Book: The Awakening



The Awakening

Broken Worlds: The Awakening

(1st Edition)


by Jasper T. Scott


JasperTscott.com

@JasperTscott


Copyright © 2018


THE AUTHOR RETAINS ALL RIGHTS

FOR THIS BOOK


Cover Art by Tom Edwards

TomEdwardsDesign.com




Author’s Content Rating: PG-13

Swearing: PG-13, made-up euphemisms only

Sexual content: PG, very minimal

Violence: mild to moderate

Author's Guarantee: If you find anything you consider inappropriate for this rating, please e-mail me at [email protected] and I will either remove the content or change the rating accordingly.



Acknowledgements

This book comes to you in its typo-free state thanks to my volunteer editor, David Cantrell, and to each and every one of my advance readers. Thank you, B. Allen Thobois, Chase Hanes, Daniel Eloff, Dave Topan, David Brotchie, Davis Shellabarger, Donna Bennett, Earl Hall, Gary Matthews, George P. Dixon, Gerald Geddings, Gregg Cordell, Harry Huyler, Henry Espinoza, Ian F. Jedlica, Ian Seccombe, Jacqueline Gartside, Jeff Morris, Karl Keip, Karol Ross, Lisa Garber, Mary Kastle, Mary Whitehead, Michael Madsen, Paul Burch, Peter Rouse, Raymond Burt, William Dellaway, William Moore, and William Schmidt—you guys make editing easy! Also, I owe a big thank you to my wife and daughter for being so supportive of my work, and for being such a great inspiration.

And finally, many thanks to the Muse.








To those who dare,

And to those who dream.

To everyone who’s stronger than they seem.

“Believe in me / I know you’ve waited for so long / Believe in me / Sometimes the weak become the strong.”

—STAIND, Believe



Dramatis Personnae

Darius Drake “Spaceman”

Human male. Brown hair, blue eyes. 5’10” 180 lbs, 30 years old.

Cassandra Drake

Human female. 12 years old. 5’2” Brown hair, blue eyes, color of a cloudless sky. Delicate, pretty features.

Claire Drake

Human female.

Lisa Davies “Blondie”

Human female. Blond hair, green eyes.

Blake Nelson

Human male. Brown hair, brown eyes. Fit, middle-aged, looks like a body-builder. A picture of health and fitness.

Gatticus Thedroux “Slick”

Male. Tall, pale, and thin with piercing gray eyes and black hair slicked back from his forehead.

From Hades

Captain Mako Riker

Human male. Has a ragged black beard and a broad, muscular frame, with tan skin and intense blue eyes.

Primus Kathari “Ra” Sievros / “Catman” / “Sassy”

Lassarian male. Tall, skinny biped covered in short black fur. Piercing green eyes. A ragged, hairless scar running at an angle across his face from his rounded brow to his jutting, tufted white chin. Pointed ears that twitch restlessly. Long, pointy white teeth.

Titara “Tita”

Dol Walin female. Tall, willowy humanoid with slick, hairless lavender-hued skin. Bottle-nosed snout. Three broad, flipper-like fingers on each hand. Has sharp blue eyes. Aqueous voice.

Ectos

Sicarian male. Scaly gray humanoid.

Veekara

Vixxon female. Lithe, beautiful, with ghostly white skin and disturbingly human features, except for solid white eyes, and long, luminescent blond hair.

The Exiles

Tanik Gurhain “Scarface”

Human male, bald, yellow-green eyes, scarred face, mouth twisted into permanent snarl by scars.

Ikatosh “Ike” / “Abominable Snowman”

Korothian male, white-furred humanoid, large like a polar bear standing on hind legs, flattened snout, blue-gray lips with a permanent smile.               Has blue eyes.

Tik “Batman”

Murciago male. A winged creature, ugly with wrinkly white skin hangs in flaccid folds from prominent bones. Face vaguely human, but with two black slits for nose, two hollow-looking black eyes, and a pinched black orifice for a mouth. Sticky purple tongue used to snatch insects from air.

Dyara “Dya” / “Hottie”

Human female, brown-haired, stunning: rich brown eyes, petite, ample curves and small waist.

Kithisiosakata “Kithisios” / “Kit” / “Flipper”

Dol Walin male. Tall, willowy humanoid with slick, hairless lavender-hued skin. Bottle-nosed snout. Three broad, flipper-like fingers on each hand. Has sharp blue eyes. Aqueous voice.

Cygnians / Phantoms

King Assuraga

Ghoul. Nine feet tall, hairless, with wrinkly brown skin and pug-like face. Can blend with surroundings like a chameleon. Quills running down their backs. Barbed tails. Black tongue. Four black eyes. Jagged, slate gray teeth, interlocking, nine-inches long. Has six limbs. Stands on hind set, uses other four as arms. Eight-fingered hands, two thumbs each, long deadly gray claws. Slits in neck (like gills) for respiration, called respiratory canals.

Queen Cithasi

Same description as above, but slightly different coloring, face shape, and size.

Minor Characters

Captain Okara

Human female.

Lieutenant Reed

Human male.

Deliverance Crew

Bridge

Lieutenant David Neelson

Comms

Lieutenant Aaron Fields

Helm

Lieutenant Commander John Carter

Flight Ops

Other

Senior Chief Petty Officer Bill Harmond

Quartermaster



Prologue


The Year 2045 AD

Darius dragged his chair closer to his daughter’s bedside. “How are you feeling, Cass?”

“Tired.” She gave a brittle smile that shattered before it could reach her eyes—vivid blue eyes, the color of a cloudless sky.

Darius nodded and let out a shaky breath. “Doctor Allister should be back with your test results soon. You can sleep if you want. I can talk to him.” Darius shrugged. “I’m sure it’s nothing anyway. People get headaches, headaches can make you dizzy, and dizziness can make you sick.”

Cassandra laid a hand on his knee, and it was only then that he realized he’d been bouncing it uncontrollably ever since he sat down. “Dad, stop.”

“I had too much coffee. I can’t help it.”

“No, not that. Don’t lie and tell me I’m fine. I know I’m not fine. I know, and it’s okay.”

Darius felt an angry knot form between his eyes. “No, it’s not okay. You’re twelve. You don’t get to be okay with this—and besides, I’m not lying. I’m hoping for the best, and you should too. I read somewhere that being positive can help your body fight, and even prevent, major diseases.” Cassandra’s cheeks flushed and bulged with a reply, but Darius raised a finger to stop her. “No backtalk, young lady.”

She winced and subsided, gasping for air.

“What’s wrong?” Darius asked quickly.

Cassandra shook her head. “It hurts.”

“Where?”

She touched the side of her face, as if she had a toothache.

“Probably the headache. Pain can radiate like that.”

Cassandra raised one eyebrow and fixed him with a meaningful look.

A new idea occurred to him that could explain her symptoms. Darius chewed his lower lip. “You’re not, uhh... going through any changes lately, are you?”

Cassandra gave him a blank look. “Like what?”

“Like... you know, girl stuff.”

Cassandra looked horrified. “No, Dad.”

Darius arched an eyebrow. “Well, that can cause headaches, and mood swings, and—”

“Dad, it’s not my period. It’s the cancer. It’s back.”

Darius threw up his hands. “They removed your kidney. Doctor Allister said you were cancer-free.”

“He also said that cancer-free is a misnomer.”

Darius frowned. “Yeah, well, maybe we should get you a new doctor.”

“No, I need to hear the truth. I can take it.”

Darius frowned.

A knock came at the door, drawing their attention away from each other. “Come in,” Darius said.

The door swung wide, and in walked Doctor Markus Allister. He was a tall man with wavy black hair, dark, deep-set eyes, a heavy brow, and a drooping mouth and mustache that made him look like he was always frowning. He’d definitely chosen the right specialty.

Darius rose to his feet, wielding a smile like a shield to ward off any bad news. “You have her results?”

Doctor Allister stopped at the foot of the bed and nodded. “Yes,” he said quietly, and his face twitched with sorrow. “I’m sorry.”

A sharp spike of dread went through Darius’s heart, and his whole body grew cold. Suddenly his legs wouldn’t hold him, and he had to sit back down.

“It’s back, isn’t it,” Cassandra asked, but there was no hint of a question in her voice.

Darius grabbed his daughter’s hand in a tight fist. “We’ll fight it,” he said. “Drakes never say die, remember?”

Cassandra’s mouth quirked into a lopsided smile. “Can’t kill a rock,” she added, nodding slowly.

“That’s the spirit.” Darius gave his attention back to the doctor. “What are our treatment options?”

Doctor Allister’s gaze flicked to Cassandra and then back to him. “Perhaps we should step outside for a minute to discuss that.”

Darius felt some of the fight leave him as he noticed the grim look on the doctor’s face and the tone in his voice. He let out a breath and released Cassandra’s hand to rise on numb, wooden legs that didn’t feel like they belonged to him anymore.

Our treatment options?” Cassandra asked in a loud voice. “Don’t you mean my treatment options?”

Darius turned to look at her and saw the fire burning in her eyes. “Cass—”

“No, Dad. Whatever this is, I need to hear it too. This is my fight, and I’m not running from it.”

Darius stared at his daughter, his heart aching and swelling with pride at the same time.

“Very well,” Doctor Allister said, and let out a sigh of his own. “Your cancer is back, and it’s spread to your brain, liver, and bones. There’s a tumor in your brain that is likely the cause of your headaches and nausea—possibly the mood swings too.”

“How do you treat that?” Darius demanded.

“We can operate to remove the tumors and use drugs to target the cancer in her bones.”

“What are my chances of survival?” Cassandra asked.

Doctor Allister looked uncomfortable. “There’s really no way to say for sure... response to treatment varies, but we should be able to significantly slow the growth of the cancer.”

“But not cure it?” Cassandra pressed.

The doctor’s mustache twitched. “No.”

Darius scowled. “What do you mean, you can’t cure her?”

“We can extend her life significantly, and new advances are being made all the time.”

“So how long can you give me?” Cassandra asked.

“As I said, it’s impossible to say. We need to see how you respond to treatments.”

“How. Long.” Cassandra insisted quietly.

“With cancer this aggressive and this advanced, you could get anywhere from six months to a year. Maybe two.”

Darius felt the room closing in around him. The air grew thick, making it hard to breathe, and his ears started ringing. Two years. Best case, she’ll be fourteen when she dies. She wouldn’t even have a chance to get married. Have kids. “I don’t understand,” he said slowly. “A year ago you said she was cancer-free. We did everything you told us to do, and we came back for all the tests! How the hell did you miss this?”

“I’m sorry. I really am. If you need a moment to process the—”

“What if I don’t treat it? How long will I have?” Cassandra asked.

“A few months. Maybe only one before you’d have to be admitted to hospice. But if we remove the tumors and start treatments soon, that outcome improves significantly.”

“Yeah, you mentioned that,” Cassandra said dryly.

“What about the surgery?” Darius asked. “You’d have to operate on her brain and liver. Isn’t that risky?”

“There are always risks, but I see no reason to expect adverse outcomes from surgery.”

Darius nodded slowly.

“No,” Cassandra said.

Darius looked at her. “Cass, you don’t get to make these decisions. Drakes never say die, remember? You’re not giving up.”

“It’s my body, and I didn’t say I was giving up, but there has to be some other option, some way to cure me.”

“There are no cures for stage four metastatic, renal cancer,” Doctor Allister said.

Darius looked to him. “What about alternative therapies? Experimental drugs?”

“The Mayo Clinic has the top oncology center in the country. I assure you that if you opt for treatment, we’ll give you access to all of the best treatments currently available. You could easily extend her life by a few years.”

Darius shook his head. “That’s not good enough. What’s it going to take? A million? Two? How about ten?”

“Mr. Drake, it’s not a question of the money.”

Darius licked his lips and jerked his chin to the door. “Let’s go talk outside.”

“Of course.”

“Dad, I told you I need to hear this.”

“We won’t be long, honey.”

“Dad...”

But he wasn’t listening. He followed Doctor Allister out into the corridor and shut the door behind them. Darius looked around quickly to make sure no other doctors were around.

There weren’t. Turning back to Doctor Allister, he said, “You have kids?”

“One,” Allister replied, frowning.

“How old?”

“Five.”

“Okay, so what would you do if someone told you you’d never get to see her—him?”

“Him.”

Darius went on, “What would you do if someone told you you’d never get to see your son get married, or graduate, or even go on his first date? What would you do if someone told you he only had a few months to a few years to live?”

“I understand this is difficult, Mr. Drake, but—”

“Don’t tell me you understand!”

Doctor Allister flinched at the volume and tone of Darius’s voice.

Darius peripherally noted that nurses and orderlies had stopped what they were doing to stare at him. “Unless you’ve stood where I’m standing, you don’t understand. You don’t know what it’s like to have everything, and then wake up one day to have it all suddenly ripped away. Money means nothing without the people you love. So, what would you do?” Darius insisted.

“I’d look for the best treatments available and buy as much time as I could.”

“Right,” Darius said, nodding. “And what if your doctor neglected to mention an important treatment option that might change everything? How would you feel?”

“Mr. Drake, I assure you, I’m not withholding any information.”

Darius held up a hand. “But you are. What about Cryo?”

Doctor Allister’s eyes widened. “Cryo... storage?”

Darius nodded. “We press pause and wake her up when a cure becomes available.”

“There are no guarantees in the future, Mr. Drake.”

“How far are we from a cure to cancer? Maybe fifty years? A hundred?”

“There are risks associated with cryo. She could wake up paralyzed or brain dead.”

“Ten percent,” Darius replied.

“I’m sorry?”

“I’ve done my research. Ten percent. Those are the chances of serious complications. Compared to a hundred percent chance that my daughter will die from the cancer. I think that’s an improvement, don’t you?”

“If we only wake her when a cure is found, you might not even be around anymore, Mr. Drake.”

Darius smiled. “I will be if you put me in cryo with her.”

“Mr. Drake, I’m sure you know that cryo storage is only an option for terminal patients.”

Darius nodded slowly. “And what if I were terminal?”

“You’re not. You’re healthy.”

“You don’t know that. I used to smoke. I’ve been tired and short of breath lately.”

“Mr. Drake...”

“What’s it going to take?”

“Mr Drake, are you suggesting—” Doctor Alliston looked around quickly, then went on in a whisper, “Are you asking me to falsify medical records?”

“I’m asking you to run some tests, and to pick a number that you like. Six figures. Name yours.”

Doctor Alliston frowned, but Darius could see the wheels turning in his head. He was considering it.

“What were your symptoms again, Mr. Drake?”

“Chest pain, fatigue. Shortness of breath.”

“I believe you also mentioned a persistent cough?”

Darius nodded, and coughed obligingly into his hand.

“And you mentioned you noticed blood in your sputum?”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“I’ll have to schedule you for a CT scan and sputum cytology, but I believe you said you were going on a vacation tomorrow.”

Darius nodded slowly, wondering where the doctor was going with that.

“If you’ll accompany me to my office, I’m sure I can help you find the nearest clinic where you can get yourself tested while you’re on vacation.”

“Sounds like a plan. Let me just tell Cassy where I’m going first. I’ll meet you there in a few minutes.”

“Of course, but if I were you, I wouldn’t tell her very much right now. There’s no sense in worrying her over something that’s probably nothing. I’m sure you’ll agree that discretion is a virtue in these types of situations.”

Darius smiled thinly. “Absolutely. I’ll see you in your office, Doctor.”

Alliston nodded, and Darius watched him go. He still felt like his world was falling apart, like the air was too thick and he couldn’t breathe, but now he had hope. Now his daughter would have a future, and he’d be around to see it. Darius blinked and something hot and wet fell to his cheeks. He wiped it away and smiled. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

How long would it take to find a cure for his daughter’s cancer? Fifty years sounded about right. What kind of world would they wake up to in fifty years?

Despite the seriousness of the situation, Darius felt a giddy thrill of anticipation just thinking about it. In a way they were lucky, they were going to get to see things that other people could only dream about. It was ironic that the disease which had robbed Cassandra of her future was now giving it back to her.

To the future, he thought, nodding to himself as he turned to re-enter his daughter’s room.








Part One - The Awakening



Chapter 1




Awareness returned to Darius in glimmers and fragments, like sunlight flickering through a dark forest. He felt hot and cold all at the same time. Every nerve ending in his body sparked and sang with fire.

“Malfunction detected. Emergency wake-up sequence in progress. Please remain calm. Someone will be along to orient you soon.”

Darius nodded slowly, but his head felt like it didn’t belong to him. “Malfunction?” he echoed. “What year is it?”

But no answer came. He blinked to clear a blurry film from his eyes, and tried not to contemplate the restricted, coffin-like confines of his cryo pod. Instead, he focused on taking deep, slow breaths. He rolled his ankles and wrists, and slowly curled and uncurled his fingers and toes, just to make sure that he still could.

The air inside Darius’s pod grew warm, and then there came a sharp hiss, followed by a pneumatic groan. Darius’s ears popped. Here we go... he thought. The front of his cryo pod swung slowly open—and frigid, foul-smelling air swirled in.

Darius gasped and choked. It was like a punch to the gut. His eyes flew wide open and flashed around the cryo storage room, trying to get his bearings, but the room was cloaked in utter darkness. The air was so cold that it seared his exposed skin and made his nostrils stick together. He hugged his shoulders and shivered in the dark, thankful at least that his pod had interior light strips so he could see his hands in front of his face.

What happened? He remembered going into cryo with his daughter, Cassandra. They’d been taken to a secure facility below the hospital. The fact that he’d awoken in darkness meant that there must have been some kind of power failure. Was that what caused the malfunction? The doctors had explained to him before he’d gone into cryo that the pods had independent backup power to keep people frozen in case of a power failure, but Darius supposed that if the power outage had lasted long enough, his pod would have to wake him. If a power failure was responsible for the malfunction, then Cassandra would be waking up now, too.

“Cass?” he called out in a reedy whisper. He cleared his throat and tried again, “Cassy?”

But no reply came.

Maybe her pod hasn’t opened yet.

Just then, he heard a muffled hiss, followed by the pneumatic groan of another pod opening.

“Hello?” a woman called out. “Is anyone there?”

Darius’s heart rate sped up with excitement, then slowed. Not Cassandra’s voice, but at least I’m not alone.

“Hey!” Darius called back. “I’m here.”

“Who are you?” the voice returned. “Why did I wake up?”

“I’m Darius Drake. I think we woke up because the power failed.”

“Well, why’s it so cold?! This is Florida!”

Darius shivered violently at the reminder of the temperature in the room. He felt heat radiating from grilles in the side of his pod, and he pressed his arms and feet up against them. It was definitely below zero beyond his pod. The woman made a good point: why was it so cold? Even in winter, Jacksonville didn’t get this cold.

Maybe they make the cryo room cold to help keep everyone frozen?

“Hello? Are you there?” the woman asked.

“Yeah. I don’t know anything more than you. I just woke up, too. Hang on, I’m going to try to get to you.”

“I’d prefer that you didn’t.... I’m naked.”

“Me too,” Darius replied. “Everyone goes into cryo naked.”

“Well, maybe we should just wait for someone to find us?”

Darius pushed himself halfway out of his pod to get a better look around, even though he still couldn’t see a damn thing.

Something felt wrong as he moved. His stomach lurched uneasily, and his head felt light. His sense of balance was all wrong. He twisted around to look back inside his pod. It was a beacon of light and warmth in the frigid darkness of the storage facility. The heaters inside the pod radiated warm air, beckoning him back inside.

Another hiss sounded, followed by the telltale groan of a pod opening.

“Hello?” came a new voice. A familiar voice.

“Cass!” Darius twisted back around, his eyes straining to peer through the impenetrable darkness.

“Dad? Why... why’s it so d-dark?” she asked, shivering audibly.

Her shivers got him going too, but he forced himself to be still. “I’m here, honey. Just hang on, okay? I’m going to try to get to you.”

“O-k-kay,” Cassandra replied.

Another pod hissed open, and then another, and two new voices joined theirs—a man and another woman. The latter sounded like she was far away.

“Hello?” that woman called out. “Hey!”

“What’s going on?” the man replied.

“Who are you?” the woman returned. “Why did we wake up at the same time?”

The first woman interjected, “I don’t know!”

“The p-power’s down,” Darius explained. “Our pods must have woken us before their r-reserves ran out.”

“Makes sense,” the man replied. “I guess we should go find out what’s going on.”

Just as he said that, a pulsing crimson light swelled all around them, revealing their surroundings in ruddy hues.

“Hey, you there! Where on Earth are we?” the woman who was farther away asked. “Hey! Hello! Are you even listening?” Then she screamed. “They’re not moving!”

“What? Who’s not moving? Who are you talking to?” the man asked.

“Them! All of them! They’re just standing there staring at me!”

“Them who?

This time her reply was indistinct, muffled by what might have been the sound of her sobbing.

Probably having some kind of panic attack, Darius decided. “Just calm down. We’ll get to you soon.”

“Dad... I’m scared,” Cassandra said.

“It’s okay, honey.” Darius peered down, and his hands instinctively tightened on the sides of his pod. The floor lay far below, and the walls were stacked all the way to the ceiling with hundreds, or maybe even thousands, of cryo pods—six rows deep. Darius’s pod was at the top, up near the ceiling. That meant he was at least six stories up! Facing him, dozens of pods were open, dark and empty, while the majority remained shut, presumably with their patients still inside.

Why had some of the pods opened and others not? he wondered. That implied that each of the pods had different reserves of emergency power. Maybe we woke up together because we all went into cryo at the same time. Darius nodded to himself. That made some sense. Down near the floor on the far side of the room he spied an illuminated pod. That had to belong to the hysterical woman.

Darius blinked. His breath came in ragged gasps, and his heart pounded furiously as he tried to make sense of where he was. This was not the cryo storage facility he’d gone into back in Jacksonville. In that facility, the pods had all been lying down, and there hadn’t been more than a dozen of them in the room with him and Cassandra. Here they were stacked vertically, by the hundreds, and somehow anchored to the walls of a massive room.

Freezing air caressed Darius’s front with icy tentacles as he considered the implications of that. He supposed it was possible the Mayo Clinic had moved their cryo facility away from Florida for some reason. Maybe that explained the temperature. If they were in some other part of the country that got colder than Florida did in the winter, and if the power had been down long enough, then the temperature in the facility could definitely drop below freezing.

The heaters in Darius’s pod continued warming his backside, tempting him to stop leaning out of the pod. He heard the woman who’d woken up right after him arguing with the unidentified man, but he was too distracted by his own thoughts to pay any attention to their discussion.

On the floor below, between the stacks of cryo pods, he spotted some kind of... vehicle. It was like nothing he’d ever seen before. Vague, people-like shapes stood all around it, but none of them were moving. Icy dread sliced through Darius at the sight of them. Maybe that woman’s not so hysterical, after all, he thought, glancing back at her pod on the far side of the room.

But that didn’t add up. If those were people, and they hadn’t moved in the past few minutes, then they were dead—and the dead people don’t stand around like statues.

Must be something else—more pods, standing on their ends? Darius looked up with a grimace and put the matter from his mind. “Cass? Where are you?”

“I’m here, Dad,” she said. He looked around and saw her hand waving from an open pod a few rows down and to his right. Her head poked around the rim of the pod, and she peered up at him. “Can you see me?”

He leaned out farther and waved back. “I see you.” He also saw two more open pods near hers, both illuminated from within.

Darius shivered again, and this time he didn’t stop. He couldn’t feel his ears, or his nose, or his... he glanced down with a grimace. He was slowly turning back into a human ice cube.

“I’m going to try to get down and find some help, okay? Stay right there, and try to stay warm!”

“Okay.”

Darius hurriedly scanned his surroundings once more. He couldn’t see any ladders or any way down, but he could probably climb down the cryo pods themselves, assuming he didn’t slip and fall to his death in the process. And he’d have to be fast. Based on the freezing temperature of the air, whatever handholds and footholds he could find on the metal and glass surfaces of the pods would turn his hands and feet to nerveless blocks of ice in a matter of seconds. How was he supposed to climb like that?

“Hey, shut up for a minute!” the man said to the woman he was arguing with. “Is anyone else feeling strange? I think something’s wrong with me. I don’t feel right.”

Darius shook his head, wondering what the man was talking about, but even as he did so, he felt that same light-headedness from before. His stomach flipped queasily with that sensation, and he frowned. “We’re probably just disoriented...” He groped the sides of his pod, looking for handholds to begin climbing down, but his hand grazed one of the outside surfaces and he yelped, recoiling as the frozen metal scalded his hand. This was not going to be easy. He eyed the floor below, trying to decide how long it would take for him to get down there.

It seemed like an impossible task, but he had to try. Darius braced himself and started down, this time being careful to hold onto the inner edges and surfaces of his pod.

But as he started down, Darius realized what that man was talking about. Something was wrong with him too. Very wrong. His body felt like it didn’t belong to him.

As he sought footholds on the pod below his, frozen metal grazed his bare feet, and he screamed, recoiling once more. He lost his grip, but didn’t fall.

Darius drifted and spun, floating in mid-air. His eyes bulged as he realized what that meant.





Chapter 2




No gravity. How is that possible?! Darius wondered as he floated in the frigid air.

“Dad? Are you okay?”

“I’m...”

“What the...?” the man trailed off.

Darius squeezed his eyes shut and sucked in an icy breath. His teeth chattered, but he clamped down on them. Earth has gravity. Planets have gravity. Even the moon has gravity! Darius cracked his eyes open to check and saw that he was still floating and spinning in the same spot as before.

“Well, that’s a twist,” the man said slowly. “We woke up in space.”

“Space?!” the woman yelled.

Darius shivered violently, and he realized that he couldn’t feel his extremities. I have to stay warm. He waited until he spun to face the inside of his pod, and then grabbed the heater grilles to pull himself back inside. He held himself there and warmed his hands and feet in front of the pod’s heaters. Pins and needles prickled as his fingers and toes came back to life, and his shivering gradually subsided.

“Space,” he said, nodding. “At least that explains why it’s so damn cold. Space is plenty cold.”

“It would take time for the internal temperature to drop that much,” the man said. “Space is also a good insulator. So how long has the power been down?”

“It must have been down for a while already, or we wouldn’t have woken up,” Darius replied.

“What are we doing in space?” the nearest of the two women asked.

“Maybe something happened to Earth,” Darius suggested.

“Something? Like what?” the woman shrieked.

“I don’t know, an asteroid impact, or a war, or...” Darius trailed off. None of those things would really explain relocating cryo patients to space.

“No,” the other man said. “Waking up in space because of a disaster on Earth makes no sense, unless we were among the only survivors and Earth is uninhabitable.”

That was a chilling thought. “Well, we can figure out the answers later,” Darius said. “Right now we need to focus on staying warm and finding help.”

“I don’t think anyone’s home,” the other man said.

“Then who turned the power back on? We woke up in darkness, remember? Someone must be working on the problem.”

“Good point. So how are we going to get down from here in zero-G?”

“Maybe we should just wait for them to find us,” the woman said.

Darius shook his head. “We don’t know how long that will take, and we also don’t know how long the heaters in our pods will last. Our pods must be close to running out of power, or else they wouldn’t have woken us up.”

“More good points,” the man said. “I think I can get down with a push in the right direction,” he said.

“Yeah. That should work. I’ll go first,” Darius said.

“You sure?”

Darius’s thoughts went to his daughter. He wasn’t going to entrust her survival to someone else. “I’m sure,” he said.

“All right. Good luck.”

“Be careful,” Cassandra added.

“Thanks, and I will.”

Darius risked leaning out of his pod again to get another look at the cavernous cryo storage room. Once he left the warmth of his pod, he wouldn’t have long to find clothes before frostbite and hypothermia set in. On the left side of the room, down by the floor, he spotted a break in the stacks of cryo pods. It looked like there was an open door there.

He focused on it, trying to gauge the right angle to push off, and how much force he’d need to use. Too much and he’d bounce off on impact, too little, and he’d lose valuable time drifting down.

Darius gripped the sides of his pod and braced himself. “Here goes... one... two...”

He pushed off, diving head-first with his hands outstretched. I’m superman, he thought, smirking to himself as he floated down. The awful smell he’d noticed upon waking grew steadily worse as he fell. His nose twitched furiously, and he gagged, wondering how anything could smell so bad at sub-zero temperatures.

As he neared the floor, what he’d thought were more cryo pods standing on their ends resolved into far more disturbing shapes.

They were people, all standing up at odd angles, all of them unmoving. The hysterical woman came to mind, and suddenly he realized what she’d been going on about. Her words echoed through his head—

They’re not moving... they’re just standing there, staring at me!

Darius shook his head. “What the hell happened here?” he wondered aloud. “Hello?” he tried as he floated over the heads of a group of four people.

“Who are you talking to?” the man called out behind him, sounding far away now.

Darius looked around quickly. There were dozens of them, all statuesque and mysteriously standing on the deck. Horror wormed in Darius’s gut as realization dawned. “There are people down here!” he called back. “They’re...” he trailed off, not wanting to scare his daughter. Too late now, he thought with a grimace.

“Well, why aren’t they doing anything?” the man replied.

“I think they’re dead,” Darius said. Their feet were probably pinned to the deck by their magnetic boots, and without gravity, they wouldn’t have fallen down when they died. But what killed them?

“Dead?” the less hysterical of the two women asked. “This can’t be happening. It isn’t happening. I’m dreaming. I’m going to wake up. I’m going to wake up. I’m still in cryo... None of this is real...”

“Nobody dreams in cryo, lady,” the man snapped. “Can you see what killed them?”

“No. It’s t-too dark,” Darius replied, shivering again. “I need to f-find s-some way to w-warm up before I do anything else.” Darius’s pulse thundered in his ears as he shivered uncontrollably. He looked up to see the open door looming large before him.

He hit just above the door. Cold metal seared his skin, drawing a strangled cry from his lips, but he managed to grab hold of the door frame before he bounced away.

The metal froze his already freezing hands, but he held fast, determined not to die drifting in the middle of the cryo storage room. He floated there, hovering prone above the floor like a skydiver. At least in zero-G he could keep his bare feet from touching the deck.

Darius looked around quickly before heading through the door—and saw open lockers to either side of it. Lockers. Clothes! His chest swelled with desperate hope. He reached for the open door of the nearest locker.

The door handle froze his hand, but it was already halfway numb. Darius swung the door open all the way, revealing a weapons rack with a handful of matte black rifles and sidearms clipped into place. Weapons? Why would the Mayo Clinic store weapons with its cryo patients? There were more empty slots than weapons on the rack. Most of them had already been taken from the locker.

Darius’s teeth began to chatter noisily. He could figure out why there were weapons here later. He let go of the locker door and grabbed the next one in line to pull himself in front of it. This one was empty, just a big open space, easily big enough to fit three grown men.

“Damn it,” Darius muttered under his breath. He reached for the next locker....

Also empty.

He continued hauling himself down the row of lockers. After passing two more empty ones, he finally came to a locker that wasn’t open yet. With numb, stinging hands, he fumbled with the latch, and prayed that it wouldn’t be locked. A catch depressed beneath his fingers and the locker sprang open, revealing a glossy black space suit, complete with a helmet and boots.

Darius almost wept for joy. He reached for the suit with his free hand, trying to pull it out, but it wouldn’t budge.

He tried again, this time applying more force, but it was no use. Growing desperate, he ran a violently shaking hand along the suit, hunting for some kind of seam, or zipper, or...

“How the h-hell do you put this th-thing on?!” he roared. He couldn’t believe he was going to die like this.

“Found something?” the man called out.

“Dad? Are you okay?” Cass shouted down to him.

“I’m f-fine, h-honey!” He took a moment to calm himself and study the suit more carefully. He probed it with his free hand once more. The material was unyielding. Hard. It wasn’t like any space suit he’d seen before. It was more like armor. Darius recalled the weapons locker, and nodded to himself. Weapons went with armor. That made sense, but there had to be some way to get the damn suit out and put it on!

Yet it appeared to be seamless. It was all one piece. If I were designing a pressurized suit of armor in the future, how would I design it?

I’d mechanize it, Darius decided, already searching for a control panel, or a button—anything that might open the suit.

After a few seconds, he found a likely-looking access panel on the waist. Probing it with numb fingers, he managed to slide the panel open. There were recessed switches and buttons inside. Frenzied from the cold, he tried all the switches and pressed all of the buttons. One of them had to do something!

A sudden whirring sound began, and a clu-clunk sounded inside the locker as something let go.

Then, to his amazement, the suit walked out of its locker, heavy boots clanking resoundingly on the floor. The suit turned to face Darius, looking more autonomous than he’d expected, and suddenly he wondered if this was some kind of robot. That would put an end to his dreams of crawling inside for warmth.

But before he could despair, a series of whirring and clicking noises issued from the suit, and it splayed open, revealing a hollow, human-shaped space inside.

Darius gaped at it. He’d done it! He pulled himself toward the open suit using the open locker beside him. As he drew near, Darius traded his grip on the locker for one of the suit’s splayed-open arms. He maneuvered himself inside and lined up his limbs, sliding his hands into the suit’s gloves and his feet into the boots. He stood up in the suit, but his head only reached halfway into the helmet. It’s too tall! The spongy padding inside the suit grazed his back, and he winced from the cold. He flexed his hands into fists inside the icy gloves, and almost screamed from the pain that movement caused. As he did so, the suit promptly folded up around him, and the helmet descended over his head. His breathing reverberated loudly in his ears and fogged the faceplate, which was now squarely in front of his face

“Thank God,” be breathed as he shivered violently inside the suit. In a matter of seconds, sweet, blessed warmth came pulsing through the previously icy padding now pressing against every inch of his frozen skin. The air inside his helmet grew warm and his breath stopped fogging the faceplate. Numbness gave way to pins and needles, and searing pain.

Darius gritted his teeth, telling himself the discomfort would pass. His hands were the worst, since he’d had to use them to hold onto cold surfaces. He flexed them over and over again, watching the suit’s armored gloves move dexterously.

As the air inside the helmet warmed, the faceplate cleared, and Darius noticed glowing symbols and icons there. A heads-up-display. He struggled to make sense of the information. He identified words, but the alphabet wasn’t at all familiar. He shook his head in confusion, and the helmet moved with him. What language is that?

It definitely wasn’t English. In fact, it didn’t look like any language he’d ever seen before. A chill came over Darius that had nothing to do with the cold. How long had he been in cryo? They were supposed to wake him when they discovered a cure for his daughter’s cancer! It couldn’t have been more than fifty years... could it?

“Hey, there he is!” the man from the cryo pods called out.

Somehow he sounded both far away and nearby all at the same time, with his voice rippling out right beside Darius’s ears. There must have been speakers inside the helmet to relay sounds from outside.

“Looks like you found yourself a space suit!” the man went on.

“Something like that!” Darius tried calling back. His voice sounded over-loud to his own ears, but he doubted it would carry beyond the helmet.

And yet somehow it did.

“Is it warm?” the man asked.

Darius scanned the pods above, and found the man’s open pod glowing brightly, four rows up and two pods over from Cassandra. The cryo pod illuminated him amidst the pulsing red lights, but the angle and distance between them preserved his modesty. Darius couldn’t see much other than that he was a large man, fit, and maybe middle-aged.

“Toasty warm,” Darius replied.

“Are there any other suits down there?”

Darius turned back to the open lockers and tried walking up to the next one in line. He found that moving in the suit was easier and more natural than he’d expected. His feet snapped to the deck as he walked, keeping him from floating free, and the suit whirred with every step, motors assisting his movements and diminishing whatever inertia the bulky suit should have had because of its weight.

The next locker was empty, so he kept walking down the line, but all of the subsequent lockers were empty too.

“Well?” the man called out when Darius reached the end of the line.

“Nothing here. Let me check the other side.”

Darius jogged down to the lockers on the other side of the open door. He found another weapon rack beside the door, with more rifles and sidearms inside. Again, most of them were missing. He jogged down the line, checking each of the other lockers, but they were all empty.

“There aren’t any more suits!” Darius said.

“Great... looks like you’re on your own, then,” the man said.

“I’ll go find help,” Darius replied.

“Better check those dead bodies first. See what you might be up against.”

“Good point,” Darius replied.

“U-up against?” the nearer of the two women asked, her voice trembling.

“Well, something killed them,” the man explained.

“Like what?” she replied.

“I guess we’ll see. Hey, Spaceman!” the man prompted. “You want to go take a look for us?”

Darius was just standing there, luxuriating in the warmth of his suit. He took long, deep breaths of warm, mercifully odorless air. He wasn’t sure if he was breathing the atmosphere aboard the station through a filter, or if the suit had its own air in a pressurized tank, but whatever the case, at least the foul smell was gone.

The smell of death, he realized, as he turned to face the human statues behind him.

“Dad?” Cassandra prompted.

“I’m on it,” he said.

He walked up to the first statue, a young man. As he drew near, he saw what had killed the man: his stomach had been ripped open, and his bowels were floating there in front of him like a nest of snakes. The man was wearing a simple black jumpsuit, discolored with blood. There was a strange red patch on the upper portion of one sleeve—a red triangle with a white eye inside of it—while the other sleeve bore a single red chevron and a cross-shaped symbol above that. Those symbols made Darius suspect this was a military vessel of some kind. That, and the pistol floating up beside the dead man’s ear. His hand was locked around the butt of the weapon, and his face was a frozen rictus of horror and pain, speckled with frozen droplets of blood.

Darius grimaced at the gory scene, though it was surprisingly bloodless given the extent of the man’s injuries. No blood had pooled on the deck—not that it would in zero-G—and the pulsing red emergency lights aboard the station made everything look equally red, so the coils and loops spilling from the man’s open stomach could easily have been knotted ropes.

Except that Darius knew better.

“So?” the unidentified man from the tanks prompted.

“This one was ripped open,” Darius said.

The woman swore under her breath.

“By what?” Cassandra asked.

Darius shook his head. “I don’t know, honey.”

“Check someone else,” the man suggested.

Darius strode over to the next body, all the while wondering what kind of weapon could have ripped open the first one’s stomach like that. The next body was wearing a suit of matte black armor like his, but that hadn’t saved the wearer. The chest plate was gouged with deep, ragged furrows, and pried open in the center, as if someone had used a giant can-opener on it. Darius peered closer.

As he did so, his stomach gave a sickening lurch. The heart was missing from this body.

He looked away, up to the person’s face. The helmet’s faceplate was cracked and smeared with blood from the inside, but he managed to glimpse a contorted face through the smears of blood. Feminine features. She’d been pretty. Young. What a way to die...

Darius grimaced, and looked away, to the other bodies standing sentinel around the gleaming vehicle in the center of the room. He couldn’t imagine what could have possibly killed these people. These weren’t bullet holes or laser burns. He couldn’t even imagine a weapon that would pry open thick metal armor like it was tin foil, and then still carve out a person’s heart. Darius looked back to the woman and noted the parallel furrows gouged into her armor around the hollow chest cavity.

“Well?” the man asked.

A terrible suspicion formed in his gut, and he turned from examining the body to look at the open door of the cryo storage facility. As the emergency lights pulsed brighter, he saw that the door wasn’t open—at least not in the way he’d expected.

It had been pried open, just like the dead woman’s armor.



Chapter 3




“Hey, Spaceman! Did you hear me?”

“Dad?”

“Her heart is missing,” Darius said slowly as he walked toward the ruined door.

“Damn...” the man replied.

Cassandra said nothing. She sounded like she was hyperventilating.

“It’s okay, honey. I won’t let anything happen to you.”

As Darius went, something dark thunked against his faceplate. He lashed out reflexively with one hand, sending whatever it was spinning away. He felt the impact relayed from the armor to his skin. Tactile sensors of some kind? As the lights pulsed brighter, he noticed that he’d entered a cloud of dark, glittering debris. He swiped his hand through the cloud, and grabbed a piece of the debris for a better look. As Darius brought it up to his faceplate, he flinched.

It was a frozen, bloody chunk of flesh. He tossed it away with a grimace. This is going to make a real mess if it ever gets any warmer in here, he thought. Darius’s gaze strayed to the HUD glowing on his faceplate. This time he noticed a pair of two-digit numbers that he recognized.

25°

-39°

Internal and external temperature? Darius wondered. Nodding to himself, he continued on to the ruined door, determined to find whoever might still be alive aboard the station.

When he reached the door, he stopped to examine it. Deep, parallel furrows led to curling plates of metal. Claw marks... That only confirmed his suspicions. This door and that woman’s armor definitely hadn’t been ripped open by weapons firethey’d been ripped open by some kind of beast. But what kind of animal can carve open armor and doors with its bare claws? Not even a grizzly bear could do that. Icy fingers of dread stabbed Darius as his mind conjured nameless horrors. Feeling suddenly hunted, he whirled around to make sure nothing was creeping up behind him.

“Cass? I’m going to investigate the rest of the station to see if I can find more space suits, okay?”

“O-okay.”

“I won’t be long.”

Darius crossed the threshold of the ruined door into a gleaming corridor with a normal-height ceiling. Exposed conduits lined that ceiling, while more bodies lined the floor. Frozen, glittering carnage floated freely through the air. Darius ignored the gruesome sights and picked his way down the corridor, looking for help. Someone turned on the lights. Someone turned up the heat. So someone is here fixing things. He just had to find them.

As he went, he passed body after body, some of them were standing up like the first two he’d seen, while others were almost lying down, with their feet planted and knees bent, looking like they were about to do sit-ups. All of the dead either wore suits of armor like his, or simple black jumpsuits with the same crimson triangle and white eye symbol that he’d seen on the sleeves of the first two. That symbolism seemed somehow familiar, but Darius didn’t have time to focus on it now. These people all bore gruesome injuries just like the others he’d seen, and if the drifting rifles and sidearms were anything to go by, they died fighting.

As he went, Darius noticed dark scorch marks on the walls and floor. Weapons fire. Lasers? Feeling suddenly vulnerable without any weapons of his own, Darius grabbed one of the drifting rifles. Fortunately, it seemed to have been designed with the suits in mind, and his armored index finger just managed to fit inside the trigger guard. Where’s the safety? he wondered. He aimed the weapon at the floor and squeezed the trigger.

A white-hot beam of light flashed out at his feet with an echoing crack, and a glowing orange circle appeared where the laser had hit. No need to find the safety.

Darius continued walking for at least ten minutes, passing more shredded doors and bodies as he wound his way along the corridor. How big is this place? he wondered. Eventually he reached a T at the end of the corridor and turned left—

Only to freeze on the spot. The next nearest body wasn’t pinned to the deck, and it wasn’t wearing armor or a black jumpsuit. This person, a man of about fifty, was stark naked and floating free, his body curled into a fetal position. Unlike the others, there was no obvious cause of death. The man’s skin was unmarred. Darius blinked in shock as he realized where the man must have come from. The other empty pods... He was one of the ones who’d woken up before them. He also went looking for help, but froze to death before he could find any.

It was remarkable that he’d even made it this far, considering he must have been navigating the ship in utter darkness, and without any mag boots. Darius approached the body slowly and stopped to examine it further. He still couldn’t find any kind of gruesome injury, which meant that whatever had killed the original crew might no longer be a threat. Darius blew out a breath and removed his finger from the trigger of the rifle he’d found.

Darius hurried on, wondering now if it was safe to call out for help. He decided to risk it. “Hello! Is anyone there?”

But no reply came. That wasn’t surprising, since none of the bodies in the corridor seemed to be moving.

Darius thought about his daughter back in the cryo storage chamber with three strangers, and he broke into a jog. “Hello!” he called again as he ran.

He needed to find help, or spare jumpsuits for Cass and the others.

Where am I? he wondered, glancing at pried-open doors as he ran by. The rooms inside looked vaguely like sleeping quarters. Thinking he might find spare jumpsuits in one of them, he ducked through the nearest door and spent a moment studying the room. There wasn’t any kind of bed, but there were several lockers, and some unfamiliar posters and artwork pinned to the walls, as well as a viewport looking out at space. Darius walked over to it and spent a moment trying to pick out familiar constellations.

He gave up after just a few seconds. He’d never been much of a stargazer on Earth, so he didn’t expect to recognize anything from space. He turned and hurried over to the lockers. Opening the nearest one, he found jumpsuits hanging on a rack inside. Bingo! Below that were drawers and smaller compartments. He tried opening the drawers and he found some regular clothes—men’s undergarments and socks, but it was better than nothing.

Darius carefully released his rifle and left it floating beside him while he removed four jumpsuits from the rack. He laid them carefully on top of the drawers and then rolled them up with four pairs of clean underwear and four pairs of socks. He couldn’t imagine the underwear fitting Cassandra, but it was better than nothing, and at least the jumpsuits were stretchy, so they would be a better fit. Cassandra was five-foot two inches, so at worst she’d have to roll up the pants and sleeves a bit. Darius tucked the bundle of jumpsuits under one arm and snatched his rifle from the air, being careful to mind the trigger so he didn’t accidentally shoot off one of his feet.

With those items in hand, Darius ran out of the room and back the way he’d come.

It took him just five minutes to reach the cryo room. He stopped inside the entrance and called out, “I’ve got clothes!” He was already scanning the rows of cryo pods, looking for Cassandra’s.

But all of the previously illuminated pods were now dark and dormant. That meant the heaters would be offline too. A jolt of adrenaline kicked Darius’s heart rate up. He was too late. “Cass!”



Chapter 4




“I’m h-here,” Cassandra replied, shivering.

Relief coursed through Darius at the sound of his daughter’s voice.

“‘Bout t-time you sh-showed up!” the man said.

“Hang on, Cass. I’m going to try to get up to you.”

“Hey, what about me?” the man asked.

“I’ll get to you as soon as I ca...” Darius trailed off as movement flickered through his peripheral vision. He turned toward it, and brought his rifle up. “Hey, who’s there!”

A naked woman appeared, drifting out from behind a frozen corpse. She was using the statuesque bodies to pull herself through the room, careening from one to the next.

“I c-can’t f-feel my h-hands,” she said.

It was the woman whose pod had been at ground level. The hysterical one. Darius grimaced and hurried over to her. He released his rifle once more and grabbed her arm to halt her momentum. “Here.” He unrolled his bundle of clothes and passed her a pair of socks and men’s underwear. “Put these on.”

She nodded jerkily and reached clumsily for the articles. Darius looked on with a frown, waiting impatiently while she struggled to put on the socks and then the underwear. “Now this,” he said, and handed her one of the jumpsuits. A pair of socks slipped out of his bundle and began floating away. He snatched them back and looked up to see if the woman needed any help.

“Do you mind?” she said.

“Sorry—” he looked away, embarrassed. She was naked; of course she didn’t want him to watch her get dressed.

“No, the zipper,” she explained. “I can’t open it. My fingers are too cold.”

“Oh.” Darius turned back to her, and opened the zipper running behind a seam in the front of the jumpsuit.

“Hey, w-what about us?” the man called down.

“H-hurry, Dad!” Cassandra added.

“Coming!” Darius replied. To the woman, he said, “You think you can manage from here?”

She nodded, already pulling the first leg of the suit on.

Darius left her and hurried over to the wall where his daughter’s pod was stacked. He released the rifle and pinned the bundle of jumpsuits under one arm. “I’m going to climb up,” he said, already feeling around for a handhold on the pod in front of him. At least he couldn’t feel the cold through the suit. Having found his grip, Darius tried pulling himself up, one-handed, but the magnets in his boots were too strong.

He lifted one foot, heel first, as if he were walking, in order to break the mag-lock. Then he did the same thing with his second foot, and suddenly he was floating free. He pulled up with one hand and drifted slowly to the second row of pods. If he remembered correctly, Cassandra was somewhere along the fourth row.

“Honey, I need you to keep talking so I can find you,” Darius said.

“O-okay. I’m over h-here.”

Darius pulled himself in the direction of the sound and drifted up to the third row.

“Say something else.”

“I’m f-freezing!”

“Good,” Darius kept going in that direction, pulling himself up at an angle this time. He spotted her waving one arm outside her pod. “I see you.” A moment later, he was hovering in front of her pod. “Hey.”

Cassandra was too cold to be embarrassed, but he did his best to keep his eyes averted while he passed her a pair of socks and underwear. “Done?” he asked as soon as her movements quieted.

“Y-yeah.”

He passed her a jumpsuit next, and risked a glance in her direction. She was shivering uncontrollably, fumbling with the zipper. Darius opened it for her, and waited while she pulled the suit on. He hoped it was warmer than it looked. If not, they were going to need to find something more substantial and fast.

Once Cassandra had the jumpsuit on, he helped her pull the zipper up. “How’s that?”

“S-still c-cold,” she said.

“Pull your hands inside the sleeves and hug yourself. She nodded quickly and did as he said. “Good. Stay here.”

“Wait, where are you going?”

“I need to help the others.”

“The woman left.”

“I know. I found her already.”

“No, the other one. She went to see if she could get inside that ship.” Cassandra jerked her chin to the vehicle on the deck below. Darius followed her gaze. That was actually a good idea. The vehicle would have its own power and heating system. It might be a good way to warm everyone up—and to keep them safe from whatever monsters were loose on board. “We’ll go find her in a minute. I’ll be right back. Don’t move, okay?”

Cassandra nodded.

“Hey... where are you?” Darius called.

“O-over h-here.”

Darius turned to the sound and saw the man waving to him from a pod three over from Cassandra’s. “I see you.”

He pulled himself along the row of pods until he was hovering in front of the mystery man. The man was large, fit, and middle-aged, just as he’d seen from a distance. He looked like a body-builder, a picture of health and fitness—not at all what Darius expected from a terminal patient.

“Are you just going to g-gawk at me?”



“Right. Sorry.” Darius handed the man a pair of socks and underwear and waited while he put them on. As soon as he finished, Darius handed him one of the remaining two jumpsuits. The man opened the zipper and pulled the jumpsuit on in a hurry. When he was done, he stuffed his hands under his armpits to keep them warm.

“What’s your name?” he asked, sounding like he was making a supreme effort not to shiver.

“Darius Drake.”

“Blake Nelson,” the man replied, and thrust out a hand. Darius hesitated before accepting the handshake. Blake gripped his ice-cold, armored glove firmly and shook it once before returning his hand to his armpit.

“Nice to meet you,” Darius said.

“Likewise, Spaceman. Did you find out who turned on the lights?”

Darius shook his head. “Not yet. I came back as soon as I found clothes.”

“Thanks for that. Pity you didn’t find any more suits like yours, though.”

“Even if I had, I never would have been able to drag four of them back here.”

“Good point.”

“Where’d the other woman go?” Darius asked. The one who was in the pod near yours?”

“Blondie? She went to check out the shuttle. Said she was going to freeze to death before you came back.”

“Well, she had a good idea, if we can figure out how to get inside and turn the shuttle on, we should be able to warm up fast.” Darius remembered the foreign language on his HUD, and suddenly he doubted the chances of that. There was no way they’d be able to operate complex systems in a foreign language.

Blake looked skeptical. “I don’t think she’s an astronaut, so the chances of her figuring out how to do that aren’t good. She’ll be lucky just to find a way in.”

“Then we’d better find her before she really does freeze to death,” Darius said.

“After you.”

“I’m going to get my daughter first. Meet you down there.”

“Sure,” Blake said.

“Be careful maneuvering yourself in here. You don’t want to end up drifting in the middle of the room.”

“No kidding.”

Darius pulled himself back over to Cassandra’s pod. He found her shivering inside, hugging herself as he’d told her to do. “Come on, honey. We need to get you down.”

She nodded jerkily. “‘K-kay.”

“Put your arms around my neck.” Cassandra reached for him, and he helped her with one arm, while holding onto her pod with the other. “You’re cold!” she screamed.

“I know. It won’t be long. Ready?”

“Go.”

Darius pushed himself back down as fast as he could, being careful not to drift out of reach of the pods. The deck rushed up below him faster than anticipated, and his knees buckled on impact, but the motors in his suit whirred and cushioned that impact, holding him up when his legs wouldn’t.

Darius turned and walked toward the shuttle. He could feel Cassandra shivering against him. “Almost there,” he said. They walked by a pair of dead people, one of them headless, the other missing an arm, and Cassandra screamed.

“What happened to them?!”

Darius shook his head. “I don’t know honey.” Remembering Blake and the unidentified woman he’d already given a jumpsuit to, he looked around quickly to locate them. The woman was busy pulling herself through the open door of the cryo room, while Blake was nowhere to be seen.

“Blake!” Darius called.

“Over here, Spaceman. You’ve got to see this.”

Darius followed the sound of his voice around the side of the shuttle. As he rounded the shuttle, Blake appeared standing in front of a broad viewport that had been hidden by the shuttle. He’d obviously figured out how to steal a pair of mag boots from one of the bodies.

The view from this window was a lot more impressive than the one Darius had seen in the crew quarters.

“Is that Earth?” Cassandra asked, pointing to the planet that took up most of the viewport.

Darius walked steadily up to the window, his eyes wide and blinking.

“I don’t recognize any of the continents,” Blake said as Darius stopped beside him. “And the sun is blue—where the hell are we?” Blake blew out a stream of condensing moisture that fogged the viewport.

“I’ll tell you where we’re not,” Darius replied. “We’re not in our solar system anymore.”



Chapter 5




The planet below was mottled with craggy grays, white clouds and glaciers, and temperate regions ranging from red and purple to green and yellow. Vast blue oceans peeked out between the landmasses. Definitely not Earth... Darius thought.

“So...” Blake trailed off uncertainly. “If we’re not in our solar system anymore, then we’re probably not on a space station. It must be a spaceship. I mean, something would have had to bring us here, right?”

Darius nodded slowly. “But why did we come here? And where is here?”

“Got me,” Blake replied.

“This might explain the foreign language.”

“Say what?”

“The heads-up-display inside my helmet is written in a language I’ve never seen before.”

“What, like Russian?”

“No, I don’t recognize the alphabet.”

“So maybe it’s Greek. What does that have to do with anything?”

“I’d recognize Greek, and it’s important because language takes a long time to change. This spaceship must have been built a very long time after we went into cryo.”

“That makes no sense,” Blake objected. “We would have woken up on Earth if centuries had passed. It wouldn’t take hundreds of years for people to find a cure for cancer! Finding a way to travel to another star represents more of a technological leap than that.”

“And yet, here we are, orbiting a planet around another star. Maybe something happened on Earth. Something that would stop anyone from waking us up.”

“So instead of waking up all the terminal patients in cryo to help repopulate the species, they thought, hey, why don’t we build a spaceship and fly them all to another planet instead?”

“We’re all dying, so how could we help repopulate the species?” Cassandra asked.

Darius felt a familiar stab of pain with that reminder. His daughter had been given two months to live when they’d gone into cryo. That was still true now.

Darius shook his head. “Interstellar travel takes a long time. They’d have to put people in cryo for the trip, anyway, or they’d run out of food and supplies before they ever arrived. Whoever brought us here probably thought it would make more sense to keep us frozen. They probably planned to explain everything once we arrived.”

“Yeah, okay, but then how come there’s so many dead people in here? Shouldn’t the crew have been in cryo too?”

“Maybe, maybe not,” Darius said. “They’d have to leave someone to man the ship, a skeleton crew. The dead people we’re seeing are probably that crew, or their children, or even their children’s children—depending how long it took for us to get here from Earth.”

“So we’re on a generation ship?” Blake asked.

“Looks like, yeah,” Darius replied.

“What’s that?” Cassandra asked.

“It’s a large spaceship that goes on a very long voyage, long enough that multiple generations are born and die on board before they arrive at their destination.”

“Snaz!” Cassandra said.

Darius nodded. “Yeah, real snaz.”

“You mean mega snaz,” Cassandra said.

Blake snorted. “When were you born, kid?”

“Twenty thirty-three. What about you?” Cassandra replied.

“I was born in nineteen ninety-eight.”

Cassandra’s nose wrinkled. “You’re a fossil!”

“My youngest used to call me a dinosaur. Daddy Rex. She used to say everything was mega snaz, too.” The crow’s feet around Blake’s eyes pinched together as he recounted that.

“Did she go into cryo with you?” Darius asked.

Blake arched an eyebrow at him. “How could she? I’m the one who was terminal, not her. She’d have to have real bad luck to be dying at the same time as her old man.”

Darius grimaced. “I guess so.”

Blake’s eyes pinched into slits. “Speaking of, how did you two end up together?”

“Stage four small cell lung cancer,” Darius said, jerking a thumb at himself. “And stage four metastatic renal cancer,” he added, pointing to Cassandra.

“Did you guys catch it from each other or something?”

“Just our luck, I guess,” Darius replied. He was trying hard not to let his nervousness show. Blake had obviously been forced to leave his family behind when he’d gone into cryo.

Until he knew more, Darius wasn’t going to advertise the fact that he’d used his money to break the rules.

“We’d better go find Blondie,” Blake said, already turning away from the viewport.

They crossed the deck to the back of the shuttle together.

“How are you doing, Cass?” Darius asked as they went. He hoped she didn’t have frostbite.

“I’m fine,” she said.

“You’re not cold?”

She shook her head. “Nope.”

Darius frowned and checked the temperature readings on his HUD.

28°

-2°

“Someone turned up the heat,”  Darius said.

“Now that you mention it, I do feel warmer,” Blake said. “I thought it was just the jumpsuit. How can you tell from inside your suit?” Blake asked as he examined a control panel beside the rear hatch of the shuttle.

Darius explained about the readings in his helmet.

“Then it’s almost above freezing. That’s good.”

“Yes and no,” Darius replied. “These bodies are going to start to rot, and all of the frozen blood in the air is going to melt. We could get contaminated.”

“Hmmm,” Blake said. “All the more reason to get this shuttle open. Maybe we can hide in here. Aha... I think I’ve figured it out.”

Blake touched a button on the control panel, and the hatch slid open, revealing a small chamber and another hatch. “Damn it! There’s another door.”

“It’s an airlock,” Darius replied. “It opens in stages.”

“Right, that makes sense. Let’s get the inner door open,” Blake said.

Before any of them could climb inside, the door swished open and someone walked out in an armored black space suit, the same as the one Darius was wearing.

“Blondie?” Blake asked.

“My name is Lisa, not that you bothered to remember.”

“Hey, what flew up your nose?”

Lisa ignored him, and her helmet turned to Darius. “Darius, you’re back.”

She knew his name. This had to be the one who’d woken up right after him. He remembered introducing himself to her. “Yeah, I’m back. I found some clothes for you,” he said, and removed the bundle under the arm that wasn’t holding Cassandra.

“Thanks, but I’ll stick with my suit for now. I bet it’s warmer than those jumpsuits. Safer too. Where’s the other woman?” she asked, turning back to Blake.

He shrugged.

“She left the cryo room already,” Darius said.

“And you didn’t stop her?”

“I guess we didn’t think about it...” Darius replied.

“Did you find any sign of what killed the crew?”

“Something big, with very sharp claws,” Darius said.

“Great,” Blake muttered.

“Any survivors?” Lisa asked.

“Not yet, but there must be someone on board. It’s been heating up in here, so someone’s bringing the ship’s systems back online.”

“Then we’d better find them. You should get your daughter some mag boots,” Lisa said, nodding to Cassandra. “You’re going to want your hands free if we run into trouble.”

“Yeah... did you find any spare boots on the shuttle?”

“Attached to space suits, but I don’t think they’ll fit. She’s a little too short.”

“Just grab some boots off the nearest corpse and let’s go,” Blake said.

Darius grimaced at the thought, but looked around. The nearest corpse was too tall, and the boots would be too big. He needed to find someone closer to Cassandra’s height. He went clomping through the room, checking bodies as he went.

The shortest one he could find was an Asian woman. He stopped in front of her and carefully let go of Cassandra, but she clung to him like a life-raft.

“Honey, I need you to let go so I can remove her boots.”

“Won’t I float off?”

“Not if you stay still.”

“Okay...”

As Cassandra released him, Darius bent down and tried to lift one foot of the corpse. The frozen body refused to bend at the knee, and the mag boots had a strong lock on the deck. Darius tried again, and this time he used as much force as he could. Motors whirred to life in his suit, and something inside the body gave way with a sickening crack, but it worked.

Both boots lost their hold on the deck, and the dead woman floated free. Darius spent a moment examining the clasps on her boots to figure out how they worked.

Three straps, each with simple mechanical clasps. He pinched the catch-releases to open them and removed the first boot.

“Try this,” he said, passing it to Cassandra.

She pulled it on, but her movements started her tumbling in mid-air. Darius grabbed her arm to steady her as she strapped on the boot.

Once all three clasps were fastened, he asked, “How’s it feel?”

“A little loose,” Cassandra replied.

“Try standing in it.” Darius pulled her leg down until the boot made contact with the deck. It clicked smartly against the deck, and Cassandra stood there on one leg, wiggling her whole body like an eel as she tried to get a feel for the boot.

“I can make it work,” she said.

“Good.” Darius removed the other boot and helped her put it on. “Now try walking.”

She took a few ponderous steps before getting the hang of it. “Mega snaz!” Cassandra said.

Darius heard heavier boots clanking across the deck as someone approached. He turned to see Lisa coming with a pair of rifles.

“Here,” she said, holding one of them out to him.

“Thanks.” Darius had left his weapon drifting by the cryo pods. Lisa kept the second rifle for herself, leaving it to dangle by a strap from her shoulder. Blake walked up behind her. He had two more rifles, one hanging off each of his shoulders. “Is the safety off?” Darius asked, turning his rifle over in his hands.

“I don’t know,” Lisa replied.

“We’d better try them and see,” Darius said. “Aim at the ground, but mind your feet.”

Blake grabbed each of his rifles and aimed them at the nearest corpse. Two blinding white bolts of energy flashed out with a crackling roar. Frozen flesh exploded and clouds of red steam erupted from the body.

“Hey! I said shoot the ground!” Darius said.

Blake shrugged. “They’re dead, anyway.”

Darius scowled. He aimed his rifle at the deck and pulled the trigger. A flash of light erupted from the barrel with a loud crack, and a molten orange circle of super-heated metal appeared. Lisa fired her weapon next, also at the deck, with the same result.

“Let’s go,” she said, already leading the way.

Blake followed her without complaint. He released his rifles, letting them float at the ends of their shoulder straps, and spent a moment blowing into his hands to warm them.

Darius hung back and walked over to his daughter. “Stay between them and me, okay?”

She nodded and ran to catch up with the others. Darius jogged after her. He glanced over his shoulder as he went, checking the eerily standing corpses one last time. What had they been fighting? Was it still on board?

Until now, the cold had been his primary concern, but with that problem now solved, finding whatever had killed the crew, and making sure they didn’t all die the same way was paramount.

As they neared the doors of the cryo room, the flashing crimson emergency lights disappeared and a steady white light swelled in its place, revealing the carnage floating all around them in gruesome detail. Frozen clouds of red blood and guts hung in the air, along with severed body parts.

