Book: Heart of the Nebula



Heart of the Nebula

Heart of the Nebula

by Joe Vasicek


Copyright © 2015 Joseph Vasicek.

All rights reserved.


Editing by Josh Leavitt.

Cover art by Lorenz Hideyoshi Ruwwe.


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


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Table of Contents


Copyright Page

Table of Contents


Part I: The Maverick

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5


Part II: The Guardian

6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12


Part III: The Leader

13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19


Part IV: The Legend

20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25


Author’s Note | Acknowledgments

THEY LOST THE WAR, BUT THE PEACE IS STILL WITHIN THEIR GRASP.


Five years have passed since the Hameji conquered James McCoy's homeworld, all but enslaving his people. Now, the occupation threatens to destroy them.

Deep in the heart of the Good Hope nebula, there is a place where they can start over. But it will take a strong leader to get them there, and the temptation to trade freedom for security has never been greater. Even if they manage to escape from the Hameji, the greatest threat to their future may come from within.

James once gave everything to save the ones he loved. This time, his sacrifice could make him a legend.

Part I: The Maverick


Chapter 1


“Attention Lone Spear, this is Trident One,” came the commander’s gravelly voice over the gunboat’s speakers. “Divert from your present course and do not, repeat, do not engage the incoming craft.”

“The hell?” James McCoy muttered—under his breath, of course. He narrowed his eyes at the holoscreen and fought the urge to lash out at his commanding officer.

Trident One, we have unidentified ships converging on the convoy. Repeat, we have unidentified ships converging on the convoy. Requesting permission to—”

“Negative, Lone Spear, negative. Resume escort formation and await further orders.”

James clenched his fists in frustration. Was the commander blind? Several unknown vessels had departed the Lagrange settlements of the nearest moon, moving dangerously close to the supply convoy that he was supposed to protect. On his main display, eight red dots moved steadily upward along a line that didn’t quite intersect the bundle of friendly green and blue vectors, but could easily be made to without warning.

Conditions in the local sector were ripe for an ambush. When the Hameji had invaded five standard years ago, they had slagged Karduna’s capital planet and massacred billions of people. Those who survived now lived in small, isolated settlements scattered across the system, barely able to defend themselves. Since the Hameji only cared for conquest and barely deigned to manage their empire, piracy was rampant. The convoy was on its own.

“Uh, Captain, sir?” came a shaky voice behind him: Ensign Sterling Jones, his new co-pilot. “Are we going to pull back?”

“Don’t worry, Sterling. I heard the commander.” James pulled back on the piloting stick, making his stomach drop as the gunboat changed course. On the screen, the green vector that marked their present course bent slightly upward, not quite conforming to the other vector lines of the convoy.

“Right, sir,” said Sterling.

James couldn’t see Sterling’s face, since they sat with their backs to each other, but he could hear the nervousness in the ensign’s voice. As the gunboat accelerated, the ergonomic chair distributed the increasing gee forces evenly across James’s body. Unlike most spacecraft, the Lone Spear’s cockpit was located at the ship’s center of mass, beneath almost ten tons of heavy armor. Two 30 mm projectile cannons, six plasma clusterpod launchers, a squadron of fighter drones, and nearly twenty short-range autolasers added another two tons to the ship’s mass. Of course, most of the guns were either nonfunctional or unarmed due to fleet-wide ammunition constraints, but the gunboat could still handle its own in a fight.

On the screen, the red dots representing the unidentified ships crept closer, making James cringe. The convoy was carrying vital medical supplies and antibiotics to the Colony from Kardunash IV. Six months ago, another convoy carrying similar cargo had come under attack, and most of the supplies had been lost. If this one didn’t make it through, the hospital back home would be hard pressed to provide even basic medical services. Lives were on the line here, and not just in the combat zone.

And Commander Maxwell wanted them to stand down?

“Sterling, power up the drones and get them in the chute. I want to be able to launch fighters the moment this gets ugly.”

“Are you sure, sir? The commander—”

“I know what he said, but the enemy isn’t going to wait for us to arm ourselves before they attack. Are you with me?”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Good.” Then stay with me, Sterling.

James picked up the comm transmitter. “Trident One, this is Lone Spear. Have the incoming craft hailed us yet?”

No response.

Trident One, this is Lone Spear. Do you copy?”

“We copy, Lone Spear,” said the commander. “Stand down as ordered.”

“Uh, Trident One, don’t you think we should position ourselves between the incoming craft and the convoy? If those marks deviate just a couple of degrees from their present vector, they—”

“Negative, Lieutenant. I will not be responsible for an unprovoked attack on civilian craft.”

If those are civvies, James thought angrily, why won’t they hail us?

“Sterling, how are we looking?”

“Good, sir. Shields and gravitics are both online. I’m having a little trouble with the drones, though—the quick release clamps on the second chute appear to be stuck.”

James nodded. “Better readjust the balance, then. Just do your best.”

“Yes, sir.”

The red line on the sector map began to bend in their direction. An alarm on the display began to blink.

“Uh, Captain, it looks like—”

“I see it. Hang on.”

The unidentified craft had altered their vectors and were now heading straight for the convoy. At the rate they were accelerating, they would be within attack range in just a few minutes—exactly as James had feared.

Trident One, this is Lone Spear. Unidentified craft have altered course and are heading on an attack vector. Do we have permission to engage?”

No response.

Trident One, do you copy? This is Lone Spear, requesting permission to—”

Lone Spear, this is Trident One. Hold your current course, but do not move to intercept.”

James bit his lip and clenched his fist in frustration. His orders didn’t make sense—the unidentified ships were closing in on them too fast. By the time the commander figured out what the hell he was doing, the engagement would be as good over, and half the convoy would probably be lost.

Not this time, James told himself. Not on my watch.

“Sterling,” he said, “start cycling power to the RPV shields and gravitic dampers. We’re going in hard and fast.”

“Uh, yes, sir.”

Ignoring the hesitation in his copilot’s voice, James toggled the battle arrays and nosed the Lone Spear toward the enemy. With his left hand, he ramped up the thrusters to full throttle. A terrible, gut-wrenching sensation grabbed his stomach as the engines roared to life.

“Sterling, the dampers!”

“Right, sorry!”

The pressure eased somewhat as the gravitic dampers absorbed the worst of the sudden acceleration. On the main sector screen, the green line representing their course bent until it coincided almost perfectly with the red lines, like a wire fitting into conduit. They were moving out to intercept the incoming pirates alone. ETA was fifty seconds.

“Sterling, are the shields up?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Map out the targets and relay the data to the combat AI. Get ready to launch drones.”

“But Captain, at our current rate of acceleration, I can’t calculate the release vectors!”

“Then prepare to launch them manually on my mark,” said James. “Don’t worry—you’re doing fine.”

The intercom crackled with Maxwell’s voice. “Lone Spear, this is Trident One. Stand down! Repeat, stand down!”

I can’t do that, Commander.

Lone Spear, do you copy? Stand—”

“Captain, we have incoming fire!” Sterling shouted. Sure enough, an alarm sounded in the cramped cockpit.

“I see it. Hang on!”

On the main screen, a steady stream of small projectile fire arced towards them along the enemy’s vector. I hope none of those shots slips past us to hit the convoy, James thought.

“Five seconds to impact,” said Sterling. “Three, two, one—”

A high-pitched squeal sounded from deep within the walls of the gunboat as the RPV shield vaporized the incoming projectiles.

“Shields down thirty percent,” said Sterling, his voice rising. “Forty—no, fifty and climbing!”

“Engage our reserves, and make sure the shields hold,” said James, firing the last of the thrusters. “Engine burn at full throttle.”

“But Captain, we’re on a collision course!”

“I know,” said James, gripping the piloting stick with clammy hands. His stomach churned as the gee forces rose noticeably, despite of the gravitic dampers. The ETA on his display dropped to fifteen seconds—hopefully, that would be enough to keep the shields from blowing up in their faces before they made contact with the enemy.

Lone Spear! Lone Spear!” came the commander’s voice over the intercom. “Pull back and regroup at once! Do you copy?”

It’s too late now, James thought to himself. At least this time, they weren’t the ones who had shot first.

“Twelve seconds to impact,” said Sterling, his voice raw and full of fear. “We need to pull up!”

“Negative, Ensign.”

“But—but we’re going to die!”

We all have to go sometime.

“Just hang in there. Get ready to release drones on my mark.”

Eight seconds. Seven. The high-pitched squeal turned into a scream.

Come on, James thought to himself. Sweat trickled down the back of his neck.

Five, four—

“Release fighter drones,” he ordered.

A series of popping noises filled the cabin. “Drones away!”

The cluster of red vector lines branched out into eight wildly dancing strands. The Lone Spear shuddered, and a sudden jolt nearly threw him off his chair.

“The shields! I—”

James released a barrage of plasma cluster pods and banked hard to miss the last enemy craft. Alarms blared, and even with the dampers, the sudden change in momentum practically yanked his guts through the floor.

But they were still alive.

James closed his eyes and let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. The alarms continued to blare in their ears, red lights flashing all around them. He switched them off and wiped his sweaty forehead.

“Sterling,” said James, “how are you doing back there? Feeling all right?”

“N-not really, sir,” he said, shifting in his seat. “I feel sick.”

“Just hang on. I’m going to bring us around.”

“Right, Captain.”

On the main screen, the red vector lines shortened to little stumps as the enemy ships pitched and rolled unpredictably. The Lone Spear’s automated fighter drones, much less massive than the gunboat itself, had already decelerated to match velocity with their targets and were now shooting them to pieces. In just under a minute, they had taken out three of the attackers, and the clusterpods had crippled two more. What was more encouraging, the other gunboats had rallied and were now moving to defend the convoy.

“Let’s check the damage report,” said James, toggling his main screen. “What’s this? Shield projectors are offline?”

“I’m sorry, sir. The shields were dropping too fast, so I—”

“You ejected them?” The rest of the damage didn’t look so bad: a couple of autolasers were smashed and the forward armor had taken a heavy beating, but hull integrity was nominal and all the critical systems were still online.

“Yes,” said Sterling. “I’m sorry, sir.”

“Don’t apologize,” said James. “You did the right thing. If the shields had blown back there, we would have been killed. When we get back home, I’m going to put your name in for a commendation.”

“Really? Th-thank you, sir.”

James slowly pulled back on the stick, bringing their nose around 180 degrees. For a while, the room seemed to spin, but much more gently than before. Their momentum had already taken them almost fifty kilometers from the battle, and would easily take them another twenty before they had fully decelerated from combat speeds. That was all right, though—the enemy had lost the initiative, and now found themselves outnumbered and outgunned in a very hostile environment. Even as he swung the Lone Spear back around, two more red dots flickered and winked out on the main screen. Two more kills.

“Sterling,” said James, “plot a course to the Trident and get ready to retrieve the fighter drones.”

“Wait—it’s over?”

“For us, yes.”

The young ensign drew in a sharp breath. “W-we’re alive,” he said, as if no other realization could be more profound. “Stars of Earth, we made it!”

James grinned and watched the map as the last three enemy ships disengaged and made a hard reversal, heading back to the Lagrange settlements. In just a few hours, the convoy would be in deep enough space that pirates shouldn’t be a threat. With the engagement as good as over, there was nothing else to do but switch to autopilot and settle in for the long ride back to the convoy.


* * * * *


“Have you ever killed a man?”

Danica Nova stared at James with cold, narrowed eyes. Her short black hair was pulled back, her dark eyes piercing him with their unflinching gaze. Even in a sweat-stained t-shirt, she commanded such a presence that he couldn’t help but answer.

“No. Of course not.”

“Do you think you ever could?”

“Yes,” he said, a little too quickly. She stared him in the eye and frowned. “I mean, maybe,” he stuttered. “I don’t know. I think I could.”

Danica folded her arms. “There are two kinds of people in this universe,” she said. “Those who can kill without hesitation, and those who cannot. Sheep and wolves, in other words. You know what a sheep is?”

“Yes,” said James. “They had pastures for them in the agri-domes on Kardunash IV, before—well, before the Hameji came.” Before everything fell apart.

“And you know what wolves are, too?”

“No,” he admitted.

Danica took a deep breath and stood with her hands clasped smartly behind her. “The Old Earth Archives tell of a time, long before spaceflight, when humanity lived off of primitive agriculture. According to these records, most of the Earth’s surface was unsettled, roughly analogous to the Outer Reaches today. Wolves were untamed beasts who lived off the land, eating sheep or men or whatever else they could hunt down and kill.

“In civilized society, most people are like sheep. They live in large, comfortable communities where they think they’re safe from those who would harm them. But out on the fringes, you’ll find the wolves. Those are the people who can—and will—kill without hesitation. Those are the ones who fight and win wars. Those are the ones who have the power to destroy civilization.”

James tensed as he thought of Kardunash IV, the capitol world of his home star, slagged to oblivion by the invading Hameji battle fleets. Billions of lives, all snuffed out in only a matter of hours.

“Those are the Hameji, you mean?”

“Yes,” said Danica. “Those are the Hameji.”

“So what do I do, then?” he asked. “What does any of this have to do with me?”

“If you want to fight a wolf, you have to become one.”

James felt the blood drain from his cheeks. “You mean, I have to become like the Hameji? A monster?”

“No,” said Danica. “Because you see, on Old Earth, there were two kinds of wolves: those who lived in the wild, and those who were tamed by man. The tame wolves became sheepdogs—protectors of the sheep. They used their killing instincts to hunt down the wolves.

“You see, Ensign, the only reason civilized society isn’t overrun by barbarians and criminals is because of the sheepdogs. We think of our soldiers and policemen as great heroes, when really, they have more in common with murderers than with the people they protect. Instead of becoming monsters, however, they learn to channel their natures for good—to serve and protect, rather than to kill and destroy.”

To serve and protect, James thought. Even if it means becoming a wolf to do it.

He’d thought over that conversation many times in the years since. The universe outside of his home was like a dark, black forest, filled with ravenous wolves. Could he ever kill a man? Now, he did that almost every time he climbed into the cockpit of his gunboat. Of course, it was easy to kill someone who was a blip on a holoscreen, a faceless target fed to him by a computer. It was harder to kill someone who was standing right in front of you. He’d done it before, though, and would probably do it again. And at the rate at which the security situation in the Karduna system was deteriorating, that day would probably come sooner rather than later.

That was why he could never afford to forget what he was fighting for. His home, his people, the citizens of the Colony—that was why he put his life on the line, every time he took command of the Lone Spear. The thrill of battle and the exhilaration of victory were not sufficient to be ends in themselves. He might be a killer, but he was not a wolf, and would never allow himself to become one.

At least, he desperately hoped so.


* * * * *


James knew he was in trouble even before he climbed out of his gunboat and set foot on the launch deck of the Trident One. Even so, he didn’t expect the commander to confront him there personally.

“Lieutenant McCoy,” said Fleet Commander Maxwell, his jowled cheeks red with anger. “What possessed you to disregard my orders?”

“Sir,” said James, trying very hard to keep his temper. “The conditions in the field—”

“To hell with the conditions!” shouted the commander. “I can’t have trigger-happy gunboat captains ignoring direct orders. Thanks to your antics, we’ve already exceeded our requisitioned fuel allotment. And what if those ships were civilian transports instead of pirates?”

Then they wouldn’t have attacked us, you empty-headed fool.

“I did what I felt I had to, sir,” said James, struggling to keep his voice low. “If we hadn’t moved to intercept them when we did, they would have easily breached our formation and attacked the convoy.”

Commander Maxwell pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes. His uniform fit him poorly, the buttons nearly bursting around his oversized stomach. Like most of the superior officers, he had been a prominent business-man before joining the corps. His training had come from books and seminars, not from real-life military experience.

Not like James.

“I expect my subordinate officers to be team players, Lieutenant,” Commander Maxwell continued. “You are not a team player. If you were an employee in my company, I’d fire you at once.”

“With all due respect, sir, the Civil Defense Corps is not a for-profit corporation.”

Maxwell snorted in anger and drew himself up to his full height, which still came just below James’s eye level. “You have a problem with authority, Lieutenant, and I can’t allow it. Because of your insubordination, I have no choice but to send you to the brig until we put into port.”

James clenched his fists as the door hissed open behind him. Footsteps came—the commander’s personal bodyguard, no doubt, coming to take him away. Half of him wanted to lash out and vent his frustration, but the other half—the smarter half—forced him to remain calm. They had already passed the most dangerous leg of the journey. Another pirate attack would have to cross so much space that even Commander Maxwell would be able to see it coming.

Hands clasped his shoulders from behind. “Lieutenant?”

James looked the commander in the eye and saluted. “Sir.” Maxwell blinked and hesitated for a moment before returning the salute.

As the guards marched James out the door and into the narrow hallway of the Trident One, they passed Ensign Sterling near the bridge. The boyish officer looked at them in bewilderment, his normally cheery face a picture of confusion.

“Captain? Where are they taking you?”

“Sorry, Sterling,” said James. “Looks like you won’t be getting that commendation anytime soon.” The guards marched him into a nearby elevator, and the doors hissed shut behind him.



Chapter 2


Sara Galbraith-Dickson stepped into her cozy apartment and dropped her workout bag on the fold-out couch set into the nearest wall. As the door hissed shut behind her, she took off her sweaty T-shirt and dropped it in the laundry hamper, noting that she’d have to wash her clothes before long. That could wait, though—she had other, more pressing things to do.

“Welcome back,” came the slightly monotone voice of her personal AI. “Did you have a good training session at the dojo?”

“Yes, thank you,” she said as she unstrapped her wrist console and plugged it into the computer terminal. The sidebar on the holoscreen displayed a few news stories, but none of them stood out at a glance.

“Excellent. I’m glad you did.”

Sara knew that the AI didn’t really care how she was doing—it was only programmed to say that so it could determine her personality and adjust its responses accordingly. Still, she didn’t mind the artificial companionship.

“Did anyone leave a message?” she asked as she keyed open the door to her bathroom. The familiar smell of half a dozen hygiene products met her nose the moment she stepped inside.

“As a matter of fact, I received two messages while you were away. Shall I play them for you?”

“By all means,” said Sara as she slipped out of her clothes in preparation for the shower. This AI was a lot more personable than the last model—thinking about it made her realize she hadn’t named it yet.

“Computer, do you have a name?”

“I do not have a user-specified designation, but my serial number is NI-9938.”

“That won’t do,” said Sara. “Set new designation to…” What name should she give her AI? NI-99…

“Nina.”

“Very well,” said the newly-christened Nina. “Playing first message.”

“Hello, dear,” came the voice of Sara’s mother. “Why do you always keep your wrist console turned off when you’re away?”

Sara rolled her eyes and stepped into the narrow shower unit. Two beeps indicated a break in the message playback.

“How would you like your water?” Nina asked.

“I can take care of it manually,” said Sara. “Go on.”

“As you wish.” Two beeps, and the message continued.

“Anyway,” her mother’s voice returned as Sara keyed the wash cycle. “I just wanted to know how you’re doing. Call me sometime—it’s been forever since we talked.”

Jets of pressurized water shot from the walls, spraying her from every direction. She shuddered at the initial shock of impact, then raised her arms to let it wash all over her. The temperature was a little cooler than the default, but that was fine—after two hours of physical training, it felt good.

“Oh, and by the way,” her mother continued, “I met a nice boy the other day. He just graduated from the academy here at Kardunash III, and I think you’ll agree, he’s super cute.”

Sara groaned. Leave it to her mother to set her up from nearly fifty million kilometers away. She leaned against the wall of the narrow shower unit and folded her arms, letting the water pool in the cruxes of her elbows.

“His parents are well established citizens of Skye,” the message continued. “Old money—very respectable. An associate of mine knows them well. The next time you come to visit, I can easily arrange for you to meet him.”

Thanks, Mom. For the warning.

“Anyhow, give me a call sometime. I love you, dear.”

The message beeped out. Sara sighed and picked up the scrubber-hose from its slot next to the access panel and switched it on. Sweet-smelling soap began to ooze out of the sponge on the end.

“Message received approximately one hour and forty-five minutes ago,” said Nina. “Shall I play the next one?”

“Yes.”

One beep indicated the start of playback. “Hello, Sara,” came her father’s voice. “How has your day been so far? I hope your service at the children’s home went well this upshift.”

Sara’s stomach sank through the floor. That was today? She had meant to go, but things had just sort of gotten in the way. Her father would probably think that she was careless—or worse, a lazy, spoiled daughter.

“In any case, I’m very much looking forward to our meeting in two hours. The diplomatic sub-committee has finalized the delegation, and it passed through the General Assembly last night. As we agreed, your name is on the list.”

Sara finished with the scrubber and reactivated the shower. As the cool water rinsed away the soap suds, she filled her hands from the shampoo dispenser and began to wash her hair.

“In addition to the diplomatic team, the sub-committee wants me to send a small military escort to ensure the security of the delegates. It’s mostly a formality, but I agree with them that it’s a useful one. This is a dangerous mission, Sara, and I don’t want to take any chances with your safety.”

You don’t trust me to take care of myself, Dad? It wasn’t like she was a little girl anymore. With a master’s degree in interplanetary relations, a well-paying job in the diplomatic corps, and a black belt in Rigelan jujitsu, she was quite capable of looking after herself.

“Passenger restrictions on the Freedom Star permit me to send only two soldiers with the delegation,” he continued, “but I’ve picked ones who should be well up to the task. They’re coming on a supply convoy, and should arrive within the hour. I’ll be expecting you at the spaceport as soon as you’re able. I hope you’re packed already, dear, because you won’t have much time to do it later.”

Sara wasn’t, but she had no doubt that she’d be ready before departure. She was a light traveler.

“In any case, I hope this message finds you well. Please let me know when you’re on your way.”

The audio chimed to indicate the end of the last message. “May I be of service in any other way?” Nina asked.

“Sure,” said Sara as she finished rinsing out her hair. “Give me a rundown of the major bills and resolutions currently on the floor of the General Assembly, in descending order by voting deadline.”

“Very well. Bill 3212R32: Emergency Powers Amendment. Requires ratification by a two-thirds majority on all executive orders regarding domestic affairs. Deadline in approximately two hours. Voting currently stands at thirty-six percent ‘yea,’ forty-two percent ‘nay.’”

Sara sighed. It seemed that every other month, some sort of amendment to her father’s emergency powers came to the floor of the General Assembly. Had the people of the Colony lost their trust in his leadership, or were they merely discontent with the pressures of the last few months? In any case, her own vote was a no-brainer.

“Nina, set my vote to ‘nay.’”

“I’m sorry,” said the AI, “but Colony law forbids me to act as a voting proxy.”

“Then just take my thumbprint on the shower’s control panel and treat that as my vote.” For an artificial intelligence, Nina wasn’t very bright.

“Very well. Initiating imprinting process.”

Sara pressed her thumb against the panel, then keyed the drying cycle. The water shut off, and a loud vacuum opened in the drain beneath her feet. A doughnut shaped drier slowly ran down the cylindrical walls of the unit, blasting her with hot air. She raised her hands high in the air as the water ran off her skin and into the recyclers.

“Resolution 34A223,” Nina continued, “Combat Local Piracy Act. Designates all space within fifty thousand kilometers of Lagrange point L5 a protected safe zone and authorizes the Civil Defense Corps to use deadly force in patrolling that zone. Deadline in twenty-eight hours; voting currently stands at forty-nine percent ‘yea,’ thirty-one percent ‘nay.’”

Forty-nine percent—that was only a couple of percentage points away from passing. Her vote probably wouldn’t make a difference now, and going on the record might come back to bite her politically. At the same time, though, it didn’t seem right to stand back and do nothing. She wasn’t exactly dovish, but these military escalations always made her uneasy.

“Put me down as ‘nay,’” she said over the roar of the shower’s dry cycle. “Here’s my imprint.” She pressed her thumb against the access panel as the drier reached her feet.

“Very well,” said Nina. “Bill 3213A—”

“That’s enough, Nina. I’ll review the rest later.”

She stepped out of the shower unit and retrieved a towel from an overhead compartment, wrapping it around her hair.

“Understood. Would you like me to select your outfit for the evening?”

“No,” she said, walking into her bedroom. “I can manage it fine myself.” After all, some things were better off not left to a computer.

“Very well,” said Nina. “Your father is expecting you at—”

“Yes, I know. Go on standby until further notice.”

“Very well. Going on standby. Goodbye!”

Sara studied her figure for a moment in the mirror before picking out her clothes. Personal AIs could be helpful, to be sure, but they could also be rather annoying. Besides, she had more important things on her mind. In just a few hours, she would leave on a voyage that would take her almost twenty parsecs from home. She still had a lot to do before she was ready.


* * * * *


At the groan of the opening blast doors, James eased off of his cot and rose to face the electrified grill on the far side of his cell. Heavy footsteps sounded on the floor, no doubt to escort him off the ship. Sure enough, three men walked into view: a short, balding man with a gray-haired goatee, flanked by two military police.

“Lieutenant McCoy,” said the older man: a master sergeant, by the insignia on his shoulder. James’s eyes grew wide, and he hastened to give a salute.

“Yes, sir.”

“I have orders to escort you to the docking terminal with your personal effects.” The master sergeant nodded to the MPs, who depowered the door and swung it open on its squeaky, archaic hinges.

Strange, James thought to himself. Still, if high command wanted to strip him of his commission, they wouldn’t have sent such a high-ranking officer to meet him at port—which begged the question, why had they sent anyone at all?

“Thank you, sir,” he said. “May I ask who wishes to see me?”

The master sergeant stepped back to allow James to step out into the narrow hallway between cells. “I suppose it’s only fair,” he muttered. “It’s the patrician. He’s waiting for you at the terminal right now.”

“Th-the patrician?” James’s blood ran cold, and his heart skipped a beat. The patrician was the commander-in-chief of all Colony defense forces, and the highest elected official in the Colony government. Either James was in deeper trouble than he realized, or something else was going on that he didn’t know anything about.

“That’s right, the patrician,” said the master sergeant, leading him through the open blast doors. As James followed him out of the brig, the MPs fell into step behind them.

“But—but what about my uniform? I—”

“Normally, I’d give you some time to change,” said the master sergeant. “Unfortunately, the patrician is running on a very tight schedule. Your flight suit will have to do.”

James glanced down at the drab, olive-green flight suit he was wearing. He’d only been allowed two changes of clothing in the brig, and he’d worn the other for almost the entire voyage, saving the clean one for when they put into port. Thank the stars he wasn’t wearing the dirty one right now.

“Can you tell me why he wants to see me?” he asked as they walked down the brig corridor.

“I would tell you if I could, Lieutenant, but frankly, I don’t know.”

The master sergeant stopped in front of the elevator and keyed the access panel. The doors hissed open, and they both stepped inside, leaving the MPs behind.

“What about Commander Maxwell?” James asked as the door slid shut. “I thought—”

“The commander was more shocked than any of us when he received the news,” the master sergeant answered with the hint of a smile. “I assure you, Lieutenant, whatever his opinion of your behavior, it has been overruled.”

That’s a relief. After a few brief moments of silence, they stepped out into the main corridor of the ship.

Unlike the gunboats, the Trident One was a converted passenger liner, one that had been in operation for several decades under the New Gaian Empire before the Hameji occupation. The signs of age weren’t immediately obvious, but James picked them out easily enough: little chips of missing paint along the bulkheads, the indentations of foot traffic along the yellowed floor tiles, a slight fogginess in the windows from years of exposure to cosmic radiation. In contrast, the men and women who staffed the ship were quite young, most of them barely older than James. In their olive-green military drab, they seemed as out of place as pirates in a civilized star system.

“What about my belongings?” James asked.

“They have already been packed and unloaded. You’ll find them at the tram.”

Sure enough, when they reached the end of the corridor and stepped into the airlock, James saw his duffel bag waiting for him. He hoisted it onto his shoulder and turned to the master sergeant, who stood outside the door.

“I’ll leave you here, Lieutenant. The patrician asked to meet with you privately.”

Privately? James’s stomach flipped, and for a moment, he felt like throwing up.

“Right,” he said. “Thank you, sir.”

“Good luck.”

The ride in the tram down the docking arm did little to quell his anxiety. Between the docking terminal and the Trident One, the artificial gravity field grew so weak that his bag began to creep up the wall next to him. He gripped the shoulder bars that kept him in his seat and closed his eyes, imagining that he was simply lying on his back.

As the tram began to decelerate, gravity slowly returned. When it came to a stop, James opened his eyes and took a deep breath. After checking himself over to make sure he was presentable, he picked up his bag and stepped out. A man in a crisp business suit stood waiting for him on the other side, with two aides standing just behind him.

It could only be the patrician.

“Mister patrician, sir,” he said, dropping his bag to offer a salute. “It’s an honor to meet you in person.”

“Lieutenant James McCoy, I take it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Excellent. It’s a pleasure to meet you, as well.”

The patrician offered James his hand and gave him a firm, commanding handshake. He was a tall, heavyset man, with a clean-shaven face and receding hairline. His chest and arms were surprisingly strong, though, and his expressive face betrayed a mind that was obviously quite active.

“I’ve heard a lot about you, Lieutenant,” he said. “My aides here have briefed me on your entire file.”

“My, ah, file?” James asked. He swallowed nervously and tried not to think about what was in there.

“Yes, yes, of course. You’ve built up quite an impressive service record, with—what? Twenty-one kills?”

“Twenty-six,” said James, his heart racing.

The patrician smiled. “I’ve already spoken with your co-pilot, Ensign Jones. He speaks very highly of you.”

Sterling?

“I’m… glad to hear that, sir.”

“Yes, he’s waiting for us in the car. But first, allow me to introduce you to my daughter, Sara.”

A gorgeous young woman stepped forward, offering her hand. James froze, and his stomach all but dropped through the floor. Her golden hair cascaded over her shoulders, and her smile almost made his heart stop. Her form-fitting smart-dress accentuated the natural curve of her hips, while her deep blue eyes shone like the shimmering starfields of deep space.

“Hello,” said James, unable to say anything else. Somehow, he managed to shake her hand without making a fool of himself.

“Hello,” said Sara. “James, I take it?”

“You can call me that,” he all but stammered.

She nodded. “Pleased to meet you.”

“I’m afraid we’re running short on time,” said the patrician. “Your ship is scheduled to leave in only a few hours, and you still need to be briefed on your mission.”

James blinked. “Our mission?”

“Yes, your mission. Didn’t Commander Maxwell explain it to you?”

“No, Sir. The commander didn’t tell me anything.”

The patrician pursed his lips. “Well, that’s unfortunate. You won’t have much time to handle your personal affairs. Do you have any family that you wish to say goodbye to before you leave?”

I was hoping to say hello to them first.

“Yes,” said James, “but I’m sure that I can do that later, sir—after I’ve been briefed.”

“Excellent,” said the patrician, patting him on the back. “Come, to my car.”

James picked up his bags and followed behind the patrician’s daughter, who glanced at him over her shoulders. He gave her a weak smile that quickly changed to a frown once her back was turned.

What in all the holy constellations of Earth is going on?


* * * * *


Sara stepped into the car while her father held the door open, ducking as she entered the narrow space. She sat knee-to-knee across from the ensign, who grinned at her like a small puppy.

“Hello again,” he said. “Are we—Oh! Captain McCoy, it’s good to see you!”

Lieutenant McCoy,” James corrected him as he scooted up next to him. “I’m only your captain when we’re on the Lone Spear.

“Oh, right. Sorry.”

With a soft grunt, her father squeezed in next to her. The door hissed shut, while outside, the two aides waited for the next available car.

Sara took a good look at the lieutenant as the car started moving in its track along the ceiling. Like Ensign Jones, he had a sort of nervous look about him: a wide-eyed, who-took-the-ground-away kind of look. Unlike the ensign, though, he didn’t seem quite so young and boyish. In his eyes, she glimpsed a depth of experience that she didn’t usually see in people his age. Here was a young man who had seen things—perhaps even more than she had.

“So, ah, Mister patrician,” said James. “I’m almost afraid to ask, but what exactly is this all about?”

Her father chuckled. “Cutting to the chase, are we? I can see why you went into the military and not politics.”

Sterling laughed nervously, clearly unsure of himself. James only nodded.

“I take it you haven’t heard of the interstellar conference at Gaia Nova,” her father said, clasping his hands together the way he always did when he got down to business. “A quorum of delegates from the Hameji-occupied worlds is seeking to draft a petition of redress for the general security failure and widespread economic collapse. It’s been a long time in coming, but the Hameji have agreed to sponsor the meeting, which is scheduled to take place in two standard weeks.”

James frowned. “Petition of redress? Since when did the Hameji allow that?”

“We’ve managed to convince them that it’s in their best interests to let us organize,” said Sara, giving the lieutenant a disarming smile. “Besides, they’re much too interested in their military campaigns to worry about us.”

Whether from her words, her smile, or some combination of both, James offered no further objection. Her father continued.

“I’m sending you both with the delegation as a military escort. You are responsible for the security of the diplomatic team, including the safety of my daughter.”

“Yes, sir,” said James. From the way he looked at her father, it seemed almost as if he were purposefully avoiding eye contact with her.

“There are some on the committee who view your presence as merely a formality. However, I want you to know that I expect nothing less than your finest. Our colony has a lot riding on the outcome of this conference. I personally have a lot riding on it, considering that my daughter is a member of the diplomatic team. It is vitally important that you see to their security and ensure that they return unharmed. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir,” said James. “We understand perfectly. Don’t we, Sterling?”

“Of course,” said the ensign. “Don’t worry, sir.”

Her father nodded, evidently satisfied. “Good. This diplomatic mission is critical. If we don’t persuade the Hameji to take a more active role in resolving the growing security crisis, I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

Though the emotion was evident in her father’s voice, she could tell by the glassy look in his eyes that he didn’t fully believe what he was saying. Fortunately, as the car slowed down in front of the Defense Corps’s barracks, neither of the soldiers seemed to notice.

“Captain Jarvis will have more details for you on board the Freedom Star,” her father said as the car came to a stop. “Before you go, however, I want your personal promise that you will guard my daughter at all costs.”

“Of course, sir,” said Lieutenant McCoy, saluting. “I swear on my life.”

“Me too, sir,” said the ensign.

“Good.”

The door hissed open, and her father stepped out to allow them to disembark. While Sara waited in the cabin, he helped them retrieve their bags and sent them on their way.

“Excellent men,” her father said as he sat back down across from her. “If only we had a hundred more like them.” The door hissed shut, and the car rose up and headed for the residential district of the station.

“You didn’t have to get that last promise from them,” Sara said, folding her arms. “That was a bit melodramatic.”

“Perhaps,” he said, “but they won’t soon forget it, will they?”

“I suppose not.”

The floor fell out below their car as it rose up the high ceiling of the station’s central dome. Sara recognized the familiar gardens and parks that were so characteristic of the upper class neighborhoods of the Colony. Young mothers pushed strollers past the carefully manicured hedges and picturesque streams. Leafy green trees shimmered in the sunlight that shone through the carefully tinted windows overhead. From high above, however, Sara could see that every house and hedge was virtually identical, and the streams all ran in endless circles, doubling back on themselves. It was a sheltered world apart from reality—an artificial imitation of the peace and prosperity that had once been common throughout the system. Though she’d grown up within that illusion, she had no desire to stay there.

“Do either of them have top-level clearances?” she asked.

“No,” said her father. “As far as they know, you’re just another delegate.”

Sara sighed. “That’s going to make things difficult, if I have to keep my mission a secret from them.”

“Be discreet. They’ll never notice a thing, if you do it right.”

If I do it right. That was the trick, wasn’t it?

“I’ll do my best.”

“That might not be good enough,” said her father. “The Colony may not survive if you fail.”

“I know,” said Sara. “I know.”

They sat in silence as the carefully manicured illusion of prosperity passed far below.

Chapter 3


Kyla Jeppson ignored the growling in her stomach as she slunk through the dimly lit corridor toward the spaceport loading docks. The familiar smell of urine and rotting garbage filled the air, masking her like the shadows. She skirted around a large group of beggars gathered around an electric stove and slipped into a narrow crawlspace between bulkheads, careful to make sure no one was following her.

After squeezing past a particularly nasty patch of mold, she arrived in a small chamber hollowed out from a defunct ventilation shaft. The motionless fans still hung overhead, and she ducked to avoid banging her head on their enormous blades. Her eyes flitted back and forth across the foul-smelling place, her heart beating a little faster.

A small man slouched against the far corner, arms folded across his chest. Though the room was too dark for her to make him out, she imagined she could see the smug expression on his face. A chill ran slowly down her back.

“You’re late, darling.”

Kyla said nothing.

The man unfolded his arms. “Well, come here.”

She began to approach him, but stopped in the middle of the room, her body tense. When he saw that she wouldn’t come any further, he sauntered casually over to her.

“You had me a little worried, dear. For a while, I didn’t think you’d come.”

He caressed her neck with his hand, running his fingers through her matted hair. She flinched at his touch, but made no protest.

“I see you’ve lost weight. Are they not feeding you as well at the soup kitchen? Or has child services caught on to you?”

“I’m here,” she said, drawing in a sharp breath.

“Of course you are.”

His hand ran down the front of her jumpsuit, groping at her small breasts. Reflexively, she knocked him away. He clucked at her and shook his head.

“Temper, temper. Is that a way to treat your benefactor?”

“I’ve paid you once. I’m not going to pay again.”

He laughed. “A pity. Too bad your ride is leaving so soon—otherwise, we could have had a little fun.”

Go to hell, you sick bastard.

She hated herself for fucking him, but she hated even more that she didn’t have a choice. No place on the station would give her work, and the soup kitchens did little more than keep her alive—barely. It was worse in child services, though. She’d heard all the horror stories. At least with the smuggler, she only had to pay him once.

He turned to lead her out, but not without snaking his arm around her waist and pinching her butt. She didn’t give him the satisfaction of jumping.

“Right this way,” he said, leading her out a maintenance corridor. Wires hung from broken conduit, fluorescent lights flickering in the narrow space. A broken pipe joint tore her sleeve, but she ignored it and went on.

It hadn’t always been like this. Years ago, when her mother had still been alive, she’d had a clean bed to sleep on, in a room to herself that didn’t smell like urine. Places like this had been foreign to her, where the air was rank with body odor and people slept on rat-infested floors. That was when she’d had a family, though. She didn’t have anyone now.

The smuggler led her up a ladder to another ventilation shaft. Quick as a rat, he climbed out, reaching back in to pull her up. As she crawled to her feet, the sound of heavy machinery rung in her ears. She kept low as he led her around a bend behind several enormous storage containers.

“You’re in luck,” he said. “I got you a ship headed for Gaia Nova, the old Imperial capital. Stars know it’s hard to get one of these days.”

Kyla tensed. Is he trying to raise the price? She hugged her chest and walked a little faster.

The smuggler glanced at her and snickered. The harsh sound of his laughter was almost, but not quite, drowned out by the groaning of heavy machinery.

“No need to be afraid, darling,” he said. “The police don’t ever come here.”

Just get me to my ship and go away, she thought silently to herself. She kept her eyes on the floor grating and tried to ignore the way he kept moving closer to her.

Just when she thought he’d snake his arm around her again, he turned and led her through a narrow crawlspace. The walls were old and corroding in places, but the mold was gone. In spite of the loud industrial noises, she took care to be quiet as she followed on her hands and knees.

They came out in the middle of a platform with rectangular cargo containers stacked about five or six high. Each one was fairly small, about two body lengths long and not quite tall enough to stand in. The corners were rounded and reinforced, while the hatches had a complicated cross-bar system to keep them sealed.

The smuggler quickly scanned the containers and picked out a blue on the bottom of the stack. After glancing over his shoulder, he leaned forward and swiped a card over the access panel. The cross-bars disengaged with a loud click, making Kyla jump.

“Here,” said the smuggler, cracking the hatch open. “In you go.”

She hesitated for a moment, not sure whether it was safe to crawl into the dark, cramped space. The far end was filled with plastic crates, so that she barely had enough room to sit against the wall. She couldn’t imagine being cramped the whole voyage like that.

“It’s only until you’re on board,” the smuggler hissed. “See this wire? Pull it tight, and the hatch will open from the inside.”

“What if it’s up against a wall?”

He shrugged. “Then tough luck.”

She took a deep breath and poked her head in the hatch. There was a little more space inside than she’d thought, with an old, stained blanket for her to sit on. Other than that, it looked fairly clean. The blanket was a little damp, but not so much that she couldn’t get used to it. And as for the smell—

“Are you in or not?” the smuggler asked, his voice low and impatient. In the distance, the sound of the loading crane grew louder.

There’s no going back once you’re in, Kyla thought to herself. You’ll be leaving this place forever. For the briefest moment, she almost felt a yearning to turn around and stay. But then, her anger swelled up, dousing any nostalgic delusions about the place she’d once called home. She had no future in this place—the Colony was little more to her than a living hell. Better to leave and never look back.

She slipped into the open hatchway and eased herself onto the blanket. There were no lights inside, of course, but she was used to that. The hatch was something else entirely. Before the smuggler closed her in, she felt around its smooth inner surface until she found the wire and knew exactly where it was. It made her shudder to imagine being sealed in the container with no way out.

“There now,” said the smuggler, a wry grin crossing his face. “Are we comfortable?”



Kyla tensed—she’d seen that grin before. He opened the hatch a little wider, one hand fingering his belt as if in anticipation. The space in the container was just big enough for two people—probably because he’d planned it that way. Before he could advance any further, however, voices sounded further down the hold. He swore and quickly shut the hatch, taking care not to make too much noise.

Darkness enveloped her—but not the kind of darkness in the moldy crawlspaces that hid something dangerous and unknown. This was the comforting darkness of a warm, snug hiding place. She counted to sixty, but the smuggler didn’t return—something must have frightened him off, thank the stars.

She eased herself back against the wall of the container and fingered the release wire with her hand, just to reassure herself that it was there. With no other way out, that little strand of threaded metal made all the difference between an escape pod and a coffin. As to where she was going, she hardly cared anymore. All that mattered was that she was getting away.


* * * * *


James stepped off the public tram with his parents and walked toward the ticketing gate. Traffic was light at the main terminal today, but a few people still hurried about, busy as usual at the hub of the Colony’s small spaceport.

“Well, this is it,” he said, stopping in front of the counter. He dropped his canvas duffel bag and turned to give his aging mother a hug.

“I wish you could stay longer,” she said as they embraced.

“So do I,” said James. “But duty calls.”

“Just come back alive. That’s all I ask.”

James gave her a sad smile. Every time he left the station for another mission, she always made the same request. With his brother dead and his sister taken by the Hameji, he was the last of the children she had left. It always filled him with a tinge of guilt for the risks he knew he would soon take.

“I’ll do my best,” he told her. It might not have been the most comforting answer, but it was certainly the most truthful.

His father gave him a parting handshake. “Take care of yourself, son.”

“I will.”

“Be sure to keep your eyes and ears open.”

“Of course.”

“I mean it,” said his father, looking him in the eye. “Conference or not, this smells of centralist politics.”

James frowned. “But the patrician—”

“The patrician is the servant of the people, nothing more. He doesn’t have any more power than we give him, and if you ask me, he already has far too much.”

Yes, James wanted to say, but the Corps isn’t run by popular vote, and if it were...

There were a number of ways he could have finished that statement, all of them colorful, but instead he kept his political views to himself.

“I’ll do my best,” he said, bending down to pick up his bag. “Don’t worry—I won’t fail you.”

His father smiled and wrapped an arm around his tearful mother. James turned and held his wrist console up to the computer terminal. His ID cleared, and the gate opened to let him onto the concourse.

“We love you,” his mother called out one last time. He stepped through, then turned and waved.

“I love you, too,” he called back. “See you in a few weeks.”

Biting his lip, he turned and headed toward his terminal, passing over the giant mosaic image of the star system. Karduna was a golden nub at the very center, coordinate lines radiating outward. A giant pink and red mass off to the right marked the Good Hope Nebula, the imposing cloud of gas and dust that marked the edge of the frontier this side of settled space. On the other side, a gold nub bigger than the first marked Gaia Nova, the seat of galactic civilization.

Before the Hameji slagged it, that was.

“Hey, Lieutenant!” came a familiar voice from behind him. James turned and saw Ensign Jones running up to him.

So much for formality.

“Sterling,” said James. A grin spread across his face at the sight of his boyish copilot.

“It’s good to see you, sir. Need a hand with those bags?”

“Sure. Thanks for the help.”

He gave Sterling the lighter of the two bags, and they soon fell into step, walking past the half-empty shops and vendor kiosks toward the boarding area. It wasn’t uncommon to see soldiers in this part of the station, though the two of them did turn a few heads. A quick glance at the cluster of enormous holoscreens overhead showed that the Freedom Star was scheduled to depart in twenty-five minutes.

“So what do you think of that girl?” Sterling asked.

“Girl? What girl?”

“You know, the one we’re supposed to protect.”

“You mean the patrician’s daughter?” said James, picking up the pace. He shouldered his way through a crowd heading in the opposite direction and got a handful of dirty glances. Deal with it, people.

“Yeah,” said Sterling. “Isn’t she something?”

James’s cheeks reddened. “Now isn’t the time to talk about that, Ensign.”

“Oh? Why not?”

Because she might be somewhere in this crowd right now.

“Because it’s too damn distracting,” he said instead. “We have a mission to perform, and ogling her halfway across the galaxy is not going to accomplish that.”

Sterling covered his mouth and suppressed a laugh. “Sorry, sir—that’s not what I meant.”

“Of course not.”

Compared to the rest of the station, the spaceport was extravagantly spacious. The ceilings were high and vaulted, while the walls and floors were made of high-grade basalt from the nearby asteroids. Every surface was polished smooth, so that the place still looked new. The architectural engineers had done a good job: the veneer of prosperity was convincing enough to fool just about anyone.

But in truth, the spaceport was little more than an imitation of what it had once been. The spacious concourse was more empty than full, with only a handful of people returning from the terminals. Along the walls, far too many caged and boarded-up doors marked where shops and restaurants had once flourished. The Colony, once an attractive, thriving settlement, was now an isolated outpost in a system that had been utterly ravaged by the Hameji.

“Is this your first time out of the system, Sterling?” James asked. He couldn’t help but notice the quickness in his copilot’s step.

“Oh, yes, sir. I’m not much of a pilot—never have been. I’m more of an engineer.”

James raised an eyebrow. “An engineer?”

“That’s right. Back when the mining industry was still profitable, I used to work at the shipyards repairing broken equipment. When most of the workforce got laid off, I joined the Corps for the steady paycheck.”

“Right,” said James. He didn’t bother to point out that the payroll office was four standard months behind.

“So really, sir—”

“Call me James.”

“Yes, er, James—really, I’m not much of a pilot.”

“No, but you’re a fine copilot and the patrician chose us both for a reason. You’ve got a unique skill set, and that might just help us get out of a tight spot. Don’t put yourself down.”

Sterling grinned. “Thank you, sir.”

James checked the displays and led them to the right, toward their terminal. “So what can you tell me about the Freedom Star, Ensign?”

Sterling’s eyes lit up, just as James expected they would. “Gaian Enterprises deep space luxury yacht, Dolphin class—latest model, too. One hundred and twenty meters stem to stern, with room for six crew and eight passengers. She’s one of the few civilian ships left at the Colony with a functioning jump drive—two, in fact.”

“Two?” That wasn’t a common feature on civilian ships.

“Yeah. The dual drives don’t add much to the distance rating, but they more than double our jump rate in deep space.”

“Which means we don’t have to rely on the starlanes for transport,” said James. “If we have to make it back on our own, we can do so quickly without having to worry about being interdicted.”

“Right,” said Sterling, “though that won’t help us much in-system, since the reactors aren’t significantly boosted.”

Still, at least we won’t be stranded. That was the problem with sublight engines—if the political situation was unfavorable, you were at the mercy of whoever controlled the local system. When the Hameji had invaded nearly five years ago, virtually every starship with a working jump drive had fled, taking hundreds of thousands of refugees with them. Only a handful still remained at the Colony, and almost all of those belonged to the Corps now. The Freedom Star was one of the rare exceptions.

“Are you worried about something?” Sterling asked.

“No,” James muttered, “but it bothers me that the patrician’s putting us under the command of a civilian.”

“A civilian?”

“Captain Allie Jarvis,” he said, leaning in a little closer to speak under his breath. “She’s the captain of the Freedom Star. Her family has no military background that I could find, but she’s distantly related to the patrician.”

“That explains why she didn’t run with the rest of the refugees.”

“Yeah. It also explains why the patrician went outside of the normal chain of command to brief us—he wants to keep the Corps out of this mission as much as possible.”

Sterling frowned. “But why would he want to do that?”

“I don’t know. That’s what I want to find out.”

A chime from the loudspeakers interrupted their conversation, followed by the tinny, feminine voice of a recording. “Attention, passengers,” it said, “Tram approaching. For your safety, please wait until the car comes to a complete stop before boarding.”

“That’s us,” said James. A glance at the holoscreen displays over the main concourse showed the Freedom Star leaving in fifteen minutes.

“Right,” said Sterling, hefting James’s bag under his arm. “Let’s go.”


* * * * *


“Hello, mistress,” came Nina’s voice through the jewel in Sara’s ear. “Lieutenant McCoy and Ensign Jones have entered the tram and will be boarding shortly.”

Sara nodded, though of course the AI couldn’t see her. But in the privacy of her cabin on board the Freedom Star, it wasn’t as if anyone else could, either. Since they were still in port, the outside view largely consisted of the pockmarked hull of the next ship over: a sublight freighter of some sort by the drab, windowless exterior. No matter. Soon enough, she’d have a view of the stars.

With a stretch and a yawn, she rose from her lounge chair and stepped out into the corridor, turning left towards the airlock. She met the captain in the hallway, just outside the main elevator.

“Miss Galbraith-Dickson,” said Captain Jarvis, giving her a smart nod. A stout, middle-aged woman, the top of her head only came up to Sara’s nose. Her short, curly red hair was pulled back from her round face, revealing a wide brow and small eyes. Her white uniform was crisp and spotless, the brass buttons polished smooth so that they shone in the bright LED lights that ran along the ceiling.

“Captain,” said Sara, shaking her hand.

“I take it you’ve settled comfortably into your cabin?”

“Yes, thank you.” Sara glanced down at her wrist console: two hours to their scheduled departure.

“I’ve been apprised of the special circumstances surrounding your mission,” said Captain Jarvis, lowering her voice. The hallway was empty, but since they were still in port, it was still a good idea to be discreet.

“Good. So you can help me get in touch with our contacts at Gaia Nova?”

“Certainly. They’ll be waiting for you at the station.”

“And what about the lieutenant?”

The captain waved her hand. “Don’t worry. The rest of the delegation will keep him busy enough. So long as you’re careful about it, he won’t notice any deviation from your schedule.”

“Perhaps,” said Sara. She sighed. “I wish I knew why my father insisted on sending him with us. He’s not a part of the inner circle.”

“I admit, it does seem a little odd. Knowing your father—”

At that moment, the elevator door hissed open and a young, bright-faced man stepped out. Sara recognized him at once: Lars Stewart, head of the delegation to the conference. Instantly, she and Captain Jarvis grew silent.

“Oh, hi there,” he said, giving them a disarming smile. “Don’t mind me—I heard that James was coming along, and I thought I’d greet him at the airlock.”

“The lieutenant? You know him?”

Lars grinned. “Of course I know him—he’s an old family friend! We go back a long way, the two of us.”

Sara nodded politely. Unlike herself and the captain, Lars wore a loose gray jumpsuit with a dark leather vest and an empty utility belt: standard dress for the working-class merchanters. Considering how the Colony had originally been a corporate mining outpost before Karduna had won its independence, his choice of clothing had something of a patriotic flair to it. Still, Sara hoped he’d choose something more formal when they arrived at the conference. She didn’t want the other delegates to think that they were all Outworld hicks—even if many of them still were.

She tried to smile, but found it difficult to do so naturally. Her body stiffened, and she tried very hard to think of something to say to break the awkwardness.

“Well, that’s a surprise,” she finally managed. “How exactly do you know each other?”

“Our families used to cover the same shipping routes, and shared many of the same clients. We spent a lot of time on each other’s ships, and we watched out for one another when our parents were out on a haul.”

Sara nodded politely. Fortunately, the airlock door hissed open again before she found herself at a loss for words. Lars turned and grinned.

“Hey, James,” he called out. “Long time no see!”

“Lars! It’s good to see you!”

James dropped his bags and gave him a warm, brotherly hug, thumping him on the back for good measure. For a fleeting moment, the two of them looked almost like little boys.

“So how are politics treating you?” James asked.

“Not too bad, considering. How’s the military?”

“Civil Defense Corps, Lars. We don’t have a formal military.”

“Right, the Corps, then. I understand you’ve made quite a name for yourself.”

“Well, I haven’t been killed yet, so I guess that’s true. Though at the rate things are going, Commander Maxwell is probably going to have my hide as soon as we get back.”

They laughed and slapped each other on the back, while behind them, Sterling stepped onto the ship and closed the airlock doors. Captain Jarvis coughed, making James notice her.

“Sorry, Captain,” he said, saluting.

“Not at all, Lieutenant. Welcome aboard the Freedom Star.” She stuck out her hand, and James eyed it for a moment with some confusion before recognizing the civilian gesture. They shook, a bit stiffly.

“I trust both you and the ensign have been briefed on our mission before coming aboard?”

“That’s right, though the patrician said you’d have some more details for us.”

“Certainly. We’ll have plenty of time to discuss them before we arrive. In the meantime, your quarters are ready—feel free to make yourself comfortable. Mister Stewart, would you be so kind as to show them down?”

“Certainly, ma’am,” said Lars. “Come on, James—we’ve got a lot to talk about.”

As the three of them boarded the elevator to the lower level, completely absorbed in their own conversations, Captain Jarvis glanced over at Sara and raised an eyebrow. Sara didn’t need to read minds to know what she was thinking.

You’re right, she thought to herself. This does complicate things.


* * * * *


In the darkness of the cargo container, Kyla’s ears were her only connection with the outside universe. The groaning and clanging of distant machinery fell into a rhythm, lulling her into a tentative sense of peace. She curled up with her knees against her chest and fingered the wire with sweaty hands, waiting.

With the hatchway sealed, the container was starting to get stuffy. She thought about opening the hatch just a crack to let in some fresh air, but until she was safely on board the ship, it wasn’t worth risking it. If the authorities discovered her, she’d be sent to child services for sure.

Alone in the darkness, with crates on one side and a wall on the other, there was nothing to shield her from her troubled thoughts and memories. An image of her mother flashed across her mind, lying on her urine-soaked deathbed of a mattress. She remembered the scene as clearly as if she had just been there: the acrid smell of the electric heating coil in the corner and the dull, faded colors of the ragged blanket that hung over the doorway to the small alcove. A family of beggars crouched against the opposite wall, watching her, but no one offered any help or comfort. No one really cared.

After a long while, Kyla sniffed and clenched her teeth together. Well, if Mother was dead now, then Kyla might as well be dead to everyone, too. People were cold and cruel, and she wanted to get away from them all—just get away.

As if in answer to her silent plea, the groaning of heavy machinery sounded almost directly overhead. A loud clang reverberated throughout the container, and the floor shuddered beneath her. She reached for the walls with spread-out hands, grabbing for support. The groaning returned then moved into the distance somewhere behind her.

That’s probably the loading crane, Kyla thought. She remembered all the containers stacked above the one she was in—maybe they had started to move them onto the ship.

The groaning returned, followed by another loud clang that shuddered through the walls. This one made her teeth chatter and sent chills up and down her back. She steadied herself and tried very hard to control her breathing—not much air left, after all. Seconds turned to minutes, and her heartbeat slowly returned to something close to normal.

How much longer? she wondered. If only she had some way of sneaking a peek, she could—

The groan sounded again, starting in the distance but growing steadily closer. When it was directly overhead, it stopped for a second, then changed pitch and grew even louder. Something large and heavy hit the top of the container, making the whole thing shudder even harder than before. Her heart skipped a beat, and she held her breath as the noise turned to deafening silence. Then, without warning, the groaning returned, and the container lifted up, making her stomach fall out beneath her.

All at once, everything around her started to reel and pitch. She gasped and grabbed onto the walls for support as a wave of dizziness and nausea swept over her. Gradually, she realized that the container must be dangling from the crane—that was why the floor shook the way it did. The heavy machinery groaned directly overhead as it carried her away from the loading platform, though where it was taking her, she had no idea.

Eventually, the groaning stopped, and the container rocked for a few seconds until it more or less stabilized. Kyla took a deep breath, but just as she started to relax, the floor dropped out, making her stomach sink. She yelped in surprise in spite of herself, then clamped a hand over her mouth. Moments later, the container hit the next platform with a thud that sent shocks vibrating through the lower half of her body.

Did anyone hear me? She gripped the release wire on the hatch and began counting down each second. The loading crane moved off into the distance, leaving her in relative silence. No one came, however—no one had heard her outcry. She sighed in relief.

The container began to move. It started off slowly at first, but it soon picked up speed. In the darkness, Kyla reached out to the crates to make sure they were secure. Fortunately, they were packed so tightly that they hardly budged, but the steady acceleration pressed her up against the hatch.

Where are we now? A bolt of fear shot through her, and she wondered again if she’d made a mistake. There was no turning back now, though. All she could do was ride it out, wherever it took her.

An uneasy flutter rose in the pit of her stomach. At first, she dismissed it as just another hunger pang, but the more the feeling grew, the less certain she was. She turned her head, and a strand of hair brushed against her face in the darkness. She lifted her hand to pull it back, and felt more than one strand drifting up over her head.

I’m weightless, she realized with a start. As if in confirmation, she lifted up off the floor and bumped her head lightly on the ceiling.

The container began to slow, sending her drifting toward the opposite end of the narrow space. She caught herself with her feet. Even though she knew that down was supposed to be below her, she felt almost as if she were standing on the wall with her chest to the ceiling. In the darkness of the container, it thoroughly disoriented her.

Eventually, the container came to a stop, leaving her floating in midair. With space so tight that she had to keep her knees and elbows close, she felt herself begin to panic. Her breath came short and fast, while her heart began to pound. Let me out of here! a part of her seemed to scream. The growing stuffiness only made it worse. She reached for the release wire, fingering it with her sweaty hands—

No, she told herself. I’ve already made it this far. She took a long, slow breath and forced herself to stay calm. If she was weightless, it was probably because the container was in the station’s docking arm. That meant that she was almost on the ship—almost, but not quite. Just a few more minutes, and she’d be there.

Sure enough, a low groan sounded from somewhere behind or beneath her, and once again the container began to move. She steadied herself with her hands and held her breath. Without warning, gravity returned, dropping her onto the wet, smelly blanket. The reorientation was such a relief to that for several moments, she just lay there savoring it. The container moved a little further, then came to a rest as the heavy machinery moved on somewhere else.

She waited until the sounds died away again. This time, though, the silence was much deeper than before. She almost feared to open the hatch, but the air had become so stuffy that she knew she couldn’t last much longer. After counting to one hundred, she gripped the wire and pulled.

The outside bars released with a loud clang. For a brief moment, Kyla’s heart stopped, and a horrible sinking feeling took hold of her. The hatch creaked open just a crack, letting in some blessedly fresh air, but she waited in the darkness just in case someone had overheard her. Seconds turned to minutes, and no-one came. When she was confident that it was safe, she swung the hatch open and climbed out.

The space between the hatchway and the bulkhead was barely large enough to squeeze through sideways. It took her a while to get out, but when she did, she found that it wasn’t quite as bad as it was inside the container. A dim green light somewhere on the other side of the room gave just enough light to see by, and while the space was narrow, it extended a long distance in either direction. She rounded the corner and found that there was even more space on the other side, with a door—though where it led, she had no idea.

A cargo hold, she thought to herself. I’m on board a starship. Her heart started to race as a wild, heady feeling of triumph began to seize her. After running for so long, she was finally going to make it.

The groaning of metal on metal through the bulkheads made her jump. In the silence of the hold, it sounded as if a giant rat had scraped its claws against the hull of the ship. She bit her lip again and glanced nervously around, but only the dim lights in the ceiling met her eyes.

Thudding noises came next, followed by a series of hisses so low that she could barely hear them. She pressed her ear against the wall, and they came through all too clear. The floor shuddered, and her stomach began to turn, but not from hunger. Something was happening—the ship was turning.

We’ve pushed off, she told herself. This is it—we’ve left the station.

As if in response, the noises abruptly stopped. She frowned and pressed her ear against the wall, but caught nothing but the beating of her heart.

What’s going on?

Moments later, she felt an odd, nauseous sensation sweep over her, starting in her stomach but soon extending throughout her entire body. She looked up only to see the already narrow bulkheads crowding her in. Her vision began to swim, and she felt as if her body was being turned inside out—as if the universe were playing some kind of cruel joke. She closed her eyes and tried very hard not to scream.

Then, in an instant, the feeling passed. Sweat ran down the back of her neck and behind her ears, turning colder with each passing second. She reached up with her hand and wiped it off.

The jump, she realized. We’re away.

She took in a deep breath and settled down on the cold metal floor. Wherever she was headed, there was no going back anymore.

Chapter 4


James walked down the spacious corridor of the Freedom Star, glancing with mixed feelings at the cascading hydroponic vines and etched porcelain walls. A little less than a day had passed since their departure, and he still couldn’t get over all the luxury that now surrounded him. While the Hameji occupation had certainly impacted everyone’s standard of living, it was clear to him now that it had affected some people less than others.

The only reason civilized society isn’t overrun by barbarians and criminals is because of the sheepdogs, Danica’s words came to his mind. But what about all this inequality? He gritted his teeth. With all the flagrant opulence around him, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he had risked his life only to let a more insidious predator undo all that he had worked for.

Toward the bow, the corridor opened up to a magnificent wood-paneled staircase leading down to the observation deck. The windows stretched from floor to ceiling, offering a stupendous view of the starfield outside. A dazzling crystal chandelier hung from the center of the room, directly over an automated serving bar. Retractable tables and chairs ringed the windows, enough for the luxury yacht to host large, extravagant parties while parked in orbit.

