Book: The Invisible War



The Invisible War

DARK SPACE II:

The Invisible War

Kindle Edition (2nd)

by Jasper T. Scott

http://www.JasperTscott.com

@JasperTscott

Copyright © 2013 by Jasper T. Scott

THE AUTHOR RETAINS ALL RIGHTS FOR THIS BOOK

Reproduction or transmission of this book, in whole or in part, by electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or by any other means is strictly prohibited, except with prior written permission from the author. You may direct your inquiries to [email protected]

Cover design by Jasper T. Scott

 This book is a work of fiction. All names, places, and incidents described are products of the writer’s imagination and any resemblance to real people or life events is purely coincidental.





Acknowledgements

Many thanks to my family, friends, and my beautiful wife, all of whom believed in me and encouraged me even when I would have rather stuck my head in the sand. You all made the journey worth the effort. And a special thanks to my team of editors—Dascha Paylor, Ian Jedlica, Peter Hughes, Daniel Eloff, Mike Murphy, Iain Gold, Ian Seccombe, Brian Cross, Richard Hiscutt, Brandon Worth, John Rowles, Gary Wilson, Carmen Romano, Tony Wilsenham, Jay Gehringer, Damon Trent, Greg Blake, Rob Dobozy, Aslak Normann, Alan Sharkey, and Bob Carciofini.




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



Table of Contents

DARK SPACE II

Acknowledgements

Prologue

AFTERMATH

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

THE CROSSING

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

DERELICT

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Epilogue

DARK SPACE III: Origin

OTHER BOOKS IN THE SERIES


Prologue

The mountains formed a jagged white and gray line, illuminated against the horizon by the miners’ floodlights. Snow fell in driving sheets to pile on the shiny gray tarmac, where it quickly melted and ran into shallow pools that reflected stolen scraps of the midnight sky. Roka City’s air raid sirens wailed, reminding everyone that there wasn’t much time, but even so, crowds of screaming people were pressing against the sorry line of sentinels and mechs who guarded the simple wire fence behind Destra. She was waiting on the other side of the fence—the safe side—but now she cast a worried glance over her shoulder to the raging crowds, and squeezed Atton’s small hand a little tighter.

“Why are they so angry?” Atton asked, following her gaze to the fence.

Destra smiled down at her seven-year-old son, and he looked up at her with his bright green eyes—her husband, Ethan’s eyes. “Because they don’t get to go for a ride on the spaceship,” she said, and tousled his hair.

As they watched, the twin beams of a military hover transport’s headlights appeared in the distance, illuminating great swaths of the falling snow. Then a megaphone blared, sounding out even above the wailing sirens: “Disperse, and proceed in an orderly fashion to the nearest mine shuttle!”

Everyone should have evacuated to the mines already, but the smart ones knew that wouldn’t save them. It would only buy them time, and maybe not very much of it. The crowd turned to the approaching transport with a collective roar. They were not going to leave peacefully. Destra caught a glimpse of a little boy with blond hair clutching the fence and staring hopelessly at her. The boy’s mother saw Destra staring and pointed at her. “Hoi! Why’s she get to go?” the woman screamed.

Destra’s mouth quirked up in a bitter smile. That woman didn’t realize how wrong she was. Destra wasn’t going anywhere. The transport was already overfull. She turned away, sickened, and tugged on Atton’s hand for him to turn away, too.

Atton’s eyes were wide. He was squeezing her hand so tight it felt like an overripe piece of fruit in his grasp. She could feel the blood throbbing at the edges of his grip, trying to escape. It was going to be hard to pry him loose when the time came—and even harder to pry herself loose. Destra turned to study her son with a wan smile. He clutched Tibby, his favorite stuffed animal, to his chest. It was a diger, a furry white feline from the ice-covered oceans and the steaming, snow-dusted magma fields of Ossus. Atton loved that fuzzy caricature of a deadly predator.

Destra looked away. Something wet graced her cheek, but it wasn’t a snowflake—they were standing safely under the eaves of the spaceport control tower. Destra Ortane looked up, holding a hand to her brow to shield her eyes from the spaceport’s landing lights. She searched the swirling darkness for the telltale streak of light which would signify a ship entering Roka’s upper atmosphere. There were supposed to be a pair of seraphim-class corvettes coming to escort the last transport off Roka IV, but so far there was nothing. Either they were late, or . . .

Destra didn’t want to finish that thought. The battle was not going well. The Roka system was defended by more than a dozen capital-class vessels, but it was not nearly enough to repel an invasion which numbered over 100 strong.

The spaceport began roaring with the sound of the transport’s grav lifts, drawing Destra’s attention back to the ground. She turned to study the blocky freighter. Her eyes skipped over the scoured white paint and found the faded and peeling gold symbol of the Imperium—six stars surrounding a clenched fist. It was a symbol of strength and security, but in times like these, the peeling paint and faded colors of that emblem were far more symbolic. These were the Imperium’s last days. Roka IV would be one of the last worlds to fall, but fall it would, and Destra held no illusions about what would happen to her and everyone else who was left behind when it did. The Sythians took no hostages and they never left any survivors.

Destra chewed her lower lip, hoping against hope that the transport would survive. It was just a hastily-converted ore freighter. It had never been meant to fly into the middle of a war. Maybe the Sythians wouldn’t notice it amidst all the chaos. The transport contained all of the remaining evacuees from Roka City—more than six thousand corporate execs, government officials, and fleet officers. Just the important people, mind you. Grubs like her didn’t make the cut, but Atton . . . Atton was another matter. He was easy to miss, easy to smuggle in, and Destra was lucky—her uncle was Captain Riechland, XO aboard the mighty Valiant, flagship of the 1st Fleet, and he’d been on Roka when the invasion had begun. Now Captain Reichland was flying back to his command, back to the war. The supreme overlord had ordered an all-systems, fleet-wide strategic regrouping.

Destra snorted. She knew what that really meant. It meant they were being abandoned. Soon the regrouped remnant of the fleet would be all that was left of humanity, and if that remnant kept fighting the inevitable, not even they would survive. Destra wouldn’t have believed her son better off with her uncle aboard the Valiant, but for one small piece of privileged information which her uncle had shared: the fleet rendezvous was in Dark Space. No one officially knew where that was, save that it was a place of exile for criminals, and that there was only one way in or out of the sector. Her uncle had explained that decision to her—the overlord had no intention of coming back to fight the war. The war was over. This was a full-scale retreat, and all of the people who were too rich and powerful to accept defeat had decided they’d rather hide in a den of criminals than die in their beds.

Destra would have chosen the same had she qualified to join them, especially since she’d been planning to go to Dark Space anyway—though hers were more personal reasons. Unlike everyone else, she already knew where Dark Space was. All she needed was a transport to get there, but it didn’t look like the Sythians were going to leave enough scattered pieces in all the galaxy to assemble a single working ship. That meant she’d never see Ethan again, but at least Atton would survive. He would make it to Dark Space, and Immortals willing, some day he might even find his father there.

Destra’s thoughts were interrupted as the hover transport flew over the fence, rattling the chain links with its passing before sailing over their heads to settle down a few dozen meters to their right. She gave her son’s arm a tug, and he followed her out from under the eaves without complaint, sticking to her like glue. The driving snow began landing in their hair and on their clothes, soaking them in seconds. A frigid wind blew, sending shivers through them, and Atton began to cry.

“I’m cold!”

“Atton!”

“I want to go home!”

Destra stopped walking and bent down to give him a fierce hug. “Atton, listen to me! You can’t go home. You’re going with your uncle on the spaceship, remember?”

She withdrew far enough to see little Atton bob his head, his eyes downcast as he picked snowflakes out of Tibby’s white fur. “I remember,” he sniffed. “You’re coming with us, right?”

Destra winced and smiled. Tears sparkled in her eyes. “Yes, darling, but not yet. You’ll have to wait for me, okay?”

Atton’s lips twisted into a deep frown, and he shook his head. “Tibby needs you to come now!

Destra’s smile broadened and tears began trembling on her eyelashes. She blinked them away and shook her head. “You tell Tibby I need him, too, okay? But we don’t have a choice. I’ll catch up with you later,” Destra said, standing. She almost choked on the lie, but somehow she managed to smile and tousle the snowflakes out of Atton’s dark hair like nothing was amiss. They crossed the landing platform to the waiting hover transport. Atton was hugging his stuffed diger tighter now.

Just as they reached the transport, the doors swung open, and Captain Reichland stepped out in his gleaming black and white uniform. He crossed to Destra grimly and gave her a fierce hug.

“I wish it didn’t have to be this way,” he whispered in Destra’s ear.

“Me, too,” Destra whispered back, her tears falling to soak the captain’s snow-dusted shoulder.

“I’ll take good care of him.”

“You’d better,” she warned as they broke apart. She shot him a broken smile and shook a finger in his face. “Or I’ll hunt you down and feed you to the Sythians myself.”

“I don’t doubt it for a second,” he said, holding her gaze.

“Hi, uncle,” Atton said softly.

The captain gazed down at him. “Hoi, kid, how do you feel about going for a ride?”

Destra looked at the transport again, a worried frown etched on her brow. It didn’t look like it stood much of a chance.

Destra turned back to her uncle, about to voice her doubt, but a sonic boom split the sky, interrupting her before she could say anything. All of them turned to see a pair of bright streaks sailing down through the dark clouds. Those streaks turned toward the spaceport, and began blinding them with their landing lights.

“That’s our ride,” Reichland said.

“I thought you were going in the transport?” Destra asked.

The captain turned to her. He held her gaze for a long moment, saying nothing, but looking like he wanted to. “Well—” He smiled; his lips curved briefly, but his eyes never crinkled. “—that changed,” he finished.

“But you’re still going to Dark Space?” she insisted.

“Yes, yes, of course—” The captain cast a worried glance behind him, to the waiting hover transport. He saw the doors opening and other officers stepping out and he turned back to her with a grimace.

Destra noted his expression with a frown. “What’s wrong?”

He shook his head and leaned close to whisper, “They’re not going to make it, Des.” He pulled away with a false smile as one of the other officers walked up to them.

“Ready to go, Captain?” the man asked.

Reichland nodded. “Just waiting for our escort to land, and we’ll be off,” he said. “You go ahead and board the transport. I’ll be riding in one of the corvettes.”

The other man hesitated, as if he understood what that meant, but then he nodded and offered a brisk salute. “Yes, sir.”

Once the other officers had left, Destra allowed the look of mortal dread she’d been suppressing to suffuse her features.

“Don’t worry,” Reichland said, stopping her with a shake of his head. “Des, I promise your son and I will make it. I’ll pilot the corvette myself.”

“But aren’t you supposed to escort the transport? Protect them? Fight?

Reichland hesitated. “Des, it’s every man for himself right now. Our orders are to run with all possible speed, not to engage the enemy. That transport doesn’t stand a chance of making it out, and two corvettes aren’t going to change that. There are no heroes among the dead, just more bodies.”

“Keep Atton safe, that’s all I ask.”

Reichland nodded, and they turned to watch the lights of the approaching vessels. Destra identified them from a distance—two seraphim-class corvettes, as expected, but those vessels seemed too small and fragile for her to entrust her son’s life to them. Destra hoped they were small enough to escape the Sythians’ notice.

Reichland was already walking toward the approaching ships, and Destra hurried to keep up, tugging Atton along beside her.

Then there came another sonic boom, this one resounding with multiple echoes, and their attention was drawn skyward once more. Destra drew alongside the captain just as he began speaking urgently into his comm.

“Set down now! Have Two cover your landing. I’ll be aboard before your skids touch pavement.”

“What’s that?” Destra pointed to the approaching quintet of fiery comets’ tails.

The captain shook his head. “Hurry!”

They jogged toward the corvette as it hovered down to the landing platform. Destra’s heart slammed against her sternum, and she felt a dizzy rush of adrenaline which gave her the strength to sweep Atton up into her arms and run faster.

Atton began to squirm, threatening to break free, and Destra tightened her grip. Suddenly he began crying again.

“Quiet!”

“Tibby!” he cried.

Suddenly, Destra understood, and she shot a quick glance over her shoulder to see the furry diger lying in a dirty puddle of snow behind them. “Krak!” Destra said.

“Des!” the captain roared at her above the sound of the waiting corvette’s grav lifts. “We have to go now!”

Destra heard a loud, pulsating screech start up, and she turned to see a blinding stream of red light shooting out from the other corvette. It was hovering in the near distance to head off the incoming enemy ships. Destra turned and ran for the waiting corvette.

“Tibby!” Atton wailed again.

“Forget Tibby!” Destra snapped. “He’s not important!”

“Yes, he is! No . . . Tibby! We can’t leave him!”

Destra reached the waiting corvette just as a stream of dancing purple stars began swarming toward them from the enemy ships. The enemy blended perfectly into the night. These ships weren’t flying in with their landing lights on.

The defending corvette began weaving an evasive pattern while still firing its lasers. A bright explosion flared against the horizon as the corvette’s lasers struck home, followed by a distant boom. Then the purple stars swarmed the defending corvette, exploding brilliantly and sending nonessential pieces of it flying in all directions. A second later, the corvette flew apart, turning the world to white and numbing her ears with the sound. The shockwave hit them, knocking Destra to the landing platform with a searing blast of heat.

Destra’s ears rang. Her eyes were still dazzled—blind—and her back was wet. She hoped the wetness was a puddle and not a dire injury which she was too adrenaline-pumped to feel. Then strong hands reached for her, tugging her to her feet and lifting a screaming Atton off her chest. She blinked her dazzled eyes to see the hazy outline of her uncle’s face, and then she saw a pair of petty officers rushing off with her son. Atton wailed and reached for her with both hands.

“Mommy!” he screamed.

“I’ll see you soon!” she yelled back.

“Des!” Reichland shook her by her shoulders. “Get to the hover transport! Get out of here!” And then he was gone, tearing up the boarding ramp after her son. The ramp began to rise, and a second later they were out of sight, sealed safely inside the corvette. Destra stood there sniffling and wiping tears from her eyes with flaming chunks of debris still raining down all around her. She watched numbly as the surviving corvette rose quickly into the sky and shot off at full speed. It was a blinding white blur roaring off on a bright orange contrail of engine glow, and then it was gone, taking all that mattered to her in the universe with it.

Behind her a rumbling roar started up, and Destra turned to see the old transport rising slowly. That was when she saw the first purple star hit the converted ore freighter and explode in a blinding flash of light.


AFTERMATH

10 Years Later


Chapter 1

—THE YEAR 10 AE (AFTER EXODUS)—

The Invisible War

Alec Brondi appeared hovering over his comm officer’s shoulder as he listened in on the enemy transmissions. They’d just been decrypted using the Valiant’s own encryption codes. Should have wiped the mainframe while you had the chance, Brondi thought, his mouth gaping in a smile.

Defiant? Please respond!” came an unidentified voice. The commcast was coming from Brondi’s own corvette. His smile faded to see the ship’s ID light up on the comm board. Whoever had stolen the Kavarath was going to pay.

Brondi’s comm officer turned to him. “Looks like we did some serious damage with that last hit. The Defiant’s not responding to their hails.”

“Good!” Brondi replied, rubbing his hands together. “Get our novas to finish the job.”

“They’re almost in range . . .” gravidar replied.

Brondi grinned once more, for the moment able to ignore the fact that someone had stolen his ship. Then, a minute later, gravidar called out: “Our novas just went off the grid!”

“What?” Brondi turned to the man, blinking in annoyance.

In the next instant the Defiant responded to Brondi’s stolen Kavarath, the commcast sounding across the bridge: “You did it, you old frekker!” Brondi recognized the supreme overlord’s voice, and he scowled. Dominic made it out alive! “We’re clear to—” The overlord’s voice dissolved in static and picked up again a minute later. “—mine goes off in five, so be sure you make it in time. See you on the other side, Ethan. Defiant out!”

Ethan! Brondi thought. He was gaping more noticeably now, but definitely not smiling. Ethan had stolen his corvette! It wasn’t enough for the man to have cheated him out of 10,000 sols, but now the ungrateful grub was stealing Brondi’s own ship! “Don’t let them escape!” Brondi screeched. “I want that ship stopped!” He slammed his fist down on the comm board and the screen grew momentarily fuzzy with the impact.

“Which one?” the gunnery officer asked.

“Both of them!”

“We’ve just lost the Defiant!” gravidar exclaimed.

Brondi whirled around once more. “What do you mean lost? How? They made a blind jump?”

“They flew through the gate.”

Brondi blinked. The fact that the Dark Space gate was working was a big surprise. That explained why the overlord had been running toward it, but it didn’t explain the cover-up. The Imperium had assured the people for ten long years that the gate was deactivated.

“Well, follow them!” Brondi snapped.

“With the Valiant?” the nav officer asked.

“No, with a flying squirrel! Of course with the Valiant!

“What about the Sythians?” someone asked. “I don’t think it’s wise to—”

“Verlin, remove that man from his post!” Brondi said, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the dissenter’s voice.

Verlin stalked up to the officer even as the man began rising out of his chair and waving his hands frantically. “Hoi, call off your pet rictan, Brainy!” the nav officer screeched. Verlin didn’t back off, and Brondi just looked on as the officer backed away from Verlin and fetched up against the bridge viewports. “Hoi, this isn’t funny, Brondi! I’ve learned my lesson. . . .”

Verlin suddenly leapt forward, his speed augmented by the armor he was wearing. While he was in the air, he brought up his forearm gauntlet to smash the officer’s nose. The man’s scream was cut short as his head bounced off the transpiranium viewport with a bang! and he crumpled to the deck. A deadly calm fell over the bridge.

“Now follow that ship!” Brondi pointed out the viewports to the distant speck which was the Dark Space gate.

“We’re about to lose the Kavarath,” gravidar added quietly.

“Shoot them!”

A bright red beam shot out from the bow of the Valiant. The carrier’s main beam cannon—a corona XL. Brondi waited a second, then asked. “Well?”

“We missed . . .” a small voice replied.

Brondi shook his head, disbelieving, and he watched as the distant speck which was his corvette flew through the Dark Space gate with a flash of light, leaving a fading blue ripple shimmering across the surface of the gate.

Alec Brondi let out a roar. “Have you all gone skriffy? I’m surrounded by imbeciles! How could you miss them?”

Brondi stared out the broad forward viewports of his newly-captured gladiator-class carrier, his chest rising and falling quickly with barely-contained fury. No one dared to answer, afraid to be the next target for his ire. Then came a brilliant flash of light, and everyone on the bridge flinched away from the blinding glare. The viewports darkened almost instantly, but not fast enough to keep their eyes from being dazzled by the light. When Brondi looked once more, blinking to see through the dancing white spots, he saw that the distant speck of the Dark Space gate was no more, and in its place was a large, expanding fireball, quickly dissipating into the void.

Brondi couldn’t believe it. Everything had been going so well! His plan to steal the Valiant had worked, and the largest surviving ship in the Imperial Star Systems Fleet was his to do with as he pleased! But now his victory tasted bittersweet. He’d just watched first the Supreme Overlord and then Ethan—piloting none other than Brondi’s own corvette—escape through a space gate which wasn’t even supposed to function anymore!

And with his corvette, Brondi had even lost the latest addition to his bevy of pleasure palace play girls—Alara, Ethan’s copilot. He’d been planning to have a bit of fun with her himself before passing her off to the wolves. That would have been the perfect revenge on Ethan, but now . . . now he’d be lucky to catch up with his ship before it was destroyed by the Sythians!

If there even were Sythians out there. Maybe there had never been any invasion. How was he to know? How were any of them to know? They’d been locked up in Dark Space when the invasion had begun and fed all the details via the dubious information channels of corporate media.

Brondi’s eyes narrowed. He was beginning to suspect some sort of overarching conspiracy. The Imperium had lied about the gate being disabled, so what else had they lied about?

“Sir?” the nav officer turned to him. “The gate is destroyed. We can’t follow them. What are your orders?”

Brondi scowled. “Well reposition the in-system gate! Then follow them.”

The nav officer hesitated, looking like he wanted to object, but his eyes darted to the body of the last man who’d voiced his dissent, and he just said, “Yes, sir.”

Brondi whirled around and began stalking between the control stations on his way up to the gangway. “I’m going for a walk. Someone put that man in the brig—” Brondi pointed to the officer who’d contradicted his orders earlier, who was now lying unconscious in a pool of blood from his broken nose. “—and notify me when we’re ready to leave!”

“Yes, sir.”

“Verlin, come with me.”

The bounty hunter appeared beside him a moment later, and Brondi caught his eye as they climbed the short set of stairs to the gangway. “I want you to gather a team to search the ship. The overlord was hiding something. Maybe a lot of somethings. I want to know what they are.”

“What makes you think that?” Verlin answered.

“That gate wasn’t even supposed to be operational. There’s a reason the Imperium has been lying about that. See if you can find any survivors aboard the ship. They might have answers for us.”

“As you wish,” Verlin replied.

*  *  *

The Invisible War


Ethan Ortane watched the lights of the Defiant’s decks flashing by the lift tube like a golden rain as they descended through the cruiser. He turned his head to study the other occupant of the lift in the intermittent light—tall, broad-shouldered, dark hair, and piercing green eyes—with his rugged good looks, that man was all but the mirror image of Ethan in his youth. He was Atton, Ethan’s lost son—a ghost from ten years past—and apparently also a holoskinner and pretender to the throne of the supreme overlord. Granted, the supreme overlord had been Atton’s adoptive father after his Great Uncle Reichland had been killed. And while the supreme overlord had lain dying, he had revealed his secret: he was himself a holoskinner. He’d then asked Atton to assume the role after he died—at least until a more suitable candidate could be found. Atton had accepted the burden with great reluctance, and now he was passing on the legacy once more—should Ethan choose to accept it.

The lift tube whirred to a stop, decelerating so fast that Ethan’s legs threatened to buckle. Atton braced himself on the nearest wall.

“I hope they fix the IMS soon,” Atton said, referring to the inertial management system which had been damaged in their escape from Dark Space. Ethan nodded absently. He still had trouble accepting that his son was alive and standing there next to him. He turned his gaze to the lift tube doors, but they remained shut. Atton turned to him and withdrew a pair of aural translators from his breast pocket. He fitted one to his right ear and handed the other to Ethan. “Put this in your ear. It’ll help you understand the Gors when they speak.”

Ethan accepted the small silver device. He placed it in his ear.

“Put your holoskin back on,” Atton said.

Ethan saw his son’s features flicker and morph into those of the wizened overlord. Then he put his own holoskin back on and watched as the black and gray hairs on his arms turned to blond.

“We don’t want the Gors to think we’re impersonating someone else,” Atton explained.

Once they were both back in disguise, Atton reached out and punched a key on the lift’s control panel. The doors swished open and Ethan was immediately hit with a gust of frigid air that stole the breath from his lungs. The corridor beyond was long and dark.

“Trying to save on the heating bill?” Ethan gasped.

“Not quite,” Atton said as he started out of the lift tube. Ethan followed him into the shadows.

They were on their way to see the Gors—the mysterious aliens who were enslaved to the Sythians. Atton said they were the key to defeating the Sythians, but Ethan was still having a hard time imagining any of it. He’d never even met a Sythian, let alone a Gor, and he couldn’t fathom how a race of alien slaves was going to overthrow their masters all of a sudden, just because a few thousand human rebels were helping them.

The lift tube doors swished shut behind them, plunging the corridor into utter darkness. Ethan almost stopped, afraid to trip over his own feet, but he could hear his son walking on up ahead, so he continued on.

“Something wrong with the glow panels on this level?” Ethan asked.

“No, the Gors prefer to live in dimly lit spaces.”

“Dimly lit?” Ethan echoed. “There are more lumens in the center of black hole!” As he said that, he ran into a wall and bounced off with a resounding thud. “Frek!” Ethan muttered, reaching up to rub his injured nose.

“Sorry,” Atton replied. “It’s this way.”

“Yeah . . .” Ethan followed the sound of his son’s voice. “Thanks.”

They turned the corner and began walking down an equally dark section of the corridor.

“Don’t worry, your eyes will adjust soon.”

Ethan began to hear the sound of rushing water. “Is that a plumbing leak?”

Atton laughed lightly. “Relax old man! It’s a little something to make the Gors feel more at home. They spend a lot of time down here, so we’ve tried to mimic their natural environment as much as possible.”

“I’m not sure if I would like to visit their home world, then.”

“That’s just as well. I suspect if you did, they would eat you.”

“Hoi—eat me?” The corridor was beginning to lighten, or else Ethan’s eyes were finally adjusting to whatever luminescence there was. At least now he could see the walls. Between the bulkheads, they were made of transpiranium panels, but it was too dark to see through them.

“It’s eat or be eaten on Noctune. Nothing personal, Ethan, that’s just their culture.”

“Friendly culture. Have they tried to eat you yet?”

“Of course not. I keep them well fed.”

“That’s encouraging. I hope you don’t run out of food.” Ethan saw a pair of doors gleaming at the end of the corridor, and the sound of rushing water was grew louder. He braced himself for whatever he was about to see. He’d never met an alien before—not even one of the so-called “skull faces” who had destroyed everything Ethan had ever known.



They walked up to the doors and stopped. Ethan waited for Atton to pass his wrist over the blinking door scanner, but the boy did nothing. “What are you waiting for?” Ethan asked.

“It’s not polite to barge in on your neighbors.”

“Well, shouldn’t you knock or something?”

Atton shook his head. “They know we’re here.”

“They know—”

“They’ve been watching us.”

Ethan felt a shiver crawl down his spine, and he turned to look behind him, but all he saw was the corridor disappearing into fuzzy darkness. He wrapped his arms around himself in a vain attempt to preserve his body heat, and then he turned to his son.

Atton was already looking at him. “Don’t make any sudden moves, and let me do the talking. Got it?”

Ethan was about to reply to that when he felt a gust of wind on the back of his neck. He whirled around, but saw nothing. His hand went instinctively to his side arm, but it had been taken from him when he’d been brought aboard the Defiant. “I don’t like this. . . .”

“Shhh.” Atton placed a finger to his lips.

Ethan thought he heard a strange warbling followed by an indistinct whispering just beside his ear—the ear with the translator in it—and he whirled around again, searching the darkness, but still there was nothing.

Suddenly the warbling sound grew louder, and Ethan heard the whispers grow to full volume. “Who are you?” the speaker in Ethan’s ear asked in a gender neutral voice. Ethan turned in a frantic circle, trying to find where the sound was coming from, but he still couldn’t see the source.

Atton turned and spoke into the darkness. “He is a friend. What are you doing out here, Tova?”

Ethan heard another warble beside his ear, followed by, “I hear sounds of battle and feel ship move. You do not tell me we go into battle.”

Suddenly the air shimmered in Ethan’s peripheral vision, and he turned to see what it was. A monstrous shadow swam out of the gloom mere inches from Ethan’s nose. He saw the yellow gleam of its slitted eyes, and he stumbled back into his son. “What the frek!”

“Relax,” Atton said, sidestepping his father to face the creature which had just appeared out of nowhere. “Tova, you know you’re not allowed to be seen by the rest of the crew. That wasn’t part of our deal.”

“I am never seen by your kind unless I wish to be.”

“I believe it,” Ethan muttered.

The shadow turned its slitted yellow eyes on him and hissed. Ethan caught a glimpse of a very jagged row of white teeth. Those yellow eyes turned away, back to Atton, and Ethan frowned.

“From now on this friend—” Atton gestured to Ethan. “—will hold the same authority as I do, Tova. Do you understand?”

The shadow hissed. “I do not.”

“He is my crèchling.”

Ethan saw the yellow eyes turn on him once more.

“Your . . . crèchling.”

“I had thought he was dead,” Atton went on.

Those eyes remained fixed on Ethan, and he held the alien’s gaze, determined not to back down despite the fact that this shadowy monster was easily two meters tall and clearly capable of ripping him apart with its bare hands—assuming the alien had hands. It wasn’t easy to tell in the dark.

Tova hissed, but said nothing further.

“Let’s make ourselves more comfortable,” Atton went on, finally reaching up to pass his wrist over the door scanner. The doors swished open and a wan blue light spilled out. Beyond the doors lay a broad staircase, dusted with snow. Atton walked through the doors, followed by the shadowy beast. There was a subtle shimmer as they crossed the threshold, and Ethan both heard and felt the sizzle of static shields. As Tova stepped into the slightly brighter dimness, Ethan caught his first real glimpse of the alien—two arms and two legs; its skin was a sallow blue-gray and as smooth and hairless as a newborn’s, but its back rippled with the over-developed muscles of a bigorexic sentinel. Tova could have passed for a very large, very pale, bald and naked human except for the bony ridge running down its back. The alien’s forearms and legs were striped a darker blue and also lined with bony protrusions, but those ones looked like spines.

As they started up the staircase together, Ethan marveled that a creature as large as Tova could walk so soundlessly. A moment later they crested the top of the stairs, and Ethan’s mouth dropped open. Now he heard the rushing water more clearly, but he could also see what was making the sound. At the top of the stairs lay a vast chamber with a waterfall pouring from the back wall. The walls were slick with ice, and the deck was covered with snow all the way out to the edge of a brilliant blue pool. Pillars of glowing blue-green ice reached from the floor to the ceiling along the far shore of the pool, and little golden sparks drifted through the air. When one of them flew up close to Ethan’s face, he heard a buzzing sound and saw an insectile body silhouetted within the glow. The sparks were actually some type of bug.

It was like he’d stepped into another world. The only thing which stood out of place was a gleaming, oversized command console just beside the door. Ethan found himself staring curiously at it. “What’s that?”

Atton waved a dismissive hand. “That’s how Tova contributes to the running of this ship.”

Ethan turned to his son with an eyebrow raised. “How’s that?”

“I’ll explain later.” Atton gestured expansively to the rest of the room. “What do you think?” Atton smiled. “It’s really something, isn’t it?”

“Is this what Noctune looks like?” Ethan asked, his eyes panning around the cold, airy room once more.

Tova turned around and hissed.

Ethan almost staggered away from the alien. Being able to finally see Tova’s features didn’t make the alien any less frightening. Its face was skeletal, with sunken cheeks and prominent jaw; its eyes were large and the slitted yellow of a reptile, while its brow was high and sloping up to its bald head. What passed for the alien’s nose was just a pair of open slits surrounded by bony ridges, much like a human nose might look without the cartilage.

Ethan heard the alien’s warbling speech before the translation came through the bead in his ear. “What do you know of Noctune?” Tova asked with nose slits flaring.

“Ah, nothing.” Ethan frowned. “It’s your home world, right big guy?”

“He’s not a big guy,” Atton interrupted. “And he’s not a he—Tova is a she.”

“Oh.” Ethan was taken aback. Tova was naked, but he couldn’t see any visible sign of the creature’s sex—though in hindsight perhaps that should have been his first clue. Ethan smiled. “Sorry, big girl, then.”

Atton began looking around. “Where’s Roan?”

Tova’s head turned very slowly to him and she hissed once more before warbling her answer. “I ask you the same question.”

Atton paled. “You mean he’s not here?”

“You ask he help you to make larger crèche aboard one of your other ships. I do not see him here since that time.”

“Then he’s . . .” Atton trailed off. A faraway look crept into his eyes and his gaze swept back to the open doors at the bottom of the stairs.

“He’s what?” Ethan asked, his eyes skipping between Atton’s face and Tova’s rapidly narrowing yellow eyes.

“Yesss, tell uss,” Tova intoned. Her hissing grew louder and overlaid the translation of what she said.

Atton turned to Tova with a smile. “He’s just about done, I’m sure. . . . I’ll have to go check on his progress as soon as we get back aboard the Valiant.” Atton added that last part with a warning glance in Ethan’s direction.

Ethan caught the hint. The Valiant had just been stolen from them by Alec Brondi, the most notorious crime lord in all of Dark Space, and they wouldn’t be getting back aboard that carrier any time soon, but Ethan had the feeling that it would be unwise to tell Tova that. Instead, he smiled and nodded. “Yes, that’s a good point. We should go check on Roan’s progress. You don’t mind, do you, Tova?”

“No,” she said, turning away and striding over to the edge of the pool. “Bring Roan—and bring food. Something fresh,” she added. Ethan couldn’t be sure due to the neutral tone of the translator bead, but he thought he heard a note of warning in her voice, like if they didn’t deliver, she would improvise the something fresh.

“Come on. Let’s go,” Ethan said, already starting back the way they’d come. Atton didn’t need to be told twice. They hurried down the stairs and out into the corridor.

“What the frek was that?” Ethan demanded as soon as they were out of earshot.

“That,” he sighed, “was humanity’s only hope.”

“All I saw was a hungry monster with a cloaking device. How did she do that, anyway? She scared the krak out of me!”

“I’ll explain it all once we’re back in my office,” Atton replied. “For now, we’d better go. I’m not sure how much use Tova is going to be to us now that her mate is MIA.”

“If I were you, I wouldn’t come back without him. She looked like she wanted to eat us when it seemed like we didn’t know where he was.”

“Yes, well, let’s hope that Alec Brondi has a similar experience.”

That brought a nasty smile to Ethan’s face. “I didn’t think of that.”


Chapter 2

—THE YEAR 0 AE—

Destra winced away from the light and sound of the explosion, and then another enemy warhead hit the converted ore freighter. She stumbled through the resultant shockwaves and the blasting wave of snow and ice that stung her exposed skin. Destra reached the abandoned hover transport which had brought her uncle to the platform, and she ran up to the driver’s side, not even bothering to close the passengers’ side doors before climbing in and gunning the throttles. She flew toward the fence at an unsafe speed, feeling the acceleration pin her against the driver’s seat. Destra pulled back on the yoke just before she slammed into the fence, and the transport jetted up and over. As she descended on the other side, her headlights illuminated a swath of fleeing civilians and backpedaling assault mechs, their guns tracking warily across the sky. The crowd was finally dispersing, but they were far too late. Destra grimaced, wondering if she had time to pick a few of them up. She was already slowing down to do so when she saw the first purple star touch ground in front of her, hitting one of the larger assault mechs and exploding with a boom and a blinding flash of flight. Debris, bodies, and clods of earth went flying as the burning ruins of the mech tottered to the ground.

“Frek!” Destra said as she swerved to avoid the fiery rain of debris. Something heavy thunked off the roof of the transport, and she tried not to imagine what it could be. Destra snapped off her headlights and switched the transport over to infrared and light amplification mode. The nav computer overlaid a colorful version of the world in which the terrain was dark blue and the people were moving points of orange, yellow, and red. It was harder to avoid obstacles like this, but using the headlights was not an option with the Sythians on her tail. That would light her up like a beacon.

Destra angled for the line of cliffs and trees coming up on her left. She would follow the road between the forest and the base of the mountains, and hopefully like that she would escape the Sythians’ notice. Just then, the transport hit a boulder she hadn’t seen, and Destra felt her stomach lurch as it jumped into the air like a grasshopper.

It settled down once more, and soon she joined the cliffside road and began winding around the base of the mountains. Destra let out a shaky breath. So far so good. No more enemy fire rained down around her. Destra turned a sharp corner in the road at high speed—

Only to see three bright orange shapes walking out of the trees, straight into her path. One of them was small—just a child. Destra felt her heart seize in her chest. Without her headlights on, they couldn’t see her, and hover vehicles were very quiet.

Destra stomped on the air brakes and yanked up on the flight yoke, hoping to clear their heads with enough of a margin that the grav lifts wouldn’t break their necks. She heard their muted screams and exclamations as she passed over their heads, and then the transport touched down ten meters distant. Despite the inertial management system, Destra’s head flew forward and hit the dash. She saw stars, and heard more screaming, but as from a great distance. Minutes or hours later—she couldn’t tell which—the world began to shake violently, and she thought the Sythians must have found her and shot the hover to pieces.

A second later the screams resolved into something intelligible and Destra realized the world was shaking because someone was shaking her by her shoulders.

“Hoi! Are you okay . . . ?” A man’s voice. “Frek! She’s out of it! You know how to pilot a hover?”

“No,” came a woman’s reply. “Do I look like I have the sols for a hover?”

“Hoi!” the man shaking her said again. Destra’s eyes rolled in her head. “That’s it! Wakey wake! She’s coming around!”

Destra’s eyes fixed on the man who—for frek’s sake!—was still shaking her. “Stop it!” she groaned.

“Sorry, girlie. Think you can drive us all outta here?”

Destra sat up and shook her head. “Give me a second. Let me out. I need some fresh air.” Destra felt stifled. She couldn’t breathe. She stumbled out of the driver’s seat, and fell to the snow-covered road on her hands and knees. She focused on her breathing, trying to calm herself. Atton was gone. He was gone, and she would never see him again!

“I think she’s having some kinda panic attack . . .” said the man who’d been shaking her, now standing to her right.

“We’ve got to get out of here!” said the woman.

A child whimpered.

Destra looked up at the man beside her and studied his shadowy features.

“Help me up,” she said.

“Yea, sure.”

Halfway to her feet, the dark, snowy world flashed brightly, revealing the man’s face. He had short, curly black hair, wet with melted snow, a ragged cut on his left cheek, which had smeared that side of his face with blood before freezing into a thick red scab, and he had a shifty look in his small, dark eyes.

The man’s gaze snapped up to study the source of the sudden brightness. “Holy krak!” he yelled. “There she goes!”

Destra spun to see what had suddenly peeled away all the shadows, and her eyes were immediately drawn to the expanding fireball in the sky. Just then the sound of the explosion reached their ears with a thunderous boom.

“Six thousand motherfrekkers! That’s what ya get! Leavin’ us all to die! Frek you!” The man pumped his fist as he railed at the sky.

Destra turned to stare at him. He was actually happy. “We’d better go,” she said, swallowing her disgust with a frown.

“Yea, don’t want the same to happen to us,” he said, nodding. “Second that!”

Destra retook the driver’s seat, and turned to see a woman and her young child approaching. She felt a stab of recognition to see them. This was the little blond boy who’d been clinging to the fence as she’d waited for Captain Reichland to arrive—and his mother, the one who’d yelled at her.

“You!” the woman said as she drew near.

Apparently Destra wasn’t the only one with a good memory. She nodded. “Hop in.”

The woman’s eyes narrowed. “Where’s your son?”

“He’s . . .” Destra hesitated. “He’s gone.” Tears sprang to her eyes, and the woman’s expression softened immediately.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I thought—” The woman assumed gone meant dead along with the rest of the evacuees aboard the transport, but Destra didn’t correct her. It would be easier travelling together without the burden of that woman’s jealousy.

“Well, there’s no accounting for justice, now is there?” the man with the gash in his cheek said, still talking about the evacuees’ transport. Either he hadn’t heard their conversation as he’d walked around the back of the hover to the passenger’s side, or else he was being deliberately insensitive. Destra decided to ignore him. He climbed in beside her, and in the rear viewscreen Destra noticed the woman and her son climb in the back. As soon as the doors had shut, she gunned the throttles. Justice, she thought, thinking about that man’s remark. There’s no justice in any of this. Just death.

The road wound around the mountains, and Destra followed it as best she could despite the depthless blue of the infrared overlay. The trees alongside the road appeared as a scraggly black and blue wall.

“Where are we going?” the woman in the back asked.

“May as well head to the mines with the rest,” Destra replied.

“That’s a great idea,” the man said. “Gather everyone together in one place so it’ll be easier for the Sythians to kills us.”

“You have a better idea?” Destra asked, turning to him with a scowl.

“Yea, we go south until we reach Covena.”

Destra frowned. She vaguely recognized the name of the town. “How far is that?”

“It’s about three hundred klicks from here. We’ve already burrowed underground up there, so we’ll be safe—for a while.”

“Underground?”

“A bunker of sorts. We built it to keep our operations out of pryin’ eyes, if ya know what I mean.”

Destra turned to him with narrowed eyes. “You mean smuggling?”

“Sharp, girlie. Yea, smuggling. I managed supply-side operations—brewin’ the stims, that is.”

So he was taking them to a stim lab. “I see,” Destra said, wondering if he just brewed the batches of stim or tested them, too. There was something off about him. Destra was surprised she hadn’t heard of a stim lab in Covena before. Ethan must have known of it. He’d been a smuggler—before he’d been caught and exiled to Dark Space. “So why aren’t you hiding there now?” Destra asked.

“It’s got supplies to keep us goin’ for a few months, you know—not forever. My associates found their own way off Roka, leavin’ me to fend for myself, so I thought I’d try my luck smuggling myself onto the next ship outta here, but no go. Well, guess it was my lucky day, since that bird got shot to frek anyway. Serves the frekkers right.”

“Okay, okay—you’re giving me a headache. Punch the destination into the nav. I can’t spare a hand from the controls right now.”

“Whatever you say, girlie,” the man said, smirking as he leaned forward to fiddle with the nav. “Name’s Digger, by the way.”

“Digger, huh? I’m Destra. What about you two?” she asked, looking up into the rearview screen. The woman and her son were very quiet. Both of them looked very pale—shell-shocked. At first they didn’t reply, so Destra yelled, “Hoi! Wake up back there!”

The woman started and said, “I’m Lessie. My son’s Dean.”

“Okay. You two fine with hiding out in Digger’s stim lab for a while?”

Lessie’s already wide and staring eyes grew wider still. “A stim lab? What about the mines?”

Destra shook her head. “Digger’s right. We stand a better chance hiding out on our own. The fewer people to give us away, the better.”

“Smart girlie.”

“Anyone else hiding up there?” Destra thought to ask of Digger, suddenly uncomfortable with the thought of being surrounded by outlaws like him. Ethan had been a smuggler, too, but he was different. He was an outlaw because of what he did for a living, not because of who he was as a person. As for the man sitting beside her, Destra was pretty sure smuggling wasn’t the only criminal thing he’d ever done.

“Just Doc and Petra.”

“And they won’t mind us staying with them?”

“Well . . . supplies are short, like I said, but don’t worry.” He shot her a small smile and his eyes twinkled with amusement. “I’ll convince them.”

Destra frowned. She wasn’t convinced that this was a good idea at all, but it wasn’t as though they had a lot of options. At least she had some idea of how to handle outlaws, thanks to her early days with Ethan when they’d been making runs together. “All right,” she said. “But if we’re not welcome there, I’m taking Lessie and Dean and we’ll leave you lab rats to bake your brains with stims.”

Digger snorted. “Sure thing, girlie.”

Destra drove on for hours, listening with still-ringing ears as Digger railed against the world and how unfair it had been to him, until eventually the trees began to lighten with the first strokes of dawn. Destra wondered how much time had passed, and the answer flashed up before her eyes, fed to her brain directly from the small implant behind her right ear: 0750. Little more than an hour had passed since she’d seen her son off at the landing platform, but it felt like it had been much longer. By now the planet would be crawling with Sythians. They needed to get into hiding—soon.

Destra snapped off the light amplification HUD overlay and found that now her eyes were just keen enough to see in the growing light. The cliffs running beside them had disappeared, and now trees rose to both sides, forming a leafy green corridor. Destra cut a quick glance to the nav and saw that it wasn’t more than another fifteen klicks to the point Digger had specified on the map. She looked up to see in her rearview screen that Lessie and Dean had fallen asleep in the back of the hover. Seeing the boy’s face finally relaxed in sleep, she was reminded of her own son, by now light years away from her, and she looked away quickly.

“We’re gettin’ close,” Digger said, leaning forward to study the nav.

Destra glanced his way, watching him pan and zoom the map with shaking hands. “You okay there, Digger?”

“Yea, why?”

“Your hands are shaking.”

He sent her a quick smile. “Must be the adrenaline.”

“Hmmm, right,” Destra replied. “Must be.” That or you’re getting a little edgy between doses of stim.

Destra wasn’t sure why she was so mistrustful of this man. Perhaps it was the idea of an outlaw allowing them to hide with him and share limited supplies. In her experience, her husband notwithstanding, outlaws had a highly evolved me-first attitude. The less selfish ones were usually dead, or toiling away on a prison world in Dark Space, because they’d falsely expected their self-sacrificing attitude to be reciprocated by their associates.

As the distance to Digger’s stim lab narrowed, Destra began to chew her lower lip. She wasn’t worried about being able to take care of herself—Ethan had taught her well—she was worried about the woman and her son sitting in the back of the hover, and whether or not she could protect them, too. Outlaws could be the exception to all the rules—like Ethan—or they could be the stereotypes which defined those rules, and it was a coin’s toss to know which. Based on her first impression of Digger, Destra’s bet was on the stereotypes, but she decided to reserve judgment.

They came to a point on the road which lay parallel to the one which Digger had marked on the map, and Destra brought the transport to a slow stop. “What now?” she asked, scanning the immediate area.

Digger nodded out his window to the trees. “In there.”

Destra peered into the forest, noting that the trees were too close together for the hover to make it through.

“We’ll have to go on foot,” Digger said.

“Right,” Destra frowned. “Of course.” This felt like a trap, but it was too late to turn back. Sythians would be all over by now, flying grid patterns and raining death on human settlements. They’d never escape notice in broad daylight, so for now hiding in a forest was a pretty good idea. Destra drove the transport down to the tree line, as close as she could get it, and then she extended the landing struts and dialed down the grav lifts until the transport settled lightly on a bed of leaves.

“Wakey wake!” Digger said, turning to Lessie and Dean with a broad grin. “Time to go for a walk.”


Chapter 3

—THE YEAR 10 AE—

The Invisible War

“So?” Ethan asked, now that they were seated once more in Atton’s office aboard the Defiant. “How is that monster below decks our only hope?”

Atton smiled. “The Gors are great warriors, as you can imagine. They crew and pilot the Sythian ships and serve as foot soldiers on the ground. They fight all of the Sythians’ battles for them. Having them on our side completely reverses the balance of power in this war.”

“If the Gors fight all the Sythians’ battles, why have we never seen them before?”

“Have you ever seen a Sythian without its armor, Ethan?”

Ethan shook his head. “I thought the armor was a part of them, some sort of exoskeleton.”

Atton smiled. “I suppose you wouldn’t have had a chance to see them without armor. Those images only surfaced late in the war, and even then they were classified.” Atton directed his gaze to the desk and said, “Holofield on. Show armored Sythian trooper.”

The air above the desk shimmered, and the lights inside Atton’s office dimmed. A moment later, a tall bipedal creature in shiny black armor appeared rotating above the desk. Ethan studied the image. It looked just as he remembered a Sythian should—tall, broad-shouldered, glowing red compound eyes, chitinous black exoskeleton.

“Enlarge head,” Atton said, and the image zoomed in on the Sythian’s skull-like head. “Freeze image,” he added, so they could study the face.

Atton pointed to the image and traced the gleaming, angular black lines of the creature’s head. “When we dissected the first Sythian, we found exactly what you’d expect from a giant bug—beneath the exoskeleton is a spongy yellow layer, but then beneath that is an epidermis, and below that we found another skeleton.”

Ethan blinked.

“When you strip away the outer shell and the spongy insulating layer, you have a real Sythian, with eyes, ears, nose, skin, muscle, and bone. Below their exoskeleton armor, the Sythians appear more reptilian than insectile.”

“Okay . . .” Ethan said, his brow furrowing as he wondered where Atton was going with his biology lesson.

“Overlay unarmored Sythian trooper,” Atton said, speaking to the holo projector once more.

Suddenly the gleaming skull-shaped helmet faded to a skull-shaped face with bald blue-gray skin, flat nose, and slitted yellow eyes.

Ethan almost fell out of his chair. “That’s Tova!”

Atton smiled. “The few Sythians we did manage to kill and examine looked just like the Gors, but that’s because they were Gors. Besides protecting them in battle, their armor functions as a space suit in the event of decompression, and an environment suit to deal with inhospitable climates. They breathe roughly the same mixture of air that we do, but they use their armor to protect their eyes and skin from solar radiation as well as their bodies from the heat. Being a nocturnal species that evolved to live in caves and underground lairs, the Gors are used to cold, dark, and wet environments.”

“Wait,” Ethan held up a hand and shook his head. “If the Sythians are actually Gors, then where are the real Sythians?”

“They are only found aboard their largest warships, sitting safely cloaked behind the lines while they command their armies of slaves.”

“What do these command ships look like?”

“Display Sythian behemoth cruiser.”

The cadaverous Gor disappeared and a long, organically-shaped cruiser began rotating above the desk. It had a dark blue and lavender hull with glimmering patterns that shifted subtly as the ship turned. It looked just like a bulkier version of the Sythian ships he’d seen in the Rokan Defense simulation.

“Hmmm . . . so that’s it?” Ethan asked. “That’s our real enemy?” The ship didn’t look so menacing. “How many of them are there?”

“According to the data the Gors gave us, there are seven command ships in the Sythian armada. One for each cluster—or fleet.”

“Only seven?”

Atton nodded to the holo. “Check the scale.”

Ethan leaned forward to peer more closely at the glowing white numbers hovering at the bottom of the projection. His eyes widened as he read them. “That can’t be right,” Ethan said. “The scale says this ship is over thirty kilometers long.”

“The scale is correct.”

“No ship is that big! How do they fit through our gates?”

“Only just.”

Ethan sat back in his chair, looking startled. “We were even more outmatched than we thought. Just one of those ships would rival a whole fleet of ours. Why didn’t they ever join the fighting?”

Atton shrugged. “The Sythians aren’t willing to risk their own lives in battle, so they send in the Gors. Apparently the Sythians’ courage is quite legendary.” Atton added that last part with laughing eyes.

“So all those fleets and millions of armored soldiers which overran us were . . .”

“Gors. Slave armies.”

Ethan’s eyes narrowed. “And the Sythians? Do we even know what they look like?”

“I wouldn’t have trusted the Gors if they hadn’t come to us the way they did. They brought us High Lord Kaon of the Sythian First Fleet and military intelligence on the numbers and positions of all the ships in the Sythians’ seven fleets.”

“Lord Kaon, huh?” Ethan rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

Atton nodded. “We keep him prisoner on Obsidian Station—our supply point for the prime worlds’ strike force.”

“You have a picture of this . . . Kaon?”

Atton smiled. “I have better.” He glanced at the holo projector once more and said, “Play back recording: Obsidian Interrogation.”

Ethan watched the holo of the cruiser disappear, replaced by a view into a dark room. The camera was bobbing, heading toward a large, brightly-illuminated transpiranium cube in the center of the room. As the camera closed in on the cube, they were given a closer look at what was inside—nothing. Just an empty steel cot and a trough which looked suspiciously like it served as a latrine. There was also a tray piled high with green mush, and a cup of water lying untouched in front of a slot-sized opening in the base of the cube.



The camera moved up to a section of the cube wall which contained a control panel and a metal grill that might be a speaker. Now the cameraman began to talk. “Hello, Kaon.”

There was no reply, but someone off camera said, “He doesn’t want us to see him.”

“We’ll have to smoke him out.” A hand reached into the camera’s field of view and touched a button on the wall-mounted control panel. Suddenly, jets opened up in the ceiling and walls of the cube, and pressurized white streams shot out. The streams reached a certain point inside the cube and then came to a sudden stop in midair, spraying out in all directions around an invisible obstacle, quickly coating it. The jets turned off a few seconds later, but the thick, gummy ‘smoke’ had adhered to the creature’s body and defined a rough shape. He was bipedal with two arms and two legs, but Ethan couldn’t discern much else about him. Based on his size, he could have even been human.

“There you are, Kaon,” the cameraman said.

This time there was a reply. It sounded like some version of the warbling hissing language which Ethan had heard from Tova.

“Do we have to go through this exercise every time?”

More warbling.

“We’ll get you cleaned up if you agree to stop hiding.”

Warble.

Slitted blue eyes appeared.

“Good,” the cameraman said, reaching for the control console again. This time pressurized jets of water shot out from the walls and ceiling. The water washed away the foam, and Ethan found himself cringing at the sight. It wasn’t so much terrifying as disgusting to look at. The creature was human-sized, naked, with a slick translucent skin that gave a clear view of its internal organs. The creature had large, round eyes the color of dark sapphire, muscular arms and torso, and a bony skull-like face, similar to Tova’s, but with light blue fins rising along the top of its head. Gills flared in the sides of its neck as it breathed. As Ethan watched, the creature bared a double row of small, serated white teeth which looked like they might belong to a shark. Looking more carefully, Ethan saw a thin, dexterous tail restlessly lashing the ground behind the alien.

“That’s better,” the cameraman said, and zoomed in on the creature’s face.

“Freeze image,” Atton said.

Ethan sat staring intently into the wide blue eyes and translucent face of a real Sythian. “Ugly kakard,” Ethan commented.

Atton smiled. “Not going to win any beauty contests, is he?”

Ethan frowned. “Definitely not.”

“How do we know the Gors are really on our side? As far as I can tell they have a lot in common with the Sythians—language for one. It’s probably safe to assume there are cultural similarities as well. Why would they side with us, a species which they have nothing in common with?”

“Ethan, we fight our own species and for reasons less compelling than emancipation—Alec Brondi is a fine example of that. Sharing genes and culture is not enough reason to peacefully coexist. If the tables were turned, wouldn’t you side with the Gors against your fellow man in order to escape slavery?”

Ethan nodded. “I suppose I might.”

“The Gors haven’t given us away yet, and they’ve had multiple opportunities to do so. They already know where Dark Space is.”

Ethan grimaced. “Revealing that was not very wise, Atton.”

“It seemed a worthwhile gamble. Trust me, the Gors are not our enemy, Ethan. They require no convincing to fight on our side, and to date, Gor-crewed ships have taken out more Sythian vessels than we did in the entire war.”

“I’ll have to take your word for it. You mentioned Tova was supposed to stay hidden—that it’s part of some sort of deal the two of you have. . . .”

Atton nodded. “Yes.”

“So none of the rest of the crew has seen her aboard? This is some big state secret?”

“In Sythian Space we staff Gor ships with a human commander and bridge crew, but the main body of the crew is made up of Gors—well, along with human nova pilots and a few human engineers to fit into the smaller crawl spaces of our ships. Due to the Gors’ physical size, they can’t perform in every capacity that we’d like, but they do enable us to run most of our ships with a skeleton crew.”

“So . . . it’s just the Defiant that doesn’t know about your pet alien?” Ethan’s brow furrowed up to his bristly salt and pepper hair.

“Not just the Defiant. Everyone in Dark Space is blissfully unaware. Bringing them into our sanctuary was not a very popular decision.”

“I can understand that.”

“They know we’re working with the Gors and that we have an alliance. They also know what the Gors look like and that their species is not really to blame for nearly wiping us out—at least not directly to blame—but that still doesn’t mean humans are eager to work with Gors. Just knowing a Gor is aboard is enough to keep most people from sleeping at night—you saw how Tova appeared out of nowhere.”

“Yeah,” Ethan nodded. “You mean that’s not some piece of tech?”

Atton shook his head. “Did you see her wearing one?”

“Point.”

“For that reason, and a few others, I’ve asked Tova and Roan to keep their presence aboard my ships a secret for now, and in exchange for keeping them cooped up, I’ve made a very comfortable home for them, or crèche as they call it—you should see the one I was constructing aboard the Valiant.”

“Okay,” Ethan said. “That brings me to my next question. Why bother? Why go to all that trouble to keep a few aliens aboard? I get that you need crewmen for the ships that you’re salvaging, but Tova is obviously not there to fill out your crew.”

Atton smiled. “First of all, she and Roan are our liaison to the Gors. And second, they actually are a part of the crew.”

Ethan cocked his head. “Oh?”

“We have a cloak detector aboard all of our ships. It feeds data directly to our gravidar systems, and it tells us both when there are cloaked Sythian ships present, and roughly where they are located.”

Ethan’s eyebrows rose. “That must come in handy.”

“It does. It’s turning the tide of the war for us—that in conjunction with our own cloaking devices. What most people don’t realize, however, is that the detector is not some new piece of tech. It’s built in to every living Gor.”

Ethan blinked. “What?”

“Gors can communicate with members of their species telepathically, and via the same medium they can sense their fellows at a distance.”

Ethan was taken aback. “Kavaar . . .”

“The Gors’ telepathy is apparently also how Sythian ships track and communicate with each other while cloaked. To the Gors, it’s second nature.”

“And the Sythians? Do they have this telepathy?”

Atton shook his head. “The Gors say they don’t. That’s why Sythian ships still have comm systems.”

“Okay, so we’re dependent on Tova to be our eyes in space. What about our ships’ cloaking devices? Is that a Gor thing, too?”

“No, those are tech. We reverse-engineered a Sythian cloaking device over five years ago, back when we first met the Gors. Until then it had been impossible for us to capture a Sythian vessel and study it, since the Sythians were always on the winning side of every fight, but the Gors have delivered such vessels to us freely. Most Sythian systems are an enigma to us still, but the Gors showed us how to build cloaking devices with a hybridized version of Sythian tech and ours. Our cloaking devices are not nearly as efficient as Sythian ones, so we don’t have miniature versions, but anything destroyer-sized and up is easy enough for us to cloak as long as we have the right components.”

