Book: Stars of Blood and Glory
Stars of Blood and Glory
by Joe Vasicek
Copyright © 2013 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
Table of Contents
1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5
6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10
11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15
16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20
Author’s Note | Acknowledgments
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.
The thought resounded in the girl’s mind almost as loudly as the high-pitched buzzing in her ears. She opened her eyes and uncurled from her hiding place just inside the hatchway, stretching out her cramped muscles one at a time so as not to fall from her precarious perch in the darkness. Through the bulkheads, the low groan of metal on metal alerted her that they’d docked.
Swiftly yet silently, she slipped out of the narrow recess and reached for the smooth metal walls of the ship’s main water tank. She went by touch rather than sight, feeling her way over the moist, slippery tiles. The mechanical suction cups on the palms of her hands caught and held, and she leveraged for position until she was sprawled out across the inverted surface like a lizard on the underside of a rock.
The thought, though cold, carried no anger or malice. If she felt anything, it was only a sense of professional precision, like a dentist picking out his tools before performing a complicated extraction. An image of her target came readily to her mind through the datalink implant in the back of her neck: tall face, thick black hair, piercing eyes. Subtler details followed: the sound of his voice, the style of his gait, the twitch in his forehead when he was stressed. As she crawled upside down toward the base of the reservoir, she felt almost as if she were on her way to visit an old, familiar friend.
The girl carefully lowered herself down the wall, the frame of her skin-suit stiffening to give her added strength. The water wasn’t particularly cold, but it had a slightly metallic smell. She reached below her chin and pulled a flap of thick fabric up over her mouth and nose, breathing into it to activate the oxygen mask. Satisfied, she took a deep breath and slipped into the water headfirst.
Even through the skin-suit, the wetness made her shiver. Ignoring it, she swam to the bottom and felt for the sluice gate where the floor tapered into the drain. She took a deep breath of the stale, filtered air to reassure herself that she wasn’t drowning.
A dull groan in the walls told her she didn’t have much time. Slapping one of her hands against the floor for traction, she reached with the other to find the manual release for the grating. The thick metal bars were covered with a light film of slime, but she managed to find the lever, release the lock, and pull it aside. It made a painfully loud scratching sound against the tile floor, but only because every little noise underwater was amplified in her ear.
A loud click echoed through the duct, followed by a low rumble. The girl hastily released the suction cups in her gloves and flipped herself around, hugging her arms tightly against her chest. She no sooner did so than the drain flew open and sucked her into its maw.
Her heart pounded as the current sucked her through the pitch-black tunnel. The duct was so narrow that she barely had enough room for her arms, even with her shoulders scrunched together. Fortunately, the cold metal walls were smooth and slippery.
Her feet struck the grating on the other end flat on, making her gasp at the force of the impact. Recovering quickly as the water rushed past her, she tapped her right heel against the wall to extend a laser-file from the toe of her boot, which she used to cut through the thick metal bars. She worked with practiced speed, alternating between bars to keep an even pressure on all sides, and fastened her gloves to the walls to leverage as much of her weight off of them as possible. Still, the strength of the current made it incredibly difficult. She cut through the last three bars as quickly as she could, then kicked the grating out of the way and released herself.
Moments later, she found herself floating in the bottom of a dimly lit pool. She opened her eyes and blinked, making out shapes through the bubbles. She was only a few feet below the surface, but the room was still dark enough she didn’t think anyone had seen her. She waited for almost two full minutes, breathing slowly through her mask, until she was sure the catwalks above were empty.
Coming out of the water felt almost like rebirth. She pulled the mask down and allowed herself the luxury of one deep breath before crawling hastily up the wall to a niche where the auxiliary lights didn’t quite reach. Once there, she waited in silence until the skin-suit had fully shed the excess water, leaving her dry.
Her heart beat faster now, but out of anticipation, not fear. She wet her lips and crept forward, past the main doorway to the maintenance hatch on the side.
The sound of footsteps on the metal grating of the catwalk made her heart skip a beat. She froze, not making a sound even to breathe.
“What was that?”
“Eh? What are you talking about?”
The girl reached slowly to a compact pistol at her belt. Her muscles tensed as she kept herself perfectly still.
“I thought I heard something down there. Something in the water.”
“It’s probably just your imagination. Come on, let’s go.”
The footsteps faded until a door hissed shut beyond the girl’s vision. Just to be safe, she counted to sixty before slipping out of her hiding place and into the nearest maintenance shaft.
The datalink provided her with a detailed map of the station, which she analyzed quickly as she slipped through the narrow shaft. The network of maintenance corridors would bring her within three levels of the command center, but less than fifty meters from the war room. Security this deep was surprisingly minimal: a couple of cameras and a door lock that shouldn’t give her any more than a few minutes’ trouble. Her exit would be slightly more complicated, but with dozens of jump-equipped shuttles at the station’s various platforms, she had her pick of options.
It took a little less than ten minutes to get to the exit point. After double checking the station network to make sure there weren’t any cameras watching the corridor, she did a quick thermal scan through the door and palmed the access panel. The door hissed as it opened, making her cringe at the noise, but there was no one on the other side. She slipped out and quickly palmed it shut.
The white-tiled corridor was surprisingly well-lit. Even with her prosthetic enhancements, it took a moment for her eyes to adjust. The space was narrower than the main hallways, but it still felt open and dangerous. She kept close to the wall and moved swiftly, her hand at the pistol on her belt. Now that she was deep in the station, adrenaline pulsed through her veins.
She reached a secondary elevator at the end of the corridor, where it came to a T with a wider one that was curved so that she couldn’t see further than twenty meters in either direction. A quick check of the network showed that the elevator was currently unoccupied. She hastily palmed the access panel and waited for the elevator to open.
“… it’s going to be big this time, I tell you,” her audio enhancements picked up from around the corridor. “They’re not going to let us off easy again.”
Footsteps—two men, by the sound of it. Within a few moments, they’d be close enough to see her.
“You really think so?” said the second voice, growing clearer as the speaker came closer. “I don’t know. This isn’t the first time they’ve threatened to attack.”
“Yeah, but the latest intel shows a lot more movement than before. I heard that they’re pulling forces from as far away as Tajjur and the New Pleiades.”
“Come on. You can’t trust everything you hear. Stars! Who knows how rumors like that get started?”
The two men stepped plainly into view just as the elevator doors hissed open. The girl slipped inside before either of them had time to see her and quickly keyed in her destination, three floors up. The doors hissed shut, keeping her safely from view.
She permitted herself one silent gasp of relief as she hastily searched the station network for the command schedule via her datalink implant. According to the public schedule, her target would be holding a strategic planning sessions in—yes, that was it—forty minutes.
The elevator slowed as it reached its destination, and she kept close to the wall as the doors hissed open. The corridor outside was empty. She slipped out and stepped briskly toward the war room, stopping only to hold the palm of her hand over the access panel as her implants hacked the lock. Within moments, she was in.
The empty war room was wide and elliptical, with a vaulted ceiling almost twice as high as the corridor outside. Giant display screens covered the walls, streaming video from the exterior of the station so that the girl felt as if she were alone in a giant observation dome. The starry band of the galaxy glowed brightly in the depths of space, the orange-blue wisps of the Good Hope Nebula passing slowly out of view down by her feet. Directly in front of her, the black silhouette of the rogue planet opened like a maw of darkness. An enormous holographic projector sat in the center of the table, with a dozen plush leather chairs around the edge.
It didn’t take her long to find a hiding place. Using the suction cups in her gloves and boots, she crawled beneath the table and pressed herself against the underside, keeping her profile as low as possible. The frame of her skin-suit stiffened, allowing her to relax as she settled in for the forty-minute wait.
She closed her eyes and controlled her breath. Seconds passed into minutes as reality faded from her consciousness. She visualized a wide open sky, with an empty wasteland of rust-red desert stretching all the way to the unbroken horizon. The memory of the familiar landscape calmed her into a meditative state. She could practically taste the dust in the air and hear the whistling of the wind as it passed over the barren landscape.
She turned and saw a cluster of weathered adobe huts and sun-faded tents, with a rickety old windmill towering up near the center. Home. She stepped forward, sand tickling her toes as her dress and headscarf fluttered in the wind, until she reached an old sun-faded rug draped over a doorway.
Inside, a narrow tunnel of brick and stone stretched out in front of her, with cozy, familiar rooms branching off on either side. Arabesque carpets covered the uneven dirt floor, while old, faded glowlamps illuminated the interior from various niches in the adobe walls.
The moment she stepped inside, a feeling of supreme peace swept over her. She ran her hands along the rough adobe, letting the familiarity of the place fill her. Just around that corner at the end of the corridor, someone was waiting for her, someone who—
The datalink implant jolted her out of her trance, alerting her to the sound of footsteps in the hallway. A heady rush passed through her, making her shiver, but with practiced concentration she kept herself perfectly still.
The door hissed open, shattering the last remaining shards of her meditation. From her vantage point, she watched the boots of almost a dozen Federation officers as they entered the room and gathered around the table.
“Colonel Jameson, you’re looking quite well.”
“Thank you. I wish I could say the same of my men.”
“I haven’t seen Major Hector at all yet—does anyone know where he is?”
“Last I heard, he was engaged in counter-recon operations down by Eyn-Gatta.”
“You don’t suppose—”
The room grew silent as one last pair of boots stepped into the doorway. There was a quick shuffle as the others drew themselves up at attention, facing the newcomer.
“At ease, gentlemen.”
The sound of his voice sent chills shooting down the girl’s back. She licked her lips and flexed her fingers.
The men took their seats around the table. A couple of them stretched out their legs so that their feet were a hand’s breadth from her hiding place, but the external frame of her skin-suit kept her fastened in place. She drew in a silent breath and settled in, biding her time.
“I’m afraid I have bad news,” said her target. “A courier from the fourth division just arrived with reports of massive Hameji movement in the Gamma sector. Major Hector’s forces have been overwhelmed and routed from their positions.”
“Overwhelmed? By an advance party?”
“Yes—an advance party that outnumbered his own forces three to one.”
A nervous rumble arose from the men. One of them scooted his chair back and rose to his feet.
“But Admiral Genjiro, why would the Hameji move to attack us so soon? Our reconnaissance shows that they’re still assembling their forces out beyond the local cloud.”
“Because, gentlemen, I believe we are dealing with more than one battle fleet.”
The room fell deadly silent. Two of the men started tapping their feet nervously against the floor.
“There are several reasons to believe that this is the case,” her target continued. “Analyzing the Hameji movements further, however, we see that their fleets are not uniformly coordinated. This development, I believe, warrants some attention.”
“Begging your pardon, Admiral, what does that matter when their capital ships outnumber us by so many?”
“At this point, any advantage, if properly leveraged, may prove decisive. We still hold all of the important star systems in the sector. If we coordinate our movements, we might be able to repel their advance.”
“But if they’ve already entered the rift,” a new voice said, “how can we possibly hold our current position?”
The admiral sighed. “You’re right, I’m afraid. Every moment we spend at this outpost, we risk getting flanked or pinned down. I therefore propose that we leave a small force at Eyn-Gatta to harrow the enemy’s rear and move our base of operations back to New Vela.”
His proposal met with a chorus of assent.
“Ende, I want you to move toward the Gamma sector and try to cut off the Hameji advance fleet from their main command. It won’t stop them, but it might slow them down. Webb, I want you to provide the support for Ende’s rear and watch for any Hameji flanking maneuvers. We’ll concentrate the balance of our forces in the rift—whatever else happens, we can’t afford to let them through.”
“Are you sure that’s wise?” asked a young man. He nervously tapped his fingers against his knees only inches from the girl’s face. “If we fail to secure Zeta and Omega sectors, the Hameji could launch a secondary campaign and bypass the rift altogether.”
“I realize that,” said her target, “but I don’t believe the Hameji will come at us that way. The hasty disorganization of this first attack shows me that their fleets are disunited, with each commander hoping to beat the others to the first spoils. It takes more than a standard month to bypass the local clouds, and I don’t think any of them have the patience for that.”
Silence again. From the lack of objection, the girl guessed that the rest of the officers agreed with him. She could easily visualize their nods of approval.
“I have a strong feeling that the coming campaign will prove decisive,” he added in a low voice. “No military force in the galaxy has ever struck the Hameji a decisive defeat, but every empire must one day fall. For the sake of the last remaining free worlds in this galaxy, let us all perform our duty with valor and honor. To your ships, men.”
The girl waited in careful silence as the men all rose from their seats and made their way to the door. A few of them lingered to chat about inconsequential things, but she kept a close watch on the boots belonging to her target. As expected, he stayed behind until he was alone.
When the door hissed shut for the last time, the girl slipped out from under the table like a cat, moving on her hands and feet while remaining out of sight. Her target stood gazing at the video feed on the wall, completely unaware of her presence. Heart racing, she reached to a pouch at her hip and pulled out a syringe filled with a clear serum.
In less than a second, she crossed the space between them and covered his mouth with her hand. He gasped in surprise, but before he could resist, she jammed the syringe into his neck, injecting the serum into his twitching flesh. His back arched, and he collapsed to the floor.
“Who?” he croaked, staring up at her in horror. “Who ar—” His eyes rolled back in his head, and his body convulsed one last time before growing still.
The girl stood over the body for several moments, savoring the rush that always followed each kill. This one had been clean—remarkably so. She admired her handiwork the way a painter might admire his art or a chess master the elegance of his game.
She wasted little time reveling in her success, though. Before anyone else could discover her work, she was more than a light-year away.
If Roman Andrei Krikoryan felt anything anymore, he felt old. His bones ached and his joints felt sore, but those were only the echoes of his aging body—a body that was quickly becoming irrelevant. The simulators did a little to revitalize him, but it really made no difference anymore. No matter how often he returned to the artificial comforts of the dream world, he was still just an empty shell, a fragment of the man he used to be.
“How are you feeling, Master Sergeant?”
Roman grunted and sat up on the examining table. He flexed his left hand, observing the claw-like prosthetic fingers as they clenched and unclenched. Only minimal nerves ran beneath the durasteel plating, but he preferred it that way—the less he could feel, the less pain he had to deal with.
“Every time you see me you are asking this question,” he said, glancing up at the young doctor who stood over him. “And every time my answer is not changed.”
“Still, humor me.”
He grunted again, turning the right side of his mouth up in a grin. “I do not feel anything, Lieutenant. I am machine.”
Lieutenant Maia Avanadze nodded and pulled a strand of her jet-black hair behind her ear—such a youthful gesture. Roman’s mechanical eye registered her body heat as a soft infrared glow, making her look like an angel in her immaculately white uniform. She smiled at him, but her smile was one of pity and not of understanding.
“Your prosthetics are all in working order,” she said. “I made some adjustments to your jaw, though—a couple of bolts had come loose, and a nerve ending was starting to grow into the empty socket.”
“Perhaps you should become mechanic,” said Roman, chuckling as he put on the top half of his olive-green uniform. His thick chest hair extended across his right pectoral until his skin met the dull metallic sheen of the body plating on his collarbone. It took daily hormone injections and a rigorous workout routine to keep the biological half of his body from shriveling in comparison to his cyborg half, but even at his old age, he kept a strict daily regimen. That was one thing the prosthetics made easier—one reason he preferred them over a rejuvenation. Mechanical muscles could be fixed when they broke down.
Lieutenant Maia gave him a sharp look. “I’m not just here to give your prosthetics a tune up, Sergeant. Your enhancements are designed to let you live, not to turn you into a machine.”
“At my age, is there any difference?”
She rolled her eyes, probably because she didn’t think he could see her. That was one advantage of the wide-angle lens he’d installed a few years back. He finished adjusting his uniform and pulled on the eye patch—it slightly impaired his vision across the visible spectrum, but it tended to set others at ease, which made social interactions easier. The subtle shift in Maia’s body heat confirmed as much.
“I’ll see you back in in a week, then?” she asked.
“Of course,” said Roman. “There is no face on this ship I would rather see.”
She smiled in the way that young women smile at cute old men, and as Roman followed her to the door, he allowed himself to believe that it was genuine. A moment later, he stepped out of the medical bay, and the door slid shut with a sharp hiss.
The Tajji Flame had hardly changed in the thirty or so standard years that Roman had served as her second-in-command. The personnel had come and gone—some, to more lucrative military contracting jobs, others to their deaths—but the old warship was one of the few remaining constants in his life. Her dimly lit corridors and dull metal walls were almost as drab as a prison, but he didn’t mind. In fact, it felt a little bit like his first assignment: a convoy support craft with a crew of barely fifty. The exposed wires running along the floor grating, however, reminded him that this was no Imperial warship. Thank the stars for that.
At the end of the main corridor, he palmed open the door to the bridge and stepped inside. A little more than half a dozen chairs circled the room, all of them unoccupied. The main forward window offered a magnificent view of New Rigel V, a deep blue water world with clouds swirling above the hydrosphere like blemishes on a marble. Swarms of spacecraft glittered in the bright yellow sunlight, slipping past in their lower orbits while tiny shuttlecraft danced between them in a carefully coordinated ballet.
In the center of the room, just behind the command chair, Captain Danica Nova stood in a crisp uniform with her hands clasped behind her, staring out at the view. Her dark hair was cropped at her shoulders, the short streaks of gray a sign of her age. She turned to face him, and he responded with a crisp salute.
“Master Sergeant Krikoryan,” she said, saluting him back. “At ease.”
Roman nodded and rested his hands behind his back. “You wished to see me?”
“Yes. How are you feeling?”
“I am functional, Captain.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Did you give the Lieutenant a hard time?”
“No more than usual.”
“I should hope not. She only wants to look out for you, Sergeant—as do I.”
He grunted. “Do not worry about me, Captain. I am fine.”
Danica stared at him for a moment, as if looking through his cyborg shell to some part of him that only she could see. He flinched, and she turned her attention to the control panel in front of her.
“I’m sure by now you’ve heard about the renewed hostilities in the Gamma sector,” she said as she typed in a series of commands. “It looks as if the Hameji are launching a major offensive.”
“Such as last campaign in Oriana?”
“Good,” he said, relaxing a little. “It will be good for our men to see action. Have we received any new offers?”
“Actually, it looks as if the Rigelans want to keep us under their employ. They’ve promised to renew our contract at four times the current rate.”
Roman whistled out the corner of his mouth. “Four times? And this was starting price?”
“Yes,” said Danica. “Of course, I negotiated it up to five. But their main battle fleet is almost ready to depart, and we still need a new cybernetics officer.”
The main window turned into a massive display screen, the view of the planet fading out to black. A slightly unfocused picture appeared in the center, showing the face of a young woman with jet-black hair and expressionless eyes.
“This is our prime applicant for the cybernetics post,” said Danica. “Her name is Rina Al-Najmi. She arrived at the main station less than an hour ago and wishes to conduct the interview as soon as possible. I told her to meet us at the airlock in fifteen minutes.”
“This girl is prime applicant?” said Roman, pointing at the screen with a grunt. “She is too young—she cannot be more than twenty.”
“Young, yes, but she’s already quite accomplished. The Federation employed her in a number of intelligence gathering operations deep behind the Coreward front.”
“She is number cruncher, then?”
“Perhaps,” said Danica, “but she has some military training as well. I found her listed on a hit-and-run operation in the Gamma sector just a few months ago, though what role she played I don’t exactly know.”
Roman nodded. “What else can you say about her?”
“Surprisingly, not a lot. Either the Federation has been using her in some secret operations, or she’s very good at covering her tracks.” Danica stood up straight and turned to face him. “That’s why I want you to interview her. I need you to shake her up a little, get her to show her true character. Whatever impression she gives you, I want to hear about it.”
“There is one more thing you should know,” said Danica, turning back to the computer. The picture disappeared, replaced with the girl’s identifying information. “It took me a while to discover her star of origin, but I found some records in the refugee data banks that indicate she’s from Gaia Nova.”
Roman’s lips curled into a snarl. “So she is Gaian Imperial citizen, then?”
“Probably—though she couldn’t have been older than five or six standard years old when the Empire fell. Either way, I don’t want you to let that color your perceptions of her. The days of the Empire are gone, and the revolution is long over. Wherever her loyalties lie, she poses no threat in that regard.”
I am not so sure, Roman thought, keeping the comment to himself. A chime sounded, drawing Danica’s attention back to the computer.
“That’s her,” she said, “showing up exactly when I told her to. Better get to work, Sergeant.”
“Sir,” said Roman, giving Danica a sharp salute. He turned and walked off the bridge, clenching his prosthetic hand into a fist as he did so.
* * * * *
The airlock door hissed open, revealing the dockside chamber with its LED lights lining the windowless metal walls. The girl from the briefing stood on the other side, dressed in black. Roman narrowed his eyes; she looked even younger in person than she did on the display screen. At her full height, she barely came halfway up to his chest, and her arms were thin enough that he could probably touch his fingers together while gripping them. Even so, the gaze she fixed on him was as cold and unyielding as the depths of space.
“Rina Al-Najmi,” said Roman. “You are here to interview for cybernetics position?”
“Yes,” said the girl, her voice low but far from soft.
He nodded. “Then come inside.”
She stepped onto the Tajji Flame, and the airlock hissed shut behind her. Roman palmed open the door to the main corridor, coming face to face with Private Nikolai, one of his men.
“Search her,” he ordered. Then, in Tajji, “Don’t be gentle.”
Nikolai turned to the girl and motioned for her to stand with her arms outstretched on either side. She complied without a word, barely flinching even as he jostled her nearly off her feet. He pulled out a pistol from her belt and a laser-knife from her boot, but nothing else.
“That’s all, sir,” he said, handing over the weapons. Roman nodded and motioned for the private to leave.
“We will hold these while you are on board,” he told the girl. “You will receive them again when we are finished.”
Roman led her down the main corridor to the enlisted mess hall on the main level. Because they were in port, the windowless room was completely empty. A handful of faded pinups graced the dull metal walls, while caged lights flickered overhead, making the place feel like the hold of a bulk freighter. Roman keyed a button to raise a bench from the floor and motioned for the girl to sit. He remained standing, hands clasped thoughtfully behind his back.
“So,” he began, “I understand you wish to be our new cybernetics officer, yes?”
“That is correct.”
“What makes you think you are qualified for position?” he asked, pacing slowly around her.
“A good cybernetics officer needs to be an expert at gaming systems and breaking rules,” she answered. “I have extensive experience at both—I believe my file speaks to that.”
“No doubt. But what makes you think you belong with us?”
He let the statement hang in the air, observing her reaction. Instead of answering, she waited patiently for him to explain himself. He pulled off his eye patch and met her eyes with both of his own.
“If you wish to join our private military company, there is something you must know,” he said. “With few exceptions, we are all Tajji. During Imperial occupation of our homeworld, many of us fought as revolutionaries. None of us has any love for the Empire.”
“Neither do I,” she said calmly. “My parents were desert tribesmen living outside of any government, and the New Gaian Empire collapsed when I was just a child. I never had any allegiance to it.”
“Perhaps,” said Roman, narrowing his good eye. “But you are still Gaian, yes?”
“Yes, I am. Will that be a problem?”
He declined to answer, watching her closely for any sign of discomfort or weakness in her resolve. Despite how small and fragile she seemed, Roman had to admit that she knew how to carry herself.
A glint on the back of her neck caught his eye, and he reached down with his prosthetic hand to touch it. In one swift, reflexive motion, she spun around and grabbed his hand, reaching up to jam her thumb into the crux of his elbow. When her fingers met his hardened durasteel prosthetic instead of an artery, she stiffened a little and let him go.
Roman chuckled. “For one so small, your reflexes are impressive.”
“Don’t touch me,” she said, her voice low and dangerous. It was evident she was talking about the neural implants in the back of her neck.
“I see you have one, too,” he said, turning and pointing to his own. “Where did you get it?”
No answer, but the coldness in the girl’s gaze had turned from indifference to anger.
Come, Roman transmitted directly to her mind. Tell me, where did you get it?
Her eyes widened. “How did you do that?”
“It was not difficult, considering how you had already broken onto our ship’s private network. Perhaps there is something you are looking for? Or is this how you demonstrate your skills?”
His questions finally broke through her impassiveness, if only for a fraction of a second. In that moment, however, he saw a surprising degree of vulnerability. Her pulse accelerated and her body heat began to increase, but she resumed the mask of indifference like a seasoned professional.
“Simply testing for weaknesses,” she said, taking a barely suppressed breath. “It’s my field, after all.”
Roman doubted she was telling the full truth, but for some reason he didn’t quite understand, he decided to let it go. Perhaps it was the momentary panic he’d seen when she’d realized he’d caught on to her. It made her seem more human, like a little girl trying desperately to fit into a world of cyborgs and soldiers. He could respect that kind of quality in a person—indeed, he couldn’t help but respect it.
“Why do you wish to join with us?”
“Your company was the first military force to win a direct engagement with the Hameji,” she said, falling into a practiced answer. “In addition, your team is small enough that your officers have a degree of flexibility that can’t be found on a Federation capital ship. For those reasons, I think I stand to gain more valuable experience from serving with you than with any other battle group.”
“And why do you wish to be part of this war?”
She hesitated for a fraction of a second before answering. “The Hameji destroyed my homeworld. Do I need another reason?”
“No,” he said, scratching his chin. “I suppose not.”
Though her voice lacked no conviction, her face was expressionless, her eyes strangely dull. If revenge was still her primary motivation, the last few years must have taken the edge off of it. Not that he couldn’t sympathize—indeed, the Tajji Flame was full of ex-revolutionaries who were little more than drifters now, living from job to job with nothing left to fight for. But to see it in someone so young, that was unusual.
“Have you ever killed a man?”
“Could you do it again, if necessary?”
The ease with which she answered the question made him raise an eyebrow. “Are you sure?”
“Why would I want to become a mercenary if I couldn’t?”
Good answer, Roman thought, chuckling to himself. The girl certainly wasn’t afraid to tell things like they were. There were a few more questions on his list, but he’d heard enough to form an opinion of her.
“Thank you,” he said, unfolding his arms. “That is all. Stay here.”
She nodded, the heat signature of her body betraying her anxiety. She wants this position, Roman thought to himself. She wants it very badly.
“Wait,” she said, stopping him as he palmed open the door. “I didn’t get your name.”
He turned slowly to face her, still sitting on the bench in the center of the empty room. “I am Master Sergeant Roman Andrei Krikoryan,” he said. “On Tajji Flame, I am second-in-command. Only our captain has served longer than I have. If she decides to hire you, you would do well to remember that.”
She nodded. “I will, Sergeant.”
* * * * *
Roman paced the empty bridge while the watery world below slowly turned in the forward window. The dark blue crescent rapidly waned as they orbited over to the night side of the planet. All across the surface of the hydrosphere, little specks of light glimmered against a soft turquoise glow—enclaves of human settlement floating in a sea of bio-luminescence.
The door hissed open, and Captain Danica Nova stepped through. Roman stood at attention and saluted.
“At ease, Roman. What do you think of the girl?”
He brought his hand to his chin, carefully considering his thoughts. “She is spirited,” he said. “Cold, but spirited. She has sharp reflexes, too.”
“Yes, and her cybernetics abilities are quite impressive. I think she has exactly the kind of skill set we need.”
Roman’s muscles tensed, seizing up a little where the metal prosthetics met his aging flesh. “But Captain,” he said, “you do realize that she is Gaian?”
“Of course, Sergeant. Do you think that will be a problem?”
He hesitated for a moment. “Perhaps yes, perhaps no.”
“Do you have any other objections besides her star of origin?”
“I understand your prejudices, Sergeant,” said Danica, looking him in the eye. “I used to share them. But as much as we both hated the New Gaian Empire, it’s nothing more than a phantom from the pages of history now. This girl is not our enemy—are you willing to accept that?”
“Of course,” he said, scowling at the implication that he might find it difficult to accept Danica’s orders.
“Then if you have no other objections, I’m ready to give her the position. In every way, she strikes me as exactly the kind of cybernetics officer we’ve been looking for.”
Roman nodded. “Yes, Captain,” he said. “I agree.”
Katsuichi drew a deep breath and gripped the edge of the balcony guardrail. Overhead, the sun shone bright in the hazy blue sky, its light reflecting off of the brilliant golden spires and ivory pagodas of the floating city of Fukai-Nami. From the palace balcony where he stood, he had a magnificent view of the deep blue world-ocean, ringing the horizon in all directions as far as he could see. In the distance, other floating cities glistened white in the shimmering haze, their cascading domes making them look like beautiful islands made of gold and crystal.
“Katsuichi-sama,” came a deep voice behind him. “Please, come quickly. Your father lies on his deathbed—any moment could be his last.”
Katsuichi sighed and stared down at the peaceful scene as if to let it wash over his troubled heart. “I know, Kenta,” he said. “I’ll be there shortly.”
“Very well, young master. But I implore you, do not keep His Imperial Highness waiting.”
His Imperial Highness. Soon, that title would be his. The thought filled his heart with a terror darker than the deepest abyss of the world ocean, where pressurized ice covered the sea-bottom and the warm light of New Rigel never shone. He took another deep breath and tried to quell his shaking hands. Did every emperor feel this way before assuming the responsibilities of the throne? Surely, if anyone but his bodyguard Kenta could see his fear, he would be filled with shame. And yet, even as he turned from the balcony to face the palace door, he did not feel that his fear was cowardly or unwarranted.
“Very well,” he said softly. “I’m ready.”
Kenta bowed deeply, revealing the ponytail at the back of his otherwise bald head. A tall, muscular man, he wore the traditional warrior robes with the sword of the samurai on his belt, along with the ivory-handled laser pistol of the palace guard. The densely interwoven tattoos covering the dark skin of his upper arms proclaimed his rank and status as one of the royal bodyguards.
The hallways of the palace seemed narrow and confining as Katsuichi approached his father’s chambers. Maid-servants in colorful skirts and tall, dark-skinned samurai stepped aside to let him through, bowing as he passed. His mind was so full, he hardly noticed them.
The Emperor’s private chambers were largely empty. Besides a couple of aunts kneeling on the wooden floor and the chief advisor standing against the paneled wall, the room was all but empty. The emperor himself lay in the center of the room on an ornately embroidered futon, blanket pulled up to his frail chest while the thin white hair of his beard trailed down from his bony chin. A medical droid stood off to one side, its insect-like arms retracted, while four recorder bots hovered silently in the corners of the room. Against the far wall, sweet-smelling smoke trailed from a bowl of traditional incense, while a holographic icon of the second Buddha shimmered in the flickering light of the candles immediately below.
“Katsu,” the emperor groaned. Katsuichi stepped forward and knelt by his father’s side, pressing his forehead against the floor in a sign of deep respect.
“Rise,” said his father. “There is … no time for formalities. Only a short while, and you will be … emperor.”
Katsuichi rose and knelt seiza-style on the floor, ankles beneath him with his hands resting in his lap. Kenta bowed with his forehead to the floor and sat similarly next to him.
“My time … has come,” said the emperor, his eyes barely open. “It is time … to name my successor.”
The chief advisor stepped forward and bowed, so that his back was almost horizontal to the floor. A deep and reverent silence filled the room as he slid open the glass case, retrieving the ancient sword within. Chills shot down Katsuichi’s neck, and goosebumps ran down his arms as the advisor set the sword in the dying emperor’s trembling hands.
“Katsuichi, come forward.”
Katsuichi took a deep breath and bowed again, his heart pounding in his chest. He sat up and gently took the sword with both hands, taking special care not to drop it. The gold-inlaid scabbard depicted a cluster of floating cities, their cascading domes protecting the gardens and pagodas of his people from the violence of the storms and waves. The lines of ocean gave way to the stars and planets, with the mighty starships that had carried his ancestors across the starry sea from Gaia Nova—and before that, Earth.
“Draw it, my son.”
Ever so carefully, Katsuichi pulled the sword out of its scabbard. It felt surprisingly light in his hand, the handle fitting so easily to his grip that it seemed like a natural extension of his body. He handed the scabbard to Kenta, who bowed deeply as he took it from him, and ran his finger lightly over the blade. The steel was a dark metallic gray, with an oily sheen over the ancient tempering that had given it its characteristic curve. The hilt was made of polished ivory and jade, and depicted the continents and landforms of Earth, now lost except to legend.
His father gave a satisfactory grunt and lay back against his pillow. “Let it be witnessed,” he said softly, “that when the sun sets on the Imperial city of Fukai-Nami … my son Katsuichi will be the Emperor of Shinihon.”
A thrill shot through Katsuichi’s body, from the back of his neck to the ends of his toes and fingers. His legs went numb, and it was all he could do to sheath the ancient heirloom sword and bow once again. No doubt, the bots in the corners of the room would broadcast holographic recordings of the ceremony across the entire planet, and to the half-dozen super-stations in orbit as well. As he drew himself up, he took care to appear confident and strong—not anxious and inadequate, as he felt.
“Thank you, Father,” he said. “I will do my best to rule as you have done.”
His father nodded and coughed. In his present state, he looked frail enough that a strong wind could carry him away. Strange to think that he had once bounced Katsuichi on his knee. Those days now felt like they had happened eons ago, in another lifetime.
“These are … troubled times,” his father groaned. “I wish I could have left you … under more peaceful circumstances. But we must all … rise to the duties required of us.”
Katsuichi nodded solemnly, pressing his chin against his chest. “I understand,” he said simply.
“The Hameji have conquered … many stars,” his father continued. “For nearly a generation, their specter has … overshadowed us. We owe a great … debt of honor … to the foreign-born warriors … who have defended us. You must repay this debt, Katsu. You must not let it … overshadow us any longer.”
“Yes, Father,” said Katsuichi, his hands trembling in his lap. “I will repay our debt to the off-worlders.”
“You must do … what I could not. Even though you should lose your life … it is but a small thing. We must never lose … our honor.”
“I will not disappoint you, Father. I promise.”
His father’s lips turned upward in a smile. “Your words warm my soul, little Katsu. I am proud … of you.”
Katsuichi nodded and bowed, as much out of respect as to hide the growing emotion in his eyes. He couldn’t afford to let his people see anything that could be taken as a sign of weakness in the boy that was to be their emperor.
* * * * *
Princess Hikaru sighed as her maid-servants untied the sash around her waist and helped her out of her royal kimono. Such a cumbersome piece of clothing—she loathed every second that she had to wear it. She relaxed a little as her servants helped her into her more casual palace robes, but considering how she was forbidden to go anywhere but her private quarters in them, they were almost as confining. It was all so frustrating, these rules of royal propriety that kept her like a bird in a gilded cage or a blossom in a jewel-studded flower-box.
An icon popped up in the upper-right corner of the holographic mirror, indicating a breaking news story. She tapped it once to bring it onto the main screen, just below the reflection of her face. HIS IMPERIAL HIGHNESS EMPEROR YAMAMOTO NAMES PRINCE KATSUICHI AS HIS SUCCESSOR, the headline read, complete with an image of her father handing off the royal sword to her subdued and reverent brother. She smiled a little to herself. The news was not unexpected, but it was still exciting to see her big brother finally rising to his place in the kingdom.
Rising in a way she never would.
“My lady,” said one of the maidservants, bowing deeply. “Katsuichi-sama is at the door and wishes to speak with you.”
“Thank you,” said Hikaru. “I’ll see him now.” She left the mirror, adjusting the sash on her own while her servants put her things away.
The wood-panel door slid silently open, revealing her brother, Katsuichi. His face was unusually pale, his expression somber, but he’d come alone and that was all that mattered.
“Katsu!” she said, giving him a smile and a quick hug. “Why so gloomy? Come in, come in!”
He followed her into her quarters and knelt down, seiza-style, on a cushion in front of the low-set table in the center. One of the maid-servants pulled a silver-plated thermos from a compartment in the wall and set it on a tray with two cups for tea. Hikaru nearly tripped over the girl as she took her place opposite her brother, but recovered her balance quickly.
“I heard the news,” she said, kneeling on the cushion across from him. “It’s so exciting—you must be thrilled.”
“Thrilled?” he said, frowning at her. “How can you be thrilled, when our father is dead?”
“Yes, well, that’s really sad of course,” she said, doing her best to swallow her enthusiasm. “But now that he’s gone, that makes you the Emperor of Shinihon and the Thousand Island-cities. How does it feel?”
Katsuichi glanced over his shoulder as the servant placed the tray on the table and left the room. He waited until she was gone before turning back to his sister.
“To be honest, it terrifies me.”
Hikaru threw back her head and laughed. “Terrifies you? What are you talking about? Stop being silly!”
“I’m not being silly,” said Katsu, looking her in the eye. “It’s a heavy burden—a huge responsibility. With the Hameji on the move again—”
“Oh, do we have to talk about the war right now?” she said, rolling her eyes. “All this talk of battles and campaigns can get so tedious.”
“Tedious or not, it’s important, Hika. The only reason we haven’t been conquered like every other system from here to Gaia Nova is because of the Federation. Our samurai are strong, but our starships are no match for the Hameji battle fleets.”
“Yes. Well, I’m sure that whatever it takes, you’ll find a way to protect us.”
Katsuichi bit his lip and nodded. “It’s just—it seems so difficult. I want to save our people, Hika. How can I do that when the odds are stacked so heavily against us?”
She took a sip of her tea and set the cup back down on the table. “By doing your best, Katsu. Why are you so afraid? This is your time! You’re the Emperor of all Shinihon—what is there not to be excited about?”
“The Hameji are not to be underestimated. Before they slagged Gaia Nova—”
“I don’t care. Father fought the Hameji too, didn’t he? And yet, things turned out all right for him. Why not for you too?”
He looked away and shrugged. Hikaru leaned forward with both hands on the table, her heart racing.
“Don’t be so uptight, Katsu. You can do this—I know you can. Back when we used to play tricks on the nurses as children, didn’t you tell me that you dreamed of being the most famous emperor someday? Well, right now, that dream is within your grasp—so seize it!”
“You really think I can?”
“Of course I do!”
Katsuichi looked up at her and smiled. His cheeks were no longer pale, his shoulders no longer slumped. Though he was still the brother she had known growing up, there was something changed about his manner—the difference between a boy and a man.
“You’re right, Hika-chan. I can do this—it’s what I was born to do.”
He finished off his tea and rose to his feet. “You should know that I’m leaving in a few hours on the Divine Wind to lead the royal fleet to the battlefront systems. The Hameji are on the move, and I’m not going to stand by and let the Federation fight all our battles for us.”
Hikaru frowned. “Leaving? But you only just became emperor.”
“Father’s advisors can run the domestic affairs better than I can. They’ve been doing it ever since he took ill, after all, and there haven’t been any problems so far. Besides, you’ll still be around to keep them in line.”
“But what about—”
“I’m sorry,” said Katsu, “but I’m not needed here. This war isn’t just about protecting our people—it’s about reclaiming our honor and paying our debt to the Federation. If I don’t do that now, when the Federation needs us most, I’ll be forever branded as a weak and shameful ruler. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” said Hikaru. She set down her teacup and rose to her feet to see him off.
“One last thing,” said Katsuichi, looking her straight in the eye. “No matter what happens, I want you to be safe. I couldn’t bear it if anything should happen to you—understand?”
Hikaru bit her lip and nodded.
“So before I leave, I need you to promise me that you will stay safe here in the palace. Will you promise me?”
She paused, unsure what to say. Her brother’s eyes pleaded with her, however, and she knew that she couldn’t refuse him. She took a deep breath and gave him a parting hug.
“Do your best, Katsu,” she whispered in his ear. “Make Father proud.”
“I will,” he said. “Take care of yourself, Hika.”
As the door slid shut behind him, Hikaru clenched her fists to keep her knees from trembling. Never before had the spotless paneled walls of the Imperial Palace felt so confining.
* * * * *
Katsuichi gripped his cushioned armrests and closed his eyes as the ferry shuttle sped through the upper atmosphere, scramjets roaring as they took him into orbit. The gee-forces pressed him back against his dark leather chair, but despite the loud noise, a deep sense of calm and relief washed through him. After so many months of anxious hand-wringing, events were finally in motion, with a clear set of objectives in sight.
Protect Shinihon. Repay the debt of honor to the Federation. Defeat the Hameji.
The rumbling died down as the shuttle rose through the last few layers of atmosphere. Katsuichi opened his eyes and turned his head to look out the porthole to his right. The clear blue sky had turned pitch black, while far below him the curvature of the planet bent the horizon into a glowing arc. White clouds speckled the endless ocean, with massive swirling storms churning toward the equator and seasonal ice floes visible in the far north.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said Kenta from the seat behind him. “If you ever start to miss it, young master, just think how it will feel to return victorious.”
“I will,” said Katsuichi, “but my heart will never stop yearning so long as I am gone.”
Kenta patted him on the shoulder with a wide, heavy hand. “Spoken like a proud son of Shinihon,” he said. “You truly are your father’s son.”
His words made Katsuichi smile. Outside, the view shifted as the shuttle banked to maneuver into its final orbit.
The royal fleet lay dead ahead, parked in battle formation at the planet’s main station in anticipation of his arrival. Katsuichi leaned forward in his chair and looked over the pilot’s shoulder to get a better view. The sleek cruisers were shaped like silver daggers, their hulls as smooth as glass. Each one had a pair of sublight engines that glowed a dark blue, the color of the world-ocean reflecting a clear sky at noon.
At the center of the fleet sat the much larger flagship Divine Wind, like a miniature island-city amid a school of silverfish. Unlike the others, it took a prolonged diamond shape, with a bulge in the center that resembled a series of cascading domes from his home. The bridge was at the top of the bulge, with windows stretching 360 degrees around it.
Katsuichi had been on board it only once, during a tour of the fleet in which he’d shadowed his father. He remembered the subtle luxury of the ship, with its arced bulkheads and multiple windows. Originally a royal pleasure yacht, it had been converted into a warship when he was just a boy. Now, it featured multiple redundant jump drives and power reactors, ten rapid-fire laser stars, twin plasma cannons, an arsenal of almost fifty tactical nuclear warheads, and six full squadrons of the latest generation of drone fighter craft. Every square meter, both inside and out, had been thoroughly converted to military use.
Katsuichi took a deep breath as they approached the Divine Wind. It was an impressive ship, he knew—but it was no match for a fully equipped Hameji battle cruiser.
“Beginning auto-docking procedure,” said the pilot. “We should arrive in the next ten minutes, your Highness.”
“Excellent,” said Katsuichi. He glanced out the side window again and watched as his world slowly spun away, revealing the blackness beyond. Whatever his fate held in store for him, he’d find it in the vast and lonely space between the stars.
* * * * *
Hikaru clenched her fists and stared out the narrow palace window at the rapidly fading sunset. The outlying clouds of a tropical storm system had blown in over the afternoon, and they now cast the sky in brilliant hues of purple, red, and orange. Shuttles glimmered in the dwindling sunlight around Fukai-Nami’s various hangars and landing pads, indicating that the island city was preparing to submerge, perhaps for as long as a week.
The realization only made her feel more powerless. She felt as if the city were a cage, dragging her down into a watery grave—or worse, drowning her in an endless procession of social events and royal obligations. It was more than just a pretty flower-box—it was a prison, and she’d been a prisoner since birth.
“Milady?” came a timid voice behind her. She turned and saw two of her maidservants: one of them with a bath towel, the other carrying a set of silk pajamas.
Hikaru sighed heavily. “Yes?”
“Milady, the bath is ready.”
“I’m coming, I’m coming.”
She followed them to the door and stopped. A crazy idea flashed into her mind, making her heart skip a beat. The servant with the towel was just about her height, with a similar face. She moved to slide the door open, but Hikaru grabbed her by the wrist before she could.
“Wait,” she commanded. “Your hair, your figure—what’s your name?”
“Ch-Chizuko,” the girl stuttered. Her eyes grew frightened, but Hikaru ignored that.
“You look just like me, Chizuko,” she said. “Here, take off your clothes.”
“T-take them off? Milady, I—”
“You heard me,” said Hikaru, slipping her palace robes up over her head. “Take them off and put these on. And you—yes, you—help her.”
The two girls did their best to comply with her strange orders. As the shorter one helped Chizuko out of her apron, Hikaru all but tore it off, making the poor maidservant squeal. “Your skirt,” said Hikaru. “Yes—everything but the undergarments. Hurry!”
Chizuko handed off her clothes and hugged her chest, unsure whether to put on her mistress’s royal robes. For her part, Hikaru wasted no time slipping into the maidservants’ uniform. To her delight, it fit her perfectly.
“Well, aren’t you going to put my clothes on?” she said, staring at the unresponsive girls. “Come on—what are you waiting for?”
“B-but milady,” said Chizuko, trembling. “Your clothes, I-I am just a servant.”
“I don’t care. Put them on now! That’s an order!”
Chizuko seemed on the verge of tears, but she complied, stepping into the flowery silk pajamas. The resemblance wasn’t perfect, but with the glowlamps dimmed for the night, no one would know the difference.
“Good, good,” said Hikaru, putting her hand to her chin. “This will do nicely.”
“N-nicely? Milady, what do you mean?”
“I’m leaving the palace,” she said, “and I need someone to take my place. It’s only for a little while,” she added, seeing the reaction on her servant’s face. “I’ll be back.”
“You’re running away?”
She nodded absent-mindedly as she sifted through a wall compartment, slipping a wrist console and a handful of cash chips into her apron pocket. “I’ll need your IDs and passport datachips—give them to me.” The maid-servants hesitated at first, but their strict obedience conditioning soon pushed them to comply.
“I don’t want either of you ratting me out to the palace guard,” said Hikaru as she took the documents from their trembling hands. “Understand? Don’t tell them that I’ve gone.”
The two girls wrapped their arms around each other and began to cry. “Please, Milady,” said Chizuko. “Please don’t make us do this. We’re too young to die!”
Hikaru frowned in confusion, until she realized that honor demanded that her servants commit ritual suicide if they failed to obey a direct command. She rolled her eyes and waved her hand in the air.
“Don’t be silly—when they find out that I’ve gone, you can tell them that I made you do it. But don’t go running to them as soon as I leave, understand?”
