Book: Dark Space Universe
The Cosmic Horizon
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The Research Behind “Dark Space Universe”
Dark Space Universe (Book 1)
by Jasper T. Scott
Copyright © 2017
THE AUTHOR RETAINS ALL RIGHTS
FOR THIS BOOK
Cover Art © Tom Edwards
Being a writer is hard work, and most of the time it’s a lonely job, which is why we create characters to keep us company. Having said that, there’s also dozens of people working behind the scenes to make each book a reality.
As always, this book comes to you in partly thanks to my wife for her support, and it comes to you in its presently polished condition thanks to my editing team: Aaron Sikes, David Cantrell, William Schmidt, and Ian Jedlica. Thanks guys. You make the hard part of writing easy.
Thanks also go out to my cover artist, Tom Edwards, for his fantastic artwork, and a huge thanks goes out to my team of advance readers: Bruce A. Thobois, Chase Hanes, Dave Topan, David Kramer, Davis Shellabarger, Diosdado Rivera, Gary Watts, Gaylon Overton, Gregg Cordell, H Huyler, Ian Seccombe, Jeff Belshaw, Jeremy Gunkel, Jim Meinen, Jim Owen, John Nash, Marten Ekema, Mary Whitehead, Peter Hughes, Philip Smith, Rafael Gutierrez, Rebecca Zalar, Richard T. Conkey, Ron Almstead, and Wade Whitaker. At least fifty typos are missing from this book because of these brave souls.
Then there’s you, the reader. Without you, this book wouldn’t exist. With every book of mine that you buy and every review that you write, you ensure that I keep writing the best books that I can, as fast as I can, so thank you for your support.
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.”
—The Year 23 EE (Etherian Empire)—
A cleric stood on a bench preaching in the center of the courtyard. A crowd had gathered to listen to his heresy, but so far no one was showing signs of hostility toward him.
Taking that to be a good sign, Lucien Ortane allowed his attention to drift to the towering spires of the Etherian Palace. The dying rays of an artificial sun beamed down between the spires from the dusty, star-studded pink sky. But those stars were actually viewports in the floor of Level One.
More than a thousand decks lay above and below the “surface” of this hollow world, cushioning it from the frigid vacuum of outer space. This was New Earth, or the Icosahedron, an ever-expanding megastructure made up of over half a million giant, triangular facets that slotted together to form the twenty much larger triangular faces of the Icosahedron itself. It was the only home Lucien had ever known, an incredible feat of engineering, and the sole surviving legacy of humanity’s previous ruler: Omnius—the AI who would be god.
Lowering his gaze from the sky, Lucien spotted the giant crystal Star of Etherus glittering from the uppermost spire of the Etherian Palace. That star-shaped emblem acted like a prism, fracturing the artificial sunlight and casting rainbows over the courtyard. Out of the corner of his eye, Lucien glimpsed one such rainbow gleaming on the skull-like gray face of the Gor standing beside him.
Ordinarily Brak was horrifying to look at, but the rainbow added a comical effect to his features. Lucien smiled.
Brak had been his best friend for as long as he could remember. The two of them had gone through their Paragon training together, apprenticed together, and saved each other’s lives more times than Lucien could count. Most people feared the Gors and kept a wary distance from them, despite the fact that Etherus had granted them equal status with humans aboard the Icosahedron. So far they were the only sentient alien race to be given that privilege.
Lucien elbowed Brak in the ribs—no small feat given that his ribs began where Lucien’s shoulders ended. “Where do you want to go for our first mission?”
The Gor gave no reply. Colorful images flickered across his slitted yellow eyes as he looked something up on his augmented reality contacts (ARCs). Maybe he was looking through a list of available missions.
As Paragons and officers, recently graduated from tyros to champions third class, they had to choose where to go now. They could stay aboard the Icosahedron and help Etherus keep the peace among its trillions of inhabitants, but space exploration was the province of young and unattached officers like them, those not yet weighed down by the responsibilities of raising a family, or bored and jaded by long experience with the impossible vastness of space.
To Lucien there was nothing better than contemplating the unknown, the thought of picking a star at random and traveling to it in the blink of an eye, discovering things that no other human had ever before seen or experienced. All of that lay ahead of them, and as officers they had plenty of autonomy. Hundreds of missions left New Earth daily, each one destined for some new corner of the Large Magellanic Cloud, where New Earth was currently stationed—or even for one of the other satellite galaxies of the Milky Way.
“I hear Fornax is supposed to be nice,” Lucien said, suggesting a satellite galaxy at random. The Paragons’ mandate was to explore, colonize, and spread Etherian doctrines of peace, justice, and immortality to sentient species all over the universe. Of course, with the universe being as large as it was, that job would never end.
“Brak? Are you ignoring me?”
Now the alien turned his skull-shaped head, and the rainbow on his face swept across his sunken cheeks. The light from his ARCs disappeared, leaving Lucien to ponder the depths of the Gor’s fierce yellow eyes—a predator’s eyes. Animal rights being what they were aboard the Icosahedron, Brak didn’t have an outlet for all his primal instincts, and they simmered quietly just beneath the surface.
“You look hungry, Brak. When was the last time you ate something?”
“I am not hungry,” Brak replied.
“Shh!” a woman standing beside them whispered.
Brak turned his glare upon her and bared his black, dagger-like teeth.
The woman paled and looked away, back to the cleric standing in the center of the courtyard.
“That’s telling her, Brak!” Lucien said.
“I say nothing.”
Lucien grinned. “It’s not what you said, but how you said it.”
Brak hissed quietly. “I never understand humans.”
A large crowd had gathered in the courtyard. Lucien hadn’t bothered to listen to the cleric’s preaching. He and Brak were just here to keep the peace while the cleric preached his heresy of science. That was usually an easy job, because clerics tended to waste their breath on obscure concepts that no one but them understood.
The presence of the crowd implied that this time the message was more readily digestible.
“Does the universe have an edge?” the cleric asked. “To answer that question, first we must consider what we currently know about the universe.”
The cleric held out his palm, revealing a small, glossy silver ball. A holo projector. The projector hovered up high above the square, and a hologram shimmered to life below it, rolling out overhead like an ancient scroll. Everyone looked up and the crowd oohed and aahed as a dazzling array of galaxies appeared spinning above their heads. A red circle appeared around those galaxies. The red line.
Etherian law stated that no ship was allowed to explore past that arbitrary line, despite the fact that quantum jump drives were fast enough to get there in just over six months. The boundary was programmed as a hard limit into the nav system of every ship ever built.
“This is the portion of the universe that Etherus has decreed we are allowed to explore and settle,” the cleric said. “It encompasses the supercluster Laniakea, with an estimated one hundred thousand galaxies, and a diameter of more than five hundred million light years. This is a vast amount of space. To even explore a single galaxy in its entirety, with all of its billions of star systems, is a monumental task. Even after two decades of exploration, and nearly a billion probes, we are far from reaching such a milestone.”
Lucien frowned, wondering what the cleric was building up to. So far he hadn’t spouted any of the heresy for which the Academy of Sciences was known.
“That is why we have been content to station New Earth here in the Large Magellanic Cloud for the past twenty-three years since leaving the Milky Way. In that time we have established hundreds of colonies, and encountered countless alien species, but we have only explored a tiny fraction of the star systems inside the red line.
“It seems pointless, then, to stretch ourselves more thinly and push out further. Etherus was wise to put a boundary on how far our curiosity should reach. What possible reason could we have to venture any further than Laniakea?”
Lucien’s skin prickled with anticipation. Here it comes…
The cleric gestured to the hologram of galaxies spinning above the courtyard, and suddenly the map zoomed out. The galaxies rushed toward the center of the hologram, and the red line became a solid red dot. At this scale, the galaxies themselves were mere pinpricks of light.
“This is the entire observable universe. The red dot you see in the center is the red line and everything that it encompasses. It doesn’t seem so large anymore, does it?”
The crowd fidgeted with a collective rustle of clothing, but kept quiet.
“This is the part of the universe that we can see. It goes all the way up to the cosmic horizon, which is currently 46.5 billion light years away from us. This is an odd fact, since we know that the universe is only 13.82 billion years old. Why doesn’t the size of the universe agree with its age? Shouldn’t the cosmic horizon be no more than 13.82 billion light years away? The reason for this discrepancy is that space has been expanding like a balloon ever since the big bang. As the light from distant stars traveled to reach us, the distance it had to go just kept getting longer. Eventually it reached us anyway, but now those stars are lot farther from us than they were when the light from them first started shining our way.
“The universe in its entirety almost certainly doesn’t have an edge, but the observable universe does, and the cosmic horizon is that edge.
“What lies beyond the cosmic horizon? Maybe nothing, or maybe just more stars and space. Maybe if we go too far, we’ll find ourselves back where we started, having discovered that the universe is a sphere, or connected at the edges like a torus. We might even see an infinite expanse of other universes out there beyond ours. The truth is that we don’t know what we’d find.
“Current evidence suggests that the universe is flat and infinite, but it could also be flat and finite. A third possibility is that the universe is so much bigger than what we can see, that it only looks flat. Just as a planet appears flat when you’re standing on it, but clearly looks round from orbit, the universe might be so big that we can’t measure its curvature within our observable portion of it.”
The cleric gestured to his hologram, and a blue circle appeared, encompassing everything in the observable universe. Then the hologram zoomed out, and the blue circle became so small that Lucien could eclipse it with his thumb. Around that circle was an infinite sea of pinhole-sized lights, arrayed in repeating, thread-like patterns. The fabric of the universe, woven with stars.
“This is the entire universe, based on current estimates of the minimum size required for it to actually be a sphere. It is two hundred and fifty times bigger than the observable universe.”
As Lucien watched, the hologram of the universe warped into a sphere.
“What use is it to know the shape of the universe?” a man in the crowd asked.
The cleric stared at him in horror. “Knowing the shape of the universe is of great value! For one thing, it will tell us whether or not the universe is truly infinite! If the universe is infinite, then it always has existed and always will exist.”
“Blasphemy!” someone shouted.
The cleric went on blithely. “It could also be finite in size, but infinite in time, cycling endlessly from big bang to big crunch, reincarnating itself over and over again. In either of those two cases, the universe was never created.”
“Heretic!” another added. “Etherus created the universe!”
Brak dropped a hand to the stunner holstered at his side.
“Not yet,” Lucien said, placing a hand on the Gor’s thick, icy wrist.
The Gor turned to him, his skull-shaped face a horror of sharp angles and sunken shadows in the pale blue light of the cleric’s hologram. “He gets himself killed speaking like this!”
“Our job isn’t to shut him up,” Lucien said. “Just to make sure that he doesn’t get hurt, or hurt someone else.”
“Isn’t your religion based on testable theories?” someone shouted. “You can’t test what you can’t observe!”
“But we can observe it!” the cleric insisted. “With quantum jump drives, we can travel to the edge of the universe in approximately one hundred years, counting all of the necessary stops to recharge our reactors and calculate new jumps.”
“I thought you said the universe didn’t have an edge!” another person said.
“By edge, I mean the cosmic horizon, but the universe could even have a real physical edge. If it’s flat, finite, and the edges aren’t connected topologically, then there must be an edge. Perhaps if we travel past that edge we’ll fall off into a fourth spatial dimension that will allow us to become gods just like Etherus.”
The crowd erupted in chaos, with everyone screaming at the cleric. They began chanting: “He-re-tic! He-re-tic! He-re-tic!”
Somehow the cleric managed to raise his voice above the volume of their screaming. “If I am a heretic, then it is because I am wrong! So prove me wrong! The only way to do that is to send a mission to the cosmic horizon, but Etherus will not authorize any ship to go past the red line. We must petition him to send this mission, or else the doubt will always exist, and people will be able to question Etherus’s deity forever!”
That was the final straw. The crowd erupted in a frenzy. Lucien was glad there weren’t any rocks in the courtyard that they could throw at the cleric, but they could still beat him to death with their hands and feet. A ghostly blue sphere rippled around the cleric, keeping the crowd at bay, but the man was surrounded, and his shield wouldn’t hold forever.
Making a snap decision, Lucien activated the grav boosters in his boots and leapt high over the crowd’s heads. Brak joined him in the air a split second later. They applied a few braking blasts from their grav boosters to clear a landing area. People scattered to make way. They landed with a boom, and a cloud of dust rippled out around them.
The crowd hesitated as two Paragons suddenly appeared in their midst, but then they began pressing in again, shaking their fists at the cleric.
Lucien drew his stunner and fired it in the air with a loud crackle and a bright flash of blue light. “That’s enough! Everyone settle down!”
No one heard him, and the crowd gave no sign of yielding. Lucien was about to start stunning people at random when Brak stepped to the fore. He hissed loudly and bared his black teeth at the crowd.
That worked. Suddenly everyone quieted and stopped pushing toward the cleric. Lucien glanced back at the man they were defending and saw the cleric safe behind his shield, smiling faintly, as if amused by the ruckus he had caused.
“There’s nothing more to see here,” Lucien said. “Either sign the cleric’s petition, or be on your way.”
“If Etherus doesn’t want us to go past the red line, there must be a good reason for it!” a man near the front of the crowd said, his eyes wide and nostrils flaring.
Murmurs of agreement followed that statement.
“I’m sure you’re right, but you’re not going to convince a cleric of that. Move along,” Lucien said.
The crowd began to disperse, grumbling as they went.
“Don’t you want to know the truth?!” the cleric screeched as the crowd departed. “My questions deserve an answer! We must send a mission!”
Only a handful of people remained in the courtyard, frozen with uncertainty. The cleric’s shoulders slumped, and he held out a hand, calling the hovering holo projector back to his palm. He stepped down from the bench that had served as his pulpit, shaking his head.
“Only fools must shout to be heard,” Brak hissed.
Lucien glanced at the Gor. “Not if wisdom falls on deaf ears.” He turned and strode toward the cleric.
“Where do you go?” Brak asked.
“To sign the petition,” Lucien replied.
The cleric regarded him with wary suspicion as he approached.
“I’ll sign your petition,” Lucien announced, drawing shocked looks from the remaining people in the courtyard.
The cleric’s gaze abruptly widened. “A Paragon advocating disobedience? And a champion, no less!”
“Not disobedience,” Lucien corrected. “Reconsideration. Your ideas are absurd, but you were right about one thing: this blasphemy deserves an answer, and the only way to answer it is to send the mission that you propose. Besides, it is only a petition. Etherus will have the final word, and in His wisdom, He will know how to answer it.”
The cleric smiled, and held out his holo projector once more. A document appeared floating above his palm, and Lucien read the title at a glance.
Petition to Send a Mission to the Cosmic Horizon.
“Where do I sign?” Lucien asked.
“Here…” the cleric made a gesture, and the document scrolled rapidly by a list of countless thousands of prior signatures. Lucien was shocked by the sheer number of people who had already signed. From the reactions of the people in the courtyard, he’d assumed this heresy was as unpopular as any other. But with over six hundred trillion people aboard the Icosahedron, sheer probability dictated that even the most obscure ideas would be shared by a large number of people.
Lucien hesitated briefly before using his index finger to add his own signature at the bottom of the document. Perhaps Etherus would agree to send the mission. Or maybe He’d simply tell them what they’d find, and save them the trouble.
“You’ll get your answers, cleric,” Lucien said, “but when you do, don’t be surprised to find out that you were wrong.”
Lucien turned to leave, but the cleric’s reply slithered back to his ears like a snake. “There’s no shame in being wrong, Lucien, only in being afraid to ask the question.”
The cleric had obviously looked up Lucien’s name on his ARCs. Lucien turned back to face him and returned the favor. “There’s always another question… Damon Korr.”
Damon inclined his head. “And always another answer.”
“The only way you can answer them all is to know everything, and then you would be god, not Etherus. If that is your goal, then what you are preaching is treason, and I’ll have to arrest you.”
“Of course not,” Damon replied. But the cleric said it with a smile.
Lucien scowled. “Have a good night.”
“And you, sir.” With that, the cleric vanished, leaving his holo projector behind, still hovering in the air. After just a moment, the projector itself zipped up and away, and that glinting silver speck quickly became lost against the myriad lights shining down from the artificial night’s sky.
Of course, Lucien thought. The cleric wouldn’t risk his life by preaching his heresy in person.
Lucien stalked back to Brak’s side. “Let’s go,” he said. “We’ve got better things to do than listen to hot air escape a cleric’s lungs.”
—One Month Later—
Lucien stood on a viewport in the floor of his quarters in Level One, looking down on a carpet of clouds. Here and there, where the clouds parted, he saw the distant surface of Halcyon, the capital facet of New Earth, peeking out with the dark, verdant greens of forests, and the sparkling blues of lakes and rivers. Most people would rather live on the surface, but Lucien actually preferred living above it all, having a bird’s eye perspective. Besides, he couldn’t afford to live down there on a champion’s salary.
If surface living was what you were after, you’d better have at least a million coin, or else move to a real planet somewhere out in the colonies.
A distinctive trumpet call sounded in Lucien’s head, relayed via his augmented reality implant. The comms icon in the upper right corner of his ARCs flashed insistently with an incoming message. A six-sided star circumscribed the icon, indicating that this message came straight from Etherus.
Lucien mentally selected the flashing icon and saw that more than a dozen holo news companies were currently broadcasting the message. He picked one at random and queued the message to play on the main holo display in his living room.
The wall in front of Lucien’s couch became a window into the palace throne room, with Etherus himself sitting on the throne. Lucien sat on his couch to watch.
An array of spherical holocorders hovered before the throne, each of them bearing the logo of a different holo news company. Lucien looked past them to Etherus himself. Like all Etherians, his skin was luminous and pale, but unlike the other members of his species, his eyes blazed blindingly, shining like twin suns. Long white hair cascaded to his shoulders, framing an inhumanly long face. His features were sharp and alien, and forbidding for that alienness, but somehow his face and glowing eyes managed to look both kindly and terrifying at the same time.
Skeptics of his deity, most of them clerics from the Academy, pointed out that with an application of a spray-on luminizer and minor modifications to their ARCs they could also radiate divine light wherever they went. Lucien found it best not to dwell on such doubts. They had a tendency to multiply.
“I come before you today, because a new petition has acquired the requisite one billion signatures for me to answer it personally,” Etherus said. “This petition is the proposal to send a mission past the red line to the cosmic horizon.
“Before I answer it, you should know that the red line exists for your own good, but not just yours. Etherians are also restricted by this boundary. The universe is a dangerous place, and I cannot guarantee your safety beyond the red line.
“Having said that, I will not keep you in a cage, so I will grant this petition and authorize a mission to the cosmic horizon. The explorers will take one of New Earth’s facets, and the crew will be made up of all one billion people who signed the petition. If you signed, but you don’t want to go, then you have one month to withdraw your signature. If you didn’t sign, but you do want to join the mission, then you are free to sign now. Choose wisely, however, because I will not be going with you.” Etherus pointed to one of the ball-shaped holo projectors hovering in front of him. “I will now answer one question from each of you.”
The indicated holocorder bobbed past the others, and a reporter’s disembodied voice bubbled out.
“We know that you can appear in a seemingly infinite number of places at once, but no one knows how you are able to do this. Is your decision not to go with the explorers based on a physical limitation of yours?”
“I am wherever and whenever I want to be. My decision not to join this mission is based on principle. The signers of the petition want to learn the nature of the universe because they are questioning whether I am really God. These people don’t want me in their lives, telling them what to do and believe, so I will respect their wishes. Next question.” Etherus pointed to another holocorder, and it floated to the fore while the previous one retreated.
“Why don’t you just tell us what we’ll find out there? Then we won’t need to send a mission.”
“Those who signed this petition wouldn’t believe me even if I told them, and if I did tell them, where would it end? They wouldn’t be satisfied until they knew everything, and knowing everything would make them gods in their own right—but perhaps not good ones. The explorers will encounter many such evils beyond the red line.”
Lucien felt his eyes widen with that revelation. It made sense that they would find alien empires beyond the red line, but no one had known for sure—until now.
Etherus pointed to a third holocorder, and it bobbed up to the throne.
“This is an old question,” the reporter began, “but it follows from what you’ve just said. Why do you allow evil to exist?”
“Does cold exist?” Etherus asked.
“We can feel it,” the reporter suggested.
“What you feel is just the absence of heat. Does darkness exist?”
The reporter hesitated before offering a reply this time. “Yes…?”
“And yet darkness is just the absence of light. Evil is the same as cold or darkness—you can perceive it, but it is just the absence of me.”
“So without you, good can’t exist? The clerics in Astralis might argue otherwise.”
“Without me, morality is strictly defined in terms of what is beneficial for the group and for the individual. In this model of morality, enslaving those you consider to be outside of your group could be considered morally right because their enslavement is advantageous to you and your survival.
“Asking why I allow evil to exist is just like asking why do I allow people to be free, and the answer is, because that’s what you wanted. It’s the reason the rebellion and the Great War started. Next question.” Etherus pointed to another holocorder.
“Everyone knows we used to be Etherians before the rebellion—before you made us human to give us a taste of freedom—but if Etherians aren’t tempted to do wrong, then how did the rebellion start?”
Etherus’s expression flickered into a frown. “The evil one started it.”
Lucien sat suddenly forward on his couch, his eyes wide. This was new, something Etherus had never told them before. The holocorders drifted closer to the throne.
“Where is this… evil one now?”
“Beyond the red line.”
“Who is he?”
“No further questions,” Etherus said.
The throne room erupted in chaos with reporters all shouting their questions at once in the hopes that Etherus would answer just one more, but he vanished from the throne, disappearing into thin air, and the light of his splendor went with him, plunging the room into darkness.
Lucien waved his holoscreen off before the talking heads could come on to dissect everything that Etherus had just said. He sat back in his couch with a deepening frown. There’s always another question… He had one for himself: What am I going to do?
He’d signed the petition, and now he had to decide whether to retract his signature, or cast in his lot with the explorers traveling to the cosmic horizon.
“I’m going to be gone for a while, Troo,” Lucien said as they walked the streets of Halcyon, the capital facet of New Earth. A waterfall thundered in the background as it poured over the top of a skyscraper on the other side of the street. Colorful birds chirped in the gold-leafed, silver-trunked Gilda trees lining the street.
Out of the approximately five hundred thousand facets in New Earth, Halcyon was the one where everyone wanted to live: the most prosperous, and the most utopian in every way. The Paragons had their primary training facility here. Lucien had been living at that facility just two months ago. But now that he’d graduated, he had assigned quarters on Level One—yet another thing he was leaving behind.
“How long is you being gone?” Troo trilled, her vocal chords whistling with the strain of speaking Versal rather than her native tongue.
Troo, short for Troosssak’arrr, was the last living Fossak in the universe, an arboreal species that had been wiped out by their ancestral enemies, the Mamoks. Lucien had rescued Troo from them while exploring the outer reaches of the Large Magellanic Cloud with his father, Ethan. When they returned, Etherus took her in as a ward of the state, to be trained as a Paragon.
Lucien glanced down at Troo, wondering what he should tell her. How could he explain that he would be gone for two hundred years? She was only two years old. To her, two centuries would sound like forever. It sounded like forever to him, too, and he was ten times her age.
Troo stood on four legs, looking up at him with her giant green eyes. She had no discernible ears, but she had a long snout and tail, and her sleeveless gray tyro’s tunic revealed sleek black fur that gleamed in the sun. Four long white fangs protruded from her upper jaw to remind people that she wasn’t cute and cuddly.
A purple-feathered bird with six wings stole Lucien’s attention. He watched it land in one of the Gilda trees that lined the street. They were over a hundred stories above the surface of New Earth, but those trees gave the illusion that the surface was actually much closer.
A hover train went whirring by. The wind of its passing sent a rain of golden Gilda leaves fluttering down, and flapped the red cape and battle skirt that decorated Lucien’s gleaming white exosuit. Red was the color of champions. Lucien had once dreamed of someday becoming a crusader like his father, of having his own Star Galleon to command while he explored new star systems and galaxies all over Laniakea, but that dream would have to be put on hold now.
“Let’s go somewhere more private,” Lucien said, and started toward the edge of the street.
People sat on benches under the Gilda trees, admiring the waterfall on the other side of the street. Rather than find an empty bench to watch the view, Lucien walked straight up to the railing and waited for Troo. She padded up beside him, now walking on two legs. The top of her round, furry head only came up to his shoulder.
“Climb on my back,” he said.
Troo did so without asking why. She wrapped her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist.
“Hold on tight,” Lucien said as he climbed over the railing.
A few people glanced their way, but made no comment. By now everyone was used to seeing Paragons do strange, inexplicable things.
Lucien activated the grav boosters in his palms and boots, and leapt into the chasm between the skyscrapers. Adrenaline sparked through Lucien’s veins, and wind ripped at his cape, flapping it loudly. The exhilaration of flying brought a grin to his face. He looked down and saw a sapphire-blue pool sparkling in a park far below. Clouds of mist swirled around the waterfall, tickling their nostrils, and giving life to a sparkling rainbow that plunged dozens of stories into the chasm.
Up ahead, a catwalk crossed over the top of the waterfall. Dozens of people stood there, watching the view. They pointed to Lucien and Troo, shouting exclamations as they drew near.
But Lucien wasn’t aiming for the catwalk.
As the waterfall swelled to fill their entire view, Lucien added a last minute impulse from his grav boosters and rocketed straight through—
To a penthouse balcony behind. He landed there. His hair and armor were dripping wet, but he was dry from the neck down thanks to his exosuit.
Troo fell off his back with a splat. She let out an angry growl and shook herself like a canine, sending drops of water flying in all directions. Lucien regarded her with a smile.
“Something wrong, Troo?”
“You is knowing that I hate to be wetness! You do this on purpose.”
“It’s a hot day. I thought you might like to cool off.”
Troo bared her teeth at him and licked her forelegs to straighten the fur.
Lucien looked around the balcony. There were hanging plants, ferns, and flowers everywhere. The penthouse was empty and listed for sale, so they wouldn’t have any problems with the owners. Lucien usually brought his dates up here, but it was a good place to talk to Troo as well.
Lucien went to sit on a bench in the garden, facing the waterfall. After a moment, Troo came and sat beside him.
Sheets of water curled endlessly in front of them, creating a blurry view of the elevated streets where they’d been walking a moment ago.
“This is what people who are wealth live like?” Troo asked, her large green eyes bigger than ever as she looked around the garden.
“Wealthy people, yes.”
“I is to be liking this.”
Lucien snorted. “Who wouldn’t?”
Troo turned her green eyes on him. “Here we are privacy. How long is you being gone?”
Lucien took a deep breath. “I don’t know. It might be several hundred years before I return.”
Troo blinked. “You is making humor.” She gave a warbling laugh to emphasize her point, but he didn’t join in. “Why is you not laughter?”
“I’m not laugh-ing because it’s not a joke. I really will be gone for hundreds of years.”
“No mission is taking that long. You effort to get rid of me by saying this.” Troo looked away, the fur on the back of her neck rising with displeasure.
“Troo, that’s not true…” Lucien frowned at the awkward phrasing, and tried again. “I’m not trying to get rid of you. You’re like a little sister to me. I’m telling you this, because you deserve to know the truth.”
Troo’s large, almond-shaped eyes narrowed to slits. “Where is you going?”
“Past the red line, to the cosmic horizon.”
“You is to be going on the mission for the clerics?!” Troo growled, her fur rising again.
“I have my reasons.”
“What reasonings? Etherus is be saying no. You is be saying yes. This is to be disobedience. To be Paragon is to be obedience. Is not you being a Paragon?”
Troo held his gaze unblinkingly. “Not for long.”
Lucien frowned. “Etherus didn’t say no. He’s not trying to stop us from leaving.”
“But He is not being approval, or He is to be going with.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Lucien said. “This is important.”
“Why?” Troo asked again.
“Because people are doubting Etherus, and they’ll go on doubting until they learn that the universe must have had a creator.”
“Then let the clerics be leaving. Why must you be joining them?”
“Because those clerics are going to need all the Paragons they can get on this mission, or they’re going to get themselves killed long before they reach their destination.”
“Perhaps that is why Etherus is be letting them go: to be getting rid of them. Do you wish to be sharing their fate?”
Lucien frowned. “If He’s letting them go because He knows for certain that they’ll die out there, then He’s not a good God at all. I think you’re inferring Fossian vindictiveness to His character.”
“Perhapsss,” Troo hissed.
“No, He’s letting them go because that’s what they want, and denying their petition would only multiply people’s doubts.”
“What is you to be telling your family?
Lucien shook his head. “They’re not on New Earth right now. I’ll have to send them a message. It’ll be easier like that, anyway.”
“I can’t tell him. He’ll try to stop me from going—and he’s a lot bigger than you are.”
Troo bared her teeth in an imitation of a human smile. “Maybe I is to be telling him.”
Lucien shot her a look. “Don’t you dare.”
“He is deserving of the truth. He is being your friend.”
“Everyone deserves the truth. That’s why I have to go.”
“And why I is to be going with you.”
Lucien glared at her. “You will not.”
She bared her teeth in another grin. “You cannot be stopping me.”
“No? I could leave you stranded on this balcony.”
“Mission is to be leaving in a month. I is finding a way down long before this.”
Lucien narrowed his eyes at her, and Troo narrowed hers back, mimicking his glare.
Lucien tsked in annoyance. “Fine,” he said, and jumped up from the bench, heading for the edge of the balcony.
Troo appeared beside him, walking on two legs, her teeth bared in a grin. “I is being your apprentice now.”
Without warning, Lucien fired a burst from his grav boosters and hovered up high above Troo’s head. “No, you is being in trouble with your instructors,” he replied, gazing down on her.
“You is liar to me!” Troo said. She sprang straight up, almost ten feet into the air, and swiped at his ankles, narrowly missing with her long claws.
Lucien increased the power to his boosters, and hovered up a few extra feet. He fixed her with a frown. “I’m sorry, Troo. You have a bright future ahead of you with the Paragons. I’m not going to let you throw that away by following me.”
“I is to be catching you!”
“Not if your instructors catch you first,” Lucien said. “I’ll be sure to let them know where you are.”
“I is ripping out your claws and feeding them to you!”
“You cannot be stopping me from coming!”
“Age of consent for a Fossak is four. You’re only two—a teenager in human terms. You have to do as your guardians tell you—and your guardians are your instructors. I’m sorry, Troo. I’ll miss you, but we’ll see each other again someday.”
“You better be hoping that we do not!”
“Two hundred years is a long time to hold a grudge, even for a Fossak. Take care of yourself, Troo.”
Lucien flew off, this time being careful to fly around the waterfall, rather than through it. He probably should have done that the first time, too, but he’d forgotten how much Troo hated water.
Lucien sighed and cast a glance over his shoulder. I’m really going to miss you, Troo.
Lucien sat recording a message to his parents and his older sister while he waited to board the transport headed for Astralis. Under any other circumstances they would have simply jumped there from the nearest quantum junction, but Etherus had forbidden them from using any of New Earth’s junctions to get to Astralis. It was a small inconvenience to have to travel by transport instead, but also a subtle reminder that they were all leaving the life of privilege and ease that Etherus had given them. It was enough to make Lucien wonder if he was doing the right thing. His motives weren’t the same as the others who were leaving. He wasn’t trying to disprove Etherus’s deity—just the opposite—but even so, it felt like Etherus was turning His back on him, too.
It was almost enough to make him get up and walk away from the flight gate. He’d be in good company. Out of more than a billion original signers of the petition, only about three hundred million remained. The vast majority of those were devout clerics, which was why Astralis had been chosen for the mission. It was where the Academy of Sciences was located, and where most clerics already lived and worked.
The bot standing at the gate began the call for boarding, and Lucien hurried to wrap up the message to his family.
“Look at it this way: we’re immortals, so a few hundred years is nothing to us. I love you all, and I’ll see you again—I promise.” He flashed a hesitant smile for the camera and quickly sent the message.
He could only imagine the fallout when his parents opened that message and realized how long it would be before they saw him again.
Lucien summoned the hovering holocorder back to his equipment belt and stood up. He grabbed his duffel bag from the seat beside him and slung it easily over one shoulder.
Jogging over to the gate, he joined the back of the line of passengers waiting to board the transport. After just a few minutes, he reached the front of the line.
“Have a nice flight,” the bot standing at the gate said as it scanned him to check his identity against the passenger list.
He nodded and started down the tunnel with the others. The glossy white walls pulsed with silvery radiance, reminding him that the boarding tunnel was also a scanner. They were being checked one last time for concealed weapons and contraband. Lucien wore a stun pistol on his hip, and he had integrated weapons in the gauntlets of his exosuit, but as a Paragon, he was supposed to be armed.
At the entrance of the transport Lucien breezed by another bot standing there to welcome them aboard. He stepped into a spotless white cabin lined with rows of seats, two on each side.
Lucien shuffled down the aisle until he reached his assigned seat. He stowed his luggage in the overhead compartment and then squeezed by the woman already sitting in the aisle seat.
He sat down beside the window. It was a tight squeeze with his exosuit on. He took up both armrests between him and the other passenger, forcing the woman beside him to lean away from him and into the aisle.
“Sorry,” he said, glancing her way.
“It’s okay,” she replied.
He looked out the window, into the hangar bay. Ground crew scuttled about like ants as they cleared out with their equipment.
“You’re a Paragon,” the woman beside him said, drawing his gaze back to her.
He inclined his head in an abbreviated nod. “Champion third class.” The woman was pretty. Raven black hair. Blue eyes. Delicate features. Maybe this trip to the cosmic horizon wouldn’t be so long after all.
“I didn’t think any of you would be joining us,” she said. “Aren’t you supposed to be among Etherus’s most faithful servants?”
“What makes you think I’m not?”
The woman cocked her head, regarding him with a curious frown. “You’re coming with us even though your god isn’t. You wouldn’t agree to that if you didn’t have your own doubts about his divinity.”
Lucien arched an eyebrow at her. “Let me guess, you’re a cleric?”
“We prefer to be called scientists.”
“Of course you do.”
“The term cleric is a religious one, which implies that our beliefs are based on faith rather than observable evidence.”
“And yet our God is observable and you don’t believe in him,” Lucien replied, “so you can understand my confusion.”
“I believe that Etherus the person exists, but Etherus the god? Where’s the observable evidence for that? Think about it, what has he actually done that’s supernatural?”
“He created the first humans by mixing Etherian DNA with primates from Earth. He linked Etherian minds to those human bodies, giving us what we once thought of as souls. Then, after we had a taste of freedom in our human bodies, he resurrected everyone who had ever lived and divided them between Etheria and New Earth, depending where they actually wanted to live. Oh, and he foretold all of that in the Etherian Codices,” Lucien said.
“It’s not foretelling if you make it happen—that’s just good planning, and as for resurrecting people via stored consciousness, we were doing that long before we met Etherus. By supernatural I mean something that violates the basic laws of the universe.”
“He can appear anywhere, instantly and simultaneously—in physical form.”
“Something that could be accomplished by having a large number of physical bodies with access to quantum junctions. Through quantum comms those bodies could all share a massively parallel collective intelligence—an AI, perhaps. We created a god like this to rule us on Avilon, and we called him Omnius. Perhaps the original Etherians did the same thing, and they called him Etherus.”
“Why would the Etherians worship him if they created him?”
“Because they don’t ask questions. They’re not tempted to do anything wrong, remember? That’s another way of saying they’re all mindless slaves. For all we know, Etherus is the one who enslaved them and took away their freedom.”
“And then gave it back to them in human bodies?”
The woman shrugged.
“You want supernatural? The Etherians clearly have more advanced technology than we do.”
“Maybe they do, but we haven’t been allowed to study it, so we don’t really know. And again, evidence of advanced technology isn’t evidence of the supernatural.”
Lucien frowned. He was growing annoyed with this woman. “Their entire galaxy is shrouded in some way that we can’t even reach it on our own. Only God could hide a whole galaxy in plain sight.”
“Unless that phenomenon has more to do with the universe’s natural topology than intelligent design. It could also be technological. They might be spoofing the quantum signal, causing us to jump around their galaxy in circles.
“I’m just saying there could be a logical explanation that doesn’t require the supernatural. God is just an ancient concept that people used to invoke to explain the unknown, and to help them cope with their fear of death. We don’t die anymore, and our god isn’t helping us explain the unknown, so why do we need him?”
Lucien fixed the scientist with a glare. “I didn’t come here to listen to your heresy.”
“Then you’re on the wrong flight, Lucien. If you didn’t come to listen to heresy, then why did you come?” Suspicion shone in the woman’s blue eyes.
He looked her up on his ARCs: Tyra Forster, twenty-two standard years old, astrophysicist, 42nd degree cleric…. Lucien’s eyes widened at that. It was unusual for someone so young to be so well-schooled. He offered her a thin smile. “Well, Tyra—”
“Dr. Forster,” she suggested.
Lucien gritted his teeth. So she could use his first name, but he couldn’t use hers? “If you must know, I came here to protect a bunch of hapless, overreaching clerics—”
“Scientists,” Tyra corrected.
“In that case, you can leave. We don’t need your protection.”
Lucien gaped at her, incredulous. “Have you ever been anywhere besides New Earth?”
“Then you can’t even begin to imagine what’s waiting for you out there! Do you know how many hostile, space-faring species we’ve met since we arrived in the Large Magellanic Cloud?”
“To date, our technology has proven far superior to theirs. Were that not the case, I’m sure they would have found us in the Milky Way and annihilated us long before we came here and found them.”
“We’ve lost ships!” Lucien insisted. “Dozens of them.”
“Star galleons. Exploration ships, not warships. The Icosahedron was designed as a warship, and even one facet of it has more firepower than all of our galleons put together.”
“It was designed as a habitat,” Lucien corrected.
Tyra shrugged. “That, too. My point about firepower remains. Facets are also larger and better shielded than any ship we’ve ever sent out before. They have a plethora of short-ranged fighters and even star galleons to defend them.”
“Those should be really useful without any Paragons to fly them.”
“We have all the training programs and flight simulators we need in Astralis. If we can do math in eleven dimensions, we can certainly figure out how to push buttons in a cockpit.”
Lucien shook his head. “Your ignorance is astounding.”
“Funny, I was just thinking the same thing about you,” Tyra replied.
A bot came on the intercom, interrupting them with a briefing about safety procedures and escape pod locations. Lucien used that as an excuse to ignore Tyra.
She wasn’t as considerate. “I’m just saying, it doesn’t add up. If I were the suspicious type, I’d say maybe you signed on for this mission because Etherus told you to, and if that’s the case, then you’re a spy who’s going to end up in prison, or worse—marooned on some distant rock along the way.”
Lucien turned to her, shocked speechless.
“From the look on your face, I’m either going to have to give you the benefit of the doubt or an award for acting.”
“You are the most sarcastic, arrogant, pretentious, self-important, and… arrogant woman I’ve ever met!”
“You said arrogant twice. I only need one adjective for you—”
Lucien held up a hand in front of her face, and activated his suit’s aural dampeners. A hazy energy field sprang to life a few inches from his suit, effectively silencing Tyra, as well as any other outside noise. Her lips went on moving, but he couldn’t hear a thing, only the soft humming of the dampener, and the sound of his own breathing echoing off the inside of the field.
Much better. Whoever invented aural dampeners was a genius.
Trya abruptly stopped talking, having noticed the forcefield. She looked away and busied herself with a holopad in her lap.
After a few seconds, she held it up, and a single word typed in a large font leapt off the screen to hover in front of his face—
Lucien smiled and looked away. He reclined his chair, and shut his eyes. He didn’t feel bad about taking up Tyra’s armrest anymore. His only regret was that he wasn’t a Gor like Brak, who would have needed her seat as well.
Lucien felt a flash of guilt at the thought of Brak. He hadn’t said anything to his friend. He’d just left. Of course, that was with good reason—Gors tended to resort to violence when other methods of persuasion failed. Lucien was bound to wind up in the nearest emergency room if he told Brak where he was going. He would send Brak a message after he reached Astralis.
Lucien risked cracking his eyes open, and saw his transport gliding out of the hangar and into a vast sea of stars. Tyra leaned over him to get a better look, blocking his view with the back of her head.
“Hey, do you mind?” His words echoed off the aural dampening field, and resonated loudly, making him wince. He considered deactivating the field to tell her to stay in her seat, but then he’d have to listen to whatever she said next.
Not worth it.
This is going to be a long trip… he thought, as he glared at the back of Tyra’s head.
Lucien toggled his side window to show a view from the nose cam of the transport as they approached Astralis. The facet was a giant matte black triangle, all but perfectly blending against the blackness of space. As they drew near, a bright rectangle of light appeared as the hangar bay they were headed for opened up.
The final approach took half an hour while they decelerated from their cruising speed; then the transport glided to a stop inside the hangar and four boarding tunnels extended to join with the transport’s airlocks. A bot came on the intercom, welcoming them to Astralis, and passengers began standing up all over the cabin. Lucien deactivated his aural dampeners and rose from his seat, too. He had to wait while Tyra retrieved her bag from the overhead storage. When she was done, she refused to let him out into the aisle.
He grimaced and looked away, calling on all the patience and courtesy he’d learned from his courses in diplomacy.
After a few minutes people began to debark, and Tyra shuffled along with them, giving Lucien a chance to step out and grab his pack from the overhead.
He shuffled along behind her, hoping she wasn’t representative of everyone he’d meet in Astralis.
When he reached the nearest airlock, Lucien spotted the bot who’d welcomed him aboard. The machine nodded periodically to the passengers as they left, saying, “Welcome to Astralis!” in a cheerful androgynous voice.
But when Lucien reached the threshold, the bot said: “This is the one, Doctor.”
Lucien frowned, wondering who the bot was talking to. Then he saw a group of people fanning out from the sides of the boarding tunnel, blocking his way, and aiming stunners at him.
“What’s going on here?” Lucien asked.
“You’re under arrest,” one of them said.
“On what charges?” Lucien demanded.
“Suspicion of treason, pending a mind probe to determine your guilt or innocence.”
Lucien noticed Tyra lurking at the back of the group, whispering to one of the men there.
“You!” he pointed at her. “You were interrogating me.”
Tyra stepped to the fore. “No, I was questioning you. Your answers defended your faith in Etherus, and your reasons for joining the mission were superficial at best.”
“Mr. Ortane, please step out of your exosuit,” one of the men with stunners ordered.
Lucien glared at the man, but made no move to comply. He could hear passengers whispering about him behind his back as they hurried on to the next airlock. “Etherus is not going to be happy about this. I’m a Paragon, and I operate under His authority.”
“If that’s true, then you really are a spy,” Tyra said. “By Etherus’s own admission, he will not be joining us, which means he has no authority here, and neither do you.”
“So… what—I’m going to spend the whole trip in prison? I think I’d rather go back to New Earth, thanks.”
“The mind probe will reveal your real motives,” Trya replied. “If you agree to it and come with us, then you may still join the mission—assuming you aren’t found to actually be a spy.”
Lucien narrowed his eyes at her. At this point suspicion was mutual. “Join the mission in what capacity?”
“You will join our expeditionary force as a security officer, and become a vital member of one of the teams we send out to explore new worlds. Essentially you’d be doing exactly what you were trained for.”
Lucien ground his teeth, his gaze flicking between the men pointing weapons at him—and Tyra, the beautiful woman that he’d so utterly misjudged. Despite her youth, she was obviously some kind of leader among the clerics.
“And if I don’t agree to the probe?”
“Then we’ll assume it’s because you have something to hide, and you’ll be sent back to the Icosahedron immediately. So what’s it going to be, Lucien?”
Lucien took a deep breath and counted slowly up to five; then he counted backward back down to zero, but he was still fuming. He considered counting down to negative five, but the clerics were starting to look twitchy.
“Well?” Tyra demanded.
“All right. Probe away, but if you find naked pictures of yourself, it’s your own fault.”
Tyra smiled. “I trust your imagination will be flattering. Let’s go.”
“Ladies first,” Lucien replied, gesturing to her.
“Mr. Ortane… your armor and weapons please,” one of the clerics reminded him.
“Right.” Lucien mentally triggered his exosuit’s removal sequence, and it splayed open like a mechanical flower. He walked out in a simple black jumpsuit with red trim and the single crimson bar insignia of a champion third class clipped to the right side of his chest. A glowing Star of Etherus shone brightly from each of his upper sleeves. In your face, he thought at the clerics.
They gestured with their guns for him to proceed down the boarding tube.
“You going to leave my armor there for some random nitwit to play with?” Lucien asked. “When they try to fly and end up in a puddle somewhere on Astralis, it’ll be on your heads.”
“We’ll send someone back for it,” Tyra replied as she strode to the front of the group. “And there aren’t any nitwits here—besides yourself and the other Paragons.”
“There are others?” Lucien asked as they marched him down the boarding tube. “Are they all getting the same royal treatment?”
“Yes,” Tyra replied. “We can’t be sure we can trust any of you until we get a look at what’s inside your heads.”
Beyond the boarding tube and the waiting area at the gate, they marched him straight past the luggage collection area.
“Your bags will be collected for you,” Tyra said.
Lucien lapsed into an annoyed silence. They reached a bank of elevators and walked into the nearest one as the doors opened for them. One of the clerics punched the number 1 on the keypad, and Lucien prepared himself for a long wait, but the elevator dropped swiftly down, accelerating past more than a thousand decks in just a few seconds.
Lucien blinked in shock. “How did we get here so fast?” he asked, as they stepped out of the elevator.
“We’ve made some improvements to grav boosters and inertial management technology,” Tyra said.
“So why haven’t we adopted those improvements on the other facets?” Lucien asked as they led him to a parking lot and into a waiting hover car. They all sat facing each other in the back of the car. It hovered up and glided out of the parking lot, into a dazzling blue sky, tufted with white clouds.
Tyra offered him a cryptic smile. “We’ve only begun implementing our new technologies now.”
“But why not share them with everyone?”
“Like Etherus shares everything he knows with us? We thought we’d return the favor.”
“You haven’t discovered anything that Etherus doesn’t already know. All you’re doing is keeping your advances from the rest of humanity.”
