Book: Origin



Origin

DARK SPACE III:


ORIGIN

(3rd Edition)

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 for this book—Andrew Bissessar, Brandon Worth, Carmen Romano, Damon Trent, Daniel Eloff, Dascha Paylor, Dave Cantrell, Davis Shellabarger, Dick Jackson, Dwight Hall, Ian Jedlica, Ian Seccombe, Jay Gehringer, Jeph Yang, John Nash, John Rowles, Peter Hughes, Phillip Jones, Rob Dobozy, Sandra Roan, Tony Wilsenham, and Victor E. Biedrycki.






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 III:

Acknowledgements

PART ONE

Prologue

RESCUE

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

REUNION

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

PART TWO

REVELATIONS

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Epilogue

OTHER BOOKS IN THE SERIES






PART ONE


Origin



Prologue

—THE YEAR 3 AE—


Origin

Destra Ortane sat on a flat and glassy black rock, warming her hands over a fire built with dried lumimoss and ice walker fat. Her hands were frozen despite the oversized gloves she wore. She was swaddled in ice walker skins and what was left of her clothes after wearing them for the past three years. As she stared into the flames, her eyes drifted out of focus and she became mesmerized by the fire. Drops of fat sizzled and dripped from the shank of frozen ice walker meat which Hoff had spit on the sharpened leg bone of one of its kin. Destra’s stomach growled. There was never enough food on Ritan; this would be their first meal of the day, and her eyes were already scratchy and red with the need for sleep.

On Ritan the darkness was absolute and the night never ended, making the light from their fire a strange and blinding sight. Their shadows made them appear ten times their size to any watching predators—but when all you know is shadows, how can another one scare you? She hoped the fire would be enough to drive away the giant bats and hungry rictans which prowled the endless night.

Admiral Hoff turned to her with a smile. The ragged scar on his left cheek, an old rictan scratch, tugged one corner of his mouth down to make that smile crooked. “Now all we need is some barbeque sauce and baked tabers.”

Destra smiled back. “Don’t forget the beer. I think I left some chilling in the fridge.”

Hoff laughed and they both inhaled deeply, salivating with the smell of the roasting meat. Destra broke into a coughing fit before she could let out that breath.

Hoff slapped her on the back. “Are you okay?”

She nodded, still coughing. The sooty, noxious air on Ritan had done nothing good for their lungs. Most of the time they used improvised masks to filter out the soot and ash in the air, but now they’d lowered their masks for a while to smell the roasting meat and to share a few hours of each other’s company.

Hoff looked away, back to the fire. He leaned forward to turn the spit and roast the other side of the walker shank. Destra watched with concern as the long, tangled hairs of his beard got too close to the fire and the ends began to curl with the heat. She was about to warn him, but he withdrew before his beard caught fire.

Destra smiled, thinking how cumbersome that beard must be, but at least Hoff could hide the gauntness of his cheeks. She had nothing to hide behind, and every time she caught a glimpse of her reflection while sponge bathing in the nearby thermal marshes, she shuddered. Both of them were all skin and bones beneath their swaddling layers. Destra looked up from the fire as if to study the distant, steaming marshes along the horizon. It was impossible to see them, but she imagined she could see the bloody red glow of the lumimoss which grew up around the warm, thermal pools. Here, close to the marshes, the air was warmer—between ten and twenty below. They’d long since moved the Sythian fighter which had carried them to Ritan and set it down closer to the marshes, but being close to the marshes was a double-edged sword. Lumimoss, the favored food of the ice walkers, grew in those marshes, and where there were ‘walkers, there were sure to be bats and rictans hunting them.

The fire hissed with a particularly large drop of fat, and Hoff tensed beside her. He snatched up their coveted rifle in one bony hand and turned to look behind him. Destra turned to look, too, but only their shadows could be seen dancing in the firelight. Hoff set the rifle down again and held his hands up to warm them over the fire. He had his gloves off and drying beside the fire since they’d gotten bloodied when he’d speared their dinner. They couldn’t use their projectile weapons to hunt anymore. Of the two Sythian rifles they’d found aboard the Shell Fighter, only one still had any charge left. The rifles produced small, seeking purple stars which could take down a rictan or a bat with one shot and scarcely the need to aim. Unfortunately, each rifle was only good for about a hundred shots, and in the three years they’d spent on Ritan, they’d used those up fast. Now what charge was left had to be reserved for emergencies only. After all, there was no telling how much longer they’d have to survive on Ritan.

It had taken Hoff months just to figure out how to send a comm message with the Sythian fighter, and then he’d had to precisely aim his distress call at the nearest gate before it could be passed on. They had no way of knowing if it had been aimed correctly, or if it would be passed on from gate to gate as a distress call should. If there were human survivors anywhere, and the gate relays hadn’t been disabled by the Sythians, then it was theoretically only a matter of time before someone heard their call and came running.

Theoretically.

Destra had to remind herself that a delay was to be expected given the distances involved. Hoff estimated it would take six months for their message to get from one end of the galaxy to another while travelling along the space lanes at superluminal speeds. That meant it should have taken a year at most for someone to have heard their call and come running, making their rescue more than a year late. There’s a disheartening thought for you, Destra thought.

Making matters worse, the Sythians had almost certainly heard their distress call by now. Fortunately, Hoff had been smart enough to not encode their coordinates in the commcast. He’d merely said they were on Ritan—something any human would understand, but which no Sythian would figure out.

“Dinner’s ready,” Hoff said.

Destra nodded and waited for him to serve her. Fat dripped, hissing in the flames as Hoff used his hunting knife to cut off a piece of meat for her. He passed her a small sample while the fire continued to hiss.

And then it growled.

Hoff’s head snapped up and his gaze met hers. Destra’s hand touched the pistol at her side—it would be good for two or three more shots—and then they both slowly turned to see three pairs of red eyes glinting at the edges of the firelight.

“Hoi!” Hoff yelled in a voice which trembled from weakness as much as adrenaline. Rising to his feet, he brought the rifle up to his shoulder and said, “Get out of here!”

More growling.

The lithe, six-legged rictans wouldn’t be able to see them against the blinding glare of the fire, but they could smell just fine. One of them stepped out of the shadows, its teeth bared and dripping with drool as it snarled at them.

“Hoff . . .” Destra whispered, her eyes on the wrinkly, hairless black hide of the beast. These rictans, unlike the ones on Roka IV, where Destra had grown up, had developed thick folds of fat to keep them warm, making them appear twice as large as they should.

The rictan which had stepped forward now took another step toward them, muscles rippling with every step. The other two followed the first into the flickering firelight, and Hoff shook his head. “This pack must be very hungry. I wish I didn’t have to waste the charge, but we need to scare them off.”

Destra heard the trigger click, and then click again. She turned to Hoff with wide, terrified eyes. “What’s wrong?”

“Damn thing! It’s not working. Des—use your sidearm!”

She drew her pistol and aimed. Her arm shivered and shook as she squeezed off a shot at the nearest rictan. A blue-white stun bolt flashed out and hit the beast high on its shoulder. Limbs jittering, it collapsed to the icy ground. The other two hissed and hesitated, unsure whether they should run away or charge. Destra took aim on another one to help them make up their minds.

Click.

The pistol beeped and a red light came on at the back. It was empty.

Destra looked up to see the rictans advancing once more, growling in unison. “Hoff . . .”

“Des, just shoot them!” he said, fumbling with the alien rifle.

“Hoff!”

“What?!” He looked up to see her dangling the pistol by its trigger guard to show him the red light.

“I’m out,” she said.

Hoff whirled around to find his spear, sending powdered snow hissing into the fire. And then the rictans pounced. Destra felt the sharp bite of teeth as the first one seized her arm. She cried out as it dragged her to the ground. The second one seized her leg, and she screamed again.

Blinking tears, she saw Hoff loom over her with wild, feral eyes, and his spear held high. He thrust it down into the rictan which was gnawing on her leg. Destra heard the animal yelp and hiss, its paws scrabbling to get away. Hoff pulled the spear out with a grunt to turn it on the next beast, but the uninjured rictan leapt up and knocked Hoff to the ground, sending the spear flying from his hand. He cried out, and then came the rictan’s muffled snarls. Hoff’s sharp cries of pain gave Destra the strength she needed to drag herself along the ground with her good arm and reach the fallen spear. She lifted it in a trembling hand, aimed, and thrust with all her might into the rictan’s belly.

It threw its head back and howled. Taking the opportunity, Hoff picked up his hunting knife and slit the beast’s throat.

Suddenly, all was silence but for the crackling of the fire and Hoff’s ragged breathing. Destra dragged herself up to his side and gazed down on his contorted face.

“Hoff . . .”

“Help me . . . get it . . . off,” he gasped.

Together they managed to roll the dead Rictan off his chest. Hoff shuddered and let out a muffled cry as the adrenaline left his body and his injuries began to make themselves known. Destra’s own pain diminished as she took in the state of his injuries. The snow was dark red with blood, and Hoff’s belly glistened blackly with it, but Destra couldn’t tell how much of it was his and how much was the rictan’s.

She shook her head, and looked around quickly for something to bind his wounds, but there was nothing besides the furs and clothes they were already wearing.

“Hoff, where are you hurt?”

He was choking on blood, trying to say something, but unable to get it out. “De . . .”

“I’m here, she said,” pulling off her gloves to find his hand and squeeze it tight. It felt slick and cold. “I’m here, Hoff. I’m not going anywhere,” she said.

He nodded once, and then looked up at her with another crooked smile. He winced and opened his mouth to say something, but no words came out. A second later, the determined light in his gray eyes went out, and his crooked smile faded.

Destra sat there staring at him for a long moment. Her wounds burned; the cold crept; and the firelight flickered and dwindled. All the while her mind screamed and railed impotently against Ritan, and the Sythians who had driven them to it. She felt numb and so very, very cold. Hoff, her only friend and companion for the past three years, had just given his life to save her, and now she was alone.

Alone on Ritan, waiting for a rescue which would never come.

*  *  *


Origin

As Hoff lay dying, his thoughts drifted in lazy circles, seeming to become some separate part of him, which was isolated from the pain and the suffocating feeling that he couldn’t breathe. Above him hovered a friendly face, twisted with fear and anguish, her dark, overgrown hair pasted with sweat and grime in a gritty mess across her forehead. She screamed at him, trying to bring him back from the brink, but Hoff knew it was too late. He’d been here many times before. He was cold; his thoughts were becoming increasingly abstract, time seemed to be racing and crawling to a stop all at the same time. Staring up at the impenetrable black clouds overhead, he had a premonition of the oblivion which was coming for him. Not even a single star shone through to light the way. Hoff tried to say something to Destra, but found himself choking on the words. Something warm had obstructed his airways, so he lay still and stopped trying to fight it. He shut his eyes and disappeared into his thoughts.

Images came unbidden to his mind’s eye. Images of the earliest things he could remember—until now locked away in some distant corner of his mind. Somehow at the end, the beginning always became clearer. Hoff marveled at it, feeling as though he were just about to solve some great mystery about the universe.

It was a scene of incredible beauty. In his mind, he saw himself standing on a grassy field, shielding his eyes against the glare of a bright yellow sun. That sun was already high in a clear blue sky. Green grass and bright purple flowers grew rampant on the field where he stood. In the middle distance a wall of dark green trees swept up the sides of a soaring mountain in the background, the peak of which was wreathed in wisps of cloud and covered in thick glacial ice. To his left—on the other side of a shimmering, lavender-colored lake—lay a towering, dome-topped fortress, shining white in the sun. It was the summer palace.

That scene came straight out of a children’s story book, and Hoff recognized the world immediately. It was the lost world of Origin. Hoff felt his spirits soar with wonder and excitement. . . . He’d actually been to Origin! How had he forgotten that?

Then the scene was abruptly ripped away. Back was the angry black sky of Ritan, and a blurry image of Destra’s face. Hoff’s heart was beating hard and slow, while his chest burned fiercely. The pain grew more distant as numbness crept in. He forced himself to focus on Destra’s anguished face. She looked so scared, so distraught, and so alone that he wanted to do something to comfort her. Everything was numb, and he found that he couldn’t move, but with one last, monumental effort he managed to force his lips into a brief smile before he drifted away on a tide of utter darkness.

But that was not the end. A light appeared, distant, but growing nearer and brighter by the second, as if he were racing down a long, dark tunnel. Hoff felt himself being pulled toward the light, faster and faster, until it loomed impossibly bright, and then he heard a familiar voice. “Hello, Hoff,” it said. And in that moment, he understood that he’d been wrong—about everything.





RESCUE


Origin



Chapter 1

—THE YEAR 10 AE, CURRENT DAY—

Origin

Ethan Ortane lay staring up at the ceiling of his cell. The lights on the brig had been turned down low for the Defiant’s night cycle, which was already half over. The steady hum of the ship’s reactor should have lulled him to sleep by now, but instead he lay awake on his bunk, listening to the tick-tick-ticking of old fans and the whooshing of barely warm air from the ship’s air cyclers. Based on the number of night cycles since he’d been revealed as a holoskinner impersonating Supreme Overlord Altarian Dominic, Ethan had already spent almost two full days in the brig.

Not long after he’d been put there, Alara had come to visit her father. Ethan had been surprised and pleased to find that despite the slave chip in her brain which suppressed all her memories and replaced them with memories of a life she’d never lived, she had recognized him. He remembered seeing her come striding in, about to walk straight by his cell until she’d noticed him staring at her. She’d walked up to him and they’d had a brief conversation through the bars of his cell, passing written messages back and forth on her holo pad.

I remember you. . . . We used to fly together. You were the overlord all this time?

Ethan nodded.

You said you loved me. Is that true?

He hesitated before nodding again.

What were you doing impersonating the overlord?

He gestured for her to pass the pad to him through the bars, and she turned her body to shield the movement from the overhead holocorder. When he was done writing his message, 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 violet eyes flew wide and she 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.

Hearing that, he felt sorry for her and gestured for the pad again. He couldn’t leave her like this—pining away after a man she could barely remember, a man who was going to die for his crimes—so 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. It had been true, but a callous way for him to tell her, as if he were throwing her love in her face and slapping her with it.

The next thing she wrote was. You’re married??

And then the door to the brig swished open and a burly corpsman came bustling in with the warden, neither of them looking amused.

“Hoi, get away from that prisoner!” the corpsman said. “You’re not authorized to speak with him.”

Alara turned. “I wasn’t speaking with him. I was just trying to decide if I recognized him from somewhere.”

“And?”

“It’s just déjà vu. Being chipped makes it hard to decide what’s real . . . and what isn’t.” She glanced back at Ethan as she said that, and he felt her words stab him through the heart, making him wonder if maybe he had more feelings for her than he was willing to admit.

Now Ethan shook his head, rocking it back and forth on his pillow. It didn’t matter anymore, because it was too late, but he was beginning to think that he’d been a fool. Ten years had passed since he’d even seen his wife, Destra. That had been before the Sythian invasion and the subsequent exodus to Dark Space. The chance that she was even still alive was very slim, so why had he waited for her?

Ethan’s lips formed a thin, determined line as the answer came to him. It seemed to shine bright and clear in his mind. He’d waited, because she would have done the same for him, and because for all he knew she was out there somewhere, alive and waiting still.

*  *  *

Origin

Deck Commander Loba Caldin sat in her quarters—which until recently had been the overlord’s quarters—aboard the Defiant. Her dark blue eyes stared out the broad viewport and into space. It had been more than a day since they’d salvaged fuel and components from the Defiant to give the Rescue a chance to reach Obsidian Station. The corvette should have arrived by now, but without SLS gates and the associated network of comm relays which had once made up the galaxy-wide commnet, there was no way to communicate across vast, interstellar distances. They would have to wait patiently, for at least another day, before the Rescue might return with help. Caldin forced herself to be positive. They would make it; they would return; and this wasn’t the end.

It was, however, the end of something else. Now that the overlord had been discovered as a holoskinner, the Imperium was finally undone. It had survived the Sythians, but it wouldn’t survive this. This deception brought into question everything that had happened—both before and after the exodus. How long had the imposter been in power? How had he come to be in power? How many decisions had he made which he was both unqualified and unauthorized to make? Had his bad decisions been what had led to the destruction and unraveling of a galaxy-wide Imperium? Had he somehow doomed the Valiant to the virus which had run rampant on the ship, killing countless thousands of fleet officers?

And those weren’t the only mysteries surrounding Supreme Overlord Altarian Dominic’s imposter. Upon reviewing security holos from the brig with her confidant and lover, Corpsman Terl, she’d discovered that Captain Adan Reese was the imposter’s son, and that Dr. Kurlin Vastra, who was the engineer of the virus which had ravaged the Valiant, seemed to know them both personally. Had they all been co-conspirators with the crime lord Alec Brondi?

But that didn’t make sense, since they had both fought Brondi and run from him. There was some kind of plot afoot—more likely several plots—but it was all a tangled web of lies, and the more Caldin tried to unravel it, the less sense it made. She could sit here all day asking questions, each one more disturbing than the last, but there would be no reliable answers until they could get to Obsidian Station and subject the prisoners to a mind probe. Until that time, she would have to be patient. . . .

Caldin gritted her teeth and played connect the dots with the stars, but every time she blinked, the hateful face of the imposter swam before her eyes. She shut her eyes and tried to push him out of her head, but then she saw the pale faces of dead officers go dancing by in a haunting parade, their eyes all dark and accusing. Tens of thousands had died on the Valiant. Hundreds of them had been her friends—some as close as family. She was sure the imposter overlord was at the bottom of it, and that made her see red.

Suddenly Caldin rose to her feet. She’d had enough of being patient. If nothing else, beating some answers out of the erstwhile overlord would give her an outlet for her frustration, and maybe, just maybe—a modicum of justice for the dead.

*  *  *

Origin

Alara Vastra stared unblinkingly at the jagged, misshapen debris of Obsidian Station as they tumbled and turned, slow-dancing through space. Besides the stars, there were no lights shining through that carbon-scored mess of twisted alloy, and apart from the perpetual tumbling of the debris, there was no movement either—nothing that could be considered purposeful or alive.

Beside her, at the Rescue’s other pilot control station, Gina Giord tried the comm again. “This is the ISSF Light Corvette, Rescue, to any survivors aboard Obsidian Station, please acknowledge.”

Gina waited with the comms open, but all they heard was static. Eventually she sighed and shook her head. “There’s not a whisper of life. We should probably try to land on one of the bigger pieces of the station—see if we can get aboard for salvage.”

“It’s going to be hard to get any closer without debris hitting us,” Alara said. Even as she said that, two of the larger pieces of the station collided, generating a brief shower of sparks and pulverized duranium before flying apart.

Petty Officer Cobrale Delayn looked up from the engineering station and shook his head. He reached up to rub tired eyes and run a hand through his stubbly gray hair. “What’s the point? If there were any fuel aboard, it would have blown up with the station.”

Gina threw up her hands. “All right, let’s just sit here and wait for a rescue, then! Oh right—that’s our job. We picked a great name for this bucket.” She shook her head. “We came all this way to get help, but there’s no one here and we’re out of fuel, so we may as well go frek ours—”

Gina cut herself off as space began to ripple strangely above them.

“What the . . .”Alara began, looking up.

And then the rippling stopped and a Sythian cruiser appeared in its place.

“Evasive action!” Alara yelled.

Gina’s hands were already on the controls, diving and rolling out from under the enemy ship to put the debris field between them and it.

“As if we weren’t already frekked!” Gina said. “Tova, tell them to stand down! We’re friends!”

“That cruiser must have been waiting to trap any ships still en route to the station . . .” Delayn put in.

Alara gazed at the alien cruiser on the gravidar display. It wasn’t opening fire.

An alien warbling interrupted them, and then the translator in Alara’s ear said, “I cannot tell them anything. I sense no one aboard.”

Everyone turned to the giant alien sitting at the oversized gravidar station. Tova’s black armor gleamed in the low light of the bridge, and the red eyes of her helmet glowed as she stared back at them.

“Wait, what did you say?” Gina asked.

“I sense no one aboard.”

Alara shook her head. “You mean that ship is empty?”

“If it’s empty, how did it de-cloak?” Gina said.

Alara traded glances with Gina, and Delayn finished their unspoken thoughts. “Sythians.” They didn’t have the telepathic abilities of the Gors, so Tova wouldn’t be able to sense them.

“Sounds like it,” Gina replied.

“So why aren’t they firing on us?” Alara asked.

Before any of them could hazard a guess, the comms crackled with an answer. “Rescue, this is the FFR vessel, Interloper, please state your business here.”

Alara gaped at Gina. “That was a human voice.”

Gina blinked and slowly shook her head. “What are our guys doing aboard a Sythian Cruiser?”

*  *  *

Origin

Thwack!

Caldin’s fist hit Ethan’s already battered face. She wore padded black combat gloves, but the padding was for her, not for him. One of Ethan’s eyes had swollen shut, and his lips were split and bleeding in several places.

“Who are you!” the commander demanded. Her chest heaved from the exertion and her eyes flashed with rage.

Ethan’s head lolled, and his neck cracked painfully. Two burly men held him up by his arms with bruising force, but he barely noticed the pain of their dirty fingernails digging into his skin. The more immediate throbbing from Caldin’s blows took his full attention.

“Still not talking?” she demanded.

Whuff—the air left his lungs in a rush as Caldin knocked the wind out of him with another blow. Ethan groaned and spat blood on her shiny black boots.

“He already told you, Caldin!” Atton said. He was in the cell just across the aisle, but Ethan heard him as though from a great distance. “He’s just an ex-con from Dark Space! Leave him alone.”

“So how did a lowly ex-con become Supreme Overlord of the Imperium?”

Atton sighed. “It’s a long story.”

“Really? Start talking!”

“You going to beat me senseless, too? I’m not sure a mind probe will be much use to you if we’re both already brain dead.”

Ethan wanted to tell Atton to shut up and stop goading her, but he couldn’t open his mouth. He wondered if that meant his jaw was broken, or if his tongue had simply swollen too much to move—he’d bitten it several times as Caldin had pummeled his face. He tried to lift his head to see where Caldin had gone, but then the guards holding him let him go, and he fell to the deck with a bone-jarring thud.

Ethan just lay there, sprawled out on his back, waiting to hear the meaty smack of Caldin’s fist against Atton’s face.

“You’re very lucky, Mr. Reese, that I’m a patient woman.”

Ethan heard his cell door slide shut with a squeal, and the next thing he heard was booted feet receding down the hall. A door swished open and shut, and then came a ringing silence. Ethan could barely hear in one ear. He wondered if that was because blood had run into it and blocked it, or because Caldin had beat him so badly that she’d burst his eardrum.

“Are you all right?”

Ethan had to fight the dreamy haze swirling inside of his head to focus on that voice. It was his son. He tried again to speak, but this time a sharp pain lanced through his jaw, stopping him. Definitely broken, he thought.

“Frek . . .” Atton muttered. “She almost killed you!”

“You think she’ll send a medic?” Another voice. Ethan thought it might be Doctor Kurlin. He was encouraged that he could still make some sense of the world around him, even with just one blurry eye and one ringing ear. Maybe that meant he didn’t have a concussion.

“She’d better do something if she wants him to live long enough to stand trial. Hoi! Can we get a medic down here? Caldin! If you want to get any answers out of us, you’d better keep us alive!”

Ethan wanted to tell them that he was okay, but his one good eye drifted shut and his battered body relaxed in sleep.

*  *  *

Origin

Gina Giord finished explaining who they were and why they’d come to Obsidian Station to Captain Adram of the Interloper. They waited through a tense silence for the captain to respond. When that silence dragged on too long, Gina keyed the comm again.



Interloper, do you copy?”

“We copy, Rescue. Please stand by.”

“Acknowledged . . . standing by . . .” Gina replied with a furrowed brow.

Alara frowned at the comm display, reading the transcript of their conversation for a recap. A minute later she shook her head and looked up at Gina. “Do you think they believe us?”

“Why wouldn’t they?”

“The overlord was a holoskinner. A notorious crime lord set a devastating virus loose on the ISSF’s flagship and he’s now controlling both that ship and likely all of Dark Space, while we’re out here looking for help so we can rescue the handful of survivors from that attack.”

“Hmmm.”

“And after all that, no response—just, we copy. Stand by—like they’re still deciding what to think of us.”

“Maybe they’re trying to figure out how to bring us aboard?” Delayn suggested. “It can’t be easy to operate a Sythian cruiser. They use mental control systems for everything, and half the time we don’t know what thought patterns will activate a given system.”

“Well, there’s another mystery for you—” Gina said. “—and I still haven’t heard an answer. What are our boys doing joyriding in a Sythian Cruiser?”

“Maybe it isss more comfortable,” Tova hissed.

Gina turned to glare at her. They couldn’t see the alien’s expression behind her helmet, so it was hard to decide if her comment was an attempt at humor—assuming Gors had a sense of humor.

The comm crackled once more. “Rescue, we’ve detected a Gor aboard your ship.”

Gina leaned forward to speak into the comms once more. “That’s correct, Interloper, but she’s friendly.”

Another long pause.

“The admiral doesn’t allow skull faces aboard his ships.”

All eyes turned to Tova, but thankfully she didn’t react to the racial slur.

Gina sighed loudly. “We’ve come a long way, Interloper, and we have people counting on us, so time is short. Don’t you think you could bend the rules, just this once?”

“She’ll have to stay on the corvette. If you agree, we’ll bring you aboard.”

Gina scowled. “Agreed, Interloper.

“Stand by for grav lock.”

The ship shuddered almost imperceptibly and Alara noticed their icon on the star map begin moving toward the larger icon of the Sythian cruiser. “I thought they were going to fire on us,” she said, looking up from the display.

Gina shrugged. “Not everyone’s as forgiving as Overlord Dom—” She cut herself off with a frown and left it at that.

It was common knowledge that the overlord had been uncovered as a holoskinner and an imposter. Knowing that, it was hard not to question his judgment in forming an alliance with the Gors.

“What do you think will happen now that the overlord’s not in power anymore?” Delayn asked.

Gina shrugged. “I guess the fleet will take over with Admiral Heston in command.”

“A military dictatorship,” Alara said.

“Better than an illegitimate civilian one.”

Alara noticed Tova watching them as they discussed the situation, and she wondered how much the alien understood about human politics. Was Tova authorized to know about the current instability in the human government? Technically, Admiral Heston wasn’t a part of the alliance between humans and Gors, so if he took over both human factions, that alliance would be in jeopardy. If the Gors realized that, then they might take preemptive measures.

Alara’s mind turned back to the fate of the Imperium and her thoughts began boiling with questions as she tried to reconcile her private knowledge that the man she remembered as her friend and business partner, a man named Ethan Ortane, was the imposter overlord. How could he have been flying with her and somehow also ruling the Imperium at the same time? She decided that didn’t make any sense, so he must have come into the position recently. But how and why had he come to impersonate Overlord Dominic? Had Ethan been working with Brondi to take over the Valiant and destabilize the Imperium, and if so, did that make Ethan her enemy or her friend? She still remembered growing up in Brondi’s care with all of the other orphans he’d rescued. The crime lord was the only one who’d ever really cared about her—the only one who’d ever shown an interest in her life. . . .

Alara had to remind herself that those feelings of gratitude came from memories of a life that didn’t exist. Everyone said that Brondi was their enemy and he had implanted her with a slave chip to turn her into a playgirl for one of his pleasure palaces, but if Ethan was on his side . . .

Alara shook her head. She couldn’t remember! She didn’t know what was real anymore. The only memory she could easily recall that apparently was real was of a man with green eyes and a rugged, sorrow-lined face. Ethan. She often dreamed about him and woke up with his face still trapped in her mind’s eye.

Alara had wondered if her dreams of him were real, or just another phantom from a life that had never existed, but then, the night before their rescue mission, Commander Caldin had suggested she go say goodbye to her father, Dr. Kurlin Vastra—a man who she couldn’t remember at all—and that was when she’d seen him, Ethan Ortane, the man from her dreams brought to life. The same man who said he loved her in those dreams was now sitting in prison, scheduled for a mind probe. Even if the probe didn’t kill him, his crimes would be more than enough to sentence him to death. The only man she could remember having loved was about to be put to death. As if all of that weren’t already enough, the last thing Ethan had said to her before she’d left the Defiant had been: My heart still belongs to my wife.

He was married. Somehow she’d remembered him and how she felt about him, but she hadn’t remembered that he was in love with and married to someone else. How could she have been so stupid in her previous life? A painful lump rose in her throat, and she shook her head.

“Hoi,” Delayn said, interrupting the silence on the bridge. “We have something to celebrate.” The old engineer waited for everyone’s attention, and then he went on, “The Rescue has been rescued!”

“Ha ha,” Gina laughed drily. “You’ve spent too much time with bots, Delayn. You’re starting to sound like one.”

“At least I have friends,” Delayn replied.

Gina just snorted and shook her head.

The Rescue has been rescued. . . . Alara thought, and she wondered if that really mattered to her anymore.

What did she have to go back to?

*  *  *

Origin

Commander Caldin returned to her quarters even more furious than when she had left. Ethan had given her precious few answers, despite the beating he’d taken. If he really was an ex-con, exiled to Dark Space before the war, then he was probably used to taking that kind of punishment.

She would have tried her luck with his son or even the old doctor, but as much as she hated to admit it, the boy was right—it would be better to wait for the mind probe before she beat them all senseless.

Caldin walked up to her bed and gazed down on it longingly. She was tired, but too agitated and restless to sleep. She needed to unwind, to defuse her stress. Her thoughts turned to Corpsman Terl. She’d left him on the brig to keep an eye on the prisoners for a while. Now she regretted that decision, wishing she’d instead asked him to come spend the night with her.

As she gazed down on the bed, the comm piece in her ear began trilling and a computerized voice said, “Incoming call from the brig.”

Caldin touched her ear to receive the call. “Hello?”

“Commander, the prisoners are askin’ for a medic.” It was Terl. Caldin smiled, grateful to hear his voice. He went on, “The imposter looks to be unconscious. What do you want to do, ma’am?”

“Go ahead, call the med bay, meanwhile you can perform first aid if necessary.”

“If it were up to me, ma’am, I’d just space him out the airlock. No one would blame you.”

“Perhaps they wouldn’t, but we need him—if not exactly intact, then at least lucid enough to endure the probe. Keep an eye on him, though—just in case he’s faking.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And Terl?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“You feel like keeping a lonely woman company tonight?”

“Mmmm . . . that depends . . .” Terl’s voice took on a seductive tone.

“On what?”

“Is that lonely woman you?”

Caldin smiled. “What do you think?”

“Then yes.”

“Good. I’ll be waiting.”

*  *  *

Origin

Alec Brondi drew his grav gun from the zephyr light assault mech’s equipment belt and fired it at the deck to bring himself down from the ceiling. Once he was back on his feet, he clipped the gun to his belt and tuned it to emit a steady grav field. Now he could walk on the deck as though the Valiant’s artificial gravity were still working.

“What happened?” Brondi demanded. He flicked on his mech’s floodlights and turned in a slow circle to see his men grappling down to the deck with their grav guns. They drew their sidearms and activated the flashlights mounted below the barrels to search for some unseen foe. Brondi had been living inside the zephyr ever since they’d discovered that the Valiant was being terrorized by one or more cloaked Sythians—or Gors? He wasn’t sure how the Gors fit into things, but he didn’t care whether he was being attacked by Gors or Sythians. Whoever they were, they were killing his men and sabotaging his ship. And now, thanks to those saboteurs, the Valiant was drifting in a deteriorating orbit above Ritan, without power and without gravity.

Dim red emergency lighting came on, and Brondi’s chief engineer said. “The IMS and main reactor are down and not responding. There must have been some kind of inertial surge when the IMS failed. We’re going to have to send teams down there.”

“Hold on, Lieutenant,” Brondi said, watching with a frown as Captain Thornton floated by in a globular pool of his own blood. He still wore the holoskin of Overlord Dominic and was to all appearances an 80-something year old man with white hair and wrinkled, age-spotted skin. Thornton had been Brondi’s choice to impersonate the overlord and gain Admiral Heston’s confidence, but with the inertial surge that had sent them all flying, Thornton must have had the bad luck to hit one of the sharper edges on the bridge. Now Brondi would need to find a new impersonator.

That’s it, he thought as he activated his comm and put a call through to Sergeant Gibbs, the commander of his mechanized battalion.

“It’s good to hear your voice, sir! What happened?” Gibbs answered.

“Our stowaways knocked out the IMS and our main reactor.”

“Frek! How? We had guards posted.”

Had. This has gone on long enough, Gibbs. Get me as many zephyrs as you can. We’re going hunting.”

“I’ll do my best, sir. It’s chaos down here.”

“Meet me at the bridge. I’m sealing it up until you arrive.”

“Yes, sir.”





Chapter 2

Origin

Commander Caldin awoke with Terl’s arms locked around her bare chest, his naked body pressed firmly against hers. She lifted her head from the pillow with a groan to check the time on the comm unit beside her bed. It was just after 1300 hours. Depriving herself of sleep over the last few days had finally caught up with her. She’d slept for almost twelve hours straight. . . .

With that realization, Caldin abruptly sat up, breaking Terl’s hold on her. No one had woken her with a comm call, which meant that the Rescue still hadn’t returned.

Terl’s eyes cracked open. He stretched and smiled. “Hoi, beautiful,” he said. “Morning already?”

“Already? We slept through half the day.”

“Kavaar! Can’t remember the last time I did that! Feels good to get some real rack time.”

Caldin just nodded and looked away.

“What is it?” Terl asked, his smile fading.

“They’re not back yet.”

“Oh. . . .”

“Yeah, well, it’s time we got up and joined the crew. This ship’s not going to run itself.”

Terl grinned and pulled her down on top of him. “Last I checked the ship didn’t need runnin’ at all. We’re just sittin’ here, waitin’ for a rescue. And as long as we’ve got nothin’ better to do . . .” He reached down and touched her between her legs.

She quirked one eyebrow at him. “Didn’t you have enough last night?”

“I never get enough of you ma’am. . . .”

She felt his hand begin tracing delicate, provocative circles, but she wasn’t in the mood. Reaching down, she grabbed his hand and gently pushed it away. “Don’t start anything you can’t finish. I have to at least pretend to care what’s happening on my ship before the crew gets restless and starts planning a mutiny.” She smiled and kissed his lips to soften the rejection before rolling off him and climbing out of bed.

Terl sighed and followed her. They shared a quick meal together in her quarters, and then Caldin made the call that she’d been dreading and checked in with the bridge. “Everything all right up there, Grimsby?” She didn’t want them to tell her what she already knew—to make the truth any more real.

“All fine, ma’am, but there’s no sign of the Rescue—or any Sythians.”

“Not that we’d see the Sythians if they were there.”

“No, ma’am. I suppose we wouldn’t.”

“I’ll be up in five. Caldin out.” Turning to Terl, she said, “I need you to head back down to the brig to help keep watch. If I wanted to kill the imposter last night, someone else might try to do the same. Those three prisoners have made enough enemies to last them a lifetime, so make sure no one disturbs them.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Five minutes later, Caldin stepped up to the doors of the bridge and waved her wrist over the control panel. The doors swished open and she was chagrined to find the entire day crew already at their posts. Only their commander had slept in. A few heads turned to see her striding down the gangway, and she met their hollow-eyed gazes with a nod. By now everyone was in need of a morale boost. The Rescue was very late. A round trip to Obsidian Station should have taken less than two days. Almost three had passed.

Caldin reached the captain’s table and gazed down on it with a furrowed brow, as if there were something to study there. The Defiant was holding steady at the rendezvous they’d set up before the Rescue had left. The coordinates of the rendezvous were far enough away from their original jump trajectory to keep them safe—at least for a time—but the Sythians were not stupid when it came to astronavigation. By now they would have sent out ships from both the Forlax and Odaran Systems on jumps which would hem them in and narrow down their possible location. With the Sythians’ slower SLS technology it would take some time, but depending how many ships were out there searching, the Defiant could be discovered at any moment. They needed the Rescue to return with reinforcements now.

Caldin stared at the star map rising out of the captain’s table, willing a contact to appear in the three dimensional grid, but nothing happened. Looking up from the table, she shook her head and walked down from the gangway to the gravidar station. Petty Officer Goldrim turned and gave a brisk salute. “Ma’am?” The boy was barely twenty years old with a round face, dark hair, and a lanky frame. At best, he should have still been in training to join a bridge crew, and his rating was that of a med bay corpsman, like Terl. He’d been filling in on the bridge just as Terl was currently serving as an ISF officer. The med bay was already full of qualified personnel, since by some twist of fate they had more corpsmen on board than they knew what to do with. For almost every other role on board the Defiant, properly trained personnel were few and far between.

“At ease, Petty Officer,” Caldin said. Goldrim had done his job well during the Battle of Forlax, and Caldin had promoted him to a petty officer third class. “Have you seen anything on the scopes?”

Goldrim hesitated, but then shook his head. “No, ma’am. I would have reported even the slightest blip.”

“What about the logs?”

Goldrim shook his head again. “I checked them as soon as I got to my post. Also clear.”

Caldin nodded and walked up to the viewports to gaze out over the topside of the Defiant. She traced the rugged lines of the ship to the barrels of the main beam cannons. They were locked in the forward position, ready and waiting for action. Less notable from this distance were an odd half a dozen pulse laser turrets which were a part of the cruiser’s AMS (anti-missile system). Since the cruiser was so undermanned, they had to pick where to assign gunners—beam cannons, AMS, missiles, or some combination. With the recent loss of 10 more nova pilots—some of whom had been drafted from gunnery positions—they were now down to a total crew count of just 62, and three of those had left aboard the Rescue—including her chief engineer, Petty Officer First Class Cobrale Delayn. That middle-aged man was irreplaceable to her. He was the best damn greaser she had. By contrast, the junior engineer who was his temporary replacement seemed very uncomfortable in his role on the bridge. His movements at the engineering station were jerky and unsure, his arms and legs constantly fidgeting.

Caldin’s indigo eyes wandered up from the hull to the sparkling backdrop of stars. It was hard to imagine the worlds orbiting those pinpricks of light now teeming with savage aliens when not so long ago they’d been home to trillions of humans, each one going about their daily life: waking up, going to work or school, coming home, spending time with their families . . . life as usual. Caldin couldn’t imagine what life as usual might be for Sythians or Gors.

“I think I’ve got something!” Petty Officer Goldrim called out, interrupting Caldin’s thoughts.

“You think? I’m going to need an explanation for that, Goldrim! What do you see out there?”

“Scratch that—contact confirmed! It’s a Sythian cruiser! They’re de-cloaking—dead ahead!”

“Red alert!” Caldin said.

The siren sounded and the lights on the bridge dimmed to a bloody red.

“How far are they?” Caldin asked as she hurried back to the captain’s table.

“Over 2000 klicks,” Goldrim replied.

“That’s well out of weapons range,” Caldin said, gazing into the grid rising from the captain’s table. “Why would they de-cloak that far out and give up the element of surprise?”

“I’m not sure,” Goldrim said. “They’re flying toward us at a modest speed, and their shields are up.” Caldin tapped the red, roughly elliptically-shaped gravidar icon of the enemy contact to bring up more detailed target info. A gleaming, teardrop-shaped ship appeared projected above the grid. It was a Sythian cutter-class cruiser, and just 98 meters long.

“Should we move to engage?” Petty Sergeant Corr asked from the helm.

Caldin held up a hand. “The only reason we can see them is because they want us to see them. They’re trying to lure us in. . . .”

“Why bother?” Deck Officer Gorvan asked from the gunnery station. “If they have a cloaking device, they could ambush us whether they lure us in or not.”

“Yes . . .” Caldin rubbed the back of her neck. “Unless they don’t think they have enough force to take us down in a straight fight. Then they might lay a nest of cloaking mines and get us to fly straight into them.” Caldin turned to the comm officer and said, “Grimsby, send out a nova to investigate.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

They had just one qualified nova pilot left besides the pair they’d sent aboard the Rescue, and Captain Adan Reese who was still locked up in the brig.

A moment later the comm officer looked up from his station with wide eyes.

“What is it, Grimsby?”

“The cruiser’s hailing us, ma’am.”

Silence fell across the bridge.

Caldin blinked. “They’re what?” In all the engagements they’d ever had with Sythians and Gors, they’d never once been hailed. The only communication they’d ever had between sides had come after the war, and then it had been direct, face to face contact with Gors as a result of exploring the Getties Cluster. Caldin had led that expedition herself, and she’d returned home with a trio of Gor captives—Tova, Roan, and Edasa. She’d killed Edasa with an unauthorized mind probe, earning herself a demotion from Captain to Commander and almost costing the overlord his precious alliance. As for the Sythians, apparently they never ventured out in anything smaller than one of their 30 kilometer-long behemoth-class cruisers. Those ships stayed cloaked behind the lines, and had never been so much as glimpsed by humans. As such, the first time humans had ever laid eyes on one of the elusive Sythians had been when the Tova and Roan had captured High Lord Kaon of the Sythian First Fleet and given him to the overlord to support their story and cement the alliance between humans and Gors.

“Open the comms, and bring them on screen if you can, Grimsby.”

“Opening comms. There’s no visual.”

The next thing they heard was—“Defiant, this is Captain Adram of the Interloper, attached to the Fifth Fleet Remnant. We heard you needed assistance.”

Caldin gaped at her comm officer and then turned absent-mindedly to the viewports and gazed out into space. “Interloper, this is Deck Commander Caldin of the Defiant . . . you’re not exactly what we were expecting.”

“Safer to travel out here this way.”

“Roger that, Interloper. I’m assuming you must have the Rescue on board?”

“We do. One moment—”

“Commander, we made it!” That voice belonged to Petty Officer Cobrale Delayn. A few relieved sighs rose up from the Defiant’s crew.

“Am I glad to hear your voice, Delayn!” Caldin said.

“The feeling’s mutual, Commander.”

“What took you so long?”

“Sythian ships aren’t as fast as ours, ma’am, but you’ve got to see this beasty from the inside—creepy as the netherworld and just as dark.”

Caldin nodded. “I suspect we’re all going to be seeing a lot more of her than we’d like.”

“Roger that—here’s the captain again, ma’am.”

Defiant, I hate to interrupt a happy reunion, but we’ve taken a long detour from our original mission to pick you all up. Please proceed to the following coordin—hold on a second, Defiant.”

Caldin listened with a frown to the hiss of static which accompanied that pause in the captain’s transmission. He was back a second later and sounding tense. “Defiant, we’re detecting multiple Sythian warships de-cloaking in this orbital. They’re surrounding you as we speak.”

Caldin turned from the viewports to see Goldrim look up from the gravidar station with wide eyes and an ashen face. “He’s right, ma’am.”

“We see them, Interloper,” Caldin said, “but we’re undermanned and damaged. We could use your help!”

In the next instant space shimmered and a lavender-hued ship de-cloaked right in front of them. A wave of alien missiles spun out toward them before Caldin could even react. “Evasive action!” she said.

The comms crackled with the Interloper’s reply, “Negative, Defiant, our mission cannot be compromised. We’ll send someone back for you in case you survive.”

Caldin shook her head, incredulous. “So you’re just going to leave us here?” She heard the sounds of a struggle in the background. It sounded like Delayn.

“Restrain that man! I’m sorry, Defiant. We did what we could.” And with that, the comms went silent, and the Interloper disappeared from the star map, cloaking once more.

The first of the enemy warheads hit their bow with a bright flash of light and the deck shook underfoot. The lights dimmed as the shields took most of the available power to absorb that hit, and Caldin traded horrified glances with the nearest crewman—Deck Officer Gorvan, the weapons chief. He seemed frozen with shock, his eyes wide and his eyebrows raised, as if asking her what he should do.

“Return fire!” she shouted.

*  *  *

—THE YEAR 3 AE—


Origin

Destra stood on the steaming, glassy black plains of a recently cooled magma field. The residual heat of it was enough to keep the ice back—for now. She stared up at the stars, watching as one which was far larger than the rest, moved quickly across the sky.

It must be a meteor, she thought.

She saw it begin to glow, lighting up the night as it hit Ritan’s upper atmosphere, and then came the sonic boom of its passage. A frigid wind raised hairs on the back of her neck, and she turned in a quick circle, to make sure nothing was creeping up on her while she stood mesmerized by the rare event.

There were no rictans on the ground that she could see—not that she could see very well—and as for predators hunting her from the sky, she would hear the loud whoosh of wings just before one of the giant bats descended on her, and that would give her at least a few seconds’ warning.

Thanks to them, however, the rictans mostly left her alone. Months ago she’d discovered a bat cave at the end of an icy canyon. She’d harvested enough guano there that she could mask her scent whenever she left home—home was the Sythian shell fighter she’d landed in. That alien spacecraft was her only sanctuary on the desolate netherworld which was Ritan. She remembered sleeping with Hoff inside that bubble of relative warmth and safety. Every night they’d slept together on the same improvised bed and held each other close for warmth and reassurance. Now she slept alone, shivering and afraid, waking up every hour with her eyes wide and darting, searching the shadows for some unseen predator.

By her count it had been almost a month since Hoff had been killed by rictans, but it was hard to tell without a sun to divide the days from the nights. She hadn’t been the same since he’d died. She’d buried him under a mound of snow and rocks, but rictans had dug him up the next day and finished what they’d started. If only she and Hoff had found the bat cave together. That guano would have saved his life.

Since Hoff had died she’d become even skinnier, if that were possible. Hoff had been the hunter, but now it was up to her, and it wasn’t easy to get the ever-blunting point of her bone spear through the tough, hirsute hide of the ice walkers. It was even harder to drag one of them to a place of safety where she could skin and gut her kill. She’d always been the one keeping watch while Hoff had done that.

With a grimace, Destra turned away from the falling meteor and limped back to her sanctuary. The injuries she’d sustained from the rictans that had killed Hoff still haunted her. The dark silhouette of the shell grew on the horizon. Ritan was always dark. Sometimes, she’d wake up on a particularly smoke and ash-clouded day and step outside to find that it was too dark to even find her hand in front of her face. On days like that she’d wonder with a sudden, cold sweat of panic if she were going blind.

The faint light inside the shell belied that, but her tendency toward irrational, paranoid, and even outright crazy thoughts grew with every passing day.

Suddenly, the world flashed with blinding light and deafening sound, and she had another irrational thought—Ritan was exploding around her. Destra blinked spots out of her eyes and forced herself to focus on the bright and shining hull of the shell which had been her home for the past three years. It shouldn’t have been bright or shining in the perpetual darkness of Ritan, but now the mirror-clear hull of the fighter’s “shell” was glowing as bright as a sun—not that she could remember what suns looked like. Besides that hallucination, there was also the loud roaring in her ears which grew louder and nearer by the second.

Suddenly her mind seemed to grasp what was happening and she realized that both the light and sound were coming from behind her. She spun around to look and saw a bright point of light drawing steadily closer and larger on the horizon. It was the meteor she’d been watching earlier, except that it was no meteor. It’s impossible, she thought. I’m dreaming. Wake up, Destra! Damn you, wake up! The worst dreams were the ones where a rescue came, because when she finally woke up, she was still alone in the dark on Ritan. Those dreams haunted her more than any nightmare of Sythians, rictans, or bats—they were just another reminder of a rescue that would never come.

The light became so bright and all-consuming that Destra couldn’t watch it anymore. The sound was horrendous, but now growing softer. She heard a th-thunk as the ship settled to the ground in front of her, and she just stood there, shaking her head. It wasn’t real. Don’t believe it, Destra! Don’t! It’s not real. It’s never real. Don’t fall for this again. . . .

Then she felt someone shaking her by her shoulders, and she opened her eyes to see a man—a very familiar man—gazing at her with fire burning in his gray eyes. “Where is Hoff?” he asked.

Destra shook her head. She tried to work enough moisture into her mouth so that she could speak, but no words came out when her lips moved. She hadn’t had to use her voice in over a month.

“Where is the admiral?” the man demanded, shaking her again.

It was impossible. I must be dreaming, she thought as she stared into the lovely gray eyes of a ghost. Her gaze flicked over his decorated black ISSF uniform with white piping and gold stars’ insignia, and then back up to his rugged face. She wasn’t sure why he was looking for the admiral. He was the admiral.

“Oh, Hoff, you died,” she said. She reached out to cup his cheek with a dirty hand, and tears welled in her eyes.

Hoff’s gaze softened. “Who are you?”

It couldn’t be him. He didn’t even remember her. “I’m Destra . . . Destra Ortane,” she said, wiping her cheeks as her tears fell. “Don’t you remember me, Hoff?”



“Are there any others here with you?”

Destra shook her head.

“Well, let’s go. At least I didn’t come all this way for nothing,” Hoff said as he wrapped an arm around her shoulders to guide her toward the light.

Destra went willingly, still wondering when she was going to wake up, but so far this was unlike any dream she’d ever had. When she stepped aboard the waiting corvette and followed Hoff’s ghost to the ship’s med bay, she began to wonder. She reached the med bay in a daze and was forced to sit while the doctor checked her over. When he stepped in front of her to examine her more closely, she saw that one of his eyes was red and glowing, and she jumped up from the table. “Stay away from me, Sythian!”

The doctor frowned and Hoff turned to watch her backing away with his eyebrows raised. “It’s an artificial eye. Sit down.”

Destra stared at the doctor for a long while, her chest rising and falling quickly, fists clenched and shaking. The man smiled reassuringly at her. “Come on,” he said, and patted the examination table beside him. “Let’s finish checking you over.”

After another moment, she walked hesitantly back to the examination table, but her eyes never left his face. When he didn’t suddenly turn into a hissing Sythian, she relaxed somewhat and sat down on the table.

“She’s delirious with hunger,” Hoff said.

“Yes,” the doctor replied. “From the look of her, it’s a miracle she’s lived this long.” He forced Destra to lie down while he inserted a catheter in her wrist. The sharp prick made her wince, and a moment later she felt a cold trickle of fluids entering her body. She gasped, her head spinning where it lay on an impossibly soft pillow. She’d forgotten what a pillow felt like.

“She’s badly malnourished,” the doctor said.

“Finding food with the proper nutrients can’t have been easy.”

“Indeed . . . what about the transmission we heard?” the doctor asked. “She claimed you were with her.”

“As I said, Lieutenant, she’s delirious. Maybe I met her briefly before or during the war, but as for why she felt the need to invent a fictional story that fixated on me in particular . . . that’s your department.”

“It probably made her feel better to think she was marooned with an admiral rather than all alone. Well, I’m sure she’ll be more lucid when we get her back to health.”

“I’m sure she will. Meanwhile, if you’ll excuse me, we need to get back to the Tauron—goodbye, Destra.”

She saw the admiral’s smiling face appear above her. That smile is wrong, she thought. It didn’t have the sardonic twist that she was used to, and his cheek didn’t bear the old rictan scar which should have caused it. “I’ll see you soon,” the admiral said, and his face disappeared. “Take good care of her, Donali.”

“I will. I’ve administered a sedative, so she should fall asleep soon.”

Destra heard the admiral’s footsteps receding, followed by the sound of a door swishing open and then shut. She saw the doctor appear above her. He smiled. “Let’s see what we can do to fix you up, shall we?” The man was perhaps forty, with receding black hair, and distinguished features, but all she could see was that horrible red eye, glowing and winking at her every time his real eye blinked.

Would he try to hurt her? She felt her eyelids grow heavy and her thoughts become sluggish. What if the doctor killed her so he wouldn’t have to share his food and supplies with her?

Destra felt her heart begin to pound and heard a nearby monitor beeping frantically in time to her pulse. The doctor reached out and placed a cool hand against her forehead. She flinched at his icy touch.

“You have a fever. Try to relax. I’m going to conduct a routine body scan to make sure there’s nothing serious amiss, okay?” She tried to shake her head, but it barely moved. “Shhh . . .” the doctor cooed.

Destra watched a bright blue eye snap on overhead with an ominous humming sound. Without warning it cast a swath of shimmering light over her from head to toe and back again.

“There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” the doctor asked.

Destra managed a groan. She had to fight to keep her eyes open.

“Now, let’s see what we have here . . .” she heard the doctor say, followed by the sound of a chair rolling across the deck. “Oh, my . . .” he said. “That can’t be right.”

Destra’s eyes flickered open and she saw the doctor turn from a nearby holoscreen to peer suspiciously at her. “Weren’t you alone on, Ritan?” he asked.

“No . . . told you . . .” she said sleepily. “I was with Hoff.”

“Well, you must have been with someone, hoi?” He laughed lightly. “Don’t worry, we’ll sort it all out, but for now you’d better rest.”

Destra’s eyes drifted shut once more in response to that suggestion.

“That’s right. . . .” the doctor continued, “go to sleep.”

Despite not wanting to, Destra did fall asleep, and that was when she finally realized—

It had all been real, and she really had been rescued.




 

Chapter 3

—THE YEAR 10 AE—

Origin

Alara stood on the bridge of the Interloper, gazing out at stars. The bridge viewport was one unbroken dome stretching from floor to ceiling, with all of the crew stations arrayed in a circle on the glassy black deck of the alien cruiser. Even with a human crew, the ship was dark and cold inside. When she’d asked about that, one of the crew had told her that the captured cruiser had vast limitations when it came to heating and illumination, because the Gors didn’t need either to be comfortable. When they’d first tried to remedy that, the inside of the hull had begun throwing off distracting reflections, and some of the alien tech had begun to malfunction.

Alara shivered and hugged herself, listening with half an ear to Captain Adram speaking with the Defiant. She stopped paying attention almost immediately. Now that they’d been rescued, her thoughts turned inward to focus on her own world of problems—to focus on Ethan. The more she thought about him, the angrier she became, both with him and herself. He was married. How could she have allowed herself to fall for someone who was married? And why would he keep a woman who was obviously in love with him so close if he wanted to protect his marriage? Maybe they’d had an affair. Thanks to the slave chip, Alara’s brain was programmed not to take offense at the idea of an affair on a moral basis, so she took offense on a personal one. Ethan had been toying with her—using her!—and he hadn’t even been paying her for that privilege. It was enough to make her want to execute him herself. He’d used her feelings for him; he’d taken everything from her and given nothing back, he’d—

Alara’s thoughts were interrupted as she heard Delayn raise his voice and start screaming incoherently. She turned to see him being restrained by two sentinels. Delayn struggled and railed at them, spitting in one of their faces. “Cowards! You can’t abandon them! For frek’s sake—fight!”

“What’s going on?” Alara asked, her brow furrowing.

Captain Adram turned to point at her. “Restrain her, too, and get them off my bridge!”

Alara saw two more sentinels closing in on her, and she touched her ear to make a comm call to Gina. The call went through just as the two men seized her. “Gina! The Sythians are here! They’re attacking the Defiant and the Interloper is going to abandon them! We—”

One of the men holding her yanked the comm piece from her ear and said, “That’s enough of that.”

*  *  *

Origin

The deck shuddered underfoot, and Commander Caldin heard something groan in the superstructure of the ship. She held on to the Captain’s table with both hands, watching as their view of space tilted away from the streaming purple lines of Sythian missiles, but their trajectory was changing too slowly to dodge the incoming warheads.

“I said evasive action!” Caldin called out as another pair of spinning purple stars slammed into the forward viewport with a boom. She winced away from the accompanying flash of light.

“Maneuvering thrusters are damaged!” the helmsman replied. “We can’t evade anything like this.”

A pair of shell fighters screamed toward the bridge. Turrets swiveled and tracked them with a steady stream of red dymium lasers, but the alien fighters dipped and wove, and the lasers lanced by without effect. As Caldin watched, those fighters dropped another pair of missiles. Two more purple stars streaked toward the forward viewports and impacted a second later. The bridge shields hissed, flaring with a blinding light. The alien fighters roared out overhead, provoking a peal of simulated thunder from the bridge’s sound system. The brightness faded from the viewport just in time for Caldin to see another volley of alien missiles slam into the bow, provoking multiple explosions.

“Decks 15 through 17 are venting atmosphere!” engineering reported. “Bulkheads sealing.”

Caldin watched her ship’s air running out into space on bright jets of fast-dying flames. “Where’s our Nova pilot?” she asked suddenly, her eyes scanning the grid. They’d launched their last nova fighter to recon the Interloper as it had approached. That had been just a few minutes ago, but it seemed like hours. Time was passing like molasses dripping through a funnel. A moment later, Caldin found their nova, running away in full overdrive at 186 KAPS.

“He’s fleeing from the engagement, ma’am!” Petty Officer Goldrim at the gravidar replied in the next instant.

Caldin shook her head. “Are there no loyal officers left in this damn galaxy?”

“I’m detecting his SLS spooling. Should I try to order him back here?” Grimsby asked from the comms.

“No, leave him! Let cowards die as cowards live—alone.”

The deck shuddered once more, and the lights dimmed. Caldin felt herself grow abruptly lighter as the IMS flickered, but then gravity was back in full force. “Weapons! Get all our gunners on the beam cannons. If we can’t live through this fight, we might as well take a few skull faces with us!”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Helm! Set course for K-21-11-98. Let’s take down the straggler.”

The helmsman nodded, and Caldin watched as their view panned to port and the smallest of the three Sythian ships came into view—a frontrunner-class destroyer at just over 70 meters long. It was less than a tenth the size of the Defiant, but with their ship damaged and undermanned, it would be a challenge to take down even that small destroyer, let alone one of the larger cruisers which was attacking them on their port side. Distant thunder sounded as more missiles impacted.

“Shields in the yellow, dropping below 50%,” engineering reported.

“Gunners ready?” Caldin asked.

“Almost, ma’am!” weapons replied.

“Tell them to hurry up, Gorvan!”

Caldin tapped her foot while she waited, watching as their last nova winked off the grid, jumping to SLS.

“In position!” Deck Officer Gorvan said from the gunnery station.

“Open fire!” Caldin ordered.

Four red dymium beams lanced out from the forward cannons, followed by a volley from the eight blue dymium beams on their starboard side. All twelve cannons drew shimmering lines across the destroyer’s shields, but no fire or debris spat out from the enemy ship. The combined volley lasted for just a few seconds before the cannons depleted their charge.

“Target shields down to 36%.”

Caldin frowned. “What happened to our main cannon?”

“Coming online . . .” engineering reported.

Suddenly a thick red beam shot out just above the bridge with a deafening screech and subsequent hum of energy. The beam blinded them with its brightness and bathed the bridge in a ruddy glow. That was their corona cannon. Caldin’s indigo eyes narrowed to slits to protect themselves from the light, but she watched on, waiting for the beam to draw blood. The corona beam fired continuously for four seconds straight. It had a 20 meter bore, and a 35 klick range, making it more powerful than all twelve of the previous beams put together. After just two seconds, flames began pouring from the front end of the Sythian destroyer.

“Magnify them and put them on the main screen; I want to see her beams exposed!”

Suddenly the destroyer loomed large and terrifying in their forward viewport. Their main cannon stopped firing, and an ear-ringing silence fell. Caldin saw the front end of the enemy ship crack away in a flaming ruin, and she grinned. “Fire again!” she said, but her words were swallowed by an abrupt roar which thundered through the simulated sound system. The bulkheads and deck vibrated with the sound, and Caldin clapped her hands over her ears. “Turn down the volume on the SISS!” she yelled to be heard above the roar.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Set visuals to default zoom.”

The magnified view of the enemy destroyer disappeared, and then Caldin saw the source of the roaring. Dozens of Sythian shell fighters had just flown over the bridge and were now cruising low over the top side of the cruiser. With all the gunners now manning the beam cannons, the Defiant was defenseless against them. As Caldin watched, they dropped a volley of missiles at point-blank range, straight on top of the cruiser’s forward beam cannons.

“Brace!” Caldin said.

The explosions which followed rocked the deck like an earthquake. The cruiser’s shields hissed loudly. A computerized voice said, “Shields critical,” and then, “Shields depleted,” in quick succession. The explosions faded, and a gaping black hole appeared in the topside of the hull where the cruiser’s forward beam cannons had been.

“Damage report!”

“Forward cannons are gone. Most sections of Decks 12 to 15 are now sealed off—”

“Crew evacuated?”

“No, ma’am. Some trapped. Gunners of the main beams not responding. Sensors suggest they are either dead or EVA.”

“Get our crew out if they’re still alive.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Caldin frowned, looking at the deep hole where the forward guns had been. If the gunners were EVA, then only their shredded remains now floated through space. “Shields?”

“Offline. Need to reroute power to the auxiliary arrays. It’ll take a minute.”

“So right now we’re naked,” Caldin said.

“As a newborn,” engineering replied.

Caldin grimaced. The next volley could be their last.

“Incoming!” gravidar announced.

More explosions rocked the deck, thundering through the speakers; the lights flickered, then went out; smoke poured into the bridge, and the red glow of emergency lighting appeared. Caldin turned in a quick circle to check that her crew were all still among the living; then the IMS failed, and she felt herself drifting away from the deck.

The Defiant was derelict.




 

Chapter 4

Origin

Tova sat aboard the Rescue, with her eyes closed and her hands clasped in her lap. The humans were adamant that she not be allowed aboard their captured cruiser, so she waited patiently. For her, patience came easily when she needed it. Every good hunter knew the value of patience. She didn’t understand why she wasn’t allowed aboard, since the ship was originally Gor-crewed, anyway, but Tova had agreed to respect their wishes—for now. It was common knowledge among the Gors that the one called Admiral Heston had not joined the alliance, and she had recently learned that he would soon be in charge of all humans everywhere. If that meant the end of the alliance, the Gors would be ready.

Tova heard the doors to the bridge swish open behind her and she turned to see the one called Gina come running in. Sensing that something was wrong, Tova rose to her feet.

“They’re going to be here any second, Tova!” Gina said. She sounded like she couldn’t breathe.

Tova watched the human woman lean heavily on the back of the pilot’s chair. “Who?” she asked.

“The crew of the Interloper! They’ve turned on us. They’re not going to rescue the Defiant. I need . . .” Gina gasped for air. “There are Sythians here, Tova! I need you to contact them. Tell them to stop firing on the Defiant!

“I cannot give orders to Sythians,” Tova said, warbling in her language.

Gina’s translator communicated the gist of that a moment later, and she shook her head. “No, I mean Gors—there are Gors here. I don’t know if there are Sythians, too . . . just try it, Tova!”

Tova hissed quietly, but she did as the human woman asked and closed her eyes to communicate with any others who might be out there. She found them almost immediately—thousands were in range, some closer than others. She saw the network clearly in her mind’s eye as three clusters of red dots, each cluster connected with intermittently streaming lines of communication that flashed brightly as the Gors talked among themselves. Tova moved toward the nearest cluster and sent out a query with her thoughts, searching for the one in charge. That query brought her to the top of the cluster, and she had to wait there a moment while one of the subordinate Gors answered her. Tova asked them to stand down, but the subordinate Gor responded by demanding to know who she was and what authority she had to make such a request. Tova allowed him to know her name and status as a praetor of her people, and she was immediately sent to the top of the cluster. Now she spoke with the one in charge of the ship. Again, the same question—why should they stand down? Tova explained that the alliance was in danger. Something had happened to destabilize the human government, and now it was more important than ever that they gain the admiral’s trust, because he stood poised to take command of the entire human remnant. Without his consent, the alliance could be dissolved all together and the Gors might be massacred.

The one in charge hesitated, but at last he agreed. They would cripple their ships’ engines and bail out. That would mean yielding more of their vessels to the humans, and Hoff would have even more tools with which to reverse engineer Sythian technology. If they succeeded in doing that, they would have much less need for the Gors. They had made themselves useful by helping humans to develop their own cloaking devices, and by using their telepathy to sense their fellow Gors, even aboard cloaked enemy ships, enabling them to serve as living cloak detectors. That deal had worked well to keep humans dependent on them, but Admiral Heston had still refused to join the alliance, and given enough time, he would find his own solutions to those problems.

Tova hissed with displeasure, thinking that this latest gesture of goodwill had better be enough for the stubborn admiral. She broke her telepathic connection and opened her eyes. That was when she noticed the blinding crackle of sparks coming from the bridge doors. Gina stood covering the doors with her sidearm drawn.

Someone was trying to break through.

“They agree to stand down,” Tova said. “They disable their ships and bail out. You need rescue them.

Gina turned to her with wide eyes. “They’re surrendering? I could kiss you, Tova!”

“Do not.”

“Wait—you said they’re bailing out. How many are there?”

“More than a thousand.”

“Tova, we don’t have room for that many Gors! The Interloper isn’t even half the size of the Defiant!

Tova hissed again. “Then you need make room for them.”

Gina sighed. “We’ll have to talk to the Captain about it.” Tova watched as the human woman touched her ear and said, “Interloper, this is Gina—you can cancel your jump. We’ve just secured three more Sythian cruisers for your fleet, but there’s a catch . . . we’ve got over a thousand Gors gone EVA, and they need a pick up before their air runs out.”

*  *  *

Origin

The corridors were dark, barely lit by the dim, red emergency lights. Brondi and the other zephyrs illuminated that darkness in bright swaths with their floodlights. The atmosphere was tense, no one speaking. Brondi listened in silence to his breath reverberating inside his helmet, to the thudding of his squad’s footsteps, and to the whirring of servos and motors in the zephyrs’ legs. Each squad was made up of eight assault mechs, and dozens of squads were now striding through the ship on the way to Valiant’s reactor core. Brondi hoped that when they reached the core they wouldn’t find it ruined beyond repair. He gritted his teeth, furious that the alien saboteurs had made such a nuisance of themselves.

This wasn’t how things were meant to go.

Up ahead, the squad leader, Sergeant Grovin Gibbs, held up a hand for them to stop as he reached a junction where the corridor split into three divergent branches. Brondi heard his comms crackle as he checked in with the others to see which way they’d gone.

“Hunter One here,” one of the other squad leaders replied. “We went left. The Lokis went right. The middle’s for you and the rest of the Alphas, sir.”

“Roger that,” Gibbs replied. “Have you found any more mines?”

“Not since the rail tunnels.”

“Hmmm, keep an eye on your scopes.”

They started down the middle corridor. All of the available access ways to the reactor were being swept, and teams had been posted at bulkheads along the way to create a multi-layer cordon which would hopefully be enough to catch their saboteur if he or she were still around, but there were no guarantees it would work—not when their enemy was cloaked.

After travelling through the ship for another ten minutes, leaving three teams of two in their wake, their squad of eight was down to just two—Brondi and Sergeant Gorvin Gibbs. Now the reactor room lay dead ahead, and reports were filtering in from the other two point squads that they were almost there, too.

“So far so good,” Gibbs said.

“Don’t jinx us,” Brondi replied.

They reached the doors of the reactor room and waited there for the point teams from Hunter and Loki squads to arrive. Now they were six. Gibbs motioned to the doors, and one of the Lokis stepped forward to open them. The heavy doors opened with an ominous boom as they retracted into the bulkheads. A large, shadowy chamber lay beyond, and here not even the emergency lights were working. They crept inside the reactor room in single file and hurried around the perimeter of the circular chamber. Brondi swept his floodlights up to the distant transpiranium dome above the dymium reactor core. Ordinarily both the core and the dome would be shielded, and the dome could be seen faintly glowing with the energy of those shields, but right now all Brondi could see was a maze of catwalks crisscrossing above the reactor core from the over fifty decks above theirs.

Brondi turned from gazing at the ceiling just as the sergeant’s voice crackled over his comms. “The core seems intact, but the main power conduits have been ripped wide open. Area seems clear. Should we call in the greasers to fix the damage?”

“Go ahead,” Brondi replied.

An abrupt noise shattered the silence inside the reactor room. Brondi whirled toward the sound, and one of the other soldiers called out, “Hoi!”

It had come from the core. “What was that?” Brondi demanded, already stomping toward the dormant reactor. Next came a soft whirring noise which rapidly grew in pitch and volume.

Brondi recognized that as the reactor coming to life and he frowned. “Did someone turn it back on?”

Before anyone could answer, the reactor room doors shut with a resounding boom. Everyone turned to look at them.

“Hoi, what the frek?! Someone shut us in here!” Hunter One said.

Radiation leaking from the core set off an alarm in Brondi’s zephyr almost immediately, and it rang out even above the rising whir of the reactor. Brondi gritted his teeth and ran for the doors. He tried to open them, only to hear a warning bleep, followed by a computerized voice which said, “Access Denied. Radiation leak detected.”

Sergeant Gibbs appeared beside him. “What’s going on?” he asked, sounding out of breath.

 “We’re locked in!” Brondi roared. He whirled around to see the other four men who’d entered the reactor room with him standing behind him, all of them staring at him expectantly. “What are you all standing around for? Shut it down!”

Gibbs turned and ran for the control console near the base of the reactor core. Brondi hurried after him. Once there, Gibbs tried to power up the console, but nothing happened.

“What’s wrong?” Brondi asked.

Gibbs shook his head. “It doesn’t have power.”

“You’re telling me that the reactor is on, and we’re about to be baked alive by the energy pouring out of it, but there’s no power to the control console?”

Gibbs shrugged and shook his head.

“Get out of my way!” Brondi roared, giving Gibbs a shove and sending him sprawling to the deck with a noisy clatter of armor. Brondi ignored him as he tried to power up the console, but the result was the same. He glanced up at the dark transpiranium dome over their heads. Still absent was the faint blue glow of the reactor’s outer shields, which meant his entire crew was going to be baked alive if they didn’t either shut the reactor down or get the shields up soon.

Activating his comms, Brondi put a call through to the bridge.

A young woman answered, “Brondi!”

Brondi could barely hear her over the whirring of the dymium core and the droning of his zephyr’s radiation alarm. “I need you to shut down the main reactor!” he said.

“We don’t have any control from up here! Have you tried the manual overrides?”

One of the Lokis began pounding on the doors, demanding to be let out.

Of course! The manual overrides! Without bothering to reply, Brondi ran around the dymium core, searching for the manual controls. He found the control box on the opposite side of the core, and quickly fumbled with the latch to open it. The panel swung open, and Brondi couldn’t believe his eyes. The lever was sheared off at the base. A moment later he noticed the broken lever lying at his feet. “No!” he screamed, and kicked the handle across the deck. He began struggling with what was left of the lever, but it was twisted and the mechanism was jammed. Brondi strained with all of his zephyr’s augmented strength to force the damaged lever. A metallic groan came from the control box, and then the entire assembly tore free of its mounting and hit the deck with a thunk. Brondi stared at it incredulously.

We’re frekked, he thought.

*  *  *

Origin

Commander Loba Caldin leaned over the captain’s table coughing on the thick clouds of acrid smoke wafting through the bridge. IMS was out, main power was out, shields were down and offline, guns likewise. They were dead in space. Only the grav gun on Caldin’s equipment belt kept her feet rooted to the deck. “How long until we have the main reactor back on line?” she asked through another cough.

“Five minutes, maybe ten . . .” the engineering officer reported, shaking his head. Caldin eyed him through the shifting veils of smoke for a moment, watching his hands fly over the controls. He looked frazzled. She turned to the gravidar officer. “Any sign of another volley from our Sythian friends?”

“No, ma’am.”

“What are they playing at?” she wondered aloud, her eyes scanning the grid.

“Maybe they want to take us alive?” Deck Officer Gorvan suggested from the gunnery station.

“Perhaps. . . .” Caldin waited to see alien transports come flying out at them, but for long minutes nothing happened. “What are they waiting for?” Then another Sythian cruiser appeared on the grid.

“Contact!” gravidar said. “It’s the Interloper.

“They’re hailing us,” comms reported next.

“Didn’t they leave already?” Caldin asked.

“Apparently not,” gravidar replied. “Hoi! The Gors are bailing out of their ships!”

“You mean they’re coming to board us?” Caldin asked, trying to see what the gravidar officer was talking about. She had to set the zoom on the grid to maximum in order to see it, and then she gasped. The Gors were literally bailing out of their ships.

“They’re going EVA, ma’am,” gravidar replied.

Caldin shook her head. “What in the nethers is going on? Put the Interloper on screen.”

A moment later the dark, glossy deck of the Interloper appeared, overlaid on the main viewport. Captain Adram’s vulturine face dominated their view with his long, hooked nose and arching brows. His wispy white hair and wrinkled skin put his age around seventy, but his dark eyes were still as lively and keen as a teenager’s. He must have received longevity treatments to keep him so full of energy at that age. “Commander,” Adram said in a strong voice. “It would appear that the skull faces have agreed to surrender.”

Caldin shook her head. “How did you get them to do that?”

“Not I—your Gor did it. Tova, I believe her name is.”

Caldin smiled grimly and sighed. “Just in time. We wouldn’t have survived another volley.”

“Indeed. Fortune smiles on you, Commander. I don’t know what Tova said to her crèche mates, but they agreed to bail out if we would rescue them. You’d better get on that now. We’ll rescue your crew as soon as you’ve picked up all the Gors. I’m told there are nearly 1,000 of them.”

 Caldin’s smile faded. “Say again, Captain? How are we supposed to rescue them? We don’t even have power back yet.”

“The admiral would never allow so many Gors to board one of his ships, and even if he would, we don’t have room for them. Make your repairs and then pick up the Gors and stow them aboard the Defiant. When you’re done, we’ll rescue your people.”

“Can’t we all cram in together? How far is it to Ritan?”

“Eight hours. It’s not an option, Commander. The admiral is very strict about such things. Even having your one Gor aboard is pushing the limit with him. I wish I could bend the rules—really, I do. Pick them up or leave them—your choice—and then fly over here, but make it quick. We don’t know if there are more Sythian ships out there.”

“Yes, sir.”

Interloper out.”

Caldin frowned and turned in a slow circle to see her bridge crew staring uncertainly at her. They were probably thinking the same thing as her. It would take them hours to recover that many Gors gone EVA, and in that time more Sythian ships could easily arrive and make the whole exercise pointless. Adram had already demonstrated his willingness to leave them to that fate, but Caldin couldn’t leave the Gors to die in space after they had surrendered. News would travel fast and the alliance would be over.

Time was of the essence.

Caldin clapped her hands. “What are you all staring at? Anyone with pilot’s training is with me. We’ve got rescue shuttles to fly. The rest of you stay where you are and coordinate our repairs! Comms—get me as many pilots as you can. I don’t care what their ratings are.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Come on, people! You know the drill, it’s just like any other emancipation mission, but this time we don’t have anyone shooting at us, so it should be a real moonwalk. Let’s get it done!”





Chapter 5

Origin

Ritan was an eternally dark and forbidding place, an exoplanet with no sun. The only light it received was the bloody red glow which came from its thousands of active volcanoes. Overhead, the distant stars were rarely even glimpsed through the thick clouds. The air was choked with ash from decimated fields of the world’s only flora—the fast-growing lumimoss, which grew up around volcanic vents and near geothermal pools. The world’s only fauna consisted of ice walkers which fed off the moss, rictans which fed off them, and giant bats which fed off both. The entire ecosystem had been created by scientists for some long-forgotten purpose, although Ritan had never been a world with very much purpose. Now, however, it was a strategic jewel. It was the closest thing to Noctune which the Gors had found outside of Sythian-occupied space, and as such, it was now the location of Overlord Dominic’s Gor Academy.

There were over 40,000 Gors already roaming the surface of the world, hunting rictans and ice walkers alike. Hoff didn’t think the fragile ecosystem could support that for very long, but the Gors were a temporary presence. Ritan was just a good place to put them where they wouldn’t be a drain on human resources while they were pushed a few thousand at a time through the academy. After that, they would go to fight alongside humans as starship crew and soldiers. The first few thousand graduates were already serving in the overlord’s fleet.

Hoff shuddered at the thought of it. In his estimation, the entire operation was a waste of time and resources. The Gors couldn’t be trusted, and even if they could, there were far more Gors on Ritan than all of humanity had ships to crew. They didn’t have the resources to field that many hungry aliens in any capacity. Hoff’s own fleet, which was certainly larger than Dominic’s, was crewed with just 75,000 men and women, and he needed at most another twenty thousand to crew his ships properly. At the moment, he had fully ten thousand stationed at Ritan to keep an eye on the Gors.

Hoff sat in the copilot’s chair of his personal corvette, the Last Chance, watching as it skimmed low over the icy surface of the world. The pilot flew them over dozens of fresh, steaming magma flows which glowed brightly from the bottoms of deep canyons in the ice. This was the Diaphinous River Valley, so named for the curtains of steam which rose up from the canyons whenever fresh magma flowed into them and melted the surrounding ice and snow. As Hoff watched, his pilot guided them toward a particular curtain of steam. The corvette sliced through that rising wall of vapor and came out over a wide river of glowing red magma. This was the Isharian Flow, fresh from Mt. Isharan, the nearest and crankiest of the volcanoes in the Diaphanous River Valley.

The pilot, Hoff’s chief security officer, Sergeant Thriker, dove down into the canyon and flew out low over the glowing river of magma. The bridge of the corvette was immediately bathed in a bloody red glow, and Hoff leaned forward in his chair, straining against the seat restraints to peer up at the high walls of ice rising to either side. The walls leaned ponderously out over the river. Glittering rows of icicles hung from the walls, formed by the rising steam. Unlike a real river canyon which was narrower at the base and wider at the top, magma canyons were wider at the base, and formed partially-covered tunnels in the ice.

Before they’d flown even a dozen kilometers, Hoff saw the end of the canyon appear through the swirling curtains of steam. The end was a field of black glass—obsidian which had piled up from thousands of separate magma flows. Eventually the entire canyon would be filled with obsidian and the magma would carve a new canyon somewhere else.