Ethan shook his head, incredulous. Then he froze as something else occurred to him. “Wait—you said the Gors are helping you fight the Sythians to free their people, but the Sythian ships are crewed with Gors, not Sythians, so they’re helping you fight their own kind. Don’t you find that suspicious?”

“We only disable the Sythian ships. After that, we send our Gors aboard to free their fellows. The newly-freed slaves join our ranks, and everyone’s better off. If we were killing them left and right, of course they wouldn’t agree to help us. It’s enough that they’re surrendering to us without a fight and allowing us to capture and even destroy their ships. We don’t need to kill the slave army if we can corrupt it to our side.”

“Hmmm . . .” Ethan sat back with a thoughtful frown.

“What is it?”

“I still feel like there’s something the Gors aren’t telling you. What if they’re just using us to free themselves?”

Atton shrugged. “It’s still a mutually beneficial arrangement.”

“Right up until the slaves become the masters.”

“Hopefully they’ll show some gratitude when that happens.”

Ethan snorted. “Let’s not be naïve.”

“Now you’re starting to sound like Admiral Heston.”

“Who?” Ethan asked.

“The leader of the other human enclave.”

“Yes, you mentioned that there was another group of survivors.”

Atton nodded. “We’ll get back to that later.” Turning to the holo projector he said, “Holofield off.” The holo recording of High Lord Kaon disappeared, and the lights in the room returned to full brightness. “Otherwise, have I answered all of your questions?” he asked.

Ethan nodded slowly. “For now.”

“Good. Are you ready to answer my question yet?”

Ethan took a moment to recall what question his son was referring to, but then he remembered: Atton wanted him to take over as the Supreme Overlord. Ethan took an extra moment to consider his answer before he replied. Was he ready to take on that much responsibility? His son certainly had faith that he could, but that didn’t mean it was true.

Ethan sighed. There was only one way to find out. “When do we make the switch?”

Atton smiled. “Come with me.”

Ethan followed him to the door, and both of them turned their holoskins back on before leaving the office. From there they proceeded to the lift tubes and down through the ship until they reached the overlord’s quarters. Inside, there was already a med bot waiting with a syringe full of anesthetic.

Ethan noted that with a snort of laughter. “Seems like you were one step ahead of me.”

“I knew you’d accept,” Atton said, already undoing the gold buttons of his white uniform.

“How’d you know that?”

I accepted, and a son’s zeal doesn’t stray far from his father’s ideals.”

“An old Rokan proverb. I wasn’t sure I had any ideals, Atton.”

“Come now, Dad. We both know Destra Ortane wasn’t a stupid woman. She wouldn’t have agreed to marry just any outlaw.”

“I suppose not,” Ethan replied, stripping out of his uniform and then rolling up the sleeve of his undershirt to present his wrist to the med bot. He winced as the needle went in and then he shook his head. “And my wrist was just starting to feel better . . .”

Atton laughed. “Maybe you’ll want to have the blood sample taken from your other arm.”

“More needles?”

“I need to alter the Imperial records so that what’s on file for the overlord matches your actual DNA, blood type, and other markers. We’ll need to update the database over the net as soon as we get back to Dark Space, and out here in Sythian Space we’ll have to send the updates to each of our ships individually, since there is no commnet.”

“Sounds like you have everything covered.”

“The only thing we can’t fake with altered records is your approximate age, which can be determined from a sample of your blood. I’ll restrict access to those tests, but if someone gets suspicious they can always conduct the tests by hand.”

Ethan nodded. “Well, hopefully no one gets suspicious.” He winced again as another needle went into his arm to take a blood sample. Ethan eyed the hovering med bot. “You like poking me, you blood-sucking little kakard, don’t you?”

The bot gave no reply, but whirred away on its grav lifts to deposit the sample and pick up a scalpel. The bot returned to his side, apparently waiting for something.

Atton nodded to him and then pointed to a nearby chair. “You’d better sit down over there. If your arm isn’t steady while he works, he might cut the wrong thing.”

Ethan headed to the indicated armchair. “Wouldn’t want that, would we, Pokey?”

The bot elicited an indecipherable beep, and Ethan grinned up at it as he sat down in the chair. “So you do speak.”

Another beep.

“His vocals are damaged,” Atton explained. “I like bots better that way.”

Ethan frowned and looked away, and the bot set to work, tying a tourniquet around his arm, disinfecting his skin, and laying down surgical sheets before bringing the scalpel into line. Ethan turned back to watch the bot cut a bloody line across his wrist. Seeing the med bot expose bloody muscle and bone white tendons, Ethan’s head swam dizzily. He grimaced and lay his head back against the chair, silently counting backward from 100 to distract himself until it was over.

100 . . . 99 . . . 98 . . .

*  *  *

—THE YEAR 0 AE—

Destra walked through the forest. Leaves, needles, and snow crunched underfoot. Here the snow was a thin patina on the colorful autumn leaves and old brown needles. The forest arced out over their heads in splashes of color, leaving shady patterns on the floor. It was as though winter hadn’t fully come here yet. Up ahead, Digger led the way, while Lessie and Dean kept pace beside her.

“What are we doing here?” Dean asked in a small, whiny voice. “I want to go home.” He was tired from all the walking, and Destra was willing to bet he hadn’t had enough sleep.

She turned to him with a smile. He couldn’t have been much older than her own son, Atton. “We’re going to play hide and seek.”

Dean shot her a suspicious look. “My mom says I can’t talk to strangers.”

Lessie shushed him with a tousle of his blond hair. “She’s not a stranger, Dean. She’s a friend. She and Digger are going to keep us safe.”

“Safe?” Dean asked, looking up at his mom with squinty eyes. “Safe from what?”

Destra smiled. “Safe from the people looking for us. We can’t let them find us, because then we’ll lose.”

“I don’t care!” Dean said. “I want to go home.”

“You can’t go home,” Lessie replied, her voice cracking on that last word.

“Why not?” Dean insisted.

Lessie abruptly stopped walking. “Because home is gone! It’s blown up! That’s why!” She stood there panting and staring at her son while he stared back at her with wide eyes and a trembling lip.

Destra frowned. She turned and bent to one knee in front of the boy. “Look, I can see there’s no fooling you, Dean. You’re a smart kid, so I’m going to be honest with you. It’s time for you to grow up now; it’s time for you to be a man. Do you understand?”

Dean hesitated before nodding his head.

“Good. Then here’s the truth: everyone’s homes are gone, Dean. There’s nothing left. Everyone who hasn’t already left Roka in a spaceship is being hunted by very bad things, and they’ll kill us unless we hide from them.”

Dean’s face paled again, and back was the shell-shocked look Destra had seen in the hover, but all things considered, he seemed to be holding it together better than his mother. “What things?” the boy asked.

“Hoi! You three coming? We’re here!”

Destra turned to see Digger waiting for them at the top of a short hill; the sun shone down through the trees to silhouette him in an angelic gold light.

“We’ll be there in a minute!” Destra called back. Speaking to Dean once more, she said, “Come on, be brave little man. Your mother needs you to be.”

Dean bobbed his head once and then turned to his mother, who was still standing where she’d stopped, watching them with a faraway look in her wide, staring eyes. “Come on, Mommy,” he said, holding out his hand to her. “I’ll protect you.”

Something rose up inside of Lessie and shook her out of it when her son’s hand touched hers. Her expression softened, and she looked suddenly immensely relieved, as though the burden of lying to her son had been just more than she could bear. She turned to Destra with a shaky smile. “Thank you.”

Destra shook her head. “Don’t mention it. We’d better go.”

They hurried to catch up with Digger, and he greeted them with a frown to show his displeasure. “No more unscheduled stops, or I’ll leave you all out in the cold.”

There was something about the petulant twist to Digger’s lips that Destra didn’t like, but she ignored it and nodded to the unremarkable stretch of forest which lay before them, sprawling down the other side of the small knoll which Digger had climbed.

“Where’s your hidey hole, Digger? I just see more trees.”

The man smiled and his face stretched enough to provoke a trickle of blood from the gash running down the side of his cheek. “Exactly.” He turned and nodded to the tree which they were all standing beside. It was a particularly large burnished oakal. The bole was a smooth grayish purple, covered in places with stringy blue moss. Digger began walking around the base of the tree, and Destra followed, her hand drifting to the sidearm she’d acquired from the hover before they’d left it at the side of the road. Unfortunately, she’d been unable to come up with a good reason to keep Digger from taking a weapon, too, so she hoped he wasn’t leading them into a trap.

As they rounded the base of the tree, Destra saw that the tree was actually a growing-together of two separate oakals, and the hollow in between somewhat resembled a cave. Digger walked into that hollow space and bent to one knee, as if to pick something off the ground. She heard a hiss of escaping air and saw a square of leaves and dirt begin to rise—it was a hatchway. Bits of moss trickled from the leading edge of it.

Destra nodded. “I’m impressed.”

Digger turned to them with a smile while taking a few steps back toward the open hole.

Destra raised a hand to warn him. “Digger, look out be—”

He fell soundlessly into the hole. Destra rushed up to the open hatch and gazed down into a deep, dark space which smelled like peat moss and old mushrooms.

“Digger?” she called, and her voice echoed back to her.

“Jump in!” he called back, his voice echoing, too. “It’s perfectly safe!”

Destra frowned, and turned to look at Lessie and Dean as they appeared to one side of her. Both of them gazed uncertainly into the dark hole now, too. Abruptly they saw it illuminated and Digger peering up at them, holding a glow lantern in one hand.

“Hmmm,” Destra mused.

“Spectral!” Dean said. “Can I go next?”

“I’ll go first,” Destra said, and with that, she jumped into the abyss.

*  *  *

Destra’s stomach leapt into her throat as she fell. Her long, dark hair whipped up around her ears, and she saw the ground rushing up beneath her feet. She had just enough time to suspect she’d been tricked into leaping to her doom before the grav field caught her and carried her to a soft landing atop a pile of leaves.

“Krakkin’ ride, huh?” Digger asked, beaming at her from the base of the pile of leaves.

Destra spat a piece of a red oakal leaf out of her mouth and shook her head. “Real Krakking.”

They heard screaming then and looked up to see Lessie and Dean plummeting down the hole. Destra scrambled to her feet before they could land on top of her. They hit the leaf pile with a soft crunch, and Destra looked up through the hole they’d fallen through. Bits of dirt and leaves tumbled down after them only to hover to a near stop above their heads. Lessie and Dean stood up and picked the leaves out of their hair, while Digger walked to one side of the hollow chamber and opened a moss-covered panel in the rooty wall. He threw a lever and typed in a numbered code; then the hatch at the top of the chamber swung shut with a distant thud, plunging the ceiling into darkness. Now they could hear the dirt and leaves trickling down from the ceiling to pitter patter on the ground, and Destra realized that the grav field was off.

She turned to Digger then. “Please tell me this isn’t the extent of your lair.”

Digger let out a bark of laughter and half turned to her. “Ha ha ha!” he said, his eyes flashing manically. “No—” He walked to the other end of the dirty chamber. “Follow me,” he said, now shining his lantern over the root-invaded wall nearest to him. He peered intently at the wall, searching, while his lantern cast a shaky glow. Destra studied Digger’s shaking arm with a frown. His excuse had been the adrenaline, but it had been hours since their harrowing escape, so what was his excuse now?

Stims, Destra thought.

“This used to be an old rictan lair,” Digger mentioned, still scanning the wall.

Destra suppressed a shiver at that. Rictans were lithe, hairless creatures with six legs, barbed, whip-like tails, and a broad mouth full of dagger-sized teeth. Their long claws could just as easily dig through flesh and bone as they could through dirt and roots. “We had to smoke them out and then seed the entrance with gossam dung to keep them from digging a way back in,” Digger prattled on. “Then we had to do some digging of our own to make this place more livable.”

“Is that how you got the name Digger?” Destra asked, watching as he apparently found what he was looking for. His free hand shot out and disappeared up to the elbow in the dirty wall, and she realized a holofield was projected there to hide whatever he was reaching for. Destra heard a click and then there came a hiss of escaping air. A section of the dirt wall cracked open before them, and bright yellow light spilled out. As soon as their eyes adjusted to the brightness, they found themselves peering into a comfortable, modern living room. “There we are!” Digger said, and strode across the threshold to traipse dirt onto the polished duranium floors.

Destra waited on the other side, her hand hovering close by her sidearm. Her eyes were flicking around the space. It was lavish with comfortable black couches and thick red rugs. A gigantic holoscreen hung on a stone wall opposite the couches, and in the base of the wall an artificial fireplace flickered with blue flames licking over glittering glass logs. The roof of the lab was lined with what looked like thick red oakal beams, and to one side, raised above the level of the living room, lay a gleaming kitchen with all the most modern appliances. This was not the rat hole stim lab Destra had been expecting; it was a well-appointed home.

Digger was still traipsing dirt into it. “Doc! Petra! I’m home!”

Destra waited for a reply before she stepped inside.

Then there came a scratching of claws scrambling for purchase on the shiny floors, accompanied by a vicious snarling and yipping which Destra recognized with a shiver of apprehension. Her eyes were drawn immediately to the sound and to a darkened hall leading away from the living room. There she spotted a pair of trademark red eyes glowing in the dark, bobbing as the creature ran toward them. Those eyes were immediately joined by another identical pair and more snarling.

Destra shrank away from the entrance to the stim lab. “Stay behind me!” she warned Lessie and Dean as she drew her plasma pistol and steadied her aim with both hands on a point between the first set of glowing red eyes.

Then that creature burst into the light, and Destra saw it for what it was—but she had already known what to expect.

It was a rictan, bounding toward them with slavering jaws already gaping in anticipation of the kill.


Chapter 4

— THE YEAR 10 AE—

The Invisible War

Angel sat in the mess hall, eyeing the pair of strangers who had just sat down across the table from her. Her usually wide violet eyes were narrowed and flicking from side to side as she studied first one and then the other. They looked familiar, but she couldn’t remember their names.

The old man smiled wanly. His bony face made the smile look painful. “Sweetheart . . .” he said, but trailed off as if he couldn’t bring himself to broach the topic he had in mind.

Angel had plenty of experience with this. He was a reluctant client. Everyone had some sort of inhibitions fighting against their baser instincts, but some clients were stodgier than others and needed to be coaxed more gently. They were the goody goodies, the married men, and the shy virgins. They all had something holding them back, but Angel knew how to draw them out. Her gaze flicked sideways to the woman sitting beside the old man, and her elaborate rationalizations began to crumble. If this man was a client, she was dealing with a very open-minded couple.

“Hello, there,” she said, her eyes coming back to the man’s face. “What’s your name?”

He shook his head, his eyes growing moist. “You really don’t remember me?”

Angel watched the old woman sitting beside him reach out to squeeze his hand. Her eyes were moist, too. They were the same rare violet color as Angel’s own eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Angel purred. “You look familiar, but I don’t remember your names.” She reached across the table to touch the couple’s hands. “I might remember better in a more . . . intimate setting. What do you say we—”

“Stop!” the old man bellowed, his eyes flashing with hurt and something else—revulsion? Angel wondered. She noticed he looked angry now, and the woman beside him was affronted, too. Angel retracted her hand with a shrug. Maybe the man was putting on a show for his wife. Classic, she thought and picked up her fork to begin digging through a pile of pancakes covered in treacle. She had to remember not to eat too much. Clients didn’t want to be with a chubby girl.

“She doesn’t even remember us!” Angel heard the old woman whisper. She sounded hurt.

Well I can’t remember everyone, now can I? Angel thought, feeling defensive.

“The doctor said this would happen,” The man replied. “We need to be patient. It’s just a temporary regression.”

Regression? Angel wondered. She looked up from her food with a frown. She was beginning to suspect these two weren’t clients at all, and if that were the case, then there was no point in her being polite with them. “You know I’m still here, right?” Angel said. “You don’t have to talk about me as though I were deaf.”

“Look,” the man began, his eyes hard now, “listen to me carefully. Your real name is Alara Vastra. You are our daughter, but you’ve been chipped, and now you think you’re a playgirl named Angel. You are not that person, Alara! You have to fight it!”

Angel went on frowning. If this was some type of elaborate role-play, it was a twisted one, and even she had her limits. “Aren’t you too old to be my parents?”

The man’s cadaverous face broke into a precarious smile. “We didn’t think we could have children. . . . until you surprised us.”

Alara wasn’t buying the story. “I’m going to go get some juice,” she said, setting down her fork and pushing her chair out on the retractable arm which bolted it to the deck. She hadn’t even touched her breakfast.

The old couple watched her leave the table with pained expressions, but they said nothing. Angel felt her irritation with them growing. They’d been with her all morning and they were still playing games. They were wasting her time! She reached the serving line and waited behind a tall man with thinning black hair and a slowly pulsing blue tattoo crawling down his left forearm. Angel absently studied that tattoo. The wavy lines of it were suggestive of blue flames leaping down from his sleeve. Now that she was paying attention, she saw that the tattoo wasn’t pulsing at all, it was slowly flickering, heightening the flame effect. Angel followed the tattoo up his arm until her eyes settled on his bulging biceps. Well, you’re a big boy, aren’t you? she thought with a lascivious grin. The man’s black pants were striped white, marking him a combat veteran, and his uniform jacket, which was slung over one shoulder, was gleaming with the four silver chevrons of a first lieutenant. Angel felt a warm stirring which she recognized as desire. Not every job had to be work. The difference, she realized, is whether or not you enjoy what you’re doing. . . .

Or who, she thought with a wry twist of her lips as she touched the man’s upper arm.

He turned to reveal a haggard face, grizzled with stubble and lined with age. There were dark circles under his eyes, and the wincing look on his face told her he was in some kind of pain. He was older than she’d expected, and his nose was crooked, but he had a certain animal charm to him.

“What?” he barked at her.

She made her bright violet eyes big and looked him up and down very slowly, so that he could see she was admiring him. “I haven’t seen you around here before,” she said, her voice purring.

“Likewise,” he replied, his expression softening somewhat.

She touched his arm again, this time to squeeze his bulging biceps. “Looks like I’ve been missing out. What’s your name?”

The man’s gaze turned speculative and a dark smile sprang to his face. “Ithicus Adari, or Firestarter if you prefer. What’s your name?”

“Angel.” She smiled. “Would you mind if I joined you for breakfast?”

Ithicus shook his head. “No, I could use some company.”

“Me too, why don’t we—hoi!” Angel felt hands on her shoulders, turning her roughly out of the serving line. She tried to slap those hands away. Then she saw the old couple who’d been sitting with her a moment ago, and her face screwed up in outrage. “What do you want? Leave me alone!”

“Alara!” the woman said. “You’re not well. Let us take you to the med bay.”

“I feel fine!” Angel insisted, and struggled to break free of the old man’s clammy hands.

“Hey, let the girl alone,” Ithicus interrupted, taking a step out of the line toward them.

“I’m sorry,” the old man said with a smile as he held up a shaking hand to stop Ithicus, “but this girl is not in her right mind. She’s been chipped and she isn’t who she thinks she is.”

Ithicus’s dark brown eyes widened, and he hesitated before taking another step. “Really? Who does she think she is?”

“She thinks she’s some sort of playgirl.”

“Hmmm, that’s a pity.” Ithicus gave Angel an up-and-down look like the one she’d given him a moment ago. “A real pity,” he drawled before turning back to the serving line.

Angel felt herself being pushed and dragged, toward the exit of the mess hall. The old woman fussed by her side, offering reassurances.

“We’ll get you fixed up, don’t worry. This is just a temporary lapse.”

Alara’s gaze strayed over her shoulder to the rugged lieutenant, and then she turned back to the old man with a scowl. He led her out of the mess hall by her wrists, cutting off her circulation with his bony fingers. “Let me go,” she warned.

“Not yet,” he said.

With a quick twist of her wrists, she wriggled free. “Hoi!” she said. “What is wrong with you two? I had him right where I wanted him—putty in my hands! If you’re not going to do business, then at least let me find someone who is!”

The old man’s reply was soft, and he only said one word—“Reset.”—It was all he needed to say.

As soon as Angel’s ears caught that word and her brain connected it to meaning, she felt a dawning horror, accompanied by a sweaty rush of unreality. The very fabric of her being was stripped away, and now she didn’t know who she was anymore. I’m Angel! She insisted to herself, but now she understood that that was a lie. She was Alara Vastra, and the old man and woman standing before her were . . . they were . . .

Her parents.

A dizzy wash of nausea swept through her. Alara’s knees buckled, and she sunk to the floor. She lay there for a moment, blinking slowly up at the ceiling. The room spun around her head at least a half dozen times before her parents’ faces hove into view. She smiled weakly up at them.

“Hoi . . .” she said, but her mind was already shutting down.

“Stay with us, honey!” her mother said, grabbing her hand.

But sleep felt so warm and peaceful. “I’m just going to close my eyes for a . . .” Alara trailed off as her eyelids fluttered, and she succumbed to sleep.

*  *  *

The morning after the identity change procedure, Ethan awoke to find himself in the overlord’s quarters—now his quarters. It was going to take some getting used to, but the spacious room, king-size bed, giant holoscreen, and the broad floor-to-ceiling viewport were luxuries that would make the adjustment a whole lot easier.

Being the overlord had its perks.

Ethan sat up, rubbed his tired eyes, and scanned the rest of the room. A large bathroom lay to one side; the sliding doors were open, revealing a broad mirror and gleaming steel cabinetry offset by artfully recessed glow panels and black wall tiles; another desk like the one in the overlord’s office was arranged before the room’s viewport; and separated from the bedroom by a short half wall which was adorned with indigo-colored ferns, were a couch and some chairs along with a bar and a small kitchenette. Ten years ago this could have been a luxury studio apartment in any city on any planet anywhere in the galaxy. That was before the war. Now most living spaces Ethan had seen were half the size, and they were either in space or they lay underground to better shield them from the high levels of radiation in Dark Space—although the black holes ringing the region didn’t emit much radiation, the dying stars falling into them did.

It had been little more than a day since Ethan had left Dark Space, but he felt like it had been weeks. So much had happened since then. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and grabbed his comm piece from the bedside table before standing up to stretch. As he did so, a flash of light drew his eyes to the viewport and the murky gray swirl of the Stormcloud Nebula beyond. As he watched, it flashed with another bright discharge of static, and Ethan could just see the dark outline of a station cast into stark relief by the burst of light. This was where they were hiding while they made repairs to the Defiant. They’d arrived at the Stormcloud Transfer Station in the middle of the night, and some unthoughtful kakard had promptly awoken him with the news. When his bedside communicator had begun trilling less than an hour after he’d lain down to sleep, Ethan’s first instinct had been to smash it—an impulse which he’d promptly acted upon—but his fist had hit the receive button by mistake and piped the comm officer’s transmission into his room at full volume, overwhelming Ethan’s sleep-clouded brain with noise. It had been all he could do not to give himself away before remembering that he was supposed to be the supreme overlord now and he couldn’t cuss out his crew for providing important updates.

Atton had told him to wear his holoskin at all times, just in case, but at least it was less obtrusive than the holoskin Brondi had made him wear. That one had been a skintight body suit made up of rare and expensive shielding and holo-sensitive fibers, while Ethan’s new holoskin projected his appearance from two thin holofield generators around his ankles to two matching bands around his wrists and one around his neck. The new skin was made up of even more expensive materials than Brondi’s one—which Ethan supposed made sense. The overlord would be able to afford the best. The new skin would be very much harder to detect, even if one were feeling around for it and knew where to look.

Ethan stood up from the bed and walked over to the bathroom. Seeing himself in the mirror was a shock. He looked like he’d aged a hundred years overnight. His face was thinner, with plenty of wrinkles, his cheeks were sunken, and his eyebrows were out of control—a bushy white which needed immediate trimming. His nose and ears were groomed at least, but Ethan could see the hair encroaching there already. The four days worth of white stubble on his face needed shaving. Besides being completely white, the pattern of facial hair Ethan saw was subtly different from what he was used to, and when he ran his hands over his cheeks, he could feel the discrepancies—a holoskin didn’t change tactile qualities. Opening the steel cabinet beneath the sink, Ethan found an expensive depilatory gel which would strip the hair off his face and keep it that way for six to eight months. Yet another luxury afforded to the supreme overlord. Ethan applied the gel and let it sit for the required thirty seconds before washing it off, along with all his stubble. After that, Ethan went for a quick vaccucleanse and then got dressed in his new uniform—the flashy white with gold trim of the supreme overlord. Just as Ethan fit his comm piece inside his ear, it began to beep with an incoming transmission, and then he heard a computerized voice say, “Lieutenant Adan Reese calling.”

Ethan touched his ear to receive the comm. “Hello?”

“You’re awake. Good.” It was not his son’s voice that Ethan heard, but rather that of the Lieutenant Adan Reese. Last night after the operation to switch identichips, they’d had to switch vocal synthesizers, too. “We need to meet,” Atton said. “I’ll be at your office in five. You can have breakfast sent up there for us.”

“Sure, see you soon,” Ethan replied, already on his way out. He passed through the doors a moment later and walked past the pair of security guards stationed there. The guards peeled off from the wall and followed him at a distance. They hadn’t actually been trained as sentinels, but rather they were low-ranking corpsmen who couldn’t serve any more useful roles aboard the Defiant.

When Ethan reached his office, Atton was already waiting to get in. The guards stopped outside the doors and Ethan turned to one of them, almost as an afterthought, to suggest that he fetch them breakfast from the mess hall. The guard looked at Ethan strangely, but then saluted and said, “Yes, sir,” before hurrying off. Atton also shot Ethan a strange look as they walked inside the office.

The doors swished shut behind them, and Atton sighed. “You shouldn’t be sending your bodyguards to get you breakfast,” he said.

“All right, who should I send then?” Ethan asked as he rounded his dark-lacquered wooden desk and sat down in the high-backed black chair.

“You can call the mess hall directly and request what you want. They’ll have someone bring it up to you. We’re undermanned, but you’re the overlord, so they’ll make it happen.”

“Right. This takes a bit of getting used to, Atton.”

“I know, which is why I’d like to suggest that you promote me and assign me as your XO aboard the Defiant. That way I’ll be able to help you act the part of the overlord. Once you’re more comfortable with the role you can assign me wherever you feel’s best.”

Ethan nodded. “Consider it done. Who’s the current XO?”

“Caldin.”

Ethan’s eyes lit with recognition. “I know her. She was also my XO in the Rokan Defense sim run. She was the one who recommended me—well, Adan Reese—for command training.”

“I’m sure she’ll be surprised to find that her suggestion was taken so seriously.”

“And perhaps a bit resentful that he’s being given her rank and position aboard the Defiant,” Ethan added.

“There’s not much we can do about that, but you don’t have to demote her. You can assign her as your tactical adviser if you wish. I’ve found she has some good insights.”

“I agree,” Ethan replied.

A few minutes later breakfast arrived with a knock at the doors. Ethan spoke a verbal command to open the doors, and one of his guards walked in balancing a tray loaded with pancakes, juice, and a steaming pot of caf.

Ethan caught a whiff of the caf and pancakes and he felt a strong answering stir in his belly. Suddenly he realized that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d ate. It had to have been more than 24 hours ago. As for the caf, it had been years since he’d had a cup of caf. Ethan watched the tray approach with eager anticipation, and he dug in before the guard had even poured his coffee. By the time the guard left, Ethan was already finished half his stack of pancakes. The office door slid shut with a swish. Atton cleared his throat. Ethan looked up from cutting another giant wedge out of his stack of pancakes to see Atton smiling at him over the rim of his cup of caf. Ethan took a moment to breathe and wash the pancakes down with a big gulp from his own cup.

“So, what’s your first move, Overlord?” Atton asked.

Ethan swallowed and took another sip of caf while he considered the question. “You said there’s another group of survivors.”

“Yes, Admiral Hoff Heston and the remnants of the Fifth Fleet. They were cut off during our retreat to Dark Space, so they holed up someplace else.”

Ethan’s eyes narrowed. “Someplace? You don’t know where they are?”

“No, they don’t trust us to have that information—since we’re working with the Gors. We coordinate attacks and salvage operations together, but they keep us at a distance.”

“I see. And our forces? How many are they and where?”

“They’re split up into four separate strike groups, each with its own base of operations. There are 13 capital-class vessels in all. Fourteen now if you count the Defiant.”

“Not very many. Will it be enough to take on the Valiant?

Atton hesitated. “I imagine Brondi is also short-handed right now, so we stand a chance, but we would take very heavy casualties in a straight fight. I would recommend a different course. I doubt Brondi will be able to get Roan’s cooperation to help him detect any cloaked ships in the area, so if we had one, we might be able to sneak aboard with a small landing party.”

Ethan raised an eyebrow. “I think you’d need a large landing party to overwhelm the troops Brondi has aboard that carrier.”

“Not if he can’t see us. How many men do you think one invisible soldier could kill?”

“The Gors,” Ethan said as his eyes lit with understanding.

“Even a few dozen of them would be enough to clear the Valiant.”

“Well, what are we waiting for, then?”

“The Defiant isn’t cloaked, and we only have Tova with us, so we can’t launch the attack ourselves.”

“I know,” Ethan replied. “I meant we need to call the Gors and put together an op.”

Atton shook his head. “We can’t call them. The commnet doesn’t exist out here. The gate relays are all down.”

“All of them?”

Atton nodded. “They were mostly destroyed by Sythians, but some have just fallen into disrepair. We’ll have to travel to the nearest strike group to contact them.”

Ethan frowned. “We’re not cloaked.”

“We’re not that far away. The nearest task force is at Obsidian Station. A few jumps and we’ll be there.”

Ethan’s eyes narrowed. “How many is a few?”

“About five.”

Ethan winced and took another sip of caf. “We need to get Tova’s help for this. If she doesn’t help us detect cloaked Sythians, we’ll be taken out before we even know what hit us.”

“She may not be willing to work with us if she finds out the truth about what happened to Roan.”

“Well, the truth is, we’re going to rescue her mate. If she’s got any brain at all she’ll work with us to achieve that end.”

Atton conceded that with a shrug. “They don’t reason like us, Ethan, but it’s worth a try.”

“Right. While we’re at it, is there anything we can do to bolster our nova compliment? We just have six fighters. That’s half a squadron.”

“There’s another squadron aboard the transfer station,” Atton said. “But no pilots.”

“That’s funny,” Ethan said.

“What?” Atton replied.

“When I wanted to join the fleet as a civilian, I was told that they had more applicants than ships, but now that I’ve been . . . conscripted . . . I’m finding that it’s just the opposite.”

“Well, in Dark Space we do have more applicants than ships, and even outside, we’re training more Gors than we have ships to fill. All the Gors we free now are going to form our very first invasion army.”

 Ethan sat back and steepled his hands before his chin. “I suppose we’ll have more than enough troops to take back the Valiant then. Brondi’s in for a surprise.”

Atton nodded. “We’ll have her back soon. The tougher part will be finding a new crew for her.”

“Yes . . .” Ethan trailed off and his eyes drifted out of focus. He had been responsible for killing the original crew by unwittingly carrying Brondi’s super virus aboard the ship.

“It’s not your fault, Ethan,” Atton said.

“We can agree to disagree on that.”

“If anything Kurlin Vastra shoulders more of the blame than you.”

Ethan’s eyes came back into focus at the mention of Alara’s father. “Are you going level any charges against him?”

Atton just looked at him. “Well, that’s up to you now. I’m not the overlord anymore.”

“I’m not going to do anything. I’d be a hypocrite if I had him tried and not myself. Besides, we were both Brondi’s pawns, even if he knew exactly what he was doing and I didn’t. For now, I think it’s best for us to keep all of that as quiet as possible. What about the guards who interrogated Kurlin? Have they been sworn to secrecy?”

“They have, but I’m not sure we can trust them to keep quiet for long. Everyone lost people close to them on the Valiant. It’s only a matter of time before the guards talk to someone, or maybe even plot to kill Kurlin themselves.”

“And what do they know about me? You said that Kurlin revealed my part as the carrier for his virus. He met me you know, so if he ever sees me without my holoskin . . .”

Atton raised an eyebrow at that. “When would he have a chance to see you without your holoskin? Besides do you really think he’ll try to pin blame on you when he’s just as guilty? He did mention there was a live carrier for the virus who infiltrated the Valiant, but you weren’t named. Kurlin seems to have assumed that you died aboard the Valiant with everyone else, so you’re safe. The greater problem is what will happen to old Kurlin if the crew finds out what he did.”

“They’ll murder him,” Ethan replied.

“Right, and we still need him to produce more of the vaccine, just in case the plague spreads through Sythian Space, too.”

“I didn’t think of that,” Ethan said. “Where are the interrogators now?”

“One of them just brought us breakfast.”

Ethan frowned. “Well, that’s going to help me sleep at night. Couldn’t we have them reassigned somewhere else? Maybe we could leave them on the transfer station.”

Atton nodded. “I would recommend that, yes, but that won’t shut them up forever, it’ll just isolate them for a while. Eventually the news will get out.”

“Well, let’s hope they keep their mouths shut.”

“A more permanent solution would be to assign them to the boarding party for the Valiant. . . .”

Ethan’s eyes grew wide as he understood what Atton was implying. He felt a sharp pang of disappointment to think that his son would even consider such a thing. “Atton . . .”

The boy shook his head. “I can see you don’t approve, but think about the greater good here. Part of your responsibility as overlord is going to be making the hard decisions—doing the things that on the surface seem wrong, but for the greater evil they will prevent.”

“Wrong is wrong, Atton.”

Atton smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “You can’t afford to see the world in black and white, Ethan. Right and wrong are often just shades of gray. I’m surprised I have to tell a smuggler that.”

Ethan’s eyes narrowed. “Ex-smuggler. I lost everything because of my own moral compromises. If it weren’t for that, you and your mother and I would never have been separated, but instead you grew up without me there, and your mother is . . .” Ethan trailed off, shaking his head. “Missing.” That was as honest as he could afford to be with himself right now.

“Look, all I’m saying is that we need Kurlin. I don’t care how you keep him alive, but you’d better, or many more people will die.”

Ethan nodded. “Fine. Speaking of Kurlin, I should check on Alara,” he said, smoothly changing the topic. He felt privately sick that his son had such a convenient concept of right and wrong. Ethan touched his ear to activate his comm piece and then he said, “Call Kurlin Vastra.” The comm began to trill faintly in his ear, and a moment later the doctor picked up.

“Doctor Kurlin!” Ethan said. “This is Overlord Dominic speaking. How is Alara doing?”

Kurlin hesitated before replying. “Oh . . . hello, sir . . .” He sounded confused. “Alara’s not well, I’m afraid. She’s just suffered a relapse.”

Ethan frowned. “Where is she now?”

“Med bay. We’re looking after her. Why do you ask?”

Ethan had momentarily forgotten that Alara was nobody to the overlord; they didn’t even know each other. But while Ethan had been Adan Reese, he had professed to have some sort of connection to her—a connection which Alara wouldn’t even recognize if she were in her right mind.

All this identity switching was getting complicated.

Ethan’s gaze flicked to Atton. “My new XO, Adan Reese, was asking about her. I’ll put him through to you now.”

Ethan spoke aloud the command to transfer the comm call to Adan Reese, and then Ethan went back to his breakfast with a frown. He didn’t close the call on his end, so he was able to listen in as Atton did a good job of pretending to be concerned for a woman he’d never known. Ethan heard Kurlin relay the details of Alara’s regression—the incident in the mess hall with the lieutenant and then the subsequent reset which had knocked Alara unconscious.

Apparently the only thing the Defiant’s barely-qualified medic had been able to do for Alara without knowing how to safely deactivate her slave chip, was to implant another chip which would fight against the first. The code word “reset” would temporarily interrupt the slave chip, but it seemed doing that had been so traumatic for her brain that she’d been knocked unconscious. She was awake now and still claiming to be Angel, but with less conviction than before. The medic had said she would be okay, but he’d strongly cautioned against using another reset. Alara would have to fight her programming on her own.

Ethan gritted his teeth. Brondi was going to pay. His mind flashed back to what Atton had said about Tova’s mate aboard the Valiant and that brought a dark smile to his face. I hope he eats you, Ethan thought, but his next thought was that if Brondi died they would never get the deactivation codes they needed to safely remove Alara’s slave chip.

It was hard to want someone both dead and alive at the same time.


Chapter 5

The Invisible War

Verlin stalked through the bowels of the Valiant with his team of scouts. Everywhere he went, the bounty hunter saw Brondi’s men walking beside big, hovering black garbage bins, using portable grav guns to pick up the bodies of the previous crew and drop them inside.

Even Verlin’s stomach turned at the sheer numbers of the dead. Walking through the Valiant was like walking through a mausoleum. He turned his eyes to the fore and forced himself to focus. He and his team reached a rail car tunnel and waited for the car to arrive. Once it did, they piled in, ignoring the bodies inside the car. Verlin turned to the directory beside the doors. He searched the ship for probable locations to hide something—what was he looking for anyway? What could old Dominic have been hiding?

This is a wild rictan hunt, Verlin thought as he punched in a random destination—the med lab. Good as any. He went to find a seat as far as possible from the nearest body.

Brondi was wasting his time, but with the amount of Sols he was being paid, Verlin supposed that he couldn’t complain. He settled his head back against the side of the car just as it began whooshing through the ship.

*  *  *

Roan glared at the door of his prison, willing it to open. His slitted yellow eyes had been fixed on that spot for the past four hours straight, and the door still hadn’t been opened. No one had come to bring him food. Roan finally tore his gaze away from the door and looked around his half-finished crèche. It was much larger than the previous one he’d shared with Tova. She was probably still there waiting for him. The human workers in their thick coats and gloves had disappeared more than a day ago, and they had locked the door behind them. This had never happened before, and it called into question the level of trust between them. Roan wondered if something had happened to break the alliance.

The humans had been gone too long. They were supposed to be finishing his crèche and bringing him food. They were not keeping their end of the deal, so it was time for Roan to break his. He refused to stay hidden any longer. He would find a way out. Roan stalked over to his armor and put it on piece by piece until he was cloaked in the comforting coolness of his second skin. This one would protect him from the elements unlike the weaker one he’d been born with. He flexed his forearm gauntlets and then turned to the door with his palms outstretched. Two lances of purple light shot out and slammed into the door with a resounding thud. Nothing happened. The door was pristine; its armor too strong for his weapons to pierce. Roan cursed under his breath and turned to search the vast chamber for another way out. His eyes jumped from pillars of ice to the still blue waters of his pool. The floor was covered in ice and snow. There were no other exits that he could see.

Then his eyes seized upon something. It was long and black and roughly rectangular. He’d seen the humans using it to carve and shape the ice pillars. Roan stalked over to it. He remembered that the device produced an intense beam of light and heat. He wondered if it would also cut a hole through the door. Picking it up, Roan carried the device over to the door and fiddled with the controls until he found a small lever which fired a bright red beam and melted a furrow in the icy floor behind him. Turning to look at the damage, Roan let out a hiss, and then he turned the device around. Now he triggered the lever again and began tracing a line across the door. He saw the duranium begin to glow, and watched as small rivulets of metal began oozing down the door in fast-drying streaks.

This would do, Roan decided.

*  *  *

The med lab was also filled with bodies. These ones wore white hazmat suits, but they were just as dead. Verlin kicked the nearest one in the ribs to see if it would stir, but it didn’t even twitch, and rigor mortis made the body react to his kick like a rock. Verlin looked away. The hazmats hadn’t saved them.

Looking around the darkened room, Verlin saw vials of serum and lab equipment scattered everywhere. The sheer, frantic disarray seemed to suggest that these med workers had been trying to formulate a vaccine to the virus right up until the moment it had killed them.

“This is interesting. . . .” one of Verlin’s men said. Verlin turned to see the man querying a nearby lab computer.

“What?” Verlin asked, walking up behind him.

“There’s a large area greyed out on the ship schematic.” The man turned to him and then back to the screen to point. “Look—here’s the med lab. On the other side of it is the med center, but in between . . . there’s this big empty space with no apparent access. The schematic labels the area as hazardous, but doesn’t say what’s in there. All other information is classified.”

“Well, well,” Verlin said. “That is interesting. No doors? Which wall separates that area from us?”

The man turned and looked around the lab. A moment later he pointed to the wall furthest from them. There were a few mag-clamped trolleys of medical equipment stacked there. “I think it’s that one.”

Verlin walked up to it and moved one of the trolleys aside to run his hands along the wall, looking for seams. “It appears solid,” he said. “We’ll have to blast it open if we want a look on the other side.” Verlin snapped his fingers and said, “Someone get over here and make a hole.”

Another of his men came up behind him and shook his head. “We’ll need a welding laser.”

“And?”

“We didn’t bring one.”

Verlin just stared at the man.

“Right, I’ll go get one.”

“Good,” Verlin replied. “I’ll wait.”

While they were still waiting there, a recessed section of that wall slid soundlessly aside. One man noticed the movement and turned to look. “Hoi! What the frek!” he said and whipped up his ripper rifle to cover the dark hallway which had appeared out of nowhere. “Halt! Anyone there?”

Now everyone had their rifles covering the opening while slowly backpedaling away from it. Verlin covered the entrance with his modified ripper pistol, but he didn’t back away. He’d already checked the corridor with his visual scanning implant, but there was nothing there—nothing on either the infrared or visible light spectrums. That dark corridor was very cold and very empty. There was, however, a very soft sound emanating from the open space, which his aural scanning implant detected as a movement of air. It could have simply been the warmer air of the lab meeting the colder air of the corridor and starting up a convection current.

“We need to get out of here!” one man said.

“Relax!” Verlin replied. “There’s nothing there—you!” He snapped his fingers at the man who was most visibly frightened. “Go investigate.”

“Me?” the man’s voice cracked. “Why me?”

“Because I frekkin’ said so. Now go!”

The man took a hesitant step toward the darkness. When nothing happened to him, he seemed to gather a bit more courage and he took a few more steps. The man reached the threshold and stopped. “Frek, it’s cold in there,” he said. “Do you think this was storage for some type of bioweapons?”

Verlin frowned. “I don’t know. If you get in there, maybe you can tell us.”

The man hesitated once more, and then he walked in. Verlin could see his thermal signature receding into the colder blue of the corridor. When he was just a distant red and yellow speck in Verlin’s augmented sight, the man’s voice came echoing back to them, “You have to see this!”

Verlin nodded to the rest of his team, gesturing for them to follow, and they began walking single-file down the corridor, their rifles at the ready. Verlin was the last one to enter; he heard the men ahead of him exclaiming one by one as they reached the end of the corridor. When Verlin himself reached that point, he stopped in the open doorway and gaped at what he saw. This was not some secret bioweapons storage locker. It was a carefully constructed habitat, designed to fit some creature’s native environment. The dim light, the snow and ice, and the deep blue pool of water gave clues to what kind of creature it might be, but there were too many possibilities for Verlin to hazard a guess. He watched his men fanning out through the vast chamber. One of them stubbed his toes on a block of ice and exclaimed, “Frek! It’s dark! Hasn’t anyone found the lights? Lights on!” the man tried.

“That’s not going to work, Baller,” another man said. “You think whatever animal lived in here used voice-activated systems?”

So, the overlord was keeping pets aboard his ship. Verlin nodded slowly to himself. On the surface it seemed a curious idiosyncrasy, nothing more, but then why would Dominic feel the need to hide his pets away in an unlabeled part of the ship?

As he was considering the question, Verlin’s brain registered something strange in the corner of his eye. He turned to look and saw a welding laser lying in a puddle of water just inside the chamber. Verlin frowned down at the device and took a step forward to pick it up. It was still hot. He turned in a quick circle to determine what it might have been used for, and then he saw a molten chunk of duranium lying in the snow, cast off to the other side of the chamber. Verlin looked down the corridor to the med lab, and that was when he noticed that where the chamber used to be sealed with a door, now there was just a melted hole. Whatever had been locked up in here had escaped.

Verlin turned back to his men and called out, “Fall back!”

And that was when he heard the first gurgling scream.


Chapter 6

— THE YEAR 0 AE—

In seconds, the rictans covered the distance to the open door where Destra stood. She fixed her gaze on the leader, her aim steady as it glared coldly back with dark red eyes. She was just about the pull the trigger when Digger called out, “Doc, Petra, leave it! Friend. These are our friends.”

Almost instantly the two rictans stopped scrabbling for purchase on the duranium floors and they slowed to a trot. Their snarling quieted and they settled for muted yipping instead.

Destra blinked. She kept her aim steady on the deadly predators, but watched them turn and head back the way they’d come, their barbed tails flicking restlessly as they sauntered off.

“Frek, Digger!” She rounded on him with flashing blue eyes. “You’re keeping pet rictans? Have you gone skriffy?”

He just grinned. “Scared ya, didn’t they?”

She shook her head. “You can’t train rictans!”

“They’re chipped,” Digger said, waving a dismissive hand.

Destra frowned. Slave chips were illegal, but she supposed that Digger wouldn’t care given his other illicit activities.

“Well, keep them away from us,” she said.

“Relax, they know you’re friends now. You could scratch their bellies and they wouldn’t bite.”

Detra’s eyes narrowed, but she nodded and holstered her pistol. Taking a few steps inside, she looked around. “So this is your place, then?”

“Yea.”

“Nice. No one else lives here?”

Digger shook his head. “Not anymore, but don’t worry. I have a spare room.” His eyes flicked to Lessie and Dean who were still hiding behind Destra. “Guess you’ll have to sleep on the couch so they can share the bed. Go on, make yourselves at home while I put some dinner in the synthesizer,” Digger said, starting toward the kitchen.

Destra turned to see that Lessie and Dean still stood frozen before the entrance of the stim lab.

Lessie shot a quick glance at Digger before whispering, “Are we going to stay here with those—” Lessie’s gaze darted to the dark corridor where the rictans had disappeared. “—things?” she asked.

“They’re chipped, so we should be okay.” Destra nodded to the black couch in front of the holoscreen. “Go take a seat. You two look exhausted.”

Lessie nodded, but her eyes never left the corridor. She and her son made their way into the living room, holding to each other tightly as they walked.

“What would ya like to drink? I got water, caf, stim juice, fost berry soda . . . ?”

“Water’s fine,” Destra said, answering for all of them. She was still standing just inside the entrance, her gaze wandering around the room. She turned to study Digger as he bustled about in the kitchen. The synthesizer turned on with a hum, and a delicious aroma began wafting through the room. Destra’s stomach began to rumble in response.

A minute later Digger emerged from the kitchen with a tray piled high with steaming bread rolls and bowls of soup. “Dinner’s served!” he said, beaming as he strode into the living room.

Destra followed him to the sofas with a frown. As she moved out of the doorway, the door swung shut behind her with an ominous boom. She turned to look at the door and thought, I guess it’s too late to check into a hotel. . . .

*  *  *

— THE YEAR 10 AE—

The Invisible War


Alec Brondi sat in the overlord’s luxurious quarters aboard the Valiant, smoking a fat cigar, his feet propped up on the desk as he used a holo pad to snoop through Dominic’s personal documents. His techs had recently finished decrypting the files, so it was worth a look to see if the overlord had been hiding anything in plain sight.

He came to one file entitled, Legacy, and stopped. It was a video recording. Brondi keyed it for playback, and watched as a holo shimmered to life in the air above the reader. He recognized the scene immediately. It was the same room where he was sitting now; old man Dominic was lying in bed with wires and tubes trailing from under the sheets to a series of blinking and beeping machines. Brondi frowned and his eyes skipped away from the holo to find the overlord’s bed. It lay to one side of the large, open-concept space. His gaze fixed upon the holo once more as a tall, broad-shouldered young man with dark hair walked in front of the recorder.

“Atton,” the overlord said in a shivery voice, his hand rising beneath the covers.

“Father,” the boy replied.

Brondi abruptly plucked the cigar from his lips and dropped his feet off the desk. “Son of a . . . ! Overlord?” He watched the boy kneel beside the bed and clasp the overlord’s reaching hand in both of his.

“We don’t have much time,” Dominic said. “Are you ready to make the switch?”

The young man nodded.

“Your holoskin is in the safe in my locker, and you have two spares, just in case. You’re doing the right thing, Atton.”

The young man nodded. “I know.”

“Med bot,” the overlord called out, and a hovering silver sphere appeared in the holo with a syringe dangling from one of its many jointed arms. Brondi watched the subsequent operation with intense interest. He saw first the young man offer his wrist to the bot and receive an injection of anesthetic, and then the bot pulled out another syringe and injected the overlord with it. The operation which followed made a small incision in each man’s wrist, whereupon their identichips were promptly switched.

When the operation was finished, Dominic lay back with a sigh. “Immortals be with you, Atton. I wish I could be, too.”

“As do I, Father.”

“You will need to fake your own death. The overlord’s adopted son can’t simply go missing and no one notice.”

“I’ll take care of it. Don’t worry.”

“And my body?” the overlord asked. “They can’t be allowed to discover that I was a skinner, too.” With that admission, the overlord’s features abruptly shimmered and morphed into those of a man almost as old, but not nearly as vital.

“Holy frek!” Brondi jumped up from the desk and the holo pad clattered to the floor. The holo fuzzed out and then sprang back to life. Brondi jumped back from it as though it were a snake. “Holy frek!” he said again. The overlord wasn’t the overlord at all. He was a holoskinner! Brondi was grinning wildly now, his cigar forgotten and smoldering in one hand. He shook that hand at the holo, casting off a rain of glowing cigar embers which fluttered down through the recording. “You had us all fooled, didn’t you?”

“Would it be so bad if they knew?” Brondi heard Atton say amidst his shocked exclamations.

“The Imperium would fall apart. It would be anarchy. . . .” The overlord paused to take a few gasping breaths. He began patting Atton’s hands. “You need to be the one to transition us to a new overlord—peacefully. He has grown old enough; it is time we had a new, younger face for the ISS.”

“You don’t mean me?”

The overlord just smiled. “Perhaps after some years have passed you will be able to answer that question for yourself.”

Brondi went on smiling and gaping at the holo. What followed were mostly sentimental exchanges, but Brondi watched right up until the end. When the holo ended without further surprises, Brondi went straight to the overlord’s locker beside the bed. He opened the polished steel door and looked around for the safe. He tossed the overlord’s things aside carelessly, searching for it, but there was no safe in evidence. Then Brondi thought to check the back of the locker. He knocked on it with his knuckles, checking for hollow spaces. Everywhere he tested, it rang with a dull thunk, right until he got down on his haunches and tried the back wall of the bottom shelf. This time there came a hollow sound, and Brondi popped his now stubby cigar in his mouth as his lips parted in a smile. He would have to get someone to crack into the safe of course, but then . . .

The pieces of a plan began assembling in his brain. He could rule Dark Space without even a hint of disruption to the established order—at least until it became impossible to hide what had happened aboard the Valiant. Long before then it would be easy to trick the scattered remnants of the fleet into yielding control of their vessels to him. He wouldn’t just have the Valiant. He would have it all!

In that moment Brondi’s comm began to trill. He touched a hand to his ear to answer it, and a tense female voice began chattering in his hear.

“Brondi, sir, we have a situation developing on—”

“Call me supreme overlord,” Brondi interrupted, already getting used to the idea of taking Dominic’s place.

The woman hesitated. “Supreme Overlord Brondi, we have a situation on deck 12. The bounty hunter Verlin and various members of his team have called for backup. They are under attack.”

Brondi frowned. So there were more survivors of the plague. “Has the situation been dealt with?”

“We’re not sure what happened. They’ve stopped answering comms.”

“Hmmm,” Brondi’s brow furrowed. “Secure the floor. Shut down all access to that level except for one lift tube, and have an assault team waiting for me there. I’ll go investigate myself.”

“Yes, sir—Overlord Brondi, sir.”

Brondi tapped his ear to end the comm call and then turned to leave the overlord’s quarters. He was not happy. The ship was supposed to have been cleared of survivors long ago. Whoever had delivered that all-clear would answer for their mistake.

*  *  *

As soon as the door opened for him, Roan heard the men’s voices and their exclamations of surprise. He watched one man stagger away from the open door.

“Hoi! What the frek!” that man said. “Halt! Anyone there?”

 The way that man held his rifle, aimed straight at him, Roan knew that the alliance had been shattered. These men were now his enemies. They had no doubt planned to keep him prisoner, but now he was out, and he would not be captured again. The rest of the men also swung their rifles into line, and Roan bared his teeth, but made no sound, standing perfectly still in the entrance to his crèche. Had they somehow seen him?

“Relax!” a dark-skinned man said. “There’s nothing there—you!” That man snapped his fingers at another. “Go investigate.”

“Me? Why me?”

So they hadn’t seen him. Roan relaxed his rigid posture and listened to the ensuing exchange with great interest. His translator bead relayed the men’s words to him in his own language with the occasional nonsensical slip up—

“Because I copulatin’ said so! Now go!” the dark man said.

Roan wasn’t sure what reproduction had to do with this situation, but he put it down to one more thing he didn’t understand about humans. He watched one of the men creeping toward him and he pressed himself against the wall to allow that man past. Roan watched as the human walked all the way down the corridor to the entrance of his crèche and then stepped inside, exclaiming, “You have to see this!”

Roan had to stop a hiss of displeasure from escaping his lips as the remainder of the men outside began filing in to investigate. They were invading his crèche without invitation or permission! They would pay for that insult. Roan waited until the last man—the dark man—had entered the corridor, and then he quietly followed them in.

When the dark man stopped just inside the entrance of the crèche, Roan stepped past him and began shadowing the first one to have entered. He followed just a step behind the human and waited until he had wandered far from the others; then Roan took one long stride toward him and reached out for his head with both hands. One of Roan’s armored hands covered the man’s mouth, muffling his screams, and with a sudden wrenching motion, something popped in the man’s neck, and he crumpled to the snowy floor. Roan stood over him, waiting for him to get up. When he didn’t, Roan hissed quietly. Humans were such frail creatures.

The others came running to see what had happened, while Roan sunk into the shadows, waiting for his next victim.

*  *  *

With his enhanced sight Verlin saw the man fall, but not what had caused him to trip. The others heard his scream, but didn’t see anything, so they were panicking.

“Quiet!” Verlin yelled as they all hurried toward the fallen man. He was not moving. Had he slipped on a patch of ice, hit his head, and been knocked unconscious? Verlin frowned. Brondi’s men were hopelessly incompetent.

As Verlin drew near to the fallen man, however, he began to notice something strange. The pattern of footsteps in the snow was wrong. There were two sets of footprints rather than one, and the second set was closely shadowing the first. The shadowing pair of prints were very large. Verlin bent down for a closer look while the rest of his men rushed on blindly to see what had happened to their comrade. The prints had been made by boots.

“His neck’s been snapped!” one man said. Another shushed him, warning that whatever had killed their squad mate was still in there with them.

Verlin stood up and turned in a quick circle to study the vast chamber, his pistol swinging first one way, and then the other. He ignored his men’s frantic whispering. Verlin’s mind went back to the discarded laser welder and the molten chunk of door. What type of animal is bipedal, tool-using, and wears boots? he wondered. A human?

It would have to be a giant.

Verlin’s gaze swung back to the worried knot of men standing over the body. He was about to order them to fall back again when a gout of blood erupted from one man’s chest. He didn’t even scream, but the men around him did as they were splashed with his blood.

Verlin could see perfectly in the dark, but he still couldn’t see what had killed the second man. Another one made a run for the door. He was the next to die with something unseen grabbing his head from behind and snapping his neck like the first.

Someone fired off a random volley of ripper fire, but it hit the snow with a puff of shattered ice crystals. He was next. His scream went on and on as he was first dragged off his feet and then thrown into the freezing cold water and dragged under.

Verlin was already hurriedly backing out of the chamber to the entrance. He touched his ear to make a comm call. When the bridge answered, he spoke quickly. “We’re under attack on level 12, Med Lab. Three men down. Send reinforcements.”

The comm crackled. “Acknowledged. How many are there?”

There came another splash from the pool, but Verlin didn’t see what had caused it. He squinted into the distance and shook his head. “At least one, but—” There came a rushing whoosh of air as something ran toward him at great speed. Verlin turned to flee, but then he felt himself being lifted bodily and thrown high into the air. As he reached the apex of that toss, Verlin twisted around and fired off a shot. It disappeared into thin air, but something hissed loudly. Then Verlin hit the ground face-first with a very solid thud. A sharp pain went through his neck and nose, which had hit just before the rest of him, and he felt his awareness diming as his thoughts slipped away. He knew that he had to hold on to consciousness if he were to survive, and he fought the encroaching darkness with everything that he had. That was when he felt something sharp raking down his back, and his eyes shot open with a scream.

He heard a warbling hiss close beside his ear. “Let me go, you frekkin’ . . . !” Verlin twisted onto his ruined back and fired two more shots in random directions, missing with both, before he pressed a hand to his ear to speak once more into his comm.

