Chapter 1


He walked down the steep gangway and put one foot on alien soil - the first of his kind to do so in 600 sols. The sun was the wrong color as was the sky. A pale yellow instead of the bright red of his home world. And the sky...almost pale blue, not the deep color he was used to.

He flexed his missing hand feeling the muscles in his forearm and upper arm work.

"You must keep the muscles from atrophying as well as ensuring an adequate blood supply to the remainder of the limb, Sire. Perhaps, someday, we will rediscover the secrets to restore your hand but for now..." The healer was only trying to give him hope but he knew it was just a kind gesture made to a young man.

He felt the vibrations of a man in full armor carefully negotiating the gangway. As always, Goudy was at his right side, seeking to protect his boyhood friend and now his king from further damage to his arm.

"It smells so much better than the shite in the lower decks, Sire. Still, the sky..."

"Just Erik now, Goudy. This is not Valhalla and we are refugees. The kingdom is gone, lost forever. I'm just the man who grew up with you, a drover who lived long enough to succeed his father and brothers."

"You are our king who saved our race from certain extinction. The man who held the shield wall so others could salt the earth and halt their advance. Don't be an arsling about it. The skalds will sing of your deeds for as long as our people exist."

Goudy worried about his friend, a mere 22 years old when he became king after his father and brothers threw away the cream of the Fyrd in a futile attempt stop the Grinders.

"There, in the distance. I think our welcoming committee is about to arrive. I'm sure it's not every day a ship the size of ours comes a-calling. Might i suggest you 'armor up', Sire?" Goudy's vision was legendary among other drovers.

Erik flexed his missing hand and grimaced. "I think it's best we don't appear threatening. After all, if negotiations are successful and they accept our mineral wealth, perhaps we'll have our own little plot to begin again. No armor."

In the distance he could see a cloud of dust rising from what must be several dozen wagons. He had deliberately chosen a landing spot far from any habitation or city. The last thing he needed was to have the huge generation ship crush something or someone of value. Definitely not the way to make a first impression.

"Erik, at least arm yourself." He wrapped a belt and holster holding a slug thrower pistol around his waist, not wanting his friend and king to appear clumsy as he struggled to fasten it with only one hand.

"Oh, shite! What draws those heavy metal carriages? I see no draft animals."

Goudy spoke into his gauntlet and soon many armored men arrayed themselves behind their king, shields and firelances at the ready.

"Close the gangways, Goudy. Have the men ready to retreat into the ship if these strange beings take any hostile action. I won't lose a man or woman because of poor readiness. Have the mechanics prepare to lift ship if I so order."

One of the metal carriages left the formation and came close to the small group of humans. Hatches opened and beings emerged carrying weapons. Their appearance was...

"Oh, shite, Trolls! Shield wall!" The men closed ranks and a blue shimmer formed in front of them.

The creature sauntered forward, hands on his hips and stopped a few paces from Erik. He did indeed resemble the drawings of trolls in books for young children. Amazingly so. His mouth opened and sounds like a damncat in heat snarled but a device on his uniformed chest spoke a tongue the Valhallans could understand.

"You have violated more regulations than i can come up with. You landed without clearance and away from the space port. We do not take kindly to smugglers who try to avoid customs and duties. Who is master of this...this, i suppose, vessel will do? Someone must face justice and your 'vessel' and cargo will be confiscated as payment of your fines."

Erik heard the whine of charging firelances, turned and held up his hand. "Hold. Make no threatening moves. This is all a misunderstanding."

He turned back and smiled and held his hand away from his weapon.

"We're not smugglers. Our world was swarmed by Grinders and our skies filled with Trill drop ships. This ship contains the last of our people, 28,000 out of nearly a billion, our livestock and our hopes for a safe place to start over. We will pay for land and, of course, whatever customs duties you require."

Just then several flying craft with whirling blades flew over the wagons, landed between them and the ship. A squad from each of the craft quickly formed a wall between the 'Trolls' and the Valhallans.

"Who are they? Odin, they are human!" Erik spoke rapidly to the leader of the 'Trolls', not expecting the answer he got.