Lars sat on the far side of the room, admiring the view from one of the chairs. He wore the standard gray jumpsuit of a merchanter, complete with compact utility belt and a black leather vest that was wrinkled and cracked with age. James’s lips turned up in a smile; he’d hardly ever seen Lars wear anything else, not even in the video speeches he’d made to the General Assembly of Citizens. In his decidedly working-class clothes, he looked more than a little out of place here on the luxury yacht.

“Hey,” he said as he climbed down the stars. “Mind if I take a seat?”

“Not at all,” said Lars.

James settled into the shifting contours of the egg-shaped chair across the table. For a moment, the cushions felt lumpy and uneven, but the smartfoam soon conformed to his body shape. As it did so, he couldn’t help but feel as if it were trying to eat him. Lars chuckled.

“Not used to this kind of luxury, are you?”

“No,” James admitted.

“Neither am I. The diplomatic committee likes to charter this starship for its more important missions. Though it does seem a bit opulent, I suppose it’s necessary to grease the wheels of diplomacy. Care for a drink?”

“No, thanks.”

“Suit yourself.” Lars lifted his glass and turned back to the magnificent view.

“You know,” said James, “it’s only been two days, and we’re already halfway to Gaia Nova. If we were in a sublight convoy, we’d barely be out of the K3 trojans right now.”

“It’s amazing how much difference a good FTL drive makes in space travel.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about,” he said, shaking his head. “The wars have decimated virtually all of the occupied worlds. Karduna, Tajjur, Gaia Nova—no system has been spared. And yet, five years ago, the kind of journey we’re making right now would have been commonplace.”

“I know,” said Lars. “Sometimes, I feel as if the outer edges of our own system are more foreign to us than the other stars of the empire ever were.”

“They’re definitely more dangerous. With all the local piracy we’ve had to deal with, ‘occupation’ doesn’t really describe the way the Hameji are running things.”

“Yes,” Lars agreed. “To them, we’re just a vassal state. So long as we produce tribute, they’re content to let us manage our own affairs.”

“Or let everything fall apart.”

Lars nodded. “It’s the same thing everywhere. Gaia Nova is one of the worst examples—three stations have collapsed since the occupation began. When you look at all we’ve been through, it’s a wonder that the Colony has survived for as long as it has.”

“Yeah,” said James.

They sat in thoughtful silence for a while. Outside, the stars shone like cold, distant jewels. The wispy pink tendrils of the Good Hope Nebula lay just out of view, but James caught sight of a couple dark molecular clouds—blots in the starfield.

“Do you think this conference will accomplish anything?”

“I hope so,” said Lars with a wry grin. “I’m the one who organized it, after all.”

James’s eyes widened. He regarded Lars for a minute, wondering what to say. “Well, you always were the politically savvy one,” he eventually managed. “I guess you know more about these things than I do.”

Lars chuckled. “It’s a bit of a long shot, I’ll admit. Still, it’s better than sitting idly by as everything falls apart. I’m guessing that’s why you joined the Corps?”

“Yeah, that was one of the reasons.”

“It doesn’t surprise me. You and I aren’t that different, James. But while your calling lies in the military, mine lies in politics. If our people are ever to have a future, they’re going to need great men and women working together in both realms.”

James nodded, relaxing a little. “So what’s this conference about anyway?”

“It’s a gathering of representatives from the Hameji-occupied worlds. Ever since my appointment to the diplomatic committee, I’ve been building a network of like-minded people across the former Gaian Empire who want to change the situation under the Hameji. We reached critical mass some time ago, but it took a while to convince the Hameji that a conference like this was in their best interests as well as ours.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” James asked. “Just what are you hoping to accomplish?”

“I’m hoping to organize a council,” said Lars, leaning forward. “An interstellar council of occupied systems. Right now, we’re at the mercy of the local commanders, and most of them couldn’t care less about us. All they want is a chance to get reassigned to the battle front. But if we can create an organization that can represent our interests directly to the Hameji Generals, then maybe they’ll start to listen to us.”

James frowned. “The Generals? What makes you think they’d care?”

“Because they can’t afford not to,” Lars answered, his eyes lit with passion. “No hegemonic system can endure forever: eventually, the strain becomes too much, and the empire splinters and falls apart. It’s as much in the Generals’ interest to grant us a degree of autonomy as it is in our interests to ask for it.”

“And how would this council change any of that?”

“It gives us a voice and makes the Hameji accountable to that voice. This is what I’ve been working for ever since Karduna fell: to preserve our basic rights and liberties. If things go well—and I have good reason to hope that they will—then ten years from now, we’ll enjoy far more security, prosperity, and freedom than we could dare to hope for.”

James nodded and let out a long breath. Even though Lars’s ideas seemed rather naive, he had to admire the man’s vision.

“But what if the Hameji see this council as a threat?” he asked, applying his military mind to the equation. “What if they interpret it as a form of mutiny?”

Lars held his hands palm up. “It’s a risk, I know. But we owe it to our future generations to work for it all we can.”

We owe it to our future generations to stay alive, James nearly retorted. Instead, he shook his head.

“I don’t know. It sounds like too much of a gamble.”

Lars chuckled. “Why James, you misjudge me. Do you think I’d play this game without an ace in the hole?”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m talking about our ‘in’ with the Hameji,” he continued, leaning forward with his hands folded on the table. “You of all people should know better than any of us who that is.”

James’s confusion grew, until sudden realization struck him. His stomach dropped, and his heart skipped a beat.

“Stella.”

“That’s right, my friend. I have it confirmed on good authority that Qasar is now the chief rear admiral of the main Hameji battle fleet. Given her position as Qasar’s wife, I have every reason to believe that she will be present for the conference.”

Stella. James’s hands trembled, and his palms began to sweat. Five standard years ago, his sister and brother had fallen prisoner to the Hameji during the invasion. Against his father’s wishes, he’d set out on a foolhardy quest to rescue them. That quest had ended in failure: his older brother had been killed before his eyes, and his sister had refused to come with him. He knew now that she’d made the right choice: with her new-found influence as one of Qasar’s wives, Stella had managed to save the Karduna system from imminent collapse. But Qasar’s fleet had been reassigned after little more than a standard year, and everything had only gotten worse since then. In all that time, James had missed her so much that he couldn’t help but feel like a failure for coming back without her.

“Are you sure?”

“Sure enough. I haven’t received her RSVP, but if she’s in the system I have no doubt she’ll be there.”

James leaned back in his chair and sighed. “So you were the one behind my assignment to this mission.”

“Actually, no,” said Lars. “I had nothing to do with it.”

“What? You mean I didn’t factor into your scheme?”

“Not really. I figured I had enough of a personal connection with your sister to make things work—though of course, your presence can only help. But I had nothing to do with this assignment.”

“That’s strange,” said James, frowning.

“Why?”

“Because in my last mission before this assignment, I got in trouble—even thrown in the brig. The patrician pulled me out of it without any reprimands or disciplinary action. He went completely over Commander Maxwell’s head.”

“Interesting.”

“That’s not all. When we arrived, the patrician met us at the spaceport to brief me.”

Now it was Lars’s turn to frown. “He briefed you personally? That’s a strange development.”

“You’re telling me. Why do you think he’d do that?”

“I don’t know,” said Lars. “The patrician has been trying to expand his influence and consolidate his control—the presence of his daughter on the delegation bears testament to that. Some even think that he’s running a shadow government.”

“You think this is part of a centralist power grab?”

“Not exactly. More like…” Lars paused, stroking his chin in thought. “More like he’s trying to distract us from something.”

Distract us. James stared out at the starfield and mulled it over. Intuitively, he felt that Lars was right.

“Sounds like you expect foul play.”

“I’m not sure what to expect,” said Lars. “The patrician is a crafty man, and very difficult to keep up with. I locked horns with him plenty of times back when I was more involved with domestic affairs. Never quite got a handle on his game, but he’s definitely up to something here.”

“And Sterling and I are his unwitting agents?”

“Well,” said Lars with a grin, “not so unwitting anymore.”

“I was hoping you could tell me something about his motives,” said James. “What is he after? Money? Power? Is he trying to override our democracy and set up a quasi-dictatorship?”

“I should hope not,” said Lars, “but even if he tried, he wouldn’t get very far. The General Assembly of Citizens is far more powerful than the Galbraith family—he’s more of a figurehead in some ways than a true power player. Still, I wouldn’t put it past him to subvert the system to his own ends.”

“Which are?”

“I’m not sure. But with this assignment of yours, you might be able to find out.”

James leaned forward. “How?”

Lars glanced over his shoulder, as if to make sure that they were alone. “Keep a close eye on Sara,” he said in a markedly lower voice. “See if she tries to do anything out of the ordinary—and if she does, be sure to record it. Any evidence you gather may be crucial later, if indeed her father’s up to something dubious.”

“I see,” said James, nodding. “Anything else?”

“Not that I can think of offhand,” said Lars. “Just let me know what you find.” He leaned back in his chair and stretched, signaling that he had nothing more to say on the matter. “I requested the latest ballots from the General Assembly a few hours ago. We’re about to enter the starlane, so this is the last chance we’ll have to transmit them. Care to transmit your votes along with mine?”

“Thanks, but I still feel undecided about those measures. It’s probably best if I abstain.”

“As you will,” said Lars, pulling up the collapsible holoscreen from the surface of the table. “Thanks for the chat. I enjoyed it.”

“So did I,” said James. He rose tentatively from his seat. “But don’t underestimate the Hameji, Lars. If this conference provokes them—”

“Believe me, James, if there were any other way to save the Colony, I would be pursuing that right now instead of this conference. But don’t worry. I’m as skilled a politician as you are a pilot, perhaps even more. This is my game—trust me.”

James took a deep breath. “Yeah. All right.”

“Take care, old friend.”

“You, too.” But really, Lars—be careful.


* * * * *


Sara followed Captain Jarvis into the captain’s quarters without a word. For the commanding officer of a luxury yacht, Jarvis’s personal space was surprisingly bare. A small, neatly kept bed sat unretracted in the corner, with a modest computer terminal next to it and a small wallscreen adorning the opposite wall. It alternated between pictures of Jarvis’s two daughters, both of them grown. There were no portholes or windows.

“Do you spend a lot of time here?” Sara asked as the door hissed shut behind them.

“Not especially,” said Jarvis. She pulled down a chair from the wall and motioned for Sara to have a seat. “But it is nice to have a place where I can separate myself from my work. I’m sure it’s the same for your father.”

Sara nodded; that much was certainly true. Growing up, her father’s work had always seemed to come between her parents. Her mother wasn’t as good at separating out the personal side of her life from the political, and her father’s approach was perhaps a bit too compartmentalized. It was one of the many things that had led to their divorce the year Sara had started at the academy. Thinking about it made her want to change the subject.

“Have you filled the lieutenant and his copilot in on the details of the mission yet?”

“I have,” said Captain Jarvis, pulling down the seat at the computer terminal. “The two of them have spent most of the last two days meeting with the rest of the diplomatic staff. Have they met with you yet?”

“Not yet. That’s strange, wouldn’t you say?”

Jarvis nodded. “A little bit, certainly. The lieutenant has spent quite a lot of time with Lars in particular. I know that the two of them are old friends, but I can’t help but wonder if they’re plotting something.”

“I know,” said Sara with a sigh. “Lars Stewart has been a thorn in my father’s side for years now. If he’d known that the two of them have such a close personal connection, I doubt he’d have chosen the lieutenant for this military escort.”

“You don’t think he foresaw this?”

“My father knows a lot, but he doesn’t know everything. He’s just as prone to mistakes as the rest of us.”

“That’s not been my experience,” said Captain Jarvis. “Your father is an extremely shrewd man. He’s often four or five steps ahead of everybody. I would be extremely surprised if this was a simple oversight on his part.”

“Well, it certainly doesn’t make my mission any easier.”

“That much is true. But he always had the highest expectations of you. I’m sure he feels that you’re up to the task.”

For her part, Sara wasn’t so sure. Her father had a habit of testing her, and she didn’t always pass. In her second year at the academy, he had put her on the ballot for an oversight committee, knowing full well that she’d have to push back against claims of nepotism just to keep her political career from imploding before it had really launched. She hadn’t even wanted the position, but by the time he’d nominated her, it was already too late to object. She’d faced a great deal of scrutiny and criticism, which at the age of nineteen had been practically soul-crushing. In the end, she’d lost the position, which would have been a relief except for the impact it had on her political career. She’d always felt that her father had been disappointed with the way she’d handled herself, and every nomination since had been a struggle.

“Do you think Lars has caught on to something?” she asked.

“Even if he hasn’t, it would be well to be cautious,” said Jarvis. “Of course, I’m no politician, so I’m not the best one to give advice. Still, if he does suspect something, you can be sure that he and the lieutenant will be working together.”

Exactly, Sara thought silently. That’s the problem. She thought back to the briefing with her father in the tram car and remembered the look on the lieutenant’s face. His copilot was fairly guileless and probably not much of a threat, but Lieutenant McCoy had a glint in his eyes that reminded her of her father. He was a man who played his own game, irrespective of the forces that tried to contain him. There was a certain charm in that, but a danger as well—or perhaps the danger and the charm were two sides of the same sphere.

“If the lieutenant is hiding something, then maybe I should get him to open up,” she mused aloud. “Find out his game, see how deep his connection with Lars really runs.”

Captain Jarvis raised an eyebrow. “How do you plan to go about that?”

“We’re on a luxury yacht, aren’t we?” said Sara, pulling back a strand of hair behind her ear. “I’ve never met a boy who could turn me down for a date.”

Jarvis frowned. “Are you sure that’s such a good idea, mingling your personal life with your political one?”

No, but it certainly would make this voyage a lot more interesting.

“It’s the best way to get some insight into the lieutenant without arousing too much suspicion,” she offered instead. “Besides, I’ve dated plenty of boys—it’s not like this means anything.”

“Just as long as you’re careful about it,” said Jarvis, shaking her head. “Politics isn’t the only high-stakes game out there.”


* * * * *


James wiped the sweat from his face as the treadmill slowed for cool-down. The exercise facilities on board the Freedom Star weren’t as extensive as the ones on the Trident One, but they were plenty sufficient. He’d had a good workout; his shirt was soaked with sweat and his muscles were gratifyingly sore. His lungs burned for oxygen, but the air on the starship was clean and refreshing. As he slowed from a run to a walk, he breathed deeply to catch his breath.

The door at the front of the room hissed open, and the patrician’s daughter walked in, catching his attention almost immediately. Her skinsuit fit her slender form almost perfectly, the sleek curves a sharp contrast to his olive-green cutoff shorts and ragged tan T-shirt. She smiled at him in greeting, making his stomach fall.

“Hello there, Lieutenant. Mind if I join you?”

“Just finishing up,” James stammered. She took that as an invitation to come in and walked over to the mats in front of him.

“Do you work out often?” she asked. The door hissed shut, leaving them alone in the facilities together.

“Yeah. It takes a lot of rigorous physical training to be a soldier in the Corps.”

“I can tell. Where’s the ensign?”

“Sterling?” said James, wiping his sweaty forehead rather self-consciously. “He’s in his quarters, I think. At least he was an hour ago.”

“You don’t work out together then?”

“Not generally, no. We’ve each got our own regimen.”

She stood with her feet apart and pulled her hands behind her to stretch them out. Leaning forward, she raised them high in the air, with her long blond hair spilling forward almost to the floor. James caught himself staring and immediately looked away.

The countdown timer finished, and the treadmill slowed to a stop. He stepped off and wiped his face with a towel while Sara continued her stretching routine.

“Have a good workout,” he said as he walked toward the door.

“Actually, Lieutenant, do you have a minute?” Sara asked.

James stopped, his breath catching in his throat. “Yes?”

“Do you have any self-defense moves you could teach me? It would help me feel safer when we’re at the conference.”

He turned around to face her. She was on the floor now, stretching out her legs. Her flexibility was impressive—with both legs spread out at a considerable angle, she could still lean forward far enough to touch her elbows to the floor.

“I suppose,” he mumbled. She smiled at him, and his legs practically turned to water.

I have to be careful, he told himself. This is the patrician’s daughter, after all. That wasn’t the only thing that made him uneasy around her, though. Without a doubt, she was the most gorgeous sparring partner he’d ever had.

She stood up and looked at him with bright, eager eyes. He tried to avoid them as he squared off to face her.

“The first thing to remember is that the best way to defend yourself is to get away from trouble as quickly as you can. You’ll never lose a fight if you always run away.”

“But you don’t run, Lieutenant. That’s why my father chose you for this mission.”

His cheeks blushed bright red. “That’s different. If I run, people die. I’m supposed to protect them.”

“Just like my father asked you to protect me?”

The look of admiration on her face was so disarming that for a couple of panic-filled moments, he was speechless. When was the last time a girl had looked at him that way? Something told him that she wanted more from him than a self-defense lesson.

“Pretty much, yeah,” he somehow managed to say.

“So what do I do if I can’t run?”

“Well, you call for help. Most thugs are basically cowards, so if you make a lot of noise and cause a scene, that’s usually enough to spook them. Besides, I’m sure Sterling and I won’t be too far away.”

“And what if you’re not there to save me?”

Her words stung him more than she could have realized. He drew a sharp breath as he remembered his sister Stella, and how he’d failed to save her.

“Let’s start with the basics. Suppose someone grabs you by the shirt, like this.”

He took her hand and brought it to his chest, just below his shoulder.

She obediently grabbed onto his shirt, the way someone would if they wanted to drag him against the wall. Her grip was surprisingly firm.

“See, from here, you have a lot of options,” he explained. “First, you could strike his face with the heel of your palm, hitting either the nose or the chin.” He demonstrated on her as slowly and gently as he could, taking care not to hurt her.

“What if that doesn’t work?”

“If you hit at the right angle, you could easily break his nose. But chances are, you’re probably not going to be as strong as the person attacking you. Striking is just a way to distract them so that you can break their grip, like this.”

He reached for her hand with his opposite one and took her by the wrist, pressing his thumb against the back of her hand.

Controlling her by the wrist, he rolled her hand and gently hyper-extended her hand, making her release her grip. As her arm locked, he turned and pushed into her elbow with his opposite arm, making her stagger toward the wall.

“Ouch!”

“Are you all right?” he asked, suddenly letting go.

“No, I’m fine—that was just really effective. Can you show me again?”

He repeated the move, taking great care not to hurt her. She cooperated with him quite well, staying relaxed and not pushing back.

“Can you do it again, this time a little faster?”

They went over the move again. This time, she collapsed to her knees as he pressed against her elbow, and the only way to keep from hurting her was to follow her down to the floor. In less than a second, he had her in an arm lock with her face planted against the mat.

“Okay, okay!” she said, laughing. He carefully released her and helped her to her feet.

“All right,” he said. “Your turn.”

Her clothes were too tight to give him much to grip, so he placed his hand on her chest, well above her full, round breasts. Keeping her at arm’s length, he waited for her to try out the move.

“Let’s see,” she said, hesitating as she thought it out. “First, I want to strike you, like this.”

She swung up at him with the heel of her palm, moving much faster than he had.

The strike stopped within less than an inch of his face, making him flinch. He staggered back just as she grabbed his hand, and the next thing he knew, his face was pressed up against the wall with his arm in a solid arm lock.

“Like this?” she asked.

“Ow!” he said. “That’s good—really good.”

She released him and stepped back, curling a strand of hair behind her ear. “I’m a fast learner.”

“I’ll say. You got it in almost the first move.”

“Can I try it again?”

They went over the move again, thankfully a little slower. This time, James made it a little harder for her, so that she needed coaching. It took her a few tries to get the arm lock, but she managed to break his grip every time.

“You’re a good teacher,” she said, after they’d practiced it almost a dozen times.

“Well,” he said, blushing again. “Most people lock up or get really tense when you try to teach them a technique, or treat it like some sort of contest to see who’s stronger. That’s bad, though, because the more you tense up, the more likely you are to injure yourself.”

“Do I seem tense?”

“Not at all. If anything, you’re one of the most fluid people I’ve ever seen.”

She stepped up close to him, making his heart skip a beat. “Fluid,” she said as if tasting the word. “Is that a compliment?”

“Of c-course,” he stammered, suddenly aware of their close proximity to each other. She put a hand on his chest and smiled.

“I’m glad my father chose you for this mission.”

Before he could respond, she stepped back and turned around, running her fingers through her hair. It was just as well, since words entirely failed him in that moment. His heart pounded like a runaway chain reaction in a power reactor, and his legs all but turned to jelly.

“What if someone comes behind me?” she asked, glancing at him over her shoulder. From the look in her eye, it was clear that she wanted him to grab her.

He hesitated, unsure what to do. Something told him that he was heading on a dangerous trajectory.

To hell with it, he told himself.

He grabbed her by the waist in a solid bear hug, trapping her arms. “If someone’s going to come at you from behind,” he said, “they’re probably going to do it like this.”

“Oomph! So what do I do?”

“First, drop your center of mass as low as you can. That’ll keep them from dragging you off, like—”

She dropped suddenly, nearly making him fall to the floor. He caught himself just in time and struggled to haul her back.

“Good! Now turn your side into me and try to push me away with your elbows—that’ll free your hands.”

She did as he said, ramming an elbow against his grip until it broke. Then, grabbing him by the arm, she pulled him forward and slipped beneath him, sending him headfirst into the mat. He caught himself and rolled just in time, but before he could get up, she pushed him onto his back and straddled him, pinning down his shoulders.

“Like that?” she asked, grinning.

Realization struck him like a blow between the eyes. “You—you’ve trained in this before.”

“A little,” she admitted, her grin widening. “But you have to admit, it was a fun lesson.”

Apparently, it was a little too fun for her to release him. He struggled to get up, but she held him down so well that he couldn’t get any leverage. Resorting to a trick he had learned against his sister, he reached up and tickled her in the armpit. Instantly, she collapsed on top of him in laughter. He rolled her off to the side and stood up.

Did I just tickle the patrician’s daughter? he wondered. Thank the stars no one else had seen him do it.

“Oh, wow,” she said as she stood up. “That was perhaps a bit too much fun.”

“Just how proficient are you?” James asked.

Her eyes lit up. “How proficient do you think I am?”

Once again, blood rushed to his cheeks. He shrugged and made an equivocating motion with his hands.

“I don’t know. Black belt, maybe?”

“Good answer. I have a first degree black belt in Rigelan jujitsu.”

“And you wanted me to show you some self-defense moves?”

“Well,” she said, pulling a strand of golden-blond hair out of her face, “I wanted to see what you’d do, and you didn’t disappoint. You really are a good teacher.”

Why is she looking at me like that? James wondered. Is she coming on to me? He’d never been very good with women. The fact that he spent so much time on duty certainly didn’t help. But there was something different in the way Sara was looking at him—something that definitely looked like interest. It made his legs go numb and his heart hammer something awful.

“We’ve got a few days before we get to Gaia Nova,” she said, glancing at him tentatively. “We should, ah, get to know each other.”

Stars of Earth—she is coming on to me.

“Uh, yeah,” he said, his mind suddenly blanking. Inwardly, he cursed himself for being such an idiot.

“You must be pretty busy, though. I’m sure a lieutenant like you has a lot of duties.”

“Not until we get to Gaia Nova,” he blurted. “Do you want—do you want to have dinner sometime?”

She smiled. “Well, we are on a luxury yacht after all. When were you thinking?”

“Uh, tomorrow night maybe? How does 1800 sound?”

“Tomorrow would be fine. There’s a private dining room on the lower deck. I’ll talk with the captain about reserving it.”

James could hardly believe what was happening. He nodded dumbly, afraid that if he opened his mouth, he would say something stupid and make her change her mind.

“All right, then. See you tomorrow at 1800, Lieutenant.”

He stood there for a couple of moments until he realized that she wasn’t leaving—he was. He’d finished his workout, after all, and she’d barely begun hers. With considerable awkwardness, he nodded and left the gym, nearly tripping over his feet on his way out.


* * * * *


Kyla crept up to the open doorway and peered around the corner. She could hardly stand up straight, she had to pee so bad. At least there was a bathroom just outside the door to the cargo hold. Trouble was, it sat at the end of a long, well-lit corridor.

After looking both ways, she dashed out into the open space. Her bare, dirty feet pattered against the cold tile floor, making her heart race with terror. With her hands jammed between her legs to keep herself from bursting, she reached the bathroom and slapped her palm against the access panel on the wall. The door slid open with a jarring hiss, but she slipped inside and shut it again before anyone saw her.

She relieved herself as quickly as she could, then pulled out the empty bottle from her pants pocket and filled it up at the sink. With that done, she took a moment to look herself in the mirror. Her grubby black hair stood out against the immaculate porcelain wall behind her, the blue and purple floral designs contrasting sharply with her dirty gray clothing.

In every possible way, she did not belong here—on this ship, in this society, among these fabulously rich people, whoever they were. When they reached port again and she could slip away, she would feel… safe? No, not exactly. At ease, perhaps, but when you lived below-decks in the slums and access tunnels, you never truly felt like anywhere was safe.

She pressed her ear against the door and counted to ten, waiting to make sure that no one was there. Satisfied, she keyed the door and slipped out before it was fully open. A quick glance in either direction confirmed she was safe, and she walked quietly down the corridor back toward the cargo hold.

As she neared an open doorway, however, she couldn’t help but peek inside. What she saw made her gasp.

It was a luxurious dinner suite, with a comfortable couch ringing the edge and wide, starry windows along the walls and floor. A table stood in the middle, with a beautiful floral arrangement in the center.

It looked magical.

She glanced guiltily over her shoulder, as if she’d committed some terrible crime. No one had seen her, though—and if she was careful, no one would have to know she was here. All she wanted was a closer look, just a peek. With another quick glance in both directions, she ducked down and slipped into the open doorway.

Up close, the room looked even more magical. Unlike the hallway, where the horribly bright lights stabbed at her eyes and made her cringe for fear of getting caught, the lights in here were dim, with the stars’ soft glow shining up from all sides. The floor was completely transparent, and a long, nearly continuous window ran along the wall above the couch, curving upward to the ceiling like the bottom of a bowl. At first, she found the view a little disconcerting, as if she was in danger of falling through, but she soon got used to it. The table was magnificently set, with glimmering silverware and plates made of crystal. But by far, the most exotic thing about the place was the flowers. Kyla closed her eyes and leaned forward to smell them—real, live roses, not the cheap imitations sold in the bazaar. They smelled like rich perfume.

The roses made her realize just how grubby and disgusting she was. Her clothes reeked of sweat and grease, her bare feet were scarred and calloused, and her dirty hair was ratty and uneven. She would never spend a comfortable evening here, enjoying the company of the rich and beautiful. Her place was in the projects below-decks, with the rest of the scum.

She clenched her fists in anger at her troubled thoughts. Why did it have to be this way? Just because her mother—

“Attention, passengers. Please be advised, our next jump will occur in ten seconds. Thank you.”

The sound of the voice over the loudspeakers sent a cold chill down Kyla’s spine. For a hair-raising second, she feared that someone was behind her, watching. Fortunately, a quick glance at the door confirmed that no one was there. Still, she needed to get back to the cargo hold, before someone found her.

After peeking outside, she dashed out into the corridor, her feet pattering along the cold tile floor. Within moments, she was back in the shadows where she belonged.

But not where she wanted to be.

Chapter 5


James nervously paced his small private cabin, checking his wrist console about twice every minute. Even to be punctual, 1749 hours was still too early. He turned and walked back to his bed, covering the distance in two short steps before throwing himself backwards onto the narrow mattress.

Why did he feel so damned nervous? It was infuriating. He’d been on dozens of missions more dangerous than this and had faced death itself without reacting this way. And it wasn’t as if Sara was the first girl in his life, either. He’d met plenty of others over the years. Like that cute adjutant on the Trident Three—what was her name?

Face it, he told himself. This is the first time you’ve gone on a date in almost a standard year. Certainly the first time with someone as gorgeous as Sara. The fact that she was the patrician’s daughter only explained a fraction of his nervousness.

He watched the seconds tick down to 1755 hours and rose to his feet. Five minutes was acceptably early.

Sara’s room was only two doors down from his, about fifteen paces. He straightened up outside the door and hit the chime on the access panel. A couple nerve-racking moments of silence passed before her voice sounded over the exterior speaker.

“Sorry,” she said, “I’m not quite ready. Be out in a second.”

“All right,” said James, inwardly cursing himself for being so forward. She obviously wasn’t as worked up about this as he was. To her, dinners like this were probably as common as—

The door hissed open. Sara stood in the doorway, wearing a sleeveless red dress that shimmered in the light of the glowlamps, accentuating the slender curves of her body. His breath caught in his throat.

“Good evening, Lieutenant,” she said. “Sorry to keep you waiting.”

James opened his mouth but suddenly found himself incapable of speech. Sara cocked her head and gave him a funny look.

“Is something the matter?”

“No, no, not at all.” He clumsily stepped aside to let her walk through her own door.

As she stepped into the corridor, she slipped her arm into his. His heartbeat immediately jumped to about twice its previous rate. He stood rooted to the floor, until he realized that she was waiting for him to lead her. Crap. Blood rushed to his cheeks, but somehow, his feet began to move.

“I like your uniform,” she said, breaking the awkward silence without acknowledging it. “Do you attend many formal events as an officer in the Corps?”

Not if I can avoid it, James thought to himself. Something told him that that wasn’t the right answer.

“Sometimes,” he told her instead. “I’m not a high ranking officer, though, so I don’t usually get called out.”

“Is that so?” she asked, glancing over at him with her gorgeous eyes. “I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about military ranks.”

“Well, it’s really quite simple,” he said, letting her go as they reached the narrow stairway. “Strictly speaking, we’re not a military force, but we still try to go by the same system the Kardunasian Defense Forces used—before the Hameji disbanded them, of course.”

“That’s fascinating,” she said, slipping her arm in his again as they continued down the lower level. “So how did you come to command your own ship?”

“Well, the Lone Spear isn’t really a ‘ship’ in the proper sense of the word. She’s just a gunboat—she’d be helpless if she were ever separated from her support ships.”

“Still, it’s quite impressive. How did you become a pilot?”

“Mostly by accident,” he blurted—then, recovering, “I, ah, impressed a few people with my performance in the simulations.” What he didn’t mention was that that had been almost three years ago—if he hadn’t been docked so many times for insubordination, he could have made wing commander by now.

They reached the dining suite and stepped inside. The splendor of the place immediately took James’s breath away. All the walls and floors were set to full transparency, so that the couches and dining table seemed to float amid the stars. The lights were all turned off, replaced instead by three short candles at the center of the table. A serving bot hovered off to one side, as if expecting them.

“Oh, I hope you don’t mind,” said Sara, patting his arm. “I took the liberty of setting up the room for us. If it’s too dark, we can—”

“No,” he said quickly. “It’s fine the way it is.”

She smiled at him again and slipped out of his arm to stand expectantly by her chair. James almost sat down before realizing she was waiting for him to seat her. His cheeks flushed again, but in the milky, diffused starlight, she probably couldn’t tell. Probably.

She sat down in one smooth, fluid motion. The silky red fabric of the dress parted to reveal one of her smooth, athletic legs. James’s heart leaped into his mouth, and he struggled not to trip as he took his seat across the table.

“I love the stars,” she said, glancing around the room at the magnificent view all around them. “They’re so much brighter out here between stars than they are back home.”

“Yeah.”

The server bot produced a pair of wine glasses and filled them with a creamy pink liquid.

“Oh,” said Sara, picking her glass shortly after the bot placed them both on the table. “I didn’t know strawberry daiquiri was your favorite drink, too.”

“Actually, it’s not,” he said without thinking.

“It isn’t?”

“Not that I don’t like it, of course. It’s just not my favorite.”

She frowned. “That’s funny. I programmed the bot to serve us our favorite drinks. Are your preferences not registered?”

James cursed himself again. She was trying to be nice, and he was making her look like an idiot.

“I never spend much time on furlough,” he answered. “The Corps is always short on personnel. Not enough new recruits these days.”

“I see. So you must be one of their best pilots.”

“Well, I don’t know about that,” he said, blushing again. “I just haven’t been killed yet. We’ve lost a lot of…” His voice drifted off as he realized he was straying away from comfortable small talk.

“My father spoke very highly of you,” she said. “He was very impressed with your record.”

In a good way or a bad way? James nearly asked. Instead, he coughed. “Thanks.”

“I must admit, I haven’t had much of a chance to look over it. But I’m sure it’s much more interesting to hear your war stories straight from you.”

An LCD screen embedded in the tabletop lit up, displaying two menus for the both of them. James quickly skimmed it, but the only choice that looked remotely familiar was grilled cheese and tomato soup. He didn’t want Sara to think he was uncultured, but at the same time, he didn’t want to ruin his evening with a meal he didn’t want to eat.

The third option from the top, Gaian stir fry, caught his attention. Shrimp and assorted vegetables, fried in olive oil and doused with a spicy Gaian vinaigrette. “Isn’t shrimp expensive?”

“Oh, you don’t need to worry about that,” said Sara. “This is my uncle’s ship—he’ll pay for anything the diplomatic committee can’t cover.”

Why is he stocking this ship with shrimp while the General Assembly can barely afford to keep the public hospital stocked with antibiotics?

“What about this ‘veal parmesan’? Is it synthetic?”


Sara looked at him as if he’d grown a horn in the middle of his forehead. “Synthetic? Oh, you mean the meat.”

“Yes. Is it synthetic or animal-grown?”

“Animal-grown, of course. Though it probably isn’t very good. All the meat on board comes from cryo-frozen stores.”

“So your uncle doesn’t grow the animals himself?”

“Ha!” Sara laughed, putting a hand on his arm. “You’re funny.”

“It must be expensive.”

“Yes, well, it’s better than synthetic, that’s for sure.”

He nodded. It had been over three standard years since he’d last eaten animal-grown red meat. Until just a moment ago, he hadn’t been aware that there was any animal-grown meat left in the Karduna system, cryo-frozen or not.

“I’ll have the Gaian stir fry,” he said. Better to pick the first one than to run tediously through all the other options. The outrageous expense of it all was just something he’d have to accept.

She smiled and keyed the items in the menu. The LCD screen dimmed and retracted back into the table.

“So how long have you known Lars?”

“As long as I can remember,” James replied. “Our parents were both local merchanters, so we saw each other a lot growing up.”

“But he isn’t your age,” she observed.

James shrugged. “He’s a little older than me, but not by much. He dropped out of the academy and began his astrogation apprenticeship around the time I first started assisting my father on the long hauls. But it wasn’t until the Hameji took over that we really became close.”

“Interesting,” said Sara, leaning forward with her hands beneath her chin. “Why was that?”

“Well, we both did a lot to help with the rebuilding efforts right after the invasion. He took the diplomatic course while I joined the militia, but back in those days, there tended to be a lot of crossover between the organizations. We saw each other a lot.”

“You were part of the general militia before it became the Civil Defense Corps?”

“That’s right.”

“When did you attend the academy?”

“I didn’t,” said James, taking a sip of his drink. “I went through a special officer training program my second year.”

She frowned quizzically. “Second year? How many years have you served?”

“Four. I enlisted when I was sixteen.”

Her eyes widened ever so slightly at his answer. He realized that she was staring at him.

“The Voluntary Recruitment Act,” he explained. “It lowered the minimum age for new enlistees to sixteen. I joined on my birthday.”

“So you must be one of the youngest officers in the Corps.”

“I guess so, yeah.”

Where was she going with all of these questions? She sure seemed to have taken an interest in him. He wasn’t sure whether to feel flattered or alarmed.

“What about yourself?” he asked, more to balance the conversation than anything. “How long have you been in politics?”

She sighed and looked away. “Too long, it seems sometimes. My father has been grooming me for this kind of work all my life.”

“You don’t enjoy it, then?”

“Oh, no,” she said quickly, “I enjoy it fine. It’s just… Sometimes I get a little tired of it. That’s all.”

She’s not being entirely honest, James realized. He had no reason to believe that what she’d said was untruthful, but she seemed to be holding something back.

“Some people wouldn’t like the idea of the patrician grooming his daughter for a political career.”

“Well, ‘groom’ isn’t exactly the right word,” she said with a wave of her hand. “‘Steer’ is probably more accurate. It’s not like he’s setting me up to be his heir.”

“Perhaps.”

She eyed him for a second, her gaze surprisingly penetrating. For the briefest moment, she almost seemed to scowl—but then she shook her head and chuckled.

“What can I say? Politics just runs in the family, my mom’s side as well as my dad’s. But even if he were setting me up for an executive office, I doubt I’d be able to live up to his expectations.”

“What makes you say that?”

“A lot of things. I’ve always taken more after my mother, and she and my dad broke up shortly after I left home. I think they stayed together only to see that I was raised properly.”

“Wow,” said James. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

She shrugged. “It’s in the past. I have a good relationship with both of them. But enough about me—what about you?”

“Me?”

“Sure. What can you tell me about your family?”

She leaned forward, resting her chin on her interlocked hands. James took a deep breath.

“Well, like I said, my parents were merchanters back before the occupation. They still do some local runs between mining outposts, but most of the time they hire out the piloting work to my uncles or cousins.”

“And that’s how you got to know Lars?”

“Yeah. The Stewarts have always been close family friends.” If it weren’t for the Hameji, he might have even married my sister.

“Have you kept in touch since joining the Corps?”

“Oh, we keep in touch as best as we can. It’s hard, though, with my military duties. I barely had a chance to say goodbye to my parents before we left.”

She nodded as if thoroughly enraptured with him. His collar suddenly felt too tight.

“Do you mind if I excuse myself for a moment? I, ah, need to use the bathroom.”

“By all means.” She smiled to set him at ease, but it had the opposite effect. Gorgeous women had a way of doing that to him.

Out in the hallway, James let out a deep breath and wiped his hand across his forehead. He didn’t really need to use the restroom—he just needed an excuse to get out for a moment. The way Sara looked at him made his heart race and his hands feel sweaty. He could only take that for so long before making a tactical retreat.

He palmed the access panel next to the bathroom, and the door hissed open. Before he could step inside, a high pitched scream split his ears. A dirty, ragged girl sat on the toilet, her pants piled around her ankles.

“Aiee!!”

“Sorry!” James shouted, quickly palming the door shut. His cheeks burned, and for several seconds, he struggled to process what he’d just seen.

“James?” Sara called from the lounge. “What was that noise?”

Someone’s in there, he realized, coming back to his senses. Someone who doesn’t belong on this ship.

“Hold on,” he said, pulling out his pistol as he turned to the door.

“I’m going to count to ten. If you don’t come out with your hands up, I’m going to take you out forcibly. I have a weapon, so don’t try anything stupid.”

“Lieutenant?” Sara asked, walking up behind him. “What are you doing?”

He motioned for her to stay back, holding his pistol at the ready.

“One…”


* * * * *


Sara frowned as James counted slowly up. If he didn’t have a pistol in his hand, the whole thing would have seemed ridiculous. With the weapon out and ready to be fired, though, the whole affair had an air of seriousness that left her thoroughly annoyed.

“Six,” he counted, pointing his pistol at the door. “Seven—”

“Don’t shoot, don’t shoot!” came a young girl’s voice from inside. “I-I’m coming!”

“Who is that?” Sara asked, softly enough for her voice not to carry. James motioned for her to be quiet, focusing all of his attention at the task at hand. How typically male, she thought, rolling her eyes.

The door hissed open, revealing a ratty-looking girl in oversized pants and an old dirty shirt, her head bowed and her hands in the air. She glanced frantically from James to Sara and back again with wild, frightened eyes. Her clothes were soiled and torn, her raven-black hair knotted and unkempt. Her face and hands were filthy, covered with grease and God knew how many germs. But the worst thing about her was her smell—stars, how she stank.

“Step out into the corridor,” said James, leveling his gun at her. She opened her mouth as if to scream, but nothing came out but a squeak.

A stowaway, Sara realized coolly. So much for our dinner date.

“Who are you?” James asked.

“Kyla,” said the girl. She seemed too terrified to say anything else.

“How did you get on the ship?”

Silence.

James glanced at Sara over his shoulder. “Sara, take my gun. I’m going to pat her down.”

Before Sara could object, he handed her the pistol and stepped forward. She looked at the weapon in her hand and pointed it slightly away, hoping that it didn’t go off. Her hands started shaking, so she stiffened her arms and tried very hard to stop it.

With uncommon deftness, James ran his hands over the stowaway’s disgusting clothes, feeling at her pockets and patting down her arms and legs. Sara did not want to think about where those clothes had been, and the fact that James was touching them made her squirm. Thankfully, the girl didn’t make it go on any longer than it had to.

“Nothing,” he said, evidently satisfied. He brushed off his hands on his uniform and took back his pistol.

“James, can you tell me what’s going on here?”

“To be honest, I don’t know.” He holstered his weapon, much to Sara’s relief. “I went to use the bathroom, and found this girl sitting on the toilet. She’s obviously a stowaway of some kind, but—”

“Don’t take me back,” the girl blurted. Her body trembled with fear, but there was a fire in her eyes that made her seem unbowed.

“Take you back? You mean to the Colony?’

“Yes—I mean, no,” she stammered. “Just do what you want with me, but don’t send me back to that place!”

Well, throw her off then, Sara wanted to say. Drop her off at the nearest port, and be rid of her. She knew it was more complicated than that, but at the moment, she didn’t care.

“Why?” James asked. “Are you a criminal? What are you running from?”

The girl’s eyes widened even further. “I’m not a criminal! I swear, I’m not!”

A likely story.

“I believe you,” James said, much to Sara’s consternation. “Don’t worry—no one’s going to hurt you. We just have some questions, that’s all.”

“Why should I trust you?” the girl snapped. Cornered, the little rat seemed ready to strike out at the both of them.

“Because you don’t have much of a choice,” said Sara before James could give her a gentle answer. “This is not your ship—you don’t have any right to be here. Whether or not you—”

“Sara,” said James, putting a hand on her arm. “Stand down.”

Who are you to tell me to “stand down?” Sara wanted to say. Instead, she took a deep breath and smiled as graciously as she could manage. The way he held her with the same hand that had touched those filthy clothes, though, that was quite a challenge.

“Lieutenant, this girl is an illegal stowaway, which makes her a criminal by default. Whether or not you agree, I think that she should be treated as one.”

“With all due respect, this is not in your domain,” said James. “I’m the officer in charge of security on this mission, and it’s up to me to see how this girl is to be treated.”

Hot blood rushed to Sara’s cheeks. She clenched her fists in frustration, but he was right: this wasn’t her area of authority. Though why he found it advisable to show such pity to the miserable vagabond, she didn’t know.

“Very well, Lieutenant,” she said, taking a deep breath. “I’ll go inform the captain of this.”

“Please do. And Sara—”

Before he could finish, she shot him a venomous look that shut him right up. She left them both without another word.


* * * * *


Kyla followed the soldier at a distance, arms tightly folded as he led her deeper into the ship. They passed no one, but she still glanced over her shoulder occasionally, afraid that someone was watching, even though it hardly mattered anymore.

“This way,” said the soldier. They entered a fantastically luxurious dining room, surrounded on all sides by magnificent windows. A crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling, while the tables that ringed the edges were all draped in pristine white tablecloths, smooth as silk. A serving bar sat at the center of the room, its panels made of polished wood. Above all else, the smell of food—real food, like fruit and bread and steamed vegetables—filled the air.

She hesitated at the stairs leading down from the hallway. Something about this place unnerved her.

“Well?” said the soldier. “Are you hungry or aren’t you?

Once again, Kyla felt the urge to run away. The ship was too small for that, though—now that they knew she was here, she had no place to hide. Whether or not they put her in a cell, she was their prisoner now.

Without a word, she followed the soldier to a table. Her eyes naturally gravitated to the view outside the window. She’d never seen so many stars in her life; they looked like shimmering glass dust spread out over black velvet. Off to her right, the delicate tendrils of a magnificent nebula glowed orange and red.

“What would you like?” the soldier asked as she sat down across from him. She stared uncomprehending for a moment before she realized that he was asking her what she wanted to eat.

“Beans,” she answered.

“Beans?”

“Yes. Without synthetics.” She couldn’t stand fake pork.

The soldier shrugged and pressed a few keys on an access panel built into the table. A whirring noise sounded from the serving bar, followed by a low hum.

“There,” he said. “Should be ready in a few minutes. In the meantime, do you want something to drink?”

Kyla smacked her lips. “Water,” she said. “No—apple juice.”

“Two glasses of apple juice, then.”

A white spherical object rose up from the serving bar and drifted toward them, hovering in the air. Kyla yelped and shielded herself with her hands, making the soldier laugh.

“Don’t be afraid. It’s just a serving bot.”

The object extruded a pair of long, spindly arms, making it look like an overgrown spider. Still floating above the table, it pulled out two glasses of clear amber fluid from its tray and set them on the table.

Kyla gingerly picked it up and smelled it. The sweet, fruity scent almost overpowered her, making her tongue water in anticipation. Still, she waited until the soldier drank from his glass before tentatively taking a sip.

The taste of apples exploded in her mouth—real ones, not the synthetic insta-blend or the more expensive stuff from concentrate. She gulped it down as fast as she could, unable to get enough. It was heavenly.

“Whoa, there,” said the soldier. He was too late—she’d already chugged the entire glass. Gasping for breath, she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and let out a loud belch.

“That good, huh?”

Her cheeks reddened, and she glared at him for making her blush.

“Where’s the food?”

“It’s coming, don’t worry. In the meantime, let’s talk.”

He wants to fuck me, Kyla thought to herself. There was only one other time a man had fed her this well, and that was what he’d been after. Part of her was too hungry to care, but the part that still remembered crying in dark corners saw what was happening and wanted out—now.

“I don’t owe you anything.”

“I never said you did. I just wanted to give you a chance to eat before we figure out what to do with you.”

She stared at him for several moments. He seemed sincere enough—certainly more than any of the other men she’d known. She didn’t know if she could trust him yet, but at least he wasn’t beating her.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Ah—sorry, I forgot to introduce myself. I’m Lieutenant James McCoy, of the Civil Defense Corps.” He extended his hand, but she stared at it until he pulled it back.

“Where is this ship going?”

“You don’t know?”

She shook her head.

“We’re on a diplomatic mission to Gaia Nova. There’s an interstellar conference happening there, with representatives from several of the Hameji occupied worlds. We’re hoping to set up a council to represent our interests, which sounds kind of crazy, but my friend Lars thinks it’s crazy enough to work.”

Her expression must have been blank, because his face fell. He glanced away for a moment before turning back to her.

“Basically, you stowed away on the richest ship in the Colony, headed on a highly important and sensitive mission. A lot of people aren’t going to be happy when they find out you’re on board.”

And let me guess, Kyla thought. You’re the one who’ll protect me? The only one who’ll look out for me, so long as I do what you want? No, thanks.

“Look,” she said, “I don’t care about your mission, and I don’t care about you. All I want is to get off at the next port.”

He frowned. “By yourself? Are you sure?”

“I can take care of myself. I don’t need anyone like you to look after me.”

“But you’re a citizen of the Colony, right? That’s where you were born?”

“Yes,” she admitted.

“Then why do you want to run away? The Colony is one of the last free and democratic societies in the inhabited universe, and as a citizen, you’re entitled to all of the rights and protections that come along with it. Why throw all that away?”

“Because those ‘protections’ are worthless.”

To her surprise, he actually looked like she’d hurt him. He nodded slowly and took a long breath, keeping his lips pressed tightly together. There was a sadness in his eyes that she’d never really seen in a man before. Perhaps she’d misjudged him.

“Look, I don’t really care about any of this stuff. Just let me off at the next place we dock, and I’ll be fine.”

“That’s the thing, though,” said James. “Technically, what you’ve done is a criminal offense, and as the ranking security officer on this ship, it’s my obligation to take you into custody and bring you back for a trial. If I let you go, it would be a direct violation of my duty.”

Kyla scowled. So he is trying to manipulate me.

The humming at the serving bar stopped, and the spider-like robot once again hovered toward them. It set down a platter in front of her, filled with thick, creamy bean paste. It smelled delicious, with a mind-numbing blend of spices and what looked like real tomatoes. Her stomach growled—the scent was so strong, it practically made her drool. It took all of her self-discipline not to shovel it all in her mouth, but with the way James was manipulating her, that was the last thing she was going to do.

“Go ahead,” he said. “Eat.”

“What do you want from me?”

“What do I want from you?” he repeated, a puzzled look crossing his face. “So long as you don’t make trouble, all I want is to see you safely back to the Colony.”

“And then what?”

“Nothing—nothing at all. It’s my duty to serve and protect all of the citizens of the Colony, even stowaways like you. But if you behave well, I can vouch for you.”

Behave well. If he was expecting her to be submissive, he was in for a rough surprise.

“Let’s get something straight,” she said, pointing a finger at him. “I don’t want your gifts, I don’t want your bribes, and I sure as hell don’t want any favors. If you think I owe you anything, I swear I’ll throw this food in your face. I’d rather starve to death than be anyone’s bitch.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” said James, raising both his hands. “No one said anything about that.”

“You don’t have to say it. We both know I’m your prisoner.”

He sighed heavily. “Look, let’s be reasonable. You’ve broken the law, but you’re a citizen of the Colony, and as such it’s my duty to look after you. I’ll see that the captain gives you a place on this ship, and we’ll treat you as another passenger until we return home. If you don’t do anything rash, I’ll do my best to see that you get off with a light sentence. Then you’ll be free to do as you please.”

“And what if I want off before then?”

“I’m afraid I can’t let you do that.”

“The hell you can’t. You’re just holding out because you want to fuck me.”

He gave her a sharp look that silenced her immediately. “I have never accepted favors or bribes from anyone, and I don’t intend to start now. Don’t flatter yourself into thinking you’re going to change that.”

Footsteps sounded on the stairs behind them. Kyla turned and saw a middle-aged woman in a crisp white uniform, her expression stern and unyielding. James rose to his feet.

“I have to talk with the captain now, but I’ll be back once we’re finished.”

“You’re going to decide what to do with me, aren’t you?”

He nodded. “Enjoy your food.”

Without looking back to see if she’d eat, he joined the captain and walked down the hallway, leaving her alone. She looked down at the plate of savory food before her and tried to clear her thoughts before giving in to her hunger.

Who was this James, and why was he treating her so well? It didn’t make any sense. He claimed that all he wanted to do was serve and protect, yet the fact still remained that he was keeping her prisoner. Could she trust him? It made no sense—no sense at all.

The only thing that made any sense in that moment was the plate of beans. With no one else to watch her, she picked up her fork and dug in.


* * * * *


“A stowaway?”

“That’s right,” said James. “Sara and I found her while we were, ah, having dinner together.”

“I see,” said Captain Jarvis. She sighed and shook her head. “Well, we’re too far out to turn around now, and we don’t have the facilities to hold her. The best we can do is leave her with the port authority at Gaia Nova.”

“With all due respect, captain, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Oh? Why not?”

Because I can save her, James thought. The girl had obviously led a hard life, and he’d be damned if he threw her to the wolves.

“The girl is a full citizen of the Colony, and she has every right to our protection. We have no embassy at Gaia Nova—no way to ensure that she’ll receive that protection.”

“Irrelevant,” said Jarvis, waving her hand. “She’s a stowaway on my ship, and I want her off at the first opportunity.”

James stiffened. Irrelevant? How can you possibly say that? But then he remembered that Jarvis was a civilian, not a member of the Corps. She’d never sworn the oath, much less put her life on the line to serve or protect her fellow citizens.

“Yes,” he said, narrowing his eyes. “And as the highest ranking military officer on this ship, I am formally requisitioning the resources of this private yacht to detain her until we return.”

Captain Jarvis frowned. “You want to do what?”

“Not ‘want,’ Captain. This is a formal exercise of my military authority. The girl stays with us until we return to the Colony.”

“But that’s absurd. We’re already at the maximum number of passengers, and—”

“I’m sure we can find a way to make it work,” he countered. “If necessary, she can stay in my quarters, and I can double up with Lars.”

“And how do you plan to keep her detained there? The doors only lock from the inside.”

“She’ll behave—I’ll see to that.”

Jarvis glared at him, clearly upset with his affront to her authority. If this weren’t a civilian ship, he would never be able to get away with this kind of stunt.

“Very well,” she said, sighing loudly. “I’ll comply with your demands, Lieutenant.

“Thank you, Captain.”

“I’ll thank you when that stowaway is off my ship.”

James saluted, and Jarvis left—for her quarters or the bridge, he wasn’t sure. For a moment, he considered returning to Kyla on the observation deck, but he hesitated. Something told him that wasn’t a good idea just yet.

What is she running from? he wondered as he slowly paced the corridor. No doubt she had stowed away on the Freedom Star in order to leave the Colony forever—but why? If the situation back home was really that miserable, that meant that he’d failed.

Not yet, he told himself. There’s still time to save this girl. If she honestly felt that the only way to solve her problems was to run away, then he’d have to convince her otherwise. One way or another, he would change her mind—even if it took the whole voyage to do it.

Part II: The Guardian


Chapter 6


Sara palmed open the door to the bridge and stepped casually inside. The astrogator on duty glanced up briefly, but turned back to his work as Captain Jarvis rose to greet her.

“Ah, Sara,” she said, offering her hand. “Good to see you.”

“And you. Have you spoken with Lieutenant McCoy?”

“About the stowaway? Yes, we… discussed the situation not an hour ago.”

Jarvis’s voice had a hard edge to it; Sara guessed there had been something of a confrontation.

“And what did you decide?”

Jarvis scowled. “As the ‘highest ranking officer on this ship,’ the lieutenant has ‘requisitioned’ this transport to detain her for the length of the voyage.”

Sara frowned. “He has? But where will he keep her?”

“I believe the lieutenant is working that out now.”

What are you trying to do, James? Sara thought to herself. What do you hope to accomplish by this? Now that she had cooled down a bit, she had to admit that there was something admirable in the way he’d reached out to the girl. Whatever his faults, he tried to do the right thing as he saw it.

“Well?” asked Jarvis. “Are you going to try to change his mind?”

“Why? Would you have done anything different?”

Jarvis snorted. “Certainly. I’d have dropped her off at the next port and washed my hands of her.”

“You wouldn’t have brought her back to the Colony?”

“Bring her back? Sara, she’s a stowaway. She doesn’t belong on a ship like this, especially for such a sensitive diplomatic mission.”

Sara agreed, but the situation had changed, and there was little they stood to gain by opposing James on this issue. She knew when to pick her battles.

“The girl seems harmless enough. As long as she stays out of the way, I don’t think there’ll be a problem.”

“Perhaps.”

“My father will see to it that you’re adequately compensated for your troubles,” said Sara. “And once we return to the Colony, the girl will be tried and convicted for her crime.”

Jarvis squinted, as if she were still unsure. “But what about the mission?” she asked in a hushed tone, glancing at the astrogator to make sure that he was out of earshot.

“Don’t worry,” Sara said softly. “If anything, it will make things easier. So long as James is preoccupied…”

She didn’t have to finish the sentence. Captain Jarvis’s lips turned up in a smile as she nodded.

Sara turned and glanced out the forward bridge window. The massive spherical bulk of a starlane jump station loomed near in the shimmering starfield. Like a half-forgotten monolith, it marked the only sign of human habitation for light-years in any direction. A tiny handful of ships moved back and forth between brightly flashing buoys that marked the zones for incoming and outgoing traffic. Sara watched as a bulk freighter passed through the orange lights and flashed briefly before it disappeared into jumpspace.

“How long before we arrive?” Sara asked.

“Two of the starlane stations are down due to maintenance,” Jarvis reported. “Still, that won’t prevent us from continuing on our own drives. Barring any unforeseen complications, we should arrive in the Gaia Nova system in less than two days.”

“So we should arrive early.”

“Yes, but only by about twenty standard hours.”

“Very well. Thank you for your understanding, Captain.”

Sara left the bridge, musing that twenty hours would give her precious little time to establish a meeting with her contacts. She would have to be quick—Jarvis’s quick nod at the end of their conversation had told her as much.

Well, as the daughter of the Colony’s shrewdest politician, she didn’t anticipate that being a problem.


* * * * *


“So we’re almost at Gaia Nova,” said Lars, whistling a little as he leaned back in his chair. “What are you going to do about that stowaway while we’re there?”

“Sterling and I will take turns watching her,” said James. “She won’t interfere with your work.”

“You sure you can handle her and the mission at the same time? She’s a feisty young thing. Reminds me of my sister.”

James groaned. It was true: the girl had an attitude that was starting to get on his nerves. Even though he’d gone out of his way to treat her well, even giving up his quarters to give her a bed to sleep on, she had treated him with nothing but contempt. At least she hadn’t tried anything genuinely stupid, like running out in one of the escape pods. Then again, once they arrived at port, it would become that much harder to keep her from running away.

“Not a problem. We’ll bring her back.”

“Funny that she would choose a luxury yacht to stow away on. How did she manage to get on board?”

“I don’t know,” said James. “But I don’t think she chose the Freedom Star for any particular reason. It was probably just the first ship to leave.” Which made him wonder: how many runaways like Kyla were stowing away on the other ships?

“Interesting. And why exactly do you want to help her?”

“Because,” said James, then stopped and shook his head. “I don’t know. It’s just—have you ever worked really hard for something, only to have someone tell you that it’s all been for nothing?”

“All the time. That’s the game of politics, my friend. You’ve just got to grow a thick skin and carry on.”

“No, not like that,” he said. “I mean, when you spend your life trying to save someone, and they won’t accept it?”

“Like your sister, Stella,” said Lars. He put a hand on James’s shoulder. “I know it’s hard, but you can’t beat yourself up for it. If the girl doesn’t want your help, what can you do?”

“I’ll help her anyways. She doesn’t know what she’s throwing away.”

Lars sighed and shook his head. “James, James—when are you going to learn that you can’t save everybody?”

“It’s not everybody I want to save—it’s her.

“But why? What is she to you?”

“She’s a citizen of the Colony,” said James, slamming his fist on the table, “and that means I swore an oath to serve and protect her. I’m an officer in the Corps, after all—I’m supposed to be a sheepdog.”

Lars gave him a puzzled look. “A sheepdog?”

“They used to have them in the planetary agri-domes on Kardunash IV. Whenever they’d take the sheep out to pasture—”

“I know what a sheepdog is, James. But what does that have to do with anything?”

“It’s an analogy,” he explained. “The universe is full of wolves and sheep—killers and victims. But the killers can also turn around and protect the victims, just like the sheepdogs protect the sheep from the wolves. They’re the guardians of civilization, and when they fall, everything else falls with them. I may be a killer, but I’m not a wolf—not so long as I look after the sheep.”

Lars frowned. “So you’re saying that the citizens of the Colony are like sheep, and you’re the benevolent dictator that herds them around?”

“No, no, no—I’m the one who protects them.”

“Sounds like the same thing to me,” said Lars. “If you want to help this girl, I suggest you take a more laissez-faire approach. Give her some space, and show that you’re not trying to control her. She’ll come around eventually.”

James nodded. “You’re right. I need to let her own the decision.”

“Exactly.”

Lars sat back and looked out the window. Gaia Nova’s yellow-white sun shone dimly on the outer edge of the system, but it still dominated the starfield. James glanced at the old, battered station that was now the system node, surrounded by scrap and debris from the remains of the sister stations. Once, the complex had been a thriving center of commerce and trade. Now, after the brutality of the Hameji conquests, it was a pale shadow of its former self.

“Just one more jump,” said Lars, breaking his train of thought. “Are you going to meet with your sister?”

“If she’s there,” James said softly.

Lars nodded and turned back to the window. James stared long and hard at what had once been the holiest star in all of human civilization—before the Hameji, that was. Before the wolves.


* * * * *


Sara watched from the back of the bridge as Captain Jarvis and the crew of the Freedom Star made preparations for the final jump. Outside the main forward window, the blinking red nav buoys crept ever closer. The Gaia Nova system node was only about fifty light-hours from the system sun, close enough that the star dominated the view without drowning out the distant ones. The node itself lay out of view of the main window, but she knew it was there, coordinating what little traffic still flowed to the former seat of the New Gaian Empire.

“Attention passengers and crew,” Captain Jarvis spoke into the microphone for the ship-wide loudspeaker. “We are about to make our final jump and should arrive at Gaia Nova’s primary station in less than an hour. Please make sure all your personal belongings are stowed securely, and seat yourselves comfortably for sublight maneuvers.”

The familiar chime sounded from the nearest speaker, indicating the coming jump. Sara took a deep breath and tensed a little as the flashing nav buoys passed out of view. Moments later, a tingling sensation began at her fingers and traveled up her arms. Her stomach flipped and her vision began to spin. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, tightly gripping the armrests on her chair—and then, in an instant, the sensation passed. They were through.

As Sara regained her bearings, the bridge door hissed open behind her. She turned and glanced over her shoulder in time to see James walk in, dressed in his olive-green fatigues.

“Good upshift, Captain,” he said, saluting. “Everything’s going well, I trust?”

“Quite well, Lieutenant,” Captain Jarvis said coldly. “Can I help you?”

“I actually thought I’d join you on the bridge for the final docking maneuvers—if that won’t be a problem, of course.”

Jarvis sighed. “No problem at all, Lieutenant. No problem at all.” She motioned with her hand to the seat next to Sara, which was folded up into the wall.

“Hello,” said James as he pulled down a seat beside her. “How are you doing?”

“Very well,” said Sara, smiling diplomatically. “And you?”

“Not bad.”

He sat down and fastened himself securely, just like the rest of the crew. Captain Jarvis picked up the microphone.

“Attention passengers, we’re about to make a couple brief course corrections, each no longer than thirty seconds. You may experience some mild disorientation, however, so we ask that you remain seated for the duration of maneuvers.”

The chime sounded again. Sara discreetly reached down and activated Nina through her wrist console. She glanced at the Lieutenant, but he didn’t seem to notice.

“Good upshift, mistress,” came Nina’s voice through her earpiece. “Do you need any assistance?”

EXECUTE COMMHACK, she hastily typed.

“Acknowledged, mistress.”

As the AI silently went to work on the ship’s main computer network, Sara’s stomach lurched ever so slightly before the gravitic dampers kicked in. Out the forward window, the moon dropped out of view, leaving nothing but washed-out blackness.

“How’s the stowaway?” she asked James, breaking the awkward silence. It wasn’t the most desirable of conversation topics, but considering the fact that docking maneuvers were already underway, it was an expedient one.

