Book: Sons of the Starfarers: Omnibus I-III



Sons of the Starfarers: Omnibus I-III

Sons of the Starfarers

Omnibus I-III

by Joe Vasicek


Copyright © 2014 Joseph Vasicek.

All rights reserved.


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.


Editing by Josh Leavitt.

Cover design by Kalen O’Donnell.


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Table of Contents


Copyright Page

Table of Contents


Book I: Brothers in Exile

The Derelict | Rumors of War | Promises Unforgotten | A Slaver’s Bargain | A Patriot’s Plea | Contraband of War | Bonds of Brotherhood


Book II: Comrades in Hope

Premonitions | Hopeful Partings | New Old Friends | Lost in Translation | Comrades in Arms | First Strike | Fractures Emerge | Scattered and Lost | The Reckoning | At Hope’s End


Book III: Strangers in Flight

Cold Awakening | A Mission Lost | A Runaway Found | Strangers Unmasked | Entering the Rift | Deals and Devils | Tokens of Consolation | Wanderers Bewrayed | Belly of the Beast | A Land Far Stranger


Author’s Note | Acknowledgments

This omnibus edition contains the first three books of the SONS OF THE STARFARERS series, which include:


BOOK I: BROTHERS IN EXILE

BOOK II: COMRADES IN HOPE

BOOK III: STRANGERS IN FLIGHT


* * * * *


TO WAKE A LOST GIRL FROM THE ICE, TWO BROTHERS MUST FACE AN EMPIRE


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 in


SONS OF THE STARFARERS

BOOK I: BROTHERS IN EXILE


* * * * *


WAR BROUGHT THEM TOGETHER, BUT ONLY HOPE CAN UNITE THEM


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. Only one hope stands between him and death in


SONS OF THE STARFARERS

BOOK II: COMRADES IN HOPE


* * * * *


FATE HAS BROUGHT THEM ACROSS TIME AND SPACE, BUT WAR WILL DRIVE THEM FARTHER


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 in


SONS OF THE STARFARERS

BOOK III: STRANGERS IN FLIGHT


Book I: Brothers in Exile


The Derelict


Something about the Nova Alnilam system was very wrong. Perhaps it was the silence that greeted Isaac and his brother Aaron as they exited jumpspace near the fifth planet. The deep-blue ice giant shone pale in the crystalline light of its sun, while all their commscans picked up nothing but empty static. For a planet that was supposed to have a mid-sized orbital colony of more than a thousand people, that was highly unusual.

“Alnilam Station,” he said, transmitting across all the major radio bands. “This is the Medea, requesting docking permission. Do you copy?”

Silence. Isaac counted to five and glanced at his younger brother.

“I don’t think they’re picking us up,” he said. “How’s our orbital trajectory?”

“It’s coming, it’s coming,” said Aaron, his eyes practically fused to his display screen. “Just give me a second.” He brushed his unkempt hair out of the way and scratched at the patchy stubble on his chin.

Isaac sat back in his chair and mentally reviewed what they knew about the system. A Class F star on the barely inhabited fringes of the south second quadrant, it lay almost six light-years from the nearest established Outworld settlement. The first colonists had arrived about a hundred and twenty years ago, but the records after that were spotty and inconsistent. An obscure astrographical survey in the Gaian Imperial catalog showed that Nova Alnilam was rich in uranium and other radioactives—which, if true, would make it the perfect third leg in a trade route among the local stars. Few starfarers ever came out this way, though. For all Isaac knew, they were the first people to visit this colony in years.

“There,” said Aaron. “Got it.” The main cockpit holoscreen lit up between them, showing an image of the planet with their current trajectory in green. Around the sphere representing the planet itself, a red ellipse traced a separate orbit.

“What’s that?” Isaac asked.

“The station. Since they aren’t responding to our hails, I figured we ought to calculate our own approach vector.”

Isaac frowned. “I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. We don’t know what else is down there. For all we know, our approach could put us on a collision course with local traffic.”

“What traffic? We’re picking up nothing but radio silence across all bands—for all we know, the station is dead.”

Dead. The suggestion sent chills down the back of Isaac’s neck. He sighed and shook his head.

“If the station were dead, wouldn’t the colonists have set up some sort of distress beacon?”

“What’s the point in setting up a distress beacon if you’re more than two parsecs from the nearest help?”

What if they are dead? Isaac wondered. What if that’s why they haven’t hailed us?

“Something is definitely wrong,” he said softly. “Maybe we should just cut our losses and leave.”

“What? You mean turn around and go back to Nova Minitak?”

“That, or move on to Esperanzia. This isn’t right. We’ve been transmitting on every major frequency, with no response. Something about this system is very wrong, and I don’t want to get involved.”

“Involved in what?” asked Aaron, his face incredulous. “If something is wrong, maybe they need our help. How can we turn around and leave them if they need us?”

We can’t help them if they’re already dead.

Isaac drew in a sharp breath. “It’s been a long, long time since anyone contacted these people. For all we know, there might have been a plague, or a famine. If we board the station, there’s no telling what we might find inside.”

“But there’s no harm in checking it out if we don’t. Come on—we’ve come this far. There’s no sense turning around without at least finding out what happened.”

Maybe, Isaac thought silently. It was a six-week journey to the nearest port, and he hated wasting all that time and fuel for nothing. Besides, maybe they could find out something that would be useful to pass on, something that would help the next starfarer who thought about coming here. Since they were already here, it was the least they could do.

“All right,” he said. “What’s the most efficient trajectory to put us into a parallel orbit?”

“Just a sec—there. Two passes round the planet with three engine burns and an ETA of six hours. Though if we spend only five percent more of our sublight fuel, we could make it four.”

“No,” said Isaac, shaking his head. “We need to conserve as much fuel as we can. Time isn’t critical.”

Aaron groaned and rolled his eyes, but he made no protest. He knew better than to press Isaac over spending their scarce resources, especially this deep into the Outworlds. If they weren’t bound to the same starship, Isaac didn’t know what would become of his brother. The Outworlds were as harsh as they were vast, as the ghostly silent station below them could probably attest.


* * * * *


The pale white sun was setting over the horizon as the Medea made its final approach. Wispy white tendrils raced above the wind-carved lower cloud decks like ethereal ghosts racing each other into the oblivion of night. As Nova Alnilam dropped closer to the horizon, an eerie green light shone on the edge of the upper atmosphere—an alien sunset over a world of toxic ice. Isaac was sure now that he and his brother were the only ones there to witness it. They’d hailed the station constantly throughout their approach, without any response. There was little doubt in his mind that the station was derelict.

“We’re coming up on the station,” he announced, one hand on the flight stick and the other resting on the instrument panel in front of him. “Have you got a visual yet?”

“Yeah, still about fifty klicks out. Coming up fast, though.”

“What can you see?”

Aaron peered at his screen. “Visually, it looks fine. Both station wheels still rotating, no major hull damage that I can see.”

“Are you sure that they’re rotating?”

“Yes. No leaks, no fractures. Infrared shows traces of heat around the windows and exhaust ports, consistent with an internally heated structure. If the station is abandoned, it sure doesn’t look it.”

There’s got to be something else going on here, Isaac thought, his hand on his chin. Something that we aren’t seeing. There was no way the station could have missed them—unless everyone was somehow dead. Even if the station’s long-range transmitters were down, the Medea was close enough now that a simple shortwave could reach them. He checked the receiver again, just to be sure. Nothing but silence.

The blue-green horizon turned a deep shade of turquoise as the sun set behind the giant planetary disk. The clouds below turned from blue to violet and finally to black as the night finally swallowed them. With the planet occluding the system sun, the other stars swiftly began to brighten. Millions of tiny pinpricks of light shone overhead—a host of ageless, silent sentinels in the midst of the eternal void. What had they witnessed here, so many lonely light-years from the settlements of men? Isaac shivered. There were times when the vastness of space made him feel very small and helpless, indeed.

On the dark side of the horizon, where the ocean of stars met the blackness of night, a tiny point of light gradually grew brighter than all the others. It was the station, reflecting the starlight. As they came closer, the man-made structure gradually took shape: two narrow wheels running at cross-purposes to each other around a fat central cylinder with long antennae on either end. Isaac gripped the flight stick a little tighter and rechecked the nav-computer to make sure they were still on course. Down below, a flash of pale blue lightning lit up a tiny patch of the planet’s atmosphere for an instant. Whatever tempest swirled in the clouds below, it preferred to brood in the shadows.

“We’re coming up on the station,” said Aaron. “One klick and dropping.”

“Can you try to contact them as I make the final approach? Be sure to try the shortwave, too. If anyone’s still alive in there, chances are better they’ll have something rigged up on those bands.”

Aaron shrugged, but he went ahead and did it anyway. Isaac kept an eye on the main screen as he made the final maneuvers to put them in a parallel orbit just five hundred meters away.

“So this is Alnilam Station,” he mused as he peered out the forward window. The station’s hull was a dark gray, the beacons at the ends of the antennae flashing a deep red. The starlight was too dim to give anything more than the basic shape of the structure. On the inside of the wheels where the windows should have been, there was a blackness as dark as the night on the planet below.

“I’m picking up something,” said Aaron.

“Is it a transmission?”

“No, it’s something else. Radiation signatures, concentrated mostly at the hub.”

Isaac’s heart fell. “That would be one of the station reactors, probably leaking fuel or coolant.” Proof that no one’s alive in there after all.

“Well, it can’t be that bad, since the wheel engines are still working. And I’m only picking up radiation immediately around the reactors, so it’s not like it’s leaked down to the rim. If anyone’s still alive—”

“They can’t be. If they were, they would have fixed the leak.”

Aaron bristled. “How do you know that? For all we know, the engineers are gone and none of the survivors knows what to do about it.”

“If there are any survivors, why haven’t they hailed us?”

“How should I know? All I know is that it’s possible. You can’t refute that.”

I guess I can’t, Isaac thought. Instead of admitting it, though, he kept silent, peering at the ghostly derelict as if lost in thought.

“We should dock and go in there,” said Aaron. “Peek inside, take a look around. Even if there aren’t any survivors, maybe we can at least find out what happened to them.”

“Are you crazy?” said Isaac, his heart beating a little faster at his brother’s suggestion. “We have no idea what’s in there. For all we know, the place is infected with some sort of disease.”

“So we wear EVA suits and take a quick, sterilizing spacewalk before we come back. No big deal.”

“It’s still a dumb idea. We’re not going.”

Aaron scowled and rolled his eyes. “So what? You just want to turn around and leave? Abandon this place without finding out what happened?”

“That’s right. We know the station is dead, and that’s enough.”

“But we don’t know that,” said Aaron, raising both of his hands. “We don’t know hardly anything. All we know is that no one has answered our transmissions and that there’s a small reactor leak at the hub. Everything else looks fine.”

It does not look fine, Isaac thought to himself. His palms felt clammy, and he was already beginning to regret his decision to come to this system at all.

“Listen,” Aaron continued, “even if there aren’t any survivors, maybe we can find some fuel and supplies to make this trip worthwhile. It’s more than a parsec to the nearest settlement, and we’ve already burned through so much of our supplies that we’ll have to sell half our cargo just to replenish them.”

That much was true. Even with the credit they’d built up around this sector, they’d be dangerously low on fuel if they turned around now. The Medea was a small ship, and it could take them almost a year to make up their expenses if they cut their losses now. Still, the thought of setting foot on the station made Isaac’s skin crawl.

“It isn’t safe,” he muttered. “Whatever happened here, it’s not our problem.”

“But it is our problem,” said Aaron. “We’re involved just by being here. And since we’re already here, we might as well find out what happened to these people so we can get their story out. They deserve that much.”

He’s right about that, Isaac realized. They certainly do.

“Okay, I’ll bring us up to one of the rimside docking nodes so we can go in. But I want you to stick with me, Aaron. Understand? No running off—we do this together.”

“Yeah, yeah. Together. Got it.”

I hope you do, Isaac thought as he stared out the forward window at the derelict station. Down below in the planet’s atmosphere, lightning flashed silently, illuminating the tempest for a single instant before returning the world to darkness.


* * * * *


“Are you sure you want to go in with EVA suits?” Aaron asked as he slipped his legs into the thickly insulated pants. “These things are built for zero gee—inside that station, they’re going to be heavy.

“Just put it on,” said Isaac as he pulled his suit up to his waist and secured the heavy utility belt. With the grayish-brown protective outer layer through the padded insulation and flexichain, the suit weighed more than half as much as either of them. Aaron was right—the suits were built for use in a microgravity environment, and would no doubt prove unwieldy on board the station. The important thing, though, was that they were perfectly sealed and provided enough oxygen to last a good five hours. Whatever they encountered on the other side of that airlock, it would have to get through nearly four centimeters of armor-like clothing, enhanced with durasteel fibers and self-sealing repair gel.

They finished putting on the suits in silence, Isaac in the narrow vestibule just outside the airlock, Aaron in the corridor by the bathroom. Whoever had built the Medea hadn’t designed for it to allow more than one person to suit up at once. Considering how the starship was barely large enough for two to live on it comfortably, that was hardly a surprise.

Isaac fit his arms into the sleeves and secured the clamps on his wrists. He zipped up both sides of the chest flap and fitted the helmet brace around his neck while the magnetic seals on the suit’s outer layer closed over the zippers. It was an older model, so the helmet would have to be secured separately—no fancy retractable gear. The gloves came first, though. Tight enough to squeeze a little but so thick that they made his hands feel more like paws. Lifting his arms put pressure on his chest, simply from the extra weight he had to carry. The inner layers were supposed to wick away body moisture, but he could already feel sweat pooling on his chest and under his armpits.

It’ll be better once I’m used to it, he told himself as he pulled down the dome-like helmet from the upper hook on the vestibule. The microsuction fabric on his gloves helped him to get a firm grip on it, and the slots around his collar helped him guide it in until it was secure.

The moment the helmet clamps sealed with a hiss, Isaac felt as if he’d been cut off into his own private universe. The glass faceplate gave a slightly copper color to everything outside, while the indicators in the corner of his vision lit up softly with his vitals. He took a deep breath of the canned oxygen, and the hiss of the airflow filled his ears.

“Need a little help?” he asked, toggling the external speakers by clicking his right thumb and ring finger twice.

“I’ve got it,” said Aaron, his voice coming through a bit tinny. The pickup on the microphones wasn’t all that great, probably because the designers hadn’t considered them an important feature. After all, there was no sound in space.

“Great. I’ll be waiting for you in the airlock.”

Isaac barely lifted his feet as he shuffled through the heavy durasteel door into the starship’s only airlock. Even so, he could hear the clang of the metal grating against his boots through the fibers of his suit. The greenish-yellow LEDs shone down through thick plastiglass, protection from the harsh vacuum. Unlike the rest of the ship, the walls and ceiling were made of the same durasteel plating as the rest of the hull, designed for exposure to the void.

He stopped and stared at the opposite door. The rhythmic hiss of the airflow mingled with the silent pounding of his heart as he wondered what lay on the other side. The sweat pooling against the back of his neck felt strangely cold. He wished his brother would hurry up.

“All right,” came Aaron’s voice, followed by a short burst of static. The suit’s radio sounded a lot clearer than the external microphone.

“Are you ready?”

“I’m right behind you.”

“Great,” said Isaac. “Let’s get stated.”

A low hiss sounded through the external microphone, as if through a long tunnel. The access panel by the outer door flashed green to show that they were sealed off from the rest of the ship. Isaac pressed his gloved palm against it, and the light flashed yellow. After a ten -second wait, the heavy outer doors opened.

Even though he was secure in his suit, Isaac held his breath. On the other side, a similar durasteel-plated room waited for them. The lights, however, were not working. He activated his headlight and stepped over the threshold onto the derelict station.

“Does the gravity feel a bit heavier on this side?” Aaron asked as he followed him on board.

“Don’t know. We’re still too close to the ship to tell.”

Isaac waited for the access panel to flash green, and when it failed to, he pressed his gloved palm against it anyway. The inner door hissed open.

If the air on the station was any different from the air on the Medea, he couldn’t tell. However, splotches of black mold on the opposite bulkhead told him that they’d been right to suit up. A thin layer of dust coated the floor, and the lights—such as they were—had dimmed so much that they seemed to cast more shadows than light. Isaac stepped through the doorway, and a small cloud of dust rose up around his feet.

“Wow,” Aaron’s voice transmitted over the suit-to-suit radio. “This place is a mess.”

“Step carefully, and stay close. We don’t want to take any unnecessary risks.”

For once, Aaron didn’t object.

Using their headlights for illumination, they walked slowly out into the main rimside corridor. It was almost twenty meters wide, with islands of equipment and doors leading down to the docking nodes. Long, narrow windows ran along the walls and floor. Several of the ceiling lights had already burned out, so that it was difficult to see the curvature of the station. Still, that familiar sense of an inverted horizon was enough to make Isaac feel as if he’d been here before, as if he were shuffling through a perverse dreamscape.

“Is that a computer terminal?” Aaron asked, motioning to a set of display screens set above a kiosk next to the airlock. All but one of them were dead, and even it was flickering.

“If none of these computers are working, I don’t think we can refuel here.”

“Nah, we’ll be fine. If worse comes to worst, we can access the tanks externally. I got a good look at them as we were coming in, and it shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Great,” said Isaac. “Let’s just be sure we fill up with the right stuff. The markings on those tanks aren’t Gaian standard.”

“When was the last time you saw anyone follow imperial standards this deep in the Far Outworlds?”

He had a point. The really worrying thing, though, was that none of the signs or markings were written in a language either of them understood. Lines in blue and green paint ran periodically along the ceiling, but the labels beneath the arrows were written in a blocky script that was completely unreadable. They didn’t look like hazard signs, considering how the arrows seemed to point out directions to somewhere and not away. Still, it was difficult to know for sure.

“Let’s follow the rimside corridor a ways,” said Aaron. “See what we find.”

Are you crazy? Isaac wanted to say. Still, as much as he wanted to get back to the safety of the Medea, he had to admit there’d be little point in coming on board if they didn’t at least take a quick look around.

“All right,” he said, “so long as we stick together.”

“Why? Are you scared?”

Isaac didn’t grace the question with an answer.

They followed the corridor almost a hundred meters from the airlock, until the airlock was lost behind the upward-curving ceiling. The same repeating pattern of docking nodes, computer terminals, and other spaceport fixtures repeated itself with little variation, everything covered in a thin layer of fine dust. Occasionally, a particularly nasty patch of mold showed where condensation or water leakage had gone unmanaged, usually near the ventilator fans. Very few of them were still working.

“It seems a lot like home, doesn’t it?” said Aaron, breaking the eerie stillness of the place. “I mean, aside from … well, you know.”

“This isn’t Megiddo Station.”

“I know that, but you’ve got to admit—I mean, the design is pretty similar.”

Isaac said nothing, preferring to continue their investigations in silence. Aaron didn’t press him.

They found the first body a short while later. It had decayed so much, with the skin stretched tight across the dry old bones, that it almost looked like a bag of discarded waste. Only when they came up to it did the human form become apparent.

“Stars of Earth,” Aaron swore, jumping back. “What is that?”

Isaac crouched and gripped one of the curled up arms as gently as he could with his oversized gloves. The suit did not transmit the sensation of touch, but the blackened skin peeled off like dry paper, the bone snapping off at the elbow joint. In the eerie silence of the station, the crack of the broken bone sounded surprisingly distinct through the external mike.

“What are you doing?”

“Investigating,” Isaac said softly as he laid the bone back in place. The body was curled up in a fetal position, with ribs poking out from the stomach and stringy black hair still hanging from the scalp. It was roughly adult-sized, with the gaunt remains of facial muscles pulled back from two rows of worn, flat teeth. Strangely, there was no sign of clothing—perhaps the colonists had preferred organic fibers over synthetics. Either way, the only indication of the body’s sex was in its bone structure, and Isaac didn’t know enough about that to tell whether it had been a man or a woman.

“Sol, Earth, and Luna, Isaac,” Aaron swore. “Step away from that thing.”

It’s not a thing; it used to be a person, Isaac wanted to say. Instead, he stood up slowly and took a step back.

“I can’t tell how long it’s been since he died, but clearly, it’s been a while. Years, at least.”

“At least,” Aaron agreed. “Stars, it gives me the creeps.”

“What I don’t understand is why he’d come down here to die, instead of finding a nice quiet place further up on the station. Maybe the cause of death was an acute disease of some kind? We’ll have to sterilize these suits before we go back to the Medea.

“Yeah. It was a good idea to wear them.”

But still dumb to board this station in the first place, Isaac thought as he continued down the corridor. Honestly, what had they expected to find here? This station was a tomb—the radio silence was testament enough to that. And even though the body hadn’t bothered him, there was something wrong about the place that seemed to penetrate his EVA suit right through to his skin. He felt as if he were walking on the bottom of an alien world-ocean surrounded in the darkness by ancient ghostly creatures no man had ever seen. Even though the station seemed quiet, it was far from empty.

They found several more bodies clustered around one of the airlocks at a nearby docking node. A single arm with splayed-out fingers ran up against the door. At least half of the dead had been children.

“Stars,” said Aaron. “I’m sure glad we didn’t try to come in through this airlock.”

“Yeah.”

“What do you think they were trying to do?”

Isaac shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“We should go to the upper levels and see what we can find.”

No, we should go back to the Medea and leave this place.

He sighed heavily and shook his head. “Haven’t we seen enough already? Everyone is dead—that much is abundantly clear. We can refuel the ship from the external tanks, so there’s no need to investigate any further.”

“Yeah, but don’t you want to find out what happened to these people? Maybe if we go up, we’ll find some sort of—”

“No.”

Even through the copper-tinted faceplate, Isaac could see his brother’s scowl.

“Come on! Why are you always the one who decides these things?”

“Because I’m the oldest.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

Isaac didn’t answer. Now was not the time to get into another argument about who was in charge and whether Aaron could take care of himself. Stars knew they had far too many of those arguments already.

Aaron took a deep, raspy-sounding breath. “Well, fine. You do what you want down here. I’m going to go check out the upper levels.”

“What? Hey, stop!”

But Isaac was too late. His brother was already heading toward one of the narrow stairwells leading to the upper decks of the station.



“What the hell are you doing? You come back right now!”

“You’re not my captain. I don’t have to do what you tell me.”

“Dammit, Aaron! We’re supposed to stick together!”

“Then come with me. It’s not so bad. If everyone’s dead already, then what’s there to be afraid of?”

Take a look around, you idiot.

Isaac took a deep breath and clenched his fists. “Aaron, please. Think about what you’re doing. This isn’t the time or the place to throw a fit like this. This station isn’t safe. We should go back to the ship and get ready to leave the system.”

“You’re not going to stop me, Isaac. I’m going.”

Isaac’s skin crawled and his stomach flipped as he looked down both ends of the empty corridor. One of the broken display screens flickered in the distance, reminding him of the lightning storm on the cloud-covered world below. With the colonists’ decaying bodies all around him, the place seemed filled with death. More than anything else, he wanted to go back to the Medea and leave this awful place forever.

But he was not going to abandon his brother.

“All right, all right,” he said, masking his fear with indignation. “I’m coming.”


* * * * *


Isaac’s brother was waiting for him at the top of the stairwell when he reached the top. It was slow going in the heavy EVA suit, but he managed the climb without losing his breath for more than a few seconds.

“Well, here we are, ‘captain,’” Aaron said as he cleared the final step. “Where are we going next?”

Isaac paused, unsure where to go. The lights were even dimmer here, the corridor much narrower. A number of doors branched off on either side, but most of them were closed and the electronics were clearly failing.

“I don’t know. The Station Master’s offices, I guess.”

“Got any idea where they are?”

The scowl was almost audible in his brother’s voice.

“Let’s just go.”

They set off down the windowless corridor, their helmet lights illuminating the way. Little flecks of dust lit up like tiny stars as they walked by, suspended peacefully in the air until the wind from the brothers’ passing wrenched them back into the darkness. With the closeness of the walls, though, Isaac felt a little more at ease.

Aaron was right—this place was designed a lot like their home station back in Delta Oriana. He almost expected to see icons on the lintels of the doors they passed, or catch the smell of incense wafting from one of the local deck churches. Megiddo Station hadn’t been much bigger than Alnilam Station, and it was only a few light-years closer to the Coreward Stars. The Oriana Star Cluster was still squarely in the Outworlds, but it was settled thickly enough that none of the systems was completely isolated from the others.

Not that that had saved any of the ones who had stayed behind.

“I wonder if these arrows on the ceiling mean anything,” Aaron mused. “The green ones go back to the stairs, but the blue ones seem to lead somewhere else.”

Isaac shrugged. “So long as we don’t get lost.” Since the station was small enough that they could walk the whole length of the rimside corridor in less than an hour, there wasn’t much danger of that. Probably.

The corridor came to an end at a maintenance closet. The door was open, giving them a view of the equipment lockers and control panels for the stationwide systems. Surprisingly, the computer terminal seemed to be in pretty good shape.

“I wonder if we can access the station records from here,” Isaac mused. He stepped inside, checking quickly to see if there were any dead or decomposing bodies. Satisfied that there weren’t, he sat down at the terminal and activated it. The screen came to life, displaying what appeared to be some sort of boot cycle.

“I’ll take a quick look around some of these other rooms,” Aaron said. “If this place is anything like Megiddo Station, the station master’s office shouldn’t be far.”

Isaac hesitated, the dusty darkness of the maintenance room suddenly much more ominous. The external mike buzzed—probably from the ventilation shaft out in the corridor—but it could just as easily have been from something less innocuous.

“We’ve got to stick together, Aaron. No wandering off.”

“I know, but—look, I’ll stay in range of the suit-to-suit radios and talk with you just to let you know what I’m doing. Is that all right?”

Isaac bit his lip. The computer finished booting and showed a startup menu. The prompt was obviously for languages, since one of the labels was in Gaian.

“All right. I’ll stay here, but be sure to tell me where you’re going and what you see.”

“Okay,” said Aaron. He patted him on the arm and left.

Language: Gaian, Isaac selected on the startup screen. Out in the corridor, the sound of his brother’s heavy footprints grew softer and softer, mingling with the buzz of the ambient noise from the few working ventilators.

“I’m turning a corner,” said Aaron, his voice as clear as if he were standing just a few feet away. “If this is like Megiddo, then—yep, the corridor continues on the other side of this maintenance room. Following the blue arrows. Passing one door, two doors …”

The display screen flickered, then showed a new menu with dozens of option sets. Most of them had labels like SECURITY DECK 2A and brought up a password field when Isaac tried to select them. At the top, though, he found an icon labeled PUBLIC ACCESS. He selected it, and a new menu opened up, this one not unlike the main screen on the Medea.

“… four doors. Arrows end here. It looks like someone left it open. Stepping inside …”

Isaac scrolled down to where the ship’s log would usually be. Of course, there wasn’t one for the station, but there was a document file labeled TO WHOEVER COMES. He selected it.

“… It’s the station master’s office, all right. There’s an official looking desk with its own terminal and dual displays. There’s a wallscreen, too, but it’s dead, with a crack down the center.”

