Four dangerous outcasts. Two warring factions. One chance to escape. If they can.
When Alyx Starburn is arrested for stealing food, he’s given a choice: join a new branch of the Earth Alliance, created to rehab convicts like him into the service to defend Earth from alien threats, or rot in a quarry on a backwater planet a thousand light-years away. It isn’t a hard decision.
Soon, he’s teamed up with three other outcasts: Killian, calm under fire, but haunted by his past deeds; Vaness, an icy-eyed killer who’d just as soon shoot you than smile; and Jess, alluring, friendly, with a roundhouse kick as deadly as the secrets she carries.
But they have been deceived.
Without warning, the group is thrown into a galaxy far deadlier than they could have ever imagined; one where alliances are built on lies, where secrets hunt you from the shadows, and those you trust the most could actually be the greatest enemy of all.
Now to survive, they must learn to work together, or prepare to get torn apart.
My name is Alyx Starburn, and I’m a dirty, rotten scumbag.
At least the Earth Alliance police think so. They may be right, but only because I’m about to steal food from people marginally better off than I am so I can, you know, survive.
A high-pitched cough came from behind me, like someone gagging on their tongue. I couldn’t blame them. We were crouched behind a dumpster in an alleyway, where the vendors from the Saturday market tossed their rotted food. The oppressive Dallas heat practically basted everything, and the scent clung to our skin as smelly sweat.
“We going, Alyx?” Skinner asked.
I glanced back to shush them. Eager, trusting, desperate eyes stared right back. A pang of guilt shot through me. Baast, they were too young to be doing this. But they needed the food as much as I did, and hunger had no age discrimination. All four of the kids, the adopted part of my family, were years younger than me, and they were slight and malnourished. Typical for where we lived. I’m normal sized for nineteen. Lucky, I guess.
I’d taken them in off the streets a little over a year ago, during a particularly dark time in my life. Back then, I’d been so lost and confused over who I’d become and where I was going. There hadn’t been a second thought as to how I was gonna feed four more hungry mouths. I’d only known that I couldn’t leave them alone and desperate enough for food and shelter that they’d be willing to go down the same path that had almost destroyed me. If I left them, they’d either join a gang as I had, or get kidnapped in the dead of night by the Screamers gang for their sadistic Arena fight ring.
It’d taken my mom all of two days to finally relent and let them stay, but on the condition that I helped feed them. That was beyond fair. Her job at the hospital could only cover so much.
Well, stealing food was technically considered feeding them. And though it was still illegal, it wasn’t as illegal as what I’d been doing.
I turned back to the place we were scouting. The Reunion Shuttle Port, the only Earth side space port in Dallas, sprouted from behind the immaculate marble pillars and metal doorways of the Hall of Heroes. Vendors had set up in the courtyard outside the front of the Hall. Most were around the outsides, under what little shade the building provided. Others used broad tarps to protect their wares: mostly scrapped parts of decommissioned space ships and worn Holotech from the inner city. But some vendors sold food, too. That was all us scumrats really cared about anyway. Growing up in an overpopulated, underappreciated housing complex where money was rare and food rarer made it like that.
I double-checked for any Earth Alliance police. Only a couple chatting with each other near the far end of the courtyard. Great. I didn’t really feel like outmaneuvering them again.
“Here’s the deal,” I said to my crew. “Skinner, you and Ollie slip in there and pick through the lower section. You know what we’re looking for. Easy grab ‘n carry, nothin’ too expensive. They need the money too.” I turned to the two younger kids, Pincer and Pluck. They still had childish, innocent faces. People didn’t automatically distrust them like they did a guy like me. That made them extra valuable. “Pincer — stop picking your nose — Pluck — get up to the Hall of Heroes’ stairs, where the better vendors are. If any of you sees anything particularly hard to snag that we absolutely need, you call me over. That means vital to survival, Pincer, not a robot action figure like last time. Got it?”
“I thought it was valuable,” Pincer muttered.
I noogied him until he pushed away from me. “Meet up at the usual spot. And,” I added before any of them could scamper off into the crowd, “what’s our one rule?”
The older kids rolled their eyes, but they knew I was dead serious.
“What is it?” I pressed.
“No stealing from the Hall of Heroes,” they all chorused.