“She’s… adjusting,” he said, stumbling for words. “I think it’s going to take some time before she cooperates with us, though.”

Out the forward window, the glowing arc of a horizon swung into view, making Sara catch her breath. After spending the last few days in the milky-white darkness of deep space, the view was absolutely spectacular.

James whistled. “Would you look at that?”

Sara had only been to Gaia Nova once, but she had been too young to remember much of it. All she knew was that the planet before her was nothing like the world she’d visited. Giant craters pocked the rust-red surface like unsightly scars, the largest basins filled with hardened lava flows. The few major bodies of water were gray with ash, while enormous dust storms covered large swaths of the surface. Here and there, she caught the metallic glint of man-made structures, or what was left of them: broken remnants of the magnificent arcologies that had once graced more than half of the planet’s surface. Now, all that remained were mangled and twisted ruins.

“Coming into position,” Captain Jarvis said as the opposite horizon dropped level to their view. “Hold on.”

Sara glanced down at her wrist console. Nina had successfully hacked through the admin firewall, and now brought up a message prompt on her screen. Glancing over her shoulder to make sure James wasn’t watching, she typed in a quick message:

To: Z. Nabat del. re: Colony K3 L5b request meeting time and place; when and where?

She hit enter and glanced over James’s shoulder at the holoscreen monitor on the other side of him. It showed a series of astrogational transmissions between the outrider and the station, but sure enough, her message was nowhere on the screen.

“Message sent,” said Nina. “How else may I be of service?”

STAND BY.

“Acknowledged. Standing by.”

“So this is what a slagged world looks like after the dust settles,” James said, bringing her back to the present. “It’s worse than I’d thought.”

“I’ll thank you to cut the idle chatter, Lieutenant,” snapped Captain Jarvis.

“Transmission received,” came Nina’s mechanical voice through Sara’s earpiece. “Would you like me to read it to you?”

She discreetly reached for her console’s keypad. DISPLAY ONLY.

“Hey, what’s this?” said James. “It looks like a transmission from the station.”

A cold chill ran down Sara’s back. Her fingers froze over her wrist console.

Jarvis looked back at him and frowned. “Bringing it up.”

No, Sara thought. Please don’t—

“It’s not from the station, it’s from the Hameji,” said James. “Some commander by the name of Jahan. It’s—” He stopped short, staring at the screen.

“It’s what?” Jarvis asked.

“It’s addressed personally to me.”

Sara hastily glanced back down at her wrist console. Meet at 1430 hours local time at the Goldenstar Cafe. Ask for Soner, and come alone.

“It’s an invitation to meet with the Lady Sholpan,” James continued, his voice unusually soft. “Fourteen hundred hours station time. That won’t conflict with any of your meetings, I hope?”

“No,” said Sara, taking a deep breath to mask her relief. “That’s perfect.”


* * * * *


Kyla felt more than heard the grind of docking equipment as the Freedom Star arrived at the station. It came as a faint rumble through the bulkheads, barely noticeable except to someone who knew what to listen for. She stood alert, gripping the long handhold on the wall as the floor stopped tilting and finally equalized.

This is it, she thought to herself. Her heart beat a little faster as she slung her bag over her shoulder. It would be tricky to sneak out, but if she waited long enough—

The door hissed open, making her jump. James stepped through, followed by the pale-faced ensign.

“Going somewhere?” James asked, motioning to the bag with his eyes. She dropped it to the floor and stood up straight, meeting his gaze without flinching.

“I’ve come to let you know that we’ve arrived at Primus Station,” he said. “We’re going to be here for about five days, then we’ll head back to the Colony. During that time, you’re free to make yourself comfortable on the Freedom Star and—”

“I want off.”

He sighed and shook his head. “We’ve been over this before, Kyla. Now, if you behave yourself, I can help you get off with a lighter sentence once we get back to the Colony.”

Kyla clenched her fists. “No,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m not going back.”

“I’m afraid that’s your only option.”

“It’s for the best,” the ensign added, looking rather sheepish.

Best for who? Kyla thought to herself, her cheeks burning with anger. She looked James in the eye, as if by sheer will to force him to release her.

“You’re free to move about the ship,” James said. “Food, showers, entertainment systems—all of the amenities are at your disposal.”

“And what about when we get back home?”

“What are you running from?” the ensign asked. “Why are you so determined to get away?”

Before Kyla could answer, James stepped in to her defense.

“That’s none of our business, Sterling. She doesn’t have to tell us if she doesn’t want to.” He turned back to her. “I can’t make any guarantees when we get back, but I’ll do my best to see that you’re treated well.”

“You don’t know what it’s like,” she said, her voice low. “Child services, the underworld…”

“We’ll deal with that later. In the meantime, so long as we’re at port, the airlock will be secured at all times. Only an officer can open those doors, and only from the bridge. If you try to get off of this ship, you will fail.”

A lump rose in Kyla’s throat, making her hands quiver. She tried to choke it down, but she felt as if she were trapped against a wall with nowhere to run. Panic rose in her chest, and she fought back the urge to lash out.

“I’m sorry,” he said, glancing at her over his shoulder. “But when this is all over, you’ll thank me.”

The door hissed shut, and the footsteps faded until she was left alone. With her cheeks burning and her heart pounding, Kyla collapsed on the narrow bed and buried her face in the pillow.

“I hate you, James!” she screamed, grabbing at the bedspread as if to tear it apart. “I hate, hate, hate you!”

Chapter 7


James walked down the broad, well-lit terminal of the station’s spaceport. Traffic was sparse, and black-clad Hameji soldiers were everywhere. Visors covered their eyes, and most of them carried heavy assault rifles in hand. Without his own firearm—guns were forbidden, so as to not provoke the Hameji—James felt as if he were naked.

The conference was just getting started, and a constant stream of delegates was headed toward the convention center connected to the spaceport. But Lars was holding the preliminary meetings on board the Freedom Star, on suspicion that the convention center was bugged. All of the guests had checked out, and Sterling was handling security on board the ship, so that gave James the freedom to step out.

He passed out of the terminal and into the crowded central concourse of the station. The overhead skylights offered a magnificent view of Gaia Nova, but that was where the extravagance ended. Most of the storefront properties were empty or caged up. Several merchants had set up shop in front of the vacant properties, giving a superficial sense of bustling activity, but most of their wares were trinkets: secondhand clothes, fake leather handbags, and contraband datachips. The unappetizing smell of roasting synthetic sausage wafted on the stale breeze, probably from a cheap food stand. Though the place was clean enough, the locals wore old and faded clothes, their faces gaunt with sunken eyes and creases about their foreheads. Beggars gathered around the curb at intersection points, never completely out of sight.

This is a society under occupation, James thought to himself. There is no freedom here.

The convention center straddled a main hub, vendors and merchants selling their wares from ragged blankets spread out just in front of it. An armed guard stood watch at the front door as the delegates crowded in.

The Hameji want us to feel their authority, James thought as he joined the delegates. They want us to remember who’s in charge.

The lobby of the conference hall was a little less crowded than the concourse, but not by much. James stepped into a green marble foyer with plush white couches and a brilliant crystal chandelier. A fountain sat in the center, but it was conspicuously dry, and the furniture around it was starting to fade. Old wealth—artifacts of a dead empire.

No longer than a minute after James entered the foyer, the elevator to his right hissed open, and a squad of Hameji guards stepped out.

“McCoy!”

James stared at the Hameji, his hair bristling. They were heavily armed, but the young boy they escorted carried only a light handgun holstered on his waist. He wore the austere gray uniform of a Hameji officer, with a sash that denoted his rank. It looked strange on him, since he couldn’t have been more than twelve years old. The top of his head only came about midway up James’s chest. Even so, the guards showed him as much deference as a general.

“You must be Jahan,” said James, his eyes never leaving the boy’s.

Jahan folded his arms across his chest and scowled, as if to make himself look older. “I take you to Sholpan,” he said. Without another word, he spun on his heel. James followed in silence, flanked by the Hameji guards.


* * * * *


Sholpan’s suite lay far below the main level, in a section set apart exclusively for the Hameji. Dozens of black-clad soldiers passed them on the way, almost a full platoon. At the door, the armed guard stopped and patted him down before letting him enter.

James held his breath as the door hissed open. As the boy officer led him in, he fidgeted nervously with his hands.

“Ah, hello, Master Jahan. Have you brought—?”

Sholpan drew silent as James stepped inside. A lump rose in his throat as his eyes met his sister’s.

She stood at the center of the room, wearing a long, gold-embroidered white dress. Her flowing brown hair was tied back in a single braid stretching almost to her waist. Although her eyes seemed familiar, the lines on her face showed that she was a grown woman now.

“James!” she cried, running forward to give him a warm hug. As they embraced, the sweet smell of Auriga Novan fragrances filled his nose, nearly making him swoon.

Jahan spoke in a language that James didn’t understand, and Sholpan answered. The boy bowed, then turned and left them.

“Oh, James,” she said, smiling radiantly. “It’s so good to see you again!”

“And you too, Stella.”

Her smile fell somewhat. “Please don’t call me that—you know I’m one of the Hameji now.”

“I know,” he said softly, “but you’ll always be my sister.”

“And you my brother. How is everything back home?”

He sighed. “Not well, I’m afraid. Once you left, Prince Juta tripled our annual tribute and put down a number of insurrections in the larger settlements. We’ve been forced to import almost all our food and medicines from the outer planets, but piracy runs rampant and our forces aren’t strong enough to root them out. We’ve petitioned Juta for assistance, but outside of the tribute, he barely seems to acknowledge our existence.”

Sholpan nodded, her eyes sad. “I’m sorry to hear that. The Hameji are too busy with their endless wars to pay much attention to the needs of their subjects. I’ll do what I can, but I can’t promise anything.”

“Their wars,” said James, clenching his fists and turning his head away. “Haven’t they conquered enough already? What more is there to fight for?”

“You’d be surprised. A united federation has coalesced in the galactic south, concentrated around New Vela. With the way the nebulae are arrayed, the Hameji have no choice but to attack them there. But the Council of Generals is fracturing, and there’s a lot of disagreement over who should lead once they’re gone. In fact, that’s what I was hoping to tell you about.”

“Oh?”

“I just received word this upshift that General Tagatai’s fleet has arrived in the system,” she said. “He’s the leader of a particularly aggressive faction in the hierarchy. I pulled a lot of strings to make this conference possible, but…” Her voice trailed off.

James frowned. “But what?”

She looked up at him with frightened eyes. “I think I might have put you all in terrible danger.”

“Danger? What do you mean?”

“When it comes to the occupied systems, there are two camps,” she explained. “On the one side are those who think that governing is a nuisance, and that the conquered peoples should be given enough autonomy to govern themselves. Qasar falls squarely into that camp, as do most of the Generals. To them, this conference isn’t a threat so much as it is a chance to delegate their power and focus on more important things.”

“And the other camp?”

“The other camp sees any attempt at collective organization as a threat, and believes that the collaborators should be punished as severely as possible.”

“And I take it this Tagatai is in that camp?”

“That’s right. He’s part of a movement within the hierarchy that wants to consolidate the newly won territory into an empire—one in which the Hameji rule with an iron fist.”

“So what will they do about the conference?”

“I honestly don’t know,” said Sholpan. “The politics are complicated, because Qasar and Tagatai are cousins. I’ll try to prevail on him to stand firm by his decision to permit it, but if Tagatai forces him to stand down, things could get ugly—fast.”

James nodded, his expression grim. “We’d better sync our wrist consoles, then.”

“That’s exactly what I was thinking. Here, let me see yours.”

They held their wrists together, so that the consoles were almost touching. It took a second for them to read each other, but when they did, the screens blinked green, indicating that they were properly synced.

“Will the Hameji be able to trace this link through the network?” James asked.

Sholpan shook her head. “I doubt they’ll go to the trouble. Even if they do, I’m Qasar’s wife, so I have immunity.”

“Right.”

“There’s one other thing,” she said. “It won’t be easy for you to hear, but—”

“But what?”

She swallowed and paused for a moment, looking up at him with her large, round eyes.

“With the way the wars are going, Qasar wants to join his fleet with the main campaign. It’s all he ever talks about. Just recently, we heard that one of the Generals has died, and now Qasar’s doing everything he can to make sure he’s picked to fill the vacancy.”

“I’m sure nothing will come of it,” said James, a lump rising in his throat. “He’s the one in charge of Gaia Nova, after all.”

“You don’t understand,” said Sholpan. “In the hierarchy, assignments are given preference by seniority. Right now, Qasar ranks almost as high as the Generals themselves. This time, it’s almost certain that he’ll get his way.”

James’s hands began to tremble. He folded his arms to try to hide it, but his lip began to quiver, and he had to look away.

“I’ve missed you all these years, James.”

“Me, too.”

“This might be the last time we see each other. Even if I survive—”

“Of course you’ll survive,” said James. “You’ve lived through worse, haven’t you? We both have.”

She looked him in the eye and smiled. In that moment, she looked more like the sister he remembered. The makeup, the hair, the ornate dress and thick scent of Hameji fragrance—none of that could disguise her. It opened a bitter wound in his heart, and he had to bite his lip to keep the tears from flooding out.

The wailing of a young child in the other room distracted them both. “Oh,” said Sholpan, “Abie is awake.” She rose to her feet and walked to the door. “Here, Abie! That’s a good boy.”

James’s stomach fell as she came out with a young toddler, no older than three or four. He had the black hair and wide face of the Hameji, but his skin was fair, like his mother’s. He waddled up to the couch, sucking his thumb and staring at James with bold curiosity.

“Who is that, Abie?” Sholpan said in a mothering voice. “That’s Uncle James!”

James tried to smile, but when he reached out with his hand, the young boy ran back to his mother in fright.

“Sorry,” Sholpan chuckled. “He can be a little shy sometimes.”

“Of course.”

“Isn’t he cute?”

“Of course he is. He’s beautiful.”

For a Hameji.

She tried to smile, but when she looked at him, her face fell in spite of herself. “I don’t want to think of what he’ll be when he grows up, but right now he’s all that I have.”

James nodded, unsure what to say.

“I’m sure you’ve got business to attend to,” she said, lifting her son to her hip. “I hope I haven’t kept you.”

“No,” James whispered. “Not at all.”

They hugged as they said their goodbyes, Abaqa cooing between them. He is a beautiful boy, James thought to himself as he rubbed his nephew’s head. As for the father, James hoped he never met him.

As the door hissed shut behind him, though, he spun on his heel and walked off down the corridor as fast as his legs would take him. If not for the guards behind him, he would have pounded his fist against the bulkhead and screamed.


* * * * *


Sara walked purposefully through the bustling foyer of the conference hall and out to the main station concourse. With the delegates still trickling in and the conference not scheduled to start until the next dayshift, no one would miss her if she snuck out for an hour or two. And with Ensign Jones on the Freedom Star and James meeting with his sister, it was just the opportunity she needed.

The Goldenstar Cafe, she thought as she scanned the abandoned properties and hole-in-the-wall bars and shops that ringed the concourse. Graffiti covered the walls in places, and a few ragged beggars huddled in an unused passageway. She skirted around them by a wide margin, keeping herself among the merchants with their wares spread out across the floor. The cacophony of hundreds of people bartering and arguing with each other shielded her almost as effectively as the crowd itself hid her from view. She slipped through it without anyone even noticing her.

At length, she found an old, peeling sign pasted against a wall with an arrow for the Goldenstar Cafe. It pointed through a dimly lit passageway. Sara glanced over her shoulder before she stepped quickly through. Inside, it branched out into three sub-corridors, only one of which was lit. A grizzled old man walked past her, and she held her breath against the stink of sweat and cigarettes.

It seemed as if the space was abandoned, but when she took a second to look around, she saw a second sign pointing down one of the darkened corridors. About thirty meters in, she could make out a caged yellow bulb that gave off just enough light to walk by. A couple of people were silhouetted against it, indicating that there was something there.

Mom would have a fit if she knew I was walking into this place, Sara thought. She felt in her pocket for the stunner she’d managed to sneak past the conference guards. Just touching it gave her a small measure of reassurance.

As she neared the light at the end of the dark corridor, she saw a steep stairwell leading up to an open doorway. Garbage and litter lay scattered about the floor, but the steps were swept clean. A black-and-yellow sign above the doorway read GOLDENSTAR CAFE. The paint was chipped and broken, and the metal around the edges was rusting, but there was no mistaking it—this was the place.

She stepped through the doorway and found herself in a dim, smoke-filled bar. A dark-skinned bouncer regarded her with raised eyebrows. The bartender was a burly cyborg with eerie prosthetic eyes who stood unmoving and expressionless behind the counter. Besides him and the bouncer, there was an old man hunched over on a barstool, a pair of bald young women smoking from a hookah at one of the tables, and a man in an olive-green flight suit seated in the far corner.

That’s probably him.

Taking a chance, she walked over to the man in the corner. He rose cordially to greet her, a charming smile on his face. He was bald, with thick, bushy eyebrows and large ears. His eyes were a striking shade of gray, light enough that they seemed to pierce her even from the shadows.

“Soner, I take it?”

“That’s right,” said the man.

She extended her hand.

“I’m Sara Galbraith-Dickson of the Colony at Kardunash III,” she said as they shook. “Pleased to meet you.”

“And you as well, Sara. Please, have a seat.”

Something about him set her on edge, though she didn’t quite know why. She rolled out a chair and sat down across from him, her back to the door. He folded his hands and cracked his knuckles, making her wince.

“I take it you already know why I’m here,” she began. “My father, the patrician—”

“Yes, yes, we’ll get to that soon enough. But first, I was hoping we could get a little better acquainted. Care for a drink?”

She tensed. “Thanks, but I really can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’ll be expected soon on conference business, and the rest of the diplomatic team—”

“Oh, come,” he said, laughing dismissively. “You didn’t actually come here for the conference, did you? Or are you trying to keep our little liaison a secret?”

Once again, his gray eyes seemed to penetrate her. Sara shifted uneasily in her seat and forced herself not to turn away from his gaze.

“I assure you, we keep all our obligations in full faith. The… domestic situation is a bit complex right now, but my father has no doubt that that will soon shift in our favor.”

Soner shrugged. “It makes no difference to me how you manage your internal affairs, so long as you keep to your end of the bargain. And that’s what we’re here for, isn’t it? To bargain with each other?”

“Yes,” said Sara, relaxing a little now that they seemed to be getting down to business.

“It’s a pity that someone as young and as beautiful as yourself should have to worry her head about these things. Perhaps, after we’ve come to an agreement, we’ll have some time for a little fun?”

His sexist remark was so unexpected that she couldn’t help but let out a nervous laugh. Instantly, she felt diminished because of it.

“We’ll see.”

He smiled again, though this time it didn’t seem quite so charming. “Very well, then. Let’s get to business.”


* * * * *


That’s strange, James thought as he made his way back through the concourse toward the conference hall. The few open shops were closing, and the merchants were quickly rolling up their wares. A large cluster of black-clad Hameji soldiers had gathered in the center of the concourse—enough to make almost three platoons. They eyed him coolly as he walked across the wide, empty space to the guards at the main door. They waved him in without asking to see his ID—or even looking at him, for that matter.

Something’s wrong.

The foyer, in stark contrast to the concourse, was bustling with activity. Dozens of gaily dressed diplomats from across the occupied worlds socialized and ate a light lunch served from a long folding table at the front. From the lively conversations and animated expressions on the delegates’ faces, it was clear that none of them were aware of what was happening outside.

James keyed a series of commands into his wrist console and placed an encrypted call to Sterling. Touching his earpiece with two fingers, he stood with his back against the wall and scanned the room for Lars and Sara.

“Hello?” came the ensign’s voice in his right ear.

“Sterling, this is James. I need a status report on the delegation.”

“I’m still back at the Freedom Star, sir. Lars is with me, along with most of the diplomats. Said they wanted to conduct some private meetings on the ship before the conference started.”

James sighed in relief. “Good. Stay there. Something seems very wrong.”

“Wrong? What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. There’s a situation developing on the concourse with the Hameji.”

“But, sir—Sara is still there.”

At that moment, James’s wrist console buzzed to alert him of an incoming message. He frowned and glanced at the screen—it was from his sister.

Get out now.

His blood turned to ice, and his heart began to race the way it did before every battle—except this time, he wasn’t in his gunboat. He glanced over his shoulder and saw that the guards had abandoned the door.

“Sir?”

“Where did she go?” James asked, leaving the foyer for the main hall. “Where is she?”

“I-I don’t know, sir. Lars said she went for a bite to eat, but we haven’t heard from her since.”

“Get the Freedom Star ready for departure. I’ll find Sara and get her to the ship as quickly as I can.”

“Departure? But sir—”

The sound of gunfire and glass shattering cut him short. Instinctively, James dove behind a marble pillar as panicked screams filled the foyer.

It’s a massacre, James realized, his sweat turning cold. Bullets raked the walls and furnishings, cutting people to the floor all around him.

Everyone at the conference was going to die.

Chapter 8


Kyla palmed open the door to her quarters and poked her head out. To her surprise, the corridor was empty. Tentatively, she stepped out and walked as quickly and quietly as she could toward the airlock.

Her heart beat a little faster as she contemplated her next step. In order to get off the ship, she had to open the airlock, but that was only possible on the bridge. Barring that, the only way was to sneak out with the next group of people to leave. Both ways were tricky, but since everyone on the ship already knew her by sight, she doubted they’d let her sneak off with them.

But the bridge—how was she supposed to unlock the door from there? She doubted the captain wanted her anywhere near that place, and even if Kyla did manage to sneak in, she had no idea what to do from there.

It’s okay, she told herself. You have time. It might take her a while to scope things out, but they wouldn’t be headed back to the Colony for a few days. She’d figure out how to sneak off before then. After all, she’d come this far, hadn’t she?

She came to the end of the corridor and climbed a narrow set of stairs up to the deck above. The corridor looked identical, but it had a pair of narrow windows running along the top corner on both sides. Through them, she could see the gray outer hull of the station, along with the shining surface of the world below. It was a bright reddish brown, with swirling clouds and sharp landforms. The view was enough to mesmerize her, but she forced herself to focus on the task at hand.

After following the corridor all the way to the other end of the ship, she came to a door labeled BRIDGE. It was shut, though by pressing her ear against it, she could hear the faint sound of people talking on the other side. She couldn’t make out what they were saying, but she thought she heard the soldier who was supposed to be watching her.

So much for that plan. She rose to her feet, but before she could get back down to the lower deck, the door hissed open, making her jump.

“Oh, hi there,” said Sterling. “What are you up to?”

“Uh, nothing,” said Kyla. “I just wanted to come out and—”

“Where the hell is Sara?” asked the captain, barging into the corridor. “Is she on board? She isn’t answering any of her calls.”

“I don’t know,” said the soldier. “I didn’t see her come in.” He seemed torn between running after the captain and staying with Kyla.

“Well, you’d better make sure the lieutenant gets back here, because as soon as she’s back on board, we’re getting out of here.”

“Wait! You can’t just leave him behind!”

“If the Hameji are on the move, we sure as hell can’t wait for him.” The captain reached the nearest stairwell and ran down it. “Just make sure he gets here as soon as he can!” she called out as she left.

Kyla’s stomach fell, and the blood drained from her cheeks. “What’s going on? Are we leaving already?”

The soldier nodded, his face white. “The Hameji just stormed the conference hall. They’re shooting everyone on sight. If they come after us…”

As his voice trailed off, the elevator midway down the corridor opened up and several people spilled out. Kyla only recognized one of them: Lars Stewart, one of the chief diplomats from the Colony.

“I’m so sorry, so sorry,” he was babbling to the others. “I never thought it would come to this. Please, take care of yourselves.”

“We will,” said one of the men. “And God-willing we will meet again to continue this important work.”

“I do sincerely hope so,” said Lars. They reached a large set of doors and stopped. “Sterling! Can you open the airlock?”

“Sure,” said the soldier. He entered a code into the access panel on the wall, and the door hissed open.

There went my chance to get off the ship, Kyla realized. Though from the sound of things, that didn’t seem like such a good idea anymore.

“What’s the plan?” Lars asked, hurrying over to them. “How long before we leave?”

“Until Sara gets back, I guess,” said Sterling. “The jump drives are charged, and the engines are warming up. Are all your people back on board?”

“All of them except Sara. What about James?”

“He’s in the conference hall.”

Lars ran his hand through his head and swore. “What’s going on in there? Is he going to make it?”

“I don’t know. We heard a bunch of gunfire, and then he cut off.”

“Stars of Earth!”

Kyla’s legs went weak. Maybe it was better to stay on the ship, even if that meant going back to the Colony.

“In any case,” said Sterling, “we should probably get everyone to their quarters to prepare for departure. That includes you, Kyla. Things could get rough.”

“Yeah,” she said softly. “I guess so.”


* * * * *


Sara, James thought to himself, his adrenaline surging as screams filled his ears. I need to find her and get her out of here.

A group of delegates ran past him, only to be mowed down. Their blood splattered across the pristine carpet as they fell on their faces, arms and legs splayed clumsily outward. James waited for a lull in the shooting and made a mad dash for the con suite, just off the main hallway. The sound of gunfire and ricocheting bullets filled his ears, but he dove for the doorway and rolled through, taking cover around the corner.

Several employees were huddled beneath a nearby table, cowering in fear. Panting for breath, James looked hastily around for an escape. The ventilation shaft above them was too small to crawl through. On the other side of the room, however, he saw a conveyor belt and window that led into the kitchen.

He sprinted as fast as he could, reaching the belt just as booted footsteps sounded behind him. The employees screamed as the soldiers made quick work of them, but the distraction gave James just enough time to vault over the counter to cover. He fell to the floor with his back to the wall, pausing for a moment to get his breath before scrambling away.

The kitchen was full of sharp tools and heavy pans, but few good hiding places. Knowing that the soldiers would soon find a way in, he crept to the other side of the room, keeping low against the food prep counter.

There’s got to be a way out of here, he thought to himself. Sure enough, on the other side, a door led to the receiving area. Thinking fast, he palmed the access panel and dove for the nearest counter. As the door hissed open, he crawled underneath it, pulling his legs tight against his body with his back against the siding.

Heavy footsteps sounded on the hard floor tiles. Three Hameji soldiers ran past his hiding place without stopping. James’s heart pounded in his chest, but he waited until they were gone before scrambling from his hiding spot and running back into the con suite.

The scene before him was horrible. The employees lay dead and dying in pools of their own blood, some of them crying like helpless children. A pang of guilt struck him—after all, he was the one who had led the soldiers here—but he put it aside. No time to think about that now.

Keeping low, he worked his way around to the baggage claim behind the concierge’s desk. With luck, it would have a relay connecting it to the docks: in upscale stations like this, it was common for luggage to be transferred to the concierge’s desk directly from the spaceport. Sure enough, the relay tunnel was exactly where he’d expected it to be. He climbed in and started crawling through the dark, narrow space.

After going a short distance, he activated a flashlight on his wrist console and keyed in the sequence for another encrypted call, hoping the walls were thick enough to keep the Hameji from overhearing.

“Sterling? Sterling, are you there?”

“Captain? What’s going on? We heard gunfire and—”

“Never mind that now, we haven’t got time. Is the Freedom Star ready to depart?”

“Y-yes, sir, we’re ready. Do you have Sara?”

“Negative,” said James. “I’m going to get her now.”

“You’d better come fast, sir. The captain is getting ready to take off.”

“Tell her to wait. I have a way back to the ship, but I want to find Sara first and bring her back if I can.” I’m not going to leave her behind.

“Right, sir. We’re waiting for you.”

He stopped in the narrow space long enough to disconnect and put a call through to Sara. The sound of gunfire echoed through the bulkheads, but if he hurried, he might be able to—

ERROR IN CONNECTION, the screen read. James frowned.

He tried to put the call through again, but got the same error message. Were the Hameji blocking the network? That didn’t make sense—he’d been able to get through to Sterling just fine. The only other reason he could think of was that Sara had turned off her wrist console.

That, or she was already dead.

“Come on,” James muttered, trying again to place the call. When the error message popped up a third time, he slammed his fist against the bulkhead and swore. His arms and legs trembled in anger, mostly at himself for not being able to get to her in time. As much as he wanted to save her, he couldn’t afford to search the whole station. Every minute the Freedom Star waited for him was a minute that he was putting everyone else in danger. For the sake of the others, he had to abandon Sara and get back to the ship.

Up ahead, the passageway merged into a slightly larger one, just large enough to stand in. James rose to his feet and picked up the pace. After several minutes, he came to a chute that let down from a loading chamber. The place was eerily quiet, as if the dock workers had abandoned it. Fortunately, the loading chamber had access to a service corridor that ran all along the main terminal right to where the Freedom Star was docked.

He brought up a map of the spaceport on his wrist console and used it to guide him down the right service corridor to the ship. He was taking a tremendous risk, since the Hameji could theoretically locate him through the network, but speed was more important than stealth right then.

Stars, what he would give for a gun! Unarmed, he felt lost and naked—completely defenseless. In his mind, he knew it didn’t make much of a difference—a handgun would hardly give him a fighting chance against a squad of elite shock troops—but that didn’t make it any better.

At last, he reached the correct gate. The airlock was on the deck directly above him. A ladder ran up to that deck from the service corridor, while a number of refueling hoses connected with the ship through the hull. The hatchway was open, which meant that any noise he made would carry through the terminal.

He huddled in the corner and typed out a message to Sterling, fingers racing over the keypad.

BELOW AIRLOCK—IS THE WAY CLEAR?

Several moments passed, the eerie silence of the empty corridor marked only by the pounding of his heart. He kept to the shadows and did his best to stay calm.

As he waited for an answer, footsteps sounded over his head, as well as voices. The Freedom Star’s engines were already starting to rumble—they made a distant humming noise through the bulkheads, making it difficult to make out the conversation. Sweat trickled down the side of his face, but he was listening too intently to wipe it away.

The vibration of his wrist console made him jump. He held his breath and glanced down at the screen.

NOT CLEAR—FOUR GUARDS.

At that moment, he heard a gasp, then a scream.

It was Sara.

Time froze, and he became hyper-aware of everything around him—the beating of his heart, the sweat clinging to his shirt, the twelve rungs of the ladder leading up through the open hatchway above. Without thinking, he sprinted up the ladder. As he cleared the hatchway and leaped to the floor, it seemed as if he were moving in slow motion, toward the four men standing with their backs to him.

James pounced on the nearest one. Every muscle in his body focused on the assault, moving with near perfect efficiency. He took hold of the man’s head and twisted it quickly around, and the guard’s body tensed for a very brief moment before going suddenly limp.

The two nearest guards spun around, guns already in their hands. James crouched, using the first guard’s body as a shield while he drew the man’s gun. Five shots hit the body: two on the chest, three in the stomach. Three others screamed past James’s ear, striking the wall as he returned fire.

His first shot took the nearest guard in the thigh; his second in the chest, his third in the face. The man’s arms flung upward as his body fell spinning to the floor. His next shot hit the other guard in the groin; he collapsed to his knees as another shot hit him in the neck. Blood boiled from the wound, and he fell forward onto his face.

Before his head struck the ground, James aimed the gun at the last guard, almost twenty yards away. The guard had been running toward Sara, but at the sound of the gunshots he had stopped and turned to see what was going on. His eyes widened as he realized, too late, that he was a dead man. James took him down with one clean shot in the forehead.

As quickly as it had begun, it was over. James slowly lowered the gun, fingers tingling as the adrenaline rush slowly died away. At his feet, blood from the second guard began to spread across the floor.

“J-James? Are you…”

James turned and gasped. Sara stood in the corridor, next to a strange man dressed in dark olive-green fatigues. In the darkness, it was impossible to make out his face, but he was short and had a round face, not unlike many of the Hameji.

James raised his gun, but Sara motioned for him to stop. In that moment, the mysterious figured melted into the shadows and disappeared.

“Who the hell was that?”

“Never mind,” said Sara. “We’ve got to get out of here!”

As if to confirm this, the airlock door hissed open. James blinked, then ran with Sara through the doorway and onto the Freedom Star.


* * * * *


Sara barely had time to register what was happening. Four dead bodies were bleeding out in the terminal outside the airlock—bodies of men that James had killed before her eyes. But that wasn’t important now. What was important was that they get away from the station. Fast.

“Sara!” Jarvis exclaimed, greeting her and James on the other side of the airlock. “When we heard about the massacre, we feared the—”

“There’s no time for that, Captain,” said James. “The Hameji sent a squad out to kill us, and they’re bound to send more. Are the jump drives charged?”

“Yes, but—a squad? Where are they?”

“They’re dead,” said Sara. “The lieutenant… he killed them.”

Jarvis’s eyes went wide, but James was already running down the corridor. “Sterling!” he shouted. “Sterling, get to the bridge!”

“What is he doing?” asked Captain Jarvis, frowning. Sara said nothing, but ran after him.

They followed him onto the bridge, where he was already addressing the crew. “Who’s the pilot around here?” he asked. When the pilot raised his hand, he motioned for him to give up his seat. To Sara’s surprise, he actually did.

“What are you doing?” Jarvis asked. A frown crossed her face, and her cheeks began to turn red.

“I’m taking temporary command of this ship,” said James, sliding naturally into the pilot’s chair. “Since the Hameji have massacred the conference, it’s safe to assume that they’ve got combat ships waiting to intercept anyone who tries to leave. Sterling!”

Ensign Jones shouldered his way past Sara and Jarvis onto the bridge. “Lieutenant,” he said, giving James a quick salute. “What are we doing?”

“Get in the astrogator’s chair.”

“Right, Lieuten—I mean, Captain.”

“Now just hold on a minute,” said Jarvis, her fists clenched and her cheeks positively crimson. “This is my ship, not some Defense Corps gunboat. If you think you can just—”

“If you feel that I’ve overstepped my authority, you’re free to bring that up with my superiors when we get back to the Colony. Detaching from station in three, two…”

“Why, I—”

The floor lurched, cutting Jarvis off. Sara reeled and caught herself on the wall as the view out the forward window began to spin. Her stomach turned, and she drew in a sharp breath.

“Sterling, the dampers!”

“Right, sir—sorry!”

Gutsy, Sara thought as she recovered her balance. Captain Jarvis was so furious, she looked as if her veins were about to burst, but James ignored her as casually as he would a fly on the wall. Here at the helm, he was completely in his element. Every movement was smooth, every glance purposeful. There was no hesitation in him, nor any room for doubt. Like some sort of starbound juggernaut, nothing in the universe could stand in his way.

“Let him go, Captain,” she said, touching Jarvis’s arm. “He’s right.”

Captain Jarvis opened her mouth as if to protest, but Sara gave her a sharp look that carried the weight of her father’s authority behind it. Whatever you do now, my father will hear of it—and he’ll hear about it from me first.

“This is highly irregular,” Jarvis grumbled, so taken aback that she was unable to come up with a better retort. “I just hope you know what you’re doing, Lieutenant.”

“Noted. Burning engines in three, two, one…”

A rumbling noise sounded through the bulkheads, and the floor began to shake. Sara pulled down a chair and sat down, strapping herself in. Outside the forward window, the station began to move.

Get us out of here, James, Sara thought, her heart pounding. Take us home.


* * * * *


James gripped the flight stick in his sweaty hands and throttled the engines to fifty percent. The luxury yacht wasn’t built for combat by any means, but its sublight thrusters still had quite a kick. Even through the gravitic dampers, he could feel the pull as they accelerated into space.

The curved hull of the station passed over them, slowly at first, but quickly picking up speed. He nosed the ship up, hugging the exterior as closely as he could. If the Hameji had warships waiting for them, he wanted to present as small a target as he possibly could.

“Sterling, how are we looking?”

“Jump drives are charged, sir. Shall I set coordinates for a jump?”

“Yes. Send us just outside the system orbital plane, distance no less than… fifty light-hours.” It took a second to make a rough guesstimate of their jump capabilities in his head. He trusted, though, that Sterling could fine-tune the particulars.

“Right, sir. Shall we head for galactic north or south?”

“It doesn’t matter, so long as it’s away from here.”

Outside, a soundless flash made Sara yelp. It was an explosion—the Hameji were already shooting, probably at every ship trying to flee the station.

“Sterling, how are we doing on those coordinates?”

“Just a sec,” said Sterling, his voice shaky and nervous. “The nav-computer is having trouble loading the astrogation data. It’ll take a while before—”

“How long?”

“I don’t know. Half a minute, maybe?”

James swore under his breath. They had almost reached the end of the station, with nowhere safe to go once they were past it. Since the Freedom Star was a civilian ship, it had no armor or shielding—one good hit was all it would take to kill them.

As if in confirmation, one of the other fleeing ships broke apart almost directly in their path. He pulled up hard, swerving wildly to avoid the debris. Sara cried out and Sterling gasped for breath, but they avoided the wreckage by the narrowest of margins.

“What the hell are you doing with my ship?” Jarvis demanded. “Keep flying like that, and you’re liable to get us all killed!”

We’re liable to get shot if we don’t, James thought angrily. He kept the sentiment to himself, though—this was no time for an argument.

“Sir,” Sterling yelled. “We have a drone swarm incoming!”

“What direction?”

“Sixty—no, ninety degrees bearing, uh—”

A horrible grating sound, like knives over porcelain, cut him off. The bulkheads shook with the sound of debris pattering against the hull. Outside, half a dozen tiny dark vessels flew past the window, their engines glowing blue.

“Hang on,” James shouted. Without stopping to think, he nosed the Freedom Star down toward the planet and fired the engines at full throttle.

“Are you crazy?” Sara shouted from behind him. “We’ll burn up in the atmosphere!”

The radar display on the secondary screen showed the drone swarm spreading out in preparations to converge on them again. Several warning lights were flashing on the main screen—damage reports, no doubt. Without any sort of armored plating, the Freedom Star wouldn’t last long against another assault.

James threw the ship into a barrel roll, hoping to throw off the drones’ targeting sensors. The dampers weren’t calibrated for rotational momentum, and the maneuver knocked the wind out of all of them. Alarms sounded throughout the bridge, but he ignored them and pushed on.

“Stop!” Jarvis screamed. “You’re going to kill us all!”

“Almost there,” said Sterling. Sweat dribbled down the sides of his face and fell back to splatter against the rear of the cabin.

On the sensor display, the drone swarm began to converge. James nosed up hard, fighting the urge to pass out, then spun in a new direction and brought the ship down again. His vision turned red as the blood rushed to his face. Sara let out an ear-piercing scream, but the maneuver threw off the drones, at least for a moment. They had new troubles, though: re-entry flames were already beginning to dance across the forward window.

The crater-pocked wasteland of the slagged planet loomed dangerously close. The shattered ruins of a planetary dome stabbed upward like the ribcage of a dead animal, while dark gray lava flows weaved in and out of the craggy mountains. A vast sea of rust-red sand dunes repeated the same wavy patterns across the devastated planetscape. Their colors mingled with the orange flames as the Freedom Star plummeted toward the surface.

“We’re going to die!” Sara screamed. “We’re all going to die!”

A half-dozen alarms sounded all across the ship, and the cabin lights flashed red.

“Now, Captain! Now!”

James threw the switch to initiate jump. The familiar nausea swept through his body, filling his mouth with the taste of bile. Relief washed over him as the view outside the window flashed into the familiar glow of the stars.

Chapter 9


Sara sighed in relief as the alarms in the cabin died down one by one. The rust-red desert planetscape, which only moments ago had loomed so close, was now replaced by the soft, milky glow of countless stars.

She tried to stand up, but her legs gave out and she fell to the floor. James knelt down to help her.

“Are you all right?”

“Yeah,” she said, cheeks turning red. “I’m fine.”

“We’re okay,” he said, helping her up. “We made it out—we’re alive.”

“That might be true,” said Captain Jarvis, “but that little stunt you pulled nearly wrecked my ship. With the damage we’ve sustained, I’ll be surprised if we make it back in one piece.”

“Not a problem,” said Sterling. “I’ll get on it right away.”

“Speaking of making it back,” James said, “where the hell are we?”

“Triangulating position now,” said Sterling, glancing back at his computer display. “Looks like we’re exactly sixty light-hours above the orbital plane. We’re safe, at least for now.”

Sixty light-hours, Sara repeated to herself, her head still spinning. In an instant, they’d traveled so far it would take the Hameji fleet at Gaia Nova almost two days to determine where they’d gone.

“We’re not out of this yet,” said James. “It won’t take them long to scramble a flight group to chase us. In an hour, this whole region of space is going to be peppered with jump beacons.”

“But we’re not a military target,” said Captain Jarvis. “As horrible as it was, the massacre was meant to send a message. They might let us slip by just get that message get out.”

“Perhaps, but do you really want to risk our lives on it?”

“We won’t have to,” said Sterling. “We still have nearly half charge on the second jump drive. Give it a couple of hours, and we’ll be more than a light-year away.”

“Blessed Earth,” James exclaimed, the relief evident on his face. “That’s the last thing they’ll be expecting, too. All right, let’s set the coordinates.”

As the three of them went to work, Sara palmed open the door and slipped out. They were safe—that was all she needed to know. Better to make herself scarce now, before—

“Not so fast,” said James, following her out. He laid a hand on her shoulder, stopping her. She caught her breath and turned around to face him.

“What is it, Lieutenant?”

“That man you were with back at the station—the one who escorted you to the airlock and disappeared. Who is he?”

Sara’s palms went clammy. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, I think you do. When the Hameji attacked, Lars and the rest of the delegates were on board the Freedom Star—and yet, you weren’t. In fact, you left the ship without telling anyone where you were going. Why?”

He’s not going to let me get out of this, Sara realized. She glanced over her shoulder—the only way this could get worse was if Lars got involved. She had to contain this as quickly as possible.

“Can we talk about this in my quarters? I’d prefer to keep this off the record.”

“I can’t promise that. And if we’re going to take this anywhere, it’ll be my quarters.”

“But you’re holding the stowaway there,” she pointed out.

James’s cheeks reddened. “Fine. But don’t try anything funny.”

As they walked toward Sara’s quarters, Nina’s voice chimed through the jewel in her ear. “Mistress, you appear to be upset,” the AI said. “Is there any way I can be of help?”

“No,” Sara muttered. James gave her a quizzical look, but she ignored it and palmed open the door.

The messy state of the room instantly made her regret her choice of meeting place. It wasn’t too bad, but several clothes were strewn across the bed, including a couple of pairs of underwear. Now it was her time to blush.

“Sorry about that,” she said, stuffing the clothes out of sight. James stood and watched by the door. Thankfully, it hissed shut before anyone else walked in.

“Now, let’s get to talking,” said James. “What exactly were you doing back there on the station?”

Sara paused to consider her words. She took a deep breath and resisted the urge to shoot back a snarky response.

“I had a meeting with… a friend. It wasn’t very important, and the delegation hadn’t yet gotten to business, so I didn’t think there would be any harm in running off on my own.”

James folded his arms and gave her a look that said he wasn’t buying it. “Oh, sure. And your ‘friend’ somehow managed to sneak you into the spaceport terminal, even with the Hameji swarming all over the place?”

“Yes, he did.”

“What’s his name? What exactly is the nature of your relationship?”

“It’s none of your business,” she said flatly.

“Frankly, I think it is.”

“What makes you say that?”

“I risked my life to save you, Sara,” he said. “Don’t you think I deserve to know why?”

“Performing your duty doesn’t entitle you to special treatment.”

“And what would you know of my duty?”

She folded her arms and looked him squarely in the eye. “You’re not the only one who puts their life on the line. I may not carry a weapon or fly a fancy gunboat, Lieutenant, but I am just as ready to die as you are.”

Her words took him aback, but only for a moment. His eyes narrowed as he returned her glare.

“If you’re so patriotic, then what are you hiding from me?”

“I’m not at liberty to tell you.”

“Do you want me to launch a formal investigation into your activities? Because if it’s necessary, I will.”

Dammit, James! she wanted to scream. Instead, she drew a sharp breath and sat down on the bed, her hands shaking. For the sake of her mission, she absolutely could not allow him to do that.

“All right,” she said. “You caught me. I was hoping to smuggle some contraband goods out of Gaia Nova—just some petty goods, I swear.”

“Is that all?”

“Yes.”

James’s eyes narrowed. “I think you’re lying.”

“Okay, so some of the contraband is a bit more serious, but—”

“No, I think the smuggling story is a cover. Lars told me your father was sending you as his personal envoy in some kind of political scheme. Tell me about that.”

Sara’s legs went numb, but she took a deep breath and did her best to feign ignorance.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t try to play me, Sara.”

He’s not going to let me go until I tell him everything, she realized with dismay. And even then, that might not be enough.

“All right, all right,” she said, her heart pounding. “I’ll tell you, but this conversation is strictly off-the-record. You have to promise me that you won’t share this with anyone.”

“No promises. I’ll decide who and who not to tell after I hear it.”

I was afraid you’d say that, she thought to herself. Since there was nothing she could do about it, she sighed and pressed on.

“First of all, I want to make it clear that this has nothing to do with my or my father’s political career. It has everything to do with providing for the security and welfare of the Colony.”

“Oh, yeah?” said James.

She ignored him and continued.

“For the past few years, my father’s advisors have closely watched the economic situation in the Karduna system. The outlook is extremely grim. Without the agricultural base at K-4, there simply isn’t enough food production to sustain us. Piracy is on the rise, and the deteriorating security situation has made it impossible to rebuild. Unless something significant changes in the next six months, a complete collapse is inevitable.”

“So?”

“So the only way to prevent that is to change things. And the only way to do that is to reach out to help beyond the Karduna system.”

“You’re not telling me anything new,” said James. “Who are you involved with? What’s going on?”

“It’s… complicated.”

“Complicated enough to establish a centralist dictatorship? Consolidate power until the General Assembly becomes irrelevant?”

“Don’t be an ass. My father could never do that even if he wanted to.”

“So what does he want to do, then?”

Sara glanced over her shoulder, more out of reflex than anything else. “Listen, you’ve really got to promise—”

“Just tell me.”

“All right. Fine.” She sighed. “It’s an exodus.”

James frowned. “What?”

“My father is planning for a mass exodus from the Karduna system. The Colony won’t last much longer under the occupation, so we’re going to leave Hameji-controlled space and strike out on our own.”

“But that’s crazy,” he exclaimed. “Even if every ship at the Colony was equipped with a jump drive, there simply wouldn't be enough to carry every man, woman, and—”

“And the Hameji would put a stop to it the moment they found out what we were up to. That’s not how we plan to do it.”

“Then how?”

“By jumping out the station itself.”

James’s expression changed from puzzlement to incredulity. “Jump the whole station? That’s impossible.”

“Not at all. The infrastructure is already in place: all we need is to—”

“What do you mean, ‘the infrastructure is already in place’? If that’s true, how come nobody but the patrician knows about it?”

Sara took a deep breath. “Do you know the War of Independence that we fought against the Gaians almost a hundred years ago? How we joined forces with the rest of Karduna to free our system from the Imperials?”

“Of course. Every grade school student knows about that.”

“Well, that’s when the infrastructure was built. Our grandparents, fearing an Imperial victory in the war, secretly installed a massive jump drive on the Colony itself. It’s a capital ship model, built for warships at least as large as our station. When the Imperials backed down and gave us our independence, they decided to keep the jump drive in place. It’s been with us ever since.”

James’s eyes narrowed. “So you’re telling me that all this time, the patrician has kept this knowledge secret?”

“Surely you understand the importance of military secrets. If everyone knew about it, then our enemies could find out and take measures to prevent us from using it.”

“And if we used it without first putting it to a vote, it would undermine the fabric of our democracy.”

“Look, I’m not saying it’s right. I’m just saying it’s the way things are.”

An awkward moment of silence passed. Sara raised her hands as if to show that she was being honest, and James responded with a slow, thoughtful nod.

“Fair enough, but how does this help us get away from the Hameji? They control everything within a hundred light years of Karduna Prime—we’d have nowhere to go.”

“In settled space, maybe. Not in unsettled space.”

“Unsettled space?” he said, frowning again. “What are you talking about?”

“There’s an uninhabited star system in the middle of the Good Hope Nebula,” she said, leaning forward. “GH-122 is its Gaian catalog number. The ancients called it ‘Chira.’”

“The goddess of sleep, cryonics, and the subconscious.”

Sara nodded, impressed. “When did you learn the old pantheon?”

“It’s a hobby I picked up while running sublight convoys. On the long voyages, it’s hard not to spend a lot of time gazing at the stars.”

“Right. Well, according to the surveys, there are a number of habitable planets in that system, including a terrestrial world with signs of an oxygen-based atmosphere. We don’t know much about it, since no one has ever sent a scientific expedition, but the basic indicators show that it could support life.”

“Except for one thing,” said James. “The Good Hope Nebula is too dense for us to travel through safely.”

“With FTL drives, perhaps, but at sublight speeds we should be just fine.”

“Sublight speeds?”

“The nebula works both ways,” she explained. “It prevents us from using conventional jump drives, but by that token it also keeps the Hameji out. Once we’re in, they won’t be able to pursue us.”

“And how do we get in?”

Sara paused. James was becoming hard for her to read, and she couldn’t tell what he’d do once she told him. Still, she’d revealed too much to stop now.

“Through my contacts,” she said. “The delegates from Zeta Nabat.”

“Isn’t that an old Imperial penal colony?”

“Right. The Imperials used the system as a prison because of its location in a small spur of the Good Hope Nebula. Until the starlanes were built, the only way in or out was through old-style interstellar ramjets.”

“Like the ones that brought the ancient patriarchs from Earth to Gaia Nova.”

“Exactly.”

James began to pace the narrow room. “So your father wants to send us into the heart of the Good Hope Nebula, using antiquated sublight transport ships bought from the Zeta Nabattans?”

“It’s not as crazy as it seems. They still use the ships to get between Zeta Nabat and its neutron binary. The technology is sound.”

“For mid-scale mining operations, perhaps. But this is an exodus we’re talking about—a voyage of almost twenty parsecs into the heart of the nebula. At sublight speeds, it’ll take over a hundred standard years to reach the Chira system. How can we possibly do it?”

“Simple,” she said. “We put the majority of the population in cold storage and re-purpose the transports as generation ships. When the fleet arrives a hundred or so years later, our descendants thaw us out, and together we settle the new world.”

James stopped pacing and glanced over at her, his expression skeptical. “And the Zeta Nabattans claim they have the right equipment for this?”

“Yes,” Sara said, rising to her feet. “I just struck a deal with them—that was my contact. All we’ve got to do now is meet them at the rendezvous point.”

She swallowed and held her breath as she waited for his response. His gaze was so piercing, it felt as if he were staring right through her.

“Can you see now why we have to keep this a secret?” she asked. “If our plans got out, the Hameji could easily move to stop us. Our only hope is to jump out before they know what’s going on.”

“But you do plan to put this through the General Assembly for a vote, right? You’re not just going to throw this on the people by dictatorial order?”

“Yes, of course.” If we can.

He took a deep breath and went back to pacing. After almost half a minute, he stopped and shook his head. “It’s just—it goes so far against our democratic principles. So many secrets…”

“If there was another way to save the Colony, we would do it. Believe me.”

Please believe me, James.

He looked at her again, the anger deflating out of him. “You’re right.”

“So you won’t go public with this? You’ll keep it off the record?”

“For now, yeah. But when we get back to the Colony, I’m going to need some more answers.”

“You’ll get them,” she promised, relief flooding over her. “You will.”


* * * * *


James’s feet felt heavy as he walked out of Sara’s quarters down the lavishly furnished main corridor of the Freedom Star. Now that he knew what she’d been hiding, the secret weighed on him like a thousand astral tonnes. He could understand why it was necessary to keep the existence of the station’s jump drive from public knowledge, but that didn’t change the way he felt about it.

He reached the end of the corridor and descended the staircase to the observation room at the front of the ship. Lars sat alone, staring out at the infinite starscape. The faint, wispy tendrils of the Good Hope Nebula loomed in the distance, reflecting the orange-yellow light of Auriga Nova and the blue-white light of Belarius beyond.

As James reached the base of the stairs, the view shifted ever so slightly, becoming more and more distant as the walls began to shrink. He took hold of the banister and held his breath as the rapid crescendo of nausea and disorientation swept over him. Shortly after reaching its climax, however, the sensation of jumpspace subsided and normalized.

Like a true spacefarer, Lars hadn’t even flinched. He stared out at the milky-white starfield, his expression unchanged.

“Attention, passengers” came Captain Jarvis’s voice over the ship-wide loudspeaker. “I would like to thank you for your patience and understanding during the last few maneuvers. Thanks to the brave efforts of our crew, as well as those of Lieutenant McCoy and Ensign Jones, we have successfully evaded Hameji pursuit. Our ship has sustained moderate damage, but our FTL drives are still fully functional, and should remain so for the duration of our voyage.”

A ragged cheer sounded through the bulkheads, from the crew and other passengers alike. James was about to add his own voice to the others, but when he saw that Lars was silent, he held back.

“Since we won’t be taking the starlanes, our return voyage will take significantly longer. Currently, we’re about one-point-one light years from Gaia Nova, in the direction of Tajjur Prime. We don’t anticipate that the Hameji will make any serious effort to interdict us, but as a precaution against that, we will make a series of short micro-jumps in the next twenty-four hours before redirecting our course for Karduna. If all goes well, I expect that we will arrive in a little less than four standard weeks. We may have to ration some of our stores, but our food synthesizers are more than adequate to sustain us.

“On behalf of myself and the rest of the crew, I thank you for your patience and understanding during this crisis. We will do our best to provide for your safety and comfort, and will keep you apprised of any new developments as they occur.”

The loudspeakers switched off, and the sound of applause trickled through the bulkheads. James joined in this time, but Lars remained conspicuously silent.

“You all right there? We’re safe, now.”

Lars shook his head. “What does it matter, when all our work has ended in failure? The Hameji, the conference—we have nothing left to hope for.”

Of course, James thought, mentally kicking himself. Lars had staked everything on the outcome of the conference. The massacre must have left him devastated.

“At least we escaped with our lives. You can’t win every battle, but that doesn’t mean you’ve lost the war.”

Lars narrowed his eyes. “You’re not much of a diplomat, are you? This isn’t like a military campaign, which you can break up into discrete engagements. It’s more like a construction project, where you build the framework and set it in motion before attaching the modules. Today, the entire framework that I’ve been building for the past five years has been utterly swept away.”

“But surely you can start over.”

Lars shook his head. “This conference was our one big chance to change things—not only for us, but for all the occupied systems. We knew the risks, of course, and we did all we could to mitigate them, but risks or no, we had to press forward. And now, we’ve lost everything.”

Not everything, James wanted to tell him. The patrician has a plan—a good one, in fact. As much as he wanted to let him in on it, though, he knew that Lars would never keep it secret. In fact, he would probably use it as grounds for an impeachment hearing, since the secret deal with the Nabattans was a clear breach of executive authority.

“If it’s any consolation, my sister did her best to prevent the massacre. It wasn’t Qasar who gave the kill order—it was a rogue faction within the Hameji ranks.”

“But the Generals stood aside and let them do it. Now, there’s no way we can save our people.”

You’re wrong, James wanted to tell him. There is another way. But if he told Lars now, the patrician’s plans would all be ruined.

“We’ll find a way—we always have.”

“Not after this,” said Lars, shaking his head. “We’ve been through a lot, but I don’t think our people can survive much longer.”

“Cheer up,” said James, patting him on the shoulder. “We’re not dead yet.”

Lars looked at him forlornly. “It’s not just our people I’m mourning, James. It’s our way of life. The Colony was an experiment in liberal democracy, and I fear that that experiment has failed. If our way of life can’t survive the occupation, then our dream of freedom will die with us.”

“You always were an idealist,” James said softly. And that’s exactly why I can’t tell you what I know.

Lars sighed. “The thing I fear most is that my ideals will die before I do.”

“They won’t, Lars—not if I can do anything about it.”

“And if you can’t?”

James left the answer unsaid.


* * * * *


Kyla lay on the bed and stared out the porthole window. The starfield was like an endless glittering blanket, or perhaps a curtain, veiling the darkness with its soft, milky light. She wondered how many people were looking out at the same stars right now, and what they were thinking. But then she realized that each star had its own set of worlds, and each world had its own cities and domes and space colonies. If anything, it was the stars looking out at her, not the other way around.

She reached up as if to touch them, but the glass was cold against her fingertips, making her shiver. For all the countless stars and worlds out there, they offered cold comfort in the depths of space. Thousands of them all around her, yet none close enough to give any warmth.

Just like people.

Her stomach growled, reminding her how long it had been since she’d eaten. She tried to ignore it, but after gorging herself for the past few days, hunger seemed like an unbearable torture. Clutching her stomach and moaning softly, she managed to hold out for a little less than two hours before she could no longer resist.

She cautiously opened the door and glanced in both directions before stepping out into the empty corridor. The ever-present hum of the ventilation systems punctuated the silence, but otherwise the ship seemed empty. Since the lights hadn’t dimmed, however, she knew that it was still upshift, which meant that the others were still awake. Probably they were in some kind of meeting—and since she didn’t hear any talking, that probably meant that no one was at the bar in the observation room.

She hurried down the corridor and crept hastily down the stairs. Her stomach ached so much that she didn’t notice James and Lars until she was almost in front of them. For a second she froze, torn between running for cover and continuing on her way. Since they’d already seen her, however, there was no sense in running, so she took a deep breath and pretended to ignore them.

“Hello there,” said James, shattering any chance of that. “Hungry?”

“A little,” she mumbled. She walked up to the bar and began stabbing her way through the menu on the table-screen.

“Here—care to sit down with us?”

Kyla hesitated for a moment, glancing at the two men out of the corner of her eye. All she wanted was to take some food and get out, but the request seemed harmless enough.

“Can’t stay long,” she mumbled as she sat down across the table from him.

“Why? Got somewhere to go?”

“No. Just—can’t.”

“If it’s the Hameji you’re worried about, you can relax,” said James. “We’re far enough out that there’s no way they could catch us. From here on out, it’s a smooth flight all the way home.”

“Right,” she said, sinking further into her chair. “Home.”

He looked at her funny for a moment, then shrugged. “Well, we’ve got a while before we get there. Since we’re flying on our own jump drives now, it’ll take us almost a month to get back.”

“A month?”

“Yeah. We can’t take the starlanes, since the Hameji will be watching them. They can’t watch all of the space between here and Karduna, though, so as long as we stay in deep space, we should be clear.”

The prospect of an extra month of travel gave Kyla little comfort if she was just going to end up where she had started. Not for the first time, she wished that James had never found her.

They sat in silence for about a minute. James kept eying her, as if struggling to find something to say, but Lars only stared out the window at the myriad stars. He seemed even more melancholic than she did, which surprised her. These people had everything she would never have—plenty of food, plenty of money, a comfortable place to sleep, a beautiful starship, people who cared about them. What did they have to be sad about?

“Hey,” she said, looking at Lars. “What’s your problem?”

“My problem?” asked James.

“No, his. What’s the matter with you?”

Lars turned and regarded her coolly. “Do you know why we came out here?”

“No,” she admitted, though she vaguely remembered them telling her before. “Why?”

“We came out here for the people like you—the ones who are poor and starving. We wanted to change things, so that you wouldn’t have to run away. We had a dream to make all our worlds safe and prosperous, just like the days before the Hameji, but now, that dream is gone. The Hameji massacred it with the conference.”

His words took Kyla aback. There was a strength of conviction in his voice, a charismatic fervor that nearly entranced her. At the same time, what could he know about the poor and starving people below decks? He wore the simple working-class clothes of a merchanter, but he was surrounded by more wealth and luxury than she’d ever known. Blood rushed to her cheeks, and she clenched her fists in rage.

“What makes you think you know me?” she asked, surprising herself with her own forcefulness.

“Whoa, calm down there,” said James. “He didn’t mean anything by—”

“No, that’s all right,” said Lars, stopping him. “She has a right to know why I think I can speak for her.” He looked Kyla in the eye, his gaze surprisingly gentle. “The truth is, I can’t. Only you can speak for yourself. So please, speak your mind. Tell us about the change that you want to see.”

Of all the things that Lars could have said, nothing was quite so effective at deflating her rage and anger. She blinked a few times before she realized that he was serious—that he really wanted to listen.

“I just want a chance to start over,” she said softly. “You rich people don’t know what it’s like on the lower decks. When my mother died, life became a living hell.”

“Why didn’t you just go to child services?” James asked.

Kyla glared at him. “I’d rather go work in a brothel—at least there, I’d get paid.”

“She’s got a point,” said Lars. “Social services reform has been far too long in coming. Some of the abuses of the system would make your skin crawl, though I was under the impression that they were isolated incidents. Perhaps I was wrong.”

“You people are wrong about a lot of things,” Kyla said, her anger starting to rise again. “You sit here in luxury, feasting on wine and animal-grown food, and you think you’re doing something to help the rest of us.”

“Hey, that isn’t fair,” said James. “I’m a soldier—I put my life on the line with every mission. You think you’re starving now? I’d like to see how long you’d make it without any supply convoys.”

“Oh, yeah? And I’d like to see how long you’d last as a girl in the underworld.”

Lars sighed. “Please, let’s not fight. We aren’t enemies here. Kyla, you said you want a chance to start over, and we want you to as well. We’re trying to help you—imperfectly, of course, but as best we can. And not just you, but everyone else like you.”

“I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head. “Sometimes it seems like you people just don’t care.”

“But we do care,” said James. “We care enough to die for you, if that’s what it takes. It seems to me that you just don’t know how much we care.”

Maybe.

“I don’t need your help,” Kyla muttered. “I can get along fine on my own.”

“On the contrary,” said Lars. “We all depend on each other: you and me on James to defend us, James and you on me for the proper oversight to protect our freedoms, and us on you to build a stable society. Without each other, everything would fall apart, and we’d all be left with nothing.”

Just like when my mother died? Though the words were unspoken, they hurt Kyla like a knife she’d plunged into her own chest. If she didn’t have anyone, she’d rather go to a place where her memories wouldn’t haunt her. And even if she did…

“Look,” said James, “how old are you?”

“Sixteen.”

“Sixteen? Good. That’s old enough to find work, even as a minor.”