“Someone is definitely fixing the ship,” Blake said as he pushed through the clouds of human debris.

Lisa swore under her breath as a floating head bounced off her helmet, and Cassandra made a strangled sound as she passed through the carnage.

“I wonder who?” Lisa asked as they passed from the cryo room into the corridor outside.

“Survivors from the crew,” Blake suggested.

“Maybe. If so they should be able to tell us what happened here,” Darius said.

“And why we’re here,” Lisa added.

They came to the T at the end of the corridor and turned down the next to find a bustle of activity.

“Look! Robots!” Cassandra said.

Gleaming machines rolled to and fro, grabbing bodies and floating debris with mechanical hands and dragging them away.

“They’re cleaning up....” Darius said.

“Did you see them here before?” Lisa asked.

“No.”

“Hmmm,” Blake said.

Darius shook his head. “This is a good sign.”

“Is it?” Blake asked. “The ship has robots to clean it, so it probably has more of them to fix itself.”

“In other words, there might not be any survivors....” Lisa said.

“Exactly,” Blake replied.



Chapter 6




As they went through the ship, robots kept streaming out of alcoves and storage rooms, dragging away the dead and anything else found littering the ship.

“Where are they taking them?” Cassandra asked, watching the nearest robot drag two bodies away simultaneously.

“Probably to the nearest airlock, kid,” Blake said. “Unless they’re going to recycle them into something useful.”

“Like what?” Cassandra asked, sounding horrified.

“Maybe mulch for whatever greeneries we have on board.”

“Yuck!”

“That’s enough,” Darius said.

They continued on in silence, doing their best to identify the different areas of the ship as they came to them by popping their heads through ruined doorways.

Darius poked his head into what appeared to be some kind of access chute with rungs leading up and down to the different levels of the ship. He counted the number of hatches above them, and then counted the number of hatches below. “There’s fifteen levels above ours, and another five below,” Darius said.

“Twenty decks? That’s one big ship,” Lisa marveled.

“Pretty big,” Darius agreed.

Cassandra stuck her head into the chute after Darius withdrew. “I wonder what’s on the other decks?” she asked.

“Don’t wonder, kid,” Blake said, shaking his head.

“Stop scaring her,” Darius snapped.

“It’s okay, Dad.”

“No, for a guy who claims to have had a daughter of his own—”

“Two,” Blake replied.

“Even worse! Poor girls.”

Blake gave him an icy look. “You want to take that helmet off and say that again?”

“Enough. Let’s keep going,” Lisa said. “We need to try to find the ship’s control room. Maybe we can figure out what’s going on from there.”

Blake snorted. “That’s a good idea, start pressing random buttons on a spaceship.”

Lisa glanced at him. “I’m not stupid.”

“You sure about that, Blondie?”

“Screw you,” Lisa replied.

“Don’t mind if you do. It’s been a while—cryo and all.”

Lisa blew out a breath, but said nothing to that, and Darius glared at the back of Blake’s head. He knew the type. Maybe it was dealing with terminal cancer that had made him the way he was, but Darius didn’t buy that. Cassandra had the same death sentence hanging over her and she was an angel.

As they proceeded through the ship, every so often they found more of those access chutes. They looked wide enough to fit someone in an armored suit, but they all agreed that it didn’t make sense to go exploring another level until they’d finished with this one.

After a few more minutes, they reached a second T and started through the crew quarters where Darius had found the jumpsuits. After that, came what looked to be a dining hall, followed by rec areas, and then hangars full of small, aerodynamic spaceships. There were dozens of them.

“What are those?” Cassandra asked, pointing to the ships from the threshold of the hangar’s ruined doors. A matching hangar with more racks of spaceships lay on the other side of the corridor.

“They look like the space equivalent of jet fighters to me,” Blake said.

“So this is a warship?” Lisa asked.

“Maybe,” Darius said. “Look—those fighters have wings. They can probably fly in atmosphere, too, not just space.”

“You want to test that theory, Spaceman?” Blake asked, sounding amused.

Darius bridled at Blake’s sarcastic tone. “I might. I have a pilot’s license.”

Blake snorted. “Yeah? Is it rated for spaceships?”

Darius didn’t bother replying this time. He looked away, back to the hangar. Here, the bodies were just as ubiquitous as everywhere else, and it looked like they’d died trying to get to the ships. One of them was halfway up an access ladder to a cockpit, his arms frozen around the rungs, while his legs ended in ragged, bloody stumps, cut off just below the knees.

Darius shivered. “It looks like they were trying to escape.”

“Maybe we should too,” Blake said.

“Even if we could fly one of those ships, they’re single-pilot vehicles,” Lisa said, shaking her head.

“What about that shuttle in the cryo room?” Blake asked.

“I couldn’t even find a way to turn it on, let alone fly it,” Lisa replied. “Everything is in another language.”

Blake scowled. “I didn’t go into cryo to escape cancer just so I could wake up and get eaten by some alien monster,” Blake said.

“We’re armed,” Lisa replied.

“So were they!” Blake roared.

“Alien monster?” Cassandra asked in a quiet voice. “Is that what killed everyone?”

“What else, kid?” Blake asked. “What rips open doors, tears off people’s limbs, and rips out their guts?”

Cassandra stared open-mouthed at Blake and Darius glared at him.

“What?” Blake said.

Darius gave Cassandra a reassuring smile. “Whatever did this, it isn’t here anymore. Before I came back for you, I found one of the cryo patients who woke up before us. He froze to death. He wasn’t eaten.”

“So...” Cassandra trailed off, shaking her head.

“So, if the monster that killed the crew was still around, it would have found that guy, and taken a bite out of him too.”

“Think again, Spaceman,” Blake said. “If this thing were killing out of hunger you wouldn’t find bodies with their guts spilling out and limbs missing. You’d find bones picked clean. That cryo patient froze to death before the creature could find him, so it didn’t bother with him. Us on the other hand, we’re still very much alive, and one of us is already missing.”

“Dad, I’m scared...”

Darius glared at Blake once more. “You don’t know when to shut up, do you?”

“He’s right,” Lisa said slowly. “But that means we’re not dealing with an animal.”

“What are you talking about, Blondie?” Blake said.

“If it—or they—aren’t killing for food, then they’re killing for sport, or some other reason that goes beyond simple instinct. That means whatever we’re dealing with, it’s intelligent.”

Darius felt his skin prickle with dread at the thought of a sentient alien monster prowling the ship, looking for its next prey.

“She’s right,” a new voice said.

Darius jumped and spun toward that voice, his finger already tightening on the trigger of his rifle.

There was a man standing there, right behind them in a plain black jumpsuit, just like Blake’s and Cassandra’s. He was tall, pale, and thin with piercing gray eyes and black hair that was slicked back from his forehead.

“Who are you?” Blake demanded.



Chapter 7




“I’m Gatticus Thedroux. Who are you?”

“You’re not from the cryo pods. You must be one of the crew,” Darius said.

“What makes you think that?” Gatticus asked.

“Your name, for one,” Darius said. “I’ve never heard of anyone with the name Gatticus, so I don’t think you’re from the twenty-first century.”

“He’s speaking English,” Lisa said. “Not the language in our helmets, so he must be from our time.”

“I speak many languages, including the dead language of English,” Gatticus replied.

“Dead?” Blake echoed. “What do you mean dead?”

“It is no longer spoken.”

“So why do you speak it?”

Gatticus shrugged. “I cannot remember, but I believe the thousands of people in cryo could have something to do with it. I speak other dead languages, as well—Chinese, Russian, German—”

Darius held up a hand to stop him.

“Definitely not from the twenty-first century,” Blake muttered.

“Can you tell us what’s going on here?” Lisa asked.

Gatticus shook his head and the corners of his mouth turned down in an exaggerated frown. “I’m afraid I don’t know. I have a problem with my memory, and the ship’s surveillance logs appear to have been erased.”

“A problem with your memory? You mean amnesia?” Lisa asked.

Gatticus inclined his head to her. “That is an adequate description.”

“Great,” Darius said. “So you don’t know any more than we do.”

“That depends on what you know,” Gatticus replied.

“Do you know what year it is?” Darius asked.

“Of course. By your calendar it would be the thirty-fifth century. Thirty-four sixty-two AD, to be precise. To the people of this time, it is the year fifteen twenty AU.”

“More than a thousand years have passed?” Lisa breathed.

That confirmed Darius’s suspicions. “AU?” He asked quietly. “What does that stand for?”

“Well, I am translating the acronym, of course, but it means after union,” Gatticus replied.

“After Union?” Cassandra echoed.

“Yes, after the formation of the United Star Systems of Orion, or USO for short.”

“United Star Systems of...” Darius trailed off, shaking his head. “Is Earth a part of that?”

“As of recently, yes.”

“So nothing happened to it?” Cassandra asked. “No disasters?”

“That depends what you mean by disasters. The war left most of Earth uninhabitable for many centuries. In fact, the Union has only begun rebuilding it recently.”

“I guess that explains why we’re not waking up on Earth,” Blake said.

“Indeed, I believe it does,” Gatticus replied.

“What war?” Darius asked.

“Perhaps I’d better start at the beginning,” Gatticus replied. “There was an asteroid headed for Earth, due to arrive in the year twenty seventy-six AD. It would have wiped out all life on Earth.”

“Would have?” Darius asked. “You mean we found a way to stop it?”

Gatticus shook his head. “We built several spaceships and sent them away to other worlds. One was a generation ship, a long-shot headed for Proxima Centauri. The others went to the existing colony on Mars, but before the asteroid could hit, something happened that no one was expecting: the asteroid disappeared.”

“What do you mean it disappeared?” Blake demanded.

“Someone intercepted it,” Gatticus replied.

“You mean aliens?” Lisa asked.

Gatticus nodded. “Their ships appeared in the sky soon after they destroyed the asteroid.”

“What happened next?” Cassandra asked eagerly.

“We tried to make contact, to thank them for saving us. We sent a shuttle up to meet them with emissaries from Earth. The shuttle boarded one of the alien ships, and we lost contact with it. Soon after that, one of their ships came down to us. It was carrying our emissaries. All of them were dead.”

“I don’t get it,” Cassandra said.

Blake snorted. “Seems like a pretty clear message to me.”

Darius agreed with Cassandra. He didn’t get it either. “They saved us just so that they could kill us themselves? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“The Ghouls and Banshees are alpha predators, born killers. Their greatest pleasure in life is to hunt and kill other sentient species—animals too, but Earth didn’t have any that were challenging enough to interest them.”

“I doubt we were much of a challenge either,” Darius said. “If they came to us from another star system and vaporized an asteroid that would have wiped us out, then their technology must have been leagues ahead of ours.”

“To make it more challenging, they typically hunt their prey without any weapons or armor—though they have weaponized their claws and teeth most effectively.”

“You seem to be remembering a lot for someone with amnesia,” Blake pointed out.

“My short-term memory of the events aboard this ship is what’s missing, not my long-term memories,” Gatticus replied.

“You must be from the thirty-fifth century if you remember what happened to Earth,” Lisa said.

Darius frowned. “You mentioned two species—Ghouls and Banshees. Are they allies?”

“Even closer than that. They’re Interrelated. They share enough genetic material that they can breed with each other, but their offspring, the Chimeras, are reviled.”

“Why would they breed with each other, then?” Darius asked.

“The Ghouls are hermaphroditic. They cycle genders. During their female cycle they become... insatiable. To avoid falling pregnant all the time, they seek male Banshees as concubines. Cross species fertility rates are very low, so it’s an effective means of birth control for the Ghouls. Births do still occur, but the Chimeras are born sterile, and they are either sent away to be raised by other Chimeras, or killed at birth—depending on what their parents decide.”

“Poor things...” Lisa said.

“Well, this is all very interesting,” Blake said. “But what does it have to do with our current situation?”

“I thought that would be obvious,” Gatticus replied. “One or more of these species must have boarded us and hunted the crew to death.”

“But they skipped you, huh?” Blake asked, his brown eyes pinching into thin slits. “Interesting.”

“Have you seen any of these aliens on board?” Darius asked.

“Not yet, but the U.S.O.S Deliverance is a big ship.”

Darius looked around quickly, making sure nothing was sneaking up on them.

“U.S.O.S?” Blake asked.

“United Systems of Orion Ship.”

“Cute. Okay, so you’ve been here, without power since...?”

“Since I woke up two weeks ago.”

“From cryo?” Darius asked.

Gatticus shook his head. “I suffered a head injury that knocked me unconscious.”

“You’ve been awake for two weeks? How come you didn’t freeze to death?” Blake asked.

Gatticus hesitated. “There are shuttles and transports on board. They have independent power. I’ve been living on one of them for the past two weeks.”

Darius nodded. “So you were the one who fixed the power in the rest of the ship?”

“I didn’t have to fix it. Getting the power back was a simple matter of turning the reactor back on. Someone had deliberately turned it off.”

“Why would they do that?” Lisa asked.

“To hide the ship.”

Blake snorted. “Well, that obviously didn’t work.”

“Perhaps not,” Gatticus agreed. “Unfortunately, getting the Alckam reactor back online will not be as easy. There’s no antimatter in the core.”

“Hold on, you’re going to have to slow down,” Darius said, holding up a hand. “What’s an Alckam reactor?”

“It powers the Alcubierre-Kaminski Drive.”

“The what now?” Blake asked.

“Surely you recognize the first name. Miguel Alcubierre was alive during the twenty-first century.”

Darius nodded slowly. “He came up with a theoretical warp drive.”

“Warp, as in faster than the speed of light?” Lisa asked.

“Correct,” Gatticus replied. “Ivan Kaminski developed the first working prototype by studying Phantom technology, so we called it the Alcubierre-Kaminski Drive—Alckam for short.”

“Phantom technology?” Cassandra asked.

“Ghouls and Banshees. They are collectively known as Phantoms—also Cygnians, since they come from the Cygnus Constellation.”

“So no antimatter in this Alckam reactor means no fuel?” Blake asked. “How did you turn the lights back on if we’re running on fumes?”

“The fusion reactors power the ship’s other systems and its sub-light drives. They have their own fuel supply. Antimatter is only used to power the Alckam drive.”

Darius frowned. “If it was so easy to turn the power back on, then why’d you wait two weeks to do that?”

“Because I had no way of knowing what’s out there. I still don’t. I had to assume that whoever shut down the reactors did it for a good reason. Without the Alckam Drive, we are like vonkats in a tar pit.”

“Vonkats?” Cassandra asked.

“They are a tree-dwelling—”

“Never mind what they are,” Blake interrupted. “What changed your mind about the power?”

“I began to find new bodies, naked ones. I realized that people were starting to wake from the cryo tanks, and that they were dying from exposure. I had to bring the power back or else you were all going to wake up and die.”

“Thanks for that,” Darius said.

“You are welcome.”

“So what now, Slick?” Blake asked.

Gatticus’s head canted to one side. “Slick?”

“The hair,” Blake explained, pointing to Gatticus’s slicked-back hair.

“Ah. I see.”

“Do you remember what brought us here?” Lisa asked. “I mean, why are we waking up on a spaceship instead of Earth? And where are we, anyway?” Lisa asked.

“I’m afraid I do not know why you are waking up here instead of Earth, though I suspect your pods must have been discovered during recent initiatives to rebuild Earth after it joined the USO. As for where we are, according to the ship’s nav system, the Deliverance is currently orbiting a planet called Hades.”

“Sounds inviting,” Blake replied. “Back to my question. What now? We don’t have any fuel in the warp drive, so I’m guessing that means we’re stuck here.”

“Alckam drive,” Gatticus corrected. “Warp drive is technically correct, too, but it denies credit to the original inventors.”

Blake waved his hand to dismiss that objection. “Yeah, whatever. The point is, we can’t fly to another planet unless it’s in this star system, right?”

“Oh, we could,” Gatticus replied, “But it would take a very long time to get there.”

“Yeah, like how long?”

Gatticus shrugged. “At least fifty years.”

“No thanks,” Blake said. “What about this planet, Hades? We could go down there and start a colony. Assuming it’s habitable.”

Darius frowned. “You can’t start a colony with five people.”

“We’ll have six if we can find that missing woman,” Blake replied.

“And then what?” Lisa demanded. “You men use us like brood mares to repopulate the species?”

“Hey, lady, this isn’t about feminism, or—

“You’re right, it’s about male chauvinism.”

“No, it’s about the survival of the species,” Blake finished.

Darius shook his head. “It wouldn’t work. The minimum viable population for a colony is between one and two hundred people. Not six.”

“What about the ones in cryo?” Blake asked. “We’ll have more than enough if we wake them up.”

“They’re all dying, just like us,” Cassandra said. “We won’t live long enough to start a colony.”

Darius winced at the reminder.

“The kid makes a good point,” Blake said.

“Dying?” Gatticus asked. “I do not understand. Why are you dying?”

“We all have terminal cancer—or something terminal, anyway,” Blake said. “That’s why we were in cryo; we were waiting for a cure.”

“I see,” Gatticus replied. “That won’t be a problem. I can cure you.”

Blake grinned. “No kidding? Well, what are we waiting for? Bring on the cure so we can go down to Hades!” Blake barked a laugh at that. “Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d say.”

“Hades is not a good world to colonize,” Gatticus replied.

“Why not?” Lisa asked.

“You mean besides the name?” Blake asked.

Lisa ignored him. “It’s not habitable?” she asked.

“Oh, it is very habitable, but the ship’s nav computer lists Hades as an active hunting ground for the Phantoms.”



Chapter 8




Blake swore under his breath.

And then Cassandra swore too.

“Cass, language...” Darius intoned.

“Why would you come here if you knew this was an active hunting ground?” Blake demanded.

“I told you, I don’t remember. Perhaps the lack of fuel has something to do with it. The crew may have come here to steal fuel from the Phantoms. That would also explain why the Deliverance was powered down—to hide in orbit while a small team went down to the surface to get fuel.”

“But the power is back now...” Darius replied. “Should we be expecting company?”

“Don’t we have some kind of sensors on board that we can use to check?” Blake asked. “Radar, or lidar, or something?”

“I just came from the bridge. So far there are no Phantom ships inbound, but our sensors are blocked by the planet, so we can only see half of the system. There could be Phantom vessels in the part we can’t see.”

“If the Phantoms are on the surface, then they must have ships here somewhere, right?” Darius asked. “And wouldn’t they detect us from the ground either way?”

“The Phantoms don’t necessarily have ships here, no,” Gatticus replied. “After a world is conquered, the main hunting parties move on, leaving the survivors for unmated Phantoms and smaller families to hunt. Since those groups won’t have ships of their own, they pay for passage aboard commercial vessels to reach new hunting grounds—much the same way humans conduct tourism.”

“So there’s a chance that we’re safe,” Lisa said.

“For now, yes, but sooner or later a Phantom ship will come here, even if there isn’t one here now.”

Blake shook his head quickly. “Then we need to shut down the power again!”

“If we do that, more people will wake from cryo,” Gatticus explained. “And when they do, they will almost certainly die from exposure.”

“There has to be some other way,” Darius mused. “Can’t we keep the heat on and provide power to the cryo pods, but still remain hidden?”

“Heat, no. We’ll have to drop the internal temperature of the ship, or a thermal scan will find us. But we needn’t heat the ship if no one is on board.”

“Hey, we’re on board, genius,” Blake said.

“We don’t need to be. We can take refuge on one of the shuttles. Thermal scans will never detect a small heat signature inside of a larger vessel.”

“What about the people in cryo?” Darius asked.

“We can run the pods on reserve power as soon as the reactor has recharged the ship’s power cells.”

“Great. How long will that take?”

“A few days.”

“So we’ll be exposed to detection for the next few days,” Lisa said.

“We don’t need to fully charge the ship’s power cells. Running the reactor for a few hours should be enough to buy us a day or more of reserve power for the cryo pods. We can shut the reactor back down after that.”

“Yeah, well even if we can avoid detection for now, it won’t keep us safe forever,” Blake said. “We need to get out of here, and in order to do that we need fuel for the Alcan drive.”

“Alckam,” Gatticus said.

“Whatever! You said maybe the crew came here to steal fuel. How could they do that if there aren’t any ships in the system?”

“The planet will have a fuel depot for passing ships to refuel. We’ll need to find it and steal as much antimatter as we can,” Gatticus said.

“How much do we need?” Blake asked.

“At least ten kilograms. We’ve got a couple of hours before the ship’s power cells are sufficiently charged. We should make use of that time to prepare for our assault on the fuel depot.”

Darius nodded. “Can you fly us down aboard a shuttle or something?”

Gatticus nodded. “Yes, but I would recommend we take one of the SB-22’s instead of a shuttle.”

“What’s that?” Blake asked.

“The SB-22 Osprey is a bomber and troop transport.”

Darius noticed that Cassandra was looking ill. “Are you okay, Cass?”

She shook her head. “I think I’m going to...”

A wretching sound burst from her lips, along with a stream of yellow bile.

“Blah!” Blake said as some of it splashed off his arm.

“Cass?!” Darius yelled.

She was gasping for air, and her stomach was heaving but nothing was coming out. They’d all gone into cryo on an empty stomach, so besides that burst of bile, she had nothing left to give.

“I think it’s the cancer,” she said. “I can’t...” she wheezed, gasping for air.

“Just breathe... are you in pain?”

“Always,” she croaked.

He placed a hand on her back, and she doubled over with another spasm.

Darius jerked his chin to Gatticus. “You mentioned you could cure us.”

“We’ll need to visit the med bay...” Gatticus said slowly, his eyes on Cassandra.

“Then let’s go!” Darius said. “Cass? Do you need me to carry you?”

But she gave no reply.

A jolt of adrenaline shot through him, and his heart began pounding. He shook her by one shoulder, but she didn’t even stir. She was just drifting there on her feet, doubled over in pain.

“Cassandra?!” He went down on his haunches in front of her to look her in the eye, but her eyes were shut.

Desperation clawed in Darius’s chest as he pressed two fingers to Cassandra’s neck.

“What’s wrong?” Lisa asked, her boots clanking noisily as she came over for a closer look.

“I can’t feel a pulse!”



Chapter 9




“Come on, Cass! Wake up!” Darius said between chest compressions. “I need help!”

“Get out of the way!” Gatticus said, and shoved Darius aside with surprising strength. “You’re going to break her sternum in that suit!”

Darius stumbled away, staring at his hands in horror as Gatticus began doing chest compressions of his own. Darius felt sick to his stomach, afraid that he’d already broken Cassandra’s chest.

“You need to breathe into her lungs!” Darius said.

“I know more about resuscitation than you!” Gatticus snapped.

Blake muttered a curse under his breath, and Lisa looked on in horror. Darius stared sightlessly at Cassandra’s face. His eyes swimming out of focus.

After Gatticus had performed at least thirty chest compressions to no effect, Darius began to grow desperate. They’d been on their way to cure her! She can’t die now. She can’t!

“Come on, Cass,” he whispered as Gatticus placed his lips over hers and breathed into her lungs. “Come on!”

“It’s not working,” Gatticus said.

“Why not?!” Darius asked.

Gatticus pointed to her face. Her lips were blue, but also puffy, and her face was swelling up like a basketball. “Anaphylactic shock. It’s not the cancer. Pass me a rifle!” he snapped, holding a hand out to Blake.

“What?” Blake shook his head and backed away slowly. “What do you want with—”

Gatticus leapt up and snatched one of his weapons from him.

Irrational fears raced through Darius’s mind. What did he want with a rifle? Is he going to shoot Cassandra and put her out of her misery?

Before Darius could do anything to stop him, Gatticus compressed the grip under the barrel of the rifle—

And a wicked-looking bayonet sprang out. He bent back down as if to stab Cassandra with it.

“Get the hell away from her!” Darius roared, already leaping toward the other man.

“He’s going to trach her!” Lisa said, and stepped in front of him. They collided and Lisa fell over backward in slow motion with her boots still pinned to the deck.

“What?” Darius demanded, blinking rapidly.

“He’s going to slice open her trachea so she can breathe!” Lisa explained as she straightened. “It’s an allergic reaction.”

“To what?” Blake asked, placing a hand to his mouth and nose, and looking around furtively as if he might be next.

“Something in the air, maybe,” Lisa said. “Her windpipe must have closed off.”

“Someone find me a breathing tube!” Gatticus said.

Darius cast about wildly, desperate to help his daughter.

But there was nothing in sight, nothing that would work. Except—

His eyes skipped up to the exposed conduits in the ceiling. Spotting what looked like an electrical conduit, he leapt straight up off the deck, and drifted to the ceiling. He grabbed one of the conduits with both hands to keep from bouncing away.

Picking the one he thought most likely, he wrapped one hand around it and used his other hand to push off the ceiling. He pulled on the conduit as hard as he could. Motors whirred inside his suit, and the conduit groaned. Then something gave way with a ping, and the conduit came away from the ceiling, bent but not broken.

“Hurry!” Gatticus urged.

Darius bent the pipe back and forth as fast as he could until metal fatigue caused it to snap. A nest of electrical wires spilled out. He reached into the bundle for the thickest one and ripped it out. It snapped suddenly.

“She’s not going to make it,” Gatticus said.

“Shut up!” Darius replied as he pulled on the wire again. A piece of it snapped and came away in his hand. Working fast with shaking hands, he stripped away some of the insulation and pulled the metal wire out. The sheath formed a hollow tube about a centimeter in diameter. Darius pushed himself back down to the deck. His boots touched down with a clu-clunk, and he took two quick strides to reach Gatticus. “Take it!”

Gatticus grabbed the sheathing and used the bayonet at the end of the rifle to slice Cassandra’s throat open. A small pool of blood formed, but went nowhere because her heart wasn’t beating. Gatticus pushed the tube into the slit in her throat and a few crimson drops of blood broke free, glinting and shimmering like rubies as they spun through the air.

With the intrusion of the breathing tube, Darius expected to see Cassandra’s chest abruptly rise as she sucked in a breath, but nothing happened.

Gatticus hurriedly unzipped the front of her jumpsuit, exposing her chest, and planted both hands there. A bright flash of blue light pooled under his palms, and Cassandra’s whole body jumped with a sudden jolt.

“What the hell?” Blake said, stumbling back a step.

Gatticus removed his hands and leaned forward to breathe into the tube protruding from Cassandra’s throat. Her chest rose swiftly with that influx of air. Then he withdrew again and placed his hands over Cassandra’s chest once more. There came another flash of blue light, even brighter than before.

Again, Cassandra’s body jumped, but this time her eyes fluttered open and her mouth gaped in a soundless scream. Her throat was still shut, and her face was still swollen, but she was alive.

Air whistled in and out of her breathing tube at a frantic pace, and Casandra’s hands flew up to her throat to check what was there.

Gatticus stopped her before she could rip the tube out. “Don’t touch it! You’ve had an allergic reaction to something in the air. We performed an emergency medical procedure to save your life.”

Blood now streamed from her throat in thin snaking lines, and Cassandra’s eyes flew even wider as she watched herself bleed.

“You also defibrillated her with your bare hands,” Blake said. “You forgot to mention that part. How the hell did you do that, anyway?”

Gatticus was already rising from his haunches with Cassandra in his arms. Rather than waste time answering that question, he sprinted off down the corridor.

“Hey!” Blake called after him. “I asked you a question, Slick!”

“Let’s go!” Darius said, and ran after Gatticus. Figuring out what had just happened could wait. They needed to get to the med bay. Cassandra wasn’t out of this yet. Hang on, Cass...



Chapter 10




Gatticus led them to the nearest access chute and up six levels before climbing out and running down another corridor. They passed more cleaning robots and corpses along the way, colliding with frozen, floating bits of people as they went.

Darius ignored it all, his attention fixed squarely on Cassandra and the man carrying her—the man who’d shocked her back to life with his bare hands.

Before Darius could wonder more about that, Gatticus darted into one of the rooms branching from the corridor. Inside, the walls were lined with drawers and compartments. Gatticus released Cassandra and pulled open one of the drawers. He retrieved what looked like a fat silver pen and placed the tip against Cassandra’s thigh. A soft hiss sounded from the device as he depressed a button on the side of it.

“Hey, what was that?” Darius demanded. “What did you just do?”

Gatticus retrieved what looked like a handgun from the open drawer, and a holographic control panel sprang to life above the device. Gatticus used his free hand to make a series of selections, and a fan of blue light flickered out and passed over Cassandra from head to toe.

A shaded model of her body appeared, with veins and arteries depicted in various shades of red. Tiny green dots were spreading along those pathways, increasing in number with every passing second.

Frustrated by Gatticus’s silence, Darius seized the man by his arm and shook him. “Hey! Are you going to answer me?”

“Nanites. I injected her with nanites,” Gatticus replied.

Darius heard a gagging sound: “Gaa?” and he spun around to find Cassandra, her eyes wide with shock as she reached for the crude tube in her throat. Gatticus quickly restrained her hand and removed the tube.He held a slight pressure on the wound and placed some kind of translucent bandage over the bloody hole. She spasmed slightly, gagged up a little blood and groaned. “Daa?” She coughed. “Dad?”

Her face was looking more its normal size and shape again, and she could talk.

“You look like you saw a ghost,” Cassandra said.

“Yeah, that’d be you, kid,” Blake put in.

Darius snapped out of it and closed the gap between them in two quick steps. He wrapped his daughter up in a fierce hug. “Don’t ever scare me like that again,” he whispered.

“Sorry,” she managed as she withdrew from his embrace. “What happened?”

“You died,” Blake said.

“I what?” Cassandra echoed. She swung her feet down and her mag boots clicked against the deck.

Darius shot Blake a dire look. “Are you trying to scare her?”

“It’s okay,” Cassandra said. “I’m alive now. That’s what matters, right?”

“Yeah,” Darius nodded, and he let out a deep breath.

“Thank God for that,” Lisa said.

“I am not God,” Gatticus replied.

Cassandra’s swelling was almost completely gone now.

“How did you know how to do that?” Lisa asked, nodding to the bandaged hole in Cassandra’s throat.

“I have medical training.”

Blake snorted. “Training doesn’t explain how you resuscitated her with your bare hands. You want to explain that, Slick?”

Gatticus sighed. “Very well.” He bowed his head and ran a hand back through his gelled black hair, lifting it from his scalp. As he did so, a ragged flap of his scalp peeled away to reveal blackened bone.

“Seriously?” Blake said. “Come on, man. That’s just gross.”

“Wait—” Darius peered at the injury more closely. There wasn’t any blood around his scalp, and he could see something gleaming and silver around the blackened area.

“That’s not bone,” Lisa said. “It’s metal. You have a metal plate in your head?”

“No... he’s a robot,” Darius said.

“An android,” Gatticus replied, as he smoothed his hair and scalp back into place.

“Snaz!” Cassandra said.

“So that’s how you survived the cold,” Darius realized.

“Yes.”

“Why not just tell us what you were from the beginning?” Lisa asked.

Gatticus hesitated, but Blake was nodding as if his suspicions had just been confirmed. His remaining rifle, the one Gatticus hadn’t stolen to open Cassandra’s throat, tracked up until the barrel was squarely aimed at Gatticus’s chest.

“Because he’s some kind of stowaway—or worse—and the crew tried to kill him.”

“What? How do you know that?” Lisa asked.

“Because that bad hair day of his wasn’t caused by claws or teeth,” Blake said. “His skull is scorched. That’s thermal damage,” he said, while patting his rifle.

“Yes,” Gatticus said. “Unfortunately I cannot tell you why the crew might shoot me, because the injury left vast sections of my memory corrupted and inaccessible. Even I don’t know if I can be trusted.”

Darius walked over to Gatticus and placed a hand on his shoulder. It felt surprisingly warm and human to the tactile sensors in Darius’s armor. “You saved my daughter’s life. As far as I’m concerned, that means you can be trusted.”

“Thank you.”

Blake snorted. “I’ll reserve my judgment. I mean, it is kind of convenient that you somehow lived and everyone else died. Maybe you knew what was coming because you had a hand in it, and maybe the crew shot you in the head when they found out.”

“That is a possibility,” Gatticus admitted.

Darius turned to glare at Blake. “Put the gun down.”

“He could betray us next!”

“Right now, he’s the only guide we have,” Lisa said. “We need him. And even if he was responsible for what happened to the crew, he can’t remember what motivated his actions.”

“So that makes him innocent?” Blake demanded.

“No, but without the memory of his motives, he’s unlikely to repeat the same actions.”

“Until his memory comes back.”

“My data salvage routines require more time to finish running, but the current indication is that my memory will never fully return, so the human woman may be right.”

“My name is Lisa.”

Darius thrust out a hand to Gatticus. “Darius Drake,” he said. Gatticus eyed his hand briefly before accepting the handshake, and Darius went on, “The girl you saved is Cassandra Drake, my daughter, and that—” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “—is Blake Nelson.”

Gatticus nodded. “It is nice to meet you all. Who is next for treatment?”

“Next?” Blake echoed.

Gatticus’s head canted to one side. “You mentioned you have terminal cancer? I can cure you just as I cured Cassandra.”

“Wait, I’m cured?” Cassandra asked.

Gatticus turned to her. “The nanites that cleared the histamines from your body are programmed to find and fix any maladies that commonly afflict human beings. Your cancer cells will not last long against them.”

Darius couldn’t believe his ears. His eyes blurred with tears and he swept Cassandra up in a bear hug, yanking her free of the deck, and spinning her in circles.

Cassandra’s body shook with sobs and laughter. It was over. She was cured!

Darius put her back down and found Gatticus watching them with a smile. “Who would like to go next?”

“Well, count me out,” Blake said. “I’ll wait and see if the girl lives first.”

Lisa snorted and shook her head. “What possible motive could he have for killing her? If he were some psycho robot he could have just killed us all before we woke up from the tanks.”

“Android,” Gatticus said.

“I’m sorry?” Lisa asked.

“I am an android, not a robot.”

“Actually, you’re neither. You’re a person.”

Gatticus inclined his head to her. “You are very open-minded for a human. I had begun to think you were all the same.”

“There! Right there!” Blake said, and repeatedly stabbed his finger at Gatticus. “Did you hear that? That’s his motive. He thinks we’re all the same, all evil.”

“Maybe because he’s met too many people like you,” Lisa replied. “You can treat me next,” she said.

Gatticus nodded and withdrew another cylinder from the drawer he’d opened. Turning back to her, he reached down to her waist and opened the suit’s access panel.

“Wait!” Lisa said.

Too late. The suit splayed open, revealing her naked body.

Blake whistled appreciatively.

“I apologize,” Gatticus said. “I didn’t realize you were not wearing clothes.”

Darius looked away belatedly, catching a glare from Lisa as he did so. “I have a face, you know,” she said.

“Yeah, but you also have... well, all that,” Blake replied, grinning.

Darius heard another hiss as Gatticus injected Lisa with nanites, followed by the whirring and clicking of her suit as it sealed her up again.

Gatticus was busy passing his palm-sized scanner over her.

“I barely felt anything,” Lisa said. “Are you sure it worked?”

“The nanites anesthetize you as they enter your bloodstream.”

“Yeah, and then later they put you out of your misery altogether,” Blake added. “Maybe there’s no such thing as Phantoms. Maybe he’s the Phantom.”

“I assure you, I did not kill the crew.”

“Prove it.”

“You have seen their injuries. There’s no way I could have inflicted such wounds.”

“Maybe there’s some kind of lightsaber on board,” Blake suggested.

Darius arched an eyebrow at him.

“Lightsaber?” Gatticus asked.

“Wow...” Lisa breathed.

Darius turned to her. “What is it?”

“I feel... I mean, the pain—it’s gone!”

“Me too,” Cassandra said.

“We can’t be cured already. Can we?” Lisa asked.

“No,” Gatticus replied. “It will likely take a day or two for the nanites to fix everything, but chronic pain is a relatively easy malady to cure.”

Lisa slowly shook her head, her green eyes wide and full of wonder inside her helmet.

“Darius? Would you like to go next?” Gatticus asked.

All eyes turned to him. Darius shifted his weight from one foot to another, feeling uncomfortable under the weight of their gazes. Besides Cassandra, none of them knew that he didn’t actually have cancer.

“Ah, sure...” he replied.

Gatticus removed another cylinder from the drawer and opened the access panel in his suit. As his armor splayed open, Darius caught Lisa staring.

“Tat for tit,” she explained, and flashed a grin at him.

Blake snorted.

Darius felt a small prick as Gatticus injected him with the nanites. Then he took aim with his scanner, and another fan of blue light flickered out.

“Hmmm...”

“What?” Darius asked, his heart suddenly pounding. What if Gatticus could see from the scan that he didn’t have cancer?

“Your cancer is not very advanced,” Gatticus replied.

“I have cancer?” Darius blurted before he could stop himself.

“I thought you said you were stage four...?” Blake trailed off.

“His heart murmur is more of an immediate threat than the tumor in his left testicle, but the nanites should fix both problems.”

“Testicular cancer? I thought it was lung?” Blake said. “Kind of hard to confuse the two, wouldn’t you say?”

Darius grimaced. “I lied about the lung cancer.”

“No kidding,” Blake replied. “Question is why?”

“Officially, according to my medical records, I do have stage four small cell lung cancer. I didn’t know about the testicular cancer—or the heart murmur.”

“Why would your medical records lie?” Lisa asked.

Darius turned to her. “I wasn’t going to send my daughter to the future without me, so I bribed her doctor to tamper with my medical records and make it so that I could go too.”

Blake sneered at that. “Must be nice to break the rules just because you’re rich.”

Darius frowned. He’d worried Blake would have this reaction, but now that he thought about it, he wasn’t sure why. “You can’t blame me just because you couldn’t bring your family with you. You wouldn’t have done that even if you’d had the option. Cryo has risks. Would you ask them to take those risks for you?”

“Maybe, maybe not, but it would have been nice to have the option. I lost everyone I ever cared about, while you got to keep your family together because you wrote someone a check. Think about that.”

“Blame the system, don’t blame me,” Darius said.

Blake snorted and shook his head.

Lisa didn’t look amused either. Who had she been forced to leave behind?

“Look I’m sorry for being rich. Is that what you want to hear? If it makes you feel better, I’m not anymore.”

“Bull. Your money might be gone, but you still have the attitude. Blame the system, don’t blame me? You’re just another entitled brat who thinks the rules don’t apply to him.”

“I’m not ent—”

Cassandra grabbed his hand suddenly. “Did you hear that?” she whispered.

“No, hear what?” Darius replied.

“I heard it too,” Gatticus whispered.

“Heard what?” Blake demanded, not bothering to whisper.

Before Gatticus could reply, a chilling scream shivered through the air and the deck. Loose articles rattled inside their drawers and cabinets with the sheer force of the noise.

“What the hell was that?” Blake asked. Now he was whispering.

Gatticus shook his head, his gray eyes round and huge. “That, was a Banshee.”



Chapter 11




Another scream came soon after the first, but this one didn’t shake the room.

“That sounded human,” Lisa said.

“The other woman...” Darius realized.

Blake nodded. “Yeah.” He had his rifle trained on the broken doors.

“We need to get down to the planet before that Banshee finds us,” Gatticus said.

“And leave it on board with all those other people still in cryo?” Darius asked.

“It won’t attack them unless they wake up, and they won’t wake up if the power stays on,” Gatticus explained. “It’s hunting us, not the people in cryo. As far as Phantoms are concerned, those people are already dead.”

“What about you?” Blake asked. “They skipped you the first time around. Let me guess, that’s because you’re not alive either.”

“They don’t hunt androids,” Gatticus admitted.

“Yet another reason for me not to trust you.”

“Whether or not you can trust me, you need my help if you’re going to escape.”

“Go ahead. Help us. Why don’t you start by creating a distraction so we can get away. You can test that they don’t hunt androids theory of yours.”

“I would, but you can’t pilot the transport without me, so we must escape together. You are right, however. I should go first to make sure the way is clear.”

Blake gestured to the broken doors. “Go on, then.”

“Turn off your mag boots,” Gatticus replied. “They’ll create too much noise.”

“How?” Darius asked.

“Like this.” Gatticus bent down to his haunches and touched buttons on either side of his heels.

The boots disengaged with a click, and he pushed off the floor at an angle, drifting over to the open doors. He grabbed the door frame and poked his head out into the corridor, looking both ways. A moment later, he turned and gestured for them to join him.

“All right, Cass,” Darius said. “Boots off.”

She shook her head quickly, her blue eyes huge. “I can’t. I’ll just run. I’ll run as fast as I can. I’ll be quiet.”

“Those things will hear you a mile away, kid,” Blake said.

“I can’t do it. I don’t know how to float around like that!” Cassandra said, pointing to Gatticus.

“Shhh!” Lisa hissed.

“Get on my back,” Darius said. “I’ll carry you. Hurry.”

Cassandra bent down and deactivated her boots as Gatticus had done. Then she wrapped her arms and legs around him.

“Hang on.”

He felt her nodding through the tactile sensors in the shoulder of his suit.

Blake and Lisa deactivated their boots, secured their rifle straps, and shoved off to join Gatticus by the doors. Darius did the same, aiming for the opposite side of the doorway to avoid a collision with one of them.

“Still no sign of the Banshee?” Darius whispered as he reached the doors.

“No way to be sure,” Gatticus said. “Phantoms can camouflage themselves to blend in with their surroundings.”

Now you tell us,” Blake gritted out.

“Shut up, all of you,” Lisa said. “Let’s just get out of here.”

“Follow me,” Gatticus whispered. He pushed off the door frame and drifted up to the ceiling of the adjoining corridor. As he reached it, he grabbed one of the exposed conduits and used it to pull himself along, hand-over-hand.

They each followed his example, trying not to bump into each other or make any noise. Darius brought up the rear again, leaving him feeling dangerously exposed.

“Dad...” Cassandra whispered as he pulled them along the conduits.

“Shhh,” he replied.

She was on his back, so technically she was bringing up the rear. He winced at the thought of some alien monster sneaking up behind them and ripping her off his back. He needed to get to safety in the middle of the group.

He struggled to move faster, to push past Lisa without bumping into anything, but she was blocking the way. There was no way to pass her and still get a handhold on one of the pipes.

“Lisa,” he said.

“Quiet,” she hissed.

“We’ve got armor. Cass doesn’t. I need to get ahead of you.”

For a long moment she said nothing.

“Lisa?” he pressed. “Damn it! She’s just a kid.”

They reached a bulkhead door and she moved aside to let him pass.

He nodded and mouthed his thanks as he passed her by. She was frowning inside her helmet.

They pulled themselves down one corridor after another, following Gatticus through the ship. Every few seconds Darius would glance over his shoulder to make sure Lisa was still there, and each time she’d glance over hers to make sure there wasn’t a reason he was looking back.

After a few minutes they came to an access chute, and they followed Gatticus down to one of the lowermost decks. They emerged from the chute to find Gatticus standing on his mag boots once more.

“You think we lost it?” Blake whispered as he re-engaged his boots and touched them to the deck.

“If we didn’t, then moving quickly is more important than moving quietly.”

“Unless there’s more of them on board,” Darius pointed out. He engaged his own mag boots and swung his feet down to the deck. They connected with a noisy clu-clunk, and Blake glared at him.

Lisa came out behind them and engaged her mag boots too, making the same noise that Darius had. He winced and glanced back into the chute.

“We are close to the hangar. Come,” Gatticus said, and turned to run.

“Cass, do you want to get down?”

She shook her head vigorously against his shoulder.

“Let’s go,” Lisa said, before taking off after Gatticus and leaving him and Cassandra behind.

They all ran down the corridor, their mag boots clanking and thunking against the deck. A few seconds later, Gatticus darted to the right, into an adjoining room, and the others followed.

As Darius ran through the doors, he almost knocked Lisa over. She was standing there just inside the doorway, frozen on the spot. Blake and Gatticus were a few steps in front of her, also not moving.

He glanced around the cavernous room and glimpsed a group of matte black starships landed on the deck in front of them. Not seeing anything, he shook his head, and whispered, “What is it?”

No one replied, but Lisa grabbed his arm suddenly and squeezed it hard. She pointed up to the ceiling. At first he saw nothing, but then he heard a soft chittering sound and his eyes registered a flicker of movement.

Two dark gray shadows were slinking along the ceiling on six legs, somehow clinging to it like bugs. They had barbed tails, and what might have been quills on their backs; with four dark, glinting eyes set in pug-like faces with broad jaws.

As he watched, one of them sprang off the ceiling and twisted around in mid-air to land on its feet. Rather than bounce off the deck as it should have in zero-G the damned thing clung there and began creeping toward them. As it did so, the creature’s hide changed colors from dark gray to a lighter shade, matching the deck instead of the ceiling.

Darius reached for his rifle, only to find it pinned between him and Cassandra.

The Banshee raised its head and sniffed the air, snorting softly. Then it’s lips parted and a long black tongue flicked out between serrated rows of slate gray teeth, as if to taste the air. It turned its head every which way with its tongue flicking out periodically.

Why hasn’t it seen us? Darius wondered.

“Dad...” Cassandra breathed beside his ear.

At the sound of that whisper, the Banshee’s head jerked suddenly in their direction, and its four gleaming eyes narrowed to slits. The other one jumped down and landed soundlessly beside it. Both of them stood there on six legs, naked and camouflaged, crouched low, with their shoulders at about knee-height. They had their heads raised and cocked to one side, as if listening.

Slowly, Gatticus raised a hand like a stop sign; then he bent down to release his mag boots once more. As soon as he did that, he jumped up, sailing over the Banshees’ heads to the ceiling where he grabbed a conduit just like before. From there, he turned and waved to them, indicating for them to follow.

This time Darius went first. He wasn’t going to get stuck bringing up the rear again. He hit the ceiling with a soft thunk that provoked a snort from one of the Banshees. Darius froze and looked down to see both of the creatures slinking along the deck, sniffing at the floor.

Blake and Lisa arrived in tandem, just before one of the creatures would have reached them.

They must be blind, Darius thought.

Gatticus pointed down to one of four identical ships below. They sat on rectangular landing pads marked by glowing borders. Each of them had swept-back wings and angular black bodies that reminded Darius of old stealth fighters from Earth, except that these craft were much bigger and bulkier in the body section. They could probably each fit a few tanks inside. The one Gatticus was pointing to already had its landing ramp down.

They crept along the pipes until they were clinging to the ceiling directly above that ramp.

Gatticus gestured to the craft once more, and whispered, “Boots.” He activated his mag boots, and Darius and Blake both activated theirs as well. Gatticus held up one hand and counted off with his fingers: One. Two. Three.

They all pushed off the ceiling at the same time and sailed down, feet first. They hit the deck with a noisy clanging of metal on metal, but Lisa bounced off and called out in alarm. She obviously hadn’t engaged her mag boots.

But there was no time to help her. Both Banshees screeched thunderously and streaked toward them, their barbed tails lashing the air like whips.

“Run!” Gatticus roared as he sprinted up the landing rap.

Darius tore after him and reached the top just as Gatticus triggered the outer doors open. Darius darted inside and spun around to face the monsters that he imagined to be right behind him.

Gatticus and Blake piled through the hatch next, and the android slapped the inner door controls just as two chittering gray shadows came leaping up the ramp after them. Blake fired his rifle into the narrowing gap as the outer doors slid shut.

One of the Banshees screeched thunderously, and a pair of hands appeared in the gap, trying to pry the doors back open. Sharp glinting gray claws tipped each of the eight fingers on those hands. More hands appeared below the first set—six in all. The doors groaned as they strained against the alien. They’d stopped closing.

Blake screamed and fired his rifle into the wrinkly gray belly of the beast. It gave a deafening shriek and wrenched the doors open a few inches; then its head appeared and its jaws snapped angrily at the air.

Blake’s aim shifted to the head, but Gatticus knocked him out of the way before he could fire again. A stream of spittle flew through the spot where Blake had been standing a moment ago. It splashed off the inner doors and filled the air with tiny, spinning droplets of alien spit.

“Don’t let it touch you! It’s poison!” Gatticus warned.

Darius had a helmet on, but Cassandra and Blake didn’t. Darius hurriedly backed away from the spinning globules of spit to keep Cassandra safe, while Blake backed into the opposite corner of the airlock and fired once more. The Banshee screamed with each laser bolt, but it didn’t release its grip on the doors.

More sets of eight-fingered hands appeared in the gap, and the doors groaned as both Banshees pried them open.

“Got it!” Gatticus said as the inner doors swished open. “Get in!”

Darius didn’t need to be told twice. He piled through with Cassandra, accidentally slamming into Blake as they both tried to squeeze through at once. Gatticus shut the doors behind them with a muffled boom.

“That won’t hold them for long. We need to get out into space before they claw their way through,” Gatticus said.

“What about Lisa? We can’t leave her out there,” Darius said.

“We don’t have a choice!” Gatticus snapped.

Just as he said that, a loud, rumbling groan issued from the airlock, followed by the sound of claws skittering.

“They’re inside,” Blake said.

A furious scratching sound began on the other side of the inner doors, and Darius saw them shiver in time to each scraaatch. His mind flashed back to all the pried-open doors throughout the ship, and the dead woman with her chest torn open.

“Come on!” Gatticus said.



Chapter 12




They ran from the airlock, through a passenger bay lined with bench seats and lockers, then down a corridor lined with doors, and finally into the cockpit. Gatticus sealed the door behind them and fell into the foremost of four chairs in the cockpit. Two more chairs lay along the sides, and a final chair at the bottom of a short ramp, directly below Gatticus’s seat.

Darius put Cassandra down and helped her engage her mag boots. He nodded to one of the two chairs along the sides of the cockpit. “Sit down.”

Blake stood facing the cockpit door, his rifle aimed and ready.

Darius walked up behind Gatticus just as he felt the ship begin to move down. A loud whirring sound filled the cockpit as they dropped below the level of the hangar deck. Two giant floor panels slid shut overhead, sealing them in a compartment below the deck. A brief gust of wind roared through that space, and a pair of doors slid open in front of them, revealing a long, dark tunnel with red lights flashing along its length.

Gatticus’s hands flew over the controls and the whirring noise reached a fever pitch.

Darius heard a skittering sound, followed by the shrieking assault of claws on the metal door of the cockpit.

“They’re here!” Blake said.

“Everyone brace yourselves!” Gatticus warned.

Darius glanced behind him to see Cassandra closing a pair of stiff, padded seat restraints around her chest.

Blake half turned from guarding the doors, his eyebrows raised in question; then he appeared to notice the tunnel and the flashing lights, and he hurriedly fell into the empty chair opposite Cassandra.

Darius wrapped his arms around the back of the pilot’s seat and braced his feet, one in front of the other.

A robotic voice echoed through the cockpit, saying something like: tras, ad-un, dwa.

The sides of the tunnel blurred, and Darius felt himself being catapulted backward. He held onto the back of Gatticus’s chair as if his life depended on it—which it probably did. He couldn’t blink or breathe. He was losing his grip. He imagined himself flying backward and slamming into the cockpit doors hard enough to break them and let the Banshees in. With the threat of that actually happening fixed in his mind’s eye, he tightened his grip on the chair, holding on with every ounce of strength he had.

The end of the tunnel was a solid wall of white light. Darius’s eyes widened in alarm. They were going to collide with something!

A split second later they hit that wall, but instead of Darius’s momentum sending him flying through the cockpit canopy, a glittering black sea of stars swept into view all around them, and he saw that wall of light for what it really was—the planet, Hades, below.

With the immense force of their acceleration now lifted, Darius sucked in a hurried breath. Grimacing, he released his hold on Gatticus’s chair and shook out his aching arms and hands.

Cassandra let out a whoop of exhilaration and Darius smiled at her reaction. But then he remembered Lisa, and his smile vanished.

“Are those aliens still with us?” Blake asked, glancing back at the cockpit door.

Gatticus checked one of his displays and shook his head. “They fell out the back of the ship when we launched. They’re drifting in the launch tube, surrounded by vacuum right now.”

“Dead?” Darius asked.

“They will be,” Gatticus replied.

Blake sighed. “Good.”

“We should go back for Lisa,” Darius said.

“Hey, hold on there, Spaceman,” Blake replied. “We don’t know if there are more of those things on board.”

“Exactly,” Darius replied. “We can’t leave her to fend for herself.”

Gatticus must have agreed, because he was already turning the ship around. The planet disappeared and the ship they’d launched from swept into view. Darius gasped at the sight of it. It was a dark gray vessel, tiered with at least thirty shining rows of decks at the back, and tapering in the front to about five. The outer hull bristled with what Darius could only imagine were weapons emplacements. From the outside, the ship appeared to be in pristine condition.

“Now that’s a spaceship,” Blake said, whistling softly.

“Yes,” Gatticus replied. “Colossus-class carriers are among the largest ever built at three point nine kilometers from bow to stern.”

“All that ship, and nowhere to go,” Blake said, shaking his head.

“Darius, you need to sit down and buckle your restraints before I ignite the thrusters,” Gatticus said.

“Oh, right,” Darius turned and hurried down the ramp to the remaining chair. He ducked into a tight compartment surrounded on all sides by glass—a miniature cockpit within the cockpit—and sat down. A pair of weapon barrels protruded below and in front of his position, making him suspect that he was occupying a gunner’s position.

He closed a pair of stiff, padded bars around his chest and tried moving against them. They refused to give.

“Ready,” he said, while absently studying the joysticks and buttons on each of his armrests.

A loud roar rumbled through the ship, and Darius felt the pressure of acceleration return, but this time it was more bearable, and he could at least still breathe.

“So, what happened back there, Slick? How did we escape?” Blake asked. “We were right in front of their noses the whole time.”

“Phantoms cannot see in brightly-lit places. They use their hearing and sense of smell to navigate instead.”

“Was that why they were chittering?” Darius asked. “Some kind of echolocation?”

“Exactly,” Gatticus replied.

“So that wasn’t their language?” Cassandra asked.

“No. They utilize a much wider range of vocalizations for communication.”

“They didn’t seem that intelligent to me,” Blake said. “They were acting like animals.”

“What they act like does not change what they are, and I assure you, they are very intelligent.”

Blake snorted, but didn’t continue the argument.

They passed the next few minutes in silence as they flew back toward the shining hulk of the ship they’d launched from. Darius spent that time wondering what kind of world—galaxy, he corrected himself—they’d woken up in. He recalled that Gatticus had called the ship they were headed for the U.S.O.S. Deliverance, and that U.S.O.S. stood for United Systems of Orion Ship.

“Gatticus?” Darius asked.

“Yes?”

“What is the USO?”

“An alliance of humans, androids, and sentient aliens from the Orion Spur of the Milky Way.”

“So this ship, the Deliverance, it was built to fight the Phantoms?”

“No, not exactly...” Gatticus replied.

“What do you mean not exactly?” Blake asked.

“The USO is ruled by the Phantoms—it is their empire, not ours.”



Chapter 13




“So, we fight with them...?” Blake trailed off, shaking his head.

“Yes,” Gatticus replied.

“Against ourselves,” Blake added.

Darius couldn’t believe it either. “Why would we do that?”

“We fight with them against unsubjugated worlds, not against ourselves, although some humans do still fight them. And the reason we are on their side is because by joining their empire, there’s some control over who the Phantoms hunt. Most people are safe. Only the people who get sent to their hunting grounds can be hunted. Everyone else is off limits. But for non-member worlds, it's open war.”

“What about androids?” Blake asked. “Do they ever get sent?”

“No.”

“That sounds like a nice system you’ve got there,” Blake said.

“It is not nice,” Gatticus replied, “but it is necessary. Better that a few should die so that the majority can live. And yes, androids do not have to worry about being hunted, but we are persecuted by biologicals as a result.”

Blake snorted and shook his head.

“But they’re killing us!” Cassandra said. “Everyone just gave up trying to fight back?”

“Not everyone. The Coalition is still fighting them.”

“Who are they?” Blake asked.

“Pirates and terrorists,” Gatticus replied. “They’re fighting the entire USO, not just the Phantoms.”

“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” Blake replied.

“It sounds like you hail from the USO,” Darius said.

“I do not remember my allegiance,” Gatticus replied. “Perhaps I am a member of the Coalition, but I simply do not approve of their methods.”

“Yeah?” Blake scoffed. “Next you’ll be telling us that the crew put a hole in your head by accident. Speaking of which, if the Deliverance is a USO ship, and you’re on their side, why would they attack you?”

“The Deliverance is a USO vessel, but I believe it may have been stolen by the Coalition. It would explain why the crew was attacked by Banshees.”

“Can’t you tell whose ship this was by checking the crew’s uniforms?” Blake asked.

“The crew were all wearing USO uniforms when they died, but Coalition forces often use USO uniforms and USO Ship ID codes in order to trick their victims into thinking they’re friendly.”

Darius grimaced. “That’s like what sea-faring pirates on Earth used to do—flying a friendly flag until they got close enough to attack.”

“Yes,” Gatticus replied. “Exactly like that.”

They flew on in silence as everyone considered the implications of what Gatticus had said. The bottom of the Deliverance loomed in front of them, and Darius noted that they were headed for a large, gaping bulge in the underside of the ship. It was open to space on both ends. A landing bay? Darius wondered.

It swelled to fill Darius’s entire field of view, and then they cruised inside. The hangar was at least a kilometer long, if it’s size relative to the full length of the ship was anything to go by. The ceiling was marked with a dozen parallel landing strips, and flashing arrows led in from both sides to glowing rectangular landing pads in the center of the hangar. Some of the pads were marked with red X’s, others with green rectangles. Gatticus rolled the transport until the ceiling of the hangar lined up with its bottom; then he swooped down along one of the landing strips.

Black rectangular docking clamps raced up under them, zipping along sliding rails in the landing strip to match speed with the transport.

As they drifted down, the docking clamps extended to reach the underside of the transport. They made contact with a loud clunk, and Darius felt his body being pressed hard against his seat restraints. His head snapped forward, then back, but the suit helped to stabilize his neck. Again he couldn’t breathe.

A few seconds later they jerked to a stop on one of the landing pads in the center of the hangar. Those magnetic clamps had managed to both capture and stop their ship.

“Snaz!” Cassandra said.

The nose of the transport kicked up suddenly, and Darius frowned in confusion, wondering what was happening. The landing pad flipped under them, and they emerged inside a chamber like the one they’d launched from a few minutes ago.

“Uhhh... this isn’t where we left those creatures, is it?” Blake asked.

Darius scanned the space nervously, but he didn’t see anything.

“It is not,” Gatticus replied belatedly. “The launch tubes run the length of the ship and they are connected to all of the hangars, but each hangar has its own set of vehicular airlocks.”

Deck sections slid open above them, and they rose into a hangar like the one where they’d found the Ospreys, except this one was much larger, and it had a variety of different ships parked inside: small one-man fighters, more bomber-transports like theirs, and a few bulky-looking shuttles.

Darius inferred that was the reason for the red X’s marking some of the landing pads in the external hangar. The X’s marked occupied spots.

“Stay here,” Gatticus said. “I’ll go find Lisa.”

“Fine by me,” Blake replied.

Darius tried to get up, but his restraints held him down.

“How do I get out of this damn harness?” Blake demanded, apparently encountering the same problem.

“Pull the lever on the left side of your chair,” Gatticus said.

Darius found and lifted the lever. Pushing the two halves of his rigid harness aside, he stood up and ascended the ramp to the upper part of the cockpit. He was just in time to see Gatticus walk out through the open cockpit door. Blake and Cassandra were watching him go, both still seated, but with their harnesses folded away to the sides of their chairs.

Darius sighed. “We’re alive.”

“For now,” Blake said. “We still have to steal enough fuel to get out of here.”

“And then pick a star to fly to,” Cassandra said.

“Yeah, and hope that one of the planets around that star is inhabited by friendly aliens, or at least habitable, and not another hunting ground for Phantoms. What are the odds we check all of those boxes?”

Darius scowled and glanced at his daughter, worried that Blake might be scaring her again. But she didn’t look scared. She looked... excited.

“Cass? Are you okay?”

She blinked a few times, as if coming out of a daze. “Yeah, why?”

“Aren’t you scared?”

“Well, kind of, but...”

“But?”

“It’s just that... it seems like a few hours ago I was on Earth, going into cryo with two months to live and wondering if I’d ever wake up again. Now I’m awake, I’m cured, and it’s over a thousand years later. I got to meet aliens, and an android, and walk around on a spaceship. And now we’re talking about going down to an alien planet so we can steal fuel for the warp drive of that spaceship and fly to some other planet.” She shook her head. “I always dreamed of what it would be like to travel the stars, to see aliens and explore other planets, but I never thought I’d actually get to do it.”

“Yeah that’s pretty snaz, kid,” Blake said, “But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

“Well, if we do die, at least we’ll have really lived, you know?”

Darius’s scowl deepened. “No one’s dying.”

“That’s a bold promise, Spaceman,” Blake replied.

“Let’s try to stay positive, all right?” Darius said.

“Sure, you do that.”

They lapsed into silence and Darius went back to his chair to wait for Gatticus to return.

About five minutes later a pair of footsteps came clanging down the corridor to the cockpit. Darius got back up just in time to see Gatticus and Lisa appear. “Are you okay?” he asked as soon as he saw her.

Lisa nodded. “Yeah, just... a little shaken.”

“Where was she?” Blake asked.

“Right where you left me,” Lisa snapped.

“Hey, we all left you, Blondie, so don’t blame me. You’re the one who forgot to turn on her boots.”

“We need to transfer to a new Osprey,” Gatticus said. “The Banshees destroyed the airlock on this one.”

Darius nodded and everyone followed him back through the ship. When they reached the airlock, they saw what Gatticus was talking about. The inner doors were twisted and bent, and slashed with long, ragged claw marks.

“Damn...” Blake said.

“How can they rip through metal like that?” Darius asked.

“Their claws and teeth are coated with advanced materials that enable them to cut through almost anything,” Gatticus said.

“Don’t they break?” Darius asked.

“Sometimes, but they just fix them when they do,” Gatticus replied.

“What about their hide?” Blake asked as they followed him through the airlock and across the hangar to another Osprey. “I shot one of them a few times, but it still didn’t die.”

“Nanites,” Gatticus explained. “The same thing I injected you with.”

“You mean them,” Blake replied. “You didn’t inject me.”

Gatticus nodded. “Nanites aren’t just used to cure and prevent disease. They heal and repair damaged tissues too.”

“So nanites are Phantom tech?” Darius asked.

“Yes,” Gatticus replied. “They brought us death, but they also brought us life. Ironic, is it not?”

Blake made a lurid comment about irony, and Darius cringed. “Would you mind not swearing so much around my daughter?”

“Sorry. Irony is like a woman who sleeps with men for money. Is that better?”

Darius shook his head. “Never mind.”

They reached the rear airlock of the next Osprey. Gatticus waved his hand in front of it, and a landing ramp extended. They walked up the ramp together and Gatticus opened the outer doors.

