The shepherd watched his flock grazing on the hillside, welcoming the feel of the soft grass on his feet as he reclined against the tree. The night was cool; the largest of Khardhül’s moons shed its silvery light across the area. The youth glanced up at the brilliant orb, grateful for the protection its light provided from the area’s many predators. His gaze flicked back to his animals, making sure they were safe. The shepherd was a member of the T’yazhi, a race that resembled a tiger given human form. But the youth had knowledge of neither tigers nor man, for humanity had never walked this strange world…
Noticing the deepening of the shadows along the field, the young T’yazh looked back up at the moon, wondering if a cloud was passing overhead. He leapt to his feet, eyes widening as a massive black shape stood silhouetted against the sky, moving slowly across the area illuminated by the moon. Whistling shrilly, he called his mirhann—the animals he kept watch over—to him. The black shape suddenly began to turn, and as the T’yazh youth watched in shock, a pinprick of light flashed from across the valley and climbed into the air, a streak of fire in the night. Within seconds the light vanished, leaving only the shadow blocking the moon. The shepherd looked on in awe as a scintillating flash erupted from the black shape, briefly illuminating the entire sky. The shadow seemed to break apart, shards falling toward the ground, some blossoming in brilliant flares as they fell. Everything happened in complete silence, unsettling for an event so obviously catastrophic. The youth ran for the outskirts of his town, but stopped transfixed as a huge object, edges trailing white-hot plasma, descended slowly toward the valley. With the valley as measurement, the young shepherd guessed that the object was roughly a thousand tail-lengths (for humans, that would translate to roughly one meter per tail-length). Pieces of it began to separate and burn away. The object seemed about to hit the ground, when a dazzling light brighter than the sun flooded the entire valley, with the black object at its epicenter. In that moment, everything suddenly went still, as though waiting for a signal. The T’yazh was knocked off his feet as the ground heaved under him, the earth reverberating with an almighty rumble. The wind picked up, becoming a full gale that stripped the leaves from the tree behind the shepherd and nearly ripped the tree from the ground. Winded, the youth threw his paw-like hands over his ears, the sky tearing itself apart as the loudest noise he’d ever heard blasted over him; he could literally feel it with every bone in his body—even his eyes vibrated.
Just as swiftly as it had begun, the earthquake and wind stopped, the last vestiges of the massive sonic boom echoing across the valley into the Rugh-Shagn mountain range. Dazed but uninjured, the T’yazh shepherd rose unsteadily to survey the destruction. Amazingly, there was less damage than he expected, most of the object having vaporized just before impact. Small fires smoldered here and there, but for the most part the ground was untouched. However, everything taller than a hut had been flattened by the blast, as far as the eye could see. As the youth approached the remnants of the object, he noticed that it was in truth wreckage—the wreckage of a craft beyond anything he’d ever seen in the Archives of his town, Takkhar. He knew his life would never be the same…
Far away, in a cave amid the peaks of the Rugh-Shagn Range, another being silently observed the crash, marking the trajectory of the projectile that had brought down the ship. “Saints blast it, they got another one.” He muttered. Surrounded by the wreckage of starcraft from everywhere and every time period imaginable, he had salvaged the derelict hulks over millennia, building them into a veritable fortress. As eons had come and gone, the hulls of dozens of ships had become the silent sentinels of this valley. Using the survey equipment of an ancient colony ship, the watcher zeroed in on the area around the debris. Judging by what little structure remained, it was a human vessel. The wreckage seemed to have come from the ventral portion of the ship, the name still visible: SHILOH. “A hospital ship?” he wondered aloud. Searching further, something about the wreck indicated otherwise. Seeing a familiar shape, the watcher zoomed in. He saw remains, burned fingers still clutching—a rifle. This was a military craft, then, he decided. He saw movement. Something was still alive. At first the watcher thought the figure crawling away from the wreckage had been horribly burnt, until it shifted direction and he saw it in its entirety as it collapsed, spent. “Holy stars, kid,” he whispered, “what did they do to you?” The watcher pulled on a long cloak and slung a bladed staff across his back. He had to get there, and fast.