To whoever comes, the document read. I am write this station master Nova Alnilam. Datestamp 1.8.1192, New Pleiades reckoning. We are very tsavadet, food medical supplies are tvilo adamansvi since two year, no can we contact outside star …

Damn Outworld language databases, Isaac thought to himself. Obviously, the document had been written in the colonist’s native language and translated to Gaian by some sort of automated translator. Either this colony had been isolated for a lot longer than anyone had realized, or the person who wrote this document had been in too much of a hurry to do a proper job at it.

“Looks like there’s a side room. Door is open, just like the main one. There’s a lot more dust here for some reason, not sure why. Stepping inside right now, and—holy shit!”

Isaac’s blood ran cold.

“Aaron? Aaron, what do you see?”

“You’ve got to come see this, Isaac. You’ve got to come right now.

Isaac leaped to his feet and hurried out the door as fast as his heavy EVA suit would allow.


* * * * *


“I’m here,” Isaac said, painting as he stepped into the station master’s office.

“This way,” said Aaron, waving him urgently into a side room. Isaac entered the doorway and froze.

A mostly decayed body lay curled up beside a small cylindrical storage tank in the middle of the floor. The body itself wasn’t much different from any of the others, but the tank was something else entirely. It was built like a coffin, with the upward-facing part made almost entirely of glass. And inside of that glass was the perfectly preserved body of a beautiful young woman.

Chills ran down the back of Isaac’s neck as he stared at her. In this mausoleum, she stood out like a brilliant young star in the midst of a dense, obscuring cloud of gas and dust. She was a little shorter than Aaron and probably not much older, with long black hair and dark olive skin. Her face was round, with dark eyebrows, a flat nose, and full lips. As with anyone under cryo, she was naked, though she had a full-body henna tattoo that almost made her look otherwise. It ran from her wrists and arms across her chest and down past her navel, which was obviously the center of the design. The dark brown ink seemed to form a set of intricate parallel fractals, reflected across an axis that ran down the center of her body. The fine attention to detail was almost religious in its precision.

“She’s gorgeous,” said Aaron. “Have you ever seen anything like her?”

“No,” Isaac admitted. He ran his gloved fingers over the glass as if to reach out to her. The henna designs accentuated the natural curves of her body, emphasizing every feature while imbuing her with a sense of poise and dignity. Instead of feeling like a voyeur for staring at her, Isaac felt as if he stood before a shrine.

“Do you think she’s still alive?”

“If she is, she’s obviously frozen in cryo. I don’t see any controls, though, so I’m not sure how we’d go about waking her.”

“Wake her? Stars of Earth—you think we really can?”

Why else would they have put her in stasis? No doubt the colonists had hoped to save the girl’s life. The fact that she was tucked away here instead of in a more prominent place on the station probably meant that she was the only survivor—clearly, someone had kept the existence of the cryotank a secret right to the very end.

He took a moment to examine the cryotank itself. The metal casing was discolored in places, the welds and soldering surprisingly crude. It had no external controls, and the systems seemed too crude to be designed for thawing as well as freezing. Clearly, the tank had been constructed by hand—or if the parts had been fabricated from some half-forgotten schematic, they’d been assembled by someone who barely understood how it worked. It was possible that the girl hadn’t even survived the cryofreeze.

“What do you think?” said Aaron, breaking the silence that had inadvertently fallen between them.

“The design for the cryotank is crude. I don’t think we can thaw her with any of the equipment here.”

“We’ve got to take her with us, then, and find someone who can.”

Isaac frowned. Something about that idea made his stomach turn.

“We’ve already gone further here than we ever should have,” he said. “Besides, for all we know, she’s already dead.”

“Dead? What are you talking about, man? If there’s even a chance that she’s alive, we should do all we can to save her.”

He’s right, Isaac thought to himself. Still, something held him back: a sense of foreboding that screamed at him to go back to the Medea and forget that they’d ever come to this place.

“Someone else will come eventually. If she’s still alive, she’s frozen in stasis, so it won’t matter how long it takes for someone else to find her.”

“And what if those people are slavers?” Aaron asked. “You really want to take that chance—to have that on your conscience?”

“No,” Isaac admitted.

“Then let’s bring her out. There’s a freight airlock not too far from here—it won’t be difficult to load her up with the rest of the cargo.”

“Do we have the space, though? Our hold is still full from Nova Minitak.”

“If we don’t, we’ll just dump enough to make room. It won’t be much, and saving this girl is a lot more important than our next trade anyway. Besides, we’ve built up enough credit in this sector that the loss shouldn’t be a problem.”

Isaac nodded slowly and took a deep breath. “Right. I’ll get a maglift from the maintenance room, then.”

“No need—she’s already loaded up on one. All we’ve got to do is take her out.”

Right again, he thought, checking the underside of the cryotank. They really did want someone to take her. It was as if the girl was the last hope of a long-forgotten people, a precious artifact lost across space and time. How long had she lain here, waiting to be brought back to the realm of the living? He traced the intricate henna patterns with his eyes and wondered why she’d had them done. Perhaps someday he’d be able to ask her.

That certainly wasn’t the only question about this place that begged for answers, though. Not by all the hidden stars of Earth.


Rumors of War


“Greetings Medea,” came the voice over the radio, cackling a little from the long distance. “Your signal we have. Trajectory good. Flight plans we transmit.”

“Copy, orbital control,” said Isaac. “Maintaining course. We look forward to seeing you on station.”

“Is good. Welcome to Esperanzia.”

Isaac ended the transmission while his brother leaned back and rested an arm behind his head. “I take it they’re sending us the flight plans?”

“That’s right,” said Isaac. His brother’s Gaian was spotty, and the creole in the south second quadrant was nothing like the dialects back home in the Oriana Cluster. Isaac still had trouble from time to time, though Gaian was more common toward the New Pleiades. The empire had a lot more interest in maintaining trade ties with that region of the Outworlds.

The orange-yellow sun shone dimly through the Medea’s forward cockpit window, even without the autotint turned on. The station to which they were bound was located at the trailing Lagrange point of the eighth planet, a major gas giant with thousands of asteroids in tow. Further in toward the habitable zone of the system, a rocky super-Earth boasted a thick atmosphere of mostly carbon dioxide and water vapor, but the surface was rocky and lifeless, though a complex alien ecosystem thrived in the higher altitudes. Most of the system’s colonists made their home on floating platforms, but Isaac had never seen them in person. The asteroid regions were much richer in valuable resources. For that reason, most of Esperanzia’s interstellar trade went through Alahambara Station at the eighth planet.

“Sure is damn good to hear another voice on the radio,” Aaron muttered. “It feels like we’ve been followed by ghosts ever since Nova Alnilam. Don’t you think?”

“Yeah,” Isaac agreed. He knew exactly what his brother was talking about—he’d felt it, too.

“Well, hopefully that’ll change soon. You want to check out Elienta this time? I’ll bet we can find a hauling company willing to outsource a load.”

“I don’t know. It depends how much we can get for our Minitakan grain.”

“I’ll bet we can sell it for more in the inner system than at Alahambara. Besides, there’s more to starfaring than trade routes and interstellar economics. You’ve got to live a little—meet new people and see the sights. When was the last time you had a girl waiting for you?”

Isaac chuckled. “You mean besides the girl we’ve got in cryo in our hold? She’s waiting, wouldn’t you say?”

“Believe me, I haven’t forgotten.”

An indicator at Isaac’s control panel blinked, cutting the conversation short.

“Looks like they just transmitted those flight plans. Plug them into the nav-computer and let’s be out of here.”

“Right,” said Aaron, leaning forward. “But Isaac, you really think they can revive her?”

“If they can’t, I’m sure they can tell us where to find someone who can. You know what they say: The Outworlds may be vast, but it’s a small universe outside the Coreward Stars.”

“Yeah. A small universe.”

Small enough for two boys from Delta Oriana to make it out this far, Isaac thought. As for the people of Nova Alnilam, perhaps the vastness had been too much for them.


* * * * *


“Isaac! Aaron! It’s so good to see you. Come here!”

The short, rotund man with a black beard and long, stringy hair embraced each of them in turn, kissing them on the cheek. Isaac returned the greeting warmly. Even though it had only been a few months since they’d seen each other, the sight of a familiar face had a profound effect on him, especially after the horrors of their last voyage.

“Hello, Mathusael,” said Aaron, speaking in Deltan. “It sure is good to see you again.”

“What’s the matter, boys? You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Maybe we have,” Isaac muttered. “Maybe we have.”

A cloud fell across Mathusael’s face, and he squinted his beady eyes at them. “Well, let’s get some refreshments then—my treat. You can tell me all about it over a good stiff round of tonberry cocktails.”

He led them through the drab, utilitarian corridors of Alahambara Station’s tiny spaceport, past the loading docks for the sublight freighters and the bustling markets that had sprung up like mold in the unfrequented passageways. Asteroid miners wandered in groups of two and three, their faces haggard and their bodies gaunt from long exposure to microgravity. No doubt they were looking for some of the station’s overworked prostitutes or some other form of entertainment to make the most of their time off. He accidently bumped shoulders with one of them and nearly choked from the stench of alcohol on his breath.

We’d better be careful to keep the girl a secret, Isaac thought to himself. Places like this weren’t safe for young women, especially ones without a home.

“How’s Esperanzia treating you?” Aaron asked, his eyes wandering as they passed a crowded bar.

“Not bad,” said Mathusael. “Not bad at all. My wife’s expecting another child—our fourth. Found out she was pregnant just a month after my last leave, so the chances are pretty good it’s mine.” He chuckled good-naturedly.

“How often do you see her?” Isaac asked.

“About six months out of every two standard years. It isn’t cheap getting passage sunward, what with all the freight our boys are hauling these days. They’re expanding down on Elienta and need all the raw material they can get. Turning the planet into a proper homeworld.”

He turned down a narrow side passage and palmed the first door. It hissed open, revealing a small room that was bare except for a tiny kitchenette and a mattress in the corner. Mathusael ushered them in and pulled out three woven mats from one of the wall compartments. After spreading them out on the bare tile floor, he took out a folding table and set it down in the center of the room. Isaac and Aaron took their seats and waited as Mathusael went into the kitchenette.

“How would you like your drinks?” he asked.

“I’ll take mine virgin,” said Isaac.

“Make mine thick and fiery,” said Aaron. “It’s been too long since I had a good Deltan beverage.”

Mathusael chuckled, while Isaac sighed. Well, at least they weren’t anywhere Aaron could make a fool of himself. At stations like this, Isaac sometimes wondered if it wouldn’t be better to keep his brother on a leash.

“Have you heard anything from the homeworld?” he asked.

“Actually, yes,” said Mathusael as the food synthesizer began to hum. “A starfarer by the name of Samson came through not long ago. Said he met a friend at Alpha Oriana who had just come off a trade run to Megiddo Station.”

“Really?” said Aaron, perking up at once. “What did he say? What’s the news?”

The look on Mathusael’s face said more than words ever could. In spite of the inevitable, Isaac felt his stomach sink.

“Not good, I’m afraid. By now, the famine’s no doubt run its course.”

Aaron’s face reddened, and he clenched his fists. “How do you know that? They’ve been saying that for years. Even before our family left, people were saying it was the end, that everyone was doomed. How do you know it’s true?”

“Aaron, please—”

“No, I mean it. How do we know what happened to them? For all we know, the Thetans finally came through and helped them, or one of the other neighboring systems. What’s that we always say about it being a small universe or whatever? And yet everyone just assumes that they’re all—they’re all—”

Isaac put a hand on his brother’s shoulder. A moment of silence fell over all three of them as Aaron quietly broke down. His eyes red, his lip quivering, he took a deep breath and buried his face in his hands.

“At least our family got away before the worst happened,” Isaac said softly. “Father, mother, Mariya—they’re safe at Alpha Oriana right now.”

“I wouldn’t speak so soon,” said Mathusael. He put their glasses on a tray and carried it over, setting it carefully down on the table before them.

Isaac frowned. “What do you mean?”

Their old friend sighed and shook his shaggy head. “Nothing but bad news coming out of the Oriana Cluster, I’m afraid. I’ve never known a more bigoted people. That’s why I came out here, where the Outworlds are still free of petty planetism. Even if I have to spend more than a year slaving away at Alahambara just to see my wife for a few months, it’s better than the life I’d have had back there.”

He leaned forward and took his glass of the thick white juice, lifting it in the air for a toast. Aaron quietly took his, and Isaac did the same. The clinking of their glasses seemed to almost resonate through the cozy little room.

“To the hidden stars of Earth,” said Mathusael. “May the God of our fathers forever watch over us, strangers wandering far from our celestial home.”

The news must be really bad, Isaac thought as he took a sip of the pungent cocktail. Mathusael had never been particularly religious, even when they were all still living on Megiddo Station. Growing up, Isaac had always known him as the shaggy-haired bachelor that everyone always whispered about. Their mothers had been close friends, but Mathusael had evaded every attempt to marry him off. When he finally left on a passing starship in his early thirties, Isaac had always assumed it was because he’d gotten fed up with the emphasis on faith and family life at home. Perhaps there’d been some truth in that, but clearly he’d held onto some shred of spirituality to get him through the hard times.

Which made it all the more troubling to see him invoke that spirituality now.

“So what’s going on back home?” Isaac asked.

“Bad news. Very bad news. The Gaian Imperials sent a full battle group out there, and are in the process of annexing Alpha Oriana to the empire.”

“So?” said Aaron. “What’s so bad about that?”

“I’ll tell you what’s bad about it,” Mathusael said, swinging his heavy frame around to face him. “The Gaians just got through with one of the worst interstellar wars of their history. Rogue AIs, vector viruses, colonies dropped from orbit—it was horrific. And now that it’s over, rumor has it that they’ve set their sights on the Outworlds.”

Isaac frowned. “What do you mean, ‘set their sights on the Outworlds’?”

“I mean they’re looking to expand the empire, push the boundaries as far into the Outworlds as they can. What’s happening in the Oriana Cluster is just the beginning. The real prize is the New Pleiades, here in the south second quadrant. Just you wait—before long, their fleets will be headed our way.”

“That’s—that’s horrible,” said Aaron, his face paling. “Can’t we do something to stop it? Like, warn somebody?”

Mathusael snorted. “You think the outworlders will pull together to unite against a common enemy? Fat chance of that. If the Thetans and the Alphans wouldn’t do a thing—a damn thing—to save our people from the famine, how do you expect them to unite against the strongest interstellar military force the galaxy has ever seen?” Mathusael sighed and shook his head. “I don’t know, boys. Maybe the people of the New Pleiades have the will to stand up to this threat, but the rest of us …”

“Who said anything about war?” Isaac asked. “Perhaps this can be resolved peacefully. Surely the Gaians must be tired of fighting.”

“If you think they’re bringing out their armies and navies to make peace, you’re fooling yourself,” said Mathusael. “Our traditions, our way of life—it’s all anathema to them. Once they’ve conquered us, they’ll annex us to their empire and make the Outworlds no different than the Coreward Stars. Are you ready to spend your whole life living under a planetary dome? To have your fathers’ starship taken from you and turned into scrap metal? Right now, we take most of our freedoms for granted, but that won’t last much longer.”

“Oh, come on,” said Isaac. “They can’t be that bad. And besides, who could possibly tame the Outworlds?”

Mathusael drained his glass and set it down forcefully on the tray. “You’re right, of course. No one can tame the Outworlds. But the Gaians can push us off of every arable world and out of every habitable system. When there’s nothing left but ice and empty stars, where are we supposed to go? Further out into the vastness, until we’ve stretched ourselves into irrelevance?”

Stretched ourselves like the people of Nova Alnilam, Isaac thought, memories of dried skin and brittle bones coming readily to his mind. We can’t keep venturing into the void forever. Not without each other.

“How do you know all this?” he asked. “Who made you an expert about the empire?”

“Myself, of course,” said Mathusael. “When I left Delta Oriana, I headed straight for the Coreward Stars. Spent five standard years out there, learning things that most outworlders never even hear about. For example, did you know that the Temple of a Thousand Suns no longer houses the archives of Holy Earth? It’s true—the ancient data disks stopped working hundreds of years ago.”

“What does any of that have to do with us?”

“Absolutely nothing. But I’ll tell you this: Most of us outworlders don’t have the faintest idea what the Gaians are truly up to. It’s like a gamma ray burst just went off on the other side of the galaxy—all of us are dead, but none of us knows it yet. Those Alphans probably think that the Gaians see their system as another trophy, to rule in name only. Well, they’re in for a violent awakening.”

Aaron glanced over at Isaac, his eyes wide. “We need to go back,” he said. “Warn Mom and Dad to get out before it’s too late.”

“It’s already too late,” said Mathusael. “By now, the Gaians no doubt have Alpha Oriana firmly within their grasp. Go there, and you’ll never come back to the Outworlds again.”

Goosebumps pricked up across Isaac’s arms in spite of his skepticism. The passion was so thick in Mathusael’s voice that it was getting harder and harder not to believe him.

“How did you get back here?” he asked.

“Oh, I left the Coreward Stars long before the wars were finished. The frontiers of the empire weren’t patrolled nearly as much as they are today. Slipped out with a band of smugglers and ended up here at Esperanzia. But I got lucky. I could never do it again now.”

He’s exaggerating, Isaac decided. There’s no way things could be that bad. The line between the Outworlds and the Coreward Stars had always been fuzzy. Trade ties were the force that kept them in orbit. Without it, they might as well be as isolated as Nova Alnilam. There was no way the empire would cut themselves off like that.

Though, come to think of it, he and Aaron had spent the better part of the last eighteen months wandering the Far Outworlds. A lot could have changed in that time.

“Listen,” he said. “Let’s not get too upset over this. We actually came to see you for a reason.”

“Oh?” said Mathusael, raising an eyebrow. “Not just to enjoy my company?”

“Well, that too, of course. But there’s something we were hoping you could help us with—something we’d rather keep a secret.”

“And what might that be?”

Isaac took a sip of his drink while his brother finished his. “Do you know anything about the Nova Alnilam system? It’s one of the stars on the edge of the Far Outworlds. The catalogue says it was colonized a few generations ago, but they haven’t really been in contact with anyone else for some time.”

“I’m familiar with it,” said Mathusael. “Haven’t talked with anyone who’s been there, but I know where it sits on a starmap.”

“Well, we just got back from there, and the place is dead. Absolutely dead. We jumped in to radio silence, found the station lifeless and derelict. We docked and boarded, and found nothing but dead old bones.”

Mathusael whistled. “That’s tough, man. No wonder you guys look like you’ve both seen ghosts.”

“Yeah, but that isn’t half of it,” said Aaron, interjecting with the enthusiasm of someone who’s had a little too much to drink. “We found a girl there, the most beautiful girl you’ll ever see!”

“A girl? You mean, her bones?”

“No,” said Isaac. “She was frozen in cryo. We’re not sure if she’s alive or not, but—”

“Can you thaw her?” asked Aaron. He took Mathusael by the arm and stared straight at him. “Can you wake her up so we can find out who she is?”

Isaac leaned forward to pry them apart, but Mathusael brushed off Aaron’s grip before he could intervene. “I’ll do my best,” he reassured them. “I can’t promise anything, of course, but if you’ll let me take a look at her, I’ll see what I can do.”

“Right,” said Isaac, resisting the urge to elbow his brother in the side. “Of course, we’d rather keep things a bit hush-hush, not let anyone else know.”

Mathusael laughed. “What, you think that the station authorities are going to treat her like contraband?”

“We just don’t want any trouble.”

“Of course, of course,” he said absent-mindedly. “Not that these asteroid miners are likely to give you any trouble. Most of them are just lost little boys pretending to be men.”

“Kinda like me, huh?” said Aaron, looking intently at Isaac with a tipsy smile. “Isn’t that right, Isaac? Isn’t that what you think of me?”

Definitely the leash next time, Isaac thought as he glared right back.




* * * * *


Fortunately, Aaron didn’t make too much of a scene on the way back to the Medea. Even if he had, they passed enough drunks that it hardly would have mattered much anyway. According to Mathusael, two major asteroid hauling missions had just come in, so the station was a bit rowdier than usual. All of that was on the upper decks, though. Down in the offloading bays for interstellar starships, things were fairly quiet.

“So I went into that room,” Aaron told Mathusael, swaying a little as he walked. “And that’s when I saw her. The most gorgeous girl I think I’ve ever—”

“That’s enough,” said Isaac. He palmed open the door to the offloading bay and ushered them in.

The bay was fairly spacious, with a large magnetic claw hanging from the ceiling and an opening about four square meters in the floor for the loading platform. Since they were docked, the platform was raised, with a control panel in the far right corner surrounded by a protective railing. They’d unloaded most of their cargo already, which stood against the walls in large blue crates. A series of caged lights along the ceiling provided illumination.

“So anyway,” said Aaron, steadying himself on the railing as they stepped down onto the loading platform. “I walked into this room, see, and I found this cryotank with the girl in it. Thought she was a ghost at first—freaked me the hell out. Isaac came running, of course, and he was just as shocked as I was.”

“Well, not quite,” said Isaac as he activated the lift. The platform groaned as it began to descend through the freight airlock back into the cargo hold of the Medea.

“Oh, don’t you try to deny it. He was all ‘we shouldn’t take her, we shouldn’t get involved,’ and I was all ‘what, you want to let the slavers get to her?’”

“Too many slavers in these parts,” Mathusael muttered. He sighed and shook his head, while above them, the bay doors for the station slowly slid shut. “I wish I could say Esperanzia was free of them, but the system is too lawless.”

“Well, we aren’t selling her,” said Isaac. I’ll be damned before I sell a lost girl like that as a slave.

Mathusael nodded in approval. “Good. I’m glad you boys still have some moral sense about you. Far too many starfarers lose sight of what’s right and wrong when they’re out alone in the dark of space.”

“Yeah, well, if Isaac ever tries something, he’ll know that I can see him, and if I ever try something, I’ll know that he’ll kick me off the ship.”

That isn’t true, Isaac wanted to say. I’d never kick you off. Since Aaron was still a bit tipsy, though, there wasn’t any sense in arguing. Besides, he didn’t want to start another argument around Mathusael.

The groan of the machinery dropped in pitch, and the platform gradually came to a stop in the center of the Medea’s hold. When the lift was fully retracted, Isaac powered down the controls and stepped around the rails onto the crisscrossed metal grating of the floor. Aaron stepped down next, almost losing his balance but recovering quickly. Mathusael followed close behind them.

“Here she is,” said Isaac, leading him to a small alcove in the corner with an ad-hoc partition blocking it from view. He pulled back an EVA tarp made of reflective foil that they’d used to shield her from cosmic rays and let Mathusael take a closer look.

“Interesting,” Mathusael muttered, stroking his chin as he peered in at the girl. Isaac did as well, just to make sure that nothing had changed about her. They didn’t have access to the cargo hold mid-voyage unless they went outside the ship in EVA suits. She looked exactly as she had on the derelict station, except that the lights in the hold gave them an even clearer view of her. The henna tattoos accentuated the curvature of her hips, drawing Isaac’s gaze to the cleft between her legs. He bit his lip and tried not to blush.

“Stars, she’s practically a goddess,” said Aaron. “And those tattoos—what do you think they mean?”

“I don’t have a clue,” Mathusael said absentmindedly as he crouched to examine the cryotank. He ran his hand over it, fingering the crude rivets and weld joints. “Is there a control panel here somewhere?”

“Not that we could find,” said Isaac. “What do you think?”

“It looks pretty crude, like something hacked together from spare parts. Still, it seems functional enough. From what I can tell, the girl is frozen in perfect stasis.”

“How can you tell?” Aaron asked.

Mathusael rose up and pointed at the glass. “The uniform color of her skin, mostly. If the tank had failed, she’d be breaking out in splotches as parts of her body warmed up more than others. Also, the inside of the glass hasn’t fogged up or anything—that’s usually the first indication of a crack somewhere.”

Isaac peered through the glass at the girl. She looked so peaceful, with her eyes closed and her hair flowing smoothly around her shoulders. Even though she was naked, she didn’t seem uncomfortable or self-conscious about it at all. In fact, she seemed to radiate an air of confidence that defied the fact that she was powerless and exposed. He’d missed that subtle nuance at Alnilam Station.

“Well, that’s interesting,” said Mathusael.

Isaac blinked. “What?”

“This down here. See the grooves around the front of the tank?”

Isaac and Aaron both peered where Mathusael was pointing. At the front part of the tank, near the girl’s head, a circular channel was inlaid just around the lip, like a groove for a lid. Circular holes about two fingers wide were spaced at periodic intervals just on the inside of the channel. Aaron poked at one, but he couldn’t get in any further than his first finger joint.

“Yeah,” he said. “What about ‘em?”

“Those grooves are for transferring the subject to a mass thawing unit without altering the environment within the tank. I can’t tell for sure, but it looks to be built to standard Gaian specifications.”

“What are you talking about? We found her in the Far Outworlds.”

“I know,” said Mathusael. “And obviously, the tank itself wasn’t made by the Imperials; otherwise the quality of the engineering would be much better. But those grooves … I’d bet just about anything that they’re Gaian.”

“So what does this mean?” Isaac asked.

Mathusael stroked his chin. “Well, it means a couple of things. The people who froze her probably had access to the knowledge for building this sort of machinery, but lacked the tools or resources to build a fully functioning cryotank. Instead, they took what they knew about Gaian Imperial design and built a tank that would be compatible, figuring that whoever found her would have better access to the thawing equipment than them.”

“Access to what?” asked Aaron. “Can’t we just thaw her ourselves?”

“The way this cryotank is designed, probably not. This is just a holding tank, to keep her in stasis until another machine can thaw her.”

So they did plan for someone to discover her, Isaac thought to himself. They did everything they could for her to be safely rescued and revived.

“What sort of machine do we need for that?” he asked.

“A mass cryothaw device. You can find them on most Imperial military transports, as well as some of the larger civilian craft. Having a separate machine for freezing and thawing makes it more efficient to handle, say, a thousand people at a go. Here in the Outworlds, we don’t typically do that since it’s only ever a handful of people going into cryo, but back in the Coreward Stars, they have much larger populations to manage.”

“How did they freeze her, then? Do you think they had a cryothaw device on the station?”

“I doubt it. Freezing is easy—thawing is the hard part. My guess is that they put all their energy into building a device that would freeze the girl and put her into stasis, and leave the thawing to someone else.”

“So how do we thaw her?” said Aaron. “Where do we have to go?”

“That’s just the thing,” said Mathusael, folding his arms. “These machines are too complex for any of us to build. You’ll have to find someone who has one, probably in the Coreward Stars—that, or find a Gaian battle cruiser with a friendly captain. Good luck with that.”

Aaron’s face fell, and Isaac scrunched his eyebrows in thought. “Are you sure? We found her in the Far Outworlds—surely they wouldn’t have built something that would require us to take her more than a few parsecs.”

“They didn’t have much of a choice. You can’t transfer a person in stasis without a very specific machine that no one in the Outworlds has.”

“No one?” said Aaron. “Come on. I don’t believe that.”

“The New Pleiades,” said Isaac, his heart skipping a beat. “Weren’t they originally settled by huge Gaian colony ships? I heard that some of them carried more than a thousand people, most of them frozen in cryo until the first group could establish enough of a foothold.”

Mathusael shrugged. “Maybe. It’s been a few generations, but you might still find some of the equipment from those old colony missions. If you do, chances are good that it’ll still be in working condition. The Gaians generally build that stuff to last.”