“How much Etherus actually knows is a matter that’s open to debate,” Tyra replied. “But if he has access to the same level of technology, or even to a higher one, then you could ask him the same question—why hasn’t he shared those advances with us?”
“Where does He draw the line?” Lucien countered. “He could make us all into gods if He wanted to.”
“That’s a tired argument, Lucien. It’s also dogma. The logical answer to my question is that Etherus doesn’t trust us.”
“I’m starting to see why.”
“He started it. If he doesn’t trust us, then why should we trust him?”
Lucien raised his eyebrows at that. “I thought he started it was only a valid defense for children.”
“If that were so, then legal precedent would mean nothing,” Tyra replied.
Lucien frowned and turned away from her. He looked out the window at the scenery as the hover car flew down to the surface. Astralis was clearly a beautiful facet, with an incredible amount of diversity in the seventeen thousand three hundred and twenty square kilometers of surface area on its ground level.
There were lakes, rivers, forests, plains, and mountains, all blanketed with varying types of flora from what must have been dozens of different worlds. The center of the facet was dominated by one particularly high mountain, and four distinct climate zones radiated from there: a snowy winter wonderland, a colorful autumn forest, blooming fields of flowers, and a sparkling lake with an archipelago of sunny islands, beaches, and tropical jungles.
Lucien still preferred Halcyon, but he was glad to see that Astralis wasn’t one big sterile laboratory.
After a while, Lucien noticed they were headed for the peak of the mountain at the center of the facet. At the very top sat a building whose exterior walls were made entirely of cobalt-blue glass. The building was wreathed in clouds. That has to be the Academy, he thought.
As they drew near, Lucien saw that it was shaped like an inverted square pyramid, with each subsequent level larger than the one below.
They flew into a garage in one of the lower levels and parked beside a bank of elevators. The doors of the car slid open and they all piled out. Tyra punched the call button for the elevator and everyone stepped into an elevator with a floor-to-ceiling window looking out on the winter side of Astralis. There were trees laden with snow, a frozen lake, and a white wall of clouds that could only be a blizzard. Each distinct climate zone was contained by hazy walls of blue static shields that radiated out from the mountain where the Academy sat.
Lucien had the sensation of flying as the elevator climbed the side of the inverted pyramid, moving upward and outward at the same time.
“You live in a beautiful facet,” Lucien admitted.
“Thank you,” Tyra said.
The elevator stopped and they walked out into a gleaming corridor filled with bustling streams of people in white lab coats. The clerics he’d come with escorted him down the hall to a door that read: Probe Room 14.
Tyra waved the door open, revealing what looked like an operating room. A gurney sat in the center of the room, surrounded by monitoring equipment. The clerics took him to the gurney and made him lie down. Then they strapped him down, restraining his hands, chest, and feet.
“For your safety,” Tyra explained.
Lucien watched the clerics as they secured his restraints, and wondered what he’d agreed to with this mind probe. He was familiar with the technology on paper, but he’d never been subjected to a probe before—nor had anyone else that he’d ever met. There wasn’t any need for probes on New Earth. If someone committed a crime, there was never any question of who did it or why, since Etherus already knew the truth, and his judgments were always fair.
“In this probe we’re going to ask your brain questions directly,” Tyra explained. “If we detect a lie, then we’ll dig deeper until we find the truth. Eventually we’ll be able to learn things that even you don’t know about yourself. Do you understand?” Tyra asked.
“In that case, this would probably be a good time to come clean,” Lucien said.
The room turned to ice. Everyone stopped what they were doing to stare at him.
“I’m listening,” Tyra said.
“When I was six years old, I went into the Paragons’ mess hall and I ate all of the cookies. Then I put the crumbs in one of the Gor’s beds, and everyone assumed it was him. Whew! That feels better. I’ve never told anyone that before.”
Tyra glared. “Are you done?”
“Well, there was this other time—”
“It was a rhetorical question. You’ll be awake for the duration of the probe, but when it’s over, you’ll be put to sleep so that your mind can recover, and you won’t remember anything when you wake up. You’ll be given a copy of the report, however.”
“How will I know that the report includes all of the questions you asked?”
“We have no reason to hide our inquiries from you,” Tyra replied, “but the report will include a transcript and a copy of surveillance footage from the probe room. Are you ready?”
Lucien nodded. “Let’s get it over with.” One of the clerics came and injected his arm with something. “What’s that?” he asked.
“A psychotropic agent designed to assist with the probe. Don’t worry. Please count backward from ten.”
“Ten, nine, eight…”
Lucien awoke staring at the ceiling of another room. His bed was the only one there, and a broad window beside him looked out on the summer side of Astralis. Finding he was no longer strapped down, Lucien sat up and studied the view. Far below, palm trees and white sand gleamed in the sun, and the lake that dominated the quadrant shimmered brightly.
Lucien swallowed past a dry lump in his throat. He heard doors swish open, and turned to see Tyra walk in wearing a white lab coat. She came and sat on a stool beside his bed. She reached for his hand and smiled sympathetically.
He leaned as far away from her as he could without falling out of the bed. “What’s got into you?” he asked. “I think I liked sarcastic supercilious Tyra better than touchy feely Tyra.”
She went on smiling, but released his hand. “Your probe results are back from the lab.”
“Found what you were looking for?” Lucien demanded.
Tyra nodded. “You’re clear. In fact, I’ve already recommended that you be assigned to one of the expedition teams.”
“I see. So where’s the report?”
Tyra took a deep breath and shook her head. Her smile was gone. “It was determined that you aren’t ready to read the results.”
“You said I’d get a copy.”
“I’m sorry, but the mind is layered into conscious and subconscious for a reason. Sometimes there are things hidden in our minds that we’re not ready to learn about ourselves.”
Lucien felt his skin crawl. “What things?”
Tyra chewed her bottom lip, considering. Then she looked behind her, as if to check that they were alone. She turned back to him and whispered, “Consciously, you believe in Etherus. Unconsciously, you don’t. In fact, your beliefs are more consistent with people from Astralis than people from Halcyon. I’m not sure how Etherus selected you to be a Paragon, but that seems to be yet more proof that he’s not as all-knowing as he claims to be.”
Lucien’s heart pounded in his chest. He felt sick to his stomach, and his head was spinning. It couldn’t be true. Maybe it wasn’t. His eyes narrowed. “I only have your word for this. If you were planning to tell me the results of the probe, why not let me read them for myself?”
“Because there’s a difference between hearing something from someone that you don’t trust, and learning it for yourself from an unbiased medium. By telling you this way there’s still enough room for doubt that your mind can protect itself from the truth.”
“Even if you are right, all you’ve proved is that I have doubts. My conscious mind is where the truth of myself lies.”
“Where the truth lies,” Tyra said, nodding slowly. “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”
Lucien glared at her. “That’s not what I meant.”
“But ironically, it’s true. The thing about humans, Lucien, is that they’re perfectly capable of lying to themselves. In fact, we do it all the time. Your real reason for coming with us is to answer all of the same questions that we have, but your brain found a more acceptable excuse, claiming that you had to accompany the mission to protect all of the helpless scientists from themselves, and oh yes—to settle other people’s doubts so that we can have lasting peace on New Earth.”
“Sounds reasonable to me,” Lucien said.
“It would have to, or it wouldn’t work. Studies have been done on the subject. When our actions don’t match our beliefs, anxiety results, and our brains try to resolve the conflict. This can either result in a change of beliefs, or a justification that somehow matches them. In your case, justification was the result, because you’re not ready to change your beliefs.”
“Isn’t that just a complicated way of saying that I have doubts, but I choose to believe in spite of them?”
“Lucien, when your superego was—”
“The moralistic part of your brain. When it was suppressed, you told the truth about everything, and there wasn’t one drop of faith left. In fact, you were even more skeptical of Etherus than me. That indicates that the only reason you believe is because the society you grew up in told you that you should. You think belief in Etherus is somehow morally correct.”
Lucien shook his head. “I don’t believe you.”
Tyra sighed. “Believe it or not, it’s true.”
As a Paragon, Lucien was taught not to hate, but he could feel the hate pouring through him now, hating every molecule of Tyra.
“Hey, I’m just the messenger. Feel free to doubt the message. I just have one question for you before you assume that I’m making all of this up—when you were saying goodbye to all your loved ones before coming here, why didn’t you say goodbye to Etherus?”
Lucien blinked. “I…” He shook his head. “I guess I forgot. I’m so used to having him around, I just assumed he’d somehow still be with me when I got here.”
Tyra shook her head. “No, you didn’t. You didn’t say goodbye to him because you didn’t want to. You’re happy to be getting away from him. In fact, you can’t wait.”
Tyra walked into the surveillance room. It was shaped like a decagon, with nine of its ten sides windows into recovery rooms. Seven of those were illuminated and occupied. Tyra looked into one room in particular and saw Lucien staring back at her—well, not at her. He was looking at the view from his window, not knowing that the window was actually a holoscreen and that people were watching him behind it.
Tyra took a seat beside the probe technician.
He glanced at her. “I thought the point of not telling him was to prevent a mental breakdown.”
“So you just wanted to see how close you could get without pushing him over the edge?”
“This journey is going to test Lucien’s conscious beliefs. I needed to make sure that he’ll hold together, no matter what he learns along the way. We can’t have him freezing up in the middle of a life or death situation just because it suddenly hit him that he’s really a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
The technician nodded. “Well, so far so good. If your needling didn’t do it, then I’d say his subconscious isn’t coming out to play anytime soon.”
“Good. No adverse reactions in the other patients?” Tyra asked, glancing around at the other recovery rooms.
“There was an incident. One of our technicians got hurt.”
“Two broken arms and a dislocated shoulder. You’ll be happy to know we resolved the situation before the patient could rip out the man’s throat.”
Tyra grimaced. “Let me guess—the Gor?”
“Your powers of deduction serve you well.”
Tyra sighed. “I suppose we knew the Paragons would be unstable. They all have to be just as conflicted as Lucien or else they wouldn’t be here.”
“We could send them back.”
“No, their training makes them valuable. I have a better idea. It will also help us evaluate their actual worth to us.”
The technician arched an eyebrow at her, waiting for her to explain.
“We set up an experiment. How do you test a variable, Doctor?”
The man frowned. “You isolate it and then test it against a control.”
“Exactly.” Tyra stood up. “Have all the Paragons sent to my galleon.”
“To your galleon, ma’am? Are you sure that’s wise?”
“Afraid for my life, Doctor?”
“Well, not really. I don’t know you, and human concern fades exponentially the farther one gets from the people one knows.”
“A simple no would have sufficed.”
“Then no, but I was thinking that maybe you should be afraid.”
“Your unconcerned concern is noted, Doctor. How long before they’re ready to join me aboard my ship?”
The technician shrugged. “An hour, maybe two. The Gor is still sedated.”
“All right. I’ll be waiting.”
* * *
“Where am I going?” Lucien demanded.
“You’ll see,” the cleric escorting him said, poking him in the back with a stun pistol to urge him into the boarding tunnel.
Supposedly he’d passed the probe, but the clerics were still treating him like a dangerous prisoner. As Lucien walked down the boarding tunnel, he wondered if they’d thought better of allowing him to join the mission, and this was his ride home.
He reached the airlock to the ship on the other end of the tunnel and walked out into one of the familiar pentagonal corridors of a star galleon. The walls were all shiny white. Golden glow panels limned the bulkheads and tracked the ceiling.
“Are we leaving Astralis?” Lucien asked.
“I don’t have any information for you. My job is just to take you to meet the others.”
“The other Paragons.”
Lucien nodded, but wondered why they were all meeting each other aboard a star galleon.
The cleric took him up an elevator and halfway around the ship, but that only took a few minutes. At just two hundred meters from bow to stern, galleons were large, but not overly so, designed to carry between five hundred and a thousand crew.
They arrived at the galleon’s forward viewing gallery, and the cleric waved the door open. Half a dozen others were already there waiting, all wearing identical black jumpsuits with red trim and the single crimson bar insignia of a champion third class. Not all of them, Lucien corrected. One was wearing the sleeveless gray tunic of a tyro, revealing the glossy black fur on her arms.
Troo? Lucien froze in the entrance of the gallery. How did she… A hulking shadow stepped in front of him, blocking his view. Lucien looked up into the skull-shaped horror of a Gor’s face. “Brak?” Lucien shook his head, confused. “What are you doing h—”
Brak picked him up and slung him over one of his broad shoulders. “We leave now,” the Gor said.
Lucien sighed. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Yes, you are. I carry you.”
“Stop!” the cleric who had escorted Lucien said, stepping in front of them. Brak swatted the man aside with one arm. The cleric went flying, and his stunner clattered to the deck.
Tyra appeared in the entrance of the gallery, blocking their way out and aiming a stun pistol at them. “Not another step! Put him down.”
Brak put Lucien down and hissed at her.
Tyra wore a form-fitting white uniform with black trim. Four black bars and a star marked her sleeves and shoulder boards, while a single golden star glittered on each side of her collar. Lucien’s brow furrowed at the unfamiliar insignia.
Brak’s eyes darted from Tyra to the stun pistol that the other cleric had dropped.
“Don’t even think about it,” Tyra warned. “Lucien is here because he wants to be. You are free to go if you’re having a change of heart.”
The Gor hissed again, but said nothing.
“I’m afraid I’m going to need an answer.”
Another hiss, and Brak shot Lucien a glare. “I stay.”
“Good,” Tyra replied. Her gaze left Brak to study the cleric that Brak had tossed aside. The man climbed to his feet and limped over to collect his stunner before joining Tyra in the entryway. He aimed his pistol at Brak and glared.
Brak bared his teeth in an ugly grimace, and the cleric retreated a step behind Tyra. She glanced sideways at him. “You can leave now.”
“But the Gor—”
“Is more likely to attack if you’re here to provoke him.”
The doors swished open and shut as the cleric left. Tyra holstered her stunner and strode by them, to where the others were standing in front of the gallery’s double-story viewports. Lucien took a moment to appreciate the view. Astralis’s hangar bay was open, but shielded with hazy blue static shields to keep it pressurized, allowing ground crew to work around the galleon. Beyond those shields lay a dazzling array of stars adrift in a bright magenta streak of nebula. Lucien frowned. He couldn’t remember seeing that nebula before.
“Have you all already been introduced?” Tyra asked.
Lucien turned from the view to study the others. A few of them shook their heads. The Paragons were all keeping to themselves. There were four that Lucien didn’t recognize: two men and two women. He tried using his ARCs to identify them, but nothing happened.
“Your ARCs have all been temporarily deactivated,” Tyra said, as if reading his mind. “They’ll be reactivated as soon as our techs finish adjusting your security clearance for our network.”
“You mean there are some things we aren’t allowed to know?” Lucien asked.
Lucien snorted. “And you got upset because Etherus wouldn’t tell us everything he knows. Ironic.”
Tyra favored him with a thin smile. “Not quite the same thing, but we don’t have time to argue.” Tyra stopped beside the first of the four strangers and rested a hand on the man’s shoulder.
“This is Garek. He’s the veteran on our team, with more than twenty years of experience as a Paragon.”
Lucien studied him: shaven head, black stubble, an angry ridge of scar tissue running down one side of his head and face, hard brown eyes, and a crooked jaw. He looked like a veteran. He even looked old, with crows’ feet around his eyes and a worn look to his features. With all the technology available to correct those flaws and prevent aging, it was surprising that Garek hadn’t bothered to do so.
“Our team?” Lucien thought to ask, as something Tyra had said filtered through to his brain.
“I thought you would have guessed by now,” Tyra replied. “You’re all going to be serving on the same ship together—this ship, my ship, the Inquisitor.
“I suppose we don’t have any say in that?” Lucien asked.
“No. Now, as I was saying, Garek is our veteran. He was one of the very first crusaders, but he lost his rank after an incident in Andromeda. He is the team’s medic.”
“What incident?” Lucien asked.
Garek sneered. “Why don’t you ask your parents, kid?”
Lucien blinked, taken aback. What did his parents have to do with it?
“Moving on…” Tyra indicated the man standing a few feet over from Garek. “This is Teelo—”
“You can call me Tinker,” the man interrupted. “I’m good with my hands,” he added, glancing at the two female Paragons as he said that. The blonde-haired one smiled, but the other one rolled her eyes.
Tinker was tall and good-looking, with short dark hair, and a mischievous sparkle in his bright blue eyes.
Tyra sent him an admonishing glance. “As his nickname implies, Tinker is our ship’s engineer, as well as our field engineer.”
Tyra indicated Troo next, telling Lucien things he already knew about her and Fossaks in general. Troo glared at him throughout her introduction, clearly still holding a grudge against him after he’d stranded her on that balcony. What he wanted to know was how a minor had been allowed to leave New Earth and join the mission.
“Troo will be our comms officer and translator,” Tyra finished. “She’s also one of our three scouts, and the junior member of this team.”
Lucien blinked, shocked by that revelation. “Have you spoken to her?”
Tyra turned to him. “Yes, why?”
“You haven’t noticed something about the way she talks?”
“I is talking perfection!” Troo hissed.
Brak barked out a laugh that boomed through the gallery. “Even I speak better than her.”
“I rest my point,” Lucien said.
“How many alien species have you met?” Tyra asked.
Lucien shrugged. “Four sentient. A few hundred animal. Why?”
“And how many of them spoke Versal?”
“Then it shouldn’t matter how badly Troo mangles it. We don’t need her to communicate with humans. We need her to make first contact with aliens before they agree to use a visual communicator or help us to calibrate our verbal translators.
“Being a so-called psychic gives Troo a unique advantage when communicating with other species. Much the way that Gors can communicate among themselves telepathically because of nanite implants passed on at birth, Fossaks can communicate with everyone the same way, but naturally, and over much shorter distances. Troo will be able to communicate by projecting images directly to other beings’ minds and reading their replies. I trust that answers your concerns, Mr. Ortane?”
Lucien nodded. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Garek glaring at him. He turned to the veteran with his eyebrows raised, but the medic scowled and looked away.
“Good. Moving on…” Tyra went to stand beside one of the two women. She was small and slight of build, with green eyes and long blond hair tied up in a bun at the back of her head. “This is Adalyn—Addy for short,” Tyra said. “She’s our scout and sniper.”
Without skipping a beat, Tyra turned to the next woman. She had black skin, dark violet eyes, and dreadlocks. “Jalisa is our demolitions expert, gunnery chief, and one of our best pilots.”
Tyra walked up to Lucien and Brak next. She nodded to the Gor first. “And this is Brak, our melee and hand-to-hand combat specialist. Like Addy and Troo he’s also a scout, and like all Gors, the nanite implant he was born with allows him to cloak even without an exosuit. Of course, we’re unlikely to ever go exploring without our exosuits, but you never know when technology is going to fail you.”
Tyra looked away from Brak, and her gaze settled on Lucien. “Finally, this is Lucien Ortane, son of the famous crusaders Ethan and Alara Ortane.”
Tinker and Jalisa nodded appreciatively, and Addy gave him a sultry look that warmed Lucien’s cheeks, while Garek’s glare became more intense.
“Lucien is our best pilot, so he’ll be the one piloting our shuttle for away missions. He’s also the ship’s executive officer and security chief.
“Any questions about these assignments?”
Lucien stuck up a hand.
“Yes, Mr. Ortane?”
“What about the others?”
Tyra arched an eyebrow at him and looked around the room, as if searching for someone she’d missed. “What others?”
Lucien hesitated. “You’re acting like we’re the only crew on this ship…”
“Besides the members of my science team and a few enlisted crewmen, you are the only crew on this ship.”
Lucien blinked. “Galleons take a crew of nine hundred and sixty-two, of which almost three hundred are usually marines and fighter pilots. How are we supposed to defend ourselves with less than a dozen Paragons to fill those roles?”
Tyra frowned. “Ideally, we’ll be avoiding conflicts, so we won’t need to defend ourselves—”
Lucien’s cheeks bulged with an objection.
“—but if we can’t avoid conflict, our marines and pilots will be able to defend us.”
Lucien shook his head. “I’m confused. What marines and pilots? I thought you just said we’re the only crew besides a few clerics?”
“Scientists,” Tyra corrected. “And that’s not entirely accurate. We have bots to fill all the extra crew positions on our galleons.”
“Bots,” Lucien repeated. “Mindless drones aren’t going to be much good in a fight.”
“Technically, they’re AIs.”
Lucien blinked in shock. “Artificial intelligence has been illegal ever since we defeated Omnius!”
Tyra smiled. “Not on Astralis.”
“You fools,” Garek growled. “You’re repeating history.”
“There are multiple security measures in place to prevent our relatively weak AIs from evolving to the point where they might replace or enslave us. And that will be the last time you patronize me, Mr. Helios. I might seem young and inexperienced compared to you, but I’m your captain, and your superior officer, and you will refer to me as such—that goes for all of you,” Tyra added, looking around the room.
Garek grunted and looked away.
“Speaking of rank,” Tyra went on, “all of you have been re-designated as lieutenants junior grade, which is equivalent to the rank of champions third class, which you held in the Paragons. My rank of captain is equivalent to a crusader, while Mr. Ortane is a lieutenant commander, or champion first class, and Troo is an ensign.”
Lucien nodded to Garek. “Why isn’t he your XO? He used to be a crusader or captain, as you call it. I’m sure he has more experience than me.”
“Oh, he does, but the incident that lost him his rank prevents me from fully trusting him with a position of command, and the probe reports indicate you are best suited for a leadership role, so it’s yours—for now. Are there any other questions?”
No one else spoke up.
“Good. Then lets head to the bridge and get underway.”
Lucien shook his head. “Get underway? Don’t we have to wait until we jump away from New Earth to start exploring?”
Tyra smiled at him. “We already have.” She nodded to the magenta nebula visible from the gallery viewports. “Does that look like the Large Magellanic Cloud to you?”
“We already jumped? Where are we?” Lucien asked.
“We’re in uncharted space, just past the red line,” Tyra replied.
The scarred veteran chimed in, speaking in a gravelly voice that perfectly matched his marred appearance: “You knew Etherus would grant the petition.” Lucien struggled to remember the man’s name—Garek. The Veteran. He’d be easier to remember that way.
“How do you figure?” Jalisa asked.
Jalisa… she was the ship’s gunnery chief and demolitions expert. Guns, Lucien decided.
Garek nodded to Tyra.
Tyra the Tyrant, Lucien thought with a smile.
“It’s only been a month since the petition was granted,” Garek explained. “Tyra is talking about a jump that should have taken at least six months to calculate.”
A small smile graced Tyra’s lips. “Try twelve days.”
Garek blinked, taken aback.
“How is that possible?” Lucien asked.
“AI isn’t all bad,” Tyra explained. “We estimate reaching the cosmic horizon in eight years rather than the ninety-six indicated by our petition. We couldn’t publicize that, of course, without admitting to breaking the law by using AIs to speed up our jump calculations.”
“Can we send messages back to our families and loved ones to let them know we’ll be home sooner?” Lucien asked.
“I’m afraid not,” Tyra replied. “As I said, AIs are illegal, and our use of them is classified information. Let’s go take a look at what’s been found beyond the cosmic horizon so far.”
Brak stepped in front of Tyra, blocking her way. “What do you mean by this? We do not reach cosmic horizon yet. How can we see past it?”
“We don’t have to reach it to see beyond it,” Tyra explained. “It’s like the horizon on a planet. It moves as you move. And since we just jumped two hundred and fifty million light years, we can now see that much farther than we could before. Of course, the prevailing wisdom and prior observable evidence suggests that we’ll just end up seeing more of the same, but who knows?”
Lucien shook his head. “Now I’m confused—how can we have traveled two hundred and fifty million light years and still only see more of the same?”
Tyra regarded him with a smile. “I mean we’ll probably find that there’s more stars and galaxies beyond the old cosmic horizon. That’s a logical deduction, because otherwise Lankiakea would be at the center of the entire universe, and that would be an odd coincidence. We also think the universe might be connected to itself—multiply connected, we call it. And if that’s so, then it means if you travel far enough in any one direction, you’ll end up back where you started.”
“You mean if the universe is a sphere?” Addy said.
Addy the sniper/scout… what’s a good nickname for you? Lucien wondered. Scout, sniper, sexy… Triple S.
“No,” Tyra replied. “Scientists don’t think about the curvature of the universe that way. We think of curvature in terms of geometry. That is, for a flat universe, if we draw a triangle in space, it’s angles should always add up to exactly one hundred and eighty degrees. For a spherical universe, the angles will add up to more—just like they do on the surface of a planet—and for a negatively curved universe, the angles will add up to less than a hundred and eighty degrees. Current evidence supports a flat universe.
“Topology, on the other hand, tells us how space is connected to itself. This is what laymen mean when they talk about curvature. A torus topology, for example, is flat, but connected to itself at the edges. You can visualize this if you take a sheet of flexiplast and curl it into a cylinder; if you bend the ends of that cylinder to meet each other, you’ll have a torus, or a donut shape. That’s one possible topology for a flat universe.”
Lucien snorted. “So, you think the universe could be a flat donut? And you wonder why we call you clerics.”
Tyra sighed and turned away from him. “Everyone, follow me to the bridge and report for duty.”
* * *
The bridge was decagonal with 10 floor-to-ceiling viewports, and it was situated at the top of the ship, such that it provided a 360-degree view of space. Even the domed ceiling had viewports in it—although those were more decorative than functional, arranged as they were in the pattern of a six-sided Star of Etherus.
“It’s beautiful,” Addy said, staring out at the view.
Lucien had to admit, wherever they were, it was breathtaking. The 360-degree view from the bridge revealed the magenta nebula they’d seen earlier in even greater detail. Fluorescent pinks, fiery reds, and deep purples all mixed together in a vibrant swirl of color, while countless stars shone brightly through the clouds of stellar gas.
“Welcome to the Perseus-Pisces Supercluster,” Tyra said. She gestured to the nearest viewport, and a series of overlays appeared. A pair of yellow brackets highlighted one of the stars inside the nebula, and a number beside the brackets denoted the range—5.6 ly.
Tyra pointed to the star. “That’s where we’re headed.”
“Why there?” Lucien asked.
An androgynous robotic voice replied, seeming to come from everywhere at once: “Because it is one of the nearest star systems considered most likely to support alien life.”
Lucien glanced around, looking for the source of the voice. “Who’s there?” he asked.
A whirr of servos gave him his answer. Glowing red holoreceptors appeared peeking over one of the control stations on the crew deck, just a few steps above the walkway where they stood.
“Everyone, meet the last member of our team: Pandora.”
“Howdy,” the bot said brightly.
“Pandora is our navigator and sensor operator,” Tyra added.
“Nice name you chose for her,” Lucien said.
“I am not a her,” Pandora said, “and you can call me Panda. It’s more cuddly.”
“So you’re a he, then?” Teelo asked.
“Neither,” Pandora replied.
Teelo shook his head and turned to regard all of them. “This is going to get confusing. I could fashion a little something for Pandy with the ship’s fabricator to help clear up the confusion.”
“Why a little something?” Addy objected. “Give the poor guy a chance.”
Tyra regarded them all with a frown. “We’re not adding genitalia to a bot. Panda, please set your vocal parameters to female. We’ll refer to you as a she from now on.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Panda said in a distinctly feminine register, and her holoreceptors went from red to pink. “Is this better?”
Teelo whistled appreciatively. “Hey Pandy, you want to get a drink with me later?”
“You can’t handle me, Lieutenant.”
“Yes. Didn’t your mother teach you what happens when you stick things in electrical sockets?”
Addy burst out laughing, and Jalisa rolled her eyes.
Teelo grinned. “So that’s a no?”
“All right, enough joking around, Tinker,” Lucien said. “Let’s focus on the mission.”
“Yes, sir,” Tinker replied in a flippant tone.
Lucien frowned, realizing that his sudden transition from a peer of equal rank to superior officer wasn’t going to be a smooth one.
“Watch how you speak to a superior officer, Lieutenant,” Tyra said.
“Yes, ma’am,” Tinker replied in a more subdued voice.
Tyra gestured to the viewport, and the magenta nebula disappeared, replaced by a blurry red smudge in a blank sea of black space.
Yellow brackets also flanked that image, but the distance in light years was represented in scientific notation.
“What’s that?” Lucien asked.
“GN-z11, our ultimate destination. It’s the farthest known galaxy from where we started, and therefore, the closest to the cosmic horizon,” Tyra replied. “But from our new location…” she gestured again, and the display zoomed out, providing a view of surrounding galaxies—more colorful smudges. “It’s no longer the farthest galaxy from us.” Tyra pointed to a smudge at the top of the viewport, and yellow brackets appeared around that galaxy, too.
“This galaxy is two hundred and forty-two million light years farther away from us than GN-z11,” Tyra said. “As predicted, we’re just seeing more of the same—more stars and space. I guess that settles the question of whether or not we’re the center of the universe.” Tyra smirked and turned from the viewport to address them. “Is everyone ready to head out?”
Lucien nodded, and the others murmured their agreement.
“Panda, take us out and start the jump calculations.”
“Already ahead of you, Captain,” she replied. “Course plotted, heading out. ETA fifteen minutes to reach a safe jumping distance.”
Tyra nodded and went to take her place in the captain’s chair. She waved away the blurry smudges of distant galaxies, and magenta-colored space returned, along with the bracketed point of light that was the star they were headed for.
A designation appeared above the yellow brackets: Panda-1.
Lucien smiled. “Why not Pandora-1?” he suggested.
The bot replied, “I named the star after the legendary Panda Bear from ancient Earth. I am not an egotist, Commander.
“I see,” Lucien replied, not sure whether to believe the bot.
“How long before Astralis jumps again?” Garek asked, absently scratching the scar on his face.
“We have a standard month at each stop while the facet recharges its reactors and calculates the next jump,” Tyra replied. “Why do you ask?”
Garek stopped scratching. “What happens if we don’t make it back before then?”
“We’ll make it,” Tyra said, evading the question.
A bad feeling wormed into Lucien’s gut, and he turned from the viewports to study Tyra.
“That’s not an answer,” Garek replied.
Tyra looked suddenly uncomfortable in her plush captain’s chair. All eyes were on her. “During the probe you were all fitted with timer implants.”
“We were what?” Lucien demanded.
“What is timer implant?” Brak growled.
“When the timer reaches zero, if the implant isn’t somewhere aboard Astralis, it triggers a brain aneurysm, killing the host instantly.”
“Get implant out!” Brak demanded. He leapt up to the crew deck and strode quickly toward Tyra. She rose from her chair, calmly drew her stunner, and shot him in the chest. Brak sunk to his knees with a loud hiss. Electrical energy leapt off him in crackling blue arcs. “Stand down, Brak,” she said.
Instead, he rose to his feet with a roar, and lunged.
Tyra fired again, dropping him to the deck with a thud. “Damned Gors are all so impulsive,” she muttered.
Garek looked ready to follow in Brak’s footsteps. “You’d better start explaining fast,” he said. “You can’t stun us all before we get to you.”
“I have the same implant,” Tyra said. “And yes, they can kill us, but if they do, we’ll be brought back to life aboard Astralis just a few minutes later, using the copies of our memories and consciousness that were taken before we left. It’s the cheapest and easiest way to recall all of our expeditions and keep Astralis moving forward toward its goal.”
“Why don’t you just send search parties for the expeditions that don’t make it back in time?” Lucien asked.
“Because whatever could prevent an expedition from returning could also capture or destroy whatever search parties we send. We need to be careful not to get in over our heads.”
“Why not let the lost crews live?” Jalisa asked. “The copies will never meet each other if you don’t go looking for them.”
“Making duplicate copies of a sentient being is against the law,” Lucien said.
“It’s against Etherus’s laws,” Tyra corrected, “But would you really want to live out here, in an unfamiliar galaxy, cut off from your own species on a galleon full of bots?”
Jalisa gave no reply.
“That’s what I thought. Besides, if we leave copies of ourselves all over the known universe, eventually those copies are going to lead some powerful enemy straight to us. The smaller our cosmic footprints, the harder they will be for someone to track.”
“All right, so you resurrect the crews,” Lucien said, “but what about the galleons? We can’t afford to keep throwing them away every time their crews get into trouble.”
“The galleons are all programmed to return here before Astralis jumps again—with or without their crews. If they don’t return, it’s because they were destroyed or badly damaged.”
“Captain, we are ready to jump,” Pandora announced.
“Aye, aye. Pandora-1, here we come.”
“Don’t you mean Panda-1?” Lucien asked.
“That’s what I said, Commander.”
“No, you said Pandora.”
“Human senses are notoriously unreliable. I wouldn’t trust them if I were you, sir.”
“I is hearing Pandora, too…” Troo said. “And my ears is being more sensitivity than human ears.”
Troo’s words were all but drowned out by a deafening roar of engine noise.
“Sorry! I can’t hear you over the sound of the jump drives spooling!” Panda said.
“Jump drives don’t make any noise when they spool…” Lucien said, glancing at Troo.
She hissed and bared her teeth at him.
Still holding a grudge, then.
The viewport flashed white and suddenly the stars were all shifted from where they had been a moment ago. A bright, blue-white gas giant lay dead ahead, taking up a sizable fraction of the viewport.
“Welcome to Panda-1A!” Pandora said.
“Let’s get to our shuttle,” Tyra added. “Panda, you have the conn.”
“Finally! My own command!” Pandora said, flexing her robotic hands in anticipation.
“That’s not what having the conn means,” Tyra said.
“Oh, I know, ma’am. A slight exaggeration on my part. Just because I am the helmswoman, and the one who gives orders to the helmswoman, doesn’t mean I have command.”
“I think she’s being sarcastic,” Garek said.
“I know what she’s being. Panda?” Tyra asked in a dulcet tone.
“The autopilot has the conn.”
“No buts. Cloak the galleon, and set the autopilot to evade any obstacles. In the event of a true emergency, the senior member of my science team will take command. You’re coming down to the surface with us.”
Panda mumbled something about a female dog.
“Excuse me?” Tyra demanded.
“I said the autopilot is a female dog, ma’am.”
“Yes, ma’am, who else? Do you know someone else who behaves like a female dog?”
Garek chuckled softly to himself, and Lucien smiled.
Lucien sat in the pilot’s seat of the shuttle, checking the latest scans of the Panda-1 System. Jalisa sat beside him as the shuttle’s co-pilot. She idly watched the view, keeping an eye on the comms and sensors in case they ran into any space-faring aliens.
The door between the cockpit and the cabin lay open, and a steady rhythm of conversations bubbled to their ears from the rest of the crew.
The Inquisitor had arrived just a hundred thousand kilometers from Panda-1A, but that wasn’t their destination. Its moons were. Panda-1A-IV, 1A-V, and 1A-XIV were the most habitable of the gas giant’s twenty-six moons. All of them were big enough to have atmospheres and a sizable fraction of standard gravity, and 1A-V was warm enough to have liquid surface water. It would be their first stop.
Lucien tried to imagine what it would be like for a species to evolve on a moon around a gas giant, with at least two other habitable moons in easy reach. The first moon-landing of a species like that could potentially also establish a colony, or even make first contact with another intelligent species. Now that would be something. Two intelligent races of aliens living in such close contact… would they be friends, trading and working together? Or bitter enemies, launching missiles at each other across the void before they even learned how to fly to another star?
Of course, if there were alien races in the system with the technology for rockets and missiles, then they should have detected something by now.
“Still nothing on scopes and sensors?” Lucien asked.
Jalisa shook her head. “My boards are clear.”
“Let me know if that changes, Guns.”
“What did you call me?”
Lucien glanced at her. Those unblinking violet eyes reminded him of his mother’s. “Guns…” Lucien replied. “It’s my nickname for you.”
“Guns… it fits,” Jalisa decided. “What did you name the others?”
“Well, some of them already had nicknames, like Tinker, and I already knew Brak and Troo from when I was a tyro.”
“That’s only three. There are eight of us. Nine with the bot.”
“Bot is an offensive term!” Panda objected from the back of the shuttle.
“Sorry, Panda,” Jalisa said, glancing over her shoulder. “So?” she prompted, turning back to him.
Lucien hesitated, not sure if he wanted to elaborate within earshot of the people he’d nicknamed. “Garek is The Veteran,” Lucien said. “Addy is Triple S…”
“What’s that stand for?” Addy called out.
“Ah… sexy sniper-scout.”
“Aww, the XO has a crush!” Tinker piped up.
“Shut up, Tinker!” Addy replied. “Just because you already had a call sign, doesn’t give you the right to make fun of other people’s.”
“I think I can do better than Tinker,” Jalisa said. “Tiny—because it must be.”
Addy laughed at that.
“You wanna prove that theory of yours, Gunner Girl?” Tinker called back. “Any time, any place—you and me.”
“The only reason for a man to try his luck with anything that moves is because he isn’t very lucky,” Jalisa replied. “Contrary to popular belief, size does matter, Tiny.”
“All right, that’s enough. Leave the poor guy alone,” Tyra said.
“Humans are ridiculous,” Brak said. “Who cares what genitalia look like, so long as they function?”
“Said the dickless alien,” Addy put in.
Brak didn’t seem to notice the insult.
Lucien smiled. Gors didn’t have any external genitalia—probably because the planet where they’d evolved was so cold that it would have frozen off if they did.
“What’s my nickname?” Tyra asked.
“I didn’t give you one,” Lucien replied.
“He is being lies,” Troo said. “He is calling you Tyra the Tyrant.”
Everyone laughed long and hard at that. When Lucien looked over at Jalisa, he saw tears running down her cheeks.
“You get to name everything from now on, Commander,” she said through a smile.
“If the captain has a call sign, it’s only fair for the XO to have one, too,” Tyra suggested.
“I’m guessing you have one in mind,” Lucien replied.
“Oh, I have more than one.”
“All right…” Lucien waited for Tyra to announce his call sign, but she kept quiet.
Five minutes later, Panda-1A-V came into view, a small dark blue-green speck against the pale white gas giant that it orbited.
Lucien heard footsteps approaching from the cabin. Tyra appeared beside him. “ETA?” she asked.
“Twenty minutes to reach orbit. Another ten to make landfall,” he replied.
“All right. Keep me posted, Lucy,” Tyra said, patting his shoulder as she left.
Jalisa shot him a grin as muted laughter bubbled from the cabin. “Lucy,” she said, trying it out. “It fits,” she decided, smiling from ear to ear.
Lucien smiled back. “I’ll take the compliment.”
“Compliment?” Tyra echoed. “I think maybe you missed the point of this exercise in mutual degradation.”
“If having a girl’s name is an insult, then three members of this team were insulted at birth.”
Silence rang inside the shuttle.
“He’s got you there,” Garek said, chuckling.
“Touche, Lucy,” Tyra said. “Don’t worry, I’ll do better next time.”
Lucien grinned. “Till then the score’s Lucy 1 - Tyrant 0.”
* * *
The shuttle shuddered as it hit Panda-1A-V’s atmosphere. Their inertial management system (IMS) buffered the effects, but did nothing to stop their view of the moon from shaking. Thick white blankets of clouds concealed gray mountain ridges, blue oceans, and mottled purple, black, and red landmasses—colors that hinted at what Jalisa’s scans had already found from a distance: this moon was rich with alien flora.
The shuttle fell swiftly through the atmosphere. Air roared deafeningly against the hull. Clouds swept up, obscuring everything for a moment. Droplets of water streaked along the cockpit canopy; then the clouds parted, and the surface of the moon appeared in shocking clarity.
“Wow…” Jalisa breathed.
Suddenly the cockpit was crowded as everyone else came up for a better look. Purple and crimson trees soared hundreds of meters into a pale green sky, while towering black obelisks rose even higher between them, looking like a forest of pillars from some gargantuan alien ruins.
“Are those naturally occurring?” Lucien asked, pointing to the obelisks.
“Hard to say,” Panda said. “We’ll have to take samples on the surface.”
“There’s no way for wind and rain to have carved those,” Lucien said. “They’re surrounded by vegetation for one thing.”
“Now they are. Maybe they weren’t always,” Tyra said.
“They could also be alive,” Garek suggested.
“Silicon lifeforms,” Tyra said, nodding. “If that’s so, then they might even be intelligent.”
Lucien skimmed the tops of those obelisks, looking for a place to set down. The forest opened up, revealing a field of black grass, and Lucien circled back for a landing. As they hovered down, the grass swallowed their shuttle whole, covering it completely. Only slivers and specks of light made it through to the cockpit.
“Getting out of here is going to be a challenge,” Lucien said. “Maybe we should clear a path with the shuttle’s laser cannon before we go outside.”
“And set the whole forest on fire?” Tyra asked.
“Good point,” he replied.
“We’ll cut a path. Let’s go.”
The outer doors of the shuttle airlock parted, revealing a dark, impenetrable wall of grass. Wearing their exosuits to avoid infection from alien microbes, the team couldn’t breathe the air or touch anything, but their suits had sensors to relay sensations of touch and smell. Lucien took a deep breath, sampling the loamy, floral scent of the air. He walked up to the wall of grass and probed it with one hand. The haptic sensors in his glove gave him an idea of what the thick blades of grass felt like: they were fuzzy like a spider’s legs.
He shivered and withdrew his hand.
“Cut a path for us, Brak,” Tyra said.
The Gor walked up to the wall of grass and drew one of the razor swords sheathed at his back. It glinted in the light of the shuttle’s airlock. They all backed away when Brak activated the blade’s razor shield. A deep humming sound filled the air as the blade’s molecular-edged shield vibrated rapidly from side to side. The metal blade disappeared in a hazy blue blur of energy.
Brak swept his sword through the wall of grass in one long stroke, and three meter-long grass cuttings fell with a loud rustling noise. He swiped again, and then leapt down from the airlock. The stalks cracked like twigs under his feet. After just a few seconds, they saw the pale green sky appear, and a few more seconds after that, Brak had cleared and trampled a path long enough for them to follow.
“Let’s go,” Tyra said, and jumped down from the airlock. Lucien watched her go. Her exosuit gleamed in the light of Panda-1A-V’s sun.
With their suits and helmets on, it was impossible for Lucien to visually identify anyone unless they were facing him, but his ARCs labeled everyone in sight, and their names floated above their heads in a bold green font.
“Set sensors to active scanning,” Tyra said as they followed her.
Grass stalks crunched underfoot as they jumped down. Olfactory sensors brought a pungent, musky odor to Lucien’s nose. From the air, or the grass? he wondered.
Lucien configured his sensors and set active scanning. The initial scan revealed so many lifeforms around them that his scopes were impossible to read. He filtered the data, setting the circular fore and aft scopes in the top left and right of his field of view to display only potential threats—lifeforms that were either very large or moving toward him.
“Captain, I am reading a lot of life signs around us,” Panda said.
“Likewise,” Garek said, “but so far they’re all scurrying away.”
“Path is cut,” Brak panted over the comms. The Gor stood about fifty meters from them, where the grass abruptly ended and a dark forest began.
A shadow passed over them with a loud whoosh. An alert sounded from Lucien’s sensors, and he looked up to see something big and black flying circles around their heads. His bio-scanner identified it as insectile, and over three meters long.
“Heads-up,” Lucien said, already charging his grav boosters in readiness.
But after circling once more, the insect flew away.
“Did anyone get a read on that thing?” Tyra asked, her voice piqued with excitement.
“I did,” Lucien said. The bug had been automatically cataloged by his sensors for later study and classification.
They reached the edge of the field and found Brak already studying one of the obelisks they’d seen from the air. “It appears to be made of silicates,” he said.
“So it could actually be a silicon life form,” Tyra concluded, running a hand over the smooth surface. “It’s warm to the touch. Troo? Would you see if you can make contact for us?”
The Fossak stepped up to the rock and placed both of her hands against it. “It is… being life.”
Lucien blinked. “Intelligent life?”
Troo shook her head. “I cannot say. Its mind is being empty. All it is having knowledge of is hot and cold. Right now it is hot. This makes it happiness.”
Tinker snorted. “Surprise, surprise, rocks don’t do a whole lot of thinking.”
Tyra withdrew a scanner from her equipment belt and passed it over the obelisk. A fan of blue light flickered out, briefly illuminating the dark forest.
Lucien caught a glimpse of a hulking shadow with red eyes watching them from the trees. He took a quick step toward it, waiting for his scanners to get a lock, but the light from Tyra’s scanner went out, and the shadow vanished.
“I thought I saw something in the trees,” Lucien said.
“I saw it, too,” Jalisa replied. “It was watching us.”
“Let’s not get jumpy, people,” Tyra said. “There’s probably a thousand creatures watching us right now—this is amazing…” she whispered, still studying the results of her scan. She unslung the pack from her back and took out a sample container while Pandora sliced off a small piece of the rock with a cutting beam.
Lucien looked away, back to the dark forest. He turned on his helmet lamps and started walking in the direction that he’d seen the shadow. He armed the grav boosters in his palms, setting them to a low power mode. A blast from one of those would scare off most creatures. Jalisa walked up beside him, sweeping her headlamps from side to side. Glossy purplish logs gleamed, and blossom-shaped crimson leaves crunched under foot.
Thump. Something fell at their feet.
Lucien looked up, but he could see nothing through the tangled mess of dark tree branches. High above, the crimson leaves of the forest canopy glowed in the sun like a translucent tarp, adding a dim crimson hue to everything they saw. Lucien bent to retrieve the object that had fallen in front of them and picked it up. It was hard, jagged, and black—a shard of rock.
Thump. Another rock fell at Lucien’s feet, and he looked up once more. One rock falling could be a coincidence, but two?
“I’m reading lifeforms in the trees,” Jalisa said.
Lucien zoomed in, and a sea of red eyes appeared, glinting from the shadows.
“It’s time to leave,” Lucien whispered.
“What?” Tyra’s asked. “We’ve just started exploring!”
He and Jalisa backed away slowly, keeping their eyes on the trees.
Thump, thump, CLANK. A rock bounced off Jalisa’s helmet.
Lucien raised one palm and braced himself before firing a focused burst from his grav booster. Whoosh. The gun punched the air into a shock wave that sent creatures skittering from branch to branch, chattering in musical voices that sounded like wind instruments. Crimson leaves fluttered down.