For now, however, that mostly-flat field of glassy black rock was the landing field for Dominic’s Gor Academy. All of five minutes later they’d set down on the unmarked landing field and Hoff was standing inside the corvette’s airlock, dressed in a suit of light combat armor and waiting for the boarding ramp to extend. He hadn’t brought any guards along, because even a whole platoon of sentinels wouldn’t be enough to protect him from the Gors if they decided to turn on him, and right now secrecy took precedence over safety. After all, he didn’t want just anyone to know what he was doing at Dominic’s academy.

There were two reasons Hoff had made Ritan his headquarters and the intra-fleet rendezvous between his Fifth Fleet Remnant and the ISSF forces in Dark Space. The first reason was because he could drop a few shatter bombs from orbit if the Gors so much as sneezed in the wrong direction, but the second reason was because Hoff wanted to study the Gors, and the academy gave him the perfect excuse.

The airlock opened with a hiss, and steam swirled in. Hoff descended the boarding ramp quickly, walking easily in Ritan’s slightly below standard gravity. He left his pilot aboard the corvette to keep the engines warm, just in case, and headed for a crevice in the ice at the end of the landing field. When he reached it, Hoff walked into the crevice, and a faint blue light led the way. The icy walls picked up and magnified the light, sparkling like crystal. The light grew brighter and brighter until Hoff came to another dead end. There he stopped and waited, gazing up at a sheer, luminous wall of ice. A moment later, that wall shimmered and Hoff heard a groan and cracking of ice around frozen mechanisms as a hidden door opened. The shimmering continued until the wall of ice faded, replaced with an open corridor. The entrance was disguised with a holofield. Hoff walked inside, and almost immediately a young petty officer in a white thermal suit stepped out of an alcove to greet him.

“Admiral!” the petty officer saluted. Based on the naked bronze chevrons of his insignia, he was ISSF. Hoff had changed all the insignias in his fleet, surrounding them with glowing white borders to make the rift between their forces more visible. Overlord Dominic and the ISSF were working with the enemy, so all of them fell under suspicion right along with the Gors.

Hoff returned the petty officer’s salute. “Take me to the sim hall.”

“Yes, sir.”

They spent the next ten minutes winding through broad, icy corridors that were only dimly lit by a string of glowing blue lamps hanging down from duranium bulkheads and reinforcing beams. Along the way they passed dozens of naked Gors, and only a handful of fleet officers. There were even fewer armed and armored sentinels walking around—Hoff spotted just two—making him feel more and more trapped the deeper he went into the facility.

Trying not to dwell on it, Hoff thought about the message he’d received from his research team. They had made a breakthrough. Rather than explain, his XO, Master Commander Lenon Donali, had said he should come down from Fortress Station and see it for himself—just in case someone was eavesdropping on their comms. Hoff was still wondering what that cryptic message had been about when he reached the broad double doors of the academy’s simulator hall. The petty officer stepped up to the doors and typed in a security code. The doors swished open and Hoff stepped out into a wide, open concourse with high ceilings and multiple doors leading off in all directions. All of the doors were labeled in glowing blue letters and numbers. The doors along the sides of the lobby were labeled “O” followed by a dash and a number, indicating the observation rooms where the instructors watched and evaluated their classes. At the back of the lobby were a series of much larger doors labeled “S” followed by a dash and a number, and those doors led to the various sim rooms. Some of those simulator rooms focused on ground combat, while others focused on starship operation. This sim hall was the primary training arena for the Gors. After studying their theory with instructors in classrooms, they came here where they could practice with the interactive holofields.

Hoff dismissed the petty officer, and then headed for room O-6, where his research team had been given exclusive access. Hoff’s program was designed to train mixed teams of human and Gor commandos for insertion into enemy-occupied worlds, but that was just the official line, and what he told to Overlord Dominic’s men. The truth was that he was studying the Gors’ telepathy and cloaking abilities. Like that, he hoped to eventually find a way to detect cloaked Gors and their ships.

As the door to O-6 swished open before him, Hoff stepped into what looked like the bridge of a generic, medium-sized starship. A gangway led from the entrance of the room to a captain’s table, while a dozen different bridge control stations lay below and to either side of that. Those control stations had been configured to monitor sensor nodes in skintight skullcaps which certain Gors wore beneath their glossy black helmets. Mixed Gor and human commando teams were the perfect excuse for Hoff to modify the Gors’ equipment, adding those caps as so-called comm suites to help them communicate with their human cohorts. The sensors in those caps took readings from the Gors’ brains and their surroundings in order to detect anomalies and brain wave patterns which could be associated with the Gors’ telepathic and cloaking abilities.

Hoff strode up to the captain’s table and gazed down on it with a pair of men in insulated white lab coats. One of them looked up and nodded to him. Hoff recognized the man in his peripheral vision. The man’s glowing red artificial eye gave him away. It was Hoff’s XO, Master Commander Lenon Donali.

As Hoff watched, the commander touched the comm piece in his ear and said, “Good work, Corporal Vossa, now pass that message on to Gor Squad Two.”

Hoff saw that the training environment was a rocky, sand-swept red landscape. There were groups of green and yellow friendly contacts on the grid, each separated by their color. The green was for human commandos and the yellow for Gors. They advanced slowly on a seething mass of red enemy contacts which were clustered at the base of a rugged red mountain. Abruptly, Hoff’s gaze was drawn away from the bird’s eye view by a holo display which flashed up in the air above the table. It showed more than a dozen colored bars, each of them labeled with letters. Some of the bars were grayed out, minimizing their importance, while others remained bright. All of their levels were constantly fluctuating. As Hoff watched, one of the bars spiked up out of nowhere and then began to diminish. It was a yellow bar, labeled with the letter “T.”

Donali caught Hoff’s eye and nodded to the display. “You see that?” he whispered.

Hoff nodded. “What does it mean?”

The commander held up a hand as if to say, wait and see. “Same message, Vossa, but this time to Gor Squad Three.” A moment later the yellow bar spiked again, and this time a shaded red circle appeared on the map, overlaying one of the clumps of yellow icons.

“That bar you see labeled with a T represents the level of tachyon radiation around Corporal Vossa,” Donali explained, pointing to the slowly dropping levels. “Every time he communicates with his crèche mates, we detect a micro burst of tachyons. It’s the same thing we see after a ship has jumped to superluminal space, but the radiation is obviously much weaker.” Donali smiled, and he leaned close over the holographic glow of the captain’s table, bringing his features into sharp relief. “We can detect when they are communicating with each other, Admiral. We can pinpoint the origin of the radiation to within a five klick radius, and we can even calculate a vector from the fan-like spread of the radiation.”

Hoff’s eyebrows elevated only slightly, but his heart raced and his brain buzzed with the possibilities for such a technology. “What about when they’re cloaked? Or . . . are they already cloaked?”

“Unfortunately not. Somehow their cloaking shields hide even T radiation from our scanners.”

“Are we sure that the Gors actually can communicate with each other while they’re cloaked?”

Donali nodded. “Carefully timed and coordinated missions have confirmed that, but we remain unable to detect communications between cloaked Gors.”

Hoff felt his impatience rising. “If tachyon radiation is useless for detecting cloaked Gors, then what did you bring me down here for, Commander?”

“Well, it’s not entirely useless. If an uncloaked Gor contacts a cloaked one, we can detect that, and based on the vector, we might be able to find the cloaked one, too.”

Suddenly Hoff understood the significance of the discovery and his eyes lit up. “So when and if one of our Gors calls home, we can tell that he didn’t contact one of his crèche mates on Ritan, because the vector will point off planet, into the middle of empty space.”

“Exactly. Unless Gors can fly, there’s no way that telepathic communications with a space-bound vector should correspond to inter-Gor communications in this system.”

“Unless he’s contacting one of the Gors in orbit aboard Dominic’s ships.”

“But we’ll see the vector cross through them, and we can dismiss it.”

Hoff nodded. “So we have an early warning system.”

“Assuming the Gor who calls for help isn’t cloaked when he does so, yes.”

“But we have no way of controlling that.”

“We just have to hope that we’re lucky, and that the Gors don’t understand the limitations of our sensors.”

Hoff sighed. “That’s better than nothing, I suppose. What do I need to do to my ships so that they can detect these telepathic bursts?”

“Your fleet is already equipped with tachyon scanners to detect and track ships through SLS. All you need to do is calibrate them to detect lower levels of T radiation.”

“Good. I’ll have you oversee that.”

“Yes, sir. Are we going to tell the overlord?”

Hoff frowned, and his thoughts turned to Overlord Dominic, now orbiting on the far side of Ritan in his five-kilometer-long flagship, the Valiant. Dominic’s arrival had been unexpected to say the least. “They are the ones who stand to benefit the most from this discovery, aren’t they? But no . . . for now, we’d better keep this quiet, especially from the ISSF. If someone leaks this and the Gors realize we can detect their telepathy, they’ll clam right up. We need to catch them first. Once we have proof that they’re not on our side, then we’ll go to Dominic and warn him.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’ve made great progress, Donali, but keep working on it. If the Gors can communicate with each other while cloaked and telelocate one another like that, then we should be able to do whatever it is they’re doing.”

The commander hesitated. “We may need to vivisect one of them to discover that.”

Hoff shrugged. “We’ll do what we have to do. Let me know if that’s what you need.”

“Yes, sir . . . I’ll be sure to exhaust all the other available options first.” Donali glanced around nervously, as if a cloaked Gor might be in the room, listening to them, but the displacement sensors at the doors would have detected something coming in which couldn’t be found on the room’s holocorders. With the right preparation, cloaked Gors were easy enough to detect in confined spaces. It was wide open vacuum that Hoff was concerned about.

“Don’t go to too many extremes, Commander. There’s only so much Dominic can do to protect his pets. If we need to kill a few to unravel their secrets, I’ll find a way to do it without him or any of the other Gors finding out.”

Donali nodded and then Hoff’s comm piece trilled with an incoming call from his pilot. “Excuse me,” he said, and walked away from the captain’s table to get some privacy. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing to worry about, sir, but I’ve just received a commcast from Fortress Station. The Interloper is back in-system. They’re on approach.”

Hoff’s eyes widened. Finally. “I’ll be there in a minute. Start warming your engines, Sergeant.”

“I never let them cool, sir.”

“Good. I’ll see you soon. Hoff out.” Turning back to his XO, he called out, “Commander Donali, you’re coming with me. I’ve been called back to orbit, and I need you to start calibrating sensors up there. Bring whoever you need from this team to help you, and don’t tell anyone what you’re doing. I want to limit the number of people who know about this technology.”

“Yes, sir.” Donali turned and snapped his fingers at a pair of his men. All of a minute later the four of them were hurrying back through the winding tunnels of the academy on their way to Hoff’s waiting corvette. As before, they passed countless Gors—hulking monsters with sunken, skull-like faces, bald blue-gray skin, and thick, rippling muscles. When armored, each of them looked as intimidating as a navy sentinel in a zephyr light assault mech. Unarmored, they were even more frightening. Soon . . . Hoff thought, eyeing a group of aliens as they passed one another other in a narrow stretch of corridor. Soon I’ll be dancing on your graves.




Chapter 6

Origin

Alara and those who’d travelled with her aboard the Rescue had been confined to their ship after Delayn’s outburst on the bridge. Captain Adram said they were lucky he wasn’t making them spend the trip in the brig. As for the survivors from the Defiant, there wasn’t much space for them aboard the 100-meter-long Interloper, so they were forced to bunk on cots in the hangar where the Rescue had landed. They’d left the Defiant behind, but that was just as well, since it was now teeming with emancipated Gors. Adram assured them that a salvage team would be sent back for the cruiser and her alien refugees as soon as possible.

Now, nine hours after they’d left the Defiant, Alara, Gina Giord, and Commander Caldin stood side by side at the forward viewport of the Rescue, gazing down on the men and women below. Dim orange lanterns broke up the perpetual darkness inside the Interloper’s hangar, and Alara saw that some of the officers were huddled together on the glassy black deck, playing card games or talking. Others lay alone on their cots or paced endlessly around the hangar. The crew had spent the whole day cooped up inside that hangar, and it was barely large enough to fit the Rescue, let alone 55 men and women and their personal effects. Captain Adram seemed equally suspicious of the Defiant’s crew as he was of the Gors. They hadn’t been allowed out of the auxiliary hangar bay since they’d arrived. Perhaps it had something to do with the high profile prisoners they’d brought aboard. Adram had whisked them away to whatever passed for the alien cruiser’s brig and they hadn’t seen or heard from him or the prisoners since. Alara hoped that Ethan was all right. With that thought came an opposing flash of bitter anger. Ethan was married. Let his wife worry about him—wherever she is.

Delayn interrupted her thoughts. “Kavaar . . . Commander, you need to see this.”

“What is it?” Caldin asked, turning from the viewport to walk down to the gravidar station where Delayn was seated in Tova’s oversized chair. As for the black-armored alien, she stood all alone in one corner of the bridge, leaning against the wall and watching them from the shadows. The glowing red eyes of her helmet seemed to look everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Alara shuddered and tried to ignore the alien as she watched Commander Caldin lean over Delayn’s shoulder. “There—” Delayn pointed to something on the gravidar that Alara couldn’t see.

Caldin leaned closer to the display and the star map cast her features in a blue glow. Alara watched the worry lines on Caldin’s brow grow suddenly more pronounced. “What is that?” she asked.

“It looks like the Valiant, ma’am.”

“What are they doing here?” Caldin asked.

Alara couldn’t stand the suspense. She hurried down to the gravidar station, and Gina followed her.

“You think the admiral knows that Brondi stole the Valiant from us?” Delayn asked.

Caldin straightened from leaning over the console and shook her head. “I’m not sure, but if not, it’s time he found out.” She touched the comm piece in her ear and said, “Call Captain Adram.”

A moment later the captain answered, and Caldin hurried to explain the situation. The captain already knew most of their story from the explanation Gina Giord had given when the Rescue had been found, but Caldin now re-emphasized the part about the Valiant being stolen by Alec Brondi.

Alara studied the gravidar intently, eyeing the cigar-shaped green icon of the gladiator-class carrier.

“Frek,” Gina whispered. “Brondi beat us here. . . .”

Delayn looked up and nodded mutely; then Caldin exclaimed, “You what?! Ten to one that’s not a vaccine, Captain!” All three of them turned to listen in on Caldin’s comm call. Alara watched the commander begin shaking her head. “So you knew they were here?”

Alara frowned, watching as Caldin’s brow grew ever more-lined, and her eyes narrowed by degrees.

“I see,” was all Caldin said. “Well, thank you for being so honest. Goodbye, sir.” Caldin’s jaw muscles clenched as she closed the comm.

“What is it?” Alara asked. “What did he say?”

“He said that the Valiant arrived a few days ago. They claimed to have fled Dark Space after an outlaw fleet attacked them with a bioweapon and tried to steal their ship.”

“Motherfrekker . . .” Gina said.

“Yes, he is,” Caldin replied.

Delayn’s jaw dropped. “Brondi’s using our own story against us! How can he get away with that? We have the overlord, not him.”

Caldin snorted. “No, we don’t. Our overlord is an imposter, and apparently when the Valiant made contact, the one who contacted them was, to all appearances anyway, Overlord Dominic.”

“Where in the nethers did they find another holoskin of the overlord?” Delayn asked.

Caldin shrugged. “Maybe the same place as the first. Brondi had to have infiltrated the Valiant somehow.”

Delayn gaped at her. “By replacing the overlord with a holoskinner?”

“Maybe, but how he did it doesn’t matter right now. The fact is, our stories contradict each other, and there’s some reasonable doubt about who is who.”

“That’s ridiculous!” Alara said. “It’s obvious we’re with the fleet!”

“Is it?” Caldin turned to her. “If two Imperial vessels came to you, each of them with the same story—claiming to have been attacked by outlaws and then chased out of Dark Space—would you believe the ones who admitted to having an imposter overlord aboard, or the ones who knew nothing about the imposter, the ones who actually appear to have the real overlord. Add to that the fact that the Valiant is Overlord Dominic’s flagship, and he’s right where you’d expect to find him, and our position gets even weaker. It’s hard to believe that a ragtag fleet of outlaws could steal the biggest, strongest ship in the fleet.”

Delayn winced. “We grew complacent. That never should have happened.”

“No, it shouldn’t have, but we weren’t expecting our own race to turn on us when the galaxy is seething with aliens bent on human extinction.”

“So where does that leave us?” Delayn asked, gesturing out the forward viewport to the huddled masses below.

“Until our prisoners can be probed, we’re under as much suspicion as they are,” Caldin replied.

Alara shook her head. “I can’t believe it.”

“It gets worse,” Caldin went on. “Apparently Brondi gave them the vaccine for his virus.”

“Why would he do that?” Alara asked.

“He wouldn’t. I’m sure the vaccine is contaminated. He must be trying to spread his virus to the admiral’s ships, too.”

“That will never work,” Delayn said.

“Not now that there’s a reason to doubt his story and double check that vaccine, but before . . .” Caldin shook her head. “It all depends how cautious Admiral Heston is.”

Gina nodded out the viewport. “I’d say he’s too cautious for his own good. He’s imprisoning his friends and letting his enemies run free.”

“Wait a minute—” Delayn put in. “What about the Gors?”

“What about them? The admiral doesn’t trust them, either,” Caldin said.

“No, I mean, Tova and Roan—our Gors.” Delayn glanced over at Tova, but she didn’t react to the mention of her name. “I spoke with Tova before we left for Obsidian Station, and I had her tell her mate aboard the Valiant how to disable the carrier’s reactor and gravity for us. If they haven’t caught him yet, we could get him to sabotage the ship.”

Caldin’s eyes lit up. “You’re a genius, Delayn—Tova!” she waited for the alien to respond. Tova’s helmet turned almost imperceptibly toward them. “Try to contact your mate. Tell him we’re here, and we need his help.”

“I already contact him,” she said.

“What? Why didn’t you say something?”

“You are busy, so I listen and wait.”

Caldin gritted her teeth. “What’s Roan’s status?”

“He is well.”

“Good. Great. Ask him if he remembers how to sabotage the carrier like we told him to.”

They waited for a tense minute before Tova spoke again. “He is there. He says he already does what you ask.”

Alara frowned, trying to understand the Gors’ strange grammar. They had a habit of speaking in the present tense for everything. “You mean he has already sabotaged the ship?” she asked.

“The ship is damaged.”

“Do they have power?” Caldin asked.

“They do not.”

“Good! Thank you, Tova. Well—” Caldin sighed, turning back to Alara and Delayn. “Hopefully we’ve at least bought some time for the admiral to find out the truth.”

*  *  *

Origin

Admiral Heston stood waiting inside the arrival lounge of Fortress Station’s main hangar. The station was operated by the Fifth Fleet Remnant (FFR), not the ISSF, so it was a safe place to receive the Interloper with its precious cargo.

The station was their staging point and rendezvous to coordinate joint operations with the ISSF. It lay on the far side of Ritan to hide it from any Sythian passersby on the space lane between Roka and Advistine, but Heston was less concerned that they’d be detected by passing Sythian ships than he was that the Imperium’s telepathic Gor “allies” on the surface of Ritan would start broadcasting their location to any Sythians close enough to hear.

The question of whether or not the Gors could be trusted was an even greater concern for Dark Space. That isolated sector was home to a large human remnant, and the overlord was relying on the Gors to be an early warning system in case the Sythians ever found them and came boiling into Dark Space with a fleet of cloaked ships. That early warning system wouldn’t have been necessary if they’d had the sense to stay hidden. Now they could detect cloaked Sythian warships, but only if the Gors deigned to tell them the enemy was coming. That placed far too much power in the Gors’ hands for Heston’s liking. The overlord had left all of Dark Space at their mercy, and there was something badly off about them. They didn’t act like slaves—absent were the obeisant attitude and broken will that he would have expected from a race of slaves. For all anyone really knew, the Gors were their own masters and the Sythians didn’t exist. Where was any proof to the contrary? One would think a slave ship full of Gors would have at least one Sythian taskmaster to keep them in line, but no, the Sythians were supposedly all hiding on gigantic command ships which stayed cloaked behind the lines, directing battles from a distance.

The only Sythian anyone had ever seen was High Lord Kaon of the Sythian First Fleet, and as for their command control ships—the 30-kilometer-long behemoth-class cruisers—those had never even been glimpsed by human eyes. Images of them came straight from the Gors.

It was all too circular for Heston’s liking. Everything began and ended with the Gors, including Kaon. He had been captured and delivered to the overlord as a gesture of good will, a way to cement the alliance between humans and Gors, but Dominic had taken that bait far too easily. Heston had met Kaon on multiple occasions, and like the Gors, there was something suspicious about him. During the year that Kaon had been held captive at Obsidian Station, the alien had revealed precious little about anything—and not for want of torture or interrogation. Kaon could recite the Gors’ story well enough, but he shut right up when pressed on certain topics—like why the Sythians had invaded, or what they had against humanity.

Either Kaon was particularly strong-willed, or else he only knew what he had been told. The overlord’s interrogators had cut off Kaon’s cranial fins, severed his tail, broken his webbed hands and feet—all of that and not a peep. Oh, he’d made plenty of noise, but he’d refused to answer the really important questions. He’d just become violent and incoherent.

Heston had asked the overlord to subject Kaon to a mind probe, but Overlord Dominic insisted that the risk outweighed the gain. Early probes of the Gors had killed them almost immediately, and Dominic assumed the same would be true of a Sythian. Kaon’s DNA was very closely related to theirs, which was an argument in favor of that theory, but careful study of Kaon’s cells had revealed that his body, although it seemed weaker than that of a Gor, was far more evolved, and distinctly stronger. While the Gors could theoretically live for about 60 years, Kaon’s oldest cells were already more than five hundred years old, and there was every indication that he could live for another five hundred.

Attempts to increase the longevity of humans through bioengineering and nanotech had eventually hit a wall at around 150 years. Beyond that, medical science and transplants could extend a human’s life by another 20 to 30 years, but no human had ever broken the dicentennial barrier. The idea that there was a sentient species which could live more than five times that long both excited Hoff’s interest and raised his suspicions. If humans and Sythians were roughly equal on the technological battle field, all cloaking devices aside, then how could Sythians be so far ahead on the evolutionary battlefield?

Hoff was eager to discover the truth. He had argued that Kaon could take a mind probe if his body was that strong, while Dominic had counter-argued that despite slow progress, they were still gleaning information from Kaon, and until that stopped, there was no point using a probe on him. No risk, no profit, Hoff thought with a tired smirk, but he was done pressing the point with the overlord.

A small, bright ellipse grew steadily larger as it flew toward the hazy blue shields of the hangar bay where he waited. A few minutes later, Hoff could make out the mirror-clear hull and the tear-dropped shape of the Interloper. They were two days late returning from their mission. Captain Adram had sent a scout back to explain the delay before he’d detoured to rescue the Defiant, but Hoff would have preferred if they’d come back to Ritan first. Their mission was far too important for them to take unnecessary risks.

Hoff sighed. There was nothing to do about it now—it was garbage out the airlock. He’d have to reprimand Captain Adram for it later. His comm piece trilled, interrupting his thoughts—Incoming call from Captain Cathrall of the Destine.

He touched his ear to answer. “Yes?”

“Admiral, we have a situation.”

“What’s wrong?” Hoff’s muscles tensed as he anticipated the worst.

“The Valiant has powered down, sir. They’re drifting toward Ritan, and they’re not responding to our hails.”

Heston frowned. That wasn’t at all what he’d been expecting to hear. “You’re telling me that the overlord is about to crash into his own training facility?”

“His current trajectory would put his landing more than a thousand klicks from the Isharian Flow, but if they do crash into the surface it will be an extinction level event. The academy might survive since it’s underground, but radioactive fallout will destroy the ecosystem on the surface.”

“No sign of what caused this sudden power failure? They weren’t attacked?”

“No, sir, not unless the attack came from within.”

“Perhaps the Gors have already bitten the hands that feed them. Keep trying to get the Valiant on the comms. Meanwhile, send a shuttle to investigate with a squad of mechs and engineers. Make sure the engineers are wearing hazmats and that they go through decontamination when they get back. Also, double check for Gor stowaways. We don’t need an outbreak of either that virus or the Gors on our fleet.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Keep me posted.”

“I will, sir.”

“Good. Heston out.” The admiral stood staring in silence once more, now watching as the Interloper sailed into the hangar. The thin blue membrane of static shields at the opening of the hangar shimmered as the cruiser passed through. Hoff shook his head, his thoughts still on the overlord’s predicament. He and Dominic might not have seen eye to eye about the Gors, but they were still technically on the same side. Humanity couldn’t afford to lose a ship like the Valiant.

“What have you gotten yourself into?” Hoff wondered. No sooner had he asked himself that question than his comm piece trilled once more—Incoming call from Captain Adram of the Interloper.

“Hello, Captain,” Hoff answered. “You’re back—finally.

“Yes, we’ve just pulled into the hangar.”

“I know. I’m watching you come in. I assume your mission was a success?”

“It was, sir.”

“And the unscheduled rescue?” Hoff’s tone became testy.

“That’s why I’m calling you, sir. We have a political situation on board.”

“Political?” Heston’s grizzled eyebrows drooped toward his nose. “How so?”

“I have the overlord on board.”

“Last I checked the overlord was aboard the Valiant, Captain.”

“Yes, sir. He is.”

“Then?”

“The overlord we have on board is an imposter, sir—a holoskinner.”

Heston blinked, taken aback. “Well, well, that is interesting. . . . so the real overlord is still aboard the Valiant where he belongs?”

“Perhaps, perhaps not. The crew we rescued has a very similar story to the one we heard from the Valiant, but in this version of events the Valiant didn’t escape; it was captured by the outlaws.”

“And we’re just going to take their word for that? Who’s the source of this information?”

“The commander of the ship, a Commander Loba Caldin.”

“Caldin . . . the name sounds familiar.”

“She commanded the overlord’s expedition to the Getties, sir. Back then she was Captain Caldin.”

“Ah . . . yes, now I remember. So she’s been demoted since then. What was the reason for her demotion?”

“From the files we downloaded from the Defiant, it seems that she was demoted for subjecting a Gor to a mind probe and killing him, sir.”

“A woman after my own heart.”

“Apart from that incident, she’s been a reliable officer. As for her story about the imposter—the rest of her crew supports it.”

“Very interesting. We’ll talk more about this when you come aboard, Captain.”

“Yes, sir—there’s one more thing, sir. We captured three more Sythian cruisers while conducting our rescue mission.”

Heston’s eyes widened. “All by yourselves? You were not authorized to take your ship into combat, Captain. . . .”

“They surrendered without a fight, sir.”

“Kind of them to do so. Did they realize they were surrendering to us rather than their ISSF allies?”

“As far as I can tell from talking to Tova, the Gor liason from the Defiant, the Gors are aware of the political upheaval. They’re concerned that the Imperium is now leaderless and their alliance is in jeopardy. The unconditional surrender seems to be some kind of peace offering. She’s hoping we’ll consider joining the alliance.”

“I see, and what did you tell this Tova?”

“I told her we can’t promise anything, but it will be taken into consideration.”

“How very vague of you.” Heston smiled. “Good. What have you done with the ships and their Gor crews?”

“We left the ships and their crews with the Defiant. The Gors bailed out as usual, but we didn’t have room for them and I didn’t think you’d want me to bring them aboard, so we stowed them aboard the Defiant before we rescued her crew.”

“I assume you checked your ship for stowaways.”

“Yes, we’re clear. I’ve also isolated the human survivors in our hangar bay.”

“Excellent. You were wise to be cautious. We don’t need to accidentally bring a band of outlaws aboard. I’ll tell Dominic’s forces here to go back for their ship and their allies. Rescuing Gors is an ISSF prerogative. Finish what you have to, Captain, and then come meet me in my office. Meanwhile, have our subject escorted to the probe rooms, and make sure no one sees him.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ll see you soon. Don’t keep me waiting. Heston out.”

The admiral stared out the viewports of the lounge a while longer, his gray eyes flicking over the smooth, mirror-clear hull of the Interloper.

The overlord a holoskinner . . . he thought wonderingly. And what about the other overlord aboard the Valiant? Is he the real Altarian Dominic? If not, then had the overlord always been a holoskinner? Was he one of them? In some ways it would make sense if he were. Heston had always suspected something about the old man. The curious part, however, was the holoskin. With some prior planning, there were more permanent ways of hiding.

He must have come to the position recently, Hoff decided.

Heston was going to have to be very careful about probing the imposter, just in case. It would make no sense for him to accidentally reveal the truth in a public trial. People can only handle the truth in small doses—give them too much and they’ll kill you.




 

Chapter 7

Origin

Ithicus awoke with a gasp, and his back arched involuntarily against the hard surface where he lay. Everything was dark. His arms and legs were secured. Ice began crawling through his veins, and he collapsed, shivering in the dark. Through the fog in his brain he could hear the steady whoosh of air cyclers, and the droning hum of superluminal space. The ice crawling through his veins reached his heart and he groaned as his chest began to ache and burn. Then the pain subsided, and his eyes drifted shut.

He saw a flash of light and heard a fast-dying roar as explosive bolts blasted his canopy away and his flight chair ejected into space. Then came a painful silence as he sailed through the vacuum. Ithicus gazed down on the flowering explosion that had been his wingmate, Guardian Four, and then he saw his own nova fighter go rocketing toward the odd dozen Sythian missiles which were still tracking it. Those spinning purple stars quickly reached his needle-nosed Mark II and provoked another brilliant flash of light and accompanying cloud of fire. The flames quickly faded from an angry red to a pale, translucent gold, and then they died all together as their fuel abruptly dissipated and ran out.

Ithicus had his flight helmet on, and his suit was pressurized, so exposure to the vacuum wouldn’t kill him, but the air tanks strapped to the back of his ejection seat would only last for a few hours—that wasn’t even half the time it would take for the Defiant to send someone back for him, so he didn’t bother to activate his distress beacon and let the other Guardians know he was still alive. Why make them feel guilty? He and Guardian Four had given their lives to let the others escape. There was no sense making that sacrifice haunt them more than it already would.

“You shouldn’t have ejected, Ithy,” he whispered to himself. “Now you’re really frekked.” “Bought yourself a couple of hours for stargazing before the end.”

But that end had never come. He’d eventually fallen asleep as his air had trickled out, and then . . . then he’d woken up here. If this is the netherworld, he thought, it should at least be a little warmer.

He cracked his eyes open to see two glowing red orbs set in a shiny black helmet. There came a familiar hiss, followed by an alien warbling, and that was when Ithicus Adari understood that he wasn’t dead and this really was the netherworld.

He began to scream. “I’m not going to let you eat me, you motherfrekkers!”

Death would have been preferable. He’d been captured by Gors. Ithicus spat at the one he could see, aiming for the glowing red eyes of the alien’s helmet. He hit his mark, provoking another hiss, and then an armored elbow slammed into his forehead and he surrendered to the darkness.

*  *  *

Origin

“Tell me the truth, Kaon, and I’ll let you go. Who are the Gors?”

Kaon warbled, and Heston’s translator communicated the gist of what was said. “I tell you the truth already. The Gorz are our slaves.”

“Where did they come from?”

“The Gettizz,” Kaon hissed, revealing a double row of serrated white teeth.

“Really,” Heston quirked an eyebrow at that. “So both the Gors and the Sythians evolved in the same galaxy?”

Kaon hissed again. “Yess.”

“Who are the Sythians?”

“We are Zithianz.”

“I know that. Who are you?”

“We are masters of the Gorz.

“How very circular.” Heston gave the alien an open-handed slap, which echoed loudly in the small room and sent Kaon’s head slamming back into his headrest. The alien hissed again. “Once more with feeling,” Heston said. “Who are the Sythians?”

“Who are the humanz?” Kaon countered.

Heston smiled thinly at the alien and stared intently at his translucent face. “Why did you attack us?”

“We attack you to kill you.”

“That’s self evident. Why did you want to kill us?”

“So that you would be gone.”

Heston’s eyes flashed. “Why did you leave the Getties?”

“We left the Gettiz to get here.”

“What are you doing here? What do you want?”

Kaon didn’t reply, so Hoff raised his hand again as if to slap the alien. Kaon hissed at him, but remained silent. “Are you at war with the Gors?”

“Some fight us now, yes.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

“Then you do not ask well.”

Heston growled and slapped Kaon again, sending his head reeling once more. “You’re wasting my time! You know I’m going to have you probed, right?” Heston loomed closer. “You know what that is? A small army of nanites will be injected into your bloodstream near your brain stem. From there they’ll go straight up and imbed themselves in your brain. Like that I’ll be able to see everything you’ve ever seen, and ask any questions with the assurance that you can’t lie. You won’t be able to hide anything from me.”

Kaon warbled a response. “You ask me questions, but do not believe the answers, so answer your own questions and see that I tell the truth.”

“I will, but the probe might kill you to get the information I’m looking for. . . .” Heston shrugged. “I’d rather you didn’t have to die.”

Kaon hissed. “You should kill me long ago.”

“Why? What do you think you are doing that’s hurting us? Giving us misinformation, perhaps?”

Again Kaon gave no response.

“Hoi!” Heston reached out and took the alien’s face in his hand, squeezing its rubbery cheeks together with bruising force and puckering his scarred lips. “I’m talking to you, little fish!”

Kaon just stared at him with big, lidless blue eyes. After a moment, a membrane nictated over his eyes and Heston let him go with a disgusted shove.

“Fine.” Heston nodded and turned to his XO sitting at a control station along one side of the room. “Are we ready to begin, Commander Donali?”

Donali turned from the control station, his red artificial eye glowing in the dim light of the probe room. “Yes, sir,” he said, rising from his chair. Hoff eyed the commander as he walked over to them with an implanter. In his role as the executive officer aboard Hoff’s aging flagship, the Tauron, Master Commander Donali was privy to things most people would never get to see—such as the fact that High Lord Kaon was now in Hoff’s possession.

Kaon remained calm as the commander stepped up behind him and pushed his head forward to look for a vein in his translucent skin. The alien’s arms and legs were already bolted into the chair manacles, so he didn’t bother to resist. Hoff studied Kaon as the needle went in, and Kaon studied him back, not reacting at all to the needle. Heston glanced at the alien’s mangled hands and feet and the ridge of scar tissue running along his bald head where his cranial fins had been cut off. By now Kaon had to be so used to pain that the prick of a needle was nothing to him.

“You’re very calm for someone who’s about to die.”

“I do not fear death.”

“That’s odd, considering you tell me that the Sythians are hiding on their cloaked ships, directing their slave soldiers into battle. If you were so fearless, wouldn’t you fight your own battles?”

Kaon warbled, “I said I do not fear death. That does not mean that Zithianz are stupid. Bravery and recklessness are not the same. Are you a coward?”

Heston’s eyes flashed. “Be careful not to insult me. I’m already short of patience.”

“Then why do you not fly a fighter into battle? You do not fear death, either, but you do not risk it more than necessary.”

Heston smiled. “I don’t fly fighters because I can kill you more efficiently from the bridge of a battleship than I can from the cockpit of a nova. You think you’re a clever little fish, don’t you? Let’s go meet your Sythian friends, shall we? Assuming they exist, of course. . . .” Kaon gave no reply. His big blue eyes just stared into Heston’s gray ones, and eventually the admiral grew tired of the game. “Start up the probe!” he said. Heston knew the alien was lying. Trusting Kaon to tell them the truth was like Overlord Dominic trusting the Gors to let him know when cloaked Sythian ships invaded Dark Space.

If the Sythians really existed, why after more than a decade of war, had they only ever met one Sythian and never even seen their elusive command ships? The Gors’ entire story was full of holes. Time to fill them in, Heston thought as he walked over to the probe control station. “Let’s see what our little fish is hiding,” he said as he reached for one of the helmets which hung on a rack above the control console. The gray helmets were covered with knobby nodes, and the glossy black visors were opaque. Heston sat down in the interrogator’s chair beside the probe console and slipped the helmet over his head. On the inside of the visor was a holoscreen. At the moment the screen was blank, but in the top-right hand corner was a timer. It read: 00:00. Without that, it would be easy to become so immersed in a subject’s memories that one lost all sense of time, and time was of the essence if they were going to get anything out of Kaon before the probe turned his brain to jelly.

“Are you ready, Admiral?”

“I am.”

“Probe commencing in five, four, three . . .”

Heston watched the countdown appear as a green number flashing up in the center of the display. When the countdown reached zero, suddenly the blank screen vanished and he was standing on a glossy black deck under a vast, transparent dome of stars. It looked like the bridge of a Gor ship. Alien control stations were scattered around the deck in concentric circles, just as he would have expected to see on any Gor vessel, but when Heston looked closer at those control stations, he gasped. They were too small for Gors, and sitting at each one of those stations was a—

It can’t be, Heston thought. “Where are you, Kaon?” he asked aloud.

“I am . . . on the bridge of my ship.”

“And what ship is that?”

“The Sharal.”

“A Sythian command ship?”

“Yes.”

“And these beings on the deck are . . .”

“My crew.”

“They don’t look like Gors, Kaon.”

“They are not Gorz. They are Zithianz.

“Where are all the Gors?”

“On their ships.”

“There are no Gors aboard this vessel?”

“We do not risk having them aboard.”

“What is the purpose of this vessel, Kaon?”

“It is a carrier.”

Hoff’s mind boggled at that. A thirty-kilometer-long carrier would hold thousands of fighters. “How many fighters does this ship hold?”

“None.”

“What? What does it carry?”

“It carries Gors.”

Hoff’s eyes narrowed and suddenly his suspicions were raised again. “You just told me you don’t risk having Gors aboard your ship.”

“We do not. The Sharal carries Gor vessels for long journeys. The Gors are not allowed to leave their ships.”

“Show me.”

Suddenly the scene on the bridge vanished, and Hoff stood looking out a broad viewport at a vast hangar bay, ten times the size of anything Hoff had ever seen aboard a human warship—the Valiant included. Inside were dozens of Gor cruisers hanging from the ceiling and locked into docking stations on the floor. Hoff wondered if Overlord Dominic’s allies had told him about this, or if this was the first anyone had ever discovered about the nature of Sythian command ships. Given the size of the average Sythian fleet, even at 30 kilometers long, a behemoth cruiser wouldn’t have much room for anything besides docking stations for the Gors’ ships. Hoff thought about how easy it would be for the Gors to obliterate the behemoth cruiser from the inside, and his eyes narrowed thoughtfully. Yet again, the Gors’ story didn’t make sense. If they were trying to break free, they should have done so long ago.

“How many Sythians are on board this ship, Kaon?”

“Two hundred and seventy.”

“That’s it? What do they do?”

“There is one to control every Gor ship, and twelve more for the Sharal.

“Just twelve? What are the Sythians doing in our galaxy, Kaon?”

“What are we doing . . .”

“Yes, you heard me.”

“W-what . . .” What followed was not translated by Hoff’s translator.

Suddenly the scene vanished and back was the blank black screen. “What happened?”

“We’re losing him, sir.”

“Stop the probe.”

Heston pulled off the helmet and shook his head. He turned to look at Kaon. The alien’s eyes were rolling, and his expression was a rictus of pain. “So you weren’t lying to me?” Hoff found it difficult to believe.

“I told . . . you the truth. . . .” he said distantly. “You do not believe it.”

“Did you see that?” Hoff asked, turning to Commander Donali.

“I did.”

“There were Sythians on that ship.” Hoff shook his head. “It can’t be. He’s not telling the truth!”

“Sir—” Donali turned to him. “—if I may ask, what makes you so sure?”

“I . . .” Heston trailed off and turned to stare at the Sythian. Kaon stared back. “Is his brain showing any signs of damage from the probe?”

“No, but I doubt he’ll live through another session like that. Not yet anyway. He’ll need some time to recover.”

Heston stood up from the interrogator’s chair. “Well then, it seems we’re forced to take a break.”

“Yes, sir.”

“In your experience, Commander, is there any way to fool a probe?”

“Only if the subject himself is fooled.”

“And how might that occur?”

Donali blinked; his glowing artificial eye dimmed and then brightened to mimic the effect. “If he were chipped, sir, and his memories were planted rather than real.”

“Exactly.”

Donali shook his head. “If Kaon had an implant, I’d have found that right away with the probe.”

“Sythians don’t have the same technology as us. They might not need to implant anything.”

“Then how are we supposed to find out about it?”

“If you knew he was chipped, but you couldn’t see the implant, what would you look for?”

“Scar tissue, or maybe some type of trace—memories, feelings, or thoughts which are out of place, things which cause anxiety in the host because they don’t fit with the rest of his or her identity.”

“Good. Look for that, and let me know what you find.”

“Yes, sir.”

Hoff stormed out of the probe room, shaking his head. The Gors were not going to get away with this. Maybe Overlord Dominic had made allowances for them, but Hoff Heston had run out of patience. Kaon was a planted Gor agent; he was sure of it. He was going to have to try a different tack to prove it. Maybe he’d interrogate a Gor or two. The aliens’ telepathy posed a problem, but he could always drum up some excuse to take a few Gors out for a joy ride so they could get far enough away from their crèche mates that they wouldn’t be able to tell the others what he was doing to them.

Hoff smiled, and his mood lifted as he strode through the detention level. He was eager to get started interrogating the Gors, but unfortunately there were still some political ends to tie. While debriefing Captain Adram of the Interloper, he’d found out that the imposter overlord was an ex-con named Ethan. As for the other two prisoners, one was Ethan’s alleged son, a nova pilot named Adan Reese, and the other a doctor named Kurlin Vastra. Apparently that doctor was the man responsible for creating the virus which had ravaged the Valiant. All three were awaiting his judgment.

And judged they would be. Heston had no time for dissenters and rebels—humans fighting humans—it was a waste of precious resources, and it had to end. If Dark Space had been under his command, he would have purged it of all the criminals long ago. At least for now he had the power to purge it of these three. But before any of them were probed and executed, Heston would give Ethan a chance for a less public hearing, just in case.




Chapter 8

Origin

Ethan felt the cold duranium of the manacles press against his wrists, locking them to the armrests of a high-backed black chair. His ankles were likewise restrained. He didn’t bother to struggle. If he survived the mind probe, it would be liberating to have people finally know the truth—the whole truth. He’d been an unwitting pawn in Brondi’s plot, but on some level he’d also been a witting one. His mission had been to infiltrate the Valiant and find some way to sabotage it. In exchange, Brondi had promised to release his copilot, Alara, and his ship, the Atton. He’d also promised to forgive the 10,000 sols they owed him, but Brondi had lied. He’d never intended to release Alara—the fact that he’d had her chipped was proof enough of that—and in a way that was fair, because Ethan had never intended to sabotage the Valiant, at least not in any way which would injure her crew.

Unfortunately, Brondi had anticipated Ethan’s reluctance and had used him as the carrier for Kurlin’s deadly virus. All Ethan had needed to do to achieve Brondi’s ends was to set foot aboard the Valiant.

Ethan’s jaw clenched as he remembered how he’d been used. As for the others about to be tried with him, one of them was guilty and one was mostly innocent. Ethan glanced to his left and watched the innocent one being strapped into a chair beside his own. That young man looked up and smiled; he had bristly blond hair and sharp, refined features. Ethan knew that young man was his son, Atton Ortane, but the boy was still cloaked in the holoskin which Ethan had used to infiltrate the Valiant. Ethan and Atton had switched roles when they’d found each other, with Ethan taking Atton’s holoskin to adopt the mantle of overlord, while Ethan had passed his rudimentary holoskin on to his son and Atton had become the nova pilot Adan Reese.

In hindsight, that had been a foolish switch. All the identity switching had eventually caught up with them, landing them here, awaiting trial for an impressive set of crimes. Atton hadn’t been arrested for impersonating an officer, but it was just a matter of time before that crime was discovered, too. For now, Atton was on trial because he had stunned and locked up the two corpsmen who had interrogated Doctor Kurlin. They were the only ones who knew that Kurlin had created the virus, and they also knew that the virus had been carried aboard the Valiant by a holoskinner. Atton’s reasoning in shutting those guards up had been that if people started looking for one holoskinner, they’d soon discover both Atton and Ethan, and everything would unravel very quickly.

But things had unraveled anyway.

While testing the crew for live strains of his virus, Kurlin had discovered the overlord was an imposter, and he’d used that to blackmail Ethan. Like son like father, Ethan had stuffed Kurlin into a stasis tube to shut him up, but Kurlin had later escaped and made good on his blackmail. Ethan had responded to that by telling the crew what Kurlin’s part in Brondi’s scheme had been, and all three of them had landed in the brig.

Ethan turned to see Doctor Kurlin being strapped into a third and final probe chair, but he was struggling—kicking and screaming at the top of his lungs, demanding his rights and asking for a legal counsel. Ethan eyed the old man for a moment and then shook his head. “This is a military trial, you old skriff, and we’re not in the Imperium anymore. We have no rights.”

One of the guards holding Kurlin down sucker punched him in the gut, and the doctor doubled over, paralyzed with pain. His arms and legs were promptly sealed into the manacles, and then the guards withdrew to either side of the room.

Kurlin turned to glare at Ethan. “You sound as though you’re enjoying this.”

Ethan smirked back. “You threatened to reveal me, and then you did. You started it.”

“You stunned me and stuffed me in a stasis tube! What was I supposed to do when I got out?” Kurlin shot back. “You could have sent my family back like I’d asked and then none of this would have happened, but instead you insisted on taking us all to the netherworld with you! You left me no choice!”

“Well, it’s ironic that we made it safely across Sythian Space after all, and now we’re all headed to the netherworld because of you.”

“I’m surprised an uneducated grub like you can even recognize irony,” Kurlin replied.

Ethan gritted his teeth at the insult. No matter how thick his skin had grown during his time as an outlaw and later as a convicted felon on Etaris, being called a grub still cut straight to his marrow and made him see red. “It’s a shame they locked us in these chairs, Kurlin. I would have liked to help you.”

Kurlin’s eyes narrowed at that. “Help me?”

“Yes, I would have liked to crush your throat and put you out of your misery.”

“Is that how you solve all of your problems? You’re just proving my point, you Philistan.”

“I’m from Roka IV, not Philista.”

“Are you two done?” Atton said.

Ethan turned to his son and jerked his head at the doctor. “Ask him.”

“Ask yourself. Rather than sit here insulting each other, we should be thinking of a way to get out of this.”

“There is no way out of this,” Ethan replied. “Of the three of us only you have a chance for something lighter than a death sentence. As for me and the doc, we may as well start praying to the Immortals.”

“I’m not a praying man,” Kurlin said, turning to look out at the empty rows of seats arrayed in front of them. They sat on the stage at the front of a large briefing room. That implied that their trial would be a public one, but so far no one had arrived besides the squad of sentinels who had brought them in.

“Well, it’s never too late to learn,” Ethan said.

Before Kurlin could reply, the doors swished open, and Admiral Heston walked in flanked by four more sentinels, their plasma rifles held across their chests. Behind them walked a group of prisoners, their hands bound with stun cords, and two more sentinels. Ethan frowned, and his eyes narrowed as he studied the faces of those prisoners. They looked familiar. . . . as they drew nearer Ethan suddenly recognized one of them, and he did a double take. “Is that Commander Caldin?”

“Where?” Atton asked.

“What did she do?” Then Ethan noticed who else was with the commander—her entire bridge crew, as well as Gina Giord, and her copilot, Alara Vastra. “Frek . . .” Ethan whispered, watching as sentinels forced the prisoners to take seats along the front rows. Caldin caught Ethan’s eye and scowled at him as she sat down. Alara also looked up at him, but her expression was full of sadness, not loathing. Ethan offered her a tight smile, as if to say, don’t worry; everything’s going to be all right, but she didn’t smile back.

The admiral walked straight up to Ethan and stood gazing down on him with a stern expression and hands clasped behind his back. Ethan noted that Heston was probably ten or twenty years older than him, his hair even more grizzled than Ethan’s own.

“You must be the overlord,” Heston said. His gray eyes were bright and full of contempt.

Ethan shook his head. “No, sir. I was just keeping his throne warm.”

Heston snorted. “I’m going to give you a chance to come clean, Ethan. Who are you? And is there any reason at all that I should not have you probed here today, in front of this body of witnesses?” The admiral half turned to indicate the shackled prisoners. Ethan noted that besides the guards and the prisoners they’d brought, there were no other witnesses. Where’s the jury? Ethan wondered. Looking back to the admiral, he shook his head. “This is hardly a fair trial, Admiral. The men and women sitting in this room with us are the ones most likely to judge me with a bias. They can’t be jurymen.”

“They’re not. They’re the witnesses to your crimes.” The admiral turned and pointed to a gleaming black wall along one side of the room. “The jury is sitting over there.”

“How do I know that?” Ethan asked. “I can’t see their faces.”

Heston turned and snapped his fingers at one of the sentinels. “Lights in the jury box, sergeant.” Ethan noted that unlike most of the sentinels in Dark Space, these ones wore complete sets of thick, matte gray plasteel armor. That sergeant could survive a plasma grenade. Ethan watched him move to one side of the room and fiddle with a control panel there. Then the dark, shiny wall was illuminated from within to reveal a group of five men and women. The admiral turned back to Ethan. “Satisfied?”

“No,” Kurlin replied. “This is a witch hunt, not a trial. If you want to give us a fair trial, give us a defense counsel.”

Heston turned to the old doctor and smiled. “Why, are you afraid that the truth is not enough to speak for itself?”

“A mind probe is very dangerous, Admiral. That is a death sentence in itself, so in a way you’ve already judged us.”

“Yes, but we’re short of time, and I’m short of patience—if you turn out to be innocent and you suffer an adverse reaction to the probe, rest assured your family will be compensated accordingly. Nevertheless . . .” Ethan watched the admiral’s gaze return to him and remain there. “I’m going to ask you one more time—is there any reason you can give me not to proceed?”

Ethan frowned. It was as though the admiral were looking for an excuse not to probe him. “I can’t say I’m innocent, but I’m also not as guilty as I seem.”

“That’s it? No other reasons . . . perhaps during your time as overlord you’ve come by some classified information which would be dangerous to share so publicly?”

Ethan’s eyebrows slowly rose. Where are you going with this? he wondered. Gazing up into the admiral’s unsettling gray eyes, Ethan felt a shiver creeping down his spine. The last thing he wanted was to give the admiral a reason to single him out for a private hearing. That sounded more like it would be a private torture session. Ethan wasn’t sure why the admiral was asking, but he decided to stick with the truth. He was tired of hiding. “The most dangerous secret I possess is the one you all already know. I was caught wearing a holoskin and impersonating the overlord.”

The admiral’s eyes narrowed sharply; he seemed unhappy with that answer. “Very well.” With that, he turned and nodded to one of the other guards who had come in with him, this one unarmored, but wearing the silver uniform of the sentinels. His shoulder was marked with a red and white patch which identified him as a medic. In his hands he carried three implanters. The points of their needles glinted with deadly promise, and Ethan winced in anticipation. The medic handed two of the implanters to an assistant and then walked up to Kurlin with the third. He pushed the old man’s head forward until his chin touched his chest.

Kurlin shook his head vigorously, trying to resist as he wailed, “I’m an Imperial citizen! You can’t do this to me!” An assisting corpsman stepped forward to hold Kurlin’s head still. “Let me go!”

“Wait!” a woman cried. “Stop it!”

The admiral turned to see an old woman standing up along the front row. “Sit down, please, ma’am.”

“He was forced to cooperate with Brondi! He hasn’t done anything!”

Ethan recognized that woman as Kurlin’s wife. He was surprised they’d allowed her into the trial room.

“Sit down, Mrs. Vastra, or I’ll have you thrown out.” Reluctantly she sat down, and Heston turned back to the medic and nodded. “Proceed.”

The old man whimpered as the needle went in. “Please . . .” he said.

Ethan glanced back down to the row of “witnesses” to see that Alara’s face was pale and stricken. She didn’t remember Kurlin as her father, but even Ethan was starting to feel sorry for the old man. As the medic withdrew, Kurlin began to sob. Ethan was next in line.

The admiral turned to him. “Last chance.”

Ethan watched the admiral’s gray eyes carefully, trying to read something behind the fire he saw burning there. “I don’t know what you’re expecting me to say. My name is Ethan Ortane. I’m an ex-con. I was arrested for smuggling stims and sentenced to Dark Space before the war even began. After the exodus I was released with the other convicts in order to—”

“What did you say?” Admiral Heston interrupted, waving a hand to cut him off.

“I said I’m a convicted felon. I was released because—”

“No, not that—your name. Who did you say you are?”

Ethan’s brow furrowed. “Ethan Ortane.”

“Yes, that’s what I thought I heard.” The admiral frowned and turned back to the one-way glass of the jury box. “I’m granting this man a temporary lenience. We will take a two hour recess as I consult with my advisers about how we should proceed. Thank you for your patience.”






REUNION


Origin





Chapter 9

Origin

Roan’s plan to sabotage the Valiant had worked better than he’d expected. Using what the humans had told him about the ship, he’d managed to restart the reactor after severing the power conduits. In that way, the radiation from the core would cook the crew like mollusks in their shells, and they wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. That was the plan, but then he’d seen radiation levels rise far beyond what his suit could shield, and he’d realized that he had to get off the ship before it cooked him along with the humans.

Now Roan sat inside an escape pod, trying to decipher the controls. He was about to contact Tova for help when he discovered the manual release for the pod. With a quick twist of that red lever, something clunked and he heard a sharp hiss followed by a sudden roar of acceleration. Glow panels flickered to life inside the pod, and Roan sat back with a smile.

Tova had explained the situation to him when she’d made contact recently. She’d told him that they were both at Ritan now, and she was being held prisoner aboard a station in orbit above the planet, while their human allies were leaderless and about to be taken over by Admiral Heston—the human who had refused to join their alliance.

All of that meant he and the rest of the Gors had to go to some extra lengths in order to preserve the alliance. Roan anticipated that once his escape pod was recovered, he would join Tova in prison, or maybe they would both be sent down to the academy on the surface.

After being cooped up on hot, stuffy human starships for so long, going to Ritan would be a vacation. It was a world not unlike his home world, Noctune. Roan watched through the small, round viewport in the front of the pod as he rocketed out over the dark exoplanet. Stars shone in the distance, and Roan remembered when he’d used to gaze up at those glowing points of light from the surface of Noctune.

Something inside the pod crackled, interrupting Roan’s thoughts; then he heard the confusing babble of a human voice. A translation echoed through the translator in his ear.

“Pod G426, this is Captain Cathrall of the Destine; please identify yourself.”

Roan hissed as he moved to answer the comm.

*  *  *

Origin

“Lenience?” Commander Caldin asked amidst the rising babble of discontent inside the trial room. She rose to her feet and shook her bound hands at the admiral as Ethan was released from his chair. “What is going on here?”

Admiral Heston turned to the commander with a thin smile. “That is none of your business, Commander.”

“It’s entirely my business! We’re sitting here in stun cords thanks to him! How are you going to discover the truth if you don’t probe him?”

“As I said, I will consult with my advisers about how we should proceed. Rest assured, justice will be done.”

Caldin stood there a moment longer, her jaw bunching and her eyes blazing. Ethan watched her gaze sweep up to him as he massaged his aching wrists. The manacles had begun to cut off his circulation.

A pair of sentinels grabbed Ethan roughly and escorted him off the stage. Hoff walked ahead of him, and all eyes followed them to the doors. As the doors swished open and they passed through, Ethan asked, “Where are we going, Admiral?”

Heston stopped and turned. Nodding to the guards who held Ethan, he said, “Bind his hands with stun cords.”

One of the guards produced a fresh set of stun cords from his equipment belt. Ethan held the admiral’s gaze as his hands were tied once more. Then Hoff took the electronic key which controlled the stun cords and nodded to the sentinels. “You two are dismissed. I’ll watch the prisoner from here.”

Now the guardsmen hesitated. “Sir, he could be dangerous. It would be better if—”

“It would be better if you followed your orders. Leave us, and stay here to guard the other prisoners.”

“Yes, sir.”

Now Admiral Heston grabbed Ethan’s arm and hauled him along. “This is not an easy situation for me, Ethan Ortane.”

The way the admiral emphasized his last name made Ethan wonder. “Do we know each other, Admiral?”

They stopped at a nearby set of lift tubes and Heston turned to him with a frown. “Not personally.”

Ethan frowned, wondering what that meant, but then the lift tube doors opened, and Heston shoved him inside before he could ask. The admiral turned and typed a deck number into the lift controls, and Ethan asked, “Where are we going?”

“Shut up and let me think. You’ll have your answers soon enough.”

Ethan gritted his teeth, but did as he was told—until another thought occurred to him. “What’s going to happen to the others?”

Heston turned to him. “Is that boy in there really your son?”

Ethan hesitated, wondering how the admiral knew that and whether or not he should tell the truth. “Yes.”

Heston took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’ll have to release him, too.”

“At least I know you’re not more than you seem to be.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

The lift tube stopped and the doors opened to reveal a luxurious foyer with muted gold lighting and a transpiranium dome roof which gave them a startling view of space. The admiral pushed him out into the foyer toward a broad, black door with gleaming gold inlay. Ethan saw that part of the gold inlay was text. It read: Admiral’s Quarters.

They stopped in front of the door, and the admiral turned to him before passing his wrist over the scanner. “Have you ever been in love, Ethan?” Heston asked.

Ethan’s brow furrowed. “Once.”

“Then you know it’s not a common thing, nor is it easy to find one who reciprocates your sentiments.”

“No, it’s not easy.”

“Can you tell me her name, please?”

“Why?”

“Humor me.”

“Destra Ortane. She was my wife . . . before the war.”

Heston’s sighed, and nodded. “That’s what I thought. You had a son together. His name was Atton, but the man in the trial room goes by Adan Reese. Is that an alias or is he another son of yours?”

Ethan shook his head. “How did you know his name is Atton?”

“You’ll see. I hope now you’ll understand that it’s not lightly that I introduce you to my wife and our daughter.”

Before Ethan could say anything to that, the admiral reached up and touched the door buzzer. A few seconds later they heard footsteps, followed by a woman’s voice coming through an intercom beside the door. “Who is it?”

“It’s me, darling—Hoff.”

The door was unlocked with a clunk, and then it swished open.

Ethan could have fainted when he saw the woman standing on the other side. All the blood drained from his face and his green eyes grew wide and glassy with tears. He shook his head. It couldn’t be.

That woman stared back at him with the same degree of shock.

“Who is it, Mommy?” came a young girl’s voice. A moment later the girl appeared standing behind her mother. “Hello, Daddy!” she said, smiling up at the admiral. She had his gray eyes, but her mother’s dark hair and button nose.

“Hello, sweetheart,” Hoff replied. “Are you enjoying your birthday?”

“Oh yes!” Atta’s gray eyes turned to Ethan. “Who are you? Are you a friend of my parents? My name’s Atta. It's my birthday today. I'm seven,” she announced proudly.

Somehow Ethan managed to smile at her. He blinked and tears ran down his cheeks. “It’s nice to meet you, Atta,” he said. “I’m Ethan. Ethan Ortane.”





Chapter 10

Origin

Destra couldn’t believe her eyes. She’d never expected to see Ethan again. Had he come looking for her? What right did he have to intrude on her life now, after so much time had passed? It wasn’t fair to either of them. She saw her husband smile—her most recent husband, Hoff. He said, “I can see that I was right to bring Ethan here. Your old husband has gotten himself into quite a lot of trouble, darling. He’s been accused of some very serious crimes.”

At that, Destra’s eyes hardened and she wiped away the solitary tear which was running down her cheek. “Again, Ethan? Nothing’s changed, has it? Did your time in Dark Space teach you nothing?”

Ethan wiped away his own tears and shook his head. “It’s not what you think, Des.”

“Really?” She crossed her arms over her chest. “Then how do you explain the stun cords around your wrists?”

Ethan smiled and shook his head. “I can’t believe you survived.”

“Yes, I lived. You can thank Hoff for that.”

“Hoff . . .” Ethan trailed off uncertainly and shot the admiral a quick glance. Turning back to Destra, he shook his head. “This isn’t exactly what I pictured when I dreamed of seeing you again.”

“What’s going on, Mommy?” Atta asked.

“Go back inside, dear. Go to your room and play with your toys.”

“Okay . . .”

When Atta was safely out of earshot, Destra turned back to Ethan and asked, “What are you doing here? I left you to move on with Alara. I gave you your space. Why couldn’t you give me mine?”

Ethan’s brow furrowed. “How do you know Alara?”

“We never met, Ethan, if that’s what you’re wondering. I went looking for you, and—” She broke off and swallowed thickly. “—and Atton. I guess you thought you’d never see me again. Or you assumed that I’d died. I’m not blaming you for anything, but what are you doing here now? And where is Alara?”

“What are you talking about? Alara is my copilot, Des! Or she was before Brondi got hold of her. She and I are friends, nothing more.”

“You expect me to believe that?”

“Yes.”

Destra saw Ethan’s lips trembling and his muscles starting to shake, as if he were about to explode.

“Well, this is a happy reunion,” Hoff interrupted. “We should go inside. You both look like you need to sit down.”

The admiral gave Ethan a not-so-gentle push, and Destra stepped aside to let them in. She shut the door behind them and then turned to see Ethan frozen just inside the entrance, his eyes flicking around the clean, modern living space. Destra looked around the room with him, seeing it through his eyes, as if for the first time. The soft, gold lighting, shiny white walls, dark ceiling with gold crown moldings, and polished silver floors were all opulent enough, but the size of the space was what really spoke of the admiral’s wealth. Simple furniture and plush black area rugs left plenty of open space and only added to the open, airy feel. To one side lay a wall of windows looking out on a leafy green garden and wide synthstone terrace.

Hoff pointed to a dark red couch and matching pair of chairs sitting opposite a large holoscreen. “Let’s sit.”

Ethan walked woodenly to the living room and sat down in one of the chairs. Destra felt Hoff take her by the hand and lead her to the couch. They sat down together. Ethan’s gaze found their clasped hands, and he stared unblinkingly at them. Destra saw the hate burning in his green eyes, and she squeezed Hoff’s hand to remind him whose side she was on. She noted the stun cords binding Ethan’s own hands and she frowned.

Heston sighed. “Now, Ethan, if I’m not misunderstanding you, you’re saying that you had no idea your wife was still alive.” When Ethan didn’t reply, Heston went on, “She assumed you had moved on with your copilot, Alara, but you insist that she’s just a friend. Is that correct?”

Ethan nodded, his jaw clenching and unclenching like a fist. He looked away from their clasped hands and turned to look around the room, his gaze tracing the gold moldings along the ceiling, as if to find their source.

“It would appear that you may have been mistaken about your previous husband, darling,” Hoff said.

“Maybe,” Destra replied, “but I’m not mistaken about who or what he is. What is it this time, Ethan?”

Heston answered for him, “High treason and holoskinning.”

Destra’s eyes widened. “I underestimated you. You have changed. You’ve gotten worse!”

Ethan’s eyes flashed and he turned back to her. “You don’t get it.”

“I’m sure you can explain it to me. You always have a good explanation, don’t you? How about you start with what happened to our son? Did you even find him before he died?”

“Destra . . .” Hoff began, squeezing her hand, but she wasn’t paying any attention to him.

Ethan let out a long breath before quietly saying, “He didn’t die, Destra.”

Destra blinked and shook her head.

“Ethan’s right,” Heston added. “Your son is standing trial right alongside his father.”

Tears beaded on her long lashes and then fell to her cheeks. “I saw the records myself. He died in a shuttle crash.”

“No, Des, he didn’t,” Ethan said. “He faked his death so he could take over for his adoptive father, the previous overlord, when he died.”

Hoff inclined his head with interest. “So that’s how this all started. . . .”

Ethan met the admiral’s gaze. “The previous overlord was also a ‘skinner. I don’t know how long that’s been going on.”

Heston snorted. “An unlikely story.”

“The good ones always are.”

“Take me to him,” Destra said, already rising from the couch. “I want to see my son.”

Heston shook his head and grabbed her wrist to stop her. “No, darling. We need to be more discrete. I’ll have him brought here.” He stood up from the couch and Destra saw him look from Ethan to her and back again. “Meanwhile, I suspect you two have a lot of catching up to do.”

Destra saw her husband walk into the dining room and put a comm call through to one of his subordinates. She noticed in her periphery vision that Ethan was staring at her and she turned back to him. He looked furious.

“Ten years I waited for you, Destra! You couldn’t do the same for me? You didn’t even wait half that time. Atta is already seven!”

Destra felt a stab of guilt and she shook her head quickly. “I told you. I thought you’d moved on. You can’t blame me! This is your own fault. If you hadn’t gotten caught—”

My fault?” Ethan boomed. “You’re incredible! I did what I had to, to provide for my family! You’re holding that against me now? I did it for us, Destra!”

“Yes,” she said, “and look at where it got us.”

“Des . . .” Ethan whispered. “It’s not too late.”

“But it is. It’s long past too late. I don’t know what you and your copilot had—”

“Nothing! For frek’s sake, I already told you that!”

She sniffled and smiled sadly at him. “Then maybe it’s time you did something about that. There’s no going back to the way we were. My life is with Hoff now. You weren’t there when I needed you, and Hoff was.”

Ethan shook his head. “This can’t be how it ends.”

Destra smiled, her blue eyes shining with sympathy and pain. She reached out and squeezed his arm. “Don’t look at it as the end. This is a chance for a new beginning—for both of us. The galaxy where we fell in love and built our life together is gone. We’ll never get things back the way they were. It’s time for you to move on, Ethan.”

*  *  *

Origin

Alara sat on a bench in front of the concourse viewports outside the trial room. She gazed down on the dark surface of Ritan below. It was like a living thing, with glowing, blood-red veins of magma disappearing into dark, glittering fields of ice. To say that the exoplanet was inhospitable would be an understatement, but apparently the Gors loved it. Said it reminded them of home.

Home. Alara couldn’t remember hers—not her real home, anyway. She remembered very little of her past life . . . only Ethan. She frowned as her thoughts turned to him. He’d been mysteriously saved at the last minute when the admiral had intervened on his behalf.

As for her father, Doctor Kurlin, she couldn’t remember any connection to him, and she couldn’t feel any more sympathy for him than she would for a complete stranger. She had a bad feeling that if her slave chip were ever disabled, she would be devastated to find out that he had died from a mind probe or been executed for his crimes. Alara’s eyes skipped to her mother—yet another person she couldn’t remember. Darla Vastra stood by herself to one side of the concourse, looking old and frail. She had insisted on being allowed to watch the trial. Alara didn’t know how Darla could bear it, but when she thought about Ethan, she thought she understood. When you love someone, you want to be with them no matter how much it hurts. Not that she’d had to ask to watch the trial. She and all the others from the Defiant had no choice in the matter. They had all seen and interacted with the imposter overlord in some way, which made them either accessories to his crimes, or witnesses to them.

Alara felt someone bump into her shoulder. “You all right?” It was Gina. The two of them had formed a tentative bond during their time sharing quarters on the Defiant and then later while piloting the Rescue together.

“No, I’m not,” Alara said. “The whole thing is confusing—and hard to watch.”

“I know, but at least you don’t remember he was your father. That’s got to make it easier.”

Alara nodded and went back to staring at Ritan. She hadn’t been talking about Doctor Kurlin. Gina didn’t know who the imposter overlord was to her. No one knew that. Not yet, anyway. She wondered if their past relationship would cast even more suspicion on her and eventually land her in one of those probe chairs, too.

She wasn’t sure she cared. What did she have to live for? The more she found out about her past life, the less she wanted to go back to living it, and her new life was a sham. She wasn’t a nova pilot; she was a pleasure palace playgirl named Angel. Kiddie, the nova pilot, was her defense mechanism, hastily sewn together from the loose threads of Angel and Alara. She’d just barely been hanging onto those threads when she’d found Ethan in the brig aboard the Defiant. That had sent her spiraling back toward the abyss of uncertainty and self-doubt that she’d so recently crawled out of. He was the only thing she could remember clearly from her past life, and she was about to lose him, too.

“It’ll be all right, Kiddie,” Gina said. “Most people survive the probe.”

“Yes,” Alara agreed, “but they don’t survive being thrown out an airlock.”

“Maybe he’s not guilty of anything deserving death. If he really was coerced, maybe he’ll be found innocent.”

“Maybe,” Alara said.

They were interrupted by the sound of doors swishing open behind them. Both of them turned to see the trial room open and Captain Adan Reese come striding out, escorted by a pair of sentinels. Adan caught Alara’s eye and nodded to her. Alara stared blankly back. “What are they bringing him out for?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Gina said. “Maybe he needs the bathroom.”

“That’s a strange last request.”

“Think it would work for us to get out of these?” Gina raised her hands, still bound at the wrists with stun cords.

“Worth a shot.”

Gina called to the nearest guard, “Hoi, Corporal! I’ve got to go piss!” The guard started toward them with a frown, and Gina sent Alara a sly smile. “Kavaar!” she whispered. “It worked.”

Alara smiled wanly back, but Gina’s fooling around had done nothing to lift her spirits.

*  *  *

Origin

Destra stood staring at the man who’d been marched up to her and she shook her head. “Is this some kind of joke, Ethan?”

“It’s no joke.”

“What’s wrong?” Heston asked.

“This isn’t my son!”

The imposter stood before them, his hands bound by stun cords. Until now his brow had been curiously furrowed up to his bristly blond hair, but suddenly he seemed to realize who she was, and he took a quick step back as if someone had slapped him.

“Mom?”

“Don’t you dare call me Mom! I don’t know who you are, but you’re not my Atton! You don’t look a thing like him!”

Ethan gave a small, sad smile and said, “Atton, turn off your holoskin.”

The imposter’s features shimmered and the bristly blond hair and blue eyes of Captain Adan Reese were replaced by Atton’s dark, straight hair and green eyes. He looked like a young version of Ethan, but he had his mother’s button nose and narrow face.

Destra’s jaw dropped.

Atton smiled and took a hesitant step forward. “It’s me, Mom, see?” He grinned from ear to ear and shook his head. “I can’t believe it!”

Heston blinked. “Neither can I. Two holoskinners in one day. Like father like son apparently.”

“Atton!” Destra leapt forward and enclosed him in a fierce hug. Ethan and Hoff looked on. “I can’t believe it. I never imagined . . . oh, Atton! I thought you were dead!”

“Likewise,” Atton replied, sounding almost as choked up as her.

Ethan gave a long, shaky sigh and turned to the admiral. “What are you going to do with us?”

“Well, I can’t have you tried for your crimes, and I can’t let you go, so you tell me.”

“Maybe it will help if you let us explain our side of things.”

“I’m listening.”

Destra let go of Atton and turned to the admiral. “Get them out of these stun cords, Hoff. Whatever their crimes, they’re not dangerous.”

The admiral held her gaze for a long moment before he nodded and reached into his pocket for the electronic key. He pointed the key at Atton’s wrists first. The red light on the stun cords turned green and they fell to the floor. Then Hoff turned and did the same for Ethan.

Atton looked from Hoff to his mother and back again with eyebrows raised. Then Hoff walked up behind Destra and put a hand on her shoulder, ending Atton’s silent debate. “You two are . . .”

“Married,” Destra finished for him.

Hoff held out his hand for shaking. “I suppose that makes you my stepson.”

Atton gaped at them and shook his head.

“Would you like to meet your sister?” Destra asked.

“My sister?” Atton echoed.

“I know this is a lot to take in, Atton,” Destra said, reaching for his arm. “But whatever your circumstances at the moment, we should set them aside for now. This is a time to celebrate!” Atton turned to her with a blank look, and she went on, “You’re back! You’re alive! Aren’t you happy to see your mother again?”

“I . . .” Atton trailed off. Joy, shock, and anger warred for expression on his face.

Destra wiped away a final tear. “Let me go tell Atta. I can’t imagine giving her a better birthday present than this.” With that, Destra turned and walked toward a dark hallway which led away from the living room.

“Atta . . .” Atton whispered.

“Can I get you two a drink?” Heston asked.

“Beer,” Ethan managed.

“I’ll have the same,” Atton added.

“Of course,” the admiral replied, and headed toward a bar counter which stood to one side of the living room. Atton walked over to his father and sat down on the couch. “Frek, Dad,” Atton whispered. “Hoff . . . Atta—she replaced us!”

“Shhh,” Ethan whispered back. “Now’s not the time.”

Hoff watched them from the bar with cold, seething gray eyes, and Ethan read into that look that if it were up to him, he would have dumped them both out the nearest air lock as soon as he’d found them.

Ethan met that look with equal fury, but his anger was fast cooling into shock, leaving a numb sense of defeat in its wake. There was nothing left for him to fight for. Here Hoff was, living the life he should have had. Atton was right, they’d been replaced. All those years spent waiting for his wife, and she hadn’t waited for him. He should have felt jealous, but instead he just felt stupid. Now, he finally understood that Alara had been right: Destra would have wanted him to move on, but it was too late. Alara barely remembered him now, and the friction-filled relationship they’d had as pilot and copilot was as long gone as the beaten up freighter they’d flown.

Ethan had missed his chance for a fresh start, but Destra had seized hers the second it had come along. Atta was seven years old. He and Destra had been apart for ten. That meant she’d waited less than three years.

Three . . .

In his mind’s eye Ethan saw the three of them—Atton, himself, and Destra all lying on a couch in front of their fireplace to keep warm one wintry night on Roka IV. Outside, the wind whistled ferociously, driving snow against the windows. Atton crawled over them under the blankets, trying to get comfortable.

Suddenly, Tibby’s furry head popped out of the blankets, followed by a childish roar.

Ethan feigned shock, yelling out, “Ahh! Don’t eat me, Tibby!”

Atton giggled and popped up behind his stuffed diger. “Scared you!”

“Thank the Immortals you’re here, Atton!” Destra said. “Tell Tibby not to eat us!”

“No, he’s going to eat you both! Rarr!”

“Oh, no!” Destra replied. “But then you won’t have any parents. Who will look after you?”

“Tibby and me can look after ourselves!”

Ethan frowned. “That’s not nice, Atton.”

“Sit properly,” Destra added.

Atton was quiet for a long minute, and then they heard a small voice say, “Tibby didn’t mean it. He just wanted to scare you.”

“Mmm,” Destra replied, not sounding convinced. “And what about you?”

“I didn’t mean it either.”

“You know, Atton,” Ethan began, “we just have the three of us in this galaxy. We have to stick together and look after each other.”

“What about Tibby?” Atton replied.

“The three of us and Tibby,” Destra said, smiling at him and tousling his hair. “And speaking of you and Tibby, aren’t you both supposed to be in bed?”

“No.” Atton shook his head.

“Why not?”

“Dad said we have to look after each other, so we’re not leaving you alone, are we Tibby? No, he says we have to protect you from the snow monsters.”

Ethan shook himself out of the memory. His eyes found Hoff’s as the admiral walked over from the bar with a frosty mug of beer in each hand. He handed one to each of them and then went back to the bar to fix a drink for himself.

Ethan held his mug up to the light and gazed absently into the golden depths of the beer, fizz rising endlessly from the bottom of the frosted mug. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his son turn to him.

“I don’t understand,” the boy whispered. “I’ve met the admiral on countless occasions. I knew he was married, but . . . I just can’t believe Mom was so close and I never found her! How is that possible?”

Ethan shook his head and took a gulp of beer. He followed that down with another gulp and another until he felt a welcome numbness begin seeping through him. He hadn’t eaten in a while—they’d only brought him two meals during his time in the brig on the Defiant, and two more while he’d been left in the cold, dark makeshift holding area that they’d prepared aboard the Interloper—so the alcohol was hitting him hard.

The admiral returned from the bar with his own selection, a fine cerulean wine. He sent Atton a tight smile as he sat down in the armchair opposite Ethan’s. “I don’t recall us ever having met,” Hoff said, proving that he’d heard Atton whispering.

“It’s a long story, Admiral.”

“Yes, I keep hearing about this story—so far it’s convenient, long, incredible . . . are there any more adjectives you’d like to add before you two start actually telling me what’s going on?”

Atton opened his mouth to reply, but then they heard a girlish squeal of delight, and everyone turned to see Atta come running down the hallway where Destra had disappeared earlier.

Ethan grimaced and took another gulp of his beer. Again he was struck by that little girl’s resemblance to his wife. Ex-wife, he corrected himself, and with that, he drained his mug and lay his head back against the chair. His eyes drifted shut and he let himself believe for a blissful moment that this was all just a horrible nightmare.

I’m going to wake up any minute now, he told himself. Any minute now . . .




Chapter 11

Origin

Atta ran straight up to him with a big smile and gave him a hug. For a moment, Atton was taken aback and didn’t know where to put his hands. He held them out high above the girl as if she were some untouchable thing. Gradually he relaxed and returned the girl’s hug, patting her on the back with the hand not already holding his beer. Atta withdrew, still smiling, and then he noticed that she was holding a stuffed diger.

Atton froze.

A painful lump rose in his throat. He’d had a stuffed animal just like that when he was her age.

“I’ve never had a brother,” Atta said while playing with the diger’s furry white ears.

“I’ve never had a sister. . . .” Atton replied.

“Well, you’re going to like me! I promise. Did you know it’s my birthday today?”

“No, I didn’t.” Atton pointed to the stuffed diger, his eyes narrowing on the toy. “Did you get him for your birthday?”

“No, that’s Mr. Tibbins. I’ve had him since I was a baby. He’s my friend.”

Atton couldn’t bring himself to reply to that. Mr. Tibbins. He’d called his stuffed diger Tibby.

“Atta . . .” Destra said rounding the couch to stand beside her daughter. “Sit quietly for a moment. Your brother is tired.”

“Okay,” she said.

Atton’s gaze followed his sister and the stuffed animal to the other end of the couch where she hopped up and sat down. She began kicking her little feet, looking from one person to another until her gaze stopped on Ethan. “Who is he? Is he also my brother?”

