"Sergeant Valdesola, Front and Center!" echoed across the loading dock of the Cryuellan Prime jump gate.
Seeking out the voice hailing him, Josh quickly located the small soldier in the Acerian League uniform. Jenkins always did remind him of those old earth pets favored by so many distance haulers. He was small, wiry and slightly psychotic, just like a Jack Russell terrier.
"That's Captian Valdesola to you ground ape." said Josh. "What brig were you just released from Private Jenkins?"
"Aw... Sergeant, you know I never started any of those fights."
"Yeah, I know. You were just defending the honor of the Acerian Light Commandos. Or was it the other guy who threw the first punch this time?"
"Nothing like that Sarge. I haven't been in the brig in over a year."
"That's hard to believe Jenkins. What's changed?"
Looking somewhat abased, Jenkins says, "I met a girl. Her name's Coria and we've been married for six months now. We have a small residence downside on Cryuellan. She gets plenty mad if I get into any misunderstandings. So I try to keep out of trouble these days. What about you?"
"I'm Captain of the Space Witch now. Been hauling freight for the Burned Hand Trading Conglomerate. Farming gear, some small weapons, the occasional new colony embryo start up package. Whatever pays the most."
Looking down, Jenkins says, "Sarge... I thought you were a lifer. No one could smash a Chitter soldier quicker than you. None of the squad ever thought you'd get out. Don't you miss it?"
"Ha. Miss it? You think life as a cargo hauler is boring. We just dodged Silicate pirates and Vilicus frigates during the last leg of the alpha yellow run through sector 637. That exciting enough for you?"
"Yeah, I can see how that could be exciting. But it will never match the time we dodged that Chitter plasma beam barrage on Dhranibee 7. Right Sarge?"
"You have a point Jenkins, but still, its a dangerous galaxy. Remember what Sergeant Major Handby always said, if something isn't trying to kill you, then you aren't looking hard enough."
"So where's this trash hauler of yours?"
"You mean the Space Witch? It's over there at berth 37B. It's the Maizer-Streoff gazelle class long hauler." Josh pointed and watched as his first mate, Natascha Chung negotiated with a blue-skinned Methene dockmaster about the cost of air and other station fees.
As they approached berth 37B, Jenkins perks up. "Is that Corporal Chung? I should have known if I found you I'd find her too."
"Yeah, after I retired, Corporal Chung asked if she could tag along. How about you? I can always use another good hand."
"Sorry Sarge, but I just re-enlisted for another three years. Besides which, Coria likes me to be close to home. I guess it makes her feel safer."
"I understand, but should you change your mind, just drop me a note at the Merchant Captains Guild care of the Space Witch," offered Josh.
"I see Natascha has a new scar over her left eye. How'd she get that?" asked Jenkins.
"That scar was a gift from a Saurian over a minor dispute regarding a load of weapons. He didn't survive the argument."
After Jenkins departed, Josh turned his attention to the semi-automated robots that were unloading the cargo hold. Cargo transfer seemed to be going smoothly, so that was one less worry. Behind him, Natascha was still aggressively discussing the dock fees. Josh ignored the haggling even though he could see the dockmaster's semi-transparent blue skin beginning to crackle with agitated energy. Arguing with station personnel seemed to be part of standard operating procedures for every long hauler. Besides, he knew he could rely on Natascha. After all, she had been a squad member in the Acerian League during the First Chitter War.
After checking to be sure the dock watch was alert and working, he waved goodbye to the crew. Muttering about his personal lack of downtime, Josh quickly walked to his favorite watering hole, the Broken Spanner Saloon. Being that the station was on mid-shift, the saloon was mostly empty. He settled in and ordered a drink, a solar wind, from the Methene working behind the bar.
After a few drinks, Josh heard an old time spacer grumbling in a dark corner. "Dam Zyxlar. They're the reason the galaxy has all these problems. It's all their fault. No one knows where they went, but I know."
Intrigued by any mystery and unusual news, Josh introduced himself to Prax Jones. Prax had that look of an ex-marine, with all the scars, bumps and bruises of a lifer. "So, you know about the Zyxlar, do you? Can I offer you a drink?"
With a wry grin, Prax said "For a drink? Sure I'll tell you about the Zyxlar. But no one ever believes me." The old spacer leans back taking a deep swig, "I'm old enough to know the truth, but no one really remembers."
Josh said, "Well, I've always heard they died out due to some kind of plague."
Prax answered, "Yeah, I've heard that one too. The Vilicus believe the Zyxlar are in hiding and watching us. They think the Zyxlar are observing all the slave races to see who is worthy. Once they decide who is worthy, they will return and elevate the noble races and destroy the others."
The old spacer continued, "Of course, many of the races think they've just moved on to another galaxy. Some of the wilder Methene astro-theorists even believe that they have jumped to another dimension. A few even believe that the Zyxlar are stuck there and can't return. The Methene are afraid that one day the Zyxlar will be able to navigate their way back."
"A few of the Silicates think they have become pure energy and have bonded with the stars or are traveling the solar winds. Within the Silicate Temple of Zood el Sretoasi, they teach that the Zyxlar have built a matter transference device and have converted themselves into asteroids. That makes a miner buddy of mine laugh every time he hears it."
Josh wanted to know, "What about the Saurians? What do they believe?"
Prax continues, "Now those blood thirsty Saurians believe the Zyxlar have all turned cannibal and have killed one another. The Saurians even have a few legends where they claim to have seen the last ancient Zyxlar on the outer edges of the galaxy."
"And the Chitters?"
"Some Chitters I've spoken with have pushed forward a theory about their advanced technology. They think the Zyxlar have developed a technique that allows them to penetrate a star's corona. They actually believe that the Zyxlar are living inside one or more of the stars."
"If you think that's nuts, over in sector 397, I met a Terran scientist who is convinced that the Zyxlar are living inside a black hole or jump gate wormhole. Now, how crazy it that?"
"The Guiding Light of the Stellar Presence, that radical Terran religion, believes that they have all transferred their consciousness into computerized robot forms and are creating a large hive mind gestalt. Once the hive mind has been formed, these network entities will take over other electro-mechanical bodies, ships, and systems. Once in control, they will again subjugate the physical races."
The old spacer clears his throat and goes on, "But, as a young man, I saw things. My father was a high level slave administrator to a Zyxlar regional governor. I saw the crystal records and orders before they left. They were buying tons of special chemicals, metals and storage pods. I'd bet my last Imperial Chit they all went into a metamorphic state. I wouldn't be surprised if they showed up as giant space butterflies someday or even some weird kind of sea slug. But one thing is for sure, whatever they change into won't be good for either you, me or the rest of mankind."
Two days later, the Space Witch departed from the station at Cryuellan Prime. Having successfully undocked, Natascha entered the bridge to stand next to Josh. For awhile, they both watched silently as the ship navigated through local traffic.
"So Commander, was the mission successful?"
"Yes and no, Lieutenant. I was able to locate the old spacer, but his information was useless."
"Will you be sending the contact report now?"
"Lieutenant Chung, you know as well as I do, that according to Acerian black ops protocol, we can't send code word OMEGA rated messages within inhabited space, unless it's a combat critical situation."
"But Admiral Saurfeld said he wanted to know any new information as soon as possible regardless of the content."
"Well, the Zyxlar have been missing for over 150 years, so the Admiral is just going to have to wait a little longer."
"Yes, Sir. Where to next?"
"The rim worlds. I hear there are some Methene explorers that claim to have spotted an active Zyxlar ship."