The words “Bounty Board” leered at me. The picture was hung hastily on a wooden wall, a weird ornament in a space bar. I found myself unable to take my eyes off the paper, wanting to erase the words “Wanted” and “Reward: 10 Million Dollars” printed on the paper.
“Thinking of hunting him down eh?” a voice from my right startled me. It belonged to a figure barely taller than the bar counter. The bartender of this joint, busily wiping one of the glasses. His long pointy nose twitched at my direction, perhaps trying to sniff me up. Not uncommon for a goblin. A person’s scent can tell a lot about their story, according to one of the sayings.
I shook my head without replying, forcing a smile on my face. He nodded at me as I sat directly opposite of him.
“Might want to reconsider that. Heard he’s quite a powerful spellcaster,” he added, before turning his attention back to his glasses.
My eyes wandered around the place. Smoke rose and gathered near the top of the bar. Noisy chatter danced with the jazz music coming from a jukebox. Perched in a corner, it was the only other wooden decoration in the place.
No hint of recognition from anyone. My facial alteration charm was working perfectly. Like what the bartender said, I used to be quite the spellcaster. Just the mention of my name was enough to bring hushed whispers of either fear or awe. Part of it was because spellcasters were a rare breed, and magic is generally frowned upon. Some organizations were even dedicated to hunt spellcasters down.
But that was a long time ago, back when I was still young and ambitious. Before I became a tired and disillusioned fugitive trying to outrun his past, a middle aged “relic”.
“Tell me, what do you know about him?” I asked the bartender, pushing several bank notes to him. “And long island tea, please.” I always loved hearing stories about myself. After a long tiring journey, all I wanted was a drink and to catch a breather.
The bartender grunted as he swept the money into his pocket, pouring me my drink with his other free hand. “Heard he’s quite the criminal. Killed tens of thousands across the systems. Used to be right hand man of Emperor Duke himself. Vanished during the 100 Days Revolt.”
I wanted to chuckle, but I stopped myself. My head merely nodded at the bartender’s story as I took the glass from him. Most of his story were true, except the part of killing. It was closer to a few hundred deaths really, all whom I regretted. One could rarely rise to power without weeding off some opposition.
But the New Commonwealth needed to paint me as the bad guy, though them going so much as to inflate the numbers by more than several thousand made me chuckle. To think that they were the same people who accused us of propaganda and pledged to be transparent.
“Hypocrites,” I mumbled under my own breath, before downing the entire glass. The cocktails served on outposts were nowhere as smooth and exquisite tasting as the ones back at the Capital, but they do their job of bringing back old memories. The tingling sensation lingered in my mouth.
Sweet and yet painful. It reminded me of a time when I naively thought I was using my powers for good, ushering in a golden era of peace and prosperity. Turned out that the Emperor, a person that I gave my allegiance and future for, was not the person I thought I knew. My entire life was ruined because of a misplaced trust. The again, when you grew up with your entire life being persecuted, the first person who comes along and tells you that they are going to fight for you can be quite charming.
“Can I have another glass?” I asked as I pushed the empty glass back to the bartender. My eyes wandered to the assortment of wanted posters stuck on the bounty board, taking small sips from the newly filled cup. Most of the posters were small time criminals, smugglers, pirates, whatnots. More than half of them, however, were people I knew. Used to know.
Justice Tribunal Chief Solomon. Internal Affairs Fleet Admiral Franken. Information Bureau Director Spencer. Emperor’s Right Hand, Lance Zander. It has been a while since I last used that name. The name which once belonged to the second most powerful man among the systems. Once. On the board, I was no different from the lowly space scums and criminals, with the highest bounty of ten million over my head. At least I was still first at something.
As I emptied my second glass, my wristband buzzed. The words ‘NC Patrol’ flashed across it, in bold red. New Commonwealth patrols. Their ships conduct regular patrols so ensure security in systems they govern, and rarely do they wander off into neutral territories. My heart dropped. I walked away from the counter, and whispered into it when I was certain no one else was looking. “How many?” I asked.
Three dots flashed briefly, before another sentence appeared on the screen. ‘Two scout ships.’
A temporary relief washed over me as I made my way out from the bar. Two scout ships I could handle. They usually carried less than five crew members per ship and are not really equipped for combat. But still, questions ran across my mind. Why were the NC forces so far away from their systems? Were they here for me?