The younger girl was sobbing too hard to respond, but Chizuko wiped her tears with a shaky hand and nodded.
“Good,” said Hikaru, tying her hair back. “Now, could one of you show me to the servants’ entrance?”
Chizuko opened the door and wordlessly showed her around the back of the wood-paneled hallway to the butler’s pantry, where a door led down a decidedly more utilitarian corridor. Hikaru nodded and clapped a hand on the girl’s shoulder.
“Thanks,” she said. “Now, try not to get yourselves caught right away.”
Without another word, Hikaru turned and stepped briskly through the doorway, down the forbidden corridor. Adrenaline surged through her body, from her heart to the tips of her fingers. Her brother’s words came to her, the promise she’d made to stay at the palace, and for an instant, a pang of doubt almost pulled her back.
He doesn’t understand, she decided, quickening her step. No one understands. Besides, she wasn’t going to be gone forever. Just long enough to get out of the palace and breathe some fresh air—long enough to see what the universe was like outside the palace. She would be back, of course. She owed her brother that much.
In the meantime, though, her skin tingled at the prospect of an adventure.
Abaqa groaned as he buried his head in his hands. “Why do I have to learn this stuff, Mom?” he whined. “None of the other princes ever bother with this planetborn stuff. Why should I?”
“Because it’s important, dear,” said Mother Sholpan, shaking her finger at him. “If you’re going to rule the stars one day, you need to know the language of your subjects. It won’t get any easier when you’re older, believe me. Now, repeat after me …”
Abaqa groaned again, louder this time. “But Mo-om!”
It wasn’t any use, of course—she was determined to see him through to the end of the lesson. Eventually, he gave up his tantrum and decided it would be easier to just comply. It wasn’t that Gaian was a particularly hard language; he just didn’t see the point of learning it. After all, his father always said that the weak should learn the ways of the strong. But his mother seemed to think otherwise, and since Father was off campaigning right now, he had no choice but to obey.
“When will I be able to fight alongside Father?” he asked as the language lesson came to a close.
“When you’re old enough to command your own ship,” she said, switching off the holographic display embedded in the surface of the table. “But remember: War isn’t the only honorable way to win a name for yourself. If you can rule your people with justice and benevolence, it will work much more to your credit in the long run.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Abaqa, rolling his eyes. “Father says that when I can pilot a gunboat, I should join one of my brother’s fleets. I just beat the last training mission in the simulator—I think I’m ready.”
Sholpan’s cheeks paled. “Is that so?”
“Yeah. But don’t worry, Mom—I can take care of myself. After all, Father was younger than me when he flew his first gunboat.”
“Indeed,” she said, her voice subdued.
“Jahan already told me that he wants to sign me on with his war fleet. He’s spent the last few days mobilizing for the new campaign, and—”
Without warning, his mother wrapped her arms around him in a tight embrace. He started to protest, until he noticed the tears on her cheeks. With a strange mixture of emotions in his heart, he put his arms around her as well.
“I love you, son. You mean everything to me.”
“I understand, Mother.”
“No, you don’t, Abie. You really don’t.”
Even though his cheeks grew warm at her comment, something told him it would be better not to argue. He let her go and left the room without saying another word.
* * * * *
Abaqa stepped through the airlock into the luxuriously furnished shuttle. The authentic wood panels on the floor and walls smelled fresh and earthy, a tribute from the planetborn his father had conquered. He ran his fingers along the polished surface and absent-mindedly traced the light-brown grain.
The door at the end of the corridor hissed open, and his half-brother Prince Jahan stepped out. A barrel-chested young man with a round face and swarthy complexion, he grinned the moment their eyes met and spread out his arms to give Abaqa a warm embrace.
“Abie, Brother! How are you? It’s been too long!”
“And too long from you, Jahan,” said Abaqa, patting his brother on the back. “How goes the battle?”
“Very well, very well. You’ve heard about the new campaign, haven’t you?”
Abaqa stepped back and nodded. “Yes, yes, of course. Will you let me join you?”
Jahan laughed. “You’re young—but that’s only a temporary handicap. Come, let’s talk about it.”
He palmed open the door to the cabin and led Abaqa inside. Wide windows covered the far wall from floor to ceiling, offering a magnificent view of the rapidly waning crescent of Gaia Nova. Except for a few minor settlements around the poles, the night side of the planet was almost pitch black—a far cry from the thriving dome cities his mother had told him about from the days before the Pax Hameji. The soft yellow glowlamps provided more than enough illumination to the room, however, and almost a dozen couches and reclining chairs offered them plenty of places to sit. An arabesque mosaic table from Auriga Nova graced the center of the room, sitting on an intricately patterned rug, probably from the Tajjur system. Above the door, a pair of crossed swords in golden scabbards hung over a chunk of unrefined diamond from Tenguri, the holiest star in all of Hameji space. Abaqa’s eyes widened in surprise at all the furnishings—even the Generals didn’t decorate their shuttles so elaborately.
“You’ve outdone yourself,” said Abaqa, turning around slowly as he admired the cabin. “If you decorate your shuttles this well, I can’t imagine what your flagship must be like.”
Jahan threw back his head and laughed. “The spoils of war, my brother. Everything you see here I either won myself or traded for with goods I’d won in battle. Once Tagatai’s new campaign gets under way, it won’t be long before the last remnants of the planetborn have been subdued. I don’t know how we’ll win honor and glory after that, but until then, a young warrior can get very rich, indeed.”
Abaqa nodded and shifted nervously from foot to foot. “I hope we don’t subdue them too quickly,” he muttered. “Not before I’ve had a chance to make a name for myself.”
Jahan chuckled. “I wouldn’t worry, Brother. There’s still plenty of time before that cycle comes. Here, let me show you something.”
He tapped a key on his wrist console and a door opened on the far side of the cabin. Abaqa turned and froze where he stood. A gorgeous obsidian-haired slave girl stood in the doorway, dressed in a transparent two-piece dress. Hot blood surged between his legs—the girl was like something out of a wet dream. Her breasts were round and full, her shapely hips accentuated by a girdle that seemed almost ready to fall off. She wore a jewel-studded titanium collar with thin golden chains that ran down to the shackles on her wrists.
“Well,” said Jahan, taking the slave girl by her chains and bringing her over to his couch. “What do you think?”
“Sh-she’s beautiful. Where did you get her?”
“From the last campaign in the Oriana Cluster,” said Jahan. He pulled back on her arms, making her arch her back and thrust out her chest. “Want some time alone with her? Go ahead—I don’t mind.”
Abaqa hesitated, his cheeks turning red. My mother used to be a slave girl like this, he thought to himself. The realization was like a splash of cold water to his face.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe later.”
Jahan shrugged. “Suit yourself.” He released the girl, and she nearly fell forward. Only then did Abaqa notice that her ribs were starting to show through her stomach, and her chest and shoulders were severely bruised. From the dull look in her eyes, this treatment must have been going on for some time. He wondered if it was Jahan who treated her this way, or his eunuchs. He didn’t bother to ask, though—she was only planetborn.
“When you’ve got a starship of your own,” said Jahan, “you’ll be able to keep as many slaves like this as you want.” He motioned to the floor by his feet, and she laid down on her side without so much as a word.
“Does she speak?”
“Don’t know—I’ve never tried talking with her.”
Abaqa nodded and thought of his mother again. As a slave, she had learned her father’s language and convinced him that she would make a worthy wife. Her remarkable rise from concubine to queen was famous throughout the fleets. But this slave girl was so dull and unresponsive, it was clear that she wouldn’t go nearly as far.
That’s because she’s planetborn, he told himself. Not like my mother.
“Our father is leaving for Tajjur to take care of some business there,” said Jahan as he reached into a wall compartment and pulled out a hookah. “He’s left Gazan in charge of his fleet, and Gazan wants to move out as soon as possible.”
“Gazan,” Abaqa muttered, shaking his head. Jahan set the hookah on the table and lit the coals at the base with a utility device on his belt. He took a puff from the end of one of the hoses, and thin wisps of sweet-smelling smoke began to rise from the device.
“That’s why I wanted to talk with you before officially signing you on with my fleet,” Jahan continued. “You’ll only answer to me, of course, but I must answer to Gazan. If I don’t follow his orders directly, it could spark a feud.”
Abaqa nodded, stealing another glance at the beautiful slave girl. She stared demurely at the floor, as if afraid to meet his gaze.
“Well, what’s the worst that can happen? I’m sure Gazan doesn’t see me as a rival.”
“No,” said Jahan, “but there aren’t any kind feelings between him and your mother, I can tell you that. When he finds out that you’re under his command, he might order me to send you on a solitary recon mission, deep into enemy space. It could be dangerous.”
Abaqa scowled and unhooked the second hose from the hookah. “Is that what you’re worried about? That I won’t be able to take care of myself?”
“Space battles aren’t as exciting as you think,” said Jahan, frowning as he puffed the strawberry-scented tobacco. “In fact, they can be downright harrowing. You won’t win any glory by dying on your first mission.”
“I can take care of myself just fine.”
“I’m sure you can, but I’m not going to let you join my fleet without doing my best to look out for you. I owe your mother as much.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Abaqa, rolling his eyes. “I’ve passed all the training missions on the sims, and I’m more than old enough to see my first battle. Are you going to let me fly with you or not?”
“I never said anything about turning you down. If you still want to be a part of my fleet, I’ll be happy to have you fly under my command.”
“Excellent! When do we leave?”
Jahan took another puff of the hookah, as if thoroughly detached from the outside universe. “Not long. If all goes well, we’ll take the starlane to the front and report to Gazan in less than five sleep cycles. I’m sure he’ll have an assignment for us—Tagatai’s flagship is already on the move.”
“Great,” said Abaqa. “I’ll go get ready, then.”
“So soon? Don’t you want to enjoy some entertainment first?”
Jahan grinned meaningfully and began to fondle the slave girl’s breasts. She gasped a little as he pulled off the top half of her dress, but made no move to resist.
“Thanks,” he said, “but not right now.”
As he walked out the door, the sound of the girl’s moaning made his heart skip a beat. Part of him wanted to turn around and go back, but he knew it would break his mother’s heart.
* * * * *
“I can’t let you go, Abie. This is a very bad idea.”
Abaqa threw up his hands and clucked his tongue in protest. “What do you mean, you can’t let me go? Jahan’s leaving soon, and I told him I’d go with him! Do you want to make me into a liar?”
His mother turned away from him and leaned against the wall, burying her head in her hands. The ever-present hum of the station’s ventilation system broke the heavy silence. Abaqa stood with his hands placed defiantly on his hips, but inwardly he wished he could give his mother a hug.
“I’m of age now, you know,” he heard himself say. “I don’t need your permission to go into battle. It’s my right.”
“Think very carefully about what you’re doing, Abie,” said his mother, her voice low and hoarse. “If you leave now, you’ll be at Gazan’s mercy. He may be your half-brother, but he’s still a dangerous man and would rather see you die in battle than raise a fleet of your own to rival his.”
“I know, Mother. Jahan said he’d do his best to protect me.”
His mother turned to face him, her reddened eyes now cold. “Jahan isn’t going to protect you, Abie—no one is. He would just as well see you out of the picture as Gazan.”
“That’s not true!” Abaqa protested, clenching his fists. “Jahan is a friend, and always has been. I can trust him!”
“No you can’t,” said Sholpan. “If you want to live long enough to make a name for yourself, that’s the first thing you need to learn. Everyone in your father’s fleet—and everyone in Tagatai’s fleet too, for that matter—is only out for themselves. That’s the way it’s always been.”
Abaqa shifted nervously on his feet, not sure what to say. He opened his mouth to protest, but the deadly expression on his mother’s face silenced him.
“These are dangerous times for us,” she continued. “Tagatai may lead the Hameji for now, but he’s got plenty of rivals who would love to see him fall. The only reason he’s launched this campaign is to unite us while he consolidates his gains. But in his arrogance, he doesn’t realize how weak he’s become—how weak all of the Hameji have become.”
“Weak? What are you talking about?”
His mother sighed. “Abie, you’re too young to understand any of this. You’re just a boy. If you want to survive in the world of men, stay low and don’t let yourself get burned.”
“I am not just a boy!” he said, blood rising to his cheeks. “I’m old enough to pilot a gunboat, aren’t I? Besides, if I don’t leave with Jahan now, I might never get a chance to prove myself.”
“Are you sure?” his mother asked, narrowing her eyes. “What if Tagatai loses—what if the planetborn win?”
The question was so ludicrous that Abaqa couldn’t help but laugh. “What kind of idle woman-talk is that? The planetborn are soft and weak—we’ve never lost a battle against them, much less a campaign.”
“That’s not true.”
Abaqa snorted and turned his back to her. “Well, whether or not that’s true, I’m going and you can’t stop me.”
He made as if to leave, but before he could get to the door, his mother stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “Wait,” she said softly. “If you’re going to go, at least give me a chance to say goodbye.”
She put her arms around him, shoulders trembling a little from her quiet sobs. Abaqa’s pride and anger melted almost instantly, and he returned her embrace.
“Don’t worry about me,” he said. “I’ll make you proud.”
“Remember what I’ve taught you,” she whispered. “Honor and glory are not the only virtues in this universe.”
“And remember your language lessons.”
He groaned, but in a good-natured way this time. As he let go of her and stepped back, he couldn’t help but suppress a smile.
“Goodbye,” she said. “Take care of yourself. You are my everything.”
“I will, Mother. And when you see me again, I’ll be a man.”
“It takes more than a war to make a man.”
“Whatever.” Then, cheeks blushing, “I love you, Mom.”
He turned and left quickly, afraid that tears would soon fill his eyes. He couldn’t afford to show any sign of weakness—not if he was going to make a name for himself.
The heavy, wet wind blasted Rina Al-Najmi’s face as she sped across the face of New Rigel V’s boiling world-ocean. The skimmer hummed between her legs, its tiny engine pushed to the limit. Overhead, massive thunderheads gathered toward the dark storm nexus on the horizon, a hurricane the size of a small continent. Still, she flew on, climbing the waves as if they were rolling sand dunes and catching a great deal of air as she crested each one.
Her mind pulsated with the desire to kill. Like the storm on the horizon, it threatened to consume her. She’d learned to hide it well enough in public, but alone, she could not ignore it. How many lives had she taken already? Faces flashed across her mind, indistinct memories that had long faded into half-remembered images.
If she were anyone else, their deaths would probably haunt her—and perhaps they did, in a mild sort of way. But not enough to prevent her from killing again.
The waves were more than twenty meters tall now, cresting with massive whitecaps that filled the air with spray. Lightning struck in the distance as she struggled to climb the next one, thunder mingling with the whine of the skimmer’s engine as she cleared the top. For a thrilling moment, her stomach fell out from under her, and the sheer drop down the other side made her feel as if she were falling to her death. But then, the skimmer’s aqua-repulsors caught, and the craft slammed down with a great splash before lifting her again to a hover.
Most people would tell her it was suicide to be out here in such conditions. Indeed, the one-person skimmer wasn’t designed to fly more than kilometer or two from the large cities. There was something about being alone, though, that she wouldn’t have given up for anything. Even as the storm threatened to destroy her little craft, the solitude calmed her, bringing her back to a simpler time, and a better life.
A life that had quite literally been shattered.
The engine groaned with effort as the face of the next wave became increasingly vertical. Lightning struck the top of the crest, illuminating the water with a brief pulse of green electric light. The thunderous crack seemed to split the heavens, heralding the torrential downpour that pelted the boiling surface and soaked her within seconds. The skin-suit protected her from the worst of it. Still, she couldn’t afford to travel across the surface much longer. As she crested the monstrous wave, she leaned forward and flicked a switch on her handlebar, diving through the boiling surf into the heart of the sea.
The aqua-repulsors created a small pocket of air that followed the skimmer through the water, a little bubble that enclosed her in the midst of the deep. The engine idled as the momentum of her fall took her down, far past the storm-tossed surface of the hydrosphere where things were much calmer. She slowed, and a pair of rods extended from the back of the vehicle into the water behind her: propellers to move her forward. She flicked on the holographic display between the handlebars and brought the skimmer to bear. According to the map, her destination was only five kilometers away: one of the submerged island-cities of New Rigel V.
Within the shimmering bubble of air, the silence was like a tomb, reflecting the inner recesses of her heart. How far beneath her did the world-ocean descend? In some places, as much as a hundred and fifty kilometers. In those unfathomable depths, neither the light of the sun nor the rage of the storm troubled the cold, shifting waters. Humans were never meant to go there, yet Rina couldn’t help but wish that she could see it.
Not today, though. An unspoken urge called her forward, and like night seeking day she was bound to follow.
The island-city first appeared as an indistinct glow, shining faintly through the wall of rippling water in front of her. She slowed as she approached, coming at it from beneath. When the cross-hairs on her display aligned and the soft yellow glow shone almost directly above her, she retracted the propeller rods and eased back on the handlebars, letting the aqua-repulsors carry her upward.
She surfaced in a large, cavernous hall, with white LEDs running along the vaulted brick ceiling. A loading crane stood off in one corner, its claws retracted, while several barges sat moored in neat little pens on the far side.
As she had expected, the bay was empty. There was nothing to unload while the city was in the storm, and since security had never before been a problem, there were no guards at the docks. There were still the cameras, of course, but those could always be scrambled.
Moving quickly, Rina steered the skimmer over a nearby platform and powered it down, parking it behind a large loading crane. She considered collapsing it and hiding it somewhere, but decided against it. She might need the quick getaway, and if anyone chanced upon it, they’d probably think it belonged to one of the workers.
Leaving the skimmer behind, she pulled the hood of the skin-suit over her face and swiftly climbed the nearest access ladder to a hatch partway up the wall, leading into a maintenance shaft.
Once inside, the familiarity of the cramped, narrow space made her relax. Using the datalink implant in her head, she accessed the main city map and found the surest back-channel route to her target. With luck, no one would ever know that she had been here.
* * * * *
Katsuichi stepped briskly into the war room at the heart of Shinihon’s main station. Once a conference hall for the corporation that operated the shipyards, it had been temporarily appropriated by the Rigelan Imperial Navy as the headquarters for their planetary defenses. The walls were covered with display screens, while a holographic projector hung from the center of the ceiling. Around the edge of the table, almost a dozen high-ranking military officers in crisp white uniforms rose to greet him.
“Your Imperial Highness,” they said, bowing respectfully as he walked to his seat. Behind him, Kenta assumed his place against the wall. The door to the room hissed shut.
Katsuichi took a moment to look into the faces of his men. Most of them were about twenty or thirty standard years older than him, with graying hair and furrowed brows. The youngest officer had almost a dozen medals fastened to his dress uniform, while the oldest had more than twenty.
In one smooth motion, he took his seat. “Men,” he said, nodding to them. Without saying a word, they sat down as well.
“Admiral Uematsu,” said Katsuichi, turning to a tall, broad-shouldered man on his right, the senior-most officer of those present. “What is the current disposition of our forces?”
“Sir,” said the old admiral, rising to his feet. “All of our warships within the Rigelan system have gathered to the Shinihon main orbital, as requested by your father. Besides the Divine Wind, our fleet consists of four Katana-class cruisers: the Mikawa, the Roppongi, the Hirohito, and the Masamune; four Wakizashi-class destroyers: the Miyamoto, the Akiba, the Ginza, and the Sagami; thirty-seven gunboats of various Federation classes, twenty-two transports, and more than three hundred squadrons of drone fighters. Commander Hideyoshi, who assumed command of the Kurefune following Admiral Genjiro’s assassination, was unable to respond to the summons and has moved his fleet into the Gamma Sector for joint maneuvers with the Federation. His strike force consists of the Kurefune, two Wakizashi-class destroyers: the Akira and the Yamato; sixteen gunboats, and about fifty squadrons of drone fighters.”
Katsuichi nodded. “Thank you, Admiral. And the current disposition of the Federation?”
A middle-aged officer rose to his left and bowed. “Scattered at best, sir. Admiral Genjiro was the highest ranking officer within the Federation, and the only one able to unite the various factions. The various systems to the galactic south have fallen into their typical squabbling, and High Command has been unable to replace him. This does not mean that co-ordination is impossible, of course, but the individual fleet commanders do have considerable independence, which means that we have no unifying strategy right now.”
A low grumble rose around the room. One of the younger commanders leaned forward.
“The Federation may be disunited, but our strategy remains clear. Tagatai will doubtless advance through the New Velan Rift; any attempt to bypass the nebulae would put his forces out for months. Admiral Genjiro foresaw this—surely the fleet commanders must see the importance of controlling the rift’s entrance.”
“With all due respect, Commander Ishihara,” said an old, wizened man across the table, “you simply do not understand the dynamics of the situation. No one has ever defeated a Hameji war-fleet in open battle. Not the Federation, not the Gaian Imperial Navy—no one.”
“Then we shall be the first to win that honor,” said Commander Ishihara. “Come—let’s go to the head of the rift and smash the Hameji with a bold counter-attack!”
Katsuichi took a deep breath, his head already spinning with the burden of command. “You are forgetting one thing, Commander,” he said. “We are not going to war just to win honor, but to defend our homeworld from destruction. You all remember what the Hameji did when they took Gaia Nova.”
A somber hush fell across the room. Katsuichi looked each of his men in the eye.
“Let us make sure it does not happen here.”
“If I may be so bold, sir,” said a round-faced commander on the far end of the table. “As the situation now stands, our forces would do more good at the front than they would back here. If the Hameji push through the rift to New Vela, it would be impossible to prevent them from attacking Shinihon itself.”
“Commander Sakaguchi is right,” said another. “If we can control at least a portion of the rift, the Hameji won’t risk a full-scale advance. So long as we can threaten to cut them off in their rear, we can choose the time and place of the next engagement.”
Katsuichi nodded, while a murmur of both agreement and dissent rose up around the edges of the table. “All good points,” he said. “It’s certainly in the best interest of our people to take the fight to the Hameji, and not wait idly for them to bring it to us.”
Admiral Uematsu took a deep breath and leaned forward. “Your Highness,” he said, “I hope you understand what you’re going up against. Our Katana-class cruisers are barely four hundred meters long—the Hameji capital ships average more than a kilometer. The Mikawa is equipped with four projectile missile launchers, six plasma cannons, twelve laser-stars, fifty tactical nukes, and five wings of drone fighters. The smallest Hameji frigate boasts an arsenal at least twice that.”
“Then what we lack in armament,” said Commander Ishihara, “we’ll more than make up for in speed and maneuverability.”
“At best, that will be difficult,” said Uematsu. “A typical Hameji battleship has at least four times the reactor capacity of the largest Federation capital ships. A full suite of tactical FTL drives ensures that they can overwhelm their targets from the periphery of the battle by launching warheads through jumpspace. Only rarely do they resort to a full-scale frontal assault—their preferred tactic is to co-ordinate a nuclear fusillade and wipe out their enemies in one swift blow.”
Katsuichi nodded, breathing in sharply through his teeth. Was this how Admiral Genjiro had felt when he’d learned of the Hameji advance? No one has ever defeated a Hameji war-fleet in open battle.
“I am sure it will be difficult,” he said at length. “However, I also have full faith in the capabilities and the spirit of our men.”
“Sir,” said each of the commanders, nodding in respect. Their faces were solemn, yet the energy in the room was palpable.
“It seems that the best way to defend our people is to hold to Admiral Genjiro’s strategy and join with the Federation forces at the front. First, we’ll rendezvous with Commander Hideyoshi. I’m sure he has better intelligence than we do on the current situation in Gamma Sector. Once that is complete, we’ll make the assessment whether to advance or fall back.”
“Very well, sir,” said Admiral Uematsu. “Shall we leave any of our forces behind to guard Shinihon?”
Katsuichi surveyed his men. To his great satisfaction, they watched him with anxious eyes, as if afraid of being asked to remain behind while their colleagues had the honor of fighting alongside their emperor.
“No,” he said. “Our forces will do no good back here. If we are to win this war, we must commit ourselves wholeheartedly, no matter how precarious the course.”
“Sir!” said Commander Ishihara, joining with several of the others in an eager salute. “We will follow you to the gates of Hell itself!”
“Then ready the fleet,” said Katsuichi. “Let us depart for the rift at once.”
* * * * *
Rina crawled on her knees and elbows through the narrow air ducts. Her skin-suit, which had already dried out from the storm, padded her arms and legs and kept her from making any noticeable noise. She wasn’t in a hurry—she was never in a hurry. Patience was the skill that separated hit men and thugs from highly trained, highly disciplined assassins.
Up ahead lay a branch point, where the bright infrared glow told her she’d find an opening. Sure enough, the duct bent downward to an air vent, opening up to a courtyard below. A cluster of leaves off to one side told her that the drop to the floor was fairly substantial—at least eight or ten meters. Still, the lack of any noise told her it was safe to climb down.
Moving swiftly, she unscrewed the cover to the air vent and slid it aside. She then reached to the smooth surface of the vaulted courtyard ceiling and attached a clear suction cup, with a cable extending to the belt at her waist. In one smooth motion, she swung herself out so that she was dangling from the ceiling. After righting herself, she reached up and pulled the cover back over the vent. To a casual observer, it would appear exactly as it had before.
As she lowered herself soundlessly to the floor, she couldn’t help but notice the rust-red wall tiles and Terra-cotta bricks lining the walkway. The trees weren’t the young oaks or maples that she was expecting, but short, ancient olive trees, their trunks thick and knotted with age. An arched patio wrapped around the outside wall, with a small pool in the center. A small school of goldfish showed up on the infrared as dark blue dots drifting aimlessly beneath the surface.
After retrieving her cord and securing it to her belt, Rina pulled up the hood of her skin-suit and surveyed the place with her natural eyes. Glowlamps set in niches between the arches illuminated the place with a soft light that the skylights could not provide, now that the city was submerged. The smell of dill and sage met her nose, while grapes dangled from vines covering a small grotto on the other side. It all felt wonderfully peaceful, an oasis in the midst of a dark and violent universe.
The sound of approaching footsteps snapped her back to the present, and she slipped behind one of the olive trees.
As she crouched in the shadows, images came to her—memories of tight, dark spaces and long waits mixed with sweat and adrenaline. Her fingers itched for the feel of a trigger, or the weight of a knife in her hand. The smell of fresh blood came back readily to her, as if she had just made another kill.
She bit her lip and shook her head, trying to drive the deadly thoughts from her mind. She couldn’t afford the distraction—not if she was going to find what she came for. Any second now—
“Hold on, Asa! Stay close to mommy!”
The familiarity of the woman’s voice pierced Rina’s heart like a knife. The language was not Gaian, Tajji, or Rigelan, but a dialect much more familiar—one that she hadn’t heard since she was a little girl. Her heart skipped a beat, and all other thoughts immediately cleared from her mind.
The footsteps grew louder, until a small boy came stumbling into the courtyard. He was followed by a girl, about six or seven standard years old by the look of it, and a middle-aged couple walking hand in hand. A lump of barely suppressed emotion rose in Rina’s throat.
Mira and Jalil.
Her adult sister wore a long, blue dress and a colorful headscarf, but her face was uncovered so that Rina could see her features clearly. She’d aged over the past several years, but with her bright, honest smile and gorgeous hazel eyes, she still seemed full of life. She smiled at her husband Jalil, and he responded by leaning over and spontaneously kissing her cheek. The gesture filled Rina with a bittersweet longing, and she gripped the knotted bark of the tree that was her hiding place.
“How is Mother doing?” Mira asked as she and Jalil sat down on a bench beneath the ripening grape vines.
“Getting older, I’m afraid,” said Jalil. He sighed. “She misses Tiera something terrible, you know. I’m afraid it will put her in her grave a few years early.”
“Still no word from Tiera, then?”
“No. Though God-willing, that will soon change.”
Rina’s lower lip trembled, and her arms began to shake. Out in the courtyard, the boy and girl squatted over the pool, staring with childlike fascination at the goldfish that swam below the surface.
“Issa seems to be doing well, at least,” said Mira. “I heard from his teachers that he loves his art classes, and can’t stop drawing. I wonder if he got that from your side or mine?”
Jalil shrugged. “That reminds me—Aliyah asked for permission to start working on her pilot’s license. She seemed afraid to ask, but I could tell she’s determined. I told her I’d have to talk with you first.”
Mira laughed. “That girl—she’s just like her aunt! I remember how Rina used to stick her head out the caravaneer window and lean into the wind when we were both little girls. She never could get enough of the wide open air on those long rides. It’s a pity she was never old enough to drive.”
A somber silence fell on them both, made all the worse by the darkness of the storm overhead. Rina took a long, sharp breath, and the edges of her vision blurred as if she were staring through a darkened tunnel.
“I wonder where she is right now,” said Mira, her voice subdued. “The way she ran away—I just wish—”
“You did all you could,” said Jalil, putting his arm around her. “There was nothing we could have done to stop her.”
Mira smiled sadly and nodded. “She always did take it hard, the way we lost the others. I think it hurt her a lot worse than it hurt me.”
“It hurt all of us. We did our best to make a new home for her—it’s a wonder she stayed with us for as long as she did.”
“Perhaps,” said Mira, looking off in the distance. “But I still miss her.”
Jalil leaned over and wiped a tear from her eye. “So do I,” he said softly. “So do I.”
Rina’s lip quivered, and her eyes burned until she could no longer hold back the tears. Her shoulders shook, but she swallowed her sobs, not wanting to betray herself. Someday, perhaps, she would be able to step out of the shadows and return to her family—but today was not that day.
As if in confirmation, the datalink implants flashed a message across the bottom of her vision, telling her that she needed to report. She bit her lip and pressed a finger to her temple, putting the message on standby. She was too deep in the field to safely contact her superiors, but getting out wouldn’t be too hard.
Keeping to the shadows, she crept backward into the cloistered patio where the others couldn’t see her. Before leaving, she risked one quick glance back over her shoulder. Mira and Jalil talked in hushed tones on the bench, still holding hands in a picture of love and closeness. Their children shrieked, and Rina hastily slipped through the doorway into the darkened corridor.
Katsuichi closed his eyes and took a deep, controlled breath. He sat back on his ankles and focused on an image of a water-lily, like those that skirted the edge of the reflecting pool at the Imperial palace. At first, his troubled thoughts rebelled, pulling him away to the worries and cares that had troubled him ever since his father had named him emperor. By controlling his breath and relaxing his muscles, though, he purged his body of stress and cleared his mind from troubled thoughts. In his mind, there was only the lily, with its many-petaled flowers and broad round leaves, floating on water as smooth and clear as glass.
The hiss of a door entered his awareness, as if from a distant memory. Though he could have let it go and continued in his meditative state, his new duties would not allow that. Taking a deep breath, he opened his eyes and saw Kenta, kneeling seiza-style across from him with his hands in his lap.
Katsuichi did not greet him, but turned to the image of his late father, bowed with his forehead pressed to the floor, and rose to prepare some tea. That was one of the things about starship command that he relished: no room for servants or other extraneous luxuries. Here, unlike in the palace, he shared a degree of equality with his men that was impossible to replicate elsewhere. He set the tray on the table and poured a cup for Kenta from the decorative thermos before taking his seat. When he was finished, Kenta bowed courteously and poured a cup for him.
“Katsuichi-sama,” said Kenta, gently returning the thermos to the tray. “I trust that your adjustment to the Divine Wind has gone well?”
“Very well,” said Katsu, taking a sip of his tea. “Our rendezvous with Commander Hideyoshi has put everyone in good spirits. Morale is high, and our officers are eager to see action. I observed their exercises just this morning shift.”
Kenta nodded, the edges of his mouth turning upward in the barest hint of a smile. “You seem to be doing quite well.”
“I hope so, Kenta. Our men are strong and brave, but without the right kind of leader, I fear we will break apart like an ice floe in a springtime eddy.”
“Indeed. That is why I wish to speak with you.”
Katsuichi raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“None of us questions your leadership, Your Imperial Highness. If you ordered us to charge into Hell itself, we would do so and do so gladly. However, not all wars are fought on the battlefield alone. I have reason to believe that the highest ranks of the Federation have been infiltrated by our enemies.”
“And what makes you say that?” Katsuichi asked, frowning.
“The commander of the battle group at the head of the rift,” said Kenta, “is a New Velan colonel by the name of Carl Webb. Before the Hameji wars, he was involved in a smuggling ring that trafficked in drugs and black market goods between New Vela and Shinihon.”
“And you have proof of this?”
“Your Highness,” said Kenta, bowing slightly, “the snake was very adept at evading our legal team. Your father, however, used his authority to confiscate all of the Webb family’s assets within our territory.”
Katsuichi nodded. “So there is some bad blood between us.”
“More than that, Katsuichi-sama. Many of Colonel Webb’s subordinate officers are pardoned convicts, and we have reason to believe that he still has extensive ties in the criminal underworld that now permeates the Federation. Some of us even believe he may be the one behind the recent assassination of Admiral Genjiro.”
“Admiral Genjiro?” said Katsuichi, looking up at once. “What makes you believe that?”
“The colonel is an extremely ambitious man, young master. Time and again, he has proven himself a brilliant strategist—not only on the field of battle, but in removing all potential rivals who stand in his path. Those who have not been demoted have been sent to battlefront systems, where many of them have never been heard from again. Even the colonel’s own brother had his rank stripped from him.”
Katsuichi clenched his fists and nodded slowly, staring at the floor. “These are serious accusations,” he said after several moments of thoughtful silence. “It would be difficult for our forces to fight alongside his, if they believed I distrusted him.”
“That is true.”
“Are there any other Federation fleets at the head of the rift? Or has this man assumed command across the entire front?”
Kenta gave him a short bow. “Your question strikes at the heart of the matter, Katsuichi-sama. Colonel Webb is the highest ranking field officer, and his fleet is the only one in a position to strike the Hameji. If we join forces with another fleet, we will most likely fall into the reserve.”
Katsuichi took a deep breath and nodded. You must repay this debt of honor, Katsu, his father’s words came to him. You must not let it overshadow us any longer.
“Then I suppose I have no choice but to invite him onto my ship and meet him.”
Kenta frowned. “Invite this criminal on board the Divine Wind? Your Highness, in all humility, I must advise against it.”
“Thank you, Kenta, but when fighting a snake, the surest way to defeat it is to seize it by the head.”
“Indeed, Katsuichi-sama,” said Kenta, bowing again. “Though remember, this is not just a garden snake you are playing with—it is a fully grown viper, with the power to kill.”
“Thank you, Kenta. I’ll keep that in mind.”
* * * * *
Hikaru could barely contain her excitement as the ferry shuttle blasted off into the upper atmosphere. Her knees quivered with excitement, but she stared at the seat in front of her and made sure not to make eye contact with any of the other passengers in the cabin. They were packed shoulder to shoulder in the tightest seating arrangements she’d ever seen, with barely enough room in the aisle to turn around. It was fascinating—was this the way ordinary people lived and traveled? A baby screamed in the distance, and someone behind her muttered a rude word under his breath that would have earned a scolding back in the palace. She giggled a little, unable to hold it in.
Behind her, the roar of the engines died down to a low whine, and the invisible hand that had pressed her against her seat slowly released her from its hold. She risked a glance across her neighbor’s lap out the porthole, and saw, to her astonishment, a sky as black as night, even though she knew it was day.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” came the pilot’s voice over the intercom. “We have just left the planet’s atmosphere and are preparing to enter orbit. Please remain in your seats as our local gravitics equalize.”
Hikaru’s stomach fluttered, and a brief wave of nausea washed over her. She noticed her bangs drift upward as if they were as light as air, and realized that she was weightless. It didn’t last long, however. A new hum sounded in the bulkheads, and the comforting sensation of gravity returned.
I wonder what Katsuichi is going to think once he hears that I’m gone, she thought to herself. That was her one regret—that he would probably worry himself sick about her. But surely he had to see that she couldn’t spend her whole life in the palace. And besides, it wasn’t like she was going to be gone forever.
She didn’t have much time, though—she wanted to experience as much as she could before she went back. And if she was going to get the most of her time away, she had to seek out the things that her tutors and nurses would never let her see—dirty things, vulgar things. Things that a princess would never get to do.
One thing was certain: She had to go somewhere where no one would recognize her. Would the New Vela system do? Probably. She reached into her apron pocket and fingered the passport datachips she’d taken from her maidservants—at most, she only had a couple of days before the palace guard caught on to her ruse. She’d have to take an interstellar transport before then, or perhaps hire a smuggler to take her in secret. A smuggler—the thought of meeting such a shady person made her hands quiver even more.
“Attention, ladies and gentlemen. This is the pilot again. We’ve entered a low planetary orbit and should match trajectories with the station in little less than half an hour. Gravitics are fully online now, and you are free to move about the cabin. On behalf of myself and all the crew, I wish to thank you for choosing Shinihon Spacelines as your orbital carrier today.”
The passenger on Hikaru’s right got up and squeezed past her into the aisle, presumably to go to the restroom. She took advantage of his absence to look out the window. The horizon bent into a glowing blue arc where the planet met the darkness of space. In the distance, little specks glistened against the velvety black backdrop. She realized with a start that there were other spacecraft, moving around in orbit with them. With the bright white storm clouds covering the planet’s surface, it was a sure thing that Fukai-Nami had submerged by now, but that was okay—she didn’t miss it. Everything around her was so new and exciting, she doubted she ever would.
* * * * *
Katsuichi stood in the center of the bridge, hands comfortably behind his back as he observed the dozen or so officers working at their stations ringing the edge of the room. The stars shone down with their soft light through the domed windows that stretched from floor to ceiling, giving him an unparalleled view of the exterior of the ship. As he watched, a flight wing of squat, ugly-looking gunboats made a slow pass around the sleeker Rigelan cruisers.
“Colonel Webb’s shuttle has docked,” said one of his officers. “Your orders, sir?”
“Direct him to the main briefing room,” said Katsuichi. “I’ll meet him there shortly.”
He turned and walked off of the bridge, Kenta following close behind. As he palmed open the door, he couldn’t help but notice that Kenta’s sword was partially drawn, with half an inch or so of bare steel showing. He gave his bodyguard a puzzled look, as if to ask what was the matter.
“I don’t trust him,” the old samurai muttered. Katsuichi nodded and stepped out the door.
The windowless briefing room was directly below the bridge, near the center of the ship. Decorated in the same ancient style as the Imperial palace, it featured paneled walls and an authentic wooden floor. The Imperial heirloom sword sat in a glass display at the head of the room, before a giant glass table ringed by almost two dozen plush leather chairs. A holographic projector sat in the middle of the table, while display screens in the walls listed the status and location of each Rigelan flight group, with organizational charts showing the line of command down to every fighter wing and gunboat. Except for the two of them, the room was empty.
Katsuichi walked over to the main doors opposite the table, and waited in silence, taking advantage of the brief moment to meditate. Footsteps sounded out in the corridor, making Kenta grunt. He opened his eyes, and the doors hissed open, revealing a man in an immaculate blue uniform flanked on either side by junior officers.
Colonel Webb was tall by Rigelan standards—almost a full head taller than Katsuichi, though Kenta was much larger overall. His features were rugged, his sharp chin and square jawline only slightly softened by a few days worth of brownish-blond scruff. His deep-set eyes were a dark blue, his golden hair trimmed short with a well-groomed mustache just below his nose. As his gaze fell on Katsuichi, his lips turned up in a keen smile, and he bent at the waist in a polite bow, following it with a sharp Federation salute.
“Your Imperial Highness,” said Colonel Webb, speaking in Gaian. “I trust your voyage to the rendezvous point was agreeable?”
“As much as is expedient in a time of war,” said Katsuichi, returning the salute. “Please, have a seat.”
Colonel Webb followed him into the room and sat opposite the head of the table, flanked on either side by his junior officers. They said nothing, their faces dark and impassive. From the way the colonel declined to introduce them, Katsuichi assumed they were underlings performing their assigned duties.
“I’m familiar with the deployment schedule and have read up on all the reports I could find,” said Katsuichi, taking his place at the head of the table. “Of course, I trust you have a clearer picture of the situation. What can you tell me?”
Colonel Webb frowned and looked down at his lap, as if to apologize. The gesture made Katsuichi raise an eyebrow.
“To be honest, Your Highness, our forces were about to retreat before you came. Our position here is too close to the Hameji to be tenable, and with Federation High Command split the way it is, we’ve received no clear directive other than to secure the battlefront stars.”
“No clear directive? Couldn’t that be taken to mean that they wish to leave discretion to their officers in the field?”
“It certainly could, Your Highness,” said the colonel, his voice smooth and deferential. “However, the fleet commanders in this sector are indecisive about which course of action to take. Many of them are ambivalent about the prospects of success, and advise taking a more, shall we say, muted approach.”
Katsuichi frowned. “But Eyn-Gatta is less than five parsecs from New Vela,” he said. “If we can’t head off the Hameji here, there’s nothing to stop them from entering the rift and pushing straight through.”
“And if we are defeated, Your Highness, there will be even less to hold them back.” Though Colonel Webb spoke with a soft, flattering voice, it was clear he didn’t think that an attack was a good idea.
“With all due respect, Colonel, we can’t retreat forever. My men have come here to fight, not stand idly by as we lose more territory to the invaders.”
The colonel shrugged. “None of us intends to lose this war,” he said. “With a strong leader, perhaps we could even pull off a victory at Eyn-Gatta.”
He’s trying to manipulate me, Katsuichi realized. He doesn’t think we’ll succeed, so he wants to flatter me into taking responsibility so that he won’t be blamed if we lose.
But that also meant he couldn’t share in the glory if they won.
“We owe the Federation a great debt of honor for defending us from invasion these many years,” Katsuichi said. “The least we could do to repay that debt is to crush the Hameji forces massing at Eyn-Gatta. If the other fleet commanders will follow me, I will lead them.”
“You do realize that in the last twenty or so years of this war, the Hameji have yet to suffer a strategic defeat?”
Katsuichi grinned. “Neither have we, Colonel Webb. Will you join your forces with mine?”
The two junior officers looked to the colonel uncertainly. He returned Katsuichi’s gaze without flinching and nodded.
“Aye, we’ll join you. Though I’d prefer to leave the balance of my fleet in the rear, to facilitate a quick retreat should it become necessary.”
“Understandable,” said Katsuichi, nodding. All the more glory for the rest of us.
Colonel Webb rose to his feet, followed by his officers. “In that case, Your Highness, I’ll return to my flagship to begin our preparations. My men will send you the latest intelligence to help you plan the operation.”
“Excellent. I look forward to working with you, Colonel.”
“Likewise, Your Highness.”
They saluted, and the colonel left. As the door hissed shut, Kenta let out a long breath.
“Are you sure this is a good idea, young master?”
“My father always said it is best to keep your enemies close,” Katsuichi answered. “Besides, this is the perfect chance to repay our debt and free ourselves from the burden of honor we owe the Federation.”
“Very well, Your Highness.”
A chime announced an incoming call. Katsuichi frowned and checked the display in front of his seat; it was from the bridge. He activated the channel.
“Your Highness, we have received an urgent message for you on a courier ship from home that arrived only minutes ago.”
“Very well. What is the message?”
“Your sister, Princess Hikaru, has gone missing. The palace staff has no idea where she may be or what has happened to her. They have locked down Fukai-Nami but suspect she may have left the planet.”
Katsuichi’s eyes widened, and his stomach dropped out from under him. “Hika? She’s been kidnapped?”
“Her servants claim that she ran away, but we don’t know where. Our forces have been put on alert, but no official statement has yet been made.”
But why? Why would she run away? How can this be happening?
“If our enemies get word of this,” Kenta whispered, “they could use this to their advantage. I propose we send a small, private force to discreetly handle this problem and proceed as if nothing has happened.”
Katsuichi swallowed and nodded. He felt as if the room was collapsing in on him, but he forced himself to put on a strong face. No doubt he would need it often in the days to come.
“Very well, then. Give the Imperial Guard full discretion, with orders to handle it quietly. And inform me as soon as anything changes.”
As the connection switched off, Katsuichi sighed and collapsed back into his seat with his head in his hands. Kenta put a hand on his shoulder.
“Don’t worry, Your Highness. I’m sure she’ll be found and rescued.”
“I hope so,” said Katsuichi. Suddenly, all his preparations for battle seemed as small and insignificant as a tempest on an uninhabited world.
Roman stepped heavily through the open door to the officer’s lounge and grunted as he took his customary seat in the front corner. A quick glance around the cozy room showed that all the officers were back from leave—even the new cybernetics officer, Lieutenant Al-Najmi. She leaned against the wall in the back, arms folded across her chest. On the foldout couch nearby, Lieutenant Yuri Avanadze sat with his arm around his wife, the doctor. Mikhail Konstantin, the chief engineer, sat in the chair next to them, laughing good-naturedly at some joke. The gray-haired drone fighter specialist, Corporal Zura Tajjashvili, sat next to the ventilator with the smoldering butt of a cigarette nestled between his fingers. His old, sunken eyes met Roman’s, and the two men nodded in silent acknowledgment of each other. Though neither of them had served in the same unit during the short-lived revolution, they were some of the only remaining members of the crew with enough years behind them to remember the old days.
Captain Danica Nova stood in front of the entertainment center, which had been retracted back into the wall. Her face was stern, her expression unreadable, same as with every briefing. Roman detected no unusual pulse or heat signatures on her body, no hidden anxieties or tension beneath the surface of her commanding demeanor. With luck, this next mission would be an easy one.
“Men,” said Danica, nodding to no one and yet everyone at the same time. Instantly, the room fell silent, and all eyes turned toward her.
“Fifteen minutes ago, I received an urgent call from our employers at New Rigel. They have a job for us.”
“Good,” said Lieutenant Yuri, leaning forward in his seat. “How soon do they want us to head out for the rift?”
“Actually, they want us to withdraw from the main fleet. We are to conduct a private mission in conjunction with the palace guard. If we’re lucky, we might not see any combat at all.”
The lieutenant’s expression fell, and his body stiffened. Doctor Avanadze reached out and gently rubbed his shoulders, but Roman knew that the young man’s spirit would not be calmed so easily.