“We’ve got to do it, then,” said Aaron, practically radiating with excitement. “If any of those machines still exist, we’ve got to find one and use it to thaw her.”

“If we can, that is,” said Isaac. “If we can’t, well, maybe we can find someone who—”

“No way,” said his brother, his face suddenly grave. “We’re the ones who found her, and we’ve got to be the ones who rescue her. Do you know anybody at the New Pleiades you’d trust with this girl? Yeah, neither do I.”

Isaac frowned. If it turns out we can’t help her, there’s no sense holding onto her, he thought about saying. The intensity of Aaron’s expression told him that would only bait him into another fight, though, and he didn’t want one of those—not while they were in port.

“I think it’s a good idea to take her to the New Pleiades,” said Mathusael. “They’ll be able to help you out a lot more than I will.”

“So there isn’t a mass cryothaw device anywhere in Esperanzia?”

“I’m afraid not. The New Pleiades are probably your best shot.”

“Then let’s go,” said Aaron, perking up again. “What are we waiting for?”

I just know we’re going to get a couple light-years out of Esperanzia and you’ll be wishing we were back.

“First things first,” said Isaac. “We’ve got to sell our cargo and pick up a new load. Do you have any idea what sorts of goods the Pleiadians deal in?”

Mathusael shrugged. “Beats me—I’ve never been there. But there’s plenty of other starfarers in the station cantina who have. Strike up a conversation, buy someone a drink, and I’m sure you’ll come up with something.”

“Yeah!” said Aaron. “You finish up with the ship, and I’ll go hang out in the cantina and see what I can find.”

“Don’t worry,” said Mathusael. “I’ll go with him.” He gave Isaac a disarming wink.

“Well, okay,” he said, still a little uneasy. Giving Aaron a little time to decompress probably wasn’t a bad idea—it would be good to give him some space. Once they left port again, it would be just the two of them and the Medea.

Without Mathusael there to make sure he didn’t get into trouble, though, the answer would almost certainly have been ‘no.’


Promises Unforgotten


The station was full of death. Isaac could smell it, even though he breathed from the oxygen tank in his EVA suit. The glass faceplate wasn’t enough to shield him from the vileness of the stench, and the headlight on his helmet wasn’t bright enough to pierce the awful darkness. He coughed, but the sound was muffled, traveling no further than his suit.

Aaron was here, somewhere in the darkness. That knowledge was as clear and sharp as a distress beacon in the midst of the starry void. Isaac knew that if he left, his brother would be lost. His palms felt clammy and the sweat on the back of his neck was cold, but he forced himself to press onward, navigating the maze of broken machinery and empty corridors. He passed several bodies but didn’t dare look at them, knowing that if he did the ghosts trapped within them would haunt him forever. His brother was not a skeleton—his brother was alive. Somewhere. That was the hope, at least.

“Aaron?” he said. Though his external speakers carried the sound of his voice, it only came through as a weak feedback echo picked up by the microphone. The smallness of the sound made the derelict station feel even more vast and empty than before.

He took another step, but his feet felt weighted down, as if he were swimming through syrup. Only through sheer force of will was he able to break through and keep moving. If he stopped, he knew he would never be able to move his legs again. He felt as if a weight were growing on his chest, pressing him down, but by exerting all his strength, he managed to force his way through it and put one foot in front of the other.

“Aaron!” he called again, a tinge of desperation in his voice. “Aaron, where are you?”

A half-opened doorway lay in front of him. It looked strangely familiar, though he couldn’t quite place it at first. Then it hit him—the cryotank. He stumbled around the corner and saw it, sitting in the center of the room exactly as it had before.

Instead of the henna girl, though, it contained his brother.

“Aaron!” he said, gasping for breath. “Oh, thank God! Hang on, I’ll get you out of this place. Just—”

His feet refused to move. Try as he might, his boots might as well have been welded to the floor. A low, insidious panic set in, and darkness began to cloud his vision. The inky blackness seeped into the room from the hallway, spreading across the floor and ceiling. He turned to the cryotank, and saw to his horror that Aaron’s body was beginning to shrivel. His skin blackened and drew tight against his bones, while his eye sockets shrunk and his lips pulled back to reveal decaying yellow teeth. In just a few moments, he would be a withered corpse, just like all the others on the station.

“Aaron!” Isaac screamed, but there was nothing he could do to delay the awful finality of death as the blackness swallowed them both.


* * * * *


“Isaac? Isaac, are you all right?”

Isaac jerked awake with tears streaming down his face. His breath came short and fast, his heart racing even though he was lying on his back. He was in his bunk on the Medea, with Aaron standing over him, his face a picture of curiosity and concern. The familiarity of his bed, with its firm mattress pad and old, faded display screen on the underside of the top bunk calmed him a little, but the dream had been so vivid that he couldn’t help but shudder.

“I’ll be fine,” he muttered, wiping the moisture from his eyes. His undershirt was soaked with sweat, and he felt in desperate need of a shower.

“Did you have a nightmare?” Aaron asked.

Isaac groaned and slipped his feet over the edge of the bunk, sitting up. “Yeah, I guess.”

“What was it like? What happened?”

“It—it’s hard to remember,” he lied. “But you were in it, I know that.”

“Really? What did I do?”

You died.

“Nothing much. How are the energy reserves coming? Are we ready to jump yet?”

“Uh, yeah,” said Aaron. “Last I checked, they were at eighty-five percent.”

“Have you set the coordinates?”

“Not yet. I’ll get on that right away.”

“Please do.”

As Aaron ducked through the doorway to the cockpit, Isaac yawned and rose groggily to his feet. The Medea’s cabin looked much as it had when he’d gone to sleep: A small pile of dirty clothes sat on the semi-circular couch ringing the opposite side of the wall, with an unfinished game of damka on the lounge table. The holographic tabletop still displayed the red and black hex board, even though a bowl of half-eaten synthmeal sat in the center of it. Isaac sighed and picked up Aaron’s dirty dishes, scraping the leftovers into the recycler and placing the bowl in the universal washer unit in the wall. His brother could be such a slob sometimes. The clothes would have to wait for the next wash cycle, which probably wouldn’t be for another two or three dayshifts. Honestly, how hard was it to find a wall compartment to stow them in?

How can you be so petty? he thought, a wave of guilt hitting him as he remembered the dream. He’d just watched Aaron’s body disintegrate in a cryotank, and now he was getting upset at him for being a slob? Even if the dream wasn’t real, the emotions it had evoked were certainly poignant enough. Besides, this far out into space, the line between reality and imagination often grew fuzzy. They still had a full two weeks to go before they arrived at the next port.

He found the compartment for his own clothes and opened it, rummaging through until he found a clean undershirt and set of boxers. Clothes in hand, he went to the bathroom at the back of the cabin and palmed the door open. Space inside was tight, even with all the zero-gee hoses on the toilet coiled up and retracted. Still, with quick, practiced movements, he undressed and stepped into the cylindrical shower unit.

As the water washed over his skin from the multi-directional wall jets, he thought back to his dream. He could still feel a twinge of panic and helplessness from watching his brother die.

Aaron was never supposed to have joined him. As the oldest son, tradition required only Isaac to leave on his father’s starship and seek his destiny across the Outworlds. He’d spent his whole life preparing for that, knowing that when the time came to leave, he would be on his own. Most star wanderers never returned to the world of their birth, and he didn’t expect to be an exception.

He also hadn’t expected the famine at Megiddo Station to drive his whole family away before he’d had a chance to leave.

Only a couple of months after they’d fled to Oriana Station as refugees, his father had taken him aside. “You ready to take the Medea, son?”

Isaac’s heart leaped at the question. “I’m ready, Dad,” he answered, trying not to sound too eager. The last few months had been a nightmarish mess, trying to get everyone in the family from Delta Oriana to the Alpha Oriana system. It hadn’t been easy. Isaac had seen, firsthand, as his father struggled with all the logistics of migrating between stars. In the end, they’d had to sell almost everything they owned just to get passage. Thankfully, they’d all made it, but now they were forced to live in a cramped, below-decks apartment on a station where most of them didn’t speak the language. There was so little room, they had to sleep crammed together on old, flat mattresses that did little to soften the hardness of the metal floor. As much as Isaac knew he would miss his family, he also knew that now was the time to leave.

His father nodded, staring off at the wall. “Your mother doesn’t want me to let you to go,” he’d said softly, so that the others in the kitchen and family room couldn’t hear.

“Can she stop me?”

“No, but she’s definitely going to try. Here, let’s take this outside.”

He followed his father out the narrow apartment hallway to the front door, where they exchanged their slippers for shoes. His father moved quickly, glancing over his shoulder—no doubt making sure that his mother didn’t see them go. It pained Isaac to see his parents being so deceptive with each other, but there was nothing he could do to stop it. Better to go along quietly than to spark another argument.

They stepped outside, the door hissing shut behind them. The windowless corridor extended in both directions, though it turned before the curvature of the station became apparent. The walls and lights were drab, all the doors exactly the same.

“If you’re sure you’re ready, I want you to go as soon as you can,” his father told him. “There’s nothing for you here. Take the Medea and find a place as far away from this mess as you can.”

Isaac nodded dutifully. “I’ll do my best.”

“There’s something else.”

His father laid a hand on his shoulder and glanced to either side, as if afraid that someone in the corridor might be listening.

“The Medea isn’t typical for most Outworld starships its size. It was built from the hull of a deep space hauler, so it’s got enough room, systems, and storage space to support up to two people. If that weren’t true, I wouldn’t be asking this of you.”

Isaac nodded. Nothing his father had said was anything new. They’d both just flown the Medea together on the three month journey to Alpha Oriana, where his father had taught him most of the controls. He still felt a bit new to the ship, but didn’t doubt he could figure out the rest on his own.

“I want you to take Aaron with you, son.”

“What?” said Isaac, giving his father a puzzled look. The request had caught him completely by surprise.

“You heard me. There’s nothing for either of you here. The best I can give you both is a chance to strike out on your own.”

“You mean, you want me to drop him off at one of the nearby systems?”

“No,” said his father, looking him in the eye. “I want you to take him with you, as your partner and copilot. Wherever your wanderings take you, I want you to go together.”

Isaac frowned, unsure how to respond. There was nothing in the traditions about brothers going out to become star wanderers together. Usually, it was only the oldest who left—if everyone from the same generation left for the stars, it would throw everything in turmoil back home.

Our family is already in turmoil, he realized. And we no longer have a home to go back to.

“Does Aaron know?”

“Not yet,” said his father, glancing over his shoulder. “I haven’t told anyone else about this but you. If word of this got to your mother, she’d do everything in her power to stop us.”

“So when are you going to tell him?”

“Not until you’re ready to go. And since we can’t let your mother find out about that either, we’ll have to prepare everything in secret. I need you to pack your things—yours and Aaron’s—and sneak them on board the Medea. Can you do that?”

Isaac drew in a sharp breath and bit his lip. “I don’t know—I think so, but …”

“But what?”

“Shouldn’t we tell him about it now? Give him a chance to make the decision himself?”

“We can’t risk that. You know how he is. The boy can’t hold a secret. If we tell him now, your mother will find out about it, and there will be hell to pay.”

Won’t Mom raise hell about this either way? His father was right, though. If their mother found out about their departure before they left, she might actually be able to stop them. At least this way, they were sure to get away.

But neither of them would be able to say goodbye to their family.

“It’ll still be Aaron’s decision whether to stay or to go,” his father reassured him. “If he doesn’t want to join you, we’ll unload his things and let him stay. But if he wants to go out with you, will you take him with you?”

Isaac nodded slowly. “Yes. I can do that.”

“Will you promise to watch out for him? Make sure that nothing happens to him? He hasn’t been preparing for this like you have—he isn’t nearly as mature or as ready as you.”

“If he isn’t ready, why do you want to send him with me?”

His father sighed. “Because there’s nothing for us here at Alpha Oriana. This isn’t a place of opportunity. If you boys are ever going to make something of yourselves, it will be out there, in the stars. I hate to cut you loose like this, but I don’t really have a choice. So will you promise to look out for him? Keep him safe, and make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid?”

Isaac swallowed. He felt as if his father had put a heavy weight on his chest. It was one thing to leave his family without saying goodbye, but to take responsibility for his younger brother on top of all that? It made him feel as if he could barely breathe.

What if something happened to his brother? What if he failed to protect him?

“I know you can do this, Isaac,” his father told him. “As the oldest son, you’ve always set a good example for your siblings. They look up to you. I know this is hard, but I have every confidence that you’ll do fine.”

“All right,” said Isaac, taking a deep breath. “I’ll do it. I’ll do my best.”

His father smiled. “Thank you, son.”

A change in the pressure of the shower water brought Isaac back to the present. He’d been in long enough that the water recycler was starting to back up. With a heavy sigh, he switched off the wash cycle and let the vacuum in the drain suck the precious moisture back through the filters and into the Medea’s reservoirs.

I’ll do my best, Father. I promise.


* * * * *


“It’s about time you finished washing up,” Aaron said as Isaac ducked into the cockpit of the Medea. “Everything come out all right?”

“Yeah,” said Isaac, taking his seat on the left. The forward window was fairly narrow, but it stretched from one side of the cockpit to the other. Control panels and display screens filled the space above and below, most of them dormant since they were out in deep space. On Aaron’s side, the nav-computer showed the starmap with vectors for triangulation. Since they’d already located their position in this sector, the vector lines were green.

“Where do we stand?” Isaac asked as he brought up the screen for the jump drives. His main screen displayed a status readout for the main reactor and the energy reserves: eighty-eight percent maximum, enough to jump as far as point-two light-years with reasonable accuracy.

“Looking good. Coordinates set for a point-two-eight light-year jump, which should put us near a brown dwarf binary—uninhabited, of course.”

Isaac frowned. “How close is that binary? Are you sure you want to push it?”

“We want to make good time to the New Pleiades, don’t we? The binary’s not too close—about five thousand standard AU, give or take a hundred.”

That’s still too close for the mass we’re hauling. Traveling through jumpspace was tricky. The transit time was almost instantaneous, but it was impossible to pinpoint the sidereal exit point with complete accuracy. In general, jump accuracy decreased exponentially relative to the distance they tried to jump. He could set the target coordinates, but there was no guarantee that the ship would end up anywhere near them. The only way to mitigate that was to pump more power into the jump drives, but the power requirements increased dramatically with the ship’s mass. That was why most Outworld starfarers flew small one-man starships—anything larger than that, and the fuel requirements would simply be unsustainable. Even with a ship as small as the Medea, it took hours to build up enough of an energy reserve to make a reasonably accurate jump.

“We can’t have that binary anywhere within our exit zone,” said Isaac. “Better cut that distance to at least point-two-two.”

“Oh, come on—the odds that we’ll jump into one of those stars are so astronomically low, there’s no point in even worrying about it.”

“Yes, but there’s still the danger of solar radiation, as well as the navigational hazards of jumping into a gravity well. We don’t have the proper shielding to graze the—”

“All right, all right,” said Aaron, rolling his eyes. “I’ll cut the jump distance to point-two-four. Happy now?”

Isaac sighed and rubbed his forehead. Why was his brother so difficult sometimes? It wasn’t like they were at cross-purposes with each other. They both wanted to get to the New Pleiades as soon as they could. Perhaps he was coming down with cabin fever again? Long voyages could be especially difficult, with months going by without contact with anyone else. Sometimes, Isaac didn’t know how they got through them.

“Great. Set the coordinates, and I’ll make the jump.”

It didn’t take Aaron long. “Got it,” he said barely half a minute later. “Ready when you are.”

Isaac glanced over the new coordinates, checking them for anything potentially hazardous in the vicinity. Besides star systems and rogue planets, they had to keep a close eye on the density of the interstellar medium. Plenty of starfarers had died from hull breaches and equipment failures from jumping in and out of high density regions, especially around nebulae. Fortunately, the space between Esperanzia and the New Pleiades was mostly clear.

He nodded. “Right. Initiating jump.”

The bulkheads behind them began to hum and throb. A queasy sensation grew in Isaac’s stomach, starting off small but soon filling him with nausea. He began to feel dizzy, as if the gravity had been shut off. The stars in the forward window seemed to flee away from him, even as the bulkheads of the ship began to close in. Isaac closed his eyes, and in that moment something flipped, as if the universe itself had become inverted. The sensation passed, and when he opened his eyes again, the view had returned to normal. A couple of the brighter magnitude stars had shifted a few degrees, but the starfield was otherwise unchanged.

“Commencing sector scan,” said Aaron. “No large objects in the immediate vicinity. Looks like that dwarf binary is somewhere off our bow. Scanning for transmissions … nothing.”

Isaac let out a long breath and nodded. His grip on the flight stick loosened as it became clear that there was no need for immediate sublight maneuvers. No debris fields, no gravity wells, no dangerous radiation sources—nothing but the wide, empty vastness of space.

“Looks like it’s just us, then.”

“Yeah, looks like. I’ll get started with the triangulation.”

Isaac raised an eyebrow and glanced sidelong at his brother. “You in much of a hurry? We’ve got at least eight hours until the jump drive’s charged.”

“Yeah, but …” Aaron’s cheeks reddened.

“It’s the girl, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” he admitted. “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about her. Who was she, do you think?”

Isaac shrugged. “Probably the daughter of one of the colony leaders.”

“Yeah, but what’s her story? Why did they freeze her and no one else? Does she know that everyone else is dead? I don’t know about you, but when I look at her, she doesn’t seem frightened or worried at all. She seems … serene, like a goddess.”

“I suppose.”

“What do you think it’s going to be like for her when she wakes up?” Aaron asked. “It’s got to be hard, to be sure, but she’s probably expecting that. It takes a lot of guts to seal yourself up in cryo when you don’t know who’s going to wake you. She must really trust us to do the right thing.”

“Yeah.”

“How can you trust your life to someone you’ve never even met? How is that even possible?”

Maybe she didn’t have a choice, Isaac thought silently. If her only other option was death, maybe it wasn’t a matter of trust so much as survival.

Aaron sighed and shook his head. “And you wanted to leave her. If we’d done what you said, we would have jumped out and let someone else come and take her.”

“Hey, I agreed to take her in the end. I wasn’t just going to abandon her.”

“Yeah, but we wouldn’t have explored the station long enough to find her. Stars, we would never have even docked! If it weren’t for me, we wouldn’t even know that she was there.”

“I guess.”

“That means I’m the one responsible for all this,” said Aaron. “And I’m not going to let her down. Whatever we do, we’ve got to make sure that she ends up all right—that she doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.”

“I agree.”

They both stared off at the starfield in silence for a few moments. In deep space, the stars shone with a soft, precise brilliance that was unequalled anywhere else. Without any suns or moons to drown out their light, the sight was truly magnificent. It was one of the few things about the long interstellar voyages that Isaac knew he would one day miss.

“Isaac, can I tell you something?”

“Sure,” he said, turning to his brother. “What’s up?”

“All my life, I’ve felt like—like I’ve never really arrived. It’s like I’ve always been under someone else’s shadow, or had someone else above me to make all the decisions for me. Do you know what I mean?”

“Go on.”

“Right. Well, this girl—saving her is the first thing I think I’ve ever done on my own. I mean, ever since you and I took off on the Medea, I’ve felt as if I’ve just been tagging along, following you from planet to planet and star to star. But this was me, not you. This is the first time I’ve ever been fully responsible for anything.”

We’re both responsible for her, Isaac almost said. He held his tongue, though, and put his hand on Aaron’s arm.

“You’ve done good,” he said. “And you’re right. If it weren’t for you, we never would have found her.”

“We haven’t saved her yet, though. She’s still locked in cryo—she might as well be a frozen corpse until we find someone who can thaw her.”

And even when we do, that might be all she is. Isaac didn’t want to think about what it would do to his brother to find out that she was really dead.

“Anyways,” Aaron continued, “I just wanted to say that I’m not going to drop from orbit on this one. I’m not going to let you down, and I’m definitely not going to let her down.”

“Right,” said Isaac. “I’m sure you’ll do fine.”

Inwardly, though, the words rang hollow. His father may have trusted him when he’d said those same words, but Isaac wasn’t about to let his brother carry the same burden. After all, if the weight of responsibility had been so heavy on him, how could Aaron possibly carry it?


A Slaver’s Bargain


The bluish-white light of Vulcana reflected in hues of silver and brown off of the star’s protoplanetary disk, casting a milky glow that obscured the starfield and filled the sky with light. Almost two million kilometers away, a vortex was visible in the cloud of gas and dust, the super-massive protoplanet Hephesteron which was still in the process of formation. In time, fusion would probably ignite in its core, turning it into a faint brown dwarf for at least a few hundred thousand years. Whether that process would prove sustainable and the lonely protoplanet would achieve its aspirations to become a star was anyone’s guess.

Hephesteron Station orbited the planet and star in a highly elliptical trailing orbit. The brothers were in luck: the station was on the high end of its orbit, in a region clear of gas and dust. Every three or four standard years, the station passed through the protoplanetary disc, effectively cutting it off from the rest of the outside universe. The debris cloud was too dense to jump into safely, and few starships had sublight engines powerful enough to facilitate travel from the outside. On the long voyage to the system, Isaac had come across a short novel in the starfarer database which told a tragic tale of two lovers separated during the transit period. The translation into Gaian was surprisingly good—probably because it had been translated by an actual human and not an AI. That, or the translation algorithms for the New Pleiades were much more developed than those for most other Outworld languages. Either way, it was a sign of strong cultural ties between this sector and the Coreward Stars.

“We copying, Medea,” the operator’s voice cackled over the comm system. “Clear to dock. We transmitting flight plans now.”

“What did he say?” Aaron asked.

“He said they’re transmitting flight plans for the docking procedure. Send them to me as soon as you get them.”

“Oh. Right.”

Aaron’s going to have a hard time getting around this system, Isaac realized. Probably the whole New Pleiades. According to the Gaian Imperial catalog, the star cluster had been settled predominantly by colonists from Gaia Nova, and the local dialects were much closer related to Gaian than anything in the Orianan language family. Since Aaron had never learned Gaian, even the creole was largely unintelligible to him. That was bound to make for problems. Isaac would have to stay close to him while they were on board.

“Okay, got ‘em,” said Aaron. “Looks like a pretty standard docking maneuver. Sending them to you now.”

Isaac’s main display showed a three dimensional grid with the path between them and the station, complete with multiple vector lines for all nearby ships and objects. He set the autodocking routine and leaned back in his chair as the sublight engines engaged.

“So this is the New Pleiades,” Aaron mused aloud, staring at the protoplanetary disk out the forward window. With its milky glow and the vortex of the planet forming within, it looked unlike anything else they’d seen together.

“One of the border stars, yeah.”

“Do you think they’ll have the equipment to thaw the henna girl?”

Isaac shrugged. “They might. If not, though, they’ll probably be able to point us in the right direction. Just stay close, and try not to wander off too much.”

“Yeah, yeah. I can take care of myself, you know.”

Can you? Isaac wondered silently. Even if he could, Isaac wasn’t about to let him out of his sight. They’d come so far from the stars of their birth, there was no telling what they’d find when they disembarked.


* * * * *


Hephesteron Station was unlike any other orbital space station Isaac had ever seen. Instead of running the living space along two rotating wheels—as was standard throughout the Outworlds—nearly the entire facility ran on artificial gravity. Since the energy costs for AG field generators grew exponentially with the volume of space they covered, Isaac had expected the interior of the station to be cramped and crowded. Instead, it was the exact opposite.

An elevator led from the utilitarian spaceport at the bottom of the station to a large atrium at the center of the topmost level. An expansive glass ceiling gave an unparalleled view of space, with Hephesteron and the system’s golden-amber protoplanetary disk taking center stage. The vista alone was enough to take Isaac’s breath away, but the extravagance of the station’s central square was even more incredible. Every structure, from the walls and floor to the pillars around the edges, was made from polished white-green marble. Wide, spacious avenues branched off in the eight cardinal directions, each one lined with shops and market stalls.

The people of the station were dressed just as extravagantly. Leather and silk were everywhere, with almost none of the utilitarian trappings he was used to. A woman in a shimmering silver dress briefly caught his eye, followed by another wearing a wide leather belt with a blue and gold bead design sewn in. The place was practically exploding with color, making him feel as if he’d stepped into an alternate universe from one where everything was gray and drab. In some ways, perhaps that was true.

“This place is amazing,” said Aaron, giving voice to a sentiment they both shared. He gawked openly at the grandeur of the place, with its high glass ceilings and long, broad avenues. The people milled about as if nothing was out of the ordinary, but that was certainly not true for either of them.

“Can I be helping?” Isaac blinked and came back to his senses. A short man in a green frilled shirt waited patiently for their response.

“Uh, yeah,” said Isaac. “We’re starfarers from the Oriana Cluster, looking to make some trades. Where can we find some people willing to do business?”

The man chuckled. “Is here, friend. What you wanting?”

“What did he say?” asked Aaron. “Do you think he knows where we can find that cryothaw equipment?”

“Shh!” said Isaac, perhaps a bit harsher than he’d intended. Even though the people here spoke their own particular dialect, there was no telling who was within earshot. A bald man with a cybernetic implant running from the base of his neck to the top of his head walked past them while a cluster of dark-skinned women in flowing orange robes headed in the opposite direction. The station was clearly a major hub, with people from all over the sector coming and going—perhaps even from all over the Outworlds.

“There is problem?”

“No, no,” said Isaac. “We’re fine, we’re fine. Thanks for your help.”

The man raised an eyebrow questioningly. Isaac smiled and bowed, hoping that was how people said goodbye in this place. Evidently, it was. The man returned the bow and soon blended back into the crowd.

“What was that about?” asked Aaron. From the scowl on his face, he didn’t seem too pleased with the way he’d been cut off.

“Sorry about that. Here, let’s find a place where we can scope this place out.”

“You mean like a cantina or something?”

Absolutely no alcohol, Isaac almost blurted, catching himself just before he said it. The last thing he wanted was a stupid fight with his brother in this place.

“No, let’s wander around for a bit first,” he suggested instead.

Aaron shrugged. “Sure, whatever.”

They set out down one of the avenues, passing a number of market stalls selling robotic parts and used electronics. None of the goods looked particularly interesting—they were probably manufactured somewhere else and sold here for the planetesimal ores and radioactives that were so plentiful at Vulcana. There weren’t too many leather goods for sale, either, which was strange considering how popular it seemed among the locals. They probably got those from a nearby system, perhaps from one of the terraforming projects.

“Are you liking?” said one man, pointing to a collection of exotic knives laid out on a dark blue blanket on the marble floor. The blades appeared to be made from tempered durasteel, or perhaps meteoric iron.

“No, thanks,” said Isaac, waving him away. Aaron lingered, though, drawing the man’s attention.

“How much is he asking for these?”

The man, who was short and dark-skinned with a crude prosthetic hand, turned from Isaac and put his good arm around Aaron’s shoulder. “You wanting, yes? I show, you seeing, come coming.”

“Aaron, get away from there,” Isaac said, bristling at the way the man was treating his brother. For his part, though, Aaron seemed perfectly willing to play along, even though it was clear that neither he nor the vendor could understand each other.

He reached down and picked up a double-sided blade that was almost twice as long as his hand. Hefting it to test the weight, he set it down and picked up another—a single-bladed item that curved slightly forward. The man reached down and picked up three more, holding them eagerly out to him.