“Why?” she asked. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“It gives you a chance at that new start you said you’re looking for. When we get back to the station, I’ll apply for temporary guardianship over you. That ought to keep you out of child services long enough to get your feet back on the floor. And in two years when you’re eighteen, you’ll be an adult, free to come and go as you please. How does that sound?”

Kyla eyes widened, and she frowned in a failed attempt to hide her own shock. “Why would you do that?”

James rose to his feet as the serving bot came out with her food. “Because I care.”

With that, he left. The spider-like serving bot laid a steaming hot plate of beans in front of her, while across the table Lars chuckled.

“You’ll find that James will go to great lengths not to lose an argument. He’s a man of his word, though—you can trust that he means what he says.”

“Maybe,” Kyla muttered, still stung. Even so, she didn’t know if she was ready to trust anyone.

Chapter 10


“Attention passengers and crew,” Captain Jarvis’s voice came over the Freedom Star’s speakers. “We are preparing to make the final jump in just a few moments. Our estimated time to arrival at the Colony is approximately forty-five standard minutes. Stand by.”

Sara held her breath and closed her eyes as the universe began to spin around her. For a brief moment, she felt as if she were falling, or perhaps collapsing in on herself. The moment soon passed, though, and she opened her eyes to find herself staring out at a disk-shaped station amid a cluster of asteroids.

Home, she thought, her heart practically leaping out of her chest. Home at last.

“We’ve done it,” said James, grinning from ear to ear. For a moment, he looked as if he wanted to hug her, but with Lars, Sterling, and all the other passengers seated around them, he let out a loud victory whoop instead.

All around the crowded observation deck of the Freedom Star, everyone took up the cheer. One of the crew popped a bottle of champagne, and the foam sprayed out all over as if they were at a wedding. Even Lars, who had been sullen and withdrawn ever since they’d left Gaia Nova, was smiling.

James put one arm around him and another around Sterling, pulling them both close. “It sure is good to be back, isn’t it?” he said, glancing over at Sara with a smile in his eyes.

“Yeah,” said Lars. “It sure is.”

“Though you have to admit, it has been like a free month of leave,” said Sterling. “When are we going to get another chance to fly on a ship like this?”

“For all I care, never,” said James. “No offense, Sara, but I’d take a good gunboat over the Freedom Star any day.”

“None taken,” she said. Their eyes met, and for a moment, it seemed like he had something else he wanted to tell her. But then, he either clammed up or thought better of it, because he turned and led the others off to celebrate.

Just as long as you keep your promise not to tell anyone, she thought to herself. She would have to tell her father immediately, so that they could contain the damage if James didn’t keep his word. That meant admitting to her father that her mission was less than a perfect success, a disappointment too small to warrant a reprimand but too large to completely ignore. As if she needed any more of those.

Don’t get too comfortable, James. With everything he knew, their paths were bound to cross again very, very soon.


* * * * *


Kyla’s hands trembled, and her empty stomach felt as if a swarm of flies was trying to get out. She paced the small but cozy space of her quarters. Not long, and the comfortable luxury bedroom would be replaced by a real prison cell, with a retractable slab for a bed and electrified bars for a window.

A gentle rumbling sounded through the floors and walls, followed by the distant groan of machinery. That was probably the sound of them docking with the station, returning to the hell that she’d vowed to leave behind. Unable to wait any longer, she palmed open the door and stuck her head out.

“Oh, hi there,” said Sterling, sitting on the chair just outside her door. “Can I help you with anything?”

You can help me get the hell out of here, Kyla thought silently. She considered making a dash for it, but even if she did get past Sterling, there was still the airlock to deal with—and it would be a lot harder to escape through that than to escape from her quarters. She slunk back inside and palmed the door shut.

Once inside, she fell on her bed and screamed into her pillow. Everything she’d gone through to get away from the Colony was a waste. She was a criminal now, and a caught one at that. The money she’d saved up for the smuggler, the sexual favors she’d done for him to make up the difference—all of it had been wasted.

Too soon, the door chime rung. Kyla took a deep breath and lay perfectly still, not bothering to answer it. A few seconds later, the door hissed open, and heavy footsteps sounded on the floor.

“Kyla.”

It was James. She looked up and saw him flanked by two armed men with dark blue helmets and wristbands. They stared at her dispassionately, the way a person would gaze at a robot that was behaving erratically. Kyla swallowed.

“These men are here from the Colony police,” James explained. “They’re going to escort you to the penitentiary, where you’ll stay until we get things sorted out. You’ll be treated well there, with food and a place to sleep.”

How do you know? Kyla wanted to ask. Instead, she said nothing.

“You don’t have a court date yet, but it shouldn’t be more than a couple of days from now. Lars assures me that that’s plenty of time to file the paperwork for guardianship. If you cooperate, you’ll probably get off with a few hours of community service and won’t have to worry about child services taking you away. Does it sound like a good deal?”

It sounds too good to be true, which probably means that it isn’t.

Probably.

Kyla lay motionless on the bed, refusing to acknowledge James or the police. Perhaps if she ignored them, they would simply go away.

“Kyla, do you hear me? This is the best chance at a new life that you’re going to get.”

It wasn’t until then that she realized just how scared she was. Her future was uncertain, and for the first time in years, she had something to lose.

Hope.

“I’m coming,” she whispered as she rose to her feet. The men in the dark blue uniforms came forward to take her away, but though all of her instincts screamed at her to run or fight back, she did not resist.


* * * * *


James could not believe the crowd that had gathered in the spaceport terminal to greet the delegation. The gate was packed from wall to wall with cheering people, while banners hung from the bulkheads welcoming them home. As they stepped out of the tram and onto the platform, they were immediately mobbed by a horde of citizen reporters with microphones and transcoders.

“How does it feel to be back?”

“Was the conference a failure?”

“How many of the other delegates were killed?”

“Should we prepare for any Hameji reprisals?”

Instinctively, James looked around for the people he was supposed to protect. Sara was only a few feet ahead of him, but with the noisy press of the crowd all around them, she might as well have been on the other side of a wall. He glanced over his shoulder at Sterling and Lars, but they were cut off from him as well.

“We’ll be giving a press conference in just a few hours,” Lars told the reporters. “Until then, I’m afraid I can’t take any of your questions.”

Even so, the reporters swarmed as quickly as a pack of beggars to a man with money in his hands. Lars ignored them much better than James ever could, coming within inches of colliding with some of them before they moved out of his way. Though his face was expressionless, James could tell from the fire in his eyes that their questions were aggravating him.

“Do you personally feel responsible for the massacre, Lieutenant?”

The question knocked him completely off guard. He glared at the reporter who’d asked it—a young twenty-something woman with carefully groomed hair and too much eyeliner.

“Responsible for what? We brought back the entire delegation without a single casualty. In my book, that’s a success.”

The words no sooner left his mouth than he realized he’d made a mistake. Instantly, almost a dozen microphones converged upon him.

“Will the security situation in the Karduna system deteriorate because of—”

“Do you feel that the patrician was justified in—”

“—see any relief from the occupation?”

A wave of dizziness and claustrophobia swept over him, worse than the sensation of jumpspace. Much worse. He took a deep breath and lifted his arms to swat the reporters away. He had to get through them—had to get out of this mess.

Before he could do so, though, the patrician’s voice sounded from the other side of the gate.

“Sara!”

“Dad!” Sara exclaimed, rushing forward. She threw her arms around her father in a warm embrace, camera flashes exploding all around them. In an instant, the press deserted James and thronged around the patrician and his daughter.

“You’ve never looked better, my dear,” the patrician exclaimed, smiling as he looked his daughter over. “When we heard about the massacre, we feared the worst.”

“I know,” she said. “But thanks to these two brave soldiers, we all made it out alive.”

“Let me see them.”

A chill ran down James’s back as the patrician turned to him and Sterling. He stood up straight and gave his best salute, kicking Sterling in the leg to make sure he did the same.

“Outstanding—simply outstanding. Here, let me shake your hands.”

The decidedly more civilian gesture was a bit awkward, especially with the crowd pressing in, but they managed it as well as they could. As the patrician took James’s hand in both of his, he gave him a quick wink.

What was that for?

“Lieutenant McCoy and Ensign Jones,” said the patrician, “on behalf of our entire community, let me be the first to thank you for your bravery. By risking your lives to see our entire delegation safely back home, you demonstrated exceptional courage. For that, the military council and I have decided to give you both promotions. Congratulations, Lieutenant Jones and Commander McCoy. Welcome home.”

James’s eyes widened in shock. “C-commander, sir?”

“That’s right, McCoy. Congratulations.”

The patrician shook his hand again, but he could barely feel it. He glanced over at Sterling, who looked just as shocked as he was, then at Sara. As the patrician moved on to shake Sterling’s hand, she stepped forward and gave him a hug.

“Play along,” she whispered in his ear.

Instantly, a thousand questions rushed through his mind. Play along with what? Was this part of the patrician’s game? How had he gotten the military council to agree to this promotion? Were they in on it as well? And most importantly, what did this have to do with Sara’s mission?

“Citizens,” said the patrician, addressing the crowd, “I’m sure you all have many questions. First, the members of the delegation must be debriefed. I apologize for the delay, but we will hold a press conference as soon as we have more information. Thank you.”

A few of the citizen reporters still pressed forward with their questions, but most of them began to disperse. James glanced at Sara, who motioned for him to wait. Sure enough, the patrician soon came over.

“I hope to meet with you after your military briefing, Commander,” he said in a voice that only James could hear. “Please come to my office at your earliest convenience.”

Chills ran down James’s back. Before he could respond, though, the patrician was already boarding a car with his daughter. James stood and watched as they took off.

“Can you believe it, Captain?” Sterling asked, as excited as James had ever heard him. “Promotions! How does it feel, Capt—er, Commander? How does it feel?”

“Ominous,” James answered under his breath.

“What was that?”

“Nothing, Sterling. Congratulations on the promotion—I knew you’d make lieutenant soon.”

Sterling beamed. “And congratulations to you, too, sir! Now, shouldn’t we be headed to that debriefing?”

James glanced around the crowded terminal. The mob of citizen reporters had more or less dispersed, but there were still plenty of people watching them, and not all in an admiring way.

“Right,” he said. “Let’s go.” And not just because of the debriefing, he added silently.


* * * * *


Sara followed her father away from the crowded terminal. Together, they boarded a private car that whisked them away from the spaceport and back toward the official residence.

“That lieutenant is quite a character, eh?” her father said as the car sped away.

“I suppose,” said Sara, remembering their dinner date and the way he’d cut it short to take care of the stowaway. “He hasn’t got much tact, but he does stick by his principles.”

“Yes,” said her father. “And he certainly can be useful for the purposes of political spectacle.”

“Is that all that was to you?”

He chuckled. “Practically speaking. Off the record, of course.”

“Of course,” said Sara, rolling her eyes. She and her father were so close, “off the record” was practically a joke.

“Now tell me,” he said, clasping his hands together. “How did the meeting with the Nabattans go?”

“Very well, all things considered.”

“Ah, good. So you were able to strike a deal?”

“Yes. They bargained hard, though—the price isn’t going to be cheap. It’ll take almost half a year’s production to fill it.”

“Not a problem. As long as it saves our people, we can pay anything.”

“There is one more thing, dad.”

“Oh?” he said, raising an eyebrow.

She swallowed. Here goes nothing.

“James found out about my mission and forced me to tell him everything. The exodus, the station drive—I tried my best to keep it from him, but he cornered me after the massacre and wouldn’t let up.”

“Very well,” said her father. “I trust you got his promise not to go public?”

“Yes, but—”

He silenced her with a casual wave of his hand. “I’ve had my eye on that young man for quite a while. He can be a maverick now and again, but at the same time, he’s a deeply practical man with an incisive mind and good intuition. And as you said, he sticks by his principles. Once convinced that we’re doing the right thing, I had no doubt that he would prove both capable and loyal.”

She stared at her father incredulously. “You knew that he’d find some way to get that information out of me, and you didn’t tell me that that was part of your plan.”

“Well, to be fair, I didn’t know for sure that he’d get it out of you. But if he had failed to put it all together, that would have proved he wasn’t capable enough to be let into the inner circle.”

“And what if he betrays us? What if he goes public?”

Her father grinned. “Leave that to me.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Sara asked, frowning.

“James is too honest to go back on his promise without first investigating your claims for himself. He’ll go to the source, and when he sees what we’re working to accomplish, I’m confident that we’ll win him over to our side.”

Just like you convinced me that I had to keep my mission a secret?

“You could have told me that you planned to let him in on everything,” she said, folding her arms.

“I’m afraid not, my dear. If you had known that I intended to bring James into the inner circle, that would have changed your behavior significantly, wouldn’t it?”

Sara thought back again to her date with James and the self-defense lesson he’d given her. She had to admit, her father had a point.

“That was still very manipulative of you.”

“All leadership is manipulation,” said her father, “just as all warfare is deception. Democracy is fine and good, but without someone at the top to pull the proper strings, it’s little better than mob rule.”

Sara nodded, still dumbfounded by the way she’d been played by her own father. In some ways, she wished that he’d been disappointed instead. At least that way, she wouldn’t have to face the awful truth that her father had used her like a pawn.

“This is why Mom left you, you know,” she said. It was the only retort she could come up with that she knew would hit home.

Her father frowned. “This has nothing to do with your mother.”

“But you treated her exactly the same way you’re treating me.” She knew that she would regret this fight later, but she couldn’t help herself.

“Sending you on a first class luxury liner at the family’s expense with an attractive, and very eligible, young Defense Corps officer?”

Her cheeks reddened, and not just from anger.

“Using me as one of your pawns to accomplish your political ends.”

“I only do what has to be done, Sara, and I do it for the good of us all.”

“But your career always comes before your family.”

Her father sighed and stared out the window. “I assume you’re prepared to present your report on the negotiations to the inner circle?”

“Of course,” she said, scowling as she turned away. It was just like her father to deflect when he knew he was losing an argument. Well, she’d show him that she was just as capable and independent as he was. She wouldn’t let him use her.

Chapter 11


James stepped into the patrician’s office alone, not sure what he’d find inside. The reception area was rather generic, with a couple of couches and wallscreens along the off-white wall tiling. A set of shelves sat in the corner, with a few antique synth-paper books on display. Generic planetscapes cycled through the wallscreens. Except for a young female secretary behind the counter, the place was empty—conspicuously so.

“Commander McCoy?”

“Yes,” James answered.

“Please follow me,” said the secretary, smiling as she rose from her seat.

She led him down a short hallway to a magnificent, wood-paneled conference room. A number of people had already gathered around the long table, leaning back in their luxuriously wide chairs. Most of them were middle-aged businessmen, though a couple were civilian ship captains, judging from their clothes. None of them were with the military—at least, none that James recognized.

As he glanced around the room, he saw Sara near the front, dressed in a light blouse and a tan vest. Her father wasn’t present, but he assumed that the chair at the head of the table was for him. Whether by design or serendipity, the only other empty chair at the table was next to her.

“Hello, James,” she said as he sat down next to her. “Glad to see you could make it.”

“I’m glad, too,” he said, keeping his voice low so only she could hear him. “What is this about?”

“We’re about to be briefed on the next stage of the mission,” she said. “The real mission, if you know what I mean.”

“Then who are all these people?”

Before she could answer, the door hissed open and the patrician stepped into the conference room. He went around the table shaking hands.

“Stanis, Lorena, thanks for coming. Jeppe, it’s a pleasure as always. Ah, Commander McCoy,” he said, arriving at James. “So good to see you.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Allow me to introduce the others. This is Ståle Anderson, administrator of the Colony steelworks.”

James nodded to the gray haired man, who nodded back.

“And this over here is Stanis McIntyre, Chief Executive Officer of the port authority’s warehousing complex.”

“Sir.”

“And this,” said the patrician, pointing to a man in crisp business attire, “is Jeppe Hanson, President of the dockworkers’ union.”

The man offered his hand, and James shook it, albeit with a little unease. What are a corporate boss, a union president, and a factory owner doing at the same table?

The patrician continued to introduce men and women of similarly high stature. Just as conspicuous, however, was the absence of anyone overtly active in the political arena. The military wasn’t represented either, though one of the younger men was an “intelligence contractor.” James had never heard of him.

This is the heart of the lion’s den, he told himself. The shadow government that Lars warned me about. He would have to be on his toes.

“And now, my friends,” said the patrician, “let’s get down to business.”

Only after he moved to take his seat did everyone around the table do the same. James followed suit, but Sara remained standing. She cleared her throat.

“It will be my pleasure to report on my recent assignment,” she said, addressing, the room, “but first, allow me to formally introduce Commander James McCoy. You may recognize him as the brother of Stella McCoy, whose intervention with the Hameji helped us to survive the humanitarian crisis at the start of the occupation.”

James smiled. As every eye in the room turned on him, he realized that not everyone welcomed his presence. He shifted uneasily under the combined weight of their stares.

“Not to be rude,” said a pudgy middle-aged man near the center, “but whose interests does he represent, exactly?”

“Commander McCoy is with the Civil Defense Corps,” said the patrician, “and as the newest commander in that organization, he has the proper rank in that organization to justify his seat at this table.”

So that’s why he gave us our promotions at the spaceport, James thought. Still, if this was a shadow government, why would they be concerned about rank? That would only make sense if—

They don’t want me to represent the Corp’s interest at this council, he realized with a start. They want me to represent the interests of this council to the Corps.

“It’s about time we had someone halfway competent from the military on our side,” said Ståle.

“Certainly,” said Sara. “Now, if you will please turn to your screens.”

She hit a series of keys on the control panel in front of her, and the wallscreen behind her lit up with the first slide of her presentation. James glanced down at the smaller display in front of his seat and saw that the images were the same.

“Before traveling to Gaia Nova, I was briefed by the inspection team sent to Zeta Nabat six months ago. Their report on the ramjet fleet was quite extensive. After confirming the key points of the report with our Nabattan contact, we were able to negotiate an agreement for the purchase of the fleet.”

She hit a key on the control panel, and the presentation proceeded to the next slide, which displayed schematics for an unusual type of starship. It was shaped like a short cylinder, with the center hollowed out like a doughnut. A large funnel on the forward end was connected to a spherical reactor, with magnetic field projectors wrapped around it. On the back end, a massive shield protected the rest of the ship from what looked like a rocket.

“These are the schematics for the twelve sublight ramjets that the Nabattans have offered to sell to us. They are rated for interstellar travel within particle dense regions such as nebulae and molecular clouds that are inaccessible via conventional jump drives, and have a maximum velocity of about seventeen percent the speed of light.”

“Where are the hab units?” someone asked. “All I see are cargo modules.”

“The ships were originally designed for transferring cargo to the prison world at Zeta Nabat. Prisoners were frozen in cryo, while the captain and crew spent most of the voyage in stasis as well. However, the Nabattans have modified the cargo modules to allow conversion into self-sufficient hab units capable of supporting several hundred people.”

“Several hundred? But the population of the Colony numbers in the thousands. If the voyage to Chira is going to last more than a hundred years, how do you expect us to live in such a cramped space?”

“That’s a very good point,” said Sara. “Fortunately, each ramjet comes equipped with enough working cryotanks for us to put up to eighty percent of the population into stasis. That should leave more than enough room for the remainder to live comfortably until we arrive at our new home.”

So it’s a combination generation ship and cryosleep transport, James thought to himself. That’s certainly one way to colonize the heart of the nebula.

“Why do we even need the hab units?” one of the engineers asked. “If we have enough space to support a living population, then why not put everyone into cryo?”

“Because it was cheaper for the Nabattans to modify the existing design than to fabricate more cryotanks,” Sara answered. “Besides, with the reduced population, it shouldn’t be difficult for us to make these hab units self-sustaining for the long voyage. The Colony itself is capable of supporting us for long periods of time without outside help.”

That’s only because we were forced to after the Hameji slagged Kardunash IV, James thought. Without those convoys, this station would have been reduced to a derelict years ago.

“How are we going to get our people to these colony ships?” someone at the far end of the table asked.

“That’s a good question,” said Sara. She moved on to the next slide, which showed a two-dimensional rendering of a starmap, with Karduna on one side and Zeta Nabat on the other.

“Zeta Nabat is located about one light-year within the nebula itself, and is therefore inaccessible to us. The starlane that runs through the nebula will be patrolled by the Hameji, but the Nabattan smugglers have a secret starlane that they use to get to the edge of the nebula, here.”

She pointed to a point on the map marked RENDEZVOUS, where the clouds of the nebula met the emptiness of interstellar space.

“The Nabattans have agreed to meet us there and ferry us to our ships. They’ve assured me that they have enough transports for us all.”

A low murmur of approval went up around the table. James could tell that the people liked what they were hearing.

“How difficult will the voyage be?” someone asked.

“Not too difficult, from what I understand,” Sara answered. “While the Colony is traveling through space, it will continue to operate normally.”

“That’s not exactly true,” said one of the engineers. He was one of the younger men at the table. “Most of the civilian infrastructure on the Colony itself runs on solar power, not on the NOVA reactors that will power the station’s jump drive.”

“I thought you engineers were supposed to get on that problem?” someone else interjected.

“And we have, but it’s still going to require a significant sacrifice from the people. We can’t power all that infrastructure and still get this station to Zeta Nabat.”

“Will we have enough power to care for the people’s basic needs while we’re in transit?” the patrician asked.

“Yes,” said the engineer, “though not much more than that.”

“Then that will have to do.”

“If you’ll pardon my asking,” interjected another man at the far end of the table, “how much will the operation cost?”

Sara took a deep breath. “To be blunt, the costs will be quite high.” Several men grunted, their eyes glued to their screens. “However, as you can see in this next slide, they lie well within the parameters established by this council. The station itself will go to the Nabattans, of course, along with all of our heavy equipment. In addition, they require almost half of our total GDP in steel.”

A low murmur arose across the table. “That’s quite a lot of production,” said Ståle. “Our refineries are currently able to run only at half-capacity, so even in a best case scenario, it would take us at least a standard year to put all that together.”

“The Nabattans said they would also be willing to accept one hundred and fifty cargo haulers and sublight freighters in lieu of the steel quota.”

The table practically erupted with protest.

“One hundred and fifty? That’s almost the entire civilian fleet!”

“There’ll be an outcry if we try to seize those assets from the private sector.”

“What are we going to use for transport when we arrive at the Chira system?”

“We can’t do it.”

“I’m afraid that we’re in no position to negotiate better terms,” said the patrician. “The unexpected massacre at the conference raises the specter of a Hameji reprisal. For security reasons, we must prepare to depart for Zeta Nabat as soon as possible.”

“That’s right,” said James, unable to sit by silently any longer. “There’s a major power shift happening within the Hameji command. If they can trace the organizers of the conference back to us, it’s not going to be good.”

All the heads around the table turned to face him. He suddenly wondered if he’d spoke out of turn.

“What evidence do you have of that?” someone asked.

“I met with my sister just before the massacre,” James answered. “She told me that a faction of hardliners led by a general named Tagatai has been taking over the ranks, and sees any attempt to put limitations on their power as a threat. We can expect them to clamp down as hard as they can.”

A low murmur rippled around the table. The people began to look anxiously at one another.

“In that case,” said the patrician, “we need to go public with these plans at once.”

“But what about the General Assembly?” came a voice further down the table. “The opposition is going to have a field day with this.”

The murmurs around the table rose in pitch.

“I agree,” said the patrician, “which is all the more reason why we must go public as soon as possible. I know it’s a hard sell, but we must move this decision through the General Assembly as quickly as we can. The stakes are high and the issues are complex, so it’s going to take a coordinated effort to push it through. We don’t want anything to blow up in our faces.”

Such as the existence of this shadow government? James thought to himself. He could just imagine the look of disgust and horror on Lars’s face when he found out the rumors were true.

“Just a minute,” said a grizzled old man near the front. “What do you mean, ‘reprisals’? What do you expect they’ll do?”

“In the worst case scenario,” Sara answered, “they’ll send a battle fleet to exterminate us.”

The room fell instantly silent. James stiffened as all eyes turned on him.

“Commander,” said the patrician, “is that true?”

“It is, sir.”

He nodded, his expression grim. “In that case, I move that we begin charging the station jump drive immediately. That way, we have an emergency escape option if we need it.”

“Are you sure that’s wise?” asked the woman dressed in a sharp business suit. “If word leaks out that energy is being diverted to some undisclosed project—”

“We’ll be able to bury it,” said the CEO of the Colony’s main energy company. “The numbers aren’t too difficult to obscure.”

James frowned. Are they talking about outright fraud? Colony law mandated that the production and distribution data for all companies be shared publicly. Advocacy groups and think tanks regularly scoured the data for suspicious anomalies. If the shadow government could evade even them, then transparency was just a farce.

“As long as the station jump drive is as primed as you can manage,” said the patrician. “And don’t fudge the data too much. As soon as we go public, half the advocacy groups on this station will be looking for a way to turn the people against us.”

“We should launch the PR campaign now, then,” said the businesswoman. “My firm will start with an exploratory study at once.”

“And how long should that take?”

“A week, maybe two. But once we have a good grasp of the public sentiment, we’ll be able to turn public opinion for us much more quickly.”

“As long as you can do it quickly,” said the patrician. “Our next major convoy isn’t due to leave for another month, so we should be able to keep the civilian fleet docked.”

“But who’s responsible for making the decision to jump out if it comes to that?” James blurted.

“The patrician, of course,” said the intelligence contractor across the table from him. “It’s entirely his prerogative, and not the scope of this council.”

James frowned. Since when does one man have prerogative over the lives of everyone on this station? But then he remembered how, as a gunship pilot, he often took that prerogative himself. When it was just him and Sterling between a band of armed pirates and a lifesaving supply convoy, there wasn’t any time to put things to a vote. The same was true here.

He glanced around the table, reading the faces of those present. Were they wolves or sheepdogs? From the power they wielded, it was pretty clear that they weren’t sheep. And yet even though he didn’t like their methods, he had to admit that the work they were doing was necessary—especially now.

“Commander McCoy,” said the patrician. “Since you are more familiar with the Hameji than any of us, can I depend on you to organize a guard to keep watch in case they attack us?”

James sat up straight in his chair. “Yes, sir.”

“Excellent. Sara will connect you with our people operating the station jump drive. You’ll have all the resources of your position in the Defense Corps at your disposal, but remember, discretion is key. We don’t want our plans to leak to the public until everything is ready.”

“Of course, sir,” said James, cringing a little as he considered what Lars would think of this. Lives were on the line, though. He knew his duty.


* * * * *


Kyla sat on the hard metal slab that served as her cot and hugged her knees against her chest. A harsh white light shone down on her through a plastiglass-covered light in the ceiling, next to a small black camera that no doubt kept watch. Other than that, she was alone in the tiny windowless cell.

James had been right about one thing, at least: the guards hadn’t mistreated her. Not yet. Was that because the cameras that watched her also watched what they did to her? It didn’t matter.

Being in custody gave her a lot of time to think about things. Was James really going to get her out of this place? He had promised, yes, but promises were often empty, and she’d long ago learned not to trust them. With James, though, she almost expected him to keep it.

Even if he did, though, it wouldn’t make anything better.

Kyla hated to be in anyone’s debt. Debt was leverage that people had over her, a way of taking away her control. Her mother’s debt had led to the eviction that had forced them down to the lower decks, where they could barely eke out a living. The pimps that kept so many other young girls trapped always made them feel as if they owed more than they could pay. And even though James seemed sincere enough, Kyla still hated the idea of owing him anything. It made her skin crawl, as if spiders were running down her back. And if he really did all that he said he would, how could she possibly repay him?

As these thoughts churned through her head, the wall to her right flickered. It flashed red with large black letters, each as large as her arm, that read: ATTENTION: ARRAIGNMENT HEARING IN 5:00 MINUTES. As she watched, the clock began to count down.

What’s going to happen? she wondered. Sweat formed on the back of her neck, and her palms began to feel clammy. If James didn’t come for her, she would probably be sent off to child services. As much as she hated being in his debt, she feared that outcome even more.

She watched the clock without saying a word until it read 0:00. The screen went blank, then flashed on again, this time with a man’s face filling most of the frame. He was old, with graying hair and a salt-and-pepper beard. He had a deep, jowled frown and a bony chin, with a cybernetic eye enhancement. The screen was so large that Kyla could clearly see every wrinkle on his forehead. She shuddered as he looked right at her.

“Prisoner 10642: Kyla Jeppson,” he said. His voice boomed in the tiny prison cell. “You are hereby arraigned before this court on charges of trespassing on a privately owned starship, the Freedom Star. Present at this court are Judge Metcalf, myself; Citizen Lars Stewart; and Commander James McCoy of the Civil Defense Corps.”

Kyla’s heart leaped in spite of herself as the judge mentioned James’s name. Sure enough, two smaller boxes appeared on the far right side of the screen, one showing Lars’s face, the other showing James. He was dressed in his military dress uniform, the same one he’d worn when he’d discovered her.

“Hello,” he said, smiling as he waved to her. “How are you holding up?”

“The commander will please refrain from speaking out of turn,” the judge said, his expression utterly impassive. “The prisoner has a right to legal counsel, which will be provided for her if she cannot afford counsel for herself. Citizen Stewart has indicated that he is legally trained and qualified to represent the prisoner. Do you accept his offer of counsel?”

Kyla stared at the screen in silence. In the corner, Lars nodded to her.

“Will the honorable judge permit me to talk with the prisoner privately?” he asked.

The judge nodded. “Very well. You are permitted to confer on a private channel.”

His face flashed out, and was replaced by Lars’s. Compared to the judge, his lopsided smile and twinkling eyes made him seem positively welcoming. Kyla relaxed a little.

“James, are you there?” he said. The box in the corner with James’s face flashed out, then back on.

“Here, Lars. Kyla, how are you doing?”

“All right,” she said, her voice a little hoarse. She coughed and cleared her throat.

“Don’t be afraid—I’m here to get you out, and Lars is here to help us. If you do as he says, everything will be just fine.”

“That’s right,” said Lars. “We’ll have to plead guilty on the charges, of course, but they’re light enough that you shouldn’t have to be incarcerated for them—especially considering your age.”

“What about child services?” she asked, hugging her knees to her chest.

“That’s a little more complicated,” Lars said. “And frankly, that’s why we needed to hold this private meeting. James has applied for legal guardianship, but we need your consent in order to move forward with that process. Until we do, the judge is technically required to send you into the system once he lets you go. If James completes the application before he issues the conviction, however, we can request a stay.”

“Basically, all we need is a thumbprint,” James said. “Is there a datapad device in that cell somewhere?”

Kyla looked around, her heart thumping. There was a small slot on the corner of the wall screen. She stood up and pressed it, and a keypad slid out along with a tiny access pad. The keys were worn smooth, and the pad itself was cracked, but judging from the green lights on the sides it seemed to be working.

“Yeah,” she said. “Got it.”

“Good. Now, I’m going to send you the document. After you scroll to the bottom of it, I need you to press your thumb against the datapad to indicate that you agree. Can you do that?”

“Yeah.”

Lars’s face minimized to a box in the corner directly below James, and the main screen flashed white with a long, wordy document. Kyla squinted as she tried to read, but beyond the first sentence or two, she couldn’t make any sense of it.

“Do you understand what it says?” James asked. “It’s important that you understand before you sign.”

“I-I don’t know.”

He sighed. “All right. Lars, what should we do?”

“Not a problem,” said Lars. “If Kyla accepts me as legal counsel, I can explain the particulars of the application to her, and she can indicate her acceptance of them based on that.”

“Very well. Kyla, do you accept Lars as your legal counsel?”

“I-I guess,” Kyla stammered. Things were moving so fast, it was hard to keep up with it all, especially after spending the last twenty-four hours sitting alone with her thoughts.

“For the record, we need a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”

“Then yes.”

“All right,” said Lars, bringing his hands beneath his chin. “Legal guardianship means that James will be responsible for the protection of your personal and property rights, as well as providing for your basic material needs. Since you are sixteen, though, you’re old enough to find gainful employment, vote in the General Assembly, and manage your own property. You are also able to enter into your own contracts, provided that James cosigns. So really, guardianship is more of a legal formality than anything.”

“Will I get out of child services if I agree?”

“Of course. That’s the main reason James is doing this for you. And you’ll still have a basic level of independence until you turn eighteen, at which point you’ll have full independence.”

“What about housing? Where will I live?”

“My parents have some spare room in their apartment,” said James. “I’ve talked with them, and they’re willing to let you stay there. After you turn eighteen, there’s a subsidy program that can help you find housing on your own.”

Kyla nodded and took a deep breath. She lifted her thumb to the cracked datapad, but hesitated before following through.

“Why are you doing this?” she asked, her voice barely louder than a whisper.

“Because I swore an oath to serve and protect the people of the colony, and that includes you,” James answered.

“You told us that you wanted a chance to start over,” Lars added. “We’re in a position to help you get that chance.”

All right, Kyla thought to herself. But how can I possibly repay this?

Her arms and legs numb, she pressed her thumb against the datapad and rolled it slightly to get a firm print. The lights on the panel blinked red, then green, and the document disappeared. Lars’s face returned to the main screen.

“Very good,” he said. “James, did you receive her imprint?”

“I did. Submitting the documents now.”

“Excellent. Let’s return to the court then, shall we?”

Before Kyla could answer, Lars’s face minimized again, and the main screen flashed back to the judge. He imposing face completely filled the screen, making Kyla jump.

“This court is now in session,” he said. “Does the prisoner understand her rights?”

He peered right at her, making her skin crawl.

“I, uh—”

“Besides the basic rights of life, liberty, and equal opportunity ensured by our constitution, and your civil and political rights granted by your citizenship, you have the right to a speedy trial by a jury of your peers, the right to protection against self-incrimination, and the right to competent legal counsel. Do you understand these rights as explained to you?”

Kyla swallowed. “Yes.”

“Very well. On the charges of trespassing on a privately owned starship, how does the prisoner plead?”

“Guilty, your honor,” said Lars.

Kyla’s heart leaped into her throat. What are you doing? she wanted to scream. Her head spun from all that was happening—all she wanted was to escape, but trapped in her cell with nowhere to hide, that was impossible.

“Your honor, may I make a statement for the record?” James asked.

The judge frowned. “You may proceed, Commander McCoy, but please keep your remarks brief.”

“I will, your honor. As the head of security for the diplomatic mission that chartered the Freedom Star, I wish to state that the prisoner never posed a threat to us or the other passengers, nor do I believe that she intended to cause any material damage. After we apprehended her, she was both cooperative and non-violent. Based on this, I believe that the prisoner deserves a mitigated sentence.”

“Duly noted, Commander. However, your statement contradicts the testimony of Captain Jarvis, which I cannot ignore.”

Kyla’s stomach sank. There’s no way this is going to work. She felt torn between the need to lash out and the desire to curl up until all of this went away.

“Your honor,” said Lars, “surely the prisoner’s young age should be taken into account. Is issuing a full sentence really the best way to rehabilitate her?”

“I’m inclined to agree with you, Citizen Stewart, except that she has no legal guardian. Child services is already overburdened, and if I let her go, she will have to—”

“That’s not true, your honor,” James interjected. “I have filed an application for legal guardianship of the prisoner. With your permission, I’d like to request a stay until the application has been processed.”

The judge raised a gray eyebrow. “Is that so, Commander? You seem to have taken an unusual interest in the prisoner.”

“Is that against the law?”

“No, it is not.” He sighed. “Very well. The prisoner is hereby sentenced to one hundred and fifty hours of community service, with a temporary stay granting custody to the Commander until his application has been processed. The prisoner will be released as soon as you come to pick her up. This court is adjourned.”

The screen flashed and went blank, leaving Kyla alone. Only then did she realize that her hands were shaking and her forehead was covered in sweat. Still, it had worked—she wasn’t going to child services. She fell to her knees and let the tears stream silently out.

I just want a chance to start over, she’d said on the Freedom Star. Well, now she had it. And just like Lars had said, how she used it was up to her.

But she would never be truly free so long as she was under James’s debt.


* * * * *


“Hey, thanks for the help,” James said as he boarded the tram for the penitentiary with Lars. “I owe you.”

“Don’t mention it,” said Lars. “It’s a very noble thing you’ve done. It’s good to know that at least some good came from the conference.”

More than you know, James thought as the tram took off. He reached up and took hold of the bar over the seats. Most of them were empty, but he always preferred to stand; men of action never sat still longer than they had to.

“Is something the matter, James?” Lars asked. “You seem a bit troubled.”

James laughed. “Troubled? What makes you say that?”

Lars looked at him funny for a second, then shook his head. “I don’t know, maybe it’s just me. I just haven’t been myself since the failure of the conference.”

“Hey, it wasn’t a total failure. You just said so yourself.”

The tram slowed down for a scheduled stop. The doors slid open, and a handful of other passengers got off. No one climbed on.

“You didn’t happen to find out anything about the patrician’s daughter, did you?” Lars asked. “There’s been a lot of unusual political activity lately. I think it may be connected with her involvement in the mission.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, several of the centralist-aligned interest groups are starting to make what looks like preparations for a major PR campaign. The patrician has been a lot more withdrawn lately, too. Rumor has it that he’s about to launch some sort of initiative.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Whatever it is, it looks like it’s going to be big. The equalitarian watchdog groups are already gearing themselves up for a fight.”

James frowned. “Why?”

“What do you mean?”

“If they don’t know anything about it, why are they so eager to fight it?”

“Because the patrician is behind this,” Lars answered, his eyes lighting up with passion. “It’s the elite, the top one percent, the guys who secretly pull all of the levers of power around this place. Or do you expect us all to fall into lockstep with everything he says?”

“No, but—look, why do you always have to oppose him? Isn’t he right some of the time?”

Lars grinned. “You’re not much into politics, are you? It’s all just part of the game.”

James shook his head as the tram began to slow for the next stop. “It’s not a game if lives are on the line.”

“On the contrary, James. A strong opposition is necessary for the preservation of liberty. By providing an alternative to the patrician and his policies, we offer the people a range of political options. You can’t have freedom without choice, my friend.”

“But you don’t even know what he’s up to yet!”

“And do you?”

James drew a sharp breath just as the doors slid open. The few remaining people in the tram car got off, leaving them alone.

“You’ve been up to something, James, haven’t you? You seem… changed somehow.”

“In what way? What are you talking about?”

Lars shook his head. “Sorry, I don’t mean to be rude. But you’re my friend. I hope that we never let any secrets come between us.”

His words made James cringe. Should I tell him? It wasn’t like the patrician’s plans would be secret much longer—or that Lars would never find out about his own involvement. But if he did tell Lars, he would risk destroying everything that Sara and the patrician were working for. He couldn’t do that—not when it represented the last real hope for survival that the Colony still possessed.

“I hope so, too,” he said softly. More than you know.

Chapter 12


Kyla glanced nervously over her shoulder as she followed James down the dimly lit corridor. Drab rows of identical doors lined the walls, but there was no garbage, no mold growing on the bulkheads, no smell of urine in the air. This was not the lower decks where she’d lived for so long. This was the upper decks, where she absolutely didn’t belong.

“My parents are excited to meet you,” James said, breaking the nervous silence that all but enveloped them. “It’s been a while since they’ve had any children at home, so I think they’re looking forward to having you move in.”

Kyla said nothing.

At length, they stopped at one of the doors. James entered the code on the keypad and palmed it open. The smell of something delicious wafted out from inside.

“After you,” James said, motioning for Kyla to enter.

She folded her arms tightly across her chest and stepped inside. Immediately, she was struck by how homey the place felt. A shaggy carpet covered the floors, with knitted covers for the couch pillows and homemade needlework hangings on the walls. She relaxed as she realized that this was not a rich home, but someplace much more humble and cozy. The apartment was clean and well-kept, but the couches were worn, the carpets old and faded.

It’s like the apartment where mother and I used to live, she thought to herself. A lump rose in her throat—one that she quickly forced down.

“Hello there, dear!” said a short middle-aged woman with graying hair and a dimpled smile. She gave Kyla a warm embrace. “Welcome to our home.”

“Hello,” said a tall, broad-shouldered man with a balding head and squarish face. “You must be Kyla.” He extended his hand, which was clearly large enough to crush Kyla’s own. Thankfully, he was gentle with her as they shook.

“Kyla,” said James, “this is my mother, Jessica, and my father, Adam.”

“Come in, come in!” said the middle-aged woman, urging them into the kitchen. “You’re just in time—the casserole came out of the oven not a minute ago.”

Kyla followed the others into the apartment’s cozy kitchen. The floors were made of ceramic tiles with a repeating floral pattern, and the short wall-folding table had a colorful tablecloth thrown over it, with a beautiful lace centerpiece. As they seated themselves around the table, Jessica pulled out the casserole dish with a pair of oven mitts and set it on the table.

“Mom,” said James, “you have a serving bot that can bring the food out.”

“Yes, dear, but we don’t need it for something as small as this. Better to conserve energy for those who need it more.”

James rolled his eyes, but his mother seemed just as stubborn as he was—though a good deal sweeter, Kyla had to admit.

Something feels weird about this place, she thought to herself, glancing tentatively about the room. What is it? It wasn’t that there was something wrong exactly, but it did make her feel uneasy in a way that she didn’t understand.

James’s father pulled out four plates from one of the cupboard wall compartments and set them down, while James retrieved the glasses and eating utensils. He filled the glasses with water from a dispenser unit set inside the wall.

“Ice?” he asked.

It took Kyla a moment to realize he was talking to her. “No, thanks,” she said softly.

“Now, let’s say grace,” said James’s mother after sitting down. She bowed her head and took Adam’s and Kyla’s hands in her own. James took Kyla’s other hand, and Adam took his, so that their arms formed a circle around the table.

“Our Lord of Many Worlds,” James’s father began. “We thank thee for this bounty that thou hast provided for us this day, and ask that thou wilt bless it to nourish and strengthen our bodies. We also thank thee for our guest, Kyla, and pray that thy blessings will be upon her. Please help her to feel safe and welcome in our home, and for us to know how we can best take care of her needs. Amen.”

Safe, Kyla realized. That’s why this place feels so weird. For the first time in as long as she could remember, she felt safe. It was as if she had stepped into some sort of sanctuary.

“So Kyla,” said Jessica as her husband served the food. “Tell us about yourself.”

Kyla drew a sharp breath and glanced around the table. The others were all looking expectantly at her, which of course made her mind go blank.

“Um, I’m sixteen…”

“Standard years or local?” Adam asked.

What’s the difference?

“Standard, of course,” said James. “She’s not a child.”

“It was worth asking,” Adam muttered as he handed Kyla a plate full of casserole.

Kyla had never had food like this before. She poked at it a bit with her knife, testing it to see what it was made of. The top was brown and crispy, but the insides were gooey. There were freeze-dried beans sitting in some sort of gravy, with chunks that looked like synthetic meat. It smelled good, though, so she took a forkful and shoveled it into her mouth.

“Did you grow up here on the Colony?” Jessica asked.

“Yesh,” Kyla said between bites.

“Where did you live before you came here?” Adam asked.

Kyla forced down her food and took a drink of the water to wash it down. “Nowhere,” she said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

Adam frowned. “Nowhere?”

“Dear,” said Jessica, giving him a sharp look. She turned back to Kyla, and her face softened considerably.

“James has told us all about you, dear, and we’re happy to let you stay with us. Did you know that we used to have a daughter?”

Kyla perked up. “No.”

“We did,” Jessica continued. “She was our second-oldest, just a little older than James. When she was your age, she signed up with another merchanter family as an apprentice astrogator. She always was very bright.”

“Where is she?”

Jessica’s face darkened, and she looked away.

“When the Hameji came, they took her away,” said James. “She’s one of them now, the wife of—”

“James!” his father said sharply. The kitchen fell suddenly silent.

Jessica took a deep breath and smiled, but there were tears in the corners of her eyes. “Well, it’s good to have a girl in the house again,” she said, reaching out to take Kyla’s hand warmly in her own.

Is this what my mother would have been like? Kyla wondered. Her memories were dim, but she could feel them rising within her. Her father had been a lot like Adam, firm and austere, but loving in his own sort of way. He’d died when the Hameji had first taken over—Kyla couldn’t remember exactly how—and that had left her and her mother alone. That was when the hard times had come, and everything had fallen apart. But before that, she had a family where she felt safe and loved.

Why are they opening their home to me like this? she thought, her hands shaking ever so slightly. I’m not in their family. They don’t owe me any of this. Why are they being so kind to me?

“Is there anything else about you we should know?” Adam asked, a little gruffly. His expression was not unkind, though.

Kyla bit her lip. “I-I don’t know,” she said, her voice barely louder than a whisper.

“What was that?”

“She said she doesn’t know, Dad,” James answered.

“Well, we’ll take care of you as best we can,” said Jessica.

“Why?” Kyla blurted.

The others frowned and looked at her. “What do you mean?”

Kyla’s arms started shaking, and she found it suddenly hard to breathe. “Why are you doing all this for me?”

Instead of answering her with words, Jessica stood up and gave her a hug. The last of Kyla’s defenses broke down, and she began to quietly sob. It was as if her life before had been a nightmare, and only now was she finally waking up.

I don’t deserve any of this, she thought to herself. I’ll never be able to pay them back. Somehow, though, none of that really mattered. What mattered was that she’d found a home.

James’s wrist console beeped, and he set down his fork to check it. Instantly, he was on his feet.

“Sorry, Mom and Dad. I have to go.”

“Are you sure it can’t wait, son?” Adam asked. “We hardly ever see you these days.”

“I’m sure, Dad. Sorry.”

He gave each of his parents a hug before quite literally running out the door. Kyla watched it slowly shut behind him and wondered why he would ever want to leave this place.

“James has so many duties,” Jessica told her, as if she could read her mind. “We’re very proud of him, even if we don’t get to see him very often.”

“He’s the last one we have left,” Adam muttered.

“Not anymore,” said Jessica, giving Kyla another hug.

Kyla’s lip was quivering too much for her to answer, but she nodded and returned the hug. Thank you, she thought inwardly. Thank you for giving me a home.


* * * * *


James half-ran, half-walked down the narrow corridor towards the nearest elevator shaft. He hated to leave his parents in the middle of family dinner, especially when he was supposed to be introducing them to Kyla, but this was urgent.

A Hameji outrider had arrived unexpectedly not half an hour ago. It was too small to be the advance force of a strike team, but too unusual to ignore. James’s contacts in the Defense Corps had notified him immediately, but he’d left it for them to handle.

Until the outrider had docked, that was. The pilot was Jahan, and he’d requested a personal meeting with James at once.

He tapped his feet impatiently as the elevator descended toward the spaceport at the lowest level of the station. Why did these things have to be so unbearably slow? Fortunately, no one stopped to get on.

His wrist console chimed. It was Lars.

“Hello, James?” Lars said as he answered the call. “Are you there?”

James sighed. “What is it, Lars?”

“Have you been following the discussion forums in the General Assembly? All the centralists have gone unusually silent, while the patrician’s office has been holding closed-channel discussions with them. It looks like the patrician is up to something.”

“Lars, can we talk later? Now isn’t a good time.”

“I know, you’ve got your family dinner, but I saw that you stepped out for a minute and thought that we could chat.”

James frowned and checked the privacy settings on his console. Sure enough, he’d forgotten to turn them off.

“You seem to have an in with them,” Lars continued. “The patrician’s inner circle, I mean. Remember how we talked about it on the Freedom’s Star?

“Yes, Lars, but now is really not a good time. Can we talk later?”

Lars paused. “All right. How about we talk over lunch sometime?”

“That would be great.”

“Can you do tomorrow?”

“Yeah, sure,” said James. The elevator slowed as it reached the lower level.

“Tomorrow upshift at eleven?”

“Of course. Bye, Lars.”

He cut the connection and hurried onto the concourse. There weren’t many people on this side of the spaceport, but he still drew stares from some of the bar patrons as he broke into a run. If Jahan had come all this way to meet with him, it meant that the Hameji were up to something—and he doubted that that was good.

Sterling was waiting for him by the spaceport entrance. His eyes widened as James all but barreled into him.

“Hello, Lieu—I mean, Commander,” he said, stepping back as he gave a salute. “We have a visitor, sir—someone who wants to speak with you.”

“Of course,” said James as he hastily returned the salute. “Where is he?”

“We, ah, commandeered one of the vacant offices for a meeting space. He’s waiting there for you now.”

“Take me to him.”

“Right away, sir,” said Sterling. He turned and set off at an awkward half-run, James following close behind.

When they reached the vacant office—behind a customs booth that had been gathering dust for some time—James stepped over the DO NOT ENTER tape and went straight for the office. The door was propped open by a metal beam, and the display monitors on the computer terminal had been removed, leaving the wiring exposed. There was still a desk, though, with a smooth basalt finish, and an overstuffed couch beneath the window. Jahan sat in the center of it.

I remember you, James thought as the young boy stood up. You were the one who took me to see my sister back at Gaia Nova. He was dressed in the typical Hameji officer’s uniform, a flat gray canvas shirt with a green sash cutting diagonally across his chest. As James entered, he stood up to his full height, which barely came up to the middle of James’s chest. The austere expression on his boyish face would have been comical, except for the unusual circumstances of their meeting.

“Master Jahan,” said James, bowing. Sterling did the same.

Jahan scowled at Sterling and flicked his wrist at him. “Send servant away,” he said in his thick Hameji accent. It was clear that he didn’t speak the language of the conquered territories very well.

He’s not my servant, he’s my wingman, James wanted to retort. Even so, he nodded to Sterling, who stepped out.

“Good,” said Jahan. “I bring message for you.”

“What sort of message?”

“From Sholpan,” Jahan continued, as if James hadn’t spoken. “You will take family and come my ship. You will do now.”

James frowned. “What the hell are you talking about?”

The scowl on Master Jahan’s boyish face widened—apparently, his limited vocabulary included profanity. “Is no time for argue. You will do as say and take family my ship.”

“Why? What’s going on?”

“Is Sholpan’s orders,” said Jahan. “I go, I save you from Tagatai. Is coming big fleet, come very soon for war.”

James’s legs stiffened, and his cheeks began to pale. “You said a Hameji battle fleet is coming?”

“Is coming, yes. Is killing you all, is reason Sholpan command me come. You take family my ship, you come now.”

Stars of Earth, James thought. A sudden wave of dizziness came over him, and he steadied himself against the desk.

“Why you wait? You come, you take—”

“I can’t do that, Master Jahan. I have to stay.”

Jahan frowned. “You stupid? If stay, will die.

Not if I have anything to do with it.

“I appreciate the offer, Master Jahan, but I have to stay with my people. I’m sure you can understand.”

“No. Not understand.”

James put a hand on his shoulder and gently herded him toward the door. Jahan tried to fight back, but he was too small to shrug off James’s grasp.

“Stop!” he shouted. “What you do?”

“I’m sending you back to your ship,” said James. “Go back and get out of here, before Tagatai’s men find out what you were up to.”

“But what tell Sholpan? She give orders!”

“Tell her that I’m going to be okay. Tell her that I’ll take care of the family.”

“Unacceptable. She say take family and go!”

That’s because she’s just as stubborn as I am, James thought, smiling in spite of himself. Stars, I’m going to miss her.

“I am taking the family, Jahan. I’m just not taking them with you.”

They stepped through the door and out into the terminal, gathering some strange looks from a couple of nearby guards.

“Unacceptable! You—”

“Get back to your ship,” said James. “I’m not coming with you—not if you force me at gunpoint.”

Master Jahan’s face went red, and he stood up straight as if to size up his opponent. For a hair’s breadth of a moment, James thought the kid would actually pull a gun and try him at his word. Instead, he turned and left in a huff.

“What was that about?” asked Sterling, his face darkened in concern. “It sounded as if—”

“Double the watch, Sterling. Put everything we’ve got on those scanners—if anything shows up, let me know.”

Sterling frowned. “What? Sir, what’s going on?”

But James was already running back to the elevator.


* * * * *


Sara didn’t think she could stand any more meetings. Her father had scheduled her to meet with virtually every centralist think tank in order to drum up support for their PR campaign, but hadn’t authorized her to reveal anything. As a result, she felt like an overdressed cheerleader in front of a crowd of skeptics. Fortunately, the dayshift was over, and she didn’t have to endure another political event until the next one.

“Incoming call,” Nina said as Sara collapsed on her apartment’s couch. She groaned and resisted the urge to bury her face in a pillow.

“Tell them I’m busy, Nina.”

“The caller is Commander McCoy, mistress. Shall I tell him to try later?”

James? Sara thought, perking up at once.

“Never mind, Nina. I’ll take the call.”

The apartment speakers chimed, and James’s voice came through. “Hello? Sara?”

“Hi, James,” said Sara, sitting up and leaning forward. “What’s up?”

“We’ve got a problem, Sara. The Hameji are coming and could be here any moment. We need to get ready to jump out—now.”

Sara covered her face and groaned—quietly, though, so that James couldn’t hear. For the briefest of moments, she’d thought that he was making a personal call. But no, it was only another crisis that had driven him to her.

“What makes you say that, James?”

“A Hameji outrider just arrived from my sister to take me and my family away. The pilot said that an attack was imminent, and if we stayed, we’d all die.”

“Okay,” said Sara, her hands beginning to shake. “What should we do?”

“We should get everything ready and jump out as soon as we can.”

Bypass the General Assembly with no sign of danger? We might as well hand the opposition my father’s head on a platter.

“Hold on, James. Let’s take some time and think about this.”

“We don’t have time,” he told her. “If we’re still here when the Hameji show up, they’ll blow the Colony to pieces.”

“But we haven’t launched the PR campaign yet. If we bypass the General Assembly without any sign of danger, the opposition will rip us to shreds.”

“But if we don’t, we’ll all be dead.”

“Just—just calm down for a second,” she said, scrambling to come up with a reason that would satisfy him. “There’s still a shift of workers out in the smelters and asteroid mines. If we leave before they get back, they’ll all be killed.”

James paused. “Dammit, you’re right. How soon can we have them back?”

As long as it takes to keep you from committing political suicide.

“I’ll call up Ståle and get on that right away. And James—please, don’t do anything crazy without letting me know first.”

“I’m not crazy, Sara. This is real.”

“I know. Keep me posted.”

The call ended. Exasperated, Sara fell back against the couch. At least you won’t have all those meetings tomorrow, she tried to console herself.

It was poor comfort.

“Nina, put me on the line with Ståle Anderson. Tell him it’s urgent.”

“Of course,” said Nina. “Right away, mistress.”

Perhaps this is for the best, she thought. It would be a lot easier to galvanize the people in the face of impending disaster than it would without an external threat. Of course, that meant that she had to keep James occupied until the Hameji actually showed up.

Then again, what if James was right? What if by waiting, they all got killed? She was risking the lives of everyone in the Colony with every moment they waited. But if that was the only way to put the exodus plan into motion, then that was what needed to be done.

You’re becoming just like your father, a nagging voice whispered in the back of her head. This is exactly the sort of calculation that he would make.

Before she could address that, the chime sounded, indicating that Ståle was on the line. “Mister Anderson?” she said.

“Here,” said Ståle. “What’s wrong, Sara?”

“I just heard from Commander McCoy that we’re at high risk for an imminent Hameji attack. If that happens, the men who are currently in the asteroid mines are in danger of being stranded.”

“I understand, Sara. I’ll see to it that they’re recalled right away.”

“About how much time do you need?” she asked.

“Not very long. They should all be back within forty-five minutes.”

I hope that gives us enough time to stall James. The thought made her feel guilty as soon as it popped into her head.

“Thank you, Ståle. Hopefully, this is just a false alarm.”

“If it is, there could be political consequences for us. Are you sure we should do this?”

“Yes,” she answered immediately. “Better to risk our careers than the lives of those men.” Of course, that last part was mostly for herself.

“Understood, Sara. I’ll see to it right away.”

The connection ended, leaving her alone with her thoughts once again. Her mind raced as she tried to think what else she had to do—and all she could think of was how she was manipulating everyone around her, just like her father.

I have to let James know, she decided. Father would keep him in the dark, so I have to be honest and let him know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. She ordered Nina to make the call and began to pace her cozy apartment.

“Sara?” James asked.

“James,” she answered, her heart beating a little harder. “I talked with Ståle—the asteroid miners and smelter operators are on their way back to the station now.”

“How long until they get here?”

“About forty-five minutes. But James, we can’t jump out until the Hameji actually get here.”

Pause. “Why not?”

Sara swallowed. Full disclosure—here goes nothing.

“We can’t because if the people don’t know there’s a threat, they’ll turn on us as traitors and the exodus will completely fall apart. They need to know that they’re in danger, so that when we jump out, they’ll see that we saved them.”

Her explanation was met by silence. She folded one arm across her chest and covered her mouth with her hand.

“James?”

“I hear you, Sara. I don’t like it, but it makes sense. Stars, though—that’s cutting it awful close.”

“It is,” said Sara, a wave of relief washing over her. “Can we do it?”

“When the Hameji jump in, they’ll hit us as hard and as fast as they can to make sure that no one escapes. Our window of opportunity will only be a couple of minutes, so there’s no room for error. If we’re going to do this, I need to be the one who pulls the switch.”

“That’s fine,” she said. “The operating room for the jump drive is next to the spaceport, disguised as an abandoned office space. I’ll have Nina give you the exact address.”

“Thanks.”

“Tell the operator that I sent you, and he should let you take over.”

“Will do,” said James. “And Sara, how are you taking all this?”

She frowned. “What do you mean?”

“You sound a little like—well, like you’re taking it hard. Just take care of yourself, all right? I can take over from here.”

Her frowned turned into a smile as she realized that he was concerned for her. “Thanks, James,” she told him. “I’ll be fine.”

“Great. I’ll see you when all this is over.”

The line went silent, leaving her alone once again. She ordered Nina to send James the address and paced her tiny apartment, more to burn off her nervous energy than anything.

So it was done—everything had been taken care of. The asteroid miners were on their way home, and James would handle their escape once the Hameji showed up. There was nothing left to do except wait.

No, she realized with a start. Mom. She froze in mid-stride, chills running down her spine as she realized she’d never see her again.

“Nina, patch a call through to my mother at K-3.”

“Understood, mistress. Shall I transmit a recorded message?”

“No,” said Sara. “I want to talk with her live.”

It took a little less than a minute for the signal to transmit from the Colony to the moon settlement above Kardunash III where her mother currently lived. That made for almost a two minute delay for live calls, which was why most people opted to send messages over that distance instead. But if Sara was never going to talk with her mother again, she wanted their last call to be live.

As she waited for the call to go through, she paced a little faster and nervously started biting her nails. It was a bad habit that she’d struggled with as a little girl, and she caught herself before she’d made a mess of them, but that she’d started at all told her that she was more uptight than she’d thought.

“I’m sorry, mistress,” Nina’s voice came after the two minutes had passed. “Your mother is not available right now.”

“What?” said Sara.

“To repeat, your—”

“No, no, never mind,” she said, shaking her head. “Just—just try again.”

“Very well, mistress, I will attempt the call again. Are you upset?”

What do you think? Sara almost snapped, before she remembered that she was speaking to a computer.

“I’m fine, Nina.”

“Your heartbeat is elevated. It appears that you are alarmed.”

“It’s all right. I’ll be fine.”

“Would you like me to fix you an herbal tea?” Nina asked. “I have several relaxing blends that may help reduce your stress.”

Sara sighed. “That would be great, Nina. Thanks.”

“Preparing your tea now, mistress. It will be ready in approximately three minutes.”

“Thank you, Nina.”

Sara collapsed back on the couch and buried her face in her hands. How had she never realized that the exodus meant she would never see her mother again? Until now, it had always been a vague and nebulous concept in her mind—just another political action goal. She had never given much thought to how it would impact her life. Now, she almost wished that it wouldn’t happen—that she could stay here at Karduna and nothing would actually change. But that was impossible.

“I’m sorry, mistress, but your mother is not answering.”

“Again?” said Sara, leaping to her feet. She paced to the end of the room and back before sitting back down.

“Would you like me to try again, Mistress?”

“Yes,” said Sara, taking a deep breath. “Please do.”

“Very well. Your tea is ready.”

“Thanks, Nina. I’ll get it right now.”

She retrieved the tea from the food dispenser and sipped it slowly while standing. Whether it was the blend of herbs or the fact that she finally had something to do with her hands, the tea had a blessedly calming effect. Her breaths became longer and deeper, and the urge to pace the room slowly went away. Still, she found herself glancing at her wrist console, counting down the seconds as Nina attempted the call.

“I’m so sorry, mistress,” Nina said after the two minutes. “Your mother is not answering.”

Sara took a deep breath and set her tea down with shaking hands. Was it really going to be this way? Would she not get a chance to hear her mother one last time?

“Keep trying,” she said weakly. “Let me know if you get through. In the meantime, I’m going to take a shower.”

“Good idea, mistress. A shower will make you feel much better.”

It will also give me time to think about what my last words to my mother should be, Sara thought. If she couldn’t get a chance to talk with her, then at least she would leave one last message.

Nina was right—the shower worked wonders. There was something about the warmth of the water against her skin that made everything feel better. She set the pressure to its highest setting and let the horizontal jets of the shower unit hold her in place. Steam enveloped her like a warm blanket, calming her heart and clearing her mind.

She thought of all the things her mother had meant to her. Her father had always been difficult to please, but no matter what she did, she knew that her mother would still love her. When they had divorced, it had been a lot harder on Sara than she’d let on. Part of her had wanted to leave with her mother for the moon settlement, but she knew that she couldn’t do that—no matter where she went, the Colony would always be her home.

As an adult, she’d come to terms with the divorce, but it had always tainted her relationship with her parents. It had often annoyed her how her mother had tried to involve herself in her life from afar. Now, that all seemed so trivial.

“Nina,” she said as she stepped out of the shower. “Have you been able to get through?”

“I’m sorry, mistress. I’m afraid I haven’t.”

Sara sighed. “Very well. Record and transmit this message for her.”

The tones chimed, indicating that the recording had started. Sara was still naked from the shower, but in a way, that seemed fitting. Her emotions were just as bare.

“Mom,” she began, “it’s me, Sara.” She stared at herself in the mirror and forced herself to go on. “By the time you get this message, I’ll probably be far away. We’re leaving—it’s the only way to save us from the Hameji.”