“Five standard days ago,” Danica continued, “Her Imperial Highness Hikaru fled the palace on Fukai-Nami and took a commercial ferry shuttle into orbit.”
She keyed a command onto her wrist console, and the holographic projector on the coffee table displayed a three dimensional image of the princess. Roman squinted; she was a pretty girl, probably in her late teens, with a slender, well-developed body and eyes that betrayed a wild and spirited character. She wore one of the fancy kimonos of the royal family, but from the expression on her face, it seemed that she’d be more comfortable in something else.
“According to her servants, the princess left the palace of her own volition. However, the palace guard informs me that there are several rogue elements both inside and out of this system that would readily seize her if they knew she was unprotected.”
“So they want us to get her back?” asked Zura, stabbing his cigarette in the retractable ashtray next to the ventilator.
“Essentially,” said Danica. “Discretion is a priority, which is why the palace guard contacted us first.”
“And what about the Hameji?” asked Yuri, his lips curled up at the edges. “What about the upcoming campaign? This isn’t a time to be chasing after a runaway princess—not when the Hameji are almost within our grasp.”
“The captain will decide which mission is best to take,” Roman interjected, turning to face the young lieutenant. “We are not Federation soldiers—it is not our fight.”
“Have you forgotten who slagged Tajjur V?” Yuri shot back. “Who slew our mothers and sisters and exiled us from our homeworld? If we’re ever going to have a chance to avenge ourselves, this is it.”
“Vengeance makes for poor business,” said Roman, his voice low. He narrowed his eyes. “Or have you forgotten who is in command of this ship?”
Lieutenant Avanadze drew in a deep breath as his wife quietly urged him to back down. For a second, he looked as if he would lash out again, but the anger slowly deflated out of him and he sat back in his seat, shoulders slumped.
“All right,” he muttered, “but still, I think we should—”
“As the sergeant has made clear, this decision is not up for debate,” said Danica, her voice sharp. “If you would rather enlist with the Federation, then you may go with my blessing.”
“We’re fine,” Maia interjected before her husband could say anything. “Yuri is just a little overzealous, that’s all.”
Just like all of you young upstarts, Roman thought to himself. Your memories are too short to remember who conquered our homeland first.
“I have no doubt that we will all see a great deal of action quite soon enough,” said Danica. “If the Federation campaign keeps going as well as it has been, I’m sure the Hameji will see to that.”
The older officers chuckled, including Roman. Yuri and Maia did not, while in the back of the room, the girl from Gaia Nova looked on in silence. Danica keyed her wrist console, and the holographic projection shifted to a starmap of the local sector, with the New Vela and New Rigel systems in the center.
“The princess is traveling on at least two stolen passports. Fortunately, the palace guard has tracked down most of the ones she’s using. Our intelligence indicates that she left the main station just yesterday, on a third-class passenger liner headed for New Vela. Flight schedules indicate that she should arrive at the seventh planet in a little over an hour.”
“If she’s still traveling under that name,” Zura muttered. “What’s to stop her from leaving on one passport and jump ship before she arrives on another?”
“Unfortunately, not very much,” said Danica. “For that reason, we need to move out as soon as possible. The palace guard has given us all the clearances we need, so once we arrive, our task should be pretty straightforward. Roman?”
“All soldiers are either on board or en route to ship,” said Roman, already connected to the network through the datalink implants in his head. “The last ferry shuttle should arrive at station in less than forty-five minutes.”
Danica nodded. “Very good. Let me know as soon as they’re all on board.”
“Pardon me, Captain,” said Mikhail, “but suppose this girl trades her passport for a less traceable mode of transport?”
“The palace guard gave me a detailed profile on this girl,” said Danica. “I haven’t had a chance to read it extensively, but from what I can tell, she’s far too sheltered to get very far on her own. It’s possible, of course, that someone might kidnap her, but there’s not much we can do to prevent that at this point. For now, we must assume that she’s traveling under one of the fake names and has obtained passage to New Vela. If the situation changes, we’ll change with it.” She paused to survey the room. “Any other questions?”
Corporal Tajjashvili raised his old, calloused hand.
“What kind of payment can we expect for this job?” he asked, leaning back in his chair as he folded his arms.
“Standard rate, plus a bonus of eighty thousand Rigelan Yen per person upon the princess’s safe return.”
The shift in enthusiasm was like the flare from a supernova. Several of the officers whistled or slapped their knees. “These Rigelans must be desperate,” Mikhail said to no one in particular, grinning from ear to ear.
Danica waited patiently for the chatter to die back down. “We don’t usually take jobs of this type, but the terms for this one were lucrative enough that I decided to make an exception. If there are no more questions, we leave in forty-five minutes.”
Roman chuckled. With everyone thinking of the ways that they would spend their money after the mission was completed, the meeting was all but finished.
As the officers filed out of the room, Danica gave Roman a brief but meaningful glance. He nodded and stayed behind the main group, waiting for the rest of them to leave. When they were gone, Danica walked over to the door and keyed it shut, so that they were alone.
“How is Lieutenant Al-Najmi doing?” she asked, folding her arms.
“She seems to be reasonably competent,” said Roman, carefully choosing his words. “I have not yet seen her in action, so of course I cannot be certain, but I think she will be strong asset.”
“Do you trust her?”
He hesitated. “Do you?”
Danica sighed and rubbed her forehead, betraying a degree of human weakness that she didn’t normally let the others see. Roman recognized it as the normal tension that one always felt in the air before every new mission. For his men, that tension translated into excitement and boyish anticipation, but for the commanding officers such as Danica and himself, the weight of responsibility tempered their enthusiasm.
“Of course I trust her, Roman. It’s the rest of the men I’m worried about. She’s the only Gaian on a crew of hardened Tajji soldiers—it’s going to be hard for her to fit in.”
“This is true,” Roman grunted. He remembered how she had sat at the back of the room during the briefing, watching impassively without saying a word.
“If there’s any disunity between her and the others, that’s going to hurt our fighting effectiveness,” said Danica. “I want you to try to reach out to her and build some rapport. I know she’s not technically under your command, but if you could take her under your wing, I think it would help tremendously.”
Roman clenched his fingers into a fist and bristled. “You wish for me to become mentor to this girl?” A strange warmth grew in his chest, making his muscles cringe and sending short bursts of pain through the non-cybernetic parts of his body.
“Not a ‘mentor,’ exactly. But if the other men see you both take to each other, that would help them warm up to her.”
He opened his mouth to respond, but realized he had nothing to say that wouldn’t contradict her. He drew in another long breath, and realized his natural arm was shaking.
“I know that your prejudices run against her,” said Danica. “But you’re also in a unique position to understand each other. For example, your neurological implants are very similar to hers, and I’m sure that affects how you both see things. At the least, it’s something you have in common with her.”
“Perhaps,” said Roman, not committing to anything.
Danica sighed. “I don’t want to ask anything that’s too difficult of you. This is more of a personal request than an order, so if it’s too much to ask, please let me know. But as one old friend to another—”
“Of course,” said Roman. “For you, of course I will do it.”
Danica smiled and put a hand on his natural arm. “I have no doubt you’re the right one for this task, Roman. The men all say you’re like a father to them.”
“Perhaps, Captain. But you—you are their mother.”
She laughed in a clear, honest way that was only reserved for her closest friends. “A stern old hag of a mother, I’m sure.”
“It is why they feel so much at home.”
“Well, may it long be so. Thank you, Sergeant.”
Roman saluted before stepping out of the room. Even though the gesture was as crisp as it ever had been, it was all he could do to keep his hand from shaking.
* * * * *
Katsuichi tried not to think of Hikaru as his admirals and commanders filed into the board room. Several of them eyed Colonel Webb with suspicion, but the Federation officer merely smiled in return, his men gathered around him at the far side of the table. In the center, a semi-transparent holographic image of the white-dwarf star Eyn-Gatta hovered in the air, rotating slowly to give everyone a clear view. Red rings marked the orbital paths of the major asteroids and settlements; the star had no planets to speak of. A cluster of triangles represented the last known positions of the Hameji battle fleets.
“Commanders,” said Katsuichi once everyone was seated. “I have called you together to discuss our battle plans for the upcoming operation. I know that many in the Federation are wary of moving offensively at this point, but the slowness of the Hameji advance and the fact that they have not yet entered the rift convinces me that we can act swiftly and decisively to halt their advance.”
A few of the commanders nodded in approval, but many of them stared at him with blank faces, unconvinced. Katsuichi nodded to Admiral Uematsu.
“Our latest intelligence indicates that the Hameji fleet is orbiting at a mere point-oh-five AU from the system sun,” said the old man. “The star’s magnetic field serves to both shield their movements and prevent all but the smallest hit-and-run attacks.”
“Well, of course,” said one of Colonel Webb’s men. “If one of our battleships tried to jump in on their current position, it could end up falling into the system sun.”
“That’s why we won’t jump onto their position directly,” Katsuichi explained. “Our first wave, commanded by myself and Colonel Webb, will jump to this position here.” A point flashed on the holographic image, just on the opposite side of the Hameji fleet from the star. Five blue triangles represented a significantly reduced force—about half of the Rigelan battle fleet.
A murmur rose from the commanders around the table, mostly from the men under Colonel Webb’s command. They seemed significantly less disciplined than Katsuichi’s own officers. He nodded to Admiral Uematsu, who waited patiently for the commotion to die down.
“The Hameji have positioned two satellite clusters on equilateral orbits to monitor the far side of the system sun. Knocking out these satellites will create a blind spot extending outward like a cone about point-five AU in length.”
Katsuichi leaned forward with his hands on the table. “The first wave will draw out the Hameji fleets by posing as a failed attempt at a surprise attack. In the meantime, we’ll take out the satellites remotely with a series of jumped warheads, giving the rest of our forces an opening to move into position for a pincer movement along the orbital plane.”
He keyed a command on the datapad at his seat, and a large darkened cone extended around the back end of the star. Ten blue triangles in two separate clusters flashed into existence within the cone, while the red orbital changed to an arrow pointing directly at Katsuichi’s fleet. As the Hameji forces moved up the gravity well to attack, two blue arrows extended around either side of the star, and the Federation reinforcements swung around as quickly as comets to attack the Hameji fleet on both flanks.
“The second and third waves will graze the surface of the star, using a gravity whip maneuver to accelerate their attack and make a deadly projectile bombardment,” Katsuichi explained. “The magnetic field should hide our numbers until it’s too late.”
“But what about the first wave, Your Highness?” one of his own commanders asked. “Where will you be during all of this?”
“I will be at the head of the first group, leading the attack.” Anything less would be an insult to the promise he’d given his father.
A series of murmurs rose around the table, this time from his own men. “But Your Imperial Highness,” blurted Commander Takahashi, “no one has made a direct assault on the Hameji and succeeded. What should we do if you fall?”
“We must not fall,” Katsuichi said grimly. “And if it is true that no one has yet beaten the Hameji in open combat, then let us be the first!”
Most of the Federation officers frowned or rolled their eyes, but Katsuichi’s men nodded in approval and respect. Colonel Webb rose to his feet.
“It is a daring plan,” he said, “and I see no flaw in it. The Hameji won’t be expecting a direct attack—there’s a chance it might work.”
“But the timing must be perfect,” said Admiral Uematsu. “How do we know that the Federation forces will coordinate with ours?”
“The fifth and sixth wings have agreed to join this operation,” said Colonel Webb, his voice radiating confidence. “They have already been briefed, and have agreed to form the pincer attack. The third fleet will be held in reserve about a light year outside of the system, in case it becomes necessary to call for reinforcements.”
Katsuichi turned to the glass display behind the table and keyed it open. The room became silent as he lifted the heirloom sword from its base and brought it out so that all could see. As he did so, all of the Rigelan commanders reverently rose to their feet.
“This sword represents the spirit of our people,” he said softly, his voice echoing in the silence. “Legend holds that it was fashioned on Earth and taken by our forefathers in their exodus across the stars. For generations, we have kept it as a priceless treasure, a symbol of all that we hold dear.”
He drew the blade from its scabbard, making it ring in the way that only the purest steel could. His men’s eyes widened, and their faces stiffened with resolve.
“Let it be witnessed today that this blade shall not be sheathed until our enemies have been vanquished and our people are safe once again!”
Katsuichi held the blade high over his head, and a resounding cry erupted from all of his men, filling the room and sending chills down his spine. Tears streamed down their faces, and many of them drew their own swords to answer in salute, leaving the men of the Federation utterly bewildered.
Let them gawk, then, Katsuichi thought to himself. This is our hour—this is when we shall redeem our honor.
But even as his blood boiled with anticipation, he could not stop his thoughts from drifting to his sister.
* * * * *
Abaqa stepped briskly through the open doorway and onto the bridge of his brother’s ship, the Conquering Flame. Jahan stood on the raised platform at the center, overseeing his pilot and gunnery commander—both of whom were little older than him.
“Ah, Abie,” he said, turning around and smiling. The two brothers came together and embraced.
“I heard you have a mission for me,” said Abaqa. He glanced out the wide but narrow forward window at the brilliant star-filled vista of deep space.
Jahan’s expression darkened. “I do, but it’s from Gazan, not from me. Frankly, it’s a little high-risk for an inexperienced gunboat pilot. If I were you, I wouldn’t—”
“What’s the mission?”
Jahan sighed and shook his head, but he reached over and switched on the main display screen, just below the forward window. “This is Princess Hikaru of the star known as ‘New Rigel’ among the planetborn.” An image of a gorgeous young woman flashed onto the display, wearing an ornate gown the likes of which Abaqa had never seen. “She is the sister to one of the Federation commanders, a young man by the name of Katsuichi.”
Abaqa nodded. “For a planetborn wench, she’s not too ugly.”
“She’s supposed to be some sort of queen. Our spies tell us that she’s recently gone missing. The palace guard thinks she’s run away to New Vela under a stolen name.” The display flashed again, and a number of documents flashed across the screen, written in a script that Abaqa’s mother hadn’t taught him. “It’s all in the database—if you crack their networks, your AI should be able to hack in and find her.”
“So Gazan wants me to kidnap her?”
“Or assassinate, whichever is easier.”
Abaqa glanced back at the screen, which had reverted to the image of the girl. She stood at the head of a beautiful garden, with a glass ceiling and blue sky overhead. She was leaning forward slightly and smiling at someone outside of the frame, as if they had made a joke and she was struggling to hold back her laughter. From her slender build and the youthful dimples on her cheeks, she couldn’t have been three or four standard planetborn years older than him.
“I’m in,” he said, turning back to Jahan. “How soon can I leave?”
“Hold on, Brother—hear me out. New Vela is a long way from any of our support fleets, and the Federation forces are massing not far from here. The only way to New Vela lies through the rift—an area peppered with Federation forces.”
“I know. My gunboat has dual jump drives—I can handle it.”
Jahan frowned. “Can you, though? Normally, we’d send a triple-platoon of empath soldiers, or a cruiser equipped for a standard hit-and-run mission. The fact that Gazan is only sending you tells me that he’s just looking for a way to get you killed.”
“So?” said Abaqa, his cheeks reddening. “You don’t think I can do it?”
Abaqa clenched his fists and snarled. “Then I have to take this mission—if nothing else, to prove to you both that I’m not just a boy.”
“Even the best gunboat pilots have died on missions easier than this. I’m telling you, it’s just not worth it.”
“But these are Gazan’s orders, aren’t they? How can I refuse?”
Jahan looked over his shoulder at the officers on the bridge. They nodded meaningfully and left the room. After the doors had hissed shut, Jahan turned back to him.
“I don’t think he’s too serious about this. If you want another mission, I can tell him that the transmission was garbled, or that the intelligence is too outdated. I’m close enough to him that I could probably talk him down.”
Abaqa glanced back at the image of the girl. It would certainly make Gazan jealous to see him with such a gorgeous slave girl—a concubine taken from planetborn royalty. No matter that she was older than him—once she was his slave, things like that wouldn’t matter.
“I’m not going to back down from this,” he said, narrowing his eyes. “Don’t try to stop me.”
Jahan sighed. “Very well, Brother. Get to your gunboat and I’ll send you the data you’ll need to find her. But don’t say I didn’t try to dissuade you.”
Abaqa nodded and turned to leave. His heart raced as he stepped through the door, his fingers twitching with excitement. Just a little while now, and he’d be out in his gunboat, out among the stars of glory.
So this is New Vela, Hikaru thought to herself as she stared out the spaceport window at the purplish orb of the seventh planet. It looked so strange to her—so alien. She didn’t know whether it was clouds she was looking at, or a giant purple world-ocean like the one back home.
“Excuse me,” she said, turning to a uniformed woman behind a nearby desk. “Where are the flights down to the surface?”
The woman looked at her funny for a moment. “I’m sorry,” she said. “What did you say?”
“The surface,” said Hikaru, enunciating her words carefully in case the attendant didn’t speak fluent Gaian. “How do I get to the surface?”
“There are no flights to the surface,” said the attendant. “No one lives down there—it’s not a habitable world.”
Ah, Hikaru thought to herself, blushing a little. She thanked the woman and walked off quickly, more annoyed than embarrassed.
The people in the spaceport all looked so different from what she was used to. The men kept their hair short, and most of the women were bald—it was all she could do to keep from laughing at the sight. A few, like the attendant back at the desk, wore colorful shawls to cover their heads, but plenty of others seemed to flaunt their baldness, with extravagant tattoos that ran around their ears and down their long, hairless necks. Several people stared at her, probably because she was one of the only women in the place with a full head of hair. Then again, the maid’s outfit might have something to do with it, too, but there wasn’t much that she could do about that—at least, not until she found a proper tailor.
At the main concourse, her eyes wandered until she caught sight of a gathering place of sorts. Inside, people sat around a counter with several drinks in glass bottles sitting on shelves against the wall. That would be a bar, she thought, a place where commoners gather to drink. She walked towards it, bumping into a few shoulders but otherwise making it through all right.
“Hello,” she said to the bartender, taking a seat at the first empty booth. “I’ll take a shot of Tajji Vodka.”
“Tajji Vodka?” he said. “What do I look like, a Hameji general?”
The men around her chuckled, while Hikaru frowned. What was he talking about? All the starship captains on the old adventure holos drank Tajji Vodka—it was the stiffest drink she knew of. But if they weren’t going to give it to her—
“I’ll just, ah, take a beer then.”
“Local or specialty?”
“Uh, local.” I guess.
The bartender filled up a glass mug and set it out in front of her. Before lifting it to her lips, she glanced at the people around her. Several of them were staring at her, just like they had in the terminal. Here, though, it felt a little unnerving.
A holoscreen on the far wall displayed a local news program, with headlines scrolling silently across the bottom. She took a sip of her beer and recoiled at the sharp, bitter taste. So different than the palace—she loved it.
“Hey,” said the man next to her, tapping her on the shoulder. He nearly made her drop her glass, but she recovered quickly.
“Yes?” she said, turning to face him.
“Do I know you?”
She frowned. “I don’t think so.”
“Where are you from? You’re not from around here, are you?”
Her heart started beating a little faster, as she realized that the people around her were starting to take notice.
“I, ah, just came in about an hour ago,” she lied. “Got to catch an inbound transport—just a couple of hours.”
“You look like you’re from New Rigel,” said another man, leaning in. “What do they call the main planet? Shinihon, right?”
“Right,” she said without thinking. The word no sooner escaped her lips than she realized her mistake.
“That’s where!” said the first man. “I swear, you look just like the princess. Doesn’t she?”
“Yeah, she does.”
They know who I am.
Her face paled, and her stomach sank through the floor. She rose to her feet, but the man put a hand on her arm.
“No, don’t be shy. Here, let me buy you a drink.”
“I—I’ve got to go,” she said, shrugging him off. Before he could object, she turned to leave.
“Hey!” shouted the bartender. “I hope you’re going to pay for that!”
Heads were turning now—heads were turning everywhere. She fumbled in her pocket and tossed out a cash datachip behind her, then broke into a run down the nearest terminal.
I’m such a fool, she thought to herself, heart pounding in her chest. I’ve got to get out of this place.
Overhead, she saw some signs for private shuttlecraft. She followed them down the terminal, to a wide doorway just before a large observation window. People all around her were staring, but fortunately the corridor inside was mostly empty.
A long row of kiosks and airlocks stretched to the other side, where the corridor opened to another terminal. She went up to the nearest kiosk that was still on and hit PURCHASE SHUTTLE. The screen asked for her destination, and she hit the buttons at random, choosing the secondary lunar L6 point. The price flashed onto the screen, almost a hundred thousand credits, but that wasn’t a problem—she jammed another datachip into the kiosk and hit PAY.
A message flashed onto the screen: Please insert passport.
“Come on,” she muttered, fumbling through her pockets. She thought she heard voices out in the terminal.
She took the first passport that came to her hand and jammed it into one of the kiosk slots at random. The screen went blank for a moment or two, and then to her relief the airlock door hissed open. Enjoy your ride, the screen flashed as she hastily recovered her datachips. Moments later, she was inside.
That was a close one, she thought, collapsing on one of the couches that ringed the circular room. Silk drapes hung from the ceiling, while the adjustable windows rose to the top of the domed ceiling, just like a miniature version of one of the island-cities of her homeworld. She lay back on the couch and took a deep breath of the perfumed air.
At the head of the room, a wall screen flashed on, revealing a map of the local sector with its planet and moons. STAND BY FOR LAUNCH, said a message beneath the screen, and the floor trembled ever so slightly as the automated shuttlecraft undocked. Overhead, the view of the station and planet spun, but she hardly felt a thing.
ESTIMATED TIME TO STATION 2L6a: 20.5 HOURS.
“Dammit,” she said aloud, quickly covering her mouth as she caught herself. She glanced around her, then giggled a little as she realized she was alone.
“Go fuck yourself, bitch!” she screamed, just because she could. She opened her mouth to swear again, but fell to the floor in a fit of hysterical giggles. She had no idea where she was or where she was going, or even what she’d do once she got there, but none of that was going to keep her from enjoying her newfound freedom.
* * * * *
Roman pressed his metal prosthetic hand to the access panel on the wall and held it there. It took a second, but the door to the Tajji Flame’s officer mess slid open with a low groan. The sound was not unlike the creaking in his joints when several weeks had passed without a checkup.
He ducked his head as he stepped through the narrow doorway. Corporal Tajjashvili sat alone on the bench at the far side of the room. A line of smoke rose from the cigarette in his hand, the heat signature registering as a ball of dull red light to Roman’s prosthetic eye. He switched to the visible spectrum, and the digital input resolved with his natural sight to give him a more accurate sense of depth perception. Not that it made much of a difference.
The corporal turned his balding head and nodded. “Greetings,” he said in the old Tajji dialect, using a word that roughly translated to “victory.” From the wry smile on the old man’s face, it was clear that the irony wasn’t lost on him.
“Cheers,” Roman answered, walking over to the bench in a few short strides. “Mind if I join you?”
Zura grunted and gestured to his right. “Not at all, friend. Have a seat.”
Roman eased his heavy cyborg body onto the bench. It sank a little under his weight, but that was normal.
“Care for a drink?” said Zura, passing a bottle of vodka across the age-worn metal tabletop. Roman took a glass from the table behind them and filled it halfway. Zura shook his head and, taking the bottle from Roman’s prosthetic hand, filled it up to the brim before pouring himself another.
“Don’t hold back, friend,” he said, lifting his glass. “For old men like us, it’s as good as medicine.”
“Yeah,” said Roman. “Even with body falling apart, it is always memories that go last.”
“And only the ones you’d rather forget.”
Roman threw back his head and emptied his glass. The alcohol burned as it went down his throat, settling in his stomach like liquid fire. Zura tapped his cigarette over the ashtray and refilled their glasses.
“That young lieutenant,” said Zura. “To hear him speak, you would think it was still the glory days of the rebellion.”
“These youngsters are all same,” said Roman. “Self-proclaimed patriots fighting enemy that never acknowledged them for homeland they never knew.”
Zura grunted. “And no memory of the occupation.”
“Remember how they used to say that the greatest act of resistance is to live?”
“I remember,” said Roman. “That was after Imperials locked down Kutaisi Dome and turned off air filters to root us out. Women and children were dying in the streets before they distributed any gas masks.”
“They only shipped enough masks for three quarters of the population—I heard that straight from one of the distributors.”
Roman grunted and took another long drink of the vodka. “These youngsters—they think they have spirit, but their will to fight would crumble in face of such things.”
“And you think ours didn’t?”
For all Roman’s pride, Zura’s question gave him pause. “No,” he said. “Not all of us. It was fall of Gaia Nova and collapse of Gaian Empire that sealed the last airlock.”
“Ah,” said Zura, stubbing out his cigarette. “And yet, while the Empire still stood, where were you?”
“I was here, with my men.” I was helping them to live.
“And taking petty jobs instead of fighting the true enemy. Am I right?”
“It was our captain who decided where we would fight,” said Roman, clenching his metal hand into a fist. “And we never took job from the Imperials—never!”
Zura pulled out another cigarette and cupped his hands to light it. “Of course,” he said. “I have no doubt of that, friend. But you have to admit, for all their brazen stupidity, those youngsters possess a passion that we lost ages ago.”
Roman opened his mouth to protest, but the arguments that had made so much sense to him before were ones that he no longer knew how to express. He tried to recall the words he’d used to tell himself, but a wave of drowsiness came over him, and it seemed so much easier to let the affront pass. Yes, let it pass—it would all be so much easier.
The old corporal refilled their glasses. “To the homeworld,” he said, “and may all our other memories die.”
“Yes,” said Roman. “To the homeworld.”
* * * * *
Rina parsed the raw data of the starlane station network like a sponge absorbing water. Information flowed in her and over her and around her, and in her disembodied state of mind she felt herself merging and separating with it as she searched for the relevant information. It felt almost like being stripped down and exposed to the elements, but instead of water and wind and sand, it was lines of code that pelted her—instead of her body, it was her mind and consciousness that had been stripped bare.
She disconnected from the network and gasped for breath, every muscle in her body quivering. The sudden return to her physical senses jarred her so badly that she had to fight the urge to vomit. Her hands and arms shook, and she blinked to clear her cloudy vision. She was on the bridge of a starship of some kind—an old Tajji ship, judging from the design. Several officers were staring at her, and she gradually recognized their faces: the younger one with the broad shoulders and carefully trimmed beard was the pilot, Lieutenant Yuri; the graceful but stern looking woman with the graying hair was the captain, Danica Nova. And the one closest to her, with the half-cyborg face and metal prosthetic arm was the NCO, Sergeant Roman Krikoryan.
“Lieutenant,” said the captain. “Are you feeling all right?”
Rina squinted and rubbed her ear. Everything sounded distant, like it was coming to her through a recording device. Gradually, however, her senses recovered. The nausea began to dissipate, and the twitching of her muscles slowly came under control.
“I’ll be fine,” she said softly.
“Are you sure you don’t want to see the doctor, Lieutenant?”
“No.” She tried to sit up, but the effort proved too much for her, and she fell back down.
“Sergeant, escort her to the medical bay.”
“I think she will be fine, Captain,” said Roman behind her. “She only needs time to rest.”
“In that case, help her to her quarters.”
Roman nodded and put his hand under Rina’s arm. Her natural reflex was to fight him off, but instead, she leaned forward and let him help her to her feet. These weren’t enemies or targets—they were allies.
For the moment, at least.
“I scoured the entire starlane network,” she said, turning to the captain before limping out the door. “No trace of the princess under any of her stolen identities. If she got off at any of the jump stations, the system doesn’t know about it.”
“She probably followed the transport to its final destination,” said Danica. “We’ll make for New Vela VII immediately. Assuming she hasn’t gone underground, the authorities should be able to help us. Good work, Al-Najmi.”
Rina nodded and staggered out the doorway, leaning heavily on Roman for support.
“I am surprised you are still walking,” he said, making conversation as they made their way down the dimly lit corridor. “Very few people could endure direct neural connection as long as you did.”
“How long was I in?” she asked as they rounded a corner.
“Almost twenty minutes—much longer than recommended. But do not worry—I will not tell Doctor Avanadze.”
He chuckled a little and helped her through the hatchway and down the narrow stairwell leading to the level for the officers’ quarters. She followed him wordlessly until they came to her door, which he palmed open for her.
“I’ll be fine,” she muttered. “Just need rest.”
“Even so, it will be best if I stay with you until you have recovered.” He helped her onto her cot, then folded down a chair from the wall and sat down.
Rina hadn’t bothered to do much with her quarters. The drab gray walls were completely bare, the desk on the far side completely unused. It was simply a receptacle for her body and her gear, which she had secured by hacking into the lock program and rebuilding it from the ground up. No need for anyone snooping around and finding her skin-suit, or her poison kit, or her customized magnetic bowcaster.
“So you are tribesman from Gaia Nova,” Roman said, breaking the silence yet again. “Which tribe?”
She looked up at him and squinted. “What do you know of the Gaia Novan tribesmen?”
“Many years ago, we had Gaian doctor who was tribesman from the deserts. His family name was Najoumi, I think.”
“Najoumi? What was his name?”
Roman shrugged. “He had a very long name, but we called him Abu Kariym. He was old man—I do not think you know him.”
“Probably not,” said Rina. She leaned back against her pillow and tried to ignore the twitching in her eye.
“How old you were when your planet was slagged?”
Why do you want to know? she almost asked. Instead, she sighed in annoyance and rolled her head to look at him.
“I don’t know. Young. Still a girl.”
He grunted. “I was also very young when my country was destroyed. Not boy, but still young.”
“I thought Tajjur V was slagged only fifteen years ago.”
He looked at her and smiled—a gesture that might have seemed grotesque to some, given that only half of his face still had skin and muscle, but to her it made him seem more human.
“I am not speaking of Hameji invasion,” he said. “Long before, when we were still colony of New Gaian Empire, I became soldier in Tajji revolution. Those who grew up with Gaian occupation do not remember, but we had dreams of independence once. They think it was Hameji who destroyed our homeworld, but it was Gaian Imperials who truly crushed us.”
“Is that why you don’t trust me?”
He raised an eyebrow. “What makes you think I do not trust you?”
“I assume nobody trusts me, until they give me a sign that they do.”
Her answer made him chuckle. “It is good philosophy. Let me guess: You learned this in Federation underworld?”
“Do not worry—we all must have our secrets. If not for Danica, we would all be criminals now. Perhaps some of us still are.”
He’s trying to draw me out, she realized. Still, he seemed harmless enough for an old cyborg.
“Is that why you joined? For her?”
He nodded. “That is exactly why I joined.”
“You’re close to her, then.”
“Of course,” he said. “She is like my sister. Do you have sister?”
Rina thought back to Jalil and Mira, watching their children play in the sandstone courtyard. They’d looked so happy together, so far from the violence that had become her world these past years. Part of her longed to return to them, but even if she could go back, things would never go back to the way they had been.
“Yes,” she said softly. “One alive, five dead.”
“Because of Hameji?”
Roman reached out and put his hand on her arm. “I am sorry.”
Coming from anyone else, she wouldn’t have believed it. After what he’d told her about his own world, however, she didn’t doubt it.
“I just—I only wish I could see them again.”
Her own words surprised her. She looked up to gage his reaction. To her surprise, he nodded in understanding.
“I know how you feel,” he said softly. “Long time ago, I also felt this way.”
What changed? she almost asked. Instead, she bit her lip and kept silent.
He nodded and rose to his feet. If you need me, he told her through the datalink implant, do not hesitate to call. With that, he turned and left.
She stared at the ceiling for a long time, lost in her thoughts. When had anyone ever looked after her, or offered her help the way this man had? Not since she was a little girl. It made her wonder—did this mean she was among friends now?
Friends. The word was so foreign to her, she hardly knew the meaning anymore.
* * * * *
Roman palmed the door open with his good hand and stepped back onto the bridge. The purple-blue horizon of New Vela VII arced across the window, the spindly station a few hundred kilometers off the bow. As he entered, Danica turned to him and nodded.
“Ah, Roman, you’re just in time. We’ve just located the princess: She’s on a private shuttlecraft headed for one of the Lagrange stations. How is Al-Najmi?”
“Recovering,” he said, grunting as he took his customary seat next to Yuri. “She will be fine.”
“I hope so. How soon can your men be ready?”
He leaned forward and opened a comm channel from his station on the bridge to the barracks. “Sergeant Gergiev, do you copy?”
“I copy. What’s the situation?”
“We have located princess. Suit up your men—light armor only.”
“Understood. Ready to roll in five.”
Roman turned and nodded to Danica. Behind them, the bridge door hissed open and Corporal Tajjashvili stepped inside.
“You summoned me, Captain?” he asked, saluting.
“Yes, Corporal,” she said. “We have located the princess and are about to conduct a boarding operation to retrieve her. She’s in a private civilian shuttlecraft currently heading for one of the Lagrangian points. The local authorities have given us the shut-down code and authorized us to intercept, but I want you standing by with your fighter wing in case anything goes wrong.”
“Understood.” He took his seat in the back of the room, at the fighter control station. An array of dozens of holoscreens surrounded him, most of them blank while the fighter drones were inactive.
Roman leaned back in his chair and yawned. The men were going to be very happy once they pulled back into port with that fat bonus. It was always nice to get a job like this, between the life-and-death commando missions that punctuated the long stretches of uneventful tedium.
As his mind drifted from thoughts of the mission, he found himself gazing out the window at the planet below. New Vela VII was remarkably pretty for an ice giant, the blue methane clouds of the upper atmosphere mingling with the swirling shades of purple to create a gorgeous veined effect. It was beautiful, certainly, but not nearly as beautiful as the deep blue oceans and green-brown lands of Tajjur V.
“Do you have the coordinates, Avanadze?” Danica asked, taking her seat in the captain’s chair.
“Yes, Captain,” said Yuri. “They’re plugged in and ready to go.”
“Good. Wait for jump on my mark.”
Danica leaned over and activated the ship-wide intercom. “Attention all hands, this is the captain speaking. We are making jump in twenty seconds. Secure all stations and prepare for maneuvers. Raise the alert level to mark two.”
She switched off the intercom and looked each of the men on the bridge in the eye. “I know you may think that this has been an easy job,” she said, “and perhaps that’s true. But I also want you all to know that it isn’t over until we’ve safely returned the girl to her guardians. Until then, I expect you all to be ready for anything.”
“Captain,” said Roman, saluting. The others followed suit.
Danica nodded and turned to face the forward window. “Take us out, Avanadze.”
“Yes, Captain,” said Yuri. He began keying a series of commands on the keypad in front of him. “Making jump in three, two, one …”
Roman shut down his sensory implants and temporarily switched off his physical consciousness. He’d been through hundreds of jumps before, but it had gotten harder on him in his old age. For a brief moment, he felt as if he were in a white room without a floor, walls, or ceiling, but then his consciousness shifted back to his body, and he was back on the bridge, staring out the window at a starfield that remained largely unchanged.
“Jump complete,” said Yuri. “Sensors detect a small spacecraft fifty kilometers off the starboard bow. Codes check out—it’s the princess.”
“Excellent,” said Danica. “Begin docking maneuvers. Roman, have your men stand by for boarding.”
“Acknowledged,” said Roman. He lifted his hand to the keypad, but before he could activate the comm channel, an alarm went off near the front of the ship.
Danica frowned. “What is that?”
“An incoming ship,” said Yuri, eyes glued to his instruments. “Less than a hundred kilometers off, moving to intercept the shuttlecraft. Its codes don’t correspond to any civilian ship, but—Captain, I think it’s Hameji!”
“Increase throttle and prepare for combat maneuvers,” said Danica. “In the meantime, try to hail them. Tajjashvili, launch fighter drones.”
“Roman, get the men below-decks to the high-gee coffins. I’m putting the ship on level four combat alert.”
“Understood, Captain,” said Roman. He punched the key that switched on the alarms below decks—his men were trained to get to the protective coffins in a matter of seconds. The only one below decks who didn’t have the training was the Gaian girl, but he had little doubt she’d figure it out on her own.
“Captain,” said Yuri, “the Hameji craft is firing on us—three waves of projectile missiles, incoming at high speed.”
“Get a plasma screen up and make evasive maneuvers. Tajjashvili, how are our fighter drones?”
“Deployed and ready for action,” said Zura. The display screens surrounding his chair had all come to life, and scrolled every few seconds between the camera feeds of the various drone fighters.
“Target the enemy craft’s guns and engines. I don’t want them getting away.”
“Yes, Captain. Consider it done.”
Outside the window, the starfield flashed as the plasma bursts intercepted the incoming projectiles. Roman’s stomach twisted as the ship banked and rolled to avoid a collision, but the gravitic dampers and his own cybernetic countermeasures dulled the effect.
“Captain!” said Yuri. “The Hameji craft is moving rapidly on an intercept course. Only twenty seconds before they close the gap.”
Danica swore, while Roman glanced down at his display screens to make sure his men were secure. All the coffins near the combat airlock were occupied, as well as three others in the crew quarters and sickbay—Maia, Mikhail, and Rina. He turned to the captain.
“The men are secure,” he reported. “Ready for combat maneuvers.”
“We’re too late,” said Danica. “If that gunboat wants to take out the princess, there’s nothing we can do.”
“Then let us assume they only wish to capture her.”
She nodded. “Yuri, get us over there double quick. Tajjashvili, I want every fighter wing focused on that ship. Keep me apprised as the situation develops.”
“I hear you, Captain. Forty-five seconds to intercept.”
“That’s not enough. We need more resources out there—more resources.”
“The Hameji craft is slowing, but not enough to initiate docking procedures,” said Yuri. “It’s launching some sort of—is that a harpoon cable?”
“What do you see, Avanadze? Stay with me?”
“It’s a harpoon cable, all right. Making impact with the shuttlecraft now. Just a few seconds and it’ll—” He stopped and frowned.
“Avanadze? Lieutenant, what’s happening?”
“Stars of Earth,” the Lieutenant cursed, slamming his fist against his chair’s armrest. “That Hameji bastard just jumped out of local space—and he’s taken the shuttlecraft with him.”
A somber silence fell over the room. Only the distant rumbling of the engines and the ever present hum of the ventilators broke it.
Danica sighed. “Ready the jump beacons, then, and loop the replay sequence for playback. If it’s a small craft, it can’t have gone far. Prepare to make pursuit.”
“Pursuit?” said Yuri, frowning. “How can we possibly pursue them in deep space?”
“A ship that small has to throttle its reactor in order to service dual jump drives,” said Danica. “If we pepper the sector with jump beacons to interdict them, we can use our higher energy capacity to catch them. It’s like a high-stakes shell game, where we’re the ones running the show.”
“Against a Hameji strike team.”
His comment made Roman chuckle, but Danica only nodded. “Yes,” she said, “against a Hameji strike team.”
“Time to earn our pay,” said Roman. He grunted and rose to his feet, giving Danica a quick salute before leaving the bridge.
Hikaru moaned as she gradually regained consciousness. Her body felt sore, her stomach nauseous. She tried to pull her arms down to rub her eyes, but her hands were bound to something over her head. Her feet were bound at the ankles and tied to a post, so he couldn’t stand up. She opened her eyes and blinked, but the lights were so bright that she couldn’t see anything.
Gradually, however, her vision adjusted. She was in the hold of a ship—no, in a bunkroom of some kind. Her ankles were tied to a foothold at the base of the bunk, her wrists to a handhold on the opposite wall. The metal floor beneath her was cold and hard, and the thin fabric of her skirt did nothing to cushion her from it.
What happened to me? she wondered, trying to recall the events that had brought her to this place. She had been in the private shuttlecraft listening to music when a strange clanging noise had sounded in the bulkheads, followed by the gut-wrenching sensation of jumpspace. She’d gotten a little nervous and tried to fiddle with the shuttle’s manual controls, but the next she knew the airlock door hissed open and the room filled with a sickly-sweet green mist. Moments later, she’d passed out.
I’ve been kidnapped, she slowly realized. I’ve been taken hostage by … who? Criminals? Thugs? Sex-traffickers? Her heart skipped a beat as she imagined herself as a slave girl, performing lewd acts of carnal knowledge for the rest of her life. It would be a shame for the princess of Shinihon to end up in such a place—which raised the question, did her captors even know who she was?
“Hello?” she called out in Gaian, looking around the room for any sign of another person. An open doorway behind her led through to what looked like a cockpit. It was hard to tell, though, since she didn’t have a good view from where she was tied.
“Hello?” she called out again, “can anyone hear me?”
“Shut up!” came a young voice from the other side of the doorway. He spoke Gaian with a heavy accent, but she understood his words well enough—which meant that he could understand her.
“Who are you?” she asked. “Where am I?”
“I said, shut up!”
A low, aching throb began to grow between her legs. She realized that she had to pee.
“Is there a bathroom?” she called out. “I have to go.”
Her captor swore, but moments later she heard footsteps on the cold, hard floor. As he rounded the corner and came into view, she tensed a little, expecting—
She frowned. “You’re just a boy?”
The boy’s face reddened, and he leaned over and slapped her hard across the face. “I am a Hameji prince,” he snapped back. “You would do well to show more respect, planetborn wench.”
Hikaru’s jaw dropped, and she gave him a sharp, angry look. “You slapped me!”
“I’ll do worse, if you give me any more trouble. There’s no reason I need to keep you alive.”
He was short, perhaps as much as half a head shorter than her, with dark cropped hair and a fair complexion that didn’t match his features. He wore a black flight suit with a pistol on his belt and a knife strapped to his chest, which looked a little ridiculous since the knife was almost as big as his forearm. He scowled at her, but with his round, boyish face and smooth cheeks, the effect was more comical than intimidating.
“So why haven’t you killed me already?” she asked.
“Because,” he said, letting the word hang in the air. He opened a wall compartment and pulled out a pan.
“Here,” he said, tossing it with a clang to the floor beside her. “Use that.”
“Use that? For what?”
“For taking a pee, of course.”
Hikaru’s jaw dropped, and her cheeks turned hot with rage. “For taking a pee? That’s disgusting! Don’t you have a decent bathroom on this ship?”
“You’ll use the pan, or you won’t go at all.”
“Oh, yeah,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Because I’m obviously not going to go in my skirt. That would make a mess and stink up the whole ship, now, wouldn’t it?”
The boy paused, as if unsure what to do. He clenched his fists, and for a moment, Hikaru worried that she’d pushed him too far.
“Look,” she said, “if you’re going to make me use the pan, at least free my hands so I can use them. I can’t rightly go like this.”
He pulled out a keypin from his wrist console, but hesitated a moment before using it to unlock her cuffs. After thinking it through, he pulled out the pistol and held it in one hand while he undid the lock with the other.
“There,” he said taking a step back. He pointed the gun at her. “Now pee.”
Hikaru rubbed her wrists and checked herself over before doing anything else. She seemed all right—nothing broken, anyway. With her ankles still tied to the post, she turned herself around and rose up on her knees. She looked from the boy to the pan and back to the boy, who stood in the doorway with his gun still trained on her.
She sighed. “Can you at least give me some privacy?”
“Don’t push your luck,” he said. “If I weren’t so nice, you’d be naked and in the airlock right now.”
“Is that where the Hameji usually keep their prisoners?”
With a long groan to let him know just how annoyed she was, she slid the pan so that it was just in front of her. She tried to figure out the most discreet way to go about it, but eventually decided to hell with it. After hiking up her skirt enough to pull her panties beneath her knees, she slid the pan between her legs and just went. It made a loud dribbling sound, but she refused to be embarrassed.
“Do you enjoy watching girls pee?” she asked sarcastically as the boy looked on. To her delight, he actually blushed.
“Give me the pan when you’re finished,” he said.
“Oh, I will,” she said, taking her time. “You got a name there, big boy?” His cheeks reddened even more.
“I am Abaqa, son of Qasar,” he said, as if that was supposed to impress her. “You are Princess Hikaru of the star known as New Rigel. My brothers are going to crush your battle fleets and smash your planet.”
“Ooh, I’m so-o-o scared,” she said, rolling her eyes. “And what are you going to do to me?”
His eyes widened, and for a second, it looked as if he were going to hit her. When he scowled, though, his boyish look returned.
“I’m going to take you as my first concubine,” he said. “It’s only fitting that I should start my harem with a planetborn queen.”
His answer was so ludicrous that she couldn’t help but laugh at him. He frowned at her, and his gun hand began to shake.
“You don’t think I will? Just you wait!”
“Okay, okay,” she said, “but at least let me finish peeing first.” She carefully slid the pan out from under her, then pulled up her panties and smoothed out her skirt.
As Abaqa retrieved the pan and went through a nearby door to empty it, she searched the room for anything that could help her escape. The wall compartments were too high for her to reach with her feet still tied, and the bunk consisted of little more than a smelly blanket. Still, with her hands free, she could use it to strangle him or tie him up—the only problem was how to free her legs. She didn’t think she could subdue him while she was bound. Even if he was smaller than her, he still had a gun and a knife. Her best bet was to get him to untie her himself—and she had a pretty good idea how to do that.
“So I’m supposed to be your first concubine,” she said as he stepped back into the cabin. “Does that mean you’re going to rape me?”
“I’ll do whatever I want with you,” he said, still pointing his gun at her. “Put your hands back together.”
“You’re not going to rape me now? What are you, shy?”
He blushed again, this time even deeper than before. “Your hands,” he said, his voice cracking.
“Here, I’ll make it easier for you.” She undid her apron and pulled the blouse over her head, so that she wore nothing but her skirt, bra, and panties. After dropping her clothes on the floor, she sprawled out and arched her back, hands over her head as if she were helpless. “Oh no, save me!”
Before she could react, the boy grabbed her hand and slapped a cuff on it, then pulled her up and secured it to one of the handholds above her. Her eyes widened and she tried to resist, but he did the same with her other hand, tying it to another handhold on his right.
“Wh-what are you doing?” she asked. “Wouldn’t it be more comfortable if we did it on the bed?”