My eyes glanced around me, trying to see if there were any suspicious figures following me. Nothing seemed particularly out of place, though I did not want to take any chances.
I pulled my robes closer to me, quickening my pace as I crossed the narrow hallways and towards the hangar. My hand wrapped tightly around my wand. Dwarves and goblins walked past me, most of them dressed rather shabbily, while advertisements rolled across the screens on the wall, announcing the latest offers in the outpost’s numerous bars and brothels. I have no need for them for the time being, as I made my way to the docking gate of my ship. My priority was to leave the system as soon as possible.
But just as I turned the corner to the walkway leading to my ship, two men dressed in bright blue armour stepped out from the gate opposite the one leading to my ship. Each of them held the standard issue blaster rifle, with their face hidden behind the helmet. I cursed as quickly hid behind the corner, deciding my next course of action.
I could pretend that I was just a regular space traveller and walk past them normally, though if they were really here for me, they would have a sensor that could pick up the presence of a wand in the immediate vicinity and it would be too slow for me to retaliate. It was too risky a move.
While I was contemplating my actions, my wristband buzzed again. The words were bolder and redder this time, with an urgency I rarely see, and rightly so. ‘MORE COMMONWEALTH FORCES INBOUND,’ it read rather urgently.
I cursed as I took another peek out from the corner of the wall, and was disheartened to find that there were three soldiers now. They were busy whispering among themselves. Three soldiers would normally be a walk in the park for me, but using my spells meant exposing myself. With more Commonwealth forces approaching, I was not sure if it would be a smart move.
The door behind the four soldiers opened, and from it stepped a figure dressed rather differently than the rest. She was not wearing a helmet, her long blonde hair flowing to her shoulders. A red blazer covered her top, pinned with medals and badges and long sword flanked her waist. She was without a doubt a high-ranking NC officer.
I quickly hid back behind the wall, my hands reaching for the wand. Inside me, my heart was already pounding. With such a high-ranking official at such a backwater outpost, surely they were after me. I needed to hit them when I still have the element of surprise.
Wand at the ready, I jumped out to face them, prepared to unleash several of my spells at them. To my surprise, however, they were no longer around. Only an empty hallway greeted me.
“Manufesto, footsteps.” I flicked my wand towards the direction of the floor, my mind picturing the four NC soldiers. Luminescent green footsteps appeared on the floor, with four sets of them shining the brightest. They all led to the opposite direction. Those NC soldiers, along with the officer, were probably on a highly classified mission. Their lack of noise seemed to suggest so.
Tucking my forbidden weapon back inside my robe, I made my way to the boarding gate opposite of where the troops came out earlier, constantly peering over my shoulders to ensure that I would not get caught by additional surprises. The console beside the gate beeped affirmatively when I tapped by card on it. The gate then slid open, as I stepped into the decontamination chamber.
My wristband buzzed again as the bright UV rays moved across my body, accompanied by a constant and loud buzzing sound. The words ‘NC SHIP PARKED OPPOSITE’ flashed in caps.
“Might as well tell me tomorrow,” I muttered.
“Decontamination process complete,” a robotic voice announced overhead me. The door in front of me slid open, revealing a familiar sight. The interior of Hornbill, the only permanent home I have left.
Giving one last look at the hallway, wondering what the hell was going on and happy that my cover was not blown, I turned back into the familiar sight of the ship. The cockpit door closed behind me, followed by a familiar voice yelling through the ship.
“Did you get my message? Did you get my message?” A worried voice greeted me rather loudly, accompanied by the sound of heavy footsteps. It was not long before a stout figure, half my height, but way bulkier than me, emerged through the opening of the engine room.
I smiled at the familiar bearded face of Kili, who was once the Regime’s most prolific inventor. But like me, he too had fallen from grace, a political fugitive, hunted for his ties to Emperor Duke. He managed to escape the persecution during the 100 Days Revolt, and somehow we ended up together on the same ship.
Sweat was pouring down his face, mixed with the black of grease. Probably trying to cook up some weapon or technological prototype again. It was his way of distracting himself from the new reality of his life.
“Yes I did,” I said, as I sat down in the pilot’s seat. “Might as well tell me tomorrow.”
Kili sulked at my statement, but I didn’t have time to bother about him. My hands flicked the glowing buttons above me, releasing the safety locks and powering the ship up. The engines began their steady hum, while I studied the system map on the console.