As soon as they were all inside, Gatticus closed the outer doors and opened the inner ones. They followed him through the passenger bay to the cockpit.

“I should go shut down the reactors on the Deliverance,” Gatticus said.

Darius blinked at him. “Are the ship’s power cells recharged already?”

“Charged enough, yes.”

“Even if we power down the reactor, what are the odds the Phantoms will miss this ship sitting up here in orbit?” Blake asked. “I mean, it’s not exactly small. Even with the power offline, it should be pretty easy to spot.”

“That depends if they are using active or passive sensors,” Gatticus replied. “But you are right, the odds of discovery are still quite high.”

“So we just have to hope that no one finds the ship while we’re off stealing fuel for it?” Darius asked.

“I believe I may have a solution.”

“Spill it, Slick,” Blake said.

“We could land the Deliverance on Hades’ moon and then shut down the reactor. It will be nearly impossible to detect against the backdrop of the moon, assuming the thermal signature has faded, of course.”

“How long will it take to reach the moon?” Lisa asked.

“A few hours.”

Darius nodded. “Let’s do it.”

“What if there are more of those creatures on board?” Cassandra asked. “They could find us while you’re landing the ship.”

“You can all stay here,” Gatticus suggested. “It is unlikely they will find you aboard the Osprey, and even if they find me, they won’t hunt me.”

“And what are we supposed to do while we wait?” Blake demanded.

“Is there any food?” Cassandra asked. “I’m starving.”

“There should be plenty of ration packs on board, but there is something else you could do to pass the time. It would be helpful for you all to receive combat training, and maybe learn some more useful languages—at least Cygnian and Primary.”

Blake shook his head. “Wait, I thought you said landing the Deliverance on Hades’ moon would only take a few hours? How are we supposed to learn all of that while we wait?”

“You won’t technically need to learn anything. You just need to download the knowledge to your brains.”

“We can do that?” Lisa asked.

“How?” Blake added.

“You need an injection of nanites first,” Gatticus explained. “The neural mapper just tells the nanites what to do. They are what writes the information to your brain.”

Blake’s eyes narrowed to paper-thin slits and he held Gatticus’s gaze for a long moment. “Fine,” he said. “I guess they haven’t killed anyone yet. Hook me up.”

Gatticus nodded and went to open one of the lockers in the passenger bay. Inside was a metal cabinet with drawers. Opening one of the drawers, Gatticus withdrew a metal cylinder like the ones he’d used to inject everyone else. This time Darius noticed a red stripe on the side of it.

Blake thrust out his arm and watched with a scowl as Gatticus administered the injection.

“So how do we start downloading?” Darius asked.

“I will need to bring the necessary equipment from the ship’s data center. Wait here.”

“What about those rations you mentioned?” Cassandra asked as Gatticus turned to leave.

He pointed to another locker. “Over there.”

Darius went to open the locker and found another cabinet filled with meal packs and black canteens. As he passed them around, he caught a glimpse of Gatticus back inside the airlock, the inner doors closing behind him.

While they waited for him to return, they began eating their meal packs. Those meals consisted of different-sized bars and squares, all varying shades of brown. They looked like dog biscuits and tasted like sawdust glued together with chewing gum. Even so, Darius couldn’t get enough. He ate until his jaw ached. With everything going on, he hadn’t realized just how hungry he was. It probably didn’t help that technically the last time he’d eaten anything had been over a thousand years ago.

While they ate, Cassandra and Blake explained to Lisa what she’d missed, mostly filling in details about the political situation with the USO and the Coalition. Lisa listened quietly while she chewed her ration bars. When they were done, she asked, “So, whose side are we on?”

“Technically, I guess we don’t have a side,” Blake said with a shrug. “But it seems like the crew was with the Coalition.”

“So how did we get here?”

“Maybe they found us on Earth and rescued us,” Darius suggested.

“And then brought us to an active hunting ground?” Lisa countered.

Darius frowned. “Well, they ran out of fuel somehow. Maybe this was the closest planet where they could get more?”

“Maybe,” Lisa said. “Or maybe we were being delivered here. More prey to populate Hades for the Phantoms.”

Darius shook his head. “If this is a delivery ship and we were the cargo, then why would Phantoms kill the crew, but leave everyone in the pods alone?”

“And why would they just wait around on board after they killed the crew?” Blake asked. “What were they waiting for?”

“We’re obviously missing something,” Lisa said.

They mulled over those questions in silence while they finished eating their rations and washing them down with stale water from the canteens.

Gatticus returned about twenty minutes later, carrying a scuffed metal crate. He set it down on the floor, and then Blake asked him about the Banshees who’d been hiding on board.

“They must have been hiding there in the dark and waiting for weeks,” Darius added, “since you said you spent two weeks on board without any power.”

“Yeah, speaking of which, what were you waiting for?” Blake asked.

“For my memory to be repaired,” Gatticus replied. “When I woke up, I couldn’t even remember my own name, let alone where I was.”

“Okay, what about the Banshees?” Lisa asked.

“They hibernate in extreme cold. They must have been forced to do so before they could find a way to turn the power on and escape; then when I turned the power on, and the temperature increased, they woke up.”

“Hmmm. I guess that makes sense...” Blake said.

“So if this is a Coalition ship, then it’s probably safe to assume that the crew found us on Earth and rescued us,” Darius said.

“Possibly,” Gatticus replied.

“So why didn’t our pods run out of power and wake us up on Earth long before they found us?” Lisa asked.

“The cryo facilities were likely built with disasters in mind,” Gatticus said. “Their power sources would be independent and extremely robust. As for why no one found you sooner, that is likely because Earth was a designated hunting ground until just last year. You were in cryo all that time because no one knew you were there.”

“Or the people that knew had their own problems with being hunted by killer aliens,” Blake said.

Lisa slowly shook her head, and tiny motors in the neck of her exosuit whirred as her helmet tracked that movement. She’d raised her visor to eat, but had left her helmet on.

Darius jerked his chin to the crate Gatticus had brought. “What’s in the box?”

The android bent down and opened the top of it to reveal a handful of metal bands and fat silver disks floating loosely inside.

“Neural-mappers and data modules,” he explained. He straightened, holding one of the metal bands. “You’ll need to put these on. Darius, Lisa—that means you need to remove your exosuits.”

“Can we at least find some clothes first?” Lisa asked.

Gatticus nodded and went to open another one of the lockers. This one contained jumpsuits, under garments, and mag boots. Gatticus helped them out of their exosuits, and then passed the articles of clothing to them. Darius did his best not to look at Lisa this time, but that wasn’t easy while he was drifting and spinning around in zero-G, struggling to put on the underwear and jumpsuit.

For his part, Blake made no effort to respect their privacy and watched them both with obvious amusement.

“If you don’t want your eyes to turn black, you’ll look somewhere else,” Lisa said.

But Blake just smiled and went on staring.

Darius scowled. It was hard to imagine him being the father of two girls.

After they were dressed and had their mag boots planted firmly on the deck once more, Gatticus gave each of them a silver band and showed them how to wear it—by placing it around their foreheads. After that, he removed one of the silver discs from the crate and turned it on. A holographic menu sprang to life above the device, written in the same language as the heads-up-displays in the helmets of their exosuits. Gatticus touched the top menu option, and made a series of selections from subsequent menus.

“What are we going to learn first?” Lisa asked.

“Language, but before we begin, you need to go back to the cockpit and strap in,” Gatticus said.

“Why can’t we stay here?” Cassandra asked.

Gatticus turned to regard her with a small smile. “Because if you do, you could knock yourself out while I am maneuvering the Deliverance. The magnetic clamps in the troop bay only work if you’re all wearing exosuits,” Gatticus added with a nod to the walls of the compartment.

They all followed Gatticus to the cockpit, and retook their seats—except for Lisa, who didn’t have one.

“Where do I sit?” she asked.

Gatticus slid open a compartment in the back wall of the cockpit, right beside the door. He folded out a chair and pulled out a padded harness like the ones the other chairs had. Gatticus showed her how the harness worked and waited for her to secure it.

“Good,” he said as she finished.

Darius glanced at Cassandra to make sure she had her harness secured, and then he hurried down the ramp to the gunner’s position.

“You’ll begin to feel sleepy soon,” Gatticus explained as he made a few final selections from the silver disc he was holding.

“Say what?” Blake asked.

“The nanites have to put you to sleep while they write the data to your brains.”

“Forget it. Count me out,” Blake said. “I’m not getting eaten by an alien in my sleep!”

“Get back in your seat, Mr. Nelson,” Gatticus replied. “It’s too late for second thoughts.”

Darius found himself agreeing with Blake. Gatticus should have mentioned this sooner. Adrenaline surged through Darius’s veins as he fought an onrushing wave of sleep. His hand drifted down to the release lever for his harness, but his entire body felt numb, like he was adrift in a sea of cotton.

Cathambra...?” he slurred.



Chapter 14




A loud whirring sound roused Darius from sleep. He blinked his eyes open to see the Osprey slowly sinking into the vehicular airlock below the hangar.

“Gatticus!” Blake roared. “What the hell?”

“Good, you’re awake,” Gatticus replied.

“What the—” Blake’s voice rose with alarm. He was speaking another language.

“It worked?” Darius tried, and found that he was speaking the same language. The sounds coming out of his mouth were not what he expected to hear, but somehow the meaning was crystal clear in his head, as if... as if he was still speaking his native tongue.

“Wow,” Cassandra added. “I guess this means I won’t have to go to school anymore.”

“You will not,” Gatticus confirmed.

“Mega snaz!” Cassandra said. That last word was still the same, probably because there was no equivalent in whatever language they were speaking now.

“Amazing,” Lisa added.

Kak! Ka...? Fek it!” Blake roared.

“Language...” Darius said.

“That’s what I’m swearing about!” Blake snapped. “I can’t speak English anymore!”

“Human mental capacity is not infinite,” Gatticus explained. “Since English will serve no practical use to you anymore, I chose to overwrite it with Primary in order to make more room for other data modules.”

“Fek you,” Blake replied.

A pair of doors opened in front of the Osprey, revealing the launch tube with its flashing crimson lights.

“You landed the Deliverance already?” Darius asked.

“Yes,” Gatticus replied.

“So how come the power’s still on?”

A robotic voice interrupted them, saying, “Three, two, one—” and then they rocketed down the launch tube and out into space.

This time Darius took the momentary burst of acceleration in his stride.

“I set the reactor to power down on a timer. It will shut down soon,” Gatticus replied.

Darius watched a shadowy landscape receding quickly below them as Gatticus pulled up from the moon and aimed for the shining red, white, and blue orb that was Hades. Some of the pressure pushing Darius into his seat returned as Gatticus accelerated toward the planet.

“Hmmm...” Gatticus said. “That is curious.”

“What?” Blake asked.

“I’ve pinpointed the fuel depot on the surface of Hades.”

“Great, what’s the problem?” Darius put in.

“I’m detecting weapons fire in the area.”

Darius blinked. “The depot is under attack?”

“I believe so, yes.”

“Well, whoever it is, maybe they can help us,” Blake said.

“Assuming the depot survives the assault. Firing weapons around an antimatter storage facility is extremely dangerous.”

Blake cursed vehemently. “Is there another depot somewhere?”

“Not in this star system,” Gatticus replied.

“We’d better hurry, then,” Darius replied.

“And what if the depot goes boom while we’re trying to sneak inside?” Blake asked.

“Then we will all die,” Gatticus replied.

“You think the people attacking the facility are suicidal?” Darius asked. “Maybe they’re also trying to steal fuel.”

“Unlikely. They won’t have access to any FTL-capable ships. And as for being suicidal... Coalition soldiers have been known to sacrifice themselves for the cause, but it is more likely that this attack is being executed by the inhabitants of Hades. And in that case, they know that they’ll eventually be hunted and killed, anyway, so it is quite possible they don’t intend to survive the assault.”

Darius shook his head. “Inhabitants—as in the people the Phantoms are hunting down there?”

“Yes.”

“How would they get access to weapons?” Blake asked.

“Phantom hunting grounds are not wild jungles with prey running around in loincloths, throwing sticks and stones. They are developed colonies, with all of the infrastructure that entails. Designated prey can even trade with the USO. The only thing they cannot do is leave their planets.”

Blake grunted. “Vonkats in a tar pit.”

“Indeed,” Gatticus agreed.

The language module they’d just downloaded obviously came with new idioms.

“So what do we do?” Lisa asked.

“We can wait until the conflict is resolved and hope that the fuel depot survives, or we can make contact with the attackers and try to get them to call off the attack.”

“Why would they do that for us?” Blake asked.

“Maybe we could offer to evacuate some of them,” Darius said. “They might even be willing to help us if we do that.”

“They might,” Gatticus agreed. “There is, however, a problem with all of this.”

“And that is?”

“If we join forces with designated prey against the Phantoms, we’ll become outlaws in the USO. That means we will be unable to return to any USO worlds after this.”

“Won’t we be outlaws anyway if we steal fuel from the Phantoms?” Darius asked.

“If we get caught, yes. There is another option, however... but it represents something of a moral dilemma.”

“Spit it out, Slick,” Blake said.

“We could jump away in the Osprey. The bomber’s Alckam drive appears to be fully fueled.”

* * *

What?” Blake bellowed. “You mean this whole time we’ve been talking about stealing fuel from killer aliens when all we had to do was hop aboard an Osprey and fly away?”

“Well, yes, but we would have to leave everyone on the Deliverance at the mercy of the Phantoms,” Gatticus replied.

“You said they’re not going to hunt them as long as they’re in cryo,” Blake replied. “So they’ll be safe there, right? Maybe we can figure out how to come back for them later. Or send someone else—whatever.” He waved his hand to dismiss the concern. “Let’s just get out of here while we still can!”

“Do we even know where to go?” Darius asked.

“The nearest USO system is less than fifty light years from here, and just within range. It will only take about a day for us to get there.”

“Then let’s go!” Blake said. “What are we waiting for?”

Darius didn’t like the idea of leaving the others behind, but Blake was right—they might be able to send someone back to rescue them later.

“You said it’ll take a day to get to the nearest system?” Darius asked.

“Yes.”

“And a day to get back...” Darius said.

“Why would we come back?” Blake asked incredulously.

“To rescue the others?” Darius suggested. Blake said nothing to that. “How long before the Deliverance’s power cells are depleted again?”

“About a day,” Gatticus replied.

“So we won’t make it back in time.” Darius mused. “How many people will wake up before we can return?”

“All of them.”

“And then they’ll freeze to death,” Darius added.

“Yes,” Gatticus replied.

“Well, fine,” Blake said. “Go turn the reactor back on, and let’s beat it.”

“With the power on, the next Phantom ship to enter the system will find them instantly,” Gatticus replied.

“Let’s say that happens. Then what?” Blake asked.

Darius frowned. “I don’t think they’re going to care whether the people in cryo are actually designated prey or not.” He glanced at Gatticus. “They’ll just send them all down to Hades to be hunted, right?”

“Perhaps,” Gatticus replied.

“So it’s us or them. Is that what you’re trying to say?” Blake asked.

Darius nodded, and belatedly realized that Blake wouldn’t be able to see the gesture from where he was sitting in the upper portion of the cockpit.

“Well, I choose us,” Blake said.

“You mean you,” Lisa replied. “If we were still in cryo you wouldn’t bat an eye at leaving us behind.”

“Hey, it’s not my fault we’re in this mess, and getting ourselves killed by trying to be the hero isn’t going to help anyone.”

“It’s wrong,” Cassandra said quietly. “We can’t leave all those people here to die.”

“Maybe they won’t,” Blake said. “We don’t know that the Phantoms will find them before we can send someone back to rescue them. How often do ships come through here, anyway?”

“Most hunting grounds get shipments of visitors and supplies every few days,” Gatticus replied.

“Well, fek it,” Blake said. “I say we vote on it. All in favor of leaving now, yay or nay?”

Everyone said nay except for Blake, but Gatticus remained conspicuously silent.

“Gatticus?” Blake prompted. “You’re the pilot. If you want to leave, it doesn’t matter what the rest of us have voted. We can’t fly this ship without you.”

“That is why I did not vote.”

“So you’re telling me you’re okay with throwing your life away for a bunch of strangers?” Blake pressed. “You obviously aren’t some Coalition terrorist, but you’re about to become one by stealing fuel from the Phantoms. Are you sure you want to do that?”

Again, Gatticus said nothing.

“Well, Slick? What’s it going to be?”



Chapter 15




“I believe we should steal the fuel,” Gatticus said.

“Gave into the pressure, huh?” Blake asked.

“Cassandra is correct: it would be wrong to let all those people die just to save ourselves.”

“You’re assuming that we actually can save them,” Blake replied.

“We have to try,” Lisa said. “Speaking of which, I had another thought. You said this bomber is already fully fueled.”

“Correct.”

“What about the other ones on board the Deliverance? They’re probably fueled too right?”

“Quite likely,” Gatticus replied.

“So why can’t we refuel the Deliverance by taking fuel from all of the smaller ships on board?”

“That won’t give us even close to enough fuel. Smaller vessels don’t require as much antimatter to run their Alckam drives.”

Darius sighed. “Nice try, Lisa.”

The cockpit lapsed into silence, and Darius watched as they flew toward Hades. The closer they got, the more vibrant the mottled reds, blues, whites, and purples of the planet became. Soon the planet was all they could see, and the clouds became towering mountains with ridges and valleys, and angry black swirls at their hearts. Shadows lurked beneath the clouds, and the cockpit began to shudder with the turbulence of atmospheric entry.

“Hey, didn’t you say you were going to use these neural whats-its to give us combat training?” Blake asked, raising his voice to be heard over the rising roar of atmospheric entry.

With that reminder, Darius noticed the subtle pressure around his forehead and he reached up to remove the neural mapper.

“I already downloaded a basic combat module before you all woke up,” Gatticus replied.

“Without our permission?” Lisa asked, her voice rising in alarm.

“I didn’t think you would object. I apologize if my assumption was incorrect.”

“It was,” Blake replied. “You need to ask for permission before you go messing with our heads.”

“I believed I had already been given tacit permission via our prior discussion of the subject, but I will seek more explicit confirmation next time.”

Blake grunted, and Lisa said, “Thank you.”

By now the cockpit was shivering violently and the roar of atmosphere against the hull had become thunderous, making further conversation impossible.

Darius saw the glass around him begin to glow bright orange at the edges, and he could actually feel the heat pulsing off it. He began to worry that the glass would melt, but he realized that it had to be made from a more resistant material than what he was used to from his time.

The clouds raced up fast, and the ground resolved into more and more detail. The reds and purples and greens they’d seen from orbit looked to be some kind of forest or jungle, and in the distance, a rippled blue ocean sparkled.

How high are those waves? Darius wondered. They had to be huge for those ripples to be visible from such a high altitude.

As they continued down through the atmosphere, the ship gradually stopped shuddering and the sky progressed from light shades of blue to a dark cobalt.

Gatticus leveled out somewhat and dived into the clouds at a shallow angle. Everything vanished in billowing sheets of white. Rain drops beaded the glass around Darius and ran backward in trickling streams. The clouds darkened steadily until they were flashing with angry purple blooms of lightning. Thunder boomed ominously, and the Osprey began shuddering once more, but this time from regular turbulence rather than the speed of re-entry.

They descended for about half a minute more before they punched through the bottom of the clouds. The turbulence vanished, and the forest canopy swept up beneath them. Towering trees soared all around in varying shades of crimson, purple, and green. The tops of the tallest ones disappeared into the angry black clouds overhead, and thick black vines draped with curtains of vegetation hung between them like bridges.

Gatticus leveled out fully now. He was forced to weave a path between the trees and hanging vines. The clouds grew even darker and Darius noted that the sky was hazy with precipitation up ahead. Gatticus flew straight into the storm, and the canopy blurred with rain. A flashing purple fork of lighting hit one of the trees, carving off a thick branch and sending it crashing down to a lower level of the forest canopy.

“Where are we going?” Blake yelled to be heard above the sound of rain and air roaring against their hull.

“To the settlement closest to the fuel depot,” Gatticus replied. “We’ll stand a better chance of success if we can convince the locals to help us—or at least to call off their attack.”

“Who are the locals?” Lisa asked.

“A variety of terran types, which makes sense given that this is a terran-class planet.”

“Terran?” Blake put in.

“Earth-type. It means that the planet is considered habitable to humans and other species with similar requirements.”

Before long, the rain cleared and the clouds became thin, shimmering curtains of mist. Red, green, and purple leaves shone brightly in the sun. Up ahead, the rippled blue ocean appeared, shining with golden petals of sunlight.

The mist cleared, and the trees fell away as Gatticus flew down along a broad white beach.

Curling mountains of water crashed with an audible roar, rushing all the way up the beach and back, endlessly on repeat. Darius couldn’t help wondering what caused those waves. Strong tidal forces from the planet’s moon, perhaps?

“So, where’s this settlement?” Blake asked.

He needn’t have asked.

Up ahead the beach vanished, and sheer black cliffs took its place. Further inland, the trees thinned out to a rocky field of silken blue grass, and the ground rose to meet the cliffs in a jutting peninsula that was separated from the forest by high black walls. Behind those walls lay a variety of squat black, brown, and gray structures, and even a few multi-story towers with small, round openings in their sides. At the highest point of the peninsula a massive, red-leafed tree soared high over everything with wooden platforms and structures built at varying heights, overlooking the settlement below.

As they drew near, Darius saw that there were some kind of weapon emplacements dotting the walls, and the tops of the taller buildings. He also noticed the small circular openings in the sides of the buildings gleaming with panes of glass.

Somehow the settlement managed to look both primitive and advanced at the same time. Gatticus slowed as they approached, aiming for one of the lower levels of the tree and what appeared to be a metal landing pad, with actual lights shining along its edges.

They have aircraft? Darius wondered.

As the tree loomed before them, its sheer size became apparent. Some of the wooden structures built on the platforms around the trunk were three and four stories high.

Blake whistled softly. “Gives a whole new meaning to tree hugging.”

Darius saw bipedal and quadrupedal creatures appear on the platforms below. They stopped and looked up as the Osprey hovered down for a landing. The Osprey touched down softly, and the roar of its engines died.

“Let’s go meet the locals,” Gatticus said.

Darius released his harness and climbed the ramp to the upper level of the cockpit. Blake and Cassandra were already on their feet, but Lisa was stuck. She didn’t know about the harness release lever yet. Gatticus went to help her, and Darius took a moment to study the aliens congregating on the landing pad outside.

He blinked in shock. Some of the faces staring back at him were actually human. He walked to the front of the cockpit for a better look. Besides the humans, there were plenty of humanoids, some of them covered in fur, or scales, or wrinkled skin—even a few with shiny shells or exoskeletons. Most of them stood on two legs, but others stood on four or six—and even eight in the case of a furry spider creature.

“There’s dozens of different species here,” Darius said. He felt a sudden need to sit down, but he leaned on the back of the pilot’s chair instead. He was in shock.

Gatticus came to stand beside him. “Phantom hunting grounds are necessarily cosmopolitan places—dumping grounds for the undesirables of every species in the USO.”

Undesirables,” Lisa said slowly. “You mean unfortunates. Their people sent them here to die, and for what? To feed the killer instincts of some ruthless aliens? How can everyone buy into such a barbaric system?”

“The Coalition doesn’t,” Gatticus replied.

“But they’re a minority, aren’t they?”

“I know it seems barbaric, but the Phantoms elevated most of these species from different types of barbarism when they arrived. The Phantoms and their hunting practices notwithstanding, the average life expectancy in the world you left was far shorter than it is in the USO.”

“What’s the average life expectancy now?” Blake asked.

“Four hundred and ninety-two years in the USO.”

“For every species?” Darius asked.

“It is an overall average, so yes. With Phantom nanites, no one dies from old age or disease anymore. The only way to die is to have a fatal accident, or to get sent to one of the Phantoms’ hunting grounds.”

Cassandra appeared on Darius’s other side. She ducked under his arm and wrapped her arms around his waist. “Is that a giant spider?” she said in a trembling voice.

Darius smiled and tightened his grip around her shoulders. She had a phobia of spiders. “I’m sure it’s not dangerous.”

“That’s not the point!” Cassandra said.

“Oh, they’re all dangerous,” Gatticus said. “Most USO member species train and arm the people they send away as prey—with the exception of convicted criminals, who are left to fend for themselves.”

“They send criminals here?” Darius asked.

“Of course.”

“Makes sense,” Blake said. “Why send away law-abiding citizens when you can get rid of the troublemakers instead.”

“Are they dangerous to us?” Lisa asked.

“That depends whether or not they like what we have to say,” Gatticus said. “Speaking of which, we’d better go explain why we’re here before they decide to blow open the airlock and find out for themselves.” Gatticus turned and walked out through the open door of the cockpit.

Darius watched him leave, and traded a worried look with Lisa.

“Still think it was a good idea to come down here?” Blake asked.

Lisa scowled and pushed by him on her way out of the cockpit.

Darius glanced down at Cassandra, who was still clinging to him. “Maybe you should stay here.”

She shook her head and let go of him to stand up straight. “No. I want to meet them too. It’s just a phobia. I’ll be okay.”

Darius frowned. It wasn’t the phobia he was worried about. Those people out there were all trained soldiers and hardened criminals. And beyond the walls of the settlement, in the jungle, there’d be Ghouls and Banshees lurking behind every tree.

This was no place for a twelve-year-old girl.








Part Two - Hades



Chapter 16




As they crowded into the airlock of the Osprey, Blake pointed out that they didn’t have any weapons. They’d left them in the other Osprey, back on the Deliverance.

“Are there armaments in those lockers?” he asked, nodding through the inner doors of the airlock to the troop bay.

“Yes, but it would be better if we didn’t greet the locals with weapons,” Gatticus explained.

“Better how?” Blake asked. “You said they were dangerous.”

“And that’s precisely why we don’t want to look threatening,” Gatticus replied as he shut the inner doors and moved to open the outer ones.

But he hesitated before opening them.

“Is something wrong?” Darius asked.

“Do not mention that I am an android,” he said.

“Oh yeah, and why’s that, Slick?” Blake demanded.

Gatticus flashed a grim smile. “Because I believe they will kill us if you do.”

“What? Why would they do that?” Lisa asked.

Before Gatticus could answer, a banging sound started outside the airlock. Someone was knocking on the doors, hard.

“We’re out of time,” Gatticus said, and triggered the doors open.

A human man and a tall, skinny biped covered in short black fur appeared standing there below the airlock. Darius was surprised to find that he recognized the black-furred humanoid: it was a Lassarian.

Both the man and the Lassarian jumped inside the airlock, one after the next, and stood blocking the open doorway. The furry biped had piercing green eyes and a ragged, hairless scar running at an angle across his round face from his sloping brow to his jutting, tufted white chin. Pointed ears twitched restlessly. The human shifted his feet to a wider stance and scratched a hand through his shaggy black beard. He had a broad jaw, and a thick, muscular frame, with tan skin and intense blue eyes. Both of them wore hide coats and sturdy-looking brown pants, and both of them were holding large black pistols, aimed casually from the hip.

“Who are you?” the black-furred biped asked in a deep, purring voice.

“What’s it to you, Catman?” Blake asked.

Darius winced, as both the man and the cat-man turned to Blake with flashing eyes. Their weapons swept into line with his chest.

But before they could do or say anything, Gatticus stepped up beside Blake and delivered a sweeping kick that broke the mag lock of his boots and knocked him on his rear.

“Hey!” Blake roared, already struggling to get up.

But Gatticus planted a boot on his chest and gave him a deadly look. “Shut up.”

Blake appeared to take the hint, and he subsided under Gatticus’s boot.

The locals shifted their aim to Gatticus. Cassandra shuffled closer to Darius, and he wrapped an arm around her shoulders.

In the background, a mixed group of aliens stood watching from the edge of the landing pad.

“Who are you, and what is your purpose here?” the catman asked.

Gatticus told them truthfully exactly who they were, but he left out the part about his being an android.

“That is... an elaborate tale,” the catman said, his emerald gaze flicking between them. “But you still haven’t told me why you are here.”

“We are here to trade.”

The catman growled softly. “What do you have to offer, and what do you want?”

“Do you speak for this settlement?” Gatticus asked.

The catman bared a horror of long, pointy white teeth and lifted his tufted white chin. “I am one of those who do, yes.” He nodded sideways to indicate the burly human beside him. “He is another.”

“We are honored to meet you... may I know your names?”

“I am Primus Kathari Ra Sievros but you may call me Ra. And this—” He broke off to indicate the man beside him with a long, skinny black index finger. “—is Captain Riker. What should we call you?”

Gatticus introduced himself, and then the rest of them, ending with Blake, as if he’d almost forgotten about the man lying pinned beneath his boot.

Darius smiled at that.

“What do you offer us?” Ra asked again.

Gatticus hesitated. “Perhaps there is somewhere more comfortable where we can discuss that?”

Ra hissed and lifted his chin until he was literally looking down his nose at them. “I am comfortable. Are you not, Captain Riker?”

“I could stand here all day,” the captain replied in a gritty voice.

Gatticus nodded. “Very well. We need your help stealing antimatter from the Cygnian fuel depot here on Hades.”

Ra and Captain Riker traded a look, and Ra jerked his chin to Gatticus. “What have you to offer in exchange?”

“We can take some of you with us when we leave. Maybe even all of you.”

Ra and Captain Riker appeared to consider that for a minute.

Then Riker burst out laughing, and Ra joined him with a stuttering mixture of hisses and growls.



Chapter 17




They all stood there in shock, listening to Ra and Captain Riker laugh.

Blake finally had enough. He pushed Gatticus’s foot off his chest and jumped to his feet. “What’s so fekking funny?” he demanded.

Ra and Captain Riker abruptly stopped laughing and spared a momentary glance at Blake before returning their attention to Gatticus. “Why would we want to leave?”

“You don’t?” Darius asked. He was also tired of letting Gatticus speak for them.

“Where would we go? We can’t return to our worlds. If we did, we would only get sent back here.”

“Or tortured and executed,” Captain Riker put in.

“You don’t have to go back to the USO,” Gatticus said, and Darius nodded along with that.

“You mean join the Coalition?” Ra bared his teeth and hissed.

“Why not?” Lisa asked.

Ra’s gaze fell on her next. “The Coalition is worse than Hades. Down here the Phantoms hunt us, true, but it is merely a game, and there are rules. Up there—” Ra glanced at the ceiling. “The Coalition is fighting a war, and there are no rules in war.”

“What if we offered you weapons in exchange for your help?” Blake asked.

“Weapons?” Ra’s head tilted to one side, and he stroked the tuft of white fur on his chin. “You have weapons?” He hefted his pistol. “Like this?”

“Even better,” Blake replied, nodding.

Ra appeared to consider that for a moment, rocking his head from side to side. “It is a tempting offer, but we cannot risk attacking the fuel depot. As I said, there are rules. We are not allowed to attack, only defend.”

Darius squinted at that, and scratched the side of his jaw.

Blake was less subtle and gave a loud snort. “So how come we detected weapons fire around the depot on our way down from orbit?”

Ra’s eyes widened and he growled softly. “Gurhain.”

Captain Riker scowled. “Kak,” he muttered. “That son of a vix is going to get us all killed.”

“Who?” Lisa asked.

“Tanik Gurhain. He is the leader of the exilesss...” Ra trailed off with a hiss. “Only he would be foolish enough to attack the Phantoms.”

“Sounds like we should be talking to him,” Blake said.

“Gods be with you then,” Ra replied. “Even if he survives the assault, the Phantoms will find him and have their revenge.”

Captain Riker nodded to Ra. “We’d better send an emissary to tell the Phantoms that it wasn’t us.”

“Yessss,” Ra said, hissing. “Send a messenger drone. We don’t want a repeat of what happened to Gifba.”

Captain Riker nodded and jumped down from the airlock, leaving Ra alone with them.

“This is absurd!” Lisa said. “You should be fighting the Phantoms with everything you’ve got, not tip-toeing around them like terrified gibs!

Ra’s gaze sharpened once more. “You are welcome to leave. In fact, I insist.”

“We can’t leave!” Lisa blurted out. “That’s the point!”

Ra’s green eyes glittered with intensity. “Maybe you should try anyway.”

Gatticus held up a hand to forestall further argument. “Would you at least be willing to help us find Tanik and these exiles? As Mr. Nelson suggested, we could offer you weapons for your trouble.”

Ra rolled his head from side to side, as if he were suddenly uncomfortable in his own skin. A chilling growl built deep inside his chest and shivered out slowly. He stopped rolling his head and bared his pointy teeth. “Fine. It is agreed, but you will have to wait until morning. Night is falling, and the Phantoms will be out to hunt soon.”

“Thank you, Ra,” Lisa said. “You’re doing the right thing by helping us.”

Ra regarded her quietly for a moment, and then grinned, as if enjoying a private joke. “In my experience, doing the right thing can get you into a lot of trouble, Miss Lisa.”

Darius frowned, unnerved by the Lassarian’s expression.

Glancing briefly at Blake, Ra turned and raised one hand over his shoulder, waving all four of his fingers one after the next in a cascade. Darius understood the gesture to mean follow me.

They followed Ra wordlessly out of the airlock, jumping down to the landing platform one after the next. Darius grabbed Cassandra’s hand to keep her close. She didn’t object.

Ra headed for one side of the metal landing pad to a jutting wooden platform, surrounded by log railings. Feeling watched, Darius glanced to his right at the multitude of aliens looking on from a wooden walkway running around the tree trunk. Higher up, he saw shadowy alien faces peering down from windows inside a wooden structure built around the trunk of the tree.

“It’s amazing what you’ve built here,” Darius said. “What do you call this place?”

“Karkarus—it is named after an animal from my homeworld,” Ra explained as they followed him onto the wooden platform. Ra walked over to a control box tied to one of the railings and pressed a button. As soon as he did so, the platform began slowly dropping down to the town below.

“I’m not familiar with that animal,” Gatticus said.

Neither was Darius. Apparently the lexicon they’d downloaded didn’t include everything.

“The Karkarus is a slow, fat creature that sits in the trees of Lassar eating leaves all day. It was nearly hunted to extinction by my species, among other predators, but over time the Karkaruses learned to throw themselves from the trees before they could be caught.”

“Genius,” Blake said sarcastically.

“Oh yes. You see, the Karkarus is hunted for the unique flavor of its meat, but the meat turns foul soon after the animal dies, so by killing itself before its hunters can get a bite, the Karkarus makes itself a distasteful meal. Today, the Karkarus is one of the most populous species on Lassar.”

Darius whistled appreciatively. “Genius indeed.”

The wooden platform reached the base of the tree, and Ra led them down a stone street with grass growing between the rocks. Actual lamp posts lined the street on one side, shining bright against the deepening blue haze of Hades’ dusk.

“Where are you taking us?” Lisa asked.

“To your room. You will be our guests tonight.”

“We appreciate your hospitality,” Gatticus replied.

Darius nodded along with that sentiment and they walked on in silence. No longer distracted by their alien host, Darius’s senses clamored for attention: he noticed a periodic booming sound shivering through the air and the ground that made his heart jump in his chest. At first he thought it might be thunder, but the noise was too regular; then he remembered the towering waves he’d seen from the air. Those waves were crashing against the cliffs on which Karkarus was built. Unlike the oceans on Earth, it was not a soothing sound.

How do these people sleep?

Darius shook his head and took a deep breath of Hades’ cool air. It was perfumed with the tangy-sweet smell of wood-fueled fires and whatever was roasting over them.

A handful of stars sparkled in the darkening sky, competing with Karkarus’s silvery streetlights. To one side, the tree tops were gnarled black fingers scraping a golden sky.

Except it wasn’t the sky that was golden. Between the trees Darius saw that the gold color sketched a perfect semi-circle against the night. This was no splash of fading sunlight; it was a rising moon.

“Wow...” Darius breathed. “Does that even count as a moon?”

“Shebola is not a planet,” Ra replied. “But it is large and close. She is the heart that pumps the blood of Hades.”

“The blood?” Blake asked.

“She moves the oceans. Like a heart.” Ra thumped his chest loudly, in time to the booming crash of another wave against the cliffs.

Darius nodded to himself. He’d been right about what was driving those massive waves.

A group of shadowy aliens went jogging by them, some of them carrying gleaming firearms, while others carried glinting swords and spears.

“Is something wrong?” Lisa asked in alarm.

Ra stopped beside a three-story stone building and turned to face them. “Wrong?” he asked.

Blake pointed to the jogging aliens. As he did so, a giant spider skittered by with another alien standing on its back, manning a turret.

“Those guys are all armed,” Darius said. “And it looks like they’re in a hurry.”

“Ah,” Ra said. “Do not be troubled. That is merely the nightly patrol. They are headed to the wall. Come, we must get you inside before the first wave of Phantoms arrives.”

“Arrives?” Blake echoed, his voice rising in alarm. “There are Phantoms coming? How do you know that, Catman?”

“I know because they come every night.”



Chapter 18




Ra led them up three flights of stairs, past wooden doors on each landing. At the top, he opened the door, and they walked down a short hallway lined with more wooden doors. The walls appeared to be made of bare concrete. Bright horn-shaped wall sconces illuminated the hallway.

When they reached the end of the hall, Ra turned to a door on the right-hand side and tapped a series of numbers and letters into the keypad. A beep issued from the pad. He swung the door open and walked inside. The lights came on automatically as they walked into what appeared to be a suite, with a living room and kitchen, as well as several doors leading to other rooms. Instead of furniture, the living room floor was lined with fur rugs and pillows. “Keep the door barred and locked,” Ra said as he pointed to three heavy wooden beams on a rack beside the door.

Darius nodded, but then he remembered the way Banshees had clawed their way through thick metal doors on the Deliverance, and he frowned.

“Do you have any weapons for us, in case they get through?” Blake asked, obviously worrying about the same thing.

Ra looked sideways at him. “Did you not say you have weapons to trade? Weapons even better than these?” He pressed, hefting his bulky pistol. “Why would you need weapons if this is true?”

“Because we left them on our ship,” Blake snapped, and glanced accusingly at Gatticus.

“That is unfortunate,” Ra said, just as a piercing scream split the air. He cast a sharp glance over his shoulder.

Cassandra came up and wrapped her arms around Darius in a sudden hug. “What was that?” she whispered.

“They’re here,” Ra replied. “It is too late to go back to your ship now. You will find basic weapons in there—” Ra pointed to one of the doors. “I must leave you now.”

Cassandra’s arms tensed around Darius’s waist. “You’re leaving?

“I must,” Ra repeated as he walked out of the room and shut the door behind him.

“Great...” Blake muttered.

Gatticus hurried over to the door and removed one of the wooden beams from the rack beside it. He slotted the beam into a pair of sturdy metal brackets on either side of the door, and then Blake went to help him repeat that process with the remaining two beams.

Darius traded a worried glance with Lisa as she went to check the door Ra had indicated before he left. She opened it to reveal a weapons locker loaded with spears, swords, knives, and even a few metal shields. Lisa took the shields out, and then began carefully removing the other weapons from the locker. Darius removed Cassandra’s arms from his waist and went to help Lisa. She passed him a six-foot-long spear, which he kept. Blake came over to take a second one, and Gatticus a third. Then came swords with scabbards that they each strapped around their waists, followed by daggers in their sheaths that they tied onto their belts.

“Don’t I get something?” Cassandra asked.

Darius glanced uncertainly at her, then nodded to the now empty weapons locker. “No, you’re going to hide in there.”

Grak that!”

“You are, and watch your language,” Darius replied.

Cassandra crossed her arms over her chest. “No.”

Darius shrugged and gestured to the empty locker. “There aren’t any more weapons, anyway.”

“So give me your sword.”

“No.”

“Shhhh!” Blake said. “All of you, shut up!”

Darius turned to see him standing with his ear pressed to the door. The room grew deadly quiet, and then Darius heard it: the same piercing shriek that they’d heard before Ra left, except this time they heard that sound duplicated dozens of times over in an endless stream, followed by the thud, thud, thudding of heavy weapons fire and the sharp crackling of lasers.

“They’re already attacking,” Blake said.

“Kak,” Lisa whispered.

“I would not worry,” Gatticus said.

They all turned to look at him, and Blake frowned dubiously. “Why not?”

“There were no scratch marks on the doors,” Gatticus replied, jerking his chin to indicate the barred entrance.

Darius nodded slowly. “He’s right.”

“Maybe they didn’t come through the front door last time?” Lisa asked, looking around the room for some other way in.

Darius turned in a quick circle to check for alternate entrances. There were a few small, circular windows, but they weren’t even large enough for Cassandra to slip through, let alone a Banshee or an adult human. “We’d better check those other doors,” he suggested, nodding to the nearest of the two remaining doors visible from the living room. He walked over and opened the first one to find what looked to be a bathroom.

Lisa opened the second door to reveal more pillows and furs. “It’s a linen closet,” she said, shaking her head.

“Not a bedroom?” Blake asked. “Where are we supposed to sleep?”

“I guess that’s what all those pillows are for,” Darius said, nodding to the pile on the floor of the living room. “Shared sleeping quarters.” With the Banshees attacking every night, that made a certain amount of sense. Privacy gave way to security.

“Well, I guess we can relax, then,” Blake said. “Slick is right. No scratches on the door means those sons of vixes haven’t ever made it this far.”

Gatticus nodded in agreement, but then abruptly stopped himself, as if something had just occurred to him.

“What?” Lisa demanded.

“Well...” he trailed off and his gaze fell to the floor. He spent a moment studying the dirty wooden floorboards.

“What is it?” Lisa asked again.

“The doors are not damaged, but that might be because they have been replaced.” He nodded to the floor. “That would explain the bloodstains.”

“Bloodstains...?” Blake said.

Suddenly Darius saw the dirty floorboards with new eyes. They only looked dirty because they were splotched and darkened with blood.

“We’re grakked,” Cassandra said.



Chapter 19




“Cass, language...” Darius intoned.

“Sorry. So now will you give me a weapon?”

An image flashed through Darius’s head: Cassandra desperately flailing a sword in front of an advancing Banshee.

“No,” he replied. “You’ll stay in there.” He pointed to the empty weapons locker once more.

Cassandra’s eyes narrowed at that.

“Here, kid,” Blake said, and handed her his sword.

“Hey!” Darius said.

Blake flashed a grin and shrugged. “She’s got a right to bear arms. It’s in the constitution.”

“Grak the constitution! We’re not even on Earth, and that document is probably lying under a pile of rubble somewhere!”

Cassandra tied the sword and belt around her waist and smiled at Blake. “Thanks.”

“No problem,” he replied.

Darius glared at him, but decided to drop it. Maybe he was right. Maybe Cassandra would be better off having some way to defend herself.

Silence fell, and they stood around listening to the distant reports of weapons’ fire and the chilling shrieks of Phantoms.

“Why do they do that?” Cassandra asked.

“Probably to scare the kak out of us,” Blake said.

“No,” Gatticus replied. “They do it to confuse us. Banshees can throw their voices to make it sound like they are coming from far away when they are near, or to sound like they are in front of you, when they are actually sneaking up from behind.”

“Fantastic,” Blake drawled. “So those distant screams...”

“Could be right outside our door,” Gatticus replied, and they all turned to stare at the door.

“What about Ghouls?” Lisa asked in a quiet voice. “We haven’t seen them yet. Or have we?”

“They look very similar,” Gatticus replied, “but they are larger and stronger, with longer legs. They do not scream like Banshees, and they are more comfortable walking on two legs than six. They are somewhat slower than Banshees as a result, but they can jump twenty feet, straight up, to pounce on their prey from above.”

Blake glanced up and poked the ceiling with his spear, drawing a solid thunk from the material. “Concrete,” he said, nodding appreciatively. “Hopefully that means we can focus our defense on the door.”

“What if they get in on the floor below ours?” Darius asked, tapping the wooden floorboards with his boot.

“They might not get in at all,” Gatticus replied. “The bloodstains on the floor do not appear to be fresh.”

Darius blew out a breath. “Good.” He walked over to the nearest window and peered out into the night. The town sprawled to all sides of them, circular windows gleaming like silver dollars in the sides of stone and concrete structures. Most buildings were only one or two stories, which gave Darius a clear view over their rooftops, all the way out to the wall—which was unfortunately only about a block away.

Up on the wall he saw people standing and firing down, muzzle flashes from their weapons peppering the night. The wall itself was even higher than his third-story vantage point, concealing whatever hordes of aliens might be lurking on the other side.

“That wall’s pretty high,” Darius said, turning from the window to address the others—only to find them already peering out the other windows. “Looks like they’re too high for Ghouls to jump over... right, Gatticus?”

Gatticus nodded without looking away from his window. “Yes, but they could still climb.”

Darius looked back to his window and studied the sheer sides of the walls. He couldn’t tell from this distance if there were any gaps for handholds, but then he remembered how the Banshees they’d encountered had clung to the walls and floor of the Deliverance like spiders, without the need for mag boots or gravity. If they could do that, then they might not need handholds to climb.

“What are those guys doing down there...” Cassandra asked.

“Down where?” Blake replied.

“By the doors,” Cassandra said, and pointed out her window.

Darius saw what she was talking about. There were at least fifty people packed in a tight formation at the end of the street running by in front of them. Those people were guarding a black wrought iron gate that looked like it had been taken straight out of a medieval castle.

“Are they expecting something to come through?” Lisa asked.

Darius couldn’t imagine any creature breaking through that bare-handed; it was hard to tell from the distance, but given the size of the gate—at least three stories high—Darius assumed the bars of the gate had to be very thick. Surely even Phantoms couldn’t claw through that. Ripping through a quarter inch of metal plating on a door was one thing, but doing it with two or three-inch thick metal bars would be a lot more difficult.

“They’d need some kind of machinery to get through that,” Darius decided. He nodded to Gatticus. “You said they don’t use weapons to hunt us. Do they use anything else? Like... I don’t know, some kind of battering ram?”

“Perhaps,” Gatticus replied.

“Look...” Lisa said. “Something’s happening down there.”

She was right. The ranks at the gate were shuffling their feet. The tips of their spears waved, gleaming wedges of gold in the moonlight. The front line in the formation dropped to their knees and raised those spears at an angle toward the gate. The row behind them did the same thing, while the back three rows took a few steps back and raised rifles to their shoulders.

A split second later, a throaty roar split the air, followed by a ground-shaking thunder of heavy footsteps, approaching fast.

In the distance beyond the walls, the titanic trees rustled impossibly, branches and leaves sketching jagged black shapes against the golden circle of the rising moon. Winged creatures took flight, wings flailing and screeching as they disappeared into the sky.

“What is that?” Cassandra asked as the thunder of heavy footsteps drew near, and the rustling of the trees became even more violent. This time it was close enough to make the concrete walls of the building shudder and the wooden floor groan.

“That sounds a lot bigger than a Phantom,” Blake put in.

Then it burst from the trees, sprinting on two legs to reach the wall. Its head was visible even above the wall—a massive horned and armored thing with a gaping mouth.

A shout went up from the people on the wall and everyone redirected and intensified their fire, aiming for the  charging beast.

It looked like some kind of humanoid dinosaur to Darius, with two long, lanky arms and giant hands, which it used to swat away incoming laser bolts as if they were flies. It screamed continuously, no doubt in agony from those white-hot bolts of energy. As it neared the gate, the beast ducked its bony head and poured on a final burst of speed. The rearmost ranks of the warriors standing behind the gate opened fire, shooting through the gaps with a blinding tirade of crackling laser bolts. They were desperate, heedless of the risk that a shot would glance off the bars and hit one of them. The monster screamed piteously under the barrage, but it didn’t stop coming.

A split second later, it hit, and the gate flew open with a ringing bang! The gate collapsed on broken hinges, and the monster carried on with its momentum, plowing straight through both lines of spearmen. It careened through the three lines of riflemen as well, and dozens of people went flying. Some of them got kicked so high into the air that they took several seconds to fall back down. They went up screaming and flailing and came back down the same way—until they hit the ground with ominous thuds and fell silent.

The remaining men scattered between the buildings, and the monster carried on at a more leisurely pace. It stumbled in a circle, its mouth gaping at an odd angle. Four giant black eyes blinked, and wide slits in the sides of its neck flared with billowing snorts of hot white steam. It looked oddly lost and confused, somehow pitiable, as if it hadn’t meant to come here at all.

Then the men on the walls turned and fired down on the beast while the remaining riflemen on the ground fired up. It thrashed and screamed in time to each burning white laser bolt. Long arms flailed desperately and the monster lashed out to sweep people off the wall. They fell screaming to the streets and rooftops below, and the density of fire quickly diminished. The beast reached out again, more leisurely this time, and scooped some of the remaining people up in giant hands, only to dump them into its gaping maw and swallow them hole.

A loud shrishhh sounded and two bright flares lit up the night as a pair of rockets leapt out toward the creature. They hit and exploded with a flash of light and thunderous boom.

In response to that, the creature screamed so loudly and in such a sharp register that Darius had to clap his hands to his ears.

There came another two flares of light and another explosion, and the beast fell over with a ground-shaking boom that put the rockets to shame. The monster just lay there motionless, a silent, smoking mountain of charred meat. A cheer went up from the wall—

But it was short-lived.

People crumpled left and right, soundlessly, and for no apparent reason, as if their throats had all been simultaneously cut.

Anxious murmurs bubbled up from the people on the ground, and someone called out—“Ghouls!”

“Where are they?” Lisa asked. “I don’t see anything.”

“Look again,” Gatticus said.

That was when Darius saw it: shadows flickering on the walls, flowing down them like water. His heart thundered in his chest. The Phantoms were inside!

All but a scattered few of the town’s guardsmen were dead. They weren’t even firing anymore, but maybe that was because they couldn’t see the Phantoms to shoot at them.

“We need to get out of here,” Blake said.

“And get picked off on the street?” Lisa demanded. She shook her head vigorously. “Maybe they won’t come inside. Maybe they won’t know we’re here.”

A stampede of booted footsteps sounded from the street below, followed by a roar of collective voices, and Darius saw a horde of humans and aliens—hundreds of them—flooding down every street, their swords and spears flashing with golden slivers of moonlight.

The flowing shadows reached the bottom of the wall and rushed toward the townspeople in a blurry mass. The townspeople roared again, stomping their feet and banging their shields with their swords.

The distant screams of Banshees added to the tumult. Or maybe not so distant... Darius thought, remembering what Gatticus had said about them throwing their voices.

Just before the camouflaged Phantoms reached the assembled masses of spearmen and swordsmen, fully half of the blurry shapes leapt up and sailed over their heads. People called out in alarm, and then the Phantoms fell upon them and their voices were drowned out by the muffled sound of swords and claws striking flesh. Soon after that, wails of terror and agony rose from the crowds below.

Thankfully they were too far away and it was too dark for them to see much, but even so, Darius could still recall vividly what the Phantoms had done to the crew of the Deliverance. If that was any indication, then these people were in the process of being disemboweled and dismembered.

“This happens every night?” Lisa asked. “How is this town still standing?”

Gatticus shook his head. “Something must be different tonight. They are not observing sustainable hunting practices.”

“I’ll say,” Blake snorted.

Thud. The sound was close.

“That didn’t come from outside,” Lisa whispered.

Everyone turned from the windows to stare at the door.

Darius traded a look with Blake and pointed to one side of the door. The other man nodded and they crept toward it together.

“Dad...!” Cassandra said, and latched onto his arm, using her weight to hold him back. “Don’t.”

Thud. They all froze. The sound was close, but it wasn’t coming from their door.

Then came the muffled sound of a baby crying, trickling to their ears from across the hall. Nothing happened. For a long moment, all they heard were the baby’s cries.

Then came the sound of claws raking on wood, splintering it, and a woman screamed: “Help! Someone help me! I have a baby!”

The scraping, splintering sound intensified, and Darius traded a horrified look with Blake.

“We have to help her!” Lisa said in an over-loud whisper. She drew her sword with a scrape of sharpened steel, and ran by them to reach the door. Her heedless footsteps were too loud, rocking and creaking loose floorboards as she went.

Thud. The door shivered, and the wooden beams barring it rattled.



Chapter 20




The scratching at the door began a split second later. Lisa sheathed her sword and ran to pick up her spear. All four of them stood in a line behind the door with their spears pointed at it.

Across the hall the baby continued to cry while his mother screamed for help. Darius gritted his teeth and steeled himself against her pleas. There was nothing they could do.

“We have to do something,” Lisa said again. Their door shivered and shook under the assault of alien claws.

“Forget about it, Blondie,” Blake replied. “We’ll be lucky to make it through this ourselves.”

Ragged splinters appeared, bulging along the inside of their door.

Darius’s heart raced in his chest and he tightened his grip on his spear.

“Dad?” He felt Cassandra’s hand on his arm.

Darius’s whole body went cold, and he rounded on her with a scowl. “Get inside the closet, Cass! Now!”

The scratching at the door intensified, and Cassandra stared in horror at the door, her face as pale as freshly-fallen snow.

“Cass!” he bellowed. “Snap out of it!”

She nodded once, quickly, and then ran for the nearest of the three open doors—the bathroom.

As soon as he saw her shut herself inside, he turned back to the door. It was already shredded. As he watched, long gray claws flashed through the door over and over again, until a splintered hole appeared and an entire, muscular brown arm reached through—brown, the exact color of the wooden door. That arm reached up, feeling around blindly for the heavy wooden beams barring the door.

Blake roared and jabbed his spear into the arm. A gout of black blood spurted out, and the Phantom let out a high-pitched scream. The creature withdrew its arm from the hole in the door. A moment later, the gray claws reappeared, scratching at the splintered wood around the edges of the hole to make it wider.

Once the hole was big enough for a small child to climb through, the arm reappeared. Gatticus stabbed it this time, and drew blood once more. The alien shrieked again, but this time it didn’t withdraw; it grabbed the spear and ripped it out of Gatticus’s hands, wrenching him off his feet in the process.

The spear went clattering down the hallway, and a giant alien head appeared in the hole, grinning with a wide mouth full of six-inch gray teeth. Darius was reminded of the pug-like faces of the Banshees, with their four squinting black eyes, but this face was slightly different. It was the face of their bigger, uglier, longer-toothed cousins—the Ghouls.

“Fek off!” Blake screamed and thrust his spear at the creature’s face. It ducked out of the way and grabbed his spear. The wooden handle squealed against Blake’s palms as he fought to hold onto the spear, but he only ended up getting dragged along with it toward the door.

Darius and Lisa both stabbed the creature with their spears before Blake lost his grip entirely, or came within reach of the Ghoul, but the Ghoul grabbed their weapons in its free hands, dragging them both in closer as it tried to take their weapons. Lisa lost her grip almost immediately, and her spear flew away down the corridor beyond the door, clattering as it went. Then a second hand grabbed Darius’s and Blake’s weapons, but before the Ghoul could yank their spears away, too, Gatticus ran in with his sword drawn and stabbed the Ghoul right in its grinning mouth.

The alien roared in pain and let go of their spears. It clapped three hands to its giant mouth to staunch the torrent of black blood bubbling from its curling gray lips. Blake and Darius backpedaled quickly, breathing hard.

“Kak, that was close,” Blake said.

The Ghoul ducked away, and another one appeared in its place. This one had to double over to peer through their door, and its head was as big as a boulder. Four giant black eyes the size of Cassandra’s fists squinted at them through the door, and the alien gave a low snarl.

Darius felt his skin prickle with terror.

“What the hell? He’s a fekkin’ giant!” Blake said.

“The other one was just a child,” Gatticus explained as the monstrous face withdrew from the hole in the door. “Get ready.”

“For what?” Lisa demanded.

Before he could reply, the Ghoul slammed into the door with a BANG! and the central beam of the three barring it cracked. As the Ghoul withdrew from the door for another charge, Darius caught a glimpse of a smaller Ghoul scratching at the door across the hall from theirs. The baby who’d been crying there was now eerily silent.

“He’s coming through!” Gatticus said.

Another BANG sounded, and the central beam exploded, along with the door. Giant splinters flew through the air, and Darius sucked in a breath as the alien ducked inside their room.  This Phantom had to be at least nine feet tall. They all backed away involuntarily as it came in.

“We need to work together,” Gatticus said. “Stand your ground! Keep it back with your spears, but don’t let it grab them... Lisa!” She was backing away furiously, shaking her head in horror at the giant monster standing in front of them on thick hind legs. All four of its long, muscular arms and over-sized, eight-fingered hands were free, ready to slice them open with dagger-like claws that put the tips of their spears to shame.

The Ghoul grinned at them in a surprisingly human expression, as if this was a person in a monster suit. The Ghoul’s mouth gaped open, revealing interlocking sets of glistening gray teeth that would make a T-Rex jealous. “Fek...” Blake said, trembling audibly.

The Ghoul cocked its head, and blinked all four of its giant black eyes, first the upper set, and then the lower.

“Kak. Kak. Kak,” Blake said. “Hey, man, just go away, huh? We’re not supposed to be here. We’re not designated fekkin’ prey, okay?”

The Ghoul’s smile broadened until Darius was sure the upper part of its head would peel back to reveal the person inside the monster suit.

Then it spoke. The words were a garbled, guttural mixture of growls and hisses, and more than a few words sounded like hairballs begging to be coughed up. Darius couldn’t have reproduced that language in a million years, but he understood it just fine.

The Ghoul said, “I do not care if you are supposed to be here or not. I will rip out your still-beating hearts and watch as your spirits join the Revenants. Prepare to die, pathetic creatures. Would that your deaths could cleanse the vile stench of you from my respiratory canals.”



Chapter 21




As soon as the Ghoul finished speaking, Darius thrust his spear toward its chest. One of its hands snapped out faster than his eye could follow and grabbed the spear behind its point. The Ghoul snarled and snapped off the tip, flicking it aside with the backs of long dagger-like claws.

Blake stabbed from the other side, but it rolled out of the way, dropping down onto six legs. Even standing on all sixes, the Ghoul’s shoulders were at the same height as Darius’s head.

Darius drew his sword and held it in a tight fist, but the Ghoul had greater reach with its arms than he did with the sword.

“Darius!” Gatticus called. “Catch!”

He glanced in the android’s direction just in time see a heavy shield flying toward him. He caught it against his sternum with a thunk of metal on bone. Wincing, he grabbed the handle and held the shield in front of him.

Blake circled around the Ghoul with his spear, trying to outflank the creature, but the lower set of its four eyes tracked him, while the other two watched Darius.

“On three,” Gatticus said.

Blake nodded.

“One, two...”

The Ghoul leapt straight up and dug into the ceiling with its claws, clinging above their heads and grinning down at them. It made a lazy swipe for Darius’s head, but he managed to duck and roll at the last second.

Blake cursed and stabbed up with his spear, scoring a lucky hit between the spines on the Ghoul’s back, but the blade barely pierced its hide. The Ghoul shrieked, and a long barbed tail flicked down to slap Blake aside.

He screamed and dropped his spear as the barbs buried themselves in his chest. The Ghoul turned its head to watch him with both sets of eyes as Blake’s expression slackened and his face paled in shock. He sank to his knees with the Ghoul’s barbs still buried in his chest.

“Now!” Gatticus roared, and ran in under the creature, his sword flashing.

Darius ran too, blocking a swipe of the Ghoul’s claws on his shield, only to catch a second swipe on his arm. Claws raked through his flesh in fiery lines. He cried out, and his shield fell from numb fingers.

Despite the pain, he had the presence of mind to counter-attack. He stabbed up as hard as he could, aiming for one of the Ghoul’s armpits. The sword buried itself up to a third of its length and the Ghoul gave a deafening shriek that left Darius stunned, his ears ringing painfully. The alien jumped away and down from the ceiling, yanking its tail out of Blake’s chest and pulling him into a face plant on the floor.

Blake lay eerily still and quiet, while Gatticus paced around the Ghoul with his shield raised and his sword at the ready. It looked like he’d scored a hit on one of the Ghoul’s arms, which was flopping uselessly and gushing black blood. But somehow that didn’t seem to faze the alien. It opened its mouth wide, as if to swallow Gatticus whole, and then gave a screeching roar that shook the entire building and again set Darius’s ears ringing. Finding his shield, he tried to pick it up, but his hand wouldn’t obey his commands. He glanced at his arm to find it soaked and dripping with blood. The white of bone shone through his severed biceps. He blinked, staring at the sight of his paralyzed arm in shock.

Then the bathroom door cracked open, and he looked up to see Cassandra peeking out, her sword gleaming in the darkness of the bathroom. Her eyes caught his, and widened. Fury flashed across her face and she opened the door fully.

“Hey! Over here!” she called.

“Cass! Close the blasted door!” he yelled.

But it was too late. The Ghoul snorted and its head whipped around to see her standing there.

Darius roared and ran in while it wasn’t looking. His left arm flopped uselessly against his side as he ran, but his right still held his sword. He reached the Ghoul just as it was turning back to face him, jaws gaping wide for the kill. Darius stabbed his sword between two sets of legs and deep into the creature’s belly, burying the weapon all the way to its hilt. Then he felt a searing vice close around his sword arm, just below the shoulder, and he lost his grip on the sword.

Cassandra screamed and rushed toward the Ghoul, flailing her sword like a baton. Darius wanted to scream at her, to tell her to run, but he was seeing stars, and couldn’t manage more than a croaking whisper.

He stared stupidly at the Ghoul’s glistening, metallic gray teeth, buried up to licorice-black gums in his right arm. Seeing that, he wondered how his arm hadn’t been severed completely. His blood gushed into the Ghoul’s mouth in a sticky red stream. It jerked its head, dragging him even farther away from his sword—not that he could have grabbed it. As it did so, the Ghoul reached up with one hand and withdrew the blade from its stomach; then tossed the weapon aside as if it were a toothpick.

Cassandra reached the alien from the other side, and it raised two of its leg-arms, ready to slice her open with six-inch claws. She swung her sword at the first arm, and it swung back.

Darius watched in slow motion horror as her sword was batted right out of her hands, leaving her defenseless.

Where was Gatticus? Where was Lisa?

A split second later, he had his answer. Lisa stabbed her sword straight into one of the Ghoul’s giant eyes, and it released him with a bellowing shriek. The Ghoul tossed its head and went on shrieking, shaking its head from side to side as if trying to fling the sword out. It stumbled as it backpedaled away from them. Then it rose up on hind legs and stood swaying in front of the door, reaching clumsily for the sword with three different arms. It pulled the sword out of its eye and black blood gushed down its face and chin, mixing with Darius’s own. Blood ran into one of the Ghoul’s lower eyes, blinding it completely on that side. It stumbled toward Lisa, leaning sideways and walking askew, as if it had lost its sense of balance.

“I will have your eyes for this!” it growled out as it stumbled toward her.