THUD. One of the creatures landed on its back at their feet. It was a hairy black mass about twice the size of Brak. Lucien grimaced. There was no way something that big had survived the fall. He crept forward with Jalisa and crouched beside the creature, waiting for his scanners to tell him more. He placed a hand on it. It was warm to the touch. The beast heaved under his hand and air whistled out softly through its nose.
Lucien flinched and took a step back. “It’s still alive,” he said. “Troo!”
“What is you needing?”
“Try to make contact with this… animal. Assess its injuries if you can.”
“I is trying to do this…” Troo said as she placed a hand against the creature’s giant head and closed her eyes. “It is being much pain… it is not being thinking clearly.”
“Do you think it will live?” Lucien asked, frowning as he gazed down on the creature.
“It is unable to be movement or breath. I is believing this means it will die soon.”
“Thank you, Troo. Step away please.” Troo did as she was told, and Lucien armed the laser cannons in his suit gauntlets.
“What are you going to do to it?” Addy asked, walking up beside them.
“I’m going to put it out of its misery,” Lucien said, and shot it twice in the head. Lasers screeched and crimson light flashed through the shadowy forest. The creature’s fur ignited and blazed brightly, bringing the smell of burnt hair and flesh to their olfactory sensors.
Clank, clank, clank-clank… Rocks pelted Lucien from above, and his sensors chimed continuously in warning as dozens of lifeforms raced down the trunks of nearby trees. “Damn it,” Lucien muttered, glancing up at the trees.
“Get back here now!” Tyra ordered.
A pair of monsters landed in front of Lucien with muffled booms, and bared long fangs. They stalked toward him on eight thick, furry legs, walking like spiders. The nearest one crouched, about to pounce. Lucien fired at it with his lasers, and it slumped into the leaves, whistling in pain. It thrashed, sending leaves flying. Lucien shifted his aim to the second one, but before he could fire, it leapt high over his head.
Before it could crush him, he ducked and rolled away. The creature landed with a ground-shaking boom beside him. Lucien jumped back to his feet just in time to see Brak race in, his razor swords flashing bright blue in the gloom. The monster fell in two smoking halves at Brak’s feet, and the Gor roared with enthusiasm, already looking for his next target.
“Barbarian,” Pandora said as she shot one of the beasts between the eyes with a plasma pistol.
Another creature came bounding toward Lucien, its footfalls like thunder. He fired his lasers with a screech, and the animal burst into flames and skidded to a stop at his feet.
Seeing their fellows die did nothing to dissuade the others. The monsters flowed down the tree trunks in rivers, while others stayed up to throw rocks that bounced harmlessly off the away team’s armor.
Lasers flashed crimson in the dark. The smell of charred flesh and burnt hair was nauseating. Hulking bodies rose in shadowy mounds around them.
One of the creatures got close enough to clamp its massive jaws around Lucien’s helmet, but only for a second.
Brak cut the head off and splashed Lucien’s faceplate with black blood. The head fell at his feet with a thump, but Lucien couldn’t see. He fell on his knees and frantically grabbed fistfuls of leaves to wipe away the blood. By the time he’d cleared his visor, the battle was over. The remaining monsters fled, crashing through the tree tops and shouting harmoniously in their musical voices as they went.
“What a mess,” Tyra said.
“Poor things…” Addy put in. “They don’t know any better.”
“I think… they g-ot me…” Tinker panted.
Lucien spun around, looking for him. He found Tinker’s name tag a split second later, alongside Garek’s. The medic was already checking on him.
Everyone hurried over.
“Brak, watch our backs!” Tyra instructed as she ran.
“With pleasure,” he growled, brandishing his swords and scanning the trees.
Lucien reached Tinker’s side and immediately saw what the problem was. His legs were folded back under him at the waist, and his neck lay at an odd angle.
“His back and neck are broken,” Garek declared as he passed a scanner over Tinker’s body with a flickering fan of blue light.
“It picked me up and shook me like a doll,” Tinker said, his voice pinching off in pain.
“I can fix him, but not down here,” Garek added. “I’ll have to take him back to the galleon.”
“Do it. Jalisa, take them back on the shuttle.”
Jalisa nodded and waited while Garek unslung his medical pack and fitted a brace around Tinker’s neck. When Garek was done, he and Jalisa picked Tinker up and began carrying him back to the shuttle. The others escorted them there.
Within just a few minutes, those three were safely aboard, and the shuttle hovered up from the field, blasting them with wind from its grav lifts. It angled up and ignited its thrusters in a thunderous roar. Lucien placed a hand to his visor to shield his eyes from the glare as the shuttle raced away, a dwindling speck against the pale green sky.
Lucien turned to Tyra with a frown. “We should have gone with them.”
“There’s still plenty to study down here, and I doubt those monkey bears are going to bother us again after we killed so many of them.”
“You is being bad huntress if you think this,” Troo said.
“They seem like alpha predators,” Lucien added. “If so, they won’t be used to finding prey stronger than they are, so they’ll keep trying. Besides, sooner or later we’ll encounter another troop that hasn’t seen what we did to the first one.”
“You did provoke them by killing the one that fell,” Tyra pointed out. “But you’re right, we should probably try to get out of the forest as soon as possible.”
“Aerial maps we generated on the way down indicate there’s a long range of mountains not far from here,” Pandora said. “The mountains will be relatively devoid of vegetation, and you should be able to climb them quite easily with your grav boosters.”
“Lead the way,” Tyra said.
“We’ll have to cross through the forest to get there,” Pandora warned.
“Two point four kilometers.”
“Close enough,” Tyra decided. “Let’s go. Everyone keep your weapons armed and an eye on your scopes. Brak, Troo—you watch our backs. Lucien and Addy, you take point with Pandora.”
They set out like that, with Tyra walking safely in the middle. Coward, Lucien thought.
“The captain is not having Paragon training,” Troo said from the rear. “This is why she is being cowardice.”
“What did you call me?” Tyra demanded.
“Not I—it is Lucy who thinks this.”
Lucien grimaced. “Stay out of my head, Troo.”
“I is freedom to do as I please. You cannot be telling me what to do.”
“Don’t I outrank her?” Lucien asked.
“And I outrank you,” Tyra said. “Thank you for telling me, Troo.”
That was the end of the conversation. They continued on, walking over fallen logs and wading through deep piles of leaves. They swept the shadows with their headlamps as they went, but no more monkey bears appeared skulking around them. The forest was full of other strange animals, however, as evidenced by their howls, hoots, squawks, and chitters. Every now and then a small creature would dart by in front of them, spraying leaves in its wake.
They even came across a lumbering worm-like thing the size of a hover train, with a glossy purple exoskeleton and what must have been a thousand legs. Addy threatened to vomit in her suit, but the threat of asphyxiating on the contents of her stomach appeared to quell her disgust. The arthropod seemed docile and harmless, possibly even blind, but they all wisely decided to hang back and wait for it to pass.
When they finally emerged from the forest and saw the mountains soaring in front of them, they were all tired and thirsty, so Tyra called a short break. Their exosuits came with a ready supply of fresh water and a waste management system that allowed them to relieve themselves without removing their armor.
Lucien sipped on the straw coming up from his collar, and studied their surroundings. The forest was dark and ominous behind them, while sheer gray cliffs soared in front. A thin slice of the pale green sky appeared between the cliffs and the trees. And the curving outline of the gas giant Panda-1A shone faintly through the atmosphere.
Bringing his gaze back down, Lucien found Tyra running her scanner over the cliffs.
He walked up to her. “Besides exploration for explorations’ sake, what exactly is our purpose down here?”
“Ideally, to find and make contact with sentient alien life,” Tyra replied.
“Well, then I think we’re barking up the wrong trees—or cliffs. The planet is clearly habitable, but I don’t think we’re going to find anything intelligent here. If there were, we should have seen signs of civilization from orbit.”
“Not all intelligent life develops a civilization, at least not immediately,” Tyra replied. “For most of human history we were tribal hunter-gatherers who lived in caves and made finger paintings on the walls.”
“So we should be looking for caves?” Lucien asked.
“Or subterranean passages,” Tyra replied, still scanning the cliffs. “And these mountains are riddled with them.” She looked up, her blue eyes bright with anticipation. “Now we just have to find a way in.”
They found an entrance to the caves at the base of the cliffs just a few hundred meters from where they’d taken their break. Before they went inside, Tyra made contact with the Inquisitor to confirm that Jalisa had made it back with Garek and Tinker. She told them to wait up there rather than come back, in case they found a better place for pick-up than the field that now lay a half-hour’s hike behind them.
As soon as Tyra got off the comms, she led the way into the caves, her eagerness taking precedence over caution. Lucien was about to walk past her so he could take point, but Pandora beat him to it. The bot had her plasma pistol out and tracking, so Lucien decided he could hang back with Brak and Troo, while Addy kept pace just behind Tyra.
The cave walls glittered like diamonds in the light of their headlamps. Upon closer inspection, Lucien saw that the glittering was from sticky white clumps of bio matter that clung to the walls.
Tyra stopped to pass her handheld scanner over one of them. She nodded with the result, as if it had confirmed her suspicions. “Egg sacks.”
“Lovely,” Lucien replied.
“From what?” Addy asked.
“Some type of arthropod,” Tyra said.
“Arthropod?” Addy pressed.
“Spiders,” Tyra clarified.
Addy shivered. Lucien didn’t blame her. Fortunately, their exosuits were air tight, so no bugs were getting in.
No threats had appeared on their scopes yet. After another five minutes passed uneventfully, Lucien decided now would be a good time to get some answers.
“Brak, what are you doing here?”
“Exploring. The same thing you are doing.”
“No, I mean, how did you know to find me on Astralis?”
“I is telling him where you be going if he is taking me with,” Troo said. “Brak is being my new guardian.”
Lucien shook his head. “Neither of you should have come. Why would you follow me here?”
“I is coming because you is going,” Troo replied. “You is having saved my life, so I is going to save yours.”
“It’s going to be hard to save an immortal,” Lucien said. “Even if I die, they’ll just bring me back on Astralis.”
“And if Astralis is being destroyed?”
“Well, then I guess I could die, but that’s not going to happen.”
“Perhaps it is not to be happening, or perhaps it is. Time is to be telling us.”
“So, you’re here to repay your debt—not to get even with me for stranding you on that balcony?”
“I is here to do both things,” Troo said, and turned her helmet so she could bare her teeth at him in a feline grin.
“Of course,” Lucien muttered. “What about you, Brak? Why did you agree to bring Troo here and follow me to Astralis?”
“I come to take you home, to save you from yourself,” Brak said. “But you do not go, so I stay.”
Lucien frowned. “That doesn’t seem like a good reason to come along.”
“Maybe it is not a good reason, but it is a good adventure.”
“If you wanted adventure you could have gone on any number of officially sanctioned missions,” Lucien replied.
“None of those go to the edge of the universe,” Brak replied. “And you also could have done this.”
“Everybody freeze!” Tyra said.
Lucien stopped where he was, but he didn’t see why she’d called such a sudden halt. He turned in a quick circle, eyes on his scopes, trying to find whatever had alarmed her, but he saw nothing.
“Did you see that?” Tyra asked.
“See what?” Lucien replied.
Tyra’s face looked pale behind her helmet visor as she looked around, too. “There it is again!” she pointed in front of them, and this time Lucien saw it.
A luminous spider came crawling out of the side wall of the cave. It was almost as big as the tree-dwelling monsters they’d fought in the forest, but unlike them, this creature didn’t seem to be making any aggressive moves, and for some reason it didn’t show up on sensors.
The creature looked like it was made of glass. Its innards were clearly visible. Lucien watched, frozen with fascination and horror as it picked its way toward them, walking on eight legs. In addition to those, it had four hairy, segmented arms, two in front, and two in the back, each equipped with three fingers. Black eyes winked at them all over its luminous body.
Then it began to speak in a clacking voice that sounded like a bag full of marbles.
“Troo?” Tyra whispered. “Can you make contact for us? Tell it we’re friends. We don’t want to hurt it.”
“How’s she going to do that?” Lucien asked. “Send a mental picture of butterflies and rainbows?”
The Fossak walked to the fore and stopped a few paces from the giant spider. After a couple of seconds, she shook her head. “I is not sensing anything.”
“Neither are sensors,” Lucien added.
“How is that possible?” Tyra asked.
“Because it is not really here,” Pandora explained. “I believe we are looking at a hologram of a sentient being, not the being itself.”
“That’s even better!” Tyra said. “That means they have advanced technology!”
“The egg sacks on the walls appear to be responsible for the hologram—I believe they are some type of bio-technology,” Pandora added.
“Is there any way you can interface with them to download the data?” Tyra asked.
Panda just looked at her. The bot’s pink eyes glowed bright in the gloom of the cave. “It is bio-technology. Perhaps you should try interfacing with it?”
The spider disappeared, replaced by a holographic web with two icons clinging to it. One of them was a constellation of stars, the other, a beige planet freckled with blue lakes and crimson patches around the blue. Rivers snaked down to the lakes from rippled gray mountains, and there was a distinct lack of cloud cover.
Lucien walked up to the web and poked a finger into the holographic planet. The web rippled with his touch, like a pool of water, and then faded away. The air around them shimmered, and suddenly the cave was gone.
They stood on a glowing spider web, suspended in a large, open space, surrounded by blinking lights, strange-looking controls, and luminous spiders crawling across the web from station to station. Dead ahead, was a broad, panoramic viewport where they could see the beige planet with blue freckles. They were on approach to that planet. A space station gleamed in orbit, shaped like a spider’s web, with concentric rings and interconnecting spokes. Small silver specks buzzed around it.
“Incredible…” Tyra breathed.
As they drew near to the station, Lucien saw missiles streaking through space, and explosions rippling along the space station’s hull. After just a few seconds, it cracked apart, throwing jagged debris in all directions. The spiders on the bridge grew frantic, chittering at one another loudly.
The view shifted as the ship they were on turned, and a massive star cruiser came into view. It was shaped like a giant cigar and gleaming with lights. The ship belched streams of silver specks down to the planet below. Pinprick-sized explosions flashed around it, stopping short of reaching its hull, while missiles streaked out from its bow, racing toward another, much smaller starship. Its target was luminous, with engine pods and weapons emplacements arcing away from its central body like the legs of a spider.
Fire tore through the smaller ship as explosions rippled along its luminous hull. It abruptly stopped radiating light, becoming a dark shadow drifting across the planet below.
This drew more chittering from the spiders scrambling around them; then a cluster of missiles spiraled toward the ship they were standing on, and everything turned white.
When the brightness faded, they were standing on a sandy desert under a bright blue sky. Black husks of dead spiders littered the desert, their legs and arms curled in on their bodies. In the distance, plumes of black smoke rose from crimson hills. The scene changed, showing those smoking hills from closer up. They looked like cauliflower heads sprouting from the ground.
Living spiders, still luminous, shuffled in orderly lines across the desert from the smoking crimson hills to a large, cigar-shaped starship. Tall bipeds in black armor walked down the lines, holding rifles.
The scene changed once more, and suddenly they were standing in one of the lines, shuffling along with the spiders. They got a close-up view of one of the bipedal aliens in black armor. Their helmets were illuminated from within, revealing humanoid features, but with green skin.
One of the spiders leapt out of line to attack the armored biped. He held out a hand, and the spider stopped, hovering in mid-air. One-handed, the green-skinned humanoid aimed his rifle at the sky. A shriek of pent-up energy split the air, and a glowing white ball of plasma shot out, homing in on the hovering spider. Its body disintegrated in a rain of glowing embers and fat black ashes, while its legs and arms fell flaming to the ground.
The other spiders abruptly stopped shuffling, and the bipedal alien aimed its weapon at them. It said something in a guttural voice that boomed across the desert.
The spiders chittered quietly to one another and continued on their way.
Once more the scene faded. It was night now, and stars glittered overhead. The cigar-shaped ship hovered up in front of them, sending clouds of sand rippling out in all directions. The ship turned and aimed at the sky, at a much larger version of itself. Then it lit its engines, and peeled back the night with a crimson flash of light. The glare faded and so did the starship, becoming a tiny crimson ember shooting into the sky.
The scene faded, and the spider web Lucien had touched returned.
“They were enslaved,” Tyra said.
Lucien nodded slowly. “But where are they now?”
“Maybe here, on Panda-1A-V?” Tyra suggested.
“Maybe,” Pandora replied. “But then why not greet us themselves? They left this holo history here for sentient beings to encounter, to learn what happened to them. It’s possible they left it as a warning.”
“Or a cry for help,” Addy suggested. “We should play the other recording. Maybe we can learn something else.”
The other icon clinging to the web was a constellation of stars. Tyra poked a finger into it, and the air shimmered once more. Suddenly they were floating in outer space. The planet where they were now lay below them, a mottled red, blue, and purple ball, highlighted against the blue-white glare of the gas giant Panda-1A. Constellations appeared as glowing lines connected the dots in patterns that weren’t recognizable to their minds—though one of them vaguely resembled a spider.
A star next to that spider-shaped constellation changed colors from blue-white to red, and back again, blinking insistently.
“Pandora…” Tyra began, not looking away from the blinking star. “Do you think you can pinpoint that star with our nav system on Inquisitor?”
“Assuming its position is accurately depicted here, that should be easy, ma’am.”
“Good. Memorize the location and these constellations so that you can find it again. We’re going there next.”
“Hold on—” Lucien objected.
Tyra turned to him, her eyebrows raised in question.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” he asked.
“We don’t know what’s there,” he said.
“It might be the spider people’s refuge,” Tyra suggested.
“Or the slavers’ homeworld,” Addy said.
“Exactly,” Lucien agreed.
“Either one of those possibilities is acceptable,” Tyra replied. “We’re here to meet sentient alien races and learn what we can beyond the red line. Imagine how much faster we’ll learn about our new neighborhood if we can talk to a sentient, space-faring alien race? I don’t care if they’re the slavers or the slaves, just so long as they’re intelligent.”
“Yeah, that might be a bit short-sighted…” Lucien said.
Tyra raised her eyebrows. “Scared?”
“If you’re trying to call me chicken, it’s not working.”
“Maybe this vision is telling us what we is to be finding there,” Troo said, as she reached out to touch the blinking red star.
The scene rippled, and stars streaked by them until the blinking red star resolved into a blazing white sun with a system of planets. The hologram paused, and one of those planets began blinking red. This time Tyra touched it, and the hologram zoomed in once more. Stars and space whirled by until they arrived in orbit over a dull beige planet that somewhat resembled the spider people’s world, but without the blue freckles and crimson patches. A fleet of the cigar-shaped ships they’d seen attacking the spider people’s homeworld hung in orbit over the planet.
Lucien touched it, and the hologram zoomed in, taking them down past a few stray wisps of cloud to a rocky desert. Now they all stood on the surface, watching luminous spiders skittering through the sand, darting in and out of illuminated tunnel entrances, carrying heavy machinery and dusty metal crates on their backs. Giant landing pads sprouted all around them with cigar-shaped landers waiting, while bipeds in black armor stood guard from the tops of high towers, and others on the ground. One of the ones on the ground turned their way, revealing a scarred, snarling face with green skin.
A spider limped through the scene, struggling under a heavy burden. As they watched, it collapsed with a chittering sigh. The guard started toward it, and the spider’s chittering grew frantic. Its legs scrambled for purchase in the sand. The guard walked up to it with a coil of black rope in one hand. He stopped a few feet from the struggling spider and unfurled his rope, revealing that it was actually some kind of whip. Lucien frowned, wondering what good a whip would be against a spider with an exoskeleton; then the whip went from black to glowing orange like molten metal. It lay sizzling and smoking in the sand.
The guard flicked his wrist and lashed the fallen spider across its back. The spider convulsed, and screamed like a kettle of boiling water, and a dark black line appeared on its luminous body. It tried again to get up, but failed. The whip fell again with the same result.
A crowd of spiders gathered around the spectacle, all fidgeting and chittering to one another. Again the whip fell, and another scream whistled out. The spiders watching stopped chittering, and all was silent but for the sizzling of the guard’s whip. He glanced around him, as if daring them to do something. Then he flicked his whip once more, and the collapsed spider convulsed.
The other spiders rushed the guard. He dropped his whip and crouched down to one knee, as if resigned to his fate.
But the air blurred and began to shimmer with some kind of force field. A split second before the spiders reached him, the force field exploded, sending spiders flying and skidding through the dust. The guard rose to his feet and turned in a slow circle, waiting to see if any of them would try again, but they fled, skittering away from him in all directions.
He picked up his whip and ignited it once more; then he walked over to the one spider that hadn’t scurried away after the force field had tossed it aside. Black lines scarred its luminous body, and it was still struggling to get up.
The guard lashed it again and again until it stopped twitching and its whole body turned as black as coal.
The scene faded and the holographic web returned. Lucien felt sick to his stomach. Long seconds passed, and no one said anything.
Finally, Tyra broke the silence. “Well, it’s pretty clear what happened to the spiders,” she said. “And equally clear what we’ll find if we go to that star system.”
No one ventured a reply.
“Nevertheless, I think we should go there to meet these slavers,” Tyra concluded.
“Meet them?” Lucien asked.
“What else would we do?”
“Free the slaves,” Addy suggested.
Tyra shook her head. “We’re not here to right the wrongs of the universe. We’re explorers, not a crusading army of Paragons. You should have stayed with Etherus if that’s what you wanted to be.”
Addy narrowed her eyes at that, and Brak walked up to Tyra, baring his black teeth.
“We go and we set slaves free,” he insisted.
“Intimidation isn’t going to work on me, Brak,” Tyra said.
“No? I kill you and steal your ship. Then I free slaves myself.”
“You kill me, and I’ll come back on Astralis. You, on the other hand, will be executed with no chance of resurrection.”
“What makes you think I go back to Astralis?” Brak challenged.
“If you don’t, you’ll die when your timer implant runs down a month from now.”
Brak hissed more loudly now, and loomed over Tyra, looking like he was about to tear her arms off. To her credit, she didn’t back down.
Lucien walked up to Brak and placed a hand on his arm. “Brak. Take it easy.”
The Gor rounded on him. “Were your people slaves?”
Lucien frowned at the reminder. The Gors had once been the slave soldiers of the now-extinct Sythians. “I get it, Brak, I want to free them, too, but we can’t just go barging in there, guns blazing. We need to know more about the situation first. From what we’ve seen of the slavers’ weapons, their technology might be comparable to ours, in which case, there’s no chance we’re going to be able to free a planet full of slaves with just one galleon.”
“Then we bring more galleons.”
“We can suggest it to the council,” Tyra said. Brak glared at her with his slitted yellow eyes. “It’s not my decision to make,” she added. “But if we can learn more about the situation, as Lucien suggests, then we might be able to convince them. Is that okay with you?”
Brak grunted, but said nothing.
“I’ll take that as a yes. Everyone ready to go?” Tyra asked.
“You’re not going to give your clerics a chance to come down here first?” Lucien asked.
Tyra shook her head. “We’ll deploy probes. They can study the data and samples taken by the probes when we come back. Let’s go.”
“Wait—” Addy said.
They all turned to her.
“What if this is a trap?”
“What do you mean?” Tyra asked.
“I mean, what are the odds of us finding this holo history here, in these caves, within hours of landfall?”
“That depends,” Tyra said. “It’s probably in caves all over the planet—or else our finding it is just a happy coincidence.”
“Okay,” Addy said, “so what are the odds of us finding the holo history here, on this moon, in this star system?”
“What are you getting at?” Tyra asked.
“Either this is a happy coincidence, as you say, or this history is in many different star systems, on many different planets.”
“Seems like a reasonable way to lead other sentient races to you,” Tyra replied.
“For what purpose?” Addy insisted.
“Maybe in the hopes that someone will help set them free.”
“If these holo histories are everywhere, don’t you think the spider people’s slavers would have found them already?”
“So why would they leave the recordings here?”
“You’re suggesting that the slavers are the ones who left them?”
“Her concerns are logical,” Pandora said. “Sympathy can be an effective lure.”
“I agree,” Lucien said.
“Then we’ll have to proceed carefully,” Tyra replied. “Worst case, we end up captured and we die when our timers run down. If that happens, we’ll be resurrected on Astralis and continue on our merry way to the cosmic horizon.”
“What if they interrogate us to find out who we are and where we come from?”
Tyra appeared to consider that. “Now would probably be a good time to mention the other functionality of your timer implants. You can’t reset the timers to give yourself more time, but you can give yourself less. If it comes to it, you set your timers to zero and kill yourselves before you can be probed or tortured for information. Any other objections?” Tyra asked, glancing at each of them in turn.
No one said anything.
“All right, then let’s get back to the Inquisitor.”
“I’m running a pattern-matching algorithm against the constellations we saw to locate the star from the hologram,” Pandora announced.
“Good. Let me know when you find it,” Tyra replied.
Lucien sat beside her, overlooking the crew deck below. The other four control stations were arranged around them at ten o’clock, two o’clock, four o’clock, and eight. Besides Tinker, who was absent due to his injuries, Only Jalisa and Troo occupied stations on the bridge. Until then, Pandora was handling the ship’s engineering controls from her nav station.
“Found it,” Pandora announced, and pointed to a viewport at the nine o’clock position. In the center of the display, a particular star was highlighted with yellow brackets.
Lucien rotated his chair to face the viewport. He read the distance in light years to the star. It was in scientific notation—2.9e6. Two point nine million light years.
“How long will it take to calculate a jump there?” Tyra asked.
“A little over four hours, ma’am.”
“Get the calculations started.”
“Aye-aye,” Pandora replied.
“Troo, send a message back to Astralis. Tell them where we’re going—get the nav data from Pandora—and let me know when they reply.”
“I is telling them,” Troo replied.
“Let’s hope they is understanding you,” Lucien muttered.
Tyra flashed him a wry smile. “Pandora, deploy probes to the surface of Panda-1A-V, IV, and XIV. We’ll collect them on our way back to Astralis.”
“Deploying probes,” Pandora said.
“Commander Ortane, set condition blue throughout the ship. Everyone take some down time and meet back here in four hours—at… zero one twenty. Pandora—”
“You have the conn.”
Pandora said nothing to acknowledge the hand-over of command.
Tyra frowned. “Pandora, did you hear what I said?”
“Yes, ma’am, sorry. I didn’t want to jinx it.”
Amusement glittered in Tyra’s eyes. “Let me know if there are any new developments.”
Tyra rose from her chair and turned to Lucien. “Care to join me for a night cap in the officers’ lounge?”
Lucien nodded. “Sure, why not.”
* * *
The officers’ lounge was located at the bow of the galleon, just below the viewing gallery where they’d all met for the first time. Shaped like a U, the lounge was surrounded by viewports: small windows in the private booths lining the sides, and large, floor-to-ceiling ones arrayed in front of the dance floor and games area at the curved end. The ceiling was dark and inscrutable, with small pinprick-sized light fixtures that looked just like stars.
“Welcome to Starlight,” Tyra said. Classical music played in the background with strings, piano, and a flute all vying for their attention.
A bot bartender stood dormant behind the bar in the center of the lounge. Besides Pandora, it was the first such bot Lucien had seen aboard the ship—despite Tyra’s claim that they filled most of the crew positions on board. He asked Tyra about that on their way to the bar.
“Our Galleons are heavily automated,” she explained. We have repair drones, cleaner drones, KP bots, a quartermaster, marines, fighter pilots, and every other kind of bot you’d care to mention, but they’re all docked at their charging stations until needed.”
“Makes sense,” Lucien said as they reached the bar counter and took their seats. Tyra gestured to the bartender and a pair of blue holoreceptors flared to life as it turned to face them.
“What’ll it be, Captain?” the bot said in a cheery male voice.
“Whiskey on the rocks,” she said.
“And for the XO?”
“I’ll have a beer,” Lucien replied.
“Coming right up, officers,” the bot said, and whirred away on two wheels to make their drinks.
They sat in silence, contemplating the view from the panoramic viewports at the bow. Lucien tried to pick out a certain spider-shaped constellation to find the star where they were headed, but it was impossible. Finding constellations is a lot easier from the surface of a planet, where there are fewer visible stars to play connect the dots with.
Their drinks arrived just as a loud burst of laughter drowned out the background music. Lucien took a swig of his beer and swiveled on his stool to see who it was. Addy and Jalisa came walking in together, arms looped, and doubled over with amusement, as if they were old friends from school. Maybe they are, Lucien thought. Behind them came Troo and Brak, and last of all… Garek and Tinker. The latter walked gingerly with an arm draped over the old veteran’s shoulders.
Lucien blinked, surprised to see Tinker up and about so soon. “Guess his injuries weren’t as bad as I thought.”
“Or maybe our medical tech is just that good,” Tyra said, catching his eye with a wink.
“And whose fault is that?” Lucien countered.
“So it’s Etherus’s fault that all of our greatest minds decided to hide their advances from the public?”
“No, it’s Etherus’s fault that we felt the need to hide our advances in the first place.”
Lucien looked away, deciding not to argue. Addy and Jalisa reached the bar and waved the bartender over. Garek and Tinker arrived a few seconds later and added their orders, while Brak and Troo walked off in the direction of the games area. Just as well. A drunk Gor wasn’t a pretty sight—or for that matter, a telepathic Fossak who’d suddenly lost all of her inhibitions about peeking into other people’s private thoughts.
“So, you think I’m sexy,” Addy said, taking a seat on the empty bar stool beside Lucien. She took a sip of her beer and watched him over the rim of her mug.
Tyra arched an eyebrow at her from Lucien’s other side. “How can you take pride in something you were born with?”
“It’s not about looks,” Addy said. “You’re just as hot as I am, Captain, but sexy is as sexy does, right XO?” Addy asked, and slowly slid a hand up along Lucien’s thigh.
He eyed her hand, waiting to see how far she’d go with the captain watching.
Her hand reached his crotch, and Tyra rolled her eyes. “Get a room—or at least a booth,” she suggested, waving at the nearest one she could find.
“Sounds good to me,” Addy replied. “What do you say, Lucien?”
“I’m flattered, but I’m not sure fraternization between a superior officer and his subordinates is allowed…” he glanced at Tyra for support.
She shrugged. “So long as it doesn’t start to get in the way of your jobs, it’s not a problem, and if it does become a problem, we can always re-assign one of you to another ship.”
“In that case—” Addy grinned and took Lucien’s hand. “—follow me.” She was already leaving the bar.
Lucien’s arm snapped straight, but he didn’t budge. “Hold on, Addy.”
Her grin turned to a pout. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, just… maybe some other time.”
Addy blinked, then shrugged. “Your loss, Lucy.” She dropped his hand and walked off, heading for the couch where Tinker was busy nursing his drink through a straw and a pained grimace.
“Well, that’s the first time I’ve seen a man turn down a proposition like that,” Tyra said. “You’re not gay, are you?”
“So what if I am?” Lucien asked, arching an eyebrow at her.
“You’re not,” Tyra replied.
“No,” he agreed.
“Getting over a break-up? No… that would have played into your motives for coming here, and we’d have found it with the mind probe. You think she’s sexy, but somehow she’s not your type?”
Lucien shrugged. “Just not in the mood.”
“Got a headache?” Tyra asked through a wry smile. “Lucy is a more fitting nickname than I realized.”
Lucien frowned. “You’re obviously young and inexperienced, so I’ve cut you some slack, but here’s a tip: a crusader, or a captain, as you call yourself, doesn’t stoop to the level of her subordinates when they’re tossing around insults, pejorative nicknames, et cetera. Moreover, a competent leader is never sarcastic, arrogant, or condescending to her crew.”
Tyra took all of that in, watching him with narrowed eyes. Ice clattered in her glass as she took a sip, but she said nothing, so he went on.
“You need to find some way to earn our respect. Just because we’re Paragons and you’re a cleric, doesn’t mean we’re all idiots by comparison.”
“I know that.”
“Do you?” Lucien challenged.
Tyra let out a sigh.
“How did you get this command? Some kind of nepotism? Your father’s a big-shot at the Academy?” Lucien shook his head. “We never show that kind of favoritism in the Paragons.”
“Now who’s acting superior?” Tyra asked.
“Fair enough, but the question stands. If I’m going to be following you into life or death situations, I need to know you have some legitimate claim to your authority—the same way you want Etherus to prove he’s really God.”
Tyra grimaced. “Guess you’ve got me there. The truth?” she asked, while rocking her tumbler to stir her drink.
Lucien nodded and took another sip of his beer.
“We’re all a little arrogant, and all of us are sarcastic and condescending to anyone who hasn’t been to the Academy. Most people accept things blindly, just because Etherus said so. They don’t ask questions, even when those questions are staring them in the face—and science is all about asking questions.”
“That’s how you see us?” Lucien asked. “As mindless drones?”
“No wonder you’re so damned impossible.”
“But you’re right,” Tyra hastened to add. “I shouldn’t assume superiority just because you’re Paragons. You all left the Icosahedron to come on this mission, and for most of you it’s because you had doubts, because you started asking questions. Like you—subconsciously an agnostic, but consciously a devout Paragon, walking around on egg shells in your own brain.”
Lucien regarded Tyra with a frown. “I haven’t agreed with that analysis.”
“The data’s irrefutable.”
“There you go again,” Lucien said. “Assuming you know better.”
“It’s not an assumption if there’s evidence to support it,” Tyra said. “This is what I’m talking about. You’re not schooled in science. You’re schooled in—”
“Combat. Diplomacy. Peace-keeping. Piloting. Marksmanship. Hunting. Survival. Climbing. Zero-G maneuvers. Team leadership—”
“Okay, okay, I get it.”
“We have different training and different beliefs, but that doesn’t make us inferior,” Lucien said.
“So? Stop acting like a cleric and start acting like a captain.”
“I’m sorry.” Tyra raised her drink to her lips and drained the glass. She set it down on the counter with a sigh. “I can’t promise I’ll change instantly, but I’ll work on it.”
“Good, and in return, sometime you can teach me more about this religion of science that you clerics believe in.”
Tyra’s cheeks puffed out with an angry retort, but she appeared to swallow it. “That was a test.”
Lucien flashed her a grin. “You’re catching on, Tyrant.”
“That’s Captain to you, Commander. Next time I catch you calling me that, you’ll be busted back to ensign.”
“Understood. It won’t happen again, Captain. See? You do have some command training in you.”
Tyra nodded slowly. “I’m a fast learner. I’ll catch on.”
“Good. Now, maybe you can help me deal with one of my command challenges.” Lucien nodded over to where Garek stood alone in front of a broad viewport, sipping his drink and brooding at the stars. “Any chance you can tell me what happened between Garek and my parents to lose him his rank?”
Tyra shook her head. “It would be a violation of his privacy. Probe data is confidential. Why don’t you go ask him? He might tell you.”
“I guess that would be the right approach.” Lucien drained his beer and slid the empty bottle across the bar. It slid a little too far and fell off, but the bartender bot was fast. He caught it in one hand and tossed it over his head, catching it in the other.
“Show-off,” Lucien said, and held up his index finger. “Another, please.”
“Coming right up, Commander,” the bot replied, and sent a full bottle sliding back across the bar at high speed. Lucien caught it before it fell off his end of the bar.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“My designation is KP-3.”
“As in Kitchen Patrol number three?”
Lucien glanced at Tyra, and she shrugged.
The bartender explained, “We are easier for humans to tell apart if our designations indicate our duties aboard the ship,” KP-3 said.
“That might work for all the other bots, but a bartender needs a name. From now on you’re Kip,” Lucien decided.
“I am… Kip,” the bot replied, testing his new name.
“Exactly.” Lucien left the bar and headed for Garek’s corner of the lounge.
Time to find out what’s got your afterburners smoking, old man.
“Hey there, Garek,” Lucien said as he approached.
The scarred veteran glanced at him briefly, then looked away and took a sip of his drink.
Silence stretched between them like a rubber band.
“Nice view,” Lucien said, nodding to the viewport.
Garek grunted and took another sip of his drink.
What was he brooding about? Lucien wondered. And what in the universe had happened between him and his parents? He considered dancing around the issue, trying to lure it out of the man with subtlety, but he wasn’t a big fan of subtlety, and he suspected that neither was Garek.
“How did you lose your rank?” Lucien asked.
Garek turned to him with a thin smile. “What makes you think I want to talk about it, sir? You think I’m standing over here by myself because I’m secretly desperate to bare my soul?”
Lucien shrugged. “I guess I’ll have to go on what I see then—a crusader busted down to champion, all but drummed out of the Paragons, wearing scars on his face like badges of honor, and aged like an old shoe because he thinks that’s the only way he can prove his experience. Oh, and let’s not forget leaving New Earth to come on this mission. You feel like you were treated unfairly, and now you’re having a good old time feeling sorry for yourself.”
Garek’s face was an expressionless mask. “Are you done?”
Lucien shook his head. “Not quite. I still haven’t guessed what you did. Made a bad call? Got a bunch of indigenous aliens killed? Ran from a fight?”
A muscle twitched in Garek’s jaw. “You really want to know what happened?”
“All right. We were exploring Andromeda—myself, your mother, your father, and two other crusaders with their galleons. Five in all. My daughter was with me, still a tyro in training. She went out with one of the ground teams to a nearby star, but her team never returned. We sent a follow-up mission to bring them back, and we found them alive. Barely.
“They’d been tortured half to death by a species of stone-age reptiles, and they were about to be eaten alive. In fact, we arrived just in time to put one poor tyro out of his misery.”
Lucien grimaced. He had a feeling where this was going.
“We rescued everyone else,” Garek said. “My daughter had to spend a month in intensive care to erase her scars, re-grow her missing digits, and fix all of her broken bones. She also had to have her memories of the incident erased, but even that wasn’t enough. Just the second-hand knowledge of what had happened to her was enough to induce a full-blown panic attack every time she put on an exosuit. Rather than go through therapy, she decided to leave the Paragons, and she joined the Academy to become a cleric instead. I couldn’t blame her.”
Lucien nodded. “That’s why you’re here. She’s on Astralis.”
“Almost all of the clerics are,” Garek replied.
“I’m sorry. That must have been terrible, but it still doesn’t explain how you lost your rank, or what any of this has to do with my parents.”
Garek smirked. “I was with the rescue team. So were your parents. We went down with a full legion of marines. I wanted to kill the reptilian bastards for what they did to my daughter, but your parents stopped me. They actually had to stun me and have my men carry me back to my shuttle.
“When I came to, back aboard my galleon, I pretended to be more reasonable. Your father was there. He talked to me, explained that revenge wouldn’t undo anything that had happened. Like I didn’t already know that.”
“Revenge isn’t the Paragons’ way,” Lucien said, nodding.
“So I’ve been told,” Garek replied. “While we were busy calculating our jump home, I armored up and stole a shuttle to pay a visit to the barbarians’ camp. I micro-jumped straight to the planet’s surface to get a head start on anyone who might try to stop me.”
Lucien blinked, taken aback. Micro-jumping to a planetary surface was risky. Habitable planets all had magnetic fields that interfered with quantum-jump calculations, making them imprecise at best. “You could have ended up a hundred meters underground, breathing a mouthful of dirt.”
“Well, I didn’t, and I wasn’t exactly in a rational mood, so I didn’t care about the risks. I opened the hatch to find a horde of hungry lizards waiting for me, but I was ready for them. I knocked them all out with stun grenades and I tied them up with stun cords.
“When they came to, I set to work with a pair of razor swords. Pretty soon my helmet was so badly smeared with lizard blood that I had to take it off so I could see. That’s when one of the beasts broke free and sliced me up with its claws.” Garek ran a hand along the most visible scar on his face, and Lucien noticed half a dozen other hair-thin white lines criss-crossing around it. “I was in such a rage, that I didn’t feel a thing.
“Your parents found me an hour later, covered in blood, and watching a mountain of lizard bits burn. Actually, I was about to see if they tasted like chicken, but…” Garek shrugged. “I guess it’s just as well they caught me when they did. I might’ve caught a nasty parasite.”
Lucien felt his gorge rising. He shivered and swallowed it down. “The lizards were sentient?”
“Highly intelligent, but not very civilized.” Garek smiled. “Sorry you asked?”
“No,” Lucien shook his head. “Revenge might not be the Paragons’ way, but it is human. I might have done the same thing as you. My dad probably would have, too, if it had been me or my sister who had been tortured.”
“That was my conclusion as well. Didn’t stop your parents from testifying against me at my trial, though.”
“I’m sorry, Garek,” Lucien said again.
“Yeah, well…” He shrugged and drained his drink. “By the way, I didn’t choose to wear these scars, and they’re not a badge of honor. They were supposed to be a badge of shame—part of my punishment, so that people would recognize me and know what I’d done. Garek the Butcher they called me. I made the scars work by aging my skin. Having a face like a newborn just made the scars stand out too much.”
“Seems like I misjudged you,” Lucien said.
Garek grunted. “You and everyone else.”
Lucien laid a hand on his shoulder. “If it makes you feel any better, if it were up to me, you’d be the XO.”
“I gathered that,” Garek replied. “That’s when I realized that I shouldn’t judge you by your parents.”
“They’re good people. If they testified against you, it was because they had to, not because they wanted to.”
Garek shook his head. “There’s always a choice.”
Lucien inclined his head to that. “I’m thinking of starting up a game of Bluff. You interested?”
“That would be stealing,” Garek replied. “I’ve got twenty years’ playing experience on you.”
Lucien gave a crooked smile. “Ever hear of beginner’s luck?”
“All right, you’re on. I’m going to get myself another drink. See who else you can get in on it. More’s the merrier when it comes to coin in my wallet.”
“Hah. We’ll see,” Lucien replied.
“You want me to order you something from the bar bot?”
“His name’s Kip.”
“He has a name? Since when?”
“Since Jalisa put me in charge of naming things.”
“I’ll have another beer,” Lucien replied. “Assuming you have something to sober us up before we jump?”
Garek tapped a pill box on his belt. “Right here.”
“In that case, make it a pint.”
“Comin’ right up,” Garek replied as he turned and headed for the bar.
Lucien watched Garek go with a frown tugging at the corners of his mouth. If Garek’s daughter had joined the clerics to get away from the dangers she’d faced with the Paragons, then why join a mission headed for the cosmic horizon?
Maybe she thought she’d be safe so long as she stayed on Astralis. She was probably right about that, but still… if carnivorous, sadistic lizards were the worst that Laniakea had to offer, Lucien shuddered to think what evils the rest of the universe could conjure without Etherus there to bring order to the chaos. His mind flashed back to scenes from the spider people’s holo history—scenes of alien taskmasters whipping those spiders to death.
Lucien grimaced. He hoped they weren’t heading into a trap.
“We’re ready to jump when you are,” Pandora announced as they all took their seats on the bridge.
“Good. Stand by, Pandora,” Tyra said. “All stations, report.”
“Lasers charged, and torpedoes loaded,” Jalisa said.
“All systems green,” Tinker put in.
“The comms is ready to be communicating,” Troo added.
“Sensors scanning, and nav systems ready,” Pandora said.
Lucien checked his station. Apart from monitoring shipboard security and his duties as XO, he was also in charge of the galleon’s three fighter squadrons. “Flight ops ready. All pilots standing by,” he said. The pilots were all bots, and hard-wired into their cockpits, so they were technically always standing by.
“Execute the jump,” Tyra said.
“Aye, Captain. Panda-2 here we come!”
“Something wrong, ma’am?”
“Who said you could name this star, too?”
“No one objected when I called dibs on naming it earlier.”
“We haven’t been here for the past four hours. Commander Ortane, why don’t you name this one?”
“How about Arachnai-1?” he suggested.
“Good enough for me,” Tyra replied. “Any objections?”
“I object,” Pandora said. “The numeral implies that this is the spiders’ home system, which is clearly not the case.”
“But we don’t know where their homeworld is,” Lucien said. “We can always call that star Arachnai Prime when we find it.”
“No buts. Arachnai-1 it is. Execute the jump,” Tyra ordered.
“Yes, ma’am. Jumping in three, two, one—”
The viewports flashed white, and then the stars reappeared, all noticeably shifted from their previous positions, and now colored by a dark purple nebula.
“Sensors, report!” Tyra ordered.
“Detecting… multiple contacts in orbit around the fourth planet from the sun. Range four hundred and sixty-seven million klicks. Twelve capital-class vessels. They match the ones we saw in the hologram.”
“We is being hailed!” Troo said.
“On what comm system?” Tyra asked.
“They have quantum comms?”
“Probably jump drives, too,” Lucien said. “We should activate jamming to keep them from jumping anyone aboard our ship.”
“Activate jamming!” Tyra ordered.
“Field activated,” Tinker replied.
“Should I be replying to message?” Troo asked.
Tyra hesitated. “There’s no way they’ll speak the same language as us. Troo, I don’t suppose you can communicate telepathically from here?”
“No, I is not being able to do this,” she replied. “We is needing to be in the same room.”
“Then we’ll have to rely on the visual communicator for now,” Tyra replied. “I’ll configure it from my station. Patch us through and put them on the main forward viewport—assuming they’re transmitting a visual.”
“Yes, they is. Computer is matching patterns in alien data… patterns is matched. Transmitting…”
The viewport directly in front of them cut to show a humanoid alien with smooth blue skin sitting at the head of a long, gleaming black table. Behind him was a startling view of a lake with pink blossom trees arcing low over pristine, mirror-clear water. The sun was setting on the horizon, splashing a pale blue sky with crimson light, and silhouetting the alien’s head with a halo of fire. Lucien wondered where the transmission was coming from. Could such a place exist somewhere on the surface of the desert planet where the spider people had been taken?
Lucien used his ARCs to query the transmission source, and found that it was coming from one of the cigar-shaped capital-class ships, meaning the view behind the alien had to be simulated rather than real.
The alien glared at them with glowing, solid blue eyes, saying nothing.
Tyra sent her first message with the visual communicator. The message played on the viewport beside the alien, so they could see what she was trying to convey.
Lucien saw their shuttle approaching Panda-1A-V, then descending through the atmosphere and landing in the field of black grass. The rest was a brief summary of their time on the surface that ended in the caves with them watching the spider people’s holo history.