“I have other things to do before I can enjoy you,” he said, smiling to himself as he holstered his pistol. “Don’t worry, though—I’m sure there will be time later.”
“What? You pervert! Let me go!”
He folded his arms and laughed while she tried to pull herself free. With her hands and feet tied down, however, it was no use.
“Jerk! These floors are cold. At least give me something for that—if you don’t, I’m going to scream!”
“That reminds me,” he said, reaching into his pocket to pull out a handkerchief. He stepped over her and pulled it over her face, forcing her mouth open when she resisted. After a brief struggle, he tied it back so that it effectively gagged her, the pressure tight against her cheeks.
“Mmm-mm-mmm!” she screamed, trying in vain to make anything but a loud mumble. He smiled at her, and she shot him a poisonous look.
“There,” he said. “That’s much better.”
* * * * *
“All battle-stations, report,” said Katsuichi, gripping the armrests of the command chair on board the Divine Wind. He looked upward out the wide dome windows as the officers sounded off.
“Piloting and astrogation are go, sir.”
“Engineering is go.”
“Gunnery go, sir.”
“Fighter wings, go.”
“Countermeasures are a go.”
The white dwarf of Eyn-Gatta stood out amid the starfield like a pearl on a band of silver. Katsuichi grinned as a thrill of anticipation passed through him.
“All good, sir,” came the Colonel’s voice over the radio. “We’re ready when you are.”
“On my mark, then. Begin the official fleet countdown.”
“Beginning countdown, sir,” said the pilot. “Initiating jump in ten seconds.”
“All cruisers have confirmed order,” said a dark-haired girl at communications.
“Charge weapons,” said Katsuichi. “Let’s go in with our guns blazing.”
“Copy, sir. Jump in three, two, one—”
He gasped as his stomach fell out from under him. He felt as if he were falling, though whether he was falling up or down, he couldn’t say. He forced his eyes to stay open, but the universe itself seemed to blink—and then he was staring out at a much dimmer starfield, with the white light of a much closer star drowning out all but the brightest stars.
“Stabilizing thermal deflectors,” said the chief engineer, a gruff old corporal. “Stand by.” The bridge lights dimmed for a second, then slowly returned to normal.
“Exterior temperature places us at point-oh-three to point-oh-six AU from the solar surface,” said the pilot. “Fleet jumping in … spread is within acceptable parameters.”
“What about the Hameji?” Katsuichi asked.
“We’re having difficulty picking them up on our sensors—they must be too close to the star.”
“How they can stand such a close orbital, I don’t know,” muttered the engineer.
Kenta gave the man a sharp glance, as if to scold him for his lack of discipline. Katsuichi waved his finger to stop him. Propriety or not, they couldn’t afford anything to break their focus right now.
“What about the satellites?” he asked. “Are you picking them up?”
“Yes, sir, all eight of them. Exactly as our intelligence indicated.”
“Good. Move the fleet into attack formation and have the Musashi and Yamato knock them out.”
Katsuichi toggled the holographic projector at the center of the room to display a three dimensional image of the battle as it unfolded. A marble-sized sphere at the center of the projection represented Eyn-Gatta, while the Rigelan ships were points of blue. Colonel Webb’s ships showed up a moment later in a lighter shade of blue, while the Hameji ships, in red, blinked on and off much closer to the star.
“The Hameji ships are beginning the attack,” said the officer at countermeasures, concern in his voice. “Five of our jump beacons just went off-line.”
“Spend twenty percent of the reserves to get new beacons up,” said Katsuichi, “and have the rest of the fleet do the same.” The jump beacons would draw away any warheads the Hameji tried to launch through jumpspace, provided they were placed far enough away. It took a significant portion of the ship’s energy reserves to place them, but the combined fleet could sustain a large enough screen to counter anything the Hameji could throw at them. Unless, of course, the Hameji spent all of their own reserves on the attack—but by then, the fifth and sixth fleets would already be at their rear. Casualties would be high, but the Hameji would not escape.
“Give me a status report on those satellites,” said Katsuichi, shifting nervously in his seat. Not much time before the other fleets were due to move into position.
“Three down, five to go,” came the report.
“Order the Musashi and Yamato to empty their reserves; I want those satellites knocked out before the Hameji can get their countermeasures up.”
“With their reserves spent, those ships won’t be able to jump out if we order a retreat,” Kenta said softly in his ear. “Are you sure this is a good idea, young master?”
“We won’t win this battle unless we commit to it,” he answered. “You said before that my men were ready to charge into Hell itself.”
“Forgive me, Your Imperial Highness,” said Kenta, bowing deeply. He gripped his sword and eyed the holographic displays with a face devoid of any emotion.
“Hameji forces are beginning to climb the gravity well,” said the pilot, the stress in his voice noticeably heightened. “They’re moving to make a frontal assault.”
“Have our ships fan out to absorb their attack. Watch for any breaks in their formation and keep me updated.”
Katsuichi leaned forward with his hands close together. On the holographic display, three clusters of Hameji forces began to crawl away from the star and toward the waiting blue ships. This was it—the moment of truth.
“Sir,” said the gunnery officer, “we’re in a perfect position to make an artillery barrage—that gravity well is going to make our shots shred right through them!”
“Wait until they’ve committed,” Katsuichi said softly, “then assign the targets as you see fit.”
The blue dots slowly spread out as the red ones approached. Some of the Hameji ships spread out a little, but several tight clusters remained, as if they had forgotten to take a defensive stance in their race to attack the Federation forces first.
“How are those satellites?” he asked.
“Gone, sir,” said the officer. “All eight satellites have been destroyed.”
“Then let’s hope the fifth and sixth fleets pull through.”
“Sir,” said the gunnery officer, “we have a clear shot on the first wave. Shall we engage?”
Katsuichi nodded. “Have the fleet maintain formation and begin projectile bombardment.”
“The Hameji are launching fighter swarms,” said the pilot, his voice more nervous than ever. “They’re converging on our position—what should we do?”
“Launch fighter drones and move to intercept. Keep the Divine Wind far enough back to draw them to our laser stars.”
The Hameji ships drew closer, climbing out of the star’s gravity well as fast as their engines could take them.
“First volley away,” said the gunnery officer. “Shall we follow with a second?”
“Fire away,” said Katsuichi. On the holographic projection, a few Hameji ships broke away to avoid the projectiles, while others tried desperately to shield themselves with a screen of plasma fire.
“Firing,” said the gunnery officer, his eyes glued to his display screen. “Stand by for impact … now!”
Several clusters broke up on the display, while many of the ships began to blink. As Katsuichi watched from the edge of his seat, three of them broke apart into a thin red mist and disappeared.
“We’ve taken out two gunboats and a small cruiser,” said the gunnery officer, his grin irrepressible. “I told you we’d shred them!”
Overhead, the starfield flashed with silent plasma bursts as the Rigelan fleets tried to shoot down the incoming Hameji projectiles. Several of the blue dots on the projection began to blink, including a few of Colonel Webb’s forces which began to pull back.
“Hold formation,” Katsuichi ordered.
As if in reply, the room flashed bright pink, blinding him for a moment and sending a few of his officers to the floor. They recovered quickly, resuming their stations with pale faces and shaking hands.
“Hameji are firing tactical nukes,” shouted the pilot. “They’ve disabled the Hirohito and knocked out several hundred of our fighters. The other Federation ships are starting to pull back.”
“Launch nuclear warheads and order all ships to accelerate at full power,” said Katsuichi, rising to his feet. “Prepare to engage at point blank range.”
“But Your Highness—”
“Do it! It’s the only way to keep them from decimating us with a nuclear fusillade.”
His officers looked at him with tense, frightened faces, but they obeyed like the disciplined soldiers they were. A loud rumble sounded beneath his feet as the engines engaged.
Now would be a very good time for those fleets to show up.
On the holographic projection, the dark blue ships moved forward toward the increasingly chaotic mass of red Hameji ships. Around the edges of the star, little blue projections flickered in and out of view, until several small diamond formations shot around from the far side, hurtling at incredible speed toward the battle.
“It’s the fifth and sixth fleets!” said the pilot, his voice ecstatic. “They’re moving to attack the Hameji rear!”
“Keep us far enough up the well to stay away from their projectile fire,” said Katsuichi, “but continue to accelerate toward the outermost ships.”
The starfield overhead was full of flashing lights and glittering battleships now. As the first wave of Hameji fighter drones approached the fleet, the laser stars on the wings of the Divine Wind lit up like an Orianan worship rave.
“Our nuclear attack has disabled five ships and destroyed two more,” said the gunnery officer. “Engaging at point blank range.”
“Now we see just how invincible these Hameji really are,” Kenta muttered.
The floor shuddered, making Katsuichi grab his armrest for support. “Give me an update,” he said. “How are we doing?”
“The Miyamoto and Hirohito are taking heavy fire. Commander Amano of the Hirohito has given the order to abandon ship—”
“But we’ve taken out two of their larger capital ships,” said the gunnery officer, unable to contain his excitement. “A third is moving to withdraw—we can do this!”
Katsuichi’s eyes widened in amazement, and chills shot from the back of his neck to the ends of his fingers. We’re winning, he thought to himself, suppressing the urge to shout. By the ancient holy stars of Earth, we’re actually winning.
Without warning, the light blue marks representing Colonel Webb’s ships flickered and died, one by one. Katsuichi frowned. “What’s that? What’s going on?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” said the communications officer, “but it appears that the colonel is withdrawing his fleet. His flagship has left the battle, and I can’t pick up his signal anywhere else in the system.
“Leaving? What do you mean?”
“It’s true, sir,” said the pilot. “The other Federation ships have just jumped out. We’re—we’re alone.”
Blood rushed to Katsuichi’s cheeks, and he clenched his fists in rage. “How can he leave right now? What can he be thinking? We’re—”
“Calm, Katsuichi-sama,” said Kenta, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Your men need you.”
Katsuichi collapsed in his command chair, his head in his hands. Without Colonel Webb’s forces, the Hameji could focus all their strength on the Rigelan fleet. The fifth and sixth fleets were coming in fast, but there was no guarantee that they would arrive in time to save them. If they continued, they might still win, but the casualties would be very, very high.
“The Hirohito is down, sir. The Roppongi is also coming under heavy—”
“Sir! Hameji reinforcements are jumping in across the sector!”
Katsuichi looked up as little clusters of red started popping up all along the edges of the holographic projection. His stomach fell—it was a second Hameji fleet, almost as large as the first one, high enough up the gravity well to eliminate whatever positional advantage the Rigelan forces still held.
“Your orders, sir?”
“We can’t do this,” Kenta said under his breath. “Even if we give our lives, we can’t win this battle.”
Katsuichi groaned, his hands shaking. “Give the order to fall back,” he said softly.
“Yes, Sir,” said the pilot, his voice subdued. “What about the Musashi and the Yamamoto?”
A deep sinking feeling welled up in Katsuichi’s gut. He clenched his fists in frustration, but knew he had no choice.
“There’s nothing we can do for them. Tell Commanders Akira and Satoshi that their names will be held in the highest honor for their sacrifice.”
The pilot nodded, while the communications officer, tears in her eyes, relayed the transmission. Katsuichi swallowed hard and covered his face with his hand.
“You did the right thing,” said Kenta as the Divine Wind jumped out. “Better to win another day than to lose everything through no fault of our own.”
“We were betrayed,” Katsuichi muttered. “The colonel abandoned us.”
Kenta grunted, but said nothing. Katsuichi, unable to keep his composure, stormed angrily out of the bridge.
* * * * *
Abaqa pounded his fist against his gunboat’s instrument panel and swore in his loudest, angriest voice. Three days out from capturing the planetborn princess, and still he couldn’t escape the jump beacons set by those pesky … whoever they were. After so much time in deep space, this cat-and-mouse game was starting to grate on his nerves. He’d already exhausted his gunboat’s energy reserves, and both of his jump drives were spent. It’d be several hours before he’d be able to attempt another jump—hopefully, without getting interdicted again.
He gripped the flight stick and activated the gunboat’s main railgun. At least these jump beacons gave him some opportunity for target practice. He brought his ship around until the small, barrel-shaped object was right in his cross-hairs. “Goodbye forever,” he said, squeezing the trigger. The overhead bulkheads rumbled, giving him a feeling of intense satisfaction as the shots tore through the target and turned it into a mass of flying shrapnel.
With that done, he sighed and rose to his feet, ducking as he stepped into the gunboat’s narrow cabin. The girl sat in the corner with her hands behind her back and her knees against her chest; he’d adjusted her bonds after she’d complained about feeling sore. Her clothes still lay in a pile on the floor where he’d kicked them, though he hadn’t stripped her down completely yet.
“Hungry?” he asked casually as he opened the compartment for the food synthesizer and began processing their lunch. He didn’t really expect an answer, though—not with the gag over her mouth. Still, her glare was so venomous that he had no trouble guessing her answer.
“Hey, it’s not my fault we’re still here,” he said, giving her a shrug. “If it were up to me, we’d be back with my brother’s fleet already, and you’d be comfortably settled with the rest of the concubines.”
She shouted something at him, but the gag muffled her voice enough that he couldn’t hear it. He pulled out the bowl and walked over with it to the corner, squatting down beside her.
“Are we going to behave this time?” he asked, holding the bowl in front of her. She glared at him, but nodded.
With his free hand, he undid the knot and pulled off the gag. She gasped and shook her head, making her hair dance over her bare shoulders. She had rings around her eyes now, and the bruises on her arms had puffed up a little, but she was still as spirited as ever—and just as beautiful.
“My brother is going to find me,” she said, her voice deadly low. “He’s going to come for me, and when he does, he’s going to make you wish you’d never been born.”
Abaqa laughed. “The fire of hope burns eternal, but every star in the universe will eventually grow cold.”
“Let me go.”
The desperation was definitely under the surface, but it was there. Perhaps she’d actually break before the voyage was up. Still, he had to admit, she had a lot of spirit for a planetborn wench.
“I can’t,” he said, stirring the synthmeal with his spoon. “If I untied you, you’d probably try to kill me—and where would that put us? Can you fly this ship?”
“I don’t have to,” she said. “My brother will come for me.”
He took a spoonful of the dull gray porridge and held it out to her. With as much defiance as she could manage, she opened her mouth and let him feed her.
“We’re practically in Hameji space already,” he said. “Even if your brother did show up to rescue you, he’d never get out with his life.”
“You’re lying,” she said. Still, she was unable to hide the fear in her eyes.
Abaqa shrugged. “It makes no difference in the end.”
“How do you knmmmfm,” she said, mumbling as he stuffed another spoonful of synthmeal down her throat.
“How do I know? We’re only a few dozen light-hours from Eyn-Gatta, where my brother’s fleets are stationed.”
She scowled at him, but her eyes still shone with fear. He fed her another spoonful.
“Still, if that is your brother, he’s got a lot of spirit to follow us out this far. A lot of spirit, just like you.”
“Is that supposed to be a come-on?”
He blushed. “No. When I make you my concubine, I won’t need to bother with come-ons.”
“Ha! That’s a laugh. What are you going to do, bathe me in scented oils and make me hand-feed you from a baby bottle? No, let me guess—you’ll post pictures of me in your bedroom and pretend to do naughty things to them.”
“Shut up!” he said, blushing even deeper.
As he fed her another spoonful, the lights overhead turned red, and alarms began to blare across the cabin. In an instant, he was on his feet, running for the cockpit.
“Hey!” the girl called out after him. “You spilled that disgusting stuff all over the floor!”
He didn’t have time to respond to her, though—the sensors had picked up a ship coming out of jumpspace only a few hundred kilometers away from him. He switched off the alarms and powered down as many systems as he could, cursing himself for not thinking about that earlier. With his jump drives still powering up and nothing in local-space except dust and gas, he had nowhere to run.
“What was that?” the girl called out. “Is that my brother? I told you he’d come for me!”
“Shut up!” he shouted, his hands trembling. He trained the telescopic cameras on the craft and zoomed in—it was them them, all right. And it looked like they were launching fighter drones.
“Or what?” she yelled back, encouraged now by the alarm. “Or you’ll toss me out the airlock? It’s not going to save you—you’re only chance is to hand me over.”
An alert started blinking on the main display. It was a transmission from the incoming ship. Without thinking of the girl, he brought it up and hit play.
“Attention Hameji vessel,” came an older woman’s voice, speaking in Gaian. “This is Captain Danica Nova of the Rigelan-aligned Tajji Flame. Power down your ship and surrender at once.”
“See?” squealed the girl. “See? I told you he’d come—I told you!”
Abaqa clenched and unclenched his fists. For a moment, he considered putting up a fight, but the Tajji Flame was much larger than his gunboat, with almost three times as many fighters. Without any backup, he was as good as dead the moment he powered up his weapons.
Instead, he activated a high-level distress beacon, using the codes his father had taught him. It was an embarrassing way to end his first mission, but he had no doubt that his brother Jahan would come for him—especially with Eyn-Gatta so close by.
After a few seconds, the alert flashed again. “Hameji vessel, depower your distress beacon and submit to boarding at once.”
“If you want me to stop transmitting,” he answered in Gaian, “then come here and shut it off yourself.”
He waited again. No response. On the sensors, the Tajji Flame grew closer.
Abaqa groaned and returned to the cabin. The girl was laughing manically now, hardly able to control herself.
“How does it feel, big boy? What are you going to do when you’re the one tied up?”
“Your friends won’t get very far,” he told her. “In just a few hours, this place will be teeming with my Hameji brethren.”
“It doesn’t matter. In just a few minutes, this ship will be teeming with Federation marines.”
He scowled at her, but inwardly he knew she was right.
* * * * *
“Let’s get that distress signal down,” said Danica. “Carve that gunboat to pieces if you have to, Tajjashvili—but make sure the princess is still alive.”
Rina monitored the distress signal, checking it for secret codes and anomalies. It didn’t take her long to break it; the encryption was only basic, and she already had a good enough knowledge of Hameji protocols to know what she was looking at. When she found it, she ran it through her private datalink until she came up with a match.
“Captain,” she said, “I’ve found something that might interest you.”
“Oh?” said Danica, raising an eyebrow at her. “What is it, Lieutenant?”
“The distress call contains a secret code,” she said, bringing it up on her screen. “It’s an identifier for high-ranking Hameji personnel. This one is for a son of Qasar, one of the highest ranking fleet commanders under General Tagatai.”
“Qasar,” Danica muttered, bringing her hand to her chin. In the back of the room, Roman frowned and narrowed his good eye.
“Which son?” he asked.
“The son of his youngest wife,” said Rina. “A woman by the name of Sholpan.”
“Abaqa. We’re dealing with Prince Abaqa.”
Rina looked up quickly, barely concealing her surprise. How did these mercenaries know so much about the Hameji?
“Roman, I want you to scour that gunboat for anything that might prove useful, then scuttle it,” said Danica. She turned to face her men. “Yuri, how long until we can jump out?”
“About three hours at the earliest,” he said. “But we need longer to make a full jump.”
“That’s all right, Lieutenant. Just get us out of this sector before the Hameji pick up that signal.”
“We’re still a good ten to twelve light hours out from Eyn-Gatta. We’ll be fine.”
Rina frowned at her screen. “Captain, it appears that the Federation has just lost a major battle at this system.”
Danica turned to her and frowned. “What did you say?”
“I’ve been monitoring the radio noise,” said Rina, looking up from her station. “There are a lot of Hameji transmissions, as well as a few distress signals from Rigelan ships. If the Federation had won the battle, it would be the other way around.”
“Are you certain of this?” said Roman, rising to his feet.
“I’m afraid she’s right,” said Yuri. “I’m picking up the same thing. This entire sector is swarming with Hameji.”
Danica nodded grimly. “In that case, we must assume that they have pushed the Federation back to New Vela. Keep the ship-wide alert on level two, and be ready at any time for action. From here on out, we’re in enemy controlled space.”
A buzzing sounded in Rina’s ear, nearly making her cringe. She sat back in her chair and rubbed it with her fingertips, closing her eyes as the intensity increased.
All at once, something in her datalinks clicked, and she found herself standing—or floating, rather—in a white, featureless room. All bodily sensation left her as her mind received a message in the form of raw data.
ATTENTION AGENT: STAND BY AND AWAIT DIRECTIVE.
An instant later, she was back on the Tajji Flame, rubbing her head as if she had a headache. The buzzing died down, and she dropped her hand immediately, pretending as if nothing had happened. Fortunately, the other officers were too busy to notice.
Await directive. She took a deep breath and instinctively reached down to the pistol on her belt, confirming that it was there, ready to be used when she needed it.
“Let me go,” Hikaru yelled, her heart pounding. Explosions sounded through the bulkheads, and for a moment she feared that the ship would break apart. She wondered if she should try to make a break for the escape pods, but with her hands still tied behind her back, there was no way she could get to them.
She opened her mouth to scream, but Abaqa appeared in the doorway to the cockpit. His expression was subdued, but she thought she could see a trace of fear behind his eyes. That, more than anything else, filled her with glee.
“So you thought you could pull a quick one, huh?” she shouted at him. “Well, it didn’t work—so now let me go!”
“Let yourself go,” he shot back at her. Then, kneeling on the floor, he pulled out his gun and knife and laid them out carefully in front of him.
“What are you going to do, kill yourself?” she asked. “If so, good riddance.”
“Of course not, you slut,” he hissed. “I’ve just been disabled. Your mercenary friends are going to be here in moments.”
As if to confirm that, the explosions stopped, and the awful grinding of metal on metal announced that someone had docked.
“So you’re just going to let them find me tied up like this,” said Hikaru, rolling her eyes. “Great idea—I’m sure they won’t think you mistreated me.”
“I could still kill you,” said Abaqa, his voice low. “My brother Gazan certainly wants me to.”
“Oh yeah? Then why haven’t you?”
“Because I don’t think you’re worth dying over.”
The airlock door hissed open, and a massive, broad-shouldered man charged through. He was more than a full head taller than Hikaru, and the muscles on his arms and chest were huge, evident even under his dark brown battle armor. Though he looked as strong as one of the palace samurai, wrinkles creased his forehead just beneath his helmet. She looked up at his age-worn face and realized that one of his eyes was prosthetic. It glowed a dull red, like a laser waiting to be fired.
“Help!” she managed to scream, doing her best to look helpless. The old soldier glanced at her for a second, but kept his assault rifle trained on Abaqa. He grunted something in a foreign language, and two other soldiers stormed in, surrounding the Hameji prince and making him lie with his face on the ground.
“You are Princess Hikaru?” the old man asked, his voice low and gravelly. Hikaru nodded.
“I had to keep her this way,” said Abaqa as the soldiers tied his hands forcibly behind his back. “None of her injuries are permanent.”
“And her clothes?” muttered the old man.
“Next to the bunk. Ow!”
The soldiers lifted Abaqa bodily to his feet and stood on either side of him, guns jammed into his sides. Hikaru smiled to herself as he winced in pain. Serves you right.
“Take him to the brig,” said the old soldier, adding something in his own language. The soldiers nodded and dragged the boy prince off through the airlock.
“Help,” cried Hikaru, struggling against her bonds for effect.
“Do not be afraid,” said the old man. “I free you now. Stay still.” He knelt down beside her and pulled out a large laser-knife from a sheath on his chest plate—one just as large as Abaqa’s, though it didn’t look nearly so awkward on him. Hikaru held perfectly still as he reached behind her and cut the bonds on her wrists before moving to her feet.
“Thank you,” she said, rubbing her sore, bruised wrists. The man’s armor was scratched and dented, and smelled of old, faded perspiration, making her forget how much she stank after the last few days. As for her lack of clothing, however, she was acutely aware of that—especially as he checked her over.
“How do you feel?” he asked.
“Sore,” she said, stretching out her legs and rubbing them down. She watched him out of the corner of his eye to gage his reaction, but his cyborg face was difficult to read.
“Can you walk?”
“I—I don’t know,” she said, more to see what he would do than because she didn’t think she could.
To her delight, he scooped her gently up and carried her in his arms through the airlock. She held on tightly with her face close to his, the scent of his heady musk filling her nostrils.
“Do not worry,” he told her as they walked down the dimly lit corridor. “You are safe now, Princess. I will leave you with Doctor Avanadze. She will tend to you.”
“My name is Roman Andrei Krikoryan. Our captain is Danica Nova. Your brother has sent us to bring you home.”
Not right away, I hope, she almost said aloud. Instead, she faked some tears and clung to the old cyborg mercenary with all the tenacity of a little girl. If this was what it felt like to be rescued, she almost wanted to be captured again.
* * * * *
The door to Danica’s quarters hissed open. “Ah, Roman,” she said, smiling warmly. “Please, come in.”
Roman stepped into the immaculately furnished room. Four authentic mahogany bookshelves stood off to his left, while a dark leather couch sat across from a pair of armchairs that were almost as old as the ship itself. A painting adorned the wall above the couch, showing an ancient tribal hovercraft speeding across the rocky wastes of Tajjur V.
To the homeworld, he thought as he installed himself in one of the armchairs. Surrounded by antiques from his country, he couldn’t help but feel a familiar pang of loss and regret.
“Would you like something to drink, Roman?”
“No, thank you,” he said. “I am well, Captain.”
She walked in carrying a mug of steaming hot coffee. From the rich, bittersweet aroma, it was without a doubt an authentic Tajji blend. Roman raised an eyebrow—he’d thought that the ship had run out of Tajji-grown coffee years ago. She must have been under a great deal of stress to break into her personal stores only now.
“I trust that Yuri has taken us away from the distress beacon?”
“Yes, Captain. Our next jump will be in one hour.”
“Good,” she said, nodding. “And the gunboat?”
“Scuttled, as ordered. We mirrored gunboat’s computer core and recovered some personal items first.”
Roman shrugged. “Some knives, another flight suit, small picture-player with images of his family.”
“Make sure that he doesn’t know we have them.”
“Of course, Captain.”
“I’d also like to see that picture-player,” Danica added. “Does it have any images of his mother?”
“I do not know.”
“I don’t suppose it matters, but I’ve always wondered what happened to that girl. Sholpan—the universe must have a strange sense of humor to bring us her son.”
Roman nodded and patted the captain’s knee. She looked up at him and smiled—an old smile, but not unlike the one she’d had almost fifteen years ago, after their first mission against the Hameji. He still thought of the young boy whose sister they’d tried to rescue, though he’d long forgotten his name. Danica never forgot names—or faces, for that matter.
“What do you plan to do with Hameji prince?” Roman asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “It depends who’s willing to pay more for him: the Federation or the Hameji.”
Roman grunted. “The Hameji will pay us in blood before they pay us in money.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of. Do you think we should have just left him in the gunboat for the Hameji to find him?”
“Of course not. They would still come for us even if boy were safe.”
She nodded. “You’re right. The older I get, the more I second-guess myself.”
“But we do not second-guess you, Captain,” said Roman. “The men love you—you are like mother to them. Stern, unyielding mother, perhaps, but mother nonetheless.”
His words made her smile. “I’m glad to hear it.”
“As for Al-Najmi,” he added, “I learned something interesting. Her people were desert tribesman, not Imperials—same as Abu Kariym.”
“Abu Kariym. I wonder whatever happened to him?”
“If he did not find rejuvenation, no doubt he has passed away by now.”
“Perhaps,” said Danica, taking a sip of her coffee. She set her mug on a hand-woven coaster on the antique wooden table in front of them. “With the Federation defeat at Eyn-Gatta, it’s going to be a little tricky getting back.”
Roman drew in a deep breath. Danica always had a way of understating the severity of a situation when they were slogging through it. Perhaps it was a way to cope with the stress, but he knew her well enough to tell that she was worried—perhaps even terrified.
“Yuri is ready,” he said. “He is good pilot, even if he is stubborn.”
Danica nodded. “We’ll need Al-Najmi’s help with this, too. If the Hameji interdict us with jump beacons, we may need an avid hacker to give them … a surprise.”
“Just make sure she’s on our side. When the time comes, she’ll know what to do.”
He nodded and grunted. “Understood.”
“And the princess? Is she doing well?”
“I have not heard from Lieutenant Avanadze, but I assume that is good thing.”
“So do I.”
She rose wearily to her feet, retrieving the mug from the table. “In that case, I suppose I’ll be needed on the bridge shortly. Thank you for your time, Roman.”
“Captain,” said Roman. He snapped to his feet and gave her a brisk salute before walking out the door.
* * * * *
Abaqa stood up from his hard metal cot as the door to the brig slid open. In spite of the narrow cell they’d given him, with its heavy electrified bars and hole in the floor for a toilet, he would not let these planetborn break him down. If the princess could hold out as long as she did, he would prove that he had at least as much spirit as her.
The sound of boots against the hard metal floor met his ears, followed by the beeping of a keypad. The door to his cell swung open with a groan. The light from the corridor was too dark to see the face of the man who had come to see him, but Abaqa recognized him from the red glow of his left eye.
The man grunted a command, and a younger soldier walked in and cuffed Abaqa’s hands. He considered putting up a struggle, but decided that that would accomplish nothing besides the complete and utter forfeit of his dignity. Strength was all about the conservation of power, after all—those who fought unwinnable battles only demonstrated their own weakness.
The cyborg soldier led him out of the brig to a small, windowless room with a retractable metal table in the center and harsh fluorescent lights lining the ceiling. He took a seat on the far side, while his underling deposited Abaqa on a bench facing him. A moment later, the door hissed shut, leaving the two of them alone.
Abaqa drew himself up to his full height and calmly examined the man sitting across from him. For a planetborn, he was impressively large, with broad, muscular shoulders and wide, powerful hands. In the light, though, the entire left half of his body seemed to be made of metal. With his olive-green uniform on it was impossible to tell, but at the very least his left arm and the entire side of his face was prosthetic—and an intimidating prosthetic at that. As Abaqa stared into the laser-like light of that eye, he felt as if he were staring at a machine with a man sewn on.
“You are Prince Abaqa, son of Qasar,” said the man, his voice deep and gravelly. “Your mother is woman from Karduna system, known as Sholpan.”
“Yes,” said Abaqa, swallowing his surprise. Suddenly, the room felt a lot warmer.
“You transmitted this information in distress signal,” the man continued. “Of course, since your gunboat is smashed to pieces, they will think you died in battle.”
“That’s not true,” said Abaqa, clenching his fists. “My brothers will come for me, planetborn. They know I’m alive.”
“Oh? And how?”
His cheeks reddened as he realized he’d said too much. Still, the old cyborg shrugged, as if he didn’t care.
“It matters little. Even if they make pursuit, we will evade them. We have evaded Hameji before.”
“I don’t believe you,” Abaqa muttered. “No one evades my brothers—certainly not a planetborn weakling like you.”
The old cyborg grinned—a grotesque expression, when only half of his face was made of flesh.
“Planetborn, eh? You use that word like insult. Would you like to know which planet we are from?” He tapped his metal fingers against the tabletop, filling the room with an annoying rasp.
“What does it matter?” Abaqa said with a sneer. “All planetborn are the same.”
“Not true. We are Tajji, most of us—our captain, myself, and all of my men. Do you know what we think of you Hameji? What you are to us?”
“Barbarians. People without culture and without humanity, no better than beasts.”
Abaqa laughed. “That comes as no surprise. We slagged your world, didn’t we? My father should be there even now—he was one of the commanders who oversaw the bombardment.”
He watched for any trace of emotion, but the weathered old cyborg simply smiled and tilted his head at him, the way a parent smiles at a child.
“If that is true,” he said, “then there are men on this ship who would consider it honor to kill you.”
Abaqa puffed out his chest in defiance. “Then let them try.”
The old cyborg threw back his head and laughed, an unsettling sight considering how much of him was machine. “You remind me of your mother’s brother,” he said, slapping his good hand on the table. “That is exactly what he would say.”
“My—my uncle?” said Abaqa, frowning. “How do you know him?”
“Do not worry; it does not matter.”
“Yes it—” he began to protest, then sat back and folded his arms. “All right,” he said, “what do you want with me?”
“Let us be frank,” said the old cyborg, leaning forward with his hands clasped in front of him. “You do not wish to die, and we do not wish to kill you. However, there is nothing in this universe that does not have a price.”
“So you’re mercenaries, then?” said Abaqa. He spat on the floor to indicate his disgust.
“Exactly. And you, my friend, are worth very, very much.”
“If you want me to beg to my brothers to ransom me, I won’t do it,” he said. I’ve already suffered enough humiliation as it is.
“Ah, but have you heard of Federation methods of interrogation? I hear they use direct neural interface to extract information.”
“That’s impossible,” said Abaqa, tensing a little.
The cyborg smiled and turned his head, revealing a large socket at the base of his skull.
“It is not.”
Abaqa swallowed, struggling to keep his composure. Fortunately, the old cyborg rose to his feet and keyed a button on the wall. The door hissed open, and a soldier entered to escort him back to his cell.
“We will continue discussion later,” said the old cyborg. “Until next time, consider your options carefully.”
Abaqa sneered as the soldier led him out, but inwardly, he couldn’t stop shuddering.
* * * * *
“How do you feel, Master Sergeant?”
The sound of the old man’s laughter made Hikaru sit up. She slipped her bare feet over the edge of her bed and tip-toed to the divider, peeking around the corner. The cyborg soldier who had rescued her sat on the examining table, taking up the entire length with his massive, shirtless body. Doctor Avanadze opened his patient’s gown at the front to check his vital signs with her instruments.
“Every time, you ask me this question,” he said. “And every time, my answer does not change.”
“You’re not just a machine, Sergeant. You’re a human being, and my patient.”
“Perhaps. But I feel nothing, doctor. I am machine.”
“Nothing?” Hikaru blurted, covering her mouth the instant she said it. Both the doctor and Roman turned to look at her, making her cheeks burn with embarrassment.
“You need your rest, Princess,” said the doctor, with all the insistence of an annoying nanny. “Please, if you—”
“I feel fine,” she blurted, stepping out into the examining room. “Besides, I wanted to talk with Roman.”
“Oh you do, do you?” said Roman with a grin. “What do you wish to say?”
“Well, uh,” she began, finding herself at a loss for words. “I wanted to thank you for saving me, of course.”
“The pleasure was mine. Anything else?”
Suddenly, she felt like a little girl on her way to meet her betrothed for the first time. Hot blood rushed to her cheeks, and she held her hands behind her back with her toes turned inward.
As she struggled to think of something, the doctor returned to her patient and continued checking him. Roman took it in stride, as if it were perfectly normal for a woman to poke and prod him.
“What do you mean, you feel nothing?”
Doctor Avanadze stopped and eyed her for a second, but Roman didn’t seem to mind. “I mean exactly that,” he said. “My body is more machine than muscle. I have lived for so long, it is only like shell to me—but cyborgs never die. Their humanity fades, until they become like me.”
“That’s not true,” said Hikaru, stepping closer. “You’re still human—I know you are.”
He chuckled and turned to the doctor. “Lieutenant Avanadze, I see you have new protegée.”
“The princess is just my patient, nothing more.”
“Why do you feel so empty?” asked Hikaru, looking Roman in the eye. “You’ve still got plenty of spirit. Why would a few prosthetics get you down?”
His good eye narrowed as he returned her gaze. He fitted the eye patch over the prosthetic side of his face before rising to his feet and buttoning up his shirt.
“You are young girl,” he said. “Your life still lies in your future. There are many things you would not understand.”
“But I want to,” she said, following him to the door. “I want to underst—hey!”
He walked out of the medical bay, all but ignoring her.
“I’m sorry,” said Doctor Avanadze, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Sergeant Krikoryan is a little … difficult sometimes.”
“Has he been a soldier for long?”
“Longer than you or I have been alive. Here, let me check you over.”
Longer than I’ve been alive, Hikaru thought as she climbed onto the examining table. That means he’s seen more of the universe than anyone on this ship. Certainly more than she’d ever see. Her adventure would be over once the soldiers returned her to the palace, but until then, anything could happen. She’d have to see that it would.
“You betrayed us,” said Katsuichi, his hands trembling with barely suppressed rage. “Victory was within our grasp, and you abandoned us like cowards.”
“Cowards?” said the colonel, smiling in a way that only aggravated him further. “With all due respect, Your Highness, some of us are old enough to know the difference between cowardice and wisdom.”
Kenta hissed between his teeth to show his displeasure. For his part, Katsuichi took a deep breath and tried to calm himself. The lights in the empty observation deck suddenly seemed very bright, the recycled air a bit too stuffy. He gazed out the wide observation windows to hide his rage, staring out at the milky band of stars that made up the galactic disk. New Vela shone like a sapphire in the midst of it, only a few light years away—and directly in the line of the Hameji advance.
“Why did you leave the battlefield?”
“My allegiance is to my men,” said Colonel Webb, clasping his hands comfortably behind his back with an air of authority. “When I determined that the battle had reached a point where it could not be won, I withdrew.”
“Without coordinating with us?” said Kenta, his eyes burning with rage. “You were not trying to save your men—you were abandoning us in the most dishonorable way possible.”
“Don’t speak to me of honor,” said the colonel, lowering his voice. “Do you think that honor matters to the Hameji? How do you expect to defeat them by clinging to your archaic traditions? If you want to learn to defeat an enemy, you need to be willing to take extreme measures that your enemy would consider unthinkable.”
Kenta opened his mouth to argue back, but Katsuichi silenced him with a wave of his hand. He turned and looked the colonel in the eye, searching for some hint of an ulterior motive, but the cunning man was all but unreadable.
“Why didn’t you coordinate your withdrawal with us?” he asked.
Colonel Webb gave him a sly smile. “What makes you assume I would want to coordinate?”
The question hung in the air like a sword ready to fall. Katsuichi opened his mouth to speak, but the colonel preempted him. “The Federation is very fragmented right now,” he said, turning to leave. “There is a power vacuum at the highest levels of command, and each battle fleet is essentially an independent unit. Dishonorable men thrive in such environments, Your Highness.”
With that, he palmed the door and stepped through, leaving Katsuichi and Kenta staring after him in disbelief.
“Impossible,” said Kenta, breaking the silence first. “I warned you, Your Highness—this man is no better than a criminal.”
“You are right, Kenta—of course, you’re right. But if we do not fight alongside him, the Hameji will come through the rift and destroy us.”
The old samurai grunted in disgust. “Better death than dishonor.”
“Perhaps,” said Katsuichi, thinking of his sister. “But if we die, what good are we to those we love?”
“The true warrior fights as one already dead, Katsuichi-sama.”
He sighed. With Hikaru still missing, there was little doubt that she had been kidnapped or killed. It pained him to think about it, but perhaps it was better to embrace this truth than to grasp for something to live for.
“You’re right,” he said, staring back out the window. The stars shone back at him, their light beautiful but cold in the depths of space.
* * * * *
Hikaru tip-toed down the corridor, thankful for the ever-present hum of the ship’s ventilation system that masked her passing. She came to the door with the letters MSG spray-painted in black with a crude stencil, and hesitated only a second before ringing the chime.
“Enter,” came a deep, gravely voice from the other side.
Her stomach fluttered, and she palmed the access panel to open the door.
“Hi there,” she said, stepping gingerly inside. Roman rose to his feet from a chair against the wall, walking over to greet her. “Is this your, ah, private quarters?”
“It is. How can I help you, Princess?”
The door hissed shut behind her, leaving them alone together.
“I’m sorry,” she said, batting her eyelashes at him. “I didn’t interrupt anything, did I?”
“No, Princess. Please, sit down.”
She stepped into the middle of the room, holding her arm behind her back. He motioned to the wall-chair, but she held back, holding her arm nervously behind her back.
“Can I see your scars?”
He raised his eyebrow and gave her a funny look. “Why do you wish to see them?”
“I—I’ve never seen a man with scars before,” she stammered. Not someone as big and strong as you.
He grunted and reached up with his natural hand to unbutton his faded gray uniform. When he was finished, he pulled it off of his left shoulder to reveal where the flesh of his chest merged with the brace for his metal prosthetic arm. His skin was tough and wizened, covered with curly white hair.
“That one is from almost fifteen years ago,” he said. “It was same battle that took my eye and my face. We took job from a young man—your age, in fact—and it was our first time fighting Hameji.” His voice became somber. “It nearly killed us all.”
Hikaru looked up into his face and saw a weight of sorrow that she could barely comprehend. Even the prosthetic half of his mouth seemed to frown at the memory. She reached up with her slender fingers and gently lifted the eye patch from his left eye. It glowed red, but did not frighten her. He flinched a little at her touch, but offered no resistance as she pulled it off and let it fall to the floor.
“Why do you wear this?” she asked.
“So that you will not be disturbed by my ugly face.”
Ugly? she wondered, her lips only a short distance from his. How could you call a face like that ugly? Especially one that had seen so much.
She thought of the way he’d rushed onto the Hameji ship, bursting through the door like an unstoppable force. If it weren’t for him, she’d probably be a slave to the Hameji for the rest of her life. She owed him so much, and yet he hadn’t even mentioned it. Then again, he’d probably made dozens of harrowing rescues, if not hundreds.
“What other scars can you show me?”
His natural eye narrowed at her, and he pulled the uniform off completely, leaving his chest fully bare. An old wound the length of her hand crossed diagonally across his muscular abs, just above his navel.
“This one is from Tajji revolution,” he said, “long before you were born. I got it in close combat, when we tried to capture Imperial ship.”
“Were you successful?”
He chuckled. “Yes and no. The Imperial bastards could not escape, so they sabotaged their engines to send ship into nearest planet. They surrendered to us very quickly, but we could not recover the wreckage.”
“I see,” she said, caressing his abs just below the wound. She tried to imagine what he must have looked like when he was her age. The image in her mind wasn’t nearly as fascinating as the man sitting in front of her.
“What else can you show me?”
His mouth parted in a lopsided, almost boyish grin, and he rose to his feet. He unclasped his belt, and for a heart-stopping moment, she thought he would drop his pants. Instead, he pulled it down just enough to show a stretch of dark and pitted skin running along his inner thigh.
“This was from gun battle,” he said, “also in the revolution. Some Imperial bastard tried to run off with my family jewels.”
Her eyes widened. “Did he—are they—”
“Still there?” He grinned and hooked his thumb around the edge of his belt, as if to show her. Her legs went weak, and blood rushed to her cheeks, but he only laughed.
“Do not be afraid, princess. I assure you, this old cyborg is still fully functional.”
Hikaru took a long breath as he refastened his belt, still chuckling to himself. With all of his scars and prosthetics, when she looked at him, she saw a man more experienced than anyone she had ever known. It made her want to run her fingers through his hair, to feel his sinewy muscles as his chest rose and fell against her own. What did it matter that he was old enough to be her grandfather? Here was a man who could give her things that she would never experience in the Imperial Palace.
“Are we alone?” she asked softly.
He cocked his head and raised his eyebrow. “Why do you ask?”
“Because,” she said, stepping lightly into the center of the room, “there is something I want to show you.”
Heart pounding in her chest, she unzipped her jumpsuit and let it fall to her ankles, so that she stood naked before him. She shook her hair loose and took a deep breath, her whole body quivering with anticipation. Take me, she thought, mouthing the words silently in her native language. Take me, and don’t hold back. She closed her eyes and imagined the feel of his rough, calloused hands on her skin, running them down her legs and—
The harsh sound of his laughter snapped her out of her thoughts. Roman was laughing uproariously—laughing at her.
“What is this? Do you think I have not seen tits before? Something to show me—ha!”
Hot blood rushed to Hikaru’s cheeks. “I—I just—”
A bolt of rage surged through her, drowning out all her other emotions. She clenched her fists as if to lunge forward, but pulled up her clothes instead.
“You—you pervy old man.” She slipped her hands through her sleeves and made for the door.
She stopped, her hand almost to the access panel, and slowly turned around to face him.
“You are young and full of fire, yes? Too much fire for this old cyborg. But I do not mock you. If you wish to show your gratitude, there is better way.”
He gestured for her to come closer. She hesitated for a moment, more out of obstinacy than anything else, but he only smiled at her until her resolve broke down. She took a few tremulous steps toward him and suddenly felt like a fish swimming into the mouth of a shark.
“Give me kiss.”
She swallowed. “A kiss?”
He grinned and nodded, pointing to his half-cyborg mouth. He leaned forward and she bent at the waist, heart pounding once again though she didn’t know why. A moment later, she closed her eyes, tilted back her head—
—and all at once, she felt as clumsy and inexperienced as a child on her first swim. Their lips touched, but she barely registered it until the metallic taste of his prosthetic jaw tickled the tip of her tongue. In that moment, she feared more than anything that he would think she was too young.
But then, her legs slowly turned to water. Time stopped, and sudden awareness of him flooded her senses: the thick, heady smell of his musk; the roughness of his jaw with the soft, fleshy texture of his lips. She felt as if she were receiving some small part of his vast experience—something new, something sensual. No longer angry or embarrassed, she wished that this moment would never end.
Inevitably, he pulled away and leaned back in his chair again, leaving her standing slightly off balance in front of him. She stepped back clumsily, nearly falling over. Though they’d barely touched, she felt as if there wasn’t any part of her that he hadn’t known. He smiled, and she couldn’t help but smile weakly back.
“Thank you, Princess.”
She opened her mouth as if to speak, but after what they’d just shared, words seemed woefully inadequate. She turned to leave, then stopped and turned back, then walked awkwardly to the door and palmed it open before the dizziness overtook her.
* * * * *
Sweat streamed down Rina’s face as she pulled her chin over the bar and let herself down again. Her arms ached from exertion, but in a good way—a way that left her satisfied, that confirmed her own strength. She sucked in a breath and lifted herself up again, then dropped to the floor at the end of the rep.
Elsewhere in the gymnasium, the clanging of weights and the pounding of fists against canvas told her she wasn’t alone. About seven other soldiers, all grunts, occupied the benches and equipment around her. They were all at least two or three times larger than her. As they went about their workouts, her eyes flitted back and forth across the room, gaging them even though they ignored her.
I assume nobody trusts me.
As she moved toward the mats to do sit-ups, the door hissed open, and the cyborg Roman stepped through. All but a few of the men stopped what they were doing to greet him.