Gatticus snuck in on the creature’s blind side. When he was close enough that he could have reached out and touched the Ghoul, he dropped his sword and did exactly that—reaching with both hands for the Ghoul’s chest.

His palms made contact with the alien’s bare skin, and arcs of blue fire crackled and leapt around Gatticus’s hands, rippling down from the Ghoul’s chest to its toes. The alien froze and its massive jaws gaped open in a soundless scream. A few seconds passed with the alien frozen like that, in shock or pain, and then Gatticus stepped back and the creature fell over with a thud.

Darius blinked in shock and slowly shook his head; then he turned to look at his ruined arms. Sick horror twisted inside of him at the sight of all the blood, dripping from nerveless fingers to a puddle at his feet. Yet somehow, he remained conscious and standing.

A mysterious prickle of feeling returned to his left hand. One of his fingers twitched. He tried lifting that arm and managed to raise it a few inches, but it felt too heavy and weak.

Lisa and Cassandra both ran up, one on either side of him. Lisa wrapped her hands around his right arm in an effort to stop the bleeding, while Cassandra just stood there staring, her lower lip trembling, and tears streaming from her eyes. Lisa said something, but his ears were still ringing from the Ghoul’s screams.

Darius tried saying something too: It’s okay, he said, but even his own voice was lost to him.

Cassandra shook her head vigorously to deny his reassurances and glanced down at the dead Ghoul at their feet.

A low hiss sounded from the open door, and everyone’s heads snapped up to look. Another, smaller Ghoul was creeping through the door on all sixes. Cassandra’s eyes widened in terror. Gatticus was already there, blocking the way with a bloody sword in each hand. He was crouched low, ready to repel an attack.

The Ghoul stopped just out of reach of him, eyes tracking, barbed tail flicking restlessly from side to side. Then it crouched low too, as if to mimic Gatticus, and a split second later, it sprang up, leaping over Gatticus’s head and descending on him with jaws gaping and claws flashing.

Gatticus cried out in alarm as the Ghoul ripped one of his arms right off. The arm came away sparking and crackling, and the Ghoul froze, staring at the bloodless socket. It spat out the arm, and held Gatticus down with one arm while it slowly drew the claws of another hand across his chest. Its claws screeched as they dug through his artificial skin and carved ragged furrows in the metal casing below.

The Ghoul stared blinkingly at Gatticus’s chest, as if suddenly confused by the sight of him.

It backed away slowly, shaking its head. “What deception is this?” It asked in the Phantoms’ stuttering language of hisses and growls. “You are not human.”

“No, I am not,” Gatticus replied.

“You are one of the metal people. What are you doing here, fighting us? You are with these... prey?” It asked, glancing in Darius’s direction.

“They are not prey,” Gatticus explained.

“Then why are they here?”

Darius frowned, while both Lisa and Cassandra slowly shook their heads.

“Our ship ran out of fuel and we came here by mistake.”

The Ghoul growled. “You must leave.”

“We cannot leave without fuel. Can you help us?”

The Ghoul snorted and shook its head. “You could buy fuel at the depot, but it was destroyed.”

“Destroyed?” Gatticus asked.

“Why do you think we are wiping out this village? Someone must answer for the destruction of that facility.”

“If there’s no fuel here, then we’ll have to return to our ship and wait for the next vessel to come here and render aid,” Gatticus replied. “Will you let us leave in peace?”

The Ghoul glanced at Darius, then at Cassandra and Lisa. It turned back to Gatticus and pointed at the larger Ghoul lying dead on the floor. “Who killed this one?”

Gatticus hesitated. “It was me. I killed it, but it was self-defense.”

The Ghoul stared at him once more. “You are one of the metal people, and yet you chose to side with these humans over usss?” It dragged that last word out in a prolonged hiss and rolled its head and shoulders, like a wet dog about to shake itself.

“As I said, it was self-defense.”

The Ghoul hissed again and bared its teeth. “You will have to account for your actions to the old ones. As for these prey, they are now forfeit. You can stay to watch them die, or perhaps you can join me on this hunt as a form of restitution.”

Darius couldn’t believe what he was hearing. No wonder Gatticus hadn’t wanted to tell anyone in Karkarus that he was an android. For whatever reason, the Phantoms treated androids as equals, while they treated other biologicals like animals.

“Very well,” Gatticus said. “We will hunt together.”

“What?!” Lisa shrieked.

A chill came over Darius, and he shook his head. “Don’t,” was all he could manage.

“I am sorry,” Gatticus replied. “I can no longer help you.”

The Ghoul rounded on Darius, its jaws gaping to reveal interlocking sets of sharp, metallic gray teeth. “Prepare to join the Revenants, humans.”



Chapter 22




Gatticus picked up a sword and joined the Ghoul circling them. Darius pulled Cassandra back, keeping himself between her and the gray-brown monster.

“No wonder people want to kill androids,” Lisa said. “You’re on their side!”

“We’re all on their side,” Gatticus replied, shrugging. “Androids are simply less resentful about it than humans and other biologicals.”

“Because we get hunted, and you don’t!”

“That is not our fault,” Gatticus replied.

“Maybe not,” Darius said, “But this is. You’re participating.”

“Enough talk!” the Ghoul growled, and reared up on its hind legs in front of them. As it did so, Gatticus dropped his sword and darted sideways, slipping in under its arms and planting his palm against its chest. Blue fire crackled around his hand once more and arced over the alien. It screamed and thrashed the air, trying to knock Gatticus away, but he managed to avoid the Ghoul’s desperate swipes until the beast collapsed in a pile of twitching limbs. A gust of air sighed out of the slits in the alien’s neck, and it lay still.

“What...” Darius trailed off. “You were pretending,” he realized.

“You’re welcome,” he replied, and then nodded to the open door. “Someone is coming.”

“More Phantoms?” Cassandra asked in a terrified whisper.

Gatticus shook his head as he went to retrieve his severed arm from the floor. “No. These are humanoids,” he said, as he examined the arm in dismay.

“Reinforcements,” Darius decided.

Cassandra was staring at Blake. “Is he...”

“Let’s see.” Gatticus said, and went with her to where Blake lay motionless in a shallow pool of his own blood. Gatticus pressed a pair of fingers to Blake’s neck, checking for a pulse. “He’s alive,” he said, nodding. “Hold this,” he said, and handed his severed arm to Cassandra. “Darius, I’ll need your help to get him up. I only have one arm.”

Darius was about to object on account of his own injuries, but his hands and arms were somehow coming back to life. He flexed his hands, the nerves prickling all at once. At some point the blood had stopped flowing from the gashes and punctures in his arms, and they’d scabbed over.

“How...” he trailed off, flexing his hand. Then he remembered the nanites they’d all been injected with. That had to be the answer.

“Hurry,” Gatticus said. “They will not stay down forever.” He nodded to the Ghouls on the floor.

“They’re not dead?” Lisa asked.

“No.”

“But you took the blame for—”

Gatticus waved his hand dismissively. “Because I needed to keep it talking. It never would have let us go, whether it thought we killed one of them or not.”

Darius hurried over to help Gatticus lift Blake to his feet. The other man groaned and stirred as they hauled him up. His chest was crusted with blood where the Ghoul’s barbed tail had stabbed him, but his injuries seemed relatively minor compared to what Darius himself had suffered.

“Wake up, princess,” Darius said.

“Who you callin’ princess?” Blake murmured.

“You. You slept through the whole blasted thing while we almost died.”

“Actually,” Gatticus said, “Blake was dead himself until a few minutes ago.”

“Say what now?” Blake asked, his brown eyes flying wide. He shrugged out of their hands to stand on his own.

“The barbs in a Phantom’s tail are poisoned,” Gatticus explained. “The venom stopped your heart.”

“What about that mother and her baby we heard earlier?” Lisa asked.

Darius looked up to see her staring at the splintered remains of both their door and the one across the hall from theirs. Darius watched those doors for a long moment, half-expecting another Ghoul to come creeping through. “Can you tell if there are more Phantoms in there?” he whispered.

“No,” Gatticus said. “But if there were, by now they would have come here.”

“I’m going to see what happened across the hall,” Lisa said.

“Get a weapon first,” Gatticus said. “Just in case.”

“But you said—”

“I could be wrong. Sometimes Phantoms lay ambushes for their prey.”

“Great,” Blake muttered.

Darius went to pick up one of the discarded swords lying on the floor, as did each of the others—except for Cassandra, who was holding Gatticus’s arm instead. This time she didn’t object to not having a weapon.

They crept out the broken door of their room and through the one across the hall into an identical suite. The pillows and furs strewn around the floor were shredded and soaked with blood. And not all of the bloody lumps on the floor were pillows.

Darius looked away with a grimace, not wanting to see more. “Let’s go,” he said.

“Wait... do you hear that?” Lisa asked.

“Son of a vix...” Blake said.

Darius listened and heard a muffled whimpering coming from under one of the furs. He turned back to see something small crawling out of the bloody mess on the living room floor. It wasn’t human, but it wasn’t far off either. It had black fur all over its tiny body, and a long tail, but otherwise it looked almost the same as a human baby.

Lisa sheathed her sword and ran to pick it up. She returned a moment later with the cutest thing Darius had ever seen. It looked like a cross between a puppy and a human baby. It was whimpering like a puppy too.

“Motherfekkers,” Blake said. “They just left it there.” He reached out to scratch the baby behind one of its triangular ears.

It growled and snapped its jaws at him, revealing a few pointy, triangular white teeth.

“Whoa, take it easy there, Blacky. I’m not going to hurt you.”

The baby alien nuzzled in under Lisa’s chin and purred.

“I think that’s a Lassarian,” Darius said.

“It is,” a familiar voice added.

They all turned as one to see Ra standing there behind them with two other humanoid aliens. One of them was a scaly gray Sicarian, the other a lithe, beautiful Vixxon with ghostly white skin and disturbingly human features, except for her solid white eyes, and long, luminescent blond hair.

“What is that?” Ra asked in a suddenly cold voice. He pointed to the metal arm Cassandra was holding; and then his green eyes found Gatticus, the owner of the missing arm, and his gaze sharpened. “Skava!



Chapter 23




Darius didn’t recognize the word, but he could read the hostility in Ra’s expression just fine. He produced a sidearm from a holster inside his jacket and aimed it at Gatticus. Cassandra handed Gatticus’s arm back to him, as if she was suddenly afraid to be associated with him. Gatticus took the arm wordlessly.

“What is your agenda here?” Ra demanded.

Gatticus held up his good arm along with the severed one in a gesture of surrender. “I do not have an agenda.”

Skarvot. Tell me truthfully. Why are you here?”

“I do not know,” Gatticus replied. “My memory was damaged.”

“Liar! Do you expect me to believe it a coincidence that you came here just before Karkarus was overrun by Cygnians?”

Gatticus shook his head. “I cannot say if it is or isn’t a coincidence, only that I do not know what I am doing at Hades. The Cygnians were surprised to see me too,” Gatticus said, and nodded over Ra’s shoulder to the smaller Ghoul on the floor across the hall.

Ra turned to see the pair of Ghouls lying there, and he snarled.

“They’re alive,” Darius thought to point out.

“Not for long.” Ra nodded to the reptilian Sicarian standing next to him. The Sicarian drew a curved dagger from a sheath on his belt. Stalking over to the pair of Ghouls, he bent down beside the head of the larger one, lifted it, and slit the Ghoul’s throat. Black blood gushed out, and the Ghoul’s legs kicked reflexively. As soon as the kicking subsided, he walked over and did the same with the second Ghoul; then he straightened and licked the blood from his dagger with a darting pink tongue before returning it to its sheath.

“Are all the other Phantoms dead?” Cassandra asked.

“Yesss,” Ra hissed. “Along with most of my people.” His gaze drifted to each of them in turn. “I should kill you all now,” Ra said.

Blake held up his hands. “Hey, Catman, we’re not on his side,” he said, and jerked a thumb at Gatticus.

“He’s telling the truth about his memory,” Lisa added. “He really doesn’t know what he’s doing here.”

Ra’s eyes narrowed swiftly. “How am I supposed to believe this?”

“Why would the Phantoms attack us if we were plotting with them against you?” Darius asked. He gestured to his bloody arms by way of proof.

Ra appeared to consider that. His gaze flicked to Gatticus and back. “Do you know that his kind work with the Cygnians?”

Darius hesitated. “We know that they don’t fight them.”

“It is more than that. His people are the judges and jury, the so-called executors of the Union.”

“Well, well, is that true, Slick?” Blake asked.

“It is,” he admitted.

“When were you planning to tell us that?” Lisa asked, taking a few hasty steps back from Gatticus.

“I already did. The only part I omitted was about the position of privilege that androids enjoy within the Union.”

Blake snorted and shook his head.

“We’re not the enemy,” Gatticus insisted. “We’re just following orders from the Cygnians.”

“Just following orders! Now where have I heard that before?” Blake asked.

“I have no clue,” Gatticus replied.

“Of course not. It’s been more than a thousand years, so I suppose everyone just forgot.” Blake turned and nodded to Darius. “You know what I’m talking about.”

Darius did. “Nazis.”

“Alien Nazis,” Blake said, “and this place—Hades—this is one of their concentration camps.”

“So how do you decide who gets sent here?” Darius asked.

“I told you the Unions sends criminals, troublemakers, and all the less desirables of society to be hunted,” Gatticus replied.

“Tell the truth,” Ra growled. “You can’t meet the Cygnians’ quotas with criminals alone. They barely make up five percent of the people you send.”

Gatticus nodded. “As I said, we also send the less desirables.”

Darius had a bad feeling about that. “What makes a person less desirable?”

“Ah, now you are getting to the crux of the matter,” Ra said. “The Crucible determines who is less desirable.”

The Sicarian hissed and the Vixxon, quiet until now, cursed in a husky voice.

“The Crucible?” Darius asked.

“It’s a rite of passage, or coming of age ritual that the Cygnians observe when they reach reproductive maturity,” Gatticus said. “They force all Union worlds to send their children to the Crucible, too, as tribute for peace.”

“Except for androids,” Blake sneered. “No one forces you to go.”

“Instead of sending us to the Crucible, the Cygnians put us to work traveling the Orion Spur to help convince other species to join the Union. We are diplomats first and foremost. Executors second.”

“Diplomats!” Blake scoffed. “Right.”

“What is the Crucible?” Lisa asked.

“No one knows,” Ra replied. “When children of any Union species reach maturity, they are sent through the Eye to the Crucible. Those who return have no memory of what happened.”

“Those who return? You mean some of them don’t?” Darius asked.

Ra nodded. “The Cygnians believe the ones who do not return have been chosen to become like gods. They are known as Revenants.

“And the ones who do return are all marked with a seal that decides their fate.” Ra turned over his right arm to reveal a glowing, hairless pattern on the underside of his right wrist, in the shape of a sickle.

“What is that?” Lisa asked.

“The Seal of Death. It is what marks us as prey.”

Darius shivered, and quickly rolled up the sleeves of his jumpsuit to check his own wrists. But there was nothing; just clean, unblemished skin. The others did the same, each with the same result, and Darius let out a shaky breath.

“We’re not marked,” Lisa said. “Does that mean we’re safe?”

Ra frowned and whispered something to the Vixxon standing beside him. She nodded her head, and her seemingly sightless white eyes narrowed.

Ra rocked his head from side to side. “You do not have the Seal of Life, either, so no, you are not safe. How did you avoid the Crucible?”

“I told you,” Gatticus said. “They’ve been in cryo storage for more than a thousand years.”

“I did not believe you,” Ra admitted.

“Why would I lie?” Gatticus asked.

“I do not know, but it is not a very believable story. Why would anyone spend a thousand years in cryo?”

“Someone forgot about us,” Lisa said.

“What does the Seal of Life look like?” Blake asked. “Maybe we can fake it.”

“It is a triangle with an eye inside of it. And no, you cannot fake it. At least, not easily,” Ra said. “The seals are encoded with digital information. They are used for identification and payment throughout the Union. They can be forged, but few possess the necessary skill.”

Blake frowned. “A triangle with an eye in it? You mean like the all-seeing eye on the dollar bill?”

“The what?” Ra asked, cocking his head from side to side.

“Yes,” Gatticus confirmed. “Exactly like that.”

Blake barked a laugh. “Don’t tell me the Masons were involved with the Phantoms.”

“The what?” Gatticus asked.

“A group of people from Earth that used to use that same symbol.”

Gatticus shrugged. “It may be a coincidence. My understanding is that not even the Cygnians know where the symbol for the Seal of Life comes from, but it looks vaguely like the Eye of Thanatos, so that may be the origin.”

“The Eye of Thanatos... what’s that?” Darius asked.

“The gate that people pass through when it is time for them to go to the Crucible,” Gatticus replied. “Thanatos is the ancient Greek god of the dead, who came to take people away to the underworld when it was their time to die.”

“Like the grim reaper?” Blake asked.

“Exactly.”

Darius frowned. “So what happens to us if the Phantoms realize we don’t have any kind of seal on our wrists?”

“They will either sent you straight to one of their hunting grounds, or they will send you through the Eye to the Crucible,” Ra said. “You may even have to stand trial, since it is a crime to avoid the Crucible when you reach maturity, which clearly all of you already have.”

Blake scowled. “Great.”

“Not her,” the Vixxon said in that husky voice, and pointed to Cassandra. “She has not yet come of age.”

Ra looked straight at her, his green eyes burning with intensity.

Darius didn’t like the looks Cassandra was getting and went to stand beside his daughter.

“Is that true?” Ra asked.

Cassandra visibly stiffened. “That’s none of your business,” she said.

“What does it matter?” Darius demanded.

Gatticus nodded to her. “It matters because Cassandra is off limits until she comes of age. The Cygnians may not realize she hasn’t come of age yet.”

“Well, that’s not exactly true...” Cassandra said.

Darius turned to her with eyebrows raised.

“I got my first period already.”

“What? When? You never told me,” Darius said.

“Yeah, like I’m going to tell my Dad about that.

“How long ago?” Gatticus asked.

“A week before we went into cryo,” Cassandra replied.

Darius looked to Gatticus once more. “What does that mean?”

“It means that you need to deliver her to the Phantoms before it’s too late.”



Chapter 24




“Grak that! Have you lost your mind?” Darius demanded.

“No. She could be saved. Odds are that she will be,” Gatticus replied.

“You don’t know that.”

“Four out of every five people return from the Crucible with the Seal of Life.”

“Four out of five,” Darius repeated slowly. “That means there’s a twenty percent chance she doesn’t come back, or that she gets explicitly marked for death. I’m not risking that. No way.”

“It’s better than a hundred percent chance that she gets marked for death otherwise,” Gatticus replied. “Once the Cygnians find out that you withheld her, she’ll be hunted for sure.”

“Not if we join the Coalition,” Darius said, shaking his head. “Right? They don’t send their kids to the Crucible. Why would they?”

“I told you, I cannot take you to the Coalition. I do not know how to find them. No one does.”

“Then let’s strike out on our own. We’ve got a ship, with thousands of people on board, all still in Cryo. We could set out for some distant world and start a colony somewhere that the Phantoms won’t find us.”

“You’re forgetting something,” Blake said. “We don’t have any fuel.”

“And the depot on Hades was destroyed,” Lisa added.

“But the fuel wasn’t,” Gatticus said.

Blake arched an eyebrow. “How do you know that?”

“We’re too close to the depot. If that much antimatter had been detonated, we’d all be dead right now.”

“Why attack the depot if you’re not going to destroy the fuel?” Blake asked.

“For the same reason that we were going to attack—to steal the fuel,” Gatticus replied. “Tanik Gurhain and the exiles Ra mentioned likely stole the antimatter in order to weaponize it.”

“That is possible,” Ra agreed.

Darius nodded. “Then we need to track them down and convince them to share it with us.”

“Maybe they’ll want to come with us when we leave?” Lisa asked.

“Almost certainly,” Ra said. “But there are too many of them for you to take aboard the vessel you came here with.”

“We could make several trips,” Darius suggested.

“More than a few,” Ra replied. “And you might not wish to have them aboard. The exiles are all convicted criminals—murderers, rapists, terrorists, and thieves.”

“And you guys aren’t?” Blake asked. “How did you get here?”

“We were marked for death by the Crucible, not because we broke the law.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter,” Blake replied, waving his hand dismissively. “We need the fuel, and they have it, so we have to go find this Tanik guy. Can you take us to him, Sasquatch?”

Ra hissed. “What does this mean, ‘Sasquatch?’”

“He’s a big, furry friendly guy,” Blake said. “Everyone loves Sasquatch. So, what do you say, Sassy?”

Ra glared at him.

“We can’t wait until morning,” Darius added. “And the offer to take you with us when we leave is still open.”

“No, thank you. But I will take you to see Tanik—if, you give me the weapons you promised.”

“Don’t you have plenty of spares now?” Blake asked. Lisa shot him a look, but he went on blithely, not getting the hint: “I mean your people are all dead, right? So they dropped their guns.”

Ra growled and snapped his jaws in Blake’s direction. “Their power packs are depleted. We need fresh ones.”

Darius nodded, realizing they didn’t have the equipment to recharge their energy weapons. “No problem. You can have the weapons.”

“How many?”

Darius looked to Gatticus.

“There are at least thirty on the Osprey, and plenty of spare charge clips,” the android said.

“It will do. Come, we will leave at once.”

Darius and the others followed Ra out of the suite and down the hall to the stairwell at the opposite end.

“We will take the cub and your tribute to the Grotto before we leave.”

“Tribute? You mean Cassandra?” Darius asked.

“Yes.”

“No, she goes with me.”

“The Grotto will be far safer for her,” Ra replied. “Do not worry. She will not be alone. All of our young are there too. It is where we send them at night, to make sure they do not accidentally come to harm during the nightly attacks.”

“And the Phantoms just leave them alone?” Lisa asked.

“The Cygnians do not hunt our young. The cub you found is alive, is he not? That is not a coincidence.”

“If the Grotto is so safe, why don’t you all hide down there?” Blake asked. “Pretend to be teenagers or something.”

“The Cygnians’ sensors would reveal us.”

They reached the bottom of the stairs and started down the street. It was thick with bodies lying in gleaming, moonlit pools of their own blood. It was almost impossible to walk without stepping on an outstretched hand or foot—or a severed one. Ra wove a path through the carnage, while the Vixxon and the Sicarian fell back to rearguard positions, each of them brandishing bulky black pistols like the one Ra had.

“What do you want to do?” Darius asked quietly.

Cassandra shook her head. “I want to stay with you.”

“Then you’re coming with me.”

Gatticus caught Darius’s eye and shook his head. “Ra is right. She’ll be safer here. We can come back and pick her up as soon as we have the fuel.”

“How do you know she’ll be safer?” Darius demanded. “What if they come back and find out that she’s due for this Crucible of theirs?”

“That is not likely,” Ra said from the front of the group. “It should not take us long to find Tanik with the sensors aboard your vessel.”

Darius walked on in silence, trying to weigh the risks of so many unknowns in his head. Would Cassandra be safer in this Grotto place, or with him? He remembered their last fight with Phantoms and how Cassandra had ended up rushing to his rescue, rather than the other way around. But maybe he could just leave her on board the Osprey when they had to go out on foot....

Except that wouldn’t be any better. The Banshees on board the Deliverance had torn through their previous Osprey’s airlock as if it were paper.

Darius grimaced. “They’re right, Cass,” he said quietly.

Cassandra’s eyes skipped up to his, and her brow furrowed. “But you said—”

“Forget what I said. I can’t keep you safe if you’re with me.”

Cassandra scowled. “Isn’t it a father’s job to protect his kids? Guess you missed the mark on that one, huh Dad?” With that, Cassandra left his side and strode by him to the front of the group, shouldering past Blake and Lisa to walk behind Gatticus and Ra.

Darius gaped after her in shock. A painful knot rose in his throat, and his chest ached with the echoes of Cassandra’s words.

Blake cast a knowing look over his shoulder. “Kids, huh?” he said, and shook his head.

Lisa sent Darius a sympathetic smile and fell back a few steps to walk beside him. “She didn’t mean it. She’s just scared and doesn’t want to be alone.”

Darius nodded. “I don’t blame her. Maybe I could stay with her,” Darius mumbled. “Ra? Can—”

“You cannot. If the Cygnians detect one of you in the Grotto, the consequences will be swift, and your tribute will be discovered.”

“He heard that?” Lisa asked under her breath.

“Sassy’s got ears in the back of his head,” Blake said.

They walked on for a while longer, winding through the streets of Karkarus. The dead bodies thinned out as they got farther from the wall. Eventually they reached the base of the giant tree where they’d landed their Osprey. Here the booming roar of waves crashing on the cliffs below the peninsula was louder, and more insistent.

Ra led them around the back of the tree to a large, round wooden hut. The door and walls of it were marked with what looked to be bloody hand prints and paw prints of various sizes and shapes. Not all of the markings were red, however, and not all of them looked like hands or paws, but Darius got the gist of it. It reminded him of when Cassandra was in kindergarten and all of the kids had placed their hands in paint to decorate a banner for the school.

Ra opened a pair of wooden doors, revealing a large wooden staircase inside the hut, spiraling down. The roar of the waves echoed inside the building, seeming to channel up through the stairwell, and the wooden floorboards shivered under their feet with each crashing wave.

Wordlessly, Ra started down the stairs. Darius heard hinges groan and turned to see the Sicarian and Vixxon standing outside, closing the doors. As soon as the doors were shut, the hut plunged into darkness. Pale white light shone up from below, illuminating the barest outlines of a wooden banister and the spiraling stairs.

They picked their way through the darkness to the top of the stairs. Blake ran into something along the way and cursed under his breath. “How come there’s no light in here?”

“To encourage small children not to venture up the stairs until daylight,” Ra replied.

Darius clung to the rough wooden banister to keep from falling as he walked down the shadowy stairs.

The staircase wound down and around for what seemed like an eternity. With each full turn, the light radiating from below grew brighter, and the sound of crashing waves grew louder. After descending for several minutes, Darius was sure that they must be nearing the base of the cliffs.

“What do you do with disabled kids?” Blake grumbled. “Give them a rope and tell them to rappel down?”

“Disabled?” Ra asked.

“There is no disability that nanites cannot cure,” Gatticus explained.

“What about missing limbs?”

“It is rare for children to suffer such injuries, since they are not hunted,” Ra explained. “We have not yet had a child in Karkarus who could not walk.”

They wound down the stairs for another three full turns, and then the light radiating from below abruptly swelled and the bottom of the stairwell appeared.

“Finally!” Lisa breathed, leaning heavily on the banister at the bottom of the stairs and panting to catch her breath.

Darius walked by her to catch up with Cassandra. She stood beside a dazzlingly bright lamp post in the center of the landing. That was the source of the light they’d seen from the top of the stairwell. Ra stood beside Cassandra, pointing to each of several tunnels radiating from the circular landing, his voice lost among the crashing waves. The tunnels appeared to have been carved from solid, glistening rock.

As Darius drew near, he overhead Ra explaining: “Each door leads to a different part of the Grotto. That one, with the symbol of a cup is the dining hall. The one that looks like a person lying on a pillow, that is the dormitory....” He went on to explain three more tunnels, one of them containing bathroom facilities, another with heated tidal pools for bathing, and a final one, the recreation and training rooms.

While he explained, Blake and Lisa came over to join them. “Now what, Sassy?” Blake asked.

Lisa cooed softy in the Lassarian cub’s ear while it purred like a kitten. Its eyes looked heavy, periodically sinking shut, only to spring open once more.

Ra nodded to the tunnel leading to the dormitories. “I will introduce you to the director of the Grotto.”

He led the way into the dormitory tunnel. It was dimly lit by a string of lights hanging from loops in the ceiling. After winding down through the tunnel for several minutes, a vast cavern appeared. The string of lights from the ceiling fell to waist height and wound through the space as railings, girding shadowy pools of water.

Here the echoing roar of waves crashing was a muted thunder that shivered subtly through the walls and floor of the cavern. Colorful, luminescent growths covered a jagged cascade of stalactites hanging from the ceiling. Water dripped from their tips to waiting pools below with loud, echoing plops. Shadowy mounds that might have been sleeping children covered the floor wherever the cavern floor flattened out.

It was an odd feeling to be in such a serene setting after seeing the trail of death and destruction left by the Phantoms on the surface. Here these children were, sleeping soundly, with their parents all lying dead in the streets above their heads. How many of them were now orphans? he wondered.

Hades was living up to its name.

“I will take the cub now,” Ra said, and held his hands out to Lisa for the Lassarian baby.

Lisa frowned and hesitated.

“It will be safer here with the other children,” he insisted.

She gave in with a scowl and passed the cub to Ra. It twisted and pawed at the air, trying to get back to her as she held it out to Ra. “You’d better be right,” Lisa warned.

“I am.” Ra took the screaming cub and held it against his chest, and it quieted once more, nuzzling into Ra’s coat, as if it was only crying for the lost warmth of Lisa’s embrace, and not for Lisa herself.

Darius looked around for Cassandra. He found her standing by a string-light railing, peering into a dark pool. He walked over to stand beside her and peer into the pool. Their faces were reflected in the pool. Cassandra’s eyes looked hollow and haunted, and her face was drawn with exhaustion. He didn’t look much better himself. Maybe she would be better off here. She could get some sleep, eat a warm meal, perhaps.

Darius laid a hand on her shoulder, and she didn’t shrug it off like he expected she would.

“Look at this,” he whispered. “The Phantoms haven’t been down here. Everyone survived. Ra must be telling the truth. And if he is, then he’s right: you will be safer here.”

Cassandra’s eyes met his in their reflection. “Maybe, but you won’t,” she said softly.

That hit him like a splash of cold water to the face. She wasn’t angry at him because she was afraid for herself. She was angry because she was afraid for him.

“I’ll be careful,” he said, and squeezed her shoulder.

Cassandra shook her head. “That thing almost killed you. You didn’t see the look in its eyes while it was trying to chew your arm off. It was enjoying it.” She shook her head, and a drop of water hit the glassy surface of the pool. Their reflection blurred, shivering with ripples. Another drop, more ripples. Darius looked up to see where they were coming from; then he saw that Cassandra was crying.

“I promise I’ll come back for you,” Darius said. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and squeezed hard.

“Stay. We can sleep at the top of the stairs and wait for the others.”

“You heard Ra. I’m not allowed to stay here.”

“Even at the top of the stairs?”

Darius thought about that wooden hut, so easy for a Ghoul or Banshee to claw their way inside. “I don’t think we’ll be safe there, do you?”

“So you’re just going to leave me here with a bunch of total strangers.”

Darius winced. “You’ll be okay. Stay out of trouble, and do whatever they tell you to do—so long as it’s safe.”

“They who? The other kids?” Cassandra asked. “Kids supervising kids. That sounds real safe.”

“Quiet,” Ra said in an abrupt whisper. “You’re going to wake the others.”

They turned to find him standing there with a willowy, hairless Dol Walin from the Walros System. She wore a white, form-hugging wet suit, and had slick, glistening purplish-white skin. Her round, bald head and sloping brow led down to a bottle-nosed snout, and a pair of sharp, intelligent blue eyes that stared at them from either side of her head.

“This is the director of the Grotto, Titatara. We call her Tita.”

Tita extended a long, skinny arm to Darius with three broad, flipper-like fingers. He hesitantly accepted the handshake. Her hand felt just as cold and clammy as he’d expected it to.

“It is good to meet you,” she said in a watery whisper. Lisa and Blake came over with Gatticus to join them, and Tita tossed her snout at each of them in turn.

“She’s a... child?” Blake whispered dubiously, glancing at Ra.

Tita made a trilling and clicking sound, and her lips curved upward, baring two rows of fine, sharp white teeth. “No.”

Darius scowled at Ra. “I thought you said no adults were allowed down here?”

“She is a Guardian,” Ra explained, and Tita turned over her right arm to reveal a glowing white symbol—a triangle with an eye inside of it, the spitting image of an all-seeing eye from Earth.

“She has the Seal of Life?” Blake asked. “So what’s she doing here?”

“The Guardians are volunteers who live among the hunted to watch over their children,” Ra explained. He inclined his head to Cassandra. “This is the human tribute I told you about,” he said. “She will stay with you until we return.”

“I shall take good care of her,” Tita said, and favored Cassandra with another tooth-baring smile. She held out a skinny arm. “Come, child.”

Cassandra recoiled from the Dol Walin and wrapped her arms around Darius. “Let me stay with you,” she pleaded, while gazing up at him. “I’ll be careful. I’ll be safe. I promise!”

Darius felt torn.

“I cannot guarantee her safety if she joins us,” Ra said quietly. “And nor can you. The path through the ruins to reach the exiles is long and dangerous. If she falls behind, or gets tired and slows us down...” he trailed off and rocked his head from side to side.

Darius frowned. “I get it.” He grabbed Cassandra by her shoulders and turned her to face him. “I’ll be back for you. You hear me? I’ll be back. You just make sure you stay safe here while I’m gone, okay?”

Cassandra’s eyes were dull as rocks, but she nodded.

“I love you, Cassy.”

She said nothing, but pulled him into a hug. He held her for a long moment and kissed the top of her head. “It’s going to be okay. We beat the cancer. We’ll beat this too. Drakes never say die, remember?”

“Can’t kill a rock,” she replied in a muffled voice.

“That’s the spirit,” he said and kissed the top of her head once more.

“We must not delay here,” Ra whispered. “Tita, we will see you soon.”

“If the gods will it. Be safe,” she replied.

Cassandra withdrew from Darius’s arms, her cheeks wet with tears.

Tita held out her arm, beckoning once more. “Come, child, you will sleep beside me.”

Cassandra shuffled forward and the Dol Walin wrapped its willowy arm around Cassandra’s shoulders, guiding her along the string-light railing.

Darius’s heart ached as he watched her go. He wanted to call out some last word of goodbye, but he didn’t want to wake all of the children in the cavern by doing so. Cassandra glanced over her shoulder and waved.

Darius waved back and smiled, hoping she couldn’t see his lips tremble. Then she turned around, and Darius watched her walk up the path to one of the flat areas lined with pillows and sleeping children.

Darius’s hand fell back to his side. He just stood there, numb and frozen with grief.

“We have to go,” Ra whispered sharply.

But Darius couldn’t bring himself to look away from Cassandra’s diminishing silhouette. Suddenly he had an awful feeling that this was a mistake.

A hand slipped into his and tugged on his arm. He turned to see Lisa at the other end of that hand, her eyes shining and cheeks glistening. “Ready?” she asked.

No, he thought, but nodded and allowed her to lead him away. They followed Ra, Gatticus, and Blake down the tunnel, back the way they’d come and up the stairs into the deepening darkness of the stairwell. Lisa held his hand the whole way.



Chapter 25




Ectos, the Sicarian, and the Vixxon were waiting outside the hut at the top of the stairs. Ra led the way around the tree to the wooden platform elevator. Everyone piled on and Ra punched a button to take them up. As the elevator rose, Darius noticed that the moon was now a full golden disc in the sky, peeking out just above the scraggly black branches of the forest canopy. The moon was smaller than before, now only taking up a quarter of the night’s sky. Looking down, Darius saw the streets stretching in all directions, littered with bodies. Here and there the streetlights flickered, alternately revealing and concealing the carnage. Darius was alarmed to find that he couldn’t spot any living people walking among the dead.

“Are there any survivors?” he asked.

“A few,” Ra replied. “Perhaps a dozen.”

“So all those kids...” Lisa trailed off.

“Tita will look after them,” Ra replied.

“But don’t you need adults up here to provide food and clothing for them?” Lisa asked.

“We will get a new shipment of prey with the arrival of the next Cygnian warship,” Ra explained. “They will help us rebuild.”

The elevator stopped. Their ship was sitting on the platform right where they’d left it, seemingly unharmed. Darius hoped none of the Phantoms had clawed their way inside. Captain Riker came striding across the platform to greet them. “Good to see you made it, Ra,” he said.

“And you, my brother,” Ra replied as he strode out to greet the burly human. When they reached each other, the two men gripped the backs of each other’s necks and touched foreheads in greeting. Darius and the others looked on from the side of the landing pad.

Ra withdrew and Captain Riker shook his head. “I have never seen a Phantom attack like that before,” he said.

“Nor have I,” Ra agreed.

“They slaughtered us. The entire village,” Riker went on. “My wife...” he trailed off, his voice cracking. Then he cleared his throat and shook his head. “She is with the Revenants now.”

“I am sorry,” Ra said. “Those responsible will pay.”

The Sicarian gave a low, sibilant roar, which might have been his agreement, and the Vixxon muttered something under her breath, making Darius wonder if they’d lost loved ones too.

“One of the Ghouls said something about this attack being revenge for the destruction of the fuel depot,” Darius said.

“They spoke with you?” Ra demanded.

“Yes, after they realized that Gatticus is an android.”

“Then that explains it,” Ra growled.

“Tanik,” Riker spat. “This is all his fault.”

Ra grabbed his neck and pulled him close once more. “We will see him soon,” Ra intoned.

“Hey, if you guys are planning some kind of revenge, do you think it can wait until we’ve got our fuel?” Blake asked.

Ra bared his teeth. “Do not worry. You will get what you need.”

Darius noted that wasn’t a promise to leave Tanik alone.

“How do we get into your ship?” Riker asked. “I tried to get in and find more weapons, but the rear hatch is code-locked.”

Gatticus walked wordlessly by them to the rear airlock of the Osprey, and the others followed. When he reached the ship, Gatticus handed his severed arm to Lisa and then tapped the code into the keypad beside the airlock. It slid open and they climbed in one after another.

“Care to share the code with us?” Blake asked as Gatticus cycled the outer doors shut and opened the inner ones.

Gatticus glanced pointedly at Ra, then shook his head, and said, “No.” With that, he led them inside.

“He does not trust us,” Ra replied smilingly as they walked into the Osprey’s troop bay. He let out a sissing peal of laughter. “It is mutual.”

Gatticus took them to the cockpit and everyone except for Darius re-took their usual seats, leaving Cassandra’s chair glaringly empty. Darius stared at it for a long moment while the newcomers stood around looking uncomfortable.

“Where do we sit?” Ra asked, also eyeing the empty chair.

“On the floor?” Blake suggested.

Ra glared at him, and Blake grinned.

Gatticus said, “There’s an extra chair on the other side of the door. Fold it out please, Darius.”

He snapped out of his daze and went to do as he was told. He slid open the panel and folded out the seat beside Lisa’s as he’d seen Gatticus do back on the Deliverance.

Captain Riker sat down there before Darius could pull out the harness.

Hearing the rising whine of the ship’s engines starting up, Darius glanced back at Gatticus. “What about the others? There aren’t enough seats.”

“Ectos and I can stand,” Ra replied, glancing back from where he stood behind Gatticus’s chair. “Veekara, you may sit in the other chair.”

The Vixxon took Cassandra’s seat, and Darius was finally able to put a name to that eerily human face. Her glaring white eyes found him and narrowed.

“Yes?” she asked.

Just then the Osprey’s engines roared and the deck shook. The bomber hovered up a few feet and then listed to one side, flying sideways off the landing pad and sending Darius careening into Blake.

“Hey! You mind?” Blake said.

Ectos, the Sicarian, stumbled but didn’t fall. He hissed and his pink tongue flicked out between his teeth.

Gatticus righted the bomber. “Sorry,” he said. “It’s not easy flying with one arm.”

“Maybe you should let me try?” Darius asked. “I flew small aircraft back on Earth.”

“This is somewhat more complicated than that, but perhaps we can download a flight training module for you when we return to the Deliverance.”

“That might be too late. What if something happens to you?” Darius asked. “We could use another pilot.”

“No,” Gatticus insisted.

“I can fly,” Captain Riker put in, and everyone looked to him.

Darius frowned. “What were you a Captain of?”

“A Dreadnought-class Destroyer, but I flew SF-76’s for a while before that.”

“How did you end up here?” Lisa asked.

Captain Riker shrugged. “After you’ve helped subjugate half a dozen species for an oppressive regime, you get a little fekked up in the head. I stole a transport and abandoned my ship. I took my first officer with me... Tamara. We ran out of fuel and ended up here. Phantoms shot us down and we crash-landed in the forest. We barely made it to Karkarus alive.”

“Tamara,” Lisa said. “Was she your...?”

“My wife, yes,” Riker said in a suddenly hoarse voice. He cleared his throat and looked away, out the side window of the Osprey.

Darius grimaced and turned back to the fore. Ra was giving Gatticus some basic directions, indicating that he should fly along the coast. Gatticus took them down low along the steep, sandy shore. Wet sand gleamed dark gold in the moonlight. Waves rose up beside them in towering walls that curled and crashed, spraying the cockpit with glittering beads of moisture.

“How far away is Tanik’s base?” Darius asked.

“Three days’ walk on foot,” Ra replied.

“That doesn’t sound very far,” Darius said.

“The days are long on Hades,” Captain Riker put in. “Thirty-five standard hours.”

“Standard...? How many Earth hours is a standard hour?” Blake asked.

“One point two,” Gatticus replied.

“Well, it won’t take us long to get there in the Osprey,” Darius said.

“No, but we’ll have to search the ruins on foot,” Riker said.

“Ruins?” Blake asked.

“Over there,” Ra said pointing up ahead to where the forest disappeared and the beach turned to sheer black cliffs like the ones hedging Karkarus. A massive tower sat along those cliffs. The top half of it had collapsed and fallen over to lean against the bottom half in an upside-down V. The base of the tower was the size of a small city. It was a sprawling, mostly flat structure of maybe a dozen stories high at the edge. It looked like something that ants might build if they were intelligent.

“What species built that?” Darius asked as they flew over the flat base of the structure and slowly circled the tower. The entire thing appeared to be made of metal or concrete.

“The natives of Hades built it,” Ra replied. “The Kivani. They were an arboreal species that is all but extinct now. When they joined the USO and their tributes began going to the Crucible, none of them ever returned. Their population stalled, and the adults became embittered and angry with the loss of their children. Some joined the Coalition. The rest became troublemakers who were later rounded up and sealed for death by the Skavas,” Ra said, nodding to Gatticus.

“Interesting,” Darius replied. “There aren’t any lights coming from the tower. Is that because the exiles don’t have electricity?”

“They do,” Ra replied, “but they stay below ground to keep from being seen or detected by Cygnians.”

“And that works for them?” Blake asked. “Seems like you should be hiding in the ruins too, then.”

“It does not work. They are forced to move around constantly from place to place. We have found it better to stay in one defensible location and fortify ourselves there.”

Darius nodded. “So how do you know they are in these ruins?”

“We don’t, but because this location is close to the depot they attacked, it is a reasonable deduction.”

Gatticus stopped the Osprey over a flat, clear section of the tower base and began hovering down for a landing.

Just then, a double chime sounded from one of Gatticus’s displays and he glanced at it. “That’s interesting...” he said.

“What is it?” Ra asked.

“There’s an energy signature coming from the ruins.”

Darius walked up behind Gatticus to get a look at whatever he was seeing.

“There—” Gatticus pointed to the base of the tower just as a bright orange flash of light illuminated the structure. The source of the orange light jetted up, roaring into the sky at a steep angle.

“It’s a ship!” Darius said.

“Cygnian or USO?” Captain Riker asked as he got up and came to stand behind them.

“USO,” Gatticus replied. “It’s a T-20B Starskimmer.”

“That’s the same class of transport I came here in. Tanik, that son of a vix, he must have found it and fixed it up!”

“And left all his people behind?” Ra mused. “They cannot all fit on such a small vessel.”

“Maybe they suffered some losses,” Riker said. “Don’t let them get away,” he said to Gatticus. “I’ll man the forward turret, see if I can use it to force them down.”

“You will not,” Gatticus replied.

“Can we radio them or something?” Darius asked. “They’ll probably share their fuel if we offer to share the Deliverance.”

“Perhaps,” Gatticus said. “Everyone sit down and hang on.” Not waiting for them to do so, Gatticus pulled up, and suddenly Darius was standing on a slope, trying not to tumble over backward.

Captain Riker scrambled down to the gun turret at the bottom of the ramp, and Darius went to take Riker’s seat beside Lisa. He pulled out the harness and locked it in place over his chest.

Ectos came over with Ra. They both stood leaning  against the cockpit door. For additional support, they grabbed Darius’s and Lisa’s harnesses to use them like handrails.

“Ready,” Ra said.

Gatticus gunned the engines, and a deafening roar resonated through the ship. Darius was pinned to the back of his seat for long seconds, which he spent blinking the spots from his eyes and fighting to stay conscious.

“Unidentified USO transport, this is Gatticus Thedroux of the... independent Colossus-class carrier, Deliverance. Is Tanik Gurhain on board?”

“If you’re trying to trick me, Gatticus, you’ll have to do better than that,” a gruff voice replied. “Break off, or we’ll open fire.”

“Our ship is here under special circumstances. We believe it may have belonged to the Coalition before it ran out of fuel and ended up here. The crew was killed by Banshees. We are the sole survivors. We were in cryo until power levels dropped low enough to wake us.”

“A Coalition ship? Go on. What exactly do you want, Gatticus?”

“We believe you may have raided the Cygnian depot on Hades and stolen the fuel there. If true, we would be willing to share the Deliverance with you in exchange for that fuel.”

“And how do I know this isn’t a trick to capture us?”

“Why would we bother tricking you?” Gatticus countered. “We’d just shoot you down and be done with it. You’re in range, and an Osprey is more than a match for your Starskimmer.”

“Are you certain your vessel is still here? I’ve got nothing on sensors this side of Hades.”

“We landed it on the moon and powered down again to avoid detection,” Gatticus said. “We can take you there. Do you know how to land on a carrier?”

“I could land on the backside of an Ikarian sand beetle. Lead the way, full throttle. We’re not in a mood for delays.”

“Understood,” Gatticus replied.

“Hey, what about Cassandra?” Darius demanded.

Gatticus glanced over his shoulder, then turned back to the fore and spoke into the comms once more. “We have people on the surface. We need to go back and get them before we go.”

“We cannot wait,” Tanik replied. “You can come back for them after you show us the ship.”

“No deal,” Darius said, shaking his head.

“We’re not happy with that,” Gatticus replied.

“That’s too bad.”

“Grak it, the girl can wait!” Blake said. “It’s that, or we don’t get our fuel.”

“He’s right,” Gatticus replied.

Darius was about to object, but the roar of the Osprey’s engines grew suddenly louder, and the pressure of acceleration increased by a factor of two. Dark clouds whipped by the cockpit, and spots clouded Darius’s vision.

“I’m going to... pass out...” Lisa said between gasps, her voice barely audible over the roar of the Osprey’s engines.

“We’ll go back down for her while we’re refueling the Deliverance,” Gatticus said.

“If you think you are the ones in charge here, you are mistaken,” Ra said, sounding barely winded by the high Gs they were pulling. “They could take your ship and leave.”

“They can’t take control of it without my permission,” Gatticus replied. “They don’t have the access codes. We will get your daughter, Darius,” Gatticus said. “I promise.”



Chapter 26




The dark, cratered landscape of Hades’ moon whipped by beneath the Osprey, and the Deliverance rose up like a mountain from the horizon, shaded green by the bomber’s nav computer. Darius winced as Gatticus brought them down lower, skimming the surface of the moon. The landing bay loomed ahead, an open green rectangle with slanting sides that somehow managed to prop the carrier up without collapsing under the vessel’s crushing weight. The moon’s lighter gravity must have had something to do with it.

Gatticus fired the Osprey’s thrusters in reverse to slow down as they reached the landing bay. He flipped the bomber over until the moon’s fractional gravity sent all the blood rushing to their heads. The bomber angled toward one of the landing strips in the ceiling of the landing bay, and the exiles’ transport appeared beside them, also inverted and firing its thrusters in reverse. Docking clamps from the carrier paced them, racing along tracks in the landing strips. The two ships touched down on parallel landing strips at almost the same time, and Darius heard docking clamps clunk against the underside of the Osprey. A split second later, the sliding clamps in the landing strip slammed on the brakes and threw them all against their harnesses. Ra and Ectos growled and hissed as they clung to Darius’s and Lisa’s harnesses to avoid flying through the cockpit canopy.

Just a few seconds later, the Osprey ground to a halt on one of the carrier’s landing pads. The exiles’ transport slid to a stop on the pad beside theirs. Then both landing pads flipped over until they were sitting right side up inside the carrier’s launch tubes, with the moon’s gravity now tugging them down into their seats.

Darius shook his head to clear it as all the blood suddenly rushed back to his feet. A headache throbbed in his temples, but he ignored it. Pulling the lever to release his harness, he jumped up and strode over to Gatticus’s chair. He was literally itching to get back down to Hades and pick up Cassandra. He studied the flight controls as Gatticus selected the overhead hangar and configured the vehicular airlock to take them up.

“Show me how to take off and land,” Darius said.

“I told you. It’s complicated,” Gatticus replied.

Darius gritted his teeth and shook his head. “Riker!” he called down to the gunner’s position below the pilot’s chair.

“Yeah?” the man replied.

“Take me back down to the surface.”

“No. I have a score to settle with Tanik.”

“No one is settling any scores,” Gatticus said. “The last thing we need is to all start shooting each other. The Phantoms killed your wife, not Tanik,” Gatticus said.

“He provoked them!” Riker roared. A moment later he came bounding up the ramp, his face flushed and blue eyes flashing.

“Yes, but that makes him a secondary offender,” Gatticus replied. He rose from the pilot’s chair to face Riker just as the Osprey emerged inside the hangar alongside the exiles’ transport. “He did not provoke them with the intention of getting innocent people killed. He obviously did it to steal fuel so that he could escape Hades.”

The two ships’ running lights illuminated the darkness inside the hangar, twin pools of silver in a sea of gleaming black shadows.

“Like I give a fek what he intended to do!” Riker said.

“The skava is right,” Ra put in. “We should go back to Karkarus and start rebuilding. Our people need us alive, not dead.”

“Grak that! You said—”

“Forget what I said. If we allow these others to come to harm because of our thirst for revenge, then we are no less careless than Tanik himself, and you still have your children to think about, Riker. Remember that. Let the Revenants deal with Tanik.”

“The Revenants!” Riker scoffed. “They don’t exist! That’s just a story the Cygnians tell to make themselves feel better about the ones who don’t come back from the Crucible.”

Ra stalked over to Riker and grabbed his face, smushing his cheeks together in one long-fingered hand. “Guard your tongue,” he growled.

Riker slapped Ra’s hand away and glared at him. “Keep your paws off me, brother.

“Now is not the time for justice. We will return to the surface.” Turning to Gatticus he said, “Where are the weapons you promised?”

“In the back of the Osprey. You can keep the ship, too, if you like.”

After you fly me and my daughter back up here,” Darius said.

Ra inclined his head to Darius. “Of course.” To Captain Riker he said, “Let us be on our way.”

Riker scowled and hesitated, visibly grinding his teeth, but he gave in with a nod. “Fine.” He shouldered past Gatticus and sat down in the pilot’s chair. “Whoever’s going—go, everyone else, sit down and secure your harnesses.”

Blake and Lisa got up, while Darius went to sit in the seat Blake had vacated.

“Don’t barter the whole carrier away for the fuel,” Darius said, nodding to Gatticus as the android bent to retrieve his severed arm from a webbed compartment  beneath the pilot’s seat.

“I was trained to negotiate peace treaties between alien empires,” Gatticus said as he straightened. “I believe I can manage with one disreputable human.”

“Well, just watch your back,” Darius said.

“Noted, and likewise,” Gatticus replied.

Darius nodded and caught Lisa’s eye. “You sure you don’t want to come with me? Sticking around to negotiate with convicted criminals could be dangerous.”

“Same goes for going back down to Hades,” Lisa replied; then she grimaced and added, “Besides, one take off was bad enough for my stomach. I’ll see you when you get back.”

“All right. Be careful,” he said.

“I will.”

“Let’s go, people,” Riker growled. “Before I change my mind and go kill that son of a vix.”

Veekara made an irritated noise in the back of her throat. “Kindly do not use that expression in my presence. Some vixxons are monogamous and mate for life.”

Riker grunted. “If you say so.”

Gatticus opened the cockpit door, and Blake and Lisa followed him out, while Ra, Ectos, and Veekara all sat down and secured their harnesses.

Darius laid his head back against the headrest of his chair and closed his eyes, listening as the Osprey’s engines thrummed to life with an idling rumble. Waves of exhaustion rolled over him, but anxiety surged in his veins, keeping him awake. I’m coming, Cass... he thought.

A thunk sounded, and Darius blinked his eyes open to see that he’d dozed off and the Osprey was now back inside the vehicular airlock between the hangar and the landing bay. The doors were opening ahead of them, revealing the launch tube with its flashing crimson lights.

A split second after the door finished opening, a robotic voice said, “Three, two, one—

And Darius slammed into the back of his chair as the Osprey whipped down the launch tube and out into a glittering sea of stars.



Chapter 27




The dark side of Hades swelled to blot out the stars—a featureless black circle, visible only by the dawning crescent of sunlight illuminating the far right edge.

The cockpit was silent, but for the hum of the Osprey’s engines, and the whisper of circulating air.

But that silence was short-lived. A double chime sounded, followed by another, and then three more in quick succession.

“Kak...” Riker muttered.

“What is it?” Ra asked.

“We’ve got company. Two ring ships and three Trident-class destroyers.”

Darius leaned forward in his chair. “Phantoms?”

“Yes,” Ra replied.

More double chimes sounded, and Darius saw pinpricks of red light prick through the dark side of Hades.

Darius pointed to them. “What are those lights?”

“Ships launching from the surface...” Riker said.

Darius counted eight glowing red specks, growing rapidly larger and trailing tails of fire like comets. “Phantom transports,” Riker replied. “Shadow-class.”

“Have they spotted us?” Ra asked.

“We’re not under active thrust at the moment, so maybe not. I’m shutting us down until we hit atmosphere. If we play it right, maybe they’ll mistake us for a meteor.”

The cockpit plunged into darkness, and the idling hum of the ship’s engines died with the lights. The air grew still, and a ringing silence began.

“I didn’t realize they had ships on Hades,” Darius whispered as he watched the fiery crimson tails of Phantom transports racing toward the distant gray specks of their capital ships.

“Of course,” Ra said. “But they are short-ranged.”

“What is a war fleet doing here?” Riker wondered aloud.

“The Phantoms may have sent for reinforcements when the depot was attacked,” Veekara said.

“They don’t need a whole fleet to put down a band of rebels,” Riker said. “And that doesn’t explain why they would withdraw their transports from the surface. Unless...”

“What?” Darius demanded. “Unless what?”

More chimes sounded in quick succession.

“Motherfekkers!”

Lights sprang back on inside the cockpit, and the Osprey’s engines roared to life with a sudden burst of acceleration that slammed Darius into the back of his chair. Riker abruptly banked the Osprey. The engines roared, and dozens of bright, glowing red specks appeared dead ahead. For a moment, Darius thought they were the Phantom transports evacuating from the surface, but then he noticed that these contacts were getting steadily larger. They were flying toward the planet, not away from it.

“What’s going on?” Darius gritted out against the unbearable weight squashing him into his seat.

Red target brackets appeared around each of the glowing crimson objects headed for the planet. Why would they withdraw their ships from the surface only to send down others? Maybe some of the Phantoms on Hades had gotten bored and decided to leave, while others were coming down to take their place.

A sharp shriek of weapons fire shivered through the cockpit, and twin orange laser beams snapped out from either side of the cockpit, converging on one of the transports headed down to Hades.

“You’re firing on them?!” Darius demanded. “Are you trying to get us killed? You can’t take on a whole fleet by yourself!”

“You have a better idea to stop those missiles?” Riker snapped.

Darius blinked. “Missiles?”

Riker fired again, and this time a blinding explosion ripped through the void. As it faded, so did one of the red bracket pairs and glowing engine contrails. Riker highlighted another bracket pair and Riker fired twice more in quick succession, provoking yet another blinding explosion. This time Darius had the sense to shield his eyes with his hand.

“Those are planet-busters,” Ra explained as Riker highlighted his next target. “They evacuated the planet and now they are trying to sterilize it.”

A spike of dread lanced through Darius. “What? Why the fek would they do that?”

More lasers snapped out from their Osprey and another missile exploded.

Double chimes sounded in quick succession once more. “They’re launching fighters!” Riker said. “Someone get down and man that turret!”

Ra got up and hurried down to the gun turret below the pilot’s chair.

Ectos hissed and Veekara cursed in an unfamiliar language. The chimes of new contacts sounded endlessly.

“Forget the fighters! They’re launching more missiles!” Riker said. He fired on another, and another, and explosions flared like fireworks, each one as bright as a sun. Darius’s eyes ached and teared, and he was forced to look away.

“We have to turn back,” Ra said quietly.

“If we turn back, everyone in Karkarus is dead!” Riker replied. “Just one of those missiles is packed with enough antimatter to turn the whole town into a crater! We have to intercept them all.”

“You cannot shoot them all before those fighters reach us!” Ra growled. “We need to turn back now, before it is too late.”

“We’re not going anywhere!” Darius replied, fumbling for the release lever of his harness. “And if you’re not going to use that turret, then get out and let someone else do it.”

“I am sorry,” Ra replied. “Veekara—”

Darius released his harness and jumped up just as Veekara stood up beside him—gun in hand. He lunged toward her, but she saw him coming and her pistol swung into line with his chest. A bolt of blue fire screeched out and slammed into him with a searing wave of pain. His mag boots malfunctioned in the same moment, and he went flying into the cockpit door. His head hit with a heavy thud, and he lay there, paralyzed with twitching muscle spasms, watching as Veekara shot Riker in the head with a bright blue flash of light.

Darius’s vision collapsed into dark tunnels, and he fought against an overwhelming urge to pass out. Veekara checked on Riker, nodded to herself, and then turned back to find Darius watching her. Scowling, she aimed her pistol at him and fired again. The cockpit flashed electric blue, and then plunged into darkness.



Chapter 28




Cassandra was right there in front of him, her brown hair shining gold in the moonlight. A pair of Ghouls were carrying her away. She was kicking and screaming. “Let me go!” she said, and kicked one of them. She may as well have been kicking a wall. Her eyes found his. “Dad! Help me! They’re going to send me through the Eye!”

Darius tried running to her, but he couldn’t. He was inexplicably paralyzed. He tried to scream instead, hoping to distract the Ghouls carrying her, so she could get away, but his voice was barely a whisper.

“Isn’t it a father’s job to protect his kids?” Cassandra asked. “Guess you missed the mark there, huh Dad?”

The world flashed white, and the ground shook with a titanic explosion.

Darius’s eyes snapped open, only to see that the explosion was real. A spreading wave of light rippled out, tearing through empty blackness and leaving raw orange flames in its wake. A massive cloud of glowing smoke and debris mushroomed up.

Darius blinked, and then another missile hit with another blinding flash of light, followed by half a dozen more, forcing Darius’s eyes shut. He reeled, disoriented and confused. A muffled roar shivered through his bones, and he felt himself being pressed hard against an unyielding surface. A split second later he remembered: the missiles headed for Hades, the Vixxon shooting him and Captain Riker with some kind of stun weapon...

Suddenly, he realized what he was seeing. He was watching those missiles hit Hades.

“NO!” he screamed, and his eyes flew wide open just in time to be dazzled by another explosion. “Cass!” he screamed, and fought against his harness.

A strangled scream split the air. “I’m going to kill you, Ra!” Riker said.

“I am sorry, my friend. It was the only way. There was nothing you could do.”

“Fek you!”

When Darius was finally able to open his eyes again, they were streaming with tears. He battled against the high Gs they were pulling to find the release lever for his harness, but it wasn’t where he expected to find it, and he wasn’t in the cockpit of the Osprey anymore.

This was a much bigger space, with many more chairs. In front of the chair where he was seated were consoles with an array of glowing displays, dials, buttons, and levers. All around them, the walls, floor, and ceiling appeared to be transparent, or maybe invisible was a better word. Darius had the unsettling feeling of being utterly exposed to vacuum. Yet somehow he could still breathe. His control console and chair were obviously bolted to something, as were all of the other chairs and consoles.

That sparked his curiosity, but only for the briefest second. The details of his surroundings faded as his mind burned with a solitary purpose.

“We have to get down to the surface!” he said, yelling to be heard above the roar of engines.

“It’s too late!” Gatticus replied from where he sat in the center of the invisible deck.

“The fek it is!” Darius said. “I’ll fly down there myself!” He heard someone’s muffled sobs, and turned to see Captain Riker in a control station across an aisle from his. The man’s cheeks were wet with tears, and his face was contorted in agony. Darius recalled something Ra had said about Riker having children on the surface. They must have been in the Grotto with Cassandra.

If Riker was sobbing like that, he must have thought they were dead, and that meant that Cassandra—

Darius shook his head vigorously. No. She wasn’t. Not after everything they’d been through. Not after she’d begged him to take her with him. Not after he’d left her there. She wasn’t. She couldn’t be. Somehow, she’d made it, and he had to get down to the surface to find her.

“How long before we’re free of the planet’s gravity?” a gravelly voice asked. It was the same voice Darius remembered hearing over the comms from the exiles’ ship.

“That depends how much longer we intend to burn the thrusters,” Gatticus replied. “The longer we can keep this up, the faster we can get clear and execute the jump, but I do not wish to kill you all in the process.”

“Passing out is the least of our concerns with those fighters chasing us,” Tanik said. “We really don’t want to get boarded by Phantoms with such a small crew to fight them. Set for eight Gs and sustain that thrust as long as you must to keep from being boarded.”

“As you wish,” Gatticus replied.

“Hey, speak for yourself,” Lisa said. “I mind passing—”

It felt like they slammed into a wall. Suddenly it was all any of them could do just to keep breathing. Talking or moving was out of the question. Darius’s lips parted in an involuntary grimace. His face felt like it was going to peel away from his bones, and his eyes were drilling deeper into his eye sockets. His vision blurred, and dark spots danced. He heard Gatticus, Ra, and Tanik continue talking, as if the acceleration was nothing to them, but he couldn’t make out what they were saying through the rush of blood roaring in his ears.

There was nothing he could do but sit there and wait. He cursed his own powerlessness. Cassandra was down there on the surface still. He was sure of it. The Grotto was dug out of solid rock, like a bomb shelter. Surely it had survived the attack. Or maybe the missiles had missed Karkarus.

Those thoughts spun through Darius’s head as the terrifying pressure of acceleration went on and on. At some point he realized he wasn’t breathing, and he forced down a gulp of air. His ribs ached sharply as his lungs inflated, and he used the pain to fight back the tide of darkness creeping in at the edges of his vision. He glared at the back of Gatticus’s head, furious that he refused to go back and check for survivors. Then his gaze slid away, searching the bridge. He found at least four strangers sitting with them. Tanik Guhain and his so-called exiles?