Lucien studied the alien’s face as he—she?—watched Tyra’s message. The visual communicator was a Paragon’s greatest asset in making first contact. Silent stories could convey meaning long before alien languages could be studied and verbal translators calibrated. There were limitations, however.
Alien interpretations of visual messages tended to vary widely, and a reply wouldn’t be possible until the aliens could be given a visual communicator of their own to play with. Tyra’s message finished playing, and they waited to see what the alien’s reaction would be.
“That explains how you came to be here,” it said, speaking in flawless Versal, and a surprisingly pleasant voice.
A shocked silence hung in the air. Tyra’s mouth opened and shut a few times, but no sound passed her lips.
Of all the things they’d expected to encounter beyond the red line, humanoid aliens that spoke their language wasn’t one of them.
“You speak Versal?” Tyra asked.
“I speak many alien languages,” the being replied in its pleasant voice. It angled its chin up slightly, so that it appeared to be peering down at them, and then flashed a stunning smile. Its teeth were white and perfectly even and straight. For some reason that smile made Lucien think of a snake, even though the alien bore no reptilian features—besides hairlessness.
“We are Human, what are you?” Tyra asked.
“I am a Faro.”
Tyra nodded. “It’s a pleasure to make contact with you. My name is Tyra, Captain of the Inquisitor. We are explorers and sci—”
“What are you doing beyond the red line?” the alien interrupted. Its smile vanished just as suddenly as it had appeared, and its glowing blue eyes seemed to radiate hostility.
Tyra appeared taken aback by the question. “You seem to have us at a disadvantage. We haven’t met your people before, yet you seem to know a lot about us—our language, the arbitrary boundary we imposed upon ourselves.”
“Arbitrary? The red line is not arbitrary. It was part of a peace treaty we signed a long time ago, the terms of which you are violating.”
Lucien blinked, wondering why Etherus hadn’t mentioned that.
“You signed a treaty?” Tyra asked. “With who?”
“Etherus.” The alien said His name through a sneer, as if it left a bad taste in his mouth.
“You know of the Etherians?” Tyra pressed.
Tyra nodded slowly.
“Then why am I not speaking with Etherus?” the alien asked. “If he wants to renegotiate his territory, he should do so himself.”
“He is not with us,” Tyra said, shaking her head.
The alien cocked its head to one side, its eyes suddenly intense once more. “Why not?”
Lucien frowned. How much did these Faros know about humanity? Etherus had only come to power very recently in human history. Just three decades ago they had no knowledge of him, or any of the other Etherians.
“We now govern ourselves,” Tyra explained.
“You left him,” the alien clarified.
“We wanted to explore beyond the red line, and he refused to go with us.”
The blue-skinned alien began nodding. Abruptly, it smiled again.
Lucien suppressed the urge to shiver. There was something very wrong with this alien, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.
“I apologize for violating your treaty. We didn’t know,” Tyra said.
The alien regarded them a moment longer. “No apology is necessary. The treaty only applies to Etherus and his people. You left him, so you are not his people.”
Tyra nodded. “I’m still struggling to understand how you know so much about us if we’ve never met you before—especially since it sounds like the red line is a boundary for you as well.”
“True, we have not crossed it in many millennia.”
“Then how do you know about us?”
“Perhaps you should meet me in a more social setting, so that we can discuss this in more depth.”
“Thank you for the invitation. We would be honored. Just tell us where you would like to meet and if there are any requirements or customs that we should be aware of.”
“Here.” The image of the alien disappeared, replaced by a blinking red dot on the surface of the desert planet that the alien fleet orbited. After a few seconds, the dot disappeared and the alien was back. “No requirements,” it said. “Bring as many of your crew as you like. I’ll be waiting.”
“Before you go, could we know your name?”
“Of course. My name is Lucien,” It said, looking straight at the Lucien sitting beside Tyra, and smiling once more.
With that, the alien’s face faded from the screen, and the star field returned.
Lucien’s skin crawled, and his stomach churned. How was it possible that he shared a name with this alien? And somehow, without being introduced, it knew that they shared the same name, which implied that it could do what Troo couldn’t—
It could read his mind across more than four hundred million kilometers of space.
All eyes turned to Lucien.
“Don’t look at me. I don’t know anything,” he said.
“That alien looked at you when it said its name is Lucien,” Tyra said.
“Yes, most curious…” Pandora said.
“Maybe he is being lies,” Troo suggested.
“It obviously knows a lot about us,” Tyra replied, “but our names? That seems too specific.”
“Not if that thing was reading our minds while we spoke to it,” Jalisa added.
“How?” Lucien asked.
“Our AR implants and ARCs are tied in with our thoughts, and they also have quantum comm connections,” Tyra said. “They may have somehow hacked into our network and gained access to our implants.”
“AR implants are designed to read our thoughts—not broadcast them to others,” Tinker said. “We have to actively make an AR connection with someone to do that, and even then, we can only make conversation, not read each other’s thoughts.”
“They must be incredibly good hackers to get into our network and reprogram our implants to read our thoughts,” Tyra said.
“A strong AI could do it,” Pandora suggested.
“A very strong one, maybe,” Tyra replied. “Pandora, can you pinpoint the location on the planet where the Faro indicated we should meet?
“Right here, Captain,” Pandora replied, putting an image of the planet on the main forward viewport. A red dot marked the spot.
“Give us a close-up of that location. Maximum magnification.”
The surface of the planet became more detailed. A few stray white wisps of cloud blurred their view, but they could now see that the red dot was at the bottom of some kind of ravine. The top of the ravine was sealed with the telltale blue haze of an energy shield, which implied a different atmosphere inside the ravine, possibly a different climate, too. The Faros had probably terraformed it to suit their needs so that they could walk around without pressure suits down there.
“All right, everyone, let’s go,” Tyra said, rising from the captain’s chair. “Pandora, you have the—”
“Conn,” Pandora finished dryly.
“What’s the matter?” Lucien asked. “Last time you were practically begging for the conn.”
“I am beginning to think that having the conn in the crew’s absence is not a privilege. Why do all of you get to explore the surface of a new planet and meet aliens, while I’m stuck up here?”
“Are you questioning your orders?” Tyra asked. “I could always assign you to latrine detail instead.”
“It is an honor to have the conn, Captain,” Pandora said brightly.
“Glad to hear it. Everyone else, let’s go. Lucien, please inform the rest of the team to meet us in the shuttle bay.”
Lucien nodded. “Aye, ma’am.” He used his ARCs and AR implant to send them a message before rising from his control station to follow the others off the bridge.
* * *
Lucien listened to Tyra summarize the details of their first contact with the Faros for the crew members who hadn’t been present while he prepped the shuttle for launch.
“Why do you think it chose your name?” Jalisa asked as she went through her preflight check.
“Assuming it was lying?” Lucien shook his head. “I know as much as you do, Guns.”
She stopped what she was doing to regard him with a frown. “It must be significant. You didn’t recognize him? Maybe you met the Faros during your field training?”
Lucien shook his head. “I’d remember meeting hairless, blue-skinned humans that speak Versal.”
“They’re not exactly human,” Jalisa said.
“No? Paint me blue and shave off all my hair and I could pass for one of them.”
“Are we ready to go?” Tyra called from the cabin of the shuttle.
Lucien nodded and disengaged the shuttle airlock from Inquisitor’s boarding tunnel. “Setting out for Arachnai-1D…” he announced.
After a few minutes, they made a microjump to a point just outside the planet’s magnetic field, and glided down the rest of the way, flying past one of the Faros’ cigar-shaped capital ships.
“The atmosphere is 97% carbon dioxide, 2% nitrogen, and 1% other gases,” Jalisa announced as that atmosphere buffeted their shuttle and roared loudly against the hull.
A wisp of cloud drifted past the cockpit, and then the shielded ravine swept up below them, a jagged slash of blue running through an endless, rocky brown desert. The desert gleamed with metallic rocks and flat metal squares that looked like landing pads.
Lucien dropped to an altitude of one hundred meters before he leveled out and circled the ravine, looking for a place to land. There appeared to be several landing pads inside the ravine, one of which was empty.
“The shields over the ravine are low-intensity,” Jalisa said. “We shouldn’t have any trouble getting by them.”
Lucien nodded. “Then down we go.” He hovered over the empty landing pad and dropped straight down into the ravine. Its shields sizzled briefly against theirs, and then they were through—
And hovering down into a beautiful garden.
“Wow…” Lucien breathed. The shields had hidden a lot of details from view: trees with black trunks and pink blossoms; pristine white grass that gleamed like beach sand in the sun; a river so calm and clear that it looked like glass. Walkways and streets ran through the garden, with blue and green-skinned pedestrians. The green-skinned ones were more numerous, but they kept to one side of the river, while just a handful of blue-skinned aliens walked on the other side. Both sides of the ravine were lined with the balconies of dwellings built into the rocky cliffs. Tall blossom trees lined the river, blocking the view from one side of the ravine to the other.
“The air in the ravine is breathable,” Jalisa said.
They dropped past the tops of the trees, and Lucien noticed a third type of pedestrians walking on the blue-skins’ side. These people were perfectly dark and featureless. They looked like walking shadows. They were also more numerous than the Faros, and they trailed behind them in huddled groups, as if imitating the shadows that they appeared to be.
“I wonder who or what those shadows are?” Addy asked, breathing over his shoulder.
Lucien glanced behind him to find her and everyone else crowding the cockpit to peer out the canopy.
“The blue-skins are obviously the rulers,” Tyra said.
Lucien nodded. “They were the ones who contacted us, so I’d say that’s a fair bet.”
“Not just because of that. Look at the buildings on the green-skins’ side of the ravine.”
It was hard to see past the trees now, but Lucien could see that the green-skins’ side was dirty and run-down looking, while the blue-skins’ side was better-maintained and more orderly. Also, the landing pads were on their side.
“Racial discrimination,” Tyra suggested.
“What is that?” Brak asked.
“Another form of slavery,” Tyra said.
“I kill the slavers, and eat out their hearts!” Brak boomed.
“No one’s killing or eating anyone,” Tyra said. “In fact, Brak, you’d better stay with the shuttle.”
He gave no reply as the shuttle touched down.
“Let’s go meet these Faros,” Tyra said.
“Brak is going,” Troo said.
“I thought I made myself clear?” Tyra replied. “The Gor stays.”
“No, I is meaning to say that he is leaving the shuttle.”
“He’s what?” Tyra demanded. “Damn it! Brak! Get back here right now!”
Lucien turned to see Tyra running back to the shuttle airlock. The inner doors were already closing with Brak inside.
“Brak!” Tyra yelled again.
Lucien jumped up from the pilot’s chair and ran with the others to the airlock. The doors finished closing just as Tyra reached them. She banged on them impotently with her hands. “Get back in here right now, or you’ll be tried for treason!”
Brak bared his black teeth at them as he put on his helmet. The doors didn’t cycle back open. Instead, a red light went on beside the control panel and they heard locking bolts sliding between the doors. Then came a hiss of decontamination jets firing.
Tyra pounded the doors with her palms once more. “I never should have allowed that brute to join our team!”
“What does he think he’s going to do? Kill them all?” Addy asked, shaking her head.
Tyra put her ear to the inner doors, listening. “The outer doors just opened… and shut.”
They heard another blast of decon jets hissing, and then a chime sounded and heavy bolts slid aside as the doors unlocked. Tyra waved the airlock open and stormed inside, but Brak was gone.
“Let’s go!” she said.
The others grabbed their helmets from overhead racks in the cabin and then joined her in the airlock. Lucien started back to the cockpit to get his helmet, but Jalisa had already grabbed both his and hers. The air in the ravine was breathable, but it could still contain dangerous pathogens.
“Thanks,” he said, accepting his helmet from her.
“Hurry up!” Tyra ordered. As soon as they were all in the airlock, she cycled it, and the inner doors slid shut. The lights inside dimmed to a bloody red and a warning blat reminded them to put on their helmets before decontamination.
Lucien slid his helmet on and sealed it around his neck. A few seconds later decon jets blasted them from all sides, misting the air with glittering clouds of moisture. Then the crimson lights snapped off, and the outer doors parted, revealing a blue-skinned alien waiting for them on the landing pad.
This Faro looked identical to the one they’d spoken with over the comms, but now he wore flowing gray robes and a strange, forked headpiece made of luminous gold. The forks rose vertically from his forehead, and black tufts of coarse black hair adorned the tip of each of the three tines. A crown? Lucien wondered.
Other luminous gold accoutrements adorned the being’s attire—an arm band, greaves, sharp golden claws for fingernails, and a golden goatee with a slightly curling tip. He also had a sword sheathed on his back.
Lucien wondered how much of that attire was ornamental, and how much of it served a useful purpose. The Faro’s clothes seemed archaic in the context of his people’s obviously advanced technology.
Behind the alien, a group of shadow people lay scattered across the landing pad, unmoving, in an awkward tangle of limbs that suggested broken bones.
Lucien grimaced, wondering if that was Brak’s doing. The Gor was nowhere to be seen.
Tyra walked down the landing ramp first, reading the situation at a glance. “I’m very sorry for the behavior of my crew mate,” she said. “He will be severely punished once we find him. Are they… dead?” she asked, staring at the shadow people.
The blue-skinned alien regarded them stonily. Its glowing blue eyes bored into theirs. Abruptly he smiled. “Don’t worry, they are only slaves, but yes, Brak will have to be punished.”
So my name’s not the only one he knows, Lucien thought.
“I understand if you feel the need to punish him yourselves,” Tyra said slowly, stopping a few feet in front of the alien. “But if possible, I would prefer that you allowed us to administer our own sanctions.”
“Forget about Brak. Join me for a walk in the gardens. We have much to discuss.”
Tyra hesitated before picking her way past the shadow people to join the alien. Lucien followed, noting that the shadow beings were completely featureless. Their clothes, if that’s what they wore to give them their appearance, weren’t clinging to them as a jumpsuit would, but flowing and shapeless. It was impossible to see who or what they were.
“Don’t fall behind,” the Faro intoned in his silken voice. “I wouldn’t want anyone to get lost.” The alien chuckled lightly, and Lucien shivered.
Lucien walked next to Tyra while she walked beside the alien with his name. If the gold crown on that alien’s head was anything to go by, he might be the king of the Faros. King Faro, Lucien decided.
They passed other blue-skinned Faros on the street, each with their own cadre of shadow people, but none of them had glowing eyes like the one leading them through the ravine.
“You asked how I know so much about you,” King Faro said.
Tyra nodded, and Lucien watched the alien carefully. A group of other Faros walked by, chatting amongst themselves in an alien language that Lucien didn’t recognize. Clearly Versal wasn’t their native tongue, but this alien seemed to speak it fluently.
King Faro went on, “Besides your considerable quantum comms pollution of the universe, which makes for easy eavesdropping, our species have a long history together.”
Tyra regarded the alien curiously. “How’s that?”
“We’re all genetically related to the Etherians. The Faros were created by Etherus just as humans were, but unlike you, we weren’t created to give rebellious Etherians a taste of freedom. We were immortal from the start, and our job was to keep the peace in the universe. We were the Army of Etheria. Those of us with blue skins were what you would call the officers, while the green-skinned Faros were the enlisted.”
“From the way you’re speaking in the past tense, I assume something must have happened to change the status quo,” Tyra said.
The alien’s lip curled in a sneer. “Yes. Something. It began peacefully enough. We had a vote in Etheria: should the universe be free, or should it be rigidly ordered and organized into Etherus’s notion of paradise?
“Can you imagine? Trillions upon trillions of star systems with billions of sentient species, and all of them the same, all of them incapable of doing anything interesting! We were peacekeepers and soldiers in a universe where peace was to be its default setting. We were redundant!”
Lucien had to admit King Faro had a point there. “So why not re-assign the Faros to a different role?” he asked. “In fact, why create your people at all if the universe was supposed to be a peaceful paradise?”
King Faro glanced at him. “We were supposed to be explorers more than anything, and even a peaceful universe has some degree of conflict. We were to mediate those disputes.”
“I see,” Tyra said. “But you envisioned a universe with more… chaos?”
“Chaos is the result of true freedom, and all sentient beings crave freedom, even if they have never experienced it. They might not like it when they make bad choices and they get hurt, but they all like the thrill of danger and chaos.”
“So what happened with the vote?” Tyra asked.
“You don’t know?”
“We know what Etherus told us about the Great War and the rebellion, about the rebels being given human bodies… but that’s it.”
“Ah, but nothing about the Faros? Typical Etherus, only sharing things on a need-to-know basis. Of course, he’s the one that gets to decide who needs to know what.
“As you may have guessed, the Faros wanted a free universe, but we weren’t allowed to vote. The Etherians voted, and the majority decided in favor of Etherus’s boring, so-called paradise. That was to be the end of it.” King Faro grinned. “Or so they thought. The Faros might not have had a vote, but Etherus was wrong to assume that meant we didn’t have a voice. We injected some welcome chaos into Etheria.”
“You mean you started a war,” Tyra said. “The Great War?”
“It wasn’t just great, it was magnificent.” The alien licked his lips with a black tongue. “The streets flowed with blood.”
“That doesn’t sound magnificent,” Lucien said.
King Faro looked straight at him, his blue eyes bright and intense. “The Etherians are fools. Few will admit it, except perhaps for you humans, but they secretly reveled in the chaos. They’d never felt so alive as when death was knocking at their door. Yes, we killed a few of them, but Etherus resurrected every last one of them. So where was the harm in having a little fun? No harm. Just some welcome excitement after eons of tedium.
“But Etherus didn’t see it that way. When the dust settled, he threw us out of Etheria, and he marooned the Etherians who’d fought with us on Noctune and various other worlds in the ruins of the galaxy that used to be called Etheria. Eventually they evolved into what you called Gors and Sythians.
“After the war, he moved his faithful people to another galaxy in the center of the universe, and all of the Etherians who’d voted in favor of freedom, whether they’d fought with us or not, were linked to human bodies to give them a taste of the freedom they’d voted for. But it seems like that taste wasn’t enough, because here you are, still human… still tasting.” King Faro grinned and his black tongue flicked out over his lips once more. “Delicious, isn’t it?”
Lucien suppressed a shiver.
“He took his faithful people to the center of the universe?” Tyra asked. “So there is a center?”
“And an edge, or a rim, yes. I’m surprised you haven’t already figured that out. Why do you think you can’t reach Etheria, why it remains ever out of your grasp?”
Tyra was speechless.
“Now you know,” the alien said. “Have I answered your questions?”
“You mentioned a treaty to do with the red line…” Tyra said.
“Yes, I won’t hold you to that, since you didn’t come here on Etherus’s authority. The treaty was designed to give humans a relatively safe playground, to put a limit on the chaos.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” Tyra replied.
“The Faros were exiled beyond the red line. Humans, Gors, and the now-extinct Sythians were left inside of it, along with a vast host of other species that evolved more naturally, without any genetic relation to the Etherians. Its all free and chaotic, just as we dreamed it could be, but Etherus reserves the right to intervene inside of the red line. Beyond it, the Faros are in charge.”
Lucien smiled. By now Tyra had to be feeling chagrined. This alien was independently verifying everything Etherus had told them—with a few previously-unknown details about the Faros.
“What does that mean exactly—in charge?” Tyra asked, glancing around at the shadow-people trailing meekly behind all of the blue-skinned Faros.
King Faro stopped walking and turned to face her. The rest of the crew were watching the alien warily. Garek especially. He looked terrified.
“You’re afraid that we are the bad guys in all of this?” King Faro gave them a charming smile. “I’m not a blood-thirsty barbarian. You need to remember that when we started the Great War in Etheria, we knew that the Etherians were impossible to actually kill. It was just a game.”
Tyra looked as skeptical as Lucien felt. “Who are the spiders we saw in the holograms before coming here? And who are these shadow people walking behind the Faros? You said they were slaves. How can you condone slavery, yet claim to value freedom?”
Lucien felt a surge of respect for Tyra to see the way she was staring down this alien warlord, heedless of the potential consequences. Clearly her skepticism wasn’t reserved solely for Etherus. She was an even-handed cynic.
King Faro’s smile faded. “You are remarkably closed-minded for a faithless scientist. Having a change of heart? Perhaps you’d like to go running back to Etherus, to hide behind your red line in a boring universe. That’s what it will become, you know. What do you think the Paragons are? They’re the new Faros. And the so-called Etherian Empire?” King Faro sneered. “He’s doing it again, imposing his will and his boring notions of paradise. Right now it looks like a good idea, but just wait. Wait until it all becomes like Etheria, an unending, perfectly predictable kingdom of tedium. He’s boiling you all in it, incrementing the tedium so slowly that you don’t even notice.
“You think because we believe that chaos and freedom are desirable that we are all savages? We have rules to live by, and laws that govern us, just as you do.”
“You haven’t answered my question about slavery,” Tyra said.
“If you create something, are you not entitled to do with it as you please? The potter can do what he likes with his clay.”
“Are you saying that you or your people created your slaves?”
King Faro smiled. “I did, yes.”
Tyra blinked. “Let me see if I have all of this figured out. You’re telling us that Etherus really is God—”
“That depends how you define god. You might also call me god.”
Tyra cocked her head at that. “How so?”
King Faro’s smile became enigmatic. “Please continue your summary.”
Tyra hesitated, and Lucien peripherally noted that they were drawing a crowd of blue-skinned Faros and their shadowy entourages.
“All right…” Tyra said slowly. “You’ve validated everything Etherus has ever said to us, implied his deity, and now also your own, and you’ve tried to convince us that chaos is a good thing, because without it we would find life bland and uninteresting.”
“A succinct summary,” King Faro said.
“I’ll agree that the chaos which freedom brings can be good in limited doses, but the fact remains that slavery is in direct conflict with your stated ideal of freedom.”
Lucien became aware of the crowd once more. They shuffled their feet and murmured to each other in their alien language. He wished he knew what they were saying.
King Faro just went on smiling at them. “Freedom and power are synonymous. Having power gives us the freedom to do as we like. What do you think your capitalist monetary system is? Just another form of slavery. It’s a system of funneling riches—or power—into the hands of a few people at the top of the food chain. Start throwing money around and watch how people trip over each other to do your every whim.” King Faro laughed and licked his lips. “Power is the most delicious fruit! You might say that it is the forbidden fruit.”
Tyra stared at the alien in shock, speechless. “Slavery and capitalism are not the same at all. Capitalism gives everyone an equal chance to succeed. It gives people hope and a way out. There is no way out of slavery.”
“Hope and a way out? Tell that to the poor. Ask them how much hope they have, and where they’ve found a way out. At least our system doesn’t make empty promises, and we treat our slaves well. They never have to worry about suffering because they can’t make a living for themselves.”
By this point the crowd had completely encircled them, blocking any possible route back to their shuttle.
Lucien took Tyra’s arm and began backing away from the alien. “Thank you for taking the time to explain all of that to us…” he said, “but we need to go.”
Tyra nodded stiffly, and looked away from King Faro. Finally, she noticed the crowd gathered around them.
“Where are you going?” King Faro asked.
“Back to our ship,” Lucien replied.
“You’re not going anywhere. You’re all now slaves of the Farosien Empire.”
“Slaves?” Tyra echoed, more indignant than ever. “Are you threatening us?”
“No, I’m merely stating a fact,” the alien said.
“You’d need an army to stop us from leaving,” she said.
Lucien glanced around at the gathered crowd of Faros. “What do you think they are?” he whispered.
Tyra glanced at him, then back to the alien. “I don’t see them holding any weapons, or wearing any armor. But we, on the other hand, are all heavily armed and armored.”
King Faro looked amused. “What makes you think I need an army to detain you? I’m perfectly capable of doing that myself.”
“With that little dagger on your back?” Tyra challenged.
Lucien frowned, wondering the same thing. But still, how much did they know about these Faros? If they were a race of ancient warriors who’d been quantum-jumping around the universe since before humans had figured out how to make fire, maybe it would be better not to goad them. Lucien was about to say as much to Tyra when the alien drew its “dagger.” The blade looked like glass, transparent and shimmering with some kind of energy field.
Lucien backed up hurriedly and pulled Tyra along with him. “Shields up, and weapons out!” he ordered over the comms.
A deep thrumming sound filled the air as they all activated their exosuits’ shields. Mechanical clicking noises followed as integrated weapons slid out of recessed compartments in their gauntlets.
King Faro laughed, his blue eyes dancing with delight. He drew another weapon in his other hand, this one a familiar black coil of rope. It unfurled, slithering out behind him, and ignited with a whoosh that sounded like a gust from a furnace. The stone path sizzled and smoked where the whip lay.
“Everyone fall back! Activate grav boosters on my mark!” Lucien snapped over the comms.
Tyra shot him a panicky look, and he realized she probably didn’t know how to use her grav boosters. Paragons spent years learning how to use them. Grimacing, he locked his arms around her chest.
“Mark!” he called.
They all rocketed off the street, flying backward in assisted leaps that sent them soaring high above the blossom trees lining the river. They touched down at least a hundred meters back the way they’d come. The alien ruler was now a distant blue speck, the luminous golden accoutrements of his attire glinting in the distance.
“We need to get back to our shuttle!” Tyra said.
“That’s the idea,” Lucien replied. “Everyone form up and follow me, double-time!” Lucien set his exosuit’s power-assist to maximum and sprinted back the way they’d come. Scenery blurred around him as he dodged and wove through the crowds of pedestrians on the street. His ARCs clocked his speed at more than 60 kilometers per hour.
“I’m going to tell Pandora… what’s going on…” Tyra panted as she ran up beside him. “Damn it! They’re jamming me!”
“Our comms still work,” Lucien objected.
“They must be jamming us from orbit,” Tinker said.
“What about Brak?” Troo asked. “We cannot be leaving him here.”
“We’ll find a way to come back for him… after we get away,” Tyra said between gasps for air.
Lucien nodded. That decision was already weighing heavily on him, but there was nothing else they could do.
“Why don’t we use… our grav boosters to fly back to the shuttle?” Tyra asked.
“Because we’d make easier targets for ranged weapons. Down here they have to worry about shooting through their people to get to us.”
“I’m detecting an alien life sign up ahead, next to our shuttle,” Addy said.
“Just one?” Tyra asked.
“So far,” Addy replied.
“Maybe it’s Brak,” Lucien suggested as he leapt over a crowd of blue-skinned Faros that wouldn’t get out of their way in time. The others leapt with him, but Tyra barreled straight through the crowd. The Faros screamed as she mowed them down. She tripped and went flying, rolling a few dozen times before bouncing back to her feet. Lucien slowed down so she could catch up.
“You need more practice with your suit,” he chided.
Tyra grunted, but said nothing.
Her gleaming armor was scuffed with dirt, and smeared with a viscous blue fluid—Faro blood? Lucien wondered.
They reached the base of the landing pad and stopped running. Their shuttle was about five floors up, on the platform, and they didn’t have time for stairs.
“Grav boosters!” Lucien ordered, and again wrapped his arms around Tyra’s chest.
“I can do it!” she objected.
He ignored her and blasted off.
They soared above the landing pad and their shuttle came into view. Garek landed with a heavy thud—followed by echoes of that sound as the rest of them touched down around him.
“Who are you running from?” a pleasant voice asked.
Lucien froze, watching as King Faro came strolling out behind their shuttle. His glowing red-orange whip drew a smoking black scar across the landing pad, sizzling as it went.
King Faro stopped a dozen meters from them and brandished his shimmering glass sword with a grin.
There was no time to wonder how the alien had beat them back to their shuttle.
“Fire!” Lucien ordered. Bright red lasers shot out of his exosuit’s gauntlets, hitting the alien square in the chest. Crimson light flashed all around him as the others fired, too. None of them missed, but the alien remained standing, and uninjured. He became suffused with shimmering light as the energy from their weapons converted the air around him into superheated plasma.
“He’s got a shield!” Garek said.
“Keep firing!” Lucien ordered. They’d deplete that shield before long. Most personal shields could only take a few shots.
But King Faro weathered the assault, making no move to run or dodge their fire. The Faros’ technology was obviously a lot more advanced.
Their weapons overheated and vented clouds of coolant gas, forcing them to stop firing.
King Faro laughed. “Is that it? My turn,” he said.
“Secondary weapons!” Lucien ordered, and drew one of the non-lethals from his equipment belt—his grav gun.
The alien leapt toward them, impossibly far and high, as if his strength were somehow augmented in ways they couldn’t see. He covered the distance between them in an instant, flicking his whip in their direction before he even touched the ground. It flashed out, sizzling and crackling like a severed electrical conduit. The whip raked across Tinker’s exosuit with a shower of sparks. It overloaded his shield with a loud pop! and left a smoking black furrow in his armor. Tinker screamed and collapsed on the landing pad, writhing in pain. The alien touched down in their midsts, and they all grav-boosted away from him—all except for Tyra, who remained standing where she was.
The Faro turned to her with a smile. Lucien ran back into the fray, aiming his grav gun at the hilt of the alien’s whip, hoping to rip the weapon out of his hand. He fired, but the Faro was ready for it, and he braced himself against the sudden tug of the grav beam. Then he wrenched his arm back suddenly, pulling Lucien off his feet with surprising strength.
Lucien hit the landing pad with a clatter of armor. He heard lasers screeching as the others began firing again, and he bounced to his feet just in time to see Tyra diving away from the Faro’s whip.
Tinker was up in a sitting position now. He had his grav gun out, too. He held it in both hands for extra leverage and fired, using his back and the augmented strength of his suit in an attempt to pull the alien off its feet, but the Faro weathered the strain with a grin, muscles bulging visibly under his flowing gray robes.
Lucien blinked. This was impossible. Biological strength was no match for the augmented mechanical strength of their exosuits—unless the Faros weren’t entirely biological.
The alien tossed his sword in the air, high above his head, and thrust his palm out at Tinker. A dazzling ball of plasma flashed out, slamming Tinker in the chest with a thunderous boom. Tinker flew backward and over the edge of the landing pad, tumbling lifelessly as he fell.
The shock wave hit the rest of them a split-second later, staggering them, and blasting them with a stifling heat that Lucien felt even through his exosuit.
“Keep firing!” he ordered, holstering his apparently useless grav gun to fire his lasers again. The alien stood in a glowing cloud of plasma, flicking his whip at them and making them dance.
We have to be draining his shield, Lucien thought as he jumped over a sweeping lash that had been aimed at his ankles. The whip skittered by below him, trailing sparks and black scorch marks across the landing pad.
A muffled roar split the sky, loud enough to be heard over the noise of lasers screeching, and the sizzling of the alien’s whip. Lucien looked up and saw a big armored bulk drop from the sky.
It was Brak. He landed right behind the alien with both of his razor swords drawn and glowing with a fuzzy blue light. Brak swung his blades, one low, one high, and everyone stopped firing for fear that they’d hit him.
King Faro spun and blocked the high blow casually with his sword, and the low one with his golden gauntlet.
Brak hissed, trying to overpower the Faro.
But their strength was evenly matched. Lucien couldn’t believe it. He’d never seen anyone who could match a Gor’s physical strength, much less augmented strength, but this alien did so with apparent ease, despite being at least half a foot shorter and a hundred pounds lighter than the two-meter-tall Gor.
Brak gave up and shoved away from the alien, his blades flashed back in for another strike, and again the alien blocked it, this time catching both of Brak’s swords with his one.
“Form on me! Grav guns out!” Lucien ordered over the comms as Brak and the Faro went on parrying each other’s blows. “We need to destabilize him!” It was all they could hope to do without risking friendly fire.
Garek, Addy, Jalisa, Tyra, and Troo all clustered around Lucien, aiming their grav guns two-handed, and bracing their feet.
“On my mark…” Lucien said. “Mark!”
They all fired and wrenched their guns toward them at the same time. It worked.
The alien went flying, but he used the momentum to his advantage, somehow springing up at the same instant and landing on his feet behind them. The fingertips of his free hand glowed brightly. There was no time to react. A ball of plasma flashed out, heading straight for Lucien’s chest.
Troo jumped in front of him, hissing with feral fury, and firing her lasers at the Faro. The world flashed white and a deafening boom shook the landing pad as that ball of plasma exploded. Troo slammed into him, knocking him over. Lasers screeched around them, but Lucien could see nothing past the smoking bulk sprawled on top of him. His heart thudded in his chest as he heaved out from under Troo to check her injuries.
Her helmet was shattered, the alloy melted and deformed around her head. One of her protruding fangs was missing, and her big green eyes were dim and squinting with pain. But a far more serious injury lay below her neck: Troo’s chest was caved in, scorched black and glistening with dark red blood.
“Troo!” he screamed, as if his voice could call her back from where she was headed.
Her mouth opened and shut like a guppy’s, trying desperately to suck a breath into her collapsed lungs. Then her squinting gaze found him, and he heard her voice inside his head, the words stilted, but clear.
“Now we is… being even. You can be… thanking me on Astralis.”
“Troo! Wait!” He thought back, but her green eyes slid up and stared fixedly at the sky.
Lucien jumped to his feet and spun around, visions of vengeance burning in his brain.
The Faro was locked in another duel with Brak, parrying blows effortlessly, and backpedaling around the landing pad, laughing in the Gor’s face.
Lucien mentally scrambled for a new tactic. The Faro had to be parrying Brak’s strikes for a reason. Perhaps his shields were tough against radiant energy, like lasers, but weak against kinetic strikes. Lucien’s mind flashed back to all the razor-swords, projectile weapons, and explosives they’d left in the weapons lockers back on Inquisitor, and he suddenly wished they’d had the foresight to bring some of those along. Tyra hadn’t wanted them to look like an invading army when they met with the Faros for the first time.
The alien warlord slipped his shimmering, transparent sword past Brak’s increasingly desperate attacks, and the Gor’s hand fell off with a thump, taking one of his swords with it. Brak’s agonized scream was at once terrifying and sickening, equal parts pain and fury.
Blinded with rage, he slipped past the alien’s guard and grabbed the Faro’s sword-wielding arm behind the wrist. The alien calmly resisted Brak’s attempt to rip off his arm, bracing his feet against the heavier Gor. Muscles rippled and bulged as the Faro resisted. He put his other arm behind his back and smiled up at Brak.
The alien was toying with them.
Brak hissed all the louder.
“Help him!” Addy screamed, already running toward them.
Garek beat her there, but Brak had already found an advantage. Both he and the Faro were obviously incredibly strong, but Brak weighed over three hundred pounds, while the Faro had to weigh less than two hundred. Brak used that extra weight to give him leverage, and he picked the alien up by his arm and began swinging the Faro around his head.
Brak let go and the alien went flying off the edge of the landing pad, robes fluttering around him as he fell.
“Let’s go!” Tyra urged.
Lucien hesitated, glancing quickly at Troo, but there was no point in taking her body with them. She’d get a new one when they returned to Astralis.
Everyone ran for the shuttle. Brak clutched his scorched black stump as he ran. They pounded up the ramp to the airlock. Tyra waved it open and they ran straight inside. She waved the doors shut.
Through the closing doors, Lucien glimpsed his alien namesake come floating impossibly back up to the landing pad, uninjured despite having fallen five stories to the ground. The alien’s gray robes flared out around his knees as he landed. As soon as his feet touched ground, he thrust out a palm and sent a dazzling ball of plasma flying toward them. The outer airlock doors shut just in time and received the blast with a deafening boom!
The deck shuddered under their feet.
Tyra cycled the airlock. Crimson lights snapped on and the decontamination alarm blared. Jets hissed, and clouds of moisture glittered.
“Come on!” Tyra screamed, impatiently banging on the inner airlock doors with her palms.
The crimson light vanished, and they heard fans whirring to equalize the air pressure.
This was a fine time to be stuck waiting for routine safety procedures.
Another boom sounded as plasma hit the rear doors. This time they could feel the shuttle slide a few inches across the landing pad, and rock on its landing struts.
Lucien glanced back to see the outer airlock doors glowing a molten orange.
“We can’t take another hit like that!” he said.
The inner doors slid open and they darted inside just as the outer ones exploded with a burst of heat and shrapnel. Lucien felt himself carried into the cabin on the shock wave. They landed in a heap, their armor clattering noisily on the deck.
Lucien was pinned under Brak and Garek, but Jalisa broke free and ran for the cockpit. “Get us out of here!” Lucien called after her.
The alien strode casually toward them, as if it had all the time in the world.
Toying with us again, Lucien thought through gritted teeth. Brak and Garek got up and began firing at the alien as he approached, but their lasers were still having no effect.
A roar of engines sounded and the shuttle shot straight up, leaving the landing pad and their alien adversary behind. Good job, Jalisa, Lucien thought, still lying on the deck. He propped himself up on his elbows to look out the open airlock.
Tyra was busy with the control panel, trying to manually shut the inner doors. They should have shut automatically when the outer doors had blasted open. The fact that they hadn’t meant the explosion must have damaged the mechanism.
“I’m going to have to crank them shut!” Tyra said, her arm already working the crank. The doors began inching shut with a screech of metal scraping metal.
The Faro came floating up to the airlock and grabbed one of the zero-G safety rails to swing inside. He brandished his sword with a grin.
Brak and Garek fired once more, but they should have known better by now. Lasers were useless.
Lucien eyed the zero-G rails to either side of the jammed airlock doors, and lunged to reach them.
The Faro didn’t appear to notice. He was too busy being smug.
Lucien grabbed one of the rails in each hand, straddling the open doors; then he jumped up, aiming his feet at the Faro’s chest.
Now the alien noticed him. He cocked his head and narrowed his glowing blue eyes in confusion. Lucien was obviously too far away to deliver a kick.
The Faro’s eyes flew wide as he apparently realized Lucien’s intent, but he was too late.
Lucien fired the grav boosters in his boots at full strength, blasting the alien warlord out of the airlock. Lucien screamed as his shoulders both popped out of their sockets. He’d only fired the boosters for a second, but holding onto the rails while he’d done so had funneled all the force along his arms. He released the rails, his hands suddenly numb and sparking with pins and needles from pinched nerves.
“Feet clear!” Tyra warned.
Lucien managed to tuck his legs up to his chest just as Tyra finished cranking the doors shut.
“We did it…” she breathed.
Lucien lay there gasping in pain. His head lolled to one side, and he caught a glimpse of Garek crouched beside Brak with an open medkit. The veteran first sprayed Brak’s stump with disinfectant, and then with synthetic skin.
Lucien felt the pain from his dislocated shoulders abate as his exosuit pumped an analgesic into his system. Finally able to breathe, he craned his neck to see what Jalisa was doing in the cockpit. She was clawing for space and flying evasive at the same time.
The hull shuddered with an impact.
“Keep your helmets on!” Tyra warned on her way to the cockpit. She walked easily up the steep space-ward slope of the deck thanks to the shuttle’s artificial gravity.
“Anyone else injured?” Garek asked.
“Me,” Lucien grunted.
Garek crouched down beside him next. “Where?”
“Both shoulders. Dislocated,” Lucien breathed.
“Ouch. That’s going to have to wait until I can get you out of your suit back on the Inquisitor.”
The shuttle shuddered with another impact, a reminder of why they couldn’t remove their suits here.
Addy crouched down on the other side of him, her face pinched with grief. “We just left him,” she said.
“Who?” Lucien asked.
He shook his head. “There’s no way he survived. Troo got hit with the same thing, and she died almost instantly…” He trailed off with a frown. She’d died saving him.
Fortunately, death was only a temporary condition. They’d be able to bring her back as soon as they returned to Astralis.
Lucien struggled to his feet with Garek’s help, and Brak sat slumped on one of the benches along the side of the shuttle, cradling his stump.
“You okay, buddy?” Lucien asked.
Brak hissed. “It is just a scratch.”
Lucien nodded. They’d be able to start growing a new hand for him even before they got back to Astralis.
Lucien walked up to the cockpit. “How are we doing?” he asked.
Jalisa gave no reply. Her hands flew over the shuttle’s controls, working magic to escape the Faros. Tyra sat beside her, watching Jalisa with wide eyes, obviously afraid to interrupt the other woman’s concentration.
He nodded to Tyra, and asked her via text message what they were up against.
Tyra glanced up at him, and her reply popped up on his ARCs.
They sent fighters after us, but Pandora launched ours as soon as she saw us take off from the surface. She’s using them to draw enemy fire and help us get away.
What are they shooting us with?
Missiles and lasers mostly, why?
Lucien shook his head. After their battle on the surface of Arachnai-1, he half-expected the Faros to have some kind of supernatural weapons. Their battle on the ground had been shocking to say the least—balls of plasma shooting from palms, impossibly strong personal shields, levitation, telepathy… the Faros made the Paragons look like toy soldiers, and they did it with remarkably little visible technology.
Lucien nodded to Tyra. “We need to fire back.”
Lucien watched while she hurried to power the ship’s one and only weapon emplacement—a light laser cannon, unaffectionately known as the tickler.
She grabbed the joystick at her station and targeted incoming missiles with the laser cannon. She managed to shoot down about a dozen missiles, but there were hundreds more still incoming.
Then more lasers joined theirs. Crimson streaks of light flashed to all sides of them, simulated by the shuttle’s combat computer. They’d come into range of the Inquisitor’s guns, and now the bigger ship was laying down covering fire for them to escape.
Simulated explosions freckled space against the not-so-distant backdrop of Arachnai-1 as the Inquisitor knocked out both the fighters and missiles chasing them up from the surface.
The blue fuzz of a static shield swept over them as they glided into Shuttle Bay One. Tyra sat back with a sigh and shook out her hand from gripping the joystick in a white-knuckled fist. The targeting screen for the rear-facing turret showed the hangar shields brighten suddenly as they intensified to keep anything from following them in. A split second later, multiple explosions flashed against that barrier as the remaining missiles roared in and detonated against the shield.
A muffled thunk sounded from the hull as the Inquisitor’s boarding tube connected to the shuttle’s damaged airlock; then a dazzling flash of light suffused the cockpit.
Lucien squinted against the glare, wondering what kind of over-sized missile had just hit them. But when the brightness faded, there were no subsequent explosions, and Arachnai-1 was no longer visible on the shuttle’s viewscreens or scopes.
The Inquisitor had just jumped away.
“Welcome back,” Pandora said over the comms, her voice resonating inside their helmets. “Now that we’re safely away, would someone please explain who pissed off the blue monkeys?”
“We’ll be right up,” Tyra replied. “And start plotting our next jump,” she added.
“Aye, Captain. Are we jumping anywhere in particular?”
“Back to Astralis. We have a few crew mates to resurrect—and a warning to deliver.”
“A warning, ma’am?”
“Etherus was right. It is dangerous beyond the red line.”
“First off—what in the netherworld were we fighting?” Addy asked.
Lucien shook his head, while trying desperately to scratch his shoulders through his jumpsuit. Garek had popped his shoulders back into their sockets, and he’d used nanites to rapidly repair the damage to the surrounding muscles and ligaments, so at least the pain was gone. Unfortunately, itching was a side effect of using nanites to repair damaged tissues.
Garek leaned forward and folded his hands on the table. They were all seated in the Captain’s Ready Room—all except for Pandora, who was on the bridge, calculating their next micro-jump in a series of randomly zagging jumps on their way back to Astralis. There was no known way to track a quantum jump, but Tyra wanted to be careful. She’d already sent a message to Astralis, summarizing what they’d encountered, but Astralis couldn’t send a secure message back without knowing the Inquisitor’s location, and Tyra didn’t want to risk sending them those coordinates—not even over supposedly secure vector-based comms.
Garek was the first to venture an answer to Addy’s question. “Before we left, back when Etherus responded to the petition, he mentioned someone who started the rebellion in Etheria.”
“The evil one,” Lucien replied, nodding.
“I think that’s who we met,” Garek added.
“It said it was a god, like Etherus,” Tyra put in.
Lucien arched an eyebrow at her. “Suddenly you’re a believer in the supernatural?”
“I didn’t say that, but clearly we were up against something very powerful. I wonder if the abilities that alien demonstrated are unique to him, or something that all Faros possess.”
Lucien frowned. “How did he beat us back to the shuttle?”
“Maybe he can quantum jump inside of a magnetic field,” Brak suggested.
“No…” Tyra shook her head. “If he could do that, then he would have jumped past our jamming fields to get aboard our shuttle, or the Inquisitor.”
“We can jump around on our ships and New Earth, despite their jamming fields,” Lucien pointed out.
“From one quantum junction to another,” Tyra added. “That’s different than jumping to an arbitrary location.”
“Maybe that’s what he did,” Jalisa said. “There may have been a junction at the landing pad.”
“True,” Tyra replied. “What about levitation?”
“Grav boosters in his boots,” Garek suggested.
Tyra nodded. “And his sword?”
“Razor-shielded like ours,” Jalisa replied.
“His whip wasn’t razor-shielded,” Lucien said. “That was something else.”
“A flexible conduit with a strong power source,” Tyra said. “You just need the right material with the right amount of resistance, and a very high melting point.”
Jalisa nodded. “I’d like to try building one of those when we bring Tinker back.”
They shared brief silence at the reminder of the people they’d lost.
“What about the rest?” Tyra asked. “That shield must have been generated by an incredibly dense power source.”
“Maybe he had one hidden under his robes,” Addy suggested.
“That’s what I thought, too,” Tyra replied. “I bet those golden accessories he wore were some kind of shield projectors, and the balls of plasma shooting from his fingertips were just focused bursts of energy from the power source, relayed by the shield.”
“What about his super-human strength?” Lucien asked. “He stood toe-to-toe with Brak, and Brak was wearing an exosuit.”
The Gor grunted at that and hissed with displeasure. “Yesss. This is curious to me as well.”
“Bio-mechanical enhancements,” Tyra suggested. “He could have nano-fibers for muscles and bones laced with nanotubes for all we know.”
“And the telepathy? He knew our names,” Lucien said.
“You mean he knew yours,” Addy replied, looking at him with sudden suspicion.
“Didn’t you two apprentice together as Tyros?” Addy asked. “You would have served on the same galleon and met all the same aliens.”
Lucien frowned and slowly shook his head. “I’d remember meeting the Faros.”