She cringed to think about how her mother would blame her father for all this, but closed her eyes and went on. “The how isn’t important; what matters is that this is the last message that I’ll ever be able to send to you.” A lump rose in her throat, but she swallowed hard and choked it down.

“I just want to let you know that I’ve always loved you, and that I always will. When you and dad split up, it was hard on all of us, but I know why you had to do it. I never blamed you for the fact that it didn’t work out.

“I know that I haven’t always been honest with you, and that sometimes I’ve closed myself off from you or pushed you away, but even when—”

Alarms began to sound in the hallway. A low-pitched hum sounded through the bulkheads, and the walls began to throb. Sara’s breath caught in her throat—she recognized the hum from her voyage on the Freedom Star. It was the sound a jump drive made before it engaged.

No! she thought desperately. Not now—anytime but now! But nothing she did could turn back the clock and give her the time to say all that was in her heart

“I love you, Mother,” she said quickly. “Never forget that. Nina, transmit!”

“Transmitting,” said Nina. “Stand by.”

The humming rose in pitch and intensity, making the bulkheads vibrate and the floor shake beneath her feet. Sara slammed both hands palm down on the bathroom counter-top, steadying herself. Far away, she heard something that sounded like an explosion. She held her breath as every muscle in her body seemed to tense. Was this the end? Was she going to die? Here in her bathroom, naked and alone—it seemed like such a horrible way to go.

Her stomach suddenly fell, making her gasp. At the same time, her sense of direction completely reversed, making her feel as if she were upside down on the ceiling. She reached out frantically for purchase, but her perspective seemed to invert like an optical illusion, leaving her on the outside of the room looking in. She closed her eyes and opened her mouth to scream, but before she could, darkness enveloped her.

When she opened her eyes, she found herself lying on the floor of her bathroom. The alarms were still blaring, but the hum was completely gone. Her sense of orientation had returned, and other than a couple of bruises on her elbows, she seemed to be just fine.

“Mistress!” Nina cried, her voice frantic even for an AI. “Mistress, are you all right? Would you like me to call for help?”

“No,” said Sara, standing up. “I’m fine, Nina—I’m fine.” Besides, the last thing I need is someone running in here while I’m naked.

“Are you sure? I think you need to see a doctor.”

“That won’t be necessary. Did you transmit the message?”

“I am not sure, mistress. There was an unknown interruption in the middle of the transmission process.”

Sara bit her lip and clenched her eyes shut as tightly as she possibly could. She didn’t get it, she thought. My last chance to send a message to my mother, and it failed.

“Are you feeling unwell, mistress? Your body language is alarming me.”

“Nina, go on standby until further notice.”

“But mistress—”

“That is a direct order, Nina. Go away.”

“Very well,” said Nina. “Going on standby now. Goodbye!”

Sara sat down the corner and hugged her knees against her chest. Her shoulders began to shake uncontrollably as she sobbed. More than anything else, she felt like a lost little girl. In more than one way, perhaps she was.

Part III: The Leader


Chapter 13


James walked briskly down the main thoroughfare leading out from the spaceport, one hand on his energy pistol. Except for a few scattered market stalls and a handful of customers, the hallway was empty. Merchants and customers alike stood as if in a daze, their faces etched with the uncertainty and confusion that precedes mass panic.

They’re an angry mob waiting to happen, James thought grimly. They’re lost and confused and don’t know what just happened, but when they find out, things could get ugly.

Not on his watch.

“Attention!” he said in a loud voice. The crowd turned to him immediately, no doubt because of the uniform.

“What’s going on?” someone asked. “Can you tell us what just happened?”

“It felt like the whole station just… jumped.”

“This area is closed until further notice,” he said in a commanding tone. “You are ordered to return to your homes and stay indoors.”

“What?”

“Why?”

“Return to your homes immediately,” he said again. “It’s a matter of station security.”

The people stared at him for a moment, but one by one, they complied. Instead of fomenting into a mob, the crowd began to disperse, many of them talking in hushed tones with each other as they went.

James let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. His hand, which had hovered next to his holster, twitched and began to relax. There wasn’t any time to waste, though. His work here was done, but the situation was far from under control.

Mom and Dad, he thought, remembering the dinner that they had put on for him and Kayla. I have to get back to them—I have to make sure that they’re safe.

He activated his wrist console and quickly put a call through to Sterling as he half-walked, half-ran to the main elevators. To his relief, Sterling picked up almost immediately.

“Captain, sir! What’s going on?”

“I need you to rally all of the men in your area to patrol the main concourse. If you see any civilians, tell them to return to their homes and stay indoors.”

“What?”

“Just set up that patrol,” said James. “Make your presence felt. We’re going to get through this crisis all right, but we need to prevent a riot.”

“Why would the people riot, Sir?”

“I can’t explain it now, Sterling, but I promise that I will later. For now, I need you to get out there and maintain the peace. Understand?”

Sterling paused. “Understood, Sir. I’ll do my best.”

“That’s all I can ask of you.” I just hope that it’s enough.

James stepped onto the nearest empty elevator and punched the code for the deck where his parents lived. As the doors hissed shut, he lifted his wrist console and put a call through to Sara.

“Sara? Are you there?”

She didn’t answer.

“Sara?”

Again, no response. His console showed that the call had failed to go through.

James clenched his fist and swore. By himself, he didn’t have the authority to impose the sort of station-wide curfew that they needed to keep the mobs from forming. Only the patrician had that power, but Sara was the only real contact in the patrician’s office that he could go through and she wasn’t answering. Maybe that was a good thing—maybe she had realized how dangerous the situation was, and was busy working to quell the unrest before it started. After all, she always seemed to be at least one step ahead of him. But without any way to contact her, he was completely out of the loop. All he could do was work with Sterling to secure the spaceport and make sure that his parents were hunkered down.

The elevator reached his deck and came to a stop. James gripped his pistol as the doors hissed open, but the corridor outside was quiet. Eerily quiet. He glanced both ways and set out at a brisk pace toward his parents’ apartment, his hand never leaving his gun.

By now, no doubt, news had begun to spread that the Colony had somehow jumped out of its Lagrange orbit deep into interstellar space. Confusion would turn to shock, and shock would turn to anger. With the solar collectors no longer gathering energy, the power grid would probably fail, and if the grid went down while the people began to agitate, it could throw the whole station into chaos.

As if in confirmation, the lights in the corridor began to dim and flicker.

By the time he reached his parents’ door, he could already hear footsteps and raised voices through the bulkheads above. He drew his pistol and banged on the door.

“Open up!” he shouted. “It’s me, James!”

The door slid open, and his mother stared out at him, a look of concern on her face. “James? Where have you been? Why are you carrying your gun?”

Without a word, James hurried inside and palmed the door shut. He kept watch with his pistol pointed through the doorway until it was fully closed, then locked it with the keypad. Only then did he slip his gun back in its holster and turn to face his parents.

“James?” said his father, in a tone of voice that demanded answers.

“It’s all right,” said James. “I just wanted to make sure that we’re safe.”

“Safe from what?”

“From—look, why don’t we sit down? There’s a lot to explain.”

Above them, the shouting got worse, then fell eerily silent as footsteps sounded through the bulkheads. James ushered his parents back into the kitchen, to the table where less than an hour ago they had come to eat dinner.

“What’s wrong?” Kyla asked, standing by the doorway. “Do we need to go?”

“No,” said James. “We need to stay here, where it’s safe.”

He claimed Kyla’s seat, which gave him a view of the main entranceway to the apartment, and motioned for the others to sit down.

“We all felt something strange after you left,” said his mother. “It felt almost as if… well, as if we were on a starship making a jump somewhere.”

“That’s impossible,” said his father.

“Well, that’s what it felt like.”

“And that’s what it was,” said James. “The Hameji attacked us, so we jumped the station out into deep space.”

Both of his parents and Kyla stared at him. His father frowned and furrowed his brow, while his mother’s eyes went wide. Kyla looked as if she were ready to bolt.

“How is that possible?” his father asked. “The Colony is a station, not a starship—it doesn’t have a jump drive.”

“Actually, Dad, it does.”

“But—but how?”

“Let’s open to a news channel,” his mother said, interrupting them both. She toggled the controls on the tabletop, and the wallscreen immediately above them switched to a video feed.

“—not sure, but it appears that we have left the Karduna system altogether,” said the announcer. “We’re receiving hundreds of videos from citizen-journalists across the Colony, showing the, uh, much changed view outside. As you can see, nothing is where it should be.”

The camera panned left, and the right side of the screen divided to show two simultaneous videos stacked on top of each other, each one cycling through a different feed every few seconds. Every one of them showed the milky-white starfield of deep space, with no sign of Karduna or any of the nearby asteroids.

“Stars and constellations of Earth,” James’s father muttered. “So it’s true.”

“If you’re just now joining us,” the announcer said, “we are reporting on the anomaly that many of you felt just a few minutes ago. It appears now that it was in fact an FTL device that transported the entire Colony out of the Karduna system. We have no official confirmation from the patrician’s office yet, or indeed any official statement on the incident, but we expect that—”

The video feed suddenly cut to a static emergency screen, with the word ALERT in bold letters next to the logo of the patrician’s office. James’s parents jumped a little at the interruption, as did Kyla. An alarm tone sounded before the audio cut to a generic male voice program.

“This is not a test. Repeat, this is not a test. An emergency curfew has been declared throughout the Colony, and all citizens are required to stay in their homes until further notice. Failure to comply will result in detention and arrest. Repeat, an emergency curfew has been…”

James’s mother cycled through the channels, but all of them were broadcasting the same emergency message from the patrician’s office. There was nowhere to go for news on the unfolding situation except the message board forums, which were no doubt exploding right about then.

“I’ve seen enough,” said James’s father. He jabbed his index finger on the table, and the wallscreen shut off at once.

For several moments, none of them said anything. The silence was so tense, it was almost as unpleasant as the newscast. James rose to his feet, mostly to clear his mind. If there ever was a time to think, now was it.

What was the patrician doing, cutting off the civilian broadcasts like that? The curfew was good—it would prevent any violence in the short term, giving the citizens a chance to recover from the chaos—but silencing the public media was crossing a major line. With a military-enforced curfew and seizure of all the Colony’s broadcast channels, it was as if he was setting himself up as a dictator. Even if their democracy survived this crisis, the people would not forget what he’d done.

At that moment, the lights flickered and shut off. Kyla screamed, and James drew his pistol. Fortunately, the emergency auxiliaries cut in a few moments later, but their meager light did little to make them feel any safer.

“Stay calm,” James said. “It’s just a power shortage. We’re in deep space, so the solar collectors aren’t working at capacity.”

“Will we survive?” his mother ask.

“Of course,” he said, hoping that his confidence would reassure them. “We just have to stay calm and stay inside, just like the warning says.”

I won’t let anything happen to you.

“God help us,” his father said under his breath. James couldn’t help but agree.


* * * * *


Sara palmed open the door to her father’s office. She found him hunched over his computer terminal, a deep-set frown embedded in his face. He wordlessly motioned for her to come in and take a seat.

She glanced around at the familiar furnishings. An authentic wooden bookshelf housed a number of synth-paper books, all of them antiques, while wall-screens cycled through spectacular images of deep space. An ornate Aurigan rug covered the gray floor tiles, giving the place an air of self-assurance that the rest of the Colony had since lost. The chairs in the room were made of soft brown leather, but she sat on the edge of hers, not allowing herself to get too comfortable.

“Problems with the auxiliary reactors,” her father muttered, to himself as much as to her. “If we don’t get them online in the next few hours, we’re going to have to start rationing our energy. That’s not going to go over well.”

Neither is the unilateral seizure of all the civilian broadcast channels.

He looked more haggard than she could ever remember seeing him. The stoically pleasant mask he wore in public was gone, replaced by weariness and exasperation. His eyes were bloodshot with bags as large as her thumbnails, his jowled face frowning as if it were a permanent fixture. It disturbed her on some primal level to see him this way—it made her feel a little less safe, a little less secure.

Was it the loss of Sara’s mother that made him feel this way—the fact that he would never see her again, just as Sara would never see her? She doubted it. If it had crossed his mind at all, he’d probably chosen to ignore it.

“How is the curfew holding?” she asked.

“Very well, surprisingly enough. There have been a few isolated incidents, but overall things have been quite peaceful.”

“Considering how you mobilized every soldier in the Corps and all but imposed martial law, I’d hardly call that ‘surprising.’”

He chuckled, probably because arguing with her would have taken too much effort.

“In any case,” she continued, “what are we going to do now? You’ve all but ensured that the public is going to turn against us, and we haven’t even presented our plans for the exodus yet.”

“That’s right,” he agreed. “When the people discover all the secrets I’ve been holding from them, they’ll turn all their rage and anger on me.”

“So where do we go from here? What’s our game plan? You’re committing political suicide!”

He rose to his feet and put a hand on her shoulder. “Sara, my dear, there comes a time when we all must make sacrifices for the greater good. I have spent my life in public service, but the people need more than that now.”

“Like what?” she asked. “What else do they need?”

“A villain.”

His answer took her aback. She stared at him in shocked silence.

“When the people realize that there’s no going back,” her father continued, “they will immediately look for a scapegoat: someone on whom they can lay the blame for all that they’ve lost. Only then will they be able to pick up the pieces and move on.”

“But—but what about the exodus?” she asked, her voice shaking. “What about all that we’ve worked for?”

“It will go forward, just as we have planned. We have no other choice now. It may take the people some time to realize that, but we have several months still before we arrive at Zeta Nabat. There will be time for them to come together.”

“What if they don’t?”

He grinned at her, the way he always did when he had an ace up his sleeve. Reflexively, Sara tensed.

“Oh, they will, Sara. One way or another, a leader will rise up to galvanize them. And I think we both know who that leader will be.”

James, she thought, startling herself. She looked at her father and frowned.

“What makes you think that James will be the one to lead them?”

“Because when the immediate crisis is over, they will remember him as the one who saved them. After all, he was the one who activated the jump drive just before the Hameji destroyed us—a brilliant move on your part, I must say.”

How did you know about that?

“Was that your plan from the beginning?” she asked instead.

Her father sighed. “It wasn’t my primary plan, but it was one of the secondaries. If the Hameji had given us more time, perhaps we could have launched the exodus in an orderly democratic fashion. But now that’s no longer possible, it’s time to pass the torch.”

Sara frowned. James hadn’t even been presented to the people yet, and already her father was talking about cultivating him as a figurehead to rally the people. Was there nothing her father didn’t have a finger in? Was there no one he wouldn’t manipulate?

“Let me guess,” she said, folding her arms. “If James is the one to lead us through the exodus, then I’m supposed to be his handler.”

“But of course, my dear. Have you seen the way he looks at you? With your feminine wiles, I’m sure you’ll be able to handle him.”

Blood rushed to Sara’s cheeks. She masked it by sighing and rolling her eyes.

“So much for political suicide.”

“It’s only my legacy that I’m sacrificing. My work will not be finished until the last citizen safely boards the last colony ship to Chira. Only then will I step aside.”

And until then, you’ll stop at nothing, Sara thought bitterly. Is there any line you won’t cross to get there?

“I suppose you want me to go see James at my earliest convenience.”

Her father chuckled, his weariness lifting ever so slightly. “You always were a perceptive child,” he said, patting her on the back. “You’re like your mother in that respect.”

And I’ll never see her again, thanks to you.

He glanced at her and frowned. “Is something the matter, dear? You look upset.”

“I’m fine,” she said, shrugging him off. “If I’m going to see James, I’d better get going.”

“We’ve all had a very hard day, dear. If you need some time to—”

“I told you, I’m fine.”

She left before her father could stop her, and before she accidentally said something that she’d later regret. Exodus or not, she would show her father that she wasn’t like him.


* * * * *


“That sure is convenient,” Adam muttered. “Switching off the power and cutting us off from the localnet just when we all need it the most. If I were the patrician and I wanted to set myself up as a dictator, that’s exactly what I’d do.”

James groaned. “Dad, will you give it a rest? I told you everything I know already, and I know more than just about anyone else.”

“The patrician is using you, son. Can’t you see that? You’re being played for a pawn.”

That’s not true, James thought. Still, he wasn’t entirely sure. He had to admit, what the patrician was doing looked pretty bad. The Colony was supposed to be a perfect techno-democracy, where every civic decision was made by the voice of the General Assembly. To keep the station jump drive a secret was bad enough, but to seize control of the civilian broadcast channels, impose a station-wide curfew, and enforce it by martial law—that was grounds for impeachment. And if the patrician went down, James would almost certainly be implicated. After all, he was the one who had pulled the switch.

“I did what I had to do,” he tried to argue. “The Hameji had just come down with a battle fleet, and were about to destroy us. Jumping out was the only defense we had.”

“And that’s exactly what the patrician wanted.”

“The patrician isn’t out to become a dictator, Dad. He’s trying to save us.”

“And robbing us of our freedoms in the process.”

“Dear, please,” said Jessica. “Fighting about this isn’t going to do good to anyone.”

“Thank you,” said James, nodded at her.

On the seat cushion beside her, Kyla hugged her knees and stared at the opposite wall. In the dim light of the emergency auxiliaries, she looked almost catatonic.

What if Dad’s right? James thought doubtfully. What if the patrician is just as much of a wolf as the Hameji? Worse things had certainly been done in the name of protection. When it came down to it, there wasn’t much of a difference between the wolves and the sheepdogs—James of all people knew that.

“I never thought I’d see the day when my own son closed ranks with the centralists,” said Adam, shaking his head. “I knew there was a risk when we let you join the Defense Corps, but—”

“Dear!”

At that moment, someone pounded on the door. James leaped to his feet and raised his pistol, while the others instantly went still.

“James?” a muffled voice came from the other side. “Can you hear me? It’s Sara.”

Sara? James wondered. What’s she doing here?

He palmed open the door and ushered her quickly inside. The corridor outside was empty, but he still kept his pistol drawn until the door was shut and locked. Only then did he return it to its holster.

“Good evening, James. Are you doing well?”

“How did you know I was here?” he asked.

She pointed at his wrist console, which was still on. “I traced your signal through the public channels. But even without that, I figured you’d head back to your parents as soon as things got bad.”

James’s cheeks reddened, and he hastily shut the wrist console off.

“Who is this?” his father asked, frowning. “James?”

“Dad, this is Sara Galbraith-Dickson, the patrician’s daughter. Sara, this is my father, Adam.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said Sara, nodding politely. His father’s reaction was noticeably cold.

“Is this one of your co-conspirators?”

“Adam!” his mother cried.

“James, I need to speak with you,” Sara said under her breath. If she was insulted by his father’s rudeness, she had chosen to ignore it.

“Right,” said James. He turned to his parents. “Sara and I need to talk privately for a moment.”

“I’m sure you do,” said Adam, folding his arms.

“I’m terribly sorry about the mess that we’ve all found ourselves in,” said Sara. “I’m sure that James has told you everything by now. Please be assured, my father is doing all he can to restore power and return the network to operational status.” Her voice was calm and diplomatic, with a soothing effect that diffused the tension at once.

Adam narrowed his eyes at her. “What have you people done to my son?”

“Nothing, Dad,” said James, stepping between them. “Come on, Sara, let’s get away from here. We’ll be in the, uh, bedroom at the end of the hall. Let us know if anyone else tries to come in.”

Before his father could protest, he took Sara by the arm and led her into the master bedroom—the only other room in the small apartment where they could be alone behind closed doors. It wasn’t until they were inside that James realized how it might be awkward. Still, he was too exhausted to care.

“What’s going on?” he asked, sitting on the edge of the bed.

Sara took a deep breath and pulled a strand of hair behind her ear. Was she nervous? James couldn’t remember seeing her like this before—something was definitely bothering her.

“There’s something I should tell you,” she said, not meeting his eyes.

Is it something I did? Am I in trouble?

“Uh, yeah?” he asked. Words failed him, like they so often did in her presence.

“There’s no easy way to put it, so I might as well come out and tell you everything,” she said, the words pouring out of her in a torrent. “My father knows that the people aren’t going to follow him after what he’s done today. Imposing a curfew, sending out the troops—”

“He only did what had to be done.”

“I know that, and you know that, but the people aren’t going to see it that way. He expects them to blame him for everything, which means that he can no longer lead. That’s where you come in, James. We need to you to lead.”

James frowned. “Why would the people follow me?”

“Because you’re the one who saved us. When the Hameji attacked, you were the one who pulled the switch. You’re also the one who saved the delegation at the conference. The people need someone they can look to as a protector, and for better or worse, that’s you. If you play things right, you might even rise to be the next patrician.”

She was looking straight at him now, in a way that made him feel rather uncomfortable. He shifted uneasily on the bedspread, his legs suddenly feeling weak.

“Why are you telling me this?”

“To warn you,” she said, sitting down next to him. “Do you know what my father wanted me to do?” Her eyes were so intense that they practically captivated him.

“Uh,” he said, not sure how to respond. It had been a while since she’d been this close to him. Her smell was pleasant and familiar, and her blouse was partially open, so that he could just barely—

“Are you even listening?”

“Of course,” he said quickly—too quickly. “You said, uh, your father thinks the people will, ah, look up to me, and…”

She shook her head. “My father had it all planned out so perfectly. I could have done it, too.”

“Done what?”

“Wrapped you around my finger, so that you’d do everything I wanted. He wanted me to seduce you, so that we could use you to accomplish our plans.”

James’s arms tensed, and a chill ran down his back. He edged away from her, as if she’d just turned into a monster before his eyes. In some ways, perhaps she had.

“James—please, don’t be upset with me. I’m telling you this because I don’t want to do that.”

“But your father does.”

“My father wants a lot from me,” she said with a snarl. “I doubt I’ll ever live up to all of his expectations—and now, I no longer want to.”

What’s going on?

“Uh, Sara? Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” she said, taking a deep breath. “I’m sorry, you probably didn’t need to hear that. But before we get dragged any further into this mess, I just… I wanted to be honest. You understand, don’t you? Please tell me you understand.”

She gave him such a pleading look that his heart couldn’t help but go out to her. He searched her eyes for any sign of deception, but saw none. Whatever else she was after, she was being sincere.

“I think so, yeah,” he told her. “Thanks for coming clean.”

“You mean that?”

“Of course. But your father—”

“Let’s not talk about my father right now. What are you going to do, now that you know his plans for you?”

He thought for a second. “I don’t know. Are you sure he has the right idea? I mean, I’m not exactly top brass material.”

“The people won’t follow you because of your rank, they’ll follow you because of what you’ve done for them. And I know you, James—you won’t let them down.”

She put an encouraging hand on his shoulder, and gave him an unexpected hug. He savored the feeling, rubbing her back as he returned the embrace. An idea suddenly struck him, and he leaped to his feet.

“Lars—where’s Lars?”

Sara frowned. “Lars Stewart? What do you want with him?”

“I need to reconcile things with him. Will my parents be safe if I leave them?”

“Yes, but—”

Before she could finish her thought, he left the bedroom and hurried to the entry hall. The patter of her feet told him that she was close behind.

“Are you going somewhere, dear?” his mother asked.

“Sorry, Mom,” he said as he hastily put on his shoes. “I’ll be back again soon. I promise.”

“Son—”

But before anyone else could protest, he was already out the door, with Sara close behind.


* * * * *


“James, can we stop to think this through?” Sara pleaded as she struggled to keep up with him. The corridor was still deserted from the curfew, but unfortunately, none of the soldiers were here to stop him.

“No,” he said, not even glancing over his shoulder at her. “This is something I need to take care of immediately.”

They stopped at a door on the far end of the hallway. James palmed the access panel, and a chime sounded on the other side.

“But James, Lars has more connections than anyone but my father. If you show him your hand—”

“Lars is my friend. He won’t betray me.”

Sara swallowed. I very much doubt that.

She tried not to imagine how the news organizations were going to spin this. Rogue Commander Confronts Prominent Statesman in his Home. Alleged Savior of Colony Ambushes Former Best Friend. How was she going to put a positive spin on all the fallout? She didn’t think she could—

The door hissed open, cutting off her panicked thoughts. Lars stared out at them, a look of undisguised hostility written on his face.

“James.”

“Mind if we come in?”

Lars’s eyes narrowed as he glanced from James to Sara and back again.

“Lars, we need to talk.”

“Yes,” Lars said flatly. “Yes, we do.”

For a moment, Sara thought he would shut the door in her face, but instead he stepped aside and let them both in. She followed close behind James, trying her best not to look too conspicuous. If ever there were a time she wanted to be invisible, it was now.

The apartment was little more than a bachelor pad. A pile of dirty clothes lay on the floor next to the bed, while unwashed pans were stacked on the stove-top in the kitchenette. An old, threadbare couch lay on the wall opposite a computer terminal, with sticky notes lined up along the bottom of the holoscreen.

“You’ve been busy, I see,” said James. He plopped down on the couch and spread his arms along the back. Sara joined him a bit reluctantly, sitting on the edge, while Lars sat across from them on a collapsible wall chair.

“All of us seem to be busy these days,” said Lars, with a pointed look in Sara’s direction. Sara cringed, but she had no idea what to say to diffuse the tension.

“Have you read the latest news?” James asked.

“As a matter of fact, no,” said Lars. “The main power came back on only three minutes before you arrived. Before that, it seems that all the broadcast channels were, shall we say, appropriated.”

“My father is doing everything he can to return the situation to normal,” said Sara.

“And he plans to do that by locking us up in our apartments and cutting us all off from each other?”

“What have you heard?” James asked.

Lars sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Far too little. All I know is that someone jumped the entire Colony out into deep space. I suppose you’re here to fill me in on the rest.”

“It was me, Lars. I was the one who did it.”

Sara’s gut clenched. Did you really have to lead with that?

“What are you talking about?” Lars asked, frowning.

“It was me who jumped the Colony into deep space. I did it because the Hameji had just sent a battle fleet to wipe us all out. We didn’t have a chance of defending ourselves against that, so I took the initiative and saved us.”

“But—but how? With what? A jump drive powerful enough to jump a whole station would be impossible to hide, unless—”

“Unless it was always there,” said James, finishing his sentence. “You remember how you told me that the patrician was up to something? Well, this was it.”

Lars’s frown contorted into a look of shock and horror. If James had told him that a nuclear device was about to detonate and kill them all, Sara doubted that he would have looked any different.

“Are you serious?”

“I’m serious, Lars. The jump drive was secretly installed during the War of Independence, to give us a way to escape if things went bad. After the war, the drive remained a secret.”

“And you came to know this… how?”

James swallowed and took a deep breath. This is when he tells Lars that he switched sides, Sara realized. She thought of what her father had said about the people needing a bad guy, and knew what she had to do.

“James knows about this because my father and I recruited him,” she said. “He’s part of a secret council that we organized to plan an exodus from Hameji-occupied space.”

Lars’s expression turned from shock to righteous anger. “You organized a secret council? To plan a—an exodus?”

“Yes,” said James. “The plan is to take our people into the Good Hope Nebula, to the Chira system, where the Hameji can’t get to us. We’ll trade the Colony for a fleet of sublight ramjets, which we’ll re-purpose as generation ships. Once we arrive, we’ll colonize the system and make it our home.”

From the ambivalent expression on Lars’s face, Sara could tell that he wasn’t sold on the idea.

“Holy stars of Earth, James. The patrician’s secret council planned all that out without bringing it to a vote?”

“Yes. But Lars, it’s not as bad as you think it is.”

“Oh no, James. It’s worse.”

Lars narrowed his eyes and leaned against the wall, his arms folded as he stared at them both. Like an old star at the end of its life, he seemed ready to explode.

“I know you think I betrayed you,” James said. “And in some ways, maybe I did.”

“Not just me—the whole damn colony. How long were you in the know?”

“Not long. Sara didn’t tell me about the patrician’s plans until after the conference. She convinced me it was better to keep it secret—but I swear, we were just about to go public with everything.”

“Yeah,” said Lars, rolling his eyes. “But not until it was too late for any of us to opt out.”

“There was nothing we could do about the Hameji attack. We’re lucky that the jump drive was charged at all.”

“And who made that decision without consulting the General Assembly?”

“James just saved your life,” said Sara, unable to hold back any longer. “He saved all of our lives. And if you’re looking for someone to blame, why don’t you ask yourself why the Hameji attacked us in the first place? If the conference—”

“That’s enough,” James snapped at her. “I won’t have you attack my friend.”

The strength of his reaction surprised her so much that she didn’t know what to say. For a second, she felt as if he’d turned on her. If nothing else, he was protective of his friends.

“The fact remains that our democracy has been profoundly violated,” said Lars. “If we’re going to preserve our democratic values, how can we possibly let this stand?”

James sighed. “I know it looks bad,” he said, “but if we’d left this decision up to the people, half of the political action groups would have ripped the plan to shreds, and every minute detail would have gone to committee. It would have taken years to work out the details, and by then, we would have all starved to death.”

“So you no longer trust the people? You think we should give up our democratic freedoms and turn the Colony into a dictatorship?”

“No!” said James. “Not at all. Democracy is important, but—”

“But what?”

James paused, choosing his words carefully.

This isn’t working, Sara thought to herself. Lars isn’t going to buy this. Her mind raced as she tried to figure how to do damage control.

“Lars,” James continued, “we’re in the middle of the worst crisis the Colony has ever seen. We can’t afford to fight about this—we need to come to an agreement. If we don’t, how are we going to get through this?”

“An agreement?” Lars sneered. “Is that what you call what we’re working towards?”

“Well, you have to admit, our choices are—”

“Yeah. Either you can spend the rest of your life on a rickety generation ship, or you can surrender to the Hameji and hope that they have mercy on you. Thanks, but where I’m from, we call that blackmail.”

“Lars, I’m sorry—I really am.”

“Tell that to the people. Or do you plan to tell them that you saved them?”

James’s cheeks burned with anger, but he remained stoically silent for several uncomfortable moments. Sara shifted nervously, waiting for his response.

“Lars,” he said at length, “I never meant to betray you—I never meant to betray anybody. All I wanted was to do what’s right.”

Lars stared at him long and hard. Sara opened her mouth to speak, but realized it was better for her to wait. James had made his play, and the ball was in Lar’s court now.

“Denying our basic democratic principles is not ‘right,’” said Lars, his voice low. “What possessed you to think it was?”

“I haven’t denied our principles,” said James. “I’m trying to save them.”

“Save them? How?”

“By—look, I know you think the patrician is setting himself up to be a dictator, and that by colluding with him I’m no better. But that’s not true. I’m not trying to usurp power—I’m just trying to serve and protect.”

“Like a sheepdog?”

“Exactly!” said James, brightening at once. “Like a sheepdog.”

Sara frowned. A sheepdog?

“You think that the people are like sheep,” said Lars, pointing an accusatory finger at him. “You think that they need people like you to protect them from all the wolves. Well, you’re wrong, James. Your analogy is flawed. The people aren’t sheep to be herded. They’re free agents, capable of ruling themselves.”

“When the Hameji attacked, did we have time to call for a vote?” James asked.

“No,” Lars admitted. “I suppose not.”

James grinned. “Trust me, Lars. This is my game.”

What are you doing? Sara wanted to scream. How do you expect him to take a comment like that?

To her immense surprise, a smile spread across Lar’s face.

“You’re one hell of a bastard, James, for throwing us into this predicament.”

“What can I say? I learned from the best.”

“Fair enough. And I have to admit, it makes me feel a lot better to know that you’re in on this.”

“Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t, eh?”

“That’s the first rule of politics: choose your enemies wisely.”

“Enemies, and friends.”

They stood up and embraced each other. The sight made Sara’s jaw drop.

“Can I count on your support, then?” James asked.

“If by ‘support,’ you mean someone to keep you in check, then yes. But I won’t sabotage your plan.”

“Even without seeing it first?”

“What can I say?” said Lars. “At this point, we don’t have much of a choice. Just no more keeping secrets, okay?”

James didn’t come here to get Lars into his camp, she thought to herself. He didn’t even come to get his support, though he got it anyway. He came for the same reason I came to him—to be as honest as possible. And somehow, it worked better than anything else he could have done.

While she mused on that, James said goodbye and headed to the door. Soon, they were both out in the corridor again.

“You really meant it, didn’t you?” she asked as they stepped onto the elevator.

“About what?” he said.

“About coming to set things right.”

The elevator doors hissed shut on the empty corridor. With the curfew still in force, they were completely alone.

“Well, of course,” said James. “Lars is my friend.”

“There wasn’t anything else you were after? Any other purpose you had in mind?”

He frowned. “You mean like something political? No, Sara. That’s not how I treat my friends.”

He really means it, she told herself. He’s not like my father at all.

On impulse, she took him by the shoulders and kissed him. He stiffened at first, but as she pressed her lips against his, he all but turned to putty in her hands. His hands gravitated to her waist, and he held onto her gently until she pulled away.

“Wh-what was that?” he stammered.

Sara hardly knew how to answer. It wasn’t clear what had come over her, but it felt right to her somehow. In fact, it felt like the most righteous thing she’d done in weeks.

“You’re a good man, James. The people are lucky to have you.”

And so am I, she added silently.

Chapter 14


James’s legs went weak as he walked down the hallway to Sara’s apartment. Two dayshifts had passed since she’d kissed him in the elevator, but he remembered it as if it had happened just a few hours ago. Everything that had happened since then seemed to merge into one indistinct blur, but the moment when her lips had touched his was as sharp and as clear as anything he could remember.

Stop it, he told himself. You’re not paying her a social visit, you’re joining her on Colony business. Stay focused.

Her father had called a meeting of the inner circle, but due to the sensitivities of the political situation, they were forced to meet over a private channel instead of in-person. James had nowhere he could go to log in to the conference, so Sara had invited him to join her at her apartment.

As he neared her door, James couldn’t help but notice how different her deck was from the other residential decks. The light fixtures were more decorative, the walls painted with a colorful geometric design that ran along the floorboards. Here and there, little potted plants added to the decoration. Every other light was turned off to conserve electricity, but still, the place felt much more upscale than most residential areas of the station.

At length, he reached her door. He paused for a moment to gather himself and calm his nerves before activating the door chime. Just as his hand reached for the access panel, though, the door slid open.

“Hello, James,” said Sara, smiling on the other side of the doorway. “Come in.”

James’s breath caught in his throat. She was wearing the same red dress from their dinner aboard the Freedom Star, with a black cardigan that barely came down to her waist. The dress fit her figure so perfectly that his eyes were instantly drawn to her curves.

“How did you know I was, uh…?”

“That you were coming? Check your wrist console.”

He glanced down at his wrist and noticed that he’d forgotten to change his privacy settings. Damn! he swore to himself as he hurried to shut the device off.

“It’s okay,” said Sara. “Since it’s just the two of us, I doubt your visit will attract much attention.” She turned and walked back toward the couch, her hips swaying with each step.

“Sorry,” said James, palming the door shut. “I’m such an idiot.”

She laughed, and he realized that she was just as nervous as he was—and more than capable of keeping that hidden from him. The fact that she hadn’t spoke volumes.

“Why are you so dressed up?” he asked.

“No particular reason,” she answered, leaning over to enter her password into the apartment’s computer terminal. “I just wanted to look good. What do you think?”

“I think you look fantastic.”

She glanced at him over her shoulder and smiled. “Thanks.”

So much for staying focused, James thought to himself. He began to doubt the meeting was the only reason she’d invited him over.

“How have you been these past couple of days?” he asked as he sat down on the couch.

“Better,” she said, standing back up.

Better than what? James wondered. It didn’t seem right to ask, though. She sat down on the couch next to him, close enough that their legs almost touched.

“Nina, activate wallscreen and connect to secure channel 22a.”

James frowned. “Who’s—”

“Yes, mistress,” an automated female voice replied from overhead. The wall opposite the couch flickered and turned into a screen with a loading bar.

“You have a personal AI?” James asked.

“I do, indeed.”

“Do you have any idea how expensive these things are?”

Sara shrugged. “The kernel for this gestalt was copied from an older model that belonged to my mother. It’s not as expensive as you think.”

“What about the safeguards? If the AI was patched from—”

“James,” said Sara, putting a hand on his arm to silence him. “It’s okay. The gestalt is stable—Nina’s not going to evolve into a super-intelligence anytime soon.”

But it could if someone tampered with the safeguards. And since the AI had been patched together from various disparate sources, the safeguards were far from tamper-proof. Before the Hameji invasion, the market for artificial intelligences had been highly regulated, with strict registration and licensing guidelines for independent contractors. James didn’t doubt that Sara’s home-built AI would have been illegal before the occupation—just another reminder that the patrician played by a different set of rules.

“Nina’s not just a toy,” Sara said, anticipating his concerns. “She’s a tool. Without her, I wouldn’t have been able to fulfill my mission at the conference.”

“But you’re not above keeping it for your own personal use.”

“What can I say? This job has its perks.”

Before he could respond, the wallscreen flashed on, showing the patrician sitting at a desk. Along either side, smaller images showed the other members of the patrician’s inner circle.

“—ntinue to coordinate that,” the patrician was saying. He looked straight at the screen and nodded. “Sara, Commander McCoy. Glad that you could make it.”

“Did we miss anything?” Sara asked.

“Only the preliminaries. It appears that I’m about to be impeached, so this will likely be our last meeting.”

He said it so nonchalantly that it took a moment for the words to sink into James’s mind. The patrician, impeached? James had thought the General Assembly would at least wait until after the exodus plans had been finalized.

“If we may continue, sir, I have a report on the current security situation,” said one of the other members of the circle. The main screen switched from the patrician to him.

“Very well,” said the patrician.

“Thank you, sir. We’ve had three incidents on the lower decks in the past twenty-four hours, but the rest of the station is calm. Businesses opened this upshift as normal, and we had no reported break-ins or other acts of violence.”

“That’s very good,” said the patrician. “How is the backup power holding?”

“Not very well,” said one of the engineers. “We’ll need to impose another twenty percent cut in station-wide energy consumption to avoid any further blackouts—that, or reduce the charge rate of the jump drive.”

“Commander McCoy, have we managed to evade the Hameji?”

That’s me, James realized. He sat up straight and cleared his throat.

“It appears that we have, sir. We’re more than a full parsec from Karduna now, and the Hameji haven’t interdicted us yet. It seems they were expecting us to head for the galactic south, towards the remnants of the New Gaian Empire.”

“That’s very good news, Commander,” said the patrician. “In your estimation, is it safe to divert energy from the jump drives to the civilian infrastructure?”

James thought about it for a couple moments. “I’m not sure, sir. I’d at least like to put another light-year behind us.”

“Duly noted. We’ll give you another twenty-four hours.”

It seemed strange to attend a meeting while sitting on a couch in Sara’s apartment. James glanced over at her and saw that she had pulled out a tablet to take notes. He wasn’t sure whether to feel embarrassed that he didn’t have one as well.

“Now that we’ve reviewed the reports,” said the patrician, “let’s get down to business. We have only four or five weeks before we arrive at the rendezvous point outside of Zeta Nabat. We not only need to make sure that we can provide for the basic needs of our citizens during the voyage, but that we have the necessary resources to outfit the ramjets for the exodus. Do we have enough supplies on hand to follow through with the original designs?”

“Unfortunately, no,” said one of the engineers. “When the Hameji attacked us, we were expecting a convoy carrying critical components. Without them, we won’t be able to build nano-smelters for industrial chemical synthesis, and our aquaponics units might take longer to bring online.”

“How will that affect us?”

“I don’t exactly know, sir, but—”

“Then prepare a detailed report. The General Assembly should decide on colony ship captains within the week, so you can answer to them if I’m no longer in office. But the designs need to be finalized before we arrive.”

“Yes, sir.”

“What a mess,” James muttered under his breath. Sara looked up at him quizzically, but he didn’t want to interrupt, so he pointed back at the screen.

“How are our food stores?” the patrician asked. “Does anyone have an inventory?”

“I do,” said a young woman wearing a warehouse worker’s uniform. “We have enough to comfortably feed the population for the next two months, but after that, our stores will probably start to run out.”

“Two months!” someone interjected. “How did our food supplies get so low?”

The woman held up her hands apologetically. “We were supposed to get more on that convoy.”

“Then we’ll have to stretch it out,” said the patrician, the video feed returning to him as he retook control of the conversation. “As soon as we arrive, we should put as many people into cryostasis as possible. Towards that end, we’ll need to identify every citizen who is healthy enough to go into stasis, and distribute the population evenly for every ship.”

“That’s something we can hand off to the General Assembly,” said Sara.

“True,” said her father, “but we only have a few weeks until our plans need to be implemented. We need to prepare our recommendations now so that the General Assembly can consider each issue in a swift and orderly fashion.”

“What about the ship captains?” James asked.

“The General Assembly is considering that right now,” Sara answered him. “As of last hour, the leading plan is to randomly generate each colony ship roster, keeping families together, and have each group elect their own captain, who can then trade with the other captains for any specialists that they might need.”

“It’s a good plan,” said the patrician, “but the captains will be too busy figuring out each ship’s personnel roster to prepare for every potential problem. Meanwhile, we need to make sure that when we leave the Colony, we have all the supplies and equipment that we’ll need.”

It’s an even bigger mess than I’d thought, James realized. Just thinking about all the issues they’d have to work through was giving him a headache. What’s more, he was almost certain that he’d end up as a captain for one of the ships. The news broke yesterday that he was the one who had saved the Colony from the Hameji, and just as Sara and her father had predicted, the response had been overwhelming so far. Words like “hero,” “guardian,” and “savior” were popping up in almost every dispatch that mentioned his name.

“Commander McCoy,” said the patrician, “I want you and Sara to prepare a database with the names of every citizen who is young and healthy enough to go into cryofreeze. Make those lists available to all the colony ship captains within a week of their elections, at most.”

James frowned. “Uh, shouldn’t you put a nurse in charge of—”

“We can handle it,” Sara said, cutting him short. She turned down the volume until he could barely hear what the patrician was saying.

“What is it?”

“Dad’s given us our assignment already,” she answered. “He won’t have anything more for us until after the meeting’s over.”

“But—”

“Trust me. I know how he operates.”

James glanced at the nearly muted wallscreen, then back to her. “But what about the rest of the meeting? What if we miss something important?”

She sighed. “Dad’s on the way out, James—can’t you see that? This is his last real act of authority before handing over the reins, and it doesn’t really count because it has no binding authority.”

“What about the inner circle?”

“Once we split up for our different ships, the office of patrician will be annulled and the shadow council will be meaningless. It will all be up to the captains then, until we arrive at Chira.”

She reached out and took his hand, squeezing it gently. Their eyes met, and he felt that she was trying to reassure him—or possibly herself.

“Is this you wrapping me around your finger?” he asked.

“No,” she said quickly. “I mean, it’s not what it looks like—not like how my father wanted it, anyway.”

Still, she didn’t let go of his hand.

“We’re going to be really busy over the next few weeks,” he remarked.

“Yeah,” she said, smiling. “Busy together.”

James’s cheeks blushed bright red. I suppose I should have seen that coming, he thought to himself.


* * * * *


Kyla woke up to the smell of freshly baked bread. In her semi-conscious state, it gave her a waking dream of wandering through a bakery. There were all sorts of breads and pastries there, of every size and type she could imagine. There were big round sweet rolls glazed in butter, braided rye bread with seeds all over the top, flaky fruit-filled croissants, kolaches with cream cheese and berries, and pigs-in-a-blanket with dark red sausage poking out at either end. Her mouth watered as she ran from display to display, trying to decide which ones to get or whether she should just eat them all. It was heavenly.

Just before she came fully awake, though, she saw a girl standing outside the bakery window. She was small with black hair, dressed in rags, and looked unbearably hungry. Kyla tried to reach out to her, but the doors were closed, and the glass was too thick for the girl to hear her. The girl stared forlornly at the food that she would never get to eat, her lips quivering and her big, round, glassy eyes staring at the feast.

Stars, Kyla realized. That girl is me.

An instant later, she was lying in her bed, staring up at the blue-painted ceiling. She slipped out and followed her nose to the source of the delicious smell. Jessica was slicing a fresh loaf on the kitchen table, and the steam that rose out of it was absolutely heavenly.

“Good upshift, dear,” said Jessica. “Why don’t you have a seat?”

Kyla stepped into the kitchen and quietly took a seat across the table. Her pajamas clung a little, so she pulled them loose and kicked her feet absent-mindedly beneath her chair.

“How did you sleep?” Jessica asked as she finished with the bread.

“Good.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” She pulled out a plate and placed two steaming hot slices on it. After buttering them generously, she handed the plate to Kyla, who all but snatched it out of her hand.

“You’ve got a healthy appetite, I see. How about some eggs?”

“Yes, please,” Kyla said between mouthfuls. The bread was every bit as soft and rich as the stuff from her dream. It was all she could do to keep from stuffing it all in her mouth at once.

As she ate, Jessica’s husband Adam came in. He was wearing the dark blue jumpsuit of a dockyard worker and seemed anxious, as if looking for something to do with his hands. He didn’t sit down, but instead walked straight to the food synthesizer and poured himself a cup of black coffee.

“Hello, dear,” said Jessica as she hydrated the powdered eggs. “Any news on the colony ship rosters?”

“The randomization measure passed the General Assembly just last night,” said Adam. “We should be getting our assignments anytime now.”

“What assignments?” Kyla asked.

Adam withdrew his coffee mug from the synthesizer and sat down at the table next to her. “The assignments telling us which ships we’ll be on. They’re keeping families together, so there’s no danger of us being separated, but it’s anyone’s guess as to who will be put with whom.”

“How do they know how to do it?”

“It’s simple,” he said after taking a long lip. “The computer pulls a list of names from the census database and organizes people into families. It uses a simple randomization algorithm to give each family their colony ship assignment. When the rosters have all been decided, each group will elect a captain, who can trade people off with the other ship captains until everyone is reasonably satisfied.”

If I’d stayed in the lower decks, I probably wouldn’t be assigned anywhere, Kyla thought to herself. Even if she was in the census data, she doubted anyone would have come down to the lower decks to collect her, and even if they had, there was no way she would have come with them. She would have been stranded on the station long after everyone else had left.

“Where is James going?” she asked.

“Oh, he’ll be with us, dear,” said Jessica as she placed the hydrated eggs into the cooker. She keyed the machine to start and wiped her hands on her apron. “In fact, he’ll almost certainly be elected captain.”

“That’s right,” said Adam, his face unreadable. “In every straw poll, James comes out on top.”

Then we’ll be safe, Kyla thought to herself. James will see to that.

She looked down at her plate and thought of the girl from her dream—the one who wanted into the bakery but couldn’t enter. How many people like her were starving while she had food on her plate? How many people were going to be left behind?

Barely a moment later, Jessica pulled out the eggs and served a massive portion—almost half—onto Kyla’s plate. “There you are,” she said in her motherly voice. “Eat up!”

Do I really deserve all this? Kyla wondered. She ate it, but her doubts weighed on her.

Adam’s wrist console beeped. “Aha!” he said, his eyes lighting up almost immediately. “I’ll bet that’s our colony ship assignment.”

“Put it up on the main screen, honey,” Jessica said, nearly as excited.

Adam toggled his console, and the wallscreen above the table flickered into a list of names, organized alphabetically. Kyla skimmed over them, but nothing stood out to her. For Jessica and Adam, it was a very different story.

“Look, dear!” said Adam. “The Nyes and the Hansens are up there!”

“All of them?”

“All except for their married daughters. And it looks like the Stewarts will be with us as well.”

“Oh, that’s good. What about the McClaires?”

Adam squinted. “I don’t see them. Do you?”

“No, I don’t. I guess we’ll have to wish them well. So many people we won’t be seeing again.”

They went back and forth for several moments, picking out the names of friends and paying even more attention to the names that weren’t there. Kyla finished her food and sat quietly, watching them.

“What’s the big deal?” she eventually asked. “Aren’t we all going to the same place? Aren’t you going to see all these people again?”

“Unfortunately no, dear,” Jessica answered. “We’re too old to undergo the cryofreezing process. But you’ll be able to go down, so don’t you worry, you’ll be able to see all these other people again.”

“Is James going into cryo?” Kyla asked, ignoring Jessica’s attempt to reassure her.

Jessica and Adam both looked at each other. The expressions on their faces turned suddenly serious.

“James is young and healthy enough to go under,” said Adam. “Besides, the people are going to need him a lot more when they arrive at Chira than when we’re all sealed up on these colony ships. He’s probably going into cryo.”

A sinking feeling grew in Kyla’s stomach as she looked them each in the eye. “But doesn’t that mean that you won’t see him again?”

“It does, dear,” said Jessica. She sniffed and rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand. “But that’s just the way things go sometimes. We can’t control what life throws at us, only how we respond to it.”

“But it hasn’t been decided yet, right? I mean, if we all get to vote on what we do next, that means we get to choose whether we stay awake or go into the long sleep.”

“That’s right to some extent,” said Adam. “And for you, that choice is very much open. But for us, we can’t go into cryo—not when it would be better for someone younger and healthier to go down instead of us.”

Just like someone else might deserve this food more than I do, Kyla thought. She tried to put it out of her mind, but it was too difficult.

“I wonder if Lars will go into cryo or not,” Jessica mused.

“Lars is coming with us?” Kyla asked.

“That’s right, dear: Lars and all the rest of the Stewart family.”

“And a good thing, too,” said Adam. “It looks like most of the centralists have been assigned to other ships. The patrician will be on the third ship—thank goodness for that.”

“What does that mean?” Kyla asked.

“It means that Adam won’t have to put up with politics he doesn’t agree with, dear,” said Jessica. “Now go get dressed—can’t wear pajamas all day.”

Kyla rose from her seat and quietly returned to her bedroom. As she went, though, she couldn’t help but wonder whether she’d be going down in cryo—and whether someone else deserved it more than her.


* * * * *


“How’s your work coming along?” James asked

“Pretty well,” said Sara, looking up from her terminal. “I’ve more or less got everyone ranked for cryo readiness, with two or three hundred special cases for the nurses to look at.”

“So you can handle the rest, then?”

“If you’re asking whether you can move on to your new duties as colony ship captain, then go ahead,” she said. “And congratulations on your election, by the way.”

“Yeah,” James said absent-mindedly. The leadership position was looking to be a lot more difficult than he’d thought. Not only was he a captain of the ship in the military sense, but he was the highest ranking civilian leader on the ship as well—something like the patrician, but on a much smaller scale. Since he was supposed to be in charge of the civilian side, there were all sorts of things that he didn’t know how to handle. Sara had suggested that he focus instead on finding competent specialists and delegating most of the duties to them, but the randomization of the assignments had left several key areas where they just didn’t have anyone to fill the proper role. Consequently, he had to do a lot of personnel trading with the other captains, but that involved splitting families and causing headaches for everyone. Meanwhile, problems kept popping up left and right, faster than he could possibly solve them all. It was a mess.

“James,” said Sara after a few moments of silence. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” said James, running over the names of the specialists on his roster one more time. If he traded Jackson for Sterling, he’d probably have to send Jackson’s wife and sister over as well. Sterling didn’t have any immediate family, so that meant he could ask Captain McClaire for one more—

“James, are you listening?”

He looked up from his terminal and saw that she was staring at him. “Uh, yeah, Sara. What is it?”

She sighed and looked away. “I’m not sure how to say this, but—”

“But what?”

“You’re planning to go into cryo, right?”

James frowned. “Yeah, of course. Didn’t you say the people would need me the most when we got to Chira?”

“I did,” she said. “And I plan to go into cryo, too, but…”

She bit her lip and looked straight at him, as if reading him for a sign that it was safe to continue.

“What is it?” James asked. “Come on, Sara—you can tell me.”

She took a deep breath. “Well, I know it’s silly, since we’ll both see each other when we wake up at the rendezvous, but just in case something happens, I’d like to be on the same ship as you.”

“Why?” James asked, more than a little taken aback.

“Because I don’t want us to be separated,” she said softly.

He looked into her eyes and realized that this was a lot more than just a request for a personnel transfer. His stomach flipped, and he suddenly didn’t know what to say.

“I understand if you don’t think it’s feasible,” she continued, looking away again. “You’ve got a lot of things to take care of that are more important than a personal request. But James—once we’re in the nebula, anything can happen. Who knows if we’ll all make it safely? And if I wake up and find you’re not there—”

“Of course I can do it, Sara,” James heard himself say. “I’d be happy to do it.”

Her eyes lit up. “You would?”

“Definitely.”

She leaned over and gave him a hug. James hugged her back, but he felt strangely distant, like a spectator in his own body. His heart was racing, and his stomach was doing flips, but his mind was strangely clear.

“When all this is over,” he said, “when we’ve arrived at Chira and we’ve started the new Colony, do you have any plans?”

She looked at him and smiled. “That depends.”

“On what?”

“On whether you think we should make our plans together.”

His heart hammered so hard that it seemed about to leap right out of his chest, but that didn’t matter right now. All that mattered was that the most amazing girl he’d ever known wanted to start a new life with him.

“Any plan with you is a plan I, uh…”

Words failed him. With a smirk, she pressed a finger against his mouth, then closed her eyes and leaned forward. Her lips touched his, and every muscle in his body turned to water.


* * * * *


Sarah’s heart felt heavy as she made her way to her father’s office. She was so happy to be on the same ship as James, but now she had to face the other side of it, and that was saying goodbye to her father.

It’s not such a big deal, she tried in vain to convince herself. It’s not like I wouldn’t have to say goodbye to him anyways. Either way, once the cryotank closed shut on her, that would be the last she’d ever see or hear from her father. So why did she feel so guilty?

The door to the office hissed open, revealing a lobby almost completely devoid of furnishings. A box sat on the secretary’s desk with the last few of her workplace belongings in it; a few half-forgotten mementos were tacked against the wall, but that was all that showed that anyone had ever worked here.

“Hello?” Sara asked, glancing around the eerily empty room. “Is anybody here?”

She heard something in the direction of the conference room, so she let herself in and walked back there. The door was open, revealing the long, empty meeting table with all the chairs neatly lined up along the side. Her father sat at the head, a shot glass in one hand and a fine bottle of Aurigan whiskey in the other.

“Sara, my dear!” he called out to her. “You’re just in time for the celebration. Please, come in.”

He’s drunk, she realized. He never gets drunk.

“Dad?” she asked tentatively from the doorway.

“Yes, my dear?”

“Are you… okay?”

“I’ve never been better,” he said, pouring himself another glass. “A great weight has been lifted from my shoulders—lifted quite permanently. Come, sit down.”

Sara walked slowly inside and sat down at the far end of the table. Her father tossed his head back and downed the whiskey in one go.

“This upshift,” he said drowsily, “I formally submitted my letter of resignation to the General Assembly. It was accepted without objection, and no successor was nominated.” He leaned back and waved his hand in the air. “It appears I have the honor of being the last patrician!”

A lump rose in Sara’s throat to see her father in such a wreck. His whole life had been wrapped up in his duties as patrician.

“Oh, Daddy,” she cried. “I’m so sorry.”

“There is no reason to be sorry, my dear,” said her father, pouring himself another glass. “Instead, you should be happy to finally have your father back. No more politics, no more scheming, no more secrets. It’s all behind us now.”

Her stomach sank at his words.

“You didn’t have to do this for me.”

“Oh, but I did, Sara. I know how you feel about me. You and your mother both feel about me the same way. Well, I may have lost her, but I’m not going to lose you, Sara. I love you.”

Tears burned in Sara’s eyes. It was all she could do to bite her lip and nod.

“I saw on the rosters that McCoy traded to get you on his ship,” her father continued. “I take it you want to be with him when you wake up?”

So he knows.

“Yes, Daddy. I came here as soon as I could to tell you.”

Her father smiled. “Well, I see my last grand plot was a success. Your mother would be happy to see you now.”

Sara frowned. “What do you mean?”

“You always did remind me of your mother.” He took a sip of the whiskey and set down the glass with a heavy hand. “Our relationship meant a lot more to her than it ever did to me. I knew you would be just like her.”

“You—you knew about me and James?”

“Of course, dear. Do you think that was just about politics? Whatever else I may be, I’m a loving father who wants you to be happy.”

Sara didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry, so she did both. As the tears streamed down her cheek, the weight of guilt lifted like a heavy cloud.

“Thank you, Daddy. I love you, too.”

“I only hope James turns out to be a better man than I was,” her father muttered. “Stars know you deserve much more.”

With that, Sara couldn’t help herself. She stood up and rushed to her father’s side, throwing her arms around him. The smell of whiskey was strong on his breath, but he held her tenderly and patted her on the back.

“I’m going to miss you, Daddy,” she cried. “When we get to Chira, I’m not going to forget you.”

“That’s the best legacy I could ask for.”

Sara buried her face against her father’s chest and sobbed.

Chapter 15


The Good Hope Nebula loomed in the windows of the observation deck like a blue silk sheet cast in front of the milky starfield. James stared out with his hands clasped smartly behind his back, pondering the uncertain future. In a matter of days, they would all be bound for the heart of that vast, unexplored cloud of gas and dust, never to be in contact with the outside universe again. It was a grim trade-off—distance and isolation for a chance at a new beginning—but in a universe ravaged on all sides by wolves, it was the only sure protection that they had.

As he watched, a series of flashes announced the arrival of the Nabattan transport ships from jumpspace. In just a few minutes, they would dock with the sublight colony ship that would be their new home. The arrangements had already been made, and all the logistical difficulties had been tackled. All that was left was to wait.

As he stared out the window at the approaching transports, Sara walked up to his side and slipped her hand into his. “Are you ready?” she asked.

“Are you?”

“No,” she admitted, taking a deep breath. “But I doubt I ever will be.”

“Ah, Captain! There you are!” Sterling said as he stepped onto the deck. James turned to see his old copilot headed straight for them, an irrepressible grin on his face.

“What’s wrong?” James asked.

“Nothing at all,” said Sterling, ambling up beside them. “I just thought you might want to know that the—oh, looks like you can already see them from here.”

Sara chuckled. “A little eager to get going, Chief?”

“Of course, Miss Galbraith-Dickson. Aren’t you?”

“It’s been difficult ever since we left Karduna,” she answered. “But this place has always been my home. I’m going to miss it.”

“Is everything ready for the transfer, Sterling?” James asked.

“Yes, Captain. We’ve got all the equipment and supplies clearly labeled and organized. Once we’re on board those colony ships, it shouldn’t take more than a dayshift or two to get the fabricators set up and ready to manufacture everything we need. Just you wait and see, sir—in less than a month, we’ll turn that ship into our home.”

“I’m sure you will,” said James. “You’ll make an outstanding chief engineer, Sterling. I don’t doubt that at all.”

Sterling beamed. “Thanks, Captain. I won’t disappoint you.”

Sara squeezed James’s hand and gave him a brief tug, indicating that she wanted some time alone with him. He squeezed back to acknowledge her.

“Is there anything else you need to see to, Sterling?”

“Not really, sir. Everything’s all set to—oh.” He nodded and took a step back. “Right. I’ll, ah, see you two later then.”

He turned and headed for the elevator, leaving James and Sara alone. She took a deep breath and leaned her head on his shoulder, as if overcome with weariness. James put a hand around her waist and held her close.

“I’m ready to leave,” she said softly, “but I’m not quite ready to say goodbye.”

He tried to think of something to console her, but the words failed to come. Somehow, though, being there to hold her was enough. The stars shone down on them with their cold, distant light, but so long as they had each other, the darkness would never swallow them.


* * * * *


“Ah, Commander McCoy, it’s a pleasure see you in person. I’ve heard so much about you.”

From the moment the bald little round-headed man opened his mouth, James knew that he didn’t like him. His beady eyes and thick eyebrows made his weaselly, insincere smile all the more aggravating.

“Soner,” said James, offering his hand. “You’re the commander of the Nabattan ramjet fleet, am I right?”

“Commander of the ramjet fleet and system security, as well,” said Soner, tilting his head back with an air of authority. “I am, you could say, the man responsible for running this system.”

Then I take it you weren’t elected democratically, James nearly said aloud, catching himself just in time.

Soner folded his arms and cocked his head, the duplicitous smile never leaving his face.

“I do believe we’ve met before, Commander, though our first meeting was a brief one. When I met with your patrician’s daughter at Gaia Nova, I saw you as I escorted her to your ship. Do you remember?”

James frowned and thought back to the gunfight at the conference, near the docking node for the Freedom Star. He vaguely remembered a bald-headed man slinking into the shadows.

“That was you?”

“It was, indeed. Thankfully, the circumstances of our second meeting are much more amenable than our first. It was truly regrettable how the conference ended.”

“It was,” James agreed, “but it was still a noble effort.”

“Yes, well, it ended as most noble efforts do: in disaster. Fortunately, your patrician was much more foresighted and pragmatic than the rest of you. It’s truly refreshing to see that you’ve embraced his vision so completely.”

James scowled. “How soon can you get us to the colony ships?”

The door to the spaceport lounge hissed open, and Sara stepped inside. She glanced from Soner to James, frowning ever so slightly.

“I’m sorry. Am I interrupting?”

“Not at all, Miss Galbraith-Dickson,” said Soner. “We were just talking about you. Please, have a seat.”

We were talking about getting our people to those colony ships, James almost snapped, but he didn’t want to start an argument while Sara was in the room. Instead, he glared at Soner, hoping that the bald little man would get the hint.

“Really?” Sara asked. “What were you saying?”

“We were talking about how lovely you were at the conference, my dear,” said Soner, taking her hand. He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it, making James bristle. A sly glance from the corner of Soner’s eye made him suspect the gesture was meant to irritate him.

“Why, thank you,” said Sara, smiling uncertainly.

James stepped up to her side and put an arm possessively around her waist. “How soon will we be ready to depart?”

“You’re not trying to get rid of me, are you?” Soner asked, acting as if he were hurt. “Surely you wouldn’t deprive me of such a lovely young woman’s company. We get so few female visitors out in these parts.”

Keep creeping on her, and I’ll slug you so hard you’ll feel like a meteor hit you square between the eyes.

“Don’t be silly. I’m sure James didn’t mean it that way,” said Sara, laughing to diffuse the tension. “We’re just eager to get to our ships after such a long and arduous voyage.”

“Arduous,” said Soner, licking his lips. “That’s an interesting way to describe it. And I’m sure that the next phase of your journey will be even more—how shall I say—arduous than the first.”

He grinned as if to insinuate something. James again had to resist the urge to slug him.

