Book: Bringing Stella Home



Bringing Stella Home

Bringing Stella Home

by Joe Vasicek


Copyright © 2011 Joseph Vasicek

All rights reserved


Editing by Josh Leavitt.

Cover art by Lorenz Hideyoshi Ruwwe.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to actual persons, organizations, or events is purely coincidental.


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Table of Contents


Copyright Page

Table of Contents


Part I: James

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7

Part II: Ben

8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18

Part III: Stella

19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27


Author’s Note | Acknowledgments

WAR TAKES ALL FROM SOME PEOPLE. OTHERS GIVE ALL TO SAVE THE ONES THEY LOVE.


The war has arrived at home. James McCoy, the youngest son of a starfaring merchanter family, never thought he would face an invasion. But when an undefeated enemy slags his homeworld and carries off his brother and sister, nothing in the universe will stop him from getting them back.

Not all wars are fought on the battlefield. Hard times show the greatness in men, and those who give all are changed forever.

Part I: James


Chapter 1


James switched off the screen on the holovid table and nervously paced the small lounge of the Llewellyn. As interesting as the newscast was, he didn’t have time to catch up on the latest war developments in the New Pleiades. Someone had to stay behind to help Father unload the ship, and he didn’t want it to be him—again.

The door hissed open, and his sister Stella entered the room, wearing a light-blue skirt and a short-sleeved blouse in anticipation of her planetside leave. A blue headband kept her short brown hair out of her eyes. She gave him a warm smile as she came in, but James only frowned at her—he knew what she was after.

“Hi, James,” said Stella, sitting down on the couch that ran along the wall of the circular room. “You excited to go planetside?”

“Yeah,” he said, sitting down across from her. “You?” With Stella in the room and the holovid table still up, it felt a little too cramped. James flipped a switch on the side of the table, and it retracted into the floor.

“Of course!” said Stella, crossing her legs. “I’ve been gone for over a year—what do you think?”

I’ll bet you’ve seen a lot more exciting planets than Kardunash IV, James thought to himself a little gloomily. What is this place to you? Just another port of call? Ever since she’d left home for her astrogation apprenticeship, nothing had been the same.

The door hissed open again, and Ben strode into the room. James tensed and sat up a little straighter; even though his older brother had returned from a six-month voyage with Challis & Sons nearly three weeks ago, James still felt intimidated around him. He wore an authentic black leather jacket and a tight gray muscle shirt. His dark red hair was cut short, making him look like a soldier in the Kardunasian Defense Force.

“Hello, Ben,” said Stella, sliding over to make room for him. He nodded at them both before taking a seat next to her.

“I think we all know why we’re here,” said James, cutting to the chase. “We—”

“Because you don’t think it’s fair that you have to stay behind and help out with the unloading,” said Ben, “even though it’s only a four-hour job.” He leaned forward and narrowed his eyes, readying himself for battle.

“But the next ferry doesn’t come for another six hours,” said James, blood rising to his cheeks as he remembered their last argument. “Besides, when was the last time either of you helped out around home? Since you both left, I’ve flown almost a dozen freight runs with Dad—and I unloaded every time.”

Ben shook his head in disgust. “Yeah—and I’ve been working twice as hard for the last six months.” He turned and glanced at Stella.

“What?” she said, acting shocked. “I haven’t been home for over a year. Besides, how many times did I get stuck with dock duty when we were growing up?” She turned to James with large, innocent eyes. “James?” she pleaded in a sweet, musical voice.

James folded his arms and rolled his eyes. And they call me the baby of the family, he thought angrily to himself. Just because I’m not sixteen yet doesn’t mean they can boss me around.

“Why are you looking at me?” he shouted. “I always get stuck with dock duty. Have you forgotten that I’m still living at home? While you guys are gone, I’m stuck here, making all the local runs with Dad. I bet I’ve unloaded this ship more times than both of you put together.”

“Oh, for all the stars,” said Ben, shooting him a venomous look. “Don’t start this again.”

“Please, James?” Stella begged. “I’ll love you forever.”

James groaned and folded his arms. He glanced out the narrow window just below the ceiling, into the blackness of the sky above their current orbit. He wished that he were anywhere but here, stuck in this little room.

“Come on,” said Stella, the pleading expression on her face quickly turning into melodramatic desperation. “The ferry leaves in less than half an hour, and like you said, the next shuttle after that doesn’t leave for another six. Lars is down there, and I haven’t seen him in forever. Please, James—ple-e-ase?

“Why are you being so selfish?” said Ben, scowling at him. “How many times do you get to see Kardunash IV? Can’t you cut her a little slack just this once?”

James folded his arms and glared at them both, suppressing the urge to scream. “How am I the selfish one?” he cried. “How is all of this my fault? It’s not just me. You’re being selfish, too!”

“Shut up and stop whining.”

“You shut up!”

“Maybe we could draw straws?” said Stella, trying to make peace.

“Fine by me,” said Ben, “but James has to agree to it—even if he loses.”

“Of course,” James said petulantly. “I’m not a cheater.”

“Only when you lose.”

“Ben!” shouted Stella, cutting their fight short. James almost snapped back with a snide remark, but thought better of it. As infuriating as his older brother could be, he didn’t want to upset Stella.

Ben got down on his knees and rummaged through one of the storage lockers below the couch. A few moments later, he rose to his feet and held out his fist. Three cut wires jutted out from his grip.

“Pick one,” he said, walking over to James. “Shortest one gets dock duty.”

James carefully picked the one dangling furthest from him. He hesitated for a moment before pulling it out, as if afraid of ruining his luck. Ben opened his mouth to protest, but James pulled it out before he could say anything. He no sooner saw it than a sigh of relief escaped his lips—it was long.

“All right,” said Ben. “Stella, you’re next.”

“Please, James?” said Stella, turning pathetically to him. “Can you please let me go down? Please?”

James groaned. “You’re hopeless.”

Please? Just this once?”

“Go on,” said Ben, pushing the last two wires at her. “Fair is fair. Take one.”

James rolled his eyes and scowled, trying not to let on that her pleas were working. Unlike Ben, she’d always been good to him growing up, helping him out with chores around the house and listening to him when he needed someone to talk to. She’d been crushing on Lars since before her apprenticeship, and she deserved to meet up with him while he was still in port. If she missed her chance to see him because she was stuck with unloading duty, James would feel horrible.

If only there was some way to make sure Ben stayed behind, that would be sweet. He certainly deserved it.

James drew in a deep breath. “Oh, all right,” he said. “You can go.”

Stella’s face immediately lit up with glee. “Thank you thank you thank you thank you!” she shouted, running up and giving him a big hug.

“You owe me. Remember that.”

She smiled and nodded, barely able to contain her excitement as she left the room to gather her things.

“Your turn again,” said Ben as the door hissed shut. “Pick one.”

James eyed the two remaining wires very carefully. He had only a fifty-fifty chance now. The wrong one would mean four hours of the most mind-numbingly tedious work and then two more hours doing whatever odd jobs his father could find. Six hours wasted in orbit when I could be having fun on the surface.

“Come on, choose already.”

James put his thumb and forefinger on the wire closest to him and carefully pulled it out. It was short.

“No!” he cried.

“You drew it, fair and square,” said Ben, a grin widening across his face.

“Come on!”

“Don’t be a crybaby.”

James’s cheeks flushed red with anger. “I am not a crybaby!”

“Yes you are.”

“No I’m not!”

“Yes you are. Listen to yourself.”

“I am not. Shut up!”

Ben keyed the access panel on the wall; the door hissed open, revealing the corridor beyond. He turned back to James.

“Honestly, when are you going to grow up? It’s been three years since I left home, and you’re still the same pathetic, whiny little kid you’ve always been.”

“Shut up,” James screamed. “I hate you!” He stormed out of the room, running past Ben before he could say anything else.

The small sublight merchant freighter, christened the Llewellyn after James’s grandmother, had only one corridor on the upper deck. It ran the length of the ship, but was so narrow that two grown men had to turn sideways in order to pass each other. The ship’s compact living quarters fit into the twenty yards between the bridge at the bow and the lounge at the stern: two bedrooms, a bathroom, a tiny mess hall, and some very limited personal storage. James wanted to get away from his brother, but the only place far enough was the bridge, and he didn’t want to go there just yet—no doubt his father would rope him into some menial task. He didn’t want to get to work any sooner than he had to.

Instead, he walked to the middle of the corridor and stared out the large windows on either side. From here, he had a magnificent view of the spindly station where they were docked, as well as the planet, Kardunash IV. White clouds swirled over the blue oceans and verdant continents, perfectly clear in the vacuum of space. Ship and station orbited dreamily over the coastlines and mountains, passing the yellow-brown deserts and enormous black domed arcologies several hundred miles in diameter. By squinting his eyes, James could see the twinkling reflections of the shuttle ferries coming to and from the spaceports on the surface, the scramjet powered vehicles accelerating to orbital velocity while others glowed orange and pink as they made reentry. Where the blue haze of the planet’s atmosphere met the black void of space, dozens of spaceships, satellites, and stations glittered as they danced in orbit over the jeweled landscape.

As James stared at the magnificent view, footsteps sounded behind him. He tensed and stepped away from the window, preparing himself for another fight. It wasn’t Ben who had come to talk with him, however—it was Stella.

“Hey, James,” she said, gently touching his arm. “I’m really, really sorry about all the trouble with Ben. I didn’t mean to make you guys fight.”

James shrugged. “It would have happened anyway.” That was true enough, considering how long they’d been cooped up on the same ship. Any longer, and they’d be at each others’ throats.

She glanced to either side and pulled back her hand, obviously working herself up to say something. “If you want,” she began, “I can, uh—”

“No, that’s all right,” said James, shaking his head. “You go on ahead. I know how much it means to you.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah,” said James. “Don’t worry about me—it’s nothing.”

“All right,” said Stella. “But really, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”

“Will you stop worrying about us and go enjoy yourself?” He grinned to show her it wasn’t such a big deal. “I think you’ve got a shuttle to catch.”

Her face lit up in a girlish smile, and she gave him a warm hug. “Thanks so much,” she said. “I love you, James!” With that, she ran back down the corridor, her short, brown hair bobbing up and down as she returned to her room.

“Take care of yourself,” James muttered as he watched her go.

Behind him, the door to the bridge hissed open. “James,” said a deep voice behind him. He immediately spun around to find himself face to face with his father, Captain Adam McCoy.

“What is it, Dad?”

James’s father wore a crisp, gray vest over his white jumpsuit. His beard was neatly trimmed in preparation for their arrival at Kardunash IV, and the expression on his face was as imposing as ever.

“Go back to the lounge while I get your brother and sister.”

“Why? What’s going on?”

“The immigration bill. Voting is about to start any minute, and I don’t want any of you to miss it.”

James groaned as he made his way down the corridor. It was just like his father to push their civic duties on them at the most inconvenient moment possible. Would it really be such a bad thing if they skipped out this once? It wasn’t as if their votes were going to tip the outcome—not with over eight thousand citizens registered in the databanks of the Colony’s General Assembly. Not that it really mattered to him, though—he wasn’t the one in a hurry to catch the next shuttle.

While his father got Ben and Stella, James brought up the holovid table in the lounge and opened its face to reveal the computer terminal inside. He deactivated the holographic projector and unfolded the miniature flatscreen, accessing the ship’s communications array. His father had already connected the Llewellyn’s master computer with the Colony’s servers; that would make things go faster, at least.

The main page for the General Assembly of Citizens loaded on the screen, the familiar clasped hands and starship logo prominent on a banner at the top of the page. He scrolled down to the section marked “Today’s Votes” and clicked on a link that said: “Bill 0923H149: Interstellar Refugee Moratorium.” The screen flashed gray and a loading bar appeared, signifying that the data for that page wasn’t on the uplink yet. James sighed—with the Colony’s servers currently on the other side of the sun, it would take some time before the page loaded.

Stella walked in first, pouting as she took her seat next to James. Ben came in next, the scowl on his face making it clear he wasn’t too thrilled about the delay. Their father came in last, and stood in the doorway while everyone took their seats.

“I’ve just received word that voting on the fast-track immigration bill has begun,” he said. “Since the voting window is less than twenty-four hours, none of us will leave this ship until we’ve transmitted our votes.”

“Dad!” Stella cried out.

“I know it’s inconvenient, but as citizens of the Colony, our civic duties come first.”

“But Dad,” said Ben, “the ferry shuttle leaves in less than twenty minutes, and the next one after that doesn’t leave for another six hours.”

“Please don’t make us miss this shuttle,” Stella begged.

“You can wait another six hours,” said their father, not an ounce of pity on his face. “In fact, if you need something to keep you busy, you can stay and help unload the ship.”

For his part, James only folded his arms and slouched in his seat. With server delays, the vote was a pain, but he wasn’t in much of a hurry to go anywhere. Still, for Stella’s sake, he hoped she didn’t miss the shuttle.

“Dad,” said Ben, his voice rising a little, “please be reasonable. Two votes aren’t going to decide—”

“When I raised you children, I taught you to base your choices on principle, not on convenience,” said their father, cutting Ben off. “Our freedoms are a matter of principle. Democracy is a matter of principle. If every citizen at the Colony were to act on convenience instead of principle, what would happen? Our government would become as irresponsible as its voters, and evil and conspiring men would rise to positions of power. Eventually, we would lose the rights and freedoms we so often take for granted.”

A beeping noise interrupted his spontaneous lecture. James glanced down at the screen—the page had loaded. A prompt in the center of the screen asked for his citizen ID and password.

“What is it, Son?”

“Voting’s opened,” said James. Ben and Stella immediately leaped to their feet.

“Let us go first,” said Ben, muscling his way forward. “We’ve got a shuttle to catch.”

“All right, all right,” said James, standing up. He purposefully got in Ben’s way to allow Stella to slip in first. Ben scowled, but with their father watching, he couldn’t do anything but stand back and wait his turn. James smiled, savoring the sweet justice.

He didn’t mean to look, but out of the corner of his eye he saw that Stella had voted “nay.” As she rose to her feet and glanced over at him, her eyes widened and her cheeks grew red.

“I won’t tell,” he whispered as they passed. She sighed in relief, soft enough that their father wouldn’t notice.

It wasn’t as if their father would punish her for her vote—they had voted contrary to him on other measures before—it was just that this particular bill was so important to him personally. With so many refugees from the Hameji conquests flooding into the Karduna system on their way to the Gaian Empire, storage space at the Colony was rapidly being converted to temporary housing, raising premiums at the warehouse. Naturally, this was bad business for merchant families such as their own, and their father was one of the foremost activists for immigration reform. As much as he talked about acting on principle, they all knew it would upset him to see his own children take a contrary position on a cause for which he’d fought so hard.

As Stella and Ben hurried out of the room to catch their shuttle, James opened the ballot, quickly scanned the measure, and hit “yea.” With that done, he made room for his father to cast his vote and transmit the ballots to their home, over one hundred million kilometers away.


* * * * *


Twenty minutes later, James watched from the bridge as the ferry shuttle undocked and left the station, carrying Ben and Stella with it. The gray hull of the small, winged craft shimmered in the sunlight as it drifted away, suspended peacefully above the clouds and plains of Kardunash IV. As he watched, the spacecraft fired its engines and took off toward the glow of the curved horizon.

James sighed and returned his attention to the array in front of him. He knew every instrument, screen, panel, and keyboard at his station—all too well. His main screen displayed the live video feed from the cargo bays, where his father operated the unloading arm.

The bay door, which stretched almost the whole length of the underside of the ship, lay wide open, revealing a stunning vista of the world below. The cargo—massive cylindrical drums of processed, refined steel—hung from berths on the ceiling. With the bay open, it seemed as if they were in danger of falling down to the world, but James knew that wasn’t the case. While the upper decks on the Llewellyn had full artificial gravity, the cargo bays did not. For that reason, the steel drums had to be maneuvered one by one out of the hold by the Lewellyn’s unloading claw—a painfully tedious process. Once out of the ship, automated tugboats from the station would pick them up. Because of the massive inertial resistance of each drum, maximum unloading speed was an excruciating quarter meter per minute. At that rate, it was an open question whether James would finish in time. Even if the job was done before the next shuttle left, his father certainly wouldn’t let him go early.

James leaned back in his chair and stared out the forward window at the planet, glancing only occasionally at the indicators on his screen. A robot could do his job more effectively—if their family could afford a robot. Even then, his father would probably make him work just to ‘build his character.’ He could hear him now: “When your grandfather was your age, the Colony was corporate-owned and the Karduna system was still under the mandate of the New Gaian Empire…”

In an attempt to fight his growing boredom, he opened a browser on one of the side monitors and brought up the latest news updates from the K-4 planetnet. He’d already viewed all the newscasts on the war situation out on the frontier, so that left nothing but local news. Gubernatorial elections were ongoing in one of the central arcologies, and a labor dispute had temporarily shut down one of the minor spaceports. Most of the news wasn’t too interesting, though. He skimmed the major sites for any updates from the Colony, but other than trade reports and economic indicators, he found nothing.

Of course, he could always access the servers at Kardunash III directly—but the long distance from the planet would kill the load time. He didn’t feel like waiting five minutes every time he clicked a link, so he didn’t even try.

He had just found an update on Gaian Imperial military operations in the New Pleiades when an unusual beeping noise sounded to his right. An alarm was signaling an urgent transmission from the port authority over the public channel. Curious, he closed his browser and brought it up.

“Hey, Son?” came his father’s voice, garbled slightly over the cheap headset. “My console shows that you just received an urgent message from the port authority?”

“Yeah,” said James. “I’m opening it now.”

It was an emergency broadcast. The message was only two lines, repeated indefinitely across the screen. James frowned as he read it.

Attention: A Hameji battle fleet has entered the system. KDF personnel preparing to engage. Starlane closure imminent. All civilian stations ordered to evacuate.

Another beeping noise came from the astrogation monitor. James held his breath as he brought up the latest data from the Llewellyn’s scanners.

What he saw made his face pale.

Twenty-seven newly arrived ships showed up on the scanners, not fifty thousand kilometers from the night side of the planet. How many more were waiting in the blind spot opposite their current orbital position, he had no way of knowing—but he wouldn’t be surprised if it was twice that number.

“James? Son? Can you hear me?”

A cold sweat broke out across the back of James’s neck. The people of Kardunash IV didn’t have a chance.

Everyone on that world was going to die.



Chapter 2


“Did you feel something?” asked Stella. “It feels like we pulled up all of a sudden.”

Ben frowned. “Yeah, I felt it.”

He stuck his head out into the aisle and stared down the rows of narrow seats. The soft fluorescent lights overhead mingled with the hard yellow sunlight shining in through the port-side windows of the cabin as they approached the night side of Kardunash IV. Several of the other passengers on the crowded shuttle had started to glance nervously around at each other. They’d felt it, too, apparently.

“Does it seem like we’re rising?” the young man in front of them asked the woman to his right in an obnoxiously loud voice. “It feels like we’re rising.”

“It does,” Stella whispered to Ben. “But why?”

Be shrugged. “I don’t know.” He leaned over her lap to glance out the window; around them, several other passengers did the same.

The blue haze of Kardunash IV’s atmosphere had already turned the rusty red color of twilight, but the ground didn’t seem much closer than it had from the station. Besides, if they were making their descent, the orange re-entry flames should have been visible by now. A lurch in his stomach told him this was more than a mere course correction.

“It seems like we’re aborting our descent,” he said.

“Aborting our descent?” said the man in front of them, turning around in his chair. “What the hell for?”

Ben ignored him and turned to Stella. She seemed worried.

“What’s going on?” she asked. “Engine failure? Technical difficulties?”

“They’d have announced that over the speaker by now.”

“Then what?” She bit her lip and glanced down at her wrist console.

“We’re probably too far from the Llewellyn to connect with the ship’s network,” he said, as if reading her mind. “Still, it’s worth a shot.”

Stella was already busy accessing her console, keying in the commands with her right pointer finger as she held the tiny screen up to her face. Ben brought up his own while across the aisle, three blond teenage girls started talking rapidly amongst themselves in half-whispered tones.

After about ten seconds, an Error in Connection message popped up on his LCD screen. “I can’t get it,” he said. “How about you?”

“Almost there,” said Stella, totally absorbed.

He tried again. The loading bar gradually filled, but before it reached one hundred percent, the same error message flashed on. He cursed under his breath, low enough that Stella couldn’t hear him.

“Got it,” she said.

“Quick, access the Lewellyn’s comm system. See if there are any new messages from the port authority.”

“Loading,” she said. “The connection’s weak.”

Come on, Ben thought to himself. The middle-aged man and woman in the seats behind them started talking in concerned tones, just soft enough that Ben could tune them out.

“There,” said Stella, sounding quite pleased with herself. “It says ‘A Hameji battle fleet has entered the system. KDF personnel preparing to—’” she stopped in mid-sentence and froze, her cheeks paling.

“What?” said the obnoxious passenger, still facing them. “The Hameji—here, at Karduna?”

“Shh!” hissed Ben. “Not so loud—you’ll upset the others.”

But the damage was already done. All across the cabin, heads began to turn their way, while the noise level rose sharply. Look what you’ve done! Ben wanted to shout at the man, but it was too late.

“What did you say?” asked one of the girls from across the aisle, her eyes wide and frightened.

“Nothing,” Ben said quickly—too quickly. “Nothing at all.”

“It sounded like ‘Hameji,’” came the middle-aged woman’s voice from behind them. Her husband gasped.

“I’m sorry,” said Stella, “I didn’t mean—”

“Never mind about that,” said Ben, glancing quickly around the cabin as he moved to shield her from any kind of mass hysteria. Fortunately, though the people around them seemed surprised and frightened, they remained in their seats. Panic hadn’t broken out—yet.

He turned to her and leaned in close. “We still have a chance,” he said, speaking softly so the other passengers wouldn’t hear. “If the captain can find a ship willing to take us, we might be able to escape.”

“But what about Dad and James?”

Ben clenched his teeth and took in a breath. “We’ll just have to hope for the best for them. Anyway, if we’re lucky, the Hameji jumped in on the other side of the planet, meaning—”

A sudden flash of light out the window near the horizon cut him off. A collective gasp arose from the passengers, followed by an eerie hush. The three girls across the aisle peered over towards the window next to Stella’s seat, their faces white.

“What was that?”

“That was nothing,” said Ben. “Just an opening volley—too far away to do us any damage.” But they’re on this side of the planet, he thought silently to himself. That’s bad—very bad.

“We’re screwed,” said the man in front of him, panic quickly rising in his voice. “Oh, God! We’re all screwed!”

“Attention, passengers,” came the stewardess’s voice over the loudspeaker. “Please remain calm. The captain and crew have just been informed of a dangerous situation developing in our local sector, but we are doing everything we can to ensure your safety. There is no need to fear. Please remain in your seats and stay calm.”

“What’s going on?” Stella asked, frowning. “Ben, what can you tell me?”

“The Hameji will probably move to attack this planet first,” Ben said, his mind racing over the strategic analysis he’d read of previous Hameji battles. “Then they’ll probably try to slag K-4 the same way they did Tajjur V and Belarius III—”

“You mean, bring in the mass accelerators?” Stella asked, her eyes growing wide. “Completely obliter—”

“Yes,” hissed Ben, cutting her off to keep the others from overhearing. “Since they jumped in from deep space, though, their forces are scattered all over this local sector. I’m guessing they came in from at least a light-year out, and at that distance, jump precision isn’t very good. It’s going to take them a while to regroup, and that might give the KDF time to scramble something together.”

“So we might be able to beat them?”

No.

“Yeah,” he said, avoiding her eyes. “Maybe.”

Maybe if the entire Gaian Imperial Navy shows up in the next ten minutes. He drew in a long breath, trying to relax—he didn’t want Stella to see through his lie.

The Hameji had always fascinated him. Descended from the explorers and frontiersmen in the early days of space exploration, they had developed a culture entirely independent from the rest of humanity. As spacefaring nomads, they spent their entire lives on their battleships, never setting foot on any inhabited world. Without any government to keep them in line, warfare was the only law they knew—total, unrestrained warfare.

For generations, they had kept to themselves, clan fighting against clan in the far reaches beyond the old Imperial frontiers. In the last few years, however, something or someone had united them as a single force, turning them away from their myriad vendettas and blood feuds to rise up against the armies and navies of civilized space. The frontier worlds on the far side of the Good Hope Nebula had been the first to fall, but the Hameji soon sought worthier prey. With the fall of the Tajjur system only a few months ago, a bare handful of systems now stood between them and the very heart of the New Gaian Empire—Gaia Nova itself.

Karduna was one of those systems.

A bright, soundless flash through the windows on the opposite side of the aisle cast irregular shadows against the seats and bulkheads. Screams filled the cabin, and Ben quickly closed his eyes and shielded them with his arm. His hands, he noted with some dismay, had started to shake uncontrollably.

“What was that?” cried Stella. The flash slowly faded, but the passengers continued to scream in panic.

“A nuclear blast,” said Ben. “Much closer this time.”

“Did it hit anyone? Did it kill anyone?”

“I don’t know,” he said, his voice cracking for the first time since puberty. “Probably not. The Hameji are jumping nukes at our battleships, but our beacons are probably interdicting—”

Another intense flash of silent light filled the shuttle, this time much brighter. Without thinking, Ben grabbed his sister and pulled her close, shielding his eyes with his arm. Adrenaline surged through his body as the nuclear blast bathed them in impossibly brilliant light.

“My eyes!” the man in front of them wailed, his voice joining a dozen others. “Oh God! My eyes!”

One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand… Stella trembled in Ben’s arms but still held onto him. When he reached five, he opened his eyes for a peek. Outside, the pink afterglow of the blast was subsiding. He let go of his sister and took a deep, uneven breath.

The situation in the cabin was quickly deteriorating. Screams filled the air, and several of the passengers were starting to panic. The man in front of them rose to his feet and staggered down the aisle, covering his eyes with his hand. Three stewardesses quickly tried to placate him, but when he refused to return to his seat, one of them pulled out a short metal stick and prodded him in the stomach. His scream jumped up an octave, and his body went limp; two stewardesses caught him and returned him to his seat.

“Wow,” Ben muttered. Overhead, the Fasten Seat Restraints sign flashed on.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please remain calm,” came the captain’s voice over the loudspeakers. “You may have noticed the emergency situation outside, but I assure you, we are doing our best to get you all to safety. I’ve been in contact with several evacuating freighters, and one of them, the Sierra Vista, will be picking us up soon. Again, please remain in your seats with your restraints securely strapped. Do not panic.”

Ben felt his stomach lurch and his body fall back against his chair as the shuttle accelerated. He reached up and pulled his seat restraints down over his shoulders as they turned hard to port. To his right, Stella did the same. He glanced at her; she seemed tense, scared.

“We’re going to be all right,” he told her. “Just stay with me, whatever happens.”

She nodded mutely. Around them, the screaming subsided, replaced with a tension so thick that Ben could practically taste it.

A minute passed. Ben stared at the ceiling and counted the seconds, squeezing his armrests until his fingers were numb. The shuttle turned hard to starboard, but his seat restraints caught him. A few passengers shrieked, but most of them kept quiet. When he glanced across the aisle, he saw that the girls were on edge, eyes wide and arms tightly folded.

“What are we going to do when we get to the freighter?” Stella asked.

How should I know? Ben thought to himself.

“Stay together,” he said. “Ride it out with them.”

“Will we make it to the Llewellyn?

“I don’t think so. Not right away.”

“Where will they go? Will they be all right?”

“I hope so.”

Stella’s eyes widened in fear. “What about Lars? Will he make it out too?”

Not if he’s already planetside.

The shuttle’s acceleration slowed. Ben turned his head and glanced out the window. They were on the night side of the planet now—the horizon showed up as a fading crescent, a line between the stars and the glowing light of city domes. Stella glanced up at him, then out the window.

“I don’t see the battle,” she said. “Are we clear?”

As if in response, a series of small, soundless explosions puffed out among the backdrop of the stars. The targets were nowhere in sight—probably too distant to be visible, or obscured by the planet’s shadow.

“Oh no,” said Stella, “was that another—”

“I don’t think so,” said Ben. “Standard Kardunasian battle cruisers carry at least two dozen jump beacons each, and they almost certainly launched them as soon as the Hameji attacked. If they try to nuke us across space with a jumped warhead, the beacons will draw their fire. Those explosions are harmless.”

Probably harmless. He hoped they were harmless.

“So we’re going to make it?”

Before he could answer, a series of brilliant flashes illuminated the entire sky, searing the interior of the shuttle with light. Stella and the other passengers screamed; Ben hurriedly grabbed her again and covered his eyes. One one thousand, two one thousand…

After about ten seconds, he peeked out. The interior lights had all died, but the afterglow of the explosions was bright enough to illuminate the cabin, casting eerie shadows across the aisle. Ignoring the screams of the other passengers, Ben stared out the window.

As he did, his eyes opened wide with horror.

He counted not one, not two, but five diminishing fireballs, the auroral glow lighting the planet below with intense light. The fragmented hulls of two KDF cruisers arced overhead, barely missing the shuttle. Though they orbited past in only a split second, Ben clearly saw that the ships were broken apart, completely obliterated.

A tactical Hameji fusillade—exactly like the one at Tajjur that had defeated the Gaian Imperial forces stationed there. Dozens of multi-ton bombs, jumped in impossible unison—a clean sweep. Everything gone. Everything.

Blood drained from his cheeks, and he suddenly felt very weak. They’ve broken our defenses, he thought silently to himself. The fleet is crippled. The battle is as good as over.

We’ve lost.

Through the walls, he heard the distant sound of metal scraping against on metal—the sound of the shuttle’s docking gear making contact with another ship. A slight lurch flung his head down, chin against his chest, but the ship soon righted itself, and the noise stopped.

“We’ve docked,” Ben said, unstrapping himself before the Fasten Seat Restraints sign flashed off. Stella nodded and did the same. In the aisle, the other passengers were already spilling frantically from their seats, pushing past the stewardesses despite their best efforts to keep some semblance of order.

Ben stood up and took his sister by the hand. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.”


* * * * *


“Undock with the station,” came Adam’s voice over the intercom. “I’ll be on the bridge in a minute.”

A message from local traffic control flashed across the screen, ordering all vessels to cease undocking operations until properly authorized. James hesitated.

“But Dad,” he said, “the port authority—”

“I don’t care what the port authority says, we’re getting the hell out of here. Do it.”

James swallowed and closed the message. He then sealed the airlock and began powering up the engines. The ship’s computer ran through the warm-up sequence, checking the Llewellyn’s various systems. Everything cleared. Behind him, the low hum of the engine sounded through the walls.

With the undocking process underway, James glanced out the forward window. Several of the other ships at the station had broken away from their airlocks, engines flaring as they desperately scrambled to climb out of Kardunash IV’s gravity well. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught the flash of a larger ship as it passed into jumpspace. James tapped his armrests with his fingers and bit his lip; the Llewellyn was a local freighter, equipped only with sublight engines. No jump drive.

He glanced down at the blue oceans and swirling clouds of Kardunash IV, still nervously tapping his fingers. With the sublight engines, at least they would be able to escape the planet’s gravity well—that was more than the people on the ferry shuttles had. More than—

Ben and Stella.

He bolted upright in his seat. Ben and Stella—they were still on the shuttle! If they didn’t find their way to another ship, then—

The door hissed open behind him, making him jump. His father strode onto the bridge, taking his seat at the pilot’s chair.

“How are we looking?” he asked as he brought up the controls.

“Engine’s at forty-five percent,” said James, his voice quivering. “All other systems are go. We’ve sealed off the airlock and are ready to detach from the station.”

“What news can you give me?” asked his father. “Where’s the fighting worst?”

“The night side,” said James, glancing at the scanners. “Dad—”

“Good. Drop the cargo and plot us a course for a full reversal. I want us climbing the gravity well in the opposite direction before our orbit takes us into the battle.”

James frowned. A full orbital reversal meant using more fuel in ten minutes than they had burned in the last three weeks. Once they hit their target arc, there would be no turning back.

“But Dad—”

“Just do it. It’s the only chance we have to get out of here alive.”

James swallowed and turned to his console, hesitating only a second before keying the command to eject all cargo. Outside, more than fifty tons of high-grade steel jettisoned from the cargo hold. He watched on the display as millions of credits worth of cargo drifted out of the open bay doors and fell slowly toward the peaceful planet below. It was a terrible waste, he knew, but the Llewellyn would never be able to escape in time with all that extra mass weighing them down.

“All systems go,” said Adam. “Detaching from the station. Prepare the bridge gravitic dampers.”

James turned frantically to his father. “Dad, Ben and Stella are still out there. We can’t leave yet—not without them!”

His father hesitated over the controls, as if teetering over the edge of an abyss.

“We can’t do that, Son,” he said, his voice low. “We don’t have time. They’re probably on the surface by now, and if they aren’t, they’re caught up in the middle of the battle. We have to get out now, while we can. I’m sorry.”

“No!” James screamed, sitting upright in his chair. “We can’t just leave them like this!”

“We don’t have a choice, James,” his father shouted. “Now strap in and prepare for launch—that’s an order.”

“Y-yes, sir,” James stammered.

He strapped himself into his seat and activated the gravitic dampers. Outside the main forward window, the stars spun and the station passed out of view as Adam maneuvered the Llewellyn toward the sun, away from the approaching night side of Kardunash IV. James swallowed, choking back tears.

“Prepare for hard burn in five, four, three, two, one—”

An invisible hand pressed James against his seat, starting gradually but gaining strength with each passing second. He glanced down at his computer—ten gees of acceleration outside the gravitic damper field, rising quickly. Inside the bridge, they were at point-five gees, rising to point-six.

He watched on the rear video feed as the station shot away, rapidly growing smaller against the backdrop of the planet’s surface. The drifting drums of steel from the cargo hold shrunk until they were barely visible against the angelic white clouds.

A bright pink flash filled the rear display and the sky to the right of the bridge window. Only a nuclear bomb could cause an explosion that huge. The lights on the bridge flickered as the Llewellyn’s cosmic ray shielding absorbed the radiation from the blast. In the rear video feed, the brilliant afterglow took several seconds to fade.

“Dad, we have to turn around!”

“I’m sorry, Son,” said his father. “We can’t save them.”

The scanners showed the changing path of the Llewellyn as she continued to accelerate at ten gees. The arcs curved up away from the night side of the planet, unraveling like a handful of lighted strands, each pointing to a predicted end-path at their current rate of acceleration.

“But what about—”

“We have no way of knowing where they are or of getting to them. For all we know, they’re already on the surface.”

“You don’t know that,” James said quickly. “They might still be in orbit. They might be waiting for us, for all we—”

“That’s enough,” his father said sharply.

James fell silent. On the scanners, the arc of the Llewellyn’s flight path peeled out from orbit entirely, their trajectory pointing directly away from the planet.

“Map a course for home,” his father said, his voice low. “Help me switch to autopilot.”

The counter ticked up to twenty gees outside—two-point-three on the bridge. Enough to make anyone squirm in their seats. James was hardly aware of it, however. His fingers flew over the keyboard and his eyes danced with the numbers across the screen, but all his motions were merely automatic.

Stella is so much better at this, he thought to himself. She should be the one setting the course—not me.

The thought no sooner entered his head than he remembered how they’d drawn straws to see who got to go planetside first. She was down there because of him.

His fingers became stiff, and his whole body began to shake. His eyes went wide, and his vision went blurry. He drew in a sharp breath, and tried in vain to bring himself under control.

“James,” said his father. “Son, are you all right?”

“It should have been me,” James cried, his voice cracking. He didn’t even care. “Stella should be here—I should be the one down there, not her!”

His father reached out against the growing gee forces and put a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, Son,” he said. “We’re going to get through this. Keep yourself together.”

How am I supposed to keep myself together? James thought to himself, clenching his hands into fists. It should be me down there, not her.

On the rear video feed, a series of nuclear explosions cast brilliant bursts of light across the sky. The explosions faded slowly, reflected in eerie, nebulous hues against the twilight crescent of the night side of the world. He zoomed in and found the remnants of broken and destroyed ships, split hulls and falling debris.

James’s stomach rose in his chest, and a wave of nausea nearly made him vomit. There had been people on those ships—real, living people. Now, they were all dead.

Were Ben and Stella among them?

He activated the feed controls and zoomed in, tracing the field of battle until he came to the Hameji ships. They had regrouped and were flying in formation now, despite all the chaos of the battle zone. As he panned out, the camera fell on a massive tube-like ship nearly twenty kilometers long.

James caught his breath. Blue light flared from the engines behind the enormous vessel, lighting up all the ships and debris behind it. He zoomed out as a massive asteroid shot out the end of the tube. At that resolution, the rock must have been at least half a kilometer in diameter—an awesome size for something moving so fast.

With wide, horrified eyes, he followed the giant chunk of space rock as it hurtled towards the planet. It struck the center of one of Kardunash IV’s domes—one of the continent-sized urban centers, full of billions of people.

He gasped. A giant brown splotch rose up into the atmosphere like mud from the bottom of a stream bed. When it hit the upper atmosphere, it began to trace a teardrop band across the rest of the world, the muddy blackness tainting the white clouds a dirty gray. Not far from the first, a second asteroid struck, kicking up another black cloud of destruction. Down near the equator, a third plume billowed out—and then a fourth.

James felt the blood drain from his face, leaving his skin cold and clammy. He could hardly believe what he was seeing. The mass accelerators, the asteroids—it was Tajjur V and Belarius III all over again. The Hameji were slagging the planet, annihilating everyone and everything on the surface.

Ben, James thought despairingly to himself. Stella—I’m so sorry. His eyes burning with tears, he clenched his teeth together and balled his hands into fists.

No, he told himself. They’re not dead. They can’t be!


* * * * *


For nearly a minute, Ben hardly knew where he was or what he was doing. Sweaty bodies pressed against him on all sides, battering him with unintentional blows as everyone pressed toward the airlock at once. He shoved his way through the panicked crowd, taking care not to let go of Stella’s hand.

He held onto her until they passed through the freight airlock of the Sierra Vista. The corridor opened up significantly, allowing them to move much faster. Together, they ran with the others down the dim, windowless hallway.

“Will we be safe here?” Stella asked, keeping pace.

“Not here,” said Ben. “We’ve got to get deeper.” He didn’t tell her that if the Hameji boarded them, no place would be safe.

The Sierra Vista was a mid-size sublight freighter, built for cargo, not for passengers. The walls were dark and drab, made from industrial grade durasteel. The air was chilly, and the halls below decks were barely more than oversized duct work.

They followed the crowd into a large, dimly lit cargo hold. Except for a few large boxes and piles of crates strapped against the far wall, the room was empty. A few of the frightened refugees pulled up some loose crates to sit on, but most remained standing, still in shock.

This was the end of all they could do, Ben realized. Either the pilot got them out, or they’d all die—or worse.

“Come with me,” Ben said, leading Stella into an empty doorway where they could speak more privately. He stopped and turned to face her.

“If the crowd panics again, I want you to stay calm,” he told her. “We can’t do anything about the Hameji, so there’s no sense worrying about that. Just stay calm, and stick with me.”

She nodded, frightened but comprehending.

The ship lurched, throwing them both against the door. Ben staggered and leaned against the wall for support. It felt as if somebody had tilted the room, and everything was falling towards the side. Most of the boxes were secure, but those that weren’t slid across the room, smashing into the passengers who were struggling to stay on their feet.

An engine burn, thought Ben. A pretty heavy one, too. But they hadn’t turned off the artificial gravity for it—that was odd. Was it because of the passengers they had in the hold, or because they were in a hurry?

As if in answer, a loud clanging noise sounded on the level above, followed by a rush off footsteps, a muffled explosion, and the sound of gunfire. The engines shut off, and the floor stopped tilting.

“Oh my God,” said Stella. The passengers had heard it too, and started screaming.

Boarders.

The gunfire grew louder. Ben stared at the ceiling in mortified silence, listening to the battle through the cold metal walls. His legs weakened, and he clenched his teeth in fear and frustration. In the main hold, the other passengers had begun to panic; he put out his arm to protect Stella from the worst of it.

“What’s going on?” she asked. “Why—”

A strange, greenish gas poured out of the ventilation shafts, filling the room. Everyone tried to run out of the room at once. Stella grabbed onto him and held on tight. He covered his mouth with his shirt and motioned for her to do the same.

All noise faded as the green mist filled the cargo hold. It smelled sickly sweet, like synthetic petroleum. Around them, the world started to spin—slowly at first, but growing steadily faster. In a few moments, everything but his sister was little more than a blur. He held onto her, afraid that she would fall into the void if he let go.

This is not the end, he told himself.

The last of his strength ebbed, and the world turned black. All of his fears faded except for one—that whatever was to come, he wouldn’t be able to protect his sister from it.

Chapter 3


When Stella woke up, she was stiff, sore, and completely naked.

Her eyes flew open and she immediately wrapped her arms around her body, curling up on the cold steel floor. Though she felt the cold air stirring against her bare skin, the room was silent—stuffy, but silent. Moving slowly, she eased herself up to a sitting position and pulled her knees up to her chest, covering herself as best as she could.

The room was dark, the only illumination coming from a caged bulb in the center of the ceiling. As her eyes adjusted to the dim greenish-yellow light, she started to make out her surroundings. The room looked vaguely like a cargo hold—smooth metal walls and floors, berths for crates and containers, long scrape marks that could only have been made by heavy machinery. At least that explained why the room was so cold. She hugged her knees a little tighter and shivered. A faint buzzing sounded in her ear, but she wasn’t sure whether it came from somewhere in the room or just from the dizziness in her head. She made out a number of strange shapes scattered across the floor. They were too lumpy to be crates, but—

One of them moved. She realized at once that they were people, unconscious and as naked as she was.

She yelped in surprise and scooted away. As she did, her hand struck something soft and fleshy. She turned and caught sight of a fat, hairy man, completely unconscious, lying on his back. The sight made her cheeks burn with embarrassment, and she scrambled quickly away from him, only to bump into a younger man—definitely a man. He groaned and rolled over as she carefully edged away.

She shuddered and closed her eyes. I hope Ben doesn’t see me like this. The thought no sooner entered her mind than her eyes flew open again.

Ben! Where is he?

“Ben?” she whispered. In the silence, her voice sounded as loud as the roar of an engine. To her right, a wrinkled, elderly woman moaned as she sat with her back propped up against a crate. Unsightly bruises covered her arms, and her wrinkled breasts sagged almost to her waist.



“Ben?” Stella said aloud, unfocusing her eyes to avoid seeing anything else she didn’t want to see. “Ben, are you there?” Answer me!

No one did.

He’s not here. She took in a deep breath and tried to calm herself. The metal floor was so cold on her skin, and the draft in the room made her shiver. She considered standing up and walking to the edge of the room where she could be out of the way, but that would attract too much attention to herself—better to stay where she was.

They were prisoners—that much was clear. But how had they gotten here? She vaguely remembered the freighter—what was it called? The Sierra Vista? The hold of that ship had been similar to the room she was now in, except larger and better lit. She remembered fleeing there to escape the Hameji—she distinctly remembered the nuclear explosions shining through the windows of the shuttle. Then the gas, the screaming, Ben holding her, and darkness. Then this.

The Hameji, she thought to herself. They stripped off my clothes and left me here. Had they done anything else to her while she was unconscious? She shivered, and not just from the cold.

Carefully keeping herself covered, she mentally checked every part of her body. Aside from the soreness, she seemed uninjured—no broken bones, no scars or open wounds. She did have a few bruises though, mostly around her wrists and elbows. How she’d gotten them, she didn’t know.

Had her captors abused her? Raped her? Probably not—she imagined she would hurt a lot worse if they had. Then again, she’d never had sex before—she didn’t know what it was supposed to feel like normally, let alone when it was forced.

She shivered and hugged her knees a little tighter. What were they going to do to her her? Her stomach felt light and fluttery, and her breathing came short and quick. A nauseous feeling rose in her stomach, and she started to panic.

Stop it, she told herself. Stay calm. You’re still alive. You can make it through this. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

A door hissed open behind her; it must have been a freight door, because it flooded the room with light. She squinted and covered her eyes. From behind, she heard heavy footsteps. She squeezed her knees a little closer to her chest.

Gloved hands seized her roughly by the arms and lifted her off the floor. She shrieked and tried to cover herself, but her captors’ grip on her arms was too firm. Is this it? she wondered. Are they going to rape me? A jolt of fear shot through her body.

She stumbled and tripped as they half-dragged, half-marched her into the blinding light.


* * * * *


Ben woke with a terrible pain in his side and the disconcerting realization that he was naked. When he opened his eyes and glanced around the dimly lit cargo hold, he got a much worse shock—Stella was no longer with him. He sat up at once.

“Stella?” he yelled, his voice reverberating off of the cold metal walls of the unusually large hold. Several people glanced up in his direction, but Stella wasn’t among them.

He took a deep breath and tried to fight his growing panic. He’d heard stories of the things the Hameji did to their prisoners. Most were just speculation—no one had ever escaped from the Hameji—but at Tajjur, a passing Imperial frigate had discovered hundreds of bodies floating in deep space. When the bodies were identified, it was discovered that no more than two or three had been on the same ship at the time of their capture.

That did not bode well for him and Stella.

He rose clumsily to his feet and scanned the room, ignoring the pain in his side as best he could. The room held maybe fifty to a hundred other prisoners, all naked like himself. The Hameji hadn’t bothered separating the men from the women, but that was good, because if Stella was on the ship, there was a good chance he’d find her. And if not? Ben tried not to think about that.

He stepped carefully around the other prisoners as he searched, averting his eyes where possible, ignoring what he saw when he couldn’t. Several of them were bleeding, and some lay in their own vomit. The smell of human excrement was thick in the air. He covered his nose and breathed through his mouth.

“Stella?” he called out again. “Stella, are you here?”

“Who are you looking for?” a black-haired woman asked, sitting against the wall with her knees tucked tightly against her chest. The light was dim, but she appeared to be in her mid-thirties. From her accent, Ben guessed she was from one of the Lagrange settlements at Kardunash VII.

“I’m looking for my sister,” said Ben. “She’s about half a head shorter than me with brown hair down to her shoulders.” As he talked, he discretely covered himself with his hands and averted his eyes so as not to stare directly at her. She showed him the same courtesy.

“Which ship were you on?” she asked.

“We were on a ferry shuttle at Kardunash IV when the attack happened. A passing freighter took us in—the Sierra Vista, I think.” As if it mattered. “Then the Hameji boarded us. That’s all I remember.”

“I was on a small freighter—the Winter Aegis.” A tremor in her voice made him glance at her face. Her cheeks were pale, her eyes wide—both signs of shock.

“What’s your name?” Ben asked, leaning against the wall.

“Ava,” she said, turning to face him. “Yours?”

“Ben.”

She nodded. “I’m looking for someone too. My husband. Have you seen him?”

“What does he look like?”

“He’s tall, short black hair, in his early thirties—though I guess you can’t tell in this light.”

“No,” said Ben. “I haven’t seen anyone like that—not that it means anything.”

“I guess we’re on the same starship then—literally and figuratively.” She laughed at her own joke, but tears soon streaked her pale, frightened face. Ben felt an urge to reach out and comfort her, but hesitated, worried that it would be too unseemly of him.

They both fell silent. Ava rose to her feet, keeping her arms close to her chest and her legs pressed tightly together. Ben looked the other way.

“The nudity is psychological,” he told her. “They’re trying to make us feel weak and powerless by stripping us down like this.” And doing a hell of a good job at it, too.

Ava glanced at him and smiled weakly. “Well, if that’s all it is…” her voice trailed off as she glanced around the room. “I hope they haven’t hurt him.”

Ben’s cheeks burned with sudden anger. Even if Stella wasn’t on this ship, he could imagine her in a stinking cargo hold much like this one, naked, alone, and scared out of her mind. If they’ve done anything to hurt her—

A loud clang sounded from somewhere beyond the walls, reverberating through the floor. Bright light shone through a rapidly opening freight door to his left, stabbing his eyes. He squinted and peered into the light, catching sight of several figures marching into the room. Their footsteps sounded heavy against the hard metal floor.

Soldiers.

As his eyes adjusted to the light, he saw them haul the prisoners off one by one, starting on the far side of the room. Awake or only half-conscious, it didn’t matter—they took everyone without exception.

“Oh no,” Ava said, leaning into him so that their bodies made contact. “Where are they taking us?”

“I don’t know,” said Ben. “I’ve heard, though—”

“What have you heard?”

He swallowed, remembering the frozen bodies at Tajjur. “I’ve heard this is where they separate us.”

“Why? What for? What are they going to do?”

“I don’t know,” Ben lied. He fought back his growing nausea.

All too soon, the soldiers reached them.


* * * * *


Stella stumbled through the freight airlock and into a spacious, well-lit room that reeked of body odor and cheap chemical cleansers. The soldiers forced her into a roughly formed row of prisoners, facing the opposite wall. As soon as they let go of her, she wrapped her arms around her chest and looked around.

She stood near the center of a giant hangar. The drab, yellowed walls were flat and windowless, the hardened ceramic floor grainy under her bare feet. The opposite wall was actually an enormous bay door, large enough to swallow the Llewellyn. An unloading claw dangled from the ceiling like a monstrous hand waiting to pluck her off her feet.

So I’m on some kind of deep-space freighter, she thought to herself. Judging from the design, it had to be Belarian. She’d spent a lot of time around Belarian ships in her apprenticeship, and knew the typical layout fairly well.

That was encouraging—it might help her escape.

About a hundred other prisoners stood around her, all naked, all facing the same way. Hameji soldiers in full armor patrolled the rows, their rifles held at the ready. Even with so many prisoners, however, the hangar bay was far from full. She stood behind a flabby, middle-aged woman who kept glancing nervously over her shoulder. The others around her stared at the ground or straight ahead.

Ben, Stella thought to herself. Where is Ben? She wanted to shout out his name, but she didn’t dare. Except for the heavy, booted footsteps of the soldiers and a few muffled sobs and whimpers, the room was deathly quiet.

With her arms wrapped tightly around her chest and her knees pressed firmly together, she glanced from face to face, searching for Ben. Heads started turning her way, making her feel horribly self-conscious of her nakedness, but she did her best to ignore it. Whatever happened, she had to find her brother.

In the row ahead of her, two places to the left, a little girl sobbed in fear, her pale face streaked with tears. Urine trickled down her legs and formed a puddle around her feet. Poor girl, Stella thought to herself. She probably feels all alone and embarrassed because she peed her—oh no!

A pair of Hameji soldiers dragged the old woman Stella had seen in the cargo bay to the front of the room. Her body was stiff and unmoving, eyes closed and mouth open. The soldiers dropped her in the corner; her head made a horrible thudding noise against the hardened floor.

Oh my God, Stella thought to herself. She’s dead. Her knees begin to shake, and she fought the urge to throw up.

Off to her left, a door hissed open, and a short, silver-haired man stepped through. He was swarthy and olive-skinned, with a sharp goatee and short, trimmed hair. Unlike the soldiers, he wore a loose fitting robe under a lightly decorated gray jerkin that extended down to his knees. He carried a gun at his side, and something long and curved next to it in a gold-embroidered holster. It took Stella a while to realize that the holster was actually a scabbard for a sword.

The soldiers at the door snapped to attention when they saw him. He nodded curtly to them as he passed, followed by half a dozen younger men, all similarly dressed. From the authoritative way he carried himself, Stella guessed he was an officer—perhaps even a captain.

After briefly inspecting his troops, the captain started at the front and moved down the line of prisoners, examining them one by one. The younger officers snickered and smirked as they followed him, touching some of the female prisoners in ways that made Stella squirm. As they moved along, a pair of fully armored soldiers escorted each prisoner to the front of the hangar, clustering them in two groups at the front of the room.

They’re sorting us, Stella realized. As the captain worked his way down the first row and into the second, she tried to imagine why. The group to the left was mostly made up of women, children, and old men, while the group on the right was almost exclusively young men. Contingents of armed troops stood watch over both, their weapons drawn.

Ben, Stella thought, her heart racing in her chest. Is he up there? Reaching down with one hand to keep herself covered, she stood on her tiptoes and craned her neck to get a better view.

One of the prisoners refused to move when the Hameji tried to march him off. The soldiers beat him across the face and forcibly pulled him forward, but he fell to his knees, refusing to get up. The captain gave a nod, and the nearest soldier leveled his rifle at the man’s head.

At the crack of the shot, Stella jumped, and her whole body started to tremble. Several of the other prisoners cried out and fell to their knees in terror. Someone was screaming—after a few seconds, Stella realized that it was her. She clapped her hands over her mouth and stared in horror at the sight, momentarily forgetting her own nakedness.

The man’s head was blown in half just above the nose. Blood and brains had splattered all over the prisoners immediately behind him, and several of them were shaking uncontrollably. As the soldiers dragged the body to the left corner, the prisoners in that group shrieked and edged away. Thick red blood smeared liberally across the grainy ceramic floor.

Oh my God, Stella thought to herself. Everyone in that group is going to die.

Soldiers went up and down the lines, forcing the prisoners back to their feet. The Hameji captain continued as if nothing had happened. In a few moments, he arrived at the little girl.

Stella froze where she stood.

He didn’t even stop. With a flick of his wrist, he gestured to the left. One of the soldiers took the girl by the shoulder and led her off, ignoring the trail of blood. As if sensing the danger she was in, the girl screamed and curled up in a ball on the ground.

No! Stella nearly screamed. Don’t shoot her!

The soldier didn’t. Instead, he scooped the girl up and carried her to the group of prisoners, dropping her unceremoniously to the floor. One of the older women wrapped her arms around her, giving her the comfort Stella longed to give.

It took Stella nearly a minute to stop hyperventilating and regain something of her composure. Even then, she didn’t have much dignity to regain; to the Hameji, she was little more than cattle to be sorted and slaughtered. Naked, defenseless, and surrounded by strangers, she was powerless—utterly powerless.

The captain had started on her row now, making his way towards her. She stared straight ahead, squeezing her knees a little tighter. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him send a young, black-haired man to the right, a short, plump woman to the left. He barely glanced over the old man before sending him with the rest of the condemned.

Then he stopped at her.

She held her breath and stared at the floor as he looked her up and down. With one arm over her chest and her free hand covering her lower half, she still felt horribly naked.

At a slight gesture, two soldiers stepped forward and pried her arms away. Stella resisted at first, but the soldier on her right hit her across the face with the back of his gloved hand. The force of the blow nearly knocked her over, but a quick slap on her butt forced her upright. Her cheek stung and her eyes began to water, but she knew that the soldier could have struck a lot harder.

She stood up straight now, fully exposed to her captors’ view. The younger officers gathered in a half circle, snickering as they ravished her with their eyes. She held her breath as the silver-haired captain stepped forward and began to feel her with his bare hands. With all the consideration of a rancher examining his cattle, he poked her stomach, pinched her breasts, squeezed her thighs, and felt the girlish muscles of her arms. It took all her effort not to cry out and shrink away from him.

Satisfied, he stepped back and conferred with the man on his right. As they talked, Stella wrapped her arms around her chest and covered herself again as best she could. To her relief, the soldiers didn’t stop her.

What now? Stella thought fearfully to herself.

The captain issued a command, and the soldiers took her by both arms and marched her off. A bolt of sheer terror surged through her body, but they took her past the group of condemned prisoners to the door on the far side of the room, stopping only briefly to wait for it to open.

It suddenly struck her that she might never see the room again. Energized by sheer desperation, Stella kicked out with her feet and looked frantically over her shoulder.

“Ben!” she screamed, shattering the silence of the hangar. “Ben—shout if you can hear me!” The soldiers started to drag her off, but she planted her feet and struggled against them as hard as she could.

The soldiers were much too strong for her, however. Within a few seconds, they forced her through the doorway and into the corridor beyond. Behind them, the door hissed shut.

Stella’s lip began to quiver, and tears came to her eyes. Annoyed by her defiance, the soldiers were a lot rougher with her now than before, twisting her arms so hard she almost felt they’d break. That wasn’t why she cried, though—she cried because her brother hadn’t called out to her.

Now she knew she was alone.


* * * * *


Ben squinted and blinked as the soldiers marched him into the empty hangar bay. The air reeked of bleach and disinfectant, mingled with other smells much more putrid. He felt something soft and squishy between his toes; glancing at his feet, he realized he’d stepped in a puddle of vomit.

The soldiers marched him to the back of a large group of prisoners, all standing in rows and columns facing the closed hangar doors in the front. Soldiers in black liquid-plate armor patrolled the room, their guns at ready.

There are too many people here to be from just our ship, Ben observed. I wonder where the others came from. Maybe Stella—

“Christopher!” Ava screamed from behind him. One of the prisoners—tall and muscular—spun around at the sound of her voice. He broke from the crowd and started running toward her.

The soldier on Ben’s right let go of him and moved to intercept Ava’s husband, even as two other soldiers ran at the man from the other direction. Christopher barreled into the first soldier, knocking him to the floor. To Ben’s right, Ava thrashed about, trying desperately to break free from the soldiers that held her.

Her husband made a mad dash, but the other two soldiers reached him before he could get to her. One of them clapped a gloved hand on his shoulder, while the other swung a black baton at his head. The weapon made a terrible cracking noise on impact, and the man stumbled and fell. Ava screamed, but the soldiers ignored her as they savagely beat him.

Ben watched with a mix of horror and anger. Ava’s scream turned to a wailing cry, and still the Hameji bastards didn’t stop. Ben’s hands clenched into fists, but he held his peace—now was not the time to fight back. Later, when he’d found Stella. He’d have his chance later.

After nearly a minute, the soldiers lifted Ava’s husband to his feet and marched him back to his row. He walked with a limp, a nasty purple splotch spreading rapidly along his side where his ribs were probably broken. No one made any attempt to get him medical attention.

Ben and Ava were the last prisoners out of the cargo hold. The soldiers put them at the end of the last row, about an arm’s length apart from each other. As soon as the soldiers released her, Ava collapsed onto her knees, burying her head in her hands with her black hair spilling over her shoulders.

Ben worried for a second that the soldiers would force her to her feet, but they did nothing. He wanted to comfort her, but no appropriate words came to mind.

Off to the left, a set of doors opened, and a group of men in gray uniforms stepped out. Most of them were young, but they followed a tall, stocky man with short, gray hair and a sharp goattee. From the authoritative manner with which he carried himself, Ben figured that he was the ranking officer—probably a captain. Everyone, including the soldiers, showed him deference.

The captain and his men moved down the line, poking and prodding the prisoners one by one. At his command, the soldiers dragged them off to the front of the room, forming two groups. A pattern soon emerged—the healthy young men went off to the right, while everyone else went off to the left. It didn’t take Ben long to figure out what was going on.

Stella, he thought to himself. I have to find Stella. He searched the room with his eyes, but she was nowhere to be found.

The captain was a model of discipline, but Ben saw the hunger in the eyes of the younger officers. He knew what they were thinking as they stared at the female prisoners, and anger burned hot and raw in his chest. It was not hard to imagine them surrounding Stella, their eyes sweeping lustily over her naked, defenseless body—

Stop it, he told himself. Control yourself—you’re no good to Stella if you’re dead.

The captain arrived at Ava’s husband. Ben tensed as Ava caught her breath. The captain took half a minute to look the man over, and with a wave of his hand gestured for the soldiers to take him away—to the group on the right. Ben breathed a sigh of relief, but Ava let out a pitiful cry.

“It’s okay!” he whispered. “It’s okay! He’s going to be all right.”

“Lay your hands off of him!” she shrieked, her voice almost inhuman. “Christopher!” She buried her head in her hands, weeping and sobbing.

The captain went through the row in front of them with terrible speed. In less than a minute, they were at Ben’s row, coming toward him. Will they spare me? he wondered. He hoped, for Stella’s sake, that they did.

They came to Ava first. At a gesture, the soldiers lifted her to her feet. Without any regard to basic decency, the captain reached out and felt her with his hands, poking and prodding her as if she were cattle. Ava gasped under his touch, while at the front of the room, her husband yelled out and started running for her. He got no more than three steps before the soldiers fell on him with their batons.

Ben’s cheeks flushed with anger, and he clenched his fists. Rage clouded his vision—rage at the indignity of this treatment, the injustice of it all. The captain was only an arm’s length away—it was all he could do to keep from lashing out at the sick bastard with his fists.

No, he told himself. Stella—you must find Stella.

The soldiers took Ava kicking and screaming to the group on the left. The captain came to Ben next, looking him up and down the way an officer would inspect his troops.

Ben wasn’t paying attention to him, however. At the front of the room, Ava broke free from her captors and dashed into the arms of her husband. They had time for only one quick embrace before the soldiers pried her loose and leveled a rifle at her chest. The sound of the gunshot echoed throughout the hangar in a way that Ava’s screams had not.

Something inside of Ben snapped.

The captain turned to bark orders to his men. In that instant of momentary distraction, Ben lunged forward and slugged him across his face.

The captain stumbled and nearly fell, but before Ben could strike again, the soldiers were on him. Something hard slammed into his head, sending brilliant shards of pain across his view. A blow to the stomach knocked the wind out of him, and he instinctively curled up, but the soldiers forced him to keep standing. He gasped for breath and winced as the soldier in front of him raised the baton high above his head.

A quick order from the captain stilled his hand. The soldier backed off, allowing the captain to step forward.

Ben lifted his head and stared into the man’s face. His skin was old and leathery, splotched with age. The silver hair of his goatee was short and stubby, his teeth chipped and yellow. His fetid breath reeked of garlic, thick and foul.

Ben met the man’s eyes without flinching. From the front of the room, he heard another gunshot, followed by quickly-stifled screams.

Without thinking, he spat in the man’s face.

The thick, white mucous and bubbly saliva oozed down the captain’s cheek. The other officers gasped in surprise at this unthinkable act, but the captain himself did nothing, letting the spittle drip down into his stubby facial hair. He blinked once—only once—and stared at Ben, his expression utterly unreadable. For some reason he didn’t fully understand, Ben felt a tremor of fear.

Moving only his hand, the captain reached up and wiped the spit away, leaving a streak of residual saliva across his cheek. Then, he smiled. Broadly. Mischievously.

The next thing Ben knew, his world was spinning with stars and pain. He lifted his hands as he lost his balance and fell, but before he hit the ground, his vision turned to darkness.

Chapter 4


James woke to the low beeping of an alarm on his computer. He lifted his head at once, blinking to clear his vision. What he saw on the screen made his groggy eyes fly open.

“Dad, would you come up here?” he said over the shipwide intercom. “I think you should see this.”

“What is it?” came his father’s voice.

“A transmission from home.”

In less than a minute, Adam was on the bridge. Two days worth of stubble covered his chin and neck, and dark bags of skin ringed his sleepless eyes. In his haste, he had left his jumpsuit unbuttoned, revealing the matted chest hair underneath.

“It’s from the Colony, alright,” James’s father said in a hoarse voice as he took his seat. “From the Office of the Patrician.” He hesitated to bring up the message on the main screen, as if afraid it would contain some terrible news.

“Well, go on,” said James. “What are you waiting for?”

James’s words broke the spell, and his father brought up the message. The main forward window dimmed and became a giant, theater-like screen, displaying the text of the transmission. James held his breath.

Attention, it read. This is an emergency broadcast from Station K-3 L5b to all citizens, residents, and resident aliens within the Karduna system. Timestamp: 9.5.3011.

The following is a message from His Honor the Patrician:

Greetings fellow citizens and friends, wherever this transmission may find you. As all civilian news and information services have ceased functioning, we are broadcasting this update from the Colony as a public service.

As the words scrolled by on the screen, James glanced over at his father. The expression on his face almost made him look like a stranger; helpless and distraught, completely unlike the authority figure that James knew so well. It frightened James to see his father this way, and he turned back to the main screen.

have taken complete control of the Karduna system. We have lost all contact with the Federation Assembly on Kardunash IV and presume the annihilation of the Kardunasian Defense Forces.

Hameji forces have also taken control of K-3 and all surrounding settlements, demanding unconditional surrender and threatening the total annihilation of any communities that fail to comply. Considering what they have already done to K-4, I urge all of our friends and fellow citizens throughout the system to submit to the Hameji demands.

On behalf of the people of Station K-3 L5b, I have offered the Hameji our unconditional surrender, and they have accepted. Additionally, in exchange for twenty hostages and an annual tribute, they have agreed not to install a military garrison on our station.

Selecting the twenty hostages was the most difficult decision of my political career. We made the decision by means of a random lottery, with all healthy adult citizens and residents included in the pool. No one was excepted, including close members of my own family.

The following individuals were selected to serve as hostages:

As the list scrolled upward, James’s father gasped for breath and collapsed into his chair, burying his head in his hands. James looked over with a start.

“Dad, are you okay?”

“Jessica,” he said, his shoulders shaking as he cried silently into his hands. “Your mother—thank God they didn’t take her.”

As he watched his father, James found his own eyes tearing over. He blinked and turned back to the screen.

In addition to agreeing not to leave a garrison, the Hameji have promised not to interfere with our domestic affairs. So long as we pay tribute and offer no resistance, our democratic constitution and mechanisms of self-government will be permitted to remain intact.

The next few months will undoubtedly be the most difficult in our history. In order for our freedoms to survive these trying times, we must demonstrate fair-mindedness and equality in all our democratic duties, and stand together in united support for all final policy decisions. This is not a time for frivolous speech or petty divisiveness. I call upon all of you, my fellow citizens, to unite against terror and work diligently to uphold our sacred, inalienable rights of self-government. May we survive these dark days to pass on our sacred constitution to the rising generation, and may they live to see a brighter day because of our diligence.

End emergency broadcast. Message will repeat in two minutes.

The words scrolled off the screen, and the stars gradually came back into view. James’s father sat in his chair, eerily silent. Not sure what else to do, James rose to his feet and put a hand on his shoulder.

“She’s alive,” his father said, glancing up at him. “Your mother is alive, and we have a home to return to—thank God.”

James nodded, but his heart still felt empty. Even if his mother had survived, without Ben and Stella, they were still only half a family. Tears burned in his eyes as he thought about it—tears of sorrow, not relief.