Destra laughed. “No, dear. He’s . . .” but she trailed off there, unable to finish her sentence.

“I’m your uncle,” Ethan supplied.

“An uncle and a brother in one day!” Atta exclaimed. “I’m a lucky girl. People don’t have family anymore. . . .” she said, looking down at Mr. Tibbins and picking at his fur. “Mom says that’s because of the skull faces. That’s why we don’t like them. I don’t like them because they’re scary.”

Atton finally had enough. He rounded on his mother just as she sat down beside him. “Mr. Tibbins?

Destra smiled sadly back at him. “You still remember yours? You loved him so much.”

“I lost him! The same day I lost you, in case you don’t remember—oh that’s right, you have Atta and Tibbins now, so you don’t have to remember us—and let’s not forget Hoff!” Atton’s heart beat furiously in his chest. His head felt light and airy with rage. He barely noticed as his mother placed her hand over his.

“You might not understand this now,” she said, sniffling, “But it was my way of remembering you. You don’t know how many times I saw Atta or Mr. Tibbins and thought of you. I never forgot you, Atton. I found a way to cope.”

“Frek, Mom!” Atton flicked her hand off his and stood up from the couch. “That’s it? After all this time—it’s nice to see you again, son, but as you can see I replaced the life I lost. I’m sorry you never managed to replace yours.

“Atton . . .” Destra wiped fresh tears from her eyes, but Atton wasn’t buying the act.

Hoff whispered to his daughter, telling her to go back to her room. She looked up at Atton with wide, frightened gray eyes. He turned to glare back at her.

Atta bolted from the living room, crying as she ran.

“Atton, she’s just a child!” Destra said.

“So was I!” he roared.

“Well, this is fun,” Hoff added. “As much as I like watching the two of you come storming into my life and breaking everything like a pair of rulls, you’d both better hurry up and explain yourselves before our recess ends and I have to return you to the trial room. Atton, I suggest you do what I’m doing now, and put your personal feelings aside long enough to straighten this mess out, or soon none of it is going to matter. I need a good reason not to have you both probed and then sentenced for your crimes.”

Atton stared at Hoff, his chest rising and falling quickly with fury. He felt another hand touch his, but this time it was the rough hand of his father, urging him to sit back down. He turned and saw the defeated look on his father’s face. Somehow that brought him back to his senses. This wasn’t any easier for Ethan—probably harder—but he wasn’t screaming about it. Taking one more deep, calming breath, Atton let his rage go and sat down. He felt numb. “Where should I start?” he asked.

“How about at the very beginning,” Hoff replied.

Atton told them what he could remember of fleeing Roka IV in the middle of the night, of his mother handing him over to his Great Uncle Riechland to be taken to Dark Space with the fleet. He recounted a lonely, confusing first few weeks of being bounced from ship to ship as his caregivers constantly changed. Eventually he’d met the overlord, and the man had taken him in as his own son. That was when things had taken a turn for the better, but when he was just starting to get used to life as the overlord’s son, the old man had revealed his secret: he was a holoskinner only pretending to be the overlord. The real overlord had been killed during the war, and the man found to replace him had been his military adviser, Fleet Admiral Tate Lordin. Atton had been just fourteen when the admiral had revealed his secret. It had come as a rude shock, but then he’d realized that his adoptive father was the same person he’d always been, just with a different face. On his death bed, Admiral Lordin had asked him to take over as the overlord for a while, until a replacement could be found. That had been three years ago.

Much more recently, during the battle they’d fought with Alec Brondi for the Valiant, Atton had discovered that his father was a holoskinner pretending to be a nova pilot named Adan Reese. It wasn’t long after that that he’d asked his father to take his place as the overlord. Ethan had reluctantly accepted the responsibility, and then a few days later he had been revealed by Dr. Kurlin and forcibly removed from the position.

“I remember Admiral Lordin,” Heston said, rubbing his chin. “We thought he died during the war.”

Atton nodded. “That was what he led everyone to believe before he took over for Dominic.”

“So, Lordin planned the exodus to Dark Space—not Dominic.”

Atton nodded. “He thought we were foolish to stand and fight as long as we did.”

“He was right, but he was foolish to leave a kid in charge of the Imperium.”

“That’s why I gave up the position to my father when I found him. I realized I didn’t have the experience to be the overlord.”

Hoff barked a laugh. “But neither did your father! Another foolish decision!”

Ethan’s eyes flashed, but he said nothing.

“If what you say is true, then you’re just 17 now. I should be taking back that beer I gave you. At least you don’t look your age,” Heston said.

“People used to say that to me all the time. I was done growing by the time the admiral showed me how to use the holoskins.”

“Fine, but you do sound your age. Are you telling me no one got suspicious when you took over for Admiral Lordin?”

“Some did, especially when I re-opened the gate and sent out scouts to see what had happened to the galaxy. As you know, we found you, and then we sent an expedition to the Getties where we met the Gors. I agreed to an alliance with them after they brought us High Lord Kaon.”

Hoff smirked and a sarcastic gleam entered his eyes. “Yes, and then you invited your new friends into Dark Space so they could hold the door open for the entire Sythian armada!”

“We’ve never had an enemy fleet come into Dark Space.”

“That you know of. The same ones you’re trusting to tell you when the enemy arrives are the ones who can let them in.”

“They’ve helped us to destroy hundreds of Sythian ships. Roughly a whole fleet—a seventh of their entire navy. Why would they do that if they’re not on our side?”

“Maybe they didn’t need those ships anymore. They’re probably old and out of date. They sabotaged their own ships and then bailed out so you could rescue them. That sounds a lot like the skull faces were scuttling their ships to me.”

“You’re just prejudiced because the Gors were the only visible face of the war, but I have news for you, Hoff, those skull faces, as you call them, are our only hope—whether you like it or not.”

“No!” Hoff held up a finger. “No. Being patient and staying hidden is our only hope—not siding with the invaders.” The admiral turned to Destra and shook his head. “This boy of yours has krak between his ears, darling.”

“Hoff!” Destra hissed. “Be nice.”

“He’s endangered the lives of millions! And you want me to be nice?

“I only let two Gors into Dark Space, Hoff,” Atton replied, working hard to keep his cool. “Just Tova and Roan know where it is, and they don’t know exactly where. A passing Gor would have to make a telepathic connection with one of them and use that to track them down. Other than that, Tova and Roan can’t give us away—they’d have to steal encrypted star maps. We don’t give them access to that information.”

“Well good for you. How hard do you think it is for an invisible spy to conduct espionage? I’ve spent a lot of time installing security systems on my ships which can detect cloaked Gors. Displacement sensors work well enough, but since you’re allied with the skull faces, I’m sure you haven’t felt it necessary to take precautionary measures like that.”

Atton sighed. “This is ridiculous.”

Heston shook his head. “No, what’s ridiculous is that the Gors are the sole proprietors of an undetectable, near-instantaneous communications system, and you’re trusting them not to give you away just because they’re limited to a ten light year radius. They could have given you away a thousand times by now and you’d never know!”

“Dark Space is more than ten light years from the nearest solar system, so unless a Gor ship just happened to be wandering through the Stormcloud Nebula, it’s not an issue.”

“You’re a very naïve young man. Now I understand why the overlord was making so many foolish decisions. He was you.”

“Whatever,” Atton growled.

“You don’t know a thing about the Gors!” Heston boomed. “No one does!”

“We don’t know anything about the Sythians either,” Atton said. “What’s your point?”

“Exactly! How do you know the Gors are really their slaves? Did you find any Sythians in the Getties and ask them? Kaon is the only one we’ve ever met.”

“The expedition I sent was already low on fuel when they met the Gors. They couldn’t look further.”

“That’s convenient for them. Have you sent another expedition yet?”

“It took a whole year for the first one to return. We don’t have the fuel or time to waste on another long trip like that.”

“Maybe you don’t.”

Atton shook his head. “What are you saying?”

Heston smiled. “I sent a whole fleet to the Getties, Atton—well, what passes for a fleet these days—and only one ship returned, the Interloper, but that’s because they can cloak. They went ahead to explore and gather intel, and when they returned, the fleet they’d travelled with was obliterated. No one even saw what killed them. That’s very convenient for the Gors’ story, don’t you think? You go to the Getties and return with the Gors for allies, and we’re sent straight to the netherworld.”

“You should have just sent the Interloper.”

“And wait years for them to return with their slower SLS? As it is they returned a year late because they had to fly back alone. They’ve only just returned a few weeks ago.”

“Late would have been preferable to dead. You only have yourself to blame for that.”

“Says the boy who let his entire crew be wiped out by a virus. Fifty thousand officers dead. How does that sit on your conscience? Or do you even have one?”

“Enough!” Destra said. “That’s enough! I’m not going to watch the two of you fight—on today of all days! We’ve answered enough questions for now.”

Atton turned to his mother. “Actually, there are a few questions I’d like to ask you.

Destra blinked at him. “Such as?”

“Such as why you didn’t come looking for us. You knew you’d sent me to Dark Space, and you knew Ethan was there even before the war. Why didn’t you come find us? Did you even try?”

“I did look for you —” Her eyes skipped to Ethan. “—both of you. I found your death certificate, Atton. How did you survive that shuttle crash?”

Atton grimaced and he felt ashamed. Of course she hadn’t found him. As of three years ago he’d been officially “dead” and already impersonating the supreme overlord of the Imperium.

“As for your father,” Destra went on, “When I found him, he was with a beautiful young woman. I stayed a little while, just long enough to assume that they were together. Your father tells me they were just friends, but how was I to know? They stayed in the same rooms, flew the same ship, shared their food . . .”

Ethan cleared his throat to say something, but Atton spoke first. “I’ve already met his copilot.”

“Beautiful, isn’t she?”

“I barely noticed her, Des—” Ethan said. “—because of you.”

“I’m not going to argue about that, because I don’t know, but I want you both to understand that I did go looking. I was turned away by what I found.”

“Hold on,” Ethan said. “There’s a problem with your story. Atton said he faked his death three years ago to take over as the overlord. The war and exodus were ten years ago. Your daughter is already seven. If you’d come looking for us before you fell pregnant—which must have been at least seven years and nine months ago . . . roughly 3 AE—you would have found Atton still alive. And as for me . . . I hadn’t even met Alara yet. You moved on before you found us—before you even came looking.”

Destra’s face crumpled. “I guess it’s my turn to explain.”

“Damn right it is,” Ethan said.

“Let her talk,” Heston snapped. “You don’t know a thing about it, so why don’t you just shut up and listen?”

Ethan’s face turned a deep shade of red. He looked seconds away from launching out of his chair and strangling the admiral.

“Hoff,” Destra said. “It’s okay. They have a right to be angry.” Turning to Ethan, she said, “But he’s right. You don’t know what happened.”

“We’re listening,” Atton said.

Destra told her own long story then, starting with how she had managed to survive on Roka IV for a few days after the Sythians took control of the planet. She talked about hiding in a stim lab with an outlaw named Digger, and then she explained how she’d found Heston in the rubble of Covena, only to be betrayed by the people she was staying with and forced to flee in a stolen Sythian fighter. She ran out of fuel and landed on Ritan where she and Hoff spent the next three years just barely managing to find enough food, water, and shelter to survive.

“Apart from the struggle to provide for our physical needs, wild rictans and carnivorous bats hunted us constantly. We were attacked on multiple occasions, but we always fought them off. Once they nearly killed me, but Hoff—”

Heston shot her a quick look, and she cut herself off.

Turning back to them with a hesitant smile, Destra explained, “Well, obviously we don’t want to relive such a traumatic experience.”

“All right,” Ethan replied. “So you survived the rictans—what happened after that?”

“We . . . we spent the next month on Ritan together before a rescue finally came. It was Hoff’s fleet. They’d heard his distress beacon.”

Ethan smiled. “That fits. I guess you and the admiral must have got real close on Ritan—snuggling up under the blankets every night.”

“That’s enough!” Hoff roared.

Ethan sent him a sarcastic smile. “Enough would have been keeping your hands off my wife, but you didn’t do that, did you, Hoffkins?”

“I’m going to enjoy watching you have an aneurism as I probe your empty brain,” Hoff replied.

“Ethan, try to put yourself in my position!” Destra pleaded. “After three years spent waiting for a rescue, we were sure it would never come. We thought we were going to die on Ritan!”

“So that makes it okay? I didn’t really think you survived. I didn’t think I’d ever see you again, but I still waited for you.”

“Damn it, Ethan! It’s not the same. Were you stranded alone with your copilot for three years? Did the two of you have to fight every day just to survive, wondering most days whether it would be exposure or starvation that would kill you first?”

Ethan’s jaw bunched. “It might surprise you to hear that food isn’t all that abundant in Dark Space. Most of us are working just to provide the basics, and a good number of us fail to do even that.”

“Fine, hold it against me,” Destra said.

“All right, I will.”

“What made you come looking for us, then?” Atton asked quietly. “You already had Hoff and Atta, so why go digging up the past?”

Destra turned to him, her eyes shining. “As soon as we got off Ritan and it became possible to look for you, I wanted to go, but then I discovered I was pregnant. Hoff wouldn’t let me make the trip until Atta was born, and by then . . . well, then I had someone else to worry about. What if I went tearing off into Dark Space and got myself killed? Then two children would grow up without their mother. And what right did I have to intrude on your lives now that I’d already moved on with mine? What could I possibly offer you two if I ever found you? The answer was nothing, so I kept Hoff from making contact with Dark Space for years, and he respected my wishes. We left you alone, so that I could make up as many lies as I wanted to about how good things were in Dark Space. I imagined that you and your father had found each other and were safe. In my mind I had you two living on a hydroponic farm on some lush planet, safe, comfortable, and happy.

“I know that sounds crazy, and that’s probably because it is, but most of the time thinking happy thoughts about you two was enough to ease my conscience. For the times when it wasn’t enough I had Atta to remind me why I was staying away.”

“That’s a comforting pack of lies. You could have gone looking for us without going yourself,” Ethan said.

“I know, and that’s why I guess it sounds so hollow now. The truth . . . the truth is it was too hard. In my mind there was no way to mix my old family with my new one without destroying them both.”

“So what changed?”

Destra turned to Atton. “Dark Space came to us. They found us at the old transfer station in the Stormcloud Nebula. Hoff had posted a crew there to watch over you, and as soon as the gate was re-opened they met. Word came back to us, and when Hoff told me how bad things were in Dark Space, I was overwhelmed with guilt. By contrast, we had an easy life, and the enclave was flourishing. Hoff encouraged me to look for you two, just to reassure myself that you were both all right. I agreed, and Hoff sent me to Dark Space along with a liaison from his fleet.”

“I remember receiving them, but not you . . .” Atton said. “That was just a guise to find us?”

“Not a guise; they had real business with you, and I had my own—it was an excuse for me to make the trip. When I found out that you’d died, Atton . . .” she shook her head and more tears sprang to her eyes. “I should have gone looking long ago. Maybe then I wouldn’t have had to go through so much pain.”

Atton took a deep breath. “I don’t know what to say.”

Heston smiled thinly at Ethan. “Now you see how it all happened? I hope your story is as good as that.”

“You already know my story,” Ethan replied, sounding even more tired than Atton felt.

“Not quite true. I know how you came to be the overlord, but not how or why you were found impersonating a nova pilot.”

“I guess I forgot to mention that part,” Ethan said.

“Yes, do tell.”

So Ethan did. When he finished his story about how Brondi had used him to spread the virus which had killed nearly everyone aboard the Valiant, the admiral was left shaking his head incredulously. “How am I supposed to pardon you now? With a story like that? At least your son didn’t actually do anything wrong—besides impersonating an officer, that is.”

“I’m not asking for a pardon,” Ethan said.

“Good! Because you won’t get one.”

“Hoff!” Destra said.

“I can’t,” he said, shaking his head. “When people find out, they’ll want justice. They’ll demand it. Someone’s head will have to roll, and if it isn’t one of theirs, it will be mine. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do. The trial must go on. I can find a way to excuse your son, but that’s it.”

With that, Heston’s comm trilled, interrupting them, and he touched his ear to answer it. “Yes? . . . You found what? . . . I see. . . . Send me the transcripts. I’ll be there soon.”

“What happened?” Ethan asked.

“We’ve picked up an escape pod from the Valiant.

“The Valiant is here?” Ethan asked, suddenly alarmed.

“Oh yes—I guess I forgot to mention that,” Heston said with a wry twist of his lips.

“Then Brondi is here, too.”

“Assuming I can trust your stories.”

“Who was in the pod?” Atton asked.

“Your friend, Roan. I’m going to review the transcripts from his debriefing now. Apparently his story supports yours. That’s something in your favor at least.”

“We have to do something!” Atton said.

“We?” Heston echoed, rising from his chair. “I don’t know what you two have to do with it.”

“Admiral,” Ethan said. “I have a score to settle with Brondi. I don’t care what you think of me personally, or whether you have to put me on trial for my crimes afterward, but I want to be there when you take the Valiant. Consider it a last request.”

Heston’s eyes narrowed as he thought about it. “All right. I’ll grant that, but I hope you know how to handle a zephyr.”

“I’m going, too,” Atton said.

“No, you’re not. Your mother would never forgive me if you got yourself killed. I’m granting your father’s request because I’m hoping he will get himself killed.”

“What?” Destra asked.

Ethan gave the admiral a sardonic smile. “Don’t hold your breath,” he said.

“I won’t need to,” Heston replied. “But you might—if you live long enough for me to throw you out an airlock.”

“Hoff Heston!” Destra said.

He turned to meet her flashing eyes with a bitter smile. “We have to go. I need to get to my ship and plan this operation before Brondi restores power to the Valiant. If he sees us coming, it’s going to make things much more difficult for us.” As they watched, Heston activated his comm and began snapping orders. A moment later he ended the call and said, “We’ll leave as soon as my guards arrive.”





Chapter 12

Origin

“Are you skriffy? I’m not opening the core!”

Brondi glared at Sergeant Gibbs. “If you don’t, the reactor is going to overheat and explode.”

Gibbs shook his head, and servos whirred in his zephyr’s neck. “This mech doesn’t have enough shielding. If I open the core while the reactor is on, it’ll kill me.”

Brondi drew a bulky plasma pistol from his Zephyr’s thigh and put it to the sergeant’s head. “Better you than me. You’ve got three seconds before I pull the trigger.”

Sergeant Gibbs stood there for two of those three seconds before he turned and snapped at one of his subordinates. “You heard him, open the core!”

“Frek you!”

Gibbs drew his own pistol and took aim on the man’s vulnerable faceplate. “Open the core, Fentin.”

“Yes, sir,” that man replied and reluctantly started off.

Brondi shifted his aim to the man they’d singled out. “We’ll take cover on the other side of the core,” he said. “If you can force the control rods into the fuel element quickly enough, you shouldn’t be burned. If you are, don’t worry, we’ll take you to the med bay first thing.”

Fentin didn’t reply.

Brondi, Gibbs, and the other three soldiers trapped in the reactor room with them hurried to the far side of the core and waited while their sacrificial lamb walked steadily toward his fate. By now the dymium core was glowing a hot, molten orange. Without either working power conduits or shields there was no way for the core to dissipate any of the energy being produced, and the reactor was melting itself to slag.

“Krak, I can feel the heat through my armor!” Fentin said.

“Don’t think about it!” Brondi shouted to be heard above the loud whirring of the core. “You’ll be just fine!”

 They watched over the top of the core as Fentin took a hesitant step into the orange light cast by the glowing dymium dome. Fentin’s zephyr appeared to shimmer in the waves of heat pouring off the core.

“You’ve gotta move faster than that!” Gibbs called out.

Fentin covered the rest of the way in one quick stride, and then he reached out toward the core. Brondi braced himself to hear the man scream, but nothing happened. Fentin turned the lever to unlock the hatch and then swung it open.

Suddenly the light pouring from the reactor multiplied and the room was brightly lit. Now Fentin screamed. Still screaming, he reached in and forced the control rods into their guide tubes. A second later, the loud whirring of the reactor died, as did most of the light, but the dull orange glow of superheated dymium remained. Fentin stumbled away from the core, his screams louder now that the whirring of the reactor had been silenced. He held up one of his Zephyr’s arms, the one which had reached into the reactor. That arm was glowing bright orange like the core, and to a lesser extent, so was his entire mech. Fentin spun in a dizzy circle, screaming and staring at his glowing arm, as if simultaneously horrified and mesmerized by the sight of it. Abruptly he tripped and fell over, and his screams grew ominously quiet.

“Get the man some help!” Gibbs snapped.

“Don’t waste your time,” Brondi said. “He’s dead. Go get the doors open so our greasers can fix this mess.”

Gibbs turned to look at him.

“Well?” Brondi demanded.

“Yes, sir.”

And with that, Sergeant Gibbs and the remaining three men headed for the doors. Brondi glanced back at Fentin’s steaming zephyr where it lay cooling on the deck. Better you than me, he thought.

*  *  *

Origin

Destra strode down the hall, flanked on either side by her husband and daughter. A pair of armored sentinels went ahead of them, pushing Ethan and Atton along, their hands bound by stun cords once again.

“Where are we going?” Atta asked.

Her question went ignored by her parents. The situation was too serious and time was too short to stop and deal with her innocent curiosity. They were leaving Fortress Station for Hoff’s flagship, the Tauron, just in case the Valiant went from mysteriously derelict to guns blazing. If that carrier turned its guns on the station, they’d make short work of it, and the admiral didn’t want his family aboard if that happened.

They reached the end of the hall and Admiral Heston passed his wrist over the door controls of his private airlock. The inner doors swished open, followed a second later by the outer ones. Ethan and Atton were shoved through first, to which Ethan grunted and said, “What’s the point in keeping us prisoner if you’re planning to release us again when we get to your ship?”

“I’m releasing you, but only because you’ll be surrounded by your own personal firing squad if you step out of line. Atton is going to stay in the brig until the trial. As for why I’m not letting you two run around loose aboard this ship—I don’t have time to babysit.”

Atton snorted, but said nothing. He was wearing his holoskin again. Hoff had told him to put it back on before the sentinels had arrived to escort them off the station.

Destra eyed the corridor on the other side of the airlock. It was dark and full of exposed conduits. The rough, gunmetal gray bulkheads were unpainted and unadorned. It was Hoff’s private corvette, the Last Chance. The ship still served its original purpose as a heavily-armed and armored transport, and unlike the Admiral’s quarters aboard the station, there were none of the homely touches which might have made it more comfortable.

They strode through the station’s airlock and then through a matching one inside the waiting corvette. Atton and Ethan waited on the other side with Heston’s guards, and as soon as everyone was through, the doors automatically shut with an echoing boom.

Heston pointed to the nearest guard and said, “Corporal, take them below and lock them in the cargo hold until we arrive.”

“Yes, sir.” That man nodded, and then both sentinels turned and marched the two prisoners away.

“Hoff,” Destra began, watching Ethan and Atton as they left, “you didn’t mean what you said about hoping Ethan will get himself killed, did you?”

He rounded on her. “Why? Do you still care about him?”

“He’s not a bad man.”

“Then explain his criminal history. Even if we can trust everything he told us, he still admits to participating with Brondi’s plot and planning to sabotage the Valiant.

“He didn’t have a choice. What would you have done if Brondi had taken me and the only way to get me back was to cooperate with him? Any jury will understand that Ethan didn’t have a choice.”

“He could have gone to the authorities.”

“Brondi would have killed Alara.”

Hoff sighed and squeezed the bridge of his nose as if he had a headache. “Destra . . . Ethan wants me to send him. It’s up to him whether or not he lives through the assault, but it doesn’t really matter. If he returns, he’ll be subjected to a probe and if that doesn’t kill him, the sentence for his crimes will. He’s going to die either way. I suspect he knows that, and that’s the reason he wants to go.”

“You already heard his story—why do you need to probe him?”

“Because there’s no other way to corroborate what he’s saying! How do we know what his motives really were, or what he was actually planning to do? We can’t even ask his copilot, because she’s been slave-chipped and she can’t remember anything.”

“She was chipped by Brondi—that’s proof enough.”

“Or was she chipped by Ethan to shut her up? Maybe Ethan was working for Brondi as a willing mercenary and she didn’t like the idea.”

“That’s a cold thought.”

“Yes, but it is just as plausible as his story. The only way we can corroborate what Ethan told us without using a probe is if we get Alec Brondi to sit in that probe chair instead of him, and that’s if Brondi survives the assault.”

“Then make sure he does,” Destra said.

Hoff’s eyes narrowed. “You care a lot about your ex-husband, don’t you?”

“That’s not fair. I chose you, Hoff.”

“You chose me because he wasn’t there.”

“Not just because of that. I chose you because you’re the better man.”

“Sometimes I wonder if you really do believe that.”

Destra sighed. “I do, Hoff, but I don’t like that you keep secrets from me.”

“Some things aren’t safe for you to know. Not yet. One day I’ll tell you everything. If you’re patient. Try to forget about it for now.”

Destra smiled sarcastically. “I wish I could. Maybe you can help me with that—you’re good at forgetting things.”

Hoff gritted his teeth. “You know why I can’t remember Ritan.”

Atta’s little brow furrowed as she glanced from her father to her mother and back again. She hugged Mr. Tibbins, and the louder her parents’ voices got, the harder she hugged the stuffed diger.

“Yes, and I’ve kept that secret, haven’t I? So why can’t you trust me to keep secret whatever else it is that you’re hiding?”

“I’m not going to argue with you about this again, Des! If you’re so unhappy with me, go back to your skriffy outlaw.”

With that, Hoff turned and stalked toward the bridge. Destra stood staring after him with a knot in her throat. She felt a tug on her arm and looked down to see Atta gazing up at her.

“Is Daddy angry because of me?” she asked.

Destra felt a pang of regret. She’d forgotten Atta was there. “No, sweetheart. He’s angry with the bad people who we’re going to fight,” she lied.

“Are they skull faces?” Atta buried her face up to her eyes in Mr. Tibbins’ white fur.

“No, darling, they’re not. Not this time,” Destra said and gave her daughter a reassuring smile. They’re humans, she thought. Humans fighting humans . . . even the Sythians know better than to fight themselves. At this rate, there won’t be any of us left for them to kill.

*  *  *

Origin

Hoff scowled as he undocked his corvette and ignited the thrusters, jetting away from the station. He looked down at the star map, searching for the next largest gravidar icon besides the Valiant. Both icons were dark on the grid—the super carrier because it was drifting without power, but Hoff’s flagship, the Tauron, was dark because it was running on low power to keep it from being detected by passing Sythians. The Tauron was an old reaper-class battleship; just over a kilometer long, and bristling with over 460 lasers and capital ship-cracking beam cannons. It was just a fifth the length of the carrier, but it easily had the same firepower as the Valiant. Despite that, her shields were much weaker and she held just one squadron of novas versus the Valiant’s twenty four. Battleships like his focused on leaving more room for guns and assault mechs rather than hangar space for novas. They were geared for planetary assaults and boarding enemy ships after filling them full of holes. The Tauron might have held only one squadron of novas, but it had a squad bay which rivaled that of any carrier. The reaper-class, of which his flagship was the only surviving example, carried 48 assault transports with room for 48 squads of eight medium to light assault mechs, as well as 48 squads of ground troops. And back when there’d been a purpose for large ground forces, she'd carried three drop ships with room for 24 heavy assault mechs and another 216 squads of ground troops. In all, the ship held over 400 mechs and over 2,500 sentinels, but she was badly-equipped for fleet battles, with just one squadron of 12 fighter pilots and novas.

Battleships like the Tauron required a whole supporting fleet to defend them from enemy fighters—a fleet which Hoff no longer had thanks to his failed mission to the Getties Cluster. The last remainder of his fleet lay guarding the enclave, and they were too far away to be of any help now. As long as the Valiant didn’t have a chance to bring her novas or her own considerable armaments to bear before the Tauron landed with her sentinels, the assault would be over quickly.

Hoff banked the corvette around to port, and his mighty battleship appeared; her glittering lights painted the shape of her hull against the starry blackness of space. Flying in at the battleship from the top down, Hoff saw the Tauron’s two forward prongs, and the muted blue glow from the hangar which lay between them. From this angle, the Tauron looked like a blunted spearhead, with stepped tiers of decks and cannons running all the way up to the bridge at the back. Her armor was aging and visibly patched in places, but every inch of her 52 decks was spotless. She was home to over 6,000 officers, in addition to her army of sentinels—or at least she had been before Hoff had spread his crew across the odd dozen cruisers and destroyers he’d managed to salvage and add to his fleet since the exodus. Still, even undermanned, she was the pride of his fleet. Ships like the Tauron and the Valiant were a singular sight now, but at one point there had been over a hundred large capital-class ships in the Imperial Fleet. Hoff had just two—the Arakant, a small, 800-meter-long carrier, and the Tauron. Dark Space had just one such ship—the Valiant—and she was by far the largest of the three surviving warships. Humanity couldn’t afford to lose it.

Heston shook his head and growled. He couldn’t believe a crime lord had managed to steal it, but with a naïve young boy like Atton in charge of the Imperium, he wasn’t overly surprised. The whole situation was a disgrace, but it begged the question, if Brondi had stolen the Valiant, why had he brought it here, of all places? Hoff suspected it had something to do with Brondi’s virus, and the “vaccine” he’d given them. Now, in hindsight, Heston realized the vaccine was probably contaminated with the actual virus. Thankfully, he’d had the sense to have his people analyze it before using it to inoculate his men. The results of the analysis would likely confirm his suspicions soon.

Trust but verify, Heston thought. It had been his policy with the Gors from day one, but it hadn’t started there. He’d lived long enough to realize that no one can be trusted, especially the ones you trust the most. Given the right incentive, anyone will throw you to the rictans. His thoughts turned to Destra with that, and his eyes narrowed as he wondered about where her loyalties truly lay. He’d had plenty of bad experiences with trusting women in the past. They’ll say they love you to your face, but as soon as you turn your back, they’ll stab you straight through the heart. As much as he loved Destra, he couldn’t allow himself to trust her too much. She knew almost everything about him, except for one critical detail, and she was going to have to wait very patiently before he revealed that to her.

Trust but verify.

Heston’s comm beeped with an incoming message. It was Captain Adram aboard Fortress Station. Hoff answered the call.

“Admiral—Commander Caldin and her crew found out about the situation aboard the Valiant from the Gor we captured. They’re asking to be let out so they can help take back their ship.”

Heston frowned. “How did they make contact with the Gor?”

“We had them all locked up together on the same detention level, sir.”

Hoff sighed. “I suppose there’s no point holding them any longer, anyway.”

“I take it you’re going to take the Gor’s word for it, then?”

“He has no reason to lie, but I’ve independently verified the events from other sources as well. Have Caldin and her crew sent to the Tauron. I’m short of men, so we’ll find a use for them.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Leave the Gors where they are for now—in fact, isolate them.”

“With their telepathy, sir, there’s no point isolating them.”

“You probably thought there was no point isolating them from the humans either. If they don’t get to see each other, at least we have an extra concession to grant when we start interrogating them.”

“Then you’re not going to get the Gors to help you with the assault?” Captain Adram sounded surprised.

“I haven’t accepted their help so far; why should I start now?”

“I don’t know. . . . I just thought that since they’ve been helping us so much lately—”

“That’s what they want you to think, Captain. We didn’t survive the war by being complete skriffs.”

“I take it that Kaon revealed something suspicious?”

“So far the probe has confirmed everything we’ve been led to believe, but that doesn’t mean it’s true.”

“A probe doesn’t lie, sir.”

“Are you planning to stage a little Gor rebellion of your own, Captain?”

“No, sir! But with due respect, I don’t think we’re in a position to refuse their help. Letting them help us take back the Valiant would be a good opportunity for them to prove themselves.”

“Captain, they’re just begging for opportunities to prove themselves, and that is suspicious enough by itself. Ever wonder why they need our help if they’re already crewing more than a thousand Sythian warships? They should just run away at top speed and never look back. They’d end up with a fleet a hundred times the strength of ours. Why do they need us, Captain?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“We’ll talk more about this later, Adram. Right now, I have an operation to plan.”

“Yes, sir. Just promise me that you won’t let your personal bias guide your decision.”

“My bias isn’t personal—it’s logical—and don’t worry, now that the overlord is out of the picture, we’re going to get to the bottom of things very quickly.”

“I hope so. Immortals be with you, sir.”

Heston smirked. “They always are.” With that, he killed the transmission and shook his head. The last thing he needed now was push back from his subordinates. He’d have to consider demoting Captain Adram. That little discourse was unacceptable. Not to mention his questionable decision to rescue the Defiant before returning to Ritan with Kaon. Adram was starting to look like too much of a loose cannon to leave in command of a cloaking warship like the Interloper.

Heston engaged the autopilot and then turned to his comm display to log into the commnet. There he found the transcript from Roan’s debriefing. He hadn’t had a chance to look at it yet, but his decision to board the Valiant in force had been made more from hearing Atton’s and Ethan’s stories and putting those together with what Commander Caldin and her crew had said about the same events. There were too many suspicious things lining up, and one way or another, boarding the Valiant would give him the answers he needed. If it turned out that the real overlord was still in command of the carrier and everything else had been a ruse, he would execute the Defiant’s crew—starting with Ethan.

Hoff skimmed through the transcript to find that Roan’s story agreed with everything he had already heard, but he was more interested in finding out exactly how Roan had managed to sabotage the Valiant. When he finished scanning the transcript, he understood why the Valiant was drifting toward Ritan. Roan had shut down the main reactor and then cut the power conduits. He’d also destroyed the IMS with remote-detonated mines. Then, when teams had come to investigate the damage to the main reactor, Roan had restarted it, and locked them inside to bake with the radiation. By now, any unarmored men aboard the Valiant were in serious danger from the radiation pouring out of the unshielded reactor. Even the Gor had abandoned ship to get away from it.

Hoff frowned. Why was he finding out about this from a Gor? What had happened to the team he’d sent to investigate the Valiant’s sudden loss of power? He touched his ear with the comm piece and said, “Call Captain Cathrall.”

The comm trilled briefly in Hoff’s ear before the captain answered, “Admiral, I—”

“What happened to the team of mechs and engineers you sent to the Valiant, Captain?”

“I was just about to contact you, sir. They dropped off comms a few moments ago.”

“Last contact?”

“Around 1620. Should we send a follow-up team, sir?”

“I’m about to send a whole army.”

“An army, sir?”

“Yes, it would appear the Valiant has had us all fooled. She’s being crewed by outlaws, not fleet officers. I’m on my way to the Tauron now. Don’t do anything yet. I’ll be in touch.”

“Yes . . . sir.”

“Heston out.”

Hoff shook his head and set his jaw. As if it’s not enough that we have to worry about the Sythians, we have to fight our own kind, too. . . .

A noise sounded out behind him and Hoff turned to see his wife stepping lightly onto the bridge. He gave her a tight smile and then turned back to the viewports. “Atta’s in her room?”

“Yes. Hoff . . .”

He felt her hands on his shoulders, kneading the knots out of his muscles. “What?”

“I’m sorry. Maybe I do still care about Ethan, but it’s not love. Not romantic love, anyway. I care about him as I would about any other human being. He doesn’t deserve to die, Hoff, and you know that.”

“Maybe not, but he’ll get at least ten years hard labor, even if his story is true.”

“Hoff . . . out here you are the law. You can pardon him.”

“No, Destra, I can’t. It will undermine my command.”

Destra sighed and stopped massaging his shoulders. He watched her walk up to the viewports. “What will you do with Atton?”

“He’ll have to wait until he can be acquitted.”

“There’s no other way? He’s a holoskinner. What if he just took off his skin. No one would recognize him, not outside of Dark Space anyway.”

Hoff thought about it. “The Defiant’s crew might.”

“Do they have to be on your ship?”

Hoff frowned. “I just sent them there, but for now I can confine Atton to quarters, I suppose.”

“Could he stay with us? I’d like to be able to spend some quality time with him without prison bars between us.”

Hoff sighed, and Destra walked back over to him and kissed him on the cheek. “Thank you.”

“Mmmm,” Hoff replied as his mind turned back to planning the coming engagement. “Very well.”





Chapter 13

Origin

The shuttle carrying Alara and the rest of the crew from the Defiant landed in the auxiliary hangar of the Tauron. The boarding ramp dropped and the sergeant who’d ridden with them from Fortress Station rushed them out onto the deck and lined them up for processing. They all stood at attention and waited. A moment later a tall man with a spotless black uniform and white veteran’s stripes strode up to them. His glowing red eye caught Alara’s attention and she drew an immediate comparison between that eye and the glowing red eyes in the Gors’ helmets. This man was completely human, however. He looked to be around forty years old, with black hair receding at his temples and just a glimmer of white showing through the black. Alara reasoned that made him old enough to have earned his stripes before the exodus.

The officer stopped in front of them and frowned as he looked them over, his blazing red eye roving down the line of survivors. Row upon row of colorful ribbons marked him as a distinguished officer. Alara noted the two gold chevrons and silver icon of a venture-class cruiser glittering on his black with white trim epaulets, and she realized that his insignia bore one more chevron than that of Deck Commander Caldin, meaning he must have outranked her by at least a full pay grade.

“I am Master Commander Donali,” the man said, confirming Alara’s suspicions about his rank. “I serve as the Tauron’s XO, and that means I call the shots around here. While you’re on this ship, you’d do well to remember that.” Donali turned to glance at the sergeant who’d marched them off the shuttle. He stood suddenly straighter under the XO’s scrutiny. “Deck Sergeant . . .” Donali began.

“Sir!” the sergeant replied, saluting smartly.

“These are my auxiliaries?”

“Yes, sir!”

Alara saw Donali shake his head before turning back to them. “If this is what the fleet is coming to in Dark Space, it’s no wonder you lost the Valiant.

Alara saw Commander Caldin’s jaw clench, but to her credit she said nothing.

Donali went on. “I’ve never seen a sorrier looking pack of space rats! Look at you! Half of you haven’t even shaved, and those uniforms may as well be burned.”

One of the corpsmen in the lineup couldn’t take it any longer and he stepped forward. Commander Donali’s eyes found the man. “You have something to say, Corpsman?”

“Yes, sir!” He saluted.

“Spit it out.”

“We’ve been forced to live in very poor conditions since being rescued, sir, and that is the reason for our sorry appearance, sir.”

“Did I ask you for the reason why you’re looking sorry? Don’t answer that. No, I didn’t ask, because I don’t care. I’d demote you for speaking out of turn, but instead I’m going to be merciful and make you the new latrine queen on this ship. Cleaning up our krak all day should give you newfound respect for your superiors. Step back in line!”

“Yes, sir.”

Donali turned to address them as a group. “I don’t know what kind of slack you have been used to, but you’re not in Dark Space anymore. This is the FFR, and as long as we’re out in the open here in Sythian Space, there is no such thing as condition blue or even green, so you can forget about R&R. We’re on a constant yellow alert. If you need a break, we’ll rotate you out and you’ll get some time on Ritan to visit the skull faces. Any questions?”

No one dared to step forward this time.

“Good! You’re learning.”

Alara watched the process continue. One by one the commander pointed to them. They had to step forward and state their name, rank or rate, and their rating—the role they’d been trained to fill. Based on that, they were told how they would serve aboard the battleship.

When it was Alara’s turn, she had to explain that she’d been more or less drafted to be a nova pilot, and had never received any formal training.

The XO gave her an arch look. “So you’re some new class of Brevet Officer. . . . a lieutenant no less. I’ve never even heard of a civilian pilot being promoted straight up the ladder like that, but I suppose desperate times call for desperate measures. How many missions have you flown since being drafted?”

“Just three.”

“Combat?”

“Two of them were, but one of those was training—a blind combat simulation.”

“What’s your pilot’s rating?”

“I’m not sure anyone’s been keeping track, sir, but in the training mission I scored 4B.”

“Training is a lot different from real, blind combat or not. Has anyone here flown with her?” Donali asked, looking up and down the line of assembled officers and NCOs.

Gina stepped forward and gave a brisk salute. “I have, sir.”

“And who are you?

“First Lieutenant Gina Giord, sir. Nova pilot.”

“How good a pilot is the Brevet Lieutenant?”

“One of the best I’ve seen—possibly even better than me.”

“Step back in line.” Turning to Alara, the XO said, “We don’t have any empty nova cockpits right now, but we’ll have you fly one of the assault transports. Go stand over there by the engineers and technicians. I’ll get back to you in a minute.”

Alara nodded and gave a brisk salute before leaving the lineup. She waited with the greasers and technicians while the XO addressed Commander Caldin.

“I already know what role you filled, Commander, but on this ship XO is my job, and the Admiral is the Captain. Your record shows an impressive tactical score, so I’d like you to join the Admiral’s advisory staff. You’ll be with us on the bridge, just one step down from myself. Come stand over here,” he said, pointing to the deck beside him.

“Yes, sir,” Caldin said, leaving the lineup.

“Next!” Donali pointed to Gina, and she stepped forward. “You said you were a nova pilot.”

“Ever since I joined the fleet, sir.”

The XO looked her up and down, noting the white stripes running down the sides of her trousers. “You’ve already got your stripes. You a real veteran or you just like how slimming those stripes are?”

“No, sir, I earned them. The war’s making veterans of us all.”

“Hmmm. How long ago did you join the fleet?”

“Six years.”

“What—did you join when you were twelve?”

“No, sir, sixteen.”

“So you’re fresh out of flight training—or were you also drafted under unusual circumstances? What’s your flight experience?”

“I had to earn my wings, sir. I spent the full three years training aboard the Baroness, and graduated three years ago with distinction. After that I joined Sunstroke Squadron aboard the Defiant. A year later, we were sent to the Getties Cluster, and in the last year since returning I’ve been serving aboard the Valiant with Guardian Squadron.”

The XO whistled and ran a hand along his grizzled jaw. “Well, it would be a real shame not to give you a nova, then. What’s your pilot’s rating?”

“2B over 22, sir.”

“Twenty-two missions flown? All combat?”

“About half.”

“I’m impressed that you managed to keep a 2B rating after flying that many sorties. I’m betting that means you can fly a transport with your eyes closed. You can go join Lieutenant Vastra.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Next!”

Alara watched Gina walk over to her. When she got there, Alara shook her head and whispered, “I just can’t get away from you, can I?”

Gina grinned. “You’re stuck with me, Kiddie.”

“Are you going to steal all my kills again?”

“Only if you let me.”

“Hoi, would you two cut the chatter? I had enough of that on the Rescue. Didn’t let me sleep worth a damn!”

Alara turned to see Petty Officer Cobrale Delayn standing behind them. He was of average height, but with his pale, Worani skin, gray hair, and light blue eyes, the old engineer still stood out in any crowd. Alara smiled at him. “We didn’t let you sleep because you snore, and we didn’t want Tova to get annoyed and eat us.”

“I do not snore.”

“Don’t make me get the flight recorder to prove it,” Alara replied.

“Go ahead. You can’t prove what don’t exist. I’m as quiet as a—”

“All right break it up, girlies!” Commander Donali said, striding over to them and clapping his hands to get their attention. “I’m going to take you lot to the flight deck myself. We’re expecting the admiral to land there in a few minutes, and I need to speak with him.” Donali turned to find Commander Caldin. She was busy talking to a nearby corpsman. “Come with us, Commander,” he said. “I’m sure the admiral is eager to meet the one time captain who discovered the Gors.” Caldin turned to look at him and he went on, “That stunt you pulled, trying a probe on one of them might have landed you in krak with the overlord, but it’s going to put you in the admiral’s good books. We don’t waste time blowin’ kisses to skull faces in this fleet.”

“That sounds like a welcome change to me, sir,” Caldin replied as she walked up to them. She cast a quick glance over her shoulder at the corpsman she’d been speaking with, and nodded. He smiled back before turning away.

What passed between them could have been nothing, but Alara had heard the rumors—almost everyone on the Defiant had hooked up during the long wait for a rescue. Something about near-certain death and boredom made people’s passions boil over. The only reason Alara hadn’t fallen prey to that herself was that she’d been the one doing the rescuing and the only man within light years had been Delayn. That was just as well. With her slave chip telling her to think and act like a pleasure palace playgirl named Angel, without even wanting to she would have slept with every man on board the Defiant before a rescue came.

The one man she could be sure she really wanted was Ethan. There was something about him that she just couldn’t forget. Despite the wife he claimed to still be in love with, and regardless of his alleged crimes, Alara couldn’t forget about him. He haunted her dreams and her every waking thought. She ached for him, and deep down, she knew that he was destined to be hers.

But he was also destined to be thrown out an airlock.

She wanted to find the admiral and beg him for Ethan’s release. Whatever he’d been accused of, she loved him, and she knew he was a good man. He wasn’t guilty of anything deserving death. He couldn’t be! She couldn’t explain how she knew, but she did. Alara felt sick.

“Fall in!” Master Commander Donali said, and with that, he marched them off to the flight deck. Alara bit her lip, wondering where Ethan was now and what he was doing.

*  *  *

Origin

Crew rushed back and forth across the flight deck. It was nothing like what Alara remembered from the badly-undermanned Defiant. There the flight deck had been just large enough for the cruiser’s original two squadrons of novas, and they’d barely had a handful of ground crew, but here she could see more than a dozen assault transports, and each of those transports looked large enough to hold half a dozen novas by itself. The hangar was enormous, and the ceiling very high to accommodate the heavy assault mechs which stood in their docking stations along the bulkheads. Those mechs towered between three and five stories high, sticking out high above the tops of the assault transports and milling squads of sentinels. They were monsters—the battleships of ground warfare—bristling with beam cannons, pulse lasers, ripper cannons, and missiles. Due to their size, they would never be useful for ship-to-ship actions, so they weren’t going on this mission. Heavy assault mechs were typically reserved for planetary assaults, and Alara was willing to bet these hadn’t seen any action since the exodus. The human survivors didn’t have the manpower or the resources to think about assaulting planets and taking them back from the Sythians.

Squads of light assault mechs stomped across the deck in pairs, filing into the transports. The matte black zephyrs were little more than exaggerated suits of combat armor, and just small enough to traipse through most parts of the Valiant without getting stuck.

The level of noise and activity in the hangar was overwhelming. Alara struggled to hear herself think above the thudding of mechanized footsteps, and the booming of loading ramps opening and closing. Adding to that was a near-constant crackle of announcements, blaring over the intercom to be heard over everything else.

Abruptly, Commander Donali held up a hand for them to stop as a mechanized load lifter stomped across their path carrying a big plastiform crate. Alara watched the mech pass, craning her neck to look up at it. Once it was gone, Commander Donali started forward again, leading them across the deck to one of the smaller ships on the flight deck. Slightly shorter and much sleeker than the assault transports, it was a seraphim-class corvette. That ship sat on a landing pad close to the blue fuzz of the hangar’s shielded opening to space, as if the pilot had been in a hurry to set down or was just about to leave again.

Standing at the foot of the boarding ramp was a squad of Zephyr light assault mechs with their bulky black helmets off and cradled in their hands. Slung across their backs were oversized plasma rifles and tanks of oxygen. Admiral Heston stood in front of the squad looking small beside their mechs, but somehow still intimidating as he ordered one of them to kneel before him. Alara frowned, wondering what was happening. When they stopped just a few paces away from the admiral, she heard what he was saying, and she recognized the man he was speaking with.

“Repeat after me, if I step out of line you will kill me with the push of a button, sir.

The mech pilot repeated that phrase and Alara shook her head. It can’t be. . . . She listened to him repeat after the admiral, and she realized that his voice was a match, too. Alara studied that soldier’s face and downcast eyes more carefully, and suddenly her heart began thudding in her chest.

“Good!” the admiral said. Turning to another mech pilot whose breastplate was decorated with more colorful bars than the others, he said, “Sergeant Dorian, if Private Ortane gets out of line, don’t hesitate to shoot him. You don’t need to wait for me to give the order.”

“Yes, sir.”

“All right, chip him!”

“Wait!” Alara screamed.

Commander Donali turned and gave Alara an incredulous look.

“Who said that?” Admiral Heston boomed.

“Second Lieutenant Alara Vastra, sir,” Donali answered with his brow furrowed all the way up to his receding hairline. “She’s one of the survivors from the Defiant. A pilot.”

“I see,” the admiral said as he walked up to her. “Atten-tion!” Alara straightened, but the admiral frowned. “Forgotten how to salute? How in the netherworld did you get to lieutenant?

Alara gave a sloppy salute now that she was prompted. “Sorry, sir. I was drafted in a hurry, so I’m not used to fleet protocols.” Her gaze skipped to Ethan just in time to see him look up at her.

“That’s no excuse. You’ve been aboard the Defiant for at least a week, so you should have learned by now.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Care to explain your outburst, Lieutenant?”

“I overheard you say you were going to chip that man over there.” Alara’s gaze turned to Ethan once more.

“And what is that to you?”

“I used to be his copilot, sir.”

“Indeed? Are you aware that he’s a criminal?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you know what he is being charged with?”

“High treason, I believe, sir.”

“That’s correct, so we have no choice but to have him chipped if he’s going to join the assault teams boarding the Valiant.”

“Why would you let a prisoner fight for you?”

“Because I believe in letting people make amends, and because I’d rather he die than one of my own men. A man with nothing to lose is a powerful adversary, and he tells me he has a score to settle with Alec Brondi, so that makes him even more dangerous. Now, I’m going to ask you again—what is it to you that Ethan Ortane be chipped?”

“I . . .” Alara’s eyes found Ethan’s once more. “I have feelings for him, sir.”

“Romantic feelings?”

“I don’t know. I think so.”

“And does he return your sentiments?”

“Leave the girl alone, Hoff,” Ethan said.

The admiral turned to glare over his shoulder. “Shut up or I’ll put you back in the brig where you belong.” Turning back to Alara, he pressed, “Well?”

“I don’t know, sir . . .” Alara replied, confused by the inquisition. “He told me he can’t return my feelings because he still loves his wife.”

Hoff held her gaze for a long, uncomfortable moment until at last he began to nod. Turning back to Ethan and the assembled squad of mechs, he said, “Well, Private Ortane, it seems you weren’t lying about her at least. As for the rest of your story, we’ll just have to wait and see, won’t we?”

Ethan glared stonily back at the admiral, but said nothing.

“Good. You’re learning the value of silence. It’s less incriminating. Chip him! I don’t have any more time to waste here.” With that, the squad medic stepped forward and raised an implanter to Ethan’s neck. Alara winced as it went in.

Almost as an afterthought, the admiral turned to her. “Don’t worry, I’m only implanting him with a tracker. It’s not dangerous so long as he doesn’t do anything stupid that might endanger this mission or his squad.”

Alara nodded mutely, and the admiral smiled thinly back before he turned and stalked away. She heard him and the XO begin speaking in hushed tones, but she wasn’t paying attention. Her focus was on Ethan as he rose from the deck and rolled his shoulders. Alara crossed the space between them as his squad began filing into an adjacent transport. She stopped in front of Ethan, looking tiny beside his zephyr. “I’m sorry,” she said, looking up at him.

“For what?”

“That they’re treating you this way. I know you’re not guilty.”

Ethan smiled. “Alara, I was an ex-con when you met me, and I’m not innocent now, either.”

Alara’s eyes flashed. “Shhh!”

“It’s all right; it’s no secret.”

“That doesn’t mean you have to shout it from the rooftops!”

“I’m not. I just want you to know that—”

“Hoi!” someone called out. Alara turned to see Ethan’s sergeant standing and waving from the boarding ramp of a nearby transport. “Private, you need to get aboard now, or you’re going to be left behind! Double time!”

“I’ll be right there, Sergeant,” Ethan called back. “Alara, I have to go.”

“Don’t! They want you to die out there, Ethan. The admiral said so! No one is going to have your back.”

“Maybe not, but someone’s got to have yours.”

Alara frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Brondi’s on that ship, Alara. He’s the only one who can give us the code to deactivate your slave chip. Without that, you’ll be Angel the playgirl forever.”

“I don’t care!” she said. “I’m not even sure I want my memory back.”

Ethan shook his head. “There’s no use trying to talk me out of it.”

“Damn you, you hard-headed . . . skriff! I love you! That’s one thing I can still remember. You can’t get yourself killed.”

“If it brings you back, it’ll be worth it.”

“Why? So I can remember you better, and mourn you more?”

“Alara . . .”

“Ethan!”

“I love you, too, Kiddie. I know it’s not fair to say this to you now, but I think I’ve always loved you. . . .” He trailed off, shaking his head. “I found her, Alara.”

“Found who?” Alara’s thoughts ran in confusing circles—He loves me! He’s leaving! He’s going to die! He loves me! He’s leaving me?

“My wife. She’s on the Tauron right now.”

What?” Alara blinked. She felt suddenly light-headed and she stumbled back a step. “How . . . when?”

“It’s a long story. She’s been missing ever since the exodus, but I just found out that she’s been with Hoff all this time. She’s his wife now, Alara, and she’s probably the only reason I haven’t already been jettisoned out the nearest airlock with the rest of the garbage.”

Alara shook her head. “I don’t understand; I thought—”

“Private! I’m raising this ramp! Don’t make me go into combat without my laser bait.”

“On my way, sir!” Ethan called back. Speaking to Alara, he said, “You don’t have to understand, just remember this: I’m sorry, and if I ever had the chance to make a life with you again, I wouldn’t waste it. Take care of yourself, Kiddie.” With that, he turned and sprinted up to the transport where his sergeant stood waiting.

Alara stood numb and speechless, watching as Ethan jumped up to the top of the boarding ramp and turned to wave goodbye. She couldn’t even bring herself to wave back. The last thing she saw before the ramp closed was him turning and putting his helmet on.

“Frek you, Ethan!” she finally managed, but he couldn’t hear. He wasn’t going to leave her like that. She would make him eat that heart-wrenching goodbye! She’d make sure he had that chance to make a life with her if it was the last thing she did, and then they’d see if he was telling the truth or not. Alara turned to look around the milling flight deck. “Gina! Where the frek are you?”

“He doesn’t deserve you,” she said.

Alara whirled around to see Gina standing behind her. “You were listening the whole time?”

“Waiting for you,” she clarified. “We’ve got a bird to fly, remember?” Gina pointed to the side of another transport. “The XO doesn’t like the idea of a brevet flying solo, so he’s got you assigned as my copilot—always the copilot, never the pilot, hoi?” Gina winked.

Alara shook her head. “I need your help.”

“We don’t have time for any favors, Kiddie.”

“I want us to fly that transport.” Alara turned and pointed to the one Ethan had disappeared into.

Gina frowned. “That’s Assault Trans One. See the emblem on the side?”

Alara noted the badge-shaped emblem, black with a jagged gold lightning bolt cutting through a glittering field of stars. She shook her head, not comprehending. “So? What’s that mean?”

“They’re vanguards—the sentinels’ elite. They’re the first ones in and the last ones out.”

“I don’t care.”

Gina shrugged. “Just thought you’d like to know what you’re getting us into.”

“Come on,” Alara set off at a jog.

“Hoi—hold up! What’s your plan to replace the pilots already in there?” Gina asked, jogging up beside her. “They’re probably A class vets. We’re both class B. There’s no way they’ll let us switch with them just like that. Mission control won’t allow it either.”

“I’ll think of something,” Alara said.

When they got up to the blocky front of the shuttle, Alara ran around the nose until she could clearly see the pilot and copilot through the forward viewport. She began waving her arms in the air frantically. The pilot noticed her first and turned to his copilot to say something. Then the copilot looked up, saw her, and shook his head. Alara didn’t stop waving her arms until the pilot cracked the side hatch open and poked his head out to speak with her.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Thank the Immortals you saw me in time! You have a crack in your engine block, and I think I saw coolant leaking!”

“Frek . . .” the pilot muttered. “Thanks, I’ll get it checked.”

“You don’t have time for that! You’re with the vanguards, right?” Alara turned and pointed to the transport Gina had indicated was theirs. “Take ours. She hasn’t been loaded yet. I’ll make sure this one’s repaired and we’ll fly it in the last wave.”

“All right. I suppose that’ll do. Let me just notify command about the switch.” A minute later he and his copilot started down the ladder from the open hatch. They reached the deck just as Alara heard the loading ramp at the back of the shuttle opening to let the vanguards out. The pilot sent her a thumbs-up before he and his copilot ran off. Alara smiled and bounded up the ladder to the cockpit. Panting heavily, she found the button marked raise/lower ramp and stabbed it just before it finished lowering. In the next instant, she heard the ship’s intercom crackle. “Hoi, what’s going on up there?” It was Ethan’s sergeant. “I thought we were switching shuttles, Dreggs?”

“Ah, one moment please, we appear to be having some technical difficulties with the ramp controls.”

Alara heard a hiss of static as the sergeant let out a frustrated sigh. “Don’t bother. We’ll climb out the airlocks.”

“Negative, negative . . .” she said, thinking fast. “It looks like we’ve got an oxygen leak. Wouldn’t want a spark to flash cook you.”

Gina quirked an eyebrow at her as she reached the top of the ladder. Oxygen leak? she mouthed.

“The frek? Who is this?” the sergeant demanded.

“Command says there’s no time to switch shuttles, Sergeant. You’re going to have to stay there. All systems are green now, so don’t worry. Must have been a faulty sensor.” Alara locked the ramp as soon as it closed, and then she locked all of the airlocks for good measure.

“Hoi!” the sergeant said. She could hear someone banging in the background of the transmission. “Let us out!”

Gina took a seat beside Alara and leaned forward to speak into the comm. “It’s all right, Sergeant—had some confusion on this end with my greeny copilot, but we’re good to go now.”

“Where’s Lieutenant Dreggs? He said—”

“Forget what he said. There’s no time to switch shuttles. We’re your new pilots for this mission. Please strap in and stand by for launch.” With that, Gina muted the intercom and shook her head. “You’re in my chair.”

“Oh, right—sorry,” Alara said, standing up quickly.

“Go get suited up while I finish dealing with this mess. If anyone has to take the heat for it, it’s going to be you. Are we clear?”

“You can blame me all the way to the netherworld, Gina.”

“Good, I will.”

They heard more muffled banging from somewhere deep inside the ship, and Alara turned to look. “Maybe I should go back there and try to calm them down. . . .”

“Forget it. You’ll just rile them up more. Get me a spare flight suit from storage and then get back up here and help me pilot this bucket.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Alara said. As she walked down the dark, narrow corridor leading away from the cockpit, she thought, At least now you won’t be alone out there, Ethan.




Chapter 14

Origin

“The frek! Who is this?” Sergeant Dorian demanded.

Ethan stood in the back of the transport, shaking his head incredulously as he listened to Alara’s hasty explanations over the intercom. What are you doing here, Alara? He hadn’t realized that she was joining the mission, and he was pretty sure she wasn’t supposed to be piloting this particular transport. He hoped she wasn’t commandeering it in order to keep him away from Brondi; that would get them both into even more trouble, but it would be just like her to go charging into the middle of things without a second’s hesitation. Her emotions had always ruled her decisions. If he didn’t know better, he’d have said she was her old self again.

Another female speaker came on the intercom, and Ethan thought he recognized that one, too, but at the moment he couldn’t remember from where. “It’s all right, Sergeant, had some confusion on this end with my greeny copilot, but we’re good to go now.”

Ethan placed the voice a second later—Gina Giord. He’d flown with her a few times during the battle to escape Dark Space. He smiled, reassured. Whatever was going on, it was nothing to worry about if she was involved. Ethan watched Aleph Squad milling about, banging on hatches, cussing, and yelling to be let out.

“Relax!” Ethan said. “You’re in capable hands. I know these pilots.”

“Yea?” Sergeant Dorian turned to him. Ethan couldn’t make out the man’s expression through his faceplate, but he imagined a smirk. “Do I care if you know them, Private Ortane?”

“Probably not, but you’re giving me a headache, so I thought it was worth mentioning.”

Dorian laughed. “For all your smug krak, I’m going to enjoy watching your armor peeled open with plasma. You’re not a vanguard because you earned it, laser bait. You’re a vanguard because the admiral made you one, and he said he doesn’t want you to come back from this mission, so I can personally guarantee that you won’t.”

Ethan held his peace. There was no point riling the sergeant further. The intercom crackled again a few minutes later, and Gina said, “We’re launching in 30 seconds. Buckle up, ladies.”

A few sniggered at that while others took umbrage and made their displeasure known. Gina replied to their protestations: “Calling you brutes ladies was a compliment, but a real lady would have known that, so I guess it was undeserved.”

Ethan smiled behind his faceplate. Gina Giord was a fine example of a female officer who lived by the chauvinistic motto, anything a man can do, I can do better. After seeing the way she flew a nova, and watching her still run and fight after breaking half her ribs during their escape from the Valiant, he couldn’t really argue the point.

The next voice which came over the intercom was Alara’s. “Ethan?” she said.

He frowned, wondering why she would single him out. That wasn’t going to make him any more popular with his squad.

“Yes, Alara?” he called back, ignoring the few helmets which turned his way, their expressions inscrutable behind their dark, reflective blue faceplates.

“Immortals be with you,” she said.

“Likewise, Kiddie.”

A moment later, the man standing in the docking station beside Ethan’s said, “Sounds like you have a guardian angel in the cockpit.”

Angel, Ethan thought grimly. That man didn’t know how right he was. He turned to address the man and noted the holographic insignia glowing on his matte black shoulder plate—two glittering bronze chevrons overlaid on a black shield. Those chevrons marked him as a corporal in the sentinels and the glowing red cross above them indicated he was the squad medic. Scrawled across the bottom of his insignia was his squad designation, Aleph Seven. Ethan inclined his head to acknowledge the man, and then looked away as the ship began to rumble and vibrate around them. Amidst the rising whine of the transport’s engines, came a soft ca-clunk, and then stars appeared on the other side of the pinhole viewports which lined the opposite side of the transport between mech docking stations.

Ethan smiled anew. I’m coming for you, Brondi.

*  *  *

Origin

Brondi was back on the bridge of the Valiant, staring alternately between the dark surface of Ritan and an ever-narrowing slice of star-studded space. They were in a deteriorating orbit, slowly drifting toward the planet, and power still hadn’t been restored to his ship! At this rate they’d crash before that happened. Brondi had returned from the reactor room over an hour ago. When he’d left, his engineers had assured him that the reactor would be back online and power would be restored soon. As for the inertial management system, apparently it had been hit with a whole crate of proximity mines, but while Brondi had been trapped in the reactor room, some of his engineers had made themselves useful by reconfiguring the carrier’s SLS interrupter field as a backup IMS. Now they’d rededicated their efforts to the damaged reactor, and the greasers assured him that both power and gravity would be restored soon . . . whenever that was.

That was the good news—they probably wouldn’t crash into Ritan and all die in a fiery explosion. The bad news was that Captain Thornton was in a coma in the med bay with no sign of when, if ever, he was going to wake up, and until he did, Brondi would have to find another stand-in to wear the overlord’s holoskin.

The whole situation was a mess, and to make matters worse, they’d found no sign of the Sythian stowaway or stowaways who’d caused it all. One of the mech squads had reported a missing escape pod near the reactor room, however, so Brondi was hoping that meant the kakard had ejected himself into space. Brondi’s eyes narrowed on a particularly bright cluster of stars. He watched them twinkle and dance.

“Sir, teams four and six report they’re almost ready to restore power. . . . and . . . one of our watch stations just reported in. They’ve found a rescue team from the Admiral’s fleet. They’re dead sir.”

“What?” Brondi whirled from the viewports to see his comm officer gazing up at him. “Why am I only hearing about this after my men have killed them?” Brondi demanded.

“They didn’t. It would appear the rescue team ran into a mine trap laid by our saboteur.”

“Frek,” Brondi muttered “We’d better comm the admiral to explain.” The comm officer stared dumbly at him. “Well? What are you waiting for? Call them!”

“Yes, sir.”

“Audio only. If they want video, tell them we’re having technical difficulties due to the sabotage. And if they want to talk to the overlord, tell them he’s in the med bay being treated for some minor injuries.”

“Yes, sir.”

Brondi scowled. “What a frekking mess!”

“The main reactor is online!” the chief engineer reported, and with that the dim red emergency lighting was replaced with a comparatively blinding brightness. A cheer went up from the crew. “IMS is coming back online!” the engineer reported next. “Dialing up in ten.”

The comm officer began an audible countdown over the ship’s intercom and Brondi got ready to turn off his grav gun. The countdown reached zero, and he snapped off the gun’s field emitter. When his feet didn’t float free of the deck, he nodded and said, “Good work.” Now things could get back to normal. “Engineering, run a full systems check. We’d better make sure nothing else was sabotaged. Comms, contact the admiral before they wonder too much about their missing men.”

“Yes, sir,” they chorused.

“Gravidar, report—what have we missed out there?” Brondi turned back to the viewports to watch the stars twinkle and dance while he waited for his gravidar officer to reply.

“Ah . . . sir, I’m reading two dozen assault transports and a squadron of novas headed our way. They’re almost on us, sir.”

Brondi blinked, and suddenly he realized the stars he was looking at weren’t stars at all. Those bright points of light were the engine glows of approaching ships.

Why would they send out assault transports? Turning away from the viewports once more, he said, “Comms! Have you reached the admiral yet?”

“No, sir. They’re not responding to our hails.”

“Then make contact with the approaching ships! Ask them to state their intentions.” Brondi stalked up to the captain’s table to see the situation for himself.

“Yes, sir. . . .” the comm officer replied.

When Brondi reached the captain’s table, he took one look at the enemy formation and shook his head. The admiral’s forces were spread out into six groups—one for each of the Valiant’s hangar bays. Coming to a decision, he looked up from the holo table and turned to the nav station. “Helm, start spooling the SLS. Set course for Dark Space.”

“We’re leaving, sir?”

“Yes, we’re leaving! With all possible speed.”

“The transports are not responding to our hails either. . . .”

“Forget that! Sound a red alert—engineering, power our shields to maximum, but leave weapons alone for now. I don’t want them to start treating us as a hostile target just yet.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Weapons! Tell our gunners to use ripper cannons only. Have them mark their targets, and wait until they’re close. We fire on my mark.”

“Yes, sir.”

Brondi scowled behind his helmet. Thought you could surprise me, did you, Admiral? We’ll see who surprises who.

*  *  *

Origin

Ten minutes earlier . . .

“So,” Gina began as she programmed a course to the far side of Ritan, where the Valiant was slowly drifting out of orbit. “Are you going to tell me why I just had to beat half a dozen angry flight controllers off the comm so that we could fly this particular transport? I’m guessing it has something to do with that scruffy-looking outlaw they caught impersonating the overlord.”

Alara nodded.

“You were his copilot?”

“Before I was chipped, yes.”

“Right, so how can you still remember that? Shouldn’t the slave chip have suppressed all your memories?”

“Yes, no—I don’t know. He keeps breaking into my thoughts at odd times. It seems like every day I remember something new about him.”

“So what do you think you remember?”

“That I love him.”

Alara saw one of Gina’s blonde eyebrows arch behind the faceplate of her flight suit. “Are you sure about that?”

“As sure as I am about anything.”

“Okay, then tell me why you love him.”

“Why?”

“There’s gotta be a reason, Kiddie, or it’s not love.”

“I . . . he’s . . . I feel like something is pulling me toward him whenever I see him. The air starts to buzz as if with an electrical charge. My heart starts pounding, and—”

“I’m going to stop you there. What you’re describing is lust, pure and simple.”

“No.” Alara shook her head. “I feel lust all the time, for almost any man. It’s programmed into me—part of being a good playgirl, I think—but this is different. There’s physical attraction, but there’s also so much more . . . he makes me want to smile and laugh and cry all at the same time.”

“Hmmm. There has to be a reason you love him—besides how he makes you feel. What has he ever done for you?”

“He’s going to risk his life to board the Valiant so he can find Brondi and help me get my memory back.”

“That’s something he’s about to do, not something he’s done, and you only have his word for that. He might have other, more personal reasons to get his hands on Brondi. I know I do.”

Alara sighed. “Well, I don’t know, Gina. I can barely remember him, let alone everything he’s done for me. All I have left are my feelings.”

“All right, don’t get all emotional on me. Just take a page out of my logbook, Kiddie—if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that when a man makes you his number two, because some other woman is already his number one, you’re just there to keep the pillows warm for her.”

“It wasn’t like that,” Alara said.

Gina turned to her again. “Do you know that for sure?”

Alara grimaced. “No.”

“Then until you do, don’t waste your time worrying about him.”

“Is that what happened to you?”

“What?”

“You said if there’s one thing you’ve learned . . .”

“Don’t read too much into that.”

“That’s what Adan Reese did to you, isn’t it. He had someone else and you were his—”

“His what?” Gina snapped. “His little bit on the side? Yea that was me, and I’d sooner kiss a skull face than another slimy toad like him.”

“What happened?” Alara asked.

“He was dating some rich farmer’s daughter. They got engaged. That was when I broke my knuckles on his face and left the kakard.”

“Krak, I’m sorry, Gina.”

“Then he comes back from a patrol in Dark Space, looking and sounding all reformed, and he has the nerve to sit there at the bar, sipping a drink I bought for him, with a wedding ring on his finger. A wedding ring!” Gina snorted and shook her head. “He said it was for luck. Yeah, right.”

Alara frowned. “I remember Ethan used to wear his. He made no secret of the fact that he was married . . . at least not that I can remember.”

“I guess your man’s more brazen, or maybe you’re just a bigger skriff. I dated a man who was engaged, and you dated one who was already married.” Gina snorted. “Do you think either still counts as dating?” she mused with a whimsical lilt in her voice.

Alara frowned. “Who are you calling a skriff?”

“Hoi, we were both skriffs.”

Alara sighed. “So Adan was wearing a wedding band, too?”

“Back then, right before we lost the Valiant. Seems like a lifetime ago now. The krakhead wouldn’t even admit to being married, and I haven’t seen him wearing it since. I guess he took it off after we left Dark Space—maybe he figured it didn’t work for his playboy lifestyle to advertise that he was unavailable.”

“I remember Ethan’s was just a simple silver band. I don’t think it could have cost much, but one time, when he thought he’d lost it . . .” Alara shook her head and gave a small, bitter smile. “He turned the whole ship upside down until he found it again. He treated that ring like it was his prized possession.”

“You see? There you go. A man like that isn’t going to forget about his wife for you. The only reason he says he can now is because he realizes that his wife moved on and he’s about to die. Maybe he wants to feel like someone still loves him before he goes into the light. That still makes you sloppy seconds, girlie, so don’t you believe his krak.”

Alara felt those words hit her like a slap in the face. Gina was right. The cockpit fell into silence, and Alara lost herself in the stars as she thought about everything Gina had said. A horrible, hollow ache began in her chest and spread through her veins until she felt numb and leaden with sorrow. Without Ethan she didn’t have anyone. The only other person she felt any kind of connection to was Brondi, and she couldn’t trust those memories. If she couldn’t trust Ethan either . . . where did that leave her?

“There she is,” Gina said.

Alara blinked and suddenly the starry backdrop of space came into better focus. In the distance she saw a large, gunmetal gray ship bracketed against the stars. The ship looked like it was glowing, but Alara realized that Gina had snapped on a light amplification overlay to make the Valiant visible despite the near perfect darkness around Ritan.

“We’re a few minutes to target,” Gina said. “Thanks to you, we’ll be the first ones there.”

Alara smiled. “You know, piloting a transport for the vanguards is going to look a lot better on your record, anyway.”

Gina snorted. “Yea, except it’s gonna say commandeered not piloted, and it’ll be on a criminal record.”

Alara laughed and watched the Valiant growing steadily nearer and larger in the forward viewport. When they’d closed to within just two klicks of the massive carrier, and their speed was down to 542 m/s, Alara saw the super carrier’s icon abruptly brighten on the grid, and she frowned. “You see that?” She looked up to see Gina’s hands flying over the controls. “I see it.”

Abruptly the carrier’s hundred and fifty plus decks lit up, and the ship began shining like a whole galaxy of stars. A second later the comms crackled with, “Approaching vessels, this is the Valiant, please state your intentions.”

“Looks like Brondi’s planning to make a run for it,” Gina said. “You’d better hold on tight. This is gonna be close.”

The Valiant now filled their view of space. Gina used the rudder to slew their transport’s nose into line over the carrier’s ventral hangar bay, while Alara studied the blue fuzz of static shields at the opening, trying to determine if there were any heavier shields already powering over top of that thin blue membrane.

“Transports One and Two, this is mission command, it looks like they’re on to you. See if you can get the vanguards on board before their shields are fully powered.”

“Roger that, command,” Gina said, and pushed the throttle forward.

Alara’s eyes goggled. “You’re accelerating?

“Either that or we make their shields fizz as we’re turned into liquid plasma. What do you prefer?”

“You’ll crash on the deck.”

Gina shrugged. “Maybe.”

The Valiant’s hangar swelled until it was all they could see. It was an enormous, yawning space, empty but for a few novas lined up along the far wall. Alara watched the pale blue fuzz of static shields carefully, in case it suddenly brightened and became more opaque, signifying the presence of the ship’s more powerful beam and pulse shields.

Then a flicker of movement caught her eye and she saw a transport go rocketing past theirs with a simulated roar of engines. The blue glow of its thrusters was bright enough to make their viewports polarize, and Alara read the white numerals on the side of that ship—02. Then the comms crackled with, “Ruh-kah! What’s the matter, AT One? Can’t find the afterburners?”

Gina smirked and keyed the comms for a reply, but she never got the chance. The hangar shields abruptly flared a brighter blue, and Shuttle Two ran straight into them. Their eyes were dazzled by the explosion. The simulated roar which boomed and rattled through their sound system was deafening.

“Frek!” Gina yelled, pulling up hard to clear the hangar.

Alara watched the carrier’s hull blur by underneath them in a terrifying rush. Illuminated viewports turned to blurry streaks as they jetted past dozens of decks in an instant. Alara clutched her armrests and gritted her teeth in anticipation of the inevitable collision. Instead, Gina fired the grav lifts and bounced them off the hull. Alara felt her stomach drop with the sudden change of direction, and all the blood rushed to her toes, leaving her blinking spots and listening to the ringing in her ears. Her head lolled and she felt like she was about to faint.

“The Valiant’s shields are up!” Gina yelled into the comms. “No sign of weapons powering yet.”

“Roger that, AT One.” Alara saw that the speaker was Inferno One, the squadron leader of their nova escort. “We’re reading their SLS spooling.”

“This is mission command, do not let the Valiant make a run for it.”

“Affirmative, command,” Inferno One replied. “AT One, we’re gonna try to overload the shields on one of those hangars. They’re not at full strength yet, so we still have a chance to get you in.”

“Ready when you are. Which hangar . . . ?”

“Port ventral. Looks like it’s seen some damage, and shields are weaker there.”

Gina clicked the comm to acknowledge and then looped over the top of the carrier to the hangar on the other side.

Alara felt her stomach lurch again, but this time upward as they dove back down the other side of the ship. She saw red and her head began to throb. She groaned and squeezed her eyes shut.

“Sorry about that,” Gina said, looking over at Alara. “I guess you’re not used to the G’s yet. It takes a trained nova pilot to appreciate the thrill. I’ll dial up the IMS.”

“Thanks,” Alara managed weakly. “Why aren’t they firing on us?”

“Hoi, don’t jinx us, Kiddie. Maybe they can’t find the triggers. Whatever the case, it’s a good thing.”

Alara watched the blue glow of hangar shields appear below them, growing rapidly closer. She saw fresh, unpainted hull plates where the hull had been patched.

Gina hauled back on the throttle. “Any time now, Infernos . . .”

“Torpedoes away!”

Alara looked up to see a dozen bright silver streaks go jetting out toward the Valiant—and them.

“Frek,” Gina muttered and hauled back more on the throttle. “They may as well be shooting at us!”

A second later, the torpedoes slammed into the hangar shields with a blinding starburst of light, eliciting another roar from the transport’s sound simulator.

“Ruh-kah! She’s wide open for you!” one of the Infernos screamed.

A big chunk of debris flew at them and bounced off their forward shields with a noisy hiss, adding some downward drift to their momentum. After that, their shields were in the yellow, at 48%.

Gina grumbled, “Skriffin’ nova jocks. . . . You hit me with a piece of shrapnel!” she yelled into the comm.

“You’re welcome, princess,” Inferno One replied. “Next time you can kiss my ass.”

Alara saw a half a dozen novas go roaring toward the Valiant at an unsafe speed only to pull up at the last second and bounce off its hull with grav lifts.

“What are you waiting for?” Inferno One said. “You’ve only got a few seconds! Get in there!”

Gina pushed the throttle forward and thumbed the afterburners for good measure. “I hope I’m not that annoying when I’m flying a nova,” she muttered.

The tail end of Inferno Squadron flew in and bounced off the Valiant’s hull, and then Alara heard a familiar stuttering roar, and gold streaks of ripper fire began streaming out the side of the carrier. Two of the Infernos exploded almost instantly, and a third was clipped in the thrusters, sending it spiraling into the side of the carrier. The Valiant’s shields flashed brightly with the impact and the resultant explosion seemed to fizz—as Gina had put it—along the carrier’s shields in a rippling wave of fire.

“Frek!” Gina said as she yanked the stick from side to side, weaving toward the open hangar in an evasive pattern. A few rounds hissed against their shields and Alara watched the shields drop another 10%.

“She was playin’ dead!” someone yelled.

“Let’s give her another face full of fire, boys!” Inferno One replied.

“Negative, Infernos!” command replied. “All units abort and get back to the Tauron. You’ve got less than thirty seconds till the Valiant jumps away.”

“Roger that.”

What?” Gina blurted just as their momentum carried them through the hangar shields. The recovering shields roared against theirs in protest, and for a moment all they could see was dazzling blue brilliance. . . .