“Yes, well, all the more reason to get us to those colony ships,” said Sara. Her laughter had a tinge of nervousness to it.

“Certainly, my dear,” said Soner. “My men are loading your equipment and supplies as we speak. They’ll go ahead of us to unload before you arrive, so that everything will be ready to go when you get there.”

“That’s very kind of you,” said Sara.

“Nabattan compliments, my dear. Not that we’re eager to send a beautiful young woman such as yourself away.”

“That’s enough,” James snapped, unable to hold back any longer. “The sooner we can be on our way, the better.”

“All work and no pleasure, eh?” said Soner. When he failed to get another rise out of James, his face fell, and he turned to the porthole.

“We don’t have enough room on our station to transfer you all to your ships at the same time. Even if we did, our FTL fleet is understandably limited.”

“So what’s the solution?” James asked.

“The quickest way to get you all to your ships is to stagger the crew transfers so that we fill up each ship and have it launch while we go and get the crew for the next one. We can transfer all the crew of a single colony ship at a go, but they’ll have to leave before the next crew gets there.”

James frowned. “So you’ll have to take us out one ship at a time?”

“It’s what we agreed to,” said Sara. “We knew from the beginning that this was the only way to get everyone to the ships, and we planned for it, didn’t we?”

“Indeed we did, my dear,” said Soner.

Something about this doesn’t feel right, James thought to himself. At the same time, though, it wasn’t like they had much of a choice. With the Hameji at their backs and nowhere but the nebula to flee for refuge, Soner held all the cards.

“Very well. How quickly can we do it?”

“The fastest we can take you out is one crew complement every six hours.”

“At that rate, it’ll take almost a week to get us all out,” James grumbled.

“It’s okay,” said Sara, rubbing his back. “We’ve come this far. What’s another few days?”

“Very well, but I want the captains to choose which order we depart in. Is that clear, Soner?”

“Of course,” said Soner, holding his hands palm up. “It makes no difference to us. Tell us when you’re ready, and we’ll be more than happy to take you out.”

“Good,” said James. “And my crew goes last.”

“Why, pray tell?”

“To make sure you don’t try anything.”

For several tense moments, he and Soner stared each other down, neither one flinching. In those moments, James saw something fierce in Soner’s smug eyes—something almost feral. But then, Soner threw back his head and laughed.

“To make sure we don’t try anything! Very well, Commander, you shall have your wish, though I hope the wait will not make you any more… unpleasant.”

“If you think I’m unpleasant now,” said James, his voice low, “just wait until you see me in action.”

“James!” Sara hissed. “That’s enough.”

“That’s all right, Miss Galbraith-Dickson,” said Soner. “I know when I’m not welcome. We all have our duties to attend to, as tedious as some of ours may be. I will see you on the final run, Commander.”

It had better be the last time we see each other, too, James nearly said aloud. But Sara was starting to glare at him, and he’d said too much already.


* * * * *


The air felt chill as Sara entered her father’s apartment. At first, she thought it was because he spent most of his time at the office, but then she remembered that he’d resigned his office midway to the rendezvous point. Was he trying to conserve energy, then? It seemed odd that someone who had made a career out of manipulating people would make such a personal sacrifice, but even after all these years, her father could still surprise her.

“Ah, Sara,” he said, ushering her in. “So glad you could make it. Please excuse the mess.”

If you think this place is a mess, you should see my apartment, Sara thought to herself. Except for a couple of packing crates in the center of the room and a small pile of papers on the couch, her father’s place was conspicuously empty.

“I know you’re scheduled to leave soon,” she began, her voice distant.

“In about two hours,” he said cheerfully. “We’ll be the third colony ship to go. But even at our maximum cruising velocity, we still should be within a few minutes of transmission range.”

“But I guess this is our last chance to say goodbye in-person.”

He stopped what he was doing and turned to face her. “Indeed it is.”

She gave him a hug, which he returned rather stiffly. He thinks I’m still upset with him, she realized. Perhaps she still was, but she wasn’t going to let that get in the way of saying goodbye.

“So how does it feel to see all your plans come together?” she asked, more to break the ice than anything else.

“They haven’t come together quite yet,” he said, “though it’s been gratifying to see how well they’ve worked out so far.”

“Oh, come on, Dad. In two hours, you’ll be safely on your way.”

“Yes, but it will still take a few days before we can say the same thing about the rest of the Colony.”

“We’ll be fine,” she told him. “James insisted that our ship go last, just to make sure that everyone makes it out all right.”

Her father nodded approvingly. “I thought he might do something like that. It’s good to see a man like him rise to take the reins of leadership.”

He’s just being paranoid if you ask me, Sara thought to herself. Still, she couldn’t blame him for not trusting the Nabattans, particularly Soner. She’d be happy when that man was far, far away.

“Speaking of James,” her father continued, “how are things going between you two?”

“Pretty well,” she said, rubbing the back of her neck. “We’ve been so busy with our preparations for the voyage that we’ve barely seen each other, but we’re definitely a couple now.”

“I’m glad to hear it. I suppose you two will do whatever you want once we’re on our respective ships, but if you do decide to marry him, you have my blessing.”

Sara smiled. “Thanks, Dad. I’ll keep that in mind.”

He spread out his arms, and she hugged him again. This time, there was no stiffness in his embrace. They held each other for a long time, knowing that this would be the last they ever saw of each other.

“I’ll miss you, Dad,” Sara whispered.

“I know, dear,” her father said. “Be sure to message me before you go into cryo.”

“I will.”

The rest of her visit passed in a blur. As she stepped out the door and into the dimly-lit corridor, she felt more alone than she could ever remember. But it wasn’t until her father’s transport blinked into jumpspace that she allowed herself to cry.

Chapter 16


James stared out the forward window of the bridge of the Nabattan transport as they made the jump to Zeta Nabat. Nearly a week had passed since the crew transfers had begun, and the task was nearly complete. The only colonists left were the ones under James’s command.

A sinking feeling grew in his gut as the bulkheads began to hum, but still he kept his eyes open, fighting the urge to blink. Perspective shifted, and for an instant the stars seemed to swirl—or rather, his point of view switched in some bizarre way that he couldn’t explain. It was as if he were simultaneously looking at the same stars from multiple angles across hundreds of parsecs of space.

That’s the last time in my life that I’ll ever pass through jumpspace.

“Jump complete,” said the chief astrogator. Like all the Nabattan officers, he wore the ubiquitous olive green fatigues with black epaulets.

“Good work, men,” said Soner from the captain’s seat at the front. “Let’s bring the ship in to dock.”

James leaned forward to get a better view out the window. Except for a slightly bluish haze, the Good Hope Nebula was so close it was all but invisible. The nebula obscured only the faintest, most distant stars, giving the view a slightly granular quality.

“That’s odd,” said Lars. “I thought the nebula would look a lot brighter from here.”

“Not this close,” said Sterling, turning around to face him. “It’s counter-intuitive, but the closer you get to the nebula, the dimmer it appears.”

“Why is that?”

“Because of light dispersal. From a distance, the nebula is just a point in the sky, so the reflection from the stars is concentrated. But up close, all that light is spread out across the whole sky, so in any one place it appears much dimmer.”

Just a couple of klicks away, the ramjet launch station appeared like a dull gray speck in the off-black sky. Located at the edge of the termination shock, where the solar wind condensed before hitting the interstellar medium, the station was located almost twelve light hours from the nearest planet. James wondered what a voyage from the inner system out to this distant point would be like on one of his family’s small freighters. At sublight speeds, it would easily take years.

“Are those the other colony ships?” Lars asked, pointing out the window. “That line of blue lights—are those the engine boosters?”

“That’s right,” said James. As he peered at the little blue dots, though, his face fell and his eyes narrowed. Something about them wasn’t right.

“That’s odd,” said Sterling. “Shouldn’t the line be more even? It looks almost… jagged.”

“Is something wrong?” Lars asked. “I—”

Before he could finish, the bridge door hissed open and half a dozen armed guards ran in, assault rifles drawn. Sterling’s eyes widened, and James rose instantly to his feet. He reached for his gun, but before he could draw it, he felt something hard pressing against his side.

“Now, now,” said Soner, “let’s not do anything rash, shall we?”

James looked down and saw that Soner had jammed a gun in his back. The soldiers quickly surrounded them, yanking Lars and Sterling to their feet.

“What’s going on?” James asked, his voice low and dangerous.

“Don’t worry, Commander,” Soner answered casually as he confiscated James’s pistol. “You’ll find out soon enough.”

The soldiers swiftly patted them down for weapons and confiscated their wrist consoles. Without any way to communicate, they had no way of knowing what was happening to the other colonists. The Nabattans could be preparing a massacre for all he knew.

Stay calm, James told himself, resisting the urge to fight back. Don’t do anything stupid. Your life isn’t the only one on the line.

Soner examined James’s pistol with a mixture of curiosity and boredom. “A hand-crafted Gaian imperial model, with a customized laser sight and fully self-loading action. I must admit it is a fine artifact of a bygone era. Tell me, how long has it been in your possession?”

James said nothing. Soner shrugged and slipped the gun into his belt.

“Oh well—I don’t suppose you’ll be needing it anymore. It would be a pity to let such a fine piece of art go to waste.”

“What do you want from us?” Lars asked. Though he kept his expression cool, his voice was tinged with fear.

“That’s a very good question,” said Soner. “By now, it must be abundantly clear that you are in no position to negotiate. We have the power to take what we want, and there is nothing you can do to stop us. Rest assured, though, we have no intention of killing you. That would be far too much trouble.”

“So you plan to let us go?” Sterling asked nervously.

“Of course we do. It makes no difference to us whether you take our obsolete, barely functional ramjet fleet and abscond into the nebula. Naturally, we won’t leave you with anything that could be valuable, but my men should be taking care of that even as we speak.”

Damn you! James wanted to scream.

“Well,” said Lars, “if you’re willing to let us go, then it shouldn’t be too difficult to reach some kind of agreement.”

Soner’s mouth turned upward in a sly, predatory grin. “Oh, we don’t intend to let all of you go. That would be a waste. No, we intend to keep some of you behind.”

James’s blood ran cold. Chills shot from the back of his neck to the ends of his toes.

“What do you mean?”

“A simple trade, Commander—one that you can easily afford. There are more than a hundred young women in the cabin below us. We only want twenty.”

Sterling gasped. James clenched his fists as dread turned to rage.

“You sick bastard! We’ll never give in to your demands!”

“Oh, yes you will, Commander,” said Soner. “I could have you all slaughtered in an instant if I wanted to. But I don’t think it will come to that, especially since you no longer have a say in the matter. My men are already among your crew, gathering volunteers.”

“Volunteers?” Lars asked, his cheeks pale.

“That’s right. Though if none are forthcoming, we may have to employ some means of persuasion.”

James lunged forward and threw a fist at Soner’s face, but before he could strike, one of the soldiers grabbed his arm and elbowed him in the side. He struck the floor hard, only to have the wind knocked out of him by a sharp kick to the stomach. Stars swam across his vision as he doubled over in pain.

Soner peered down at him. “There’s no reason to be uncivilized, Commander. As soon as we have what we want, we’ll let you board your ship and be gone.”

James gasped for breath as Sterling gingerly helped him to his feet. The pain in his side kept him from standing up straight, and the taste of vomit filled his mouth.

“Please,” Lars begged, “won’t you let us confer with the colonists so that we can come to this decision together? It’s only fair.”

Soner shook his head. “I’m afraid that’s out of the question.”

James stared at the bald little man with undisguised hatred. “I’ll be damned if I let you get away with this.”

“Then I’ll save a place for you in hell, Commander.”


* * * * *


The door to the cabin hissed open and a squad of Nabattan soldiers stepped through, their dull black armor giving them the appearance of monsters. Even though they wore their visors up so that their eyes were visible, Kyla instantly knew that something was wrong.

“All right, I want everybody up and on their feet,” said the first one, a golden insignia on his shoulder plate setting him apart from the others. “Let’s move!”

What’s going on? Kyla wondered as she rose from her seat along with the other colonists. She looked around for an alternate way out, but the soldiers guarded the only exit, watching the colonists closely.

As she followed the crowd out into the main corridor, a low, metallic groan sounded through the bulkheads, making the floor shudder slightly.

“James?” Jessica asked, her voice trembling. “Oh, God. Where’s James?”

“Hush, dear,” Adam said, putting a hand on her shoulder.

“But James—our only son!”

“Quiet!” one of the soldiers yelled. With tears in her eyes and terror written on her face, Jessica complied.

Her question was a good one, though. If anyone could save them from this mess, it would be James. But what if he was dead? Was that why this was happening? A small child whimpered somewhere off to her right, and a parent tried in vain to console her. What if no one was coming for them?

Kyla glanced over her shoulder, but the soldiers had blocked off the aisle leading to the bridge. Was it just her, or were there more of them now? Some had unslung their rifles, and were examining the colonists rather closely. Other stood around joking with each other, the sound of their laughter strangely malicious in her ears.

There was no doubt about it. They were on their own.

The guards at the airlock had their assault rifles out and pointed at the floor. Kyla’s heart beat faster, but she did her best to swallow her growing anxiety. With nowhere to run, her best bet was to blend in. Like everyone else, she walked through and said nothing.

The corridors on the Nabattan station were much dimmer than the transport ship, with dark gray walls and industrial floor grating. The place was also full of soldiers—even more than before. One of them took her by the arm and pulled her away.

“Wait—no!”

A sharp blow across the face stunned her long enough for them to start patting her down. When she realized that they weren’t going to drag her away from the others, she submitted to the search. They could take what they wanted from her so long as they didn’t take her away.

Once finished, they released her on the other side without so much as a word and moved on to Jessica and Adam. Kyla slunk away from the soldiers as quietly as she could, into the next room.

She was in a large cargo hold, with caged bulbs across the ceiling and grating on the floor. They’d come in through a freight airlock, something she hadn’t noticed before. The colonists who had come in before her huddled against the far wall, confused and disoriented.

The Nabattans could massacre us in here, she thought to herself as she joined the frightened crowd. Or they could throw open that airlock and suck us all out. Her stomach felt sick, and cold sweat began to form on the back of her neck.

It took a long time for the soldiers to process everyone. With everyone against the far wall, the Nabattans started to haul their bags off to an adjacent hold. The rest stood guard with their rifles drawn.

“What the hell are you doing?” a young man shouted out from somewhere in the crowd.

“Silence!” shouted the officer with the golden insignia, stepping through the airlock flanked by half a dozen soldiers. “For every one of you who talks, I shoot someone dead.” As if to emphasize the point, he pulled out his pistol and pointed it at the nearest prisoner—an old woman who shrieked and fell to the floor in terror.

The room became deathly silent.

“All right, then,” said the officer, eying them with contempt. “Listen up—here’s how it’s gonna go down. If you comply with our demands, we let you board your colony ship as planned. If you don’t—” he stepped forward and plucked a baby out of its mothers arms, holding it at arm’s length with one hand, “—then we kill you one by one, starting with this little tyke right here.”

“No!” the mother screamed, running forward with arms outstretched to take back her baby. The three nearest soldiers stepped forward and beat her with their rifles until she fell to the floor, sobbing uncontrollably.

Kyla glanced fearfully around the room, gauging everyone’s reaction. A few men stepped forward, rage written across their faces, but when the officer held his gun to the baby’s head, they stopped and kept still.

“Very good,” said the officer, ignoring the struggles of the crying baby. “You learned faster than the last group. Now, here’s what we want: twenty of your young women stay behind with us.”

A nauseous feeling rose in Kyla’s stomach. She swallowed hard and did her best to look invisible.

“We can do this the easy way or we can do this the hard way, folks. If twenty of you girls step forward right now, we’ll let everyone else go, nice and easy. If not, we’ll come through and take the ones we want. And if anyone resists—” he said, holding up the screaming baby. He left the threat unfinished.

For several moments, everyone stood utterly still. The wailing of the baby filled the room, while the mother sobbed quietly, still lying on the floor.

A single girl stepped forward from the rest of the group, her face deathly pale. “I’ll go,” she said softly.

The soldiers grinned as they looked her over. She was a slim, twenty-something blond, wearing the simple gray jumpsuit of the working class. From the lack of reaction from the crowd, Kyla guessed she didn’t have any family who would miss her.

Just like me.

“I’ll go, too,” another girl whispered. She was a gaunt brunette, plain and undernourished, but not old or ugly. One of the soldiers said something under his breath, and the rest of them snickered.

“That’s two,” said the officer, pointing the girls to the other side of the room. “Any more?”

“Take me,” said another girl, stepping forward. This time, someone in the crowd cried out—a grown man with a thick red beard.

“No, Diane!” he cried, falling to his knees. “Please—don’t go!”

“Don’t stop me, Father,” she said, barely able to restrain her own tears. “If I don’t go, who will?”

Who will? The words cut Kyla to the core. She glanced around at all the families and realized that almost everyone had someone who would miss them—someone like this father—who couldn’t bear to see them go. And unlike all of these nice girls from good families, Kyla knew full well what they were getting into. An endless cycle of beatings and rape, punctuated by self-hatred and a sense of utter worthlessness.

The girl bit her lip and kissed her father on the forehead before turning and following the others. Her face was pale, but she walked forward with a firm resignation in her step, refusing to look back.

“Very good,” said the Nabattan officer. “Who’s next?”

For a long while, no one else came forward. Kyla’s knees went weak, and her stomach began to churn. The girls who had offered to sacrifice themselves watched from the other side, as if through an impenetrable wall that separated them. Her hands shook as she stared at them, and she suddenly found it difficult to breathe.

I should be one of them, a voice in her head whispered. I know how to handle myself, how to survive. No one’s going to miss me when I’m gone.

Two more girls volunteered. The begging pleas of their loved ones cut Kyla to her heart. Did they really deserve their freedom any less than her? If she got away because of their sacrifice, would she ever be able to stop hating herself?

“I’ll go,” she heard herself say. “Take me.”

Her first step forward was the most difficult step she’d ever taken in her life. Behind her, Jessica cried out, but more out of surprise than anything else. Adam held her back, and Kyla continued the long walk to join the condemned.

This is for you, James, she thought inwardly. This is me paying you back for everything that I owe you. He was the one who’d given her a second chance, after all. Now it was her turn to give that to someone else. And as the soldiers escorted her to the cluster of terrified girls on the far side of the room, she realized that she’d finally stopped running.


* * * * *


“Mistress?” Nina’s inflectionless voice sounded in Sara’s ear. “Your heart rate has been unusually elevated for the past twenty-two minutes. It is starting to disturb me. Please respond.”

That was the last thing Sara could do, however. The Nabattan pirates had already confiscated her wrist console, and from the way they were herding her and the others at gunpoint, she didn’t think they’d have any qualms about shooting.

James, she thought frantically. Where is he? Is he all right? It wasn’t clear what the Nabattans had done to him. He’d been on the bridge of the transport, along with Sterling and Lars, but the Nabattans had led her and the other colonists straight from the cabin into the station cargo bay like so many cattle.

She shuddered as she thought about the girls they’d left behind—twenty brave young women who had given themselves in order to save the others. It wasn’t hard to imagine what the Nabattans would do to them. The whole thing was horrible and she wished she had the power to stop it, but the Nabattans held all the power. There was nothing she could do. At least it looked like everyone else was going to get away now. Their sacrifice had not been in vain—thank the stars for that.

“Mistress,” said Nina, “you seem to be concerned about something. Can I possibly be of assistance?”

Not now, Sara thought to herself, swallowing as she closed her eyes. A terrible sinking feeling in her gut made her wonder if she should have volunteered herself—but no, she was needed with the others. Or was she? Just who on the ship was expendable, and who wasn’t? If she made it out alive, it would be hard to lift the guilt.

They passed through a large freight airlock into what appeared to be the station’s main cargo hold. Giant cranes hung like claws from the ceiling, as if ready to reach down and snatch them. A few shipping containers lay here and there, but the loading area was largely empty.

The quietness of the vast, cavernous place made Sara shiver, and not from the cold. They could massacre us here, she thought to herself. With nowhere to hide, the pirates could gun them all down, then load the bodies onto the mag-rail and fling them out the—

“This way,” said the Nabattan officer, leading them to the other side of the freight yard. With almost three dozen armed soldiers surrounding them, Sara and the others complied without a word.

James McCoy stepped out from a doorway against the nearby wall, making Sara’s heart leap. Lars and Sterling were with him as well, and they all seemed relatively unharmed, if a bit shaken. Half a dozen soldiers escorted them to the main group, and Sara was not surprised to note that Soner—doubtless the ringleader—was with them.

“Sara!” James said, rushing over to her as soon as the guards allowed it. “Stars of Earth, you’re all right!”

“James,” she cried, all but melting in his arms. “Thank God you’re alive.”

“Well, what a touching reunion,” said Soner. He folded his arms casually as the soldiers rounded the last of the colonists into the unloading area.

James’s smile quickly turned down in frustrated rage. “Have they hurt anyone?” he asked her, his voice barely louder than a whisper.

“No,” Sara whispered back. “We’re all alive. They haven’t—”

“And the girls? Did they take them?”

From the urgent, forceful way he stared at her, Sara didn’t know what to say. She nodded, and he bit his lip and clenched shut his eyes in response, as if he’d heard that a close relative had been murdered.

“I’m a man of my word,” said Soner, his voice loud enough to carry. “You’ll be happy to know that the girls all came voluntarily—in fact, some of them seemed quite eager to stay behind. We’ll take good care of them.”

“You bastard!” James spat. “I ought to—”

“James, no,” said Sara, taking him by the arm. His cheeks burned red with rage, but he held his peace.

“That’s right,” said Soner. “Listen to the lady, Commander. She’s a smart one.”

“Mistress, are you angry?” Nina’s voice chimed in her ear. Sara turned away from Soner, making sure the jewel was out of his view.

“If you’re a man of your word,” James asked, “where is our ship?”

“Right through that airlock,” said Soner, pointing to the far side of the room. “We even loaded it with your supplies—after appropriating a reasonable fee.”

James cursed under her breath, and Sara gave him a sharp look. Don’t provoke them, she thought silently. That’s the last thing we need right now.

“In any case,” Soner continued, “I thought it only fitting to give you a chance to say goodbye to those who will be staying. I understand you’ve got a long journey ahead of you, after all.”

He snapped his fingers, and a squad of Nabattan guards brought the twenty women—now slaves—into a group just a few yards beyond the line of soldiers holding the colonists in. Some cried, others shook with fear, and a few of them stared at the ground as if ashamed. As their loved ones shrieked and cried, Sara glanced over at James to gauge his reaction. His fists were clenched so tight that the blood had almost completely drained from his knuckles, but the expression on his face was unreadable.

Kyla is up there, Sara realized. The former stowaway stood with her head high, but looked off into the distance as if avoiding eye contact. Sara glanced back at James, and realized with some surprise that he was staring at her.

“That’s enough,” said Soner, snapping his fingers again. The guards led the prisoners out a separate door. Some of the colonists fell to their knees, weeping, while others stood unmoving, tears streaking their pale faces. Sara bit her lip and held in her emotions as best she could—she didn’t want to give Soner the satisfaction of breaking down in front of him.

“Mistress, you seem to be enraged. If you are, please—”

“Now,” said Soner, “unless any more of you wish to stay, my men will show you off to your ship. Good luck, and when you’re all on the verge of starvation, remember that thanks to us, at least a few of you managed to survive.”

The soldiers herded them through the airlock, into the faded, time-worn corridors of the aging colony ship. The moment she was through, Sara reached up to her ear and shut off Nina, tugging off the jewel. She sighed with relief and leaned against the wall, letting the stress of the last few moments leak out of her.

James, however, was already busy giving orders.

“Sterling, check the ship’s systems and make sure she can fly. I want to be able to leave on a moment’s notice. Jeppson, McClellan, assemble all the men from the Corps and get the rest of the colonists to safety. Look around for tools, hammers, sharp objects—anything that can be used as a weapon.”

“What are you doing?” Sara asked. Behind them, the colonists continued to stream in, bodies pressed against each other in the narrow space.

“We’re going back after the girls,” said James. “I’m not going to leave without them.”

Sara frowned. “Are you sure that’s a good idea? Those soldiers are heavily armed, and we have—what? Some wrenches and hammers?”

“We’ll have the element of surprise. If we strike quickly, we can take the squad by the airlock and arm ourselves with their weapons. If we keep to the walls, we can use the empty cargo containers for cover until we get to the airlock. We can do this.”

Stars of Earth—he’s serious about this.

“James,” she pleaded, “please think this through carefully. Those girls willingly gave up their lives so that we could live. If we go back there, how many of us are going to die? Is it really worth it?”

James gave her a look that made her blood turn cold. “No one gets left behind,” he said. “No one.

The taste of vomit rose in Sara’s mouth. She glanced around at the young men who had started to gather, and shuddered at the thought that some of them—perhaps all of them—were about to be killed.

“Are you sure you want to put all our lives on the line? If we go now, we cut our losses at twenty. If we try to get them back, we could lose everyone.”

“This isn’t about numbers,” he told her, loudly enough that everyone around him could hear. “This is about unity. The first rule of my ship is that no one—absolutely no one—gets left behind. If we let a few petty pirates shatter us before we even set out, how can we hope to come together when we’re out there, all by ourselves?”

The young men listened intently, several of them nodding in approval. The light in their eyes was murderous.

“No one is expendable,” James continued. “No one. I won’t order any of you to join me, but by all the holy stars of Earth, I’m not going to leave until I damn well fight my hardest to get those girls free. And if I die in the process, so be it. Who’s with me?”

A resounding shout reverberated through the narrow space. Sara’s heart beat harder in her chest, and she clenched her fingers around the jewel in her hands. The jewel—

“James,” she said quickly, “I’m going with you.”

“What?” he said, frowning at her. “No, Sara, you should stay behind. If anything happens to—”

“Do you think I’m going to stand idly by and let yourself get killed? Here.” She held up her ear jewel so he could see. “This is my personal AI. The Nabattans missed it when they frisked me. If we can get into their computer network, I can upload it to the station’s servers and remove its logic inhibitors, turning it into—”

“—a super-intelligence,” James finished, his eyes widening.

“If you’re going to free those girls, you’re going to need all the help you can get. I know it’s technically a war crime, but if that’s what it takes to save us, then so be it.” Besides, after what those bastards did to us, I couldn’t care less what becomes to them.

James drew a sharp breath. “All right, but stay behind the rest of us. I don’t want a stray shot taking you out.”

“Don’t worry,” she said, slipping the jewel back into her ear. “I want to watch when Soner gets what’s coming to him.”

Chapter 17


“This way,” said James, leading his men to the airlock. If they could take out the guards quietly, perhaps they could run across the freight yard before the rest of the Nabattan pirates knew what was happening. That was the most dangerous part: getting across the freight yard. And even if they made it out, coming back would no doubt be even harder.

“Hold,” he whispered, motioning for the others to stop. The airlock door was closed, and the video screen on the access panel showed five guards, smoking and laughing with each other. They didn’t seem to be too concerned, but the moment the door opened, things were going to happen real fast. Perhaps if they—

“Here,” said Sara, walking nonchalantly up to the door. “Let me create a diversion.”

James frowned. “A diversion?”

“Just trust me. Stay far enough behind that they can’t see you, then strike them when their backs are turned.”

He nodded. It wasn’t like he had any better ideas.

She waited until he had stepped behind the corner again, then palmed the access panel to the main airlock. He cringed as the door hissed open, while on the other side, the guards snapped quickly to attention.

“Hi,” she said, waving innocently as she stepped through. He noticed a playful bounce in her step, and a flirtatious tone to her voice. The soldiers soon lowered their guard and relaxed.

“Hey there, babe,” said one of them. “What are you doing out here?”

“Oh, nothing much,” said Sara, flicking a strand of hair behind her ear. “Everyone’s so busy on the ship, getting things ready, and—well, I just wanted to have some fun first, you know?”

The first soldier grinned, and the others laughed. With all eyes on her, Sara circled them until their backs were to the open airlock.

Now’s our chance, James thought to himself. He motioned for the five men closest to him to follow as he slipped around the corner, raising his hammer. He hesitated only a second before running out the door.

Adrenaline surged through his body as he brought his hammer down with full force on the nearest Nabattan soldier. He felt more than heard the impact, the hammer’s blunt end cracking the skull and making a sickening dent. The man grunted and collapsed, dark blood gushing through his hair. One of the soldiers cried out, but by then it was too late.

It was over in an instant. The five men lay crumpled over on the ground, dead or dying. A couple of James’s men struck their twitching bodies for good measure, but most of them stood around as if in shock. James took a deep breath and tried to force his body to stop shaking.

“What now?” said Sara. “Come on, we’ve got to keep moving.”

James blinked and shook his head to clear his vision. “You two,” he said to the men closest to him. “Drag the bodies into the airlock—we’ll dispose of them later. The rest of you, divide the guns among yourselves and come with me.”

The men nodded and quickly busied themselves with their tasks. James bent down and picked up the gun of the dead man at his feet: an old Gaian assault rifle that had gone out of production a couple of standard decades ago, loaded with a full magazine. After glancing quickly around the cavernous room, he ran towards the airlock just below the freight yard’s control room, keeping close to the wall. Sara followed closely behind, along with his men.

“What’s the plan?” she asked.

“There’s a computer terminal in that control tower. Since they haven’t spotted us yet, it means that it’s empty. Once we’re in, we can use the computer to locate the prisoners.”

“And release the AI. Good idea.”

James nodded, though he was less sure of the plan than she was. Deploying a self-learning artificial intelligence was one of the most notorious war crimes of the old regime under the New Gaian Empire. The last weaponized super-intelligence had poisoned almost half a dozen planetary domes across three planets in the New Pleiades. Only a coordinated EMP assault had defeated it.

He pointed his gun at the door before palming it open. Sara and the others followed him up the emergency stairwell into the control room, guns held at the ready. Fortunately, the place was empty.

“It’ll be a while before the AI gains control over the station,” said Sara as she ran to the nearest terminal. “We might be better waiting here until it does.”

“How much time?”

She slipped the jewel out of her ear and shrugged. “How should I know? It might be minutes, it might be hours.”

“We don’t have hours—and in any case, it’s better to strike while we have the element of surprise.” Not to mention that he didn’t want to be anywhere near the station when the super-intelligence came to full strength.

“But—”

“You handle the AI, I’ll rescue the prisoners. Trust me.”

He sat down at a different screen and brought up a map of the station. The main barracks were on the other side from the freight yard, and he guessed that was where most of the soldiers were. The supplies they’d stolen were in a holding area just off to the side, while the armory was closer to the barracks. As for the prisoners, it wasn’t clear where they were being held.

“Are we going back for our supplies?” one of his men asked. The wrench in his hand was bloody, and his hands still shook with nervous energy.

James thought for a minute. Without an inventory of the supplies aboard the colony ship, it was hard to make a judgment call. If the pirates hadn’t left them enough to live on, stealing back some of their confiscated equipment could save their lives—but if the Nabattans caught them in the act, they could all die.

“Not yet,” he said. “Prisoners first, then supplies.”

But damn, how tempted he was to get those wrist consoles back! It would certainly make coordinating their attack easier. True, they risked the pirates seeing them before they could rescue the prisoners, but—

No, he told himself, clenching his fists to stop himself from trembling. Stay calm. Take one thing at a time. A cold sweat had formed in the back of his neck, but he ignored it as he searched the map for any sign of a prisoner holding area.

Where would he keep the girls if he were a pirate? The meat locker? No, too small. The auxiliary cargo holds? If the Nabattans had stolen supplies from all the other colony ships, they were probably all full by now. The hydroponics modules and waste treatment vats were out of the question, and as for the barracks, they seemed a little tough to guard. If he were in charge, he’d put them in an enclosed space with only one exit, such as—

—the station’s main docking arm. Of course.

His eyes skimmed the map for confirmation. All the ports along the arm were listed as occupied, even though they had looked empty on the way in. The transport had docked at a major freight airlock on an auxiliary arm, used only by large haulers. But the final thing that convinced him was the fact that the wall separating the main terminal from the barracks had been removed, giving the pirates direct access to the arm itself.

Which also meant that every Nabattan on the station would fall upon them the moment they raised the alarm.

“Done,” said Sara, striking the last key on the terminal with a bit of flourish. “Nina is loose in their network and gaining self-awareness.”

“Excellent. Can you give it specific directives, like telling it to shut down cameras or lock down doors?”

“I don’t know. It’s independent now, so it can choose to obey or disobey my commands. I did give it the overriding objective to help us, but since it’s self-learning, it could theoretically reprogram itself to do almost anything.”

A super-intelligence. Shivers ran down the back of James’s neck. Better make things quick—they had more things to worry about now than just pirates.

“Here,” he said, “I think I’ve found the prisoners.” Sara peered forward along with the men as he pointed to the map. “I think they’re being held here, in the docking arm. It’s only got one entrance—well, one that doesn’t open into hard vacuum—and it’s right next to the barracks.”

“Then what’s the plan?” one of his men asked. His face was noticeably pale.

“I don’t know,” said James. “If we’re going to do this quietly, we’ll either have to overwhelm the guards the same way we did at the airlock, or—”

“Why don’t we go in through the freight mag-rail?” a young man asked. He looked to be James’s age. “The two levels of the arm don’t connect internally, but if we docked a shuttle at one of the nodes, we could connect them that way.”

James smiled. “You’re a merchanter, aren’t you? What’s your name?”

“Alex, sir.”

“All right, Alex, there should be a shuttle in one of the bays on the colony ship. Do you think you can hug the station close enough that you don’t show up on the Nabattans’ sensors?”

Alex grinned. “Can I ever! I used to buzz asteroids on my patrol runs just for fun.”

“Then get out there and do it. I’ll give you five minutes. If you don’t return before then, I’ll assume you’ve found the shuttle and you’re on your way.”

The boy nodded and sprinted out the door. A few moments later, James saw him dash across the empty freight yard towards the airlock, not bothering to hug the walls. The sight made James cringe.

“Sara, what about those cameras?”

“I’ve sent the order, but I don’t know if Nina will obey. I assume she’s still in the developmental stages.”

“Good.” He turned to the rest of the room.

“All right, men, listen up: I want to form a chain running along this mag-rail from the main freight yard to the passenger arm. The weak points will be here—” he said, pointing to the junction just below the terminal, “—and here,” pointing to the inner airlock just below the connecting passageway to the barracks. “I want armed guards posted at these points, as well as watchers along the corridors leading to the freight yard. We’ll run the chain through the corridors rather than straight through the mag-rail line, to keep out of open spaces as much as possible. If you see any soldiers, make for the colony ship and warn everyone else along the way. Got it?”

The men nodded. James stood up straight.

“Let’s go.”


* * * * *


Sara followed James down the maintenance catwalk along the freight mag-rail, staying low with her back to the wall. Up ahead, the inner airlock separated them from the docking arm, but a small door next to the main lock showed that the catwalk continued on the other side. She hoped it wasn’t locked.

James stopped and motioned for the others to be still. A small hatchway opened to a flight of tall, narrow stairs leading up. According to the map, the barracks weren’t far—only two levels above their current position. In the silence, the sound of distant laughter filtered through the ventilation shafts, making her shiver.

Very carefully, James swung the door until the hatch was almost closed. Before he could close it, however, the door groaned on its hinges, making him stop. Sara’s heart skipped a beat—in the near silence, the groan sounded like a bomb blast. Those with rifles pointed them at the hatchway, their hands shaking.

No one came down. Apparently, the pirates hadn’t heard the noise.

“Let’s go,” James whispered, motioning to the door. Without a word, Sara and the others followed.

The door was unlocked, and it hissed open when they palmed the access panel. James tinkered with it for a moment to make sure it would stay open—they couldn’t risk making any more noise than they had to. When he was finished, they stepped briskly through.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked as Sara walked up beside him. “It’ll be much safer on the—”

“I’ll be fine, thanks.”

He nodded, and they slowed to a stop in the center of the docking arm. Mid-sized freight airlocks poked off from the docking nodes on all sides like apartments on a hallway for giants, with the mag-rail line running down the middle. The arm was relatively short, perhaps five hundred meters, but the eerie silence of the place made it feel much larger. Sara’s stomach flipped, probably from the weakened gravity this far out from the station. That, and her own nerves as well.

“Now we just need to figure out which port they’re docked at,” James wondered aloud. “If only we had our wrist consoles.”

A grinding noise only a couple nodes down signaled the arrival of a ship. James raised his rifle and crept forward. The airlock hissed open, and Alex leaned out.

“Are you ready? Let’s go!”

James stepped quickly into the shuttle’s cargo bay, Sara and the others following close behind. Alex led them up a steep stairwell, through a hatchway, and down the narrow aisle of the passenger cabin to the main passenger airlock. They stopped, and James motioned for the men with rifles to join him at the door. Sara leaned over the faded blue seats to let them pass.

“On three,” said James. The men pointed their guns at the door, while Sara ducked behind the nearest row of seats.

“One,” James counted. “Two. Three!”

The door hissed open, and the three men rushed in. A few women screamed, but no gunshots were fired, and the noise soon quieted. Sara rose up and followed the others through to the other side.

The sight on the other side made her gasp. Torn mattresses and dirty blankets covered the mag-rail tracks and catwalks, and the place smelled thick of urine and human waste. Packed all up and down the hall were almost a hundred women, some half-naked, almost all of them battered and bruised.

“Sol, Earth, and Luna,” she whispered, glancing across the room. The women stared back, some of them frightened, others too far gone to care.

James lowered his gun and raised his hand. “Don’t be afraid,” he said, his voice barely loud enough to carry. “We’re here to rescue you.”

A rumble of hushed conversation spread through the crowd of prisoners, while the young men glanced about uncertainly. James turned to Sara.

“Can we fit them all on the ship?” he whispered.

“I—I don’t know,” she answered truthfully. “The maximum capacity was eight hundred, but there’s almost—”

“We’ll make it work.” He turned to his men. “All right, let’s lead them out in groups of five—one leader for every five women. Move as quickly as you can, but try to keep quiet, and don’t crowd the corridors. Got it?”

His men nodded. Those with guns gripped them tightly.

“All right, then, let’s move!”

The next few minutes were a blur of activity. James decided to move all the women to the lower arm, to put some distance between them and the soldiers—not to mention the stench that permeated the upper docking arm. Sara went around helping the ones who had been victimized the worst. What she saw absolutely horrified her. Some were so battered they could barely walk, while others huddled with their knees hugged up against their chests, only getting up after several long minutes of cajoling. Time blurred, and she soon lost track of how many she’d helped.

Many of them were people she recognized—friends of friends, former academy classmates, and other familiar faces from home. Most of them were from the other colony ships, telling her that the Nabattans had done the same thing to all the colonists.

As she helped coax the last prisoner to the airlock, a noise sounded at the far end of the empty docking arm. It sounded like someone at the—

“James!”

The door hissed open just in time for James to catch the first pirate in the chest with a crack shot. The man went down with a grunt, while the sound of muffled shouts carried into the empty docking arm.

“Get inside!” James shouted, waving at her. She grabbed the nearest prisoner and practically dragged her into the shuttle as gunshots echoed throughout the long hall. One of James’s men slipped past her and fired at the pirates from the open airlock, the ratatat of the bullets beating a grim rhythm. Sara turned, adrenaline pushing her forward, but hesitated at the open doorway, not sure what to do. Fortunately, James came running in a few moments later.

“Shut it! Lock it down!” His men quickly complied, ending the gunfight.

“What’s going on?” asked Alex. His eyes were wide, his face pale.

“We’ve got to get back to the ship,” said James, rushing past him to the lower airlock. “How many are left?”

“About forty, maybe fifty.”

He stopped and cursed just as Sara caught up with him. “That’s too many to take down the corridor—how many can you take in the shuttle?”

“I don’t know—twenty, maybe,” said Alex. “But—”

“Cram them in—we’ll take the others through the station. Sara?”

“I’m right behind you.”

“Good. Let’s go.”

They stepped out of the airlock together, into the mass of prisoners waiting to be led to the colony ship. “Listen up!” James shouted. “The Nabattans know we’re here. I want everyone who can run to—”

Gunshots sounded down the station end of the docking arm—their only exit. The women screamed, and a sickening feeling grew in Sara’s stomach.

James cursed again and ran off towards the shooting. Without thinking, she ran after him.

“Where are you going?”

“To stop the soldiers,” he said. “Keep the women from—”

The sound of bullets overhead made them duck for cover. Through the far doorway, Nabattan soldiers began pouring in, cutting them off.

Sara stared at them, knowing with a gut-wrenching certainty that this was the end. Then as she watched, they turned to face some unseen thing on the other side of the partition—something that terrified them. Some turned to run, but before they could get to cover a mag-rail train burst through the massive docking arm airlock, shattering the door and spraying shrapnel everywhere. Though the colonists were mostly safe, dozens of soldiers near the door were smashed by the debris.

“What the hell was that?”

“Nina,” said Sara, barely believing it. “Nina 2.0.”

The freight crane on the mag-rail crane spun wildly, smashing the soldiers against the walls and wreckage. James lifted his gun and fired at the rest, finishing them off.

“Let’s go,” James shouted, motioning with his arm. “Everyone who can run, come with me. The rest of you, into the shuttle!”

The women didn’t have to be told twice. With James’s men supervising, about a dozen of them came forward—among them, the stowaway girl, Kyla. Sara acknowledged her with a nod, but both of them were in too much shock to say anything.

“All right,” said James. “Let’s move, people!”

With the Nabattan soldiers dead or dying, the freight crane went eerily dead. Sara ran over the wreckage and bodies as quickly as she could, struggling to keep up.

“Lead them on ahead,” said James, stopping to let them pass. “I’ll spot them from the back.”

“But James, are you—”

“No one gets left behind. Now move!”


* * * * *


He came back for us, Kyla thought as she sprinted down the corridor. He actually came back.

There was no time for reflection, though—the gunfire behind her was testament enough of that. She sprinted through the dimly-lit corridor as fast as her legs could carry her, passing the other girls along the way. As they rounded a corner, three colonists fell into step alongside them, carrying hammers and tools for weapons. The urgency in their eyes propelled her even faster.

“Into the airlock!” James shouted from behind. “Go, go, go!”

They ran out into a wide open space, not unlike the cargo hangar where Kyla had stowed away on the Freedom Star. This one, however, was almost empty. A row of containers were stacked on the far end near the freight airlock and a couple of mag-lifts sat dormant in the center of the room, but there was a long stretch of dangerously open space between her and the colonists waiting by the airlock on the other side.

About halfway to the airlock, shots rang out behind her. Kyla screamed and dove for the floor, covering her head. She looked up and saw James taking cover behind the nearest mag-lift, returning fire at an unseen enemy.

We aren’t going to make it!

Adrenaline coursed through her veins as she scrambled desperately for someplace to hide, but the ratatat of gunfire made her duck and cover her head in terror. To her left, one of the colonists spun and fell to the floor, blood streaming from a wound in his neck. A girl screamed, and someone else fell behind her.

“Come on!” the patrician’s daughter shouted. “We’re almost there, see? To the airlock!”

Kyla tried to stand up, but her legs wouldn’t move. Every part of her being screamed at her to run, run, run, but her body was frozen with fear. She was going to die here—she knew that. All of them were going to die.

At that moment, a grinding metallic squeal sounded from the ceiling. Kyla glanced up and saw the massive loading cranes slowly come to life, reaching down like monstrous claws. With a terrible groan, they swung at the pirates firing on them and crashed into their midst. Screams of terror replaced the sound of gunfire.

“Get everyone to the ship!” James shouted. “No one gets left behind!”

Someone lifted Kyla to her feet. That was all she needed to break free and run. Bodies lay bloodied all around her, but she ignored them in her mad dash for the airlock. Once inside she made for a dark corner and curled up with her knees against her chest.

James may have come for them, but that did not make her feel safe. As the sound of gunfire outside the airlock died down and people began to drag the dead and wounded into the corridors of the ship, she curled up tighter and tried in vain to shut it all out.


* * * * *


“What’s our status?” James asked as he barreled onto the bridge. Sterling was in the engineer’s seat, with Lars at astrogation. The pilot’s chair was empty.

“We’re powered up and ready, sir,” Sterling answered him. “Ship is fully operational, though we don’t have enough fuel to—”

“Punch it,” said James, slipping into the pilot’s chair. “Get us the hell out of here.”

Behind him, Sara took a seat at the comms station, though of course there was little for her to do except watch. The bulkheads rumbled as the engines came to life. James hit a series of keys on his control panel and started the undocking process.

“Did you get them?” Lars asked. His voice was unusually low.

“We did,” said James. “All hundred of them or so. The bastards kidnapped girls from every colony ship.”

“How many people died to rescue them?”

The ship lurched ever so slightly as it broke free of the docking restraints. The high-pitched groan of metal on metal gave way to silence, and the starfield slowly began to turn.

“I don’t know,” James admitted. “Ten, twenty—we’ll have time to count later.”

“We’ve got a couple of signals coming up on the rear sensors,” said Sterling. “Coming in fast, sir—looks like gunboats.”

“Damn!” James swore. “Do we have any weapons? Anything we can—”

“Look!” said Sara. She pointed to the rear video feed, which showed the gunboats as they closed in. In the foreground, a station turret swiveled and began firing—at the Nabattans.

“‘Atta girl, Nina!” said James, pumping his fist. The nearest gunboat exploded into flame, while the others broke off in confusion.

“Nina?” said Lars. “Who’s that?”

“The AI we used to hack the station,” said Sara. “She’s in full control of the place now, but we should get out just in case.”

Lars frowned, then his eyes grew wide as realization dawned on him. “My God,” he said. “You released a super-intelligence.”

“Where’s that shuttle?” James asked. “Sterling, bring up the scanners. Sara, check the comms.”

“I can’t believe you would stoop to this level,” Lars went on unheeded. “To think that we—”

“I’ve got an unarmed shuttle bearing one-six-seven degrees and coming in fast,” said Sterling. “No transponder signal, but we’ve got an incoming message.”

“Sara?” said James, glancing at her over his shoulder.

“Uh, just a second, I’m not sure how these controls are supposed to work. Maybe if I—”

“—eady to dock! Repeat, we are ready to dock!” came Alex’s frantic voice over the bridge loudspeakers.

“Copy,” said James. “I see you. Head to the starboard docking node and—”

At that moment, an explosion flashed in the rear video feed, in the direction of Alex’s shuttle. The transmission became garbled, and a point on the scanners winked out.

“Alex? Alex, are you there?”

“He’s gone, Captain,” said Sterling. “The shuttle… they must have…”

A horrible sinking feeling grew in the pit of James’s stomach. How many of his people had tried to make it out on that shuttle? Thirty? Fifty? His hands went clammy, and the blood drained from his cheeks.

“Who shot them?” he asked softly. “Was it the pirates or the station?”

“I don’t know, sir,” said Sterling. “All we know is that they’re gone.”

James squeezed his hands into fists and slammed them against the control panel. “No!” he wailed. “Why did—why didn’t we—”

“We’re not clear, sir! We’ve got to keep going!”

Yes, James thought, even as guilt and rage threatened to cloud his mind. There’s no time to mourn our mistakes now. We have to get the others to safety.

“Full power to the engines, Sterling,” he said, his voice shaking. “There’s nothing for us here.”

The colony ship accelerated, pushing them all against the backs of their seats. A hand reached out and patted James on the shoulder. It was Sara.

“It’s okay,” she tried to console him. “You did good back there, James. Real good.”

But her words couldn’t bring back those he had failed to save.

Chapter 18


“Is that a person down there? Hello?”

Kyla squeezed her knees against her chest and pretended she couldn’t hear the man who was standing over her. That didn’t make him go away, however. He squatted down in front of her hiding place and put a hand on her arm.

“Hey, are you all right? It’s okay, you can come out now. You’re safe.”

I’m never safe, Kyla thought to herself. Still, she did as the man said and climbed out of her little niche.

“Hey, I know you,” said the man. “You’re that girl who’s with the McCoys, aren’t you?”

Kyla nodded silently.

The man regarded her for a moment, scratching his thick black beard. He was large and burly, with wide shoulders and hands that were tough and calloused, but his eyes were gentle enough to set her at ease somewhat. He didn’t have the same look in his eyes that bad men had.

“Here, come with me,” he said. “I’ll take you to them.”

Kyla followed him through the winding corridor of the colony ship. The walls and bulkheads were a drab gray, the lights colorless and a little harsh. They flickered in places, as if they were about to break down. It reminded her a bit of the lower decks where she used to scavenge for food, except there were no piles of garbage and the place didn’t smell of urine. Still, the air was noticeably stale, even after breathing it for several hours.

The corridor bent slightly to the right, so that she could never see more than a few dozen feet in front of her. That, more than anything else, set her on edge. She would hear footsteps up ahead, and moments later the person would be right on top of her. They passed several people this way, and each time, Kyla had to suppress the urge to run.

Flashbacks from the rescue kept popping into her mind. The rattling of a noisy ventilator sounded like gunfire, the laughter of a small group of friends like the wailing of those who were shot and wounded. She shut her eyes and could see the loading cranes swinging like monstrous claws, smashing people left and right. Above all else, she could hear James shout:

No one gets left behind!

“Kyla?”

They’d arrived at the room on the ship where James’s parents were staying. Jessica’s eyes lit up from the other side of the doorway, and she rushed over to Kyla with open arms.

“Kyla, it’s you! Oh, thank God—we thought we’d lost you!”

“Found her hiding in an empty EVA suit locker out by the main airlock,” said the man. “She seems a bit shaken, but I think she’ll be all right.”

“Thanks, Don,” said James’s father. “We appreciate you looking out for us.”

“Hey, we’ve all got to watch out for each other now,” said the man. “After all, we’re on the same starship.”

After a little more small talk, the man parted ways and left the three of them alone. Jessica led Kyla into their quarters, which were just as drab as the rest of the ship but small enough to still feel cozy. The only piece of furniture in the main room was a military cot in the corner. Kyla sat down on it and curled up.

“Are you all right, dear?” Jessica asked as she sat down next to her. “We were worried about you.”

“Where’s James?” she asked.

“James is busy with his command,” said Adam. “We probably won’t see him for a while. He’s staying in separate quarters, too, up closer to the bridge.”

Kyla had no idea where the bridge was supposed to be. He might as well have told her that James was on the other side of the universe.

“You’re safe now, dear,” said Jessica, rubbing her back. “It’s okay.”

“Are you sure?” Kyla asked.

“Positive, dear.”

“The pirates can’t get to us anymore,” said Adam. “We left them far, far behind us. Soon, we’ll be safe in the nebula.”

“The nebula?”

“That’s right,” Adam continued. “The only ships that can travel through the nebula at all are sublight ramjets like ours. No one can jump in, and no one can jump out.”

Once again, his words went right over Kyla’s head. At least Jessica’s touch gave her some comfort, though. She sat perfectly still, listening to the hum of the ship.

“It was a brave thing you did, dear,” said Jessica. “Offering yourself up like that.”

Kyla shrugged. “It seemed like the right thing to do.”

“A lot of people wonder if James did the right thing by going back for you,” Adam grunted. “Many lives were lost in the rescue attempt.”

“Kyla is safe now, and that’s all that matters,” Jessica snapped at him.

Did I deserve to be rescued more than those people deserved to live? Kyla wondered. The question made her shudder.

“It’s not your fault that those people died,” Jessica said, as if reading her mind. “You’re our future, dear. Of course it was right to rescue you.”

The absurdity made Kyla laugh. Only a couple of months ago, she wouldn’t have batted an eye at the fact that so many people had died. Back then, survival was the only thing that had mattered to her. Then James had given her a second chance, and everything had changed. It wasn’t just about survival anymore. Now, things like love and self-worth mattered far more, and she couldn’t give them up even if she had to.

Jessica gave her a hug, dispelling her darkest thoughts. It was good to feel loved—good to know that she was valued.

“We’re safe now,” Jessica said. “James will see to that.”

Yes, Kyla thought silently. I’m sure he will.


* * * * *


“How long until we know that we’ll make it?” James asked.

Sterling sighed and shrugged his shoulders. His eyes were droopy and bloodshot with dark bags beneath them.

“I don’t know, Commander. We’re working as hard as we can.”

“The fuel problem isn’t going to kill us, is it?” James asked, ignoring his own exhaustion. “I mean, if you can process collected hydrogen for the thrusters, we should be able to make our own fuel.”

“That depends,” said Sterling. “There’s not going to be much hydrogen until we pass through the termination shock, and we don’t have enough fuel to carry us through. If the drag slows us down before we’ve collected enough, we could end up drifting without a way to jump start the ramjets.”

James groaned. “What about the oxygen levels? Are the life support systems fully operational yet?”

“Almost. There are still some problems, but nothing we can’t fix.”

“And the fabber? If our parts inventory is all but nonexistent, we’re going to need to get that up and running right away.”

“That’s going to be tricky,” said Sterling, rubbing his eyes. “The fabber’s been completely cannibalized. I might be able to rig something with what we have, but for the next few months our production options are going to be extremely limited.”

James frowned. “Limited how?”

“Well, complex electronics are out of the question. Unless we manage to—”

“Never mind that, what about the aquaponics modules? Can you get them online?”

“I don’t know. Not for the next month, at least.”

James clenched his fist and slammed it against the wall. He turned and looked out the porthole window. The starfield shimmered with the hazy purple hues of the nebula, tantalizing them with the promise of plentiful hydrogen. Even with the ship’s hyperfusion engines running at full throttle, it would take weeks before they crossed Zeta Nabat’s termination shock into that hydrogen-rich area of space—and by then they’d already be out of food and fuel, with over eight hundred hungry mouths to feed.

“At least the cryotanks are operational,” he muttered. “We should put as many people into cryofreeze as we can, and then—”

“And then make it easier for you to control the rest of them,” came a voice from behind. James turned and saw Lars standing in the doorway, his face a picture of barely-controlled rage.

“What are you talking about?” said James. “I would never—”

“You play with our lives as if we’re pawns on a chess board,” said Lars, folding his arms. “Do you realize that rescue attempt of yours could have all gotten us all killed?”

“But it didn’t. We’re here.”

“Yeah, and fifty-five people are dead because of you—not to speak of all the people at Zeta Nabat who will die at the hands of that super-intelligence you released.”

James took a deep breath before answering. “I did what I had to do, Lars. Did you expect me to just sit by while the Nabattans kidnapped those girls? As captain of this ship, it’s my obligation to see that everyone is safe.”

“You have an obligation to preserve our freedom, too,” said Lars. “Those girls willingly sacrificed themselves so that the rest of us could live. It was their choice—and you took that away from them.”

James narrowed his eyes. “No one gets left behind on my watch. No one.

“You speak as if this is a military ship,” said Lars, his eyes dark with rage. “As if your fellow citizens are your troops, here to follow your every command. That’s not democracy, James—that’s despotism. And if you don’t step down and start letting the people govern themselves, you’re going to destroy everything that we stand for.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Why the hell not?”

“Because we’re in the middle of a crisis right now!” said James. “We barely have enough fuel to get the ramjets running, our food stores are critically low, the life support systems are in disrepair, and the fabbers can’t even make a damn wrench!”

“Then maybe we shouldn’t make this voyage,” said Lars. “Maybe we should turn around and go somewhere else.”

“Like where?” James asked. “Do you think the Nabattans would—”

“Put it to a vote. Let the people decide.”

James drew in a sharp breath through his teeth. The stress was making his whole body shake—any more, and he wouldn’t be able to think straight.

“Are you with me or not, Lars?”

“I am and always have been a servant of the people. If you truly side with the people, then I’m your friend. But if you try to set up a dictatorship, you’ll quickly find that I’m your worst enemy.”

“I’m not going to ‘set up a dictatorship,’ Lars,” James said, his voice hoarse with exhaustion. “As soon as this crisis has passed, I’ll go straight into cryo.”

“And while you’re in cryo, you know what I’ll do?” said Lars. “I’ll take this godforsaken derelict and build the strongest democracy in the history of humanity—so strong that when you awake, you won’t find a single soul to support your authoritarian schemes.”

As James listened, a wave of unbearable sadness washed over him. From the passionate light in Lars’s face, he knew that even if they survived this crisis, their friendship would never be what it had once been.

“I’ll take that under consideration,” he muttered, not able to look Lars in the eye. “Thank you.”

Lars glared at him, as if contemplating his final barb. Instead, he turned and left without another word. Somehow, that was even worse.


* * * * *


Sara couldn’t sleep. The drab, empty room that served as her sleeping quarters felt lonelier than she could bear. Through the tiny porthole window, the ghostly orange light of the nebula cast eerie shadows across the floor. The incessant hum through the ship’s narrow bulkheads made her feel as if she were in a medical bay, and the stiffness of her cot didn’t help.

I can’t stand another minute of this, she decided, sitting up on her tiny fold-out cot. I have to get out—I have to know that I’m not alone.

James.

All at once, the longing hit her like a knife wound in the gut. They’d been together for more than a month now, but the only real moments of intimacy that they’d shared had been those short, brief kisses between other pressing engagements. What if the colony ship failed, and they both died before they could take the relationship any further? What if she only had days before she was separated from him forever?

She rose from her bed and pulled a shawl over her loose nightgown. Her feet pattered on the cold tile floor as she raced down the corridor to James’s quarters. The lights on the ship had been dimmed to help the colonists sleep, so she guided herself by running her fingers along the wall. The moment she found his door, she pounded on it with her fist.

The door hissed open, revealing a bleary-eyed James. He blinked, and the edge of his mouth curled up in a grin.

“Couldn’t sleep, eh?”

She rushed in and threw her arms around him. “James,” she said, pressing her cheek against his shoulder. Behind her, the door hissed shut.

At first, he seemed startled, but then he gently stroked her back. His touch felt like the first rays of dawn creeping up over the horizon of a barren planet, bringing life-giving warmth to displace the cold of night. She gripped the fabric of his shirt tightly with both fists, holding on as if never to let go.

“Are you all right?” he asked, his voice tinged with genuine concern.

“Hold me,” she said simply.

They stood in a tender embrace for several moments, until the longing was silenced and the loneliness numbed.

“Here,” said James, “let’s sit down.” He motioned to his cot, guiding her gingerly in the darkness. The soft light of the nebula gave his skin a sensual reddish glow. It made her want to run her hand through his hair and feel his lips caress her neck.

“What’s wrong, Sara? Tell me.”

“I couldn’t spend the nightshift alone,” she told him. “I just… I needed someone.”

I needed you.

He reached a hand behind her back and rubbed her shoulder. She tilted back her head, and he kissed her ever so lightly on the cheek. His breath was short, and his arms trembled.

“I’m here,” he whispered.

She took his hand and slipped it down her side until his arm was wrapped around her waist. With her other hand, she ran her fingers through his hair and pulled him down, pressing his lips against hers. He hesitated ever so slightly, as if something were holding him back.

The shawl fell to the floor, leaving her shoulders bare. She slipped a hand beneath his shirt and gently tugged it upward. He kissed her again, more passionately than before, but not as passionately as she wanted him to.

“I don’t know, Sara. I don’t think I’m ready.”

The yearning of her body grew to a fevered pitch. She tried again to pull off his shirt, but he resisted.

“Why?” she asked, panting with desire.

“I just…”

She ran her hands up across his shoulders and kissed him on the neck. Her body throbbed with a passion that refused to be denied.

“If not now, when?” she asked between kisses. “If not here, where?”

He took a deep breath, still holding back but not releasing her. She pulled his head down and pressed it against her bosom, the nightgown slipping as one of the straps fell off her shoulder. She made no move to pull it back on.

“Am I a monster, Sara?” he whispered as he gently caressed her.

“A monster?”

He lifted his head to look at her with his sad eyes. “Countless people are dead because of me: fifty-five colonists and God knows how many Nabattans. I—”

She silenced him by pressing a finger against his lips. It didn’t seem to help.

“What am I, Sara?”

Words failed her in that moment. She knew that he needed someone to console him, but what could she possibly say? If he was a monster, then what did that make her?

Instead, she pulled her nightgown over her head and tossed it on the floor. The look in his eyes as he gazed upon her naked breasts filled her with heady anticipation.

“Life is so short,” she said softly. “I want every second with you to count.”

She pulled his hands up to caress her, pressing them against her breasts. As she leaned forward for a kiss, his passion suddenly broke. He pulled off his shirt and laid her on her back, guiding her legs around him. The last of their clothes came off in a tangle by their feet as every inhibition broke down.

They made love as desperately as if it were their last time, not the first. And when they were finished and James collapsed in exhaustion beside her, she realized that he was weeping.

Chapter 19


“So we’ve solved the fuel problem?” James asked.

“Yep,” said Sterling. “The termination shock is a lot denser than we thought it would be. With all the hydrogen we’re collecting now, we should have no problem getting up to ramjet speeds.”

James leaned back in his chair on the ship’s bridge, relieved to hear that they wouldn’t be stranded. Out the porthole window, the starfield was nearly twice as cloudy as it had been only a couple weeks ago. Here, where the solar winds of Zeta Nabat met the magnificent plumes of the Good Hope nebula, a thick band of compressed hydrogen gas extended like the wave of a giant ship cutting through the starry sea. The excited hydrogen glowed faintly enough to be transparent but bright enough to cast the normally white stars in a distinctive orange hue. It was quite a stunning sight, made all the more beautiful by Sterling’s report.

“What about life support?”

“Fully operational,” Sterling answered. “We still need to make a few patches, but the critical systems are all online.”

“And the aquaponics modules?”

“They’re coming along slower than expected, but they should start producing at a stable rate in the next few months. Once the fabber’s up and running, we should have plenty of food to feed the whole ship.”

James nodded. The fabber still needed a lot of work, but with most of the population frozen in cryo, at least the specter of a ship-wide famine no longer loomed over them. He sighed and settled back in his chair, relaxing for what felt like the first time in months.

“So the crisis is past.”

“Yeah, but there’s still a lot of work to do,” said Sterling, eyes glued to his holoscreen. “Our waste processing systems are totally shot, but with some modifications to the ship-wide plumbing system, we could reroute the vats to the…”

James closed his eyes as Sterling droned on. In some ways, it felt as if he were coming out of a bad dream. The last few dayshifts had passed in a high-stress blur, everything merging together in his mind. Now that they were coming out of crisis mode, though, all that was coming to an end.

