art by Shannon N. Kelly
by D.K. Latta
There was a lingering smell of smoke in Chanthrows' nostrils, like the acrid stink that stays with you even hours after the campfire has died. He was laid out flat, while overhead the night sky glimmered as with a thousand stars. He had never seen a sky like that before. Then he realized he had never looked up from the surface of this world before. And with that realization, his eyes snapped wider with a start.
It came back to him now, like a wave slamming him against the surf. He remembered his flyer--part of that armada orbiting permanently overhead, those glints of reflected sunlight that created the illusion of a firmament full of stars. He remembered his flyer's stabilizing engine being clipped by a rookie flyer moving in too close. He remembered the rookie bursting into a fireball and his own flyer plunging down into the atmosphere. Down into the world that was the closest thing his people knew to Hell.
He turned his neck stiffly, and sucked in a startled gasp of breath through clenched teeth.
A humanoid creature sat cross-legged near him, its skin green and scaled where it emerged from the simple robe of organic fibers. Its head was oval, wider across than high. Its black eyes were slits, but reflected an unsettling air of antiquity. Its mouth split wide and Chanthrows shuddered at seeing the triple rows of saw-edged teeth.
He had never been this close to one of the ancient enemy before. In his heart, he knew he was about to die. But he was determined to die with honor.
"You crashed, my young friend," said the creature. For a moment Chanthrows wondered why he couldn't match the words to the lips. Then he realized the legends were true. The creatures were telepaths. "We have endeavored to make you comfortable."
Instinctively, Chanthrows glanced down at himself. He looked in remarkable shape for someone who had just plunged out of orbit. His flight suit was spotless. His arms were crossed over his belly as though he was just resting after a hearty meal. For some reason he couldn't move, however. Yet, strangely, that did not bother him as much as he thought it should. He looked at the creature. "You'll get nothing from me."
The creature shrugged. "There is nothing I want from you."
Chanthrows looked at the sky that sparkled with ten thousand ships. The creature had to be lying. The armada had been stationed around this planet for two hundred years, keeping the creatures confined, prisoners on their native world, preventing them from spreading their reign of terror throughout the galaxy. And now they had him. Well, it would do them little good. What few codes and security clearances he knew would not be enough for them to break through the cordon. And he would never betray those codes--his father had served in the armada, and his father's father. He would not be the first in his line to bring dishonor to his family.
They might torture him, but they would never leave their world again.
The creature tilted its head. "However... is there anything you want from me? Are you thirsty? Would you like a blanket? We would move you somewhere more comfortable, but the strain might be too much...."
Chanthrows' lips pulled back in a snarl. "I want nothing from you--except maybe honesty! Tell me the truth!"
The black eyes blinked sideways. "It is our custom to grant the request of a dying man--but are you sure truth will bring you peace?"