There were too many to fight. He was outnumbered ten thousand to one. He watched as they all raced towards him, vengeance in their eyes and murder on their lips. They came in a mob, clamouring for his blood, each wanting to say, “I helped kill him. I was part of it.”
He stood perfectly still, hands in his pockets, not flinching or recoiling in the slightest. His hand brushed against the thing in his pocket, and his fingers clutched at it; ready, waiting.
The throng thundered down on him, not knowing what was to come. He grinned. Even after it was over, they still wouldn’t understand. They’d trample the ground into dust, confusion written across their faces, unsatiated blood lust driving them mad.
He could do it now, of course. But where would the fun be in that? Where would the showmanship be? No, best to wait until the last possible moment. To delay the act until they were just about to get him, and then…
Of course, Dara wouldn’t have done such a thing. She would have completed the mission and then gotten out of there in the blink of an eye. Nothing more than a stirring breeze that lifts the curtains. Silent like a breath, swift like a falling raindrop. She probably wouldn’t have even used it (and would likely tell him off for utilizing it, calling it a “waste of precious resources”). Dara would have only employed it in an absolute emergency.
But Raiden wanted to use it. Why have it and not use it? It would be like being a millionaire, but not spending any money. Naturally, he didn’t need to use it, oh no. He was good at his job, and he knew it. If his actions had necessitated the use of the thing, he wouldn’t have come so highly recommended at all.
But, as it was, Raiden was at the top of his field.
“Oh no,” she said, shaking her head vehemently. “No. No.”
“But, Dara, he’s the best—”
“Well, second best—”
“Hang on, a second,” said Raiden.
“Look, I’m just saying—”
“I said, no,” said Dara, folding her arms across her chest. “Am I not the captain of this crew?”
“Well, yes, but—”
“Ah, maybe we oughta forget it,” said Raiden, turning to walk away.
“Wait!” said Franky, grabbing him by the shoulder. “Please. Wait?”
Raiden nodded. “Sure. But don’t ever touch me like that again, you hear?”
“Don’t threaten my crew, you—” the word that came from her mouth made both of the men wince.
“Wait. Just… wait,” said Franky, standing in the middle of them, hands raised in case either one of them decided to go for the other. “Dara, he is very good. You know that.”
“I’m the best,” scoffed Raiden, folding his arms and rolling his eyes.
Franky ignored him. “He comes with a certain… reputation—”
“Yeah, I’ll say,” said Dara with a snort. She turned away with a childish glare.
“Look, guys, I know you don’t like each other, but—”
“Ya think?” Raiden and Dara said in unison, with the same sarcastic inflection. Looks of horror flashed across their faces when they realised, and they both turned away in disgust.
“Look. Guys,” said Franky through gritted teeth. “I know you don’t like each other, but we don’t have a choice.”
“There’s always a choice Franky, didn’t I teach you anything?” said Dara.
“Yeah, Franky…” mocked Raiden.
“Oh my God, you two are the absolute worst, do you know that?” Franky turned to his captain and pointed at her leg, which was currently in a cast and was resting on a raised cushion. “Do you honestly think you can pull off a mission with your leg like that?”
“Can do it better than him,” she said, pointing to Raiden with her chin.
“Really, Dara? Really?”
She squinted at him, and her eyes shot daggers, but she said nothing.
“And you,” said Franky, turning to Raiden. “I know how broke you are. You think that debt collectors don’t talk? I know for a fact that there are three scumbag moneylenders out there that want your head on a platter!”
Raiden paled as the colour drained from his face. Dara started to laugh, but Franky shot her a glare that told her she shouldn’t. “You both need each other. And don’t you dare argue with me,” he said, looking from one to the other, goading them into saying something to the contrary. “And, perhaps most importantly, I need both of you. I can’t make ends meet if we can’t take any jobs, Dara… and he’s the best out there. We both know he is. Hell, he knows he is, the cocky sonofa—”
An awkward silence fell upon the room. Slowly, Franky lowered his hands. “So, do we have an understanding?”