“Good boys. Let’s go get ‘em.” I tapped each of them on the shoulder as they passed me and vanished into the crowd.
Skinner paused and smirked his dirty face up at me. “You and that Hall of Heroes,” he said. “What’s so great about it?”
I grinned and pushed him down one line of vendors. “If you have to ask, then you won’t understand.”
I made my way to my assigned section of vendors, keeping the EA policemen in the corner of my eye. Game time.
If there was one good thing the Earth Alliance made when they started taking control of the government, it was the Hall of Heroes. And I mean that sincerely. The Hall was a place where the greatest, strongest, most incredible men and women of Earth were honored. Those who had traversed unknown sections of the universe, grappled with dangerous alien foes, gone above and beyond what any human had done before.
And when I was a kid with nothing to my name but hopes and dreams, that was all I’d wanted to be. I’d never been allowed in to see the Hall, of course. The EA police would never let a guttergrunt like myself defile their sacred Hall. But that hadn’t stopped me from wandering outside the glass-paneled doors, dreaming, catching glimpses of the statues inside posed in the middle of epic battles.
I might be beyond disillusioned to want to be in something the Earth Alliance found worthy, but that was the tricky thing: no matter how much evil the EA represented, when you grow up with those around you revering it, maybe even fearing it, and it swells to this almost mythical measure of worth in your life, well…sometimes even your personal prejudices take a back seat to wanting to become something more than a worthless nobody. Life’s weird like that.
I walked to the bottom steps of the Hall of Heroes. Just over my shoulder, a smug look plastered on his stupid face, was the Captain of the EA police. I didn’t know his name, but ever since he’d found out my mom owned one of the few freestanding suburban houses in the area, it had been his goal to take it from her. Nothing short of outright property seizure would legally work, but I was sure he was getting to that point.
A couple bags of dried fruit vanished into my pocket when the vendor next to me wasn’t looking. I slipped back into the traffic of buyers and took a quick stock of my underlings. Skinner and Ollie were doing some good work by the streets’ fountain. I watched Ollie cover Skinner’s back as he stuffed some jerky under his coat. Good on Skinner. Meat was particularly hard to get. Worth double price on the black market if we wanted to sell it. Now Pincer and Pluck—
The Captain’s head suddenly snapped towards the Hall of Heroes. His expression of trouble brewing made my stomach drop.
Then I heard the yelling.
Ah, scak. Busted.
Trying not to tip anybody off that I was in a rush, I made my way over to where the shouting had come from. An EA policeman we hadn’t seen earlier had Pincer by the arm. A small crowd of vendors had gathered around while one in particular was screaming her head off.
“I saw him! Tried to take my eggs! Lucky you all showed up when you did.”
The officer hefted Pincer higher into the air and he whimpered in pain. A couple of the vendors nodded approvingly. Slimeballs. Of course they would love watching a kid get manhandled. Out here, it was us against them.
I glimpsed Ollie and Skinner from beneath a bystander’s arm to my right. They caught my eye and waited for my orders on what to do next.
“Run.” I mouthed. “Now.” They hesitated. I glared menacingly at them and they backed out of the crowd. I breathed a sigh of relief. One kid caught today was bad enough.
The Captain was in the process of trying to put cuffs on him but my brat was squirming away and putting up a fight. He was good at that, at least. The thought briefly crossed my mind to abandon him. Just slip into the crowd and pretend like he wasn’t mine. As horrible as that sounded, it meant one less mouth to feed in a place where there already wasn't enough to go around. If I got caught, the rest of my family would struggle just to get by.
Pincer squirmed away again and the Captain backhanded him so hard I heard the crack from where I was standing.
That did it. What had I been thinking? I would never let them take one of my family away. I’d outrun police before; I would do it again. Besides, Pincer wouldn’t last five seconds on Stemia or Rele or Novaris or whatever mining planet the judge would send him to.
Casually, I threaded behind the backs of bystanders until I was as close as I could be to the policemen. There was a small opening in the crowd I could burst through. I double-checked how many officers were around. Three. Not too hard.
The Captain didn’t even notice as I pushed between the crowd wall and sauntered towards him.
He finally looked up. “Hey! This is police business, so stay ba—” His eyes widened in recognition. “You—!”