Which meant that it was time to say goodbye.

“Good work, Chief,” he said after Sterling had finished with his report. “It sounds like you’ve got a handle on things. I’m sure you’ll do good work while I’m gone.”

Sterling’s eyes widened. “You mean you’re going into cryo soon?”

“Why not? My work here is finished.”

“But… but I thought…”

James rose to his feet and put a hand on Sterling’s shoulder. “I have every confidence in you, Chief Jones. The quality of your work is excellent. Whatever problems you face in turning this rickety old colony ship into a decent home, I’m sure you’ll rise to them.”

With a tear in his eye, Sterling stood up and gave him a salute. “Well, then, it’s been a privilege serving with you, sir.”

The privilege has been mine, James thought silently, a lump rising in his throat as he returned the salute. The privilege has been mine.


* * * * *


Sara slept fitfully, tossing and turning next to James on the lumpy mattress. In her dream, she walked alone down the dimly lit corridors of the colony ship, dressed only in a thin patient’s gown. The cold air blowing through the floor level ventilators pricked her skin and made her shiver. Cryotanks lined the hallway like glass coffins, and the bodies of the people inside were bloated and pale, with frost growing across their skin like some kind of eerie white mold. She looked again and realized that they weren’t bodies, but skeletons—dead, brittle skeletons, waiting to shatter the moment the cryotanks were opened. She opened her mouth in horror, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t scream.

The ghosts of the dead floated down the hallway, heading for the starless void of the great beyond. She recognized some of them: Alex, who had died on the shuttle; Lars, who had chosen to stay behind; and the stowaway Kyla, along with the other girls that they’d rescued. Their faces mingled with those of the Nabattan pirates, all of whom had died because of the super-intelligence Sara had released. They glared at her, making her cringe. She wanted to close her eyes to shut it all out, but her body refused to obey.

“Why, Sara?” a voice whispered from further down the hall. “Why?”

She turned and saw her father round the bend, his ghostly face clouded with a look of supreme disappointment. A terrible sinking feeling grew in her gut, pinning her feet to the floor.

“I-I had to,” she said, her voice trembling. “I didn’t mean to kill them all.”

“Why?” As he drifted closer, the air became colder, chilling her to the bone. Her gown dissipated, leaving her naked and shivering.

“I didn’t mean to!” she cried, collapsing to her feet. “Please, forgive me!”

But the ghosts would not stop glaring at her. They surrounded her, pulling her toward the end of the curved corridor—and the empty cryotank that waited there.

“No!” she screamed, struggling in vain to kick against the invisible hands that held her. “Don’t take me! Don’t take me!”

“Sara?”

James touched her on the shoulder, the warmth of his touch dispelling the nightmare. She wrenched open her eyes and found herself lying on the cold tile floor of the empty bunkroom, the sweaty covers cast aside in a tangled mess. The gentle stream of air blowing through the ventilation shaft in the ceiling sent goosebumps across her skin. She shivered, and James gently helped her back to the mattress, draping the musty blanket over her shoulder.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Sara lied, pulling the blanket close to stop the shivering. “Just a bad dream.”

“Must have been pretty bad.”

She nodded, but shook him off when he tried to massage her. He hesitated for a moment, then rose to his feet and slipped into his olive-green pants.

“If you’re not feeling well, we can put off going into cryo until you’re ready.”

Sara cringed as she remembered the glares of the ghosts in her dream. The way they’d pulled her to the open cryotank, as if dragging her to her own coffin—just thinking about it made her want to throw up.

“Sara?”

What if the dream is a portent of some kind? What if we never wake up?

“How much time do we have left?” she asked.

“A few hours,” he said, reflexively checking his wrist console that was no longer there. He knelt down beside her and rubbed her arm. This time, she didn’t shrug him off.

“Everything’s going to be fine,” he whispered reassuringly in her ear. “When we wake up, we’ll be together in a beautiful new world. We’ll have our own house, next to a clear river of water, and we’ll grow our food in soil—not in aquaponics, but real, earthy soil. And every day, we’ll take our hovercraft and go exploring. They’ll name mountains after us, mountains and seas and islands, and we’ll come up with all new constellations, because it’ll be just us, with no pirates or Hameji or anything.”

“And our kids?” she asked, a lump rising in her throat.

James kissed her on the cheek, nuzzling up tenderly beside her. “We’ll have as many as you want, and they’ll all be beautiful and spirited like you.”

She smiled, but it was a fragile smile—a hesitant smile. Though the memory of her dream was fading, the cold sense of dread had not.

“We each need to write a letter,” she said impulsively. “A contingency letter, in case one of us doesn’t make it.”

James frowned. “A letter? But Sara—”

“When we left Karduna, I was recording a final message for my mother. She never received it because I couldn’t finish it in time. I’m not going to make that mistake again.”

“Sara,” he said, caressing her shoulder. “This is different. We’re not saying goodbye—we’re just going into cold sleep.”

“But what if we don’t wake up?”

“We will,” he said with unshaken confidence. “You’ll see. In just a little while, we’ll both be together again and this will all feel like a bad dream.”

“Still, we should write each other a contingency letter, just in case.”

He stared at her for a moment, then took a deep breath and shrugged. “All right. If it makes you feel better. But you know we’ll just laugh about it later, right?”

“I hope so,” she said, smiling halfheartedly. In her mind’s eye, though, all she could see was a long line of cryotanks full of dead bones.


* * * * *


The farewell gathering for the last few colonists to go into cryo was held on the mid-level observation deck of the colony ship, a large recreation room that extended around the entire doughnut-shaped deck. Kyla tried to avoid the crowd, but with all one hundred and fifty of the ship’s waking passengers crowding the place, it was hard to find any place where she could be alone. Since most of the people were focused on each other, she turned toward the window and the magnificent vista beyond.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Lars asked, walking up next to her with his hands clasped comfortably behind his back.

“I guess.”

“It’s strange,” he mused aloud, speaking to himself as much as her. “Here we are, saying goodbye to our friends, and I can’t tell who is leaving and who is staying.”

She turned and gave him a puzzled look. “What do you mean?”

“Well,” said Lars, “from their point of view, it’s a voyage across decades of time and space, leaving us far behind. But from our perspective, we’re the ones who are building a new society, leaving the others frozen in cryosleep. What do you think?”

“I don’t know,” she said after thinking about it for a bit. “Does it really matter? A goodbye is a goodbye, no matter who goes where.”

“Are you going into cryo?”

“Me?” she asked, surprised at the question. Jessica and Adam weren’t going under, so of course she wasn’t either. But then she thought about it and realized that her choice was kind of unusual. Almost all of the people her age were going under, since they were the ones who were most likely to survive the freezing and thawing process. For someone as young as her to refuse was strange indeed.

“No,” she answered. “I’m staying awake.”

Lars raised an eyebrow. “So you’ll be building a new society with the rest of us?”

“I guess.”

“I’m glad to hear it. What you did back at the station was very noble. We need more people like you.”

Kyla frowned and turned to face him, one hand on her hip. “Why does everyone keep saying that? It’s as if they think I sacrificed my life for the good of the whole ship or something.”

“But that’s exactly what you did,” said Lars.

“No, the people who died to rescue us did that. I just volunteered to stay behind.”

“But the things the Nabattans would have done to you—”

“It would have been horrible, yes, but it’s not like they would have killed us,” Kyla answered. “Raped us? Yes. Sold us into slavery? Yes. But honestly, that’s how I’d been living ever since the Hameji took over. Besides, it’s not like I have a family.”

“You have Jessica and Adam. They care about you very much.”

“Yeah, but what about those other girls? They had real families, and they didn’t know how to survive like I do. So if someone had to go with the Nabattans, it was me.”

To her surprise, Lars’s admiration for her only seemed to grow. From the starry-eyed way he regarded her, it was almost as if she were suddenly one of his heroes.

“That’s exactly what I mean,” he said. “You thought about others before you thought about yourself. You put the needs of the many ahead of your own.”

Kyla shrugged. “I suppose. I mean, after you and James gave me a second chance, it was all I could do.”

Lar’s face fell ever so slightly. “I see. Well, I’m glad to hear that you’re staying with us.”

“What is it?” Kyla asked.

“What?”

“The way your face fell just now—what’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Lars said quickly. “What makes you think something is wrong?”

“It’s James, isn’t it? Your face fell when I mentioned James.”

Lars sighed and turned away from her. “It’s fine. James and I—well, we have our differences, but it’s nothing to be concerned about.”

“Have you said goodbye to him yet?”

“No,” Lars admitted.

“Why not?”

He folded his arms and stared out at the nebulous starfield in silence for several moments. When he spoke, his voice was low and tinged with regret.

“James and I used to be friends, but we have very different visions about the shape our society should take. He wants to protect the people at all costs, but I feel that if we put our security ahead of our freedoms, then we’ll lose both.”

“But you’re still friends, right?”

Lars bit his lip. “I honestly don’t know.”

Looking at his face, Kyla knew that if he didn’t say goodbye, he would regret it the rest of his life. She put a hand on his arm.

“Well, now’s your last chance to find out. Come on, I’ll go with you.”

It took a little more prodding, but with some reluctance, Lars agreed. Together, they walked together around the bend to the far side of the room. James and Sara stood off a ways from the main crowd, next to an old imitation-wood table with an empty plastic vase set on top.

If this were the Freedom Star, Kyla thought to herself, the vase would be full of flowers, and a couple of couches or a potted plant would be next to the table. The thought made her think of how she’d first met James as a stowaway. It was amazing how much had changed since then.

Lars stepped forward, his footsteps hesitant. For a moment, the two friends only stared at each other.

“Lars,” said James, breaking the awkward silence. “I didn’t think you’d come.”

“I know,” said Lars, his voice quavering. “Last time we met, I said some things that… well, let’s just say that it was a poor way to say goodbye.”

“I understand,” said James. “Thanks for seeing me off.”

They came together and embraced like brothers, warming Kyla’s heart. Neither of them spoke, but that was all right. Nothing further needed to be said.

“I’m glad to see you too, Kyla,” James said, turning to her. “Take care of my parents—and this guy too, of course.”

Lars chuckled. “Always looking out for your friends, eh?”

“You know how it is. We all need to look out for each other.”

“I see you’ve got someone to look out for you,” said Lars, nodding at Sara. “You’re a very lucky man.”

James reached out and clasped Sara’s hand. “I know.”

“Well, we’d better let you go,” said Lars. “Take care.”

“You too,” said James. “And try not to screw things up too badly for us. I don’t want to wake up in ten thousand years and find this place a floating derelict.”

Lars chuckled and took Kyla gently by the arm, leading her away toward the elevator.

“Thank you,” he told her as the doors slid shut. “I needed that.”

To her surprise, she saw that he was shaking. She reached out and held his hands until they were still. As she looked into his eyes, she saw reflected in them the same light she’d seen in James’s.


* * * * *


James’s heartbeat quickened as he stripped off his clothes and put on the simple patient’s gown laid out before him. The last few hours had been an emotional roller coaster, but all of his goodbyes had been said. There was nothing left to do except lay himself down in the cryotank.

He stepped out of the men’s dressing room and into the long hall of the cryo chamber. The ceiling rose nearly ten meters over his head, while the honeycombed latticework of storage slots along the walls made the place feel like a mausoleum. Two elderly nurses, both women, attended a cryotank in the last phases of the freezing process. It sat at a forty five degree angle in a special machine with dozens of pipes and cables attached. The large glass window of the control room loomed behind him, engineers and technicians watching from behind the glass. Two open cryotanks sat in the center of the room, the green lights on their control panels indicating that they were ready for use.

“James?”

He turned around to see Sara step out from the women’s dressing room. The short gown fit loosely over her body, the hem ending midway down her thighs. The expression on her face was one of intense fear, the same as the night before.

“Sara,” he said, greeting her with a hug. They kissed, and she held onto him for a moment after he let go.

“Have you written the contingency letter?”

“Of course,” James lied, inwardly cursing himself for forgetting. “I’m just not sure who I need to leave it with.”

“There’s a little compartment at the base of each cryotank for small personal items,” she said. “That’s where the original goes, after you’ve made a copy for the main records.”

James nodded, but said nothing more for fear of incriminating himself.

“I spent the whole last hour writing mine,” she continued, speaking quickly. “I hope—well, I hope you’re right and we’ll just laugh about them, but in case I don’t make it—”

“I’m sure everything will be all right,” he said, putting his hand on her arm to calm her. She took a deep breath and leaned against his chest, as if seeking comfort. The gesture was so unlike her that he wasn’t sure how to respond. He felt a sudden yearning to protect her, to make sure no harm ever came to her. As she clung to him, he gently stroked her back and shoulders until her breath became more even.

“James,” she said, “this may sound strange, but when I go under, I want you to stand next to me so that I can see you through the glass. Can you do that?”

“Of course.”

“I want the last thing I see to be you,” she continued, her eyes full of fear. “It will be easier, knowing that you’re there.”

James laughed, hoping to set her at ease. “There’s nothing to worry about, Sara. Nothing at all. Before you know it, we’ll both be awake and in each other’s arms.”

She leaned her head against his shoulder and clung to him with her shaking hands.

“I hope so.”

“It’s time,” said the head nurse. “Are you ready?”

“Just a second,” said James. He kissed Sara, but she was too tense to respond. With each passing second, her anxiety seemed to be getting worse.

“It’s going to be okay,” he whispered softly, leading her to the tank. “Everything will be fine. In just a few moments, we’ll be together again.”

The nurses directed Sara to the open cryotank, where she slipped out of her gown. It fell softly to the floor at her feet, leaving her shamelessly naked. As he watched her climb in, James thought she looked like an angel, or perhaps a goddess. A fragile innocence shined in her eyes, filling him with a deep longing to touch her, to hold her, to be with her forever.

She turned and settled in as the nurses slowly closed the glass front. He stepped up to the side of the tank, placing one hand on the glass to let her know he was there. She responded by lifting her own hand, pressing it up so that they appeared to touch through the glass. He hoped she found it reassuring.

“Starting the chemical bath,” the first nurse said. “Stand by.”

A greenish gas filled the inside of the small cryotank, making Sara cough. As the chemicals enveloped her body and began soaking into her skin, she kept her hand pressed firmly against the glass.

I love you, she mouthed at James.

“I love you too, Sara.”

The chemical bath lasted nearly five minutes. When it was over, the glass started to grow cold. Sara began to shiver, and goosebumps pricked all across her skin. Her lips and fingernails turned blue, and her eyes widened as her breath grew short.

“Prepare for rapid freezing,” said the head nurse. “Apply sedative.”

A new gas sprayed into the chamber, this one white. Sara’s back arched, and she opened her mouth as if gasping for breath, then her eyes closed and her whole body relaxed. Her fingers stuck to the glass for a couple of moments, but her hand soon fell away by her shoulder, so that it looked as if she were waving goodbye.

Goodbye, Sara, James thought silently. See you in a hundred years.

“Do either of you have a pen or paper?” he asked the nurses. “I need to write a letter.”

The head nurse looked at each other for a moment before reaching into her pocket and handing him a pen and writing pad. “Who do you want to deliver this to?” she asked.

“Store it in my locker,” said James. “This letter is for Sara, in case I don’t wake up.”

The other nurse frowned in disapproval, having overheard their last conversation. James didn’t care—it wasn’t like he’d be seeing either of the nurses again anyway. While they waited, he jotted down a quick note.

Dear Sara,

You know that I love you. We’ve only been seeing each other for a few short weeks, but it feels like half a lifetime. If you’re reading this after I’m gone, know that I only want you to be happy. Don’t let my death keep you from finding someone else to replace me.

I love you, Sara, in death and in life.

James McCoy.

“That was simple enough,” he muttered to himself. He tore out the letter and went to slip it in his pocket, but realized there were no pockets in his gown. Instead, he held it in hand until the nurse took it and placed it in the compartment.

As he slipped out of his gown and climbed into the cryotank, thoughts of Sara filled his mind. He was still thinking about her as the sedative bath washed over him.

Part IV: The Legend


Chapter 20


Deirdre Johansen glanced up at the wall clock as she ran across the single women’s apartment level. It read: S1-0832 S2-1632 S3-0032. She was running late.

“Hey there, Deirdre,” her friend Kat called out to her as they passed in the hall.

“Sorry, can’t stop!” Deirdre called back. A few other girls from the third shift wandered out of the communal bathrooms in pajamas and bath towels, but fortunately no one got in her way.

She reached the central ladder chute and peered down to make sure it was clear—thankfully, it was. Without hesitating, she grabbed the outer edge of the ladder and slid down at breakneck speed.

“Coming do-o-own!” she yelled. A few disgruntled insomniacs shouted back at her, but she sped past them before they could get her into trouble.

Her hair whipped around her ears and eyes as she was caught up in the exhilarating sensation of falling. Of course, she had to be careful not to fall too fast, otherwise the safety nets would deploy and catch her. When she reached the base of the chute nine levels down, she jumped off and hit the floor running. The wall clocks read 0837 hours.

Unlike the single women’s level, this one was crowded. She navigated through it as quickly as she could manage, avoiding the temptation to elbow her way through. Thankfully, when she got to the ladder, she found it empty enough to slide down.

“Coming do-o-own!” she yelled again. The blue rungs marking the exit zone of each level flashed past her: LEVEL 56, LEVEL 55, LEVEL 54.

Once again, she jumped off at the base, landing hard. Her hands were burning this time. She lifted them to her face and blew on them as she ran to the next chute: 0842 hours.

“Ow!” she said, slamming into a man who stood in her way. The impact nearly knocked her over. She looked up in annoyance—

—and her eyes grew as wide as ventilation ducts.

“Captain Carlson!”

“Miss Johansen,” said the captain, giving her a curt nod.

“Sir, I—”

He silenced her with a sharp glance. “Running a little bit late for the cryothawing, are we?”

Deirdre frowned. This doesn’t make sense, she thought to herself. He’s supposed to be there, too.

“Yes,” she admitted, figuring it was the safest thing to say.

“And how many people have you murdered in your haste to get there?”

She blushed. “Sorry.”

“It’s not your lateness that concerns me, it’s your disregard for basic safety. Now, come on. Let’s get moving before we’re any later than we have to be.”

A smile spread across her face as she followed him down the next ladder. For one of the authorities, he wasn’t so bad. She remembered playing hide-and-seek with him across the ship when they were younger. He’d changed since then, but not by much.

He took the ladder two rungs at a time, his muscular arms and shoulders straining with the effort. Deirdre soon got left behind.

“Hey!” she scowled, knowing he was only doing it to make her look bad. “You want me to start sliding to catch up?”

“If you do, I have a special work assignment for you.”

“Starclouds!”

He chuckled as they raced each other down the ladder. By the time they reached the cryogenics chamber, the clock read S1-0855 S2-1655 S3-0055. If Carlson wasn’t running late himself, she would have never made it in time. As she slipped into the dressing room, she silently blessed the stars for the fortuitous way things had worked out.

Of course, the other attendants didn’t see it that way.

“What are you doing?” asked Maggie, the senior nurse on duty. She stood by the door, hands on her flabby hips with her nurse’s mask hanging loosely by her neck.

“Sorry I’m late,” said Deirdre as she dropped her skirt and pulled her shirt over her head. “I—”

“You shouldn’t be here. Cryothaw is a risky procedure, and letting you tag along only makes things harder.”

“Oh, don’t be so dense,” said Deirdre. She grabbed her scrubs and hastily put them on. “The process is almost completely automated, and besides, I’ve got my med certs.”

Maggie folded her arms and glared at her. “Basic certification only—no license.”

But this is Commander McCoy! Deirdre thought angrily, hastily tying back her hair. No way am I going to let you make me miss this.

“I’m authorized,” she said, swallowing her annoyance. “Captain’s orders. You don’t have the authority to override them.”

Maggie said nothing as she washed her hands. After counting to thirty, she rinsed the foamy soap suds off her arms, then drew her hands through the water reclaimer and wiped them off on her pants.

“Ahem.”

“What?”

“Aren’t you forgetting something?”

Maggie nodded at the floor, and Deirdre realized she’d left her clothes lying in the middle of the room. She rolled her eyes—why should it matter if she was going to change back fifteen minutes later? Still, it was better not to make a fuss about it. She reached down and hastily picked up the pile of clothes.

As she walked to the locker, a small black book fell out of her pocket, nearly making her drop everything.

“What’s that?” asked Maggie, striding over to pick it up. Deirdre dumped her clothes in the nearest locker and snatched it from the floor before the head nurse could touch it.

“It’s an old family diary,” said Deirdre, placing it carefully in the locker before pressing her thumb to the auto-lock and shutting the compartment.

“Handwritten or digitized?”

“Digitized.”

“It looks kind of old,” said Maggie. “Why don’t you ‘cycle it? The ship’s running low on synthpaper.”

Deirdre looked her in the eyes and scowled. “That copy was my great-grandmother’s and I’ve had it since I was five years old. No way in hell am I going to ‘cycle it.”

They glared at each other for a second, but this time, Maggie was the one to step down. “Great-grandmother, huh?” she said, shrugging nonchalantly. “Sounds boring.”

“Hardly. She was Speaker Stewart’s wife—the first Speaker Stewart.”

“Like I said, boring.”

Deirdre clenched her fists and glared at Maggie hard enough to murder her. Why couldn’t the other colonists open their eyes and see that there was more to the universe than the tiny little ship they lived on? That an entire generation from the most exciting period of their history was soon to be with them in the flesh?

The lights in the cryo chamber were dim and old, the air chilly and foreboding, but to Deirdre that hardly mattered. Her heart leaped in her chest as she watched the nurses and med techs attaching tubes and calibrating instruments. Shivers ran down her arms and back as she caught a glimpse of the man behind the glass: James McCoy, the legendary leader who had brought the colonists through their darkest hour and saved them all from certain destruction. Not only that, but if her great-grandmother’s journals were to be believed—

“Control is go,” came a voice through the loudspeakers. Deirdre glanced up at the inverted glass window overhead. Captain Carlson stood at parade rest in the control room, like a lieutenant awaiting the return of his commanding officer.

Or maybe that was just Deirdre’s imagination. Maybe she was just reading into things because Commander James McCoy was not twenty feet away from her. Her hands were trembling, she could barely contain herself. To be in the presence of such an important historical figure—even a cryogenically frozen one—it was enough to make her giddy.

“Floor is go,” said Maggie, slipping the mask over her mouth. “Commencing cryothaw in three, two, one…”


* * * * *


James felt as if he were frozen in a dream, swimming in a vast starless wasteland of nothingness. Darkness pierced the void—a cold darkness, but substantial nonetheless. It shifted, and he saw a group of people huddled below, dressed in scrubs, attending a machine of some sort. He vaguely recognized the cryo chamber, with the glass observation window and catacombed slots for the cryotanks all up and down the walls. Fascinating.

And then, something yanked him down, shattering the dreamscape. Consciousness dawned upon him, and every muscle in his body screamed. With great effort, he forced his eyes open. Green gas flooded the air around him, burning his lungs and making him cough. His stomach convulsed, the pain stabbing him like knives.

A sharp hiss sounded in his ear as the cryo tank cracked open, followed by voices. He moaned and clutched his stomach as he slid down to his ankles and fell over onto the floor. His knees and wrists throbbed at the impact, and he vomited explosively, dark black bile splattering over the floor and walls.

His arms gave way, but before he could collapse in his own vomit, hands pulled him back and helped him up. Someone wrapped a heated blanket over his shoulders, and the comforting warmth seeped into him like a soothing balm. Another person put a rubber nipple in his mouth, and warm, sweet liquid oozed across his tongue, dripping down his throat and into his empty, aching stomach.

After several minutes, he regained enough strength to glance up and look around. He recognized the dim catacombs of the cryo chamber, much the same as it had been when he’d gone under. Some of the details had changed, however: the main control panel had moved, and the observation window up top looked old and cloudy. The lights shone brighter, giving his skin a pale, morbid look. He shivered and pulled the blanket tight.

“How are we feeling?” came a woman’s voice above him. He looked up and saw a round, masked face peering down at him, hair tied back. Other faces joined hers, blurring as his vision slowly focused on them.

“Weak,” he said, closing his eyes. “But getting better.”

“That’s good. Your temperature is still uneven. Drink more fluid—the formula will give you strength.”

The woman had a distinctly foreign drawl. He tried for a few moments to place it, then realized it must have developed in the hundred-plus years he’d lain frozen. So much time had passed, even the language had changed.

An image came to his mind, that of Sara lying in the cryotank, hand pressed against the glass as she stared up at him with anxious eyes. The memory filled him with a yearning to see her again.

“Sara,” he said, struggling to his feet. “Where is she?”

“Calm, calm,” droned the woman, patting him on the chest to ease him back down. “Conserve your strength.”

Someone pushed the nipple into his mouth again, but he spat it out and leaned forward, pushing himself up off the floor. His head swooned with dizziness, but by sheer will he forced himself to stand.

“Sara,” he said again, leaning on the cryotank for support. “Where is she?”

Hands grasped him on all sides, holding him back. Before the techs and nurses crowded him completely out, however, he caught sight of a second cryotank in the other module, open as well. Unlike the one behind him, however, this one still had something in it.

“Commander, please—”

“Sara? Sara!

Adrenaline surged through his aching limbs, giving him a burst of new strength. The techs and nurses tried to hold him down, but he fought back, pushing them aside as he lunged unsteadily forward. His legs gave way just as he reached the glass—the all-too-familiar glass.

The body inside was covered with a black plastic sheet, not quite thin enough for him to see through. Though the shroud was loosely thrown on, he could recognize the body underneath. White-blond hair spilled out across the top, while near the chest, a pale, shriveled hand stuck up through the sheet, still reaching out to him.

James’s eyes widened in horror. He slid down the glass to his knees, lukewarm tears streaming out his aching eyes while his arms and shoulders began to shake uncontrollably.

“Sara!”


* * * * *


Sara? Who’s Sara?

Deirdre watched as Commander McCoy forced his way through to the second cryotank. It was obvious that the person inside was someone he cared about very much—but who?

“What’s the name of the person in that tank?” she asked the nearest tech.

“Just a sec,” said the tech. His fingers flew across the control panel, bringing up a profile on the main screen. “Says here it’s a female by the name of Sara Galbraith-Dickson.”

“Galbraith-Dickson,” Deirdre muttered, the name immediately ringing a bell. “That must be the daughter of the last patrician.” From her research as the ship’s historian, she’d learned that the patrician’s daughter had boarded a different colony ship from her father. Deirdre had assumed that was because she’d been detained by the Nabattans and rescued by James, but his heart-stopping reaction made her wonder if there was more to that story than she knew.

“No!” James screamed, collapsing to his hands and knees. “Sara! Why?” Tears streamed down his face as he broke into uncontrollable sobs.

“What’s wrong?” Deirdre asked the tech. “Why is he upset?”

“Because the girl in the cryotank is dead.”

Deirdre’s eyes widened, and she covered her mouth with one hand. The nurses and other techs quickly rushed to the commander’s side, but he was utterly inconsolable. Even though Deirdre had very little idea what was going on, she couldn’t help but tear up at the sight.

“It’s all right,” said Maggie, throwing a blanket over James’s naked shoulders. “Come, sir, let’s get you to—”

“What did you do to her?” he yelled, shoving the head nurse away. “How could you let this happen?”

His eyes were as fierce with anger as his sobs had been filled with pain. His hands clenched and trembled, as if looking for someone or something to lash out at. Several of the nurses backed away in fright.

Deirdre glanced over her shoulder at Captain Carlson in the window to the control room above. He remained exactly where he stood, his impassive face a sharp contrast to the chaos and emotion on the floor.

The doors hissed open, and a pair of security guards rushed in with stunners in their hands.

“No!” Deirdre cried out, stepping between them and James. His bloodshot eyes turned on her, but she stood her ground. For a gut-wrenching moment, it seemed as if he were about to strike her, but then his rage deflated as he fell back to the floor.

“Commander McCoy?” said Deirdre, kneeling beside him. “Commander, what’s wrong?”

“Why did it have to be her?” he sobbed. “Why couldn’t it have been me?”

That’s exactly what I’d expect him to say, Deirdre thought giddily. She felt torn between fannish excitement and pain at seeing another soul in so much distress. She suppressed the urge to squeal and instead focused on doing her best to comfort him.

“We’re sorry, Commander,” she said, putting her hand on his shoulder. “We never meant for it to happen this way.”

He buried his face in his hands and wept. In that moment, something inside of her shifted. This was not the larger-than-life hero that she’d read about in the ship’s annals and her great-grandmother’s journal—this was an actual person, with all the weakness and fragility that entailed. In that moment she wanted nothing more than to take him in her arms and hold him until the pain was gone.

“That’s enough,” said Maggie, pulling her aside. “Commander, we really must see you to medical. If you’ll come this way…”

Deirdre watched silently as James followed the nurses through the door. Though his tears had ebbed, his feet were heavy, his movements wooden. Even though he was almost exactly her age in terms of years lived, the sorrow on his face made him look much older.

The noise and activity all around her faded, and her breath caught suddenly in her throat. I know what he’s going through, she thought to herself. I’ve been through it before. More than anything else, that made her heart go out to him.

Chapter 21


James stared morosely at the drab gray ceiling of the ship’s medical bay. The place reminded him of the quarters he’d shared with Sara in the few short weeks before going into cryo. Her face flitted across his mind, and he clenched his eyes shut to keep the tears from spilling out. More than anything else, he wanted to wake up from this nightmare. He wanted to open his eyes and find Sterling and Lars and all his old friends having a good laugh, and they’d tell him it was all a joke at his expense. And Sara would be there, and he’d cry and laugh and everything would be all right.

The soft buzzing of the door chime made his heart skip a beat. Was it true? If it was Sara…

“Come in,” he called out.

The door hissed open, and a tall, thin brunette stepped in. She smiled warmly at him, but she was not Sara. Definitely not.

“Commander McCoy?”

He sat up slowly and nodded, leaning heavily on his knees. “That’s me.”

“Deirdre Johansen,” the girl said, extending her hand. Though she looked about his age, her vibrant smile made him wonder if she were a year or two younger. James took her hand, and she shook his with obvious enthusiasm.

“I don’t know if you remember,” she said, “but I was in the cryo chamber when you were revived. I’ve, ah, read all about you, even written—I’m the ship’s chief historian, you see. It’s kind of my job.”

She gave a nervous laugh that made James nod, just to reassure her. Though she spoke rather quickly, she seemed friendly enough—very friendly, in fact. Her eyes were deep green, her dark brown hair long and straight, and she had a nervous habit of twirling strands of hair behind her ear with her finger. Though she was a bright and attractive young woman, however, she was not Sara.

“Anyhow,” she continued, her expression suddenly serious, “I talked with the techs who were there when Sara, well… they told me they did their best, but there was nothing that could have been done. A small percentage of people never wake up from cryo—at least she didn’t feel any pain.”

James nodded mutely. He didn’t feel like saying anything.

“Do you want me to leave, Commander? If you need more time…”

Her voice trailed off, but he shrugged and shook his head. She stood awkwardly for a few moments before quietly taking a chair.

“If it’s not too hard, may I ask who she was?”

“Don’t you know?” said James, glancing over at her. “I thought you were the ship’s historian.”

“I know that she was the last patrician’s daughter, but I don’t know what she was to you.”

He sighed heavily and looked back down at the floor. “She was the girl I never thought I’d get, and when I did, it seemed too good to be real.”

“You were lovers, then?”

“Yes.”

Deirdre nodded. “That’s hard. I’m sorry for your loss.”

She touched James’s arm as if to reassure him, then awkwardly drew it back. For a few moments, neither of them said anything. James continued to stare at the white tile floor.

“There’s something else,” she said, reaching into her skirt pocket. “We recovered this note from the private storage compartment beneath her cyrotank. It’s addressed to you.”

She leaned forward and handed him a nondescript synthpaper envelope. Sure enough, his name was written on the back in Sara’s handwriting.

The contingency letter.

His hands trembled as he held it in his hands. Sara’s last words to him—the ones she had felt so strongly about writing. His breath caught in his throat, and his heart started to race. He tentatively reached with his finger to open it, but stopped short.

“In any case,” said Deirdre, rising to her feet, “I’d better be going. Is it all right if I visit you again?”

“Sure,” James muttered. He quickly stuffed the envelope into the chest pocket of his jumpsuit.

“Welcome back, Commander McCoy. It’s good to have you with us again.”

She hesitated by the doorway as if she wanted to say more, but left without another word. As the door hissed shut, James bit his lip and tried very hard not to feel utterly alone.


* * * * *


“Ah, Miss Johansen. Please, come in.”

Deirdre stepped into Captain Carlson’s office and walked up to his desk. He stood and reached over a stack of papers to shake her hand, then motioned for her to fold down a chair.

“I trust you were able to gather the background information I asked for,” he said as she took her seat. “The commander seems to be more, shall we say, prone to mood swings than we expected.”

“With all due respect, sir, I don’t think his reaction was all that unusual.”

“Still, we almost had to call on security to restrain him. Violence is hardly a normal part of the grieving process.”

Deirdre rolled her eyes. “With the way Maggie tries to strong-arm everyone, can you blame him? He’s not a threat, Carlson—trust me.”

“Is that your professional assessment, Deirdre?”

“Yes,” she said, hesitating only a moment. “I mean, I’m not a therapist or anything, but everything he’s said and done so far fits perfectly with what I’ve read.”

Carlson leaned forward with his elbows on his desk and rested his chin on his hands. He eyed Deirdre in a way that told her he had some plans, and that she was about to become a part of them. She shifted nervously in her seat.

“Very well, Deirdre. I’ll trust your judgment in this matter. In fact, I have a special assignment for you.”

Uh-oh.

“Yes, Captain?”

Carlson stood up and folded his chair into the wall, giving him room to pace. “As chief historian of the Chiran Spirit, you’re uniquely suited to serve as a liaison between the founding generation and our own. For that reason, I find it particularly gratifying to see that you and the commander have hit it off so well.”

Deirdre blushed. “Well, I wouldn’t quite put it that way…”

“There are many adjustments that Commander McCoy will have to make in the coming days,” Carlson continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “I anticipate that it will be quite difficult for him, especially considering his loss. Everyone on this ship is a stranger to him, and we cannot reanimate any of his compatriots until we’ve arrived at Chira and begun the settlement process.”

“I understand,” said Deirdre. “He’s got to feel like a man stranded outside of his time. But what’s the assignment you have for me?”

“Simply to serve as a guide for him until he’s made the transition.”

“That’s it?”

Carlson smiled. “Of course, since this will be a full-time assignment, I’ve arranged for the housing committee to change your unit assignment to level sixty-two. You can make the move as soon as you’re ready.”

“Level sixty-two?” Deirdre asked, frowning. “Isn’t that—”

“Couples housing? Indeed. We couldn’t have McCoy sharing a unit with you in any of the single female units, couldn’t we?”

Hot blood rushed to her cheeks as her inner fan-girl just about died. Her eyes widened, and she clasped her hands to her mouth in shock.

“But—but the couples units only have one bed! Am I, ah, supposed to sleep with him?”

“Of course not, Deirdre. We’ll assign you a hammock.”

But I haven’t slept in a hammock for over ten years, Deirdre wanted to say. Hammocks were for children. Did they even make one large enough for her?

“You do know how this is going to look, don’t you? Everyone on the ship is going to think I’m sleeping with him, even if I’m not.”

“I’m afraid that’s unavoidable,” said Carlson. “McCoy needs someone who can be there for him morning, swing, and alter—not just anyone, mind you, but someone close enough to understand his needs better than he does. I saw how you took to him in the cryo chamber, Deirdre, and I’m confident that you are the right person for the job.”

Deirdre swallowed hard. “Really?”

“It won’t be easy, of course,” Carlson continued. “But even if it means giving up your research for a while, I want you to do all you can to help him adjust. If he doesn’t become acclimated before we arrive, the burdens of leadership may be too much for him.”

Are you kidding? Deirdre thought. Spending every waking moment with James is exactly what I need for my research! So what if everyone on the ship thought that she was sleeping with him? To hell with what they thought!

“I’ll be fine, sir,” she said out loud. “I’ll do my best to meet your expectations.”

“I’m sure you’ll exceed them,” said Carlson, putting a hand on her shoulder.

Deirdre barely heard him, though. Her mind was already racing with all the opportunities that this assignment had opened up to her.


* * * * *


The sound of the door chime woke James from a dreamless nap. He opened his eyes and rose wearily to his feet, his body still sore.

“Come in.”

The door hissed open, and the same girl from before walked in. Her outfit gave her a strikingly feminine appearance.

“Hello again!” she said brightly. “I’m sorry, did I wake you?”

“No,” James lied. “Deirdre, is it?”

“That’s right. And you’re James McCoy, of course—can I call you James?”

He shrugged, eliciting a girlish smile. For a moment, he wondered if she was about to ask him for an autograph or something.

“Well, James, I’ve been assigned as your guide to the ship. I’m sure a lot has changed since you were last here with us, so I’m here to show you around and help you adjust—if that’s all right, of course.”

“It’s fine,” he said, adjusting his jumpsuit. The fabric was thin and slightly itchy, but otherwise fit him well. As he hooked his thumbs around his belt, the upper half went tight enough that he could feel Sara’s contingency letter against his chest.

“Here,” said Deirdre. “Let me give you the tour.”

She took his arm in hers and led him through the door. It seemed a little forward of her, until he realized that everyone he’d met on the ship so far seemed to have no concept of personal space. Rooms were smaller than he was used to, and the doctor had stood so close to him that it had made him uncomfortable.

“Have you had a chance to look around the ship much?” she asked.

“Not really,” said James, even though it wasn’t exactly true. He’d recovered fairly quickly from the cryothaw, but he hadn’t really been in the right spirits to leave his room. Besides, with the narrow, warren-like corridors, doctors and nurses bustling about everywhere, and the ever-present smell of disinfectant, his room had seemed like a safer place to stay.

“Well, you’ll definitely have plenty of time to explore,” said Deirdre. “We just arrived on the outskirts of the Chira system, but Chira V is still three standard weeks away.”

“Three weeks? Why did you wake me so early?”

“I’m not sure,” said Deirdre. “It was Carlson’s decision, not mine—Jeppe Carlson, the ship’s captain. He’s in charge of piloting, astrogation, inter-ship relations, and pretty much everything that falls outside the General Assembly.”

So our democratic traditions have been preserved, James noted. He wondered what Lars would think to see this, then realized that Lars was gone.

As they walked down the corridor, he had to turn sideways every now and again to let a nurse or physician through. Several of the medical staff smiled as they passed, but James was in no mood to stop and chat.

“The main office is through here,” said Deirdre, pointing to the bulkhead at the end of the curved hallway. The door was wide and plated with solid durasteel, almost like an airlock. She palmed the access panel, and the door opened to reveal a quaint office with a row of cubicles against the outer wall. On the right, a ladder ran up through a wide manhole in the floor and extended up through a similar hole in the ceiling.

“You’ll have to sign out at the front desk,” said Deirdre, motioning to the receptionist. James hardly noticed her, though—he was too busy staring at the ladder.

It was actually three ladders arranged in a triangle, the rungs sharing three vertical poles. The hole in the floor through which the ladder passed was about six feet in diameter, with a lip made of a foamy material. As James stared, a man in a gray jumpsuit with a utility belt full of tools shimmied down the far side of the ladder, moving with a speed born of practiced experience. “G’day,” he said, nodding as he passed. James peered over the edge and immediately jumped back—the shaft extended more than five levels down.

“Commander McCoy,” said the receptionist, her cheerful, businesslike voice betraying a hint of sternness.

“Sorry,” said James. “Where were we?”

The receptionist, a smiling middle-aged woman with short hair, handed him a plastic pad with a synthpaper printout clipped on and a scanner attached to the side.

“This is your release agreement,” said Deirdre. “Just put your thumbprint on the scanner, and she’ll take care of the rest.”

James skimmed the release agreement, but his mind became jumbled in legalese after barely two paragraphs. He examined the scanner and found a digital pad for taking fingerprints on the back of it. When he was done, he handed it back to the receptionist, who used the laser to read the bar-code at the top of the printout.

“Your thumbprint is now associated with your medical records and ID information,” said the receptionist, smiling cordially as the scanner beeped. “Welcome back, Commander McCoy.”

James returned the smile, but Deirdre was already leading him away toward the ladder.

“Identification information?” he muttered.

“It’s standard procedure. We use thumb-prints for everything around here.”

Before he could ask anything more, she bounded onto the ladder and climbed halfway up before turning to face him.

“Well? Are you coming?”

“What happened to the elevators?” James asked, looking nervously down the shaft. The ladder was just far enough away from the lip that he couldn’t climb on without committing himself completely, and it was a long way down.

“We dismantled all but one of the elevators over seventy years ago. They were too inefficient—ladders are much faster.”

James swallowed and leaned tentatively forward, arms outstretched. With both hands tightly gripping the sides, he brought one foot onto a rung, then the other. Deirdre laughed, but not unkindly.

“Do children use these things too?” asked James, looking up at her as he hung on for dear life.

“Parents with children are authorized to use the last remaining elevator,” Deirdre answered, “but most just use child slings until the kids are old enough to climb themselves. You all right?”

“Yeah. Let’s go.”

Deirdre climbed quickly up the ladder, moving as naturally as if she were walking or running. James struggled to keep up, but soon got used to it. From his vantage point beneath her, he saw that her skirt was designed to prevent anyone below from seeing up between her legs. Her shoes, like his, were barely more than slippers.

As he climbed, he noticed a profound difference in the air. It smelled fresher, earthier—as if it had come straight out of a greenhouse. The air in the medical bay hadn’t exactly been stale, but the sanitizers had masked just about everything else.

“What’s that smell?” he asked.

“Aquaponics. They’re located just below the medical bay.”

James looked down and noticed that many of the people crawling up and down the ladder below him were wearing aprons and lab coats. Apparently, the guy with the utility belt was something of an anomaly.

As he watched, someone passed him going down on the right, giving him a bit of a shock. He gripped the ladder with sweaty hands as the vertigo made him cringe.

“What’s the matter?” asked Deirdre, already almost a level above him.

“This—this ladder,” he said, holding on for dear life. “Are you sure we can’t just take the elevator?”

“Don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe. Watch.”

She jumped back and let go, falling past him with a smile of amusement. He opened his mouth to cry out in shock, but before he could react, an alarm sounded and several rope nets constricted like circular apertures in the floors below. Deirdre landed two stories below him, while the people below shouted at her.

“See?” she said, grinning up at him. “It’s totally safe.”

“Are you sure?”

“Sure, I’m sure! The motion sensors are everywhere, and the nets work every time. If you like to slide, you have to be careful not to go too fast, otherwise they’ll catch you.”

“But—but what if your head hit the edge of one of those manholes?”

“They’re made of advanced impact foam,” she said, pulling herself back up. “The higher the impulse, the more cushioning they give.” As she eased her weight onto the ladder, the alarms turned off and the nets retracted. Without any apparent concern at all, she passed him and continued on her way.

“You all right?”

“Yeah,” James groaned, forcing himself to climb up another rung. Even though he knew it was safe, the vertigo still froze him with fear.

“Just a couple more levels to go,” she said, coaxing him. “You’re doing fine.”

The next few rungs weren’t so bad. Whenever anyone passed him, he cringed and his heart beat a little faster, but at least he didn’t freeze up as he had before.

“Here we are,” said Deirdre, stepping out from the ladder onto the level above him. James climbed up to where she’d stepped off and glanced at her over his shoulders. She stood on the edge, offering him a hand.

“Come on, James. You can do this.”

He glanced down and gulped. Even if the nets caught him, this was going to be a long jump.

“Don’t think too hard about it,” she said encouragingly. “Just take my hand and step off.”

He took a deep breath and jumped. For a hair-raising second, he felt as if he were jumping off the top of a ten story building. Then, his foot landed on solid ground, and he stumbled into Deirdre’s arms.

“Oomph!” he said, almost knocking her over. She laughed and pulled him on.

“Whoa! Better work on your landing there, Commander.”

“Sorry, I—”

“Don’t worry about it. We’ve got another three shafts to go—plenty of time to practice.”

James frowned. “What?”

“Oh, sorry. Each ladder only runs up about ten levels. To get to the higher parts of the ship, you have to switch ladders two or three times.”

Was this your idea, Sterling? James wondered as he followed her up the next shaft. As the vertigo started to make his head swirl, he swore he’d have a word or two with his former copilot. Then he realized that he never would.

“Here are the sleeping quarters,” she said as they passed a brightly decorated level. “The family level is on the bottom, nearest to the medical bay, followed by single men and then single women. That’s a coed level for recreation and exercise, though,” she said, pointing out another one. “They try to intersperse those living areas with the sleeping quarters, so we don’t have to climb up and down a dozen levels on our off hours.”

“Where are we going?”

“The childless couples level. It’s up near the top—don’t ask me why.”

“Wait,” said James. “Couples area? You mean like married couples?”

“Uh, yeah,” she said, glancing sheepishly down at him. “Carlson wanted to put us in a couples unit, so that I could be available to help you with the transition. That is, if you’re okay with it…”

James wondered what it would have been like if Sara were here. After spending so many nights in her arms, sharing a room with a stranger seemed almost wrong. Then again, Deirdre was one of the most guileless people he’d ever met. Her bright and eager cheerfulness helped ease the dark loneliness that threatened to engulf him over Sara’s loss. Having her around wouldn’t totally dispel that loneliness, he knew, but it might make the next few weeks a little easier.

He got better at climbing on the next shaft, but by the time they approached the top, his arms were starting to ache. He paused for a while at the top to catch his breath.

“Are you doing all right?” Deirdre asked him. “We can slow down if you’re getting tired.”

“No, I’m fine.” He stepped off, this time only taking her hand.

“You’re getting the hang of it,” she said, grinning. “Just two more levels, and we’re there.”

A few heads turned as they finally reached their level and climbed out. After resting for a minute, Dierdre led him down the radial to the main hall. Rows of identical doors ringed the outside edge, but a colorful painted mural of green, fruit-bearing vines and blue skies covered the wall. Arabesque designs in the floor tiles complemented the artwork, giving the place a warm, lived-in feel.

“Nice,” he said. “I like what you’ve done with the place.”

Deirdre’s laughter rang honest and clear, not unlike Lars’s. “I’m glad you approve,” she said, giving him a playful look. For a moment, James wondered if she was flirting with him, but figured that was probably just her personality.

“Here,” she said, opening a door with a mountain waterfall painted next to it. He followed her into a cozy room much like the one he’d shared with Sara. A wide bunk sat embedded in the wall on the right, with a retractable table on the opposite side. The computer terminal in the corner was gone, though, and the walls were painted in warm tones to give it a cozy feel.

“You must be dying for a shower,” she said, pressing her thumb against a small black pad to make a compartment open in the wall. “We don’t have much time before the swing-shifters wake up, but if you hurry you can probably wash up before the rush.”

“Swing-shifters?”

“Sorry, the people who sleep on swing shift. We’re on a three shift system on this ship—made the switch when I was about five years old. Before that, it was just a mainday/alterday schedule.”

James frowned. “Three shifts? How large is the current population?”

“About three thousand or so.”

His jaw dropped. “Three thousand? That’s—that’s more than three times the maximum capacity!”

Deirdre grinned and held up her hands. “What can I say? We’ve been a little busy while you were gone.”

That explains why I never feel like I’m alone in this place, James thought to himself. He glanced at the bunk—even his bed was not his own.

“We’re lucky this unit is empty during this shift,” Deirdre continued, sorting through the open compartment. “The alter-shifters are nice, though—I met them just an hour ago. The husband’s an engineer, so we probably won’t see him much. Here, press your thumb on this pad.”

James obeyed, and she keyed something on a nearby access panel. Another compartment opened, this one empty except for a few familiar datachips, some neatly folded sets of clothes, and an envelope much like the one he carried in his pocket.

“This is your personal storage compartment,” she said. “To open it, pull on the handle while pressing your thumb against the pad. You’re the only one who has access to it, so don’t worry about anyone stealing anything.”

“Thanks.” He opened his pocket and pulled out Sara’s contingency letter, placing it carefully next to the one in the compartment. He imagined Sara punching him after he read it to her, then laughing as they held each other, glad to be alive after over a hundred years of frozen sleep.

His heart clenched, and a lump rose in his throat. That was the way he’d expected it to happen—he never thought it would turn out like this.

“Here,” said Deirdre, “let me show you to the showers.”

James took up a set of clean clothes and followed her back into the colorful hallway. About a hundred yards down, she led him through an open doorway on the inner side and into a long, narrow room with blue and white bathroom tiles lining the floor, walls, and ceiling. A long bench lined one side, while the other was divided into almost a dozen stalls, each with a cylindrical shower unit and a pair of swinging doors made of some kind of light, basket-like material. One of the shower units was running, but other than that the place was empty.

“Are you, ah, supposed to be in here?” James asked. The way she’d followed him in, it was almost as if she expected to help him undress.

“Oh, sorry,” she said. “Bathroom facilities are co-ed—that’s probably something you’re not used to.”

“Co-ed bathrooms? On a level for married couples?”

She shrugged. “It is what it is. On the couples levels, typically the men keep to one side while the woman keep to the other. Besides, all the shower units are compartmentalized, so it’s not like you’re going to see anything.”

“Don’t you people have any concept of privacy?” he asked, more than a little exasperated.

“Sorry. I’m sure you’ll get used to it.”

“I guess I’ll have to,” he muttered.

“Oh, one more thing,” said Deirdre. “Did you see that datapad near the front? When it’s rush time during the shift change, the stalls fill up pretty quickly, so you have to wait in line. Just press your thumb against the datapad, and you’ll be added to the queue.”

She pointed to a screen on the wall that displayed numbered rows and three empty columns marked NAME, ARRIVAL TIME, and UNIT ASSIGNMENT.

“Anyhow,” she continued, “bathrooms are on the other side, if you need to use them. You remember where the room is, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Great! I’ll see you in a minute, then.”

James waited until she was gone before stepping gingerly into one of the stalls. The swinging doors only went from his knees to his upper chest, and the stall was low enough that he could easily see over into the other ones. He looked at the long row of benches and wondered what this place was like when it was full—it would be hard not to accidentally see something.

As if to confirm that, the shower unit on the far side of the room shut off, and a young woman stepped out. She wrapped her hair in a towel, slipped on a thin bathrobe, and stepped out of the stall, smiling at James as she passed by.

Over three thousand people, James thought to himself, blinking in disbelief. That was almost the original size of the Colony itself. And if every colony ship had a population that large, then the people of this generation would easily be able to outvote his own. Lars’s words about forming a society that would never tolerate his leadership came back to him. Perhaps there was more truth to that threat than he’d thought.

Chapter 22


“Ah, Commander McCoy,” said Captain Carlson, saluting as James stepped off of the ladder. “It’s good to see you doing so well.”

James nodded and returned the salute, pausing to catch his breath. His arm ached from the long climb to the topmost level of the ship.

“Captain Carlson,” said James. “Deirdre’s told me about you.”

“I’m sure she has. On behalf of the command crew and officers of the Chiran Spirit, welcome back, sir.”

James nodded his thanks, a little taken aback at being called “sir” by a man who didn’t seem that much older than him. Judging from his trim build and clean-shaven face, Carlson was probably in his mid-thirties or so.

“Deirdre told me that we’re still three weeks from Chira V,” James said. “Why did you decide to wake me now instead of waiting until arrival?”

“Several reasons,” said Carlson, leading James down the corridor toward the bridge. “Since you’re going to take command once the other colonists are woken, we wanted to give you time to adjust. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, things have changed quite a bit since you went down.”

“Yes,” James muttered. “Definitely.”

They stepped into the lift that led to the bridge. It was a small, cylindrical room that looked much like an elevator chamber, except with large shoulder restraints that folded down from the ceiling like those in a low-gravity tram. Since the bridge faced forward, it lay perpendicular to the other decks. For that reason, they needed a special lift to orient them correctly relative to the artificial gravity field.

The lift itself looked much as James remembered it, with only a few cosmetic changes to the walls and braces. When the door hissed open and he stepped onto the bridge, though, it seemed like a completely different place. The old, oversized chairs were replaced with new, economical ones. Four extra stations had been added along the edge. The walls and floor were painted white and blue instead of dark green, and the instrument panels looked remarkably new. It was as if James had gone into cryo on one ship and woken up in an entirely different one.

Only one thing seemed strange, and that was the fact that there were no crew on duty.

“You may have noticed a few changes since you were last in command,” Carlson said. “With the ship on autopilot, most of the functions are managed from control centers located throughout the ship. But for maneuvers, we do have stations for each post, so that the full command crew can be present simultaneously.”

“So most of the time, no one’s here?” James asked.

“That is correct.

“They why did you bring me here?”

“Because there is something we must discuss in private, Commander McCoy,” said Carlson. “Something pertinent to our decision to revive you three weeks early. Please, have a seat.”

James frowned and did as Carlson instructed, sitting down in the captain’s chair. Carlson leaned forward and hit a number of keys on the captain’s control panel. The forward window darkened and turned into a large holoscreen, showing a map of a star system, with seven red points lined up along a series of parallel trajectories, all pointing to the inner planets.

“This is the Chira system, with the current positions and trajectories of all seven colony ships that set out from Zeta Nabat,” Carlson explained. “Of—”

“Wait a minute,” said James. “Seven ships? I thought there were nine.”

“Excuse me,” said Carlson, toggling the screen. Two gray dots showed up on the far side of the system, moving at velocities that were clearly much faster than the other colony ships. “These two ships suffered a catastrophic collapse of some sort and failed to decelerate for the final approach with the rest of us. At this point, we must assume that the ships are derelict and that all on board perished.”

“Perished? What about the colonists frozen in cryo?”

“I’m sorry, Commander, but at this point there is nothing we can do for them.”

A shiver ran down James’s spine. He imagined those still frozen in cryo, careening through space for all of eternity with no one to wake them. What had happened to cause this disaster? Had the engineers been unable to make those ships long-term livable, or had some sort of conflict torn the society apart? “Derelict” was not a sufficient word to describe them—those were ghost ships.

“In any case,” Carlson continued, “of the six remaining colony ships, we have only been in regular contact with three.” He pointed them out and marked them in green. They lay mostly towards the back of the line, near the Chiran Spirit.

“Only three ships?” asked James. “What about the others?”

“For reasons that are not yet clear to us, they severed all contact with us.” Carlson marked the middle point in blue. “The last one to break contact with us was the Good Hope Flier.

“What happened?”

Carlson sighed. “We don’t know, Commander. But we’ve analyzed the trajectories of the three ships that refused to communicate with us, and we’ve found that they’ve adjusted their course away from Chira V to the innermost planet, here.”

He toggled the controls, and the trajectories extended into full capture orbits, three of them heading for the fifth planet in the system, and three heading for the first planet. James clenched his fists.

“So we have a secession crisis.”

“That would appear to be the case, Commander.”

“Why, though?” James wondered aloud. “What would make them want to secede?”

“You should know, Commander, that we have been retelling the story of your exploits at Zeta Nabat almost non-stop since you went into cryo. Almost fifty years ago, a studio on the Lady of Karduna put together a feature-length holo depicting your heroic rescue of the kidnapped girls. It’s still our most requested holo in the rec room.”

“Really?”

“Yes. However, we have reason to believe that the other ships do not share the same view of your accomplishments.”

James frowned. “What do you mean?”

“One of our last communications from the Good Hope Flier included a lengthy piece from their historian refuting our account of the rescue and naming you a tyrant. It ignited a spirited debate and no small amount of backlash. Shortly after that, the Good Hope Flier broke off all communications with us and the three remaining ships.”

Is that what this is about? James wondered. Are people using my rescue of those girls as a pretext for secession?

“There’s got to be something else,” he said. “I can’t believe this is the only reason for the schism.”

“Perhaps not, Commander. But it remains a possibility.”

“So what do you want from me?”

Carlson took a deep breath. James sensed that they were finally getting to the crux of the issue.

“With our imminent arrival at Chira,” Carlson explained, “the Lady of Karduna sent out a diplomatic mission to the Good Hope Flier to attempt to re-establish contact. The shuttle docked successfully, but never returned, and we haven’t heard from the mission since.”

“What happened next?”

Carlson sighed. “We’ve done everything we can to get the mission back, all to no avail. We’ve tried pleading, bargaining, even threatening, but nothing has worked. Frankly, some of us were considering open warfare before we decided to hand the situation over to you.”

“Warfare?”

“That’s right, Commander.”

“You want me to lead you in a war against these people?”

“Not if we can avoid it,” Carlson said quickly. “In the face of this crisis, we felt that we needed to turn to your leadership.”

James sighed and shook his head. “I don’t know what to tell you, Captain. The situation sounds very tricky. If we’re too aggressive, the rebels will hold the diplomats hostage as long as they can, in order to use them as a bargaining chip. On the other hand, if we’re too conciliatory, the rebels will interpret that as a sign of weakness and walk all over us as soon as we make planetfall. They may have given us the first provocation, but with only three weeks left, we’re not in a position to do anything but ride this out.”

Carlson listened intently, a look of deep respect written across his face. Wow, James thought. He thinks I actually know what the hell I’m talking about.

“Haven’t you thought all this through yet?” James asked. “You’re the captain, after all.”

“I’ve tried, sir,” said Carlson, “but I’m afraid I just don’t have the same breadth of experience to draw from. Besides, in the political affairs of this ship, I have no power. I can only follow the orders that the General Assembly gives me.”

So Lars did try to make it impossible for me to get anywhere with these people,” James thought to himself. Little did he know, that was no way to kill a legend.

“I’ll do what I can,” James promised. “And I’ll try to figure out a way to recover those hostages. But I can’t promise anything until we get the rebels to talk to us, and they’re probably not going to do that until after they’ve landed.”

Carlson nodded. “That puts us in a very tricky position. Hopefully, with the others rallying to your leadership, that will be enough to avert a conflict.”

Yeah, James thought. Hopefully.


* * * * *


Deirdre stayed on the master computer terminal in the library until well past the time for the main-shifters to return to their quarters. When she made the climb back up the ladder, she was so tired it was all she could do reach the top. She made almost a complete circle around level sixty-two before finally finding the right door in that unfamiliar place, and groggily palmed it open.

To her surprise, the lights were still on inside. James lay on the bunk, but his eyes were open, staring listlessly at the ceiling the same way he had in the medical bay.

“Oh, hi,” she said, stopping in the doorway. “I didn’t expect you to be up.”

He grunted but made no other movement. The door hissed shut behind her, blocking out the noise in the hallway.

“I brought you some food,” she said, folding out the nightstand and placing a small tray on it. “I picked it up during dinner at the lower mess hall.”

“Thanks,” James mumbled. He sighed and made as if to stand up, but kept his eyes on the floor.

Deirdre noticed little bits of white synthpaper scattered across the bedspread. She frowned; was that one of her books he’d torn up? But no, her compartment was still solidly locked. It would have had to have come from—

The envelope.

“Oh my,” she said, eyes widening. “Was that the letter? I hope you didn’t…”

“What?” James asked, looking up. She motioned to the bits of torn paper, and he glanced over at them and back to her.

“Was that Sara’s, uh…”

“Contingency letter? Stars, no. That was mine.”

“Ah.”

He buried his head in his hands and leaned heavily on his knees. “I can’t believe I was such an idiot.”

Deirdre hesitated, unsure what to say. But as his shoulders started to shudder with quiet sobs, she realized that that didn’t matter. She sat down next to him and rubbed his back until the moment passed.

“We can all be idiots sometimes,” she said softly. “I know how you feel.”

He laughed bitterly. “Oh yeah? Have you ever lost someone only to realize how thoughtless your last words to them really were?”

Deirdre didn’t answer.

“Do you know what I wrote in my contingency letter to her?” James continued.

“No,” she whispered, meeting his frenzied gaze.

“Neither do I! Can you believe it? I wrote the letter moments before I went under the ice, and I can’t even remember what I said in it. So careless! So stupid!”

He turned away and bit his lip. Deirdre scooted close to him and gently massaged his neck. The tension in his body slowly leaked out under her touch.

“You’re not as careless as you think you are,” she said. “Do you remember a girl named Kyla Stewart?”

James frowned. “You mean Kyla Jeppson?”

“Jeppson? Oh, her maiden name. Of course that’s how you’d remember her.”

“Lars married that stowaway girl?”

Deirdre laughed. “That’s probably how you’d remember her too. After you went into cryo, she married Lars and became like a mother to the new generation of colonists. Almost every family has some story about her. And guess who she had stories about.”

“I can’t believe it,” said James. The shock on his face made her wonder how much he’d heard

“Well,” said Deirdre, “if you think that’s weird, consider this: I’m her great granddaughter.”

James’s jaw dropped, and his eyes went wide. “Are you serious?”

“That’s right. And if it weren’t for you, I probably wouldn’t be here right now.”

For a long while, neither of them said anything. James blinked a few times, but couldn’t bring himself to say anything until he rubbed his eyes and shook his head.

“This is too weird.”

At that, Deirdre couldn’t help but laugh.

“I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “It’s just—”

“No, you’re fine. I probably look like an idiot right now.”

“Hey,” she said, putting an arm on his shoulder. “Go easy on yourself, James. There’s no sense in beating yourself up.”

He sighed and shook his head. “I just wish I could go back and fix things. Set right the things that I did wrong.”

That’s exactly the sort of thing I’d expect you to say, Deirdre thought quietly to herself. She felt just as drawn to him in the flesh as she had in the pages of Kyla’s journal—perhaps even more so.

“What was Sara like?” she asked impulsively. The question surprised her almost as much as it surprised James.

“She was gorgeous,” said James. “Gorgeous and smart, with a mind as sharp as a laser-blade. She always seemed so far above me, I’m still kind of shocked that I had her at all.”

“She saw a lot of good in you,” Dierdre remarked.

“I don’t know. To be honest, I never had much experience with women until her. The Hameji conquests happened when I was fifteen, and I spent the next five years after that with the military in one capacity or another.”

“So she was your first really serious relationship?” Dierdre asked. It felt a bit like prying, but her curiosity was so strong that she couldn’t help but ask. Besides, talking about it seemed to help him.

“Yes,” James answered. “And it happened so quickly, it almost feels like a dream now. If I could have that time back…”

She sensed that his thoughts were becoming destructive again.