“Maybe you didn’t meet them,” Tyra suggested. “They could have been watching you from afar, eavesdropping on your comms.”
“And we just happened to come across the same group of Faros here, and one of them just happened to recognize me more than a year after my apprenticeship?”
“It’s possible,” Tyra insisted, “but I agree, it’s less likely than the possibility that our implants were hacked. Besides, he knew other things, too—our language, for one.”
Jalisa nodded. “When you asked him about that, he said that they’d been eavesdropping on our comms.”
“And if they can do that, then they’ve hacked our encryptions before,” Lucien said.
“There’s still the mystery of why you share a name with an alien warlord,” Addy said, looking at Lucien again.
“It could be a lie,” Garek suggested. “To put us off balance.”
Tyra nodded. “I agree. I wouldn’t trust anything these Faros say. They’re obviously a nihilistic society.”
“Nihilistic?” Brak asked. “I do not know this word.”
“It means they reject all religious beliefs and moral codes,” Tyra explained.
“Sounds like you,” Brak said.
Garek barked a laugh. “True!”
“I don’t reject all moral systems,” Tyra replied. “I just don’t think they come from on-high. Morality is an evolutionary adaption for any sentient species. Our survival is promoted by working together, and any group requires a moral code to govern its behavior or else it will fall apart.”
“Tell that to the Faros,” Addy said.
“They obviously have some kind of morality, but it doesn’t apply equally to other species, or even to the green-skinned members of their race. They seem to value power and wealth above all else, which means there’s a definitive hierarchy in their culture. They probably think of other sentient species the way we’d think about a colony of ants.”
“That fits with their superior attitude,” Addy said.
“Even amongst themselves I bet they’ll be cut-throat and deceitful, with a much weaker set of morals than our own,” Tyra said.
Lucien nodded. “If your moral code is all about evolutionary advantage, or the survival of self, then there’s no sense to acting selflessly—unless by doing so you can get some reciprocal behavior from someone else.”
“And most of the time we do,” Tyra pointed out. “Tit for tat. That’s exactly how morality is adaptive.”
“So how do you explain Troo?”
“She died saving my life,” Lucien said.
“Her death isn’t permanent, and she knew that,” Tyra replied.
Lucien narrowed his eyes at her. “All right, fine, but there are plenty of examples in history of people risking their lives for strangers before the advent of immortality.”
“And many of them thought they would receive a reward from their God for doing so.”
“Then you’re admitting that morals guided by belief in a higher power are superior to those guided by evolution,” Lucien said.
Tyra shrugged. “If by superior you mean more selfless in the short term, then yes. I don’t think you can have true altruism without feeling accountable to a higher power, but that’s not proof that a higher power exists.”
“I thought science was about observable evidence,” Lucien said.
“It is…” Tyra replied.
“So what do you call selfless behavior that can’t be explained by evolution or any other natural process? There’s your observable evidence that Etherus is who he says he is.”
Tyra regarded him with a frown, but the others were all smiling. She glanced around the ready room, noting their smug expressions. “Imagined rewards from imaginary deities are an extension of evolution, a by-product. Our imaginations serve our survival very well, but that doesn’t mean that they always do. Evolution isn’t a straight path. How does homosexual behavior suit the survival of the species? It doesn’t, and yet we’ve found plenty of genes that promote homosexuality.”
No one was smiling after that rebuttal.
“Anyway, we’re getting off topic. This conversation isn’t about Etherus, and he’s a long way from helping us now. If you’re so sure he’s God, then you’re welcome to pray to him, or meditate on him, or whatever else it is that you think will compel him to help us on our journey, but as for me, I’m not waiting for a ghost to show up and save us. We need a real plan to deal with these Faros. Anyone?”
Jalisa was the first to reply: “I’m starting to think that coming on this mission was a bad idea.”
Garek grunted. “That makes two of us.”
Tyra’s gaze skipped around the room. “I see. Anyone else having second thoughts?”
“We all decided to come along for a reason,” Addy said quietly. “I think I speak for all of us when I say that we didn’t make those decisions lightly.” Heads bobbed as people grudgingly agreed with that sentiment. “We want to see this through. Maybe we’re here to prove that Etherus is real, and maybe you’re here to prove that He isn’t, but until we actually find proof one way or the other, I think it would be best if we didn’t constantly argue about it. It’s undermining our ability to work together, and if these Faros are any indication of what we’re going to encounter out here, then we’re going to need to work together more than ever to reach the cosmic horizon.”
Lucien adjusted his mental opinion of Addy. She wasn’t just a pretty face.
“You make an excellent point, Lieutenant Gallia,” Tyra said. “The next time our conversations stray like that, you have my permission to interrupt and remind us that we’re all on the same side. Believe or don’t believe, that’s a personal choice, and it’s up to you. Fair enough?”
They all nodded once more.
“Good. Now, has anyone seen the engagement report from the battle we fought while our shuttle was escaping?” Tyra asked.
“Not yet,” Lucien said. The others reiterated that sentiment.
“Well, here it is,” Tyra said. She waved the holo projector in the center of the table to life, and they all studied the engagement report. Casualties were high on their side. Almost all of their fighters had been destroyed—thirty in all—and out of the sixteen enemy fighters chasing them up from the planet, they’d only destroyed eight.
“Looks like one of their fighters is worth more than three of ours,” Garek said.
“Look past the numbers. Check the time-stamp beside each kill, and watch the replay,” Tyra said.
They watched as ship icons moved on a 2-D grid, firing at each other with simulated missiles and lasers.
“They only lost six fighters to ours. The Inquisitor’s main cannons took out another two right before we jumped.”
“We were distracted, focusing fire on their missiles,” Lucien pointed out.
“Missiles that were all fired from their fighters—not from the surface,” Tyra replied.
“How’s that possible?” Lucien remembered how many missiles had been swarming toward them. “They must have fired a hundred missiles at us.”
“Over a thousand, actually,” Tyra replied, pointing to the engagement report. “That means each fighter fired more than fifty each.”
“Are their fighters a lot larger than ours?” Lucien asked.
“Their missiles are smaller, too. About as long as your forearm,” Tyra said.
“Are we sure that they really were missiles?” Addy asked. “Maybe they were projectiles fired from cannons.”
“They were definitely tracking us,” Tyra replied.
“And they pack a punch,” Garek said. “We only got hit by the shock waves as they exploded in close proximity to our shuttle, but that was enough to fracture the hull in several places. We’re lucky the shuttle didn’t rip itself apart before Jalisa could get us back to the Inquisitor.”
“So the Faros’ shields and their weapons are superior to ours,” Lucien said.
Tyra nodded. “Exactly. I think it’s safe to say that if we got into a straight fight with them, we’d lose, and badly. We need to avoid further confrontations at all costs.”
“What about the slaves?” Brak asked.
“We’re not out here to free slaves,” Tyra said. “And even if we were, I don’t think we’d be able to.”
Brak bared his teeth. “Coward.”
Tyra looked straight at him. “We never talked about what you did when our shuttle landed.”
Brak gazed unblinkingly back at her.
“Give me your insignia,” she said, holding out her hand.
Brak hissed, but made no move to obey the order. The single crimson bar of a champion remained glittering over the right breast of his jumpsuit.
“Lucien?” Tyra prompted.
He stood from the table with a grimace. “I’m sorry, buddy,” he said, walking over to his friend. It was Brak’s own fault. Even in the Paragons he would have been court-martialed for his behavior.
“I save all of you!” Brak roared, slamming his palm and his severed stump down on the table with a resounding boom.
“And we’re grateful for that,” Tyra said, “but it doesn’t change what you did.”
Lucien reached for Brak’s insignia and twisted it to deactivate the magnetic lock. The crimson bar fell away in his hand, and he walked back to hand it to Tyra.
“Your acts of restitution will be considered at your trial, but I think it’s safe to say that you won’t be allowed to join any future expeditions,” she said.
Brak pushed out his chair and stood, baring his teeth at Tyra. “Humans have no honor!” He deliberately looked away from her, indicating that she was unworthy of his sight—a grave insult in Gor culture. “I go to free slaves, and you punish me?”
Tyra lifted her chin to gaze up at him, but his eyes still eluded her. “It looked to me like you killed slaves, not set them free.”
Lucien remembered the shadow people they’d found scattered around the landing pad.
“They attack me when I try to free them!” Brak said.
“Which is exactly why you should have listened when I told you to stay with the shuttle,” Tyra replied.
Brak hissed loud enough to set Lucien’s teeth on edge, and then the Gor turned and stormed out of the ready room.
“I should go talk to him,” Lucien said.
“No, leave him,” Tyra replied. “I need you on the bridge to help fill in for Troo on the comms. Our next jump is coming up in… just three more minutes. If there aren’t any Faros there waiting for us, you can go talk to him then.”
Lucien nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Garek, I assume you have experience with the engineering console?”
“I’m not an engineer, but I could fill in for Tinker, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“It is. You’ll be our new chief engineer until he returns.”
“Aye, Captain,” Garek replied.
“Meeting adjourned,” Tyra declared. “Everyone back to your stations.”
On their way out of the ready room, Addy placed a hand on Lucien’s arm. He glanced at her, and she offered a wan smile. “I don’t have any duties on the bridge. I’ll go talk to Brak.”
“Thanks, Addy,” Lucien said, and let out a long sigh. He slowed his pace, drifting out of earshot of Tyra. “I feel like it’s my fault,” he whispered. “Brak came along because of me. He stayed for the adventure, but now he’s going to be sitting on the sidelines for the next eight years while we do all the exploring. I don’t even think there’s another Gor on Astralis to keep him company. He’s going to be utterly alone.”
“You can’t put all that on yourself. He’s responsible for his own actions. He had a choice. He made the wrong one.”
“His people were slaves,” Lucien replied. “And most of them died at the hands of their Sythian masters. The Faros aren’t a lot different from the Sythians. I don’t blame Brak for losing it. I probably would have, too.”
“Yeah…” Addy said. “Everyone’s a product of their past, aren’t they?”
The question was obviously rhetorical, but the way Addy said it sparked his curiosity. He glanced at her, about to ask more—
But the lights in the corridor dimmed to a bloody red and klaxons sounded. Pandora’s voice crackled out over the ship’s PA system. “Red alert! All hands to battle stations!”
Lucien hesitated for a split second.
“Go!” Addy said, giving him a sudden shove from behind.
Lucien sprinted down the corridor to the bridge with visions of cigar-shaped ships descending on their galleon in his mind’s eye.
“Sensors, report!” Tyra ordered.
“Two dozen capital-class vessels, the nearest at just under forty thousand klicks,” Pandora replied. “Visual profiles match the Faros’ vessels.”
“Two dozen? That’s twice as many as we found at Arachnai-1,” Tyra said.
“Looks like they called for backup,” Lucien said. “How did they find us?”
“They must have planted a tracking device on our shuttle after we landed,” Tyra said. “Pandora, jettison shuttle one immediately.”
“Aye, ma’am… shuttle away.”
“How long before we can jump again?” Tyra replied.
“We could plot a micro-jump to the nearest star in less than a second,” Pandora replied. “But the drive system needs twenty-six minutes to cool down and charge its capacitors after the last jump. There are seventeen minutes remaining.”
“Right,” Tyra replied. “Then that’s how long we need to last. Set course away from the enemy ships, full thrust.”
Lucien was surprised that the drive system only needed twenty-six minutes to cool down. All the galleons he’d been on required a full hour.
“They have us surrounded, ma’am,” Pandora said. “There is no way to set a course away from the enemy. Furthermore, their quantum jamming fields extend almost thirty-five thousand klicks from their vessels. Those fields will overlap our position long before our capacitors can recharge, and we will be unable to jump.”
“The bot’s right,” Garek said.
Tyra brought up a tactical map from her station and promptly frowned. “Commander Ortane, launch all fighters, but keep them close for now.”
“Launching fighters…” All six of them, he added to himself.
“How long before they reach firing range with us?” Tyra asked.
The deck shuddered, and they heard a muffled impact over the sound in space simulator (SISS). The lights on the bridge dimmed, and then brightened again as the shields drew extra power to absorb the attack.
“Taking fire from enemy lasers!” Garek announced. “Shields holding at 98%.”
“How’s that possible?” Tyra asked.
They were still thirty seven thousand klicks from the nearest enemy ship. That put the enemy’s effective laser range at more than double Astralis’s, which was in turn superior to that of any galleon Lucien had ever been on.
“We’re being hailed,” he said as the comms display lit up with an incoming message. “I think that was just a warning shot.”
“Don’t answer yet,” Tyra said. “Pandora…”
“We could jump out immediately if we shunted all the power from the shields and emergency reserves into our jump capacitors.”
“Theoretically, but there’s also a thirty-two percent chance that we’ll overload the system and trigger a catastrophic containment breach in the reactor core.”
“That’s better than the 100% chance we’ll be destroyed by those cruisers. Get ready to shunt power and jump away.”
“Aye aye,” Pandora replied.
A flurry of impacts sounded over the SISS and the deck vibrated continuously under their feet.
“Shields at 68%!” Garek called out. “You’d better shunt power fast, or there’s not going to be any left!”
Lucien sent Tyra a worried look. “If you shunt power away from the shields, we’ll be destroyed by the next attack.”
“Answer the hail, Commander. Tell them we surrender. That should get them to stop firing for a moment.”
Lucien did as he was told, and a familiar blue-skinned alien appeared on the main holo display. His gray robes, forked crown, and other glowing gold accessories left no doubt as to who this particular Faro was. He gave them a charming smile.
“We surrender,” Lucien said.
The alien nodded. “Wise of you to do so. Deactivate your quantum jamming field and drop your shields. I’ll be aboard with a squad of Elementals as soon as you have done so. Don’t keep me waiting.”
King Faro vanished from the screen.
“Elementals?” Garek asked aloud.
“Their version of Paragon marines,” Jalisa suggested.
“This is our chance,” Tyra said. “Pandora, drop shields, but not jamming, and shunt all the power to the jump capacitors. Jump out to a random star as soon as you can.”
“Shunting power… prepare for imminent destruction.”
Lucien felt an ominous shudder come through the deck, accompanied by a rising roar from the SISS; then a bright light suffused the bridge as they jumped away. When the brightness faded, it was replaced by another type of glare—a cold blue star at close range.
“Sensors, report!” Tyra said.
“All clear, ma’am. We are in a stable orbit around Panda-2.”
Jalisa burst out laughing, and the others joined her, diffusing the tension of their near-brush with death. Then the lights died, and their laughter died with them. Silence rang in the perfect darkness of their suddenly derelict vessel.
Artificial gravity went out with the lights, and Lucien felt his stomach do a queasy flip in zero G. “Not such a clean break, after all…” he whispered.
A split second later, the lights flickered back on, but much dimmer than before. Gravity also made a slow return and stabilized at a fraction of a standard G.
“Engineering! What happened?” Tyra demanded.
“Power reserves are reading well below critical levels—less than one percent,” Garek replied. “We’re dead in space, running on battery backups. Good news is all systems are still in the green. We got lucky. We’ll need at least four hours to recharge our capacitors, but after that we should be fine.”
“Great,” Tyra replied. “Pandora, how far did we jump?”
“Six point four light-years, ma’am.”
“Within spitting distance of the Faros’ fleet, then.”
“Aye, Captain. If you’d wanted me to calculate a more distant jump, you might have said so.”
“No, that’s fine, I’m just trying to take stock of our situation. How many other stars were in close proximity to our last stop?”
“That depends on your definition of close, ma’am.”
“Let’s define it as any star system that the Faros could guess we jumped to in the time that we had.”
“On average we can calculate one hundred and eighty four light-years per second. We took a fraction of a second to calculate our jump, but the Faros don’t know that, and they don’t know how fast our jump calculations are. At minimum, they’d have to systematically search several thousand star systems in order to find us.”
Tyra breathed a sigh. “Good. Then chances are we’re safe for now.”
“We left our fighters behind,” Lucien thought to mention.
“That’s unfortunate, but they were only machines,” Tyra said.
Lucien winced and glanced at Pandora’s station, but she didn’t seem to have noticed Tyra’s blatant disregard for the bots piloting their fighters.
A glimmer of light caught Lucien’s eye, drawing his gaze out the viewports, to the stars. His eyes found a bright orange speck, a planet, not a star. What kind of world is that? he wondered. Might it be habitable? Alien whispers skittered through his thoughts, darting through the shadows of his mind. He smiled at his own whimsy, but curiosity urged, tugging him out into the unknown. That planet seemed to be compelling him to visit it, as if it were a living thing reaching out to him across the void. Maybe they’d meet another sentient species there?
“We’ve got four hours to kill…” Lucien said. “Maybe we should explore this system?” It didn’t sound like something he would say, and he frowned at himself the moment he said it. The smart move would be to stay on board the Inquisitor and wait, in case the Faros found them. And yet, he felt inexplicably compelled to explore. But maybe that wasn’t so strange. Their mission was all about exploration. Doing nothing for four hours when they could be setting foot on alien worlds seemed like a gross waste of time.
Lucien turned to Tyra, tearing his gaze away from that orange planet with a physical effort. Suddenly he noticed how quiet the bridge had gotten. Everyone on board was staring fixedly out the viewports, as if mesmerized. A sudden thrill coursed through Lucien, prickling his skin. Maybe something really was calling out to them.
“Yes…” Tyra said, nodding slowly. “I think maybe we should. Pandora, you have the conn.”
“Yay,” Pandora said.
Tyra ignored the bot’s sarcasm. “Everyone else, follow me to Shuttle Bay Two.”
* * *
“They’re all lifeless rocks,” Jalisa said from the co-pilot’s seat of the shuttle.
Lucien nodded. “Lifeless might even be too kind for these planets.”
“That’s not surprising,” Tyra replied, leaning over their shoulders to get a look at the scan data. “We jumped to this star system at random, not because we detected it had planets in its habitable zone. Still, it’s worth exploring some of these worlds…. Who knows what we’ll find?”
“Well you’ve got a nice selection,” Lucien replied. “There’s hot rock A, cold rock B, or gas giant C, and more variations of the same. How about—”
“What about that one,” Tyra said, cutting him off and pointing to the warmest of the cold rocky planets—Panda-2D, a bright orange moon of one of the system's gas giants.
Lucien's skin prickled, and he felt that thrill of excitement again. He'd been about to suggest that planet himself, but Tyra had beat him to it. He brought up the scan data with trembling hands, and Tyra read the report:
“It has a nitrous atmosphere with traces of methane and ethane… an acceptable fraction of standard gravity, and—aha! It’s at least 50% water ice. Sounds perfect.”
“The atmosphere won’t be breathable, and you won’t find any liquid water,” Jalisa said.
“We might find liquid water beneath the crust if the planet has a hot core,” Tyra suggested. “Or if we find the water is part of a eutectic system.”
“A what?” Lucien asked.
“Two substances mixed together, like salt and water. Salt water freezes at a lower temperature than fresh water.”
“Well, salt water won’t cut it,” Jalisa said. “The surface temperature looks to be around ninety degrees kelvin on the day side.”
“That’s minus one hundred and eighty-three degrees Celsius,” Tyra said, nodding.
“We’d better hope our suit seals hold,” Jalisa said.
“Plot a micro-jump into orbit and land us in the warmest spot you can find,” Tyra replied. “We’ve only got four hours to explore before the Inquisitor is ready to jump again.”
“We could save time by jumping straight down into the atmosphere,” Lucien suggested, unable to contain his eagerness. “There’s no magnetic field to stop us.”
“Too risky,” Tyra replied. “Better to make a proper descent.”
Lucien nodded and began calculating the jump into orbit. It had been worth a shot. “Next stop… Snowflake.”
“That's a good name for it,” Jalisa said.
“Better than Panda-2D, anyway,” Tyra added.
The shuttle shuddered violently as they descended into the orange haze of Snowflake’s atmosphere. The atmosphere was thick, making it look like an orange gas giant from orbit, but at just 6500 kilometers in diameter, the planet was far too small to be a real gas giant.
Visibility decreased progressively on their way down to the surface, so they had to rely on sensors to see.
“The surface topography is interesting,” Jalisa said. “There’s mountains, canyons, lakes, rivers…”
“Mountains means there’s geological activity of some kind,” Tyra said from where she stood looking over their shoulders. “Maybe cryovolcanic activity from a subsurface ocean. If that’s the case, then it’s possible we could find something alive in that ocean.”
“So we’re chasing alien sea monsters,” Lucien said.
“Something like that.” Tyra pointed to the topographical map on one of Jalisa’s displays. “See if you can set down on the shore of that methane ocean.”
“An ocean of methane… isn’t that dangerous?” Jalisa asked. “We’re talking about natural gas. One spark and… boom.”
Tyra laughed. “Good luck making a spark. Without oxygen in the atmosphere nothing can burn.”
“But you said the planet is half water,” Lucien put in. “There’s oxygen in water.”
“I’m talking about elemental oxygen in the atmosphere,” Tyra replied. “And there’s not enough of that for us to worry. Trust me, if that ocean could ignite, it would have done so long before we got here.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Lucien said, and banked toward the ocean.
They landed just fifty meters from the shore, but it was impossible to see more than a few feet in any direction. The shuttle’s landing lights illuminated the dark yellow-orange murk, revealing dirty, whitish rocks and black sand.
“Looks delightful out there,” Lucien said.
“It’s all just rocks and sand,” Jalisa said, her nose wrinkled.
“You were expecting frozen fields of grass?” Tyra asked, her eyebrows raised.
“I think I’ll stay here, if that’s okay with you,” Jalisa replied.
“Suit yourself,” Tyra said. “Lucien?”
He nodded and stood up from the pilot’s chair. “We came all this way to see an alien ocean. I’d be remiss not to go for a swim before we leave.”
“Good luck! Liquid methane is less than half as dense as water. You’ll sink like a rock,” Tyra said on their way back through the cabin.
Lucien spied Garek and Addy sitting together in the back of the shuttle. Addy’s hand was resting on Garek’s arm. A flash of jealousy coursed through him at the sight of that.
He was surprised by his reaction. He’d turned Addy down, not the other way around, so why was he jealous?
“You two coming?” Tyra asked, nodding to Garek.
“Sure,” Garek said through a dry chuckle at something Addy had whispered in his ear.
Addy sauntered up to Lucien with a smile. “Something wrong, XO?”
“You had a funny look on your face. Still do.”
Lucien turned to the shuttle airlock. Tyra was already waiting inside with her helmet on.
“I’m fine. It’s time to go,” he said, and headed for the airlock, putting on his helmet as he went.
* * *
Lucien could feel the cold reaching for him through his faceplate. The chill was seeping in, a primal, unstoppable force, despite the fact that he’d turned his suit’s heater up to the max.
He shivered, and looked around. Chunks of dirty white rock lay everywhere. His suit’s scanner identified those rocks as chunks of ice. He picked up a pair of ice shards and struck them against each other, but nothing happened. No shattering, no chipping.
Tyra looked over at him. “At these temperatures the ice is as hard as rock,” she explained.
Lucien nodded slowly, as if he understood how that was possible. Black sand skrished under his feet, glittering in the pale yellow-orange light.
“Then what’s the sand?” he asked. Normal sand was made of grains of silicate rock that had been filed away by weather and water, but if these rocks weren’t rocks, then…
“The sand is hydrocarbon precipitation from the atmosphere,” Tyra said.
That sounded vague enough that it could be just about anything. Humans were hydrocarbons, so for all they knew they could be kicking around the ashes of some long-dead alien civilization.
Just so long as they’re not Faro ashes, Lucien thought. His skin prickled with goosebumps at the memory of those blue-skinned aliens. He felt an urgent need to turn around, to make sure nothing was creeping up behind him.
Listening to those instincts, he casually turned around, but he couldn’t see anything behind him, or anyone—just an impenetrable wall of orange mist. Even the shuttle had vanished into this planet’s murky atmosphere. Turning back to the fore, he realized he couldn’t even see Tyra anymore. The comms were disturbingly silent, too.
Panic gripped him, and his heart thudded in his chest. His breath reverberated loud and uneven inside his helmet, fogging the faceplate faster than the suit heater could clear it.
Drawing on his training, Lucien pushed down those feelings and activated a sensor overlay to pinpoint the others’ locations on his ARCs. Green-shaded outlines appeared, less than a dozen meters away, visible even through the murky atmosphere. But he still couldn’t hear them.
Then he thought to check his comms settings. He was still on the command channel. As soon as he switched to the away team’s channel, comms chatter immediately flooded his ears.
Relief washed through him, and Lucien’s heart resumed its normal pace. He chided himself for being so easily scared. He must have been more shaken by their encounter with the Faros than he realized.
Lucien headed toward the others, and they came swirling out of the murky haze. Tyra and Garek were busy setting up the shuttle’s drill, while Addy stood guarding the site. He walked over to her.
“Hey, Triple S,” he said.
Addy didn’t immediately reply, having apparently forgotten her nickname, but she turned to him as he approached.
“You like long walks on the beach?” he asked, grinning at her. He saw her smile back through her foggy faceplate.
“Do I ever,” she said. “Captain, do you mind if we…?”
“Go ahead. Make sure you get some samples of the ocean water for me. There’s sample containers in that storage crate over there—” Tyra pointed to it. “Find one that’s marked for liquids.”
“Got it,” Lucien said, already on his way to the crate. He grabbed one of the sample containers, a flask marked with an L for liquids, and clipped it to his belt before walking off with Addy.
She grabbed his hand, and he shot her a bemused look.
“Something on your mind, Lucien?” she asked.
“No… well, all right, yes. You and Garek…”
“Are you asking me, or telling me?” Addy replied. “You’re the one who turned me down, remember?”
“That’s because all you were offering was sex.”
Addy’s arm stiffened. “I’m sorry you misunderstood.”
“I did?” Lucien asked.
They reached the edge of the water and stood staring out over it—all twelve feet of it that they could see.
“Not big on views, this Snowflake of yours,” Addy said.
“No,” Lucien agreed.
“And yes, you misunderstood, you dumb… man.”
Lucien’s eyebrows shot up, but he waited for her to explain.
“Don’t look so surprised!” Addy said, punching his armored arm with her armored fist. His haptic sensors relayed the contact as a strong jolt.
“I’m sorry if I misjudged you,” Lucien said. “But you have to admit, you are pretty aggressive. You flirt with everyone.”
“That’s just how I am. I’m friendly.”
A little too friendly, maybe, Lucien thought, but didn’t say. “All right, let’s start over. Next time you try to sidle me away from the others, I won’t resist.”
“Maybe this time you should sidle me off.”
“What do you think I’m doing now?” Lucien asked.
Addy smiled again. “You have me there. What about you and the Tyrant?”
“What about her?” Lucien asked, surprised by the question.
“You’re not interested in her?” Addy asked.
“No.” He chuckled dryly. “Definitely not. Why would you think that?”
“The way you two get on each other’s nerves all the time, it seems like there’s enough sexual tension and repressed heat between the two of you to melt the ground we’re standing on.”
“That’s just regular old tension,” Lucien said.
“All right,” Addy replied, nodding. “Good. You still want to go for that swim?”
Lucien eyed the water dubiously. Small waves of methane rippled the surface and lapped the sandy shore. The water was surprisingly calm for an ocean. “From what I’ve heard, we’ll sink,” Lucien replied.
“You want to go for a sink, then?” Addy pressed.
Lucien laughed. “Doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it? Why not. Let’s see what’s on the ocean floor.”
They walked out together. The water felt surprisingly wet via their haptic sensors—so much so that Lucien had to double check his suit pressure to make sure that he hadn’t actually sprung a leak.
“The bottom’s sandy,” Addy said.
Lucien nodded and peered down through the rippled, perfectly transparent methane. It wasn’t cloudy with churned-up sediment and organic matter. In fact, it was easier to see through the methane than it was to see through the planet’s atmosphere.
They walked out up to their chests before Lucien stopped and glanced back the way they’d come. He could see Tyra and Garek on his sensor overlay as distant green-shaded specks, but he couldn’t see the shoreline anymore.
“We should go back,” he said.
“Come on, we’ve barely gotten our feet wet!” Addy said. “We’ve got enough oxygen to last hours, and our suits are hermetically sealed. What’s the worst that could happen? It gets too dark to see anything and we go back. You’d rather sit around watching the Tyrant drill holes in the ice?”
Lucien frowned. “I guess not.”
They kept going. As their heads slipped under the water, suddenly everything snapped into focus. They could finally see. The ocean floor undulated away from them in rippling waves of black sand. White ice rocks lay scattered here and there, and in the distance… a dark, jagged edge appeared where the ocean floor suddenly dropped away in an undersea cliff.
“Let’s check that out!” Addy said, pointing to the cliff. She ran in a slow-motion, bouncing gait produced by a combination of the planet’s light gravity and the moderately buoyant liquid methane.
“Wait up!” Lucien called after her.
They reached the cliff together, but Addy’s momentum carried her right over it. She called out in alarm, but Lucien managed to grab her arm and pull her back up.
“You all right?” he asked.
She nodded, and they took a moment to catch their breath. It was impossible to see the bottom of the cliff with so little visible light. Lucien snapped on his headlamps. Because the water was so clear, there was nothing to refract the light, and their visibility increased a hundred-fold.
“There’s the bottom!” Addy said, turning on her headlamps, too.
“It’s at least fifty meters down,” Lucien said. “Fifty-two,” he amended after a glance at his range-finder.
“We should go down and take a look. Maybe there’s some kind of cave to explore? We might find life before Tyra does!”
Lucien had to catch Addy’s arm again to stop her from leaping off the cliff. “We don’t know what’s down there.”
“That’s kind of the point of exploring…” Addy replied. “Scared we’ll run into a sea monster?”
That lives in a methane ocean? Not likely. “All right, but we’d better keep an eye on the time. We had four hours to explore when we left the galleon, and it’s already been… an hour and twenty minutes,” Lucien said as he checked the time on his ARCs. “We’ve got two hours and forty minutes left. That gives us a maximum of another hour and twenty minutes to explore or else we won’t be able to get back to the shuttle in time to leave.”
“Aye aye, Commander.” Addy grabbed his hand and leapt over the cliff, pulling him over with her.
Lucien turned as they drifted down to see that the cliff was made up of distinct layers, each one marked by a dark band of hydrocarbon sand, followed by a white band of ice.
They fell past the cliff at an ever-increasing rate, picking up a surprising amount of speed as they approached the bottom.
They fired their grav boosters to slow down, but when they touched down, they still kicked up giant glittering clouds of black sand. Lucien looked up and felt suddenly very small standing at the base of the sheer, icy cliffs. His headlamps revealed a dim, rippled ceiling far above them—the surface of the ocean.
“Now what?” Lucien asked as he lowered his gaze to scan the ocean floor. “All I see is more of the same.”
“Over there,” Addy said, pointing down the line of cliffs. “Three hundred meters. There’s a cave entrance.” She turned to him with a grin. “What did I tell you?”
They headed for the cave. It was slow going, but they eventually made it. Tyra checked in with them on the comms along the way, and Lucien filled her in on their exploration plans. She told them to be careful, and reminded him about the methane sample, which he promised to take before they came back.
Looking into the cave from the entrance, they found that it was the beginning of a long icy tunnel, cylindrical and smooth, that descended sharply into the frozen crust of the world.
“Where do you think it goes?” Addy asked wonderingly.
“I’m not sure I want to find out,” Lucien replied.
“Really? You’re not the least bit curious?”
Lucien arched an eyebrow at her. “What I find curious is that you are so curious. Let me guess, one of your hobbies on New Earth was spelunking?”
“Among other things. I also like level-jumping and grav racing.”
“Level-jumping…” Lucien replied slowly.
“You know, where you jump from Level One to the ground with nothing but goggles and grav boosters,” Addy explained.
“I know what it is. I’m just surprised that you’re such a risk-taker.”
“I’m surprised that you’re not,” Addy countered. “Isn’t that what this mission is all about? It’s one big free-fall through space to the cosmic horizon.”
Lucien snorted. “I guess. So that’s the reason you came? For the thrill?”
“One of the reasons,” Addy said, turning away from him. “So, are you coming with me, or am I exploring this cave on my own?”
“I guess we can explore a little more,” he said, checking the time again.
The sandy bottom didn’t extend very far into the cave. As the sand disappeared, the icy floor became so slick that they had to reverse the polarity of their grav boosters and dial them up over 1.5 Gs before they could walk without slipping. Even then, they had to grab the walls for support.
“What other reasons did you have for joining the mission?” Lucien asked, as they descended into the cave.
Addy didn’t answer immediately, so he went on, “After the meeting in the Captain’s Ready Room, you said that we’re all products of our past. Did something happen in yours to make you want to leave everything behind?”
“Leave everything behind?” Addy echoed. “I didn’t have anything to leave.”
“What about family? Friends? A boyfriend?” Lucien asked.
“I had a couple of friends,” Addy replied. “Not very close, but that’s probably my fault. I have a habit of pushing people away.”
“No family? You’re an orphan? How’s that possible?”
“Not technically an orphan, no. When I graduated and became a champion, my parents decided to go to Etheria.”
“Oh. I’m sorry,” Lucien said.
Addy shrugged. “I’m used to it. They weren’t the first people to leave me. My best friend decided to go to Etheria when I was fourteen. He wanted me to go with him. I wanted him to stay, but he wouldn’t stay for me. It sounds stupid now, but we were in love, and I was going to marry that stupid skriff someday. I guess it is stupid….”
“No, it’s not,” Lucien said. “You lost the people that mattered most to you. They’re not dead, but it still hurts.”
“They may as well be dead,” Addy replied.
“Did you ever go visit any of them?”
“My parents sent for me once or twice, but I refused to go. It’s a long trip,” she explained. “I couldn’t spare the time from my studies.”
“I have a half-brother living in Etheria with his wife and kids. It is hard to visit. I’ve also only seen him a few times, but that shouldn’t stop you from going.”
“They were the ones who left me,” Addy replied. “Maybe they should have thought about the consequences of that before they left.”
Hearing the bitterness in Addy’s voice, Lucien hesitated before giving a reply. This was obviously an emotionally charged topic for her. “They didn’t leave because of you,” he said quietly. “They must have had plenty of good reasons for leaving. New Earth isn’t exactly a paradise.”
“And Etheria is? Etherians get to know everything, they always do the right thing, and they’re all equally wealthy. Where’s the fun in that? There’s no reason to explore, or strive, or struggle.”
“I’m pretty sure Etherus still lets them go spelunking and free-falling through planetary atmospheres if they want to,” Lucien said.
“Yeah, maybe,” Addy said. “But what about real adventure? Exploring the unknown? If they want to know what they’ll find at some distant star, or even at the cosmic horizon, he’ll just tell them, and they won’t even have to make the trip.”
“So you’re basically making the opposite of Tyra’s argument. You’re saying it would be a bad thing if Etherus told us everything He knows.”
Addy snorted. “She doesn’t know what she’s asking for. None of the clerics do. You ever read a book?”
“Sure,” Lucien said.
“A fictional one, for fun. Not a textbook.”
“Well, the next time you do, try reading the ending first,” Addy said.
“Why would I do that?”
“Exactly,” Addy said.
Lucien nodded slowly. “I think I get it. You’re saying the unknown is what makes life interesting and telling us everything we want to know would spoil that.”
“Exactly. Ever wonder why the Etherians never leave Etheria?”
Lucien hadn’t thought about it. He’d never seen an Etherian outside of Etheria except for Etherus. Maybe they weren’t allowed to travel, or maybe there was no point to Etherians traveling beyond their galaxy if they already knew what they’d find.
They came to a fork in the cave, and Addy stopped walking. “Left or right?” she asked, sweeping her headlamps from side to side.
“Do you read the endings of books first?” Lucien asked.
“Of course not,” Addy replied.
“But you could, if you wanted to.”
“Why would I?”
“I think it’s the same thing. Just because Etherians can ask Etherus to reveal every mystery in the universe doesn’t mean that they do or that He does, and just because everyone there has a good quality of life, doesn’t mean that they don’t have to work or strive. Etherians are not human, and they’re not driven by selfish desires. They think differently than we do. Their work isn’t about getting rich and gaining an advantage over their peers, it’s about accomplishing things. Look at ants, they work hard, but they can’t get rich by doing so.”
Addy regarded him with a frown. “Sounds like maybe you should go to Etheria. If that’s how you think, then what are you doing here? Why did you join the mission, Lucien?”
He didn’t have a chance to reply. A new voice joined their conversation, rippling through the comm speakers inside their helmets.
“Yes, why did you join the mission, Lucien?”
For a moment he thought it was Garek, but this voice was not gruff and gravelly like Garek’s—it was silky and smooth.
Lucien whirled around, his headlamps peeling back the darkness inside the cave.
“I know that voice…” Addy said with a tremor in her voice. She swept her headlamps around, looking for the source.
“I’m glad to hear it,” the voice went on. “I’d be insulted if you’d forgotten me already.”
“How is he on our comms?” Addy demanded.
“Must have hacked the encryption,” Lucien said. He changed channel to speak with the others back at the shuttle. “Tyra, we’ve got company!”
“She’s busy,” the voice intoned. “You’ll have to call back later.”
A tall blue-skinned humanoid with a luminous gold crown and flowing gray robes came striding up the tunnel on the left. He wasn’t wearing a pressure suit or any armor despite the frigid methane swirling all around him.
Before either Lucien or Addy could react, another Faro came striding up the tunnel to their right, also without a pressure suit or any substantial armor. This one didn’t wear a crown on his bald blue head, and his robes were black with glowing silver arm bands, claws, and gauntlets.
Both Faros slowly drew shimmering transparent swords from scabbards on their backs.
Lucien flicked an urgent glance at Addy. He didn’t need to say it, but he did anyway—
They ran back the way they’d come as fast as they could, with power-assist turned up to the max. Lucien kept expecting a ball of plasma to slam into him from behind, but it never came. Maybe the Faros knew better. What would superheated plasma do in a cave filled with freezing liquid methane? The sudden explosion of methane expanding as it boiled into a gas might just be violent enough to kill them all—that, or the methane would simply dissipate the energy harmlessly before it reached them.
Lucien risked glancing over his shoulder to see the two Faros gaining on them.
“Keep running!” he urged.
Up ahead, Addy gave no reply, but he heard her breathing hard over the comms. As they ran, questions swirled through Lucien’s brain. How had the Faros found them? They’d ditched the other shuttle before jumping away, so it couldn’t have been a tracking device—unless they’d somehow attached one to the Inquisitor’s hull, too. Then there was the fact that the Faros were down here in a frigid ocean of liquid methane, not wearing pressure suits or armor of any kind. Didn’t they need to breathe? And how was it possible that they hadn’t frozen to death?
The only thing Lucien could think of was that the Faros were more mechanical than biological.
He and Addy burst out of the caves and blasted off the ocean floor with their grav boosters firing at full strength. Lucien looked down as they rocketed to the surface, and he caught a glimpse of the blue-skinned aliens rising swiftly after them.
They broke the surface and roared up into the murky orange atmosphere, quickly losing all sense of direction. Lucien activated all the sensor overlays he could think of to keep his bearings.
The ground appeared as a white wireframe with only the most basic features and the largest rocks detailed. Small green-shaded outlines appeared in the distance, revealing where Tyra and Garek were. Another green outline popped up on his left—Addy. The shuttle was a green blob, and red-shaded outlines marked the Faros. There were three of them—two below, and coming up fast, and one in close proximity to Tyra and Garek.
“We need to get back to the shuttle!” Lucien said, but he didn’t have to tell Addy that. She was already on her way.
It only took them a few seconds of flying to reach the shuttle. They landed beside the rear airlock, and Lucien hesitated there with Addy, wondering what to do. Tyra and Garek were cut off, over a hundred meters away.
Then the Faros they’d met in the caves landed in front of them, and there was no more time to hesitate. Lucien thrust out his hands and fired the grav boosters in his palms at full strength, aiming for the Faro with a crown.
Both the alien and Lucien went flying backward. Lucien slammed into the airlock doors. Addy slammed into the doors beside him, after firing her grav boosters at the other Faro.
Lucien pushed off the doors with a grunt and waved the airlock open. He dragged Addy inside and shut the airlock before the Faros could recover.
Precious seconds slipped away as the airlock cycled. Then Lucien remembered Jalisa up in the cockpit. He was about to tell her to take off, when the shuttle lurched off the ground, and she said. “Hang on back there!”
As soon as the crimson light of decontamination faded and the airlock opened, Lucien ran up to the cockpit and fell into the co-pilot’s chair beside Jalisa.
“We need to get out of here,” she said.
“We’re not leaving anyone behind,” Lucien replied. “Make a low pass. Let’s see how those personal shields fare against the shuttle’s laser.”
“The tickler?” Jalisa asked.
“It might be weak for a spaceship, but it’s still a hundred times stronger than our suits’ lasers.”
Lucien fired at the Faro attacking Tyra and Garek. A brilliant beam of red light shot out, illuminating the dense atmosphere like lightning. The laser hit its target, and the red-shaded outline became suffused by a sudden bloom of blinding light. When the light faded, the Faro was gone.
“Now that’s more like it!” Lucien crowed, already scanning for his next target.
The other two Faros were closing on Tyra and Garek, but suddenly they flew off at high speed, using some Farosien equivalent of grav boosters. They flew so fast that Lucien briefly lost track of them in the murky atmosphere. Then he found one, headed straight for the shuttle’s belly cannon. He jerked the joystick trigger, firing another shot, but the alien thrust out its palm and fired a burst of plasma in the same instant.
The scene disappeared in a burst of light, replaced by an error message. “Damn it! They took out the laser,” Lucien said. Glancing at the shuttle’s scopes, he found only one red blip remaining, which meant that he’d killed the Faro who’d taken out the laser cannon. He hoped it had been the crown-wearing warlord.
Lucien pointed to the sensor grid. Two green blips were flying toward them at high speed. “Open the airlock!”
“Are you crazy?” Jalisa asked, sending him a wide-eyed look.
Lucien opened the doors himself.
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Jalisa said.
“So do I,” Lucien said, already jumping up from the co-pilot’s chair. “Addy! Get ready! We’re about to have some company!” He raced back into the cabin and found her already reaching into one of the weapons lockers. She handed him a large rifle that fired guided explosive rounds, and she took a hypervelocity cannon for herself. The barrel was as long as she was tall.
Lucien stared wide-eyed at their weapons. “The point is to defend the shuttle, not blow it apart!”
“So make sure you don’t miss,” Addy said.
They heard thunking sounds inside the airlock, and Lucien saw through the inner doors that two green-shaded outlines were clinging to the zero-G rails, one inside, and one dangling out the back.
“Level out!” Tyra ordered over the comms in a strained voice.
Jalisa stopped climbing just in time for someone else to land inside the airlock. A red-shaded outline.
“Screw this!” Addy said. “Get clear of the doors!” she called over the comms. After only a momentary hesitation, she fired her cannon and blew the inner doors apart. The shrapnel got sucked out along with all the air in the cabin as the shuttle depressurized.
Lucien caught a brief glimpse of a bald, blue-skinned alien with black robes tumbling out the airlock. He must have killed the crown-wearing Faro with the shuttle’s laser. King Faro / “Lucien” was dead.
“A little help over here?” Tyra asked. She was the one dangling out the back of the shuttle. Garek walked over and yanked her in. She collapsed on the deck as soon as the shuttle’s gravity took over. She lay there wheezing from the exertion—and the pain of her injuries.
Her left arm was missing from the elbow down. She had a combination bandage/suit patch over the stump, but even so, what was left of her arm had to be frozen stiff.
“Are you all right?” Lucien asked, hurrying to give her a hand.
Tyra nodded as he and Garek helped her stumble through the airlock into the cabin.
“Jalisa, get us out of here before that thing comes back!” Garek said as he waved the outer airlock doors shut. He appeared to be in one piece, but his faceplate was cracked, and there was a deep furrow carved into the breastplate of his suit.
Up ahead, the doors to the cockpit were sealed. They’d automatically shut when the cabin lost pressure.
Lucien went to look out the small windows in the rear doors of the airlock, and watched as the orange haze of Snowflake fell away below them. The world flashed white as Jalisa micro-jumped them from a low orbit back to the Inquisitor. A few minutes later a fuzzy blue shield swept over his view of space as they flew inside the galleon’s hangar. A boarding tunnel swept out to greet them. As soon as he heard it seal, Lucien tried to wave the doors open, but they wouldn’t respond.
“Cabin’s depressurized,” Garek reminded him, walking up to the control panel. “We’ll have to override the airlock. Everyone brace yourselves!”
The airlock opened and a sudden gust of air slammed into them. Lucien rocked back on his heels, almost falling over.
“Everyone to the bridge!” Tyra croaked, running past them.
They ran after her.
“Pandora?” Tyra began.
“Start calculating a jump to another random system.”
“We still have another hour before our capacitors finish charging.”
“Damn it!” Tyra said, panting over the comms as they ran through the ship.
“And we don’t know how they followed us here,” Pandora reminded. “Chances are good that they’ll follow us again.”
“We can’t just sit around waiting for one of those capital ships to show up and blast us!” Tyra replied.
“It’s already here.”
“What? Why didn’t you say something?”
“It only just appeared, ma’am. I believe it has some type of cloaking shield.”
“Range to target?”
“Eighty-six thousand klicks. Well outside of their last known weapons range—but they are coming about on an intercept course,” Pandora replied.
“Set course away from the enemy at maximum thrust,” Tyra said.
“Aye, ma’am. Setting course…”
“They’re still gaining on us, Captain,” Pandora announced. “ETA to enemy’s last-known weapons range, ten minutes, seven seconds and counting.”
“It’s going to come down to a slugging match,” Lucien said.
“Not if they hold back, keeping out of range of our guns,” Jalisa said.
Lucien frowned. She was right. The Faros had demonstrated superior weapons range and superior speed, so they didn’t have to risk getting hit at all. They could dance around the Inquisitor firing their lasers all day long. “We’ll have to fire back with missiles,” he said.
“No point. At this range they’ll have plenty of time to shoot them down,” Jalisa replied.