“Wake up, soldier.” Cold water splashed Ryan Maxwell’s face, rousing him to consciousness. Spluttering, he tried to sit up, until a firm hand pressed him back down. “Easy, now,” the voice rumbled, “don’t try to get up just yet; you’ve lost a lot of blood.” Ryan blinked, trying to dispel a massive headache. The deep voice chuckled, and said “I was starting to wonder if you’d died on me, kid. You were bleeding out when I found you, and even though I patched you up pretty well, you wouldn’t wake up. Good thing we tried the blood transfusion, ‘cause what little you had left was doped up with enough sedatives to keep you snoring for a decade.”
Ryan squinted at the bright light, trying to make out anything of his surroundings. As his eyes adjusted, he saw that he was secured to something like an operating table. Looking to his side, he saw a figure with its back to him, the bright light making it impossible to pick out details. “Where am I, and why am I strapped to this thing?” The figure responded, “You’re currently on a planet the locals call ‘Khaardhul’. You’re from Earth, correct?” Ryan murmured, “Yes.” The figure continued, “Well now, that’s a problem. You see, Earth doesn’t exist yet. That means you’re a little bit out of place. To be specific, you’re about thirty billion light-years and roughly nine hundred quintillion millennia removed from home. I’d like to know how you ended up on that ship, because you’re not supposed to be born for a very long time.”
“And as to why you’re strapped to that table, let’s just say that I would prefer you not try to tear my throat out again.”
What? Ryan thought. He tried to read the display behind his rescuer. The screen had a date and time in standard numbers, and a picture of Ryan—his Commissioning picture, he realized. Next to the image was some sort of diagnostics readout that was monitoring his vitals. On another screen, there was an image of what Ryan assumed to be his benefactor’s right forearm. Branded into the flesh was a strange group of symbols in a delicate script.
“What is that?” Ryan asked weakly. His mouth felt strange, as though his tongue was in the wrong place. “Pardon?” asked the mystery rescuer. Ryan weakly motioned his head toward the screen. The rescuer was silent for a long moment before responding.
“That,” he said, a note of regret in his tone, “is a reminder of a time I wish I could forget. It means many, many things, but above all it indicates that I am—or was—a trophy to another. It is supposed to be a mark of dishonor to my name, but a great honor to the one who branded me. I consider it to mean—something else.”
“What do you mean, ‘something else’?” Sean asked. Again, a pregnant silence preceded the answer.
“It is a mark of my deepest failure. Those scars represent my incompetence in protecting my family. The brand you see has multiple meanings: the symbol itself translates to “Beast Soldier”; it was their term for a warrior who was without honor. Yet, those who marked me as being without honor were they who ravaged and murdered my wife and daughters, and bashed in my newborn son’s head with a mace. How does that strike you for irony?” he laughed bitterly. “Roughly, its English equivalent would be a mix of ‘Wolfshead’ and ‘pariah’, with a healthy dose of ‘ronin’ to boot.” Sean was silent for some time.
“‘Maxwell, Ryan Coulter, First Sergeant, United States Army, 3rd Detachment, 75th Ranger Battalion’, eh? Well, ‘Sarge’, let’s see what I can do for ya, shall we?” Sean was caught totally off-guard by the shift in mood. Either I’m freakin’ insane, or this is the weirdest dream I’ve ever had, he thought.
“This is no dream, soldier.” said the rescuer. Okay, now I KNOW I’m insane, he thought. Craning his neck to glare at his rescuer, Ryan said, “How did you know what I was thinking, then?” The figure gestured toward the biometrics display, and Ryan saw the words, “Neural Communication Interface” followed by a transcript of his thought process with a blank line and flashing cursor at the bottom. Huh, THAT’S trippy, Ryan thought, and immediately the cursor started moving, typing out those exact words.
“Having fun?” The hooded figure asked drily.