“Hi there, Sarge.”
“Come to keep us in line, eh?”
“How’s the shoulder?”
Roman’s mouth turned upward in the hint of a smile. His gaze fell on Rina and lingered for a second. She pretended not to notice, but he stepped over to her.
“Lieutenant,” he said. “It is surprise to see you here. Most officers wait until their own hours to use these facilities.”
She stopped and sat up, frowning in alarm. “I’m sorry, Master Sergeant—am I in the way?”
“No, not at all. But why are you here?”
Should I tell him? With the other men watching, she didn’t seem to have much of a choice.
“I do come during officer hours,” she said, “but … well, they aren’t long enough.”
Roman clapped his hands together and laughed—not in a malicious way, but one that gave the other men permission to laugh with him. Rina bristled a little, but kept her cool.
“You must work out very much,” he said. “I am impressed.”
She said nothing. He shrugged, and the men returned to their workouts.
For the next half hour, Roman went from machine to machine. Rina watched him from the corner of her eye, monitoring him. Where the other men lifted two hundred pounds, he lifted two eighty. Where the others did thirty one-handed push-ups, he did fifty—with only his good hand, not his prosthetic. Sweat streamed down his face and massive chest, staining his shirt, but he seemed perfectly in his element, as if nothing could stop him.
Men like that could be dangerous.
As she cycled through the machines, she realized that he was watching her as well. It wasn’t obvious—most of the time, he did it with his prosthetic eye to hide it—but she could see it in the way he moved, and the way he never turned his back to her.
He doesn’t trust me, she thought to herself, taking a deep breath as she pushed herself to do one extra curl. None of these men trust me.
After cycling once through all the machines, Roman stepped onto the mats and went through a dynamic stretching routine. One by one, the other men finished what they were doing and began to gather around him. Some of them went through their own stretching exercises, while others simply stood with their arms crossed, watching. Not wanting to seem out of place, Rina joined them, standing behind the crowd with her back against the wall.
When he was finished, Roman walked over to the weapons lockers on the far side of the room and brought out a pair of black, foam staffs. “Time for pujilion!” he bellowed, and the men greeted the announcement with heady cheers.
Roman walked to the center of the mat and stood with his legs apart and knees slightly bent, his weight on the balls of his feet. He raised one of the long, thin staffs in the air and shouted: “Do we have first challenger?”
One of the younger men leaped onto the mat, and Roman tossed him the staff. The challenger bounced from foot to foot, circling the old cyborg, but Roman simply held his staff at the ready and waited for his opponent to attack.
From the corner of her eye, Rina noticed several other soldiers enter from the door on the other side of the room. Soon, it felt as if half the ship was there, cheering on the fighters. Some of the new men wore exercise gear, but most of them wore the faded olive-green fatigues of the old Tajji revolutionaries.
The young man leaped forward to strike, but Roman parried and sidestepped easily, delivering a swift and powerful counter. The man tried to dodge, but he was too slow. One of the other soldiers, a white-haired corporal who looked about Roman’s age, stepped forward with a yellow sash and swung it at the floor. “Point!” he shouted, and the men cheered.
Rina folded her arms and watched in interest as the match continued. The younger opponent circled at a much further distance now, darting back and forth while Roman assumed a more defensive stance. The young man lunged forward with a jab, but Roman deflected it. He lunged forward with another jab, then leaped out of range as Roman deflected it and attacked with a counter. They circled each other again. Around the edges of the mat, the men laughed and shouted boisterously, thoroughly entertained.
Then, Roman sidestepped just as his opponent lunged forward for another attack. He tried to leap back, but Roman was already there. With one smooth cut across the floor, he swept the man’s feet out from under him, then surged forward and jabbed the end of his staff into the man’s stomach while he was down. “Double point!” shouted the corporal, and the crowd erupted with cheers.
Rina frowned. From her vantage point, it looked as if the pujilion had stabbed through the man’s body and into the floor. When Roman stood up, however, she saw that the foam staff was actually collapsible—the younger soldier wasn’t hurt at all. Roman bent down to help him up, and the two men touched shoulders and slapped each other on the back in a show of good sportsmanship.
“Do we have another?” Roman bellowed.
This time, a man about his size stepped forward, tall and barrel-chested with arms almost as thick as Rina’s waist. He took the staff by the center and whipped it through the air, so fast that it practically whistled. The men cheered, and the man assumed a fighting stance, knees bent with his body low to the ground.
Roman held his pujilion at the ready, but before he could make a move the man shouted and charged. The staffs cracked again and again as they made contact, first one man attacking, then blocking the return and launching into a counterattack. Sweat streamed down their faces, and for a moment it looked as if neither man would yield. Then, quick as a thought, Roman saw an opening and lunged to the side, striking his opponent in the stomach before he could block. “Point!” shouted the corporal.
The two men took a step back and warily circled each other. The soldiers shouted and cheered the fighters on, some of them pulling out cash datachips and slapping them down to make bets. Romans opponent gripped his staff with white-knuckled hands, and with a resounding shout charged forward in another attack.
The whip and crack of the pujilion staffs mingled with the shouts from the crowd to fill the room with noise. The two men bore down on each other with ferocious intensity, neither one letting up. Eventually, the younger man forced Roman back against the edge of the mats. Roman clenched his teeth and tried to step aside, but his opponent gave him no opening. With muscles straining and veins popping out across his arm, the man gave one final shout and pushed Roman off of the mats entirely. “Point!” shouted the corporal, and the crowd went wild.
Roman got back in the ring as quickly as he had been knocked out, though. His opponent stepped back to allow him on again, but before he could charge, Roman bellowed a deep war-cry and lunged forward.
Once again, the two men surged to the attack, staffs grinding against each other. Rina watched with interest as they both started to stumble and show weakness. Roman dropped to one knee, and a collective gasp arose from his men—but when his opponent lunged in for the attack, he caught the man’s staff in midair and twisted it, pulling the man down. As he crashed bodily to the floor, Roman leaped to his feet and jabbed downward with both staffs, screaming in victory.
The men around the circle leaped to their feet and jumped up and down, cheering. It had become so wild in the gymnasium, Rina wondered whether the men ever saw any other form of entertainment on the ship.
“Who is next?” Roman bellowed.
None of the men stepped forward, though many slapped their comrades on the back and tried to encourage them to take the challenge. When she saw that no one would stand up to the old man, Rina surprised herself and walked through the crowd and into the circle.
“Let me give it a try,” she said.
Hoots and catcalls filled the air, but Roman smiled in approval and tossed her the staff. She caught it and whipped it back and forth between both hands, testing its weight and balance. When she jabbed it in the floor, she was surprised to find that it collapsed quite easily—and sprang immediately back to shape.
Roman waited for her to face him, but when she did, he lunged immediately forward in a ferocious thrust. Rina ducked and leaped aside, but he anticipated her retreat and adjusted his attack accordingly. Rina managed to deflect it, but he forced her back until she practically tripped over the men, falling out of the ring. They laughed and cheered, but helped her back to her feet and slapped her on the back. “Point!” shouted the corporal.
Rina stepped warily onto the mat. This time, she moved too quickly for Roman to catch her. Anticipating his thrust, she made to the right then darted to the left, ducking beneath his counter and rolling to her feet behind him. He spun around too quickly for her to take advantage of the distraction, but she used the extra time to regain her bearings and get a sense of the field. She held her staff behind her back as he turned around to face, and when he charged her again, she spun into attack and jabbed the staff into his side.
“Point!” shouted the corporal, and the crowd went wild.
Roman nodded to her in respect and took a few steps back, assuming a defensive position. She circled him cautiously, refusing to let him lure her into an attack. The shouting of the crowd grew louder and more boisterous, but Rina ignored it, focusing instead on her breathing and the feel of the pujilion in her grasp.
Not bad for first time, came an unspoken voice in her head. You fight well for an officer.
“For an officer?” she said aloud, but Roman was already lunging forward at her. Without thinking, she dropped to one knee and pointed her staff straight at him. His blow slapped her hard on the side, but his momentum threw him onto her weapon. The men leaped to their feet and cheered louder than ever.
The referee hesitated for a moment and frowned. “Point each,” he finally ruled, waving the sash in the air. “Sudden death!”
That was low, Rina thought-spoke through the datalink implant.
Roman chuckled and returned to his defensive stance. There are no rules in war, he transmitted to her through his own neural implants. You must be like water, ever changing.
He lunged, and she deflected and sidestepped, returning with a counter and leaping nimbly aside.
What game are you playing? she asked, circling him again.
I am too old for games, he answered, cutting the air with a slice that passed only inches from her face.
That should make you predictable, then, she said, spinning past him and dropping cat-like to dodge another cut.
Perhaps, he said, pressing her back with a series of quick jabs. But you do not get to be my age without learning some very useful tricks.
As she tried to jump aside with a counter, he let go of his staff and grabbed onto her own, wrenching it from her grasp. He swung down to strike, but she dove between his legs and rolled back to her feet behind him, spinning around on all fours.
All around her, the men went crazy. “Impressive,” Roman said aloud, then kicked up his own staff from off the floor and tossed hers back to her. “We finish this fight fair.”
You’re putting on good show for the men, he thought-spoke to her as they circled each other again. They have not seen fight like this in many years.
Is that why you’re drawing it out?
Who is drawing it out? he asked, grinning. I am enjoying myself. Are you?
He faked a lunge and nearly caught her as she dodged. Fortunately, she managed to get her staff up before he struck her, and anticipated his follow up quickly enough to dart aside.
Do you do this to every new recruit?
He shouted and charged, sweat streaming down his half-cyborg face. Thinking fast, she jabbed her staff into the floor and leaped, angling her center of balance just above it. The spring as the staff returned to its shape gave her just enough momentum to clear his attack, sending her in a somersault over his head. She twisted in midair and swung around to swat him across the back, landing lightly on her feet behind him.
The men surged onto the mats, cheering and screaming. They grabbed hold of her and held her aloft, chanting in a language she didn’t understand. The sudden attention caught her completely by surprise, and she didn’t know what to make of it at first, but when it became apparent that they meant well by it, she smiled and let them carry her around the room.
“You are good fighter, Lieutenant,” he said. “Truly, you are one of us now.”
The resounding cries shook the bulkheads and reverberated throughout the room. She smiled again, and for a moment she almost believed it was true.
Almost—but not quite.
“Sir, the Miyamoto has just returned from its mission.”
“Excellent,” said Katsuichi, leaning back in his command chair. “Put Commander Takahashi through at once.”
Outside the forward window, the blue-green world of New Vela II gradually faded, replaced by a blank squarish image as the window became a screen. The image blinked and displayed a sleek starship bridge, with a gray-haired commander standing in the center. He looked directly at Katsuichi and bowed deeply, his chest almost horizontal to the floor.
“Your Imperial Highness.”
“Commander Takahashi,” said Katsuichi, nodding. “What is your report?”
The commander stood up straight, his uniform crisp and immaculate. “Your Highness, it gives me great pleasure to report that we have carried out your orders with success. Five Hameji ships have been destroyed or disabled, with minimal casualties on our side. The details are being transmitted to you now.”
The officers around the bridge glanced at each other with wide, hopeful eyes. Though they were too well-disciplined to chat while the transmission was in progress, Katsuichi knew that Takahashi’s report would soon become the talk of the ship. Good, he thought. Let them hear some good news for a change.
“Excellent work, Commander. Did you succeed in slowing their advance?”
Takahashi hesitated to answer, though only for a split second. “Your Highness, I regret to report that we did not.”
“What do you mean?”
“I am sorry, sir. Our scouts report that the Hameji have been receiving a steady stream of reinforcements. We now estimate that their forces number twice what they did at Eyn-Gatta.”
Katsuichi frowned. Around him, the hopeful glances of his men and women turned to looks of fear. He leaned forward, his face impassive.
“Very well, Commander. Have your forces pull back to New Vela and join with the rest of the fleet.”
“Sir,” said Takahashi, bowing deeply once again. The transmission cut out, and the window faded to full transparency once again, revealing the lush green world below.
“We cannot defeat the Hameji here, your highness,” Kenta whispered in his ear. “And if this system falls, Shinihon will certainly be next.”
“I know,” said Katsuichi, stroking his chin in thought. As his men glanced fearfully up at him, he felt as if a crushing weight had been placed on his chest, or that the walls of the ship were slowly closing in.
Outside, a constant flow of glittering starships streamed away from the doomed planet. Instead of standing up to the Hameji, the Federation had ordered an evacuation. Most of the heavy battleships were now seeing the millions of refugees to safety, abandoning New Vela’s defenses in the process. It was as if the battle had already been decided before it had begun.
But we can stand against them, Katsuichi wanted to scream. Commander Takahashi took out five of their ships—man for man, they’re no better than us.
Without a strong leader to pull them together, though, the Federation was already doomed to fail.
* * * * *
“Secondary jump drive is fully charged,” said Lieutenant Yuri Avanadze. “We’re ready to go on your mark.”
“Go ahead, then,” said Danica from her command chair.
Roman closed his eyes and switched his consciousness to the digital interface. Once again, he found himself floating in a white, featureless room, devoid of any physical sensation. Perhaps the doctor is right, he thought to himself, musing on the contrast. Perhaps I am not yet beyond feeling.
He switched back to physical consciousness just in time to hear Yuri swear. A glance out the forward window showed a blinking red light in the midst of the void—a jump beacon, no doubt launched by the Hameji.
“Dammit!” Yuri swore again. “How much longer are they going to keep up with this?”
“Scan the sector,” said Danica, her expression cool. “Charge weapons and raise ship-wide alert to level two.”
“Confirmed,” said Roman, raising the alert level. Down the hall, alarms began to sound.
“Scanning,” said Yuri. “It looks like we’re the only ones out here.”
“For now, at least,” said Danica. She drew a deep breath and rose to her feet. “Tajjashvili, deploy a squadron of fighter drones and have them keep watch on our perimeter. Alert me at once if anything comes through.”
“Avanadze, take out the beacon and put some distance between us and its position. Set the coordinates for another long jump, but wait until the primary drive is charged again before you execute.”
Roman watched as Yuri brought the railgun turrets to bear on the Hameji beacon that had pulled them out of jumpspace, thwarting their escape. A loud rumble sounded through the bulkheads, and the beacon exploded in a silent flash of light.
“At least they did not ambush us,” he said. “Either their net is still wide, or they have not committed many resources to pursuit.”
“They will,” said Danica. “This is Qasar’s son, after all. He’s a high-level prisoner.”
“We could always backtrack,” said Yuri. “Fly deeper into Hameji controlled space. The rift is almost three light-years wide at this point—if we could evade their interdiction efforts, we could still slip past them and make it to New Vela in good time.”
Danica raised an eyebrow. “How good of time?”
“I don’t know,” said Yuri. “A hundred hours, or perhaps a hundred-twenty.”
“Let’s try it, then. But Roman, have your men ready just in case.”
“Certainly, Captain,” he said, nodding grimly. Of course, he knew it was of little use—if the Hameji disabled and boarded them, the battle was as good as lost. But at least we will not go down without fight, he told himself, feeling satisfied with the prospect. It would be a fitting end—much better than fading into a purely digital consciousness.
“I’ll be in my quarters,” said Danica. “If anything changes, alert me at once.”
“Yes, Captain,” said Yuri and Zura.
She nodded and turned to Roman. “When you get a chance, bring the prisoner to me. I have an idea.”
“Yes, Captain,” he said, giving her a quick salute.
She returned the gesture and walked briskly through the open doorway, leaving the bridge.
* * * * *
Abaqa groaned and sat up as the locks on his cell disengaged with a loud clang. He swung his legs over the edge of the metal slab of a bed and rose to his feet, folding his arms as he faced the soldiers who stood in the doorway. His body still felt sore from his fitful sleep, but he wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of seeing that.
The old cyborg stepped inside, with two other soldiers waiting behind him at the door. In his hands, he carried a set of electrified restraints.
“Good morning,” he said in his heavily accented Gaian. “Sleep well, did we?”
Abaqa gave him no answer.
“We can do this easy way or hard,” said the cyborg, his half-human face utterly unreadable. “What is your choice?”
“I will not submit to your shackles.”
He shrugged. “The hard way, then.” He motioned to one of the soldiers, who stepped inside with a shock rod in his hands.
“If you have any honor, planetborn,” said Abaqa, “then take my word that I will not try to escape.”
The old cyborg stopped the soldier with a raised fist. He narrowed his good eye and looked Abaqa over, as if to pierce his very soul. For his part, Abaqa tried not to look frightened, but the way the cyborg stared at him, it seemed impossible to hide anything.
“Very well. Come with me.”
Abaqa followed him out of the cell and into a narrow stairwell, his mind racing with questions and possibilities. How was he going to escape? If he could somehow subdue his captors and seize control of the ship, it would undo all of the shame and humiliation they’d brought upon him. But how to do it—that was the question. Planetborn or not, he didn’t think he could overpower any of the soldiers, even if he were armed. He’d have to out-think them, then—talk his way out, goad them into making a mistake.
“Where are you taking me?” he asked, trying his best to seem as if he didn’t care.
The old cyborg grunted. “To our captain,” he said.
Then why didn’t he come down to the brig? Probably because they had some devious plan to torture him—or worse, install those neural implants and suck out his brain. He swallowed, but did his best not to show any sign of fear or weakness. If it was to come down to torture, he’d endure it with strength and dignity.
The old cyborg led him down a long, dimly lit corridor. Exposed wires lined the corners along the ceiling, while the air smelled as stale and recycled as it did in the brig. No doubt their ship lacked a proper hydroponics lab—perhaps that was a point of weakness he could exploit. If he could locate the ship’s food stores, then—
The cyborg stopped at a non-descript door and palmed it open. He motioned for the soldiers to stand guard, and stepped aside to let Abaqa in first. Abaqa hesitated for a moment, but seeing as he didn’t have much of a choice, he went in.
Of all the things he expected to see, the scene that met his eyes was nothing like any of them. A richly woven carpet covered the floor, with wood panels underneath—authentic, by the looks of it. A comfortable couch and two chairs sat around an ornate Auriga Novan table, much like the one in his mother’s quarters. The painting on the opposite wall depicted a planetside landscape, but the wall on his left had some sort of open-face compartment system, with various trinkets and thin, box-shaped objects on display. He looked the compartments over for something that might be useful later, but the old cyborg ushered him to the couch and made it clear that he was to sit down. For the sake of his word, he complied.
“Ah, Prince Abaqa,” came a voice from the other side of the room. A woman stepped out from a door, carrying a tray with three antique porcelain cups and a thermos. She wore a crisp military uniform with her graying hair tied back behind her.
This must be the captain’s servant, Abaqa thought to himself. If it was humiliating to answer to a planetborn, it was even worse to answer to one of their servants. He did his best not to acknowledge her as she set the tray on the table.
“Allow me to introduce myself,” she said, turning to face him. “I am Captain Danica Nova of the Tajji Flame. I believe you’ve already met Master Sergeant Roman Krikoryan.”
“You’re the captain?” Abaqa asked, snorting in disbelief. “Of course—only the planetborn would allow themselves to be led by a woman.”
“A woman smart enough to capture a Hameji prince?” she shot back, lifting an eyebrow in amusement. He scowled, but had no answer.
“I’ve been very curious to see you, Prince Abaqa,” she continued. “Unfortunately, other matters have kept me preoccupied until now, but now that we have some time, it would be good for us to get better acquainted. Some tea, perhaps?”
How do you know my name? Abaqa wanted to ask. Instead, he took a deep breath and tried to keep his surprise to himself. “Other matters”—that had to be his brothers, tracking them down in close pursuit.
“How do you know who I am?” he asked.
“Through your mother, of course. Your uncle is an old friend of ours.”
He frowned. “My uncle?”
“Yes. Has Sholpan told you about him?”
No, he almost said aloud. Instead, he held his tongue.
The captain took a sip of her tea. “Ensign James McCoy—he served on this ship for a short while. He was just about your age at the time.”
“Why are you telling me this?” he asked, shifting uneasily in his chair.
“As I said before, to become better acquainted with each other.”
“What makes you think I care about that?”
She laughed, making his cheeks turn red. “You’re just like your uncle, aren’t you? I remember when the ensign first came on this ship, almost fifteen years ago. He also had quite an attitude problem, didn’t he, Roman?”
Why didn’t my mother tell me anything about this uncle? Abaqa wondered to himself. He tapped the floor nervously and tried not to let their idle chatter get under his skin.
The captain took another sip and set the cup back down on the tray. “How is your mother?”
“How do you know my mother?” he shot back, clenching his fists.
She eyed him for a moment before answering, the way a mother eyes an unruly child before shaking her head. “James McCoy approached us with a job,” she said. “His brother and sister had fallen prisoner to the Hameji, and he wanted to rescue them. For his brother, we were too late, but for his sister—that is, your mother—we managed to break through and get to her.”
Abaqa’s eyes widened. “You what?”
“We found her, flew onto the station on a stolen Hameji transport, and made it through a gauntlet of guards to rescue her.”
“But—but that’s impossible,” he protested. “Our defenses are too strong for—and anyhow, my mother’s a Hameji queen. You’re lying—I know you’re lying!”
The woman captain looked him in the eye. “We aren’t lying, Abaqa. We really did come that close to rescuing her. The only reason we didn’t was because she refused to be rescued.”
“That’s right,” said Danica, nodding. “She told us she would rather give up her freedom for a chance to save her people than return and watch them die. She chose to stay with the Hameji, even after all they’d done to her—chose to stay with Qasar, and have you.”
Abaqa sat back in his chair, utterly dumbfounded. “You mean—I could have been one of the planetborn?”
“If that’s what you want to call it, then yes, I suppose so.”
The realization struck him with all the force of a pair of colliding stars. His vision blurred, and the room suddenly felt as if it were closing in all around him. He opened his mouth to protest, but nothing would come out. Even though he still didn’t trust these dirty planetborn mercenaries, deep down, he knew it was true.
“Are you all right?” asked the captain. “You look a little pale—would you like some cold water?”
“I—I’m fine,” said Abaqa, taking a deep breath. “Perfectly fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.” He sat up straight and looked her in the eye, determined not to show any more weakness.
“What do you want from me?”
The captain looked to the old cyborg, who nodded at her. She nodded back, then turned to face him.
“Frankly speaking, Prince Abaqa, we want your cooperation. If you work with us, we can return you to your mother without any, shall we say, unpleasant complications.”
“You want me to beg for money?” he said, sneering at them. “What makes you think I’d stoop so low?”
She shrugged. “Normally, we’d simply ransom you to the highest bidder, but because of your mother, I’d be willing to settle for a little less. That is, if you’re willing to help us negotiate.”
“My brothers are going to hunt you down, planetborn,” said Abaqa, narrowing his eyes. “And when they do, you’re going to wish we’d never crossed paths.”
“And if they don’t?”
“They will,” he said, his lips curled in a snarl. “They will.”
Captain Danica sighed and shook her head. “We’ll take our chances,” she said, rising to her feet. The old cyborg also stood and took Abaqa by the arm, indicating that the meeting was over.
“Come,” he said. “The captain has had enough of you.”
“And I’ve had more than enough of her.”
The old cyborg made as if to slap him, but thought better of it at the last minute. Instead, he grunted and led the way back down to the brig, the two soldiers following close behind them.
I could have been planetborn, Abaqa thought to himself, shuddering in horror at the thought. I could have been weak and dishonorable like these people.
But how weak were they, really? He had to admit, he didn’t think any of his brothers would be able to win in hand-to-hand combat with the old cyborg. And their captain—she’d treated him not as a prisoner, but as an honored guest. It almost made him feel ashamed for the way he’d talked back to her.
Honor and glory are not the only virtues in this universe, his mother’s words came to his mind. He’d used to blow that off, but now, things didn’t seem so simple anymore.
* * * * *
Rina suppressed a yawn as she watched the scanner for any sign of incoming Hameji ships. She tried listening to the background radio noise for any stray transmissions to hint at their presence, but this far out into deep space, there was nothing but ancient static.
“The younger soldiers do not understand,” said Roman, sitting in for the captain. “They think that our enemy is the Hameji. They do not realize that our spirit was broken long before they scattered us.”
“Indeed,” said Zura, sitting in for Yuri. He took a puff of his cigarette and rolled it between his fingertips. “The thing they fear most is being lost. They cling to this war because it gives them a focus, something to live for. Without an enemy to fight against, what is the point of living in exile?”
What is the point? Rina wondered. She had to admit, she didn’t know.
Roman grunted and nodded. “They do not know what it is to live under occupation. They are soft and do not understand.”
Zura offered him his cigarette, as if to console him. Roman took it and drew in a long, heady breath before handing it back. The two men enjoyed a moment of silence, one which Rina had no desire to interrupt. In a way, she was almost jealous. She’d lost her homeland, too, but unlike them, there was no one she could turn to.
“Still,” said Roman, “I would gladly die for them.”
Zura raised an eyebrow. “You would?”
“Of course. What else would I do? We have no country, no homeland—only ourselves. Everyone must die someday—better to die with dignity than live as machine.”
“You’re a good man. But me, I’d like to think I still have something worth living for.”
Roman chuckled. “Like the whores waiting for you at New Vela?”
“Not just New Vela, my friend,” said the old corporal with a grin. “When my time comes, I aim to be missed.”
A flash on the display snapped Rina out of the conversation. She narrowed her eyes at the scanners and frowned. Moments later, an alert tone sounded across the bridge.
“What is it?” asked Roman.
“Three marks, approximately five thousand kilometers out,” she said. “Accelerating on our position—they appear to be Hameji gunboats.”
“Oh, mother,” said Zura. “They’ve found us.”
“How long until primary jump drive is charged?” Roman asked, his voice cool and steady.
“We’re almost at ninety percent,” said Zura. “I would say, oh, perhaps thirty minutes.”
“They’re accelerating fast,” said Rina. “I don’t think we have that much time.”
“Then we have no choice,” said Roman, his expression grim. “Zura, do you have jump coordinates set?”
“I do, Sergeant.”
Rina took a deep breath and held it, gripping the edge of her armrests. If the Hameji interdicted them with another jump beacon, it would be almost thirty minutes before they could make the next jump—and five or six hours for the one after that. Unless they managed to escape into deep space where the Hameji couldn’t track them, they were as good as dead.
An almost inaudible hum sounded in her enhanced ears, coming through the bulkheads. The reactor was engaging the primary jump drive. Her skin crawled, and her stomach flipped. She closed her eyes and still felt as if the universe around her was collapsing. The sensation grew until she felt she couldn’t take it—and then, a sudden flood of relief told her that they were through.
She allowed herself a short gasp before hastily checking the scanners. The three marks were gone, leaving the display completely empty. Outside, the milky white light of millions of undimmed stars shone through the forward window, silent and cold.
“Well?” said Roman, looking at her intently. “Any sign?”
“None,” she said. “No Hameji beacon in this sector. It appears we’ve evaded them.”
“Yes!” said Zura, pumping his fist. He reached under his flight suit and pulled out an ornate silver cross, which he kissed.
“Triangulate our position, then,” said Roman. “Fix our coordinates, and prepare to set course for New Vela.”
New Vela, Rina thought as she stared out across the ancient starlight. Now that they’d escaped, it was a race to see who could get to New Vela first: the Tajji Flame, or the Hameji.
“Sir, the evacuation order has been given for the planetary defense stations,” said the communications officer, glancing wide-eyed over her shoulder. “The Federation ships are jumping out—it’s over.”
Katsuichi clenched his teeth and gripped the armrests of his command chair. Through the windows overhead, bright yellow tracers arced downward towards the cloud-speckled surface of New Vela II, while soundless pink explosions flashed in the distance near the horizon. As he watched, two of the sleek Rigelan cruisers shot past on a lower orbital and intercepted a squadron of incoming Hameji gunboats with projectile fire, forcing them away from the Divine Wind. It was chaos out there—absolute chaos, with the Federation in shameful retreat as the last civilian stragglers tried desperately to flee their doomed world.
“Sir,” said the pilot, “Colonel Webb has withdrawn his forces higher up the gravity well. We’re the only ones left protecting the evacuees.”
“Incoming Hameji battle group,” said the gunnery officer, his eyes glued to his screen. “Moving to intercept—they’re coming in fast!”
“Accelerate to a higher orbital and prepare to retreat to the rendezvous point,” said Katsuichi, letting out a long breath. “But keep everything orderly.” Let it not be said that our forces were routed.
“Yes, sir,” said the pilot, the relief in his voice completely undisguised. The bridge briefly filled with light as a nuclear explosion flashed only a few hundred kilometers off the Divine Wind’s bow.
“Sir,” said the communications officer, “we’re being hailed by one of the civilian transports—the Blue Dolphin. They say their jump drive has malfunctioned, and they need protection until they can get it operational again.”
Katsuichi frowned. “How far are they?”
“On a parallel orbital roughly two kilometers below us. Coming up in just a few minutes.”
“Sir,” said the gunnery officer, “the lower orbitals are swarming with Hameji warships. If we go down there, we’ll come under heavy fire and suffer severe casualties. I don’t see how we can save the transport and hold formation at the same time.”
Katsuichi sighed and rubbed his temple with his fingertips. What would you do, Father? he wondered desperately to himself. I can’t pay back our debts to the Federation—not like this.
“Hold our position, but lay down as much covering fire as you can,” he said, looking wearily up. “It might not be enough to save them, but it’s all that we can do.”
“Yes, Your Imperial Highness,” said the pilot and gunnery officer in quick unison. They turned to their posts and began to execute the order.
Katsuichi stared out the forward window as the battle raged around him. Dark clouds of smoke mingled with the pristine white clouds of the planet, debris flashing like so many hundred meteors across the glassy atmosphere. On the horizon, a glittering point came slowly closer. Tracers and plasma bursts arced as the Hameji swarmed to it like sharks to a sinking carcass. It was the Blue Dolphin, no doubt—the lines of projectile fire streaming from the Rigelan ships confirmed that.
“Stars of Earth,” said Kenta, standing in his customary position behind the command chair. “Would you look at that.”
“That warship just turned on the one beside it—look.”
Katsuichi leaned forward and squinted, but all he saw was a mass of glittering starships and flashing points of light. Frowning, he hit a button on his armrest. A holographic projection from the sensors blinked into existence in front of him, showing dozens of little red points for the Hameji ships and one blue point for the transport.
“Tactical officer,” he said, staring intently at the projection. “What’s going on?”
“It appears that the Hameji ships are attacking each other, sir,” said the tactical officer. “Perhaps they’re fighting over the spoils?”
“Sir,” said the pilot, “we have incoming Federation ships dropping through our orbital. Request immediate permission to alter course and avoid collision.”
“Sir, collision is imminent!”
“Evasive action, then.”
The floor shuddered and the planetary vista pitched and swerved as the sublight engines roared to life. Outside, a ship passed less than a kilometer away, hurtling downward at breakneck speeds. Several officers gasped, while one technician fell to the floor shaking.
“Collision averted,” said the pilot. “Regrouping.”
“What was that?” Katsuichi shouted.
“The California, sir,” said the gunnery officer. “They’re in our line of fire—breaking off bombardment.”
“It appears that Colonel Webb is dropping down to save the transport.”
Sure enough, the blue dot on the holographic projection representing the Colonel’s flagship dropped down into the fray, scattering the smaller Hameji ships and engaging the larger capital ships at close range. One of them broke apart and began the long fall to the surface.
Katsuichi clenched his fists. What’s that bastard doing now? he wondered. Trying to steal our honor? Where was he when we needed him?
“Sir, the Blue Dolphin is climbing up the gravity well. They’ll be trailing us in just a short while now.”
“Establish a perimeter and try to ward off any incoming attack,” he ordered. “Once the transport is out, give the order to retreat and regroup at the rendezvous point.”
Dark clouds loomed on the ever-approaching horizon, covering the surface in thick gray ash. Kenta peered forward and frowned, while several technicians rose to their feet and stared in horror. “What is that?” Katsuichi asked, switching off the holographic projection to get a better view.
“Sir, it—it’s the Hameji. They’ve brought in their mass accelerators, and …”
The pilot’s words hung unspoken in the air, punctuating the grim silence that soon fell across the entire bridge. As Katsuichi watched, half a dozen cannon-shaped ships, each more than two kilometers long, took up position above the blue-green world. A giant chunk of space rock shot away from the nearest one, sending a bright cloud of black debris upward into the atmosphere as it impacted on the surface. The cloud slowly formed a teardrop shape as the ash and dust hit the upper atmosphere.
Katsuichi’s stomach fell. It was like Gaia Nova and Tajjur V all over again. In just a few hours, every soul on the surface of that world would be dead.
“Sir, the California and the Blue Dolphin have jumped out. We’re the last of the Federation ships still in orbit.”
“Take us out, then,” he said, dropping back into his seat. A deep, sinking feeling of despair overtook him, drowning out all other emotion. With the Federation forces in a rout, his fleet was the only thing standing between the Hameji and Shinihon.
* * * * *
Hikaru walked slowly down the dark, narrow corridor to the captain’s quarters, dragging her feet as she went. Things had become rather boring in the last couple of days, which probably meant that they were almost home—and that much closer to returning her to the Imperial Palace.
She palmed the door open and stepped into a remarkably well furnished room. The wood-paneled floor reminded her of her old bedroom, and a lump rose in her throat in spite of herself. The painting on the opposite wall portrayed a desert landscape as unlike her homeworld as she’d ever seen. Everything, from the faded leather of the couch and chairs to the archaic printed volumes sitting on the bookshelves, seemed strange and exotic.
This ship is the last place I’ll see before they send me back to the palace, she thought to herself, drawing in a deep breath. It might be the last time I leave Shinihon for the stars.
“Ah, Princess,” said Danica, standing up from her chair and turning around to face her. “Is there something I can do for you?”
“Yes,” said Hikaru. “Do you have time to—well, to talk?”
“Certainly. Please, have a seat.”
Hikaru bowed politely and walked over to the couch on the far side of the room, sitting gingerly on the edge. Danica went to the back for a few brief moments and came back with a tray of tea. Why didn’t she have a servant bring that? Hikaru wondered.
“Care for some tea?” she asked, setting the tray on the table between them.
“Yes, thank you,” said Hikaru. She waited a moment for the captain to serve her, but when it became apparent that that wasn’t the custom here, she did her best to serve herself. Strange, these customs—unrefined, and yet in a way refreshing.
“I’m happy to report that we’ve evaded the Hameji,” said Danica, mixing a bit of cream and stirring it in thoroughly. “We should arrive at New Vela in just a matter of hours.”
“And New Rigel after that?”
Hikaru sighed and listlessly stirred her tea. Everything seemed to be happening so quickly, now—and soon after she returned to the palace, it would be as if she’d never left.
“Do we have to go back so soon?” she asked, her voice barely more than a mumble. “Can’t we stay at New Vela for—for a week or two?”
Danica took a sip from her teacup and lowered it to her lap. “Probably not, Your Highness. Considering how the war is going, that wouldn’t be very safe.”
I hate being safe.
“The Hameji are advancing quickly through the rift, and may attack New Vela in just a few hours,” Danica continued. “We’ll be lucky to sneak past their forces along the way.”
“Then can we spend a little extra time in the outer planets at New Rigel? Please?”
Hikaru cringed at how pathetic she sounded, but she didn’t have any other choice—at least, not here in deep space at least, with nowhere to run. But if she could convince the captain to dock at a station somewhere, perhaps—
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Princess. You’re needed on your homeworld, not here in this war-zone. And frankly, I don’t think it’s fair of you to ask.”
Hikaru frowned. “What are you saying?”
“I’m not going to lie, Princess,” said Danica, staring right through her with a cold, steely gaze. “We’re all getting tired of putting our necks out for you. My first and most important priority is to see to the welfare of my men. If I’d known how dangerous this mission would be, I would have turned it down, and you’d be a Hameji slave right now. What do you think of that?”
Better a slave to the Hameji than a prisoner of the palace, Hikaru almost shot back. But then she thought of her brother, somewhere out in space fighting to defend their home, and realized that that wasn’t true. Certainly, his was a face she had missed.
“I just wanted to get out and see the stars,” she said, clenching her fists. “What’s so wrong about that?”
“Everything, if it means abandoning all your obligations and responsibilities to do it. When people are depending on you, you shouldn’t up and run away like that.”
Hikaru stared at her, but the captain met her eyes and returned her gaze without flinching. She bit her lip and drew in a sharp breath.
“You don’t know what it’s like,” she said, lifting her nose in disdain. “I can’t spend the rest of my life in a cage.”
She frowned. “What do you mean?”
Danica finished her tea and set the cup and saucer carefully down on the table. “You spend far too much time feeling sorry for yourself, Princess. If you’d open your eyes, you’d see that none of it is warranted. The palace guard won’t let you travel off-world, but that’s to be expected when there’s a war going on. Instead of focusing on all the things you can’t do, focus on the things you can, and take advantage of them. I guarantee, you’re not a prisoner—no matter how much you want to believe otherwise.”
“And what does a mercenary like you know about palace life?”
Danica grinned. “I wasn’t always a mercenary, you know. My father was an admiral in the Tajji Revolutionary Guard. I know what it’s like to grow up with strict social obligations.”
“Oh, sure,” said Hikaru, rolling her eyes.
“It’s true. When my father went to war, he made me promise to stay behind, even though I wanted to join him. When he was captured, I broke that promise—and never saw my family again.”
Just get the lecture over with, Hikaru thought to herself, eyes glazing over.
Danica paused for a moment, then rose to her feet. “We arrive at New Vela in just a few hours. We’ll make a quick stop to take on fuel and supplies, then head straight for New Rigel. In the meantime, I urge you to think carefully about what you’re asking. As much as you want to feel sorry for yourself, we’re not sending you back to a prison.”
That’s what you think, Hikaru thought to herself. Instead, she gave the captain a curt bow and walked out the door.
* * * * *
“Stand by,” said Yuri. “Initiating jump in three, two, one—”
Roman took a deep breath and shut down his external senses once again. As he floated in the soundless white space, his thoughts drifted to the princess. She seemed so vibrant and full of life—such a contrast to the man he had become over the long, hard years. Of course he was too old for her, but that was precisely why he found her company so refreshing. It almost made him wish he had something to live for—but no, he was much too old for that. Better to have something to die for.
He opened his eyes and returned to physical consciousness, just in time to hear Yuri swear. Outside the forward window, the giant orb of New Vela II filled their view—only instead of the lush blue-green world it was before, dark clouds of black and gray shrouded the entire surface. He leaned forward and frowned, narrowing his eyes, as the soft silent flashes of distant explosions echoed in the distance.
“Lieutenant Avanadze, what is the situation?” Danica asked, her voice as hard as steel.
“It—it’s the second planet alright,” said Yuri, his cheeks turning pale, “but the whole sector is swarming with—”
“Hameji,” said Roman, clenching his fists.
Danica fixed her eyes out the window and slowly rose to her feet. Outside, dozens of cannon-like ships pointed downward at the planet, shooting enormous chunks of space rock directly at the surface below. Roman’s arm tensed, and blood rose to his natural cheek as unexpected rage clouded his vision. He knew exactly what he was seeing—knew all too well.
“Two capital ships are bearing down on us,” said Rina, her voice cracking ever so subtly. “They appear to be moving in for an attack—we don’t have much time.”
“Avanadze, get us the hell out of here,” said Danica.
“On the secondary drive, Captain?”
“Very well. Stand by—”
Roman clenched his fists as he stared out the window at the scene of destruction below. Debris from the battle streaked across the upper atmosphere, plunging to the shrouded surface of the dying world. Not far from their position, a mass accelerator shot a chunk of space rock directly into the water, kicking up a giant plume of white and brown spray that made the ocean boil. He stared in rapt fascination, his rage building at the scope of it all. It was like watching an old holo, or a newsreel from the Hameji conquest of Tajjur V—except that this time, he was witnessing it in person.
It’s just like home, Rina transmitted to him through her datalink. I can’t watch, I’m sorry. I’m going to be sick.
Lieutenant? he answered, glancing over his shoulder. Her hands were clasped over her mouth, and her cheeks turned a sickly pale green.
“Get down to medical at once, Lieutenant,” he told her aloud.
She nodded gratefully and hurried off the bridge. Danica shot her a brief inquisitive look, but soon returned her attention to command.
“The ships are launching fighters, Captain,” said Zura, glancing over the scanners. “Estimated time to attack: ten seconds.”
“Coordinates set,” said Yuri. “Jumping in three, two, one—”
This time, Roman didn’t have time to switch off his physical sensory inputs. A tingling sensation spread across his prosthetics, like static electricity building up for a tremendous release. He tensed and closed his eyes, and his stomach dropped out as the walls began to close in all around him. For a brief moment, he felt as if he had been turned inside out, or as if the prosthetics were controlling him instead of the other way around—but then, the feeling passed, the tingling stopped, and he was back on the bridge of the Tajji Flame, staring at the scanners.
“Jump complete,” said Yuri. “We’re out.”
“Scanners are blank, Captain,” said Roman, quickly checking over Rina’s display. “It appears we are alone in this sector. Your orders?”
Danica let out a long, heavy breath, deflating ever so slightly before regaining her iron composure. All around the bridge, anxious eyes turned on her, desperate for her guidance.
“We can’t push on to New Rigel,” she said. “No doubt the whole sector is crawling with interdictors—the last thing we need is to jump into the middle of a Hameji battle fleet.”
“Then perhaps we should stay here,” Yuri suggested. “We’re about a thousand light-hours from New Rigel—if we shut down all but our most vital systems, we might be able to wait it out.”
“That won’t work” said Mikhail. “We’ve been out for so long, we need to resupply. I’d give us 72 hours before we start to face some critical shortages.”
“What, we can’t fabricate what we need?”
“It’s not the ship that’s in danger,” he replied. “It’s us. We’re running out of foodstuffs, and the synthesizers don’t have enough proteins to keep running for very long. If the situation doesn’t change soon—”
“That’s enough,” said Danica, cutting them both off. “Let’s stay focused on the situation at hand. We can’t stay long at our current position, and we can’t move forward. Since we’re carrying a high level prisoner, we have to assume that the Hameji are in pursuit.”
“Then we’re lost,” said Yuri. “There’s nothing we can do. Is there?”
Danica took a deep breath, her face a mask. She doesn’t know what to do, Roman realized.
“How much time before the jump drives recharge?” she asked.
Yuri checked his screen. “A few hours.”
“Then there’s nothing we can do until then anyway. Roman, take command—I’ve got some thinking to do.”
With that, she rose to her feet and left the bridge. The door hissed shut behind her, leaving them all in stunned silence.
“I don’t know how we’re going to get out of this one,” Mikhail muttered.
“But we will, Corporal,” Roman snapped at him. Even if some of us must die.
Abaqa stirred as the sound of groaning metal announced a visitor. He yawned and sat up, rubbing his back where the hard metal cot had made him sore.
“Avanadze? What are you doing here?”
“You’re relieved, Private.”
The men fell into a harsh, throaty dialect that Abaqa couldn’t understand. From the tone of their voices, though, something was definitely wrong.
At length, footsteps sounded in the hallway, and the door to the brig hissed shut. The newcomer stepped up to the metal grating of his cell. Abaqa frowned—whoever was there, he hadn’t switched on the lights for his visit. Instead, he punched in the combination and swung the door open into the darkness.
“Who’s there?” Abaqa asked, trying to sound as nonchalant as he could.
The man hesitated for a moment in the doorway, like a cat making ready to pounce. Abaqa rose to his feet, but before he could react, the man grabbed his throat and shoved him against the opposite wall.
“You Hameji bastard,” he hissed, his face only inches from Abaqa’s. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t wipe the floor with your face.”
“Wh-what are you t-talking about?” Abaqa stuttered. He tried to free himself, but the man’s grip tightened, choking him off.
“You think there’s nothing wrong with murdering billions of people? With turning entire worlds into slag heaps? That just because you were born on some shithole of a starship, that makes you better than the rest of us?”
“I don’t know what you’re—”
The man slugged him in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him and sending him to the floor. He doubled over in pain, gasping desperately for air.
“You know damn well what I’m talking about, you Hameji bastard! You know damn well!”
A steel-capped toe slammed into Abaqa’s side, sending a bolt of pain through his arm and shoulder. He curled up to shield himself, barely in time to prevent another blow from striking him in his kidney.
“Stop!” he cried out in terror. “Please, don’t hurt me!”
“You think we didn’t cry for mercy?” the man screamed, his voice hoarse with rage. “When you took our homeworld and brought your machines of death—do you think we didn’t beg for mercy?”
He reached down and lifted Abaqa up high enough to ram his head into the floor. Stars spun across his vision, and for a brief terror-filled moment, he felt as if he were floating. The man slammed a fist against his jaw, bringing tears of pain to his eyes.
“I didn’t do it! I didn’t do anything!”
“It doesn’t matter—you’re still one of them.”
Abaqa scrambled to get away from the man, but he grabbed him by his collar and threw him onto his back. He covered his face with his hands, but the man straddled him like a wrestler and shoved the blade of his wrist into his throat.
“You Hameji bastards are all the same. The crimes of your race are too heinous to forgive. For what you did at New Vela, for what you did to the Gaians—for what you’ve done to me and my people, none of you deserve to live.”
At that moment, the lights flashed on, making Abaqa squint. The door to the cell creaked on its hinges, and the old cyborg lifted the man to his feet.
“Avanadze—what is meaning of this?”
The man shrugged him off. “Just giving the prisoner a lesson, Roman—a lesson he damn well won’t forget.”
Abaqa’s lip quivered as the old cyborg stared down at him. He tried to blink away the tears welling up in his eyes, but he failed to hide his weakness. Like a little boy on his first long trip away from his mother, he broke down and silently began to cry.
“What sort of lesson?”
“A history lesson, Sergeant. The way those Hameji bastards—”
“Then let me give you history lesson, Lieutenant. When your mother was still virgin, those who wore the colors of Free Tajjur did not torture small boys.”