My fist met his nose with an Oh—Man—You—Have—No—Idea—How—Satisfying—That—Was crack. Pincer dropped from his grip and I snatched him up and hurled him towards the relative safety of the maze of homestead slums just behind the vendor market.
“Run, half pint!”
Pincer took off on his stubby legs, and I was close behind. Vendors leapt out of the way as I tore through them. Typical. They loved watching children get beat up while they did nothing from the comfort of the sidelines, never daring to get involved themselves. But that was what the EA had reduced us to: a bunch of soulless gutterspawn who cared only about ourselves.
In a second I was free and clear of the vendors and took a left down a side street, leaping over a few abandoned cars someone was using as a home. If Pincer was smart, and did what I’d taught him, he’d find a spot somewhere within the dilapidated buildings and hole up there while the police were busy chasing me.
And boy, were they chasing me.
Acrid air burned my throat. After I cleared the smoky, charred remains of what had recently been a department store, I checked behind me. The police were right at my back, their stun sticks buzzing menacingly, so I ran faster.
I used the lollipop-shaped structure of the Reunion Shuttle Port as a reference point to keep me on track as I darted in and out side streets. I ducked beneath lines of filthy laundry and hurtled over slats of metal used to cover holes in the roofs during the few rainstorms we had.
Ten. Ten policemen behind me now. There was no way they all cared enough about one thief to do this all on their own. The Captain had it in for me.
But I was almost free.
Up ahead was the newly constructed EA housing units. Pale, drab, salmon-colored, and stacked like bricks atop one another. Designed to efficiently cram as many people into one room as possible. I’d heard the living conditions were even worse than the suburbs. And that was saying something. But they were also a maze to weave through. I made it in there and I was in the clear. Then when it was safe I would sneak back home and have a talk with Pincer about —
My feet weren’t under me anymore. There was a shape, a person, hooded, even in this heat, in the doorway of one of the shops I’d run by. I never even saw their leg connect with mine and trip me.
My arm hit the pavement first, followed by the side of my face, scraping some of the skin off. Burning, so much burning, followed by the stink of garbage piled in the nearby gutter.
“Aw, scak.” I slowly pulled myself up. The person in the doorway was gone. And a good thing too. I probably would’ve killed them if they’d still been there.
I weighed my options. Being tripped had slowed me long enough for a few of the police to get in front of me and cut off my escape. The other seven or so pinned me on all sides. Baast. I was really and truly screwed now.
I backed towards the nearest building in an attempt to at least keep my back covered. I wiped some blood out of my mouth and hoped my scraped face didn’t look as bad as it felt.
“A good run.” The Captain stepped towards me, waving his shock stick around like a conductor’s baton. “Come quietly?”
I spit at his feet.
He grinned maliciously. “I hoped you’d say that. Let's bring ‘em in, boys!”
The most ambitious officer who reached me first got dust kicked in his eyes and his own stun stick shoved into his gut. The next one got the same. I tried to pull their weapons from them, but before I could use them, the rest swarmed me.
‘You ain’t fightin’, then you ain’t gonna be alive much longer’ my old gang leader had always said. Size up the odds. Pick your fights. Run to live another day. He’d gotten himself shot by more than twenty EA officers while trying to hold up a gas station. The others in our gang had all been impressed. Twenty was a solid number to go out on.
Too bad ten were going to bring me down. An officer leapt on my back, trying to pin me, but still I thrashed and kicked. He slipped off, and I bit the next one who got close. He screamed like a girl.
“He’s just a kid! Somebody hold him!” The Captain bellowed. I was in full animal mode now, all kicking and biting, trying to keep them back. Then a stun stick took out my left arm and leg and I crumpled under the weight.
Handcuffs secured my arms behind my back and I was dragged to my feet. The Captain laughed and punched me in the stomach a few times while some bystanders enjoyed Earth’s most popular spectator sport: citizen beating. Every time the Captain wound up for another blow I glared at them, daring anyone to step up.
The Captain kept punching. Most of his hits landed on my left side, which was still numb, but I pretended they hurt.
“Sir?” one officer finally said, “we should bring him in.”
The Captain stopped and flipped his sweaty hair out of his eyes. He was panting, but looked satisfied. “Sure,” he said. “I guess I just get a little overzealous about justice.”
He motioned us forward and I was dragged through the streets to face my judgment.