“What’s the matter?”

“Ben and Stella,” James said. “They’re still out there.”

Adam rose to his feet and put an arm around his son. “I’m sorry. There’s nothing we could have done.”

James bit his lip, tears giving way to hot anger. He pushed his father away.

“Nothing we could have done? Is that your excuse?”

“It’s not an excuse, Son. It’s the truth.”

James clenched his hands into fists. “I refuse to believe that.”

“What?”

“I said, I refuse to believe it. Ben and Stella can’t be dead—they just can’t! They’re still alive, and I’ll prove it.”

Adam frowned. “How? James—”

But James was already back in his seat, hastily bringing up the ship’s automated log. He needed something he could show his father—some scrap of evidence to prove that Ben and Stella were still alive.

“Son, please don’t do this. You’ll only hurt yourself.”

“No, Dad—they’re still alive. I’m sure of it!”

“Don’t misunderstand me. I miss Ben and Stella as much as you do. If I could, I would do anything to get them back. But Son—James, they’re gone.”

“You don’t know that,” said James, spinning around in his chair. “What if they weren’t on the planet when the bombardment happened? What if they were still in orbit?”

His father shook his head and sighed. “They were in the middle of a battle zone, on a local ferry shuttle. Unless they made it to an outbound ship in time, there’s no way they could have escaped.”

James squeezed his fists, driving the blood from his knuckles. He didn’t know what to say, so he ignored his father and turned all his attention to the automated log, eyes scanning the record of the ship’s activity in the moments immediately before and immediately after the first moments of the invasion.

“There is a chance,” his father continued, “that they docked with an outbound ship and escaped the fighting. It’s a small chance, but not impossible. If that’s the case, they’re probably somewhere on the Karduna-Gaia Nova starlane with the rest of the refugees. They won’t be able to return until the war is over, but at least they’ll be under the protection of the Gaian Imperial Navy.” He paused. “But James, it’s much more likely that they were killed or captured.”

“Even if they were captured,” James muttered, “there’s got to be some way to get them back.”

“How? The Hameji never trade prisoners. Even if they did, what do you have to trade?”

James said nothing. His father sighed.

“James, please listen to me. You’ll only torture yourself if you keep believing that they’re still alive. They’re gone, and there’s nothing we can do except pick up the pieces and move on with our lives. I know it’s difficult, but—”

“There,” James said, pointing triumphantly to the screen. “That’s it.”

“That’s what?”

“Proof that Ben and Stella weren’t on the surface when the Hameji attacked.”

His father frowned and peered at the screen while James triumphantly folded his arms. A grin spread across his face as his father’s eyes narrowed.

“What is this?”

“The network registry. See that? Stella’s wrist console accessed the bridge computer two minutes and thirty-six seconds after the announcement declaring the Hameji invasion. If the shuttle was making re-entry at that time, she wouldn’t have been able to access the network.”

“That doesn’t prove anything,” his father said softly. “They couldn’t have—”

“Can’t you see?” James said, unable to contain his excitement. “Ben and Stella were in orbit when the attack happened, not on the surface. They’re still alive!”

“We don’t know that,” his father argued. “Son, I—”

“No, Dad, they’re alive—I know it. I can feel it!”

“And if they didn’t escape? If they were captured?”

James drew in a long breath. “Then one way or another, I’m going to get them back.”


* * * * *


Stella winced with pain as the soldiers marched her down the empty corridor. Their gloved fingers dug into her bare arms, exacerbating her already painful bruises. She struggled to keep pace with them.

Up ahead, the corridor ended in a T with another. The soldiers turned right, toward a dead end—no, a door.

A door that could only be an airlock.

Stella’s eyes widened, and fear shot through her like electricity. Kicking and screaming, she tried desperately to break free. She managed to kick the soldier on her left, breaking free of his grip. Before she could escape from the other, however, he grabbed her around the waist and lifted her bodily off the floor. She thrashed about with her arms and legs, but he squeezed her stomach, making it difficult for her to breathe. Somewhere ahead she heard the hissing sound of the airlock door opening. A blast of cold air hit her bare skin.

“No!” she screamed. “Not the airlock!”

She managed to grab hold of the edge of the door as they dragged her in, but the soldiers easily pulled her loose. Together, they dumped her unceremoniously onto the cold metal floor. Before she could scramble to her feet, they were gone. The door hissed shut behind them.

“No!” she screamed again, pounding on the door even though she knew they wouldn’t be able to hear her. Out of sheer terror, her muscles gave out and she collapsed on the floor. The air was cold and had a stale, coppery taste to it. She took in a deep breath and stared fearfully at the opposite door, fully aware that it could open at any time and send her flying naked into the void.

It didn’t open, however. One moment passed into another, and nothing happened.

Slowly, fearfully, she glanced around the room. Like most airlocks, it was small and windowless—the walls, floor, and ceiling were plain steel. The floor was cold to the touch and hard against her bare skin. She hugged her chest and shivered, then noticed a pile of burlap lying about an arm’s length away from her.

Clothes? she wondered, picking it up. To her surprise, it was a one-piece tunic.

She hesitated for only a second before putting it on. The fabric was rough against her skin, but that hardly mattered—after standing naked for so long, any sort of clothing was a comfort. She closed her eyes and leaned against the wall, taking a few moments to calm her troubled thoughts.

So they’re not going to kill me, she realized. If they were, why give her clothing? No, they wanted her alive. But why?

Ben. She had to find him—he could help her. But was he on this ship? He hadn’t been in the main hangar bay—hadn’t responded when she’d called out for him.

A lump rose in her throat, but she forced it down. She couldn’t afford to let her emotions overwhelm her.

Think. If they’d brought her to an airlock, they probably wanted to transfer her—send her to a new ship. Maybe the same ship as her brother? Her heart surged, but she shook her head. No, she couldn’t count on that.

One thing was certain, though: She had to escape.

She drew in a deep breath and stood up. Her legs were a bit shaky at first, but she soon recovered her strength.

The only way out of this place was through the two doors on either side of the room. Stella tried the one she’d come in through, but it was locked from the outside. As for the other door, she had no desire to breathe vacuum, so she left it alone.

They’re keeping me here, she realized—but why here in the airlock? Obviously, another ship was coming to pick her up—but where would it take her? The question gnawed at her brain, and she paced nervously across the floor. Within a short while, her feet were numb from the cold.

Where had they taken her in the first place? Was she still in the Karduna system? If she could get to a window, she might be able to tell from the arrangement of the stars. As a little girl, she’d memorized all the home constellations and knew what they looked like when she was out of the system. As soon as she found a window, then, she had to get a good look at the stars.

Thinking about the constellations made her think of home—of her mother and father, and James. Another lump rose in her throat, this one much harder to suppress. Were they all right? Had they survived the invasion? Or were they—

No, she couldn’t allow herself to think about that now. Later—there would be time later. When she had a better idea where she was and what the Hameji had in store for her, she would plan her escape and get back to them. For now, though, all she could do was wait.

Wait. Stella shivered and hugged her arms against her chest, sliding against the wall until she was sitting on the floor again. The burlap sack covered her body, but it offered her no warmth. If the Hameji kept her here much longer, she—

The sound of metal groaning against metal jolted Stella out of her thoughts. The sound was close—close enough that the floor shook under her bare feet. They were coming.


* * * * *


Ben didn’t know where he was, where the Hameji had taken his sister, why he was still naked, or why they had put a hood over his head. All he knew was that he was dangling from his wrists and it hurt like hell.

Off to his right, he heard the sound of a door opening, followed by a cold draft against his bare skin. Footsteps announced the arrival of his captors. He shivered and tried again to pull himself up so he could lift the hood off his face with his throbbing fingertips. The Hameji had clamped something around his neck, but maybe this time, he could get it off. His wrists were numb and his arms trembled with fatigue, but he pumped his legs to give himself a boost—

The crack of a whip sounded thunderously loud in his ears, followed by a razor-sharp pain that flared across the flesh of his back. His arms gave out and he screamed in pain, body arching in agony.

“What the hell was that for?”

Another crack sent pain shooting up and down his shoulder. His arms trembled, and warm sweat began to form behind his ears and in his armpits. He turned his head, trying frantically to get a sense of where the blows were coming from, but the hood made it impossible to see anything.

“Who are you?” he shouted. “What do you want with me?”

The whip whistled as it cut through the air. It seared across his chest and belly, cutting his bare skin like a knife.

“Stop!” he cried, his voice barely coherent. “Stop it! Whatever you want, I’ll—”

His pleading turned to screams as the whip cracked across his back. At the same time, another blow from a completely different direction landed against his thigh and backside. A stream of blood dribbled down his shoulders, tickling his skin. He thrashed about, trying to break free of his bonds, but they held firm. Anger turned to panic as he realized how utterly powerless he was to stop the torture.

“Wha—augh! Please! Stop!”

The blows were coming faster now, so fast that he soon lost count. The pain washed over him, becoming his only reality. His cries turned to sobs as hot blood dribbled down his shredded skin, oozing from his wounds.

Then, as abruptly as the beating began, it stopped.

As Ben caught his breath, the cord suspending him in the air suddenly came loose. He fell to the floor with a thud, hands and knees striking hard metal. Rough hands lifted him by his arms, while others grasped his neck and undid the clasp holding the hood in place. A moment later, he found himself squinting in the sudden brightness. Before he had time to look around, a hand grabbed him roughly by the hair and shoved his face into a bucket.

The ice-cold water hit his skin like an electric shock. Without thinking, he opened his mouth and tried to take a breath, then coughed and spat as he started drowning. When he tried to jerk himself free, his captors held him down until his lungs burned for air.

Just when he thought he’d die, the hand pulled his face out of the bucket. He coughed up water and gasped for breath, then vomited explosively onto the floor.

A moment later, his face was in the water again.

Ben started to panic. He tried to free himself again, but a heavy blow struck him in the kidney, knocking the wind out of him. Before he knew what was happening, his lungs were filled with the terrible, icy water, and he was drowning. His eyes opened wide and his muscles grew frighteningly weak, lungs burning as if on fire.

Then he was out again, coughing and vomiting and gasping for breath all at once. His head spun and he nearly passed out. He would have screamed, but he didn’t have the strength.

Why were they doing this to him? What did they want? When would it stop?

Without a word, the hands lifted him by the hair and plunged him back into the terrible, icy-cold water.


* * * * *


“What are you doing, Son?” James’s father said as he squinted at the screen, reading over James’s shoulder.

“Drafting a bill,” James said. No point in hiding it.

“What sort of a bill?”

“I’m proposing to head an emergency search and rescue mission to search for survivors around Kardunash IV and compile a database of all Colony citizens lost so that we can—”

“And how much funding do you plan to appropriate?”

James took a deep breath. “Five hundred thousand Gaian credits.”

His father’s mouth turned downward into a frown. “Half a million? That’s a lot of money for a war-torn community.”

“It’s less than one percent of the operating budget from last year!”

“And how are you going to spend it?”

“I don’t know yet,” James admitted. “Fuel, supplies, equipment, outsourcing if we need it—”

“What kind of outsourcing?”

“It’s just a provision,” said James, hoping his father didn’t question him on that point any further. If Ben and Stella were prisoners of the Hameji, he’d need help in order to set them free. The rumors about the Hameji couldn’t all be true—there had to be some way to rescue his brother and sister.

“And what kind of transparency measures do you have in place?” his father asked. “No one is going to appropriate funding without sufficient oversight.”

“I don’t know yet, Dad. I’ll figure it out.”

“If you want your bill to pass, you’d better. But if by ‘outsourcing’ you mean—”

“I’m not doing anything wrong!” James shouted. “It’s my right as a citizen to bring legislation to the General Assembly, isn’t it?”

“Why are you shouting?”

“I’m not shouting!”

“Yes you are. Why?”

“Because—” James turned to face the screen and bit his lip so hard it went numb.

“Son,” his father said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “I understand what you’re feeling right now. You want to see your brother and sister again. So do I. But at some point, we need to accept the fact that they’re gone. I think you should reconsider what you’re doing.”

“No, Dad,” James said, shrugging off his father’s hand.

“You don’t know what you’re doing. These are serious times—we can’t afford to have frivolous legislation bogging down—”

James spun around to face his father. “Frivolous legislation? You think getting Ben and Stella back is frivolous?”

“Yes, I do.”

“How can you possibly say that?” James asked, trembling with rage.

“Because there’s nothing you or I can do. Even if Ben and Stella are alive, the Hameji are too strong.”

“Maybe for us,” James muttered without thinking.

“And just who were you planning on ‘outsourcing’ to? Mercenaries?”

“No,” James said quickly—too quickly. “I mean—”

“I hope not, because misusing public funds is a serious crime.”

“I know, Dad—I know.”

His father sighed. “James, do you have any idea what you’re asking? Hundreds of thousands of credits to fund your private quest, from an embattled society that can’t afford it. And if you go up against the Hameji in the name of the Colony, do you have any idea what they’ll do to us? They’ll kill us all!”

“I know, Dad.”

“Then why can’t you let it go and move on? Ben and Stella are gone. Neither you nor I can bring them back. At best, you’ll just be wasting your time and the Colony’s money.”

“Are you going to stop me?” James asked.

“What?”

“I said, are you going to stop me?”

His father stared at him long and hard. For a heart-stopping moment, James feared that the answer would be yes.

“No,” his father finally said, looking away. “I won’t stop you. You’re a citizen. It’s your right.”

“Good.” James turned to the computer.

“But wait, Son,” his father said. James stopped and glanced over his shoulder.

“I want you to think very hard about what you’re doing. Is this for the good of the Colony, or is this something you’re doing for your own selfish reasons?”

James clenched his fists and bit his lower lip. How could his father call him selfish for wanting to save his brother and sister? The thought infuriated him.

“I know you miss them,” his father continued. “Believe me, I do too. But sometimes we have to accept what we can’t change.”

“Are you finished?”

“Please, James—please, think long and hard about this bill. We can’t change the past, no matter how hard we try. We can only look to the future.”

James didn’t answer. After some time, his father left the room. Five minutes later, James transmitted the draft of his bill to the office of the Secretary of the General Assembly.


* * * * *


Ben trembled from exhaustion. A painful, high pitched noise buzzed incessantly in his ear, leaving him no quiet space. He couldn’t remember how long it had been since he’d last slept. Hours? Days? Weeks, even? He wished he could at least see where they’d taken him, but they had put the hood back over his face. His hands were bound tightly behind him, his wrists raw from the rough bonds. He was still naked, and the air was cold enough to draw goosebumps across his flesh as he lay sprawled out across the hard metal floor.

Everything but the immediate present seemed nothing but a half-remembered dream to him—random, with no pattern. Hood lifted, food forced into his mouth, dribbling down his chest. Water poured across his face. Buzzing off, sleep for a few precious hours. Coldness, heat; sweating, shivering. Weeks could have passed—months, even.

But the present—that was not a dream. That was more real than he could bear. His hunger, his nakedness—even the pain faded into a low drone after a while. It was the terrible, inescapable presentness of his thoughts that ate at him. He could not escape the torture of his own mind—the torture of consciousness.

Stella. He had to get to her; had to save her. Whatever they did to him wasn’t important—he had to stop them from hurting her.

Then they came for him.

The buzzing stopped, leaving an empty ringing in Ben’s head. A door hissed open, followed by footsteps on the metal floor. Hands lifted him to his feet, and the hood was pulled off, exposing his face to light so brilliant that it seemed to burn his eyeballs. Ben blinked and shut his eyes.

Someone cut his bonds, freeing his hands. Others lifted him roughly to his feet, but he didn’t have the strength to stand. Soldiers on either side held him up, half dragging, half carrying him forward.

Once out of the prison cell, his eyes adjusted to the dim light of the corridor. The walls were a dark, greenish-gray, the steel floor hard and black. The booted feet of the soldiers trod loudly over it.

They lined him up next to two other prisoners, both men, both strangers. Their bodies were bruised, their emaciated ribs quite visible. Ben glanced down at his own stomach and realized that it was the same with him. He knew he should find this unsettling, but he felt too worn out to care.

The soldiers made them face a glass wall. On the other side, Ben saw three prisoners: two men and one woman, their naked bodies as bruised and emaciated as his own. Something about the room seemed odd to him. The wall on the opposite side of the room was actually a large door, like the opening to a hangar bay.

Or perhaps an airlock.

Before he could say or do anything, the door flew open, revealing the black, starry void of space. A mighty roar of outrushing air drowned out the screams of the prisoners, then quickly faded into silence—absolute, terrible silence.

Both men were immediately sucked out of the airlock, fear glazed across their faces as they raced into oblivion. The woman, however, found a crevice in the wall and held on to the last. Ben watched in horror as her arms and legs turned blue and slowly began to bloat. Her eyes rolled back in her sockets, revealing the ghostly whites. Her grip came loose, and her body drifted slowly out into the starry expanse like a twisted marionette. Her stiff, frozen limbs had the appearance of a child’s action figure, arms and legs jutting out like plastic appendages.

The door closed, and the airlock refilled with air. The taste of vomit filled Ben’s mouth, and his stomach went suddenly weak. His legs fell out from under him; only the grip of the soldiers at his side kept him on his feet.

They were getting the airlock ready for another execution.

A thousand stray thoughts raced through his tortured mind, assailing him with flashes of pure terror. Images from his memory blinked across his mind’s eye like the random splash of characters across a dying computer. He felt caught up in a nightmare, like a spectator in his own body, powerless to run from the terrors that chased him.

The soldiers shoved him through a door, into the airlock with half a dozen other prisoners. His screams mingled with theirs as together they pounded their fists against the glass and scraped at the door until blood oozed from their fingertips.

The eyes of the soldiers stared at him from the other side of the window. He felt a raspiness in his breath, bruises on the palms of his hands from striking the unyielding duraglass. Lack of breath—the goosebumps already spreading across his bare skin.

Blood still frozen on the floor. The brutal coldness of the air. Falling. Darkness.

Then, hands touching him, pulling him. Warm air, bright light. The hard metal floor against his bare feet, the rough fabric of the hood against his face.

Then, cold, hard floor.

Silence.


* * * * *


James’s bill lasted barely two days before the voters killed it.

It almost died before it came to the floor. After registering it with the secretary, James had six hours to gather twenty signatures in support of the legislation. He’d somehow overlooked that rule, and found himself desperately calling every friend he could think of to gather the required signatures. He got the last one in only a minute before the deadline.

Of course, he didn’t ask his father for support. He already knew what the answer would be.

After a hasty dinner, James once again returned to the bridge to check on the status of his bill. A few votes had trickled in, mostly nays, but the vast majority of voters hadn’t yet noticed it. That wasn’t too surprising, considering all the other legislation on the floor.

Still, he needed to find some supporting votes, and he needed them soon. If, after twenty-four hours, more than ninety percent of the votes were against his bill, it would automatically die, no matter the voter turnout.

He spent all night alone on the bridge, posting hastily written op-ed articles on all the political forums that would give him space. His bill acquired some positive momentum, but not enough to counteract the votes against him. Still, by the time he went to bed, there were only around sixty-forty nays. When the citizens awoke in the morning and read his posts, they would hopefully start to join his side.

Instead, he awoke to find his bill in immediate danger. An influential watchdog group had lumped it with a number of other pieces of legislation that they considered a waste of government spending. Within minutes, more than five hundred nays flooded in, threatening to torpedo the bill before most of the citizens even had a chance to see it.

Exasperated, James spent the next ten hours calling up every possible friend to get as many yea votes as possible. Unfortunately, it always came back to the same question: What kind of oversight measures did he plan to put in place to guarantee transparency of the funding? He didn’t dare admit that he might use the funds to hire mercenaries.

The bill lasted past the sudden-death threshold, but with only thirteen percent of the votes in his favor. If he didn’t get that number up to at least fifteen percent by the next day, according to the Assembly’s rules, his legislation would die.

He spent the next twenty-four hours on the bridge, breaking only for an hour or two of sleep at his chair. Despite his best efforts, another watchdog group picked up the issue and started lobbying hard against him. He spent the last few hours furiously pounding out rebuttals, ignoring his growling stomach and aching bladder to fight against the growing tide of criticism.

Just when he thought all was lost, a friend brought a sympathetic liberal watchdog group to the attention of his plight. When he heard the news, James leaped up from his seat and fell on his knees, weeping for joy and relief. He wasn’t alone—and now, with someone else to advocate his bill, perhaps it might have a chance.

Sadly, that was not the case.

Instead of advocating the bill, the liberal watchdog group brought forward a motion to recant and send it into a joint committee for revisions. Just like everyone else, they cited the lack of proper funding oversight as their primary concern. With the proposed motion, the group was effectively taking over the bill—cutting James out in the process. The only way he could stop them was to organize a draft committee—in just six hours.

Once again, he went to his friends. Once again, they questioned the lack of oversight. Once again, he argued that it wasn’t necessary, only to have them express their regret and turn him down.

Red-eyed and trembling from exhaustion, he stared in disbelief at the computer screen. Only the low hum of the ventilation system broke the silence as the last few minutes ticked away. He had failed. It was over.

Footsteps sounded behind him as his father stepped onto the bridge. “What’s the matter, Son?”

James didn’t answer. His father peered over his shoulder at the screen.

“Ah,” he said. “I’m so sorry.” His tone of voice, however, betrayed his relief.

James said nothing.

“I remember how I felt when I lost my first bill,” his father continued. “You win some, you lose some—in a perfect democracy like ours, it’s only natural. It’s all for the best.”

James felt his blood rise to his cheeks. His father put a hand on his shoulder, but he immediately shrugged it off.

“We’ll be home soon,” his father continued, choosing to ignore James’s angry gesture. “It’ll be all right. Your mother is safe, and we’ll all be together soon.”

“Dad,” said James, “how many ships does our family own?”

“What do you mean?”

“How many ships? And how much in financial assets?”

“Well, our branch of the family owns five ships, two of which are in port at the Colony. In terms of net financial assets, we have about fifteen million Gaian credits.”

Good, James thought to himself. That should be enough.

His father frowned. “Why do you ask?”

“I need to take out my inheritance.”

Chapter 5


Stella stood up straight and faced the airlock door as it slid open. Another pair of soldiers in fearsome black armor stepped forward. She cringed, expecting them to take her forcibly by the arms and march her off like the others. Instead, they moved aside, letting a short man dressed all in white step through.

She frowned. What is this?

The man gave her one look and clucked his tongue. “Too young,” he said in an almost incomprehensible accent. “Too young.”

“What?” said Stella. She glanced up at the soldiers, but their faces were unreadable.

The little man stepped forward and pinched her arm. “Ow!” she said, drawing back. He clucked again and put his hands on his hips.

“You stay still. Yes? Good.”

Stella stood awkwardly in the middle of the chilly airlock while he examined her, poking her stomach and feeling her hands and arms. His round head was balding on the top, with thick tufts of blackish-gray hair around his ears. He had a long scowl on his face, which from the deep creases in his skin appeared to be a permanent feature. Unlike the soldiers, he wore a crisp white button-up shirt that stretched nearly to his knees, like a formal smock. His loose fitting trousers were also white.

“Not good, not good,” he said, shaking his head. “Need bath.”

Stella glanced to the soldiers on either side of the doorway. I don’t suppose I have a choice, she thought to herself. For now, she’d play the Hameji at their game—with time, an opportunity for escape would present itself. Hopefully.

“You follow me,” the man said. “Understand?”

“Uh, yeah.”

The man looked her in the eye and scowled. Even though he stood nearly a full head shorter than her, she still felt intimidated by his gaze.

“Come.”

Despite his short stature, the man took off at a brisk pace and quickly disappeared around a corner. Stella found it difficult to keep up; fortunately, the soldiers didn’t force-march her. She supposed that was a sign that she’d moved up in the Hameji world.

The main corridor was only twenty yards long—too short for the ship to be anything but a shuttle. So they’re transporting me somewhere, Stella thought to herself. If she could break through to the cockpit, there was a chance—but no, with the soldiers following her that would never work. Better ride it out and see where they took her.

“Come here,” said the little man, motioning impatiently to an open door near the end of the corridor. Stella followed his lead and stepped into the passenger cabin.

From her terrifying experience on the prisoner ship, she expected something drab and purely functional—an empty storage room, perhaps, or a simple holding cell. Certainly someplace more fit for cattle than for humans.

Instead, she stepped into a room as luxurious as a private yacht. Soft, oversized blue and purple couches lined the room, each with dozens of silk-tasseled pillows and cushions strewn out across them. The walls were pure white with ornate gold trim reminiscent of the old baroque style of the first Gaian Empire. An enormous duraglass window stretched from floor to ceiling on the opposite side of the room, offering a breathtaking view of the starfield beyond.

Stella froze in the doorway and stared in disbelief at the lavish accommodations. After the nightmare of the prisoner ship, she didn’t know what to make of her new surroundings. It felt surreal to her. The seats were so luxurious and soft, the purple and blue colors so rich, she felt as if she had found herself in a completely different world.

“No good,” muttered the man, shaking droplets of sweet perfume on her body from a small crystal vial. “No good. Need bath soon—very dirty.”

The accent. Where had she heard that accent before? The question had been bothering her since she’d first heard the man speak. In an instant, it came to her: the man was speaking Belarian. On her last voyage with the McLellan family, the entire crew had spoken it exclusively to help her practice the new language. The short, bald man’s accent had to have come from some local dialect in that system.

“What is your name?” she asked in formal Belarian.

The man froze where he stood and stared right at her. Stella met his gaze and smiled.

A flood of words poured out of his mouth, only a few of which she fully understood. She could pick out a word here or there, but couldn’t understand any phrases or sentences. Eventually, the man noticed the blank expression on her face. He stopped and forced a smile, composing himself.

“You are a smart girl,” he said in formal Belarian, slow enough that she could understand. “My name is Engus, and I am chief cut-servant of Master Qasar.”

Cut-servant. The word itself was unfamiliar, but from simple cognates she pieced together the basic meaning. The root used for “cut” confused her at first, since it was only ever used in a physical sense; either Engus was a servant who cut things, or else had himself been—

Realization of the true meaning of the word struck her like a meteor. Engus was a eunuch.

“Sit, sit,” he said, reverting to broken New Gaian.

Stella glanced around the room and gingerly lowered herself on the nearest couch. The cushions gave way, enveloping her in a softness so inviting she almost forgot the rough burlap tunic chafing against her skin. Even the guards kept a comfortable distance from her, standing at the door. Still, something seemed vaguely disturbing about this place. Her separation from the other prisoners, the extravagant luxury of the shuttle, the high-ranking servant sent as an escort—it made her feel uneasy.

I’ve got to get out of here, she thought to herself, struggling to conceal her growing anxiety. With her thoughts once more centered on escape, her eyes gravitated to the starfield in the window. Despite the amazing view, it took her several moments before she found anything resembling the familiar constellations of home.

Just as she found one that could have been the Snake, the sound of groaning metal came softly through the walls. The stars spun wildly as they undocked and maneuvered away from the Hameji prisoner ship, momentarily disorienting her. She looked for any sign of Kardunash IV—any planet at all—but saw nothing but stars and empty space.

As she stared out the window, a strange feeling came over her, as if her body were turning inside out. The sensation was all too familiar. It started as a mild stomachache, but soon turned into a severe, disorienting dizziness, followed by an instant of total blackness, as if the universe itself had blinked.

The shuttle had just made a jump. If Ben was back on the prisoner ship, he might be light-years away from her now.

“Where are we going?” she asked, her voice shaky.

“Master’s house,” Engus said in broken New Gaian. “There. You look.”

He pointed out the window at an enormous ship, long and tapering at the forward end like a missile. From a distance, it could have passed as a deep space passenger liner, but a close examination revealed several additions. Extra rooms bubbled outward, some containing gun emplacements, others antennae and other instruments. Though this may have been a passenger liner at one point, it was definitely a warship now.

Ben, Stella thought frantically to herself. Where are you? As the Hameji warship loomed close outside the window, a terrible, heart-wrenching feeling told her that she wouldn’t find him here.

They docked. Engus motioned to her.

“You come,” he said.


* * * * *


Play the game, Stella told herself as she followed Engus through the airlock. She just had to keep her eyes open and wait for an opportunity to escape. She could do this.

The shipside airlock was unusually narrow; Stella guessed it had originally been a utility airlock for exterior maintenance work. Considering how they’d put in towards the battleship’s stern, that made sense. Why they had taken her in this way instead of through the main docking bay, Stella had no idea.

The soldier’s boots rapped sharply on the hard metal floor of the airlock. Engus keyed the inner door, and it hissed open.

“You come,” he said.

The moment Stella stepped through the doorway, a thick, sensuous odor hit her noise. It smelled like perfume mixed with something else too pungent to mask. The air was warm and humid; the moisture clung to her skin and made her feel sticky.

To her surprise, the soldiers stayed behind. She wondered why that was, until she saw a handful of wires poking out of the wall where the airlock’s access panel was supposed to be. Whoever had modified that door had designed it to work only one way.

Like a cage.

She followed Engus down a corridor unlike any that she had ever seen. Red and pink silk draped the walls, their vibrant colors immediately attracting her eye. Golden tassels dangled from the ceiling, tracing geometric patterns in their design. A shaggy pink carpet covered the floor, tickling her bare feet. Yet for all the lavishness of the place, she couldn’t help but notice how kitschy and overdone it all was. The décor felt like a caricature of something feminine. The colors were too bright, the smells too strong—even the shaggy carpet under her feet felt too sensual.

She didn’t like it.

Engus glanced over his shoulder and clucked disapprovingly. “Come!” he said. She walked a little faster, folding her arms as she followed him.

They passed a handful of other men, all in button-up white shirts like Engus’s that extended well below the waist. Their clothes were so crisp and immaculate that Stella felt out of place in her burlap prisoner rags. The men bowed to Engus as they passed, and stared openly at Stella. Even though they were only servants, their stares made her anxious.

If they are servants, she thought to herself, why are there so many of them? And who are they supposed to serve? For a moment, she wondered if Engus was taking her off to become a servant, too, but she soon dismissed the idea. All of the servants were men.

She saw women soon enough, though.

As they rounded a corner, a tall, dark-skinned girl walked past them in the opposite direction. Her skin was perfectly smooth, her body shaped like an exotic hourglass. Her hips swung from side to side as she walked, jingling coins along the fringes of her clothing. She wore a skimpy, two-piece dress, the fabric all but transparent, leaving nothing to the imagination.

Stella stopped and watched in horror as the girl sauntered away. An awful, sinking feeling ate away at the back of her mind as she realized.

“You come,” said Engus, pointing impatiently to a bead curtain draped over an open doorway.

I just need to stay here long enough to find a way to escape, Stella thought to herself as he parted the beads and led her through. I won’t be here forever.

The shaggy carpet ended at the doorway, replaced by a white and blue tile floor that extended up the walls. The air inside was practically steamy, and mosaics of fruits and vines lined the walls and ceiling. In the corner, she saw the foggy glass pane of a shower unit.

“Take off,” Engus ordered.

Stella’s body instantly grew tense. She gave him a puzzled look, pretending not to understand what he had said.

“What?”

He reached over and tugged at her clothes. “Take off.”

Her cheeks went pale, and she kept her arms wrapped firmly around her chest. “No.”

Engus put his hands on his hips and clucked loudly at her. “You need wash. Take off.”

Behind her, the beads clattered. Stella turned and saw another servant step into the room, carrying a stack of bath towels. He was tall and lanky, with his long black hair tied back in a ponytail. He bowed at her, then at Engus.

While she was distracted, Engus grabbed her tunic and started to lift it up. Without thinking, she pushed him away.

“No!” she shouted.

Engus’s face turned red with fury. He stood up straight, stomped the ground with one foot, and shouted a string of incomprehensible Belarian obscenities. Stella cringed, while the tall man set down the towels on a bench and put a hand on Engus’s shoulder in an attempt to calm him.

“I can wash myself,” Stella said in Belarian, her voice a little shaky. “I don’t need you to undress me.”

Engus shrugged off the other man and stepped right up to her, placing his pointer finger only inches from her mouth. His eyes were wide with indignation.

“No,” he said. “You learn. Take off.”

Stella hesitated, not sure what to do. She would rather run away than undress herself in front of these men, but she had nowhere to go. Play the game.

While Engus fumed at her, the new man gave her a friendly smile. He seemed harmless enough. They’re just eunuchs, Stella told herself. They won’t try to do anything to me.

As if that made it any easier.

She took a deep breath and pulled the tunic over her head. As she dropped it by her side, flashbacks of the prisoner ship came flooding back to her. She trembled from the memories and covered herself as best she could.

Fortunately, Engus wasted no time. By the time she had her tunic off, he already had the shower door open.

“In,” he said. Stella was all too eager to comply.

The cylindrical shower chamber was a newer model, with hundreds of water jets embedded in vertical rows along the wall—many times more than the shower unit on the Llewellyn. It stood a couple of feet taller than her body and was narrow enough that she could easily touch the edges with her elbows. A small light fixture set behind smooth duraglass illuminated the chamber from the top. The glass door was diffuse enough to give her some privacy, but transparent enough for the men to see her. She tried her best to ignore that.

All right, she thought to herself, searching for a waterproofed access panel. What next?

Hot, pressurized water shot out at her from all directions, blasting her skin. She yelped in surprise, but soon got over the initial shock. The soap had a wonderful, fragrant smell, and the temperature was perfect—not too hot, not too cold.

She raised her hands above her head, letting the water wash over her. With her eyes closed, she brought her hands down and rubbed the sweat and dirt out of her face and hair, massaging her scalp with her fingertips. From there, she moved down and built up a good lather across her body. The soap penetrated her pores, flushing out the filthiness of the prisoner ship and leaving her wonderfully clean. For a brief moment, she forgot the war, forgot the prisoner ship, forgot the eunuchs and the harem and all of her fears and anxieties and just closed her eyes and let herself relax.

The rinse cycle blasted her from all sides like a flood. She gasped for breath, tilting her head back to keep her mouth and nose clear. The pressure was so high that all she could do was sway from side to side as the shower water pummeled her. It made her feel as if she were swimming up a waterfall.

After what felt like an eternity, the water died down and the chamber gradually emptied. A blast of hot air hit her from above as a roaring vacuum opened in the drain beneath her feet. She reached up with her hands and stretched her whole body upward, standing on her toes. The precious water streamed down her skin under the powerful hot wind, sucked into the drain where it would be collected, filtered, and recycled.

All too soon, the hot air died down and the door slid open. Stella stepped out on unsteady legs, too delirious to care that she was naked. The air in the room felt surprisingly cold compared to the warmth of the shower, and she began to shiver. Someone, either Engus or the other servant, wrapped a towel around her. The fabric was soft and thick, like a blanket. She pulled it close.

As she did, hands grabbed her through the towel and started to rub her down.

“Yi!” she shrieked, jumping away.

Engus clucked and shook his head. “No,” he said, stepping forward with his hands outstretched. “Need dry.”

“I can dry myself!” she shouted, self-consciousness flooding back to her.

Engus’s face turned beet red, but the tall man put a hand on his shoulder and conferred in a low voice. After a few moments, Engus nodded and folded his arms.

“We wait,” he said. “You dry.”

With the men still watching her, Stella turned her back to them and loosened the towel just enough to dry herself. Perverts. She wished they would at least give her some degree of privacy, but that didn’t seem to exist in this place. Not for her.

When she was finished, she wrapped the towel tightly around her body and picked up a second one from the bench for her hair.

“Come,” said Engus. He motioned to a small, metal chair on the other side of the room.

As she sat down, Engus and the other servant pulled up stools. Engus took a seat at her side and started filing her nails, while the taller man sat down directly in front of her. Stella watched him reach down and gently lift her leg onto his lap. He then took out a rough, sponge-like stone from a pocket and gently scrubbed the sole of her foot. Even though it was strange to have a man she didn’t know touch her that way, Stella had to admit that it felt really good.

As the two men worked, they started up a conversation. By concentrating, Stella found she was able to follow along.

“The girl is quite pretty, if a little young,” said the tall man. He spoke much slower and more clearly than Engus, probably because Belarian wasn’t his first language.

Engus responded, but Stella didn’t understand much of what he said. She picked out the name ‘Tagatai,’ and the word ‘captain.’

“Yes,” said the tall man as he filed her nails. “She seems shy, though I don’t blame her.”

Engus snorted and made a glib reply, which Stella didn’t catch.

“Still,” said the tall man, “she has a thoughtful air about her. I do not think she is as out of touch as the others.” He finished with her right foot and set it gently on the floor; Stella helped him by lifting the other before he reached for it.

Engus answered. Stella picked out the words ‘name’ and ‘need.’

“You are right,” said the tall man. “She does need a name. What should it be?”

“I already have a name,” Stella interrupted, mustering her command of formal Belarian as best as she could. Engus coughed, and the tall man stopped and looked up at her.

“My name is Stella McCoy,” she said. “That is who I am.”

The tall man smiled. “It appears that our little mouse perceives more than we thought.”

Engus snorted.

“My name is Narju,” said the tall man. “But here, you must take a new name.”

“Why?”

Narju’s face fell, but not in an unkindly way. “You are starting a new life here, little mouse. Trust me, it will be better if you leave your past behind and forget it.”

Stella’s jaw tensed, and her eyes began to burn. The faces of her family flashed before her mind’s eye: Father and Mother; Ben, her big brother; and James, the youngest. Did the Hameji expect her to forget about them? How could she ever do that?

Shh, she told herself, swallowing her tears. Bide your time. Play the game.

“Do not be sad,” said Narju. “We will give you an auspicious name, one to bring you good fortune.”

Stella bit her lip and nodded. Narju resumed scrubbing her foot.

“There is a star many hundred years of light from the Hameji home system, called in their legends Sholpan—the shy goddess. It is a white dwarf orbiting a much larger super-giant. To most, the two appear to be one, but master astrogators can tell them apart. Among the Hameji, it is said that to triangulate one’s position by this star is to invite good luck.”

Stella racked her brain for any binary system she knew of that fit that description. As an apprentice astrogator, she’d memorized the names and coordinates of several hundred stars, but this one didn’t sound familiar. Maybe if she’d studied harder, she would have recognized it. She wished she had.

“Good name,” said Engus in New Gaian from behind her. “Master Qasar be happy with.”

“I hope so,” said Narju, in Belarian.

Master Qasar? Stella’s heart beat a little faster.

“Who is Master Qasar?”

Narju smiled kindly, though Stella thought she could see a trace of sadness in his eyes. “Master Qasar is the commander of this ship. He is your lord now, Sholpan.”

Sholpan. The name sounded harsh to Stella’s ears. She formed her lips around the word, but it felt strange and unfamiliar, like something foreign. Something that was not her.

Engus finished with Stella’s nails and rose from his seat. He uttered a string of commands to Narju and stepped out of the room. The bead curtain clattered shut behind him.

“What does this ‘Qasar’ want with me?” Stella asked, more comfortable now that Engus was gone. “What is this place?”

“Peace,” said Narju, finishing with her left foot. “You are safe—no one will harm you.” He rose to his feet.

“But where am I?” she asked, rising with him. “Some kind of harem? And who are you supposed to be—one of my servants?”

“I am Narju, your personal attendant,” he said. “You are on Master Qasar’s ship. You…belong to him now.”

Even though it came as no surprise, Stella’s whole body went rigid with shock.

“So that’s it?” she said, her voice cracking. “I’m supposed to be some kind of glorified whore?”

“Please, calm yourself,” said Narju. “You are safe here. Master Qasar is busy and probably will not see you for many days. You will be treated well. Do not trouble yourself.”

Stella swallowed. She had a hundred other questions, but before she could ask any of them, Narju pressed a finger against her lips.

“No more questions,” he said. “I will answer them later.”

How much later? Stella wanted to scream. Why can’t you answer me now? Instead, she bit her lip and did her best to be calm. If Narju was right and Qasar wouldn’t see her for a few days, she could afford to wait. Play the game, bide her time. She’d find a way out.

From the open locker, Narju pulled out a thin white gown. “Here,” he said, turning to her. “Take off your towel. You need to see the doctor.”

Stella frowned. “Why?”

“For your examination. Please, let me put this on you.”

Stella tensed. “I can dress myself, thanks.”

“But milady,” said Narju, bowing deeply, “I live to serve you.”

This so surprised Stella that she could think of nothing to say to it. Still, she made no move to comply.

“Very well,” said Narju. “I understand how you must feel, being new to this place. If you wish, I will let you dress yourself.”

Stella let out a quiet sigh of relief as Narju left the room, the bead curtain clattering behind him. When she was satisfied that she had as much privacy as she was going to get, she let her towel drop to the floor and slipped into the sleeveless gown. It was open in the back, and although she did her best to tie it shut, she found it difficult to reach behind her. She arched her back to get a better angle.

“Are you ready?” Narju asked from outside the doorway.

“Yes,” said Stella, finishing up with the last tie.

Narju walked up behind her and examined her work. Before she could protest, he busied himself retying her knots.

“You need not be so shy in this place,” he told her. “The only men allowed on this level are eunuchs such as myself. Our Hameji overlords have made it quite impossible for us to do anything but serve you.”

“You mean—”

Stella stopped herself in mid-sentence. Narju said nothing.

“I’m sorry,” she said, blushing deep red.

“No apology is necessary,” said Narju as he finished. “Come with me.”


* * * * *


Stella felt practically naked in the patient’s gown. She tried to ignore that as she followed Narju down the hallway, keeping her eyes open for any unguarded doors or possible exits. Bide your time. Play the game.

He led her down a corridor similar to the first: colorful silks, golden tassels, more bead doors, and of course the sensual, shaggy carpet. They passed several people, most of them servants in their crisp white smocks, though Stella saw a couple of other women. She couldn’t escape the feeling, however, that more eyes were watching her than she could see.

They turned a corner and came to an elevator. Narju pulled out a card and swiped it at the access panel, and the elevator door opened. Unlike the rest of the harem, the interior was gray and drab—purely utilitarian.

This elevator leads to the rest of the ship, Stella realized. She took note of the pocket where Narju kept his key-card.

When the doors reopened, they stepped out into a corridor so spartanly decorated that it seemed as if she’d set foot on a different ship. The white tiling on the walls had yellowed with age, and there were surprisingly deep impressions in the floor where countless feet had trod. Stella felt the grainy indentations with her bare feet. Judging from their depth, she realized that the ship could easily be decades old—perhaps even more than a hundred standard years.

A pair of soldiers guarded the elevator. At a gesture from Narju, they stood aside to let him pass. Stella found it odd that the guards would be posted outside the harem instead of inside—as if they were trying to keep the rest of the ship out. She shivered in the noticeably cooler air and tried not to think about what that meant.

At a turn in the corridor, Stella caught sight of another woman. She was about half a head taller than her, a little more filled out around the waist, and probably fifteen or twenty years older, judging from the slight creases on her forehead. She wore a long green dress with purple fringes and long, loose sleeves. The dress had no pockets, but several small cloth pouches hung from her belt.

The woman scowled at Stella as they passed. For her part, Stella stared at the ground to avoid eye contact. In a second, the awkward moment was over.

“The medical bay,” Narju said, opening an otherwise unremarkable door a short distance down the corridor. With his free hand, he motioned for Stella to enter.

The moment she stepped through the doorway, she felt that something was wrong. On the outside, everything seemed normal enough—clear, bright lights, spotless white walls, the sterile smell of disinfectant. Several monitors hung down from the ceiling, and a detachable, floating table hovered off to one side. In the corner she saw an examining table—old, certainly, but still functional. It wasn’t until she caught sight of the medicine bottles on the counter that she realized what was bothering her. More than half of them were opened—some even lay completely empty on their side. The instruments dangling from the hovering table were lopsided and off-color—probably pieced together from spare parts. The walls were spotless white, but the floor was yellow and unnervingly sticky.

A portly man in an off-white apron greeted them. He had a wide face and long black hair pulled back in a ponytail like Narju’s. One of his eyelids drooped, giving him a half-drunk expression that did little to quell Stella’s growing anxiety. He spoke to her, but his accent was so thick that she could barely understand him.

“Please step up to the examining table,” Narju translated.

Stella hesitated. She glanced from Narju to the Hameji doctor. He gave her a vacuous smile and gestured impatiently with his hand.

“What if I say no?” she asked.

“It will not hurt,” Narju said. “I promise.”

Stella hugged her chest a little tighter. She made no effort to move.

“Everyone who comes to the ship must be examined,” Narju said in his gentle, encouraging voice. “I was examined, too, when I first came.”

Yeah, Stella thought. And sterilized.

Narju coughed. “Don’t worry—the doctor will not…alter anything. This is only a routine examination.”

The man motioned again with his hand. His half-smile was quickly disappearing.

Stella glanced over her shoulder at the door. It was closed—no way out. She swallowed and stepped shakily up to the table.

The doctor started by checking her pulse. She shivered as he untied the top few knots on her gown and reached his hands underneath the fabric. The end of the stethoscope felt frigid against her bare skin, and she dug her fingers into the underside of the table as the he pressed it from spot to spot.

When he was finished, the doctor withdrew the stethoscope and slipped a thick band around her arm. To check my blood pressure, Stella realized. A harsh noise sounded from some unseen machine, and the band slowly constricted, making her fingers tingle. She winced as it grew tighter, wondering what would happen if it never stopped. For a few frightening seconds, it almost seemed a reality. Eventually, however, the pressure equalized, then gradually let up as the machine completed its discomforting task.

Her eyes and ears were next. She squirmed at the squishy sound the conical probe made as the doctor jabbed it in her ears, and the device’s bright light cut into her eyes, burning splotches of purple and green into her vision. Stella blinked several times after the procedure was finished, but the splotches refused to disappear.

The doctor turned to her again. In his hand, he carried a syringe.

“No!” Stella cried, pulling her arms tight against her body. She scooted as far away from the doctor as she could.

“Have no fear,” Narju cajoled her, putting a hand on her shoulder. “He only needs a blood sample. You’re doing very well.”

The doctor stared impatiently at her with his droopy eye and false smile. Slowly, she held out her arm. As the needle burrowed into her skin, she clenched her teeth and closed her eyes. For nearly half a minute, the invasive device remained impaled in her body, until the doctor collected as much blood as he needed and pulled it out.

When will this be over?

As if in answer to her unspoken question, the doctor motioned for her to lie down lengthwise across the table. Stella did so slowly, careful to keep her gown from hiking up. When she was lying flat on her back, the doctor took her feet and put them in some sort of device, so that they were locked in place.

What is he doing? she wondered with alarm. The next thing she knew, she felt a sharp pain in her ankle—the pain of an incision.

“What are you doing to me?” she screamed in New Gaian, sitting up at once. Narju took her by the shoulders and forced her down, holding her against the table.

“Don’t struggle,” he said. “If you struggle, the doctor might make a mistake.”

“You told me he wouldn’t do anything!”

Narju said nothing. Stella’s whole body shook, but she kept still as the doctor inserted something small and hard into the flesh between her Achilles tendon and the bone. He applied a thick balm to the incision, and the pain quickly faded, though she lost all feeling in her foot.

“You lied to me,” Stella cried, staring up at Narju with tears of fright in her eyes. “You said it wouldn’t hurt.”

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “He won’t do anything more.”

The doctor unbound her ankles and left the room. Stella swung her legs over the edge and gingerly tested her foot. It felt awkward to stand on, as if it had fallen asleep, but she could still walk.

As she followed Narju out of the room, however, her movements were wooden and without feeling. This wasn’t a game anymore—how could it be, when the Hameji had more control over her own body than she did?


* * * * *


Narju returned Stella to the bathing room and had her change into new clothes—a blue knee-length skirt with a white blouse and an ornate, gold-embroidered vest. She found it a little ostentatious, but after the burlap tunic and the skimpy doctor’s gown, she was happy with whatever she could get. When she was finished, Narju once again led her out into the corridor.

“These are your quarters,” said Narju, parting a bead curtain that covered the doorway to one of the bedrooms. “If you need anything, press the red button on the access panel. I live to serve you.”

Stella stepped into the room, and Narju bowed and left. The beads made a light clattering noise as they fell shut. Stella could see through them to the corridor outside, giving her the feeling that she was still in a public place. The general lack of privacy unnerved her—all of the doors across the harem had been replaced by bead curtains, so that every space felt exposed to view. It was probably one of the ways the Hameji controlled them.

She looked around the room, not sure what to think of the place. It seemed comfortable enough, if a little small. The walls were covered in light pink silks, golden tassels hanging in patterns from the ceiling. In the far left corner she saw a set of white pillows, piled at random on top of a threadbare couch. A double bunk bed jutted out from the wall on her right, while an arabesque Auriga Novan chess table stood off to her left, next to the couch.

“Well, hello,” came a voice from the bunks.

Stella jumped a little. It was a woman’s voice, speaking in New Gaian.

“Hello?” Stella tentatively replied, also in New Gaian. She peered in the direction of the voice, and soon caught sight of the unknown woman lying on the upper bunk.

She was fairly young, perhaps in her early thirties, with light blond hair that barely reached her shoulders. While she wasn’t exactly fat, she was a bit heavier than Stella had expected. She wore a fluffy blue bathrobe, tied loosely around the waist and open enough to show that she wasn’t wearing anything else. Her breasts were much larger than Stella’s, and she didn’t seem to have any qualms about letting them hang out.

“Well, what’s your name, honey?”

“My name?”

“That’s right, darling. Don’t be shy.”

“My name is Stel—I mean,” said Stella, taking a breath, “my name is Sholpan.”

“Is that the name they gave you?”

“Yes.”

“Sholpan. A pretty name, as far as Hameji names go.” She sat up and grinned. “My name’s Tamurin, dear, but you can call me Tamu.”

“Is—is that what they named you?”

“Of course, sweetheart.”

“Are we roommates?”

“You guessed it.” She slipped her feet over the edge of the bunk and slid to the ground. As she did so, her bathrobe fell open, completely exposing one of her enormous, pasty white breasts. Stella’s eyes widened.

“Something the matter, dear?”

She gestured with her eyes at the open bathrobe. Tamu laughed, and without any concern in the least, closed it—though not so tightly that it wasn’t in danger of falling open again.

“Just a bit of flesh,” she said. “Nothing between roommates, eh? Believe me, honey, you’ll get used to it after a while. How old are you?”

Stella took a second to recover. She hoped she never got used to letting herself hang out in that way.

“I’m seventeen,” she said, her voice coming out as a croak.

“So young!” Tamu shrieked, making Stella jump. “So very young. I would have guessed eighteen or nineteen. You’re quite beautiful for your age, darling.”

“Thanks,” said Stella. She didn’t want to know whether that was a good thing.

Tamu parted the bead curtain door and stepped outside. Still holding it open, she turned to face Stella with a hand on her hip.

“Well, honey, are you going to stand there staring all day, or are you going to let me show you around?”

“Oh,” said Stella, quickly stepping through. Tamu fell in step with her, and together, they walked side by side down the corridor.

“The decor here might be a little different than what you’re used to,” said Tamu, gesturing to the kitschy silk hangings, “but it grows on you. Hi, Erdene.”

“Hello, Tamu,” said a young, black-haired woman in a translucent green dress. She stopped in front of them. “Who’s the new girl?”

“Name’s Sholpan. She’s my new roomie.”

“So I gathered.” She smiled at Stella, who barely managed to return it.

“Girl’s seventeen. Can you believe it?”

Erdene’s jaw dropped. “No! So young?”

“I know. Doesn’t she look mature for her age?”

Stella squirmed a little. She didn’t like how they were talking about her as if she were an object.

“Indeed, she does.”

“One thing you’ve got to say about the Hameji, they sure have an eye for beauty.”

“I know.” Erdene turned to Tamu and smiled again. “Well, I must be off.”

“You’re looking lovely today, darling,” said Tamu, apparently in parting. She slipped her arm into Stella’s as they continued the tour.

“The facilities are in there,” she said, pointing to a bead curtain doorway on the left.

“Facilities?” As if in answer, the sound of flushing toilets and running water came from the other side.

“The servants around here would probably wipe your ass if you asked them to,” Tamu continued, “but some things we can take care of ourselves, eh?”

Tamu roared with laughter at her own joke. Stella laughed along too, more out of courtesy than anything else.

“This is the servant’s hallway,” said Tamu, pausing to open another bead curtain and show Stella the other side. The space was long, white, narrow, and completely devoid of silk hangings and golden tassels. Instead, a long counter lined one wall, complete with gray plasteel cabinets above and below. Almost a dozen white-smocked servants milled about, busy at their work. The smell of something sweet met Stella’s nose.

“Are those food processors?” Stella asked.

“Processors? No, darling,” said Tamu. “The Hameji synthesize all our food from some kind of chemical goop. It’s tasty enough to live off of, but believe me dear, it gets bland fast. Real fast.” She stopped abruptly. “Why? Are you hungry?”

“No,” said Stella. She was still much too anxious to have an appetite.

“Suit yourself, then.”

Tamu led her through an open doorway offset with heavy drapes and into a corridor much wider than the first. They passed several servants and a couple more women, both in fluffy bathrobes like Tamu’s, though theirs were pink. Tamu greeted the women as they passed, but didn’t slow down to chat.

“And here,” she said, leading Stella through yet another bead curtain doorway, “is the lounge.”

Stella took one step inside and froze where she stood.

Dozens of young, beautiful women lay sprawled out across the room on couches and piles of cushions. Some chatted in small groups, others played board games, while still others sat about idly chewing on nuts and fruit from ornate glass bowls on small end-tables. A thick, pungent smell issued from an enormous hookah in the opposite corner. Several women had clustered around the smoking device, their glassy eyes and vacant expressions evidence that they were all hopelessly drugged out.

Stella mentally counted the women—thirty-three in total. Thirty-five counting herself and Tamu.

“Honey, your cheeks are pure white,” said Tamu. “Is something the matter?”

“These women,” Stella asked, “are they—are they all Qasar’s—”

“Concubines? Why, of course.”

Stella swallowed. “How many concubines does Qasar have?”

Tamu paused to think. “Well, with the new additions to the harem since the last battle, almost eighty.”

Stella’s jaw dropped. “Eighty?”

“Of course, dear. How many did you expect him to have? Qasar is one of the Hameji’s top generals.”

Stella slowly turned to face the room. The women around the hookah stared back at her, their eyes completely vacant

“So—so many of them,” she stuttered.

Tamu laughed. “Too true, dear. Though when you meet him, you’ll soon see why.”

She winked in a knowing way that made Stella shudder.

Chapter 6


Exactly three standard weeks after the fall of Kardunash IV, Adam and James McCoy arrived home at the Colony.

“There she is,” said his father as they approached within visual range. “What a sight for sore eyes.”

“Yeah,” said James.

Nestled among the numerous Trojan asteroids trailing the third planet, the small, disk-shaped space station was like an oasis in the void. Through the vacuum of space, James clearly made out the white buildings and green parkways that he knew so well, even from a distance. The two docking arms jutted out horizontally along the plane of the disk, marking the poles around which the station made its diurnal revolutions like a coin on a tabletop. Around these arms, a dozen starships shimmered in the light of the sun, speckles of gold against the ebony backdrop of space.

The sight reminded James of his first voyage away from his beloved home—and the powerful emotions of the subsequent homecoming. He had been barely five years old at the time, and though the family vacation had only lasted a month, to his childish sensibilities it had felt like an eternity. Nothing had been able to cure him of his homesickness. Only when he finally saw the Colony through the forward window—as he saw it now—did he feel comforted.

Immediately adjacent to the Colony, though, James spotted a ship much larger than any of the others. From this distance, it could have been a deep space passenger liner or interstellar merchant ship, but James knew better.

The ship was a Hameji battle cruiser.

James stared at the Hameji ship with all the pent-up fury of the last twenty-one days. It was something that did not belong, an anomaly that should not exist—not in his one place of refuge. He clenched his fists and stared at it, as if by the fury of his gaze alone he could blast it out of the sky. Its presence in this place was an unforgivable intrusion—one to which he would never submit.

“It’s a beautiful sight, isn’t it?” Adam remarked.

For a split second, James thought his father was referring to the Hameji battle cruiser. His mind reeled with confusion and rage, but he soon recovered.

“Yeah,” he said, his voice small. His father put an arm on his shoulder.

“It’s good to be home.”

It’s not the same without Ben and Stella, James wanted to scream. Instead, he kept silent.

Somewhere, on a battle cruiser much like that one, his brother and sister were probably languishing as prisoners. If they were still alive, it didn’t matter where they were—he would find them and get them back.


* * * * *


Ben had lost the desire to do anything.

He sat in the corner of his gray, featureless cell, staring at the smooth, metal floor for hours on end. His captors had given him clothes a few days ago: drab, loose fitting clothes full of stains and the smell of bleach. Ben knew he should worry about the stains, but it no longer mattered to him. Nothing did.

Only the memory of the mock execution had any power to move him. In his mind’s eye, he watched over and over as the woman drifted out the open airlock like a frozen marionette. Her skin was sickly pale blue, her expression as empty as the void between the stars. He closed his eyes to escape the image, but the woman’s face and body became Stella’s. She drifted slowly away from him, mouth open from her last gasps of breath, her cheeks bloated from the depressurization, her corpse wrinkled like a popped balloon.

Ben screamed and banged his head against the wall until blood began to flow from his forehead. Only the pain could dispel his waking nightmare. He returned to the floor, but the vision of his dead sister left him with an awful emptiness in his heart—a void that swallowed all feeling. He couldn’t save her; not from the Hameji. They had all power in this place.

His meals came regularly now through a small hole in the wall, a tasteless gray goop that he barely touched. Though his body grew frail and weak from lack of food, he no longer cared. What was the point? Hunger was just another pain that kept the nightmares away, and what did it matter if he starved to death?

But the Hameji didn’t let him die. Instead, they came for him again.

The door to his cell opened, and soldiers lifted him to his feet and marched him out into the corridor. He joined a group of other prisoners and together they marched down the hall. Their stares were as blank and utterly devoid of emotion as he thought his must be.

The Hameji herded them down the dark corridor through an airlock to another ship—or perhaps a station. The walls here were pocked with age and corrosion, the floor worn smooth by countless years of traffic. The air was dusty and tasted slightly metallic, reminding Ben of the main smelter back home. As he followed the soldiers deeper into the complex, his footsteps became noticeably lighter, no doubt due to the weaker artificial gravity field.

In less than a minute, they arrived in a large, circular chamber. The soldiers moved Ben and the other prisoners into rows, much as they had when they’d first arrived at the prisoner ship. Ben stood where they placed him and stared straight ahead. A small part of him feared that this was the end—but the larger part stood ready to welcome it if it was.

About a dozen men in orange jumpsuits entered the room. Under the watchful eye of the soldiers, they went from prisoner to prisoner, connecting large black devices to their ankles.

Gravity anchors, Ben realized. For low gravity operations like asteroid mining. So the Hameji had tortured and broken them only to send them to a labor camp. It didn’t make any sense, but what did anymore?

As the men went down the line, Ben’s eyes wandered upward. The ceiling took the shape of a flattened dome with narrow window panes radiating outward from the center. From where he stood, the field of view was wide enough that the starfield was clearly visible.

Out of habit, Ben searched the stars for the familiar constellations of his home. At one time, he had known them all by heart. If they were anywhere near Karduna, chances were good that he’d recognize a few of them.

He didn’t. The constellations in this place were utterly unfamiliar.

Soon, the men came down his row and latched a pair of anchors to his feet. When the soldiers marched him off, his steps were heavy—heavier than he could remember.

Not that it mattered, of course. Nothing mattered anymore.


* * * * *


James walked with stiff legs toward the departure gate of the Colony spaceport, each step an act of pure will. He had no idea what lay beyond those doors, and feared, more than anything else, what sight would meet him on the other side.

“Adam?” came his mother’s voice from around the final corner. Chills raced down James’s arms; it felt as if years had passed since he’d last seen his mother.

“Jessica!” his father shouted, breaking into a run. James struggled to keep up. In a few moments, they were through the last doorway and inside the main terminal.

Or what was left of it.

Garbage and debris lay scattered about the main walkway. The once magnificent mosaic in the center of the concourse lay broken and shattered, loose ceramic tiles piled like rubble. The air smelled faintly of smoke, while dark spots stained the floor and walls. A few people wound their way through the concourse, but the normally bustling terminal was emptier than James had ever seen it.

“Adam!” his mother shrieked. Still running, his father threw his duffel bag to the floor and caught her in a tight embrace. With tears streaking down both their faces, they held on to each other as if their lives depended on it.

James caught his breath and swallowed. His parents seemed more frail and vulnerable in that moment than he had ever seen them before.

It profoundly disturbed him.

“And James!” his mother cried, letting go of Adam long enough to sweep him up in her arms. She kissed him repeatedly on his cheeks and forehead, clinging to him as if to reassure herself that he was real, that he was still alive. His father joined them, and for several moments, they stood embracing each other as a reunited family.

Not reunited, James thought to himself. Ben and Stella were still out there somewhere.

At length, they released each other. James’s father picked up the duffel bag and fell into step with his wife, talking quickly as they made their way down the terminal.

James followed a short distance behind, but was too busy staring at the scenery to pay any notice to their conversation. Several of the arrival and departure boards hung broken from the ceiling; one dangled precariously from a wire, suspended only a few feet above the floor. Those few that were still intact displayed a schedule that was remarkably sparse, especially considering how much traffic had once passed through this place.

Outside the concourse, all the shops and stores were boarded up or smashed to pieces. Glass lay scattered about the ground, while several of the leafy trees lining the main avenue were turning brown and slowly dying. Inside the stores, the shelves were all empty, looted a long time ago. Eyes stared out at him from some of the windows, wide and afraid.

James walked mechanically, unable to feel the ground beneath his feet. This wasn’t the home he knew. He felt as if he were trapped inside a dream, powerless to do anything but watch as he passed through it.

“We were blessed, Adam,” his mother said. “They razed two of the moons at K-3—completely annihilated them. No survivors.”

“I know, dear,” said his father. He wrapped his arm around her waist. “At least they spared us.”

Spared us? James wanted to scream. Can’t you see what they’ve done?

“When they first came,” his mother continued, “it was awful. The looting, the violence—the worst of it was here in the central district.”

“It’s bad,” his father agreed, “but it’s nothing we can’t rebuild.”

She glanced up at him and smiled. James bit his lip and drew in a sharp, frustrated breath.

They walked past a few shops that were still open, though gray utility tape on the windows attested to the damage they’d sustained. Few people were out shopping, though. At the nearest corner, a security guard stood watch with an assault rifle in his hands.

“Not all of the looting was from the Hameji,” his mother said, her voice soft and distant. “I’m sorry to say, but—”

“Times like these bring out the worst in any society,” James’s father interrupted. “I trust the rabble-rousers have been contained by now.”

“Yes.”

“Then the worst is over. All we have to do is rebuild.”

“No,” said James.

His parents stopped and turned to face him. “What was that?” his father asked.

“I said no,” said James, catching up to them. “That’s not all we have to do.”

“But what else can we do?” James’s mother asked.

James opened his mouth, but a sharp glance from his father immediately silenced him. They’d had this conversation already, and James didn’t want to hurt his mother by starting an argument.

“James is just taking things a little hard,” his father said. “He’s still very young.”

“You’re right,” said his mother. She let go of her husband and gave James a big hug. James did his best to swallow his growing anger.

“At least this crisis is bringing us together,” she said, smiling at them both. “I haven’t seen so much unity on the station since I was a little girl. People are looking out for each other now more than ever before.”

Broken glass and plaster crunched beneath James’s boots as he shifted from foot to foot. With less than half of the shops and businesses still operating, the place felt more like a ghost town than the home he remembered.

“You don’t know how good it is to have you back, dear,” his mother continued. “When we heard about Kardunash IV, we feared—”

“Hush,” said his father. “We’re together now.”

Like hell we are, James thought angrily to himself. Don’t Ben and Stella matter to you at all?

“Don’t ever leave me!” Jessica sobbed suddenly. She wrapped her arms around Adam and pulled him in tight.

“I won’t, honey,” said Adam, rocking back and forth as he held her. “Neither of us will. Right, James?” He glanced over his shoulder and gave James a stern, meaningful look.

James swallowed. “No,” he said. “I won’t leave you, Mother.”

A deep sinking feeling nearly overwhelmed him, as if a hole had opened up in his chest. He numbly stepped forward and wrapped his arms around his parents. His movements felt empty, though—mechanical. Inside, he knew he was lying.

Please forgive me, Mother. Forgive me for leaving. The thought made his eyes burn and his vision blur. It was enough of a performance to convince them of his sincerity, and that pained him all the more.


* * * * *


A little over a week after her arrival on the Hameji ship, Stella made her move.

She waited until lights-out on the deck, when the halls were empty. With everything quiet and her roommate sound asleep, Stella slipped out of her bunk and crouched by the open doorway. Lying face down on the floor so as not to upset the beads, she crawled silently on her stomach into the hallway.

Her breathing came in short, silent gasps as she crept along the wall toward the elevator. She passed only two intersections on her way there, and both were empty. Still, she had those guards at the upper level to worry about. The moment she stepped out of the elevator alone, they would stop her.

Fortunately, she’d planned for that. In her right hand, she carried a small crystal bowl that she’d taken from her quarters. She pressed it tight against her chest and crouched behind a nearby set of drapes, her heart racing.

“Servant!” she called out. “Servant!”

She waited in silence in the shadow of the drapes. The seconds dragged by, and the crystal bowl grew slick with the sweat of her hand. Why hadn’t the servant come yet? Nearly a minute had passed, and yet—

The footsteps in the darkness were soft, yet swift. Stella caught her breath and stole a peek down the hall. Sure enough, one of the eunuchs was approaching—his white shirt stood out in the faint blue glow of the night-lights that ran along the floor. Only a few more moments and he’d pass her.

Please go down quietly, Stella inwardly pleaded. She didn’t know what she’d do if the servant cried out when she hit him—or worse, if the blow actually killed him.

He was close enough now that she could see his sandaled feet in the soft blue light. They were thin and bony. Her hands trembled and her feet felt rooted to the spot, but she lifted the bowl above her head, readying herself for the strike.

Steady, steady—NOW!