“Aaron, what are you doing? We’ve got to go.”

“Go where? I’m only checking this out. Pretty neat, don’t you think?”

Isaac sighed. “What use do we have for this kind of stuff? They’re trinkets. They’ll just take up our mass allotment.”

“Oh, come on,” said Aaron, slicing experimentally through the air. “We’ve got room enough for personal belongings. Besides, it would be kind of nice to come away from this place with a souvenir.”

“Is good quality, very good quality,” said the man, still unaware that Aaron couldn’t understand him. “We are making it from pure refined space rock, melted into purest steel and fashioning by hand technique. Is good steel, very good steel. You are liking, yes?”

“What’s he saying?” asked Aaron.

Isaac took a deep breath and shook his head. “He’s just trying to give you the sales pitch. Best quality, made by hand, folded so many hundreds of times, yada yada.”

Before he was finished, the man interrupted them. “You are starfarers, yes? For you I am making special price. Is worth five hundred station credits, but for you it is being two hundred.”

“Isaac, what’s he saying?”

“He says—”

The man shook his head and stepped in so that he was right in Aaron’s face. He lifted his hands and with firm, precise hand gestures, he made clear the price. Aaron grinned.

“Two hundred, eh? Is that what he’s saying?”

Isaac rolled his eyes and ran a hand through his hair. “Aaron, let’s just—”

“Don’t worry. I’ve got this.”

With the air of a casually interested buyer, Aaron set the knife down and raised his hand to his chin. The man quickly grabbed another one and put it in his hands, using hand gestures to set the price at one eighty. Aaron shrugged, but glanced out of the corner of his eye at another, which the man promptly picked up for him to see. Like silent dancers, they went around like this almost half a dozen times before they got back around to the first one, which Aaron was clearly interested in.

Isaac folded his arms and looked away as the bargaining began in earnest. He had no doubt that Aaron would talk the man down to a reasonable price, but he still didn’t like it. What did they need a knife for? Not only was it a foolish, wasteful expense, it was a potentially dangerous one, too. Those knives looked pretty fearsome. It wasn’t hard to imagine Aaron hurting himself playing with one. Hopefully, he’d lose interest before that happened, but if he didn’t, they’d have to lay down some rules, especially in the confined space of the Medea.

Aaron and the vendor were signing furiously at each other now. Eventually, the man put his good hand on Aaron’s shoulder and smiled. They both nodded, and Isaac realized they’d reached an agreement.

“How much?” he asked, pulling out the datachip with the information for the Medea.

“One-twenty,” said Aaron. “Almost didn’t think he’d do it, but he did.” He stepped back to admire his new blade while Isaac sighed and completed the transaction.

The man nodded and bowed deeply to Isaac as he inserted the datachip into the dome-shaped computer at the corner of the blanket. The station would register a purchase and withdraw the credits from the Medea’s trading account, paying the man in the local currency, whatever that happened to be.

“Oh, and he threw in the sheath too,” said Aaron. He held out his hand, and the man reluctantly handed over a black leather sheath with a dark steel tip and a simple belt clip. It was a little longer than the blade itself, about forty centimeters, and bent forward to accommodate the blade’s peculiar shape. Why he would choose such an odd looking knife from the others, Isaac had no idea, but he sighed and finished the transaction.

“There. Happy now?”

“Yeah,” said Aaron, clipping the knife to his belt. A couple of people glanced at him as they passed by, making Isaac a little nervous.

“You might want to keep that out of sight,” he said. “Don’t want to bring security down on us.”

“Yeah, I think you’re right.”

Aaron unclipped the knife and slipped it inside his vest jacket. Behind them, the vendor went back to haranguing potential buyers, just like everyone else in the busy market.

“Let’s find somewhere to eat,” said Isaac. “It would be good to sit down.”

“Yeah. I wonder what they drink around here.”

“I’ll bet if we ask around a bit, we can find someone who can help us with the cryothaw stuff,” he said, hoping to distract his brother from the prospect of a drinking trip. It worked.

“Yeah,” said Aaron, his eyes lighting up. “Let’s do that.”

Just as long as we’re cautious about it, Isaac thought silently. As colorful and vibrant as this place was, he had no doubt that there were plenty of scumbags as well.


* * * * *


They found a cantina not far from the central atrium. Judging from the flight suits and jackets of the people drinking there, it appeared to be a place frequented by starfarers and traders. If they were going to find any information that would help them to thaw the henna girl, this was the place to find it.

Aaron sat down casually at the bar, as if the fact that he didn’t speak the language wasn’t a problem for him. He had picked up a few Gaian words for popular drinks, though there was no telling if they served any of that here. Either way, Isaac figured he’d have to stay close. He claimed the seat next to him and waved down the bartender.

“What are you wanting?” the bartender asked. He was a fat, ugly man, with a cybernetic implant in his eye that reminded Isaac of Master Korha back home at Megiddo Station.

“One bottle beer,” said Aaron in his halting Gaian. “Local brew.”

“Local?” said the bartender. “Is only vodka spirits brewing local. Beer we are importing from Atalia and Merope Nova—”

“We’ll take that, then,” said Isaac. “Two pints.”

The bartender nodded and poured their drinks, much to Aaron’s chagrin. He turned around on his stool and leaned back with his elbows propped up on the counter.

“You didn’t have to order for me,” he said.

Isaac shrugged and glanced to his left. They’d attracted the attention of a couple of women, both of whom were bald except for a single braided lock that stretched past their waists. It was a style peculiar to an esoteric New Humanist whose followers hailed from fringes of the Coreward Stars. The girls were probably looking for a starfarer to give them passage somewhere. Isaac glanced over his shoulder, but no one else in the place seemed to pay them any mind.

“There’s a guy who might be able to help us,” said Aaron. He motioned with his chin at a middle-aged man in a smart-looking business uniform, with a silver wrist console and a headset terminal interface that covered his left ear. He was smoking a hookah and reading something on the table’s holoscreen display.

“What makes you say that?”

“All the girls are hanging out around the bar, which probably means that’s where the pilots are. Pilots carry wrist consoles, but that guy’s got a headset—only suppliers have enough local contacts to need equipment like that.”

Isaac glanced around the cantina. He had to admit, his brother’s reasoning made sense. But if the man was sitting at a table, that meant he was waiting for people to come to him. He’d have a lot more power in a bargaining situation if they went over to him immediately.

“Let’s give it a couple of minutes,” he said. “We don’t want to look too eager.” He nursed his drink, sipping from it occasionally as he watched the various patrons go about their business.

A tap at his shoulder snapped him to attention. He glanced at his side and saw a man in a black silk shirt with a synthleather vest and gold wrist console, with studded earrings up the sides of both ears.

“Excusing,” the man said, taking the seat at Isaac’s left. “New you are coming here, no?”

Aaron perked up, turning around to get a better look at the man. Isaac leaned back so that they could talk with him together, even if Aaron could only nod and pretend that he was following the conversation.

“Yes,” he said. “We have come many parsecs from the Oriana Cluster, by way of Esperanzia. Are you looking to trade?”

The man bobbed his head from side to side, indicating an ambivalent interest. He was olive-skinned and bald, with some sort of eye enhancement that made his pupils flicker. Was that a common implant in these parts? It made it difficult for Isaac to look at him while they were talking.

“Perhaps, perhaps. Where you are going after stay is finishing? Maybe deal am having, giving you good price.”

“We don’t know yet,” said Isaac. “This is a new place for us. We haven’t planned our next trade run.”

The man grinned. “Is good, is very good. Many suggestions I can offering, help you much I can. You are with starship, no?”

“What’s he saying?” Aaron whispered.

“He’s about to give us information on trade routes,” said Isaac. The man waited patiently for them to confer.

“Why don’t you ask him where we can find that cryothaw machine?”

“I’m getting there, I’m getting there!”

He turned back to the man. “There are many colonies in the New Pleiades, is this true?”

“Is true. Very many.”

“How many were settled from cryo?” The man gave him a puzzled look, so he leaned forward and tried to talk slower. “You know, from cryotanks, frozen for the journey and thawed on arrival? We want to find a place that’s still fairly new, with most of their cryo equipment still intact.”

“You are looking for freeze someone?”

“Not freeze, thaw. Do you know of a place that does cryothaw?”

It made Isaac uneasy to come straight out with the question, but he didn’t see any other way to make the man understand. It worked—his eyes lit up almost immediately.

“Ah, is cryotank you are having. Where you find?”

“Does he have one?” Aaron interjected. “Can he help us do it?”

Isaac raised his hand in exasperation. “Just give me a second. We’re still talking about it.” Then, to the man, “It’s a girl. We found her in the Far Outworlds, a survivor of … of an accident.” Something told him it was a bad idea to get any more specific than that.

The man nodded vigorously. “Is good, is good. How much you want?”

“How much? You mean—”

“I pay good price, very good price. Say, two thousand credits.”

Isaac frowned. “Look, she’s not for sale. We just want—”

“What’s he saying?” asked Aaron. “Was that a number he just mentioned?”

I never should have asked about the cryothaw device, Isaac realized. I’ve got to get us out of here.

“Thanks, but no thanks,” he said, rising to his feet. “We’d better be going.”

“Is no good? Okay, three thousand.”

“She’s not for sale,” he said as firmly as he could manage. “Come on, Aaron, let’s—”

“Is that creep trying to buy her?” Aaron asked, his cheeks reddening. Isaac’s stomach sank as he saw the rage grow in his brother’s face.

“Look, it’s not a big deal, we’ll just—”

“You dirty bastard!” he shouted in Gaian, jabbing the man with his finger. “You bastard dirty son of bitch!”

All around the cantina, heads began to turn. Isaac’s knees went weak, and his legs turned to water.

“Okay, okay,” said the man, raising his hands to calm Aaron down. “Is no problem, no problem. You man, I man. We discuss, no problem.”

Without warning, Aaron lashed out with a fist to the man’s face. It made a sharp crack and sent him spinning into the countertop. The people at the bar all rose to their feet, and three bottles fell with a crash to the floor. The bartender began shouting.

“What is this? What is this?” He turned his fury onto Isaac. “You! You paying for this!”

“Sorry,” said Isaac, grabbing his brother. “Aaron, let’s get the hell out of here!”

The man looked up and wiped a hand across his bloodied mouth. His eyes fixed on them and narrowed, but before Isaac could react, rough hands grabbed him by the shoulder and forced him back around.

“Hey, what are you—ow!” Aaron squealed as the bouncer grabbed him, too. Together, they were dragged to the door and thrown back out into the corridor, falling flat on their faces.

“You stay out of this place,” said the bouncer. His voice was deep and artificial, modulated by a voicebox implant. Isaac rubbed his shoulder and noticed that the man’s hands were cyborg prosthetics. Indeed, half his face was made of metal.

“No problem,” he said quickly. With a guy like you at the door, we won’t even walk past this place.

“Ow,” Aaron groaned as the bouncer returned to the dim recesses of the cantina. He rose unsteadily to his feet. “What just happened?”

“You got us in a shipful of trouble, that’s what. I had everything under control, until you jumped in.”

“He was trying to buy her off of us, wasn’t he?” Aaron rubbed his knuckles and stared into the cantina with a grim look on his face. “That dirty son of a bitch was trying to buy her.”

“Yeah, well, he didn’t, so you can calm down now. Come on, let’s get out of here before we make any more trouble.”

Isaac took his brother by the arm and pulled him away. Aaron resisted at first, but soon followed with some reluctance. Even he had the good sense to know that they’d screwed up. If they managed to make any trades here at all, it wouldn’t be for any goodwill they’d earned.


* * * * *


The tram for the docking arm was small, with only enough seating for twenty people. Still, by the time the tram arrived at the docking node for the Medea, Isaac and Aaron were alone.

The tram came to a halting stop, and the doors slid open with a chime. A flashing sign warned of low gravity, but even at the end of the docking arm, the artificial gravity field was strong enough that Isaac could stand and walk with little trouble. He still gripped the handholds as he climbed out, though, keeping his momentum in careful control. His brother followed.

“Sorry about the cantina,” said Aaron a bit sheepishly. Neither of them had spoken since the fight that had gotten them thrown out.

“Yeah, well, I’m sorry too,” said Isaac. Even though they were alone, he didn’t want to talk about it.

The docking arm was long and narrow, with walkways and docking nodes on either side of the track for the tram. The upper level was windowless, but the lower level had control stations to oversee the supplying and refueling of each ship remotely. Isaac eased himself through the hatch and down the ladder to the lower level, glancing out the window at the Medea as he did so.

He didn’t see the two men waiting for him until it was too late.

Rough hands grabbed him by his legs and pulled him down before he reached the bottom. He yelped and grabbed the ladder rung above him. A fist smashed into the side of his head, knocking him back and making him lose his grip. He fell back onto the floor.

“Isaac? Isaac!”

A savage kick hit him squarely in the side. His head spun, and his ears rang as if alarms were going off in them. He curled up in pain as another blow hit him in the chest.

What’s going on?

Before he could catch sight of his attackers, one of them cried out in pain. The floor shuddered as Aaron landed on his feet beside him, slashing out with his knife. An arc of blood sprayed up in the air, and the attackers fell back against the far wall.

“Isaac, up the ladder! Come on, hurry!”

The two men had been pushed back temporarily, but the hatch was the only way out. There was nowhere to run. Realizing this, they raised their fists and made ready to lunge forward. One of them brandished a half-meter length of pipe, his arm bleeding where Aaron had slashed him. The other had solid metal hands and a scarred prosthetic eye that glowed red.

Isaac didn’t need to be told twice. He scrambled up the ladder as quickly as he could manage. His side hurt something fierce. If it weren’t for the lower gravity, he probably wouldn’t have made it. With adrenaline coursing through his veins, he staggered to the top and reached back to help his brother.

Aaron climbed out not a moment after him. The two men grabbed at his feet, but he kicked them away and pulled himself free.

“Isaac, are you all right?”

“We’ve got to call the authorities,” said Isaac. He half expected the men to climb after them, but apparently, they were too afraid of Aaron and his knife. With the blade smeared with fresh red blood, he didn’t blame them.

Aaron nodded, but as he looked past him his eyes suddenly widened.

“Uh-oh.”

Isaac turned around and saw four men approaching along the walkway, three of them with weapons in their hands. One carried a knife that was at least as long as Aaron’s, while two others carried long metal whips, each with a pronged end.

The fourth man was the slaver from the cantina.

“You are both very bad manners,” he said, his lips curling up in a deadly grin. “Now I teach you some.”

Isaac backed up, his stomach sinking. He glanced desperately behind him, but there was nothing that way except two empty docking nodes and a dead end. He tried palming the airlock door open, but it wouldn’t respond—the thugs on the level below them had locked it down. Only the tram could get them out of here, and it was already past the thugs on the other side of the docking arm.

“Get behind me,” said Aaron. He held out his hand and brandished his knife, the blade shaking in spite of his attempt to look menacing.

The slaver chuckled and motioned to his men. The men with the whips stepped forward, ready to strike. One of them cracked his, sending sparks from the pronged end. Isaac swallowed—this was not going to end well.

“I was offering bargain,” said the slaver. “You were not taking. Now, am offering new bargain: your lives.”

“What’s he saying?” Aaron whispered.

“He says he’ll let us live if we give him the girl.”

“What?”

“He says—I don’t know. But I think he’s ready to kill us. Or worse.”

Aaron clenched his teeth and gripped his knife a little tighter. It wasn’t shaking nearly as much anymore.

“Come on, you bastards,” he said softly. “Come on, and I’ll—”

The roar of the approaching tram filled the narrow space on the docking arm, making the slaver frown. He and his thugs stepped aside, and the tram sped past them, squealing on its brakes. It came to a stop in front of the Medea’s docking node just as the other two men climbed up from the hatchway. They glanced nervously at their boss as the doors slid open and a young man stepped out, holding a pistol.

Isaac didn’t recognize him, though something about his face seemed familiar. He was tall and thin, with long, jet-black hair and a prominent nose. His skin was somewhere between brown and olive, and his dark eyes were as piercing as they were fearless. He held his pistol as if it were a natural extension of his own body, a fact that did not escape the thugs. They backed away slowly, and the man edged over to Isaac and Aaron in a smooth, flowing motion.

“Stay calm,” he said, shocking them both as he spoke in perfect Deltan. “I’ll get you out of this.”

He smiled at the slaver and spoke calmly in a language that neither of the brothers understood. From the way the slaver’s eyes widened, it shocked him as well, but he soon got over it and offered a retort. The five thugs formed a protective circle around him, brandishing their weapons, but the man with the pistol paid that no mind. He made conversation with them as calmly as if they were still at the bar in the cantina. His pistol, however, remained steadily pointed at the slaver, as firm and unyielding as his gaze.

We’re going to need a way out before this escalates, Isaac thought. He considered making a dash for the tram, but that would put the thugs between him and his ship. Instead, he flipped open his wrist console and started typing madly on the keypad, trying to unlock the airlock and give them a way to escape.

“What’s going on?” Aaron whispered. “Who is this guy?”

“I don’t know. Just get ready to come with me.”

“Stay calm,” the man said again. With his attention still focused on the slaver, he continued their conversation, this time in a more earnest tone. The slaver’s face turned red, and he started to shout.

At that moment, the airlock hissed open.

“Now!” Isaac shouted. He grabbed his brother and made a mad dash for the door. The moment they were in, he palmed it shut and collapsed, gasping in pain on the floor.


A Patriot’s Plea


“Isaac? Isaac, are you all right?”

Isaac felt like throwing up. His side hurt something awful, and his ears still rang from the blow he’d taken only a minute or two before. On board the Medea, where the artificial gravity was much closer to normal, he felt all his injuries acutely. He coughed, and Aaron helped him up to his feet.

“Let’s get out of here,” he said. “You didn’t leave anything on the station, did you?”

“I don’t think so, no.”

“Then let’s get to the cockpit.”

“What about that guy who saved us?” Aaron asked. “What are we going to do—just leave him there?”

Isaac palmed the inner airlock door open and limped through. “You saw how well-armed those thugs were—we can’t fight them. The best we can do is call the authorities and hope for the best.”

That didn’t seem to sit well with Aaron. He bit his lip and glanced at the outer airlock door, as if he felt the urge to run out and help the man outside. Isaac wanted to do something too, but he knew they wouldn’t last five seconds against the slaver and his goons.

As he started to limp toward the cabin of the ship, a muffled knock sounded through the airlock. He froze, his veins turning to ice. The sound was distant, coming through more than ten centimeters of hardened durasteel, but it was definitely a knock. Someone from the outside wanted in.

“Is that …” Aaron asked, leaving the question unfinished. He raised his knife, still smeared with blood.

“Hold on a second,” said Isaac. He punched a few keys on the access panel just inside the airlock, and the miniature screen displayed the video feed from the docking node. The wide-angle view stretched from floor to ceiling, with a distorted image of the black-haired man standing just outside the door. There was no sign of the slaver or any of his men—they must have left on the tram.

“Who is it?” Aaron asked.

“It’s the man who saved us. From what I can tell, it looks like the slavers are gone.”

“Should I let him in?”

Isaac hesitated. Was it possible this was some sort of trap? Whether it was or not, taking that sort of risk didn’t make sense. Then again, the man had just saved their lives. For honor’s sake, the least they owed him was a proper thank you.

“It’s okay,” said Isaac. “Let him in.”

Aaron lowered his knife and palmed the outer airlock door open. It opened slowly with a loud hiss, revealing the man who had rescued them. His pistol was holstered on his hip, his demeanor as calm and collected as if the standoff had never happened. He nodded politely at Aaron as he stepped inside.

“Thank you, sir,” he said in flawless Deltan. “I take it from the public registry that you are Aaron Deltana?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” said Aaron. “Who are you?”

“I’m known in these parts as Argo. I’m something of a starfarer, much like yourselves.”

“How do you know so much about us?” Isaac asked. “And where did you learn to speak Deltan?”

Argo smiled. “I spent a great deal of time in the Oriana Cluster when I was a star wanderer, especially in the more remote colonies. That’s how I recognized you. It’s not every dayshift that a pair of brothers from Delta Oriana walks onto a station, even such a major trading hub as this. But what really caught my interest was the name of your ship, the Medea. That’s a Pleiadian name. Is that what brings you to this part of the Outworlds?”

He doesn’t know about the girl in the cryotank, Isaac thought, relaxing a bit. That’s not what he’s after.

“We have our own reasons for coming to the New Pleiades,” he said, evading the question. “But come, won’t you sit down for a bit?”

“Gladly.”

Isaac hobbled into the cabin, the others following close behind. His head and stomach still hurt where the thugs had hit him, but the pain was fading. With luck, he’d make a speedy recovery. In any case, his injuries weren’t about to keep him from properly entertaining their guest. As Argo sat down at the lounge table, he fired up the food synthesizer to make some drinks.

“Would you like anything? Some juice, maybe? We don’t have enough fruit for cocktails, but we’ve got plenty more than just water.”

“Thank you,” said Argo. “Some juice sounds nice. It’s been a while since I had a good Deltan drink.”

Aaron wiped off his knife blade and sheathed it before walking over to Isaac. “Here, I’ll get that,” he said under his breath. “You go sit down and rest.”

“I’m fine, Aaron.”

“No, I mean it. You took a pretty bad beating out there—you’re in no shape to play host. I’ll take care of it.”

Isaac sighed, but didn’t offer any more protest. He eased himself onto the semi-circular couch and scooted around until he was next to Argo. The throbbing ache and soreness in his side told him that his brother was right.

“I have to thank you for rescuing us,” he told Argo, who sat with his hands clasped on the tabletop. “What exactly happened out there?”

“The man you met at the bar is a fairly well-known crime lord here in the Pleiadian underworld. He runs a mid-sized slaving outfit and operates brothels at almost a dozen star systems. He’s a vindictive man with a heady temper, so when you started that fight with him, I knew there would be trouble.”

“How did you convince him to spare us?”

A sly grin spread across Argo’s face. “Well, I’m fairly well-known around the New Pleiadies myself. Not as a petty crime lord, mind you—I have no respect for scum like that. No, I’m more what you might call a ‘patriot.’”

Aaron brought the drinks over and set them down. He sat across the circular table from Argo and looked him in the eye as Argo accepted the juice glass and took a sip from it.

“A patriot? You mean, like a warrior?”

“More or less. I’m a lieutenant in the resistance movement against the Gaian Imperials. They’ve invaded three of the border stars and have amassed a large enough fleet to take over the whole star cluster—provided that none of us fight back.”

Isaac frowned. “The war’s already started?”

“Of course,” said Argo, leaning forward. “Haven’t you boys heard? The Gaians have consolidated control of the Coreward Stars, and they’re turning their ambitions outward. Rumor has it that the Oriana Cluster is already in their pocket. Alpha Oriana has certainly gone that way, and Oriana Station was always the gateway to that part of the Outworlds. Yes, there’s a war on, make no mistake about it.”

“Mathusael was saying something about that,” said Aaron. He glanced at Isaac, his eyes lit with excitement. “Don’t you remember?”

“Yeah,” said Isaac. All too well.

“Can’t say I know anyone by that name,” said Argo. “It sounds like a good Deltan name, though. Very biblical.” He leaned back and took a swig of his drink.

“Mathusael is an old friend of ours from back home. He settled down in the Esperanzia system, after making some runs to the Coreward Stars. The last we saw him, he was telling us about the Gaian campaign in the Oriana Cluster, or something like that.”

“Indeed. It’s not just a handful of stars that are threatened. It’s something that all of us outworlders must unite to face. If the Imperials aren’t checked, they’ll gobble up every system with a settlement older than a hundred standard years. When that happens, even the Far Outworlds will be under their control. We all depend on each other, as isolated as some of us may be.”

“Oh, come on,” said Isaac, laying his hands palm up in exasperation. “You can’t possibly believe that the Gaians will conquer every last Outworld star. Even with a dozen battle fleets, it would take them over a century just to invade every system.”

Argo eyed him gravely. “They don’t need to send forces to every system—only the important ones. That’s why they’re going for the major star clusters first. The Oriana Cluster is already in their grasp, and the stars behind the Tajji dust lane have capitulated as well. That gives them a straight shot for the New Pleiades, and if you don’t believe they’re sending their battle fleets this way, I have about twenty scout reports from just the last month to prove otherwise.”

“So what’s this resistance movement you’re a part of?” Aaron asked. He listened with rapt attention, leaning forward with his hands clasped below his chin.

“It’s a loose coalition of local militias and defense forces from across the New Pleiades. The organization is fairly young, so we’re looking for as many friends and volunteers as we can find. In particular, we’re in desperate need of starships.”

So that’s what this is about, Isaac thought to himself. That’s why he went out of his way to save us.

“Starships?” Aaron asked.

“That’s right. We need pilots, captains, and crew to build a fleet that can maintain our positions against an Imperial advance, and possibly even withstand them in battle. The Gaian battle fleets have us outgunned and outnumbered, but we have a few tricks we can pull until we’re able to fight them directly.”

“Tricks? What sort of tricks?”

“I’m afraid I can’t talk about that specifically,” said Argo. “But when the Imperials come, we’ll be ready for them—so long as we have enough starships to quickly ferry our men and supplies between star systems.”

“So you’re a recruiter, then?” said Isaac. “You helped us out because you want us to join your cause?”

“Not just my cause—it’s your cause as well. Here in the Outworlds, we always think we can just pick up and move if things get bad. No matter what happens, there’s always another star to run away to, another place to go and start over. But the truth is, we depend on each other a lot more than we think. Take the old tradition that says that a man’s firstborn son should leave on his father’s starship to seek his fortune as a star wanderer. That tradition developed to keep the distant colonies from becoming too isolated, and their populations from becoming inbred. But it only works if there are enough independent free colonies to support that sort of nomadic lifestyle. Without enough free ports to trade at, it will all come crashing down. The most isolated colonies will either collapse or disband, and before long, there will be nowhere left for us to run.”

Isaac thought of the derelict station at Nova Alnilam and the colony that had collapsed there. He had to admit, Argo made some good points. If the people of Nova Alnilam had been more connected with the rest of the Outworlds, would that terrible disaster have befallen them? And his own home at Delta Oriana. If they hadn’t been cut off from the rest of the Oriana Cluster because of bigotry and religious persecution, would the famine have ever grown so bad as to force them to become refugees?

“How can we join you?” Aaron asked. The eagerness in his voice was almost more troubling than the question.

“Right now, all we’re looking to do is build a network of volunteers who can run supplies and communication between systems. We are organizing an armed flotilla, but we need help on the civilian side just as much as on the military. In particular, we’re looking for transports and blockade runners.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” said Aaron. “Isaac, what do you think?”

“I think we need some time to talk it over,” said Isaac. Time to think if we really want to get involved in this.

“That’s perfectly understandable,” said Argo. He finished the last of his drink and pulled a datachip from his jacket pocket. “If you would like to contact me for any reason, you can find my identifiers on there. There’s also some information for a contact of mine in the Verdana system, near where the flotilla is organizing. Tell him I sent you, and he’ll direct you to where you need to go.”

“Thanks.”

“Oh, and about that slaver: You won’t have to worry about him anymore. I told him that you’re with us, so if you want to conduct any trade at this port before you go, he won’t give you any more trouble.”