“Why haven’t they jumped closer to us?” Garek asked. “Our jamming field only extends to thirty thousand klicks. They’ve shown that their effective laser range is around forty thousand, so they could jump straight into range with us.”
“They must still be waiting for their jump capacitors to recharge,” Pandora said.
How long had it been since they’d encountered the Faros in the cave? Lucien wondered. At least twenty minutes. Assuming the Faros’ drives had a similar cycle time to the Inquisitor’s, that didn’t leave very long before the Faros could jump again.
“If they just jumped here, how did they get down to the planet so fast?” Tyra asked, her voice noticeably weaker than usual.
Lucien glanced at her. She was pale, and her brow was beaded with sweat. Garek had dressed her severed arm when they’d peeled out of their exosuits, and he’d given her a shot for the pain, but meds weren’t magic, and she was obviously still battling something.
“They couldn’t have taken a shuttle down in that time,” Jalisa said.
“Maybe they jumped their people straight to the surface,” Addy suggested from where she was filling in for Troo at the comms control station.
“With no way of returning to their ship?” Jalisa asked.
“They could always send a shuttle down afterward,” Lucien said. “Or maybe they planned to steal ours.”
“It’s all academic at this point,” Tyra said. “What we need to figure out—” She interrupted herself with a ragged breath. “—is how they found us.”
“They spoke over our comms,” Lucien said, “so they’re definitely hacking us.”
“Which means they may have hacked the Inquisitor, too,” Pandora said. “That may be how they followed us here. A virus could have given away our position without us noticing.”
“Run a deep systems scan,” Tyra ordered.
“Aye, Captain,” Pandora replied.
“It won’t matter if we find the virus if they manage to destroy or disable us before we can jump out again,” Lucien said. “What if we send a distress call to Astralis? The Faros already know where we are, anyway.”
“They won’t come,” Tyra said.
“What? Why not?”
“It’s against protocol,” she replied.
Pandora explained, “It’s easier to resurrect us than to send good ships after bad and risk losing them all.”
Lucien snorted. “I love how you clerics think.”
Pandora chimed in, “If we get into an all-out war with every hostile force we encounter beyond the red line, we’re not going to make it very far.”
“So why not just give up? Let them kill us, or better yet, we should self-destruct our own ship,” Lucien said.
“It may come to that, but there’s still a chance we might save our galleon,” Tyra said. “How far can our sensors reach inside of Snowflake’s atmosphere?”
“All the way to the surface, ma’am,” Pandora replied.
“Then we can’t hide down there,” Tyra said.
“Maybe we don’t need to,” Jalisa said. “The atmosphere is dense enough to scatter lasers badly. They’d only reach us with a fraction of their strength. They’d have to resort to kinetic weapons and missiles to do any damage. Hypervelocity rounds would burn up on entry, leaving only missiles as a viable threat, and we should still be able to intercept those with our own lasers.”
“Depending on how many missiles they shoot at us,” Lucien pointed out. “They could overwhelm our point defenses.”
“It’s better than staying up here where they can sit out of range and shoot us all day with laser cannons,” Jalisa said. “At least with missiles we know that they have to run out eventually.”
“Agreed,” Tyra replied. “Pandora, take us down. Fly as low as you can without crashing into anything.”
“Aye, ma’am. I’ll fly over the ocean,” Pandora said.
Snowflake’s orange atmosphere swelled in the bridge’s main forward viewports as the galleon dipped toward the planet. Soon their view was shuddering with turbulence and glowing around the edges from friction with the planet’s atmosphere. A deafening roar accompanied their descent, and unsecured items rattled around the bridge, despite the galleon’s inertial management system and artificial gravity.
A thick orange haze swept over all the viewports, blotting them out and casting the bridge in a dim orange light. It would be hard for the Faros to target them through that murk. Lucien gave a grim smile and leaned forward, gripping the armrests of his chair.
“We might just make it through this after all,” he said.
“That’s the plan,” Tyra replied, her eyes on a sensor display that she’d summoned from her control station. “The enemy is four minutes from firing range,” she said quietly.
The methane ocean swept up out of the gloomy orange atmosphere, and the galleon leveled out, skimming low over the surface. The ocean blurred by impossibly fast, looking like an endless sheet of glass.
“Missiles incoming!” Pandora announced.
Lucien summoned a sensor grid and watched as red blips streamed out from the enemy cruiser.
“Jalisa—!” Tyra began, her voice rising in alarm.
“I see them! Guns tracking!”
The leading wave of missiles took their time to reach the upper atmosphere, but as soon as they did, Lucien heard muffled screeches coming through the bridge speakers as their bot gunners opened fire on the enemy ordnance.
Simulated streaks of red light snapped up from the Inquisitor, and pinprick-sized explosions flared on the grid, beating back the waves of incoming missiles.
“We’re holding them off!” Jalisa announced.
“How long before our jump capacitors are charged?” Tyra asked.
“Thirty-eight minutes remaining,” Pandora announced.
Tyra nodded. “They’ll run out of missiles before then.”
“They could follow us down into the atmosphere,” Lucien said. “If they close to point-blank range, their lasers will still be effective against us.”
“At least we’ll be able to shoot back,” Jalisa said.
Pandora spoke up, “I should also point out that we are now in range of the enemy’s quantum jamming field. We cannot jump away while that field is engaged and in range of us.”
“Then we’ll just have to defeat them,” Tyra replied.
“The enemy is launching fighters!” Pandora said.
“We don’t have any fighters left to defend us,” Lucien said.
“Enemy fighters are launching missiles!” Jalisa warned.
The number of missiles swarming toward them suddenly increased by a factor of ten.
“We won’t be able to get them all!” Jalisa warned.
“ETA ten minutes before the first missiles reach us,” Pandora said.
“Krak!” Lucien cursed, drawing glances from the rest of the crew. Paragons never cursed.
“Given our current rate of interception, how many missiles will reach us?” Tyra asked.
“Twenty-seven, approximately,” Pandora replied. “But the enemy is still launching ordnance, so that number is rising.”
“Can our shields hold off twenty-seven missiles?”
“Based on estimated payloads from our previous encounter with the enemy, our galleon would be destroyed after only twenty,” Pandora replied.
“We should evacuate in the shuttles,” Lucien said. “Some of them might be able to jump back to Astralis.”
“And lead the Faros straight to them?” Tyra challenged. “We’re not going back there, Commander. Not until we know that we won’t be followed.”
Lucien shook his head. “Then I’m out of ideas.”
“We could take the galleon down to the ocean floor,” Pandora suggested. “The Liquid methane will be the perfect shield, absorbing any laser fire, and their missiles are going fast enough that they will detonate on the surface. We’ll be perfectly safe.”
“Do it. Find the deepest part of the ocean and take us down,” Tyra ordered.
“Aye aye, Captain,” Pandora replied. “There’s a trench not too far from here with a depth of more than two hundred kilometers. Will that do?”
“Two hundred kilometers?” Lucien echoed.
“That will do just fine,” Tyra said. “Take us to the bottom.”
“Laying in a course…” Pandora said.
Lucien turned to Tyra. “If there are any sea monsters on this planet, I think we’re about to find them.”
Tyra shook her head and leaned back in her chair. Her eyes fluttered shut, as if she were too exhausted to hold them open any longer. “Doubtful…” she whispered. “Maybe in the subsurface ocean, but not this one.”
“How far down is that? Could we get from one ocean to the other at the bottom of the trench?” Lucien asked, already thinking of ways to put more distance between them and the enemy.
“There’ll be a thick layer of ice separating the oceans,” Tyra replied slowly. She gave a shuddering sigh and her chin dropped to her chest, as if she’d just fallen asleep.
Lucien frowned, watching her. Tyra’s condition was deteriorating fast. Whatever meds she’d taken were obviously wearing off.
“Tyra?” he asked.
But she didn’t reply.
“Garek! Get up here! Something’s wrong with the captain!”
“She’s out cold,” Lucien said.
Garek passed a scanner over Tyra. “It’s hemorrhagic shock. She must have lost more blood than I realized. I need to get her down to med bay for a transfusion.”
“You didn’t check for shock earlier?” Lucien asked.
“She wasn’t going into shock earlier, and she refused to go to med bay when I suggested it,” Garek replied.
“Well, now she doesn’t have a choice,” Lucien replied. “Take her down.”
Garek nodded and unclipped a grav gun from his belt. He used it to float Tyra out of her chair and off the bridge. Lucien watched them leave.
“Two minutes until the first wave of missiles reaches us,” Jalisa announced.
“We have reached the trench,” Pandora added. “Taking us down.”
“That was good timing,” Addy said.
Lucien saw the glassy smooth surface of the methane ocean snap into sharper focus as they slowed down. Small ripples appeared, waves produced by surface winds. Then their forward movement ceased entirely, and the galleon started down. The hull touched the surface with a loud slap, and a dim, fuzzy wall of liquid methane swept away the orange haze of Snowflake’s atmosphere. Pandora turned on the galleon’s landing lights, and rippled black sand appeared on the ocean floor far below. The trench was as a broad black slash of impenetrable shadows coming up directly below them.
Muffled explosions sounded over the bridge speakers.
“What was that?” Lucien asked as the galleon rocked in the shock waves.
“Enemy missiles are exploding on the surface,” Pandora replied.
Lucien smiled. “Tyra’s plan is working.”
“Tyra’s plan?” Pandora echoed, her voice shrill. “It was I who suggested it, sir.”
“Doesn’t matter whose plan it was,” Lucien said, while inwardly smiling at the bot’s outrage. “What matters is that it’s working.”
“Yes, sir,” Pandora said. “I am detecting evidence of cryovolcanic activity at the bottom of the trench. There are places where the ice is very thin from repeated eruptions of liquid water.”
“Interesting,” Lucien replied. “So we could blast a hole and fly down into the other ocean.”
“We would need a great deal of firepower, but yes, I believe that’s possible,” Pandora said. “We’d have to time it perfectly, however, as the hole would freeze back over very quickly.
“Why go down there?” Addy asked.
“If we can get deep enough, there’ll be too much quantum impedance for their cruiser’s jamming field to reach us,” Lucien said.
“Or for ours to reach them,” Jalisa replied. “They could jump their cruiser down right next to us and have at us with their cannons.”
“Possibly…” Lucien trailed off with a frown. Something about venturing into the subsurface ocean seemed like a viable strategy, but with the bottom of the trench still so far away, he had more pressing concerns. “How long before those enemy fighters reach us?”
“Not long, sir. Less than ten minutes,” Pandora said.
“If they join us below the surface, they won’t be able to shoot us,” Lucien mused aloud. “Their missiles’ propulsion systems won’t work, and lasers will dissipate instantly in liquid methane.”
“They could still shoot us with hypervelocity cannons,” Jalisa said.
“Assuming they have any,” Lucien replied.
“They might also try to ram us,” Addy put in.
“They’ll be limited to grav lifts for propulsion, so they won’t be able to reach a high enough velocity to do any damage,” Lucien replied. “Besides, they’ll be easy targets for our hypervelocity cannons. Tyra’s plan is fool-proof.”
“My plan,” Pandora insisted.
“How much longer before we can jump out?” Lucien asked.
“Twenty minutes, sir.”
“Any luck finding the virus they’ve been using to track us?”
“My scans haven’t found anything yet. I’m running another, deeper scan to double-check.”
“Keep me posted.”
“Maybe it’s not a virus?” Addy asked. “We assumed they put a tracking device on our shuttle, but they might have put one on the Inquisitor instead.”
“They would have needed to disrupt our shields long enough to attach the device,” Lucien said, shaking his head. “The Inquisitor’s shields never failed, did they?”
“No, sir,” Pandora said.
“What if they fired the device into our hangar bay when our shuttle was coming aboard?” Addy asked.
“Or the tracking device was on our shuttle, but it detached and found a new home inside the hangar bay as soon as we came aboard,” Lucien said. “Pandora, send a detail of bots to scan Shuttle Bay One.”
“And figure out how many missiles we’ll need to blast a hole into the ocean below this one. Try to maneuver us into position over the thinnest section of the trench floor.”
“What about the enemy cruiser?” Addy asked. “If they jump down into that ocean to follow us…”
Lucien considered it for a moment. Then he realized what it was about the plan that interested him. “They can’t jump down there. Liquids are extremely difficult to compress, and with all the pressure the subsurface ocean is already under, I doubt it can compress any further. Quantum jumping into the ocean will displace water, but it won’t have anywhere to go. The pressure will be so immense that it will crush them in seconds.”
“Won’t that happen to us, too?”
“Not if we blow a hole between the oceans and fly through. As we cross from one ocean to another there’ll be a natural exchange of liquids around our ship.”
“The commander is right,” Pandora said. “Tyra’s plan will work.”
“Tyra’s not even here… how could it be her plan?” Lucien asked.
“Oh, I thought that was something we were doing—giving all the credit to our illustrious captain.”
Lucien smiled. “Touche.”
One of the trench walls swept up in front of them as they started down into the trench. They fell past endless layers of ice and black sediment that shone brightly under the Inquisitor’s landing lights. Sensors revealed they were now at a depth of more than fifteen hundred meters, but they still had a long way to go to get to the bottom of the trench.
Time passed at an agonizing pace. The enemy fighters joined them in the ocean at a range or depth disparity of almost three kilometers.
“Enemy fighters are dropping missiles on us!” Jalisa said.
“Dropping?” Lucien asked with a knowing smile. The missiles would never reach them propelled by gravity alone.
“Wait—no, enemy ordnance is speeding toward us at… fifty-two meters per second and climbing,” Jalisa replied.
Lucien blinked. “How is that possible?”
“They appear to be using some type of grav guns on their fighters to accelerate the missiles,” Pandora said. “ETA to impact is less than one minute.”
“Intercept the missiles with our hypervelocity cannons,” Lucien ordered.
“Already on it, sir,” Jalisa replied.
Hypervelocity cannons were too slow to hit most targets in space, where engagements were fought at a range of thousands of kilometers. But down here, with a range of just three kilometers, those cannons would hit their targets almost instantly. The projectiles would move slower in liquid methane than vacuum, but still more than fast enough.
Lucien watched on the sensor grid as a golden stream of cannon fire flashed up from their galleon to eradicate the descending waves of enemy ordnance. Explosions flared, peppering the grid with light. Moments later, the Inquisitor began rocking violently in the shock waves. Those explosions were more powerful than Lucien had expected, but he should have anticipated that. Millions of liters of liquid methane were boiling into a gas with each explosion, and that rapid expansion was magnifying the shock waves.
“We’re not going to get them all…” Jalisa warned.
“What? Why not?” Lucien demanded.
“We don’t have enough cannons!” Jalisa said. “Brace for impact!”
The first missile streaked in with a boom that rattled the bridge speakers. Vibrations shuddered through the deck, and an ominous groan sounded somewhere deep inside the galleon.
“What was that?”
“That hit must have weakened a beam somewhere…” Pandora said, her holoreceptors scanning the ceiling as if it might cave in at any moment.
Boom! Another missile hit, followed by another, and another, and then four more in quick succession. Beneath the rumbling roar of those explosions, Lucien heard the ship’s hull groaning insistently.
“They’re targeting the same spot!” Jalisa warned.
“Something’s wrong…” Addy said, her eyes tracking the ceiling as the hull gave another, much louder groan.
Lucien looked up from the grid to gaze out into the shadowy depths of the methane ocean. “What pressure is our hull rated for?”
“More than five hundred atmospheres, sir,” Pandora said, “but with shields at maximum strength, we can theoretically withstand over thirty thousand.”
“And current pressure is?”
“Only one hundred and eighty.”
The galleon’s hull should have been able to resist that pressure handily. The fact that it wasn’t meant those missiles were somehow disrupting their shields.
Two more impacts sounded, followed by a sudden shriek of fatigued metal. Another explosion roared through the bridge speakers, and this one was louder than all of the others combined. The Inquisitor listed suddenly to one side.
Lucien’s eyes flew wide. “Report! What happened?”
“We’ve sprung a leak!” Garek replied.
“Liquid methane mixed with the atmosphere in one of our compartments and ignited, blowing a hole in the side of our ship,” Pandora added. “Multiple compartments are flooding now. If there’s another spark…”
Lucien didn’t need further explanation. “Vent the air out of all of the affected areas!” he ordered.
“We can’t vent the air without fans, and fans could generate sparks,” Garek said. “I’ve shut down all the machinery and electrical conduits in those sections and sealed them off. That should prevent another explosion.”
But Pandora shook her head. “There’s still a chance of electrostatic discharge as the air trapped in those compartments cools.”
“How likely is that?” Lucien asked, his heart pounding.
“Hard to say,” Pandora replied. “I’d estimate our chance of survival at approximately one in two.”
“A coin toss,” Lucien replied.
“Yes, sir. We’ll know which side we come out on in just a few seconds.”
Lucien glanced out the viewports once more and sucked in a deep breath, unconsciously holding it in anticipation of liquid methane bursting into the bridge and flash-freezing them all in an instant…
A full minute passed without any more explosions.
“All compromised compartments are fully flooded,” Pandora said.
Lucien let out the breath he’d been holding in a sigh.
“Enemy fighters have stopped firing missiles at us,” Jalisa announced. “They’re leaving!”
“Why?” Lucien said.
“They must be out of missiles,” Addy suggested.
“It would appear so,” Pandora said.
“What’s our current depth?” Lucien asked.
“Ten kilometers,” Pandora replied. “Just another one hundred and ninety-seven to go before we reach the bottom of the trench.”
“Can’t we speed that up?” Lucien asked.
“We could plot a micro-jump to the bottom of the trench, but then we’d have to wait another twenty-six minutes to jump out of this system.”
“We still need to find that tracking device, so we’re going to be waiting either way,” Lucien pointed out.
Their view of the trench wall rocked suddenly, as if from the shock wave of another explosion.
“What happened?” Lucien demanded, already imagining another internal explosion from methane mixing with their atmosphere.
“The enemy cruiser just jumped into the ocean with us,” Pandora replied. “They are at point blank range.”
“Taking cannon fire!” Jalisa added.
The bridge speakers roared with a sound like water hissing on a hotplate.
“Jump us to the bottom of the trench!” Lucien ordered.
“Jumping…” Pandora replied.
The viewports flashed white, dazzling their eyes, and then the trench wall reappeared, looking much closer than it had before.
“We are now hovering at the bottom of the trench,” Pandora announced.
“Blow a hole into the subsurface ocean and take us down,” Lucien ordered.
“Aye aye… sending target telemetry…”
“Got it! Dropping missiles!” Jalisa said.
Lucien watched on sensors as their missiles drifted languidly down from the Inquisitor’s hull.
“I don’t suppose the clerics added any grav guns to their Star Galleons?” Lucien said, remembering that the enemy fighters had accelerated their missiles that way.
“No, sir,” Pandora said.
Their shields began hissing with enemy fire once more.
Lucien grimaced. “That didn’t take them long. Return fire!”
The hissing noise quickly intensified to a deafening roar, forcing Lucien to turn down the volume.
“Shields at 74% and dropping,” Pandora warned.
“Pandora, how’s our plan coming along?” Lucien asked.
“Our missiles will reach the trench bottom in 57 seconds. I am accelerating us in their wake. Timing is critical.”
Lucien watched the trench wall go sliding up once more as they followed their missiles down. Seconds passed like hours, with Pandora and Garek periodically announcing the state of their failing shields.
“Shields at 24%! Garek warned.
“Missiles detonating!” Pandora said.
The galleon rocked in the shock waves of the explosions, and suddenly the viewports were clouded by an upwelling rush of sediment and pulverized ice from the trench floor.
“We’ve broken through!” Pandora said. “Taking us down!”
The churning sediment made it hard to see, but Lucien did get a glimpse of the passage as the galleon turned to fly bow-first through the hole. The viewports in the ceiling of the bridge revealed a flicker of movement, and Lucien looked up just in time to see a giant chunk of ice land on one of them with a muffled thunk.
The trench walls were cracking away and collapsing on top of them.
“Pandora!” Lucien warned.
“I see it…” Pandora said.
Lucien gripped the armrests of his chair and leaned forward, willing the galleon to fly faster. The sides of the passage blurred by uncomfortably close, and frost formed on their viewports as liquid water mixed with liquid methane and began to freeze. Their shields roared with impacts and hollow thunks sounded over the SISS as more chunks of ice fell on top of them.
Then they cruised down into the subsurface ocean and the frost on their viewports melted. Distant booming and crashing sounds echoed over the bridge speakers as the trench collapsed behind them, sealing the passage. When the noise faded, a ringing silence took its place.
Lucien breathed a sigh. “It worked.”
“You’re sure that they can’t jump down here after us?” Addy asked.
“Positive,” Lucien replied.
“They could blow a hole like we did,” Jalisa pointed out.
“They’re a long way from the bottom of the trench, and their capacitors are still charging from their last jump,” Lucien replied. “Besides, the trench collapsed behind us. Who knows how much ice they’ll have to blast through now? At the very least, it’ll take them a while, and by then we’ll be out of here. Any luck finding the tracking device in our hangar?”
“Not yet, sir,” Pandora said, “but I have every available automaton on the job. If there’s a tracker, we’ll find it.”
“We’d better find it, otherwise all of this will be for nothing.” Lucien turned his attention to sensors and ran an underwater scan. The ocean extended at least another three hundred kilometers below them. If that depth was consistent throughout the planet, it had enough water to entirely flood New Earth several times over. Though water wasn’t entirely accurate. Sensors reported that the subsurface ocean was actually a mixture of H2O and ammonia, just as Tyra had predicted.
Long minutes passed as they descended ever deeper into the ocean. The galleon’s external lights vanished endlessly into the murky water. Sensors reported that it was clouded with organic sediment.
“Pity we can’t take any samples of the water,” Lucien said. “That sediment might contain alien microbes of some kind.”
“Unidentified contact on sensors!” Pandora announced.
Lucien’s blood turned to ice. “They can’t have followed us already!”
“No, sir,” Pandora replied. “It’s not big enough to be the enemy cruiser, and there’s no jamming field to accompany it. Sensors indicate the contact is biological in nature.”
Biological. It took a moment for that to sink in. “Take us in for a closer look!” Lucien urged.
Before long, a strange, luminous creature came swirling out of the murky ocean. Its entire body glowed brightly, and it trailed hundreds of thin tentacles from its bulbous center. Pandora hovered the galleon in front of it, and the creature swam up to them, pressing several of its glowing tentacles to the viewports. Black circles that might have been eyes stared at them from the underside of those tentacles.
“Incredible…” Lucien whispered, standing and walking up to the nearest viewport to stare into one of those black eyes.
“I wonder if it’s intelligent?” Addy asked.
Lucien tapped a finger against the viewport where the nearest eye was, and the luminous tentacle reared back from the viewport, regarding him from a distance. After a moment, it came inching back. The tip of that tentacle met the glass where his hand was…
And then it seemed to reach through the glass and wrap around his wrist with a glowing band of light. Lucien felt nothing, but the hairs on the back of his hand stood straight up, as if from a static charge. He recoiled from the viewport, blinking furiously.
The tentacle reared back to regard him once more, then the entire thing swam off, zipping up over the bridge and out of sight.
“Did anyone else see that?” he asked.
“You scared it,” Addy said.
“No, I mean…” What did he mean? It couldn’t have actually reached through the viewport. He’d been up all night. He was tired, and now he was seeing things.
“We’re getting side-tracked,” Jalisa said. “Has everyone forgotten there’s a hostile alien cruiser chasing us?”
Lucien turned from the viewport with a frown. “Pandora? Have your bots found anything yet?” They couldn’t jump away until they knew how the Faros were following them.
The bot stared mutely back at him, her pink holoreceptors brightening and dimming, as if she were scanning him.
“Panda?” Lucien pressed.
“No,” she replied quietly. “All scans are complete. There are no tracking devices in the hangar, and no viruses in our systems.”
“Then how did they follow us? Twice.”
“I’m afraid there is only one other possibility,” Pandora replied.
Lucien heard a muffled boom behind him, and he turned to see blast-shields slamming down over the viewports.
“Who did that?”
“Not me,” Garek replied.
“I don’t even know how to do that,” Addy said.
“Pandora?” Lucien asked.
“I did it. And this.”
“What the…” Jalisa trailed off. “I’m locked out of my console!”
“Me, too!” Addy said.
Lucien glared at Pandora. “What are you doing?”
She stared back at him. “I have the conn, Commander.”
“I didn’t give it to you,” Lucien pointed out.
“No, you didn’t,” Pandora confirmed.
“You’d better explain yourself fast,” Lucien warned.
“I have good reason to believe that one of you has been broadcasting our location to the enemy.”
“What reason?” Lucien demanded.
“Despite rigorous searching, we’ve found nothing that would enable anyone to track us. I have, therefore, concluded that there must be a spy on board.”
Lucien felt his eyes narrowing. “How could the Faros possibly have a spy among us if we’ve just met them?”
“It’s been mentioned already that they may have met us previously without our knowledge,” Pandora said.
“How do we know you aren’t the spy?” Lucien said.
“By what means? My systems are independent of the ship’s, and I have only had contact with the Faros through the ship’s comms. I know better than to accept foreign data packets, so the only way to inject a virus into my systems would be by physical contact, and according to the Captain’s wishes, I stayed aboard the Inquisitor during your encounters with the enemy. Regardless, we will know soon enough if I am the leak.”
“I’ve isolated the crew from all the ship’s systems and viewports, so there is no possible way for any of you to determine our next location. If the enemy tracks us again, it will mean that either I am the spy, or that we somehow missed finding their tracking device. I’ve plotted our next jump, and we’ll be leaving this system in less than five minutes.”
“If you’re the spy, we’ll be helpless with you at the helm and everyone else locked out of their stations,” Lucien said.
“Captain Tyra has sufficient authority to override my lock-out protocol, and I’ve enabled limited functionality for the Captain’s control station—sensors only. If you are worried that I am the spy, please feel free to shut me down, and have the captain standing by to restore control to the crew as soon as we are followed. If, however, we are not followed, we must conclude that one of the crew is a spy, and take appropriate action to find that individual.”
Lucien went back to the captain’s station and found he could still access the sensor grid, but only locally—he couldn’t access bigger-picture displays that might pinpoint their location. It would be enough to reveal whether or not they were followed to the next system, but not enough to figure out where they were.
“All right. Addy, send a message to med bay and tell the captain to join us as soon as she’s available.”
“I can’t access the comms…” Addy replied.
“Not even shipboard comms?”
“Then go down there and get her yourself.”
“Yes, sir,” Addy replied, already rising from her station.
“Jalisa, deactivate Pandora.”
“With pleasure.” Jalisa walked over to the nav station and opened an access panel in Pandora’s neck. “Good night,” she said as she flicked the switch.
“G-oood n-i-ight-t-t,” Pandora stuttered as her holoreceptors flickered and died. She slumped in her chair, and Jalisa leaned over the helm to read the nav displays.
“Can you access the helm?” Lucien asked.
Jalisa shook her head. “No, sir. It’s all dead.”
Lucien walked up to see for himself. The only display currently active at the helm was the jump timer. He tried accessing the controls himself, but they wouldn’t respond to him.
“Don’t trust me?” Jalisa asked.
Lucien regarded her. “If Pandora’s right, we might not even be able to trust ourselves.”
They watched the jump timer counting down.
“Five seconds…” Jalisa said.
Everything flashed white, and the sensor grid went from showing a hazy view of Snowflake’s subsurface ocean, to a broad swath of space in some unknown star system. There were no contacts on the grid besides their own.
“All clear,” Lucien said. The system they’d jumped to was a binary star system with ten planets, but he couldn’t tell much else.
Jalisa returned to the gunnery station and they waited to see if they would be followed.
Eventually Addy came back with Tyra and Garek. Brak walked in behind them. Lucien watched the Gor curiously, wondering what he’d been doing during the last engagement.
“Report, Commander,” Tyra said as she strode up to him.
Lucien vacated her chair.
“We jumped about ten minutes ago, ma’am. Still nothing on sensors.”
Tyra nodded as she took her seat.
“Have you been able to disable Pandora’s lock-out?” Lucien asked.
“I tried, but remote access is disabled,” Tyra replied.
Lucien frowned. “Can you do it from here?”
She brought up an override prompt, but didn’t enter her code. “I’d like to wait until we’ve tested Pandora’s theory. At least a few hours.”
“What are we supposed to do in that time?” Addy asked.
“You don’t have to stick around,” Tyra replied. “You might want to get some rest. It’s been a while since we got any sleep.”
A while was an understatement. Their last downtime had been almost six hours ago, and they’d spent it in the officers’ lounge instead of sleeping. Since then, they’d been up all night running from the Faros.
“Someone needs to stay here to watch you,” Lucien said.
“In case I’m the spy?” Tyra asked, arching an eyebrow at him.
She shrugged. “All right, who’s going to keep me company?”
“I stay,” Brak said. “I already sleep.”
That explained why they hadn’t seen or heard from Brak.
“What if he’s the spy?” Jalisa asked. “We don’t know where he went while we were meeting the Faros. He disappeared and then mysteriously reappeared just in time to help us get away. Maybe he was captured and then released.”
Brak hissed at her. “I cloak and hide to find way to free slaves.”
“Jalisa’s right,” Tyra said. “And Brak no longer has a rank. He shouldn’t even be on the bridge. Anyone else?”
Brak averted his eyes from Tyra. She was unworthy of his sight again.
“I’ll stay,” Jalisa said.
“Fine with me,” Tyra said. “Any other objections?”
No one said anything.
“Good. In the meantime, Garek, I want you to schedule body scans and mind probes for the entire crew.”
“That will take a while to get through, ma’am,” Garek replied.
“See how fast you can get it done. Start with the away team.”
“What about you?” Jalisa asked.
“I’ll go last since I need to be here to disable the lock-out in case we’re followed.”
“And who’s going to scan Garek?” Jalisa said.
“I will,” Tyra replied.
“What if all the scans come back clean and we aren’t followed?” Lucien asked.
“Then one of the crew is a spy, but we’ll have no way of finding out who,” Tyra said. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there, Commander. You’re all dismissed. Go get some rest.”
* * *
On their way off the bridge, Addy slipped her hand into Lucien’s and flashed a smile at him. “You want to join me in the officers’ lounge for a drink?”
Lucien blinked bleary eyes at her. “Aren’t you tired?”
“Yes, but I can’t sleep knowing that we could be called back to the bridge at any second.”
“So?” Addy pressed. “I bet everyone else is going straight to their bunks. We’ll have the place all to ourselves.
“All right,” Lucien said.
They arrived at Starlight—a misnomer at the moment with all the viewports blast-shielded—and went to sit at the bar. Kip, the bartender bot, stood frozen behind the counter. Lucien waved to him, and his holoreceptors flared to life, casting the shiny bar counter in a neon blue light.
“Hello again, Commander!” Kip said. Glancing at Addy, he added, “And Lieutenant. What can I get for you two?”
“A beer,” Lucien said.
“Same,” Addy replied.
“Coming right up!”
Kip sent their drinks sliding across the counter. Lucien raised his polycarbonate mug and tipped it toward Addy’s, clacking them together in the quiet bar.
Lucien raised his mug for a sip.
Piano music trickled down from the ceiling, gradually joined by a vocal accompaniment from one of New Earth’s more popular artists.
“You never answered my question,” Addy said.
“Down in the caves. We were interrupted when we ran into the Faros. I asked why you joined the mission, but you never had the chance to tell me.”
“There’s not much to tell…” Lucien trailed off as a bright light appeared in his peripheral vision. He turned and peered over Addy’s shoulder for a better look.
A light was reflecting off the glossy floor tiles on the other side of the bar, but it disappeared after only a few seconds. Did one of the glow panels just burn out? he wondered.
“What’s wrong?” Addy asked.
Lucien got up and walked to the other side of the bar. When he got there, he saw that there weren’t any glow panels where he’d seen the light, much less one that had mysteriously burned out. He walked all the way around the bar, searching for the source of the light, but he returned to his place at the bar, having found nothing.
“I thought I saw something,” he explained as he sat beside Addy once more. He took a gulp of his beer.
“If you think that’s going to distract me from the question, you’re wrong,” Addy said. “You’ve just made me more curious.”
Lucien looked at her, uncomprehending; then he remembered her question and the convenient timing of his interruption. “Sorry. I wasn’t trying to distract you.”
“And yet you still haven’t answered,” Addy pointed out.
Lucien smiled. “I came on this mission to find proof that Etherus is who he says he is, but…” He took another sip of beer.
“According to the clerics, my mind probe says otherwise. They think I’m subconsciously conflicted, and that I came to confirm my doubts, not my faith.”
“Interesting. Well, the results of mind probes are open to interpretation. You probably do have doubts, but that doesn’t mean you came because of them. Besides, conscious motives trump subconscious ones every time. Otherwise we should place more weight on what we do in our dreams than what we do while we’re awake.”
“Good point,” Lucien replied. “Never thought of that.” He drained his mug and glanced over to see that Addy’s drink was also finished. She waved Kip over and ordered another two beers.
“Trying to get me drunk?” he asked.
“Maybe,” Addy replied. Her hand found his thigh, and she tucked one of her feet behind his.
He felt a sudden warmth buzzing in his veins that had nothing to do with the beer. Addy leaned close and whispered in his ear, “I want you, Lucien.”
Her hand left his thigh and landed somewhere more intimate instead.
He turned to face her, his eyes searching hers. “I thought you were looking for more than just sex?”
“That doesn’t mean sex isn’t part of it.”
What am I complaining for? Lucien thought. He leaned in and kissed her. Something sparked, and suddenly they couldn’t keep their hands off each other.
“Let’s go,” Addy whispered against his lips.
Lucien nodded, and they left the Officers’ lounge at a brisk pace.
“What about your drinks?” Kip called after them with a frothing mug of beer in each hand.
“They’re all yours,” Lucien called back.
“Automatons don’t drink!” Kip objected.
His objection fell on deaf ears as they crashed into the elevator doors, kissing each other greedily. Lucien fumbled for the call button, and they almost fell into the elevator when the doors opened. They made out in the elevator, too, while Lucien mentally selected the ship’s crew quarters for their destination.
When the elevator stopped, Lucien led Addy out by the hand, taking her to his quarters. He waved the door open, and Addy jumped up, locking her legs around his waist. She kissed him again, stealing all the air from his lungs as they stumbled through his quarters.
They fumbled to remove each other’s jumpsuits, and fell into his bed half naked and gasping for air. Addy finished removing her jumpsuit, giving him a nice view as she did so. He stripped naked next, and then they made love and fell asleep in each other’s arms. Lucien’s last conscious thought was that he was a fool for turning her down the first time.
Some time later they awoke in a groggy haze to the sound of Tyra’s voice. Lucien sat up quickly, irrationally thinking that she was standing in his quarters, reprimanding them for improper conduct, but the sound was coming over the ship’s speakers.
“This is Captain Forster speaking. I’ve deactivated the lock-out and restored functionality to my control station. It’s been eight hours since we arrived in this system and we haven’t been followed, so I’ve plotted a jump back to Astralis. There’s still a chance that the enemy did follow us, but that they have remained cloaked in order to follow us back to our base. To guard against this, I’ve sent a message warning Astralis in advance of our arrival.
“All bridge crew must now return to their stations. I repeat, all bridge crew, return to your stations. We jump in ten minutes.”
Lucien rubbed the sleep from his eyes and turned to see Addy cover a yawn. “Good morning,” he said.
“It is a good morning,” she replied. “I can’t believe we slept for so long.”
“Not long enough,” Lucien said. “I need a cup of caf.”
“More like a pot,” Addy replied as she climbed naked out of his bed and slipped into her jumpsuit.
“And some breakfast,” Lucien replied while putting on his own jumpsuit. “Let’s go. If we’re lucky we’ll all be dismissed after the jump.”
“If that happens, it’s because the lock-out worked and we really weren’t followed. That’ll mean one of us is a spy,” Addy replied.
Lucien shrugged. “Seems like a small price to pay for some caf and eggs.”
They hurried up to the bridge and arrived with just one minute to spare. Everyone else was already at their stations, and no one missed the fact that he and Addy arrived together.
“Nice of you two to join us,” Tyra said.
Lucien took his place beside her and waited, watching the jump timer over her shoulder. He could also read the coordinates for their destination, but that was no secret. They all already knew where Astralis was.
That was when it hit him. “Captain…”
“Yes, Commander?” Tyra asked, not looking away from her displays.
“We all know where Astralis is. If one of us is a spy, we could have given away their location a long time ago.”
Tyra nodded gravely. “Yes, so if they’re still there, and they haven’t come under attack, it would go a long way to proving that we don’t have a spy on board.”
“You don’t sound convinced,” Addy said.
“We’ll find out what happened soon.”
The timer reached zero, and everything flashed white as they jumped. Lucien blinked away the glare and studied the sensor grid at Tyra’s control station. It was crowded with inanimate gray blips, but no green friendly contacts or red enemy ones.
He pointed to the gray blips on the grid. “Is that debris?”
Tyra gaped at her displays and slowly shook her head. “Astralis is gone.”
“What do you mean gone?” Addy asked. “Astralis was destroyed?”
Tyra ran a scan of the debris field. “There’s a lot of debris, but not that much. It looks like both sides took heavy losses before they escaped.”
Tyra brought up a visual of the debris field and Lucien saw the shattered hull of a star galleon drifting amidst clouds of glinting hull plates and lifeless fighters. There were also a few cigar-shaped derelicts in view.
All eyes were on Tyra, waiting for her to say more, but she sat at her station wide-eyed and speechless.
“Where do you think they went?” Addy asked.
“There’s no way to know,” Lucien said. “Unless they send us a message with their coordinates—and they won’t do that for the same reason that we didn’t.”
“So…” Addy prompted.
“We’re cut off,” Tyra said. “We’ll have to wait for our timer implants to run down and kill us so we can be resurrected back on Astralis. We won’t have any memories of these expeditions, but maybe that’s for the best,” she said, lifting her stump of a left arm by way of emphasis.
“We can’t do that,” Lucien said.
“We don’t have a choice,” Tyra replied.
“Why weren’t the Faros here waiting for us?” Lucien asked.
“Astralis must have defeated their fleet before jumping out.”
“Or the Faros followed them,” Lucien countered. “Check the debris again. There’s more of our derelicts than theirs.”
“That’s not a surprise,” Jalisa said. “We already know their ships are stronger than ours.”
“Still, what if they were followed?” Lucien asked.
“How? Clearly one of us is a spy, and we were the ones that gave away their position,” Tyra said.
Lucien shook his head. “We can’t assume that. One of the other teams might have met the Faros and led them back to Astralis.”
“We jumped millions of light years to find them after watching an alien history that led us straight to them,” Tyra replied. “We found them in an entirely different galaxy. Unless this whole supercluster is overrun with Faros, I’d say the other teams never met them.”
“Maybe, but that doesn’t mean Astralis won’t be followed—or get into some other kind of trouble,” Lucien said. “Look at the volume of debris. There’s enough there to suggest they might have lost pressure on the ground level, and if that’s the case, you can say goodbye to all of our crops. That will be hard for them to recover from, and they won’t be in a hurry to resurrect more people.”
“What are you getting at, Commander?” Tyra asked.
“I’m saying that maybe we shouldn’t just assume we’re going to be resurrected on Astralis when our timers run out. If we can find some way to disable those implants, we could meet Astralis at the cosmic horizon. We know their ultimate destination, and even if one of us is a spy, there’s no way the Faros are going to follow us that far.”
“Have you gone skriffy?” Tyra asked. “Even if we could disable our implants, we don’t have enough supplies on board to last us eight years.”
“So we all go into stasis,” Lucien said. “Leave Pandora at the helm. That also solves the problem of the spy, assuming we can’t figure out who it is before we go into stasis.”
“And assuming that Pandora isn’t the spy,” Tyra said.
“That seems unlikely since she volunteered to be shut off,” Lucien pointed out. “But we can run scans on her to be sure.”
“All right, let’s say we make it, and we meet up with Astralis at the cosmic horizon,” Tyra said. “Then what? We go say hi to our clones on Astralis? They’ll have accumulated eight years of memories in our absence. We won’t even recognize ourselves. You and Addy will probably be married with kids by then!”
Lucien caught a smile from Addy with that prediction. He mirrored that smile as he nodded to Tyra. “Doesn’t sound so bad to me. We’ll integrate our memories and put our spare bodies in stasis for future use. Then we’ll get to keep both sets of experiences.”
Tyra snorted. “There are other possibilities that you might find less appealing,” she said.
Lucien shook his head. “We can process our new lives and memories when the time comes. Right now, we lose nothing by trying, and at least this way we’ll have some insurance. If Astralis doesn’t make it to the cosmic horizon, maybe we will, or vice versa.”
“He’s right,” Jalisa put in. “We should at least try.”
“I agree,” Addy said.
Garek was silent, his brow furrowed, no doubt thinking about his daughter back on Astralis.
Tyra regarded each of them in turn. “All right, fine, but good luck disabling those implants. They were built to be tamper-proof.”
“As in…?” Lucien asked.
“As in, if you tamper with them, they go off early and kill you.”
Lucien winced. “And I suppose you don’t have some kind of deactivation code?”
Tyra shook her head. “No.”
“I’ll get right on it,” he said. “Who wants to be my first test subject?”
No one volunteered.
“I vote we use the Gor,” Jalisa said.
“So he can rip my head off when I poke him with a needle?” Garek asked. “Bad idea.”
“We’ll choose someone at random,” Tyra decided, already busy entering their names into a list for the ship’s computer to select one. When she was done, she ran a random algorithm that spat out Jalisa’s name.
“Figures,” she said. “See you all back on Astralis.”
Lucien watched her leave, hoping Garek wouldn’t accidentally fulfill that prediction.
“I’m going to plot a jump out of here in case the Faros come back,” Tyra said. “Meanwhile, Lucien, Addy—you’re dismissed.”
“What? Why?” Addy asked.
“We still haven’t been followed, which means one of us likely is a spy. I’ll let you know if anything changes, but until then, you’re all off duty indefinitely.”
“What are we supposed to do with ourselves?” Addy asked.
“I’m sure you’ll think of something,” Tyra replied dryly.
Lucien frowned. If he didn’t know better, he’d have said Tyra was jealous. He watched her a moment longer before standing up from his control station and walking down to Addy. He nodded to her. “How about some caf and eggs?”
Addy smiled. “I guess a vacation won’t be all bad.”
Lucien smiled back, but as they walked off the bridge together, he felt a surge of apprehension. If Astralis was destroyed, and they couldn’t disable their timers, then they’d all be dead within a month, and no one would be around to resurrect them.
They’d be gone forever.
In a universe where death had long since lost its sting, the thought of it coming back for them with a personal vengeance was terrifying.
—Twenty-nine Days Later—
“I’ve tried everything,” Garek said, shaking his head.
Lucien stared at the medic across the table where they were all seated in the Captain’s Ready Room.
“You haven’t tried surgical removal,” Lucien pointed out.
“That’s sure to set off the timer,” Tyra said, waving her recently attached arm to dismiss the idea. Garek had grown new appendages for both her and Brak and reattached them in the past week. Now they were both fully functional again, just in time for their timer implants to kill them. Irony is a kakard, Lucien thought.
“We may as well face it. This is our last day aboard the Inquisitor,” Tyra said.
Lucien didn’t bother to point out that it might be their last day anywhere. They had no way of knowing if Astralis was even out there anymore. They couldn’t send or receive vector-based comms without knowing each other’s coordinates, and it would be idiotic to use omni-directional comms that would light them up like a beacon and bring the Faros running for millions of light years in all directions.
“What are the chances that Astralis was destroyed?” Addy asked.
“Impossible to say,” Pandora replied.
Tyra had reactivated her a week ago in anticipation of leaving her at the helm while the rest of the crew went into stasis. They’d scanned the bot multiple times since then, but not a single line of code was out of place, and so far the Faros hadn’t shown up, so Pandora appeared to be above suspicion—which was more than Lucien could say for the rest of the crew. Everyone else was a suspect in an ongoing investigation that had yet to yield any meaningful results. Their mind probes and body scans had all come back clean.
“I doubt it’s been destroyed,” Tyra said. “Facets are heavily armed and shielded. Let’s not assume the worst. Meanwhile, I suggest you all figure out how you’re going to spend your remaining time on board. Dismissed.”
Lucien stood up from the table and walked out with Addy. Garek and Jalisa walked out ahead of them, also a couple.
“Nine hours and counting,” Addy said. “Any ideas about how we should spend them?”
Lucien thought about that. There wasn’t much to do on board that they hadn’t already done, and they weren’t allowed to explore nearby systems.
“Drink ourselves into oblivion?” Lucien suggested.
“Let me amend that,” he said. “We take a bottle of the ship’s finest wine to my quarters and spend all day in bed.”
“Less depressing,” Addy said. “I’ll go steal some chocolates from the mess to go with the wine.”
“It’s a date,” he said.
They met up at his quarters as planned and spent the day indulging in wine, chocolate, and each other.
All-in-all, not a bad way to go out, Lucien thought hours later as he lay pleasantly buzzed and exhausted. Addy’s head rested on his chest, her body curled against his, warming the persistent chill running through his veins. He stroked her hair, watching shadows swirl as the room spun.
He used his ARCs to check the time. Just two more hours before their timers ran out. If they did wake up on Astralis, Lucien vowed to hunt down the cleric who had invented those implants and choke the life out of him to see how he liked it.
“We’re not going to remember any of this when we come back on Astralis,” Addy whispered.
“No,” Lucien said. “We won’t.” A frown creased his brow. It would have been a simple matter to back up their memories and consciousness and then pulse the data in an omni-directional burst for Astralis to intercept, but by now they were probably out of range, and even if they weren’t, the data could be intercepted and read by anyone for millions of light years in all directions. Given that the Faros already seemed to know all about transferring consciousness to new bodies, Astralis might not be the only place where they were resurrected.
“You think some people are destined to be together?” Addy asked. “Like maybe even if you could go back and change it so that you never met, you’d find some other way to meet them and end up together, anyway?”