A sudden burst of adrenaline surged through her as she sprung into action. In an instant, she leaped from her hiding place and swung downward with all her might.

It was over before the eunuch had time to react. The glass bowl thudded against the back of the servant’s head and shattered. He grunted and collapsed; Stella fell on top of him.

She quickly sat up and looked at the man. He lay facedown, arms by his side—he’d made no attempt to stop his fall.

Please be all right, Stella thought desperately to herself, checking his pulse with her fingers. I didn’t want to kill you. Please don’t be dead.

His pulse was strong; he wasn’t dead, only knocked out—exactly as Stella had wanted. She almost sighed in relief, but caught herself in time. She’d made too much noise as it was.

The bathroom lay between the common room and the elevator. Stella expected the place to be empty at this hour, and she wasn’t disappointed. The toilets were only separated by thin cloth hangings, but so long as she hid the unconscious servant in the last stall, she should be safe, assuming he didn’t wake up.

The bead curtains clattered as she entered the room, but that couldn’t be helped. As the automatic lights switched on, she passed swiftly inside, hoping that no one would see her drag the servant to the end of the room. His body was heavier than she’d expected, and his sandals made a rough scraping noise on the tile floor, but fear and adrenaline kept her moving.

In a few seconds she was safe in the stall. Working quickly, she stripped the servant of his white smock and trousers, leaving him in his underwear.

Without wasting any more time, she slipped out of her nightgown and tore three strips from it, long and narrow. Ignoring her nakedness, she flipped the unconscious servant on his stomach and tightly bound his hands and feet, using the third strip to gag him. She then tore a wider strip from the remains of her dress and wrapped it tightly against her chest, flattening her breasts. Only then did she don the servant’s clothes and step out from the stall.

She took a moment to check her work in the mirror. The smock was a bit large for her, but it was good enough; if anything, the bagginess would only aid in disguising her figure. With her hair pulled back in a ponytail, she could easily pass for a servant.

She checked the shirt’s inside chest pocket. Sure enough, the card was there.

The elevator ride passed in a blur. Her heart raced in her chest, and the sweat on the back of her neck quickly grew cold. She leaned against the wall of the car for support and prayed that the ruse would work.

Sure enough, a pair of guards were standing watch outside the door. They perked up as she stepped out, but she gave them a nod and continued through to the corridor, keeping her head carefully turned so that they wouldn’t see her eyes.

Please, God—please.

It worked. Behind her, the soldiers grunted and returned to their posts.

Excitement flooded through her, and it was all she could do to keep from running. Of course, that was the one thing she couldn’t do. Here on the main level, the lights were as bright as at any time; it would only take one person peeking around the corner to spot her.

Fortunately, she had a good idea where the main hangar would be. The ship was clearly Belarian, and their passenger liners all followed a similar design.

The upper decks could not have been more different than the concubines’ quarters. Here, Stella saw no decorations, no silks or tassels or shaggy carpets—only cold tile floors and off-white walls. The corridor was lit with harsh fluorescent lighting, and the air was noticeably cooler. Stella shivered and hugged her chest to shield herself from the cold.

The worst, though, was the feeling that someone was watching her.

Thankfully, she made it to the end without any incident. The corridor teed at this point, with a particularly large elevator door on the opposite wall. Stella was willing to bet that if she took it down, it would lead her straight to the hangar bay floor.

Both sides were clear. Stella stepped forward and keyed the access pad; the elevator door hissed open.

“Yah!” someone shouted off to her right. A bolt of fear shot through her, bolting her to the spot. For an instant, she thought of running, but realized she had nowhere to run. Instead, she leaped inside the elevator and slammed her thumb against the lowest button. Out in the corridor, she saw a man running towards her, a gun in his hand. Soldiers followed close behind him.

The door closed just in time. Her stomach flipped as the elevator quickly dropped a level, but at least she had time to catch her breath.

As soon as the doors reopened, Stella bolted out at a dead run. She didn’t have much time—she had to find a hiding place. Fortunately, the large, high-ceilinged room was full of crates and boxes. Several unloading cranes dangled from the ceiling, and the wall on one side was a giant door—a hangar door.

Her heart leaped in her chest. This was a freight hanger—she was in the right place. She didn’t see any shuttles, but with luck, they weren’t too far away.

Behind her, she heard the elevator doors hiss shut. In only a few seconds, she knew, the soldiers would be after her. She ran frantically down a long row of shipping crates and slipped into a narrow crack just as the doors hissed open again.

Shouting and footsteps echoed throughout the large room. Her heart pounding, Stella scooted to the wall at the end of the crack. There was just enough space behind the pile on her left for her to hide, if she sucked in her stomach and squeezed.

She got there not a moment too soon. The soldiers quickly filled the hangar, searching for her. The noise of their shouting and footsteps echoed off of the walls.

Stella’s legs went numb, and her breath came in short gasps. She didn’t know how long she could hold out, but she forced herself to remain calm and wait.

The shouting came steadily closer. She closed her eyes.

Without warning, a gunshot ricocheted off the wall next to her, filling the narrow space with terrible noise. She screamed and covered her head. Shouts sounded above her, and the face of one of the soldiers peeked over the top of the pile of crates to stare down triumphantly at her. Stella’s muscles turned to water, and she watched in horror as he lifted his gun.

He didn’t shoot her, though—only shouted and motioned for her to come out. For several seconds, she was too frightened to move, but the harshness of his voice soon compelled her forward.

How did they find me? she wondered, making her way inch by inch through the narrow space. More than a dozen soldiers waited for her on the other side.

As she neared the opening between crates, a hand seized her roughly by the arm and pulled her out. As she spilled onto the floor, something prodded her in the stomach and an electric shock surged through her body. She cried out in pain as her legs and arms spasmed uncontrollably.

“What are you doing? Stop!” Another shock hit her in the shoulder, filling her arms and chest with pain. She tried to resist, but her body was unresponsive.

Her vision blurred, and time slowed down as the pain overwhelmed her. One of the soldiers reached down and took her by the hair. Her eyes widened in panic as he stared hungrily at her.

Before he pulled her up, however, she heard the sound of a familiar voice. The soldiers stopped and looked away, moving aside to let the newcomer through.

It was Narju.

He was talking with the soldiers—no, arguing was the better word. They didn’t seem too happy to see him, and glanced from him to her with undisguised malice. Still, after several minutes of deliberation, they turned and left the room. The sound of their footsteps gradually died away, until the hiss of the elevator doors marked their exit.

“How do you feel, Sholpan?” Narju asked, kneeling by her side. “Did they hurt you much?”

Too exasperated to speak, Stella sat up and broke down into tears.

“Here, let me help you.” He took her by the waist and supported her as she rose to her feet. Her legs gave way, but he caught her before she fell. She wiped the tears from her eyes and turned to face him.

“Why did you come after me?” she asked. “How did you know I was here?”

“I came because I am your servant,” he told her. “As for finding you, it was not difficult, considering the tracking chip implanted in your ankle.”

Stella froze and looked down at her ankle, where the doctor had made the incision. So that’s what that was, she thought to herself in dismay.

“All of us have one,” Narju said, lifting his pant leg to show a similar scar on his foot. “It allows the Hameji to monitor us. The moment you left the concubines’ quarters, they knew you were trying to escape.”

“What can I do, then?” she asked, her voice cracking. “I need to get out of here, Narju. I can’t stay in this place.”

“I’m sorry, mistress,” he said softly. “The tracking chips are triggered to sound an alarm if tampered with or removed. I’m afraid you cannot escape.”

“Don’t you understand?” she yelled, her voice becoming frantic. “Don’t you have any idea what they’re going to do to me? They’re going to rape me, Narju—not just once or twice, but night after night for the rest of my life!”

“Sholpan,” he said, looking her gently in the eye. “Please, be calm.”

Stella wanted to scream and run away, even if it brought the soldiers down on her again. Something about Narju calmed her, though. She stayed where she was.

“You are a good girl,” he said. “I do not want to see you hurt. I understand what you are going through, though you may not believe me.”

“Oh you do, do you?”

“Yes, I do,” he said, his face falling. “I was once a prisoner as yourself, many long years ago. The Hameji tortured me for several months before they took away my manhood, and I know I am destined to spend the rest of my life as their slave.”

Stella felt a pang of regret for her snide comment. “I’m sorry.”

“No apology is necessary. Please believe me when I tell you I mean you no harm.”

“I believe you,” she whispered.

“Then listen to me, Sholpan. You must forget about your home. Forget your past life. Leave it behind you.”

“No,” Stella said, shaking her head. “I can’t.”

“Your hope is false, Sholpan—it will only destroy you. Even if you managed to escape, the Hameji would retaliate by slaughtering all those whom you love. If you truly love them, leave them.”

“I can’t,” she repeated, her whole body growing tense. She tried to hold back the tears, but they could not be stopped. Deep down, she knew that Narju was right.

He smiled mournfully at her and took her gently by the wrist. “Come, Sholpan” he said. “Let’s go.”

Chapter 7


James floated up through the narrow hatchway and pulled himself into the Catriona’s command chair. The bridge was dark and silent, and the slightly stuffy air was cold enough to give him chills. Even though space on the ship was tight, James felt more alone than he ever had in his young life. He tried not to let that bother him as he started powering up the Catriona’s systems.

It’s not stealing if it rightfully belongs to you, James told himself. It’s not my fault Dad refused to give me my inheritance. As for the lie to his mother, though, he had no excuse for that.

The lights and indicators on the boards came to life, splashing faint, glowing light across the consoles and keyboards. He pulled the seat restraints across his chest, strapping his weightless body to the chair. As the ship cycled through its system checks, he transmitted his falsified manifest and flight plans to the local port authority.

The small interstellar passenger shuttle had once belonged to the Colony’s diplomatic corps, in the early days of the station’s independence. The Patrician had long since upgraded the government fleet, selling off the obsolete craft. Even though the Catriona had a passenger capacity of five, she was significantly smaller than the Llewellyn, with narrower corridors and tighter cabins. Cabinets lined every available wall, while pipes ran along the ceiling. The ship was functional, but not particularly pretty. She was equipped with a long-range jump drive, though, and that was all that mattered to James.

Once out of the Karduna system, he would be safe from the Hameji. The distances between stars were so vast, and his ship so small, that they would never find him. In only a matter of days, he would cross into Gaian-controlled space and arrive at the nearest relay station along the Karduna-Gaia Nova starlane. Doubtless that was where all the refugees had fled—and where he would find Ben and Stella if they had escaped. But if they hadn’t…

As the systems came to life around him, James glanced out the window at the Hameji cruiser parked alongside the Colony. It appeared so deceptively peaceful, like an interstellar passenger liner from some exotic far-off location. James knew the truth, though—he knew it all too well. He had not forgotten Kardunash IV, shrouded in gray as the mass accelerators had slagged the world into oblivion. He vividly remembered the orange streaks of the falling asteroids as they smashed into the surface. Billions of lives, snuffed out within seconds—and the monsters responsible for the atrocity now sat in that very cruiser, their guns pointed at his home.

And if Ben and Stella were prisoners of the Hameji, held in some cruiser like that one, he would break them out. Not by himself, of course, but with whatever help he could find. The Catriona wasn’t too pretty, but he knew she’d fetch a good price on the black market. With that money, he could hire a band of mercenaries. He didn’t know how, but that didn’t matter. If it would save Ben and Stella, he’d find a way.

The on-board computer finished with the system checks. A message flashed across the comm screen, indicating that the port authority had cleared him for departure. The instrument boards blinked and hummed, while the low rumble of the ship’s reactor sent small vibrations through James’s seat. In only a few minutes, the Catriona’s jump drive would be charged enough to take him past Karduna’s orbital plane and into deep space.

As the Catriona finished warming up, James hesitated to take the controls. He’d never gone against his father like this before. What if he couldn’t find any mercenaries willing to take on the job? What if they stole his ship and left him stranded—or worse, sold him into slavery? What if he failed?

No, he told himself. Now’s not the time to freeze up. Biting his lip, he gripped the piloting stick in his hand and flipped the switch to release the docking gear. The distant scraping sound of metal on metal came through the walls, followed by silence. He engaged the engines, and felt the acceleration press his body against the chair as he pulled away from home, heading into starry void.

James swallowed hard as an image of his mother came to mind. His imagination twisted her face into the sadness that would no doubt overwhelm her when she heard that her last surviving son had run away. He choked back tears and tried to put the image out of his mind, but found that he couldn’t.

He glanced down at his instruments. The status bar for the jump engines was green. Fingers moving mechanically, he set his target coordinates for the first jump and reached for the switch that would engage the drive. His hand trembled as it hovered over the switch.

You don’t have to do this, his father’s voice came to him. You can still come back. It’s not too late.

Please, James, his mother said, tears in her eyes, please don’t leave us. You’re all we have left.

James’s heart pounded loudly in his chest, and he clenched his hand into a fist. For an unsteady moment, he considered aborting the jump and returning home.

Then, he imagined he heard a new voice in his head. I love you, James! It was his sister, Stella. He remembered the way her hair had bobbed as she ran down the corridor of the Llewellyn, as if she were a little girl again on another family trip to Kardunash IV. Ben was there, too, smiling the way he used to before he had left home for his apprenticeship—before he had grown up and started to act too mature or important to spend time with his little brother. They had been so close back then, before Ben had left home for the stars.

James took a deep breath and tried to stop his shoulders from shaking. Tears streaked down his cheeks, but he couldn’t remember when or how they’d gotten there. All he knew was that if he turned around and stayed, he would never see his brother and sister again. Never.

Before any more doubts rose into his mind, he reached out with his index finger and flipped the switch.

A low hum came through the bulkheads, rising quickly in pitch and intensity. It reached a climax, and James felt as if he were shrinking, or perhaps as if the ship were growing larger. His stomach flipped inside out, and the floor fell out from underneath him. He gasped, and for an infinitesimal fraction of a second, everything went black—or perhaps blinding white, James couldn’t tell.

Then, as quickly as it began, the distortion passed and the universe returned to normal. He found himself sitting in the pilot’s chair of the Catriona, staring at the myriad instrument panels. He lifted his hands and turned them around in front of him—they were his hands, unchanged. He felt a little disoriented and nauseous, but other than that he seemed fine.

He glanced out the window at the stars. They surrounded his view like a mist, or a thick, milky cloud. He gasped in wonder—he’d never seen a starfield so brilliant and intense in his life. Was this what Ben and Stella saw, every time they left the heliosphere of Karduna? It was incredible.

After staring in awe at the scene for some time, he checked the status bar for the jump drive. One percent and recharging, with an estimated forty five minutes before it would be ready for another jump. Long enough to triangulate his position and set the new target coordinates.

He brought up the starmap and immediately got to work, pausing now and again to glance at Karduna, only a little brighter now than the other stars. One thing was for certain; he couldn’t go home. He was a thief, even if the Catriona was part of his rightful inheritance. Ben and Stella were now all he had left.


* * * * *


“You’ve been awful quiet these past few days, darling,” said Tamu from the pile of pillows on which she lay. “Is anything the matter? You have to open up sometime—you’ll go crazy if you don’t.”

Yes, Stella wanted to scream. Everything’s the matter. Instead, she lay in silence on her bed and stared at the underside of the top bunk.

Tamu laughed, surprising her. “Are you scared of me, dear? Goodness! I don’t bite—really, I don’t.”

“It’s not that,” said Stella.

“Oh? Then what is it?”

“It’s…” Stella’s voice trailed off. Tamu was so unlike herself—so sensual and voluptuous, even around other women. How could she possibly understand what Stella was going through?

“I think I know, honey,” Tamu said, siting up on the couch. “The first few weeks are hard for everyone; it’s not easy to let go and start a new life. But trust me, dear—if you keep to yourself, you’re only going to make it worse. Come out and meet the other women. It’ll do you good.”

Stella shuddered at the thought. From what she could see, all the other women were perfectly content to be playthings for the most brutal, barbaric warmongers in the known universe. Stella never wanted to be like them, even if she spent the rest of her life in this place.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said.

“Nonsense! Come, let me introduce you to—”

“No. I mean, thank you, but no.”

Tamu sighed. “All right, dear, but I’m only trying to help. If you don’t start making friends, how do you expect to adjust?”

“That’s not it,” Stella said. “That’s not it at all.”

“Then what’s bothering you, dear?”

“It’s—you wouldn’t understand.”

“Oh? Try me.”

Stella felt weak and dizzy. She closed her eyes and took in a deep breath.

“It’s, it’s just—I’m not ready to be Qasar’s—” She rolled over onto her face and buried her head in her hands.

“There there, honey,” said Tamu from the couch. “Don’t cry. Most of us left someone special behind. What’s his name?”

“No,” Stella said quickly. “It’s not that.”

“Oh really? Sholpan, dear, I’m your roommate—you can tell me anything.”

Stella hesitated. Lars didn’t have much to do with her fear of sleeping with Qasar, but it wouldn’t be good if Tamu thought she was hiding something.

“Well, there was this one guy,” she started.

“Oooh!” Tamu’s eyes lit up, and she leaned forward with her head cradled in her hands. “Tell me all about him. Was he cute?”

“Yes,” said Stella, blushing instantly.

“What was his name? How did you two know each other?”

“His name was Lars. We kind of grew up together, I guess.”

Tamu smiled. “Aww, that’s sweet! So when did you both realize you had a thing for each other?”

“Er, I don’t know,” said Stella. She didn’t like where this conversation was going.

“What was that, dear? Speak up; don’t be shy.”

“We weren’t—that is, we were never really together.”

“No? Did you ever hold hands? Kiss? Sleep together?”

“No, no!” said Stella, shaking her head as her cheeks flushed red with embarrassment.

“You never did anything with him? Why not?”

Shut up! Just shut up!

“You’re blushing, dear.”

“No, I’m not,” Stella said, quickly burying her face in the pillow.

“Yes you are, honey. Did I say something?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Why not?” asked Tamu. “What’s so difficult to talk about?”

Stella said nothing.

Tamu laughed. “Don’t tell me you’ve never slept with a boy before. You’re young, dear, but not that young.”

Please stop, Stella thought to herself. Colorful shapes spread across her vision as she squeezed her eyelids shut. She could hear her father lecturing her on the importance of living a chaste life. A democratic society is only as strong as the virtues of its citizens, he had told her countless times. The power to have children and raise a family is a precious gift, and must not be treated lightly. No matter the decisions of your peers, you must keep yourself pure.

“No, I haven’t,” she said. “I’m a virgin.”

“A virgin?” said Tamu. “No!”

“Yes, I am,” Stella whispered.

The pillows rustled as Tamu sat up. “Oh my goodness—that changes everything.”

“Why?” Stella asked, looking up at her roommate.

“Never mind that, dear; just listen to me. I can help you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Qasar’s demanding, but he’s not hard to please. Trust me, honey; I’m his favorite. All you need to keep in mind is that he’s a conqueror, and conquerors like to go on the hunt. Hold back a little at first, but give him just enough to lead him along. They like it when you play hard to get—it gives them a sense of conquest when they reach their climax.”

Stella’s whole body tensed, and the blood drained from her cheeks. She couldn’t believe she was hearing this.

“I’m not telling you to fight him off, mind you. Let him have his way—just don’t give in to him at first. Make him take what he—.”

“Stop!” Stella shouted, covering her ears. “Just—stop!”

Tamu frowned. “Well sorry to rub you the wrong way, sweets, but if you want to live you’d better start thinking about it. You’ve only got one first impression, and if Qasar isn’t pleased, life won’t be easy for you.”

As if on cue, the beads in the doorway made a clattering noise as someone entered the room. Stella turned in time to see Engus walk straight up to her.

“Mistress Sholpan,” he said, “you have summons. Two hours. Go to bathing room. Narju make you ready.”

Stella’s face paled. A wave of sudden anxiety passed came over her. Before she could respond, Engus bowed and left the room.

“Well, well, well,” said Tamu. “Looks like you’re going to be busy tonight, dear.”

Stella wanted to scream. She wanted nothing more than to open her eyes and find out it was all a bad dream. Her life had become a surreal nightmare, one from which she couldn’t wake up.

“I can’t,” she said, her voice hoarse with fear. “I—I can’t do it.”

“Sure you can, honey,” said Tamu, patting her on the shoulder. “It’ll be over before you know it. You’ll be fine.”

You don’t understand, Stella wanted to say. To you, it may be nothing, but to me—I’d rather die.

The scariest part was that if she refused, she just might.


* * * * *


Ben trudged into the dimly lit Hameji office, staring at the floor as he entered. The ever-present hum of the station’s obsolete ventilation system faded into an eerie silence as the door hissed shut behind him. His body ached, and his knees were stiff from countless days of hard labor at the dilapidated, centuries-old mining station.

“Good morning, prisoner one one oh nine three,” came a voice from the other side of the room, speaking in perfect New Gaian. “Please, step up to my desk.”

Still staring at the floor, Ben shuffled up to the station officer’s desk. It was made of the finest polished basalt, smooth as glass and black as the starless deep beyond the galaxy. Ben suppressed an irrational urge to run his hand over its fine-grained surface. Such an exquisite piece work of craftsmanship was completely out of place in the rust-shot hellhole of a space station.

“Beautiful, is it not?” came the voice—a voice as smooth and perfect as the basalt desk. “I spared no expense in shipping it here. When entertaining guests, one must be generous with one’s hospitality, no?”

Ben finally glanced up at the Hameji officer. As he did, his breath caught in his throat.

The Hameji officer was tall and slender, yet possessed an undeniably strong physique that complemented the self-assured way in which he carried himself. His face was unbelievably handsome, with high cheekbones, broad forehead, and a sharp, clean-shaven chin. But the thing that caught Ben’s attention—caught it, and held it like a vice—was the officer’s pure-white hair and shimmering red eyes.

The albino officer met Ben’s gaze and smiled. Except for the eyes, he could have passed as a god among men. With the two red orbs for eyes, however, he seemed utterly inhuman—like a demon. Ben shivered.

“I see my unusual appearance has caught you by surprise,” said the man. “I assure you, I am not the monster you may think me to be. Please, have a seat.”

Ben remained standing. The officer reached for a stack of papers and pulled out a file, evidently with Ben’s information in it. The lack of any computerized surface in the room suddenly struck Ben like a nuclear flash. Why wasn’t there any standard form of technology in this place? Though he hadn’t been within sight of a computer terminal since his capture, he found this realization strangely disconcerting.

“You’ve been with us for quite some time, one one oh nine three,” said the man. He glanced up at Ben and nodded in admiration. “Fully fifteen prisoners from your group have taken their own lives, in one fashion or another, since your arrival— yet you remain.”

What the officer said was true. Each day, it seemed, another prisoner hanged himself in the communal bathroom facility, or flung himself into the molten steel of the blast furnace, or opened his suit while mining the asteroid by hand. The deaths were always gruesome, yet Ben was long past any shock. The only image that played across his mind was of the woman in the airlock, her body stiff and bloated, drifting out into the endless void.

The albino shuffled his papers. “I suppose it would be normal for a man in your position to wonder why we still keep such an obsolete, broken-down mining station as this in operation,” he said, “and why we waste so much human labor in doing something that a robot could do with much greater efficiency.”

Ben said nothing. The man looked up from his papers and folded his hands on top of the desk.

“But I know the truth,” he said, his voice as smooth as silk. “You’re beyond wondering about such things. You already know that the answer won’t change anything. And as for your innate sense of curiosity, you no longer possess it. It’s been beaten out of you just like the precious, comforting truths that made your sheltered little life possible. I know. I can see it written clearly on your face.”

Ben’s arms tensed. He met the albino’s gaze without flinching.

“You’re a broken man, one one oh nine three. You no longer have a reason to live. Which begs the question, Why haven’t you taken your own life already?”

“Why have you brought us here?” Ben asked, his voice hoarse from the dust. “Why do you treat us like cheap, mindless machines?”

The officer smiled. “A fair question. Before I answer, one one oh nine three, let me ask you a question. Why shouldn’t we treat you as anything more than expendable labor?”

Because we’re people, dammit, Ben wanted to say. Because we’re human beings, just like you. Instead, he stared at the man in malevolent silence.

“You planetborn are obsessed with the notion of rights,” the man continued. “Civil rights, human rights, natural rights—even life itself as a right. You trust in these ridiculously arrogant lies because you believe, in your sheltered little world, that every man can control his own destiny. Every man is the captain of his own soul. Every man deserves his own place in this rich, boundless universe.

“And yet, while you trumpet these lies to yourself, the universe remains oblivious to you. Would you pontificate of these precious rights to the stars and galaxies? Do you think that the endless void cares one whit about such things as it sucks you out the airlock?”

Ben bit his lip. His arms were shaking.

“Have you ever considered the fragile and all too finite constraints on human life in deep space?” the albino said, his voice rising. “Have you ever thought that the tremendous cost of air and water and food that keeps you alive might have been spent on a better man? Which is the true crime: to consign an entire starship to death in a misguided attempt to save the weak and the useless members of the clan, or to let them die that the strong may live? No, one one oh nine three, life is not a right—it is a privilege. Strength is the only right in this universe—strength born of power, and precision, and perfect, uncompromising efficiency.”

“Then why do you use this old trash heap as a mining station?” Ben spat at him.

The albino threw back his head and roared with laughter. Ben jumped in surprise and nearly fell to the floor, his legs had become so weak.

“Do you think we use this facility because we need to?” the albino asked, still laughing. “As if our engineers and shipbuilders couldn’t do any better than this! No, my friend—in the depths of Tenguri, the rain is made of diamonds.”

Ben didn’t understand the meaning of the proverb, nor what the man had found so funny. He felt suddenly out of place, like an alien in a foreign world. A nervous smile crept to his lips, but he could not laugh.

The albino officer stopped laughing as abruptly as he had started. He reached into a drawer and pulled out a gun.

Ben’s eyes widened as the man laid it on the table between them. It was a large handgun; the chamber was the size of Ben’s fist, while the barrel was almost half as long as his forearm. The grip had been worn smooth with use, but the body was clean and appeared to be in perfect condition.

“Take it,” said the albino. “It’s for you.”

Ben stood as if rooted to the spot. For several seconds, he couldn’t move a muscle in his body. His mind reeled with confusion and terror and rage and exhaustion.

A shudder passed through his body, and he watched as he stepped forward and picked up the weapon. The firmness of its weight, the coldness of the grip—the very sight of the weapon in his hands gave him a strange sensation, one that he could not place. He closed his eyes for a moment and grasped at that distant yet familiar feeling. It felt so delicious, like something he had not tasted in a long, long time.

Power.

He opened his eyes and checked the gun’s chamber. “Yes,” said the officer from across the desk. “It’s loaded.”

It was—with a single bullet.

Ben snapped the chamber shut and looked up at the albino, who stared back at him with his demonic red eyes. Time slowed to a crawl, and in an instant, awareness flooded into Ben’s mind, a perfect awareness of everything around him. The buzzing of the ventilator shafts, the chipping paint in the right corner near the ceiling, the individual beats of his heart—in that one unending moment, he was aware of it all. His hands trembled, and a cold sweat formed on the back of his neck.

I could kill this man, Ben realized. Or I could kill myself.

In one smooth, exhilarating motion, he leveled the weapon at the albino’s head and squeezed the trigger.

For Stella, you bastard.

The crack of the gun filled Ben’s ears with a loud noise, followed by a muted sizzle. The air above the desk shimmered, and the stench of spent gunpowder mingled with a metallic, ozone smell.

He blinked. The albino officer stood exactly where he had a moment ago, completely unaffected by the shot. No blood, no wound, no crying out in pain or falling to the ground. It was as if Ben had missed—or as if the bullet had never hit him.

Ben screamed with the last of his strength. A horrible spasm passed through his body, and he fell to his knees, his whole body trembling uncontrollably. He pounded his fists into the cold, hard floor and screamed until he choked on his own breath. Sobbing, he collapsed in a heap.

Powerless—he was utterly, completely, totally powerless.

After a long silence, a gentle hand patted him on the shoulder. It was the albino. Ben stared up into his blood red eyes.

“There are two kinds of men in this universe,” the man said, “the strong and the weak. Fear is for the weak; power is for the strong. You have passed through the crucible of pain and fear, of death and fire. You stand at the brink of your own weakness, cleansed and expunged of all corruption, a masterwork waiting to be born.”

The albino officer helped Ben to his feet and placed the gun back into his hand, closing his fingers over it as if over something precious.

“Take this weapon,” the officer said. “Feel it in your hands. You are not unlike it: empty, unresponsive, powerless—yet so incredibly full of potential.”

He released Ben’s hands and stepped back. Ben stared at the gun in his hands, until everything but the man’s voice faded from his mind.

“That’s right. Feel the potential—feed on it. Thrilling, no? You want it for yourself, don’t you?”

Ben blinked and nodded. It had been so long since he had felt any real power.

“I can give you what you’ve lost. I can give you the power you so crave. The only question is whether you want it.”

Ben hesitated for only a moment.

“Yes.”

The officer smiled. “Then welcome, soldier.”

Part II: Ben


Chapter 8


“Two Gaian Imperial battlegroups are arrived this morning, Captain,” said Sergeant Roman Krikoryan in his heavy Tajji accent. “I am thinking it is mistake to stay at this place.”

Captain Danica Nova nodded and sighed. The spineless Imperials were swarming to the end of the Karduna starlane like flies to a dying bitch in heat. It was almost as if they were at war with the refugees, not the Hameji. She certainly wouldn’t put it past them.

“We stay until we’ve met with our client, Roman,” she said, glancing up from her instruments to face her chief NCO. “After that, we’ll consider our options.”

Roman fingered the grizzled silvery hair of his goatee. “And what if the client is Imperial agent?”

“Leave that to me.”

Danica turned and looked out the forward window at the massive spherical bulk of the starlane station. Built as a relay point for traffic between the Gaia Nova and Karduna systems, it housed more than a dozen peta-watt power generators and a whole network of jump drives. The redundancy ensured that starships spent at most only a few minutes here before passing to the Karduna system nearly half a light-year away.

With the fall of Karduna to the unstoppable Hameji, however, traffic had come to a complete stop. A flood of hundreds of thousands of refugees now inundated this deep space outpost. Their ships swarmed the station, clustering around the already overcrowded docking node. The Imperials, bastards that they were, had refused to give anyone entry into the New Gaian Empire without proper immigration papers, so here the disenfranchised Kardunasians languished.

Danica sympathized with the refugees, but she was glad for the growing humanitarian crisis that allowed her and her men to slip by unnoticed. Not that the Imperials weren’t hiring; at the going rate for mercenaries, a couple solid jobs could make every last soldier on her crew a millionaire. Be that as it may, however, it still didn’t top the reward the Imperials had put on their heads. Although the higher-ups might be desperate enough to do it anyway, she wouldn’t put it past some lower officer to stab them all in the back.

Besides, she’d sooner die than work for the Empire.

“Sikorsky,” she said, “What do you gather from the fleet’s movements?”

Lieutenant Anya Sikorsky, pilot of the Tajji Flame, quickly scanned the data on her screen. A young blonde only twenty-six standard years of age, she cut an attractive figure in her form-fitting jumpsuit. Some might wonder why Danica had chosen this young woman to be her pilot—or why Anya hadn’t pursued a lucrative career as a fashion model instead. Danica knew full well why not: Models couldn’t expect to keep their jobs when they left a trail of bodies wherever they went.

“They seem to be reinforcing the defensive perimeter,” said Anya. “I don’t think they’ll give us any trouble—not right now, at least.”

“Have you located our contact?”

“Yes, Captain. The Catriona is two-point-four k-clicks out, closing on our position. At her current velocity, we should be docked in ten minutes.”

“Good work, Sikorsky. Keep me apprised of any changes in Gaian fleet movements.”

Danica turned to face her cybernetics officer. “Ayvazyan,” she said, “give me a status update.”

If Anya was an unlikely military officer, Lieutenant Ilya Ayvazyan was a positive delinquent—the last kind of person anyone would expect to find on a private military crew. Scrawny and unkempt, with greasy black hair and a perpetually smug look on his face, he didn’t mix well with the other officers—or with the general public, either. Danica had never had reason to regret taking him on, however. Though Ilya was barely twenty-two, dressed like a grungy civilian, and often smoked in public areas of the ship (much to Roman’s frustration), the kid was a genius hacker. More than once, he’d gotten them out of trouble—and thrown the enemy into a whole world of hurt.

Ilya casually leaned back in his chair. “Our client’s ship has some pretty pathetic security systems, I can tell you that,” he said. “I’ve already cracked the ice and should have complete access to his data in a couple of minutes.”

“What have you found?”

“So far, he checks out. Kardunasian born and bred, privately owned ship with no record in the Imperial database, clean slate all around. Either the Imperials are getting really good at covering their agents, or this guy’s legit.”

“Good,” said Danica. “Let me know the moment you find anything fishy.”

“You got it.”

Danica glanced down at the clock on her wrist console and shook her head. Their contact was late.

“Our jump reserves are running hot, Captain,” said Anya. “Should I bleed off the batteries and recharge once we’ve docked?”

“No,” said Danica. “Keep our jump drive at the ready. I want to be able to run the instant the Imperials so much as sneeze in our direction.”

“And take the client with us?” asked Roman from behind her.

“Yes,” said Danica. If all else fails, at least we’ll come out with a hostage.

Four weeks since their arrival at Karduna, and everything had gone to hell in a ruptured escape pod. They’d barely escaped the Hameji with their lives, and now their only potential client in weeks was some kid by the name of James McCoy. Danica wasn’t in the habit of taking jobs from boys too young to shave, but lately things had gotten desperate. The Hameji had ruthlessly crushed every military force within a hundred parsecs—everyone except the New Gaian Empire, which seemed to be next. While the Imperials were desperate to take on as many hired guns as they could find, the Hameji weren’t. With their funds and supply stores running low, Danica couldn’t afford to turn any private job down.

A blinking light on her display screen brought her out of her thoughts. It was an incoming message.

“Captain,” said Anya, “the Catriona is within range and wishes to dock with us.”

“Proceed,” said Danica. She turned to Roman. “Considering the circumstances, I don’t think it’s prudent for me to leave my post on the bridge. Send a few men to bring him here.”

“Yes, Captain,” said Roman. He rose and left the bridge, the door hissing shut behind him.

Of course, a face-to-face meeting was not strictly necessary—they could easily conduct their business over the KG-1 localnet via the Tajji Flame’s secure servers. Something about this contract seemed suspicious, though, and Danica didn’t feel safe conducting business on the grid. Ilya was good, but the Imperials had a lot more resources to draw on. If they cut through his ice and infiltrated her network, they could shut down the Flame’s systems before any of them had time to react. Danica wasn’t about to put her men in that kind of danger.

She watched in silence as the Catriona flew into position overhead. It was a small ship, little more than a light transport shuttle retrofitted with a jump drive. From the cosmic weathering on the hull, Danica guessed she was going on three or four decades of use. Definitely obsolete.

“Any hidden gun emplacements?” she asked.

“No,” said Anya. “I’ve scanned her twice, Captain. I don’t think she’s armed.”

“Good. Scan her a third time, and keep your finger on the jump drive.”

A distant groaning noise came through the walls of the ship as they docked. Half a minute later, an indicator blinked, showing that the main airlock was open.

No incident. Not yet.

Moments later, the door to the bridge hissed open. Danica stood with her hands clasped smartly behind her back and nodded at her men as they stepped through. Behind Roman and flanked by Peter and Nicholas, two of her huskiest soldiers, the young boy stepped onto the bridge.

Danica frowned; ‘boy’ was certainly an apt term for him. His cheeks were pale and soft, his bowl-cut hair knotty and uncombed. He barely came up to Roman’s chin, and his arms were as scrawny as Danica’s had been at his age.

“Welcome to the Tajji Flame, Mister—”

“McCoy. James McCoy.”

“Ah.”

She extended her hand. The boy took it and gave her a surprisingly firm handshake.

“You’re Danica Nova, right?” he asked, his voice a bit too eager. “Pleased to meet you.”

“Yes,” said Danica. She gave her soldiers a curt nod. “Wait for us outside.”

They turned and left. Roman took his customary seat and watched her with an amused expression on his face.

“I assume you got my message,” the boy said. “I wanted to talk about, er, hiring your services.”

“I see,” said Danica. “And exactly what services were you looking to hire?”

“I need some help with a rescue operation. My brother and sister were, uh, taken by the Hameji.”

Behind them, Ilya snorted. Danica ignored him and stared at the boy without saying a word.

“I’ve got proof of it,” he said. “At least, proof they were alive when the invasion started. They can’t be far—”

“Are you planning to pay in cash, gold, or diamonds, kid?”

The boy floundered. “Well, I have a couple hundred in cash—”

“And?”

“And, uh, I have my ship.”

“Numbers, kid. Give me a number.”

James bit his lip and swayed back and forth on his feet for several long moments. “I don’t know.”

Who is this kid? Danica wondered. Too stupid to be an Imperial agent—but are they tracking him?

“So let me get this straight,” she said. “You’re—what? Fifteen? Fourteen?”

“Nineteen.”

“Bullshit.”

James blushed deep red. “Fifteen,” he admitted.

“Right. And you lost some of your family to the Hameji.”

“That’s right.”

“And you want us to rescue them for you.”

“Yeah.”

“But you have no idea where they are.”

“Uh—”

“And you can only pay us with that obsolete shuttle, which you probably stole.”

James’s eyes lit up with anger. “I didn’t steal that ship,” he said. “It belongs to my family. I took it out as—as part of my inheritance.”

“Even so, it is small vessel,” said Roman. “It is not going for more than six million Gaian credits, even as new.”

“It’ll sell for more at Karduna,” said the boy. “Any ship with jump capacity is going to sell really well—”

“How well?” Danica asked.

“I—I don’t know. A lot.”

“If we’re going to do business,” said Danica, letting her annoyance bleeding into her voice, “‘really well’ isn’t going to cut it.”

“It’s all I have,” said James, his composure breaking apart. “Please—I need your help.”

Danica folded her arms and sighed inwardly. The boy was right to come to them for help—the Imperials certainly wouldn’t help him with a petty rescue operation. His proposal was absolutely crazy, but still, he had lot of guts to come this far. Danica admired that.

Besides, something seemed strangely familiar about him. Had they met before? Of course it was impossible, but for some odd reason she couldn’t shake the notion from her head.

“You know,” said Ilya, “we could just take the Catriona for ourselves—the station registry has no record of him.”

“What?” shouted James. “No—you wouldn’t!”

Danica turned and gave Ilya a sharp, reprimanding look. He shrugged in response. “It was only a suggestion.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant Ayvazyan. When I want your suggestion, I’ll ask for it. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Captain.”

Danica turned back to the boy. “I hope you realize the magnitude of what you’re asking. No one has ever conducted a successful rescue operation against the Hameji. For me to put my men in a situation like that—”

“I know,” said James, “but just because no one’s ever done it doesn’t mean it can’t be done.” The look he gave Danica was nothing short of desperate pleading, but she saw a determined resolution in his eye. He wasn’t going to give this thing up.

All at once, it came to her. The hair, the eyes, the shape of his face—in every way, he was the spitting image of her brother Karen. Her breath caught in her throat, and it took every last shred of her discipline not to cry out in shock. How long had her brother been dead? Too long—far too long.

“And where will you be while we carry out this job?” Danica asked, quickly regaining her composure.

“I was, uh, planning on coming with you,” he said. “I want to be there when we rescue them.”

Danica broke her stoic expression to raise an eyebrow. “You want to join us?”

“Yes,” he said. “I—I want to join for the mission. I’m not afraid.”

The kid’s got spirit, Danica thought to herself. She drew in a deep breath.

“Let me think about it,” she said. “My men will escort you to the lounge. I’ll call you when I’ve made my decision.”

“Yes, of course,” he said. “Thank you.”

Roman stood and showed him to the door, where Peter and Nicholas led him away. Anya and Ilya watched silently from their posts.

“Well,” said Danica, facing her officers as she sorted out her thoughts, “what do you think?”

“The boy’s probably right about selling his ship,” said Anya. “The Catriona’s not much to look at, but from what I can gather from the chatter on the civilian bands, thousands of people are desperate to escape the system. I wouldn’t be surprised if we could get a hundred million credits, or more.”

One hundred million credits would be enough to carry us to the New Pleiades, Danica thought to herself. Not much further, but far enough.

“We should just take the ship and leave the kid,” said Ilya. “I mean, come on—there’s no one to stop us. He isn’t registered anywhere, and so far as I can tell, no one else knows he’s here. If we—”

“We’re a private military unit, Ayvazyan, not a band of pirates.”

“Yeah, but still, why take his contract? It’s suicide.”

Danica looked off, deep in thought. The others drew silent.

“Sikorsky,” said Danica, “I need to step out for a moment. If you see any suspicious movement in the Imperial fleet—and I mean anything—get us the hell out of here. Am I clear?”

“Yes, Captain.”

A nod was all it took for Roman to leave with her. In the hallway outside the bridge, they were alone.

“Well, Sergeant,” she asked, “what do you think?”

“The boy is crazy,” said Roman. “This ‘rescue operation’ against the Hameji is strange way to commit suicide.”

“I know,” said Danica. “Still, it’s the only offer we’ve received since our arrival.”

“Pff,” said Roman, throwing up his hands. “Perhaps this is true. Does it matter?”

“I hate to admit it, but we need to take this mission. With the Imperials swarming this position, who else is going to approach us with work? Besides, if the boy wants to join our crew for a while, maybe I can talk him out of it.”

“Talk him out of rescuing his sister and brother? I am not thinking you can do this.”

“Perhaps, but who knows? Maybe he’s right—just because no one has ever done it doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. If we did pull it off, it would certainly boost our reputation.”

“Reputation is for the living, not the dead. And this boy’s promised price is no good.”

“We don’t know that, and Sikorsky has good reason to believe otherwise.”

“Still, I do not believe it is so. Fifty million, perhaps, but hundred million?” He pursed his lips and shook his head.

“Are those your only misgivings about this job?”

Roman nodded. “Yes.”

“Thank you,” said Danica. “And if I decided to take this mission in spite of your misgivings, would you follow my orders?”

Roman snorted indignantly. “Why do you ask question if you already know answer?”


* * * * *


James paced nervously across the floor of the empty lounge. A hundred doubts assailed him—that the mercenaries wouldn’t take his job, that they thought he was crazy, that they’d steal his ship and leave him stranded. He could imagine the lecture his father would give him if he were here. Dealing in the black market with crooks and criminals—what was he thinking?

Just when he decided that he’d made a huge mistake, the door hissed open and a man in battle fatigues stepped through. “Mister McCoy,” he said, “Captain Nova will see you now.”

James swallowed and nodded. He followed the soldier up a narrow ladder and down a long, dim corridor to the ship’s bridge.

To his surprise, he found the place packed with half a dozen men and women, most of them in varying styles of military dress. Captain Nova stood at the front of them.

“Congratulations,” she said, extending her hand. “We’ve reviewed your offer and found your terms acceptable. Welcome aboard the Tajji Flame.”

James’s heart leaped in his chest, and an eager smile spread across his face. I knew it! he told himself, taking Danica’s hand in both of his own.

“Thank you so much,” he said. “I—”

“Allow me to introduce my officers,” she said, stepping aside and waving him in. The curt gesture caught him off guard.

“This is Master Sergeant Roman Krikoryan,” she said, pointing to the older man James had seen before. “Roman is my senior NCO and has been with us since the beginning. He’s career military and knows how to run a ship better than anyone on this crew, including myself.”

“Welcome,” Roman said as they shook hands. He stood almost a full head taller than James, with a balding head, silvery-gray goatee, and a heavy, muscular build. His uniform, though faded, was the sharpest of any of the other officers: olive green with a button-up front, white epaulets, and a gold patch with three black chevrons on his upper arm. He looked James squarely in the eye as they shook hands; James nodded and offered a weak smile in return.

“This is Anya Sikorsky,” said Danica, motioning to the young, blond-haired woman who had been on the bridge when James had first come aboard. “Sikorsky is our chief pilot and astrogator.”

Anya was stunningly gorgeous in every possible way. She had the stature and physique of a goddess, and even in the dim light her golden hair practically radiated. She smiled warmly at him as they shook hands.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hello,” said James, his voice weak. He hoped he wasn’t blushing.

“This is Ilya Ayvazyan,” said Danica, “our cyber-ops and intelligence officer.” She motioned to the scrawny, greasy-haired guy who had wanted to steal the Catriona.

“McCoy,” he said, nodding curtly as they shook hands. A moment later, he snaked an arm around Anya’s waist. James knew at once that they wouldn’t get along.

“This is Vaclav Nicholson,” Danica said, directing James’s attention to a tall, slender man dressed in a pilot’s uniform: white shirt and navy blue slacks, with a black tie and gold-striped epaulets on his shoulders. “Nicholson is in charge of our drone fighter fleet.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Vaclav said, nodding rather than shaking his hand. James nodded in reply, a bit awkwardly. Something about the man was off-putting, though he seemed crisp and professional enough.

“This is Mikhail Konstantin,” said Danica, gesturing to a man in an old, greasy jumpsuit with a full utility belt around his waist. “Konstantin is our chief engineer and mechanic. He practically rebuilt this ship by himself.”

“Welcome aboard,” said Mikhail. He was almost as tall as Roman, with olive skin and a thick, muscular build. Unlike Vaclav, he smiled cheerfully at James and gave him a solid, friendly handshake. James smiled back and decided he liked the man.

“And this,” said Danica, gesturing to a short, silver-haired man with a wrinkled brow, “this is Nizar Abu Kariym, our chief medical officer.”

“Abu Kariym Nizar Al-Hakiym Bin Sathi Bin Hussayn An-Najoumi Al-Gaiani Al-Jadiyd, to be more precise,” the man said. “But you may call me Abu Kariym.”

“Thanks,” said James.

The old man smiled warmly as they shook hands, reminding James of his grandfather. Of all the men and women in the room, he was definitely the shortest, as well as the oldest.

“These are my officers,” said Danica. “Besides them, we have two squads of twelve soldiers each. You’ll meet Sergeants Romanov and Sanders later, but I’d advise against mingling too much with the grunts. Quarters are tight, so you’ll probably have to bunk in an empty storage room.”

James nodded. He wasn’t expecting much more than that anyway.

“As for myself,” she continued, “I am Danica Nova, captain of this ship and commander of this outfit. So long as you are on this ship, I am God. I speak, and the Tajji Flame obeys my voice. I give an order, and the crew hits the deck. The food you eat and the air you breathe are a blessing from my hands. Nothing happens on this ship without my approval, and I answer to no one. Do you understand?”

“Uh, yeah, I guess—”

“I asked you a yes or no question, boy. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” James said tentatively.

“Good,” said Danica. “We don’t make a big deal out of rank in this outfit, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a clear line of authority. My second in command is Sergeant Krikoryan. The other officers have authority in their various areas of expertise: Sikorsky as pilot and astrogator, Nicholson as drone pilot, Konstantin as chief engineer, etc. For the duration of this mission, your rank will be ‘ensign.’ You will serve in an advisory role vis-a-vis the mission, but you will not have any command authority whatsoever. I am the commanding officer here, and you will follow my orders, even if they go against your judgment. Do you understand?”

“Um, I—”

“Yes or no. Do you understand, boy?”

James swallowed. “Yes, Captain.”

“Good. Now, unless you have business here, we will depart for Karduna immediately.”

“Great! I’ll get to my ship—”

“That won’t be necessary, Ensign. Roman will pilot the Catriona to our rendezvous point.”

James’s face fell. “What? Why?”

“Frankly, we don’t know if we can trust you.”

“But—but it’s my ship!”

Danica glared at him. “You orders, Ensign, are to remain on the bridge of the Tajji Flame while we make the jump. Is that clear?”

James hesitated. Was it too late to pull out of this deal? Maybe he should reconsider—

No, he told himself. I’m not going to back down.

“Yes, Captain,” he said.

“Good.” Danica turned to face her men. “Roman, get to the Catriona and fly her out. We’ll flash you the jump coordinates in the next ten minutes.”

“Yes, Captain,” said Roman. He rose to his feet and walked briskly out the door.

“Sikorsky, set up a rendezvous point outside of the system. I want something in proximity to the orbital plane that is far enough out of it not to attract attention.”

“I’m on it.”

“Excellent. Everyone else, you are dismissed.”

The other officers crowded past James as they left the bridge. Most glanced his way or nodded in his direction, but James bit his lip and avoided them. Everything was happening too fast for him.

“Have a seat, Ensign,” said Danica. She pointed to the chair next to Anya. James hesitated for a moment, then sat down.

Anya glanced up from her work and smiled at him. “Welcome to the Tajji Flame.

James smiled weakly. What have I gotten into?

Chapter 9


Stella nervously followed Engus down the hallway in her thin, two-piece bedlah gown. Long strings of coins dangled from her hip, jingling as she walked. Her clothes were not unlike the bead curtain doors in the concubines’ quarters—pretty, a bit exotic, and far too sensual.

Engus turned and clucked at her. “No good, no good,” he hissed. “You come now!”

“I’m coming,” she said, walking a little faster—but not too fast. The dread in her heart grew with every step.

Engus came to a turn and pointed to the end of the corridor. “That door,” he said. “You go. Qasar there.”

Stella swallowed and stood as if rooted to the spot. Engus shoved her forward, almost pushing her over. She caught herself and started walking, the coins swaying against her bare thighs.

What am I doing? she thought desperately to herself. The man behind that door is going to rape me!

She swallowed and keyed the door chime, the coins in her dress jingling ever so softly. A moment later, the door hissed open, making her jump. She hesitated for a moment, her heart racing in her chest, then stepped inside. The door hissed shut behind her.

The room was very dark, lit only by a handful of mellow glowlamps midway up the walls. As her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she found herself staring at an impressive array of lavish decorations. Crimson silks cascaded down the walls, shimmering like velvet. A vaulted, navy blue ceiling rose high above her head, with hundreds of white, four-pointed stars forming unfamiliar constellations. A pair of curved swords hung directly in front of her, their ornate golden scabbards studded with dozens of colorful jewels. Between the crossed swords hung a ball of meteoric slag, black and pitted. Stella didn’t know what it was doing there, but judging from the rest of the décor, it had to be important.

The bed lay directly beneath the swords. A man in white, gilded robes lay on his side across the bedspread, smiling as he stared at her.

Instantly, Stella froze. The man could only be Qasar.

He was not a small man—not by any stretch. His shoulders were broad, his arms strong and muscular, his legs thick and supple. His hair was as black as midnight, with a neatly trimmed beard that stretched from ear to ear. His eyes were dazzlingly blue, like sapphire nebulae. Her eyes wandered to his robe, and she saw that his chest was covered with hair. She drew in a sharp breath and trembled as she imagined his scratchy hair on her bare skin, the full weight of his body thrust against hers. The thought made the sweat on the back of her neck go cold.

Qasar stared at her, unmoving. Stella shifted awkwardly from one foot to the other, not sure what to do. You only have one first impression, Stella heard Tamu say in her head. If Quasar isn’t pleased—

With perfect ease, Master Qasar slipped his legs over the edge of the bed and rose to his feet. Carrying himself with a strong yet subtle aura of authority, he came forward and studied her. Stella flinched as memories of the sorting in the prisoner ship flooded to her mind. Qasar didn’t prod her, however—he merely admired her, as if she were an elegant statue. Careful not to meet his gaze, she stood still and stared straight ahead, toes turned in slightly, arms hanging awkwardly by her side.

“Very good,” Qasar muttered to himself in the Hameji creole. “A little young, but quite beautiful. You have good taste, Tagatai, my cousin.”

Qasar’s voice was so clear that Stella had little difficulty understanding his words. She decided to speak up.

“I am seventeen standard years old,” she said, glancing at him out of the corner of her eye.

“Ahh!” said Qasar, pleasantly surprised. “So you can speak as well. Very good.”

“Thank you, M-Master,” she said. She felt dirty using that title, but she didn’t know how else to address him.

“Very good. And what is your name?”

“My name is Ste—is Sholpan,” she said, catching herself. The foreignness of her new name made her cringe.

“Sholpan,” muttered Qasar, nodding to himself. “So that’s what they named you. Fitting choice—you do seem rather shy.”

He reached up and gently stroked her cheek with one hand. Stella’s body tensed as his fingers slowly traced their way down to her neck and shoulders. He played with the narrow strap holding up her top, then ran his hand between her breasts. She shivered.

“Quite fitting,” he muttered, smiling at her with his penetrating blue eyes. He took her by the wrist and motioned to the bed. “Come.”

In one smooth motion, he pulled the scarlet bedspread aside. Underneath, the sheets were immaculately white, as if they’d never been slept in before.

Qasar turned to her. “Are you hungry, my goddess?” he asked.

By the stars, yes.

“A little,” she answered.

He nodded. Letting go of her wrist, he clapped his hands twice. From somewhere in the wall, a tray came forward, suspended in midair by independent gravitics. Stella’s eyes widened—she’d heard about advanced microgravity technology, but had never seen it with her own eyes. It wasn’t cheap.

The tray came to a stop in front of Qasar. He lifted a gilded silver cover to reveal a platter of golden-brown sweetmeats, smothered in rich brown sauce. A delicious aroma met Stella’s nose, and she found herself swimming in it.

“Care for some?” he asked.

“Y-yes,” she stammered. Her stomach rumbled in eager anticipation.

Qasar smiled. With a flick of his wrist, he pushed the tray over the bed, where it levitated just inches over the spotlessly white sheets.

“You must be uncomfortable in that,” he said, glancing down at her skimpy bedlah gown. “Let me get it for you.”

He reached his hands toward the clasp at her waist. Without thinking, she grabbed him by the wrists to stop. They both froze, while a chill shot down Stella’s back; Qasar did not seem pleased.

Let him have his way, honey, just don’t give in to him at first. She smiled in a way that she hoped he’d find seductive and carefully maneuvered his hands away from her. “Later,” she said, unclasping the outer layer of her dress and slipping out of it. She wore nothing but a short underskirt beneath it, but at least that was something.

Qasar chuckled. “Then come,” he said. “Let us eat.”

They climbed onto the bed and lay facing each other in the center, the tray of delicious food hovering directly between them. Stella tried not to stare, but Qasar’s eyes never left her. From the expression on his face, she could tell he was undressing her in his mind. Even so, the plate of sweetmeats, combined with her own ravished hunger, soon distracted her.

“Is that—real food?” she asked, eying the platter.

Qasar cocked his head at her, then threw back his head and roared with laughter.

“Real food?” he said. “Of course! Do you think I am so poor that I starve?”

Stella smiled uneasily, unsure of what to say or do. Poor or not, all her meals so far on his ship had been bland and synthetic.

“But if you will not believe—come! Eat!” He picked up a piece of meat from the platter and held it out to her. Stella’s stomach growled as she reached forward, but he withdrew the food before she could take it.

“No, no,” he said, shaking his head and grinning at her. “Your fingers should not get sticky, my dear.” He held the morsel out again, as if to hand-feed her. “Eat!”

Something about the way he insisted on hand-feeding her seemed deeply sensual, and more than a little disturbing. Stella hesitated, but the thick, mouth-watering aroma of the sweetmeats soon won her over. Leaning forward, she opened her mouth and let him place the food between her teeth.

It was meat—honest to goodness, animal-grown meat—springy and fleshy and cooked to perfection. Without a doubt, it was the most delicious food she’d eaten since her capture. She closed her eyes and chewed it slowly, savoring the juices as they stimulated her tastebuds. For the long, wonderful moment before she swallowed, she was in heaven.

Qasar’s eyes did not leave her as she chewed.

“Well,” he said, “do you like it?”

“Stars, yes,” Stella answered. She leaned forward and reached eagerly for more.

“No, no, my dear,” said Qasar, chuckling as he pulled the platter away. “Your fingers must not be soiled.”

Stella’s heart fell. This is degrading, she realized. Still, food was food, and she was desperately hungry.

“That’s right,” said Qasar as she leaned forward and opened her mouth. “Have another.” He placed another of the tender morsels between her teeth. It seemed almost to melt in her mouth, it was so delicious.

They ate together this way until the platter was half empty and Stella’s once-empty stomach was completely full. By the end, she found herself lying down with her head in Qasar’s lap. How that had happened, she didn’t quite know—but strangely, it didn’t feel as bad as she’d feared. His clean hand ran through her hair and caressed her neck.

“No more,” she whispered, patting her stomach. “That’s—that’s enough.”

Qasar nodded and stopped caressing her neck long enough to wash both hands on a washcloth and push the platters away. From her vantage point in his lap, she watched as he shed his robe, baring his muscular upper body.

Immediately, Stella’s body tensed.

Without a word, he ran his fingers through her hair, stroking downward across her neck and shoulders. Where his touch met stiffness, he squeezed gently and massaged her until she grew limp and relaxed.

Her heart raced as he shifted her off his lap so that she lay beneath him. He scooted down until his eyes were level with hers; in them, she saw a frighteningly potent hunger, as if he were ready to devour her. His hands migrated behind her neck, where he undid the clasp holding her top in place.

I shouldn’t be letting him do this, she thought to herself as he pulled the straps down off her shoulders and arms. His fingers stroked her skin, starting at her shoulders and moving steadily toward her breasts.

“Stop,” she whispered, stiffening once again. “Please, stop.”

To her dismay, he laughed.

“Are you frightened, my shy goddess?” he asked, pulling off the top half of her bedlah gown.

“Yes,” she whispered. “Please—stop this.”

He slipped a hand inside her underskirt. “It is good to be feared,” he said, “but it is better to be obeyed. Kiss me.”

Before she could answer, he pressed his body against hers. She drew in a sharp breath as her blood turned to ice. All of her muscles instantly tensed, and she pushed against him with all her might.

“Stop,” she said, struggling to get out from underneath him. “just—stop!”

The smile on his face turned to a snarl, and he took her by the wrists and pinned her down.

Stella struggled against his grip, but couldn’t break free. Her panic grew, and she started to thrash about with her legs. In one smooth, controlled movement, he released her left wrist and struck her across the cheek with the back of his hand, sending her reeling.

She opened her mouth and screamed.

Her outcry caught in her throat as he struck her again, this time with his fist. Tears of pain flooded her eyes even as Qasar reached down and tore the underskirt clean off of her. At the terrible noise of ripping fabric, panic filled her. This was it—now, he would rape her.

“Stop!” she screamed. Once again, a hard blow landed against her cheek, but a surge of adrenaline gave her the strength to wriggle out from underneath him.

“Foolish woman,” he muttered. “Don’t you know your captain when you see him? Your life belongs to me now.”

Stella scrambled to the other edge of the bed and wrapped the tangled sheets around her naked body. “I’m sorry,” she cried, “I’m just—I’m not ready!”

“I’ll decide when you’re ready!”

He glared at her, as if by the force of his will he could make her submit to him. Instead, she felt doubly frightened.

“What more could I have done for you?” he shouted with rage. “I fed you, clothed you, gave you a home, gave you servants to take care of your every need—what gives you the impudence to turn on me now?”

You invaded my home and took me from my family, Stella wanted to scream. Ben, James, father, mother—what did you do to them? The thought made tears well up in her eyes. She rubbed her still-throbbing cheek and started to break down.

“I’m sorry,” she stuttered in between sobs, “it’s just—just that I—I’ve never done this before—and I—”

“Never done what before?” Qasar asked, frowning inquisitively.

“I’ve never done—never slept with a man.”

His eyes narrowed, and he moved closer to her. “Are you telling me that you’re a virgin?”

She took a shaky breath and slowly regained some control. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, that’s it.”

Qasar gave her a hard, penetrating stare. “Don’t lie to me, woman. Why should I believe you?”

Stella cringed with fear. “I—I don’t know,” she said. “But it’s true—I swear!”

“Why didn’t you tell me this from the beginning?”

“You—you never asked.”

“Of course not. What, you expect me to ask every planetborn whore whether she has already defiled herself?”

The contemptuous way he pronounced ‘planetborn’ suggested it was a derogatory term—though Stella didn’t know why, because it didn’t make any sense.

“What do you mean?” she asked. “What’s ‘planetborn’?”

He scoffed. “What do you think it means? You should know—you are one.”

“If it means I was born on a planet,” she said without thinking, “that’s not true.”

She cringed, expecting him to lash out in some way for being contrary. Instead, his eyes widened with surprise.

“You are not planetborn?” he asked.

“N-no,” Stella said, not sure why he’d stopped.

“Then who are you? Where are you from?”

She took a deep breath. “I was born into a merchanter family. We’re from the Colony—that is, one of the stations at the fifth Lagrange point of Kardunash 3.”

“Truly?” said Qasar, his voice completely changed. “So you are not from one of the planets in this system?”

“No,” said Stella. “I wasn’t born on any of Karduna’s worlds; I was born on a space station in a trailing orbit behind the third planet. That’s my home.”

Qasar stroked his goatee with fascination. “Tell me more.”

What does he want to know? Stella wondered. And why?

“My—my home is the Colony, an old mining operation in Kardunash III’s Trojan asteroids. My family mostly transports processed durasteel from home to the ports at Kardunash IV and Kardunash VII.”

“Not planetborn, then,” Qasar muttered, mostly to himself. “But not shipborn either.”

Stella frowned. Shipborn, planetborn—she didn’t know what to make of it.

“I wasn’t born on a ship,” she said, “but I am—I was—training to be an astrogator. I’ve been on half a dozen voyages to other star systems—piloted two of them.”

Qasar nodded at her with respect. Considering how he’d beaten her and ripped off her clothes only moments before, the gesture left her shocked and confused.

“I apologize,” he said, his voice surprisingly soft. “Please forgive me; I thought you were planetborn.”

Why should that matter? Stella wondered. She didn’t dare interrupt him, however.

“If I had known who you were,” he continued, “I would not have…behaved so badly. Since my cousin picked you from the spoils of our conquest, I assumed you were one of them.”

No mention of stripping the prisoners and processing them like cattle. No mention of killing those who resisted—or the senseless massacre of those deemed unfit to live.

“Please, forgive me.”

Stella wasn’t sure what to think or do. With her throbbing jaw and clothes strewn all about the room, the entire discussion felt too surreal. Sensing her discomfort, Qasar put on his robe again and passed the bedlah top and coin dress back to her.

“Thank you,” she said, taking them gratefully. She turned her back and slipped them on—without the underskirt, the coins felt hard against her skin, but at least it was better than nothing.

“You are not like my other concubines,” Qasar stated, “and therefore, you should not be required to do the things that they do. It is not your place.”

Stella frowned. “So—”

“So if you do not wish to lay with me tonight, that is your choice. I will not force you, though I do hope you will keep me company—as my guest.”

Stella hesitated. The bruise on her jaw throbbed with pain—Qasar hadn’t apologized for that, nor did he seem about to.

“Yes, I-I’ll stay,” she said, too afraid to refuse.

“Good,” said Qasar, as if the answer had never been in any doubt.


* * * * *


James walked down the dim, narrow corridor of the Tajji Flame, searching for the captain’s quarters. The mercenary warship was built from the hull of a standard mid-size Tajji freighter, and the interior had been so radically rebuilt that he had to read every sign and label to keep from getting lost. It took him nearly twenty minutes to find the door marked CPTN.

The door hissed open a few seconds after James hit the chime on the access panel. “Ah, Ensign McCoy,” said Captain Nova, still wearing the same dull gray flight uniform from the bridge. “I’ve been waiting for you. Please, come in.”

The moment James stepped inside, he felt as if he were in a completely different ship. Unlike the drab corridors, where exposed pipes and wires ran along the ceiling, Danica’s quarters felt polished and refined. The floor was made of genuine polished wood, while dark mahogany bookshelves lined the walls. Directly opposite the door hung an old-fashioned canvas painting depicting a dramatic desert landscape, probably from Tajjur V before its fall. Though space in the room was tight, a dark leather couch sat on an ornate Auriga Novan carpet, with two comfortable armchairs on either side. A holographic display table sat on the center of the carpet, the only fixture in the room that wasn’t an antique.

“I take it you’ve transferred all your personal possessions to your new quarters,” Danica said, motioning him to come in.

“Yes,” said James, sitting down on the couch. He’d taken only a duffel bag of essentials before Sergeant Krikoryan had gruffly commandeered his ship, but it hardly mattered. Right now, the Catriona was his only possession with any real value.

“Good. And I assume they’re acceptable?”

“Yes, ma’am.” So long as I only sleep there.

“Excellent. Then let’s get to business.”

Danica tapped her wrist console, and a giant hologram filled the space above the table. At once, James recognized the image as a three dimensional map of the Karduna system, with the orbits of each of the seven planets displayed as rings.

“This is our current location,” said Danica. A red light appeared almost directly over Karduna prime, nearly three Gaian AU above the orbital plane. “Your brother and sister were taken prisoner here, at Kardunash IV, exactly thirty-eight days ago.” A blue light illuminated a point along the orbit of the fourth planet, slightly behind the planet itself. “Is this correct?”

“Yes,” said James. Staring at the familiar image of his home system, he still found it hard to believe that all of it was now under the Hameji occupation.

“That makes things very difficult,” Danica continued. “Enough time has elapsed that our targets could be halfway around the Good Hope Nebula by now.”

James’s stomach sank. “Then what should we do?”

“Intelligence is extremely limited, but I suspect that the Hameji have split their fleet into multiple battle groups. Karduna is a choke point along the axis connecting Gaia Nova with the frontier worlds, so if the Hameji plan to launch a multi-pronged campaign against the Gaian Empire, this is where they would split their forces.”

“But Ben and Stella,” said James. “Where are they?”

“That’s our first order of business—gathering the necessary intelligence. It won’t be easy, though. Our only viable option is to hack into the Hameji fleet’s network, and to do that, we’ll have to get close enough to one of their battleships for a nearly instantaneous rate of data transfer.”

James paled. “Hack into their network? Won’t they shoot us down before we get close enough for that?”

“It’s a risk,” said Danica, “but not as great a risk as you might think. I’ve studied the Hameji for quite some time, and I think I see a weakness that we can exploit.”

“You do? What is it?”