The pressure on Darius’s chest didn’t ease and his breathing was becoming increasingly labored. His vision narrowed swiftly and he realized he was about to lose consciousness.

He heard Tanik’s gruff voice again, and he committed the sound to memory. Riker was right. Tanik was to blame for this. He’d provoked the Cygnians, and he was going to pay.



Chapter 29




Just before Darius could actually pass out, the acceleration lifted, and he sucked in a sudden breath. His heart was pounding, and his whole body ached, but he was alive.

Gatticus spoke, “Establishing warp bubble in three... two... one.”

The transition was oddly soundless, and the starry blackness of space vanished in a blinding flash. As it faded, an equally blinding circle of light appeared dead ahead, surrounded by a pure black void on all sides.

No longer pinned to his chair, Darius found the lever to release his harness and he burst out of his seat. He stalked up to the control station beside Gatticus’s, to the man he’d tentatively identified as Tanik, and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Mr. Gurhain?”

“Yes?” the man asked in that gruff voice of his. He rotated his chair to face Darius, revealing a lumpy, scarred face, a bald head, intense yellow-green eyes, and lips twisted into a permanent snarl by one of his scars.

Part of Darius was disappointed. It would be more satisfying to smash up a pretty face. “This is for you,” he said, and slammed his fist into the man’s face as hard as he could.

Darius’s hand erupted in pain, but he drew a satisfying crack from Tanik’s jaw. The man didn’t even blink, but his lip split, and gushed bright red blood down his stubbled chin.

“Do you feel better now?” Tanik asked. “Or would you prefer if I fought back?”

Darius gritted his teeth and pointed a shaking finger in Tanik’s face. “Are you mocking me? This is your fault!” Turning to Gatticus, he said, “Take us back. Right now. We need to go look for survivors.”

Gatticus’s chair turned. “There won’t be any survivors,” he said quietly.

“You don’t know that!”

“I do. One of the missiles hit Karkarus. They each carry ten kilograms of antimatter. That’s equivalent of about four hundred megatons explosive yield.” Gatticus shook his head. “Even if that did not collapse the Grotto, the extreme heat and radiation would be enough to kill anything within several hundred kilometers of the blast.”

Darius felt suddenly cold and weak. Despair clawed in his gut, but he steeled himself against it. Cassandra’s voice echoed inside his head: Can’t kill a rock. “You don’t know that there weren’t survivors. You’re not God. They could have jumped in the ocean to survive the blast.”

“The water would boil them alive, and even if it didn’t, the radiation—”

“Take me back!”

“I am sorry,” Gatticus replied. “Even if your hope were justified, we could not go back. There simply aren’t enough of us to fight a fleet the size of the one the Phantoms sent.”

“It’s Tanik’s fault,” Riker growled, stumbling over to them with balled fists and puffy red eyes. “Get up you miserable vagon!

Tanik regarded Riker with one dark eyebrow raised, and a small smile on his snarling lips. Chairs turned and suddenly all eyes were on them, waiting to see what would happen next.

“If that is what you wish,” Tanik agreed. He opened his own harness and stood up. A long black jacket fluttered around his knees like a cape as he stood up in the zero-G environment.

Riker didn’t even give him a chance to fully rise before he rushed in with fists swinging.

Tanik seemed to anticipate each blow, and he deflected them easily. Riker charged, and Tanik slipped around behind him, giving him a kick in the rear to send him sprawling.

Tanik strayed too close to Darius, and he took his chance, delivering a swift kick to the back of the man’s knees.

But Darius’s foot swept through empty air as Tanik jumped over his leg and somehow spun around to deliver a kick of his own. A heavy mag boot cracked against the side of Darius’s head, and he blacked out.

He awoke a few seconds later, dazed, still standing thanks to his own mag boots, and with his head throbbing violently.

“That’s enough!” Ra growled.

“Are you okay?”

Lisa’s voice. Darius turned to see her standing beside him. She winced and reached up to touch the side of his head.

He brushed her hand aside irritably. “I’m fine.”

She nodded slowly, uncertainly, but gave no reply.

“Where are we going?” Blake asked as he joined them in standing.

The four strangers scattered around the bridge also got up and strode over to Tanik. Darius glared at each of them in turn.

“Deep space,” Gatticus said. “We need to stay away from inhabited systems and registered trade routes until we can figure out our next move.”

“And what exactly is our next move?” Ra asked.

“We have hundreds or maybe even thousands of people in cryo,” Lisa said. “We should find a habitable planet that the Phantoms haven’t discovered yet, and go start a colony there with them.”

Tanik shook his head. “We cannot hide forever. If we colonize a planet, eventually we will be discovered and forced to evacuate. It would be better to stay mobile. This ship is big enough to be our home and our base of operations. It is more than large enough to handle a few thousand people.”

“Base of operations?” Lisa echoed. “What operations?”

“Military operations. It’s time someone fought back against the Cygnians.”

“Why not just join the Coalition?” Blake asked.

“We don’t know where they are,” Gatticus replied.

“And they may not even exist anymore,” Tanik added with a grimace.

“What do you mean?” Blake demanded. His eyes darted to Gatticus. “Slick, I thought you said—”

“I said I don’t know where they are. No one does. That is how they stay safe.”

“Or perhaps no one knows where they are because they were wiped out,” Tanik said. “Either way, they cannot help us. We’re on our own.”

“One ship against an interstellar empire of blood thirsty monsters?” Blake asked. “You’re off your nut, Scarface.”

Tanik ignored him and regarded each of the others in turn. “Don’t you want revenge, to find the ones responsible for sentencing you to death and hunting your loved ones, to kill the ones who killed your children and mates? They slaughtered you all for even daring to attack them. They did it to keep the prey on other hunting worlds in line. They made an example of you—of us. If you run and hide now, then everyone who died on Hades will have died for no reason.

“But—” Tanik raised a finger. “—if you use this anger you are feeling now to fight back, then the deaths of your loved ones will become your rallying cry, and for every one of them who died, we will kill a hundred or even a thousand Cygnians. They will learn to fear us, as we have feared them. We will kill their children, and their children’s children, and then we will kill them. You want to give meaning to the lives and deaths of your loved ones? Then join me, and fight back.”

Silence rang on the bridge.

“Who’s with me?” Tanik asked quietly.

Darius’s whole body trembled. His throat had closed off with a painful knot, so he thrust his hand up. Hot, bitter tears fell from his eyelashes as he blinked.

Tanik inclined his head to him.

Riker thrust up his hand next, followed by Ra, Veekara, and Ectos. But Lisa, Blake, and Gatticus did not raise their hands.

“Why should we throw our lives away in some blasted crusade?” Blake asked. “Hiding is underrated.”

Lisa nodded slowly. “I agree. There’s too few of us. How many Phantoms are there? Billions?”

“Trillions—quadrillions, in fact,” Gatticus said.

“Then whatever we do, it’ll never be enough,” Lisa added, shaking her head.

Tanik’s yellow-green eyes glittered and he smiled, but his scars twisted half of that smile into a snarl. “You think we’re the only ones who’ve lost people? Everyone has! If we can give them hope, then we will spark the blaze that will light the entire galaxy on fire, and it will burn the Cygnians alive. It will become their funeral pyre. They may be many, but we are many many more, and if we all decide to fight back at the same time, then they will be the ones who need to run and hide!”

Lisa glanced at Darius. He stared grimly back, and she slowly raised her hand. Neither Blake nor Gatticus joined her.

“If we decide to do this, there’s no going back,” Gatticus said, with his eyes on Lisa. “There’s still a chance for you, Lisa, and for you,” he said, nodding to Darius. “Anyone who was in cryo and isn’t marked yet could still be sent to the Crucible and come back with the Seal of Life.” He used his teeth to roll up the sleeve of his remaining arm, revealing a glowing triangle with an eye inside of it.

“Or the seal of death,” Ra added, brandishing the glowing sickle on the underside of his own wrist.

“Or you might simply never return at all,” Tanik put in.

“The decision is yours; for those who want to leave, you are welcome to do so. Those who want to stay, may stay.”

“I didn’t agree to give command of this ship to you,” Gatticus said quietly.

“Perhaps not, but it is not yours to give, and the majority has already spoken. Captain Riker?”

The burly man turned.

“With your experience, command should be yours. I will rather assume overall strategic command of our forces, if that is okay with everyone else?”

Heads bobbed throughout the bridge.

“Based on what qualifications?” Blake demanded.

“Based on the twelve years I spent leading the Coalition fleet.”








Part Three - The Coalition



Chapter 30




“You are the Dark Revenant,” Ra said slowly.

Tanik nodded. “Yes.”

“I thought he was killed.”

“I’m sure the Cygnians would like you to think that, but no, I’m not dead. Well, not yet,” Tanik replied, smirking.

“Hang on,” Blake said. “You led the Coalition fleet?” Tanik nodded, and Blake looked pointedly at Ra. “You said they were convicted criminals.”

Ra rocked his head and rolled his shoulders. “They are. I did not know that their crimes were political in nature.”

Tanik raised his arms and rolled up his sleeves, one at a time, first revealing a glowing Seal of Life on the underside of his right wrist, followed by the scythe-shaped Seal of Death on his left. The other four humanoids standing behind him did the same, revealing they had both marks as well.

“I don’t get it,” Blake said.

Tanik nodded. “We each received the Seal of Life first. We acquired the Seal of Death later on, when we were convicted for our crimes against the Union.”

Blake shook his head. “No, I mean, you were safe. You could have lived out your lives in peace. Why throw all that away? Why join the Coalition?”

“Do you have children?” Tanik asked.

Blake winced. “I used to, yeah.”

“Then imagine how you would have felt if they were taken from you by force and subjected to an alien rite of passage that ultimately killed them.” Tanik’s eyes glittered with fury. “What would you do next? Wouldn’t you fight the ones responsible? Wouldn’t you do everything in your power to make them pay?”

Blake said nothing to that, and no one else spoke for a long moment.

Eventually Ra broke the silence: “What do we do next?”

Tanik’s blazing eyes turned to Ra, then to Gatticus. “We wake the others you spoke of, tell them everything that’s happened, and convince them to join us.”

“And what if they don’t want to join?” Blake asked, smiling lopsidedly. “Are you going to make them?”

“No. They will be allowed to leave with you and Gatticus as soon as we come within range of a suitable USO world.”

“We’ll convince them,” Darius said in a hoarse whisper.

“I like your optimism. Perhaps you should be one of our recruiters. Your story could be inspiring for others.”

“I’m not going to sit on the sidelines,” Darius said.

“I didn’t say you would,” Tanik replied. “No one who joins the Coalition ever does. You’ll pick a crew position and train for it along with everyone else.”

Darius shook his head. “Give me a gun. Or a ship. I used to fly planes on Earth. Put me in a fighter.”

Tanik nodded. “Assuming you pass the aptitude tests, you can have a whole squadron of fighters.”

“Good.”

“And me?” Lisa asked. “What should I do?”

“Your aptitude tests will tell us what to train you for.”

“I thought we could just download stuff to our brains now?” Blake asked. “What’s the point of aptitude tests and training?”

“Knowledge is easy to impart. Natural ability is not, nor is muscle memory. There is no substitute for real experience,” Tanik said, and ran a hand along the longest of the scars on his face. “Veterans are made by wars, not by neural mappers.”

“Well, what are we waiting for?” Darius asked. “Let’s get started.”

“I like your enthusiasm, Darius,” Tanik said with a snarling grin.

“How do you know his name?” Lisa asked.

“Someone must have mentioned it.”

“We did not,” Gatticus replied.

Tanik shrugged. “No? Are you certain?”

“My memory never fails.”

“Not counting the amnesia, right Slick?” Blake asked.

“Corruption of old data does not affect new data. The first thing I did when I woke up was to isolate and repair the damaged sectors. There is nothing wrong with my memory. None of us mentioned Darius’s name in front of Tanik.”

“Then perhaps one of the Revenants whispered it to me.” Tanik shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. We have more important things to focus on. We have just twelve hours before this ship drops out of FTL, and I’d suggest we use them to eat, rest, and prepare for waking the others. Tomorrow will be a very busy day.”

* * *

Tanik led them through the Deliverance to the mess hall. He seemed to already know his way around the ship.

Darius followed along in a daze. His entire body felt numb. Lisa walked beside him, but made no attempt to offer solace. She seemed to realize there was nothing she could say or do to make him feel any better. Darius still refused to believe Cassandra was dead, but denial was only getting him so far. Every now and then, naked horror would punch through to the surface and leave him breathless. His eyes burned with the constant threat of tears, and his chest ached as if all of his ribs were broken.

They’d come so far together. It just didn’t seem possible that this was the end. Death had haunted Cassandra’s every step for as long as Darius could remember, and she’d cheated it more than once, so it was easy to believe that she’d somehow found a way to cheat it again.

Which was exactly why he needed to get in the cockpit of a ship—or at least get the training he needed to fly one of the Deliverance’s transports back to Hades. Cassandra was still alive. Somehow, some way, she hadn’t died with those missiles.

They reached a cavernous room with row upon row of tables, but oddly, no chairs. “Welcome to the mess hall,” Tanik said. “Or have you all already been here?”

“Briefly,” Lisa said.

Blake nodded. “Yeah, but we were surrounded by dead bodies and their frozen guts at the time. Kind of an appetite killer.”

“Well, you must be hungry now,” Tanik said.

“Starving,” Blake agreed. “Where’s the food?”

Tanik nodded to a long table along one side of the mess hall and led the way there. It was a kind of buffet counter, but each of the dishes was sealed under a transparent lid, and the food inside was vacuum-packed in individual portions. Darius peered through the lids and read the digital labels on a few of them.

Boiled Garlic Potatoes

Dried Berries

Chopped BBQ Steak

Potato Salad

Tuna Salad

Mashed carrots

Mashed potatoes

Flour Tortillas

Refried Beans and Beef

Darius shook his head. “These foods are all from Earth.”

Gatticus nodded. “Of course, the Deliverance  probably just came from there. It likely re-supplied while it was loading your cryo pods.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Blake said. “How do we eat this stuff?” he asked, swinging open one of the lids to peer inside.

Tanik reached for a pair of scissors clipped to a rack behind the food compartments. “With these.” He withdrew a package of dried fruit and carefully sliced open the top of the plastic packaging. Then he reached for a spoon, and carefully spooned out a portion of the berries. “You have to be careful,” he said, slowly turning the spoon over, first one way, and then the other. “All of the food is prepared so that it sticks to itself and to your spoon, but that won’t stop it from flying off your utensils if you aren’t careful.”

“So?” Blake shrugged. “A few runaway berries aren’t going to hurt anyone.”

Tanik regarded him coldly. “No? Wait until you’ve been in space for a year and you’re on half rations because you’re running out of food. The only way to re-stock is to pirate passing food shipments headed for USO worlds, and someone always dies in one of those attacks. So, yes, I’m afraid a few runaway berries will hurt someone, because you never know how many people will have to die to replace them.”

“And there’s another good reason not to join the Coalition.”

“It is easy to find reasons to be a coward; it is much harder to find reasons to stand up and fight for what you believe in.”

Blake snorted. “You’re like a fortune cookie, Scarface—full of hot air and useless advice.”

Blake caught a few angry looks from Tanik’s comrades in arms, but he didn’t seem to notice. One of them was a beautiful brunette human woman, but she didn’t look angry. She looked wary.

Tanik ignored Blake and said, “Everyone grab what you like, and let’s find a table.”

“If you don’t mind, I’ll take my leave now,” Gatticus said.

Blake arched an eyebrow at him. “You’re not planning to cut and run without us, are you, Slick?”

Gatticus shook his head. “I cannot leave the ship while it is in FTL. Besides, it would be better to wait until we come within range of a USO planet. I will let you know when I am ready to leave.”

“All right, so where are you going?” Blake asked.

Gatticus swiped his hand through the empty space where his other arm should be. “I’m going to re-attach my arm.”

“Right,” Blake said. “Good luck with that.”

“I will not need luck, but thank you.” Turning to Tanik, Gatticus nodded. “Mr. Gurhain, I assume I can trust you not to do anything that would compromise the safety of the ship or its crew until everyone has decided whether or not to join your cause.”

“You have my word.”

“For whatever that is worth,” Ra muttered, and Ectos hissed.

Darius glanced at each of them, and then back to Tanik, wondering what kind of history they might share.

“You cannot force people to fight for a cause they do not believe in,” Tanik said with a snarling smile.

Gatticus frowned. “I will see you all later,” he said; then turned and strode for the exit.

Darius watched him go, wondering about what Tanik had just said. Technically, it was possible to force people to fight for a cause they didn’t believe in. Conscription was a perfect example of that.

Darius frowned and shook his head. It didn’t matter. He and Cassandra would be long gone, on their way to the nearest USO world by the time Tanik hatched his plan. Let the tyrants and heroes kill each other. Someone’s got to be around to rebuild the galaxy after the smoke clears.



Chapter 31




The lack of chairs in the mess hall was not an issue, since standing or sitting in zero-G was basically the same thing. In fact, standing was actually more comfortable and a lot easier to accomplish.

Eating from vacuum packs with a spoon was more complicated than Tanik had made it look. He was dead right about food floating away if they weren’t careful. Blake lost a piece of boiled potato and a piece of beef almost immediately, and Lisa lost a chunk of cheesecake, which she’d decided to eat as an appetizer. Everyone lost something with every other spoonful, but it turned out that it didn’t really matter. One of Tanik’s companions was a crouching, winged Murciago who could dart around in zero-G as easily as a fish through water. He flitted around collecting all the scraps of food that escaped the table. It would have been amusing to watch if Murciagos weren’t so utterly revolting to look at. They had a wrinkly white skin that hung in flaccid folds from their hollow bones. Their faces were vaguely human, but with two black slits for a nose, two large black eyes, and a pinched black orifice of a mouth with a sticky purple tongue that they used to snatch insects—or in this case, drifting bits of food—from the air.

The Murciago’s purple tongue lashed out to snatch a piece of beef that had yet to fly free of Blake’s spoon. Blake’s face screwed up in disgust, and he tossed his spoon at the creature. “Hey, Batman! Fek off.” The Murciago ducked, and the spoon bounced off an exposed pipe in the ceiling.

Tik, mind your manners, please,” Tanik said.

“Tik? That’s your name?” Lisa asked as the Murciago landed in a crouch beside her, a feat it accomplished by flapping its wings in reverse and re-engaging its mag boots with a soft clu-clunk.

Tik replied with a series of high-pitched squeaks that reminded Darius of a gopher—or a bat, he supposed.

“What did he say?” Lisa asked.

“He said, yes, and what is your name?” Tanik replied around a mouthful of potatoes.

“Right, we forgot to introduce ourselves, didn’t we?”

“Yeah, but somehow Scarface knew Darius’s name anyway,” Blake said while sipping a flavored isotonic beverage through a straw. He released the reusable flask after a moment and left it floating beside him.

“Someone must have mentioned my name,” Darius explained.

“I’m Lisa.” She patted her chest while nodding to the Tik. Then she nodded to the other strangers. “What are all of your names?”

“I, Ikatosh,” a large, white-furred humanoid said, pointing a fat thumb to himself. He looked like a polar bear standing on hind legs with a flattened snout and a permanent smile on his bluish-gray lips. “You may say Ike for short way of saying.”

Darius recognized the species as a Korothian.

“I’m Dyara,” the brunette Darius had noticed earlier said. She was stunning: petite, with ample curves and a small waist, rich brown eyes, and a perfect porcelain skin.

“Nice to meet you,” Darius said.

She smiled. “And you, Darius.” Then her smile faded. “I’m sorry about your daughter.”

Darius nodded, and looked away, down to his food. He spooned out some mashed potatoes and looked back up just in time to see Lisa send Dyara a warning look. He frowned, wondering what that was about. Then he remembered how Lisa had grabbed his hand after he’d said goodbye to Cassandra, and he noted her proximity now—standing at the table beside him, physically between him and the only other human woman at the table. Coincidence?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Maybe she was jealous, or at least guarding her interests, but he couldn’t bring himself to care one way or the other. He’d never had much luck with women. Cassandra’s mother, Claire, was testament to that. She’d abandoned them soon after Cass had been born, and when Cassandra had been diagnosed with cancer, she hadn’t even bothered to visit, or call. Claire had always been easier to define by what she wasn’t than what she was—an absence, not a presence.

The only woman in Darius’s life who’d ever stuck around or mattered was Cassandra, and that wasn’t about to change.

Darius shook his head to clear away those thoughts. Lisa and Ra took turns introducing the people Darius had already met, but when they were done, there was still one stranger left at the table.

“What about Flipper?” Blake asked, jerking his chin to the one who hadn’t been introduced.

It was another of the willowy, hairless amphibians from Walros. Darius winced at the memory of the Dol Walin guardian of the Grotto. Tita was probably dead now.

No. Darus shook his head. She wasn’t dead. She would have found a way to get the kids closest to her to safety. Especially Cassandra, who was supposed to be sleeping beside her.

Darius missed hearing the Dol Walin’s name, but Blake didn’t. He paused in mid-chew of a piece of bread. “Kithy-a-what?”

“Kithisiosakata,” he said in a watery voice. “Kithisios for short.”

“You call that short? Let’s stick with Flipper.”

“You are referring to my hands?” Kithisios asked, and fluttered three broad, flipper-like fingers.

“Hey what do you know, your name is Flipper and you’ve got flippers for fingers. That’s some kind of coincidence.”

“My name is not, Flipper,” Kithisios said.

Blake nodded agreeably. “Whatever you say, Gills.”

“I do not possess gills. You are an annoying person, Blake. I do not like you.”

“That’s a shame, Flip, and here I was hoping we could be friends.”

“Enough,” Tanik growled. “You will respect my crew or you will leave this table.”

“I’m done, anyway,” Blake said, and left the table.

“What’s wrong with him?” Dyara asked.

Lisa shook her head. “He’s bitter because he woke up from cryo a lot later than he expected to. He thought they’d find a cure for his cancer in time for him to see his grandkids get married and maybe even say goodbye to his wife. Instead, he woke up a thousand years late, and now everyone he ever knew or cared about is long dead.”

“And what about you?” Tanik asked as he reached into one of the vacuum packs floating in front of him. He withdrew a glistening cob of corn. “Didn’t you lose everyone too?”

Lisa hesitated. “I didn’t have anyone to lose.”

“I am sorry. Solitude can be an even heavier burden than loss. It is a testament to your character that you bear it so well.”

Lisa smiled wanly and looked away.

Darius glanced sideways at her. “I didn’t know that,” he whispered.

She shrugged. “You never asked.”

“Well, we haven’t really had time to get to know each other,” he said.

Lisa reached for his hand and gave it a squeeze. “I know. It’s okay.”

Dyara watched them with obvious interest, and her gaze lingered on their hands.

“Unfortunately, time is not something we are going to have much of,” Tanik said, proving that he’d heard their whispers. Everyone looked at him, even Captain Riker, who looked up from his food with red, puffy eyes. He’d spent the entire meal locked in a private world of grief.

“Why is that?” Ra asked carefully.

“Because I have a mission for us,” Tanik replied, while gnawing on his cob of corn. He released the corn and left it floating beside him; then he reached for a napkin from a dispenser in the center of the table and used it to wipe the grease from his hands and face. When he was done, he left it drifting beside him with the corn.

“What mission?” Riker asked in a hoarse whisper.

“A target of opportunity,” Tanik said with a snarling grin.

“Yesss?” Ra hissed. “Stop tiptoeing around the slivath.”

“We’re going to destroy the Crucible and stop the Phantoms from ever taking any of our children again.”



Chapter 32




Maintenance drones floated down from compartments in the walls and ceiling to take care of the mess after they finished eating. Empty vacuum packs and flasks floated around the table with dirty spoons and scissors.

Darius watched the drones flitting about. They plucked garbage and utensils from the air with grasping arms and carried them off to dish washing machines and nanite recyclers in the far wall of the mess hall.

“We’d better go,” a pleasant voice prompted, and Darius turned to see Dyara standing beside him. She held out a hand to him. “Tanik is going to assign us sleeping quarters.”

Lisa, who was standing beside him and gawking at the maintenance bots, snapped out of it and grabbed his hand before he could consider taking Dyara’s.

Dyara eyed their hands and lowered hers, but she didn’t take the hint, either, and chose to walk on the other side of Darius.

“How do you two know each other?” she asked as they followed Tanik and the others out of the mess hall.

“We woke up together on this ship,” Darius explained.

“Oh, I see. I thought maybe you had some history together.”

“No,” Darius replied, and withdrew his hand from Lisa’s. She flashed him a hurt look, but he pretended not to notice. He didn’t like the proprietary way she was treating him. They weren’t together, but she was making it look and feel like they were.

They reached the still-broken doors to the mess hall and walked into the corridor beyond. The ship was well-lit now, and there were no signs of the dead crew. Darius absently wondered if they’d been dropped into recyclers too. Nano machines were the perfect way to recycle just about any kind of waste and turn it into something useful, but Darius wasn’t sure he wanted to know what all those dead people might have been recycled into.

“Did you have someone you left behind in your time? Or are you single?” Dyara asked.

“Seriously?” Lisa burst out. “What are you, a vix in heat?”

“What are you, his wife?” Dyara countered.

Darius held up his hands. “I’m going to save you both some time. I am single, but I’m not looking.”

Having said that, he walked purposely faster to get by both Dyara and Lisa. He felt a pang of guilt over his rudeness, but he immediately squashed it. He didn’t have time for regrets, much less for romance. Finding a way back to Hades to rescue Cassandra was all he could think about.

After a few minutes of walking, they came to the sleeping quarters that Darius had initially found upon waking from his cryo tank. This was where he’d found jumpsuits and underwear for Cassandra and the others. The doors to those rooms remained bent and pried open. Darius frowned. He’d half-hoped the ship’s maintenance bots would have found a way to fix them by now. It was going to be hard to sleep with the door open, especially now that they knew what kind of monsters might be lurking in the dark.

At the front of the group Tanik stopped and turned to address them. “Pick a room. You’ll find sleeping bags inside the lockers. Clip them or strap them down to whatever surface you like, and get as much sleep as you can. We have eleven hours before we drop out of FTL.”

“Shouldn’t we set up a night watch system? In case there are more Phantoms on board?” Lisa asked.

Tanik shook his head. “That won’t be necessary. I was able to verify from the bridge that there are no lifeforms unaccounted for on board the Deliverance.

“I thought they can mask their thermal signatures?” Blake asked.

“Yes, but Gatticus and I ran an in-depth computer analysis of the ships surveillance recordings, and we found nothing. The Cygnians are not invisible, just hard to spot. They cannot elude computer detection algorithms.”

“Hey speaking of Slick, where is he, anyhow?” Blake asked.

“Since he does not need to sleep as we do, he is likely on the Bridge,” Tanik said. “It is where I would be if I were him.”

Heads bobbed and people muttered among themselves about androids, Ra and Riker the loudest of all.

“If there are no further questions, I suggest you choose your quarters and get some sleep,” Tanik said.

People began filing off into nearby rooms, and Tanik stood waiting for them to pick their quarters. Darius waited, too, unsettled by the idea of sleeping in one of these rooms with their broken doors.

When almost everyone had chosen their sleeping quarters, Tanik turned and strode down the corridor. Veekara started after him, but he turned and held up a hand to stop her. “I sleep alone,” he said, to which Veekara muttered something and scowled. Tanik walked on to a room at least ten doors down from the ones the others had picked, while Veekara spent a moment looking around, as if unsure what to do next.

Then her solid white eyes met Darius’s, and she smiled. Before she could do or say anything, Dyara stepped in front of Darius and blocked Veekara from sight.

“Darius,” she said.

He raised one eyebrow. “Yes?”

“After what you said—”

“Yeah, hey, about that—I’m sorry.”

It was Dyara’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Why?”

“I didn’t mean to be so rude. You’re beautiful, and you seem nice, but the only thing I can think about right now is—” Darius stopped himself before he could reveal his plan to go back and find Cassandra. “Revenge,” He finished, and cleared his throat.

“It’s okay. I just thought, life is short—at least in the Coalition it is—and I figured maybe we could find some solace in each other, but if you’re not interested, then neither am I.”

“I get it.” Darius wanted to say more, but he wasn’t sure what else to say. He shook his head, feeling suddenly confused about who had rejected who. “Was there something else you wanted to say?”

“Yes.” She looked around quickly and then hugged her shoulders. “I can’t stand the thought of sleeping alone, with the door open, and the thought of all those people who died on board....”

“Yeah,” Darius nodded. “I can understand that.”

“Do you mind if we sleep together?”

For a second Darius’s mind jumped in a different direction, and he caught himself imagining Dyara naked.

“I mean, literally sleep, together,” Dyara said, smiling knowingly and giving his arm a playful squeeze.

Darius felt his cheeks warm and he cleared his throat. “Ah, sure. That’s fine with me.” He turned in a quick circle, looking for a room that hadn’t been taken yet. All of the nearest ones were already full, so he nodded down the corridor in the direction that Tanik had gone, and they walked down there together. Finding an empty room right beside Tik, the Murciago, Darius walked in. “How’s this?” he asked.

“It’s fine,” Dyara said. She walked over to a nearby locker and opened it to reveal a closet with four shiny silver sleeping bags clipped to bars running along the top and bottom of the closet.

She unclipped two of them, and sent one of them floating down to him. It wrapped itself around his legs, and he peeled it away to find that it was as long as he was tall. He held it up, looking for the zipper. Dyara already had hers clipped to sturdy metal loops at the top and bottom of one of the walls. She waved him over, and he joined her there.

“Like this,” she said, and helped him clip his sleeping bag to the wall beside hers. She used a third clip that he hadn’t seen to fasten the middle too.

“What’s that for?” Darius asked.

“Emergency maneuvers,” Dyara said. “Without the lumbar anchors attached, if someone fires the thrusters in full reverse, or any direction other than forward, it could break our backs.”

“Ouch.”

Dyara nodded. “Yeah, ouch.” She unzipped her sleeping bag, turned, and walked toward a shut door inside the room. She waved it open as she approached and walked through. The door promptly slid shut behind her. A moment later, Darius heard a hissing sound, almost like water, but maybe it was air instead.

He walked up to the door and knocked on it. “Dyara?”

“Yes?”

“Are you okay? What are you doing?”

“Using the facilities,” she said. “Be out in a minute!”

Suddenly he felt stupid for knocking. Obviously, she was in the bathroom. He’d knocked on the door because he was curious about how the facilities worked, and because he needed to use them too.

How do you take a shower in space? He wondered. Or pee? Or...

Darius waited for at least five minutes, with nothing better to do than stare at the ceiling. He tried not to think about his bursting bladder.

For the last two minutes before the door slid open he heard a roaring sound, like a vacuum cleaner; then the door slid open and warm, humid air rolled out. Through the steam, he saw Dyara floating there, completely naked.

“Sorry,” he said, and quickly looked away.

“For what?” she asked.

He glanced back in her direction, but kept his eyes on her feet. She pulled herself down using handrails on the walls and planted her bare feet back inside her mag boots; then she walked right by him.

He stared open-mouthed at her naked backside as she walked over to one of the lockers. She opened it to reveal fresh jumpsuits and removed one for herself. Darius looked away again, back into the bathroom. Where were the clothes she’d been wearing? They were nowhere to be seen.

“Where did you...” he turned back to see Dyara floating free of her boots once more, holding to a handrail beside one of the lockers as she pulled on a pair of unisex underwear, followed by a bra.

“Where did I, what?”

“Your clothes,” he said, staring stupidly at her.

“Oh, there’s a laundry chute in every shower,” Dyara said. “You put dirty clothes in there, and the ship’s service bots take care of them for you.”

“Nice.”

“Want me to show you how it all works?”

“Please,” Darius said, and cleared his throat.

Not bothering to put on a jumpsuit first, Dyara brushed by him in her underwear. She gave his arm a squeeze as she passed by, and he joined her inside the bathroom. He listened carefully as she spent the next few minutes explaining everything.

There was a hose with a funnel attached. Dyara turned it on, revealing that it was a suction hose for urine collection. A rack above the collector had a few different funnel attachments, and Dyara pointed out the different ones for men and women. Then she showed him the toilet. It had two footrests with straps and two handles to hold onto, as well as a hole for solid waste to drop into. Except that nothing would be dropping anywhere without gravity. Dyara explained that the toilet used airflow to carry waste down; then she pointed to a camera inside the toilet and to a monitoring screen between the two footrests that would help him to aim. If he missed the hole, he could clog the air vents and effectively block the toilet, which would be an extremely unpleasant experience in zero-G.

After that, Dyara showed him the alcohol-based gel dispenser that he could use to wash his hands, along with some kind of paper to dry them, which she dispensed and then disposed of inside a vacuum-powered trash receptacle.

Finally, she showed him the laundry chute and shower. The shower was entirely automatic. He had to close the door to lock himself inside the small cubicle; then wash his face with water and soap dispensed from two different hoses. As soon as he finished that, he would have to put on a breathing mask, and then float there inside the shower while it blasted him with jets of hot water and soap from the walls, floor, and ceiling. After a few seconds the soap would stop and water would keep blasting him until all the suds were washed away, or at least sufficiently diluted. After that, air intakes on one side of the shower would suck away all the floating droplets of water and soap, while hot air would blast him from the other side. Dyara told him he had to slowly turn his body inside the shower using the handrails so that the hot air could dry him on both sides.

“Easy, right?” she asked.

“I guess so,” Darius replied. “You want me to stick around in case you get into trouble?” she asked.

He imagined having to use the toilet and shower with her watching, and gave his head a quick shake. “Ah, no, that’s okay. I think I’ve got it.”

“Oh, I get it. You’re shy,” she said.

Darius’s cheeks burned and she smiled, glancing down at herself. She was still half-naked. “Sorry, I forgot, you come from a different time. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I’ll be more careful in the future.”

“It’s okay,” he said. Dyara left the bathroom and waved the door shut behind her. Darius attended to his bladder first using the suction hose, followed by his bowels. It wasn’t really any more complicated than using a regular toilet on Earth, except for the part about using the camera and screen to watch his aim and having to hold himself in position with the handrails. When he was done, however, he realized there was one thing Dyara hadn’t explained: how to wipe. To his surprise he found a roll of actual toilet paper beside the toilet, and he used that, disposing of it in the vacuum powered trash receptacle. He hoped that was the right place for it. The vacuum-powered toilet that could get blocked just by bad aim didn’t seem like a good place to throw toilet paper.

Finally, he unstrapped his boots, stripped naked, and climbed into the shower. He found the laundry chute and dumped his clothes inside. He shut the door and washed his face with the dispenser tubes as Dyara had indicated. When done, he slipped on the breathing mask and activated the shower with a wave of his hand. Hot water and soap immediately blasted him on all sides, and he used his hands to smear it all over himself like he would in a shower on Earth.

He felt a world of tension leaving his body as the jets blasted away what was at least a week’s worth of sweat and grime. But just as he was starting to appreciate the jets for their muscle massaging capabilities, they shut off.

Darius spent a few seconds listening to the sound of his breath reverberating inside his mask, and wondering what he needed to do next. The air gleamed with drifting jewels of water, all moving in different directions and at different speeds. They collided with each other, coalescing into larger and larger pools, and sometimes exploding with showers of tiny, glinting droplets. It was mesmerizing.

Then the air intakes started up with a roar, and Darius had to hold the hand rails to keep from being sucked against them. He watched water streaming into the intake vents; drifting balls became tentacles that writhed around him like snakes. He shivered as they slithered by, brushing his bare skin.

Within just a few seconds, the water was gone. Hot air began blasting his backside while the intakes in front of him continued sucking stray droplets of water from his skin. He began to feel warm and dry at the back, and cold and wet at the front, so he used the handrails to turn around and dry his front.

He spent some extra time in front of the hot air vents to make up for the short shower, but before long they shut off too. Darius ran a hand through his short brown hair, now spiky and dry. He opened the shower door and stepped out with a sigh. A brief flicker of a thought entered his mind: he wondered if Cassandra knew how to use her shower.

Then he remembered that she wasn’t on board, and suddenly his heart was pounding and he couldn’t breathe. How could he possibly have forgotten that she wasn’t here with him? Was he that tired? Darius gritted his teeth and scowled. She’s not here yet. But no, that wasn’t accurate either. Once he rescued her from Hades, he wasn’t sure that he would come back to the Deliverance. Tanik was planning to fight a war. Kids have no business getting mixed up in war.

Darius used the handrails along the walls around the toilet to maneuver himself back down into his mag boots as he’d seen Dyara do. He bent down to strap them around his feet and then looked around for a towel to cover himself—

But there wasn’t one. He was fully naked, with no clothes and no towel. Darius grimaced as he waved the bathroom door open and strode out into the bedroom. Dyara was already zipped up inside her sleeping bag, but wide awake. She watched with a mischievous grin as he walked over to the lockers naked. He pretended not to notice.

“You’re in good shape,” she said.

“Thanks...” he trailed off, his cheeks warming once more as he hurried to put on a pair of underwear. He removed his boots and then put on socks and a fresh jumpsuit. He pushed his feet back down into his boots, but didn’t strap them on this time.

Walking over to his sleeping bag, Darius unzipped it, and grabbed a nearby handrail to pull himself up out of his mag boots. That done, he used the rail to maneuver himself into the sleeping bag. Once inside, he zipped it back up.

“Dim lights,” Dyara said, and the lights swiftly faded. But with the door to their quarters broken, light still flooded in from the corridor outside.

“Good night, Darius,” Dyara said.

“Good night, Dyara.”

“Call me Dya,” she said.

“Sure,” he replied through a giant yawn. The sleeping bag was toasty and warm, and zero-G was surprisingly comfortable—but disconcerting too. It was like sleeping on a mattress made of clouds.

Darius’s thoughts turned to Cassandra, and adrenaline surged through his veins, keeping him awake. He battled with himself, frustrated by his own inaction. How could he sleep when Cassandra was out there, stranded on a hostile alien world? She could be injured. Or trapped under rubble.

Darius winced and shook his head to clear away those thoughts.

“Can’t sleep?” Dyara whispered.

“No,” he replied, not wanting to go into details.

“Because of your daughter?”

Darius frowned, but said nothing to that.

“I’m sorry. I really am. I wish I could do something to make you feel better. Do you want to talk about it?”

“About what?” he snapped, and Dyara flinched. “She’s not dead.”

Puzzlement flashed across Dyara’s face. “Wasn’t she in Karkarus with the others?”

“Yes—I don’t know, maybe.”

“Darius...”

“Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. I’m in denial.” He shook his head. “It’s not that. I can’t explain it, and I know it doesn’t make sense, but I know she’s alive.”

“Well, maybe... maybe they found somewhere safe to hide. Somehow.” Dyara didn’t sound convinced.

“People win lotteries, right? And they can survive falling out of airplanes without a parachute, so why not this? She’s not dead.”

“I hope you’re right. But even if you are... what can you do about it?”

Darius froze, and spent a hesitant moment staring into Dyara’s eyes. He’d gone too far trying to convince her that Cassandra was alive.

She began nodding, having already figured it out. “That’s why you want to be a fighter pilot. So you can go back and look for her.”

“Yes,” Darius admitted. “But don’t tell anyone.”

Indecision warred briefly on Dyara’s face, but then she nodded. “I won’t.”

“Thanks.”

A brief silence stretched between them, and then Dyara said, “I am a pilot.”

He looked at her again. “Really?”

“I can help you. As soon as the Deliverance drops out of FTL, we can go back and look for her.”

“You’d do that for me?”

“Sure,” Dyara said. “You need clo—” she broke off suddenly, and then went on, “You need to go back,” she decided.

Darius frowned. Clo... closure? So she didn’t believe him, after all. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that he’d found his ride. “Thank you,” he said.

“You are welcome, Darius.”

He looked away, to the open door, and spent a few minutes focusing on his breathing in an effort to still his racing heart.

Somewhere along the way exhaustion turned his thoughts to mush, and the adrenaline ebbed from his veins, leaving him shaking and weak. His eyes drifted slowly shut as he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Clang!

Clink, clink...

Clink, clang!

Darius’s eyes flew open, his heart suddenly pounding. He strained to hear through the background hum of the ship’s air cyclers and reactors....

Clink, clink, CLANG!

“Dyara...” he whispered.

“Mmmm?” she muttered sleepily.

“Did you hear that?”

Clink, clink, CLANG!

Dyara’s head jerked up and around, her brown eyes wide with alarm. “Yes,” she whispered back, “I heard it.”



Chapter 33




Clang!

Clink, clink...

Clink, clink...

“What is that?” Dyara whispered.

“I don’t know,” Darius replied in an equally low register. He hoped to God it wasn’t a Phantom. “You don’t have any weapons, do you?”

Dyara nodded and produced a pistol from her sleeping bag. He wondered how it had gotten in there. She’d come out of the shower naked, but maybe she’d slipped it into the sleeping bag while she was attaching the bag to the wall. Whatever the case, it was a welcome surprise now.

He nodded to her. “Let’s go take a look.”

Dyara nodded back and they both carefully unzipped from their sleeping bags and slipped into their mag boots. Darius took a step forward and winced at the ringing clang that his boot drew from the deck. He froze, and Dyara pointed to her boots. She crouched down and deactivated them with the buttons on the heels. They detached soundlessly and she grabbed a nearby handrail, waiting for him to do the same. He nodded and grabbed the handrail beside his own sleeping bag.

Clang, clink, clink, clink...

Whatever was making those sounds, at least it didn’t seem to be getting any closer. The rhythmic, repetitive nature of the sounds reminded him of the wind knocking around the metal cattle gate on his grandparent’s ranch in Kansas. That comparison made him suspect the noises were being caused by an inanimate force, rather than, say, another Phantom stalking through the ship.

Dyara launched herself toward the open door of their room and Darius pushed off from his handrail too. They sailed out into the corridor, and Dyara quickly twisted one way and then the other, checking both ends.

The way was clear.

They collided with the opposite wall and bounced off. Dyara managed to grab a nearby handrail, but Darius missed and had to grab Dyara’s hips instead. She glanced back at him just as the clinking and clanging sounds started up again.

She whispered, “I think it’s coming from one of the rooms further down. Hold onto my feet, I’m going to take us over there.”

Darius nodded and shifted his grip to her feet. “Ready,” he whispered.

Dyara pulled them along from one handrail to the next, following the sounds.

Clink, clink, clink...

Darius’s heart rate increased with every inch they traveled, until it was like a drumbeat in his ears. Inanimate force or not, his sympathetic nervous system was screaming for him to go back. He found himself wishing someone else would wake up, and then wondering why they hadn’t.

Dyara stopped and shook her gun at the bent and shredded doors of the next room. “It’s coming from in there,” she whispered.

CLANG, CLANG!

“Let go of me,” Dyara said. “I might need my legs free for this.”

Darius released her legs, and watched as Dyara pulled herself toward the room and whatever was waiting for her inside....

He snapped out of his stupor and grabbed the nearest handhold for himself, pulling himself after her.

Dyara was floating there in the open doorway with her gun aimed into the room and her brow furrowed in confusion. Darius had just enough time to wonder about her expression before he crashed into her and sent them both tumbling into the room.

“Darius!” Dyara snapped.

But it was too late for recriminations. He blinked in shock at what he saw as they sailed through the room. The lights were flickering on and off—surging suddenly too-bright, and then utterly dark. The metal loops of sleeping bag anchor points were clinking against the walls, and two mag boots were spinning around the room in a circle, caught up in a whirlwind. Darius and Dyara got sucked into that same vortex and joined the boots spinning around the room.

“What the hell?” Darius said, twisting around and straining to reach for handholds as they whipped by him in a dizzy rush. He grabbed one with four fingers, only to have it ripped painfully out of his hand as his body continued on with its momentum. The spinning mag boots hit the walls now and again with loud clangs, and Darius had to tuck himself into a ball to avoid doing the same thing with his head.

“Look!” Dyara said, and pointed up.

Darius followed her gesture and saw Tanik Guhain staring wide-eyed at them. He’d anchored his sleeping bag to the ceiling. The room’s glow panels surged suddenly brighter making Tanik’s yellow-green eyes seem to shine with a light of their own. His lips were moving soundlessly, as if muttering to himself.

“Tanik!” Darius roared, just as the glow panels flicked off, plunging the room into darkness.

“Yesss?” the man slurred in a sleepy voice.

“What the hell is going on in here?” Darius asked.

Tanik gave no reply, and Darius whipped through another dizzy circle. Dyara managed to grab onto a handrail, and she held out a hand to him. Darius grabbed that hand with both of his, and she cried out with the sudden wrenching force he placed on her shoulder.

The pressure didn’t let up. Whatever was powering the vortex continued tugging at them.

“Grab onto something!” Dyara said through gritted teeth.

Darius found another handrail behind hers and looped one arm through it; he let go of Dyara, and she gasped with relief. Darius held on for dear life, wincing with each blinding surge of light, and ducking each time he saw one of Tanik’s mag boots stray too close to his head. He glanced back up at Tanik and said. “Tanik! Wake up!”

Somehow, he didn’t seem to be affected by the forces swirling inside the room, as if he was in the eye of the storm.

“Tanik!” Dyara screamed.

His gaze shifted slightly toward her, but his eyes were still staring and unfocused. He was in some kind of trance.

“The Revenants are coming,” he said.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Darius demanded. He turned to Dyara, blinking rapidly. “What is he talking about?”

But she looked equally confused.

“Is he doing this somehow?” Darius asked, ducking as one of Tanik’s mag boots almost clipped him in the head.

Dyara shook her head. “What? How?”

“I don’t know!”

“Maybe the ventilation system is acting up?” Dyara suggested.

Darius considered that as he strained against the forces tugging on him. Whatever it was, it was strong enough that it was threatening to break his hold on the handrail. “No air current is this strong,” he decided.

“So the legends are true,” someone said in a purring voice. Darius turned to see Ra and Captain Riker silhouetted in the open doorway. Both of them were aiming pistols of their own into the room.

“Fek this,” Riker said and aimed down the scope on top of his weapon at Tanik. A red laser dot appeared on Tanik’s chest, and then a flash of intense blue light illuminated the room just as the surging glow panels snapped off. The stun bolt hit Tanik, and he woke up with a shout, his limbs writhing inside his sleeping bag.

A blinding flash of light tore through the room, and a ringing silence began....


Darius blinked his eyes open, and then blinked a few more times to clear a bleary film of sleep from them. He was back inside his sleeping bag. Dyara was still asleep in the sleeping bag beside his.

“What...” he shook his head and strained his ears against the steady humming and whooshing of the ship’s systems, listening for the clinking and clanging sounds he’d awoken to earlier.

But those sounds were gone now.

His mind flashed back to the spinning vortex inside Tanik’s room, but the memory was fuzzy and dreamlike now, lacking the vibrant details of a real memory. Of course it was just a dream.

Beside him Dyara stirred and stretched inside her sleeping bag. Her eyes cracked open and she yawned.

“Hey,” he said. “Good morning.”

“Hi,” she replied through a smile. “How did you sleep?”

“More or less...” he said. “What about you?”

“Me too,” Dyara replied. “Thanks for letting me share a room with you.”

He nodded. “You’re welcome.” His thoughts turned back to Cassandra and his heart jumped. Suddenly he was anxious to get on his way. Dyara had promised to help him get back to Hades, so technically he didn’t even need to wait for pilot’s training. “How long do you think we have before the ship drops out of FTL?” he asked, but then wondered how she could possibly answer that. She wasn’t wearing any kind of watch.

“Just less than three hours.”

“How do you know?”

Dyara turned to him. “I checked the time.”

Darius frowned. “I didn’t see you check anything.”

“What...?” She trailed off in confusion. “Oh, you don’t have an ESC,” she said, nodding as if that explained everything.

“A what?”

“An Extra-Sensory Chip. It’s a neural implant that allows us to directly interface with data networks and computer systems. It comes in handy when you’re in a cockpit pulling too many Gs to physically press any of the buttons.”

“You had someone cut open your skull and put a computer chip in there?” Darius asked.

“No, it’s non-invasive. You get an injection of nanites and they travel to your brain to assemble the implant. If you’re still planning to be a pilot, you’ll have to get an ESC too.” She must have seen the concern written on his face, because she added, “Don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe. You’ll like it. I couldn’t use my ESC on Hades because there weren’t any networks or computers to interface with. It’s like I was blind, but now I can see again.”

“Interesting,” Darius replied. “Speaking of Hades—are you still going to help me get back there?”

“Yes. We can go as soon as the Deliverance drops out of FTL.”

“What about Tanik?” Darius asked. “Won’t he try to stop us?”

“We’ll talk to him. He’ll understand.”

“You sure about that? Maybe we shouldn’t tell him anything until we’re back.”

Dyara appeared to consider that. “No,” she decided. “It will be easier if we have his help. We need to be sure the Deliverance will still be here when we get back, or we won’t have anywhere to run to.”

Darius was about to point out that they could run to the USO, but then he remembered Dyara was marked with the Seal of Death. If she took them back to the USO, she’d risk being captured and sent to another hunting ground.

Zzzzt. Dyara unzipped her sleeping bag and drifted out with a black pistol in one hand. She tucked it into a pocket in one leg of her jumpsuit.

He stared at it in shock. He remembered seeing her produce that weapon from her sleeping bag in his dream, and he was sure that he hadn’t seen her put it in before they’d fallen asleep.

“Where did you get that?” he asked, nodding to the pistol in her pocket.



Chapter 34




A puzzled look flashed across Dyara’s face. She patted her pocket. “This?” she asked, and withdrew the pistol once more. “I brought it with me from Hades.”

Darius frowned at the sight of the weapon. He must have seen her put it in her sleeping bag before they fell asleep. It was a simpler explanation than that his dream had somehow revealed something he hadn’t already known—or the even less likely possibility that his dream hadn’t been a dream at all.

Occam’s razor, he thought, nodding to himself: the simpler explanation was usually the correct one.

“Are you okay?” Dyara asked. “You look like you’ve seen a Revenant.”

Darius’s heart began pounding at her use of that word, and he remembered what Tanik had said in his dream: The Revenants are coming.

“A what?” he asked.

“A Revenant, you know... like a ghost, but a living one. It’s what we call the kids who never come back from the Crucible.”

“A living... revenant,” Darius said slowly. “Are they real?”

“Well, some people think they are. I guess it makes it easier to think that the kids who don’t come back are still out there somewhere. Some people swear to have seen them, though.”

“Maybe I did see one,” he said. “A Dark Revenant.”

Dyara frowned. “You mean Tanik? That’s just a nickname he got because he’s cheated death one too many times, and because of his... reputation in the USO.”

Darius nodded slowly. His eyes swam out of focus as he replayed the dream in his head, trying to find the seam between real and unreal.

Dyara arched an eyebrow at him. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah. Fine.”

“Okay. Let’s go get some breakfast,” Dyara said, and bent down to strap on her mag boots.

“And then you’ll take me back to Hades?”

Dyara nodded. “I promise. As soon as we drop out of FTL.”

“All right.” Darius unzipped his own sleeping bag and floated out. He slipped into his mag boots and strapped them on, and then followed Dyara back to the mess hall.

When they arrived, they found that they were the last ones there. He and Dyara each grabbed a handful of vacuum packs from the buffet counter, along with flasks full of orange juice plus their utensils—a pair of scissors and a spoon. Darius had trouble carrying all of that over to the table where the others were standing without losing his grip on anything, and he had to stop a few times to grab things that floated free.

Dyara and Darius caught looks from several of the others as they approached. Lisa glared at them from where she stood beside Captain Riker. Blake grinned like an idiot and winked at them. “Nice choice,” he said, nodding to Dyara. “She’s a hottie.”

“Shut up,” Darius replied. “It wasn’t like that.”

Dyara popped a dried banana slice into her mouth and casually drew the pistol from her pocket to aim it at Blake’s head. “Mind your own business.”

“Hey!” he held up his hands. “I was just joking!”

“Your jokes are not funny,” Dyara said.

Tanik gave a snarling smile. “Put the gun away, Dyara.”

“Fine,” she said, and slipped it back into her pocket.

“Son of a vix...” Blake muttered, and Veekara made an irritated noise in the back of her throat.

“How did you all sleep?” Tanik asked.

“Not bad, considering that we couldn’t close the doors or turn off the lights in the hall,” Lisa said.

Ectos hissed his agreement and Veekara nodded.

“Today we’ll see about getting the ship’s maintenance bots to repair the damage,” Tanik said.

They all ate in silence for a while, until a few minutes later Tanik spoke once more, “It’s time to formally assign your roles on this ship,” he said. “That means you all need to head down to the data center and take aptitude tests. Based on the results of those tests, Captain Riker and I will make crew assignments. While you’re doing that, I’m going to put together an orientation video we can use when we wake up the others to get them up to speed as quickly as possible. I’ll get Gatticus to narrate, since he apparently speaks English.”

Darius glanced at Dyara and cleared his throat.

She swallowed a mouthful of food and then said, “Tanik—”

“Yes?”

“Darius would like to go back to Hades to look for survivors.”

Tanik’s gaze shifted to her. “You mean to look for his daughter.”

“Among others. I offered to fly him back.”

Tanik’s eyes narrowed and flicked to Darius. “I see.”

Captain Riker looked up. “I want to go too,” he said.

“Do you now?” Tanik asked, and gave a snarling smile.

Darius’s guts clenched. He had a bad feeling that Dyara had been wrong to include Tanik in their plans.

“Very well,” Tanik said.

“We can go?” Darius asked, blinking in shock.

“Of course. You are not prisoners here, but do take care that no Cygnian ships follow you back to the Deliverance.

“This is pointless, and it will accomplish nothing,” Ra growled. “There are no survivors.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not,” Tanik said. “But even closure is not pointless.”

Dyara nodded, but Darius shook his head. “Cassandra is alive,” he insisted. “I know she is.”

Tanik looked to him. “Then I believe you. Go, and hurry back. We cannot afford to wait long. In the meantime we will begin waking the rest of the crew.”

Darius nodded. “Thank you.”

“If we’re not prisoners, then Gatticus and I can leave, right?” Blake asked.

“Of course—but not until Darius returns.”

“What? Why?”

“Because we cannot move the Deliverance if Dyara is to find us when she returns, and yet we will have to do so if we send a ship to the USO, because it could be traced back to us through the nav logs.”

“How long will it take for them to leave and come back?” Blake asked and jerked his chin to indicate Darius.

“A little more than a standard day,” Tanik replied.

“Well, that’s just great,” Blake muttered.

“Dyara, you’d better go get ready for your trip,” Tanik said as he emptied the vacuum pack he was eating from and left it drifting beside him. “I’m going to find Gatticus so he can help me with the orientation video. Ike—” He nodded to the white-furred, blue-eyed Korothian. “Take the others to the data center and help them with their aptitude tests.”

“My pleasure to do this.”

Tanik nodded and then turned and strode for the exit. They all watched him go. As soon as he disappeared, Blake snorted and shook his head. “Is it just me, or is there something off about that guy?”

Darius glanced at each of Tanik’s comrades to check their reactions, but none of them seemed offended by the remark.

“It isn’t just you,” Dyara said quietly.

Blake turned to her with eyebrows raised. “Really? Is there something you’d like to share with the group, Hottie?”

Dyara frowned, but Darius couldn’t decide if that was a reaction to the way he’d addressed her or to his question. Tik, the Murciago, and Ikatosh gave her sharp looks, and Dyara shook her head. “No.”

Blake pointed accusingly at the Korothian. “What was that?”

“It is nothing,” Ikatosh said, and heaved his furry white shoulders in a shrug. He wasn’t wearing a jumpsuit, or any clothes at all besides his mag boots and an equipment belt.

“No, that was something.” Blake traced an imaginary line between Ike, Tik, and Dyara, making it clear that he’d seen the looks they’d given her. “Whatever she was about to say, you didn’t want her to say it.”

Ike said nothing to that, and Tik chittered softly.

“Well, Hottie?” Blake pressed. “Are you going to let Batman and the Abominable Snowman intimidate you?”

Darius watched Dyara carefully, waiting for her to explain.

“It’s nothing,” Dyara insisted, shaking her head. “Excuse me. I have to go find a ship to take us back to Hades.”

Darius watched her go, and Blake caught his eye across the table. “Well that was interesting,” he said.

“Yeah,” Darius agreed. He stared pointedly at Ike as he said that, but the Korothian appeared not to notice.

Blake’s gaze remained fixed on Ike and Tik. “Whatever she was about to say, it sure as hell wasn’t nothing.”



Chapter 35


EIGHT HOURS EARLIER...

At first Gatticus couldn’t believe his luck: he’d found a room aboard the Deliverance that looked like it had belonged to an android! There was a safety harness with a charging port beside it where he could recharge. There was also a high-speed data connection, and instead of sleeping bags in the closet, he found transparent cubes with a signature lattice structure inside.

Data cubes.

He went snooping through the data. It was encrypted, but something about this felt familiar. On a whim he tried his own encryption code. It worked.

Gatticus stared in shock at the data cubes as one of them glowed to life. This was his data, and these were his quarters. It made a certain amount of sense. If there’d been more than one android on board, he would have encountered the other one by now.

As he parsed through the data cubes, Gatticus found that they contained backups of his internal data, his memories. The latest one was only a few weeks old, which meant that it had been made just before he’d been shot in the head.

An emergency memory dump? he wondered. If so, it would contain all of his missing memories, including the memory of who had shot him, and why.

Gatticus felt a chill creeping down his spine, a simulated reminder of his long-lost humanity.

Gatticus shook his head and forced himself to focus on the matter at hand. The fact that he’d had his own quarters aboard the Deliverance had staggering implications. It meant that he might actually be a member of the Coalition!

But then who had shot him in the head?

Gatticus frowned. Maybe he’d been an undercover agent for the USO. That might explain why the ship’s fuel had been dumped. Maybe he had been the one to dump the fuel.

But there was still something that didn’t make sense. How had just two Banshees managed to slaughter thousands of armed crewmen?

There was only one way to find out. Gatticus found the data cube with the most recent date stamp and prepped it for transfer to his data core.

But he hesitated before executing the transfer. As soon as he integrated these memories, he would know who he was, and whose allegiance he shared. If he turned out to be a loyal member of the Union, then he would promptly betray everyone on board. After this, he’d be back to his old self—whoever that was.

Perhaps the transfer could wait, at least until he left the Deliverance with Blake. That seemed to be the fairest solution.

Except for one nagging concern: whatever had happened on board, it could be somehow important to his own survival, or the survival of the ship’s new crew.

Gatticus settled for the dubious third option of going through a virtual reality replay of the memories in the data cube without actually integrating them. That way, the current version of himself with his unknown allegiance would remain in control, but he would at least learn what his old self was like and what had happened on board the Deliverance.

Gatticus nodded to himself and queued the memories for playback. Let there be light, he thought, just as a flood of memories went flashing before his eyes....

Gatticus was sitting on the bridge of the Deliverance, right beside Captain Deena Okara. The bright circle of light dead ahead and the pure darkness all around on the holo panels in the walls, floor, and ceiling of the bridge indicated that they were in FTL. Looking through a warp bubble was just like staring down the proverbial dark tunnel with a light at the end. He hoped that wasn’t a portent of things to come for his negotiations with the Kassaraks.

Captain Okara glanced at him. “Time to make our delivery, Ambassador.”

He nodded back. “Warp bubble dispersing in three... two... one.”

A bright flash of light consumed the warp tunnel, and then quickly faded to black. As Gatticus’s eyes adjusted, he saw stars prick through the darkness, and dead ahead, he saw a glassy-smooth, spherically-distorted region of space-time with a colorful blue nebula trapped inside. It looked like a giant marble floating in space.

“The Eye of Thanatos,” Captain Okara said, nodding to it.

Gatticus stared into it, and he couldn’t help feeling like it was staring back. He wondered what was on the other side, and how far away the other side was. The Eye led to some uncharted corner of the universe. By rights it should have been a charted corner by now, but no one who’d gone through it ever remembered the time they spent on the other side, and the Cygnians guarded the wormhole jealously, making sure that no automated probes could slip through.

Gatticus’s gaze shifted to the scattering of tiny gray specks floating in front of the Eye: the 22nd Cygnian Fleet. Those ships looked tiny from this distance, but Gatticus knew better than to believe it. Ring Ships and Behemoth-class Battleships were fantastically large vessels, the former having a radius of more than five kilometers—large enough to generate their own gravity through rotation—and the latter measuring about the same from bow to stern. Both ship types were much larger than their own Colossus-class carrier, and the Colossus was the largest USO vessel ever built, at three point nine kilometers long.

“Comms, contact the Cygnians. Tell them we have their delivery of unmarked refugees, and ask where we should transfer the cryo pods.”

“Aye, Captain,” the comms officer replied. “They are already hailing us. Would you like to tell them yourself?”

“Very well. Put them on screen, Lieutenant.”

After about a two-minute delay, the brown pug-like face of a Ghoul appeared on the main forward holo panel. His four black eyes gleamed in the low light of the Cygnian bridge, jagged rows of interlocking nine-inch teeth gleamed, and hunched shadows lurked in the background behind him.

“This is King Assuraga,” the Ghoul said.

Captain Okara nodded and sat up straighter in her chair. “It is a pleasure to meet you, King Assuraga, we—”

“Silence.” The Ghoul’s lips curled in annoyance,  and he went on in the Cygnians’ growling, hissing language: “A beacon drone arrived here from Hades less than one period ago and relayed a distress signal to us. They are under attack by a Coalition Fleet.”

“A Coalition Fleet?” Captain Okara echoed. “Are you sure? We haven’t seen or heard from the Coalition in more than a year.”

“No, we are not sure, but we cannot ignore the beacon, nor can we leave the Eye unguarded to answer it. You will investigate for us.”

“Of course. We’ll get underway as soon as we’ve finished offloading the cryo pods.”

“No. Now. Offload the lost ones when you return.”

Captain Okara appeared to hesitate. Gatticus didn’t have to wonder why. The medical refugees they’d retrieved from Earth were all unscheduled arrivals. If they weren’t woken up and sent through the Eye before the next shipment of tributes arrived, then they might have to wait their turn aboard the Cygnian fleet for a week or more. It was going to be enough of a shock for them to wake up surrounded by hostile aliens without making the time they had to spend in the Cygnians’ company even longer.

“Very well,” Captain Okara said. She was smart enough not to argue with orders from a Cygnian royal. “We’ll leave at once.”

“Good. I expect a full report when you return.”

The Ghoul’s face faded from the holo panel and Captain Okara turned to Gatticus. “It looks like your negotiations with the Kassaraks will have to wait a little longer.”

Gatticus nodded. “The cease fire should hold. Regardless, there’s nothing we can do about it. We have our orders.”