Yes, we already know we’re indebted to you, Isaac almost said aloud.

Argo offered his hand and gave him a firm handshake with a smile. He stood up, and Aaron scooted around to show him out. Even though Isaac still felt sore, he rose to his feet as well, if for no other reason than to prevent Aaron from saying anything privately to Argo that would commit them. As eager as Aaron was to join up with the resistance, the last thing Isaac wanted was to get them both tied up in an interstellar war.


* * * * *


Neither of them spoke for some time after Argo left. Isaac took a shower and applied some healant to his bruises, then climbed into his bunk to rest. Aaron cleaned up and settled down at the lounge table for a half-hearted game of damka with the Medea’s AI. The things they’d heard from Argo hung over them like a looming debris field, but neither of them wanted to be the first to bring it up.

Apparently, it weighed a lot more on Aaron’s mind, because he was the first to break the silence. Just as Isaac was drifting off to sleep, his brother took a deep breath and asked the question that was on both of their minds.

“So what do you think?”

Isaac sighed, knowing he wasn’t going to get to sleep for some time. “About what?”

“You know. What Argo told us about the war.”

“I think we’ve got enough to worry about without getting shot out of orbit by an Imperial battle fleet,” Isaac grumbled. “Like that girl in the cryotank, for example. How are we going to help her if we’re running blockades and ferrying military supplies everywhere?”

“Maybe Argo has friends who could help us to find the right equpment.”

“Maybe he does.”

“Look,” said Aaron, his voice tinged with exasperation, “I know you don’t want to get involved in this resistance or whatever. But you have to admit, if Argo and Mathusael are right about this, there’s a war coming that we sure as hell can’t ignore.”

Isaac said nothing. He felt too tired to get caught up in another argument with his little brother. No doubt Aaron would keep pushing him until one of them capitulated. If he was going to hold out, he’d have to conserve his energy.

“Come on—it’s not like he wants us to outfit the Medea for combat,” Aaron continued. “He said they’re just looking to build a network of starfarers who can transport supplies and equipment. It’s not like we’re enlisting to become soldiers.”

Would you like to become a soldier? Isaac wondered. Are you really so eager to put your life on the line? And if you get yourself killed, what do you think that’s going to do to me?

“Why are you so eager to join up with these guys?” he asked instead. He glanced at Aaron, who shrugged.

“Why shouldn’t I be? You heard Argo—it’s a cause that affects all of us. How can you stand by and do nothing?”

“I haven’t decided what to do yet. Have you?”

“No,” said Aaron, but that was a lie. Isaac could tell the moment his brother’s eyes had lit up at Argo’s words that he wanted to join the resistance.

“We don’t know enough about this to make a decision yet,” Isaac tried to explain. “All we have to go off of are some rumors from Mathusael and the recruiting pitch from this Argo character. Maybe we can do something to help, but I don’t want to make any commitment until we know what we’re getting into.”

“Fair enough,” said Aaron, though his eyes said otherwise. “How are we going to do that?”

“How are we going to make a decision?”

“No, how are we going to gather all the information you say we need to figure out what we’re getting into?”

Isaac took a deep breath and rubbed his forehead. His ears still rang from the blow, though the sound had died down considerably. He closed his eyes, surrendering to his exhaustion.

“I don’t know. We’ll figure that out later.”

“We owe him our lives, you know. If we put off making a decision until—”

“I know, I know. Can’t you let me rest for a bit?”

It seemed as if Aaron wanted to say more, but thankfully, he let it go for the moment. The table hummed gently as he deactivated it, and his quiet footsteps sounded as he stood up and began to pace.

“I still think we should ask Argo about that girl in the cryotank,” he said. “Do you want me to go find him while you’re resting?”

“No—I’ll take care of that. You go …”

“Go what?”

“Go find shomething useful to do,” said Isaac, his words slurring together. “Look up the exchange rates, figure out shome profitable trades.”

“I mean it, Isaac. I think we should go talk with him.”

“I’ll do it firsht thing when I wake up.”

“You promise?”

“Sure, why not?” said Isaac. He couldn’t quite tell what he was getting into, but sleep seemed so sweet to him right then that he’d say almost anything to taste it.


* * * * *


How did I get suckered into this? Isaac wondered as he walked quickly down the wide, bustling avenues of Hephesteron Station. Argo had said to meet him at a cafe just off the central square, which was good because it was a more public place. There was less chance of running into those slaver thugs again if he kept to a place where there would be plenty of witnesses if they tried anything.

At least Aaron had agreed to remain with the ship. That had taken some wrangling, but he’d accepted the ultimatum that Isaac would see Argo alone or not at all. There was plenty of work to keep him busy, and though there was a chance that the thugs might attack him while Isaac was gone, it was doubtful they’d strike in the same place twice. Besides, if the risk meant that Isaac could speak with Argo alone, that was worth it.

The cafe sat on the second and third levels, overlooking the avenue near the vaulted glass ceiling. The bright lights throughout the station dimmed the view of the stars, but they were still barely visible overhead. After some searching around the various crowded market stalls, Isaac found the steep stairwell that led up to the cafe. The place was nearly as crowded as the avenues below, but there were plenty of small alcoves that offered some privacy. Argo was waiting alone in the nearest one.

“Ah, Isaac Deltana,” he said, standing from the small round holotable to offer his hand. “So glad to see you again.”

“You too,” said Isaac as they shook. The domed ceiling of the alcove opened up to a circular skylight that could iris open or closed. The glowlamps were dim enough that the stars were clearly visible, much more so than the avenue. Most of the illumination came from lights around the edge of the holotable, which displayed two copies of the menu. Isaac sat down and began to peruse it.

“They don’t have many spicy drinks here, but the coffee is excellent,” Argo offered. From the steel canister on the table in front of him with a tiny wisp of steam rising from the mouthpiece, Isaac guessed that he’d already ordered.

“I’ll just take whatever you’ve got. What is it?”

“Chondarr black, third option under the coffee section. The table will serve it automatically.”

Isaac keyed the option in the menu, and it disappeared, replaced by an artistic illustration of the local constellations. He looked up at Argo and clasped his hands together.

“I owe you my thanks for your help with those slavers. If you hadn’t appeared when you did, I don’t know what we would have done.”

“Don’t mention it,” said Argo, waving his hand as if it was no big deal. Of course, that wasn’t true. They owed him their lives now, and he had to know that.

“I’m not sure what we can do to repay you,” Isaac said, unsure how to broach the subject of the henna girl without first addressing the bigger issues. “You said you’re looking for starfarers to join your cause. Our ship isn’t particularly large or fast, and we don’t have any military experience to speak of.”

“That’s fine. We’re just looking for merchanters who can join an occasional supply convoy between trade runs. If you don’t want to join in a combat capacity, that’s perfectly understandable.”

Aaron will want to, Isaac thought to himself. He won’t be content with supply runs, not when he’s missing the excitement of war.

“Has there been any fighting yet? I haven’t heard anything.”

Argo sighed and leaned back. “Nothing beyond the opening salvos. The Imperials have been giving the slavers and pirates some trouble, of course, but they haven’t moved beyond the border systems they’ve taken—possibly due to local revolts. We’d like to get those systems back as soon as possible.”

“I’m sure,” said Isaac, nodding. A hiss sounded from the table, and the center panel lifted up to reveal a cylindrical compartment. Inside was a drink canister just like Argo’s. It took Isaac a second to figure out that it was for him, but the mechanism waited until he’d retrieved the drink before retracting back into the table.

“Fancy, eh?” said Argo. “That’s what I like about this place—plenty of privacy.”

“I suppose.”

Isaac took a sip and pursed his lips. The coffee was a lot stronger than he’d been expecting, but Argo was right—the quality was amazing. He opened the condiment rack and pulled out a tube of creamer.

“If you’d rather join us in a more military capacity, we’d love to enlist your help, but we won’t force you. And you don’t have to worry about taking a loss on the convoys. You’ll still get paid, just like any normal trade run.”

Seems reasonable enough, Isaac thought. The only trouble would be keeping Aaron from trying to join as a soldier, but if the supply runs were voluntary, they could agree to join the network while still being free to pick and choose which convoys they joined—if indeed they joined any at all.

“What else can you tell me about the coming conflict? Is there a chance it might not turn into all-out war?”

“At this point, no one really knows,” said Argo. “Some people think the Imperials will be satisfied with just a few systems, or that the takeovers will be slow enough that we’ll have time to spread out and start new colonies as the old ones fall. But from the size of the battle fleets in the Tajji Rift, it’s clear that they want to take over the whole of the New Pleiades—by force if necessary.”

“But why would that be necessary? There hasn’t been any fighting in the Oriana Cluster that I’ve heard of.”

“That’s because the Orianans were divided and unprepared. Taking Alpha Oriana was a cakewalk, and the Imperials moved swiftly enough that no one was able to oppose them. That isn’t going to happen here.”

Would it really be so bad if the Gaians took over? Isaac wondered silently. Would things be all that different if we were under Imperial rule?

“The Gaians have made some pretty harsh changes in the Alpha Oriana system,” Argo said, as if anticipating his question. He looked Isaac square in the eye, his gaze unflinching. “My sources tell me that they’ve gutted the local manufacturing industry and are requiring merchanters to be licensed in order to conduct any trades.”

Isaac frowned. “What? That’s insane—why would they do that?”

“Because they don’t want Alphan goods to compete with their own manufacturing in the Coreward Stars. They only want to take over the Outworlds so that they can exploit our resources, and perhaps establish our colonies as markets for their goods. Our independence and way of life are anathema to them.”

Father, Isaac thought, his heart sinking. Mother, the rest of the family—what’s happening with them right now? If Argo was right, and the Gaiains were in the process of dismantling Alpha Oriana as a major Outworld hub, things had to be getting difficult for all of them. Just the anti-immigrant bigotry was hard enough. If the economy collapsed on top of that, he didn’t know how they’d survive.

“If the Imperials get their way, what’s happening in the Oriana Cluster will happen here, as well,” Argo continued. He spread out his hands. “Hephesteron Station thrives as a major trading hub, but it will collapse, and all the minor systems that depend on the goods that come through here will go with it. The Imperials only want to exploit us, and they’ll do that if we don’t stop them.”

“You’re sure about that?”

Argo leaned forward. “As sure as I am about anything. That’s why I’ve dedicated my life to this cause, because I don’t ever want to see that happen. Not here—not at the stars I call home.”

Isaac shifted uncomfortably. “You’ll forgive me, I hope, if I tell you I’m not ready to commit until I’ve heard this from a different source.”

“Of course,” said Argo, leaning back with both his hands palm-down on the table. “You’re free to do as you wish, just like any other Outworlder.”

“Still, we may take you up on some of those convoy runs. We owe you our lives, after all.”

“Don’t mention it. The system coordinates I gave you are for a rogue planet that we’ve been using as an embarcation point. There’s an outpost there that can register you on our network and let you know of any convoys that we’re putting together.”

“Thanks.”

“No, thank you,” said Argo. “Any help at all is greatly appreciated.”

Isaac took a sip of his coffee, relieved that they’d gotten that business out of the way. He had to admit, Argo didn’t seem like a bad guy. Passionate, certainly, and devoted to his cause, but not so overzealous as to be blinded to the concerns of others. Isaac had half expected him to get red in the face when he’d said he needed to get more information from another source, but instead, it seemed like he was forthright and honest.

Can I trust this guy? Isaac wondered. There was only one way to find out.

“There’s something else,” he said, setting his drink canister back down. “Something I was wondering if you could help us with.”

“Oh?”

“A couple of months ago, we came across a derelict station in the Far Outworlds. Our charts registered it as an isolated colony, but everyone on board was dead. We found a makeshift cyrotank, with what appears to be the station’s only survivor. We came here to find a way to thaw her. Do you know where we could find a mass cryothaw device, like the ones the first colonists used?”

Argo frowned and scratched his chin. “Nothing comes immediately to mind. I know what you’re talking about, though. Plenty of the settlements in this star cluster were colonized in mass migrations, so they’d likely have that kind of equipment. The trouble is that most of that old infrastructure has been dismantled, so I don’t—wait, no. There’s one system that definitely has that sort of equipment, and it’s not too far from here.”

Isaac’s heart leaped. “Really?”

“Yeah. It’s the Colkhia system—Nova Colcha on some of the older charts. I was there about four months ago. The local defense forces had done an inventory of their equipment, and I remember one of those devices on the list.”

“That’s great,” said Isaac. “Do you think they’d let us use it?”

“Sure, just tell them I sent you. There is one problem, though.”

“What’s that?”

Argo took a deep breath, his gaze distant. “Colkhia is the last border system that the Imperials haven’t taken yet. It’s a little ways off the main corridor, but still very much in their sights. I think I would have heard about it by now if the system had fallen, but news doesn’t always travel quickly between stars. You might have a run-in with the Imperials if you go there.”

“Is there any reason they’d see us as a threat?”

He shrugged. “I suppose not. But if the system’s already fallen, the people probably won’t be in a position to help you. You might even see some fighting.”

Some fighting, Isaac thought to himself. That was the last thing he wanted. Still, the war hadn’t really broken out yet, and Argo’s lead was the best they had so far. He thought of the girl, so serene in spite of the fact that all of her people were dead. The longer she stayed frozen in cryo, the stranger and more alien things would seem to her when she came out. She deserved to be thawed sooner rather than later.

“Thanks,” he said. “I guess we’ll just have to get there before the Imperials do.”

Argo grinned. “I like your way of thinking.”

Just don’t tell my brother, Isaac thought as he took another sip. Through the skylight, the stars shone like the silent witnesses they always were.


Contraband of War


“Drive primed and coordinates set,” said Aaron as Isaac settled down in his chair. “Ready to jump when you are.”

“Very well,” said Isaac. He double-checked the calculations and flipped the switch. The orange-yellow star that was their destination stood out amidst the deep space starfield. The bluish wisps of the Good Hope Nebula were barely visible off in the corner, the New Pleiades at their back. Through the bulkheads, the hum of the drives slowly grew.

The final jump to the Colkhia system was only a tiny fraction of a light-year, but it was still enough to turn Isaac’s stomach. As the humming grew in pitch, he closed his eyes and clutched his armrests tightly until the sound died and the nausea passed.

“Triangulating position,” said Aaron. “Sun, planet, and primary moon—we’re also getting readings from several local nav-buoys. Calculating orbital trajectory.”

“Can you open a channel with the station?”

“Hang on. It looks like we’re having trouble picking up a signal.”

Isaac frowned. “What do you mean?”

“It’s not on the—wait, what’s this? Incoming transmission, main channel.”

“Put it on audio, and give me a sector scan on the main screen. The main settlement shouldn’t be far. I want to get a visual of that and anything else unusual in the sector.”

“Got it. Connecting now.”

Isaac gripped the flight stick as the metadata for the transmission scrolled across his primary screen. The sound of static met his ears, along with a man’s voice.

“Attention unidentified starship, this is GIS Starfire. State your name and port of origin.”

Stars of Earth—it’s the Imperials.

Aaron turned to Isaac, a look of panic and confusion on his face. The voice had spoken in Gaian, and he couldn’t understand it. Isaac took a deep breath.

“Uh, GIS Starfire, this is Isaac Deltana of the Medea. We are an Outworld starship, without any home port or base. We’ve come to Colkhia to—”

Medea, state your last three ports and declare your cargo. Assume a stable orbit as close to your current trajectory as possible and prepare to receive a docking party.”

What’s going on? Isaac wondered, his heart pounding. The sector scan came up on the main screen, with the rocky, airless planet about ten thousand kilometers below them and half a dozen points with transponder flags attached to them. At a low planetary orbit, one of the points had a trajectory line that wrapped around in a large circle; its identifiers showed that it was the main station. But between the station and the Medea was another point, its shorter lines indicating a shifting course. The point turned into a small swarm of maybe ten points, several of them accelerating toward the Medea.

Medea, this is GIS Starfire. Do you copy? Declare your last three ports and cargo, or we will assume hostile intent.”

“GIS Starfire, this is Isaac again. We have no hostile intentions. We’re just two star wanderers, here to conduct some trades. Our cargo consists mostly of synthetic fibers and finished leather goods. If you want, we can transmit a detailed manifest.” He turned to his brother. “Send them a copy of our cargo manifest,” he told him in Deltan.

“Very well, Medea. Transmit your manifest and declare your last three ports.”

SHOULD I DELETE THE INFORMATION ABOUT THE CRYOTANK FROM THE CARGO? Aaron typed in a text window on the main screen. Knowing him, it was more a declaration than a question. At least he had the sense not to say it aloud.

“One second, Starfire,” said Isaac. His hands raced across the keyboard at his station.

YES, BUT LET ME DO THE TALKING, he replied. WE CAN STILL TALK OUR WAY OUT OF THIS.

Aaron looked like he wanted to say something, but with the transmission still live, now was not the time to discuss the particulars of their situation. Obviously, the Imperials had taken over. That would explain why the station was silent. If there was any resistance, the Imperials were probably busy putting it down. The thought made Isaac shudder, but he couldn’t afford to think about that now.

“Our last three ports were Vulcana, Esperanzia, and, uh, Nova Minitak,” said Isaac. “Our trade ledgers should confirm this to you. Would you like us to transmit those as well?”

“Negative, Medea. Prepare to receive a docking party to confirm the information you’ve sent. Over and out.”

As the transmission cut, Aaron let out an exasperated breath and turned to face him. “What are we going to do? The Imperials are swarming all over the place! Have they taken over the system? If they have—”

“Calm down, Aaron. It’s okay. They asked for our names, our cargo manifest, and our three most recent ports of call. Right now, they’re sending over a docking party to check us out.”

“But what are we going to do if they find the henna girl? If they learn that we met with Argo?”

“Good point,” said Isaac, staring out the window at the nearly starless view. “Upload Argo’s identifiers to my wrist console and wipe it from all the ship’s data cores. As for the henna girl …”

“Yeah?”

He sighed. “There’s not much we can do but hope they don’t find her. She’s stowed securely in the back, right?”

“As secure and hidden as I could make her.”

“Good. With luck, they won’t even open our cargo hold—or if they do, they’ll only give it a cursory search. And even if they do find her, they don’t have any reason to interfere.”

From the look on Aaron’s face, it was clear that he didn’t believe it for a second. Isaac found it a bit incredible, too, but he had to hold out some hope that they’d get out of this. With the vectors set for a high altitude capture orbit, he eased forward on the flight stick and began to bring the Medea around.

“We should start recharging the jump drive,” said Aaron. “Get out of here as quickly as possible.”

“Do we even have time? That docking party is coming in fast.”

“At the rate they’re going, we have thirty minutes, maybe forty-five. Enough for a short jump.”

“But that’ll barely get us more than a light-hour from our current position, at the risk of burning out our jump drives. The moment the Imperials locate us, they’ll come after us with everything they’ve got.”

“We’ve got to get out of here, Isaac,” said Aaron, his voice nearly cracking with desperation. “If they take us into custody—”

“They aren’t going to do anything to us,” Isaac said as firmly as he could manage. “But if it makes you feel better, start charging the jump drive anyway.”

That seemed to appease him somewhat, though his cheeks were still pale. Isaac didn’t blame him for being worried, but that would have to change soon if they wanted to look as unsuspicious as possible. He smiled and put a hand on his brother’s arm.

“Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be fine.”

“Are you sure about that? Because if Mathusael and Argo are right, we’re walking right into the jaws of a lion.”

I know, Isaac thought silently, and it’s my fault. He realized now that he should have listened to Argo’s warning about coming to this place. If the Imperials really had taken over, the conflict was advancing a lot faster than he’d thought. In just a few months, this whole sector of space could be a war zone.

“I’ll make sure we get out of this all right,” he said. “I promise.”

Out the forward window, the airless horizon of Colkhia IV came into view. A handful of tiny blue circles stood out amidst the dark gray rocks, the only signs of life, much less human settlement. They had the rigid symmetry of a corporate colony world—or strict adherence to the hierarchy of the Coreward Stars. Perhaps both. The sublight engines engaged, pushing them back in their seats as they gently accelerated into a capture orbit. On the main screen, the Imperial docking party shifted to intercept them.


* * * * *


Stay calm, Isaac thought as he waited by the airlock to greet the docking party. Through the bulkheads, the groaning of metal on metal announced that they’d docked. With Aaron in the cockpit, he would have to face the men alone—though with the nervous wreck his brother was right now, perhaps that wasn’t such a bad thing.

The access panel blinked red, showing that the outer door had been opened. A moment later, the inner door hissed and slid slowly open, revealing a squad of six soldiers in light gray fatigues. They carried menacing assault rifles at the ready and wore thick body armor, giving their chests a barrel-like appearance. Their faces were as hard and cold as space ice, as if they expected someone to shoot at them at any moment.

“Welcome to the Medea,” said Isaac, doing his best to smile. “My name’s Isaac Del—”

“That’s enough,” said the lead soldier. He stepped forward with his partner, a young woman, and moved Isaac aside while the others boarded. Once the others were in, they patted him down, taking his wrist console—Isaac was glad he’d thought to turn it off, since only someone with the pass-code could get at the data inside. At the same time, the other soldiers started systematically checking every door and compartment in the ship.

A balding middle-aged man in a crisp white uniform stepped on board, flanked by two more soldiers. He had a gaunt face and eyes that were sunk deep in their sockets, with a cybernetic headset attached to his right ear. He stood so tall that he had to duck as he stepped through the open doorway into the cabin. From the way he pursed his lips as he entered, it was clear he didn’t think highly of the place.

“I take it you are the captain of this skiff,” he said, not quite facing Isaac head on. Something about the disapproving way he said it made Isaac swallow.

“More or less, sir,” he said offering his hand. “The name is Isaac Deltana.”

“So I’ve been told.” The officer’s hands remained firmly clasped behind his back. Rebuffed, Isaac pulled back his hand and hooked it nervously around his belt.

“Hey!” said Aaron, pushing away the soldiers who escorted him from the cockpit. He clenched his fists as if ready to fight back. The Gaian officer raised an eyebrow.

“Stay calm,” Isaac told him in Deltan. “Nothing’s happened yet. We’re still okay.”

“Are you kidding? They’re ransacking our ship!”

“Who is this man?” asked the officer. The soldiers escorted Aaron forcibly to the wall and pushed him up next to Isaac.

“He’s my brother,” Isaac explained. “I left him in the cockpit to handle some, uh, navigational calculations.”

“Since when do star wanderers travel in pairs?”

With eight soldiers and the officer crammed onto the ship, it felt tighter than a vacuum pack. Isaac took a deep breath. In the narrow space, the claustrophobic sensation was almost overwhelming. He felt as if he were having trouble getting enough air—which wasn’t surprising since the Medea’s filters were only designed to handle three people, at most. If it had any effect on the officer, though, he certainly didn’t show it.

“It’s, ah, complicated. We’re not from the New Pleiades—we’re from the Oriana Cluster. I was supposed to leave on this ship alone, but a famine forced our family to flee, and, well, since we had the space—”

“Why did you come to the Colkhia system?”

“J-just to make some trades, sir,” said Isaac, his sweat turning cold under the officer’s unyielding gaze. The frown on his face was unmoved.

“What are they doing to our ship?” asked Aaron. All around them, the soldiers were going through compartments and poking their hands into any crevice or crack that looked like it might hold something. One of them had piled their clothes on the lower bunk and was systematically going through them.

“Does your brother have a question?”

“He, ah, wants to know if there’s a problem. We didn’t expect your men to go through our entire ship.”

“A problem?” said the officer, raising his voice ever so slightly. “Perhaps you have a complaint about the way you’re being treated?”

Yes. Yes, we do.

“We’re just wondering if there’s anything we can do to help,” said Isaac. He swallowed his nervousness and smiled, hoping that would be enough to disarm the man. It wasn’t, but it did diffuse some of the tension from the situation.

“That depends. It would be better to continue this conversation on board the Starfire.

He nodded to the two soldiers holding them against the wall and turned to the airlock. The soldiers motioned with their guns to follow him.

“What the—where are they taking us?” said Aaron. “Are we leaving the ship? What’s going on?”

“Just stay calm,” said Isaac, taking him by the arm. The soldiers standing guard at the door fell in step, so that they had an escort both ahead of and behind them. Under the circumstances, he could see why Aaron was nervous. It seemed almost as if the Gaians were taking them prisoner.

“We’ve got to stay on our ship. If they take us off—”

“The officer wants to talk with us on his ship. So long as we comply, I think they’ll still let us off. It’s not like we’re in trouble.” Probably.

“I just—I don’t like this.”

“Neither do I,” said Isaac, “but we don’t have much of a choice now, do we? Just play along. We can still talk our way out of this.”

Hopefully.

They followed the officer through the airlock and onto the Gaian Imperial starship. The floors were slightly wider than the ceiling, and the corridor was spacious enough for four people to walk abreast, with rooms branching off on either side. The lights that ran along the ceiling were painfully bright, making Isaac squint as his eyes got used to them.

The officer stopped at a heavy double door and input some sort of pass-code on the access panel. The doors clicked and slid slowly open, revealing a small room with nine barred hatches lined up along its walls. The air smelled slightly of ozone and electricity.

Aaron’s face turned white. “They’re taking us prisoner! Isaac, we’ve got to get back to the ship!”

He turned to run, but the soldiers grabbed him and forced him kicking and screaming into the nearest holding cell. Isaac’s stomach fell out from under him as he turned to face the Gaian officer.

“I thought you said we were going to talk!”

“We will,” said the officer as his men took Isaac by both arms. “Once we’ve determined that you aren’t a threat, we’ll be free to talk at your leisure. Until then, standard protocol demands that we hold you here.”

The soldiers opened a cell and started to push him in. Across the room, the door slammed shut on his brother with a loud clang.

“What makes you think we’re a threat? We’re just two unarmed star wanderers!”

“If what you say is true, you’ll be free to go within the hour.”

With that, the officer turned and left. Isaac reached up to grasp the bars to his cell, but an electric sizzle told him that was a bad idea.


* * * * *


“They aren’t going to let us out of here,” said Aaron from across the room. Isaac wished he could argue, but after what had to be more than an hour, he was beginning to believe it himself.

He sat on a hard metal slab that was probably meant to serve as a bed, though without a cushion or blanket it wasn’t much better than sleeping on the floor. It looked like it retracted into the wall, though he didn’t have the controls to open or close it. With nothing else to do but talk, he sat cross-legged with his arms folded across his chest, his back slouched against the hard metal wall.

“They’ve got to have found the girl by now,” Aaron continued. “What do you think they’ll do when they find her? Stars, I hope they don’t confiscate her.”

I’d be more worried about the data on my wrist console, Isaac thought. Of course, there was no use talking about it—not with the chance that their cells were probably bugged.

“Wait, do you think they’re listening to us?” Aaron asked. “Stars! Do you think I betrayed her?”

“I doubt it,” said Isaac. “Even if they are listening, Deltan is so obscure that they probably can’t translate it.”

“Even with auto-translators?”

“The best auto-translators don’t work well with Deltan. The database just isn’t big enough. No one speaks it anywhere else but home, and maybe a couple of other colonies in the Far Outworlds.”

“I hope you’re right,” said Aaron, his voice tinged with relief. “Because if I—no, better not mention it again.”