“The Hameji have a natural disdain for settled worlds,” said Danica, pacing across the floor. “In their native territory, beyond the outer reaches of settled space, they live entirely out of their ships and are constantly on the move. When they conquer already inhabited systems, they generally don’t establish colonies or mix with the locals. Many times, they don’t even leave behind a garrison.”

“Why?” James asked.

“Because of their inherently nomadic mindset,” Danica explained. “Their grand strategy is not to expand their culture, but to extract as many resources as they can for their battle fleets. Resources are more important to them than territory.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” James muttered sarcastically.

“If you want a chance to rescue your brother and sister, then yes, it is. Since the Hameji view their conquered territories as cash cows for the fleet, they see no need to keep a careful watch over the people they conquer. A lone hacker should be able to break into their databases without anyone noticing. That’s where you come in.”

James nodded. “What do you want me to do?”

“We’ll need to disguise the Tajji Flame as a Kardunasian vessel using the Catriona’s identification codes. Once that’s done, we’ll need to get close enough to the fleet for Ilya to hack into their network.”

“Great—so where’s the fleet?”

Danica paused for a moment to stare at the holographic image in the center of the room. “It’s my guess that the Hameji will be somewhere where they can repair and outfit their battleships,” she said. “What are the major manufacturing centers in the system?”

“Kardunash IV is probably the biggest one,” said James. “It’s certainly the most populated world in the system.” Was the most populated world, he reminded himself. Images of the once lush planet covered in a dirty-gray shroud of death flashed across his mind’s eye. Countless billions of people now lay dead underneath those clouds.

“I thought the fourth planet was pulverized in the invasion,” said Danica, raising an eyebrow. “Are you sure that any of that infrastructure survived?”

“Well,” said James, struggling to push the images of the dead world out of his mind, “a lot of the infrastructure was planetside, but K-4 had a good number of orbital factories, plus two major spaceports and a repair yard. I’d bet that most of those survived the bombardment.”

Danica nodded. “The Hameji probably captured those intact. Their tactics may be brutal, but they know how to be efficient when they need to be.”

“So you think the main fleet is at K-4 right now?”

“It’s the first place I’d look,” said Danica. “The main bulk of the fleet may have moved on, but the Hameji are always customizing and modifying their warships. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re busy retrofitting the civilian craft they recently captured.”

James frowned. “They’re turning civilian ships into battleships?”

“Of course. Why else would the Hameji capture those ships intact? It’s much easier than building them from scratch.”

“Right,” said James, trying not to imagine the Llewellyn remade into a gunboat. “So you’re saying we need some kind of a pretext to fly to Kardunash IV?”

“Exactly,” said Danica. “What do you suggest?”

James brought his hand to his chin. “There are a handful of colonies orbiting K-4. We could pose as their suppliers.”

Danica narrowed her eyes thoughtfully. “Are you sure that’s a good idea? If those colonies weren’t self-sustaining, the inhabitants are going to all be dead or starving by now. News of a resupply ship could generate a lot of unwanted attention.”

“You’re right,” said James. He stared at the holographic map hovering in the air in front of him. An idea came to his mind, and his eyes lit up.

“We could pose as a freighter heading towards K-3 from the outer planets,” he said, rising to his feet. “See how K-4 and K-3 are in opposition across the sun? When that happens, it’s standard procedure for inbound ships to stop and resupply at K-4 before slingshotting around Karduna Prime.”

“Good thinking,” said Danica. “If you can fabricate a cargo manifest and flight plan, Ilya can make it look as if the Catriona never left the system.”

“Right!” said James. Everything was finally falling into place. This could work—no, it would work.

“We’ll jump about three week’s distance from K-4, to avoid arousing any possible suspicion,” said Danica, her voice as calm as ever. “Assuming we find the Hameji fleet at K-4, what sort of a time window will we have?”

“I don’t know,” said James. “Most ships stay for one or two days to resupply.”

“Good,” said Danica. “That should be enough time to gather the intelligence we need.”

“Excellent! Then what?”

“It depends on what we find,” said Danica, “and there’s a good chance we won’t find anything.”

But we will, James thought to himself. We will.


* * * * *


“You told him what?

Stella bit her lip and stared at the blue tile floor of the bathing room as Narju brushed her hair. Tamu sat on a stool across from her, an incredulous expression on her face.

“I told him I was a virgin,” Stella said softly.

Tamu shook her head. “Bad move, honey,” she said, clucking her tongue. “That wasn’t smart.”

“But what was I supposed to do?” Stella asked. “He was going to rape me!”

“Whether or not it’s rape is up to you, dear.”

Stella’s eyes widened in shock at Tamu’s comment, and her cheeks burned red with anger. “Oh, really?” she said, her voice low and sharp. “Then I suppose it isn’t murder if—”

“Calm down, dear, calm down. No need to shout.”

Stella took a deep breath and closed her eyes, resisting the urge to scream. Behind her, Narju finished with her hair and rose to his feet, pulling the small stool aside with a wooden scraping noise.

“Why don’t you start from the beginning,” said Tamu. “Tell me everything.”

Stella took a moment to calm down and gather her jumbled thoughts. Off to the side, Narju opened a locker and began pulling out different clothes, laying them across the cushioned bench for Stella to peruse.

“I followed Engus to the bedchamber,” she said, rising to her feet with the bath towel wrapped tightly around her body. Tamu followed her. “Qasar was waiting for me on the bed. He came over to me, and we talked for a while—”

“You can understand him?” Tamu asked. “You mean, you actually spoke with him?”

“Well, yeah,” said Stella. “Can’t you?”

“No, sweetie. I’ve picked up a little here and there, but not enough to carry much of a conversation.”

“Then how do you even communicate with him?”

Tamu laughed. “Oh, we don’t talk much, dear. When he calls for me, he’s only looking for one thing, and it certainly isn’t conversation.” She winked and nudged Stella with her elbow.

Stella shuddered. For several moments, she didn’t know what to say.

“Don’t stop there, honey,” said Tamu. “Go on, go on.”

“Well, uh, he asked me if I was hungry. I said yes, and he pulled out a tray full of roasted meat. We ate until we were full, and then, ah—”

“And then what?” Tamu asked, hanging on Stella’s every word.

“He, uh, that is, we—we started to…” Stella’s cheeks flushed deep red from embarrassment as her voice trailed off. Tamu’s eyes glistened while Narju waited patiently for Stella to pick out her dress.

“It all happened so fast,” Stella said quickly. “He started to undress me, and then his hands were all over my body, and I just couldn’t take it.”

She picked out a modest skirt and blouse. Narju wordlessly replaced the other clothes in the locker. While his back was turned, Stella unwrapped the bath towel from her body and quickly slipped into her chemise.

“So you resisted,” said Tamu. “That’s when he slapped you, isn’t it, dear?”

Punched me, Stella thought as she stepped into the skirt. He punched me.

“Yes,” she said, pulling the skirt up around her waist. “He said I didn’t have a choice in the matter. That’s when I told him I was a virgin.”

“And what happened next?”

Stella slipped the blouse over her head and poked her arms through, pulling it down over her stomach. “He stopped,” she said. “For the rest of the evening, he was a perfect gentleman.”

Tamu frowned. “Is that all, dear?”

“Well, no,” Stella admitted.

“Out with it.”

Stella swallowed. “He asked me about my home,” she said, “and when I told him I wasn’t planetborn, he—”

“Aiie!” screamed Tamu, her voice filling the small room. Stella and Narju both jumped at the sudden outburst. “You told him what?

“I told him about my home,” Stella said. “That I was born on a space station and was training to be an astrogator. He made a big deal about the fact that I wasn’t ‘planetborn,’ but—”

“He didn’t just make a big deal honey,” Tamu said. “Out here, it really is a big deal.”

“Why?”

“Because the Hameji think that the planetborn are soft and weak. That’s why they choose all their concubines from their prisoners, honey—because they don’t think we have any honor.”

“So what’s the problem?” Stella asked. “At least he respects me now.” Not to mention that he no longer treats me like some kind of sex toy.

“That’s just it, honey,” said Tamu. “You’re spaceborn, a virgin, and fluent in Hameji. There’s no way he can keep you as a concubine—if anything, you’re wife material now.”

Stella frowned. “Wife material?”

“Uh-huh. Wife material.”

“But—but isn’t Qasar already married?”

“To four ruthless women, dear, any one of whom can make your life a living hell.”

At that moment, the bead curtain parted and Engus stepped through. Tamu instantly fell silent.

“Mistress Sholpan,” said Engus, staring directly at Stella with his beady eyes. “You have summons. Level two, Lady Borta’s chambers. I show you when done.”

He stepped briskly out of the room, making the beads clatter in his wake.

“Oh no,” Tamu muttered. “You’re in trouble, dear. Big trouble.”

“Trouble?” Stella asked, her voice stammering. “How?”

“Borta is Qasar’s head wife, dearest. She’s the worst of all of them.”

Chapter 10


“You ever hear how the Hameji came to power?”

James glanced up from his bowl of unappealing gray synthmeal at Ilya, sitting across the table from him. “Are you talking to me?” he asked.

“Yeah,” said Ilya. “I’m talking to you.”

The sounds of smacking lips, scraping spoons, and two or three amiable conversations filled the officer’s mess hall. A spartanly decorated room barely the size of the bridge, it felt cramped with four of the ship’s nine officers seated around the metal table bolted to the floor.

“No,” James said. “Why?”

“It’s an interesting story. Want to hear it?”

James glanced uneasily at the other people in the room. A few of them looked up at him, but most seemed content to leave him and Ilya to themselves. When his eyes met Anya’s, however, she smiled and fluttered her eyelashes at him. James blushed.

“It’s not much of a story,” said Vaclav. Sitting aloof from the others at the end of the table, he wore a habitually bored expression on his face.

Ilya shrugged. “Hey, it’s up to you. If you don’t want to hear it—”

“No,” said James, leaning over his bowl. “Tell me.”

Ilya grinned and folded his hands on the table. To his left, Anya also leaned forward and smiled.

“You know all about the Hameji conquests so far, right?” said Ilya. “From the Outworlds beyond the Good Hope Nebula to Belarius, Tajjur, and now—”

“Yes,” said James. “I know.”

A foot nudged his from under the table. James’s eyes flashed to Anya, the only female officer in the room. It’s all right, she mouthed at him with her gorgeous lips. James’s heart skipped a beat.

“What most people don’t know about is the flood of refugees that came to Belarius before it fell,” Ilya continued. “Have you heard of them?”

“No,” James admitted. “I haven’t.”

“It was a few years ago, about half a year before the Hameji smashed Belarius III. The refugees were all spacefarers from the outer reaches—you know, the kind that wander the stars and never settle down. Shipbound tribes not unlike the Hameji.”

James nodded, even though he knew almost nothing about the Outer Reaches. He didn’t want the others to think he was an idiot, especially Anya.

“Yeah, yeah,” said Maria, one of the sergeants below Roman. “We’ve heard the story. You ran across some old reports in the defense network back when we did that blockade run.”

“That’s right,” said Ilya. “You see, I wondered what it was that made the spacefarers seek refuge in settled space. For a nomadic people, that’s a pretty big shift, don’t you think?”

“Well, yeah,” said James.

“It was the Hameji,” muttered Vaclav. “They wreaked havoc on the Outer Reaches long before they came here.”

“But that’s just the thing,” said Ilya. “How did the Hameji do it? How did they drive almost a million starfarers out of a swath of space more than a hundred parsecs across?”

James looked to Vaclav, but the man shrugged and returned to his synthmeal without an answer.

“Remember,” said Ilya, “these spacefarers were tough. They squatted on the edges of known space, mining uncharted resources beyond the laws of any government. What’s more, they’re constantly at war with each other—one of their gunboats could take on three Imperial cruisers and come out spaceworthy. Compared to them, we’re just a bunch of softies.”

“Your point being?” Maria asked, an annoyed scowl on her face.

“Put it together yourself,” said Ilya, shooting her an irritated look. “The Hameji were badass way before they came after us.”

“So what about these spacefaring refugees?” James asked, a little too hastily.

“I’ll tell you,” said Ilya, turning back to him. “They were the survivors from the first Hameji wars—the ones who refused to join the original Hameji tribes. And you know what? They should have won—they had the Hameji outnumbered and outgunned.”

James shifted uneasily in his seat. “How do you know this?”

“The refugee reports were pretty interesting, so I hacked into their main flagship and downloaded the ship’s log.”

“Isn’t that supposed to be impossible?” said James. Ship logs were hardwired to the main astrogation computer, with no other interface except the terminals on the bridge.

Ilya snickered. “To you, maybe. But I have my ways.”

He put an arm around Anya’s waist. To James’s dismay, she scooted closer to him and started stroking his back.

“The records of the battle were fascinating,” said Ilya, squeezing Anya’s waist. “The Hameji made a surprise attack from nearly five light-years out.”

“Yeah,” said James. “So?”

“Five light-years, kid. Their ships were scattered across almost thirty million klicks of space, yet they coordinated the attack with perfect precision. Sound familiar?”

“Yeah,” James lied.

“So you can tell me what happened next.”

James fidgeted with his spoon and nervously tapped his foot. Ben would know, he thought to himself.

“They…regrouped?”

Ilya let out a sneering laugh. “Wrong, kid. Dead wrong.”

“Don’t be so hard on him,” said Anya, shrugging off Ilya’s arm. “He’s just a kid.”

James’s heart fell. I am not ‘just a kid.’

“The Hameji never regroup,” said Vaclav. “They wear down their opponents’ defenses and cripple them with a perfectly synchronized fusillade of jumped nukes.”

“Exactly,” said Ilya. “Which makes you wonder, how can they possibly coordinate an attack like that when their ships are scattered across so much space? It’s as if they have some form of instantaneous communication beyond our current level of technology.”

Maria sighed and shook her head, while Vaclav returned to his food. James, however, found himself becoming more and more interested.

“How could they do that?” he asked.

“You want to know?”

“Yeah,” he said, trying not to sound too eager. “How?”

Ilya shot Anya a glance, then turned to James and narrowed his eyes. “You ever heard of the Tenguri system?” he asked.

“No.”

“It’s the location of the Hameji homeworld. They—”

“I thought you said they live on their ships. How can they have a homeworld?”

“They’ve still got to get their resources from somewhere, kid,” Ilya snapped at him. “Besides, Tenguri isn’t much of a system. There’s only one planet: a hot Jupiter with an orbital period of only three days.”

“So how is that the Hameji homeworld?”

“They don’t live there, you moron. They worship there.”

James frowned. “Worship?”

“Yeah, worship. Don’t you know your history? Thousands of years ago, when Earth was still a fresh memory, people believed that the stars and planets were the homes of the gods and goddesses. That’s how Gaia Nova got its name—the new mother goddess, or New Earth. Surely you know that.”

James bit his lip and said nothing. He didn’t like how Ilya was talking down to him—as if he were just a boy.

“The Hameji still hold to those old ways,” Ilya continued, “but they’ve completely rebuilt the pantheon. Instead of worshiping Gaia Nova as the central goddess, they worship a god named ‘Tenguri.’ They believe he’s the supreme creator of the universe. So, like any good pagans would, they named their home star after him.”

“What do we call that star?”

Ilya shrugged. “I don’t think we have a name—just a catalog number. The name doesn’t really matter, though. What matters is what the records said about a Hameji grand council.”

“A grand council?”

“Yeah—a council of all the starfaring fleets and tribes, just before the Hameji launched their campaign. Those who refused the invitation were the first on the chopping block when the fighting started. Those who did attend were…transformed, shall we say.”

James frowned. “Transformed?”

“Don’t listen to him,” said Vaclav. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

Ilya shrugged. “I’m just telling him what the log said—nothing more, nothing less.”

James couldn’t ignore his curiosity. “What did it say?”

“It said that this particular tribe’s chief came back from the council terribly sick, with a glow in his eyes that didn’t seem entirely human. He died a little while after, prompting his sons to declare war against the Hameji.”

“Wait—that’s it?”

Ilya grinned. “That’s all that was in the log. Though if you ask me, I think there’s a connection between that council and the Hameji’s faster-than-light communication abilities. Maybe they found some way to link their commanders’ minds together, so they can talk to each other instantaneously. Maybe they’re all one giant hive-mind.”

Maria sighed and shook her head. “That’s impossible,” she said. “Ilya, you’re just putting crazy ideas into the kid’s head. You’ve got nothing to go off of but your own damn speculation.”

“Well,” said Ilya, shrugging off her accusations with little apparent concern, “maybe I am wrong. But if I am, answer me this: how are the Hameji able to conduct such perfectly coordinated attacks?”

No one had an answer. Anya ran her fingers through Ilya’s hair, eying him with a sultry look on her face. James scowled.

“Why should I believe you?” he asked.

“Because you have to believe something,” said Ilya, his voice soft and deadly. “If you don’t, then you really will go crazy.”


* * * * *


Ben filed past the soldiers into the windowless room and formed a tight circle with the other prisoners around the edge of the walls. He couldn’t help but notice how different this place was from the rest of the obsolete mining facility. The walls were drab and gray, but not as rusted and corroded as the rest of the station. Perhaps this room was part of a new wing—or perhaps the soldiers had taken them to a different ship.

Stella, he thought, more as a dumb reflex than anything else. Must find Stella. He shook his head and cast the thought out of his mind; it brought back too many memories of the prisoner ship. Too many memories of his powerlessness.

I’m sorry, Stella, he thought to himself. I’m sorry I was too weak to save you.

Once all the prisoners were sitting in a circle—all fifty or so of them—the soldiers left the room. They had barely left before half a dozen men in gas masks came in, carrying an antique, wooden table unlike anything Ben had seen.

It was small, only about a meter tall, with a large, bulbous jar set in the bottom like a fuel tank, full of boiling water. A long hose, about as thick as two of his fingers, lay coiled like a snake on top. Both the table and the hose’s mouthpiece were inlaid with ornate gold and silver images. Ben stared, entranced, at what appeared to be dragons and monsters devouring planets and stars. Storms of fire circled around demon-like creatures with fangs protruding upwards from their lower jaws. The images were as frightening as they were exotic.

The men carrying the table stopped at the center of the room and set it down. While they unwound the hose and adjusted some unseen knobs, a striking young man strode into the room. He was young and dark-skinned, with a sharp face and a razor thin beard that stretched from his sideburns to the point of his chin. His eyes were a thick hazel color, set deep in their sockets. He wore the crisp gray fatigues Ben had seen on the Hameji officers on the prisoner ship. Though the man was only of medium build, his body seemed to radiate power.

Ben felt drawn to him at once.

The young man stopped at the center of the room and systematically looked each of the prisoners in the eye. As he went down the line, Ben felt a thrill from the man’s penetrating gaze.

“Men,” he said, addressing them, “I am Sergeant Voche of the Hameji Empath Corps. Hear me speak!”

The man spoke the Gaian dialect with a thick, foreign accent. His “v”s and “s”s were long and sharp, like knives.

“I understand how you feel,” Voche continued. “You feel weak, alone, and powerless. Some of you may even be wondering why you are still alive.”

He paused. Ben’s heart started to beat faster.

“But the truth,” said Voche, “is that your minds have been cleansed and your spirits purged. Purged of what? Purged of the filth and squalor in which you have unceasingly wallowed since birth. Purged of the shameful weakness of that diseased and bloated society that spawned you.”

The masked men carefully fed a substance that looked like dead grass into the table, turning the boiling water a deep red. Ben caught the smell of something burning.

“All your life, you have been weak,” Voche continued, his voice steadily rising. “All your life, you have been alone. Your planetborn society has kept you constantly at the breast, gorging you on the milk of its own fornication. You have never known the power that comes from unity—complete and total unity.”

The men in gas masks walked the hose to the edge of the circle. They gave the mouthpiece to one of the prisoners across from James. He inhaled deeply and coughed hard, expelling white smoke that smelled like overripe fruit mixed with diesel.

“But now, you have been purged of your weakness. Now, you are prepared to learn the true meaning of power—to be knit together in one body, perfectly united.”

The men started making their way around the circle, passing the mouthpiece to each of the prisoners. As they moved down the line, the room slowly filled with a smoky white haze. Though the stench of the drug repulsed Ben at first, the taste was surprisingly pleasant. It had a peculiar relaxing effect on his muscles, even when smoked secondhand.

“Breathe, my friends,” commanded Sergeant Voche. “Breathe the breath of Tenguri, and receive the power of the gods!”

The mouthpiece soon arrived in Ben’s hands. It was made of gold and fashioned in the shape of a dragon’s snout. Ben stared at the ferocious eyes embedded at the base of the node, sharp, pointed teeth lining either side right to the smoking tip.

He placed the golden dragon snout in his mouth and inhaled.

The taste of the smoke exploded in his mouth, a hundred times stronger than before. He coughed and swooned, nearly blacking out. A tingling sensation began at the top of his head and swept over the entirety of his body. Colors and shapes filled his vision, and a thousand disjointed thoughts flooded his mind like chattering voices in a crowded hall. Soon, the mental noise blended together, and a kaleidoscope of sensory data overwhelmed him.

All at once, he saw everything that was happening in the room—everything the others saw, everything the others felt. One hundred eyes and ears, fifty racing hearts, and fifty panicked minds. Pain, convulsions, and vomiting. A thousand indistinguishable thoughts bombarded his consciousness, as he simultaneously writhed on the floor in a seizure, drowned in his own vomit, screamed in horror, and passed through the terrible emptiness of death.

“Do not be afraid!” Voche shouted, his voice rising above the torrent of awareness that gripped them all. “You have been freed from your bodily prison to become one with the spirits that surround you. Receive the breath of the Lord Creator, and let it purify you.”

The boy who had once been Ben stared with the eyes of the Many at the faces of those vessels which had once been closed to him. Voche’s speech echoed through their ears like the voice of a god, calling them to a single point of focus within a sea of chaos. Their eyes turned on him, staring from every angle.

“You are Brothers of the Red Dragon,” he shouted. “I am your commander, your brother, your father. I will teach you the true meaning of unity and will lead you to strength and victory!”

The godlike words felt like the tender caress of a mother to her infant. Swimming in volatile shades of consciousness, the boy without a name stared into Voche’s eyes and rejoiced with the Many at their new-found father.


* * * * *


“So you are the one they call ‘Sholpan.’”

The remark was more of a stated observation than a question. The middle-aged woman who spoke stood with her arms crossed over her chest. From her long, green dress and the obstinate scowl, Stella recognized her at once as the woman she’d bumped into in the hallway on her first day.

“Yes,” said Stella. “And you are—”

“Lady Borta,” the woman snapped.

“Ah.”

Borta’s private apartment stretched almost twenty meters from end to end—an unthinkably huge room for an interstellar spaceship. Compared to the concubines’ quarters, it felt like a cathedral. Glass mosaics of green vines and rich fruit lined the walls and floorboards, while to the left, a small fountain, surrounded by a cascading hydroponic garden, filled the room with the soft sound of trickling water. That must be why the air smells so clean in here, Stella realized. Other furnishings included a computer terminal, a series of food processors, and several couches. A normal door—not a bead curtain—separated the front room from the private quarters.

Lady Borta rose magnanimously from her seat on the nearest couch and circled Stella. “Not bad for one of Qasar’s playthings,” she muttered.

Stella winced. “I’m sorry,” she blurted. “I never meant to come between you and your husband. If—”

“What? Come between me and Qasar?”

“Uh, yes,” said Stella. “I didn’t mean to, and I’m sorry, I really—”

“What gives you the impudence to think that you can come between me and Qasar?”

Stella blushed and shifted nervously on her feet. “That’s not what I meant,” she said. “It’s just that the way Qasar, you know, keeps so many women, I—I don’t know. You must be jealous, and—”

“Jealous?” Borta tossed back her head and laughed uproariously for several long moments. Stella smiled, but couldn’t find the nerve to laugh with her.

“You think I’m jealous?” Borta said. “Of you?” She laughed again.

“I—” Stella said, then stopped herself. She didn’t know what to think anymore.

“Do you have any idea who I am?” Borta asked, suddenly serious again.

“Well, yes,” said Stella. “You are Lady Borta, Qasar’s first wife—”

“—head wife.”

“Head wife,” Stella corrected herself.

“And?”

“And, um, mother of Qasar’s heir?”

“And?”

Stella fidgeted nervously with her hands. “And, um, a very important woman?”

“That’s right,” said Borta, her voice low and dangerous. “I am the chief matriarch of the Lion of Tenguri. Within the confines of this ship, my word is law; only Qasar has more authority than I. And what are you?”

Stella shifted uneasily on her feet. “A prisoner?”

“Not anymore,” said Borta. “You ceased to be a prisoner the moment you set foot on this ship. What are you now?”

That’s not true, Stella thought to herself. I’m still a prisoner.

“I said, what are you now?”

She drew in a sharp breath. “A concubine,” she mumbled.

“What was that? I didn’t hear you.”

“A concubine,” Stella said, marginally louder. She wished she could sink through the floor and disappear.”

“That’s right,” said Borta. “A concubine. A plaything. A glorified whore. That is your place on this ship.”

“I never meant to take your husband from you,” Stella said, her voice barely more than a whisper. “Please don’t be jealous.”

“Take my husband from me? How could you possibly take my husband from me? Qasar is a powerful man. In his heart, it’s not enough to be captain of one ship—a man of his greatness is destined to command entire fleets. Do you think one woman is enough for such a man?”

Stella slowly shook her head. Borta’s eyes narrowed.

“Qasar’s destiny is to conquer and rule, in his bedchamber as well as anywhere else. And what are you? His plaything. His pet. You exist to give him pleasure, to quench his desire. You exist to be conquered.”

Stella didn’t know what to say to that, so she kept silent.

“My husband called you into his bedchamber last night, did he not?”

“Yes,” said Stella. “But I—”

“But you did not sleep with him,” said Borta, cutting her off. “Why not?”

Stella blushed again. “Because—because it was wrong.”

“Wrong? How could it be wrong? It’s your place on this ship, isn’t it? It’s your duty!”

Stella clenched her fists. “I’m not that kind of a girl.”

In one smooth motion, Borta slapped her on the cheek. “Without those above you, you would be nothing. You would be dead. Understand?”

No, Stella almost answered. Instead, she said nothing.

Borta slapped her again, on the other cheek. “Listen to me, you little whore. I know your type. You think that you’re subtle, that you can climb the ranks, that you can come out of nowhere and rise to the top.”

“No,” Stella said quickly. “That’s not true. I—”

Borta struck her a third time, harder than both the first two. Stella’s head snapped to the side, and she lifted her hand to rub her battered cheek.

“Don’t lie to me,” Borta hissed. “I know you told Qasar that you’re a virgin.”

How could she possibly know that? Stella wondered. Is there a camera in Qasar’s bedchamber?

“I don’t know if he believes you yet,” Borta continued, “but I won’t have any more of your machinations.”

“I’m sorry,” Stella said. “I want nothing to do with your husband. Honest!”

Borta’s eyes narrowed. Stella cringed, expecting another blow. Instead, Borta pulled a long, thin object out of her sleeve.

“Do you see this?” Borta said, holding up a needle. The tip was as long as Stella’s hand, and it glimmered in the fluorescent light.

Before Stella could answer, Borta jabbed the needle into her stomach with a quick flick of the wrist. Stella’s eyes widened, and she felt a sharp pain, followed by an even sharper numbness. Fear shot through her, and her blood turned to ice.

Oh my God, she thought to herself. Lady Borta just stabbed me—she just stabbed me!

“This needle is embedded in a major acupuncture point along your liver meridian,” said Borta, her voice deadly calm. “It will leave no visible wound when I remove it. It was not poisoned—this time. You should consider yourself lucky.”

Don’t move, Stella told herself. Don’t make it snap off inside of you.

“I tire of your games, so let us be frank. When my husband summons you again, you will let him have his full pleasure with you, in every possible way. Is that clear?”

Stella hardly dared to breathe for fear of injury. Her eyes burned with tears, but she bit her lip to quell them.

“Who do you think runs this ship? Who is in charge of the concubines’ level? I oversee the food you eat, the water you drink, even the very air you breathe. If I wanted, I could kill you right now—and it would not look like murder.”

Her voice dropped to a whisper as she leaned into Stella’s ear. “I would get away with it, too. I’ve done it before.”

Borta yanked the needle out. Stella gasped and fell to her hands and knees. She wanted to throw up.

“Well?” said Borta. “What is your answer?”

“I’ll do it!” Stella cried. “Yes! I’ll do it!”

“You had better,” said Borta. “Now get out of my room, you little whore.”

Stella did not need to be told twice. Clutching her stomach, she stumbled to her feet and hurried to the door, banging her knee against one of the couches on her way out.

After she found herself in the bright white corridor, she lifted her hand up and looked at her stomach. Borta was right—no blood, no wound. No sign, other than a slight tingle, that the long, wicked needle had ever been there.

Ben! Stella wanted to scream, her legs weak and her arms and hands powerless. Where are you? What have they done to you? Please, save me!

Anybody—save me!


* * * * *


“Forward!” Voche’s voice boomed through the narrow white corridors of the training ship. “Double time!”

The heavy footsteps of the platoon sounded loudly in the ears of the boy without a name. The vessel of his body was once again his to possess, and he reveled in the briskness and precision of his senses. His new black body armor, though heavy, felt solid and firm on his shoulders, reassuring him that he was still alive.

Still, an ever-present awareness of the Many stayed with him, long after the effects of the drug had worn off. Feelings and emotions swam together, all of them his, all of them theirs, a single river of Being fed by dozens of tributaries.

The sound of his platoon brethren marching in unison filled him with a sense of belonging. This was his home—this was his family. His emotions were no longer his to possess alone, but that was of no consequence. He was happy.

At a signal from Voche, they turned and passed through an open doorway into a room filled with tables and benches. Against the wall on the far side, the boy saw a series of tables with covered pans. Trays, plates, and utensils were stacked on one side, and the smell of freshly cooked meat filled the air.

Gradually, almost imperceptibly at first, a feeling of eager anticipation rolled through them. It grew steadily until the boy licked his lips, suddenly aware of the burning hunger in his stomach. He could tell, from the expressions on his platoon-brothers’ faces, that they felt the same. Without a word, they formed a line.

Voche stepped up and lifted the first pan. It was empty.

A crushing sense of disappointment struck them all like a blow to the stomach. The blow echoed through the hearts of his platoon brethren until it became a giant wave, filling them all with a horrible sense of loss. Tears came to the boy’s eyes, while around him, others fell to their knees, sobbing.

“Your first lesson,” said Voche, “is that life is a never-ending struggle. Food, water, living space, the basic necessities of life—these are things you must earn. These are things you must fight for.”

He replaced the tray. Several of the platoon brothers wailed in agony.

“The enemy will steal your food and leave you to starve,” Voche shouted, his voice infused with furious, didactic passion. “He will steal your ship and make it his own. If you are weak and divided, he will steal everything from you and throw you out into space!”

The boy shuddered as memories flooded into his mind—memories of a dead woman’s body, floating naked in the icy vacuum. He didn’t know where the memory came from, but it made his hands shake and his knees go weak. Gradually, that feeling swept through his brethren, resonating into a fear as primal as the will to live. He gripped his rifle and swallowed, eyes never leaving Sergeant Voche’s face.

“So long as man has lived, there have been those who lead and those who follow. Unity is the only thing that saves us—perfect, unwavering unity. And to be united, you must learn your place on this ship.”

He paused and stared into the faces of each of the platoon-brothers. The boy felt a chill run down his arms long before his eyes locked with the sergeant’s.

“Your place is to obey!” Voche shouted. “Am I understood?”

“Yes, sir,” a few of the platoon brothers weakly replied.

“What kind of pathetic soldiers are you? Do you want to starve? Am I understood?

The boy felt his heart surge. He gripped his rifle with white knuckles and shouted in unison with the others.

Yes, sir!

Chapter 11


The gymnasium lights flickered on soon after the door hissed open. Danica stepped inside and took a deep breath. The smell of old perspiration and spent ammunition filled her nostrils like a healing balm. Her old punching bag still dangled on its chain from the ceiling, while the targets on the far wall showed bullet holes from the last round of shooting practice. Wrestling mats covered the floor, while a contraband gravitic weight machine stood off in the corner. Though it might not have looked it, everything was in its place, just the way Danica had designed it.

She turned to James, who glanced around him like a desert groundhog cautiously poking his head out of his burrow.

“This is the physical training room,” she said. “We do all our exercises and target practice here. It also serves as the ship’s armory, so if there’s ever a battle, this is the place we go to get suited up.”

She walked to a console near the door and keyed it open. A series of sliding panels retracted vertically along the entire length of the near wall, revealing weapons and armored battle-suits, faded and nicked from use.

“Unfortunately, our battle armor is too large to fit you and too expensive to cut down, so you’ll have to go with the lighter field armor. It comes with bullet-proof, plasma-resistant durasteel plating, but I wouldn’t rely too heavily on it. The helmet doesn’t include a visor, so you’ll have to shield your eyes with your hand when we use flash grenades.”

Danica reached up and pulled out one of the smaller issues of the field armor. It was brown and black, the knees and elbows covered in scratches. The patch on the upper right shoulder indicated where at least one soldier who’d worn it had taken a hit. As with everything else in the room, it smelled of old, stale sweat.

“This should fit,” she said, handing it to him. “Try it on.”

He took it and stared at her, puzzled. “How do I put it on?”

The kid’s a total greenhorn.

“The arm and leg segments detach just under the plating,” she said, showing him. “Slip it on like a vest, then secure these clasps.”

She waited for him to clip the arm segments to the shoulder nodes, then handed him his assault rifle.

“This rifle is standard Tajji issue,” she said. “It’s a dual action automatic plasma and projectile gun, with a .56-caliber projectile barrel and a twenty-five millimeter toroidal plasma launcher. It is your responsibility to be thoroughly familiar with this weapon. Before the end of the week, I expect you to be able to take it apart and put it together again in less than five minutes. Questions?”

“Yeah—when are we going to go over how to do that?”

“Not during training time, Ensign,” said Danica. “You can figure it out in your quarters, on your own time.”

James bit his lip and nodded. Danica lifted the weapon up in his hands and showed him the switches set above the trigger.

“These are the safety, the trigger, and the alternator,” she said, pointing out each one. “Reload your projectile ammunition here,” she said, pointing out the magazine directly in front of the trigger guard, “while your plasma reloads here,” pointing to a canister chute in the back end of the stock. “A fully loaded rifle carries five times as many bullets as plasma, but the plasma can be much more effective in close range against shielded opponents.”

“Shielded opponents?”

“I’ll explain basic tactics before we shoot a few practice rounds. Listen carefully.”

James nodded.

“Firefights on-ship tend to be messy,” Danica explained. “They don’t require much skill, either. Our longest corridors here are less than a hundred yards, and straight enough that a stray shot could ricochet and kill one of our own. Remember that when you’re under fire.”

James nodded again, a little more anxiously than before.

“We have essentially three lines of defense against enemy fire.” She pointed to a small box on his chest. “That’s your high-energy radiation shield. It will protect you against ship–to-ship antipersonnel gamma ray and microwave beams. Keep it on at all times during combat.”

She reached down and lifted his hand, pressing a button on the left wrist of his armor. “This is your personal RPV shield generator. You have a similar one on your back. It projects a small force field that instantly vaporizes anything traveling faster than one hundred feet per second. Use it when you’re under projectile fire; it is one of the most critical elements of your armor.”

“Should I keep it on at all times, too?”

“No,” said Danica. “When the unit overheats, it becomes explosive. The shield’s only tactical function is to give you time to get to cover—don’t rely too heavily on it, or it’ll blow your arm clean off.”

James’s eyes widened. “How will I know when it’s about to overheat?”

“This indicator will tell you. If it blinks for more than five seconds, unstrap your RPV unit and get rid of it.”

“But—but what if the back unit goes unstable too?”

“Then you’re already dead. If you’re the heroic type, you could try a kamikaze run for good measure.”

James nodded, his face more than a little pale. Danica had his complete attention.

“Your RPV shield won’t work for plasma bursts. That’s where your armor comes in; it’s specially constructed to diffuse the heat and rebind once the plasma cools. However, on this light armor, three successive hits in the same spot will burn an irreparable hole. If you’re hit, get low and seek cover.”

“How long does the armor take to harden and cool?”

“About a minute. Again, unless you want to become a well-done corpse, don’t rely on it too heavily.”

James bit his lip and nodded. His knuckles turned white as he gripped the rifle.

“In combat,” she continued, “we typically open with plasma fire and switch to projectile weapons as we advance.”

She reached down and picked up a black half-sphere about twice the diameter of her hand. “This is a larger version of the RPV shield on your wrist. When blasting our way through a sealed door, we lay this shield down about two yards behind to give us projectile cover. Once the door is open, we typically stay behind the shield and suppress the enemy with plasma fire before advancing.”

She reached to her belt and pulled out a grenade a little smaller than her fist. “This is a flash grenade. They’re useful for blinding the enemy before making a charge. Take care when using them, though—they can permanently damage your eyes if you don’t cover them. Understand?”

“Yes.”

“Good. For ship-wide training exercises, we use paintballs and lasers to simulate our real weapons. The first session starts in less than an hour. I’ll put you with Mikhail’s unit—”

“Wait, we’re starting already?”

“That’s right,” said Danica. “From here on out, we’ll be conducting twelve hours of training per day.”

“Twelve hours?” said James, incredulous. “That’s—”

“That’s what, Ensign?”

James swallowed. “That’s great, ma’am. I’m looking forward to it.”

Danica inwardly smiled. He’s learning.

“Before training exercises begin,” she said, “let’s put in some targeting practice. Show me what you’ve got.”

James nodded and lifted his gun, pointing it at the targets across the room. He held the rifle awkwardly in his hands, and fired without pressing the butt of his gun against his shoulder. As a result, the recoil threw him back a good half meter, and the shots went wild, ricocheting toward the ceiling where they vaporized with a muted sizzle.

“Ow!” he shouted, his face immediately turning beet red.

Danica drew in a silent breath and shook her head. This is going to take a lot of work.


* * * * *


Few things gave the boy without a name more pleasure than the feel of a warm, smoking gun in his hands.

He ducked behind two parallel rows of old, corroded barrels, keeping to the left as he ran through the training course with the four platoon brothers in his squad. At the first gap, he stopped, crouched, and spun around the corner, eyes immediately locking onto the target. In less time than it took to think, he fired. Bullet holes peppered the human-shaped silhouette, all falling within the third ring from the center.

We are getting better, he thought to himself. A smile came to his lips.

His squadmates had caught up with him, ducking below the long parallel rows of barrels as they ran. Alarms blared above them, and a digital clock ticked down the seconds in the corner of his visor display. The boy scurried ahead to the next gap, blasting three more targets. One of them shone a laser at him, but the beam passed well over his head.

Adrenaline surged through the boy’s veins, rousing him to action. Blood flowed to his groin as he gasped for breath. He shuddered in rapture as the gun recoiled against his shoulder, bullets screaming in sweet, explosive release.

About halfway through the training course, those of the Many always felt it—a sexual impulse that transformed their exercise from rote action into pure ecstasy. The boy didn’t know what it was or where it came from, but that hardly mattered. All he knew was that whatever it was, he wanted more of it.

An unbidden memory flashed into his mind, pulling him out of the training for a split second. A spaceport, orbiting a rocky gray moon. Old, water-stained corridors, dimly lit. The pungent smell of incense. A voluptuous woman in a dark red dress, leading him through a dingy bead curtain. A dark room, empty except for a queen-sized bed and a three legged table. Stains on the sheets, cash on the table.

More than any particular impression, however, he remembered a feeling of deep shame. A forgotten face came to his mind: old and stern, with a neatly trimmed beard. Though the man radiated harshness and discipline, something about his face screamed of familiarity. The boy ducked behind an obstacle and tried to recall the man’s name, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t quite remember.

Lasers flew over his head; the targets were rolling out from the gaps into the main corridor, firing at them. The boy dropped to his stomach and brought his gun to bear, making himself as small as possible. With rapid precision, he picked out the targets to the left, focusing on the ones that were armed. As his squadmates joined him, the targets went down two and three at a time, lasers swinging wide.

Their teamwork was flawless. Within less than fifteen seconds, the remaining thirty-seven targets were all down. The right side of his visor display showed that his squadmates had received only a handful of glancing blows on their arms. In real combat, the wounds would not be critical. With their RPV shields active, the shots wouldn’t have even gotten through.

The boy grasped the muzzle of his gun, still hot, and smiled.


* * * * *


James dropped to his knees and pointed his laser-paintball rifle down the dim, narrow corridor of the Tajji Flame. His chest heaved with exertion against the artificial gravity, set to 150 percent of standard for the shipwide training exercises. Ahead of him, Mikhail crouched and motioned for the others to get down.

“Shields up,” he told his squad. “Any minute now. Get ready to fall back.”

James sighed. “We tried that last time. It didn’t work.”

“Shh!”

James rolled his eyes. What was the point of repeating the same mistakes, time and again? The walls all around them were splattered with paint from the previous rounds—blue for the first, green for the second, red for the third, and in a few minutes they’d be splattered with a bright coat of yellow. Their armor, too, was splattered—James’s more than all of them put together. Cleaning all of this was going to be a pain and a half, but James tried not to think of that now, not while—

The blast door hissed and parted. Two small, round objects rolled through before the door was completely open.

“Grenade!” shouted Mikhail.

James buried his face in his elbow just as the grenades exploded with a small puffing noise. The edges of his arm flared with brilliant light, shining bright red through his eyelids. A moment later, paintballs sliced through the air and splattered on the walls and floor. His squadmates started shouting, and James lifted his head and dropped to the floor, firing wildly with his gun.

“Fall back!” Mikhail shouted. “Fall back!”

James blinked and stared through the doorway. Fuzzy silhouettes gradually gave way to more solid forms. Half a dozen red dots of laser light danced along the walls on either side as Maria’s squad advanced.

Not this time, James thought to himself, rising to his feet.

With a loud cry, he ran straight at the other squad, firing. “Come on!” he shouted to his other squadmates. “We can take ‘em!” Downrange, someone cried out in pain, while the silhouettes slunk against the walls, falling back before him.

As James ran screaming down the corridor, the red points of laser-light leaped from the walls and converged on his chest. The mock RPV shield on his wrist began to blink.

“Fall back, kid,” Mikhail shouted from far behind. “You’re going to blow!”

James was too busy to listen, however. He zig-zagged as he charged, firing indiscriminately at everything he saw. I can get them before my shield blows, he told himself. If only—

His gun suddenly locked up, refusing to fire. He dropped to his stomach and checked the magazine—still full—but noticed that the light on his wrist had stopped blinking.

“McCoy is down,” came Ilya’s voice over the shipwide intercom. “So are Yeubanks and Ladroga.”

“What?” shouted a young woman. One of the dark shapes rose from the shadows, not ten yards from where James lay on the floor. “How?”

“Killed in the blast from McCoy’s shield,” said Ilya.

“Wait,” said James, “what do you mean I’m dead?”

“Your shield blew, kid,” said Ilya. “Get down and let the exercise continue.”

“But I was under fire for less than five seconds!”

“With four heavy assault rifles pumping lead slugs into you at five hundred rounds per minute,” came Ilya’s voice. “Now shut up and get down.”

“No, you listen to me!” James shouted. He slipped off his helmet and rose to his feet. “I swear, Ilya, you’ve got the game rigged. Why don’t you come down from the bridge and—”

Something powerful struck him in the back. An instant later, he slammed face-first into the wall.

“Ow!” he cried, turning around to see what had struck him. Before he could react, one of Maria’s soldiers raised a gun and pointed it at his chest.

The paintballs pelted his armor at point blank range. Each blow was enough to knock the wind out of him. He gasped for breath and bounced around on the floor as the shots made a bright yellow dot in the center of his chest.

“You’re dead,” said the soldier. “Now shut up and move aside.”

James slumped to the ground as his whole body started to ache. He clenched his fists and tried to pull himself up, but found he didn’t have the strength in the extra gravity. Further down, Ladroga and Yeubanks had their helmets off and were glowering at him.

“Worthless kid,” said Yeubanks, spitting on the floor. She helped Ladroga to his feet, and together they walked away, leaving him to lie pathetically on the floor.


* * * * *


Something was wrong. The boy without a name didn’t know what it was, but it resonated clearly through the hearts of his platoon brothers. The rhythmic march down the corridor did little to comfort them, in spite of the perfect unity of their step. They felt no security in their togetherness—only a vague, unshakable feeling of impending danger.

Voche led them in a direction they had never gone. The hall went down a level on a gradual incline, air ducts and pipes running unexposed along the ceiling next to cold, green lights.

At the end of the hallway, they came to a freight door. It seemed ordinary enough—aged metal surface, chipping paint, early signs of corrosion—but somehow the boy knew otherwise. Something dangerous was behind that door—something monstrous.

“Halt,” said Voche.

The platoon instantly came to a stop. The boy’s knees began to tremble.

“Take positions!”

In spite of their growing fear, the reflexes from training quickly took over. Like a well-oiled machine, the boy ran to the front of the line with a dozen others and crouched down, about fifteen meters from the door.

He stared straight ahead, arms shaking, knees trembling. In spite of the cool air, his palms were sweaty, making his hands feel slippery. The chamber suddenly seemed to darken, while the air grew unbearably stale. His breathing came short and ragged as his heart pounded in his chest.

Voche stepped in front of them. “This,” he said, “is more than a door.” He knocked casually on the corroded surface; at the low thumping noise, several of them flinched. “It is a barrier between you and the enemy. You must always keep that in mind. Whenever you come to a barrier like this, know that the enemy is waiting for you.”

The boy drew in a sharp breath. The instant Voche paused, the fear they all shared multiplied tenfold. It was as if something invisible, something untouchable, had reached out through the door and stabbed him in the chest.

“When you storm a ship,” continued Voche, “you must not underestimate the enemy’s forces.”

A feeling of weakness swept over them—of powerlessness, as if an unseen monster had blinded their eyes and turned their muscles to pudding. In that moment, the boy felt alone and vulnerable, naked in a nightmare.

“Make no mistake about it,” said Voche, his voice rising. “Death lies on the other side of that door. Will it be yours, or will it be the enemy’s?”

A collective shudder passed through them all. The boy’s eyes widened and he gasped for breath. In an instant, his fear and terror dropped out from underneath him, leaving him devoid of feeling.

It was almost as if he had died.

“Are you ready?” Voche shouted, his voice filling the chamber.

Life came to the boy’s limbs again—life and urgency. His muscles trembled with focused anticipation as every part of his being focused on the door. Like a cornered animal, he made ready to fight to the death.

“Attack!”

At that instant, the door slid open. Time froze, and the boy became hyper-aware of his surroundings—the rust in the walls, the three-quarter inch gaps in the floor grating, the sweat on his brow and in his palms. In that instant, he could feel the presence of each of his platoon brothers individually, clearer than ever before.

One of them was missing.

In the instant before the guns erupted, the boy saw clearly what lay on the other side of the door. His nameless platoon brother lay in a rapidly swelling pool of fresh blood, naked and face upward on the floor. His skull had been cracked open, his single remaining eye staring up at the ceiling from a bloody socket. Blood gushed outward from a hole in his chest.

Behind the body, half a dozen men stood with guns in their hands.

The entire hallway exploded with the sound of gunfire. Bullets flew like a meteor shower, shredding the bodies of the men on the other side. They twitched like marionettes, jolted as if by invisible strings from some unseen hand above them. Blood and gore sprayed from their ruptured bodies, splattering the walls and floor.

An instant later, the boy was on his feet, charging with his platoon brethren. They fired repeatedly into the dismembered corpses, blowing them to pieces, splattering their armor with blood and brains and flecks of bone and skin.

Slowly, realization of their victory won over the animal frenzy. It was over. The monster was dead. The danger had passed—it would no longer threaten them.

Nothing could threaten them. They were One.

The boy lifted his head and whooped triumphantly at the top of his lungs. Together, several of his other platoon brothers followed suit. Their cries resonated through the chamber, drowning out all other noise.

We will not be defeated. We will not be afraid. We will conquer.

As the victory cry rose in volume, the boy’s eyes wandered to a dismembered hand that still held onto its gun. As his eyes passed over it, he realized that the gun was actually a piece of harmless plastic, stuck to the hand with thick gray tape. A disembodied head, scorched by plasma, had a gag still tied between the man’s teeth.

The boy only noticed it with passing interest, however. He and his platoon brethren were too euphoric to care.

We will conquer!

Chapter 12


Danica stepped briskly down the main corridor of her ship. The walls, she was pleased to note, had been cleaned of any trace of the training earlier in the week. The acrid smell of the cleanser still hung in the air, while further down, she heard the scraping of a brush and the sound of muttered curses.

She turned the corner and stopped. Ensign McCoy was on his hands and knees, scrubbing the wall and floor. Ahead of him, the last ten meters of paint-splattered hallway stretched to the main airlock. Even though the training battle had been relatively light on this part of the ship, the ensign certainly had a good few hours of work ahead of him.

“Stupid,” he muttered to himself, not yet aware of Danica’s presence. “Just because…stupid…”

Danica indulged herself with a brief smile before folding her arms.

“Ensign McCoy!” she boomed.

The boy leaped to his feet and spun around. In his rush, he slipped on the wet floor and nearly tripped. His cheeks turned bright red as he steadied himself against the wall.

“Captain!” he said. “I didn’t expect you to—”

“Why haven’t you finished with this hallway yet, Ensign? I put you on cleanup duty three hours ago.”

His eyes widened. “I—I’ve been working hard—really!”

“I know you have,” said Danica. “You’ve done good work, too. But you need to be quicker—the rest of your team finished with their sections a long time ago.”

“But you gave me more work than anyone,” James whined. “It’s not my fault!”

Danica frowned and said nothing.

“Besides,” James stammered, “I think the game is rigged. I’ve died more than anyone else—it’s just not fair.”

“And exactly how do you think the simulations are rigged?”

He drew in a sharp breath. “It’s just—I mean, every time someone points a laser at me, Ilya marks me dead, even when my RPV shields are up. Are those things so useless?” He shook his head and clenched his fists. “That little bastard just sits in his chair and watches us do all the heavy work, while he—”

“That’s enough, Ensign.”

“But Ilya, he—”

“I personally review every training exercise in detail. Believe me, if Ilya was somehow stacking the odds against you, I would have seen it. He’s not.”

James frowned, but kept silent.

“The simple truth, Ensign, is that you’re no good as a soldier. Alone, you lack the skills to do any real damage, much less stay alive. What’s worse, you’re much too reckless to work as part of a team. You’re a maverick, Ensign—and a stupid, clumsy one at that.”

James scowled. “I’m not clumsy.”

Danica narrowed her eyes. James stared right back, the tension visible in his face. For a moment, neither of them said anything. Then, careful to keep her face an unreadable mask, Danica opened her mouth.

“Come with me.”

She turned on her heel and walked briskly down the corridor. A few seconds later, she heard his footsteps clattering behind him.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“Training exercises.”

“Training?” he cried. “But I thought we’d—”

“The others will not be participating.”

“But—but what about cleaning the corridor? I thought you wanted me to—”

“The corridor will still be there when you get back, Ensign. You’ll have time enough when we’re through.”

James said nothing more. In a few moments, they entered the empty gymnasium, door hissing shut behind them. Danica keyed the access panel on the wall, and a cache of hand-to-hand weapons slid open for her to peruse.

“What are we doing?” he asked. “Why did you bring me here?”

“You need some one-on-one attention,” she said, picking out a long brown staff. “Catch.”

Instead of catching it, James ducked. The staff hit his elbow and clattered on the ground.

“Ouch!” he said. “What was that for?”

“That staff is called a pujilion,” said Danica. “It’s a standard piece of training equipment for hand-to-hand combat.”

He picked up the pole and stood up, examining it. It was perfectly straight, came up to about his shoulders, and was made of a firm yet spongy substance, like hardened foam.

“What is this?”

“It’s a super-dense elastic fiberfoam pole,” she said, “built to withstand heavy shear and yield to compression. Try jabbing it into the floor.”

He did. The tip collapsed almost half a meter, startling him.

“The pujilion is designed to minimize physical injury,” Danica continued. “Still, you’d better wear some protection for your knees and elbows. You’ll find them in the bin to the far left—you should probably pick up a helmet as well.”

Danica finished suiting up in half the time it took James to put on his pads. She spent the extra time spinning her pujilion staff in quick figure eights, loosening up her muscles. I’ll have to go easy on him, she reminded herself as she savored the whistling noise the staff made as it sliced through the air.

“What good is this thing?” James muttered. “It’s not like we’d ever use it in combat.”

“The pujilion is an elegant tool,” Danica answered. “It’s useful in training your mind and building your reflexes. Anyone can pull a trigger, but not everyone has the fortitude to square off with one of these.”

To make her point, she shouted and lunged, the staff moving so fast that it practically sang. James jumped away and slammed into the wall.

“Ouch!” he cried. “What are you doing?”

“Are you ready?”

She took a step back and assumed a defensive position, left foot forward, ready to strike or deflect—or both.

James held his weapon from the end like a sword and charged straight at her. She easily parried his blow, knocking him away. He regained his balance and swung again, only to have his weapon knocked from his hands. As he bent over to pick it up, Danica struck him across his backside and sent him sprawling to the ground. He cried out in pain and surprise.

“You need to be faster,” said Danica. “Stay on your guard.”

James grabbed his staff and rose to his feet, mimicking Danica’s pose. He stepped forward; she took a step back. He took another step forward; she moved to the side.

Without warning, she lunged and jabbed at him. He barely had time to react, but managed to deflect it; her blow only lightly grazed his stomach.

“Good,” she said. “You’re getting the hang of this. Now come at me again.”

James edged his way around her, then lunged forward in an attack. Danica deflected his blow, stepped aside, and sent him to the floor in one smooth movement.

“Relax,” she said. “Your body is so tense I can see every move before you make it. Let your body react naturally; let all your movements flow together.”

He stood up again and took a deep breath, putting himself in the ready position. Though he tried to relax, Danica could still sense the tension in his body.

She came at him again, slicing the air with her staff. He braced and blocked it, but before he could counter, she went for a jab. The tip of her staff jammed into his stomach, knocking the wind out of him. He fell backwards onto the floor.

“Ahh,” he moaned, holding his stomach.

“Get up. You’re not hurt.”

He stood up again and halfheartedly lifted his staff as she circled him like a crab. Without warning, he lunged forward, but his pujilion glanced harmlessly off of her upper arm.

“Is that the best you can do, Ensign?”

He clenched his teeth and jabbed. She took a quick step back, not even bothering to knock it away. His jab was so weak that the tip of his staff didn’t even touch her.

“You’re not putting your heart into it,” she said. “You’re holding back too much. And when you do manage to loosen up, you have no control, no focus.”

“So?” he said, breathing heavily. “This is my first time—give me a break.”

“This isn’t just a problem with your pujilion technique,” she said, easily deflecting another of his attacks. “It’s a problem with you.”

He glared at her.

“Listen,” she continued. “If you want to rescue your brother and sister, you need to learn control and self-discipline. You need to be able to strike quickly and efficiently. Recklessness will not only get you killed, it will get your friends and companions killed as well.”

And your loved ones, she thought grimly to herself.

“Okay,” said James, brandishing his pujilion with renewed vigor. “What do I need to do then?”

Danica set down her weapon against the wall. James blinked.

“Realize that half the battle is here,” she said, pointing to his head. “‘Know thyself and thy enemy, and thou shalt be victorious in every engagement.’“

“Right,” he said, nodding. “So where do I start?”

“I can’t tell you how to know yourself, Ensign. I can guide you, perhaps take you partway there, but you’re going to have to figure the rest out on your own.”

He frowned. “How am I supposed to do that?”

“Let your enemy teach you,” she said, pointing to his staff. “That’s what these training tools are useful for.”

“But I’m never going to use this,” he said, “and anyways, we’re only a couple of weeks from Kardunash IV as it is. There’s not enough time.”

Danica sighed. “If that’s what you believe, then nothing I can do will help.” She turned and walked toward the wall with the weapons cache.

“Wait!” said James. “Please, teach me. I can learn.”

Danica stopped and turned to face him. She stared at him silently for some time. James returned her gaze, but shifted nervously from foot to foot.

“Let me ask you a question, then,” she said. “Have you ever killed a man?”

James’s eyes widened. “No,” he said. “Of course not.”

“Do you think you ever could?”

“Yes,” he said, a little too quickly. Danica stared him in the eye. “I mean, maybe,” he stuttered. “I don’t know. I think I could.”

“There are two kinds of people in this universe,” Danica said, folding her arms. “Those who can kill without hesitation, and those who cannot. Sheep and wolves, in other words. You know what a sheep is?”

“Yes,” said James. “They had pastures for them in the agri-domes on Kardunash IV, before—well, before the Hameji came.”

“And you know what wolves are too?”

“No,” he admitted.

“The Old Earth Archives tell of a time, long before spaceflight, when humanity lived off of primitive agriculture. According to these records, most of the Earth’s surface was unsettled—roughly analogous to the Outer Reaches today. Wolves were untamed beasts who lived off the land, eating sheep or men or whatever else they could hunt down and kill.

“In civilized society, most people are like sheep. They live in large, comfortable communities where they think they’re safe from those who would harm them. But out on the fringes, you’ll find the wolves. Those are the people who can—and will—kill without hesitation. Those are the ones who fight and win wars. Those are the ones who have the power to destroy civilization.”

James tensed. “Those are the Hameji, you mean?”

“Yes,” said Danica. “Those are the Hameji.”

“So what do I do, then?” he asked. “What does any of this have to do with me?”

“If you want to fight a wolf, you have to become one.”

James’s face paled. “You mean, I have to become like the Hameji? A monster?”

“No,” said Danica. “Because you see, on Old Earth, there were two kinds of wolves: those who lived in the wild, and those who were tamed by man. The tame wolves became sheepdogs—protectors of the sheep. They used their killing instincts to hunt down the wolves.

“You see, Ensign, the only reason civilized society isn’t overrun by barbarians and criminals is because of the sheepdogs. We think of our soldiers and policemen as great heroes, when really, they have more in common with the murderers than with the people they protect. Instead of becoming monsters, however, they learn to channel their natures for good—to serve and protect, rather than to kill and destroy.”

Danica paused. “You may be surprised when you discover how easy it is to kill a man,” she said softly. “When that time comes, though, you need to know yourself—know yourself well enough that it doesn’t turn you into a monster.”

“How can I do that?” James asked.

Danica smiled grimly. “That’s not something I can teach you,” she said. “That’s something you’ll have to discover for yourself.”


* * * * *


“I’m not surprised,” said Tamu from the top bunk. “I told you Borta would see you as a rival, darling. You should have slept with Qasar when he summoned you.”

Stella’s cheeks flushed red, and she bit her lip. Why are you telling me this? she wanted to scream. Can’t you see that I just need someone to talk to?

Instead, she stared mutely at the ceiling. The purple and pink curtains dangling from the ceiling reminded her of an aurora. She closed her eyes and pictured the one she’d seen from orbit at Auriga Nova V on the first voyage of her apprenticeship. Such a beautiful sight; it had helped her to get over the homesickness from leaving home for the first time.

Now, in the windowless prison of the concubines’ quarters, she felt the terrible homesickness returning. The faces of her family flashed across her mind even as tears burned in her eyes. Her two brothers, Ben and James—Ben with his characteristic grin, James with that serious look in his eyes that Ben always mistook for pouting. She saw her mother and father, too—holding hands and smiling at her, as if to say they loved her. She choked back a sob and clenched her eyes shut, forcing the images out of her mind. That life was worlds away from where she was now, and she didn’t know how to get back.

“Don’t cry, honey,” said Tamu. “Things will get better—you’ll be used to this place before you know it.”

“How could I possibly get used to this?” Stella said, barely aware of her words even as she vocalized the thought.

“Easy, dear,” said Tamu. “Don’t fight it—you’ll just end up hurting yourself.”

Maybe that’s what I want.

“Really though, honey, you don’t have to make things so complicated. All you have to do is sleep with the man, and your problems will be solved.”

Stella clenched her fists to keep from screaming. “Oh, is that all?” she said sarcastically. “Thanks. Thanks a lot.”

“Why not, honey? Are you afraid?”

“No,” Stella said quickly. “It’s not that—”

“Then what is it, dear?”

“It’s just—it’s just wrong, that’s what.”

Tamu’s face fell. “Wrong? What do you mean?”

“Oh, nothing—only that it goes against everything I know and believe. ‘Why are you making things so complicated, Sholpan? Being a whore is so much easier—’”

“Who are you calling a whore?”

Stella cringed as she realized her roommate was glaring at her. “That’s not what I meant.”

“Then what did you mean? Do you think that you’re better than the rest of us?”

“No,” Stella said quickly, “it’s not that at all.”

“Oh, come on, Sholpan,” said Tamu, rolling her eyes. “Ever since you came here, you’ve acted like you’re something else. You won’t come to the lounge, you won’t eat meals with the rest of us—you haven’t even met any of the other girls. Do you know what they’re saying about you behind your back, honey? Do you?”

Stella said nothing.

“They’re saying you’re a self-righteous prude. They’re saying you don’t want to have anything to do with us because you think we’re all sluts and whores. And they’re taking bets right now, honey—bets on how long it takes you to crack.”

Stella’s stomach dropped. Please no, she thought to herself. No drama. Not here.

“Up until now, honey, I’ve taken your side,” Tamu continued. “‘She’s not that bad,’ I told them. ‘Give her some time, she’ll come around.’ But you know what, dearest? The way you wallow in your self-pity, I’m starting to think that they’re right.”

“No!” Stella cried. “Please, Tamu—it’s not like that at all!”

“Then what is it like, dear?”

“It’s just—I just can’t do it,” she stammered. “It’s so—it goes against—” her voice caught in her throat, and for several moments she couldn’t speak.

“Look, honey,” said Tamu, “I know you wanted your first time to be special—hell, everyone does—but even if it’s not the way you wanted it, it’s not the end of the world. I can’t even remember my first time. When it was over, that was it. I was still the same person I was before—nothing had changed.”

Stella buried her head in her hands and drew in a deep breath. “You wouldn’t understand.”

Tamu said nothing for a while. When she spoke, her voice was soft.

“You want to know how I came here, sweetie?”

“Yes,” said Stella, a little surprised by the question. “How?”

“I was on an illegal deep space pleasure yacht when the Hameji took me. I’d worked there since I was fourteen standard years old.”

“What did you do for work?”

Tamu laughed. “I worked the pole, dear. What else would a girl do on one of those ships?”

Stella’s mouth dropped open in shock. “Fourteen?”

“Yes, dear,” said Tamu. “And I wasn’t the youngest one either—not by a long shot. There’s a reason those pleasure cruises only operate in deep space.”

“I’m so sorry,” Stella said, her voice barely more than a whisper.

Tamu sighed. “It was bad, dear. Whatever the men wanted, I had to give them. I lived out of a closet, with two other roommates. We had no doctor, only pills that made us throw up. The owners fed us shit when they fed us at all. They’d tell us we were getting fat, and use that as an excuse to let us starve. After all, if we got fat, what good were we?”

She paused and looked Stella in the eye. “Here, honey, things are different—much different. I only have one man to please, and that only every other week. I have a doctor who keeps me healthy. I eat three meals a day—good meals, filling meals. I live in a comfortable dormitory with all the luxuries I could ask for. So don’t go feeling sorry for yourself, dear. Life is good—even here.”

Tamu smiled and lifted her hand to Stella’s cheek. Even though she clearly meant well, the gesture gave Stella little comfort.

“You can do it, dear,” said Tamu. “Don’t be afraid—you can do it.”

I think I’d rather die.

Tamu stared at her in silence for several seconds. Without a word, she rose to her feet, walked to her dresser, and pulled out an ornate ivory canister.

“Here,” said Tamu, taking something from the canister and holding it out to Stella. “Take this.”

Stella caught the object as it fell from Tamu’s hand. It was a small white pill.

“What is this?”

“Something to loosen your inhibitions, dear,” said Tamu. She knelt down and started rubbing Stella’s back. “The Hameji don’t like their women drugged—that’s why Borta didn’t just slip this into your food. She knew Qasar would suspect something if you gave yourself over to him too quickly.”

Stella stared at the tiny little pill in her hand. It felt as if she were holding a bomb.

“Take this right before you go into his chambers,” Tamu continued, “and you’ll be yourself long enough to fool him. After that, the pill will take care of the rest. Don’t worry—you won’t remember anything after you wake up.”

Stella shuddered, even as Tamu gently massaged her shoulders.


* * * * *


The boy without a name lay awake in his bunk, staring up at the dull gray ceiling. Except for a dim red light from a sign outside the door, the barracks were completely dark. Around him, his platoon brothers slept peacefully. No sudden emotions or flights of passion gripped them; only the calm, dead emptiness of sleep. Yet the boy lay awake, his mind sorting through his disjointed thoughts.

As he stared at the ceiling, images flashed across his mind’s eye—fragments of memories from a life he could no longer remember. He saw the corridor of a ship—a cozy, well-lit corridor that somehow radiated familiarity. Windows flanked him on either side, and through them he had a stunning view of a verdant world below. Rich, green continents speckled with clouds sprawled across the planet’s surface, surrounded by deep blue seas. It was beautiful.

Then he was in another part of the ship, a small circular room ringed by a vinyl couch along the wall. Two people sat opposite each other—a boy and a girl. The girl looked up and smiled at him, her short brown hair swinging as she turned. The young boy pouted, clearly unhappy to see him.

Something about their strangely familiar faces called out to the boy. Don’t you remember us? they seemed to cry. Come back to us—come back.

“Hello,” said the girl, sliding over to make room for him. The boy without a name nodded before sitting next to her.

“I think we all know why we’re here,” the other boy said.

“Because you don’t think it’s fair that it’s your turn to stay behind,” the boy without a name watched himself say.

“But it’s not. When was the last time we were all together, anyway? I’ve flown dozens of freight runs with Dad since then—and I unloaded every time.”

“All I know is that it’s not my turn. I unloaded the last time.”

“Don’t look at me,” said the girl. “I haven’t been home for over a year. Besides, how many times did I get stuck with dock duty when we were growing up?”