“Shields critical,” the computer warned.

Then they were through and rocketing for the back of the hangar. The ship’s gravity yanked them toward the deck, but Gina’s hand had been ready on the grav lifts, and she was fast enough to prevent an instant crash.

“Hold on!” Gina yanked back on the throttle until it was in full reverse and deployed the air brakes for good measure. The roar of their engines became deafening. “Still not going to cut it!” Gina said. “Extend the landing skids! We need some friction to slow us down.”

Alara dropped the skids with a krrr-thu-thunk, and Gina brought them down close to the deck until they heard the skids make contact. Sparks flew out below them. Friction with the deck slowed them quickly. Then one of the skids abruptly snapped off, and the shuttle’s nose hit the deck. The hiss of duranium scraping against their shields was deafening. A split second later, their shields gave out with a bang, and that hiss became a thunderous screech as their transport scraped all its paint off on the deck. Alara began to feel vibrations bleeding through the IMS to rattle her teeth. Gina tried to balance their landing with the grav lifts, but she must have overcorrected, because the back end of the shuttle abruptly lifted up, and in the next instant they were screaming as they flipped over and landed on their roof. Now they were hanging upside down, watching sparks fly between the roof of the shuttle and the deck as they skidded backward. The vibrations grew stronger and stronger until Alara could feel herself being pressed into her flight chair.

“IMS is failing!” Gina gritted out.

And then they slammed into the back wall of the hangar, and both of them were thrown hard against their flight chairs. Something inside the cockpit exploded, and a piece of shrapnel clipped Alara in the head.

Darkness swallowed her whole.

*  *  *

Origin

Admiral Heston slammed the captain’s table with his fist as the Valiant jumped to SLS and her icon winked off the grid. “We were that close!” he made a small gap between his fingers.

Commander Donali nodded. “Almost, sir.”

“We lost three novas and a transport for that.”

“Sloppy piloting, sir. They knew the Valiant’s guns could have been live. Just because they didn’t detect weapons powering doesn’t mean they should have let their guards down.”

Heston glared at the three dimensional star map rising out of the holo table, watching as his units fled like disorganized rabble. “How does one scruffy band of outlaws cause so much trouble?”

“Perhaps we’re underestimating them, sir.”

“Perhaps.”

“Sir,” a new voice reached Hoff’s ears, and he looked up to see his recently-appointed tactical adviser, Deck Commander Loba Caldin staring at him.

“What is it, Commander Caldin?”

“We’re missing a transport.”

“Another one? That makes three novas and two transports. Do you have any more bad news for me, Commander?”

“The battle logs show no record of the missing transport being destroyed, sir, and it appears that Inferno Squadron was helping them get inside one of the hangars before the Valiant opened fire.”

“Are you saying they might have made it aboard?”

“That’s the only conclusion I can draw from the data, sir.”

Heston’s grizzled eyebrows floated up. “Which transport?”

“AT One, sir.”

Hoff smiled. “Vanguards—the first ones in and the last ones out.”

“The only ones in,” Caldin added.

“Well, these ones have certainly earned their badge. Ethan Ortane is on that shuttle,” Hoff mused, rubbing his chin.

Caldin frowned. “The holoskinner? That’s not very encouraging, sir.”

“On the contrary, it’s an unusual boon.”

“A boon, sir?”

“Yes, a helpful thing. . . . anyway,” Hoff shook his head, annoyed with himself for using such an antiquated word, and with her for interrupting him. “I had Ethan implanted with a tracker to keep an eye on him. If Brondi thinks he’s getting away from us, he’s badly mistaken.”

Commander Donali shook his head. “The tracker won’t be useful as long as they’re in SLS, and without the commnet to send faster than light communications, it’ll be useless when they drop out of SLS, too. We’d have to know where Brondi is headed and meet him there in order to receive any signals from the tracker. In other words, we’d have to be able to find them before we can find them. That’s a painful irony, sir.”

“Ah, but we do have a working commnet, and we do know where Brondi is going.”

“We do, sir?”

Caldin began nodding. “Dark Space. We have a working commnet inside the sector.”

Hoff inclined his head to her. “Correct. Brondi won’t flee deeper into Sythian Space. His safest bet is to head back to Dark Space where he can muster some kind of defense, or merely hide in whatever rat hole passes for his headquarters—and that, my dear Commander Lenon Donali, is how the tracker will help us to find the Valiant. As soon as we get to Dark Space, we’ll start receiving signals from Ethan’s tracker via the gate relays, and we’ll be able to pinpoint Brondi’s location.”

“Shall I plot a course to Dark Space?” Donali asked.

“Not yet.” Hoff turned to Caldin. “Do you think that Tova and Roan can be trusted, Commander?”

Caldin hesitated. “I would personally never trust a Gor.”

Hoff smiled. “I like you, Caldin. Keep that up and you might just make it back to Captain.”

“That would be an honor, sir.”

“Nevertheless, those two pet Gors of yours have already been to Dark Space, so there’s no danger in us taking them back, is there?”

“I suppose not. . . .”

“I’m not confident we can overwhelm the Valiant’s novas and whatever ragtag fleet Brondi will have mustered to defend himself. I’d have to bring my whole fleet to bear, and that would take weeks—not to mention it would leave the enclave undefended. The Gors can help us to shortcut that process and save a lot of lives.”

“I’m not sure I see how Tova and Roan will make the difference in that equation,” Caldin replied.

“I’m afraid I don’t either,” Donali said. “Two Gors will never be enough to take back the Valiant.”

“But that’s where you’re wrong,” Heston said. He turned to stare out at space and the dark, distant specter of Fortress Station. “We’re going to use them to communicate between this ship and the Interloper while it’s cloaked. The Interloper will trace Ethan’s tracker signal to its source, sidle up close to the Valiant, and wait beside one of the venture-class hangars. Then they’ll call us in, and we’ll blow a hole in the hangar shields for them to get inside.”

Donali’s real eye widened. “Brondi will never see it coming.”

“Literally.”

“I agree. It’s a good plan,” Caldin added.

Hoff turned to her with a smile. “I’m glad you agree, Commander, because you’re coming with me to pitch it to the skull faces.”

Caldin’s nose wrinkled with distaste. “Yes, sir.”




Chapter 15

Origin

Tova’s slitted yellow eyes flicked from Commander Caldin to the admiral. She reached up to grip the bars of her cell in two large gray hands and began warbling at them. A moment later, the portable translator which Caldin held in her palm translated Tova’s warbling language into a gender-neutral facsimile of Imperial Versal. “You ask me to help you but offer nothing in return. Why should I agree?”

Admiral Heston spread his hands and smiled. “If you help us, it would go a long way to establishing the level of trust we need to extend the human-Gor alliance to my enclave.”

Beside them, Captain Adram was quiet and subdued as he craned his neck to gaze up at the two-meter-high alien. For her part, Caldin glared up at Tova with undisguised suspicion.

“The alliance no longer existsss,” Tova hissed. “I am not stupid. Your overlord is to be eaten by his crèche mates. He is no longer a lord.” Tova shook her head. “Do not lie to me, Admiral.”

“Very well,” Heston inclined his head. “I’ll grant that you are very smart, Tova, so I’ll do you the courtesy of telling you the truth. Right now I have no reason to believe your people’s story or trust the Gors at all, and I am now in command of all the human survivors. You are right to say that the alliance no longer exists, and the reason for that is very simple—whether you were slaves or not, you pushed our race to the point of extinction, and most of my people can still remember that. Any one of my officers can close his eyes and still see Gors marching in their black armor. There is a lot for us to forget before we can fight alongside you.”

“Then you say that we are always to be your enemy?”

“No, I’m saying that we cannot trust you or your people yet, but if you can help us now, and more in the future, then we will gradually overcome the prejudices of the past. Your people surrendered three warships to us—that was a step in the right direction. Helping us to re-capture the Valiant will be another.”

“Then I agree to help you, humans—for my people’s sake—but take care that you do not reject us forever.”

“Duly noted,” Heston said.

“Release me,” Tova demanded.

“One moment, Tova. Can you explain all of this to your mate and get him to cooperate, too?”

“Yes.”

“We will release you when he has also agreed to help. You are no good to us on your own.”

“You release me now. Roan agrees to help.”

Hoff raised his eyebrows. “That was fast. You have already spoken to him?”

“I do not need to. Roan does what I ask. He trusts. Humans need learn from that.”

“We trust, too, Tova.”

You, do not.”

Hoff’s eyes narrowed. “How would you know that?”

“You stink of fear, but hide it deep.”

Hoff snorted and waved vaguely to one of the sentinels who’d escorted them into the brig. “Let her out.”

Turning to Captain Adram beside him, Admiral Heston said, “Junior Captain, Adram, you will be serving under Captain Caldin as her XO aboard the Interloper. Caldin—you’ll take Tova and your crew with you, and I’ll take Roan aboard the Tauron.” Behind him, Hoff heard Tova’s cell slide open, and he had to resist the urge to turn around to keep an eye on her.

Captain Adram’s eyebrows beetled. “Junior Captain, sir?”

“In light of your questionable judgment of late, it won’t hurt for you to serve under a distinguished officer like Captain Caldin to give you an example of what a keen instinct for command looks like.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I hope to live up to that, sir,” Caldin said. She’d just been promoted up three pay grades, skipping both of the ranks in between to surpass even the admiral’s own XO, Master Commander Donali.

“I’m sure you will, Captain. My understanding is that you were demoted over a misunderstanding to do with the Gors.” At that, Hoff saw Caldin’s eyes dart up to Tova, and he realized the alien likely didn’t know Caldin had killed one of her people. “There won’t be any such misunderstandings in my fleet, just so long as your personal feelings don’t get in the way of our objectives.”

“I’m glad to hear that, sir. I assume this means that my crew and I are no longer under suspicion.”

“You assume correctly.”

“What about the trial and the prisoners?”

“There’s an old saying, Captain—follow the running man. Brondi is our running man. The trial will be suspended until we can capture him and subject him to a probe. Your prisoners will be placed in stasis until then—no sense wasting valuable supplies pandering to their needs.” Hoff turned from her to Adram. “Speaking of supplies—I believe you have some which you need to transfer off the Interloper to make room for Caldin and her crew?”

“Yes, sir. Where shall I put the supplies?”

“Send them over to the Destine. Captain Cathrall can take them to the enclave while we’re away.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Now we had better finish making preparations for our trip or all the keen instincts in the galaxy won’t avail us.”

“Avail, sir?” Caldin asked.

Hoff frowned. “Help, Captain. It means help. I’m going to give you some homework for the journey—a lexicon. Study it.”

“Yes, sir.”

Hoff caught Adram smirking at Caldin. “What are you smiling about, Adram?”

“Nothing, sir.”

“Good, because you’re too busy to gloat. Make the supply transfer and then send for Captain Caldin and her crew. I also need you to oversee construction of a temporary docking station for the Interloper. The Tauron will have to carry her through SLS. We can’t afford to travel separately. Sythian SLS drives are too slow, and I don’t want any Gors or Sythians to follow us to Dark Space.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Of course, all of that trouble will be pointless if Dark Space has already been compromised. . . .” Hoff added, turning to glance up at Tova.

“At least you won’t be responsible for it, sir,” Caldin said.

“A small comfort,” Hoff replied, frowning deeply. “I suppose we’ll have to blame Overlord Dominic or his imposter for that.”

“I’m going to enjoy watching that man die in a probe chair,” Caldin said.

“One thing at a time,” Hoff replied.

“Humansss,” Tova hissed. “It is no wonder you were defeated so easily. You never stop fighting each other. Children of the Gettiz know better—we do not fight our crèche mates.”

Hoff shot Tova a glance as they turned to leave her cell block. “Who are the children of the Getties, Tova?”

She cocked her head. “We are.”

“And the Sythians?”

“Yesss . . . they are also children of the Gettiz.”

“Yet you are fighting them. Doesn’t that make what you said incorrect?” Hoff wondered if Tova had accidentally spoken the truth. If the Sythians didn’t exist, then her claim that children of the Getties know better than to fight each other would be correct.

Tova gave no reply, and Admiral Hoff allowed himself to count to ten before he ran out of patience and repeated his question. This time Tova did speak.

“Not all children remember where they came from.”

“Wise words.”

They came to Roan’s side of the brig. Hoff turned to Caldin and said. “Captain, go back up to the Tauron and get your crew together. Take Tova with you and wait until Adram sends for you.”

“Yes, sir.” She turned with a frown to the naked alien. “Come on, Tova.”

Hoff watched them leave, and he nodded in appreciation of the woman’s bravery. She hadn’t asked for an escort, which meant she either trusted the Gor not to rip her throat out, which he doubted, or else she was just itching for an excuse to shoot the alien in the head.

Once both of them were gone, Hoff turned to the pair of sentinels he’d brought with him. “Go get Roan. We’ll wait here.”

“Yes, sir.”

Hoff waited until both sentinels were out of earshot before turning to Captain Adram. “I need you to keep an eye on Caldin for me.”

“Sir?” he asked, his brows beetling. “Why would you want me to keep an eye on a superior officer?”

“Your demotion is just for show—although I am concerned by your recent desire to second guess all of my decisions. Ever since you came back from the Getties you’ve been unusually recalcitrant and pro-Gor. Did you make friends with them while you were there, Captain?”

“No, sir! I’m sorry that I’ve been questioning you a lot lately, sir. I’ll work on it.”

“You had better, lest your demotion become real.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I want you to keep an eye on Caldin, because until we start probing suspects, we have no idea how far or deep this conspiracy with Alec Brondi’s virus and the holoskinning overlord goes. I don’t really think Caldin and her crew are involved, but I’m giving them—and the Gors for that matter—just enough slack on the proverbial leash to hang themselves.”

“Yes, sir.”

Hoff sighed. “Tova is right about one thing.”

“What’s that, sir?”

Hoff smiled sadly. “We never stop fighting each other.”

Adram smiled back. “Humans are a self-destructive species, aren’t they?”

The admiral sighed and shook his head. “One day we’re all going to realize that we’re the same, and then we’re going stop this pointless in-fighting.”

Adram hesitated and his brows beetled as if that particular bit of wisdom had struck a chord with him.

“You’re dismissed, Captain.”

Adram snapped out of it and gave a quick salute. “I’ll let you know when we’re ready.” With that, he turned to head in the direction that Captain Caldin had gone.

Hoff watched him go, wondering if Captain Adram was hiding any resentment over having his ship and his command temporarily taken from him. This mission would be a test for him as much as it would be for Caldin. They can keep an eye on each other, he thought.

The door behind the admiral swished open and he turned to see Roan being escorted out. Roan dwarfed the pair of sentinels, even in their bulky armor, making them look like toy soldiers.

“Hello, Roan,” Hoff said. “Are you ready to go home?”

“My home isss Noctune,” Roan hissed.

Hoff smiled thinly at the alien. “Not anymore.”

*  *  *

Origin

Ethan climbed awkwardly out of his docking station by suspending himself from the sides and swinging his legs down to the floor—which was actually the ceiling of the transport, since they’d crashed upside down.

“Report!” Sergeant Dorian ordered. “Anyone injured?”

“Negative, sir,” the man who’d been docked beside Ethan said for all of them. Dorian stopped in front of Ethan while the remainder of Aleph Squad swung down out of their docking stations. “Good—go see what’s out there, Laser Bait!”

Ethan didn’t bother to argue. He didn’t have any friends to stick up for him here. He poked his head out the hatch directly above their heads, in the floor of the transport, and looked around. Seeing nothing immediately dangerous, he climbed out and stood on the bottom of the shuttle. The hangar bay where they’d crash-landed was entirely empty except for them and a few damaged nova fighters. It was enormous, and Ethan felt like he was standing on the field of a massive grav ball stadium. It was designed to comfortably fit a 280-meter-long venture-class cruiser, meaning it had to be at least 300 meters deep.

Ethan heard the comm system inside his helmet crackle with, “Laser Bait, report!” He ignored Dorian as he looked around. The hangar was cloaked in deep shadows with only a handful of working glow panels flickering intermittently overhead. A blue wash of light spilled from the shields at the entrance and cast everything in cold, monochromatic tones. Ethan turned in a slow circle, noting the ruined concourse wall they’d crashed into. That was familiar. Brondi still hadn’t repaired the damage his troops had made when they’d fought their way past the half a dozen sentinels Atton had left guarding the Valiant. Thick carbon-scoring was in evidence on the bulkheads, and in places they were dented and carved with deep furrows. It looked as though a bomb had gone off inside the hangar.

Not a bomb—torpedoes. Ethan remembered now. When he and Gina had fought their way off the Valiant in Brondi’s corvette, they’d blown a hole in the side of the hangar rather than ask nicely for Brondi to lower the shields. Since then, the hole had obviously been repaired, but very little else had been fixed.

“Will someone go shoot Laser Bait for me? He’s not responding to comms. I think he’s gone AWOL already.”

Ethan smirked at the sergeant’s sarcasm. If the order had been serious, he wouldn’t have broadcast it so Ethan could hear. “All clear,” Ethan replied.

“About time!” A moment later the sergeant jumped straight up through the open hatch and landed on the shuttle with a boom. “We’ve got to get out of here before they see us on the holocorders.” Another boom sounded as a third Aleph jumped up onto the shuttle.

“I don’t think we need to worry about holocorders,” Ethan said.

“Why not?” Dorian demanded as a fourth zephyr jumped up. He turned to them and gestured to the two main entrances of the hangar. “Tracker, Rull’s-eye, set up a perimeter.” They nodded and jumped down to the deck.

Ethan watched them go stomping away. Another pair of zephyrs jumped up and Dorian told them to set up a command center. “That abandoned control tower looks like a good bet,” he said, pointing up to the roof of the hangar where a bank of broken viewports gazed down on them.

The next thing anyone heard was the sound of another hatch hissing open. Ethan and the sergeant turned to see someone in a black flight suit climbing out the side of the cockpit. At that, a new voice joined them on the comms. It was Gina.

“Hoi!” she said, waving an arm out the side of the transport. “I’ve got an injured pilot here!”

Ethan felt cold dread slide into his gut like a wedge of ice. Alara.

“Mender!” Sergeant Dorian called over the comms. “Get up to the cockpit.”

“Yes, sir.”

A moment later, the last two zephyrs landed on top of the transport. One of them was apparently Mender because he jogged over to the opposite side of the cockpit and climbed down the ladder to the hatch opposite the one which Gina was blocking.

Ethan stomped up to her. “Is Alara okay?” he asked.

She glared up at him. “What’s it to you?”

Before Ethan could answer, the sergeant came up behind him and said, “Private Ortane, leave the injured to Mender. Focus on the mission. Why don’t we have to worry about holocorders in here?”

Ethan turned to Dorian with a frustrated hiss. “We don’t have to worry because when Gina and I shot out of here like a rictan on fire, we didn’t leave enough working pieces of a holocorder to spot a supernova, let alone a few insignificant zephyrs. This is probably the only part of the ship where they won’t be able to see us.”

“Wait a second—” Gina said. “When we shot out of here? I was with Captain Reese. I don’t even know you—except that apparently you were caught impersonating the overlord.”

“It’s a long story. What’s wrong with Alara?”

“She’s got a headache—answer the damn question!”

“Look, this is going to be hard for you to understand, but I was Adan Reese, and I was also the overlord.”

Gina shook her head. “You can’t be in two places at once, krakhead. Try again.”

“First I was a holoskinner impersonating Adan Reese for Brondi. Then I found out my son was a holoskinner impersonating the overlord, and he and I switched places while we were aboard the Defiant.”

Gina shook her head. “You were working for Brondi?

Ethan felt a cold sweat break out under his armor, and he hurried to add, “Hoi, I’m not on his side. He forced me to do it.”

There came a soft click of a weapon’s safety sliding off. “Yea? Forced you to do what exactly, Laser Bait?” Ethan turned to see Sergeant Dorian aiming a plasma rifle at him.

“He’s telling the truth,” a weak female voice said over the comm.

Ethan recognized that voice immediately. “Alara!” he said. “Are you all right?”

“I’m . . . alive.”

“You don’t sound too good. I’m coming to get you—get out of the way Gina.”

“Hoi!” Sergeant Dorian bellowed as Ethan started down the ladder to the cockpit. “I didn’t say you could move!”

“Let him go,” Gina said as she withdrew from the hatch. “He should say goodbye. Alara deserves that much.”

Goodbye? Ethan’s feeling of dread intensified. He hurried the rest of the way down to the hatch and swung into the cockpit. He found Alara inside, splayed out on the roof of the shuttle. One of her eyes had swollen shut and she held a bloody wad of gauze to her forehead. The squad medic crouched beside her, tending to her injuries with a medkit. His zephyr stood open like a butterfly in the far corner of the cockpit.

“Kiddie . . .” Ethan whispered.

Alara lifted her head and smiled. Her open eye sparkled a warm shade of lavender. “Hoi, Ethan,” she said.

He walked up to her and knelt awkwardly beside her in his bulky armor. “What happened?” he reached out as if to caress her face, but stopped himself, afraid to hurt her more.

“Don’t worry. It’s just a bump on the head,” Alara said.

“How?” he spotted her helmet lying beside the copilot’s station. There was a big dent in the side of the helmet, and the faceplate was smashed. “Frek . . . we didn’t crash that hard, did we?”

Gina appeared crouching beside them. “A spare tank of oxygen exploded,” she explained. “It must have been damaged in the crash. It blew the cover plate into her head.”

The medic looked up and asked Gina. “Has she been conscious since the crash?”

Gina shook her head. “She lost consciousness for a few minutes. I found her that way, but she came to before I could administer first aid, and threw up all over the copilot’s station,” Gina pointed to the mess.

The medic grimaced and turned to Alara. “Are you experiencing any confusion or dizziness?” She shook her head. “Weakness in one side of your body? Raise your arms, please.” Alara lifted both arms from her sides, but one arm rose slower than the other, and the medic frowned. “You can lay your arms back down.” He turned to his medkit to withdraw a syringe and an ampoule of medication.

Alara lowered her arms. She placed one small hand over Ethan’s armored gauntlet, and his zephyr’s tactile sensors relayed that touch as a light vibration through his armor. Tears trickled from her good eye.

“Hoi, don’t cry, Kiddie,” he said. “What’s wrong? Are you in pain?”

“I remember everything, Ethan. I know who I am! Is it true you found your wife?”

For just a second Ethan wanted to whoop for joy, but then he realized that it was a bad sign if her slave chip had somehow been interrupted. He nodded. “Yes, I found her, but that just made me realize what a fool I’ve been.”

“Shhh . . .” Alara shook her head slowly. “It’s okay.”

Ethan watched the medic take hold of the gauze she was holding to her head. “I need to see the injury now, ma’am.”

When the medic lifted away the gauze, Ethan went cold. There was an angry purple bruise with a deep gash running through it. The whole area was badly swollen, and as soon as the gauze came away, the gash began bubbling with blood once more. The sentinel pressed the gauze back to her head and told her to hold it firmly.

“How do I look?” Alara asked the medic, sounding like a little girl asking for her father’s opinion on a dress.

The sentinel hesitated, and Ethan felt another spark of dread. A vanguard medic had to be inured to seeing all kinds of battle wounds, and he’d have the experience to know a mortal wound when he saw one, so when he looked up at Ethan and slowly shook his head, Ethan didn’t have to ask—he knew . . .

Alara wasn’t going to make it.





Chapter 16

Origin

Captain Loba Caldin strode onto the bridge of the Interloper with her bridge crew and Tova close on her heels. Her gaze skipped from the glossy black deck to the transparent dome which ran from floor to ceiling. She hadn’t seen anything on the outside of the ship to correspond to that dome, so she assumed it was simulated. Human control stations looked out of place on the deck, sprouting naked wires and cables which ran in colorful lines across the obsidian floor.

Captain Adram stood by the foremost edge of the dome, looking out at space, with his own bridge crew flanking him. An expression of solidarity? Caldin wondered as she approached. Just before she reached Adram, he turned around and smiled. Belatedly the rest of his crew did the same. “Welcome to the Interloper, Captain Caldin.” He inclined his head to her and then gestured to the control stations. “My men will assist you with anything which might be unfamiliar, but we’ve already adapted the Sythian controls with our own technology, so for the most part everything should be intuitive.”

Caldin stopped in front of Adram and nodded. He hadn’t bothered to salute, but she wasn’t going to press the point with him. She’d been given his ship and his rank; there was no point rubbing his nose in it. Adram looked to be seventy-something, with thin, wispy white hair that looked almost neon in the dim light of the alien ship. His angular face and hooked nose made his features vulturine, while his eyes seemed to glitter and glow in the dark.

“Why don’t you dial up the illumination?” she asked.

Adram shook his head. “Sythian ships weren’t built for bright lights; the décor starts to throw off distracting reflections.”

Caldin frowned. “What about the heat? It’s freezing in here.”

“Isss nice,” Tova hissed.

“For you,” Caldin replied.

Adram turned to look up at the alien, and he smiled. She was still naked, but she looked comfortable, much more so than she had been aboard the admiral’s ship. “Welcome aboard, Tova,” Adram said. “Do you like what we’ve done to the place?”

Tova looked around. “Is different?”

Adram laughed. “Come.” He started toward the nearest bridge control station. “We’ll show you all what’s changed.”

Caldin and her crew followed a few paces behind him, and she wondered if he had been talking to them or to Tova. So far Captain Adram and his crew were taking it very well that they’d been summarily supplanted on their own ship. If it had been her command, she would have been furious.

Not everyone is as ambitious as I am, she decided.

*  *  *

Origin

Junior Captain Crossid Adram stood leaning over Captain Caldin’s shoulder, pointing to the glowing blue holographic displays one at a time as Caldin scrolled through them from the captain’s table.

“All of the systems have been laboriously translated and replaced with our own. The original Sythian control systems were thought-controlled, while ours are touch and voice activated.”

Caldin nodded; Adram caught her eye and smiled. “You shouldn’t have any trouble figuring things out, but we’re here just in case.”

“Thank you, Adram.”

“Please, call me Crossid,” he said. “We’re not so formal on my ship—well, your ship now.”

“I see. All the same, I prefer to stick with convention.”

“Suit yourself, Captain. Once you’re all familiarized with the controls, my crew will go to their new assignments, and only I’ll stay here.”

Caldin nodded, and Adram straightened. His gaze wandered down to Tova who stood at the edge of the transparent dome, looking out at space. “She’s a mysterious creature, isn’t she?” Adram said.

“It’s a pity we couldn’t leave her in the brig. Having her running around loose isn’t going to make it any easier to sleep in this crypt.”

“The admiral thinks they are our real enemy.”

“He’s right to be suspicious.”

“Perhaps, but he’s even suspicious of you, Caldin.”

Caldin looked up from the captain’s table with a frown. “He said that?”

“He told me to keep an eye on you and your crew, in case you had something to do with Brondi’s coup.”

“So why are you telling me?”

“Because I want you to understand what I mean when I say that the admiral is suspicious without reason. He suspects everyone of everything, and trusts no one—no matter how compelling the reasons that he should.”

Caldin shook her head. “Let’s get on with the mission, Adram. The admiral can test our loyalty as much as he wants; he won’t be disappointed.”

“I’m sure that’s so,” Adram said. He returned to staring at Tova’s back in idle contemplation. After a minute, he turned to the engineering station and nodded down to his engineering chief. “Are we securely docked to the Tauron yet, Lieutenant?”

Adram’s man, a ranking engineer, stood leaning over the shoulder of Captain Caldin’s own engineering chief, a mere petty officer, as he pointed out differences between the modified control station and standard. Adram frowned. Some distant part of him still cared that he and his crew had been snubbed in favor of Caldin and her crew, even if it was only for show. Ultimately, however, it didn’t matter, and he was long past caring about the admiral’s orders.

Adram’s engineer looked up and said, “The spacebees are just leaving now, sir.”

“Good. Captain . . .” Adram began, “we’d better tell the admiral that we’re ready. It’s time to go.”

*  *  *

Origin

Atton was back in a cell, this time aboard the Tauron. He found there was little difference between one cell and another—they all had the same duranium bars and stark gray walls, the same dim unshielded glow panels and hard bunks. Atton lay on his bunk now, staring up at the ceiling and wondering how the battle for the Valiant was going. Had his father found Brondi yet? Was the carrier back under Imperial control? He hadn’t heard any news, but there was no one else in the brig except for Doctor Kurlin Vastra, and the guards rarely checked in on them, so both he and Kurlin were equally cut off. Kurlin was so quiet that Atton thought he must have fallen asleep, but then he heard a soft, reedy voice say, “So you are Ethan Ortane’s son?”

Atton sat up and turned to see Kurlin staring at him from the cell across the aisle. “Yes.”

“I thought your last name was Reese.”

Atton saw where the doctor was going with that, but he knew better than to fall for it. “I was adopted,” he explained.

“Oh, I see. Yes, that makes sense.”

They were interrupted by the sound of a door swishing open followed by approaching footsteps. Moments later a quartet of sentinels strode into view. Atton rose from his bunk. “What’s going on?”

“We’re putting you two in stasis until you can be tried for your crimes.”

“What? Why? Is the trial going to be that long from now?” Atton asked.

“It could be weeks.”

“Weeks!” Atton echoed. “Why so long?”

“Your friend Brondi made a run for it. We’re chasing him back to Dark Space.”

“Frek . . .” Atton muttered. Then something occurred to him. “What about the other prisoner? Is he going to be placed in stasis, too?”

“What other prisoner?” the sentinel who opened Atton’s cell asked.

“Ethan, the imposter overlord.”

“I haven’t seen him. Maybe he got spaced.”

Atton’s brow furrowed and the two men facing him walked in and bound his hands with stun cord. The other two sentinels did the same with Kurlin, and then both of them were shoved roughly out of their cells. “Move along. It’s time to go beddy byes.”

The guards led them down corridor after corridor. Atton walked along in a daze. They started down a corridor with real viewports. Atton noticed the bright star lines and streaks of SLS, and his heart sank further. The guards weren’t lying. Admiral Heston had gone to SLS to follow Brondi, and if Ethan wasn’t being placed in stasis with them, then that meant he hadn’t made it back from the Valiant.

By the time they reached the med bay, a team of medics was already waiting for them. They were led straight to the stasis room, and then forced to sit while the medics injected them with stasis preparations. Then they were stripped naked and led to a pair of blue transpiranium tubes with blinking red status lights. Atton shivered in the cold air of the stasis room as he watched one of the medics step forward to open and configure the tubes. When he was done, he turned and nodded to the sentinels, and they shoved Atton and Kurlin toward the open tubes. Neither of them tried to resist as they were forced to stand inside, but Kurlin turned and gave Atton a grim look before the tubes were sealed. He shook his head and said. “Goodbye, Mr. Reese.”

“We’ll see each other again at the trial.”

“If there is one.”

Atton was about to reply to that when he heard his tube begin whirring shut. He watched the blue transpiranium cover swing shut and seal with a hiss. An intense feeling of claustrophobia overwhelmed him, but then he felt his body growing numb and warm. His eyes drifted shut. . . .

And suddenly he was back at home on Roka IV. He stood on the balcony, up to his knees in snow, looking in on his parents’ bedroom as a young child came tearing in and jumped up on the bed, waking them up. His parents sat up, and Atton gasped. His father wasn’t his father at all—he was Admiral Heston—and the child was Atta, not him.

Atton shook his head. It couldn’t be. Suddenly Atton was standing inside a stasis tube, watching as the blue transpiranium cover began whirring shut. He screamed and tried to get out, but his body was paralyzed. “Don’t leave me in here!” he said.

That was when he heard a familiar voice say, “They can’t hear you.”

Atton turned to see his father standing beside him in a matching stasis tube. “She’s forgotten about us, Atton.”

He shook his head. “No!”

Ethan shrugged. “She doesn’t love us anymore. She’s got them now.” Atton turned back to look just as his stasis tube shut. He beat upon the lid with his fists and screamed, but they didn’t even turn to look. As he watched, Admiral Hoff produced a stuffed diger and gave it to Atta. His mother smiled and Atta jumped up and down for joy, hugging the toy to her chest.

“No! Tibby!” Atton screamed with the voice of a young boy.

Finally, someone noticed him there. It was Hoff. He turned and smiled, and as Atton watched, the admiral’s gray eyes became yellow and slitted, and his age-lined cheeks became gray and sunken. Atton shook his head and screamed once more. “He’s a Gor! Mom, he’s a Gor!”

But she couldn’t hear, and she didn’t appear to notice Hoff’s transformation.

Atton’s eyelids grew heavy and the scene faded to black, but he went on screaming, “He’s a Gor! Hoff’s a Gor!”

A loud hiss reached Atton’s ears and a gust of frigid air surrounded him. He opened his eyes and saw none other than Admiral Hoff Heston glaring at him, his eyes once again their usual gray. Atton fell out of the stasis tube, and Hoff held out a hand to help him up. Atton scuttled away, shaking his head vehemently. “You’re a Gor! Stay away from me!”

Hoff smiled. “I thought the Gors were your friends?”

“Not you!”

“That’s a fine way to greet your rescuer. You’re delirious. Get up.”

“Where am I?” he asked suddenly, looking around the dark room. He saw Kurlin’s stasis tube behind him. Green status lights blinked on the control panel. The doctor was still fast asleep inside the tube. And then it all came rushing back to him, and Atton realized that he’d been dreaming. His gaze returned to the admiral. “What’s going on?”

“I’m getting you out of here.”

Then Atton saw a naked man with excessive musculature step out of the shadows beside the admiral, “Who’s he?” Atton asked, suddenly afraid again.

“He’s your stand-in.”

“My what?”

“I can’t release you, and my wife won’t let me leave you in here, so Chief Warrant Officer Densin has agreed to take your place. He’s going to wear your holoskin until you can be acquitted.”

“I . . .”

“A simple thank you is good enough,” the warrant officer said in a gruff voice as he stepped toward Atton and yanked him to his feet. Atton stood naked and shivering, hugging himself against the cold as he tried to catch up with everything that was happening.

“We don’t have long, Atton,” Hoff said. “Get out of that holoskin and give it to Densin.”

Atton nodded and carefully peeled out of the skintight body suit. It was second rate technology compared to the overlord’s holoskin, but still more than enough to fool the eyes. “What about my vocal synthesizer and identichip?” Atton asked.

The admiral turned and nodded to a nearby examination table. “We’re going to have to remove them.”

Atton stumbled over to the table and hopped up. He heard a whirring sound and turned to see a hovering bot appear beside him with articulated arms already holding a needle full of anesthesia and a scalpel. Once Atton’s wrist was laid open and the indentichip of Adan Reese removed, Hoff asked, “Where’s your old chip?”

Atton shook his head. “It’s in the overlord’s quarters, aboard the Valiant.

The admiral sighed. “Well, for now you won’t have one, then. You’ll be under house arrest anyway, so you won’t need it.” Turning to the bot, Hoff said, “Stitch him up XZT.”

“Affirmative.”

Atton watched the bot hold the incision in his wrist closed with one hand, and then spray it with some kind of resin. The bot removed its hand and Atton watched as the resin seemed to foam and then run toward the incision. There it foamed some more, and Atton felt a vague tickling sensation even through the anesthesia. Nanites, he thought, marveling as the cut in his wrist faded and smoothed. “Sparing no expense, hoi Admiral?”

“We can’t afford to have anyone to see the stitches. You’re going to be staying in my quarters, which means you need to be above reproach.”

“Who are you going to tell people I am?”

“A long lost relative. Open your mouth.”

“What for?”

“Open it.”

Atton did as he was told and then watched as the bot loomed closer with a chip extractor turned on and humming as it sent signals to Atton’s vocal synthesizer. He stood very still and kept his mouth open until he felt something rising in his throat, and then he gagged and spat what looked like a small duranium ball into the bot’s waiting receptacle. Atton shook himself and his nose wrinkled with the metallic aftertaste. Both he and Hoff turned to watch the procedure in reverse with Densin. The warrant officer remained standing the entire time, bracing his arm against his body.

When it was over, the bot deposited the warrant officer’s identichip in a fresh receptacle. “Aren’t you going to keep that?” Atton asked in a strange-sounding tenor voice. It was his real voice—a voice he had all but forgotten he had.

Densin flashed him a wry smile and replied, “Wasn’t mine anyway.” His voice was also different, now that of the cocky nova pilot, Adan Reese.

Atton turned to Hoff with his eyebrows raised.

“Spec ops.” Hoff walked over to an adjacent examination table and picked up a pile of clothes while the bot sprayed Densin’s wrist with nanites. Hoff tossed the clothes at Atton and one of the shoes hit him in the head. He turned to glare at the admiral, and Heston glared back. Then came the sound of a stasis tube whirring shut, followed by a hiss of pressurizing air. Atton turned to see the warrant officer’s eyes drifting shut, and he shook his head. “Am I dreaming?”

“No,” Hoff replied. “Put on your clothes.”

Atton bent to pick up the clothes and set them beside him on the examination table. He pulled on the pants and buttoned up his shirt. By the time he got to the blazer, he recognized the gold chevron and silver emblem of a nova fighter, which formed the rank insignia of a lieutenant commander. “You’re making me a ranking officer?”

“Don’t get too excited. That’s just to keep people from getting nosy. You’re a long lost relative and a survivor from the war. Everything else about you is classified, and if anyone has a chance to ask, you will tell them exactly that.”

Atton nodded.

“Hurry up. Your mother is anxious to see you.”

Maybe Mom hasn't forgotten about us after all. . . . Atton thought as he put on the blazer and shoes. Then he remembered that there was no us. It was just him. His father was dead, and that meant that he’d lost two fathers now—one adoptive and one real. Atton tried to ignore the hollow ache in his chest which that thought caused.

Rest in peace, Ethan.




Chapter 17

Origin

“I’m going to administer something for the pain. It might make you sleep,” the medic said.

Alara nodded where she lay on the roof behind the copilot’s chair. She looked very pale. “Do what you have to do,” she said.

Ethan watched with a grimace as the medic injected the painkiller. He held Alara’s hand gently in his armored glove until her good eye drifted shut, and her hand relaxed and fell out of his. Ethan nodded to the medic. “How bad is it?”

“Bad, but it’s hard to tell until I’ve scanned her—give me a minute.” He nodded to Gina and said, “Hold the gauze against her wound.” Gina moved to a better angle and held the gauze to Alara’s head while the medic withdrew a scanner from his belt. He pointed it at Alara, and a pale fan of light flickered out, passing over her recumbent form from head to toe. A moment later a holographic display appeared hovering in the air, projected from the back of the scanner. Ethan tried to interpret the results of the body scan as the medic used gestures and voice commands to pan and zoom the image until he could get a look at her brain. The medic sat back on his haunches, frowning and shaking his head.

Ethan’s heart pounded furiously. He felt like it was about to explode. “Well?”

“She appears to have some kind of implant. . . . two implants.”

“Brondi had her chipped,” Ethan said, “And we tried to disable it.” He waved his hand impatiently. “What about her injuries?”

Again the medic shook his head. “She has a skull fracture and she’s bleeding between the inside of her skull and the dura.”

“What’s that mean?”

He turned and handed the scanner to Ethan. “It means she’s hemorrhaging. Hold that steady over her head. I need to see what I’m doing.”

Ethan accepted the scanner and did as he was told while the medic turned back to his kit and withdrew a dangerous-looking instrument—a long silver pole with a sharp end.

“What is that?” Ethan asked. “What are you going to do?” Ethan watched as the medic continued pulling things out of his kit and then began putting the pieces together. A moment later, Ethan saw the device for what it was, and he shook his head, feeling sick to his stomach.

“You’re going to drill into her skull?”

“I have to relieve the pressure or she could die. Keep that scanner steady.”

Ethan nodded, pale-faced as the medic pressed the tip of the drill to Alara’s head. He swallowed thickly, and his palms began to sweat. The drill tip appeared as a bright silver line on the hologram.

“Leave the gauze for a moment, and hold her head steady, please,” the medic said to Gina.

She nodded mutely and took hold of Alara’s head on both sides.

The medic began to drill. The sound was sickening. Ethan winced, but forced himself to keep watching. A trickle of blood leaked down the side of Alara’s head. The medic withdrew, and a small black hole remained, bubbling with blood. He set the drill aside and turned her head toward the deck so the blood could trickle out.

The comms crackled. It was Sergeant Dorian. “Hoi—Mender! You skriffs done yet? We need to get moving.

“Just about, sir,” mender replied, pressing a hand to his ear-mounted comm piece to reply. Mender released his comm piece and shook his head, his eyes flicked to the trickle of blood pitter-pattering to the deck. As the flow of blood slowed, he turned back to his medkit. “I’m going to inject something to stop the bleeding and help repair the damage.” Ethan watched as he injected her with yet another needle. That done, he lifted away the bloody wad of gauze and sprayed her head with nanites. The gash in her head foamed and fizzed for a few seconds and then fresh pink skin appeared underneath. Mender laid a thin patch of transparent material over the hole he’d drilled, and then sprayed it with the nanites, too, explaining, “Synth skin. It won’t fix the skull, but at least I won’t have to drill if she needs to be drained again.” The patch adhered to Alara’s head, fizzing and foaming like the gash, and then another patch of fresh pink skin appeared.

Mender turned to his medkit and began cleaning and packing his instruments away. “That helmet she was wearing saved her life. I suspect she’ll be okay, but we won’t know until morning. I’ll monitor her overnight.”

Ethan breathed a deep sigh of relief as he returned to gazing down on Alara. Frek, Kiddie—you scared me. “Thank you,” he said. “What’s your name?”

“Corporal Exalian.”

“I owe you one, Exalian.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said as he withdrew another ampoule from his medkit and fitted it to a fresh needle. Once he’d injected Alara for a final time, he closed the medkit and stood up. “Make some room. I’m going to lift her out of here.” With that, he drew a palm-sized grav gun from his belt and aimed it at Alara.

Ethan stood aside and watched as Corporal Exalian used the gun to lift Alara off the roof of the crashed shuttle. The gun made a soft humming sound as it generated a grav field strong enough to levitate Alara a few feet into the air. Exalian walked with her to the open hatch and lowered her gently to the hangar deck. Turning away, he holstered the grav gun and said, “Let’s go.” He went back to his open Zephyr and sealed it around himself once more.

Ethan walked past him and jumped out the hatch to land beside Alara with a boom. Immediately after that, he felt the vibrations of tactile feedback rippling through his armor as his arms were seized. Ethan turned to see a sentinel on either side of him and Sergeant Dorian approaching from the stern of the transport. “Hoi there, Laser Bait,” Dorian said. One sentinel removed Ethan’s sidearm and another took the rifle from the holster on his back. “Seems you were right about the holocorders. Crack open your shell.”

“You’re making a mistake. There’s just nine of us against a whole ship. You need me.”

“Wrong,” Gina added. Ethan turned to see her jumping down from the transport’s cockpit. “We don’t need a frekking traitor like you to do anything except step out an airlock.”

“I saved your life, Gina.”

“Maybe. Or was that just part of your cover? What were you doing impersonating an officer for Brondi?”

Ethan clamped his jaw shut to keep himself from saying anything which would incriminate him further.

“Laser Bait’s clammin’ up,” Sergeant Dorian said. “Maybe we oughta pry his mouth open.”

“Get out of the mech, Ethan,” Gina said. Another boom sounded as Corporal Exalian jumped down from the shuttle cockpit and walked up to Alara. He gravved her off the deck using the larger grav gun attached to his mech’s equipment belt.

Exalian turned to the sergeant. “Where do you want me to put her?”

The sergeant turned and pointed up to the broken viewports looking down on the hangar near the ceiling of one wall. “We’re setting up shop in the control tower. We’ll join you up there in a minute, Mender.”

“Yes, sir.”

Gina turned back to Ethan as Exalian left, and she shook her head. “Get out of the zephyr. I’m not going to ask again.”

Ethan frowned and then he whispered the command to open his mech. Servos whirred, hydraulics swished, and stale air hissed out as his armor splayed open. “You’re making a mistake,” Ethan said again as he stepped down out of the zephyr.

“Funny you should say that,” Gina replied. “That’s exactly what the real Adan Reese said before I did this.” Ethan saw Gina’s elbow rushing toward his face a second too late to duck.

The blow connected with the side of his head and knocked him to the deck. He lay there stunned with the smell of scorched deck and thruster grease filling his nostrils. His head spun in dizzy circles, smarting from the blow. His gorge began to rise, but he forced it down as he pushed himself off the deck.

“Oh no you don’t, Laser Bait,” Gina said.

Ethan heard the shot fired a split second before it hit him in the back and he lost all control of his muscles. His body jerked and writhed spasmodically on the deck. He tried to fight the spreading numbness, but his mind abruptly fell off a cliff into a dark, fathomless abyss.

*  *  *

Origin

Atton stepped inside Hoff’s quarters aboard the Tauron and looked around with a growing frown. Decorative transpiranium wall sconces glittered with a shallow gold light, dialed low for the ship’s night cycle. To his left the living room lay a few steps down from the entrance, furnished with black couches and chairs arrayed on clean white carpets. An artificial fire flickered with cold blue flames opposite the couch. The burgundy walls with gold wainscoting and crown moldings all but screamed opulence. Between the strips of inlaid gold hung a row of expensive-looking light paintings, followed by a broad, curving viewport with a hot tub below it. At the moment the tub was closed and the viewport polarized to show only the barest glimmer of superluminal space. Atton turned to the right and saw the edge of an open kitchen area with gleaming appliances flanked by a dark blackwood dining room set. Along the far wall was another viewport and a set of doors. That viewport looked out on a lush green garden, walled in with high, square hedges and capped with a simulated night sky, complete with crescent moon. To one side, a big tree soared into the artificial sky, and to the other, a fountain bubbled with holographic water. The entire garden was alive with glow bugs which were probably also holographic, and islands of colorful blossoms which likely weren’t. Atton turned back to the fore and noted the dark hallway which lay ahead of him between the living room and the kitchen, and he wondered how much more of the place there was to see.

Now that Atton thought about it, these quarters were much like the ones where he had met his mother aboard Fortress Station, but he’d barely noticed the opulence at the time. Come a long way, haven’t you, Mom? No one should live like this when people are starving to death.

“You’ll have to make yourself comfortable here, Atton. I’m afraid I can’t allow you to leave these quarters without either myself or Destra to accompany you.”

Comfortable . . . ?” Atton shook his head. “I think I’ll be more than comfortable. Even the supreme overlord’s quarters were never this luxurious. It looks like you’ve been helping yourself to the fleet’s discretionary funds.”

“You may be surprised to know that I paid for these furnishings myself.”

Atton snorted. “So what? You probably also set your own wage. These are the darkest times humanity has ever seen, and you’re living like an old colonial despot!”

Hoff shook his head. “I paid for it before the war, and afterward . . . there was no point trying to sell anything.”

“So how do you explain your quarters on Fortress Station?” Atton asked.

“Fortress Station is my property. It has been in my family for more generations than I can count. I brought it to Ritan so I could keep an eye on the Gors.”

“Your family owned a mobile fortress. . . . Who are you people?”

“Is it so strange to find an independently-wealthy man serving in the fleet?”

“Yes.”

Hoff shrugged. “That was not my experience.”

A noise drew their attention to the hallway, and Atton saw that it was now dimly lit. Just emerging from it was his mother. She had on a modest, shimmery blue night gown and a pair of matching slippers.

“Atton!” Destra said, beaming brightly at him as she approached.

“Hello, Mom.”

“Did Hoff tell you? You’re going to stay with us.” Destra stopped in front of him and gestured to their surroundings. “How do you like your new home?”

“My home is back on Roka, buried under a mountain of rubble—unless the Sythians have seen fit to clear it away by now.”

Destra took his hand in hers. “Come and sit with me, Atton.”

He allowed her to lead him down into the living room.

Hoff stayed by the door. “I’d better get back to the bridge. I’ll return in a few hours. Get HTX to serve the boy some food if he’s hungry.”

Atton cast the admiral a backward glance in time to see the old man clap his hands. “HTX!” A moment later a gleaming white server bot appeared from the kitchen.

“See you soon, dear,” Destra replied.

Atton watched the bot approach and his lips curled with contempt—yet another display of the admiral’s wealth. Destra took a seat on the couch and patted the cushions beside her. Atton sat down just as the server bot reached them.

“Welcome to the Hestons’ quarters,” it said brightly. “I am HTX Four. May I get you something to drink?”

Atton glared at the bot and waved his hand as if to shoo away a fly. “A beer.”

“Are you certain, sir? We also have a broad selection of wines—cerulean, gold leaf, shirali—”

“You don’t say?” Atton blurted. He wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. “Bring me a bottle of gold leaf—why not!”

“Yes, sir. And to eat?”

“Surprise me with something else that’s lavishly expensive!”

“The red caviar would make an excellent compliment to your choice of wine, sir.”

“Good! Bring me a bucket of that.”

“We don’t have any buckets, sir, but I shall endeavor to bring you the largest serving that I can. And for the madam?”

Destra shook her head. “I’m all right, HTX.”

“Very well, madam.”

Destra reached for Atton’s hand once more, but he pulled it away. She stared uncertainly at him, her blue eyes searching his green. “What have I done to you to make you so cold?”

“Cold?” Atton echoed. “You’re one to talk, but to answer the question—you sent me away and left me to be raised on a warship in a sector filled with outlaws and bureaucrats. What did you expect would happen?”

“I don’t know. I just imagined that if I ever saw you again, it would be different—that you would remember me . . . and be happy to see me.”

“I was happy, right up until I realized how well you’ve been getting on without me—without us.”

“Atton, you and your father were my whole world—everything I had in the galaxy. I lost you both, and I thought I’d never get you back. After spending years on Ritan, waiting for a rescue that never came, I no longer cared what happened to me. Hoff pulled me through that, and he saved my life.” She shook her head. “Whatever else you can say about the man, he has a good heart, Atton. He’s a good leader, and he treats me well.”

Atton scowled and let out his frustration with a hiss. “Any man who lives in this kind of luxury while people are starving to death all around him can’t be all that good.”

“Atton . . . we’re not starving. The enclave is nothing like Dark Space. People are comfortable there—even happy—and we have help. There are worlds that were never touched by the Sythians. Lost worlds that the Imperium knew nothing about.”

What?” Atton’s eyebrows shot up and he shook his head.

Destra looked uncertain once more, and she brushed a long strand of dark hair out of her face. “I thought you knew.”

“No, no one knows about that. Where is this paradise that the admiral’s been hiding?”

Destra shook her head. “I don’t know—only Hoff does. I’m sorry. I think I’ve said too much already. The point is, things are not what they seem.”

“No?” Atton jumped up from the couch. “I suppose you’re going to tell me next that you and Hoff aren’t really married, that Atta and her beloved Tibbins were just an elaborate hologram.”

Destra frowned. “Atton . . .”

“Right, I forgot, that’s all too real, isn’t it?”

The server bot returned in that moment and held out a glass of rich gold wine. “Here you are, sir.”

Atton spun on his heel and took the drink. “Thank you!” He downed it in one gulp and wiped his mouth. “I see what you mean, Destra.” He watched his mother’s face flash with hurt when he didn’t call her Mom, but he ignored that and went on, “Hoff treats you very well. This is the good stuff—pre-war vintage, and worth a damned fortune!” Atton threw the glass down and it bounced. A few drops of wine dribbled out and beaded on the stain-resistant white carpet. HTX4 bent to vacuum them up and retrieve the glass, while balancing a tray full of red caviar and crackers in his other arm.

“Tell me,” Atton said. “Did you even cry when you heard that Ethan didn’t come back from the Valiant?

Destra frowned. “I was very worried, but your father knows how to look after himself, and he’s with a squad of vanguard sentinels, so I have faith that he’ll be all right.”

“Wait—they made it on board?”

“You thought he died. . . .” Destra said slowly.

Atton gave an exasperated sigh and rubbed his tired eyes. “It’s been a long day. I think I need to lie down.”

Destra rose from the couch just as HTX4 set the platter of caviar and crackers on the black chrome coffee table.

“Come on, I’ll show you to your room,” she said. “Put the food away, HTX.”

“Is it unsatisfactory?” The bot sounded crestfallen. “The caviar is synthesized, but I assure you it tastes almost the same as real.”

Atton felt abashed. Synthesized caviar wasn’t expensive at all. Was he also mistaken about the wine? “I’ll have some for breakfast,” he said, feeling bad for the bot—which was absurd, since it had no feelings.

“Very well, sir,” HTX replied, sounding disappointed.

The bot could only pretend to feel, but his mother on the other hand . . . Atton thought he heard her sniffling as she led him down the hallway between the kitchen and the living room. They turned a corner and stopped at the first door on the right.

Destra waved her wrist over the scanner. “You’ll sleep here,” she said as the door swished open to reveal a neat room with a large, comfortable-looking bed. The room had its own viewport, and a light sculpture stood beside the closet at the foot of the bed, throwing off elaborate patterns of colored light which were likely meant to induce sleep.

“Thank you . . . Mom,” he said as he stepped inside. He turned back to see her wiping away a tear.

“You’re welcome. Good night, Atton.”

The door swished shut and Atton sighed as he turned to look around the room. “Well, it beats a cell.” He shrugged out of his uniform jacket and dropped it on the floor; then he called out a command for the viewport to polarize, and it turned as black as night, blocking out the distracting brightness of superluminal space. Now the room was lit only by the dim glow of the light sculpture. Atton covered a yawn and stripped down to his underclothes, leaving his uniform on the floor. He was about to climb into the clean white bed when he realized how unclean he was. Looking around, he noticed an attached bathroom just to the right of the entrance. He picked up his clothes and padded across the spongy white carpet to take a quick vaccucleanse. He put his clothes in the steamcleaner behind the bathroom door, and then stepped inside the vaccucleanser. All of five minutes later, he was clean and feeling better. He crawled in naked between the sheets and immediately sank into the soft mattress. The pillows smelled like lavender and vanilla. He stared up at the ceiling and watched the soporific patterns of light rippling across it. Breathing deeply, he inhaled the gentle fragrance wafting from the pillows, and allowed his eyelids to grow heavy and drift shut. He felt a spark of guilt that he was basking in such luxury while his father was probably hiding in some crawl space aboard the Valiant, but his mother was right; Ethan could take care of himself.

Atton drifted into a deep, dreamless sleep. An indeterminate amount of time passed, and then he heard raised voices, and his eyes cracked open to see the shifting patterns of light rippling across the ceiling once more.

“Hidden passages leading to lift tubes locked with access codes that I’m not allowed to know. . . . What am I supposed to think? You have a whole other life that I don’t know a thing about!”

“It’s just a meditation room, Destra. It’s where I go to clear my head and plan my next move. I’m sorry you had to find out about it.”

“I’m not! If it’s just a meditation room, why can’t I know about it?”

“That’s classified. Leave it alone, Des. It has nothing to do with us, and it’s not safe for you to know more.”

“What can’t you tell your wife? I already know your big secret. I’ve kept that for all these years. Why don’t you just admit it—you don’t trust me. That’s why you keep secrets.”

The voices drifted away, leaving Atton’s mind running in confused, fractured circles over the last part of that conversation as the light sculpture and the fragrant pillows lulled him back to sleep—not safe to know . . . don’t trust . . . Hoff. . . . secrets. Not safe. Don’t trust Hoff. Secrets. . . .

Atton’s eyes snapped open. Suddenly he was suspicious of the light sculpture and the scented pillows. Maybe there was a reason they were making him sleepy. He sat up and shook his head vigorously to rid himself of their hypnotic effects. If Hoff was hiding something—even from his wife—Atton had a bad feeling it wasn’t an innocent little secret.

This was something big.





PART TWO


Origin





REVELATIONS


Origin




Chapter 18

Origin

The lift tube opened on deck six of the Tauron to reveal Commander Donali already waiting. Admiral Hoff held the doors open and nodded to his XO. The commander walked in, pushing a hover gurney. Lying on the gurney, stunned and draped with a white sheet, was High Lord Kaon. He looked like an ordinary cadaver going to the morgue, but Kaon’s destination wasn’t the morgue—at least not yet. Deck six was the deck the med center was on, so having Kaon disguised as a cadaver was a good cover. Adding to that cover was the fact that Donali was a part of the senior medical staff aboard the Tauron—although he rarely practiced medicine since being promoted out of the restricted-line officers’ ranks.

“Good evening, Admiral,” Donali said.

“Did you have any trouble with nosy subordinates?” Hoff asked.

“None. The few who asked where I was taking the body, or who it was, were told that it was classified, and they seemed satisfied with that.”

Hoff nodded. “Good.”

Now that they’d jumped to SLS to follow Brondi, there was little left for them to do but wait until they reached Dark Space. Hoff wasn’t very good at waiting, but fortunately he had Kaon and the mystery of the Sythians to keep him busy.

As the lift doors slid shut, Hoff keyed in deck twenty-four. The very existence of the lift tube was a closely-guarded secret, and besides Hoff and Commander Donali, the only one who even knew it existed was Hoff’s wife, Destra. That lift tube was the only way in or out of the facility which lay in the heart of the battleship. The only two access ways to the lift were from the maze in Hoff’s garden and the disused storage room on deck six.

When the lift arrived on deck 24, the doors opened into a dark, airy room. “Lights,” Hoff commanded, and a wan yellow light filled the space. The air was almost zero degrees and drew condensing white clouds of moisture from their lungs. That was a happy coincidence for Kaon, who liked frigid temperatures just as much as the Gors.

Hoff looked around. To their right lay a catwalk, which could just barely be seen crossing into a vast, hollow sphere. Bright blue lights shone out from the walls of that room. The lights blinked, faded, and swirled in wave-like patterns. At the end of the catwalk, lay a mysterious, glossy black sphere. To their left, lay more of the airy room where they currently stood. The walls were lined with dozens of stasis tubes. The blue-tinted transpiranium covers glowed from within to indicate that they were occupied. Only a few stood dark and empty. Beyond that, at the far end of the room, lay a pair of luminous transpiranium tanks filled to the brim with bubbling blue liquid. Hoff headed toward those tanks, hurrying past the stasis tubes. Donali’s footsteps echoed behind him.

Suddenly, a warbling noise drew their attention, and Hoff turned to see Kaon rising wraith-like from his gurney, the white sheet falling away as he looked around with wide blue eyes. Donali had already drawn his sidearm and trained it on Kaon to stun him once more, but Hoff held up a hand for him to wait.

Kaon warbled something as he stumbled toward one of the stasis tubes to get a closer look. Hoff’s translator communicated that a moment later as, “Where am I? What is this place?”

“Admiral,” Donali began in a warning tone, but Hoff waved his hand dismissively. It couldn’t hurt for Kaon to know what they were doing here. Who was he going to have a chance to tell?

Kaon turned away from the stasis tube, and his lips parted in a disturbingly human smile. “You are not what you seem to be, Admiral.”

“Neither are you, but we’ll talk more about that in a moment. Can we trust you to go peacefully?” Hoff gestured to the far end of the room, which was furnished with all the same equipment that any other med center would have—except for the pair of bubbling transpiranium tanks.

Kaon followed Hoff’s gesture, and after just a moment, he began stumbling in the indicated direction. Donali kept his sidearm trained on the alien, and Hoff drew his for good measure. When Kaon reached the sole examination table, Hoff gestured to it with his gun.

The alien climbed up wordlessly. “Now what do you wish me to do? Kill myself?”

Hoff smiled. “I haven’t brought you here to kill you, Kaon—not on purpose, anyway.” Hoff dialed his weapon down to a very low stun setting, and then he shot Kaon in the head. The alien jittered uncontrollably before falling back onto the table with arms, legs, and head dangling over the sides. Hoff holstered his weapon and turned to Donali. “Go configure the diagnostic station for a probe while I strap him down.”

Striding over to Kaon, Hoff opened a storage compartment on his belt and pulled out a pair of stun cords. He tied Kaon’s wrists and ankles, and then pulled out a third, longer cord and tied it around both Kaon’s neck and the examination table, just in case. That done, he turned to look around for his XO. Hoff picked out the glowing red orb of the commander’s artificial eye bobbing in the swirling shadows of the attached stasis room. Donali returned with a pair of probe helmets, trailing with long wires. They’d brought those helmets with them from Fortress Station.

A sharp hiss drew their attention as Kaon tried to sit up, only to be stunned by a vicious jolt of electricity. Hoff ignored Kaon and followed his XO to the main control console. Donali connected the helmets to the console, and they sat down on a pair of matching black stools on mag-lock rollers.

“Let’s get started, shall we?” Hoff said, slipping the helmet over his head. As before, he found himself staring at a blank holoscreen with a timer in the top right-hand corner. “I’m counting on you to guide the process, this time, Commander. We need to find out if Kaon has been programmed, or if these really are his memories we’re seeing.”

“I’m not sure if we have enough time,” Donali replied. “Following all the neural pathways which provoke anxiety in our host is like looking for ship’s logbox in space, but we’ve got just five minutes to do it.”

“Do your best, Commander.”

“Yes, sir. . . . Probe commencing in five, four, three . . .”

Hoff watched the countdown reach zero, and suddenly the blank holoscreen became a vibrant scene of light and color. Long green grass rippled in the wind, birds flew overhead chirping as they soared across a bright blue sky. Towering mountains rose up against the horizon, cloaked with evergreen skirts and capped with gleaming white glaciers. To one side, a lavender-hued lake sprawled, and on the other side of it, was a towering, dome-topped fortress, gleaming white in the sun. Four artfully-crafted towers rose from high, crenelated walls surrounding the main building. Transpiranium walkways crossed from near the top of the main building to the tops of the towers. Hoff couldn’t see it from here, but he knew the central structure was capped with a transparent sky dome and accompanying garden—that fortress was the supreme overlord’s summer palace.

Hoff gasped and shook his head. He recognized this place. It could have been any of a dozen different worlds in the Adventa Galaxy, but Hoff knew it wasn’t. The palace gave it away. Besides that, the vegetation was the same, the sky the same—the mountains and lake the same. Hoff couldn’t even remember the world’s name—not it’s real name, anyway—but the mythical name was simply Origin. It was the long-lost world where humanity had begun.

“Where are you, Kaon?”

“Where am I? Where . . . . where . . .”

Hoff’s mind reeled. “What is this world to you?”

“It is . . .”

“Where is it?” Hoff demanded.

“Is . . . is . . . it? Is it?”

“We’re losing him, sir,” Donali interrupted.

“Already? That’s not possible.”

“He needs more time to rest. I don’t think we’re going to make even a minute like this.”

“Give me a second!” Hoff snapped. “Tell me where you are, Kaon.”

“Sssss . . .” Kaon hissed nonsensically.

“His vitals are all over the place! I have to shut it down.”

“One more second!”

“That’s all you’ll have!”

“Kaon! Answer me!”

“Ssssssss . . . !” Kaon’s hissing faded to silence. Next came the warning screech of a siren, followed by a flatline. Hoff tore off his helmet and dropped it on the deck with a thunk. “Damn it! Revive him!”

Donali shook his head as he slowly removed his own helmet. “I cannot revive him.”

“Why not?” Hoff demanded, turning to glare at his XO.

The commander pointed at one of the holoscreens rising from the control station in front of him. “He’s brain dead.”

Hoff blinked but said nothing.

“Did you get the information you were looking for?” Donali asked quietly.

“Cut him open,” Hoff growled.

“Sir?”

“You heard me—dissect him! I want to know everything there is to know about this creature.

An hour later they had Kaon flayed open on the examination table. Donali had taken various tissue and blood samples, which the lab computers were busy analyzing. Hoff watched as Donali retrieved a small cutting beam from his tray of surgical tools and walked around to the head of the examination table. This was the part Hoff most wanted to see—the part where they cut open Kaon’s skull. He stood to one side of the operation, watching with a wrinkled nose as Donali worked. Most of Kaon’s body was analogous to a human’s or a Gor’s, but he had twin hearts; he was cold-blooded, and he had gills which would enable him to breathe under water.

Donali removed the top of Kaon’s skull and set it aside before setting to work with his scalpel. Hoff tried to ignore the wet cutting sounds which followed.

“Well?” Hoff demanded. “Have you found anything?”

“I’m taking a sample of the brain tissue for analysis,” Donali replied, “but so far it’s all more or less the same as the Gors we’ve examined.”

Hoff walked around the examination table to get a better look, and he was immediately sorry he had. A pale purple fluid was dripping down from the table, pooling on the deck at Donali’s feet. His surgical gloves were glistening with it, and so was Kaon’s blanched white brain. The alien’s blood was relatively colorless, just like a Gor’s, but it smelled like sulphur. Hoff’s nose wrinkled. “Are we sure we’re not breathing anything toxic?”

Donali dropped a small tissue sample in a jar and headed over to the lab computer with it. “The compounds we’re breathing are harmless,” he said as he went, “which is more than I can say for the venom sacs in Kaon’s jaw.”

“Venom sacks? You mean he had envenomed fangs and he never tried to use them?”

“It would appear so.”

“What—was he trying to be nice to us all this time?”

“Maybe he really was cooperating,” Donali said as he slotted the tissue sample into the computer’s queue and selected a battery of tests to run.

“To what end?” Hoff asked.

Donali shrugged as he turned and headed back to the examination table. He resumed slicing with his scalpel, and a few moments later he’d separated Kaon’s brain from the skull. He held it up, dripping, and Hoff suppressed an urge to run away.

“Find me another surface area to work on!” Donali said.

Hoff looked around quickly. There was nothing in the immediate area, but then he remembered the hover gurney they’d left in the stasis room. When he returned with it, Donali all but dropped the brain on the surface. It landed with a splat, and Hoff had to force himself not to jump back. Donali sectioned the brain and found the elements he was looking for, setting each one aside carefully, one at a time. “I’m probably not the most qualified person to be doing this,” he said. “We could use an expert—a neurosurgeon, for example.”

“No one has ever dissected a Sythian brain before, Commander. There are no experts. Keep cutting.”

“Yes, sir. What am I looking for?”

Admiral Hoff frowned, suddenly doubting the purpose of this exercise. Donali was right—they needed someone with more experience. He was just about to tell the commander to stop when Donali abruptly jumped back from the brain.

“What is it?” Hoff asked.

Donali pointed to the organ with his scalpel. “I don’t know . . .” he said. “I found something . . . it shocked me.”

“That much is obvious.”

“No, I mean it gave me an electrical shock.”

Hoff smiled. “What do you suppose might do that, Donali?”

“I’m not sure. I can’t see anything in there . . .” He poked the brain with his scalpel once more. This time he yelped and dropped the instrument.

“You’re wearing surgical gloves, Donali. Whatever you’re experiencing, it’s not electricity. Your hands are perfectly insulated.”

Donali stared at his hands with wide eyes, turning them first one way and then the other. “Then I don’t understand.”

“Show me where you’re cutting when it happens.”

Donali pointed to a cleft in the brain tissue.

“Hand me a fresh scalpel,” Hoff said. He accepted the tool from Donali and poked it into the same place his XO had. Something pushed back, and despite his best efforts, Hoff recoiled, too.

“Interesting . . .” he handed the scalpel to his XO. “Cut around the area. We need to see what’s in there.”

Donali set to work once more, occasionally reacting with another yelp and recoiling from his work only to try again from a different angle. When he was done, he had carved a small, roughly square section out of the Sythian’s brain. Donali picked it up gently, trying not to provoke another shove. He held it up to the light, his real eye wide as he marveled at the specimen in his hand. “What should we do with it?”

“I have a theory, if you’ll permit me the sample, Commander.”

Donali blinked stupidly at him.

“Set it down.”

Once the commander had done so, Hoff drew his sidearm, set it to lethal, and dialed it down to the lowest power setting. At that setting it wouldn’t even leave a mark on the deck, but organic matter would not fare as well.

“What are you going to do?” Donali asked, already backing away.

Hoff took aim and fired. A bright red flash shot out from the barrel and hit the sample. Tissue blackened and caught fire, burning up in a greasy yellow flame that smelled like burning rubber. When the fire died down and ashes crumbled away, they were left staring at nothing but empty space. Hoff bent to eye level with the ashes and his eyes widened appreciably. There was one small bit of charred flesh hovering just a few centimeters above the gurney.

“Are you seeing what I’m seeing, Donali?”

The commander’s red eye appeared on the other side of the floating specimen.

“That’s impossible. Organic matter cannot oppose gravity by itself.”

“I don’t believe that’s what we’re seeing. . . .” Hoff reached out with one finger extended toward the empty space beneath the specimen . . . and just before his finger would have passed through the spot, his hand bounced away with another kinetic jolt. He smiled and nodded. “It’s cloaked. That’s why it’s repelling us.” It was common knowledge that cloaking shields repelled matter with a weak, but discernible force, and they bent electromagnetic radiation around them to make things invisible to the naked eye and scanners.

Abruptly, Hoff reached out and grabbed the invisible thing, knocking the last bit of organic matter aside.

“Admiral!”

Hoff couldn’t feel any texture, but there was a palpable force pushing him away, as if his hand and the object were two magnets trying to push each other apart. Unlike the violent reaction he’d felt while probing with the scalpel, or the powerful one he’d felt when touching the object with his fingertip, now he felt only a mild repulsive force. Hoff tried squeezing harder, and he managed to touch the sides of the thing. It felt cold and smooth—glassy—and was spherically-shaped. Hoff held it in a closed fist above the table, and then slowly opened his hand.

“Look,” Hoff said. Now they could see a faint, shimmering outline of the thing. It appeared a moment later, a shiny silver ball no larger than the tip of his thumb. “The shield must be exhausted. . . . but why now?”

Donali shook his head. “Most of our implants draw power from their host. Sythians must utilize similar technology.”

“Yes . . .”

“What do you think it is?”

Hoff looked up at his XO with a slow smile. “Isn’t it obvious? This, my dear Lenon Donali, is a cloaked implant.”

Suddenly they were interrupted by a soft bleep from the lab computer. It had finished analyzing Kaon’s tissue and blood samples. Both turned and started toward the computer. Hoff brought the implant with him.

Donali sat down at the control station to study the results which had flashed up above the controls. A moment later, he inhaled sharply.

“What is it?” Hoff asked.

“Kaon . . .”

“What about him?”

Donali slowly turned away from the console and looked up at the admiral. “He’s a clone, sir.”

“A what? Why haven’t we discovered this sooner?”

Donali shook his head. “We never performed a brain biopsy before. The brain tissue contains markers which are not present in the other tissue samples. He’s a clone with an implant. . . . What do you think that means, sir?”

Hoff took a moment to process that. Then he began nodding slowly and said, “Did you recognize the world we saw, Donali?”

“No.”

“It was Origin. Kaon is a clone with an implant who has been to Origin. I’ll tell you what that means, Commander—it means that this is not the first time our two species have met.”

*  *  *

Origin

Twenty minutes earlier . . .

Atton waited with his ear pressed to the door, listening to the sounds of receding footsteps and of doors swishing open then closed. He waited at least five minutes after he stopped hearing noise on the other side of his door—until he could be sure that Hoff had gone wherever he was going, and that his mother had gone back to bed. Then Atton turned to the control panel beside the door and waved his wrist over it.

Nothing happened.

Atton blinked, but then he remembered he didn’t have an identichip anymore. Hoping that didn’t mean he was locked in his room, he tried using the keypad to open the door.

It swished open and Atton let out a sigh of relief. He crept out into the darkened hallway, glancing to the left, back the way he’d come earlier, and then to the right, down to the end of the hallway. Here the walls were painted dark gray and the gold wainscoting and crown moldings from the living room continued. The transpiranium wall sconces were dark, but more light paintings glowed dimly between doors, casting enough light into the hall that Atton could see. At the far end of the hall was a transpiranium door which looked out on the garden he’d seen earlier from the main living area. Through the top of the door Atton could see a crescent moon shining down on an immaculate green lawn. The moon was obviously fake along with the rest of the sky, but the vegetation might have been real. In the middle distance a big tree rose into the night with dark, scraggly braches. A child’s swing hung down from one of the lower branches, and beyond that lay a thick black hedge.

Atton crept down the hall toward that door, curious about the garden. He passed light paintings of landscapes from worlds he’d never been to—soaring black mountains reaching for angry red skies; pristine white sand beaches and serene turquoise oceans; endless snowy deserts and towering jungles. Amidst those unfamiliar scenes, one painting in particular sparked his interest. It showed a mirror-clear lake reflecting a backdrop of soaring, snow-capped mountains washed gold by a setting sun. As Atton stopped to look at the painting, it came alive. The lake sparkled, the sunset faded, and a red moon rose. Atton sighed with nostalgia.

“You never forget it, do you?”

Atton started and turned to see his mother standing at the other end of the hallway, beside the door to his room. “Oh, hi Mom. You scared me . . .”

Destra padded across the soft white carpet to reach him. He noticed that she was holding a steaming cup of some beverage. She stopped beside him and lifted the cup to her lips for a sip. She nodded to the painting. “You recognize it?” she asked, taking another sip of her tea.

Atton turned back to look at the painting just in time to see the sun rise over the lake, bathing the scene in fiery reds and yellows, and he sighed again. “Yes, it’s home.”

Destra nodded and a faraway look crept into her eyes. “And it always will be.”

Atton covered a yawn with one hand. His mother noticed and turned to him with a smile. “You should be in bed. What are you doing up?”

“I couldn’t sleep.”

“Neither could I,” she said, tapping the tea cup with one long fingernail. “That’s what this is for. Want some?”

Atton shook his head, and his thoughts turned back to what had brought him out of his room. The reason he couldn’t sleep. “Mom . . .” he began.

“Yes?”

“What is Hoff hiding from you?”

Destra’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”

“I overheard you and him talking. You said he was keeping secrets, and he said it was dangerous for you to know.”

“You heard that?”

“Just before I drifted off to sleep. Mom . . .” Atton shook his head. “If he’s hiding things from you, his wife, don’t you think that’s a bad sign?”

Destra frowned. “He won’t tell me. Believe me—I’ve fought with him about it more than once.”

“So what? The Destra I knew would have made him tell her, and if he still wouldn’t, she would have gone looking for the answers herself. How can you live with him, knowing that he’s hiding things from you?”

“I try not to think about it.”

“Why?”

“For Atta’s sake.”

Atton shook his head. “What are you afraid will happen?”

“He could leave me, Atton, and I would have nothing. What am I on this fleet of his, if I’m no longer his wife? I’m nobody. I don’t even have a rank. I’ll serve no purpose, and I don’t know what would happen to me or Atta.”

“If you’re so afraid that Hoff would leave you with nothing and that he’d suddenly stop caring about you, then why are you with him? Why do you claim he’s a good man and he treats you well?”

“I don’t know that he’d leave me with nothing, Atton. That might just be my fears talking. But trust is a big issue for Hoff. He doesn’t trust easily, because he’s been betrayed so much in the past. If I betrayed his trust now . . .”

“I’m sorry, but that’s not good enough for me,” Atton said. “Hoff could be hiding something dangerous.”

“Then why don’t you ask him about it yourself?”

“I could . . . but if you’re afraid about what he’ll do to you if you dig up his secrets, what do you think he’ll do if he finds out that you talked to me about this?”

Destra’s brow dropped deep shadows over her eyes. “That’s low Atton, blackmailing your own mother.”

“Then help me figure it out on my own, and I can leave you out of it. I heard you speaking about hidden passages earlier.”

Destra’s eyebrows floated back up. “You heard a lot, didn’t you?”

“If I could accidentally find one of those passages, that would give me a reason to press Hoff for more details that doesn’t point to you.”

Destra pursed her lips for a long moment.

“Well?”

“All right. Come with me.”

Destra strode past him, on toward the transpiranium door at the end of the hall, the one which led out into the garden. She passed her wrist over the door scanner and it swished open for her. She turned in the open doorway and beckoned to Atton. He was still standing by the light painting, shocked that she’d agreed to his demands so easily, and even more shocked that everything he’d heard in his drowsy state was real.

“We have to hurry,” Destra said.

“Right.”

Atton ran to catch up with her and they walked out into the moonlit garden together. They walked past the big tree with the swing, and Destra angled toward the dark hedge beyond. It looked unbroken, but as they drew near, Atton saw a gap, and he realized that this wasn’t the full extent of the yard. “What’s through there?” he asked.

“Hoff’s maze.”

“His what?”

“You could get lost in there for hours if you’re not careful.”

Destra stopped in the gap, and Atton stopped beside her. He caught a whiff of a familiar scent—it was sharp and fresh, exotic and almost perfumed. The hedge was real and it was made up of fragrant silverleaf bushes, so named for the glossy silver color of their leaves. In the dark they looked black and forbidding.

“Where do I go now?” Atton asked, gazing down the narrow path.

“To the end of the maze,” Destra said simply, as if it should have been obvious.

Atton frowned, and his eyes darted back to the rising black walls of the silverleaf hedge. “And then?”

“Walk through.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You will, and even if you don’t, that’s all you’re going to get out of me. If you run into Hoff, be sure to ask him your questions, but I don’t promise that he’ll answer. He never answered me. I’d go with you, but if Hoff catches us both in the maze together, it will be all the proof he needs that he was right not to trust me.”

“Don’t worry. I won’t mention our conversation. I’ll say I couldn’t sleep and I wandered out here on my own.”

“Thank you. Good luck.”

With that, Atton turned and ran into the maze. After a seemingly endless series of twists and turns, he began to grow uneasy. He kept mental track of every left and right along the way, but he was beginning to wonder if he could remember it all. The maze seemed to go on forever, and he’d been walking for at least an hour already. He wondered if he was going in circles, or if there really was an end to the maze. Maybe his mother had just told him that to get even with him for trying to blackmail her.