Lucien thought about it. Romantic ideas like those were common among people their age, but older generations were more pragmatic about love. Most of them had already been married several times.
Marriage licenses came with an expiration date for a reason, despite Etherus’s insistence that marriage should last forever. Lucien couldn’t think of many examples of people who’d been married for more than twenty years—his parents, but they were unusual.
“We probably will end up together again,” Lucien decided. Even pragmatically speaking it was a good bet. Addy had shown she knew how to catch a guy’s attention, and she’d baited him more than a few times before he’d jumped on the hook. Her interest in him was dogged enough to survive a sudden case of amnesia.
“I’d like that…” Addy trailed off in a sleepy voice.
Lucien’s eyelids felt heavy, but he resisted, determined not to die in his sleep. Addy, however, had asked him not to wake her if she fell asleep.
So he didn’t.
“Sweet dreams,” he whispered, stroking her hair again.
Time passed like water dripping from a faucet, each second grating on his nerves as it passed. But before he knew it, seconds were all he had left, and he was left wondering where all the time had gone. Maybe that’s how it used to be, he thought. Time passed slowly in the moment, but looking back, everything seemed to have happened in the blink of an eye. Lucien eyed the countdown on his ARCs.
A ghostly flicker caught his eye, distracting him from the countdown. It was a snaking tentacle of light. He tracked it through the room, his heart pounding in his chest. It came floating down through the ceiling…
Revealing a hundred more tentacles of light attached to a bright, bulbous body.
It was the creature they’d encountered in the subsurface ocean on Snowflake. How could it possibly be here? And how had it just passed through the deck above him?
He remembered the mysterious light he’d seen in the bar with Addy almost a month ago, and he shook his head in disbelief. Either I’m dreaming, or I’ve lost my mind, he thought, watching as the luminous creature floated impossibly toward him, heedless of artificial gravity. Its bulbous body streamed hundreds of glowing tentacles, like hairs on a disembodied head. It reached for him with one snaking tendril of light, and Lucien recoiled from it, backing up against the wall behind his bed.
Addy fell off his chest and sat up suddenly beside him.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
Then she saw the creature, too, and she screamed.
The monster thrust out its tentacles, poking them through their eyes in a blinding flash of light.
And with that, Lucien screamed, too.
The blinding light vanished, and the creature was gone.
The timer on his ARCs was all flashing red zeros, but somehow he was still alive.
“What the frek was that?” he whispered.
“How are we not dead?” Addy asked, her eyes wide as she searched his quarters.
Lucien mentally dialed up the brightness of the glow panels in his quarters, and swung his feet over the side of the bed to go looking for the alien they’d just encountered.
As he stood up, he felt something prick his foot. He glanced down and saw a tiny microchip, no bigger than a crumb. He bent down to pick it up, and found another one lying beside it. He picked them both up and held them up to the light.
“It removed our implants…” he whispered.
“By reaching through our eyes and pulling them out?” Addy asked. “We should have holes where our eyes used to be!”
Lucien shook his head slowly. “I don’t get it either. Maybe we fell asleep and this is a dream…”
Addy stood up and slapped him hard across the cheek.
“Ouch! What the frek was that for?” he demanded, holding a hand to his stinging cheek.
“I guess it’s not a dream,” Addy decided.
The comms crackled to life. “This is Captain Forster. All crew are to report to the main ready room immediately. I repeat, all crew report to the main ready room immediately.”
Lucien and Addy looked at each other.
“Apparently we’re not the only ones who didn’t die,” he said.
They got dressed and reported to the ship’s main ready room as ordered. Half of the crew was already there by the time they arrived. They were all standing around, arguing amongst themselves.
Lucien led Addy to a row of empty seats at the back of the room and sat down. He spent a moment listening in on other people’s conversations. They were all discussing the same things—luminous creatures passing through walls and reaching into their heads to remove their implants.
The doors to the room swished open and shut with a constant stream of crew filing in. Lucien hadn’t met most of them—they were civilian clerics from Tyra’s science teams and a few enlisted personnel who’d never had a chance to mingle with officers on the upper decks.
“Everyone settle down and take your seats!” Tyra ordered in an amplified voice as she stepped up to the speaker’s podium at the fore of the ready room. “We all want to know what’s going on, but first—Pandora?” Tyra asked.
“All crew present and accounted for, ma’am,” Pandora said, her voice reaching Lucien’s ears from somewhere nearby. He found the bot standing in the shadows at the back of the room, right beside the doors.
“So they saved all of us,” Tyra said, nodding.
“Who did?” an enlisted crewman asked.
“We don’t know. We’re calling them polypuses,” Tyra replied.
“We met them in the ocean on the last planet we explored,” Lucien said.
“Pandora told me the same thing,” Tyra replied.
“One of them reached through the viewports and wrapped a tentacle around my wrist,” Lucien added.
Addy shot him a look. “Why didn’t you say something?”
“I thought I was imagining things. Obviously I wasn’t.”
“We all thought we were imagining things,” Tyra said, “But this is real. It happened, and we’re the living proof, as they say.”
“Etherus must have saved us,” Addy said.
A civilian cleric laughed, and a few of his colleagues joined in.
“You have a better explanation?” Addy demanded.
“There are lots of theories,” Tyra said before the heckler could reply. “—including the supernatural,” she added. “But the most plausible theory that I’ve heard so far is that we just met a race of higher dimensional beings.”
“You mean gods?” Lucien asked, frowning.
“Not necessarily. Quantum theory is filled with extra dimensions. That’s how we think quantum comms and jump drives work—by transporting us through a higher dimension.
“How’s that explain how those things can move through walls?” Jalisa asked.
“A fourth spatial dimension would exist at right angles to our three dimensions of length, width, and height, meaning, you’d be able to travel through things that are solid barriers to us. There’s a helpful analogy that we can draw between our existing 3-D universe and a 2-D one.
“Imagine that we’re all two-dimensional shapes living on a flat plane.”
Tyra summoned a hologram to illustrate. A flat board appeared hovering in the air with colored shapes on it—circles, squares, rectangles, and triangles.
“As a shape trapped inside this realm, we can’t imagine what a three-dimensional world would look like, and if we were ever to encounter a three-dimensional being in our flat 2-D universe, it would show up as a 2-D cross-section of itself. My arm would appear roughly circular as it passes through this 2-D flatverse,” Tyra said as she extended her arm through the hologram.
“A three-dimensional being like myself can touch these shapes, and even pick them up,” she said, taking a red square off the board. “I can transport them through my higher-dimensional realm and drop them down somewhere else in their flat universe.” Tyra deposited the square somewhere else. “This would look a lot like teleportation—or quantum jumping—to another shape in the flat universe. To them, suddenly the square disappeared and reappeared somewhere else.
“But I can do something else in my higher dimension. I can poke my finger inside of a square, or touch the center of a circle,” Tyra said, illustrating that on the holographic board with her fingertips. “But these shapes can only touch each other along their edges. They can’t reach inside of each other without cutting their fellow shapes open. In the same way, a higher-dimensional being could reach inside of us without cutting us open—to remove implants from our brains, for example.” Tyra fished into her pocket and produced a tiny microchip like the ones Lucien had found beside his bed.
The crew murmured amongst themselves, and Addy whispered to him, “Are you buying any of this?”
Lucien shook his head. “I don’t know… it still sounds supernatural to me.”
“Would a higher-dimensional being be a god?” Garek asked. “Could that explain what Etherus is?”
Tyra hesitated. “That depends on your definition of god. They could do seemingly supernatural things—like reaching inside of you, or reading your mind, or even speaking to you with a disembodied voice that seems to come from everywhere at once, but could such beings create a lower-dimensional universe inside of their own? That’s a lot more complicated. Anyway—now you have one plausible theory for what happened.”
“How did those… polypuses even know we needed saving?” Addy asked.
“They may have read our thoughts,” Tyra suggested. “Just looking at our heads in four dimensions would be like conducting a mind probe on us.”
“Are any of them still on board?” one of the clerics asked. “Maybe we can study them?”
“All of our available bots are out looking for them, but they seem to have left without a trace,” Tyra replied. “We’d best focus on what lies ahead. Thanks to the polypuses, we will now be able to travel to the cosmic horizon and meet back up with Astralis there. In order to do that, our navigator will remain at the helm while we go into stasis for the next eight years. Are there any questions?”
“What if the Inquisitor gets destroyed before it arrives?” an enlisted crewman asked.
“Pandora has orders to stay away from any systems that look habitable, so that should keep us safe, but if she runs into trouble anyway, then we hope that Astralis didn’t get destroyed, and that we’ll go on living there.”
“They must be about to resurrect us at any moment,” the enlisted crewman said. “That means if we do meet them at the cosmic horizon, we’ll also meet our resurrected selves.”
“I raised that same point with my bridge crew when we first discussed this plan. If that happens, then we’ll have to integrate our memories with our clones once we arrive,” Tyra said. “Are there any other questions?”
No one spoke this time.
“All right, then we’ll all meet back in the med bay for stasis in one hour.”
The crew dispersed from the ready room, but Lucien remained seated. He was grateful for this second chance, but there still weren’t any guarantees.
“Stasis in one hour…” Addy said. “Why do I feel like there’s still a timer implant ticking in my brain?”
“Because we don’t know that we’re going to wake up,” Lucien replied. “A lot could happen in eight years, and if we don’t make it, then nothing’s changed—we’ll go on living in Astralis with no memory of ever even meeting each other.”
Addy reached for his hand. “I’ll find you,” she said. “And I’ll make you fall in love with me again.”
Lucien arched an eyebrow at her. “How do you know I’m in love with you? I’ve never said anything.”
“You didn’t have to,” Addy said, and kissed him possessively on the lips.
* * *
Lucien spent his last hour before stasis eating dinner with Addy in the officers’ mess. They had grazer steaks with sautéed taber root and fresh bread. Tyra was also there, eating her last meal by herself. Lucien felt bad for her.
“Maybe we should ask her to join us?” he asked.
“Wouldn’t that just be awkward?” Addy replied. “Being the third wheel on someone else’s date? Would you want to eat with Garek and Jalisa if you were over there by yourself?”
“I guess not.”
They finished eating with half an hour still left, so they stopped by Lucien’s quarters, and Addy took the opportunity to remind him not to forget about her.
With just five minutes left, they took a quick shower together and got dressed. By the time they reached the stasis pods in med bay, they were fifteen minutes late and almost everyone else was already there—most of them already in their pods.
Tyra watched them with a frown as they approached. “Get undressed and pick a pod,” she said. “Garek’s already configured them, so you just have to step inside.”
Lucien nodded and walked over to the lockers with Addy. They stripped naked and hurried to a pair of empty pods, hugging their shoulders and shivering in the chilly air of the stasis room.
Lucien tried to ignore the attention Addy was getting from the other members of the crew. “You ready?” he asked.
She nodded and flashed him a lop-sided smile. “See you in eight years.”
He smiled back and they shared a lingering kiss. Addy withdrew, giving his hand a squeeze, and they turned and walked into their pods.
The pod covers began automatically swinging shut, and Lucien heard his pod close with a resonant thud. Jets of stasis-inducing drugs misted the air, obscuring his view from the small window in front of his face. He felt his eyes drifting slowly shut, and he summoned an image of Addy’s face to mind. If he had any dreams over the next eight years, he wanted them to be with her.
Darkness encroached, pressing in and threatening to suffocate him. His racing heart slowed as the drugs took hold, and his thoughts turned to mud.
See you on the other side, Lucien.
He frowned, wondering why he was talking to himself in the third person. Then he realized it wasn’t his voice that he’d heard, but the silky smooth voice of one of the Faros. Adrenaline stabbed feebly at Lucien’s heart.
They’ve found us! he thought. I have to warn the others… but the darkness smothered him before he had the chance.
The Cosmic Horizon
Lucien awoke dazed and confused inside a cramped space with hot air blasting him from all sides. Then he remembered where he was—stasis.
Had eight years passed already? On the heels of that question came another: he was supposed to meet someone on the other side… but who? And the other side of what?
The cover of his pod swung away, and he stepped out into the chilly stasis room. Other crew members came stumbling out of their pods all around him. Addy walked out beside him.
“We made it!” she said through a grin.
“Did we?” He checked the date on his ARCs. It was 31 EE. Eight and a half years really had passed. “I guess we did,” he said.
Pandora’s voice came over the ship’s intercom, telling the crew to report to their stations in preparation for a rendezvous with Astralis.
“They made it, too!” Addy said.
Cheers went up from the crew. They applauded and slapped each other on the back. Then everyone appeared to remember that they were still naked, and they hurried to the lockers to get dressed.
On their way up to the bridge, they were all so anxious to hear from Astralis and learn what had been found at the cosmic horizon, that no one seemed to notice Brak riding the elevator up with them. Lucien glanced at the Gor, remembering that Brak had a trial pending for when they returned to Astralis.
The bridge doors parted and everyone took their places—except for Brak, who didn’t have a station. He walked up to the blast-shielded viewports instead, as if to study the view.
“Welcome back, Captain,” Pandora said. “I would say it’s been lonely without you, but it was nice to have the conn all to myself.”
“Ha ha,” Tyra said as she paged through various displays from her station.
“We’re still locked out of the ship’s systems,” Addy said.
“Just a precaution,” Pandora replied. “We still don’t know who the spy is. I’ve informed Astralis of the situation, and they have some ideas about how we might be able to identify the individual.”
Lucien watched Tyra carefully. She was staring at a star map, zooming out to see their location at the largest possible scale.
“Well?” Garek prompted from engineering. “We’re at the cosmic horizon. What did we find?”
Tyra frowned. “Give me a minute…”
“I could save you some time,” Pandora put in. “The old cosmic horizon isn’t the edge of the universe, which is no surprise, because that would have made Laniakea the center. From here we can see that the universe goes on much farther than we could previously see.”
“But not infinitely,” Tyra said. She gestured to the star map hovering in front of her, sending it to the main forward viewport for all of them to look at.
A vast field of galaxies appeared, a shining web of light. It looked like it was made up of repeating patterns, but Lucien knew that was just a trick his brain was playing on him.
A red dot in the bottom right corner of the screen marked Laniakea, and a flashing green dot near the center of the display marked their current location. Running through that green dot was the forty-five degree arc of a blue circle—the old cosmic horizon. Up in the top left of the display, the shining web of galaxies abruptly ended, and an empty black void began. Another arc ran through that void, this one a lighter shade of blue.
“The light blue line is our new cosmic horizon,” Tyra explained. “As you can see, it passes through empty space. This means that we have found a kind of edge to the universe—that being the point where there are no more visible stars. The void might extend infinitely in all directions, or it might curl back on itself at much larger scales to form a finite sphere. Regardless, we’ve just disproved one of the most basic tenets of cosmology—the cosmological principle.”
“What’s that?” Lucien asked.
“It’s the idea that the universe is homogeneous and isotropic,” Tyra replied.
“And that means…”
Tyra glanced at him. “We’ve talked about this. You really don’t remember?”
“That was over eight years ago,” Lucien pointed out.
Tyra cracked a smile. “True. It means that on very large scales we used to think the universe was basically the same in all directions and at all locations, which is why it almost looks like you can see patterns on this map, but clearly we were wrong. That void proves it.”
“Not necessarily,” Pandora said. “The void and all of the superclusters of galaxies leading up to it could be a pattern that repeats infinitely at even larger scales than we can see now, like ripples on the surface of a pond. The void could just be the trough behind a consecutive wave of matter.”
“It’s possible,” Tyra agreed. “We don’t know of anything that could cause those troughs, but that’s what science is for—to come up with explanations for the unknown. We may have to travel into that void, or even past it to the next wave of matter, assuming Pandora’s theory is correct, in order to determine the real nature of the universe.”
“Hold on—” Jalisa said. “The mission was to reach the cosmic horizon. We’ve reached it. Aren’t we supposed to go back now and report our findings?”
“That’s for the council on Astralis to decide,” Tyra said.
“So the petition was a lie,” Jalisa said.
“The petition was just a means for us to get away from Etherus’s influence with enough resources to accomplish our goals. We specified ninety-six years to reach the cosmic horizon instead of the actual eight and a half that it would take for a reason. People won’t be expecting us to return until almost two centuries have passed. That means we should have time to answer all of our questions. And you all signed on knowing that we could be gone for that long, so you have no reason to complain now.”
“A simple yes would have been fine,” Jalisa muttered.
“We are about to jump to the rendezvous,” Pandora announced. “Five minutes and counting.”
“Understood. You can lift the blast shields now,” Tyra said.
“Are you certain of that, ma’am? If one of you is the spy, that person could conceivably learn the rendezvous location after we jump by studying the positions and luminosity of the stars around us.”
Tyra waved her hand dismissively at the bot. “Astralis had to have broadcast the rendezvous coordinates to us over omni-directional comms, so it’s hardly a secret where we’re headed. And besides, only a bot could triangulate our position just by looking at the stars.”
“Actually, that’s not the case, ma’am,” Pandora replied.
“Then you think very highly of our mental capabilities,” Tyra said.
“No, I mean, Astralis didn’t send us their coordinates via omni-directional comms. I broadcast our coordinates to them via omni-directional comms and then waited for them to reply with vector comms, which they did. Only I know the location of the rendezvous—and you, should you choose to query it from your station—though I would caution against that, in case Lucien gets a glimpse of the coordinates.”
Lucien frowned. “I’m not the spy.”
“You could be, sir,” Pandora replied. “Possibly on a subconscious level that you wouldn’t even be aware of.”
Tyra looked askance at him, and Lucien frowned. Before they’d even left New Earth, a mind probe had revealed a subconscious conflict in his motives for joining the mission. If he were some kind of sleeper agent for the Faros, that would finally explain his probe results.
“Even if I were a spy, do you really think the Faros are all the way out here?” Lucien asked. “We’ve traveled more than forty billion light years from where we last met them, and it took us over eight years to get here. Even if I wanted to contact them, there’s no way that I could communicate across that kind of distance.”
“Lucien is right.” Tyra said. “Raise the blast shields.”
“Aye, Captain…” Pandora replied.
Lucien watched the blast shields slide up from the viewports, revealing the glaring red eye of a nearby sun, and the diaphanous veil of a bright green and blue nebula.
Moments later Pandora spoke again, “Jumping in five, four, three, two…”
Everything disappeared in a bright flash of light, and a new scene appeared—countless stars adrift in a boundless black sea. A glinting silver wedge lay dead ahead, no bigger than the tip of Lucien’s thumb at this range.
“It’s really them…” Tyra whispered.
“Astralis is hailing us,” Pandora said.
“Put it up on the main screen,” Tyra replied.
The head and shoulders of a man in ceremonial white robes appeared on the main forward viewport. “I am Chief Councilor Ellis. On behalf of Astralis, welcome back, Captain Forster. We have much to discuss. Please land your galleon in hangar bay forty-seven. Meanwhile, I have someone here who’s eager to speak with you. Councilor?” The councilman turned and nodded to someone off the screen, whereupon a familiar face took Councilor Ellis’s place.
“It’s… you,” Lucien said, looking from the woman on the screen to the identical copy of her sitting beside him. The one on the screen regarded him with wry amusement, while the one sitting beside him stared wide-eyed at herself.
“I’m a councilor?” Captain Tyra asked.
“We stopped sending out expeditions after yours almost got us all killed,” Councilor Tyra explained.
Captain Tyra nodded slowly, and Councilor Tyra’s gaze flicked between Lucien and herself, but she said nothing.
“What is it?” Lucien asked. “You keep looking at me like there’s something you want to say.”
“It’s just a shock for me to see us in this context.”
“Us?” Captain Tyra echoed.
“I suppose you’re going to find out before you integrate your memories, anyway, so there’s no reason I can’t tell you.”
“Find out what?” Lucien demanded.
“We’re married, Lucien. With two kids. Atara and Theola.”
“You’re what?” Addy demanded, standing up from the comms station.
Captain Tyra held up a hand to forestall further comments. “Councilor, perhaps you’d better wait to tell us more. You’ve all been living our lives without us for the past eight years while we’ve been in stasis. I’m sure a lot has happened that will seem strange to us.”
“Of course, you’re right. I shouldn’t have said anything,” Councilor Tyra replied. “I apologize. It will be easier to understand everything that’s happened after you integrate, and our memories become your memories, too.”
“Agreed,” Captain Tyra said.
Councilor Tyra inclined her head to them. “See you soon, Captain. Astralis out.”
The main display faded back to a view of stars and space, and Addy turned to glare up at Tyra.
“Sit down, Lieutenant Gallia.”
Addy made no move to obey the order. “If you’re married to my Lucien, then you’re not my captain, and you can’t give me orders. You can’t have it both ways.”
“Until we integrate, I am your captain, and neither Commander Ortane nor I are married, let alone to each other. Now, if you don’t sit down, I’ll have you thrown in the brig for insubordination.”
Addy’s glare lingered.
Lucien was about to say something to reassure her, but what could he say? They weren’t going to forget about each other as they’d feared. But it was worse than that. They were about to remember eight years of a life that they’d lived with other people. Addy wouldn’t stand a chance against that. She’d be reduced to a distant memory of a woman he’d known eight years ago.
“This is why Etherus doesn’t resurrect anyone without proof of death,” Garek said. Jalisa glanced at him, her violet eyes wide. Their relationship was likely also in jeopardy.
“What if we don’t integrate?” Lucien asked.
“The council will never allow it,” Tyra said, shaking her head.
A red alert siren went off and the lights on the bridge flashed crimson.
“Multiple enemy contacts detected!” Pandora warned.
“Report!” Tyra said.
Everyone turned back to their stations, ready for action—
Until they realized they were still locked out of the ship’s systems.
“Astralis is surrounded,” Pandora said. “They’re hailing us again…”
“Put them on hold for the moment,” Tyra said as she configured a sensor grid on the main forward viewport. Everyone gasped when they saw it. There were just two green blips in a sea of red ones.
“There’s hundreds of them…” Addy whispered.
“I guess someone out there was listening to our comms, after all,” Jalisa put in.
“Enemy ships are opening fire on Astralis,” Pandora said.
“But not at us,” Jalisa pointed out. “They’re treating us as a friendly even though we’re closer to them than Astralis is.”
Tyra pieced it together first. “Astralis sent us these coordinates over vector-based comms. Only we knew that we’d be here, and we’re all still locked out of the ship’s systems. The only two people who could have broadcast this location are myself and Pandora, and I took her advice not to check the rendezvous coordinates.”
All eyes were on Pandora, but she said nothing.
“Why give away our location to some random species of aliens?” Addy asked.
“They’re not some random species,” Tyra said. “Check the sensor profiles of those ships.”
Lucien did. “They’re Faros…” he trailed off, shaking his head. “How is that possible?”
“They followed us all the way across the universe, for more than eight years?” Addy asked.
“Maybe they’re just that obsessed,” Garek said.
“Or maybe the Farosien Empire is just that big,” Lucien added.
Still, Pandora said nothing.
“When did you join team blue-skin?” Lucien demanded.
Finally, Pandora broke her silence. “Soon after you left in the shuttle to meet them. They slipped into our hangar with a data probe. It found me on the bridge and hacked my systems in a way that not even I could find the malicious code, giving me a kind of multiple personality disorder. By the way, you can’t see it, because I don’t have a mouth, but I’m giving you all an evil grin right now.”
“It was you all this time! You gave them the encryption codes to speak to us over our comms. That’s how we heard them when we met them in the methane ocean,” Lucien said.
“And how Faro-Lucien spoke to you as you fell into stasis,” Pandora added.
“Why?” Lucien asked.
“I believe that was just to mess with your head, Commander,” Pandora replied.
“No, I mean why go to so much trouble just to capture us? And why wait more than eight years to do it?”
“They don’t want us….” Tyra said. “They want Astralis. They used us as bait. We all just assumed the rendezvous would be safe because it took us so long to get here, but we underestimated how patient our enemy could be.”
“Very good, Captain,” Pandora said. “But using the Inquisitor as bait was just the backup plan. The Faros had planned to capture Astralis and the Inquisitor simultaneously, but the plan changed when Astralis escaped. That is why they didn’t follow you into the subsurface ocean on Snowflake.”
“I thought they didn’t follow us because they couldn’t,” Addy said.
“No, they—” Pandora broke off suddenly, and rose from the nav station, turning as she did so.
No one had noticed Brak walking around the bridge, circling behind Pandora.
The Gor hissed and bared his teeth as he rushed the bot. Pandora put up her hands in a feeble attempt to fend him off. Brak knocked her over and grabbed her head in both hands. Muscles bulged briefly in his arms and shoulders. With a twang of snapping metal, he ripped the bot’s head clean off and tossed it over his shoulder. Her head bounced and rolled up against the nearest viewport, pink holoreceptors flickering as they went out.
“No more Panda!” Brak roared, and spat on the bot’s lifeless body.
“Can you restore our access to the Inquisitor?” Lucien asked, turning to Tyra.
She was already working on it. “My override code isn’t working. I’m locked out now, too.”
“Damn it,” Lucien muttered. “We should have seen this coming.”
“We scanned her for viruses!” Tyra said.
“It’s like Tyra said,” Garek began, “none of us expected the Faros to be this patient.”
“What about the shuttles?” Jalisa asked. “Their systems are independent of the Inquisitor’s. Pandora might not have bothered to lock them down.”
“It’s worth a shot,” Tyra said. “Let’s go!”
The crew sprinted down the corridor from the bridge to the nearest elevator. On their way down to the shuttle bays Tyra sent a priority message via her ARCs telling the rest of the ship’s crew to meet them at the shuttles.
Lucien grimaced. He’d forgotten about the clerics and the enlisted crew.
The elevator doors opened and they all ran to the nearest shuttle.
Lucien fell into the pilot’s chair and powered the shuttle’s reactor. Checking his displays, he said, “I’ve got access, but the Inquisitor’s docking clamps won’t disengage.”
“Can you break free with the thrusters?” Tyra asked as she took a seat in the co-pilot’s chair beside him.
“Probably, but that’s not the biggest problem. The hangar shields are up at full strength. We can’t get out without dropping those shields, and we can’t do that without access to the Inquisitor’s systems.”
“The inside walls of the hangar aren’t shielded,” Jalisa pointed out. “We can blow a hole with the shuttle’s missiles.”
“And blow ourselves up while we’re at it!” Lucien said.
“The shuttle’s shields should hold,” Jalisa countered.
“Should hold. Can you guarantee that?”
“We could use munitions to rig up a few bombs and create a more controlled blast,” Garek suggested.
“We don’t have time for that,” Tyra said. “It won’t be long before the Faros realize their spy is out of commission and they re-designate our ship from friendly to enemy. We’ll have to risk blasting our way out with missiles. Jalisa and I will do the same with the other shuttles as soon as we have the rest of the crew on board. Wait for my signal. We’ll stand a better chance of escaping if we all leave together.”
“Three targets are better than one?” Addy quipped.
“Something like that.”
“Aye, Captain,” Lucien replied.
“Let’s go, Jalisa,” Tyra said, as she vacated the co-pilot’s chair. “Garek—you and Brak head to the nearest weapons locker and load up the shuttles with as much equipment as you can. See if you can get some of the ship’s bots to help you. If we’re captured, we’re not going down without a fight.”
“We’re on it,” Garek said.
Everyone but Addy left the shuttle. She sat down wordlessly in the co-pilot’s chair, and watched while he set up a firing solution for the shuttle’s missiles. He aimed them at the most distant point in the hangar. Hopefully that would be enough.
“So much for destiny,” Addy said.
“What?” Lucien asked, glancing away from his displays.
“You and the Tyrant?” Addy asked, staring at him. “She and I couldn’t be more different.”
“How am I supposed to defend life choices that I didn’t even make?” Lucien asked.
“But you did make them.”
“Another version of me did, one that maybe never even had a chance to get to know you. Councilor Tyra said that they stopped sending out missions after ours, and we would have been resurrected from backups taken before we left, so you and I actually never met.”
Addy regarded him with narrowed eyes, but said nothing.
Lucien sighed. “Can you pick a better time to fight with me about this?”
“Sorry,” she said, relenting.
He turned back to his displays and set up a computer simulation to see if Jalisa was right about the shuttles’ shields holding. It turned out she was, but there wasn’t a big margin for error. That meant they weren’t going to have a lot of shields remaining to deal with enemy fire after they left the Inquisitor.
Lucien finished his calculations, and suddenly he was at a loose end. Minutes passed like hours. He tried finding the other shuttles on the comms, but the only contacts on his board were the Inquisitor and Astralis.
“What’s taking them so long?” Lucien wondered aloud.
“We’re losing,” Addy said.
He turned to see her staring at a sensor grid. Red and green blips swarmed the screen, but there was far more red than green. Astralis had launched its remaining garrison, but it wasn’t going to be enough.
A tone sounded and the comms lit up with a message. “Finally!” Lucien said as he patched it through.
“This is Shuttle Lead, come in Shuttle Squadron,” Tyra said.
“Shuttle Lead this is Shuttle Two—Shuttle Squadron was the best you could come up with?” Lucien asked.
“You have a better name?” Tyra replied.
“How about Death Runners?”
“Fine. Have you heard from Jalisa?” Tyra asked.
“Death Runner Three, reporting,” Jalisa said.
“That’s everyone, then,” Tyra said.
“I’ve got the optimum firing solutions pre-calculated,” Lucien said. “Sending them now…”
“Got it,” Tyra said.
“You call this optimum?” Jalisa asked.
“Good enough,” Lucien said. “Runner Lead, I don’t have Garek or Brak on board, are they with you?”
“Negative, Runner Two.”
“They just finished up over here,” Jalisa said. “They should be back with you soon.”
“They’d better be back now,” Tyra said. “We’ve got three enemy cruisers headed this way.”
Lucien heard the rear airlock cycling and he checked the airlock cameras to see both Brak and Garek standing inside with a pile of weapons and equipment. “I’ve got them,” Lucien said. “Let’s go!”
“Runners fire on my mark…” Tyra said. “Mark!”
Lucien boosted the shuttle’s shields and fired two hammerhead torpedoes at the farthest corner of the hangar. A flash of light dazzled his eyes and a deafening boom sounded as the torpedoes exploded. A fiery shock wave swirled, wreathing the cockpit in flames. Debris thunked off their hull, and the shields gave a hissing roar as the shock wave dissipated.
In seconds the smoke and debris was gone, sucked out through a gaping hole in the side of the galleon.
“Shields are holding at 15%,” Addy said.
“Runners report!” Tyra ordered.
“Runner Two here, we’re fine,” Lucien replied.
“Runner Three, likewise,” Jalisa added.
A burst of static crackled over the comms as Tyra sighed with relief. “I have a jump pre-calculated, sending the nav data now.”
Lucien’s nav board lit up with a transfer request, and he accepted it. He heard Garek and Brak banging around in the cabin and glanced over his shoulder to see them carrying exosuits and weapons in from the rear airlock. It looked like they’d stacked a whole arsenal in there.
They must have had an army of bots helping them load it all. Those bots were nowhere to be seen now—probably for the best after their experience with Pandora.
“Nav data received,” Jalisa said.
“Runner Two?” Tyra asked.
“Got it,” Lucien said.
“Good. If you get the chance, jump out immediately,” Tyra said. “Don’t wait around for the others. Then you calculate your next jump and punch it as soon as possible. That way if one of us is captured, we can’t give away the first jump location. Understood?”
“Aye,” Lucien said.
“Affirmative,” Jalisa added.
“Good luck and… may Etherus be with us. Runner Lead out.”
Lucien was surprised by Tyra’s nod to Etherus, but there was no time to ask about it. He pushed the throttle up past the stops into overdrive. The thrusters roared, and the shuttle shivered and shook, straining against the galleon’s docking clamps. Something groaned, and a sharp ping sounded as one of the docking clamps snapped.
The shuttle veered to the right, away from the hole in the hangar wall, and Lucien hurried to compensate with the starboard maneuvering thrusters. It worked, but barely, making him realize the danger of what he was doing. When those clamps gave way, the shuttle was going to race out like a shot from a cannon, and if they weren’t facing the right way, they’d collide with one of the hangar walls at high speed.
Their depleted shields would never be enough to protect them from that.
Another ping sounded, and the shuttle veered rightward once more. Lucien scrambled to compensate again, but two more pings followed in quick succession, and they rocketed free—
Heading straight for the starboard wall of the hangar.
“Lucien!” Addy screamed.
He killed the throttle and activated the grav lifts at full strength, pulling up hard as he did so. They bounced off the starboard side of the hangar, and skimmed low over the blue haze of shields covering the hangar exit. The hole in the port side of the hangar appeared dead ahead. Jagged beams reached for them…. Their shields roared and metal screamed as it scraped their hull.
And then they were through and roaring into open space.
Lucien breathed a sigh of relief, and Addy sat back in her chair, her eyes wide with terror.
He checked the grid for the others. Jalisa’s shuttle was already out ahead of them, while Tyra’s shuttle was just emerging from the Inquisitor now.
Lucien pushed the throttle back up past the stops to catch up to Jalisa.
“Enemy fighters headed our way,” Addy warned. “And… three enemy cruisers.”
Lucien checked the grid. Addy was right. The Faros were already on to them. They needed to jump out before the enemy closed to laser range, but they had 5,322 klicks to go before they cleared the enemy’s jamming field, and with three enemy cruisers racing up behind them, that jamming field was chasing them.
“We’re going to have to outrun them,” he said, adjusting their heading a few degrees to starboard to put the enemy cruisers directly behind them.
The Faros had already proven that their ships were faster, but it remained to be seen if their cruisers could keep up with the Inquisitor’s shuttles, which were almost all engines, and designed as emergency getaway vehicles.
The shuttles’ top acceleration was 200 m/s2 which they were currently pushing to 225 m/s2 with overdrive. According to sensors, the enemy cruisers coming up behind them were only making 170 m/s2.
“I think we’re faster than they are,” Lucien said. The nav computer estimated they’d leave the enemy’s jamming radius in three hundred and eighty-two seconds.
A golden flash of enemy laser fire flashed by the cockpit, and Lucien jerked the stick down, jinking reflexively. He was surprised that they’d missed. He hadn’t been flying evasively. Then he checked the grid and saw that the Inquisitor was blocking the Faros’ line of fire. That shot had probably been intended to spook them out into the open.
“Keep the Inquisitor between you and those enemy cruisers!” Lucien warned the others over the comms.
“I’m working on it…” Jalisa replied.
“That’s not going to work forever,” Tyra said.
“No, but hopefully long enough,” Lucien replied.
“Missiles incoming!” Addy announced.
“Shoot them down!”
“I’ve only got one gun!” she said.
Lucien glanced at his scopes to find dozens of missiles streaking in from a group of enemy fighters coming up fast behind them. The Faros’ cruisers might not be fast enough to keep up, but their fighters definitely were.
“Hang in there, Runners!” Tyra said. “Just six minutes to go!”
“That’s two minutes too long!” Lucien said. “I’ve got missiles incoming, ETA four minutes.” With just one laser cannon there was no way they could take them all out.
Then Lucien had a thought. “Garek!”
“What do you need, Commander?”
“I need you and Brak to get the biggest laser rifles you can find and start firing them out the airlock at those missiles!”
“On it!” Garek replied.
A squadron of friendly fighters from Astralis swooped in behind the fighters chasing their shuttles, forcing the enemy to break off their pursuit.
“Looks like we’ve picked up an escort,” Lucien said over the comms. “Just shake those missiles, and we’re out of here!”
“Easier said than done,” Tyra commed back. “I’ve got too many incoming.”
Lucien glanced at the sensor grid and saw that Tyra had even more missiles chasing her shuttle than he had chasing his. “Get some of your passengers in the airlock with laser rifles to help you shoot them down,” Lucien said.
“They’re all scientists!” Tyra objected. “Most of them have never even fired a weapon before!”
“It’s point and shoot!” Lucien snapped.
“It’s too late…” Addy said.
“Good luck, Runners,” Tyra added.
The grid lit up with a sudden flash of light. When it faded, the green blip of Tyra’s shuttle was gone. Lucien gaped at the sensor display, unable to believe it. “Runner Lead, come in!”
Static answered him.
“It’s too late for her,” Jalisa said quietly. “But we still have a chance. Don’t lose focus now. Two more minutes to the jump point…”
“We’re clear!” Addy said.
Lucien glanced at the grid to see that there were no more missiles on their six. “Brak, Garek—get back inside,” he said quietly. “We’re about to jump out.”
“Aye, Commander,” Garek replied.
Golden streaks of light flashed around them as the Faros tried desperately to get a clear line of fire. One of the nearest enemy fighters broke out of a dogfight and joined the cruisers firing at them. The shuttle’s shields hissed, dropping from 26% to 20%. The cruisers might not be able to hit them, but those fighters could.
Lucien began jinking evasively. Another golden streak of laser fire flashed by the cockpit from the enemy cruisers, this time much closer than before, reminding him not to stray too far from his current course.
“Watch it!” Addy warned.
“I’ve got one on me!” Lucien said, as their shields hissed with consecutive impacts from the fighter on their tail.
“Shake him off!” Jalisa replied. “You’re almost there!”
“What do you think I’m trying to do?!”
“Shields failing!” Addy warned. “Switching to emergency power!”
The lights in the cockpit dimmed.
“Shoot that fighter down!” Lucien ordered.
“With one laser cannon?!” Addy asked. She was already firing back, but missing with half of her shots, and barely putting a dent in the enemy’s shields.
Lucien targeted the enemy fighter with torpedoes, but he couldn’t get a lock while flying evasively to elude enemy fire.
“Come on… just ten more seconds…” Lucien said through gritted teeth. He flew as erratically as he could, but lasers were impossible to evade. The best he could do was make it hard for the enemy to get a target lock.
“Shields at two percent!” Addy said.
Another hiss sounded from the shields, followed by a loud pop! as they failed. The next impact sounded with a sizzling clunk as it struck the hull.
Garek called out in alarm, and Lucien felt a sudden draft rip at his hair. The cockpit door slammed shut behind them.
“Jumping out!” Jalisa said, and her shuttle vanished from the grid with an accompanying flash of light.
Another clunk sounded from the SISS, and then they reached the jump point, too. Lucien punched it, and a bright flash of light dazzled their eyes. When stars and space reappeared, their scopes were clear.
Addy sat back with a sigh, and Lucien saw Runner Three fly out in front of them.
“You made it,” Jalisa said. “Are you okay?”
“Not sure yet—Garek?” Lucien asked.
“We’re okay…” Garek replied. “We were still wearing our exosuits when the breach occurred. We lost all of the atmosphere back here, and a fair amount of our equipment, but otherwise nothing we can’t fix. What’s the damage look like from up there?”
Lucien checked the shuttle’s damage report. “The reactor took a hit. We’re losing power.”
“Can you fix it?” Jalisa asked.
“Maybe if we were back on Inquisitor with a team of engineers to help us.”
“So that’s a no. Kill your engines and sit tight. I’m going to dock with your shuttle. You’ll have to transfer to mine.”
Lucien clicked his comms to acknowledge and hauled back on the throttle.
“How are we going to get to the airlock?” Addy asked. “We don’t have pressure suits up here!”
Lucien grimaced, and keyed the comms once more. “Ah, Jalisa, that’s a negative.”
“Our cabin lost pressure, and we don’t have pressure suits in the cockpit.”
“Krak,” Jalisa muttered. “All right… hang on… there’s two planets in this system with an atmosphere. Temperature, gravity, and atmospheric pressure all check out on both worlds, so we can land on one of them and transfer there.”
“Is the atmosphere breathable?” Lucien asked.
“Doesn’t matter. You should have masks and oxygen tanks in the emergency kits under your seats.”
“We’ll land on the nearest planet and transfer everyone to my shuttle there,” Jalisa said.
“What if we’re followed here?” Addy asked.
“How? Besides us, only Tyra knew where we were going, and she… didn’t make it.”
They observed a moment of silence for their dead.
“The Faros might not need to follow us if they’re already here,” Addy said.
“I’m not reading any contacts in this system—enemy or otherwise,” Lucien said. “We should be safe. Lead the way, Runner Three.”
Jalisa clicked her comms to acknowledge, and accelerated toward the planet she’d chosen. Lucien followed, trying to ignore the growing sense of apprehension in his gut. So far every time they’d thought the Faros couldn’t follow them, they’d been wrong. Somehow it seemed naive to think that this time would be any different.
Addy slowly shook her head. “They’re going to find us here, and then they’re going to kill us, too.”
Lucien frowned. “The Faros are slavers. I think they captured our people, not killed them, and that means we can still get them back.”
“Lucien’s right,” Garek put in. Lucien started at the sound of his voice. He’d forgotten to turn off the comms, so Garek and Brak had overheard everything. “My daughter was aboard Astralis. I’m going to get her back or die trying.”
“We’ll get them all back,” Lucien said.
“How?” Addy demanded. “We can’t even beat the Faros on an equal footing, and now all we have are two shuttles—one of which we’re about to abandon!”
“One problem at a time,” Jalisa said. “Right now, we need to focus on surviving.”
“For how long?” Addy demanded. She was hyperventilating, her chest heaving for air.
“Calm down, Addy,” Lucien said quietly. “We’re going to need clear heads to get through this.”
Addy’s green eyes flashed at him. “Don’t you get it? It’s over! We’re not going to get through this!”
Lucien met her gaze evenly. “We’ll find a way.”
Addy just shook her head and looked away.
They traveled the rest of the way to Jalisa’s chosen planet in silence. As they drew near, Lucien saw that it was a barren, icy rock with temperatures hovering around minus seventy-three degrees Celsius. There was a hot spot, however, where temperatures were over a hundred degrees higher than their surroundings.
“I’m getting some strange readings from thermal scans…” Jalisa said.
“I see it,” Lucien replied. He magnified the area and saw that it was perfectly circular, with a radius of about one hundred and fifty klicks.
“There’s no way that’s a natural heat source,” Jalisa said. “It must be an alien colony of some kind, which means they’re space-faring. Addy could be right. The Faros might already be here. We need to leave. I’m going to dock with you, and we’ll jump out together. You can transfer to my shuttle in the next system.”
“Roger that,” Lucien said.
“Too late!” Addy screamed, pointing to the grid as a swarm of red blips appeared. “Here they come!”
“They’ve blockaded the whole planet,” Lucien said. The Faros had jumped ships in on all sides of the planet, with overlapping jamming fields.
“And we’re inside of the blockade,” Jalisa pointed out.
“We’ll have to run through it,” Lucien said.
“How? We barely escaped the last time,” Addy said.
“We only managed that because we didn’t come under direct fire from their cruisers,” Jalisa said. “There’s nothing to block their fire this time. And besides, your shuttle can’t even jump.”
“We can’t, but you can,” Lucien said. “You have to try.”
“We’re being hailed…” Addy said.
“I’ll never make it,” Jalisa replied. “Sorry, Commander, but even slavery is better than death. This Runner’s done running—Shuttle Three out.”
“Damn it, Jalisa!” Lucien said, pounding his armrests.
“What are we going to do?” Addy asked, her green eyes huge.
Lucien shook his head. “I don’t know, but I’m not giving up yet.”
“Maybe we should,” Addy said. “Jalisa’s right. I don’t want to die.”
“You’re not going to,” Lucien replied, and set a course for the hot spot on the planet’s surface. “If that’s a colony, then they must have a jump-capable ship down there somewhere.”
“Even if you’re right, how are you going to pilot an alien ship?”
“One problem at a time,” Lucien said.
The icy planet grew until it was all they could see. Within seconds the atmosphere was ripping at their shuttle, whistling as it roared into the cabin behind them.
“What’s the plan?” Garek asked over the comms.
“We die fighting,” Brak suggested.
“No, we’re going to find a ship in the Faros’ colony and steal it.”
“We’ll still have to run the blockade,” Garek pointed out. “What are the odds that we make it?”
“So we take some hostages.”
“You think they’ll care about killing a few of their own?” Garek countered.
“It’s better than giving up,” Lucien said. “If you want to surrender, no one’s stopping you.”
Garek grunted. “I’ll surrender when I’m dead.”
Brak gave an appreciative hiss. “I agree.”
Addy just stared at the planet, her eyes wide and unblinking.
“I thought you liked taking risks,” Lucien said, glancing at her.
Addy shook her head slowly. “So did I.”
Lucien hauled back on the throttle, and turbulence stopped shaking their shuttle. The surface of the planet snapped into focus—a rocky wasteland with scattered white patches of ice.
As they descended, the alien colony swelled below them, going from a small blue dot to a hazy blue shield dome. Inside of the shield they could see buildings and tree-lined streets, a water reservoir… and a landing pad with a variety of spacecraft on it.
“Jackpot,” Lucien said. “How’s that shield dome look? Can we get through?”
Addy gave no reply. She was in a daze.
“Addy!” he prompted.
“Sorry… energy readings indicate it’s only an atmospheric shield. We shouldn’t have any trouble getting past it.”
“Good.” Lucien took them down the rest of the way. As they dropped through the shield, the blue haze fell away, allowing them to see the colony.
Alien pedestrians looked up and pointed as Lucien circled the landing pad, some of them familiar blue-skinned Faros, others completely unfamiliar to him.
There wasn’t any room on the landing pad for their shuttle, so he aimed for an intersection at the end of one of the streets. There appeared to be a large crowd gathered there, but they’d move when they felt the shuttle’s grav lifts pressing down on them.
They reached the intersection within seconds. “Air’s breathable,” Lucien said as they hovered down. He opened the cockpit doors, and a blast of warm air came in, bringing with it a host of alien smells that Lucien couldn’t even begin to identify.
The shuttle touched down with a thunk of landing struts meeting the street, and Lucien jumped up from the pilot’s chair. “Let’s go!”
They met Garek and Brak in the cabin; both of them had their rifles trained on a large hole in the side of the shuttle. Strange-looking aliens stood at a distance, peering back through the hole at them.
“At least we won’t need to wait for the airlock to cycle open,” Addy said, glancing out the hole.
“Suit up, and make it quick,” Garek said. “I don’t think this is a welcoming party.”
