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FINALIST — Submission by Clay Skiles

Untitled   [ Part 1 of 2 ]

It's so very lonely
You're two thousand light years from home.

— The Rolling Stones

"Sir, the Human mercenary has arrived."

"Thank you Egar. Send him immediately."

"Yes, sir." Egar bowed his head and left the room. Menz Algoit, a high-ranking minister in his government, rose from his chair and looked out the window at the sweeping capitol city of Mentar, the home world of his race, the Psilions. The majestic buildings that rose into the sky were meticulously planned to the last detail, giving the city its famous look of symmetrical perfection. But underneath the thriving metropolis, feelings of anxiety were starting to grow among its inhabitants. The Psolian Empire had been at war with a reptilian race called the Sakkras for over a year, and the situation was beginning to turn grim. The Psolians had a substantial technological edge and most people assumed that the Sakkras would be defeated within months. However, Psolian military leaders had greatly underestimated the hardy reptilians, and they had been fighting the Sakkras to a stalemate for months. Morale in the Psolian's Imperial Star Fleet was at an all-time low, and Menz Algoit hoped the Human mercenary could help turn the tide of the war.

"Gilveen," Menz Algoit said into an intercom. "The Human is on his way here. Let's review his file before he arrives."

"Yes, sir," Gilveen said. "I'll be up shortly."

Gilveen entered the room a few minutes later and promptly sat down. Menz Algoit punched a few buttons on his console, and picture of the Human appeared on his screen.

"Now," Menz Algoit said. "Tell me everything there is to know about this- what is his name?"

"Jared O'Dwyer, sir" Gilveen responded.

"Right, Jared O'Dwyer. Who is he?"

"To put it simply sir, he's one of the best and most feared pilots in the galaxy. Even though his ship is about the size of one of our scouts, he recorded over nineteen confirmed kills during the Humans brief conflict with the Silicoids."

"Very impressive. But if he's such a brilliant pilot, how come the Humans never gave him command of a cruiser or a battleship?"

"They tried to, sir. But he turned down every commission offered to him. He said he preferred his one-man craft to a larger ship because he didn't want to put the lives of others at risk with his daring flying style. Of course, most people who know him claim that this simply is not true. He is said to be a loner who despises working with others, even if they are under his command."

"Intriguing." There was a silence in the room as Menz Algoit paused to contemplate what kind of person this Jared O'Dwyer was. He had briefly come across a group of Human pilots while attending a summit on Earth, where the Psolians would later sign a Non-Aggression Pact with the Humans. Menz Algoit and the rest of the Psolian delegation considered the pilots to be rude and arrogant, but their incredible skill and bravery was respected throughout the galaxy by all races, and the Psolians were no exception. Later, when he looked back on the trip, Menz Algoit reflected that perhaps the savvy Human diplomats had intentionally ordered their pilots to show off in front of him and his colleagues in order to provide a greater incentive for singing the Non-Aggression Pact.

If that was the case, he thought, it had worked.

"So, anyway," Menz Algoit continued, "Why doesn't he fly for the Humans anymore?"

The question clearly made Gilveen somewhat uncomfortable. "Well, sir, he was thrown out of the Human Star Fleet."

"What? A pilot of his caliber was thrown out? I don't understand, the Humans are notorious for double standards when it comes to some of their more talented members, be it in the field of art, sport, or in this case, the military. Why wasn't he just given a slap on the wrist?"

"Jared O'Dwyer has a rather long list of offenses on his record, sir, ranging from insubordination to firing on an unarmed craft to simply getting into drunken brawls with other pilots."

Menz Algoit grimaced. "He's a thug!" It was moments like this when he was glad he was an enlightened Psolian.

"Yes. But since he was so good, his superiors of course looked the other way."

"So what could he possibly do to get himself thrown out?"

"He punched his commanding officer."


"He punched his commanding officer, an admiral. He broke his jaw, in fact. He was hospitalized for a week."

Menz Algoit sat in stunned silence. "I don't believe it. That sort of behavior, it's…abhorrent. Absolutely abhorrent. How has he not been put in prison?"

"Believe it or not, Jared O'Dwyer is something of a celebrity. His exploits during the Silicoid conflict earned him somewhat of a cult following throughout the Human Republic. The military was afraid his incarceration would spark a negative backlash, so he was only discharged. He's been working as a mercenary ever since."

"Aha. There's that notorious Human double standard."

"Quite right sir."

"So, who else has he worked for?"

"Actually, sir, no one. His motivation seems to be purely monetary, so he went to the Gnolams first but they wanted nothing to do with him. If you ask me sir, they were terrified of him."

"Not surprising. This Jared O'Dwyer doesn't terrify me, but he certainly is a risk, to say the least. What's the expression the humans use? A loose canton?"

"A loose cannon, sir."

"Yes, that's right. A loose cannon." Menz Algoit and Gilveen shared a rare laugh.

"So," Menz Algoit continued. "Why does he want to work for us?"

"My guess is that he thinks we'll be willing to pay him a lot of money and let him do whatever he wants." Galveen paused before he spoke again. "He probably thinks we're desperate."

Menz Algoit leaned over his desk and looked into his friend's eyes. "Gilveen, we are desperate."