Atton made another right turn, and then a left and two more rights. This time, instead of seeing more branching paths, all Atton could see was a dead end. He walked straight to the end and stared at the high wall of vegetation. Is this what his mother meant by the end of the maze? She’d told him when he reached it to just walk through. Atton walked up close enough to the hedge to touch it. He peered at it closely, looking for a way through. When he couldn’t see one, he reached out to part the dense wall of leaves—

And his hands passed straight through, touching nothing but thin air. The hedge shimmered suspiciously with that movement, and then he understood. It was a holofield.





Chapter 19

Origin

Atton walked through the silverleaf hedge, straight into a duranium corridor with dim glow strips running along the floor and ceiling. At the end of that lay a lift tube. It reminded him of his own secret passage aboard the Defiant which had led to Tova’s crèche, except he hadn’t gone to the trouble of hiding it within a maze. He’d never been that paranoid. Atton started down the corridor, and his hands began to sweat. He felt cold all over and his heart thudded in his chest. What if Hoff came back up the lift tube and found him here? What would he say? He was suddenly much less confident about demanding answers from the admiral. Anyone who went to so much trouble to keep his secrets buried would not be happy when they were uncovered. He reached the end of the corridor and hesitated with his hand poised over the control panel. He tried to open the doors without entering a code, but the control panel beeped out an error: Access Denied.

Atton frowned. He’d either have to know the code or somehow blast the doors open. He tried the control panel a second time, entering a random code. This time the lift responded and a glowing blue arrow appeared at the top of the panel. It was coming up. Atton blinked at the controls and watched the lift rise past a couple of decks before he realized that it was impossible for that random code to have been the right one. He didn’t even know how many digits the correct code was. No, if the lift tube was coming up now, that could only mean one thing—the admiral was in it.

A sharp jolt of adrenaline spurred Atton into motion and he ran back down the corridor to the concealing holofield. He heard the lift tube chime softly with every deck it passed, the tones coming faster and faster as it accelerated. Atton passed back through the holofield and stood in the dark silverleaf maze, trying to remember how many lefts and rights he’d taken and then reverse those directions for the way out, but he couldn’t remember a thing. He’d completely lost his way. His mother’s words echoed back to him now: You could get lost for hours if you’re not careful.

Atton ran back through the maze, taking turns at random. He didn’t have to beat Hoff back, he just had to make sure they didn’t run into each other on the way out.

*  *  *

Origin

Ethan awoke to the sound of a woman screaming.

Where am I? he wondered.

He tried to sit up, but the warning jolt which passed through his wrists gave him pause. His hands and feet were bound with stun cords, and he couldn’t move too much without provoking a shock. Rather than try again, he just turned his head where he lay to get his bearings. The room was dark. Shattered transpiranium panels glittered on the floor beneath a row of floor-to-ceiling window frames. Far below those broken windows lay a hangar deck and a crashed upside down transport.

Suddenly Ethan remembered, and he knew where he was. He was in the ruined control tower of one of the Valiant’s venture-class hangars. They’d managed to get aboard the carrier just before it had jumped to SLS, but like a right skriff he’d shot off his mouth about having been here before with Gina. Back then he had been wearing a holoskin of the pilot Adan Reese, and he’d been forced to explain to his squad mates and Gina that he’d been working for Brondi—which explained why he was now wearing stun cords. It also explained the throbbing pain in the side of his head where he vaguely recalled that Gina’s elbow had connected with his skull.

The woman screamed again, and this time Ethan heard heavy footsteps approaching. He turned away from the broken viewports and saw Alara, limned in the pale white light spilling in from the broken windows and the shadowy hangar bay beyond. Even in the dark he recognized her. She sat on a sleeping pallet beside him, looking around with wide, terrified eyes. Then the booming footsteps stopped, and they both turned to see the dark outline of a zephyr appear in an open doorway at the far end of the room. “Shut up!” the vanguard sentinel hissed.

Alara just screamed louder.

“Shhh! Shut the frek up!”

“Where am I? Who are you? Why is it so dark?”

“Alara, calm down,” Ethan said.

“My name’s not Alara, it’s Angel!” she replied.

Ethan’s heart sank. Her slave chip was working again in full force.

“Angel, huh?” the sentinel said. “Well shut up, Angel, before you bring a whole regiment of Brondi’s men down on us. They can probably hear you screaming all the way from the bridge.”

“Brondi?” Alara asked, sounding hopeful. “Where is he?”

“In his quarters, sleeping like a good little crime lord, would be my guess. Now go back to sleep.”

Ethan thought he recognized that vanguard’s voice. He guessed it was the medic who’d attended Alara’s injuries. “Exalian!” he said. “Where is everyone?”

The vanguard turned to him. “Frek, now you, too! Don’t you two get it? We’re undercover —at least I am. Just my luck to get stuck babysitting the two of you. I’m more likely to get killed here than with my squad! Look, if either of you gives us away, Brondi’s men are going to kill us. Get it? Real simple.”

“Why would they do that?” Alara asked.

“Because we’re here to take this ship back from them—that’s why! Now shut up or I’ll stun you both.”

Exalian turned and left, his mechanized footsteps thudding away. When he was gone, Alara turned to Ethan, her eyes wide and gleaming with stolen reflections of the hangar bay. “Who are you?” she whispered.

“I’m Ethan . . . don’t you remember me?” He allowed himself a small scrap of hope that she might.

“I . . . no, sorry, I don’t,” she said, dashing that hope. “I don’t usually have to remember names, and it’s too dark to see your face. Am I a prisoner, too?” she asked, nodding to his stun corded hands and feet.

“Not that I know—look, Angel, this isn’t going to make a lot of sense to you right now, but you’ve been chipped. Your name isn’t Angel. It’s Alara. Whatever you think you can remember, and whoever it is you think you are—it’s a lie. Don’t trust your thoughts or your feelings right now. Until we can get to Brondi and beat the krak out of him for the deactivation code to your slave chip, just trust me and whatever you do don’t trust yourself, okay?”

Alara was silent for a long moment. “Okay,” she said. “Sure.”

Ethan sighed. He didn’t think she believed him, but there wasn’t much he could do about that now. Maybe when she got a look at his face she’d remember him better.

“Why are they keeping you prisoner?” she asked.

“Because they think I was working for Brondi—it’s a long story. We should get some sleep. Something tells me this will be one of the few opportunities we’ll have to do so.”

“Sure,” Alara replied. Her gaze skipped around the room until it found an empty zephyr standing in the far corner of the room. “That was mine,” Ethan said, following her gaze. “I guess Gina didn’t want to use it.”

“You were with this squad?”

“Briefly.”

“So you’re a sentinel?”

“No,” Ethan snorted. “I’m a pilot. Freelance. So are you, actually. We used to fly together.”

“It must be hard to go from piloting ships to mechs.”

Ethan had to hold back a laugh. “Not really. You just have to step into the armor and it does the rest. Piloting ships requires finesse and skill, but piloting a mech is just like walking—even easier, because the mech even does that for you. It’s all power-assisted.” Ethan yawned. “That’s why starship pilots call them stompers, because any clumsy old skriff can run around in a mech.”

“I didn’t know that. . . .” Alara said.

Silence fell in the broken control tower and Ethan’s eyelids grew heavy. “Kiddie—” he began.

“Where did you hear that name?” she interrupted, sounding startled.

Ethan smiled, and he realized that not all was lost. She still had a few memories to cling to. “That was my nickname for you, back when were we pilot and copilot of the Atton. Our old freighter. Remember now?”

“Yes . . .” she said, nodding slowly. “I think I do.”

Something about her words sounded off. “I’m glad,” Ethan said, deciding not to contradict her amnesia any more for now. “Look, try to get some sleep. I’m sure it will all be much clearer to you after you’ve had a good night’s rest.”

“Okay,” Alara replied. “Good night.”

“Good night.” Ethan allowed his eyes to drift shut and willed himself to sleep. It wasn’t as hard as it should have been, making him wonder if Gina had hit him harder than he thought. . . .

An indeterminate amount of time passed, and then he opened his eyes to see Alara lying beside him, close enough that he could see the flecks of silver in her bright violet eyes. She reached out and caressed his face. “It’s okay,” she said. “Shhh. . . . everything is going to be all right.”

“I know it will, Kiddie.” Ethan tried not to choke on the lie.

Alara smiled, and then she turned and climbed out of bed. “You’d better get up, or you’re going to miss the ceremony.”

Ethan’s brow furrowed. “What ceremony?” He sat up and watched Alara walk around the foot of the bed, wearing nothing but a diaphanous blue night gown which shimmered in the low light and gave a teasing view of her naked body underneath. The room was like any of the hundreds of cheap rooms they’d rented in cut-rate habitats on neglected stations throughout Dark Space.

Alara cast another smile over her shoulder and she winked at him. “The marriage ceremony, you old skriff.”

Something stirred in Ethan’s chest, a long-forgotten feeling of warmth, and he grinned. “We’re getting married?”

Alara laughed girlishly.

“Wait, where are you going?” Ethan asked, noticing that she’d reached the door. “You can’t go out like that.”

Alara ignored him as she passed her wrist over the door scanner. The door swished open, and Ethan’s grin faded. His whole body went cold and he shook his head. “No. . . .”

Alara turned back to him, still smiling. “I’d like you to meet the groom—Admiral Hoff Heston. Hoff, this is Ethan.”

“Hello, Ethan,” he said, stepping inside.

“Why?” was all Ethan could manage as he tried to work moisture into his suddenly dry mouth. “It was supposed to be us, Kiddie.”

Alara shrugged and looped her arm through Hoff’s. “Did you think I was going to wait for you forever?” She giggled once more, and Hoff added a booming laugh of his own.

Boom.

Ethan’s eyes shot open. He stared up at the dark ceiling, watching a strange orange glow flicker and dance across it. He heard a metallic thud and then heavy footsteps pounding away. In the next instant, his sleep-clouded brain picked out the crackle of flames responsible for the flickering glow on the ceiling. He turned toward the light and sound. It was coming from the entrance of the control tower. Where was Corporal Exalian? Had Brondi’s men found them? Alara! Ethan thought. He turned to look beside him, and found nothing but an empty blanket where she had been lying earlier. Then he noticed that the spare zephyr was gone, too. Frek! Ethan thought, and suddenly he understood why Alara had asked him about piloting mechs. He rolled over and crawled sentinel-style across the deck, making slow progress and occasionally feeling a sharp warning jolt from the stun cords which bound his hands and feet. By the time he reached the entrance, the flames were already burning low, but acrid smoke had begun pouring into the control tower. Ethan coughed and his eyes burned, but he pushed on. Fear drove him faster. Fear that he would be trapped in the control tower by the blaze, and fear of what he would find when he reached the entrance.

Ethan rounded the corner and his worst fears were realized. Lying slumped in the far corner of the corridor leading away from the entrance was Aleph Seven. Flames leapt up around his mech from a shiny, black pool of hydraulic fluid and lubricant which had seeped out from his zephyr. The corpsman wasn’t even trying to escape the blaze, but Ethan didn’t have to wonder why—the zephyr’s chest plate was peeled open like cheap duranium, and his eyes were wide and staring behind his helmet.

Corporal Exalian was dead.

*  *  *

Origin

The faster Atton ran, the more he realized that he was lost. The stars glittered and the moon shone down from the artificial sky overhead, casting a wan, silver glow into the silverleaf maze. At least by now Hoff has to be back in his quarters, Atton thought, and with that he slowed his frantic pace. His lungs burned and his feet ached. He turned another corner and two more paths disappeared to either side of him, a third one wound around a corner up ahead, but Atton had no idea where he was or which one of those paths would get him out of the maze. He turned to gaze up at the sheer black walls of the silverleaf bushes rising to either side of him and wondered if he could climb them to see where he was in relation to the admiral’s opulent quarters. It was worth a try. He reached into the bushes, looking for a branch which might be strong enough to hold his weight, but his arm sunk in all the way up to the shoulder and his hand rattled around blindly, seeking purchase among the spindly branches.

“Hello, Atton.”

He froze.

“I wouldn’t bother trying to climb them. The sky only appears to be distant. It forms a low-hanging roof over the maze, so you won’t see anything from up there.”

Atton withdrew his arm from the hedge and turned to see Hoff standing at the end of the path which he’d seen winding away in front of him. He affected an innocent smile. “Admiral! You have no idea how good it is to see a friendly face! I thought I was never going to get out of here.”

Hoff smiled back as he approached. “Indeed? I’ll take that as a compliment. The point of any maze is to make you to lose your way, wouldn’t you say, Atton?”

“I guess.”

Hoff stopped within arm’s reach of him. “What brings you out here in the middle of the night?”

“Couldn’t sleep.”

“Ahh, I see. Even with the light sculpture?”

“I found it distracting.”

“You must have a tough case of insomnia. We have tea for that, you know.”

“The fresh air clears my head.”

“Simulated fresh, but I would think it only clears your head because it wakes you up more. Somewhat counter-productive for sleep. You should have stayed in the garden, Atton.”

There was a sinister note of rebuke in Hoff’s voice that Atton didn’t like. He brushed it off with a shrug. “I thought this was part of the garden. By the time I realized it wasn’t, I was already lost. What are you doing up, Admiral?”

“Your mother told me you came out here. She said you might need some help finding your way back.”

“Well, she was right.”

“Good mothers always are. Come—” Hoff said, wrapping an arm around Atton’s shoulders to guide him out of the maze. “—let’s go try some of that tea.”

*  *  *

Origin

Angel couldn’t stop running. Her footsteps sounded like thunder as she pounded down the gleaming corridors. She’d been running for what felt like forever—ever since she’d shot the sentinel who’d told her to shut up and stop making so much noise. She hadn’t meant to kill him—just stun him, but she hadn’t mastered the mech’s weapons yet, and instead of stunning him, she’d fired an anti-personnel rocket, killing him before he even knew what had hit him.

After what she’d done to that sentinel, she knew that if the rest of his squad caught up with her, they’d do the same thing to her. A cold sweat of panic beaded on her brow and gut-twisting guilt raged right alongside it. Angel shook her head. Snap out of it! She couldn’t afford to feel bad right now. So she’d killed someone. So what. They were here to steal Brondi’s ship, maybe even to kill him, and that meant she had to choose whose life was more important. To her, that was “Big Brainy” Brondi’s. He was the closest thing she had to a father. He’d taken her in along with all of the other war orphans when she was just sixteen. He’d taught them the art of dancing poles and of teasing men until they’d agree to trade a day’s wage for a few short hours—usually minutes, in her experience—of bliss. That trade had kept her alive while others starved. She owed Brondi.

Angel couldn’t remember how she’d come to be captured by a squad of enemy soldiers. She’d awoken in the dark, lying beside some lunatic who claimed to know her, who told her not to trust herself because she was chipped. What a lot of krak. That must have been how they’d captured her. They’d brainwashed her and turned her into some kind of undercover agent in order to kill Brondi. It had been all she could do to keep calm and play along until she could find a way to escape.

And now that she had escaped, time was of the essence. She had to warn Brondi. “Alec!” Angel called out to the ceiling. “Big Brainy! It’s me, Angel! Help!” She wasn’t sure if anyone was listening, but she had to try.

She ran and ran until her legs grew tired even in spite of the power-assisted armor she wore. How was she supposed to find her way to the bridge? She turned a corner and found herself faced with another corridor just as endless and just as deserted as the previous one. Angel bit back a sob and pressed on. She had to run into someone eventually. How big could the ship be?

*  *  *

Origin

“I hope you have a good reason for waking me, Sergeant,” Brondi said as he strode down the gangway from the entrance of the bridge.

“Yes, sir,” Sergeant Gibbs replied, keeping pace beside him. A squad of armored soldiers walked behind Brondi, shadowing him. After reports had stopped coming in of invisible assailants attacking his crew, Brondi had finally risked cracking open his zephyr, trading the exaggerated armor for a luxuriant red robe and fuzzy white slippers, which he’d found in the overlord’s quarters. The half a dozen soldiers walking behind him were his contingency plan.

“Well? What is it?” Brondi demanded.

“Watch stations are reporting activity on one of the lower decks.”

“What kind of activity?” Brondi asked as he strode up to the sergeant’s security console. “Don’t tell me we have more Sythians on board, because I don’t think I could handle being forced to walk around in a zephyr again. It smells like the inside of a boot. Do you know what it’s like to live inside a boot, sergeant?”

“No, sir.”

“I can arrange it for you.”

Gibbs ignored him and pointed at the holoscreen rising out of his control station. “There. We’re tracking her on deck 33 right now.”

“Her?” Brondi frowned as he stared at the matte black form of a zephyr light assault mech running down a long, nondescript corridor aboard the Valiant.

Gibbs leaned forward and dialed up the volume. Suddenly Brondi heard his name blaring through the speakers, and the ringing thuds of the mech’s hurried footfalls.

“Alec! Big Brainy! It’s me, Angel! . . . Help!”

“Angel . . .” Brondi repeated. “It can’t be.”

“You know her, sir?”

“I might. Where did she come from?”

“Earliest we have her on the holocorders is somewhere near the venture-class hangars. You think she slipped aboard while we were at Ritan?”

Brondi frowned. “If so, then she’s not alone. Get her up here, but make sure they crack her out of that armor first. I don’t want any more accidents aboard my ship.”

“Yes, sir.”

Brondi mulled over the situation, watching as Ethan’s copilot raced down another corridor. Their viewpoint automatically changed to the next holocorder in line, tracking her. Gibbs barked commands into his comm piece, and just a few minutes later a squad of soldiers from the nearest watch station joined Alara on camera. There was a brief standoff with everyone shouting at each other. Brondi frowned. He turned and nodded to the comms officer. “Put me through to that section.”

“Which section, sir?”

Gibbs answered, “Deck 33, section 4, sub-section—”

“Just connect me with the whole deck,” Brondi interrupted with a wave of his hand. A moment later the comms officer gave them a thumbs-up and Brondi turned to address the holoscreen. “Angel?” The figure on the camera turned to look up at the ceiling. “My dear, sweet Angel. Get out of that armor so my guards can bring you up here. Daddy’s waiting for you.”

“Brondi?”

“Yes, dear.”

“They’re going to take the ship back! They’re—”

“They who?”

“Sentinels!”

“Well, hurry up, Sweet Thing. We’ll deal with them after you’re safe.”

Alara’s armor opened up and she walked out, looking small and insignificant beside the two-meter-high shell of the assault mech.

Brondi smiled. “There’s a good girl. See you soon, Sweet Thing.” He made a cutting gesture across his throat for the comms officer to turn off the intercom.

“Who is she?” Gibbs asked.

Brondi shrugged. “No one special. Just a bit of revenge on an old grub who never paid his debts. She used to be his copilot. Now she thinks she’s a playgirl named Angel.” Brondi’s mouth gaped open in a smile.

“A playgirl, hoi?” The sergeant licked his lips. “We could use a bit of fun on this ship.”

Brondi patted him on the back. “All in good time. First let’s find out why she’s here and who she came with, then you can have your bit of fun.”




Chapter 20

Origin

Ethan sat inside the hangar control tower, choking on smoke as he listened to the dying crackle of the flames which had cooked Corporal Exalian’s remains to a crisp. He never would have thought Alara capable of murder, but then again, she wasn’t capable of prostituting herself either. It was all Brondi’s fault, and he would have to take the blame for Exalian’s death, along with all the other deaths he had caused. Ethan could only hope the tracking device Admiral Heston had implanted beneath his skin would lead them to the kakard in time to prevent more innocent deaths. By now, Alara had likely given them all away. He kept imagining he could hear the approaching footsteps of Brondi’s men, and his eyes roved nervously around the room, skipping over ruined control stations, overturned chairs, and glittering sheets of shattered transpiranium. Nothing moved except for the pearly wisps of acrid smoke drifting through the air. Ethan’s head spun from that smoke and his eyes burned to tears. He blinked to clear them. Then, suddenly, he did hear something—

“Frek,” someone whispered. “What happened here?”

“He’s dead,” someone else said.

“I’d say our prisoner escaped.” That was Gina’s voice.

“Hoi, hold up—I’m picking up something on scanners. We’ve got a lifeform in there.”

“Probably, Alara,” Gina replied. “Poor girl must be terrified. He’d better not have hurt her. . . .”

Footsteps. Real this time. Ethan grimaced as they drew near. Someone poked their head around the corner.

“What are you doing here?” It was Gina. “Where’s Alara?”

“She’s gone,” he croaked.

“What?”

More footsteps.

“Motherfrekker . . .” Sergeant Dorian said. “What happened here, Laser Bait?”

“Alara. She woke up,” he replied through a dry cough. “She thought she was Angel again. I told her to get some sleep, hoping she’d remember more later, but instead she blasted out of here in my zephyr as soon as I fell asleep.”

“Krak!” Gina hit the wall with her fist. “How long ago was this?”

“A couple of hours.”

“We have to get out of here—now,” Gina said.

“Hoi, what about the prisoner?” Dorian asked.

“Frek him,” Gina replied. “He’ll just slow us down.”

“Might be a good bargaining chip when Brondi catches up with us,” the sergeant replied.

“Then you don’t know Alec Brondi. He’d shoot through a dozen of his own men to get at just one of us. Leave him.”

“Roger that. Alephs! Move out! Scorcher, Rull’s-eye, you’ve got point!”

Ethan couldn’t believe his eyes. “Hoi!” he yelled. “You can’t leave me here!” But they stomped off without a backward glance. Ethan listened to the sound of their footsteps receding into the distance. Then came silence, and Ethan was alone with his thoughts once more, thinking hateful thoughts toward Gina. “I never should have saved your ass,” he muttered, thinking back to the two separate occasions when he’d rescued her. Before he’d had very much time to dwell on it, the footsteps returned and he had bigger problems.

“Well, well, lookie what we got here.”

Ethan turned to see a man wearing the thick, gray armor of a sentinel, but a head full of glowing tattoos gave him away for what he really was. Brondi’s men had stolen the Valiant—so why not the uniforms and armor, too? “Got another one over here!” the man said.

“Another one?” Ethan asked as tattoo head yanked him roughly to his feet.

“Yea, krakface. Got your pals already. Hoi—what’s this here?” Tattoo head raised Ethan’s hands and jerked his goateed chin at the stun cords. “You their prisoner? What’s that make ya, one of us?”

“Who ya got there?” another voice demanded, this one deep, gritty, and heavily accented. The voice and accent reminded Ethan of the worst offenders from his time on Etaris. He turned to look just in time to see the man to whom that voice belonged step into the control tower. He was a giant, well over six feet tall, and wearing standard sentinel armor which was several sizes too small for his large frame.

“I’m not sure, Sarge. Look—he’s all tied up. Think he’s one of ours?”

“They tied me up because they discovered I was an undercover agent for Brondi,” Ethan said. Worth a shot, he thought.

“What’s yer name?” the sergeant growled.

“Ethan Ortane.”

“I’ll call it in—leave him tied for now.”

“Yes, sir.”

So much for that, Ethan thought, listening as the sergeant checked his name with his commanding officers. A moment later he turned back to Ethan with an unsettling grin. “Well, seems like yer tellin’ the truth. Big Brainy squealed like a little girlie when I told him about ya. He’s real eager to meet ya, Ethan.” Turning to his subordinate, the sergeant nodded and said, “Come on, let’s not keep the boss waiting any longer than we have to.”

Ethan tried to object as tattoo head shoved him forward, but a powerful electric jolt stole the words from his mouth as he fell to the deck. “My ankles are tied, you dumb kakard!”

“Oopsies,” tattoo head giggled. “My bad.” The outlaw yanked him back to his feet and whipped out an oversized knife to cut the stun cords. Another spark of electricity burned between Ethan’s ankles as the cords were cut, and he bit his tongue not to cry out. Looks like I’m coming for you after all, Brondi, he thought. But this wasn’t at all what he’d had in mind when he’d insisted on joining the assault.

*  *  *

Origin

“Ethan! I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you again!” Brondi’s mouth gaped in a huge smile. “How do you like what I’ve done with the place?” He gestured broadly to the bridge viewports, which showed a startling view of superluminal space with its swirls and streaks of light. Brondi’s crew all stopped what they were doing to watch Ethan come in. He scowled as the pair of outlaws who’d found him marched him down the gangway.

“It looks the same, your eminence—did I get it right? Or is there some other form of address you like better?”

Brondi laughed. “You’re funny, Ethan. I’ve always liked that about you! Too often the cares of this galaxy wring the humor out of us.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m curious, what are you doing back here, Ethan—with a squad of sentinels no less? I lost a few good men capturing them, you know. I’m still sore about that. How do you plan to make it up to me?”

Ethan took a deep breath, hoping what he was about to say would sound sincere. He’d been working on his story ever since Brondi’s men had captured him. “I wasn’t with the sentinels. Neither was Alara.”

“Go on,” Brondi said, his eyes narrowing by degrees.

“The admiral was going to have me tried for my crimes, and I begged for a chance to get even with you by joining the assault to take back the Valiant. My real plan was to join you, but before I could find a way to get away with Alara, they found out I wasn’t really on their side. Alara managed to escape, and the sentinels fled. They assumed Alara would give them away, which she obviously did, because your men found me a few hours later and brought me here.”

Brondi frowned and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I see. And why would you want to join me?”

“The admiral was going to execute me for my crimes, and no one could find a way to disable Alara’s slave chip. I thought maybe if I came back to work for you, you might at least release Alara in exchange for my services.”

Brondi’s eyebrows shot up. “You blew a hole in the side of my new flagship, and you stole my corvette. That’s a lot to make up for—not to mention the ten thousand sols you still owe me. Why wouldn’t I just have you killed and leave Alara the way she is? What could you possibly have to offer me?”

Ethan gritted his teeth, but forced himself to remain calm. “You took my ship, too, and you blackmailed me into your plot to take down the Imperium in exchange for clearing the 10,000 sols I owed you. I think we’re even, but besides that, Admiral Hoff is chasing you back to Dark Space, and you’re going to need pilots for all the novas on the Valiant if you want to mount a proper defense. I’ll fly one for you and help you train your men until such a time as you decide my debt has been payed.”

“That’s a good idea,” Brondi said, nodding slowly. “I admire your mercenary spirit, but what makes you think I’d trust you in the cockpit of a nova fighter after you betrayed me?”

“Alara is your collateral. I wouldn’t do anything that might cause you to take it out on her.”

Brondi smiled. “You’ve given this a lot of thought.”

“I have.”

“Good. I’ll accept your proposal, but don’t expect to earn your freedom—or Alara’s for that matter—anytime soon.”

“Not so fast,” Ethan said. “I have a few conditions.”

Brondi laughed. “You’re not in a position to be setting conditions, Ethan!”

“You agree to keep your crew away from Alara until she’s released. If not, there’s nothing to motivate my cooperation.”

“Hmmm . . . protecting your virgin bride, are we? Very well. I’ll accept those terms. You can head up a new squadron of novas—made up of the sentinels I captured.”

Ethan blinked. “You’re skriffy if you think you can convince vanguard sentinels to fight for you.”

“I don’t need to convince them, Ethan. I’ll just have them chipped, strap them in their novas, and launch them into space. You can train them to make sure I’m not wasting valuable ships.”

Ethan grimaced and shook his head. “Fine, whatever, but I have one more condition—I want some guarantee that you really are going to release Alara and disable her slave chip.”

Brondi smiled thinly and walked up to Ethan. He turned to the larger of the pair of guards flanking Ethan and said, “Make him kneel.”

Ethan felt strong hands forcing him to his knees. He hit the deck with a grunt, and Brondi took a fistful of his short hair, yanking his head back. “How’s this for a guarantee—if you don’t fly for me until I’m satisfied that you’ve paid your debts, then I’ll have every man on this ship take full advantage of Alara’s slave chip.”

Ethan’s face went bone white.

“If she lives through all of that, you can have her back, and I’ll even deactivate her chip for you. Then I’ll set both of you free, because living with the aftermath of everything that happened to the woman you love will destroy you better than I ever could. You won’t even be able to look at her again, and she’ll kill herself before long.”

“You’re a sick kakard, Brondi,” he said quietly.

Brondi’s gaping grin returned. “Thank you.” He slapped Ethan on the back. “Welcome to the Netherworld. To answer your earlier question, you can call me the Devlin.” Brondi leaned close to whisper in Ethan’s ear, “And you’re mine now.”

*  *  *

Origin

Despite the hypnotic effects of the light sculpture, Atton hardly slept all night. He couldn’t stop thinking about the admiral’s hidden lift tube, and wondering what was down there. In those odd hours when he did drift off to sleep, his dreams were filled with a nameless dread.

What was Hoff hiding?

Now, after what felt like an endless night, he couldn’t lie in bed any longer. A quick look at the glowing blue digits on the comm suite beside his bed showed that it was only 0520, but he had to get up.

Atton took a quick vaccucleanse and forwent his steam-cleaned uniform in favor of a fluffy white robe and matching slippers which he found in the closet. Now the comm suite showed almost six hundred hours. Atton keyed open the door and crept out into the darkened hall. The light paintings hanging on the walls cast ominous shadows. He turned the corner and began to hear hushed voices.

He wasn’t the only one awake.

Atton reached the end of the hall and waited there. He heard whirring servos and saw the admiral’s gleaming white server bot, HTX4, busy in the kitchen. Atton shrank back against the wall so the bot wouldn’t see him, and then he overhead his mother say, “Don’t try to turn this around on me! I do trust you. You’re the one who doesn’t trust me enough to share your secrets.”

“Really? So accusing me of hiding a pleasure palace below decks is trusting me?” HTX4 went whirring by with a steaming tray of caf and pancakes. Atton’s mouth watered, but he forced himself to focus on what the admiral was saying. “What was Atton doing out in the garden last night?”

“Didn’t he tell you? He couldn’t sleep, so he went to get some fresh air.”

“And I suppose he thought it might be fun to get lost in the silverleafs.”

“I don’t know—why don’t you ask him?”

“I did. He said it looked like part of the garden to him.”

“You see?”

“No, I don’t. I think you told him to go there and see what he could find.”

“You know what? I’m getting very tired of these interrogations. If your XO is allowed to know what you’re hiding, why can’t I?”

“He’s sworn to secrecy on pain of death, Destra. I cannot say the same for you.”

“Why not? You’d probably kill me if I found out, anyway.”

“Don’t insult me, Destra. I don’t kill my family to keep them quiet.”

“What are you doing?” a small voice asked. Atton almost jumped into the kitchen.

He turned and saw a little girl blinking up at him. “Oh—hello, Atta.”

She had bad timing. HTX4 returned from the living room in the same instant that Atton replied. The bot overheard, and his blue photoreceptors swiveled and winked as they focused in on the hallway.

“Hello, Master Atton! And dear little Atta! I didn’t notice the two of you there.”

Suddenly the conversation in the living room stopped, and Atton heard footsteps. Hoff appeared in the entrance of the kitchen. “Good morning, Atton.”

“Good morning, Daddy!” Atta said.

“Hello, dear. Why don’t the two of you come join us for breakfast. There’s pancakes, and fruit juice in the living room”

“Oh, yay!” Atta said. “I love pancakes.”

She raced by Atton, but he stayed where he was, and his gaze never left Hoff’s face. “I could use some caf to wake up,” he said slowly.

“I’ll get you some right away!” HTX4 replied, whirring into action.

“Still couldn’t sleep after the tea?” Hoff asked as Atton started through the kitchen.

“Not very well, no.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

Atton didn’t believe Hoff was ever sorry about anything, but he kept that to himself. When Destra saw him walk into the living room, she looked up and smiled hesitantly.

Atton returned her smile. “Hello, Mom.”

“Hello,” she said.

“Please, take a seat, Atton.” Hoff gestured to an empty arm chair opposite the one where he was headed. Atta was already seated beside her mother on the couch, helping herself to a pair of large pancakes.

Atton sat down and eyed Hoff across the black chrome coffee table. HTX4 whirred up to him with a steaming cup of caf. “I forgot to ask how you like it, Master Atton.”

Atton waved a hand. “Black is fine.”

“Very well. Here you are, sir.”

Atton accepted the steaming cup and took a careful sip. His eyes never left Hoff’s. The admiral stared back just as unwaveringly.

Destra looked up to see the interplay between them, and she cleared her throat. “Did you get some sleep after all, Atton?”

“No.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“How about you, Hoff?” Atton asked.

“I slept like a baby,” he said, smiling as he retrieved his own cup of caf from the coffee table and drained the cup. “But now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get to the bridge.” Hoff’s eyes darted to Destra, who was pretending to be preoccupied with her food and Atta. “I’ll be back for lunch.”

“Bye, darling,” Destra said, not looking up from her plate.

Hoff didn’t bother to return her sentiment as he walked away. Atton’s eyes followed him to the doors. As soon as they’d swished shut, he turned back to his mother and shook his head. “Hoff’s XO can know his secrets, but you can’t?”

She looked up with a wan smile. “I wondered how much you’d heard.”

“Enough. More than enough. Destra—Mom—what kind of man or officer puts his subordinates ahead of his wife? You should come first.”

“I know that, Atton.”

“Then?”

“Shhh. We can talk more about this later.” Destra’s eyes darted to Atta. Her small brow was furrowed and her pancakes lay forgotten on her plate.

“What don’t you know about, Mommy?”

“Nothing, dear. It’s just a surprise Daddy’s planning—that’s all.”

“Is it a surprise for me?” she asked, her eyebrows lifting hopefully.

“Well, we’ll have to see about that, won’t we? Eat your food, Atta.”

“Okay.”

“If you’re a good girl, you’ll get your surprise.”

Atta nodded, her mouth already stuffed full of pancakes. Atton watched treacle dripping down Atta’s chin, and he couldn’t help but smile. He reached for a napkin on the tray between them and handed it to her. “Here,” he said.

“Thanks,” she replied, almost spitting half-chewed pancakes at him.

Atton turned back to his mother and his eyes hardened once more. “We need to talk.”

“In a minute, Atton.”

“No, we need to talk now.”

Destra sighed. “Atta, you stay there, okay? I’m just going to go outside for a moment to speak with your brother.”

“Okay . . .” she said. “Can I come outside when I’m done?”

“No, dear. Stay there. I’ll come back when we’re done talking. It’s a grown-up conversation.”

“I’m a grown-up, too!” she insisted. “I’m seven,” she said, holding up the appropriate number of fingers.

Destra smiled. “Of course you are.”

“So why can’t I hear?”

“You remember what Daddy told you about where babies come from?”

Atta’s nose wrinkled. “Yes . . .”

“Atton has a question about that.”

“Oh. That’s okay. You can talk without me then.”

Destra smiled. “We’ll be back in a minute.” She led the way through the living room to the dining room and from there to a pair of doors which led out to the garden. The doors parted with a swish, and Atton noted that the artificial sky over the garden was now bright and pale blue. A bright red sun sat close to the horizon, and Atton was surprised that he could actually feel the warmth in its rays. The grass and the silverleaf hedges seemed to glow and sparkle in the sunlight. It took a moment for him to realize that the sparkle was from dew which had condensed out of the air overnight. He shook his head, astounded by the depth of the illusion which Hoff had created.

“Well?” Destra demanded, drawing Atton’s attention away from the scene.

His mother stood with her arms crossed over her chest, waiting for him to explain himself. “You realize that you need to find out for her sake, too, don’t you? Whatever he’s hiding, it could be something dangerous.”

Destra hesitated, but at last she conceded that with a nod. “I know.”

“It’s his own fault. He shouldn’t have secrets. Not from you. But you can blame me for discovering them if you want. I don’t mind.”

“I need some time to think about it.”

“Don’t take too much. The clock’s ticking. It started the day we were forced to pack our bags and leave for Dark Space, and it hasn’t stopped running down since. The time for secrets is over. We need answers. There’s a reason the Sythians invaded, Destra, and I’m willing to bet that someone, somewhere, already knows what that reason is.”

“You think that . . . Hoff knows about that?”

“Why is he so suspicious of the Gors? Why is he their enemy number one besides the Sythians? Why does no one know where his enclave is? What is he hiding there, and does it even exist?”

“Well, I’ve been to the enclave, Atton.”

“What about the lost sector? Have you been there?”

“The enclave is getting supplies from somewhere.”

Atton shook his head. “So why set up an enclave for refugees when there’s already a place for them where they would be safe?”

“Hoff says that the only way to keep the lost worlds safe is to keep them hidden—from everyone.”

“Everyone except for him—oh, and let me guess, his XO. As for his wife . . . well, she’s just there to warm his bed and bear his children.”

“Atton!” Destra’s eyes flashed with hurt.

“Good! Then you understand how absurd all of this is. Secrets divide us, and this is a time for humanity to stand together, not apart. It’s our only hope. If Dark Space is the enclave’s poorer cousin, we should all be there, or at the very least sharing the wealth. What point is there to keeping us in poverty?”

“I don’t know.”

“So let’s find out! No more hiding, Mom.”

Destra sighed. “I’ll help you find out, and you can tell me what you found. That’s the best I can do.”

“So your son’s the fall guy, is that it? I don’t think Hoff’s going to believe that I found out all on my own.”

“You were wandering his maze for hours last night. Maybe you found something. It’s plausible.”

“It’s thin.”

Destra looked away. “You’ll need an escape plan.”

Atton nodded. “The Tauron is about to drop out of SLS. If you could find a transport for me, I could blast out of here before the drives are even finished cooling for the next jump. I’d beat them to Dark Space.”

“It’s too soon. There’s not enough time. When we reach the entrance to Dark Space, we’ll have a better opportunity, and the Stormcloud Nebula will shield you from the Tauron’s scanners when and if you do have to leave.”

“Fine. When we reach Dark Space, then, but I’m holding you to that.”

Destra nodded and let out a long, slow breath. A moment later they were interrupted by the sound of something hitting transpiranium. They turned to see Atta with her face pressed up against the dining room window, making silly faces at them. When she saw her mother’s stern expression she giggled and ran away.

“Remember why you’re helping me,” Atton said, using Atta’s sudden appearance to cement his mother’s resolve.

“I should be doing it for myself, too . . .” Destra said. “A decade ago, I never would have pictured myself turning a blind eye to a man who’s keeping secrets from me. I never would have put up with that from your father.” Destra turned to him with a haunted look. “But after spending three years isolated and slowly starving to death on the dark, frigid netherworld that is Ritan . . . you get a new perspective on life. After that, you never take luxury like this for granted, and you’d do anything not to go through those horrors again.”

“You won’t have to,” Atton said. “I promise.”

“I’m afraid that’s a promise you can’t keep, Atton, but thank you anyway. Hoff’s lucky he can’t remember Ritan,” she said, giving an involuntary shiver.

That caught his attention. “What do you mean Hoff can’t remember it?”

Destra smiled and looked away quickly. “Oh . . . he hit his head. . . . He never really recovered from that. We should go back inside and finish eating.”

Atton nodded slowly. “After you . . .” He watched with thoughtfully narrowed eyes as his mother walked ahead of him, and suddenly he wondered if Hoff was the only one keeping secrets. . . .




Chapter 21

Origin

Admiral Heston stood at the bridge viewports while his XO kept watch at the captain’s table, just in case. Hoff wasn’t expecting trouble when they dropped out of superluminal, but it didn’t hurt for someone to have eyes on the grid. Even if they had been followed from Ritan, the Sythians’ slower ships wouldn’t be able to keep up.

The reversion countdown reached zero, and the bright swirl of SLS vanished, replaced with a stark, starry blackness. Master Commander Lenon Donali reported, “All systems green, jump successful.”

“Scopes?” Hoff asked.

“Clear.”

“As far as we can tell, anyway.” Hoff turned away from the view with a grimace and walked back up to the captain’s table.

“Even if we were followed from Ritan, they must be at least four hours behind us now,” Donali said. “We’re safe.”

“Yes . . .” Hoff’s gaze turned to Roan, who stood in the furthest, darkest corner of the bridge, leaning against the wall. His gleaming black armor and the glowing red eyes of his helmet were unsettling to look at. Hoff shook his head and looked away. “All of those measures could be for nothing if the Gors give us away telepathically. For all we know, Roan is talking to an enemy fleet right now, and they’re using that connection to telelocate him.”

“Well, let’s find out, shall we?” Donali pressed a button on the captain’s table and a bright yellow overlay appeared, glittering like a cloud of stardust on the three dimensional grid. The overlay showed the spread of tachyon radiation in the immediate area, but there was only one wake-shaped wave drifting out from the Tauron. The size and spread of that wake were consistent with the wormhole they’d just opened to leave SLS.

“Maybe they really are on our side,” Donali said.

Hoff snorted. “And maybe I’m really a Sythian wearing a holoskin.”

“Are you, sir?”

Hoff glared at Donali until the commander turned back to the grid.

“Hoi—what’s that?” he whispered, pointing frantically.

Hoff turned to see a second, much smaller wave of radiation now spreading out from the ship. It dissipated quickly, but their recently-recalibrated scanners highlighted the dissipating wake and a moment later a yellow vector appeared, giving a direction for the tachyon burst which had caused the radiation. A shaded red sphere appeared around the Tauron, narrowing down the point of origin for that burst to within ten klicks. “Well, well,” Hoff said, tracing the vector with his finger. Since the point of origin could be anywhere inside a five klick radius, the vector was off by the same margin and the real line of communication could have been any of an infinite number of other vectors which lay parallel to the calculated one. But Hoff could already see that none of those lines would cross through both the Tauron and the Interloper. The telepathic burst could have begun on either the Interloper or the Tauron, but it wasn’t Tova and Roan communicating with each other. One of them had just sent an outbound message. “Roan!” Hoff roared.

The alien shattered his statuesque pose, and the glowing red eyes of his helmet turned. He warbled something.

“Yess?” Hoff’s translator hissed in his hear.

“Could you tell me if there are any other Gors nearby? Maybe we can get some reinforcements.”

“If they are nearby, they are with Zithianzz, and we need rescue them before they help us.”

“Ah, yes, you make a good point. Well, all the same, it would be good to know if there are Sythians nearby. Would you check for us, please?”

“I try.” A few moments later Roan replied, “None of my crèche mates are close enough for me to speak with them.”

“I see. Thank you, Roan.” Hoff turned back to his XO. Donali’s real eye was thoughtfully narrowed. “He’s lying to us,” Hoff whispered. “Why do you think that might be?”

Donali shook his head. “This has gone on long enough. They’re endangering our mission, and if we keep them aboard, they’ll endanger Dark Space, too.”

Hoff touched his comm piece and whispered into it to put a call through to one of the sentinels standing guard over the bridge. The sergeant commander standing at the entrance answered.

“Admiral?”

“Sergeant Thriker—Code 12.”

“Code confirmed.”

Hoff watched the sergeant signal to the soldier standing beside him. They turned in unison, raised their rifles, and fired. Blue fire screeched out and hit Roan in the chest and neck. The alien tried to react, instinctively lifting his arms to fire back from his forearm gauntlets, but his weapons had been disabled long before he’d been brought on board, and his knees buckled before he could even take one step. Thriker fired once more and Roan toppled to the deck with a thud.

“Take him to the probe rooms,” Hoff said. “It’s time we found out what the Gors have been hiding.”

Sergeant Thriker and his squad mate headed for Roan.

“The probe is useless on Gors, sir,” Donali said. “You’ll just kill him.”

“Who says I want him to live? But before we try that, we’ll be sure to exhaust every other option.”

“What are you going to do when Tova realizes we’ve turned on them? She could make a mess of the Interloper if our crew isn’t ready and waiting to stun her.”

“Petty Officer Ashron!” Hoff turned to his comms officer. He was still busy at his station, eyes down, hands busy. The rest of the crew was the same. They hadn’t skipped a beat. If they were shocked that Hoff had ordered Roan stunned, they weren’t showing it.

“Sir?”

“Tell the Interloper to arrest Tova, and be careful about it. Have them send her here. As soon as you’re done with that, send a scout back to Fortress Station with a message. They are to evacuate Ritan, and make sure our transports are rigorously screened for any stowaways. Once our people are off world, they can drop the shatter bombs and head to the colonies. We’ll meet them there when this is all over.”

“Yes, sir,” Ashron replied.

Donali nodded. “So the alliance is over.”

Hoff shot him a quick look. “It never really began. They weren’t on our side, Commander.”

“So what were they waiting for?”

“Maybe this. If they don’t know exactly where Dark Space is, then maybe all they needed was for someone to lead them there.”

“If that’s true, then there will be a whole cloaked fleet hot on our trail.”

“Our tachyon trail will be cold long before they can get here to pick it up again. Nav!” Hoff bellowed. “Start spooling for a jump to Dark Space. As soon as our messenger is away, punch it.”

“Yes, sir.”

Hoff and Donali turned to watch as the Sergeant Thriker used his grav gun to levitate Roan off the deck.

“It’s a pity the Gors weren’t on our side,” Donali said absently. “With their help we actually could have turned the tide in this war.”

“Cold, hard truth is always preferable to a comforting lie.”

“What if the lie is all you have?”

Hoff frowned. “What do you mean by that?”

“We can’t stay hidden forever, Admiral, so what happens when they find us? That lie was our only hope.”

“Then hope was the real lie. . . .” Hoff turned to gaze out the forward viewports at dark, glittering space. “Death came for us at last—” he said, speaking softly. “Her strokes were swift and cruel, and nary a man was left standing, but we found hope in the ashes, for the ashes buried our bodies and covered our blood, and for a moment they allowed us to pretend that the horrors we’d seen were not really there.”

Donali blinked. “Waxing poetic, are we, sir?”

“It’s a line from an old holo play—Origin at the End.

“Ah, the great war of legend.”

Hoff turned to his XO with a small smile. “Of legend? No, Commander, not just legend. It was very real. Sometime I should show you your heritage.”

Donali frowned. “That would be an honor, sir.”

“Be sure that you are worthy of it when the time comes. Knowledge can be a dangerous thing, if it is shared too freely. We must be careful who we tell and how much we say.”

“Yes, sir.”

“As for hope—take heart, Commander—we’re not dead yet, and death is not the end. It’s a new beginning.”

Commander Donali smirked. “I’ll have to take your word for that, sir.”

*  *  *

Origin

Tova heard the screech and felt the stab of betrayal mere seconds before she lost consciousness. When next she awoke she was naked and strapped down on a table, wincing up at a bright light. When she tried to rise, strong cords held her down and seared her exposed skin, so she lay back, gasping for air. She turned her head and saw Roan lying on a matching table beside hers, hovering a few feet above the ground. He looked badly beaten. His eyes were only half open, and as his head turned toward her, and he hissed softly, she could hear his pain.

Tova hissed back, angrily, and she fought her restraints once more. Sparks flew as her restraints crackled, but she ignored the lancing waves of pain.

“Good, you’re awake,” a human voice said. The translation warbled into her ear a moment later and she struggled to find the source of the sound. “What is thiss?” she hissed.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Now the speaker came into view, but she smelled him long before his features became clear. He stank of fear. “Hoff,” she said, trying to approximate his name with her vocals. What came out sounded more like, Woss.

“You remember my name. I’m touched.”

“What you do to Roan?”

“I hurt him. A lot. He didn’t want to cooperate. Maybe you can save him some more pain by answering my questions.”

“We answer questions without pain. You need not hurt us.”

“On the contrary, Tova. The two of you have been lying to me.”

“Lying? We do not lie.”

“When we dropped out of superluminal space, we detected telepathic communications coming from this ship.”

Tova’s slitted yellow eyes widened. “You detect us?”

“Yes,” Hoff replied. He pushed away the glaring overhead light and his features came into clearer focus. He was baring his teeth as humans liked to do when they were happy. “I detect you. I detect all of you. I apologize for the deception, Tova, but you and your kind started deceiving us first.”

“We do not lie,” Tova repeated. “I do not know what you detect. Perhaps Roan tries to contact Gors on Ritan?”

“He couldn’t, Tova. Neither could you. Unless you were lying about that, too. We were more than ten light years from Ritan at the time, and he said there were no other Gors around. How do you explain that?”

“Then I do not know what you detect, but it was not one of usss.”

Hoff made a loud noise as air escaped from his lungs. “I wish I could believe that, Tova. I’m going to give you one chance to come clean, just as I did with Roan. After that, you’re going to understand just how much rage and hate we’ve built up since your kind destroyed everything we’ve ever known—Sergeant Thriker here lost his entire family. He got to see his home blown to bits by a Sythian missile with his wife and baby still inside, so I’m sure you don’t want me to let him ask you questions.”

“Your mind is damaged, Woss,” Tova said.

Hoff’s pale eyes sparkled. “I assure you, my mind has never been in a healthier state. Now listen carefully, because I’m not going to repeat my questions. Why did your people invade us?”

Tova hissed. “Because we are slavesss!”

“Very well. What are the Gors planning?”

“We plan to work with humans to free ourselves. Now no longer. That is at an end, Woss.”

“I see.”

Tova could tell the admiral was not happy with those answers, but he remained smiling as he asked his next question. “And what about the Sythians? Why have we only ever seen one of them?”

“Because they are not all here, and you do not look. Their home is gettizz. The others—I do not know why they come. I do not know what they want.”

“It’s very easy to get through an interrogation when you claim to know nothing.”

“I tell the truth!”

“Of course you do. Sergeant Thriker?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You can finish this now.”

Tova hissed loudly once more, and her gaze turned back to her mate lying glassy-eyed beside her. He was alive, but barely, and she noticed clear white blood dripping in a steady pitter-patter from the table where he lay to the floor.

She saw another man come into view. He was tall and half his face was burned to a shiny mess of scar tissue. She assumed this was Sergeant Thriker. He picked up a glowing stick that crackled and hummed. He traced it lightly over her exposed abdomen and she hissed in agony, her back arcing against the searing, sparking cords which held her down. She tried to distract herself from the searing waves of pain by cursing the humans and imagining how she would tear them apart when she broke free, but those fantasies only gave her the illusion of hope.

There would be no escape from this.

Occasionally the sergeant would stop burning her exposed skin long enough to ask a question, but the questions were all the same ones that Hoff had asked, and after a while she decided to tell them what she thought they wanted to hear, but that only seemed to make the humans angrier. She endured for what felt like an eternity until the torment passed. At that point she was so drained and so numb that she felt as though her life were slipping away from her.

The humans would pay. They would all pay for this with their lives! That thought gave her strength to hold on a little longer—long enough to see the admiral loom over her once more. He was no longer baring his teeth.

“You were very brave, Tova,” he said. “I congratulate you for holding on this long. By now you must be wishing for the end, but I don’t think it’s that simple anymore. Watching Thriker have his fun, I’ve come to a conclusion. You and Roan will have to stand trial for your crimes. It’s not fair to give one man justice and deprive all the rest. Someone needs to pay for the trillions you killed in the war.”

“So kill usss,” Tova said. “And you have your blood price.”

Blood price . . . that’s a nice turn of phrase. Yes, we’ll kill both of you, but it needs to be a public execution, and I’m afraid it won’t be either quick or painless. Monsters like you must be seen to suffer first, and it is not enough for you to suffer here where nobody can see it.”

“Humanzzz are the real monsters,” Tova managed. “Gorz do not . . . play with their food,” she said between gasps for air.

“Yes, that’s right. You just skip straight to eating it. Isn’t that what you did with the survivors on the worlds you conquered? Well, don’t worry; we’re not going to eat you. We’re not that barbaric.” Hoff turned away and Tova heard him speaking to someone she couldn’t see. “Dress their wounds and put them in stasis. Make sure they don’t die before their trial. Once we have Brondi and the imposter overlord, we can have all the war criminals strung up together.”

“Yes, sir.”

*  *  *

Origin

It was late. Atton stood in the Hestons’ garden, watching a setting sun splash the artificial sky in shades of ruby and carnelian. It was as though Hoff and Destra weren’t living on a ship at all, but he supposed that was the point. It was unusual to find so much luxury aboard a military vessel, but if Hoff had paid for the renovations himself as he’d said, then it wasn’t against fleet regs—it was, however, a slap in the face for everyone who was struggling just to get by. Atton had never been so self-indulgent, even as the supreme overlord of the Imperium, but not everyone shared his views on equality and sacrificing oneself for the common good.

Swish.

“Hello, Atton,” a warm female voice said. “Beautiful, isn’t it? Like one big light painting.” Atton tried to be diplomatic, but when he smiled it looked thin and papery, and Destra saw right through it. “He’s very wealthy, Atton,” she said, sounding defensive. “You can’t begrudge the man that.”

“Why not?”

Destra sighed and she walked out to the edge of the synthstone terrace. Her gaze slipped sideways to a swing bench with black cushions and gleaming duranium frame which stood below the dining room window. “Why don’t we sit down for a while? Hoff will be back for dinner soon, so we should make the most of the time we have alone. There are still some details to go over.”

“Good idea.” Atton followed her to the swing bench and they sat down. “You found something to get into the lift tube?”

“A cutting beam. I hope you know how to use it.”

Atton nodded. “Don’t worry. What about an escape plan?”

“I have a ship ready, Hoff’s corvette. Its main purpose is for Atta and I to escape in an emergency, so it won’t require any clearance codes to launch.”

“How far is the ship from here? Can we get there in a hurry?”

“You can take the lift tube right outside the front doors. Deck 24.”

Atton let out a long sigh. “How do you feel about all of this?”

“I’m hedging my bets, aren’t I? So whatever happens, I can deny my part in it.”

“I wish you’d agree to come with me. Whatever’s down there, I have a feeling you’re going to have to see it for yourself. If you don’t, you might not even believe me when I tell you.”

“Atton, there’s no way I’ll be able to deny my involvement if he catches me on the holocorders down there.”

“I guess it all depends on whether or not you want to continue living with the secrets and the lies.” Destra frowned and looked away. Atton went on, “Think about Atta.”

The back doors swished open, and both Destra and Atton jumped.

“Hello,” Hoff said as he stepped outside.

Atton smiled up at him.

“Hello, darling,” Destra said matching Atton’s smile. “We missed you at lunch.”

“I told you I couldn’t come. We had an emergency to deal with.”

“What kind of emergency?” Atton asked.

Hoff turned to him with a sarcastic smile. “I’m glad you asked. Your pet Gors were caught calling for backup.”

“What?” Atton bolted to his feet.

“That’s right. I caught them making unscheduled contact with their so-called crèche mates.”

Atton shook his head. “How?”

“While you were turning a blind eye to them, I found a way to detect their telepathy, and I detected it coming from this ship as soon as we dropped out of SLS.”

“What? Hold on, even if your technology is perfect, he still could have been contacting a friend on Ritan.”

“He and Tova denied all the reasonable explanations, leaving just one possibility—they betrayed us.”

Destra gasped. “What are we going to do?”

“I’ve had both Roan and Tova put into stasis, so there won’t be any more unscheduled communications from them.”

“I mean what are we going to do about the Gors,” Destra replied. “They’re everywhere.”

“And they’re on my fleet,” Atton growled. “If you do anything—”

“Then that’s your problem.” Hoff pointed at him. “If you hadn’t trusted them in the first place we wouldn’t have to deal with this mess now. For the sake of your men, I hope the Gors still make a distinction between your fleet and mine, but if not . . . the blame for their deaths sits squarely on your shoulders. I’m pulling the plug on Ritan.”

“What?!” Atton shook his head. “There are tens of thousands of Gors on Ritan!”

“Exactly. We’re still a few trillion short before that will make us even for the war, but it’s a good start.”

“Are you positive they were giving us away?” Atton said. “How does your detector work? Maybe it’s not that accurate, or there was some kind of interference.”

Hoff waved his hand dismissively. “How it works is classified, but I can assure you the technology has been thoroughly tested.”

“Hoff,” Destra rose to her feet now, too. She walked over to him and took his hand in both of hers. “Listen to Atton. If you turn on the Gors now, thousands of men will die. At least give Atton time to tell his fleet so he can protect his men.”

Hoff gritted his teeth and shook his head. “How do you propose we do that? With our nonexistent commnet, perhaps? I’d love to warn them, but it’s too late for that. The Gors have already turned on us, and if we don’t act now, Ritan will be overrun. Right now we have the chance to strike them fast, and strike them hard. If we have to lose a few ships for that, then count them as acceptable losses, and rather think of how many lives we’ll save by killing that many Gors.” Hoff turned to Atton and scowled. “You know that this means I was right. All along, I was right about your so-called allies. I only hope that your blind trust in them hasn’t already exposed Dark Space, or we’re about to relive the Exodus.”

Atton shook his head. “Trust is never wrong—only ever misplaced.”

“Well you certainly misplaced yours! Expect betrayal, Atton, and plan for it. Trust no one! If you had been doing that as you should, we wouldn’t have to take back the Valiant now, and I wouldn’t have to write off all your ships out here in Sythian Space.”

“Trust no one?” Destra echoed thoughtfully. “Not even your wife?”

Hoff just looked at her, but his ire was undiminished by the fire now flashing in his wife’s eyes. “I trust you more than anyone, Des—and you know that—”

“More than Donali?”

“That’s different.”

“I don’t see how.”

“I’ve been burned before, Destra! The closer someone is, the easier it is for them to stab you in the back. Don’t push me, Des. That only raises my suspicions.”

Destra smirked and rolled her eyes. “I’m going to go help HTX set the table.” As she brushed past her husband, she said, “You’d better stay out here, Hoff. I’ll be handling knives, and you know how easy it would be for me to stab you if you were to wander too close.”

Both Atton and Hoff watched her leave. As soon as the door swished shut behind her, Hoff turned to Atton with thoughtfully narrowed eyes. “Maybe you’d like to tell me what the two of you have been talking about while I’ve been gone.”

“Finding someone else to blame for your mistakes isn’t going to fix them.”

Hoff smiled. “Be careful, Atton. You have no idea who you’re messing with.”

“No? I think I have a pretty good idea, actually. You’re a coward.” Hoff’s eyes flashed, but Atton barreled on. “You don’t trust anyone because you’re afraid. Scared to death, even of your own wife.”

“That’s none of your business,” Hoff growled.

“She’s my mother. That makes it my business.”

“Watch your step, boy. You’re treading on very dangerous ground.”

Atton smiled back. “So are you.”




Chapter 22

Origin

No one talked over dinner. Hoff contented himself with the silence, but he couldn’t help noticing how far away his wife and daughter sat, all the way at the opposite end of the dining room table. Atton sat with them, leaving four empty seats on Hoff’s end of the eight seat table. Unimpressed by their petulant solidarity, Hoff left and returned to the bridge. When he reached the bridge, he found his XO still on deck, supervising the minutiae of running the ship. Hoff nodded to the commander as he approached. “All’s well?”

“Yes, sir. I wasn’t expecting you here . . . is everything all right, sir?”

“Just fine, Donali. I thought we could go over strategy now that the Gors are no longer going to be there to serve as a link between us and the Interloper.

Donali nodded. “What do you suggest for our new plan of attack?”

“We drop out of SLS a quarter of a light year from Dark Space, and then send out the Interloper by herself to gather intel. We wait for her to return with the intel, and then we send her back out, loaded with as many sentinels as we can fit on board. After that, the rest is the same—she sidles up to one of the Valiant’s venture-class hangars, and then we jump in as close as we can get and make a quick pass to knock out the hangar shields. Brondi won’t even see the Interloper slip inside, and we’ll roar safely underneath the carrier, running away at top speed. A quick hit and run.”

“What about their SLS disruptor field?”

“Carriers like the Valiant can knock ships out of SLS at 20 to 50 klicks. We can cover that kind of distance quickly enough using our novas to screen us from enemy fighters. We might take a bit of damage, but we only have to make one pass. Coordination will be difficult without the Gors, but if the Interloper does her part, it should work just the same way, and it will certainly be easier than trying to take on the Valiant in a straight fight.”

“I suspect we would lose if we tried.”

“Indeed we would.”

They spent the next half an hour working over the details of their battle plan, but the sheer simplicity of the plan didn’t call for so much contemplation. Hoff was just trying to keep his mind off other things, and soon that became apparent.

“You should get some sleep, sir,” Donali said.

Hoff shook his head. He had no intention of returning to his quarters to bask in his wife’s tense, stony silence. “It’s early yet, Commander. When was the last time you had a drink? A real drink?”

“Sir, under the circumstances I’m not sure we can allow ourselves that kind of indiscretion.”

“On the contrary, Donali. These are the only circumstances by which we can. We have a long jump ahead of us, and no Gor ship we’ve ever encountered has SLS disruptors. Call a condition green for the next few hours. Our men deserve a break—and so do we.”

“Yes, sir,” Donali said, frowning. He turned and nodded to the comm officer. “Set readiness to condition green.”

*  *  *

Origin

Ethan’s hands flew over the controls in a familiar rhythm as he led his squadron through a series of basic flight maneuvers. To say that they were green was an understatement. Gina was the only one with any aptitude for flying, and that was likely because she was already a trained pilot, which just went to show, there were some things a slave chip didn’t or couldn’t change. There was always a trace. The other pilots flew only marginally better than the sentinels which they’d been trained to be, and Gina flew only a few letter grades worse than she used to.

“Frek, he’s doing it again! Devlin Four, keep the frek away from me! You’re going to tear my wing off.”

Ethan sighed. “It only looks that way, Three. Four—maintain a strict distance at all times.”

“I am, LC! Five keeps wandering my way and I have to compensate in the other direction!”

Greenies. All of them. “This mission is over. We’re returning to the Valiant to get some more sim time. I’m coming about. Try to keep up.” Ethan stepped on the right rudder pedal and brought his Nova around back the way they’d come. The icy surface of Firea hove into view. Lying to one side of that, against the night side of the planet was the Valiant, her lights glittering like a million tightly-packed stars. Range to the carrier was just over 250 klicks. Brondi had Devlin Squadron flying back-to-back patrol missions on the outskirts of the perimeter he’d set up, meaning that they would be among the first to encounter Admiral Heston’s forces when they arrived. Then the life and death struggle would begin. Kill or be killed. Ethan hadn’t decided which was worse.

It was hard to believe that he was back where he’d started—being blackmailed into working for Brondi in order to protect Alara. So far Brondi was holding up his end of the deal and keeping his men away from Alara, but Ethan knew better than to rely on that. He and Alara had to escape somehow. Maybe when Hoff came and the battle was in full swing there would be an opportunity for Ethan to slip away and rescue her—assuming he wasn’t embroiled in the middle of a dogfight at the time, and assuming he could find some way to rescue Alara despite the fact that she didn’t want to be rescued.

It was a hopeless situation. Ethan’s gaze dipped to study the star map on his main holo display. The sheer number of enemy forces arrayed there was startling. In the last day since they’d arrived in Dark Space, Brondi had managed to summon over a dozen small and medium-sized warships to the Firean System, along with whole wings of fighters. Space was alive and buzzing with over 500 fighters—more than 40 squadrons of novas and junkers. There wasn’t even room for all of them to land at once, so they were flying endless, rotating sorties to provide a protective screen for the Valiant. And that five-kilometer-long gladiator-class carrier was not so defenseless herself. Ethan remembered that the admiral’s flagship had carried just one squadron of novas, and he fervently hoped that Hoff had put together a big enough fleet to take the Valiant down. Ethan hadn’t seen such a display of force since the old glory days of the Imperium, and it was frightening to think that the return of those days might come under Brondi’s rule.

If Hoff didn’t recover the Valiant soon, Dark Space was about to grow much darker.

*  *  *

Origin

Atton slept in late and crept out into the hall as he had the previous morning. This time he couldn’t hear hushed voices coming from the living room, but HTX4 was buzzing around in the kitchen again. Atton followed him out into the main living area just in time to see Hoff rise from the dining room table. Destra was there, too, but sitting at the opposite end of the table.

Hoff looked up and smiled as Atton approached. “Good morning. I was just headed to the bridge, so I’ll leave you and your mother to gossip about me in my absence.”

Atton shook his head as the front doors swished shut behind the admiral. He pulled out a chair on the sliding rails which bolted it to the floor and sat down with a sigh. “Is your husband always so grumpy in the morning?”

“He suspects something, Atton.”

“All the more reason for us to act quickly.” He saw his mother’s hesitant expression and frowned. “Don’t tell me you’ve changed your mind. We’re not going to get another chance at this. It’s now or never, Mom.”

“I haven’t changed my mind about that,” Destra said. “I’ve decided to come with you.”

Atton blinked. “What? What changed your mind?”

“Last night. I told myself that maybe he’s just keeping military secrets. But Hoff’s philosophy to live by is trust no onethe closer someone is, the easier it is for them to stab you in the back. With an attitude like that he could be hiding anything and everything.”

“I’m glad you woke up.” Atton pushed out his chair.

Destra shot him an anxious look. “Aren’t you going to eat something first?”

He shook his head. “There’s no time. We have to go now.”

*  *  *

Origin

This time when the Tauron dropped out of SLS, space wasn’t black and full of glittering stars; it was dark and gray with actinic flashes of light which would have sounded like thunder if you could have stuck your head out an airlock and still lived to tell about it. They’d dropped out of superluminal space in the middle of the Stormcloud Nebula. The pervasive gray clouds of charged particles and the constant buzz of static discharging was enough to shield anything within the nebula from prying scanners, and for over a decade, the Stormcloud Nebula had kept the entrance of Dark Space safely hidden from Sythians and Gors alike. Admiral Heston just hoped that it hadn’t all been for nothing. Even if the Gors didn’t know exactly where Dark Space was, as Atton said, there was still the matter of taking the sector back from Brondi. He was beginning to wonder at the wisdom of attempting that with just two ships, but the Interloper was their secret weapon. One pass on the Valiant’s hangar and the cloaked cruiser would slip inside with a legion of fully-armed and armored sentinels.

Hoff turned away from the viewports to look over his crew. There were a dozen crew stations on the bridge of the Tauron, thirteen counting the captain’s table where he and Commander Lenon Donali oversaw the running of the old battleship from a bird’s eye perspective.

“Gravidar, is the Dark Space gate active?” Hoff asked as it appeared, glowing like a bright blue eye through the murky gray nebular clouds.

“Yes, sir; it appears to be. Do you think they left the door open on purpose?”

“If they did, then it’s mined. Nav, plot a parallel course. Make sure it’s still a safe distance from the nearest event horizon. We don’t want to get sucked into a black hole.”

“Affirmative.”

“Engineering, raise shields to maximum. If we hit a stray mine or two, we need to be sure we live through the experience.”

“Yes, sir.”

“This is it people—the last leg of our journey.” Heads bobbed around the bridge, and Hoff paced up to the captain’s table to find Donali frowning down at the grid, his expression grave, his real eye wide and startled. “What’s wrong?” Then Hoff saw what his XO was looking at and his jaw dropped open.

Hoff spun around, his face livid. Behind him, steadily advancing out from their ship was a glittering yellow wave which indicated another unexplained tachyon burst. “Comms! Put me through to the med bay immediately! And get a squad of sentinels down there.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Betrayal is lurking around every corner, it would seem,” Hoff muttered as his comm trilled. A moment later the chief medical officer answered, but Hoff didn’t give him a chance to speak. “Where are the Gors?”

“In stasis, sir . . .”

“Don’t lie to me.”

“Lie sir?”

“One moment.” Hoff muted the channel and pointed to his security officer, Sergeant Thriker. “Get me eyes on that deck. I want to see the Gors in their stasis tubes.”

“Yes, sir.”

Hoff unmuted the channel. “You were saying, Deck Officer?”

“I was saying they haven’t been taken out of stasis since they were put there, sir.”

A moment later Sergeant Thriker reported he’d isolated the correct holocorder. Hoff gestured for him to display it on the main viewport. A moment later the viewport shimmered and a holo of Tova and Roan appeared. They stood upright in matching stasis tubes, their skull-like faces clearly visible through the blue-tinted transpiranium.

“That’s impossible,” Hoff whispered. The Gors weren’t conscious, so how were they sending telepathic messages? Do they communicate in their sleep? What other possible explanation could there be?

“Sorry, sir? What’s impossible?” the medical chief asked.

“I’ll get back to you in a moment,” Hoff replied and ended the comm call.

“Perhaps we have a stowaway?” Donali asked.

“If we do, then why haven’t our displacement sensors alerted us? Moreover, how has no one noticed? If we have a stowaway, he can’t be cloaked. You said we can’t detect tachyon radiation from a cloaked source.”

“There is one other possibility. . . .” Donali whispered. “What about that device we found? The alien implant?”

Hoff’s eyes flew wide. “We may have made a terrible mistake, Commander—it wasn’t the Gors who gave us away.”

“It was Kaon,” Donali finished.

And with that, both men raced down the gangway to the entrance of the bridge.

“Sir?” the comm officer said. “The sentinels have arrived at the med bay. What are your orders?”

“Tell them it was a false alarm! Nav—stay your course, but don’t jump to SLS until you hear me give the word.”

Sergeant Thriker stood up from his security control station near the entrance of the bridge, and he snapped to attention as they raced by, as if expecting new orders, but Hoff and Donali waved the doors open and passed straight through without offering further explanation to anyone.

All Hoff could think about as they ran was that if the Gors really had been telling the truth, then he’d just declared war on the only friends humanity had. By now Ritan must have been evacuated and all the Gors on the surface were dead.

 That wasn’t even the worst of the bad news. They’d already arrived at the entrance of Dark Space, and the implant they’d found in Kaon’s brain was broadcasting their location at near-instantaneous speeds to any Sythian fleet which might be close enough to receive them. Dark Space was about to be cracked wide open, and it was all Hoff’s fault. His suspicion of the Gors had blinded him to the real threat, and now, a new exodus was about to begin.

*  *  *

Origin

The silverleaf hedges shone bright in the midday sun, their leaves gleaming like the alloy for which they were named. Atton followed his mother through the maze, racing through an endless series of left and right turns. He carried a heavy rifle in his arms. It was a cutting beam, designed to cut through duranium rather than flesh and bone—although it could do either one just as easily.

Finally, they reached the end of the maze. Spots danced before Atton’s eyes and his lungs heaved, burning for lack of air. He followed his mother through the holofield which concealed Hoff’s secret lift tube. Once they’d walked through, into the dim gray corridor beyond, Atton stopped and leaned heavily on the wall to catch his breath.

“Atton!” Destra hissed. “Hurry up!”

He nodded and forced himself to carry on to the end of the corridor. Once there he cycled through the settings on the side of the cutting beam. “We’re lucky that the lift is already waiting here,” he said. “That’s going to make things a lot easier.” Atton picked a spot on the doors and pulled the trigger. A bright red beam shot out from the barrel and heated the burnished duranium face of the lift tube doors to a glowing orange. He waited a second for the point of impact to become molten, and then he began tracing a slow line around the inside of the doors. Molten duranium ran in rivulets, and acrid tendrils of smoke began to waft to their noses. Barely ten seconds later he’d finished tracing a glowing line all the way around the door frame. Atton stepped up to the doors and kicked them in the middle of the outline he’d drawn. Two separate pieces bent inward at the seam. He kicked the doors once more and those pieces fell into the lift tube with a hollow-sounding bang. He turned to his mother with a grin. “Ready?”

“Let’s go before I change my mind,” she replied.

Atton ducked through the hole he’d cut, taking the cutting beam with him, just in case. As Destra climbed in after him, he turned to study the control panel. “Here’s hoping there’s no security on the inside,” he said, as he stabbed one of the only two available decks—deck 24. Suddenly the lift dropped away and they saw plain gray duranium go racing past the still-glowing hole in the inner doors.

When the lift arrived, what was left of the doors slid open with a soft metallic screech. A blast of frigid air swirled into the lift and Atton shivered. He stepped out into the vast, airy darkness, his eyes wide and staring as they tried to pierce the gloom. His heart pounded, machinery hummed and hissed, and Atton’s imagination filled the shadows with terrors. His finger lay ready on the trigger of the cutting beam.

“Lights?” he tried, and the room was suddenly lit. It was lined on both sides with dozens of stasis tubes, while a catwalk arced out to their right, crossing into a vast hollow sphere of blinking blue lights. To the far left lay what looked like a small med center.

“What is this place?” he wondered aloud.

Behind him, Destra was oddly quiet.

“Mom?” he turned to look for her and found her standing just behind him, her lips slightly parted, her eyes wide and distant, as if her thoughts were suddenly someplace else, or as if she had been here before.

“Are you all right?”

She nodded slowly.

“Come on,” he said. “Those stasis tubes are lit up. I want to see who’s in them.”

Destra turned to him with a vacant expression and shook her head. “You go,” she said. “I can’t look.”

Atton crept toward the nearest stasis tube and peered inside. The face staring back at him looked familiar, but he couldn’t tell from where. He shook his head. “Who is this . . . ?”

Destra appeared beside him a moment later, looking pale and hugging herself against the cold. “That’s Master Commander Lenon Donali.”

Atton’s eyes lit with recognition. He’d met the admiral’s XO on various occasions while acting as the supreme overlord. “Hoff put his executive officer in stasis?”

“No,” Destra said.

“Then I don’t understand.” Atton shook his head.

“Keep looking.”

Atton moved on down the line of stasis tubes and stopped suddenly at the next one. “It’s Hoff!” He shot Destra a horrified look. “What is this? The admiral and the XO are hiding in stasis?”

“Look in the other ones, Atton.”

Wordlessly, Atton continued down the line of stasis tubes. As soon as he looked into the next one, he understood, but he had to see the rest to be sure. He walked past all twelve stasis tubes on that side, with ever-mounting confusion.

“They’re all the same,” he said, stopping at the last stasis tube in line, this one dark and empty. “They’re clones of the admiral and his XO, but they’re more than that. They’re exact replicas, aged to the day, with all their distinguishing marks and features intact,” he said. “Why?”

“To cheat death,” a deep, male voice answered, and then Hoff stepped out of the lift tube, and right behind him was Master Commander Donali. The XO’s red artificial eye glowed ominously in the dark, making him look like a Gor.

“What is this?” Atton demanded. “This is what you’ve been hiding? A cloning lab? This is a joke, Hoff.”

“If it is, I’m afraid I don’t share your sense of humor.” Turning to Destra he said, “What are you doing here, Des? I told you it wasn’t safe for you to know more. Why did you have to disobey me?”

“You told me the man I met on Ritan was a clone,” she said, her voice trembling.

Hoff inclined his head. “That was true, but you never asked if I were also a clone.”

“How long has this been going on?”

“Longer than anyone can remember.”

Atton’s jaw dropped, and Hoff gave a slow, unsettling smile.




Chapter 23

Origin

“You’ve been cloning yourself as long as anyone can remember? What are you?” Destra asked, backing away.

Hoff gave a small, sad smile and shook his head. “Now you understand why I didn’t want to tell you.”

“Tell me what? That you’re some kind of biological bot? What are these clones for, Hoff?”

“Spares, in case I should die. What do you think happened when I got stranded on Roka IV during the Exodus? My lifelink implant detected I was mortally wounded and unlikely to live, so it downloaded my consciousness to the next clone in line, waiting aboard my flagship in orbit. The fact that you later found and rescued me as you say you did is something I’ll never be able to remember, just like I can’t remember our time together on Ritan.”

Atton turned to his mother. “You knew about this?”

She shook her head. “He died on Ritan, Atton, and later came back to rescue me himself. I knew from that he had cloned himself, but I didn’t know that he was still doing it, or that he’s been doing it forever. How old are you, Hoff?”

Hoff shrugged. “The human brain is self-limiting in what it can remember and store. Eventually even important things are forgotten. That’s why I have my data center here—” Hoff gestured to the catwalk leading out into the vast chamber of blinking blue lights which Atton had seen upon leaving the lift tube. “In there I have stored every memory, thought, and experience from more than ten thousand iterations, and now Commander Donali’s own memories are in there as well.

Atton blinked rapidly as he did a quick mental calculation. “Ten thousand iterations . . . That would make your earliest memories more than a million years old, Hoff.”

“More or less.”

“The Imperium is—was—only twenty-seven thousand years old. A million years of life and knowledge! You’re practically immortal! Omniscient.”

“I’m not a god. Not the way people think.” Hoff started through the stasis room, closing the gap between them. “And I’m not just practically immortal, Atton—I am an Immortal, and traces of cloning in my DNA go back more than ten million years.”

Atton shook his head and traded a quick glance with his mother as both of them backed up against the row of stasis tubes to get away from Hoff. “Stay back,” Atton said, hefting the cutting beam.

The admiral laughed. “Relax. What do you think I’m going to do to you—kill you? Why, because you discovered my secret? Destra, at least you should know better than that. Commander Donali was the one who discovered you were pregnant with my daughter after we rescued you from Ritan. If I didn’t kill him then, why would I kill either of you now? I’m not a monster.”

Destra’s lips trembled and her blue eyes glistened brightly in the dim light. “You could trust him with the truth, but you couldn’t trust me.”

Hoff frowned. “Back then I didn’t even know who you were, Destra, but I knew Donali. I knew him well enough to know that if I told him the truth he would embrace it, just as I know you well enough to know that you will fight it. But I’m going to give you and Atton both the same choice I gave Donali back then: join us, or forget what you’ve seen here.”

Atton shook his head. “How are we supposed to forget?”

“This is not the first time we’ve been discovered, Atton. Why did you think holoskins and slave chips were invented? To hide from nosy mortals like you. We invented those, just as we invented almost everything else you take for granted today.”

We? There are more like you?”

“Trillions more, an entire civilization hidden beyond the known galaxy, untouched and undiscovered by the Sythians.”

“The lost worlds . . .” Destra whispered.

Atton began to laugh. “You don’t seriously expect me to believe that trillions of humans have deceived themselves into thinking that they can live forever by transferring their memories to clones. That doesn’t make you live forever, Hoff. You said it yourself—two different versions of you were alive at the same time—one on Roka and one on this ship. Either one of them could have been you, but more likely, neither of them was, and the real Hoff was lost millions of years ago when your mind was downloaded to the very first clone.”