The man drew himself up as if to strike, but Roman stared him down. Grumbling to himself, he turned and left the cell, his footsteps echoing through the brig.
“I am sorry,” said the old cyborg. He reached down and helped Abaqa to his feet. “Come, let me get you to doctor.”
“I’ll be fine,” Abaqa muttered, rubbing his eyes. He turned his face to hide his tears, even though it was probably too late.
“Yuri is man with long grudge,” Roman continued. “He has not forgiven Hameji for destruction of Tajjur V.”
“And you have?”
He grinned bitterly. “Of course not. But what difference does it make? When your fathers took Tajjur, you were not even born.”
“Why now? What’s going on out there?”
The grin disappeared from his face. “Less than one hour ago, we arrived at second planet of New Vela. The Hameji had just finished slagging it.”
Abaqa frowned. “You mean with the mass accelerators?”
“Yes. Just like Tajjur V.”
The news had a strange effect on Abaqa. He’d grown up hearing about the slagging of Gaia Nova and the legendary victory over the Empire that had made the Hameji supreme rulers of the galaxy. But that was history—this was much more real, much more immediate. And yet why was that so? He didn’t have anything to do with the slagging. It wasn’t on his orders that it had happened. And besides, it wasn’t like he actually knew any of the planetborn who had died there.
Perhaps not, he thought to himself. But my mother—she wasn’t always Hameji. What if he had been one of the planetborn trapped on the surface?
“Are you not well, Prince? Your face is white.”
“I’m fine,” said Abaqa. “Just—maybe something for the bruises.”
“Of course. Follow me—I will take you to doctor.”
He followed the old cyborg out of the cell, holding his head with one hand. Neither of them said anything as they walked down the dim, narrow corridor, but for the first time in his life, Abaqa felt a pang of guilt for something that he had never done.
* * * * *
“Here’s something for your stomach,” said Doctor Avanadze, handing Rina a packet of small pills. “If you start to feel weak, it might be good to take some energy boosters, too.”
“Thanks,” said Rina. She slipped the pills into her pocket and rose to her feet. “Is there anything else?”
“No, everything checks out. Just a traumatic sight—it gets to the best of us.”
She smiled, but from the emotion in her eyes, Rina could tell it was forced. The slagging of New Vela had been a blow to all of them. No doubt the news had spread throughout the ship by now. The air already felt a little thicker, the mood a little darker. Even for a crew of mercenaries, the deaths of billions of people couldn’t pass without having some sort of an impact.
It wasn’t the deaths that got to her, though. It was the memories.
“Are we safe now?” Maia asked.
Rina paused. “I don’t know,” she answered truthfully. For helping her, the doctor deserved as much.
She nodded and took a deep breath. “Right. Well, good luck, Lieutenant.”
The door behind them hissed open, and the Hameji prince stepped in, a dark bruise covering the side of his face. Doctor Avanadze stiffened and narrowed her lips.
“What happened here, Sergeant?”
“Your husband,” said Roman. “After slagging of New Vela II, he decided to make visit to our prisoner.”
“Can you help him?”
She took a deep breath and turned to the boy. “I suppose. Here, have a seat on the table.”
The boy sat down on the examination table a bit sheepishly. Roman folded his arms and leaned against the wall.
What’s going on? Rina thought-spoke to him.
Just small quarrel. It was nothing.
I mean on the bridge.
He grunted. We are safe for now. After you left, we made short range jump to random location in deep space. But our supplies are getting low, and we cannot stay put forever.
So where do we go from here?
I do not know. But if you have any ideas, I suggest you speak with the Captain.
Rina nodded. “Thank you, Doctor,” she said, turning back to her. “I’d better return to my post.”
Maia nodded. “Take care of yourself, Lieutenant. Good luck.”
As Rina stepped into the doorway, an idea occurred to her. She stopped and turned to Roman.
“When we jumped out, did we set the coordinates in the direction of New Rigel, or back towards the rift?”
The natural half of Roman’s mouth turned down in a frown. “Toward the rift, I think. Considering that was direction from where we came, it seemed safest to return.”
She nodded. “Thank you.”
As she walked down the corridor towards the captain’s quarters, the datalink buzzed in her mind. Why do you ask?
Because I think I know of a place we can go, she replied.
What sort of place?
She took a deep breath as an image of Admiral Genjiro returned unbidden to her mind. Shivers ran down her back, and her mouth began to salivate—even after so much time, the desire to kill was so strong that it surprised her. She shut off the datalink before accidentally betraying herself, and her legs went strangely weak for a moment. After stopping to lean against the wall, though, she soon recovered.
The rogue planet, she thought to herself. The secret Federation base within the rift—yes, that was a place where they could safely hide until the Hameji passed over. And if there was one thing she knew well, it was how to disappear into the shadows.
* * * * *
Hikaru stopped at the old metal door with CPTN stenciled on it in large black letters. The chime sounded twice before the door opened, and then, it wasn’t Danica who walked out, but one of the younger officers—a black-haired girl who was even shorter than the princess.
“Pass the co-ordinates on to Roman,” came Danica’s voice from further inside. “I’ll be on the bridge shortly.”
The girl gave Hikaru one brief look before slipping past her and hurrying silently down the corridor. For a second, Hikaru hesitated, unsure whether to go inside or try another time.
“Ah, Princess. How can I help you?”
“Hello, Captain. I’m not interrupting anything, am I?”
“Of course not,” said Danica, but she stood in the doorway without inviting her in.
Hikaru gave her a short bow. “I’m sorry to take your time,” she said. “I was just wondering—what is going on?”
Captain Danica’s lips narrowed, and she took a deep breath through her nose. “You haven’t heard the news, have you?”
“News? What news?”
“A little over an hour ago, we arrived at New Vela. The Hameji had gotten there before us, though. When we jumped in, they had just finished slagging the second planet.”
Hikaru frowned. “Slag? What do you mean?”
Danica put an arm around her shoulder her and walked with her out into the corridor. The door to her quarters hissed shut behind them.
“When the Hameji conquer a heavily populated world, they bombard it with asteroids until everyone on the surface is dead. That’s what they did when they took Gaia Nova, and what they did to our homeworld at Tajjur almost sixteen standard years ago.”
“Wait—you mean they did that at New Vela?”
“I’m afraid so,” said Danica, her expression grim. “This whole region of space is swarming with them now. The way things currently stand, it isn’t safe to push on to New Rigel.”
“It isn’t safe?” said Hikaru, blood draining from her cheeks. “What do you mean? Where else can we go?”
“Until the sector quiets down, our safest course of action is to find a place to hide and wait for the Hameji to pass over.”
“But—but what about my brother? Is he still alive? And the people back home—what are they going to do?” Her hands shook, and her voice was starting to sound frantic.
“I’m sorry, Princess. I don’t know what to tell you.”
“The Hameji—are they going to slag Shinihon the way they slagged Gaia Nova?”
Danica said nothing. That was answer enough.
“Stars of Earth,” Hikaru cried, leaning against the wall for support. “This—this can’t be happening!”
“I’m afraid it is, Princess. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m needed on the bridge.”
As the captain walked away, Hikaru covered her mouth with her hands and slid down until she was practically sitting on her ankles. Her head spun, and her legs felt weak and non-responsive. All she had wanted was to get away from the palace for a bit—just a few days, maybe a week at most. She had never thought that she might not have a home to go back to.
* * * * *
Roman rose to his feet as Danica returned to the bridge. Yuri and Mikhail both glanced up from their posts, while Al-Najmi kept her eyes focused on her work.
“Captain,” he said, giving her a quick salute. “Al-Najmi and I have entered coordinates of secret Federation base. It is small outpost, probably abandoned, at rogue planet not far from here. Our scanners have picked up faint signal, too weak to be certain, but we think that is it.”
“Good work,” said Danica, taking her seat in the command chair. “Are we ready to go?”
“Sorry, Captain,” said Lieutenant Yuri, “but could you fill us in on what the hell is going on?”
Danica looked at him and narrowed her eyes. Roman noticed with some satisfaction that he actually flinched. Tensions were high for all of them, but the last thing they needed right now was for anyone to let it out.
“I understand you had a little run-in with our prisoner,” she said, her voice low and even. “Is there anything you care to say about that, Lieutenant?”
Yuri’s cheeks turned bright red. “I’m sorry, Captain. It won’t happen again.”
“Good. We’re not in a position to take disciplinary action at the moment, but if I hear of anything like this again, you will no longer be welcome on my ship. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Captain. Perfectly clear.”
She took a deep breath and surveyed the room. Only Zura was absent; everyone else watched her with expectant eyes, their expressions dark and somber. Roman didn’t know if he’d ever seen morale so low.
“Lieutenant Al-Najmi has informed me that there’s a small Federation outpost not far from here,” Danica began. “It orbits a small rogue planet with a very low albedo, so there’s a good chance that the Hameji haven’t found it. The Federation probably abandoned it after the fall of Eyn-Gatta, but if we’re lucky, there should be enough stores left behind for us to resupply.”
Mikhail grunted. “Are you sure?”
“We can’t be sure of anything at this point, but it seems like our best course of action at this point. We can’t move forward, and we can’t stay here much longer either. But if we fall back to this base and find enough supplies there to keep us going, there’s a good chance that we can hide out until the Hameji pass out of this sector.”
“Hide where?” Yuri asked. “The Hameji are in a frenzy—they’re going to want to loot every base that they can find. Maybe they passed this one over, but it won’t take long for them to find it.”
“We don’t have to stay at the station itself,” said Danica. “The planet is actually more of a large planetoid; its delta-V index is small enough that we should be able to land and take off from the surface. Once we’ve resupplied at the station, we can take the ship down and hide ourselves until the threat has passed.”
“And after that?”
Her lips tightened as she took in a deep breath, her expression grim. Roman didn’t have to hear her say it to know what the answer was.
“I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do about that now. If New Rigel falls, the best we can expect is to leave the war-zone and hope that the Hameji don’t remember us.”
A hushed silence fell across the room. Roman rose to his feet and saluted.
“I am with you, Captain.”
“As am I,” said Mikhail.
“And I,” said Yuri.
Danica nodded. “I appreciate your support, men. May the ancient stars of Earth align in our favor.”
Roman nodded and sat back down. If they were going to get out of this one, they would certainly need all the luck they could get.
Katsuichi felt as if he were living a nightmare.
The eyes of his best commanders glanced over at him in barely disguised terror, as if looking for some word that would save them. Men twice his age waited anxiously for his command, loyal servants to the bitter end. And bitter it was—none of the reports were encouraging. The Hameji battle fleets had routed New Vela and were now converging like a pack of blood-frenzied sharks on New Rigel and Shinihon.
“Most of the Federation forces are fleeing to the Zeta Sector,” reported Admiral Uematsu. “Only Colonel Webb’s fleet has remained to oversee the refugees.”
“The cowards!” shouted a gray-haired commander. “Have they no honor to abandon their charges at the first sign of battle?”
“Colonel Webb is the true coward,” said another commander, his cheeks red with rage. “But because he positions himself in the rear, he’ll be received as a hero while half of the refugees die under his watch!”
“That’s enough,” said Katsuichi, motioning for calm. “We don’t need to worry about that right now—only the defense of our homeworld.”
The room grew as silent as death, as the full weight of all their gazes fell on him. He bit his lip and tried to look brave, but inwardly, he wanted nothing more than to run away.
“Is there nothing we can do?” he asked finally, his voice barely louder than a whisper. “Is everything lost?”
“Your Imperial Highness,” said Commander Takahashi, rising to his feet and bowing with his face pressed almost to the table, “so long as I retain my breath, I will fight to the last man on my ship to defend Shinihon.”
“As will I,” said another commander, rising and bowing all the same.
“And I, sir.”
“So will I, Your Highness.”
“Our lives are in your hands.”
A lump rose in Katsuichi’s throat, threatening to make his emotions break. He gripped the armrests until his knuckles turned white and took in a deep breath.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
As his men returned to their seats, he clenched his fists and pounded the table—hard. “There has to be something we can do!” he shouted. “I refuse to believe that we’ve lost.. The Hameji have failed to break our spirit, and with that spirit, we can crush them!”
“Sir!” shouted his men, filling the room with their enthusiasm.
“But how?” said Katsuichi, rising to pace the space behind the table. “Where is their weak spot? How can we take the battle to them, when they sweep toward us like a raging hurricane?”
“Sir, if I may,” said Commander Takahashi.
“By all means.”
The commander bowed quickly and looked him in the eye. “Sir, if you remember the battle at New Vela II, the Hameji forces demonstrated a critical weakness. After the Federation forces were routed, several of their squadrons fought among themselves for the spoils.”
“Yes,” said Katsuichi, bringing a hand to his chin. “I remember.”
“This uncharacteristic break in discipline shows that the Hameji fleets are not united. When your father was still emperor, it was these internal schisms that prevented them from coming upon us in full force. As the original Hameji Generals grew old and passed away, several of the younger commanders fought among themselves until Tagatai was acknowledged as their supreme commander. If their newfound unity is only skin deep, perhaps we can stem their tide by cutting off the leviathan at its head.”
A low mutter rumbled around the room, some commanders nodding in assent, while others frowned in skepticism and disbelief. Katsuichi glanced at Admiral Uematsu and raised his eyebrow.
“Sir,” said Uematsu, bowing quickly, “our most recent intelligence indicates that Tagatai has taken his personal battle fleet to the brown dwarf Eyn-Jalla, only two light-years from New Rigel. In all likelihood, he will consolidate his forces there before attacking—but the window is very short; only forty-eight hours at the longest before the rest of his fleets arrive.”
“Then let us take the advantage while the window is still open,” said Takahashi, his eyes blazing. “This may be our only chance at stopping the Hameji.”
“But Tagatai’s position is too strong,” said Commander Ishihara, too agitated to stay still. “He will be surrounded by almost half the Hameji fleet. Even if we do break through, his flagship, the Demon of Tenguri, is powerful enough to engage five of our cruisers at once. It would take a miracle to defeat him.”
“A miracle,” Katsuichi muttered, rubbing his chin. “We will have to rally all of the Federation forces in this sector, including Colonel Webb.”
At that, several of his commanders rose to their feet. “Fight alongside that spineless bastard?” hissed one of them. “Your Imperial Highness, I hardly think that—”
“We have no choice,” said Katsuichi, raising his hand for silence. “As great as our spirit may be, we will not win this battle alone. Get to your ships and see to your men—I will go directly to the colonel to compel him to join us.”
“Sir,” said his men, rising to their feet. As they bowed and left one by one, he folded his arms and took in a deep breath. It seemed like too much to hope for—but the fact that they were taking action gave him a refreshing sense of control. If they died now, at least it would be on their own terms, with their swords drawn and their enemies before them.
All except one.
* * * * *
The sound of heavy footsteps on the hard metal floor alerted Abaqa that someone was coming. He opened his eyes and roused himself. After a brief moment of silence, the locks on his cell door clicked open and the hinges squeaked as it swung open.
“Prince,” said Captain Danica, nodding as she stepped inside. “How are you feeling?”
The old cyborg, Roman, stood in the door, his laser-eye steady and unblinking.
“The healing accelerant has helped, then? Lieutenant Avanadze—Maia, not her husband—told me that it would.”
Abaqa shrugged. “I’ll be fine.”
“Good.” She took a seat next to him on the cot, while Roman folded his arms. “We need to talk.”
She took a deep breath, her expression hardening. “The situation has become a bit … precarious.”
“After fall of New Vela, we have become trapped behind enemy lines,” said Roman, his voice low. “At any moment, Hameji strike team could find and destroy us.”
Abaqa snorted. “So you want to use me as a bargaining chip? Exchange your prisoner for safe passage—is that it?”
“If we had any reason to believe that the Hameji would honor such an arrangement, we’d agree to it,” said Danica. “Unfortunately, if we tried to approach them with a deal at this point, we have no way of knowing that we’d come out of it alive.”
“What? Are you saying that my brothers would be so dishonorable as to kill an enemy who’s already surrendered?”
“That is exactly what we are saying,” said Roman.
Abaqa bristled, but Danica held up her hand before he could shoot back with a retort.
“At this point, we can’t trust anyone to act on good faith. Tagatai’s battle fleets are in a blood frenzy, destroying everything in their path. Our best strategy is to hunker down and wait things out.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because we need to work together if we’re going to survive this,” she said. “If the Hameji find us, they will kill us all—even you, Prince Abaqa. Tagatai’s hold on his men is not as strong as you would like to think.”
Abaqa scoffed. My brothers would never destroy this ship if they knew I was here, he almost said aloud—but even as the words came to his mind, he knew that they weren’t true. If his older brother Gazan found him before Jahan did, there was no telling what might happen.
“What do you want me to do?” he asked.
“There’s a Federation base at a small rogue planet not far from here,” said Danica. “We’re going to resupply there, then land on the planet to wait things out. We want you to work with our cybernetics officer to monitor the radio frequencies in this sector and alert us of any Hameji activity. If they come looking for us, we’ll need your help to determine whether you think we can reach out to them, or whether we should stay hidden.”
He looked to both of them and nodded. “Fair enough. And if they are friendly, you’ll release me?”
Roman grunted. “Only in exchange for safe passage. As you said, you are valuable bargaining chip.”
Abaqa looked back and forth between the two of them. Their faces looked more somber than any he’d ever seen. It made his chest tighten, and not just from the pain in his side.
“Just one question,” he said. “Did—did Tagatai really slag New Vela II?”
Danica looked at him in silence for a moment, then nodded. “He did,” she said.
“The planetborn, then—they’re all dead?”
The confirmation affected him a lot more than he’d thought it would. He took a deep breath.
“All right,” he said softly. “I’ll do what I can.”
“Good,” said Danica. She rose to her feet. “Once we arrive at the station, we’ll take you onto the bridge. The plan is to land on the surface after we’ve resupplied and stay hidden until the Hameji pass out of this sector.”
“Or until they find us,” said Roman. “If that happens, Prince, I hope you live up to your word.”
“Of course,” said Abaqa, bristling. “I might be half-planetborn, but I’m still a man of honor.”
“We’ll arrive at the rogue planet in a few hours,” said Danica. “Until then, get some rest. I have a feeling we’re going to need it.”
She stepped out the door, followed by the cyborg, who gave Abaqa one last piercing stare. As the door swung shut with a clang, he collapsed on the hard cot, trying in vain to process everything that had happened to him in the last few days. Capturing the princess, falling prisoner, learning the truth about his mother—and now this, making a deal with his enemies that would only bring him more humiliation. And yet, strangely, he felt no shame in making it.
Honor and glory are not the only virtues in this universe, his mother had told him. But the more he thought about it, the more his entire universe seemed to be falling apart.
* * * * *
“Your Majesty,” said Colonel Webb, his voice scratchy over the ship-to-ship connection. “I must admit, it’s a surprise to hear from you so soon. What can I do for you?”
“I’ve come to request your help in a joint operation that may change the course of this war,” said Katsuichi, gripping the armrests of his command chair. “My fleet is about to make a surprise attack on General Tagatai’s flagship, and you are the only Federation commander in a position to assist us.”
The colonel chuckled good-naturedly, making Kenta bristle. “Your Highness, my men are busy escorting the refugees from New Vela to safety. Would you have me abandon them?”
If you truly want to protect those refugees, then join us, you spineless bastard.
“Once Tagatai is killed, the Hameji forces will be thrown into disarray, effectively halting their advance.”
“But Your Highness, that’s a suicide mission,” said Webb. “I couldn’t sacrifice the lives of my men on a mission that will most likely fail. It would be grossly irresponsible to do such a thing.”
The officers on the bridge eyed Katsuichi with concern. They knew, as he knew, that if no one from the Federation joined them, the colonel’s words might well prove true.
Katsuichi glanced behind him shoulder at the unsheathed heirloom sword over the bridge doorway, then leaned forward and smiled. “The true warrior fights as one already dead,” he said over the transmitter. “If I must sacrifice my life and the lives of my men to save my people, that is a price I’m willing to pay for victory.”
“You’re crazy,” said the colonel, his voice losing confidence. “You’ll never come back from that mission alive.”
“And what if I do, Colonel? What if I do come back alive? You want to be seen as a hero—the one who stayed and fought while the rest of the Federation fled. That’s why you stayed behind to rescue the Blue Dolphin at New Vela II—am I right?”
No answer. That was as good as a yes.
“If that is indeed your plan, then you can’t afford to turn me down. Even if I die with all of my men, after we kill General Tagatai we will forever be revered as the martyrs who saved the Federation, while you will be just another commander who was too cowardly to stand and fight. What would become of your ambitions, then? Of your legacy?”
“You really think you can pull this off, do you?”
Katsuichi leaned forward, the eyes of all his men planted on him. “I don’t just think we can, Colonel. I know we can.”
Silence. Outside the window, the old flagship California loomed nearer as it came around for another flyby. The deep space starfield glittered down on them, the faint light of the distant stars gently illuminating the bridge.
“Very well,” said the colonel. “I’ll join my fleet with yours on one condition.”
“Certainly,” said Katsuichi, trying not to betray his relief. “What is that?”
“I want to join you on board the Divine Wind for the attack.”
The eyes of his men grew wide, and a low hiss of hushed whispers rose throughout the bridge. Next to him, Kenta leaned forward, his muscles tense.
“Don’t do this, Katsuichi-sama,” he whispered. “This man is a snake—he cannot be trusted.”
Katsuichi hesitated, but only for a moment. He waved Kenta back and leaned forward to speak into the transmitter.
“Why do you wish to join us, Colonel?”
“Well, between you and me, my men aren’t nearly as tough or as disciplined as yours. If the temperance of my men would have allowed it, I would not have fled when I did at Eyn-Gatta. I give you my word.”
Your word isn’t worth the breath used to speak it, Katsuichi thought to himself. He shifted in his seat, glancing at the confused and disquieted faces of his men.
Kenta leaned forward again. “Your Imper—”
“We have no choice,” Katsuichi whispered furiously. “Besides, if he’s commanding his fleet from our flagship, it won’t be as easy for him to run.” Better to keep your enemies in front of you than behind you.
“Very well,” said Katsuichi, speaking into the transmitter. “I’ll await your shuttle. We leave for the rendezvous before the top of the hour.”
“Fair enough, Your Majesty. I’ll see you then.”
The transmission clicked off, and the muttering of hushed whispers soon grew to a low rumble. Kenta let out a long breath, his face impassive and unreadable.
“I hope you know what you’re doing, your highness.”
So do I, Katsuichi thought silently to himself. So do I.
* * * * *
“Initiating jump,” said Yuri. “Stand by.”
Rina held her breath as her stomach turned the way it always did in jumpspace. She closed her eyes as the universe seemed to turn itself inside out, then released a long, silent sigh as the sensation passed.
“Raise ship-wide alert to level two,” said Danica, leaning forward in her command chair. “Ready weapons and prepare for action. Al-Najmi, what do you have on the scanners?”
“Checking now,” said Rina, running through the various instruments. A gravity well sat some ten thousand kilometers off their port bow, but the sensors didn’t pick up any trace of a signal—not even so much as a jump beacon.
“The local sector is empty,” she said. “No sign of any ship, Hameji or otherwise.”
Yuri and Mikhail visibly relaxed, but Danica’s expression remained tense and unreadable, like a cat on alert for prey.
“Lieutenant Avanadze,” she said, “do you have a reading on the resupply station?”
“Negative,” said Yuri. “I don’t even have so much as a radio signal. We’ll have to sight it ourselves and calculate its orbit independently.”
“Do you want me to attempt to find a network?” Rina asked.
“Negative, Al-Najmi,” said Danica. “Not until we have a hard-line connection. I don’t want to do anything to alert the Hameji that we’re here.”
“I’ve got a reading on something,” said Yuri. “It’s hard to tell, but it could be the station.”
“Excellent. Can you get a visual?”
“Just a second—there.”
The forward window dimmed and turned into a giant display screen. As Rina watched, the image zoomed into a giant black circle in the midst of the milky starfield. Without a sun to light its surface, the rogue planet was like a maw of darkness, a cold, empty world, lost in eternal night. The image reddened slightly, brightening to translate the infrared into visible light. A tiny faint speck drifted across the face of the darkened world, and the camera panned to follow it, zooming in to show a large, rounded disk, with three short docking arms jutting out from the center and several large supply tanks along the flattened underside. As they zoomed in closer, a number of windows became visible, but all of them were dark.
“It’s the station, all right,” said Yuri. “I’m not picking up any energy signals, though. It’s almost as if it were—”
“Abandoned,” Danica finished. “Left behind when the Federation fled this sector.”
Roman grunted. “Then let us pray they left a cache behind.”
It took several minutes for Yuri to bring the Tajji Flame into a parallel orbit. As they brought up the docking clamps and crept inch by inch into position, Rina stared listlessly at the darkened world below, lit only by the cold, distant light of the stars. She could vaguely recall a scene like the one before her, almost certainly from a job she’d completed before coming onto the Tajji Flame. The admiral—yes, that was the one. Without any malice, she recalled his face in her mind. Her heart beat a little faster as she remembered plunging the needle into his neck, the deep satisfaction that came from feeling his body stiffen and go limp as he passed away by her hand.
A low grinding sound reverberated through the bulkheads as the ship’s clamps made contact with the docking node on the station. A few more clangs broke the ensuing silence, followed by an almost imperceptible hiss as the seals locked into place. Then, nothing.
“Krikoryan,” said Danica, “take a team of your men inside and secure the station while Konstantin checks for supplies. I want you to be thorough—we have no idea what might be in there.”
“Acknowledged, Captain,” said Roman. He rose to his feet and stepped past her off the bridge, followed by the chief engineer, Mikhail.
“Al-Najmi, establish a hard line and try to access the network. It’s probably down with everything else, but even so, I want you to check.”
“Good. Avanadze, watch those scanners and be on the lookout for any incoming ships. Let me know the moment you detect anything.”
Danica leaned back in her chair while Rina and Yuri went to work. Rina searched for any sort of network on the station, but found nothing; it might as well have been a chunk of space rock. She was about to report this, when her datalink implant buzzed in her ear, coming slowly to life.
Roman? she transmitted, putting a hand to her ear. Roman, is that you?
No reply—the link was probably too tenuous to support direct communication at anything other than close range. She turned back to her display screen and—
The words sent chills down her neck as images flashed before her mind’s eye: Danica Nova, Roman Krikoryan, the rest of the mercenary crew, and finally Princess Hikaru. She froze where she sat, hardly daring to breathe as the all-too-familiar hunger surged through her, compelling her to action with an urge that was inescapable.
Her cheeks paled, and her hands began to shake. Sweat began to pool in her armpits, and as she turned to the captain, it was all she could do not to pull out the knife tucked inside her boot and spill her gushing blood across the floor.
“C-captain?” she said, struggling to keep her voice even.
Danica turned in her chair to face her. “Yes, Lieutenant Al-Najmi?”
“I—I must request permission—to go to the medical bay.”
“Why?” she asked, frowning. “Are you not feeling well?”
“N-no,” Rina said, unable to lie. “I must—leave now.”
“Very well,” said Danica, nodding solemnly. “But when you’re better, I want a report. You are dismissed.”
Rina rose to her feet and stumbled off the bridge, making Yuri turn his head. That hardly mattered, though, if it meant putting off the kill order. Even so, she knew she couldn’t resist it forever.
Katsuichi took a deep breath before stepping onto the bridge of the Divine Wind. His legs were numb and his stomach weak, yet he felt strangely calm, as if he were observing everything from a great distance. Kenta eyed him with concern, but before the old samurai could ask what was the matter, he reached out and palmed the access panel to the bridge. The door opened with a brief hiss, and the officers and technicians rose to their feet as he entered.
He stood by the familiar command chair for a brief moment, examining his men before taking his seat. In their faces, he saw a mixture of fear and dread, but also discipline and cold, hard determination. Behind him, over the door to the bridge, the ancient heirloom sword of his people hung unsheathed on the wall, a testament to their undaunted will. I will not disappoint you, Father, he thought to himself. I will save our people and redeem their honor.
The door opened again, and a tall, rugged man in a crisp blue uniform stepped in. Kenta’s eyes narrowed; it was Colonel Webb. He nodded to the samurai and gave a short bow, standing with his hands at parade rest behind his back.
“Well, Your Highness,” he said, “shall we prepare the fleet for departure?”
Katsuichi didn’t respond for several moments. The colonel met his gaze and smiled, with only the barest hint of unease.
“Yes,” said Katsuichi, turning to take his seat. Colonel Webb stepped over to a chair near the door, next to the gunnery and communications officers. They eyed the Colonel briefly as he sat down, but dutifully remained standing. At Katsuichi’s gesture, the officers and technicians returned to their posts.
“Open a link to the main channel,” he ordered.
“Yes, sir,” said the communications officer. “Channel open.”
He took another deep breath, his fingers tingling. “This is Emperor Katsuichi of the Divine Wind,” he said, speaking loudly. “All commanders, report in.”
The line went blank for a brief moment, as the stars shone down through the giant windows that surrounded them.
“Admiral Uematsu of the Mikawa reporting ready, sir,” came a voice over the speaker.
“Commander Yasuhiro of the Ginza, ready as well,” came another.
“Commander Takahashi of the Miyamoto, ready.”
“Commander Aizawa of the Akiba, ready.”
“Commander Sakaguchi of the Roppongi, ready sir.”
“Commander Hideyoshi of the Kurefune, reporting.”
“Commander Ishihara of the Sagami, sir.”
“Commander Tanaguchi of the Masamune, at your command.”
Katsuichi leaned forward, his hands together. He glanced to his right at Colonel Webb and nodded.
“Boys, this is Fleet Commander Webb speaking,” said the Colonel, speaking into a handheld extension wired to the terminal at his station. “All captains report.”
“Captain Jacobs, reporting.”
“Captain Nielson, ready.”
“Captain O’Hare, standing by.”
“Captain Field, reporting.”
“Captain Ørjan, sir.”
“Captain Nydell, awaiting orders.”
“Captain Samson, ready.”
“Captain Adamcik, ready sir.”
Colonel Webb turned to Katsuichi and nodded. “We’re ready when you are, Your Highness.”
Katsuichi drew himself up with an air of solemnity, pausing for a brief moment as the tension seemed almost to congeal in the air. For our people, he thought silently to himself. For the debt of honor we owe to the Federation.
For Father and Hikaru.
“Begin the countdown,” he said, staring straight ahead.
“Sir,” said the pilot. “Fleetwide countdown has begun. Twenty-three seconds to jump.” Through the bulkheads, a low hum sounded as the drives engaged.
As one already dead, Katsuichi thought to himself, clenching his fists.
* * * * *
Abaqa rose to his feet as the door to his cell swung open. Sergeant Roman waited for him on the other side, alone. He acknowledged the old cyborg with a nod, but Roman only eyed him with his eerie laser-eye prosthetic.
The corridor that led to the bridge of the mercenary ship seemed dimmer and narrower than usual, though that was probably only in his head. Still, as the door hissed open, the dark mass of the rogue planet loomed ominously in the window, as if to confirm the illusion. Captain Nova stood in the center of the room, standing over the shoulder of the soldier who had beat him. Both of them turned and glanced at him as he stepped on.
“Ah, Prince Abaqa,” said Danica, turning to face him. “Please, have a seat with Roman.”
“What happened to your cybernetics officer?” he asked, frowning.
“That is none of your concern,” said the old cyborg, folding out a chair from the wall in the back of the room. Abaqa sat down, and Roman joined him at the terminal just to his right, the prosthetic eye turned at an unnatural angle to keep watch.
I gave you my word, Abaqa thought to himself, his lips turned up in a half-hearted sneer. I don’t need you to make me keep my honor.
“Konstantin,” said Danica, taking her seat in the command chair. “What is our situation with the supplies?”
“All done and loaded, Captain,” came a scratchy old voice over the speakers, one which Abaqa didn’t recognize. “We’re coming through the airlock now.”
“Good. Avanadze, prepare to take us to the surface.”
“Ready,” said the pilot, his eyes on his controls. It was just as well that he was at the front of the bridge, and not the back; Abaqa had no desire to sit next to him.
A few brief moments passed in eerie silence. Abaqa shifted in his seat as he eyed the officers on the bridge. With the exposed wires taped along the floor and the aging panels along the walls, it almost reminded him of one of Jahan’s ships. One day, he thought to himself, when all this is over and I’m back in my father’s fleet, I’ll command a ship like this. He glanced over at the female captain, and realized that her expression was no less commanding than that of any spaceborn general. He frowned and tried to put the unsettling thought out of his mind.
“All men report safely on board,” said Roman, still as a giant statue. “Airlocks are sealed.”
“Very well. Lieutenant, take us out of here.”
The docking clamps made a low clang through the bulkheads of the aging ship as they disengaged. Outside, the black, airless horizon tilted and swam, making Abaqa dizzy after so much time in the brig. He gripped his armrests as the walls vibrated slightly with the low rushing noise of the engines.
At that moment, an alarm began to blink at Roman’s station.
The old cyborg frowned and turned his red prosthetic eye to the screen before him. Even through the metal half of his body, he visibly tensed.
“Captain,” he said, “we have five ships arriving from jumpspace at five thousand kilometers, bearing twenty-three degrees above orbital plane. Signals are not Federation.”
Danica turned, her face unreadable. “Have they seen us?”
“Difficult to say,” he answered, “but at our current trajectory, it is doubtful that we can hide.”
“Raise the alert to level three,” said Danica. “Abaqa, what can you tell us about these ships?”
Abaqa rose to his feet, ignoring the queasy feeling in his stomach as he read the displays over the cyborg’s shoulder. They were written in a language he couldn’t understand, but Roman tapped a key on the control board and they reverted to a version of Gaian that he could read at least partially.
“They’re Hameji,” he said, squinting a little. “I don’t recognize the identifier codes, though—are we picking up any of their transmissions?”
Roman tapped another key, and static from the overhead speakers filled the room. Abaqa reached down and adjusted the frequency until voices became audible, though just barely. All eyes on the bridge fell on him as he stared out the window and listened.
“Sir,” said the pilot, “if I adjust our trajectory by thirty-five degrees starboard, we can evade them with a pass around the planet. They won’t follow us into the gravity well at that angle—our shot on them will be too clear.”
“Well, Prince?” said Danica.
“It’s hard to make anything out over the chatter,” he said. “They must be using an encrypted—”
“Captain,” said the gray-haired corporal, his voice urgent, “Hameji ships are launching fighter drones!”
The captain turned to Abaqa as the blood drained from his cheeks. “Well, young prince,” she asked, “if we got you in touch with them, would you be able to call them off?”
“I—I don’t know,” he stammered. “It’ll take me some time to—”
“Then that’s our answer,” said Danica, her expression grim. “Roman, get the men to the high-gee coffins. Alert level four, men. Battle stations.”
* * * * *
Hikaru leaped to her feet as the alarms blared in her small cabin. Outside, the pounding of footsteps in the corridor sent shivers down her spine. Her legs went weak and her hands began to shake as she realized she had no idea what she was supposed to do.
She palmed open the door and looked in either direction down the long, dimly-lit corridor of the ship. “Hello?” she called out, her voice shaky. “Anybody there?”
“What are you waiting for?” came a gruff voice down by the hatch to the stairway. “Get down here—now!”
Without knowing what she was doing or why she was doing it, Hikaru complied. A heavy hand grabbed her by the arm and dragged her down the stairwell. She shrieked in surprise but did her best to follow.
“W-what’s happening?” she asked, alarms still blaring in her ear.
“Combat maneuvers,” said the man, evidently one of the soldiers. “We’ve got to get to the high-gee coffins—let’s move it!”
“High-gee coffins?” Before he could answer, they stepped out into a narrow room with coffin-like capsules lining the walls. Men poured out from hatchways on either side, sprinting to the capsules and jumping inside. The soldier dragged Hikaru to the nearest open one and threw her in, pulling down a mask that dangled above her head.
“Here,” he said, putting it over her face. “Secure this and palm the lid shut.”
“Just do it!”
He spoke with such urgency and forcefulness that she swallowed her objections and did as he said. The breathing mask was a little too large for her, and the rubbery texture felt discomforting against her skin. She leaned back against the gel-like cushion behind her and found it molding around her body; when she palmed the access panel down by her waist, a similar cushion on the inside of the lid pressed up against her so that she had no room to move.
What’s going on? she thought to herself, her heart racing. Though muffled, the sound of the alarms still carried through the walls of the coffin. She tried to lift her hand, but found it locked in place, the cushions keeping her from moving. When she tried to palm the lid open again, it wouldn’t respond. The air from the breathing mask had a stale, copper taste to it. Her heart pounded, and her breathing quickly became short and rapid.
“Help! I’m trapped!” she tried to shout, but her voice carried no further than the gel-filled walls. She opened her mouth to scream, but a sudden dropping sensation took the wind right out of her. It was as if the coffin had fallen out of the wall and was now rolling across the floor—down became up and everything around her began to spin. If it weren’t for the cushions holding her in place, she didn’t know what would be happening to her.
This wasn’t supposed to happen, she thought frantically to herself, trying not to panic. I was just supposed to have an adventure, not … this. She took a deep breath and screamed. For the first time since leaving the palace, she wanted nothing more than to be home.
* * * * *
The words flooded Rina’s consciousness, consuming every fiber of her being until she felt she would melt. Though the alarms blared in her ears, she heard them as if from a distance, through a long tunnel. Part of her knew she should run down to the high-gee coffins to secure herself for maneuvers, but that same part knew that if she went down there, the other part—the feral, murderous part—would undoubtedly take over.
She stumbled against the cot as the floor shifted beneath her, and struggled to fold it up against the wall. Her quarters were spartan enough that she didn’t have to worry about sharp edges or debris. Still, she opened her locker and pulled out the skinsuit, struggling out of her fatigues and into its soft, familiar frame.
The floor shifted again, and the distant roar of the engines through the bulkheads confirmed that they were already making combat maneuvers. She hastily slammed the locker shut with her foot and pulled the skinsuit up over her undershirt, ignoring the wrinkles underneath. The ergonomic frame adjusted somewhat for the force against her chest, but not enough to alleviate the growing pressure.
She closed her eyes and tried to control her breath as the gee-forces pushed her against the wall. A wave of light-headedness passed through her as the air was squeezed from her lungs, but a change in direction sent her sprawling across the floor, gasping in relief. Still, her hands trembled, and not from the maneuvers.
What felt like a moment later, she found herself groping for the access panel, trying to open the door. No! she screamed inwardly, grabbing her hand to stop herself. Must—not—leave—this—room. If she did, there was no telling what she would do.
Images of the crew flashed across her mind through the datalink implant—the graceful, gray-haired Captain Nova, the familiar half-cyborg face of Roman, the young pilot Yuri with his carefully trimmed beard—all of these people whom she’d come to know so well over the past few days and weeks. She clenched her teeth and tried to pull their images from her mind, but the voice in her head would not relent.
Part of her wanted to open her mouth and scream, but the other part—the cold, efficient part—knew that stealth was a far more efficient way to hunt her targets.
“Jump complete, sir. Holding at point-three-one AU from the system star.”
“Scanners picking up multiple hostiles—repeat, multiple hostiles. Six capital ships, nineteen cruisers—”
“Sir, our countermeasures are drawing heavy fire!”
Katsuichi pursed his lips. “Have all ships devote an additional fifteen percent of their energy reserves to countermeasures,” he said. That meant that none of them would be able to jump out for at least thirty minutes, but for good or ill, they were already committed to this fight.
“My men have located the Demon of Tenguri,” said Colonel Webb, his voice noticeably calm. “It’s at seventeen hundred kilometers from our position, at the center of the enemy fleet.”
Katsuichi looked out the forward window, but all he could see was the engine glow of the nearest friendly ships. He tapped the keypad on his armrest and brought up the holographic projection of the battle, with the Demon of Tenguri clearly marked near the center.
“Are all our ships in?” he asked, frowning as he studied the hologram. “Three of them are missing.”
“Sorry, sir,” said the communications officer. “We’ve just barely re-established contact—plotting positions now.”
Three blue dots flickered into existence as the nearest red dots began to converge into tight battle formations. Since Katsuichi and Colonel Webb’s fleets had just jumped into the sector, their ships were scattered haphazardly across nearly a thousand kilometers of space.
“I’ll order my men to establish formations and take the perimeter,” said Colonel Webb, glancing up from his terminal. “We won’t let that bastard Tagatai escape.”
“He won’t try to,” said Katsuichi softly. “If he runs from this fight, he’ll lose the loyalty of his commanders, and the Hameji fleets will fall into chaos. No, he’ll try to surround us with a pincer attack and cut us off from the rest of the fleet—establishing a perimeter will only spread our forces too thin.”
“Then what do you propose?”
Katsuichi stared at the hologram in the center of the room before him. While the light blue marks representing Webb’s ships moved to evade the Hameji battle formations, the dark blue ones representing his own moved to position themselves between the Divine Wind and the advancing Hameji. Overhead, the starfield flashed white and pink as the smaller ships began to exchange fire.
“We must push forward,” he said. “Charge their formations directly and take the battle to Tagatai.”
“You’re mad,” said Colonel Webb, rising violently from his seat. “No one has defeated the Hameji with a frontal assault—you’ll lose half your ships just to push through the outside line.”
“At least half,” said Katsuichi. “But that’s the only way to win this, Colonel—and I intend to lead from the front. If you wish to increase your chances of survival, you’ll command your men to join us.”
Colonel Webb glanced from him to the other faces around the bridge and back again. His cheeks were red, though whether from rage or from terror, it was difficult to tell.
“You damn Rigelans all have a suicide wish,” he muttered, slowly lowering to his seat. “Very well—but wait for my men to go in first and draw them off. No use charging forward until we have a clear opening.”
“An excellent strategy,” said Katsuichi, nodding. “Gather the fleet around the Divine Wind and prepare to charge the Demon of Tenguri at my command.”
“Yes, sir,” said the communications officer, her voice barely holding steady. On the central hologram, the giant red point marking Tagatai’s flagship warily circled the fray, like a predatory hunter of the deep circling a school of fish, waiting for the right moment to strike.
* * * * *
“Deploy cluster mines along the orbital to our rear. I don’t want anything following us.”
“That’s not going to stop their fighter drones, Captain.”
“It’ll divert their gunboats, at least. And Krikoryan, see if we can’t take a few of them out with our missiles.”
“Arming, sir,” said the old cyborg.
“Wait,” said Abaqa, his head spinning. “At least give me a chance to make contact.”
Danica raised an eye at him, while the alarms continued to blare throughout the ship. “The Hameji don’t open a line to their enemies while they’re in combat. What makes you think they’ll listen?”
“We can take the bastards,” said the pilot, his eyes burning with the same rage that he’d unleashed on Abaqa before. “Captain, if we divert their gunships away from the orbital, we can—”
“Not now, Avanadze,” said Danica, silencing him without taking her eyes off Abaqa. “What do you propose?”
“I—I just need to break the encryption on their transmissions,” said Abaqa, glancing frantically around him. “It shouldn’t be hard—just give me a few minutes.”
“We’ll be in range within seconds,” said Danica, her voice colder than vacuum. “I suggest you get to work.”
“Right,” he said, rushing to the cybernetics officer’s seat. Roman turned and eyed him suspiciously with his natural eye, but Abaqa did his best to ignore that. His heart raced, and his hands trembled as he brought up the transmissions. Of all the ways to die while on campaign, he never thought—
“Hameji drones are breaking through,” said the flight commander, the tension evident in his voice. “Interception is imminent.”
“Get up a plasma screen and reroute all auxiliary power to the laser-stars,” said Danica. “I don’t want anything to—”
Without warning, a series of explosions rocked the ship, make the floor lurch and reel. Abaqa barely caught himself from falling out of his chair, while Danica stumbled.
“Captain, they’re using kamikaze tactics!”
“Drop us to a lower orbital and get those laser-stars firing hot. Damage report?”
“Top sublight engine is off-line,” said the chief engineer, his old, sallow cheeks growing pale. “Starboard sensors damaged but still functional. Communications array—”
Another set of explosions rocked them, this time sending Abaqa sprawling to the floor. This isn’t how it’s supposed to end, he thought desperately to himself. Please, not like this!
“Tajjashvili, why are those suicide drones getting through?”
“I’m on it, Captain. Establishing defensive screen, but it’s difficult with the Hameji jamming our transmissions.”
“Laser-stars firing,” said Roman. “Next wave will not get through.”
“We’ve lost a lot of armor plating and most of the weapons on the starboard side,” said the engineer. “The engine’s coming back online, but we’ve completely lost our communications array.”
“What?” said Abaqa, pulling himself back up off the floor. His legs went numb and his knees began to shake.
“Communications are down,” Roman confirmed.
“Down? But—but how am I supposed to—”
“That’s enough,” said Danica, silencing him with a single glance. He shrank back in his seat, but inwardly, he wanted to scream.
* * * * *
Roman watched the scanners closely as the last wave of Hameji fighter drones dispersed and retreated, sliced to shreds by the Tajji Flame’s defenses. The few surviving fighters still under Tajjashvili’s control reformed into consolidated squadrons, but the enemy starships were nowhere to be seen. No doubt the Hameji commanders had spread out into different orbitals, determined to cut them off on the other side of the rogue planet. They’d won for now, but only for the moment. The Hameji would be back.
“Corporal Tajjashvili, report,” said Danica, ever the calm, collected leader in front of her men.
“The last fighter drones are dispersing,” Zura reported. “They’ve sustained too many casualties to mount another attack, and appear to be in retreat.”
“And what about our fighter squadrons?” she asked.
“Smashed to bits, I’m afraid. Losses total out at seventy-two percent, with almost all of them irreparably destroyed. In the next engagement, our fighters will be all but useless.”
Just like final battle of the Revolution, Roman thought to himself.
Danica nodded. “Thank you, Corporal. Roman, any sign of the enemy on the scanners?”
“No, Captain, they are not in line of sight. I suspect they have taken converging orbitals and hope to intercept on other side of planet.”