That was when he realized that his comm piece had fallen out when he’d hit the ground. His eyes found it lying just out of reach to his right. Verlin scrambled to reach it, but something grabbed hold of his hand and crushed it, breaking all of the bones and grinding the pieces together.

Verlin screamed again, and then something very strong crushed his windpipe and he could scream no more.


Chapter 7

The Invisible War

Tova did not look happy. Ethan wasn’t sure if he was imagining it, but she hadn’t moved a muscle since he’d explained to her that Roan was trapped aboard an enemy ship. Beside him, Atton looked nervous. That was another clue that Tova was just a step away from tearing them into bite-sized chunks.

The guards flanking them with their ripper rifles casually at the ready gave Ethan only a small amount of comfort. If Tova wanted to, she could simply disappear, and it would be impossible to track an invisible target. Ethan reflected that he should have thought about that in advance and prepared something to defend against an invisible enemy.

“I’m sorry,” Ethan said again. “I wish we had been able to rescue him during the evacuation, but I’m sure he’s still alive.”

At last Tova moved, but it was just a muscle twitching in her neck—then her eyes blinked and her lips parted. Ethan heard her warbling language followed promptly by the translation. “He is living,” she said.

Ethan cocked his head. “Really? You’ve spoken with him?”

“He is hurt, not bad. Humans on ship think he is dead. He thinks they are you.”

Ethan allowed his relief to show, his shoulders sagging. “Thank the immortals. Can you contact him now?”

Tova’s yellow eyes narrowed. “Are they you? The ones who try to kill Roan?”

“No!” Ethan answered quickly.

“They are humans.”

Ethan frowned. “They are humans, but they are not with us.”

“Your species is foolish to fight itself.”

Ethan snorted. “You can say that again.”

“Why? Do you not hear well?”

Ethan shook his head. “No, never mind. The point is, we are not with them or they with us. You have to make Roan understand that the men on board will try to kill him or hurt him if they find him, and he needs to hide until we can return.”

“He understands this already. What else you desire to communicate?”

“Tell him we will be there soon, and that if possible, we could use his help.”

“What type of help?”

Ethan hesitated, thinking quickly. “If he can find and shut down the main reactor or the shields just before we arrive, it would give us time and the opportunity we need to get aboard.”

“When we arrive?”

“Yes.”

“When we arrive?” Tova repeated, looming closer.

Ethan frowned, wondering why she’d repeated the question, but then he realized that she was asking when they would arrive to take back the Valiant and rescue Roan. Good question, he thought. “Tell him it will be about a week.”

“I tell him.”

“Meanwhile, we’ll need you to sit down with our chief engineer and discuss ways that the Valiant could be sabotaged, so that you can tell Roan. Would you be willing to talk with our engineer, Tova?”

She hissed. “You think we are ignorant.”

“You are—” Tova’s eyes flashed and Ethan hastened to add, “—ignorant of our technology, anyway. It will be easier for Roan to sabotage the Valiant if we tell him what to do.”

“I do this but take care that you do not offend me again. Your words are arrogant and foolish.”

“Sure thing,” Ethan said, waving his hand dismissively. “One more thing, Tova . . .” Ethan regretted what he had to say next. “We need to cross Sythian Space to gather reinforcements before we can rescue Roan.”

Tova’s eyes narrowed again. “You can make ship invisible?”

Ethan shook his head and Tova hissed. “This is not dangerous—is impossible,” she said.

“We have to try. For Roan’s sake and for ours. And we need your help, Tova. If we can’t make ourselves invisible we have to at least be able to detect the Sythians who are.”

Tova hissed again and this time she bared her fangs. “I help you, crazy human, but not from here. No longer from the shadows. I stay by your side so that you live to rescue the lord of my crèche.”

Ethan smiled to cover the grimace which was tugging at the corners of his mouth. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. First let me formally introduce you to the crew, and then I’ll bring you onto the bridge. You’ll have to wear a uniform of course, but we’ll have one made.”

“No uniform,” Tova said. “I wear armor.”

Ethan’s smile broadened, but inwardly he scowled. “Tova, in our society people wear clothes not armor. To live among us you must make some compromises.” Out of the corner of his eye Ethan noticed Atton shaking his head.

“I make compromise already. I don’t eat you for letting your crèche mates to capture Roan.”

“Tova, you’ll make my crew uneasy if you’re wearing your armor.”

Tova hissed again. “Then I wear nothing, but then you are to make your ship dark and cold like night.”

Ethan frowned. “Don’t push me, Tova.”

“I do not push you. Do your eyes hurt in dark as mine do in light? Does your skin burn in heat?” Tova loomed closer still.

“We’ll turn down the climate controllers and the lights, but you’ll have to adapt to a slightly warmer and brighter environment.”

Tova’s eyes flared wide and she bared her fangs, hissing loudly. “You adapt to me!”

“You need us to help you as much as we need you, Tova. Think about it. Roan needs you. It’ll only be for a few days.”

Tova hissed one last time and looked away from them. “I wait to be brought to bridge,” she said.

Ethan nodded. “We’ll be back soon.” He turned on his heel and began descending the stairs with Atton. Their bodyguards kept a careful watch on Tova as they left the icy darkness of her crèche.

“You shouldn’t have been so demanding with her,” Atton said.

“Relax, it went well. She agreed to our conditions, didn’t she?” Ethan replied.

“She didn’t agree to anything. Did you see the way she looked away from us?” The door to Tova’s crèche swished shut behind them.

Ethan frowned. “Yes, wasn’t that a sign of her giving in?”

Atton laughed. “It’s an expression of extreme displeasure. We are unworthy of her sight. In Gor society, only those who have fallen out of favor are treated that way. She does not like us at all.”

Ethan snorted. “Well, I’m not too fond of her myself.”

“It may be hard to get her cooperation.”

“She’ll come around. Her life and Roan’s are at stake, too. Meanwhile, I’d better think of how I’m going to break the news to our crew.”

“They’re not going to like her either.”

“Well, we’re all just going to have to get along.”

They entered the lift tube at the end of the long, dark corridor which they’d taken to reach Tova’s crèche. The guards entered behind them, and Ethan watched as they turned to cover the entrance of the lift, presenting their backs to him. They were the same guards that knew Dr. Kurlin had created the virus which had killed almost everyone aboard the Valiant. Ethan spent a moment eyeing them before turning to Atton. “We have some reassignments to make, don’t we?” he said, nodding sideways to the guards in the lift.

Atton caught his meaning and nodded. “I’ll take care of it. Don’t worry.”

Ethan smiled. “Good. We need everything to go smoothly over the next week.”

The lift arrived with an almost imperceptible jolt that spoke of a better-functioning inertial management system, and then the doors swished open, and a welcome blast of warm air entered the lift. Ethan realized from the way his face started tingling that his exposed skin had begun to go numb in Tova’s crèche.

They exited the lift behind the guards, and one fell in behind him and one in front. As they walked, Ethan wondered about the time, and the hour flashed up as fading green digits before his eyes—18:33—fed to him by the holo card reader implanted behind his ear. It was getting late. “Why don’t you go speak to the doctor about testing the crew,” Ethan said, speaking to his son. “You can make crew reassignments just before we leave. I’d like things to remain the way they are when Tova officially comes aboard the bridge,” Ethan explained, thinking that it would be nice to have a few bodyguards around, even if only for another day.

“All right,” Atton replied.

“I’ll meet you at the operations center at twenty hundred hours. We’re going to draw up a plan of action and introduce Tova to the rest of our bridge crew. Maybe you can help me come up with a way to break the news that we have a Gor aboard?”

Atton shook his head. “Doesn’t matter how you decorate krak, no one is going to be happy you’re bringing it aboard.”

Ethan snorted. Now that Atton had given up his role as the supreme overlord, much of his genteel bearing and manners had fallen away, and Ethan realized what a good actor his son had to be to have kept up such an elaborate façade for so long. He shot Atton a speculative look as they walked, and for just the briefest moment he wondered what other façades his son might be keeping up.

*  *  *

Ethan watched Deck Commander Loba Caldin pull up a chair to the captain’s table inside the Defiant’s operations center and sit down. Already sitting at the table were Atton, in the guise of nova pilot Adan Reese; First Lieutenant Ithicus Adari, the ranking nova pilot among the survivors who’d escaped Dark Space; Petty Officer Delayn, chief engineer aboard the Defiant; Corpsman Goldrim, the gravidar officer; Petty Sergeant Damen Corr from the helm; Deck Officer Gorvan, the weapons chief; and finally . . . Ethan struggled to remember the comm officer’s rank and name. It flashed up before his eyes a second later. Petty Officer Grimsby. Atton had given him a list of names and their associated holos so he could get to know his crew. Ethan had promptly loaded it into the holo card reader behind his ear to help him transition into his role as overlord. The implant had a significant degree of artificial intelligence, so it was able to read his thoughts and even see what he was seeing in order to provide a two-way interface between his brain and whatever information he had loaded into it. If he’d had the necessary dictionaries and heuristics on a holo card, he could have even used his implant to provide a simultaneous translation of Tova’s language.

Ethan noticed the assembled officers hugging themselves or rubbing their hands together to keep warm. A few were even starting to shiver. It was freezing inside the operations center.

“Why’s it so cold in here?” Commander Caldin asked.

Ethan turned to her with a smile. “I’ll explain that in a moment.” Turning to address the entire room, Ethan folded his hands on the gleaming transpiranium-topped holo table and nodded to the assembled officers. “I’ve called you all here to help formulate a plan of action going forward and to brief you on what’s to come. First off, I’d like to establish our command structure. I’ve decided to promote Lieutenant Ithicus Adari to Lieutenant Commander and permanently assign him as Guardian One.”

Ithicus smiled. “Thank you, sir.”

Turning to him, Ethan went on, “Your first task will be to put together as many working novas as you can for your squadron and then find pilots for them. You will be able to draw on the entire 72 surviving crew members of this ship as candidates for nova training.  We’re going to take any spare novas as well as any supplies we find aboard the Stormcloud Transfer Station before we leave.”

Ithicus blinked. “Nova training takes three years, sir. You’re not seriously suggesting we spend that kind of time out here before we move on, are you?”

Ethan shook his head. “No, you’ll have until tomorrow night.”

“That’s less than two days!”

“Do you have a problem with that, Commander? If so, I may need to reconsider your promotion.”

“No, sir, but with respect, sending unqualified pilots up in our birds will just give the enemy more targets to shoot at.” Ithicus shook his head. “They’ll die and take our fighters with them.”

“I’m not asking for unqualified pilots. I’ve already been skimming the databanks and it appears that many of the officers we have aboard started their careers as pilots and when they got older or wiser they moved on to crew and command positions. There are also a fair number of officers, including myself, who have become good pilots as sim-flyers and hobbyists. Among those, find the best candidates you can, train them as well as you can in the time that you have, and use your own discretion as to whom should fly which missions, but in an emergency I don’t want to have any empty cockpits, understood?”

“Understood.”

Ethan turned to look across the table at his son, Atton, though he was actually staring into the face of Atton’s holoskin, Adan Reese. “Lieutenant Adan Reese has recently demonstrated a keen instinct for command, and so I’ve decided to promote him to Captain and assign him as the new XO of the Defiant.”

Ethan didn’t miss the way Loba Caldin’s blond eyebrows quickly shot up and then fell, dropping a curtain of shadows across her narrowing indigo eyes. From the way her jaw had clenched she looked like she wanted to say something.

“Caldin,” Ethan said, addressing her. “You will be my tactical adviser and the acting XO when Adan is not on deck.”

“Yes, sir,” she nodded, but she did not look happy. Neither did Ithicus, and both were sending Atton icy stares, angry that he had been promoted straight from lieutenant all the way to captain, effectively out-ranking both of them.

“Good. Now that we all understand our roles, we can discuss a plan of action. Petty Officer Delayn—” Ethan turned to the man and gazed into the watery blue eyes of the Defiant’s chief engineer. Cobrale Delayn was at the tail end of what could be considered middle-aged, with gray hair cropped military short, and plenty of wrinkles and lines to mark the years. He had a very pale skin, making him look sick, but that was just because he was a Worani, and Woran never saw any real sunlight peeking through its perpetually dark and rainy skies. “—assures me that repairs will be completed, as best they can be, within the next two days. By then our systems should be mostly in the green and we can move out.”

Everyone nodded their heads and Ethan went on, “My plan is to proceed from here directly to Obsidian Station in the Advistine System, which is our nearest staging point out here in Sythian Space. There we will gather our forces for a counter-attack on Dark Space and the Valiant. Unfortunately, we can’t simply comm them from out here, since there aren’t enough working gate relays in Sythian Space for us to send comm messages, and without the commnet, the only way we can communicate over interstellar distances is by direct messenger—or by an alternate form of comms . . . which brings me to introduce the final member of our bridge crew.”

Everyone looked at Ethan expectantly, and he went on, “You’re all aware that we have an alliance with the Gors.”

Delayn hesitated. “Yes, sir.”

“Have you ever seen one?” Ethan asked of the entire group. He noticed his son was frowning, but the others looked confused. “Yes,” Caldin said. “We’ve all seen the Gors. You know that, sir.”

Ethan nodded. “Then this won’t come as such a shock.” He turned to look over his shoulder at the door of the operations center. He called out a command for the door to open, and then said, “Tova, you can come in now.”

Suddenly, out of thin air, Tova appeared in the doorway, her broad shoulders completely blocking the width of the door. She was slouching so that her head wasn’t cut off by the entrance.

Ethan heard a collective gasp from the assembled officers, and he nodded to them. “I’m sorry, she startled me this morning, too.”

Caldin frowned. “I didn’t know we have a Gor aboard.”

Ethan turned to the alien. “Tova come inside.”

She turned to him with her yellow eyes narrowed to thin slits. “Make room dark first.”

Ethan called out a command for the lights to dim. The room plunged into near darkness, and then Tova stepped inside, and she stopped squinting. As the doors swished shut behind her, she walked to one side of the room where she stopped and stood with her eyes flicking suspiciously from one officer to the next, as if she were equally mistrustful of the humans as they were of her.

Ethan reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of aural translators. He passed them to Ithicus Adari, who was sitting to his left, and asked the pilot to put one in his ear and pass the rest around the table. Looking up, Ethan said, “These translators will help you understand Tova as she will understand us.”

Ethan watched the assembled officers each take one of the translators as they were passed around the table, fitting them into their ears which were not already wearing a comm piece.

As soon as they were done, Ethan went on, “Tova is going to help us detect cloaked Sythian ships along our journey.”

“But, sir, we have a cloak detector for that,” Corpsman Goldrim, the gravidar operator, said.

Ethan turned to Goldrim with a smile. The boy was young, too young to be a part of a bridge crew under any normal circumstances. “I apologize for the lie, but there is no such thing as a cloak detector. Tova has been our cloak detector all this time, hiding in her crèche aboard our ship.”

The assembled officers grew very quiet, and the air seemed to grow thick with accusation. “She’s not been a visible presence on this ship until now, but Tova is as much an officer of the fleet as any of us.” Ethan’s eyes swept around the room. “The Gors are able to detect cloaked ships because they are telepaths, and in the same way that they communicate they can also find and locate one another.”

The comm officer turned to look at Tova. “So why doesn’t she just contact the Gors aboard Obsidian Station and have them pass on our message to the fleet?”

“That was my question when I brought her here,” Ethan said. “Tova tells me that she needs to be within roughly 10 light years of another Gor to be able to contact them. She also warns that if she does so, whoever she contacts will be able to locate her, too.”

“Then she can’t help us detect cloaked Sythians without revealing us to them,” Goldrim said.

“Without a cloak, we’re already visible, but even if that weren’t the case, the Gors are on our side. If we’re not planning to rescue them, they can’t afford to disobey their Sythian masters overtly, but they can help us in covert ways—by revealing the location of cloaked Sythian ships and by not revealing ours.

 “Now, here is the problem. We need to get to within at least 10 light years of Obsidian Station so that Tova can contact them for us. We’re low on fuel, and we don’t have any long range scout ships aboard. That leaves us with exactly two options that I can think of—one, we send the Defiant on the most direct route possible to Obsidian Station. Or two—we modify Brondi’s corvette for extended range and send it instead.” With that, Ethan turned to Petty Officer Cobrale Delayn. “Can we do that?”

Delayn hesitated. “I’m not sure . . . how far are we talking?”

Ethan turned to Damen Corr, the helmsman. He was another middle-aged man, but his hair was still a vibrant red, and his face relatively wrinkle-free. He appeared to be making calculations in his head. Ethan saw the man squinting and scratching his head too much, so he triggered the star map on the captain’s table and set the zoom so that they could see both their current location and Obsidian Station. Ethan nodded to the helmsman. “Use the controls on your side to set the most direct course from here.”

“On the lanes or off?”

“Off the lanes for now. If we have the fuel for it, that’s the course we’ll take.”

Damen Corr nodded and turned to his controls. A moment later, a jointed green line appeared on the map, joined with three points where they’d need to revert to real space to navigate around obstacles between them and Obsidian Station. “All right, according to the map, the shortest route is 41 light years. . . .”

The engineer was already shaking his head. “To travel that far off the lanes with the Defiant will take us almost twice as much fuel as we have left aboard, and to refit a smaller ship for such a trip would take one much larger than a corvette. The drive system and fuel supply alone would take up more cubic space than we’d have if we stripped the corvette to its beams.”

Ethan frowned. “And if we travelled on the lanes?”

“On the lanes . . .” Damen Corr bent to his controls once more, and another jointed line appeared, this one less direct and joined with many more points where they’d need to revert to real space. “It’s 57 light years, but because the gates will open the wormholes for us, we’ll have more than enough fuel to make the trip with the Defiant.”

Ethan looked from the helmsman to the engineer and back again. “Would a modified corvette make it that far on the lanes?”

“Maybe . . .” Delayn said, rubbing his chin. “But she won’t have shields or weapons.”

Caldin shook her head. “Then the fuel is not the problem. A naked corvette would never get that far. Even one Sythian fighter would be enough to take it out.”

Ethan pursed his lips and nodded. “We’ll take a hybrid approach, then. The Defiant will make half the trip using the lanes, and then we’ll send out Brondi’s corvette to skirt the most dangerous systems. Delayn, Mr. Corr, would you please run a calculation of how much fuel we’ll expend and where would be the optimal point to stop and send out the corvette? We can afford to fall short by a few light years if need be, and then have Tova contact the station for help.”

Both men nodded and began conferring between them. Damen worked the star map while Delayn brought out his holo pad and started making calculations.

The rest of them waited while Damen and Delayn came up with the optimal flight plan. A few minutes later both men looked up from their work, and Damen nodded to the glowing blue grid which rose out of the captain’s table between them.

“Our best option would be to send the Defiant along the space lanes until the Odaran System. From there we could conceivably stop to send out the corvette and have it travel off the lanes the rest of the way to Obsidian Station. There’ll be just enough fuel for the corvette to make it the whole way, assuming nothing goes wrong.”

Ethan frowned. “What might go wrong?”

“Well,” Delayn began, setting his holo pad down on the table. “A modified corvette with maximum space devoted to the drive system and fuel supply might make it as far as 21 light years, travelling off the lanes, but we run the risk of seriously overheating the reactor. If that happens, it could suffer a meltdown and destroy the ship. If the crew sees that happening, they’ll have to drop out of SLS early to let the reactor cool. That will mean opening an extra two wormholes, and using even more fuel to make the trip. The route we’ve plotted allows for one such emergency stop. If the reactor is spent by then, hopefully Tova is close enough to make contact with her people.”

Ethan sighed and nodded. “Okay.”

Caldin frowned at the route outlined on the star map. “Even two systems is a lot to cross without a cloak.”

Ethan turned to study the map with her. “Taylon, where we are now, is remote, so it should be relatively empty. If there were Sythians here, they should have found us by now.”

Ithicus Adari chose that moment to speak up. “We could send out the nova trainees on a recon flight to check that.”

Ethan turned to him. “A live training mission? What if they find something? We could lose all our novas right out the launch tubes.”

“As you said, they’d have found us by now if they were here—” Ithicus turned to look at Tova. She was standing leaning against the wall with her brawny arms crossed over her thick, masculine chest. “And wouldn’t she have detected them if they were here?”

Ethan nodded. “Okay, send the novas out to make sure we’re clear to the gate, but pick the best candidates for that mission. We don’t want any accidents.” Ithicus nodded, and Ethan turned back to the group to say, “The next system in line is Forlax.” He tapped the associated point on the map so they could view more detailed information about the system. The most recent recon report was just a month old. A cloaked guardian-class destroyer had been sent out to investigate. They’d found a small fleet of Sythians at Forlax, but nothing significant.

“It would appear that Forlax is also fairly empty,” Ethan said, reading the report. “After that comes Odaran. We’ll drop out of SLS a few million klicks short of the gate and send out Brondi’s corvette. That’s just two systems to cross, and one of them is most likely empty. We can definitely make it that far.”

“Agreed,” Ithicus Adari said. “Assuming the recon data is still accurate. What if we send a scout ship ahead of us to Forlax?”

Ethan grimaced. “And let them know we’re coming?” He shook his head. “Even if the recon is out of date, we’re better off keeping the element of surprise. There’s roughly 10,000 klicks between the gate where we’ll enter Forlax and the gate to Odaran. We should be able to cross that before the Sythians can react and intercept us.”

The dubious looks being traded around the table told Ethan what his crew thought of that, but he ignored their skepticism. They didn’t have a choice. “I can think of just one further matter to address.” Turning to Delayn, Ethan nodded. “Tova’s mate is trapped aboard the Valiant, and Brondi has no idea. I need you and Tova to discuss ways that he might sabotage the carrier before we arrive to take it back. Do you think you could walk Tova through a plan that she can easily explain to her mate?”

Delayn cast a wary glance over his shoulder to where Tova stood. He visibly started as the alien’s yellow eyes found him. “I . . .” Delayn trailed off. “I could try,” he finished.

“Good. Is there anything else to discuss?” Ethan asked, his gaze travelling around the table.

“Just one more thing,” Atton said from the opposite end of the table. His features were blurred blue by the star map hovering between them. The bright points of stars and star systems seemed to dance across his face as they slowly swirled above the table. “We need to have our resident biochemist, Dr. Kurlin Vastra, test everyone aboard for live strains of the virus that killed our crewmates. We can’t afford to infect anyone else when we meet with reinforcements from Obsidian Station.”

Ethan nodded. “I agree. Get Dr. Kurlin working on it.”

Ithicus turned to Ethan with a frown. “Do we even know what the frek that virus was?”

“Not yet,” Ethan replied.

“I’ve never seen anything kill so quickly before,” Caldin said. “And why did we survive?”

“We’re still investigating the matter,” Ethan replied waving one hand dismissively. “It would appear that we all had some sort of immunity. The virus was engineered, so that’s how it got past our sensors. Brondi propagated it through the Valiant as a prelude to his attack. Our resident expert on the matter is Dr. Vastra, so it would be better to direct any questions you have to him when you see him.

“If there’s no further business to discuss, then this meeting is adjourned. You all have your assignments, and we all know the plan. We can do this. It’s just two systems.” Turning to Ithicus, Ethan said, “I want that recon flight to fly tomorrow morning. We’re going to head out as soon as you give us the all-clear.” With that, Ethan snapped off the holo projection above the table and dialed the glow panels in the room up to full brightness once more. Tova turned to him with a squinty-eyed glare, but Ethan ignored her. Rising from the table, he gave them all a grim look and said, “Immortals be with us.”

*  *  *

The Invisible War


Alec Brondi reached the lift tube with his bodyguards to find a whole platoon of armored soldiers awaiting his command. The platoon sergeant saw him coming and saluted.

“Sir, we’ve sent a probe down to scan the deck, but something took it out when it reached the med lab. Preliminary scans from the probe show no active life forms in the area, so we have to assume that everyone is dead and that the assailant is some form of automaton.”

“No life forms?”

“None, sir.”

Brondi frowned. “I see. Let’s go take a look.” He started forward, but the sergeant didn’t budge.

“I would advise against that, sir.”

“Why?” Brondi’s smile faded to an impatient look which warned against further contradicting his wishes.

“I’m only considering your safety, sir. It would be best if we cleared the area first.”

“You will go first, but I’m following. As soon as your platoon clears the area around the lift tube I will join you.”

The sergeant hesitated briefly before giving a curt nod. “Yes, sir.” He turned to his men and said, “Squad one, into the lift!”

Four men stepped out of line, turned, and marched into the waiting lift tube. Brondi watched the lift doors closing behind them and the tube dropping away.

“Tune your comms to the platoon frequency,” the sergeant said to Brondi. “Frequency bravo echo five.”

Brondi and his bodyguards changed frequencies and then listened as the point squad’s transmissions began filtering into their ear pieces.

“It’s frekkin’ dark down here! Several of the fixtures are smashed.”

“It’s also frekkin’ cold!” another man said.

“Keep it down! I think I saw some movement up ahead. . . .”

They heard a loud whoosh over the comms and then a clatter as some metallic object fell to the floor.

“The frek? Where’s Three?”

They heard a muted gurgling.

“Something’s in here with us!” the first man whispered sharply.

“Two? What happened to . . . oh krak. . . . Two are you . . . he’s dead! Frek it! He’s—”

They heard a loud pop, and then silence, followed by heavy breathing. Someone was trying to wheeze out a word. “Heh . . . hehhww . . . hehwwp!”

The sergeant yelled into his comm piece, “Squad one, squad one, come in!”

Static answered.

“Shut it down,” Brondi said. The sergeant turned to him with a blank look, so Brondi nodded to the lift. “I said shut it down. Shut down the lift. We’ll vent the atmosphere on that deck and whatever the frek it is can go blue in the face for all I care.”

The sergeant shook his head slowly. “It’s not even alive, sir, and we need to get another squad down there to see if we can pull out survivors.”

Brondi scowled. “Did it sound like there were survivors?”

The sergeant’s lips formed a thin line. “We won’t know until we look.”

“Drop a plasma grenade down the lift and stop wasting my men and my time.”

“Don’t you want to know what it is?”

“You’ve seen one bot you’ve seen ‘em all. Now flush it with a grenade and get back to clearing bodies off my ship. They’re starting to stink.”

Brondi spun on his heel and began walking away, his bodyguards following a step behind. He wasn’t sure what angered him more—that Verlin had gone and gotten himself killed by a bot, or that the rest of his men insisted on throwing their lives away just as pointlessly.

As Brondi was about to turn a corner in the corridor, he heard the muted rumble of an explosion and then felt the subtle vibrations of it rumbling underfoot. At least the platoon sergeant knew how to follow orders. Whatever they’d unearthed down there was dead now.

*  *  *

Roan was halfway back to his crèche when he heard the deafening boom and saw the wall of fire rushing toward him. Loose objects went flying, and the fire reached him in a searing wind, picking him up and tossing him the rest of the way down the corridor. The roaring in his ears was deafening, and he felt a molten wave of shrapnel pelt his armor. When the noise and heat finally subsided, just a few seconds had passed, but Roan felt like it had been an eternity. He heard a sizzling sound above the ringing in his ears and the pitter patter of debris settling to the deck. When he cracked his eyes open he saw that the sizzling was the sound of water boiling off his armor.

Roan grimaced and pushed himself to his feet to check himself over. His cloaking system still worked, and he hadn’t sustained any major injuries. He turned in a slow circle to study the melted ruin of what had once been his home aboard the Valiant. The ice pillars were chipped and melted down to their duranium poles, and bare deck was exposed under foot. Great puddles of water were running down into the floor grates and into the pool. Flaming bits of debris were flickering in the dark, causing Roan to squint against the brightness.

He had no doubt that the men he’d been fighting were responsible for the explosion. Roan turned to look over his shoulder and saw the entrance to his crèche half-blocked with some sort of twisted metal framework.

Roan hissed. They had intended to kill him. They had failed. Now it was his turn, and he would have his revenge.


Chapter 8

The Invisible War

There was a bustle of activity on the lower decks where the crew quarters were located. Some of these decks had been previously exposed to space and now they were hastily patched with the drab, unpainted gray of spare hull panels.

The glow panels flickered as Atton proceeded down the corridor, making him realize that the electrical conduits were still damaged. He heard the crackle and hiss of laser welders in the distance, and saw them flashing in the dimness up ahead. As he walked, he noticed that some of the doors to the bunkrooms had been blown open and jagged molten holes were all that remained.

Atton passed a repair crew guiding a giant hull panel on a hover gurney down the corridor just before he came to bunkroom number 42. This was the room assigned to Dr. Kurlin and his family. Atton paused briefly at the door to straighten his uniform. The upper left shoulder was now emblazoned with the gold star insignia of a captain.

Atton knocked twice, and a moment later the door swished open to reveal the tall cadaverous form of Dr. Kurlin. The man had bags and dark circles beneath his bloodshot blue eyes, which spoke of too many sleepless nights.

“Yes?” Kurlin’s expression was grim.

Atton held out his hand and the doctor reluctantly shook it. “Dr. Vastra, I’m Captain Adan Reese.”

“I remember you.”

Adan nodded and smiled. “The overlord sent me. We need to talk. Could I come in for a moment?”

The doctor hesitated, leaning out the door to peer down the corridor, as if expecting to find a firing squad waiting just a step behind Atton.

“Don’t worry. I came alone.”

“Yes, of course . . . well, come in.”

The doctor waved him through, and Atton stepped across the threshold. As soon as he was inside, Kurlin sealed and locked the door. The room was small, the same as all the crew quarters. There were two double bunks, a small table with two chairs below a viewport which showed a slice of the flashing gray clouds of the Stormcloud Nebula. There were two steel lockers, and a bathroom that one would have to step sideways to enter. The walls were polished, white-painted duranium with silver trim around the warm gold glow panels which lined the perimeter of the room, while the floor was lined with blue, dirt-repellent carpets.

The smell of cinnamon wafted through the room, and Atton’s eyes were immediately drawn to the source. Alara and her mother were sitting on one of the bunks—Alara cupping a steaming mug of tea, not looking up, while her mother watched him from the shadows.

Atton turned to the doctor just as the man came shuffling up to him. “What is it you would like to talk about, Captain Reese?”

“We need you to test the crew to make sure no one is still contagious.”

The old man’s blue eyes sharpened, going from tired to alert in an instant. “Is someone presenting symptoms?”

“Not yet.”

Kurlin’s shoulders sagged. “Good . . . that’s good.”

“We still need to be sure we won’t be spreading the virus to our fleets in Sythian Space.”

“Yes, I suppose I could run some tests just to be sure.”

“We also need you to create more of the vaccine in the event of another outbreak.”

The doctor hesitated. “How will I do that? I don’t have any of my data or equipment here. I don’t even have a sample of the vaccine or a live strain of the virus.”

Atton frowned. “What about aboard Brondi’s corvette?”

“Well, some things are there, yes, but not enough. I’ll have to start from scratch, working from memory.”

Atton let out a tired sigh. “That’s not good.”

“No . . .” The doctor began rubbing his chin. “But I should be able to do it.”

“Good. You have three days.”

“Three days? That’s not enough time!”

“It’ll have to be. You’ll start testing the crew immediately. We’ve set up a lab for you in the med bay.”

Now it was Kurlin’s turn to sigh. “I’ll do what I can. . . . Does anyone know about . . . about what happened aboard the Valiant?”

Atton shook his head. “No, only the guards who interrogated you.”

“I see, and they . . .”

“They’ll be reassigned to the transfer station. We don’t want any problems.”

Kurlin looked relieved. He nodded and turned to look at his wife and daughter. After a moment, he quietly said, “It’s not me I worry about, you know. I deserve whatever revenge they might take.” His gaze returned to meet Atton’s. “But my family is not responsible, and I’m afraid what will happen to them. Do you know what I mean? Vigilante justice does not know the same bounds as legal justice.”

“In the event that you are discovered, we’ll post a guard to protect you and your family.”

“But who will protect us from the guards?”

Atton frowned. Now he turned to look at Kurlin’s family, where they were sitting huddled on the bunk, listening keenly to his and Kurlin’s conversation. “How’s Alara doing?” Atton asked, as though she couldn’t hear.

“She’s better, but still very confused. We are hopeful that she’ll be able to overcome her programming through cognitive behavioral therapy. The other treatments appear too risky at the moment.”

“I wish there was something I could do,” Atton said, and he meant it. Alara looked up at him and smiled alluringly. He smiled back, but looked away.

The doctor winced at his daughter’s expression and said, “Drink your tea, Alara.”

“Yes, Daddy,” she said, but there was a wry twist to her lips that suggested she was only humoring him by calling him her father.

Atton shook his head. “There’s a flight training program for nova pilots that’s just got underway.”

“Oh?” the doctor asked, sounding distracted. “That’s nice.”

“Yes. We’re in desperate need of pilots with training. I understand that Alara has had some flight experience.”

Suddenly Kurlin understood. He waved his hand and scowled. “Absolutely not.”

“I’ll be joining the program myself. The less-skilled pilots likely won’t see much action, but they could mean all the difference in a pitched battle.”

“What is he talking about, Kurlin?” his wife asked.

“Nothing, Darla. Don’t worry.” He grabbed Atton’s arm and began leading him from the room.

“Unhand me, Doctor.”

“Certainly.” Kurlin opened the door and pushed him outside; then he stepped outside with Atton and closed the door behind him with a wave of his wrist over the scanner. “She’s sick, Captain!” Kurlin said through clenched teeth. “You can’t put her in a cockpit—in a nova cockpit of all things!”

“She’s a trained pilot, and reinforcing a skill which connects to memories from her old life will help bring her back faster than any cognitive therapy.”

Kurlin frowned. “What good is bringing her back if she dies in the process?”

Atton threw up his hands. “What good is any of this if we all die because our capable pilots refuse to fly? We need her, Kurlin. I’ll have her fly my wing if she makes the squadron. I’ll look after her the best I can. I’m a 4A pilot. You can count on me to keep her safe.”

Kurlin’s lips trembled and his blue eyes glittered with some powerful emotion he was suppressing. For a moment Atton felt sure the old man was about to punch him in the face, but then he simply turned away and re-entered his quarters. “If you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of work to do.”

“If I have to order her to join the trainees, I will, Doctor,” Atton called after him.

Kurlin turned to stare at him, his expression unreadable. “Do whatever you feel you must, Captain, but she is not your daughter, and you would do well to imagine what you would do if she were.”

Atton watched the door slide shut and then he turned away with a frown. He began striding back the way he’d come, his heels clicking across the deck. He could have just dismissed it as Commander Adari’s fight and leave him to deal with all the reluctant recruits, but unfortunately it wasn’t that simple. This was everyone’s fight, and no one could afford to sit on the sidelines. The Defiant was running short-staffed as it was.

Atton entered the lift which had brought him to the crew deck and he punched in deck 17—Aurora’s Borealis. It was the ship’s main bar and rec hall. It took up most of the upper deck just below the bridge, the ship’s 18th and highest level.

The gold lights of the lower decks flashed by the transparent slits in the sides and front of the lift as it rose, blurring into teardrop-shaped streaks as Atton contemplated crossing Sythian Space. They would be setting out in just two days. No, it was two days this morning, Atton thought.

Now it was just one.

The lift slowed to a stop and the doors opened straight into Aurora’s. The spectral greens and blues of a simulated aurora borealis hovered just above his head—shifting veils of light which drew Atton’s eyes toward the ceiling. Above that lay a glittering patina of stars which were twinkling against the black, dome-shaped roof. The holo projection was inspiring to look at. With that sight, the verses of a famous poem—one of Atton’s favorites—came unbidden to his thoughts: A spacer’s dream / the stars to fly / to shed light where darkness lie / and discover what wonders wait—

“Before encountering this spacer’s fate,” Atton whispered the last verse to himself as he sat down at the bar.

“Catral. Those five lines immortalized him,” the bartender said, nodding. “I didn’t know you were such a romantic, Skidmark.” She smiled prettily at him, looking him up and down, as if suddenly seeing him in a new light.

Atton smiled back. The bartender’s name was Aurora; she was the owner and a retired Deck Sergeant.

“What’ll you be having?” she asked.

Atton grinned. “Whatever will knock me off this chair and plant my head firmly on a pillow.”

“Well for that I’d recommend a plasma grenade.”

Atton frowned. “I’d prefer if my head were still attached to my neck when it lands on my pillow.”

“Hah!” Aurora laughed with sparkling gray eyes and flicked her long brown hair over her left shoulder. “You’re a funny one. I like that. We need to laugh in times like these. No, it’s a cocktail. I’ll get you one,” she said, already busying herself behind the bar. “It’s my own creation.”

“Sure,” Atton nodded. While he waited to be served, he heard the doors open behind him and turned to see Commander Adari walk in. “Hoi!” Atton waved and the commander walked up to him, offering a sloppy salute.

“Sir,” he said.

Atton thought he detected a hint of sarcasm in Ithicus’s voice, but he decided to ignore it. “Pull up a chair.”

Ithicus hopped up on one of the barstools and sat down.

“How’s recruitment going?”

Ithicus snorted and turned to him after waving down Aurora and asking for a black maverick. “How do you think? It’s a joke. We can’t train pilots in two days. They’ll be lucky not to crash into the Defiant and accidentally kill us all on a routine fly by.”

Atton smiled as his drink arrived in a tall, fluted glass. Aurora winked at him as she slid it across the counter. The plasma grenade was swirled red and yellow, like a fiery explosion. Atton picked up the concoction and used the straw to stir it before taking an experimental sip.

He almost choked. It burned his throat, opening his airways as it went down, leaving him with watering eyes and a strong urge to sneeze. It tasted like pure alcohol mixed with fire and cleaning solvent. Not that he knew what that tasted like. Atton turned to Ithicus. “I’d like to sign up.”

Ithicus raised an eyebrow. “You were already a pilot, Adan. Now you’re the XO. Are you just trying to confuse everyone, or did the overlord fire you already?”

Atton shook his head. “We’re all going to need to fill several roles to keep this ship flying in one piece. I’m a skilled pilot, so I can’t afford to stand around looking pretty on the bridge when there’s a fight.”

Ithicus snorted and gulped his maverick straight out of the bottle. “Well, you never were that pretty.”

Atton grinned. “Don’t worry, I’m not trying to take your command. I have no ambitions to lead the squadron.”

Ithicus nodded and set his beer down with a thunk. “I wouldn’t mind if you did have them. It’s just a lot of extra data entry if you ask me. More trouble than it’s worth, but welcome back, brua. I’ll assign you a bird tomorrow morning and you can help me put the new recruits through their paces.”

“I look forward to it,” Atton replied and raised his fluted glass for a toast.

Ithicus made no move to raise his beer, but his crooked nose twitched. “What the frek is that?” he asked, nodding to the deceptively delicate-looking drink.

“It’s a plasma grenade,” Aurora answered for him, and both Atton and Ithicus turned to her. “Want one?” Her gray eyes were laughing and held a hint of challenge.

Ithicus barked a laugh. “Sure, why not? If skinny here can take it, I don’t see what’s my excuse.”

Aurora smiled and winked at Ithicus. “Coming right up.”


Chapter 9

The Invisible War

Brondi stood looming over his nav officer’s shoulder, staring with a gaping smile at the star map hovering above the console—at one bright point in particular. It was highlighted with a green diamond and there were colored dots around the icon to indicate attached data about the system.

“Are you sure this isn’t some sort of ruse old Dominic left to draw us out?” Brondi asked.

“I’m positive, sir. The records show no sign of tampering, and there’s simply too much data for this star system. Dominic wouldn’t have had enough time to fabricate it all. There are even holo recordings of meetings with the leader of the enclave—Admiral Hoff Heston.”

“Well, well, well!” Brondi clucked his tongue. “This is very nice!” A plan began to form in Brondi’s head. Between the holoskins of the overlord which he’d discovered, and this new bit of information, he was beginning to plot his next move. “What’s in that system?”

The nav officer responded by zooming in on the highlighted point, and Brondi saw that inside the highlighted area was the GCR—Gorvin, Clementa, and Rhodal—three systems which encompassed the three prime worlds for which they were named. In the very center of the three systems was an exoplanet called Ritan, which had been the subject of intense ecological and scientific study in the past. Ritan was a dark world, heated to a cozy equatorial temperature of twenty below by its active volcanoes. In between the steaming calderas and volcanic vents lay vast fields of ice which were populated by roaming herds of ice walkers. The walkers fed upon the luminescent moss which grew up in the geothermal marshes, while the perpetually dark skies were patrolled by a deadly species of giant bats that hunted the ice walkers. It was a short food chain—home to more strains of bacteria and fungi than anything else—and it was far from paradise. In spite of this, the Valiant’s star maps gave the planet great importance. Its planetary icon was brighter and bolder than all the rest, and the note that was attached under its name raised more than a few questions: Gor Academy & 5th Fleet Rendezvous.

Brondi frowned. “Gor academy?” he wondered aloud. “What’s that?”

The nav officer shook his head. “I’m not sure, sir. With your permission, I can submit a query to the ship’s computer. Maybe there’s something in the databanks.”

Brondi eyed the man. “If you needed to take a piss, would you ask for permission to do that, too?”

“Sorry, sir.”

Brondi stood watching as the corpsman at the nav submitted a verbal query to the Valiant’s databanks, soliciting a verbal response from the ship’s computer: “Gor Academy, population forty seven thousand Gors and four hundred humans.” Brondi’s eyes widened. “Center for training emancipated Gors in the operation and maintenance of human starships. Founded in 8 AE.”

“What the frek?” Brondi exchanged startled looks with the nav officer. Every eye on the bridge had turned to them and all the furious clicking and tapping at the bridge control stations had ceased, leaving only the steady hum of the ship’s air cyclers to break the silence.

“Who are the Gors?” Brondi demanded of no one in particular.

The computer answered with a second holo which appeared above the control station, hovering to one side of the star map. It showed a tall, muscular creature with pale blue-gray skin, a bony face and slitted yellow eyes. Then the ship’s computer went into a lengthy description of the Gors, their status as Sythian slaves, and their more recent role as part of the ISSF. By the time the computer finally shut up, a heavy silence fell once more.

Brondi just stood there, his chest rising and falling quickly as he stared into the skull-like blue-gray face of the Gor hovering above the nav station. After what seemed like an eternity, he spoke. “I’ll be in my quarters,” he said, and with that, Brondi turned and strode for the gangway which led off the bridge.

He needed time to think things through.

*  *  *

The Invisible War


Alara sat in the shadows of Aurora’s, listening to the two men at the bar singing drinking songs and laughing loudly into the wee hours of the night. They hadn’t even noticed when she’d come in. She sat by herself in a deep armchair which faced the bar’s main viewport, bouncing her knees in a steady rhythm as she stared glassy-eyed across the Defiant’s long bow and forward beam cannons into the flashing gray nebula beyond. She’d snuck out of her parents’ quarters as soon as they’d fallen asleep, and she’d come straight here. A part of her wondered why here, why come to a bar if she didn’t intend to drink, but the other part of her knew exactly why, and that knowledge sent her mind spinning away in tormented chaos.

She wanted so badly to join the men at the bar. Habit, impulse, desire, purpose, and needy insecurity were all mixing together to drag her toward them. She recognized both men, and both were handsome. More importantly, they were both likely to be very hungry. Officers always were, due to the higher percentage of enlisted men than women in the ISSF.

The only thing which stopped Alara from heading their way was the fact that everyone around her kept telling her that her every instinct was wrong, and that she wasn’t who she thought she was. Her memories were warring with each other. She remembered countless hundreds of men, all the faces blurring together. And as hard as she tried, she couldn’t feel revolted by those memories. Her job, while not glamorous, was highly paid, and it made her feel fortunate in a time when people were starving to death for lack of employment. But besides that, she actually enjoyed what she did. It was all she knew, and she was good at it.

How could that be fake?

The doctor had had to show her the brain scan. She recalled seeing the offending implant attached to her temporal lobe, and she remembered the sweaty feeling of unreality which had swept through her upon seeing it. That revelation had almost sent her drifting back into the cozy warmth of the abyss, but she’d fought to stay conscious. If what everyone was saying was true, then she couldn’t allow herself to be weak. That would mean losing her very self, her identity—everything that she was. . . .

Except that who she was now wasn’t who she’d been. They were like two separate people—identical twins—and wishing the old person back was like wishing herself dead so that her twin could live.

She couldn’t help feeling resentful about it. Was who she was so bad? Who were they to judge her?

Alara grimaced. She’d been told to fight these feelings, but it was so hard. When she tried to remember her previous life, it swam before her in an indistinct haze and gave her a headache. The memories were vague and only half-remembered, as if she were trying to recall a dream. But in her dreams those memories did occasionally surface. More than anything she remembered a man—he was tall and handsome, about forty years old, with salt and pepper hair, green eyes, and a grin which warmed her blood in a way that no other man’s ever had. . . .

Alara allowed her eyes to drift shut and she tried to bring his face into focus in her mind’s eye. At first nothing happened, but then she began to see blurry shapes swimming out of the void, and then words, half-remembered and muddled. Her breathing and heart rate began to slow as she concentrated on the blurry parade of memories that made no sense and refused to take form. After an indeterminable amount of time one shape swam into focus, and there he was, his face sharp and clear like crystal. She felt a surge of joy.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“I’ll be back soon, kiddie,” he said.

She watched him turn to leave, wanting to call out for him to stop, but instead she said, “I love you!”

Now he did stop, and he turned around to say, “I love you, too, Alara.”

Her eyes shot open as if loaded on springs. Her heart pounded in her chest. She sat up in the chair and looked around quickly to get her bearings. She was . . . where was she?

Then she remembered—Aurora’s. She must have fallen asleep in the armchair.

Alara closed her eyes again and tried to bring the dream back into focus, but she couldn’t. She opened her eyes and shook her head slowly. Whenever she saw that man in her dreams, she felt safe, happy, and at peace. Upon waking, however, those memories only brought more confusion. Who was that tall, dark-haired man? She could still hear the echoes of his words to her in the dream: “I love you, too, Alara.”

He loved her. Whoever that man was, he loved her. She tried to cling to that, to use it as an anchor about which she could keep herself rooted despite the swirling storm inside her head.

Her head began to pound again, and Alara pressed both hands to her temples and squeezed. Tears burned behind her eyelids, but she fought them back. She should just go to bed and bring an end to another awful, tormented day, but she was afraid to go to sleep and never wake up again, to have this other person, this stranger inside of her wake up instead and begin living her life.

Alara shook her head, her violet eyes springing open once more. No matter what anyone else said about who she really was, she couldn’t listen to them. She would have to pretend to listen just to shut them up, but she couldn’t let them try to “fix” her. If they succeeded, everything she knew would disappear. She would disappear.

Alara stopped bouncing her knees. She’d come to a decision, and with that decision she felt a measure of peace. She stood up from the chair and made her way over to the pair of men sitting at the bar, swaying to the off-key melody of their drunken spacer’s songs. One of them would agree to be hers, she was sure of that.

If she couldn’t sleep, at least she could make the best of the night.

*  *  *

Atton picked up his cocktail with a grin and snapped his fingers at the bartender. “Hoi, beauty!” The red and yellow mixture sloshed over the sides of the fluted glass as he accidentally tipped it first one way and then the other. “What say you join us for a round? I’m buyin’!”

Ithicus elbowed him in the ribs and gave him a mock serious look. “I saw her first, brua.”

“Well, we’ll just have to see who the lady prefers!”Atton said as the bartender walked up to them with a patient smile.

Aurora planted her elbows on the counter and leaned toward them, giving a teasing view of her cleavage. She was probably 40-something, but she looked like a young 30. “Don’t you boys think you’ve had enough?”

Atton deferred the question to his drinking buddy. “Have we—hic—’ad enough, Ithy?”

Ithicus was swaying on his barstool with a black maverick in one hand and a plasma grenade cocktail in the other. “There’s only one way to find out.” A slow grin spread across his lined face.

“What’s ‘hat?”

“Another drink!”

They both laughed raucously.

Aurora frowned at them, and her gaze slipped away to see a fresh face approaching her bar. “Finally, some intelligent company! What’ll you be having?”

Atton turned to see Alara walking lithely up to the bar, her hips swaying, her eyes finding first him and then Ithicus and giving each of them a long, up-and-down look.

“Hello, boys,” she said, ignoring the bartender.

“Hoi,” Atton managed despite a suddenly dry throat.

Ithicus just grinned. When she came close, he reached out and grabbed her by the waist. She smiled and squealed, allowing him to draw her into his lap.

“What are you doing, Lieutenant?” Alara asked in a coy voice.

“It’s Lieutenant Commander now.”

“Mmmm,” Alara purred. “A commander. I suppose that means you like giving orders . . . taking command . . . being obeyed. Very sexy.”

“That’s right,” Ithicus nodded. “Hoi! Aurora, get the lady a drink! It’s on me.”

“I like a man who knows how to give orders,” Alara went on.

“Well, you’re really gonna like me, then.”

Atton sat watching the exchange with a rising complaint stuck in his throat—at first because he’d imagined Alara sitting on his lap, but then because he remembered who Alara was. This was his father’s copilot, and she had a slave chip implanted. She’d have sex with anyone, do anything, and like it—if they had the Sols.

Atton felt a hot surge of anger building, but he clamped down on it. Ithicus couldn’t have known. He opened his mouth to explain, but Aurora was back. She frowned at the cuddling couple which had somehow taken the place of the old drunken pilot who’d been sitting at her bar a moment ago.

“Well, that was fast. You must be more charming that I thought, Lieutenant.”

He smiled thinly at her. “Get the lady a plasma grenade, would you?”

“I think the lady should order her own drink.”

“No,” Alara said, looking up. “I want him to order for me. That way it’s a surprise.”

“You sure?” Aurora asked, her eyebrows drawing together. “You look like you could use your inhibitions a while longer.”

Ithicus slammed an open palm on the bar counter, his eyes flashing at the bartender. “Just get the lady her drink, okay?”

Aurora’s eyes hardened. “I think you need to leave my bar, Lieutenant.”

“It’s lieutenant commander, and I’ll leave when I frekkin’ feel like it!”

“Then I’m afraid I’m going to have to call the IFS.”

Ithicus barked a laugh. “That’s a joke! There’s no such damn thing! You think we have IFS on board? We barely have a crew. Go ahead, call them!”

“It would be easier if you’d have some self-control and stop embarrassing yourself and the uniform.”

Ithicus glared at her. “You know what,” he said, rising from his barstool and lifting Alara off his lap as though she were a child. “I think you’re right. It’s time for us to go. Maybe we can continue this party where we have a little more privacy.”

“Sounds good to me,” Alara said, with one hand on Ithicus’s broad barrel chest as she looked up at him with wide, innocent eyes.

Atton finally managed to come to his senses enough to speak. He rose unsteadily from his chair and smiled at Alara before turning to Ithicus. “Could I have a word with you, LC?”

“Not now, Adan.”

“Yes now, and that’s an order.”

Ithicus glared at him, and the pulsing tongues-of-fire tattoo on his forearm seemed to flare a brighter blue. “We’ll talk in the morning.” Ithicus turned to leave, taking Alara by the arm.

She waved to Atton and blew him a kiss over Ithicus’s shoulder.

Atton grimaced and caught up to Ithicus in one quick stride, grabbing him by the arm to stop him. “Ithicus. Have you forgotten I outrank you now?”

Ithicus turned to him with a sarcastic gleam in his dark brown eyes, and Atton heard Aurora speaking in hushed tones into the comm at the bar.

 ”We’re all about to die, Adan. Everything we knew is gone—again—and frek it if I care anymore. You know how many people we lost aboard the Valiant? Do you even know their names? Does anyone know their names? They’re just gone. They’re not coming back, and neither are we. So frek your rank, Adan. It doesn’t mean krak. We’re all going to be space dust, so excuse me if I don’t give flyin’ frek what you say. You want to give me orders?” Ithicus’s chest rose and fell quickly with pent-up rage. “You can give me orders in the netherworld.”

Atton scowled, and what he said next came through gritted teeth. “She’s chipped, Ithicus. You can’t take her to your quarters, or anywhere. She isn’t who she thinks she is.”

Alara stepped between the two men before Ithicus could even reply, and she jabbed a finger in Adan’s chest. “You know what, he’s right. Frek you! Why don’t you just frek off and mind your own business?”

Atton blinked, startled by her outburst. “Alara . . .” he began, but she was already turning away.

“Come on, Ithy, let’s go. I have some ideas about how we can relax.”

Atton winced at the implication of her words, but he didn’t try to follow them this time. He just watched helplessly as Ithicus led Alara to the lift tubes and his quarters waiting below decks. He would use her roughly, and she was going to let him—even encourage him.

One of the lift tubes opened just before Ithicus and Alara reached them, and out stepped a pair of corpsmen, holding their rifles at the ready, followed by the overlord.

“Good evening,” Ethan greeted as they approached. The guards stepped forward and seized Alara by the arms.

She kicked one of them in the chins, but her foot bounced off his armor, and she yelped. “Frek you! Let me go!” she said.

Ithicus’s gaze found the overlord’s and he gave a sloppy salute. “Sir,” he said, swaying on his feet.

“At ease, Commander,” Ethan replied. “I’m afraid your date is out past her curfew, and we’re going to have to return her to her parents now.”

Ithicus frowned, but he nodded slowly. “Yes, sir.”

Ethan turned to watch as his guards dragged Alara kicking and screaming toward the lift. “One more thing.”

“Sir?”

“Did you know that prostitution is illegal in the Imperium, and that soliciting carries a two to five year sentence?”

“Yes, sir, but—”

“You didn’t know she was chipped. That’s fair, this is just your first warning. I assume I won’t need to issue another one.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good night then, gentlemen.”

With that, Ethan turned to leave and he followed Alara and his guards into the lift.

Atton watched the lift drop away, and then he breathed a sigh of relief. Hopefully his father’s warning would keep Ithicus in check, but Ethan would have to issue a similar warning to every man on the ship if he was going to keep Alara safe.

Ithicus caught Atton’s eye and jerked his chin. “What’re you lookin’ at?”

Atton shrugged. “I told you she was chipped.”

“Frek you, Adan.” Ithicus turned and continued on toward the lifts.

Atton frowned and shook his head. “I’m going to dismiss that insubordinate remark as the alcohol talking. Go sleep it off!”

Ithicus gave no reply as he stepped into the next lift tube and rode it down the flight deck. Atton shook his head. “Dumb brute.”

He felt a hand land on his shoulder, and turned to see Aurora standing behind him. “Next time you’re here, your drinks are on me.”

Atton smiled. “Thanks. You sure I can’t buy you one now?”

She shook her head. “I think we’d both better hit the rack.”

Atton nodded. “Raincheck then.”

“It’s a date.”

Atton laughed and made his own way to the lifts. Turning and walking backward, Atton said, “You’re almost twice my age, Aurora.”

“Which means I have twice the experience.” Her amber eyes glittered as she smiled at him. “Think about that.”

“In your dreams.”

“No, in yours,” she said, winking at him.

The lift returned and Atton walked inside. He punched the crew deck and the lift dropped swiftly away before their banter could turn serious. He smirked to himself and shook his head. Sometimes a forward woman could be very sexy. Then his thoughts turned to Alara, and his smirk turned to a frown. Sometimes.

He hoped that Ethan found a way to reign her in before she ended up sleeping with every man on board.

*  *  *

Ethan took Alara back to his quarters instead of her parents’ so they could talk. He left the guards posted outside his door. She noticed, and shot him a lurid smile. She obviously misunderstood his intentions.

“Mmmm, now I get it,” she purred, coming up behind him and touching his arm gently as she whispered in his ear, “You just wanted me for yourself.”

Ethan turned to her with a grimace. “Alara, that’s not—”

She was backing away, her hands already popping the buttons on her blouse. She shrugged the blouse off and it fluttered to the floor.

“Alara, put that back on.”

She giggled as she began working on her pants, her hips swaying to a silent melody. “Make me.”

Ethan started after her as her pants fell off and she kicked them away. She was backing toward his bed, leading him there. She unclipped her bra to reveal two perfectly rounded breasts just as she stepped into the leafy shadows cast by the ferns growing up along the dividing privacy wall between Ethan’s living area and his bedroom. Ethan felt an answering stir inside of him, but fought to push it away as he followed Alara to the bed.

Now she worked her panties off, one corner at a time, teasing him with partial glimpses, before working them slowly down her thighs and legs to bare all. Ethan stopped before entering the bedroom, and now he looked away, holding one hand over his eyes and another up between him and Alara in a vain attempt to preserve her modesty.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, sounding hurt. “Am I not pretty enough for you? You don’t want to look at me?”