"Imps. Rutting Imps. Well, they're your problem to deal with. Pay your duties and take up your pleas with them. The courts will impound your vessel and cargo pending a hearing."

He pulled out a wicked-looking side arm and pointed it at Erik. He'd decided to use what little authority he had as a very Junior Customs Agent and seize the vessel and ensure his prize money.

"Let's inspect your cargo. Trills, Grinders, a lot of crap! You're all under arrest. Surrender your weapons!" He lifted his weapon and pointed it at Erik's face.

The bolt from a firelance took off the arm holding the weapon on Erik. Before he could say anything, the shield wall had closed around him and his men had forced him into his armor.

"ENOUGH" The voice was magnified and seemed to come from everywhere.

A short man in full body armor and helmet walked over and stood looking over the armored Valhallans surrounding their king. 'He must have a farspeaker in his helmet', thought Erik, for two of his troops rushed over and lifted the screeching Troll and disappeared into one of their flying craft which immediately took flight in the direction from which it came..

Ignoring them he turned away and spoke to someone out of sight. "Control, this is...sir, we got us a situation out here on the Flats. A friggin' generation ship has set down and...sir, yes, I'm certain. I know them from the advanced history downloads I got in NCO Academy. And we've got , sir, Vikings. And, boy, are they pissed!"

Imperial Marine Technical Sergeant Ava M'bala took off her helmet and shook out her hair and turned back to face the new arrivals and her new responsibility.

"Alright, listen up..." but got no further. Erik stepped back, more in surprise at seeing a woman, an ebony-skinned one at that, in armor. The far speaker had distorted her voice when she spoke.

The slug-thrower appeared in his hand and never wavered from her chest.

"So the Caliphate has spread it murderous evil even out here into the far reaches of the heavens? Well, you'll not find us helpless and cringing. We will NOT submit!" His men quickly surrounded their king and his captive and he vaguely heard Goudy shout 'Shield wall, target the flying machines on my command."

"No, no. There is no Caliphate and hasn't been for centuries. You dumb ass barbs have been out of touch for nearly a millennium. Stand down before someone gets hurt." It had taken Ava a few seconds to realize the import of the blonde man's words. Now all she could do was hope her jarheads kept their cool.

She was held tightly against the Viking's armor but noticed his other arm hung useless by his side.

"You've been hurt. Let me get a medic over here to take a look at your arm."

A low ripple of laughter went through the Vikings at her words and Goudy smiled and said, 'Tis long ago too late for such comforts. Besides, he can't shoot worth a shite with his left hand. Why do ye think we allowed him a slug-thrower? And I have to say we did a fine job putting a new hand on his old armor, don't ye agree, lass?"

Ava could see the tension leave the armored Vikings and let herself relax and say 'At least let me have our medical and support staff here to take care of your injured and sick. We're Imperial Marines, not savages."

Erik released the woman and gestured to a smaller armored figure saying, "Elga, how many of our people are ill.?"

"None, sire. And all injured have been healed as best that could be done. And we've added six babies since last you asked for a count!" She seemed to think that was worthy of a smile but was disappointed when he dismissed her with a gesture.

"Whether you are savages or not remains to be seen, but we are not barbarians either. We came here after two sols in space escaping the Trill and looking for some place to settle and rebuild. We are not conquerors but rather the conquered, remnants of a billion humans."

Ava was in over her head and did what any NCO in any army did - she contacted her higher headquarters for instructions but first she gave a 'stand down' order to her Marines and then muted the externals while she contacted her superiors.

After updating her commander she was told to 'get into that ship and see if this is a load of bull pucky or if they're telling the truth or the truth as they know it. I want your body cam on the entire time you're on-board, Ava. Treat this as a First Contact situation. Congratulations, Ambassador M'bala'. She could hear the laughter in her brood-brother's voice but said nothing. She'd deal with the snot when they were alone and off duty.

She turned on the charm and smiled when she finally calmed down.

"Well, I'm officially your welcoming party and new ambassador so let me get the formalities out of the way."