“They won’t have long to wait,” said Yuri, his fingers twitching nervously. “This rock of a planet is so small, the orbitals are barely larger than that of a small moon. We only have about twenty minutes before the Hameji converge on us again.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” said Danica, nodding curtly at him before turning to Mikhail, the engineer. “Konstantin, can you give me a damage report?”
“Yes, Captain. Our secondary sublight engines have shut down, and appear too unstable to start up again safely. The main communications array is smashed and beyond repair—at least beyond anything I can do for it right now. Starboard weapons arrays are mostly gone, as is most of the armor plating on that side.”
“In your estimation, are we in any condition to fight?”
Of course not.
He paused for a moment. “No, Captain,” he said, his voice uncharacteristically somber. “I’m afraid we aren’t.”
“We should jump out,” said Yuri, speaking out of turn. “The FTL drives are still functional, and the secondary one’s fully charged. If we can just get out of—”
“I’m afraid that’s not an option,” said Danica, resuming her seat in the command chair. “By now, the Hameji have no doubt peppered this sector with more than enough beacons to interdict us. That explains why they aren’t jumping any bombs on our position right now. If we run, we’ll just have to fight them again in deep space.”
“Then—then we should head to the surface,” Yuri stammered. “Hide from these bastards. Wasn’t that the original plan?”
Roman shook his head. “It will not work. They know we are here—they will search us out and find us.”
A somber silence filled the bridge as the full weight of the situation fell on them. Behind him, Abaqa shifted and leaned forward.
“Is there absolutely no way to get the communications array operational?” he asked. “If I could just get a message out to them—”
“I’ll see what I can do,” said Mikhail, “but I’m not too optimistic.”
“We’ll have to plan our next move as if that’s not an option,” said Danica. “Does anyone have any other suggestions?”
A strange pulse in Roman’s cybernetic implants alerted him to a mangled transmission, cut strangely short. He recognized the signature as coming from the Gaian girl, but it was garbled and didn’t make much sense. Frowning, he checked the high-gee coffins, still occupied since Danica hadn’t lowered the alert level. All of his men were accounted for, as well as Doctor Avanadze and the princess—but Al-Najmi wasn’t.
“Excuse me, Captain,” he said, rising quickly to his feet. “I must go below-decks at once.”
Danica turned to him and frowned. “Why, Sergeant?”
“Because Lieutenant Al-Najmi did not make it to high-gee coffin before maneuvers, and may be seriously injured.”
She nodded, her brows furrowed in concern. “I see. Be as quick as you can, though—I need you back on the bridge.”
“Understood,” said Roman, palming open the door to the main corridor. He stepped out briskly, the dim lights flickering from damage sustained in the attack. His heat vision gave him somewhat of a better view, but only just barely. As the door hissed shut behind him, the silence enveloped him as completely as the shadows and the darkness.
* * * * *
Rina’s heart raced as she crept down the darkened hallway, watching her own movements as if through a full-immersion holo simulation. She tried to stop, but her hands only shook a little more as she took up her position in the shadows. Down at the other end of the corridor, a door hissed open, and footsteps announced the arrival of a victim.
No! she screamed inwardly, trying to resist. But instead of turning around, her hold on reality shifted, and she found herself swimming through memories as a wave of nausea and dizziness swept over her.
One moment, she was standing over a mangled body, blood dripping down the side of a broken bottle she held firmly in her hand. Around her, teenage thieves and street thugs stared down in disbelief and fear. One of them turned and ran, and the others soon followed.
Then her vision clouded over, and the next thing she knew, she was perched on a cross-beam below a catwalk in some industrial complex, dangling over a vat of foul-smelling bacterial agents. Footsteps sounded above her, and she slipped the barrel of the gun into the space between the grating. When a tall, dark-haired man came into view, she brought him down with two quick shots. He fell heavily, his face only inches from her own. In his wide, dying eyes, she saw the same look of terror.
Then she was standing over the lifeless body of a Federation politician, still twitching as the nerve agent finished its job. She rose to her feet and took a deep breath, reveling in the clean efficiency of her handiwork. The door hissed open, and an aide to the politician dropped her tablet, her face a picture of shock and horror. Their eyes met, and though Rina knew that she should kill the woman, she hesitated—not because of any compunction or remorse, but because it would mean spilling blood over a perfectly clean kill. Blood was messy, but life? Life was cheap.
“Rina?” Her vision shifted again, to the corridor of the Tajji Flame. A splitting headache made her feel as if her head would explode, but a she crouched and drew a knife from her boot. Relief swept over her in the form of a massive endorphin release, compelling her forward with the promise of ecstasy. It was the implant, no doubt—it would kill her if she tried to resist. It was already killing her.
As she crept toward her target, the aging metal walls turned to rough stone and adobe, the cold tile floor to carpet and sand. The dim green lights slowly yellowed, and the hum of the ventilation system turned to the whispering of the desert wind. She rose to her feet and took a deep breath of the clean, dry air, all of her fears and nightmares gone.
“Rina?” the voice called again, and this time, she recognized it. It was Mira, her older sister. She rounded the corner and saw her, smiling and waiting with arms outstretched.
This isn’t real, Rina tried to tell herself, but her emotions overwhelmed her. Home—after such a long and terrible nightmare, she was finally home again. She smiled and ran forward, into her sister’s waiting arms.
As they embraced, however, something warm and sticky trickled down the skin of her right hand. She looked down and saw blood, thick and dark—and messy.
“Raa!” Mira screamed, her voice like an animal. In that moment, Rina realized that it wasn’t her sister, but the old cyborg, Roman. He lashed out and threw her against the wall, nearly knocking the wind out of her. Fortunately, her training kicked in, and she was back on her feet, knife in hand, racing forward for another attack.
The old man stumbled, blood dripping down his arm. He grabbed her wrist as she came at him, but she twisted and slipped out from his grip. A rush of adrenaline surged through her and she slashed the knife across his side, slicing through his uniform and drawing blood.
The opening was perfect now for a kill-strike to the jugular. As the old man clutched at his stomach in pain, she watched herself lunge forward, seizing the opening.
She hesitated for a split second, just long enough for him to reach up and block the strike with his cybernetic hand. The knife jammed between his prosthetic metal fingers and she let go, falling to the floor.
Reality shifted again, and she was in a shuttle, the roar of the engines filling her ears as the forcefulness of the takeoff pushed her to the floor. She pulled herself up and stared out a porthole at the rust-red deserts of her home world. Familiar landmarks among the rocky plains and dusty mesas disappeared into the distance, while overhead, a series of fearsome explosions flashed across the sky, marking the end of the world.
She gasped and found herself standing with a gun in her trembling hands. Roman struggled to his feet some distance away from her. Though the light was dim, she could tell from his grunts of pain and his blood-soaked uniform that he was seriously hurt.
“R-run,” she stammered, her voice weak. The gun rattled in her sweaty grip, but she couldn’t bring herself to drop it.
“Al-Najmi—why are you—”
“I can’t stop it!” she shouted, cocking the trigger. “Just—just run. Run!”
Tears streamed down her cheek as she squeezed the trigger. The first five shots went wild as the handgun bucked like a wild animal in her trembling hands. But then her training kicked in, and she lost whatever remained of her conscious control. The bullets all glanced harmlessly off of his side—he’d turned so that his cyborg half faced her, shielding the more fleshy parts of his body. Relief flooded her—a different kind of relief than before—and she fell to her knees, the gun slipping from her hands.
“I’m sorry,” she cried, the strength draining right out of her. “I’m so, so sorry. Please forgive—”
Before she could say more, her reality collapsed into blackness.
“There,” said Katsuichi, leaning forward as he stared at the swirling red and blue dots on the holographic projection. “That’s it. Order the fleet forward, full throttle.”
“But sir,” said the gunnery officer, “there are more than six hundred kilometers between us and the Demon of Tenguri. Once we’re out in open space, the Hameji—”
“It’s now or never. Tagatai’s not going to bring his flagship into the fray, and his fleets aren’t going to give us an opening any wider than we already have.”
“Yes, sir. Forgive me.”
“There is nothing to forgive,” said Katsuichi. “Forward!”
The flashes and explosions outside spun wildly as the Divine Wind moved into position. On the hologram, the nearest blue dots broke away from the red ones and began to push through the red formations, pitching and swerving as the gap slowly closed.
“My men aren’t going to hold if you abandon them,” said Colonel Webb, his voice tense. “And they sure as hell aren’t going to follow us on this mad charge.”
“Then let the cowards flee,” said Kenta. “Where were they at Eyn-Gatta? At New Vela? If honor means nothing to—”
Katsuichi silenced his bodyguard with a gesture of his hand. He turned to face the colonel and narrowed his eyes.
“If your men will not stand, then at least have them draw as much enemy fire as possible,” he said. “We’ll reform on the other side once the Demon of Tenguri is destroyed.”
“But you’ll lose half your fleet!”
“Then so be it.” The true warrior fights as one already dead.
“Sir,” said the countermeasures officer, “the Demon of Tenguri is deploying cluster mines along our trajectory and opening with heavy railgun fire.”
“Move the fleet into tight formation and set up a heavy plasma screen to neutralize as much of that fire as possible. If we—”
“Sir, we have multiple guided missiles incoming from the nearest three Hameji ships,” yelled the gunnery officer. “They appear to be nuclear!”
Katsuichi frowned. “Can you take them down?”
“Some, but not all. There’s—there’s too many of them!”
“Hold the formation,” said Katsuichi, gripping the edge of his armrest. “Hold the formation, and full throttle ahead!”
“Dammit!” shouted Colonel Webb. “Can’t you see? You’re flying right into a kill zone!”
As if in answer, a brilliant flash filled the bridge with light. The officers gasped and yelped in surprise, while some fell to the floor. Katsuichi ducked to shield his eyes, waiting several moments to open them again.
“Commander Sakaguchi has abandoned ship,” said the communications officer. “Ginza and Sagami are taking heavy fire—”
“Sir, our fleet is under heavy fire!”
“Intensify the forward plasma screens and accelerate full throttle ahead,” said Katsuichi, his heart racing. “Do not break formation!”
“You’re insane!” shouted Webb. He took a step forward, but Kenta blocked him, a single hand on his sword.
Another explosion filled the bridge with a flash of overwhelming light. This time, the bulkheads shook and alarms began to sound.
“We’re taking damage from the cluster mines,” said the countermeasures officer. “The field is too dense—we can’t possibly neutralize them all!”
“All ships reporting heavy fire,” said the communications officer. “Taking heavy damage—can’t sustain it much longer.”
“We’re almost within range of the Demon of Tenguri,” said the gunnery officer, sweat dripping from his forehead. “Just give us a few seconds—”
“Sir, transmission from the Miyamoto.”
“Put it on,” said Katsuichi, leaning forward.
“Your Imperial Highness,” came Commander Takahashi’s voice as alarms blared in the background of the transmission. “It has been an honor flying with you.”
“Miyamoto’s core reactors have gone critical. She’s breaking formation—going to blow any second!”
Katsuichi swallowed and took a deep breath. “No, Commander. The honor has been mine.”
Commander Takahashi bowed, and the transmission abruptly ended. The blue dot that represented the Miyamoto flashed out of existence, while a flare of light through the windows marked the commander’s passing. Katsuichi’s heart sank, and an awful taste rose in his mouth
“Sir, the shock wave from the Miyamoto has cleared out the last of the cluster mines. Our ship has taken heavy damage, though—armor at less than 50%.”
“In range!” bellowed the gunnery officer. “Sir, we are in range!”
Katsuichi clenched his fists so tightly his arms began to shake. He rose from his chair and stared at the hologram, now showing the shrinking cluster of blue about to collide with Tagatai’s flagship and the small fleet that surrounded him.
“All ships, open fire!”
* * * * *
Abaqa frowned as the sound of gunshots reverberated through the bulkheads as if from a great distance. In her seat at the command chair, Danica perked up and frowned as well.
“If all else fails, we can go down in the shuttles,” said the pilot, oblivious to the noise. “They’re both sublighters, but if we can wait out—”
“Did you hear that?” Danica asked. “It sounded like gunshots.”
“Boarders,” said Yuri, his eyes widening. “Oh, hell.”
“It can’t be,” said Abaqa. “Those barnacle-pods are only for important targets like command ships. Besides, they wouldn’t attempt a boarding until our ship was disabled.”
“Roman,” said Danica, leaping to her feet. “Stay here, and alert me if anything changes.”
“That’s an order.”
Without thinking, Abaqa rose from his chair and ran to the door to join her. “Hey!” shouted the pilot. “Where are you going, Hameji?”
“If there’s trouble, she’ll need help.”
“From you? Get back in your seat, dammit!”
Abaqa shot him a dirty look. “I gave my word. Do you think I’d go against it?”
“Enough,” said Danica. Without another word, she took off down the corridor at a run. Abaqa hesitated for a moment, then took off before anyone else on the bridge could stop him.
He followed the captain around a corner to a hatchway and a narrow stairwell. The lights had gone out, plunging the place in shadow. He hesitated for a moment before going in with her, but she pulled out a pistol from her belt and slipped inside. Not wanting to be left in the darkness, he followed her.
“Roman?” she called out, an uncharacteristic hint of worry in her voice. “Roman, can you hear me?”
“Yes,” came the old cyborg’s gravelly voice. With her gun still at the ready, Danica kept her back to the wall and stepped through the hatchway on the lower level.
“Are you all right? We heard gunshots.”
“Come quickly, Captain.”
They rushed forward into one of the officers’ quarters. The first thing Abaqa noticed was the small pool of blood on the floor. Danica gasped in surprise and covered her mouth—Roman’s uniform was bloody and he had a fairly sizable stab wound on the lower part of his shoulder, but he barely seemed aware of that. In his arms, he held a frail, unconscious girl, his prosthetic hand supporting the back of her head.
“What happened?” Danica asked. Roman’s eye fluttered, but he didn’t seem to be losing consciousness—he managed to stay upright as Danica tore off a strip from his uniform and wrapped it around his shoulder.
“The Gaian girl was assassin,” he said. “She was planted in our unit to strike at optimal time.”
“An assassin?” said Danica. “But why? Who?”
“That is what I am trying to discover.”
Abaqa folded his arms and shook his head. “An assassin from some breakaway faction—no wonder your planetborn alliance can’t defend itself.”
“I do not think she is Federation,” said Roman. “Her datalink implant is not same design.”
“Well, who else but the planetborn would resort to such dishonorable tactics?”
The old cyborg ignored the jab, while Danica finished up the dressing and saw to the gash in his side. The girl slowly tensed, then her fingers began to twitch.
“I think I have something,” said Roman. “It is signature code, but it is encrypted. One moment …”
“What’s wrong with the lieutenant?” Danica asked. “She looks like—”
“She’s dying,” said Roman. “Here—code is 636-TG. It is not found in our database.”
Abaqa gasped, and his legs went weak. “Stars of the deep,” he said, his stomach falling out from under him. “That’s—that’s—”
“That’s Tagatai’s personal ID tag.”
Danica and Roman both looked up at him and frowned. In the cyborg’s arms, the unconscious girl started going into spasms.
“Hameji,” Danica muttered. “They probably wanted to place her close enough to strike the Rigelan royal family.”
It can’t be true, Abaqa thought to himself. Yet even as he leaned against the wall for support, he knew it had to be. 636-TG—that code was known to everyone across the Hameji fleets. And the kill order—she must have received it when they’d jumped in to New Vela. The implant would have connected covertly to the Hameji network and uploaded its report before waiting to receive orders. But to think that Tagatai would stoop so low—how many of his other rivals had been killed by such cowardly, backhanded means?
“She needs help,” said Roman. “Her implants are killing her, but she does not have enough strength to reject them.” He laid her gently on the floor and pulled out a cord from the base of his neck, where the cybernetic enhancements included a neural socket.
“What are you doing?” Danica asked, her voice betraying her alarm.
“I must make direct connection to save her. It is only hope.”
“I will be safe, I promise. In your time, it will take only seconds.”
The girl’s spasms had gotten worse—her whole body was stiff and shaking as if she were about to have a seizure. Roman pulled the cord down to the jacks at the back of her neck.
“Good luck, Sergeant,” said Danica. She saluted him, and he nodded solemnly back, his hands already full. Even though it was just a nod, it carried the weight and authority of a salute.
Tagatai, Abaqa thought, still dizzy as Roman plugged the cord into the back of the girl’s neck. How can it possibly be true?
* * * * *
Roman swam in a sea of raw data, all physical sensation stripped from his consciousness. It tore his awareness in every direction, leaving him no center around which to settle. By sheer force of will, he struggled against it, seeking patterns in the chaos. As he found them, his cybernetic mind translated them into feelings analogous to his physical senses, orienting him within space and time.
Suddenly, he found himself standing in an empty, dark waste. The data was not far from him—invisible streams still streaked around the edges of his consciousness—but for now, his mind had wandered into an island of simulated reality within the digital realm.
“Rina!” he called out, stumbling through the darkness. If he was right, this was a part of the girl’s subconscious. She could not be far.
A tingling sensation in his right side made him glance down and pat his chest. His prosthetics were gone, and his body was much younger—almost fifty standard years younger, back when he had first enlisted in the Gaian Imperial Navy. He looked again, and saw that he was wearing the uniform of the Tajji revolution—the olive green fatigues which he had taken upon defecting shortly after the wars in the New Pleiades. The darkness shifted, and he was in space, staring down at the brown-green steppes and rolling hills of his beloved homeworld.
Our subconscious minds are struggling to connect, he thought to himself as he sped downward toward the surface. I am here because our memories share some correlation. The all-too familiar longing for home and family swept over him like a flood, and he found himself floating over a sea of glass—the planetary dome of his childhood, as seen from above. He looked down and saw the factory town where he was born, monorails weaving between the industrial centers and outlying settlements nestled against the hills and forests. A lump rose in his throat, and he felt an overwhelming desire to go down there—but he knew that he would never find Rina that way. No, she would be somewhere else in this dreamscape, sharing a similar memory.
In the deep blue sky overhead, soundless explosions flared while tracers arced down to the surface of the planet. Roman’s body tensed—it was the Gaian Imperial Navy, crushing the revolutionaries in their last desperate battle for independence. Somewhere up there in orbit, he would find the battleship on which he’d fought on that fateful day. Perhaps, if he could go up there—if he could just change a few small things, reliving the battle the way it should have been—
No, he told himself. The girl—you must save her. Ignoring his youthful longings, he pointed himself east, to the desert where the free nomads roamed under the open air.
“Rina,” he called out again, trying to picture her young, almost girlish face in his mind. An unseen force pulled him forward, as if to the center of a whirlpool, and he found himself speeding over a desert landscape far different from his own. Sharp, craggy mountains stretched across the horizon, while the rocky land below was a deep, dark red, like rust stained with blood. He passed over a forbidding mountain range and across a wide alluvial plain before flying over an expansive desert waste, heading toward a small mesa and a cluster of adobe huts around a rickety old windmill.
Rina, he thought to himself, and knew that she was there.
He was near enough now to see a shuttle, the engines still glowing as if it were about to take off. A small group of people had gathered nearby—a man in white flowing robes and several women dressed in brown and black. A feeling of tension filled the air, so thick he could almost taste it. She was here, all right—this was her nightmare.
“Rina!” he called out, but none of the figures looked up at him. Overhead, the pink and yellow flares of nuclear explosions cast eerie shadows across the forbidding landscape, and he realized that the Hameji were moving into position, preparing to slag her world. Her despair swept over him, nearly drowning the sense of urgency that had driven him forward. But mustering his will, he fought back against the wall of her emotions and plunged downward.
* * * * *
The harsh desert wind whipped Rina’s face, making her pull her headscarf tighter as dust raked across her mouth and eyes. Her mother coughed next to her, while her father and sisters stood like solemn statues as the sky flashed white and yellow. Directly in front of them, the shuttle settled down to the ground without shutting off its engines. Her childish heart raced, even in her memories—time had come to an end, and the world was collapsing all around her.
Jalil was the first to run to the ship. His princely white robes fluttered in the wind, and he stopped just as the hatchway opened and the off-world girl Michelle stepped out. He turned back to the family, his eyes burning with urgency and desperation.
“Everybody in!” he shouted, beckoning for them to follow. “There’s no time to lose!”
But no one moved.
Rina looked to her older sister, Mira, who glanced nervously at the others. The tension was visible in her face, highlighted by the pink and white flare of another explosion.
“Did you hear me?” Jalil shouted. “The world is ending—we have to leave!”
“We’re not going anywhere in the devil’s caravaneer,” said Rina’s mother, putting her hands obstinately on her hips. Rina glanced from her to Jalil to Mira, torn with a fear made all the worse by the confusion all around her.
“There’s no time to argue,” said her half-sister Tiera, running to the ship. “Come on, let’s go!”
All eyes turned to their father, but he glanced sheepishly at his wife, as if looking for some direction. As he searched in vain for the words to express himself, Rina turned to Mira and saw her eyes widen.
“What are you waiting for?” Jalil shouted again. “There’s no time—we’ve got less than ten minutes before—”
“We’re staying right here,” said their mother. “This is our home, and no tricks from you are going to get us to abandon it. Right, girls?”
Without warning, Mira took a step forward and broke into a run. Rina’s heart leaped. A part of her longed to run after her, but she hesitated, too scared to move.
“Hey!” screamed their mother. “Mira! Come back here!”
Mira and Jalil embraced, holding each other as if they would never let go.
“Jalil! How dare you steal my daughter! Mira, come back at once!”
“Mother!” Tiera shouted from the hatchway, ignoring the others. “Come on!”
Tiera’s elderly mother Zayne looked from her daughter to the Sheikh and back again, as hesitant as Rina to be the next to run forward.
“Zayne!” Jalil cried, letting go of Mira. “Mother, please! Let’s go!”
With tears in her eyes, the old woman ran to the ship, stumbling over the rocky earth. Tiera ran forward and helped her to the shuttle, while Rina’s mother shook her head and clucked. “The old whore,” she muttered disapprovingly.
“We don’t have any more time,” Jalil shouted, his voice growing hoarse. “Can’t you see? Everyone who stays behind is going to die!”
Time slowed as the memory reached its awful climax. Mira’s eyes met her own, and shivers ran down her spine as she realized she’d reached one of those crucial moments of decision that can never be repeated or undone. In that instant, the entirety of her life flashed before her awareness. What had she accomplished that was truly worth living for? What friends did she have who looked forward to seeing her? A lump rose in her throat as she remembered Roman, covered in blood—bleeding from the wounds she’d inflicted on him. She was weak—too weak to love, too weak to be worth loving.
As she watched, the child that had been her ran forward, into her sister’s arms. She was a ghost now, a bare wisp of consciousness in the wind, about to perish as the world came to an end around her.
“So, these are the demons that haunt you,” came a low, familiar voice behind her. She turned and saw Roman in his crisp Tajji uniform, no sign of blood from their previous encounter. He put an arm around her shoulder, and though she was just a ghost, his touch was not insubstantial.
“Yes,” she whispered, watching the terrible scene as it came to its inevitable close. “I—I shouldn’t have gone.”
“That is not true. If you had stayed, you would have died.”
“But did I really deserve to live?”
He looked down and met her eyes, his expression so intense that even his mechanical eye radiated with fervency.
“What makes you think you do not? The greatest tragedy is when one truly loses their will to live. I did not see this in my youth, but I see it now—yes, I see it perfectly.”
“My life is a living nightmare,” she said, her emotions spilling out of her. “I have no home, no family—I’m nothing but a killing machine. No one knows how alone I’ve been.”
“Your sister and brother-in-law, they are still alive, yes?”
“They are,” Rina admitted. “But—but I do not deserve to be with them.”
“You are wrong,” said the old cyborg. He turned to face her and squatted down to her level, clasping both of his heavy hands on her shoulders.
“Listen,” he said, his voice firm but not harsh. “You are not yourself now. Your mind has been infiltrated by some malicious device, implanted by those who destroyed your world. They have made you slave, and turned you into killing machine. With your help, I can remove this device. You will be free to love, free to return to those who love you. But you must be willing—you must work with me to do it.”
Rina took a deep breath, her heart pounding. Across from them, Tiera was boarding the shuttle with her mother.
“You must have the will to live,” said Roman, his arms trembling. “I know it is difficult—more than you know, I know. But your life does not have to be nightmare any longer. I can free you—let me free you!”
“But I almost killed you.”
He grinned. “It will take more than small knife to kill this cyborg.”
At his words, she couldn’t help but laugh—a laugh that brought tears to her eyes. She looked down and realized she was no longer a ghost, an insubstantial wisp—she was a young girl, the girl who had made that decision so many years ago to live.
“Now go,” said Roman.
Jalil was boarding the shuttle now, with Mira following close behind. She stopped at the hatch and gave one last, longing glance at Rina, and in that moment the chains of despair that held her captive all seemed to burst, and she ran forward with all the exuberance of a small child into her sister’s arms.
“Mira!” she cried, tears streaking her face. “Mira, Jalil—don’t leave me!”
“Never,” said Mira, holding her close. “We will always be there for you.”
As the long lost sisters hugged each other, the darkness clouding Rina’s soul gave way to a brilliant light—not the harsh light of an explosion, but the warm, peaceful light of a life-giving sun.
The locks in the coffin door clicked loudly as they opened, vibrating through the gelled padding that held Hikaru in place. Outside, she heard the sound of quick footsteps and hastily spoken words. Her heart still raced in her chest, and she hesitated for a few uncertain moments before pressing her palm to the access pad in front of her.
The door to the compartment unlatched and swung open, allowing her to step out. She found herself surrounded by soldiers, all running about in a strangely ordered chaos toward the doors. Several of them shot a glance at her as they ran past, but none of them stopped to help her.
“Hey!” she cried after them. “What’s going on?”
“Didn’t you hear the orders?” said a thirty-something woman in an olive-green uniform, probably some kind of sergeant. “We’re evacuating to the shuttles. If you have anything stowed in your quarters, Princess, better get it now.”
Hikaru frowned. “Evacuating? What—”
“Those are the orders. Now let’s move!”
What’s going on? Hikaru wondered as she hurried out into the hallway. Were they in danger? Where were they going, and why were they leaving the ship this far into deep space? She’d always thought that combat would be flashy and exciting, not dark and full of hurried confusion like this.
“The captain,” she said, breaking away from the main group of soldiers. “Where is she?”
The sergeant clenched her teeth and shrugged before hurrying on her way.
“Try the bridge!”
The bridge, Hikaru thought to herself, setting off at a run down the dimly lit corridor.
* * * * *
Roman groaned as he gradually returned to his physical consciousness. The wounds in his stomach and shoulder throbbed with pain, but he opened his eyes and slowly regained his bearings. He was kneeling on the floor in Rina’s private quarters, with Danica and Abaqa standing over him. Someone had dressed his wounds, so that he wasn’t bleeding as badly as he had when he’d gone under. The girl Rina was unconscious in his arms, a little stiff but breathing normally. A smile crept across his face—even if she didn’t wake for a while, he knew she’d be all right.
“Krikoryan,” said Danica, kneeling next to him. “Roman, how are you feeling?”
“Exhausted,” he said, rising to his feet. His wounds stung something awful, but that didn’t prevent his prosthetics from functioning properly.
“You’re going to need more than a field dressing for those wounds,” she said, rising with him. “Fortunately, nothing vital was injured. How is the girl?”
“She will recover,” he said, laying Rina gently on the cot. “Her implant is neutralized. She will not be Hameji slave any longer.”
“I’m so sorry for this,” Abaqa said softly, shaking his head. “To think that Tagatai—I never knew.”
Danica nodded and took a deep breath. “Unfortunately, we have no time for apologies. The Tajji Flame is in no condition to fight, and we have nowhere to run except the surface of the planet. While you were recovering Al-Najmi, I cave the general evacuation order.”
“Yes. The shuttles aren’t equipped with jump drives, so you’ll have to wait for a Federation starship to come back and pick you up. The chances of that probably aren’t too good, but if you and the men can get out of this alive, then that’s all that matters.”
“And the Tajji Flame?”
She paused, her expression grim. “In order to draw off the strike team, one of us will have to stay behind and draw them off.”
Roman frowned. “Stay behind?”
Realization struck him like a hard blow to the stomach. A lump rose in his throat, and his natural leg went weak, forcing him to lean on his prosthetic.
“Don’t do this, Captain. Please—”
“It’s a good plan, but it won’t work,” said Abaqa, stepping between them. “In a situation like this, the strike team would comb the area for survivors, even if the target went down without discharging any escape pods. If you want to throw them off, you’re going to need something else.”
“Such as?” Danica asked.
He glanced from her to Roman and back again, with the nervous excitement so often displayed by the youth when they recognize a good idea. “The escape pods are equipped with shortwave transceivers, aren’t they?”
“Yes,” said Roman. “Why?”
“If I stay behind with the ship, I can escape in one of the pods and contact the strike team using the shortwave. Once they’ve picked me up, I’ll tell them that the ship went down with all hands, and that there were no survivors.”
“Interesting,” said Danica, folding her arms. “But how do we know we can trust you?”
Abaqa turned to her and drew himself up like a man. “I know that we’re enemies,” he said softly, “but you are friends of my mother, and—and men of true honor. I give you my word, I will not betray you.”
Danica looked at him long and hard, as if she could read his entire life story in one determined glance. The young prince shrunk a little under her unrelenting gaze, but held his own. After several tense moments, she nodded.
“Very well,” she said. “Return to the bridge. I’ll join you shortly.”
“Yes, Captain,” he said, nodding. He turned awkwardly to Roman, as if unsure whether to salute, but spun around quickly and left the room.
“Captain,” said Roman, his right eye blurring with tears, “Captain, please—let it be me.”
“I can’t do that,” said Danica, failing to meet his eyes. “As captain, it’s my duty to go down with the ship. See to the men—make sure they’re safe.”
“That’s an order,” she said, looking up at him. A sigh escaped her lips, and the impassive mask of command fell away, revealing a face that was surprisingly old and careworn. And yet, the vitality and emotion in her eyes was unchanged, even after all these years. She stepped forward and put a hand on his arm, and it was all he could do to keep from breaking down right there.
“You always say that cyborgs never die,” she said softly, “but when I look at you, I see a man who hasn’t really lived. I want you to live, Roman—I want you to stop fading and truly live before you die. Understand?”
He nodded, trembling uncontrollably as tears began to spill from his eye. “Captain,” he stammered, then wrapped his arms around her like a little boy.
“It’s been an honor serving with you, Roman.”
He tried to respond, but was too choked up to say anything.
As they let go of each other, he became dimly aware of hurried footsteps outside the edge of his vision. “Captain!” came the voice of a young girl—the princess, his digital mind registered. “Captain, what’s—” she gasped and drew silent, standing off in the doorway.
“See to the princess,” said Danica. “Use the money from that job to buy a new ship. And Sergeant—take care of my men.”
“I will,” said Roman, his lip still quivering. He turned and picked up Rina from the cot, his movements stiff and automatic. More than ever, he felt as if he were trapped in a mechanical body, watching like a spectator while someone else controlled his actions.
“… and be sure to see to your wounds,” Danica was saying. “That’s an order, Sergeant.”
He paused in the doorway, turning to look at her one last time before leaving. She stood with her hands clasped comfortably behind her back, her uniform crisp and her expression full of grace.
“Live, Roman,” she said simply. “That’s an order.”
She saluted him, her thumb tucked tightly under her palm in the traditional Tajji fashion. Still holding Rina with his prosthetic, he lifted his right arm and returned the salute. His breath came in short, erratic gasps, but before he could recover, she turned and left for the bridge.
Live, Roman, her words echoed in his mind. But inwardly, he felt as if he had died.
* * * * *
The bridge of the Tajji Flame seemed eerily empty. The chairs were all conspicuously vacant, some turned around almost backward in the men’s haste to leave. Out the forward window, the looming mass of the lifeless planet seemed almost like an ominous black hole in an otherwise brilliant starfield. Indicators still blinked on the various displays, abandoned in mid-function by men whose time was quickly running out.
Abaqa settled down in the old cyborg’s chair, bringing up a map of the area on the scanners. The radar traced alien landforms on the surface of the world below: cracks and crevices split from the rock as the planet had slowly cooled in the star-filled void. No bases or outposts, however—and nothing on the horizon, though a series of intersecting lines ahead in their trajectory showed where the Hameji strike team would soon intercept them.
The door hissed open, and Danica stepped inside. “What’s our status?” she asked as she took the pilot’s chair.
“No sign of our attackers,” said Abaqa. “We’re coming up on them, though—about five minutes to intercept.”
A distant groan announced the departure of the shuttles. On the scanners, they appeared as a pair of twin dots, dropping speed and altitude as they descended to make planetfall.
“Shuttles away,” said Danica. “How long until they’re off the scanners?”
“A few minutes,” said Abaqa. “They don’t have much time.”
“Then we’ll have to give them more.” She engaged the sublight engines, filling the room with a distant rushing noise as they came to life. The floors and bulkheads vibrated ever so slightly, and the scanners showed them accelerating to a higher orbit.
“I’m picking up something,” said Abaqa, narrowing his eyes at the scanner. “Two signals, coming over the horizon at negative thirty degrees.”
“I see it,” said Danica. “Are the shuttles out of detection range?”
He took a moment to check. “For the moment, yes. If they come within another hundred kilometers, though, there could be a problem.”
“We’ll have to force them to alter their course. Bring the railguns to bear and send a series of bursts along their current trajectory. I’ll activate the gravitics and dive at about a five degree angle to draw them to a lower orbital.”
“Yes, Captain.” As he activated the gun controls, he couldn’t help but hesitate for a brief, doubt-filled moment. He was about to fire on his own people, after all—under the orders of a planetborn woman.
“Is there a problem, Prince?”
“No problem,” he said, remembering his promise. “Firing now—stand by.”
The whole ship vibrated as the cannons came to life, the muzzle flash lighting up the exterior hull through the forward window. The bursts flared for a second as they traced an arcing path across the horizon, then passed away into silence.
“They’re altering their course,” said Abaqa. “Dropping into the gravity well—and answering fire.”
“Diving at seven degrees. Set up a plasma screen and prepare for impact.”
Abaqa nodded and activated the short-range plasma cannons, setting them to automatic fire. The ship began to groan from the strain of the dive. He mentally counted down the seconds as the projectile fire from the Hameji gunboats came closer. Outside, brilliant bursts of plasma flared across the starfield, and the ship lurched as the debris raked across their hull.
“Damage?” Danica asked, as alarms began to sound from the various consoles.
“Mostly superficial,” said Abaqa. “We’ve lost some armor and maybe a couple of laser-stars, but the plasma screen neutralized most of it.”
“Good. Stand by for evasive maneuvers.”
As she banked the ship, the horizon turned until it was almost vertical. Even though the gravity on the bridge remained the same, Abaqa couldn’t help but swoon a little at the sight.
“We’ve got three other signals coming in,” he said. “Two at twenty-five degrees, another nearly dead on. The first two are firing again—now the others are, too. We have incoming projectile fire from three directions.”
“What about the shuttles?” Danica asked, her face impassive.
Abaqa glanced down at the scanners, then back at her. “They’re below the altitude for immediate detection,” he said. “Unless the Hameji fly directly over their position, I’d say they’re safe.”
She nodded. “Thank you, Prince Abaqa. You’d better get to your escape pod now—this is going to be a very short battle.”
He rose to his feet and made for the door, then stopped and turned before stepping through. Danica remained calmly seated in the pilot’s chair, her hands steady at the controls without betraying any fear.
Honor and glory are not the only virtues in this universe.
“Captain,” he said. She glanced at him over her shoulder.
He raised his hand in a sharp, respectful salute. “It has been an honor.”
She nodded. “Thank you, Prince Abaqa. Give your mother my regards.”
A lump rose in his throat, and he turned and left the room before betraying any of his confused emotions. Moments later, he was sliding down the escape chute, through the gut-wrenching blackness into the tightly cushioned interior of the escape pod. He sprawled out on his stomach, his body completely encased except for a little space near the viewscreen. The hatch clicked shut behind him, and he grabbed the controls just as the docking clamps popped open, releasing him from the ship.
The starfield spun wildly before him, but with practiced precision he stabilized himself and brought the pod to bear. Cycling through the exterior video feeds, he brought up an image of the Tajji Flame streaking quickly away. A series of missiles traced bright yellow arcs from across the horizon, and the ship flared like a brilliant star before breaking apart into pieces.
“Goodbye, Captain,” he said softly. As the lump in his throat began to quiver, he brought up the communications screen and prepared to make his transmission.
* * * * *
“What’s happening out there?” Hikaru asked softly, breaking the silence after the harrowing descent to the planet’s surface. All around her, the Tajji soldiers stared at the large display screen at the head of the cabin, as silent and somber as death. She shifted uneasily on the stiff, cracked seating. With almost twenty people crammed into the narrow space, every seat on the shuttle was filled. For her own part, she was pressed up against the wall with Roman’s prosthetic elbow jamming her side.
The screen showed a single point passing over the distant horizon. As the image zoomed in, several yellow lines traced their way slowly from three directions. They intersected at the point, which flared briefly and burst to pieces.
“Oh, God,” gasped one of the men. He covered his face, while others lifted their hands to their hearts as tears streamed down their cheeks.
“Goodbye, Captain,” said Lieutenant Maia at the rear of the cabin. “May the stars and constellations of Earth guide you to your heavenly home.” Yuri took his wife’s hand and let her bury her face against his shoulder.
“Is—is she gone?” Hikaru asked, her voice subdued. A horrible sinking feeling gnawed at her stomach. She glanced from face to face and read in their eyes the awful answer.
“It’s—it’s all my fault!” she sobbed, reverting to her native language as she buried her head in her hands. “I’m so—I’m so sorry!”
Roman put an arm around her, but the cold metal prosthetic gave her no comfort. Her shoulders shook uncontrollably as she sobbed like a little girl, ashamed for her outburst and yet hating herself for not being ashamed any sooner. She’d never wanted anything like this to happen—she’d only wanted to get away and see the universe outside the palace walls. But now … now, she didn’t even know if she deserved to go home.
“It’s all my fault,” she cried again, hitting her head against the wall in self-loathing. Roman’s heavy grip stopped her, but inwardly, all she wanted was to curl up and die.
“Focus all fire power on the Demon of Tenguri,” said Katsuichi, his voice raw and his hands shaking. “I want that ship annihilated!”
“You do realize you’re gambling everything on this,” said Colonel Webb behind him, his voice subdued. “If Tagatai gets away, or the rest of his fleet falls on us before—”
“That’s enough,” bellowed Kenta.
Katsuichi leaned forward in his chair and watched the holographic projection as the small blue points surrounded the larger Hameji battleship. He keyed the pad at his armrest and zoomed in a little closer, so that the clusters of red points on the periphery fell away. Swarms of fighter drone squadrons weaved and danced like angry bees, while projectile fire and plasma bursts spewed out of the Demon of Tenguri in all directions. It was astonishing how much firepower Tagatai’s flagship had—almost half that of the combined Rigelan fleet. The sleek cruisers circled the larger Hameji ship warily, firing everything they had, but Tagatai’s defenses were still too strong to penetrate.
“Sir, the Hameji fleet is closing—less than five minutes to intercept.”
“Move the fleet closer,” said Katsuichi. “We’re too far from the target—they’re anticipating our fire and neutralizing our shells too quickly.”
“But sir,” said the gunnery officer, “if we get any closer to the Demon of Tenguri, those guns will tear us to shreds!”
“That’s a risk we’ll have to take. Order all fighter squadrons to make immediate strafing runs—maybe that will draw some of their fire.”
The hologram shifted as the swarms of fighters began to converge toward the large red dot in the center. Overhead, flashes and flares cast eerily silent shadows across the bridge as the plasma fire intensified.
“We’re taking heavy losses on the fighters,” said the wing commander. “Casualties at thirty—no, forty percent and rising—”
“Sir, the Sagami and Masamune are heavily damaged,” shouted the communications officer. “They’re breaking formation—Commander Aizawa requests permission to—”
A bright light filled the bridge, making the officers shriek and cover their heads. It was followed by a deafening crash—one that shook the ship and nearly knocked Katsuichi from his seat.
“What was that?” he asked.
“The Demon of Tenguri is moving to intercept us,” said the pilot. “They’re concentrating firepower, and—stars of Earth!”
Another terrible crash sounded through the bulkheads, this time throwing Katsuichi to the floor. In an instant, Kenta was at his side, helping him back into the command chair.
“We’ve got heavy projectile fire incoming,” shouted the countermeasures officer. “Trying to establish plasma screen, but there’s simply too much to repel!”
“We’ve lost the starboard engine,” said the engineer. “More than half our armor plating has been stripped—one more direct hit and we’ll start losing hull integrity.”
“Our defensive screen has been breached in multiple places,” said the countermeasures officer. “If we don’t take evasive maneuvers—”
“No!” shouted Katsuichi, leaping to his feet. “Concentrate all firepower on the Demon of Tenguri—we can’t afford to let up now!”
“Move the Divine Wind closer—yes, closer! We’re not going to get another chance at this. Better to die now than to let our people perish.”
His men stared at him, the fear in their faces only a hair’s breadth from panic. Some of them had already collapsed to the floor, curled up in terror—but most of them took heart at his words and returned to their posts with renewed vigor.
“Moving to engage,” said the pilot. “Evading fire—”
The ship shuddered, and a horrible scraping noise sounded outside on the hull. All throughout the ship, alarms began to blare.
“Just a glancing blow,” said the countermeasures officer. “The Akiba and Kurefune are combining plasma screens with ours—we shouldn’t see another one like that get through.”
“Sir, the Hameji point ships are within range and firing on our rear!”
“All ships reporting heavy crossfire,” said the communications officer, her voice cracking. “We can’t sustain this attack much longer.”
“How much damage is the Demon of Tenguri taking?” Katsuichi asked, clenching his fists. “Tell me we’re doing something!”
“Some of our shots are getting through now, but the armor is deflecting most of it,’ said the gunnery officer. “I’m sorry, Sir, but there’s not much else we can do.”
Another explosion rocked the Divine Wind, sending Katsuichi to his knees. Kenta helped him up again, but there was a deadness in the samurai’s eyes that betrayed just how close they were to failure.
“Well, intensify our firepower,” said Katsuichi, his voice hoarse and weak. “We can’t stop now—can’t—”
“Sir, I’m receiving an urgent transmission from the Mikawa,” said the communications officer. “Shall I put him through?”
Katsuichi nodded, collapsing into his seat. Overhead, the constant flash of plasma bursts made him shield his eyes.
“Your Imperial Highness,” came Admiral Uematsu’s voice over the din of the alarms. “I must apologize for the loss of the Mikawa.”
“What are you talking about?” Katsuichi asked, frowning. “Commander, I—”
“It has been the greatest honor of my life to fly with you, Your Highness. I hope that my sacrifice will not be in vain.”
The transmission died, while on the holographic projection of the battle, the blue point representing the Mikawa broke formation and made a beeline straight for the Demon of Tenguri. Shuttles and escape pods trailed in its wake, while the Hameji flagship directed its railgun and plasma fire at the Rigelan cruiser, pummeling it repeatedly.
“Sir,” said the communications officer, “Admiral Uematsu has abandoned ship and is sustaining intense fire. Hull integrity is falling—”
“Stars,” said the pilot, “he’s making a kamikaze run.”
Katsuichi’s eyes widened as the blue point shot faster and faster towards the red dot at the center of the projection. Too late, Tagatai banked his flagship in a clumsy attempt to evade the oncoming starship—but seconds later, the Mikawa collided.
A brilliant pinkish-white light filled the bridge of the Divine Wind, making him shield his eyes again. Only one thing could explain such blazing power—a blast from a nuclear warhead. The patter of debris and blaring of alarms broke the deafening silence, while the afterglow of the explosion lingered several moments after the initial blast.
“By the sacred stars of Earth,” muttered Kenta. He fell to one knee and bowed his head.
“Sir!” shouted the gunnery officer, his eyes wide with glee. “The—the Demon of Tenguri, it’s—”
“Gone,” said the communications officer, covering her mouth with her hand.
Katsuichi turned to the holographic projection and stared in disbelief at what he saw. The red dot marking Tagatai’s ship was gone, with faint lines tracing the debris outward from the blast. Two heavily damaged Rigelan cruisers were listing near the wreckage, but other than that, there was no sign of anything within a good ten kilometers—not even an escape pod.
“We did it,” he said, his heart pounded with excitement. “Tagatai’s flagship, the Hameji—”
“It’s finished,” said Kenta, putting a hand on his shoulder. “We’ve won.”
* * * * *
Hikaru stared at the dull gray ceiling of the shuttle, tracing the line of hand-holds from the cockpit at the front to the airlock in the back. On the floor and seats around her, the soldiers slept in hammocks strung across every possible space, making it impossible to get through without jostling someone. Yet as the bathroom door of the overcrowded shuttle slipped open, another soldier did just that, followed by the next in line to use the facilities. She covered her mouth at the stench, but only halfheartedly. Just a week ago, she would have found these conditions intolerable—but now, she didn’t even know if she cared anymore.
Almost forty-eight hours had passed since they’d touched down on the surface of the dead, sunless world—forty-eight hours that felt like an eternity. It was almost as if she’d stepped out of her life and into a sort of parallel existence, one without beginning or end, where everything she’d ever known or experienced had never happened.
Yet the memory of the past few days still haunted her—memories of her own selfishness that filled her with shame and guilt. In the quiet moments that punctuated the long darkness, they played constantly across her mind, in perfect, awful clarity. She cringed as she remembered switching places with the maid-servant Chizuko, thinking she was embarking on a harmless adventure. How stupid she’d been! Stupid and selfish. And the childish way she’d spurned Danica’s advice to take responsibility for herself—that was just shameful.
The more these thoughts played across Hikaru’s mind, the more she realized that she didn’t deserve to return her people. The debt of honor she’d incurred would be impossible to repay. And the shame she’d brought upon her brother, at such a critical moment in the history of their people—it made her shudder just to think about it.