“We’re going to be fine,” said Isaac. “They have no reason to hold us. Once they realize we’re not a threat, they’ll let us go.” I hope.

“How in all the black holes of Hell could they possibly think we pose a threat? Did you see the size of their battleship? That thing is massive! No, they’re holding us because they don’t want us to leave and warn the resistance of what they’ve done here.”

A cold chill ran down Isaac’s back. His brother could be right. Even if they weren’t a threat, the Imperials would still want to hold them just to keep word of their takeover here from spreading too quickly.

“Even if that’s true, they’ll still let us go eventually,” he tried to argue. “What’s the use of holding us forever? News is going to spread.”

“Yeah, but even after the news gets out, they’ll want to hold us just to make sure we don’t go over to the resistance. And even if they do let us go, they’ll take our ship and leave us here, or force us to settle down in the Coreward Stars.”

Isaac’s palms started to feel clammy. He leaned forward and started nervously tapping his knee.

“Why didn’t you bring this up before, when we still had a chance to escape?”

“All I had before was a feeling. I get a lot of feelings, but I don’t always know why. Now that I’ve had a chance to think about it for a while, it’s all starting to make sense.”

“Sol, Earth, and Luna,” said Isaac, buring his face in his hands. “What have I done?”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s my fault,” he continued, his breath coming short and quick as he quietly began to panic. “We should have never come here—no, I should have listened to you and jumped out while we still had the chance. We’re going to lose the Medea, and it’s my fault!”

“Hey, it’s all right. There’s no reason to beat yourself up about it. What’s done is done. Fretting won’t help us now.”

“And what will? Is there anything left we can do?”

“We’re still kicking, aren’t we? They haven’t beaten us yet. If we can get back to the ship somehow, maybe we can still pull out of this.”

The jump drive, Isaac thought to himself. It’s still charging.

At that moment, the door to the hallway hissed open, and the Gaian officer stepped in with two soldiers flanking him. Isaac stood up at once, taking a deep breath to clear away his anxiety. His legs felt numb and his heart was beating ferociously, but other than that he was fine.

“Captain Deltana,” the officer addressed him as one of the soldiers opened his cell. Across the room, the door swung open to Aaron’s as well. A small wave of pre-emptive relief swept over Isaac, though he knew they weren’t clear yet.

“Yes, sir,” said Isaac, doing his best to smile. “I trust you’re satisfied with your search of our ship?”

“Quite satisfied,” said the officer, his lips turning up in a cheerless grin. “We still have some questions, though. Please, come with me.”

He turned and left the room without waiting to see if they would follow. The soldiers kept their distance, but Isaac still fell in step, motioning for his brother to do the same.

“Where are we going?” Aaron asked under his breath.

“I don’t know. He said they still have some questions.”

“Questions, my ass. If we don’t bust out of here the first chance we get, we never will.”

I agree.

They walked down the long, white corridor with the soldiers following behind. Isaac calculated how far it was to the airlock and wondered whether the Gaians had locked it down.

The officer led them up a flight of narrow stairs and through a hatch into what looked to be some kind of hangar. A freight airlock took up all of one wall, with a loading claw off to one side and a couple of mini mag-wheelers for offloading in low gravity. Crates of cargo sat haphazardly across the center of the floor; upon closer inspection, Isaac realized that most, if not all of them, were theirs.

Then Aaron gasped, and he saw it. Off to one side, against the back wall, was the cyrotank with the henna girl.

“We found some contraband in your cargo,” said the officer, leading them over to where the cryotank sat propped on top of two smaller crates like a table. “I must say, she’s quite a find, though I’m rather surprised to find two star wanderers dealing in the slave trade.”

“She isn’t a slave,” said Isaac. His skin began to crawl as he watched the officer stare at her.

“Oh? Then what is she?”

“She’s a survivor. We picked her up in the Far Outworlds. Her people put her in cryofreeze just before they all died. We came to Colkhia because we heard there was equipment here that could thaw her.”

The officer ran a boney finger over the glass. “A likely story. Why should we believe you?”

He’s not going to let us leave with her, Isaac realized with a gut-sinking sensation. He’s going to confiscate her as slave contraband, even though the Gaians have no authority over the Outworlds. None besides the threat of force, which was really the only authority that mattered right now.

The officer turned to him and pulled out Isaac’s wrist console from his pocket. “We took this from you when we seized your ship, but there’s a pass-code preventing us from turning it on. Given enough time, our engineers could easily dismantle it and recover the data that’s stored there, but if you cooperate and give us the codes now, we’ll let you return to your ship.”

He’s lying.

Isaac swallowed and turned to his brother. Aaron’s eyes were wide, but his jaw was set and his hands clenched. Their gazes met, and in that instant, they both knew what they had to do.

Isaac lunged for the officer and snatched the wrist console out of his hand. The guards ran forward, but Aaron elbowed one in the face and grabbed his assault rifle. Shots went off, and the next thing Isaac knew he was rolling across the floor, gripping the console tightly with both hands.

“Stop them!” shouted the officer as he ducked behind a stack of crates. Shots filled the air around them, and Isaac ducked, covering his head until they stopped.

“Come on!” said Aaron. He grabbed Isaac by the arm and pulled him up.

As Isaac looked dazedly around, he saw that soldiers were both dead, lying in pools of their own blood. Somehow, Aaron had managed to shoot them both, one in the face, the other in the neck. The officer was nowhere in sight. Through the bulkheads, alarms began to sound.

“How are you doing?” his brother asked.

“A little shaken up, that’s all. You?”

“Not bad, considering. What’s the best way out of here?”

Isaac glanced hastily around the hangar. There were only a couple of entrances, including the one they’d come in through. No doubt the soldiers would come that way in just a few seconds. Even if they could get to the airlock, there was no guarantee they’d find it unlocked. It looked like they were trapped.

“What about those EVA suits over there?” Aaron asked, pointing with the rifle. Isaac looked next to the freight airlock and saw a pair of hatches with a small window on the side. They looked like backflaps for heavy duty EVA suits—the kind that you climbed into through a hatch, rather than suiting up inside and walking out. They probably had magnetic gripping points on the gloves and boots for climbing around on the ship’s hull.

The Imperial battleship—or the Medea.

“Okay, here’s the plan,” said Isaac. “I’ll start the autodocking routine remotely through my wrist console and set the jump drive to go off in two minutes, then we both get in the suits and make a run for the Medea. So long as we’re touching the hull when she jumps, we’ll get away with her.”

“But what about the henna girl? How do we get her out?”

Isaac glanced over at her, lying so peacefully in the tank above the two dead soldiers. His stomach fell, but there was nothing they could do for her, not with the alarms ringing.

“There’s not enough time,” he said. “We can’t get her to the airlock fast enough.”

“But if we vented the hangar somehow, we could—”

The door hissed open, and a squad of soldiers ran in. Aaron spun around and fired right into them, making them scatter. Adrenaline surged through Isaac’s veins, and he bolted around the crates to the EVA suits in the wall. A narrow bulkhead provided some cover, allowing him to switch on the wrist console.

“Come on,” he muttered as it started up. His fingers trembled as they flew across the keypad, but after an excruciating few seconds as the device tried to sync with the ship, he managed to get a connection and bring up the proper command menus. The drive was only fifty percent charged, but that would be enough to get them out of the system. He started up the autodocking subroutine and set the coordinates for a random point as far as the nav-computer safely advised, then commanded the AI to jump in two minutes.

Aaron slammed up against the wall just as he finished. Bullets ricocheted all around them, whistling loudly in the narrow space. As Isaac stood up, his brother screamed and fired, the muzzle flash singeing the hair on his arms.

“Get in there!” Isaac shouted, pointing to the hatch for the EVA suit. “Give me the gun—I’ll cover you!”

Aaron stopped firing and turned to him. “No, I’ll cover you. Don’t worry, I’ll be—”

“The hell you will,” said Isaac. He grabbed the rifle before his brother could protest and shoved him toward the hatch. “If I go first, you’ll do something stupid like try to save the girl. We’ve got two minutes before the Medea jumps out—now let’s move!”

For a second, it looked as if Aaron was going to protest. But then, the soldiers started firing again, making them both duck for cover. Aaron ducked behind the bulkhead, then opened the hatch and scrambled in head-first. A red light flashed on the hatch, but once he was completely in, it resealed automatically and stopped flashing.

Isaac didn’t know what he was firing at, but he kept it up anyway. The hangar was quickly filling with smoke, and he thought he could hear shouts coming from three or four directions. Any second now, the soldiers would be there for him. He waited for a lull and made a dash for the second suit, hoping that no one shot him before he could climb in.

After a hair-raising struggle to get himself fitted, the hatch sealed shut behind him and the visor HUD lit up. A menu popped up, with an alert asking if he was ready to disengage. He slipped his fingers through the oversized gloves and flexed his hands to make sure they were working. A cursor popped up on the display, and by tapping his index finger to the visor he managed to hit “OK.”

The menu faded away, and a red light began to blink in the corner of his vision. When it blinked the third time, the suit shuddered, and he fell until his feet hit something solid. Evidently, he was in an airlock of some sort where the starship’s artificial gravity field was still in effect. The gunshots were almost completely inaudible now, a sign that he’d detached from the ship, which was confirmed when he took a step forward.

“Aaron?” he called. There was no time to callibrate the comm frequencies, though. He looked around for his brother and saw that the outer door of the small EVA airlock was already open. Aaron was nowhere in sight.

He walked to the edge of the airlock and looked out. Far below, the airless gray world of Colkhia glowed like an enormous moon. Its surface was pocked and cratered—and if he wasn’t careful, he could end up as another crater himself. The Medea was less than fifty meters away, nosing up as the autopilot put some distance between itself and the Imperial battleship. The cargo bays in the back were wide open, but that wouldn’t affect the jump—only the mass calibration would affect that. All the cargo being gone was going to have some effect, but that hardly mattered now. The only thing that mattered was getting away.

He checked the magnetic grip settings on his boots and made ready to jump, but just as he was ready to shove off, he noticed a spinning shape off to his right. It was his brother, tumbling wildly in his EVA suit. Isaac’s heart leaped in his throat—Aaron didn’t know Gaian, so of course he didn’t know how to operate the suit. He had probably just jumped and hadn’t been able to grab onto anything in time.

With less than a minute before the Medea jumped out, Isaac scrolled frantically through the menus. If his suit was for use in unloading, then there should be—yes, there it was. A tether. He shoved off from the airlock and dove for his ship, still scrolling through the menus to figure out how it worked. His stomach flipped as he passed through the artificial gravity field, but the disorientation and nausea soon passed. He’d been in space long enough to adjust quickly to changing gravity conditions.

Just before he hit the Medea, he spun himself around with his arms and activated the magnetic grips in his boots. He landed with a solid thud, the only sound to reach his ears since leaving the Imperial docking ship. His brother was spinning end over end about thirty meters away, at a difficult angle from where he was standing. Without a moment to lose, he walked along the outside of the Medea until he came to a lip that was big enough to give him some traction, then pulled out the tether anchor and slammed it against the hull.

I’m coming for you, Aaron, he thought to himself. I’m not going to leave you here.

He gave himself some slack with the cable and jumped. For a second, he worried his aim had been off—there wasn’t any time to pull himself back and try again—but he’d gotten it right. His brother drew steadily closer, spinning noiselessly with his arms and legs flailing. If he’d seen him, there was no sign of it.

Come on, Isaac thought as he reeled out the cable for the last stretch. Don’t kick me away. Grab on.

Just before he was within reach of his brother, his stomach lurched again—not with the disorienting sensation of passing into microgravity, but the nausea that came before an FTL jump. He slammed into Aaron and grabbed wildly at him with his oversized gloves and thickly padded arms. Somehow, he managed to get him in a hug, one that held even as the tether went taught. The nausea and pressure built up as they both spun together, until it seemed that they were the ones who were still and the universe was spinning.

But soon, the sensation passed, and they were turning slowly together amid a field full of stars. The planet was gone, and so was the Imperial battleship, but the Medea was still there—the beautiful little starship that was their only home between stars. Isaac had never been happier in his life to see her.

But that was nothing compared to the relief that flooded through him knowing that his brother was safe in his arms.


Bonds of Brotherhood


The sound of Aaron’s heavy breathing broke the silence. “H-hello?” he said. “Isaac, is that you?”

“It’s me,” said Isaac, still holding onto him tightly. They were drifting in space, connected to the Medea only by the tether he’d anchored to the hull. If it broke, they’d both be dead—a fact that was hard to ignore, given how hard they’d jerked it around.

“I can’t do a thing in this suit,” said Aaron. “The menus are all in Gaian, and—”

“I know, I know. Just stay calm, and I’ll walk you through it. But first, I need you to tether yourself to me so I can pull us back to the ship.”

“How am I supposed to do that?” he asked, his voice tinged with panic. His bear-hug grip on Isaac tightened.

“It’s okay. Your tether is attached to your waist, and it’s designed to spin around to the back once you’ve latched on. The anchor is on your chest pack; it attaches magnetically. To let out the line, roll your thumb and middle finger once the anchor has been detached.”

“But how do I detach the anchor?”

Isaac reached down and pulled it out himself. “There, see that menu on your HUD? Tap your faceplate where you see the first option, like that. Now, I’m going to attach the anchor to my boot, since it’s magnetized. I need you to let go so I can do that. Once you do, just let out a little line by rolling your thumb back along the inside of your finger. It’s not too hard—a little different from our own suits, but you’ll get the hang of it.”

It took a few moments for Aaron to calm down enough to let go, but he didn’t need any more cajoling to do so. Still, he gripped the cable with both hands, as if afraid that it would snap off at his waist.

“Aaron, some slack.”

“Sorry,” he said. He rubbed his fingers to let out the line, and Isaac hastily locked the anchor to the bottom of his boot.

“There. Now, let’s get back to the ship.”

He tugged lightly on his own line and began to drift back toward the Medea. Aaron at least had the good sense to let out enough line so that he didn’t hold him back. It took a little while, but soon he was back with his hands firmly attached to the hull. The thud as his gloves hit the dark gray metal sounded sweeter than anything he’d ever heard.

“Okay, I’m back. Your turn, Aaron. Nice and gentle.”

The tug on the line practically ripped his legs out beneath him, but the grip through his gloves held. A short while later, Aaron landed, making an even louder thud.

“Okay, I’m on,” he said, his voice filled with relief.

“Great. Now let’s get inside.”


* * * * *


The recycled air of the Medea had never smelled sweeter to either of them. Aaron collapsed on the semi-circular lounge couch, while Isaac sat on the edge of his bunk. After all that had happened, he wanted nothing more than to shut everything out and take a long nap. First, though, they had to figure out what to do next, since now they’d lost all their cargo. They weren’t out of trouble yet, not by a long shot.

“Thanks for saving my life out there,” said Aaron. “I owe you one.”

“It was nothing. You would have done the same for me.”

“Yeah, but you weren’t the idiot who jumped without knowing how the suit worked. It wasn’t until I was careening through space that I realized I couldn’t even read the menus.”

Isaac chuckled. “Yeah, that was kind of dumb.”

“I’ve never felt so helpless. Stars, I should be dead right now.”

“Hey, if it weren’t for you, those soldiers would have killed us back on the ship. How did you manage to get them both? For a moment there, I thought for sure they’d shot you.”

“I have no idea how I did it. You gave me that look like you were about to do something crazy, and things just happened. My hands are still shaking from it.”

“Yeah, mine too. At least it worked out all right. We’re safe now.”

“Not all of us,” said Aaron. He sat up, a look of intensity in his eyes. “The henna girl is still back there.”

Isaac frowned. “Aaron, you know we couldn’t have done anything to save her.”

“Maybe not back there, but now that we’re free, we can.”

“Like what?”

For a second or two, Aaron was at a loss for words. He opened and closed his mouth, looked away for a second, then ran a hand through his hair.

“Look, I don’t actually have a plan, but we’ve got to do something. I mean, she’s on that battleship because of us. We’ve got to steal her back before they do something bad to her.”

The back of Isaac’s neck began to feel cold. He wiped the sweat away, fully realizing where this discussion was headed.

“I don’t know,” he said. He shook his head and rose to pace the floor of the tiny cabin. “Maybe they won’t do anything to her. Maybe it’s better for her this way.”

“Oh, come on. You saw the look on that officer’s face. There’s no record of her anywhere, no one who knows who she is or where she came from. They can do anything they want with her, and they probably will.”

“Look, I know you want to help her. I do, too, but Aaron—she’s on an Imperial battleship. We can’t just walk in and ask them to give her back.”

“No, but we can fight. You have the coordinates for Argo’s recruiting post, right? They’re going to retake Colkhia as soon as they can, and if we join up now, we can be there when they do. Maybe we can find a way to get her back.”

“That’s a pretty slim chance,” said Isaac. He sighed and sat down across the table from his brother, clasping both hands together. “It’s pretty clear we have to start over. The Imperials didn’t just take the girl, they took all our cargo, too. We can probably make most of it back by joining a few supply convoys, but that’s going to take time, and—”

No,” said Aaron, slamming both hands on the table. “Can’t you see? Now is the perfect time. We’ve got nothing left to lose!”

We can still lose each other.

“I really don’t think it’s a good idea to get more involved in this conflict than we have to. We’re not from here—the New Pleiades, I mean. We’re strangers.”

“We’re strangers everywhere,” said Aaron. “Ever since Megiddo Station fell, we’ve been strangers. That girl’s a stranger, too, and when she wakes up in the hands of those Imperial thugs, she’s going to be a hell of a lot more lost than we are.”

“I know, but—”

“So isn’t that reason enough to join the fight? Or didn’t you believe Argo when he said we’re all in this together—that the very future of the Outworlds is at stake?”

Isaac sighed heavily. “Look, let’s just take it easy until we’ve calmed down. It’s going to take the jump drive a few hours to recharge, so we don’t have to make a decision right away. We’ve got time to think things through, so let’s not say anything rash.”

Aaron looked as if he were about to protest, but instead he rose to his feet and began to pace. Whether he was fuming with anger or planning out his next angle of attack, Isaac didn’t care. His head was pounding, and he felt so tired, more tired than he could ever remember. The familiar walls of the cozy little cabin now seemed to be closing in around him, constricting his entire world. It was as if he’d been on the ship with his brother for months, not just a few minutes.

“You know what?” said Aaron, his voice surprisingly calm. “When I was out there alone, spinning helplessly through space, I realized something.”

“What?”

“I realized that my whole life, I’ve been spinning just like that. Helpless, with no control. I’ve always been in someone else’s shadow, drifting from place to place with no real say in anything. When we found that girl back at Nova Alnilam, I finally had some sense of purpose and direction, but when we lost her …”

“Yeah?”

“I don’t know how to describe it, but I realized that I couldn’t just let her go. I couldn’t just go back to the way things have always been, with me following you around and drifting through life. I finally had something to fight for, and I’d rather die than live without it.”

Isaac frowned, and his heart sank at his brother’s words. This wasn’t like him—something was different. Something had changed. Instead of lashing out in a tantrum, his words were focused and purposeful. He was building to something, and Isaac had a horrible feeling that he wouldn’t want to hear what it was.

“What are you saying, Aaron?”

His brother shook his head and paced for a bit before answering. “I guess what I’m saying is … I don’t know how to put this, but I can’t stay with you. I’ve got to strike out on my own.”

The words cut through Isaac like a laser. His throat constricted, and the floor seemed to spin beneath him.

“Aaron, are you sure? We’re brothers—we’re in this together.”

“Yeah, but I can’t live in your shadow anymore. I’ve got to start making decisions on my own. If that means fighting against the Imperials, then drop me off with the flotilla. Otherwise, I’ll leave at the next port and make my way there myself.”

“But—but you can’t do this!”

“Why not?”

“Because we’ve been together since Alpha Oriana,” said Isaac, his emotions beginning to crack. “You’re the last family I’ve got. Besides, I told Dad I’d look after you, and if you leave now, I’d, I’d …”

He wasn’t able to finish without choking up completely. Aaron watched him with an unreadable expression on his face, one lost somewhere between confusion and sympathy. It wasn’t a face Isaac had ever seen. For some reason, that choked him up even more.

“You can’t take care of me if you keep me from making my own decisions,” said Aaron, his voice almost completely devoid of anger. “There are some things I have to do on my own.”

“But you don’t even speak the language around here! That EVA suit—you couldn’t even read the sub-menus to figure out how the thing worked. Do you really expect to last more than two seconds on your own?”

“I’ll figure it out. I’ve got a reason to learn, now. That girl is depending on me—I’ve got to rescue her.”

Isaac buried his aching head in his hands, as if to shut himself off from the rest of the universe. His brother’s mind was set—it was clear there was no dissuading him. He’d made his decision to join the fight against the Imperials, and whether he followed through on that decision at the next port or the one after, there was nothing Isaac could do to change his mind.

“Look,” said Aaron, “why don’t you get some rest? There’s no rush. We can talk about this later.”

Isaac was too shaken up to argue. “Yeah,” he said, stumbling off to his bunk. “Later.”

Though if he had his way, they would never have to talk about it at all.


* * * * *


Isaac tried to sleep for about an hour, but he just couldn’t manage it. He had too much on his mind: his brother leaving, their cargo getting seized, the girl falling into the Imperials’ hands. Everything was going wrong, and it was all his fault.

He stared at the bottom of Aaron’s bunk and thought back to when they’d first set out on the Medea. Only a few months had passed since leaving Megiddo Station, and the situation was already grim. They were refugees in every sense of the word, and so was the rest of their family: poor, outcast, and struggling every day just to get by. Most of them didn’t even speak Gaian.

After Isaac’s father had first asked him about taking the Medea, they didn’t speak about it again for almost a full standard week. Mother had gone somewhere, probably to visit one of the neighbors, when his father had brought it up again.

“Are you ready to take the Medea?

“Yeah,” Isaac said softly, knowing that his father wanted to keep the whole thing a secret. His parents had been arguing a lot recently, which was probably why his mother was gone so much. The open hostility had weighed heavily on everyone.

“Good. Get your brother and meet me at the elevators near quadrant four.”

He wants us to leave now? Chills shot down down his spine, but there was no time to object; his father was already heading out the door.

Isaac sighed and walked into the bedroom. His legs felt like water and his hands were beginning to shake, but he ignored that and steeled himself as best as he could. Aaron was lying half-asleep on his mattress, the only one who hadn’t woken up. Through the thin sheet metal walls, Isaac could hear his aunts chatting as they went about their chores.

“Hey, Aaron,” he said. “Time to get up.”

His brother yawned. “Why? Whas’goin on?”

“Dad needs us ASAP. Better get some clothes on and come with me.”

For a moment, Aaron looked as if he was about to object, but when he saw Isaac’s face, he shrugged and sat up. After taking a moment to stretch, he grabbed some pants and a shirt from the pile of unwashed clothes at the base of his mattress, then stood up and straightened himself out.

“What does he need us for?”

“He—he said he’d let us know,” Isaac stammered. For a second, he considered telling Aaron everything, but it would have taken too long and the walls were far too thin. Better to let Dad do that, once they were out of earshot .

They walked out side-by-side into the windowless corridor. Isaac choked up a bit, knowing that they wouldn’t come back. At least, he wouldn’t. He wanted to say goodbye, but there was no opportunity for that. Maybe they’d get a chance later over the radio, once they were on the Medea. Even so, it pained him not to be able to say it in person.

It’s for the best, he tried to tell himself. Better to leave now, quietly, than to watch Mom throw another hysterical fit.

They met their father halfway to the elevators. He was pacing there, evidently as agitated as Isaac. After briefly exchanging greetings, they set off down the corridor at a brisk pace.

“Where are we going, Dad?”

Isaac glanced over at his father, but the old man’s face was as impassive as an asteroid. Should we tell him? Their eyes met, and a barely perceptible shake of the head told him that the answer was no.

“Uh, Dad,” said Aaron, “the elevators for our section are back there.”

“I know, son,” said their father. “We aren’t taking those elevators.”

“Then where are we going?”

“I’ll let you know when we get there.”

Aaron sighed loudly and rolled his eyes in an overly dramatic gesture of exasperation. He really had no idea what was going on, did he? Of course not. He hadn’t spent his whole life looking forward to this moment like Isaac had.

“Everything’s secure,” he whispered to his father as they rounded the corner of the next residential housing unit. “All of my things are already stowed on board the Medea.”

“And Aaron’s?”

“As many as I could sneak out.”

His father looked him in the eye and nodded. In that moment, Isaac caught a glimpse of the struggle within his father. His heart leaped into his throat as he realized that it wasn’t any easier for his father to send them off this way than it was for them to leave. If they hadn’t been forced to flee Megiddo Station, it wouldn’t have to be this way. But that didn’t make it any easier.

Don’t worry, Dad, he wanted to say. I’ll do my best out there. I won’t let you or Aaron down.

They came to the elevators on the far side of the apartment block and stepped inside. Once the doors closed, their father let out a long breath, but still said nothing. Aaron looked from him to Isaac and back again.

“You’re seriously not going to tell me what this is about?” When neither of them answered, he smirked and shook his head. “What is this, some kind of kidnapping?”

Isaac looked up at their father, but still, he remained silent. Come on, Dad, he wanted to say. When are you going to tell him? It wasn’t fair to drop a decision like this on Aaron so abruptly, even if the secrecy was necessary. God knew their mother would do all she could to stop them if she knew about it. But Aaron was right—this was starting to resemble a kidnapping.

They stepped out onto the wide rimside corridor and headed off toward the Medea without a word. The docks and terminals were bustling as usual, filled with traffic from all over the Oriana Cluster. They all passed in a blur, though, barely more than a random jumble of languages and colors to Isaac. The diverse array of starfarers on the station was unlike anything he’d experienced back home, but that wasn’t the only reason he couldn’t focus.

“We’re going to the Medea, aren’t we?” Aaron asked, breaking the heavy silence between them. Still, their father didn’t answer.

“I said, are we going to the Medea?

He has to know, Isaac thought, taking a deep breath. We shouldn’t keep it from him any longer.

“Yeah,” he said. “That’s where we’re going.”

“Why?”

“I’ll tell you when we get there,” their father said abruptly. Isaac nearly objected, but decided instead to back down. As much as he wanted to come out and tell Aaron everything, the last thing they needed right then was a fight.

They walked in silence through the bustling crowd until they came to a nondescript airlock door, in a section designated for long-term docking. Their father palmed it open, and they stepped into the sterile, recycled air of the old family starship.

“Hey, what’s with all the stuff in here?” Aaron asked, noticing the pile of carefully folded clothes and the vacuum packed food in one of the open wall compartments. “Is someone getting ready to go?”

“Yes,” said Isaac as the door hissed shut behind them. “We both are.”

Aaron gave him a funny look, then smiled as if the whole thing were a big joke. “Nuh-uh.”

“He’s right,” said their father. “I brought you here to see you both off. Coming here in secret was the only way to get past your mother.”

“Wait—both of us?”

“That’s right.”

Aaron’s face fell. He looked at Isaac, then back at their father.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It was the only way to make sure that you didn’t go tell Mom,” said Isaac. “I mean, the only way to make sure she wouldn’t find out and stop us.”

“It’s your choice, of course, whether to stay or go,” said their father.

Aaron was starting to panic. His eyes were wide, and a sickeningly sober expression crossed his face.