The girl had a wounded look on her face. The memory stirred something deep within the boy—something he didn’t quite understand, but was still there nonetheless. A great yearning in his heart struggled against the empty calmness of his platoon brothers, and he tossed and turned restlessly on his bunk.

“I always get stuck with dock duty. Have you forgotten that I’m still living at home? While you guys are off seeing the universe, I’m stuck here, making all the local runs with Dad. I bet I’ve unloaded this ship more times than all of you.”

“Oh, for all the stars, don’t start this again.”

“Please, James—I’ll love you forever.”

Love. The word brought tears unbidden and unexpected to the boy’s eyes. He blinked as the reddish glow reflecting from the ceiling swam before his view.

“Why are you being so selfish? How many times do you get to see Kardunash IV? Can’t you cut her a little slack this once?”

In his memory, the younger boy bit his lip and clenched his fists. The boy without a name felt tears streaming down his cheeks at the image, so crystal sharp in his mind’s eye. What is happening? he wondered. Beneath him, his platoon brethren stirred in their sleep as his emotions struggled to rise above their own.

“Maybe we could draw straws?”

“Fine by me, but James has to agree to it—even if he loses.”

James. The name struck the boy like a grenade blast. He knew that name.

The memory grew fuzzy for a moment, but soon he watched himself hold out a fist with three wires poking out of them. “Pick one,” he said, walking over to the other boy—to James. “Shortest one gets dock duty.”

James pulled out a longer wire and sighed in relief.

“Stella, you’re next.”

Stella! The boy’s heart leaped in his chest, and shivers passed down his spine to the ends of his fingertips. He mouthed the name over and over across his lips—Stella.

“Come on—can you please let me go?”

“You’re hopeless.”

Please? Just this once?”

“Go on,” the boy watched himself say to the girl named Stella. “Fair is fair. Take one.”

“Oh, all right,” James abruptly said. “You can go.”

The face of the girl named Stella immediately lit up with glee. “Thank you thank you thank you thank you!” She ran up and gave James a hug before scampering out of the room.

“Your turn again, James,” the boy without a name said. There was cruelty in his voice.

“No. You go.”

“Don’t be an idiot. I know where the short one is.”

“Fine, fine.”

In his bunk, the boy’s tears came harder now, soaking into the cheap synthetic bedsheets. Around him, his platoon brothers began to come awake one by one, while inwardly his heart strained harder than ever against the Many.

“Come on, pick one already.”

James pulled out the short wire.

“No!”

“You drew it, fair and square.”

“Come on!”

“Don’t be a crybaby.”

“I am not a crybaby!”

“Yes you are.”

“No I’m not!”

“Yes you are. Listen to yourself.”

“I am not. Shut up!”

“Honestly, when are you going to grow up? It’s been three years, and you’re still the same pathetic, whiny little brother you’ve always been.”

“Shut up,” James screamed. “I hate you!”

No, the boy without a name realized. I love you.

In that instant, several things happened at once. All of the boy’s platoon brothers came awake, several of them falling out of their bunks in a series of soft thuds against the hard metal floor. And inwardly, the boy felt a terrible stretching of his consciousness. Pinpricks of light flashed across his eyes, and pain exploded all over his head. He opened his mouth to scream, but before he could utter a word, he was free—free of the Many, free of his platoon brethren, free in both mind and heart.

Free—and alone.

He felt as if he were flying through the void, falling down an abyss, with nowhere to go. A tunnel seemed to open to him, and at the far end of it, a light. Somehow, he knew that it would take him to the identity of his past life, to James and Stella and all the disjointed memories that called to him. But the light was so distant, and between them lay a gulf as empty and terrible as the vacuum of space. Without his platoon brothers, the boy felt weak, like a helpless infant without so much as the power to stand. He stared into the void, and the void stared deep into his soul, filling him with terror.

An instant later, he returned to himself. The Many swept him up into its emotional consciousness, and together he and his platoon brothers shifted from panic and fear to calm once again.

The danger was over—the monster had passed. They were One again.

Those who had fallen rose slowly to their feet and climbed without a word to their bunks. The boy without a name felt their fears subside as calmness turned to slumber. With a sigh, he closed his eyes and let himself drift away in sleep, safe, comforted, no longer alone. Never alone.

But as he fell with the others into sleep, his lips formed the names of the boy and the girl from his memory.

James. Stella.

Chapter 13


The summons to Qasar’s chambers came only two days after Stella’s encounter with Borta. This time, Engus brought her a holo projector with a personal message from Qasar.

“Lady Sholpan,” his holographic image said, barely two feet tall on the table in her and Tamu’s apartment. “I would be honored if you would join me this evening as my guest.” The image bowed, and the message ended.

As his guest, Stella thought to herself. That means he doesn’t expect me to sleep with him. She swallowed and rubbed her stomach where Borta had stabbed her. All trace of the bloodless wound had long disappeared, but the memory was still fresh enough to make her shudder.

She wordlessly went through the motions of washing and showering, her mind occupied with other things. When Narju had finished combing and drying her hair, he walked to the clothes locker in the wall and returned carrying a yellow dress. The silk was so thin that she could see his arm through it—even a wedding veil was more opaque than that.

“Lady Borta sent you this dress, Mistress Sholpan,” Narju said.

He held it up, and Stella saw that it came in two pieces. The top was a tiny shred of fabric barely wider than one of her hands. She bit her lip and stared.

“Lady Borta gave this to me?” she asked after several moments.

“Yes, mistress. Shall I put it on?”

Stella didn’t move. She did not want to wear that thing—it would be like walking into Qasar’s bedchamber stark naked. Borta would probably approve of that, she realized.

“Mistress?”

Stella blinked and glanced up at him.

“Do you…have anything else, Narju?”

He raised an eyebrow. “You would turn down this gift from Lady Borta?”

“Is that a bad idea?”

Narju didn’t answer right away. He draped the outfit over his arm and bowed.

“Lady Borta is a dominating woman, mistress. If you allow yourself to be dominated in small things, though, you will never crawl out from under her thumb. She commanded that you should wear this dress tonight, but as your personal servant, if you command me otherwise, I will obey.”

“But what will she do if I refuse?”

Narju shrugged. “Nothing she wouldn’t otherwise do.”

Stella hesitated, but only for a moment.

“Bring me something else.” Whether or not it would help with Qasar, she would rather keep her peace of mind than wear such a slutty thing.

This time, Narju brought a choice of several dresses, both one-piece and two-piece. She wanted to go with a one-piece dress—bare midriff always made her feel nervous and self-conscious—but knew that a modest dress probably wouldn’t be nearly enticing enough to suit her purposes.

“That one,” she said, pointing to a blue silk bedlah outfit. The top was thin and more than a little revealing, but the dress itself stretched almost to her ankles, held up by a wide double belt made of leather and colored beads.

I would never have picked out clothes like this before I came here, she thought to herself as she rose to her feet and slipped out of her bath towel. Narju helped her into her dress and clasped the belt low on her hips. I would never have let a man dress me, either, she thought to herself as Narju slipped the top over her chest.

What am I turning into?

As Narju stepped away, she collapsed onto the bench and held her head in her hands. She wanted to cry, but the tears wouldn’t come. Instead, she felt an overwhelming sense of powerlessness, as if she were trapped in thick mud and couldn’t move. Her mind spun with dizziness, and for a short while she couldn’t breathe. She felt Narju’s hand on her arm, and her face tightened up, barely squeezing a tear from her parched eyes.

“Relax,” Narju said, rubbing her bare shoulders. She took in a deep breath; the air was sweet in her lungs. The room spun a little slower, and tears finally sprung to her eyes, gushing out like a fountain in the desert.

“Mistress?”

“What am I doing this for?” she asked, barely coherent. “Why do I even try? My life is a living hell. Why don’t I just give up?”

Narju said nothing, massaging her instead. Her muscles gradually loosened under his gentle touch. For a brief moment, she could forget she was a sex slave for the monster who had conquered her home.

“Be still and listen,” Narju said, his voice solemn. “I was not always Narju. Before the Hameji enslaved me, my name was Asi. My people were the free nomads of Tajjur V.”

Stella stopped crying long enough to listen.

“The Hameji see all planetborn as weak and honorless,” Narju continued, “but that was not so with my people. We made our home in the untamed lands, underneath the open sky—not in the sprawling, polluted arcologies of the domers. We were a strong people, a proud people.”

He paused, and the strokes of his hands became harder. It was obvious that the memories pained him.

“What happened?” she asked.

“The Hameji killed my people when they slagged our world. My brothers and I were in a small town on the edge of one of the domes when they came. Before we knew what was happening, one of the shop owners rushed us onto his shuttle. To this day, I don’t know why he did it. We were the only ones to escape with our lives.”

“I’m so sorry,” Stella whispered.

“So was I,” said Narju. “So was I. The Hameji took away my home, they took away my family, and they took away my manhood. In my despair, I came to believe that no man had ever suffered as much as I. I dreamed of being a martyr, of killing as many of the Hameji as I could before embracing death myself.”

Narju paused. He continued to rub her shoulders—strong, unyielding strokes, firm yet gentle.

“What changed your mind?” Stella asked, eager to hear the rest of his story.

He sighed. “I came to realize that such a death would be utterly pointless. Had God kept me alive this long, just for me to end it that way? No, he had a purpose for my life—a reason for keeping me alive when so many others had perished.”

He stopped, lifting his hands. Stella glanced over her shoulder and stifled a gasp; the solemn look on his face reminded her of her father.

“Your self pity is a terrible poison, Sholpan,” he continued. “It is much more destructive than anything the Hameji can do to you. They have not stripped you of everything—not by far. You are not friendless. You are not hungry or naked or cold. The master even respects your chastity and allows you to keep it unsullied.”

Stella looked away. “Yeah,” she said, “but Borta doesn’t.”

“Borta sees your virtue as a threat,” said Narju. “But she sees everything as a threat. How else could she remain head wife? If it were not your virtue, it would be your beauty. If it were not your beauty, it would be something else. She is, unfortunately, an overly paranoid woman.”

“Not just paranoid,” said Stella. “She threatened to kill me if I didn’t sleep with him.”

For several moments, Narju was silent.

“How did she threaten you?”

Stella hesitated. Can I trust him? she wondered. Borta had claimed to control even the food and water that came into the concubines’ quarters. Was Narju one of her agents?

No, she decided. Narju wouldn’t have opened up to me so much if he were one of her agents. He was a good man, and he’d always been kind to her. Stella decided to trust him.

“Here,” she said, pointing to her stomach. “Look.”

Narju bent down and squinted. “I see nothing—maybe a slight redness above your navel, but that is all.”

“That’s where Borta stabbed me.”

“Where she stabbed you?”

“Yes. She stabbed me with a needle, at the meridian point or something. She did it to prove she could murder me and get away with it.”

“One of the doctor’s instruments,” Narju muttered. A frown crossed his face. “This is a grave development.”

“She’s going to do it, Narju—she’s going to kill me if I don’t sleep with Qasar tonight.”

He nodded slowly. “And what have you decided to do?”

Stella felt her arms and legs clam up. Her breathing became short.

“I don’t know.”

Narju placed his hand on her shoulder. His touch felt firm and reassuring.

“Do not be afraid, Sholpan,” he said. “Whatever decision you make, I am sure it will be right.”

Stella swallowed. She wished she could be so sure.


* * * * *


“Ah, Sholpan,” boomed Qasar from inside his private chambers. “Come in—please come in!”

Stella stepped through the doorway, into the scarlet room. She drew in a breath and tried to relax, hoping that her smile didn’t seem forced. With her warm, sweaty fingers, she held tightly onto Tamu’s pill.

“Good evening, Master,” she said, giving a little curtsey.

“Come, please,” said Qasar, motioning to the bed. “Have a seat.” This time, a bowl of fresh fruit and a plate of flatbread sat next to the platter of sweetmeats. Together, the three dishes made a full meal—much more than the two of them could possibly eat.

“Oh my,” said Stella, sitting cross legged on the bed. “The food smells delicious.”

At least I have some time, then.

“Of course,” said Qasar, reclining casually on his side. “Only the best for us both. Now come and eat!”

Stella’s stomach felt much too unsettled for a meal, but she forced herself to swallow a few pieces of fruit and break off a chunk of bread. While Qasar made loud smacking noises with his lips, Stella took small bites and chewed slowly, nervously fingering the pill in the palm of her left hand.

Not yet, she thought to herself. After the meal.

“I have good news, my shy goddess,” Qasar said, chewing on a piece of roasted meat. “Or news that is good for you, at least, and convenient for us both.”

“What is that?” Stella asked.

“The Generals have appointed me overseer of your star—Karduna, as you call it. They’ve given me twenty seasoned captains to hold the system and manage the local planetborn.”

Manage. Such a cold, heartless word—as if the ‘planetborn’ were robots or animals, not human beings.

“Granted, I could easily rule this system by force alone,” Qasar continued, “but with you by my side, that is now unnecessary. Once we are married, your standing as one of the locals will grant my rule a degree of legitimacy that it otherwise could not have, and prove a tremendous asset as I seek to build my court.”

Stella swallowed as Qasar took a pitcher of wine from a nearby hovertray. She trembled as if she were perched at the top of a narrow precipice, where any wrong move could end in her death.

“Well?” Quasar asked, pulling out two golden goblets and filling them with wine. “What say you?”

“I—I don’t know,” said Stella. “I—I’m not very high-born, and I couldn’t possibly do well in—”

“Nonsense,” said Qasar. “With me as your husband, no one would dare dispute your place in my court.”

“But I don’t think I could—”

“The gods have ordained this, Sholpan. Your coming at this time is much too auspicious to be a coincidence. They will provide a way—they always do.”

Stella nodded, her whole body tense. “Of course, Master Qasar. I do not doubt it—”

“Then it’s settled?”

“N-no, not yet,” said Stella, rolling the pill back and forth between her fingers. “I mean, how could I possibly make a difference? Those who hate you would resist your rule whether or not I were your wife. Besides,” she lied, her voice slowly dying, “I like being a concubine. It’s very…comfortable.”

Qasar stared at her for a long time, as if she had gone mad. Then, with a shrug, the expression disappeared.

“Perhaps,” he said. “I must admit, I am quite liberal with my women. If that’s where you’d rather be—but no, we do not have to decide this right now.” He handed her one of the goblets. “Thirsty?”

“Yes,” said Stella, keeping her eyes on him as she took it. When he tilted back his head to drink, she slipped the pill into her mouth and pressed the goblet to her lips.

Here it goes, she thought to herself as she took a sip. The tartness of the grapes and alcohol filled her mouth, washing the pill towards her throat. All she had to do was swallow—swallow, and remain Qasar’s concubine. Swallow, and—

Her throat seized up, and she started choking. Before she could stop herself, she spewed her drink all over the bedsheets, staining them red.

“What’s the matter?” Qasar asked. “Too strong for you?”

The pill! Stella cried out to herself. She looked about frantically until she saw it under one of the hover-trays. In one quick motion, she snatched it up.

“I’m so sorry,” she stammered. “I shouldn’t have—”

“Don’t worry about the sheets,” said Qasar, chuckling to himself. “They can be cleaned.”

She nodded and closed her fist tightly around the pill. It was pasty now, and warm from her saliva. She watched Qasar, waiting for another opportunity to—

No, she told herself, taking a sharp breath. I can’t do this. I—I won’t. In that moment, she knew she would never choose to be Qasar’s concubine, not even to save her life. If she had no choice in the matter, perhaps she could eventually stop hating herself—but not if she made the choice of her own accord. It would destroy her no less than Borta’s needle.

“Qasar,” she said, keeping her hand tightly closed around the pill.

“Yes, shy one?”

“I—I would be honored to be your wife.”

Qasar smiled and set his goblet on the nearest tray. “I thought you might come around,” he said. “Here, let me give you a gift.”

From his little finger, he pulled off a smooth gold band, with an enormous milky white gemstone set in the center. Stella’s eyes widened as he held it out to her.

“Well, don’t just stare at it,” Qasar said. “Hold out your hand and let me slip it on.”

For a moment, Stella thought that he meant the hand with the pill, and her muscles seized up in sudden fright. A glance and a nod, however, told her he meant her right. With a quiet sigh of relief, she held it out, trying very hard not to tremble.

He slipped it onto her middle finger without any trouble. It was a perfect fit. He laughed.

“Truly, a sign that the gods ordained our marriage,” He paused for a moment, letting her admire the carefully cut stone. “Would you like to know where the jewel comes from?”

“Yes,” said Stella. What else could she say?

“In the Tenguri system, there is a great temple on the primary moon of the first planet. Tenguri-kan, they call it—The Abode. As the moon passes between Tenguri and his star, the flames of eternity melt the surface into glass.”

What a hellish place, Stella thought.

“The gemstone you wear on your finger was taken from deep beneath the surface,” Qasar continued, “where heat and pressure and the will of the god combine to make the finest jewels known to man. So you see, my dear, it is truly a fitting gift for the namesake of a goddess.”

He lifted her hand and kissed it softly. The moisture of his lips felt cool on her skin. Her arm grew limp, and she let it fall after he released her hand.

“I hope it pleases you, Sholpan,” he said.

“I—I don’t know what to say.”

There’s no way Borta will let me live now, she bemoaned herself. Not with this.

He poured them both a second goblet of wine. “Then let us drink to it. To our union, and a bounteous future!”

She took the goblet and smiled. While he drank, she opened her hand and stared at the pill. It had lost its solid consistency, but was still mostly there. Perhaps she could—but no, that was no longer an option. Instead, she dropped it over the edge of the bed, wiping her hand in the folds of her dress.

That decides it, she thought to herself. I’m not going to sleep with him. Strangely, she felt a calming peace come over her. Now that the anticipation was over, it was as if a great burden had been lifted from her shoulders.

Burden or not, however, that didn’t change the fact that tomorrow morning, she was going to die.


* * * * *


That night, Stella dreamed that she was home again, walking the tree-lined streets of the Colony. She searched for her parents, but she couldn’t find them anywhere. All the familiar shops and avenues were closed, and the streets were empty, as if the entire station were deserted. She started running, but the faster she tried to go, the more her progress slowed. As she ran, the corridors became narrower and narrower, until she was in the spartanly decorated corridors of the Lion of Tenguri. She ran for her life, even though she knew that she would never escape.

She woke from the dream in a heavy sweat, sprawled face-down across the bed. Her clothes were wet, and her waist felt sore where her belt clasp had rubbed against her stomach in the night. Her body felt so stiff that she could have been asleep for days. She moaned and stretched, turning over onto her back.

“What a dream,” she mumbled. “Tamu, are you awake? Tamu?”

In an instant, she realized that she was in Qasar’s bedchamber, not the concubines’ quarters. Her eyes flew open and she sat bolt upright, glancing frantically about the room.

Qasar was gone. She was alone.

Borta shares this room with Qasar, Stella thought nervously to herself. She probably even shares this bed with him.

She wasn’t safe here.

In a frenzied burst of energy, she threw off the bedsheets and slid onto the floor. She was halfway out the room when she remembered the ring, lying on the bedside table. Turning around, she slipped it into her skirt pocket and ran to the door.

Someplace public, she thought to herself, trying to remain calm. I have to go where there will be witnesses.

The door hissed open. Stella crouched against the wall and peeked around the corner. The corridor was empty, but it was better lit than the bedroom, with fewer places to hide.

Keeping her back to the wall, she slipped out and made her way forward, stepping as quietly as she could on her bare feet. The corridor was straight and smooth, but it was long—much too long—and empty. Except for the distant hum of the ship’s ventilators, all was silent. Stella wondered if anyone would hear her if she screamed—probably not.

The elevator door lay less than fifty yards away now—but the guards were no longer there. Her heart skipped a beat, and her stomach dropped out from underneath her. Where had they gone? Had Borta paid them off? Was this a trap?

Calm down, Stella told herself. Think.

If this was one of Borta’s traps, it was certainly a good one. The only way Stella knew to get to the concubines’ quarters was through that elevator. Perhaps she could find an alternate route on a lower level, but she would probably get lost along the way, becoming an even easier target. On the other hand, the elevator wasn’t far—she could probably reach it in a few seconds. If it was a trap, Borta would certainly kill her—but it was her only way to safety. She decided to risk it.

Her bare feet pounded the hard metal floor as she sprinted for the elevator. Seconds later, she slammed up against it, legs and lungs burning from exertion. She pounded the access panel over and over again until the door hissed open. It was empty. She slipped in and held her breath; only when the doors closed did she allow herself to relax.

Thank God, she thought to herself, leaning heavily against the opposite wall. Once she made it to the concubines’ quarters, there would be enough witnesses to keep Borta from taking direct action to kill her. For once, Stella was grateful for the total lack of privacy.

As the door opened again, the pungent, familiar smell of the concubines’ quarters washed over her. She peered out into the lavishly decorated corridor and gasped.

No one was in sight. The place was as empty as the corridor outside Qasar’s bedchamber.

What’s going on? she asked herself in desperation. Did Borta clear the concubines’ quarters, just to show that she could? Stella wouldn’t put it past the woman. Still, where else could she go? If Borta could kill her in her own room, nowhere on the ship was safe.

Stella took a tentative step out of the elevator door, her feet dragging on the shaggy carpet. The elevator door hissed shut behind her, making her jump.

Memories of her family came to her mind—of her mother, always so kind and cheerful, and her brothers, who genuinely loved each other, if only in a rough and tumble kind of way. She pictured her father, stern and austere, yet always concerned for her well-being. She hadn’t always been able to see it, but he had only wanted the best for her. I didn’t give in, she wanted to tell him, tears flooding her eyes. I kept my virtue—I didn’t die a whore.

Down the hallway, she saw movement. She froze where she stood, rooted to the spot with nowhere to hide.

This is it.

The black-clad soldiers stepped into view, charging straight at her. At the sight of their guns, Stella screamed and panicked. She turned to run, but stumbled and fell to her knees. All too soon, they reached her.

“Don’t hurt me! Don’t hurt me!” she screamed, reverting to her native Kardunasian in her panic. They ignored her cries and lifted her to her feet, marching her towards the dormitories.

They aren’t killing me, she gradually realized. Borta must not have sent them.

Then why are they here?

After a few moments, they let go and let her lead them. With the two armed escorts, she made straight for her quarters. They assumed guard positions at the door, whether to protect her or to keep her inside, she didn’t know.

The beads clattered as she slipped inside. Tamu glanced up from the bed.

“Oh, it’s you, sweetie,” she said, jumping to the floor. “My, but you had a long night.” She winked and came forward, arms outstretched.

“Tamu!” said Stella, giving her roommate a long hug. “Where are the others? What’s with the soldiers?”

“Hush, dear,” said Tamu. “Don’t worry—you’re safe.”

“But what’s going on?”

“The whole ship’s been put into lockdown.”

“Lockdown?”

“Yes, dear. Haven’t you heard?”

Stella gave her roommate a funny look.

“Oh, silly me,” said Tamu. “Of course you haven’t.”

“Heard what?”

“The news.” She glanced through the bead curtain at the guards, then turned back to Stella.

“Borta is dead.”

Chapter 14


Danica stared at the telescopic image of Kardunash IV on her main screen. The world lay some eight hundred thousand kilometers off their bow, shrouded in grayish-brown clouds and debris. Dead.

Just like Tajjur V, she thought to herself. Then again, the Imperials had occupied her homeworld long before the Hameji had razed it. Her family had been dead for years, and she in a self-imposed exile for nearly half her lifetime. Not that it had amounted to much—but still, it was enough to ground her. For James, however, it was a completely different story.

“How far out are we?” James asked from behind her, his tone betraying his impatience.

“We’re about eight hundred k-clicks out,” said Danica. “The port authority will be expecting us to hail them soon.” She turned to Ilya. “Lieutenant Ayvazyan, are we within range?”

“Yeah,” said Ilya. “Five light-seconds should be enough. I’m ready when you are.”

“Good. Sikorsky, Ayvazyan, prepare for transmission.”

“Yes, Captain,” said Anya. She nodded to Ilya, who slipped on a headset and began typing on the myriad keyboards spread out in front of his chair.

“What’s that?” James asked, pointing to the main screen.

The main orbital station stood out against the dead gray backdrop of Kardunash IV. Its docking arms jutted out from the central hub like spider legs, noticeably devoid of the usual flurry of ships and cargo. That wasn’t what James was pointing at, however. Two Hameji warships orbited in tandem with the station, dwarfing it with their enormous bulk.

Those ships could blow them out of the sky at any minute, even from five light-seconds away. All it would take was one bomb, jumped to their location—or worse, a boarding party. No one knew what the Hameji did with their prisoners, and Danica didn’t want to find out if she could help it.

“Hameji warships, Ensign,” she said. “Don’t worry; we’ll be careful not to provoke them. Right, Ayvazyan?”

“They’ll never see us coming,” said Ilya.

“What about Ben and Stella?” James asked. “How long will it take to find them?”

I doubt we ever will, thought Danica. Instead, she turned to Ilya. “Well, Ayvazyan?”

“Just give me a couple hours,” he muttered. “If they’re alive, I’ll find them.”

“Good. Sikorsky, keep your eye on those warships. If anything seems fishy to you, let me know at once.”

“Yes, Captain.”

Danica slipped on a headset and pulled the microphone to her mouth as she typed commands on the keyboard in front of her. “I’m opening a channel to the port authority,” she announced. “All hands, stand by.”

Static briefly filled the air, followed by silence. A red light blinked on her main console, indicating that the transmission was live.

“Kardunash IV,” she said, “this is the Catriona, requesting to dock for fuel and supplies, over.”

Out of mental habit, she counted the seconds for the return transmission. Five, six, seven…

“Roger, Catriona, this is K-4 port authority,” came a voice over the main speaker on the bridge. “We read you loud and clear. Docking space is available in our main bay. Please transmit your flight plans for confirmation of approach.”

Danica glanced at Ilya and nodded once. He returned the gesture.

“Transmitting our flight plans now.”

Two, three, four, five…

“We’ve got a connection,” said Ilya. “Mole successfully embedded. I’m mapping the Hameji network now.”

“What do you see so far?”

“They’ve got a couple firewalls, some high level encryption going on, but nothing I can’t crack in a couple days. Frankly, I’m surprised their security measures are so poor.”

That’s because only an idiot would try what we’re doing, Danica thought silently to herself. That’s why we’re going to get away with it.

“How large is the network?”

“Hard to say,” said Ilya. “From the looks of it, though, I’m guessing it’s system-wide.”

“Does that mean they’re here?” James blurted.

“We don’t know yet, Ensign,” said Danica. “Ayvazyan, I want you working on this round the clock. Find what we need as soon as you can, and remove any trace that you were there.”

“Gotcha.”

“We’ll be at port no longer than forty-eight hours,” she said glancing at Anya to make sure she heard as well. “I want a skeleton crew on the ship at all times, and anyone going off-ship must leave their weapons behind.”

“What if they’re on one of those ships?” James asked, frowning. “What then?”

“We follow our scheduled itinerary until I decide otherwise.”

“But if—”

“No ‘ifs, Ensign. We don’t go in until we have a solid plan of action. If that means flying halfway to Kardunash III before turning around to get them, so be it.”

James’s face fell. He bit his lip and stared at the screens.

Reckless, Danica thought to herself. That boy wouldn’t last a day if he were trying this on his own. Then again, even with her help, there was no guarantee that things would work out for him. She only hoped that when it was over, all of her men were still alive.


* * * * *


The rhythmic march soothed the collective pathos of the platoon. Still, the boy without a name felt a lingering hint of anxiety that their unity could not pacify. Today’s march was not a routine exercise; it was different.

They assembled in the main hall at the bow of the training ship. The magnificent observation windows offered a stunning view of the brilliant deep-space starfield, though no one bothered to admire it. Without thinking, they formed ranks, moving as a single unit. None of them so much as fidgeted.

Sergeant Voche marched up to the front. He turned smartly, his razor thin beard sharply outlining his long chin and narrow face. The boy watched him out of the corner of his eyes as he and his brethren waited anxiously for the sergeant to speak.

“Soldiers of the Red Dragon,” Voche bellowed, “when you came to us, you were broken and dejected. We stripped you of your weakness and turned you into men. We taught you how to fight and gave you back your honor. Now, you stand together, perfectly united—ready to defeat any enemy that may face you!”

A tremor of excitement passed through them all. The boy without a name felt tears come to his eyes.

“As you begin your first tour of duty in the Hameji Empath Corps,” Voche continued, “remember that the enemy fears you more than you fear them, for they are weak and disunited. You are stronger than them. Victory over the weak is your destiny—it is the destiny of all Hameji!”

The boy lifted up his fist and let out a tremendous war cry. His voice mingled in unison with those of his platoon brothers, who soon followed suit. The sound of their combined voices resounded throughout the hall, echoing off of the star-filled windows.

Your first tour of duty, he thought with eager anticipation. He could hardly wait to begin.


* * * * *


James walked alone down the main thoroughfare of the station, drifting down the nearly empty street in a state of shock. Most of the other mercenaries were back at the docks, touring the bars and brothels. James, of course, had no interest in any of that. He wanted to see the devastation of war for himself—to see if it was actually real.

It was.

The upscale commercial district was in utter shambles. The once-bustling street filled with hundreds of small shops and boutiques was now all but deserted. Garbage, shattered glass, and broken merchandise lay strewn about the ground. The shops were all boarded up, with gaping holes in the doors and windows where the looters had gotten through. Black scorch marks streaked some of the walls, while specks of dried blood could be seen in places, mingled with the garbage and debris. The enormous lights hanging from the station’s skyroof barely illuminated the scene. Several of them had been blown out in the chaos, and the few that remained now flickered haphazardly, giving the neighborhood an eerie twilight feel.

The few remaining people in this part of the station either huddled in the alleys or slouched along the walls. They stared at him with dark, suspicious eyes as he passed them.

James swallowed hard and walked faster. It all felt surreal, like something from a bad dream. Kardunash IV, the Colony, and now this station—all the universe was falling to pieces around him, and he couldn’t do anything about it.

No, he told himself, I can do something. I can save Ben and Stella.

“Spare a little food, sir?” said a woman near the side of the road. She stepped in front of his path, forcing him to stop. “Please, just a little something?”

“I’m sorry,” said James, holding up his hands. His father had always told him not to give to beggars.

The woman fell to her knees and started weeping. “Please,” she cried, “I have two daughters who are starving—they took my husband—we can’t afford passage—”

James bit his lip and reluctantly reached into his pocket. “Just a second,” he said, “I might have something—”

“Is it food?” the woman asked, her eyes lighting up.

James pulled out a cash datachip, loaded with about twenty Gaian credits. “Here,” he said, offering it to her. “It’s not much, but it should buy you at least—”

The woman took it and threw it to the ground. “Twenty credits?” she shrieked. “I can’t buy a packet of cereal for that!”

“What are you talking about?” James asked. About a dozen people began to gather from the broken shops and alleys, curious to see what was going on.

“Just an energy bar,” the woman said, grabbing James’s leg. “Just that much—it’s all I ask.”

James shook her off and stepped back, glancing nervously around him. The crowd of beggars had him surrounded now, and soon they would converge on him. They eyed him hungrily, the same desperate look on their faces.

“I don’t have any food,” he told them. “I just have a little money—take my money!”

“Can’t eat money,” grunted the nearest one, a young man with a scar across his cheek. He stepped closer.

“Look,” said James, “let’s not do anything hasty. I—”

“He’s from the docks,” shouted another. “He’s got food!”

“No I don’t,” James shrieked. “I don’t, I swear!”

“He’s lying!”

James balled his hands into fists and darted forward, striking the person closest to him with a punch to the face. The blow connected with a sickening crunch, and the victim—a young, half-starved woman barely older than Stella—fell to the ground with a moan.

James stared down at her and instantly felt ashamed of himself. In another time and place, she could have been a well-off stationer’s daughter. Her clothes—a brown, embroidered tunic with a wide leather belt—betrayed her middle-class background. Before the invasion, she would have frequented these avenues as a regular customer at the small boutiques. Now, her clothes tattered and dirty, she—

“You hit her!” the voice called out. “Why did you hit her? What did she—”

“Stand back!” James shouted, spinning around. The beggars shrieked in fright and gave him his space.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” James pleaded with them. “Just let me through.”

They stood just out of range, but none of them ran away.

“I don’t have what you’re looking for,” James shrieked. “I don’t have anything!”

“We don’t believe you.”

“I don’t care. Let me go!”

“What if we don’t?”

James raised his fists and tried to ignore the sweat on the back of his neck. Alone, he could destroy any one of them, but together, he didn’t know what would happen. Maybe, if he let go like Danica had told him—but he’d have to strike first, and strike hard. The half-starved girl lying on the ground was just the first casualty of many.

Before either side could strike, however, the sound of marching boots came from down the street. The beggars scattered for the alleys, leaving James alone. As they cleared, he caught sight of a squad of black-clad Hameji soldiers headed straight for him, weapons drawn and in their hands.

A surge of panic rushed through him, and he took cover behind a dead tree on the side of the road. From there, he watched as the soldiers marched double-quick down the street. To his relief, they passed him by without even giving him a glance.

James soon realized that the soldiers were escorting someone of high importance: an officer in a gray uniform riding a hoverbike. From his vantage point, he got a good look at the Hameji officer. His face was dark, his beard thick and black. His eyes were narrowed, mouth turned slightly down. His eyes were a deep hazel that blended in with the black of his pupils, giving him the appearance of an animal.

If I had a gun, I could kill this man, James realized, adrenaline still flowing from the confrontation with the beggars. His muscles tightened, and the hair on his arms prickled upward. All it would take was a shot to the head.

The officer and his guard soon passed, the sound of their boots fading off into the distance. Slowly, the natives slunk out from the alleys and byways. Before the beggars could return for him, James ran as hard as he could, heart pounding as sweat dribbled down his forehead, into his eyes. The sounds of shouting and pursuit followed him a short distance, but they were too late to catch him. He ran until he was almost half a mile away.

As he stopped to catch his breath, Danica’s words echoed in his mind. Have you ever killed a man? Do you think you ever could? James fingered the empty holster on his belt and wondered what would have happened if he had been armed. Would he have killed the beggar girl instead of punching her? Would he have taken the shot at the Hameji officer?

If you want to fight a wolf, you have to become one.

James turned and ran down the refuse-ridden street towards the docks. Running helped distract him somewhat, but still his questions tortured him. The worst part of it all was not knowing what he would have done.

By all the stars of Earth, James wondered to himself, what am I becoming?


* * * * *


Through a window in the narrow observation chamber, Danica watched the dock operators move the last of the heavy crates into the freight airlock with their low gravity forklifts. The docking claw for the main cargo train dangled silently above the growing pile of supplies, ready to transfer the cargo to the hold of the Tajji Flame once the inner doors were shut. The crates themselves were old and worn, battered with long use and protracted exposure to cosmic radiation—perfectly ordinary, in other words. The docking manifest declared their contents to be generic manufactured goods, such as electronics and component parts. A passing authority wouldn’t suspect a thing.

That was exactly the way Danica wanted it.

She stepped away from the window, hands clasped behind her back. When she came to the door at the end of the room, she stepped through into a drab, industrial corridor. Roman stood waiting for her, along with a short, stout man dressed in civilian workclothes. He had a dark Fu Manchu mustache and a largely receded hairline. Other than the three of them, the corridor was empty.

“Hello, Balthazar,” she said, walking up to the short man. He smiled and offered his hand.

“Everything is progressing according to your satisfaction, I trust?”

She nodded. “Is the software upgrade complete?”

“Yes.”

“And we can expect full payment when we return?”

“Of course,” said Balthazar. “All fifteen million Gaian credits worth.”

“We won’t take payment in credits,” said Danica. At the rate the war was going, those credits wouldn’t be worth an honest man’s wages in six months.

“Of course, of course,” said Balthazar. “In that case, we can pay in your choice of basic commodity—at pre-invasion price levels, no less.”

“Good.” She turned to Roman, who stood by her side. “Roman, get back to the ship and prepare for departure. I want everyone on board and ready to leave within the hour.”

“Acknowledged, Captain.” He gave her a brisk salute and walked off.

“When can we expect you to deliver the Catriona?” the man asked in a hushed voice once Roman was gone.

“Before the end of next month,” said Danica. “We can’t guarantee anything before then.”

“Understandable,” said Balthazar. He smiled a little, more to himself than anything. “But tell me, captain,” he said, “why request such an unusual advance? Software and weapons upgrades for your fighter drones, that I can understand, but half-meter ball bearings?”

He glanced up at her, waiting for some kind of answer.

“Simply business,” she said.

“Yes, yes, of course. I understand completely. I am only a simple businessman, after all—I mean no offense by asking. However, if I had the opportunity to expand my reach, perhaps with your illustrious employers…”

Danica said nothing.

“Times are hard, captain,” Balthazar said, “even for the underground market. My niche of expertise has fallen out of demand; the Hameji repair and upgrade their own ships. Forgive me for my impertinence, but I’m sure you understand.”

“Very well. We’re working for an out-of-system smuggling operation,” she lied. “They’re a bit skittish about contacting new clients directly, though—that’s why they hired us to make their supply runs.”

“Indeed,” said Balthazar, smiling again. “Well then, I hope we can look forward to doing business in the future.”

“So do I, Balthazar,” said Danica.

They shook hands and parted.


* * * * *


James was one of the first to return to the Tajji Flame. When he stepped onto the bridge, Danica and Ilya were the only ones present. Out the forward window, the featureless gray clouds of Kardunash IV stared ominously up at him.

“Welcome back, Ensign,” said Danica, nodding at him from behind her chair. “It’s good to see you again.”

“Have you found anything on Ben or Stella?”

“As a matter of fact, we have.”

James’s heart surged. “You have?”

“Yes,” said Danica, her voice perfectly calm. “Please, have a seat.”

James hardly heard her. “How are they? Where did you find them?”

“Ensign,” Danica said, gesturing for him to calm down. Behind her, Ilya chuckled. James lowered himself to his post, sitting on the edge of his seat.

“I’ll give you the full briefing once we’ve left,” Danica said, still standing. “However, I think Ayvazyan can fill you in on the pertinent details.” She nodded to Ilya.

“Right,” said Ilya, swiveling to face him. “While you and the others were out enjoying your furlough, I autotranslated almost six hundred gigs of data to find this match with your sister’s medical records.”

He pressed a few keys on one of his keyboards and brought up a file on James’s terminal. The writing was horribly jumbled—the autotranslators must have encountered an obscure dialect that wasn’t in their immediate database. James skimmed the document and brought up the images attached with the file.

He gasped. On the screen, Stella’s face stared at him.

His vision blurred, and his body began to shake. The ambient sounds of the ship faded as he stared at the image of his sister. She looked frightened and lost—and horribly, terribly vulnerable.

“Where is she?”

“As I was saying,” Ilya continued, “after meticulously combing the data some five times, I found this file in the medical records of some ship called the Tenguri Lion. It seems to be the flagship of the Hameji fleet maintaining this system.”

“The flagship?” James said, tearing his eyes from the screen. “Why would they keep her on their flagship?”

“Same reason they’d keep her alive at all,” said Ilya. “As a sex slave to the Hameji overlord, General Qasar.”

A sex slave?

James’s stomach dropped. Blood rushed to his cheeks, and his fingers clenched into fists almost of their own accord.

“What are they doing to her?” he hissed.

“Keeping her alive,” Danica said, “and taking care of her health, whatever else. Be happy she isn’t dead.”

James’s vision clouded again, this time with rage. He turned to Danica, the knuckles in his fists turning white.

“We need to save her,” he said. “Now!”

“Control yourself, Ensign,” said Danica. “We won’t do anything until we have a clear, workable plan.”

“But—but they’re raping her!”

“And they’ll rape us too if we aren’t careful. How will you help your sister then? Bide your time, Ensign—you’re no good to her dead.”

James forced himself to calm down. It took every ounce of his willpower.

“All right,” he said. “But as soon as—”

“I’ll thank you to take orders rather than give them, Ensign. Is that clear?”

James glowered. “Yes, Captain,” he said.

“Good.”

He turned to the window and stared down at the dead world. The enormous Hameji warships orbited the slagged planet like a dragon guarding its spoils.

Whoever this Qasar is, James told himself, I’m going to kill him.

Chapter 15


“Borta is dead?”

“That’s right, dear.”

Stella lurched and collapsed onto the pile of pillows on the couch. A wave of dizziness passed through her, giving her a headache. Tamu slipped off the bed and sat down next to her.

“What’s the matter?” Tamu asked, reaching out to rub her back. “You look awful, honey. Here, take a deep breath—that’s right. Relax.”

Stella closed her eyes and focused on her breathing. Her muscles unknotted and went limp under Tamu’s touch, releasing the tension in her body that Stella had started to take for granted.

Borta is dead, Stella reflected. That means I’m safe. She isn’t going to kill me.

But who killed her?

Stella sat up and turned to face her roommate. “Tamu—what’s going on?”

“No one knows, dear,” said Tamu. “Borta was found dead in her quarters sometime last night. A little after, the soldiers came and sent us all to our rooms. That’s all I know—all any of us know, really.”

“How long ago did this happen?”

Tamu hesitated for a second—only a second, but long enough for Stella to notice.

“At least a couple hours ago, dear. Didn’t Qasar tell you?”

“No,” Stella said carefully. “When I woke up, he was gone. He must have left while I was asleep.”

“Slept in late, didn’t you? You must have had a busy night.”

Stella sighed and shook her head. “I didn’t sleep with him, if that’s what you’re talking about.”

“Are you sure, dear? Maybe you just don’t remember it. The pill—”

“I didn’t take the pill.”

Tamu frowned. “You didn’t?”

“No.”

Stella fell back against the pillows, her mind spinning in circles. “Borta’s dead,” she wondered aloud. “What happens now?”

“Well, honey, I expect Qasar will find the traitor and execute him. That’s what they usually do to criminals.”

“Execute him? Why? Don’t the Hameji have—”

“Prisons?” Tamu said, completing her thought. “No, dear, Hameji ships have no prisons. Capital punishment is so much more efficient.”

Stella shuddered and frowned. “But how are they going to find the murderer?” she asked. “Who would want Borta—”

The answer came to her like an explosion. She bolted upright on the couch, her blood running cold.

“Oh my stars,” she cried. “No!”

“What is it, Sholpan? What’s the matter?”

“Narju,” said Stella, leaping to her feet. “Where is he?”


* * * * *


“Ah, hello Ensign. Please come in.”

James stepped into Danica’s richly decorated private quarters. Steam rose from a micropercolator on a side table, filling the air with the smell of fresh coffee. Danica had set out two ceramic mugs on arabesque coasters.

“Have a seat,” Danica said, showing him to the couch. “Care for some coffee?”

“Sure.” James didn’t care one way or the other.

Danica poured them both a mug and took her seat. She sipped her coffee for a moment, closing her eyes to savor it before turning to him.

“Now that we’ve got solid intel on your sister,” she said, “we can start to plan the extraction.”

You mean how to save her, James thought to himself. She’s not a target to be extracted—she’s my sister.

“The way I’m thinking,” Danica continued, “we’ll have to capture a Hameji shuttle—one that’s been cleared on their network—and use that to fly into the Tenguri Lion. I’m not going to risk the Tajji Flame, especially when we’ll only need about four people at most in the extraction team.”

“I’m coming along,” James blurted. “She’s my sister. I want to be there when you go in.”

“Duly noted. That’s step fifteen or twenty-five, though. We’re still stuck on step one.”

“How to capture a Hameji shuttle?”

“Yes.”

James thought for a moment. “Why don’t we just use the Catriona?” he asked. “Ilya could hack into their network and get the clearance codes, and we could fly in on that.”

Danica paused to take a sip of her coffee. “Two reasons, Ensign. First, I doubt we could disguise the Catriona as a Hameji vessel. The Hameji customize their ships to the point that no two of them are alike—each is a unique blend of art and engineering.”

“But we can still do it—it’s not impossible.”

“That’s not the only reason, Ensign. You’re forgetting that the Catriona is our collateral for this mission—our deposit. If we were to lose her, how would you pay us?”

“But Captain,” said James, “we’ve got to save her. Can’t you see? She needs our help.”

“I understand your feelings, Ensign, but business is business. I’m not running a charity organization—I’m running a professional private military outfit.”

Business? James thought angrily to himself. She’s my sister, dammit!

Danica set down her mug and leaned forward. “Let me be frank, Ensign. Some of my men think that this mission is far too dangerous, and that we should pull out now while we still can. To be honest, I half-agree with them. I want to help you—I really do—but I have an obligation to my men that comes before that.”

James glared at her in disbelief. “So that’s what it comes down to?” he cried. “We’ve come all this way, and now you’re going to give up and send me off. Is that it?”

Danica said nothing.

“Or is this about the money?” he continued, his cheeks reddening with anger. “Money’s all you care about, isn’t it? You’re just a bunch of leeches trying to bleed me dry.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Danica muttered.

“Is that so? Well, guess what—I don’t have any money. That’s right—nothing. And you know what? I don’t care. One way or another, I’m going to save my sister. So go ahead and leave me—I’ll find a way. I don’t need you.”

“Ensign!” said Danica in a sharp, commanding voice. “Calm yourself!”

James stopped and realized his whole body was shaking. His head felt hot and dizzy, and his arms were trembling.

“This isn’t only about the money,” said Danica. She gestured to the furnishings in her room. “Look around. Do you think I became a mercenary because of the money?”

“Then why did you take the job?”

She looked him squarely in the eye and said nothing. James blinked nervously, not sure what to say.

“You want to know how I became a mercenary?” Danica asked calmly.

“Uh, yeah,” said James. He wasn’t about to say ‘no.’

Danica rose to her feet and began to slowly pace the room. “Do you see these books?” she said, gesturing with her hand. “The furniture? That antique painting of my homeworld?”

“Yes. What about it?”

“All of these things belonged to my father.”

James frowned. “Your father?”

“Yes. He was an admiral in the Tajji Revolutionary Guard—one of the highest ranking officers in the system. Politicians and dignitaries were regular guests in my house.”

“Your father was an admiral?”

Danica nodded. “I was his oldest daughter. When the Imperials defeated our forces, I ran away from home to rescue him.” She gave him a sad smile. “A lot like you did, in fact.”

“Did you save him?”

“No,” she said softly, turning away. “While I was gone, the Imperials came to my home and slaughtered my family. They executed him for treason a short while later.”

James felt his stomach fall. For several heavy moments, neither of them spoke.

“I’m sorry,” he said, breaking the silence.

Danica shrugged. “For a long time, I vowed to get revenge. But revenge isn’t what it’s cut out to be—especially when your nemesis is a faceless organization.”

She turned to James.

“You remind me a lot of my brother, Karen. When I left to rescue my father, he wanted to come with me. I made him stay. If he had been in your boots, I wonder if he would have done the same thing for me that you’re doing for your sister.”

“I’m so sorry,” James said, apologizing again. “I—shouldn’t have said what I did. I was wrong.”

Danica casually waved off his apology. “We’ll do our best to commandeer a Hameji ship and pull off this rescue operation,” she said, “but my first priority, above all else, is to watch over my men. Do you understand that?”

“Yes, Captain,” James said.

“Good.”

Danica retrieved her coffee mug from the table, taking a quick sip. “I’ll have you know, Ensign McCoy, that that includes you. For better or worse, you’re one of us now.”

James nodded. “So the mission’s still on?”

“That depends, Ensign. That depends on a lot of things.”


* * * * *


Stella ran down the hall, her footsteps landing hard against the shaggy carpet floor. Lockdown had ended only a few moments ago, but she feared she was too late.

She turned the corner and saw Engus walking briskly in the opposite direction. “Engus!” she called out, running after him.

“Sholpan?” he said, turning around.

Stella came to a stop in front of him and paused for a brief moment to catch her breath.

“Where is Narju?”

Engus gave an exasperated sigh. “Not know. Busy.” He turned and started to walk away.

“No,” said Stella, blocking his way. “Show me. Now.”

Engus’s cheeks turned red. He hurled a string of incomprehensible obscenities at her, but she didn’t budge.

“Now. I command you.”

He stared menacingly at her with his beady eyes. When he saw that she wouldn’t give in, however, his anger soon deflated. He shook his head and clucked his tongue.

“No good. No good I show you. Not good.”

“Engus,” said Stella, raising her voice. “Take me to him.”

“No good,” he muttered, but without another argument he turned around and motioned for her to follow.

He led her to the narrow hallway where the servants prepared the food. Two eunuchs at the counter watched them enter, but said nothing as they passed by. At the other side, they came to a door that she hadn’t noticed before. Engus punched a password into the access panel, and the door opened slowly, as if in dire need of maintenance. The shaggy carpet turned to hard industrial floor grating at the doorway. Cheap LEDs filled the corridor with a dark red light, making her feel slightly sick. The wall tiling had been stripped down long ago, no doubt recycled for use elsewhere.

As Engus led her inside, they passed almost half a dozen eunuchs heading for the concubines’ quarters. The corridor was so narrow that they had to turn sideways each time, and still brushed against the passing men.

“Do you live here?” Stella asked, shocked by how different the place felt.

“Yes,” said Engus with a tone of annoyance. He turned a bend and stopped abruptly, almost making Stella run into him.

“There,” he said. “Narju quarters.”

Stella swallowed. About fifteen yards away, two black-armored guards stood watch at a door. The nearest of them glanced her way and tightened his grip on his rifle.

“Thank you,” she said. Engus bowed and left.

Stella drew in a breath and stepped forward, trying hard to conceal her fear.

“Halt,” said the nearest guard. They crossed their rifles across the door to keep her from entering.

“I’m here to see my personal servant,” she said in the Hameji tongue, precisely enunciating each word. “Let me in.”

Both men stared at her in shock. That’s right, Stella thought smugly to herself. You didn’t think I could speak your language, did you? Think again.

“We don’t have clearance,” said the guard on the right. Stella guessed he was the leader. She narrowed her eyes at him.

“I am one of Qasar’s women. Let me in.”

“Qasar has many women.”

“And how many wives?”

She lifted her hand and showed him the ring. The guard’s eyes nearly doubled in size.

“A thousand apologies, milady.” He nodded to his comrade and they both stepped aside.

It worked! Stella thought gleefully to herself. It actually worked!

The head guard accessed the panel, and the door to Narju’s chambers hissed open. Stella started to step inside, but the guard on the left reached out his hand and stopped her.

“Let us enter first. The prisoner is dangerous.”

“No,” Stella commanded. “Wait outside.”

The guard didn’t move out of the way. Stella stared at him without flinching.

“Very well,” he muttered, “but be careful.” With that, he stepped aside and held his rifle at the ready. She ignored him and entered, shutting the door behind her.

Narju sat up on his cot, hands shackled in front of him. A large, purple-green bruise ran down the side of his face, and his hair was wet with blood. A few red specks had fallen on his clothes, staining his otherwise immaculate serving smock. In spite of all this, he smiled when he saw her.

“Narju,” she cried, her face turning white as she ran up to him. “Narju, are you all right?”

“Mistress Sholpan,” he said, opening his mouth as if to say more but failing to come up with the words. Stella gave him a quick hug, but his body felt stiff and unresponsive.

Hameji ships have no prisons, Tamu’s words came to her. Capital punishment is so much more efficient.

“It gives me joy to see you, Sholpan,” Narju said, his voice labored. “But why have you come?”

“I’ve come to get you out of here.” She stood up and glanced hastily around the room.

“Get me out?” A dumbfounded expression crossed his face.

Stella hardly heard him. She flitted about, trying to find an alternate exit. The room was little larger than a closet, windowless, with one red LED light that gave the place an eerie glow. Except for a cot and two bins of servant’s clothes, Narju’s quarters were drab and empty.

How could anyone live in this place? Stella wondered to herself. And I thought I had it bad.

“I am sorry, Mistress Sholpan,” said Narju, rising painfully to his feet. “I cannot go.”

“Of course you can,” said Stella, still distracted with thoughts of escape. “I’m breaking you out right now.”

Maybe if they exchanged clothes, Narju could slip past the guards and find a place to hide. But he was so tall—would the disguise work? And besides, how could she hide his wounds? Stella wished she’d worn a headscarf—that would have made things a lot easier.

“No,” said Narju, more forcibly this time. “Sholpan, look at me.”

Stella turned and put her hands on her waist, sizing herself up against him. “Do you think this skirt would fit you?”

“Sholpan.”

The power in his voice made her stop. To her surprise, his face was a picture of calm and peace.

Of resignation.

“You cannot save me,” he said. “But I sincerely thank you for wanting to.”

Stella frowned. “What are you talking about? Of course I—”

“No, Sholpan. This is the way it must be. You cannot help me; I must die.”

For a brief, painful moment, they both fell silent. Stella’s heart raced in her chest.

“Don’t say that! There has to be a way out of—”

“There isn’t. Qasar is already assembling his entire household to witness my execution.”

“But—but how do they know it was you? They can’t prove anything.”

“I have already confessed.”

Stella felt as if the floor had fallen out from underneath her. “Why?”

“Because I didn’t want another to be punished in my place. I killed, and I must die. I accepted this long before I took Borta’s life.”

Stella’s arms trembled, and her vision started to blur. Tears burned like acid in her eyes, and she bit her lip to keep them from spilling out all at once.

“Why did you kill her?” she asked, but she knew the answer before she spoke.

“To save you.”

“Why?” she cried, clenching her fists until her hands turned white. Painful tears streamed silently down her cheeks.

“Because one day,” he told her, “the Hameji will conquer the last free star and rule over the known universe. When that day comes, goodness and virtue will only survive because of people like you in places of power.”

He no longer had the downcast eyes of a mere servant. When he spoke, he spoke with the sincerity of one who had already accepted death.

“What are you talking about?” Stella asked, her head spinning. “Me? I-I can’t do that.”

“Did you give yourself to Qasar last night?”

“No,” Stella admitted.

Narju smiled as relief flooded his face. “Good. Then I didn’t give my life in vain.”

Her head spinning from a thousand screaming thoughts, Stella collapsed by Narju’s side and wept into his blanket.

“No,” she cried. “I don’t want you to die!”

“Sholpan,” he said, putting a shackled hand on her shoulder. “Listen to me very carefully. We do not choose the life that fate gives us. We only choose how we live it—and how to give of ourselves before our time is over.”

Stella’s shoulders trembled as she wept under his gentle touch. Still, she quieted somewhat to hear him speak.

“I am the last of my people,” Narju continued. “My family, my tribe, and all of my loved ones are dead at the hands of the Hameji. They slaughtered my people and destroyed my homeworld. They broke me down and made me into the thing that I am today—an unmanned servant for their pleasure women.”

Stella glanced up at him. Narju met her gaze with his humble, sincere eyes. His hand felt tense on her shoulder.

“I never thought that this would be my life,” he continued. “It would have been easy for me to give up and end it. I could have ended it—I could have died as a martyr, and regained some small kernel of my honor. Still, I held back, knowing that such a death would accomplish nothing. Fate had kept me alive for a reason—and now I finally know why.”

Stella’s eyes burned again, and the room began to spin around her. Why me? she wanted to scream. I’m not good enough—I don’t deserve this.

The door hissed open behind them, making her jump. Stella rose quickly to her feet and stepped between Narju and the two guards.

“The general is ready,” said one of them. “Milady, step aside.”

A snarl rose to Stella’s lips, and she opened her mouth to tell them to go to hell. Before she could speak, however, Narju put a hand on her shoulder, stopping her. She turned around to face him.

“I’m sorry, Lady Sholpan.”

Stella drew in a deep and tremulous breath. Without thinking, she pressed her lips against his. Her muscles turned to water as she closed her eyes and gave everything to the man who had saved her.

This is my first kiss, Stella told herself. Whatever Qasar does to me, at least I have this.

Rough hands pulled her away, shattering the moment. From the wall, Stella watched as the soldiers led Narju through the door. The shackles on his feet clanged with a harsh sound on the cold, bare floor.

When she was alone, Stella fell to the floor and wept.

Chapter 16


“You’ve gotten yourself in a big mess, honey,” said Tamu. “You should have slept with Qasar the first night like I told you.”

Stella took a sip of her soup and set the bowl on the table; her shaking hands made the spoon clatter. Three days had passed since Narju’s execution, and she still had no appetite.

“I couldn’t bring myself do it,” Stella said, her voice low and hoarse. “I just…couldn’t.”

“Well, darling, you’d better get used to it pretty quick. Once you’re married, he won’t let you hold out any longer.”

Stella shuddered at the thought. She would almost rather kill herself than marry such a man, but that would turn Narju’s sacrifice into a waste. She couldn’t do that—she could never do that.

“How—how bad is it, Tamu?” Stella asked. “It can’t be that bad, can it?”

“What, the sex? No, that’s not bad. But being a wife is about more than just sex, dear. You’ll have duties and responsibilities, not to mention all the political games with the other wives. Then there’s the children—Qasar will want you to bear him lots of children, preferably sons.”

Stella’s empty stomach sank through the floor. “Children?”

“Yes, dear. That’s how Hameji women prove their worth. If a wife can’t bear her husband plenty of children, that’s grounds enough for a divorce.”

Children, Stella thought with horror. I’m going to have my children with that man. The crying came slowly at first, but once it started, it soon became unstoppable.

“There there, darling,” said Tamu, kneeling by her side. “I’m sorry to scare you. Don’t cry.”

“It’s not you,” Stella sobbed. “I just want to go home.”


* * * * *


James was lying on his cot when the alarm sounded.

He leaped to his feet and banged his head on the low ceiling as the lights turned red and began to flash. “Ow!” he shouted, cursing his cramped quarters.

“Attention all hands,” came Danica’s voice over the ship-wide intercom. “This is a level three alert—repeat, this is a level three alert. All officers are to report to the bridge immediately.”

That means me, James realized. He nearly raced out the door before he realized he was only wearing a t-shirt and some boxers. The zipper on his jumpsuit jammed when he tried to pull it up, but after a short struggle, he managed to get it to work. With his boots still unclasped, he slammed his palm against the access panel and sprinted out the door.

The bridge was completely full when he arrived. All the other officers sat at their stations, busy with their work.

“Ensign,” said Danica, giving him a slight nod. She stood in the center of the activity, directly beneath the forward window.

“What’s going on?” James asked, a little breathless.

Danica lifted her hand ever so slightly, silencing him. He took his seat against the rear wall of the bridge.

“All stations, report,” she said, addressing the room. “Konstantin?”

“All systems nominal, ma’am,” said Mikhail from James’s left.

“Sikorsky?”

“Ready and awaiting orders.”

“Nicholson?”

“Drones coming online,” said Vaclav, surrounded by dozens of monitors. “Combat ready in twenty seconds.”

“Ayvazyan?”

“Cyber-ops up and running.”

“Roman?”

“My men are ready,” said Roman. “We await orders.”

“Good,” said Danica. She reached down to a panel at her seat and flipped a switch. The alarm shut off, leaving the room in silence.

“Here’s the situation. Three minutes and thirty-seven seconds ago, the Hameji discovered our mole. We believe they may have gotten a trace, in which case we can expect an imminent attack. As per my order—”

“Wait,” said James. “I thought you told Ilya to erase all evidence that we’d hacked into their network.”

“Hey, it’s not my fault,” said Ilya. “The mole was just a standard precaution, in case we needed to—”

“Silence!” bellowed Roman. Ilya scowled but kept to himself.

“I assure you,” Danica said in a curt tone, “Lieutenant Ayvazyan will be properly reprimanded after the situation has been resolved.”

James glowered. So it was his fault, he thought to himself. Idiot.

“As I was saying,” Danica continued, “we’ve already dispersed three beacons to draw their fire. Our jump drive is recharging and will not be operational for another thirty-five minutes. If the Hameji attack us within that time, we will be forced to engage them directly.”

James bit his lip. A chill ran down his arms—not of fear, but of excitement. After nearly a month of tedious training exercises, they were finally going to see some real action.

“Now, they may not attack us at all. If that’s the case, we’ll continue on our current trajectory without incident. But if they do attack, we can expect them to jump a bomb or an ionized deep space EMP and follow up with a squad of three boarding craft. Our beacons have enough power to draw off the incoming missiles, but they will not interdict the boarding craft. If the Hameji follow their standard procedure, we can expect to be outnumbered three to one.”

Danica paused to survey the room. No one said a word.

“No one has survived an encounter like this,” she said. “Rumor has it that no one can. I intend to prove that wrong. The Hameji don’t know that we’re anticipating them, which means we have the element of surprise. Let’s use that to our advantage.

“Our primary objective is to survive long enough to escape. Our secondary objective is to disable and capture one of the Hameji assault craft.”

Danica’s announcement was met with shock and bewilderment among the crew. Several of them gasped in surprise, while others groaned and shook their heads.

“Now, hold on a moment,” Danica said, raising her hands for attention. “I know that capturing a Hameji ship may seem impossible, but if we can disable one of their assault craft long enough to jump out with it, we can vent the interior and eliminate any hostiles at our leisure.”

“Yes, but why?” asked Ilya, always the one to speak out of turn.

“A captured Hameji transport is absolutely crucial to completing the next phase of our mission,” said Danica, “and we aren’t going to get a better chance at acquiring one than this.”

James’s heart leaped in his chest. Danica was right—this was the perfect opportunity to acquire a Hameji transport.

“I know this seems grim,” she continued, “but I have complete confidence in your abilities. If we all do our best, I fully expect to come out of this engagement with zero casualties.”

At that moment, a rapid beeping noise came from James’s right. “What’s that?” he asked, startled.

“We’ve lost contact with two of our jump beacons, Captain,” said Anya. “It looks like they’ve been hit.”

Danica nodded. “Then it’s begun. Stand by!”


* * * * *


The boy without a name leaped from his bunk and raced down the dimly lit corridor of the battleship. The smell of sweat and adrenaline filled the air as he joined his platoon brethren, the alarm blaring in their ears. Without thinking, they fell into line, running in perfect unison as adrenaline surged through them.

Today, they would see combat. Real combat.

At the armory, they fanned out along the racks and prepared to suit up. The boy grabbed a heavy black vest and threw it over his jumpsuit. With speed that came from repeated experience, his fingers raced up the clips on his side and shut them tight. He then slipped a waistband around his midsection and a codpiece around his groin.

With that done, he ran into the nearest fitting stall and leaned against a human-shaped robotic frame. A series of clamps closed shut along his feet and legs until the frame conformed to his body. He took a step forward and the frame moved with him, the mechanized joints anticipating and mirroring his every move.

The boy stood in the center of the stall and raised his arms. Above him, a massive robotic arm hissed as it lowered the main breastplate of his armor and fitted it over his torso. The armor connected to the frame with a satisfying click. As other arms fitted the plate shielding to the rest of his body, the interior of the armor filled with smart-foam, cooling him. The interior climate controls read his body temperature and adjusted accordingly.

The boy slipped his hands into a pair of armored gloves. They connected seamlessly into the liquid plate armor of his forearms, and the cool dryness of the interior of his suit slowly extended from his torso to the tips of his fingers. He stepped into a pair of heavy battle boots and felt the magnetic locks secure them to the rest of his suit. Last of all, he closed his eyes as his helmet descended over his head. A short hissing noise sounded from the seal around his neck, followed by silence.

The boy opened his eyes. Through his visor, the room brightened into shades of gray from the visible and infrared spectrum. A mouthpiece inserted itself into his mouth, and he took in a deep breath of coppery-tasting air.

The robotic arms retracted, and he stepped out of the stall. Though his heavy armor suit weighed nearly a hundred pounds, with the extra support of the skeletal frame, he moved as easily as if he were wearing only a light jumpsuit.

He followed his platoon brethren to the arms rack and selected an assault rifle. With his armored gloves, he grasped the grip of the weapon and tenderly stroked the barrel.

Power.

“Attention soldiers,” came Sergeant Voche’s tinny voice through a receiver in the boy’s ear. “We will be boarding a hostile craft imminently. Report to the high-gee coffins to prepare for combat maneuvers.”

With the alarm now muffled by the noise control systems in his helmet, the boy ran with his platoon to a long room filled with open vertical caskets, each lined on the inside with thick cushions. The boy knew that during high-gee combat maneuvers, these oversized cocoons would keep him and his brethren safe.

He stepped into the nearest one and stood still as it shut around him. Through the tactile input relay in his armored suit, he felt the pressure of the cushions against his armor. The coffin tightened until he was snug and immobile.

The respirator in his suit connected with the coffin unit’s hose, and his lungs filled with high-pressure, oxygen-rich breathing liquid. At first, he felt as if he were drowning, but he resisted the urge to cough it up. Within seconds, the feeling was past.

All noises from outside the coffin faded until he could hear nothing but the bubbling of his respirator and the buzzing in his ears.


* * * * *


Danica took in a deep breath and buried her growing fear and anxiety behind the captain’s mask she so often wore. In the heat of battle, she could not afford to let her men see her true emotions—that was a sure recipe for disaster. If her men knew that she was on the verge cracking, their resolve would fall apart.

“Konstantin,” she said, keeping an eye on the scanner, “I want you to power down everything but the jump engines and auxiliaries and put the ship on standby mode. Make us look like a floating derelict.”

“Yes, sir,” said Mikhail. He turned to his console and began to furiously type commands into the computer. The lights in the room dimmed, and the ever-present hum of the ventilators died into eerie silence.

“Captain,” said Vaclav, “are you sure that’s wise? What about our combat systems?”

“The auxiliary power will keep them online long enough to bring them to bear,” Danica answered. “Are your fighter drones ready?”

“Yes. We can start launching the moment you power up the main computer.”

“Good.”

With luck, the unmanned fighter drones would give them an edge. The Hameji conquered worlds and defeated entire navies through perfect coordination of superior firepower, not the strength of their pilotless fightercraft. With the latest bootleg Imperial combat algorithms they’d acquired from Balthazar, Danica wouldn’t be surprised if they took out two or three Hameji fighters for every casualty of their own. It wouldn’t be decisive, but it might be enough to get them out of a tough spot.

Besides, the Tajji Flame had a few other tricks up her proverbial sleeve.

“Systems powering down,” said Mikhail. “Going on standby in three, two, one. Full standby.””

