward them.  The fauna creature seemed curious, moving only enough to make its sentience known.

The recon drones didn't seem to understand how to react to it.  Though it was blocking their path, they could go around it.  However, this was a living, conscious being, the very thing the drones were supposed to be on the lookout for.  So finally one of them moved forward, directly ahead of the plant, and said in its polite, congratulatory voice, "Greetings.  You are now under the authority of Beladon Corp.  Any resistance or attempts to escape will be met with lethal force.  Do you comprend?"

The plant person did not respond.  But its petals slowly opened as if trying to soak in what was happening before it.  The drone took either the lack of response or the unfolding of the petals to be a threat, so it shot an electrical discharge into the beast.

The plant shook in reaction to being hit, looked down momentarily at its wound, then smacked the drone with one of its wadded up leaf hands.  The other drones retaliated with their small lasers, reducing it to a pile of dust in no time.

Lancaster felt momentarily bad for the plant.  Then he felt bad for himself and the drones as they urged him forward under the gaze of hundreds more plants whose petals seemed to frown down upon them.  The drones were unaware of the danger, even as a rustling noise grew louder and louder in every direction.  The drones seemed curious by the noises as they turned in each direction.  But it was too late.

Stems, weeds, branches and twigs all emerged from their fellow foliage.  Flowers that were not moving shot pollen and seeds.  Those that were attacking fired thorns from their bodies.  Most bounced off the shells of the drones, and those that penetrated did no damage with their poison.  The drones fired back, reducing many of the plants to ash.  Then the trees retaliated with long vines, wrapping themselves around the drones and squeezing, blowing three of them up in quick succession before the drones turned on them as well.

Not being a drone, Lancaster was not immune to the damage of poisoned needles, so he shrank down to take as little space as he could.  He needed to get away from the drones, both to escape from them, and to clear out of the target range of the plants.  But first he needed something.

Lancaster jumped onto the back of one of the drones; the one that had taken two artifacts he had suffered and strained to recover.  It twisted and turned, trying to shake him off, but to no avail.  Lancaster found a dark line along the top that denoted a flap, and he pulled it open, revealing a hatch.  Inside were a few repair items, and a remote control, presumably an overdrive of the robot.  This would be useful to Lancaster, but the drone was already rushing away from the battlefield in an attempt to buck Lancaster off, which was what he wanted anyway.  So he yanked open another container near the bottom of the drone.  This one had the artifacts, so he pulled them out and stuck them in his bag.

Then he noticed some of the other drones were in pursuit, and the one he was on was slowing so they could catch up.  That's when it was time for him to grab the remote.  He didn't understand the controls as well as his partner did, but Little Jack had given Lancaster some instructions, so he recollected as best he could and maneuvered away.  The other drones took chase, firing at him as they went.  He juked left and right, avoiding their shots, but they were gaining on him.  He tried to dive, but couldn't figure out the control, so he pressed his weight down on the front and they dipped down below the tree line.

The drones followed, and soon there was another danger.  The branches moved, trying to get in Lancaster's way, swiping at him and the drones.  He swooped under and over their blows, as did the others, though one took the brunt of a hit, and exploded; its fire setting the tree ablaze.  Lancaster heard a scream from the forest like that of a wounded animal, but from the voice of wood itself.  Aware they would be angry with him, he lifted up out of the forest canopy, and just in time, for the forest greenery was reaching for him and the others.

Unfortunately, he still had two drones on his tail, which were proving to be equally dangerous.  And they were once again gaining on him.

Then a large blast of laser fire came down from above, and one of the drones exploded.  The other fired back into the sky, pinging against the armor of the vessel.  It was Little Jack's ship, Odin's Revenge, and it had turned, revealing its open hatch.  Lancaster twisted his drone toward it and rushed inside.

The hatch closed behind him, but not fast enough.  The other drone followed, rushing inside right next to Lancaster, who grabbed it and knocked it against the wall.  Seeing it was still wiggling he banged it against the bulkhead again.  Still operational.  So he smashed it several times, only denting its gun and the top.

Then a loud blast fired and ended the drone, followed by a second which blew up the one Lancaster had been flying.  Little Jack, whose stature lived up to his name and whose face was almost entirely covered by two enormous, opaque lenses from his glasses, stood behind the pistol.

"We could have used the one I was riding," Lancaster said.

"Why were you putting a dent in my wall?" Little Jack said, ignoring Lancaster's point.

Lancaster flushed, and retorted, "What was I supposed to do?  You didn't close the door fast enough..."

"If you took a weapon like I keep telling you to, you could have shot it," Little Jack explained, but Lancaster interrupted.

"I had this right rip, and we might have had two drones..."

"You viewed mighty right rip there.  Should I have left you with them?" Little Jack asked.  This silenced Lancaster, so Little Jack took the initiative.  "Don't damage Odin," Little Jack said, his gun still raised, even though it wasn't pointed at his partner.

"Who's flying?" Lancaster asked.

Little Jack rarely showed emotion, so his eyebrows raising momentarily said it all and he hurried back into the cockpit to regain the controls.

To be continued...







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