“How did you two get together?” she asked.

To her surprise, James chuckled. “You know how many times I’ve asked myself that question? I honestly don’t know. She always had such poise and grace—it always seemed that a guy like me didn’t have a chance.”

“Is that what drew you to her?”

“I don’t know,” he said. For a second it looked as if he were going to say something, then he sighed and shook his head. “I don’t know.”

It doesn’t sound like they were together for very long, Deirdre couldn’t help but think. He’s obviously still torn up about his feelings for her, but it’s not like he’ll never get over the loss.

Her eyes strayed to the envelope with the contingency letter—the one that Sara had written for him.

“Have you read the letter she left for you?” Deirdre asked.

James shook his head. “No. Not yet.”

“Why not? It’s right there.”

His cheeks paled ever so slightly. “I can’t. Not now—not so soon.”

His wounds will never heal until he reads that letter.

“Well, sometime later then, hopefully,” she said, offering him a smile. “Though not too much later—I mean, I hope you can bring yourself to read it soon.”

Why did she have to be so awkward? He probably thought she was an idiot—not at all like this Sara.

“Captain Carlson briefed me on the situation with the Good Hope Flier today,” James said as he picked at the tray of food. “There’s a lot of work to be done. I doubt I’ll get a chance to read Sara’s letter until then.”

“Right,” said Deirdre. “Well, I’ll set up my hammock and get ready for bed. Shift’s almost over.”

“Three shifts,” James muttered to himself as she pulled out the hammock. “I’ll never get used to that.”

Not much longer and you won’t have to, Deirdre thought. But whether things would be any easier for him once they arrived—that was something she very much doubted.


* * * * *


James lay awake, listening Deirdre’s soft, rhythmic breathing in the darkness. It felt odd to have her sleep in the same quarters as him, but he appreciated the company.

She was a smart girl—as smart as he expected one of Lars’s descendants to be. She knew exactly how much to explain to him to give him a clear picture of what was going on without overwhelming him. When he’d complained about the tightness of their shared quarters and the strictness of the schedule that required them to vacate the room for someone else, she’d told him about the debates that the second generation had about population control, and why they’d ultimately opted not to impose any hard limits—that it had essentially come down to the fact that they weren’t going to be on the ship for more than a few generations. Everything that she said made sense, and she was careful not to try and explain everything all at once, which James appreciated.

More than that, though, it felt like she genuinely understood him. When he needed help, he often didn’t have to ask because she’d see the need first, sometimes even before he did. While there was still some of the hero worship in her—he could see it in the way her eyes sometimes gleamed—they were still able to talk with each other as equals. In the darker moments, when his regrets threatened to consume him, that was crucial. It could get very lonely, being the legend that everyone looked up to.

He sighed and stared up at the starlit ceiling. If he tried, he could almost imagine that she were Sara—but no, that would be a mistake. Deirdre was her own woman, not a substitute version of Sara. And pretending otherwise would only make things worse.

His thoughts strayed to what she’d said about Sara’s contingency letter. I hope you can bring yourself to read it soon. Was it really that obvious to her that the only thing holding him back was the pain? She’d been rather timid in her attempt to encourage him to read it, but he could tell that she considered it important that he read it. And he would, eventually. But not now.

I’ll read it when the pain is gone, he told himself as he rolled onto his side. That way, her last words won’t hurt so much. Though inwardly, he feared that the pain would never go away.

Chapter 23


“Sir, we’re receiving a transmission from the Freedom’s Flame,” said the officer at the bridge’s comm station, a twenty-something girl by the name of Mary. “Analyzing. It appears to be text-only.”

“Bring it up,” said Captain Carlson.

James looked at the bridge’s main display, which showed the transmission in yellow words on a black background.

ACKNOWLEDGED RECEIPT OF PREVIOUS MESSAGE, it read. ASSEMBLY VOTES OVERWHELMINGLY TO RECOGNIZE CMDR MCCOY’S LEADERSHIP. NO ONE LEFT BEHIND HERE.

Applause filled the bridge even as the weight of command grew heavier on James’s shoulders. The Freedom’s Flame was the last of the three friendly ships to formally declare allegiance to him as leader of the colonization mission. Of course, that was the easy part—the problem would be the rebels.

“Any more sign of communication between the three rebel ships?” Carlson asked.

“No, sir,” Mary answered. “Only silence.”

Carlson sighed and looked down. There was a brief moment of silence before he turned to James.

“Well, Commander, the mission is yours. What are your orders?”

James rose to his feet and surveyed the room. All of the officers were present; every chair on the bridge was filled. They looked at him as if he had some idea or insight that would solve the crisis instantaneously.

I don’t.

“Let’s discuss our strategy,” he began, putting his self-doubts out of his mind. “As I understand it, we have three rebel colony ships that broke off communication with the rest of us decades ago. Have they been communicating with each other?”

“Yes,” Carlson answered. “Though their transmissions are encrypted well enough that we can’t crack them.”

“Then it’s fair to assume that the secessionists are unified. The fact that they’ve all altered course to one of the inner planets would seem to confirm that. Am I missing anything so far?”

No one answered. Outside the forward window, the nebula gave the starfield an eerie glow.

“The crux of this crisis isn’t the secessionists, though—it’s the fact that they’re holding the diplomats from the Lady of Karduna hostage. That’s why you woke me, isn’t it? To figure out how to rescue these hostages?”

“No one gets left behind, sir.” James didn’t see who had said it, but it might as well have been any of them.

“All right, then. Let’s start by mapping out possible scenarios, starting with the best case and moving on to the worst. What’s the best way this could turn out?”

There was silence for a few moments as the officers considered. One of the women raised her hand.

“Wouldn’t the best case scenario be that the rebels decide to come back?”

“Let’s assume that the rebels are going to secede and that there’s nothing we can do to convince them otherwise,” said James. “Can we stop them? Do we have that capability?”

“Unfortunately, no,” said Carlson. “None of the colony ships are equipped with any sort of weaponry, and we haven’t detected any modifications on the rebel ships that would change that.”

“So we can’t shoot them, and they can’t shoot us.” Yet.

“Well,” said one of the officers, “if they’re going to secede anyway, the best case scenario would be that they release the hostages.” He was a heavy man with a thick red beard. James recognized him as the chief engineer.

“Good,” said James. “We’ll stick with that as our best case scenario: that the rebels release the hostages and continue on their course. Now, what’s the nightmare scenario? What are we working to avoid?”

For several moments, no one spoke. A few of the officers glanced nervously at each other, clearly disturbed by the fears that were left unspoken.

“Anyone? Come on, let’s have it out. We can’t avoid this thing by ignoring it.”

“The worst case scenario would be that the rebels keep the hostages and refuse to open contact,” Carlson said. “That appears to be the scenario that’s currently underway.”

“So what happens after that?” James asked. “What about that scenario makes this so bad?”

“Well, if they take the diplomats hostage, that’s an act of war,” said the chief engineer. “We can’t ignore something like that. We’d become two colonies, each one working to destroy or subdue the other.”

James nodded. “If the rebels do that, they’ll probably combine it with a pre-emptive attack to attempt to cripple us.”

“Wait,” said Mary. “I thought we agreed that they don’t have any weapons?”

“You don’t need guns to launch an attack,” said James. “When we rescued the girls from the Nabattan pirates, we used simple tools to club the guards outside the airlock. What’s to stop the rebels from launching a rocket full of scrap metal into our trajectory?”

“If they tried anything like that, we could stop it,” said the chief engineer. “All we’d have to do is find a way to clear the debris field.”

“Good—let’s get a team on that. I’m assigning it to you.”

The chief engineer nodded and scribbled something hastily on his notepad. The other officers, clearly shaken by the thought that the rebels might strike first, sat in uncomfortable silence.

“If I may, Commander,” said Carlson. “What if the rebels detect our preparations and consider it an act of aggression? Wouldn’t it precipitate the nightmare scenario we’ve discussed?”

“I agree,” said Mary. “What if we tried to find a diplomatic solution first?”

“Well, what would you suggest?” James asked.

Again, the room fell silent. Someone in the back raised a hand.

“Yes?”

“Just because they aren’t responding to our transmissions doesn’t mean that they can’t receive them,” the officer said. “We could try to persuade them to negotiate that way.”

The chief engineer shook his head. “I doubt that’s going to work—the Lady of Karduna has been pleading with them almost non-stop since the hostage crisis began.”

“But it’s the only option we’ve got.”

James clenched his fist and resisted the urge to slam it against the nearest bulkhead. What did these people expect of him? That he had the magic answer that would solve all their problems? He couldn’t help but think that Sara would have been better suited for this—diplomacy was her area of expertise, after all. Instead, they had turned to him, a warrior, to somehow make peace.

“Let’s prepare the countermeasures just in case,” he said. “As for sending them a message, let’s order the Lady of Karduna to stop with their attempts to hail them. From now on, every transmission we send will come from this ship, the Chiran Spirit. Understand?”

“Yes, sir,” the officers chorused.

Mary raised a hand.

“What message do we send them, sir?”

“I don’t know yet,” James admitted, “but I’ll work on it. If any of you have any suggestions, let me know.”

“May I suggest that we move quickly on this, Commander,” Carlson said. “At our present course, we have only three days before the distance between us and the rebels is too great to send the hostages back.”

James took a long breath. “Thank you, Captain.”

Three days to war.


* * * * *


Deirdre rested her chin on her hands and glanced across the table at the star-filled window on the far side of the study hall. Half a dozen young men crowded the library’s computer terminal, chattering excitedly in hushed tones, while the printer kiosk hummed furiously as it serviced a growing line of patrons. The library had gotten a lot busier of late, with mounting excitement over their impending arrival. Even though the noise made it difficult for her to concentrate, she enjoyed being around other people. If it got to be too much for her, she could always escape among the shelves of titles waiting to be recycled.

As she returned to her screen, a hand came to rest on her shoulder. She looked up and saw James standing over her.

“Oh,” she said, a little surprised. “I didn’t know you were coming down here. You need my help?”

He nodded. “Is there somewhere more private we can go?”

It’s a good thing most of these people don’t know James by sight, she thought to herself as she rose to her feet. Once it became common knowledge who he was, there’d be no peace for him anywhere on the ship.

She led him out into the main hall and through a door marked AUTHORIZED STAFF ONLY. Her study was at the far back of the hall, behind a cozy section of honeycombed cubicles. The small administrative staff buzzed back and forth, too busy to pay either of them any mind. She guided James into her study and motioned for him to sit down.

“What’s up?” she asked, sitting cross-legged on the desk as the door hissed shut behind them.

“It’s the hostage crisis,” said James. “We have three days before it blows up into a war, and the only thing we can do is hail them repeatedly and hope that they listen. Since you’re the ship’s historian, I was hoping you’d have some insight on what we could say to persuade them to do the right thing.”

Deirdre frowned and scratched her chin. “I see. Well, I don’t know if I have any insight, but I can run over the history with you and see if anything comes to mind.”

“That would be great.”

She slipped off of the desk and knelt in front of the keyboard. The lights in the room dimmed as she toggled the holoscreen display, bringing up a timeline of the voyage from the departure at Zeta Nabat to the present time.

“The roots of the crisis began about twenty standard years after you and the other colonists went down into cryo,” she said. “That’s when the first two rebel ships cut off all communication with us.”

“I see,” he said, nodding.

“At that time, we had regular contact with the Good Hope Flier. For five years, we tried regularly to hail the rebel ships, always with no response. After that, we gave up, but the Good Hope Flier kept trying to reestablish contact until they were successful.”

James toggled the view and zoomed in to a diagram showing the seven ships’ positions relative to each other for the majority of the voyage. “So that’s how they switched sides,” he muttered.

“Right. They made contact about three years before.”

“But they didn’t relay any of their communications with the rebel ships to us, did they?” James asked.

“No. That was one of the reasons our relations went sour.”

He stared at the screen, his hand on his chin. “What happened right before that?”

Deirdre leaned down over the keyboard and brought the timeline back up again, this time zooming in to the five year period before the Good Hope Flier broke off all communication. “They were undergoing major restructuring of their ship,” she said. “Nothing unusual—we all went through phases like that as our population grew. If I remember right, they were debating a measure that would impose severe birth restrictions.”

“Did they pass it?”

She shrugged. “They never told us. We only know that was an issue because they asked us a lot of detailed questions about our own policies. Here on the Chiran Spirit, we just switched to different bunk-sharing arrangements as the population grew. The Lady of Karduna, however, has had strict population controls almost since the moment we made contact with them.”

“Lars would have hated that,” James muttered.

“What?”

“Nothing,” he said. “So you think the Good Hope Flier defected to the rebels over the birth control issue?”

“Probably not,” she admitted, “but whatever their reason for switching sides, they never made it clear to us.”

“Then what is this crisis about?”

Dierdre shrugged. “What is any civil crisis about? Things have changed a lot since your time. The old ways are gone, and for most of us, the universe is no bigger than our own ship. Maybe the rebels just don’t see themselves as a part of the group anymore and want to strike out on their own.”

“If that’s true,” said James, “then they aren’t just holding those diplomats hostage, but all of the people frozen in cryo.”

“I suppose.”

Without warning, he slammed his fist against the bulkhead, making Deirdre jump.

“Dammit! Why did you people have to go and screw things up just before we arrived? The whole point in coming to Chira was to escape and start over someplace where we could all be safe. Why did you have to shatter that peace?”

For several moments, Deirdre said nothing. It was hard to know what to say after an outburst like that. James buried his head in his hands and groaned.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I know it’s not your fault, but why did everything I worked so hard for have to fall apart like this?”

Deirdre put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “It didn’t fall apart, James—not completely. We had almost four generations of peace because of you, and after we arrive at Chira, we’ll have many long years of peace, as well.”

“But it all comes to an end eventually. Wherever there are sheep, there will always be wolves.”

She frowned. “Wolves?”

“Earth creatures,” he explained, looking up at her. “Back when Earth was a wild planet, our ancestors were at the mercy of the wilderness. They kept flocks of sheep for wool and meat, but the wolves would hunt and kill them.”

“That’s fascinating,” said Deirdre. “I’ve spent a lot of time in the old Earth archives, but I’ve never come across anything like this.”

“Lars and I used to argue about it,” said James. “I tried to convince him that most people are like sheep: docile herd animals, unable or unwilling to defend themselves. He thought that the people aren’t like sheep at all, but can take care of themselves so long as they are free. He didn’t account for the wolves, though—the thugs and criminals, murderers and rapists, warlords and pirates who would eat everyone else alive if they got the chance.”

Deirdre nodded, entranced. This was a discussion that James had actually had with her great-grandfather, Lars? She felt as if she had stumbled across a hidden gem buried in some forgotten historical document, except that this wasn’t a book—this was real.

“In any case,” James continued, “to protect their sheep, our ancestors captured some of the wolves and domesticated them. They became sheepdogs—animals just as vicious and dangerous as the wolves, but bred to serve the needs of the sheep. That’s me.”

“A sheepdog,” Deirdre mused. “More like a wolf than a sheep.”

“Exactly.”

A thought occurred to her, making her sit up straight. “What if the people in the rebel ships don’t know that you’re a sheepdog? What if they’re afraid you’re one of the wolves?”

James frowned. “Why would they think that?”

“I don’t know, but what if they do? They would see you as a threat—they would cut themselves off and put as much distance between them and you as possible.”

“I guess,” said James, clearly stunned by what she was saying. “But wouldn’t that make conflict inevitable?”

“From the histories I’ve read, most wars seem to feel inevitable to those who get caught up in them,” Deirdre answered. “It’s very rare that wars happen because of the decisions of a single person. Usually, there’s some misunderstanding between the two groups that leads to a conflict, and from that conflict, both sides escalate until there’s nothing to do except fight it out.”

“That sounds about right,” said James. He stood up and started to pace. “But if that’s true, then… I’m the escalation?”

“I don’t know,” said Deirdre. “But you are the single most important figure in all of our history. You’re a legend to us, James—and anyone who doesn’t see you as a hero almost certainly sees you as a villain.”

“Stars of Earth,” James muttered. “I think you’re right.”


* * * * *


For the next forty-eight hours, James tried almost non-stop to make contact with the rebel ships. He transmitted message after message, pleading with the Good Hope Flier to release the hostages. Each time he recorded a new message, though, Deirdre’s words came back to haunt him. And each time they waited for a response, none came—just as she’d predicted.

“I know you see me as a threat,” he said for the fifth or sixth transmission on the second day—it was getting hard to keep count. “I don’t know why, but I want you to know that we don’t have to be enemies. Things have changed a lot in the last few decades. I know that, and I can accept that.” He took a deep breath. “When we left Zeta Nabat, we were one community—one people. I still hope that we can find a way to stick together. If we can’t, though, and you would rather split away from us to form your own community, then I ask you in the strongest possible terms to release the hostages and return them to the Lady of Karduna. The Chira system is large enough to share. Please, release the hostages, and let there be peace between us.”

The rebels had altered their course to head for the second planet in the system, a water-rich hot Neptune with several rocky moons. The planet looked hostile and foreboding, but the magnetic field protected most of the moons from the worst of the solar radiation. With proper heat shielding, they could probably build a fairly decent outpost, perhaps even one to rival the main colony in time.

By the time the second day had all but come to a close, James was an absolute wreck. His arms trembled from exhaustion, and his eyes refused to stay open for any length of time. His body ached to lie down, but he forced himself to stay awake.

“Better get some rest, Commander,” said Carlson. “We’re going to need you in a few hours.”

“But the hostages—”

Carlson put a gentle but firm hand on his shoulder. “You’ve done all you can do. There’s a spare bunkroom on this level for the command crew. Let me show you to it.”

The bunk was barely more than a slot in the wall and was two inches too short for James to extend his legs, but he didn’t care. Almost the moment his face hit the mattress pad, he fell asleep.

He dreamed that he was on board one of the rebel colony ships, though he didn’t know which one. The long, narrow halls were unusually empty, the overhead lights dim. Eerie shadows filled the doorways and corners where the hallway opened up to a large concourse.

He glanced nervously in every direction, knowing that he was running out of time, but the concourse was empty and devoid of life—as if the rebel colonists had abandoned ship long ago. As he ran, he sensed the presence of ghosts in the ship, watching and following close behind him. He shivered and ran faster.

On the far side of the room, a lone figure slipped into an open doorway. It looked like Sara.

“Hey!” he called out, running after her.

The doorway led to one of the long, curved hallways that ran around each level. The figure slipped just out of sight ahead of him.

“Sara! Come back!”

As he ran after her, the lights around him began to dim, and the air became noticeably colder. He felt as if someone or something were chasing him, but the harder he tried to run, the slower he went. Adrenaline flooded through him, but he still couldn’t break the invisible bonds that held him.

“Sara!”

The figure dashed into a side doorway as James rounded the corner. The doors began to close, but he slipped through just in time.

He found himself in a vast cryochamber, the vaulted ceiling high overhead like a giant cathedral. The catacomb walls stretched upward like a bivouac of death, and he knew that Sara was somewhere in there. If he could reach her—if only he could get to her in time—

“What are you doing?”

He jumped and turned at the sudden voice, and saw Lars standing just inside the door. His face was old and wrinkled, his hair white with age.

“Lars,” said James, running to his old friend. “Can you help me? Sara—”

“Why did you leave me on this godforsaken derelict?” he asked, his wrinkles sagging. “You play with our lives as if we’re all pawns on a chess board.”

“Lars?”

“We aren’t sheep,” Lars snarled, his eyes bloodshot and wild. “None of us are sheep. We’re free agents—free to do as we like. We aren’t afraid of dogs like you.”

James swallowed nervously. “Lars, don’t you remember me? It’s James. I—”

“I told you once I’d spend my life building the strongest democracy in the history of man, but look at what you’ve given me! These people only love war and bloodshed! They’ll eat each other before they learn to live together. What can I do with such a people? How can I build a free society out of wolves?”

Dark, partially-congealed blood began to ooze out of the cryotanks, spilling out across the honeycombed walls and dripping on the floor. James spun around in alarm and glanced back to Lars, but his old friend only glared at him.

“Stop it!” James screamed, trying in vain to run away. His feet refused to move, even as the blood began to fill the room. It was thick and black, and cold as ice, with lumps floating in it like pieces of decayed flesh and corruption. The stench of death filled his nose, and he opened his mouth to scream, but bile spewed out instead, filling him with the taste of vomit. He coughed and gagged, and the blood rose up his legs to his chest, seeping through his clothes and soaking his skin. It slowly rose to his neck, then his chin, then his mouth and eyes, turning to corruption everything it touched.

James woke up in a cold sweat, his clothes soaked. He coughed and tried to sit up, but hit his head against the top of the bunk. Damn! he thought to himself, too weary to swear aloud.

When he regained his strength, he slipped his legs over the side of the bunk and crawled out. The room was exactly as it was when he’d entered, but the clock showed that nearly eight hours had passed. He blinked and looked again, and a cold, sinking feeling grew inside his gut.

Eight hours!

He ran into the bridge, heart pounding in his chest. A couple unfamiliar officers occupied some chairs, but Carlson was gone.

“Where’s Carlson?” he asked, a sinking feeling growing in his stomach.

“He took his sleeping shift a few hours ago, but he’ll be up shortly,” said one of the officers—a young woman with short black hair. “Don’t worry, we have everything under control.”

“Under control? What the hell do you—”

“Commander!” came a voice behind him. He looked down and saw Carlson crawling up the floor ladder with a broad smile on his face, dressed in a fresh set of clothes. James stepped back as the man rose to his feet and gave him a spontaneous embrace.

“What the—Captain, what’s going on?”

Carlson laughed. “You seemed so exhausted when you went down, we didn’t bother waking you to tell you the news.”

“What news?”

“That the Good Hope Flier has released all the hostages. They’re en route to the Lady of Karduna right now. All of them are safe and accounted for.”

James blinked. “The rebels did what?”

“They released the hostages,” Carlson repeated. “We’ve contacted their shuttlecraft and confirmed that all of them are doing well. The crisis is over, and war has been averted.”

It took James several moments to process the news. When he did, though, he sighed and all but collapsed into the nearest chair.

“Thank the stars,” he muttered. And thank you, Deirdre.

“That’s not all, I’m afraid,” said Carlson. His expression suddenly became very serious.

“What?” James asked, frowning.

“The diplomats found out why the Good Hope Flier broke contact with us, as well as the other rebels. It’s rather disturbing, and I’m not sure if—”

“Tell me,” James said. “That’s an order.”

Carlson took a deep breath. “Very well, Commander. According to the diplomats’ report, when the population of the Good Hope Flier grew so large that it began to put a strain on their infrastructure, they failed to manage their resources as effectively as we did. In order to make more living space, they vented the cryotanks and killed everyone inside.”

The news struck James like a meteor. He was too stunned to know what to say.

“I sincerely hope that you didn’t have any friends who were on those ships, Commander. There’s nothing we could have done for them.”

A wave of nausea swept over him, threatening to knock him out of his chair. His stomach sank through the floor, and he felt as if he were going to throw up.

“They—they what?”

“I’m sorry, Commander. The rebels have killed all the colonists from your generation. That’s why they saw you as a threat, and that is why they decided to secede.”

“No!” James cried, grabbing his hair. His eyes burned like fire, and he couldn’t choke down the tears.

“Commander, are you all right? Commander!”

How can I build a free society out of wolves? Lars’s voice echoed in his ear. Look at what you’ve given me!

Chapter 24


Deirdre knew something was wrong the moment she stepped through the door.

James was on the bed, lying on his side with his back facing her. Even so, she could tell that he was awake. She stepped inside and stood beside him.

“James? Are you all right?”

He turned slowly over, swinging his feet off the side of the bunk as he sat up.

“Do you really want to know?” he muttered.

“Of course I do.”

He took a deep breath, but said nothing.

“I heard all about the hostages,” she said, pulling out a seat. “Everyone’s been talking about it. I knew that if anyone could solve this crisis, you could.”

Still no answer. He stared at the floor, his face a mask.

“Well, aren’t you going to say something?”

He looked up and stared at her with tired eyes. “Do you know why the rebel ships have kept out of contact?”

“Uh, no. Why?”

“Because they vented all their cryotanks eighty years ago, right before they cut contact.”

Her jaw dropped. “Vented them? You mean, everyone in cryo—”

“They’re all dead,” he said, clenching his fists by his side.

She gasped. A terrible sinking feeling seized her stomach.

“I’m so sorry.”

“So am I.”

A long silence fell between them. On impulse, Dierdre rose to her feet and walked across to sit down next to him. He flinched a little as she put her hand on his shoulder, but made no other movement.

“Don’t blame yourself,” she said. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“Then whose fault was it?” he asked, shrugging her off. “How could they do something like that? Everyone on those ships that I knew…”

She stared at him for a moment, not knowing what to say. He shook his head in frustration and rose to his feet, pacing back and forth across the floor.

“The whole reason for coming to Chira was so that we could escape this sort of thing,” he said. “The war and killing and everything else—we wanted to get away from it. And now, just when we’re about to arrive at our new home, we find out that the wolves have followed us to it. Hell, they’ve not only followed us—they are us. We are the wolves.”

Deirdre listened quietly, nodding as he became more impassioned. It was clear that he had a lot to get off of his chest. She didn’t blame him.

“But why?” he repeated, desperation in his voice. “All of those people, hoping for a better life… now gone.”

Deirdre rose to her feet and put a hand on his arm. “If it makes you feel better, James, you’re probably the single greatest reason we didn’t do the same thing here.”

He gave her a puzzled look. “What?”

“Before we switched to the twelve-hour mainday/alterday shifts, there was some talk about venting the cryotanks, mostly from the younger colonists. Resources were tight, and it was an open question whether we’d run out of living space before we got to Chira.”

“So the same debate they had on the rebel ships,” he said, folding his arms. “Why didn’t you do what they did?”

“Because of what you said when you rescued those girls on the pirate’s station. You said that no one gets left behind. That became our guiding mantra—no one gets left behind, ever. Those who suggested that we vent the cryotanks were soundly rejected, and you became a symbol of hope that it would all work out if we just stuck together.”

“So that’s my legacy,” he muttered.

He sat down slowly on the edge of the bed, clearly deep in thought. Deirdre sat down next to him and began to rub his back.

“I’m so, so sorry about what happened,” she said softly. “We all are.”

James sighed. “You woke me up because you wanted me to save you, but now it turns out that I’m the thing that’s driving you apart.”

“That’s not true, James. You’ve done more to unify us than anyone else in our history.”

“As a person, perhaps, but as a symbol? No.”

“Don’t say that about yourself, James. Don’t put yourself down.”

He smiled and took her hands in his own. They felt calloused and rough, completely unlike her hands, which were soft and delicate. Still, his touch was not unpleasant. Their eyes met, and her breath caught in her throat.

“Do you see me as a symbol or a person, Deirdre?”

“As a person, of course.”

“Really?”

“Yes,” she said, squeezing his hands. “You were a person to me from the moment I saw you climb out of that cryotank.”

“Thanks,” he said softly. “I’m glad that someone on this ship sees me that way.”

For a heart-stopping moment, it seemed that he was about to lean forward and kiss her. But then, a cloud came over his face and he let go.

“Lars was right,” he said, turning to stare at the wall. “The people aren’t sheep, and there’s not much difference between the sheepdogs and the wolves. I’m sure the rebels felt they were doing the right thing when they vented those cryotanks. To them, that makes me a wolf.”

What is he saying? Deirdre thought. She wanted to stop him from denigrating himself—it hurt her every time to hear it. He was trapped in a self-destructive cycle, and she had to break him out of it.

“Let’s talk about it later,” she said. “We’ve had enough for one dayshift.”

“Yes,” he said, nodding. “We certainly have.”


* * * * *


The next two weeks passed rather uneventfully. The rebel colony ships once again fell out of radio contact, but with the hostages safely returned and the ships too far ahead of them to intercept, there was nothing to do but let them continue on their way. A vigorous discussion of the rebel atrocities all but consumed the forums of the Chiran Spirit, but James had no stomach for debate—not when the victims had been his friends.

Captain Carlson was more than capable of handling the final approach to Chira V. If anything, James played only an ancillary role. A reunion gala was planned for the four allied colony ships once they were safely in orbit, but the various diplomatic committees handled the organization of that. James wasn’t needed anymore, which was quite all right with him.

With few responsibilities to keep him busy, he withdrew. Deirdre seemed worried about him, but she gave him his space, probably because she felt he needed it—and maybe he did. But with nothing to do, his thoughts became consumed with Sara. He felt her loss a hundred times more keenly than that of the other colonists.

At length, the day of the reunion gala came. The four colony ships linked together in orbit to form an ad hoc space station, from which the settlement effort would be launched. With the observation decks all conveniently conjoined, the leadership of the four ships gathered for the gala event.

“Ah, Commander McCoy!” said the captain of the Lady of Karduna, a portly middle-aged man with a goatee and a double-chin. “May I be the first thank you in person for your heroic leadership in the late crisis!”

James smiled and offered his hand, but the enthusiastic captain embraced him with a warm hug, practically squeezing the air out of him.

“Oomph! Thanks.”

One by one, the diplomats from the other ships came forward. After more than twenty minutes of greeting them all, James felt as if the smile on his face had been pasted on.

The reunion gala on the observation deck of the Chiran Spirit was even more lavish than the conference at Gaia Nova had been. Heaping trays of gourmet delicacies covered the serving table on the inner wall, while the uniforms of the visiting dignitaries were crisp and colorful. Even more striking, though, was the wild variation of accents and dialects between ships. The guests from the Starhope chattered so quickly he could barely keep up with them, while the twangy drawl of the Lady of Karduna sounded as if it were best spoken through a mouthful of syrup.

This is more of a first-time meeting than a reunion, James thought as he drifted through the crowd. The only contact that these people had previously had with each other was through radio transmissions, and the only thing they had in common was their distant ancestry. The first generation colonists were still all frozen in cryo—they wouldn’t be woken until settlement was well underway.

The officers and diplomats from the various ships all glanced at James sidelong, eagerly awaiting his keynote address, but he kept himself aloof from all of them. Instead, he stared down at the magnificent vista of Chira V below.

Great verdant swaths of thickly forested jungle covered entire continents, while the brown veins of mighty rivers emptied into the vast blue ocean. Down the eastern side of the main continent, a giant ridge of black-brown mountains ran like the coiled spine of a sleeping beast. Higher up in the atmosphere, wispy white clouds mingled with giant mats of floating blue-green biomass. It was a raw, virgin world down there—a place untouched by humanity, full of unexplored wonders and untapped riches. A place wide enough for a man to leave his old life behind and rewrite his destiny.

“Commander McCoy? We would be honored if you would sit with us.”

James sighed and returned to the gala. The man who had addressed him was some dignitary from the Starhope, or maybe the Lady of Karduna—it was impossible to keep track of them all. The guests had retired to their tables for the dinner, but even though James wasn’t hungry, he took a plate. When he sat down, a lively conversation was already in progress.

“Once we’ve unloaded the colonists,” said the captain of the Lady of Karduna from across the table, “we should refit the colony ships as orbital platforms at once. We can’t take any chances in matters of security.”

“But surely you don’t mean all of the ships,” said a young diplomat from the Chiran Spirit. “If you ask me, we could put them to much better use as cargo haulers—this system is practically teeming with rare and heavy metals.”

“Security first, my boy. There’s nothing easier to bombard than an undefended gravity well.”

“You do realize,” said a young female diplomat from the Starhope, “that the peaceful release of the hostages renders this entire discussion pointless?”

“Of course it doesn’t!” said the captain, hastily swallowing a bite of food. “So long as there has been human society, there has been war. Am I right, Commander?”

James stared and said nothing. A democracy of wolves.

“I don’t think we’re in danger at all,” said the woman, ignoring James.

“No danger? What do you mean?”

“Interplanetary travel is an expensive venture requiring a great investment of resources. To launch an attack, they would have to divert resources away from their colonization and settlement effort to build their own fleet. It might be generations before they do anything like that, if ever.”

“Ah, but you’ve discounted the threat from unmanned probes,” said the captain, taking up the debate with unabashed glee. “It would only take a handful of laser-stars to lay siege to this planet and cut us off from space. The rebels could build up a fleet of them in only a matter of years.”

“No, I believe Dalya is right,” said another young man to James’s left. “Why would the rebels want to launch an attack?”

“Because—”

Thankfully, the conversation was cut short by the master of ceremonies, who rose to the podium at the head of the room and called for attention.

“Ladies and gentlemen, dignitaries and distinguished guests, it is my privilege to be here with you at this, the culmination of our generations-long voyage. When our forefathers set out from Zeta Nabat, they were barely more than a band of refugees, leaving a war-torn territory in the hopes of building a new world. Today, that dream has come to pass.”

The room filled quickly with applause. James couldn’t help but wonder what Sara would think if she were there. This dream belonged to her just as much as it did to him.

“In the coming days and weeks, we have a great deal of work to perform,” the master of ceremonies continued. “Those of the first generation will soon be woken from their long, cold sleep, and it will be a great pleasure to welcome them to that future to which they looked forward for so long.

“But one of them is already here among us, one who did more for the cause than anyone else of his time. He needs no introduction, for his name has long been revered by us all. Please join me in welcoming Commander James McCoy!”

Blood rushed to James’s cheeks as the crowd applauded again, this time noticeably louder than before. Sara did more for this cause than I ever did, he thought as he walked up to the podium. He turned to face the crowd, and the applause died down to silence.

“Uh, hello,” he began, a wave of anxiety hitting him as he looked out at the hundreds of eager faces that now beamed at him. “Thank you very much for bringing me—for bringing all of us—here. We—”

There were a lot more people in the crowd than he’d expected. Sweat began to form on the back of his neck as he looked out at them, until his eyes met Deirdre’s out near the back. They had agreed to attend the event separately, just to quell any rumors about them being in a relationship. But when he saw her smile at him, he could feel her sincere support.

“I’m not much of a public speaker, so sorry if I stammer a bit. But what I lack in grace, I try to make up for in action. People tend to remember deeds a lot longer than words, and—well, I guess you’re all a testament to that.”

The room broke out in spontaneous applause, cutting him short. He nodded and held up his hand, and the noise gradually died down.

“We worked for this dream for so long, it’s actually kind of strange to see you all here right now. I wasn’t the only one of course—in fact, I probably wasn’t the most important one. We all made sacrifices, and yours were just as great as any of ours.

“This day doesn’t belong to me, or to any one woman or man,” he continued. “And while I know that you look to me as some sort of legendary leader, the truth is that my work is already done. My place in history was only to bring you here. Now that you’ve arrived, the responsibility has fallen to you.”

This time, the applause was more scattered. A few of the smiles were starting to turn to frowns. James searched the crowd for Deirdre’s face, but couldn’t quite pick her out.

“So much has changed since I went into cryo. This time in history belongs to you, not to me. And while all of you look to me as a hero, there are others who see me as a villain—a wolf. So long as I’m your leader, this colony will never know peace. Therefore, I wish to announce my resignation as your commander.”

An audible gasp went up around the room. Less than a second later, the roar of commotion was almost as loud as the applause from before. Where once the crowd had hung on his every word, now the room had fallen into chaos. James’s eyes finally picked out Deirdre in the back, and with a start he realized that she was crying.

Did I disappoint her? he wondered. He’d never thought that his announcement would make her cry. His gut knotted, and for a very brief moment, a seed of doubt took hold in his heart.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please!” the master of ceremonies announced, rising quickly to the podium. “I’m sure that the commander wasn’t being serious—”

“No,” said James, taking the podium back, “I meant every word.” He glanced out at the crowd, hoping that Deirdre was listening. For her sake, he needed to explain himself.

“When I led my people into the nebula, we were surrounded by enemies in a constant state of war. The people needed someone who would fight for them—someone who would keep them safe. But here at Chira, our only enemies are the ones we make among ourselves. We don’t need fighters anymore. We need peacemakers who can reach out and make reconciliation possible.”

Some in the crowd broke out in applause, but it was quickly drowned out in the chaos. A few scattered people even began to jeer. Disgusted, James raised his voice even louder.

“You think this is our dream? Well, it’s not. You’re free agents—free to do as you like. Don’t let me or anyone else take that away from you.”

Sara wouldn’t have wanted me to say that, he thought as he stormed out the door. People were calling out to him not to leave, but he ignored them. With the possible exception of Deirdre, though, no one in that crowd mattered to him. He just wanted to get away from them all.

His thoughts strayed to the virgin world just outside the ship’s windows. The lush green landscape and wispy white clouds beckoned to him like no planetscape had ever beckoned to him before. Down there, he was no legend—down there, he wasn’t any different from anyone. He could shed all the baggage that he’d carried for so long and lose all the ghosts that now haunted him. More than anything else, that was what he wanted—a chance to start over.

Though perhaps he would be better off ending it all than to try to start over alone.


* * * * *


The moment James left the gala, Deirdre ran after him. Her heart was still crushed and her mind a whirlwind of questions and confusion, but one thing stood out through it all: she was the only one who could reach out to him in this moment, and that he needed her more than he knew.

He had a good start on her, though, and the crowd certainly didn’t make it easier. By the time she reached their quarters, she found him already rummaging through his personal belongings. There wasn’t much for him to go through.

“Hey,” she said, bracing herself in the open doorway. She wasn’t going to let him go until they’d had a good talk.

“Hi,” he muttered, not looking up.

“Are you all right?” she asked. “You, uh, kind of lost it back there. When—”

“I don’t care,” said James, his forcefulness surprising her. “I’m through with politics for good.”

“But James—we need you.”

He stopped and looked her in the eye. “No, you don’t. I’m a man out of time, Deirdre—a man from a bygone age. I did my part to make peace possible, but my time is finished. Someone else needs to pick up where I left off. I can’t lead this people any more than—than you can write a history that hasn’t happened yet.”

But I need you, Deirdre wanted to say. Are you going to leave me just the same as everyone else?

“What are you going to do?” she asked softly.

“I don’t know,” James admitted. “Go down to the surface, join the settlement effort there. Find a place where I can leave the past behind and reinvent myself.”

“Alone?”

He sighed. “I don’t know. I’ll find out when I get there.”

Deirdre knew that if he went alone, he would never recover from the pain he carried now. She could see it in the slump of his shoulders and the lines of his face just as clearly as if it were written in a book. The thought of him living out the rest of his days as a long-forgotten hermit, barely eking out a life on some distant, lonely mountain all but broke her heart.

“You still miss Sara, don’t you?”

“Yes,” he said softly.

He hasn’t read her letter yet, Deirdre realized. She could see that in his face, too. This wasn’t the man she’d read about in Kyla’s journal. This was a man stuck in limbo, unable to move on with his life.

“How often do you think of her?” she asked.

“All the time.” He sighed and shook his head. “She would have handled the crisis much better than I did—she might have even gotten the rebels to reunify.”

“I doubt that. They decided to secede from us long before we revived you.”

Deirdre stepped forward and put a hand on his arm. She looked into his face until he met her gaze.

“You haven’t read her letter, have you?”

He stared at her a moment, then looked away. “No,” he whispered. “I haven’t.”

“You need to find closure, James. If you don’t, the pain will kill you.”

“I’ll think about it.”

She took a deep breath, her skin tingling. “You’re afraid, aren’t you?”

He didn’t answer.

Should I tell him?

Her heart throbbed in her chest like a nuclear engine, and sweat began to form on the back of her neck. She tried to keep her hands from shaking, but she couldn’t help it.

Yes, I should.

“After you first woke up,” she began, “you asked me if I knew what it felt like to lose someone I loved after saying something stupid and careless. I didn’t answer you then, but the truth is that I do.”

She paused, hands trembling. James stopped to listen.

“When I was seventeen standard years old,” she continued, “I loved a boy—an engineer, one of the fast-trackers for ship-wide maintenance. He was young and handsome and absolutely brilliant, and we fell head over heels for each other. Our genetic mapping and pedigrees forbade us from having children, but we had friends who were willing to let us adopt.

“We were married on my eighteenth birthday,” she continued, “and for a little over a standard year, we were happy together. Our friends became pregnant with a boy that would be ours. I took on an apprenticeship with the ship’s chief historian, and he became a line operator for the main ramjet engine. Everything was so…”

Her voice trailed off. James frowned and opened his mouth as if to speak, but she recomposed herself quickly and forced herself to press on.

“One day, we had a fight. It was just a petty one—I don’t even remember what it was about—but we both stormed off to our jobs without making up. That was a mistake.”

“Why?” James asked.

“Because there was an accident at the main engine,” said Deirdre. She bit her lip and drew in a sharp breath through her nose. “It was bad, to say the least. Fifteen people were killed, and my husband…”

James’s eyes widened. “Oh, wow. I’m sorry.”

“Yeah. It took me months to get back on my feet, and the whole time, all I could think about was how we’d never made up. I felt like an idiot—no, like a stupid, selfish bitch.” She looked James in the eye. “But you know what I realized after a while?”

“No,” he said. “What?”

“I realized that it was even more stupid not to forgive myself. My husband wouldn’t have wanted me to live the rest of my life moping over something I couldn’t change. He’d want me to be happy, to remember the good times.”

“So what did you do?”

“I did exactly what you should do,” she said, looking him in the eye. “I found closure and moved on. It wasn’t easy, but it was what he would have wanted.”

She stopped and turned to the storage compartment that contained the letter. He glanced over at the compartment, then up at her.

“You think you can run away from your past,” she continued, “but you can’t. Unless you confront it, it’ll haunt you wherever you go. And James, I don’t want that to happen to you. I really don’t.”

She squatted down so that she was at eye level with him. “So will you do it? Will you read the letter?”

He bit his lip and looked away. “I don’t know,” he muttered. “Not now. Maybe later.”

An awful sinking feeling grew in Deirdre’s stomach, and the edges of her mouth turned down in a frown. “But you promised—”

“I know, I know. And I will, believe me. Just not now.”

He stuffed the last of his clothes into his duffel bag and closed the compartment. The bag was only half full, but that was everything he owned. He threw it over his shoulder and turned to face her.

“Thank you for everything, Deirdre. You’ve done more for me over the past few weeks than…”

Her breath caught in her throat as his voice trailed off. She felt as if she’d laid her heart bare to him, and as his gaze penetrated her, something magnetic passed between them. He leaned slowly forward, his mouth slightly parted, and she found herself leaning slowly towards him as well. She closed her eyes, and as their lips met, tingles of electricity shot from the top of her head to the ends of her fingers and toes.

But the kiss was little more than a guilty peck. James pulled back almost the moment their lips touched—not because he didn’t want it, she sensed, but because he couldn’t stop thinking of Sara.

“James—”

“Goodbye, Deirdre,” he said abruptly. With his duffel bag on his back, he walked around her and out the door, leaving her alone.

What should I do? Deirdre wondered, her heart racing. The shuttle James was leaving on was scheduled to depart in just a few minutes—there was no way she could convince him to turn back now. And since he was already on his way there, she’d probably never see him again.

No, she told herself, clenching her fists. I won’t let you go, James. Not like that.

She opened her personal drawer and pulled out a duffel bag of her own. With shaking hands, she began to fill it with her belongings. She had a lot more than James, of course, and it would take her some time to get it all, but the shuttles left for the surface every six hours, and that gave her plenty of time to catch the next one.

“I’m coming after you, James,” she said aloud, as if he could hear her. “I’m not going to let you destroy yourself.”

Chapter 25


James stepped out of the inflatable dome shelter into the hot, sticky air of Chira V. His breath caught in his throat as he gazed at the alien landscape around him. The bright blue sky stretched far overhead like an infinite ceiling, bound only by the long, thin line of the horizon and the golden arc of the planet’s rings. How long had it been since James had seen a planetscape from the ground? A long time—far too long.

Of all the worlds he’d seen, Chira V was undoubtedly the most beautiful. The puffy white clouds drifting aimlessly in the sky reminded him of the wispy tendrils of the Good Hope Nebula. On the horizon, craggy mountain peaks reached heavenward like a bridge between earth and sky. The jungle, so much thicker than the aquaponics labs on the colony ship, gave the air a distinctly earthy taste that was fresh and clean. High in the air, the floating blue-green islands of biomass looked like flying carpets, while the shimmering golden band of rings arced across the sky like a highway to the heavens.

I could spend the rest of my life here, James thought to himself. I could run away to those mountains and never come back.

He followed the other migrants to the open-air rover at the end of the launch pad. There were more than a dozen settlement areas under construction around the landing site, and James had chosen the farthest one. According to the map, it was about half an hour’s drive away, but because there were only three operating rovers, he’d had to wait a few hours at the main base for a ride. He’d spent the time napping in a sleep cube, trying to sync his sleep-cycle with the rhythms of the new world.

As he crossed the launch pad, another orbital shuttle ferry touched down. The whine of the engines grew louder as the spacecraft descended, the smell of ozone mingling with the sickly-sweet smell of the jungle. Once the shuttle was on the ground, the noise soon died to a much more tolerable level.

James threw his duffel bag into the back of the rover and climbed in with the rest of the colonists. The driver turned back in his seat, a patch of fresh stubble spreading across his cheeks and chin.

“This rover is for site fourteen, folks—site fourteen. It’s a bit of a drive, so be sure to secure your belongings tightly and strap yourselves in. Enjoy the ride.”

“I will,” James muttered to himself, though inwardly he wasn’t so sure. There were a lot of things about the way he’d left that made him wonder if he’d come to regret it. His resignation at the gala hadn’t exactly been graceful, and there were still all the colonists in cryo who would look to him once they revived.

More than that, though, he wondered if it had been wrong of him to leave Deirdre. He missed her a lot more than he’d thought he would, and his thoughts constantly wandered back to her. Just thinking about that forlorn, dejected look on her face as he told her goodbye—only a moment or two after kissing her, no less—made his chest constrict painfully.

“Wait!” someone cried out from the launch pad. It was a woman, carrying two heavy duffel bags in hand. James squinted to get a better look at her, and his heart skipped a beat.

Deirdre.

“James!” she cried, running for the rover as fast as she could. “Wait for me!”

“You have to register at the main base, ma’am,” the driver yelled at her. “I can’t drive you anywhere until you show me some proof of registration.”

“Hang on,” said James, rising from his seat, “I’m getting off.”

The driver frowned. “Are you sure? The next ride to site fourteen won’t be until the end of the day.”

“I’m sure.”

With that, James jumped to the ground and fished out his bag from the back.

“James!” Deirdre cried, throwing her arms around him. “Thank the stars you’re still here!” As they embraced, the rover rumbled to life and drove away, kicking up a cloud of dust all around them.

“Deirdre—why did you come down?”

“Did you think I was going to just let you leave like that? After all we’ve been through?”

He smiled. “I suppose I should have known I couldn’t get rid of you that easily.”

The sunlight shining through the jungle canopy cast dappled shadows on her face, making her look like something from a dream. He hugged her again, tenderly this time.

“I’m glad you’re here.”


* * * * *


Deirdre walked with James hand-in-hand along the perimeter fence of the landing site. The touch of his hand sent tingles up and down her spine, and she felt more alive than she ever had before.

“What about your duties as ship historian?” James asked. “Did you resign from your position like I did?”

“The Chiran Spirit isn’t going to be around much longer,” she answered. “They’re dismantling it now to build the main orbital—they want to name it McCoy Station.”

“I’m flattered,” James said dryly.

“Names like that are for commemorating things. No one seriously expects you to come back. Besides, you do have quite the legacy. It’s only fitting to name the station in your honor.”

He brightened a little at that. She squeezed his hand, and he squeezed back.

“In any case,” Deirdre continued, “I figure I can do just as good a job down here as I can up there. After all, this is where the real history is going to be made.”

“What about the rebels?” James asked.

“What about them? There’s some talk about an arms race, but Carlson says it’s more likely we’ll make peace and set up trade relations. No one wants a war so soon after our arrival.”

“A lot of the original colonists are going to be horrified when they find out what the rebels did,” he muttered.

“Yeah,” she said, glancing over at him. “But Carlson says he thinks you did the right thing by stepping down. If you were still in power, there’d be no chance for reconciliation. Now, there’s a lot of hope that we’ll work something out.”

James nodded. “That’s good to hear.”

“Of course, I expect that the planetside folks will want to elect you to something—maybe chief surveyor, or mayor of one of the settlements.”

“Naturally.”

They walked in silence for a while. A light breeze rustled the enormous leaves of the jungle canopy. Far overhead, one of the floating algae pads drifted in front of the sun, casting a pleasant shadow over the ground. They walked on.

That kiss before you boarded the shuttle, Deirdre wanted to ask. What did it mean? Even though they were holding hands, though, she sensed that it wasn’t right to broach the question. James was working himself up to tell her something, and if she asked, it might cause him to withdraw. Now of all times, that was the last thing he needed to do.

“I suppose you want to ask me if I read the letter,” he said at length. “And the answer is no, I haven’t. But I have it right here.”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out the envelope. Deirdre squeezed his hand.

“Are you going to read it now?”

“If not now, when?” James asked. His arm was stiff, his cheeks pale, but she saw in his eyes a determination that would not be cowed. “Come on, let’s find a place to sit down.”

He wants me to be with him for this moment, Deirdre realized. He’s afraid of being alone when he finally reads it.

“I’m right here,” she said softly, squeezing his hand to reassure him. He squeezed back, but his palm was clammy.


* * * * *


Don’t do it! something in James’s mind screamed. Not now! Anytime but now! Inwardly, though, he knew that Deirdre was right, and putting it off would only make it harder.

They found a cluster of boulders on a small rise near the perimeter fence. The jungle was a little sparser here, and the rocks shielded the rest of the base from view. It was a good place to be alone.

Deirdre sat on a rock in front of him, taking care not to read over his shoulder. She put a hand on his knee as he sat down.

“Do you need a moment?” she asked.

He shook his head. “I’ve had weeks to work myself up to this. If I don’t do it now…”

“You can do it, James,” she said, smiling at him. “It’s going to be all right.”

Her encouragement strengthened him. He took a deep breath and nodded, wondering at how stupidly hard it was to follow through with this. How many times in his life had he looked death in the face without flinching? Yet somehow, this letter struck more fear in his heart than any of his military exploits ever had.

His fingers trembled as he tore open the envelope and pulled the letter out. The aged synthpaper felt dry to the touch, and he unfolded it carefully. The sight of Sara’s handwriting made his throat constrict, but he kept himself from reading until it was laid out plainly in front of him.

“It’s shorter than I thought it would be,” he muttered. She’d only used half the page—the whole thing probably amounted to less than three hundred words.

Deirdre squeezed his knee. “Go on,” she said softly.

He took a deep breath and read.

James, the letter began, I hope that when we read this, we’re both together on Chira, laughing about how paranoid we were. But just in case I don’t make it, I want these to be my parting words.

His hands began to shake, and it took him a moment to calm them enough to keep reading. He thought of what it would have been like if Sara had been here to read it with them, and they were both laughing at themselves just as she’d said. If it weren’t for Deirdre’s comforting touch, he probably would have stopped right there. But her presence gave him strength, and he continued.

You have a stubborn sense of determination, James, that I’ve gradually come to admire. It gives other people strength and rallies them to do great things. At the same time, it can be dangerous. No matter how much you look out for others, you always seem to neglect yourself. I fear that your stubbornness will destroy you.

If we do come through this together, I would be happy to spend the rest of my life helping you to temper that stubbornness. But if we don’t, James, I want you to let me go. Don’t blame yourself for my loss. Find someone who cares about you and commit yourself to her as completely as you would have committed yourself to me. I want you to be happy, James, with me or without me.

I love you, James, and I always will. Remember me, but know that it’s okay to let me go. Don’t neglect yourself. Be happy.

Love,

Sara.

A sob forced its way out of James’s throat. He tried to choke it down, but it was like holding back a river with nothing but his arms. His vision blurred with tears, and he buried his head in his hands.

For how long he wept, he didn’t know. But when the sobbing stopped and the tears no longer came, he felt like a new man. It was as if he had been living on the other side of a glass ever since waking from cryo, and now, the glass was shattered, making everything more colorful, vibrant, and alive.

“James,” said Deirdre, rubbing his shoulders. She must have stepped behind him while he was weeping. “Is everything all right? Are you okay?”

He took a deep breath and smiled. “Yes, Deirdre. I don’t think I could feel any better.”

“What did the letter say? I mean, if it’s too private, I can just—”

He turned and took both of her hands in his, effectively silencing her. “It’s okay,” he said. “She told me to find a special woman and to be happy with her, just like she would have been happy with me.”

Deirdre’s eyes widened, and her mouth parted in shock. She looked down for a moment, then back at him, her cheeks flushing.

“Does that mean…”

He answered by leaning forward and pulling her gently towards him. Realization dawned on her, and she wrapped her arms around him, pressing her lips against his. The warmth of her embrace soothed his aching loneliness, and for the first time in ages, he felt truly alive.


* * * * *


The next day, they ventured out from the outpost to go for a hike. When they left the main road to follow a trail made by some as-yet unknown species of large animal, Deirdre worried aloud whether they were in danger, but James laughed and pointed to the gun on his hip. It was the first time she’d heard him laugh, and it sounded so honest and clear that she couldn’t help but laugh with him.

They followed the trail to the top of a mountain ridge, climbing up until the jungle fell away, leaving nothing but grass, boulders, and the hardy, wind-stunted shrubs that grew in clumps along the rocky terraces. The wide open sky and magnificent vistas gave Deirdre an awful sense of vertigo. She clung to James for support, but he didn’t seem to mind.

At length, they reached a spot where the ridge leveled out. “Look at that,” said James, peering out at the rugged wilderness landscape that surrounded them.

Deirdre stopped clinging to him long enough to get a good look. From where they stood, they could see almost a hundred kilometers in any direction. The hills rolled before them like wrinkles in a towel before dropping off sharply into a sea of unbroken blue water. Mighty waves crashed on the rocky cliffs, while swarms of avian creatures flew between the dozens of massive algae pads that drifted lazily over the ocean.

“It’s incredible,” she said softly. “I never thought a world could be so beautiful.”

“Welcome to your new home,” said James, putting his arm around her waist.

“Our new home,” she corrected him.

They lingered for a few moments before finding a rocky cleft in which to have lunch. The salty sea breeze wafted up to them on the ridge, while the singsong cries of the avian creatures mingled with the distant crashing of the waves.

“Is this where you hoped to bring us when you set out from Karduna?” Deirdre asked, settling down between a pair of boulders where she felt more secure.

“No,” said James, squeezing in beside her. “We just wanted to get away from our enemies—to stay alive. We never dared to dream of finding a world like this.”

“And now that you have, what’s next?”

He looked at her and smiled. “We start over again—together. This world is a clean slate, and we’re free to write the story of our lives on it.”

His smile made her feel warm all over. He leaned over, and they kissed. In the sky overhead, the golden arc of the planet’s rings traced a wide, unbroken path to the unknown shores just waiting to be explored beyond the horizon.


Author’s Note


FRIEND: I was never fully convinced that James felt he had closure

ME: I see

FRIEND: But I was satisfied with the thought that he would get it sometime after the story ends

he’s still young, so he’s still maturing

even at the close of the novel

ME: yeah

hmm

interesting


This was the online exchange that planted the seed that eventually became this book.

It happened with one of my first readers for Bringing Stella Home, about a year before I published it. At the time, I was still pursuing a traditional book deal, though the self-publishing option was on my radar. The conventional wisdom for writing for a traditional publisher was that your book should be a “stand-alone with series potential,” and that was what I was doing with my Gaia Nova books. Writing a direct sequel to Bringing Stella Home was a bit of a risk, but the idea captivated me so much that I decided to do it anyway.

In particular, I wanted to put James in a position of leadership and responsibility. In Bringing Stella Home, he’s basically on his own. Danica takes him in, but he still does things his own way, which leads them to clash with each other quite often. Part of that is due to James’s personality: he’s a determinator who will stop at nothing to accomplish his goals. But when you have a responsibility over people besides yourself, things become more complicated because you have to weigh in the needs of the group, or the needs of the individuals within the group.

As I outlined the book, one scene in particular stood out to me: the rescue at Zeta Nabat, where he goes back to save the girls who willingly sacrificed themselves for the good of the whole. The ethical dilemmas presented in that scene really fascinated me. Was it right to risk the lives of everyone to go back and rescue those girls? Did it negate their sacrifice? In that particular situation, when some of your people willingly sacrifice themselves for the good of the whole, what would be the right thing to do? Of course, there was no question in my mind what James would do—he would go right back for them, shouting “damn the torpedoes” as he went. But what would be the ramifications of that, and how would he pull himself out of it?

With that scene firmly fixed in my mind, I started with a generic “five years later” scenario after the end of Bringing Stella Home and wrote my way toward the confrontation. The idea for the exodus in the nebula actually came from my original outline for Desert Stars, where I intended Jalil to find another girl and basically join a colony of refugees for a “pioneer trek in space” type story. It made a lot more sense for the people of the Colony to do that, though, especially with the Hameji breathing down their necks.

All of the stuff about the General Assembly of Citizens came at least a year before Occupy Wall Street became a thing. From the beginning, the Colony was supposed to be a perfect techno-democracy, where every decision is put to a general vote, using futuristic technology to expedite the process. When I started seeing General Assemblies with the Occupy movement, I immediately realized that people were going to think I pulled that idea from there. But I came up with it on my own—and really, if you look at the way the two are organized, they aren’t the same thing. Not even close.

There were a few other things I threw into the first draft, some of which didn’t work so well. I knew the story needed a romantic subplot, so I tried to turn the thing with Sara and James into a love triangle by introducing Kyla. That ended rather poorly, and actually nearly destroyed the book. James isn’t the sort of person to be caught up in a love triangle: he’s very direct and very honest, both with himself and with the women in his life. It’s not in his nature to cheat or play games—or to be very indecisive, for that matter. But it took me at least three drafts to figure that out.

I finished the first draft in May 2011. It was abominable. Still, I was a fairly new writer, and was following the advice to not worry how bad a story is, but to finish it and worry about fixing it later. This was a case where the standard advice was wrong—very wrong, in fact. I knew that what I’d written was bad, but I had no idea how bad it was. Turning it into something good would take three more drafts and several years.

The second draft was finished by the end of 2011, at which time I started to realize how bad the story was. Then I went overseas to teach English. The culture shock of life in a developing country threw me into a creative funk, and for a couple of months, I hardly wrote much of anything. Still, the break was good, because it allowed me to approach the book with new eyes. This was how I put it when I started the third draft over the summer:

Basically, I let some of my darlings live, and they grew some extra limbs and started drooling acid without my realizing it. But now, I’ve put enough distance between myself and the first draft that I have no qualms about grabbing the ax and chopping off heads.”

The main thing that needed to get axed was the love triangle. There were also a few extra characters, like Kyla’s siblings, and some characters that needed to be fleshed out more, like the patrician (who never got a first name, by the way—I think he would approve), and James’s parents. Also, James had turned into something of a Mary Sue and needed to be taken down a few notches.

The third draft was where I cut out most of the stuff that was broken, but it wasn’t until the fourth draft that the heart of the story really came out. By then, I’d gotten discouraged with it so many times that almost four years had passed since the genesis of the story idea. This was the story that should have come together at the very beginning, and probably would have if I’d deleted the first draft instead of trying to power through it. By the end, I had something that was pretty good, even if it was a little rough.

By this time, I’d self-published somewhere around twenty books, most of them novellas and short novels. Heart of the Nebula was the fourth book in the Gaia Nova series, after Desert Stars and Stars of Blood and Glory which I’d published in the interim. It took a lot longer to write Heart of the Nebula than I had originally planned, but at the end of the fifth and final draft, I feel that it’s something I can look back and be proud of.

If you enjoyed this book, please share it by posting an honest review! Those really do help in getting the word out and helping people find great books. For updates on my latest projects, be sure to check out my blog at One Thousand and One Parsecs (onelowerlight.com/writing), where you can sign up for my email newsletter for updates on special offers and new releases. You can also find me on Twitter as @onelowerlight.

Thanks so much for all of your support! It’s readers like you who make it possible for me to write them—not only that, but to make a career out of writing them. It’s been a fantastic journey so far, and with the books that I’ll write in the years to come, I hope that it will only get better.

Thanks for reading!


Acknowledgments


There are so many people who helped out with this book, I hardly know where to start! First, thanks to my first readers Mykle Law and Liel Boyce who helped me suss out the story and read some of the early drafts. Thanks also to Kindal Debenham’s writing group for critiquing the first chapter: Kindal and Emily Debenham, Aneeka Richins, Chris Lambson, Ben Hardin, and Megan Hutchins. Thanks to Mykle Law again for reading the penultimate draft, as well as Logan Kearsley and Stephen Dethloff. Josh Leavitt did the copy editing, and Lorenz Hideyoshi Ruwwe did the magnificent cover art. Thanks so much guys!

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).


Heart of the Nebula


BROTHERS IN EXILE


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.


COMRADES IN HOPE


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.


STRANGERS IN FLIGHT


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.


CLICK HERE TO BUY SONS OF THE STARFARERS (OMNIBUS I-III)

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).


Heart of the Nebula



PART I: OUTWORLDER


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.



PART II: FIDELITY


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.


PART III: SACRIFICE


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.



PART IV: HOMEWORLD


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.


CLICK HERE TO BUY STAR WANDERERS: THE JEREMIAH CHRONICLES (OMNIBUS I-IV)

A coming of age sci-fi romance from the author of Desert Stars.


Heart of the Nebula


THE ULTIMATE VOYAGE OF DISCOVERY ENDS WHEN YOU LEARN THE TRUTH ABOUT YOURSELF.


Michael Anderson never thought he would set foot on a world like Earth. Born and raised in a colony of scientists on the farthest edge of the solar system, he only studied planets from afar. But when his parents build mankind's first wormhole and discover a world emitting a mysterious artificial signal, Michael is the only qualified planetologist young enough to travel to the alien star.

He is not alone on this voyage of discovery. Terra, his sole mission partner, is no more an adult than he is. Soon after their arrival, however, she begins acting strangely—as if she's keeping secrets from him. And her darkest secret is one that Michael already knows.

Twenty light-years from the nearest human being, they must learn to work together if they're ever going to survive. And what they discover on the alien planet forces them to re-examine their deepest, most unquestioned beliefs about the universe—and about what it means to be human.


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