Captain Okara sighed. “That we do. Helm—”

“Captain?”

“Set course for Hades and spin up the Alckam drive.”

“Aye, ma’am, setting course.”

Gatticus stopped the playback there to process everything he’d seen so far. The facts were plain: the Deliverance was a USO vessel, not Coalition, and Gatticus himself had been a USO Ambassador.

But that didn’t make any sense. If the Deliverance was a USO ship, then what had killed the crew? The two Banshees they’d found on board wouldn’t have attacked USO officers. Not to mention that just two of them wouldn’t have been enough to kill that many people.

That meant the crew had to have been killed by something else. Something even more deadly than Cygnians.



Chapter 36




Gatticus glanced over his shoulder at the mangled doors of the room—his old quarters. Whatever had killed the crew, it might still be on board. He remembered the claw marks in the doors. In places there’d been eight parallel furrows—one for each finger on a Banshee’s hand. Maybe something had driven the Banshees mad. But that still didn’t explain how they’d killed so many armed crewmen without being killed themselves. Gatticus turned back to the data cubes and fast-forwarded through the trip to Hades.

The trip through FTL space was uneventful. Captain Okara brought them out of FTL at a safe range from Hades to avoid being surprised by whatever Coalition fleet was attacking Hades.

Except that there was no fleet.

There wasn’t a single ship on sensors, enemy or otherwise. Captain Okara made contact with the Cygnians on the surface to ask about the beacon drone, and Gatticus slowed the playback down.

Queen Cithasi of Hades glowered at them from the operations center of the fuel depot on the surface. Her lower pair of eyes blinked, followed by the upper pair. “We did not send a beacon drone.”

“Someone must have,” Captain Okara said. “One of your beacons arrived at the Eye and relayed a distress signal to the 22nd Cygnian Fleet.”

It took about a minute for Queen Cithasi to receive that message due to their distance from Hades. When she did receive it, she gave a low growl, followed by a stream of more articulate ones: “One moment. I must verify this.”

Her visage faded from the holo panel, only to return a few minutes later. “The beacon was stolen. It must have been a ploy designed to lure our fleet away from the Eye. It is good that King Assuraga had the sense to send you instead.”

“Yes...” Captain Okara agreed, but she sounded far away, as if lost in thought. “We’ll be on our way, then. Goodbye, my Queen.”

A minute later, the Ghoul Queen answered Captain Okara’s dismissal with a sneer, and her face abruptly faded from the holo panel.

Gatticus slowly shook his head. “Even if the Coalition, or whoever stole the beacon, had managed to lure the 22nd Fleet away, what could they possibly have accomplished by doing so?”

Captain Okara didn’t reply for a long moment. She just stared dead ahead at the gleaming red, white, and blue orb of Hades.

“Captain?” Gatticus prompted.

“We’re going to establish orbit....” she said slowly.

“What? Why? You heard the Queen—there’s no threat here. We need to go back and drop off the cryo pods so that we can get on with our mission.”

Captain Okara turned to look at him, but her eyes were oddly glazed, and she seemed to be staring past him. “If there’s no threat here, then how did a beacon drone get stolen and sent without the Queen’s knowledge?”

Gatticus shrugged. “Let Queen Cithasi deal with it.”

“No.”

“Captain Okara—”

“You may be in overall command of this mission, Ambassador, but I am still the captain of this ship, and I have my orders: King Assuraga told me to investigate, and that is exactly what I am going to do.”

Gatticus frowned. “Very well.”

A hiss sounded behind him, and he turned to see his Banshee honor guards glaring at Captain Okara from where they sat in their acceleration harnesses on either side of the bridge doors. Negotiating with the Kassaraks was their mission too.

The Captain turned to look at them, and they both bowed their heads in a gesture of submission.

Shock rippled through Gatticus at the sight of that. Cygnians never bowed their heads to a subjugated species, much less physically weaker ones like humans.

Gatticus paused the playback there. The mystery deepens... he thought. He fast-forwarded through the approach to Hades, and then played his memories forward at normal speed once more.

“Geostationary orbit established,” the officer at the helm announced.

“Good,” Captain Osaka replied. “Now let’s all go to sleep.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the helmsman replied.

“Sleep?” Gatticus echoed. He turned to see Captain Osaka release her safety harness and stand up from her station. Her brown eyes still had that glazed look about them, as if she were half-asleep herself. “Captain?”

“Yes, Ambassador?” She drew her sidearm and aimed it at his head.

Gatticus froze, his thoughts racing in a dozen different directions at once. The crew wasn’t reacting, but his honor guards were busy releasing their harnesses.

“What do you think you are doing, Captain?” Gatticus said quietly, hoping to buy enough time for the Banshees to reach her. He caught a glimpse of them stalking toward the captain on all sixes. The sticky pads of their feet kept them rooted to the deck without the need for mag boots.

“I’m taking control of this ship,” Captain Okara replied.

The Banshees stopped, one on either side of her, and turned their giant heads to look up at her. Gatticus was just about to tell them to attack—

When they sat back on their haunches and bowed their heads to Captain Okara.

Gatticus couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Even more incredible than the fact that these Banshees were somehow inexplicably treating the captain like their master, rather than the other way around, was the fact that none of the bridge crew had reacted to the developing confrontation. At the very least, Gatticus would have expected them to turn their chairs toward the Captain to see what was going on, but they just sat there, staring dead ahead, not moving or speaking—as if they really had gone to sleep.

Gatticus shook his head to clear it. He could figure out what was happening later. He made a mental connection with the ship and used his override code to fire the thrusters at full throttle.

A deep, rumbling roar shivered through the deck, and Captain Okara’s eyes widened in horror just before the sudden acceleration broke the mag lock of her boots and sent her tumbling backward. The two Banshees beside her went flying too, and all three of them hit the rear wall of the bridge with a thunderous boom.

There was no way the captain had survived that. The Banshees might have, but hopefully they were at least stunned. Gatticus killed the thrusters and activated ship-wide comms. Peripherally he noticed the bridge crew stirring to life around him with a combination of groans and confused murmurs.

“This is a code red security alert!” Gatticus said over the ship’s intercom. “Coalition agents are trying to take over the ship. All hands, arm yourselves!”

“Ambassador? What’s going on?” Gatticus recognized the voice of the ship’s sensor operator and turned his chair to see the man standing behind him—

With his sidearm drawn and aimed at Gatticus’s head. “Lieutenant Reed?” Gatticus asked.

“You can’t stop this,” the sensor operator said.

Gatticus saw the look in his eyes, and he knew he didn’t have much time. This was a mutiny. The Coalition was trying to take over the ship, and if the captain, two Banshees, and the sensor operator were all involved, there was no way of knowing how deep this plot went. There was only one sure way to stop them.

Gatticus issued a command to jettison all of the ship’s antimatter reserves into space, and a second command to dump his memory to one of the data cubes in his quarters. It all happened in a fraction of a second—too fast for Lieutenant Reed to react.

An automated voice echoed through the bridge: “Fuel dump complete.”

“What did you do?!” Lieutenant Reed demanded.

And then a burst of blinding silver light consumed Gatticus, and his memory playback ceased.

A line of text appeared: End of data stream.



Chapter 37




Darius left the mess hall at a run, determined to catch up with Dyara before she could disappear in the labyrinthine corridors and decks of the Deliverance.

“Hey, slow down!” he said as he ran up behind her.

She glanced back at him and stopped to wait for him to catch up.

“Look, whatever you know about Tanik, I don’t care. All I want is to find my daughter. Everything else is secondary or unimportant right now.”

“I don’t know much,” Dyara said quietly, and then glanced behind them once more, as if to check that there was no one else around. When her eyes met his again, she said, “What I do know is that he’s not a good man.”

“In what way?”

“He’s a pirate, Darius.” Dyara looked away and slowly shook her head. “We all are.”

“I see.”

“Do you?” Dyara asked. “What do you think happens when you board a civilian ship and steal its cargo?”

Darius shook his head. “They lose a lot of money?”

“Worse. Cygnian law states that anyone who gives up their cargo to pirates is guilty of the same offense as the pirates who stole it, unless they can prove that they were willing to lay down their lives in defense of their ship.”

Darius’s brow furrowed. “In other words...”

“They’re not allowed to surrender, so we’re forced to kill them, and the ones who do surrender get marked for death and sent to designated hunting worlds. Tanik knows that, so he steals their ships too, making it impossible for them to go back to the USO. Then he gives the crews a choice: join the Coalition, or die. He says the death he offers is more merciful than what the Cygnians will give them, but I think that’s just a way to force transport crews to join his war. It works. I joined.”

“You were a crew member on one of the transports that Tanik pirated?”

“I was the captain.”

“Did he kill any of your crew?”

“Not my crew, no. They died later, fighting the Cygnians. But he’s killed plenty of other crews. There was this one ship, crewed by Udarians....”

A brief image of an Udarian flashed through Darius’s mind, thanks to the lexicon module Gatticus had downloaded for him back on the Deliverance: Udarians were small, furry four-legged creatures that looked like a cuddlier version of a hedgehog from Earth.

“What happened to them?” Darius prompted.

Dyara glanced back to the mess hall once more, to make sure no one was coming. When she saw that the way was still clear, she whispered, “They’re pacifists. They refused to join, so Tanik gassed them.”

Darius grimaced. “That’s terrible. Why are you still with him?”

Dyara frowned. “Once you join the Coalition, there’s no way out. Desertion is punishable by death.”

“Well, he’s letting you leave now, so maybe we shouldn’t come back.”

Dyara raised her left arm and pulled up her sleeve to reveal the glowing sickle-shaped mark on her wrist. “I don’t have anywhere else to go,” she said.

Darius grimaced. “There might be a third option.”

“Like what?”

This time it was Darius’s turn to look behind him, but there still wasn’t anyone coming. “A change of leadership.”

“You mean a mutiny. People have tried. Somehow, Tanik is always ready for it.”

Darius sighed. He didn’t have time to deal with this. “He’s not a god, Dya. Besides, there are non-violent means of takeover. We could organize a vote after we get back. Once all the others are woken up, we’ll have a good excuse to do so. No one’s going to want to live in a military dictatorship.”

Dyara looked unconvinced. “They might not have a choice.”

“Tanik doesn’t have the numbers to keep us all in line with force. I’ll make sure there’s a vote, but first, I need you to take us to Hades.”

Dyara nodded slowly. “I’ve been thinking about that. It would be better if you knew how to fly, too.”

“Won’t it take a long time to download pilot’s training modules?”

“We still have a few hours before the Deliverance drops out of FTL. That should be enough time to download the necessary modules.”

Darius nodded. “Then let’s go.”



Chapter 38




Hours after he’d finished watching his memory playback, Gatticus was still reeling in the wake of everything he’d discovered. He was busy running the events through deductive reasoning algorithms while he re-charged his power cells from the room’s charging port.

Clearly the stolen beacon drone had been an excuse for Coalition agents to take the Deliverance to Hades, but why Hades? And how had the Coalition managed to turn Lieutenant Reed, Captain Okara, and even two Banshees to their side? Gatticus shook his head in disbelief. Banshees working for the Coalition. He’d never have believed it if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes.

Another mystery was how Captain Okara had managed to drug the ship’s entire crew—or at least the bridge crew—so that they’d been ready to fall asleep on her command.

Gatticus still couldn’t answer any of those questions, so he adjusted his algorithms and ran through them again from the beginning, starting at Hades.

Who had stolen the Cygnian beacon drone and programmed it with a fake distress signal?

Whoever it was must have already known about the Deliverance’s trip to the Eye, and also known more or less when they would arrive. It would have taken close coordination to make sure the Deliverance came to investigate and not some other ship. That meant someone had to have sent another beacon drone to Hades, or at least piggybacked a message on a passing ship.

Regardless of how it had been accomplished, there seemed to be only one likely candidate for co-conspirator on Hades—

Tanik Gurhain.

The timing of his raid on Hades’ fuel depot was no coincidence. Gatticus had dumped the carrier’s fuel in an effort to stop the Coalition from stealing the ship, so Tanik had stolen more.

But that still left plenty of unanswered questions: what had happened after Gatticus lost consciousness? How had thousands of armed crew been killed by just two Banshees, and where were the Coalition agents who had tried to take over the ship? Had Lieutenant Reed survived?

Gatticus had a feeling the answers to at least some of those questions lay with Tanik Gurhain. He spent the last hour of his charging cycle trying to think of a way to get the upper hand in a confrontation with the man. Since Tanik didn’t know that Gatticus suspected him, that would give him the element of surprise, but he needed to get the man alone or else he’d be outnumbered.

“There you are, Gatticus,” a gruff voice said.

If Gatticus had possessed a sympathetic nervous system, he would have jumped with the sound of that voice. Instead, he slowly turned to face the man standing in the open doorway to his quarters.

“Tanik,” he said evenly, working hard to keep any hint of suspicion from his voice.

“I’ve been looking all over for you,” Tanik said.

“Oh? And why is that?”

“I need your help. I’m going to make an orientation video to show the people in cryo after we wake them. I need you to narrate it. I don’t speak their language, but you do.”

“That’s a good idea,” Gatticus said, nodding agreeably.

Tanik’s gaze flicked around the room and came to rest on the charging cable snaking from Gatticus’s hip to the wall. That outlet wasn’t a standard connection for appliances. The voltage was higher, made specifically for recharging an android’s power cells.

“This is an unusual room....” Tanik said slowly.

Gatticus pretended not to notice the suspicion in his voice. “Yes, it appears to have been designed for an android,” he said, as he casually unplugged himself and fed his charging cable back into the retractor. He released his safety harness, and turned to face Tanik with his best version of an innocent smile.

“An android like you?” Tanik pressed.

“All androids are like me, just as all humans are like you.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

Gatticus cocked his head to one side. “Then what did you mean?”

Tanik’s eyes narrowed fractionally and he held Gatticus’s gaze for a long moment. His right hand twitched beside the sidearm holstered at his hip. “Nothing. Let’s go.”

Gatticus nodded agreeably and went to join him by the door. Tanik turned to leave, and Gatticus saw his chance: Tanik’s back was turned, and his weapon was within reach.

Gatticus’s newly re-attached arm snapped out and snatched the sidearm from Tanik’s holster.

The man spun around inhumanly fast, before Gatticus even had a chance to retreat. He knocked the weapon out of Gatticus’s hand, and it went flying through the air, bouncing off a viewport in the far wall of the room.

Gatticus turned and ran to recover the weapon, but he felt himself picked up and held in place, his feet floating a foot above the deck. He mentally dialed his mag boots up to maximum power, but that did nothing to bring him back down. He felt himself slowly turning back to face Tanik, and that was when he realized Tanik wasn’t the one holding him—at least, not in any conventional way.

Tanik’s arm was stretched out, his hand clutching at empty air, his fingers curled like claws.

And Gatticus was caught in an invisible web, inexplicably frozen and floating above the deck. “How...” he trailed off and shook his head, unable to comprehend what was happening.

Tanik held out his other hand, and his sidearm went sailing into it with a meaty slap.

“My mistake was assuming that one shot would be enough to kill you. I won’t make the same mistake twice.”

“But you didn’t shoot me. Lieutenant Reed did,” Gatticus said.

“So, you recovered your memories,” Tanik said with a snarling smile. “But you’re wrong. I did shoot you.

“Ask yourself, Gatticus, why would Banshees bow to a human? And why would Captain Okara, a loyal officer, try to steal the Deliverance?

Gatticus frowned. “What are you saying? That you somehow took control of them?”

“Not just them. Two Banshees could never kill a crew of thousands of armed Union officers, unless perhaps, the crew was unable to fight back.

“How?”

“I summoned the Deliverance to Hades. I made the captain and Lieutenant Reed do my bidding. I put the crew to sleep, and I had the Banshees kill them.”

“That’s not possible.”

“Things are only impossible until they’re not. When I was done I had Lieutenant Reed turn off the reactors to keep the ship hidden until I could arrive; and then I made him step out the nearest airlock. No point exerting myself more than necessary to keep him under my influence.”

Gatticus blinked in shock. “But you didn’t kill the Banshees. Why?”

“I didn’t need to. I made them hibernate. Besides, I like pets. It’s just a pity you killed them.”

Gatticus didn’t know how any of this was possible, but he wasn’t going to waste any more time asking questions. He remotely activated the ship’s intercom, and said, “Code Re—!”

But a blinding flash of light cut him off in mid-syllable.



Chapter 39




Darius woke up in the data center, in the same reclining chair that Dyara had indicated for him to sit in an hour ago. He tried to get up, but the chair’s safety harness held him down.

“Dya?” he asked, straining his neck to look around the neural-mapping room for her. He found her seated in a chair beside his with a safety harness engaged and the silver band of a neural mapper around her forehead. Her eyes were shut, but roving rapidly behind their lids, indicating that she was busy downloading a data module of her own. Darius felt around for his harness release lever and pulled up on it.

Pushing the two interlocking halves of the padded harness aside, he stood up on stiff legs and took a moment to stretch out his cramping muscles. Apparently sitting for long periods could be uncomfortable even in zero-G. Just as he was wondering what to do while he waited for Dyara to wake up, her eyes fluttered and cracked open.

“Hey,” Darius said. “What were you doing?”

“I was downloading a medic module. If we do find survivors, they could be in need of medical attention.”

Darius nodded. He hadn’t thought of that. “Good thinking. So, can we go now?”

Dyara released her harness and stood up. Her long brown hair floated around her head with that movement, drifting into her eyes and mouth. She collected it behind her head with her hands and tied it into a pony tail. “Almost,” she said.

Darius felt his chest tighten with anxiety. “What else do we have to do?”

“We still need to load the Vultures with supplies, and we have to find Riker.” She led the way out of the data center and back to the nearest access chute. They didn’t run into anyone along the way, even though the others were supposed to be heading to the data center for aptitude tests.

“It’s a big ship. How are we supposed to find Riker?” Darius asked.

“From the bridge. We can use the comms station.”

Darius nodded. “That makes sense.”

When they arrived at the bridge, they found it empty but for one person: Tanik Gurhain.

He greeted them as they walked in, to which Darius nodded, and Dyara said nothing. She bent over the comms station and used it to activate the ship’s PA system.

“Captain Riker, this is Dya. Darius and I are ready to leave for Hades. Please meet us in the amidships hangar bay on level five ASAP.” Having said that, Dyara turned from the comms station and nodded to Darius. “Let’s go.”

“Hurry back,” Tanik said.

Darius saw him watching them from the captain’s chair. His scarred face was deeply shadowed in the dim, silvery light of the bridge, and his eyes gleamed. The stars were the only source of illumination besides the glowing displays of the ship’s control stations.

“We will,” Dyara said.

Darius took a moment to appreciate the view from the bridge. Countless stars shone on all sides with nothing but empty black space in between. He looked down at the depthless black void beneath his feet and a wave of vertigo washed over him. The deck felt solid, but it looked like a sheet of perfectly clear glass.

“A clever illusion,” Tanik said, as if reading Darius’s mind. He gestured to the equally transparent walls and ceiling. “It helps to have an uninterrupted view of your surroundings when you’re flying a ship this big. That way you don’t scratch the paint.”

Darius spotted a bright orange flare of light go streaking across his field of view. A shooting star? he wondered. Then he remembered that shooting stars were meteors burning up on entry to a planetary atmosphere.

His ears registered the double chime that indicated a new contact had just been detected by the ship’s sensors. Tanik apparently heard it too, because he quickly spun his chair back to the fore to check his displays.

Dyara ran over for a look, and Darius hurried to follow.

“Cygnian or USO?” Dyara breathed.

“Neither,” Tanik replied. His brow was deeply furrowed, his face glowing blue with reflected light from his displays. “It’s an Osprey. One of ours.”

Darius frowned. The first thing that jumped to mind was that Riker had grown tired of waiting for them and he was heading back to Hades on his own.

“No lifesigns detected,” Tanik said.

“Then who’s flying it?” Dyara asked.

“Something the computer doesn’t recognize as alive,” Tanik replied.

“It’s Gatticus,” Darius said. “He’s leaving.”

“Yes,” Tanik said.

“Blake is going to lose it when he finds out,” Darius said.

“Unless he went too,” Dyara said.

Tanik shook his head. “No life signs detected, remember?”

“Right,” Dyara said. “Good point.”

“I wonder why he decided to leave without Blake?” Darius asked.

“Maybe because he’s so annoying,” Dyara said. “Imagine being cooped up alone with him for a few days.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Darius replied.

“Well, regardless, we have to jump somewhere else now,” Tanik said.

“What?” Darius shook his head. “Why?”

“Because when he arrives at the nearest USO world, the nav logs in his ship could lead a Union battle group right to us.”

Darius scowled. “How long is this going to take?”

Tanik glanced up from his displays. “The Alckam drive is still cooling, we won’t be able to leave for at least another hour.”

Darius’s cheeks bulged with an angry reply, but Dyara stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Pick a rendezvous and give me the coordinates. We’ll meet you there on our way back.”

Tanik nodded and pulled up a star map on his primary display. He rapidly scrolled the map and placed a bright green waypoint somewhere out in deep space. He pointed to it, and that green diamond grew suddenly larger and brighter. A set of three galactic grid coordinates appeared below it, each of them measured in light years from the galactic center to a precision of twelve decimal places.

“How far away from here is that?” Dyara asked.

Another number appeared above the waypoint with the annotation of r for range.

“Point five six light years,” Tanik said, reading the number.

“Good enough. We’ll see you at those coordinates in about a day. Darius, let’s go.”

He stared at the coordinates a moment longer, trying to burn dozens of digits into his brain, but there was no way he’d be able to memorize them all.

He caught up to Dyara on their way off the bridge. “Is Tanik going to send you the coordinates for the rendezvous before he leaves?”

“No.”

“Then how are you going to get there?”

She tapped the side of her head. “I have an ESC, remember?”

“An extra-sensory chip helps you remember things?”

“It gives you perfect recall, like an android. We’d better get you chipped before we leave.”

Darius frowned, not sure he liked the idea of having a microchip in his brain that could record everything he heard and saw. And he definitely didn’t want any more delays.

“We need to go,” he said. “We’ve taken long enough to get back to Hades as it is.”

“It won’t take long. I’ll administer the injection while we’re loading supplies. You’ll thank me if we get into trouble,” Dyara said.

Darius sighed. “All right.”

They walked on in silence until they reached a access chute. As they climbed down it to level five, Dyara said, “Is it strange that your friend left without saying goodbye?”

It took Darius a moment to figure out who she was talking about. “You mean Gatticus? I wouldn’t exactly call him a friend. An acquaintance maybe.”

“So it’s not strange?”

“I guess not. He was probably just anxious to leave.”

“Good.”

They continued down the chute in silence for another minute before Darius began to wonder about those questions. “Why do you ask?”

“Well, it’s just that people have a way of going missing around Tanik.”

“Missing as in...”

“Missing,” Dyara said. “Gatticus didn’t seem too happy about Tanik taking over the ship. They might have had an argument over it.”

“And then what? You think Tanik forced him to leave?”

“Maybe.”

“Short of knocking Gatticus out or tying him up, I don’t see how he could have done that. Besides, I’m not sure you can knock out an android. At least not without inflicting serious damage.”

Dyara opened the hatch on level five and climbed out of the chute. Darius crawled through the hatch after her and activated his mag boots to stand up beside her.

“When was the last time you saw him?” Dyara asked.

“In the mess hall, last night,” Darius said.

“That was more than twelve hours ago,” Dyara said, nodding. “A lot can happen in that time.”

Darius frowned. “Are there surveillance logs we can check to see what happened?”

“Yes, but not all areas of the ship are covered by cameras. Crew quarters, for example, are not.”

“So...”

“So, maybe we should try to contact that runaway Osprey before we go to Hades.”

“And if there’s no answer?”

Dyara shrugged. “We could always board it and take a look around.”

“Assuming it doesn’t jump to FTL before we have the chance,” Darius pointed out.

“Yes.”

Darius frowned. He didn’t like the idea of delaying his search for Cassandra, but finding out why Gatticus had left in such a hurry could be important. “What if we find Gatticus inside with a fresh hole in his head?”

“Then, we might want to think twice about returning to the Deliverance,” Dyara replied.



Chapter 40




Dyara and Darius reached the amidships hangar and walked through the ruined doors. Darius looked around and saw the beat-up Starskimmer transport that Tanik had arrived on, but the Osprey Gatticus had used to take them to and from Hades was now gone. No doubt the android had taken that same ship now when he’d left the Deliverance.

“Pick a Vulture,” Dyara said and pointed vaguely to some of the other ships landed inside the hangar.

“A what?”

“We’re taking SF-76 Vultures,” Dyara said and pointed to one of them.

Darius followed that gesture to one of a few dozen matte black starfighters landed inside the hangar. Vultures looked vaguely like their namesake, with a transparent, beak-like cockpit at the front, and an elongated aerodynamic body, almost the shape of a missile. That tiny profile was spoiled by a pair of wings at the back, a few weapon hardpoints, and exhaust nozzles for the front-facing thrusters.

Just looking at the fighter, Darius realized he already knew plenty about its capabilities without having to be told. The SF-76 was an FTL-capable, two man stealth fighter with a maximum range of thirty light years. It was capable of Mach 3 in atmosphere, and in space it could hit 55 Gs of acceleration for brief periods. But even with nanotech enhancements, the human body could only take around 40 Gs, and even then only for a few milliseconds.

Captain Riker arrived while Darius was still studying the ships they were going to take. He came to stand beside them and nodded to the Vulture they were both looking at. “We’re taking fighters?”

Dyara nodded. “We’ll have a better chance of slipping past the Cygnian warships that chased us out of the system in stealth fighters than we will in an Osprey.”

Darius frowned. “But they’re only two-man ships. If we take Vultures we’ll only have room for three passengers. What if we find more than three survivors?”

Dyara hesitated. Darius could imagine what she was thinking. She didn’t think they were going to find any survivors, much less more than three. It was no coincidence that they were going to have room for exactly three passengers—Riker’s two kids plus Cassandra. Dyara was leaving just enough room for them to hold onto hope, but not enough room for that hope to breathe.

“What if we take one Osprey and two stealth fighters?” Darius asked.

Dyara shook her head. “The pilot of the bomber would never make it back, and he could compromise the entire operation.”

Darius scowled. “Fine, but if we do find more than three survivors, we’re going back for them.”

“Agreed,” Dyara said; then she turned and nodded to a heavily-armored recon and recovery ship, an RR-3 ‘Eagle.’ It was a blocky, rectangular ship sprouting sensor dishes and laser turrets from every side. “I could use some help transferring medical supplies to the fighters,” Dyara said.

Darius and Riker followed her to the rear airlock of the Eagle and waited for her to open it. Eagles were loaded with a full compliment of emergency medical equipment, since their primary role besides reconnaissance was to recover ejected pilots from space.

The Eagle’s airlock swished open and they all climbed inside. Dyara opened the inner doors and they walked through into a passenger compartment, situated right behind the cockpit. There were six front-facing acceleration harnesses, three to either side of the airlock. Along the sides of the compartment were two cryo tanks and a pair of hatchways leading to port and starboard laser turrets. Another pair of hatchways in the floor and ceiling led to the upper and lower turrets, while storage lockers lined the empty spaces in the walls and ceiling.

Dyara walked over to one of the lockers and opened it. A drawer slid out with medical equipment inside. She removed a fat silver pen and turned to Darius. “You ready?”

He stared dumbly at the device. “Ready for what?

“The injection—for your ESC, remember?”

The Extra-Sensory Chip. “Oh, right.” He’d been imagining something worse than a simple injection. Darius held out his arm and rolled up the sleeve of his jumpsuit. “Go ahead.”

Dyara held the pen to his forearm and depressed the button on the top of the device. He barely felt a thing, but the thought of millions of tiny machines invading his body made him shiver.

“Done,” Dyara said. Darius stared at his arm and noted that he wasn’t even bleeding where the nanites had been injected. “In about five minutes, I want you to think: Activate ESC. That will turn it on. I added an ESC operation manual to your pilot’s training module, so you should already know how to use your chip.”

Darius nodded slowly, realizing even as she said that, that he felt a certain sense of familiarity with the implant.

“What do you need us to load onto the Vultures?” Riker asked.

Dyara opened a few more drawers and swung open a pair of larger compartments. She withdrew four different packages and indicated for them to take those to the first Vulture and pack them in the storage compartment behind the co-pilot’s seat.

When they returned, she already had the next two sets of supplies out and floating beside her. They took those supplies and packed them into the last two Vultures.

“All right, let’s suit up,” Dyara said as soon as they were done. She nodded to a line of lockers along the rear wall of the hangar, and they walked over there together.

There were flight suits and helmets on racks inside the lockers. Dyara didn’t have to tell Darius how to put his suit on; apparently that had been included with his flight training module. The suits were designed to be worn directly over their jumpsuits, but there was a waste management girdle for long trips that they had to wear instead of regular underwear, and that forced them all to strip naked.

Darius spent the next few minutes minding his own business while he stripped out of his jumpsuit and underwear, but he peripherally noted that both Riker and Dyara seemed considerably more comfortable in their own skins.

It took about five minutes for them to finish getting dressed. The last step, after re-strapping their mag boots, was to slip on their oxygen masks and helmets.

Darius’s helmet came to life with a series of tones and chimes and a handful of glowing HUD icons appeared as he slid it over his head. One of the icons was a blinking O2 indicator, which told him he still had to attach his oxygen mask to an air supply. Right now there was just an open hole in the bottom of his helmet where an air hose should go.

“Take spare suits with you,” Dyara said as she handed one to Darius. “You’ll need them for anyone we bring back with us,” she explained. Her voice was louder now, since it was being relayed directly to Darius’s ears through speakers inside his helmet.

Taking the pieces of the flight suit back to his Vulture, he climbed the collapsing staircase beside the cockpit and packed the suit in with the medical supplies under the elastic webbing behind the co-pilot’s seat. That done, he climbed into the cockpit and secured his acceleration harness. The fighter’s harness was thinner and more flexible than the ones on the Deliverance, allowing him some freedom of movement, but there was also a part of the harness that formed a cage around his helmet. That was to prevent neck injury during high-G maneuvers.

Drawing on his newfound pilot’s training, Darius flipped the ignition switch for his Vulture and heard the reactor whirring to life even as lights and holographic displays flicked on all around him. The flight stick between his legs came alive and auto-centered itself. Darius tested it, feeling a slight tug of resistance. He tested the rudder pedals under his feet. They controlled the fighter’s lateral maneuvering jets while in space, and actual control surfaces in planetary atmospheres.

The flight stick provided pitch and roll in the same way. A lock switch enabled or disabled an additional three axes of movement, allowing him to slide the stick forward and back, side to side, or up and down. That gave him access to the ship’s docking jets—small thrusters that made it easier to line up for landings in space, but they were also helpful for vertical take-offs and landings in atmosphere. Finally, the throttle slider along the left side of the cockpit allowed him to control the fighter’s forward and backward-firing thrusters.

In front of him, three configurable holographic displays gave Darius access to navigation, comms, weapons, countermeasures, targeting, and a variety of other systems. All of it felt vaguely familiar to him, even though this was the first time Darius had physically been in the cockpit of a starfighter.

Darius hit the canopy open/close button and the beak-shaped canopy dropped down over his head with a pneumatic groan. Then he reached around and pulled out an air hose from under his chair and attached it to the opening in the chin of his helmet. As soon as he did that, the O2 symbol stopped blinking and displayed 100%/250h.

He had two hundred and fifty hours before he’d run out of air.

A chime sounded from the comms board, along with a blinking light, indicating activity on one of the channels. He switched to it and immediately heard Dyara’s voice.

“This is Blue Leader to Blue Three, come in Blue Three...” Darius spent a moment staring dumbly at the display. “Blue Three... Darius!”

He blinked. That must be his squadron designation. “I’m here,” he said.

“Good. Have you activated your ESC yet?”

“Sorry, I forgot. One second.” Activate ESC, he thought, and a flurry of data streamed before his eyes, too fast to track, like the run code of a program. After that a series of HUD icons appeared at the edges of his field of view, and a line of text appeared at the bottom in a dark blue font:

Available Networks

He focused on that and a list of networks appeared. He selected his fighter: SF-76 (Blue Three) from the list of available networks. As soon as he did that, a new HUD appeared, this one relating to the operation of his Vulture. He found the throttle and speed display, the charge levels for the fighter’s lasers and countermeasure systems, as well as HUD icons for landing gear, mag clamps, sensors, and stealth settings.

“You two ready to go?” Dyara asked.

“Ready,” Riker said.

“Ready...” Darius replied.

“All right, launch your fighters. I’ll see you spaceside.”

Darius found the launch control panel on his left holo display (LHD) and activated the fighter’s launch sequence. A clu-clunk sounded as locking bolts in the landing pad slid aside, followed by a pneumatic groan as the stairway leading up to the cockpit flattened. Then the landing pad began sinking into the vehicular airlock. The landing pad hit bottom with a thunk, and flashing crimson lights illuminated the airlock as deck sections slid shut overhead, sealing him inside. The airlock shut with a bang, and powerful fans whirred to life, sucking all of the air out of the compartment in a few seconds. Doors opened in front of the fighter, revealing the full length of the launch tube.

A rising roar came shuddering through the Vulture’s engines, and Darius braced himself. Lights flashed down the length of the launch tube as an automated voice sounded inside Darius’s helmet:

“Three, two, one—”

The Vulture screamed down the launch tube, pinning Darius to the back of his flight chair. For a split second the pressure and weight on his chest was so intense that he couldn’t even breathe, but then the weight lifted and his fighter shot out into space.

Stars gleamed on all sides. The glass cockpit made Darius feel exposed and somewhat agoraphobic, but his helmet helped reign in some of those feelings. Even if the canopy broke, he’d be okay. His air supply was contained. His flight suit was pressurized.

A double chime sounded from Darius’s sensors, and his eyes dipped to his nav display to find three Vulture-shaped blips racing out from a large, Colossus-class carrier-shaped blip. Up ahead, another green icon appeared with a line rising from an imaginary plane to indicate vertical displacement from his position.

“Form up Blue Squadron,” Dyara said. “We’re going to do a flyby on that Osprey before we leave. I’ll make comms contact. Standby....”

“What’s an Osprey doing out there?” Riker asked.

But when Dyara’s voice returned, she was speaking on a different channel. “This is Blue One to SB-22 Gray Seven, please identify and transmit your flight plan, over.”

“Who took an Osprey out?” Riker insisted, and Darius realized he wasn’t aware of Gatticus’s hasty departure.

Darius filled him in over the squadron channel.

“He’s not replying,” Dyara said over the open comms channel.

A gruff voice joined hers a moment later. “Blue Squadron, this is the Deliverance. What are you doing?”

Darius recognized the voice. It was Tanik.

“Blue leader here, we’re trying to get an explanation from Gatticus,” Dyara explained. “Maybe we can convince him to turn back and wait for us to return. Then you won’t have to jump to the rendezvous.”

“Don’t waste your time,” Tanik replied. “I tried that earlier, and he’s already charging his Alckam drive.”

Darius selected the Osprey as a target and saw that Tanik was right. Gamma rays were streaming from the craft, indicating that the Osprey’s Alckam reactor was spinning up.

“We can disable his ship from here,” Dyara said. “There’s no reason we have to let him go.”

“You mean besides the fact that I’m telling you to? We’re not in the business of keeping prisoners.”

“But—”

“Do you need me to make that an order, Lieutenant?”

Dyara hesitated. “No, sir.”

“Good. Now get on your way and hurry back. Deliverance out.”

“Well that was odd,” Darius said over the squadron channel. What he really meant to say was suspicious, but he didn’t know if Tanik was monitoring their comms.

Gatticus’s Osprey went on streaming gamma rays in ever-increasing intensity, and then it suddenly streaked off the nav display.

Darius frowned, unsettled by the android’s departure. It did seem out of character for him to leave without even a word of explanation. Darius blinked and shook his head. He had more important things to worry about.

“Set course for Hades,” Dyara said. I’m sending you both the coordinates for our rendezvous with the Deliverance.”

Another chime sounded, and a prompt appeared at the bottom of Darius’s nav display, asking him to accept the incoming coordinates. He did so while setting course for Hades and spinning up the fighter’s Alckam drive. A blue arrow appeared in the center of his HUD, along with a text prompt telling him to line up his fighter’s nose with the jump trajectory and to accelerate to his desired exit velocity. Darius pulled up on the flight stick and nosed over to starboard until the blue circle of the jump trajectory was dead center of his HUD.

As soon as he did that, a five-minute countdown appeared, along with an option to synchronize his exit velocity and jump timer with nearby ships. Darius was just about to ask Dyara about it when she sent him a request to do exactly that. He accepted and his fighter’s thrusters automatically fired with a throaty roar that pinned him to the back of his flight chair. He glanced at the accelerometer on his HUD and saw that his acceleration was currently set to 2.5 Gs, with a target velocity of 10 km/s.

The jump timer froze for a few seconds to give his fighter time to speed up, and then it began counting down again.

“When we drop out of FTL, we’re going to light up the system like Times Square on New Year’s Eve,” Dyara said.

Darius blinked, shocked by that reference. “Times Square still exists?”

“Yes, now focus. I’m sending you both exit coordinates that will land us within spitting distance of Hades. Unfortunately, the burst of radiation released when our warp bubbles disperse will be impossible to disguise, as will our subsequent atmospheric entry, but—”

“Then why did we bother taking Stealth Fighters?” Darius demanded.

“Because as soon as we’re in the atmosphere we can effectively disappear. The Cygnians won’t be able to track us without sending fighters of their own down to look for us, and even then, we’ll be very hard to spot on sensors unless we do something to reveal ourselves.”

“Coordinates received and locked in,” Riker said.

“Darius?”

He accepted the second nav data transfer and fed the exit coordinates into his Vulture’s FTL calculations. “Done,” he said.

The jump timer hit three minutes.

“Remember to engage stealth mode and switch to passive sensors as soon as we get into the atmosphere. Also, from here on out we’re going to play follow the leader and observe a strict comms silence.”

“You can spare me the idiot’s guide,” Riker said. “I used to fly SF-76’s with the Fifth USON Fleet.”

“You did?” Dyara asked.

“For more than six years before I was promoted to Captain and given a Dreadnought to command.”

“Then maybe you should take command, sir.”

“Agreed. Thank you, Lieutenant. Darius?”

“Yes?”

“Yes, sir—you understood everything that the Lieutenant said?”

Darius blinked. “Ah... yes, sir.”

“Good, then we’ll see you on the other side.”

“Roger that...” Darius replied. He watched the jump timer ticking down. The countdown became audible for the last few seconds.

“Three, two, one—”

As soon as it reached zero, the stars vanished in a bright flash of light, leaving him adrift in a perfectly black void with a bright circle of light at the end—the warp disc.

A new timer appeared on his HUD.

ETA: 12h 5m 29s

Darius felt his skin begin to itch at the thought of being cooped up in this cockpit for more than twelve hours. What was he supposed to do in all that time? The answer came to him even as he asked the question. A compartment beside his left thigh slid open as an additional reminder. Inside were three silver injector pens, each of them color-coded for different purposes. The blue one was a sedative; the red one was a nanite booster shot, in case of physical injury; and the yellow one was a stimulant. Below that were two patch kits, one for his flight suit and another for the cockpit canopy. Darius removed the blue sedative pen, and another one sprang into place from behind.

Darius found the injector port in the left thigh of his flight suit and screwed the tip of the pen into the threaded metal opening; then he depressed the injector button on top of the pen. He felt a slight prick, and heard the pen issue a soft tsss of escaping air. That done, he fed the empty pen into a slot below the other injectors, and shut the compartment.

Darius spent a long moment staring into the depthless white light at the end of the warp tunnel. Before long, a wave of sleepiness washed over him, and his eyelids grew heavy. His last thought before they slammed shut and he lost consciousness was a terrified whisper of doubt—

What if Cassandra really is dead?



Chapter 41




Darius woke up to the sound of an automated countdown—

“Ten, nine, eight—” It was interrupted by a second voice: “Please administer your stimulant now....”

Darius shook his head in an effort to clear away a thick fog of sleep, and grabbed the yellow-colored injector pen from the open compartment beside his left thigh. He screwed the tip into the injector port in his flight suit just as the warp disc in front of him dissolved and the planet Hades appeared in its place—

But this wasn’t the mottled red, green, and blue planet he remembered. This planet was a polished gray and white pearl, that looked as if it were entirely covered in snow. Here and there the surface peeked out in hazy gray-blue scraps of water and dead black trees.

Darius double-checked their location on his nav panel, hoping to find that they’d somehow jumped to the wrong planet by mistake—

They hadn’t. This was the Hades System. Darius pushed back a wave of despair and depressed the button in the top of his injector pen. His thoughts immediately snapped into focus: it didn’t matter what the surface looked like. The Grotto was a natural bomb shelter. Cassandra and all the others down there with her would have survived.

But right on the heels of that thought was a darker one: the stairwell leading down into the caves had been made of wood. The whole thing would have incinerated in the blast and provided an open conduit for super-heated air to flood down into the Grotto.

Darius shook his head, refusing to give that thought any credence. He dropped the empty injector pen in the collection slot below the others and slid the compartment shut. He was just about to activate his comms to ask where Karkarus was—or had been—when he remembered what Dyara had said about maintaining comms silence.

Instead, he found and targeted Blue Two, Captain Riker’s fighter, and then nudged the flight stick over until the black speck of that fighter appeared dead center of his targeting reticle. Riker’s fighter was surrounded by a pair of green target brackets, and a second black speck appeared alongside his, which was Dyara’s fighter—Blue One.

All three of them were cruising down to the planet with their pre-jump velocity of ten kilometers per second, but Darius was lagging behind them by about half a klick—probably because he’d launched a split second later than they had. He considered firing his thrusters to catch up, but then thought better of it: if they didn’t fire their thrusters they’d look just like ejected debris falling back down and breaking up on re-entry.

After a few seconds, they hit the upper atmosphere of Hades, and Darius’s fighter began shuddering with turbulence. Heat came radiating through the cockpit in shimmering waves, but between the thick armored glass of the canopy, and his insulated flight suit, it wasn’t an uncomfortable heat—more like lying in the sun on a hot summer’s day.

The metal frame of the cockpit began glowing with the heat of atmospheric entry, and the fighter shook like a leaf. The planet’s atmosphere roared loudly in Darius’s ears, and he glanced at the fighter’s speed indicator, worried that the Vulture would rip itself apart on entry.

But his fighter was already down to six kilometers per second—well below the red overspeed bar now marked at the top of the indicator. It helped that they were diving down at a relatively shallow angle, giving them time to decelerate before they dropped into thicker atmosphere.

Darius checked his contacts panel for enemy ships. He didn’t find any. It looked like they were in luck: either the Cygnians who’d laid waste to the planet had already left, or else they were on the other side of Hades, and effectively blocked from view. Either way, there was a good chance they’d be able to get in and out undetected.

Long minutes passed and the black of space gradually brightened to a pale white, then to a light blue, and finally, to a deep shade of cobalt. The tops of the thick white and gray clouds soared up around them like mountains. They plunged into a shadowy valley and gloomy gray-black sheets of moisture and smoke swirled in on all sides. Rain and ash speckled Darius’s canopy, running in dirty, shivering lines.

After just a few seconds, jagged black trees came swirling out of the haze—charred, leafless skeletons. Up ahead, Both Dyara and Captain Riker leveled out to cruise over the tree tops. Darius pulled up and matched speed with them at Mach one point two. He gaped in shock at the blackened forest scrolling by below. He couldn’t see the ground, but a flickering orange light and rising walls of dirty black smoke gave him some idea of what was down there. Now Darius realized why Hades had been shrouded in clouds from orbit: a large part of that shroud was made up of smoke and debris.

A flicker of movement caught Darius’s eyes, and he looked up to see Captain Riker waggling his fighter’s wings. Dyara did the same. Darius wondered what that was about, but then remembered that he was supposed to engage stealth mode and switch to passive sensors. He quickly did so, and both fighters stopped waggling their wings at him. They slowly banked to the left, and Darius followed them through that maneuver.

Long minutes passed, and the parade of dead tree tops dragged on and on, endlessly to all sides.

A nav prompt appeared:

Incoming waypoint data from SF-76 “Blue Two.”

Darius accepted the transfer and a green waypoint titled Karkarus appeared dead ahead on his HUD and nav display. Darius felt a sweaty surge of anxiety that left his hands shaking. That waypoint was just ten kilometers away, and the trees below were burned to a crisp.

By the time they closed to just five kilometers from Karkarus, the skeletal black treetops vanished completely. At that point both Dyara and Captain Riker slowed and swooped down lower for a better look. Darius matched speed and followed them down. At an altitude of just two hundred meters, the ground appeared. It was still cloaked in a thick veil of smoke, but there weren’t any trees—collapsed or otherwise—just the smooth, sloping black sides of a blast crater, filled with a fine coating of ash and flaming orange chunks of debris. Ash rained down steadily in fat, fluttering flakes. They followed the crater down, slowing still further and dropping altitude as they went, until Darius had to engage his fighter’s thrusters to avoid stalling out.

They reached the lowest point of the crater—a dirty, water-filled pool with the glowing green diamond of their waypoint beside it—Karkarus. The name of the settlement blurred until Darius couldn’t read it anymore. He shook his head and gasped, his chest rising and falling quickly as hot tears fell inside his helmet. Karkarus was gone, even the peninsula it had been built upon was gone—carved out of the planet as if by a giant ice cream scoop.

Heedless of his orders, Darius activated the comms. “Are you sure this is the right place?”

Someone opened the comms, but hesitated before speaking, their breath a crackling roar of static. “Positive,” Dyara said.

They circled the waypoint and Darius cruised dangerously low to the ground. A red stall warning appeared on his HUD, but he ignored it. There had to be something left—some hint of the Grotto, at least.

Darius spotted Captain Riker jetting off to one side and banked sharply to follow. He’d lived in Karkarus. He would know what to look for.

After just a few seconds, blackened rock turned to churning gray water. Fat black ashes went on falling like snow. Captain Riker flew around the devastated peninsula, skirting formerly sheer black cliffs, now blasted flat, to the jutting tip of the peninsula. Here the cliffs were still more or less intact, and the yawning mouth of a cave appeared just above the level of the raging sea.

Captain Riker flew straight toward that cave, and Darius followed him with his heart thundering in his chest. This cave had to connect to the Grotto, and if it was still intact, then maybe other parts of the Grotto had survived too—along with the children hiding down there.

Darius fired his braking thrusters to slow down as he reached the mouth of the cave. He dropped his landing gear and cruised in for a landing beside Captain Riker on the slick black rocks of the cave floor. Darius released his harness and pushed it aside.

Seeing that the cave was choked with smoke like everything else, he removed a portable oxygen tank from below his chair and leaned forward to clip it to the mag-plates along the back of his flight suit. That done, he exchanged the air hose from the fighter’s integrated air supply for the one from the tank. Finally, he punched the open/close button for the cockpit, and the canopy swung up on pneumatic struts with a hissing groan. Darius sprang over the side to the ground. His legs collapsed, unused to the feeling of gravity, but he sprang back up in a fraction of a second and whirled around, looking for Captain Riker.

Darius found him already jogging down a nearby tunnel, his helmet lamps bobbing. Darius mentally turned on his own headlamps and ran after the man.

I’m coming, Cass, he thought. Just hang on. I’m coming.



Chapter 42




The tunnel branched in several places, but multiple branches had collapsed, forcing them to turn back and try alternate routes. Captain Riker periodically shouted out the names of his kids as he ran: “Aurora! Roman! Can you hear me?!”

Darius added his voice to the thundering mixture of echoes from Riker’s cries and the crashing waves beyond the Grotto.

“Cassandra! Cass! Can you hear me? Say something!”

They ran down tunnel after tunnel, shouting the names of their kids, with the beams of light from their helmets bobbing in the smoky gloom of the Grotto.

“Fek!” Riker said as they ran up against yet another pile of boulders blocking their way. Riker pounded the heat-deformed remains of a metal door frame with the heel of one hand, drawing a ringing report from the lumpy metal beam. He slid down the slick rock wall, shaking his head, his eyes red and cheeks wet behind the faceplate of his helmet.

“What are you doing?” Darius demanded. “Get up!”

“There’s no way in!” Riker cried between muffled sobs. “The whole fekking place collapsed!”

Darius stared at the pile of boulders blocking the tunnel, irrationally willing them to move. When nothing happened, he fell on the rocks on his hands and knees, finding the loose ones and tossing them aside.

“Help me!” he screamed.

But Riker made no move to get up. He just sat there, slowly shaking his head and gazing at the wall with dull, staring eyes.

Darius clicked his tongue in annoyance and went back to work. Before long his arms were shaking and his hands were bruised from rocks rolling down onto them. His back spasmed sharply as he heaved away a large rock. He leaned back on his haunches, gasping for air. Despair crowded his thoughts and his chest began to ache. A painful knot rose in his throat, and his eyes burned and blurred with tears.

There had to be a way to move these rocks! Maybe they could blast them out somehow? They could take one of the missiles from the Vultures and rig it to blow.

A loud crunch of gravel sounded behind them, and Darius turned to see Dyara standing there.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know this is hard to accept.”

Darius shook his head. “We need to get in there! They’re trapped!”

Dyara slowly crossed the remaining distance between them and then pointed to the mangled remains of the door frame Riker had hit with his hand.

“The blast wave was hot enough to melt metal when it hit,” she said. “It would have vaporized anyone in its path. I’m sorry.”

Darius gritted his teeth. “There were pools of water in the sleeping chamber. They could have jumped into the pools to take shelter from the heat.”

“Even if that would have worked, they’d have needed to hold their breath. How long do you think it took for that much heat to dissipate?” She shook her head. “Besides, they didn’t have any warning. There’s no way they could have prepared, and the blast wave would have ripped through these tunnels in less than a second.”

Darius glared coldly at her. “You don’t know that. Maybe one of the survivors from Karkarus saw the missiles and came down to warn them.”

Dyara pulled out a wand-shaped device, a scanner, and aimed it at the pile of rocks blocking the tunnel. A flickering blue fan of light joined the fat white beams pouring from their headlamps. “There are no life signs on the other side of those rocks.”

“That scanner’s probably not strong enough. Now stop wasting time, and help me figure out how to blast this tunnel open!”

“Darius. I did a sensor sweep with my fighter too, both from the air and after I landed inside the cave. There’s nothing alive down here. There’s nothing alive on the surface either. The Cygnians sterilized the whole planet.”

Darius’s body shivered with rage, and he shook his head vigorously. “You’re wrong,” he said. “You’re wrong.”

She walked up to him, until she was close enough that he could clearly see the tears shining in her brown eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly, then she turned and glanced down at Riker. “I’m so sorry.”

Captain Riker’s head snapped up, and an ugly look crossed his face. His eyes appeared to focus once more, and he nodded once, stiffly. “You’re sorry?” he asked.

Before Dyara could reply, he sprang off the ground with a roar and lunged across the distance between them. He knocked her over and pinned her down, his hands fumbling for the neck seals of her helmet.

“Darius!” Dyara cried.

He stared stupidly at the two of them struggling on the ground. Then Dyara’s helmet popped open with a hiss. Riker tossed it aside and Dyara gasped and coughed on the smoky air. Then Riker’s hands closed around her throat and her eyes bulged in alarm. She swatted his arms with her hands, trying to break his grip.

Darius snapped out of it and grabbed Riker from behind, lifting him bodily off her. Riker planted his feet on the ground and backpedaled quickly, pushing Darius up against the wall. He hit with bruising force and Riker elbowed him in the gut, knocking the wind out of him. Darius gasped soundlessly, and Dyara scrambled to recover her helmet, coughing on smoke, or maybe from a bruised windpipe.

Riker pinned her down again and dragged her away from the helmet. Her hands found a rock and she slammed it into his faceplate, cracking the glass. “Snap out of it, Riker!”

He ignored the assault and grabbed her throat again, this time lifting her up and then slamming the back of her head against the rock floor of the cavern.

She groaned and her head lolled to one side. Darius pushed off the wall and body-slammed Riker, sending him sprawling before he could crack Dyara’s head against the rocks again. She lay there, stunned and groaning while Darius fought to pin Riker to the ground. But Riker was much stronger than him, and Darius realized he wouldn’t be able to hold him down for long.

Desperate to end the fight, he picked up a rock of his own and smashed it against Riker’s cracked faceplate as hard as he could. The glass turned into a gleaming spider’s web of fractures and Riker shoved him off with a roar, only to end up stumbling around blindly, unable to see through his own helmet. He fumbled with the seals of the helmet and then tossed it aside. Whirling around, his gaze found Dyara still lying stunned on the ground. He let out an incoherent scream and ran over to her with single-minded focus.

Darius saw murder glinting in Riker’s eyes. Gritting his teeth, he ran up behind Riker and slammed his rock into the side of the captain’s head. The man fell over with a heavy thud, and Darius stood over him, panting with rage, waiting for him to get up. Long seconds passed, and Dyara appeared beside him, swaying on her feet.

Still, Riker didn’t stir.

“Is he...” Dyara trailed off.

Anger and adrenaline left Darius’s body in the same instant, leaving him cold and shaking. He glanced at the rock in his hand and found it smeared red with Riker’s blood. Then he noticed that his faceplate was sprinkled with it too.

Darius dropped the rock and stared sightlessly at Riker’s half-curled body. Dark blood bubbled from a concave depression in the side of his head. Darius felt sick.

Dyara ran her life signs scanner over Riker’s body and slowly shook her head.

“What about a nanite booster shot?” Darius asked. His heart was pounding painfully hard in his chest.

“It’s too late,” Dyara said quietly. “He’s brain dead.”



Chapter 43


TEN HOURS AGO...

Tanik stood watching the decrypter crunch through numbers to break into Gatticus’s data cubes. He still hadn’t woken anyone from cryo yet, because he couldn’t add narration to his orientation video. The people in cryo all spoke a dead language—English. Gatticus had known that language, and if Tanik could just gain access to the android’s data, he could pass it through a module maker program to produce a data module for a neural mapper.

Unfortunately, Gatticus had used a particularly strong encryption key for his data, and the decrypter had already been working for two hours with no results.

Tanik scowled. That blasted android had delayed his plans considerably. There was no telling how long it would take to decrypt his data.

Maybe he could produce a silent orientation video...

But just then, a chime sounded from the decrypter and the data cube glowed to life.

Tanik smiled. He used his ESC to link the data cube to the ship’s computer and activate a standard module maker program from a list of available applications. He set the program to filter for linguistics data and then executed the program.

A status bar appeared before Tanik’s eyes, relayed by his extra-sensory chip. The timer below it read:

2h 10m.

Tanik’s smile broadened, and he felt old scar tissue tugging painfully in his cheek. Soon he’d be able to wake up the first batch of people from cryo and download the necessary training modules to make them useful crewmen.

Of course, there was no telling how many of them would rather take their chances with the USO and the Cygnians than join a war against them, but Tanik had found that the will was like a wild animal—it could be tamed with the right mixture of force and persuasion.

Neural mappers could be used to indoctrinate people, but in order to do that he would have to produce the necessary modules, and that would take time.

For now, he would have to exert his own will to keep everyone in line. Fortunately, he’d had plenty of practice subjugating people’s wills over the years.

There’d been a time when controlling even one Cygnian over short distances would have taken an impossible amount of effort, but only a few weeks ago he’d managed to utterly subdue two of them at a distance of several million kilometers. He’d even managed to reach out across more than a dozen light years to find the Deliverance and make contact with Captain Okara in order to coordinate the launch of his stolen beacon drone with her arrival at the Eye.

He’d also gotten her and Lieutenant Reed to inject a timed-release sedative into the ship’s air cyclers so that even the slightest suggestion from him would be enough to put the crew to sleep. That had made them all easy pickings for the Banshees, and with the exception of Gatticus’s last minute fuel dump, Tanik’s plan had gone off without a hitch.

Now he had a fully-fledged Colossus-class carrier at his disposal, along with a ready supply of naive fools to help him crew it. Long live the Coalition, he thought.

The USO had no idea who they were dealing with. The Dark Revenant indeed.

* * *

“Darius, it’s not your fault,” Dyara said. She had her helmet back on, and the twin beams from her headlamps swept back and forth as she shook her head. “He was going to kill me.”

“Yeah.” Darius nodded quickly, jerkily. His eyes were so wide that they felt like they were going to fall right out of his head. “You’re right.”

“It was an accident.”

Darius’s hands were shaking. He stared at them in shock. Smashing Riker in the head with a rock was an accident?

Dyara grabbed his hands to stop them from shaking. “We need to go.”

That brought him back. “Go?” he echoed. “What about...” He glanced at the rocks blocking the tunnel, and then he remembered all of Dyara’s well-reasoned arguments against holding onto hope.

Despair took its place and grief consumed him. Suddenly he couldn’t breathe. “I can’t...” He shook his head and forced himself to suck in a breath. “She can’t be dead!”

“Maybe she isn’t. Some people think that no one ever really dies, that they just pass on to the next life—or the next level of reality.”

“You mean Heaven?”

“Heaven?” Dyara shook her head, as if she didn’t know what the word meant.

“Well, where do you think they go?”

“Into the Source.”

“The what?”

“The ZPF—the zero point field? You’ve never heard of that?”

Darius actually had heard of it, but he’d heard of it back in his time, over a thousand years ago. He’d never spent any time looking into it, however. “What is it?” he asked.

“Vacuum energy, an energy field that permeates everything, even empty space. The Cygnians believe it ties the whole universe together and that it’s the source of all matter and energy in the universe. They believe it’s also the source of all consciousness, and that some people have the ability to interact with it.”

Darius frowned. “Is that just something the Cygnians believe, or has it actually been proven?”

“Well... there’s evidence. There’s virtual particles, and the Casimir effect, and USO scientists believe that the ZPF might be responsible for the cosmological constant, otherwise known as Dark Energy.”

“How does that tie-in with consciousness?” Darius asked. “You said the Cygnians believe it’s the source of consciousness.”

“That part remains unproven, but it’s a fundamental tenet of the Church of the Divine Light.

“The what?”

“The primary religion in the USO—thanks to Cygnian missionaries.”

Darius scowled. “Converting to an alien religion isn’t going to make me feel any better.”

“Then what will?”

“Revenge.” Darius’s hands balled into fists as a flash of sheer hatred washed over him and made his whole body feel light. He spared one last glance at Captain Riker’s corpse. Riker had lashed out at the wrong person. This wasn’t Dyara’s fault, or even Tanik Gurhain’s. The Cygnians were to blame for sterilizing Hades, and Darius was going to fight them unto his dying breath for it.

“Let’s go,” he said. “We need to get back to the Deliverance.



Chapter 44




Back in the cockpit of his Vulture, Darius slapped the open/close button for the cockpit, and stowed his portable oxygen tank under his seat. He exchanged air hoses once more, secured his acceleration harness, and flipped the ignition switch for his fighter.

The Vulture’s reactor whirred to life, and the thrusters ignited with an idling roar. Darius flipped off the lock-switch for his docking jets and pulled the flight stick straight up to fire the ventral thrusters. The Vulture jumped into the air and he backed off the jets to hover just above the cave floor. Then he retracted the landing gear and pushed the throttle up to two Gs.

Darius slammed into the back of his chair as the fighter screamed out the mouth of the cave and over churning gray water.

Black ash was still falling from the sky like snow, and just then a chunk of flaming orange debris streaked down like a meteor and crashed into the ocean somewhere beyond the horizon.

Darius glanced at his nav display to check for Dyara, and he saw the green blip of her fighter racing out of the cave behind him. He pulled up sharply and throttled up to five Gs, rocketing into the smoke-clouded sky of Hades.

His whole body felt cold and numb. Cassandra was actually dead. Dead, and not coming back.

Suddenly he understood how Tanik Gurhain had become the way he was. He’d lost his children to the Cygnians too. He’d become a pirate and so-called terrorist out of necessity, not by choice. As for executing civilian crews who refused to join the Coalition, that was an act of mercy. Death at the hands of the Cygnians would be far less humane than a death by poison gas.

Darius pressed his lips into a firm line. Extreme circumstances called for extreme measures. Tanik was just doing what he had to do to fight an oppressive regime.

The dense clouds of smoke fell away, and a shining blue sky appeared on all sides of Darius’s cockpit, giving a sense of physical clarity to accompany his newfound idealogical clarity.

A double chime sounded, followed by another, and another, and then several more. Darius glanced at nav display to see twelve red blips dead ahead and racing down from orbit at a range of 2,522 kilometers.

“We’ve got incoming!” Dyara said over the comms. “Twelve Cygnian Blade Fighters, bearing triple zero by mark sixty-two. Set course to bearing zero four five and throttle up to nine Gs. We’ll have to try to slip by them before they reach weapons range.”

Darius increased his throttle to nine Gs, but he made no move to break off. Instead, he mentally armed his Vulture’s twin double laser cannons and hornet missiles.

“Darius? Did you hear me? Break off! We can’t take on a whole squadron of Blade Fighters by ourselves!”

But he wasn’t listening.

“Blast it!” Dyara said, and he saw her fighter banking to join his. “All right, fine. You want to draw some blood? Listen up.”

“I’m listening,” Darius said, using his ESC to vocalize his thoughts without having to move his lips. At nine Gs it was hard enough just to keep breathing, let alone to talk.

“We use Hornet missiles only, and we’re going to juke around like our tails are on fire. If you stop flying evasive for even a second, one of those Blades will tag you with a laser and it’s game over. You understand me?”

“Got it.”

“Hornets will lock on automatically. All you have to do is arm them and pick your target. Fire two missiles per Blade, and as soon as we reach orbit, you go evasive. They won’t waste time firing lasers into atmosphere at this range, but as soon as we hit open space, they’ll light us up. Until then, charge your ECM and increase power to your point defense turret, because you can bet your kakker they’re going to shoot missiles back at us.”

“Understood,” Darius said, and mentally modified his countermeasure settings as ordered. He activated the 360-degree visibility system linked to cameras mounted on the Vulture’s hull. As soon as he did that, all of his control surfaces disappeared from view—as did his legs—and he had the unsettling impression of rocketing through the air as a disembodied entity. He flexed his hand on the flight stick and curled his toes in his boots to remind himself that his body was still there.

The only things still visible, besides the indicators on his heads-up display, were the glowing red brackets of incoming enemy targets—exactly twelve of them. He focused on one of the nearest ones, and that pair of brackets grew larger and brighter. A second set of brackets beside it grew larger too, along with a tag—SF76-B1—to indicate Dyara was the one targeting that fighter.