“Alara, it’s not that, it’s—”

“My name’s Angel, she interrupted, and then she walked up to him and grabbed his hand—

And placed it there. Ethan flinched as he felt something warm and wet graze his palm. He opened his eyes to see where she’d placed his hand, and he recoiled from her. “Alara!”

“Frek me!” she said, her violet eyes wild as pulled him close and kissed him firmly on the lips. She forced her tongue past his clenched teeth, and he gave her a rough shove away from him. Alara tumbled to the floor with a yelp of surprise and pain. She sat looking up at him with genuine hurt now.

“I—frek, I’m sorry, Alara. He held out a hand to help her up, but she slapped it away and pushed herself off the floor.”

“Hoi, if you like men, you could have just told me instead of wasting my time by bringing me here. I don’t know why you bothered.” She went to pick up her panties, and Ethan found himself watching as she bent down. He shook his head and looked away again as she pulled her underwear back on. He absently felt for his wedding band to give himself strength, but it wasn’t there. He’d taken it off long ago to avoid giving himself away. The overlord wasn’t married, after all.

Alara brushed past him into the living room to hunt for the rest of her clothes. She pulled on her pants and then snatched up her bra and blouse. “Good night old man,” she said with a smirk. She was now almost to the door. “You’d probably better see a medic about that prostate before it explodes.”

“Alara!” Ethan said, taking a deep breath to still his racing heart.

“What?” she looked up at him with hard, angry eyes.

His lips twisted in a miserable frown. “I love you, kiddie.”

Suddenly, she stopped buttoning her blouse and her expression went from angry to shocked. Then her eyes began to glisten with moisture in the low, night-cycle lighting of his quarters. “You what?” Her breath hitched in her chest.

“I love you,” he repeated, now walking toward her. “That’s why I’m not going to do what you want.” He reached her side in a few short strides and led her gently by the hand to the nearest couch in his living room. She sank into it gratefully, her eyes wide and blinking as she stared at the opposite wall. A solitary tear slid slowly down her left cheek.

“You’re not well,” he said, holding her hand in his lap as he sat down beside her.

Alara slowly turned her head to him and he wiped away that trickling tear. She began to shiver.

He noticed and placed his hand against her forehead. “Are you okay?”

“You called me kiddie.”

Ethan saw the spark of recognition in her violet eyes and his own eyes grew wide. “Well, to me everyone’s a kid, so—”

“Don’t do that to me.” Alara frowned and shook her head. “Everyone’s been telling me I’m not who I think I am, and that what I remember isn’t real, but this is real, isn’t it? Are you him? Am I remembering you from my childhood? When you were younger?” She searched his eyes, but then that spark of recognition and hope he’d seen abruptly died, and she shook her head. “Never mind.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Your eyes are the wrong color. They’re blue, not green.”

“Oh . . . well, there’s not much I can do about that, I’m afraid.”

Alara gave him a broken smile. “I suppose not.” She withdrew her hand from his and clasped it together with her other one, as if she were about to pray. “You don’t know what it’s like,” she said, staring down at her hands, “To be caught between two realities and two different lives and to wonder which one of them is really yours.”

Ethan rubbed her back gently and said, “I’m sorry.”

She looked up at him. “Do you ever wonder who you really are? Do you have to listen to people telling you all day that the way you are, the things you want, what you say, and even how you act—that all of it is wrong? They tell you that you need to do a better job . . . to resist yourself, but even when you try, it’s not real. It’s just an act. You’re just doing what they want to make them happy. It has nothing to do with you.”

Ethan shook his head. “I’m afraid I don’t know what that’s like.”

“Then you can’t know how I feel.”

“Perhaps not, but I think I know someone who might.”

Alara’s eyebrows went up.

“I believe you’ve met Captain Adan Reese, the new XO of the Defiant?” She hesitated, then nodded slowly, and Ethan went on, “You should talk to him. Make a friend. I have a feeling he’s looking for one, too.”

Alara smiled half-heartedly. “I’m not good at making friends. I’ve never had to be.”

Ethan shrugged. “Neither is he. Same reason.” He patted her on the back and rose from the couch, offering his hand to help her up. She took it, but her eyes were wary.

“You can sleep here tonight, if you don’t want to go back to your parents’ quarters yet,” Ethan said.

She cocked her head. “Reconsidering your decision not to sleep with me?”

“No. I’ll stay here on the couch.” He waved a hand at the dividing half wall between the living area and the bedroom, and said, “Privacy screen on.”

Suddenly the bedroom was cut off by a holofield of trees rising up behind the short wall of real ferns. The walkway between living room and bedroom had become a slightly-curving tunnel of greenery, the entrance all but blocked by a hanging veil of red and yellow blossoms.

“Thank you,” Alara said, turning to him with a smile. She kissed him on the cheek and started toward the blossom-crowded path. “If you change your mind . . .”

“I won’t.”

She sent him a playful wink and then walked through the projected veil of flowers.

Ethan let out a long sigh. “Hardest thing I ever . . .” He muttered and shook his head. He’d grown used to rejecting women’s advances over the years, and Alara had given him regular practice in the past—although she’d never been that pushy about it, nor that good at using her assets to change his mind.

He hadn’t lied to her. He did love her, and maybe with enough time he could even be persuaded to love her romantically, but one thing stopped him: he loved Destra far more, and where before he’d only had his memories of her to keep him chaste, he now had something far more compelling.

Hope.

Atton had told him that Destra Ortane had been alive when she’d sent him away with his great uncle Reichland, which meant there was a chance she might still be alive. And as long as there was even a chance, he had to keep looking for her. He had to wait. He’d wait until his dying breath if that was what it took.


Chapter 10

— THE YEAR 0 AE—

Night was the most trying time of all, when all their nerves were frayed and the shadows seemed to take on ghoulish form. Night was when the Sythians came out to hunt.

Destra sat huddled on the living room couch with Lessie and her son Dean, their eyes glued to the holoscreen opposite the couch, watching the night vision security feeds which were coming in from cameras scattered around the forest above Digger’s hideout. Each camera slowly panned left to right and back again, giving a comprehensive view of their surroundings.

“You’re not going to see anything,” Digger said, calling from the kitchen. Destra turned to meet his gaze, but he was busy preparing himself a sandwich with the last two slices of bread. After a moment, he caught her staring at him and he looked up with a shrug. “The best we can do is listen for them.” He took a giant bite of his sandwich and then made a gesture at the holoscreen. Destra turned to see the volume rapidly increasing from 0 to 100. They heard a soft fuzz of static and the sound of wind roaring and whistling through the trees.

Destra turned back to Digger. “How are we supposed to listen for anything through all that background noise?”

You’re not. I have a program automatically analyzing the feed for specific sound profiles—anything which doesn’t fit the usual background noise of the forest, like footsteps.” Digger took another bite of his sandwich and waved a dismissive hand. “Besides, it’s one thing for the skullies to traipse by us. It’s a whole ‘nother thing for them to find us down here.”

Destra’s brow furrowed. “You don’t think they have detectors? That they’ll detect radiation leakage from your generator, for example?”

“Hey, what do you take me for, a total stim-bake?” Destra frowned at that. She’d caught him shooting up in the bathroom soon after they’d arrived. He’d claimed the stims he used were not addictive, with no side effects, but Destra didn’t want to know about it—stimmers all had the same excuses. “Patrollers have been lookin’ for me for years,” Digger went on. “I’m so deep underground and so heavily-shielded in here that they must have walked right by me half a dozen times.” Digger waved a hand at the screen, “Besides, I don’t see the skullies walkin’ around with any kind of tech. They’re just hunting for the next meal—one of us, that is.”

Lessie clapped her hands over Dean’s ears. “Could you not talk about that while we’re here, please? Dean has enough trouble sleeping without you reminding us what’s out there.”

“Hoi, sorry,” Digger drawled with his mouth full of sandwich. “Jus tryin’ to keep it real, ya know?”

“Well, don’t.”

“Speakin’ of what’s out there. Which one of you’s going to do the first scavenger hunt?”

Detra turned to Digger with a frown. “The first what?”

“You know, comb around for food and supplies . . . we won’t last long in here without that.”

“You and I can go first thing tomorrow morning.”

“Ha! Ha, ha!” Digger lowered his sandwich and smiled meaningfully at Destra.

She found herself distracted by a small green piece of salad caught in a smear of mustard at the corner of his mouth. “What?” she asked.

“I’m providing the digs here, so I think it’s only fair you be the runners.”

“You’re joking.”

He shook his head. “Don’t worry, I won’t ask the kid to go. He can stay here with me.”

Now Lessie turned to join the conversation. “You can’t be serious.”

Digger shrugged. “Fine, take him with. I don’t care.”

“No, I mean about sending us out there—with those things.” Lessie appeared to shiver even at the thought of the aliens running around on the surface.

“Someone’s got to go.”

“How about you?” Destra asked, jerking her chin to him. “We can send Digger The Brave.”

“Watch your pretty mouth.” Digger scowled. “You’re going, and I’m staying, and that’s the end of it. If either of you has something else to say about it, you can tell it to Doc and Petra.”

Destra felt her ire rising at the mention of Digger’s pet rictans. They were both chipped, so they weren’t a danger to anyone unless Digger wanted them to be, but one of them could kill just as efficiently as a Sythian, and Destra was quietly furious that Digger let them roam around freely at night. As if it isn’t hard enough to sleep already.

“I have weapons and armor for the two of you, so you should be fine out there.”

Destra was about to reply when the sound of the wind whistling and rustling through the trees overhead was broken by a piercing scream. All eyes turned to the cameras, and this time they saw something. A warning tone issued from the sound system and a computerized voice said, “Warning, threat detected.”

“Oh no, oh no—” Lessie said, trying to cover Dean’s eyes and ears at the same time. “Switch it off!”

Dean began to cry.

Destra watched with horrified fascination as one of the cameras automatically panned and zoomed in on the sight. A small group of people were running through the trees. One of the women in that group was screaming at the top of her lungs with the others hissing at her to shut up.

“We have to do something!” Destra said, turning back to Digger.

He just shook his head. “We can’t.”

“You said you have weapons!”

“For us, not for them.”

“Digger!”

Another scream came from the cameras, and there was a loud ruckus of shouting, followed by the sound of ripper rifles opening up. They all watched in horror as one by one the group of people was knocked to the ground and set upon by invisible beasts, their guns all firing in random directions as they were struck down. Destra looked away as the scene turned bloody. “Switch it off, Digger!”

He deliberately waited a few more seconds before waving his hand to turn off the screen. “Well,” he began, “it’s unfortunate we had to see that just before bedtime.”

“And you want us to go out there?” Destra shook her head. “I think we need a better plan.”

“Like what?” Digger snorted. “Maybe we can dig a little deeper down here and find some juicy worms.” He smirked and went on, “Except I don’t fancy eating worms. Don’t worry, the Sythians only hunt at night. So long as you don’t wake any of ‘em up you should be fine.”

“Thanks,” Destra said as she and Lessie rose from the couch. Lessie had her son in her arms and was trying to soothe his crying by patting and rubbing his back. Both Lessie and Destra scowled at Digger as they walked past.

“G’night,” he said, smiling thinly at them.

Destra gave no reply. Digger had just drawn a line in the sand. He’d shown them who was the head of this household, and exactly what that meant. In the process of exercising his authority, he’d finally answered for her the question of why a scuzzy outlaw like him would go out of his way to shelter three complete strangers. He was sheltering them because they were his meal tickets. They would go out and hunt while he stayed safe at home.

As they walked into the spare bedroom they heard a growl and saw one of the rictans turn its head to glare at them with red eyes glinting in the dark.

Lessie froze in the doorway with a gasp of shock, and Destra felt her heart rate spike, but then she walked by Lessie with a scowl and shooed the beast from the room, doing her best to ignore its snarling. She had to remind herself it was chipped, so it wouldn’t bite her. “Doc, get out of here! We’re going to bed!”

The initial arrangement with her sleeping on the couch and Lessie and Dean sleeping alone in the spare room had quickly been overturned when Destra had been unable to get any sleep with the rictans pacing the living room at night, their claws clickity-clacking across the polished duranium floors.

As soon as Doc was out of the room and glaring at her sleepily from the other side of the open door, Destra moved to seal and lock the room. The door shut with a swish and subsequent thunk of bolts sliding into place. “There,” Destra said, and turned to Lessie and Dean with a frown. “Let’s get some rest. It sounds like we have a long day ahead of us tomorrow.”

Lessie nodded slowly and moved to deposit Dean on the bed while Destra began to undress. After what they’d seen on the cameras, she had a feeling it would be a long night, too.

*  *  *

—THE YEAR 10 AE—

The Invisible War


Brondi stared up into the starry blackness of space, feeling the chair beneath him dip and slowly turn to carry him through the Star Dome. With the room’s dome-shaped transpiranium ceiling he was treated to a broad, unobstructed view of space. Reclining grav chairs floated in a slow dance around the room, gently rising and falling as they drifted in lazy circles. The Star Dome was an officer’s lounge, with drinks being served by a server bot at a bar along the far wall of the room. Brondi could make an order using the controls in his armrest and then his grav chair would stop to pick up his drink on its next pass by the bar.

The whole purpose of the Star Dome was to relax. Between the room’s low gravity and amazing vistas of space, it functioned just as intended.

Chairs could be configured to circle the room together in more social groupings, or to circle the room alone, as Brondi was doing now. The crime lord wondered how many times the indolent overlord had come here just to catch a nap or to piss away the afternoon and evening with an endless stream of fancy cocktails. The dome was also equipped with a holofield so it could be configured to show any scene at all, or even a holovid.

Adding to the relaxing atmosphere was the sound of water which bubbled up from a light sculpture in the center of the room. The water cascaded down the sides of the sculpture, but somehow kept from disturbing the glassy pool on the deck. The effect of the water below and the transparent dome above was startling. The pool reflected the view through the ceiling almost perfectly, giving a sense that one was suspended, floating in deep space. It was the perfect environment for Brondi to clear his head, which was exactly what he needed to do now.

He had to plan his next move. At first, he’d been content just to have the Valiant, and to rule all of Dark Space without the nettlesome interference of the ISSF, but now like a kid who’d just had his first taste of candy, he wanted more.

Dominic had been hiding more than Brondi could have ever thought possible. First of all, he wasn’t actually the overlord; he had been a holoskinner in a long line of holoskinners; second, there was a whole race of aliens beyond Dark Space that no one even knew about; and third, and possibly most interesting of all, there was another enclave of human survivors—and who knew how many ships they might have!

All of those details had been swirling together in Brondi’s mind for the past two hours, and now finally, he knew what to do. Brondi keyed the controls in his armrest to let him off when his chair next drifted by the entrance of the Star Dome. When he reached the doors, and his chair slowed to a stop, Brondi pushed himself to his feet and walked out of the room in a dreamy haze. The doors swished open and he started down a long corridor toward another pair of doors. The gravity in the corridor gradually increased until it reached ISSF standard. After hours in low gravity, normal gravity made him feel twice as slow and heavy as usual. Frowning at the sudden headache which he felt encroaching at his temples, Brondi made his way to the nearest pair of lift tubes.

By the time he stepped back onto the bridge deck, he was already barking orders to his crew. “Nav! Set course for the Dark Space gate. Engineering, check all systems green and report! Comms, we’re on orange alert, notify the crew and have them standing ready at their stations as soon as we exit the gate.”

“Engineering reports all systems green.”

“Nav, setting course.”

“Sir, most of the crew is asleep, should I wake them with the orange alert?”

Brondi shook his head as he reached the end of the gangway. “Set their alarms for an hour before we exit SLS and update readiness then. No need to deprive them of sleep.”

The captain whom Brondi had appointed and then left on deck to deal with the minutiae of running the Valiant walked up to Brondi now. “Sir,” he stopped and saluted one step down from the gangway, bringing him to eye-level with Brondi.

“Yes?” Brondi asked, frowning at the dark-skinned captain. He had white hair which was suggestive of his age, but the body and musculature of a much younger man. His eyes were dark and glinting with steel.

“Are we going to chase the Defiant through Sythian Space? While you were off deck I came up with a plan to hunt them down.”

Brondi was already shaking his head. “No, Captain Thornton.” He turned to look out the viewports and nod at the distant space gate—the new Dark Space gate, which was really just the in-system gate, repositioned to replace the shattered cloud of debris that the overlord and his crew had left of the old one. “The Defiant is only one ship. We have a whole fleet out there waiting for us to take command, and it’s time that we did so.” Brondi turned back to his captain with a gaping smile. As he met the captain’s curious gaze, Brondi mentally activated the holoskin he now wore.

Captain Thornton gasped, “Overlord Dominic!” Soon every eye on the bridge had turned to stare at Brondi in his new form, uncertainty and shock warring across their faces.

But when Brondi spoke once more, it was still his voice which reached their ears. “Relax,” he said.

“Is that a holoskin?” the captain asked, his mouth agape. “Where did you get that?”

Brondi smiled. Holoskins were supposed to be very rare. Not only were they illegal, but they were made of strictly-controlled substances and very expensive shielding. “This is the overlord’s very own holoskin,” Brondi replied. The confused looks which answered that revelation prompted Brondi to explain. “Our beloved Dominic was an imposter.”

Now the bridge grew loud with gasps and exclamations from the crew, while Captain Thornton just stared straight ahead, his eyes glazed and unblinking as his mind struggled to catch up.

Brondi shrugged and then turned in a slow circle to address everyone. “Whoever he was, the overlord has left us with a great gift! He’s left us himself.” Turning to the captain, Brondi shook his head. “Except I’m not tall enough to pull it off. Would you do us the honor of being the overlord, Captain?” Captain Thornton just went on staring at him, and Brondi nodded, his mouth gaping in a smile once more. “I’ll take that as a yes.” Brondi turned his smile out to space. “It’s time we took back our birthright—” He nodded once at the gate which was now growing steadily larger in the forward viewports. “—freedom.”

*  *  *

The Invisible War


Ethan strode onto the bridge with Tova walking silently behind him. She was naked, so as not to overly upset any crew members who might remember the Gors’ black armor from the war. As a concession to Tova’s physical needs, the lights on the bridge had been dimmed and the temperature dropped to just a few degrees above zero, adding to the frigid silence which swept across the bridge as she came in. Atton was waiting with Commander Caldin on the far side of the captain’s table, his eyes on them as they approached. Atton gave a shallow nod which Ethan returned as he turned to address the crew.

“Deck Officer Grimsby, open the intercom to the rest of the ship, I need to make an announcement.”

Grimsby worked quietly at his station for a second before nodding up at Ethan.

Ethan took a deep breath, and then he began. “Good morning, Defiant. This is your overlord speaking. We are about to set out on a journey to cross Sythian Space in order to make direct contact with our forces at Obsidian Station. Without a cloaking device, it will be dangerous, but I can assure you we have reviewed all of the alternatives, and setting out in the Defiant to cross Sythian Space was the very last option we considered. There are no easy ways out of what’s to come.

“As you may or may not have already heard, we have a Gor aboard to help us make the trip safely. The Mighty Tova is going to help us detect cloaked Sythian ships, and to make contact with her crèche mates aboard Obsidian Station before we arrive. We are crossing just two systems before we will stop to launch another, smaller vessel to complete the journey. Tova will go along for that final leg of the journey, and we will wait at a designated safe location for reinforcements to arrive with fuel and a relief crew. Our preliminary recon shows that we will encounter only mild resistance while crossing the two systems between us and our launching off point, but we are about to conduct a recon of Taylon, where we are now, to confirm this. Let’s hope there are no Sythians lying in wait for us. From this point on, we are on orange alert. Our departure is set for twelve hours from now, so we’re going to have to work hard to get everything ready before then. Make sure you are standing by your stations and reachable on the comms at all times. Ruh-kah!”

Ethan ended his speech and gestured for the comm officer to turn off the intercom mode. Some muted grumbling followed Ethan’s introductory speech, but Ethan ignored it. The crew didn’t have to be happy that they were working with Tova, they just had to accept it.

Ethan turned back to his son. “You’d better get to the flight deck.”

Atton nodded and started toward the doors at the back of the bridge. Ethan caught him by the arm as he walked by. “You know you don’t have to do this, right?” Ethan said in a quiet voice.

Atton shrugged. “If not me, then who? We’re short of capable pilots.”

Ethan grimaced. “Your mother would kill me.”

Atton gave a sad smile. “She would, but she’s not here.”

“Yet.” Ethan raised a warning finger. “Don’t think I won’t tell her when she is.”

“And get yourself into trouble? She’d kill you, too.”

Ethan snorted with laughter. “Then we’ll die together, won’t we?”

“Guess so,” Atton replied, grinning wryly at him before starting off at a jog. Ethan watched him go with a painful lump rising in his throat. Letting his son join the Defiant’s fighter screen was like signing the boy’s death certificate himself. Ethan didn’t expect to make it to Obsidian Station with very many of their pilots still among the living, but Atton had insisted he be allowed to fly one of the remaining novas, and like father like son he also had an “A” pilot rating—his kill score was lower, making him 4A rather than 5A, but overall that rating still marked him as a superb pilot—so if anyone were going to live through the crossing, it would be him.

And Ethan couldn’t argue with the boy’s logic. If their capable pilots didn’t fly, then what chance did any of them stand? Ethan turned away with a shaky sigh as the doors swished shut behind Atton. Besides, the necessity of the matter, there was no guarantee that Atton would be any safer aboard the Defiant. At least in a small, maneuverable fighter he could dodge most of the enemy fire.

The Defiant, on the other hand, would be a sitting duck.


THE CROSSING

The Invisible War


Chapter 11

Alara sat at the small table below the viewport in her parent’s quarters, her arms crossed, her gaze averted from the room as she stared out into space. She’d been doing her best to ignore her parents—if they even really were her parents. They could just as easily be two imposters and she would never know. They certainly felt like imposters.

Her memories, the ones that she could bring to mind and the ones that felt real, were of growing up in a girl’s orphanage. When she was just 16 the orphanage had run out of funds, and Alec Brondi had generously agreed to take in all of the orphans. He’d raised them like his own daughters, and then he’d taught them a valuable trade, one which would enable them to live in comfort and ease while the rest of humanity starved to death.

As for the old couple sharing a room with her aboard the Defiant, they were just a pair of overbearing strangers who wouldn’t let her out of their sight. She’d spent the night in the overlord’s quarters, and nothing had happened, but her “parents” hadn’t been satisfied with those assurances. Since then, she’d been prohibited from leaving the room. They’d brought her breakfast, and just a moment ago the old man had left to get her an early lunch. She’d sent him off with that request more to shut him up than out of any real desire for food—he’d been telling her stories from her childhood in order to trigger her memories, but she couldn’t remember any of the things he’d been recounting.

Alara looked away from the viewport to see the old man’s wife, Darla, standing to one side of the room, staring at her with a heartbroken smile and watery violet eyes.

“What?” Alara asked. She wasn’t buying the act.

The old woman flinched at her tone, but Alara couldn’t have cared less. These two weren’t paying her to be nice, so why should she be?

“Oh, nothing, dear it’s all right.” The woman looked away and sniffed.

Alara’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t see why I can’t leave the room. I’m a grown woman, you know. I have a right to live my life the way I want to. You can’t keep me locked up in here.”

Darla looked back with tears dribbling down her cheeks. She wiped them away with the backs of her hands. “Oh, my dear sweet little girl, we’re not trying to limit your freedom; we’re just trying to help you avoid making any mistakes you’ll regret later on.”

“You mean when I get my memories back.”

“Yes.”

“What makes you so sure that your little girl is still there to bring back? I’ll tell you one thing, Darla, I’ve looked for her, and there’s not even a trace.”

The old woman’s face crumpled anew. “Excuse me,” she said, and hurried to the bathroom.

Alara frowned, watching the door swish shut behind her. It wasn’t entirely true that she couldn’t find any trace of the person she’d supposedly been, but it was close enough to the truth. Whoever she’d once been was lost in a sea of much sharper and clearer memories from an entirely different life.

A knock sounded at the door, and Alara assumed it was Dr. Kurlin. She eyed the bathroom a moment longer, waiting for Darla to come out and see who it was, but the bathroom stayed shut, and the knocking sounded again. With a sigh Alara got up and went to answer the door.

She waved the door open with her wrist, and was surprised to find a young man standing on the other side. She was even more surprised to see that it was the man from the bar last night, the one who’d tried to stop her from leaving with Commander Adari.

“Hello again, Alara,” he said.

“My name’s Angel,” she replied, frowning.

“We can make that your call sign.”

“My what?”

He held out a black flight suit which matched the one he wore. “Your call sign. It’s how we’ll refer to you while you’re flying with the squadron.”

Alara shook her head. “You must have the wrong door, Captain. I’m not a nova pilot.”

The man grinned, revealing a perfect set of straight white teeth. “Not yet you’re not.”

“Hoi there! What’s the meaning of this?”

Alara turned to see Darla coming up behind her with a scowl. The old woman squeezed into the open doorway beside her and jerked her chin at the officer standing outside. “You can put that back on the rack where it belongs. My daughter isn’t going anywhere, least of all into the cockpit of a nova.”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Vastra, but that’s not your choice to make.” The man’s eyes met Alara’s once more. “What do you say, Angel? You up for it?”

Feeling suddenly nervous she shook her head. “I don’t know how to fly.”

“I think you’ll be surprised at what you know, but in any case your fighter’s been equipped with a flight trainer AI to help you get over the learning curve.”

“I . . .”

“Or you can stay here.” He shrugged. “But you’re going to miss out on all the action.” He winked and shot her a meaningful grin. “I’ll fly your wing myself. We’ll make a great team. I think you’ll find flying with me to be very stimulating.” The officer was drawing out his words and speaking in a soft, slow voice, so that everything he said took on a whole other meaning.

Alara’s gaze turned speculative. She thought she knew what the captain was really after, and that was just fine by her. Clearly this was the new code language they’d had to resort to in order to get around her overzealous chaperones. Alara smiled and snatched the flight suit out of the officer’s hands. “I’ll be back later, Mom.”

“Alara!”

The old woman made a grab for her arm as she hurried through the open door, but the captain intercepted it by stepping between them.

“You can’t take her!” Darla insisted. “I won’t let you!”

Alara turned to see her erstwhile mother struggling with the officer, hitting him and kicking him, eliciting grunts and yelps from the young man. At last he grew impatient and shoved her away from him. She stumbled back into the wall, hitting it hard, and nearly falling to the floor. She recovered, rubbing her shoulder and glaring at the captain with murder glinting in her violet eyes.

The captain gave a deep sigh and shook his head. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Vastra—for that—but you must understand, she’s no longer your responsibility. She’ll be assigned her own quarters on the flight deck. You can look for her there if you’d like to visit. Good day.” The captain saluted and then turned and started down the corridor at a brisk stride.

Alara had to struggle to keep up. “You didn’t need to be so rough with her.”

“It wasn’t my intention.”

They reached the lift tubes at the end of the corridor and waited for the first one to arrive.

“You’re Captain Reese, the man from the bar last night, aren’t you?” Alara asked.

“That’s right.”

“The overlord told me about you.”

“Oh?” He quirked an eyebrow at her. “Good things I hope?”

She smiled. “He said you’d make a good friend.”

“Ah.” The lift arrived and they stepped inside.

Alara brushed up against the captain as he scanned the control panel inside the lift. “So . . . where are you taking me?” Her hands found his biceps and squeezed.

He punched the button labeled Flight Deck and turned to her with a tight smile. “For flight training,” he replied.

“What?” Alara took a quick step back from him. The lift doors closed and it fell swiftly to the specified deck. “You mean that wasn’t just a ruse to get me away from Darla?”

“No, why would you think that?” the captain asked innocently.

Alara crossed her arms. “I’m not actually going to fly a nova.”

“Too late. You’re already enlisted.”

“I didn’t sign anything.”

He took a step toward her. “I’m sorry, did I say enlisted? I meant conscripted.”

“Frek you!” she said and gave him a violent shove.

“Hoi,” he chuckled. “Watch how you speak to your superior officers.”

“What are you going to do if I refuse to fly?”

The officer shrugged. “I’m not going to do anything, but if you don’t fly, you won’t get back to the Defiant.”

Alara’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

The lift stopped and the doors swished open. “We don’t have enough simulator pods for all the trainees, so to speed things along training missions are going to be conducted in the cockpits of real novas.” Alara gaped at him, and he gestured to the open doors. “After you.”

“Go frek yourself!”

“Don’t worry, if you flunk the mission, you won’t have to fly.”

“Good, because that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

“Well, don’t throw your scores. The fleet needs you, Angel.”

Alara stormed out of the lift, calling out over her shoulder, “Frek the fleet, too!”

She heard the captain chuckling behind her as she went. “Well, Angel, if you flunk this test, you can go back to doing exactly that.”

She turned to glare at him. “Watch it.”

“So you do have some self-respect. That’s good. Hold on to it. You’re going to need every shred once the other pilots discover what you do for a living.”

Alara glared at him with naked fury. “Of all the men in the galaxy,” she said, picking her words carefully. “You’re the worst.”

The captain’s laughter echoed back to her ears. “You would know!”

*  *  *

The briefing room was cold and airy. It was an auditorium with a double high ceiling and tiered seating for about forty. Alara sat through the briefing with a bored look on her face. The auditorium was crowded, with almost every seat occupied by officers and trainees dressed in identical black flight suits, all balancing shiny black helmets on their laps. Alara looked down at her own helmet and studied the inscrutable visor instead of paying attention to the briefing. She couldn’t fly a nova! What was Captain Reese thinking?

She felt his elbow connect sharply with her ribs, and she looked up with a scowl to see him nod down to the man on the podium.

“Pay attention,” he whispered.

She smiled thinly at him, and then turned to face forward again. Why should she risk her life for these people? They were nothing to her. She didn’t owe them anything. What had people ever done for her besides abandon her and use her? The only person she owed anything to was Alec Brondi.

Commander Adari’s deep voice began cutting through her thoughts. “The Defiant has moved out to the edge of the Stormcloud Nebula in preparation for our first SLS jump.” The commander turned to the holoscreen behind him and gestured to it, bringing a glowing star map to life. The lights automatically dimmed so they could see the map better.

“We’re currently situated here.” The Defiant’s position was indicated by a green icon. “And we’re going to follow a flight path along these coordinates.” He gestured to the screen once more and a jointed green line appeared in three dimensions, joined with dots wherever the heading changed until it reached a lasso shape that curved around the system’s only planet. “We’re going to conduct a quick recon of the system, doing a basic slingshot around Taylon before heading back here. Your waypoints are already set, so all you have to do is master the flight controls well enough to reach them. This is as easy as it gets, so when you get out there, don’t go skriffy on me. You’re flying real novas, and although there should be no actual danger on this mission, it is a live exercise and a nova can be more than dangerous enough if you don’t follow the instructions in your tutorial carefully.

“You’ve all been signed up for this mission with the assumption that you already have basic flight training, so this mission should be like riding a hover cycle. The AI flight trainer will show you where all the knobs and buttons are. As for the rest—thanks to the delays in getting our novas ready and configured for training, we just have one day for these exercises—today—and there’s more than twice as many of you as I have birds for you to fly. That means you’re going to have to take turns, and we’re only going to be able to give you the basics in the time we have. For the rest of it, you’re going to have to learn the hard way—blood and tears.

“Only the pilots with the best scores are going to make the active duty roster, and the rest of you will go back to your current assignments. Any questions?”

“How do we take off?” one trainee asked.

Alara heard the commander sigh. “The auto will do that for you. Same thing for landing. Flight regs require even experienced pilots to use the autos. Any other questions?”

The room was silent.

“Good.” The commander turned to the holoscreen and waved his hand once more. A list of names appeared in place of the star map. “If your name is on this list, then you’re flying in the first run. I’ll call you down by wing pairs.”

As Commander Adari began calling out names, Alara scanned the list. She found her name there below that of Captain Adan Reese just before they were called down to the podium.

Adan elbowed her again as he stood up. “That’s us,” he said.

Alara frowned as she followed him down to the podium. When they got there, she saw from the way Commander Adari smirked at her that recognized her from the bar, but he didn’t say anything about it, he just nodded and gestured to the open door which lay to one side of the podium. Speaking to Adan, he said, “The pair of fighters parked beside the Mark II’s are yours.”

Adan nodded back. “See you in the hangar, Commander.”

*  *  *

— THE YEAR 10 AE—

The Invisible War


Roan had to hold himself back. It would have been easy to lash out—to strike back and kill the people who had injured him—but Tova had told him to wait. Apparently the humans were fighting each other, and these particular ones were not a part of the alliance between Gors and Humans. That meant they were fair game, but Tova had also told him to stay hidden. She’d let him know when she was near and then he would do what she had asked and sabotage the ship.

Roan held back a hiss. He didn’t like all the waiting and skulking around. He would have much rather hunted them all down and killed them himself. Roan had been forced to dig through the debris from the explosion to get out. Hours later he’d found the exit, and then he’d still had to climb up more than ten floors before he could get out. All of that had left him feeling very hungry. No matter what Tova said about him staying hidden, he would need to hunt soon. The empty hole in his stomach needed to be sated.

It was that need which had Roan skulking down the corridor behind two burly humans, watching them walk blithely along, talking loudly as if they hadn’t anything to fear. Roan bared his teeth in anticipation of the kill as he listened with half an ear to the humans’ conversation. The translator he’d been given allowed Roan to understand what they were saying, but he wasn’t sure why he cared. He should just kill them and eat them now.

“. . . I’m tellin’ ya this is frekkin’ nuts. Big Brainy’s finally done it. He’s become a total stim-bake. Now we’re going into Sythian Space? What is he thinking?”

“I dunno.”

“I’ll tell ya what! He’s not thinking. We’re gonna to die out there.”

“Well, I dunno ‘bout that.”

“Frek, you dunno krak, do ya?”

Roan saw the pair of men disappear around the corner, their voices drifting out of hearing. His translator had faithfully reproduced what they’d said in a reasonable facsimile of his own language, and now he was left staring after them with thoughtfully narrowed eyes. The human rebels were venturing out of Dark Space. Tova had told him to wait until she arrived with reinforcements to rescue him, but now that would be impossible.

He had to tell her about the change of plans. Tova would have to catch up to him whenever these humans reached their destination. Closing his eyes, Roan concentrated on Tova in order to send her a message, but no sooner had he shut his eyes than he noticed the telltale hum of silence which accompanied superluminal space, and his eyes slowly opened once more. He couldn’t communicate with Tova while they were in SLS. It was too late. The ship had already jumped. He’d have to wait until they reverted to real space, and hope his mate was still in range.

Now Roan did hiss. He should kill them all and take command of the ship himself. That was what Tova was coming to do anyway. Why should he hold back any longer?

Roan bared his teeth and sprinted after the pair of men who’d been walking ahead of him. He rounded the corner and saw them walking up ahead, just about to reach the next bulkhead door. Roan raced soundlessly down the corridor, his breath coming in an easy rhythm, reverberating back to him inside his helmet as he rushed up behind the two men. As soon as he was within reach, he grabbed them both simultaneously—one neck in each of his large hands. His momentum knocked the men over while he barreled on to bounce off the bulkhead. Roan turned to see them struggling to their feet.

He didn’t let them get that far.

As soon as the first man looked up, Roan snapped his neck with a violent twist. His fellow screamed, but that scream was cut short as Roan lunged for his throat and ripped it out.





Chapter 12

—THE YEAR 10 AE—

The Invisible War

Adan pointed over Alara’s shoulder. “There. Go strap in. The trainer AI will get you started.”

Alara nodded, her eyes wide as she turned in a dizzy circle to find the fighter Adan was pointing at. The canopy was open and waiting for her to climb in. She started toward the nova, blinking against the glare of all the bright lights inside the hangar. There was a confusing noise of trainees scrambling to their fighters and of flight controllers calling out orders to the ground crew over the intercom. A pair of men in reflective orange and yellow jumpsuits raced by right in front of her, and she had to halt before she ran into them. Once she reached her fighter, Alara climbed up the short set of stairs which rose out of the deck to the wing. She heard her boots clanging on the metal rungs as she climbed, and she could smell the acrid fumes of reactor fuel and laser gas in the air. Alara reached the top of the ladder and stepped up onto the wing to gaze down into the open cockpit. It looked cramped; the narrow black flight chair was surrounded with blinking lights and display screens, and the surfaces were peppered with an intimidating number of switches, levers, and dials. How was she ever going to figure out what all of it was for?

She lowered herself carefully into the chair, juggling her helmet and taking care not to bump the flight stick as she swung one leg over it. She looked up to find her fighter already pointed out toward the starry blackness of space, and even though the view was slightly blurred by the fuzzy blue of the hangar’s shields, she could see countless thousands of stars twinkling at her. Here, beyond the empty void of Dark Space, the stars were brighter and more numerous, and Alara found herself marveling at them despite her reluctance to enjoy her mandatory pilot’s training.

“Hello, pilot,” a cool, commanding voice said. Alara saw a hovering holo of a man’s head and shoulders appear, projected from the holoscreen on the left side of her dash. She noticed there were three such screens—one larger one in the center, and two smaller screens to either side. “Seal your canopy, and let’s get started. Find the red button under the transparent cover near your right elbow, marked raise/lower canopy, and punch it.”

Alara turned to look and she saw the indicated button glowing brightly, highlighted by the interactive holofield. She lifted the cover and depressed the button.

Immediately, there came a hum of motors and the angular canopy lowered over her head. It sealed with a hiss of pressurizing air, and then a glowing green HUD (heads-up display) appeared.

The hovering head spoke once more. “Now strap in and put on your helmet while I adjust your seat.”

The chair began sliding forward automatically until the flight stick came within easy reach and fit snugly between her legs. Alara noted that with a wry grin as in her mind’s eye the stick became something else.

“I said strap in and put on your—”

“Right.” Alara hunted around for her flight restraints. Finding them, she strapped in, and then she slid on her helmet and fiddled with the seals at her neck. She felt her ears pop as her suit pressurized.

“Now fire up the reactor. The ignition is just below the central display screen.”

Alara found the button under another transparent cover and stabbed it. A rising whir started up, causing the nova to vibrate around her.

“You are now sitting in the cockpit of a Nova RZX-1 Starfighter, otherwise known as the Mark I. This starfighter is a good compromise between armament, shielding, and speed. It comes equipped with three red dymium laser cannons, eight hailfire missiles, and four silverstreak torpedoes, as well as homing flares for countermeasures. There is an SLS drive for interstellar flight, control surfaces for atmospheric flight, and grav lifts for vertical takeoff and hover. Your top acceleration in space is 145 KAPS, while your shields are ranked at a DR of 80. This fighter is pulse-shielded, which means it’s designed to deflect sudden intense bursts of energy, not sustained fire, so if you don’t learn to jink and juke with the best of them, you’re going to have a very short career as a pilot. Now, listen up while I go through a quick overview of your nova’s flight controls.”

Alara listened intently to the virtual instructor and watched as it highlighted the main controls, starting with the flight stick, the handle-shaped throttle slider, and the rudder pedals which she now depressed experimentally with first one foot and then the other.

“Remember, moving the flight stick left or right does not move your fighter left or right, it only rolls you in that direction. To actually make a turn, you must first roll and then pull up on the stick, or else use your left rudder pedal to redirect your thrusters and slew your ship.

“Now find the throttle control beside your left armrest. Feel free to slide it forward, all the way to your fighter’s maximum acceleration of 145 KAPS. Don’t worry, your fighter’s engines are disabled for the moment.”

The holo field highlighted a handle-shaped slider which was set into a groove running down the middle of a shiny black digital screen. The screen was alight with glowing dashes which began at negative 150 and went up to 200. In front of the slider, the display read 0 KAPS in a large, glowing green font, and beside it another number read 0 m/s.

Reaching out to move the throttle as the instructor had told her to do, Alara slid it forward until she felt resistance. The leftmost of the two glowing green numbers quickly counted up to 145 KAPS and then stopped. The slider still had some room left to go, but the glowing dashes running past that point were all red.

“Good,” the instructor said. “Notice the two numbers at the bottom of the throttle display. The first one is KAPS and it describes your acceleration, with one KAPS being approximately equal to one meter per second per second in deep space. The second number is m/s, or meters per second, and that is your ship’s current speed. You can disengage thrusters and cruise to save fuel, or you can set a target speed to have your thrusters auto-disengage by playing with the pair of gray sliders on either side of the speed display. Go ahead and try it now.”

Alara tested the sliders and found they went all the way up to 999 km/s. She blinked. “Krak that’s fast!” Alara frowned. “Why does anyone bother to fight if they could just roar around the galaxy so fast that no one can catch up? Wouldn’t that make them invincible?”

“As the Joparans say, even the fastest bird must eventually land to rest its wings—you can’t run forever—and for practical purposes, within each system most Imperial space stations and gates lie no more than 10,000 klicks from each other. These clusters of orbiting objects are known as orbitals.

“Given that orbitals are relatively small, not only would very high speeds be hard to reach between one gate and another, but those speeds would be pointless for getting places. And just because you’re moving fast doesn’t make you invincible. In fact, you’ll be more predictable because you can’t easily change directions, and you’ll be unable to complete an SLS jump because the safeties will knock you back to real space.”

“Safeties?”

“The safeties prevent ships from entering SLS and maintaining jumps at speeds of over 999 meters per second, because at speeds faster than that you run the risk of disintegration. Apart from that restriction, an SLS drive takes a minimum of five minutes to spool up and another five to cool down after a jump, and you can’t change your actual heading while the drives are spooling, or you will end up jumping somewhere other than the coordinates you specified.”

“Hmmm. No point using it to run away in the middle of a fight, then,” Alara said.

“No, but you can use it as an emergency brake. At speeds over 999 meters per second, the safeties will engage and drop you out of SLS almost immediately, and due to the nature of superluminal space, your speed will be reduced to a negligible value as you exit.”

“Interesting . . .”

 Are you ready to continue with your tutorial now, Alara?”

She nodded.

“Good. If you move the main throttle slider into the yellow behind the stops which mark zero, that will give you negative acceleration, whereas moving it past the red stops which mark your maximum acceleration will push your fighter into overdrive. That extra boost is also referred to as your afterburners. You can either push the throttle control up past the stops for a sustained boost, or simply trigger the afterburner switch on your flight stick for a temporary increase in speed.”

Alara saw the indicated switch flash twice on the left side of the flight stick, near where her thumb would rest.

“Your afterburners use a more potent form of fuel which will run out quickly, and using them too often may damage your fighter’s reactor and drive system, so you don’t want to use them unless it’s an emergency.”

Alara nodded.

“Apart from what we’ve already covered, there’s one final flight control to learn—your grav lifts.”

“Grav lifts work in space?” Alara asked.

“Your grav lifts repel anything that is matter, with weaker and weaker force the further you are from it.”

Alara nodded thoughtfully, filing that detail away for later. The tutorial went on, and she found herself paying rapt attention. She’d been determined not to cooperate with this mission, but she was being sucked in by it, her mind greedily soaking up every detail after the idleness of the past few days. Maybe she’d judged too soon. Maybe being a pilot would be good for her.

“Your next system is the gravidar,” the simulated instructor said. “You can see the forward and rear scopes projected in two dimensions at the top corners of your HUD. The left scope is front, while the right scope is rear. The green dot in the center of each scope is you, while all other green dots are friendly, all red are enemy, all yellow are neutral or undetermined, and all white are inert. For a more detailed view of gravidar contacts, you should refer to your star map. Your main holo display—or MHD—is set by default to display the star map.”

The MHD came to life now and showed her a large 3D grid. Near the center of the grid was a green venture cruiser-shaped icon. Around them were the hazy gray edges of the Stormcloud Nebula, along with vast tracts of black, empty space which lay between the Defiant and the mottled red and purple ball which was Taylon. Running along the far edges of the map were three numbered axes and three flat, blue grids which connected those axes and formed the back, bottom, and left “walls” of the cube, giving the impression of peering into an open box with the top, front, and right sides removed. The axes all went up to positive 100, and grid lines increased by increments of 10, for a total of 100 visible squares on each of the three grid walls.

Alara touched the map with her finger, and saw a tiny bright blue cube highlighted with coordinates in the format T-#-#-#. Alara wondered about the letter which preceded the coordinates as the instructor AI droned on about the star map. She tuned him out to study the line of text and numbers running along the bottom of the star map. It read:

Coordinate Scale: 100 km3 Displaying: Orbital: 4-5-66 (Zoom 100%) |...| System: “Taylon” (S-0-6-76) | Sector: “Frontier Space” (SE-9-4-29) Display UGC

This felt familiar somehow. Alara reached out with a trembling hand to touch the link at the end of the address, almost afraid of what it might reveal. As soon as she touched it, a string of letters and numbers expanded to fill the display from one side to the other.

UGC: K-54-77-41 | T-1-5-11 | O-4-5-66 | Z-3-3-45 | A-1-2-87 | R-44-34-9 | S-0-6-76 | SE-9-4-29 | C-1-91-43 | G-42-36-32 | U

Alara frowned at the cryptic alphanumeric string. Just seeing the code evoked a strong sense of déjà vu, as though she’d merely forgotten what those letters and numbers meant. The knowledge was lurking just below the surface, hidden in her memories like a half-remembered dream. She squinted at the code, willing it to connect to meaning in her brain. . . .

And then abruptly she had it. UGC stood for Universal Grid Coordinates, and it referred to the exact point in space of any object. Alara remembered that space was carved into progressively smaller coordinate cubes, each one represented by a letter. The very first class of grid divisions was K for klick cube or K-cube, meaning cubic kilometer. Each cubic grid unit inside a klick cube represented 10 cubic meters, which was the smallest unit of scale used in space navigation. Within the very next division of space, which was the letter T for theater, a whole k-cube became just one cubic grid unit out of a million on the star map. In turn, the next level up was an orbital and each of the million cubic grid units at that scale was an entire theater in size, with a theater itself being comprised of a million cubic klicks and stretching out for 100 km in every direction. So the coordinate cube which Alara had highlighted with her finger—T-56-71-14—which appeared as a glowing pinpoint on the map, represented a million cubic kilometers of space.

Alara shook her head, her mind boggling at the scale, but it got progressively worse from there, with each successive division of space being exactly a million times the size of the previous one, going all the way up to U, which stood for Universal. Each cubic grid unit inside the universal plot was the size of an entire galaxy.

How do I know all that? Alara wondered again about her insight, and she was overcome by a dizzying wave of unreality and self-doubt. She quickly countered that with the reassurance that basic space navigation was likely a topic that most people had studied at school. Just because she remembered it didn’t mean that she was who everyone said she was. . . .

But as she continued to stare at the UGC code, Alara realized it wasn’t just something she’d studied once upon a time. She knew it by rote. When she closed her eyes, she could recite all the divisions of space in order from smallest to largest—K-cube, Theater, Orbital, Zone, Area, Region, Solar, Sector, Cluster, Galaxy, Universe.

Alara’s eyes opened slowly, and she shook her head. Her mind went blank to protect itself from the dangerous thoughts which were now rallying around her and making her feel crazy. The AI’s voice found purchase in her blank mind—

“You can change the zoom of your star map by turning the dial located at the bottom right of the MHD.”

Alara nodded, and then she found herself staring at the blank screen behind the AI’s hovering head. Alara pointed to it. “What’s that holoscreen for?”

“Your secondary holo displays are best used to display more detailed target info as well as more detailed info about your own ship. All three displays are touch activated, but in time you will learn to more efficiently control your nova by speaking commands aloud, directly to me.

“You can call me whatever you like, change my gender, and even how I look, but you won’t see me appear unless you order me to.”

“Great! I’ve always wanted a pet bot.”

The AI ignored her sarcasm and went on, “The next flight system is your autopilot. You can set the autopilot directly from the star map by touching the screen where it says AUTO, or by verbally telling me which way to go and how fast you’d like to get there.”

Alara’s head spun with all the information, and a quick look around the cockpit at all the controls and displays which were still unfamiliar to her told her there was still much more to cover. She felt like she was on the brink of forgetting it all, but the talking head refused to give her a break. It went on from the autopilot to describe the comms, fire control systems, and shields, highlighting the indicated systems on her HUD and RHD before finally moving on to the preflight check. Alara felt relief wash through her. Those last systems weren’t much to master, just a matter of understanding how to read the gauges and toggle through the settings.

The preflight check appeared on her LHD while the talking head moved to one side so she could see it. The instructor went through the check with her, but told her that because she was a greeny he’d already done the Before Ignition checks without her.

Finally the tutorial was finished. The instructor told her to standby for launch while the other trainees finished their tutorials, and then he asked her if she’d like to give him a name while she waited. Alara thought about it for a moment before a name popped into her head.

“Ethan,” she said abruptly, not knowing why she’d picked that particular name.

“Very well. According to your identichip, your name is Alara Vastra. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Alara.”

Alara’s brow furrowed, and the surge of doubt and unreality she’d just barely been holding at bay now washed over her like a tidal wave. Alara squeezed her eyes tightly shut, feeling simultaneously dizzy and horrified.

“Are you okay, Alara?” the AI asked.

That was the first time anyone had told her that her identichip didn’t match who she thought she was. Identichips were hard if not impossible to fake, so either Alara Vastra had been killed and her chip stolen to surgically implant it in her wrist, or she really was Alara Vastra.

“Okay, listen up, greenies!” a harsh voice cut through Alara’s helmet speakers, interrupting her thoughts. “We’re just awaiting the launch codes and then your autopilot will take you through the launch tubes by wing pairs. Myself and Guardian Two are flying in the faster Mark II’s, so we’ll be the first ones out. We’ll be off the comms and lying low on sensors while we go ahead of you to do the preliminary recon, so you’ll be on your own for a bit. Until I’m back, you’ll defer to Guardian Three, Captain Reese. He’s XO of this squadron, and also XO of the Defiant. Reese will be your secondary commander whenever I’m unavailable. Next in the chain of command after him is Guardian Five, or Lieutenant Gina Giord, and so on down the line. Let’s hope it never comes to that, or pretty soon one of you greenies will be leading the charge!” Ithicus laughed dryly before going on.

“As soon as you’re out the launch tubes, find the first nav point along your flight path and accelerate up to it. Most of you have been paired with an experienced nova pilot, so when in doubt, follow your wingmate’s lead. Make sure to stay either abreast of them or just behind them at all times, but try not to crash into them. Ruh-kah, greenies! Guardian One out.”

Alara frowned. There’d been more than a hint of condescension in the commander’s voice, but she supposed that he wasn’t used to training pilots, particularly not ones as green as them.

A flicker of light and sound drew her eye and she turned to see the two novas immediately to her left rising off the deck. Their engines were still dark, so she assumed they were using grav lifts. As they rose, Alara saw that these two looked different from the fighter she’d climbed into. They were smaller and sharper—more needle-nosed than the Mark I’s.

Expecting to see the fighters’ engines light up and send them rocketing out into space, she was surprised when they rather turned 90 degrees and started toward a pair of glowing red launch tubes in the side wall of the hangar. Now their engines did ignite. There came a blinding flare of blue light, and she squinted against the glare. Her canopy darkened in response and she opened her eyes to watch as the first pair of novas disappeared inside the tubes with a brilliant flash and a soft, echoing crackle of dissipating energy.

Then Alara heard a th-thunk, and then: “Magnetic clamps disengaged. Grav lifts activated.” Her nova began to rise, and Alara gasped and gripped her armrests. She wasn’t ready for this.

As the nova turned and her view changed from that of the fuzzy blue-black of the hangar’s shielded opening to that of the glowing red launch tubes, she felt a flutter of trepidation. The tubes looked impossibly small for her fighter. What if the autopilot missed?

“Thrusters engaged,” her AI interrupted, and that was her only warning.

Alara heard a roar start up behind her and felt herself pinned against the flight chair. She saw the launch tubes rushing toward her, and resisted the urge to scream as her fighter reached the opening. As soon as it did, the tube flashed brightly around her, and she felt herself pinned even more violently to her chair. Her nova raced past consecutive rings of red light, each one flashing in turn as she reached it and heightening the feeling of acceleration. Now she did scream. All around her was a loud, crackling hum of energy. Her face twisted into a terrified grimace.

And then it was over. She shot out the tube and into star-speckled space. It had felt like forever, but the launch had barely lasted a second. She was still screaming on the other side, but she abruptly stopped when she felt her gorge rising. Alara clamped her lips tight and her cheeks bulged. She forced herself to relax and think about something else. The feeling of intense acceleration was gone, replaced by a much milder sensation. She dialed up her IMS to 100% to remove even that. A quick look at her throttle display showed her acceleration at 145 KAPS and her speed at 645 m/s and rising fast.

Alara heard someone’s laughter filter into her helmet. “Bet you greenies liked that!” It was Guardian One again. She was beginning to hate him. “If any of you got to see your breakfast in reverse, you’re cleaning it. If not, good for you. Head to your first nav point at 46-52-12 and follow the sequence from there. We’re entering comms silence until we reach Taylon, so don’t use your comms unless it’s an emergency or you spot something on gravidar. If you need someone to talk to, I’m sure your ships’ AIs will be happy to break the silence. Guardian One out.”

Alara frowned and sat blinking at the stars. They were even more impressive without the blue fuzz of the hangar shields to dull their brilliance.

“Alara, please set course for the first nav point.”

When Alara didn’t do anything, the AI asked, “Would you like me to set course for you?”

Alara nodded, which the AI took for a yes. She watched with wide, staring eyes as her view of the stars began to shift. The mottled red and purple ball of Taylon swung into view, and she saw the glowing green diamond of her nav point overlaid upon it. She found herself admiring the view of Taylon, tracing the red areas with her finger where they intersected the purple and wondering if the colors were from vegetation, or water, or just dust and rocks.

The waypoint grew rapidly larger as she approached, and then she sailed straight through the diamond-shaped opening, and the next waypoint appeared, small and distant against the planet. She noticed a pair of small numbers beside the HUD icon. The left one read 5,040 km, while the right one gave a time in minutes and seconds 16:20.

“Ethan, is that time beside my next waypoint the time to reach the target?”

“That is correct.”

“And the other number is distance.”

“Right again.”

“I guess I’m not so dumb after all.”

“Definitely not. Your identichip rates your intelligence as three standard deviations above the average.”

Alara frowned. “Have you been spying on me, Ethan?”

“No more than necessary. For example, I have no need to know your preference of beverage at a bar, but I am equipped to determine where you are in your cycle in order to establish a baseline for mood and volatility.”

“My cycle?”

“Menstruation.”

Alara gaped at her control consoles. “You mean you’re tracking whether or not I have my period.”

“No, I mean I’m tracking how far along you are in your cycle. You’re on day fourteen, and based on your temperature and hormonal secretions, you’re currently ovulating.”

“Okay, that’s enough. You’re creeping me out.”

“My apologies.”

“Just fly to the waypoints and wake me up when we get to Taylon.”

“We’ll be at Taylon in less than 40 minutes, and the mission parameters do not allow pilots to sleep in transit.”

Alara smirked. “They might not allow it, but who’s going to know?”

“I’m required to report any potentially dangerous breaches of protocol.”

“We’re in comm silence right now, Ethan, so I think it’ll be too late by the time you tattle on me.” With that, Alara settled back against her flight chair and allowed her eyelids to drift slowly shut.

A moment later she felt a sharp prick and her eyes shot open—her heart pounding, her head buzzing. Her breathing was quick and shallow, reverberating in her helmet. What the frek?

“Welcome back, Alara. You must be feeling more alert now.”

Her eyes narrowed. “What did you do to me?”

“You appeared to be sleepy, so I administered a small dose of adrenaline via your suit’s stim pack to help keep you awake for the duration of your mission.”

“You what?”

“Standard protocol when a pilot accidentally falls asleep is to administer a—”

“Just shut up and fly, Ethan!”

“As you wish.”





Chapter 13

— THE YEAR 0 AE—

Destra picked her way through the shattered colonnade at the entrance of Covena. A cloud of dust and smoke hung thick in the air, dimming the soft morning light and turning it a bloody red. They could see their breath in the cool morning air—steady white puffs of condensing moisture which blended perfectly with the smoke. Digger’s stim lab was on the outskirts of the city, so it had been easy to get to Covena. They’d hiked back to the road and found the hover transport Destra had left there during their frantic escape of a few nights past. The transport still worked perfectly, so they’d driven back onto the road and quickly covered the last five kilometers to the city.

They’d left the stim lab just a few hours after dawn. Digger had stayed behind, of course, and so had Lessie’s son, Dean. That was the only concession Digger had been willing to make when it came to the scavenger hunts. Destra and Lessie would be doing all the hunting and gathering, but Dean could stay behind with Digger where he would be safe. Destra suspected Digger had allowed the boy to stay more to keep them from running off and leaving him to fend for himself than out of any real concern for Dean’s safety.