She raised her voice so that the hundred or so Vikings and her Marines could hear her clearly. She blinked rapidly as the information and protocols for First Contact flooded her mind.

"On behalf of Her Imperial Majesty, Katje IV, let me welcome you to the Imperial Confederation of Worlds. I am Imperial Marine Techical Sergeant Ava M'bala and have been appointed Ambassador to your people. It is our hope that you will find our Confederation a welcoming entity and elect to remain here, on Broo...crap, this planet is unpronounceable. Or you can see what other planets might better suit you."

She smiled a real smile then and looked over the group.

"I got to tell you, you'd all make damn fine Imperial Marines and i can't think of higher praise than that. You," she pointed at Goudy, "and I will have to discuss those laser spears of yours and this shield wall you throw up whenever it drops in the bucket."

Goudy colored then replied, "Ye'd best be asking our king about the lances," he said, gesturing towards the man who had held her captive. "Twere his magic that made them. I just point and kill with 'em. Same with the shield wall. He calls it historical magicks."

There were snickers from several in the ranks and Goudy shouted, "Ye damn well know it's true. Ain't one of us got the bollocks to shove a fist full of salt down the gullet of a grinder to save another Valhallan like our king did."

Ava turned to the man she'd basically ignored during her speech and stammered out, 'You? You're - your're the king?"

Erik smiled and muttered "Only by virtue of surviving my father and two brothers and soon i hope to just be Erik, son of Gunder, again. This whole king thing is a heavy burden i would gladly give up to an elected body such as our Thing back on Valhalla."

"About the Troll..." Erik waited until he had the small ebony woman's full attention before continuing.

Ava laughed. "They are called Brools by us. No human can pronounce their name nor the name of this rock."

"Be that as it may, he does represent the convening authority and he said our ship and contents were to be held by the court..."

"Nope. First Contact rules override the locals. Besides, he was way out of line pulling a weapon on you. We'll grow him a new arm and hope he's learned a lesson from it."

"Is it true about how you lost your arm?" She bit her tongue wishing she could take back the words but the idea of a man sacrificing an arm without hope of regrowing one was unbelievable.

He stiffened and turned to Goudy and said, "Since you seem to have the tongue for cow shite, why don't you escort the Ambassador around our ship while filling her ear with tales of your own prowess. I'm sure she'll appreciate your rather unique point of view seeing as how it was always from far behind me."

He turned without another word and stalked up the gangway and into the ship.

Her eyes followed him until the darkness of the ship hid him from further view. She turned to Goudy with an inquisitive look on her face.

"Erik is my best friend. He was forced into his role and he carries the burden of all we could not save. Plus, and don't tell a soul, he's still feeling the nerve damage of the grinder he fed the salt to so we could finish salting the line and trapping them with nothing to eat except each other."

"Now, are ye hungry? I think you'll have to eat steak. What i wouldn't give for a fresh apple or even a turnip!"

"Steak? As in beef steak? You have beef? Real beef?" Ava could feel her mouth water and swallowed repeatedly.

"Aye. We were drovers first before the Grinders come for our herds. Got near 60,000 head on several decks. Somehow the ship grows grass and has light and even rain for the farming decks but best ask Erik or one of our mechanics about that."

Impulsively, for her, she put her hand on Goudy's forearm and asked, "Me and my jarheads haven't even heard of real steak since we were decanted. Do you have enough to go around to my 20 Marines? We'll bring what we have in exchange although, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, real Terran beef steak is almost priceless!"

"Aye, I think we can handle your Marines. Do ye have turnips? Or apples? We haven't had fresh fruit or vegetables since we buggered that Trill ship what sniped on us for near a sol on our passage here. Only the children get them - them and those cursed Trill we have in our dungeon."

Goudy ran his fingers through his reddish beard and said, "I don't suppose ye'd be takin' 'em off our hands, would ye? You Imperial Marines, I mean. We don't have an unlimited supply of salt and they shite like a cow with the scours. When first we took them, we were going to space 'em but the King has a Code of Conduct so we go without while they stuff their gullets with what we grow by the grace of the Gods."