Darius armed a pair of Hornets and then fired them at his target. They shot out with a loud skrshhh, riding on bright blue thrusters that quickly receded to glinting points of light. Darius switched to the next enemy fighter in line and fired another pair of Hornets. As he did so, he caught a glimpse of Dyara’s missiles—two silvery bullets streaking by to starboard on dazzling blue tongues of flame.

Multiple double chimes sounded from Darius’s contacts panel, and he saw tiny red blips, surrounded by their own bracket pairs come streaking down from the enemy fighters.

“Missiles incoming!” Dyara warned.

“I see them,” Darius replied.

Hades’ atmosphere thinned and stars came pricking through, at which point a warning tone sounded in Darius’s ears, followed by—

“Juke!”

Darius slammed the flight stick to the left and pulled up slightly to execute a barrel roll. A split second after that, bright, electric blue laser beams came flickering down from the enemy fighters, stabbing through empty air all around Darius’s Vulture.

He mixed up his barrel roll with a few random twists of his flight stick. At nine Gs, moving the flight stick wasn’t easy, but there was an elbow pad at the back of his armrest that allowed him to brace his arm. The flight stick was also more sensitive, so that even a slight twitch had a big effect.

Range with the enemy fighters closed quickly, and Hades’ atmosphere fell away, revealing stars and space on all sides. Bright blue lasers went on snapping all around them.

“Spin up your Alckam drive and back off the throttle to four Gs” Dyara said. “It’s time for us to bug out.”

“Roger,” Darius said, and mentally throttled down. He activated the jump drive, and a blue jump arrow appeared below his cross hairs, along with a five minute countdown. Darius fed the rendezvous coordinates into his Alckam drive, and he was just about to line up with the jump arrow when Dyara said—

“Keep juking! Match trajectories at the last second. You don’t want to give those Blades a bigger target than you have to.”

“Right,” Darius said. While he waited for the jump timer to run down, he targeted another Blade and fired off another two Hornets—

Skrshhh—

Just then an orange ball of fire bloomed in the midst of the enemy formation, followed by another one.

“Whoo! That’s two!” Dyara crowed.

Darius smiled grimly and fired off his final pair of Hornets. Vultures only carried eight.

A sharp enemy missile lock warning sounded in Darius’s ears, and he spotted a group of three Cygnian missiles spiraling in toward him. His point defense turret opened fire a split second after that with a stuttering line of white laser beams. Those lasers struck home, torching first one, and then a second missile with dazzling explosions.

But then the turret overheated.

The third missile sailed on unmolested, and Darius activated his electronic countermeasures (ECM) in a last-ditch attempt to scramble the missile’s guidance systems.

But it didn’t work.

The missile lock warning screamed repetitively in his ears, and he stopped juking long enough to line up his primary laser cannons. He pulled the trigger and a blinding explosion consumed the space directly in front of him, shaking his Vulture and peppering it with debris.

He roared through the explosion and out the other side.

“Are you okay?” Dyara asked.

Darius nodded. “I’m fine, just a bit shook up.” He targeted another enemy fighter and popped off a fire-linked blast from his Vulture’s twin double laser cannons. Bright golden beams converged on one of the Cygnian Blades, and it exploded in a flash of orange fire.

Darius slammed the flight stick to one side and stomped on the left rudder pedal, going evasive once more.

Just in time. A flurry of blue lasers slashed through the space where he’d been a second ago, one of them slicing by so close that it momentarily blinded him.

“Watch it!” Dyara said.

“I’m okay.”

“Are you trying to get yourself killed?”

“It worked, didn’t it?” A damage alert squawked in his ears, but he didn’t have time to check what it was about—probably superficial damage from the missile he’d intercepted at the last second.

His jump timer hit ten seconds and began flashing to remind him to line up with the exit vector.

“See you on the other side,” Dyara said.

“See you,” Darius replied. The timer hit five seconds. He broke out of his evasive maneuvers and pulled up to match vectors with the blue jump arrow.

A robotic voice said: “Three, two, one—”

And space flashed white. His thrusters automatically switched off, leaving his ribs aching with the sudden absence of pressure. The bright white circle of a warp disc appeared dead ahead and empty black space sprawled all around.

Darius felt weak and cold as he came down from the adrenaline high of combat. He sucked in a deep breath and toggled off the 360-degree visibility setting. As he did so, his real physical surroundings snapped into view. A laser-scorched hole glared at him in the front of his cockpit canopy as thick around as his thumb. Carbon scoring on the glass partially obscured the blinding glare of the warp disc, but it did nothing to hide the stream of bright red blood spurting out above his right knee.



Chapter 45




It was hard to see through the blood. Darius realized that was partly because his faceplate was splattered with it. He swiped his forearm across the faceplate to clean it, and tiny red droplets broke free, glittering like liquid rubies as they drifted away.

The utility compartment beside Darius’s left leg slid open, and he grabbed one of the suit patch kits. Ripping it open and removing the paper from the adhesive backing, he slapped the patch against the hole in his suit, and held it there, both to apply the seal and to stop the bleeding in his leg.

Blood drifted through the cockpit in snaking lines. It was everywhere; everything was smeared with it, thanks to the fact that his Vulture’s thrusters had been engaged at the time of the injury.

Darius’s head swam, and a hot, searing pain began in his leg as the last dregs of adrenaline left his body. After about a minute, he risked reaching for a red-coded nanite booster shot with his left hand. He screwed the tip of the injector pen into the reciprocal port in the leg of his flight suit and depressed the button to inject the nanites.

That done, he laid his head back and shut his eyes. He focused on taking deep, steady breaths and tried not to think about the queasy feeling in his stomach. He did not want to throw up in his helmet, especially not while his cockpit was depressurized and he couldn’t take the helmet off.

Darius remembered the canopy patch kit in the utility compartment. His eyes flew open, and he grabbed the kit and ripped it open. Removing the paper from the adhesive backing, he leaned forward to paste the transparent patch against the hole in the Vulture’s canopy. Having done that, he summoned an engineering panel from his right holo display and re-pressurized the cockpit. He activated the air filtration system and waited for it to suck out all the floating streams of his blood.

It took a while, but once the air was finally clear, he unfastened the seals of his helmet and slipped it off. He pulled off his oxygen mask next and sucked in a deep breath. There was a faint, coppery smell, but otherwise the feeling of clean, filtered air blasting his sweat and grime-covered face was pure bliss.

After fully five minutes of relishing the simple pleasure of not wearing a helmet or an oxygen mask, Darius glanced at the blue-coded sedative pen in the utility compartment. He had more than twelve hours to wait before he arrived at the Deliverance. Far too long for him to be alone with his thoughts. Cassandra’s face flashed into his mind’s eye, and he winced.

He grabbed the pen and was just about to inject himself with it, when he realized he couldn’t afford to go to sleep without a helmet. If that canopy patch failed, he’d die in his sleep.

With a grimace, Darius put his sweaty oxygen mask and helmet back on, and then injected himself with the sedative. While he waited for sleep to overcome him, he grabbed the discarded paper and packaging from the patch kits, rolled them into a ball, and stowed them in the webbed compartment below his seat. Then he grabbed the empty injector pens and fed them into the slot below the others.

A sleepy haze descended on him soon after that, and Cassandra’s face swirled unbidden into his mind’s eye once more. Her eyes were wide with terror and her mouth was open in a soundless scream.

A wave of grief hit him and constricted his throat in a suffocating knot. He gasped and shook his head. She can’t be dead. This is a nightmare. It was all one long nightmare; none of it was real. I’m still in cryo. The doctors lied about cryo being a dreamless sleep.

Long minutes passed with him clinging to denial, but the pulsing echoes of pain in his leg brought him back to reality. This was all too vivid to be a dream. The grief returned, making it impossible to think about anything else. With a great effort he managed to push it back, locking it away and bottling it in. He had to focus. He’d killed a few Cygnians already, but not nearly enough. It wouldn’t be enough until their entire species was extinct.

Darius took that thought with him into the darkness as the sedatives overwhelmed him and carried him away.

The next thing he knew, an automated countdown was droning in his ears—

“Ten, nine, eight—please administer your stimulant now—four, three, two...”

He injected himself with a yellow-coded pen just as a flash of light suffused his cockpit and swept away the featureless warp disc in front of him. Black space and shining stars appeared all around, with an oblong gray speck dead ahead, surrounded by green brackets and accompanied by a label: U.S.O.S Deliverance.

Dyara’s voice bubbled in his ears, “This is Blue One to the U.S.O.S Deliverance, requesting landing clearance, over.”

“Welcome back, Blue Squadron,” an unfamiliar voice said. “Please proceed to landing on strips 1A and 2A.”

“Please identify,” Dyara replied. Apparently she didn’t recognize the voice either.

“This is Lieutenant David Neelson, comms officer for the Deliverance.

“I see. Get me Deliverance actual, Lieutenant Neelson.”

“Dyara,” a familiar, gravelly voice said. “Where’s Captain Riker?”

“There was an incident. He didn’t make it.”

“I see. I’m sorry to hear that,” Tanik replied.

“Who is Lieutenant Neelson? You assigned a bridge crew already?” Dyara asked.

“Oh, yes. We’ve been very busy while you were gone, but thanks to judicious delegation of duties, almost all of the crew are awake now.”

“That was fast.... They’ve all agreed to join the Coalition?”

“So far,” Tanik replied. “Why?”

“No reason.”

“We’re almost ready to leave for our attack on the Crucible.”

“Already?” Dyara asked. “How do you plan to get past the Cygnian fleet guarding the Eye? They’ll tear us to pieces. Not to mention, we have no idea what will be waiting for us on the other side of the wormhole.”

“I’ll explain in due time. As soon as you’re aboard, I expect both of you to report directly to my quarters for a debriefing.”

“Yes, sir.”

Deliverance actual out.”



Chapter 46




Darius flew his Vulture into the Deliverance’s landing bay and lined it up with the landing strip. As he raced down along the strip, the carrier’s docking clamps made contact with his fighter with a loud clu-clunk, although that sound was probably produced by the fighter’s simulated feedback system (SFS)—just like the sounds of weapons firing in space and the sight of lasers.

The carrier’s sliding docking clamps immediately applied the brakes and Darius slammed into his acceleration harness as his Vulture slowed to quick stop on landing pad 2A. The landing pad promptly flipped over, and then jets of air gusted into the vehicular airlock on the other side. As soon as the airlock was pressurized, the ceiling opened and the landing pad rose into the amidships hangar on level five.

Darius blinked in shock at the sight that greeted him in the hangar. The deck was bustling with people in black jumpsuits with red rating badges on their upper left sleeves, and USON patches marking their upper right ones. Darius glanced at the upper right sleeve of his flight suit and noticed for the first time that it had  a matching patch—a red triangle with a white eye emblazoned on it, and the words United Systems of Orion Navy wrapped around the edges. Darius frowned. That patch looked almost identical to the Seal of Life.

A staircase rose up beside Darius’s cockpit, snapping him out of his momentary distraction. He hit the canopy open/close button, and then released his acceleration harness and disconnected his air hose. By the time he stood up, three members of the deck crew were already bustling around outside his fighter to refuel and rearm it. A fourth one came bounding up the staircase to help him out of the cockpit. She wore a medic’s rating badge.

“Are you in need of medical assistance?” she asked, her gaze flicking over his blood-covered flight suit, and then darting around the blood-stained cockpit.

Darius shook his head. “No.”

The medic gave him a dubious frown and took a medical scanner off her belt. She passed it over him with a flickering blue fan of light.

“You’re severely dehydrated, and your iron levels are low.” She clipped the scanner to her belt and helped him down the stairs, even though his injured leg felt just fine.

Dyara walked into view and waited for him at the bottom of the stairs. Her arms were crossed and a deep frown marred her pretty features. She’d taken her helmet off already.

“Are you satisfied?” she demanded as he reached the bottom of the stairs.

He cracked the seals on his own helmet and slipped it off. One of the deck crew came and took it from him.

“Satisfied?” he croaked as he peeled off his breathing mask. His tongue felt like sandpaper in his mouth. Before he could ask for water, the medic standing beside him handed him a bottle, along with a fat red pill. He took the bottle and gulped greedily from the straw; then he swallowed the pill.

Dyara nodded to the laser-blackened glass of his cockpit. “You’re lucky to be alive. We both are.”

Darius shrugged.

Dyara blew out a breath and shook her head. “Yeah, all right hotshot, come on, we have to report to Tanik for debriefing.”

Darius’s stomach grumbled loudly and he realized he hadn’t eaten a thing in the past twenty-four hours. “I could use something to eat first.”

Dyara zipped open a pocket in her flight suit and withdrew a ration bar. “You can eat and walk. Let’s go.”

Darius took the ration bar and peeled it open. He took a big bite and chewed endlessly on the rubbery bar. Looking around, he marveled once more at the number of people in the hangar. “Tanik’s been busy.”

“Yeah,” Dyara said. “I wonder how he convinced them all to sign up—put a gun to their heads? Or maybe it was a gas mask.”

“Does it matter?” Darius asked.

Dyara regarded him with a frown. “What happened to your plan of voting for new leadership?”

“Tanik has the experience we need to fight the Phantoms. We’re not going to do better by electing some random idiot from the 21st Century.”

“We don’t have to fight....” Dyara trailed off as she caught dark looks from a pair of passing crewmen.

She went on, but in a softer voice this time: “I tracked Gatticus’s jump vector before he left. It didn’t intersect with any USO worlds—not for hundreds of light years, and an Osprey has a maximum FTL range of only fifty.”

Darius glanced at her. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying, whoever plotted that Osprey’s jump, it wasn’t Gatticus. I think it was Tanik, and I think Gatticus is dead.”

“That’s speculation.”

“Reasonable speculation,” Dyara replied.

They walked on in silence to the nearest access chute. Along the way, Darius noted that all of the previously ruined doors were now fixed. They reached the access chute and Dyara led the way up to level eighteen. The hatch was labeled L18 Command Deck. Darius asked about it as they climbed out of the chute, and Dyara explained that this was where the bridge, the wardroom, and the officers’ quarters were all located.

Dyara led the way down the corridor outside the access chute to a door near the bridge labeled Captain’s Quarters. She knocked twice, and the door slid open to reveal a spacious room with a table for dining, just like the ones in the ship’s mess hall. Tanik was floating there in front of the table with his legs and arms crossed and his eyes shut, as if meditating.

“Sir?” Dyara said.

His eyes snapped open and he uncrossed his legs. As soon as he did that, his mag boots drew him back down to the deck with an echoing clunk.

He nodded to them. “Please come in.”

They walked through the door and it slid shut behind them.

“What did you find on Hades?” Tanik asked.

“No survivors,” Dyara said, shaking her head.

With that admission, Darius’s throat closed up and his eyes began to burn, but he forced his feelings back down.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Tanik said. “And Captain Riker? How did he die?”

Dyara explained how he’d attacked her and how Darius had accidentally killed him.

“That’s a pity. We could have used a man of his experience. I suppose I’ll have to assume the role of Captain for now.”

Dyara’s back stiffened. “Darius mentioned that we should hold an election and vote for a leader.”

Tanik’s yellow-green eyes flicked sideways. “Is that still your opinion, Darius?”

“No, sir.”

“Interesting.” His gaze slid back to Dyara. “Then this is your idea.”

“Does it matter whose idea it is? It’s a good one. Today’s freedom fighters are tomorrow’s tyrants. You’re not immune to the corruptive influence of power. It’s time that the Coalition had a democracy.”

Tanik held Dyara’s gaze for a long moment. “We’re preparing to strike a deadly blow against the USO. Now is not the time to give the reins to a silver-tongued politician who has no idea how to fight a war.”

“I agree,” Darius said.

Dyara shot him a betrayed look. “What about your battle plan?” she asked, nodding to Tanik. “During our approach you mentioned you were going to explain how we’re going to slip by the Cygnian Fleet at the Eye.”

“Yes, according to the ship’s surveillance logs, the Deliverance was expected at the Eye, so we’re going to meet the Cygnians there as planned.”

“Expected?” Dyara asked. “For what?”

“To transfer all of the people in cryo. They were supposed to be sent to the Crucible.”

“Even though most of them are already too old for it?” Dyara asked.

“Apparently they’re not too old,” Tanik said. “Now go get yourself cleaned up, Lieutenant. There’s still a lot of work to be done before we jump to the Eye, and our arrival there is weeks overdue.”

“One last thing, sir.”

Tanik frowned. “Yes?”

“How did you wake all those people up and explain the situation to them without Gatticus to help you? You don’t speak English.”

“I learned it. There’s a module for it in the data center.”

“There is?”

“Yes. Any other questions?”

Dyara shook her head.

“Then you’re dismissed, Lieutenant,” Tanik said. The door of his quarters swished open, and Dyara saluted stiffly and strode out the door. Darius turned to follow her, but Tanik stopped him with a shake of his head.

“Not you.”

Dyara glanced back at them just as the door slid shut in her face.

“Something happened at Hades, didn’t it, Darius?”

Darius frowned, wondering what Tanik meant. Then he remembered the sortie with enemy fighters and he related the details of the engagement, in which he personally took out at least two fighters.

“No, not that,” Tanik replied. “You left as a worried civilian father, and you came back a veteran soldier.”

Darius felt grief rising up to choke him again, but he swallowed it and shook his head. “The Cygnians are evil. Someone has to fight them.”

“Yes. Someone indeed.” He nodded to the door. “What do you think of Dyara?”

Darius blinked. “Think of her?”

“Is she loyal to the cause?”

Darius felt a prickle of warning in his gut, and checked himself before he spoke. “I believe she thinks your methods are extreme, but she’s no friend of the USO. That, and the Seal of Death on her wrist ensures her loyalty.”

“Yes,” Tanik replied, nodding. “I suppose that’s true. Did you know that Dyara was my second-in-command?”

“I didn’t—was? You mean she’s not anymore?”

“I’d like you to take her place. From now on, Lieutenant Dyara Eraya will report to you.”

“To me, sir? I don’t have the experience to—”

“What you lack in experience, you make up for with conviction, Commander.” Tanik withdrew a rank insignia from his pocket—two gleaming white bars, joined together by a black magnetic plate.

Darius accepted the insignia and turned it over in his hands, wondering what to do with it. As if reading his thoughts, Tanik patted the upper left sleeve of his jumpsuit, and Darius noticed a golden triangle gleaming there. He wondered about that insignia—Captain?—and tried to recall if he’d seen Riker wearing a matching triangle on his sleeve. But as far as he could remember, Riker’s sleeve had been empty. None of them had been given rank insignias before they’d left, even though Riker had informally been appointed as Captain of the ship. Darius grimaced with the memory of the man he’d killed, and shook his head to clear it.

“What about the others?” he asked.

“Others?” Tanik asked.

“The Murciago, the Korothian, and the Dol Walin—they’ve all been with you longer than I. Shouldn’t one of them be your new second-in-command?”

Tanik gave a smile that was warped into a twisted snarl by the shiny lines of scar tissue marring his face. “None of them understand the reason we are fighting as acutely as you and I do. They haven’t lost any children. We have. And that’s why we’re fighting—for the ones we’ve lost, and for the ones we’ll continue to lose as long as the Cygnians rule us. The children are the future, Darius, and until we reclaim them, we’ll never have one.”

Darius nodded slowly, but said nothing to that. His chest ached with a dull pain that he tried but failed to suppress.

“Go get cleaned up and get yourself something to eat. Then at oh-nine hundred head down to Ready Room One. It’s a few doors down from the amidships hangar on level five. I’ll make sure all the other Vulture pilots are waiting there for you. They’re your responsibility now, and you’re going to need every available moment to train them before we jump to the Eye.”

Darius realized he could probably use the training too. The blind leading the blind, he thought. “How are we supposed to train?”

“There’s flight simulators on board. Ask Dyara. She can help you.”

The door to Tanik’s quarters swished open, and Darius gave a hesitant salute before turning to leave. As he went, he heard Tanik call out behind him: “One last thing, Darius—”

“Sir?” He turned to face Tanik once more from just outside his quarters.

“A good commander is driven by reason, not emotion. That means no more reckless charges, and you follow your orders, understood?”

“Yes, sir,” he said with a frown.

He wondered when he’d told Tanik that he was responsible for engaging the enemy fighters over Hades against Dyara’s orders. Maybe he’d implied it somehow in his recounting of events.

“Good. Dismissed,” Tanik said, and the door slid shut in Darius’s face.



Chapter 47




Darius prowled the corridors of the Command Deck, looking for his quarters so he could change and get washed up, but he realized that he had no idea where his previous room had been. Besides, now he was an officer. He’d probably get a new room assignment, anyway.

Darius stopped and looked around, wondering which of the numbered doors were already assigned to officers and which ones weren’t. He used his Extra-Sensory Chip to find and contact the ship’s quartermaster—Senior Chief Petty Officer Harmond.

“What can I help you with, Commander Drake?” Harmond asked. His voice echoed strangely inside Darius’s head, indicating that the quartermaster was communicating via his ESC as well.

“I need a room assignment on the Command Deck.”

“Take room 23C,” Harmond replied. “I’ll get a custom door plate printed out and have a cadet put it up for you later.”

“Thanks, Senior Chief,” Darius thought, and closed the connection. He shivered involuntarily. It was a weird feeling communicating with thoughts instead of words.

Darius found his assigned quarters easily enough—23C was the 23rd door down Corridor C. He focused on the door and an open/close prompt appeared before his eyes. Open Door, he thought, and the door swished open. He walked inside and then thought, Close Door, and it swished shut behind him.

Darius went straight to the bathroom and got undressed. He left his rank insignia floating there with his clothes and eyed it speculatively while he used the toilet.

Commander.

It still didn’t seem like a logical move for Tanik to promote him above Dyara, and everyone else, but he wasn’t going to waste any more time arguing about it.

As soon as he finished with the toilet, Darius collected the floating pieces of his flight suit and jumpsuit and stuffed them into the laundry chute in the shower. He was about to drop the waste-management girdle in there too, but he hesitated upon seeing that the urine collection bag was full. He’d had to empty his bladder several times during the trip to and from Hades. Fortunately he hadn’t needed to use the girdle for anything else, but still—was the laundry chute the right place to dump girdles full of human waste?

He had the vague feeling that it was, so he went with that and dropped his girdle in the chute. If he was wrong, hopefully the bots sorting through dirty laundry on the other end would be smart enough to figure out what to do with it.

When Darius was done showering and getting dressed in a fresh jumpsuit, he went back to the bathroom to retrieve his Commander’s insignia. He placed the pair of shiny white bars against the empty black patch on his upper left sleeve, and the magnetic backing snapped into place.

He stared at that insignia for a moment, wondering if it would annoy Dyara. It almost seemed like Tanik was trying to upset her, like this was his way of punishing her for suggesting that they hold an election.

Darius’s stomach growled and he shook off those thoughts to go grab some food from the wardroom. Darius only vaguely recognized that word—wardroom, so he looked it up with his ESC. It turned out it was just a fancy word for officers’ mess hall.

Darius found a scattering of other officers in the wardroom. He went to get his food from the “buffet” counter, and then spent a moment looking around to decide where to eat. That was when he noticed a group of people that he actually recognized—Dyara, Blake, Lisa, Ra, Veekara, and Ectos were all standing around the same table and talking. Only Dyara was eating, but she seemed more interested in the conversation than her food. Darius walked up to them cautiously, noting the gleaming rank insignias on each of their sleeves as he approached. They all wore the single silver bar of a Lieutenant Junior Grade, except for Dyara, whose sleeve sported the gold bar of a full lieutenant.

Darius walked up to the table. Blake spotted him and called out, “Hey, speak of the devil, here comes Spaceman now.”

Dyara turned to him with a guilty look.

“Were you guys talking about me?” Darius asked as he released his food packs and left them floating around him.

“Yes,” Dyara admitted. Then her eyes found the commander’s insignia on his sleeve and she scowled. “He always does this,” she said, shaking her head.

“Who does what?”

“Tanik. Somehow, he always manages to convince people to join his cause, then he finds some way to make them feel special, like they’re actually more than just another warm body to throw at the Cygnians. He missed his calling. He should have been a salesman.”

“It’s hard to argue with common sense, Hottie,” Blake said. “The Cygnians and the USO want to send us to that Crucible thing so that they can decide which of us to kill and which of us to keep. That’s not exactly appealing.”

Darius frowned. “You already knew about that, but you wanted to leave anyway. Gatticus told you that four out of every five people return from the Crucible with the Seal of Life. That was your argument for leaving. You figured you would be one of the lucky ones. Remember?”

Blake shrugged. “Would you risk a twenty percent chance of a death sentence? No thanks.” He shook his head and tapped the silver bar of Junior Lieutenant’s insignia on his right sleeve. “I’m all signed up.”

“You see what I’m saying?” Dyara asked in a hushed voice.

Darius’s gaze skipped around the table, finding Lisa next, followed by Ra, and then each of the other survivors from Karkarus. “You all joined?”

Ra lifted his chin and tilted his head. “Yes. Where is Captain Riker?”

Darius grimaced. “He tried to kill Dyara. I tried to stop him, but I accidentally killed him in the process.”

A look of fury flashed across Ra’s face, but then it vanished, and his eyes glazed over. “He will be missed,” Ra said simply. Veekara and Ectos nodded their agreement.

Darius absently scratched at a week’s worth of stubble on his cheek. His gaze found Blake once more. “Has anyone decided not to join the Coalition?”

“Not that I know of,” Blake replied.

Darius couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “So how exactly did he convince you to join?”

“He didn’t have to. It all just kind of clicked, and I figured it out for myself. I guess I just needed to sleep on it.”

Darius turned to Dyara, blinking in shock.

“Is something wrong?” Blake asked.

Dyara gave her head a slight shake and glanced sideways at the others, as if to remind Darius they were still there.

Darius pasted a smile on his face and turned back to Blake. “I guess I’m just surprised, that’s all.”

“Yeah, well, get over it, Spaceman. We need a Commander with his head in the game, not in the clouds. You’ve got four squadrons of Vultures to train, and you’ve got just two days to do it.”

“How do you know that?” Darius asked.

“Captain Gurhain just sent us orders via the ship’s datnet, telling us to report to you at oh nine hundred in Ready Room One. That, plus I’m assuming that shiny new insignia of yours isn’t just for decoration,” Blake said, and pointed at the rank plate on Darius’s upper sleeve. “You’re the highest ranking officer I’ve seen besides the Captain himself.”

Darius nodded slowly. “Well, you’re right. I have the same orders as you. I guess you’re all Vulture pilots, then?”

“That’s right. Blue Squadron, same as you. Better hurry up and eat your food, sir,” Blake said. “Oh nine hundred is in twenty minutes.”

Darius nodded and grabbed his scissors to cut open a food pack of strawberry yogurt with granola. As he spooned it out, he noticed again that he and Dyara were the only ones eating. The others were all watching them with eerie, staring eyes. Darius cleared his throat and said, “I need to speak with my second-in-command about your training—in private. You’re all dismissed. I’ll see you in the ready room.”

Blake’s eyes narrowed slightly at that, but he nodded and gave a stiff salute. “Yes, sir.” The others matched that salute and they all left the table together.

Darius watched them leave. As soon as the wardroom doors slid shut behind them, he turned to Dyara and said, “What the hell is wrong with them?”



Chapter 48




Dyara shook her head. “It’s like they’ve been brainwashed.”

“Is that possible?” Darius asked.

“Yes and no. You can indoctrinate people with a neural mapper if you have the right data modules, but it’s hard, and mappers aren’t designed for it. The success rate for that kind of thing is pretty low, unless you custom-tailor each data module for each person that you want to indoctrinate. Even then, that won’t remove a person’s will, it just convinces them to agree with a particular ideology.”

“So...” Darius shook his head.

“I’ve seen this before,” Dyara said. “In the Church of the Divine Light.”

“So this is some kind of religious fervor? I didn’t hear them spouting any dogma.”

Dyara frowned around a mouthful of sweet and sour chicken. “There’s legends about the Revenants that say they have the power to make people follow them blindly.”

“But you said that was just a nickname.”

“I don’t know anymore. I’ve seen some strange things in the years I’ve spent with Tanik, and I’ve had even stranger dreams.”

That caught Darius’s attention. His heart skipped a beat and his skin prickled. “Dreams? What kind of dreams?”

“I had one recently, the night we spent together on the Deliverance. I woke up hearing noises coming from Tanik’s room, and when we went to investigate—”

“I had the same dream,” Darius whispered.

Dyara’s brown eyes widened swiftly. “You what?”

Darius’s heart was pounding now. “What did we find in Tanik’s quarters?”

“He was asleep on the ceiling, his eyes were open, and his mag boots were flying in circles around his head.”

Darius couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Kak,” Darius breathed. He glanced around quickly to make sure no one was listening to their conversation. All the tables next to them were empty except for a cleaning bot zipping around to collect empty food packs and dirty utensils.

“You dreamed that too?” Dyara asked in a hushed voice.

He nodded slowly. “It wasn’t a dream, Dya. Ra and Captain Riker were also there. Riker shot Tanik, and he woke up. Then there was a flash of light...”

“And we all woke up back in our sleeping bags,” Dyara replied, nodding.

“Do you think Ra remembers?” Darius asked.

“I don’t know, but if he does, he obviously also thought it was just a dream.”

“What the hell did we see?” Darius asked. “And why did Tanik try to cover it up by... doing whatever the hell he did to make us black out like that.”

Dyara slowly shook her head. “Ra said something that night. He said that the legends are true.”

“Legends of what?”

“Of the Revenants. I think Tanik is one of them. He’s a real, living Revenant, and I think he really has brainwashed everyone, but he didn’t need a neural mapper to do it. He’s tapping into the source field and somehow using it to control everyone on board.”

“That’s absurd.”

“Is it?” Dyara regarded him with eyebrows raised. “How else do you explain everything that’s going on?”

Darius shook his head. “Assuming you’re right, then why isn’t he controlling us too? You were able to voice your doubts about him to his face, and I’m having some of those same doubts now, but Blake was the most skeptical of all of us, and you heard him—he’s team Tanik now. If Tanik can brainwash Blake, why not us?”

“I don’t know,” Dyara admitted. “Whatever the reason, we’re the only ones who can do something about it.” Dyara glanced around quickly, but there was still no one within earshot. “We have to find a way to bring Tanik down,” she said.

“How?”

“Maybe if we can confront the others with proof of who and what Tanik is, we can snap them out of it.”

“What proof?”

Dyara chewed her lower lip, thinking. Then she appeared to have an idea. “We have to find Gatticus. Whatever happened between him and Tanik, it’s bound to be incriminating. I still have Gatticus’s jump vector stored in my Vulture. We might be able to use that to find him.”

“But you can’t detect anything from inside a warp bubble,” Darius objected.

“No, but I don’t think Tanik had a specific destination in mind. I think he just pointed Gatticus in a random direction and had his Osprey fly until it ran out of fuel and the warp bubble collapsed. If I’m right, we’ll find his Osprey drifting along fifty light years from where it started.”

Darius nodded. “So when do we go?”

We don’t. I need you to keep an eye on Tanik and keep him distracted so that he doesn’t notice I’m gone.”

“He’ll notice when you launch from the Deliverance.

“Not necessarily. As the CAG you have the authority to authorize missions on your own. You can say the mission is a rescue and recovery drill, and submit it to flight ops on the bridge. They won’t give it a second look.”

“And what about fuel? If Gatticus ran out, then you will too.”

Dyara shook her head. “RR-3 Eagles have more than double the range of Ospreys.”

“Okay, and what if you don’t make it back before we jump to the Eye?” Darius asked.

“Blake mentioned you have two days to train the Vulture pilots, right?”

Darius nodded.

“That’s enough. Barely, but it’s enough.”

Darius frowned. “What do I say when you go rogue and jump to FTL instead of running drills?”

“Tell them you had no idea what I was planning.”

Darius nodded, watching as Dyara pushed a half-finished food pack away and left it drifting over the table. “Good luck,” he said.

“Thanks. I’ll need it.”

* * *

Tanik Gurhain floated in front of the desk in his quarters, watching the holo feed from KP-26 as the bot went about its business cleaning up after officers in the wardroom.

He rotated the bot’s surveillance camera to keep Darius and Dyara in view and dialed up the volume. He listened for a while to their conversation. They were talking about a dream they’d shared, and then realizing that it wasn’t a dream.

“He’s a real, living Revenant....” Dyara said.

Tanik smiled. So now they know. Except they didn’t know how he’d used his abilities to ensnare and steal the Deliverance. They also hadn’t figured out why just the two of them were immune to those abilities, out of all the one thousand plus crewmen now walking the corridors of the ship.

As Dyara and Darius concluded their conversation and left the wardroom, Tanik crossed his arms behind his head and gazed up at the ceiling, considering what he was going to do about this new development. They were planning to bring him down. He’d expected Dyara to betray him, but Darius couldn’t be allowed to join her. He was the key to everything. Fortunately, Tanik still had one trick up his sleeve to convince Darius to join him.



Chapter 49




Dyara went back to the amidships hangar to download the nav data from her Vulture. In order to gain access to the cockpit, she gave a flimsy excuse to the deck crew about having forgotten some personal effects in the cockpit. It worked. She downloaded the data to a data stick and then she left the amidships hangar and went to the forward hangar instead, hoping it would be less busy.

It wasn’t. The forward hangar was a hive of activity, too, with deck crew running around servicing the fighters and bombers inside. Dyara checked the mission board and found her rescue and recovery drill was already cleared. Darius hadn’t included enough details. Hopefully Flight Ops wouldn’t press for those details when she requested launch clearance.

Dyara strode up to the cockpit of the Eagle and shut the door behind her. She sat down in the pilot’s chair and was just about to strap in when she heard the cockpit door swish back open.

“Where are you going, Dya?”

She froze and slowly turned to see a familiar man stepping into the cockpit behind her.

“Tanik, what are you—”

He waved his hand to cut her off. “Save it.” He pointed to her and then stepped aside, and a pair of Marines in power armor stomped in. “Arrest her.”

“Lieutenant Eraya, you are under arrest on suspicion of treason,” one of them said in an amplified voice.

“What?” Dyara shook her head. “You don’t have any proof of that.”

Tanik gave a snarling smile. “Don’t I?”

He nodded to one of the Marines who’d spoken, and her voice came bubbling out of the speaker grilles in his helmet: “We have to find a way to bring Tanik down.”

“That was you, was it not?” Tanik asked.

Dyara was speechless. “You were listening in to our conversation? How? We weren’t talking loud enough for the ship’s surveillance system to overhear.”

“So you admit it,” Tanik said.

“Sure. I admit it, but play the rest of the grakking conversation. Go on. Tell these Marines why I want to bring you down.”

Tanik looked dismayed. “Unfortunately, I was unable to make a more substantial recording, but what I caught was more than incriminating enough.”

“Really. You expect me to believe you just happened to catch me saying something treasonous, but you missed everything else?”

Tanik shrugged. “As you say, you were speaking too softly for the surveillance systems to be of any use. I was lucky to catch what I did.”

“Ma’am, on your feet, please,” the Marine intoned, gesturing with the barrel of his laser rifle.

“He’s a Revenant,” Dyara said. “A real one. He’s controlling you and everyone else on board.”

The two Marines traded glances with one another.

“She’s having paranoid delusions,” Tanik said, looking and sounding confused. “Perhaps the med bay would be a more appropriate destination for the Lieutenant. Take her to the pysch ward and lock her up. Make sure the attending medic understands she’s a flight risk.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Fek you!” Dyara said. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“She’s not going to cooperate,” Tanik said. “Stun her, Corporal.”

A flash of blue light leapt out, and Dyara’s thoughts fell off a cliff into an electric blue abyss.

* * *

Darius stood before a room full of forty-eight recently assigned—conscripted?—Vulture fighter pilots, wondering what to say to them. He had as much experience as they did, with the exception of his brief engagement over Hades. How was he supposed to pretend to lead these grass green recruits into combat?

Darius’s eyes skipped over the group. All of them wore the single brass bar insignia of a recruit, with the exception of Blake, Lisa, Ra, and the others from Hades, who all wore the silver bar of a junior lieutenant. Darius wondered if that was because they all already had some experience fighting the Cygnians.

“Well,” Darius began. “Welcome to the Deliverance. This must be very new for most of you. I know it is for me.” He tried out an encouraging smile.

Murmurs of agreement followed his opening words, and Darius struggled to think of what to say next. He frowned, suddenly at a loss for words. He wasn’t cut out for this. He had no business leading anyone. All he wanted was revenge, and that left him ill-suited for leadership. Even Tanik seemed to realize that, because he’d chided Darius about letting his emotions drive him.

Tanik. That was a whole separate issue. A living Revenant was in command and somehow controlling everyone on board. Darius still wasn’t sure he believed it, but the dream that wasn’t a dream which Dyara had apparently shared was definitely evidence that something strange was going on. Not to mention the fact that Blake had gone from maverick to committed soldier overnight.

“Hey, Commander—vonkat got your tongue?” Blake jeered. “Aren’t you supposed to be training us? And where’s your number two—Lieutenant Hottie?”

Darius scowled. “You want to spend the next two days in the brig while everyone else trains? Show some respect for your superiors. Lieutenant Eraya is out running a rescue and recovery drill in one of the Eagles.”

Blake fell silent at that rebuke, and the rest of the room along with him. “That’s better,” Darius replied, nodding. But their eyes weren’t on him—they were all looking slightly to one side of him.

Darius turned to see what they were looking at, and found Tanik Gurhain standing there in the corner of the podium, leaning against the wall, with arms crossed over his chest, and a whisper of a crooked smile on his face.

Darius’s heart was instantly pounding. “Captain,” he said slowly. “I didn’t see you there.” That was an understatement. The door to the ready room was at the back, right in front of Darius. How had Tanik managed to slip in without Darius seeing him?

“Hello, Darius,” Tanik said. “I need to speak with you for a minute. Alone.”

Darius felt a chill come over him. “What about my pilots...”

Tanik nodded to one of them—Ikatosh, the white-furred Korothian. “Lieutenant Karosik,” he said. The Korothian rose to his feet, a towering white monster with ice blue eyes and blue-gray lips. “Yes, Captain?”

“Would you please take the other pilots to the simulators and get them started running through the simulation series entitled Crucible Attack Run?

“This is my pleasure to do, Captain.”

“Good. Dismissed.”

People rose to their feet and began filing out. Darius did his best not to let his nervousness show, smiling and nodding as the pilots left the ready room, but when the last one left and the doors slid shut with an ominous thud, Darius was pretty sure that even Tanik could hear his heart thudding in his chest.

“So, what would you like to speak to me about?” Darius asked.

“Are you nervous, Commander?” Tanik asked through a twisted smile.

Darius’s guts clenched. “Nervous? No. Why would you say that?” An icy line of sweat trickled down his spine.

“It’s just that you look rather pale.”

“Must have been something I ate.”

“Must have. Where’s Dyara?” Tanik asked.

Darius didn’t like the look in Tanik’s eyes as he asked about her. “You were here when I answered the others. She’s running a recon and recovery drill.”

“No, no she isn’t. I just saw her in the med bay.”

“What?”

“Oh, yes. She seemed to be suffering from paranoid delusions that I have somehow taken over the minds of the entire crew, and that I am a... a Revenant. I had to have her locked up in the pysch ward.”

Darius was speechless for a long moment. He belatedly recovered to say, “That’s... it must be sleep deprivation. She’ll snap out of it after a good night’s sleep.”

“Sleep deprivation after twelve hours of induced sleep in the cockpit of a Vulture? I don’t think so, Commander. I also have her on charges of treason, but those will have to wait. You had an interesting conversation with Lieutenant Eraya in the wardroom.”

“I did?” Darius asked, still pretending ignorance.

“Yes, is there something you’d like to say to me, Darius?”

“No.” Darius’s entire body felt cold. Time seemed to slow to a crawl. Tanik knew. Somehow he’d overheard them talking, and he knew that they were on to him. What was the point of pretending otherwise? Darius set his jaw and nodded once, stiffly. “Actually I do have something to say. Is it true?”

“Is what true?”

“Are you a Revenant?”

Tanik’s eyes glittered darkly and one side of his mouth curled up in a fresh smile. “Why, yes. I am.”



Chapter 50




“You’re a Revenant,” Darius repeated dryly. “You want to explain what that means?”

“I think you know what it means. You just don’t want to accept it.”

“Because it makes no sense. You can’t just control someone else’s mind with your own. There’s no scientific basis for that.”

“Actually, there is, but I won’t go into that now.”

“Let’s say I believe you—then why can’t you control me or Dya?”

Tanik shrugged. “You are immune. Some people are.”

Darius arched an eyebrow at him. “And why’s that?”

“Because they are also children of the light, and they can touch it too.”

“Okay, now you’ve lost me.”

“The divine light, Darius—the ether, the source field, the zero point field—Dark Energy—these are all just different names for the same thing.”

“Dark Energy,” Darius repeated. He recognized that one. “That’s how you’re controlling people? Hah. Nice try. I’m not that gullible.”

“It’s true, but it’s not precisely Dark Energy. That is just a name people gave to one effect of the source field. In reality, the field does a lot more than simply push the galaxies apart.

“In the past there have only been a few humans who discovered how to touch the light, and they were ruled out as madmen, or celebrated as religious figures. All of that changed after we met the Cygnians and began going to the Crucible, too.”

Darius didn’t know whether to laugh or run away. “So I’m immune because I’m like you? I can control people with my mind?”

“No, you can’t.”

“But you just said—”

“You have the same potential as I do, but you are untrained, and you haven’t been to the Crucible yet. If you had, they’d have turned you into a Revenant by now.”

“The Cygnians?”

“The other Revenants.”

“Aren’t the Cygnians in charge of them too?”

“No, they’re all equals, or rather, there’s no one species that dominates the others, like the Cygnians do in the USO. Far beyond the fringes of the Union and known space, the Revenants are fighting a war with a race of aliens that make the Cygnians look tame—the Keth.

“That is the real reason for the Crucible, the Seals of Life and Death, and the designated hunting grounds. It’s all an elaborate conscription program, mixed with eugenics to breed the perfect soldiers.”

Darius shook his head. “I don’t understand.”

“Don’t you? Think about it. The Seal of Life decides marks the ones who have the potential to touch the light, but no active affinity for it. They are left to live their lives and breed so that someday perhaps one of their children or grandchildren will become a Revenant. The Seal of Death, however, marks the ones who have neither active nor dormant potential. They are then isolated from the rest of the population and hunted to extinction. And as for the ones who never return, they are the ripe fruit, ready to be devoured by war.”

Darius slowly shook his head, unable to believe what he was hearing.

“Why do you think people are sent to the Crucible when they reach reproductive maturity? It is so that the Revenants can weed out the chaff and prevent unwanted dilution of the gene pool, though that is a misnomer, since sensitivity to the light is not passed on genetically.”

Darius didn’t know what to say to any of that, but it made a certain amount of sense when combined with what he’d already been told about the seals and the Crucible.

“If it’s not passed on genetically, then what’s the point of a eugenics program?”

“Because it is passed on at birth. We don’t know how or why, but the light does run in families.”

There was still something that didn’t add up. “You said Dyara and I are immune to your influence because we’re like you. I haven’t been to the Crucible yet, so who knows, maybe that’s true—but what about Dyara? I’ve seen the Seals on her wrists. She has both the Seal of Life and the Seal of Death. She had to have gotten the Seal of Life from the Crucible. If she could have been turned into a Revenant, why would they send her back?”

“She didn’t tell you.”

“Tell me what?”

“She never went to the Crucible. After both of her older siblings were taken and never returned, Dyara’s parents spent a fortune to buy a forgery for her. That is why she was never made into a Revenant.”

“And you? If you’re a Revenant, why aren’t you off fighting with the others?”

“I served my time. I fought the Keth for thirty years. I married, and had children, and watched my whole family die, one after another, in the war. Even then, I kept fighting, because like you I wanted revenge.

“But then I learned something horrible. The Keth don’t even know where the Union is. The Revenants are fighting a preemptive war over prophecies and visions of a future that may never even come to pass. We were following a madman into battle, and in the process we committed more than our fair share of atrocities, using the Cygnians as our scapegoat.”

Darius frowned. “Assuming I believe you, what does any of this have to do with me? Why tell me? Why don’t you just lock me up with Dyara?”

“Because you are important. I foresaw you before I ever even met you. How do you think I knew your name without having to be told?”

Darius shook his head.

“You are the key to everything, Darius.”

“What did you see?” Darius asked.

“I saw you leading a conquering army against the USO. I saw you bring the Cygnians to their knees, and I saw you on the throne of a new empire with them as our slaves.”

“Uh huh. Are you sure Dya is the one who should be in the psych ward?”

“I know she isn’t crazy. I just put her there to keep her out of trouble while we accomplish our mission. We still have to go to the Crucible. That’s the first step.”

“We? What makes you think I want to help you. Or are you going to lock me up, if I don’t?”

“If you knew what I know, you’d be begging me to help.”

Darius arched an eyebrow at Tanik. “And what do you know?”

“Your daughter, Cassandra, is alive, and she’s on the Crucible right now.”



Chapter 51




This time Darius couldn’t hold back the flood of emotions that surged inside of him. His eyes streamed with tears, and his chest ached as if it had been cut open.

“You’re lying!” He wanted nothing more than for it to be true, but he knew better than to believe a manipulative snake like Tanik.

“I’m telling the truth.”

“How did she escape Hades, then? I saw the planet! It was decimated by the Cygnians.”

“Don’t you remember? They evacuated the planet before they sterilized it. The Grotto was one of the first places they evacuated.”

Hope swelled in Darius’s chest, but he tried to keep it in check. “So what’s she doing on the Crucible, and how do you know she’s there?”

“She’s of the right age. As for what she’s doing there, she’s going to become a Revenant. In a matter of days she’ll be sent away for training, and you’ll never see her again.”

“You can’t possibly know any of that.”

“I can, and I do. Revenants can sense one another, even across many light years. Your daughter is untrained, but she has already been activated. It is hard to find hidden potential, but even harder to hide it once it has been revealed.”

“Fek you! How dare you use my daughter to manipulate me into joining your crusade! If you knew that my daughter was alive, you wouldn’t have let me waste so much time by going back to Hades to look for her. You would have just told me then what you’re telling me now. This is just a desperate last-minute attempt to get me on your side, and frankly, I don’t even know why you bother. I’m a barely adequate pilot, and almost certainly a dismal Commander. My contribution to your war effort won’t be missed.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Darius. Without you, the Coalition will fail. And I didn’t stop you from going to Hades because I needed you and Dyara out of the way while I woke the rest of the crew. If you’d been here while I was waking them, you might have interfered with my plans and found a way to stop me.”

“Us interfere with you, the mighty Revenant? I don’t buy that. Unless you’re not actually as powerful as you claim to be...”

“I am not a god. I can still be defeated, and I foresaw that you would have found a way to interfere if I hadn’t allowed you to leave when I did.”

“So you can see the future, huh?”

“I can glimpse it, but only when it wishes to be seen.”

“Prove it.”

“That would be difficult. The future changes as soon as you see it. It is elusive, and dangerous to predict.”

“Well you seem to place a lot of stock in your visions of me.”

“Because those visions came to me unbidden. I didn’t go looking for them myself.”

“Then prove that you’re a Revenant. Make one of the crew come in here and dance around in their underwear.”

Tanik smirked. “I’ll do better than that. I’ll sneak us past a Cygnian fleet, right under the nose of a Ghoul King.”

“Really. And how are you going to do that?”

Tanik smiled. “You’ll see.”

* * *

Darius left the ready room weak and shaking from his conversation with Tanik, but he realized it wasn’t out of fear—he was shaking with hope. He couldn’t bring himself to believe even half of what Tanik had said, but he wanted to. He had to believe that what Tanik had said about Cassandra was true. He had to believe she was still alive.

Because of that hope, he spent the next two days tirelessly training his pilots, whipping them and himself into shape until they were passing every mission scenario that Tanik could dream up for them.

Most of the scenarios involved neutralizing an unknown quantity of external defenses around a massive ring-shaped space station, designated the Crucible. After neutralizing the station’s defenses, they would blast holes in its hangars and then escort transports carrying Marines, and Tanik himself, aboard the station. As soon as the boarding parties landed, Darius and his pilots would fly in circles around the station, waiting while the Marines went to rescue the kids on board—including Cassandra!—and while Tanik went to steal advanced Revenant technology from the heart of the Crucible. Once successful, they’d destroy the Crucible and jump away. Mission complete. It had gotten to the point where now they were succeeding four times out of every five, and with minimal casualties. Of course, there was no telling how accurate their simulations were.

Now, two days later, Darius actually felt like an experienced Vulture pilot, as well as a reasonably competent Commander. But he also felt intensely guilty.

Dyara had been locked up in the psych ward for the past two days and he hadn’t even gone by to visit her. He felt bad for plotting with her to bring Tanik down one minute, and then joining him in the next.

But what else could he do? Tanik was planning a mission to rescue Cassandra, among others, so why would Darius want to oppose that?

Maybe Dyara would understand, and maybe she wouldn’t, but more than anything, Darius realized, he was afraid that she’d give voice to the terrified whispers in the back of his mind—the ones telling him that Tanik was lying, and that Cassandra was really dead, after all.

Darius grimaced and shook his head. Visiting Dyara could wait.

He went to the wardroom to grab some food, and then back to his quarters for some much-needed shut-eye. Tanik had already executed the jump to the Eye, and they were due to arrive in just four hours’ time. He used his ESC to set an alarm to go off in three hours, and then climbed into his sleeping bag and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

An insistent trilling sound awoke him. He blinked the sleep from his eyes and checked the time. It was ten minutes before his alarm was set to go off, so what was that noise?

He saw the comms icon on the virtual HUD of his ESC flashing, and answered it.

“Good morning, Darius,” Tanik said. The man’s voice echoed strangely inside Darius’s head, rather than audibly as it would over regular comms.

“Good morning, Sir.”

“Suit up and join me on the bridge. Make sure your pilots are all standing by and ready to launch on my command. We’re about to reach the Eye, and if this doesn’t work, we’re going to have a fight on our hands.”

“Yes, sir... the bridge?”

“You said you wanted proof. It’s time you saw for yourself. Make sure you’re here by ten fifteen.”

“Yes, sir,” Darius replied, but Tanik had already ended the connection. Darius rubbed the sleep from his eyes, and climbed out of his sleeping bag. He put on his mag boots, and clomped over to his locker. There he found a clean girdle, helmet, and flight suit already waiting for him. The ship’s service bots were nothing if not efficient.

Darius dressed and put on his helmet, but raised the visor to not gag on his own morning breath. He ran from his quarters and down the corridor, stopping only briefly in the wardroom to grab a flask of coffee and two handfuls of ration bars, which he slipped into the magnetically-sealed pockets of his flight suit. He was too anxious to stand and eat a proper meal. All he could think about was getting to the Crucible and rescuing Cassandra.

Darius ran all the way from the wardroom to the bridge. He skidded to a stop in front of the broad double doors and nodded to the pair of Marine corporals flanking the doors. They wore bulky suits of power armor like the one Darius had found and used after waking from cryo.

“The captain’s expecting me,” Darius said, between gasps for air. Even in zero-G, running was still tiring.

“We’ll need to scan you, Commander,” one of the Marines said.

Darius nodded and submitted himself to a security scan. A blue fan of light flickered out from one of the Marine’s palms.

The man hesitated, as if studying something inside his helmet; then the bridge doors rumbled open. “Go ahead, sir.”

Darius hurried through the doors and onto the bridge. Tanik stood at the Captain’s control station with his hands clasped behind his back, surrounded by glowing blue holo displays.

“You’re early,” he said, without even turning to see who it was.

Darius was getting used to that kind of eerie, prescient behavior from Tanik. He walked up beside the captain and said, “I didn’t want to be late.”

“Yes... you must be eager to see your daughter.”

“Yes, sir.” He watched as Tanik studied star maps on his displays, flipping through them one after another. After a few minutes of silence, Darius allowed his gaze to wander around the bridge. Officers were strapped into their acceleration harnesses, gazing fixedly at their displays.

“Warp bubble dispersing in thirty seconds, Captain,” the officer at the helm announced.

Tanik nodded. “Carry on, Lieutenant.” Tanik turned to Darius. “Commander, please step aside.”

“Sir?”

“I don’t want the Cygnians to see you standing there when I contact them.”

“Oh. Yes, sir.” Darius took two long steps to the side. “Is that better?”

Tanik pointed to an empty chair at the back of the bridge, to one side of the doors. “Strap in. We’ll be accelerating soon after we get clearance from the Cygnian Fleet to cross the Eye.”

“Right.” Darius glanced at the empty chair beside the Captain’s station, reserved for the second-in-command of the ship—which Darius supposedly was—and he wondered why Tanik hadn’t asked him to sit there.

Not wanting to make an issue out of it, Darius did as he was told and went to sit at the back of the bridge. He pulled out the two halves of his acceleration harness and locked them into place over his chest.

The officer at the helm spoke once more: “Warp dispersion in five, four, three, two, one...”

The featureless white warp disc ahead of them evaporated, replaced by a dazzling array of stars. The bridge’s wraparound holo panels made it a breathtaking sight—like standing in a planetarium back on Earth. Empty, star-dappled space stretched out endlessly in all directions.

No, not empty space, Darius thought. He could see a few dozen gray specks up ahead, hovering in front of a glassy-smooth black and blue sphere that looked almost like a planet, but for the fact that there were stars shining through it. It was like a giant bubble of water, floating in space.

“The Eye of Thanatos,” Tanik said quietly. “Lieutenant Neelson—”

“Sir?”

“Make contact with the Cygnian Fleet. Tell them that Captain Okara would like to speak with King Assuraga, and put him on screen as soon as you get a reply.”

“Yes, sir,” the Comms officer replied.

Darius frowned and shook his head. Captain Okara? He was just about to ask about that, when the snarling, brown face of a Ghoul appeared on the foremost holo panel of the bridge. All four of the Ghoul’s gleaming black eyes blinked, and then it spoke.

“Captain Okara,” the Ghoul said in a mixture of hisses and growls. It still surprised Darius that he could understand Cygnian.

“King Assuraga,” Tanik replied, bowing his head in deference.

“What a pleasant surprise to see you. I had begun to think that you’d gone to join the Revenants. Where is the metal one?”

“He did not make it, my King. We are doing what we can to repair him.”

“Ah, I see. There was a battle, then? Might it have something to do with the fact that a ship matching the description of the Deliverance was seen fleeing Hades after taking aboard two transports full of death-marked fugitives? You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you, Captain?”



Chapter 52




Tanik shook his head. “There were no fugitives aboard, my King. We sent those transports down to the surface to investigate the distress signal from the beacon drone. It turns out to have been a ruse, orchestrated by would-be insurgents on the surface of Hades. Gatticus and several others were killed in the subsequent fighting.”

“I see....” King Assuraga replied. “And it took you this long to return? It has been more than seven cycles since you left.”

“Yes, we had some technical problems on board while we were waiting for our transports to return from the surface.”

“I see.”

Tanik offered the Cygnian a smile that was twisted into snarl by his scars, scars left by another Ghoul a long time ago, but King Assuraga wouldn’t see that, or any other aspect of Tanik’s features. He’d see a perfectly normal smile on the face of the pretty young woman that he remembered as Captain Okara.

It took an immense amount of effort for Tanik to trick King Assuraga’s senses into seeing and hearing Captain Okara at the same time as keeping his hold on the Deliverance’s crew. His concentration was slipping. He needed to conclude this conversation quickly.

“We must transfer the refugees from cryo as soon as possible. Where would you like us to transfer them?”

“Bring them to me. The Crucible has just received a group of tributes, so the frozen ones will have to wait.”

Tanik nodded. Very well. “We’re in a bit of a hurry to get on with our diplomatic mission, so don’t be alarmed if our approach seems fast.”

Uncertainty flickered across the Ghoul’s face, and Tanik assuaged those concerns, smoothing them away like wrinkles in a piece of cloth.

“Very well,” King Assuraga replied. “I will be waiting for you.” With that, he ended the connection, and Tanik gasped. He blinked dark spots from his eyes, fighting back waves of exhaustion. He drew on hidden reserves of strength, using the source field to bolster himself.

“How did you do that?” Darius asked from the back of the bridge. “You were pretending to be someone else. Has that Ghoul never met Captain Okara before?”

Tanik turned to him with a smile. “You haven’t seen anything yet.” Turning back to the fore, he nodded to the officer at the comms. “Lieutenant Neelson—”

“Sir?”

“Have all hands secure their belongings and strap in. They have five minutes.”

“Yes, sir.” A moment later, Neelson’s voice rippled over the ship’s PA system. “All hands stow loose articles and strap in for maneuvers. This is your five minute warning.”

Tanik passed the time with his eyes shut, finding the minds that had slipped free during his conversation with King Assuraga, and reining them back in. When Lieutenant Neelson announced the one minute warning, he sat down at his own control station and secured his acceleration harness.

Neelson called out the last ten seconds in an audible countdown, and Tanik nodded to the Helmsman. “Lieutenant Fields, when that count hits zero, fire the thrusters, all ahead full.”

“All ahead full, sir? Are you certain that—”

“I am always certain, Lieutenant.”

“Yes, sir...”

All ahead full meant a sustained acceleration of five Gs, which would be hard to stomach, particularly since most of them weren’t wearing flight suits like the ones fighter pilots used, and none of them were wearing oxygen masks. Some of the crew might pass out, but that was the least of Tanik’s concerns right now. They needed at least an hour’s lead time on the Cygnian Fleet. As soon as King Assuraga realizes that the Deliverance is headed for the Eye, he’ll order his fleet to intercept.

Tanik had to maintain his grip on the Ghoul King’s mind long enough to fool him into thinking that nothing was amiss while the Deliverance was accelerating toward the Eye.

One hour. That was the minimum amount of time they needed to neutralize the Crucible’s defenses, board it, rescue the tributes, and steal the Revenant artifacts that Tanik needed for his war.

Failing that... Tanik shook his head, unwilling to consider the possibility of defeat. They would succeed. He had foreseen it.



Chapter 53




Darius gritted his teeth. The immense pressure of acceleration threatened to squeeze the life out of him. Every now and then he actually felt his heart stop—only to feel it kick painfully in his chest once more.

“You’re going to kill us!” Darius croaked. But either Tanik didn’t hear him over the droning roar of the Deliverance’s engines, or he wasn’t listening. The rest of the bridge crew didn’t seem to be faring any better, but they endured the assault without complaint.

Time passed agonizingly slowly, with Darius lapsing in and out of consciousness. But then, suddenly, he was free and drifting like a soap bubble in the wind. He sucked in a greedy breath and almost screamed from the agonizing stab of pain that tore through his rib cage. A ringing silence fell as the carrier’s thrusters stopped firing.

“Blast it, Tanik!” Darius roared, not bothering to address the man by his rank.

“Scramble your pilots, Commander,” Tanik replied quietly.

Darius blinked. “What? Why?”

“Because we’re about to enter the Eye,” Tanik said, pointing to the massive, glassy sphere of blueish space in front of them. “As soon as we enter the mouth of the wormhole, the Cygnians are going to snap out of it and realize where we’re headed, and when they do, they’re going to follow us.”

Darius blinked. That hadn’t been in any of their simulations. “What are we supposed to do against an entire fleet?”

“We’ve got too much of a head start,” Tanik replied. “Only their fighters will be able to reach us. You and your pilots need to hold them off.”

“From inside a wormhole? Is that even possible?”

“Yes, but don’t stray from the Deliverance’s flight path or the tidal forces will rip you apart.”

Darius grimaced. Tanik rose from his chair and walked over to the center of the bridge. Then he went down on his haunches and placed his hand against the deck. It began to glow with a dazzling light. Darius blinked in shock, but none of the other crew appeared to notice what was happening.

“What are you doing?” Darius asked.

“Incoming message from King Assuraga of the Cygnian Fleet,” Lieutenant Neelson announced.

“Ignore it,” Tanik replied.

“Captain, I asked you a question,” Darius insisted.

Before Tanik could reply, a flash of  bright green light suffused the bridge, and a crackling roar filled the air.

“What was that?” Another flash, another roar. Darius turned to see fat green laser beams lancing out from the Cygnian fleet. “We’re in range?” Darius asked, shocked that Tanik’s plan called for them to weather such an assault.

“For now,” Tanik replied in a strained whisper of a voice. “Launch your fighters, Darius. We’ll need your help to intercept enemy ordnance. Even I can’t shield us from an antimatter torpedo.” The bridge doors rumbled open, but Darius made no move to leave.

“To shield us...?” He turned to stare once more at the mysterious radiance under his feet, and then eyed Tanik’s hand where it was touching the deck. Somehow, he was doing something to shield them from enemy fire.

“Darius!” Tanik roared.

He jumped and saluted smartly. “Yes, sir.” Then he turned and ran off the bridge. He ran to the nearest access chute and climbed in head first. Using the ladder rungs, he propelled himself down to the flight deck on level five, pulling himself along faster and faster. Up ahead more people joined him in the access chute, forcing him to slow down. While he waited, he used his ESC to contact the other pilots, telling them to scramble to their cockpits.

Darius reached the amidships hangar in a matter of minutes, and he raced across the deck to reach his Vulture, designated B1 in holographic blue paint that wouldn’t compromise the fighter’s matte black stealth armor.

Red squadron was also in the amidships hangar, but White and Black squadrons were landed in the fore and aft hangars respectively.

As Darius drew near to his fighter, he mentally triggered the canopy open. It rose with a hissing groan of pneumatic struts, and he bounded up the stairs to the cockpit.

The co-pilot’s chair sat empty. Co-pilots weren’t strictly necessary, and the Deliverance was running on a fraction of its normal crew compliment, so pilots were in short supply.

Darius pulled himself into the pilot’s seat and pulled off his helmet to put on an oxygen mask. That done, he slipped his helmet back on, dropped the visor, and slapped the open/close button for the canopy. As it dropped down around him, Darius flicked the ignition switch. He was greeted to a rising whine as the Vulture’s reactor spun up. Status lights and buttons glowed to life and holo displays swam into focus.

Darius reached around for his air hose and screwed it into place at the bottom of his mask. His comms lit up with activity, and the familiar voice of Red Leader crackled through his helmet speakers.

“His highness has arrived!”

“Can it, Red One,” Darius said. Blake was one of the pilots who’d consistently scored the highest in the simulators, both in terms of his solo score, and the score of his randomly assigned flight groups. As a result, Darius had made him the leader of Red Squadron. For the same reason, Ikatosh was the leader of White Squadron, and Ra was the leader of Black. “Squadron leaders, report,” Darius ordered.

“White Squadron to launch is ready,” Ike said in his characteristically odd phrasing.

“Black Squadron standing by,” Ra added in his purring voice.

“Red leader?”

“We were born ready, Spaceman.”