Then, as if on cue, the doors of the room opened.

"Sir", Egar said. "Mr. Jared O'Dwyer of Earth."

Gilveen and Menz Algoit rose immediately from their seats to greet the visitor. The first impression that Menz Algoit had was that Jared O'Dwyer looked like any other human, although he was donning a strange style of headwear that Menz Algoit did not recognize. He guessed it was probably some traditional form of dress.

"A pleasure to meet you, Mr. O'Dwyer", Gilveen said.

Jared O'Dwyer nodded and smiled at the Psoilian. He could tell both men were looking at his cowboy hat. Jared had always taking a perverse pleasure in wearing that hat around members of alien races. None of them ever knew quite what to make of it.

"Yes, a pleasure indeed, Mr. O'Dwyer", Menz Algoit said cordially. "Shall I call you Jared?"

"Yes, that's fine. Although some people call me the Space Cowboy."

"Excuse me?"

"Classical reference. Never mind." Another inside joke.

"Very well, Jared," Menz Algoit responded. "By all means, sit down and we can begin to discuss business."

The three men sat down around Menz Algoit's desk. Jared took off his strange hat, revealing a full head of brown hair.

"I'll get directly to the point Jared," Menz Algoit began. "Why should the Psolian Empire hire a man with your…how should I say, background?"

"My background?" Jared laughed. "I see that my reputation has proceeded me."


"Listen, there's a lot of things on my background that I'm not proud of, but the simple fact is that there's a lot more stuff on there that I am proud of. Regardless of what people think of me, no one can deny that I'm one of the best star pilots in the business, period. And I'm sure you already knew that, but I can give you something else, something that you won't find in your little information file on me, and that's fear. I can make the Sakkras fear you. And if you don't believe me, ask the Silicoids. They're afraid of me. Did you know that in their language, my name means 'ominous stranger'."

"No I did not. But who says the Sakkras aren't afraid of us right now Jared? We have the most technologically advanced fleet in the known galaxy."

Jared laughed again. "Technologically advanced? That may be true, but if that's the case, shouldn't the war be over by now? Listen, you guys may have the tech, but the Sakkras have the pilots. For every ship you destroy, two more appear out of nowhere to take its place. Right now the Sakkras are not afraid of you. They're not afraid of your ships, they're not afraid of your troops, they're not even afraid of your technology. In fact, the only ones who are afraid are the Psolian people. I mean, the whole military is beginning to think this war is a hopeless case, because even though you guys keep winning every battle, the Sakkras keep coming back with more ships and more troops."

Menz Algoit sat back in his chair and bowed his head. This Human was brash and uncouth, but he was also right. The Sakkras reproduced at an incredible rate and had a seemingly infinite number of troops and ships at their disposal.

"Listen," Jared continued. "I know you may think that I'm not going to be able to make any difference against the whole of the Sakkra Star Fleet, but I can! The Sakkras may be physically strong, but they're weak where it really counts, and that's in the head, Menz Algoit. All it will take to break their backs is one major victory. You just got to hit 'em where it hurts."

"And you think you can help do this?"

"I know I can. Just give me the chance."

Gilveen leaned forward and entered the conversation. "Listen to you, Human. You make it seem like you can win the war by yourself!"

Jared stood up and again put on his strange hat. "Who says I can't?"

Two days later, Jared O'Dwyer was hired as a mercenary pilot in the Psolian Imperial Star Fleet.

As his ship hummed gently through the night, Jared looked out the cockpit window at the other four spacecrafts in his fleet. They were all frigates, just like his ship, and they were piloted by an elite group of Psolian pilots collectively known as the Dijah. Jared was assigned to the fleet as soon as he was hired (almost six months ago to the day) and found his welcome by the Psolian pilots surprisingly warm, especially considering he was a foreigner replacing a comrade who was killed by the Sakkras. For the first time in his career, Jared found himself enjoyment in working with others. He soon distinguished himself as a top member of the group, recording an astonishing twenty-seven confirmed kills. This was a number so high that it surprised everyone, including Jared himself.

Despite his success, however, things were still not going well for the Psolians. The war with the Sakkras remained deadlocked and feelings of discontent within the Empire continued to grow rapidly. Jared himself had had numerous run-ins with Psolian leaders in the High Command. In one instance, he even publicly accused them of "acting like cowards" for refusing to launch a major offensive deep into Sakkra territory.

Needless to say, his opinions were not at all well received by his superiors.

Soon, however, Jared was forced to eat his words when a major offensive that he had lobbied for was ordered by the High Command. The majority of the Psolian fleet would attack the Sakkra colony of Festus, a mineral rich planet along the border. The Dijah, however, would be sent directly to the Sakkra home world in the Sssla system with orders to destroy the star base orbiting the planet, leaving it vulnerable to an attack by the main fleet. If everything went according to plan, all the ships in the system would be away attempting to fend off the attack at Festus.

It was a risky mission, but Jared believed it could work. The Dijah ships were equipped with an experimental tool called a cloaking device that rendered them invisible on long-range radar.

Soon, the tranquility of the night was broken when the fleet leader's voice echoed in through the radio.


[ CONTINUED...   Part 2 ]

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