 “What happened here?” Lessie asked, covering a cough as she climbed over a crumbling archway. The clouds of smoke from the fires which must have raged through the city choked their every breath. Adding to that was the fine coating of alabaster-white dust which tickled maddeningly in the backs of their throats every time it was disturbed by the wind or their footsteps. The dust covered everything in sight. It looked like snow, but it was actually white castcrete, pulverized in the attacks.

Destra turned to look over her shoulder. Seeing the pale look of shock on Lessie’s face, she offered the only reassurance she could: “I’m sure they didn’t suffer.”

Lessie shook her head. “I remember Covena. We used to come here all the time. My parents had a cabin by the lake not far from town. . . .”

“Did your family manage to evacuate?” Destra asked as she climbed over a giant boulder and down onto what had once been a cobblestone street. Now the street was a shattered ruin, covered in a thick layer of castcrete dust with scattered clumps of black ash that tumbled and drifted in the breeze. The usual sounds of hover cars and buses, of construction and people—signs of life which typified any city in the galaxy—were now silenced in death. The ruins of apartments and office buildings rose high into the sky. Twisted rebar, empty window frames, and jagged edges were all turned a hazy white by the clouds of particulates which hung low over the city, making the ruins look like the skeletons of primordial monsters.

“I don’t know,” Lessie replied. “They weren’t rich.”

“I’m sorry.” It sounded trite, but there wasn’t much else she could say. If one weren’t rich, famous, or powerful, there was no way they’d gotten aboard one of the evacuation ships. In the case of the last one to make it off-world, that turned out not to be such a bad thing. The transport had been blown to scrap before it had even made orbit.

“Did you have anyone on Roka?” Lessie asked.

Destra hesitated. “No, just my son.” Destra felt a pang in her chest, and she nodded to the horizon. “Let’s take a look over there. That pile of rubble looks like it used to be a supermarket.”

Lessie accepted the change of topic with only a brief pause. “How can you tell?”

Destra pointed to a blackened cage lying in the street. “That’s one of the shopping carts.”

They walked down the rubble-strewn street in silence, bits of castcrete crunching underfoot, the occasional bird flitting by overhead and tweeting out a cheery tune. Destra held her ripper rifle at the ready, trying to look everywhere at once. There wasn’t much point in looking for an enemy that no one could see, but she couldn’t help it. Her mind wouldn’t stop painting monsters in all the missing windows along the street.

They reached the ruins Destra had indicated, and found that they were exactly that. There were cans and boxes of food scattered everywhere, all of them perfectly blending into their surroundings with a fine coating of white dust.

Destra turned to Lessie. “Get that cart back there and start stacking it with as many things as you can find. I’m going to go back and get the hover.”

“You’re not leaving me here! I’m going with you.”

“We’ll work faster if you stay, and besides, being together is no guarantee that we’ll be safe. There are no guarantees of that. Period.”

“You should have brought the hover to begin with. That was your mistake. Don’t punish me for it,” Lessie insisted. She tucked a greasy strand of blond hair behind her ear to keep it out of her face. Thanks to the fact that Digger’s stim lab had been built off all the grids to begin with, they still had plenty of running water, but showering had been the last thing on their minds this morning.

Suddenly, a loud crunch came from the rubble, followed by shattering glass. They spun toward the sounds. Destra covered the area with her rifle, her heart pounding. An instant sweat began to tickle between her shoulder blades.

“What was that?” Lessie whispered.

“Shhh!”

Then they heard a man groan. It took a moment for them to pick his form out of the rubble because he was covered in white dust like everything else. He was also covered with a glittering sheen of broken glass. Between the sound and the fact that the glass lay on top of the dust layer, Destra deduced that it had been recently broken. Couldn’t be a window, she thought. Those were usually made of transpiranium, not glass. It had likely been some drinking vessel or ornament. Had that man broken it to get their attention?

Then she saw a stream of dust pouring from the pile of rubble over the man’s head. A quick look at the way the rubble rested on the only wall still left standing, bending and cracking the castrete even as they watched, Destra realized that the structure was unstable and what was left of it was about to collapse on top of what might have been Covena’s sole survivor.

They just stood there blinking at him.

Destra was the first to snap out of it. “Help me!” she said, rushing forward. She unslung her heavy rifle and set it down so it wouldn’t get in the way as she crawled through the open window to reach the man. She heard Lessie crunching through the gravel behind her. As soon as she was by the man’s side, Destra grabbed his hand. He squeezed her hand incredibly tight, grinding her bones together, and looked up at her with wild, bloodshot eyes. As soon as he saw her, he began to kick and scream in the dust. His foot hit a fallen timber and the ceiling dropped another handful of white dust on them.

“Stop it!” Destra spluttered, spitting the dust out of her mouth. “We’re trying to help you!”

The man shook his head from side to side, his eyes rolling. He was delirious. A quick look at the redness seeping into the dust at his side told her why.

“Frek!” she whispered.

“What’s wrong with him?” Lessie whispered back, but then she saw the red color spreading through the dust and she gasped. “He’s hurt!”

Bending down to eye level with the ground, Destra tried to see what the man had landed on. She saw that he was suspended partway off the ground with a twisted piece of rebar stabbing into his back, and she grimaced.

“Help me roll him over.”

Lessie got down beside her, but her hands were shaking and her eyes were wide. She began shaking her head. “What do you want me to do?”

“Just reach under him and lift when I tell you to. Ready? One, two, three—now!”

They both heaved at the same time and the man popped free of the rebar with a wet sucking noise. They rolled him onto his stomach, and then his eyes shot open and he screamed. He twisted around and sat up with blood boiling from his side, his head turning quickly from side to side like a frightened bird. He was trying to push himself to his feet, but his sudden burst of energy had already faded.

“Oh no, oh no!” Lessie said as she saw all of the blood. She stumbled away from the man as though his mortal wounds were contagious.

Destra grimaced again and drew the pistol at her side.

“What are you going to do?” she shrieked. “You’re not going to shoot him!”

“That’s exactly what I’m going to do.” She set her pistol for stun and shot the man at point blank range. He jittered uncontrollably, and then slumped back toward the bloody metal bar which had impaled him.

Destra caught him with a grunt before he could impale himself for a second time. “Help me get him to his feet!” she gritted out through the strain. The rubble shifted again and more dust trickled over them. “Quickly!”

Lessie and Destra each grabbed him under one arm pit and dragged him through the opening out onto the street. Once they made it there, they laid him back down and stood straight, feeling their aching backs and panting heavily.

“Shouldn’t we bind the wound?” Lessie asked.

“We should, but I don’t have anything here. I need to go back and get the hover. There’s a medkit in there we can use. He should be okay for now. That stun blast will have slowed his heart rate enough to buy us some time.” Destra turned and nodded back to the overturned shopping cart. “Start collecting the food. I’ll be back in a minute.”

Lessie turned to her with a scowl. “I told you, I’m not staying here.”

Destra bent to pick up the rifle she’d set down and then handed it to Lessie. “Here. Now stop whining. We need to get him back ASAP if we’re going to save him, and we can’t afford to leave without first collecting some food.” Destra was already turning away. “I’ll be back soon.”

She started off at a jog, heading back the way they’d come. Finding the man lying in the ruins had changed the focus of the mission from their survival to his. Destra had a feeling Digger wasn’t going to be pleased with the new addition to their party, but there wasn’t much to be done about it. If they left him among the ruins he’d either die from blood loss or he’d be found and eaten by the Sythians. Either way they’d be condemning the man to die, and Destra wasn’t about to do that just to please their reluctant host. Digger would have to get used to the idea of sheltering the man—at least until he recovered. Besides, having someone else on their side in the event that Digger became a problem, was not a bad idea. Destra remembered his insistence that she and Lessie be the ones risking their lives to gather food and supplies and she nodded to herself. Not a bad idea at all.

*  *  *

— THE YEAR 10 AE—

The Invisible War


Alara watched the range ticking down to the next waypoint—1586 km and dropping fast, although a quick look at her speed gauge showed her velocity dropping, too. Her engines were in full reverse, her fighter decelerating to an appropriate speed before entering orbit around Taylon. So far they hadn’t seen a thing on their recon of the system. The whole mission had been a waste of time! They could have just sent the fighters out with the AIs piloting them. Of course, she wasn’t complaining that they hadn’t encountered enemy contacts, but it still seemed like a waste. Why couldn’t they just send the Defiant through each system by itself? They didn’t need fighters to go ahead of it. No one could see the Sythians’ ships, regardless of whether they were looking on a nova’s scopes or the Defiant’s.

Alara’s gaze dropped to the star map projected from her nova’s MHD, and she tracked the two, small green icons which resembled mark II’s. They were already sling-shotting around Taylon for the return trip, meaning they hadn’t discovered anything amiss on scanners either. That begged another question—why not simply send out the interceptors as scouts? Why send the whole squadron? She crossed her arms over her chest and glared out at space. During the last 30 minutes, with nowhere to go, nothing to do, and nothing to look at besides the same pattern of stars and the same mottled red and purple planet, she’d grown thoroughly bored. This wasn’t a glamorous job. It was just one step above night watchman!

She heaved a deep sigh.

“Alara, if I may point out, it appears that you are distressed by something. As you already know, any and all physical states which may interfere with the mission are my job to address. Would you like a pick-me-up stim? I have a wide variety of anti-depressants to choose from.”

Alara’s eyes narrowed. “Are you offering to drug me, Ethan?”

“There are no long-term side effects, and I promise it’s not an addictive substance.”

“I’ll take that as a yes. Just give me an estimate of how long before we’re back aboard the Defiant. My legs are cramping, and I need to use the bathroom.”

“Approximately one hour, but your fighter does come equipped for such an eventuality.”

“For what eventuality?”

“The need to relieve yourself.”

“You’re joking.”

“No, I’m not. It’s a suction hose. If you would open your crotch, I’ll extend the hose.”

“Excuse me? Open my crotch?”

“Yes, your flight suit has a separate opening for you to relieve yourself on long flights. Don’t worry, it’s independently pressurized in the event that disaster should strike while you are doing so.”

“Never mind, Ethan. I’ll hold it.”

“Very well, though I should warn you that a full bladder has been known to increase pilot error by a significant—”

“Shut up, Ethan.”

Silence fell in the cockpit once more and Alara shook her head in annoyance. Talking with her AI instructor wasn’t much better than talking with no one at all. She wasn’t sure who had programmed the AI, but it was the most annoying bot she’d ever had to deal with.

Alara went back to watching the star map. Once she had remembered how to use the universal coordinate system and star map, she’d begun to play around with the different settings, finding that she could simply change the zoom level of the map to alter the granularity of the display, rather than always show the default, which was one whole division of space.

The nova’s AI had been impressed with Alara’s so-called intuition with the controls, but she knew it was more than simple intuition. Her surprising knowledge of star navigation and gravidar systems was clearly coming from somewhere—old memories which her slave chip had somehow been unable to completely suppress.

My slave chip.

Alara pursed her lips into a bloodless line. She was startled by how quickly she’d allowed herself to adapt to the fact that she was really Alara rather than Angel. But she couldn’t fight it anymore; too many things weren’t adding up. She still wasn’t sure she wanted to bring Alara back, however, because if she did, then what would happen to her? Would she cease to exist just as Alara had?

For now it was easier to ignore the question than it was to answer it.

Alara eyed the green nova icon immediately to the right of hers and then looked out her window to see her wingmate’s fighter glinting sharply at her in the mauve light of Taylon’s sun. She could make out every detail of the fighter clearly with her naked eyes, which was a deceptive visual reference, since a nova fighter was only 16 meters long, and the star map reported her wingmate was actually a kilometer away. At that range his ship should have been little more than a speck.

While she’d been idly waiting to reach Taylon, Ethan the instructor bot had explained this discontinuity. Space battles usually took place at relatively slow speeds and close distances due to the requirement that one had to first overcome momentum in order to change directions. Even so, fighters and interceptors were so small that one would barely be able to see them if it weren’t for the ships’ AIs making compensations for scale. As such, what one actually saw in space was more simulated than real—much the same way that sounds were simulated because nothing could be heard in a vacuum.

Visual auto-scaling was currently set to the default factor of five times actual, so small contacts would be visible at range, but not overwhelmingly large. The effect would taper off exponentially as range to target dropped, so Alara would still be able to execute precision flying around large capital ships and stations without feeling like she was about to collide with them all the time.

Alara glanced up and out her forward viewport to visually locate the rest of her squadron. All around her she could see their glinting hulls and the blue ion trails of their thrusters.

“Ethan,” Alara began, a thought occurring to her as she returned to gazing at her wingmate’s fighter.

“Yes, Alara?”

“Can you temporarily increase the scale of a ship—just one in particular?”

“Of course.”

“Would you increase the scale of my wingman’s fighter to a factor of say . . . 100 times actual?”

Without bothering to reply, Ethan did as he was told, and Alara flinched as a massive nova suddenly appeared flying beside her. It appeared so close that she could even read the stern expression on Captain Reese’s face as he worked his nova’s controls.

“Interesting . . .” Alara smiled. She could spy on her squad mates like this without them ever even knowing.

“May I ask what purpose this magnification serves?”

“Sign language,” Alara said, trying to come up with something plausible.

“That would only work if your wingman did it, too.”

“Well, tell him to enlarge me.”

“Comms are restricted.”

“Let me see if I can get his attention, then.”

“But Alara, at this distance he’ll never see you—”

“Quiet.”

Alara was gratified to hear Ethan shut up again. At least the bot did as he was told. Alara studied her wingman a moment longer, taking time to appreciate his youthful features. He appeared to be concentrating intensely. As she watched, his lips began to move, and she frowned, trying to figure out what he was saying.

“Ethan, can you read lips?”

“Of course.”

“Can you read what my wingman is saying?”

“That would be a breach of fleet regulations. ISSF reg. #743 officers are entitled to their privacy whenever said privacy does not conflict with—”

“If you can’t do it, Ethan, you could just say so. You don’t have to lie about your capabilities.”

“Lying is against my programming, Alara.”

“So you say. I’m going to have to get the service techs to get a look inside your brain. I have a bad feeling you might be in need a memory wipe. It pains me to say that, Ethan, but it is what it is.” Alara had to work hard to keep her tone and expression serious, but it paid off. Without another word from the AI, a glowing green transcript appeared on her comm display.

We are green to execute, Commander. . . . Are you sure about this? . . . The overlord isn’t going to like it. . . .

When the transcript didn’t continue scrolling, Alara scowled. “Hoi! Where’s the rest of it?”

“I trust that’s sufficient proof for you that my statements have been accurate.”

“Ethan . . . bring the transcript back right now!”

“What transcript?”

Alara growled deep in her throat. “Ethan!”

“Yes?”

“You know what transcript! Bring it back now!”

“But you told me to shut up. Perhaps your capricious and contradictory wishes stem from some type of emotional instability. I think I’ll have to recommend you for a psychiatric evaluation when we get back to the Defiant—in case you need reconditioning. It pains me to say it, but it is what it is.”

Alara blinked incredulously at her displays. Great! A touchy AI! And he’s tracking when I have PMS . . . She sighed and tried another tack. “I suppose I deserved that, Ethan. I apologize.”

“Apology accepted.”

“Do you have any idea what Captain Reese and Commander Adari were talking about? I thought we were in a comms silence.”

“Clearly that does not apply to everyone in the squadron. Or perhaps it just ended.”

Alara frowned again. “Perhaps . . .”

Suddenly her comm crackled to life. “Contact, contact! Bearing T-13-60-57!” The speaker was Guardian Twelve. Alara had no idea who that was. What kind of contact? she wanted to ask.

“Twelve, this is Lead—my scopes are clear. Please confirm contact.”

“I . . . hold on . . . it’s gone now. Must have been a glitch in the grav.”

“Roger that. Eyes and ears people. We’re just about—”

“Hoi! Bogey’s back! Same coordinates!”

“Lead, this is Five. I can confirm contact. The planet must be interfering with your scanners.”

Alara saw it now, too—a neutral yellow contact approaching their formation at high speed, coming at them directly from the planet. Alara felt her pulse quicken. Out here in Sythian Space an unidentified contact could only mean one thing—

A Sythian.

“All right, listen up, greenies! Disengage your autopilots, power up weapons, and increase power to forward shields. Target profile suggests cruiser analog, so switch to silverstreaks and try for a lock! Your AIs will help you with the fire control systems.”

The blip turned red on the star map, and an enemy contact siren screamed through Alara’s cockpit. Red brackets appeared around the target on the HUD, giving a distance to target of 846 km.

“We’ll try to get back to you as soon as we can, but for now, Captain Reese is in charge. Follow his orders exactly and hopefully we’ll all get out of this alive.”

Just as Alara was about to trigger her comms to reply, she heard—“Defiant, this is Guardian Leader, we have an unknown enemy contact, bearing T-13-60-57. Bogey is cruiser analog. We are moving to engage.”

The comms crackled a second later with another, more distorted message. “Roger that, Guardian Leader. Extreme caution is advised. Defiant is retreating to the cover of the nebula now.”

This can’t be real, Alara thought, her eyes wide with disbelief.

“Guardians,” Captain Reese began, “we need to reset forward momentum and get closer in order to engage. Power up your SLS drives for a precision jump. Sending coordinates now. We’re going to meet them head on. Click your comms to confirm jump coordinates received and set. Time until coordinated jump is six minutes, starting . . . now!”

A handful of clicks came across the comm as the pilots figured out how to click them. Alara forgot to click hers as she said, “Ethan, start spooling for a jump to the specified coordinates.”

“The drives are already spinning up. They’re at 5%. Check the blue icon below your shield gauge.”

Alara looked up to her HUD and saw a new 2D icon had appeared there, this one a circular blue progress bar that showed a flashing 5% in the center, and a timer underneath which was now counting back from 5:28 Even as she watched the flashing percentage increased to 6%. She nodded slowly and glanced at her speed to see it was at 7.9 km/s and falling fast. “Are we going to make it to an SLS-safe jump speed before the drive is ready?”

“We’ll reach the SLS-safe entry speed limit in less than a minute at current deceleration.”

Alara looked down at her throttle to check her acceleration and found that it was -145 KAPS.

“If I may point out, Alara, you don’t need to look down at the throttle every time you wish to see your current velocity and acceleration. These values are displayed along the bottom left of your HUD for ease of reference.”

Alara looked up to see a miniature version of the colored throttle display. At the top of that HUD overlay was a number showing her current acceleration, -145 KAPS, and at the bottom, her current velocity, 7.1 km/s.

Ethan went on, “Now would be a good time to go over the missile and torpedo systems, since we’re about to use those. Would you like me to begin the tutorial?”

Alara nodded absently as she studied the image of the enemy contact more closely on the right holo display. The vessel appeared to be long and streamlined. There were no obvious wings or control surfaces for atmospheric flight, and the target display estimated its size at a modest 104 meters long—just over a third the size of the Defiant. The hull was highly reflective with a faintly shifting blue and lavender pattern on the mirror-clear hull.

The AI went through a rapid tutorial of the nova’s missile systems and Alara listened with half an ear, figuring out how to manually set proximity fuses and timers, as well as how to attain a missile lock on a moving target and dumb fire for stationary targets.

“One minute to jump,” Ethan told her, cutting short his tutorial.

Alara nodded and reached for the flight stick with a trembling hand. With a sweaty rush of panic, she realized that she’d forgotten how to use the flight controls. What was it Ethan had said about making turns in space? Should she use the rudder pedals or not? What about the afterburners? Would she blow the reactor by using them frequently?

She tried a bit of right rudder to see what would happen, and as soon as she did so, a hollow blue sphere appeared flashing at the top middle of her HUD. Inside the sphere was a small 3D version of her nova with two different colored vectors connecting it to the edges of the sphere like the spokes of a wheel. One vector was green and it pointed wherever her fighter pointed, while the other was red and didn’t appear to move with her ship. A number ran alongside the red vector, which at the moment displayed the symbol for infinity followed by an “s” for seconds.

Alara frowned. “Ethan! What’s that gauge at the top of the HUD?” The gauge stopped flashing.

“Good, you noticed. That’s the heading indicator. The desired heading is green, while the old, or actual, is red. The number beside the red vector, currently reading infinite seconds, tells you how long until your ship’s desired heading and actual heading will coincide.”

Alara blinked, trying hard to remember all of that.

The comm crackled—“Get ready, Guardians!”

Suddenly, the two glinting specks which were the novas at the leading edges of the formation flashed brightly, turning to starbursts of orange and red light. The explosions reached her ears mere seconds later from the simulated sound system, and then space turned to bright streaks of light and star lines as her fighter was catapulted into SLS.

Alara blinked against the fading glare of those explosions, and her eyes found the blue SLS overlay on the HUD. The countdown to their jump was frozen at 17 seconds.

Suddenly, the star lines of SLS collapsed into pinpoints, and Alara was left staring wide-eyed at her displays. What happened?

“Red Alert! It’s a trap!”

Alara heard the red alert siren and saw her star map automatically snap to auto-scale, displaying just one theater at regular zoom. But even at that small scale, she could see hundreds of red enemy contacts all around them. There’d just been one a second ago.

“What the frek happened?” one pilot asked.

“They had a wormhole ship cloaked along our flight path, and they’ve dropped us right where they want us!” Captain Reese replied. “Evasive action and engage! Stick to your wingmates, Guardians!”

Dead ahead Alara could see no less than a dozen red bracket pairs on the HUD, and her scopes were similarly crowded. The nearest enemy had been auto-targeted for her and it now appeared on the right holo display. She saw that the enemy target was shaped like an open shell with glowing red portals in the opening between the gleaming top and bottom halves of the shell. Alara assumed the glowing portals were some type of weapons. The ship type read Sythian Shell Fighter, and the scale was 35 meters long by 30 meters high.

Even as she watched, the ship’s central red eye flashed brightly, and she looked up to see purple stars begin spinning out of the darkness toward her, arcing off in all directions at once. Suddenly a missile lock alarm began beeping in her cockpit, accompanied by a warning from Ethan that one of the enemy fighters was trying for a lock on her. A second later Alara heard, “Guardian Four, break!” followed by the piercing wail of another siren.

It took her a moment for her to realize that she was Guardian Four, and that the siren meant a missile had locked on to her, but a moment was all she had before the first spinning star hit her, and Alara’s eyes were overwhelmed by the brilliant flash and deafening roar of the explosion.





Chapter 14

Somehow Alara’s fighter emerged from the fiery wake of the explosion without any damage, but forward shields were critical, as displayed by a red bracket at the top of the shield gauge with the number 12% above it. A word began flashing below the shield display—equalize—and Alara told Ethan to do exactly that, bringing her overall shields to 78%.

“Ethan, set shields to equalize automatically!”

“As you wish.”

“Frek, there’s too many of them!” Alara heard Gina Giord, Guardian Five, say. “Help! I can’t—” Her voice died in static.

“We’ve lost five! Watch yourselves, Guardians!” Three said. “You can’t shoot the enemy warheads, but jink hard just before they hit and you’ll lose them. Enemy fighters are slow and not very maneuverable, so get behind them and stay there to keep them from getting a lock on you!”

A stream of affirmative clicks came over the comm, while Alara focused intently on the spinning purple stars that were still streaming toward her. When the next one drew near, she did as she’d been instructed, pushing the stick down and firing a quick burst from her afterburners to accentuate the maneuver. She saw the enemy missile flash by close overhead, and she let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. Bringing her nova’s nose back up to hover her targeting reticle over the nearest enemy fighter, she found she could already make out the gleaming silver top and bottom halves of the shell, and the largest of the cluster of red portals in the center of the fighter glowed ominously at her.

Then her reticle flickered green and emitted a soft tone. She pulled the trigger, and three bright lances of light shot out from her nova, momentarily illuminating her cockpit in a bloody light. The lasers hit and elicited a spark of flames from the shell as a big piece of it broke off and spiraled away. The shell’s central red eye flickered out, and Alara pulled the trigger again with an accompanying skrish.

Her lasers hit home once more, and the target exploded with a flash of light. As the light faded, the debris quickly turned as cold and black as space as they sped off in all directions—a deadly hail of invisible projectiles. Two of the larger pieces collided with the shell’s wingmate, knocking it sideways and provoking a stream of flames before the fighter exploded in another blinding flash of light.

“I nailed two shells!” Alara crowed into the comm.

“Good! Get another, and cut the chatter!” Captain Reese said.

Alara watched another fighter line up on her. She heard the warning beeps of a missile lock, and quickly moved to target the enemy before it could fire. Just as her reticle flickered green, she saw the shell’s central red eye flash a brighter red, releasing another of the spinning purple stars. The missile lock alarm squealed. Alara gritted her teeth and pulled the trigger, sending a fire-linked burst flashing out toward the enemy fighter. Two of the laser blasts made glancing hits, carving deep black furrows in the top, while the third bounced off into space.

Now the enemy fighter was just 1.5 km away. The missile it had fired at her swelled brightly, filling Alara’s entire view. Her missile lock alarm screamed out a solid tone, and Alara jammed the stick forward. The missile flashed by close overhead, and Alara thanked her luck that those warheads, whatever they were made of, didn’t have proximity fuses.

Two more green dots appeared on the theater-sized star map.

“Hoi! Glad you could make it, Lead,” Guardian Three said.

“Form up Guardians and head for 99-54-0. We’re getting out of here.”

Alara found the green diamond which appeared on her map and stomped on the left rudder pedal to turn toward it. She saw the flashing gray clouds of the Stormcloud Nebula swing into view, along with a solid wall of red bracket pairs. Barely visible behind that sea of red was the small green diamond which was her waypoint.

“There’s too many of them to fly through!” Alara said into the comm. “We need to plot another jump now.”

“Negative, Four. Drives are still cooling, and until we get clear, we can’t afford to decelerate for SLS or to stop maneuvering. Guardians, switch to silverstreaks and set proximity fuses for 150 meters! I’ll assign your targets. We’re going to punch a hole.”

Alara’s target came in and appeared as a larger, bolder set of brackets than the rest. She lined it up under her reticle and thumbed over to torpedoes using the hat switch at the top of her flight stick. Just as the reticle turned red to indicate a solid lock, she heard the warning beeps of enemy missile locks start sounding through her cockpit. She ignored them and focused on the more muted beeping of her own target lock. As soon as her reticle emitted a solid tone, she pulled the trigger, sending a pair of silverstreak torpedoes flying off on the fat, glittering silver contrails which gave the torpedoes their name. Thinking back to what Ethan had told her about dumb-firing torpedoes, Alara waited a few seconds and then fired off a second pair behind the first, these two without a target lock. Then her torpedoes were spent and she switched back to lasers. More torpedoes appeared trailing out all around her as the rest of her squadron fired off their volleys.

The beeping of enemy missile locks suddenly turn more urgent, culminating in a pair of sharp wails from the missile lock alarm. In that instant she saw the enemy fighter wave erupt with dozens of purple stars, all of them spinning off in different directions. Two purple stars spun toward her, and Alara gritted her teeth, waiting for them to get close. Before the wave of enemy fire reached them, their torpedoes began to explode. Alara felt a flash of vindictive satisfaction, but as those explosions faded, she realized that the enemy fighters were still there.

“Frek!” The enemy was shooting down their torpedoes before they even got close. A quick look at the star map revealed there were dozens of enemy fighters still ahead of them, but even as she looked, a pair of enemy contacts winked out with tiny flares of light erupting on the star map to mark their explosions. Not all of the silverstreaks had been shot down. The two she’d dumb-fired had found their mark, but by the look of it, those two were the only ones.

“Ahhh!” someone screamed, and Alara spared a precious second of attention to see another nova winking off the grid. She couldn’t see many green contacts anymore, but she guessed that was because the sheer masses of red enemy contacts were obscuring them from view.

Suddenly the purple stars were upon her, and Alara pulled another evasive maneuver with her afterburners. Both missiles missed, but then enemy missile lock warning tones sounded through her cockpit with renewed force, and three more alarms blasted at her in quick succession. She looked out through the top of her canopy to see more enemy missiles rushing at her. These three were much closer than the previous pair. Alara began a sustained-boost barrel roll, hoping the missiles wouldn’t track a tight spiral, but they followed her dizzy spin in lazy arcs. She shot through the center of the three spiraling missiles, but this time one of them hit her, exploding with a deafening roar and a blinding flash of light.

“Port shields critical!” Ethan exclaimed. “Equalizing.”

Alara looked up to see her shield display reading 77%, and then she saw the glowing red eyes of the enemy fighter wave glowering at her, seemingly just a few dozen meters away. They were too close for comfort. She thumbed over to lasers and fired off a quick burst at the nearest one. That blast hit, sparking brightly and shearing off a piece of the enemy fighter. The damaged shell broke formation and went evasive. Alara applied left rudder to swing her reticle over the next target, but the warning beeps of enemy missile locks began to sound once more. A second later, the warning beeps turned to screaming sirens, and Alara had no time to react; the enemy was too close; she looked up to see two more purple stars flashing toward her, and she executed a spiraling dive with full right rudder and afterburners to the max, hoping to elude the enemy missiles again—

It was too late. Both missiles impacted, and she heard a sickening crunch as something tore away from her hull.

As soon as Alara’s ears cleared enough from the booming roars of the missiles exploding against her fighter, she heard—“Starboard shields critical! Forward shields depleted! Severe hull damage detected!”—followed by a low hiss of air escaping from her cockpit. The sound grew softer and softer, and then another hiss started up, close beside her ears. Both noises ceased, and Ethan said, “Your suit has been isolated from the cockpit’s air supply. Keep your helmet on until the cockpit is re-pressurized.”

Alara scowled and pressed the button below the hat switch on her flight stick which was assigned to target nearest enemy. A red arrow appeared at the top of her HUD, indicating the direction she’d need to turn in order to find her target. A quick look at the rear scope indicated the target was directly behind her. A moment later she heard something hissing off her aft shields, accompanied by bright flashes of light. Some kind of laser cannons? she wondered. A quick glance at the shield gauge showed her shields dropping fast. They went from 42% to down below 30% in just a few seconds.

I’m frekked, she thought, still pulling through a tight turn to get on the enemy’s tail. The hissing sound stopped, her cockpit’s air now fully depleted, and then Alara saw the big, reflective dome of a shell fighter appear just above her canopy. She boosted to tighten her turn, and the enemy came under her targeting reticle just long enough for her to fire off a laser blast at point-blank range. Three red beams collided with the enemy fighter, hitting the shell’s pair of glowing orange thrusters and punching through to the reactor. The fighter exploded instantly, and she soared through the roaring cloud of flaming debris and out the other side. “Ruh-kah!” she screamed over the comm. “I got another one! Take that you dumb frek!”

“Forward shields critical,” Ethan commented.

But he was the only one to say anything. “Hello?” Alara frowned. “Anyone need some help?” Alara took a quick look at her star map to find the nearest friendly, but she couldn’t see any green amongst the red. “Ethan, target the nearest friendly! I can’t see anyone on the grid.”

“Alara. . . .” The AI sounded unusually subdued.

“What is it?” she said. Enemy missile lock tones swarmed through her helmet speakers, and she gritted her teeth as she broke into a sudden evasive pattern.

“You are the last surviving member of your squadron.”

Alara blinked. “I’m the last . . .” She couldn’t find the words to speak, let alone the clarity of mind to tell Ethan what to do next. She felt numb as the reality sunk in—everyone else is dead. And then the beeping of enemy missile locks turned to multiple alarms as the missiles locked on to her. She heard the first one explode before she could even react, and then everything turned as bright as the inside of a sun.

*  *  *

— THE YEAR 0 AE—

Destra patched up the man they’d rescued as best she could from the medkit aboard the hover, but he was still in bad shape. Now that the layer of white dust had fallen away from his clothes, she could see that he wore the tattered remnants of the signature black with white trim uniform of the fleet; there was no insignia left, but a few of the badges on his left breast pocket remained, marking him as an officer of distinction. He was obviously a survivor from the defense of Roka.

Lessie finished packing food into the back of the hover, and now she walked up to see how the man was doing. When she noticed the fleet uniform, she scowled. “Hoi, he’s ISSF?”

“Seems to have been. He must have escaped in a pod. He’s lucky to be alive.”

“Well frek him!”

Destra looked up with a frown.

“They left us here, Destra! To die.” She gestured to the man, and he groaned softly as if in reply. “I say we return the favor. He’ll just be one more mouth to feed, anyway.”

“He’ll also be able to help us scavenge food and supplies when he’s better.”

“And attract more attention from the skull faces while he’s at it. Just leave him Destra. We need to get out of here.”

The man groaned again and his eyelids fluttered. Destra began nodding, as if she’d acquiesced. “All right, shoot him then and we can go.”

Lessie’s brow furrowed and she took half a step back from the wounded officer.

“What’s wrong? If we leave him here, he’ll die, either from his wounds, or from Sythians finding and eating him, so the kind thing to do would be to put him out of his misery.”

“I . . .” Lessie shook her head. “You do it. It’s your idea.”

Destra snorted. “No, it’s yours. You just don’t have the guts to call it what it is. Leaving him here is murder, and I’m not going to have his death on my conscience.” With that, she turned back to dressing the man’s wounds.

“Fine!” Lessie hissed, and turned away with a scrunch of gravel grinding underfoot.

Destra finished binding the man’s wounds and administered a sedative to keep him quiet. That done, she moved him onto a hover gurney she’d found for transporting cargo in the back of the transport. She had to lift his feet onto the gurney first and then his torso, since Lessie was sitting in the transport with her arms crossed, refusing to help. As soon as she was done, she triggered the gurney’s controls, causing it to rise off the ground, and then she pushed it into the back of the transport.

All the way back from Covena they heard the man moaning deliriously, and every time he did Lessie shot her a scathing look. Destra ignored her.

“Don’t you think Digger will mind us bringing him back?” Lessie asked.

“It doesn’t matter. We didn’t have a choice.”

“There’s no room for him.”

“We’ll find a space, even if he has to sleep on the gurney or the couch.”

“Digger might kick us out. . . .”

“Hoi! We’re done talking about this. You let me deal with Digger.”

“Fine.” Lessie crossed her arms once more. “But if he asks it was your idea.”

Destra turned to glare at the blond-haired woman sitting beside her. What was it about disaster which brought out the worst in people? This was hardly a time for humanity to be sabotaging the collective survival of the species with a it’s either me or you, survival of the fittest attitude.

When they drew near Digger’s hideout, Destra drove down off the road to the forest and parked by the trees again, but this time she found holo sheets in the back of the hover and spread them out over the transport to camouflage it. The sheets made the hover completely invisible to the naked eye, so Destra took a moment to turn in a slow circle to get her bearings and make sure she could find her way back to the spot. Satisfied that she knew where she was, Destra turned to Lessie, who was standing by the hover gurney, covering the trees with the ripper rifle as her eyes darted among the shadows between the trees. Below the gurney Lessie had managed to tie up all of the food they’d scavenged with some netting they’d found in the back of the hover along with the holo sheets.

“Are you finally done?” Lessie asked. “I feel like someone’s watching us . . .” she said, glancing around nervously.

“Let’s go,” Destra said. She didn’t bother to offer any trite reassurances. They both knew that a whole army of Sythians could be standing right behind them, and the only sign of them would be the wind they’d feel from the aliens breathing down their necks.

Destra moved to take charge of the gurney and then they started into the forest. Lessie went ahead while Destra brought up the rear, pushing the gurney along. They moved as quietly as they could, but every crunch of needles and leaves underfoot sounded like an earthquake to their ears. Destra’s foot caught on a root and she stumbled, reaching for the gurney for support. She accidentally grabbed the man’s injured side, and he screamed.

Lessie shot Destra a horrified look, and they both abruptly stopped to listen to the fading echoes of that scream—and to the response it might have provoked.

When no other sounds came from the forest, Destra allowed herself a sigh of relief. The man on the gurney moaned once more, but more softly now as he fell back to sleep.

“Frek, Destra!” Lessie whispered as she gave a shuddering sigh of her own. “You’re going to get us killed like that! Let’s try to keep it down.”

And that was when they heard a distant roar of engines starting up. Lessie’s eyes met Destra’s once more, but this time there was no mistaking the fear in them. “Run!” she screamed, and both of them snapped into action. Lessie began running through the forest at top speed, leaping over fallen logs and ducking under low branches. She didn’t bother to cover the trees with her rifle anymore, and she didn’t look back to make sure that Destra was still with her.

Destra struggled to keep up while pushing the gurney along in front of her. They kept glancing at the sky as they went, and the sound of engines roaring grew closer and closer until Destra felt sure the enemy ship was right above them, but there was no sign of it. Could it be cloaked? she wondered.

They reached the growing-together of two oakal trees which marked Digger’s hideout, and Lessie hurried to trigger the camouflaged hatch in the ground. It opened with a groan of rusty gears grinding together. Peering into the hatch, Destra quickly realized it was too small for the hover gurney to fit.

“Help me get him in!” Destra said, struggling to lift the man off the gurney by herself.

Lessie turned to look with a kind of childish shock written on her face. Her features were slack with horror. She appeared to consider helping for a moment, but then she shook her head. “I’m sorry, Destra,” she said, and with that she jumped into the hole.

Destra gritted her teeth and scowled. She keyed the hover gurney to settle to the ground, and then she dragged the man off and rolled him over to the open hatch, ignoring his feeble moans and flailing protests. Just as she was about to push him inside, a whir of motors started up, and the hatch began to close. Destra couldn’t believe her eyes. She lunged over the injured man’s body and grabbed the hatch, trying to force it back open, but the motors connected to it were surprisingly strong, and even fighting them with all of her strength, she was barely slowing them down.

“Frek you, Lessie!” Destra roared into the rapidly closing hole. Destra jumped back as the hatch cover shut, almost taking her fingers with it. The corner of her shirt snagged in the hatch and tore, leaving a ragged piece of red cloth to mark the ground. Destra glared at it and cursed Lessie and Digger once more. She bent down and felt around for the hatch release, but it wouldn’t respond to her touch. Somehow, while Destra had been struggling to get the man off the gurney, Lessie had rushed to the control panel below, and then she’d closed and locked the hatch.

Fuming, Destra thought about alternative ways she could get inside, but the ground-level exit which they’d used to leave the stim lab earlier that morning was all the way on the other side of the escarpment, and even if she could get to it before the Sythians found her, it would just be locked, too. She could dig her way in over here, but that would take time, and without the grav field activated, she’d fall some twenty meters to the ground and break her neck. Even then, there was still the matter of getting through the concealed doors and into the lab itself, and she had no weapons to confront Digger and Lessie besides the pistol at her hip, and it would be no match for ripper rifles.

She was stuck. Destra couldn’t imagine what had prompted Lessie to lock her out, except maybe her selfish fear that bringing another mouth to feed would get them kicked out of Digger’s hideout. Whatever the woman’s motivation, Destra was on her own now. She stood listening to the roar of engines drawing near, her eyes on the sky. She couldn’t see anything, but whatever it was, it was close. Then the sound abruptly changed in pitch and volume.

It’s landing!

She didn’t have much time. Destra turned in a quick half circle under the cover of Digger’s tree, searching the sky for the source of the sound, but she didn’t see anything; Sythian ships were cloaked. I guess this is it, she thought, glancing down at the man lying at her feet on a bed of crunchy brown needles and red oakal leaves. It’s just you and me—whoever you are. No weapons, nowhere to go, and no time to get there. Survival of the fittest at its best—

Or survival of the most ruthless, she thought, eyeing the sealed hatchway and thinking about Lessie, safely ensconced in the stim lab by now. Would they watch her die on the cameras the way that they had with the unfortunate group of survivors they’d seen fleeing through the forest last night?

Destra had just one chance. She had to get back to the hover and hide under the camo sheets. Eyeing the man at her feet speculatively, she quickly thought about ways to bring him with her, but there was no way to do that without slowing herself down and attracting more attention than she wanted.

Destra frowned. She couldn’t leave him. That would make her as bad as Lessie. Casting about quickly, she spied a nearby pile of leaves at the bottom of a short hill leading away from Digger’s tree. It’ll have to do, she thought.

Rolling the man back onto the gurney and shushing him every time he moaned, Destra powered up the gurney once more and rushed down the hill to the leaves. She lowered the gurney into them and then worked quickly to cover it up. The pile was deeper than it looked, and Destra had no trouble shoveling enough leaves, dirt, and needles over both the man and his gurney so that his shallow breathing couldn’t be detected beneath the mountain of leaves. The sound of engines dwindled from a roar to a whistle and then to terrifying silence. Destra’s head snapped up, and she quickly scanned the trees, her heart pounding, her eyes wide. There was no time to get away.

Glancing down, Destra frowned at the pile of leaves. Hope you don’t mind the company.

Less than a minute later she was completely buried and working hard to still the too-loud sound of her breathing and of her racing heart. She could see a fractured glimpse of the outside world through the leaves, and she hoped that didn’t mean she could be seen from the outside, too.

She listened intently but there were no sounds besides the ones she was making. Gradually her breathing and her heart rate slowed. Minutes passed, turning into what seemed like hours.

And then abruptly, she heard rustling leaves and her eyes flicked toward the sound. It was coming from Digger’s tree. As she watched, a pair of tall, broad-shouldered bipeds appeared out of nowhere. They were covered in shiny black armor and their helmets contained glowing red slits for their eyes.

Sythians.

Destra’s heart pounded. If they had lifeform scanners in those suits that were anywhere near as good as human ones, then her hiding place was already uncovered.

One of the Sythians looked around, while the other bent down to pick something up. He held out a ragged piece of red cloth to the other, who took it and studied it.

My shirt! Destra thought. Frek! I’ve given them away!

Both aliens stared down at the hidden hatch as though they could see straight through it to the chamber below. One of them gestured to the ground where the hatchway was, while the second went down on his haunches for a closer look.

The man beside Destra groaned, and she shushed him once more, but the two Sythians didn’t react. They were too focused on what they’d found.

Destra was torn between leaping out of her hiding place with her pistol blazing, and just leaving Digger and Lessie to the Sythians. She was more inclined to do the latter until she remembered—

Dean.

The little blond-haired boy hadn’t done anything to deserve that fate. The Sythians will eat them, she reminded herself, trying to spur her frozen limbs into action. But what about her responsibility to the man lying helpless beside her? And how would she be able to help Dean anyway? All she had was a plasma pistol that likely wouldn’t even breach the Sythians’ armor. She’d have a better chance with it set to stun, and who knew if what stunned a human would stun a Sythian? At least Lessie and Digger have rifles. . . . and by now they’ve already spotted the Sythians on the cameras, so at least they’ll have some warning.

Destra chewed her bottom lip, unable to decide what to do.

Then one of the Sythians straightened and held out his arm with an open palm. A bright purple pulse of light shot out from his palm, sounding impossibly loud in the stillness of the forest. Alara saw black smoke and orange flames rising from the ground at the Sythians’ feet. The flames grew up quickly into a raging fire that engulfed them, but they didn’t react to it. Destra watched through the leaves and the flickering flames as one of the Sythians dropped out of sight, and she realized he’d just jumped into the hole below the tree.

They’re in, she thought.

The second one dropped away, and then all that was left was the crackling fire, racing along the ground to chew up the dry leaves and needles lying on the forest floor. Destra saw the flames racing her way, and she realized that she was about to be burned alive.

She had just a moment to debate a course of action before bursting out of her hiding place. She had no way of knowing if there were more Sythians watching and waiting nearby, but she tried to ignore that possibility as she swept leaves and needles off the hover gurney to find the controls. Destra keyed the gurney to rise out of the leaves, and she started running in the opposite direction from the racing flames, pushing the gurney along in front of her. Destra wasn’t sure what lay in this direction, but she was certain that it was taking her further and further from the hover transport she’d left camouflaged by the side of the road. That transport was her only hope. If she didn’t get to it. . . .

If I don’t get to it, my fate will be the same as Dean’s. With the threat of what that meant to spur her on, Destra ran faster. The trees rushed by her in a brown, gray, and purple haze, the colors of their boles blending into a dreary kaleidoscope.

Birds tweeted and squawked around her, as if cheering her on. A wind rustled through the leaves overhead, sending a small rain of them fluttering down and bringing a choking wash of smoke to her nostrils. Destra began to cough, and her eyes started burning. She saw a fallen log lying in her path just in time to leap over it with the gurney. The gurney lifted her high over the log and then settled down gradually on the other side. Destra’s lungs began to burn, insisting she take a break, but she pressed on, feeling the back of her neck prickle with the imagined heat of the fire raging behind her and with the thought of untold numbers of Sythians racing after her.

Destra pushed the gurney faster and faster. She was so focused on watching the terrain for exposed roots and rocks which could trip her up that she didn’t notice when a large, shiny boulder appeared in the grassy clearing up ahead. When she did notice, Destra slowed her progress, digging her heels into the needles and leaves to bring the gurney to a stop before they reached the clearing. She stood staring at the silvery boulder for a moment, her chest heaving, and her mind racing before she noticed the discrepancies between the shiny, smooth surface and that of any rock she’d ever encountered. It’s a ship, she realized with a gasp.

And then she was lunging through the clearing, pushing the gurney once more, this time with the irrational hope that she might be able to get aboard that spacecraft and blast off Roka to follow her son into Dark Space. Gone were any thoughts she’d had of helping Dean. If she had to pick between two little boys, Atton won every time.

Hold on baby! she thought. Mommy’s coming.

*  *  *

—THE YEAR 10 AE—

The Invisible War


The blinding brilliance of multiple explosions faded, along with the sound, and the next thing Alara heard was, “Training mission complete. Your score for this mission is 5B. You killed five Shell Fighters. Congratulations.”

Alara gaped at her controls. The stars swam back into focus, but she was still seeing spots. “Hold on—are you saying this was all just a simulation?”

The red contacts vanished from Alara’s star map, and then her squadron reappeared—all 14 of them. She even heard her comm come back to life with the chattering voices of the supposedly dead.

“You mean all this time you’ve just been frekking with me, Ethan?”

“I was only following orders, Alara. Please don’t be distressed.”

“You bet your frekking ass I’m distressed!” She keyed the comm with a defiant stab of her finger, adding her complaints to the already confusing babble on the comm. “Hoi, whose idea was this?”

“Cut the chatter Guardians,” a stern voice replied. “Anyone who’s still complaining can discuss it with the warden on the brig.” It was Guardian One. “I don’t tolerate insubordination among my pilots.” The chatter subsided and the commander went on. “This was a live drill, and yes, the only ones who knew about it were the six real pilots scattered among you green freks. We played our part, faking the screams of the dying and bowing out of the battle as soon as possible to see how you all handle yourselves in a real engagement.”

Alara listened to the commander’s explanation with a scowl. Her eyes blazed at the comm display. She held her tongue for now, but she wasn’t going to fly for that man—not now, not ever.

Commander Adari went on, “A nova is able to simulate almost any sortie, but some of you might have noticed that as your ships became damaged no pieces went flying off into space, and of course the explosions were all simulated, so you won’t have felt any kinetic forces from those blasts, regardless of your IMS settings.

“What you just experienced is a very likely scenario of what we’re about to encounter while crossing Sythian Space, so the fact that you all died in less than ten minutes is not good. But some of you managed to put up a surprising fight and even took an enemy fighter with you. A smaller number of you were able to take several enemies down. To those few I offer my congratulations—Alara Vastra and Tenrik Fanton received 5B and 3B ratings respectively. The number refers to a pilot’s kills per sortie, and the letter grade is an overall evaluation of flight skill. The more sorties you fly, the lower that number will tend to get, but hopefully, the higher your letter grade will get, since you’ll become a more experienced pilot.

“We’re now heading back to the Defiant, so fly toward the waypoint which should now be appearing on your star maps. The final roster will be published tomorrow morning after all of the other candidates have gone through this scenario. Do not tell any of the other trainees what’s to come. Any breach of this confidentiality will land you in the brig—or worse. Guardian One out.”

“Frek you, Guardian One!” Alara screamed, but she didn’t send that over the comms.

“Alara, you should be aware that I’m obligated to report pilot insubordination in whatever form I may encounter it. Your comment has been filed into my mission report.”

“Frek you, too, Ethan!”

“Duly noted, but I assure you I am incapable of frekking anything, so your insubordination is wasted on me.”

“Ethan?” Alara began, adopting a dulcet tone.

“Yes, Alara?”

“Shut up.”





Chapter 15

The Invisible War

Ethan sat discussing tactics with Deck Commander Loba Caldin inside the Defiant’s operations center.

“Sythians don’t have SLS disruptors . . . do they?”

Commander Caldin frowned. “No . . . you know that they don’t, sir.”

“Of course, I know. So why don’t we make a micro jump to cross Forlax?”

Caldin shook her head. “First of all, because it would take us five minutes to calculate the jump—five minutes without maneuvering, travelling at slow, SLS-safe speeds. Even if they didn’t kill us in that window of opportunity, they’d detect our drives spooling, and they’d line up obstacles along our jump trajectory—maybe even cloaking mines. No sooner would we jump to SLS than we’d run into whatever trap they’ve laid and blow up.”

“Then we should jump in short of the system gate, accelerate up to a high speed, and roar through the system in real space, going so fast that they can’t possibly catch us.”

“If we drop short of the gate it will take more fuel to cross the system, since we’ll need to open our own exit wormhole, and the Sythians could still line up mines and ships on our flight path.”

“So we fire the guns ahead of us as we go.”

Caldin shook her head. “Might not be good enough if they have a wormhole ship.”

“A wormhole ship?”

Caldin frowned and her head cocked ever so slightly to one side. “As you already know . . . the Sythians have been taking jump gates from systems they don’t want or need, cloaking them, and then attaching them to some of their larger ships. Since the ships and gates are invisible to our gravidar while cloaked, we can’t hope to avoid running straight into the invisible wormholes. All they need to do is wait until they see we’re going too fast to slow down or abruptly change course, then they jump one of their wormhole ships straight into our flight path. At that point, one of two things will happen—we run straight through the wormhole and our safeties knock us back to real space, busting us to near-zero velocity, or else maybe we’re going at a nice, SLS-safe speed and they get to send us wherever they want before we even have the time to blink.

“They’ve also taken to placing wormhole ships in front of existing system gates, so that just when we think we’re going through a charted gate, instead we’re catapulted through a cloaked wormhole that sends us straight to a nice little minefield that they’ve laid just for us.”

Ethan wasn’t actually aware of any of those tactics, but he was getting tired of Caldin’s obstructionist attitude. “Well, maybe we can just stay here forever and leave Dark Space to the crime lords.”

Caldin held his gaze for a moment, her expression unrelenting, but then she sighed. “You’re right. I recommend we drop out of the gate as planned, using the element of surprise as best we can, and cross the system as fast as possible from there.”

“That does seem to be our best chance.”

“Is the recon flight back yet?”

Ethan nodded. “Taylon’s clear. I’m about to review the trainees’ scores and the commander’s choices for his squadron. If you’d like, you can do it with me, but I already know from Commander Adari’s debriefing that all of the pilots except for two in the first batch of trainees qualified with ratings of B or higher.”

“Not too bad, I suppose. The cut off for a nova pilot is a ‘B’ rating, so the trainees must be fairly skilled.”

“That’s what I thought, too. Based on those results I told the commander to test the other candidates on the sim deck rather than in the novas, so that we can get going. We need to cross the Taylon System before any enemy ships drop by to ruin our day.”

Caldin nodded. “Who made the roster? No one we can’t afford to spare I hope.”

“I haven’t had a look yet; why don’t you check the mission report first and tell me what you think.” Ethan passed her a holo pad with the report already selected. Caldin brought it to life with stab of her finger, and a list of names complete with pictures, test scores, and instructors’ notes appeared hovering above the pad. Caldin scanned through the list quickly, and Ethan watched from the other side, unable to read anything because the text was all backward from his perspective. He did recognize a few of the pilots’ faces, however—

One in particular.

Ethan’s eyes widened and he snatched the pad away from Caldin so he could get a better look. He found himself staring into the bright violet eyes of none other than Alara Vastra.

“What is it?” Caldin asked, frowning at him.

Ethan shook his head. “No, it’s nothing.” But it wasn’t nothing. Alara can’t be allowed to fly! She was in no condition to become a nova pilot, and even if she were—even on her best day she wasn’t a good enough pilot to survive what’s coming. He noticed that her score for the mission had been the highest of the group—5B—but he dismissed that with a shake of his head. Flying a recon mission is very different from flying in real combat.

Something began niggling in the back of Ethan’s mind, but he ignored it and continued paging through the mission report to see if there were any more surprises. When he reached the bottom of the report, he read Commander Adari’s conclusions and suggestions for whom should join the squadron, but when Ethan read the final line of the report, his eyes goggled.

The trainees performed surprisingly well, considering their lack of experience and the fact that this was a blind combat simulation in live novas—

Suddenly Ethan realized what it was that had been niggling. Alara’s rating was 5-B! The number referred the number of kills she’d scored. For a recon flight that number should have been zero.

—None of them realized that the enemy contacts weren’t real, and although they didn’t work effectively as a team, they did manage to take out a total of fourteen enemy fighters to their eight, and they did this while outnumbered more than twenty to one by enemy forces. My recommendation is that all the pilots who scored at least one kill in this mission should be considered for permanent reassignment to Guardian Squadron.

Ethan couldn’t believe it. The commander had sent Alara, fragile as she was, into a blind combat simulation! Ethan had to work hard to control himself. He wanted to punch the table with his fist and throw the holo pad at the opposite wall.

“Overlord Dominic, sir? Is something wrong?” Caldin asked, her eyebrows drawing together with concern.

Ethan shook his head and pushed his chair away from the captain’s table. Standing up from the table and turning to her, he said, “Go to the bridge and plot a course to the gate. I’ll be with you soon.” Ethan was already on his way out of the operations center.

“Where are you going?” Caldin called after him.

“I need to speak with Commander Adari!” Ethan called back.

*  *  *

Alara sat watching the Guardians’ juvenile antics from a couch in the furthest corner of the pilot’s lounge. The lounge was much smaller than Aurora’s, and the pilots had to be their own bartenders, but at least they couldn’t get kicked out for throwing a raucous party. Besides that, on an orange alert it was the only place close enough to the hangar for them to celebrate and still be able to scramble to their fighters in five minutes.

Alara’s arms were crossed, and she looked distinctly unimpressed. Shouts of laughter and camaraderie were rising in the air, and even as she watched, the group of pilots sitting at the bar broke out in song, their arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders, their drinks sloshing over the rims of their mugs in golden rivers of fizz as they swayed to the off-key melody they sung. There was no alcohol being served, but the non-alcoholic equivalents seemed to have induced insobriety anyway. This was a celebration for the trainees, but Alara refused to take part. They tricked us! she fumed. Had everyone forgotten so soon?

She saw a flicker of a black flight suit in the corner of her eye, and felt a hand on her shoulder. The couch sagged, and Alara turned to see who’d sat down beside her. She found herself face to face with her wingmate from the mission, Captain Reese.

“What?” she said.

The captain frowned at her and removed his hand from her shoulder. “Why don’t you join us?” he asked, taking a sip from a mug he held in his other hand.

“Yes, and make an even bigger fool of myself than you already have. No thanks.” She had broken into tears when they’d finally landed on the Defiant again. The flight engineer who’d been the first to greet her as she’d come down the ladder from her cockpit had assured her it was just a delayed reaction to the stress, and not to feel embarrassed; then she’d thrown up on his boots, and he’d suddenly become much less sympathetic. Alara shook her head to clear away the memory.

“I’m sorry you feel that way, Alara,” Adan said, “but you should know it wasn’t my idea.”

“No? You let me think it was real just like everyone else. That’s just as bad.”

“I had no choice, it was the commander’s orders.”

“Fine.” She shrugged. “I don’t care.”

“Alara . . .” he reached for her shoulder again, but she shrugged him off and stood up, walking away. “Alara!” he called after her.

“Leave me alone, Captain. I’m going to hit the rack.”

Just as Alara reached the entrance of the lounge and began raising her wrist to pass it over the door scanner, the doors swished open, and she turned to see the overlord storming in, flanked by two guards. The overlord’s pale blue eyes met hers, and he said, “Stay here. I’ll be with you in a moment.”

Alara watched as the overlord stalked up to Commander Ithicus Adari where he sat singing at the bar with a group of trainee pilots. The overlord tapped him on the shoulder, interrupting his song.

“Hoi there, sir!” Adari said, grinning broadly. “Care to join us for a drink?”

“I think you’re celebrating prematurely, Commander—or should I say Lieutenant.”

Alara began to smile now, too, as she watched Adari’s smug grin fade.

“I’m sorry?” he asked.

“That stunt you pulled. Conducting a blind combat simulation in the cockpits of real novas. Not only did I not authorize that, but did it occur to you how dangerous that could have been?”

“I thought the benefit outweighed the—”

“It outweighed nothing! What if your pilots had gone running off in all directions, fleeing for their lives and making emergency SLS jumps into the middle of frekking nowhere?”

Silence fell across the lounge.

“The AIs would have stopped them,” Adari said.