The remaining non-essential lights shut off, leaving the bridge in near total darkness. The stars seemed dimmer than usual out the forward window; the sun was below them, out of their view but still close enough to drown out the starfield.

“Captain,” Anya announced, “I have two bogeys, repeat, two bogeys. They jumped in five hundred klicks dead astern and are closing fast.”

Danica frowned. “Only two?” Where’s the third one?

“That’s right. They’re accelerating towards us at a rate of—” she squinted as she peered at the data on her screen, her face silhouetted against the LCD light, “of fifty meters per second squared and climbing.”

Five gees, Danica thought to herself. Combat speed. Five hundred k-clicks—not close enough. Give them half a minute—yes, half a minute should do nicely.

But where’s the other damn ship?

“Sikorsky, can you get a location on the third transport? Anything at all?”

Anya toggled the main sensor display. “No, Captain,” she said. “I’m only picking up the two. The third one’s outside our local scanning radius.”

They’re holding back from the action, Danica thought to herself. Providing backup. Waiting to see what we do. If she took out the first pair too quickly, the third might call in for reinforcements. But if she destroyed only one and disabled the other, the third ship might attack them while they were attempting the capture. Their best bet was to wait for the third one to jump in, destroy it, then dock with the disabled ship and jump out with it in tow.

We can do this.

She glanced down at her command screen. The Hameji ships were less than three hundred kilometers away and closing fast. Now was the time to strike.

“Konstantin, bring up the gravitic dampers and the mass accelerator cannon. Nicholson, deploy the fighter drones. Sikorsky, bring the nose around and prepare to target the enemy.”

“Mass accelerator cannon?” James exclaimed. “You’ve got a mass accelerator on this ship?”

Danica couldn’t help but smile. “Yes, Ensign,” she said. “You’ve discovered our secret weapon.”

A custom-built miniature mass-accelerator had been fitted to the Tajji Flame, running the length of the mid-sized freighter. It was nowhere near wide enough to launch an asteroid, but was just the right size for half-meter ball bearings—and powerful enough to accelerate those projectiles to lethal speeds. A direct hit could cut through two meters of plated durasteel hull like a sniper round through a water balloon.

“Cannon and gravitic dampers online, Captain!” Mikhail called out. “We’re ready!”

“Excellent. Lieutenant Sikorsky, target the nearest enemy ship.”

“Yes, Captain!”

Anya had already started to bring the nose around. The faint starfield spun in the window, and a slight tug on Danica’s stomach indicated the abrupt shift in rotational momentum. Behind her, James fell to the floor; she glanced over her shoulder and saw that his cheeks were pale.

Not used to combat maneuvers, she mused.

“Fighter drones deployed and in formation,” Vaclav announced. “Orders, captain?”

She glanced at the battle screen. The three fighter squadrons formed a triangle, with the Tajji Flame in the center. The Hameji were slowing down and launching fighters, but hadn’t yet brought them into formation. To Danica’s delight, they appeared to be making evasive maneuvers. Two hundred kilometers was too close for them to safely use their heavier munitions, but too far to effectively target them with their precision weaponry.

She had them right in the sweet spot.

“Send the first two squadrons to intercept the further transport and its fighter contingent,” Danica ordered. “Order the third to give us a loose escort.”

“Acknowledged,” said Vaclav. The dozens of screens surrounding his chair spun with views of the starfield as he relayed the commands to his fighters. As they cycled through the camera feeds of the individual drones, she admired her flight lieutenant’s skill. Each cone-shaped fighter flew tightly in sync with at least two others, no doubt giving the appearance on the enemy’s scanners that both squadrons were little more than two or three flights.

“Target acquired,” said Anya. “One hundred eighty klicks and making evasive maneuvers.” Outside the forward window, the stars stopped spinning.

“Fire.”

The floors trembled and shook. Through the walls, the engines roared to life. Just as the sound reached its climax, the whole ship lurched. Danica reached out and braced herself against the back of her chair, but otherwise made no motion. The half-meter ball bearing was too small and dark to be visible, but on her screen, a red line traced the path of the improvised bullet as it shot toward its target.

“Five seconds to impact,” Anya said. “Four, three—”

“Cannon loaded and ready!” said Mikhail.

“Fire again.”

“Firing.”

The engines roared, the walls shook, and another deadly projectile disappeared into the darkness of space.

“Shit,” Anya muttered. “Our first shot missed. Adjusting launch trajectory—”

“Keep firing.”

“Yes, Captain.”

Four more shots issued from the mass accelerator cannon. The floor rumbled as if a beast were loose on the ship.

“Come on,” Anya moaned. “Come on, dammit…”

“Steady,” said Danica, her muscles tightening. “Don’t lose it, Sikorsky.”

“Almost there…almost—yes! Hit, direct hit!”

The point of light on Danica’s screen broke apart like a fizzling firecracker. A cheer rose across the bridge, and Danica allowed herself a sigh of relief.

“Nicholson,” she said, “give me an update.”

“The first and second squadrons are approximately one hundred kilometers from the target,” he said. “Enemy squadrons moving to intercept. Estimated time to contact, one minute.”

“Excellent. Ayvazyan, can you hack their drones?”

“Yeah,” said Ilya. “At least the ones from the destroyed ship, that’s for sure. Give me five minutes and I might be able to give us full remote access.”

“We don’t have five minutes, Lieutenant,” said Danica. “Just shut them down, fast.”

“Gotcha. I’m on it.”

If they could cut the enemy’s fighter contingent in half, the battle would be theirs. Vaclav could send the third squadron to disable the surviving Hameji ship while the first and second mopped up the surviving drones—perhaps they could jump out with the disabled second ship before the third one even showed up. The Tajji Flame wouldn’t even get a scratch; their victory would be immaculate.

Why, then, did something feel wrong?

“Sikorsky, what’s the status on our jump drives?”

“Almost fully charged, Captain,” said Anya. “Two more minutes, and we’ll be there.”

“Good. Set the rendezvous point as our destination and start the preparations for jump.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Five seconds to intercept,” said Vaclav. “Engaging in three, two, one. Contact.”

The dozens of screens at his station spun and flashed with light as the fighter drones engaged. A handful of screens went out, turning to gray static before switching to the next available feed. Though the drones’ dance was soundless and deathless, there was always something ominous in the way those screens flickered and cut out.

“Dammit,” said Vaclav, “we’re losing fast! They must have better programming than I’d—”

“Ayvazyan, report.”

“Almost there,” said Ilya. “And…gotcha!”

He triumphantly jabbed his index finger onto his primary keypad. On Danica’s screen, several dozen specks from the firefight flew outward in perfectly straight lines—derelict Hameji fighter drones doomed to hurtle forever through space in the direction of their last maneuver.

Vaclav laughed. “Haha—that got ‘em!”

“Nicholson, how do we look?”

“The enemy’s reduced to only a couple squadrons—we outnumber them now by fifty percent. Kill ratio is climbing—we’re taking out three of theirs for every one of ours.”

“Excellent,” said Danica. “Send the third squadron to engage and disable the surviving transport. Target the weapons and engines, but do as little damage as you can.”

“Acknowledged,” said Vaclav. He leaned forward and attacked his work with a vengeance.

“Sikorsky, bring us closer to the Hameji transport. Set the engines to full throttle—we’ve got only a short window for this dock-and-carry.”

“How short, Captain?”

“Shorter than you think. Let’s move.”

“Yes, Captain, but the soonest I can do is five minutes.”

Damn.

“Then make it four—just get us over there.”

“Engaging Hameji assault ship,” said Vaclav. “Arriving in two, one—”

Across nearly a dozen screens, the dark gray bulk of the enemy ship came into sight. Tracers and proximity explosives flashed soundlessly across the screens, but enough of the fighters survived to lay down a coordinated plasma strafing run. Within seconds, the screens blurred as the fighters came around for another pass.

“Squadron three’s taking heavy casualties,” said Vaclav, “but most of their short-range weapons are down. Two more good strafes, and she’s ours.”

“Excellent.”

“Captain, I’m detecting a Hameji broadcast,” said Anya. “It looks like a distress signal.”

Danica bit her lip. Where the hell was the third ship?

“How are our jump reserves?”

“Fully charged, Captain. We can leave at any time.”

Any time. In only a couple of minutes, the transport would be theirs. If only they could hold out…

“Watch those scanners.”

“Yes, sir.”

The bridge was deceptively calm. With the battle raging almost two hundred kilometers away, there wasn’t much for Danica and her men to do but push buttons and wait. The waiting was always the worst.

“Second ship taking heavy damage,” said Vaclav. “We’ve knocked out most of the guns, though. Going for the engines.”

“Will she be disabled when we get there?”

“At the current rate of attrition, yes.”

“Good. And the fighters?”

“They’ve completely broken up. Kill ratio is at twenty to one.”

“Order the first and second squadrons to return to the Flame,” said Danica. “I want to be ready for a quick withdrawal.”

“Yes, Captain.”

Danica glanced at her screen and watched as they approached the Hameji transport. The floor stopped rumbling as the engines cut off, and the room fell truly silent.

“We’ve reached the midpoint,” said Anya. “Turning around and preparing for deceleration.”

It took her just under thirty seconds to flip them around. The maneuver made Danica feel queasy in her stomach—the gravitic dampers were not particularly good at countering rotational acceleration. Once the starfield stopped spinning, the engines engaged again, a distant roar through the metal walls of the Tajji Flame.

“The Hameji transport is down,” said Vaclav, smiling. “Their forward window is shattered and leaking air. We won’t meet much resistance when we board.”

Danica seriously doubted that. Still, the battle was all but over. The Tajji Flame had come out completely undamaged, with only the loss of a few dozen fighter drones—expensive, but replaceable. Much more replaceable than men. It looked as if they were all going to come out alive after all.

As if in answer, all of the ship’s systems—lights, computers, everything—suddenly shut down.

“What the—”

“Oh, shit!”

“What just happened?”

“It looks like an ionized warhead, Captain,” said Mikhail. “Half our systems are out.”

“But we just knocked out the second transport!” Vaclav screamed. “They’re leaking air, dammit! Their hull is breached! How could they hit us now? It’s suicide!”

“Can we jump, Konstantin? Can we jump?

Mikhail gave her a grim look. “I’m afraid not, Captain; the jump drive’s completely scrambled.”

Danica’s blood ran cold. She closed her eyes and took in a deep breath, forcing herself to remain calm.

The third transport, she thought to herself. Of course.

They were about to be boarded.

Chapter 17


A peculiar feeling seized the boy without a name—a falling sensation, as if the universe had turned itself inside out. It lasted for only a second, but it was enough to send a surge of adrenaline through his veins.

Jumpspace. They were on the move.

The next few minutes passed in an angst-filled tedium. Together with his brethren, the platoon started to feel claustrophobic—not much at first, but more and more with every passing second. Completely encased in his high-gee coffin, he was unable to so much as lift a finger.

Without warning, oxygen filled his lungs, pushing the thick, syrupy breathing liquid out the respirator. The boy coughed and breathed deeply, clearing his lungs and filling them again with fresh air.

Half a minute later, the coffin cracked open. The boy staggered out and braced himself against a wall. The taste of vomit rose in his mouth, but he fought it down and rose to his feet. The skeletal frame underneath his suit gave him the support he needed while he recovered.

All around him, the boy’s platoon brothers emerged from their coffins, like alien creatures from mammoth-sized cocoons. They drew their weapons and assembled in the oversized airlock. The speakers in his helmet registered a loud clanking noise, coming from outside the door on the far side of the room. Inside his armored gloves, his palms began to sweat.

Sergeant Voche marched to the head of the group. They knew it was him because of the red epaulets on his shoulders and the fact that he wore his visor up. The sight of his face encouraged them, the way a young boy feels encouraged by his father.

“Stand by for boarding,” he said, his voice tinny in the boy’s ear. “Alpha squad, Beta squad, take positions.”

The door behind them hissed shut, and the one ahead of them flew open, revealing a space-blasted airlock.

The door.

Flashbacks from the training raced through their hearts—feelings of dread and fear and death and terror. The boy dropped to his knees and leveled his gun, while all around him a chorus of clicks and hums filled the air as his platoon brothers did the same.

It took the sapper bots nearly a full minute to break through the stubborn outer door. Their high energy lasers cut slowly through the hardened durasteel hull, sparks falling to the floor like waterfalls of light. A few carefully placed explosives finished the job, and the platoon moved forward, taking up positions behind the inside door—the final barrier between them and the enemy.

Inevitably, the barrier exploded outward in a burst of light. The room went dark as the boy’s visor adjusted for the blast. As everything came back into focus, a bright flash of plasma fire lit the gaping hole where the door had once been.

The boy screamed and pulled the trigger. His gun pounded against his shoulder, as if it had come alive.

White hot plasma splattered all around him, hissing like drops of water on an open burner. Muzzle flashes flared in infrared on the other side of the breach. The sound of gunfire filled his ears. As the smoke cleared, human shapes became visible on the other side. They weren’t far—only a few yards away. Then, the rumble of feet began pounding through the floor as his platoon charged the enemy.

The boy leaped to his feet and joined them.

All fear left him. Nothing existed in that moment except the battle. He screamed and charged through the breach, gun blazing. The enemy soldiers scattered as if tossed about by a mighty wind.

“Forward!” came Voche’s voice in his ear. “Annihilate them!”

In the close quarters of the enemy ship, the firefight soon turned into a brutal fistfight. One of the enemy soldiers swung his rifle against a platoon brother’s head, toppling him. The boy barreled into the man and landed a punch square in his face. With the amplification from the skeletal frame, his fist shattered the enemy soldier’s helmet and pulped the inside of his skull. The man grunted, and his body went stiff. When the boy withdrew his hand, his gloved fingers dripped with blood and brains.

The boy without a name grabbed his gun and leaped into the fray. The sound of gunfire and the screams of death filled his audio input feed. Around him, the dead and wounded lay writhing on the ground, blood oozing from cracked and blasted armor.

The horrors of the battle meant nothing to him, however. Victory was everything.

The enemy was in a rout. They scrambled away in confusion down the main corridor. A loud hissing noise sounded, and a pair of massive blast doors slid shut in the midst of them. Most of them passed through, but two failed to escape. Gunfire from his platoon brethren cut them up in seconds. One of them exploded as his RPV shield failed, his shredded arms ricocheting off the plasma-scorched walls.

“Form ranks!” came Voche’s voice, steadying them all. “When we break through, I want Alpha and Gamma squads to fan out and flank their main force in the maintenance corridors. Alpha squad, take the left; Gamma squad, take the right. Positions!”

The boy joined the five other platoon brothers in Gamma squad and hugged the right side of the wall. Like sprinters at a race, they trembled with anticipation as the sapper bots sent showers of sparks cascading to the floor.


* * * * *


James pressed his back against the wall of the narrow maintenance corridor and held his rifle tightly in his hands. The not-so-distant sound of explosions made his heart skip a beat. That wasn’t the sound of paintballs splattering on the walls—that was live ammunition, and it was getting closer.

“We’re all going to die,” said Ilya, his voice trembling with fright. “We aren’t going to make it.”

“Just shut up and hold your position,” said James. “Mikhail will get those jump drives fixed.”

He said it as much for himself as for Ilya. Only a few dozen yards down the narrow maintenance corridor, Mikhail was working feverishly to repair the ship’s nav-computer. If they could hold off the Hameji long enough for him to do his job, they’d be fine.

At least, James hoped so.

“We’re going to die,” Ilya moaned in a low voice, his face pasty white. “We’re going to die.”

A blast came from down the main corridor. James and Ilya both ducked at the sound.

“Oh God,” said Ilya, pale as a ghost. “They’ve taken the ship. We’re finished!”

“Ayvazyan! McCoy!” shouted Danica in James’s earpiece. Off to the right, he heard the sound of gunfire.

“Here, Captain,” said James.

“They’ve infiltrated the main deck. We’re going to establish a line about twenty yards from you on the main hallway. We think they may try to flank us, but we can’t send you reinforcements for another minute. Whatever happens, hold your position!”

“Right,” he called out. Flanking maneuvers. Hold the corridor.

His hands felt numb. He glanced down and saw that they were covered in sweat, trembling uncontrollably. His body seemed to belong to someone else.

“Oh God,” said Ilya. “They’re going to flank us? Oh God!”

“You heard the captain,” James hissed. “Shut up and help me hold this position.”

He crept forward and set up where the corridor jogged in a few feet. In the darkness of the power loss, he couldn’t see all the way to the far end.

We have to protect Mikhail, he told himself. With his gun pointed ahead, he motioned to Ilya to advance. Ilya slunk out from his hiding place and ran ahead, to the corner of a narrow passageway that connected the maintenance corridor with the main hallway.

Ilya hugged the wall while James crouched and made his way forward. The sound of footsteps grew louder.

Another explosion sounded off to the right, followed by screams and gunshots. The noises filtered through the ventilation shafts, echoing in an eerily windy tone.

James glanced down the connecting passageway and saw shadows dancing on the wall, cast by plasma bursts on the other end. The Hameji were advancing—he could hear their footsteps as they charged.

“They’re everywhere,” moaned Ilya. “Oh God.” His face was completely bloodless, as white as death. He dropped his gun and curled up against the wall, hugging his knees.

“Shut your mouth and get up,” said James. His heart raced in his chest—he couldn’t fight off the Hameji all by himself.

“We’re not going to make it.”

“I said get up!” He bent down to pick up Ilya’s gun.

That was what saved him.

A searing burst of plasma screeched over his head, hitting the wall directly behind him. Ilya screamed and covered his face with his hands, while James dropped to the floor and rolled around the corner, into the connecting passageway.

“Aiee!” screamed Ilya. In a burst of panic, he leaped to his feet and ran towards the bridge, away from the fighting. Before he could make it far, a bullet caught him in the leg. He fell on his face a few feet short of the jog in the corridor, while over his head, a barrage of plasma hit the wall and sizzled with acrid smoke. James watched him crawl the rest of the distance, under fire, to safety.

With heavy gunfire sounding from either end of the connecting passageway, James was trapped. His hands and feet felt numb as adrenaline surged through his body.

I don’t want to die here, he thought to himself. Not like this.

For a brief moment, the plasma fire along the maintenance corridor let up. Now’s my chance, he realized. If he could follow Ilya and make a dash around the corner, he just might make it. No time to think—it was now or never.

He checked his RPV shield and ran out into the corridor, spinning around to fire. The muzzle flash from his weapon illuminated the darkness just enough for him to see the Hameji soldiers charging. Bullets sizzled on his shield, filling the air with an acrid metallic smell as they vaporized.

James stumbled and fell.

Time slowed to a crawl as his body tumbled in midair. He could make out each individual bullet as it hit his shield and fizzled. The RPV unit began to beep, a warning that it was about to blow. He let go of his rifle and reached out with his hands to brace himself. His muscles moved so slowly that he felt as if he were swimming in a bowl of thick porridge.

Pain flared across his shoulders and back as his body hit the floor. Above him, bullets cut through the air. He reached for his gun, but before he could grab it, a Hameji soldier loomed over him, rifle leveled at James’s chest.

I’m sorry, Stella.


* * * * *


The boy without a name stood frozen to the spot, finger on the trigger. The enemy soldier lay sprawled on the ground, staring up at him in fright, completely helpless.

Before he could fire, though, something deep in his subconscious stopped him. In that split-second of hesitation, he got a good look at the soldier’s face. One moment, the battle lust filled his body. The next, a shockwave of emotion blasted through him. It felt as if someone was inside his head, screaming out in pain and horror. Time slowed, and all the disjointed memories of his past life flooded back to him.

I am not a crybaby!

Yes you are.

Shut up—I hate you!

The boy without a name shuddered and let his weapon fall to the ground. Recognition exploded in his mind like a bomb, making his head reel.

James, he realized. That is James, my brother. And I am—

I am Ben.

In that instant, something shattered deep in the recesses of his mind. He staggered and braced himself against the wall, slipping off his helmet to get a breath of fresh air. His platoon brothers were gone—he could no longer feel their emotions, no longer reach out to them with his own. He felt empty and alone and weak—

And free.

“Ben?” James said, eyes widening in surprise. “Ben, is that you?”

Ben’s mouth turned up in a smile. “James,” he said. “Brother.”

Without warning, a hot pain seared through his stomach. The eerie sizzle of plasma came to his ears, the smell of melted flesh to his nose. A wave of adrenaline swept over him, nearly making him swoon. He glanced down and saw a black hole in his belly, white-hot plasma eating out his smoldering intestines.

“Ben? Ben!”

Someone had shot him from behind. As he spun around to see who, his legs gave out underneath him. James ran to his side as he collapsed on the floor.

“Ben! No! Don’t die—someone, help! Help me!”

Ben’s strength was fading; not much longer, and it would all be over. As his broken body slipped into unconsciousness, he reached up and touched his brother on the cheek. James stopped and looked down at him, panic in his eyes.

“James,” Ben groaned. “I love you.”

With those last words, his world turned to darkness.


* * * * *


Danica huddled with her men behind a makeshift barrier of old crates and spare parts. Gunfire flew over their heads, while the acrid smell of plasma-scorched metal filled her nose and mouth.

“Get ready to fall back!” she shouted to her men. Vaclav stopped returning fire long enough to glance over at her.

“Where?” he shouted.

“To the bridge.”

He shot her a hopeless look that said it’s over already. Perhaps he was right, but Danica wasn’t about to give up—not when any of her men might still survive. She gritted her teeth and set her rifle to plasma, then ripped a grenade from her belt.

Before she could throw it, the gunfire stopped.

Danica frowned. An eerie silence fell over the smoke-filled ship, broken only by the sizzle of cooling plasma and the cries of the wounded and dying. Cautiously, she peered over the edge of the makeshift barrier. Her eyes narrowed, and slowly, carefully, she stood up from where she knelt.

The Hameji soldiers stood in place, as dumb and unmoving as statues. Even though they all had a clear shot at her, none of them moved to take it. Encased in their armor, they looked like so many robots shut down in the middle of operation.

Off to the left, she heard an unearthly scream. It sounded like James.

Danica didn’t know what was going on, but she wasn’t about to stand around and ask. “Forward!” she shouted to her men. “Charge!” As her men leaped over the barrier, she returned the grenade to her belt—no use tearing up her ship any more than she had to—and opened fire. The dozen Hameji soldiers in the middle of the hallway went down like mannequins, gobs of white-hot plasma melting through their armor in a matter of seconds. One by one they toppled over, motionless as statues even as her men blew them apart.

Then, movement to her left. Without thinking, she dove to the ground. A plasma burst flew over her head, barely missing her. She hit the deck and fired at her attacker. The shot missed, but she got a good look at him—red epaulets, with a black, razor-thin beard running along the edge of his jaw.

The screaming came again, this time much closer. It was James—no doubt about it. His cry rose in pitch from a wail of mourning to a bloody scream of rage. He barreled out of the corridor like a juggernaut, firing at everything in his path.

His shots went wild, however. The officer ducked behind his motionless soldiers and sprinted for the end of the hallway. James screamed again and gave chase.

That kid is going to get himself killed if I don’t stop him, Danica realized. She rose to her feet and ran after him.

Flashes of gunfire and plasma illuminated the hall, and the Hameji began to stir. “Kill them all!” Danica shouted. “Take no prisoners!” Off to the right, Maria ran out from a connecting passageway with a squad that had somehow survived the initial firefight. They whooped as they blasted the confused Hameji soldiers to pieces.

Beyond them, Danica watched as James followed the Hameji officer through the airlock. She cursed—attacking the Hameji on their own ship was the height of stupidity. If the enemy undocked, he would be gone—the only way to stop that was to seize control of the transport before they could.

“Forward!” she shouted to her men, leading the charge.

The interior of the Hameji transport was not very different from the Tajji Flame. Lights were dim, corridors worn and unpainted. If it weren’t for the battle raging around her, Danica might have been surprised.

She rounded a bend and ran into the bodies of two Hameji technicians staring up in the air in their final death throes. Blood gushed from their unarmored chests and pooled in growing puddles on the floor. Further ahead, James had stopped screaming.

Gunshots sounded—projectile guns, not plasma. Danica ran without stopping until she burst onto the bridge.

Blood lay splattered against the controls. A dead body lay sprawled on top of the navigational computer, riddled with bullets. Sparks fell from a shattered monitor on the ceiling, while the displays flickered and died. James stood in the middle of it all, the only man still alive.

My God, Danica thought as she surveyed the scene. He took the bridge all by himself. Only a week ago, she had still doubted whether he could hold his own in a battle. Now, through bravery or stupidity or both, he had seized the Hameji transport.

But by Earth, he looked awful.

His eyes were bloodshot and unfocused, his breathing short and quick. His skin was deathly pale, and trauma was written all over his face. He no longer looked like a sheltered little boy—he looked like a killer.

“Got away,” said James. His voice sounded wooden and hollow.

“Who?” Danica asked.

“The—the man.” He pointed to an emergency escape pod hatch and said no more.

Footsteps sounded behind them. Maria rushed onto the bridge, accompanied by three privates.

“What’s going on?”

“We’ve taken the bridge,” said Danica, regaining her composure. “Have you secured the rest of the ship?”

“More or less,” said Maria. “Most of the Hameji are dead—we’re just mopping up survivors at this point.”

“Good.”

An idea came to her mind. “Anya,” she said over her headset. “Get over here, double fast.”

“Where?” her voice cackled.

“The bridge of the Hameji ship. Their jump drive is still operational, and if we can—”

“Got it. On my way.”

Danica cut the connection and turned to James. He had collapsed to his knees in the middle of the floor.

“Ensign?” she said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Ensign, what’s wrong?”

“Ben,” he said. His eyes brimmed with tears, his face a picture of anguish.

“Ben? What do you mean?”

“He’s gone.”

Chapter 18


The courtship was very brief. Stella barely met with Qasar more than five times before the wedding. At first, she worried that he would draw a connection between her and Borta’s murder; Narju had been her servant, after all, and rumors had already begun to spread of a connection. If he suspected her, however, he never did anything about it. Tamu told her it was because he’d only married Borta for political reasons, and that they’d had a minor falling-out, which accounted for the surprisingly brief mourning period.

Stella did not find this comforting.

For the wedding, almost half the ships in the Hameji fleet joined together in a massive circle, linking their observation decks into one continuous ring. From her seat, Stella saw the three dozen Hameji ships spread out, nose to nose. Beyond them lay the stars of her childhood.

Even through the silk veil that covered her face, she recognized the familiar constellations of home. After more than two months on board the Lion of Tenguri, the familiar sight threatened to break her down on the spot. She bit her lip and tried very hard not to cry.

Hundreds of guests crowded the deck, gorging themselves on the feast that Qasar had set out for the occasion. Tables ringed the room, brimming with sweet meats, crispy pastries, plump hydroponic fruits, and dozens of other exotic dishes that Stella did not recognize. As the feast progressed, rhythmic music played over the deck’s speakers, and the guests began to sway and dance.

Stella spoke to no one the entire evening. She sat on a jewel-studded chair on a raised platform. Servants brought her food, so that she never left her seat. For a little while, Qasar sat next to her, but soon he was mingling freely among the guests, leaving her feeling nervous and abandoned. Occasionally, someone came up to her and bowed, but beyond that no one gave any indication of noticing her. Sitting in plain view of everyone else, she felt like a trophy on display, something Qasar had won and now wanted to show off.

Towards the end of the evening, the room reeked of alcohol and vomit. Spilled food and drink covered the floors, and drunken guests lays sprawled out across the floor. With the stench of alcohol thick on his breath, Qasar took Stella by the hand and led her out of the room.

Her knees felt weak as he led her down the now-familiar corridor to the bedroom chamber. Her mind raced as she tried desperately to think of a way to escape her wedding night, but she knew she wouldn’t be able to break free of Qasar’s grip. In his drunken state, she knew she wouldn’t be able to talk her way out, either.

He led her into the bedroom, walls draped in crimson. They were alone together. Without a word, Qasar lifted her veil and gave her a sly, suggestive glance. Stella trembled as he took her by the waist and pulled her onto the bed.


* * * * *


Danica walked through the carefully scrubbed corridors of the Tajji Flame, staring numbly at the signs of destruction and death. Though the bodies had been cleared and the floors scrubbed clean of blood, grim reminders of the recent battle confronted her at every turn. The thick, pervasive smell of disinfectants and chemical cleansers, the gray resin masking the bullet holes and scorch marks in the walls—all of it reminded her of the men she had failed to keep alive.

More than half her crew had been killed or critically wounded. Abu Kariym, their sole medical specialist, was working overtime to save as many as possible, but there was no way he could save all of them. Even among those he could treat, many needed prosthetics and rejuvenations—medical supplies that they simply didn’t have.

In a few moments, Danica arrived at the ship’s medical facility. Abu Kariym was too busy with surgery to greet her, so she made her way to the patients’ quarters alone. When she reached the door to Roman’s room, she hesitated for a moment before keying the access panel. The door hissed open, and she forced herself to step inside.

Roman lay shirtless on his bed, wires and tubes sticking out of his chest. A respirator covered his mouth and nose, connected by a long clear tube to an enormous oxygen tank in the corner of the room. Various IVs fed into his right arm—his only surviving arm. The left side of his torso had practically been blown away. His face was horribly disfigured, his cheek charred, with holes burned through the skin in places. A makeshift plastic graft covered the worst of it, but still revealed the teeth and jawbone underneath. Fearing infection, Abu Kariym had surgically removed his left eye; an ugly black patch covered the empty socket.

God, he must be in pain, Danica thought in dismay. Why didn’t I stock up on medical supplies when we were at Kardunash IV? I should have at least bought some decent prosthetics.

“Captain?” came Abu Kariym’s voice. Danica spun around quickly; the short old man had slipped in without her noticing. Despite the bags under his eyes, he had a kind, almost fatherly expression on his face.

“Doctor,” she said in a low voice, soft enough that Roman couldn’t hear. “Are you sure your prognosis wasn’t too optimistic? He looks bad—real bad.”

The old man smiled wearily. “Don’t worry; his situation is not critical. I expect he’ll make a satisfactory recovery.”

Satisfactory? What kind of recovery was ‘satisfactory’ when half your body was blown away?

The old man laid a hand on Danica’s shoulder. “Don’t blame yourself, Captain,” he said. “You didn’t pull the trigger.”

“Maybe not, but it’s still my fault he’s lying in that bed.”

“Roman wouldn’t say so. He knew the risk he was taking. Praise God, he saved almost a dozen men with his sacrifice—it’s a miracle he’s still alive.”

Some miracle, Danica thought, staring at her disfigured master sergeant.

“Is there anything I can do for you, Captain?” Abu Kariym asked. “Anything at all?”

“Nothing more than you already are, Doctor,” said Danica. “Keep trying to save my men. That’s all I ask.”

“Yes, Captain.” Abu Kariym bowed and stepped out of the room, leaving her and Roman alone.

Danica took a deep breath and walked to the side of her old friend’s bed. His good eye opened slightly, and with great effort, he glanced up at her. Slowly, painstakingly, he lifted his right arm to a salute and opened his mouth.

“Good—day, Captain,” he croaked. “Good day to be alive.”

“At ease,” Danica murmured.

Roman lowered his arm. Something half resembling a grin spread across the good half of his face.

“The men are safe, yes?”

“Yes,” said Danica. She bit her lip.

“Good.” He blinked, eye closed for a couple of seconds. “I think—I think the bastards got me.”

Danica gently ran her hand along his bald forehead. His skin felt unnervingly warm. “I heard you saved the lives of a dozen men back there.”

He grunted. “So many? I am glad to hear it.”

“Don’t sacrifice yourself like that again,” she said without thinking. “The men need you, Roman—I need you.”

The grin evaporated from his face. With his good arm, he reached out and took her hand.

“Danica,” he said, squeezing her wrist with his rough, calloused fingers. “Do not blame yourself for this. You did good—damn good. Better than me.”

She opened her mouth but caught herself before she could argue with him. That wasn’t what he needed right now.

“Your father would be proud,” he continued. “Because of you, we are alive today. You are first captain to defeat the Hameji.”

It wasn’t me, she wanted to say. I don’t deserve the credit. Why the Hameji had frozen in mid-battle like dead robots, Danica didn’t know. She didn’t think she ever would.

“Even so,” said Danica, “I’m terminating our contract with the boy before any more of us get killed.”

Roman’s eyes narrowed. “You are quitting the mission?”

“I’m pulling out while we’re still ahead. We’ve got the captured Hameji transport—we can use that to pay off Balthazar. If we can arrange to meet—”

“Captain,” Roman groaned. Danica grew silent.

“Yes, Sergeant?”

With titanic effort, he closed his eye and leaned back, letting go of her hand.

“You are not thinking straight. Do not decide now. Sleep on it.”

“I have to do what’s best for my crew,” she said. “This contract is no longer in our interest.”

“Was it ever?” He opened his good eye again and stared at her. “It is not only about money, Captain. It never was. You are not mercenary at heart—you are too much like your father.”

Danica’s face tightened. She stood up straight.

“Thank you for your counsel, Roman,” she said. “Get well soon. That’s an order.”

He nodded, his chin moving only a fraction of an inch. “Yes, Captain.”

She left the room without another word.


* * * * *


James stood at attention, surrounded by the entire surviving crew of the Tajji Flame. Several of them wore the olive green fatigues of the now defunct Tajji rebels, while others wore dress uniforms unfamiliar to him. In his civilian clothes, James felt decidedly out of place, but no one seemed to notice or care. They stood as still as statues, as silent as ghosts.

Ghosts, James thought to himself. That’s what he felt like—a ghost.

The windows of the observation deck revealed a stunning view of the starfield, only a little dimmed by Karduna Prime in the distance. Set like an amber gemstone on a shimmering velvet pillow, the star of James’s home shone like an island of light, a pocket of humanity in the midst of a cold, empty abyss.

Danica paced at the head of the room, in front of the window. The lights in the room had been dimmed so that James could only make out her silhouette. Even so, her presence was no less commanding.

“Men,” she began, “We have gathered together to honor our comrades in arms who died in battle. Many of them were close friends, yours as well as mine. They may have died to save us, but that knowledge does little to dull the edge of our grief.

“There are some who would say these men died for nothing—that they gambled with their lives and lost. After all, what cause does a mercenary fight for? For country? No. For freedom? No. For some grand idea or truth? No. Then why?”

She paused. The tension in the room was electric.

“Take a good, hard look at yourselves,” Danica continued, emotion rising in her voice. “Why are you here? Why did you put your lives in danger by joining this mercenary outfit? You there, soldier—you fought in the revolution, didn’t you? You had a cause back then—something to fight for. Why aren’t you fighting for it now?”

Silence.

“I’ll tell you why. You’re here because you have nowhere else to go. The occupation took everything you’d ever fought for—they would have killed you, too, but you ran away. And then, when you ran, you realized you had no place to go. Am I right?

“I’ll tell you why you’re here, men,” she said, addressing the whole room. “You’re here because the rest of civilized society has thrown you out. You don’t belong with them. They fear you because of what you can do—because of what you’ve done. You’ll never have a home with them.

“So where is our home? Where do we belong? Right here on this ship, that’s where.”

James felt a thrill go down his spine. Even though he couldn’t see her eyes, he felt as if she were looking him square in the face.

“When we fight,” Danica continued, “we fight to defend each other. This ship is our society now, and we share a bond deeper than death. Those who died at the hands of the Hameji died so that you could live. Never forget that, men—never forget it.”

Danica stood for a second, framed by the stars, before joining the ranks with the others to face the window. Sergeant Maria stepped forward.

“I will read out the names as their bodies are released,” Maria said. “We will hold salute until the reading of the names is complete.”

She paused and took in a deep breath. “Company, salute!”

All the men and woman on the deck brought up their hands in one perfectly unified motion.

“Private Brian Esteb.”

The floor rocked slightly under James’s feet, and a black shape flew out of the mass accelerator cannon, hurtling towards Karduna Prime. The hum of the engines reverberated through the floor and walls.

“Private Agripina Dutko.” The floor rocked again, and another body bag shot out towards the distant star.

“Private Dane Moldonado.”

“Private Sadye Mermis.”

“Private Kendrick Kilchner.”

“Private Madalene Grandin.”

“Private Bassilia Zadroga.”

“Private Clarinda Yeubanks.”

“Corporal Cyrus Virani.”

“Corporal Aaron Venture.”

“Corporal Lincoln Oherron.”

“Corporal Erin Dubyk.”

“Corporal Meda Ardry.”

“Sergeant Artyom Romonov.”

One by one, their bodies fell toward the star, vanishing into the void of eternal night.

“Ben McCoy,” Maria read. One last body shot outward.

James felt his eyes burn with tears. He squinted to keep his vision clear, struggling to keep sight of the black body bag for a few more seconds. All too soon, it disappeared from his view.

Ben’s physical remains were gone now, tumbling through the infinite vacuum of space. One day, hundreds of years in the future, his body would reach Karduna Prime and plunge into its fiery surface. The star would consume his mortal tabernacle, purging his remains with its nuclear fire until every atom in his body was reduced to formless plasma. The hydrogen would gradually migrate to the stellar core, fueling the reaction that dispensed life-giving warmth throughout the system. The denser elements, however—carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, and other trace elements—would churn about the fiery sphere for over a billion years, until the last of the star’s fuel was spent and the once-proud sun collapsed in on itself.

There, long after the end of human history, Ben’s remains would finally come to rest. A neutron star would make a fitting tombstone, lasting almost to eternity.

But before all of that, Ben’s body would spend the next few centuries falling through the icy cold depths of space. James would live out his entire mortal life long before his brother reached his final destination.

The soldiers let down their salutes and silently left the room one by one. James stayed behind, however, still staring out the window. When he was finally alone, he pressed his face against the glass and mentally traced the orbits of the planets, with Kardunash III on the opposite side of Karduna Prime from Kardunash IV. There, on the K-4 side, the main Hameji fleet sat at the third Lagrangian point.

And Stella was with them.

He brought his hand up to the window as if to reach out to her. Ben might be gone, but Stella was still out there. No matter what it took, he would find her and bring her home.

Part III: Stella


Chapter 19


Stella closed her eyes as the hot pressurized water ran over her skin, washing away the stench of her marriage night. Almost immediately, she picked up the shower sponge and started scrubbing herself. The wedding night was over, but her body still remembered it vividly. She felt as if her own flesh was rebelling against her, swooning with sensations that she didn’t fully understand. In some ways, the scrubbing was a punishment for that—punishment for allowing Qasar to violate her.

After nearly ten full minutes, she realized it was useless. She leaned against the wall and let her body go limp, her raw skin bleeding in places where she’d scrubbed too hard. She wanted to cry, but all she felt was emptiness.

At least I was married, she tried to tell herself. It’s not a sin if you’re married. Though the argument placated her conscience somewhat, it did nothing to comfort her.

Impulsively, she decided to turn the temperature down as low as it would go. In an instant, the water went from warm and relaxing to jarringly cold. Her muscles seized up, and her already tender skin burned under the frigid iciness. Like a drowner craving air, she felt an overwhelming urge to shut off the water. She forced herself to endure it, however, if only for no other reason than to see how long she could hold out. One second became two, two became five, and five became eight.

That was all she could take. With a trembling hand, she reached out and activated the dry cycle. The water immediately shut off, leaving her unsteady and shivering.

Hot air blasted her from all sides as the vacuum opened in the drain. Dribbles of water ran in streaks across her skin, dripping from her chin and elbows as she hugged her chest for warmth. She stood there in the heat until her body was as dry as the sun-baked surface of a waterless planet.

After recovering some strength, Stella shut off the shower and stepped out into the narrow space of her bed-and-bathroom. Her new quarters were entirely private—no servants waiting to clothe her, no roommate eager to talk with her as she dressed. She felt surprisingly lonely, standing there naked in the middle of the empty room. A small, fold-out bed lay in the opposite corner next to a set of authentic wooden dressers, but the walls were bare and windowless, the white-tiled floor hard against her feet. The place felt sterile and un-lived in—empty.

If this were the concubines’ quarters, the bead curtains would clatter and Narju would come rushing in, apologizing for his lateness. He would hand her a towel and wait patiently for her to dry herself before sitting her down to file her nails and do her hair. She missed his gentle, non-threatening company; the way that she could bare herself to him and know that he would never hurt her. Tears came to her eyes just thinking about it. Stars, how she wanted him with her right now. Instead, this was what she had to look forward to—all the privacy and loneliness she never knew she didn’t want.

She dressed herself in one of the few sets of clothes she’d brought from the concubines’ level—the blue skirt and white blouse that she’d worn on her first day. How long ago that now seemed—and how strange her fears. Perhaps Tamu was right; perhaps she should have accepted her place as Qasar’s concubine. Either way, it was inevitable that she’d find herself in his bed—she saw that clearly now. Oh, well; it wasn’t wrong if you were forced against your will—

Narju’s voice struck her like a missile. We do not choose the life that fate gives us, she remembered. We only choose how we live it—and how to give of ourselves before our time is over.

The memory was too much for her. She collapsed to her knees on the hard tile floor and sobbed into her hands. I’m never going home again, she realized. I’m going to be with the Hameji for the rest of my life. The thought made her face pale and her arms go weak, but it was the truth.

Ever since she’d come as a prisoner to the Lion of Tenguri, she’d held onto the hope that somehow, someday, she would escape. That hope, as naïve as it now seemed, had sometimes been the only thing keeping her sane. But now, she could no longer afford to think that way. With her marriage to Qasar, everything had changed. She was no longer a mere concubine—she had status and influence, and would eventually hold positions of responsibility on the ship. If escape had been next to impossible before, it was completely out of the question now.

This is my new life, Stella told herself. If I don’t learn to accept it, it’s going to destroy me.

She rose to her feet and turned to stare into a mirror against the wall. The image that stared back was surprisingly unfamiliar. Her eyes were more subdued, her expression more cautious and guarded. Without makeup, the rings under her eyes were clearly visible. She looked several years older than the girl she’d been before her capture.

I can’t be Stella any longer, she thought to herself. I can’t go back to who I used to be. The Hameji were right to give her a new name, and Narju had been right to call her by it. Perhaps that was another gift he’d given her.

She took in a deep breath and stared at her image in the mirror. “Sholpan,” she said aloud. That’s who I am from now on—Sholpan. The name still felt foreign to her ears, but she trusted that she’d get used to it in time.

She’d have to, if she wanted to make her new life livable.


* * * * *


The door chime sounded, rousing Danica from her book. “Come in,” she said, laying it face-down on the armrest as she rose to her feet. The door hissed open, and Flight Lieutenant Vaclav Nicholson stepped inside.

“Captain,” said Vaclav, nodding curtly, “I’ve been meaning to see you for some time.” The expression on his face was serious, more so than usual. Danica rested her hands behind her back and narrowed her eyes.

“What is it, Nicholson?”

“I wish to request an immediate discharge,”

His words struck her like a punch to the gut.

“For what reason?”

“Do I need to give a reason? The terms of my contract say that I’m entitled to withdraw whenever I see fit.”

“The terms of your contract say that you may only withdraw after we’ve completed our most recent contract.”

“I was under the impression that we’d finished our last job.”

“I have yet to negotiate that with our employer,” said Danica. “Besides, I can’t honor your request while we’re still in deep space.”

“Regardless,” said Vaclav, “I request to be discharged as soon as we put into port.”

Danica took in a breath and looked her flight lieutenant straight in the eye. The man was a career mercenary; he kept his voice and composure carefully controlled around his commanding officer. The damnable side effect was that his face was utterly unreadable.

“Is this because of my failure during our last encounter with the Hameji?” she asked softly.

“How was it a failure? We completed our primary and secondary objectives, didn’t we?”

“Nearly half of my crew was killed or wounded. I’m not about to call that a success.”

He shrugged. “If that’s how you want to see it—”

“Dammit, Vaclav, what is this about?”

Her sudden outburst barely raised an eyebrow. “Simply a career decision, Captain,” he said. “Nothing personal.”

“How long have you been with us? Four, five years? Why quit now?”

“I told you. I feel that I can better advance my career elsewhere.”

Danica drew in a deep breath and took a moment to regain her composure. “What would it take to get you to change your mind?” she asked.

“Well,” said Vaclav, “to be perfectly honest, I don’t think you’re paying me what I deserve. Considering that my remote piloting skills were a decisive factor in our recent victory, I think I should be making at least four times my current rate.”

“You know I can’t afford to pay that much.”

“Which is why I’m requesting a discharge.”

This can’t be just be about pay, she thought quickly to herself. He’s been with us too long.

It’s about my failures as a commander.

“Come on. What else is going on here?”

He gave her a funny look. “Does there have to be anything else? We’re mercenaries, Captain—I thought you of all people would understand.”

Danica sighed and shook her head. “Vaclav, my friend, the way we defeated the Hameji in our last engagement, I fully expect we’ll be up to our ears in high-paying contracts from here on out. You’ll get your pay raise, but until we start to cash in on that, though, you’re going to have to wait.”

“With all due respect, Captain, I’ve already made my decision.”

Neither of them said anything for a long while. Vaclav shifted and glanced off to the side, avoiding Danica’s eyes.

“You’re a fine officer,” said Danica, breaking the silence. “I’d hate to lose you.”

“You’ll give me my discharge, then?”

“Yes, yes,” she said, waving her hand in the air. “We’ll put into port before the end of the week. After that, you’re free to go.”

“Thank you, Captain.” After a quick salute, he turned and left. The door hissed shut, leaving her alone.

I’m a failure to my crew, Danica thought to herself, and a disgrace to my family. She collapsed into her chair and rubbed her tired eyes.


* * * * *


The smell of chemical sanitizers and polished metal assaulted James’s nose as he half-walked, half-ran down the corridor. All the scrubbing of a thousand slavebots would never undo the blood that had been spilled on this ship—the blood that he had spilled. The bodies had been removed, the floors made spotless, but the walls still bore signs of combat, only lightly disguised by the patchy repairs.

Flashbacks rose to the surface of his mind, haunting him. They had gotten better since the first few days, but he knew there would always be a dark place in his mind where they would never go away. It was all the worse because he was constantly surrounded by physical reminders of the battle. He wanted to leave, but of course that was impossible in deep space.

Besides, the mission wasn’t over yet—Stella was still out there.

And so he walked as quickly as he could, staring at the floor to avoid the inescapable signs of battle. After several moments, he came to the main entrance to the training room. He keyed the access panel and stepped through the door.

The now-familiar smells of faded body odor and spent shells met him inside. A pair of privates lifted weights in the corner; they glanced up and nodded as he entered. James didn’t know their names, so he returned the gesture. They resumed their workout without a second thought.

From the gun rack, James selected the smallest, most non-threatening pistol he could find and brought it to the shooting gallery. His hands shook and his mind reeled, but his fingers still knew how to load the weapon. He slipped a pair of earmuffs onto his head and faced the target some twenty yards away. The concentric circles converged on a black, faceless silhouette.

James leveled his gun at the bullseye, but could not bring himself to pull the trigger. In his mind’s eye, the target became one of the Hameji soldiers, clad in black. Images of the people he’d killed flashed through his mind—he remembered with nightmarish lucidity how the soldiers had stood motionless even as white-hot plasma ate through their armored bodies. The smell of burning flesh burned once again in his nostrils, thick enough to taste.

Those soldiers had all been prisoners of the Hameji, just as Ben had. Under every mask had been a face—a young face, like his brother’s. The Hameji had taken them from their families, brainwashed them, and turned them into soldiers. None of them were the monsters he had supposed them to be.

And he had slaughtered them.

James slowly lowered his gun. Sweat ran down the sides of his face, and his legs felt week. He took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the gymnasium’s stale air. He hadn’t realized that he’d stopped breathing.

Danica’s words came to his mind. If you want to fight a wolf, you have to become one.

He lifted the pistol again, gritted his teeth, and squeezed the trigger. The shot went wild, missing the target altogether. He fired three more times before lowering the gun, hand shaking beyond all possible control. Only the last shot hit the target, barely within the outer ring.

It’s no good, he told himself, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath as he steadied himself against the wall. I can’t do this. I don’t want to be a killer. Even as the thought came to his mind, however, he remembered that Stella was still out there. She needed his help—no one else even knew where she was. How could he give up now, when he was so close?

While he was torn in indecision, an image of the Hameji officer from the firefight came to his mind—the one with the razor-thin beard and red epaulets.

The man who had killed his brother.

James’s heart surged, and strength returned to his legs. He took in a deep breath and stepped forward, leveling his gun at the target. In his mind’s eye, the black silhouette was no longer faceless—it was his brother’s killer.

The semi-automatic pistol fired in rapid succession—one, two, three, four, five. Shells clattered to the floor, while James’s hands kept the weapon steady. Ten seconds was all it took to unload every bullet in the magazine.

When he was finished, James lowered his gun and peered at the target as it swayed in the air. Two bullet holes lay on the periphery, five on the inner circle. Two bullseyes, right in the center of the chest.

I can do better than that, he told himself. Feeling much more confident, he punched the keypad to his right. The target swung away, and a new one replaced it at the end of the range.

James reloaded his pistol and sighted the new target. This time, he aimed for the head.

For Ben, you son of a bitch.

Chapter 20


“Nice place, honey,” said Tamu, glancing around the front room of Sholpan’s new apartment. “It still needs a little sprucing up, but you’ve done well with what you have.”

“Thanks,” said Sholpan, smiling.

“You really should get a good carpet though, dear,” Tamu continued, sitting sideways with her feet underneath her. “Even with slippers, that hard ceramic floor is going to get to you.”

“I’ll bring it up with Qasar next time I—”

“Oh, don’t bother. I’ve got just the thing.”

“Are you sure?”

Tamu touched Sholpan’s arm and smiled. “Darling, of course I’m sure. Just let me take care of it.”

Sholpan nodded. “Well, if you insist.”

“I do.”

Tamu paused and took another sip of her coffee; Sholpan did likewise. It was a delicious blend, made with authentic beans from one of Qasar’s raids in the New Pleiades. He made sure his wives had an ample supply, though Sholpan couldn’t help but wonder about the merchanters he had killed to get it.

“So,” said Tamu, setting her cup on the floor for lack of a table, “have you met the other wives?”

“Not yet,” said Sholpan, “but Lady Zeline invited me to meet with her tomorrow. I’m looking forward to it.”

Tamu raised an eyebrow. “Lady Zeline?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Honey, Zeline is Qasar’s fourth wife—the youngest, next to you. Borta’s son has more clout with Qasar than she does.”

“So? Why should that matter?”

Tamu leaned forward and put her hand on Sholpan’s shoulder. “Because, darling, it means that the older wives are treating you with contempt. Goodness, it’s been nearly a week, and they haven’t so much as acknowledged you.”

Sholpan frowned. “They haven’t?”

“You tell me, dear. Frankly, I think they’re scared.”

“Scared? Why would they be scared?”

Tamu threw back her head and laughed. “Why? Only because your servant killed the last head wife. That makes you a force to be reckoned with.”

“But I had nothing to do with her death!” said Sholpan, her cheeks reddening. “Don’t you believe me?”

“Oh I believe you, dear, but don’t try to say you haven’t benefited from it. The way they see it, you’re one of the most dangerous women on this ship.”

Sholpan swallowed. “What am I supposed to do?” she asked. “Is everyone waiting to stab me on the back?”

“Of course they are, honey. Qasar doesn’t marry fools.”

“But I’m not a threat!” she shouted. “I don’t want to be their enemy—I just want to get along.”

Tamu clucked and shook her head. “I’m afraid that’s not possible, darling.”

“Why not?”

“Because if you show any sign of weakness now, the other wives are going to eat you alive. Don’t expect to make any friends or allies—not until you earn their respect.”

“Then what do I do?”

“Show them you can’t be pushed around,” said Tamu, lying down against the contours of the couch. “Don’t let them see your feelings. Put on a stern face when you’re in front of them. But be subtle about it—subtle is more dangerous.”

Sholpan frowned. “But how am I supposed to make friends that way? How does that make peace?”

Tamu sighed. “I’m sorry, dear. There’s no peace in this game.”


* * * * *


The next day, Sholpan stood in the hallway outside Lady Zeline’s apartment, hesitating in front of the door. Tamu is wrong, she told herself. I can do this. Still, now that the time had come to meet the woman, she wasn’t nearly so sure.

Without warning, the door hissed open, making her jump. She glanced up and found herself face to face with a young woman.

“Lady Zeline?” Sholpan stammered, completely caught off guard.

The woman eyed her. She was tall and olive-skinned, with long black hair that stretched almost to her waist. Her face was clear of wrinkles, and she had a slim, attractive hourglass figure. Although she stood about half a head taller than Sholpan, she could not have been more than five years older.

“You must be Sholpan,” she said. “Please come in.”

With her legs still a little stiff, Sholpan stepped inside.

Zeline’s apartment was much more attractive than her own. The walls were trimmed in white and blue tile, and a beautiful arabesque rug covered the hard ceramic floor. An inner door led to a short hallway, with several more rooms beyond. Off to the side, a small hydroponics unit sent creeper vines cascading down the wall. Grapes hung from a few of the vines, still green.

“Please, make yourself comfortable,” said Zeline, motioning to a large couch in the center. “Would you like some juice?”

“Um, yes, thank you,” said Sholpan, taking a seat. Zeline sat in a chair facing her.

“Jahan!”

A small boy peeked out from the inner doorway. Zeline smiled and reached out a hand to him. He hesitated a moment before running to her side and hiding his face behind her hand.

“Jahan, get some juice for our guest.”

The boy squinted at Sholpan, who smiled and waved. His cheeks flushed red, but he gave her an adorable smile before scampering away.

“That is my son,” said Zeline, once he was gone.

“He’s very handsome,” said Sholpan. “What was his name? Ja—Jo—”

“Jahan. I named him after my grand uncle.”

“I see,” said Sholpan. “Is he—I mean, is Qasar the father?”

Zeline gave her a puzzled look. “Of course. Qasar is our husband, isn’t he?”

Sholpan’s stomach dropped. “Ah, yes,” she said, her cheeks turning deep red. “That’s right. I forgot.”

Zeline laughed. “You’ve never been a fourth wife, I take it?”

“No,” said Sholpan, trying to hide her discomfort. “In fact, I’m not used to being a wife at all.”

“I see. You seem so young, I would hardly think otherwise.”

Zeline is the opposite of Lady Borta in almost every way, Sholpan thought to herself. I might have a chance to make friends with this woman.

Jahan came out again, carefully carrying a tray which was almost as big as he was. On the tray sat two small glasses full of white, syrupy juice.

“Thank you,” said Zeline, smiling as she took the tray from her son’s unsteady hands. Jahan gave one momentary glance at Sholpan before scampering off.

“He’s a little shy,” said Zeline, offering the tray. “But he’s very well-mannered.”

“He certainly is,” said Sholpan, taking one of the drinks. The juice was strong, sweet, and very thick. Zeline took one for herself as Sholpan set her glass down on the table.

“How old is he?” Sholpan asked. “He looks so young. Is he your only child?”

She only meant to start a friendly conversation. Instead, Zeline’s lips tightened, and the expression on her face grew cold.

“Why are you so interested in my children?” she asked. From her tone of voice, it was clear that Sholpan had crossed a line.

“I—I just wanted to know,” Sholpan answered. “Jahan is so adorable, I thought—”

“I have borne Qasar three children,” said Zeline. “Jahan is my oldest, and if he’s half the man his father is, he’ll be commanding his first ship before your firstborn learns to speak.”

Sholpan frowned in confusion. “That’s wonderful,” she said. “You must be very proud of him.”

“Indeed.”

An awkward silence fell upon them. Sholpan shifted uneasily where she sat.

“How old was Qasar when he commanded his first ship?”

“Barely twelve standard years, by your time,” said Zeline. “That was when he was betrothed to Borta. His first ship was too small for him to raise a family, so he organized a war party and spoiled the planetborn between Tsakari and Urunghai.”

Sholpan blinked. “Too small for him to raise a family?”

“Yes—it was barely more than a gunboat. His father gave it to him to win an honorable name for himself.”

“When he was twelve?”

“Why not? His father was eleven when he won his first battle. Many of the Generals weren’t much older than that when the Uniting took place.”

Sholpan was stunned. Qasar was younger than me when he led his first raid, she thought to herself.

“Is that when he captured the Lion of Tenguri?

“No. He won this ship in his second raid, while Borta was pregnant with their firstborn. That was nearly fifteen years ago, as you count them.”

Fifteen years—Sholpan was barely a toddler at that time. She was still wearing diapers, and her future husband was already terrorizing the starlanes.

“When did Qasar take his second wife?” she asked.

Zeline raised an eyebrow. “After Borta? Not long, but his second and third marriages were both political. Neither of them gave him sons, however, so after he’d built a sizable fleet, he sent them back.”

“Sent them back?”

“Yes,” said Zeline. “Sent them back to their fathers’ ships. It sparked a war with one of the families—a war which Qasar won.”

Sholpan swallowed. Didn’t bear sons, she thought nervously to herself. The thought made her rub her stomach and wonder with some apprehension whether she carried a son yet in her own belly. She didn’t know which would be worse—to bear children so soon or not.

“How many sons does Qasar have?” she asked.

“Alive? About ten. Borta herself bore him seven, but most of them are dead.”

Sholpan’s eyes widened. “How did they die?”

“In battle.”

“All of them?”

“All of them.”

“That’s—that’s terrible.”

“Better to die honorably in battle than to be murdered on one’s own ship,” said Zeline. She gave Sholpan a meaningful look.

Sholpan’s hands began to shake. “If you’re talking about Borta’s death,” she said, “I had nothing to do with that.”

“Perhaps,” said Zeline, “but Gazan doesn’t think so.”

“Gazan?”

“Yes, Borta’s firstborn. Don’t you know of him?”

I do now.

“Her firstborn? Why doesn’t he have his own ship yet?”

“Because he hasn’t yet taken a wife. Besides, the Lion of Tenguri is more than ample enough for all of Qasar’s family.”

Not when some of them are trying to kill each other, Sholpan wanted to say. Instead, she only nodded.

“So Gazan blames me for his mother’s death?”

“Of course. Whom else would he blame?”

Sholpan didn’t know how to answer that. She had to admit that from Gazan’s point of view, her innocence was questionable.

“What do you believe?”

Zeline shrugged. “We’re content to believe what Qasar wants us to believe.” She turned and took a sip of her juice.

So Gazan is the key, Sholpan thought to herself. This war is between him and me—the others probably don’t want to get involved.

“Thank you,” she said.

Zeline gave her a funny look. “Thank you for what?”

“For—for your hospitality,” said Sholpan, recovering quickly. “It was good to meet you.”

“Indeed,” said Zeline. “And you as well.”

From her flat tone of voice, however, Sholpan doubted the sentiment was sincere.


* * * * *


Sholpan found Gazan on the bridge the next day. When she arrived, a pair of lightly armored soldiers stood in front of the door, blocking her path. Undaunted, she pressed forward—as Qasar’s wife, she’d let no underling stop her.

“Do you have business here, milady?” the older one asked.

“Yes,” she said. “I need to speak with Prince Gazan. Is he here?”

The soldiers conferred for a moment. Sholpan drew in a breath and did her best to seem confident.

“The prince is on the bridge,” said the first one. “If you wish to speak with him, I’ll bring him out.”

“I’d rather not speak with him out here,” Sholpan said quickly. “Our business is…private.”

The soldiers eyed her uneasily for a moment, as if unsure what to do. Sholpan stared at them as if they were idiots, willing them to let her pass. To her surprise, it worked; after a few awkward moments, they shuffled aside and let her through.

The bridge was much larger than she had expected, with enough stations to seat at least thirty people. Dozens of displays and indicator panels had been added to the original civilian design, but even with the numerous modifications, the place didn’t feel tacked together. The additions were welded in place, not taped or glued, and the wires running along the floor were carefully bundled.

For all its size, however, the bridge was surprisingly empty. Sholpan saw only three men in the room; two seated on the far side, with the third one standing next to them. The first two wore the light armor characteristic of the lesser officers, but the third—a young, beardless man—wore a gray robe almost identical to Qasar’s.

That must be Gazan, Sholpan told herself. She took a deep breath and stepped forward.

“Milady,” said one of the officers, “what are you doing here?”

“Looking for my husband’s son,” she said, looking each them in the eye in turn. “Would any of you be him?”

“The bridge is no place for a woman,” said Gazan, staring at her with unfeigned contempt. “Do you not know where your husband is? Or have you fallen out of favor so quickly?”

Sholpan ignored the insult and did her best to smile. “You are Borta’s son Gazan, I take it?”

The prince sneered. “Yes,” he said. “I am the late Borta’s son. You would do well to remember it.”

“Ah,” said Sholpan, bowing graciously. “I hope you’ll forgive me—I’m afraid I’m new to the ship.”

“I can tell.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Don’t mock me,” he said, his voice dangerously low.

Sholpan swallowed. It’s now or never.

“Master Gazan, would you care to join me for coffee on the observation deck? I think it would be good for us to get to know each other a little better.”

Gazan narrowed his eyes. “When?”

“Whenever is convenient for you, Master—”

“Two hours.”

His quick answer caught her by surprise. “Two hours? Well, ah, certainly we can—”

“Is there a problem with that?”

“No problem, Master Gazan, no problem at all. I’ll be pleased to see you then.”

“As will I.”

Sholpan bowed again, much more awkwardly this time. The three men’s eyes followed her as she turned and left the bridge, hoping that she hadn’t just set up a duel.


* * * * *


Two hours later, Sholpan nervously paced the main observation deck. With Engus and two other servants busy setting the small table in the center of the room, she had nothing to do but wait. The spaciousness of the room felt oppressive to her, and the starfield, though magnificent through the enormous windows, comforted her little.

The two hour mark came and went. Engus draped a towel over the platters of sweetcakes and stood idly next to the other servants, frowning. He clearly thought that the whole affair was a waste of his time. At least he has to obey me now, Sholpan thought to herself. That was one of the perks of being Qasar’s wife—one of the few perks.

The hiss of a door broke her away from her thoughts. A figure stood silhouetted in the open doorway, lit from behind. Sholpan swallowed and drew herself up—even though she couldn’t see his face, she knew who it was.

“Master Gazan,” she said. “Please, come in.”

Without a word, Prince Gazan stepped inside. The door hissed shut, and the darkness on the far side of the room shrouded the young man’s face. His heavy boots echoed in the silence, each footstep sharp and distinct. He walked slowly, taking his time.

“Welcome,” said Sholpan as he stepped into the light surrounding the table. She gave a short bow.

He stopped and stared at her without returning the gesture. His eyes shifted to the table, then to the servants, then to her again.

“Please,” she said, “come in and eat. Make yourself at home.”

“I don’t make it a general practice to put myself at ease in the presence of my enemies,” he said softly. “Neither should you.”

“I don’t see any reason why we should be enemies, Master Gazan.”

He scowled. “Is that what you said to my mother?”

That’s certainly not what she said to me.

“I’m sorry about your mother,” she said instead. “Truly, I am. Believe me—I know what it feels like to lose the ones you love.”

Gazan’s eyes narrowed. He said nothing.

“I know it won’t alleviate your suffering, but I promise you, I had nothing to do with her murder. My servant Narju acted entirely on his own. He believed that your mother was a threat and did his best to defend me.”

“A loyal servant, then?” he said, his voice dangerously low.

“Yes.”

Gazan smiled. “Then let us test the loyalty of your new ones, shall we?” He turned to the servants. “Leave us.”

Sholpan’s blood ran cold. “No,” she commanded. “Stay here.”

The younger two glanced nervously from her to Gazan, unsure what to do. Engus, however, turned and made for the door.

“Engus!” she said in a loud, commanding voice. “Where are you going? Come back!”

But Engus ignored her. As he reached the door, he turned and barked orders at the others. They both gave her a sheepish look, then turned and ran after their superior.

“No—wait! Stop!” she shouted, her voice becoming frantic. “Tariq, Zaid! I order you to stop at once. Can you hear me? I order you to come back!”

Neither of them acknowledged her.

I should run now, Sholpan thought to herself. If I hurry, I can reach the door before it closes—before they leave me alone with Gazan.

Even as the thought came to her mind, however, Sholpan knew that it wasn’t an option. If word reached the other wives that she had run from Gazan like a frightened little girl—that Gazan had ordered her own servants, in her presence, against her own command—they would walk all over her for the rest of her life.

She stood her ground and swallowed. Across the room, the door hissed shut.

“You’re still here,” Gazan observed. He moved towards her, hands clenched into fists.

“Yes,” said Sholpan, struggling to keep her voice even. “As I said before, Master Gazan, I don’t see any reason why we should be…”

Her voice trailed off as Gazan stepped closer. “You killed my mother, you bitch.” His eyes glowed with hatred.

“N-no,” Sholpan stuttered, stepping away from him. “I promise you, I had nothing to do with it.”

He kept coming, faster now. She edged around the table, trying to keep it between the both of them.

“Pl-please,” she said, unable to hide her fear any longer. “Please don’t do this.”

In a single movement, Gazan lifted the edge of the table and flung it to the side. The coffee and pastries spilled across the floor, while the tableware shattered into thousands of tiny shards. The sudden noise exploded in her ears, and her legs all but gave out from sheer terror.

And then, to her surprise, Sholpan’s mind cleared.

“Think carefully about what you’re doing, Gazan,” she said in a calm, even voice. “We don’t have to be enemies. I lost my mother, too—my mother and all of my family. I know what it feels like, and I’m terribly sorry for your loss.”

“Why should I believe you?” he hissed.

“Because I’m risking my life to say it.”

For a few moments, Gazan said nothing. Then, without warning, he shouted and charged. Sholpan barely had time to scream before he was on her.

The first blow knocked her clean off her feet. Time slowed as she fell through the air, pain blossoming across the side of her face. She landed on the floor with a loud crack, and for a moment her vision swam with stars.

Whatever had held Gazan back before, it was gone now. He pulled her up and struck her again and again. She screamed and tried to shield herself, but a blow struck her square in the right eye, making the world go red. A powerful kick connected with her stomach, and she doubled over in pain.

“Stop!” she cried. “Please, stop!”