“You’re assuming that what we are is more than mere matter, bits and bytes stored in a biological computer.”

“How else can you explain the dual existence?”

“It’s a paradox, to be sure, but who’s to say that a parallel version of you isn’t already living in another dimension higher or lower than ours? There are plenty of theories which suggest parallel realities. Creating a clone of yourself with a copy of the same conscious experience is just an extension of that principle. But regardless of whether you believe it works, and regardless of whether or not you choose to believe in some immaterial soul which we can neither see, measure, nor transfer from one body to another, the fact remains that there is a lot for humanity to gain from such technology. It’s what got us this far. Imagine a galaxy where every time you die, you continue on living right where you left off, but you get to go back to living as a younger, stronger version of yourself. You accumulate more and more knowledge, becoming better and better at what you do, generation after generation. That is infinite progress, Atton. The greatest minds ever born never need to die.”

“But no one is actually born anymore in a system like that, are they? If you all live forever, then you can’t afford to keep having children. You would eventually run out of room, no matter how many habitable worlds there are in the galaxy.”

“There are population controls for that. Breeding is strictly regulated, and we’re cloned to be sterile at birth.”

“If you’re sterile from birth, then explain Atta,” Destra said. Her eyes were wide and terrified, darting around the room, looking for an escape.

Hoff smiled at his wife. “I haven’t lived among my people for a long time, Destra. Why do you think no one has seen the lost worlds or knows where they are? I haven’t seen them either, Des. I’m an outcast. They’ve been sending aid to us, and helping us to establish the enclave, but that’s as close as they’ll ever come to working with mortals. The betrayal runs too deep.”

Atton’s brow furrowed. “Betrayal?”

“Not everyone wanted to live forever. Some grew bored of it, while others simply rejected the system on moral and spiritual grounds, using arguments such as you’ve already mentioned. Still more of our ancestors rejected immortality because they couldn’t stand the tyranny of the breeding licenses which were handed out once every other century and came at an extremely high price. In a society where only the rich can fulfill their desire to procreate, you can begin to see how the war began—and war for an immortal is the most terrifying thing imaginable, because it is the only thing which can kill us. Kill an immortal’s body and he’ll rise again. Kill his body and destroy his data center and you’ve killed him forever. It was all too easy for terrorists to sabotage those data centers, which is why so much of our history has been lost—including Origin.”

“Origin is a myth,” Atton said.

“It’s real, and so was the great war which, as legend has it, drove us from the smoldering ruins of our world. For most of us, that war, and that exodus are the earliest things we can remember.

“Faced with an enemy which was almost too happy to lay down their lives to destroy us, we ran. Fully a third of us decided to remain immortal, and we ran as far as we could from those who sought to bring an end to our way of life. The third of humanity which stayed behind had their coveted children and died natural deaths.”

“And what about the other third?” Atton asked.

Hoff shrugged. “Casualties of the War of Origin.”

“Admiral . . .” A new voice joined the discussion, and Atton saw Commander Donali walk up beside Hoff. “We must hurry.”

“Yes,” Hoff agreed. “We can discuss this more later. Destra, I’m sorry for the deception, but hopefully now you understand why I felt the need to keep this a secret. I was telling the truth when I said that I’ve been betrayed by women in the past. You’re not the first to discover my secret, and not everyone took it as well as you. I have more than a few deaths to show for being overly trusting in the past.” Hoff eyed Atton’s cutting beam pointedly. “Speaking of which, I’d rather not add another death to the list. You can stop pointing that at me now, son. If you fire it in here, my security system will flood this chamber with toxic gas. A few hours later, after you’re both dead and the gas has been pumped out, I’ll walk out of one of these stasis tubes, alive and well, as if nothing happened.”

Atton grimaced, but he allowed the barrel of his cutting beam to drift away from Hoff’s chest.

The admiral continued on to the med center adjoining the stasis room. He crossed the threshold between the stasis room and med center, passing into the brighter light of the med center. Atton hurried to catch up, and he heard Destra’s soft footsteps echoing almost reluctantly after his.

The admiral stopped at a hover gurney and picked up a specimen jar with something small and shiny inside. Turning to Donali he handed over the jar. “Take it and go. Use a long-range scout ship. Lead them away. Stop a few times so they can pick up the trail. Learn what you can about the device along the way, and then jettison it into space. If all goes well, I’ll meet you back here at the entrance of Dark Space in a week’s time.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Hopefully the interference in this nebula is enough to prevent the signal from reaching them right now.”

“I doubt the nebula will inhibit superluminal comms if it doesn’t stop us from jumping to SLS,” Donali replied.

“Time will tell.”

Atton stopped beside them, his eyes flicking from Hoff to Donali and back again. “You hope the nebula prevents what signal from reaching who?” he asked.

Hoff clapped his XO on the back and squeezed his shoulder. “You’d better go. Good luck.”

“Yes, sir. . . .” Donali’s real eye found Atton and stayed there for an uncomfortably long moment. “You’re sure you don’t want me to stay here with you a while longer, sir?”

“No, don’t worry. They’re not a danger to me.”

“If you say so, sir.” Donali said. “All the same, however—” The commander reached out with lightning quick hands and snatched the heavy cutting beam from Atton’s arms. “—I’m keeping this.”

Hoff chuckled. “Well, there’s no point leaving anything to chance, is there?”

Commander Donali grunted as he hefted the beam weapon and strode off.

Atton shook his head and looked around the med center. He found his mother standing to one side of the room, staring at another table, this one a medical examiner’s table. It was covered with a white sheet that glowed a faint blue to indicate it was also covered by a containment field. A suspiciously human outline could be seen beneath the sheet. Atton walked over to her. “Who’s under here?” Atton asked. “Don’t tell me you slipped in the vaccucleanser and had to use one of your clones already.”

“No,” Hoff replied.

Atton reached out to lift the sheet, but a strong hand seized his and pushed him away.

“You don’t want to look under there—Destra, what are you doing!”

“No more secrets,” she said as she whipped the sheet off the body. Then she gasped and stumbled back. “I think I’m going to be sick,” she said.

Atton turned back to look, and he saw a very familiar humanoid body, recently sewn back together with thick black stitches running all the way from its sternum to its navel. It looked like a man, but the absence of visible genitalia, the pale translucent skin, and the presence of gills in the sides of the cadaver’s neck gave him away for what he really was. Atton turned on Hoff, suddenly furious. “What is this?”

“Did you think Kaon was the only one?”

Atton’s eyes narrowed and he turned back to the body. He walked around the table to examine the body more carefully. The cranial fins were missing, sliced off during an old torture session. “This is not just any Sythian, Hoff. This is Kaon. How did you . . .” Atton trailed off as realization dawned.

“Did you think I was going to wait forever to get my hands on him?”

“What have you done?” Atton asked, shaking his head. “Obsidian station . . . they found nothing but debris! It was supposed to have been a Sythian attack, but it wasn’t, was it? That’s why the Interloper was there. It was a Sythian ship. The damage would be consistent with Sythian weapons.”

“What’s he talking about?” Destra demanded.

“He killed them!” Atton said. “He killed more than a two hundred loyal officers just to get at Kaon!”

Destra’s eyes flew wide and she shook her head. She began backing away from her husband again.

Atton turned back to Hoff, his gaze sharp and full of accusation. “You killed them all.”

*  *  *

Origin

Captain Loba Caldin frowned out at the flashing gray clouds of the nebula. “What’s the delay?” she asked.

Beside her stood Junior Captain Crossid Adram, the former captain of the Interloper. Caldin turned to look at him. The man’s profile was vulturine and sinister, with a long, hooked nose and wispy white hair that barely covered his pale scalp. In the dim light of the alien cruiser, his hair seemed to glow neon purple.

Adram noticed her scrutiny and he flashed her a quick smile. “I don’t know,” he said, “but I’m sure the admiral has his reasons for waiting. He always has a good reason for everything. He’s the admiral, is he not? That’s all the justification he needs.”

Caldin frowned. Adram had been recently demoted for questioning orders too much. At the time she’d thought it harsh, but now she had a better understanding of the reason for the demotion. Adram’s attitude toward the admiral was borderline insubordinate.

“What do you suppose he’ll do with Dark Space once he has the Valiant back?” Adram mused.

“I suppose the admiral will take command,” Caldin replied.

“Yes, I suppose he will. His first act will probably be to execute all of the criminals—or have them chipped and turned into slave laborers.”

“I doubt his policies will be so extreme. Half of Dark Space has a criminal record.”

Adram shrugged. “Then supporting them won’t be such a burden anymore.”

Caldin’s eyes narrowed sharply. “Look, it’s not our place to ask those questions. We’re officers of the fleet. We follow orders.”

“Which orders and whose?”

“Any orders from a superior officer.”

A faint smile parted Adram’s lips. “Is that what you were doing when you were following the imposter overlord—not asking questions?”

“I wasn’t aware that he was an imposter.”

“Exactly, but as soon as you discovered that he was, you took the appropriate actions to replace him, because you realized that he was unfit for command.”

“Yes . . .”

“You know, Captain, you and I have a lot in common.”

“I fail to see how.”

Adram turned back to the viewport. “We were both sent to the Getties to explore . . . both of us came back decorated heroes . . . and both of us realized that the orders we were following had ultimately come from a traitor. The difference is you’ve already replaced your commander in chief.”

“You’re treading on very dangerous ground, Adram.”

“I know,” he said quietly. “But I have no choice.”

Caldin shook her head. “For your sake I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear any of that. You need to get your head straight, Crossid,” she said, deliberately using his first name to make him realize that he’d lost her respect.

“What if I told you that the admiral killed hundreds of loyal officers in a calculated maneuver that he unilaterally decided was for the common good?”

“What are you talking about?”

“It would be better if I showed you.”

Caldin frowned and watched Adram walk across the deck to the captain’s table. She followed him there, her steps hesitant, her thoughts apprehensive. By the time she got there, Adram had already found whatever it was he was looking for. He stabbed a key on the holographic display, and a video sprang to life, shimmering in the air above the captain’s table. It showed a view from the simulated dome of the Interloper’s bridge—an unobstructed view of Obsidian Station. Caldin’s stomach began churning with dread as she watched the alien cruiser draw near to the station. Then, without warning, it opened fire. Hundreds of shining purple stars spun out toward the station, impacting moments later in an endless, fiery rain. Glowing holes appeared in the sides of the station and chunks of it went spinning off into space. By the time the log recording was over, Caldin’s legs were shaking, but whether from fear or fury, she couldn’t yet tell.

Adram turned to her with a grim expression. “Now you understand my insubordinate attitude. I was forced to carry out this execution, Caldin, and their deaths will never stop haunting me.”

Caldin shook her head. She didn’t have to wonder anymore whether she shook from fear or anger. Her hands had clenched into white-knuckled fists. “Why?”

“To get at Kaon. The overlord wouldn’t give him up willingly, so Admiral Heston decided to take him by force, but of course he couldn’t leave any witnesses. . . .”

Caldin gritted her teeth and took several deep breaths to calm herself. When she could finally speak once more, she said, “Put this up on the main holodisplay, Adram. The rest of my crew needs to see it.”




Chapter 24

Origin

“I told you both already, I’m not a monster,” Hoff said. “I did order the Interloper to attack Obsidian Station, but not before her crew was put into stasis and safely locked away aboard the Interloper. I had Captain Adram transfer them to the Destine before we left. They should be arriving at the enclave as we speak.”

Atton breathed a sigh of relief. “Then why would you destroy the station? You could have just taken Kaon.”

“At the time you were still in power, acting as the supreme overlord of the Imperium. Kaon was in your hands, and I couldn’t steal him and take your people hostage. The simplest solution was to make it look like a Sythian attack.”

“What’s going to happen to the survivors?”

“The same as what happens to all of our refugees. They’ll start rebuilding on a colony world of their choice. They’re the lucky ones, Atton. Don’t feel bad for them.”

“What about us?” Destra asked.

“What about you?”

“You said we have a choice—join you or forget.”

“The forgetting is painless, and it’s not as invasive or sloppy as the slave chips you’re used to. You’ll never even know that you’ve been made to forget.”

Destra shook her head. “I’m not sure I can go back to the lies, Hoff.”

“I’ll hide them better this time.”

“No.”

“So you want to join me?” he asked, sounding surprised.

“I’m not sure about that either.”

“Then . . .”

“I may need to be on my own from now on.”

Hoff winced and took a step toward his wife. She took a step back. “Des, I’m the same man I’ve always been. . . .”

“I understand that, but . . . there isn’t a third option? You can’t trust me to keep your secret without becoming like you?”

Hoff started to say something, but he stopped himself and simply shook his head.

“Right, I forgot—trust no one.” Destra looked away, grimacing with disgust.

“What about you, Atton?” Hoff asked.

“I don’t believe what you’re doing is even possible.”

“You’d be surprised what’s possible, but even if you’re determined to stand by the philosophical objection that people have a soul, you still have to admit to the societal benefits. Imagine your clones are like children, except that whether or not those children squander your good instruction and their inheritance is entirely under your control.”

Atton ran a hand through his dark hair. “I need some time to think, too.”

“Very well. You have until we retake the Valiant to make up your minds.”

“What are you going to do with us until then?” Destra asked.

“You’ll be locked in our quarters, under house arrest.”

Destra smiled. “Generous of you.”

“Of course your access to comms will be restricted.”

“Of course,” Atton replied with a sarcastic twitch of his lips.

“Come. We had better go. They’re waiting for me on the bridge.” Hoff turned and started back toward the lift tube. Atton followed at a distance, walking beside his mother.

“I never imagined this was what Hoff was hiding,” Destra whispered. “You were right, Atton. I should have found out about this a long, long time ago.”

“Love blinds us,” he whispered back.

His mother smiled up at him. “You’re 17—what do you know about love? Don’t tell me you have someone waiting for you in Dark Space.”

Atton looked away, uncomfortable with the change of topic. “You don’t get to meet a lot of girls when you’re wearing a holoskin and looking like a 98 year-old man.”

“Hmmm . . . no, I suppose you wouldn’t.”

As they followed Admiral Heston into the lift, something occurred to Atton and he asked, “What did you send Commander Donali to do?”

“That’s classified.”

“You’re about to make me forget all of this, Hoff. What’s one more memory to suppress?”

The admiral glanced at him. “I gave him a Sythian tracking device.”

“A what?”

“It was cloaked in Kaon’s brain all this time,” Hoff said as he keyed the lift tube to rise up to the deck forty eight.

“The Gors didn’t betray us, did they?”

“It would appear I was wrong.”

Atton blinked. “Ritan?”

Hoff shook his head.

“Frek it, Admiral!” Atton slammed the side of the lift tube with his fist. “What have you done?”

“Just because Kaon was responsible for the communications we detected, doesn’t mean that the Gors are trustworthy.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter anymore, does it? You’ve declared war on them!”

“You have to be at peace in order to declare war. I just cleared up the confusion for everyone.” The lift arrived and Hoff walked out into the secret passage leading to the maze in his backyard. “By the way, I’ve deactivated the lift,” he called out as he went. “Just in case either of you were thinking of going back to poke around some more.”

Atton scowled and whispered, “Hoff’s a whole other level of frekked up.”

He felt his mother’s hand on his shoulder. “Come on, let’s go.”

This is the man who’s going to be in charge of Dark Space? I can’t let that happen.”

“It might be too late to worry about who’s going to be in charge of Dark Space,” Destra said. “If the Sythian was implanted with a tracking device, and Donali is just taking it off the ship now . . . we’re already at the entrance of Dark Space, Atton,” she said. “You know what that means.”

Atton blinked, stupefied. He hadn’t even thought of that. “I’m going to kill him!” He raced out after the admiral. “Get back here you motherfrekker!”

“Atton!” Destra called after him, but he wouldn’t stop.

Everything he’d ever known was about to be torn away—again—and the man to blame for that was walking blithely away, as if he’d done nothing wrong. A quote from an old classic came to mind as Atton ran: Justice is red, and it drips from our hands.

*  *  *

Origin

Ethan stood still and quiet, staring out into space. His finger traced a line of grease across the room’s only viewport, a small porthole which looked out at space. With his naked eye he could see dozens of bright blue contrails periodically flaring against the shimmering backdrop of stars. Whole squadrons twisted and turned in unison, their hulls glinting in the Firean System’s pale red sun. Destroyers and cruisers drifted slowly, their lights glittering in the dark as they checked the minefields and the ring of SLS interrupter buoys which Brondi had stolen from the treacherous Chorlis-Firean jump lane. Nothing had been left to chance. Petty and skriffy though he was, Brondi was a surprisingly astute tactician. He knew exactly how to set up his defenses against an incoming fleet. Ethan only hoped that the admiral was equally skilled at outwitting those defenses. He turned with a sigh and found himself face to face with Alara’s bright violet gaze.

“Is something bothering you?” she asked.

Ethan sighed. “More than one something.”

“Why don’t you come sit down and talk to me about it.” She gestured to the bed behind them.

Ethan’s gaze flicked briefly to the bed and he hesitated. “Alara . . .”

“Angel,” she purred.

“Kiddie,” he decided. “Look—”

She pressed her index finger to his lips. “Brondi has me all cooped up in here. No one is allowed to visit me. No one, that is, except for you. That means you have me all to yourself,” she said, eyeing him demurely before she grabbed his hand and placed it over her right breast. “What are you going to do about that?” she whispered.

Ethan removed his hand quickly. “Damn it, Kiddie! Stop that.”

She withdrew, looking startled. “What are you here for, then?”

“Don’t you remember me at all? We used to fly together until Brondi captured us. He had you chipped because we couldn’t pay our debts, and I’ve been forced to work for him ever since.”

She looked at him as though he might burst into flames at any minute. “If it makes you feel better to pretend you know me and that Brondi’s forcing you to frek me, I’ll go along with it. Good for your conscience I guess . . . Now I remember you, Ethan. I remember that I’ve always wanted you. Ever since the day we met. I’ve been just gagging for you to stick your—”

“Enough!” Ethan boomed. He rubbed his tired eyes. He’d flown too many back to back patrols. “This is pointless,” he said, shaking his head in defeat. “Look—I don’t have long before I have to get back out there. Right now my squadron is busy eating what will probably be their last meal, and if it’s not, that means that Brondi won, and we’ll be in even bigger trouble.”

“What are you trying to say? If you don’t have long, don’t worry, we can still have a good time.”

“I’m sure we could,” Ethan said, offering a patient smile. “But I didn’t come here to have a good time. I came here to say goodbye.” He took a step toward her, and she gazed up at him with wide, curious eyes. Suddenly, he opened his arms and enfolded her in a crushing hug. “I’m going to miss you, Kiddie,” he whispered into her ear. He inhaled deeply, breathing in the soft, beguiling fragrance of her hair and skin until he began to feel his eyes burn and his throat constrict. He withdrew—

And Alara gave him a resounding slap. “What is wrong with you? You come here, acting like you know me, turning me down over and over again—and all of that just to say goodbye? I don’t know who you think you are, or what you’re trying to do, but frek you, Ethan! It’s not funny. I’m a playgirl, and before that I was an orphan. You’re not supposed to care about either—you abandon the orphan and you use the playgirl when she asks you to so that she can pay her damn bills! What is wrong with you?” she repeated.

Ethan gave her a small, bitter smile. “I don’t know. You’re right. I don’t know what I was thinking,” he said as he turned to leave.

Alara stared after him in shock. “Hoi! You could at least frek me before you go!”

Ethan turned as he reached the door. “I’m sorry for everything, Alara. If you ever wake up from this nightmare, know that I did everything I could.” He passed his wrist over the door scanner and it opened with a swish. Then he stepped out into the comparative brightness of the hallway, and the door promptly slid shut behind him. Ethan passed between the pair of Brondi’s guards who stood flanking the entrance to Alara’s room. They shot him knowing smiles, and one of them whistled and poked him in the ribs as he walked by. “Hoi, good bit of tail, isn’t she?”

Ethan spun on his heel, his fists involuntarily clenching. “What do you know about that?” The man who’d spoken was short and squat with yellowing teeth and small, squinty eyes tucked into his round, pudgy face.

“Don’t know nothin’ about it yet,” the man said with a shrug, “but Brondi said we might get a turn with her, if we do our jobs well and keep everyone else out. Looks like you must be in his good books. Got to go first, hoi? Come on, jus’ a few details. We’re dyin’ out here! I hear she’s eager to please.”

Ethan clenched his teeth and counted to ten in his head. He imagined all the different ways he could kill the small, pudgy outlaw standing before him, but all of those scenarios ended with the other guard shooting him dead. Neither of these men seemed to know who Ethan was, but he reminded himself that he was wearing the uniform of a Lieutenant Commander, which meant he outranked both of them by several pay grades—assuming Brondi’s command structure was for more than just show. It was worth a shot. “I was just making sure neither of you skriffs laid a hand on her,” he said, shaking a finger in the guard’s face. “Brondi ordered me to castrate you both if you had.”

The guard paled. “He said that? Shee that’s just krakkin’ sick! We’re not stupid, hoi—not gonna touch her until Brondi says, a’right? You can tell him I said that.”

“Just be thankful you’ve been following your orders. Keep it up.” With that, Ethan turned and strode away. His comm piece began trilling a moment later. It was his XO, Gina—freshly chipped along with the rest of the Alephs to be good little outlaws. Now they all thought they were lowlifes without the slightest shred of decency. For all their artificially imposed flight training, they didn’t have the slightest shred of skill in a cockpit either. Ethan was exhausted by the façade of pretending to be their leader. “Hoi, LC,” Gina said. “Where the frek are you? We’re waitin’ in the hangar already. The squad’s gettin’ impatient. Another minute and they’re gonna start a dogfight in here.”

“On my way,” he replied.

“Ruh-kah!” she cheered. “Hurry up! We’ve had clearance for ten minutes.”

“See you soon,” Ethan replied and then ended the call. Ruh-kah—death and glory. The old Rokan battle cry suddenly took on new meaning for Ethan. With his skill in the cockpit he had a good chance of living through the coming battle, regardless of who won, but he’d already made up his mind. He was done dancing to Brondi’s tune. He’d killed over 50,000 innocent men and women already by cooperating with Brondi, and he refused to kill any more—wittingly or not. The crime lord would soon be too busy to take it out on Alara, and with luck, the admiral would win the fight and rescue her. If not, it was just as he’d told Alara—he’d done everything he could. Even if he did what Brondi wanted and killed as many Imperial pilots as he could, he couldn’t save her. Brondi would never let them go. It was all just a big game to him—he was like a rictan playing with a mouse—the more Ethan suffered, the more perverse enjoyment Brondi would get out of the game.

Ethan shook his head. He was done. The only way to win a game that can’t be won is to stop playing.

*  *  *

Origin

Hoff heard Atton’s approach, but he didn’t turn. The boy’s clumsy footfalls were borne of impetuous fury, but even a calmer, more calculated approach never would have worked. Hoff already knew far more about hand-to-hand combat than any mortal would have had a chance to learn. And with all of that skill, he knew that sometimes the best move was also the simplest one. When Hoff judged that Atton was almost upon him, he deftly stepped aside and put out his foot.

Atton went sprawling.

Just as the boy tried to regain his footing, Hoff drew his sidearm and shot him in the back. Atton’s limbs jittered and he collapsed to the grassy floor of the maze.

Destra came running up behind them, yelling, “Atton! Hoff, if you hurt him—”

“Relax. It was set to stun. He’ll come around in an hour or two.”

Destra went down on her haunches to check Atton’s pulse.

Hoff didn’t have time to deal with this. Wordlessly, he turned and continued on. He heard his wife call after him, “You’re just going to leave him?”

“Use your grav gun and bring him with you, or leave him there to sleep it off—I don’t care which.”

Five minutes later, Destra caught up to him at the back door of their quarters. Atton hovered in the air before her. She looked furious, and out of breath. Hoff stepped up to the control panel and held the door open for her and Atton. She shot him a hateful scowl as she went inside.

“Des,” he said, walking in behind her. “If you want to leave, I won’t stop you. You can take Atta now and go to the enclave. I’ll visit as often as I can.”

She set Atton down in the hall and turned to him. Her expression softened somewhat. “I could stay with you, if you agree to leave my memory alone. No one would believe me if I told them, anyway.”

“Darling, I’m twenty years older than you. When my time comes, what will you do then?” Destra frowned uncertainly, and Hoff went on, “Will we each go our separate ways? Or would you still want to stay with me? Would you still want to be my wife? I’ll have a new body and a new face. I’ll be young and strong again.”

“Maybe you’re asking the wrong question. I’ll be an old woman. Would you still want to be with me?”

Hoff smiled. “Marriage was never meant to outlive a man.”

“Man was never meant to outlive himself,” Destra replied.

“Touché. Now you see why you have to join me or forget.”

Destra sighed. “I need more time to think.”

“You’ll have it. I have to go. I’m locking the door on my way out, but I’ll be back.”

“You still don’t trust me, do you?” she called after him.

Hoff turned, walking backward down the hall. The light paintings cast his features in a strange, rainbow-colored light. “You did just betray my trust, Des. Not only did you discover what I was hiding, but you led Atton to it as well. Can you blame me for not trusting you?”

Destra had no answer for that. Hoff turned back to the fore and disappeared around the corner. In his absence, she wondered, Would it be so bad to live forever? Could she and Hoff really last together, forever? Her gaze found Atton, unconscious at her feet. A door swished open beside them, and Atta’s cherubic face popped out. She saw Atton and jumped back with a scream. “Mommy!”

“It’s okay, Atta,” Destra said. “He’s just sleeping.”

“Why is he sleeping in the hall?”

“He was very tired, darling. Let’s go put him to bed.”

For now, Destra had other things to worry about. Eternity could wait.




Chapter 25

Origin

As soon as the rest of the crew had finished watching the Interloper’s log recording, an abrupt silence fell across the bridge. No one went back to work at their stations, and no one said anything; they all looked to Caldin, as if expecting her to tell them what to do. Her gaze swept around the room and she nodded slowly.

“This recording tells us two things. One, we are expendable—that is something we expect. Any officer is expendable in the line of duty, but this was not the line of duty. That brings us to the second thing we are to understand from this log recording—the admiral is no friend of the Imperium. Our job is to take back the Valiant from Alec Brondi, and that is what we will do, but what we do with her once we have her is another matter. Once she is under our command and Brondi is defeated, the admiral will have no choice but to accept our bid for independence.”

Heads bobbed. No one voiced an objection to that. Out of the corner of her eye Caldin saw Adram smile. She turned to him with a warning look. “This is not an excuse for you or I become the new supreme overlord.”

He shook his head and his smile faded. “The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind, Captain.”

“Good. As soon as we have control of Dark Space, we’re going to hold elections for a proper body of representatives and they will appoint a new leader. Our command will be temporary. It’s time the Imperium had a legitimate government, not just the tattered remains of one.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Adram replied.

“Ma’am! We have an incoming message from the Tauron. It’s the admiral,” the comm officer reported.

“Put it on speaker, Grimbsy.”

A moment later they heard Hoff Heston’s voice echo through the airy bridge. “We are ready to jump, Captain. Our tracking signal just came through the gate. It puts Brondi’s location at the edge of Dark Space, in the Firean System. Our plan is to drop out of SLS a quarter of a light year from there and have your ship jump the rest of the way to gather intel. As soon as you know the number and position of the enemy, you will jump back and report. Then we’ll transfer an assault force to the Interloper and have you get as close to the Valiant as you can. Once you’ve had enough time to get in position, we’ll jump in with the Tauron and punch a hole through the Valiant’s shields for you. Coordinates have already been sent to your nav. Good luck, Captain Caldin. We’re all counting on you.”

Caldin smiled. “Don’t, worry, we won’t let the Imperium down.”

“Good. See you on the other side.”

Caldin made a cutting gesture to her comm officer, and he killed the feed. A second later their view turned from the flashing gray clouds of the Stormcloud Nebula to the racing brightness of superluminal space.

My loyalty is to the Imperium, she thought. Not to an admiral who turns on his own people.

*  *  *

Origin

The day passed slowly for Destra, her mind filled with conflicting thoughts and endless dread as she imagined living alone with Atta on some barely hospitable colony world. Her thoughts went from there to imagining eternal youth and immortality with Hoff, but every time she pictured that, she had to suppress a shiver.

Atton woke up four hours after he’d been stunned, just in time for dinner. Hoff hadn’t joined them, but Destra made excuses for him, telling Atton and herself that he was probably just too busy on the bridge. The comms were disabled, so they couldn’t ask him. The truth was more likely that he no longer trusted her and Atton enough to be in the same room with them.

Now they were in Atta’s room to put her to bed. She lay stroking Mr. Tibbins’ white fur, and singing softly, as if to put the stuffed diger to sleep. Tibbins was still Atta’s favorite of all her stuffed animals, just as another one like it had been Atton’s favorite. Destra sat on the bed beside Atta, while Atton stood leaning against the door jamb with his arms crossed and a frown on his face. Destra stroked her daughter’s hair while she stroked Tibbins’ fur.

“I don’t want to leave,” Atta said suddenly.

Destra frowned. “What are you talking about? Leave where?”

Atta shrugged. “Anywhere. I head you and Daddy talking.”

“When?”

“When you came in this morning. He said that if you wanted to leave, you could take me and go, and he wouldn’t stop you.” Atta looked up with bright gray eyes. “I don’t want to go, Mom. Daddy needs us.”

Destra felt her resolve crumble as she looked into her daughter’s eyes, and suddenly she knew what she had to do, whether it was the right choice for her or not. “Don’t worry, darling. We’re not going anywhere.”

“Good. Tibbins doesn’t want to go either.”

Destra smiled. “He said that?”

“Yes.”

After they’d put Atta to bed, Atton and Destra sat in the living room, talking quietly.

“Would it be so bad to live forever?” Destra asked. “I could watch my grandchildren grow old and their children’s children, too.”

“And what are you planning to tell them about that? They’ll have to know, too, and you know what that means.”

Destra frowned. “So what if they did know? I don’t understand why Hoff’s so afraid to tell people. They don’t all have to become like him. They just have to respect each other’s differences.”

“No, Hoff’s right about one thing. Not everyone will accept his way of life. It raises too many uncomfortable questions about our existence, and what exactly it means to be human—not to mention the societal implications, which are immense. According to the admiral, we’ve already fought one war over this, and I can see why. If we’re not careful; there’ll be another.”

“Why? Why can’t people just let each other be?” Destra asked. “It’s not as though cloning yourself hurts anyone.”

“Assuming the clones are raised without any awareness, no one is directly harmed, no, but in a society like that, only the clones would actually be able to compete. Anyone who refused that way of life would be so far behind that they could never catch up in just one lifetime.”

“So why not implant everyone? Give them all the knowledge they need without having to learn.”

“Our brains don’t work well that way, and we already do that to some extent. People buy skills all the time, but it only ever makes them second-stringers at what they do. At the end of the day, you still need the real experience, and I suspect that’s the difference. Hoff’s experience is real.”

“There are solutions, Atton, and if not we’ll find them.”

Atton shrugged. “Maybe we already found those solutions a long time ago, but there’s one thing you can’t fix—what about children? Even if only a small percentage of each new generation decides to become immortal, that’s still an infinite growth curve—unless you tell the clones not to have children and limit everyone else to a quota.”

“I don’t know, Atton. Those concerns are a long way away. For now, our species could use a faster growth rate. We’re almost extinct. It could be exactly what we need right now.”

Atton sighed. “Well, you’re right about one thing, we don’t have to solve all of those problems now. We’re not deciding whether or not to let everyone in on Hoff’s secret, we just have to decide whether or not we want to be a part of it.”

“Do you?” Destra asked, her eyes searching his carefully.

“Just so we’re clear, this is not a way to be immortal—it’s just a way to copy our society from one generation to the next—and that could be either very good, or very bad. So you’re asking me if I want a copy of myself to live on. I’m not sure I’m that narcissistic.”

“What if cloning yourself doesn’t create two separate instances of the same person, what if it just creates two windows into the same soul?”

Atton smiled. “There’s an argument that could go on forever.”

“There’s only one way it can . . .” Destra let that thought hang between them for a long moment before she added, “It would be nice to have the time to get to know the son I had to abandon.”

“I’d like that, too.”

“But?”

“Why are you suddenly in favor of this?”

“I have a family to think about—not just myself—and if becoming a clone is what it takes to keep that family together, then I’ll do it. Hoff is not perfect by any standard, Atton, but he loves us, and I have a feeling his one fatal flaw will vanish if I do decide to join him. Maybe I’ll be the first woman who ever has.”

“You have no way of knowing that.”

“No, I don’t, but even if I’m not the first, I can make sure I’m the last.”

Atton smiled. “I had no idea you were such a romantic.”

Destra smiled back. “Ask your father sometime about how we met.”

“I will. I guess you don’t want to get back together with him then—with Ethan.”

“He and I spent more time apart than we did together, and under circumstances which changed us both dramatically. We grew into different people, and if things had been different, maybe we’d still be together—happily married—but you can’t live in the past. You have to let it be and move on.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“So tell me—what are you going to do?”

Atton shook his head. “I still need time to think. Maybe I’ll choose to forget and you can remind me about all of this existential krak when I’m older.”

“There’s a lot that can kill you besides old age, Atton.”

“I’ll die either way.”

“But your clone will never know the difference, and he’ll be grateful that you gave him the chance to live. At least if some future version of me grows bored of it, I can always opt out,” Destra said.

Atton nodded. “And I can always opt in.”

*  *  *

Origin

Caldin stood on the bridge, her eyes locked on the reversion timer as it reached sixty seconds. It was the middle of the night cycle, but everyone was ready at their stations now. Caldin had ordered her crew to rotate out for a few hours’ sleep, but she doubted anyone had actually managed to sleep in the alien environment. Caldin shuddered to think about what passed for sleeping quarters aboard the Gor cruiser. She hadn’t even gone to look. Even if she’d been back aboard the Defiant, sleep would have kept its distance from her tonight. There was too much on her mind. Instead she’d stayed up, watching superluminal space whirl brightly around the simulated-transparent bridge dome, her thoughts whirling with it. Every now and then, her gaze would flick up to see the mighty keel and prow of the Tauron, stretching out almost endlessly above them with bristling cannons and glowing viewports. It was an intimidating view, and it made her wonder about what was coming. She imagined that mighty battleship floating through her mind’s eye—blackened and broken, shot through with holes, a forgotten derelict from an old and senseless power struggle.

Was she making the right choice? What if the admiral really had destroyed Obsidian Station for the common good? She had no way of knowing whether or not capturing Kaon had been worth the sacrifice. Would she have made the same choice in his position? Would Admiral Heston agree to a peaceful resolution and allow a new leader to be appointed in Dark Space, or would he insist on taking command of the sector himself?

Would it even come to a fight?

Caldin’s gaze turned to Adram, standing beside her at the captain’s table, hands clasped behind his back, head up and eyes staring out at space. He’d stayed up, too, keeping her company while the others had come and gone, taking their shifts to watch over the bridge. She wondered about him, about his motives. Was he looking out for the Imperium’s interests and those of humanity, or for his own? Could she trust the log recording she’d seen, or was it a fake?

The timer reached zero, and whirling streaks of light turned to static stars and pale wisps of nebular clouds. Here the Stormcloud Nebula was thin and did nothing to blot out the stars. After so long spent staring at the dizzying swirl of SLS, Caldin had trouble focusing on the static backdrop.

“Jump successful,” Delayn said. “All systems green.”

Caldin nodded. Comms reported another message from the Tauron, but it was little more than a repetition of what the admiral had said before. They were now a quarter of a light year from Brondi’s position—assuming the crime lord hadn’t moved since they’d received a signal from the imposter overlord’s tracking device. Now they were to jump the rest of the way and perform a recon of the area. With the Interloper’s cloaking device, recon wouldn’t be a difficult mission for them.

“Undock us,” Caldin ordered.

The temporary docking rings which held them to the Tauron let go, and they drifted away at a modest 45 KAPS—roughly equivalent to meters per second, per second. The nav officer brought them onto their pre-assigned jump trajectory and accelerated up to 999 m/s, the safe-entry speed limit for SLS. Cloaking was engaged, shields were deactivated, and then their real space drives were shut down. The nav officer began an audible countdown to SLS. When it reached zero, space flashed brightly and began to swirl once more.

A timer appeared on the captain’s table, giving their ETA. It counted down from an hour and a half. Caldin spent that time the same way that she’d spent the last six hours—lost in thought, observing an acute, ear-ringing silence. Her men were also unusually quiet, focused on the mission, or perhaps apprehensive about what they would find. Then space was back, and Caldin’s gaze dropped to the captain’s table to see what Brondi had prepared for them.

She gaped and blinked at the grid, suddenly no longer worried about what Hoff’s reaction would be to their coup d’état, and instead worried whether or not they’d live long enough to assert their independence.

“Gravidar! Report! How many ships are we looking at? What class are they and what are their relative strengths—I want a tally!”

“Yes, ma’am,” the gravidar officer replied.

A moment later, the report she’d requested flashed up above the captain’s table. As she scanned the shimmering, holographic list of ships in the area, her worst fears were quickly realized. “The admiral will have to abort this mission,” she said.

“If you think he’s going to run, you don’t know him,” Adram replied.

“He doesn’t have a choice.” Caldin pointed to the tally of 46 SLS interrupter buoys which their scanners had detected. When her finger graced that line of the report, the buoys were highlighted on the grid, and a geodesic sphere made up of scattered red points appeared around the Valiant. The radius of the sphere meant those buoys would pull them out of SLS more than 250 klicks from the carrier, far out of maximum beam range. As if that weren’t bad enough, Brondi had laid minefields in front of the interrupter buoys, and set everything up just before the exit gate along the jump lane leading from the entrance of Dark Space. If the admiral had been naïve enough to use the jump lane, they would have been yanked out of SLS straight into the middle of those mines. And just in case they survived that, Brondi had more than 500 fighters to swarm all over them and finish the job.

“At least we know the layout of Brondi’s defenses now, so we can avoid the mines and find a way through,” Adram said.

Caldin shook her head. “There is no way through. We have to drop out of SLS far out of range and slow down to clear the mines or find a safe path through. Even if we get through unscathed, the admiral’s hit and fade won’t work. He’ll be trapped by the minefields on the other side of the Valiant and swarmed to death by enemy fighters.”

“I guess we’d better leave Dark Space to Brondi, and deal with Hoff ourselves at some later date.”

“We can’t do that either.”

Adram gave her a small smile. “Leave it to the admiral, Captain. He might not be morally equipped to lead, but his grasp of strategy leaves nothing to be desired. I’ve never seen him come out on the losing side of a battle yet, but after this one, he’ll be in no shape to deal with us.”

Caldin held Adram’s gaze for a long moment. His dark eyes shone with an unsettling light, and that small, predatory smile of his was enough to make her shiver. Caldin wasn’t sure what Adram’s real agenda was, but she knew one thing for certain—

He was not to be trusted.

*  *  *

Origin

Atton awoke to the sound of raised voices and a little girl crying. He blinked the sleep out of his eyes and stared up at the shifting pattern of light on the ceiling. “I don’t want to go!” she cried.

“You don’t have a choice, Atta. It’s too dangerous for you to stay,” a familiar male voice said.

“No! I don’t want to go!”

“Shh, Atta, listen to your father.”

Atton sat up, wondering what was going on. A moment later his door swished open.

“Lights!”

Abruptly the room was brightly lit. Atton winced against the glare.

“Get dressed,” Hoff ordered as he strode in.

“What’s going on?”

“We’re about to jump into battle. Brondi is much better prepared than I had hoped, and it’s too dangerous for any of you to stay. I’m sending you three to the enclave.”

Atton climbed out of bed and went to pick his clothes off the deck where he’d left them in a messy pile the night before. “If you’re that worried about what we’re up against, then you need my help,” he said as he pulled on his pants.

Your help?” Hoff echoed.

“I’m a good pilot, and a decent commander. Put me in a cockpit. Let me fly a shuttle at the very least.”

Hoff frowned. “I’m short of ships—not pilots.”

“You must have an extra ship of some kind that could use a pilot.”

“It’s too dangerous, Atton,” Destra insisted.

He looked up from buttoning his shirt to see his mother standing in the open doorway. Atta was hugging her mother’s legs and peeking out warily between them.

“I’m not going to run and hide when I could make a difference in this fight,” Atton said.

Destra set her jaw and crossed her arms as she looked to Hoff for support. “I’m not leaving him again. Either he goes with us, or we’re staying, too.”

Hoff turned back to Atton and shook his head. “Under those conditions I’m afraid you don’t have a choice, and your mother’s right. It is too dangerous.”

“Chip me then.”

“What?”

“You heard me. Make me like you, and then even death can’t touch me, right?”

Hoff held his gaze for a quiet moment.

“You’re going to have to chip all of us, Hoff, and then send the backups to the enclave,” Destra said, “because I’m not leaving without him.”

Hoff turned back to her. “No one can be sure that we don’t still die when we transfer, so I’m not taking the risk if I don’t have to. You’re all going, and that’s final.”

Atton took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. “Fine. Who’s going to pilot the ship that’s taking us to the enclave? Don’t tell me you’re sparing someone you’re about to need against Brondi.”

Hoff smiled. “Not exactly, no. I’m going to take you.”

Destra’s brow furrowed. “You’re abandoning your command?”

Atton gave a slow smile. “Couldn’t resist it, could you? The chance to be in two places at once.”

“I don’t have a choice.”

“What’s he talking about, Hoff?” Destra asked, sounding suddenly frightened.

Atton turned to his mother just in time to see a familiar man appear beside her in the open doorway. “We need to go, Des,” he said.

Destra recoiled from the voice, and Atta ran away screaming. “Hoff!” Destra’s gaze skipped between the two identical men, and her face stretched into a rictus of horror. “What is this?”




Chapter 26

Origin

Both men wore the exact same spotless black uniform with white piping and the three gold stars’ insignia of an admiral. Destra couldn’t believe her eyes. This was beyond anything she had prepared herself to deal with. Just a few hours ago she’d decided to join her husband’s mad existence, but she had never imagined that something like this could happen. There’s two of them! she thought, looking from one to the other and back again. She couldn’t blame Atta for running away screaming. Even though she understood what she was seeing, and her daughter didn’t, Destra was tempted to run away screaming, too.

“Hoff, you’ve gone completely skriffy.”

The admiral standing inside Atton’s room turned to give her a grim look. “I’m sorry you feel that way. If it helps, remember that you’ve already been with two of us, so adding a third shouldn’t be that hard. Go with him. He’ll take you to the enclave.”

“This is ridiculous!” Destra burst out. Her eyes kept flicking between the two clones, unsure of which one she should address. “What are you going to do when you come back for us? Flip a coin to see who gets to be my husband and Atta’s father? Or maybe you’ll take turns?”

Hoff smiled sadly, and his gray eyes filled with a subtle sheen of moisture. “You’re assuming that I am coming back.” He turned to address his clone standing in the doorway. “Even if we win this fight, I won’t get in your way, and you won’t see me again. They’re as much your family as they are mine.”

“I appreciate your sacrifice,” the clone said. He took Destra’s hand, and she tried to jerk it away, but he held her fast. “Don’t make me stun you, Des,” he warned.

At that, she gave in. “I’m never going to join you now, Hoff,” she said, blinking tears. “And I’m never going to forgive you!”

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” the one holding her replied.

“You’d better go with them while you still have the chance, Atton,” the one standing closest to Atton added.

“What about Atta?” Destra demanded. “Are you going to threaten to stun her, too?”

“If I have to.”

“Why would you let her see this, Hoff? She’s just a child.”

“She’s the child of a clone, and sooner or later she had to find out.”

Atton snorted. “Good luck explaining that to her.”

“You’re a heartless kakard, Hoff,” Destra added.

“I’m sorry it had to be this way,” he replied.

“So am I,” Destra said, nodding slowly. She wiped away her tears with the back of the hand which Hoff’s newest clone wasn’t squeezing with bone-grinding force. So am I.

*  *  *

Origin

Atton was forced to walk in front of Hoff's clone the whole way. The moon in the artificial sky overhead did nothing to lighten the black walls of the silverleaf maze. Little Atta was surprisingly quiet. Whatever her father had said to her before he’d said goodbye had dried her stream of tears and replaced her frightened, darting eyes with a wide and vacant gaze. By contrast, his mother’s expression was grim and determined.

“Where are you taking us?” Destra asked.

“To your transport.” They reached another fork in the path, and Hoff barked out to Atton, “Left!” At the next turn—“Right!” And then—“Another left!”

A few more minutes of that, and they reached the end of the maze. Atton stopped at the concealing holofield and waited there. All of a second later Hoff poked him in the back with his sidearm. “Keep moving.”

Atton smirked as he walked through the seeming wall of silverleafs to the hidden passage on the other side. “You know, you don’t have to march me along at gunpoint.”

Hoff gave no reply, but when they reached the end of the corridor, he holstered his gun and stepped up to the control panel to reactivate the lift tube. Atton considered attacking the admiral while he was distracted, but then he remembered how easily Hoff had deflected his last attack and he thought better of it. Once the lift was reactivated, Hoff gestured for Atton to enter first.

“Still don’t trust me, hoi?” Atton said.

“No more than I have to,” Hoff replied, stepping in after him.

Then something completely unexpected happened.

The admiral must have seen the look of shock cross Atton’s face, because he abruptly spun around to look, but it was too late. Destra had picked up one of the discarded pieces of the lift tube doors which Atton had cut away the previous day, and now she swung that heavy sheet of duranium with all her might.

It hit Hoff in the side of the head with a hollow-sounding smack! He staggered, and Atta began to scream again. Destra didn’t give him a chance to recover. She hit him again and he went spinning into the side of the lift tube and bounced off. Hoff turned in a dizzy circle, blood streaming from a gash above one eye. “I was right not to trust,” was all he managed to say before he collapsed to the floor.

Destra dropped the piece of metal with a noisy bang, and took a quick step back, her eyes wide and locked on her husband’s unconscious form, as if she couldn’t believe what she’d just done. Atta’s cries snapped her out of it. “Daddy?” she said in a small voice, trying to squeeze past her mother to get to him.

Destra grabbed her and turned her away from the scene, shushing her frantic questions. “Why did you hit him? Is he dead?”

“No darling, he’s not dead. He’s just sleeping. Remember he wanted to take us away, but we don’t want to go away, do we? We’re going to stay and help your father, but he wouldn’t let us, so that’s why we had to put him to sleep.”

“But he’s not really Daddy, is he? He told me he is, but . . .”

“Shhh,” Destra cooed.

Atton looked on with a growing sense of unreality setting in. The irony wasn’t lost on him. Hoff hadn’t trusted his wife to know his secret because he was afraid of how she’d react. Now, having seen his mother’s reaction, Atton couldn’t say he blamed the man. He’d known his wife very well.

“Atton,” Destra said, snapping him out of it. “Come on.”

He shook his head. “Hoff said there was a ship waiting below. It must have weapons and shields.”

“Atton . . .”

“I can’t just do nothing! If Brondi wins . . .”

Destra sighed. “You’re as stubborn as your father. Go. I’m not going to stop you.”

“You might want to come with me rather than be around when Hoff wakes up. He’ll never trust you again.”

“He never trusted me to begin with, and I could have killed him. The fact that I didn’t should tell him something. You leave Hoff to me.”

“Which one?”

Destra hesitated, her eyes back on the unconscious clone. “You’d better take that one with you. You’ll need his credentials to get aboard the transport.”

“Then what do you want me to do with him?”

“Tie him up for now. We can figure out that part if you . . .” Destra swallowed hard and shook her head. “When you return.”

“Right. Take care of yourself, Mom,” Atton said as he selected deck 24 from the lift control panel.

“You too, son. I love you!”

He looked up and smiled, opening his mouth to reply, but whatever he said was stolen by the wind as the lift dropped away.

*  *  *

Origin

Hoff returned to the bridge scant minutes before the Tauron dropped out of SLS. Relief radiated from his the crew like a palpable force. They’d been trying to reach him on the comms for the past half an hour while he’d been busy dealing with his family emergency.

Things hadn’t gone the way he had hoped, but he wasn’t surprised by Destra’s reaction. She would come around, although unfortunately, he wouldn’t get to see that. Even if he survived, he couldn’t complicate matters and return to vie against himself for his family. It made no sense. Instead, he would stay in Dark Space and lead humanity there. Eventually he’d find a new persona for himself—a new body, and a new life.

It was almost enough to make him want to give up and die, but he’d been down this road many times before, and as ever, he had a job to do. As long as there were still criminals like Brondi or Sythians and Gors to fight, he would have a reason to carry on.

Hoff forced himself to focus on something other than that brooding train of thought. The Tauron was now just five minutes from her reversion to real space, and he needed to be ready for it. Their battle plan was simple, but there were a million things which could go wrong.

Upon analyzing intel from the Interloper, they’d found just four safe paths through the minefield which surrounded the Valiant—three leading in, and one leading out. Of those three approach vectors, only two would be possible to line up with the exit vector on the other side, and one was a better approach angle than the other.

Preliminary calculations predicted that their window of opportunity would be tight. Hoff planned to drop out of SLS just a few kilometers from the edge of the interrupter buoys and then roar through the minefield at their top acceleration of 70 KAPS. At that speed it would take just a minute and a half for them to close to within 25 kilometers of the carrier, which was their maximum effective beam and torpedo range. By that point they’d be moving at over six kilometers a second, and the helmsman better have already adjusted their course to avoid a collision. They would have between three and four seconds to overwhelm the hangar shields. Then the Interloper would have approximately fifteen seconds to get inside before the carrier’s port shields equalized and they would have to make another pass. But there could be no second pass. The Tauron wouldn’t survive it. Everything came down to timing.

The narrow entrance and exit of the minefield was another problem they’d have to address. Brondi hadn’t even left enough room to escape the minefield himself. The gaps he’d left were only large enough for fighter wings and small capital ships. Nothing the size of the Tauron was going to make it through unscathed, so they would have to be sure they shot all of the mines along their entry and exit vectors before they got too close, and depending how powerful the mines were, they could still suffer damage—not to mention how much damage they’d take from the hundreds of fighters and the odd dozen capital ships which Brondi had scraped together in the last day and a half to defend himself.

If they got past all of that, they would still have to deal with the carrier’s own defenses. For the most part the Valiant was designed to defend itself from fighter attacks, but there were a handful of capital-ship cracking beam cannons to worry about—not the least of which was her main cannon, a massive corona XL which could punch a 60 meter-wide hole in an unshielded hull at 50 klicks.

Their only advantage and their only hope in the coming fight lay with the Interloper. Hoff hoped to death that the cloaked Sythian cutter-class cruiser was already in position at the Valiant’s port ventral hangar bay. They’d loaded that small, hundred-meter-long cruiser until sentinels were standing literally shoulder to shoulder on her decks, and now there were more than two thousand soldiers in full battle armor and over 100 zephyrs crammed aboard the alien cruiser. All they needed was a chance to get aboard, and Brondi wouldn’t stand a chance.

After that, however, they would still have to deal with the five hundred angry fighters buzzing around the Valiant. In a straight fight that many fighters could easily take down both the Valiant and the Tauron without an ample fighter screen of their own, but Hoff trusted in the outlaw pilots’ instincts of self-preservation to keep them from doing anything stupid. Most of Brondi’s fighters were short-ranged, and by the time the Valiant was back under Imperial control, they’d be low on both fuel and air. If they decided to destroy the Valiant rather than see her fall back into Imperial hands, they’d be sentencing themselves to death, too. Brondi’s cruisers and destroyers were not equipped to take on that many fighters.

All things considered, their plan had a fifty-fifty chance of success, and it relied on everything working perfectly. Hoff feared he might be relying too much on common sense and reason with a band of uneducated, impetuous criminals who might just as easily decide to shoot first and regret it later. But, as they say— Hoff thought, watching the reversion timer tick down to five seconds. —only time will tell.

The countdown became audible. When it reached zero, superluminal space disappeared with a flash, and back was the comparative dimness of stars and space.

“Engineering, report!”

“All systems green, Admiral!”

“Comms! Sound the alert! Launch Inferno Squadron and have them screen us on our approach. Their priority is AMS. Do not let them break off and engage. Anyone who peels off our flight path gets left behind. Weapons, your priority is AMS, too.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Nav—come about! Maximum acceleration.”

“Coming about.”

 “Gravidar, what do you see out there?” Hoff asked, already scanning the grid to see for himself.

“Minor variations in the enemy formation. Everything looks predictable so far . . . wait, no, this is new. I have a pair of old baron-class cruisers coming up on our starboard side at K-44-54-16 and K-48-54-16. They’ll reach us before we’re through the minefield.”

Hoff noted the cruisers on the captain’s table and called out, “Gunnery! Flag those cruisers as secondary targets. Primaries are still the mines along our flight path and any missiles that we pick up.”

“Yes, sir.”

Hoff looked up to see the Valiant pan into view. It glittered distantly against Firea’s day/night terminator. The half of the giant carrier which faced them was dark, shaded by its own bulk from the pale red light of the system’s sun, and Hoff could see the light of a million viewports glowing like broken flecks of fireglass in the dark. His gray eyes dipped back to the grid in time to see the enemy fighters responding to their approach vector. Almost a hundred of them would be in missile range before the Tauron was even through the minefield. You’d better be in position, Caldin, he thought.

“Admiral, a small transport just launched out the back of the Tauron!” gravidar reported.

Hoff nodded; he’d been expecting that. His clone would take Destra and Atta deeper into Dark Space, and from there they’d find a way to either commandeer a larger ship, or refit theirs so that it could take them all the way to the enclave. “Did they have clearance?”

“They were auto-cleared by the system.”

“Then ignore them. They’re authorized.”

“Yes, sir.”

Hoff followed the gravidar icon of that transport out the back of the Tauron until he was satisfied that they were out of danger, and then he turned his attention to the seething mass of red enemy contacts converging on his battleship. A short stream of friendly nova fighters shot out the front of the battleship, launching with the Tauron’s forward momentum to give them an extra boost. That was Inferno Squadron—down to just nine out of the original dozen after their first run-in with the Valiant. Now it was time for revenge. Once all nine of them were clear, transports began to appear, flooding out on both sides of the Tauron. Assault transports weren’t either fast or maneuverable, but they were heavily armed and armored, and better than nothing as an escort, so Hoff had ordered them to flank the Tauron in two groups of twenty three. Along with Inferno Squadron, they would provide AMS support for the battleship.

Now all of the pieces are in play, Hoff thought. Let the game begin.




Chapter 27

Origin

Atton jetted out into space aboard Hoff’s modified seraphim-class corvette. He’d found it waiting behind a shadowy door at the far end of Hoff’s clone room. Using the credentials already imbedded in Hoff’s wrist, he’d managed to open both that door and the corvette waiting on the other side. Once through the door, he’d taken just a moment to admire the gleaming lines of the ship. From the outside, it looked just like Brondi’s corvette, but the paint was military gray rather than the black with red accents which Brondi’s organization seemed to favor. It was three times the length of a nova fighter and stood easily a dozen meters high. For atmospheric flight, dual turbines flanked the hull and four movable stabilizer fins did double duty as air brakes and grav field projectors. Between the stabilizer fins lay two heavy laser turrets with room for gunners, while four more pilot-controlled arc-firing turrets ran along the top of the ship—two ripper cannons, and two medium grade, blue dymium pulse lasers. Mounted on the keel of the ship were another two ripper cannons, two missile launchers, and one torpedo launcher. For extra defenses it had a rear-facing mine launcher loaded with eight scatter bombs, and a reinforced shield array, with a deflection rating of 260, roughly three times that of a nova fighter. All in all, it was a flying fortress, a mini capital ship.

Atton had used Hoff’s own grav gun to carry him aboard and strap him down on a bed in one of the transport’s six sleeping quarters. Now, he sat up in the cockpit, familiarizing himself with the controls at the pilot’s station. This corvette had been redesigned for just one pilot and a copilot, while drydock standard would have been four to five bridge control stations.

 Atton hoped the other Hoff Heston up on the bridge of the Tauron wasn’t paying much attention to the corvette flying out the back of his ship. A quick glance at the comms revealed no incoming messages. No one had asked him to provide clearance codes or explain what he was doing. Hoff would expect to see the corvette leave, but he wouldn’t expect to see it join the Tauron’s flight path and fly into battle. Atton counted to ten, waiting until he guessed that Hoff had stopped watching him on the grid before he stepped on the starboard rudder to bring the transport around. The bright blue glow of the Tauron’s thrusters hove into view—four main thrusters, each one large enough to swallow a venture-class cruiser whole, surrounded by eight smaller maneuvering thrusters. The collective glare was blinding even through the corvette’s auto-polarizing viewport. Atton turned away from the view to scan his holo displays. The main one was already set to the default—a glowing three dimensional grid of space. The grid was crowded with a seething mass of red enemy contacts.

Atton eyed those enemy fighters and starships. They began to blur together, converging on the Tauron in a bloody red line. A small number of green contacts shot out from the front of Hoff’s battleship. They were nova fighters. By the time they stopped streaming out, there were just nine of them, meaning they were outnumbered more than fifty to one by Brondi’s fighter screen. Assault transports began appearing on both sides of the battleship to augment that flimsy fighter screen. Atton shook his head. Those transports would be torn apart; they were too slow to go head-to-head with fighters. . . .

As slow as a corvette?

Atton stopped himself there with a frown. Hoff’s modifications had come at a price, and the corvette’s standard 108 KAPS top acceleration had been knocked back to just 92. That made it faster than the Tauron, but much slower than the average fighter.

Atton caught up to the Tauron just as both the battleship and the enemy fighter wing reached the minefield from opposite sides. They rushed headlong toward each other in the narrow gap between the mines. Bright red streams of fire began flashing out from the Tauron on all sides, hitting nearby mines and provoking brilliant flashes of light. The explosions caused a distant roar to rumble through the corvette’s simulated sound system.

ETA two minutes before the enemy fighters were in range. Atton tightened his hand on the flight stick as he raced past a glowing line of viewports more than a dozen decks high in the prow of the Tauron. He powered up the ship’s turrets. Two blue dymium pulse lasers and four ripper cannons. They all had the same range—about two klicks, which meant he’d only have time for one short volley before he passed the approaching fighters. He switched over to hailfire missiles instead and set the turrets to auto-fire. Now he had a maximum firing range of five klicks—ten if he just wanted the missiles to fly in a straight line.

Atton flew out ahead of the Tauron, and now he saw the blue engine glows of the Tauron’s novas—dead ahead. Atton’s corvette was coming up fast, about to pass them at any second. He would be the first one to engage the enemy. A quick look at the grid revealed that the squadron leading Brondi’s forces was made up of novas. Atton targeted the lead fighter and lined it up under his crosshairs. Thirty seven klicks to target. Atton’s forward velocity was 1546 m/s and climbing. He disengaged the engines and watched the rangefinder scroll down three klicks every other second. Twenty klicks to target. He wondered idly about his transport’s name as he waited to get within firing range. He asked the ship’s computer with a verbal query.

“This transport is designated the Last Chance,” the computer replied in a warm female voice. “It is a modified seraphim-class corvette with—”

“That’s all right, thanks. I already know the specifications,” Atton replied. “What’s your name?”

“Destra.”

Atton laughed. “All right, Mom.”

“My name’s not Mom, it’s—”

“I know, I know.” Atton shook his head, smiling despite the gravity of the situation. Maybe she was right to stay behind, he thought.

The admiral wasn’t all bad after all. Skriffy as a space rat, but not all bad.

*  *  *

Origin

Devlin Squadron raced toward the minefield in a staggered line formation. Ethan felt the acceleration pin him to his nova’s flight chair and threaten to rip his hands off the flight stick. He had the point position, while a few dozen meters back and to one side was Gina, Devlin Two. Ethan’s squadron was the first of six to reach the edge of the minefield. There were just nine of them—Ethan, Gina, and the seven surviving members of Aleph Squad, slave-chipped to think they were pilots. Their recently acquired skills in the cockpit were just enough to make sure they didn’t crash into each other—but only just. Facing off with them on the other side of the minefield were the mighty Tauron and her opposing fighter screen of nine novas.

Their nine to our nine, Ethan thought. Devlin Squadron would never be a match for them by itself, but they were leading a whole wing of expendable junkers, and there were another six fighter wings where that came from—more than 40 squadrons and over 500 fighters in all. Seeing what Hoff had brought to the fight, Ethan didn’t have to wonder about the outcome of this battle. The fact that the admiral had launched all of his assault transports to bolster his non-existent fighter screen was proof that even he was skeptical of his chances. What were you thinking, Hoff?

There was no way the Valiant would fall to such a pathetic attack, and now Ethan had to rethink his plan to throw his life away. He was back to being Alara’s only hope. He gritted his teeth as mines began racing by to either side of his cockpit. His HUD painted translucent red walls around the minefield to show him where they would explode if he got too close. Those polygonal walls raced by him like the sides of a simulated canyon, adding a sense of speed and urgency to his flight.

Now their range to the Tauron was down to just 20 kilometers, and the Imperial novas were leading that by a good 500 meters. Ethan’s mind raced in anxious circles as he thumbed over to hailfire missiles and targeted the first Imperial nova. What was he doing? He couldn’t help Brondi. . . .

But if he didn’t, Alara would suffer a fate worse than death.

Suddenly an enemy missile lock alarm began beeping in his cockpit, and Ethan snapped out of it. Racing out ahead of Hoff’s fighter screen was the glinting hull of a seraphim-class corvette, and it was targeting him. The missile lock alarm screeched in a solid tone, and two hailfire missiles shot out from the transport.

Ethan blinked, and his hand hesitated on the flight stick.

*  *  *

Origin

Admiral Heston gaped at the grid as the Last Chance rushed out ahead of the Tauron’s novas. “Comms! Hail that corvette! Tell them to disengage immediately.”

“Yes, sir.”

What are you doing? Hoff wondered. He had a hard time believing that any clone of his would be that stupid. Why would he risk Destra’s and Atta’s lives like that? Maybe it had been Destra’s idea . . . or Atton’s.

“They’re not responding to our hails, sir.”

Hoff growled and shook his head. Of course they weren’t responding. If his clone answered, it would raise a lot of awkward questions with the crew. Hoff’s eyes narrowed angrily as he watched that transport dodge and weave toward the enemy fighter wave. It was too late to do anything about it. He was going to have to trust that his clone had the good sense to stay alive. And if not . . . Hoff had already taken the necessary measures to prevent a tragedy. He would have to content himself with that. If Destra and Atta died, they would wake up on Fortress Station a few months later with no memory of the battle which had killed them. Right now, neither one of them was a clone, but if Hoff had to revive them, then he would. He felt bad about chipping them without their knowledge, but he’d already hid plenty of other things from them, so what was one more secret? He was in the process of aging more clones so he could revive them aboard the Tauron, too. When Destra had broken into his facility and uncovered everything, she should have looked in the stasis tubes on the other side of the room. If she had, she would have seen two more familiar faces.

Hoff sighed. It wasn’t ideal, but few things ever were. In the end, it always came down to the same question: are we just a biological storage device for our experiences—or are we something more? Hoff didn’t believe in things he couldn’t see or measure, so for him there could only be one answer to that question. The fact that multiple instances of the same person could exist did nothing to diminish his belief. If two things look alike, sound alike, and act alike—are they not the same?

“Sir, one of the enemy cruisers is within corona beam range,” the gunnery chief reported, bringing Hoff back to the present situation.

“Open fire,” he said, looking up from the grid just in time to see two red corona beams arc out from the starboard side of his ship and slam into the distant hull of a baron-class cruiser. The enemy cruiser’s shields flashed bright blue at the point of impact, deflecting the attack. But corona beams were designed to take down shields, and they kept pouring a continuous stream of hull-cracking energy into that cruiser for four full seconds. The enemy cruiser’s shields failed at the last second and the corona beams drew a roiling ball of fire from her hull.

“Enemy shields depleted,” the weapons chief said.

Hoff smiled. “Hit them again, Lieutenant.”

*  *  *

Origin

Ethan hesitated for a long, breathless moment, his hands and feet frozen at the controls. The missile lock alarm screamed at him with increasing urgency, but he didn’t budge. He couldn’t justify killing any more innocent officers to save Alara or himself.

The pair of hailfire missiles which had locked onto him blossomed like fireworks just seconds before they reached him, each warhead split into four separate pieces and then spiraled off on hot orange contrails, now tracking multiple targets from unexpected angles.

“Hoi, someone’s got a lock on me!” Devlin Three said. That was Sergeant Dorian of Aleph Squad.

Ethan watched the three missiles which spiraled toward his own fighter. His heart thudded madly in his chest. His palms began to tingle and sweat. A cold fist of panic seized him and his heart seemed to abruptly stop beating in anticipation of the end.

At the last possible second, instinct took over. Ethan thumb-switched over to lasers and shot two of the approaching missiles down. The third one impacted on his shields, and space turned white. A deafening roar came through the simulated sound system and the seat restraints dug roughly into his chest as one of his three engines exploded and his nova flipped end over end with the unbalanced thrust.

“IMS to 100%!” Ethan said. Suddenly the tumbling sensation ceased, but space continued to spin around him. A quick thrust correction brought his nova back under control, but now with a maximum acceleration of just 98 KAPS and barely half of its former maneuverability. Ethan scanned the grid to the look for the modified corvette which had shot him. He saw it go racing past him, spitting a solid stream of gold ripper fire and blue dymium pulse lasers at the other Devlins. As he watched, Devlin Three’s icon flashed brightly and then winked out.

No more sergeant Dorian.

Devlin Two screamed, “You motherfrekker!”

That was Gina. She flipped around and returned fire on the corvette but it deflected her lasers easily and turned its turrets on her next. Ethan grimaced, watching as she and the other Devlins fired haphazardly at the corvette. Half their shots missed, and they didn’t even bother to make use of their speed and maneuverability to dodge enemy fire, meanwhile the corvette ducked and wove like a ship half its size. Ethan pulled up hard to loop over and line up on the corvette’s tail, but before he’d even brought his crosshairs in line, it took out another Devlin and clipped the wings off a third.

“Frek it, I’m dead in space!” Devlin Nine said.

“We’ve lost Six!” Five added.

Ethan gritted his teeth. Don’t they know they’re firing on their own men?

He lined up the corvette under his sights and snapped off a quick fire-linked burst of his own. All three lasers found their mark, taking 10% off the corvette’s aft shields. Then they equalized and it was only 5%, but it was enough to get the corvette’s attention. Suddenly it stopped firing on Ethan’s squad mates and those turrets swiveled to face him. A blinding pair of blue dymium lasers flashed by his canopy, so close that they bathed his cockpit in an azure glow. Ethan kicked his fighter up on its side and began weaving an evasive pattern, but with one of his thrusters ruined, his maneuvers were slow and clumsy. Lasers flashed by his cockpit with increasing accuracy until a pair of them hit.

“Shields critical,” his nova’s computer reported.

Ethan’s eyes darted to his shield gauge to see his shields in the red, barely recovering at just 12%. A couple of hits were all it would take to bring him down.

“Devlins, I could use some help over here!” But they’d all broken off, their attention drawn by the onrushing wave of enemy novas.

“Ruh-kah!” he heard Gina roar.

“Hoi, missiles incoming!” another said.

“Frek it! We’re too close!”

“Break, break—skrsssss . . .” that last message died in static. Ethan spared a quick glance at the gravidar just in time to see his whole squadron go winking off the grid in quick succession. Their explosions lit up the holo display and rumbled through his speakers.

Devlin Two, Gina’s fighter, was the last to go.

Ethan stared at the grid, wide-eyed with horror.

“Frek!” he activated his comms and switched to an open channel, no longer caring what Brondi’s reaction might be. “You just killed a whole squadron of friendlies! Congratulations. That was Aleph Squad and First Lieutenant Gina Giord, in case anyone cares.”

Another shot from the corvette hit him and his nova shuddered.

“Shields critical,” the computer warned again.

“You don’t say?” Ethan snapped while increasing power to forward shields.

“Dad? Is that you?”

Ethan blinked. Hearing Atton’s voice interrupted his concentration just enough for another two shots from the modified corvette to find their mark. A warning siren blared through the cockpit and the computer said, “Shields depleted.” His canopy flashed again, and he heard a gritty screech of duranium. His flight suit auto-pressurized with an ear-popping hiss, and that was when Ethan noticed the jagged crack in the left side of his canopy. He turned to look out over his port wing and found nothing but a molten ruin where it had once been. Ethan tested his flight stick, but found that now the nova barely responded. At full thrust he was crawling along at just 22 KAPS. Only one of his thrusters was still lit, and it was sputtering. As Ethan watched, his HUD flickered and his holo displays went black, only to start up again a moment later, but now tinted a sickly red. He was on emergency power—back up batteries.

“Dad! Frek—are you okay?”

He couldn’t believe it. His son was flying that corvette. Ethan let out a shuddering sigh and keyed his comm. “Atton?”

“I’m coming about. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, but my fighter is pretty badly scorched.”

“Do you think you can get clear of the engagement?”

Ethan shook his head. “No, I’m running on emergency power.”

For a moment, neither of them was sure what to do next, and then a flurry of warning beeps flooded through Ethan’s helmet speakers. Missile locks. The Tauron’s novas were in range.

“Atton! Tell those novas to stand down!”

But it was too late. The beeps turned to sirens and Ethan’s hand found the red ejection lever beside his chair.

“Ruh-kah,” he whispered, and then he pulled the lever.

His canopy blew away as the explosive bolts fired. The flight chair shot him out into space at a modest 60 KAPS, which he felt with the crushing weight of three and a half G’s. The ejection seat cancelled only half of that force with its weak grav field, while the rest worked hard to flatten him like a pancake. For a brief instant, the weight on his spine was almost unbearable; all the blood drained away from his head and black spots swam across his vision, blotting out the stars. Then the chair’s thruster sputtered out and he began to drift at a constant rate. Ethan twisted around to see the approaching battleship and its nova escort. The novas were tiny, glinting specks against the darkness of space, but visible to the naked eye, which meant they were very close. The mighty warship behind them looked like an onrushing mountain, glittering with lights and bristling with cannons.

Suddenly, fireworks blossomed in the foreground and over half a dozen orange contrails spiraled out of nowhere. Ethan knew what those were. He fought his seat restraints to peer down on his damaged nova. The charred and broken fighter drifted by some 200 meters below—still far too close. In a matter of seconds, when those hailfires found his ruined nova, Ethan would be incinerated by the blast.




Chapter 28

Origin

Time froze as Atton watched his father eject and the hailfire missiles zero in on his drifting nova. With a heart-pounding stab of adrenaline, he realized that Ethan would be too close to the blast when those missiles hit. He banked toward the incoming missiles and began firing wildly at them. The first two exploded, but there were still six more arcing toward their target. He briefly considered putting his transport between the missiles and their target, but blocking them all would be impossible—not to mention suicidal.

Maybe he didn’t have to block them. Atton targeted his father’s derelict fighter and pushed the throttle up past the stops into overdrive. Now he was roaring along at 120 KAPS. He switched his shields to double front, dialed up the IMS to 100%, and made small course corrections based on his target’s drift. The rangefinder ticked down to just a few hundred meters, but the missiles were nearly as close. Atton had a horrible premonition of those warheads hitting the fighter at the same instant he did, and all of them exploding in a fiery spectacle.

Then he hit the drifting nova and the transport imparted 556 m/s of kinetic energy.

“Shields critical,” the corvette’s computer warned. Several damage alarms sounded. But the nova fighter went tumbling off into space at 440 m/s, and Atton saw the missiles arc after it just a split second later. He waited to see the fiery starburst which would signify their impact.

But he never got to see the explosion. Instead, he heard the sudden screech of a missile lock alarm, followed by a muffled boom and a blinding flash of light.

“Shields depleted,” the computer said as acrid smoke poured into the cockpit.

*  *  *

Origin

Caldin watched the developing confrontation with an encroaching sense of dread. The first nine kills went to Hoff’s novas and one mysterious corvette, but Brondi had hundreds of fighters left. As she watched, Hoff’s formation came into range, and the junkers dumb-fired their missiles at the Tauron, ignoring the novas completely. Hundreds of streaking missiles appeared on the grid. The Tauron and her novas opened up on them with a blinding flurry of lasers, but fully half of the missiles got through. Caldin watched the Tauron’s shields drop from 100% to 89% as impact after impact flashed along her bow. Then the Tauron went slicing through the enemy formation, taking pot shots at the odd 60 fighters which went roaring over and under her hull. Hoff’s flanking assault transports joined the fight with a few barrages from their turrets, but in the handful of seconds it took for the enemy fighters to race past, Hoff’s forces only managed to kill a squadron and a half of them. The Tauron raced on at full throttle, her rear turrets flashing out with parting shots, but those  junkers would never catch up to the Tauron now. The first wave was over, but it had been the easiest one. Just on the other side of the minefield were more than 400 additional fighters, and almost half of those were novas with military grade munitions.

Caldin grimaced. It was going to be a very close fight. She looked up from the captain’s table to see her XO, Junior Captain Crossid Adram, standing down by the edge of the holographic dome, staring out at space. She frowned. They didn’t have long before the Tauron made her pass on the Valiant, likely just another minute. What was he doing down there? She shook her head and jogged down to Adram. Upon reaching his side, she tapped him on the shoulder, but he didn’t respond. His lips were moving and his eyes were closed, but she could hear only indistinct whispers coming out.

“It’s a little late to be saying your prayers, Adram.”

He opened his eyes and turned to her with a smile. “You’re right. It’s far too late for that.”

Caldin’s brow furrowed, but she didn’t comment on whatever morbid sense of humor had provoked that smile. “I need your full attention on the grid, Adram. We’re less than a minute away from our attack window.”

“Of course,” he replied, nodding slowly.

Caldin turned and jogged back to the captain’s table, not waiting for him to catch up. She planted her palms on the rim of the table and gazed down on the grid, watching the Tauron nail a few mines with its cannons before roaring through the minefield. They were in, but Brondi’s fighter squadrons had just been waiting for this. Now they were all in range.

The grid erupted with lasers, beams, and missiles. Explosions blossomed to all sides of the battleship in a blinding flurry of light. Space was so busy that she almost missed what happened next.

All of a sudden, the minefield began to explode. Fire spread across the grid like a tidal wave. Caldin blinked and shook her head, unable to understand what she was seeing.

“Gravidar! What’s taking out those mines?” she demanded.

*  *  *

Origin

Admiral Heston watched the battle rage around him on the holographic grid. Hundreds of missiles flashed out from Brondi’s fighters, and the battleship’s gunners answered back with a blinding stream of lasers. More than half of the missiles were shot down before they reached the Tauron, but that left his ship shuddering with the impacts of a significant remainder. Dozens of missiles impacted on all sides of the battleship, filling the bridge speakers with a muted roar. Hoff watched out the viewports as half a dozen missiles spiraled in toward the bridge itself. They splashed on the viewports in a blinding burst of light a second later, and Hoff winced away from the glare.

So far shields were holding. They were down to 62%, but ETA until they reached firing range with the Valiant was just thirty seconds now, and they had already roared past the majority of the enemy fighters. The massive, five-kilometer-long carrier began to fill their entire view of space.

We’re going to make it, Hoff thought. But they still had to get past the Valiant’s own defenses. After they’d hulled a baron-class cruiser with their corona beams without taking any damage themselves, Brondi’s smaller capital ships had chosen to stay back, out of range. Now Brondi was being smart. He wasn’t going to throw his more valuable ships away in a battle which he was certain to win anyway, and he didn’t need to; he had his junk fighters for that.

Hoff watched the confusing mess of exploding missiles, darting fighters, and lancing lasers, and gave a predatory smile. Brondi had no idea that his carrier was about to be overrun with navy sentinels.

Suddenly the grid came alive with something new. The minefield began to explode, all at once, flaring on the grid like a supernova. It was as if Brondi had pushed a button and remotely detonated all of his mines. The resultant wave of fire from those mines spread all the way around the Tauron and the Valiant in a brief, shining sphere of light. Hoff frowned as the myriad explosions began to clear.

Why would Brondi detonate his own minefield?

*  *  *

Origin

Atton coughed on the smoke pouring into the cockpit. He sealed and pressurized his flight suit with a whisper of a command, and the maddening tickle in the back of his throat eased as he began breathing a separately filtered air supply.

A quick look at the damage report showed minor damage to the hull and inertial management system. There was a slow fuel and pressure leak somewhere inside the port engine nacelle, and two of his stabilizer fins had been blown off, but otherwise all systems were in the green. He’d been incredibly lucky. The hailfire missile which had hit him had stripped his shields, but not much else.

Then Atton remembered the reason he’d put himself in the path of the hailfires in the first place, and his eyes darted to the grid. He zoomed in several levels to find his father drifting away slowly at a distance of two klicks. At 33 klicks, the enemy fighter wing was already turning around to chase the Tauron. They’d be back in range of the Last Chance in just a few minutes.

Atton targeted his father and brought the corvette around in a tight arc. He kept the throttle down so he wouldn’t overshoot. Once he came to within 50 meters of Ethan, he pulled back on the throttle and pulled up gently on the stick to cruise out overhead. He set the transport’s autopilot to maintain that position relative to his father while he cycled the rear airlock open. Using the airlock’s emergency rescue systems, he managed to get a grav lock on Ethan and pull him inside. Shutting the airlock once more, he spared a quick glance at the grid to see an entire squadron of junkers now angling toward him. Fifteen klicks.

The Last Chance’s shield gauge glowed red at just 22%, and the enemy fighters were already moving fast. In just a few seconds they would be in firing range. There was no way he could stand and fight with 22% shields.