“Would the AIs have stopped them from running into each other and us in their frenzy to escape an enemy they thought was real?”

“I . . .”

“Would it have stopped them from ejecting from their fighters when they thought they were about to die?”

“Well, no, but—”

“How long do you think we’d have had to spend here recovering those pilots and their fighters before moving on to the next system? Those delays might have cost us the Defiant.”

“I thought that a blind combat simulation was the best way to evaluate the trainees in the shortest time possible.”

The overlord waved his hand dismissively. “How about the mental strain you put on already badly over-stressed officers?” Alara saw him turn and point to her. “Did you know that that pilot over there, who you rated as 5B, and considered the winner of your little sortie, is currently a mental patient aboard the Defiant? She doesn’t know who she is, let alone remember how to fly!”

“With respect, sir, I think her results say otherwise. She was the only pilot to make five kills, and she was the last one standing.”

“I don’t care! Get her off the roster. And as for you, you’re relieved of command, Adari. Your XO will take charge of this squadron from here on out.”

“Yes, sir.”

Alara saw the overlord turn once more, and now he pointed to Captain Reese who was still seated on the couch that she’d vacated.

“And you! Show my guards to their new assignments and then get to the bridge. We’re leaving the nebula now.”

With that, the overlord strode back to where Alara stood gaping at him from the entrance of the pilot’s lounge. “Come with me,” he said, hauling her roughly by the arm. She stumbled along beside him in a daze. “I’m taking you back to your parents’ quarters.”

“What?” Alara dug in her heels and yanked her arm free of his grasp. “No.” The overlord turned to look at her with blazing blue eyes. His chest rose and fell quickly with the force of his fury. She shook her head, suddenly feeling more sure of herself. The last few hours snapped into focus and now she had a whole new perspective—a new purpose besides agonizing over who she was and who she wasn’t. “I’m not going back to them,” she said, crossing her arms.

“Fine, we’ll find you your own quarters, and you can hide there until we reach Obsidian Station.”

The overlord made another grab for her arm, but she resisted again. Her brow furrowed and she shook her head. “I’m staying with the squadron.”

“What? You’re in no condition to fly, Alara!”

“How would you know? That’s what I thought, too, but in the heat of battle, I completely forgot to wonder who I am anymore, and I became someone—someone who’s good at what they do.” She shrugged and smiled lewdly at him. “And something tells me you don’t want me doing the other thing I’m good at aboard your ship.”

The overlord’s eyes flashed. “Alara . . . you’re not okay.”

“And as far as anyone knows I might never be okay! I’m not Alara anymore. I’m not even Angel. I’m someone else, some strange mixture of the two.”

“Kiddie . . . please!”

Alara nodded. “That’s as good a name for me as any.” And with that, Alara turned and strode back into the pilot’s lounge. She passed Adan on the way in, and the young captain shot her a wry grin as he passed her in the doorway. “Nice to meet you, Kiddie,” he said, and gave a sloppy salute. “Glad you decided to finally join us.”

She nodded and continued on toward the bar. Maybe she could use a drink after all.

*  *  *

Atton escorted the pair of guards through the ship. As they entered a nearby lift tube, one of them asked. “What’s this about a new assignment?”

“You’re going to be promoted,” Atton replied, smiling at the two low-ranking corpsmen.

“To what?”

The lift quickly fell to the specified deck and then Atton nodded as the doors opened onto one of the lower levels of the ship. “You’ll see. After you.”

The guards walked out the lift first, their footsteps ringing across the deck as they wound their way through the bowels of the ship.

“Where are we going?” one of them asked, looking over his shoulder.

Atton shook his head. “I’ll explain once we get there.”

As soon as there could be no doubt about where they were headed, the guards’ footsteps began to slow. That was when Atton chose to draw his sidearm and point it at the back of the nearest man’s head.

“Drop your weapons,” he said.

“The frek . . .”

“I said drop them!”

Both guards did as they were told, and their rifles clattered to the deck.

“Now, keep walking.”

“What are you doing, Captain?”

“Keeping you two from shooting off your mouths.”

“About what?” One man asked. “Frek, we don’t know anything, brua, just cool it, okay? Let’s talk about this.”

“I’m sorry,” Atton said as they reached the doors at the end of the corridor. “But talking about this is exactly what I’m trying to avoid.”

With that, Atton pulled the trigger, shooting the first man in the back. He fell to the deck with arms and legs jerking spasmodically. The other man turned, holding out his palms in surrender. “Wait! Don’t shoot! I—”

Atton silenced him with another shot and the second guard collapsed. Frowning, Atton put away his pistol and walked up to the fallen guards. “I’m sorry,” he said again. “It was the only way.”





Chapter 16

Ethan turned to see his son come aboard the bridge. Atton strode in still wearing his flight suit, but there was no time for him to change. The Defiant was already cruising through the Taylon system at a considerable 135 km/s. It had taken the last half an hour at the cruiser’s top acceleration of 75 KAPS to reach that speed, but they’d already begun decelerating in preparation to reach the space gate on the far side of Taylon. They would reach the gate in another thirty five minutes, for a total transit time of just over an hour from the nebula to the gate. Forlax would be faster to cross, since they’d be going from one gate to another as opposed to coming from deep space, but in that smaller area of space they’d be much more likely to encounter enemies than they were to encounter them along the fringes of the galaxy.

Looking around the bridge, Ethan’s eyes fell upon Tova’s muscular frame. She stood down by the viewports as she cast her thoughts out into space to make sure no Sythian ships were nearby. Ethan gave an abrupt shiver. He wasn’t sure if that shiver was from the near freezing temperature of the air on the bridge—they’d set the climate controls and the lights down very low in order to keep Tova happy—or because of the alien’s fearsome appearance. Ethan rubbed his frozen hands together and blew into them to warm up. He turned back to the captain’s table and gazed down at it with Commander Caldin.

Atton reached the side of the table a moment later. “What’s it look like?” he asked, sounding out of breath.

Ethan looked up from the star map with a smile. “So far we’re clear to the gate. Let’s hope our luck holds.”

“Yes, let’s. Are you sure you don’t want me on the flight deck with the others? Since you made me squadron leader now, if we need to scramble, I need to be the first one there.”

Ethan frowned. He hadn’t thought of that when he’d decided to have his son take Lieutenant Adari’s place. “You can head back there in a minute. But first, I want to know if my guards made it to their new assignment.”

Adan nodded. “Yes, they did.”

“Good. Hopefully you didn’t have to use a valuable ship to send them back to Stormcloud Transfer.”

“No, just an old, beaten up shuttle.”

“Good.”

Caldin stood eyeing the two men from across the table. “I didn’t see any ships leaving the Defiant.”

Atton smiled at her, holding the woman’s steely blue gaze. “Perhaps you looked away from the grid at just the right moment.”

Caldin frowned back. After a long moment of trading glares with Atton, she turned to Ethan and shook her head. “You sent your guards away? At a time when we have too few hands on this ship as it is?”

Ethan waved away her objections. “I had to. They’re conducting a high-priority mission for me aboard the transfer station.”

“What mission?”

“I’m afraid that for now, that information is need to know.”

Caldin’s eyes darted to Atton and she scowled, no doubt resentful that Atton knew about it and she did not—yet one more reminder that he now outranked her—but she said nothing further and her eyes returned to the grid.

Atton nodded. “Well, it seems you have things under control here. I’m going to get back to the flight deck.”

“Right.” Turning to Commander Caldin, Ethan said, “It looks like you’ll be getting more time as the XO than you thought.”

She nodded almost imperceptibly, not looking up from the grid. Ethan frowned, hoping she’d get over her jealousy soon. He turned to watch as Atton left, still frowning. Now he had to worry about his son and Alara. If he’d had any say in the matter, he’d have ordered them both to stay on the bridge where he could keep an eye on them and make sure they were safe, but there was no excuse he could think of to order that. He’d already tried with Atton by making him the XO, and as for Alara, she’d decided she wanted to be a nova pilot, and that gave him pause. In a time when Alara had no real sense of purpose or identity, being a pilot was filling that need—and it was hard to argue with her pilot rating. She was a better pilot than he’d given her credit for.

Ethan turned away with a smirk. It felt like just yesterday that he’d suggested that he and Alara join the fleet to get away from Alec Brondi’s collection agents. At that suggestion, she’d started a huge fight with him, and they’d dissolved their partnership over it.

But now it’s you who wants to be the nova pilot. Ethan shook his head. How quickly things change. . . .

Ethan shivered again and he turned to glare at Tova. He saw Caldin rubbing her hands together to warm up, and then he came to a decision. “Tova!” he called.

“Yess?” she hissed, turning to him from the viewports.

Clearly she didn’t like being yelled at. Ethan didn’t care. She’d caused enough inconvenience to him and his crew. “Go get your armor. We’re turning up the temperature in here. This is ridiculous.”

Tova began stalking down the gangway from the viewports. As she drew near, she gave a toothy grin. “Now humans know how I feel in heat. You freeze in my climate, I burn in yours.”

“Yeah yeah, go get your suit—Delayn! Turn up the climate controllers!”

A collective sigh of relief went up from the crew.

“Yes, sir!” Delayn replied.

*  *  *

Dr. Kurlin sat in the med lab aboard the Defiant, testing the 72 different blood samples he’d gathered from the surviving crew members. The tests ran quickly, since they were each conducted in a matter of a minute by the lab’s computer. All Kurlin had to do was input the necessary test parameters and change the samples when the queue was empty.

That left him twiddling his thumbs most of the time, thinking. Mostly his thoughts turned to his daughter, Alara, and with that, an accompanying frown touched his lips. She’d been conscripted to join the Defiant’s nova pilots, and he was not happy about it. He had returned from the flight deck just a few moments ago. He’d gone there in the hopes that Alara had failed the training and would not be asked—ordered—to join the squadron. Instead, he’d found that she had not only passed, but she’d earned the highest score of any of the trainees.

Under other circumstances he might have been proud, but this was war, and worse, it was a war where the enemy was invisible, making them unusually deadly. The Defiant would likely go down with all hands while trying to cross Sythian Space, but as a nova pilot Alara would be among the first to die.

Kurlin had been racking his brain for hours to come up with a way that he could force Alara’s commanding officers to remove her from the roster. He’d even tried refusing to work if the overlord didn’t have her grounded; right after his trip to the flight deck, he’d gone to the bridge to make that threat in person, but the overlord had simply said, “She wants to be there, Kurlin. And if you don’t work, I’ll have you chipped and you can be my personal boot-licker.”

That had been enough to stop him cold. Something in the overlord’s tone had told him there would be no further argument, but that didn’t mean Kurlin had given up.

Suddenly the computer beeped with an error, and Kurlin sat up to study the screen and see what had gone wrong.

Test access restricted. Sample #59 not tested.

Kurlin frowned and checked his holo pad to see whose sample #59 was. When he saw the name he smirked. Speak of the devlin, he thought. The sample belonged to Supreme Overlord Altarian Dominic.

“Computer, give me details about the restricted test access,” he asked.

“An age test on sample number 59 is not permitted.”

“What? Why not?”

“Answer not available.”

Kurlin frowned. Could the overlord be that vain? No, he shook his head. Dominic already looks like he’s twice his real age. Kurlin didn’t technically need to know the age of each person from their blood, because their age was clearly listed in their files, but the age test involved studying the DNA characteristics of the host’s T cells and how those characteristics changed over time, which coincidentally, his virus would mimic, causing the host to appear older than his apparent age. The further along the virus was, the greater the disparity would become, seeming to age the infected person’s blood. Thus, the easiest way to determine if anyone was still contagious, was to identify unusual disparities in tested age versus real.

Whatever the reason for the restricted test access, he had to know the results. He would just have to test the overlord’s blood sample by hand. Kurlin sighed.

“Eject current sample and test the next one in the queque.”

As soon as the lab computer ejected the overlord’s sample, Kurlin set to work. It was a laborious process using the lab microscope to identify and then count the circular DNA molecules which were a by-product of age. By the time Kurlin had finished, the lab computer was also finished testing the rest of the crew, but Kurlin barely heard it announce, “Testing complete.”

That can’t be right, he thought, staring at the result of his calculations. He ran the numbers he’d tallied on his holopad through a calculator program in case he’d made a mistake in his head, but it spat out the same number. It can’t be . . . He shook his head and went back to the microscope to count the circular molecules again—only to receive the same result thirty minutes later.

Kurlin sat back from the microscope, his brow furrowed and a frown on his lips. The Overlord’s blood showed he was only 46 years old, but his file said he was 98. Could it be the virus? he wondered. But the virus would have produced the opposite effect, making his blood look older than he actually was. This was something else. Maybe the overlord just has unusually young blood . . . but Kurlin knew better than to second-guess the test. It was accurate to within a year, and he’d already counted the age markers twice. That left only one possibility—the Overlord was a very old-looking 46 and his file was wrong about him being 98.

Kurlin shook his head. Nobody looks that old at 46. And he could remember the overlord was already in power 46 years ago. Dominic had looked middle-aged at the time. Kurlin had been 20, and still living with his parents on Jopara while he’d studied for his doctorate at the academy.

Maybe it’s my mistake, he thought. Maybe he’d forgotten how to test a person’s age by hand. Just to make sure, Kurlin took a sample of his own blood and ran the same test by hand. Another half an hour later his calculations returned his exact age—66.

Kurlin shook his head and sat back in his chair, shocked. Could the overlord really be 46? How is that possible?

There was only one way it was possible. The overlord in the Imperial records, and the overlord whose sample Kurlin had taken were not the same person. But if that were the case, the overlord’s DNA should not have matched what was in the records. Unless the files have been tampered with . . .

Kurlin remembered that when Brondi had been planning to introduce his virus to the Valiant by infiltrating the ship with a live incubator, they had briefly discussed the what-if’s of their infiltrator being discovered too soon due to discrepancies between what was on file and what they’d actually see if they took a sample of the infiltrator’s blood. They’d discounted that possibility as irrelevant. The chances that someone would take a sample of the infiltrator’s blood before the virus had spread throughout the ship were slim to none.

The virus had worked, but now someone was making Brondi’s identity switch look like an amateurish prank, going so far as to even alter the Imperial records, but the one thing tampered records couldn’t fake was age—that had to at least match the apparent age of the person—and the apparent age of a person can be altered with a holoskin, Kurlin mused. No wonder the overlord’s test access was restricted.

So who was the overlord, then? That was the big question. He could be anyone. Kurlin blinked, and he felt his skin begin to crawl with the implications of those conclusions. If the overlord was not really the overlord, then how had he come to replace the man who actually had been? That couldn’t have been achieved easily. Identichips were almost impossible to fake. Unless someone killed the overlord and stole his identichip. Or the overlord became infected with my virus and as he lay dying, he set up an imposter to take his place?

Kurlin shook his head to clear away the doubt and confusion. It didn’t really matter who the imposter was or how he’d come to be in that position. The revelation that the overlord was not really the overlord was entirely useless, since they were all about to die anyway.

And my daughter will be first among the dead! Kurlin felt even more enraged now that he realized the man who had bluntly told him no and threatened to have him chipped when he’d asked to have his daughter grounded was not even authorized to be in command.

He’s not even authorized to . . .

Suddenly Kurlin understood the significance of what he’d uncovered. He could save all of their lives and stop the overlord’s mad quest to cross Sythian Space! Kurlin was already halfway out of his chair when he realized that wouldn’t work. Whoever took the overlord’s place as commander of the Defiant would only continue the quest. No officer worth his insignia would leave Dark Space in Brondi’s hands, so a new commander would take over and press on, and Kurlin would hold no sway over whoever he or she was.

The most Kurlin could hope for would be to blackmail the overlord into having his daughter grounded. I could even have her, myself, and my wife sent back to the transfer station with food and supplies enough to last until help comes! He couldn’t save everyone on the Defiant, but he could save his family—finally. Since the day Brondi had come into his office, threatening to kill his wife if he didn’t create a deadly virus, Kurlin had been a slave as surely as if he were chipped, but now his family would be safe, and that was all he’d ever wanted—all he’d ever strived to do since their exodus to Dark Space.

A grin sprang to Kurlin’s face. The imposter would do anything rather than have his secret revealed to the fleet.

Maybe the information was not so useless after all.





Chapter 17

Ethan watched the space gate growing closer and closer, until the swirling blue pool which was the wormhole to SLS was all anyone could see out the forward viewports. Suddenly the bow of the Defiant touched the surface of that pool and it raced along the hull, reaching out to envelop them like a river. Then everything turned to star lines and a bright flash of light marked the transition to the dizzying swirl of SLS. At that, the bridge broke into spontaneous applause, cheering and whistling and turning to clap each other on the back. They’d made it!

Ethan let out a long sigh and his shoulders slumped. He watched the crew celebrate, a small smile tugging at his lips. One system down, one more to go. An SLS timer appeared on the captain’s table and Ethan touched his ear and whispered a command to set his comm piece to intercom mode and amplify his voice across the deck speakers.

“Congratulations! We’ve crossed the first system. Good job, people! The time till we reach Forlax is eleven hours and ten minutes. You can leave your stations to rest, but please wait for the relief crew to arrive, and don’t go too far. If something knocks us out of SLS, I need my best men to be sitting back at their stations before I can even give the order. Dismissed!”

More cheering.

Ethan smiled. Turning to Commander Caldin, he nodded and said, “Care to join me for a drink at Aurora’s?”

Caldin frowned and shook her head. “Don’t you think a celebration would be premature at this point, sir?”

“We both need some down time, Commander. I’m not suggesting we drink anything with alcohol, but we could use a break. The chances that Sythians have laid a trap between Taylon and Forlax are very low, so we should be safe, and I need you to be at your best when we reach Forlax.”

“I think I’d rather stay here, sir. Someone needs to keep an eye on Tova for us,” Caldin said, glancing at the alien.

“Yes . . . she is oddly quiet, isn’t she?”

Caldin acknowledged that with a shrug.

“You’re going to be okay here?” Ethan asked.

She nodded. “Go get some rest, sir.”

Ethan turned to leave. “I’ll be on the comm if you need me.”

Just before Ethan reached the entrance to the bridge, he saw the doors swish open to reveal a familiar tall, cadaverous man. Ethan called out to him as he approached. “Dr. Kurlin!” But as Kurlin drew near, it became apparent that whatever news he had to deliver was not good.

“Hello, overlord,” Kurlin returned, stopping in front of Ethan with a smirk. He crossed his arms and stared meaningfully at Ethan.

Ethan’s eyes narrowed at the old man’s sarcastic tone and the insubordinate look on his face. “If this is about your daughter, I’ve already told you that—”

Kurlin held up a hand to stop him and Ethan’s eyes flashed. As the overlord he couldn’t allow himself to be interrupted like that. “Before you continue,” Kurlin said. “I think we’d better find someplace private to discuss what I’ve just discovered.” The doctor lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper and he leaned closer to say, “I know your secret.”

Ethan’s eyes went wide.

Kurlin began nodding, and a smile sprang to his face. “Yes, I can see by your reaction that you know what I mean.”

“Let’s go discuss this in my quarters.”

“Of course,” Kurlin said. “Lead the way.”

*  *  *

—THE YEAR 0 AE—

Destra tried to put thoughts of leaving Lessie’s son, Dean, to a horrible fate out of her mind as she ran up to the strange, rounded silver ship with no visible viewports or engines. She’d never seen a vessel like this before. Rounding it quickly, she saw that the engines were in the side of the ship, but that changed her perspective and she realized from the shape of the vessel that it was lying on its side, and the engines were really in the back, making the rounded silver part the top. Destra walked around the rounded bottom of the fighter, and then passed a quartet of cylindrical cannons, capped with strange, glowing red barrels. She began to get an overall picture of the vessel, and now she recognized it as a Sythian Shell Fighter. It was the size of a human shuttle, which meant there could be any number of Sythians waiting on board, but the fact that there’d been no reaction as she’d run across the grassy clearing to reach the ship gave her hope.

Destra saw a ramp leading down to the grass just below the shell-shaped top of the fighter. With a flutter of trepidation, she ran up the ramp, grunting with the effort of pushing the hover gurney up the incline. How would she even be able to fly the ship? The controls would be alien, the language would be alien, even the numbers and symbols would be unfamiliar to her.

It will be a miracle if I can fly it to the next system, she thought. It would be an even bigger miracle if the vessel could take her all the way to Dark Space. No human vessel that size would have enough fuel to make it—even travelling on the space lanes—but maybe, just maybe, the Sythians used a more efficient type of fuel.

She had a feeling she was asking for one too many miracles.

Destra reached the top of the ramp and stepped across the threshold of an open door into terrifying blackness. She heard the telltale sizzle of static shields, or their Sythian equivalent, and turned to see the air in the open doorway rippling strangely. Suddenly aware of where she was, Destra ducked down behind the gurney and drew her pistol. She left the man on the gurney at the entrance and began stalking through the alien ship. The corridors were very dark, the air was frigid, and the walls of the ship were cold and very smooth. She detected a faint purple light coming from the walls, but it was almost nothing to see by.

Destra’s heart pounded, and she began to sweat beneath her clothes despite the cold. What if there were Sythians cloaked inside the ship and she ran right into them? But they won’t be cloaked while they’re aboard their own ship, she thought. Who would they be hiding from? Not that it mattered in the low light. Cloaked or not, she wouldn’t see them.

Destra had to use one hand to feel her way along the smooth walls of the corridor to keep from stumbling, while her other held her pistol in a shaky grip. She felt the walls curving strangely, and that was when she realized that the floor was curving, too, driving her against the wall, and making her feel like she was about to fall over. After walking like that for a few moments, the light in the corridor began to increase, and she rounded a bend to see a curving stairway leading up into the light. She climbed it cautiously, until her head popped out into a broad, transparent dome.

Suddenly, the world tipped on its side and she felt sick. To one side she saw the ground, to the other the sky, while above her head and in front of her she saw trees. The ship was turned on its side, but so was she. Somehow the direction of gravity had shifted inside the fighter, and the strangely-curving corridor had actually twisted around a full 90 degrees so that one wall had become the floor, while the other had become the ceiling. As for the dome itself, she hadn’t seen any transparent canopy from the outside, so she assumed it was simulated rather than real.

Climbing the rest of the stairs, Destra emerged inside a broad cockpit with two seats in the middle. She crept up behind the flight chairs, keeping her steps quiet just in case. . . .

But the seats were both empty. Destra’s heart soared. She had a chance. Digger and Lessie had no doubt bought that chance for her with their lives. She holstered her pistol and hurried to sit down in the left flight chair, where there appeared to be a flight yoke of some kind. The chairs were over-large, and the cockpit was strangely dark despite the unbroken, dome-shaped canopy. The light coming in from outside was dim enough to suggest that it was dusk, even though she knew it was still early afternoon.

Destra’s eyes jumped around the control consoles and displays before her. As she’d expected, everything was alien, but she tried not to let it daunt her. She scanned the controls, finding not a solitary button, gauge, or slider. Besides the flight yoke, which was designed for two hands much larger than hers, there were no visible controls whatsoever. Destra felt a crushing weight of despair bow her neck and shoulders. The ship must have been voice activated, and there was no way it would respond to her language.

A quick look at the copilot’s station revealed the same lack of visible flight controls. Desperate, she tested her hands on the flight yoke. It could move directly up or down, push forward or back, slide left or right, and even twist or tilt, giving her a total of five axes of movement. Destra shook her head, thinking, I just want to take off!

Suddenly the deck rumbled underfoot and the ship began to hum and vibrate. Destra jumped up from the flight chair and drew her pistol to cover the entrance of the cockpit—

But the stairway leading up into the cockpit was dark, and empty as far as she could tell. Her brow furrowed and she sat back down. No Sythians had entered the cockpit without her realizing, so how had the ship started up? She must have done it by accident somehow. Even as Destra watched, the ship began to rise slowly off the ground. Now if only I could go a bit faster, she thought.

The ship’s rate of ascent rapidly increased, and that was when she figured it out.

It’s responding to my thoughts! Destra shook her head in awe. Somehow it didn’t matter that her language and physiology weren’t the same as a Sythian’s. The technology was sophisticated enough to translate her thoughts to action anyway.

Hope soared anew and Destra’s lips parted in a broad grin. She shivered, and her teeth threatened to chatter, reminding her how cold it was inside the ship. Then she thought, I want to raise the temperature and increase the available light. The dusky light coming in through the canopy abruptly brightened to day, and then the ship shuddered and she heard a new sound, this one like the heavy whump of an impact.

Frowning, Destra looked out the left side of the dome-shaped canopy and saw a dwindling black speck on the ground, firing tiny purple stars up at her from both palms. It was a Sythian. Apparently she’d attracted some attention. She was running out of time.

Not knowing how much the alien ship’s shields would take, and remembering that they were supposed to be far weaker than human equivalents, Destra thought, I need to get to orbit—fast!

Suddenly, her view of the planet’s surface blurred as the ship righted, rolling 90 degrees, and turning to point up at a clear blue slice of sky. Destra braced herself as the ship accelerated toward the fluffy white clouds overhead. She felt the g-force piling against her chest with ever-mounting pressure, and began searching for seat buckles. When she didn’t find any, she looked up and thought, How do I strap in? No sooner had she thought it, than seat restraints shot out from the sides of the chair to crisscross her chest. Destra kept her arms and hands clear while the belts tightened, and she tried to ignore the frightening feeling of acceleration while focusing on the problem at hand.

The Sythians knew she’d stolen one of their ships, so they’d be flying after her soon. Destra gritted her teeth against the acceleration and tested the flight controls. The ship moved subtly in whatever direction she pulled the yoke. Unlike human fighters which flew in atmosphere using a combination of grav lifts and control surfaces, the nonexistent aerodynamics of the Sythian fighter suggested that it stayed aloft with grav lifts and thrusters alone.

The ship roared into the clouds, turning Destra’s view a misty white for several seconds before screaming out into the vast, empty blue. She watched the sky growing ever darker and then the faint light of stars began winking at her through the fading veil of Roka IV’s atmosphere. It was beautiful and terrifying at the same time—transitioning from the comfortable safety of a planet to the vast emptiness of space. It was even more terrifying with the thought of enemy ships racing after her.

How do I detect other vessels? she wondered.

A hovering holo flashed up in her peripheral vision. She turned to it and studied a map of sorts, clustered with unfamiliar symbols and letters, but the 3D grid plot of space and the red icon in the center, which she supposed to be her ship, were familiar. She could see nothing on the grid to suggest an enemy or friendly vessel, but then as she watched, a wave of light spread across the map, like ripples spreading across the surface of a pond, and she saw a cluster of red icons appear both below and above her vessel.

Destra’s heart sank. She’d be shot down in no time! As far as she could tell, she was flying straight toward a cluster of enemy ships—although she couldn’t see any sign of them with her naked eyes as the faint haze of atmosphere fell away and the vast, starry darkness of space snapped into clearer focus.

As Destra watched, the red icons on the map began to fade, and then the next wave of light reached them, and they reappeared, their positions slightly altered. Destra frowned. This was a much less useful form of gravidar.

How am I supposed to evade anything like that? It only took a matter of seconds to die in a dogfight, so real-time data was important. She wondered how the Sythians had been able to fight them so efficiently if their gravidar was so inadequate.

Then, suddenly, she realized what she was missing. The Sythians had cloaking devices. It was almost certain that they were using them, and that was why they were hard to pin down on the gravidar. Destra shook her head ruefully. That meant Sythian gravidar was better, not worse, than the human version. Not even the best gravidar systems humans had been able to devise could see Sythian ships coming. None of their early warning systems had worked. It was a pity they hadn’t found a way to reverse engineer a Sythian gravidar, but she supposed it was far too late for wishful thinking.

Frowning out at space, Destra wondered if the ship she’d stolen had a cloak. The ship interpreted that thought as intent to cloak, and suddenly she heard a sound like rushing air, and she saw her own icon on the grid slowly fading and reappearing. Destra smiled. How do you like having the tables turned, you bug-eyed kakards? Her ship reached the nearest group of enemy contacts, while she searched the gravidar for one contact in particular—a gate. It wouldn’t be fading in and out like the rest, because it wasn’t cloaked. It would be a human contact, and probably the only one remaining in the system.

Then she found it. There were two gates, both marked in red and lying at the far edges of the grid cube. Just as Destra wondered how to head for the nearest gate, the seemingly empty space ahead of her became suddenly crowded, and enemy ships were racing toward her from all sides.

“Oh frek . . .”

There were hundreds of fighters just like the one she was flying, and behind those, in a more distant orbit of Roka IV, lay a dozen or more large capital ships, their blue and lavender hulls shining mirror-clear in the sun.

They’d all uncloaked, but why?

Then a deadly wave of spinning purple stars began pouring toward her, and she had her answer.





Chapter 18

THE YEAR 10 AE—

The Invisible War

“What do you want?” Ethan asked as soon as they sat down together inside his quarters.

Dr. Kurlin smiled with all the smugness of one who knew he had a winning hand. “Very little. I want you to send me and my family back to the transfer station with enough food and supplies to last until help can come. And if you make it to Obsidian Station, I want you to send help back for us.”

Ethan blinked. “That’s it?”

“Well, I’d also like to know why and how you’re impersonating the supreme overlord, but I won’t get greedy just to satisfy my curiosity. Those questions seem to matter infinitely less when I know that you won’t make it alive to Obsidian Station.” Kurlin spread his hands. “At which point my moral obligation to reveal you as an imposter is clearly removed.”

“Your moral obligation,” Ethan snorted. “That’s a joke coming from you, Kurlin.”

The old man’s eyes hardened and he scowled. “I had no choice, and who are you to judge me? For all anyone knows you’re a serial killer whose next target was the overlord.”

Ethan shook his head. “There’s always a choice, and you made the wrong one, just as you’re making the wrong choice now by trying to blackmail me. What if I decide to kill you, just to shut you up?”

Kurlin sat back, smiling once more. “I’ve written a netmail which will be sent out as soon as my heart stops, informing the entire crew of your secret. Attached to that is the proof that you are not who you appear to be. You’ll be jettisoned out the nearest airlock by a mob of angry officers.”

“Well, you’ve thought of everything, haven’t you,” Ethan replied. “What proof do you have? How should I believe that you know anything at all?”

“I know because I had to test your blood sample, along with everyone else’s on this ship, for markers which would indicate an active infection of T4-76. Unfortunately for you, this involved checking the age of each person from their blood. I found access to this test mysteriously restricted for your sample and conducted the test by hand only to find that your genetic age did not match your apparent age. Not even close.”

“Interesting,” Ethan said. “But then you still don’t know who I am?”

Kurlin hesitated. “I don’t need to know. You’re an imposter. It’s good enough.”

“You’re right, it is good enough, but there’s something you haven’t thought of, Kurlin. The Defiant has just jumped to SLS and I have no ships or fuel to spare for you to make the SLS jump back to Stormcloud Transfer.”

Kurlin’s eyes flashed, and his lips pressed into a thin line. “Very well, then you leave me no choice.”

Ethan held up a hand. “Wait. While that is true, I believe I could be persuaded to do something about this situation.”

Kurlin cocked his head, his brow furrowed curiously as he waited for Ethan’s reply.

Ethan drew his sidearm in a blur, faster than Kurlin could have imagined possible. Ethan’s reflexes were honed from long practice as an outlaw and a freelancer. He could draw faster than most, and far faster than Kurlin could react.

Ethan pulled the trigger just as Kurlin’s eyes were beginning to widen. Kurlin’s body convulsed, causing him to slump to the floor, and Ethan stood up, eying the man’s motionless form.

Re-holstering his sidearm, Ethan grimaced. Now what was he going to do with the body? It would be a while before Kurlin woke up, so he had time on his side. The old man had said that his message would be sent out as soon as his heart stopped. He’d said nothing about it being sent out if he were stunned. A big oversight, my friend. Casting his eyes around his quarters, Ethan spied a cylinder with a blue transpiranium cover stacked against the wall inside his bedroom. It was his private stasis tube, reserved for medical emergencies and long trips through SLS.

Ethan nodded and paced over to Kurlin, picking him up by his arms and dragging him toward the stasis tube. “I’m sorry, Doctor. If we make it, I’ll let you out as soon as I find a successor to the throne. If not, at least you’ll die in your sleep. That’s more than I can say for the rest of us.”

*  *  *

As Atton slept, he dreamed of a beautiful woman with bright violet eyes and flowing dark hair. She had the face of an angel. Angel. That was her name. She was an angel, but she didn’t act like it as she pushed him onto the bed and crawled over him on all fours to pin him down and kiss him roughly on the lips. He felt his pulse quickening as he savored the sweet taste of her lips on his. Atton closed his eyes to enjoy the sensation more fully, and he felt a warm stir of desire as she lowered her body on top of his. She ended the kiss and pulled away from him, leaving a stupid grin on his face. Then he opened his eyes—

And screamed.

He was gazing up at the black, skull-like helmet of a Gor soldier. Staring back at him were a pair of glowing red insect eyes. As he watched, the Gor’s helmet opened impossibly at the jaw, revealing a mouth full of glistening black teeth.

Atton awoke with the dying echoes of his scream still reverbrating from the close walls of his quarters. He grimaced and checked the time on the alarm clock beside his bed, and then he groaned. It was just an hour before they were due to revert from SLS. He was never going to get back to sleep, so he may as well get up. He’d lain down on his bed thinking it would just be for a short nap, but he’d promptly succumbed to four straight hours of sleep. He was still wearing his comm piece in case someone needed to contact him, but no one had tried.

With another groan, Atton stretched and stood up from the bed. He’d slept in his flight suit, since there would be no time to pull it on if the squadron had to scramble. Atton’s stomach rumbled loudly and he frowned. At least he had time to get something to eat from the pilots’ mess. It was smaller, with fewer options than the main mess hall, but they were all on an orange alert, meaning they couldn’t leave the flight deck. They needed to be able to scramble at a moment’s notice. Still, at this point, any food would taste good—possibly even the freeze-dried krak which passed for food aboard the Defiant.

There was one advantage to being the overlord, Atton thought as he headed for the door. I only ever ate fresh. But the Defiant didn’t have fresh, overlord or not, and Atton’s stomach was taking some time to adapt to freeze-dried foodstuffs—hence the intense rumblings he felt now. It had been nearly a day since he’d last braved the mess hall, and if he didn’t eat something soon, he was likely to pass out in his cockpit. You’d like that wouldn’t you, skull faces? Atton frowned, snippets of his nightmare flashing into his mind’s eye. The Gors weren’t their enemy, but it was hard to remember that when they had been the real face of the war. Apparently having Tova become a more visible presence aboard the Defiant was starting to get to him, too.

*  *  *

Alara awoke to the sound of an alarm clock buzzing in her ears. She rolled over with a groan and looked up at the low ceiling above her bunk, where the noise was coming from. Lying on the top bunk was Lieutenant Gina Giord. Alara didn’t know much about her, except that she was one of only two other female pilots in the squadron besides herself. Gina was an ill-termpered loner and she didn’t say much, so it was hard to get a conversation going, but maybe that was because she just hadn’t hit upon the right topic yet. Alara watched Gina jump down lithely from the top bunk and then take a moment to straighten the wrinkles in her flight suit. What would be a topic of common interest between the two of them? Alara wondered.

She remembered seeing Gina eyeing Captain Reese the night of the trainees’ celebration. Men, Alara thought with a smile, always a good topic when relating to women. It was a topic she was particularly familiar with.

“You know, Gina, I was talking to Captain Reese about you last night.” That was a lie, but it was a good way to introduce the topic.

Gina turned on her heel to glare at Alara. “About what?”

“Nothing bad, don’t worry.”

“I find it hard to believe he’d have anything good to say.”

“Why’s that? He seems nice.”

“Yeah, seems. He just wants to get into your pants, girlie. Don’t let the charm fool you. He frekked me over, and he’ll frek you over, too, but first he’ll just frek you.”

“You mean you two were . . .”

Gina turned around again as she waved her wrist over the scanner on her locker. “We were together, yes.”

“And? What’s he like?” Alara asked, leaning forward with a grin. “Does he look as good with his shirt off as I’m betting?”

Gina eyed her with obvious disgust. “You know, I wouldn’t be so eager to get frekked if I were you. A girl who looks like you might get passed halfway around the fleet if she doesn’t develop some self-respect.”

Alara’s grin faded and she sat back, her brow furrowing. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just that I’ve heard things. You shouldn’t make yourself so available. No matter what’s been done to you.”

From the way Gina held her gaze, it was obvious she was talking about the slave chip. Alara rubbed the side of her head self-consciously, and her eyes dropped to the deck.

Gina’s tone softened and she offered a slight smile. “Come on, let’s go get some breakfast, Alara.”

“It’s Kiddie,” she said, standing up.

Gina acknowledged that with a nod as she withdrew her sidearm from her locker.

“You’re taking a gun?” Alara asked, her eyes wide.

“You should take yours, too,” Gina replied while strapping it around her waist.

Alara looked hesitant. “What for?”

Gina looked up, her expression grim. “In case we get boarded.”

“I—I didn’t think of that . . .”

“No one does until it happens. Not that I suppose you’d see the frekkers even if they did board us. For all we know, there could be dozens of them on the Defiant right now.”

“Sythians? Or Gors?”

Gina closed the locker and turned to leave. “That’s the million sol question, isn’t it?”

“Wait, can’t we take a vaccucleanse first?”

Gina snorted. “I wish. We’re on orange alert, greeny. That means we need to be able to scramble to our cockpits in five minutes or less. You think you can cut short a vaccucleanse, pull on your flight suit, run to the hangar, and be sitting sealed inside your cockpit in just five minutes?”

Alara hesitated.

“I didn’t think so. Let’s go.”

Alara caught up to her just as she opened the door to their room. “How long until the orange alert is over?”

“Probably until we reach Obsidian Station.”

“What? We’re going to go days without a vaccucleanse?”

Gina chuckled. “Well, someone’s a princess, isn’t she? Yes, girlie, we’re all gonna stink together. Once you’ve been out here on enough wolf hunts, you get used to it, but I’ll tell you one thing—” Gina turned to her with a wry grin. “—you get to know who the sweaters are, and you learn to steer clear.”

Alara’s nose wrinkled in distaste. “How attractive. I might just develop some self-respect after all.”

Gina laughed and clapped her on the back. “That’s the spirit, greeny!”

They reached the pilot’s mess hall and strode in to see Guardian Twelve racing around the room with a pile of pancakes almost as tall as she was, giggling and screaming as she went, hounded by the entire squadron.

“Get her!”

“She took the whole frekkin’ lot of ‘em!”

“I’m gonna get you Stix!”

Stix. That was her call sign, so named because she was so skinny and petite that her arms and legs resembled sticks.

Captain Reese and Lt. Adari were sitting to one side of the commotion and eating, neither one of them doing anything to stop the pilots from roaring around the mess hall, knocking over tables and chairs in their hurry to get the stolen pancakes.

Alara smiled, but Gina scowled. “So much for unit discipline,” she said as they passed Captain Reese’s table.

He looked up with a frown. “Let them have their fun. There’s precious little of it to be had around here.”

“Yeah, you’re all about fun,” Gina said, shaking her head as she crossed over to the serving counter.

Alara followed her there, still smiling as she watched the racing pilots catch up with Stix. One of the larger men swooped her up under his arm like a grav ball and pancakes flew everywhere.

“Guess I’m going to have to eat dust and wash it down with spit!” Gina called out in a loud voice, but no one paid any attention to her. “Stupid frekkin’ greenies. . . .” she said as she stalked after them. “Gotta break ‘em in every time!”

When Gina caught up to the group of pilots she swore viciously at them, but they were having a hard time suppressing their laughter in the face of her vitriolic, so she gave up and went to pick up the lone pancake which had fallen on a table rather than the floor.

Alara watched all of that with a dreamy smile. For the first time in what seemed like forever, she felt like she was home. Something about the camaraderie and the childish antics struck a chord in her memories. Alara wasn’t sure whose memories, but it struck a chord all the same.

*  *  *

— THE YEAR 0 AE—

Destra pulled the flight yoke hard left and pushed it down. She watched the alien missiles arc slowly after her, but the reaction was delayed by several seconds. She realized that they were only tracking when she became visible on the Sythians’ scanners. That gave her hope. Destra began evasive maneuvering in earnest, pulling all the maneuvers she could think of with the strange flight controls. Whatever direction she pushed the flight yoke was the direction her ship would fly, but some directions were slower than others—such as moving vertically.

Destra pushed the yoke all the way forward for maximum thrust, tilted up, then slid and twisted it left, making a spiraling upward turn.

She heard the tick-tick-ticking of several overlapping missile lock warnings speed up suddenly and then slow down again as a stream of enemy missiles sailed straight by underneath her fighter. No sooner had those warnings faded than they started up again, and she heard alarms screeching out in warning as more spinning purple stars swarmed to take their place. Waves of missiles were pouring out from the approaching swarms of enemy fighters. Destra grimaced, wishing not for the first time that her husband were with her. He was a far better pilot. Destra forced her eyes to focus on the blinding barrage, trying to find a clear space between the missiles, but there were no such spaces. The enemy firing pattern was evenly spread and so thick that eventually it would have to snare her. They just had to get lucky once, and although their missiles weren’t tracking her perfectly, they were still tracking.

A few purple stars swelled in her forward view and she jerked the yoke to the opposite side, tilted it down, and began rolling her ship by twisting the flight controls in the same direction as her turn. The result was a downward spiral, and Destra was rewarded for the sudden maneuver by seeing the purple stars go sailing by her with a narrow margin.

I need to target the gate! She thought desperately, but nothing happened. Clearly the ship didn’t always understand her thoughts. She tried again, this time focusing on the nearest of the two distant red specks which she’d identified as SLS gates on the coordinate grid.

Suddenly the contact she focused on grew brighter, and a red HUD indicator flashed in the air above her head. It wasn’t an arrow like she would have expected to see in a human ship, but rather a solid red circle. She followed that circle, moving in the direction it indicated, and mere seconds later she saw the gate appear in her view. The Sythian HUD bracketed it in red and displayed information about her target with a stream of unfamiliar symbols.

Good enough, she thought. It might have been useful to know where that gate went, but at the moment anywhere else but here was good enough for her. She roared toward the gate at full throttle, keeping half an eye on the grid to make sure the enemy wasn’t too close behind her. She saw the enemy fighters belatedly reacting to her new heading and turning to follow her to the gate. Destra frowned. They’d just follow her through and she’d still have to face them on the other side. At least they won’t be accompanied by any larger ships.

That was something.

Destra watched the gate growing rapidly larger in her forward screens, and then she remembered that she needed to slow down to enter it. She didn’t have to stop maneuvering or warm up her own SLS drive the way she would if she were travelling off the space lanes, but she still couldn’t exceed the relatively slow SLS-safe entry velocity. Destra thought about how she could relay that concern to the ship so it could slow down to an appropriate speed, and suddenly she felt the g-force of acceleration shift from pressing her against the back of her flight chair, to yanking her against her flight restraints and trying to pluck her eyeballs out of her skull.

Destra immediately heard the tick-tick-ticking of more missile locks, and then multiple alarms sounded inside the airy cockpit, and she went evasive while trying desperately to keep heading toward the gate. The tick-tick-ticking sped up, slowed down, sped up, and slowed down as her ship faded in and out of scanners. She turned to look behind her and saw four purple stars racing toward her, picking up speed.

“Frek!” She turned back to the fore and redoubled her evasive maneuvering. Destra listened intently to the tempo of the missile lock warnings to know when the missiles were getting close, and at the last minute she jinked hard to starboard.

Destra was gratified to see three purple stars go spinning by to her port side. She let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, but then it seized in her chest.

Three missiles . . .

She was about to turn her head to see where the other one had gone when her ship rocked violently with an explosion. A warning siren sounded inside the cockpit and she heard an ominous hissing sound. Destra’s eyes flicked nervously around the airy cockpit. She hoped that noise wasn’t the sound of her atmosphere escaping. She wasn’t even wearing a flight suit.

But there wasn’t any time to worry about it. The gate was swelling before her, and in less than a minute she’d be through. Turning to cast a quick look over her shoulder to see how many enemy ships were following her, Destra counted five silvery specks against the blackness of space. Then she saw the nearest one begin stuttering bright purple streaks of light toward her. The first few hit with sizzling sounds, and Destra went into another barrel roll, leaving the enemy pulse lasers to flash out all around her cockpit in a steady stream of light. Every tenth blast hit, eliciting an angry sizzle from her shields. After ten such hits, she began to smell an acrid smoke drifting up into the cockpit, and she grimaced, wishing she could drop a few mines behind her.

A moment later there came a bright flash of light and then the lasers stopped racing past her cockpit. Destra turned to look behind her and saw the fading light of an explosion.  She blinked. Apparently her fighter did have mines. Destra broke into a grin and spared a hand from the flight yoke to pat the dash. “Nice one, baby. Keep that up and we might just make it out of this.”

A few seconds later, the gate was the only thing she could see. Destra aimed for the center of it, and then let go of the flight controls, allowing her fighter to cruise through on a straight trajectory.

Space turned to star lines and then to the bright streaks of SLS, and Destra sat back with a shaky sigh. She stared out at the swirling brightness, trying to calm her racing heart. She’d made it. She’d actually made it! She’d still have to shake off whatever fighters pursued her and evade any enemy forces on the other side, but whatever lay ahead, at least she’d bought herself some time.

Now what? she wondered. She had no way of knowing how long she’d be in SLS, and she had a feeling that her fighter couldn’t tell her in a way that she’d understand, but it had to be at least an hour. No two systems were closer together than that. So she had some time to rest and recover.

Recover . . .

Suddenly Destra’s eyes flew wide as she remembered the man she’d left on the hover gurney just inside the entrance of the fighter. He hadn’t even been strapped down when she’d taken off, which meant he’d likely been bounced all over by now.

Destra bolted out of the flight chair and hurried down the stairs from the cockpit, bracing herself for what she might find.





Chapter 19

— THE YEAR 10 AE—

The Invisible War

Ethan watched the SLS timer on the captain’s table begin counting down from 60 seconds. Tova assured them that she would be able to detect any cloaked Sythians between them and the gate to the Odaran System, but Ethan was still nervous. If there were a fleet of Sythians blocking that gate, it didn’t matter if they detected them or not, they wouldn’t be able to squeeze through the enemy blockade. The one advantage they had was that the Sythians didn’t know they were coming.

The timer reached 10 seconds and it became an audible countdown in a computerized voice. When it reached one, Ethan looked up to see the streaks and star lines of SLS fade to the bright points of stars.

“Tova! Tell me what you see out there!” he called out.

“Wait . . .” she hissed. The bridge crew seemed to collectively hold their breath as they waited to hear what she had to say.

Ethan turned to admire the view while he waited. The second moon of Forlax lay close below them, stretching out to the horizon with high wisps of white cirrus clouds, sparkling orange oceans, and rocky, red terrain. The color of the world gave the impression that it was hot, but it was in fact very cold, and the atmospheric pressure was so high that the methane in the air rained out as a liquid, forming the sparkling orange oceans. The gravity was also high and the atmosphere toxic, making the moon even more uninhabitable, but despite all that, there was a mother lode of dymium trapped beneath the surface. When Ethan had been exiled to Dark Space, the Imperium had been discussing ways to get at the dymium for the war effort, but they’d never had the time to act on that. Just visible over the horizon of the world was Forlax, the rocky, ringed giant for which the system was named. Peeking feebly between the rings and the planet was the distant red eye of the system’s primary, now giving a brief light to the surface of Forlax II before its larger cousin eclipsed the sun. Forlax was even more uninhabitable than its moons, but it was also fuel-rich.

Tova’s warbling cut through Ethan’s thoughts, followed by the translation, “I sense none of my crèche mates.”

“Good! Helm, set course for the Odaran gate—full throttle!”

“Yes, sir.”

“Engineering, give me more power to shields and engines. Reduce power to weapons. We don’t need them right now.”

“Gravidar, keep your eyes open, just in case. If they want to fire on us you can bet you’re going to see something pop up on the grid before they do.”

“Comms, make sure the Guardians are ready to launch at a moment’s notice!”

The comm officer began speaking into the intercom, and then Ethan turned to Caldin with a tight smile. “So far, so good.”

But her eyes were on Tova, standing down by the viewports in her gleaming black armor. “According to her.”

“You don’t trust Tova?” he whispered.

Caldin turned to him. “Do you?”

“Not fully, but her survival and ours are one and the same at the moment, so none of us have a choice.”

Caldin nodded and her gaze returned to absently studying the giant alien. “The Gors are on our side because they need our help, but what happens when they decide that they no longer do?”

Ethan shook his head. “We hope that their gratitude is enough to keep them from turning on us.”

“That’s a naïve hope.”

“Maybe. But it’s the only one we have.”

*  *  *

The atmosphere inside the pilot’s briefing room was tense. The pilots listened as Captain Adan Reese and his XO, Lieutenant Ithicus Adari, outlined possible scenarios of enemy contact which might crop up while they crossed the Forlax system. From there, they moved onto fighter tactics, dogfighting, weapon systems, and taking advantage of weaknesses in Sythian technology.

Alara listened to Adan carefully, trying to absorb everything he was saying. Gina sat beside Alara with a frown, her arms crossed over her chest.

“Remember,” Adan said. “Their shields are weak, their engines are slow, and their fighters are big targets. That gives you every possible edge in a fight, except for one—they could appear out of nowhere, right on your six. Their missiles can’t be taken down by our countermeasures. The good news, however, is that they don’t have proximity fuses, and they will set off our missile lock alarms. But don’t rely on that to keep you safe! If a shell uncloaks and fires on you at point blank range, they’ll hit you before you’ve even heard the first warning beep of a lock, so you need to keep up an evasive flight pattern whenever possible. The instant you’re caught flying in a straight, predictable line, you’re dead. Remember to use all of your flight controls to maneuver, and avoid making turns the way you’d make them in atmosphere. This is space, so slewing your ship with the rudder is faster to make a turn than the old yank’n’bank.”

Alara heard a murmur of acknowledgement sweep through the pilots, and she turned to Gina to whisper, “What’s a yank’n’bank?”

“It’s when you roll and pull up hard to make a turn.”

“Ah.”

“Does anyone still have any questions about the control systems? Or did your AIs cover those points adequately?”

Alara watched a skinny hand shoot up. It was Guardian Twelve, otherwise known as Stix.

“Yes?” Adan pointed to her.

“If the enemy fighters are slower, then wouldn’t the best evasive maneuver be for me to run away at top speed?”

Adan started to reply, but then a siren went off, and the lights dimmed to a bloody red. The intercom crackled with, “Red Alert! Enemy contact!”

“All right! This is it, people, and it’s not a drill!” Adan yelled, clapping his hands amidst the rising threat of panic as pilots stood up and began running into each other in their hurry to get to the hangar. “Orderly lines! No shoving. Soon as you get into the hangar, run as fast as you can to your novas. Find the fighter whose number matches yours! Ruh-kah!”

Alara walked quickly to the end of her row of seats and then joined the short line of pilots hurrying down the steps to the podium below. As soon as they reached the podium, pilots began running for the open doors to either side which led to the hangar.

Alara was one of the last ones down. She caught Adan’s eye as she hurried by, and he smiled and nodded to her. “You’ll be fine!”

She nodded back, and then ran out into the hangar with the rest of the pilots. Dead ahead and to her left the novas sat in a gleaming double row on the deck, mag clamps securely locked around their landing struts. To the other side, Alara saw open space through the fuzzy blue glow of the Defiant’s shields, while at the distant end of the hangar lay the pair of glowing red portals which were the launch tubes. Her fighter’ AI had told her the launch tubes accelerated novas out the back of the Defiant with over 50 g’s of force—more than 500 KAPS. Alara grimaced, remembering the utter terror she’d felt. This time she’d keep her IMS dialed up to 100%.

The hangar intercom buzzed, and Alara listened to it with half an ear. “We have an enemy fleet moving to intercept us. Guardians will flank the Defiant to the gate and only engage the enemy if they close to within five klicks.” Alara heard the steady whump whump whump of laser cannons firing amidst the background noise on the bridge, and she wondered if they’d already engaged the enemy. “Ruh-kah, Guardians.”

Alara’s fingertips began to tingle with adrenaline and she used it to pour on an extra burst of speed, running past novas with ever-decreasing numbers painted on the sides until she reached the one at the head of the line with a big freshly-painted two on it. She was first in line for the launch tubes.

As soon as Alara reached her nova, she bounded up the ladder and hopped into the cockpit. Pressing the raise/lower canopy button, she slid on her flight helmet and sealed the clasps at her neck.

“Welcome back, Alara,” the fighter’s AI said.

“I go by Kiddie now,” she said.

“Very well, Kiddie. Your preflight before ignition checks are already done. Are you ready for take off?”

Alara felt the rudder pedals under her feet and nodded. Her seat didn’t need to be adjusted, since she’d been the last pilot to fly in this particular nova. Alara found her flight restraints and strapped in; then she punched the fighter’s ignition and listened to the sound of the reactor spinning up with a rising whir.

“Dial up the IMS to 100 this time, Ethan, I don’t want to get sick out there.”

“Of course, though I should point out that—”

“Just do it!”

Ethan went silent while Alara’s displays flickered to life. She paid particular attention to the star map in the center. The grid was set to display a full orbital, and it was marked with dozens of red enemy contacts dead ahead and to the left of their position, moving on an intercept course. At the far end of the grid Alara saw the gate they were headed for. It was over 5000 klicks away, and the nearest enemy contact was at 2450 klicks.

This is going to be close, she thought as she heard the th-thunk of mag clamps releasing. Her nova’s engines began roaring in her ears as it rose off the deck. Alara saw Captain Reese’s fighter rising and turning in unison with hers, and she smiled and waved to him, but he missed the gesture. A second later she heard his voice over the comm.

“Soon as you get out the launch tubes, make a 180 degree turn. We don’t want to cancel too much of our forward momentum by flying in reverse. We need to keep up with the Defiant if we’re going to guard her. Good luck out there, Guardians.”

And with that, their fighters began rocketing toward the launch tubes. Alara braced herself as the glowing red portals grew large and menacing before them, like the glowing red eyes of an armored Gor.

*  *  *

Ethan stared into the glowing red eyes of Tova’s helmet, and his own eyes narrowed. “Why didn’t you warn us?”

“I sense them now, but not before. I missed them.”

“Well you frekked up, Tova, because you missed a whole fleet!”

Tova hissed and looked away; maybe he was unworthy of her sight again. Ethan turned away with a scowl to study the captain’s table. The enemy contacts on the grid represented only a rough estimate of the number and position of the enemy forces, as best as Tova could determine anyway—which was apparently give or take a whole fleet.

“We’re not going to make it to the gate before they reach us,” Caldin said.

“No, but it remains to be seen if they can stop us.”

“So much for our early warning system,” Caldin said with a smirk.

“Clearly she’s not infallible,” Ethan replied, “so we’re going to have to use some of our own detection systems.” Looking up from the grid Ethan called down to the gunnery station. “Weapons! I need our forward batteries firing in steady pattern to cover our trajectory. Clear a swath. If there’s anything cloaked ahead of us I want to know about it, and in case they’ve laid any mines, fire off a torpedo every fifteen seconds with a timer of the same.”

“Yes, sir!” Deck Officer Gorvan replied.

“Comms, tell the Guardians before they leave the hangar that we need an escort to the gate, not a bunch of loose cannons. They are to flank us to the gate, breaking off to engage only when the enemy gets to within five klicks of us.”

Ethan heard the comm officer relaying his orders, and then he turned back to Caldin. Noting the frown on her face, he asked, “What now?”

“If you use up all of our torpedoes now, what are we going to do when that fleet reaches us?”

“Do the math. At current speed we’re less than ten minutes to the gate, counting time to decelerate. We’ll use no more than forty torpedoes. That’s less than a tenth of what we have in the arsenal, let alone what’s already loaded in the torp bays. We’ll be fine.”

Caldin nodded, but by her pursed lips, Ethan could tell she disagreed. That was okay. Ethan didn’t require his crew to always agree with him, just so long as they always obeyed.

*  *  *

The Invisible War

Alara and Captain Reese shot out the back of the Defiant in tandem, flying out over the rocky red surface of Forlax II, a dymium-rich rock with a thick, toxic atmosphere that was swirled with white clouds. Below those clouds they could see high mountain ranges, and sparkling between them lay vast lakes of methane that caught and reflected the red light of the system’s sun.

Just visible over the moon’s horizon was Forlax itself—a rocky giant with thick red rings of asteroids, which Forlax II orbited. Both of the gates in the Forlax system were found in a low orbit around Forlax II, since the intention had always been to develop the moon for dymium mining. Alara shook her head to clear away those thoughts. She wasn’t sure which of her two sets of memories they’d come from, but they weren’t helping her now.