Gazan struck her all the harder, filling her world with pain. The taste of blood filled her mouth, and her breathing came in short, uneven gasps. After a few more blows, he paused long enough to grab her blouse and tear it off her body. Sholpan tried to fight him off, but she was too weak to stop him. Rough hands pinned her face up against the floor, then reached for her skirt and pulled it down.

He’s going to rape me, she realized. She closed her eyes, powerless to do anything else.

Then, to her surprise, he stopped. For a long while, he knelt over her bruised and broken body, strangely hesitant. A moment later, he was gone.

For the next long while, Sholpan passed in and out of consciousness. She didn’t know how long he had beat her, or how long she lay on the floor after he’d left. Somehow, she managed to make it to the door, stopping to check herself over.

Bruises covered her arms and legs; her left knee was too weak to support her body, the right side of her face was swollen, and several of her ribs felt like they were broken. When she wiped her nose with the back of her hand, it came away bloody. Her clothes were in tatters, bloodstained and ruined.

What just happened? she wondered as she glanced back at the room. The wreckage of the food and dinnerware lay as still as an alien landscape. Outside the windows, the magnificent starfield bathed the scene in cold light.

Chapter 21


“What do you mean, you want to cancel our contract?” said James. “We know Stella’s alive; we know where she is; we even have the Hameji transport—”

“I lost half my men in the last battle, Ensign. I’m not going to risk losing any more.”

James clenched his fists as a feeling of sheer helplessness swept over him. “We don’t need to risk the whole crew,” he argued. “We just need a couple of men to put together a team—”

“I’m not going to risk ‘a couple’ of my men,” said Danica. “I have an obligation to my crew, and I’m going to keep it.”

“But we’re so close!”

“I highly doubt that,” said Danica, setting her coffee mug on the table. “You want to take that transport, fly it into the heart of the Hameji fleet, kidnap the concubine of one of their highest ranking commanders, and get out alive. That’s more than dangerous—that’s suicide.”

“Then why did you take on the job in the first place?” James asked bitterly.

Danica said nothing for several moments. James shifted uneasily on his feet.

“I’m sorry about your men,” he continued, “but Stella is my sister. Did you ever think we’d come this far? We can do this!”

“Don’t delude yourself, Ensign. You’re not invincible.”

“I don’t care. I’d rather die than give up now.”

Danica rose from her chair. “You have a death wish,” she said, “and neither I nor my men want any part of it. Here’s the deal: we sell your ship and split the proceeds fifty-fifty.”

James leaped to his feet. “What?” he cried. “That’s not fair, that’s—”

“It’s more than fair. We fulfilled half of our contract, didn’t we? We recovered you your brother.”

“Yeah—in a body bag!”

“You never stipulated whether you wanted him dead or alive. I’m sorry for your loss, but like it or not, business is business. Fifty percent is the best I can do.”

James clenched his fists. “And what about me?” he asked. “Are you going to just leave me stranded in the middle of nowhere?”

“Once we’ve sold your ship, we’ll let you off on one of the outer planets in the Karduna system. From there, you can catch a ride with an inbound freighter back to your home.”

James paled. He felt suddenly claustrophobic, as if the walls were closing in on him.

“W-wait,” he cried. “Do we have to decide this now? Can’t I have a little time to think it over?”

“There’s nothing left to think about. I’ve made my decision—I suggest you start packing your things.”

“But—please,” he urged. “This is all happening so fast—please, just give me a little time.”

Danica stared at him for a few seconds. Her face was as impassive as ever, but after a few moments, she took a deep breath.

“Very well,” she said. “How much time are you asking for?”

James’s heart leaped in his chest. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe—”

“Two days. That’s all I can afford.”

“Right. Two days. Great.”

“Get some rest, Ensign. You look like you could use it.”

She showed him to the door. It slid shut behind him with a sharp hiss.

Two days.

It wasn’t much to work with, but it was better than nothing. If he could convince even two or three members of the crew to come around to his side, perhaps Danica would change her mind.

I can do this, he told himself as he walked quickly down the corridor. For Stella, I can do this.

He’d have to get started right away.


* * * * *


Ilya’s mouth was warm and wet against Anya’s neck, like a parasite slithering across her skin. She tried to come on to him, but he just felt like so much dead weight. His body reeked of cheap cologne, his unwashed hair of wet dog.

You’re worthless, a voice in her head told her. Pathetic. Weak. What are you doing with this loser?

No, she argued, raising her arms as Ilya pulled off her blouse. I’m not worthless. Alex didn’t think so.

Alex is dead. You didn’t deserve him. He was too good for you.

That’s not true! I’m still loved.

No, you’re not. You’re pathetic. Worthless.

With sweaty hands, she pulled Ilya’s mouth to hers, locking lips in a voracious kiss. She tried to savor the feeling, but his hungry, groping hands writhed across her skin like dirty tentacles.

It hadn’t always been like this. Most of the time, the sex was good—and not just the sex, but the security of knowing that she was worth possessing. But now that she’d seen Ilya for the spineless coward he was, everything had changed.

You can’t win the love of a real man, the voices told her. You’re just not worth the effort.

“Get off of me,” she told Ilya. He kept groping her, though, as if she hadn’t said anything.

“I said, get off!”

She shoved him off of the narrow bunk. His body thumped loudly to the floor, and he rose to his feet cursing.

“What the hell was that for?”

“I’ve had enough of you,” she said, sitting up to refasten her bra.

His face was a picture of fury and confusion. “What do you mean?” he shouted. “Come here, you bitch.”

He grabbed her by the shoulders, but before he could push himself back onto her, she jabbed him in the kidney with a tightly packed fist. He cried out and let go of her, toppling over the edge of the bunk a second time.

A string of profanities shot out of his mouth. Anya found her blouse and slipped it on.

“What’s this all about?” he screamed, holding his side. “What makes you think—”

“You’re pathetic, Ilya. One punch, and you’re sprawled on the floor. Tell me, is that why you ran when the Hameji boarded us?”

He glared at her. “At least I didn’t stick around to let them rape me—that’s more than I can say of you.”

Her fist connected with the side of his face, slamming him into the wall. He collapsed to the floor rubbing his cheek.

“I hunted down those pirates and killed every last one of them,” she said, her voice cutting the air like a knife. “Have you ever killed a man, Ilya? Have you?”

He scowled up at her but said nothing.

“You’re a coward,” said Anya. “A worthless, spineless coward, and I’m done with you. Get out.”

He slunk out of the room without another word. The door hissed shut behind him. She sat down on the edge of the bunk and buried her head in her shaking hands.

Nobody loves you. You’re worthless.


* * * * *


James took a deep breath and stepped into the medical bay of the Tajji Flame. The air was thick with the smell of sanitizers. Medical equipment filled the spotlessly clean room: syringes, cushioned tables, IVs, and computer arrays, with an assortment of robot arms dangling from the ceiling.

Abu Kariym had his back to the door, reading something on one of the holoscreens. As James walked up behind him, he didn’t even glance up.

From where he stood, James couldn’t help but read over the old man’s small shoulders. Imperial News Agency, the text read, followed by a time stamp dated almost a standard week ago. Fierce battles continue to rage across deep space in the vicinity of Hameji-occupied Karduna. Sources within the Gaian Imperial Forces believe that the Hameji have divided their forces into two fleets, one of which remains at large.

We think the battles along the starlane may be some kind of diversion,” confirmed an Imperial officer who wishes to remain anonymous. “The main fleet is almost certainly attempting to circumvent our forces by—

“Yes, Ensign?” said Abu Kariym, instantly snapping James to the present.

“Uh, hello, Doctor. How are you?”

“Quite worried,” said the old man. Nearly a dozen wrinkles appeared on his forehead as he furrowed his brow. “It appears the Hameji are mounting a campaign against Gaia Nova.”

“Gaia Nova?” said James. “That’s the capitol star of the Empire—not even the Hameji can overthrow it.”

Abu Kariym coughed. “God willing,” he said. “Though I do not think the Hameji will stop—not when they are so close to victory.”

James could hardly believe what he was hearing. Gaia Nova was the oldest settled world in the known universe, the site of the famous Temple of a Thousand Suns and its repository of the Holy Archives of Earth. The very name of the world conjured up exotic images of white-walled cities thousands of standard years old. James had never been there, but he longed to go—to see the continent-sized domes sprawling across the planet, the Temple a glittering jewel in the center of it all. To imagine it falling to the Hameji—James shuddered at the thought.

“The Hameji will never conquer Gaia Nova,” he declared. “It’s impossible.”

“Nothing is impossible,” said Abu Kariym. “One empire falls, another rises. But yes; God willing, it will not happen.”

“Why are you so interested in this anyways?” James asked.

Abu Kariym turned to face him. His eyes were sad and tired.

“Because my family is there.”

James blinked. “Your family?”

“Yes. My wife, my sons, and their families, as well as many of my brothers and sisters.”

“You’re from Gaia Nova? But the rest of the crew is Tajji. How did you get mixed up with them?”

Abu Kariym smiled. “I did a lot of traveling in my younger years, and settled on Tajjur V before the wars broke out. You would be surprised how similar that world is to Gaia Nova, outside the domes. I met my wife there,” he added, drifting off.

“Don’t you miss them?”

“Yes,” he said, his voice distant. “Yes, I do.” After a few moments of silence, he glanced up again. “But come, where are my manners? Would you like something to drink—coffee, perhaps? I have a can of authentic soil-grown coffee from Tajjur V in my office.” He rose slowly to his feet.

“No, thank you,” said James.

“Nonsense; you are my guest. What will you have?”

“Nothing, really. All I wanted was to ask a few questions.”

Abu Kariym walked off to a dispenser in the wall, ignoring him. “Perhaps I can get you some juice, then?”

“I’ll, uh, just have some water, thanks.”

“Please, I insist. You must have something to drink.”

“Water is fine.”

“Very well,” said the old man, producing a glass from a nearby cabinet. “Water it is.”

“I came to ask you about the crew,” said James. “I’m, ah, helping the captain organize a commando team for the next mission, and I need to know who’s still able to fight.”

“A commando team?” said Abu Kariym, returning with a glass in each hand. He gave one to James before sitting down in his chair. “She’s planning another mission so soon?”

“Yes,” James lied. “She wanted me to put a team together, and I need to find out who is healthy enough to go.” He took a sip of the deliciously cold water.

“And she isn’t assembling this mission herself?”

“Well, she wanted me to feel out the crew, see who’s willing to go—that sort of thing.”

“Strange that she didn’t come to me directly.”

James shifted uneasily on his feet. He took another sip, temporarily hiding his face.

“To be honest,” the old man said, “I would be surprised if anyone was willing to go. After what has happened—”

“I know,” James interrupted. “It’s going to be difficult, and we have to be careful not to upset morale. But can you think of anybody? Anybody at all?”

“Artyom might have been good for something like this. Unfortunately, he lost his life in the fighting—may God have mercy on him.”

“Anyone else?”

The old man stared off into the distance. “No,” he said finally. “No one who isn’t wounded and unwilling. Then again, I spend most of my time in the medical bay, so I wouldn’t be a good judge of morale. You’ll have to ‘feel out’ the crew some other way, Ensign.”

James’s stomach fell.

“Perhaps you can tell me who’s well enough to fight,” he said, his foot tapping anxiously on the floor.

Abu Kariym paused again to think. “I can think of three or four enlisted men whose injuries aren’t too serious,” he said. “None of them will want to go, I can guarantee you, but if you talk with Sergeant Maria she might be able to persuade them. As for the officers, Roman is out of the question, but none of the others is injured seriously enough to keep them from going.”

“Great. Can you get me those names?”

“Certainly. I’ll forward them to your wrist console.”

“Thanks,” said James, setting his glass on the nearest table. “I’d better get going.”

“Are you sure? I can get you something else to drink.”

“No, thanks.”

Abu Kariym eyed him for a moment, then shrugged.

“Very well then. God bless.”

“Thank you, Doctor,” said James as he hurried out the door.


* * * * *


“No way in hell,” said Sergeant Maria. “You said the captain told you to bring this to me?”

“Er, yeah,” said James.

Maria gave him a hard stare. James squirmed where he stood.

“Danica always runs these kinds of ideas through Roman first. I’m next in line; why didn’t she come directly to me?”

“Well, uh,” James floundered, “she’s been busy.”

“Busy with what?”

“With, ah—”

“You’re lying.”

The blood rushed from James’s cheeks. Think fast, he told himself. Come on, think fast—

“You’re right,” he blurted. “Danica didn’t give me orders to talk with you. I decided to come on my own.”

Maria’s eyes narrowed. “So you’re trying to go over the captain’s head with this? Are you aware that on most ships, that’s considered mutiny?”

“No!” said James. “That’s not it at all. Danica and I were still talking things out—she hasn’t come to a decision one way or the other. I just wanted to do a little research on my own, feel out the crew, see if I—”

“You’ve got a lot to learn about the way things work around here, kid,” said Maria, her voice as cold as ice. “No, I will not approach my men with this idea—not until I hear from Danica directly. And if you approach anyone under my command, I will charge you with insubordination and report you to the captain. Do you understand, Ensign?”

“Yes, Sergeant,” James said, shaken.

“And to be frank, I thought this mission was a terrible idea from the beginning—especially for what you’re paying us.”

James’s cheeks flushed. “I, uh, well—”

“Goodbye.”

James was all too happy to leave.

I’m a fool, he thought to himself as he stood outside her door. With Roman wounded and Artyom dead, he had no one to act as a go-between between him and the enlisted men—and after Maria’s lecture, he dared not approach any of them directly. That left only the officers: Vaclav, Ilya, and Anya.

He turned and walked briskly down the corridor—no time to waste.


* * * * *


Anya piloted the gunboat through the debris field in the wake of the simulated battle. The flashing red indicators at the bottom of her screen told her that she was pulling three gees, even with gravitic damping. Half a dozen alarms blared in her ear as a squadron of Gaian Imperial fighter drones pelted her with incessant gunfire.

Just before she pulled clear, she hit the nose end of a half-destroyed freighter and wiped out in an enormous explosion. The replay showed her the collision from various exterior angles, fried remnants of her craft scattering in all directions. Over the visuals, the words Mission Failed flashed in blue across the center of the screen. Battle lost.

Anya watched the explosion play itself out over and over again. She checked the stats for interesting details and found that she’d been flying at four thousand meters per second relative to the wreckage at the moment of impact. At those speeds, death was instantaneous and, theoretically, painless.

Not that it mattered. Death was death.

She’d passed this mission nearly a dozen times before, but this time she’d programmed the simulator to increase the Gaian Imperial numbers by three hundred percent. Against such odds, she had virtually no hope for success, but that wasn’t what she wanted; what she wanted was a distraction.

The door to the simulation room chimed; someone was there to see her. Anya halfheartedly switched off the holoscreen and cracked open the sim unit.

“Come in,” she said, hoping it wasn’t the captain—or worse, Ilya.

The door to the room parted. To her surprise, it was the Ensign, James McCoy.

“Hello?”

“Hi, James,” said Anya, smiling to set him at ease as she climbed out of the sim unit.

“I’m sorry—did I interrupt you?”

“No, you’re fine; I’m just running some old missions. What’s up?”

He paused for a moment, as if unsure of himself. “Danica is considering putting together a commando team to rescue my sister,” he said. “With the Hameji transport, it shouldn’t be hard to sneak in—we just need to put together a team for the mission. Would you, ah, be willing to join?”

“Why are you coming to me?” Anya asked, a little confused.

James shifted uncomfortably. “Because, uh, Danica told me she wouldn’t send out the mission unless I could put a team together. I’ve already talked with some of the other crew, but they’ve all turned me down.”

“A commando raid against a Hameji capital ship? Sounds dangerous.” Not that it mattered.

“It’s actually pretty straightforward,” James argued. “We know what ship she’s on, we have the transport ship for cover—all we need is a couple of people willing to go. Please,” he added, eyes begging, “I need your help.”

Anya stared at the boy for a long time before answering. She knew he wasn’t telling the whole story—Danica would never send someone else to put together a commando team. Besides, the mission was absolutely crazy—suicidal, even.

But when she looked into his eyes, she didn’t see any fear. Recklessness, maybe, but not fear. Whatever else he was, the boy was no coward.

Oh, what the hell.

“All right,” she said. “You can tell Danica I’m in.”

James’s face lit up instantly. “Thank you—thank you so much! With you as the pilot, I’m sure we can do this.”

“Yeah,” said Anya, a little absent mindedly. Her thoughts drifted to the simulation. Three gees. Painless death.

“…know if Ilya is up for this?” James was asking. “I wanted to—”

“I can get Ilya on board,” Anya said without thinking. “Just leave it to me.”

“Thank you,” he said again. “You don’t know how much this means to me.”

“I’m glad to be on the team,” she said. “We’ll get your sister back.” Or die trying.

Not that it mattered.


* * * * *


Later that night, Anya sat on her bunk, filing her nails as she waited for Ilya to come. She had little doubt he would; he had never been one to turn down a night with her.

Sure enough, the door hissed open and he sauntered in, the characteristic smug expression written across his face. He’s so full of himself, she thought as she watched him step inside. One of the reasons she’d fallen for him.

He betrayed you, you know. Not that you didn’t deserve it.

“Hey, baby,” he said as the door hissed shut behind him. “You wanted to see me?”

“Yes,” she said, focusing on her nails as if they were more interesting than him.

“Well?” he said, sitting down next to her. His arm snaked around her waist, making his intentions all too clear. She glanced up and narrowed her eyes at him.

Coward.

“I was talking with James a little while ago,” she said.

Ilya’s face fell. “Talking about what?”

“About things,” she said, pausing to admire her hands. “After this mission’s over, I just might retire and go home with him.”

Ilya’s cheeks turned red, much to her satisfaction.

“You’d leave me for that stupid kid? He’s just a boy.”

“He’s more of a man than you.”

Ilya cursed and rose to his feet. In his anger, he looked tough and dangerous—not at all like the weakling she’d found cowering in the maintenance corridor after the battle.

“I haven’t made a decision yet, though,” she said, rising up to face him. “I’ve got to admit, I kind of miss you.” She took him by the hips and pressed her body against his, smiling.

He angrily shrugged her off. “I don’t get it,” he said. “What the hell do you see in that guy?”

You’re worthless. Even he doesn’t want you.

Anya withdrew and stood back, giving him an obstinate look. “When the Hameji boarded us, James stood his ground and fought them. You turned tail and ran.”

“So? It was the Hameji—anyone in their right mind would have run.”

“Psh,” said Anya. “Say that to Artyom and the others who died.”

“Yeah, well, where were you? I didn’t see you in the corridors when the fighting got tough.”

He’s right, you know. You’re no better than him.

Anya folded her arms—she’d had enough. Time to get to the point.

“James and Danica are putting together a commando mission to rescue his sister. I’m already in as the pilot, but we could use a cyber-ops officer. If you want me so much, prove that you’re a man and join us.”

Ilya’s face turned white. “Did you see what the Hameji did to us the last time? To fight them again—that’s suicide!”

“Are you in or not?”

Ilya didn’t answer right away. He’s not going to go for it, the voice in Anya’s head told her. You’re not worth it to him. You never were.

“You’re not going to change your mind about this?” he asked.

“No.”

“For sure?”

“Yes.”

He turned away and slammed his fist angrily against the wall, making her jump.

“Please don’t make me do this,” he begged. “I’m not what you think I am.”

“Prove it.”

Several moments passed, in which neither of them said anything. Through the walls, Anya could hear the low throbbing of the ventilator fans. She shifted on her feet.

He’s not going to do it.

“There’s no other way around it?” Ilya asked. “Nothing else I can do to prove myself?”

“No. Not if you want me.”

He took a deep breath and turned towards her. Something about him seemed noticeably different. Instead of slouching, he held himself with confidence. His arms and legs were stiff and shaking, but they radiated strength instead of weakness. Gone was his characteristically smug smile, replaced by an expression of unabashed fear and seriousness that was a thousand times more honest.

“All right,” he said, “but if I’m in, we get together—now.”

She smiled. “Deal.”

They made love that night as if it were their first time—or perhaps their last. Anya knew that death was coming for her—death and oblivion—but the thought only spurred her on to greater heights of passion. And later, as she fell asleep with Ilya’s arms wrapped tightly around her, she smiled to herself. It felt good to not be alone.

Chapter 22


“Come in,” said Danica. The door hissed open and Vaclav stepped through, with James close behind. An unlikely pair, she mused, raising an eyebrow.

“Captain,” said Vaclav. He saluted; Danica returned his salute.

“Nicholson, McCoy. How may I be of service?”

Vaclav spoke first. “The Ensign tells me that you gave him orders to put together some kind of commando team for a raid on the Hameji fleet. Is that true?”

“No. Please explain.”

“I found him going behind your back recruiting crew members for this mission. I came to you as soon as he approached me.”

Danica frowned. She looked James squarely in the eyes, and his cheeks started to pale.

“Well,” she said to him, displeasure evident in her voice, “what do you have to say for yourself?”

“You told me I had a couple of days,” he said sheepishly.

“You approached my crew about this without my consent?”

“Well, uh, it was the only way to—”

“Do you realize I could charge you with mutiny?”

James bit his lip and hung his head. “Yes.”

“And still you did it?”

He clenched his fists and glanced up at her, determination written across his face. “I had to,” he said. “It was the only way to get my sister back.”

Danica stared at him for several moments in silence. A part of her wanted to scream at him—but when she met his eyes, all she could see was the face of her brother.

That only made what she had to do harder.

“Peter, Nicholas,” she said into her wrist console. “Come up to the bridge. Bring your stunners.”

“What?” James shouted. “What are you—no!” He tried to run out, but Vaclav knocked him down and pinned him to the floor.

“I’m sorry it had to come to this, Ensign,” Danica said, forcing out the words. “We’ll hold you in the brig only until we put into port. There, we’ll release you with fifty percent of the proceeds from the sale of your ship, as we agreed.”

“Fifty percent?” said Vaclav.

“I didn’t ask for your opinion on this matter, Nicholson.” Vaclav stared at her as if she were crazy, but thankfully kept his comments to himself.

James squirmed under the flight lieutenant’s grasp. “You can’t do this to me!”

“On the contrary,” said Danica. “I can, and I am.”

“But—please! I already talked with Anya, and she—”

The door hissed open, and Peter and Nicholas stepped through, stunner prods in their hands. Danica nodded.

“Take the ensign to the brig,” she ordered. “He’s to remain there until I see fit to release him.”

“Yes, Captain.”

Vaclav stood up, and the two privates lifted James bodily to his feet.

“Try not to be too rough with him,” Danica added.

“Captain!” James shouted after her. Before he could say anything else, the soldiers dragged him out the door.


* * * * *


Anya cracked open the sim unit and glanced down at her blinking wrist console. Sure enough, it was a summons to the bridge. She stretched, then rose to her feet, leaving the sim unit open behind her.

As she walked down the hallway, three men turned the corner ahead of her: Peter, Nicholas, and a third between them whose face she couldn’t quite see. Both privates carried stunners in their hands, and as they turned to let her pass, she recognized the one they were escorting.

It was James.

His eyes lit up immediately. “Anya?” he said. “Anya! Please, you have to help me—”

A prod from one of the stunners made him scream out in pain. The unexpected act of violence made Anya jump.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“We’re throwing the ensign in the brig,” said Peter. “Captain’s orders.”

Without another word, they marched off. James turned around to say something, but another prod from the stunner caught him before he could speak. He cried out in pain as the privates muscled him around the next corner.

What the hell is going on?

Danica was the only one on the bridge when Anya arrived. She sat in her command chair facing the starfield, staring at nothing at all.

“Captain,” said Anya, saluting.

“Sikorsky,” said Danica, still facing the starfield. “I need you to dock with the Catriona and set a course for Kardunash VII.”

Anya frowned. The only reason to take the Catriona to port was to sell it. A cold feeling grew in her stomach, and her palms started to feel sweaty.

“Kardunash VII?”

“Yes,” said Danica. “Kardunash VII.”

“What about the rescue mission?”

Danica sighed. “Did the ensign tell you I was putting together a commando team?”

“Yes.”

“He lied. I never gave any command of the sort.”

“Oh.”

Anya took her seat at the pilot’s chair, completely at a loss from the sudden turn of events. With a shaky hand, she activated her terminal and plugged in the coordinates for K-7. While the nav-comp ran the calculations for the jump, she gripped the joystick and made ready to dock with the Catriona.

“Are you sure about this, Captain?” she asked abruptly, surprising herself with the sound of her voice. “The Hameji transport is outfitted and ready to go. We don’t have to—”

“I gave you an order, Sikorsky. Do you have a problem with it?”

“No—but what’s going on? I don’t understand.”

Danica sighed. “Our contract with the boy is over. We’re selling his ship and taking half the proceeds from the sale. The rest go to him.”

“But Peter and Nicholas—”

“For security reasons, I found it necessary to hold the boy in the brig until we reach port. Don’t worry, Sikorsky—I’ll release him once we arrive.”

Anya swallowed. “So that’s it? No more mission?”

“Correct.”

Then it’s over, Anya thought to herself, a lump welling up in her throat. In only a couple of days, James would be gone, and life would return to the way it had always been—hopping from port to port, taking on this job or that, eating and sleeping and working with the same dozen or so people she’d lived with day in and day out for the last five years. And Ilya—she would be his girl again. After all, who else on the ship would have her? Except it wouldn’t be the same, because she knew his secret—she knew what he really was.

You’re worthless, the voices said. You don’t deserve a real man. Worthless, worthless.

The computer finished its calculations—all that remained was to dock with the Catriona and make the jump. With a growing feeling of numbness, she eased down on the joystick. The thrusters engaged, nudging them forward. Her finger hesitated above the keyboard, ready to start the docking sequence.

No, she told herself, taking a deep breath. I can’t.

Instead of docking with the Catriona, she commanded the computer to begin the docking sequence with the Hameji transport. At the same time, she activated the remote access for the captured ship. As the transport grew larger in the main window, she slaved the pilot’s station to her wrist console and brought up the Hameji transport’s weapon controls.

Here goes nothing.

“Captain,” she said, “I’m taking command of the Hameji transport. I want you to release Ensign McCoy and give us the supplies we need to complete our mission. If you don’t—”

“What?” Danica said, completely dumbstruck.

“If you don’t comply,” Anya continued, “I have all of the transport’s guns locked onto the Tajji Flame. Try to stop me, and I’ll blow up the ship.”

Danica slowly rose to her feet. “Anya,” she said, “what are you doing? Have you lost your mind?”

Yes. Yes, I have.

“Don’t bother calling for Ilya,” she said. “He’s with us.”

“Would you really kill us all over this?” Danica asked.

Anya hesitated, but only for a moment.

“Yes, Captain. I would.”

For a long time, Danica said nothing. The expression on her face wasn’t one of fear or anger, but of hurt—deep, personal hurt. Anya didn’t know what to make of it.

“All right,” said Danica. She lifted her wrist and activated the intercom. “Peter, Nicholas, release the ensign from the brig.”

Anya’s hands trembled with nervous energy. With her hand on her wrist console like the trigger of a gun, she wondered if she looked as desperate as she felt. Probably, for the captain to give in so quickly.

“McCoy is on his way,” said Danica. “He’ll meet you at the airlock.” As if in answer, the distant groan of metal on metal sounded through the bulkheads as they docked.

“And supplies,” said Anya. “We’ll need supplies.”

“I’ll have Mikhail take care of it,” said Danica. She gave Anya a confused look, like a mother whose child was running away.

“Why are you doing this?”

“It’s—it’s nothing personal,” said Anya, realizing the full magnitude of her betrayal. “Nothing personal at all. I’ve—I’ve enjoyed working with you, Captain.”

Danica said nothing—she only stared.

“I’m sorry it came to this. I really am.”

“So am I, Lieutenant. So am I.”

Before Danica could do anything else to detain her, Anya turned on her heel and headed for the airlock.


* * * * *


“Hello, Captain,” said Abu Kariym as Danica entered the medical deck. “How may I help you?”

“I need to see Roman.”

“Ah, yes. Go right ahead—you know where he is.”

She found Roman sitting up in his bed, watching an old holovid. At the sound of the door, he turned his face to see who it was. His face slowly lit up as he recognized her.

“Welcome, Captain,” he said, his voice slurred.

“Roman,” she said, all but collapsing into the seat next to the wall. “I’m in trouble, and I need your help.”

Roman nodded. “What is it?”

“Anya and James have gone AWOL—Ilya too. They’re running away on the Hameji transport.”

“Why?”

Danica sighed in exasperation. “James went behind my back to put together a commando team. When I learned about it, I threw him in the brig, but Anya turned on me when she found out.” She threw her hands in the air. “I don’t know why, but she and Ilya have agreed to help James on this suicide run. She’s got the Hameji transport slaved to her wrist console, and she threatened to blow up the ship if I didn’t let the three of them go.”

Roman said nothing for several moments. While she waited, Danica clasped her hands in her lap and struggled to bring her breathing under control.

“Does the crew know of this yet?”

“No—only Vaclav, but he doesn’t know about Anya.”

“Vaclav will not talk if you do not involve him. As for Anya, I do not think she will be opposed to you joining her.”

Danica frowned. “Joining her?”

Roman nodded, head barely moving. “Isn’t that what you want, Captain?”

“No,” she said quickly. “Well, maybe. I’d hate to let the ensign go without more backup, but this mission’s too dangerous. We’ve already lost half the crew, and—”

“Danica, they are volunteering. Can you not see?”

All I see is a mutiny, thought Danica—and it scared her like nothing else. In all her years as a captain, her own crew had never turned on her.

“I wouldn’t exactly call it ‘volunteering,’“ she said. “I’d—”

“No, Captain,” said Roman. He coughed. “Think back. Why did you take the boy’s contract?”

“Because there was nothing else,” she said. “Because—”

“No, Danica. You decided to help him for same reason that I chose to join with you.”

Danica paused. “Why?”

“To help him become something greater. To save him from destroying himself. To stop running from your own demons and to face them.”

Danica thought back to the time when she’d first met Roman. It was on Belarius III, before the Hameji campaigns had begun. She’d recently washed out of a local militia and was looking to get into the private military business, mostly to fight against the Empire. Roman, one of her father’s former high-ranking NCOs, had been bouncing around from job to job. When she’d found him in one of the spaceport’s many cantinas, he was a complete and utter wreck.

“Is that why you joined up with me?” she asked. “To turn me into something?”

Roman laughed—a low, throaty chuckle that soon turned in a cough. “Yes,” he said. “And it worked, no?”

“Yes,” she said softly. “It did.”

“Then why do you hesitate? Go!”

Danica shook her head. “It’s not that easy, Roman. I have a crew to take care of—mouths to feed, people to pay.”

“But this mission does not require all of them—only a few. Can you not do it with Anya and Ilya both?”

“Maybe,” she said, “but—it’s just too risky.”

“No,” said Roman, “not true. That is only excuse.”

“What do you mean?”

“The boy is one of us now, no? He is more than friend—he is family to you. But his demons—they are your demons. He wishes to save his sister, as you failed to save your brother. And now, because the danger is so great, you cannot bear to see him fail. Protecting the crew is only excuse.”

“An excuse for what?”

Roman leaned forward and looked her in the face with his good eye. “Can you not see?” he said. “Saving him will save yourself, also. If you do not help, you will both be destroyed.”

Something about his words rang true to her in a way that nothing else ever had. She thought of how much James reminded her of her brother, and realized that he reminded her of herself even more. James wanted to save his sister the same way Danica wished she could have saved her brother—the difference was that James actually stood a chance.

“So what do you think I should do?” she asked.

“This is my advice,” said Roman. “Leave with them. If the battle with the Hameji had not happened, you would be flying this mission, yes? Treat this not as mutiny, but as misunderstanding.”

“But what if they won’t let me?”

Roman laughed. “They will let you, Danica. You are a good captain—they are not leaving because of you.”

Danica nodded. “It’s going to be dangerous,” she said. “Are you sure—”

“Anya is a survivor,” he said, waving his hand. “Ilya is a bit cocky, but he can take care of himself.”

“And the boy?”

“You will only fail him if you choose to stay here.”

He has a point.

She checked her wrist console. The Hameji transport was almost ready to launch. They would undock from the Tajji Flame and make their first jump in only a few minutes.

“Do not worry, Captain,” said Roman. “I will take care of this end. We will sell boy’s ship and repair the Tajji Flame while you are gone.”

Danica shook her head.

“No,” she said. “Wait for us here.”

A wide grin spread across Roman’s face. “Yes, Captain,” he said, lifting his good hand in a salute.

“If I don’t return in five days, I’m placing you in command.”

“You will return, Captain.”

“Even so. You promise to take good care of my men?”

“Of course, Captain. Of course.”


* * * * *


James sat on the edge of the Hameji transport’s stiff command chair and watched the indicator lights flash on across the control board. The screen to his left had two bullet holes in it and it sparked when he tried to turn it on; the one above his head had a dent in the corner but was still functional. Dark bloodstains could be seen in the cracks between switches and keys, and the air still smelled of disinfectant.

I killed in this place, James thought to himself. I killed almost a dozen people. He could see their bodies in his mind’s eye, draped across the control panels and keyboards at which Anya and Ilya both sat. The image brought a cold sweat to the back of his neck.

“I’ve almost got these controls figured out,” said Anya, snapping him out of his thoughts. “It’s going to be a while before I’m familiar with them enough to fly, though.”

“Just find the controls to the jump engine,” said James. It felt strange to be the one giving orders now, especially since he hardly knew what he was doing.

The bridge door hissed open behind them. Loud footsteps followed, rapping sharply against the metal floor. James turned around as Anya gasped.

It was Danica.

“Hello, Ensign McCoy,” she said. “Mind if I join you?”

James frowned. “How—how did you get here?”

“The question you should be asking is why I am here. The answer is that I have decided to renew our contract.” She glanced at Anya and nodded. “If you’ll to take me on, I’m willing to overlook the recent unpleasantries as a simple misunderstanding.”

James was speechless. To his right, Anya’s cheeks paled, then blushed deep red. Ilya seemed just as lost as James.

“Are you sure?” James asked. “I mean, this mission is going to be difficult. Do you—”

“I’m fully aware of the dangers, McCoy,” said Danica. “But danger or not, as captain I have an obligation to my men.”

“We’re still your men?” Anya blurted out. Her body was as stiff as a durasteel hull.

“Of course you are—and not just you,” she said, glancing at James. “My obligation extends to the ensign as well.”

“Wait—I’m one of you?”

“Of course you are. Now, do we have a deal or don’t we?”

“I—well, yeah,” said James, his mind in a whirl.

“Is that a ‘yes’ or a ‘no,’ McCoy?”

“Um, yes, Captain. I just thought—”

“What did you think?”

James paused. McCoy, he thought to himself. She called me ‘McCoy,’ not ‘Ensign.’

“Nothing,” he said. “Nothing at all.”

“Then let’s not waste any more time,” said Danica, stepping up to the command chair. James rose to give it to her.

“Thank you,” he said softly as she took her seat.

“What did you say, McCoy?”

“I, er—let’s get started.”

“Yes,” said Danica, smiling. “Let’s.”

Chapter 23


“You’ve got a lot of nerve to call on Gazan like that. Honestly, darling, you’re lucky he didn’t kill you.”

Tamu dabbed Sholpan’s swollen face with the healing accelerant, making her wince. “I know,” Sholpan moaned. Her breathing came in short, quick bursts; even with the painkillers, her whole body felt as if it were on fire.

“Still,” said Tamu, “it was a brilliant move. Batshit crazy, but brilliant.”

“Why?”

“Oh, you haven’t heard? Gazan stole off on a shuttle just this morning.”

Sholpan frowned. “He did what?”

“Ran away, dear.”

“Why?”

Tamu gave her a funny look. “Because Qasar is going to disown him, of course. Wouldn’t you—”

“Disown him?”

“Yes, dear. What did you expect? You’re Qasar’s wife now, after all—an assault on you is an assault on his honor.”

“Yeah, but—”

“So it all worked out for the best. Gazan is eliminated, and all you have for it are a few battle wounds.”

You say it like it’s that easy, Sholpan wanted to say. Instead, she stretched out on her stomach and let Tamu rub the accelerant across her bruised shoulders and arms.

“But—but I didn’t want to eliminate Gazan,” she said. “I only wanted to make peace with him.”

Tamu clucked her tongue. “Respect is much better than peace, honey—so much better. And with the way you handled Gazan, all the wives are bound to respect you now.”

Respect me, yes, Sholpan thought woefully. But they’ll still be my enemies.

“So what happens next?”

“Well, dear, it all depends on Gazan’s next move. He may set a plot in motion to assassinate his father—”

Sholpan sat up straight. “Assassinate?”

“Only in the worst of cases. Of course, if he does, he’ll take you out once he rises to power.”

“Take me out?”

Tamu shrugged. “I wouldn’t worry about it, darling; Qasar is far too strong for that. No, Gazan will probably leave and start his own fleet, in which case Qasar will hunt him down and kill him.”

Kill him? The thought gave Sholpan an awful sinking feeling in her gut.

“And if Gazan strikes first,” Tamu continued, “Qasar will almost certainly crush him.”

“Crush him?” said Sholpan, sitting up. “But Gazan is his son!”

Tamu shook her head. “There’s nothing you can do about it, dear, and anyhow it’s not your fault. If Gazan wanted to live, he would have accepted his punishment for beating you.”

“But why does it have to be this way?”

“It’s their way of life, honey. Better get used to it.”

No, Sholpan thought to herself. I can’t let Qasar kill his own son. That’s just wrong.

“I have to do something,” she said. “I have to stop it.”

Tamu frowned. “Good luck with that, darling,” she said. “Good luck.”


* * * * *


Qasar summoned Sholpan to his bedchamber that night, but he did not make her sleep with him. It was the first time since their marriage that they’d been in the same room together and not had sex. Still, Sholpan’s bruised and aching body reminded her all too well of that first night, when he had beat her for refusing him. He shifted, and her heart jumped in her chest. Even now, she didn’t know what to expect from him.

“Why, my son?” Qasar moaned. “Why?”

At first, Sholpan thought he was asleep, but he sat up and raised his fists in the air.

“WHY?” he screamed, his voice splitting her ears. Then, as abruptly as he had begun, Qasar buried his head in his hands and drew silent. Slowly, his shoulders began to shake.

He’s weeping, Sholpan realized with a start.

She lay still and stared at the ceiling, unsure what to do. If Qasar blamed her for the falling out with his son, he might hurt her if she tried to say anything. But then again, if that were the case, why had he summoned her to his bedchamber at all? There had to be a reason.

He must know I’m awake, Sholpan realized. I can’t lie here and do nothing. Slowly, tentatively, she sat up and put an arm around Qasar’s massive shoulder.

“Gazan, Gazan—why must you die?” Qasar sobbed. He leaned into her, as if to seek comfort. Sholpan found herself at a loss for what to do.

“You love him, don’t you?”

“Yes,” he sobbed. “Of course I do.”

Stars, Sholpan realized, he really does. In Qasar’s eyes, she saw the tenderness of a loving father mourning for his own child’s death—something she never thought she’d see in the face of a Hameji overlord. It affected her more deeply than she’d expected.

“Why?” she asked, rubbing his back. “Why must you kill him?”

Qasar moaned, and his great knotted muscles relaxed under her touch. “Because he has turned against me,” he said.

“Turned against you? How?”

“Gazan fled only twenty-six hours ago to take command of the Flame of Destiny. Captain Bargai was complicit in this act of treachery, and their plot would have worked, except for an astrogator who alerted my men. A small strike team posing as a band of mechanics boarded them and stopped the plot. Bargai and Gazan both confessed, as well as eight other co-conspirators from Bargai’s immediate family.”

“So now you must kill them?”

“Of course.”

“But that’s just wrong,” said Sholpan. “Why should you be forced to execute him? Can’t you—I don’t know, strip him of his inheritance or something?”

“I would to Tenguri that I could, Sholpan,” said Qasar. “That was what I was going to do, when I heard how he’d mistreated you. It would have been a blow to his honor, but not an irrecoverable one.”

“So do that,” she cried. “Let him live—by the stars of Earth, he’s your son!”

Qasar sighed and shook his head. “How can I overlook the magnitude of his crime? He has attempted to split my fleet and turn my own captains against me. What else can I do? The punishment for mutiny is death.”

That’s stupid, Sholpan thought, but caught herself before she said it.

“Three more days,” Qasar continued, “and he would have left for the main battle fleet to win a name for himself. He would not have been a danger to you. Three days—and now this.”

Sholpan’s blood turned cold as a pang of guilt swept over her. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t know this would happen.”

Qasar glanced up and stared at her with his penetrating eyes. “Didn’t you?” he said, his voice full of disbelief. “How could you not know it would come to this? He blames you for his mother’s death, you know.”

“I know,” she said. “It’s just, I’m so new to this, I—”

“Why did you want to meet with him, anyway? What was the purpose in that?”

“I—I only wanted to make peace with him. That’s all.”

Qasar looked at her as if she were a talking monkey. “There is no peace without honor,” he muttered.

Sholpan bit her lip and began once again to rub Qasar’s back. No peace without honor, she thought to herself. Such a cold and heartless way to live. And yet, in the absence of any other law, perhaps it did give a sense of order to one’s life—order, and purpose.

“Do you blame me for all of this?” Sholpan asked softly.

“Blame you for what?”

“That all of this is happening. That you are honor-bound to, ah, to—”

He turned and brought a hand to her cheek. Sholpan’s eyes burned, and before she knew what was happening, her head was in her hands, tears streaming down her face.

“I’m so sorry,” she cried. “I don’t want you to have to kill your own son.”

He stared at her for a long moment, as if surprised by her outburst of emotion. For a long time, neither of them said anything.

“There has to be a way,” Sholpan said, recomposing herself. “There just has to be a way to get around this.”

“No, Sholpan,” Qasar answered softly. “I cannot turn away from my duty. As captain of the Lion of Tenguri, I am honor-bound to enforce my rule. If my own ship fell into disorder, how could the rest of the fleet trust my command?”

Honor-bound, Sholpan thought bitterly to herself. Honor before mercy, honor before justice—

No peace without honor.

“Wait,” she said. “Gazan dishonored me before he turned against you, did he not?”

“What do you mean?”

“By beating me. I know he insulted your honor by doing that, but what about mine?”

“I suppose,” he answered, shrugging. “Since you are my wife, your honor is tied up in mine.”

“Exactly. So mutiny or not, he owes a debt of honor to me.”

Qasar frowned. “Where are you going with this?”

“Can’t you see? Your son doesn’t have to die—not if I have a claim on him first.”

Qasar said nothing. He brought his hand to his chin and stroked his beard.

“But he has committed mutiny—”

“Only to escape from his debt. For you to kill him before I can reclaim my honor—that would be unfair.”

She stared at him long and hard. Please, she inwardly pleaded, give me this one chance to make things right.

“Can a woman’s honor be worth so much?”

“Is it worth your son’s life? Do you trust me when I say I want to save him?”

His eyes met hers. “You would save the boy who nearly killed you?”

“Yes,” said Sholpan. “For the sake of peace, I would do it.”

He gazed at her for a long while in silence. Sholpan held her breath waiting for his response.

“You are a strong and noble woman, Sholpan,” Qasar said softly. “Yes, I trust you.”

Sholpan felt a thrill pass through her body, starting at the back of her neck and extending all the way out to her fingers. A strong and noble woman—among the Hameji, those were not words spoken lightly.

“Then give him to me,” she said. “Let me be the mediator. I promise, I’ll get you through this.”

Qasar smiled. “Yes, my shy goddess,” he said. “I trust you will.”


* * * * *


The observation deck was packed for Gazan’s judgment. Every living soul on the ship seemed to be in attendance—Sholpan even recognized some of the concubines. Tamu smiled and waved, her dress only slightly more modest than the half-open bathrobe she always wore. Sholpan nodded at her as she took her place on the stand with Qasar’s other wives.

“Hello,” said Zeline, an unreadable expression on her face. Two lavishly dressed women sat on the other side of her. They both looked to be in their mid-thirties, with olive skin and dark hair much like Lady Zeline’s. From the suspicious way they eyed her, Sholpan knew them at once as Qasar’s other wives.

Please don’t hate me, she wanted to say. I’m not what you think I am.

The full crowd before the observation windows milled about, talking amongst themselves. At the hiss of the elevator door, however, the room immediately grew silent. Sholpan rose with the other wives as Qasar strode in, dressed in a trim scarlet uniform with a jewel-studded golden sword holstered on his belt. Gray-clad officers flanked him on either side, the colorful epaulets and badges on their shoulders denoting their high rank. As Qasar took his seat at the center of the stand—wives on his left and officers on his right—his every movement radiated power, as if he were some kind of god. Gone was the man who had sobbed on Sholpan’s shoulder for the sake of his son, replaced by the cold, iron discipline of absolute command.

“Bring in the criminals,” Qasar ordered. In the silence, his loud voice reverberated across the entire room.

The first officer to his right nodded and rose to his feet. “Bring them in,” he commanded the guards.

A door opened on the right side of the room, and the crowd parted to allow ten prisoners and over a dozen black-clad soldiers through to the stand in front. Sholpan craned her neck to get a better view. The nine officers and crew members of the Flame of Destiny stared in shame at the floor, but Gazan kept his head raised high, wearing his pride like a badge of honor. His eyes met hers, and a scowl of naked contempt spread across his face.

“The prisoners, milord,” said the officer.

“Of what do they stand accused?” Qasar bellowed.

“Of mutiny and sedition, milord. The conspirators were caught in the act, and have all confessed to their crimes. Besides their confessions, we have many other infallible witnesses to prove their guilt.”

This isn’t going to work, Sholpan thought to herself, nervously tapping her feet. Gazan will never accept my mercy. The other wives will think I orchestrated the whole—

She shook her head and snapped herself out of it. Her heart pounded in her chest, but she took a deep breath and calmed herself. This was going to work. It had to.

Qasar rose slowly to his feet, eyes never leaving his son. “Is this true?”

Gazan stared back in defiance, but his cheeks paled ever so slightly. “Yes, Father,” he said, his voice barely audible.

“Why, my son? Why would you do this to me?”

Gazan said nothing.

Here it comes, Sholpan thought to herself. She gripped the armrests on her chair and leaned forward.

“You know what I am required to do,” said Qasar, his voice as dead as a machine. “As supreme commander of the fleet, I—”

“Milord,” Sholpan said, rising to her feet. “I demand that you stop this trial at once.”

Every eye on the deck turned to stare at her. Several of the officers frowned in disapproval, while Zeline and the other wives reeled with bewilderment. A murmur of surprise rippled through the crowd like a shock wave. Sholpan drew in a sharp breath and tried very hard to look confident.

“What is the meaning of this insolence?” snapped one of the officers—an overweight, gray-haired man with a balding head and scraggly beard. “How can this woman—”

“Silence,” said Qasar, raising his hand. He turned to face her. “What do you have to say?”

Here goes nothing.

“I have a claim on this man,” she said, loud enough that everyone on the deck could hear. “It was not you he betrayed, but me. Do you see these wounds?” She pulled up her sleeves to show her bruised arms. “Your son came to me three days ago and beat me most savagely. For this I demand to judge him myself.”

The rumble grew to a roar. Gazan narrowed his bloodshot eyes at her.

Qasar silenced the crowd with a wave of his hand. “You wish to lay claim to my son?” he asked. “He has been proven guilty of mutiny.”

“He is not guilty of mutiny,” said Sholpan, “but only of avoiding the punishment that is his proper due. Because his crime against me preceded his mutiny, and was the main cause behind his attempt to leave the fleet, I demand to pass judgment on him first.”

“It is not the place of a woman to sit as judge,” barked the fat officer.

Sholpan gripped the guardrail to the stand with white-knuckled fingers.

“But as victim, it is my right by honor.”

Qasar brought his hand to his chin. “I’ll decide that, my dear. But tell me—if you could judge him, what would your judgment be?”

Sholpan knew that he could never be seen to bow to her. They had rehearsed this next part together very carefully—she must only push hard enough to allow him to make a graceful compromise.

“It is not right for a son to beat his husband’s wife,” she said, glancing over the crowd to gauge their reaction. “Such behavior brings dishonor upon all parties involved. Therefore, the punishment must not only absolve the crime, but wipe the stain of dishonor from the family.”

“If you strip me of my inheritance,” Gazan hissed, “I’ll—”

“Silence!” boomed Qasar. The room grew deathly still.

“Few things are more disgraceful than for a father to kill his own son,” Sholpan continued. “And as for stripping him of his rightful inheritance, that is not much better. Therefore, I propose that Gazan be made to join with the main forward fleet and fight in my name. By winning honor and glory for us both, I believe that his debts will be absolved.”

The crowd murmured in approval—or what Sholpan desperately hoped was approval. The officers didn’t seem too convinced, and the wives still looked at her as if she were crazy.

“And what of his act of treason?” Qasar asked.

“I do not think he is guilty of treason so much as trying to escape his due punishment,” said Sholpan, reciting the practiced words. “Did he attempt to do anything more than run away? I think not.”

“Milord,” said the fat officer, “may I remind you, the mutineers were caught in the act.”

“Perhaps,” said Qasar. “Yet my Sholpan speaks the truth, after a fashion. Would you have me kill my own son?”

“Forgive him!” shouted a lone voice from the crowd. Several others took up the cry, making the officer’s cheeks turn red.

It’s working.

Qasar rose to his feet, and the crowd drew silent. He turned to Gazan.

“What do you think of this, my son? Is this acceptable?”

Gazan scowled. “I don’t owe you anything,” he hissed at Sholpan in a voice too soft for most of the crowd to hear. Qasar frowned in disapproval.

“I don’t want you to owe me,” Sholpan hastily whispered. “I just want you to live.”

“Why?”

“I already told you—because we don’t have to be enemies.”

Gazan blinked. For several moments, he said nothing. Next to her, the wives stirred and glanced in puzzlement from one to another.

“Very well,” said Gazan, turning to his father. “If these are the terms, I accept.”

A mixed cheer rose from the crowd. For a split second, Sholpan saw Qasar smile.

“We will send you with a security detachment on the next supply convoy,” he said. “When you arrive with the main fleet, you will deliver Tagatai my message. He will serve as your commanding officer, and you must follow his orders with exactness in all things. If you fight nobly, you will rise to positions of authority. Earn command of a ship, and I will accept you into my fleet once again.”

“Yes, Father,” said Gazan, emotion rising in his voice. “Thank you.” They embraced, and the crowd cheered.

It worked, Sholpan realized. It really worked!

She turned to the other wives. Zeline’s face was still unreadable, but the others viewed her with a strange mix of confusion and admiration. They looked away as soon as she glanced at them, but Sholpan saw enough to notice the subtle change.

The rest of the assembly passed quickly. Qasar condemned the other nine conspirators to death, and granted command of the Flame of Destiny to one of his distinguished officers. The soldiers led the prisoners off to the airlocks to be executed, pale-faced and frightened.

“Excellent work, my dear,” said Qasar to her privately as the crowd began to disperse. “You have a gift for politics.”

“Thank you.”

“In fifteen hours, I am leaving for my court at Kardunash III. I had thought you would need some time to adjust, but judging from how well you played the mediator, I would be greatly honored if you would join me.”

Sholpan swallowed. She glanced at Zeline and the others, but they were already on their way out.

“Are you taking any of your other wives?” she asked.

“Of course not,” said Qasar. “Their place is here on my ship.”

And mine is not, Sholpan inwardly finished. She longed to stay—to finally get to know the other women—but she knew that Qasar’s request was not a question. It was a command.

“Of course,” she told him. “I’ll start packing my things at once.”

Chapter 24


“Hmm, that’s interesting,” Ilya muttered.

“What is it?” asked James.

Ilya remained focused on the screen, ignoring him. “Yes,” he muttered, more to himself than anyone else, “this certainly changes things.”

“What? Tell me.”

“I found your sister. She’s not with the Hameji fleet.”

James perked up immediately. “Not with the fleet?”

“No. According to the network, she’s traveling with a small convoy to Kardunash III.”

“What kind of a convoy?” asked Danica.

“A diplomatic one.” Ilya squinted and scanned the data. “According to this, General Qasar himself is with them.”

“Where are they going?” asked Anya from her seat at the front.

“They’re headed to some kind of former vacation center in orbit around the planet.”

“A vacation center?” asked James. He sat up and read over Ilya’s shoulder.

“Yeah. Some kind of upper-class spa-and-low-gravity-gardens kind of thing. Apparently, the Hameji are using it as an administrative center.”

“How much military activity are you picking up in the area?” asked Danica.

“Aside from the convoy escort? Not a lot, actually. Most of the traffic is civilian. I see a lot of envoys coming in from the outer worlds and moons. Yeah, this is definitely some kind of civil administration center for the occupation.”

James could barely contain himself. Kardunash III was practically his second home; he knew the planet’s stations and moons better than any other place besides the Colony itself.

“How soon can you get us on the station’s docking registry?” asked Danica.

Ilya brought his hands together and cracked his knuckles. “Hacking into the network should be a piece of cake. Jumping us in without anyone noticing—that’s the tough part. Fortunately, a Hameji light cruiser is scheduled to relieve the current patrol in a few hours. With all the ships jumping in and out, we could easily sneak in then.”

Danica nodded. “That sounds like a good plan.”

Yes, James thought, tapping his foot excitedly against the floor. They could do this. They really could.


* * * * *


Sholpan stepped slowly down the illuminated walkway of the station’s lush, green gardens. Giant leafy vines surrounded the path, stretching and curling upward to the top of the glass dome high above her head. Local gravitic devices normalized the path where she walked, but in the gardens themselves the gravity was low enough to allow the plants to grow to monstrous sizes, with vines as thick as her legs and flowers as large as her head. At first, the monstrous foliage had frightened her, but now she found it beautiful. The air was steamy and fresh, so full of moisture that droplets formed on her skin as she walked. The smell of vegetation was thick enough to taste—a welcome change from the Lion of Tenguri’s stale, recycled air.

Long ago, when she was a little girl, she had seen these gardens through the other side of that glass. She had been traveling with her father—or was it her uncle? It didn’t matter. They had come to Kardunash III for some sort of family gathering, though she couldn’t remember what the occasion had been. She only remembered seeing the thick foliage through the glass dome as they passed by in close parallel orbit. The sight of such a jungle against the blackness of space had entranced her, a fragile pocket of life floating through the starry void.

She silently entered an observation gallery and sat down to watch the planetrise. As the station spun, the enormous mass of Kardunash III gradually rose in the window, the wide curvature of its horizon filling her view. She stared at the swirling bands of red and orange clouds, of world-sized hurricanes spinning in silence hundreds of kilometers below.

Kardunash III was a planet of poisonous gas, with layers of hydrogen, helium, and ammonia stretching an impossible distance down to the central core. Staring down at it through the window, she felt as if the mammoth world were pulling her down into its swirling, churning mass. The monstrous plants swayed around her, whether from tidal stresses or an artificial breeze in the greenhouse, she didn’t know. Perhaps both.

Footsteps on the walkway interrupted her thoughts. She turned just in time to see a Hameji eunuch in an immaculate white smock enter the observation bubble.

“Lady Sholpan,” he said, giving her a short bow as she rose to her feet. “Your presence is required at court.”

“Is it urgent?”

“No, mistress,” he said, “but if you do not return at once, your absence will be noted.”

She sighed. “Thank you. I’ll be there in a moment.”

The eunuch bowed and walked briskly out the way he had come, sending leaves rustling in his wake. Sholpan waited until he was gone before leaving the gardens.

A few moments later, she passed the soldiers guarding the entrance to the lobby where Qasar had established his court. The once-luxurious green and white marble walls now bore the extravagant kitschy silks of the Hameji. Rugs, chairs, and tables were spread out across the room, all ornately decorated with precious stones and gilded plating. Sholpan knew that the furnishings were supposed to instill a sense of awe and power, but they clashed with the original décor so ostentatiously that it instead reminded her of the concubines’ quarters on the Lion of Tenguri. The Hameji might be masters of war, but they certainly weren’t masters of interior design.

Herds of petitioners crowded against the wall on the far side, waiting nervously for Qasar to receive them. Qasar himself sat on a stand at the head of the room, surrounded by officers, soldiers, and servants. Two crossed swords hung on the wall above his head, with another chunk of the space rock from the Tenguri system.

That’s where the awe comes from, Sholpan thought to herself as she joined the other Hameji on the stand. Not the decorations. The weapons.

She watched passively as the court secretary called on the petitioners to step forward, one by one. Before approaching Qasar’s throne, each petitioner prostrated himself three times under the watchful eye of the guard. Only after this act of extreme submission did Qasar permit them to approach him with their concerns or issues. Though earnest, they spoke through an older man, who served as translator even though it was clear he was hard of hearing.

Sholpan bitterly noted the complete lack of democracy. Those who argued with Qasar, the soldiers forcibly removed from the room. Those who displeased him were lucky if he only ordered them to depart. Several petitioners left with faces paler than when they’d come.

Sholpan couldn’t stand to watch for more than half an hour. Disgusted, she stepped down and walked to the other side of the room.

As she mingled with the crowd that had gathered against the far wall, she soon found that not all the business was taking place at Qasar’s feet. Several of the lesser Hameji officers stood in circles, talking with each other. Most of the Kardunasians stood apart from the Hameji, discussing business and economics. Whenever she tried to join in, however, the group grew silent and slowly splintered off, leaving her to stand alone.

It’s just like the Lion of Tenguri, she realized with dismay. She was as alone here as she was there—even among her own people.

As she tried her best to mingle, she noticed someone staring at her. From the corner of her eye, she saw that he was a young man, probably in his twenties, with black hair and a clean shaven face. She waited a few moments, then casually turned to face him.

Her eyes went wide, and she stifled a gasp. It was Lars Stewart.

Instantly, she turned away. Her legs went weak, and her body started trembling, but even though her back was turned to him, she could feel him staring at her. Her cheeks blanched, and she felt an overwhelming need to get some fresh air.

She slipped out the main door, staying within sight of the foyer so that Qasar knew she hadn’t gone too far. The fresh air of the gardens cleared her mind, and she took a deep, refreshing breath.

The sound of footsteps behind her made her turn her head. Even before she saw him, she knew who it was.

“Stella?” Lars asked, rushing up to her. “Is it you?”

“Shh! What are you doing here?”

A smile spread across his face. “It is you!”

“Yes,” she said. “It’s me.” After so much time speaking in Hameji, the soft, rounded sounds of her native Kardunasian tongue seemed strangely exotic.

“Where have you been? What happened to you? How—”

“Not here,” she hissed, glancing nervously over his shoulder. The guards betrayed no reaction, but eyes were certainly watching them.

“Ah,” said Lars, composing himself. “Of course. In that case, perhaps we could meet somewhere else?”

Sholpan’s heart pounded in her chest. Lars seemed a bit leaner than she remembered, but it was definitely him. The boyish smile, the clean-shaven face, the pleasant scent about him that reminded her so much of the Colony—of her home.

“The common room in the woman’s quarters,” she blurted. “There are servants there, but they don’t speak Kardunasian, so we can—”

“Yes. What time?”

“Half an hour. And don’t go back inside with me—we can’t be seen together.”

“No. Of course not.”

For several awkward moments, they stood staring at each other, not sure what to say.

Sholpan drew in a deep breath. “Goodbye.”

“Goodbye,” said Lars. Before she turned to leave, he took her hand and kissed it.

Sholpan turned and hurriedly left the garden, her heart still racing. Not since her last conversation with Narju had she felt such an overwhelming flood of emotion.


* * * * *


“Ten seconds to jump,” said Anya. The floor hummed as the drive finished warming up. “Initiating in three, two, one…”

Danica closed her eyes and held her breath. The humming reached a climax, and her stomach flipped in an all-too familiar way. For a split second, she felt that she was falling, but the feeling soon passed.

She opened her eyes and stared out at the glowing red crescent of Kardunash III. The warm yellow sunlight from behind the curved horizon reflected off of several hundred ships parked in orbit, turning them into points of light. Against the black night side of the giant world, they looked like flecks of dust floating in a beam of light.

Danica took a deep breath. “All stations, report.”

“Initial locator estimates place us within one hundred k-clicks of target arrival point,” said Anya. “Area scan shows several ships arriving from jumpspace—must be the convoy.”

“Picking up Hameji network signal,” said Ilya. “Connecting—and done.”

“Transmit our authentication codes to the port authority,” ordered Danica.

This is when we find out if we’re safe or if we’re dead.

“Transmitting,” said Anya. “Receiving confirmation—we’re cleared to dock.”

“Good work,” said Danica. “How far to the station?”

“Far side of the planet, twelve standard orbits down. Plotting closest orbital trajectory—we can be there in less than half an hour.”

“Excellent.”

The mission had begun without any mishap. The logical side of her brain hoped that their luck continued, while the more realistic side wished that they’d get their inevitable mistake over with so she could stop worrying about it.

Danica turned to Ilya. “Ayvazyan,” she said, “before we dock, I need you to confirm the location of our target. Also, I need you to get maps, floorplans, guard schedules—anything you can find. I want to have a perfect picture of what’s going on in there, with five possible routes to our target, a list of hiding places, and a map of the interior guard routes along the way. Understand?”

“Absolutely.”

“Sikorsky, recharge the jump drive and keep it primed and hot. The moment we undock with the station—and I mean the moment we undock—I want to be out of here.”

“Got it, Captain.”

The blood red crescent of the gas giant waxed wider in the window as the ship maneuvered into its appointed orbit.


* * * * *


“What’s the news from home?” asked Sholpan—no, Stella, now that she was with Lars. She sat eagerly on the edge of her seat.

“Your parents are doing well,” he said. “I saw them a week ago, just before I left.”

Relief flooded through Stella’s exhausted body. She felt as if a terrible weight had been lifted from her.

“And what about my brothers?” she asked. “James was with Dad on the Llewellyn, but has anyone heard from Ben?”

Lars stopped and glanced over his shoulder as a servant walked past them. The room, which had once been part of the convention suite, was lightly trafficked but still open to the public. A small fountain bubbled in the center, while magnificent glass windows gave them a stunning view of Kardunash III below. The servant checked the potted plants in the corner before turning and leaving the way he’d come.

“Don’t mind them,” said Stella. “They won’t understand us.”

“Right,” said Lars, leaning forward and speaking softer anyway. “Well, Ben disappeared on the day of the invasion, captured when you were. No one knows what happened to him.”

Stella bit her lip and nodded. The news about Ben saddened her, but somehow it wasn’t as devastating as she’d feared it would be. In fact, she now realized she’d been expecting it.

“And James,” she asked. “How is he?”

Lars shook his head. “James is gone, too. He—”

“What?” said Stella, bolting upright. “Didn’t he make it out with my father?”

“He did,” said Lars, “but a few days after they returned, he stole one of your family’s ships and ran away.”

“But why?”

Lars shrugged. “Nobody knows for sure. Maybe he fled the system like so many other refugees. Nearly half of our citizens are already gone, and more are leaving every day.”

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “James wouldn’t run away from home like that.”

“Yes, but sometimes people in a crisis do things that you wouldn’t expect. At least we know the Hameji didn’t get him—not like they got you, at least.”

Stella fell back in her chair, dumbstruck by what she’d heard. Why would James run away? It didn’t make any sense.

“You seem to be doing quite well at least,” said Lars, patting her on the knee. “When we heard you’d been lost, we feared the worst.”

Stella bit her lip and tried very hard not to break down. Now that Lars was here, everything seemed ten times harder. Navigating through Hameji politics, trying desperately to make a life for herself as one of them—all she wanted was for Lars to hold her and tell her that everything would be all right, that he had come to take her home.

But that, of course, was impossible.

“Enough about me,” she said, struggling to regain her composure. “How have you been?”

Lars sighed. “I wish I could say that all is well. Unfortunately, we’ve fallen on some very hard times.”

“Hard times?”

“Yes,” he said. “Ever since the invasion, it’s been one crisis after another.”

“What about the Hameji?” Stella asked, her voice low. “What have they done?”

“Thankfully, very little. There was a bit of looting in the beginning, but almost no one was actually hurt. A few citizens were taken hostage, to ensure our cooperation, but last I’ve heard they’re being treated well.”

“That’s good,” said Stella.

Lars nodded. “Since we’re only a minor colony, the Hameji haven’t set up a garrison. They keep a cruiser parked outside the station, but for the most part they keep their hands out of our internal affairs. We hardly ever see any actual troops.”

“So they haven’t interfered with the General Assembly?”

“No. As far as domestic affairs go, we’re free to govern ourselves.”

Stella let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. “That’s very good.”

“Yes. Not everything is as bleak as it seems.”

“No, it isn’t.”

For several moments, they sat in silence. Through the window, the swirling mass of the planet shone down on them, bringing out the redness in Lars’s cheeks.

“The Patrician sent me here to petition for relief,” he said. “Ever since the beginning of the occupation, we’ve been in a dismal humanitarian crisis. Nearly all food imports have come to a halt, and the Hameji are doing nothing to restore them. Worse, they demand a quarterly tribute and expect us to resupply their ships at their whim. It’s killing us, Stella—we can’t keep it up for much longer.”

“That’s terrible.”

“I know. Actually, I was thinking you could help with that,” he said, his eyes pleading with her.

“Really? How?”

“Qasar rules as an absolute dictator. He doesn’t care about us, because we’re a small community that doesn’t produce much wealth. But you’re his wife; you have influence. If you plead our case, he just might send us the aid we need.”

Stella’s stomach dropped, and her cheeks began to pale. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t have as much pull as you think. Qasar has many wives—”

“Anything you can do for us is something,” said Lars. He clasped his hand in hers. “Please, Stella—you can do this. I know you can.”

Stella said nothing for several moments. In the awful silence, Narju’s words came to her, cutting through her heart like a laser. We do not choose the life that fate gives us. We only choose how we live it—and how to give of ourselves before our time is over.

“I want to go home,” she whispered.

“We all do,” Lars said, his voice low. “We all wish we could go back to the way things were.”

“But we can’t,” said Sholpan, finishing the thought. She took in a deep breath. “All right,” she said, “I’ll try my best.”