“My choice? Wait, what about my things? My clothes, my—”

“I already brought them on board,” said Isaac. “The important things, anyway. They’re stowed in the footlocker under the bunks.”

His brother frowned in anger and disbelief. “You mean you went through my things without asking me?”

“That’s not important,” said their father, stepping between them. “Look, boys—look at me.”

He placed his hands on their shoulders and looked them each in the eye. A somber silence fell over them. Isaac bit his lip and did his best to ignore the numbness in his legs. This was the moment he’d spent his young life preparing for, the moment when he finally took his father’s ship and said goodbye.

“I know this isn’t easy for either of you,” their father began. “It certainly wasn’t easy for me when I was your age. It’s a vast and lonely universe out there, full of dangers and risk. Once you leave, you’ll probably never see us again.”

“Then why are you sending us out?” Aaron asked, his voice shaky.

“Because it’s the only way to give you both a chance at a better future. You remember how hard it was to leave Megiddo Station, don’t you? How much we had to sacrifice just to get here? Well, the prospects around here aren’t going to get any better. If you’re going to build a future for yourselves, you’ll have to do it the same way I did—by seeking your fortunes across the stars.”

Isaac swallowed and nodded. For Aaron, though, it was too much to handle. He pushed their father away and turned to face the bulkhead, burying his face in his hands.

“I can’t believe this is happening. You want me to leave everything behind? Just go and never see you or Mom or Mariya ever again?”

“You won’t be leaving everything,” Isaac tried to reassure him. “Whatever happens, we’ll be in it together. We’ll still have each other.”

“Yeah. Right.”

“Like I said, the choice is yours,” said their father. “If you want to stay, you can take back your things and return to the apartment. I’m not going to force you.”

“But Aaron, do you really want to?”

The words left Isaac’s mouth before he could hardly think about it. If Aaron decided not to go, that would leave him entirely alone out there, and even though he’d been steeling himself for this moment his entire life, now that it was there, he realized he was terrified of going it alone.

Aaron turned and wiped his face with the back of his hand. “You’re going for sure, then?”

“Of course. Dad was younger than me when he left, wasn’t he?”

“But you’re the oldest. It’s expected of you.”

“Perhaps,” said their father. “That’s the tradition, but there’s nothing to say that the both of you can’t go together. The traditions exist to bring new blood to the remotest settlements and keep the Outworlds strong. There’s space on the Medea for both of you, so as long as you can get along with each other and work together, I don’t see anything wrong with sending you both out.”

Aaron nodded. He took a long breath, and his eyes began to clear.

“Think of it as an adventure,” Isaac told him. “You don’t want to spend the rest of your life at Alpha Oriana, do you? Ten standard years from now, what are you going to regret more?”

“I don’t know,” Aaron muttered. “It’s just so heavy …”

“You’ve got to make a decision one way or another. This isn’t the sort of thing to let drift away.”

“Am I really never going to see you again?” he asked, looking back at their father.

“Only God knows,” he said softly. “But you probably won’t.”

“And Mom? Mariya?”

He shook his head.

“But, but how can I leave them without saying goodbye?”

“We can record a message and send it to them over the planetnet before we jump out,” said Isaac.

“I can’t say goodbye in person?”

“Your mother will do everything to stop you if you do. Trust me. It’s better this way.”

But that doesn’t make it easy.

“Is the cargo hold full?” Isaac asked.

“Yes,” said their father, sighing a little. “I had it loaded this morning. The inventory should be in the computer.”

“Great. Where’s the best place to sell electronics?”

“Damned if I know, son. It’s been almost twenty standard years since my last trade run. Just keep your ears open and check the prices wherever you go, and you’ll be fine.”

“This is really happening, isn’t it?” Aaron asked. He wasn’t as shocked or emotional as before, though his gaze was distant and he looked a bit dazed.

“Only if you want it to,” Isaac said softly. Please don’t let me do this alone.

For a soul-wracking moment, Aaron said nothing. It seemed in that moment as if their future tottered on the point of a blade and could fall to either side. But then, to Isaac’s immense relief, he nodded.

“Right. You’re leaving now?”

“As soon as I can. Are you coming?”

“I’m coming,” said Aaron, his voice low but firm.

Isaac smiled and slapped him on the back. “Then welcome aboard, brother.”

The memory played out in Isaac’s mind as clearly as if it were only yesterday. He stared up at the underside of his brother’s bunk, his heart hammering in his chest, and wondered if Aaron regretted his decision. Everything he’d said about Isaac controlling him and making all of his decisions for him—it stung, but only because Isaac knew he was right.

But what if he puts himself in danger? Isaac thought. What if he gets himself killed?

His own words came back to him. Whatever happens, we’ll be in it together. We’ll still have each other.

He clenched his fist and sat up. “Aaron? You there?”

“Yeah?”

“Got a moment?”

His brother didn’t answer, but considering that they were alone in deep space with nothing to do until the jump drive recharged, the question was moot.

He rose to his feet and walked into the cockpit, taking a deep breath as he did so. Aaron stared straight ahead, pretending like he didn’t notice him.

“Hey,” he said, taking a seat in the pilot’s chair. “I’ve been thinking.”

“Oh yeah?”

Isaac nodded. “Yeah. What you said is right. I can be a bit too controlling sometimes, and for that, I’m sorry.”

“I’m still going to go get her back. You’re not going to change my mind on that.”

“I know I’m not.”

Aaron cocked his head and frowned. “What do you mean, ‘you know’?”

“I mean it’s your choice, and you’re free to make it. If you really want to join Argo and fight in this war, I’m not going to try to stand in your way.”

“But … ?”

“But what?”

“There’s always a ‘but,’” said Aaron. “Come on, what’s the catch? Just a minute ago, you were dead-set on keeping me out of this. Now you’re suddenly okay with it?”

“There’s no catch,” Isaac said softly. “It’s just, wherever you go, I want to go, too. We’re brothers. We shouldn’t let anything come between us. If that means joining up with Argo and the rebellion here in the New Pleiades, then so be it.”

“You really mean that?”

“Of course I do.”

Aaron narrowed his eyes. “What if I don’t want you to come with me? What if I want to strike out on my own?”

“That’s fine, totally fine. If you want to leave the Medea, you have my full support. But that doesn’t mean we have to part ways forever, does it?”

For a gut-wrenching moment, Aaron hesitated. But then, to Isaac’s immense relief, he shook his head.

“No, I guess it doesn’t.”

“When we set out on this starship, we said that we’d stick together. Our home is gone, our friends and family have been scattered. The only thing we have left is each other.”

Aaron nodded slowly. “You’re right.”

“I know I’ve been hard on you in the past, and I’m sorry. I’ll let you do more on your own now, take more responsibility, even strike out on your own, if that’s what you want. I’ll do my best to let you make your own decisions, because I’m not the only one who should be running things. It’s about the both of us.”

“Brothers.”

Isaac smiled. “Yeah. Brothers.”

As if by unspoken agreement, they stood up and gave each other a hug. Isaac held on a little longer than his brother, but it was clear that whatever else had been said, they were going to stick together.

“You know, she’s in the same situation that we are,” Aaron said.

“Who?”

“The henna girl. No home, no family. She’s lost everyone she’s ever known. The thing is, where we have each other, she’s totally alone.”

Isaac took a deep breath. “You really want to get her back, don’t you?”

“Yeah. I do.”

“Well, I don’t know if it’s possible—I seriously doubt that it is—but if you really want to rescue her, I’ve got your back.”

Aaron smiled and put a hand on his shoulder. “Thanks, man. That means a lot to me.”

And I’m not going to let you get yourself killed doing it, Isaac added silently. But his brother didn’t need to hear that—not now. Not yet.

“All right, then. Let’s set a course for that recruiting post.”

“Yeah. Let’s do it!”

With that, they took their seats again in the cockpit of their father’s starship, bound as brothers to the very last.


Book II: Comrades in Hope


Premonitions


Aaron ran through the cargo bay, the assault rifle hot in his hands. Sweat ran down his forehead, mingling with his matted hair. He brushed a strand out of his eyes and took cover behind a crate.

The bay was silent, but that didn’t mean he was alone—or that he was safe.

His hands shook, and the gun seemed ready to slip from his hands. He was running out of time. Not much longer and the place would be swarming with Gaian Imperial soldiers. They knew he was here, and they wouldn’t let him leave with his life. Even now, they were on their way to kill him—or worse, the girl that he’d come for.

I’ve got to find her, he told himself as he made a dash for the opposite wall. I can’t leave this place without her. The girl in the cryotank, the one he’d found at the derelict space station at Nova Alnilam. He and his brother Isaac had voyaged from star to star, looking for someone with the technology to wake her. Then, at Colkhia, the Imperials had seized her as contraband. Well, he was here to take her back. But time was running out, and if he didn’t find her soon—

He rounded the corner and saw the cryotank sitting on a lift. There was no mistaking it, with the smooth glass face and the roughly welded joints. He could even make out the profile of the girl’s face inside, outlined against the light gray wall of the cargo hold.

He started to run towards her, but his legs refused to comply. It was as if he were stuck up to his waist in a thick, syrupy sludge. With gargantuan effort, he put one foot in front of the other.

“I’m coming!” he screamed.

As he advanced, he saw something move in the cryotank, as if the girl had already started to thaw. He reached out for her, and the bond holding him back slowly gave way. With a staggering lurch, he dropped his assault rifle and broke free.

She was quite possibly the most beautiful thing he had ever seen in his life. Her long, black hair cascaded around her naked shoulders, her dark lips and soft brown skin a stark contrast to the jagged machinery around them. Her whole body was covered with intricate henna tattoos that turned her into a work of art. The gorgeous fractal pattern all but mesmerized him as he traced it across the curves of her slender body.

“I’m going to get you out of here,” he whispered.

A green gas filled the interior of the cryotank, and her body began to spasm. He drew back in shock, as if he were witnessing a statue come suddenly to life. After countless ages of cold sleep, she coughed and gasped for breath, her chest rising as her lungs filled with air. Her eyes flew open and met his, sending chills up and down his spine.

In that instant, something terrible happened. Her skin yellowed and began to sag. Her cheeks pulled back, exposing teeth that were old and rotten. Her chest and stomach sagged, revealing the lines of her ribs, and her fingers contorted into unnatural shapes. A hole opened up in her chest like a tear in a worn fabric, revealing blackened flesh and dry, brittle bones. Before Aaron’s eyes, her body disintegrated as death claimed her, the weight of all the years she’d slept come back to pay their debt.

“No!” Aaron screamed. He frantically slammed his fists against the glass, but he was too late. Her lifeless corpse had decayed beyond all recognition.

Heavy footsteps sounded behind him, and he turned just in time to see a whole platoon of Imperial soldiers come into view. Before he could react, they opened fire. The muzzle flashes from their rifles lit up the dimly lit cargo hold like a hundred tiny novas, and the bullets shredded through him like a meteoric rain. Blood—his blood—splattered in all directions. He opened his mouth to scream, but a bright light filled his vision as his head exploded with pain.

“Aaron! Aaron, are you all right?”

He opened his eyes and found himself staring up at the familiar bulkhead over his bunk on the Medea. A sharp pain split his forehead where a bruise was just beginning to form. His bed sheets and boxers were soaked with sweat, his heart pounding in his chest like an overworked jump drive. He took a deep breath and groaned.

“What—what happened?”

The light in the cabin switched on, momentarily blinding him. “Sounds like you were having a nightmare,” said Isaac, his brother.

Aaron groaned and covered his eyes until they adjusted to the light. Slowly, he eased off the bunk and stepped over to the table set into the recess in the opposite wall.

“It was so real this time,” he said as he slipped into his seat. “I saw her, Isaac. She—she died before my eyes.”

“Who?”

“The henna girl.”

Isaac draped a blanket over his shoulders just as he began to shiver. “Here, let me get some healant for your forehead. Looks pretty nasty.”

“What do you think it means?”

“What?”

“The dream,” said Aaron. “It’s got to mean something. A dream can’t be this real and not mean something.”

“It doesn’t mean anything. You’re just delirious right now.”

“No, I’m not!”

“It’s okay, calm down. I didn’t mean anything by it. Now hold still while I apply the cream.”

Isaac knelt down in front of him and rubbed the healant on Aaron’s bruise with his index finger. It stung at first, but cooled down quickly, stopping the pain. Aaron imagined little healing ice crystals running through his skin, freezing him into cryo like the henna girl. He shivered as his sweat turned cold and pulled the blanket a little tighter.

“Are we going to find her, Isaac?”

“We’ll do our best.”

Yes, Aaron thought to himself. I certainly will.

“Where do you think she is right now? Is she alive? What are the Imperials doing to her?”

Isaac sighed. “I don’t know. They seized her as contraband, so they probably haven’t thawed her yet. If they have, then hopefully they’ll treat her well.”

“Fat chance of that, with the war going on.”

“Maybe.”

Aaron frowned. “What do you mean, ‘maybe’? She’s in danger—we’ve got to save her.”

“I know, I know. We’ll get her back. But you’ve got to understand, she doesn’t know anything about us. For all she knows, the Imperials rescued her.”

“Don’t say that.”

“Okay, I won’t. But when they wake her up, she won’t know how she got there. As much as you obsess over her, she doesn’t even know you exist.”

Aaron’s headache returned in spite of the healant. He groaned and rubbed his forehead.

“Even if she doesn’t know about us, we’ve got to help her,” he said. “It’s our fault that the Imperials have her now, our fault that she’s so far from home. Or what’s left of it, anyway. We can’t just let them take her.”

“So you’re finally taking responsibility for something?” Isaac said with a grin. “That’s a change.”

Aaron groaned and rolled his eyes. “Whatever. How long before we arrive?”

His brother checked his wrist console. “Jump drive’s almost charged. We’re about point-six-four light-years out, so another two dayshifts.”

“Is there any way we can speed that up?”

“Not safely. Besides, we’re probably going to do a lot of waiting around anyways. The Pleiadians might be assembling a navy, but that doesn’t mean they’ll set out as soon as we join up.”

“I know,” Aaron sighed, burying his head in his hands. “It’s just—I’ve got this feeling, you know? It’s like a premonition or something. I know that the dream probably won’t come to pass, but it feels like a sign of something, you know?”

His brother reached across the table and laid a hand on his shoulder. “I know the feeling. I’ve had a few dreams like that myself.”

“You have?”

“Yes,” he said, his expression suddenly serious. He looked Aaron in the eye. “You remember when we used those EVA suits to escape the Imperial battleship?”

“Yeah. We barely latched onto the Medea before the nav-computer jumped her out.”

“Remember right before that? How you were drifting away because you didn’t know how to read the suit menus, and I had to come out and grab you?”

“Yeah?”

Isaac withdrew his hand and took a deep breath. “That’s my nightmare. I dream that you’re drifting in front of me, but before I can get to you the Medea jumps out and leaves you there. The next thing I know, I’m alone in deep space, and you’re gone forever.”

Neither of them spoke for a few moments. Aaron shivered, and not from the cold.

“Well, at least it didn’t happen like that.”

“It could have. The dream feels so real while I’m in it, but it’s not a premonition. So just because this nightmare seems real to you, it doesn’t make it a premonition either.”

“Maybe,” Aaron admitted. Inwardly, though, he couldn’t shake the feeling.

Isaac rose to his feet. “Well, I’d better get ready for the next jump. You get some sleep. It’ll help us get there faster.”

“Right.” They’d been alternating shifts, jumping as soon as the drives were fully charged, ever since their escape from Colkhia. It meant that they saw less of each other, but it also meant that they’d arrive at their destination that much sooner.

Isaac ducked through the doorway to the cockpit, and Aaron stood up and rubbed his eyes. His brother was right. Nightmares or not, he needed to sleep. But even though the image had mostly faded from his mind, he could still remember the feeling of powerlessness as the henna girl disintegrated before his eyes.


Hopeful Partings


Aaron could barely contain himself as the Medea started the final jump. The low hum through the bulkheads rose in pitch, and the perspective of the room around him began to warp. This was a short jump—more for precision than for distance—so there was little more than a slight fluttering of his stomach as the ship passed almost instantaneously to its target destination.

The stars at their exit point looked no different than they had before, the millions of tiny lights shedding their soft, omnipresent glow on the deep space starfield. The scanners, though, picked up a large object about fifty thousand kilometers off the ship’s bow. It was a small, terrestrial rogue planet, barren and without an atmosphere. Without a sun, it drifted alone in the void between stars.

His main screen flashed. “Looks like an incoming transmission,” he said. “Text and audio, coming from the direction of the planet.”

“Put them on,” said Isaac. “I’ll talk to them while you establish our trajectory.”

Aaron nodded and switched the message onto the cockpit main display. As he used the local nav beacons to determine their heading and position relative to the planet’s gravity well, he kept an eye on the incoming messages.

A young woman’s voice came through the audio feed. As Aaron had expected, she spoke in Gaian, so he couldn’t understand her. The Gaian language was much more prevalent in the New Pleiades than anywhere else in the Outworlds—even the local creole was thick with it. Fortunately, the computer’s autotranslator soon kicked in.

“Attention unsignified starship,” the screen read as the woman’s voice carried over the speakers. “This is <ERROR> station. Pleasing identify.”

As Isaac replied, the autotranslator transcribed his words to text and ran them through the autotranslator subroutines so that Aaron could follow along.

“This is a starship of Aaron and Isaac Medea, we are to looking for a man named Argo, he it was <ERROR> to us coordinates.”

The autotranslator had always had difficulties translating to and from Aaron’s native Deltan. The Deltan language was so obscure that the databases the algorithms relied on were all far too small to render much more than gibberish. Even with the substantial modifications Isaac had made, it wasn’t enough. Aaron hated relying on the autotranslators.

“Can you tell me what she says?” he asked softly. “I—”

Isaac silenced him with a wave of his hand as the woman answered. Aaron frowned. Why did his brother have to be such a jerk about it? Folding his arms, he turned to the screen.

“Copying Medea, <ERROR> luck, Argo is arrived just few <ERROR> <ERROR> expecting you?”

“What did she say?” he asked, a little louder. Still, Isaac ignored him.

“We are hopefully, <ERROR> Station, we are hopefully. Pleasing tell him we <ERROR> for see him—”

Aaron flipped off the autotranslator in disgust. Just because Isaac was the oldest, that didn’t mean he had a right to cut Aaron off or treat him like a little child. They were brothers, and that meant that they should be equals, no matter who was younger or older. If only Isaac would let Aaron prove himself, he’d see that Aaron was just as good at handling responsibility as he was.

At length, the message cut, and a new transmission came in, this one with flight plans to dock with a small station in low orbit around the planet.

“What did she say?”

“She said that Argo is here,” Isaac answered. “Along with the whole flotilla. They heard about the invasion of Colkhia just before we arrived, and decided to mass here in order to save time.”

“What about Argo? Is he expecting us?”

Isaac shrugged. “How should I know? He’s probably very busy.”

“Why didn’t you ask her?” Aaron asked. “Stars, if I had been talking, that’s the first thing I would have asked her.”

“If you want to do the talking, you should put more effort into your language studies and spend less time playing dumb games in the simulator.”

Aaron’s cheeks reddened, and he clenched his fists. “Why do you always have to treat me like I’m a little kid?”

“Calm down, calm down. Sheesh. I didn’t mean anything by it. But seriously, if you want to get around by yourself in these parts, you’re going to have to try harder to learn the language.”

“You think I don’t already know that?” Aaron muttered, softly enough that his brother couldn’t hear him. He was right, though. After letting out a long breath, he turned to his work without another word.

The flight plans were pretty basic. A number of ships were parked above the rogue plant in a high parallel orbit, but they were far enough from the station that they shouldn’t be too difficult to avoid. As he checked their signatures, he saw a wide variety of starship designs, only a few of which he recognized. There could be no doubt that it was the Flotilla, the largest allied military force of its kind ever organized in the history of the Outworlds. If anyone was going to defeat the Imperials, it was them.

And then Isaac will see that I’m not just a kid, Aaron fumed to himself. When I’ve proved myself in battle and rescued that girl the Imperials took from us, he’ll see that I can handle things well enough on my own.

He could hardly wait to leave and get started.


* * * * *


“Ah, Isaac,” said the tall, dark-skinned man who met them at the airlock. His long black hair was pulled back, exposing his wide, angular forehead. “And Aaron—so good to see you both. Welcome to New Hope Station.”

Aaron recognized him at once as Argo, the Resistance recruiter they’d met at Vulcana. Even if he’d forgotten the man’s face, the fact that he was speaking Deltan—not Outworld creole laced with Deltan, but Aaron’s pure, native language—would have been enough to tip him off.

Isaac nodded graciously as he and Aaron stepped out into the docking node. The doors were little more than hatches, with a lip of almost half a meter between the bottom and the floor. The station itself looked as if it were hastily cobbled together from a hodgepodge of spare capsules and obsolete components, but she held together well enough and the air inside was clean. If anything, the ruggedness gave the outpost a military flavor, which Aaron found thrilling.

“Thanks for meeting us,” said Isaac. “I hope we didn’t pull you away from anything.”

“Not anything important,” Argo said. He led them through another hatchway into a dimly lit corridor that bent up sharply on either end, clearly running the length of the station wheel. “I’m glad you arrived when you did. We’re mustering for our first major campaign, and we need all the pilots we can get.”

“The operator at docking control told us that you already learned about the Imperial invasion of Colkhia.”

“Yes, we heard about it just a week ago. The Imperials have forced our hand, which is why we have to move quickly. Your assistance in the war effort will be greatly appreciated.”

“How soon can we join?” Aaron blurted.

Isaac reddened a little, but Argo didn’t seem to notice. “As soon as you would like. We’re outfitting two new battle groups right now, so you’d have your pick of positions.”

“Really?”

“Wait just a second,” said Isaac. “Aaron doesn’t speak hardly any Gaian. I assume he’s not the only one, since you seem to be pulling recruits from all over the Outworlds, but isn’t Gaian the dominant language in the New Pleiades?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Then isn’t that going to be a problem?”

Argo frowned and scratched his chin. “It might be. There aren’t many Deltan speakers in the Flotilla, and certainly not among the officers.”

“I can learn!” Aaron interjected. “I’m a fast learner. And I can speak a little Gaian. Enough to get by, at least.”

“You’re going to need a lot more than bartering skills if you’re going to cut it as a cadet,” said Isaac. “Unless you want to come with me on one of the trade convoys.”

And never get a chance to prove myself?

“I’m afraid that Isaac is right,” said Argo. “Since all the commanding officers speak Gaian, your options are going to be limited.”

Aaron’s heart fell, and his stomach sank. He mentally kicked himself for not making more of an effort to learn the language earlier. Up until now, he’d been able to get by with a few words and phrases. Most outworlders spoke a creole anyway. But here in the New Pleiades, the Gaian influence was much stronger, and his haphazard repertoire wasn’t going to cut it. As much as he hated to admit it, his own laziness had turned around to bite him.

“I’ll learn as fast as I can,” he said. “Two, three months—that’s all I need.”

“Unfortunately,” said Argo, “we don’t have that much time. The Gaian Imperials have already taken Colkhia, Bacca, and Iayus. They’re moving in from the frontier now, and if we don’t hit them before they can consolidate their gains, we may never be able to push them back.”

Dozens of footsteps sounded ahead of them, striking in unison with military precision. Argo motioned for them to step aside as a line of soldiers in gray exercise clothes came jogging into view. Because of the curvature of the station, Aaron couldn’t see their faces until they were only a few meters ahead of them. Most of them were men, but a young brunette woman met his eye. She looked strangely familiar, but he couldn’t place where he’d seen her. Without acknowledging him, she jogged by with the other soldiers.

“Physical training,” Argo explained. “We’re tight on space until we can find transports for all our troops. No shortage of infantry volunteers, though.”

“You’re not going to join the infantry, are you?” Isaac asked. It took Aaron a moment to realize that the question was directed at him.

“What? No, of course not.”

The relief on his brother’s face was evident. Aaron knew that Isaac didn’t relish the idea of watching him going off to war, especially in a position where he’d see combat. But how could Aaron prove himself if he stayed behind in the supply convoys? Besides, the girl in the cryotank was in Imperial hands now. His only chance at rescuing her was to get as close to the front lines as he possibly could.

“We already have enough infantry,” Argo continued as he led them further down the corridor. “What we really need are pilots.”

“I don’t suppose we have enough time to outfit the Medea for combat?” Isaac asked.

Argo sighed and shook his head. “I’m afraid not. You’ll have to join a supply convoy or fly courier missions if you want to keep your ship. I assume you don’t want to sell it.”

Isaac’s cheeks visibly paled. For a star wanderer, that was unthinkable. Starships were handed down from generation to generation and served as a wanderer’s only home until he found a place to settle down. Aaron knew that his brother would never sell the Medea, which was why he’d asked about outfitting her for combat. If the Medea could only play a supporting role in one of the supply convoys, then he and Isaac would have to part ways for a time. Well, they didn’t have to—not if Aaron changed his mind about seeing combat—but they both knew that wasn’t going to happen.

“There aren’t any combat positions open for the Medea, then?”

“No, I’m afraid not. Unless—”

Argo stopped in front of one of the portholes and lifted a hand to his chin. Outside, the curved silhouette of the airless horizon stood out against the backdrop of stars. Aaron glanced out at the view as Argo gathered his thoughts.

“Come to think of it, there is something you might be able to help out with. It’s not combat, exactly, but it will keep you close to the front lines. However, we’ll need to get clearance in order to approve the position.”

“What about me?” asked Aaron. “What can I do?”

“I don’t know yet, but we’ll find something. Let’s go speak with Admiral Tully.”

They set off again down the corridor. Aaron fell in step behind the others as they passed through a particularly narrow hatchway. They climbed a steep set of stairs onto a deck with grated industrial floors and half a dozen computer terminals embedded in the walls. Men and women in mismatched uniforms attended to their work, barely noticing the newcomers. The place was so crowded that they had to shoulder their way through at a couple of points.

“The war room is just ahead,” Argo explained. “There’s a Council meeting scheduled in the next half hour, but Admiral Tully should be free and I’m sure she’ll want to meet you.”

They passed through one more hatchway into a circular room with a holographic projector in the center. Chairs lined the walls, on which several wallscreens displayed various starship schematics. On the far side of the room, a short, gray-haired woman in a spotless white uniform worked on a hand-held tablet. She wore a cybernetic enhancement that covered both ears and stretched over her hair around the back of her head.

Argo spoke to her in Gaian, and she walked over to greet them. She looked Isaac in the eye and gave him a curt handshake, then did the same for Aaron.

“Hello,” he said.

From the way she smiled, it was clear that she couldn’t understand him.

I have to do everything I can to learn the language, Aaron thought as she turned back to Argo and Isaac. The three of them were soon engrossed in conversation. With nothing else to do, his eyes strayed to the wallscreens, but even there, all the labels were in Gaian.

It was going to be a lot harder than he’d thought.


* * * * *


After speaking with Admiral Tully, Argo led them to the recruiting office, little more than an oversized mechanical closet cleared out for clerical work. They spent about half an hour filling out forms and registering themselves. Even though his brother had to help him, Aaron found that part easy enough.