Atton dialed up the inertial management system to 100%, so that his father wouldn’t roll around in the back, but the IMS only reached 98% due to recent damage. It would have to do. Atton pushed the transport’s throttle up past the stops into full overdrive. The acceleration pressed him against his seat with just a quarter of a G as the Last Chance shot away at her maximum overdrive speed of 120 KAPS.

The enemy fighters were still gaining on them—now ten klicks away. Atton armed the transport’s scatter bomb mines, hoping to take the enemy fighters by surprise, but when they came to within five klicks, Atton heard the warning tones of multiple missile locks, and he grimaced. He’d been hoping they’d expended all of their missiles already. At this range, the enemy would easily dodge his mines. Atton set the corvette’s turrets to auto AMS in order to tag any missiles which got too close. A moment later he heard the swish of a door opening behind him and then a familiar voice. “Hoi—think you can give your old man a break? I must have bumped my head a dozen times.”

Atton turned to see his father standing behind him, leaning heavily on the door jamb.

“Dad! Krak it’s good to see you! Think you can man one of the turrets? We’ve got incoming enemy fighters and I’m not sure that the autos will be able to catch all of their missiles.

“I’m on it,” Ethan said.

There was a worrying catch in his voice, and now Atton looked at his father more closely. This time he noticed the sheen of sealant which had been sprayed on Ethan’s flight suit in at least three different places. He’d had to reseal his own suit, which could only mean one thing—he hadn’t been far enough from the blast.

“Krak—you’re hurt. Are you okay?”

“It’s just a little shrapnel. I’ll be all right. You saved my life, Atton. Thanks.”

They were interrupted by the solid tone of a missile lock alarm and Atton grimaced. “You’d better hurry up with that turret.”

“Right.” Ethan set off at a run, limping as he went, and Atton looked away, his attention back on piloting the ship. Three missiles had appeared on the grid, streaking out toward them. A few seconds later Atton heard the screech of red dymium lasers firing as his father snapped off a few shots at extreme range. He was about to tell Ethan not to waste energy, but then one of the missiles winked off the grid and he grinned. So much for maximum effective range, he thought. He watched the other two missiles chasing them vanish from the grid as Ethan nailed them with a few more long-range shots.

“Nice work!” he said over the intercom.

“Thanks, I . . .” Ethan trailed off suddenly. “What the frek?”

Atton gaped at the star map. The minefield began exploding all around them in a raging inferno. The explosions raced around the minefield in a brief, shining sphere of light that momentarily blotted out both the Tauron and the Valiant.

“What in the nethers was that?” Atton asked as the fire receded. The last few mines went on exploding, but the majority of them had already been cleared. Either Brondi had been stupid enough to put his mines too close together, and someone had accidentally set off a chain reaction which had wiped out the entire field, or else Brondi had triggered the minefield remotely.

“Maybe Brondi’s going to make a run for it?” Ethan asked

“Why would he run away from a fight that he’s about to win?” The Interloper stood poised to turn the tide for the admiral’s forces, but Brondi didn’t know that. From his point of view, this should have looked liked a complete rout.

“I don’t like the look of this,” Ethan said.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Atton insisted, keeping half an eye on the approaching enemy fighters. They were almost within laser range.

Space shimmered all around them, and in the blink of an eye Atton understood. His eyes were drawn away from the handful of red enemy contacts chasing them to the thousands of red icons which suddenly appeared on the grid. A hollow sphere of red enemy contacts appeared around the Tauron and the Valiant, taking the place of the minefield which had been there a moment ago. A cold shiver ran down Atton’s spine, and he felt a crushing weight of despair. Suddenly recapturing the Valiant and bringing Brondi to justice seemed like a pointless squabble between two children.

“Atton . . .”

“I see it,” he said.

Both Admiral Hoff and Brondi were now surrounded by a vastly superior force—a Sythian Armada the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the exodus. Sythian shell fighters, cruisers, and destroyers all whirled around like a deadly hurricane with the Tauron and the Valiant trapped in the eye. As Atton watched, the encircling walls of the enemy ships began to close in, but like two children who were determined to keep fighting even after their parents arrived to break it up, Hoff and Brondi were still shooting at each other.

Even standing together they’d be lucky to escape, but like this—fighting each other right up to the end—humanity was doomed. Atton felt a lump rise in his throat and he silently cursed Hoff for bringing them to this. It was all his fault. He’d led them here, and now the day everyone was afraid of had finally come.

The Sythians had found them.




Chapter 29

Origin

Hoff saw the overwhelming number of Sythian contacts suddenly appear on the grid, but he didn’t freeze with indecision; he snapped into action. “Gravidar! Give me a tally!”

A moment later, a report flashed up from the captain’s table and Hoff saw just how badly they were outnumbered. There were 257 Sythian capital-class vessels. The number of shell fighters deployed was already over 1,000, and rising by the second.

Even if all the human forces stood together, their fighters would be outnumbered more than six to one, while their capital ships would face even longer odds. Their only hope was to get clear of the encircling enemy ships and jump to SLS. They would have to leave Dark Space to its fate.

“Comms! Hail the Valiant on an open channel and put us on speaker. I want all of Brondi’s men to hear this.”

“Yes, sir . . .” Hoff waited for a few tense moments while the Tauron continued to shudder and shake with the distant booms of exploding human missiles and the thud-thud-thud of their answering laser cannons.

“They’re responding!”

“Put it on screen.”

The Valiant’s bridge appeared, projected in a hovering holo over the main viewport. Brondi’s round face dominated the hologram, his skin waxy and pale, his eyes wide with shock. He was not smiling.

“Brondi,” Hoff said, nodding to the diminutive man.

“Admiral,” Brondi replied. “Surrender your ship to us. You’re losing, and we can’t keep fighting with skull faces all around us.”

Hoff smiled thinly. “You can’t hope to command my men better than I can. You surrender your ship, and I’ll get us out of this mess.”

Brondi’s cheeks bulged and a booming laugh escaped his lips. “Forget it. I’d sooner die.”

“Fine. Neither of us is willing to surrender, so let’s at least agree not to shoot each other. We have a greater concern right now. Will you agree to a cease fire?”

Brondi hesitated, but after a moment’s contemplation, he nodded. “Yes.”

“Good. We’re going to have to work together to escape.”

“You’re abandoning Dark Space,” Brondi said.

“We don’t have a choice. We’ll be lucky to get out alive ourselves, let alone rescue anybody else.”

Now Brondi did smile, and his mouth gaped in a broad grin. “You and I are more alike than I thought. I’ll inform my men of the cease fire.”

“Likewise.”

“See you in the netherworld, Admiral,” Brondi said, and his laughter echoed across the bridge before he killed the connection. Brondi’s face faded and back was the Valiant, her impressive bulk dominating their view out the forward viewports.

“Gravidar! Update our friend foe designations. Comms, let everyone know about the cease fire.”

“Yes, sir,” both officers replied in unison.

Hoff held his breath, reluctant to order the helmsman to set a new course until they came into range of the Valiant’s main beam. If Brondi had been lying about the cease fire, then they were about to find out. Their range to the Valiant dropped below 50 klicks, bringing them into range of the carrier’s corona XL, but no hull-splitting beam shot out to slice off their bow. Hoff let his breath out in a sigh. All the flashing lasers and blooming explosions ceased, and there came a moment of utter tranquility with no one shooting at each other. Brondi’s forces turned yellow on the grid, and now former enemies cruised past each other without so much as a single shot fired.

The Sythians had brought them together, if only for the moment. Hoff suffered a moment of indecision as he realized that he was throwing away their only chance to take back the Valiant, but the Tauron’s shields were already down to 56%, and they’d be lucky to escape the carrier’s beam weapons without serious hull damage, let alone fly on and face Sythians after that. Neither Hoff nor Brondi was going to escape without the other’s help.

“Helm, reverse thrust and keep us as far away from the Sythians as you can. We need to buy some time.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Comms, get me the medbay. I want Tova and Roan up here now.”

*  *  *

Origin

Atton heard the cease fire announced over the comms and he let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. The squadron of junk fighters chasing them abruptly stopped firing, and Atton’s hand relaxed on the flight stick. Now what? he wondered, his eyes scanning the long list of Sythians ships in system.

“Atton . . .” Ethan began, his voice hoarse and thready. “I need a break. I’m coming down.”

“Okay.” Atton frowned and turned to look behind him as Ethan emerged in the corridor behind the cockpit. His father limped up to the cockpit and all but collapsed in one of the two passenger’s seats behind the pilot’s and copilot’s stations.

Atton snapped on the autopilot and unbuckled his restraints to give his father a hand. “Are you okay?”

“Water,” he croaked. “Do you have something to drink?”

Atton nodded. “Give me a second.” He hurried aft to get a bottle of water. A few seconds later he returned and handed it to his father.

“Thanks,” Ethan whispered. He’d taken his helmet off, and now Atton could see clearly what bad shape his father was in—salt and pepper hair matted with sweat, his face pallid and gray. Atton felt an apprehensive stab of concern, but he went back to the pilot’s chair without comment.

After taking some water, Ethan’s voice returned somewhat stronger than before. “Now what?”

“I don’t know.”

“The admiral hasn’t said anything yet?”

Atton scanned the comm logs and noted that he’d just missed the last transmission. He read the transcript with a deepening frown. “He wants all of his ships to form a protective screen around the Tauron. He and Brondi are going to fly through the Sythian formation in tandem. Orders are to jump to SLS as soon as we get clear. They’ve sent us jump coordinates already . . . we’re jumping away from Dark Space.” Atton shook his head. “He’s abandoning them!”

“He doesn’t have a choice, Atton.”

“Doesn’t have a choice . . . this is all his frekking fault!”

“What are you talking about?”

“He led them here! He attacked Obsidian Station in order to capture High Lord Kaon, and that damn Sythian was implanted with some kind of tracking device. Hoff only found it after we reached the entrance of Dark Space.”

Ethan snorted. “That’s ironic.”

“It’s not funny! Do you realize how many people are about to die? There’s only one way in and one way out of Dark Space, and the Sythians are blocking it.”

“I didn’t say it was funny. But it’s ironic that Hoff accused you of compromising Dark Space when it was ultimately him who did that.”

“Every time I think about it I want to kill him,” Atton growled. His thoughts turned to Hoff’s clone, lying strapped down in the back of the corvette, and a grim smile sprang to his lips. “Would you take the controls for a moment, Dad?”

“Why?”

“I’m going to go see if our passenger is awake.”

“Passenger?”

Atton waved a dismissive hand at his father as he walked by. “It’s a long story.”

“I’m listening. . . .”

Atton returned less than a minute later, shoving Admiral Hoff Heston ahead of him at gunpoint. Ethan’s jaw dropped when he saw the admiral. “What are you doing here?”

“He’s not the admiral, but he’s just as good. He’s a clone.”

“A what?

“Like I said, it’s a long story.”

“What are you doing, Atton?” Hoff demanded. “Where’s Des and Atta?”

“They’re on the Tauron. They didn’t want to leave your side, although I’m not sure how that makes any sense under the circumstances.” Atton smiled nastily and pointed to the grid, “You’re right to be worried about them, though. Take a look, Hoff, and you’ll see what I mean.”

“What for?”

“Just do it.” Atton gestured with his pistol, which was actually Hoff’s sidearm. Atton had taken it from the clone before bringing him aboard.

Hoff stepped up beside Ethan to peer down at the star map. They heard a strangled noise escape his lips. “That’s impossible!”

“No, it’s not. You led them here, remember?”

Hoff just shook his head; his age-lined face was pale, his gray eyes wide and staring.

“You’re a real dumb krakhead, Hoff. Your bumbling other half has just ordered a full retreat. We’re leaving Dark Space to be overrun. Assuming we make it, we’ll be the last human survivors this side of the galaxy. How do you feel about that? Millions of innocent people dead, all thanks to you.”

“I . . .”

“If we do make it out of this alive, I can promise you that Ethan and I won’t be the only ones on trial. You’re going to have to answer for what you’ve done, too. Oh, and don’t worry, I’m going to see to it that everyone knows what you’ve been hiding so that when you’re executed for your crimes, this time you’re really going to die.”

*  *  *

Origin

Captain Caldin saw the Sythian armada appear, heard the cease fire declared, and received her new orders all with the same numb sense of defeat. Their orders were to follow the Tauron and the Valiant through the enemy formation, and since no one could see the Interloper unless they did something to give themselves away, they were to trail a safe distance behind the two larger ships and not engage the enemy, essentially just mind your own business and get out of here ASAP. With over two thousand sentinels on board, they were an extremely valuable asset packed into a small, vulnerable cruiser, so any contribution they could make wasn’t worth the risk of their ship being destroyed.

Caldin grimaced. They would be helpless spectators in the coming battle, just as they had been in the last one—brief though it had been. She eyed the grid as the Interloper followed in the Tauron’s wake. Battleship and carrier flew side by side toward the advancing wall of Sythians, shielding each other’s flanks, and racing out together, but that was where the cooperation ended. Brondi’s fighters and supporting cruisers had fanned out in an abbreviated shield to protect just his carrier, while Hoff was left to defend his battleship with just nine novas and a few assault transports. That wasn’t even an effective screen for one side of his flag ship, let alone all sides of it. Making matters worse, the Tauron’s shields were damaged from her fight with Brondi’s fighter screen, and there was no way they would be fully charged by the time the Sythians opened fire on them. Hoff would be lucky to get out alive. Brondi, on the other hand, stood a much better chance.

“Well, Captain,” Adram began. “It would seem we have finally reached the end of the war. The Sythians have won.”

“What about Hoff’s enclave?” Caldin demanded. “We can retreat there.”

Adram shrugged. “If we escape. But there might be a better place . . . if the rumors are true.”

“What rumors?”

“Supply ships come and go in the enclave, but no one knows where they come from, or where they go when they leave. The rumor is that there’s some part of the Imperium that survived, but only the admiral knows where it is.”

Caldin shook her head. “Wait—there are two groups of human survivors besides the ones in Dark Space?”

“Yes. Besides the enclave, there’s another faction of humanity that has been isolated since before the war—a whole sector patrolled by mighty fleets and teeming with overpopulated worlds. A lost sector.” Adram’s eyes glittered darkly. “Admiral Heston is their first line of defense and the leader of the fledgling colonies in the enclave.”

“If that’s true, and this lost sector is so strong and their resources are so abundant, why haven’t they tried to help us in Dark Space?”

“I think because the admiral doesn’t trust you. Perhaps with a different leader humanity would have been more united. Perhaps Dark Space would have had the strength to repel this invasion.”

Caldin’s eyes hardened. “Perhaps. What am I supposed to do with all that useless hindsight now?”

“Sentinels have holo displays built into their helmets. If the men on board were to get a streaming feed of the Obsidian Station incident . . . it might be enough to convince them of our cause. Then, when we’re safely away from all of this, we’ll have the army we need to capture Admiral Heston and his ship.” Adram shrugged. “After that, we can subject the admiral to a mind probe in order to find this lost sector of his. At least then we’ll have somewhere to run.”

“What makes you think the admiral’s men will turn?”

“No officer was more loyal to the admiral than I, ma’am. When you witness your commander turn on his own people, you realize that you could be next. It makes you question your orders in future.” Adram smiled. “Besides, it is the only way, Captain. For humanity’s sake. Children of the Adventa Galaxy should not fight one another.”

Caldin’s eyes narrowed as she contemplated that, but at last she sighed and nodded. “You’re right. I’ll go instruct the comm officer to relay the log recording. You’d better stay here to watch the grid.”

“Of course,” Adram nodded.

Caldin turned and walked down from the gangway to her comm officer. She felt her skin prickle as she turned her back to Adram, but so far she’d been nothing but cooperative with him. She knew he was trying to manipulate her. Why, and for what purpose, she didn’t know. She also had no way to verify that the log recording in question was real. The circumstantial evidence was significant—the station was gone and the Interloper had been found cruising through the debris, but Caldin feared that even if it were all true, helping Junior Captain Crossid Adram to overthrow the admiral would be tantamount to instating an even more dangerous leader, and she refused to be responsible for that. It was time to take emergency measures.

She reached Comm Officer Grimsby and hurried to explain to him what she actually wanted relayed to the sentinels’ holo displays. They needed to know about Adram’s plot, if not the reasons for it, and they had to be ready when she gave the word. Caldin had a bad feeling that as soon as Adram realized she wasn’t really on his side, he would betray her. So she would strike first.




Chapter 30

Origin

“What do you mean we are dead?” Hoff demanded. His face turned an angry shade of red, and his gray eyes flashed.

Tova and Roan stood side by side, their hands bound with stun cords. An entire squad of armored sentinels surrounded them, and to keep them from cloaking they had been wrapped in swaddling white robes, which unlike their armor, wouldn’t cloak when they did. Both of the hulking aliens stood with their shoulders hunched and their heads bowed, making them look unusually small and frail despite their two meter height.

Hoff kept his distance from them, his hand hovering near his sidearm just in case their defeated appearance was an act.

“You do not survive thisss,” Tova hissed, rephrasing her prior warning.

“Then neither will you. Tell your people to stand down, and you’ll live. I’ll set you both free.”

“I do not trust you, Woss.”

“I don’t trust you either, skull face, but we don’t have a choice. If you don’t do something, you’re going to die, too.”

“It does not matter. Gors cannot let you escape. Sythians kill us if we do not obey.”

“Tell them to abandon their ships!” Hoff roared.

“Who rescues them when they do? Do you rescue them, Woss? No. They die in space. You leave them.”

Hoff frowned. “I will do what I can. If they all bail out, we can stay as long as we need to and rescue them all.”

“I can smell your liess,” Tova hissed. “Besides, does not work anyway. Not all Gors agree with alliance. Now, fewer than ever. They know you kill us and betray us. They know what you do, and now the ones who oppose the alliance kill us if we join you.”

Hoff glared back at her. “We’re going to be within firing range of the Sythian fleet in one minute. This is your last chance, Tova.”

“No, it is yours. Humans are a strange race. They betray their allies and expect to keep them. They kill each other and expect to live. You deserve to die,” she said. Now Roan looked up, too, and both aliens stared defiantly at him.

Hoff growled. “If you Gors have been telling the truth, then there should be a Sythian command ship here. Show me where it is, and we’ll destroy them. Then you can all go free. Take your ships and leave, and we’ll escape. Win-win.”

“Leave where? Where do we go? Sooner or later Sythians find us or we run out of fuel and die in space. Besides, we cannot sense Sythians.”

“That’s strange, because I can. We detected High Lord Kaon sending the message which brought this fleet here. It was the same as if you had spoken to one of your people. In my experience if something looks the same and sounds the same, it usually is, so why are you lying to me? Unless you really are on their side . . .”

Tova blinked at him. “You bring Kaon to Dark Space? You are more foolish than I think.”

“Answer the question, skull face!” Hoff boomed.

“I do not lie, but you do not believe me. If you can detect us when we speak, then you can also detect them. You do not need me.”

“That’s what I said! Don’t toy with me, Tova. They’re cloaked, so I cannot detect them. I’m asking you if there is another way I can find their ship.”

Tova’s slitted yellow eyes narrowed further. “Why do I help you?”

“Because if you do, we’ll set you free, and we may be able to set an entire fleet of your people free.” Hoff’s patience was fast running out. He didn’t really believe that the Gors were telling the truth. This was a waste of time.

Tova warbled her reply. “I do not do this for you,” she said.

Hoff smiled. “Fine.” He nodded to the squad of sentinels guarding the two Gors. “Take them back to the stasis rooms.” With that, he turned away, and two pairs of sentinels stepped forward to take hold of the aliens. Another two pairs of sentinels stayed back, their rifles trained on the Gors’ backs. When they tried to grab Tova, she took a long step away from them. The ones covering her with rifles now raised them to eye level and called out for her to halt. She stopped, and Hoff turned back to see her turn her giant head to look at the glittering mass of Sythian ships already visible through the forward viewports. “I do not do this for you, Woss, but I do it for my people.”

Hoff was taken aback. “Good . . .” he said slowly, wondering if this was some kind of trick. “How do we find them?”

“I already tell you. If you can detect us, you can detect Sythians. We are in constant contact with them from our ships. If you cannot detect them from what they say to us, then you can detect them by what we say to them.”

Hoff’s eyes narrowed. “You said they don’t have telepathy.”

“I assume they do not, because they do not communicate with us directly, but they do communicate with our ships and our ships with them. This also happens at speeds greater than light. Perhaps you can sense this in the same way you can now sense us?”

Hoff understood the implications immediately. Just like the Gors’ telepathy and a spaceship’s SLS drives, faster than light communications would produce trace amounts of tachyon radiation, so if the Gors were in constant faster than light comms contact with their command ship, then their newly calibrated sensors would be able to detect the radiation and calculate vectors for those comms. Using multiple vectors they could trace those comms all back to a common point in space, within a five klick radius. That was a significant margin of error when trying to shoot most ships, but not when they were trying to find a 30-kilometer-long Sythian cruiser.

“Gravidar!” Hoff called out.

“Sir?”

“Start tracing every hint of T radiation you can find in this system. I want vectors for all of it!”

“Tachyon radiation, sir? Are we tracking something?”

“You could say that. Send the results of that scan to the captain’s table.” Ordinarily deducing vectors from tachyon radiation was how one could track a ship that went to SLS if you hadn’t seen its exit vector when it jumped, but these radiation vectors weren’t showing the paths that some invisible Sythian ships had recently taken into or out of superluminal space, they were tracing faster-than-light comm signals.

“Yes, sir.”

“You’d better not be lying, Tova.”

“I tell you already—we do not lie to you.”

Hoff snorted and turned on his heel to head back to the captain’s table. Once there, he turned on the tachyon overlay and saw a confusing mess of glittering yellow clouds surrounding the Sythian ships like a dense nebula. He couldn’t make any sense of it. A moment later, however, his gravidar officer sent the results of the T radiation scan to the captain’s table and Hoff studied the mess of crisscrossing vectors. There were thousands of them. It was impossible to see anything useful from that.

“Lieutenant, I need you to filter your results. Exclude any vectors which pass directly through other Sythian ships.”

“That’s going to take me a minute, sir.”

“You don’t have a minute,” he said with one eye on the advancing wall of alien warships ahead of them. They’d be within firing range in just twenty seconds. The Tauron’s shields were up to 74%, but that wasn’t very encouraging. Suddenly he wondered why he was looking for a way to strike back at the enemy fleet when they’d be lucky just to escape.

At least his family wasn’t on board. With that thought, Hoff’s eyes scanned the grid for one ship in particular—the Last Chance. He found it trailing safely behind the Tauron, the corvette’s own shields recovering at 65%. Good, Hoff thought. He’d had a bad scare when he’d found the ship flying around with its shields in the red, but the cease fire seemed to have come in the nick of time for them, and at least for now they were safe. Hopefully flying in the Tauron’s shadow would keep them that way.

Twenty seconds passed in the blink of an eye, and now the enemy was in range. Hundreds of Sythian missiles appeared on the grid, flashing out from the enemy formation in a continuous stream. Most of them arced toward the Valiant and her escorting ships, but a good number spun toward the Tauron. Hoff gritted his teeth, watching as those missiles approached in a deadly wave. They couldn’t be shot down, and a target the size of the Tauron wouldn’t be able to evade them either. “Shields to double front!” Hoff ordered.

“Vectors isolated!” the gravidar officer announced.

The vast majority of yellow vectors on his grid disappear, but a few hundred remained. Now, all of the vectors pointed in the same direction. “I want to know where the remaining vectors intersect. Get me coordinates, Lieutenant—as accurate as possible!” Hoff felt a brief surge of hope. If this worked . . .

“Brace!” the lieutenant called back as the wave of enemy missiles drew near.

A siren screamed and a few people buckled their seat restraints. Hoff stayed where he was, but kept a hand on his grav gun just in case the IMS failed and he floated free of the deck.

The Tauron’s sound in space simulator (SISS) began roaring with the distant and not-so-distant booms of enemy missiles impacting along the battleship’s bow. The deck shuddered and rumbled underfoot. Hoff squinted against the blinding glare to see the prow of his ship now wreathed in flames, as if diving nose first into a supernova. Gradually the explosions faded, along with the sound, and there was a brief respite before the next wave hit them.

“Damage report!” Hoff demanded.

“Forward shields equalizing at 105%. No major damage. Several minor hull fractures in forward sections along with one electrical fire.”

“Evacuate and seal off those sections,” Hoff ordered. “Gravidar where are those coordinates I asked for?”

“Coming now, sir . . . K-34-79-50—within a two klick margin of error. Roughly to our ten o’clock and up twenty six degrees.”

Hoff eyed the point which had appeared on the grid. It was an empty space all right, and it was just over one hundred klicks away. “Helm, set course for those coordinates! Gravidar, keep track of that intersect as best you can, and let me know each time it moves.”

“Yes, sir.”

I’ve got you, Hoff thought wonderingly. Maybe the Gors had been telling the truth after all.

*  *  *

Origin

Angel heard the explosions rumbling in the distance and felt the subtle vibrations of cannons and beams firing back at whatever was shooting them. She stood gazing out the small viewport in her room at the chaos of blooming explosions and flashing lasers. The only ship she could see clearly was one of Brondi’s baron-class cruisers flying in formation alongside the Valiant. Boxy and rectangular, it looked like a smaller, truncated version of a venture-class. As she watched, that cruiser got hit by a flurry of bright purple projectiles. Explosions roared across its hull, and then it flew apart in a spectacular burst of light.

She gasped and turned away from the glare, shielding her eyes with her hands. When she opened her eyes once more, they darted around her room—from bed to bathroom and back again. The walls were too close. She imagined what would happen if some jagged piece of debris slammed into her viewport and shattered the transpiranium. Would she be sucked out into space or get stuck halfway in and halfway out? Would the force be enough to crush all of her bones and force her through that tiny hole?

Angel shuddered with those thoughts. She didn’t want to find out. Brondi had confined her to this room because he thought it would keep her safe, but that wasn’t true anymore.

She had to get out.

Angel went straight up to the door and began banging on it with both hands. “Let me out!” she screamed. A moment later the door opened, and a short, pudgy man poked his head in. He wore a leering grin that Angel was all too familiar with.

“Hoi, there . . . what’s the matter, girlie?”

“I need to get out,” she said.

“Just gotta scratch that itch, is it?”

“It’s not safe in here.”

“Tell ya what. You do somethin’ for me and I’ll see what I can do for you.”

Angel smiled demurely at the man, giving the offer some thought. She couldn’t afford to stay in her quarters any longer. The whole point was to get out. If that was the price she had to pay . . . but he was such an ugly man—with a lumpy face and crooked yellow teeth. An odd light shone in his small, squinty eyes, and she realized that he could be dangerous if she gave him what he wanted.

She turned to the other guard and noticed that he looked at her with a hesitant, almost apologetic smile. Here was a shy man, inexperienced with women.

“What would you like me to do for you?” she asked, turning back to the first.

“You got a perty mouth. Maybe ya can show me what ya do with it.”

“Tagard, you know what Brondi said. . . .” the other guard warned.

“Shut the frek up, Dofan. She’s not gonna tell, are ya, girlie?”

Angel shook her head. “Our little secret,” she said.

“Besides, you heard what’s goin’ on out there,” squinty eyes said. “We’re all goin’ to the nethers anyway. Question is, how’d ya rather go? Ima go with a smile on my face.”

“Mmmm, you’re a very bad boy,” Angel purred.

“You have no idea . . .” he said, stepping inside her quarters.

Alara didn’t back away, and when he grabbed her roughly by the wrists, she didn’t resist. Brondi had taught his playgirls how to handle the dangerous ones. Alara nodded to the bed. “Why don’t you go lie down, soldier boy,” she said.

Tagard grinned nastily at her. “Kavaar, you’re a dirty little sclut!” He chuckled softly. “I jus’ knew it.” He did as she asked and she followed him there, already unbuttoning her blouse. She began to dance lithely as she undressed, giving him a proper tease. He watched from the bed, mesmerized as she drew near. When she reached the bed, now dressed only in tight-fitting pants and bra, she climbed on top of him and leaned down close to his face to tantalize him with her cleavage. The scent of her warm breath momentarily lulled him, while her hands strayed down to his waist to fumble with his gun belt. The door swished shut, and they both turned to look. “I guess he didn’t want to join us . . .” she said in a sultry whisper, pretending to be distracted by the noise.

“That’s his problem,” Tagard said, watching the door with a thoughtful frown. Maybe he was worried that his buddy had gone to report him.

Whatever the case, Angel turned back to him with a smile, and said, “Now it’s your problem.” Her hand came up from his belt holding his sidearm.

“The frek! I’m gonna—”

She shot him in the face before he could say another word. His body convulsed and his limbs jittered. Angel frowned, thinking it was unfortunate that the man had his weapon set to stun. She didn’t mind her job and she didn’t usually hate her clients, but some men brought out another side of her. If they wanted to hurt her, she’d hurt them first. Guess you were just a lucky skriff, hoi? Alara thought.

Angel climbed off the unconscious guard and hurried back to the door. This time as she banged on it, she affected a tortured wail. “Help me! Ahh! He’s going to kill me!” The other man had already shown his softer side by trying to dissuade his friend from taking advantage of her, so she wasn’t surprised when he came rushing in to save the day. She shot him, too, but this time she was glad the pistol was set to stun. “I’m sorry,” she whispered as she stepped over him. “I might have enjoyed working with you, but there’s no time for that now.”

She had to get to the bridge and find Brondi. It had to be safer there than where she was now, and if not, at least she wouldn’t die alone. She’d die standing beside the only father she’d ever known.

*  *  *

Origin

Brondi stood at the captain’s table, watching the Valiant’s shields drop one percentile at a time. The deck shuddered underfoot. Lights periodically dimmed as the carrier fired her main beam cannons at nearby Sythian ships, cracking them open with just one or two shots. Brondi looked up and out over the mighty top side of the carrier to see literally hundreds of Sythian missiles impacting one after another in tiny flares of light. They weren’t even halfway through the enemy formation and their shields were already down to 69%. They stood a good chance of escaping, but it would be very close. The admiral’s ship, on the other hand, was down below 50% shields. Granted, the Tauron had started out with partially depleted shields in the first place, but their chances of escape were slim to doubtful. Ordinarily Brondi would have been happy about that, but Hoff was the only one who knew where they could go after this. Without the admiral and his enclave, Brondi and his men would be doomed to wander Sythian space until they were found and obliterated by another Sythian armada.

“Incoming message from the Tauron!” Brondi heard his comms officer say.

“Patch it through,” Brondi replied. Speak of the skriff, he thought.

A holo of Hoff’s age-lined face appeared overlaid on the main viewport. He looked grim, but his gray eyes burned with fire. “Brondi.”

“Admiral, make it quick please. Your head is blocking my view.”

“Shut up and listen, Brondi. I’ve just discovered something critical about the enemy formation.”

“Oh? Do tell.”

“I can’t be sure the Sythians aren’t listening to this channel right now, so I need you to trust me.”

“With what?”

“Follow us, and stand by for further orders.”

Brondi couldn’t help the laughter which bubbled from his lips. “You want me to follow you and take your orders without asking any questions? You really are an old skriff. Forget it. We’re almost clear. See you at the rendezvous . . . if you make it, that is.”

“Brondi! We have a chance of winning this fight!”

“Yea, like you thought you were going to beat me? You seem prone to delusional thinking, admiral.”

Brondi watched with a gaping smile as Hoff’s face turned a bright shade of red.

“I had a cloaked ship bursting with sentinels, just waiting to slip on board the Valiant. You would have lost, Brondi!”

“That does sound like a potent weapon. Of course, it’s convenient that your story is impossible to prove. Well, if you do have a cloaked ship around here somewhere, maybe you should ask them to follow you blindly into battle. I’m sure they won’t mind. Best of luck, skriffo.” Brondi gave a mocking salute and killed the comm feed. A moment later he saw the admiral’s battleship change course, peeling away from the Valiant.

Good riddance, he thought. “Comms! Have our ships spread out to fill the gap along our port side. We’re parting ways with the admiral. If he wants to go off on his own and get himself killed, then he’s welcome to do so, but we’re not following him to the netherworld just yet.”

“Yes, sir.”

Brondi turned back to the grid and watched as Hoff’s battleship now came under fire from all sides. Its shields began dropping fast. That’s what you get, he thought.

“Sir!” Brondi looked up to see who had addressed him. The voice was familiar. He turned to see Sergeant Gibbs from his security detail come striding down the gangway. “We have a visitor outside the bridge,” Gibbs said. “It’s Angel. She wants to see you.”

“She got out?”

Gibbs nodded. “Do you want me to take her back to her quarters, sir?”

There was an eager gleam in the sergeant’s eyes which told Brondi exactly what would happen if he sent Gibbs and Alara back alone. “No,” he decided. “Bring her in.”

“Yes, sir.”

If we do manage to escape, Brondi thought. I could use the distraction of some female companionship myself. He’d never been very good at sharing.

*  *  *

Origin

Ethan watched as his son followed the Tauron on a new heading, breaking off from Brondi’s fleet. “What’s going on?” he asked.

Atton shook his head. “They’re splitting up.”

“Why would they do that?” Hoff asked, leaning forward against his seat restraints to peer at the star map over Atton’s shoulder.

Ethan gestured warningly with the sidearm Atton had given him, but the admiral didn’t appear interested in taking control of the ship—he’d been remarkably subdued ever since he’d realized that his actions had exposed Dark Space to the coming slaughter.

The comms beeped with an incoming message, but Atton ignored it.

“Aren’t you going to answer that?” Hoff asked.

“It’s from the Tauron. I don’t want your illegitimate twin to realize I’m the one flying this ship.”

“At least play the message. You don’t have to respond.”

Atton sighed and stabbed the transmit button. The admiral’s voice hissed through the comm speakers in an angry whisper. “Last Chance, stay with Brondi! His formation will protect you better than ours. The Tauron has a new mission.” The next part of the message was so soft that they had to strain hard to hear it over the distant sounds of battle echoing through the corvette’s speakers. “It’s a one way trip. Make sure my family is safe, and say goodbye to them for me. Admiral Heston out.”

“He knows he’s about to die. . . .” Atton whispered. “What is he planning to do?”

Ethan heard a rustle of noise and turned to see the cloned admiral suddenly leap out of his chair.

“Atton!” Ethan warned as he squeezed off a quick shot. The stun bolt missed, and glanced off the transpiranium viewport before slamming into the bulkhead beside his own head. Ethan belatedly flinched away from the light and sound before taking aim again, but his hand shivered and shook. His condition was deteriorating rapidly, and he could barely keep his eyes open, let alone aim.

Atton ducked away from the admiral’s grasping hands, but Hoff hadn’t been reaching for him, he’d been reaching for the comm controls, and now he stabbed the transmit/reply button and screamed into the audio pick up, “Admiral, they’re not on board!”

Atton recovered and shoved Hoff away from the controls. He bounced off the bulkhead and went sprawling to the deck.

Ethan took aim once more, but Hoff raised his hands. “I surrender! There’s no need to stun me. You can strap me down in the back again if you want.”

Atton whirled on Hoff after he ended the comm connection. “What the frek was that about?”

“He doesn’t know our family is still on board the Tauron, Atton. He deserves to know who will be going down with him, don’t you think?”

Atton gritted his teeth and shook his head. “Sit down and buckle up! We have enough to worry about without you trying to mutiny.”

“I won’t give you any more trouble. I promise.”

“Good!”

“What are you going to do?” Hoff asked.

“We’re going to follow the Tauron. Slim chance of survival or not, she’s still our best shot. I don’t trust Brondi not to turn on us as soon as we’re away.”

Ethan shot a quick glance out the forward viewport to see a quartet of approaching missiles. “Look out!” he yelled just as the missile lock alarm screamed at them.

Atton sat down in a hurry and began an evasive pattern which sent them barrel rolling over top of the approaching alien missiles. They couldn’t be shot down, but at least they could be dodged.

“Atton,” Ethan croaked. “Alara is on board the Valiant. We can’t leave her there.”

Atton shook his head. “I’m sorry. If we all make it to the rendezvous, maybe we can find a way to get aboard and rescue her.”

“The admiral isn’t headed for the rendezvous, Atton,” Hoff’s clone replied. “Whatever he’s planning, it’s no longer to escape. We’re going deeper into the Sythian formation now.”

*  *  *

Origin

Atta screamed as the lights flickered. Another boom rumbled through the walls and floor. Destra hugged her daughter tight as they sat on the living room couch, listening to dishes rattling in their racks. A foot stool which wasn’t bolted to the deck shifted a few inches to the right.

“Oh, no!” they heard HTX4 say from the kitchen, followed by the sound of something falling to the floor with a crash. “I’m so sorry, madam! I’ll clean it up at once.”

Destra nodded distractedly and said, “Don’t worry about it, HTX.”

They heard him sweeping shattered fragments of something into a collection tray.

“I’m scared, Mommy,” Atta said, squeezing Mr. Tibbins so tight that she’d be strangling the life out the diger if it were real.

“It’s all right, darling. Shhh,” Destra cooed. “It’s just thunder.”

“What’s th-under?” Atta asked, her tongue tripping over the unfamiliar word.

Destra smiled bitterly. Atta had never known what it was like to live on a real planet. “It’s something normal that we don’t need to be afraid of,” she said, meanwhile, her eyes darted nervously around the room, as if expecting the walls to cave in on them at any moment. Her gaze fell on the nearby viewport, and suddenly she worried that something might break it, but then she remembered that it was only a simulated viewport—like the dark sky in the garden outside.

Destra saw the endless wall of Sythian ships they faced, and she tried not think about how badly outmatched they were. Out-going comms were still restricted from the admiral’s quarters, but that hadn’t stopped Destra from listening in to the open-channel commcasts. She’d overheard enough to know about the Sythian ambush and the cease fire between Brondi and Hoff. She knew how bad things were out there. And she knew what the odds were that they’d make it out alive.

“We have to go, Atta,” Destra decided.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“We’re going to find your father.” Destra stood up from the couch where they were sitting and dragged Atta along by her hand, heading for the door.

“I don’t want to go!” Atta screamed.

“We don’t have a choice, Atta!”

Destra winced as she experienced a sudden flash of déjà vu to a time not so long ago when she had been running away with Atton under similar circumstances. Back then she hadn’t been able to run to Ethan for help, but right now she did have Hoff, and it was time for him to know that his family was still on board.

If nothing else, at least they would all be together when they died.




Chapter 31

Origin

“They’re not on board, Admiral!” When Hoff heard that warning come through his comm piece, he felt like someone had punched him in the gut. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t think. After a long moment, he replied, “What do you mean they’re not on board?” but only static answered. The warning had come from his clone, but the Last Chance had abruptly broken contact. Hoff wasn’t sure if they weren’t answering because of a struggle on board the ship, or because his clone was afraid their conversation would be overheard and their secret discovered.

They’re not on board. Those words echoed ominously through his thoughts, and suddenly he was afraid. Here he was, taking the Tauron on a suicidal mission through enemy lines, thinking that at least his family was safely away aboard his corvette, but not only had the Last Chance followed the Tauron on its suicidal flight path—it didn’t even have his family on board!

Hoff shook his head and looked up at the blinding flurry of explosions rippling across the Tauron’s hull. Everything Hoff knew and loved was about to be destroyed. Abruptly Atta appeared in his mind’s eye. Her gray eyes, dark hair, and impishly smiling face made his throat ache, and suddenly he felt like he couldn’t breathe. Atta.

He’d made copies of her and Destra on Fortress Station, but somehow that did nothing to ease his mind. They would live on—months from now his whole family, including him would spring up like perennial flowers, coming out of stasis aboard Fortress Station, but would it really be them? Or would his little girl and his wife really die here with him today?

When it had just been him cloning himself, it had been easier to believe that clones and recorded memories were enough to cheat death, but now that he had to trust that system to preserve his loved ones, too . . . the answers didn’t seem so clear.

“Shields down to 47%!” engineering reported as the deck shuddered violently underfoot. The muffled boom of that explosion told Hoff the damage was worse this time. “Hull breaches on decks four and five!”

“Seal it off!” Hoff ordered, snapping out of his reverie. Maybe if they crippled the Sythian command ship, the Gors would stop firing on them. Tova was ambivalent about that, but it was their only chance, and the only chance Dark Space had, too.

“Comms, tell Inferno Squadron to keep those shell fighters distracted! We can’t survive this kind of punishment for long—Tova!” Hoff turned to her. She and Roan still stood under guard on the bridge. “Can’t you tell them to miss every now and then? If we never get a chance at that command ship, your people stay in slavery.”

“I try,” she said, closing her eyes. Hoff watched the alien’s lips move, but he heard no sound escape, as if she were saying a prayer to some Gor deity.

Hoff turned back to his crew. “Gravidar! Where are those updated coordinates I asked for?”

“Coming now, sir . . .”

Hoff saw the coordinates for the estimated location of the Sythian command ship change position on the captain’s table. That point had been drifting more or less toward them at a constant 200 meters per second, while still keeping its distance from the overall battle, just as Hoff would expect from a cloaked command ship. He’d told the officer at the helm to keep their distance and not fly directly toward it, just in case the Sythians became suspicious of his new heading. Assuming the coordinates they’d pinpointed actually represented the cloaked Sythian command ship, it wouldn’t be a good idea to let them know they’d been discovered.

Almost there, Hoff thought, watching as their range to target dropped to 45 klicks. The timing would be critical. Their only chance was to hit that cloaked ship hard, before it dropped its cloaking shield and put up real defensive shields. But even then, the alien command ship’s armor had to be very strong. How do you destroy a 30 kilometer-long warship with one that’s just a hundredth of the size? Hoff wondered.

Not only was he gambling everything on the chance that they’d actually found one of the Sythians’ elusive behemoth-class cruisers, but he was gambling that they could do some serious damage to it, too.

Hoff turned to his comms officer. “Send a message to all our ships—including the Interloper. On our mark they are to fire everything they’ve got at the coordinates we send them.”

“Yes, sir.”

The next thing anyone heard over the muted sounds of battle was the swish of the bridge doors opening. Hoff turned to look and saw a pair of sentinels stride in. Someone else walked in behind them, but Hoff couldn’t see past the sentinels’ bulky armor. Then they peeled away to guard either side of the entrance, and Hoff saw who had come in with them.

“Daddy!” Atta cried.

“Shhh,” Destra said, holding their daughter back as her gaze found Tova and Roan in their swaddling white robes.

Another boom shook the deck, and the bright flash of a nearby explosion lit up the bridge. Now, seeing his family, and knowing the odds they all faced, Hoff was confronted with a much more visceral reminder of what he risked losing; they would all die if this plan failed, or if the Gors had lied—if their calculations were off, or if they simply didn’t have enough firepower to cripple the command ship.

That was a lot of ifs. But it was too late to turn back now.

“We are in range of the target,” gravidar announced.

Hoff nodded absently, his eyes on Atta. “Transmit coordinates to the rest of our ships, and tell them to open fire on that point in exactly ten seconds.” Hoff slowly turned away from his daughter. “Weapons—stand by, and get ready to give them everything we’ve got!”

*  *  *

Origin

Ethan listened with half an ear to the latest transmission from the Tauron. All the admiral’s forces had just been ordered to open fire on at some unknown target in exactly ten seconds. The coordinates appeared on the grid, but Ethan’s eyes refused to focus. He was too distracted by the pain radiating from the odd half a dozen different places where shrapnel had cut him. He felt very weak, and he had to fight to stay conscious, but whether that was from blood loss or something worse, he wasn’t sure. From the way the cloned admiral stared at him, he was sure he must have looked as bad as he felt.

“Atton,” the clone said. “Let me take the controls for a while.”

“That’s not going to happen, Hoff.”

“You need to see to your father.”

Ethan grimaced. “Shut up, Hoff. I’m fine.”

Atton turned to look at him, and his expression went from grim and determined to pale and uncertain. The boy hesitated a second longer, but then he nodded. “Okay.”

Ethan shook his head, trying to fight back as Atton half lifted and half carried him out of the cockpit.

“Stop struggling, Dad.”

“I told you; I’m fine.”

“Then you haven’t seen yourself. Come on, don’t be difficult.”

Barely a second later they heard the corvette’s guns firing, and Ethan turned back to the cockpit to see missiles and lasers streaking out toward some target they couldn’t see. Their view had changed from the blinding blue glow of the Tauron’s thruster banks to dark, star-speckled space, and now that they were no longer safely hidden in the battleship’s wake, missile lock alarms screeched and wailed through the cockpit speakers.

“Forget about me, Atton,” Ethan said, shaking his head. “We’re all about to die anyway.”

Atton turned away from the cockpit with a grimace and carried him along once more. “Even if that’s true, I’m not going to let you die any sooner than you have to. Come on. Our lives are in Hoff’s hands for now.”

“If you’re trying to make me feel better, it’s not working,” Ethan replied.

Atton smiled grimly. “Point taken.”

*  *  *

Origin

Captain Loba Caldin shook her head and frowned as the admiral’s target appeared on the grid with a timer beside it, counting down from ten. As soon as it reached zero, they were supposed to open fire with everything they had, but the target coordinates were located in empty space. “What is this?” Caldin asked.

“He’s clearly lost his mind,” Adram said.

“That—” Caldin said, “—or he’s found a cloaked ship. The Sythians’ command ship, perhaps?”

Adram looked up with dark, glittering eyes. “You know we cannot detect cloaked vessels, Captain.”

“Maybe Hoff found a way.”

“Captain, even if that’s true, the admiral isn’t thinking about the thousands of men he has on board this ship. If we open fire, we’re all as good as dead—it’s too dangerous for us to reveal ourselves.”

Caldin frowned. “So we run off on our own.”

“That is my recommendation.”

“Let’s give them one volley,” Caldin said. “We can always cloak again afterward.”

Adram held her gaze for just a moment before he turned and nodded to the pair of sentinels standing beside the bridge doors. Those were his men. Caldin felt a flutter of trepidation, and she drew her sidearm in a blur, but not nearly fast enough. She heard a sharp screech and then her right side exploded with a searing pain. She bit back a scream, and the world seemed to tip upside down as she fell to the deck.

She lay there for a long moment, gasping for air, her eyes wide and staring as she listened to the rapid-fire screech of lasers and the startled cries of her crew. She could smell something liked charred meat wafting through the air, and her stomach gave a nauseating flip as she wondered about the source of that smell. A moment later, Adram’s smiling face appeared above her. He crouched down beside her, taking cover behind the captain’s table. Caldin turned her head to get a better look at him, and that was when she noticed that she was lying in a pool of blood. Her blood.

“I’m sorry, Captain, but there’s been a change of plans,” he said. “I would have liked to overthrow the admiral with you, but it was not to be.”

“Why . . . ?” she whispered, still struggling to breathe as she listened to the raucous screech of laser fire and the frenzied shouts of her crew.

“I’m surprised you haven’t figured it out already. You returned from the Getties, Caldin, but I was released.”

Caldin shook her head, rocking it from side to side. “No.”

“Your species has proven very difficult to wipe out. You’d be surprised what lengths we’ve gone to, but now that is all about to end,” he said, aiming his sidearm at her head.

“Wayy . . .!” Caldin wheezed for lack of breath. Wait, she wanted to say.

Adram shook his head. “No, Captain. You must be in a lot of pain. It would be cruel of me not to put you out of your misery. We’re not the monsters you seem to think we are.”




Chapter 32

Origin

Here comes the moment of truth, Hoff thought, hugging his wife and daughter close as the timer on the captain’s table reached zero. Abruptly, the deck thundered underfoot as all the Tauron’s weapons fired at the same instant, all aimed at the same invisible target. Hundreds of lasers and beams flashed out from the side of the Tauron—blinding red streaks of light. Silverstreak torpedoes and hailfire missiles joined them, racing out on bright, glittering contrails. But nothing happened. Had they miscalculated? Maybe they really were shooting at empty space.

Then the first few explosions began to appear, seeming to rise up out of nowhere, spewing debris and bright orange streaks of fire. A cheer went up from the crew. Hoff felt his chest expand and his shoulders lift with rising hope. “Keep firing! Helm—get us closer to our target!”

“Yes, sir!”

“I don’t believe it,” he said, looking up from the grid and out the forward viewports to watch the blooming explosions. The first wave of torpedoes hit their target. They exploded with an all-consuming flash of light, and the bridge’s sound system relayed that as a rumbling roar which could be heard even over the constant thunder of Sythian missiles slamming into their shields. Atta whimpered and hid behind her parents.

Hoff watched as the raging explosions faded back to the comparative tranquility of stars and space. Then space began to shimmer and the stars began to fade. Someone on the bridge gasped, and another shouted out, “There she is!”

The command ship lay before them, and its bright, shimmering hull was suddenly all they could see. A dark, charred hole had opened up in the side of the ship, gaping wide like the mouth of some primordial monster about to swallow them whole.

“Keep firing!” Hoff ordered.

“Sir, I’m detecting shields powering!”

The deck shook with more impacts, the explosions sounding as distant echoes.

“It’s not enough . . .” he whispered, looking at the damage they’d caused. The hole in the side of the enemy cruiser cut almost halfway through the ship, but the behemoth had not been destroyed, and they wouldn’t land a killing blow before the shields were up. Moreover, if that command cruiser had any weapons, it would take just one volley from them to finish off the Tauron. There was only one thing left to do.

Hoff snapped into action, taking Destra and Atta’s hands in his as he strode down the gangway. “Helm!” he called out as he went. “Full throttle. Aim for the hole in the side of that ship. We’re going to cut her in half.”

“Yes, sir. . . .”

“Comms, have all our nonessential personnel abandon ship. They won’t have long, but maybe a few can still escape.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Where are we going?” Destra asked suddenly.

Hoff ignored her. “Tova!” he called out as they drew near to the alien. “Tell your people to stop firing on us as soon as they see the command cruiser destroyed. I’m trusting them to hold up their end of this deal. If they do, it might not be too late for humans and Gors to work together, after all.”

“I tell them,” Tova said, closing her eyes. “But I do not promise we work with humans again.”

Destra squeezed Hoff’s hand. “Tell me you’re coming with us.”

He shook his head. “I have to make sure this works, Des. I’m sorry.”

“Hoff!” Destra burst out, and suddenly she stopped walking.

He dragged her along roughly despite her protestations, and Atta began to cry. Hoff nodded to Sergeant Thriker, who stood watching Tova and Roan with the squad of sentinels. “Sergeant!”

“Sir?” Thriker asked, striding up beside them.

“I need you to look after my family for me,” Hoff said as they reached the back of the bridge. They stopped in front of a recessed door with glowing warning labels pasted all over it. It was an escape pod. Hoff passed his wrist over the control panel, and as soon as the door opened, he shoved Destra and Atta inside.

“Hoff, please!” Destra pleaded.

“This is the only way, Des! I love you both.”

He was about to tell Thriker to join his family in the pod when something heavy hit him from behind, and he went stumbling into his wife’s open arms.

“They took my family from me, Admiral. Make sure they don’t take you or yours.”

Hoff whirled around just in time to see Sergeant Thriker shut the door and seal the escape pod. Then came a flash of light as the launch tube energized. The pod’s IMS buffered their sudden acceleration, so no one was knocked off their feet. Hoff turned to see them racing down a long tunnel past consecutive rings of red light that flashed brightly as they roared by.

Destra clung to his arm while Atta clung to his legs. Hoff clung to hope. If the Sythian Cruiser were disabled when the Tauron collided with it, and if the Gors surrendered after that . . . then maybe—maybe Dark Space still had a chance.

Suddenly the tunnel of light disappeared, and they roared out into the dark unknown.

*  *  *

Origin

Adram’s finger tightened on the trigger—

And a high-powered rifle blew him away. Caldin watched him hit the deck beside her with half of his face missing. She listened to the sounds of laser fire on the bridge briefly intensify, and suddenly she was very glad that the Sythian ship didn’t have a real viewport. By now it would have been shattered and all of them sucked out into space.

Caldin forced herself to breathe despite the fiery ache in her side. Moments later the sounds of laser fire ceased, and a familiar voice called out, “She’s over here!”

Her chief engineer appeared, kneeling at her side. “You’re going to be okay,” Delayn said as he found her hand and squeezed it.

Then a gruff voice called out in concern, and she turned to see a familiar corpsman rushing toward her. He knelt on the other side of her, and took her other hand. “Loba!”

Delayn shot the man an odd look, but he covered his surprise to hear a fellow petty officer calling their captain by her first name, and asked, “How is she?”

“Terl . . .” Caldin whispered, her eyes softening with a smile.

“She’s lucky,” the corpsman said, quickly checking her injured side. “It must have been a glancing hit. She lost a lot of blood, and she has a bad laser burn, but she’ll live.”

Caldin rocked her head from side to side, her eyes turning to the engineer. “What happened, Delayn?”

The folds of skin around Cobrale Delayn’s pale blue eyes tightened as he winced. “We lost a few good men.”

Caldin tried to sit up, but Terl held her down. “Don’t move,” he said. She heard an aerosol spray of some kind dispensing. Nanites. “That should stop the bleeding,” he said.

Then came a flurry of gasps and exclamations, and Caldin couldn’t stand the suspense any more. “What’s going on? Help me up.”

“I’m not done yet!” Terl hissed.

“You can finish treating my injuries in a moment,” she replied.

Corpsman Terl and Delayn helped her to her feet, and she planted her palms on the captain’s table, leaning heavily on it. She was just in time to watch on the grid as the Tauron collided with a monolithic Sythian cruiser. The Tauron disappeared inside a gaping hole in the side of the alien vessel, and for a long moment, nothing happened.

Caldin frowned, wondering if the two ships had actually hit each other after all.

Then a bright ribbon of fire shot out from the larger ship and it cracked in two flaming pieces. The fires died quickly as their oxygen ran out into space, leaving the massive halves of the enemy ship slowly drifting apart amidst a dark cloud of their own debris. The Tauron’s gravidar icon reappeared on the grid. She was also drifting through the cloud of debris, but barely moving, and her icon was dark—indicating that she was derelict, without power. Caldin zoomed in on the battleship until she could see not just an icon of the ship, but the ship itself. The Tauron’s front end was completely ruined, and her bridge had been scraped clean off, along with most of her guns. Even so, she was not yet completely destroyed. The core of the ship had survived.

“Comms!” Caldin called out in a weak voice. She swayed unsteadily on her feet, but forced herself to stay conscious. “Hail the admiral. I want to know if there any survivors.”

The comm officer didn’t reply.

“He’s dead, ma’am,” Delayn whispered. “Grimsby called the sentinels for help, but Adram’s men shot him for his trouble.”

Caldin turned to Delayn with an angry scowl, but her anger wasn’t directed at him. “Find me a replacement, then!”

“Yes, ma’am.” Delayn started off, staring idly at the captain’s table as he walked by. A moment later, however, Caldin saw him suddenly stop and gape at the grid.

“What?”

“The Sythians,” Delayn said. “They’ve stopped firing.”

Caldin turned to look, and now she noticed it, too. The entire Sythian armada with all its hundreds of encircling cruisers and thousands of swarming fighters had suddenly stopped shooting. Space was calm except for a few scattered shots from human ships that were late to realize their enemy had just surrendered en masse. For a moment Caldin thought the alien ships had stopped firing because the Tauron was no longer a threat, but that didn’t explain why they weren’t still shooting at the Valiant, or for that matter, at any of the handful of the admiral’s surviving transports and fighters.

“You think the Gors were telling the truth?” Delayn asked.

Caldin blinked and shook her head, unable to believe it. “I don’t know. . . .” But she couldn’t think of another explanation.

*  *  *

Origin

Brondi watched, dumbfounded with fascination as the admiral opened fire on empty space. Then, mere seconds later, he was even more dumbfounded to see a massive Sythian warship appear where the admiral had been firing. Now he understood what the admiral’s plan had been, but Hoff was skriffy if he’d thought that even together they could bring down such a massive ship. The Tauron had carved a big chunk out of the side of that cruiser, but Brondi had a feeling that now it was the Sythians’ turn to do some damage.

“Helm! How long before we can start spooling for a jump?”

“We still have to get clear of the enemy formation. A minute or two at most.”

“Good.”

“Where are we going?” Alara asked.

Brondi turned to her with a gaping smile and he chucked her chin with mock affection. “Somewhere safe, Sweet Thing. Don’t worry. Then you and I can find some time to be alone.”

Alara smiled at him and looped her arm through his. “That sounds good.”

Brondi unhooked his arm from hers and gave her a gentle shove. “Be patient,” he said, ignoring the look of hurt which crossed her face. “I need to focus,” he explained as he gazed down on the captain’s table. Real affection had always made him uneasy.

He watched the Tauron turn toward the giant Sythian warship, and his brow furrowed. “What are you thinking, Hoff?” Brondi wondered aloud. A cluster of Sythian missiles splashed across the Valiant’s viewports, eliciting a roar from her bridge speakers and shaking the deck underfoot. Loose objects rattled all over the bridge, and Alara screamed. She all but jumped into his arms, and Brondi shoved her away with a scowl. “For frek’s sake, Alara! Just . . .” Brondi smoothed a rigid hand over his slick black hair and tried to calm himself. “Keep your hands to yourself for a moment, Sweet Thing,” he said, smiling sarcastically. “Can you do that? We’re quite safe in here.”

“Okay . . .” she said quietly.

He turned back to the captain’s table just as the admiral’s flagship collided with its target. A gleeful giggle bubbled from his lips as he watched that. His eyes grew wide and his mouth gaped in a broad grin as the Sythian command ship split in two flaming halves and the Tauron appeared in the middle, her icon dark and derelict.

“Gravidar, enlarge the Tauron and put it on the main display. I want to see her in all her lovely brokenness.” A moment later, a magnified view of the battleship appeared on the main screen. She was dented and scoured beyond recognition. Her prow was completely mangled, and her decks gaped open in dozens of places. Not even a single viewport still glowed with light. The ship was unrecognizable.

Brondi was so distracted that for a moment he didn’t notice the sharp, ringing silence which had fallen across the bridge. He’d grown so used to the simulated roar of missiles exploding against their shields that the absence of those booming blasts was almost painful to listen to. A quick look at the captain’s table confirmed what his ears had already told him—the Sythians had stopped firing.

“The old skriff did it!” Brondi crowed. “Weapons! Stop firing! We don’t want to rile them up again.” Brondi turned to Alara for lack of anyone else to share the good news with. “Alara! The admiral did it!” he said, shaking his head wonderingly.

“That’s great . . .” Alara said, avoiding his gaze. She sounded strangely subdued.

Brondi offered her his best apologetic look. “You’re not mad at me are you, Sweet Thing? Because you know I just love you to bits. You’re my favorite girl. That’s why you’re going to celebrate with me after this is all over, instead of any of the others. I’ll be all yours, and you’ll be all mine, to do with as I please.”

“I can’t wait,” Alara said, still not looking at him.

Brondi frowned. He wasn’t used to feeling rejected by women, especially women he’d chipped to be willing companions, but he decided to ignore it for now. There were bigger issues to deal with. “Helm! Set course for that Sythian command cruiser. It’s time to find out why they’ve stopped shooting at us. While we’re at it, we can destroy what’s left of the Tauron.

“Our trajectory is locked,” the navigator said. “We’re already spooling for our jump.”

Re-set, it,” Brondi said. “What’s the frekking point of us running away if there’s nothing to run from anymore?”

“You’re going to attack the admiral?” Alara asked, holding a hand to her head and wincing, as if she had a bad headache.

“Never leave an enemy at your back—especially a wounded one. . . . what’s wrong with you?” he asked as she almost fell over.

“They just sacrificed themselves to save us,” Alara said, shaking her head as if to clear it.

“Don’t be silly, Sweet Thing. The only reason the old skriff did what he did was to save Dark Space—not us. We’re criminals, remember? He’d line us up and shoot us if he had the chance.” Brondi’s eyes narrowed with sudden suspicion, and he took a quick step toward her. He grabbed her by the shoulders and squeezed painfully hard. “Who’s side are you on?” he asked, his eyes searching hers. “Don’t forget who took you in and fed you, Alara. I clothed you and looked after you. I raised you. That makes you mine.”

Alara looked chagrined. She gazed down at her feet and shook her head. “I’m sorry, Brondi. Let me make it up to you.” Her big, beautiful violet eyes met his once more, and his expression softened.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m sure I’ll think of something you can do for me later.”

Alara nodded. “Okay.”

*  *  *

Origin

Reset. That was all Alara heard. It was all she needed to hear. The code word activated the interrupter which had been implanted during the time she’d been aboard the Defiant in order to fight her slave chip, and now she remembered everything; she knew who she was, and she knew who Brondi was. She also realized that Brondi had been calling her Alara rather than Angel for the past five minutes, and that was all the proof she needed.

She winced as her head began to pound, but she fought through the dizzying waves of pain, eventually calming herself enough to function.

“You’re going to attack them?” she asked.

“Never leave an enemy at your back. . . .”

The rest of what Brondi said was lost as Alara fought another lancing wave of pain and a sweaty rush of panic. She almost fell over.

“What’s wrong with you?” Brondi asked.

“They sacrificed themselves to save us . . .” she said.

“Don’t be silly, Sweet Thing . . .” She listened to the rest of his justification while swaying on her feet and blinking stupidly at him. He had done this to her. Ethan had tried to warn her. He . . . Ethan! Suddenly she remembered him saying goodbye, and all her doubt and uncertainty vanished on a wave of fury. Brondi had sent him out there in a nova fighter. It was unlikely that he had survived both battles.

Brondi took hold of her shoulders and shook her, asking whose side she was really on. “Don’t forget who took you in and fed you, Alara. . . .”

She listened as he reminded her of everything she supposedly owed him, but now she knew it was all a lie. Somehow she kept her ire from boiling over and had the presence of mind to hide what she was thinking.

“I’m sorry, Brondi,” she said, affecting an apologetic tone. “Let me make it up to you.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’m sure I’ll think of something you can do for me later.”

“Okay,” Alara said, nodding. Meanwhile, she would think of something else she could do for him.




Chapter 33

Origin

Five minutes earlier . . .

Ethan insisted they return to bridge after Atton treated his injuries. He flatly refused to be put in stasis, even though some level of metabolic suspension might have been advisable with the amount of shrapnel still lurking beneath his skin.

“I’m not going to die in my sleep, Atton, so don’t even think about it.”

Atton helped him back to the bridge and both of them stopped in the entrance to stare at the massive bulk of the Sythian behemoth cruiser which lay before them. “Now that’s a battleship,” Ethan said, sitting down with a grunt of pain and leaning forward for a better look. Atton sat down in the copilot’s station beside Hoff, and they watched as a brilliant streak of fire leapt out of the damaged side of the alien cruiser.

“What was that?”

“That was the Tauron,” Hoff gritted out as a missile lock alarm screamed through the bridge speakers. A second later the corvette shook with a booming impact. “Damn it!”

“What do you mean that was the Tauron?” Atton asked. “They destroyed it?! Mom was on board!”

Hoff made a strangled sound, but didn’t reply. Ethan winced as a deep pang of sorrow lanced through him. That feeling was partly his, in memory of what he and Destra had once shared, and partly sympathy for Hoff. He reached out to squeeze the admiral’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. I know what it’s like to lose your wife.”

Hoff just shook his head. Suddenly Ethan realized he was comforting the admiral’s clone, rather than the admiral himself, and he withdrew his hand, feeling stupid.

A grim silence fell.

But then something new happened to distract them from their grief. “Hoi!” Ethan pointed. “Look!” As they looked on, the alien cruiser cracked in two. Flames roared out into space from both halves, and what was left of the Tauron emerged in the center of that brief inferno, looking charred and almost unrecognizable.

“They did it,” Atton whispered as he searched the grid. “And the Gors have stopped firing. They were telling the truth, Hoff. They really are just slaves.”

Hoff’s lips pressed into a thin, determined line. “We’ll see about that.”

“What are you going to do?” Ethan asked, his eyes narrowing.

“We’re going to go find the Sythians and have a chat with them.”

“Are you completely skriffy?” Atton replied. “They’re not going to chat with you! They’re going to kill you! Their ship is ruined, admiral. Just let it go, and let’s figure out what we’re going to do about Brondi.”

“There’s nothing to do about Brondi, Atton. We’ve saved Dark Space from the most immediate threat, but there’s no way to get on board that carrier now. Dark Space is Big Brainy’s to do with however he might please—at least until the next Sythian fleet arrives. As for chatting with the Sythians—help me get on board, and if I find out anything useful, you know where to look. The Tauron is ruined, but there are still parts of her that will have survived. Important parts. Find me there, and you’ll find your mother and Atta, too.”

“You think they hid?”

Hoff shook his head. “Unless the IMS was the very last system to fail, it doesn’t matter whether they hid or not. No one is still going to be alive on that ship. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean we are dead. I make extensive backups of anything and everything that’s important. If you find me, I’ll help you bring your mother and your sister back.”

Atton’s jaw slowly dropped open as he understood what that meant. “You didn’t . . . that’s not the same, and you know it!”

“It could be the same, if you let it.”

Tears sprang to Atton’s eyes. “Whatever.” He gestured out the forward viewports. “It’s a one way trip, admiral. We’re just going to leave you inside and go.”

“That’s fine. I don’t expect you to wait.”

Atton snorted. “I guess we’ll catch up with you later.”

“What are you two talking about?” Ethan finally demanded, his gaze turning from Hoff to Atton. “How are we going to find him, or your mother and Atta if no one survived the collision?”

“It’s a long story,” Atton said.

“Well, start explaining!”

“All right, fine. You know Hoff cloned himself, and you might have guessed that he and his clone share both his personality and his memories.”

Ethan shook his head. “Actually I just thought being a skriff must run in the DNA, but go on. What else am I missing?”

“What do you know about the Immortals, Dad?”

“Not much . . . why?”

The explanation which followed went past the point of credulity and challenged everything Ethan thought he knew about human history. All the while, Hoff decelerated in preparation for boarding the alien command ship. Atton finished explaining just as Hoff reached the debris field. They maneuvered around chunks of the alien cruiser which were the size of small cruisers themselves before diving down into the exposed mess of broken decks and beams which blocked their entry into the front half of the behemoth. Ethan couldn’t see any opening large enough for their corvette to enter, but Hoff cruised slowly onward.

“Atton—would you take the controls? I need to go suit up.”

“What do you need me to do?” Atton asked as he rose to take Hoff’s place.

“Get close to one of those decks. Line up the rear hatch and wait until I tell you that I’m clear.”

“Those decks are exposed to space, Hoff.” Atton shook his head. “They’ll be sealed off from the rest of the ship. You’re not going to find a way in.”

“Leave that to me,” Hoff said. “Just get me close.”

Ethan turned to watch the admiral leave. “So Destra is . . . going to be a clone now, too?”

“He must have found some way to chip her and Atta without them realizing.”

“Do you think it works?”

“No.”

Ethan’s gaze flicked out the port side of the bridge to find the dark, drifting ruin which had once been the Tauron. Neither he nor Atton said anything for the next five minutes while Atton got the corvette into position and held it there. They waited fully another minute until they heard Hoff’s voice crackle through the comm speakers—“I’m clear,” he said.

“Good luck, Admiral,” Atton replied in a sarcastic tone. With that, they roared away from the drifting ruins of the two ships.

“Now I need your help, Atton,” Ethan said slowly, watching as his son wove a path back through the debris.

“With what?”

“I need you to get me on board the Valiant.

“What are you going to do—capture the whole ship by yourself?”

“Not the whole ship, no. Just one person.”

*  *  *

Origin

“Get alongside them!” Caldin ordered.

“Yes ma’am.”

What are you after, Brondi? she wondered as the Interloper came alongside the carrier and cruised past thousands of shining viewports. They were right under the crime lord’s nose, but still perfectly cloaked.

The Valiant slowed as it approached the broken halves of the Sythian command ship. It turned and presented its flank to the ruins of the Sythian ship, and the Interloper matched that maneuver. Then, all of a sudden, Caldin understood what Brondi was doing. He was going to finish off the alien command ship, but the Interloper lay in the path of at least a few dozen laser turrets, and with the cloak up and their shields disengaged, they’d be cracked open in seconds.

“Evasive action!” Caldin roared.

But what shot out from the side of the carrier wasn’t a volley of lasers and warheads. Instead, it launched wave after wave of troop transports and shuttles. Caldin’s eyes widened, and she shook her head. “Scratch that last order, Mr. Corr. “Aim for the nearest hangar bay! Full throttle. If ships are coming out, then we can fly in.”

I’ve got you now, Caldin thought.

*  *  *

Origin

Admiral Hoff held on to the handheld booster rocket with both hands, using it to guide himself through the dark, twisted ruins of the alien cruiser. A pair of floodlights on either side of his helmet lit the way, casting bright lavender and violet reflections off the insides of the ship. He wore an armored vac suit, and he’d strapped a cutting beam to his back along with a portable shield generator. In addition to that, he wore a belt of plasma grenades around his waist, and a stun pistol hung low on one hip. He was heavily laden, but in the zero-G environment he didn’t notice the weight.

Despite being so heavily armed and armored, he hadn’t come all this way to fight; he’d come for answers, and with any luck, the Sythians would give them to him before he died. Nearly everything about the Sythians was still a mystery. Apparently the Gors had been telling the truth from day one, but that didn’t really answer anything. He still didn’t know who the Sythians were or what they were after. Why had they never been seen? Why did they hide aboard massive command ships like this one? He remembered Kaon had explained during one of his two probe sessions that these command ships carried Gor ships into battle and gave them overall guidance and direction during battle. That made some sense, Hoff supposed. Rather than have each ship individually jump to SLS, they could all jump together, opening just one wormhole and using much less fuel.

But what about the world Hoff had seen and recognized from Kaon’s memories—how and when had the Sythians found the lost world of Origin? And finally, perhaps the most disturbing question of all—why was Kaon a clone? When Hoff thought about all of that, he felt increasingly uneasy. The answers seemed to drift around his head in lazy circles, always just out of reach.

Kaon hadn’t been captured. He’d been sent by the Sythians, so that he could eventually lead them here, to Dark Space—or perhaps to some other human settlement—but they hadn’t counted on Kaon revealing anything truly useful. Or maybe they didn’t care what humanity found out about them. Whatever the case, Kaon had given Hoff a glimpse into something vast and terrifying—

The past. No one knew much about what had happened before the great war, the War of Origin. No humans, that is, Hoff corrected himself.

At last, Hoff saw what looked to be a sealed set of doors up ahead. They lay at the end of a short corridor which had been sheared off when the cruiser had cracked in half. Hoff aimed for the mangled opening of that corridor and fired the braking thrusters on his booster rocket to slow down. A few seconds later he collided with the doors and bounced off. Hoff let go of the booster and activated the grav field on his belt to anchor himself to the deck. A moment later he stood up, now weighing roughly half of what he should. Hoff panned his floodlights over the doors and then the ceiling, walls, and floor. There appeared to be enough of the surrounding corridor left that he could use the portable shield he’d brought to create a secondary seal for when he sliced the doors open with his cutting beam.

Hoff reached around to unhook the shield generator from his belt, and then he affixed it to the deck as close to the doors as he could while still giving himself a few feet of space to work. He configured the generator to project a weak shield which would be good enough to hold in the ship’s atmosphere, and then he activated the generator. A fuzzy blue wall of energy materialized in front of his face.

Turning back to the sealed doors, he drew his cutting beam and aimed it at the doors. Taking a deep breath, he fired, and a brilliant red beam shot out in the darkness, dazzling his eyes before his faceplate could polarize. As he traced a molten line around the inside of the doors, he remembered that he was standing in a vacuum, and the doors would blow out on a violent gust of escaping air as soon as he separated them from their frame. Hoff turned off the beam and stepped to one side before he finished the cut. He eyed the glowing, horseshoe-shaped furrow he’d carved in the doors, but nothing happened. He wondered if he had managed to cut all the way through. Then he noticed that the doors were bulging outward with some unseen pressure. He took a long step sideways, and a moment later the doors burst open. Two jagged pieces of metal went flying past his head, and then the gust of air hit him like a tidal wave. It lifted him off his feet and sent him tumbling out through the shield along with the door fragments. The grav field emitted from his belt was enough to slow him to a rolling stop a few dozen paces from the fuzzy blue glow of the portable shield generator. With a grunt, he pushed himself to his feet and jogged up to the shields. Forcing his way through the barrier, he stood on the other side and eyed the HUD displays inside his helmet. According to his vac suit’s sensors, the area where he stood was pressurized.

Perfect.

Hoff didn’t take off his helmet, just in case, but he hurried through the hole he’d cut in the doors and rushed through the alien ship. Dazzling, lavender-colored reflections shimmered off the shiny black walls and floor wherever Hoff turned his headlamps. He turned them down low, and allowed a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dimness. Like that, he found that he could see, but only barely. Now he walked onward, his head turning every which way, expecting to see Sythians or Gors melting out of the shadows, but so far the ship was deserted.

Hoff walked on like that for long minutes, traversing corridor after corridor before he encountered anything different. Doors lined the corridors, much as he would have expected to see on any human ship, but Hoff wasn’t interested in looking behind them. He already had a good idea about the layout of Sythian ships from the handful of captured Gor vessels he’d managed to add to his fleet. He was looking for something in particular.

At last, he found it. The corridor he presently walked down widened out into a large, circular chamber, and Hoff felt himself growing impossibly heavy as he approached. His knees shook and threatened to buckle. Gravity was working here. Hoff fumbled with the grav field generator on his belt, turning it off, and the sensation of heaviness eased somewhat. Up ahead, the circular chamber glowed with a dim light. Hoff walked inside to see exactly what he’d been expecting. Running around the edges of both the ceiling and the floor were a dozen glowing circles, yellow ones in the floor, and purple ones in the ceiling—each one marked the open end of a tube which ran to or from some part of the alien ship. Instead of lift tubes and rail cars, Sythians used a network of accelerator tubes, which functioned much like nova fighter launch tubes. Hoff was surprised to see that they were still active after the ship had been carved in two, but in a ship the size of a behemoth cruiser there had to be backup generators running from stem to stern.

Hoff started toward the nearest hole in the floor to see where it would lead. Strange, glowing hieroglyphics marked each opening, but Hoff couldn’t read them. He would have to choose a destination at random. All he had to do was step inside and he’d be whisked away to a matching hub in some other part of the ship.

Hoff sighed and gazed down on the glowing yellow rim of the tube in front of him, trying to summon his resolve. He’d used the tubes only a handful of times before, and it was always the same thing—darkness all around, racing past muted yellow rings of light, a terrifying whooshing noise, and a stomach clenching sensation of free-fall. While Sythian ships had their own artificial gravity and inertial management systems for the usual rigors of battle and space travel, they hadn’t seen fit to completely negate the g-forces inside their accelerator tubes. Maybe the skull faces like the thrill, Hoff thought.

Taking a deep breath, he took another step toward the tube he’d chosen. But just before he could step inside, the glowing yellow rim and hieroglyphic turned purple, just like the openings in the ceiling. Hoff frowned and tried lowering his foot below the rim, expecting to feel the tug of the accelerator tube trying to pull him in, but instead his foot bounced away, repelled by some unseen force, and a two-tone warning issued from somewhere inside the room, as if the ship were scolding him.

Strange. Hoff moved to the next portal in line, but the same thing happened, and this time, all of them turned purple. The next thing he noticed was a loud, grinding noise coming from the hallway behind him. Hoff turned to see bulkhead doors slowly sliding shut, dragging sparks across the deck as they sealed him inside the hub. The doors only partially closed, grinding to a stop with a gap of a few feet left between them. They were obviously damaged, and Hoff could still get out easily if he wanted to, but he hadn’t come all this way just to run. He turned back to the accelerator tubes and waited. He had a feeling someone knew where he was and they were watching him.

Seconds later, he heard a loud whoosh of approaching air, and one of the glowing tubes in the ceiling began to flash. Someone was coming.

Hoff smiled grimly, waiting with a mounting feeling of mingled horror and excitement. It was surely death which came for him, but he didn’t care. It didn’t even scare him. Perhaps because he didn’t believe it was really possible for him to die anymore. He’d been to the brink so many times . . . but still he had somehow lived on, his memories chaining together in one long, uninterrupted stream. That was the illusion of immortality, he supposed. If immortals still felt the sting of death in the moment that their brains died, then the clones which lived on to take their place had no memory of it and no idea what that was like. There was no record in existence of what happened after death—if anything.

Suddenly a dark shape floated down from the flashing transporter tube in the ceiling. The shadowy figure was too small to be a Gor. Hoff felt a spark of adrenaline course through his fingertips. He activated his helmet speakers and said, “Hello, Sythian. I’ve been waiting a long time for this.”

Hoff saw a flash of white teeth.

“So have I, Admiral,” a familiar voice said.

The admiral shook his head, unable to believe his ears. It couldn’t be.




Chapter 34

Origin

The Interloper skated through the blue wall of the hangar’s static shields, passing so close to the ceiling that Caldin felt like she could reach out and touch it. They were now inside the middle of three hangar bays in the port side of the mighty gladiator-class carrier. Silent and unseen, the Interloper hovered above the deck as hordes of Brondi’s men filed into waiting assault transports below, lifting off and jetting out into space. Caldin waited until the troops were all gone and the transports stopped launching, until the deck was all but empty and just a few ground crew were left walking around.

Caldin gave the word, and the Interloper settled to the deck. If they crushed someone or something under the cloaked Sythian cruiser, they didn’t notice, and Caldin didn’t care. The time for hiding was over.

“Drop our loading ramps! This is going to be easier than we thought,” Caldin said. “Brondi’s just launched all his men on those transports. Only the Immortals know what he’s up to, but it’s good news for us. Ruh-kah! Let’s go!”