Lars smiled. “Thank you,” he said. “You have no idea how much of a blessing this is to us. I know there’s a reason you’ve been put here, in this place at this time.”

Just like Narju, she thought sadly to herself.

“I need to be going,” said Lars, checking his wrist console as he rose to his feet. “I’m wanted with the delegation.”

“Yes,” said Sholpan, rising with him. “Please—let’s meet again, before you go.”

“Of course.”

He gave her a friendly hug before leaving. Tears welled up in Sholpan’s eyes, and she bit her lip to keep them from spilling out. As much as she wanted to go home with him, she knew it was impossible. She was Qasar’s wife, not Lars’s lover. She was Hameji now.


* * * * *


James stared at the airlock door, trying very hard to ignore the sweat that was starting to pool in his armpits underneath the heavy Hameji armor. I can do this, he told himself, envisioning the face of his brother’s killer. I’m not a sheep—I’m a wolf.

The airlock pressurized, the door slid open, and Danica led him out into the low-gravity maintenance corridor of the docking arm. James floated into the empty space and stared down the long hexagonal shaft. Vertigo nearly overwhelmed him; the station node was almost a kilometer away. Following Danica’s lead, he pulled himself down the corridor, using the handholds to keep pace. As they approached the node, the station’s artificial gravity field grew stronger, and they half walked, half pulled themselves the rest of the way, moving in complete and utter silence.

They passed through the station’s maintenance airlock without incident. As they entered the main terminal, a pair of guards at the gate nodded at them. Underneath his visor, James grew tense, but their disguises worked; the guards took them for Hameji soldiers, and let them pass into the station unhindered.

The hallways of the onetime pleasure resort were wide and well-lit, with pearly tile floors, crystal chandeliers, and high, vaulted ceilings. They were also almost totally deserted. Scorch marks and bullet holes marked where the fighting had been the worst, while dying potted plants met them at every turn, their dry brown leaves scattered across the otherwise spotless floors. Some of the chandeliers still worked, while others lay at the sides of the area, partially smashed.

How many people died in these corridors? James thought to himself. They moved too fast for him to wonder for long.

Danica led him down a long, complicated path with almost a dozen turns. The corridors became narrower and more windy, and the signs of battle became sparser. The potted plants in this part of the station were still green and cared for.

Almost there, James told himself. His heart pounded in his chest, and he gripped the pistol in his holster with a tense, sweaty hand.

Footsteps sounded from around the corner, coming in their direction. Danica hastily stood by the nearest door, making as if she were guarding it. At a gesture from her eyes, James did the same. A band of women in long white dresses walked by, barely noticing them.

As soon as the corridor was empty again, Danica turned and keyed the door. It hissed open, and they stepped into a dark, empty maintenance corridor.

“How close are we?” asked James once the door was shut.

“Shh!” hissed Danica. She checked her wrist console; the dim glow of the screen lit up her face in the dimness. “One level up and two halls over.”

James’s heart thumped wildly in excitement. Stella’s quarters were less than a hundred yards away.

Danica led them up a ladder into an adjoining shaft. They made their way some distance in the darkness, until they met another door. Danica motioned for James to go to the panel and wait. She squatted and placed her wrist console up against the metal, reading the glowing screen. After a few seconds, she rose to her feet and nodded. James keyed it open.

They stepped out into a white-tiled corridor identical to the one they’d left. Danica stepped swiftly now, moving with a sense of urgency. James followed, adrenaline rushing through his already tense body.

As they reached an intersection, James heard footsteps coming from the left. Before either of them could react, a man stepped into view. He was a Hameji officer, dressed in a gray uniform with red epaulets. He had a swarthy face and jet black hair. His razor thin beard traced the line of his jaw down to the bottom of the chin, where it expanded into a pointed goatee.

James recognized him instantly as Ben’s killer.

Faster than thought, faster than consciousness, an image flashed into his mind. Darkness, smoke and blood. Walls pocked with bullets and smoldering plasma. Ben, staring at him with a hot plasma burst burning a hole through his chest.

The sharp noise of a gunshot snapped James to the present. As if in a trance, he watched the officer’s eyes roll back in their sockets as the man stumbled and fell backwards. His body struck the wall and collapsed on the floor, smearing bright red blood against the pearly white tiles.

James glanced down at the gun in his hand. His grip was so tight that he could feel his own heartbeat through it. Smoke issued from the end of the weapon.

“Shit,” said Danica. She grabbed him by the arm and practically yanked him off his feet, running down the narrow corridor. He followed, legs and feet numb.

Behind them, a door hissed open and people began to shout. Danica and James turned the corner and ran. The shouting grew louder, followed by the unmistakable pounding of Hameji boots.

Chapter 25


“What a tiresome morning,” said Qasar as he collapsed onto the couch in his quarters. “Nothing but endless petitions. Are these planetborn hordes so mindless that they can’t rule themselves?”

They were doing fine before you came, Sholpan thought bitterly to herself. She sat across from him on an ornate wooden chair, a magnificent glass table set on a beautifully woven rug between them. Qasar had chosen one of the richest suites on the station for his quarters; Sholpan had never been surrounded by more wealth. Knowing how her friends and family were suffering, however, she took no joy in it.

“Take that moon, for example,” Qasar continued, “What was it’s name? Skye? The settlement suffers from such a lack of discipline that the riots have almost destroyed the outpost’s life support systems. Can you believe that? It’s absurd!”

“So what are you doing about it?” Sholpan asked.

“I promised to send a detachment of troops to restore order,” said Qasar. “Someone has to enforce discipline.”

Did you even think to find out what they’re rioting about before you sent in the troops to murder them?

“It does sound tiring,” she conceded.

“By the gods, yes. I feel like a sublighter lost between stars. The planetborn are leaving in droves—half of the smaller colonies are almost abandoned, and the ones that are still inhabited are half deserted. To abandon their own people so dishonorably—can you believe it?”

Yes I can.

Qasar sighed. “There’s too much damn work to do, and no way to get these lazy planetborn to do it.”

“I spoke with some of my friends today,” said Sholpan. “They gave me some information that we might find helpful.”

“Oh?” Qasar said, raising an eyebrow. “What did you learn?”

That my people are starving. That you’re killing them.

“I learned—I learned that they’ve been having some problems. They—”

“Oh, not more problems,” Qasar groaned. “A general doesn’t fly every damned ship in his fleet—why must I babysit these useless—”

“You don’t have to,” she blurted, her cheeks red with anger. “These people are perfectly capable of running things themselves. They want to! It’s just—”

“Just what, exactly?”

Sholpan took a deep breath, choosing her words carefully. “Milord, the people would rule themselves if they could only take care of their basic needs. Take my people, for example—their food supplies are dwindling, and they have no way to replenish them. When the people starve, it’s no wonder that discipline breaks down.”

“Why are they starving?” Qasar asked. “Can’t they produce more food?”

“No,” said Sholpan, “all of the food imports come through Kardunash IV, and for some reason, the suppliers have stopped—”

“‘Import’? What does that word mean?” He stared at her, genuinely puzzled.

“Import?” she asked. “You’ve never heard of imports?”

“No. Should I have?”

“It—it’s a planetborn thing. It’s when you trade for goods and services instead of producing them yourself.”

“And they do this for their basic needs? Why?”

Sholpan blinked in disbelief at Qasar’s ignorance. “Because some communities are better at producing certain things than others. Take my home, for example. It’s a mining outpost in the middle of an asteroid field. If we had to produce all our own food, almost a third of our living space would be dedicated to hydroponics. But Kardunash IV is a terrestrial planet with a thriving biosphere—it has more than enough resources to feed the entire system. That’s why we import our food—because it’s cheaper to let them produce it for us.”

“Kardunash IV? You mean the fourth planet?”

“Yes. Why?”

“We slagged that world at the start of the invasion. The surface has been utterly wasted.”

Sholpan’s eyes widened, and her stomach felt sick. “You mean, the entire world has been—”

“Annihilated? Yes. We made short work of the place.”

A wave of nausea swept through her body. Her legs went weak, and her arms began to shake.

“You mean, they’re all dead? Everyone?”

“Yes.”

“Why?” she cried, half screaming.

“Kardunash IV was the strongest world in the system, was it not? We could not expect to win the war without defeating our enemy at their strongest point.”

“But—but there were billions of people living there. Billions! How—how could you?”

Qasar frowned. “Would you have us fight all those billions of people man to man? With our limited forces?”

“You wouldn’t have had to—they were all innocent civilians!”

“And what is a ‘civilian’?” asked Qasar, clearly annoyed by the turn the discussion had taken. “I hear this word over and over—is it some term the planetborn use for their women?”

Sholpan opened her mouth, but found herself at a complete loss. Stars, she thought to herself, he really doesn’t know.

“What’s done is done,” said Qasar. “Weeping and moaning about it will change nothing. If Kardunash IV is gone, how else can we feed the people?”

Think, Sholpan told herself, trying in vain to force her mind to clear. Tears burned in her eyes, but she clenched her fists and bit her tongue until the worst of it was passed.

“They only need enough to weather the immediate crisis,” she said, her body still trembling. “The key is to build up capacity as soon as possible. Hydroponics modules are relatively cheap to make, but we’re going to need thousands of them if we don’t want everyone to die of starvation. And they’ll need supplies until the hydroponics start producing.”

“I see,” said Qasar. “Most of our ships have a three-year supply of foodstuffs. Will that be enough?”

“I hope. What about the modules?”

Qasar waved his hand. “Not a problem. I’ll set my engineers to work on it immediately.”

He’s listening to me, Sholpan realized with a start. He’s actually considering my advice.

“That’s not all,” she said, emboldened. “There will be other needs, I’m sure. Food is just the beginning.”

“And what do we do to prepare for those?”

“We—we should form a governing council for the system. Gather delegates from the surviving settlements and have them draft a constitution.”

Qasar’s eyes narrowed. “You mean to set up a council to undercut my authority?”

“Not at all,” said Sholpan, leaning forward. “It’ll only be for domestic affairs. We want them to govern themselves, right?”

Qasar nodded wearily. “We certainly do.”

“It shouldn’t be too hard to draw something up, if we pattern it after the government that was in place before—before the invasion.”

“And you know how to do that?”

“Yes,” said Sholpan. She paused. “If you would delegate to me some of your authority, I’m sure—”

“Consider it done. Anything you need, let me know.”

Sholpan nodded and rose shakily to her feet. “I will,” she said. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be going.”

“Why?” Qasar asked. “It’s so pleasant talking with you.”

Because if I don’t leave right now, I’m going to have a nervous breakdown.

“You need your rest,” she said. “You look tired.”

Qasar nodded. “Very well. You may leave.”

Sholpan walked to the door, her legs numb. Before palming the access panel, though, she stopped and turned around.

“W-why?” she asked. “Why are you doing this?” The forcefulness in her voice caught them both by surprise.

“Doing what?”

“Fighting this war. Slagging entire worlds. Conquering every system from here to—to the end of the universe. Why?”

Qasar smiled at her as if she were a child. “Because the great god Tenguri has given us the universe, Sholpan,” he said. “The high shaman prophesied this many years ago, long before the Generals convened the High Council. And if the great god has given us the universe, who are we to refuse our destiny?”

Sholpan blinked. “Your destiny?”

“Yes. We conquer because it is our destiny. You can’t run from destiny, can you?”

“No,” Sholpan said softly as the door hissed open. “I guess you can’t.”


* * * * *


Dammit, boy, thought Danica as she ran down the hallway with James in tow. Did you leave your brains on the ship, or are you just trying to get us killed?

She rounded a corner and paused long enough to scan her wrist console for an alternate route to the docking yard. Behind them the shouting grew louder—a few more moments, and their options would start to become real limited. Figuring she could read a map just as well in the maintenance corridor, she keyed open the nearest access door and tossed the boy in.

“Where are we going?” James asked as the door slid shut behind them. “Stella is—”

“Shh!” Danica hissed. “Stay down. And give me this!” She snatched the pistol from his hands.

“I’m sorry,” said James, his face as pale as death. “Believe me, I’m—”

“Stay quiet and follow me,” she whispered.

A quick glance at the map on her wrist console showed a nearby shaft that connected with a side corridor running toward the docks. Without a second thought, Danica started running.

We don’t have much time, she thought to herself. Security is probably going to freeze all outgoing traffic as soon as the alarm goes station-wide. That meant that they had only a matter of minutes to get back to the ship.

“Where are we going?” asked James, breathing heavily behind her.

“We’re getting the hell out of here.”

“What?”

He stopped in his tracks, forcing her to turn and face him.

“We’re aborting the mission, Ensign,” she said. “It’s over—we failed.”

Even in the meager light of the wrist console’s LCD display screen, she could read the horror and disbelief on his face.

“No,” he said. “I didn’t come—”

“Don’t tell me what you came for,” she retorted. “The way you’ve botched things, we’ll be lucky to get out alive. Now let’s stop wasting time and get back to the ship.”

“No,” said James. “I’m not going.”

“What?”

“I said I’m not going.”

Danica stared at him and frowned. His voice was calmer now, and his cheeks weren’t quite so pale. His face had a certain serenity to it, the way someone looks when they’re about to say goodbye.

“Ensign, you can’t possibly be serious.”

“I didn’t come this far to turn away and run.”

“They’ll find you and kill you before you get to her.”

“Maybe.”

“James—be reasonable. Anya and Ilya are waiting for us. Do you want me to leave them to die?”

“No. I understand. Leave without me.”

Danica’s stomach twisted into a knot.

“Ensign McCoy,” she said, her voice shaky despite her best efforts to control it, “I order you to come with me.”

“I can’t,” he said. “I’m sorry. If I ran away from this chance, I’d never be able to live with myself.”

“Ensign!”

“Thank you for all your help, Captain. Goodbye.” Without another word, he turned around and headed back the way they had come.

Danica felt rooted to the spot, as if her boots were riveted to the floor. In the darkness, the maintenance corridor felt like a tunnel with two ends—a turning point in her life that could only be crossed once. On the one hand, she could return to the ship and escape with her life. On the other, she could throw her lot in with James and go with him to the bitter end. One way or the other, she had to make a choice, and she had to make it now.

And then she realized that she’d already made her choice, the moment she’d left the Tajji Flame.

“McCoy! Hold up!”

“What is it?” James asked, stopping.

“I’m coming with you.”

A smile spread across his face. Before Danica could order him to keep moving, he turned and sprinted down the corridor, so fast she could hardly keep up.

As she ran, she lifted her wrist console and sent a message back to the transport: Alpha squad lost. Abort mission and return to base immediately. The screen blinked, then flashed confirmation that they’d received the message.

At least some of us will come out of this alive, Danica told herself. No one will say that I didn’t take care of my men.

The thought hardly comforted her, but that didn’t matter anymore.


* * * * *


Anya leaned forward in her seat on the Hameji transport and glanced down at her wrist console. Her blood ran cold as she read Danica’s message.

“Did you see that?” Ilya asked from the seat next to her.

“Yeah,” she said, her voice barely a whisper.

“What does she mean, ‘return to base immediately’? She wants us to leave without her?”

Anya swallowed, and her arms tensed. “They’ve probably been discovered. Maybe they’re pinned down and can’t get to us.”

Ilya’s face went white. “Then let’s get the hell out of here.”

No, Anya thought to herself. It can’t end—not like this.

“I’m not going,” she said. “Danica needs our help.”

“What are you talking about? You got the order—Anya? Anya!”

But she was already on her feet, running down the narrow corridor to the armory. Ilya shouted after her, but she was too angry to care. He really is a coward, she thought bitterly to herself as she put up her hair in a crude bun.

Once in the armory, she grabbed a bullet proof vest and threw it on, stretching it tight to flatten her chest. They had no time to suit up in the regular armor; she’d have to make do with one of the gray officer vests. It didn’t give her nearly as much protection, but—

“Damn it!” Ilya cursed, running into the room. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“I’m going to save them,” she said, pulling the gray uniform over her head. “Are you coming, or are you staying behind?”

“Neither. We’re leaving right now!”

Worthless, came the terrible voice in Anya’s head. That’s what you are—what you’ve always been.

“No,” she said. “I’m not going to abandon her.”

You’ll fail.

“But—but we have to! She—”

“Are you scared? Is that what it is?”

Ilya’s cheeks flushed bright red. “I’m not a coward.”

Worthless.

“Show me.”

She pulled out another uniform and tossed it to him. He fumbled and dropped it on the floor.

“You’re insane,” he shouted. “This is suicide!”

She ignored him as she picked out her weapon—a plasma SMG, powerful enough to pack a punch without attracting too much attention. She slipped it into the holster on her belt. A couple of stationary RPV shield projectors fit nicely into the pockets on her hip.

“I’m going,” she said. “Either suit up and come with me, or stay behind.”

“Come on,” he pleaded, anger giving way to desperation. “Anya, let’s go. Please?”

“No.” She shouldered her way past him and stepped into the airlock. Spineless ass, she thought to herself. If he doesn’t follow me, we’re over.

You’ll die alone, then.

“Hold up,” said Ilya, calling after her. “I’m coming with you.”

A flood of relief surged through Anya’s body. She turned and smiled.

“I’ll be in the airlock.”

The docking arm was a lot longer than she expected. It took them three precious minutes to make it to the station node, even in the weightlessness. Ilya was better at pulling himself along than she was, despite the heavy assault rifle on his back.

“They’re going to wonder about us when they see that,” she told him.

“Then we won’t stick around to let them ask questions.”

Anya could have kissed him.

They reached the node and found it empty—a good sign, she was willing to bet. If the alarms had gone off, the terminal would be in chaos. Then again it might have already emptied—they wouldn’t know until they went upstairs.

She checked her wrist console. Danica was five hundred yards away and getting further.

“Quick,” she said. “How do we get in?”

“Through the public terminal,” said Ilya.

“What, there’s no other way in?”

“Nope.”

She swallowed. “Then let’s go.”

The elevator opened onto an empty wing off of the main concourse. The guards that Anya expected to see were all gone, called off somewhere else. That was bad—very bad.

“Look,” said Ilya.

A band of five lightly armored soldiers stood at the center of the terminal, turning the civilians away. What had probably been a small crowd not a few minutes ago had now dwindled to a handful of people swiftly making their way to the station. Once they stepped out, there would be no one to hide behind.

You’re going to die here, you know. Both of you.

Anya drew in a sharp breath. “Come on,” she said. Ilya’s face paled, but he followed.

As they walked past the guards, one of them called out. Anya ignored him and kept walking, moving briskly as if the order had been meant for someone else. A hand gripped her shoulder, pulling her forcibly to a halt.

Worthless. Just give up.

Anya grabbed the man’s wrist with her left hand, pulled out her gun with her right, and yanked him to her. Before he could react, the muzzle of her pistol was jammed into his lower abdomen, into the soft spot between armor plates. She fired twice, making his body twitch. His eyes went wide, and blood trickled down the corners of his mouth.

The other five soldiers shouted and charged, some with rifles already drawn. Using the first man’s body as a shield, she brought out her pistol near the dying man’s hip. Three quick shots caught the first guard in the face, the neck, and the shoulder; he fell dead without a sound. Ilya shouted and pulled out his assault rifle, firing into the other two. They didn’t have a chance.

“What now?” shouted Ilya as screams rose around them. Anya dropped the body just in time to see reinforcements coming through the main gate.

Now look what you’ve done. Worthless.

“Take cover!”

Three squads of black-clad Hameji shock troops charged through the concourse. They moved as a single unit, forcing their way through the scattered crowd with guns and shock prods. With their heavy armor and assault rifles, the Hameji soldiers looked more like monsters than men.

For a second, Anya’s legs were numb and unresponsive. Then the adrenaline took over, and she was running back the way they’d come, heart pounding audibly in her ears.

“Ilya!” she screamed, but he was already in the terminal wing. Gunfire hit the walls as she rounded the corner and sprinted after him.

They made it into the elevator and down to the maintenance level before the Hameji soldiers could catch up to them. Once they reached the docking arm, though, there was nothing but the long, empty shaft, brightly lit and devoid of any obstacles to shield them from gunfire. It stretched nearly a kilometer in either direction—an almost impossible distance, with their pursuers close behind them.

“Come on!” shouted Ilya, already flinging himself down the shaft. “Let’s go!”

He’s going to die, and there’s nothing you can do to save him.

With the adrenaline still coursing through her blood, she stopped long enough to set up one of her RPV shields. The Hameji soldiers pulled out of the airlock a second later. Gunfire and smoke filled the space between them, and the air around the shield cackled and sizzled. Anya turned and dove into the low gravity area.

“Ilya!” she screamed, feet leaving the ground. “Ilya, wait! Wait, or by all the stars of Earth, I’m going to—”

Before she could get any further, the RPV shield blew. The force of the explosion sent her careening down the long corridor, arcing ever so slightly. With a little help from the handholds, she soon reached Ilya and flipped herself horizontally against the wall, bullets flying all around her.

Ilya had found some shelter in the shallow inset of a docking doorway across the corridor; it was only half a meter deep, but wide enough to fit the both of them. With her own personal RPV shield already fizzling, she shoved off and landed face first against the door, scrambling to keep herself from bouncing off and drifting out into enemy fire.

“Congratulations,” he shouted. “We’re going to die. Are you happy?”

Are you?

Anya coughed and spat, still breathing hard from the run. As the ball of phlegm floated out into the middle of the corridor, a stray bullet struck it and splattered it into mist.

“How far is the ship?” she shouted, struggling to be heard over the roar of gunfire. Ilya didn’t answer.

This is the end.

Bullets whizzed past the doorway, screaming as they ricocheted off the walls. Plasma bursts seared the air only inches from her face, filling her nostrils with the bitter smell of ozone. She pressed herself against the shallow doorway, desperate for better cover.

Ilya cursed and peered around the corner again, trying to get a line of fire. A bullet screamed and ricocheted off of the near wall, and he pulled his arm down, screaming. Blood arced from his hand, and the components of his shattered wrist console drifted out in the open air.

“My hand!” he cried. Five more bullets grazed the armor of his exposed back. With her left hand pushing off of the top of the doorway and her feet firmly planted on the bottom lip, Anya reached out and pulled Ilya back into the doorway.

“My hand,” he moaned.

“Here,” she said. “Let me see your gun. I can—”

“No,” he said, pulling himself free from her grip. Behind them, the gunshots died down as the shouting grew louder.

She stopped and looked Ilya in the face. His cheeks were as white as death, but his teeth were clenched and his face shone with an intensity greater than fear. Her eyes grew wide, and all her anger of the past few weeks instantly dissipated.

“No,” she whispered.

“You wanted me to prove I wasn’t a coward.” He gripped his assault rifle with both hands as his RPV shield hummed and recharged.

“No,” said Anya, her hands trembling. “Don’t do it!”

Ilya screamed and pushed off from the door, letting loose with a barrage of plasma. His shield fizzled as dozens of unseen Hameji guns loudly returned fire. One burst caught him in the shoulder, another in the stomach, burning through his armor in seconds. His RPV shield exploded, blowing his body apart in a plume of hot blood. Anya screamed and covered her face as his remains splattered all around her.

When she opened her eyes, she found her armor covered in his blood. Scattered remnants of his body still floated in midair—a shredded arm near the ceiling, an armored leg near the floor. The air stank of burned flesh.

He was gone.

Her whole body went numb, and she felt utterly empty inside. All she could do was stare wide-eyed at the carnage.

The shouts were getting louder now. Renewed gunfire pelted the floating remnants of Ilya’s body, sending them spinning and ricocheting out of sight. Not long, and she’d be next.

Anya took in a deep breath and pulled out her pistol. As she stared at it, the moment felt like eternity. The edges of her vision darkened, and her whole body went numb.

I’m sorry, Ilya, she inwardly told herself. I’m sorry for everything.

Without another thought, she pressed the gun to her temple and pulled the trigger. A tremor shot through her body, and the darkness swallowed her.


* * * * *


James felt as if he were floating in a dream. The pearly white walls and floor, the bright lights, the knowledge that his sister was close—all of it blended together to create an otherworldly sensation that was somehow more immediate than reality itself.

He crouched and checked the map on his wrist console. Without a word, he turned and peered around the corner. Danica took her position on the other side. In the distance, he heard footsteps, but they were getting softer. The coast was clear.

Two suppressed gunshots from Danica’s pistol made him jump. He glanced over his shoulder at her in alarm.

“Cameras.”

He nodded and moved ahead, crouching and keeping close to the wall. The door to Stella’s chambers was three doors down, on the right.

He found the door and stopped in front of it. An eerie, surreal sense of deja vu swept over him. It didn’t make logical sense, but somehow he knew he’d been here before.

He drew in a deep breath and hit the access panel. A blinking light showed that the chime had sounded.

Nothing happened.

“Open it!” hissed Danica. Heavy footsteps sounded down the hall, coming toward them.

James keyed the panel again, but to no avail. The door was locked.

“Hurry!” whispered Danica.

James reached frantically for the panel to hit it one more time, but before he could press the button, the door hissed sharply and opened of its own accord.

There before him stood his sister.

Chapter 26


Sholpan blinked and stared in disbelief.

“James?”

A grin spread across the short Hameji soldier’s face—a grin that was all too familiar.

“Stella?”

“J-James? Oh my God!”

A cold tremor passed through her body. A wave of dizziness came over her, and she leaned on the wall for support.

“Hurry!” hissed the soldier behind him. Before Sholpan could say or do anything, the two of them rushed into the room. Once the door was shut, Jame’s companion shut the door and took off her helmet, revealing a head of shoulder-length hair. She was a woman, about thirty years old—not a Hameji soldier at all.

“Is there a lock?” she asked.

“Y-yes,” said Sholpan, still in a daze.

The woman gestured with her gun. “Then come here and lock it.”

“Who are you?” Sholpan asked. She glanced from her brother to the woman and back again. “James? Why—”

“We don’t have much time,” said the woman, pointing the gun at her. “Lock the door or the guards will kill us all.”

Sholpan’s hands shook and her legs felt numb, but she did as the woman told her.

“Stella!” said James. He took off his helmet and rushed up to embrace her.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, returning his embrace with more confusion than enthusiasm.

“To rescue you, of course!”

“What?” Her heart skipped a beat.

“That’s right. We’re going to get you out!”

Her head spun. “Hold on,” she said, groping for a chair. “I need to sit down.”

James took her by the arm and helped her down. “We don’t have much time,” he said. “The others—”

“Oh, shit,” said the woman.

James glanced up sharply. “What is it?”

“Sikorsky and Ayvazyan—they’re dead.”

James’s face went white. “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.” The woman pounded her fist against the wall and swore again.

Dead? Who?

“I’m sorry,” said Sholpan, “but could you please tell me who you are and what’s going on?”

“This is Danica,” said James. “Anya and Ilya were back with the ship, but now—”

At that moment, the door chimed. Everyone froze.

“Can they hear us?” Danica asked in a hushed voice.

“No,” said Sholpan. “Not if we speak softly.”

“Do they know you’re here?”

“I—I don’t know.”

“Should we answer?”

The door chimed again. Sholpan rose to her feet and walked to the access panel, motioning for the others to stay still.

“Hello?” she said in Hameji creole, keying the intercom.

“Lady Sholpan,” came the voice of the guard outside. “We have a serious security breach. Voche is dead, and the assassins are loose on this level. We must escort you to a safe location.”

“No,” she said. “Don’t come in—I’m, uh, not dressed.”

“Can you hurry, milady? You’re in danger!”

“I’m in the middle of a shower,” she continued. “No one has come in here, and the doors are locked. Can’t you just post a guard?”

For several moments, no answer came. Then, with a short crackle, the intercom came back to life.

“As you wish, milady. But do not, under any circumstances, leave your room.”

“Of course. Thank you.”

She leaned heavily against the wall to catch her breath. “What’s going on?” James whispered.

“They’re guarding the door,” Sholpan answered, keeping her voice low. “They won’t come in, but we’ll need to find another way out.”

“Perfect,” said Danica, putting on her helmet. “Where can we find a way off this station?”

“Wait,” said Sholpan. “I’m still confused. How did you get here?”

“We captured a Hameji transport,” James said. “It’s docked in the military wing, but I don’t think we can get to it anymore.”

Sholpan stared at her brother in disbelief. “You did what?

“We don’t have much time,” said Danica, cutting them off. “The Hameji are going to cut all outbound traffic any minute, if they haven’t already. What’s the fastest way to the docks?”

Sholpan barely heard her. “You came all this way just to rescue me?”

“Yes,” said James. “You and Ben.”

“Ben?” said Stella, her eyes lighting up. “Where is he? Is he here?”

“No. He…didn’t make it.”

Something tightened in her gut. “Didn’t make it?”

“He died,” said James. “The Hameji killed him.”

Sholpan felt dizzy. She had to sit down again.

“But don’t worry—we’re going to get you out of here.”

“Yes,” Danica hissed. “Let’s go!”

Sholpan could barely process what was happening to her. It was as if a time machine had miraculously brought her brother into her life again—a life she had just begun to accept. I could go home right now, she realized. I could leave ‘Sholpan’ behind and just be ‘Stella’ again.

Her heart began to race. When she looked up, everything was somehow more vibrant, more present and clear. She felt as if she were waking up from a bad dream—from the nightmare of her life these past few months.

“I know how we can get off,” she said. “I’ve got some contacts who could help us.”

James’s face instantly lit up. “Really? How?”

“Lars. He’s here with a delegation from the Colony. They could smuggle us out.”

“Is there another way out of this room?” Danica asked calmly.

“Yes. There’s a door behind the bathroom that connects to the main suite. We can—”

She stopped abruptly. There’s a reason you’ve been put here, in this place at this time. As Lars’s words came to her, the floor seemed to fall out from under her.

She realized, in that moment, that she had to stay.

“I can help you both escape,” she said quietly, “but I can’t go with you.”

James froze where he stood. “What do you mean?”

Sholpan swallowed. Her legs turned to water.

“I can’t come with you. I’m needed here.”

“The hell you are,” said Danica, grabbing her roughly by the arm and lifting her to her feet. “We’re going—now.”

Before Sholpan could protest, Danica pressed the pistol into her side and force-marched her towards the door. Stars of Earth, she thought to herself. The woman’s gone mad. She glanced over her shoulder at James, pleading with her eyes for him to do something, but he only followed.


* * * * *


Danica walked down the corridor, briskly marching James’s sister along at gunpoint. Fortunately, the girl was smart enough to not make a scene.

“Take us to your contact,” Danica whispered. “Have him meet us somewhere inconspicuous.”

She led them through a relatively narrow hallway that curved to the left, making it impossible to see more than a couple dozen yards in either direction. With Danica still gripping her arm, the girl pulled out her wrist console and started typing with her index finger.

“I’ve told Lars to meet us in the garden,” she said. “There shouldn’t be too many guards there—they’ve probably already checked it.”

“Good,” said Danica. “Anything else?”

“Yes. The station is on lockdown, but that won’t last too long. Lars should be able to hide you until he can get out.”

“You mean us.”

“I’m sorry,” said the girl, “but I can’t go with you.”

Danica jabbed the gun a little deeper into her side, making her wince. “I didn’t sacrifice half of my crew and two of my finest officers to leave this hell-hole empty-handed. You’re coming with us, sister, whether you like it or not.”

“Would you really shoot me?”

Ask me again, and I just might.

“Don’t push your luck.”

James opened his mouth to protest, but one sharp glance silenced him.

In less than a minute, they passed out of the white-tiled hallway and into the garden. Giant vines and creepers stretched out above them, spreading their monstrous leaves and muffling the sounds in the distance. Through the enormous glass windows beyond the foliage, the planet shone red and orange, casting its perverse, angry light on the alien scene.

“Lars will be here in ten minutes,” said the girl, leading them into a secluded spot off the main path. “But please understand, I can’t come with you.”

“Tough luck. You’re coming.”

“No, I really can’t. I have a tracking device implanted in my foot—once they realize that I’m missing, the guards will hunt us down and find us.”

Danica glanced down at the girl’s ankle. “A tracking device, eh? We’ll see what we can do about that.” From her belt, she pulled out her shock prod.

“No,” said the girl, taking a step back. “You can’t disable it—if you do, it will set off an alarm. The guards will come down on us at once!”

“We’ve gotta be able to do something,” said James. “It’s just a microchip.”

“Yeah,” said Danica, replacing the shock prod and pulling out her knife. “We can amputate the foot.”

Instantly, James was between them. “No!” he said, eyes wide and fists clenched. “We can’t do that!”

“You got any other ideas?”

“Please listen to me,” said the girl, pleading with her. “That’s not the only reason. If I leave, all of our friends back home are going to die.”

Danica narrowed her eyes. “What are you talking about?”

“My people—our people—are starving, and I’m the only one who can save them.”

“How?”

“By convincing Qasar to give them food and aid. I’m his wife now—he listens to me.”

James’s face went white. Danica folded her arms and looked the girl in the eye.

“I’m sorry about your men,” she said, “I truly am. But please—if you want their sacrifice to mean something, save my brother, and let me stay.”

The expression on her face was surprisingly serene. Here was someone who had seen death and war, and survived the dark emptiness that came from it. She wasn’t the child she appeared—more like an old, wise woman in a young girl’s body.

Dammit, Danica thought angrily to herself, sheathing her knife. She’s right.


* * * * *


James slowly shook his head.

“No.”

“I’m sorry,” said Stella, her voice wavering. “Please try to understand. I love you, James, but I have to do this.”

“No!” he cried, grabbing her by the shoulders as tears came to his eyes. “What are you talking about? Come with us!”

“No, James. I can’t.”

James collapsed to his knees, weeping at his sister’s feet. Stella lovingly put a hand on his shoulder, but her touch did little to comfort him. Tears of pain poured out of his eyes until the world spun around him in a blur. Nothing felt real to him anymore—his world was falling apart, and he was powerless to stop it.

“Lars is coming,” said Stella. “When he gets here, I’ll have to say goodbye.”

“No,” said James, his voice hoarse and drained. “Please, Stella, just come with us.”

“I can’t. If I leave, there won’t be anyone to save our home.”

“But why you?” he pleaded. “Someone else can do it.”

“No, James. I’m Qasar’s wife—no one else can do it but me.”

“Qasar’s wife,” he said contemptuously, rising to his feet. “More like his slave. Do you love him?”

“That’s not important,” she said, her face deathly somber.

“But it is, Stella—it is! You deserve to be happy, not married to a monster. Are you ready to spend the rest of your life with him? Are you ready to bear his children?”

“No,” she said, tears shimmering in her eyes. “No, I—”

“You don’t have to do this,” he continued, his voice gaining strength. “Come with us. This isn’t the life you deserve, Stella—it isn’t the life you want to live.”

“It’s not about me,” she cried. “Can’t you see that? It’s about the people I love. Do you think I wanted any of this, that I would have chosen this for myself? This isn’t something I want, James, but what can I do? I could never live with myself if the others died because I failed to save them.”

James opened his mouth to answer, but found he had nothing to say.

“I’m so sorry,” she continued, “but we can’t go back to the way things were. All we can do is live on and do our best with what we have.”

He looked into her eyes and realized that she wasn’t the same sister he’d known before. She seemed much older now—more grown up. Somehow, that frightened him most of all.

“Don’t be sad for me, James,” she said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Wherever you go, be happy. For me.”

She wrapped her arms around him, giving him one final, parting hug. James clung to her, as if to hold on forever. But all too soon, she let him go.

“Will I ever see you again?” he asked.

“Of course! Qasar holds his court on this station, and I’ll be here whenever he is.”

He nodded. “Then I’ll come back as often as I can.”

She smiled. “Tell Mother and Father that I’m all right. Tell them that I love them and miss them.”

“I will.”

“Goodbye,” said Stella.

“Goodbye,” James whispered.

He felt a hand on his shoulder, pulling him gently away. As he turned to join Danica and Lars, he glanced over his shoulder to get one last glimpse of his sister. Stella waved to him from beneath the giant vines and enormous flowers, a reddish shadow cast across her face from the glow of the gas giant below. She smiled one last time before they rounded a corner and passed out of view.

Chapter 27


Danica followed Lars onto the bridge of the Freedom’s Banner. Compared to the Tajji Flame, the cozy sublight freighter seemed fresh out of the shipyards. It didn’t feel like home, but at least it was a ride.

“Are we ready to transmit?” she asked the captain—a stocky, white-haired man by the name of Olaf Stanislaw.

“Anytime,” the old man said, waving her to the empty chair next to him. “She’s all yours.”

Danica assumed her seat and settled in. She stared for several moments at the starfield out the window before bringing up the message.

“How many weeks before we arrive in port?”

“Two at least,” he said, yawning.

Danica turned to her screen and leaned forward.

Attn: MSG Krikoryan, she wrote. Cpt Nova reporting Operation Blue Phoenix has failed. Lts Ayvazyan & Sikorsky KIA. E McCoy alive, target lost.

She paused, wondering how best to encode the coordinates. After a few moments, she typed: RP: Ensign POC.

The captain glanced over her shoulder. “Ensign port-of-call? Where is that—Kardunash VII? And how do you expect them to find you if you don’t give ‘em a timestamp?”

“My men will know what it means,” Danica said. Besides, she told herself, if they don’t, I could use some time to myself.

She transmitted the message, rose to her feet, nodded to the captain, and left the bridge.


* * * * *


Three days into their voyage, news reached them that Gaia Nova had fallen. With the Gaian Imperial Navy scattered and broken, the Hameji had brought their mass accelerators into orbit and slagged the planet, the same as with Kardunash IV and Tajjur V. In a matter of hours, over three thousand years of human history and culture were lost forever.

A somber, melancholy mood fell over the Freedom’s Banner at the news. Captain Stanislaw spent more and more time in his quarters, and the crew talked among themselves in hushed, subdued tones. Some of them even wept. Though few of them had ever been to to the capitol world of the once-proud Gaian Empire, its fall was the ultimate victory of the Hameji conquest. Before, the people of Karduna could dare to hope that someone would come and liberate them. Now, that hope was gone forever.

The news had a curious effect on Danica—it hit her like a blow to the gut and sent her to the cabin to get a drink. Eight shots of Tajji vodka later, she staggered into the public bathroom, vomited all over the floor, and passed out with her head in the toilet. She woke up in Lars’s quarters with a sky-splitting headache and a cold pack on her forehead, naked except for a patient’s gown and overcome with a terrible bout of depression. For the first time in years, she wanted nothing more than to shut out the universe and be done with it all.

Instead, she vomited a second time and promptly passed out.

Her dreams were surprisingly lucid, a patchwork nightmare of memories from her life before her mercenary career. She saw herself as a little girl, playing with Karen in a field of grass. She saw her father, dressed in full uniform, bouncing her on his leg while the medals on his chest jingled like miniature bells. She saw her mother, tucking her into bed and kissing her goodnight. Then, air raid drills and bomb shelters, pink and orange explosions against the night sky—her mother, sobbing uncontrollably as they said goodbye to her father for the last time.

On the scanner, she saw a hundred Imperial dreadnoughts jump into local space. She was on board a ship now—the last ship to escape from Tajjur V. In a panic, she realized that her family was still on the planet’s surface. She struggled with titanic effort to lift her legs and run to the pilot’s chair, but her feet were frozen to the spot; all she could do was watch.

The blue-green world of Tajjur V loomed large in the forward window. White clouds drifted across the verdant planetscape like puffs of cotton. While she watched, hundreds of Hameji mass accelerators took their positions in orbit and pointed their kilometer-long cannons at the surface. In unison, they ejected billions of tons of iron and space rock into the surface of her beloved homeworld. The white cotton clouds turned gray, then black, then red as the world began to bleed. It ran crimson with the blood of all the innocent souls killed by the Hameji and the Gaian Imperials, all the women and children massacred like her family from the senseless oppression.

She woke up drenched in sweat.

At first, she thought she was in the medical bay of the Tajji Flame. Then Lars entered the room, and she realized she was still on the Freedom’s Banner. A sudden longing for her own ship overwhelmed her, a longing so strong that it would have brought her to tears had she not been so exhausted.

“Good morning,” said Lars. “How are you feeling?”

“Like I woke up on the wrong end of an orbital cannon.”

He laughed. “At least you don’t look it.”

Danica wasn’t so sure.

Two hours later, after she’d showered, dressed, and eaten, she felt a little better. The alcohol passed through her system easily enough, but escaping her own tortured thoughts was much more difficult. Ever since the Gaian occupation forces had slaughtered her family, she’d harbored the vague hope that one day she would have her revenge on them for what they’d done. Now, with Gaia Nova obliterated and the Empire in ruins, that vengeance was impossible.

Are you pleased with me, Father? She couldn’t imagine he would be. Where was she when the Imperials had finally met their end? Holed up on a local freighter in the Karduna system, limping back from a failed mission. She’d had more than a decade to avenge her family’s deaths, and she’d squandered it. In all those years, she wondered, what good have I accomplished?

There was her crew, of course. That was something of an accomplishment, taking care of all them—but wait. Anya, Ilya, and Artyom were dead. Vaclav had chosen to leave. Abu Kariym was still with them, but his wife and children had been living on Gaia Nova; he’d probably be leaving soon to search for them. And as for Roman—Danica didn’t even want to think about how much she had cost him.

At least James is still alive, she thought bitterly to herself. At least I saved the boy.

Or had she?

With a start, she realized that she hadn’t spoken with him since leaving Kardunash III. For all she knew, he could have killed himself—God knew he must be contemplating it.

Not waiting another second, she rose to her feet and went straight to his quarters.


* * * * *


“Ensign McCoy!”

The sound of Danica’s voice broke through James’s moroseness. He blinked and sat up on his cot.

“What is it?”

“I think you and I need to have a little chat.”

Why? What’s there to talk about? The contract was complete—the mission was an utter failure. What could she possibly want with him?

“Sure,” he muttered. It was easier than saying no.

She took a seat on the other end of the cot and stared into his eyes. “You look like a broken man,” she said. “Tell me what’s bothering you.”

“Tell you what?”

“What’s bothering you,” she repeated. “What’s on your mind.”

He blinked again. The light in the room seemed suddenly very bright.

“I don’t know,” he muttered.

“Bullshit. You know. Tell me.”

He drew in a deep breath. “It—it’s just hard to believe that they’re gone.”

“That who’s gone?”

James said nothing.

“McCoy,” said Danica, “Look at me.”

James lifted his eyes from the floor and looked her in the face. To his surprise, she seemed distraught.

“You need to quit feeling sorry for yourself,” she told him. “This moping around isn’t going to get you anywhere. You have a future. You have a family and a home waiting for you.”

“No,” he said. “I broke the law when I left. My father never left me the Catriona, I stole—”

“I don’t think for a second that that’s going to keep your parents from taking you back. Neither should you.”

She gave him a meaningful look. James glanced back down at the floor without saying anything. Several moments passed.

“You want to know something?” she asked. “Did you know that I had a brother who looked just like you?”

“No.”

“I did. And you know what happened to him?”

“What?”

“The damned Imperials tortured and killed him.”

James glanced up.

“They slaughtered my entire family after taking over my homeworld,” Danica continued. “My father was an admiral in the Tajji navy, and when they interrogated him, he wouldn’t talk. That’s why they killed us.”

James frowned. “How did you escape?”

“I didn’t. I left in a misguided attempt to save my father. When I returned and found them dead, I ran away, vowing to avenge them.” She sighed. “But revenge is a tricky business, especially when you’re fighting a faceless enemy. Eventually, I settled for a life as a mercenary.”

“I’m sorry about your family,” James said.

“I am, too. Now, let me ask you something: do you think I ever got to say goodbye?”

Danica’s face had reddened somewhat, and she sounded angrier than he’d ever heard her.

“N-no. Why?”

“Because you did,” she said, pointing her finger into his chest to drive the point home. “You did. You said goodbye to your sister. You said goodbye to your brother. Those are things that I never had—things that billions of victims in this war never will.”

James bit his lip as his eyes went blurry. His shoulders started shaking; he couldn’t hold back the tears any longer.

“But she’s not coming home.”

Danica didn’t answer right away. James cried quietly for a few moments, until he got a hold of himself. He rubbed his eyes and glanced up. Danica’s expression had changed; she didn’t seem as angry anymore.

“Sometimes, you just have to let go,” she told him. “If you want to do what’s best for those you love, you have to be willing to sacrifice your wants for their needs.”

James nodded; there was some truth in that.

“You’re not a kid anymore,” she continued, laying a hand on his shoulder. “You’ve proven that you’re willing to put everything on the line. In a war-torn universe, that’s no small thing. You’re not one of the sheep, James—you’re one of the sheepdogs. You’ve got what it takes to protect the ones you love.”

James wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “What about Stella?”

“Stella will be fine,” said Danica. “She’s not a little girl anymore.”

This time, James couldn’t help it. Tears spilled out of his eyes, but they were good tears, the kind that left him feeling alive and well. Danica sat down and put an arm around him, and they stayed together like that for a long time, joined by a bond stronger than death itself.


* * * * *


Sholpan’s feet felt heavy as she walked through the station terminal to the tram. An honor guard of ten of the strongest Hameji soldiers escorted her, to protect her from would-be assassins. To her, they seemed more like prison guards escorting her to a new cell.

I could have left all this behind, she thought morosely to herself as the tram sped down the docking arm, taking her to the airlock for her shuttle. I could have gone home.

On board, she settled down in the ostentatiously furnished passenger cabin. Pillows and cushions lay scattered across the floor, much like the shuttle that had taken her from the prisoner ship to the Lion of Tenguri. She sighed—back then, she’d found it incredibly luxurious; now, it was nothing more than the tacky trappings of half a dozen conquered stars—the lifeless remains of dozens of conquered and subjugated peoples. With the hellish redness of Kardunash III shining down through the window-wall, she felt as if she were in some surreal space between life and death. It made her shudder.

At that moment, the terminal in the corner began to chime, announcing the receipt of a private message. Caught by surprise, Stella stood up to check it out.

The message was written in New Gaian. That’s odd. She checked the sender—perhaps it was Lars, giving her an update on the situation with her brother.

It wasn’t from Lars, though. It was from Zeline.

Lady Sholpan, it began, I hope this message finds you well. Qasar always returns from his court sessions in an awful mood; perhaps your presence helped to alleviate some of his misery in the necessary duties of governing the planetborn.

Sholpan frowned and reread the opening paragraph. What was Zeline trying to say? Was this a threat?

When you get back, I would be delighted if you would join me for coffee. I feel that our first meeting could have gone better, and I would appreciate another opportunity to show you my hospitality. The other wives still believe that you orchestrated Borta’s murder—

Meaning, of course, that Zeline didn’t.

but I was quite touched by the gracious way in which you mediated between Qasar and his son. I admit, I didn’t know what to think of you at first, but now I look forward to getting to know you better. I hope the feeling is mutual.

Sincerely, Zeline.

P.S: You may be interested to know that I, too, was not born Hameji. Perhaps we can talk about it over coffee.

Sholpan smiled warmly as she finished the message. Nestled in the cushions of the couch, she felt a warm calmness sweep over her—a calmness she hadn’t felt in far too long.

Her stomach abruptly flipped as the shuttle made the jump to the Lion of Tenguri. The harsh red light of Kardunash III disappeared, replaced by the dark, cool night of space.

As the familiar shapes of the Hameji ships grew closer in the window, Sholpan rose to her feet and paced the floor in delight. It was all she could do to keep her jubilation and excitement from bubbling over. She couldn’t wait to meet with Zeline; something told her that this would be the start of a close and lasting friendship.


* * * * *


The last Danica saw of James McCoy was at the Colony’s docking hub. Mikhail, piloting the Catriona, was already there to pick her up—he had been waiting for almost the entire two weeks it had taken the Freedom’s Banner to arrive, traveling at sublight speeds. Fortunately, the people of the Colony had been quite hospitable.

James was visibly quivering as they came to the door leading into the terminal. Danica wondered how he felt, after being away from his family for so long. Even though it was his home, not hers, she felt a bit nervous herself.

The door hissed open, and both of them stepped through to the sounds of cheering. A man and a woman—James’s father and mother, apparently—rushed up and gathered him in their arms. Tears flowed freely as they embraced, while all around them their friends smiled and cheered.

Danica stood off against the wall, watching with her arms folded in satisfaction. Banners hung over the crowd, declaring “Welcome Home James!” and “We Love You!” Here, among friends and family, he clearly belonged.

James led his parents over to meet her. “Are you the captain who saved my son?” asked James’s father.

“Yes,” said Danica, offering her hand. He took it in both of his own and gave her the warmest, most sincere handshake she could ever remember receiving.

“Thank you so much,” he said. “How can we ever repay you?”

“No payment necessary,” said Danica. She turned to James’s mother, who walked up and hugged her in gratitude.

“Thank you,” she said simply, tears streaking her cheeks. Despite her carefully cultivated stoicism, Danica felt herself choke up at the woman’s honest display of emotion.

“Anytime,” said Danica. She turned to James. “Well, McCoy, I guess this is it.”

“Yes,” he said, smiling. “Goodbye, Captain.” He reached up and gave her a parting hug.

“You are always welcome here,” said James’s father. “Please—it’s the least we can do.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Danica. “And when I come back, I expect this young man to have made a name for himself. Am I understood, Ensign?”

“Yes, Captain,” said James. The smile on his face was insuppressible.

“Then goodbye, McCoy.” She saluted before heading back to the docks. James returned the salute.

Take care of yourself, Danica thought to herself as she followed Mikhail into the tram that ran down the docking arm. She smiled and waved goodbye through the window as the car whisked her away, taking her home to her crew.


Author’s Note


In the winter of 2009, I took a class at Brigham Young University covering the history of the Middle East from 500 C.E. to 1800 C.E. The teacher, Professor Hamblin, was awesome—I filled a notebook with quips like “Obama of the steppes” and “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean everyone isn’t out to get you.” The best part of the class, though, was when we studied the Mongol conquests, especially the sacking of Baghdad in 1258 C.E. Baghdad was the cultural center of civilization and culture, and the Mongols completely annihilated it! For weeks, that was all I could talk about—I even started a Facebook group for my friends called “Joe’s Barbarian Horde.” But the most interesting thing about that unit was the rationale behind the brutal Mongol invasion. They believed quite literally that the sky god had given them the entire world, and since the Kurultai had elected Temujin to be the Great Khan of the Mongols, he was only fulfilling his destiny by conquering the world.

Being a science fiction writer, I immediately started wondering what the Mongol conquests would be like in space. I had already world-built an elaborate far-future setting for a science fiction series (more on that in the author’s note to Desert Stars), and my space Mongols fit in surprisingly well. Assuming that it takes a great investment of capital to make a planet habitable, it would make sense that the Outer Reaches of inhabited space would belong to tribes of starfaring nomads who eked out a meager existence on the margins. They would be extremely aggressive, since the only way to expand their living space would be to capture new starships. Also, because they had no home world, the starships they lived on would also be their battleships, meaning that they’d have no way to differentiate between “civilian” and “soldier.” The society would be extremely hierarchical, with no excuse to waste resources on people who didn’t fall into line. Either you obeyed the captain, or you got chucked out the airlock; life in such a society would be a privilege, not a right.

All of this was fascinating, but it wasn’t enough to make a novel. I decided to combine this idea with another one I’d had a couple years previous: the idea of a perfect techno-democracy. What if internet forums and social networking technology were combined to make a perfectly democratic society, in which all of the decisions were made by a general vote of all the citizens? What would that look like? What sort of values would these people have? Certainly their worldviews would clash very sharply with those of the space Mongols!

Around this time, I signed up for Brandon Sanderson’s English 318 class at BYU. As part of the class, students are required to write 2,000 words per week. I figured I had the start of something promising, so I took the ideas and ran with them. But I still didn’t have any characters—and without characters, you can’t have a story.

Growing up as the oldest brother, I was always very protective of my younger sisters. When I was young, I watched an old Disney Western that had a very profound effect on me. The basic premise of the story was that a band of Indians had kidnapped a young girl from a frontier farm and were going to sacrifice her by shooting her off the edge of a cliff on a certain day at a certain time. The girl’s brother (I think the actor played a role in The Swiss Family Robison, not sure) spent the whole freaking movie trying to rescue her, only to arrive at the top of the cliff just as the Indian chief loosed his arrow and sent her tumbling to her death (later I learned that one of the Indian squaws had traded places with the girl, but that went over my head at the time).

That movie had a HUGE impact on me. Not being able to save the people I love is the scariest thing I can possibly imagine. Even worse would be if I could save them, but they refused to be saved! For some reason, all of this came flooding into my mind as I was plotting this novel. It clicked almost immediately, and I knew what would happen: the main character would try to rescue his brother and sister from the Hameji, only to have his brother die in his arms, and his sister refuse to be rescued.

The first draft was tough, and not just like all first drafts are. I got a lot of help from Brandon Sanderson and the writing group from the class, and decided to take the summer of 2009 off in order to finish it (thank goodness for scholarships!). When Ben died, I was in a funk for a few days, and the closer I came to finishing it the more depressed I became. However, I knew I was doing something right—and after reading Legend by David Gemmell (one of the most awesome books I’ve ever read), I knew that I would do these characters a disservice by making their lives easy. Everyone dies, after all—but not everyone dies well.

Danica and her band of mercenaries grew out of my love of Howard Tayler’s Schlock Mercenary. The first attempt failed horribly, so I consulted with some military friends to figure out exactly how the mercenary unit would be organized. I then wrote up a few short paragraphs describing who they are and what are their back-stories. These are just a few:


Danica Nova

Age: 36

Danica is from the Tajjur system. She was the daughter of an admiral in the Tajjur navy. In the war for independence, her father was captured and tortured for information. Danica left to try and rescue him, but had barely embarked when a gang of thugs hired by the Imperial occupation killed her mother, younger brother, and many of her extended family. Ever since then, she has been tortured with the thought that perhaps, if she had stayed with her family, she could have protected them. She knows that she would have died along with them, but she still feels like she abandoned them.

With the imperials out for her head, she took one of the family ships and ran to the Belarius system, which had a thriving underworld. She joined up with a Belarian militia for a while, then broke off to start a private military group. She did this out of a warped hunger for revenge, to become a thorn in the side of the Gaian Imperial Navy. She wanted to develop a mercenary force so that when the empire finally fell, she would be in a prime position to join with the forces bringing them down.

This was her original idea, her dream since childhood. However, as the years passed by and the reality of mercenary life set in, more and more she has contented herself with odd jobs and simply looking out for the next paycheck.

Danica has natural leadership qualities. She knows everyone on her ship personally, including all of the enlisted, and commands their respect with her unyielding sense of justice and her equal treatment of everyone under her command, including herself. Her primary concern is the safety and welfare of her crew, and they know this. At the same time, however, she has many buried feelings from her troubled past than many of them do not understand.

Because of her past life among Tajjur's elite, Danica is surprisingly well educated and has an extensive grasp of history and an appreciation of culture.


Roman Krikoryan

Age: 52

Roman is the son of a working class Tajjur family. His father was an alcoholic factory worker, and his mother had seven or eight children to take care of. Roman was the middle child, and didn't have much of a future except in the planetside factories, so he enlisted with the Gaian Imperial navy.

He saw action in several frontier worlds struggling to gain their autonomy. During this time, he gained considerable military experience and moved up the enlisted ranks. He also came to see how weak and corrupt the empire was.

When Tajjur declared its independence, he led a mutiny on his ship (which employed a 60% Tajjuri crew) and defected to the Tajjur navy. He was made sergeant major and went on to fight the imperial forces in that brutal war.

The Tajjur war for independence left him lost and disillusioned. Many of his friends lost their lives, and he found himself fighting directly against many of his friends from the imperial navy. When the war finally ended, he was still alive but had lost everything, including his dignity. Considered a traitor by the imperials and hunted by the occupation forces, he fled to Belarius.

He drifted for a while, working odd jobs on the spaceports in that system and spending his money on booze. Eventually, however, he met up with Danica, who saw something in him. She offered to take him on to her crew if he sobered up, and he accepted. He was one of her first recruits in the mercenary unit, and so became a key advising officer from the very beginning.

As chief petty officer of the Tajji Flame, Roman is the key military advisor, the link between the enlisted men and the officers, and the backbone of the organization. He's seen it all, and he knows how to get things done.


Anya Sikorsky

Age: 26

Anya is from the Belarius system, from a local merchanter family much like the Mccoys. She apprenticed as a pilot and regularly made runs to Tajjur and Karduna.

When she was eighteen, she was kidnapped by pirates in the outer rim of the Belarius system. The pirates held her ransom but killed off the rest of the crew of the merchanter ship, which consisted of an old man and his son with whom Anya had a relationship. Anya escaped, only to be captured again and severely abused by the crew. Shortly after, her parents paid the ransom and she was released.

The experience traumatized her, but it also hardened her and she determined to get revenge. Having stolen some information on the pirates' ships while in captivity, she found out where the pirates usually went to port. With this information, she ran away from home, changed her identity and appearance, bought some firearms on the black market, hunted down the pirates while they were in port and killed them all. She then hijacked their ship and flew it back home.

This proved to be a mistake, however, because the pirates were actually underlings in a much larger crime organization. When their boss found out what had been done, he tracked her down and sent out a team of thugs to kill her family. Anya narrowly escaped all of this.

With the pirates hunting her down, she fled to the starlane stations just outside the Auriga Nova system, where the imperial forces had generally stopped most pirating. She found it difficult to settle down, however, with little future and no connections.

She drifted for a while, then hired on as a pilot to a local freight company. This gave her the time to get over, at least somewhat, the loss of her family. She soon became involved in a relationship with one of the younger freighter navigators, Alex Goldsteyn. He promised to protect her, and while she was with him she finally started to get over the nightmares that had haunted her ever since the death of her family. He also helped her complete her training, making her into a first-rate astrogator.

However, soon after completing her training, a band of pirates attacked their freighter. Alex helped Anya to escape, but he was killed in the process. The event further traumatized her, especialy the loss of her lover, but she came out of it with a renewed determination to make herself strong so something like this wouldn't happen again.

She returned to Auriga Nova, but this time decided to sign up with a mercenary crew where she could learn to be a fighter. Danica came through right about this time just after hiring Ilya, and Anya offered to sign up. She almost didn't get the job, but when Roman heard about her past fighting the pirates, he decided she was the right material.

Soon after she was hired on, she got involved in a relationship with Ilya. This relationship has been ongoing for some time, though it's really more of an “I need somebody and you're available” kind of thing with relatively little commitment. Danica tolerates it, but only just.

Despite her hard past, Anya has a naturally warm, nurturing personality. She likes to stand up for the little guy, and doesn't like to see other people suffer (unless, of course, they are her enemies). She likes the way Ilya talks tough and doesn't let others put him down. She doesn't know that he's a coward at heart.


Ilya Ayvazyan

Age: 22

Ilya grew up as a delinquent on a Tajji moon under the imperial occupation of his home system. He has a natural knack for mathematics and computers, and soon learned that he could make more hacking into networks that doing petty street stuff.

He moved up in the local gangs, but a series of gang wars and brutal imperial sting operations forced him to flee. He stowed away on a freighter bound for the Auriga Nova system.

The freighter was captured by pirates, but Danica's band of mercenaries attacked the pirates, per their contract with the owners of the freight company. Ilya snuck onto the pirate network and hacked into their drone fighters, deactivating a wing in mid-combat. As a result, Danica crushed the pirates and soon liberated the ship. Ilya told Danica what he'd done and asked her for a job; she accepted, having discovered that the higher paying work requires at least one cyber-ops officer.

This was about two and a half years before Danica met up with James. Tajjur fell to the Hameji a little less than two years later.

Ilya has little military experience and a natural disdain for authority. He thinks very highly of himself and likes to push people's buttons. Because of his young age, most of the senior members of the crew tolerate him the way they'd tolerate an annoying puppy, or perhaps a cat. Ilya doesn't let this bother him, or stop him from doing exactly what he wants.

Despite the airs he puts on, Ilya is a coward at heart.


It’s amazing how much the story comes alive when you truly get to know your characters.

Bringing Stella Home went through multiple drafts and several test readers, all of whom (I think) are listed in the acknowledgments. My military friends were especially helpful; I’ve never served in the military and couldn’t even pretend to write military science fiction, so their feedback proved invaluable.

In the fall of 2010 when the manuscript got to a publishable state, I decided to hold off submitting it until World Fantasy Convention in Columbus. The convention was awesome, and while I garnered a little bit of interest from agents, I made several new writer friends who expressed interest in reading it. Their feedback convinced me to go back for one last revision, and while I was working on that, the ebook revolution really began to take off. I read Konrath’s “You Should Self-Publish” post on his blog, and was thoroughly stunned; here was advice that ran against everything I’d ever heard, and yet it completely made sense. I discovered Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Katherine Rusch around this time—two long-time writers with careers like the one I hope to have someday. The more I learned about the changes in the publishing industry, the more I realized that Bringing Stella Home would probably find its audience better as a self-published ebook than a traditionally published novel. The severe dearth of classic space opera and space adventure at World Fantasy 2010 (with the notable exception of Night Shade Books) hammered this home to me as well.

In spite of the short-lived depression the first draft put me through, writing this novel has been a true joy. I hope some of that passion was shared as you read it. If you enjoyed it, the best, most awesome thing you could do is share it, blog about it, tell a friend, post a review or tag it on Amazon—every little bit helps. The thing about indie publishing is that it’s all about the readers, which is exactly as it should be.

As of right now (October 2011), I have finished the first draft of the sequel to this novel. It needs a ton of work, including a new title, so it probably won’t be available until 2012 or so, but it’s pretty awesome. It takes place five years after the events of Bringing Stella Home, and includes James, Lars, a couple of love interests, and another showdown with the Hameji. So stay tuned for when that book comes out!

If you want to find me on teh internets, the best place to start is probably my blog, One Thousand and One Parsecs (onelowerlight.com/writing). There, you can sign up for my email list, where I do periodic giveaways and share news about my latest releases. I’m also on Twitter (@onelowerlight) as well. As new releases come out, I’ll definitely be posting them there. My goal is to publish a minimum of two novels per year, and I have a ton of ideas for stories in the Gaia Nova universe, so expect to see some of these characters again!

In closing, I just want to say thank you for reading this book! Without you, stories like this one wouldn’t come alive; they’d just be sitting in a hard drive, or taking up space in a cardboard box somewhere. My dream is to make a living telling stories that I love, and I couldn’t do that without readers like you. So thanks again, and I hope to see you soon!


Acknowledgments


I got a lot of feedback with this novel, and every little bit helped. First, I would like to thank Brandon Sanderson for teaching his excellent writing class at BYU, English 318R. Next, I’d like to thank my writing group from that class: Stephen Haskin, Sarah Ray, Max Florschutz, and Nathan Waitman. I’d also like to thank my first round of test readers: Charlie Holmberg, Jason Housely, Officer Joel Frary, Ben Hardin, Julie Black, Stephen Dethloff, and Kindal Debenhaum…yes, even you, Kindal. Thanks also to my second round of test readers: Mykle Law, Peter Johnston, Jenna Kimble, Craig Roddin, Liel Boyce, and Lieutenant David Kerman. Finally, I would like to thank C.A. Jacobs (aka “minion”) for her help with the last revision, Kindal’s writing group (Emily Debenhaum, Andy Lemmon, Aneeka Richins, Ben Hardin, Megan Hutchins) for help with a couple of scenes, Dan Wells for his amazing 7-point plotting system, Josh Leavitt for his copy editing services, Lorenz Hideyoshi Ruwwe for the excellent cover art, and Scott Bascom for the help with the teaser. Thanks so much, guys! This book would not be nearly as great without you.

The saga of Gaia Nova continues in Heart of the Nebula!


Bringing Stella Home


THEY LOST THE WAR, BUT THE PEACE IS STILL WITHIN THEIR GRASP.


Five years have passed since the Hameji conquered James McCoy's homeworld, all but enslaving his people. Now, the occupation threatens to destroy them.

Deep in the heart of the Good Hope nebula, there is a place where they can start over. But it will take a strong leader to get them there, and the temptation to trade freedom for security has never been greater. Even if they manage to escape from the Hameji, the greatest threat to their future may come from within.

James once gave everything to save the ones he loved. This time, his sacrifice could make him a legend.


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A science fiction romance from the author of Bringing Stella Home.


Bringing Stella Home


A TALE FROM THE FRINGES OF AN INTERSTELLAR EMPIRE THAT HAS FORGOTTEN ITS HOLIEST LEGEND: THE STORY OF EARTH.


He was the sole heir to the Najmi camp, a young man raised by tribesmen after falling to the desert from his home among the stars. She was the sheikh's most beautiful daughter, promised his hand in marriage—if she can convince him to stay.

Together, they must travel to a land where glass covers the sky and men traverse the stars as easily as tribesmen cross the desert. Here, at the ancient temple dedicated to the memory of Earth, they hope to find the answers that will show them the way home.

But when love and honor clash, how can they face their destiny when it threatens to tear them apart?


CLICK HERE TO BUY DESERT STARS

The saga of Gaia Nova continues in Stars of Blood and Glory!


Bringing Stella Home


THE ONLY HOPE FOR THE LAST FREE STARS NOW LIES ON THE PATH OF BLOOD AND GLORY.


The princess of Shinihon could not have picked a worse time to run away. The largest Hameji battle fleet ever gathered threatens to overrun the last of the free stars. To make matters worse, a rogue assassin from an unknown faction has killed the high admiral of the Federation. Without clear leadership, the war may be lost before she can be found.

But Danica Nova and her band of Tajji mercenaries are no strangers to lost causes. They've fought the Hameji before, and they'll fight them again—not for honor, or for glory, but simply for the pay. War has been their way of life ever since the diaspora from the homeworld.

Master Sergeant Roman Krikoryan is one of the few remaining mercenaries still old enough to remember the homeworld. But he's an old cyborg, and his humanity is fading. Death is a mercy he doesn't expect to find on this mission.

They aren't the only ones after the princess, however. Hungry for glory and eager to make a name for himself, Sholpan's son Abaqa seeks to make the girl his slave. Though only a boy, he'll stop at nothing to prove himself to his Hameji brethren.

With the Federation in disarray, the bloody end of the war may come too soon for some of them. But one thing is certain—not all of them will live to see it.


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