The toilet flushed, and the bathroom door hissed open again—but this time, no one rose to use it. Her body tensed, and she rose to her feet, stepping tentatively over the huddled bodies and ducking beneath the bulging hammocks. It took her almost a full minute to get through, but soon she found herself at the door of the pungent bathroom—and at the head of the corridor leading to the airlock.
She hesitated for a moment and looked back on the sleeping bodies of the soldiers. Her heart raced in her chest, and she almost turned back—but her shame compelled her forward, past the narrow wall cabinets with the EVA suits. In the last few hours, she’d had a lot of time to think of ways to end her life and absolve herself of her shame. While the traditional methods would have involved disembowelment or beheading, in the cramped quarters of the shuttle, that would have made a terrible mess. Hanging, too, seemed impractical, considering how low the ceiling was, and how little space she had in which to do it. No—the best method was to climb into the airlock and space herself, the way bandits and pirates had always done in the old adventure stories. It was a clean, if somewhat terrifying way to go—but how could she let her fear get the best of her now? No—if she truly loved her brother, if she truly wanted to keep from staining his honor, this was something she had to face without flinching.
The access panel felt cold against her sweaty palm. She pressed her hand against it, and the heavy metal door hissed and groaned open. Taking a deep breath, she stepped into the narrow, windowless chamber, the edges of her vision blurring as her heart continued to pound. Out of habit, she took off her shoes as the door hissed shut; the hard metal floor felt cold against her bare feet, but she was hardly aware of that now.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, reaching out with a trembling hand to open the exterior door. “I’m so sorry—”
A large, heavy hand clamped down on her wrist—a hand of metal. She gasped and jumped in surprise, then turned to see the Roman sitting next to her. His laser-eye glowed beneath the single caged bulb in he ceiling, and he narrowed his good eye as if to scold her.
“Eh?” he grunted. “What’s this?”
“Let go of me!” she shrieked, jumping backwards. He complied, but stepped between her and the exterior door, blocking her.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, trying to regain at least some of her composure.
“I could ask you same question,” he replied.
“Well—I asked first!”
He folded his arms across his broad chest and chuckled humorlessly. “Fair enough,” he said. “Why do you think?”
She opened her mouth to answer, but as realization struck her, a chill shot down her back and her stomach dropped out beneath her. “No,” she whispered. “You can’t—you wouldn’t—”
“Breathe vacuum?” he said, finishing her thought. “No. That would be against her orders.”
“Then why are you here?”
He sighed. “Some people must have solitude in order to think clearly. But for myself, I must have solitude in order to feel. She is gone, and I … I feel nothing.”
Hikaru nodded, the full weight of her guilt bearing down on her. “You’re right,” she said softly. “It’s not—I mean—”
Her body stiffened, and she bowed deeply with her upper body almost parallel to the floor. “I am so sorry,” she said, reverting without thinking to the language of her people. “So sorry,” she repeated in Gaian. “It is my fault that she passed the way that she did—my fault that any of this ever happened. I fear I can never—”
A lopsided grin spread across Roman’s half-cyborg face, and he threw back his head and roared with biting laughter. Hikaru’s cheeks reddened, and in spite of the circumstances she felt her hackles begin to rise.
“Hey!” she said. “What are you laughing at?”
“At you, Princess. You truly do think yourself to be center of universe, no? Your fault—ha! Danica would have thrown you out of airlock in two seconds to save her men.”
He laughed again, making her feel small and insignificant. She clenched her fists, pulling herself up to her full height.
“Oh yeah? Then why did you come after me? Why did you put your lives on the line to save me?”
“Same as for any mission,” said Roman. “For the money.”
She frowned. “The money?”
“But of course.”
“That’s it? You’d risk your lives just for money?”
“Every day,” he said, smirking at her. “What do you expect? We are mercenaries, no? It is in job description.”
“But—but what about your honor?”
He drew in a deep breath and leaned back against the door. “Honor? What about it?”
“Well, if you were truly men of honor, you—” she stopped short. “It wasn’t for me that she died,” she said softly. “It was for you.”
Roman nodded. “And if Hameji had made bargain, she would have sold you in heartbeat to save us.”
“That’s—that’s horrible,” she said, stiffening a little. Even so, the weight of guilt lifted ever so slightly from her shoulders.
“Now, it is my turn,” he said, folding his arms once again. “Why are you here in airlock, Princess?”
She swallowed—from the way he eyed her, he seemed to know the answer already. Even though it made no sense that she should feel ashamed for her decision, she found herself blushing as she tried to avoid his gaze.
“I—I cannot go back to my people,” she said, bowing quickly. “The way I have acted, the shame I have brought on them—”
“Shame? What shame?”
She shifted uneasily on her feet. “I have been so foolish—so stupidly foolish. I ran away for the stupidest reasons—”
“And now you try to run away again.”
“What?” she said, blinking in surprise. “Run away? No!”
“But it is same thing—it is exactly same thing. You think your shame is too much to bear, so you wish to end it, thinking it honor to take your life. It is not honor—it is greatest height of stupidity.”
Hikaru’s jaw dropped in shock. She’d never heard anyone defame the customs of her people like this before.
“Are you shocked by my words? Then I will say it again—it is greatest height of stupidity, and greatest height of selfishness. Among Tajji exiles, we say that to live is greatest act of resistance.”
“It’s—it’s not like that,” she blurted. “A true warrior fights as one already dead—honor is worth more than life.”
“And are you warrior, Princess?”
“No,” she admitted, “but I have to defend my people’s honor.”
“Then go back to them,” he said. “Return to palace and accept your place. If it is shame to run away, then how is it shame to go back?”
She paused. As strange as it sounded, he had a point.
“Do you wish to know Danica’s last words to me?” he asked, clasping his natural hand on her shoulder. “She told me to live.”
Though he only had one eye that could become teary, the sight made her choke up all the same. She wrapped her arms around him and held him close, her face pressed up against his metallic cyborg chest.
“I’m sorry you had to lose her,” she whispered.
He grunted and drew in a sharp breath. “So am I.”
They held each other for a long while in silence. The emotions of the last couple days swelled up in Hikaru’s chest, and her shoulders began to tremble as she quietly sobbed. He rubbed her back with his natural hand, and for the first time since running away, she felt an overwhelming desire to go home.
“Now, Princess,” he said, “promise me that you will stop running. Promise me that you will return.”
“I will,” she said, letting go of him. “Although really, aren’t you just in this for the money?”
He threw back his head and laughed—a warm, jovial laugh, changed from before. “Perhaps,” he said. “After all, it is in job description.”
She smiled. “Then finish the contract and take me home.”
* * * * *
“The Hameji fleets are beginning to disperse, Your Highness. A quarter of their forces have already jumped out of the system.”
“Commander Tanaguchi reports that the damage to the Masamune’s reactor core has led to a dangerous leak, and is ordering an immediate evacuation.”
“Send the Kurefune to recover his crew,” said Katsuichi, leaning back in his command chair. “All other ships, establish a perimeter but do not engage the Hameji unless engaged first.”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
“Also,” he added, “move the Divine Wind away out of the action. We’re too damaged ourselves to—”
A loud crack like the pop of a firecracker interrupted his thoughts, followed by a sharp pain to his stomach. He looked down and saw blood seeping through the folds of his robe. Time slowed, and for a weirdly disorienting moment, all he could think about was whether this meant he wouldn’t get to see his sister again.
“Master?” said Kenta. His eyes widened, and his lips peeled back in a fearsome expression of shock, horror, and outrage. Behind him, Colonel Webb stood up from his seat, a submachine gun in his hand.
In one smooth motion, the old samurai spun on his heel and drew his sword, rushing on the colonel with all the force of a falling meteor. He was too late, however. The bridge rang with the sound of gunfire as the bullets tore right through him. He screamed and swung his sword downward, but the colonel easily sidestepped his blow. He rose up one last valiant time to strike again, but collapsed to the floor in a rapidly growing pool of his own blood.
“Kenta!” Katsuichi screamed. Adrenaline surged through his veins, drowning out the pain, but when he tried to rise to his feet, he felt as if he were trapped under water.
With the dispassionate look of a fishmonger processing his catch, Colonel Webb turned his gun on the crew of the Divine Wind. The bridge soon filled with screaming as horror turned to panic. In such a confined space, however, they didn’t have a chance. As Katsuichi watched on helplessly, the bullets tore through his men, splattering the display screens and instrument panels with blood. The gunnery officer almost made it to the door, but Colonel Webb turned and made quick work of him before finishing off the last of them. When it was over, only the moans of the dying punctuated the terrible silence.
“W-Webb,” said Katsuichi, trying in vain to pull himself to his feet. “Why?”
The colonel ignored him and stepped over the sprawled out body of the engineering officer to punch a series of commands at his terminal. Alarms began to sound throughout the ship, as flashing-red lights indicated an imminent system failure—probably one of the systems that had been damaged in the fighting.
“Why!” Katsuichi screamed, demanding an answer even as the life slowly spilled out of his body.
“I’m afraid I don’t have time to stay and chat,” said the colonel, as smoothly as if they were discussing a simple matter of propriety. “You see, this ship is about to suffer a catastrophic reactor failure, and I simply cannot afford to be on board when it does.”
“Please accept my sincerest apologies for the loss of your men,” he added. “They were unfortunate collateral in a matter that really had nothing to do with them. It’s tragic, how many unnecessary lives are lost in the course of war.”
The bulkheads shook as something deep within the bowels of the ship ruptured and broke. Smoke began to seep out of the ventilation shaft—sickly-sweet smoke that smelled like rotting flowers.
“For their sakes, however,” said Webb, walking calmly to Katsuichi’s side, “I suppose I owe you at least an explanation. You see, once the rest of the Federation realizes that the Hameji have been defeated, they’ll immortalize us as war heroes and look to us for leadership in the new, post-Hameji era. Seeing as you were the one who led this operation, you had the most to gain—and for the sake of my career, I simply could not allow that.”
The floor shook as another system ruptured somewhere beneath the bridge. A new set of alarms joined the rapidly growing chorus.
“I must thank you, however—and congratulate you on a victory nobly won. And if it’s any consolation, at least you’ll die knowing that you saved your people.”
Katsuichi’s arms began to shake uncontrollably as stars of pain shot across his vision. “You—you—”
“Goodbye, Your Highness. And please understand: None of this is personal.”
With that, Colonel Webb rose calmly to his feet and strode out the door.
“Webb!” Katsuichi shouted, his voice raw and full of pain. “Come back here! Come back and face me, you bastard!”
It was no use, though—the lower half of his body simply wouldn’t move. He tried to drag himself across the floor with his arms, but the pain in his stomach soon became so unbearable that he nearly blacked out.
“Katsuichi-sama!” came a frantic, girlish voice. For a surreal moment, it seemed as if Hikaru had come to help him. Then he looked up, and saw the tear-stained face of his communications officer.
“Y-your Imperial Highness!” she shrieked, her frenzied hysteria made all the worse by her apparent uncertainty how to react. She reached down to help him, then stopped her trembling hands short before pressing them to her cheeks, then reaching down to him again.
“We have to get you out,” she decided. Taking great care, she turned him over on his back. Even so, he groaned in agony as she reached beneath his armpits and started to drag him toward the door.
A distant explosion sent her sprawling backwards, over Kenta’s lifeless body. She cried out and pulled herself up, but Katsuichi felt his grasp on reality slipping. His vision swam before him, and as much as he tried to fight it, he knew he didn’t have much longer before he passed out. In that moment, his father’s voice came to him, as clearly as if the old man were standing right above him.
You must repay this debt of honor, Katsu. You must not let it overshadow us.
The edges of his mouth turned up in a grin, and in spite of the terrible pain, his laughter rose above the blaring of the alarms.
“Y-your Highness?” stammered the communications officer, once again by his side.
“I’ve repaid the debt, Father,” Katsuichi shouted, his voice wild with glee. “We are not … honor bound to the … Federation any longer!”
“Sir,” said the officer, tears streaming down her cheeks like rain. “Sir, please don’t—”
Katsuichi reached up and grabbed her by the collar. “The sword,” he said, looking her in the eye. “The sword. Where is it?”
“O-over the doorway,” she stammered.
He let her go and collapsed to the floor again. “Bring it to me,” he whispered.
She obeyed his words without hesitation. The ship lurched, but she knelt down seiza-style and held it out carefully to him.
“It’s here, Your Highness,” she said, bowing her head.
“Good,” he said. “Take it … to my sister.”
She looked up at him, her lips quivering like a child who has just lost her father. “But—but sir, your wounds—”
“Leave me,” he commanded, still grinning. “You’ve done … all you can … for me. Take the sword … to Shinihon … and to my sister.”
“Sir!” she cried, bowing her head so low that her forehead was pressed against the bloodstained floor. Another explosion rocked the ship, and the smoke in the room began to grow thick and pungent.
“Go!” he ordered. With a hesitant glance, she rose quickly to her feet and ran out the door, the sword pressed tightly against her bosom.
It’s done, Father, Katsuichi thought to himself as he breathed one last, painful breath. His lips turned up in a grin, and the alarms and explosions suddenly seemed very distant, as if the sound were coming to him through a tunnel. I did what you asked me to. I repaid the debt of honor and saved our people.
The tunnel grew longer and longer, until the noise faded into silence. He closed his eyes and let himself drift into a state of peace, where he no longer had to worry about the burdens of being emperor. And if he listened very carefully, he thought he could hear the voice of his father, calling him home across the starry sea.
Rina stirred and opened her eyes as the bodies all around her began to shift. Her sleep the past few days had been long and dreamless—which was more comforting than it had been in a long, long time.
“Any news?” grunted one of the soldiers at the head of the crowded shuttle. The place was beginning to stink of sweat and body odor, but after all she’d experienced, that was hardly any concern.
“Good news,” boomed Roman’s voice, not just to the soldier but to everyone else as well. “We have picked up signal. It is Federation battleship, with two Rigelan escorts. We are establishing contact and will soon make rendezvous.”
A hearty cheer erupted in the tightly packed space of the cabin. At once, everyone was hugging each other and talking in warm, excited tones. Though the portholes still showed a dark, sunless landscape, it felt as if dawn had finally broken after an almost unbearable night.
Rina closed her eyes and tried to reach out with her datalink implant. Normally, she would have been able to pick up a signal, and perhaps even infiltrate the network through a back door. Instead, she felt an empty void, like the remnants of muscle memory for an amputated limb. She reached behind her neck and felt for her neural sockets—they were still there, so she could still manage to get in through a hard connection. However, without her datalink implant, she was cut off.
It felt strange to be free of that device. As she reached back into her memories, she couldn’t help but feel a bit melancholy—which was strange, because hardly anything had ever made her sad when the datalink was directing her thoughts. Perhaps, then, it wasn’t that a part of her was missing, so much as a missing part that had finally been returned.
The conversations around her rose in pitch as the engines began to engage. Working quickly, the soldiers tore down their hammocks and stowed them under their seats. Roman went down the aisle, making sure they were all buckled in. He stopped at Rina and looked at her for a moment, as if trying to speak with her through her mind.
“It doesn’t work anymore,” she said.
She glanced down at his stomach. His shirt was unbuttoned, so that she could see a large dressing wrapped around his chest and torso.
“I’m sorry for hurting you,” she said softly. “That wasn’t me.”
He nodded. “And now?”
“And now what?”
“Is it truly you now?”
“I—I think so. It’s been such a long time, though, I don’t really know for sure.”
The shuttle jolted a little as it lifted vertically from the surface of the planet. Roman leaned on one of the bulkheads for support and put a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
“There is no hurry. You will know soon enough.”
She looked up at him and smiled. “Thank you,” she whispered.
“No problem,” he grunted. “You are one of us, after all.”
After living in self-imposed solitude for so long, few words could have been more comforting.
* * * * *
“Your Imperial Highness,” said the chief Imperial advisor, bowing deeply as Hikaru entered the throne room.
She smiled and returned the bow as gracefully as she could manage in her cumbersome royal kimono. After all that had happened, it felt strange to be back again—and even stranger, knowing that her brother would not be coming back to see her. She’d heard the news only a day before her arrival, and the pain of his loss ate away at her, sometimes making her wish she could scream. Still, now was not the time for that. Later, when she was back in her quarters—when she didn’t have a whole planet to rule.
Perhaps because of that, something about the palace felt different to her. The wide, hardwood floors and perfectly spaced wall panels looked the same as before, but felt somehow more intimidating. Light streamed through the various skylights set evenly across the high ceiling, and the throne itself sat atop an imposing staircase with ornate ivory carvings and ancient woodwork. Two dozen samurai, all dark-skinned and muscular, stood guard with their swords and ceremonial armor. They bowed deeply to her as she ascended to the throne, and her throat constricted in something that felt very much like terror.
Is this how you felt when Father died, Katsu? Hikaru wondered to herself. She remembered how white his cheeks had been, and how solemn he had sounded when he’d confided in her just how much the prospect of ruling the planet had terrified him. Now she knew exactly how he felt—and more than anything, it made her want to run away.
The last few steps were the absolute hardest, but she forced herself onward until she’d taken her place on the throne. Her maidservants bowed, and she nodded to them, hoping her gesture came across as graceful. With the noble houses tending to their losses after the close of the war, the room was conspicuously devoid of courtiers. Still, she smiled and nodded to those few who had come to see her.
One in particular stood out. He was conspicuously tall, and dressed in the crisp blue uniform of a Federation officer. His eyes met hers, and he gave her a pleasant smile.
“Who is that?” asked Hikaru, leaning over to quietly ask one of her maidservants.
“The offworlder, Your Highness? That is Colonel Webb—he was with your brother in the battle of Eyn-Jalla.”
A lump rose in Hikaru’s throat, one which she almost failed to suppress. As the chief advisor ascended the stairs and stood at his place by her side, she leaned over to him and motioned to the Federation colonel.
“I will see that man first,” she said. “Send for him right now.”
“Of course, Your Imperial Highness,” said the advisor. He turned and motioned for the offworlder to approach the throne.
Hikaru got a good look at him as he climbed the steps. He was tall and quite handsome, with striking features and wavy blond hair. Though it had only been a few days since the battle, he was perfectly groomed, his chin clean-shaven, his uniform fresh and clean. His deep blue eyes seemed to penetrate her, but he bowed gracefully with his hands at his side, following the customs of her people to the letter.
“Your Imperial Highness,” he said in Gaian.
“You do us honor with your visit, Colonel Webb,” she said, bidding him to rise. “I understand you were with my brother when he died. Is this true?”
He stood up straight and met her gaze without flinching. “It is.”
“Then tell me,” she asked softly, “how did he die?”
“Honorably, Your Highness. He died with honor.”
She bit her lip and nodded. “Thank you.”
“He was a fine commander,” the colonel added, his smooth voice filled with energy and passion. “He stood when no one else would. I will always be grateful for the chance I had to go into battle alongside him.”
She smiled at him, choking back tears. He bowed to her again, then stepped down the staircase backwards, eyes never leaving her as he returned to the floor.
“Are you feeling all right, Hikaru-sama?” the advisor whispered. “If you wish, I can—”
“No,” she said, silencing him with a gesture. “I’ll be fine, thank you.”
“As you wish, Your Highness.”
She took a deep breath and composed herself again. As difficult as the coming days and years would be, she was not going to run away from her duties any longer. She was no longer a mere princess after all—she was the empress regent of all Shinihon, heir to a line that went all the way back to the Earth of Legend.
The thought made her smile. So much for being trapped in the palace. As she motioned for the next courtier, she was already planning her first postwar tour of the system, as part of her new duties as empress.
* * * * *
“Abie!” said Prince Jahan, spreading his arms wide as Abaqa stepped into his lavish quarters. “Abie, it’s good to see you again!”
“And you as well, brother,” said Abaqa, giving him a warm embrace.
His brother kissed him on both cheeks and stepped back to clasp his hands on his arms. The broad smile on Jahan’s face made Abaqa forget about the embarrassment of being pulled out of an escape pod by a low-ranking strike team commander.
“Ah,” said Jahan, “you are looking more and more like a man every day. Not long now, and you will be commanding your own fleet just like Gazan.”
“I truly hope so,” said Abaqa.
Jahan patted his shoulders and turned to step into the room. “Come. Can I get you something to drink? Sit down, sit down!”
Abaqa sat down on the couch opposite the bunk which Jahan had folded up into the wall. Since his brother’s ship was only a small cruiser, space was tight. Still, with the ornately woven rug on the floor and the crimson silk hangings, the room was far from Spartanly decorated. A small, narrow window gave him a view of the brilliant starfield outside.
“Here you are,” said Jahan, returning from the food synthesizer with two glasses of thick, syrupy juice and a tin of something alcoholic. He set them down on a mosaic-tiled end table and spiked his own drink before offering the tin to Abaqa. “You mother wouldn’t want you drinking this, but it’s time you started acting like a man!”
“Yes,” said Abaqa softly, taking the tin. To be polite, he made as if to pour the alcohol into his juice, but as son as Jahan’s head was turned, he set the tin back on the tray.
“So tell me, Brother, how goes the battle?”
A cloud overshadowed Jahan’s face, like an impenetrable dust lane before a nursery of young stars. “Not well, I’m afraid. By now, you’ve heard the news about Tagatai?”
“It doesn’t bode well—in fact, the campaign has all but fallen apart. Almost half a dozen of Tagatai’s sons have laid claim on the Grand Generalship of the fleet, and three of them fled the battle of Eyn-Jalla immediately after the Demon of Tenguri was destroyed. Rumor has it that they’re preparing their forces for some sort of showdown, and the other generals are bracing for another internecine war.”
Abaqa nodded. “So the Federation will have to wait, I take it.”
“That’s right. Though, on the plus side, there’s no shortage of opportunities now for you to win glory.”
They drank from their glasses and sat for a few moments in companionable silence as the weight of Jahan’s words sank in. Abaqa found himself thinking, oddly enough, of the planetborn captain whose crew he had helped to save. No doubt the Federation had already reclaimed the base at the rogue planet and rescued them. Though he knew he should feel defeated, he couldn’t help but smile at the thought that her sacrifice hadn’t been in vain.
“You seem oddly happy, considering the events of the past few days,” said Jahan. “But then again, after all we’ve lost, one should feel happy just to be alive.”
It was, of course, a roundabout way of asking about what had happened to him. Abaqa tensed a little, but he knew there was no getting out of it.
“That’s true enough,” he said. “I did capture the princess, though—and I would have returned with her, if Gazan had given me the proper support.”
“Ah,” said Jahan, raising an eyebrow. “What was she like? It takes a spirited woman to run away from home.”
“Feisty is more like it.”
Jahan threw back his head and laughed. “Difficult, eh? It would have been an entertaining challenge to tame her. But tell me, how did you escape?”
“It wasn’t easy,” said Abaqa. “They kept me locked up in a cell like a common prisoner. From listening to the guards, though, I gathered that they were under pursuit.”
“Well of course—the moment I got your distress signal, I sent out task force to recover you.”
“Thank you, Brother. But it wasn’t until the showdown at the rogue planet that I realized I needed to take matters into my own hands. After the first attack, I managed to kill my guards and break out. With all the confusion from the battle, it was simply a matter of waiting for the right moment to leave unnoticed in one of the escape pods.”
“Clever,” said Jahan. “So all of the Federation lackeys were killed, as you said?”
“Then how did the princess escape? I hear she’s back at her home world, ruling her planetborn kinsmen.”
Abaqa smiled. “You don’t think I would escape without the princess, do you? No—I knocked her unconscious and put her in a pod with an extra supply of air and a disabled distress signal.”
“And never told your rescuers about it?”
“Of course not! The plan was to borrow a gunboat, come back for her, and return to Gazan as if I’d never been captured. The only reason I didn’t follow through was because our forces were in retreat, and there was no way to recover her.”
Jahan chuckled and put a hand on his shoulder. “Abie, I like you. You’ve got quite a flair. If you don’t get yourself killed, you’re going to go places. I can tell.”
Abaqa nodded and took a sip of his drink. “How did Gazan fare at Eyn-Jalla?” he asked.
“Not well,” said Jahan. “He lost two of his escorts and sustained some heavy damage to his own flagship. Because he was one of the first to leave the battle, a lot of the men in the higher ranks are questioning his loyalty.”
“I don’t blame them.”
“Neither do I, but the blow to his reputation infuriates him. It’s all he can talk about. Frankly, as one of his sub-commanders, it makes me more than a little uneasy.”
“You think he would drag you into a vendetta to defend his honor?”
“I have no doubt of it. That’s why I’ve decided to break ranks and start my own fleet.”
Abaqa’s eyes widened. “Start your own fleet? Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“It’s now or never. With Tagatai gone, it’s going to come to war sooner or later. And even if Gazan does hold back—which I don’t think he will for a moment—why should I fight to defend someone else’s honor? There’s a lot more glory to be won by breaking away, more so now than ever before.”
“I suppose you’re right. But still—”
“Look,” said Jahan, setting down his glass and laying a hand on Abaqa’s shoulder. “When the campaign was just getting started, all you wanted was to go out and make a name for yourself. Now, you seem more worried than my mother. Of course there’s going to be risk—there’s always going to be. But you only live once—and the greater the risk, the greater the reward. Am I right?”
Abaqa smiled. “Yes, you’re right.”
“Now that’s the Abie I know,” said Jahan, clapping his hands in delight. “Which brings me to my request.”
“Yes. If I’m going to start my own fleet, I’m going to need commanders that I can trust.”
Abaqa’s heart skipped a beat, and chills shot from the back of his neck to the end of his fingers. “Y-you want me to be one of your commanders?” he stuttered.
“For starters, at least. You wouldn’t mind trading up from a gunboat to a cruiser, would you?”
“Would I ever!” said Abaqa, barely able to contain his excitement. “I—I’d be honored to fly with you.”
Jahan smiled as the two of them rose to their feet. “Then let us make the arrangements at once. And of course, you won’t always fly under me—once you’ve made a name for yourself, I imagine you’ll want to start your own fleet. Until that day comes, let us fly together as equals.”
“Of course. As equals, then.”
They clasped arms and hugged each other as brothers, shoulder to shoulder. Before parting, however, Abaqa paused.
“Is something the matter?” Jahan asked.
“No, nothing. It’s just—is my mother at Tajjur with our father?”
Abaqa took a deep breath and glanced out the window, unable to stop thinking about his encounter with the planetborn. “Before I take command, I would very much like to see her.”
“Of course—that doesn’t sound too difficult. We’ll set a course for the Tajjur system at once.”
He looked at his brother and smiled. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you very much.”
* * * * *
The sun shone brightly through the massive white clouds that hugged the horizon, offering a moment of calm amid the storms. Roman took a deep breath of the fresh, wet air as he led Rina along the red rock terrace. She hesitated, staring out through across the waves of New Rigel V’s endless ocean. The cool sea breeze from the open panes in the dome tossed her hair, making her look like a little girl. Roman stopped and waited patiently for her, knowing how difficult it must be.
“Are you sure you have to come with me?” she asked, still staring at the distant blue horizon.
“If I did not, would you come on your own?”
She bit her lip and shook her head. “No. Probably not.”
“Then let us go. They are expecting you.”
He held out his natural hand, and she reached up and took it, holding on so tightly that he might as well have been taking her to her execution.
They rounded a corner and stepped into a large alcove, with colorful woolen hangings over rust-red sandstone walls. Tall, thin palm trees lined the open-air space, the hairy bark fluttering ever so slightly in the breeze. On the brick floor at the center of the alcove, two little children played, while their parents watched from a bench on the opposite side.
Rina’s muscles grew tense. Roman squeezed her hand to reassure her, and she took a few steps forward.
The man was the first to see them. He looked older than the one in Rina’s nightmare, but Roman recognized him all the same. He nodded and turned to her wife, who looked up at once. The moment her eyes fell on Rina, she gasped and leaped to her feet, running over to throw her arms around her long-lost sister.
“Rina!” she cried, talking quickly in her native language. Roman stepped back to give them space as they embraced.
“Mira,” Rina whispered, burying her head in her sister’s shoulder. The husband walked up and offered Roman his hand.
“Thank you,” he said simply, looking Roman in the eye. “How did you find her?”
“It is long story. I think perhaps you should ask her.”
The husband nodded, tears filling his eyes. Roman remembered the urgency in his voice from Rina’s memory, and realized that he had blamed himself for the way that she had run away. It probably wasn’t merited, of course—so few of the ways that people deprecated themselves were deserved. After so many years, Roman knew this all too well.
“Thank you so much!” said the woman, smiling over Rina’s shoulder. She hugged her sister close, as if to never let go.
“It is no problem,” he said.
As Rina’s long-lost family talked with her in their own language, her face lit up in a way that made Roman smile. Tears streamed from her face, and he felt as if he were in her dream again. In his infrared vision, Rina seemed almost to glow.
Live, Roman, Danica’s words came to him. That’s an order.
Yes, Captain, he thought to himself as he turned away from the happy reunion. I believe I will.
Captain Roman Andrei Krikoryan held his breath as the jump drive hummed through the bulkheads of the Danica Nova. A dizzying haze clouded his vision, and for a very brief moment he was tempted to shut off his physical consciousness. He hadn’t done that since the Rigelan job, but that wasn’t why he kept his eyes on the forward window.
After a short, stomach-turning jolt, they were through. The milky starfield of deep space transformed into a golden-yellow planet with a deep blue horizon. At the sight, an audible gasp went up around the bridge.
“The coastline—the mountains—”
“Is that Akhalikavkaz?”
“Look! The oceans are blue—with clouds!”
Roman narrowed his eyes. The planet before them bore little resemblance to the homeworld of his youth, but even so, he couldn’t help but feel his emotions rise as he looked down on it. The land was mostly brown, pocked with hideously large craters and long gray lava flows, but pockets of green had emerged along the familiar coastline, and the alluvial plans were checkered with farms and cities.
“It’s—it’s beautiful,” Maia whispered. As her husband stood up and put his arm around her waist, the bulkheads reverberated with the sound of dozens of voices joined in the revolutionary hymn. Roman would have joined in himself, but was too choked up to do so.
“What a sight,” said Corporal Tajjashvili, grinning from ear to ear. “That Hameji prince really is a man of his word, isn’t he? I guess I lost that bet.”
Roman chuckled. “Have you ever been so happy to lose?”
“Never, my friend. Absolutely never.”
“It’s not the same as it was,” Yuri said, clenching his fists as he surveyed the partially shattered world. “It will never be the same.”
“No,” said Maia, “but we’ll rebuild. Won’t we, Captain?”
“Yes,” said Roman. “We will.”
She smiled and put a hand on his arm, as if to share in his moment of tenderness. Even though he couldn’t feel her touch through the metal casing, he appreciated the gesture.
“Did you ever think you would live to see this day?” she asked.
He turned to her and grinned. “Perhaps. After all, cyborgs never die.”
When I wrote Bringing Stella Home and decided to base that story loosely on the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258, I knew I would have to follow up with the Battle of Ain Jalut. That was the basic genesis of this story—a desire to write a sequel where the Hameji experience their first decisive defeat.
Even though the basic premise of the story was floating around in my head since mid-to-late 2009, it sat on the back burner for several years. I had a vague idea for the plot, but I didn’t have any characters or a story. At the same time, a lot of other projects were clamoring for attention. I did some major revisions for Bringing Stella Home in the spring of 2010, then basically redrafted most of Desert Stars and finished it over the summer. That one still needed a major revision, though, especially with the ending. In the meantime, I started a handful of other projects and focused on querying literary agents for my finished work. I had just graduated college, and was struggling to get my feet underneath me in a very bad job market. At the same time, with nothing to lose, I was doing everything I could to work on my writing and turn that into a full-time career.
The story began to take shape when I rewrote the ending of Desert Stars in the spring of 2011. After finishing that novel, I started to wonder what would happen to Rina and Tiera in the next few years. I’ve always enjoyed indirect sequels that take a minor character from the first book and make them into a major viewpoint character in the second. That’s something I’d planned to do with the Gaia Nova series since the beginning, so it was quite natural to take those characters and think forward a few years. I figured that Tiera would strike out her own path and leave issues of war and politics behind, but Rina would definitely have a much rougher time adjusting. As I thought about her character, I started to wonder what she’d be like as an assassin. That really sparked something, and I decided to run with it.
It took just a few days to write the prologue, largely as it now stands. I guess it worked out well, though, because I submitted it to a first chapter contest at Leading Edge magazine and placed high enough to be published in issue 63. However, I didn’t do much with the story after finishing the prologue, since I was getting Sholpan ready for publication. After that, Star Wanderers dropped in my lap, and I wrote the first novelette in that series over the course of the next few months. But always in the back of my mind, Stars of Blood and Glory was still percolating.
I wanted to bring back Danica and the mercenaries from Bringing Stella Home, especially Roman. Older characters have always been difficult for me to write, so I saw his viewpoint as a challenge that could teach me something new. From the beginning, I knew that Danica wouldn’t get a viewpoint. Her character arc got its conclusion in Bringing Stella Home, so she wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. However, I wanted to kill her off—not because I hated her, but because I loved her character so much. My general philosophy about character deaths is that everybody dies, so the best way to honor a character is to make their death mean something. Danica certainly is the type of person who would make a heroic sacrifice—indeed, her whole life is almost something of a heroic sacrifice. So with that in mind, I figured out what sort of impact her death ought to have on Roman, and used that to shape his character arc.
The overarching conflict between the Hameji and the Federation came together while making a map for the Gaia Nova series as a whole. I patterned it after some maps on Wikipedia of the interstellar medium around the local cloud, and realized that these sorts of high-density regions would make for a great storytelling device, since it acts as a barrier to FTL. I’d casually mentioned a star called New Rigel in a previous story, and when I put that one on the map, it ended up near a relatively dense area of space. With that in mind, I drew up a stellar rift with two white dwarfs at either end: Eyn-Gatta at the head, closer to Gaia Nova, and Eyn-Jalla (Ain Jalut) closer to New Rigel.
The idea for Shinihon and the far-future Japanese culture grew out of a desire to populate my universe with more than just white people. I guess the desert tribesmen of Gaia Nova technically qualify for that, as well as the Hameji, but I think there is a tendency in science fiction for non-minority writers to treat their own race as the default. I know I have a tendency to do that. Of course, the flip-side is that it’s really, really hard to write about a culture other than your own without making some embarrassing gaffes. It’s a little different in science fiction, since we build entire universes from scratch, but it’s something we still have to be conscious of. With Desert Stars, it wasn’t quite as hard since I’d spent some time living in the Middle East, but that was the only foreign part of the world where I felt I knew something, and I didn’t want to do space Arabs again. Since I wanted New Rigel V to be a water world, I figured that the descendants of a seafaring culture from Earth would be more likely to settle there, so I decided to go with a Japanese-Polynesian mash-up. I have a lot of friends who’ve lived in that part of the world, so I figured it would be easier to rack their brains than it would be to research a culture I know absolutely nothing about.
Hikaru’s character grew out of a postsecret that really struck me. In case you don’t know what postsecret is, it’s a blog where people mail artistic postcards with their secrets, and the blogger posts them anonymously without any kind of commentary or anything. I’ve been following it for years, and whenever I find a secret that really sticks out, I’ll save it to a folder that I browse through from time to time when I’m looking for story ideas. This particular secret read: “I want to stand in front of a guy NAKED And have him analyze everything about me.” The thing that struck me about it was how naïve the girl must be (and the sender was a girl, judging from the picture). Anyone who knows anything about guys knows that when the clothes come off, the thinking stops. And yet, there’s something admirably fearless about such a person. The scene between Hikaru and Roman grew out of my reaction specifically to that postsecret, but in a way, that was a catalyst for Hikaru’s character.
Abaqa’s character grew out of what I figured Sholpan would be doing. After writing the prologue to Stars of Blood and Glory, I wrote a direct sequel to Bringing Stella Home with the working title Heart of the Nebula. It takes place five years after the events of that story, and Sholpan makes an appearance with her baby son. For the sake of bringing some closure to her story, and to show that something good came out of the personal hell that she went through, I figured it would be good to bring him in. Plus, his whole struggle to win acceptance was a good counterpoint to some of the other characters I was working with.
I took several months off to work on other projects before writing Chapter One. During that time, however, I gathered together my ideas and lined things up so I’d be ready to hit the ground running. I went on tvtropes and browsed it like a buffet, noting down story tropes that I wanted to play with. This gave me a lot of interesting ideas that I otherwise wouldn’t have had. For example, when I discovered the Fighting for a Homeland trope, I instantly knew that that was the Tajji mercenaries. Recognizing that helped me to figure out the epilogue, where they finally return to their shattered homeworld. Colonel Webb grew out of the Magnificent Bastard trope. While I don’t think he really fits that trope the way it’s described, reading about it influenced my thinking about his character, which moved the story in a direction that it otherwise wouldn’t have. Also, I really enjoy the Rebellious Princess trope, so I tossed that in with Hikaru and it ended up driving the plot of the entire novel.
All of my prewriting came together in the winter of 2012. I drove down to Texas to celebrate Christmas with my family, then moved in with my parents for a couple months while preparing to go overseas to teach English. I started the first chapter of Stars of Blood and Glory toward the end of December, and finished the epilogue in the beginning of February. All together, it took a little longer than six weeks to write the whole thing. For a guy who’s been known to take months at a time writing a novel, only to toss out most of it out, that came as a huge shock. I don’t know if it’s a sign of improvement or just all that prewriting I did beforehand, but everything came together and the story just wrote itself.
One of the big struggles of being a writer is knowing when to revise something and when to let it stand. We’re often the worst judges of our own work, and general opinions on the subject range from Brandon Sanderson, who says that it’s absolutely crucial, to Heinlein and Dean Wesley Smith, who say to never do it unless forced to by an editor. Like many writers, I’ve always resisted Heinlein’s third rule (“You must refrain from revising, except to editorial order”), but for this project, I eventually decided that that was the better path. This was confirmed to me when I made some substantial revisions to the first chapter, sent them in to my writing group, and the critiques slammed almost all the changes I’d made while praising the stuff I’d left in. However, when I did a quick read through over the summer of 2012, I noticed that several of the scenes were out of order, and the chapter divisions were not in the right places. To fix that, I did about a three-week revision where I changed up the scene order but left most of them intact. I also added a few scenes that were missing, such as Roman’s reminiscent musings with Zura Tajjashvili and a few smaller transition scenes toward the end. I did send the story out to some first readers, but more for green lighting than a line-by-line critique. After getting that green light, I decided to move ahead.
That’s more or less how the book came about. I’m still kind of shocked that it wasn’t a huge struggle to write like the other ones, but at the same time, I can’t really complain. In fact, I’m really happy with how it turned out. Over the course of the last couple of Gaia Nova books, I’ve really come to feel for some of these characters, especially Roman. The “cyborgs never die” line came out of nowhere, but ended the book on just the right note, at least for me as the writer. I don’t know if I’ll be doing any more sequels with the mercenaries, but I’d love to do some prequels and/or origin stories, especially for Danica and Roman.
So anyhow, thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed this story as much as I did. If you want to spread the word about it by telling a friend or posting a review somewhere, that would be awesome. I appreciate everything you guys do—it really does make a difference, which I’m starting to see now that my books are getting a little traction. But of course, the greatest honor is just to be read.
If you want to drop me a line, my email is [email protected], or you can tweet me at @onelowerlight. One of these days, I’m going to figure out how Goodreads works, and then you can reach me on there. But when I’m not busy writing, the best place to find me online is my blog, One Thousand and One Parsecs (onelowerlight.com/writing). There you can sign up for my email list, which I use to send updates on new releases and special offers.
That’s just about it. Once again, thanks for reading! If you enjoyed it, I hope you’ll check out some of my other books, if you haven’t already. And even if you have, be sure to keep an eye out, because there will certainly be more in the months and years to come. Until next time, take care, and I hope to see you again soon!
The number of people to thank for this book isn’t as large as it is for some of my other novels, but their help was still critical nonetheless. First, I’d like to thank the members of Kindal’s writing group who helped out with the first chapter: Kindal Debenham, Andy Lemmon, Megan Hutchins, and Ailsa Lillywhite. I’d also like to thank my first reader, Cavan Helps, for giving it a solid read through, and Aneeka Richins for helping with some of the Japanese cultural stuff, especially the honorifics (which I probably still screwed up through no fault of hers). Cavan Helps, Andy Lemmon, Diane Cardon, Elisabeth Page, Benjamin Blackhurst, and Marie Stirk all helped out with the teaser, which was probably the hardest part of the book to write. Thanks also to the staff of Leading Edge for publishing the prologue in issue 63 as part of their first chapter contest. I’ve been on the staff in the past, but I really had nothing to do with that decision, especially since I was out of the country at the time. Finally, I’d like to thank Josh Leavitt for his help with the line/copy editing, and Lorenz Hideyoshi Ruwwe for slotting me into his illustration schedule, even though he’s been deservedly busy. Thanks so much for all the help! This book would not have been the same without you.
Thousands of years after mankind’s exodus from Earth, a young starship pilot and his accidental bride wander the stars in search of a homeworld in Star Wanderers: The Jeremiah Chronicles (Omnibus I-IV).
When Jeremiah arrived at Megiddo Station, all he wanted was to make some trades and resupply his starship. He never thought he'd come away with a wife.
Before he knows it, he's back on his ship, alone with his accidental bride. Since neither of them speak the same language, he has no way to tell her that there's been a terrible mistake. And because of the deadly famine ravaging her home, there's no going back. She's entirely at his mercy, and that terrifies him more than anything.
Jeremiah isn't ready to take responsibility for anyone. He's a star wanderer, roaming the Outworld frontier in search of his fortune. Someday he'll settle down, but for now, he just wants to drop the girl off at the next port and move on.
As he soon finds out, though, she has other plans.
Oriana Station: a bustling frontier settlement between the Outworlds and the Coreward Stars. A popular port-of-call for free traders and independent starfarers alike—and the latest target in the aggressively expansionist plans of the Gaian Empire.
Life was simple for Jeremiah and Noemi before they arrived. Though neither of them speak the same language, they've reached an understanding that goes beyond words. But when the colonial authorities make them into second-class citizens of a fractured empire, even that might not be enough.
Their newfound friends in the immigrant community can only do so much. With Noemi and her people depending on him, Jeremiah must find a way back to the Outworlds—before they lose everything that they came for.
When Jeremiah found himself alone on his starship with an accidental bride, he had no idea how much his life would soon change. Now, with Noemi's quiet confidence supporting him as she carries their first child, it's hard to imagine life without her.
But life in the Outworlds isn't so simple. Good men are hard to come by, and Noemi's friends expect her to share. As part of a colony mission bound for an unsettled star, Jeremiah can't say no without causing a rift in the community. But if he says yes, his new-found happiness may soon come to an end. One way or another, he will have to make a sacrifice—one that could tear their starbound family apart.
For years, Jeremiah has wandered the stars in search of a home. With his wife Noemi about to have a baby, he thinks he's finally found a place to settle down. The Zarmina system lies on the edge of the Outworld frontier, but together with their friends, they hope to establish a thriving new colony. The only problem is that the system is already inhabited—by pirates.
The colonists no sooner arrive than they fall prisoner to Captain Helena and her band of rogues from the New Pleiades. She gives them an ultimatum: live like slaves on the planet's surface, or breathe vacuum. With all their dreams about to be shattered, they have to find a way to fight back. But to do so may endanger everything—including the lives of the ones they love most.
Thousands of years after mankind’s exodus from Earth, a band of starfarers fight for the freedom of the Outworlds in Sons of the Starfarers (Omnibus I-III).
Deep in the Far Outworlds, a derelict space station holds the bones of a long-dead people—and a beautiful young woman locked in cryofreeze. When the star-wandering brothers Isaac and Aaron Deltana find the sleeping girl, they soon realize that they are her only hope for rescue. If they don't take her, then slavers certainly will.
With no way to revive her, they set a course for the New Pleiades in hopes of finding someone who can help. But a storm is brewing over that region of space. After a series of brutal civil wars, the Gaian Empire has turned its sights outward. A frontier war is on the verge of breaking out, and the brothers are about to be caught in the middle of it.
They both harbor a secret, though. Somewhere else in the Outworlds is another derelict station—one that they used to call home. That secret will either bind them together or draw them apart.
War has come to the Outworlds. An Imperial expeditionary force has taken the frontier systems and threatens to strike at the heart of the New Pleiades. The only thing standing in their way is a ragtag flotilla of starfarers and merchanters, their motives as varied as the stars from which they hail.
Aaron Deltana can barely speak the same language as his Outworld comrades, but he isn't about to let that stop him. Though he has no military training or combat experience, he's determined to prove his valor. Besides, the Imperials have taken something very dear to him—something that he has sworn to take back.
He isn't the only one with a score to settle. Mara Soladze, the only other Deltan in the Flotilla, has vowed revenge on the Imperials for killing her father. Where Aaron hopes to prove himself, though, Mara fully expects to die—and her fate is tied to his.
Aaron isn't prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, but when the war turns against them, it looks as if he may not have a choice.
For countless ages, Reva Starchild has slept in perfect cryostasis. Frozen in secret to escape a catastrophic death, she awakens only to find herself the sole survivor of a people whom history never remembered. Light-years from her homeworld, among a culture she finds both perverse and obscene, she must somehow build a new life for herself where misplacing her trust could be fatal.
With nowhere safe to run, she finds refuge on a small starship with a mysterious young man who seems to be fleeing something as well. Where others have sought to enslave her, though, he treats her with unexpected kindness. As they slowly open up to each other, she learns that he too carries a burden—one she can barely comprehend.
Isaac Deltana indeed carries a burden. The failure of his mission at Colkhia has brought untold calamity to the Outworld forces and almost certainly led to the death of his brother. Now, he flees from the Gaian Imperials to prevent them from obtaining the secret technology he carries—one that will change the face of interstellar war forever.
Little does he know, the Imperials aren't the only ones hunting him.