An echo of that battle cry rose up from her surviving bridge crew. Delayn and Terl caught up to her as she hurried off the bridge and down a dim, glossy black corridor. Walking through the alien ship made her think of what it must be like to be a bug trapped inside a Gor’s armor.

“Are you sure you don’t want to stay here, ma’am?” Delayn asked.

“Why would I want to do that?”

“Well . . . you’ll be safe.”

“Being safe is highly overrated, Deck Commander.”

“Deck Commander?”

“You’re my new XO, since Captain Adram seems to have come down with an acute case of brain failure.”

“Thank you, ma’am!”

Caldin nodded. “Don’t thank me yet. We still need a ship to command before that promotion will mean anything.”

“We’ll have the Valiant back again soon,” Delayn said.

“I’m counting on it.”

They turned a corner in the glossy black corridor and ran straight into a waiting throng of sentinels. The cruiser had not been designed to hold over two thousand men. It had held barely two hundred Gors when it had been in Sythian hands. The sentinels had been forced to sit and stand shoulder-to-shoulder and back-to-back in the corridors while they waited to be sent into battle. Now, finally, after hours of waiting, they could do their part.

Caldin smiled as she shuffled down the winding corridors of the Interloper. She listened to the steady thunder of boots, the clatter of armor, the rattle of guns—it was music to her ears.

You’d better run, Brondi, she thought.

*  *  *

Origin

“Captain Adram?” Hoff asked. “What are you doing here?”

Still smiling, the former captain shook his head. “You haven’t figured it out yet, Admiral? You’re not the only one who can cheat death.” Hoff frowned. “Wondering how I know about that?” Adram went on. “You might know me better by a different name—High Lord Kaon, perhaps.”

What?” Hoff blinked. “How?”

“I never returned from the Getties Expedition, Admiral. I was chipped and set free.”

“Chipped . . . to think that you are Lord Kaon?”

“I am Lord Kaon. It’s much easier to trust oneself to carry out a mission, wouldn’t you say?”

Hoff shook his head. “How did you get here?”

“I was discovered aboard the Interloper and shot in the head for my trouble. I revived here, in a copy of my human body, so that I could speak to you without the need for translators.”

“Then the Sythians have been doing the same thing as us—cloning themselves to become immortal.”

Adram smiled. “You recognized our world when you saw it in my mind. Origin you call it, but that’s not its real name. Its real name is Sythia, and it lies in the heart of the Getties Cluster—not the Adventa Galaxy.”

Hoff blinked. “That’s not possible.”

“No? Why do you think the planet was lost to your kind?” Adram stopped just a few paces away, and his vulturine features came into the dim light cast by Hoff’s headlamps. The man’s hooked nose, white, wispy hair and high, arching brow seemed even more sinister than Hoff remembered. “I assume you’re here to strike some sort of deal,” Adram said.

“I want answers, Adram—Kaon—whatever your name really is. If we come from the same planet, how did we get to be whole galaxies apart?”

“Crossing from one galaxy to another takes a lot of time, even now, but back then it took centuries. In your version of history, a third of humanity rose up and attacked your way of life, destroying all the cloning facilities they could find. A third of you were killed in the fighting, while a third of you ran far away—isn’t that right? No, don’t look so surprised. You’re not the first Immortal human that we’ve come across.

“The third of you who ran came to this galaxy. Far more than a third were killed in the fighting, and far fewer than a third escaped. Humans are the Immortals who left. Sythians are the mortals who stayed. Your evolution slowed dramatically, because you cloned yourselves over and over again for millions of years, but ours progressed and we took steps to accelerate that even further, making us what we are now.” Adram sneered and pinched his human skin. “I do not know how you live in such frail bodies.”

Hoff’s mind raced to catch up, but a numb sense of unreality set in, and he wondered if he were awake or dreaming. His racing thoughts seized on one small part of what Adram had said. “Millions of years?” he echoed. “The War of Origin was less than thirty thousand years ago.”

“The war you remember was not the first Immortal War, and it was not the war for Origin. The fact that humans were no longer cloning themselves when we finally followed you here is proof that history repeats itself, and the fact that Sythians are now cloning themselves and have been for millions of years is even further proof. For lack of proper records, your legends are but vague recollections of where you came from, and your history has all blurred together without a proper sequence. When and how you left became subsumed by more recent events. How far back does recorded memory and equivalent history go, Hoff? How far back does your memory go? It would take data centers the size of whole cities just to store all of one person’s memories across millions of years, let alone everyone’s.”

Hoff shook his head. “If all of that is true, and if your people are the mortals who won the first war, then why would you go back to doing the very thing which you fought to stop?”

“The desire to live is very strong, Hoff. No one wants to die, and when faced with death, everyone wants a way out, even if there’s only a small chance that it will work. You know this firsthand. For a long time my people cloned themselves in secret, illegally, until once again there were more clones than not, and we were all forced to admit to our weakness—but that’s ancient history now. Since then, we’ve come to terms with it and perfected the system. Now, we can transfer exactly at or before the time of death at near-instantaneous speeds. Our bodies are engineered to be much stronger than yours, so we can live for four or five of your lifetimes before we ever need to grow a clone.”

Hoff tried desperately to work some moisture into his mouth. “What about the Gors?”

“What about them?” Adram challenged. “What about me? I’m using a human’s body. You make slaves out of people by implanting them with memories of lives that they’ve never lived. We make trained soldiers out of savage beasts so that we don’t have to fight you ourselves.”

Hoff smiled. “But you’re Immortal, so what’s the worst that could happen? Unless you’re afraid that you actually do still die.”

“Don’t condescend to me, Admiral. We were the ones who came up with those theories, remember? A lot of pseudo science and spiritual nonsense.”

Hoff smiled thinly. “You’ve come a long way from that, haven’t you?”

“And yet you are a clone in a long line of clones that cannot remember his own death.”

Hoff ignored that. “So the Gors were never on our side.”

Adram smiled slowly. “Actually they were and apparently they are still. Somehow, even after you killed all of them at Ritan, they’d still rather side with you than fight for us.”

Admiral Heston’s eyes narrowed. “You’re lying. If you’ve been working for the Sythians since you came back from the Getties, then why were you always on the Gors’ side? You argued for us to join the alliance. You wouldn’t do that if it would ultimately help humanity and hurt your people.”

“After all these years, do you really think that I don’t know how to manipulate you, Hoff? I was never on the Gors’ side, but if a man trusts no one, then telling him the truth is the easiest way to make him doubt it. My position and that of the other humans around you only blinded you further to the fact that the Gors really were your allies.”

Horror rose on a tide of acid from Hoff’s stomach as he realized how badly he’d been played. He felt sick. “If the Gors are programmed to fight for you, why not simply reprogram them? Why let them rebel?”

“We don’t know what happened to interfere with their original programming, and we have tried to reprogram them, but it doesn’t work. Perhaps the savagery of war reminds them of their savage past and triggers memories of who and what they really are. And every time they come into contact with emancipated Gors, even the most loyal slave becomes a rebel. It’s like a disease the way it spreads. We can override their ships so they’re stuck with us unless they bail out and you rescue them. We’ve begun locking their airlocks to keep them inside, but that is our problem to deal with, and slaves are easy enough to find. Humans are proving to be much more reliable slaves.”

Suddenly Hoff realized the significance of what he was looking at. He should have realized it by now, after seeing Adram—a once loyal human officer, now a converted Sythian agent.

“I’ve answered your questions, and we’re running out of time. Brondi’s men are boarding this ship as we speak, and there are not enough of us to repel them.”

“Not enough of you? On this enormous ship?”

“I told you during my interrogation, Admiral, this is a carrier. It carries Gors into battle, not Sythians. We supervise them and remotely control their ships from here, but there are fewer than three hundred of us to do all that. Now, as I said, we are running out of time, and we have a deal to make.”

“A deal?”

“Yes.”

Hoff shook his head, putting off that question for now. “One more thing, Kaon.”

“Yess?”

Hoff shivered to hear a human hissing like a Sythian. “Why did you attack us? What is the point if we’re all really the same?”

“You fight your own people all the time, and you’re not separated by millions of years of evolution and genetic engineering.”

“That’s not an answer. I want to know why you had to commit xenocide—why come to our galaxy at all? Was it because you thought we invaded you first?”

“That was just a happy coincidence. We were already planning to come to your galaxy. You opened a jump lane for us when we were almost ready to leave.”

“But why?” Hoff insisted, sounding shrill with exasperation.

“What did you think would happen to a society whose population never dies?”

Hoff’s eyes widened. Suddenly he understood what was wrong with being immortal. We were never meant to live forever.

Adram nodded slowly. “Even the strictest population controls cannot stop that kind of growth. We don’t all live on cold, dark worlds in the Getties. The rich live in luxurious towers on worlds filled with light and warmth, but there aren’t enough worlds like that for all of us. We’re the unlucky ones, engineered and born to live below the surface. Others were born and bred to live underwater. Why do you think my Sythian body has gills? We had to splice our DNA with that of the Gors and a dozen other species in order to adapt to even the harshest environments. There are quintillions of us, Hoff, and our galaxy is far smaller than yours. We came here to expand, to find a home for our children.”

“Then you’re not even a unified species.”

“We are unified by our philosophy of life, not by DNA.”

“If there are so many of you, and you came here to find new worlds to colonize, then where is everyone?” Hoff demanded. “Why aren’t you busy colonizing our worlds?”

“When was the last time you went close enough to look? Perhaps you’re just looking in the wrong places. The worlds your people considered inhospitable are the ones that most of us were bred to call home—ice worlds and desert planets, planets covered with endless, raging seas. It takes a whole generation—almost a thousand years—for us to adapt to something new, to planets which you might consider more hospitable. But by then, perhaps the fires will have stopped burning and we can clear away the rubble of your civilization.

“Those who already live on lush worlds like Sythia are in no hurry to leave. For them, the Getties is not an inhospitable place of torment and scarcity—it is home. But the more the rich breed, the more the poor, downtrodden masses are pushed off those worlds and forced to find new homes. It is a cruel system. We are thrown out into the dark by our people to make room for their children, and we throw your people out into the dark to make room for ours.”

“Well, congratulations,” Hoff said. “You have plenty of room. Now leave us alone.”

Adram gave a patient smile. “I’m afraid it’s not that simple. Eventually your population will grow too large and you’ll be forced to expand like us. Then you will try to push us out of your galaxy. We know how humans think. They think like us, and we will do anything to survive—isn’t that why we’re all Immortals in the first place?”

Hoff gritted his teeth. “So what now? You’ll send another fleet to Dark Space and finish us off? What kind of deal is that?”

“No, Dark Space is unique. It is impossible to leave, except by one narrow entrance. It is a small sector, and it has limited resources, so if we can be sure that it’s the only place where humans still reside, then it wouldn’t be hard to keep you bottled up in here, and we’d be willing to allow that in exchange for some information.”

Hoff’s eyes narrowed. “What information?”

“Tell us where the other humans are hiding, and we’ll leave Dark Space alone.”

Hoff flinched. “You’re asking me to kill trillions.”

“Don’t think of it like that. Think about all the lives you’ll save here in Dark Space. And humanity will live on, guaranteed. Otherwise, we won’t rest until we’ve found and killed every last one of you. You can’t hide forever.

“If you need any proof of that, you should know that Captain Cathrall didn’t just carry the survivors from Obsidian Station to the enclave. He also carried a Sythian tracking device. I gave him both when I transferred those so-called supplies from the Interloper.”

“You kakard,” Hoff said, his gray eyes flashing as he reached for the cutting beam he’d brought with him. He drew it and aimed it at Adram’s head.

“They’re already dead, Hoff. It’s too late for you to save them—or your fleet—so before you kill me, think about the people you can save. Dark Space is the only refuge of humanity which we will tolerate.”

Hoff hesitated with his finger on the trigger. His whole body trembled with the urge to shoot, but he stopped and forced himself to think about the trade the Sythians were offering. He thought about the trillions of Immortals in the lost sector of Avilon. The Immortals had all already lived impossibly long lives, while the people here in Dark Space numbered in just the millions, but they had barely begun to live by comparison. The Immortals were civilized, while Dark Space was overrun with criminals. Perhaps the most convincing argument was the true nature of immortality. Now that Hoff had seen its end result, he wasn’t sure he could support it anymore. They’d fought not one but at least two wars with themselves over it, and a lost part of humanity had become so twisted by their desire to live forever that they had eventually turned into the xenocidal Sythians. Adram—Kaon, Hoff corrected himself—had already spelled it out clearly: “We will do anything to survive.”

“What do you say, Admiral? Do we have a deal?” Adram asked, his eyes glittering in the dim light of the alien cruiser.




Chapter 35

Origin

“I think you can all go to the netherworld,” Hoff said. “They’ve been waiting a long time for you there.”

“Then you’ve chosen death,” Adram said slowly.

“Maybe, maybe not. If we could disable an entire fleet of yours by finding and killing just one ship, what makes you think we won’t do the same thing when you come back?”

Adram’s eyes narrowed.

“Humanity is quite safe,” Hoff went on, “but as for the Sythians, you’re the ones facing an entire army of savage slaves that have suddenly decided they don’t want to serve you anymore—that’s the same army that wiped us out. Something tells me your people are next.”

Adram sneered. “What makes you think that they’ll serve you after you killed all of them at Ritan?”

Hoff shrugged. “We don’t need them to serve us; we just need them to help us fight you, and the fact that they’re not firing on us right now is a good sign that that’s what they want, too.”

“If you won’t tell us where the Immortals are, then we’ll tear it from your lips. You’re badly mistaken if you think that humans are the only ones who can dig around inside a being’s brain. I’m going to enjoy interrogating and torturing you the way you and your people did with me.”

“Good luck with that.” Hoff said as he turned his cutting beam on himself.

“No!” Adram roared.

Hoff pulled the trigger and everything that he was vanished with a searing light and a puff of greasy smoke.

A split second later, Hoff opened his eyes from the inside of a stasis tube and looked out at his cloning chamber. It looked like a warzone in there, but he was alive, so that was a good sign.

When the stasis tube didn’t automatically swing open, Hoff frowned and pounded on it with his hands, but the cover wouldn’t budge. Panic seized his chest and his eyes bulged. He was trapped. Peering through the transpiranium at his feet, he noted that there were no debris obstructing the cover of the stasis tube, but he had a feeling he knew exactly what had gone wrong.

In the event of depressurization, a stasis tube wouldn’t open. Tubes like this one could be recovered from cold, hard vacuum and their occupants still be found alive and well—and asleep. But Hoff’s revival system had woken him up before atmosphere had been restored to the ship. Hoff had never planned for the possibility that his cloning chamber might survive but be so badly damaged that all the atmosphere got sucked out into space.

And now . . . now he was going to suffocate to death in a space which was just the right size and shape to be a coffin.

*  *  *

Origin

The Last Chance slipped inside the Valiant’s aft hangar bay, unnoticed amidst the frenzied rush of other transports slipping out. Moments later, as they settled down on the deck, they came under small arms fire as a pair of guards noticed that they didn’t belong.

Atton vaporized them with the transport’s turrets.

Ethan stood ready and waiting inside the rear airlock, armed and armored like a sentinel. He’d blend right in with Brondi’s men, who’d all stolen matching gunmetal gray armor from the Valiant’s supply rooms. Looking like them would give him the element of surprise, but Ethan didn’t expect to encounter much resistance after seeing how many loaded assault transports had launched from the carrier.

“You’re sure you don’t want me to come with you?” Atton asked over the intercom.

“Someone needs to stay here and keep the engines warm—all clear out there?” Ethan asked, his hand hovering over the outer door controls.

“For now,” Atton replied.

Ethan activated the airlock and it cycled open with a hiss. He didn’t bother to lower the boarding ramp, and rather jumped the five feet to the deck. He landed with a boom. The hydraulic supports in the knee joints of his armor cushioned his fall.

“Be careful,” Atton said, his voice now coming through Ethan’s helmet. “And make it quick.”

“Don’t worry,” Ethan said as he started across the hangar deck at a jog. He winced as his injuries made themselves known once more. Hefting his plasma rifle, he set the fire mode to AP-RF—anti-personnel, rapid-fire—and flicked off the safety. “I’ll be in and out before you even notice I’m gone.”

“I’ll be waiting.”

Ethan reached the hangar bay exit and stepped up to the control panel to open the oversized doors. They parted with a noisy bang. Ethan ran to the end of that broad corridor and then opened another wide set of doors to reveal yet more of the same corridor. It stretched endlessly into the distance until it reached a short set of stairs.

So far so good—the ship was deserted. Looking around, Ethan found that this particular corridor housed a rail car station. Broad transpiranium viewports lined the walls, revealing a set of gravlev tracks on either side and two waiting rail cars. Ethan headed for the nearest one and opened the doors to step inside. The rail car was as empty as the station. He turned to the control panel inside the rail car and scrolled through the ship’s directory until he found the section closest to the crew quarters where Alara was staying. He remembered that her room was on deck 144, just a few decks below the bridge.

The temptation to head up there first and pay Brondi a visit was almost overwhelming, but there was no way he’d be able to get off the Valiant after that. It would be a one-way trip.

Hold on, Kiddie— Ethan thought as he punched in his selection. The rail car began whistling down the tracks. He sat down and watched out the windows on the opposite side of the car as the lights of passing glow panels and viewports blurred into a solid golden stream of light. —I’m coming.

*  *  *

Origin

Alara stood listening to Brondi bark out orders as he checked on the status of the assault teams which he’d sent out to the alien cruiser. Thousands of men were already on board the ruined halves of that ship, looking for the Sythians, but so far they hadn’t found anything. Alara wasn’t sure what Brondi was after—maybe he planned to threaten the Sythians in exchange for peace, or maybe he just wanted answers.

Everyone wanted that.

Then, just moments after the last team confirmed that they were aboard the alien ship, something unexpected happened. One of Brondi’s men came marching up to him and took him aside. Alara didn’t hear what that man said, but she heard Brondi’s side of the conversation clearly.

What? Where are they? . . . What do you mean you just noticed, Gibbs? . . . I know we abandoned the watch stations, but someone should have noticed something before they got that far! Frek!”

Alara watched Brondi spin in a dizzy circle, as if looking for a way out. A few of his crew looked up with wide, questioning eyes, but he ignored them. Brondi’s gaze found her, and abruptly he nodded as if he’d just decided something. “Come on, Sweet Thing,” he said, walking over to her. “You and I have a date.”

Alara shook her head as he approached, and tried to affect an innocent look. “Where are we going?” she asked.

He took her by the arm and dragged her along, heading swiftly for the back of the bridge. The man who had delivered the bad news kept pace beside them, and now Alara recognized him as the sergeant who’d let her in to see Brondi. Again, the crew looked up from their stations with questioning eyes, and this time Brondi answered their unspoken questions. “Good work everyone! We’re doing well! Soon we’ll be the uncontested lords of Dark Space!” He sounded nervous. A mumble of dissent rose from the crew, but no one directly challenged Brondi to ask what he was doing.

Alara felt him suddenly pick up the pace, tugging on her arm more insistently now. He reached the doors and triggered them to open. They strode off the bridge, and the doors swished shut behind them with an ominous boom.

Brondi led them to a nearby bank of lift tubes and pressed the down arrow. Then the ship’s intercom blared to life and they heard a commanding voice say, “This is Captain Loba Caldin of the Imperial Star Systems Fleet to any and all fugitives who are still manning the Valiant. There are over two thousand navy sentinels now on board this ship. Surrender now, without a fight, and you will be granted lenience for your crimes. Fight us, and we will kill you without hesitation.”

Brondi turned to the man standing beside him. “You can help me escape, or be sentenced to the mines of Etaris with the rest. It’s up to you.”

Alara prayed that he would choose Etaris.

“Lead the way,” the sergeant said, dashing her hopes. He gestured to a nearby lift tube as the doors parted, and they all squeezed inside. Brondi selected one of the lower decks. Alara pressed herself into the furthest corner of the lift, wondering if she looked as scared as she felt. Brondi caught her eye and smiled. “Don’t worry, Sweet Thing. We’ll be okay.”

She nodded, but she wasn’t worried about running into Caldin’s forces; she was worried that they wouldn’t and that Brondi would manage to escape—with her. She couldn’t let that happen. She had to make a move soon. Her eyes darted to Sergeant Gibbs’ ripper rifle and his matching sidearm, but Gibbs was overly alert, and he noticed her looking at him immediately. He shot her a lascivious grin, and she forced herself to smile back before looking away. It might not be possible for her to resist without getting herself killed, but death would be preferable to letting these two run away with her.

*  *  *

Origin

Ten minutes earlier . . .

The rail car doors swished open and Ethan launched himself out and through. He raced down the corridor, and all of a few minutes later, he stood panting in the open door of Alara’s quarters, his gaze flicking between the guard lying just inside the entrance at his feet and the other one lying on the bed. Both of them were either dead or stunned, and Ethan didn’t care which. All he cared about was the fact that Alara wasn’t there. Somehow, she’d broken out on her own, and there was no way for him to know where she was now.

Ethan slammed the nearest wall with an armored fist. “Frek!”

The noise caused the man on the bed to stir. Ethan took one look at his loosened belt and blew a smoking hole in his chest. He didn’t want to know how that man had come to be lying on Alara’s bed with his belt half off, but he was willing to bet it wasn’t because he’d felt like taking a nap.

Ethan’s gaze found the guard lying at his feet, and he considered sending another soul to the netherworld, but that man wasn’t moving. Just in case, Ethan kicked him with his boot, but still nothing. With that, he turned and ran, heading back the way he’d come. When he reached the rail car tunnel, he hesitated to choose his destination from the ship’s directory. He could head up to the bridge to get revenge on Brondi, or back to the hangar.

The hangar won. Atton was waiting for him, and Brondi would be a one-way trip.

The rail car whistled; lights blurred. Ethan’s heart pounded, and his head swam dizzily as he watched a golden stream of light race by the windows in the opposite side of the rail car. He’d been running on adrenaline since leaving the Last Chance to rescue Alara, and now it was fast seeping away, leaving his body a cold and shivery mess. By the time he reached the hangar bay where they’d landed, he was bathed in a cold sweat. His injuries had pushed him to the brink. He’d lost a lot of blood before Atton had attended to his injuries, and now as he ran toward the Last Chance, his feet faltered and his eyes grew dim. The corvette became nothing but a blurry shadow against the distant, fuzzy blue shields of the hangar.

The next thing he knew, Ethan lay blinking up at the ceiling of the Last Chance with his son hovering over him. He turned his head to see that he was lying on a bed in the corvette’s sleeping quarters. “What happened?” he asked.

“You passed out,” Atton said, grinning broadly.

“Why’s that got you grinning like a rictan?” Ethan asked.

“Good news—that’s why.”

“Yea? What’s that?”

“Caldin’s on board with a whole army of sentinels. I just caught her on the comms asking Brondi’s men to stand down—or else.”

Ethan sat up, blinking furiously. “No joke?”

“No joke.”

“How long have I been out?”

“Just a few minutes.”

Suddenly, Ethan began to hope that maybe everything was going to work out fine after all. His shoulders sagged, and he sighed. “Thank the Immortals—or . . . well, I guess we should thank Caldin. Frek—that’s going to take some getting used to. Now what?” Ethan asked, looking around.

“I guess you didn’t find Alara.”

“No, but she must be on board somewhere.”

“Don’t worry. They’ll find her.”

A flurry of footfalls reached their ears, and both of them turned to see a man and a woman go racing by—followed by second man, bearing a rifle and wearing the matte gray armor of a sentinel. “Hoi!” that man said, skidding to a stop in the hall and turning toward them. The three bronze chevrons insignia on his shoulder plate marked him as a sergeant. “Is either one of you the pilot of this transport?” he asked.

Atton stood up and saluted the sentinel. “I am.”

“Good. Come on, we’re blasting out of here.”

Atton shook his head, startled. “What—why?” he asked.

“You haven’t heard? The Imperials are here.”

Atton reached for his sidearm, but he wasn’t fast enough.

The sergeant brought his rifle into line, and said, “Halt! You’re one of them! Hoi—Brondi! I’ve got a pair of Imperials over here.”

“A pair of what?”

Ethan felt a stab of shock, and his limbs began to shake with fury. Brondi is here, and he’s trying to escape on our ship! Ethan cast about for his rifle, but it wasn’t anywhere in sight. His eyes flicked to the sidearm holstered at Atton’s hip, but the sergeant covering them caught Ethan’s eye and shook his head.

“Draw it real slow and kick it over to me.”

Atton did as he was told, and the sidearm skittered across the deck.

“Gibbs? Gibbs! What are you muttering about?” Brondi called. They heard footsteps and a moment later the diminutive crime lord appeared standing in the doorway. His mouth gaped open in a grin. “Ethan? Is that you?” Brondi asked. “Well, well, it’s a small galaxy, after all, isn’t it?”

Ethan smiled. “Too small for you. You’re done, Brondi. The Valiant is overrun with sentinels.”

“Yea? Hoi, why do you think I’m leavin’?” Brondi turned to the man covering them with a ripper rifle. “I’ve changed my mind, Gibbs. Let’s save these two for later. I want to take my time killing them.”

“What’s going on?” a familiar voice asked.

Ethan’s blood ran cold. No!

Alara appeared in the doorway behind Brondi, looking confused. Brondi turned to her with his gaping smile and said, “Look who we’ve found, Sweet Thing! Do you know who this is?”

Alara’s big violet eyes hardened in a scowl as they found Ethan. “That annoying nova pilot you kept letting in to see me?”

“Yes, that’s right,” Brondi said, turning back to Ethan with a smug grin. “He’s just some annoying pilot. You don’t mind if we kill him, do you, Alara?”

Alara shook her head. “Not at all.”

Ethan was so shocked that he almost missed seeing Alara steal Brondi’s sidearm. In the next instant, she turned it on the sergeant and shot him in the face. He collapsed to the deck in a pile of jittering limbs, stunned, and Brondi turned with sudden horror to see Alara aiming the gun at his face next.

“What are you doing, Sweet Thing?!” Brondi sputtered.

“You’ve been calling me Alara for the past half an hour,” she said. And with that, she pulled the trigger.




Chapter 36

Origin

By the time Caldin stormed the bridge with admiral Hoff’s sentinels, everyone had already laid down their guns. What was left of Caldin’s bridge crew from the Interloper took charge of the crew stations while dozens of sentinels fanned out, binding Brondi’s men’s hands with lengths of stun cord. Not one of them resisted, and Caldin would grant them leniency as promised. Whether or not the bulk of Brondi’s men would have surrendered if they had been given the chance, Caldin didn’t know, but she suspected it had been so easy to take the Valiant precisely because they had left.

Now as she turned to look around the bridge, she realized that Brondi wasn’t among the men they’d captured, and that brought a fresh scowl to her face. “Comms, ask if anyone has encountered Alec Brondi.” She walked up to the nearest of his men and grabbed him by an elaborate earring which dangled from one ear. “Where is he?”

“Oww, ouuwww!” the man yelped. “Lemme go!”

“All right. Talk.”

“He left just before you asked us to surrender. I think he knew what was coming.”

“Power up the hangar shields!” Caldin said, whirling around. “And get me teams in all our hangar bays. I want them cleared and secured immediately. Gravidar! If so much as a speck of dust flies in or out of this ship, I want to know about it.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Caldin walked up to the captain’s table and stared down at it, eyeing the drifting halves of the Sythian command ship. She noted that their residual momentum had carried them more than twenty kilometers away from the Tauron, while the battleship’s momentum had been entirely negated by the collision, and it had more or less stayed in the same place.

“Comms, hail what’s left of the admiral’s forces and tell them the good news. Have them start looking for survivors. Weapons—open fire on the remains of the Sythian command ship. Let’s not give them a chance to recover or escape.”

“Yes, ma’am!”

One of Brondi’s men spoke up suddenly, “Hoi! We’ve got people on board that ship!”

Caldin turned and held the man’s gaze for a long moment before she spoke. “Then that makes us even. I had people on this one.” With that, she turned to her weapons chief and nodded. “Open fire, Deck Officer Gorvan.”

With that, the deck began booming and rumbling underfoot and Caldin looked out the forward viewports, out over the topside of the mighty Valiant to see hundreds of dazzling red beams and lasers go shooting out toward the remains of the Sythian command ship. Streaking waves of missiles and torpedoes followed that first volley as the energy weapons took a break to recharge. Brondi’s remaining fighters and cruisers didn’t seem to realize what was happening, and they didn’t even react. They probably assumed the alien cruiser had been evacuated already. Caldin looked back to the captain’s table to see enormous flaming chunks of the enemy cruiser break free and float away like slow-moving meteors. Then their main beam shot out, aimed for the dead engines of the behemoth. The explosion which followed ruptured the back half of the ship and tore the front into flaming pieces. A cheer went up from her bridge crew, and Caldin smiled, watching as the flames died in cold vacuum. “Now, we can talk. Open a channel to Brondi’s remaining forces. Tell them to stand down or we’ll have the Gors finish what they started.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Caldin eyed the buzzing clouds of enemy fighters and the odd half a dozen remaining capital-class warships. A moment later comms put through a message from a Captain Ocheron, and Caldin received it with a smile. “Hello, Captain,” she said. “The Valiant is now back under Imperial command. Would you like to discuss the terms of your surrender?”

Captain Ocheron was big and burly with a thick black mustache and a shiny, bald head. He looked furious. “If you’re planning to send us back to Etaris, the answer is we’d rather die.”

“If you and the remaining ships surrender, Captain, then we can talk about a more amicable arrangement. If not, then we’ll disable your ships and have the Gors board you.” She shrugged. “They can decide your fate; I don’t care if they eat you all alive.”

It was a bluff. Caldin didn’t know if the Gors were even interested in working with humans anymore, or if they were just trying to figure out where to go with their ships now that the Sythians didn’t have a control ship to stop them from running away.

Bluff or not, it worked. “All right, you win,” Ocheron said, “but on one condition.”

“What’s that?”

“If we go back to Etaris, Brondi comes with us.”

“I think we can arrange that. Power down your shields and prepare for boarding.”

Ocheron nodded. “Very well.”

The comm officer cut the transmission, and Caldin turned to her crew. “The surrender is official,” she said.

Another cheer rose up from the men on the bridge. Amidst their cheering, Petty Officer Goldrim at the gravidar suddenly called out, “Ma’am! I’ve got a few dozen escape pods on my scopes. . . . Looks like they’re from the Tauron.

“Well? What are you waiting for? Send out a recovery team!”

“Yes, ma’am. They’re heading for Firea.”

Caldin shivered. They’d be hard pressed to find a more inhospitable planet than that ball of ice. “Comms—hail those pods.”

A second later the comm officer replied, “No response.”

Caldin frowned. “Let me try, Corporal,” she said, striding down from the gangway to the comms station. Once there, she waited for the sentinel corporal who she’d pressed into service as her temporary comms officer to put her on speaker. He gave her a thumbs-up sign and she said, “Unknown escape pods, this is Captain Loba Caldin of the Interloper. The Valiant is back under Imperial command now, and the battle is over. You have nothing to fear. Please respond.”

A moment later, the comms crackled, and a familiar voice replied, “Caldin? I can’t believe you actually did it! Have Brondi’s forces surrendered?”

Caldin blinked at the comm board, taken aback. “Admiral Heston? Is that you? We thought you’d gone down with your ship!” She heard a little girl crying in the background and she smiled. “It sounds as though your family is with you, too.”

“Yes,” Hoff replied. “We’re all fine—and I would have gone down with my ship, but an old friend changed my mind at the last minute. Think you can send someone out here to pick us up? It’s a bit cramped in here.”

Caldin smiled. “It would be our pleasure, sir. Stand by for rescue.”

*  *  *

Origin

When Brondi awoke, he awoke in darkness. A bright light snapped on overhead and he winced away from the glare.

“Hoi!”

He tried to move, but found that his hands and feet were locked securely into cold, unyielding manacles. He sat in an uncomfortable chair with life support systems beeping and buzzing around him. Brondi turned his head, looking first one way and then the other, but he couldn’t see anything through the blinding light which shone in his face.

“What is this? Where am I?”

Abruptly someone familiar stepped into the light, and Brondi’s eyes flew wide. “You again!”

Ethan gave a slow smile. “That’s right. Did you miss me?”

“What do you want?” Brondi spat.

“I want to probe your petty, twisted brain until I find the code to deactivate Alara’s slave chip.”

“Fine, you win. You don’t have to probe me for that. I’ll give it to you! Look for my holopad in the overlord’s quarters and unlock it with the password. In there you’ll find a list of the encryption codes I used for all my slave chips.”

Ethan’s eyes narrowed. “All right, what’s the password?”

Brondi recited a sequence of twenty numbers and letters. Ethan nodded, using holo card reader implant behind his ear to file away the code for later. “Thank you for cooperating, but I still need to probe you to know whether you’re telling the truth.”

“What? But you said—”

“I lied.”

Brondi bucked in the probe chair and screamed. “Help!”

“Don’t bother. No one’s going to help you,” Ethan said. He turned to someone that Brondi couldn’t see and nodded. “Go ahead, Admiral, start up the probe. Let’s get this over with.”

Brondi felt a thousand needles stab his brain all at once, and then his mind slipped into a hazy, dream-like state. The dark room and its bright, glaring light disappeared, and now he found himself standing in a small, filthy room, gazing up at a man he hadn’t seen in decades.

His father.

Brondi bit his lip and shook his head, willing the scene to disappear, willing himself to wake up. There was a mad gleam in his father’s eyes. He was drunk again. “I told ya, Al, if I still found you here when I got home, I was gonna kill you, and waddaya know? Yer still here. You must get bein’ so smart from yer mother. Immortals bless her sclutty soul.” The first blow hit him like a hammer and he went flying into the far corner of the room. “Tell me, Al,” his father said, finding him in his corner with another blow. “Why’d ya stay?”

“I . . . got . . . no place to go,” he said, trying to speak despite having the wind knocked out of him.

“Ah, no place to go. Well stayin’ here wasn’t so smart, hoi? But I bet ya think yer a real big brainy, don’t ya? A Big Brainy Brondi, first one in a long line of skriffs. Smart don’t run in our family, boy. Yer livin’ proof o’ that.”

Another blow landed, followed by another, and another as his father asked, “Why’d ya do it, son? Why?”

The questions which followed that one didn’t sound like anything his father would have asked, but Brondi answered them anyway, desperate to make it all go away.

He told them everything they wanted to know. When at last he woke up from that nightmare, he woke up screaming. The blinding light was back, stabbing him through his eyes and slicing through his brain. His head pounded so hard he thought it was about to explode. He turned away from the light, blinking tears of rage and shame. They’d seen him at his weakest. They’d seen . . .

“How’s he doing?” Ethan asked.

“He’ll live,” the admiral replied.

Brondi shook his head and moaned. “I don’t want to live!”

“Then that’s exactly why you have to,” Ethan replied. “You’re going to have to live a long, long time, Big Brainy. Admiral Heston will make sure of that.”

*  *  *


Origin

As they left the probe room, Ethan turned to Hoff and said, “Thank you for helping me.”

“Thank you for bringing Brondi to justice.”

“That was Alara’s work, actually, but I guess now you know that I really was forced to help Brondi.”

“Not that it excuses your actions, but I suppose you were telling the truth.”

Ethan smiled. “Yes, I was, but you weren’t.”

Hoff suddenly stopped walking, and his eyes narrowed sharply. “What do you mean?”

“Atton told me.”

“And what exactly did he tell you?”

“Everything.”

“Well, well—what do you plan to do about that?”

Ethan shrugged. “It’s none of my business.”

“Smart.”

“But—” Ethan shook his head, and Hoff’s gray eyes hardened. “You need to get on board the Tauron and find out what happened.”

“Find out what happened to what?”

“To your clone.”

“I must be missing something,” Hoff said, looking around quickly to make sure no one was around to overhear their conversation.

“I went EVA during the battle, and Atton picked me up in your corvette. You were on board, but it was your clone, not you. He insisted we drop him on board the Sythian command cruiser so he could get answers.” Hoff’s eyes widened, but he said nothing. Ethan went on, “He told us that we should look for him on the Tauron, and that Atton would know where to look. That was before Caldin blew the Sythians and Brondi’s men all to the netherworld. If your clone did find something before the ship was destroyed, and if what Atton told me about you is true, then there might still be a record of what happened on board that ship.”

Hoff nodded slowly. “You’d better keep all of this to yourself, Ortane.”

“Or else? What are you going to do? I’m already headed for death row.”

“Actually, you might be surprised what I have in mind for you.” Ethan raised one eyebrow, and Hoff went on, “Thank you for the tip, Ethan. I’ll investigate. As for you, let’s assume for now that your record will be erased. Is that enough to ensure your silence?”

“Good enough for me.”

“Excellent. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go get a team together.”

Ethan nodded. “Let me know what you find.”

“I can’t promise that, Ortane, but thank you.”

The admiral started off at a jog, and Ethan watched him go with a frown. Hoff turned a corner and disappeared, and Ethan shook himself. Mysteries of the universe be damned. He had more important things to deal with—it was time to schedule an operation to remove Alara’s implant.

*  *  *


Origin

Walking through the mangled remains of the Tauron was otherworldly. Twisted girders and beams hung down from the ceiling; severed wires and sparking conduits drifted like tentacles in the zero-G environment. Bodies and pieces of bodies floated past Hoff’s floodlights with looks of horror frozen on their battered and bloodied faces. Hoff pushed on, ignoring the carnage. So far there were no survivors, but that wasn’t surprising. The Tauron was a mess, and it would need extensive rebuilding before it could even serve as a garbage hauler, let alone a warship for the fleet, but that was for the spacebees and greasers to deal with. Hoff had his prerogatives for boarding the derelict ship.

As soon as Ethan had revealed the startling news about what had happened to Hoff’s clone, the admiral had put together a small team of engineers and jetted over to the Tauron. He’d left Commander Caldin in charge of search and rescue operations and told her to open a dialogue with the Gors. Meanwhile, Hoff had his own search and rescue operation to conduct. With everything going on, he’d completely forgotten to go looking for his clone, and loose ends could be dangerous if left untied. He needed to get access to his data center and his cloning facility. He had to find out if his clone had been revived, and if so, what had happened aboard the Sythian command cruiser.

Perhaps that clone had found answers to some of the myriad questions which had haunted humanity ever since the invasion. Who are the Sythians and what do they want for starters.

Hoff pressed on through the twisted corridors of his ship, occasionally using his cutting beam to open up corridors which had completely collapsed or been blocked with rubble. With all the debris it was hard to see where he was going, or even to recognize where he was, but he had a feeling he was getting close.

His comm piece crackled. “Admiral? Are you all right? You’re getting a bit far from the expedition.”

“I’m fine,” Hoff replied. “Give me another hour, and I’ll find my way back to the hangar.”

“All right, but don’t forget to check in.”

Hoff frowned and clicked his comm to acknowledge that before ending the transmission. He felt like a child out past his curfew, but he had refused an escort. It would have made sense to have a team of engineers with him in such a potentially unstable environment, but he couldn’t afford to have them find out about his secret. It was bad enough that Destra and Atton knew—and now Ethan, too.

After another twenty minutes of struggling through the dark, broken corridors of his ship, Hoff found what he was looking for—his lift tube. It was still mostly intact. The lift itself was missing, but since gravity was out, all he had to do was dial down the field strength on the grav gun hooked to his belt, and then jump.

Hoff floated down past deck after ruined deck, using his grav gun to direct his fall between jutting beams and the jagged edges of crumpled bulkheads. Hoff saw the lift tube coming up fast below his feet, and he dialed down the grav field strength some more. His feet touched the roof of the lift, and he bent his legs to absorb his remaining momentum. Using his cutting beam, he sliced a hole in the roof and dropped down.

The cloning lab was a mess, but at least it was a recognizable mess. Glow panels still flickered down here, and the artificial gravity gave a weak, but perceptible tug. That meant that Hoff’s backup generators were still running—a good sign.

The clone tanks in his med center had broken open, spewing blue nutrient fluid everywhere. Stasis tubes had broken away from the walls and fallen over, others were cracked and dark, the clones inside them now dead. None of the tubes were open, however, which was a bad sign. His helmet sensors told him that there was no breathable atmosphere, so if his clone had been revived down here, he would have woken up to find himself trapped inside a stasis tube that refused to open due to the vacuum on the other side. That clone would have suffocated to death.

Hoff grimaced and shook his head. Looking to his right, he found his data center still flickering with rolling waves of blue light. The glossy black meditation sphere at the end of the catwalk which led out into that data center was apparently also intact. Hoff felt a spark of hope, and eagerness drove him on. He passed through the entrance of the data center and walked down the narrow catwalk, his eyes scanning the far walls of the hollow sphere. Those walls only shone with half of the lights that they should have, indicating that many, if not most, of his memories would be inaccessible now.

When Hoff reached the mediation sphere, he placed a palm against the glossy black side of it and waited, hoping it still had enough power to respond. For a moment, nothing happened, but then the sphere spun, revealing an opening which had been hidden underneath. Hoff walked inside and strapped himself into the high-backed black chair inside the sphere. The walls of the sphere were transparent from the inside, giving Hoff a magnificent view of his data center. He watched the lights undulate around the room for a moment before he swiveled his chair to face the control station behind it and booted up the meditation sphere. He began searching for the most recent data set in the database.

To his surprise, that data set was just a few hours old. One of his clones had in fact tried to revive in here, but the operation had failed, and he was listed as deceased. Hoff spent a moment parsing through the data set to find the clone’s last half hour of life; then he configured his data center for a memory walk and routed the sounds to his helmet so he could hear despite the vacuum inside the data center. With everything now ready, he stabbed the button to start his journey into the not-so-distant past.

The transparent walls of the mediation sphere shimmered and then suddenly Hoff was standing inside a Sythian ship, in a room filled with glowing purple portals in the floor and ceiling. Just a few minutes later, a dark shape floated down from the ceiling, and Hoff heard himself say, “Hello, Sythian. I’ve been waiting a long time for this.”

Then he saw a flash of white teeth, and heard a familiar voice say, “So have I, Admiral.”

If Hoff hadn’t been strapped into his chair, he would have fallen out of it. He shook his head. It couldn’t be.

And yet it was. It was Captain Adram. Hoff sat and listened with horror and fascination to the explanations which followed. So this is what immortality leads to, he thought, a vile, twisted perversion of life.

He shook his head. It had to end. He’d had his doubts about immortality before, but now he was sure—man wasn’t meant to live forever.

*  *  *

Origin

Three hours later . . .

Destra Heston stood outside Alara’s room in the med bay. She watched through the transpiranium viewing window with Hoff, Atta, and Atton as Ethan walked in. Alara’s parents were already there, standing beside her bed and fussing over her. She looked up and smiled when she saw Ethan, and he dropped a quick kiss on her cheek before pulling up a chair and sitting down beside her. He grabbed her hand and raised it to his lips for another kiss.

Destra felt a brief echo of something—jealousy perhaps—but it quickly passed, replaced by a bittersweet feeling of joy. She was happy for Ethan—happy that Alara was back and finally safe, happy that her slave chip was about to be removed so there would be no more relapses . . . and she was also happy for herself. She was happy that she didn’t have to feel guilty anymore, because Ethan and Atton were both fine.

Destra turned and smiled up at Hoff. He met her gaze and smiled wanly back. “How do you feel?” he asked.

“Complete,” she said and stood up on tip toes to kiss him on the lips. “Happy.”

“Are you sure?”

Destra hesitated. “No more secrets?”

“None.”

“No more clones?”

He shook his head. “Never again.”

“Then yes, I’m sure,” she said, wrapping an arm around his waist and leaning her head on his shoulder. We’re going to grow old together, and die together—” Her head turned and found Ethan’s and Alara’s tightly clasped hands. “—just like them.”

Atton turned to his mother with a smile. “I guess now I have two families.”

“But only one mother, right?” Destra asked.

Atton laughed. “Alara is young enough to be my sister, Mom.”

“And I’m old enough to be your grandfather,” Hoff added.

“No, you’re old enough to be anyone’s grandfather.”

“What is everybody looking at?” Atta asked, bouncing on her toes to see through the windows. “I don’t see anything!”

Atton scooped her up and placed her on his shoulders so she could see.

Destra smiled. “I think you already have a sister, Atton.”

“Wow . . .” Atta marveled as her head scraped the ceiling. “I’m tall!”

“Tall as a Gor,” Atton replied, and then he turned to look at Hoff. “Speaking of which, how are negotiations going?”

The admiral shrugged. “We’re still sorting out who’s responsible for what. Now there can be no doubt about their loyalties, but we have to convince them of ours. There have been a lot of casualties on both sides, and at this point the only thing anyone can do is try to prevent more. The fact that the Gors are even willing to talk with us after Ritan means that they understand that, too.”

Atton nodded. “You’re lucky that they’re so understanding.”

Humanity is lucky.”

“You were so sure that they were against us,” Atton said, not willing to let it go just yet. “Sometimes the simplest answers are the best ones, hoi Hoff? They’re simple because they’re true.”

“Sometimes,” Hoff conceded.

“Yes . . .” Destra appeared to think about that for a moment, and then she turned to her husband with wide, curious eyes. “Speaking of answers, what was it that you found inside the Tauron which changed your mind about immortality?”

Hoff hesitated. “That’s more than I think any of us are ready to hear right now.”

Destra shook her head. “No more secrets, remember?”

Hoff’s gray eyes found Atta, and he said, “I’ll tell you all later, in a more appropriate moment. Suffice it to say, the Sythians are not the aliens we thought they were, and immortality is not the innocent technological breakthrough I thought it was.”

“What do you mean by that?” Atton asked.

“If the Sythians aren’t the aliens we thought, then what are they?” Destra added.

Hoff took a deep breath before he replied. “They’re just like us, and we’re all the same—all fighting for exactly the same reason.”

Atton shook his head. “I don’t understand.”

“Neither do I,” Destra said. “What reason?”

Hoff’s gaze didn’t stray from Atta. She noticed his scrutiny and turned to him with a broad smile. “Look at me, Daddy!” she said. “I’m even taller than you!”

Hoff smiled, and belatedly answered his wife’s question. “We’re fighting for our families, Des—we’re just fighting to survive.”

Destra frowned, but Hoff’s comm piece trilled before she could reply. Hoff touched his ear to accept the call. “Yes . . . I see. That is good news, Lieutenant. . . . No, I’ll go personally to welcome them. I’ll be there in a minute.”

Atton shook his head. “Welcome who?”

“We’ve found a few more survivors, Squadron Commander.”

“Squadron Commander?” Atton shook his head.

Hoff smiled and reached out to squeeze Atton’s shoulder. “Come with me. I’ll explain along the way.”

Atton set his sister down and went with Hoff. Destra watched them go, already knowing what they would talk about. She and Hoff had already spoken about it. The Valiant was Atton’s home. It was all he’d ever known. He was a capable commander and an excellent pilot. Cutting him loose would be a mistake, especially now when they needed fleet officers more than ever. Besides that, she wanted Atton close. She’d missed too much of his life already.

As Atton and Hoff left, she heard her husband say, “How would you like your own nova squadron?”

*  *  *

Origin

Atton’s eyes widened as he heard the Admiral offer him a real officer’s commission with the fleet. “My own squadron? What about the trial? What about my crimes?”

“You’re not the only criminal we have to deal with, Atton. There’s your father, Alara’s father, Brondi’s men who surrendered in exchange for leniency, and even me . . . we’re all waiting in line for the airlock or Etaris, and right now humanity can’t afford to lose any more people. I have a plan to deal with that, but for now just know that there won’t be a trial for any of us. The only man who we’re going to make answer for his crimes is Alec Brondi.”

Atton frowned. “Okay, so why make me a ranking officer?”

“We need you. We need pilots and crew, and you’re too valuable to waste, Atton.”

They reached a pair of lift tubes and Hoff punched the down arrow. A moment later the right-hand lift opened and they stepped inside.

“Where are we going?” Atton asked.

“To the ventral hangar. We found some more survivors.”

“That’s good news.”

Hoff nodded. The lift arrived a few moments later and they walked out into a broad corridor which ran past a pair of rail car tunnels. At the end of that lay a set of wide, double doors.

They reached those doors and Hoff keyed them open. Atton blinked, his eyes trying to adjust to the size of the enormous hangar bay beyond. It was one of the venture-class hangars. Right now one of Brondi’s baron-class cruisers sat there, looking like a venture-class which had been squeezed middle. Landed beside that cruiser were half a dozen assault transports, one of which was just setting down now.

“Come on,” Hoff said, angling for that transport.

The hangar was strangely silent and devoid of the usual bustle of activity, but that was because most of the carrier’s fighters and transports were still out scanning the debris for survivors.

They reached the back of the transport which had just come in, and waited there for the loading ramp to drop. A moment later, it cracked open with a hiss, and Atton watched it slowly drop to the deck. Waiting behind that ramp was Captain Caldin, a corpsman, and a pair of medics. Caldin came down the ramp by herself. The other three followed, pushing and pulling a pair of hover gurneys. When Atton saw who was on those gurneys, he couldn’t believe his eyes.

Caldin stopped before the admiral and gave a brisk salute. “Sir.”

“You found the Tauron’s bridge,” Hoff said, eyeing the occupants of the hover gurneys.

“Yes, sir. It was floating through the rubble. Everyone aboard was either cut to ribbons or turned to jelly in the crash.”

“And them?” Hoff jerked his chin to the two hulking Gors coming down the ramp, their muscular limbs hanging off the gurneys on all sides, their slitted yellow eyes shut.

“We found them stuffed inside an escape pod, still stuck inside its launch tube. The crew must have put them in there just before the crash.”

Hoff shook his head, marveling at that. “But why? Why save the Gors when they could have saved a pair of humans instead?”

“The pod wouldn’t have saved humans unless it had managed to launch before the collision, but Gors have much stronger bodies than us.”

Hoff nodded and smiled, eyeing first Tova and then Roan as they reached the bottom of the loading ramp. “This will help our negotiations with the Gors like nothing else—if they live, that is. Good work, Captain. Are they asleep?”

“Induced. Their bodies heal quite quickly when they sleep, or so they tell me. The medics will do whatever else they can.”

Hoff nodded and Caldin turned to Atton. “Who’s this?”

“Squadron Commander, Atton Ortane.”

Caldin accepted that with a frown. “Ortane?”

“Yes.”

“He doesn’t look like the imposter’s son,” she said.

“It’s a long story, ma’am,” Atton replied.

Caldin frowned. “I see,” was all she said to that. She looked away, back to the pair of medics as they moved Tova and Roan to one side of the loading ramp. “Get the others down here, and then we’ll take them all to the med bay together,” she called out to the medics.

“Yes, ma’am,” they chorused.

The corpsman came to stand beside Captain Caldin and saluted the admiral.

“Who are the others?” Atton thought to ask.

“Two pilots—one Brondi’s, one ours. They’re wearing the same fleet uniforms, so it’s tough to tell the difference between them except when they start screaming at each other.”

Atton smirked at that, but when he saw the next hover gurney reach the top of the ramp, he really couldn’t believe his eyes. Another familiar face. She began cursing at the medics and railing against the Imperium.

“This one has been out there a while,” Caldin said, looking up at the female pilot as her gurney came down the ramp. “She put herself in a hypoxic sleep to save oxygen. We found her beacon still transmitting weak distress signals. She was one of ours—piloted the transport which snuck aboard the Valiant, but . . . Brondi must have chipped her so he could use her to fight for him.”

“Gina . . .” Atton whispered.

Caldin turned back to him with a frown. “Yes.” Then her gaze turned to Hoff. “That woman is a very distinguished officer, Admiral. More veteran than any I can name, and I can personally vouch for her record. She’s no traitor.”

Hoff nodded. “No, I’m sure she isn’t.”

Gina reached the bottom of the ramp and she turned to glare at the admiral. Hoff smiled back. “What ya lookin’ at frek face? Think yer real frekkin’ special cause you’re an admiral? Well frek you! I’m gonna melt that smile off yer face with a plasma rifle—real slow and painful.”

Hoff blinked, taken aback by her vitriolic. He let out a short bark of laughter, and then one of the medics stepped forward with a syringe, and Gina tried to wriggle free of the straps tying her down to the gurney. “Hoi!” she said as the needle went in. She struggled more, muscles and tendons bulging with the effort to break her bonds. Unable to free herself, she settled for spitting at her attending medic instead. He flinched, but injected her anyway, and she abruptly relaxed against the gurney, her eyes rolling back in her head.

“As I was saying, try not to judge her yet, sir.”

Hoff smiled. “I’m not going to judge anyone, Captain. We’ve all done our share of wrong, and if we’re going to work together and rebuild—then all of us, including the Gors and Brondi’s men need to put the past behind us.”

Including Brondi’s men, sir?” Caldin said, her eyes narrowing to slits.

Hoff nodded. “Yes.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you about something,” she said suddenly.

“What is that, Captain?”

She shook her head. “I should ask you in private, sir. It’s about Captain Adram.”

“Ah, yes. Very well.”

Atton and the corpsman stood watching as the two of them walked away, out of earshot. Atton strained his ears to listen, but couldn’t hear what they were saying. They spoke for a long time, seconds dragging on into minutes, but at the end of that discussion, Hoff smiled, and Caldin gave a stiff salute. She returned to help take the last of the survivors to the med bay with the corpsman.

Hoff stepped up beside Atton and placed a hand on his shoulder. They watched as the injured officers and Gors were led away. “What was that about?” Atton asked.

“Ordinarily, I would say it’s classified, but you already know about some of it, and the rest is something we’re all going to have to know about soon.”

Atton listened as the admiral explained about the human traitor and Sythian agent, Captain Adram, about his attempt to organize a coup using log recordings of the destruction of Obsidian Station, and finally, about the unfortunate fate of everyone in the enclave, including Fortress Station and the remainder of Hoff’s own fifth fleet.

Atton frowned. “They might not all be dead. We have to send a mission out there to check. How many colonists and refugees were there?”

Hoff shook his head. “Over a hundred thousand, Atton.”

“Frek.”

“I suspect my fleet ran when they realized they were outnumbered, and Fortress Station might have arrived after the battle, so at the very least it may have survived. We’ll send out a search and rescue as soon as things are resolved here with the Gors and Brondi’s men.”

Atton nodded. “Good. You’re really planning to work with Brondi’s men?”

“We don’t have a choice. Half of Dark Space has a record, and we need the criminals as much as the honest citizens. We’re going to wipe the slates and see who reforms and who doesn’t. Everyone deserves a second chance.”

“Guess things look different when you’re one of the ones who frekked up,” Atton said.

“You’re going to have to watch how you speak to me, Commander, if you want to be a part of this fleet, but yes, things do look different when you’re on the other side of the bars. Come—by now Alara should be awake and I need to speak with your father.”

“About what?” Atton asked as they turned and strode for the exit.

“I’m going to offer him a commission, too.”

Atton smiled. “I don’t know if he wants to be one of your subordinates, Hoff.”

The admiral shrugged. “Perhaps, perhaps not, but I could use another capable pilot. Let’s see, shall we?”

*  *  *

Origin

One hour earlier . . .

Ethan walked into Alara’s room, leaving his family outside—his old family. Atton was grown, Destra had moved on with Hoff. Now it was his turn to move on.

“Ethan!” Alara said, her big, violet eyes finding him as he approached.

“Hoi, Kiddie,” he replied. He elbowed past her parents and leaned over the bed to kiss her on the cheek. “How are you doing, beautiful?”

He turned and found a nearby chair, Alara’s mother’s chair—but she nodded to him, indicating that he could take it. Kurlin glared, and Ethan smiled thinly back. They hadn’t put aside their differences, and they’d probably never be friends, but at least Darla liked him for her daughter. Ethan plopped the chair down next to the head of Alara’s bed and sat down so he could stare into her big violet eyes properly and drink her in. He wanted to make sure that his was the first face she saw when she woke up after the procedure. Removing her slave chip wasn’t particularly involved or dangerous—now that they had the deactivation code—but Ethan would wait by her bedside for however long it took for her to wake up. The medics couldn’t drag him out of here. He was determined to spend every moment with her that he could.

“I’m fine,” Alara said. “How are you?

“The doc said I’m lucky none of the shrapnel made it to my heart, and apparently a few pieces just barely missed major arteries. The consensus is that I’m a very lucky skriff.”

Alara let out a long, slow breath. “We all are.”

“Yes.”

“Thank you for coming back for me,” she said.

“I didn’t find you.”

“No, but you tried.”

Ethan sighed, and his hand found hers. He raised it to his lips and kissed it. “You would have done the same thing for me, Kiddie.”

“Maybe not, not while I thought I was Angel the playgirl, anyway.”

Ethan shook his head. “You’re not going to have to worry about that again.”

The attending medic walked up on the other side of Alara’s bed with a syringe and waited patiently for them to give him the go-ahead. Ethan looked up, and Alara turned to the medic with a hesitant look. “You’re sure there’s no risk?”

“None. You’ll fall asleep for a little while, and when you wake up, you’ll still remember everything, but you won’t have to worry about another crisis of identity, or false memories interfering with your real ones.”

Alara turned back to Ethan. “You’ll stay here until I wake up?”

He smiled. “I’m never going to leave you again, Kiddie. I’ve got a lot of lost time to make up for. We have a life to get on with—together.”

Alara’s big eyes filled with a bright sheen of moisture. “Then I’m ready,” she said. “I think I’ve been ready for this my whole life.”

*  *  *


Origin

The medic leaned over to inject Alara with the syringe. Her eyelids grew heavy and slowly drifted shut. She imagined a small cabin in the woods on a world with clear blue skies and leafy green trees. The chimney of that cabin was alive with gray wisps of smoke, a crystal clear river flowed by in front, and two young children raced around the cabin, a boy and a girl, both of them squealing with delight as their father chased them. The children looked somehow familiar. When Alara caught a glimpse of the father’s face, she understood why, and she smiled. An hour later, when her eyes cracked open, that smile was still frozen on her lips and that scene still fresh in her mind.

“What are you smiling about?” Ethan asked, his eyes bright and green like the forest from her dream.

Her smile broadened and she gave a sleepy sigh, “You. You’re the father, Ethan. . . . we’re going to be so happy.”

Ethan grinned. He leaned over her bed and cupped her face in one big, callused hand. “I know,” he said, and with that, he leaned in the rest of the way and kissed her on the lips. Her lips moved softly against his, and they drank each other in, basking in the warm fragrance of each other’s breath.




Epilogue

Origin

One week later . . .

Ethan grinned, and his hand tightened on the flight stick as he flew out the Valiant’s main hangar bay in Brondi’s freshly-refitted corvette. The blue fuzz of the hangar’s shields faded, replaced with the familiar starry blackness of Dark Space.

The comms beeped with an incoming message and Ethan punched the button marked transmit/receive.

“Good luck, Ethan.” It was Hoff.

“You, too,” he replied. “Thanks again for the ship.”

“After leading us to Brondi and catching him before he escaped, it was the least I could do for you two. Besides, amnesty for everyone, remember? That includes ex-husbands of the woman I love.”

Ethan nodded. “Fair enough. Makes me feel bad now.”

“Bad?”

“Well, just don’t look inside any of your closets until the rictan pups have calmed down.”

“The what?”

“He’s joking,” Destra said.

Ethan smiled. No I’m not. He’d caught a sentinel with the pups last night. They’d been Brondi’s pets, and the sentinel was going to toss them out an airlock, but it had seemed cruel and unnecessary to do that. They were too young to be dangerous. Fleet regs said no animals on board—fleet regs be damned. Ethan took them from the sentinel, saying he’d adopt them. Instead, he’d smuggled them into Hoff’s closet last night at his and Alara’s farewell dinner.

The admiral had offered him a commission—wing commander—but Ethan had politely declined that offer. After pretending to be an officer, and then the overlord, he’d realized military life wasn’t for him. Besides that, he didn’t want to spend any more time around Hoff than he absolutely had to. The fleet would get along just fine without him.

 “Hoi, don’t forget to visit sometimes,” Atton added in the background. “It’s not like we’re in another sector or something.”

“I want to talk, too!” Atta said, shouting to be heard.

Muffled laughter bubbled from the comm speakers and Ethan smiled. “I won’t forget.”

“Goodbye, Ethan,” Destra said.

“Goodbye,” he replied, but the note of finality in his voice was not unkind. Alara cut the comm channel and Ethan set a course which would take them deeper into Dark Space.

He and Destra had agreed to part as friends. Ethan suspected that they always would be at least that much to each other, but never anything more. Now they both had someone else; they both had a fresh start—and so did humanity.

Dark Space was safe for the time being, thanks to the Gors’ support. They had agreed to stay and help guard the sector in exchange for sanctuary. Dark, icy worlds like Firea which humans couldn’t easily use were a virtual paradise for them. Moreover, Hoff had agreed to help the rest of them escape slavery and bring them to Dark Space as refugees. With that, and the surprising revelation that the bridge crew of the Tauron had used their final moments to save two Gors—the alien warriors had agreed to forget about Ritan, and a new alliance had been formed.

The Tauron was being salvaged; Brondi’s forces had been offered a regular fleet salary and commission as part of Hoff’s amnesty program, and most of them had accepted. In Dark Space, criminals were usually criminals because they didn’t have a choice—something Ethan could relate to very well. With that understanding, Hoff had offered everyone in Dark Space a chance to join the amnesty program, to have their records swiped clean and start over with legitimate work—everyone except for Brondi. He was back on Etaris with the worst of Dark Space’s criminal population, serving a sentence of 400 consecutive years hard labor, and undergoing therapy sessions in which he was forced to come to terms with his abusive father and his impoverished childhood. That was punishment enough all by itself.

So far, everyone had managed to put aside their differences in the interests of going forward and rebuilding from a position of strength. Not everyone liked the idea of redeeming criminals by making them the new guardians of the sector, but nevertheless, Hoff’s new motto that, “we’re all the same, no one better, no one worse,” went over well with everyone.

The overtures of peace and forgiveness had, however, stopped with the humans in Dark Space and the Gors. Sythians were still enemy number one, and as for the immortal humans hiding out in Avilon . . . they were still a well-kept secret. The admiral hadn’t decided what to do about them yet, but Ethan hoped the Sythians managed to find them and that they would wipe one another out.

As for Ethan and Alara, they’d go back to doing what they were best at, and this time, they didn’t owe any debts on their ship. Hoff had given them Brondi’s old corvette, and Deck Commander Cobrale Delayn had overseen the modifications himself. The seraphim-class corvette had been turned into the perfect trade ship, and it was ten times the vessel that the Atton had been. Bridge control stations had been consolidated down to just two—one for the pilot, and one for the copilot. The ship’s long-range capabilities had been kept as an option if Ethan wanted to fill the cargo hold with fuel, while the gun turrets and military-grade shields had been restored. The drive system had been rebuilt with a new top acceleration of 125 KAPS, making the ship almost as fast as a nova fighter. It would be the perfect ship with which to flit around Dark Space as a freelancer—as freelancers, Ethan corrected, turning to admire his beautiful copilot.

Alara caught him staring at her and she turned to him with her big violet eyes. She smiled demurely at him. “What?”

Ethan shook his head. “I just can’t believe that you chose me. I can’t believe that you’re mine.”

She held his gaze with a small smile until he looked away, and then she shook her head. “I’m not yours yet . . .”

Ethan turned back to her with a sly look. He’d been waiting for the right moment. Now, he judged that this was it. “Close your eyes,” he said.

“Why?”

“Just do it.”

“Okay . . .”

Ethan’s smile grew. A few days ago, Destra had taken him aside and given him something—a pair of rings.

“These belong to you,” she’d said, placing them in his hand. “I’m sorry it couldn’t be forever.”

He’d stared at the pair of rings in his hand, scuffed and beaten silver, dark with age. The artificial diamond was missing from the engagement ring, and the prongs of the mounting were bent.

“I’m sorry they aren’t in better condition,” she’d said. “I wore them on Ritan, so . . .”

“It’s okay. I’m surprised you kept them this long.”

“I haven’t worn them since I married Hoff, but it seemed wrong, somehow, to throw them away.”

Ethan had thanked her and slipped the rings into the breast pocket of his flight jacket. Now he unbuttoned that pocket and withdrew the smaller and thinner of the two rings. He took Alara’s hand in his and slipped the ring on her finger. Her eyes flew open, and she gaped at the diamond staring back at her. The new diamond, a real diamond this time, was Hoff’s contribution—as was the shiny platinum finish.

“Sorry it took me so long,” Ethan said.

Alara unbuckled her seat restraints and flew across the short aisle between them. She landed in his lap and showered him with kisses. Eventually Ethan managed to calm her enough to give her a real kiss, and they lost themselves in the moment as time seemed to slow and stretch out toward infinity. Ethan inhaled deeply, allowing the fragrance of her breath, skin, and hair to intoxicate him fully.

“Thank you, Ethan!” she said, finally coming up for air.

Ethan smiled as he wiped the tears from her cheeks. “For what?”

“For making me the happiest woman in the galaxy.”

“I could say the same, but I’d have to add an extra thank you for waiting so long for me,” he said.

She grinned happily. “You were worth the wait.”

Later, as they travelled through the streaking brightness of superluminal space, Alara and Ethan lay side by side in their quarters, naked, their arms and legs wrapped tightly around each other as they gazed into one another’s eyes. They spoke excitedly about their future, about where they would go and what they would do.

Barely half an hour later, they’d consummated that future for the second time, and the long hours of the night floated by in a dreamy haze with more of the same. As Ethan finally drifted off to sleep, Alara told him in a hushed voice about a dream she’d had, about two little children and a cabin by a lake. He smiled, imagining everything clearly in his mind’s eye. With that, Ethan decided that maybe Dark Space wasn’t so dark, after all—at least not for him, and not anymore. You can’t see darkness because it isn’t really there—

It’s just an absence, waiting for the light.




 DARK SPACE CONTINUES IN SPRING 2014 WITH


DARK SPACE IV: Revenge

TO GET DARK SPACE IV FREE WHEN IT COMES OUT

Post an Honest Review of Dark Space III: Origin on Amazon, and then Send me the Contents of Your Review by


Signing up Here.

http://files.JasperTscott.com/ds4.htm

 (Remember, your feedback is important to me and to helping other readers find the books they like!)

 

 

 


 

READ ON FOR A SNEAK PEAK OF

DARK SPACE IV: Revenge

Chapter 1

Origin

Master Commander Lenon Donali dropped out of SLS for the tenth time. Fuel was running low from so many stops. He hadn’t travelled more than twelve light years away from Dark Space, but entering and leaving SLS were the most fuel-expensive parts of space flight, and he’d already done that twenty times over the past two days.

Donali checked the grid, just as he had each of the other nine times he’d dropped out of SLS. This time he wasn’t expecting to see anything on the grid, and he wasn’t surprised. Apart from the spreading wake of radiation from his corvette, there was no detectable trace of tachyon radiation. Donali waited a minute longer, watching the grid unblinkingly, but sensors were clear; there was nothing.

His mind turned to the alien implant which he’d left in the corvette’s med bay to be analyzed by the ship’s computers. Whatever it was, it had finished transmitting long ago, and now it couldn’t be bothered to tell the Sythians where it was. The last time that mysterious alien device had transmitted anything at all had been at the entrance of Dark Space. Donali decided that it must have run out of power. It was either that, or the implant they’d found in Kaon’s brain hadn’t actually been the source of the radiation they’d seen.

Except that didn’t make sense either. The admiral was right. If there were a stowaway aboard any of their ships, then they would know about it. Displacement sensors had been installed at every door and airlock of every ship in the admiral’s fleet. Those sensors would detect and highlight disruptions in the air flow which were consistent with a humanoid-sized object moving through the ship. They would cross-correlate that data with holocorders and see whether or not the source of the disruption was a human, or a cloaked alien. If there were a stowaway, he would have had to be hiding in plain sight.

Donali shook his head. It was time to finish studying the implant and then jettison it out the nearest airlock. He had a rendezvous with the admiral coming up in just six days, and that was precious little time to study the alien device. He unbuckled his seat restraints and pushed out of the pilot’s chair.

When he arrived in the med bay, he was gratified to find the alien implant still sitting right where he’d left it, inside the holoimager. He’d been half expecting it to have walked off by itself. Donali keyed the machine for the results of its analysis, and a moment later, a holo flickered up above the imager. Donali studied it.

The inside of the implant was organized into a crystal lattice structure, and the outside hadn’t responded to any probe of any kind . . . except for . . . the electrical conduction test. When the device had been exposed to low level electrical signals, it had begun to respond with the same. That made sense, since it would have to interact with the Sythians’ brains somehow. Donali stared at the screen, wondering what purpose the implant had served.

If the Sythians had known Kaon was going to be captured, or if they had allowed him to be captured, then the device could be a tracker of some kind, but if that were so, then why wasn’t it transmitting now? The fact that it responded to electrical stimulation seemed to indicate that it still had power.

It’s a pity I don’t have someone to implant this in . . . he thought. It was much larger than the average human implant, and would require surgery to insert—not that he had a test subject for that, anyway.

Unless. . . .

Donali’s eyes turned to the stasis room adjoining the med bay. Abruptly he turned and walked toward it. He waved his hand over the door controls, and the door slid away with a swish. The lights came on automatically for him. This was Donali’s personal transport, and it knew him well.

He walked to the back of the room to the pair of empty stasis tubes there. The room held twelve stasis tubes in all, one for each of the corvette’s standard crew. When Donali reached the pair of stasis tubes, he stepped up to the control panel of the leftmost one and keyed in a code which only he knew. He heard a clu-clunk of duranium bolts sliding away and reached out with both hands to grasp the sides of the heavy stasis tube. It pulled away from the wall easily enough, rolling on wheels that it shouldn’t have had. Behind that, lay another stasis tube, the transpiranium cover glowing blue and active. Donali saw a stranger staring back at him from the other side of the transpiranium. That stranger was his escape plan. With someone like Admiral Heston, one could never be too careful. Hoff had been betrayed so many times that he would betray his friends and family preemptively just to keep it from happening again, and that meant Donali needed to keep a few secrets of his own—just in case Hoff should ever decide to preemptively betray his own XO.

Already fitted in the clone’s wrist were all the credentials Donali would need to get away and make a new life for himself without the admiral ever being the wiser. Being a senior member of the Tauron’s medical staff had its advantages. Any bodies which passed through its morgue were his to examine if he chose. He’d stolen the identichips from more than a few of them and subsequently erased the record of their deaths. Like that, he could pretend to be the dead officer and mysteriously appear in Hoff’s enclave or even Dark Space to make a new life for himself. So far Donali hadn’t needed that backup plan, but it gave him a unique opportunity now.

He walked into the dark crawlspace and keyed the control panel to release the clone. The cover of the stasis tube opened with a hiss and the clone opened its eyes for the first time. It saw him and began to cry pitifully. It fell into Donali’s arms, unable to even stand up on its own. Donali backed out of the crawlspace, half dragging and half carrying his clone. He tried to ignore the clone’s wailing cries. It clung to him like a baby to its mother.

Clones spent their entire lives in an induced sleep, growing to maturity at an accelerated rate until they reached the right age, and then they were frozen like that until they were needed. All a clone ever had a chance to experience was a cloning tank and the endless dreaming of accelerated aging or the near perfect metabolic suspension of stasis. They could last in stasis for a thousand years and only age ten. What they dreamt about while they were in there was a mystery, but the most likely answer was—nothing at all. They had never experienced anything, so how could their brains imagine something? They never learned to walk, talk, eat, or do anything else that a regular adult took for granted. They were fully-grow newborns until the implants in their brains received the flood of information which they would use, along with a billion little nanites, to sculpt their brains into the mirror image of their creators’.

Clones were never woken like this. Donali tried to ignore the pinprick of guilt which he felt over that and over what he was about to do. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “It’s okay. Daddy needs your help.” Donali set the clone down on the cold deck and its cries intensified. The man curled into a fetal ball, while Donali fumbled with his grav gun. He gravved the clone off the deck and carried him back into the med bay.

An hour later, Donali had his subject strapped down on the examination table, still crying, but more softly now. The clone’s eyes flicked from side to side, darting and wide. Donali put him out of his misery a moment later with a sleep-inducing anesthetic.

Now the operation could begin. It took just over an hour to open the clone’s skull and delicately tuck the implant inside his brain. Donali hoped he’d remembered the right location for it, although a Sythian’s brain was only roughly analogous to a human’s. He also hoped that it wouldn’t cause his patient any seizures when he woke up. Another hour passed while he cleaned up his surgical instruments and waited for the clone to wake up.

Suddenly, Donali heard an alien warbling and he spun around to look. His patient was awake. He hurried back to the clone’s side, his heart pounding, his eyes wide and filled with wonder. The clone had been a blank slate, dumb and mute, and now he was speaking in some facsimile of Sythian.

“Hello, Kaon,” Donali tried, unable to contain his growing excitement.

Kaon turned to look at him, and his eyes narrowed. He warbled something else, but Donali wasn’t wearing a translator. Then the alien noticed that he was strapped down, and he raised his chin to his chest and saw that he was human. Kaon hissed, and turned back to Donali with a hateful glare. “Where am I? What have you done to me?” he demanded, now speaking in Imperial Versal.

Donali blinked and his red artificial eye winked in tandem. “You can speak our language?” He shook his head incredulously, still trying to catch up with everything. This confirmed Hoff’s suspicions. Humans and Sythians had met before, and they were both doing the same thing—cloning themselves to live forever.

“Answer my questions, human,” Kaon demanded.

“You’re on board my corvette, and I put your implant in a human body to see how it would react. . . .” Donali shook his head. “I never imagined this.”

Kaon hissed again. “So I am your experiment? You will pay for this, human.”

Donali raised one eyebrow. “I don’t see how.”

Kaon closed his eyes and Donali watched his lips move. He heard whispers coming out, but they were alien warbles, not human speech. “What are you doing?” he asked, frowning.

Kaon turned to him with a smile. “You will sssee.”

Donali cocked his head and raised his eyebrows. A moment later, the ship shuddered, and Kaon’s smile broadened.

“No,” Donali said.

“Yess,” Kaon whispered.

Donali ran back to the bridge. He arrived, out of breath and panting, just a few seconds later, but he was too late. The entire forward viewport was filled with the shining hull of a Sythian warship. It was bigger than any ship he’d ever seen, and it wasn’t firing on him—it was drawing him toward it with some kind of grav gun.

How?!” Donali demanded as he sat down at the controls and powered up the drives. He’d made ten jumps! They couldn’t have followed him through all of that.

Then he noticed that the grid was painted with the yellow vector of a tachyon trace. That radiation trace was just over an hour old, meaning Kaon’s implant must have called for help almost the instant it had been inserted in the clone’s brain. For the Sythians to be here now, they had to have been very close when they’d received Kaon’s transmission.

Donali pushed the throttle up past the stops into overdrive, trying to escape the grav gun which had seized his ship . . . but nothing happened. The ship wouldn’t turn, and his drives just pushed him faster toward the alien cruiser. He shut down the drives with a scowl and considered his options.

There weren’t any. He could armor up and go down fighting, or he could let the Sythians capture him. What kind of choices were those? Donali settled for the dubious third option of holding Kaon ransom in the med bay.

*  *  *

Origin

Less than half an hour later, when Gors burst into the med bay in their glossy black armor, Donali held Kaon at gunpoint and told them not to take another step. Kaon smiled and warbled something. At that the Gors shot them both.

In the dark, Donali had no concept of time. His artificial eye helped him to see and pick out details of his surroundings which a regular human wouldn’t be able to observe, but all he saw were the usual glossy black walls and floor of a Sythian ship. He also noticed strange, hulking shadows moving around him. His brain made no sense of it, however, and it all felt like a strange and terrifying dream. All he knew was that he wasn’t dead. The Sythians had kept him alive. But why?

At last, he was awake and conscious enough to think clearly, but his thoughts were different now. He knew where he was and why. He wasn’t frightened. And the cold, unfeeling darkness was a comfort to him—a touch of home.

A moment later a dim light snapped on, and now Donali could see better. He tried to sit up and found that he could. There was no need to restrain him. He looked around and saw more beds like the one where he lay, each of them occupied by another man or woman of his species. There were thousands of them, and the room where they lay was so large that Donali couldn’t even see the walls or ceiling, just endless rows of humans, disappearing to all sides of him.

A voice spoke into the darkness, warbling at him in a language which he now knew. “Arise,” it said. Donali did as he was told and stood up. “Walk toward the light.”

A yellow light appeared in the distance, shining through the darkness, and Donali strode toward it, his footsteps eager, driven and purposeful.

When he reached that light, he found someone waiting for him. It was High Lord Kaon. Donali recognized him by the subtle pattern of lavender freckles on his translucent skin, as well as by the gills in the sides of his neck.

“My lord,” Donali warbled.

“We have a special purpose for you, Lenon Donali.”

“I await the honor of hearing it.”

“You will meet the admiral as planned in your ship, at the entrance of Dark Space.”

“As you wish, my lord.”

“You will get close to him.”

“Yess—” Donali hissed, anticipating the rest of his mission. “—and kill him!”

“No. You will capture him and bring him to us. We will use him to find the lost sector of humans, and then we will kill him.”

Donali tried to hide his disappointment, but he would do as he was told. “It will be done, my lord.”

“Come with me.”




KEEP IN TOUCH

SUBSCRIBE to the Dark Space Mailing List and Stay Informed about the Series!

http://files.JasperTscott.com/darkspace.htm

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]




ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Origin

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 Central America 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 | | Origin |     цвет текста   цвет фона   размер шрифта   сохранить книгу

Текст книги загружен, загружаются изображения



Оцените эту книгу