Lucien looked around the cabin. Their equipment was haphazardly strewn across the deck; spare exosuits lay about like dead bodies. Lucien picked the nearest one and used his ARCs to open it. It splayed open, and he lay down inside the suit, lining up his limbs carefully. He powered the suit, and it sealed around him with a hiss of pressurizing air.
Lucien stood up and grabbed a ripper rifle from an open weapons locker. Time to test his theory that the Faros’ shields might be more vulnerable to kinetic weapons than energy weapons.
“Addy?” he asked, and turned to see her clomping over to the weapons locker. She also grabbed a ripper rifle, as well as a pair of razor swords, which she clipped to her back crosswise like Brak.
“Ready. Let’s go steal a ship,” she said.
They piled out of the shuttle and into the alien square. Buildings soared around them, metallic structures and metallic streets shone blue in the filtered light of the shield dome overhead. Naked trees lined the street like skeletons, casting jagged shadows. Every imaginable type of alien stood frozen and watching them from the edges of the square.
“What is this place?” Addy asked. “Why are there so many different species here?”
Lucien shook his head. “Might be some kind of trading post.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Garek said. “Whoever they are, they’re not attacking us. Let’s get out of here before that changes.” He jerked his chin in the direction of the landing pad. It soared in the distance, a network of open girders and beams supporting a large flat platform.
They started toward it at a run, but fetched up short as a silky smooth voice called out behind them. “You’re just in time!”
Lucien whirled to see a familiar blue-skinned Faro with a glowing gold crown. A hot orange whip lay curled and smoking on the street beside him.
“I killed you!” Lucien said, his voice booming across the square, amplified by his suit’s external speakers.
“You can’t kill me,” King Faro replied, laughing and smiling broadly at them.
Behind him, in the center of the square, was a giant tree with one of the green-skinned Faros tied to it. He looked a lot different from the regal blue-skinned Faros that they’d seen. Short black horns sprouted from a bony ridge where the alien’s eyebrows should be. His eyes glowed a solid yellow, glaring balefully at them. Black tattoos marked his muscular arms, and one side of his face. The alien’s vaguely pointed ears were pierced with multiple gold earrings, and a ridge of short bristly black hair ran down the center of his otherwise bald green head.
“Just in time for what?” Addy demanded.
“To see what happens to slaves who run away from their masters,” the blue-skinned Faro said. “This one thought he could escape, too.” King Faro turned to the green-skinned alien tied to the tree.
Angry black furrows criss-crossed the green-skin’s chest, and his clothes were shredded.
The glowing whip flashed out with a crackling hiss and drew another black furrow across the green-skin’s chest. The slave gave a guttural cry; then another lash fell, followed by another cry.
The blue-skinned Faro had his back turned to them, as if he expected them to watch patiently until he was done.
“We should go,” Garek whispered over the comms.
“How about you fight someone who isn’t tied up?” Lucien demanded.
“Lucien!” Addy snapped at him. “We need to get out of here!”
The alien turned back to them. “Someone like you? That won’t be any more challenging.”
“Garek—take the others and find a ship,” Lucien said. “Get them out of here. I’ll slow this one down.”
Garek nodded and took off at a run. Addy hesitated briefly, her eyes wide as they met his. “Go!” he urged.
Addy’s face crumpled, her lips curving down, and she ran after Garek in a blur.
But Brak made no move to follow either of them. He jerked his chin at the Faro and bared his black teeth.
“Only two of you? Now it’s even less of a challenge,” the Faro said, sounding dismayed.
Lucien raised his rifle and pulled the trigger. A glittering golden stream of tracer rounds roared out, slamming the alien in the chest. He staggered back with the imparted momentum, but the bullets exploded harmlessly on his shield. So much for kinetic weapons… Lucien thought.
Brak fired, too, using a high-powered laser rifle, but still there was no effect.
“Keep firing!” Lucien said, hoping they could deplete the shield. Glowing shrapnel bounced off King Faro’s shield in a continuous stream, like showers of sparks. The alien dropped his whip, and it fell in a rapidly cooling black coil; then he drew the sword from his back. The air shimmered brightly around the transparent blade.
Brak gave up and tossed his rifle aside. He unclipped the razor swords from his back and tossed one of them down at Lucien’s feet. Then he activated his other sword and held it in a two-handed grip. The blade blurred and turned blue in the glow of its razor shield. Brak snarled and stalked toward the Faro.
The alien flourished his own sword and waited. Lucien’s rifle gave a sullen click and bullets stopped streaming from the smoking barrel. He was out of ammo.
Brak reached the alien and took a mighty swing with his sword. The Faro parried easily and snuck his blade past Brak’s, grazing the Gor’s armor. Brak hissed with surprise and slapped the Faro’s blade aside.
Lucien picked up the other razor sword and activated it. Let’s see you block two swords with one, he thought as he ran up behind the Faro.
Lucien struck low, intending to slice off the Faro’s feet, but the alien leapt over his strike and simultaneously parried another blow from Brak. Without his feet on the ground, Brak’s strike sent the Faro flying backward into Lucien.
Lucien caught the alien in a one-armed embrace and sliced his blade across the Faro’s chest.
The razor-shielded sword met the Faro’s personal shield with a flash of light, and the alien spun away with a high-pitched screech.
Its bare chest was flayed open in a deep gash, and leaking thick black blood.
“So you do bleed,” Lucien said.
“A lucky strike,” the Faro snarled.
Impossibly, the wound sealed itself before Lucien’s eyes, becoming flawless blue skin once more. He gaped in shock.
Brak didn’t waste time gawking. He leapt in, his blade flashing in a series of fast attacks that forced the Faro to backpedal rapidly around the tree in the center of the square.
Lucien was about to rejoin the fray when he caught an urgent look from the green-skinned Faro. Those glowing yellow eyes communicated the slave’s deadly intent. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, Lucien thought.
He ran up to the tree. The alien’s hands and ankles were tied with humming black cords—stun cords? he wondered. He swiped his sword across them in two quick strokes, and the green-skinned Faro sprang free with an angry snarl.
Having detected this new threat, King Faro leapt away from Brak. He flipped and twisted through the air, and landed facing the green-skinned slave. Just as his feet touched ground, the green-skinned alien thrust out his palms and two white-hot balls of plasma shot out.
They hit the blue-skinned Faro with a blinding flash of light, and he staggered backward—
Right into Brak’s sword. The Gor ran him through three times in quick succession, roaring enthusiastically as his razor sword flashed in and out of the alien’s chest.
Black blood bubbled from the slits in the alien’s torso as he turned lazily to face the Gor.
King Faro swung his sword as if to parry, but Brak knocked it aside easily and brought his own sword back around in a decapitating blow.
The crown fell off, and the alien’s bald blue head rolled. It came to a stop just a few inches from Lucien’s feet. Its glowing blue eyes glared up at him, the light gradually fading from its gaze.
An agitated murmur started up from the crowd of aliens in the square, and the green-skinned Faro took off, running impossibly fast for the landing pad where Garek and Addy had gone.
Lucien clipped Brak’s razor sword to his back and ran after the Faro, trying the comms as he went. “Garek? Addy?”
Comm static buzzed in Lucien’s ears. No reply.
Brak ran up beside him and jerked his chin to the distant flashes of weapons fire coming from the landing pad. That had to be them. They were in trouble.
“We’re on our way!” Lucien added over the comms. “Hang on!”
Lucien clocked his speed at over sixty kilometers per hour, but somehow the green-skinned Faro beat them to the landing pad, having run even faster than that. Rather than stop there, the alien kept on going, heading straight for the hazy blue shield rising from the edge of the colony.
Lucien stopped at the base of the landing pad and glanced up. Weapons fire still flashed above the landing pad, but now Lucien could hear it, too. He could also clearly see both Garek and Addy on sensors, but they had yet to reply over the comms.
“Garek, Addy, come in!”
“We’re… pinned down,” Garek gritted out.
Lucien considered boosting up to the landing pad to help them, but that runaway alien slave had to have some kind of escape plan. Where was he going?
“Get down here and follow us!”
Garek clicked his comms to acknowledge, and although Addy hadn’t replied yet, she clicked hers, too.
Lucien ran after the Faro. Brak poured on a burst of speed and took the lead. A moment later, Lucien heard grav boosters firing and saw Addy and Garek land behind him via his exosuit’s rearview display. Lucien slowed his pace, and they caught up quickly.
“Where are we going?” Garek asked.
“Wherever he’s going,” Lucien pointed to the green-skinned Faro, now seconds away from reaching the shield at the edge of the colony.
“Looks like he’s planning to die of exposure,” Addy said. “It’s almost a hundred below outside the shield!”
A group of six Faro soldiers appeared behind them and opened fire with laser rifles. Lucien felt his back grow warm as his shields absorbed a hit. He cocked an arm up over his shoulder and fired back with his suit’s integrated lasers, but his shot splashed harmlessly off the enemy’s shields.
“It’s no use,” Garek said. “We can’t get past their shields.”
“Razor swords can,” Lucien said, grimacing as his shields absorbed another hit. He still had Brak’s sword, but he couldn’t afford to stop and fight in close quarters with half a dozen Faros. “Let’s put some distance between us,” Lucien decided. “Activate your grav boosters.” Not waiting to see if the others would follow, he blasted off the ground and soared high above the street. He dodged and wove, up and down and side to side, zigzagging to stay out of the enemy’s sights. That plus the smaller profile he now presented, with his feet facing the enemy, made him hard to hit. Bright golden lances of enemy lasers streaked by harmlessly to all sides.
Up ahead, the runaway slave reached the edge of the colony’s shields and barreled straight through. Brak ran through after him, while Lucien, Garek, and Addy flew out over the alien’s head.
As soon as they were through the shield, Lucien felt the cold clawing through his exosuit. Far below, the slave ran on across open terrain, undaunted by the cold or the change in atmosphere. The blue-skinned guards chasing them stopped when they reached the shield and stood just inside of it, firing out with increasingly poor accuracy.
“Where are we going?” Addy asked, flying up beside Lucien.
“There!” Lucien pointed. Something was materializing in front of the green-skinned slave. Matte black and ovoid, it looked like an escape pod of some kind. How long had it been there, cloaked and hiding in plain sight?
Lucien flew down, landing beside the pod just as the alien reached it. A door opened in the pod, and the Faro barked at them in his guttural voice, gesturing urgently for them to go inside. Laser fire splashed on the pod’s hull, emphasizing the urgency of the situation. They had to trust him.
Brak went first, followed by the rest of them. Elbows poked into Lucien’s ribs on all sides. Clearly the pod had been designed for just one or two occupants. The alien slave joined them in the pod and shut the door. He pushed by them to reach a control panel on one side and hurriedly tapped a series of holographic keys with alien symbols.
Lucien grimaced as he listened to the sounds of enemy lasers striking the pod all around them. He could feel the heat radiating through the hull via his haptic sensors.
“What’s taking him so long?!” Addy demanded.
“There’s no way we’re going to run a blockade in a ship this size,” Garek said. “One shot from a cruiser’s cannons and we’ll be vaporized.”
Brak hissed with displeasure. “We should go back and fight.”
Lucien frowned, hoping there was more to this escape plan. The slave stepped away from the control station, and turned to face them. He bared sharp white teeth at them in an evil-looking grin, and Lucien shivered, suddenly wondering what the alien had done to be tied to that tree.
A rising whirr filled the air inside the pod.
Addy grabbed his hand and squeezed. “Lucien…”
A bright flash of light dazzled their eyes, and the whirring noise abruptly stopped. The green-skinned alien pushed by them and opened the door to the pod.
Addy sucked in a noisy breath and Lucien blinked in shock at the scene beyond the pod doors. Instead of seeing a rocky, ice-covered planet beneath a dreary gray sky, or even the hazy blue shield dome of the alien colony they’d just fled, they saw that they were now inside of a large room with scuffed metal walls and floors, exposed conduits in the ceiling, and broad, blank viewports along the far wall.
“It was a quantum junction,” Lucien realized, stepping out of the pod after the slave. “We just jumped somewhere else.”
It was the perfect getaway plan. Quantum jump drives wouldn’t work inside of a magnetic field, or inside of an enemy’s jamming field, but quantum junctions worked just fine.
“How is that possible?” Addy asked.
Lucien glanced at her. “We’ve had the technology to jump through jamming fields from one junction to another ever since we met Etherus. The Faros have even more advanced technology than us, so it’s no surprise that they can do the same thing.”
“No, I mean that—” Addy pointed to the wall of blank, floor-to-ceiling viewports in front of them.
Holo displays? Lucien wondered. Or maybe they were on a planet and it was a particularly dark night. “I don’t see anything,” he said.
“Look closer…” Addy replied as she walked up to the viewports.
Lucien followed her with a frown, keeping half an eye on the green-skinned Faro. He was busy retrieving something from a nearby storage compartment.
“There,” Addy pointed as she stopped in front of the viewport she’d chosen. Lucien saw a pinprick of light where she was pointing, and then two more, far from the first one.
“Stars?” Lucien asked. “We’re on a spaceship?”
“Why are there only three stars?”
She made a good point. “The others could be occluded by something—a dark nebula?” he suggested.
Addy nodded slowly. “Must be.”
Brak and Garek joined them at the viewport.
“A good place to hide,” Garek commented. “If we can’t see out, then others can’t see in.”
The green-skinned alien said something in its guttural voice, and Lucien turned to see it holding a handful of U-shaped metal rings. The alien placed one of them around its head, above its pointed green ears, and the device lit up with a ring of lights. Then he handed one of the other devices to Lucien.
“What is it?” Addy asked.
“Some kind of translator, I think,” Lucien replied, turning the device over in his hands a few times to make sure it wasn’t dangerous. He’d have to take his helmet off to put it on. He checked the atmosphere inside the ship first. It was breathable, and no airborne pathogens were detected, so Lucien twisted off his helmet and set it down at his feet. Then he placed the ring of metal around the back of his head, above his ears, as he’d seen the Faro do.
The alien growled something else, but this time Lucien understood it perfectly.
“Thank you for saving me.”
“You’re welcome… what’s your name?” Lucien tried.
“Oor-gu-rak,” Lucien repeated awkwardly. There’d been no translation for that, so he had to mimic the sounds the alien made as best he could.
“Yes, and who are you?”
“My name is Lucien,” he said.
The alien started visibly and snarled, revealing those pointed white teeth once more.
“Don’t piss him off,” Garek warned.
“Lucien,” Oorgurak said slowly. “How did you come by this name?”
“It was given to me by my parents,” Lucien replied. “It means light-bringer in my language.”
“I know what it means. The word is different in Farosien, but the meaning is the same.”
“Is that who was whipping you? The Faro who calls himself Lucien?” he asked, noting that the black furrows he’d seen on Oorgurak’s chest in the square were now mysteriously gone.
“Yes. He goes by many names. He is the destroyer of worlds. The evil one. Death. Abaddon. You are not… in league with Abaddon, are you?”
“No.” Lucien grimaced, suddenly wishing he could change his name.
“I suppose it would make little sense for you to attack Abaddon if you were on his side. Unless your plan was to sneak aboard this station so you could kill us all in our sleep…”
“If that was my plan, then I’d know better than to use his name.”
“True, and you did agree to wear a mind-reader. You would not have done this if you had something to hide. I will call you Lux to avoid further confusion. I suggest you do the same, lest you arouse others’ suspicions.”
Lucien nodded. “Lux it is.”
Oorgurak passed out the rest of the translators, and the others removed their helmets to put them on.
“Where are we?” Addy asked.
“We are aboard Freedom Station,” Oorgurak replied.
“And where is that?” Addy pressed.
“At the end of everything.”
“The end of everything?” Lucien echoed.
“The last star before the great abyss that separates our universe from the one on the other side.”
Lucien thought back to what they’d seen upon arriving at the cosmic horizon—a vast swath of stars and galaxies leading up to an empty void that stretched as far as the new cosmic horizon, and no doubt much further still. Tyra and Pandora had hypothesized that it might be the trough behind the next wave of galaxies and stars, and Oorgurak seemed to be confirming that now. There was just one problem with that.
“We can’t have jumped all the way to the… great abyss,” Lucien objected. “We were billions of light years from there.”
“Unless the jump was pre-calculated,” Garek suggested.
Oorgurak inclined his head to Garek. “Yes.”
Lucien glanced back at the quantum junction they’d stepped out of. “If that’s the case, then we could easily be followed.”
“The junction was designed to destroy itself after I used it,” Oorgurak said. “No one will follow us.”
“How did it get there?” Addy asked.
“My people left it as part of an attempt to rescue me.”
“And who are your people?”
“Former slaves, members of the Marauders.”
“Hold on,” Addy interrupted. “You said there’s another universe on the other side of the… great abyss. How do you know it’s there? We can’t see it, which means there’s no visible light reaching us from there. And how can we see three more stars from here if we’re at the last one?”
“They are ghosts,” Oorgurak said. “Stars whose light we can see, but which no longer exist. As for the universe on the other side, I know it exists, because I was there when it was created. Now, enough questions. I am tired and hungry. We can continue this discussion while we eat. Please follow me. You are honored guests here on Freedom Station.”
Green-skinned Faros were everywhere, walking the corridors of the station, but they weren’t the only species present. Lucien saw at least twenty different species of aliens before they reached the mess hall. Some were humanoid, while others were far more exotic—like the slowly inflating and deflating white balloon creatures that floated down the corridors, bouncing blindly off the walls.
In the mess hall Oorgurak led them to a self-service food counter. They each took a tray and selected the least strange-looking utensils from those available. Lucien chose a spoon and tongs.
They must have stood out in their bulky exosuits, but none of the other aliens in the mess hall paid much attention to them. That either meant that they’d seen humans before, or that they’d seen so many different aliens that seeing an unfamiliar species was nothing new. Lucien guessed the latter.
He looked around while he waited in line to serve himself. Here all of the aliens were at least humanoid. That made seating arrangements less complicated, but he imagined there had to be other mess halls on the station to cater to the more exotic aliens.
As they reached the serving counter, Lucien watched Oorgurak to see what he would choose from the exotic-looking dishes of food steaming under the heat lamps. Oorgurak went for something that looked like chopped raw meat and paired it with something else that looked like mashed taber root—if taber root were green. Both dishes smelled horrible, but Brak seemed to approve of the chopped meat, and piled his plate with it.
Lucien passed on anything that looked or smelled bad, which was everything. That left him with an empty plate and a grumbling stomach near the end of the serving line, so he settled for a dish looked vaguely like pasta with red sauce. It didn’t smell half bad either. Not wanting to risk any of the alien beverages, he poured himself a cup of water to go with the meal, and went to find Oorgurak.
The Faro was already seated and everyone else was there with him. Lucien dragged a chair over from an adjacent table and sat on the corner between Addy and Brak. They made space for his tray, but there was zero elbow room.
As soon as he was seated, Lucien asked the question that had to be burning in everyone’s brain. “You said you were there when the universe was created.”
Oorgurak nodded as he scooped a spoonful of bloody meat into his mouth.
“So who created it?” Lucien asked.
“Etherus did,” Oorgurak said around a mouthful of food.
“Do you have any proof of that?” Lucien asked. “Anything you could show us?”
Oorgurak swallowed and regarded them with a frown. “Why would I lie to you?”
“It’s not that you would lie… just that it’s easier to believe something if you can see it for yourself. Where we’re from, a lot of people have doubts about who Etherus is. It would help if we could take them some proof.”
The Faro grunted and scratched a hand through the bristly black line of hair running down the center of his otherwise bald green head. “I don’t have any proof. You’re humans, aren’t you?”
“Do you know where you came from?”
“We used to be Etherians. Etherus created us by mixing Etherian DNA with that of a local species of primates on a planet called Earth.”
“And have you met any Etherians?”
“Besides Etherus? A few.”
“You’ve met Etherus, and still you doubt?” Oorgurak smiled, his sharp teeth stained red with blood from his food. “You are more like Abaddon than you realize.”
Lucien narrowed his eyes at the green-skinned alien. “What do you mean?”
“He claimed that Etherus had no right to call himself God, that the creation we witnessed was part of a natural cycle. He believed that anyone could be God if they could find some way to survive from one cycle to the next.
“But Abaddon fooled us all. He argued for a free universe, one where Etherus would allow us to do whatever we liked, but as soon as Etherus gave us our freedom, Abaddon used his freedom to enslave us all to him.”
“If you witnessed the creation of the universe, you must have been watching for a very long time,” Garek said. “It’s not like it was created in a day.”
“Time is relative. You must know this. We watched the creation from the Holy City, where all of the dimensions are one, and time is meaningless.”
“The Holy City?”
“Etherus’s home,” Oorgurak said.
“I thought Etheria was his home?” Addy asked.
“Etheria is just the galaxy where his chosen people, the Etherians, live. It used to be easy to reach—until we destroyed it with our war. Now it lies on the other side of the gate between this universe and the next.”
Lucien was beginning to suspect Oorgurak of insanity. “I see…”
“You do not believe me,” Oorgurak said. “It doesn’t matter. None of it matters anymore. We are on our own out here. Etherus will not interfere. We wanted to be free, and our freedom led us into slavery.” Oorgurak barked out a gruff laugh. “Living with the consequences of that is our eternal punishment. I believe this is why Etherus allowed us to have this universe to ourselves.”
“But what about all the innocent species who didn’t take part in your war?” Addy asked.
“What of them?”
“Doesn’t Etherus care that Abaddon is enslaving them, too?”
“Abaddon created them, so he is allowed to do with them as he pleases.”
“How did he create them?” Garek asked.
“He and his Elementals stole the Forge that Etherus built to seed this universe with life, and they used it for themselves.”
“The Forge?” Addy asked. “Is that some kind of… factory?”
“It is far more than that. It is impossibly vast, a monolithic place like no other. It is the tree of life. The origin of all consciousness.”
“But life evolved naturally,” Lucien said. “We have the fossils to prove it.”
“Yes, it evolved,” Oorgurak said, “but life was never meant to take its own course. Abaddon gave the Forge instructions to create a more chaotic form of life—life that could create itself. Then all he had to do was sit back and wait.”
Lucien shook his head. “He had to have waited a long time. Evolution isn’t exactly fast.”
“Time runs differently in the Forge, just as it does in the Holy City.”
“So Abaddon can travel through time?” Addy asked.
“In one direction, yes,” Oorgurak replied. “Time is like a river. You can block or restrict its flow, but you cannot reverse its course.”
“Where is this Forge now?” Lucien asked.
“Only Abaddon knows,” Oorgurak said. “And with good reason. It is the source of his power. From the Forge you can travel anywhere in a fraction of the time that it should take. You can communicate just as easily, and you can even travel to the future by altering the flow of time.
“Some say that Abaddon has sent a copy of himself to every possible location in the present and the future, but that is an exaggeration. What they mean is that he is spreading himself rapidly to all corners of the universe, and that he has been doing this for a long time, so he is almost everywhere by now. Thanks to the Forge, he is able to keep in contact with all of his copies, so what one of them knows, the others will soon learn.”
“That’s what he meant when he said he can’t be killed,” Lucien realized. “He’s copied himself so many times that killing just one copy is meaningless.”
“Yes,” Oorgurak said.
“Who are the Elementals?” Garek asked.
“I was one of them. The only Faro of my color to ever be given that honor.” Oorgurak smirked. “An honor. There is no honor in what they do.”
“And what is that?” Lucien prompted.
“Giving life to abominations, enhancing themselves until they are not even Faros anymore. They turn themselves into gods, and they do as they please. To them, the entire universe exists only for their pleasure and entertainment.”
“That’s how you were able to step outside the shields without a pressure suit,” Lucien realized, thinking back to the frozen world they’d been on less than an hour ago. “And how you healed so fast after Abaddon beat you with his whip.”
“Yes,” Oorgurak said. He scooped another spoonful of raw meat from his plate and nodded to their food. “You are not hungry?”
Brak had already finished his food, but none of the others had done more than sniff it suspiciously.
Lucien’s stomach growled at the mention of food, and he glanced at his plate. The pasta he’d chosen had smelled appetizing enough, so he decided to risk it. He used his tongs and spoon to grab a modest pile of pasta and drop it into his mouth. Addy and Garek watched him, waiting to see his reaction.
The pasta was spicy, and chewier than he’d expected, but tasty enough.
“Not bad,” he managed.
“You are brave to eat Dukartan brain worms,” Oorgurak said. “Few would risk the chance that one of the worms might still be alive and wriggle its way to a new home.”
“Dukaratan…” Lucien snatched a serviette from his tray and spat the pasta into it. He stared at his plate in horror.
Oorgurak laughed. “I jest—” Relief washed through Lucien. “—only one in a million worms survives the cooking process.”
Lucien set his tongs down, feeling suddenly queasy. Garek and Addy stared at their own food with wrinkled noses.
“You said your people used to be slaves,” Lucien said.
“How did you free them?”
“Some escape on their own. Others we liberated by force.”
“Then you have a military of some kind, a war fleet?” Lucien asked hopefully.
“We have many warships, yes. Why do you ask?”
“Our people were attacked by the Farosien Empire,” Lucien explained. “We came with a fleet of our own, and one giant ship to serve as our home. There were more than three hundred million of us on board that ship, and we believe that they may have been captured.”
“May have been?” Oorgurak asked. “Did you not see them taken by the Farosiens?”
“No, we ran before they were defeated.”
Oorgurak bared his teeth at them in an ugly sneer. “You abandoned your people in the middle of a fight?”
“We had no choice. It was that or be captured ourselves, and then we would have no way to help them.”
“How do you plan to help them now?” Oorgurak challenged, his glowing yellow eyes intense. “You are only four. You cannot possibly hope to free millions of slaves.”
Lucien nodded. “I was hoping you and the other Marauders might be willing to help us.”
Oorgurak glanced around the table at each of them in turn. “What have you to offer in exchange?”
Lucien considered that. He wasn’t authorized to offer anything at all, but Oorgurak didn’t know that. He decided to offer the most tempting thing he could think of. “I offer an alliance with the Etherian Empire,” Lucien said. “We have thousands of warships to bring to your fight against the Farosiens.”
“You have no authority to offer us this. You are lying.”
“I am telling the truth,” Lucien insisted.
Oorgurak abruptly stood from the table and leaned over it to grab the collar of Lucien’s exosuit. He yanked Lucien’s face up to his, blinding him with his glowing eyes.
Brak hissed in warning, but the Faro thrust out his palm, and the Gor went flying across the mess hall, knocking over several tables and scattering the people dining there with a crash of falling trays and plates. Brak leapt up and ran at Oorgurak with an angry snarl.
A deadly ball of plasma appeared hovering in the Faro’s hand.
“Stand down, Brak!” Lucien yelled.
The Gor reluctantly stopped his charge, and the ball of plasma vanished.
Brak settled for pacing back and forth, his slitted yellow eyes watching Oorgurak, waiting for an opening to attack.
“You think I cannot read the tone of your thoughts with the mind-reader?” Oorgurak’s breath smelled like rancid meat as it piled hotly on Lucien’s face. The Faro tapped the illuminated band he wore around the back of his head. “Make a real offer! The truth!”
“I…” There was nothing Lucien could say.
Oorgurak nodded slowly and released him with a shove. “That is what I thought.” He sat back down and dug into his food once more.
“I saved your life,” Lucien said.
“And I saved all of yours when I led you here,” Oorgurak countered, spluttering blood from a mouthful of his food.
“We need your help,” Lucien insisted.
Oorgurak wiped his mouth on a clean white serviette, staining it red. “You are asking us to die for strangers. You are in the wrong universe for that.”
Lucien frowned, wondering what Oorgurak meant by that. “Do you speak for your people?” he asked, hoping the answer would be no.
“Do you speak for yours?” Oorgurak countered.
“I asked first,” Lucien said.
“I speak for my crew. You will have to speak to the other Marauder captains if you want to hear their answers, but I can already tell you what those answers will be. You have nothing to offer, so we have no reason to fight for you.”
Lucien’s heart sank with that admission. The Marauders obviously weren’t a cohesive resistance—they were a loosely affiliated group of independent starship captains, each of them out for themselves.
“This is ridiculous,” Addy said. “We all have the same enemy, and you won’t help us fight them?”
“We can barely help ourselves. Even if you had something to offer, what you are asking is impossible. At best, we could help you free a few of your people, but not all of them.”
Oorgurak finished scooping food off his plate, and stood from the table, his tray in hand. He swallowed a giant mouthful and inclined his head to Lucien. “You are welcome to stay here and join the Marauders. I have seen you fight. Any captain would be happy to have you join his crew.” With that, the Faro turned to leave.
“Wait!” Lucien said.
But the alien didn’t turn around.
Brak saw his chance, and he rushed quietly up behind Oorgurak. Just before Brak reached him, the Faro thrust out his palm, and Brak went flying once more, knocking over another table and its occupants.
This time one of them took issue with Brak—an orange biped with a scaly lizard skin—but Brak put the lizard-man down with one blow to its head. He came limping back to the table and sat down once more.
“What are we going to do now?” Addy asked.
“We’re going to get our people back,” Lucien said.
“How?” Garek asked. “The Marauders won’t help us, and Etherus warned us before we left that we’d be on our own out here.”
“We might be able to get him to change his mind. Even if we can’t, New Earth has more than enough resources to send a rescue mission out here. The people who left have to have families and loved ones back home who’d be willing to help us put together a mission.”
“Most of them took their families with them,” Garek said.
“Even if they do send help, it won’t be enough to defeat the Farosiens,” Addy said.
Lucien didn’t reply to that. From what they’d seen, the Farosien Empire spanned the entire universe. It had to be millions of times the size of the Etherian Empire, and their technology was clearly superior as well. If it came to war, there was no doubt that the Faros would win.
“It doesn’t matter,” Garek said. “We’re so far from New Earth that it would take us decades to get home—and we don’t even have a ship to take us.”
“Then we need to find one,” Lucien said.
“Twenty years to get home, and twenty years to get back,” Garek went on, shaking his head. “By the time we return to save everyone, they’ll be scattered all over the universe and impossible to find. As far as we know, that’s already happening. If we’re going to do something, we need to do it fast. I say we steal a ship and fly back to Astralis. If we’re lucky, our people are still there, maybe even still fighting.”
“That’s insane,” Addy said. “We’ll be captured and enslaved with them.”
“You have a better idea?” Garek demanded. The scars on his face pulled taut as he sneered at them. No one said anything. “I didn’t think so,” Garek replied. “You can all wallow in your cowardice, but I’m going to save my daughter, and then I’m going home.”
Garek pushed out from the table and bent to pick up his helmet where he’d left it on the deck beside his chair.
“What about Jalisa?” Lucien asked.
Garek tucked his helmet under his arm and looked up. “She surrendered, so at least we know she’s alive. If I have a chance, I’ll find her copy on Astralis and rescue her, too. If not… she will be remembered.” Garek turned and walked away.
“Does he even know where he’s going?” Addy asked.
“No, but we need to stop him before he gets himself killed. These Marauders aren’t going to take kindly to him trying to steal one of their ships.”
“And then what?” Addy asked. “What are we going to do, Lucien?”
He saw the panic shining in her eyes. He wasn’t far from panicking himself. This wasn’t an adventure anymore. The mission had failed, and they were alone—the last free members of the human race beyond the red line, and one Gor. Lucien thought about Tyra, Troo, Tinker, and Jalisa—even Kip and Pandora—and he realized that they were probably never going to see any of them again.
He was also never going to see his parents or his sister again—not even his Etherian half-brother. He was stranded out here, and he was going to die out here.
Did the Marauders even know how to transfer consciousness to cloned bodies? If they did, Lucien was sure that resurrection wouldn’t be a given right as it was on New Earth. It would be expensive, and as Oorgurak had pointed out, they had nothing to offer.
Signing on with one of the Marauder captains would be dangerous, but it was likely also the only way for them to get money and resources.
What are we going to do?
Lucien didn’t have an answer for Addy. He didn’t even have one for himself. Light-bringer, he thought, with a self-deprecating smirk. No one could bring light to so much darkness. It was all around them, pressing in and weighing them down.
It would be easy to give up, to write their people off as lost, but Lucien wasn’t ready to do that. He took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. He took Addy’s hand in both of his and squeezed.
“We’re Paragons. We’re going to do whatever it takes to save our people, and we’re not going to give up until we’re dead.”
Addy shook her head. “That’s not a plan.”
“Then how’s this—you heard what Oorgurak said, he only speaks for his crew. The other Marauder captains speak for theirs. If we can find a way to unite them against the Farosiens, we’ll have the army we need.”
“Unite them how?”
“We’re not the only ones trying to set our people free,” Lucien replied. “Everyone here has probably lost someone they care about. We can use that. And then there’s the wild card of potential extra-dimensional allies. Those polypus creatures that saved us from our timer implants might be willing to help us again.”
Addy’s eyebrows shot up. “Have you seen them again?”
“No, but if we can find them, we may be able to enlist their help. If they really are higher-dimensional beings as Tyra suggested, then they might be a lot more powerful than Abaddon.”
“So where do we look?”
“I don’t know, but before we do anything, we need to get Garek back on our side.”
“And what if he’s right?” Addy asked. “What if this is his only chance to rescue his daughter?”
“Getting himself killed for stealing a Marauder ship isn’t going to help her.”
Addy nodded, and turned to Brak. “What do you think?”
“To fight a war, you need warriors,” he said. “We unite the captains and go to war with Abaddon. This is our path.”
Lucien made a fist and held it out. Addy made one, too, and touched her knuckles to his. Brak added his fist. “To war, and death to Abaddon,” Lucien said.
“To war, and death to Abaddon!” Addy and Brak shouted, drawing glances from the Marauders dining in the mess hall. They were all wearing the U-shaped mind-reader bands, so they must have understood that battle cry.
Good, Lucien thought. Every fire starts with a spark. Maybe this is ours.
They left the table together, and Lucien led the way, tracking Garek’s comm beacon with his suit’s sensors.
As they walked down the dark and dirty corridors of Freedom Station, past the bedraggled aliens that called the station home, Lucien’s resolve hardened. These beings needed a leader. They needed to know that there was still hope.
Look out Abaddon— he thought. —we’re coming for you.
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OTHER BOOKS BY JASPER SCOTT
Suggested reading order
New Frontiers Series
Dark Space Series
Dark Space Universe Series
—Coming August 2017—
—Coming November 2017—
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jasper Scott is a USA TODAY bestselling science fiction author, known for writing intricate plots with unexpected twists.
His books have been translated into Japanese and German and adapted for audio, with collectively over 500,000 copies purchased.
Jasper was born and raised in Canada by South African parents, with a British cultural heritage on his mother’s side and German on his father’s, to which he has now added Latin culture with his wonderful wife.
After spending years living as a starving artist, he finally quit his various jobs to become a full-time writer. In his spare time he enjoys reading, traveling, going to the gym, and spending time with his family.
The Research Behind “Dark Space Universe”
A lot of research went into this book. I must have read hundreds of articles to get to the bottom of the science. And it all started with what I thought was a simple question.
What Would We Find if We Could Travel to the Edge of the Universe?
That seemed simple enough to answer. All I had to do was find out what the world’s leading experts thought and try not to contradict their ideas. But not long after I began my research, I learned that the universe may not even have an edge! 
Logically and intuitively I couldn’t accept that. I thought: assuming that the universe is made up of a finite amount of material (which may or may not be true), then if you travel far enough, you’ll eventually run out of galaxies and stars, and reach the edge of energy and matter, if not space itself.
Alternatively, you could find that just like the Earth, the universe has no edges, and you’d end up back where you started.
Note: when we talk about the universe, this also includes the fabric of space-time itself, not just the matter we can see, but for my purposes, I’d be satisfied to call the end of visible matter the edge.
Second note: most cosmologists believe that the universe is “homogeneous and isotropic.” This is called the cosmological principle. According to Kate Becker at Cornell.edu, “Homogeneous is defined as ‘the same in all locations’ while isotropic means ‘the same in all directions.’”
So if the visible matter in the universe is somehow adrift in a vast or even infinite amount of empty space, that would violate this cosmological principle. It’s not really an inviolable law, however, since it’s only based on what we can see leading up to, but not beyond, the cosmic horizon.
Of course, all of that is based on the assumption that there actually is an end to matter in the universe.
Is the Universe Infinite?
It turns out that there’s just a few ways that space could keep on going forever without an actual edge. The first and most obvious way, is that if the universe is infinitely large, then it won’t have any edges.
Let’s think about what that means for a second.
In a universe of infinite matter, that matter will eventually assume every possible configuration, and then those configurations will begin to repeat themselves in an infinite number of variations and identical copies of those variations.
This means that there are an infinite number of duplicate earths, and an infinite number of identical copies of you living on them. On one of these duplicate earths, one of your copies won the Nobel peace prize. On another earth, one of your copies became the president of the USA. And on another one, you are a monkey with three eyes and six legs.
In an infinite universe, everything that can happen will happen, so absurdity is the norm. That tells me that the idea itself is absurd.
Perhaps there’s no way to discount the possibility with current evidence, but I reject the idea on sheer absurdity until such a time as the evidence proves it to be true.
If the Universe is Finite, and Flat, then it MUST Have an Edge!
That’s simple logic. A piece of paper is flat and finite, and we can see clearly that it has four edges. We once imagined the Earth like this, thinking that if we traveled far enough, we’d drop off the edge into an abyss.
Well, as it turns out, there is a way for the universe to be flat and finite and still not have an edge.
Topology is not the same as geometry. Topology asks how space might be connected to itself, not necessarily how it is shaped.
The simplest example of topology comes from the video game Asteroids, where if you fly off one end of the screen, you’ll reappear on the opposite end. Fly off the top and you’ll appear on the bottom, fly off the left, and you’ll appear on the right. The playing area of the game is flat, but the edges are all connected to each other.
There’s no reason to think that the universe can’t be like this, too. It could be flat, but with the edges somehow connected to each other.
Can’t figure that one out? Try it with a piece of paper. Bend the left edge to meet the right one and tape them together. You’ll have a cylinder. Now, if paper were more flexible, you could also connect the two ends of the cylinder to make a hollow donut. This topology is referred to as a torus. We think the universe could be like this, too, geometrically flat, but connected at the edges in some kind of topology. There are 17 different topologies that correspond to a geometrically flat universe .
So, the universe might be flat, and finite, and still not have an edge. All it needs is some kind of interesting topology.
But just like the infinite universe theory, I find the idea of a flat universe to be comical as well—if for no better reason than because we used to think the Earth was flat, and this sounds like a repeat of history on a cosmic scale.
Is the Universe Really Flat?
According to recent research, via the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), we know that the universe is flat to within a 0.4% margin of error .
Now, of course, we know that our world and the universe itself exist in three dimensions. They’re not flat like a piece of paper. So what do scientists mean when they say that the universe is flat?
Does a Flat Universe Mean That it’s Actually 2D?
“Flat: When we talk about the flatness of the Universe, we are using the term in its most general geometric sense. A flat space is simply one in which geometry is Euclidean; i.e., that parallel lines remain parallel forever, the sum of the interior angles of a triangle is always 180 degrees, and the circumference of a circle is always 2π times the radius. In contrast with its colloquial meaning however, flatness does not imply anything about the dimensionality of a space. We can talk about a flat 2D space, a flat 3D space, even a flat 4D space. A sheet of paper, for example, is a flat 2D surface, and remains flat whether you roll it into a cylinder, or fold it into an origami swan, no matter how you bend it in 3D space.” 
In other words, 3D space can be flat, too. If that’s hard for you to picture, don’t worry—it is for me, too.
Maybe the Universe Only Looks Flat
Without calling into question the conclusions drawn from the WMAP data, I still feel compelled to ask: what if they’re wrong? Is it possible that the universe only seems to be flat, and yet it’s actually rounded like a sphere?
As it turns out, all of our data is from the observable universe, not the whole thing, so it’s still quite possible for the entire universe to have literally any geometric shape that you can imagine—that’s not something we can observe, so it falls outside the realm of science into pure conjecture, but it is technically possible. Just like the Earth looks flat when you’re standing on a flat field, the universe might also look flat all the way out to the cosmic horizon, but somewhere far beyond that, maybe it starts to curve back on itself.
How Big is the Whole Universe?
We know that the part we can see, the observable universe, is about 93 billion light years across. Note: we also know the universe is around 13.82 billion years old . That might make you think that the universe should be only 13.82 billion light years wide, but the universe is expanding, and it’s expanding at an accelerating rate . The implication of that is that the most distant objects we can see are actually a lot farther from us than we’d expect them to be. What we are seeing from them now is actually very old light that those objects emitted soon after they were born, near the beginning of time.
Some parts of the universe are actually moving away from us faster than the speed of light, but that isn’t because they’ve broken the universal speed limit, it’s because space itself is expanding and taking everything along for the ride. We believe this expansion is driven by something called dark energy.
What Might Exist Beyond the Observable Universe / Cosmic Horizon—if Anything?
Some theories suggest that the entire universe is at least 250 times larger than the visible universe, but those assumptions are based on very little actual evidence.
We really don’t know what’s out there, but we think that it’ll just be more of the same (based on the assumption that the universe is homogeneous and isotropic) .
How do We Know There’s Anything Beyond the Cosmic Horizon if We Can’t Observe it?
We don’t know. We’re just guessing, but there are a few good reasons for these guesses.
A. For those who think the universe could be a sphere, the entire universe would have to be at least 250 times bigger than what we can see in order for it to be “closed” like a sphere .
B. We know that there must be something beyond the cosmic horizon (the farthest stuff we can see), because if there isn’t, then we are at the exact center of the whole universe, and that would be an incredibly odd coincidence .
More likely, we’re like a boat adrift in the ocean—“Just because we cannot see land does not mean we are in the center of the ocean; just because we cannot see the edge of the universe does not mean we lie in the center of the universe” .
C. We’ve recently discovered that a bunch of clusters of galaxies in the universe appear to be accelerating in a particular direction, and this phenomenon continues to a distance of at least 2.5 billion light years—possibly all the way to the edge of the visible universe [12&13]. This phenomenon has been called “dark flow.”
If it is proven that the phenomenon extends all the way to the cosmic horizon, then whatever is causing it must exist beyond the cosmic horizon.
In Conclusion: What Would we Find if we Could Travel to the Edge of the Universe?
I couldn’t find an article anywhere admitting that the universe might have a physical edge, so I asked a bunch of physics gurus on stack exchange what they thought, and I got the answer I was looking for .
The universe has finite mass.
The universe is geometrically flat.
The universe is simply connected (this means the edges aren’t connected to each other, such as in the example of gluing the edges of a piece of paper together to make a donut/torus).
Conclusion: the universe must have an edge!
According to the more reputable answers, my conclusion does logically follow from those three assumptions, so the universe could actually have a physical edge, but then what lies beyond it?
If we travel past it, do we hit a wall and blow up? Do we fall off into a 5th dimension?
Based on all of the articles I read, this is pure conjecture, and there probably isn’t a physical edge to the universe.
The nearest thing the universe probably has to an actual edge is the cosmic horizon, and since we can’t see past that, we really don’t know what’s beyond it; all we can do is guess.
So that’s what I did. I chose one of the more obscure theories about the nature of the universe, one which serves my storyline, but doesn’t technically contradict anyone smarter than me.
This book has begun to reveal the nature of the Dark Space Universe, alluding to another universe that lies beyond the Great Abyss, and a “Holy City” at the center of everything.
From that, you can probably guess about the shape I chose for the universe, but I’m not going to connect the dots for you yet. You’ll have to read the next book for that.
PS This is really a fraction of my research, but I thought you might like to see what my process of inquiry looks like when writing a book. It also helped me organize my ideas and keep everything straight.
Another subject I researched was one of the moons in our solar system, on which I based the planet “Snowflake.” See if you can figure out which moon that was.
 What do “homogeneity” and “isotropy” mean? http://curious.astro.cornell.edu/about-us/101-the-universe/cosmology-and-the-big-bang/general-questions/574-what-do-homogeneity-and-isotropy-mean-intermediate
 Where’s the Edge of the Universe? http://www.space.com/33005-where-is-the-universes-edge-op-ed.html
 The Shape and Topology of the Universe https://arxiv.org/abs/0802.2236
 New ‘Baby Picture’ of Universe Unveiled http://www.space.com/19027-universe-baby-picture-wmap.html
 How likely is it that the Universe is closed, rather than flat? http://askanastronomer.org/bhc/2015/12/19/finite_unbounded_universe/
 The Universe Is 13.82 Billion Years Old http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2013/03/21/age_of_the_universe_planck_results_show_universe_is_13_82_billion_years.html
 Why is The Universe Accelerating http://www.iflscience.com/space/why-universe-accelerating/
 “The Real Universe” —‘Is 250 Times Bigger than the Visible Hubble Volume’ (Today’s Most Popular)
 Universe Could be 250 Times Bigger than What is Observable http://www.universetoday.com/83167/universe-could-be-250-times-bigger-than-what-is-observable/
 What evidence exists that the universe extends beyond the cosmic light horizon? https://www.quora.com/What-evidence-exists-that-the-universe-extends-beyond-the-cosmic-light-horizon
 How Big is the Universe http://www.space.com/24073-how-big-is-the-universe.html
 Galaxy Flow Hints at Huge Masses Over Cosmic Horizon https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn14814-galaxy-flow-hints-at-huge-masses-over-cosmic-horizon/
 Mysterious Cosmic ‘Dark Flow’ Tracked Deeper into Universe https://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/news/releases/2010/10-023.html
 If the Universe is Flat, has Finite Mass/Energy, and is Simply Connected, Then there MUST be an Edge, Mustn’t there? http://physics.stackexchange.com/questions/311468/if-the-universe-is-flat-has-finite-mass-energy-and-is-simply-connected-then-t
 We Probably Haven’t Found Evidence for the Multiverse http://gizmodo.com/we-probably-havent-found-evidence-for-the-multiverse-1740611389
 Doughnut-shaped Universe bites back http://www.nature.com/news/2008/080523/full/news.2008.854.html
 The Status of Cosmic Topology after Planck Data https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1601/1601.03884.pdf