Dara and Raiden glared at each other, and then flicked their eyes back to Franky.
“Fine,” mumbled Dara.
“Fine,” said Raiden.
“Great!” said Franky, more enthusiastically than he felt. “Well, done, guys. I really think that you’ve—”
“Yeah, yeah, let’s talk shop,” said Raiden, shushing him.
“Agreed. Let’s get on with it. Shut up, Franky.”
“I—” started Franky, looking from Dara to Raiden exasperatedly, but then he gave up and sighed, visibly deflating. “Oh, fine.”
“Okay, so, let’s go over the plan…” said Dara, clicking a button and bringing up the holographic map that hovered in the centre of the room.
Raiden pulled the object out of his pocket with the flourish of a well-practiced magician. He saw the look of urgency in the eyes of those nearest to him as they sprinted towards his location. The gleam of fear that flashed across their faces told him that they knew he was about to pull something off, like a rabbit out of a hat… they just didn’t know what.
The natives of Raghajiv bent their heads low and really threw themselves into their sprint, hoping to catch the blasphemous thief.
“They want what?” asked Raiden, astounded. “Are they crazy?”
“Yes. Crazy rich,” said Dara. “What’s the matter, is it too big of a job for—” she adopted a mocking, babylike voice “—the great Raiden?”
“No, of course not! It’s just… this is gonna upset a lot of people, you do realise?”
“Obviously,” she said, rolling her eyes. “That’s why they’re hiring a crew to do it for them. If it was an easy task, they’d do it themselves, wouldn’t they? Besides, the added danger means they’re adding a few more zeroes to our paycheck, which is always appreciated.”
“How much are they paying?”
“That’s for me to know, Raiden. You’ll get your previously discussed share, as agreed. Now, let’s talk details…”
Raiden rolled the glass orb in his palm precariously. The object was delicate and prone to shattering – it had been designed so. For when the outer shell cracked, it would spill its contents across the ground and into the atmosphere, creating the desired effect.
He watched the horde close in on him like a wildfire. The moment was drawing nearer. Almost there, he told himself. Almost… almost… Three, two, one and—
Raiden smashed the orb onto the floor at his feet.
“Any idea why they want it?”
Dara shrugged. “None of my concern. As long as they pay up, they can smash it for all I care. Let ‘em chop it up and eat it. Let them deface it. I don’t care.”
“But, it’s a religious symbol,” said Raiden, treading carefully.
“Oh, what? What happened in those years that we stopped working together, Raiden? You didn’t suddenly see the light, did you? You haven’t gone all wacko on me, have you?”
“Hey, no. I’m not… a believer,” he said, taking care with the word. “But I wouldn’t talk about the followers like that. I mean, who knows? Right? I mean—”
“Do you want the job or not, man? You might be the best, but there’s a thousand others out there who are good enough who’d do the job without asking this many questions. Plenty of people need the cash.”
“Whoa, whoa, Dara. Of course, I want the job!”
“Then stop talking as if you don’t.”
It felt as if all the air was suddenly sucked from the surface of the planet. Before the tinkling glass had even finished falling to the ground, a great aqua blue bubble had bloomed from the cracked container, blossoming outwards and encapsulating him. For a second it stayed there, hovering around him, crackling with electric life, psychedelic swirling patterns twirling into infinity across its surface… and then it erupted outwards, rocketing into the oncoming horde.
A subsonic BOOM rattled Raiden’s eardrums, and he felt all the hairs on his body standing on end as if with static. His lungs had the breath pulled from them, and he uttered a shocked little, “Oof!” Raiden felt like someone had gently hit him in the gut and winded him. A moment later, he was roaring with laughter.
The mob was still there – nobody harmed. But they were moving in slow motion towards him, their skins crackling with blue lightning. Somewhere in the crowd, someone was still shouting. “Geeeeeeeettttt hiiiiiiiimmmm!” The voice sounded incredibly deep and hilarious.