“All right. On my mark, White Squadron, you go first, followed by Blue, then Red, and finally Black. Everyone stay close and don’t stray from the Deliverance’s flight path. I’m told the wormhole will rip us apart if we do.”

Several double clicks sounded from the comms as squadron leaders confirmed their orders.

Darius sucked in a deep breath, steeling himself for the battle to come. He tried not to think about how many times he’d died in the simulators. If he bit the dust this time, it wouldn’t just be a useful lesson. It would be goodbye for good, and unlike the last time that he’d fought a real engagement, this time he had a reason to live: Cassandra was alive, and she needed her father.

Darius pushed those thoughts from his mind and mentally activated his comms once more.

“Punch it White Squadron!”



Chapter 54




Darius slammed into the back of his seat as his fighter rocketed down the launch tube and out into space.

Space was warped inside the wormhole, making it look like they were trapped inside a giant glass bottle.

Up ahead, a dozen small pairs of green brackets with white outlines identified White Squadron. Darius engaged his helmet’s 360-degree visibility mode, and the inside of his cockpit disappeared. He glanced behind him to see a dozen green bracket pairs with red outlines come shooting out the bow of the Deliverance. A few moments later, Black Squadron appeared.

Darius keyed the comms. “All squadrons form on me.” As he said that, he pulled up hard and flipped his Vulture over on the spot.

“Roger,” Blake said.

The other leaders clicked their comms to acknowledge, and Darius pushed his throttle up to two Gs. The Deliverance loomed large before him, its hull shining bright with the mysterious radiance Darius had seen Tanik projecting from his hand.

Darius skimmed low over the top of the mighty ship, faster and faster, until it became a bright, silvery blur beneath him. In the distance, fat green laser beams lashed out from the Cygnian Fleet, drawing brief flashes of light from the carrier’s hull. Those beams should have been burning holes in the Deliverance’s armor, and drawing gusts of depressurizing air from the ship, but there was no sign of any damage, and the Deliverance made no effort to return fire.

As the carrier fell away behind him, Darius’s comms crackled with a new, but familiar voice. It was a voice that Darius recognized from the simulators, that of Lieutenant Commander Carter from Flight Ops.

“All fighters, maintain a defensive formation at five thousand klicks. Intercept enemy missiles and fighters. Good hunting.”

“Roger that, Ops,” Darius replied. “You heard the Commander! Fly to five thousand klicks and make a wall.”

Acknowledging clicks echoed back, and Darius set a waypoint on his nav display, exactly five thousand kilometers from the aft end of the Deliverance. That done, he set his Vulture’s autopilot to take him there at a leisurely three Gs.

Long minutes passed as his Vulture accelerated to reach the waypoint, and then decelerated to avoid overshooting it. Halfway there the Cygnian fleet stopped firing, and began launching fighters. The double chimes of enemy contact alerts reverberated in Darius’s ears.

“We’ve got incoming!” Blake said, just as Darius’s autopilot chimed to indicate he’d arrived at his waypoint.

Then came the sharper warning squawks of enemy missile launches, and Darius checked a virtual contacts panel on his HUD to see torpedoes streaming toward them from the Cygnian Fleet. ETA fifteen minutes for the leading wave.

“Target those torpedoes,” Darius ordered.

“Black Squadron targeting,” Ra replied.

Ikatosh clicked his comms.

But as usual, Blake had something to say about it: “We’ve got Blade Fighters targeting us,” he said. “They’re almost in range, and they’re going to pick us off if we just sit here trying to intercept those torpedoes.”

Darius summoned a nav display on his HUD and studied it. Son of a vix... he thought. Those Cygnian fighters were pulling a sustained acceleration of 12 Gs to keep up with their torpedoes. That should have been impossible, but Cygnian pilots were much more tolerant of high Gs than most other species. What that meant for Darius and the other Vulture pilots was that the Cygnians’ lead fighters would reach weapons range with them just five seconds after the enemy torpedoes did. That didn’t give them long to shoot down those torps. He grimaced and shook his head.

“You’ve got time,” Darius insisted. “Target the torpedoes first, and then go evasive and take out those fighters. We can’t let either one of them through.”

The other squadron leaders clicked their comms to confirm. Darius marked his first target, being careful to pick a torpedo that none of the other Vultures were targeting. That done, he armed his Vulture’s twin laser cannons, and waited to reach weapons range.

There were a hundred and ten torpedoes incoming, and just forty-eight Vultures targeting them. That meant they each had to take out more than two torpedoes, and they had only five seconds to do it without interference from enemy fighters.

Time to weapons range ticked down beside Darius’s target.

00:10...

00:05...

00:00

Darius pulled the trigger twice in quick succession and two double golden laser beams snapped out. He watched them converge on his target, but it didn’t explode.

Darius blinked. What?

“Fek it! Those torps are heavily armored!” Blake said.

A prickle of warning raised the hairs on the back of Darius’s neck, and he snapped out his momentary shock just in time.

“Juke!” he yelled, and broke into an evasive flight pattern an instant before a torrent of sky-blue lasers stuttered out from the incoming Cygnian fighters.

Darius effected a randomly bucking barrel roll with a combination of his main thrusters and maneuvering jets. It seemed to be keeping the enemy fighters off him, but not all of the other pilots were as lucky.

Vultures exploded on all sides in bright bursts of molten orange debris. The accompanying death chimes from Darius’s contacts panel were at once forlorn and urgent. Blue Squadron lost two pilots in as many seconds.

“Tighten it up!” Darius said, even as a dazzling sapphire beam stabbed by him with inches to spare. A damage report blinked at the bottom of his HUD, and he mentally checked it to find a fist-sized hole in his starboard wing. Thankfully the damage was only superficial.

“Fekkin’ phantoms!” Blake roared, and returned fire. The rest of the fighter group opened fire, too, trading golden lasers for blue.

More losses chimed in Darius’s ears, but he tried not to focus on them. Instead he targeted the nearest Blade and let loose a burst of three fire-linked blasts. The enemy fighter exploded in a fiery burst of light, and then he slipped back into his evasive maneuvers. Blue lasers stabbed furiously all around him as the enemy fighters drew near, and death chimes echoed furiously as Vultures were picked off in rapid succession. Some pilots screamed about their injuries, only to have those frantic cries silenced a few seconds later because they forgot to keep juking.

“We’re outnumbered!” Ra said. “We need to fall back.”

But just as he said that, the Deliverance opened fire. Wave after wave of bright golden lasers and heavy red ones flashed by them, converging on the enemy formation. Bright orange explosions bloomed, peppering the void with fire.

“Yeehaw!” Blake crowed. “Take that, kakkers!”

Half of the enemy fighters evaporated in the first volley.

Darius spared a potshot for a nearby torpedo—again to no effect. He stopped juking for a second to focus fire with two more fire-linked blasts, and was rewarded with a blinding flash of light that tore through his retinae and left him blinking spots.

He grinned and broke into a fresh barrel roll just as the Deliverance’s second volley came. Explosions sprinkled the void as Cygnian Blades and torpedoes were vaporized.

“I’m hit,” a quiet voice said over his squadron frequency, and Darius frowned, realizing he recognized it. He checked the comms to see that it was Blue Four. Lisa.

Blue Seven screamed, and then winked off the comms as subsequent fire found him.

“I can’t... I can’t breathe!” Lisa went on in a gasping voice.

Darius switched to a private channel. “Lisa, calm down. Where are you hit?” he asked, while dodging a flurry of blue lasers from the remaining Blades.

“Air hose. Chest.”

“Kak,” Darius muttered. Patch your hose from the utility compartment.”

Lisa gave no reply, and he glanced at his virtual nav display to see that she’d stopped maneuvering. “Don’t fly straight!” he warned, but even as he said that, enemy lasers converged on her fighter. “Eject!”

He turned his head to physically look at her fighter, watching as blue lasers stabbed through it from every side. By some miracle none of them hit her Alckam reactor, but her fighter’s thrusters went dark, and the lights died inside her cockpit.

“Lisa!”

She gave no reply, even though her Vulture’s emergency backup power should have kicked in by now.

Darius felt a familiar ache forming in his chest that had nothing to do with the high Gs he was pulling.

The Deliverance went on pounding the incoming waves of enemy fighters and torpedoes, lighting space on fire with every volley.

Darius targeted the next nearest enemy fighter and broke out of his evasive flight pattern long enough to blast it into a molten orange cloud of shrapnel.

That’s for you, Lisa, he thought as the light of that explosion faded.



Chapter 55




The remainder of the Cygnian fighters went down in a matter of seconds. The torpedoes took longer, however, as they soon broke into spiraling evasive patterns much like the one Darius himself was using.

“Fek it! I can’t get a lock!” Blue Twelve said.

“Can that chatter, and try harder, Twelve,” Darius replied, while struggling to get a lock himself. Each time he pulled the trigger, his lasers zipped through empty space, or else they glanced off to no effect.

After a full minute of trying, Darius finally destroyed one torpedo. There were still twenty left, however, and now they were at point blank range.

Darius snapped off another shot just before the remaining ordnance sailed by him, forcing him to flip around and race after it. The Deliverance’s guns tracked those spiraling missiles, stitching the void together with needles of red and gold. Oddly, the shining light Darius had seen pouring from the carrier’s hull was no longer visible.

“We’re not gonna get them all!” Blake warned.

Darius switched his lasers from linked to single-fire mode and pulsed a steady stream of golden beams after his next target, tracking it as best he could. All around him the remaining Vultures did the same thing, and they managed to intercept all but two torpedoes. The Deliverance caught one of them as it closed to just a few dozen klicks. Darius fired desperately at the final torpedo, but missed. It was going to hit.

“Take it out!” he screamed.

Vultures fired relentlessly, heedless of how many laser beams were going wide and hitting the Deliverance. The Deliverance herself had stopped firing, but her hull was shining brightly again.

Golden lasers converged on the final torpedo at the last possible second, and it exploded just above the carrier.

A bright flash of light swallowed the Deliverance whole, and Darius’s body went cold. But then the ship reappeared through the fading light of the explosion, radiant and gleaming with that mysterious luminescence.

Darius blew out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding, and checked his contacts panel for casualties. There were just thirty Vultures left out of the original forty-eight. He scanned his nav display for any emergency beacons that would indicate ejected pilots, but there weren’t any.

“Where’s Blue Four?” Blake asked.

Lisa. Darius’s chest still ached with grief. He shook his head. “She didn’t make it,” he said quietly.

Blake let out an unintelligible howl, and cursed viciously in a grief-stricken voice, leaving Darius to wonder what had happened between the two of them while he’d been away with Dyara at Hades.

A crushing weight fell on Darius’s shoulders. He had eighteen dead pilots, most of whom he hadn’t even gotten a chance to get to know.

Their victory felt hollow at best. Darius made contact with the Deliverance. “CAG to Flight Ops,” he croaked in a hoarse whisper. His mouth was suddenly dry, and he had to work some moisture into it before going on. “Requesting further orders.”

“Form up at one click off the bow and prepare to engage hostiles at the Crucible,” Flight Ops replied.

Darius blinked in shock. “We’re through the Eye already?”

“Almost. Get your pilots in position, Commander.”

“Understood.” Darius relayed those orders to the other squadrons and then set a waypoint and set his autopilot to take him there at three Gs. His fighter rocketed forward, and soon he was racing back over the bright, shining hull of the carrier. Seconds later he flew out over the bow and into open space once more. Darius stared into the vibrant blue nebula on the other end of the wormhole. Now that they were closer to it, he could see it was rimmed in a bright orange band, making it look just like... an Eye. The Eye of Thanatos, Darius thought, nodding to himself. He wondered where in the galaxy that nebula was and just how far they’d traveled from the Orion Spur in this tunnel through the fabric of space-time.

He didn’t have long to wonder. The warped, glassy-smooth sides of the wormhole seemed to peel away in a vibrant swirl of color, and they popped out of the wormhole in the midst of that blue, eye-shaped nebula. A silvery gray speck lay dead ahead. Darius zoomed in and saw the ring shape of it.

The Crucible.

The voice of Lieutenant Carter from Flight Ops crackled in Darius’s ears: “All fighters, reverse thrust at two and a half Gs and prepare to engage enemy forces.”

“Roger that,” Darius said, and hauled back on the throttle. The reverse thrust pinned him against the padded bars of his acceleration harness. He felt his eyeballs bulge, and everything took on a vague red hue as the blood rushed to his eyes.

In the next instant, Darius’s contacts panel began chiming endlessly, and his nav display came alive with enemy fighters. But these weren’t Cygnian Blades. They were something else. His contacts panel marked them as unidentified types.

Just to be sure, Darius magnified one of them until he had a visual. Cygnian Blades looked just like their namesake: long, dagger-shaped fighters with refractive silver armor and folding wings  that they didn’t bother to deploy unless they were actually in atmosphere. But this fighter looked nothing like that—it was a perfect sphere, dull black, with a thruster pod glowing blue at the back, and laser cannons poking out at the front.

In all of the simulations they’d run, they’d been up against Blades, not... whatever these things were. The question was, were these fighters going to be easier or harder to fight?

Flight Ops provided the answer a moment later. “Vultures, be advised we have incoming enemy drones, bearing zero zero nine by mark fifteen. They should be easy pickings without a fighter escort, but don’t let them get too close. They’re packed with antimatter.”

Darius grimaced. Great. Kamikazes.



Chapter 56




“That’s it?” Blue Six asked. “All they’ve got to defend them are a few dozen drones? Where are their fleets? We’ve got this in the bag!”

“Their fleet is behind us,” Darius replied. “And they’re racing through the wormhole as we speak. Don’t get cocky.”

Darius activated his comms and said, “All fighters, target those drones!” Then he set his own target and watched as the time to reach weapons range ticked down steadily, all the while his Vulture’s thrusters fired in reverse, pinning him against his acceleration harness.

While he waited, Darius couldn’t help but wonder: if this was where the Revenants were born, then where were they? Would the boarding teams have to face them inside the station? Or were they all off fighting their war, content to leave the Crucible undefended?

The countdown to reach weapons range hit five seconds, and Darius opened fire early, popping off three fire-linked blasts. His lasers hit their target, but did only minor damage due to the extreme range. Then he reached weapons range and he pulled the trigger once more.

The drone in his sights exploded with a brilliant flash of light. Golden streams of laser fire flickered out from the other Vultures. The drones fired back, their lasers coded blue to differentiate them, and Vultures exploded left and right, winking off the contacts panel.

In exchange, however, they destroyed every single drone, leaving the Crucible defenseless, except for its own weapon emplacements.

As they reached weapons range with the station, waves of light blue medium lasers flickered out, raking through the Vulture’s formation in flashing lines.

But all the less-skilled pilots had been weeded out already, and these Vultures knew better than to fly in a straight line. None of those lasers found their mark.

Darius activated his comms and said, “All fighters, neutralize enemy gun emplacements. This is just like what we practiced. We’re almost through this.”

The double clicks of acknowledgments echoed inside Darius’s helmet as he targeted one of the station’s weapon emplacements.

In between executing evasive maneuvers he let off a few linked-fire bursts and watched on a magnified target camera as the lasers burned molten holes through the turret he’d targeted. The weapon emplacement didn’t explode, but it stopped firing. Darius targeted the next one in line and repeated the process.

With more than twenty-five remaining Vultures all doing the same thing, the Crucible was left utterly defenseless in a matter of seconds—except for the guns hidden on the other side of it—but as they approached, the station rotated, and they picked off those guns, too, leaving only the ones on the underside of the station.

Tanik’s gravelly voice came over the comms just before Darius could wonder about whether or not they should try to take out those guns as well. “Crack open those hangars. Our boarding teams are launching in five minutes.”

“Yes, sir,” Darius replied, and brought up a detailed target display in order to select the doors of one of the Crucible’s hangars as a sub-target. Unlike the Deliverance, this station didn’t have its hangars hidden away behind five decks worth of vehicular airlocks and launch tubes. Instead, the Crucible’s hangars were mounted along the outer hull, with nothing but armored doors guarding them from space.

“All squadrons, target hangar doors with Hornet missiles,” Darius ordered. “One missile per hangar. Mark your targets, and make sure you don’t double up. We’re not trying to crack the whole station open, understood?”

“This is understand,” Ike said, and Ra voiced his consent as well. Blake was still quiet, but Darius assumed that was because he was angry over Lisa’s death, and not because he wasn’t listening.

A moment later, however, he was proven wrong as Blake opened fire with not one, but two Hornet missiles.

“The hell?!” Darius muttered. “Red One, disarm those missiles immediately!”

“What? Why?”

They were only seconds from reaching the station.

“Just do it!”

But it was too late.

Blake’s missiles hit with a titanic boom and an accompanying flash of light. They ripped open that entire side of the Crucible, leaving decks exposed and debris flying free with the angular momentum imparted by the station’s rotation. Darius zoomed in on the damage and saw that some of the debris wasn’t debris at all.

It was bodies.



Chapter 57




Darius blinked in shock at the sight of the tumbling, flash-frozen dead. His heart was in his throat with the thought that one of them might be Cassandra. “Blake, you fekking idiot! I said one missile!”

“I...” Blake trailed off. “I didn’t hear you. I just... I thought...”

“You were in the sim runs! You know the drill!”

“I know. I didn’t check.” Blake’s voice was shaking. “I just fired...”

“Get back to the Deliverance, now! Black Leader, you are now in charge of Red Squadron.”

“Understood,” Ra replied.

Deliverance, we need emergency rescue and recovery at the Crucible. I’ve got...” Darius scanned his contacts panel to check how many people were out there, but their life signs were fading fast.

“It’s too late,” Flight Ops replied. “There’s no hope for any of them, Commander.”

“You can’t say that! People can survive exposure to vacuum for a few minutes!”

“A few minutes. Not fifteen or twenty. There’s no way we’ll get to any of them in time. Carry on with your mission and fly cover for the transports. Ops out.”

Darius glared furiously at the drifting bodies spinning away from the Crucible, and shook his head. He zoomed in on them one after another to see the frozen, horrified faces of children: human children, alien children... Cygnian children.

Some of them had glowing triangles with glaring eyes on their wrists. Others bore the sickle-shaped Seal of Death.

Darius’s heart was pounding so hard he was afraid he would have a heart attack.

Then he realized something. Tanik had said that Cassandra was going to be a Revenant. That was how he’d been able to sense that she was on the Crucible. Revenants bore no such marks on their wrists, because they were never sent back to the USO. These were the tributes who’d been selected to return to the USO because they had no active ability to touch the ZPF.

Darius let out a shaky breath and shook his head. Cassandra was still alive. He could have jumped for joy. But then he remembered that those dead children had all meant something to someone. They’d all had their lives snuffed out in an instant because of one trigger-happy idiot. Darius scowled. He couldn’t bring himself to feel very sorry for the Cygnian children, but the others... they were all floating there together, hunters and hunted alike.

Darius watched Ospreys full of Marines jetting out to the shattered hangars of the Crucible, and he thought about the firefight that was about to ensue aboard that station. Cassandra was still on board the Crucible. How easy would it be for her to become the victim of another friendly fire incident?

Apprehension swirled for an indecisive second in Darius’s brain, and then he slammed the throttle forward, aiming his Vulture for the nearest hangar.

“Flight Ops to Blue Leader, return to your flight group.”

Darius shook his head, but said nothing.

“Flight Ops to Blue Leader, you are not authorized to board the Crucible. I repeat, you are not—”

Darius muted the comms and jacked the throttle up another notch. “Authorize this, Kakker.”

Then he felt a pang of guilt for his dereliction of duty and sent a message to Ra. “Black Leader, you’re the CAG now.” Having said that, Darius muted his comms again. Ra could handle things from here on out.

* * *

By the time Tanik Gurhain’s Osprey landed aboard the Crucible, he felt like an empty shell—brittle, and cracking from the strain of exerting himself so much in such a short time. He needed to rest, to meditate and recover. He couldn’t take this for much longer.

But he also couldn’t entrust this mission to Marines. They wouldn’t even know what to look for. He opened his acceleration harness and was about to stand up, when he realized that he’d fall over if he tried. Even in a suit of power armor, the simulated gravity of the station was too much to resist.

There was a logistical problem with their boarding operation. The direction of the station’s gravity was space-ward, meaning that the floor of the station was situated along the outer hull—the same outer hull that the Vultures had just blasted open with missiles. As a result, they’d landed on one of the walls of the hangar, which meant that walking around inside the Osprey was like walking up and down the sheer face of a metal cliff. Getting around in the hangar outside would be the same, but Tanik had actually prepared for that. He and his Marines were all equipped with zero-G thruster packs. The one thing Tanik hadn’t considered, however, was how he was going to get himself down from the cockpit to the rear airlock. It was now a fifteen meter drop, straight down, with half a standard G of gravity tugging him down.

Tanik considered the problem. He couldn’t fire his thruster pack inside the Osprey. He could, however, draw on the source field to cushion his fall. But what would the Marines waiting in the troop bay think of that?

He didn’t relish the thought of exerting himself still further to suppress their shock and subsequent confusion. He’d exerted himself enough already in order to shield the Deliverance from that torpedo exploding above its hull—not to mention the constant effort it took to keep the crew under control.

But then again, why bother to ease the Marines’ shock? He wouldn’t need to hide for much longer, anyway. Let the rumors spread.

Tanik climbed out of the pilot’s chair and left his feet to dangle directly above the cockpit door. Then he opened the door and let go, dropping straight down.

He landed with a boom on the rear airlock doors, and the entire squad of Marines turned to stare at him in unison. They were in the midst of carefully helping each other down from their own positions along the walls of the Osprey.

“Captain... are you okay?” the squad sergeant asked.

“I’m fine, thank you, Sergeant. Let’s go.” Tanik opened the airlock doors and jumped down inside. He waved the Marines down, and they joined him after just a moment. They were all still staring at him like he was a ghost.

Tanik shut the inner airlock doors above their heads, and then turned to the sergeant. “Ready?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” the sergeant replied.

Tanik cycled the airlock open and they all fell out, sailing straight down to the starry blue nebula below.

Then they activated their thruster packs and used them to guide their fall to the ruined remains of the hangar doors. They landed on the mangled edge of the door frame, right beside a regular-sized crew access door. It was sealed, and they couldn’t afford to just blast it open with the hangar currently bathed in vacuum.

Tanik turned to find the pair of Marines carrying a chest of equipment between them. Inside was an inflatable airlock, a cutting torch to get through the doors, and half a dozen pressure suits for any tributes they might find and rescue aboard the Crucible.

Tanik nodded to the Marine sergeant. “Get those doors open.”

“Yes, sir,” the sergeant replied, and then began snapping orders at his squad.



Chapter 58




Darius picked the nearest hangar, one where he’d already seen an Osprey land, since he didn’t have any breach equipment with him, let alone a portable airlock. He matched speed to the rotation of the station and then carefully flew in through the ruined doors of the hangar. He hovered inside the hangar for just a second, using his maneuvering jets to maintain the same angular trajectory as the station (essentially flying in a circle) while he tried to figure out where to land. He couldn’t land beside the Osprey, because he didn’t have a thruster pack like the Marines who’d been specially equipped for this mission. But...

Darius spied a group of Marines in the far corner of the hangar, standing on the jagged, mangled remains of the hangar doors. They were busy setting up their portable airlock. Darius noticed an empty space on the wall above their heads that looked just big enough for his Vulture, and he used his fighter’s maneuvering jets to line up with it, making sure his cockpit was as close to the ground as possible. Marines looked up and pointed at him as he came into their line of sight, but Darius ignored them. He extended his fighter’s mag clamps and docked it to the wall. Finding the portable oxygen tank under his chair, he connected it to his suit. That done, he carefully released his acceleration harness, taking care to grab the bars so he wouldn’t fall straight out. Clinging to the two halves of his harness, he strained to hit the open/close button for the cockpit canopy. A warning alert sounded, and red lights flashed, indicating the cockpit was about to depressurize. Then the canopy popped open and a gust of air billowed out.

Darius climbed down over the nose of his Vulture, using whatever handholds he could find, until his feet were dangling just below the pointed tip of the fighter, some twelve feet above the ground. He activated his comms to speak with the Marines below.

“Would someone mind catching me?”

“Darius? What are you doing here?” It was Tanik, and he did not sound amused.

Just my luck, Darius thought. “What does it look like I’m doing? I’m joining the boarding party.”

“Well don’t. I don’t need you getting yourself killed, and I certainly don’t need the distraction of looking after you.”

But Darius wasn’t going to take no for an answer. He let go, and the deck swept up to greet him. He bent his legs on impact, hoping to cushion his fall. He hit with a heavy whump and a painful jolt that instantly buckled his legs. His shoulder slammed into the deck, and he bounced up, sailing straight toward the nebula-soaked void.

Darius twisted around desperately, trying to grab something, anything to stop himself from flying out into space—

And then a firm hand closed around his ankle and pulled him back.

“You see?” Tanik said. “You’re a liability. Get back in your cockpit and get out of here.”

Darius planted his feet on the deck and his mag boots engaged with a soundless tug. He glanced up at his cockpit, now twelve feet above his head. “Yeah, I don’t think I can.”

“I’ll throw you,” Tanik replied.

Darius shot the man a dubious look, wondering if that was an empty threat or a boast of his abilities. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t going anywhere. “Cassandra’s here, and I’m going to find her.”

Tanik’s eyes narrowed to threatening slits behind the faceplate of his helmet, but Darius narrowed his right back.

“Fine. Stay back, and do exactly what I tell you, when I tell you.”

“Thank you,” Darius said, nodding slowly.

“Don’t thank me yet. We still have to get your daughter and get out of here alive.”

Sobered by that thought, Darius grimaced, but he refused to give into negativity now. “Do you have a weapon I can use?”

“You didn’t bring one?” Tanik asked. “Well, you are well prepared for this, aren’t you?”

“Here.” One of the Marines handed Darius a bulky black laser pistol that reminded him of the weapons he’d seen Ra and Captain Riker wielding. “Don’t shoot your own feet off,” the Marine warned, sounding decidedly cocky for someone who’d become a Marine not three days ago, and via downloaded skill sets at that.

Acting the part? Darius wondered. Or ex-military from Earth?

He nodded his thanks and checked to make sure the safety was on, just to be sure he wouldn’t accidentally shoot his or anyone else’s feet off.

A minute later, a Marine pushed his way out of the inflated airlock with a gust of air and waved to them. “Captain, we’re in,” he said.

Tanik spared one last warning glance at Darius before he turned and stalked over to the waiting airlock. “Follow me.”



Chapter 59




Darius flicked off the safety on his sidearm while he waited for the Marines to follow Tanik through the portable airlock. It was only large enough for one person at a time, so it took a few seconds for all of them to get through. Darius went last, because the Marines kept pushing him aside.

Tanik was waiting on the other side of the airlock, his armor glowing brightly just as the Deliverance’s hull had been earlier. It was obviously some kind of energy shield, but since no such technology existed, it was attracting a lot of attention from the Marines. Darius noticed them chattering on another comms channel and he switched to it to listen in. They were murmuring amongst themselves about that mysterious glow around Tanik, and about how Tanik had apparently survived a bone-breaking fall unscathed.

Tanik’s voice joined theirs a moment later. “Is there something you would like to say to me?” he asked. “Perhaps we can all stand around and chat about it while we wait for the Crucible’s security teams to find us?”

“Sorry,” the Marine sergeant replied. “Everyone shut up!” he ordered, and the comms fell silent.

Darius switched his focus to their immediate surroundings. A clean white corridor stretched out ahead of them, curving up and away with the curvature of the ring-shaped station.

Tanik motioned for them to follow him, and set out at a brisk jog. The Marines ran after him, and Darius struggled to keep up. Their mag boots sounded like thunder as they ran, but Darius supposed they couldn’t hope to maintain the element of surprise after blowing the station open with missiles. Someone was definitely expecting them.

They ran past doors lining the walls of the corridor, and Darius began to wonder what was behind them.

He asked about it over the squad channel. “Shouldn’t we check those rooms for tributes?”

“No,” Tanik replied.

Suspicion raised the hairs on the back of Darius’s neck. “Hey, you said—”

“I said we’d get your daughter. There are tens of thousands of children aboard the Crucible. We can’t rescue them all. Only the Revenants. Do you understand?”

“The what?” one of the Marines asked. Apparently they hadn’t got the memo yet.

Darius didn’t like the thought of leaving thousands of innocent children behind. “There has to be a way to rescue the others.”

“There isn’t. There’s no time. You want to save your daughter or not?”

“Yes, obviously, but—”

“Then be quiet while I lead you to her.”

Darius clamped his mouth shut and tightened his grip on his pistol, thinking, You’d better not be lying about her.

A door appeared in front of them, and the corridor curved around it. Tanik slowed as they reached the door. A moment later, a molten orange line raced swiftly around the door in a circle. A bang, sounded from the other side, and the center of the door fell into the corridor, revealing a Marine with a cutting torch.

“Captain,” he said, and gave a brisk salute.

“At ease. Form up.”

Another squad of Marines came streaming through and joined the others. Tanik led the group around the hangar to a bank of elevators. One of them opened as soon as Tanik hit the call button. He crowded in with four Marines and said, “Meet us on C deck.”

Darius watched the elevator doors slide shut. The rest of them had to wait for the next elevator, and then the next....

It took four trips to get them all up to C deck, and as usual Darius was bringing up the rear. By the time his elevator arrived, it opened into a dark corridor littered with bodies and flickering lights. Some of the bodies were Marines, while others were wearing simple blue jumpsuits, and still others wore nothing but the coats of fur or scales that they’d been born with. The majority of the dead were aliens.

Crucible security forces? Darius wondered, blinking in shock. The Marines from his elevator fanned out, using hand signals rather than comms to communicate. Darius crept out after them, but he was having trouble seeing in the dark. He was about to turn on his headlamps, but he noticed that none of the others had done so. They were all creeping along quietly, sticking to the shadows and trying to stay hidden. Darius couldn’t turn on his helmet lights without revealing them all. They were probably using some kind of light amplification equipment.

Good for them, Darius thought. He was wearing a flight suit, not power armor, and he had no such equipment. He ended up stumbling around blindly, and making a lot of noise. Up ahead, he spotted Tanik’s glowing armor, and used that to guide him.

He hadn’t gone more than four steps when he heard a loud screech that sounded like it was right behind him. He whirled around, but there was nothing there. To the fore he heard the crackling reports of laser rifles, and he spun back around to see the previously darkened corridor now flashing brightly with laser beams. Those lasers tracked toward six-legged shadows racing along the walls and ceiling. Banshees.

One of the Marines screamed, and his gun fell silent. Followed by another. And then two more. Darius struggled to pick a target in the dark, but he was afraid he’d shoot one of the Marines by accident.

“Fall ba—!” one of the Marine sergeants screamed, only for that scream to die in a gurgling noise.

Tanik came racing back, his armor aglow, and with what looked like a luminous white sword raised above his shoulders. The blade flashed and shimmered in the dark, and Banshees let out blood-curdling screams as they burst into flames and literally disintegrated into glowing piles of orange embers.

A dark shape ran by Darius, limping and screaming, its tail on fire, and two of its six legs missing in glowing orange stumps. Darius took aim and fired at it as it ran by, hitting the creature twice, just above the shoulder.

The Banshee collapsed with a piercing wail and went skidding across the deck. It thrashed, struggling to get back up as Darius stared stupidly at it.

Tanik ran by in a dazzling silver streak. His glowing sword flashed through the creature’s neck. The beast’s head and shoulders evaporated in a puff of bright orange embers that fluttered  briefly through the air on unseen currents before fading to black.

“Let’s go,” Tanik said.

Darius shook his head. “What is that?” he asked, jerking his chin to the sword.

“It’s a sword. What does it look like?” Tanik replied.

“That doesn’t look like any sword I’ve ever seen.”

“It’s a Revenant weapon. It serves as a focal point for our shields. We can’t fire ranged weapons while we’re shielding ourselves. The shots will bounce off the shield and kill us. Swords, however, still work just fine.”

“I can see that,” Darius said, still staring at the weapon. He hadn’t seen Tanik bring a sword with him, which meant that he must have found it on board the station—or maybe stolen it from one of those Banshees? Darius wondered, as he stared at the headless remains of the beast Tanik had just killed. He shuddered at the thought of encountering a Revenant Banshee.

“Come,” Tanik repeated and nodded down to the end of the darkened corridor. “Your daughter and the others are just up ahead.” With that, Tanik ran off in that direction, taking the luminous glow of his sword and armor with him. Seeing as how Tanik was lighting up the corridor without a second thought for staying hidden, Darius activated his headlamps and ran after him.

Just three Marines joined them. The others were dead, their armor pried open by Banshee claws and their guts shining in bloody red smears under the beams of Darius’s headlamps.

They reached the end of the corridor, and Tanik sliced the doors open. Bright light flooded out, momentarily blinding Darius. He blinked spots from his eyes to see what appeared to be a large dormitory, crowded with bunk beds. At least two dozen children were huddled on and under those beds, human and alien alike.

Darius shoved his way past a pair of Marines and activated the external speakers on his helmet. “Cassandra!” he yelled.

“Dad?”

A familiar face appeared: delicate features, long brown hair, and blue eyes, the color of a cloudless sky.

He couldn’t believe it. Darius’s eyes blurred with tears. Cassandra stared uncomprehendingly back at him, and he realized she couldn’t recognize him with his helmet on. He hurriedly reached up and cracked the seals to pull the helmet off. He still had his oxygen mask on, but Cassandra recognized him instantly.

“Dad!” she leapt off the top bunk, fell over and stumbled to her feet in the half gravity of the station. A split second later, she slammed into him and wrapped him in a desperate hug. “You found me,” she whispered.

“We need to go,” Tanik said softly. Then he bellowed: “Everybody up! Let’s go, let’s go! Right now! We’re getting out of here!”

Not paying Tanik any mind, Darius shook his head, blinking tears as he held his daughter in a fierce hug. The muffled sound of Cassandra’s sobs reached his ears—adolescent pride be vixxed. He spared a hand to rip off his oxygen mask and kissed the top of Cassandra’s head. He buried his face in her hair. “I thought you were dead,” he breathed.

“Can’t kill a rock,” she replied.

At that, both of them burst out laughing. As their laughter died down, Cassandra withdrew and flashed him an accusing look. “You left me.” Then she punched his arm, hard. “I thought I’d never see you again!”

Darius offered an apologetic frown. “I never should have left, but I’m here now.”

“So am I,” a deep, growling voice added from the open doorway. That voice was speaking in Cygnian, not Primary.

Darius spun around to see a black-skinned Ghoul brushing the ceiling with its head. All four of its eyes were ice blue, and its mouth was bared in a jagged grin of interlocking nine-inch teeth.

Everyone stared stupidly at it as it drew four short black blades from scabbards wrapped around its torso, one for each of its four hands.

“Shoot it!” Tanik screamed.

But it was too late. The Ghoul’s skin went from oil-slick black to a ghostly, luminous white.

Darius finally realized why they were called Revenants.

The Ghoul’s four blades now shone and shimmered with the same light as Tanik’s, looking like frozen laser beams.

The three Marines opened fire, but it was too little, too late. Their lasers flashed impotently against the Ghoul’s shield, and it let out a sissing peal of laughter, as if they were tickling it.



Chapter 60




Darius gaped in shock as he watched Tanik run straight up to the Ghoul with his own sword flashing. The creature blocked and parried his blows easily, but somehow, Tanik forced it back, away from the door.

“Take them back to the Deliverance!” Tanik said, and as soon as he was through the door, it slammed shut with an echoing boom that left the door crumpled on one side. Darius stood frozen in shock, wondering what to do next. They couldn’t just sneak out through the door with Tanik and the Ghoul Revenant locked in a life and death struggle on the other side.

Cassandra tugged on his hand to get his attention and pointed to another door that he hadn’t seen on one of the other side of the dormitory. “Over there,” she said.

One of the surviving Marines went to investigate. “It’s locked from the other side,” he said. “But I should be able to blast it open.”

The surviving Marine Sergeant pointed to the corner of the room farthest from that door. “Everybody over there!” he said, and then ushered the children into that corner. Darius hurried over there with Cassandra, scrambling to put his helmet and oxygen mask back on. He was going to need them later.

Another Marine went around knocking over bunk beds and piling them in a protective barricade between them and the door.

“Charges set!” a third one said.

And then all three of them came running behind the barricade. “Cover!” one of them yelled, and Darius wrapped his body around Cassandra to shield her.

A mighty boom shook the room, followed by a plinking hail of molten shrapnel.

“Move out!” the Marine sergeant said before Darius’s ears had even stopped ringing. “Everyone stay behind us, and keep your eyes open!”

The group rounded the makeshift barricade and ran after the Marines, through a red-hot hole in the wall where the door had been. They all hurried down yet another gleaming white corridor, this one unmarred by debris or dead bodies.

As they ran, Darius spared a few seconds to study the group of children with them. He noticed plenty of familiar aliens along with the unfamiliar ones—there were black-furred Lassarians, shape-shifting Vixxons with their solid white eyes, lizard-like Sicarians, white-furred Korothians, the shiny-skinned Dol Walins, a Murciago, like Tik, and even...

Darius blinked in shock at the sight of the small, six-legged brown creature with four glinting black eyes.

A Banshee. His pistol swept into line with the monster’s head.

Cassandra pushed the barrel down to aim at the deck. “Don’t,” she said. “He’s one of the nicer kids.”

“Nicer...!” Darius exploded.

“Shut up, Commander!” the Marine sergeant snapped over the comms. “We’ve got company.”

Up ahead, an adult Banshee and six humans in blue uniforms stood blocking the corridor. All of them except for the Banshee were carrying hefty black rifles, but so far none of them were firing. Afraid to hit the kids? Darius wondered.

“Let us pass,” the Marine sergeant said in an amplified voice.

The Banshee screeched unintelligibly and then came bounding toward them, literally bouncing off the walls as it went. All three Marines opened fire, tracking it, but they only scored a handful of hits before it reached them. It fell on the sergeant and bit off his head, helmet and all. The other two Marines shot it in the throat as it spat the head out, and the Banshee collapsed with black blood spurting between its teeth.

The children screamed. Then the humans in blue uniforms opened fire.

“Take cover!” one of the Marines shouted.

Darius pasted himself to the wall with Cassandra and the other children. He wrapped his body around Cassandra again to protect her from any stray shots.

He risked glancing up to return fire, but the corridor was so full of flashing lasers and smoke that he couldn’t be sure if he hit anything.

The enemy security forces were firing in controlled bursts, but the Marines were firing in steady streams. Darius saw the Marines stagger several times as they got hit, but they both remained standing, cutting down the unarmored security forces one after another. In a matter of seconds, the screeching reports of lasers died into echoes.

Now only one of the two Marines was still standing, and he was limping. The armor on his leg and the whole left side of his torso was badly blackened. He pulled out a patch kit from a compartment on his utility belt and slapped it against his leg; then he bent down beside his fallen squad mate and stole a second kit to patch his torso armor. That done, he looked up and gestured with his rifle to the end of the corridor.

“We need to find an elevator and get back down to the hangars,” he said.

Darius eyed him dubiously, but nodded his agreement, and the Marine limped off down the corridor. They all peeled away from the walls to follow him. After a while, they came to a bank of closely-spaced doors with call buttons between them. Darius punched one of the down arrows, and everyone waited for the elevator.

“Dad?”

“Yeah?”

“Who was that man you were with?”

“That was Tanik Gurhain. He’s the one we went looking for on Hades.”

“But he’s one of them,” Cassandra said. “A Revenant.”

Darius arched an eyebrow at her. Apparently she already knew something about the Revenants. “Yeah, he is,” he replied, “but he’s one of the good ones—I think.”

Cassandra nodded. The elevator arrived and the surviving Marine stood guard while Darius piled in with Cassandra and as many other kids as possible. They ran out of room with a dozen kids inside, and a dozen more waiting outside.

“I’ll take the rest of them down in the next elevator,” the Marine said. “Meet you at the bottom.”

“All right.” Darius studied the control panel inside the elevator, looking for the right deck. Deck A seemed to be the lowest one, so he selected it. The elevator doors began sliding shut, but just before they did, Darius saw a shadowy pair of eight-fingered white hands, the same color as the walls of the corridor, reaching down from the ceiling above the Marine’s head.

“Watch out!”

Those hands seized the Marine’s head and twisted it all the way around. The Children around him screamed, and then fell silent as the elevator dropped away. Darius blinked in shock, his heart pounding in his chest.

“What was that!?” Cassandra asked.

“One of us,” the Banshee child replied in a growling whisper. Darius glanced at him to see that his previously brown skin had turned a matching white, the same color as the inside of the elevator.

Darius had to reign in another impulse to shoot that child monster between its beady black eyes. He looked back at the door of the elevator, and his legs began to shake at the thought of what might be waiting for them at the bottom. He’d come too far and gone through too much for it all to end here.

The elevator doors slid open, and Darius burst out with his pistol in hand, searching for more camouflaged Cygnians.

But this corridor seemed clear. “Let’s go!” he said. “Everyone follow me!” He grabbed Cassandra’s hand and ran for his life.

Before long they came to a stretch of corridor that Darius thought he recognized. He dashed around a bend to find what he hoped was the hangar where he’d landed his fighter.

He stopped in front of the inflatable airlock and looked around quickly to make sure there weren’t any Cygnians creeping up on them.

There weren’t.

So far so good.

“All right...” Darius scanned a small crowd of expectant adolescent faces, his thoughts racing. None of them were wearing pressure suits of any kind, and the hangar on the other side of the airlock was wide open to space. Darius chewed his lower lip, wondering what to do next. The Marines had to have had a plan for this!

“I’ll be right back, okay?” he said.

“No...” Cassandra replied in a trembling voice. “Don’t leave me here.”

“I have to. You can’t go through that airlock without a suit on!”

She grabbed his arm to stop him from leaving. “Then let’s go find space suits!”

“And risk running into more Banshees?” He shook his head. “I think we already have some. I just need to go check, all right?”

But Cassandra shook her head vigorously. “Not again. Last time you left me you didn’t come back.”

Darius grimaced. “This time I will. I promise. Let me go. Quick, Cass!”

Her face screwed up in a pout, but she let go of his arm, and he darted through the airlock into the hangar. He looked around quickly and found his fighter there, clamped to the wall just above the doors. So close, but still too far to reach, and besides—it could only take two. There were a dozen kids waiting in the corridor behind him.

Darius glanced away, out to the Marines’ Osprey. It was even farther away than his fighter, and landed on a wall directly above open space.

Darius wondered how in the galaxy he was supposed to reach that transport. The Marines had all been wearing zero-G thruster packs, but he wasn’t. “Fek it!” Darius pounded the wall beside him. Why hadn’t he thought to steal a thruster pack from one of the dead Marines? Despair clawed at his heart. This was never going to work. If the station weren’t rotating, they might have been able to jump and drift through zero-G to reach the Osprey, but with the station rotating as it was, they’d fall out into space if they tried that.

There had to be another way. The kids didn’t have thruster packs, so how had the Marines been planning to get them over to the Ospreys?

Darius looked around quickly. That was when he spotted a big metal chest sitting beside the airlock. Bingo. He hurried over and lifted the lid to find—

Pressure suits!

Darius quickly sifted through the remaining contents of the chest, hoping to find something else.

But there weren’t any spare thruster packs—not even a rope that they could use to climb.

This was it: the end of the line; they were backed into a corner with no way out.



Chapter 61




“Hello, Darius.”

He jumped and spun around to look for the source of that voice. Then he realized that it was coming over the comms.

“Tanik?”

“Bring the pressure suits. We don’t have much time.”

Darius didn’t stick around to argue. He grabbed the equipment chest by one of its handles and dragged it through the airlock.

He found Tanik waiting with the kids on the other side. The man was swaying on his feet, and his right arm was missing. A suit patch covered the scorched black armor around his empty shoulder socket, and his left arm clutched the shoulder strap of a large, heavy-looking black bag. His sword was gone.

“Get them dressed,” Tanik croaked, and nodded to the kids.

Darius hurriedly opened the chest and passed one of the suits and helmets to Cassandra.

“Put it on,” he said, as he passed out the rest of the suits.

It soon became apparent that not all of the kids had the right body types. These suits were designed to fit human adults, not alien teenagers.

The Banshee was the right height, but he had too many arms and legs, so Darius told him to cross his extra arms over his torso. That worked. But others, like the Korothian, simply didn’t fit. The helmet was too small for his giant head.

Darius grimaced and took the suit from him, passing it along to one of the other kids. He went on like that, passing the suits along each time one of them didn’t fit, and by the time Darius was done, he still had one pressure suit left with no one to put it on.

There were seven kids without pressure suits and only five with.

Darius glanced at Tanik. “Now what?”

“We take the ones in suits first. The others will have to go without protection. We’ll do what we can for them.”

Those kids began murmuring worriedly and exchanging looks with one another, but Tanik ignored them. “Let’s go,” he said, and strode through the airlock.

Darius ushered the ones in suits through one after another. Cassandra went last, and he told her to stay close to the airlock. As soon as she was through, he addressed the remaining seven children: “You can survive exposure to vacuum for a few minutes. We’ll make sure it isn’t any longer than that. I’ll come back for you as soon as we’re ready, all right?”

“Wait!” one of the kids yelled, and they all surged forward.

Darius darted through the airlock before they could grab him, and watched helplessly from the other side of the transparent, magnetically-sealed doors. He shook his head, warning them not to try to follow, but the white-furred Korothian pushed through to the front of the group and pounded on the doors with giant fists. He let out a thunderous roar that speckled the doors with spittle. His blue eyes blazed with fury.

Don’t. Darius thought.

The Korothian pounded on the doors again, and this time he didn’t let up.

Stop it!

But it was too late. The seal broke, and the Korothian came flying through on a torrent of escaping air. He hit Darius, knocking him over, and they went tumbling over the side of the ruined hangar doors and out into space. Darius had just enough time to catch the horrified look on Cassandra’s face as he and all seven of the other kids went sailing by her like lemmings off a cliff.

* * *

Tanik watched with an angry scowl as Darius tumbled out into space. He reached out into the source field, trying to pull Darius back in, but he failed. It was taking all of his strength just to suppress the pain of his missing arm and to remain conscious.

Instead, he contacted Lieutenant Carter on the Deliverance.

“Sir?”

“I need an emergency rescue and recovery mission at the Crucible. Commander Drake is EVA.”

“Sir, all of our pilots are out in the Vultures, except for Lieutenant Nelson, and he’s in no shape to fly after his friendly fire incident.”

Tanik grimaced and shook his head. “We do have one pilot.”

“Who?”

“Lieutenant Dyara Eraya. She’s in the psych ward down in med bay. Send her.”

“Right away, sir. Is she... fit to fly?”

“Fit enough. Tell her it’s Darius she’s rescuing.”

“Yes, sir.”

Tanik closed down his comms, and gestured with an upraised palm to the shell-shocked group of kids waiting with him inside the hangar. Wait here, he thought at them, and then he triggered his zero-G thruster and blasted off, aiming for the open airlock at the back of the Osprey. He reached the airlock and just barely managed to grab one of the handrails with his remaining arm. The heavy bag of artifacts he had slung over that shoulder was not making it any easier.

Tanik pulled himself inside the airlock and cast about for the nearest reel of zero-G tether. He found it right beside him. Setting his bag down inside the airlock, he hurriedly clipped the tether to his suit, and boosted back to the kids.

Tanik landed heavily beside Cassandra and found a buckled support beam to loop the tether through. He clipped the tether to itself and gave the line a firm tug to test it. It would hold.

That done, he turned around—

Cassandra was glaring at him, her eyes red and shining with tears behind her helmet.

My dad? she mouthed, and then pointed to the gulf of empty space just beyond the place where they were standing.

Tanik nodded. We’ll get him, he thought at her, and then mimed a swooping bird with his hand to imitate the rescue.

Cassandra seemed to get it, so he gestured to the tether now running between the Osprey and the side of the hangar. He placed one hand over the line and imitated using it like a zip line. He got a few confused looks from some of the other kids, but Cassandra nodded. Even so, he could sense the unanswered question in her head: how were they supposed to slide up the line?

Tanik gave her another upraised palm, and thought at her: wait and see. Then he blasted back to the open airlock of the Osprey. He grabbed the handrail once more and pulled himself inside. As soon as he was in, he slung his bag of artifacts over his shoulder. He then used the airlock controls to override the safeties and cycle the inner doors open without first shutting the outer ones.

A sudden blast of air billowed out, almost taking him with it, but he held fast to the handrail. As soon as that gust was gone, Tanik looked up. The cockpit was fifteen meters straight up, with half a standard G pulling him down....

There was only one way up. He had to jump. Tanik drew on the source field with what little strength he had left, and then sprang straight up. He sailed up through the ship, straight into the cockpit, and grabbed the back of the pilot’s chair with one hand. He mentally triggered the cockpit door shut behind him and then hauled himself up and maneuvered into a sitting position.

Tanik carefully stowed his bag in the webbed compartment beneath his chair and then struggled to fasten his acceleration harness one-handed. As soon as he finished, he flipped the ignition, and grabbed the flight stick.

He activated a rear-view camera on one of his displays to keep an eye on his makeshift zip line, and then he released the docking clamps.

The Osprey immediately fell toward open space, but Tanik pushed the throttle up to compensate. That only partially worked, and he had to use the docking jets to help hold the Osprey steady just below the point where the children were waiting.

He mentally activated the winch on the tether to pull it taut, and then waggled the Osprey’s wings at the kids, hoping they’d get the message. They did. Cassandra went first, sliding down the line with her gloves wrapped around it. A second later, she fell into the waiting airlock, and the remaining four kids followed her. As soon as they were all inside, Tanik released the tether and shut the outer doors. Remembering that they didn’t have much oxygen in their suits, he shut the inner airlock doors, too, and pressurized the airlock. As soon as there was enough air to convey sound, he activated the Osprey’s PA system and said, “Hold on to something!”

Then he hit the throttle. The Osprey roared out into space. He inched the throttle up just as quickly as he dared, hoping no one got too badly hurt in the process.

The Deliverance’s Vulture Squadrons were all waiting in a holding pattern outside the station.

“Black Leader to SB-22 Delta One, your escort is standing by.”

Tanik recognized that voice as belonging to the black-furred Lassarian, Ra.

“Thank you, Black Leader,” he replied. “How are we for time?”

“ETA five minutes to weapons range with the Cygnian fleet. They’re already through the Eye. You’re just in time, sir.”

Tanik grimaced. Dyara better be on her way to rescue Darius. “What about the other transports?” Tanik asked.

“Yours is the only one we’ve seen. We just assumed...”

Tanik shut his eyes and reached out into the source field toward the Crucible, looking for the familiar, friendly minds of his Marines, but he couldn’t sense even one of them. He cracked his eyes open and shook his head. “You assumed correctly. Withdraw your pilots, Lieutenant.”

“Sir, Flight Ops mentioned an EVA rescue.... we’ve got an Eagle incoming.”

“How far out is it?” Tanik asked as he set course for the Deliverance and pushed the throttle up to three Gs.

“Six minutes and counting, sir.”

Tanik cursed under his breath and shook his head. One minute too long.

But they couldn’t afford to leave Darius behind. He was too important.

Tanik swallowed a sigh and activated his comms once more. “I’ll fly back to the Deliverance myself. You just make sure that Eagle makes it back safe, understood Lieutenant?”

“Yes, sir.”



Chapter 62




Darius watched the stars spin around his head in lazy circles. One minute he saw the ring-shaped Crucible, the next... empty space; then the Crucible... then empty space.

Darius squeezed his eyes shut and tried not to panic. Someone would rescue him. They’d send an Eagle. That’s what the RR-3’s were for.

But who was going to pilot it? Blake?

They hadn’t budgeted for rescue pilots in any of the sim runs because they couldn’t spare them, and because successful ejections were rare.

That oversight seemed a lot more serious now that Darius was about to become its first victim. He cracked his eyes open and shook his head. Space was still swirling around him: cold black void, gleaming stars, vibrant blue swirls of nebula...

It was beautiful.

Long minutes passed with nothing but the sound of Darius’s own breath reverberating inside his oxygen mask to keep his thoughts company.

At least he’d rescued Cassandra. At least she was safe.

Or was she? He hadn’t actually seen Tanik take her aboard his Osprey. And how was he planning to get those kids over there anyway? He had one arm, and one thruster pack. He couldn’t possibly carry them all over one by one...

Doubt gnawed at Darius’s nerves. He tried activating his comms to make contact, but an error began blinking before his eyes:

Out of Range.

Ejected pilots had powerful emergency comms transmitters in their seats, but Darius had no such equipment. Cold dread rippled through him. Even if they sent an Eagle, it would never be able to find him without an emergency beacon to home in on.

This was it.

Darius blew out a shaky breath and tried to calm his racing heart. He was never going to see Cassandra again.

Long minutes passed with that thought playing over and over in his head, driving him mad.

Then a familiar voice came crackling into his helmet. “Darius, is that you?” He spun through another circle to see the blocky shape of an Eagle hovering there beside him. “Darius, answer me!” It was Dyara.

He blinked in shock. “Dya? How the hell did you find me?” he asked.

“Tanik. He told me where to look.”

“He made it back? Is Cass—”

“She’s fine. Let’s worry about you right now. Are you okay?

“I think so....”

“Good. I’m deploying a guided tether to drag you in. Tell me when you can see it.”

He saw a snaking silver line shoot out the back of the Eagle and come slithering toward him on a bright blue thruster. “I see it,” he said.

The tether came right up to him, so close that he could almost touch it. He reached out for it—

And a shimmering net shot out to engulf him. It wrapped him up, and he felt the line tug taut as it began reeling him in.

Moments later, he was sitting inside the Eagle’s airlock with the doors sliding shut behind him.

“Hang on,” Dyara said just as soon as the doors closed.

A split second later, the Eagle leapt forward and Darius slammed into the outer airlock doors. He lay there dazed and blinking spots from his eyes, fighting to remain conscious. He hadn’t hit the doors that hard, had he?

Then he noticed the blinking O2 indicator inside his helmet. It read 0%/0h.

He was out of air!

His heart thudded slowly in his chest, and he sucked in a rasping breath. He tried using his ESC to tell Dya to pressurize the airlock, but the visuals and prompts were too blurry and indistinct for him to navigate. His thoughts were too unfocused. Hypoxia was already setting in.

Dark spots swam before his eyes, and blurred together in a solid wave of darkness that swiftly washed over him and sucked him under.



Chapter 63




Darius slowly came to in a bright white room with a rhythmic beeping sound echoing in his ears. He blinked bleary eyes and tried to sit up, but he couldn’t. He was strapped down.

“Hello?” he croaked.

“Dad!”

Cassandra’s face appeared, and then her arms flew around his neck, and she buried her face in his chest. “You’re awake,” she breathed.

“I... what happened?” the last thing he remembered was blacking out in the back of Dyara’s Eagle.

“What didn’t happen?” Cassandra replied. “We were being chased by an entire Phantom fleet! We jumped away at the last second. You’ve been in a coma for the past couple of days.”

Darius frowned. “A coma? Because I ran out of air?” That didn’t make any sense.

“Not exactly...” Cassandra replied. “You got knocked around while Dya was flying you back here. You weren’t wearing a seat belt.”

“Acceleration harness,” Darius corrected.

Cassandra shrugged. “Yeah, that.”

Darius tried to get up again, but again he found that he couldn’t. He fumbled for the straps that were holding him down.

“Let me help you,” Cassandra said. She unbuckled them one at a time and then nodded to him. “All done.”

Darius sat up and swung his feet over the side of his bed, only to float right off it, trailing wires and an IV line. He struggled in midair, twisting and bucking like a bull.

Cassandra giggled, looking on with a grin.

Darius glared down at her. “Are you just going to stand there?”

“No. You’re right. I’ll go let them know that you’re awake.” Having said that, she darted off and out the door of his room. Darius hit the ceiling and used it to push himself back down to his bed. Once there, he grabbed the loose straps that had been tying him down and held them in tight fists. Where were his mag boots? And where was his blasted medic!

Darius activated his ESC to contact someone, but then he hesitated, wondering who to contact. He didn’t know the name of his doctor, so he decided to reach out to Dyara instead.

“Thank you, Dya,” he thought at her.

But she left him hanging for long minutes with no reply.

He was just about to reach out to someone else, when the door to his room swished open, and in walked three people: Cassandra, followed by two adults. One of them Darius didn’t recognize, but he was wearing the white and red rating badge of a medic.

The other one was Captain Tanik Gurhain. Darius noted that his missing arm had somehow mysteriously returned.

“Welcome back, Darius,” Tanik said as he stopped beside the bed. The medic stopped on the other side and spent a moment scanning Darius with a portable scanner.

Darius frowned at Tanik as a blue fan of light flickered out from the scanner and swept over him. “What happened?” he demanded.

“We rescued you. At a great cost, unfortunately.”

“Cost? What cost?” Darius asked.

“Your foolish and unauthorized dash to be the hero and rescue your daughter yourself resulted in the loss of no less than fourteen Vulture pilots and their fighters.”

“Hey!” Cassandra said. “I didn’t bring you here to make him feel—”

“Silence, girl!”

Darius felt a flash of anger at the way Tanik had dismissed his daughter. He scowled at the man. “I didn’t ask you to send anyone after me.”

“You didn’t leave us any choice. I told you, Darius, you’re the key to everything. I couldn’t afford to let you die.”

Darius held the man’s vomit-green gaze for a moment longer and shook his head. He didn’t know what to say to that. Guilt wormed inside him, making him feel sick. No wonder Dyara didn’t want to talk to him.

“Don’t worry, you’ll pay your debt back—and yet some,” Tanik said. “Fortunately, in spite of our losses, the mission was a success, and we have five new Revenants on board. That makes eight in total. It’s a good start.”

“A good start for what?” Darius asked.

“For our war.”

“Uh huh. Speaking of Revenants, does the crew know what you are yet?”

Tanik’s lips twisted into a snarling smile. “Yes. Of course.”

“And they don’t care that you were controlling them all? Forcing them to fight for you?”

Tanik placed a hand against his chest and leaned away from Darius in shock. The medic standing on Darius’s other side gave Tanik a wary look.

“I can’t force people to follow me, Darius. I’m not that powerful. And even if I could, why would I want to? That would make me no better than the other Revenants, the ones who conscript our children and force them to fight in their war.”

“But you admitted it to me!” Darius roared.

“No, you’re mistaken. I admitted no such thing. Furthermore, on Lieutenant Eraya’s suggestion, we held an emergency election yesterday. The vote was nearly unanimous. The crew wants me in charge.”

Darius couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “You what?” He shook his head. “Let me guess, your name was the only one on the ballot?”

“No, not at all,” Tanik replied. “Dyara herself ran, as did Ra, and Blake, and several of the others. It didn’t matter, though. People want me in charge, Darius. That’s why they follow me, not because I’ve somehow made them do so.”

Darius scowled. “Whatever. You saved my daughter, so I guess I owe you. Let’s just drop it.”

Tanik inclined his head. “I think that would be best.”

“So now what?” Darius asked. “Did you find your artifacts?”

“I did.”

“So where do we go from here?”

“Into hiding. We need to lie low for a while. Both sides of the Eye are swarming with Cygnians after our attack on the Crucible.”

Darius remembered the Crucible and all the kids they'd been forced to leave behind. Then he recalled the final stage of their mission: after successfully boarding the Crucible they were supposed to destroy it. Icy dread trickled into Darius’s heart. “We didn’t destroy it, did we?”

Tanik scowled. “Of course not. What do you think I am? A murderer?” He shook his head irritably. “The simulations called for destroying the Crucible because I didnt anticipate that your daughter’s arrival had coincided with the arrival of other tributes. But it doesn’t matter, we’ll go back and destroy it later, when we have the chance.”

Darius nodded slowly. “Why don’t we just jump around the Eye? Go back to Union space. That’s who you’re supposed to be fighting, right? The USO.”

Tanik blinked. “We can’t go back there yet.”

“Why not?”

“Because we’re dangerously low on fuel, and because we’re on the opposite side of the galaxy from the Orion Spur. It would take us more than three and a half years in FTL to get back there, and that’s assuming we could take the shortest route, which of course we can’t. We’d have to go around the black hole at Sagittarius A, not to mention numerous other celestial bodies between here and there.”

Darius rocked back on his bed in shock and almost floated free once more. “What? You mean we’re stranded out here?”

Tanik gave a shallow nod. “I’m afraid so, yes. Here, let me help you find your mag boots,” Tanik said, and reached out to Darius with his magically re-grown arm. That arm whirred with a mechanical noise as Tanik extended it.

Darius leaned away, eyeing Tanik’s hand as if it were a snake about to bite him.

“I’ll help myself,” he said. He yanked the IV line out of his wrist and removed the electrodes pasted to his scalp and chest.

“Suit yourself,” Tanik replied, sounding amused.

Darius pushed off from his bed, aiming for the door to his room. He drifted free, and Cassandra appeared, jogging beside him. She grabbed his hand to help guide him to the door.

Darius hit the door and grabbed onto the edge of the frame to keep from bouncing away. Something troubling occurred to him, and he twisted around to look Tanik in the eye.

“If we’re stranded, what happens when we run out of food?”

“Oh don’t worry, we’ve still got plenty of food in storage. Besides, I’ve already found a nice habitable planet for us to start our training. I’m sure we’ll find plenty to eat down there.”

“Training?” Darius echoed. He had a bad feeling that he already knew what Tanik was talking about. “What training?”

“You, Dyara, Cassandra, and the other children aren’t going to become Revenants without guidance.” Tanik smiled encouragingly and nodded. “We’re all going to become good friends over the next few years.” Darius gaped at him, and he went on, smilingly, “The Revenants are coming, remember? That’s us.”

Tanik’s smile broadened into a twisted grin, and apprehension sang in Darius’s veins. He turned to look at his daughter with wide, blinking eyes, as if to ask if she already knew about this. For her part, Cassandra was staring warily at Tanik, but there was no sign of shock or surprise on her face. She knew.

Darius looked back to Tanik. “What makes you think we’re going to become Revenants?” he demanded.

Tanik just went on smiling, and a gruff whisper came slithering through Darius’s thoughts: What makes you think you have a choice?



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ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Jasper Scott is a USA TODAY bestselling science fiction author, known for writing intricate plots with unexpected twists.

His books have been translated into Japanese and German and adapted for audio, with collectively over 500,000 copies purchased.

Jasper was born and raised in Canada by South African parents, with a British cultural heritage on his mother's side and German on his father's, to which he has now added Latin culture with his wonderful wife.

After spending years living as a starving artist, he finally quit his various jobs to become a full-time writer. In his spare time he enjoys reading, traveling, going to the gym, and spending time with his family.



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