My hand’s pushed the ship’s thrusters forward. “Now, let’s get the hell out of here before more of the pesky Commonwealth forces arrive.”
“Yes boss,” Kili muttered, strapping himself into the seat next to mine. His face still had the sulky look on it.
The engines then roared to life, propelling our ship forward. The artificial lights on the station zoomed quickly by, but my eyes were fixed on exit. The ship seemed to give a glorious roar as it flew out of Docking Bay 3B. We were back in the vastness of space, with the blinking stars welcoming us back. Things felt serene and calm for a moment, as I took in the sights around me. Flying into space always has this effect on me.
It was short-lived, however. The ship’s alarm blared almost immediately, signalling fast approaching danger.
“Tell me what’s wrong, Kili!” I shouted, as I began punching in the coordinates to initiate our hyperspace jump.
Kili operated the console before him like a master surgeon. His eyes widened on fear as he read what was written on it. His voice barely masked the rising panic in him. “Not good, boss! More NC vessels!”
“Yes, I’ve noticed that! What do you think I’ve been doing, huh?” I asked, trying to keep my attention focused. The ship shuddered in protest, refusing my request to jump into hyperspace.
“Then why are we still here?” Kili screamed. In the distance, flashes of light began appearing rapidly in the distance. Ships warping in from hyperspace, blinking like the stars behind them. It was like the Commonwealth brought the entire fleet with them.
Panicking, I decided on perhaps the bravest and yet craziest action of my entire life. I disengaged the hyperspace jump, and brought the ship’s thrusters down. Taking a deep breath, I turned to my right, to face. “Kili, I’ll need you to kill the engines.”
“What? Are you daft?” he immediately shouted back.
“I said kill the engines!” I repeated, my voice echoing off the walls of the ship.
Kili did what he was told, with a confused look plastered across him. I didn’t have the time to explain. Kili reached out to the controls and the engines gradually hummed to a halt. Silence slowly settled in the ship, punctuated by only the beeping sound from the various equipment. It was still too noisy.
I tapped my co-pilot gently on his shoulders. “Kili… Except for life support, I’ll need you to switch off all other systems on board.”
My fellow fugitive stared me straight in the eyes. “You want me to what? In the middle of an approaching Commonwealth fleet?” Behind him, the silhouette of the Commonwealth ships continued to grow larger. Time was running out.
I stood up from my seat, pulling the wand out. “I need you to believe me, Kili. One more time. Please.”
He gave a long sigh, as he begrudgingly started to shut down each of the ship’s system. Weapons, navigation, lighting and communication. As I exited the cockpit, I could hear Kili grumbling to himself. “Travel with a spellcaster, they said, spellcasters can protect you, they said.”
The ship drifted aimlessly away from the outpost, as I took my position near the ship’s center. Save for a couple of blinking LED lights, the entire ship was dark. I flicked my wand to the top of the ship, drawing a curve downwards, before bringing it up again, making a full circle. In my mind, I pictured a transparent cloak covering the ship, hiding it.
“Abscondo, Raven,” the incantation flowed out from my mouth. The tip of my wand glowed bright blue, as flickers of light covered the ship, moving in unison across the surface, like waves on the ocean. I closed my eyes as beads of sweat rolled down my face. Turning a small object like a cup or a human invisible may be easy, but no one has really tried it with a huge object like a spaceship before. Until me.
The entire ship vibrated slightly, followed by Kili’s shriek from the cockpit.
“What’s happening?” he yelped, running towards me. The air buzzed with magical force. My eyes remained closed, my mind picturing the entire ship, every bolt, metal and circuit board. Finally, the ship gave one last rumble, and everything settled down.
KIli’s arms were wrapped tightly around mine, shivering. His grip gradually relaxed as I lowered my wand. His eyes scanned his surroundings, his hand scratching his head. “What did you do?” he asked in a hushed voice.
“I simply made our ship invisible,” I said, as I sat down on a nearby chair. Its cold metal surface pricked my skin.
Kili sat next to me, placing a can of beer on the table. “So, what do we do now?”
I let the ice-cold liquid flow down my throat, before turning to face Kili. I smiled, as my heart thumped inside me. The dozen or so Commonwealth ships loomed not far from us, growing in size as they neared the outpost. I wrapped my arms around Kili shoulders. “Now Kili, we wait.”
And then we waited.