Giggling like a schoolchild, Raiden stepped out into the crowd, backpack heavy on his shoulders. The thing was right there within grabbing distance, and he could see the understanding in their eyes… but they couldn’t get it. He laughed again. This was brilliant! Raiden waltzed through the crowd, taking special attention to lock eyes with as many murderous gazes as he could. Every single one of them would murder him in an instant, if they had the chance. And here he was, right within their grasp, and they were, for all intents and purposes, statues.
Raiden pranced and danced around their slowly moving bodies. It was as if they were moving in zero gravity or trying to wade through a lake of custard. His laughter tinkled through the air like falling glass. This is fantastic, he thought. This is utterly fantastic!
Although he knew he should be making his hasty getaway, Raiden spent the next twenty minutes jumping and skipping through the pack of would-be assailants, laughing hysterically.
“So, how will we deliver it? I assume people will be looking for it.”
“You assume correctly, Mr. Genius. We’re gonna have the handoff on Tartrak.”
“Tartrak? Dara, are you sure about this?”
“I know what I’m doing. And whilst I’m captain, you won’t question me. Just do your job, Raiden.”
The ship was waiting on the beach, rear ramp lowered onto the sand. Franky was waiting outside, leaning against the ship, arms crossed. He looked annoyed. “What took you?”
“Nothing,” said Raiden, stifling a giggle.
“Did something go wrong?”
“No, nothing at all. Went off without a hitch.”
Franky sized him up. “I hope you’re telling the truth. For your sake. Dara’s pissed. Did you get it?”
Raiden patted his heavy backpack. “Right here.”
Franky nodded, then scanned the horizon. “Nobody saw you?”
Raiden grinned. “Like I said. It went off without a hitch,” he said, avoiding the truth but not overtly lying. At least, not in his own eyes.
“All right. Climb in the back. We’re leaving Raghajiv right now. Heading to meet the buyers.”
Franky nodded. “Yep. Good luck.” And with that, Franky climbed into the cockpit and started the ship’s engines.
“Geahek? Geahek? Dara, I—”
“Stop. I said to not question my authority.”
“I know, but, Geahek is a mean… whatever he is. And his gang? Dara, they’re wanted dead or alive on every major planet.”
“You think I don’t know that?” Dara hissed. “But he’s paying big bucks. Don’t you get it? If we prove we can handle Geahek without wetting our pants, the rest of the clients will just fall into place. The infamy.”
“I—” started Raiden, but then he gave up. He shook his head and sighed.
There was little use in arguing with Dara. He’d learnt that many moons ago. Once she had an idea in her head…
Dara hadn’t been as angry with him as he’d anticipated. She was just happy he had the idol. She held the thing in her hands and rotated it around, getting a proper look at it. “Over three thousand years old…” she said, in slight awe. “I mean, I know it’s got massive importance, but it is only made from bronze. It’s not like it’s gold or crystal or whatever.”
“Dara…” said Raiden, looking at her as if she had two heads. “This idol is one of the central pillars of the entire Raghajiv religion. You are holding something that people have killed for and died for. Something that people believe in, something people pray to. There are thousands of people out there that think that when they die, they meet—” he gestured towards the statue.
“Wow,” said Dara, mockingly. “That was quite a speech.” She jabbed the idol in his direction. “You should get into politics, y’know.”
Before Raiden could retort, the pilot interrupted them. “We’re here,” said Franky, from up front.
Through the windshield, they saw the icy wastes of Tartrak, the dead planet.
“It’s not too late to turn the job down, you know,” he told her on the ride to Raghajiv. “You can still—”
“Turn Geahek down?”
Raiden turned the thought over in his mind. “Nope. You’re right. That would get us killed. If you told Geahek you’d do it, we better do it, hm?”