Tearing her eyes away from the view, Alara studied the position of enemy contacts on the grid as she followed Captain Reese in a tight turn to starboard which would bring them onto the Defiant’s flight path. She was comforted to see that the nearest enemy ship was more than a thousand klicks away.

But even as she watched the group of enemy contacts, their positions abruptly changed, all of them shifting by more than a thousand kilometers in an instant. Alara blinked and tapped the screen. “Ethan! What the frek? How is the enemy suddenly right on top of us? Did they jump to SLS?”

“The contacts on your gravidar appear to be cloaked, Kiddie. Their locations are being updated manually from the Defiant.”

“Great!”

Alara saw the red bracket pairs appearing all over her HUD as they supposedly came into range, but she tried to ignore them. If the enemy location data wasn’t up to date, it would be dangerous to trust.

A flash of light caught Alara’s eye as she swung onto the Defiant’s flight path, and she saw a torpedo exploding ahead of the cruiser. That explosion abruptly blossomed into a much larger starburst of light, and Alara blinked spots out of her eyes as her canopy polarized a second too late.

The Defiant had just hit a cloaking mine with a blind torpedo. Lucky escape, Alara thought.

And then the red contacts on her gravidar disappeared and reappeared all around her, but this time they were accompanied by viuals of the enemy ships. She saw swarms of enemy fighters de-cloaking all around them, followed by two Sythian battleships.

Alara’s eyes widened as a wave of purple stars began spinning toward them from the nearest battleship, and then space was alive with the streaking orange glows of shell fighters’ engines as they crisscrossed through the Guardian’s formation.

“Live contact! Break and engage, Guardians!” Captain Reese said.

Alara’s missile lock alarm squealed abruptly. “Frek!” she hissed, stomping on her right rudder. She turned straight into the Defiant’s flight path and soon she cruised low over the hull, watching the cruiser’s batteries swiveling. Torrents of red laser fire flashed out as those batteries found their targets and tracked passing enemy fighters. And then two sets of thick blue dymium beams shot out from the Defiant, one for each of the enemy battleships. Those beams sounded through her nova’s simulated sound system with a deep, reverberating hum.

Alara forced herself to ignore the distractions of the greater battle going on around her. She concentrated on the beep-beep-beeping of missile lock warnings. As the beeps sped up to nearly a solid tone, Alara activated her grav lifts and bounced her fighter straight off the Defiant’s hull, leaving the enemy missiles to go streaking by underneath her. They slammed into the Defiant with a bright flash of light, and another dozen missiles followed that one, impacting one after another on the top hull of the cruiser with a steady roar of simulated explosions.

Alara grimaced, and the next thing she heard over the comms was, “Guardians! The Defiant’s shields won’t take much more of that!”

Stepping on her left rudder, Alara pulled a sharp turn to get on the tail of the nearest enemy fighter and then she fired off two quick fire-linked blasts from her lasers. Both volleys hit, and the shell exploded brilliantly.

“Ruh-kah!” she whooped as she sailed through the explosion. Debris pelted her canopy, hissing off her shields. She targeted the next nearest enemy fighter and pulled up hard to find it in her sights. A quick look at the gravidar showed tiny green nova fighters splintering off in all directions to follow the enemy fighters, leaving the Defiant to race away from the engagement at top speed. Alara frowned at that, and then the comm crackled.

“Guardians, you are not to abandon the Defiant’s flight path!” Captain Reese said. “Stick with your wingmates and keep up with our objective. Swat away any shells that get too close!”

Alara heard a few affirmative clicks and saw the green icons of their fighters flashing on the grid to indicate they were the ones who’d activated their comms. All of the novas turned back to follow the Defiant—except for one. Alara focused on the straggler and tapped the icon with her finger for more information. It was Guardian Twelve—Stix.

Abruptly, that icon shone a brighter green to indicate Stix had activated her comms, and Alara heard her say, “I’m cut off! They’re all over me!”

Alara stepped on her rudder. “Hold on, Stix, I’m coming!” She lined up on the nearest enemy fighter chasing Twelve, but quickly saw that Stix was right. There were no less than a dozen shells on her tail, and like a total greeny she was running in a straight line away from them as fast as she could.

“Go evasive, Twelve!” Alara said.

“They’re locking on!” Stix screamed.

“I said break!”

Alara thumbed over to her own missiles and tried for a lock at extreme range, but before she could even line up her target, the enemy fighters fired as one, and an entire wave of shining purple stars shot out after Twelve.

“Frek! Wait for them to get close, Twelve, and then go evasive! They can’t track sudden changes in direction.”

“I’m going to try to outrun them!” Twelve said, sounding panicked.

“You can’t outrun missiles, Stix!” Alara saw the missiles drawing dangerously close to Twelve and she shook her head. She fired off a hailfire with a weak target lock and saw her target break out of the enemy formation to evade. Alara gritted her teeth and thumbed back over to lasers to fire at the next nearest enemy, but the enemy fighter was out of range, and her shot went wide.

Now the missiles were seconds from reaching Twelve and she was still flying straight. “Break, Stix!”

“I’m gonna run! Don’t worry! Meet you back at the transfer station.”

Alara’s brow furrowed, and that was when she realized that Stix had lost it. She’d suffered a mental break. The missiles drew within a hundred meters of her, and Alara screamed into the comm. “Eject, Stix! Eject!”

Abruptly the space where Guardian Twelve had been flashed with the light of multiple explosions, and her icon winked off the grid.

Alara screamed incoherently and began pouring laser fire after the enemy fighters who’d shot her down. They began coming about to meet her head on, but Alara didn’t care, she just stabbed the trigger over and over again, strafing the enemy formation. Alara winged two shells and sliced a third one into two pieces before her comms crackled with. “It’s too late to help her, Two.” That was Captain Reese speaking. “Get back here before they cut you off, too!”

“Frek you!” Alara muttered under her breath.

Guardian One went on, “Stick together, Guardians! You want to go blazing off on your own? That’s what happens!”

“Frek you, Reese!” Alara said again, but this time she said it over the comms. “I didn’t see you breaking off to help her!”

“Get back in formation, Cadet, or you’re going to be left behind.”

Alara studied the gravidar, noticing now that the Defiant was getting very close to the exit gate. Pulling back hard on the stick for a loop over, Alara pushed her throttle past the stops into full overdrive. There came a resultant roar from the engines, and she watched the nova’s acceleration jump from 145 to 185 KAPS. At that speed it wouldn’t take long to catch up to the Defiant and its novas, since they were all decelerating in preparation to enter SLS.

But that also made it easy for the enemy ships to catch up with them and make another pass. Alara saw fighters and battleships alike racing up behind the Defiant, and she grimaced. “They’re coming around for another pass!”

Alara saw streams of red laser fire erupting from the Defiant’s turrets, blasting pursuing shell fighters by the dozens. The accompanying explosions lit up the star map and Alara peered down on Forlax II to see the space above the planet peppered with the flashing light of explosions, making the swirling clouds appear fraught with lightning.

Yet for every dozen shells that winked off the grid, another dozen swarmed out of empty space to take their place. Alara eyed the spot where the enemy fighters were appearing, thinking that there must have been a cloaked Sythian carrier there.

 “Guardians, disengage your thrusters and show them your teeth!” Captain Reese said.

“Our teeth?” one pilot asked.

“Flip your fighters 180 degrees and shoot those frekkers down!” Guardian One clarified.

Alara saw the nova fighters ahead of her do as they were told, disengaging their thrusters to maintain their current heading while firing bright red streams of fire-linked lasers at the waves of pursuing shells. Alara was about to turn her fighter around to join them when she noticed friendly fire flashing close by her cockpit. “Hoi! Watch your aim! I’m still out here!”

And then the mauve light of Sythian lasers began tracking her from behind, and she heard a flurry of impacts sizzling off her shields.

“Aft shields critical . . . equalizing.”

Alara broke into a barrel roll, trading some of her forward acceleration for evasive maneuvering. She watched the Defiant flying ever-closer to the gate. They were almost there. They were going to make it!

But suddenly the gate disappeared, swallowed whole by a massive Sythian Battleship as it de-cloaked right in front of the gate.

“Frek! Where did that come from?” Ithicus asked.

“Guardians switch to torpedoes and target that motherfrekker!” Captain Reese said.

And then the side of Sythian battleship erupted with a blinding wave of missiles.

“Too late!” another pilot screamed.

Before the Defiant could even react, the enemy missiles slammed into it. The light from the explosions seemed to consume the cruiser, and the simulated roar which came from Alara’s sound system was deafening. As the light of the explosions faded, Alara saw a giant chunk of the Defiant’s nose crack away in a fiery ruin and fall gracefully toward Forlax II.

“We’re frekked!” Gina said.

“Torpedoes! On my mark!” Captain Reese said. “We’re dumb-firing.”

Alara snapped out of it and thumbed over to silverstreak torpedoes. A moment later she and a handful of novas had formed up on an attack run. They let their torpedoes fly, and the battleship reacted instantly, erupting with bright streaks of laser fire. Alara saw one pair of torpedoes go off like a supernova beside her, rocking her fighter with a pelting wave of debris.

“Starboard shields critical,” Ethan warned. “Equalizing.”

When the fiery light of the explosion cleared, Alara saw just four torpedoes out of a dozen slam into the enemy battleship. Those torpedoes punched a gaping hole in the battleship’s pristine, mirror-clear hull, and shiny, black-armored bodies began tumbling out into space. Despite the damage, the battleship kept firing, and they were too close to fire another volley. Alara pulled up hard and roared over top of the enemy ship, noticing in her peripheral vision as she did so that the Defiant was doing the same. With her slower engines and lesser maneuverability, the cruiser just barely cleared the Sythian battleship. As it passed over top, Alara saw it erupt with beam cannons and lasers, strafing the topside of the enemy ship. It reacted with another wave of spinning purple stars which connected in the narrow gap between the two ships with a blatant disregard for the battleship’s own proximity to the blasts. The explosions roared through Alara’s helmet speakers, and she squinted through the brightness to see flaming pieces of both ships go spinning off into space.

Alara grimaced. At this rate, there won’t be anything left of either of them. . . .

*  *  *

The Invisible War


Ethan braced himself on the railing running around the captain’s table as another wave of missiles slammed into the Defiant, this time along her keel. “The frek! They just hit themselves with that blast!”

Caldin grimaced.

“We can’t take much more of this!” Delayn yelled up from the engineering station. “Decks one through three are venting atmosphere, and we lost three gunners!”

Ethan whirled around. “Helm, get us clear and bring us about! We need to fire back with torpedoes, not just beams and lasers!”

“Yes, sir,” Damen Corr replied.

Ethan stared out at space, his chest rising and falling quickly, his eyes darting as he tried to come up with a plan. The top edge of the gate sailed by underneath them, and Ethan grimaced. The Sythians had blocked off their exit. Either they ran to SLS now, with their own drives, or they had to crack open the battleship which stood in their way.

“Helm, belay that last order! Delayn—will we still have enough fuel to send a corvette to Obsidian Station if we jump to Odaran without a gate to assist?”

Delayn looked up from his station with a frown. “Maybe.”

“Maybe’s not good enough! I need an answer!”

The old engineer pursed his lips. “I don’t know, sir! I need time to calculate!”

The deck rocked under their feet with another impact, and Ethan clutched the railing running around the captain’s table to keep from falling over as the IMS flickered.

“We don’t have time! Give me your best guess.”

“I think we will.”

“That’ll have to do! Helm, spool up the SLS! Set course a few million klicks from Odaran—we don’t want to be too predictable or there’ll be more Sythians waiting for us in the next system. Send the coordinates to our novas—they’ll have to meet us there.”

“Yes, sir,” Damen replied.

“Sir!” Delayn called up from the engineering station. “The Guardians won’t have enough fuel to make it that far on their own.”

“They will if they go back to the gate! Damen—” Ethan turned to see the nav officer blinking up at him. “Make sure the end point of our jump is somewhere along the space lane between here and Odaran. That way the novas can just drop out of SLS early to reach us.”

“Yes, sir.”

Ethan turned to look down at the captain’s table just in time to see another wave of missiles go spinning out from the enemy battleship toward them.

“Brace for impact!” someone said.

The deck shook violently underfoot and they heard the distant rumble of the explosions.

“Aft shields critical!” Delayn called out.

“Boost power!” Ethan replied. He whirled around to address Deck Officer Grimsby. “Comms, tell the Guardians to cover us while our drives are spooling. Soon as we’re out, they can squeeze through the gate and we’ll meet them at the rendezvous.”

The deck shook with more impacts, and Ethan grimaced.

“Delayn! What’s our status?”

“Aft shields are at 32% but I had to drain power from the front and sides, so we’re exposed there.”

“It won’t matter. All the enemy contacts are behind us—”

Caldin met his gaze. “That we know of.”

Ethan acknowledged that with a quick nod. “We’ll have time to adjust the shields if something else de-cloaks. Weapons—keep firing torpedoes ahead of us, just in case. I want one every five seconds, timer set for seven.”

“Yes, sir!”

Ethan saw the battleship at the gate turning to follow them, but they’d be too slow to catch up. The Defiant would be out of range in just a few seconds. As for the pursuing waves of Sythian fighters, however, they were catching up fast—and there were a lot of them.

As if reading his thoughts, Caldin nodded to the grid. “What about those shells? There’s over two hundred in system, and at least fifty will reach us before we make the jump.”

“Let’s hope our fighter screen is enough to hold them off.”

Caldin met Ethan’s gaze over the glowing blue grid cube rising out of the captain’s table. She didn’t need to say anything. Fifty to their thirteen were horrible odds, and on top of that, their pilots were as green as grass.

It was going to be a miracle if anyone survived to reach Odaran, let alone Obsidian Station.




 

Chapter 20

The Invisible War

“Guardians, we’re going to SLS before we take any more damage out here. There are approximately fifty shells in pursuit. Keep them off us until we jump, and then head back to the gate to make the jump yourselves. We’ll be dropping out of SLS early to rendezvous in the neighboring solar and make repairs. Coordinates are being sent to your navs now.”

Atton shook his head. Thirteen against fifty! He activated his comm. “All right, Guardians, you heard the man! We’re heading back into it! Form on me, and try not to get too close to that battleship. Without the Defiant to focus on, their guns are going to use us for target practice.”

A stream of acknowledging clicks came over the comm, along with one pilot’s scared whimper—“We’re not going to live through this!” It was Guardian Eleven, Twelve’s wing man. Atton just barely remembered his name from the trainee roster. He was Sergeant Recks, conscripted to the squadron from a gunnery position aboard the Defiant. He’d had some experience flying during his early days with the fleet, until his entire squadron had been wiped out during the Sythian invasion. Immediately after that he’d joined a gunnery training program, becoming a beam cannon driver, and there he’d stayed—until now.

Atton eased off the rudder. The enemy fighter wave swung into view—a sheer wall of red bracket pairs on his HUD that was confusing to look at. He dialed down the visibility of targets to only bracket them when they came within 10 klicks rather than the default 25. In the near distance, he saw the massive bulk of the out-system space gate, and behind the translucent blue pool of the wormhole, lay the Sythian Battleship which had rained death and destruction on them just minutes ago. “Look, listen up, Guardians. We’re going to get through this!” Atton said. “Half of you have pilot ratings with a two kill per sortie average, and a third of you have ratings of three or more. I know most of you greenies have only had one or two real sorties, but we can do this. Shells have weak shields; they are big targets, slow, and not very maneuverable. Get on their tails and stay there—just watch out for mines. Shells each pack one cloaking mine a piece, and if they get the chance, they’ll use it, so don’t fly up their thrusters.”

“Frek, they have mines?” Guardian Nine said. “Eleven’s right! We’re dead.”

“Can that, pilot!” Atton said. “You want to know the truth? The odds are bad, but all of us are a bunch of lucky motherfrekkers who’ve beaten odds worse than these. We survived the Sythian invasion. We survived the virus which wiped out the rest of our crew, and we’re going to survive this! We do not have to kill all fifty shells, we just have to fly circles around them and make them chase their tails until the Defiant escapes, so listen up, here’s the plan. We’re going to switch over to hailfires and fire off a volley. They’ll hear the missile locks and see the missiles racing at them, and they’re going to shoot them down, which is exactly why you’re going to dumb fire a second wave behind the first. Set the proximity fuse on that one to 100 meters and have the warheads split at 250. Those kakards will shoot the decoys and get a face full of the real krak. Start lining up your targets! We fire on my mark.”

“How do I set the proximity fuse?” Guardian eight asked.

“Tell your AI to do it! Has everyone found a target?” Atton asked as he lined up the nearest enemy fighter under his sights. It was still out of range, but only for a few more seconds.

A stream of affirmative clicks came over the comm, and then the enemy fighters were in range. Atton watched his reticle flicker red and emit a solid tone. He waited another second, and then said, “Mark!” A stream of hailfires shot out from the squadron, jetting out on hot orange contrails. “All right, dumb fire the next volley! Fire, fire!” Atton yelled as he pulled the trigger again. These missiles jetted out in the shadow of the first wave, hiding in their wake. Atton watched the warheads swoop in on the enemy fighters, but then his missile lock warning began to beep, and a siren screamed through his cockpit as the enemy fighters fired off a wave of their own missiles.

“Prepare to go evasive, Guardians! Remember to wait until those missiles get close, and then jink hard!”

The enemy fighters opened up on the hailfires, and space lit up with multiple flashes of light as the missiles exploded a safe distance from the shells. Then the dumb-fired missiles broke apart, and the constituent smaller warheads spiraled off in all directions. A split second later, they reached the range of their proximity fuses and detonated in quick succession. Red bracket pairs winked off the HUD by the dozens, and Atton glanced at his star map to see the associated contacts disappearing. Fully half of the enemy fighters were replaced with expanding debris clouds.

“Ruh-kah!” Atton’s wingmate, Alara Vastra, whooped amidst a roar of cheering from the rest of the Guardians.

A spinning wave of purple stars emerged wraith-like from the fading light of those explosions, and suddenly Atton heard his missile lock alarm. “Jink hard, jink hard!” he said, firing his afterburners and pulling up to execute a wing over and head back the way he’d come. A pair of missiles spun by his nova to either side as he skidded through a tight turn at the top of his climb. Multiple explosions blossomed on the gravidar, and Atton grimaced. He didn’t have time to check who they’d lost, but they were down by another three pilots now. Atton reversed thrust and flipped his nova over to face the onrushing shells while still flying in the direction the Defiant was heading. The enemy fighters were so close now that Atton felt like he could reach out and touch them. He thumbed over to lasers and fired off a linked burst at the nearest shell. It exploded brilliantly and the flaming debris went roaring past him before burning out in the airless vacuum of space. Flipping back the other way once more, Atton pushed his throttle past the stops and began firing off linked bursts at the shells as they flew blithely past, their glowing red cannons focused on the Defiant. Atton winged one shell and sliced another in half, sending it spinning off into space with one thruster driving each piece, flickering and flaming off into the void.

Five more shells winked off the grid, and Atton smiled. The odds weren’t looking so bad anymore. Atton saw his wingmate, Alara, go roaring out after the enemy fighters with her lasers blazing in chained-fire mode, raking a continuous stream of fire over the enemy fighter wave. Even as he watched, she blew two more shells to scrap.

At this rate, all the enemy fighters will be destroyed before they get within firing range of the Defiant.

Then, as if they’d read his thoughts, the remaining shells flipped around, and opened up on the Guardians with stuttering streams of laser fire. A pair of shells targeted him, and he was blinded by the enemy fire before he could even react.

“Forward shields critical. Equalizing,” his AI said, and Atton went evasive.

“O frek, I—ahhhrrrkkk—” someone’s screams cut off abruptly as their fighter winked off the grid. A quick look at the numbered designation beside the gravidar icon showed that it was Eleven—Recks—who’d just been blown to scrap.

Atton gritted his teeth and looked up to see Ithicus and his wingmate go roaring past him with pulse lasers screaming. They shot down four more shells between the two of them in just a few seconds. “Take that you bug-eyed kakards!” Ithicus roared as his interceptor sailed through the explosions.

The remaining thirteen shells flipped back the other way, as if to run—

And then they disappeared.

“Frek! Where’d they go?” Guardian Five demanded.

“Guess they knew they were losing so they cloaked. Poor little kakards had to run and hide. I think we scared them off,” Guardian Nine, Tenrik Fanton, said. Besides Alara, he was the next-highest scoring pilot among the trainees.

Atton frowned. “I don’t think they’re running because their scared . . .”

“Good job, Guardians,” the Defiant said, cutting into their comms. “Our scopes are clear. We’re thirty seconds to jump. Soon as we leave, head to the gate and meet us at the rendezvous.”

Defiant, be advised,” Atton began, “The last squadron of shells cloaked on us. We’re not sure where they are at the moment . . .”

“Acknowledged. We’ll be careful.”

But even as the Defiant said that, the remaining shells de-cloaked and dropped a wave of missiles on the cruiser’s tail. Atton saw them fly into the Defiant’s thrusters before he could even call out a warning. Multiple explosions flashed, obscuring their view of the Defiant, and then the light began to fade, and Atton saw the damage. All of the Defiant’s four main thrusters flickered and went dark—except one, but the one still burning gushed flames not ions.

Before Atton could comm the cruiser to ask if they were okay, the Defiant jumped to SLS with a flash of light, and Atton was left watching the shells coming about for a head-to-head with the Guardians.

He shook himself out of his shock and keyed the comm. “All right the Defiant is safely away! Form on me and boost to the gate,” Atton was already coming about and pushing his throttle up past the stops. “We’re not engaging any more fighters, but fly evasively—this is no time to relax.”

“What happened to the Defiant? I saw her get hit just before she jumped,” Guardian Four said.

“She got blown to frek,” Guardian Five, Gina Giord replied.

“You think she’s going to make it to the rendezvous?”

“Cut the chatter, Guardians! All the speculation in the galaxy is moot. We fly to the rendezvous either way. We can’t stay here. If they get late, we’ll be waiting, is that clear?”

“Clear,” Four replied.

Atton watched the gate growing larger in his forward screen and eyed the range to target as it dropped. He saw his velocity rise to over two klicks per second and he grimaced. “Guardians, don’t forget to decelerate for SLS. Max entry speed is 999 meters per second. Do not exceed that, or you’ll get dropped out a few klicks from the gate and you’ll be all alone out here.”

“If we decelerate now, those shells are going to tag us!”

“Get your AI to coordinate the timing of your decel for the last possible second, but yes, they’ll catch up, so we’re going to have to rely on evasive maneuvering, not speed, to evade enemy fire.”

Atton followed his own advice, and ordered his AI to calculate the best possible time to begin decelerating while still keeping his speed up. They would need to almost reverse their heading when they reached the gate in order to head through it from the right side, so their speed had to stay low enough to make the turn without too much delay. Factoring that in, the AI began decelerating his nova instantly and highlighted a glowing green flight path for him to follow on the HUD. Atton glanced at his rear scope and saw the enemy fighters closing with him. A quick look at his forward scope showed the same thing, but there the danger was more acute, with more than a hundred shells racing toward them. Atton saw Ithicus Adari and his wingmate roar by overhead in their faster interceptors and he frowned. “Adari, stay in formation!”

But he didn’t reply. Atton watched with rising fury as he and Guardian Four appeared to make a break for it, using their greater speed to be the first ones through the gate. “Guardians Three and Four, I repeat, stay in formation!”

“Negative, lead.”

And then Atton saw hailfire missiles streaking out from the interceptors one after another in a continuous stream. Suddenly he understood, and he felt ashamed of his suspicions. Adari wasn’t leaving the rest of the Guardians to fend for themselves, he and his wingmate were providing the necessary distraction for them to escape.  Even as he watched, the first hailfires began breaking into smaller warheads and tracking the onrushing shells. Multiple explosions flashed in the distance, and Atton nodded grimly. You’re a better man than I thought, Adari. Atton and the rest of the Guardians reached the leading edge of the gate and pulled a tight turn to head toward it. The Sythian battleship, now sitting off to one side, erupted with missiles and lasers, and so did the pursuing shell fighters. Atton’s cockpit speakers screamed with missile lock alarms, and lasers flashed all around him, intermittently lighting his cockpit in a pale purple light. He began a spiraling arc toward the gate and pushed his thrusters to the max. Sythian missiles streaked past him to all sides, and another nova winked off the grid. Atton checked the designation of that fighter before its contact icon fully faded. It was Guardian Six, Gina’s wingmate—another trainee. He couldn’t even remember the pilot’s name.

“Frek it!” Atton said. The gate loomed large over his fighter, the swirling blue pool of the wormhole now tantalizingly close.

Enemy lasers began to find him despite his evasive maneuvering, and Ethan heard his AI call out, “Aft shields critical!”

A quick look at the gravidar showed Ithicus and his wingman now running for the gate, too. The beep-beep-beeping of incoming enemy missiles sped up to a nearly solid tone, and then Atton’s nova hit the gate and the wormhole enveloped him with a flash of light. Space dissolved into star lines and Atton sat back with wide eyes and shaking hands. He had to pry his hand off the flight stick; his knuckles cracked painfully as he did so. Then he just sat there, blinking out at the swirling brightness of SLS, flexing his hand to bring feeling back into it, and thinking to himself, that was close.

He shook himself out of his daze and used his right holo display to check the battle logs and see who they’d lost. The dead nova pilots flashed up on his screen one after the other—Guardian Twelve, Guardian Eight, Guardian Seven, Guardian Ten, Guardian Eleven, and Guardian Six. They were down by six pilots out of the original fourteen—after crossing just two systems! Atton stared at those pilots’ numbers and realized that some of them were just that—numbers. He could barely remember their names, let alone what they looked like, but one face came to him clearly—Stix. Atton could still recall the young woman’s sweet nature and her almost girlish features. He remembered her stealing the pancakes at breakfast and running off with them with all the other pilots racing after her. . . .

She was gone now. He felt like he’d failed her, and that thought brought with it a flash of rage against himself and the Sythians. If the Gors are on our side, why are they still fighting us? he wondered. But he knew the answer. Unless the Imperium came in force to rescue the Gors, they would do as their Sythian masters commanded, or else they would be the ones slaughtered. Tova couldn’t tell her crèche mates to stand down without condemning them to die, and even if she tried, they likely wouldn’t have listened to her.

Atton shook his head. He thought back to the Defiant’s darkened thrusters and the flames shooting from them.

They were never going to make it the rest of the way.

*  *  *

The Invisible War


 “Damage report!” Ethan called out as he picked himself off the deck amidst the swirling clouds of acrid gray smoke pouring onto the bridge.

“Engines are down! Reactor is at 52% integrity and power levels are dropping,” Delayn replied. “We bled some fuel from a gash in the starboard engine, but I shut it down before we lost much.”

The bridge grew deadly quiet. That revelation hit hard. They were short on fuel as it was.

“How much fuel did we lose?” Ethan demanded.

“Enough to miss, but not enough to stop us from getting where we’re going.”

“What about SLS?” Ethan asked.

“Holding steady for now, but with power levels dropping the way they are . . . we might get yanked back to real space at any minute. We need to patch that reactor and fast.”

“All right!” Ethan clapped his hands for attention. “You heard the man! Let’s go! Don’t forget your radiation suits.” Ethan was already running down the gangway with Commander Caldin close on his heels.

“If we don’t fix that reactor leak, we’re frekked,” Caldin said.

“If we don’t fix a lot of things, we’re frekked,” Ethan shot back.





Chapter 21

The Invisible War

Alec Brondi ran down the corridor at top speed, the servos and motors in his zephyr assault mech whirring as he ran. Flanking him to the fore and rear were two more pairs of zephyrs—his bodyguards.

Besides the fact that they’d recently run into serious opposition from Sythians on their way through the Kedaris System, losing nearly half their compliment of novas and taking heavy damage to their port side, he still had to deal with a mysterious enemy attacking them from within. Verlin and his men had just been the first in a very long series of casualties. Now they were up to 73 dead and counting. Men reported seeing their fellows snatched out of thin air, gutted by an invisible foe. Brondi refused to walk down the corridors of his own ship anymore without the protective armor of a zephyr. He couldn’t get everywhere like that, but most corridors and rail cars had been designed with high enough ceilings and broad enough doors to accommodate the two-meter-high light assault mechs.

Yet even like that Brondi felt hunted. His eyes darted every which way inside his helmet; his breath came reverberating raggedly to his ears; his heart pounded; and his back prickled with sweat that itched maddeningly beneath the armor.

They say it can kill a man just by breathing on him. Brondi wasn’t sure about that, but whatever it was, it had killed nearly a hundred of his men in less than two days. That made it enemy number one.

Brondi had discovered the hard way in the Kedaris System that the ISSF hadn’t been lying about the Sythian threat, and he’d decided to forget about the extra fuel cost and fly straight to the rendezvous with Admiral Hoff Heston’s forces at Ritan. His engineer had told him that left a small risk of being obliterated by undetected interstellar obstacles, but Brondi figured those odds had to be lower than the odds that they’d be killed by Sythians if they tried to cross through all seven systems between them and Ritan.

Travelling off the lanes, ETA was another day and a half, and at the current rate of death among his crew, Brondi guessed he would lose another hundred men by then. If I’m not careful, he thought, one of them could be me.

It seemed fairly obvious what they were up against. Invisible, deadly, murderous—it fit the description of a Sythian perfectly. Somehow they had been infiltrated by one or more of the enemy, and now, rooting them out would be nearly impossible. Brondi had already ordered traps to be laid, but the kakards always saw them coming.

They’re always one step ahead, Brondi thought, panting inside his helmet. He shouldn’t have had to cross his own ship in a suit of armor, running in abject fear from one side to the other, but lately, he’d even begun sleeping in the zephyr. Who knew if a Sythian had crept into his quarters with him and would kill him in his sleep?

Stop it, he chided himself. Don’t be paranoid.

But he was. Brondi grimaced. Somehow he had to keep this mysterious intruder from interfering with his plans. There was a reason he was crossing Sythian Space to find and meet with Admiral Hoff and the remnants of the 5th Fleet. It wasn’t so they could sit down and have tea together.

Brondi and his men reached their destination and Brondi waved to the point team. “Open the doors.”

One man stepped forward and keyed in a security code in lieu of waving his wrist over the scanner. Their identichips would be unreadable through their armor, and Brondi’s slicers were still figuring out how to add their identities to the security permissions list.

The doors swished open and they stomped into the med center aboard the Valiant. Their eyes were drawn to the shifting light sculpture in the center of the room, but after only a moment of succumbing to the sculpture’s mesmerizing effects, Brondi looked away and continued through the waiting area to a long, white hallway which was barely wide enough to fit their mechs.

Brondi led the way to the stasis room and keyed open the door. Once inside, he scanned stasis tubes lining the walls until he found the nearest one whose control panel was lit up to indicate a live occupant. There were plenty to choose from. Brondi stalked up to the stasis tube and his men followed, their footsteps thudding after him.

“All right, Doctor, collect your blood sample,” he said, turning to one of the other zephyrs.

The people in the stasis tubes were the sole remaining survivors from the Valiant’s original crew. No doubt they’d entered stasis in a last ditch attempt to escape the virus which had spread throughout the ship, but that wouldn’t fix them no matter what treatment they’d selected from the stasis controls. The virus was too virulent to be stopped by conventional means, and going into stasis would merely delay the inevitable.

Brondi turned to watch the entrance of the room. He half expected to see the doors open mysteriously, and then to hear his men screaming as they were overcome by an invisible foe.

But no, he chided himself. That only happened in his nightmares. Not even a Sythian could take down a man in a zephyr—not bare-handed anyway; their armor was too strong.

The doctor stepped up to the stasis tube and prepared a syringe to take a blood sample. This was Brondi’s master plan. With that man’s blood sample, he would add the remnants of the 5th fleet to the Valiant, and he would become the most powerful force in the galaxy—well, besides the Sythians, Brondi thought. But if they stuck to themselves and he stayed in Dark Space then everyone would be happy. At least until he could find a way to kill the skull faces once and for all.

When the doctor was done taking his sample, he tucked it into a storage compartment in his suit and turned to Brondi. “Let’s get out of here.”

Brondi nodded, and then they were off again, racing back down the corridors they’d taken to get to the med center. They were all nervous to be exploring the “unsafe” areas of the ship. They’d managed to at least cordon off certain places where they knew their killer—or killers—wouldn’t be hiding. They’d used a combination of round-the-clock guards stationed at every bulkhead and lift tube along the perimeter of the safe zones, as well as anti-personnel proximity mines seeding the corridors leading to those areas. The mines had to be disabled from a distance with the right codes. As a final layer of security they had installed stealth detectors above every door—laser beams which if broken unexpectedly would set off an alarm. Like that they’d managed to reduce their casualties, but out here, there were none of those security measures.

The corridor seemed to stretch out endlessly ahead of them. Now that they’d gathered the sample, Brondi was in an even greater hurry to get back. He had a bad feeling crawling in the pit of his stomach, like they were being watched.

They reached the first rail tunnel on the way back, and one of Brondi’s men stepped forward to punch the summon car button. They waited a moment for the rail car to arrive, all of them looking around nervously.

“I’m surprised it hasn’t tried anything. We’re on his turf,” one man said.

“We’re wearing armor, stupid. You think it wants to get riddled with 20 mm ripper rounds while it tries to crack us open?”

“Shhh . . .” the doctor said, looking around suddenly. “Did you hear that?”

They stopped to listen, but all they heard was the quiet whoosh of air cyclers and the subtle hum of the SLS drives rumbling through the deck. “What did you hear?” Brondi asked.

“Footsteps . . .” he said, moving away from the rail tunnel to investigate.

Brondi humored him for a few seconds, and then said, “Hoi, get back here. You’re hearing things, Doc.”

“I don’t know . . . I feel like we’re forgetting something important.”

“Like what?”

They heard the distant rumble of an approaching rail car, and suddenly the doctor turned to them with his hands outstretched as if to stop them. “Wait! Get away from the tunnel!”

“What?” Brondi asked. “Why?”

“We’re outside the safe zone! There’s no one else out here! The car should have been waiting for us!” The doctor turned and ran away at top speed, his footsteps booming down the corridor.

Brondi’s eyes flew wide, and then the car arrived with a screech of brakes, and the doors swished open. They all turned as one toward the open doors, their forearm-mounted ripper cannons raised to track whatever might be lurking within, but the car was empty.

Empty, except for a large plastiform crate sitting on the floor.

“Frek!” one man said, backing away. “He’s hiding in the crate!” Brondi recognized the warning labels a second too late to stop that man from firing off a burst of ripper fire. The plastiform crate turned to swissel cheese. Brondi held his breath for a heart-stopping second, but nothing happened; then he raced up behind the man who’d fired that volley and knocked him over with a vicious swipe of his zephyr’s arm. “You dumb frek! That’s a crate full of proximity mines! Fall back!” Brondi was already backing away.

Just then the damaged wall of the crate collapsed, sending dozens of mines rolling out toward them. Brondi turned and ran.

The first mine reached the man he’d knocked over, and went off with a deafening boom. The subsequent chain reaction set off all the mines, and they were picked up and thrown down the corridor by a superheated rush of air. The doctor was the only one far enough from the shockwave to remain standing. When Brondi’s mech finally stopped rolling, he groaned and tested his power-assisted limbs. They still moved, but now with labored grinding sounds. He pushed himself to his feet and turned to study the damage.

The rail car was obliterated, the corridor a molten ruin of blackened duranium and scattered rubble—and as for the man who’d set off the explosion, all Brondi could identify amidst the rubble was a boot and a gauntlet. The other two were lying face down on the deck and not moving. They’d been closer to the blast.

 Brondi gritted his teeth and roared in frustration. Now he fired off a random burst of ripper fire, pelting the debris-strewn corridor. “Frek you! Show yourself!” He fired another burst and then stood there panting with fury while he waited for a reply, but none came. He turned to the doctor and shook his head. “What now?”

The doctor gazed solemnly back at him. “We find another way back.”

*  *  *

The Invisible War


Atton sat blinking out at the mesmerizing swirl of SLS. He did a quick check to see how long before the reversion to real space and found that it would be almost four hours. Enough time to get some rest he supposed, but every time he tried to close his eyes, they shot open again as if loaded with springs. He couldn’t sleep. There were too many thoughts bouncing around in his head. They’d crossed just two systems, and already they’d run into enough opposition to take down six novas and nearly obliterate the Defiant.

Atton pushed those thoughts from his head and focused on what was to come. He and the remainder of Guardian Squadron would have enough fuel to reach the rendezvous, but not by much. Adari and his wingman in the smaller Mark II’s would be even lower on fuel by the time they reverted to real space. They’d be lucky to make it. And as for the Defiant . . . he’d seen the bad shape the cruiser had been in when it had entered SLS.

Shaking his head, Atton let out a long, calming breath and closed his eyes once more, forcing himself to relax in preparation for sleep. He rolled his ankles and flexed his legs as much as he could in the cramped confines of his cockpit, and he grimaced at the sharp tingle of pins and needles which shot through his limbs. Atton’s eyes popped open again.

He sighed, and asked his AI for a sleeping aid. There was nothing he could do about his squadron or the Defiant until they dropped out of SLS, and when they did, he’d need to be well-rested. Atton felt a sharp prick, and then a spreading wave of warmth which seemed to reach every corner of his being. He laid his head back and let that wave carry him into sweet oblivion.

*  *  *

 

The Invisible War


The reactor room was filled with smoke—laser welders flashed brightly in the dim red glow of the emergency lights. Ethan gazed up at the dark transpiranium dome high above the reactor, watching sparks hissing out in high arcs above the catwalk where he stood in a bulky yellow radiation suit.

According to his chief engineer, Petty Officer Delayn, the aft shields had overloaded, sending a power surge back through the reactor which had cracked the dymium core. They were working fast to patch the core before it went critical, or before they’d have to shut the reactor down completely and drop out of SLS. An interruption like that would use up too much of their remaining fuel, and they needed that fuel to send Brondi’s corvette the rest of the way to Obsidian Station.

“May I ask you something, sir?” Caldin said, interrupting his thoughts.

“Of course,” he said, turning to her.

“What was the mission you sent those two corpsmen to complete?”

“My guards?”

Caldin nodded.

Ethan looked back out over the reactor core and shook his head. “You know that’s classified.”

“We’re going to die, sir. It shouldn’t matter anymore.”

“No, I suppose it shouldn’t,” Ethan admitted. “But why does it matter to you?”

“One of them was my . . . lover, sir.”

“Oh.” Ethan was taken aback. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“No one did. I just wanted to know . . . if he’s okay . . . if maybe he left a message for me.”

Ethan hesitated. “I’ll have to check with Captain Reese.”

Caldin looked abashed and she averted her eyes. “Of course.”

“Don’t worry. If anyone is safe right now, it will be him.”

No sooner had Ethan said it than an alarm went off and a sharp hiss rose into the air. A man screamed, and their eyes were drawn to see someone stumbling around on top of the reactor core, clawing at his melted faceplate. “Frek!” Ethan said. “Get a medic over there!”

No one heard him.

“She’s gonna blow!” someone yelled.

“Shut it down!” Delayn yelled back.

“Brace for reversion!”

Ethan held on to the railing; then came a resounding bang, as someone shut down the reactor, followed by the steady hum of the SLS grinding to a halt. The emergency lights flickered inside the reactor room, and then they were all yanked off their feet as the ship was thrown out of SLS.

Ethan picked himself off the catwalk. “Report! What happened, Delayn?” Ethan whirled around to find his chief engineer already hurrying down the catwalk toward them.

“We almost blew the reactor wide open! We’re going to have to stay here and fix it.”

“Frek . . .” Ethan muttered. “Where is here?”

“By my calculations we’re about twenty minutes from the rendezvous. Maybe half a light year off.”

“Well, hurry up and fix the reactor!”

“Yes, sir.”

This just gets better and better. “Factoring for this little detour, are we going to have enough fuel to send Brondi’s corvette the rest of the way to Obsidian Station?”

Delayn nodded. “We should, yes, but we’ll have none left for ourselves.”

Ethan grimaced. “Not like we could have made it in the Defiant anyway.”

“It will be risky, sir. As I mentioned before there’s a chance the corvette’s reactor will overheat and blow the ship apart. Corvettes weren’t designed to make long-range jumps. Max SLS time from one system to another is around 12 hours. This trip will take about a day.”

“So they might not make it, and we’ll have drained all our fuel just to give them the chance,” Caldin said, shaking her head. “We’ll be stranded.”

“Yes, ma’am, that is the risk we’ll take.”

Ethan clenched his jaw. “It doesn’t sound as though we have much choice.”

“No, sir.”

“We’ll head to the rendezvous to pick up novas first, and then you’re free to take whatever parts you need from the Defiant to make this crazy scheme of yours work, Delayn. How long do you think before we’re patched up and ready to enter SLS again?”

Delayn hesitated, turning to watch the teams of engineers and other crew swarming over the reactor with arc welders, and heavy ingots of duranium filler. The man who’d been burned by the reactor leak had subsided to one side of the room, with the ship’s only medic attempting to administer first aid for what were almost certainly lethal burns. Delayn grimaced. “It could be a while.”

Ethan frowned. Without being near a working gate relay, they couldn’t send a message to the Guardians to let them know what had happened.

Suddenly there came a bang and the emergency lights went out, plunging the ship into utter darkness. Ethan felt his stomach lurch, and the weight on his legs and spine was abruptly lifted. His feet lost traction on the deck and he began to float free of the catwalk.

“Hoi!”

“We’ve lost IMS!”

Ethan flailed in the dark for anything solid to grab on to, but there was nothing within reach. He listened to the rising tumult as his crewmen shouted out confusing and contradictory orders as they bumped into walls and each other.

We’re derelict, Ethan thought with rising horror. Of all the ways he’d imagined them dying—drifting quietly and alone in the cold dark void of deep space had not been one of them. This is the real Dark Space— he thought as he listened absently to Delayn snapping orders for the crew to use the grav guns on their belts to pin their feet to the deck. —being stranded without power in the vast emptiness between the stars. . . .






Derelict

The Invisible War





Chapter 22

Kurlin awoke in darkness. The air was still and terribly cold. He tried to sit up, but his head slammed into something hard and unyielding. He winced and tried to quell the rising panic in his chest before it swept away his ability to reason. Trying to push against the cool glass-smooth surface above his head, he found that it would yield. The obstacle swung away and a welcome rush of warm air brushed his face and body. He shivered with the sudden change in temperature, only now realizing that he was naked. His mind pieced the clues together and he realized that he’d been put in stasis. A second after that, he realized why. The overlord had done it to shut him up.

Kurlin scowled, and stepped out into the darkness, but he found as he pushed out of the stasis tube that there was no gravity on the ship. He floated freely across the room until his shins slammed into something hard, and he tipped face first onto a soft mattress. He bounced off and began floating above the bed, his hands flailing and grabbing handfuls of the sheets for purchase.

And then, suddenly, the darkness was replaced with a blinding red light. The emergency lights. Kurlin blinked and squinted against the sudden brightness, and he now noticed that he was floating three feet above a bed, white sheets billowing and trailing from his hands like a giant jelly fish as he drifted through the air.

Then the IMS came back online and Kurlin fell to the bed with a whump.

Shaken, he stood up and looked around. What had happened? Why had the lights and IMS been offline? How long had he been asleep?

Unsure about the answers to any of those questions, Kurlin quickly hunted through the unfamiliar surroundings for his clothes. He found them strewn all over the floor, no doubt having floated there from somewhere else during the power failure. It didn’t take Kurlin long to recognize where he was. The overlord’s quarters, he thought grimly. But where’s the overlord? Kurlin looked around warily, but there was no one else in the room with him. Having confirmed that, he hurried to get dressed. Not bothering to pull on his socks, Kurlin strode over to the overlord’s desk and keyed the holoscreen to life. Using it to log into his netmail account, he quickly found the message which he’d left pending. The time was 0920 hours—which he estimated meant that he’d been in stasis for almost fifteen hours. It was now late morning. Kurlin was grateful that he hadn’t awoken to find the overlord enjoying a late breakfast in his room. It was just as well that he wasn’t.

That imposter had demonstrated his unwillingness to cooperate by stuffing Kurlin into the stasis tube, and if he found Kurlin awake and running around freely on his ship, he might have found a more permanent way to shut him up. Kurlin had only one recourse now.

He stabbed the key to send his message over the ship’s commnet and then hurried out of the overlord’s quarters. He was still barefoot, and the floor was cold, but there was no time to waste. Until the message was discovered by enough people that they could take action to overthrow the imposter, he was going to have to find his wife and daughter and get them to hide with him somewhere aboard the Defiant.

But where? he wondered. Where wouldn’t the overlord think to look? Remembering the stasis tube where he had just spent the better part of the last day, Kurlin thought he had an idea. He would hide in the place the overlord would least expect to find him—

The stasis room.

After all, who would go straight from one stasis tube to another?

*  *  *

Atton awoke from a pleasant dream to an alarm that was more suited to an air raid siren than a wake up reminder before a reversion to real space.

His heart pounded with adrenaline, his eyes were wide and staring out at stars. Atton blinked. Stars. The alarm should have woken him a few minutes before reversion. Why had he dropped out of SLS early? This wasn’t right. He noticed the SLS countdown on the HUD was frozen at 15 minutes, and then he sat up suddenly and scanned the gravidar—but there were no contacts on the grid.

“What happened?” Gina asked, voicing the question which was on all of their minds.

“We got yanked out of SLS early,” Ithicus replied.

Atton shook his head. “The Sythians don’t have SLS disruptor tech, so unless they have . . .”

“A wormhole ship cloaked somewhere between Forlax and Odaran?” Ithicus finished for him.

“Has anyone else noticed the Defiant is missing?” Guardian Nine, Tenrik Fanton, added.

Atton felt a stab of dread and re-checked the gravidar. The Defiant had been the first one to jump to SLS, but they hadn’t entered SLS on the same trajectory as the Guardians had, so the wormhole ship wouldn’t have yanked them out.

“We have to get to the rendezvous!” Gina said.

“With what fuel!” Ithicus Adari shot back. “I’m down to 5%. That’s barely enough to fire up the SLS for an emergency speed correction. We’re stuck.”

“Ours isn’t much better,” Atton replied, “but it’s enough to get us to the rendezvous. We can send someone back for you. Think you can wait?”

Three snorted. “Not like I have a choice.”

Gina came back on the comm, saying, “Hoi, in case you skriffs haven’t noticed, we were yanked out of SLS by something. We might have enemies tracking us as we speak. We need to hurry.”

An enemy contact siren blared, making Gina’s warning prophetic, and space was suddenly crowded with dozens of red bracket pairs as Sythian fighters began swarming out of nowhere. “Evasive action!” Atton cried.

Even as he stomped on the rudder to line up the nearest enemy fighter, a flurry of missile lock alarms sounded through his cockpit. The numbers of enemy fighters immediately ahead of him were increasing by the second, until one pair of brackets seemed to blur into the next. Atton fired off a quick laser blast, slicing off the bottom half of the nearest shell, but it was just one out of more than a hundred.

“There’s too many of them!” Tenrik Fanton screamed.

Atton felt a crushing weight of despair at the futility of it all, and then the onrushing wave of enemy fighters erupted with a blinding volley of missiles. Atton heard his comm crackling with more exclamations, but he could barely hear them over the screaming of the missile lock alarms as more than a dozen spinning purple stars vectored in on him. The missiles were still too far away for him to go evasive, so Atton targeted the next nearest shell and fired two more blasts from his lasers. He felt his nova shudder with each fire-linked burst, and then watched the enemy fighter fly apart in a bright flash of light. Applying slight pressure to the port rudder pedal, Atton lined up the next target and did the same. Another explosion flared in the enemy formation, followed by three more as other Guardians hit home with their lasers. Atton watched Ithicus Adari and his wingmate go speeding toward the enemy formation, taking advantage of their greater speed to fly into the thick of it. They fired their dual pulse lasers with perfect accuracy, strafing from one enemy to the next and slicing off pieces of them left and right. Bright lavender-hued lasers flashed out in reply from the enemy fighters, tracking the two mark II’s, but Adari and his wingmate began executing oscillating barrel rolls which were unpredictable enough to keep them safe. Like that they sailed straight through the wave of Sythian missiles without a scratch. Atton followed their lead, boosting and barrel rolling to evade the missiles vectoring in on him. The g-force alternated between pinning him to his seat and pulling him against his restraints, and Atton quickly dialed up the IMS to keep from getting disoriented.

Two explosions blossomed on the star map where green icons had been, and someone yelled over the comm, “Fourteen! Frek! Thirteen, too! Why didn’t they eject?” Atton’s wingmate, Alara, asked.

Atton shook his head. Down to six pilots. If the Defiant doesn’t get here soon . . . but soon couldn’t be soon enough. With the overwhelming odds they were facing, they wouldn’t last long.

Even as Atton thought that, he saw the massive bulk of a Sythian carrier de-cloaking in front of them. The scale of it was immense and it was pouring hundreds more shells after them as they watched.

*  *  *

The stasis room was freezing cold. Doctor Kurlin held his wife’s hand as they crossed the room in the dim emergency light to reach the nearest pair of empty stasis tubes. They’d tried to find Alara, but it had quickly become apparent that she was out on a mission with the other nova pilots.

“W-what if the ship is destroyed while we’re asleep?” Darla asked.

Kurlin turned to her from the control panel of the nearest stasis tube. “Wouldn’t you rather die in your sleep, darling?”

“I don’t want to die at all.”

Kurlin shook his head. “We won’t. Not yet. And we’ll find some way to escape this dead man’s quest as soon as we get Alara back.”

“Do think she’s all right? I heard the fighting on the comms. They were dying out there, Kurlin!”

Kurlin turned to her with a frown. “She scored well in the training. If anyone survived, then she did.”

“What if we’ve lost her and we don’t even know it?”

Kurlin just shook his head as he turned back to the control panel. We’ve already lost her, Darla, he thought but didn’t say. The slave chip made sure of that.

“There, the first one’s ready. Would you like to go first, my darling?” he asked, gesturing to the open stasis tube. He was putting them in stasis for a day, long enough for the imposter overlord to be arrested.

Darla hugged herself and shivered, her gaze locked on the coffin-sized chamber. She shook her head vigorously. “You go first.”

“No one’s going anywhere!”

Kurlin whirled around to see who’d said that. He came face to ripper rifle with a brawny corpsman. “Who are you?” Kurlin demanded.

The man snorted. “Funny, I was about to ask you the same. Aren’t you that doctor we rescued from the corvette?”

Kurlin’s eyes widened and suddenly he recognized the man in front of him. Another burly corpsman stepped out of the shadows, his ripper rifle also leveled at them.

“Yes,” Kurlin replied, trying to sound nonchalant.

The man who’d spoken gestured with his rifle to the doors of the stasis room. “What’s going on out there?”

Kurlin shook his head. “I’m not sure.”

“Why would you want to put yourself in stasis?” the other corpsman asked, nodding to the open tubes.

Kurlin frowned, wondering how much he could trust these two men—the very same two who had interrogated him and knew that he had created the virus which had decimated the Valiant. He had to tread carefully with them. “It seemed the safest place to hide.”

The first corpsman snorted. “Hide, huh? The rest of the crew figured out what you did, then?”

Kurlin felt a cold lump of ice settle in his gut. “No . . .” he shook his head. “Worse than that.”

“Oh yea? Spill it, brua.”

“The overlord is an imposter.”

“He’s a what?” both men were taken aback.

“A holoskinner.”

“What makes you say that? You see him take off his skin?”

“No, I tested his blood. He has the blood of a 46-year-old, and there’s only one way that’s possible.”

Both corpsmen just stared at him for a long moment, looking uncertain. Finally one of them said, “Is that true or are you just blowin’ smoke?”

“It’s true. I can prove it. I sent a message over the ship’s net to all the crew. I would suggest you arrest the imposter before he finds a way to escape.”

“Hold on a sec,” one of the corpsmen said as he pulled a holo pad out of his pocket and began fiddling with it. A moment later he looked up with wide eyes, shaking his head. “Doc’s right . . .” he said, passing the pad to his buddy.

“Holy frek!” the other one exclaimed. “That’s it. Forget hiding, Doc,” he said, starting toward Kurlin and grabbing him by the arm. “We need a witness. You’re coming with us.”

*  *  *

Ethan couldn’t resist the urge to tap his foot as he stood behind Petty Officer Damen Corr at the nav, waiting for the system to reboot. They’d just finished fixing the damaged reactor core after more than an hour of work. Emergency power had been restored within just a few minutes of going out, but main power had only been restored fifteen minutes ago.

Come on! Ethan thought, gritting his teeth as the nav officer hurried through system diagnostics and calibrations.

“Almost there . . .” Damen reassured. “Got it!”

“Start spooling the SLS, and head to the rendezvous!”

“Yes, sir,” Petty Sergeant Damen Corr replied.

With a sigh, Ethan straightened from leaning over the nav station, and then he turned around.

That was when he noticed that everyone had stopped what they were doing to stare at him. The uncertain looks on the crew’s faces were puzzling. “What is it?” Ethan asked of no one in particular. Then he saw Caldin stalking toward him, weaving between control stations. At her side were the pair of guards Atton claimed to have sent back to the transfer station.

Ethan’s brow furrowed as he saw them approach. Then he noticed Kurlin standing tall and smug by the entrance of the bridge, his skeletal arms folded over his chest as he leaned against the open doors.

Why wasn’t he in stasis? No one should have been able to enter the overlord’s quarters to find him and let him out . . . unless. . . .The power failure. Without even emergency power to keep it running, the stasis tube would have opened by itself. Kurlin had merely had to let himself out. From the look on his face—and on Commander Loba Caldin’s as she approached—Ethan didn’t have to wonder if the doctor had revealed the test results which proved he wasn’t the overlord.

“Hello,” Ethan greeted Caldin as she drew near, and then he turned to the guards and nodded to them. “I thought Captain Reese sent you—”

“He sent us into stasis!” one of them snapped.

Commander Caldin and both guards stopped a half a dozen feet away from Ethan. The guards had their rifles trained on him as Caldin spoke, “In the name of the Imperium and the true overlord, Altarian Dominic—may his soul rest wherever it now lie—you are under arrest for suspicion of murder and high treason.”

“Excuse me?” Ethan didn’t think feigning innocence would work, but he had to try.

“You needn’t play dumb with me, whoever you are. Doctor Kurlin sent the proof to everyone on this ship. There is no way you could possibly be the overlord. You are wearing a holoskin, and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll remove it before we have to strip you naked to do so.”

Ethan shook his head. “You’re making a mistake.”

“Guards! Search him!”

Ethan backed away from them, but he quickly fetched up against the back wall of the bridge and stopped. Tova had turned from the viewports to watch, her glowing red eyes trained on them as the confrontation unfolded before her. Ethan glanced at the alien, wondering what she was thinking.

Turning back to the advancing guards, he held up his hands in a shrug. “Fine, go ahead,” he said. “But you’d better arrest that man, too!” Ethan pointed up to Kurlin, and the old man straightened, his brow furrowing uncertainly.

“W-what for?” Kurlin stammered.

“Mass murder, and conspiracy.”

“I . . .”

The guards advancing on Ethan hesitated now, and one of them turned back to Caldin. “He’s right, ma’am. The doctor confessed to creating the virus which killed the crew of the Valiant.”

Caldin rounded on Kurlin now, her face livid. “Is that true, Doctor?”

“You can’t prove anything!” he screeched in a reedy voice.

Now Kurlin was the one backing away, and Ethan grinned. “You miscalculated, Doctor. I’m not the only one with secrets to keep.”

Caldin hesitated for just a moment, watching as Kurlin retreated through the open doors of the bridge, but then in one smooth motion she drew her side arm and shot Kurlin in the face. He collapsed, his body convulsing on the floor before he lay still, and then all eyes turned back to Ethan and Caldin nodded to him, her pistol now aimed at his face. “Do you confess to your crimes?”

“You’re going to trust a mass-murderer?” Ethan asked.

Caldin shook her head. “No.” She gestured to the guards. “Strip him!”

The two corpsmen reached for Ethan and began tearing off his white uniform, their hands groping all over him in their haste to find the holofield projectors he was wearing. One of the guards grazed the thin strip around Ethan’s neck and yanked on the fragile projector, momentarily interrupting the projection and allowing Ethan’s real features to shine through. The guards jumped suddenly back from him, as though he’d burned them and then every man and woman on the bridge bolted to their feet and drew their side arms.

Caldin nodded to Ethan and smiled. “I thought you were acting odd lately. The way you seemed to have suddenly forgotten everything about Sythian tech made me wonder if you were going senile. But now I see the true reason for your ignorance.”

“What have you done with the overlord?” the comm officer interrupted, his expression twisted in fury.

Ethan shook his head. “This is not what you think.”