And now, here they were on their knees in the freezing snow, hands behind their heads, guns trained on them. Raiden wanted to say I told you so. No, probably shouldn’t, he thought. He looked out the corner of his eye and caught Dara’s attention. “Told you so,” he whispered smugly.
“Tiihuh,” she whispered through gritted teeth.
“Tiihuh,” she repeated, keeping her jaw clenched.
“Hnh hn tiihuh.”
“Oh, for goodness sake, will you just say whatever it is you’re trying to say?”
“I said, throw the timebomb!”
Raiden’s words caught in his throat.
“Throw it, Raiden!” shouted Dara, eyes urging. Around them, Geahek’s guards were shouting and bellowing orders.
“I, uh… I don’t have it.”
“I don’t… I don’t have it. I might have, ah, used it back on Raghajiv.”
The guards were swarming around them now, a blur of black armour against the icy blueish whites of Tartrak’s wastelands.
“You what? You blithering idiot! You utter moron! You—”
And that was when one of Geahek’s guards struck him on the back of the head, and he blacked out.
“I wonder what he wants it for,” pondered Raiden out loud. “Why chase down an ancient religious idol?”
“Who cares, as long as we get paid?” replied Dara, flippantly. “And don’t go off about the—” she did mock air-quotes “—significance of such an artefact. Let’s just do the work, get paid, and then go our separate ways. ‘Cause your face is already annoying me.”
“Your voice, too,” added Franky.
Dara nodded. “Yeah, and your voice.”
“Lucky for you, we get to spend a lot more time together,” he said, smiling chirpily. “Silver linings, and all that, huh?”
“For God’s sake, Raiden, shut up.”
“Yeah, Raiden, shut it,” growled Franky.
From outside their cages came a tutting. Geahek stepped out from the shadows. “So much infighting, it’s a wonder you lot were able to pull of the heist at all,” he crooned, bouncing the idol in his hand.
“Why don’t you hurry up and kill us already?” snapped Dara. “Stop toying with us!” As the words tumbled out of her mouth, Raiden knew she hadn’t figured it out yet. There were the things on their legs, for a start…
“Kill you?” Geahek asked, frowning. “Why on earth would I kill you? You’re the best heist crew I’ve ever had!” he said with a boyish grin that bordered on the maniacal. “No, no. I’m not going to kill you, gosh no. In fact, what I propose is an… opportunity.”
“Oh, here we go,” mumbled Raiden, fiddling with the ankle monitor that was strapped to his leg. It flashed a red light, intermittently.
A look of unadulterated rage flashed across Geahek’s face, but he maintained composure. “I propose you continue working for me. And when I say ‘work’, I do not mean that you will be getting paid.” His eyes crawled over Raiden. “And please stop playing with that. It’s not a toy, and you won’t get it off.” Geahek’s voice dropped down a register: “Believe me.”
“What kinda work?” asked Dara.
“Well…” he said scrutinising the idol. “This wasn’t the only religious artefact I am after. And you weren’t the only crew I hired. The problem is that the others... they, ah, suffered casualties. In fact, you are the only crew that returned alive.”
“I want you to go and retrieve the other artefacts.”
“Which others?” asked Raiden, an awful feeling rising in his chest.
“I think you know,” said Geahek with a wicked grin. “But here’s a hint for job number one: Quowiduw.” The exotic word rolled off his tongue perfectly.
Raiden closed his eyes and swore.
Dara looked confused. “What? What?”
“I’ll leave you to… discuss the proposition,” said Geahek, ignoring her. “Of course, it’s either ‘yes’ or it’s death, you must realise. Any who…” he said, and then swaggered through the doors, whistling a jaunty tune.
“What did he say?” said Dara, turning in her narrow cage.
Raiden sighed. “Basically, we either get killed by his cronies… or, we get killed by religious nuts. Or by mother nature.” He looked from Franky to Dara, in the cramped confines of their prisons. “Guys… we’re going to Muxel.”
Franky and Dara swore simultaneously.