Caldin snorted. “Then what is it? Answer the man’s question. What have you done with the overlord?”

Ethan shrugged. “The overlord you all knew was an imposter, too. I’m just the stand-in who agreed to take over from him.”

Caldin began laughing. “You expect us to believe that? Yes, good one, deflect attention from yourself as a skinner by claiming that the real overlord was a skinner, too! So I suppose that makes your actions perfectly acceptable? How stupid do you think we are?”

“It’s the truth.”

“We’ll decide what’s true or not. You can’t hide from a mind probe.”

Ethan’s eyes widened at that. If they submitted him to a mind probe they’d find out everything, including his own role in the taking of the Valiant. If they weren’t planning to kill him for impersonating the overlord, they’d surely kill him for his part in spreading the virus which had killed more than 50,000 officers. He was as guilty as Kurlin.

Caldin went on, “Put him in stun cords, and lock him in the brig. We don’t have time to stand around listening to this man’s lies anymore—oh and disable that holoskin! I want to see his face.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Ethan watched the stun cords being tightened around his wrists, and then he saw one of the guards reach up and break the holofield emitter around his neck. Suddenly Ethan’s real appearance was revealed. More gasps rose up from the crew, but that was just the reality of it sinking in. No one actually recognized him. And why would they? He was just a lowly freelancer and ex-con. The one man who might have recognized him was the same one who’d betrayed him a moment ago—the man who now lay stunned on the deck just outside the bridge.

And as irony would have it, they were about to become cellmates.





Chapter 23

The Invisible War

Alara stared at the grid, her eyes wide and blinking while her hands and feet moved mechanically to evade the swarms of incoming missiles. She’d had to ask Ethan to turn down the volume on the missile lock warnings, because they’d fast become deafening. Her afterburners were pushed up to the max and running out of fuel.

“Form up!” Captain Reese said over the comms. She could barely hear him over the steady roar of the thrusters. It felt like her head was actually inside of the exhausts. “We’re getting out of here, Guardians!” the captain went on.

“We’ll cover your retreat,” Ithicus said, and Alara felt a stab of regret. Neither of the Mark II’s would make another jump. Outnumbered several hundred to one, there was no way either Ithicus or his wingmate would survive.

One of the missile lock alarms beeping in Alara’s cockpit became a solid tone, and Alara stomped on her right rudder, only to see a missile go flashing by her cockpit in a blinding blur, passing so close that she could feel the heat of it radiating through her canopy.

A waypoint appeared on the star map, behind her current position, and Alara pulled up hard to loop back the way they’d come.

“Head to that waypoint, Guardians! We’ll make the jump as soon as we’re clear.”

Alara roared by a pair of Sythian shell fighters that had been on her tail, and then glanced at the star map to see the rest of the guardians forming up and roaring away from the enemy at top speed. What was it her AI had said?

Even the fastest bird must eventually land to rest its wings.

Where were they supposed to land? Alara pulled every evasive maneuver she could think of to shake the remaining missiles off her six. She was flying on sheer instinct alone. Lasers and missiles spun away to all sides, never touching her fighter. And then, abruptly, Alara noticed that the alarms had quieted, and all that was left was the roaring of her engines. A quick look at the grid revealed that they were now out of range of the enemy fighters. She breathed a deep sigh and shook her head.

“Start spooling for SLS!” Captain Reese called into the comm. “They’re going to try to jump that wormhole ship, wherever it is, into our flight path as soon as they see what we’re doing, so we need to keep maneuvering. I want you all to pick a slightly different heading. Keep ‘em guessing.”

“Skidmark, you’re crazy!” Gina said. “We’re all going to end up jumping in separate directions, and we’ll be stranded in the middle of nowhere!”

“Not if you make sure your actual heading matches the one plotted to reach the rendezvous just before the jump. It’s the only way we’re getting out of here.”

“Frek you, Adan! If I suffocate all alone in the middle of deep space I’m going to find you in the netherworld and choke you to death!”

“Cut the chatter, Five. You have your orders. As for Three and Four, just try to keep clear of the enemy, and we’ll send a shuttle back for you.”

“Roger that,” Ithicus said.

Alara watched her SLS start spooling up and the countdown appear on her HUD. As soon as that happened, her flight controls were automatically disabled, but she told Ethan to re-enable them.

“Alara, you will not jump to the coordinates you specified unless you maintain your current heading.”

“Just do it, Ethan! I don’t have time to argue. I’ll get back on that heading before we jump.”

“If you’re off by even half a degree, you’ll still end up jumping millions of kilometers away from the rendezvous.”

“I’ll handle it! Just paint the jump vector on my HUD so I can find it again.”

“As you wish.”

A green line appeared before her, stretching out to infinity, and Alara’s flight controls came alive in her hands. She kept a steady eye on the heading indicator at the top of her HUD, trying not to let the green desired heading get too far from the red actual heading. As her jump timer ticked down to two and a half minutes, she began decelerating for the jump. A quick look at the star map showed the enemy fighters gaining on them almost instantly. The pursuing shells would close to firing range before they could make the jump.

“Frek . . . we’re going to have company!” Guardian Nine said, noticing the same thing.

Even as he said it, Alara saw both of the mark II’s on the star map break off the Guardians’ flight path and head back toward the pursuing fighters.

“Ithicus, what are you doing?” Captain Reese demanded. “Get back here now!”

“Negative, Lead. We’re going to cover your retreat.”

“Firestarter!” Reese growled.

“Ruh-kah!” Ithicus roared as he and his wingmate fired off a string of hailfires at the wave of approaching shells. Because the enemy fighters were larger, the novas’ targeting computers gave them firing solutions long before the Sythians came into range. Alara watched on the grid as more than a dozen hailfires streaked out toward the enemy formation. The shells opened up on the approaching warheads with lasers, but the hailfires split apart early, spiraling off in all different directions before even one of them could be shot down. Now there were dozens of warheads streaking toward the enemy fighters. The shells tagged four, and the rest hit them with fiery bursts of light. Twelve enemy fighters winked off the grid.

It didn’t even make a dent in the enemy formation.

Alara shook her head, watching on the grid as the mark II’s switched to pulse lasers and began strafing the shells at extreme range. Then the Sythians were in firing range, and hundreds of purple stars shot out from their formation. Alara held her breath, watching as those missiles swarmed toward Ithicus and his wingmate.

“Eject, Three, eject!” Captain Reese yelled.

Guardian Four, quiet on the comms until now took that moment to reply for the both of them. “So we can be captured by Sythians? I’d rather die.”

And then the wave of missiles reached the mark IIs, and Alara looked away as the grid flashed brightly with their deaths.

“Thirty seconds to jump,” Alara’s AI said. “You should return to your original heading now. It will take time to correct your momentum.”

Alara heard the enemy fighters begin locking on to her, and she grimaced. It was a bad time to stop maneuvering, but there was no helping that now. She brought her nova back in line with the green jump vector painted on her HUD. The heading indicator said it would take 20 seconds to correct her heading to that vector, and then the countdown to SLS reached 25 seconds, and missile lock alarms sounded out in a flurry. Alara listened to the slightly different tone of beeps which indicated the enemy missiles were locked on and tracking her.

“Ten seconds,” the AI said, counting down to her jump. “Nine, eight, seven . . .”

Alara’s eyes dipped to the grid to watch the enemy missiles closing in on her fighter.

“One . . .” The nearest missile reached her, and then space dissolved in a blinding light.

For a moment she thought the missile had reached her before she’d jumped, but then Alara saw the bright star lines and streaks of SLS, and she sat back with a sigh. She half expected to feel her fighter rocked by an explosion even now after she’d gone to SLS, but of course missiles couldn’t follow her at superluminal speeds.

Alara’s eyes turned to watch the countdown on the SLS icon which had appeared on her HUD. It counted down from fifteen minutes. She would reach the rendezvous soon. Alara could only hope the Defiant was there already waiting for them. If not . . .

She refused to finish that thought. Alara passed the time fidgeting nervously and trying to ignore the maddening itch of sweat trickling between her shoulder blades.

By the time the reversion timer reached ten seconds, and Ethan began an audible countdown, her nerves were frayed, stretched taut like rubber bands, just waiting to snap. Her hands began to shake and she felt cold all over.

Then the star lines narrowed to pinpricks of light, and Alara’s gaze shot to the star map. She saw the remaining three Guardians appear around her fighter, meaning all of them had managed to return to the jump heading in time, but that was all she saw.

“Where’s the Defiant?” Gina asked.

“Frek . . .” Tenrik muttered. “She didn’t make it.”

Alara checked her coordinates just to make sure, but they’d jumped in right on top of the rendezvous. They were in the right place. Despite all the odds, they’d made it. And now . . .

“What’s your fuel look like, Guardians?” Captain Reese asked.

“Down to 17%,” Gina said.

“Same here,” Tenrik replied.

“Likewise,” Alara added. “Where’s the nearest habitable planet?”

“Odaran. We won’t make it there on 17% fuel unless we accelerate up to some skriff-krakkin’ speed and drift in real space—then the problem would be our air supply, not fuel. Even if by some miracle we did make it, we’d still have to get past the Sythian ships in the system.”

“So . . . what the frek now?” Gina asked.

The captain took a deep breath and let it out over the comm, sounding to Alara’s ears as a burst of static. “We wait.”

*  *  *

 

The Invisible War


Commander Caldin watched the reversion to real space on the captain’s table, waiting eagerly for Guardian Squadron to appear on the grid. As soon as the theater of space where they’d set the rendezvous snapped into focus, she saw a handful of green specks appear on the grid—just four of them. That’s it? she thought. We had fourteen!

“I have contact with the Guardians!” the comm officer announced. “They’re asking what took us so long.”

“Bring them in! We need to set out immediately in case the Sythians decrypted our comms. Helm, report! What’s our fuel?”

“We’re down to 35%,” Damen Corr replied.

Caldin frowned. “We’d better save what’s left, then. All right—as soon as our novas are aboard, set course a few million klicks from here, any direction, but use the real space drives. If the Sythians decrypted our comms and somehow figured out the coordinates of the rendezvous, I want to have a good head start. Meanwhile, I’m going to go debrief our pilots myself. Don’t bother informing them of the change of command. I’d like to see their reactions for myself. Petty Sergeant Corr—” Caldin turned to get the helmsman’s attention.

He looked up at her and ran a hand back through his short red hair, looking weary and stretched.

She nodded to him. “You’re now Deck Sergeant Corr, and the XO of this ship.”

“Thank you, Ma’am,” he said, his blue eyes widening.

“You’re in command while I’m gone. Keep me posted. I’ll be on the comm if you need me.” With that, Caldin started down the gangway to leave the bridge.

“Ma’am!” The comm officer called after her. “Captain Reese is asking to speak with the overlord! What should I say?”

Caldin scowled as she strode down the gleaming gangway. “Tell him the overlord is busy!”

Captain Adan Reese had a lot of explaining to do.

*  *  *

As soon as he popped open his cockpit and climbed down onto the wing, Atton noticed Commander Caldin already waiting for him on the deck. She was flanked by none other than the two guards he’d stunned and put in stasis tubes. “Good morning, Captain Reese,” Caldin said.

“Good morning,” Atton replied as he started down the ladder to the deck. He watched the guards out of the corner of his eye as he descended. Both held their rifles trained on him.

“You might be surprised to hear that there’s been a change of command while you were gone.”

“Oh?” Atton reached the deck and turned to face Caldin. His eyebrows were raised curiously, as though he had no idea what she was talking about.

Caldin smiled and nodded. “It would appear that the overlord was a holoskinner.”

Atton feigned shock. “A what?”

“Yes, and I’ve heard some unfortunate things about you, too.”

Atton’s eyes flicked to the nearest guard and he found the man grinning nastily at him. “What kinds of things?” Atton asked, his gaze on Commander Caldin again.

“Corpsman Terl and Corpsman Donaas tell me you stunned them and stuffed them into stasis tubes in order to ‘shut them up’—is that true, Captain?”

Atton gulped, but said nothing to that accusation.

“At the very least that’s a crime against your fellow officers, but I’m curious as to why you’d want to shut them up unless you had something to do with what they might have revealed. Something to do with Doctor Kurlin’s virus, perhaps?”

Atton’s cheeks bulged with a retort, but he decided it would be better to say nothing, so he just stood there with his nostrils flaring and his eyes narrowing in on the two guards who had gotten him into this mess.

Caldin snorted. “Don’t worry—if you’re innocent, we’ll find out. We’re going to conduct a mind probe on the man who’s been impersonating Overlord Dominic, so we may as well conduct one on you, too.”

Atton’s eyes flew wide. “That’s illegal! It’s too dangerous. You’d need authorization from the overlord himself for that.”

Caldin shook her head. “In the event that the overlord is unavailable, such an order may be issued by a Captain or an Admiral of the fleet. There’s a Captain on Obsidian Station, and an Admiral at Ritan. Take your pick.”

Atton frowned, and Caldin nodded to the guards. “Arrest that man, Corpsman Donaas.”

“With pleasure!” he replied.

*  *  *

The Invisible War

Ethan sat on the bunk in his cell aboard the Defiant, staring at his hands. His real hands—no longer the wrinkled, age-spotted hands of the overlord. Now that he’d been revealed for who he really was, and the holoskin had been stripped away, Ethan was struggling to decide what to do next. As the overlord he’d had a purpose, a mission, a reason to struggle on, but now . . . now he was Ethan Ortane again, ex-con and lowly outlaw. Back in jail.

Déjà vu.

His thoughts took him back over ten years ago to when he’d been caught for smuggling stims and sentenced to exile in Dark Space. This was just history repeating itself, but this time there’d be no leniency for his crimes—no reason to let him out to support a struggling economy. Criminals as bad as him were executed, not punished and then rehabilitated.

The mind probe would discover everything. There’d be no way for him to hide. They would sift roughly through his memories with an AI, sorting them according to patterns associated with guilt. Like that they’d discover every crime he’d ever committed in his entire life.

Ethan was pulled out of his thoughts by the sound of approaching footsteps. He looked up to see a very familiar face. It was the face of Adan Reese, but Ethan knew that under that holoskin lay his son, Atton.

Atton turned to him with a grim smile. “Hoi there cell mate.”

One of the guards cuffed Atton across the back of his head. “Shut up!” They opened the cell opposite Ethan’s and shoved Atton roughly inside. Somehow, the guards hadn’t discovered that Atton was a skinner, too—and why would they? They had no reason to suspect he was someone else, but they obviously had leveled charges against him for having stunned them and stuffed them into stasis tubes.

As soon as the door to Atton’s cell slid shut and the guards had stalked away, Ethan stood and walked up to the bars of his cell. He waited until the guards walked out of sight, and then he whispered. “What are you in for?”

Atton shook his head and sat down on his bunk with a sigh. “Stupidity.”

“Why didn’t you just send them away like I asked?”

“It wouldn’t have shut them up for long. They knew about Kurlin. They would have unraveled the whole plot, and if someone had started looking for a holoskinning infiltrator among the survivors, you can bet they would have discovered both of us.”

“So you decided the best way to deal with that was to stuff them into stasis tubes until someone found them and let them out. You just delayed the inevitable and made yourself look guilty!” Ethan shook his head. “You were going to get caught either way.”

Atton looked up with a smile. “No, that wasn’t the plan. I was going to find a nice habitable planet somewhere along the way and jettison them both in an escape pod.”

Ethan gaped at his son. “You mean condemn them to die on a world that’s probably swarming with Sythians.”

Atton shrugged. “They would have at least had a chance. It was the best I could afford to offer them under the circumstances.”

Ethan shook his head and turned away with a scowl. “I can’t believe you’d even consider that. You may as well have killed them. It’s just as bad.”

“Said the mass-murderer to his son.”

Ethan spun on his heel, his eyes flashing.

“What did you say the reason was that you infiltrated the Valiant again? Something about being blackmailed to do it, or else Brondi would kill you and your copilot. I don’t see how plotting to kill a whole ship full of men and women to save your own skin is any different from me plotting to leave two men to the elements in order to do the same.”

Ethan grimaced. It was hard to argue with that logic, but he wasn’t appreciating the irony.

They were interrupted by a groan, and both turned toward the sound. Atton couldn’t see who was there because Kurlin’s cell was right next to his, but Ethan watched the doctor rise from the bed with a grimace. This was about to become much more complicated for him.

“What’s going on?” Kurlin asked, and then he turned to see Ethan staring at him from the cell opposite his, and his jaw dropped. “You! Who . . .” The doctor trailed off, shaking his head. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m the imposter, Kurlin.” The doctor just gaped at him. “That’s right,” Ethan nodded. “Shocking.”

“How . . . ?”

“It’s a long story—one which the mind probe will soon discover.”

“They’re going to probe us?” Kurlin asked, his eyes going wide.

“Why, are you afraid they might turn you into a vegetable? Vegetables can’t be tried for their crimes. You’d be better off.”

“He’s right, Kurlin,” Atton said.

Kurlin shut his mouth with a scowl and turned to look at the wall between him and Atton. “Who are you?”

“The one who saved your bony ass.”

“I don’t understand,” Kurlin said, shaking his head.

“Who do you think put those guards in stasis? They were the only ones who knew about you besides us.”

“Why . . . why would you do that?” Kurlin asked.

“Frekked if I know. Seems like I should have let them lynch you.”

Kurlin looked away, back to Ethan. “Who is he?”

Ethan smiled, now finally freed of the need for subterfuge. “He’s my son.”

*  *  *

— THE YEAR 0 AE—

When Destra Ortane went back to check on the fleet officer she’d rescued, she found his gurney wedged at an angle between the walls of the corridor. He was moaning in his sleep, and he felt hot to the touch, but at least he was firmly wedged, so she didn’t need to find a more secure place for him to lie. Destra dug through the netting under the gurney to find that most of the food had fallen out and rolled to the back of the ship, but the medkit was still securely tied. She opened it and injected the man with one of the last shots of antibiotics. That done, she patted his hand and said, “You’ll be okay.” He didn’t reply. He was still knocked out from the sedatives she’d administered hours ago, which was probably just as well. If he died, at least he’d die in his sleep. She headed back to the cockpit with a frown, thinking that the man would be lucky to live. His injuries had been very serious and there was almost certainly internal bleeding.

When Destra got back to the cockpit, she found herself blinking out at an unbroken vista of stars, and now she realized that the man’s injuries were moot. Neither of them were going to live.

Somehow, without her noticing, the Sythian fighter had dropped out of SLS far short of the next gate, and now she was stranded in the middle of who-knew-where. The most likely reason for that was that her fighter had run out of fuel.

Destra slumped down in the flight chair and took a quick look at what passed for the Sythians’ gravidar to see where she was. There appeared to be a planet not too far from her current location. The map couldn’t tell her what the planet was called in any name that she’d recognize, and it couldn’t tell her if the world were habitable either, but when she looked up into the starry void of space above her head, she saw it, and she didn’t have to wonder—she knew that it wasn’t habitable. The planet was so dark that it barely stood out from surrounding space. It was far from any visible sun, and appeared not to have any moons. It was also the only planet visible on the grid, which likely meant it was the only planet around for hundreds of millions of klicks. An exoplanet, she thought.

Destra grimaced, debating her options, but without fuel, she had no options, and it wouldn’t be long before the Sythians realized she hadn’t made it to the end of the space lane and began flying back from the gate looking for her.

That dark planet was her only chance—and it wasn’t a good one. Trying not to think about her odds of survival, Destra tilted the flight yoke up and pushed it forward to head in the direction of the planet. She silently wondered if she had enough fuel left to make it there. The answer which flashed up on the HUD was inscrutable, but when she wondered about setting an autopilot to land on the surface, the controls grew slack in her hands and her fighter drifted onto a more direct heading for the planet.

Hopefully that was a good sign.

Destra waited for what seemed like an eternity, wondering how she was going to survive. The atmosphere, if there even was one, was likely not breathable. The world was so dark that the temperature had to be well below zero. It was hard to imagine how dying in the cold, dark, and airless environment of that exoplanet would be any better than dying in the cold, dark, and airless environment of space.

By the time that dark world was all Destra could see in her forward view, her ship began to descend the last few hundred klicks to the surface. She saw the faint orange glow of an erupting volcano far below, and then she felt the slight vibration of an atmosphere tugging at her fighter. That much was a good sign, but the fact that the world was off the space lanes only confirmed its lack of habitability. The atmosphere was probably toxic.

Soon, dark wisps of cloud began drifting past the cockpit, and Destra saw a rugged mountain range appear below her. The mountains were riddled with glowing rivers of magma—yet another volcano was in the process of erupting there. It was strange to see a world so dark and cold belching fire and brimstone.

Lovely place, she thought.





Chapter 24

— THE YEAR 10 AE—

The Invisible War

Alara noted Captain Reese’s absence from the briefing room as she, Gina, and Tenrik Fanton filed wearily inside and took their seats to be debriefed by Commander Caldin. The captain’s absence sent a stab of dread coursing through Alara. Had her own wingmate been killed and she hadn’t noticed? But no, she’d heard his voice on the comm several times since they’d reached the rendezvous. He was fine.

Alara sat down beside her bunk mate, Lieutenant Gina Giord, and gave the other woman a wan smile. Gina offered a weak smile in return and then looked away. It was a miracle that Alara could find even one friendly face left among the surviving pilots.

Once they were all seated, the commander proceeded to tell them the shocking news about the imposter overlord. But that wasn’t all. Caldin went on to explain Doctor Kurlin’s role in discovering the imposter and also in creating the virus which had killed the Valiant’s crew. Finally she got to the part about Captain Reese’s suspicious actions to cover up for the doctor.

They’d all stopped gasping and murmuring after hearing about the overlord. The rest fell on numb ears. Personally, Alara felt less shocked and horrified to hear about her father’s arrest than she was to hear about Captain Reese’s, but all of it together was far too much for them to deal with after the long, exhausting mission with two trips through SLS and two back-to-back battles in which they’d lost almost the entire squadron.

Alara shook her head. It felt like she was trapped inside some horrible dream. The only good news was that it was over for now.

At least for them it was.

Commander Caldin told them that the Defiant would stay where it was. Parts and fuel would be scavenged from the cruiser to refit Brondi’s corvette for extended range, and then they’d send a skeleton crew and Tova on a straight jump to Obsidian Station to get help. Alara found herself wondering why they hadn’t just done that to begin with, but Caldin answered that question before anyone could ask.

“We’re now almost halfway to Obsidian Station. That’s just close enough for a heavily-modified corvette to make it there without using the space lanes. They’ll be safe—we’ll be safe until help arrives—a nice happy ending for everyone.” Caldin looked down at her lectern as if to read notes from a holo pad—but she hadn’t brought one. The commander was unable to meet their gaze.

Alara frowned. There was something she wasn’t telling them.

“Good job out there, pilots,” Caldin went on, still gazing at the lectern. “Go get some food and some rack time. You all look like you need it!” Finally, she looked up, saluted them, and said, “Dismissed!”

As Alara rose from her seat, Caldin caught her eye and gestured for her to come down to the podium. Alara reached the base of the podium where the commander was standing and gave a tired salute. “You wanted to speak with me, ma’am?”

Caldin nodded. “At ease, Cadet. I need to know what you think of all this.”

“Of all what, ma’am?”

Caldin raised one eyebrow. “Your father is in prison awaiting trial for conspiracy and mass murder, and the leader of your squadron is also in prison, apparently an accomplice to those crimes. . . . None of that affects you?”

Alara hesitated, trying to decide what answer the commander was looking for.

“Don’t think too hard about it.”

“Well . . .” Alara trailed off. “I don’t remember Dr. Kurlin as my father. Everyone tells me he is, but that doesn’t make any sense to me.”

“Interesting,” Caldin mused. “And the captain?”

“I find it hard to believe him capable of those crimes, but he’s not a dear friend of mine.”

Caldin nodded. “All the same, I think it would be best if you went to the brig to say goodbye—at least to your father.”

Alara’s brow furrowed. “Goodbye?”

“They may not survive the trial, let alone their sentence. We’re going to subject them to a mind probe.”

Alara gasped.

“You’re dismissed, Cadet. My guards are waiting at the doors to escort you to the brig if you wish to go.”

*  *  *

Alara’s footsteps rang clearly down the corridor as she walked to the brig. Beside her walked one of Commander Caldin’s guards, and ahead, polished duranium walls and floors stretched endlessly. The brig was located in the far aft section of the lowermost of the cruiser’s 18 decks.

“So the Doc’s your father, hoi?” the guard asked.

Alara turned to him and gave a quick nod. “That’s what people tell me.”

“Tell you? Oh, right—you’re chipped. What’s that like?”

“It’s like being yourself, except that everyone around you is judging you for it.”

“Hoi, sounds like being regular to me.”

Alara laughed. “Well, it could be worse I suppose. What’s your name?” she asked, her eyes on the man.

“Corpsman Terl,” the guard said.

They reached the brig, and Terl stepped forward to present his wrist to the door scanner. The door slid open and they walked in. They passed the warden, sitting with his feet propped up on his desk, reading a holo pad while the security holos of the brig played in a continuous, silent stream above the desk. The warden looked up to see who’d come in, and Terl turned to him as they walked, “She’s going to pay her respects to the Doc.”

The warden nodded and went back to reading.

They reached the next door and again Terl passed his wrist over the scanner. It swished open to reveal another corridor, this one lined with cages. Alara let the corpsman lead, and he stopped just inside the entrance and gestured to the second cell on the left. “Doc’s in there.”

Alara started forward; her gaze flicked left to see Captain Reese staring at her, and then right to see—

She froze—blinking, her mouth half open as if she were about to say something, but had the words stolen from her before she could. The man in that cell stared back at her grimly, but now he nodded and smiled, as if he understood what had shocked her. Alara gazed into those familiar green eyes and studied the man’s ruggedly handsome face. Her gaze flicked up to his salt and pepper hair and she shook her head. She knew this man. A headache began encroaching at her temples, and abruptly Alara felt sick and dizzy. She squeezed her eyes shut to make the world stop spinning.

A scene flashed into her mind’s eye then. It was burned into her memory from recurring nightmares. In that scene the situation was reversed—she was inside the cell, and he was coming to see her.

“I’ll be back soon, Kiddie . . .”

“I love you!” she heard herself say.

“I love you, too, Alara.”

Suddenly she knew who he was. The memories came rushing back—countless hours spent by that man’s side, co-piloting the Atton in Dark Space. He was Ethan—her best friend, her partner, and . . . She opened her eyes slowly and shook her head. “You . . .”

Ethan’s gaze flicked to the guard standing beside her and then back.

“You two know each other?” Terl asked, his eyes narrowing suspiciously.

Alara recovered smoothly. She turned to Terl and shook her head. Looking back to Ethan with a disgusted scowl, she said, “No, it’s just shocking to see who the overlord really was.”

Terl nodded.

Alara started toward Kurlin’s cell once more, but then she turned back to the guard standing behind her with a smile. “Do you think I could have a moment alone with my father?”

Terl hesitated. “Uh . . .”

“It’s okay—” She glanced up to the ceiling to see the roving black eye of a security camera. “—you’ll have a record there in case you’re worried.”

Terl frowned. “I guess it’s okay, but don’t be long.”

Alara nodded and covered a yawn with one hand. “I’ll pass out if I stay too long. Need to hit the rack soon.”

The corpsman turned and walked off the brig. Alara watched him go and waited until the doors had shut behind him before turning to Ethan once more. She walked up close to the bars of his cell, being careful to keep her back to the nearest camera.

“Kiddie . . .” he whispered.

Using her body to shield the gesture, Alara put a finger to her lips, and then she fished around in her pocket for a holo pad. Bringing it out, she typed in a message, and then turned it so Ethan could see.

I remember you. We used to fly together. You were the overlord all this time?

Ethan smiled and nodded.

She typed in something else and turned the pad once more.

You said you loved me. Is that true?

Ethan hesitated, but then he nodded once more.

What were you doing impersonating the overlord?

Ethan gestured for her to pass the pad to him through the bars. She turned her body to shield the movement from the camera, and then passed the pad through the bars. He spent a long moment typing something and then he turned the pad so she could see.

It’s a long story. They’re going to use a probe on me when we get to Obsidian Station, so you’ll find out then—assuming the information isn’t classified.

Alara’s eyes flew wide, now remembering what Caldin had said about saying goodbye to her father. That meant she’d have to say goodbye to Ethan, too. Alara took the pad back from Ethan and typed.

I’m going to get you out.

He shook his head.

I love you, Ethan. I don’t remember much, but I do remember that. I can’t leave you here. I’ll find a way.

Ethan gestured for the pad again, and he wrote: You can’t help me now. I know you love me, Kiddie, but you want something I can’t give you. My heart still belongs to my wife.

Alara frowned and reached for the pad once more. Now she wrote, You’re married??

 The door swished open once more and Alara hurried to tuck the pad back into her flight jacket before turning to see Corpsman Terl come bustling in with the warden. Neither of them looked amused.

“Hoi, get away from that prisoner!” Terl said. “You’re not authorized to speak with him.”

Alara shook her head. “I wasn’t speaking with him. I was just trying to decide if I recognized him from somewhere.”

“And?” Terl asked as he reached her side.

Alara shook her head and glanced back at Ethan. “It’s just déjà vu. Being chipped makes it hard to decide what’s real . . . and what isn’t.” She held Ethan’s gaze as she said that last part, and she saw his eyes flash with hurt and sympathy. How could I have been stupid enough to fall for a married man? Alara wondered. The more she learned about her previous life, the less she wanted to go on living it.

“Well hurry up and pay your respects to the doctor. I’m not leaving you alone in here again.”

“Of course. I’ll just be a moment,” Alara said and walked up to Kurlin’s cell. She found him sleeping on his bunk, so she woke him by rattling the bars of his cell.

He looked up with tired, bloodshot eyes, and then his eyes flew wide and he jumped up from the bed. “Alara! You’re safe!”

“Yes,” she smiled.

He hurried to the bars of the cell and reached for her hand. Alara endured the old man’s clammy touch for a few seconds. She still didn’t remember Kurlin as her father.

“Now I can die in peace,” he sighed.

“Don’t say that . . . you’re not going to die.”

Kurlin smiled wanly and shook his head. “My dear, sweet little girl, if I don’t die when they probe my mind, they will kill me when they see what’s locked inside of it.”

“We’re all dead men,” Captain Reese interrupted from the cell adjacent to Kurlin’s. Alara turned to meet the captain’s blue eyes. He’d been watching her the whole time.

Alara shook her head, and Terl grabbed her by the arm. “That’s enough fraternizing. We need to go.”

“Goodbye, Alara!” Kurlin called.

Alara looked back over her shoulder and smiled at the old man. “Goodbye, Dad.”

Kurlin’s eyes grew moist with that acknowledgement. She didn’t feel the truth of those words, but he was on death row, so it was the least she could do. She caught Ethan’s eye as she left, but he looked away, and then so did she. There wasn’t anything further to say. He’d said it already: he was in love with someone else—his wife! Alara couldn’t and wouldn’t compete with that. She shook her head, still reeling from the revelation of who the green-eyed man from her dreams was and how stupid she’d been in her previous life.

They walked off the brig, and the door swished shut behind them. The warden went back to his desk, and Corpsman Terl eyed the elderly warden as he put his feet up on the desk once more and went back to reading on his holo pad.

“You been watching the security feed?” Terl asked, his eyes narrowed once more.

The warden looked up and smiled. “Of course,” but he didn’t even glance at the holos rising out of his desk, and the sound was muted on all the cameras.

“I want to see your security feeds since the prisoners arrived.”

The warden’s brow furrowed. He was another corpsman, probably a career washout to be so old and still such a low-ranking officer. Under any other circumstances, the warden would have been a ranking officer, but there was no one else they could spare from the crew to nursemaid the brig. “Is something wrong?”

Terl frowned. “Just get me the feeds on a holo card. I’ll be back for them soon.”

*  *  *

Commander Caldin sat in the Overlord’s office watching the security holos from the brig with Corpsman Terl standing over her shoulder. He fast-forwarded to a certain spot, and then played back the recording. “There—” he said, “listen.”

“What’s going on?” Kurlin asked, and then he turned to see the imposter overlord staring at him from the cell opposite his, and his jaw dropped. “You! Who . . .” The doctor trailed off, shaking his head. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m the imposter, Kurlin.” The doctor just gaped at him. “That’s right—shocking.”

“How . . . ?”

“It’s a long story—one which the mind probe will soon discover.”

“They’re going to probe us?” Kurlin asked, his eyes widening.

“Why, are you afraid they might turn you into a vegetable? Vegetables can’t be tried for their crimes. You’d be better off.”

“He’s right, Kurlin,” Captain Reese said.

Kurlin shut his mouth with a scowl and turned to look at the wall between him and the adjacent cell. “Who are you?”

“The one who saved your bony ass.”

“I don’t understand,” Kurlin said, shaking his head.

“Who do you think put those guards in stasis? They were the only ones who knew about you besides us.”

“Why . . . why would you do that?” Kurlin asked.

“Frekked if I know. Seems like I should have let them lynch you.”

Kurlin looked away, back to the imposter overlord. “Who is he?”

“He’s my son.”

Terl froze the recording there and Commander Caldin turned to look up at him with wide, blinking eyes. “They’re related? Who is this man?” The recording was frozen on the imposter’s face, showing his features clearly.

Terl shook his head. “We don’t know who he is yet. Without access to the net in Dark Space, the databanks are skriffy. I thought Alara might’ve recognized him when she went to say goodbye to her father, but she said it was just her mind playin’ tricks on her.”

“Hmmm.”

“You think she’s lying?”

Caldin shrugged. “Maybe she does recognize him, or maybe she only thinks she does. In either case she won’t be a reliable witness. The doctor, however . . . clearly he does recognize our imposter, and he is still in his right mind. When we subject him to a mind probe we’ll get to the bottom of it.”

Terl nodded. “Yes.”

“Meanwhile, we have more pressing concerns.” Caldin pushed away from the desk and stood up with a sigh. “We need to finish refitting the corvette and get help before the Sythians find us and make all our power-squabbling pointless.”

Caldin walked up to room’s viewport and gazed out into the starry blackness of space. “This is the darkest things have ever been.”

Terl walked up behind her and gripped her shoulders in his big hands, massaging the knots out of her muscles. “It will be all right, Ma’am. If anyone can lead us to safety, it’s you.”

Caldin turned to him, her eyes searching his. “What makes you so sure?”

“I know you.”

Caldin smiled. “You always know how to make me feel better.”

Terl smiled back and reached up to stroke her cheek with the back of his hand.

She leaned toward him and he took the hint, bending down to kiss her gently on the lips. She reached for his hand and squeezed it—hard—before breaking away and leading him back to the desk. She had him sit down in the overlord’s chair, and then climbed on top of him.

“Seems like you know a thing or two about makin’ people feel better yourself,” Terl said with a grin as she leaned down to kiss him.

*  *  *

After a hot bowl of stew and a short vaccucleanse, Alara Vastra stumbled into her bed. She was so tired she felt like she was drugged, and her head hit the pillow like a rock. Her dreams swirled with indistinct voices and blurry faces, but every now and then she had a clear glimpse of Ethan’s smile and his sparkling green eyes. Each time she saw his face, she felt a painful stab in her heart, and she wanted to cry. He wasn’t going to be around much longer, and . . . he was married?

The version of her in the dream tried to fight that truth. She took Ethan’s face in her hands and kissed his lips furiously—possessively—as though she could steal his heart from whomever it was that he’d married.

“You love me, Ethan! You said so!”

But in the dream he merely shook his head, and Alara watched as a faceless woman came and dragged him away from her, leading him off into the darkness. Ethan gave her a sloppy salute, and she watched the deep lines of sorrow carved around his mouth crease upward in a smile. “Goodbye, Kiddie . . .”

“No!”

Knock knock knock.

Alara awoke to the sound, and sat blinking up at the bunk above her, wondering for a moment what was real and what was a dream. Her head felt thick and groggy as she sat up on her bunk and looked around. She heard Gina groaning above her, and she said, “Gina?”

Another groan.

“Gina!” Alara thumped the bottom of the mattress above her head with her fist as the knocking started again. “Someone’s at the door!”

“You get it! Frekked if I care,” Gina mumbled.

Alara stood up with another groan and stumbled over to the door. The lights were still turned down low so they could sleep. When she passed her wrist over the door scanner, it swished open to admit a blinding brightness to the room. Alara stumbled away from the light, bringing her arm up to shield her eyes.

“Good morning, Lieutenant.”

“Lieutenant?” she asked, squinting into the light to see Commander Caldin smiling back at her.

“Second Lieutenant. I’ve decided to promote you in light of your performance on the last mission.”

“How long have I been asleep?”

“It’s been twelve hours since you were debriefed.”

“Krak, I’ve slept for half a day!”

“And you look like you could sleep for another half,” Caldin remarked, “but I need you for another mission.”

“Another . . .” Alara’s sleep-clouded brain struggled to catch up.

“We’re finished with the refit, but with all the components we had to steal from the Defiant, we won’t be going anywhere soon. It’s absolutely vital that we get reinforcements before a random patrol of Sythians detects us out here. They’re bound to be looking for us after Forlax.”

Alara nodded distractedly. “So you want me to . . .”

“Fly the corvette to Obsidian Station with Tova and come back with reinforcements. Cloaked ships this time, please.”

“I . . .”

“It’s an easy mission. Just a straight shot through SLS, so you can sleep on the way, but I need my best pilots to go, just in case.”

“Who else is going?”

The commander called out over Alara’s shoulder. “Gina!” A groan was her only reply. “Get out here, Lieutenant!”

A moment later a bleary-eyed woman with short blond hair sticking out at all angles appeared in the open door. “Hoi,” she saluted weakly, and leaned heavily on the door jamb.

“Get dressed you two. You’re launching in ten,” Caldin said as she turned to leave.

“Can I take a vaccucleanse first?” Alara called after the commander.

But there was no reply.

Alara saw Gina shaking her head, and she scowled. “Oh, frek it!”

*  *  *

Alara, Gina, Delayn, and Tova in her menacing black armor walked up to Brondi’s refitted corvette, newly christened the Rescue. Almost the entire surviving crew of the Defiant had come down to the auxiliary hangar deck to wave goodbye and wish them luck. They all understood how critical this mission was to their survival, and Alara felt as though their lives were a heavy burden resting on her shoulders. As they drew near to the corvette, Alara thought that from the size of it, the ship should have been able to bear them all away with room to spare, but during the commander’s farewell speech, she had explained to everyone the reason why they weren’t all evacuating in the corvette—the only space left aboard the Rescue was in the cockpit—which had even been reduced from five control stations to four, one for pilot, copilot, gravidar operator, and engineer. The rest of the space was now filled with fuel, regulators, coolant tanks, and pumps. They’d drained everything from the Defiant, pouring all their best efforts into giving the Rescue just one chance to save them all.

Even that chance was slim. Delayn had taken them aside just before Caldin’s farewell speech and told them what the commander had been holding back during the debriefing. There was a good chance the Rescue wouldn’t make it. The reactor could easily overheat and suffer a meltdown before they ever reached Obsidian Station.

As Alara, Gina, Delayn, and Tova climbed the boarding ramp to the corvette, the crew cheered and whistled, and the burden of their lives grew all the heavier. Gina shook her head as they retreated inside the corvette. “The way they’re acting, you’d think we were conquering heroes.”

Alara nodded.

“We will be heroes if we make it,” Delayn said.

The inside of the corvette was so cramped that they didn’t need to guess which way to go. There only was one. A short corridor led to a lift tube which would carry them straight up the four decks to the bridge. The ship was a giant space rocket, packed with enough fuel to atomize the Defiant if something went wrong—let alone the much smaller corvette.

“If we even hit a bit of space dust,” Gina said, catching Alara’s eye while they waited for the lift. “We’re going to make a real pretty supernova.”

“I do not understand,” Tova said. Her warbling language filtered roughly through the Gor’s helmet to their aural translators and then came out in a gender-neutral computerized voice.

Gina turned to her with a frown. “It means we might all die before we can get help.”

“I see. I do my best to contact my crèche mates before we arrive.”

“Well,” Gina gave the alien a big, false smile. “That’s why you’re here.”

Turning back to the lift as it opened, Gina shook her head and muttered, “Frekkin’ Gors. . . .”

“We do copulate,” Tova replied. “But not as often as humans.”

“Thanks for sharing,” Gina said, her nose wrinkling with disgust.

The lift took them up to the fourth level and opened directly in front of the cockpit. They started forward and the doors automatically swished open to let them through. Alara found the nearest chair and sat down, not caring whether she was the pilot or the copilot, but both control stations turned out to be identically appointed, allowing one of them to sleep while the other kept watch.

Gina sat down beside her and they began the preflight check while Tova squeezed into the gravidar station to their right, and Delayn into the engineering station to their left. They went through the preflight carefully to avoid deadly oversights, but everything checked out, and they received clearance for take off. The engines started with a rising roar and began rumbling ominously underfoot.

“Ruh-kah!” Commander Caldin said, her voice coming to their ears from the comm speakers as she waved to them from her podium on the flight deck below.

And then Gina turned to Alara with a grim smile. “Next stop Obsidian Station.”

*  *  *

The Invisible War


Alec Brondi stood aboard the bridge of the Valiant, down by the viewports, watching the countdown to real space from the HUD relay inside his zephyr’s helmet. He’d become even more paranoid since the incident in the med center, refusing to leave the designated “safe” zones, and refusing to take off his armor for any reason. It was starting to stink inside the mech, but Brondi considered that a small price to pay. His trip had been worth it. They’d successfully isolated Kurlin’s virus from the blood sample they’d taken. Now all they needed to do was get it aboard Admiral Heston’s ships, sit back, and let nature take its course.

Brondi smiled behind his helmet and turned to Captain Thornton, who was now cloaked in a holoskin that made him look exactly like Overlord Dominic. “Are you ready?”

The captain nodded. “I am,” he said, in the gravelly voice of the overlord himself.

Amazing, Brondi thought. It sounds just like him! They’d managed to produce a decent vocal synthesizer based on recordings of the overlord’s voice. The only thing they couldn’t do was fake up an identichip for Thornton, but they wouldn’t need that to gain the admiral’s confidence. Showing up in the overlord’s flagship, looking and sounding just like him would be more than good enough.

The Valiant dropped out of SLS directly above Ritan, and Brondi smiled down upon the dark world below. “Gravidar, report!”

“I have . . . nothing on scopes.”

“What?” Brondi blinked. “What do you mean nothing?

“Wait, there is one contact. She’s small. Looks like a guardian-class destroyer. They’re hailing us.”

“Good. That must be them.” Brondi turned to Captain Thornton. “It’s time for you to shine.”

The captain nodded and turned to the viewports with hands clasped behind his back. He wore the white uniform of the overlord, recently tailored to fit his slightly taller frame. “Put them on screen,” the captain said.

Suddenly their view of Ritan was replaced with the larger-than-life face of a very haggard-looking man of about 50 something.

“Supreme Overlord, what are you doing so far from home?”

Thornton sighed. “It’s a long story.”

The man on screen folded his hands on the desk before him and nodded. “I’m listening.”

Captain Thornton dutifully explained the story they’d come up with. An outlaw fleet had attacked them with a devastating bio weapon—a virus. The Valiant had developed a vaccine before it was too late, but not before their now vastly-under crewed ship had been forced to flee Dark Space by the enemy fleet. Thornton was quick to point out the damage to their port side as proof of that engagement—damage which they’d actually suffered while fleeing Sythians.

At the end of their long, sad story, Thornton revealed the good news. They’d saved some of the vaccine so that Admiral Hoff could inoculate his crew against the deadly virus—just in case it spread.

“Well,” the man speaking with them sighed. “That’s unfortunate. Of course your crew could still be contagious, so we’re going to have to keep our distance, but you can jettison the vaccine in an escape pod and I’ll be sure that it gets to the admiral so he can distribute it to the fleet.”

Brondi was upset to hear they weren’t talking with the admiral himself, but happy that it seemed like the man they were talking to had bought their cover story. He’s even going to spread the virus for me! Brondi thought.

“We’ll be in touch, Dominic.” And with that, the holo call ended and Brondi was left grinning smugly out at space. Soon he’d have a whole fleet under his command! Now he just needed to find a crew for it. Perhaps he’d open recruitment offices when they got back to Dark Space. . . . Yes, Brondi nodded. Dreams of a truly free Imperium safely tucked away in Dark Space, patrolled and ruled by a powerful fleet under his command swirled through his head.

Brondi turned from the viewports to address his crew, and that was when the deck rocked violently under his feet. Brondi fell against the viewports. The thunk which sounded from that impact rang painfully in his ears, and then the lights flickered and went out. Suddenly Brondi felt his feet drifting free of the deck. He snapped on his zephyr’s floodlights just in time to see the ceiling before he floated into it. Brondi turned to see the rest of his crew floating above the deck, their arms and legs flailing as they cursed and shouted at each other. He twisted his torso the other way to see Captain Thornton floating in a globular pool of his own blood. “Captain!” he yelled.

But Thornton didn’t respond.

*  *  *

Roan heard the distant boom of the explosion, and he grinned inside his helmet. The lights went out, and then the gravity failed but Roan could manage in zero G just fine using his armor. He’d kept his feet rooted to the deck using the grav field on his belt.

He had done everything he could to take back the Valiant, but they had finally made it impossible for him to kill any more. After being almost killed by mines—twice—while trying to get to the surviving crew memebers, Roan had finally understood that there was only one option left, and he had thought back to the plan Tova had laid out for him to sabotage the ship before reinforcements arrived. They’d asked him to shut down the main reactor and destroy the IMS—which is exactly what he had done.

Tova had warned him that the humans would eventually use grav guns and field emitters to regain their footing, but without power on the ship, they’d have to venture out to fix the reactor and the ruined IMS, and that was what Roan really wanted. He’d laid a few traps of his own along the approaches to those areas of the ship.

Roan hissed inside his helmet and bared his teeth. It was time to hunt again.

*  *  *

The Invisible War


Alara, Gina, and Delayn fell into a routine, the hours blurring together with the same dull monotony of napping, eating emergency rations, and taking turns to stay awake and nursemaid the Rescue. Someone had to constantly watch the reactor’s coolant levels and core temperature. If the coolant dropped too low, or the core temperature rose too high, they would have to make an emergency stop to let the reactor cool. In between watching the reactor, they studied the time till reversion. The SLS timer was like the timer on a bomb—which was exactly what it felt like. It felt like they were riding inside a giant bomb. In her mind’s eye Alara saw it explode in a magnificent flash of light and sound which could be seen streaking across the night sky, clear from one side of the galaxy to the other.

And then, that was exactly what happened. Alara saw the flash of light and heard—

“Wake up, Kiddie!” Someone was shaking her. “Wake up!”

She groaned and sat up to see the maddening, bright swirl of SLS fade to a much more tolerable pattern of tiny pinpricks of light.

“Where are we?” she asked, suddenly disoriented. Gina stopped shaking her, and Delayn answered her question.

“The core was getting too hot, so I dropped us out to let the reactor cool. Meanwhile, we can see if we’re close enough now for Tova to contact her fellow skull faces. “Tova?”

“I try . . . wait.”

They held their breath, and then Tova’s gleaming black helmet turned to them. “I cannot. They are silent.”

“What do you mean they are silent?”

“Their voices too far for me to hear.”

“So we’re not close enough yet.”

“Perhaps.”

Gina nodded and she and Alara got up to stretch their legs while they waited for the reactor to cool. They spent the time pacing around the small bridge, periodically checking on the core temperature while Tova sat still and silent at the gravidar station. Half an hour later the temperature had fallen enough for them to risk another jump. Alara sat down with a sigh, and when the stars dissolved into star lines and streaks of light once more, she had to swallow a scream. This had gone on too long. “How far away are we?”

“Three hours,” Delayn answered.

“Let’s just finish the trip. Tova can try to contact her people again when we arrive—or not—I don’t care. I need to get aboard Obsidian Station and out of this ship soon or I’m going to go skriffy.”

“Sure,” Gina said.

Alara tried to calm her racing heart enough to get back to sleep. Eventually, with the timer running down from two hours, she managed to do just that. She dreamed of a faceless army of black-armored soldiers marching across a dark field of equally black glass. Their glowing red eyes turned to her as one, and then they began shooting deadly purple stars at her. As the missiles swarmed toward her, the aliens began to chant in a deep, computerized voice, “Ten, nine, eight, seven—”

Alara woke up suddenly, realizing that what she was hearing was the countdown to real space. “We made it?”

The timer reached one, and they watched the star lines return to pinpoints of light. Alara’s gaze dipped to the star map, searching for the station, but all she could see was a clump of asteroids marked in gray icons on the grid.

Gina punched her star map. “Frek you!” she screamed.

“Where is it?” Alara asked, tears springing to her eyes. She shook her head, unable, or unwilling, to understand what she was looking at. “What is this?” She pointed to the gray icons on the star map.

Gina turned to her, a solemn look on her face. Her mouth opened, but she couldn’t bring herself to say it. Neither of them could. After coming all this way, exhausting all their fuel and taking all of the hopes of the Defiant’s crew with them, they’d finally made it to Obsidian Station.

What was left of it.

The gray contacts on the grid weren’t asteroids, they were drifting chunks of debris. Gina dialed up the throttle to get a closer look, and as they drew near, they saw the gray bracket pairs resolve into dark, jagged pieces of the station. The larger pieces were riddled with holes.

“They’re all dead,” Alara whispered.

“Yeah, and so are we. We have 6% of our fuel left,” Delayn said.

Alara shook her head and wiped her tears with the backs of her hands. “We came all this way for nothing!”

“Well, we’re here now, and there’s no going back, so we’d better see if there’s anything we can salvage from the wreckage,” Gina said.

“Like what?”

Gina met Alara’s gaze as Tova turned—the red eyes of her helmet glowing ominously as she gazed up at them from the gravidar station. “Like a chance of survival,” Gina replied.





Epilogue

— THE YEAR 0 AE—

The shell fighter set down on the surface of the exoplanet not far from an active volcano with a river of glowing magma running down the side. Destra let out a long breath and scowled at the inhospitable landscape. She’d set down on a dark field of ice, which glittered like black glass. Between the fiery magma flows and the ice fields, the world was bound to be either too hot or too cold, but never anywhere in between.

Destra shook her head and abandoned the cockpit to go check on her patient. By now he should have been waking up, and if not, she’d have to wake him. They both needed to eat something. Destra felt her stomach growl painfully at just the thought of food, and she stumbled along the darkened corridors of the fighter to find the officer she’d rescued.

She ended up bumping straight into him in the dark and both of them fell over. Destra winced at the pain which shot up through her spine, while the man cried out and began panting heavily from the much greater pain of his injuries.

Destra sighed and searched for him in the dark. “Are you okay?” she asked.

“I . . . I don’t know,” he wheezed. “Where am I?”

She found his hand in the dark and she squeezed it in an attempt to reassure him. “You should have stayed on the gurney,” she said.

“Who are you?”

“I saved your life. Don’t you remember?”

“No.”

“I’m Destra,” she said. “Destra Ortane.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m . . .” he panted once more, obviously struggling to catch his breath. “Hoff,” he said. “Admiral Hoff Heston.”

“Admiral?” Destra blinked and she recoiled from his hand as though it were a snake.

Hoff chuckled, but it came out as a wheeze. “Yes, not that it matters. An admiral needs a fleet to be an admiral, does he not?”

Destra frowned. “I . . . I suppose so.”

“Where are we?” Hoff asked with his next available breath.

“I don’t know. Some barren rock in the middle of nowhere. We’re out of fuel. I stole a Sythian fighter and escaped Roka to come here, but we didn’t get far.” Now it was Destra’s turn to laugh. “It looks like we’d have been better off on Roka with the Sythians.”

“Hmmm,” Hoff grunted. “Well, let’s see, shall we? Does this fighter have a cockpit?”

“Yes, but it’s almost as dark outside as it is in here.”

“Lovely. Help me up, would you?”

Destra found the man’s hand once more and hauled him to his feet. She helped him along the corridor, letting him lean heavily on her as they walked to the cockpit. As they emerged in the transparent dome, the admiral let out an appreciative whistle, his head turning every which way to study their surroundings. “Well, you’re right about one thing,” he said.

“What’s that?”

“We’d have been better off on Roka. I believe you’ve landed us on Ritan. I can’t think of a less hospitable place to crash land.”

“You know where we are?”

“Yes, but don’t get too excited. It’s habitable, but only just, and only if you have a nice bio dome to live in. The temperatures are consistently twenty below, which is balmy considering the planet’s distance from the nearest sun. The ice fields are riddled with rictan burrows, and the skies are filled with giant, carnivorous bats which feed on the rictans and the ice walkers which roam the surface looking for edible moss growing up near the geothermal vents.”

“So the air is breathable, then?”

“You might choke on sulphurous fumes, but more or less it is breathable, yes.”

Destra sighed. “That doesn’t sound so bad.”

Hoff shot her a skeptical look. “You might not still be saying that after you’ve been outside.” He nodded to the viewports as another spurt of magma shot high into the sky from the volcano they’d landed beside. “If there’s an uninhabitable class of habitable planets, then Ritan’s it, and lucky you, you’ve found it! The only thing which would make Ritan worse would be if the Sythians have already discovered it. They’d love this place. Cold, dark, filled with deadly creatures to make good sport for their hunts. . . .” He trailed off, shaking his head. “Perfect for the bug-eyed kakards.”

Destra turned to look out at the dark, malevolent vista of Ritan. “How would we know if they were here?”

Hoff turned to her with a smile. “Well, that’s just it—you wouldn’t. We never did see them coming. It was The Invisible War.”

“And we lost,” Destra said, shaking her head.

“No,” Hoff wheezed. He turned to her with a mad sparkle in his eyes, just barely visible in the dim light. “The war is only over when we’re all dead. That’s what they were after,” he said, nodding as his gaze slowly drifted away from hers. They won’t have won, and we won’t have lost until they’ve killed every last one of us, and I have every intention of out-living them. I’ll do it,” he said, nodding once, defiantly. “Even if I have to put myself in stasis for a thousand years.”

“Strong words for an injured man stranded on Ritan.”

“Injuries heal. And we can make Ritan work for us until a rescue comes.”

“A rescue?”

“My fleet will be looking for me. I got cut off from them during the evacuation and had to eject from my corvette, but when I don’t arrive, they’ll come looking.”

Destra snorted. She didn’t voice her opinion on the likelihood of a rescue out here, on a barren rock off the space lanes. Lightning flashed on the horizon, briefly illuminating the icy surface of the world, and Destra thought she saw a dark silhouette fly by overhead. Her thoughts turned to the predators Hoff had spoken of—the rictans and the bats, and she grimaced, thankful at least that they had the Sythian fighter for shelter. But sooner or later they’d probably have to venture out. Even if only to find food. Her mind cast back to Digger’s pet rictans and she wondered absently what they’d taste like, and if it would come to that.

It probably will, she thought.

It was going to be a long wait for a rescue.

As if voicing her thoughts, Hoff turned to her and said, “We should take stock of our supplies. We’re going to need weapons, armor, and masks to filter out the soot and ash. I hope this fighter of yours came well-equipped.”

Destra frowned, her eyes still on the distant horizon as it flashed with lightning once more. “So do I, Hoff.”

So do I.



DON’T MISS THE EXITING CONCLUSION IN:

DARK SPACE III : Origin

COMING OCTOBER 2013!

To get the Sequel for FREE and a Week EARLY, Post an Honest Review of Dark Space II: The Invisible War on Amazon, and then Send me The Contents of Your Review by signing up here.

(http://eepurl.com/CF4o1)

(Remember, your feedback is important to me and to helping other readers find the books they like!)

SUBSCRIBE to the Dark Space Mailing List and Stay Informed about the Series!

(http://eepurl.com/y4Z9n)

Follow me on Twitter:

@JasperTscott

Look me up on Facebook:

Jasper T. Scott

Check out my website:

www.JasperTscott.com

Or send me an e-mail:

[email protected]



OTHER BOOKS IN THE SERIES

Dark Space (Book 1)


 

The Invisible War


About the author

The Invisible War

Jasper T. Scott is the author of more than seven novels, written across various genres. He has been writing for more than seven years, but his abiding passion has always been to write science fiction and fantasy. As an avid fan of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, Jasper Scott aspires to create his own worlds to someday capture the hearts and minds of his readers as thoroughly as these franchises have.

Jasper writes his books from a sunny paradise and offers his sincerest apologies and regrets for his long absence from the rat race, but to all the noble warriors who venture out daily into the wintry cold on their way to work or school, he sends his regards—you are braver than he.



home | my bookshelf | | The Invisible War |     цвет текста   цвет фона   размер шрифта   сохранить книгу

Текст книги загружен, загружаются изображения



Оцените эту книгу