Then Argo led him to the station’s medical bay, where the doctor ran him through a series of physical tests. Since Isaac was busy and Argo had other duties to attend to, Aaron had to figure out how to communicate by himself. He tried speaking in Outworld creole, but the local blend of languages was so different from what he was used to—and so interlaced with Gaian—that the doctor and nurses could barely understand him, even with their autotranslators. That was frustrating enough, but it was made all the more embarrassing by the fact that he was wearing nothing but a flimsy patient’s gown throughout the whole ordeal. One of the nurses giggled every time he misunderstood the doctor’s commands, and even though she was kind of cute, he couldn’t wait to get back in his clothes and leave. Before the tests were over, the doctor seemed ready to tear out his hair and the nurse was practically rolling on the floor. Aaron walked out with red cheeks and a severely bruised ego.

Fortunately, he made it back to the Medea without losing his way. The station was far too small for that. As the airlock hissed shut behind him, he groaned and slumped onto the cabin’s circular couch.

“Back already?”

“You!” he said, sitting up at once. His brother stood in the doorway to the cockpit. “Do you have any idea what I’ve just been through? Why didn’t you come down to help me?”

Isaac shrugged, infuriating him all the more. “Argo said I should wait for you here. Besides, I only finished ten minutes ago.”

“Finished with what?”

“You’ll see.”

Blood rushed to Aaron’s cheeks. If his brother had been within striking range, he would have slapped him. He drew in a sharp breath, but before he could say anything, the airlock doors hissed open behind him.

“Hello again, Isaac. And Aaron, good to see that you’re back. How was your physical?”

Aaron turned and saw Argo standing in the back of the cabin near the EVA suit locker. The man’s gracious smile and deeply set eyes disarmed him.

“Uh, fine, I guess,” he said unsteadily.

“Aaron was just telling me that he had some problems with the language,” Isaac said. “He—”

“No, no problems at all,” Aaron lied. “Everything was fine.”

Argo raised an eyebrow. “Well, it’s good to hear you’re getting along. Mind if I sit down?”

“By all means,” said Isaac. He ushered Argo over to the couch and motioned for Aaron to scoot over. Soon, all three of them were seated around the circular table.

“The main office is processing your paperwork,” said Argo, looking at Isaac. He clasped his hands over the tabletop. “It will probably take them some time to get it all sorted out, but everything looks clean so it will probably go through. In the meantime, Admiral Tully said it would be fine to bring you two up to speed.”

“Up to speed with what?” Aaron asked.

Argo looked him in the eye. “Our scouts report that the Imperial fleet that took Colkhia is a full-fledged expeditionary force, with at least three battlegroups, possibly more. Even with all the ships and volunteers we’ve mustered, we can’t equal their numbers, and our firepower is significantly weaker than anything they can bring to bear.”

Isaac’s cheeks paled. Aaron tried hard not to squirm.

“Fortunately,” Argo continued, “we have something to give us an edge.”

“What kind of edge?” Isaac asked. “If we’re clearly outnumbered and outmatched, what could possibly even the odds?”

“This,” said Argo. With a grin on his face, he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a flat, gray box slightly wider than his palm. It had bolts on either end for mounting onto a surface, and a clock that measured time down to a hundredth of a second.

Isaac frowned. “What is that thing?”

“It’s a quantum clock, entangled and synchronized with hundreds of others to give exactly the same time no matter where in the universe they go. All of our courier ships carry one, as well as the flagship of every supply convoy.”

“Why?” Aaron blurted.

“Because we have a technology they don’t—one that will enable us to hit them harder and faster than they can bring their forces to bear.”

“I don’t understand,” said Isaac. He took the clock from Argo’s hand. “How does a quantum timekeeping piece give us an edge over fully armed Imperial battleships?”

“It’s not the clock itself,” said Argo, “but what the clock allows us to do. Let’s back up a bit. You are both star wanderers, yes?”

“That’s right.”

“So you’re familiar with how a jump drive works?”

“Well, yeah,” said Aaron. “You triangulate your position, use a starmap to figure the coordinates of your next jump, plug those into the nav-computer, and it feeds the sidereal distance and direction to the jump drive.”

“And what are the limitations of our current FTL technology?”

“Power expenditure,” said Isaac. “For any given distance, the amount of power necessary to jump between the start and end points increases exponentially with the total mass being jumped. That’s why starships in the Outworlds tend to be small—it’s faster, easier, and cheaper to transport cargo in a one-man ship than it is on a massive super-freighter.”

“That’s very true,” said Argo. “It’s a limitation, certainly. But what is the principal cost?”

Isaac lifted a hand to his chin and frowned. “It isn’t the power?”

“Think even more basic than that. What is so integral to your jump drives that you have to adjust for it every time you travel between stars?”

Silence fell over the three of them. Isaac frowned as if trying to answer a trick question. That was certainly what it seemed like, considering how high the energy cost was for FTL travel. But “cost” could mean a lot of different things, not just energy expenditure. If energy cost wasn’t the answer, then Argo was probably talking about something even more fundamental.

In a flash, Aaron saw it.

“The endpoint accuracy,” he blurted. “You can’t plot where you come out of jumpspace with perfect precision. The further you jump, the more inaccurate it becomes. That’s why you never jump into a system from more than a few dozen light-hours away.”

“And why you never plot a jump further than a small fraction of a light-year,” Isaac added.

“Exactly,” said Argo. “Jump accuracy—that’s the greatest cost. Now, what if I told you we had a way to mitigate that?”

Aaron’s eyes widened along with his brother’s. “You do?”

“Yes. We’ve developed a device called a ‘jump beacon.’ It creates a field that can pull a starship out of jumpspace. Any ship that would have come out somewhere within that field instead comes out in the immediate proximity of the beacon. And with very little energy, the field can be made to cover a wide swath of space, up to a tenth of a light-year.”

“So wait,” said Aaron, his mind racing. “You’re saying that if we had one of these beacons at a station orbiting a planet, a starship could jump straight into orbit from as far as one or two light-years away?”

Argo grinned. “That’s exactly what I’m saying. And that’s what’s going to give us the edge we need to defeat the Imperials.”

“So what are the quantum clocks for?” Isaac asked.

“Because the Imperials have already invaded us, we can’t leave these beacons on all the time. They can pull a Gaian battle cruiser out of jumpspace just as easily as one of our own, and we have no way to filter between the two. For that reason, the jump beacons for each star system only go live for thirty minutes every eight hours. The clock is for measuring that.”

Aaron glanced over at the clock in his brother’s hands. The face read 4:52, give or take a few seconds, and appeared to be counting down. The thought that in less than five hours, a ten day journey could be shortened down to a single jump made chills run up and down his spine.

“Eight hours is barely enough time to charge the jump drives for a point-four light-year jump,” said Isaac. “To jump any further than that—”

“But you don’t need pinpoint accuracy,” Aaron interjected, “you just need something in the range of a quarter light-year or so. With that broad of a range, the Medea could jump as far as two or three light-years.”

“And most of the stars in the New Pleiades are only two or three light-years apart,” Argo added. “With this new technology, we can move goods and information to the other end of the star cluster in the time it would otherwise take to travel between two stars.”

“That’s incredible,” said Aaron. His lips turned up in an insuppressible smile.

“But wait,” said Isaac, “how does that help us fight the Imperials? Sure, we can move supplies around a lot faster, but they still have us outnumbered and outgunned.”

“But the Imperials have to spread out their forces in order to conduct their campaign. Their battleships are so massive that almost half of the ship is devoted solely to energy production, and they can jump only a fraction of the distance of a light freighter like yours. Even within a given star system, they have to spread their forces to maintain order across all the local settlements.”

“I see. We jump in fast and hit ‘em with all we’ve got,” said Aaron, striking the palm of his hand for good measure. “By the time they realize what happened, we’re already gone.”

“More than that,” said Argo. “Before the news of the battle even spreads beyond the system, we can make our next attack. All we need is a spy disguised as an Outworld star wanderer to jump into the system and activate a jump beacon at a predetermined time. If everything is timed just right, the entire flotilla jumps into a concentrated area without any warning and crushes the Gaians before they can call for reinforcements.”

“And let me guess,” said Isaac. “You want me to be one of those spies?”

Argo held out his hands. “You requested a support position that would keep you close to the Flotilla. This is the best position you’re going to get. At the same time, we’re in need—desperate need—of experienced starfarers who are willing to fill the role.”

Isaac gave Aaron a look that was almost pleading. The question was unspoken, but Aaron knew that he wanted him to change his mind and stay with the Medea. It certainly seemed safer than going into combat. But how would Aaron ever prove himself if he stayed under his brother’s shadow? No—he’d made his decision, and he was going to stick with it.

“Is there a position in the Flotilla for me?”

“Yes, definitely,” said Argo. “I don’t know where it is yet, but once the main office has processed your forms, I’m sure we’ll come up with something.”

“In that case, I’ll start moving my stuff onto the station. You guys have an opening in the barracks, right?”

Isaac opened his mouth as if to protest, but held back. In his eyes, Aaron could read a desperate internal struggle. He chose to ignore it.

“Of course,” said Argo. He checked his wrist console and rose to his feet. “Well, unless you have any questions, I’d better get going. Things are rather hectic with the Flotilla getting ready to embark. Aaron, I’ll message you once I’ve found a spot for you in the barracks. It shouldn’t take longer than an hour or two.”

He shook both their hands and left the cabin. Isaac, still stunned, said nothing as Argo walked out the door.

“So,” Aaron said, drawing in a long breath. “I guess I’d better start packing then.”

“Are you sure?” Isaac asked. His voice was barely louder than a whisper.

“Come on, man. Are you going to make this harder than it needs to be? We both knew this day would come.”

Isaac nodded, his eyes glistening. “I guess so. Well, take care of yourself.”

“Of course.”

“I mean it, Aaron. I’ll never forgive myself if you get killed.”

Just let me out already, Aaron thought. Even though he made a show of rolling his eyes, he could feel himself starting to lose it as well. Why did goodbyes have to be so hard?

“I’ll be fine. Besides, it’s not like we’ll be that far from each other.”

“Perhaps.”

As Aaron scooted out from behind the table and stood up, Isaac took a long breath and did the same. There wasn’t much more to say, but before Aaron could get started with the packing, his brother gave him an unexpected hug.

“It’s not a premonition,” Isaac said softly. If that was meant for anyone besides himself, it was impossible to tell.


New Old Friends


Aaron set his duffel bag down on the metal floor grating and palmed open the door to the temporary barracks. A tall, narrow hallway extended straight in front of him, with ladders embedded in the walls. Sleepcubes were stacked six high and more than a dozen deep on either side, their doors perfectly uniform like so many oversized wall compartments. Without anyone else in sight, the place felt like a mausoleum.

I suppose this is where I’ll be staying for now, Aaron thought, swallowing. With the harsh white lights and the loud hum of the ad-hoc ventilation system, it didn’t feel welcoming at all.

The only unclaimed sleepcubes were high up on the top row, nearly five meters from the floor. Aaron almost fell off the ladder twice trying to drag his duffel bag up to the top. When he got there, he had to drop it in order to free up his hands so he could open the access panel. It fell against the floor grating with a loud, rattling clang. He hoped that no one had heard.

The sleepcube was a little less than one meter high and one meter wide. It was just long enough for him to lie down comfortably, with a soft foamy cushion that conformed to the shape of his body. It seemed a bit oily—he didn’t like the feel of it. A storage compartment sat at the head of the cube, just large enough for his duffel bag. On the ceiling, a display screen showed the time, and two parallel glowlamps ran along the corners.

Once he was settled in, with sheets spread out across the cushion and the door to the compartment closed, Aaron lay back and took a deep breath. The walls muffled the outside sounds, making the tiny private space feel like a miniature sanctuary. The initial excitement of joining the Resistance was already starting to wear off, leaving him with a host of conflicting emotions. At least here, on this strange and foreign space station, he had a small space to himself.

As tempting as it was to stay, though, he knew it would get him nowhere. Better to try making some friends, even though he didn’t know anyone besides Argo and didn’t speak the language.

Reaching into his duffel bag, he pulled out an earpiece jewel and synced it with his wrist console. The translator program from the Medea’s computer would hopefully be enough to get by, at least until he could learn Gaian well enough. He also pulled out the kukri knife he’d picked up at Hephesteron Station and fitted it onto his belt. Even though he knew he wouldn’t need it, the weapon gave him a small boost to his confidence.

With that done, he opened the door at his feet and scooted out. The hum of the ventilators up by the ceiling filled his ears, but he ignored that as he climbed back down the ladder. As sterile and unwelcoming as this new place was, he wasn’t about to let that get to him—especially not on his first day.


* * * * *


The cadets’ lounge was a repurposed cargo container, with caged light fixtures and wallscreens in place of portholes. It was just as well, though, since the sunless rogue planet didn’t offer much of a view. Wires ran along the corners where the wall met the floor, powering a computer terminal and a pair of holotables. A crowd had gathered around one, watching a game of chadrak with interest. Few of the recruits noticed Aaron as he entered, but those who did eyed him curiously.

“Greetings,” he said in Gaian. His wrist console picked up the word and translated it for him in his ear.

The cadets nodded and returned to whatever they’d been doing before he entered. Aaron stood awkwardly by the door, not sure what to do. He fought back the urge to run away from this place where he didn’t know anyone and instead stepped forward.

A cute blonde in gray fatigues chatted on a couch with two young men who looked to be his age. He walked over to them in the hope of making some new friends.

“And so on,” the mechanical voice from the ear jewel translated as the girl spoke excitedly, “he telling me I have experienced a higher than else in my … and I am, seriously? Because I think he just is trying to—”

The translation stopped. Aaron realized abruptly that all three of the cadets were looking at him. His heart skipped, and he grinned rather sheepishly.

“Greetings,” he said again, offering his hand. “I am name Aaron Deltana.”

The boy nearest to him took it and shook rather curtly. “Hercule,” he said. “You are from where?”

“Oriana,” Aaron answered. He didn’t know the word for star cluster.

“Oriana which?” the girl asked. “My father was the birth of stars in the cluster—Theta Oriana, I think. Did anyone in your family do you know?”

What the hell is she asking? Aaron wondered as sweat began to form in the back of his neck. Even if he could understand her, though, he didn’t know enough Gaian to answer.

“Please excuse,” he said, grinning stupidly. He inwardly kicked himself for being such an idiot.

The other boy gave him a funny look. “Are you lost?”

Shit, shit, shit.

“Here is everything right?” a newcomer asked—the brunette that had jogged past Aaron in the corridor. She put a hand on the second boy’s shoulder and looked up at him.

“I am fine, thank you,” Aaron said, trying in vain to keep the blood running from his cheeks. “Please, excuse.”

He turned to leave before he made a bigger fool of himself. Before he could get to the door, though, a hand on his arm stopped him. It was the girl.

“Are you from Delta Oriana?” she asked. The ear jewel didn’t translate.

“I am name Aaron Deltana,” Aaron answered in Gaian. He offered her his hand. “What is your name?”

“I’m speaking to you in Deltan,” she said under her breath.

“Excuse?”

“I said, I’m speaking to you in Deltan.”

The realization that he could understand her without the translator hit him like a meteor. Behind her, the people on the couch shrugged and returned to their conversation. No one else seemed to notice his shock.

“Wait—do I know you?”

“That depends,” she said. “Deltana—that makes you a star wanderer, I take it?”

She was a smart looking girl, with small lips and a narrow face. Her hair was dark and barely came down to her shoulders. She wore a brown flight suit that seemed a bit tight around her chest but otherwise fit her well.

“I’m up here,” she said, pointing to her eyes. Aaron blushed even deeper.

“Sorry. Star wanderer? Um, yes, I’m a star wanderer. What’s your name?”

“Mara Soladze.” She extended her hand—a foreign gesture, coming from another Deltan. “My father was a star wanderer, too. He brought my family here to the New Pleiades before the famine on Megiddo Station got bad. I’ve already heard all about it, by the way. There aren’t many Deltans out in this part of the Outworlds, but we do our best to stick together.”

“That’s good,” said Aaron. “How long have you been living out here?”

She shrugged. “Five, six standard years. I was still pretty young.” She narrowed her eyes and lifted a hand to her chin. “Though I have to say, you look a bit familiar. Aaron, was it?”

“Yeah, that’s me.”

“Did you have a sister named Mariya? Because I remember her.”

Aaron lit up almost immediately. “Yes, that’s my sister! She’s just a little bit older than me. Were you friends or something?”

“Yep. We were in the same class growing up. How is she doing?”

It was amazing how much more welcoming the lounge felt now that he actually knew someone. The curious glances from the other cadets didn’t bother him half so much anymore, and he didn’t feel awkward or out of place at all—not with Mara to talk to.

“She’s doing great!” he blurted. “That is, I think she is—I don’t actually know. I haven’t seen her in a while.”

Mara cocked her head. “What do you mean? Where is she?”

“She’s, ah, she’s back at Alpha Oriana. With the rest of the family.”

Her eyes widened. “The Oriana Cluster? Oh, stars—haven’t the Gaians already taken over there? That’s horrible.”

“Yeah,” said Aaron, his heart sinking. “I guess it is.”

“Is that why you’re here? To fight back against the empire?”

For some reason, Aaron thought about the henna girl. He was the one who had found her back at the derelict station, and he was the reason that they’d taken her to the New Pleiades. The fact that she’d fallen into Imperial hands meant that he had to fight to get her back. He didn’t know what had become of his family back at Alpha Oriana, but as a star wanderer, he knew that he would never see them again anyway. If anyone had dragged him into this war, it was the henna girl.

“I-I guess,” he stammered. “It’s a bit more complicated than that, but yeah.”

Mara frowned and folded her arms. “Don’t you have an older brother?”

“Yes.”

“But you said you’re a star wanderer.”

“That’s right.”

“Only the oldest son leaves on his father’s ship as a star wanderer. At least, that’s how the tradition goes. What does that make you?”

Aaron’s cheeks reddened. Several of the other cadets were looking in their direction. The fact that he and Mara were speaking in Deltan made them that much more of a spectacle. He shifted on his feet and swallowed.

“We changed up the traditions a bit and left together. It’s … a long story.”

“And now you both want to join a war? Why?”

“Well … why do you want to?” he asked. It seemed like the best way to throw her off from all her questions.

“My father was killed at Bacca. It’s only through God’s starry grace that my mother and I escaped.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

She turned away, her face darkening. “The Imperials are animals, and they have no place in these stars. As long as I can carry a gun, I’ll do all I can to kill them.”

The forcefulness of her answer all but bowled him over. He saw the hatred in her eyes and knew that she was deadly serious.

He closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. “This war is serious business, isn’t it?”

“It’s certainly no casual adventure, if that’s what you’re asking.”

A buzzing on Aaron’s wrist made him glance down at his console. It was a message from an unknown source on the station. He touched a few buttons on the keypad to run it through the autotranslator.

Recruiting Deltana, please report <ERROR> <ERROR> 3 section 12 task <ERROR>

“What’s that?” Mara asked, peering at the console. She lifted his hand and keyed it back to the original message. “Ah, looks like they want you to report to receive your new assignment. But what’s with the bad translation?”

Aaron took back his hand. “It’s the autotranslator my brother and I put together.”

“Yikes.”

“It works fine,” he said, bristling a little. “It’s gotten me through so far.”

“Really?” she said, raising a skeptical eyebrow. “You don’t speak the language around here, do you?”

“I know enough to get by.”

“Sure you do. Here, let me show you to deck three. You’ll probably get lost if you go on your own. I’ll come with you to the meeting, too, just in case that autotranslator can’t hack it.”

Aaron started to object, but a sharp look from Mara told him that he’d be fighting a losing battle. His cheeks burned red, but he took a deep breath and resigned himself to it. Besides, he had no idea where section twelve of deck three was supposed to be anyway.

“You ready?”

“Yeah,” he said, putting his wrist console back on standby. “Let’s go.”


* * * * *


Mara led him upspin about a hundred meters, then down a narrow stairwell to the same command deck where Argo had introduced them to Admiral Tully. Aaron half expected to run into the recruiter, but apparently he was busy. With all the bustling activity around the deck, it was a good thing that Mara was there to show him the way.

Once I’ve learned enough Gaian to get along, I won’t need anyone to hold my hand, he thought to himself. That time could not come soon enough.

They stepped into a large, circular room, with a raised platform along the walls and two rows of chairs arranged to face the center. A holographic projector hung from the ceiling directly above three podiums, each of which had a terminal interface. Only one of them was occupied, though. A tall, heavyset man with dark black skin and a bald head scanned the display screen at the foremost podium. His wide mouth was framed by a whispy white goatee.

“Commander,” Mara said, saluting him as she entered. Aaron’s ear jewel translated for him.

“Corporal Soladze,” the commander answered. “What are you doing here?”

“Seeing new recruit,” she answered. At least, that was how the autotranslator rendered it.

The commander nodded and gestured with his hand to the chairs in front of him, where a dozen new recruits were already seated. At least, Aaron gathered that they were recruits—they weren’t dressed in anything that looked remotely military. One of them was old and wrinkled with a long silvery beard, but most of the others were young men just like him. He wouldn’t be surprised if most of them were star wanderers.

“That’s Commander Ajax,” Mara explained under her breath as they sat down. “He’s the commanding officer of our battle group. They must have put you with us.”

Commander Ajax spoke rather sharply to her, which Aaron’s wrist console didn’t pick up. Mara rose to her feet and addressed him.

“I sorry, commander,” the ear-jewel translated for him. “A recruit not speak and needing someone for translate.”

That seemed to satisfy the commander. She returned to her seat and pointed to Aaron’s ear.

“Better take that thing out. It looks like I’ll be translating for you.”

Who put you in charge of that? Aaron wanted to snap at her. Something told him that the commander wouldn’t put up with that, though, so he rolled his eyes and slipped the jewel out of his ear.

“Fine. What is this meeting about?”

“It’s an orientation for new recruits. The commander will explain the duties and expectations placed on you as a soldier in the Flotilla, then call you up individually to give you your assignments.”

“Fair enough,” said Aaron. “When are we going to start?”

As if on cue, Commander Ajax cleared his throat. Immediately, the room grew silent. He straightened his back and stood with his hands clasped smartly behind his back. Before speaking, he took a moment to look every recruit squarely in the eye. Aaron felt chills run down his spine as the man’s gaze fell on him. When he finally spoke, his deep, low voice resonated with implicit authority.

“He just welcomed you all to New Hope Station,” Mara whispered in Aaron’s ear. “Right now, he’s giving a brief description and history of the Flotilla. Our personnel hail from all over the New Pleiades and several of the neighboring systems. We have about a hundred and fifty starships, with an average crew capacity of thirty-seven, but only six of our ships can carry a full regiment of marines. Our ships are not built for battle—our firepower is light, and most of our weapons systems are old or obsolete. The few ships with newer systems are freighters that were never designed to carry them.”

Commander Ajax paused to let the news sink in. When Mara finished translating, the room was so silent that Aaron thought he could hear micrometeorites tinkering against the outside of the station’s hull. Just as the silence started to become uncomfortable, the commander resumed.

“What we do have,” Mara translated, “is speed. We have a device that the Imperials don’t, a device that will allow us to hit them hard and move around them before …” She frowned. “Have you heard about this?”

“Yeah,” said Aaron. “Argo mentioned it. Something called a ‘jump beacon.’”

“That’s … that’s a game changer,” she said. “That could really give us a fighting chance. If the Gaians have to spread out their forces to—”

“What else is he saying?”

She took a deep breath and paused to listen. “Right. The commander is talking about how we need to capture as many Imperial starships intact as we can, so that we can repurpose them for the next campaign. If we’re going to succeed, we have to use the Gaians’ own weapons against them.”

“Capture them? How?”

“By boarding them, of course. Why do you think I signed up as a marine?”

Aaron frowned. The thought of boarding an Imperial battleship reminded him of his dream, where he was back in the cargo hold of the Starfire trying to find the henna girl before the Imperials caught up with him. Chills ran down his back just thinking about it, the dream still felt so real.

“Now he’s talking about why we signed up to fight. Everyone has their own reasons, some of them noble, some not so much.”

My reasons are noble, Aaron thought, remembering the henna girl. I’ve got to save her.

“But whatever our reasons,” Mara continued, “we need to stand united. We are just a confederation of loosely aligned worlds—more like an oversized volunteer defense force than a navy. If we don’t follow our commanding officers, we’re little more than a mob. But if we do, and serve to the best of our abilities, we have a real chance at winning this war.”

Once again, the room fell silent. Aaron glanced at the other recruits and saw that they were on the edges of their seats. While Mara’s translation was certainly clear, it was evident that the commander’s actual speech had been much more charismatic.

Commander Ajax nodded to the recruits and spoke again. “Any questions?” Mara translated.

The old, silver-haired recruit stood up and spoke. Before Mara could translate, the others started chuckling.

“What did he say?”

“He asked what the record was for killing the most Imperials and whether there’s any sort of betting pool. Now the commander is saying that it’s important we capture as many ships intact as possible, but that if we want to count captures as well as kills, we’re welcome to do so.”

Another recruit stood up, this one around Aaron’s age. “He’s asking how much time we have to train before we see combat.”

Ajax’s answer was only two words. Even without Mara, the meaning was clear enough.

“Not very much.”

That silenced the room once again. A third recruit stood up, one of the few girls in the room.

“She’s asking when we leave,” Mara translated. “And Commander Ajax is saying that we head to Bacca in two weeks. With the new jump beacon device, we should make our assault there in less than forty-eight hours. After that, we’ll have to move just as fast to secure the remaining frontier worlds before the Gaians can call in reinforcements.”

Two weeks. That wasn’t very long. Aaron’s heart skipped a beat, and an insuppressible grin began to spread across his face. After so much talk and so much waiting, he was finally going to see some action.

“The commander says that if we have any other specific questions about the campaign, we can ask them later,” Mara said. “Any general questions should be asked now.”

The room fell silent. Ajax nodded and glanced down at the terminal display on his podium before resuming.

“Now he’s calling the recruits by name,” Mara explained. Three young men on the front row stood up. “He’s giving them their assignments—astrogation and countermeasures on board the Aegis, Commander Ajax’s flagship. Now he’s calling up the next few people.”

As silent as the briefing room had been before, it soon erupted into a dozen different conversations, softly at first, but soon growing loud enough that Aaron could barely hear the commander. It was clear from the wild grins and hearty congratulations that the new recruits were enthusiastic about their assignments. As Ajax continued calling out names, though, a few recruits bit their lips or otherwise tried to hide their disappointment. Even without understanding what was being said, Aaron could read their faces well enough to tell.

Where are they going to send me? His stomach sank, and his heart began to race as the commander continued calling out names. The first few recruits began to trickle out of the room, talking excitedly as they did.

At length, Aaron heard the commander say his name.

“That’s you.”

He rose on unsteady legs, resisting the urge to lean on Mara for support. She stood up next to him, her back straight and her hands at parade rest behind her back. He did the same.

Commander Ajax eyed him up and down for a moment before glancing down at his screen. He then walked over to talk with them directly.

Oh, crap.

Mara addressed him first. He nodded to her, then looked Aaron squarely in the eye. “Aaron Deltana?”

“I am,” said Aaron. He gave his best attempt at a salute, which the commander returned.

“You are Orianan?”

He nodded.

Ajax spoke again, this time using words that he didn’t understand. He smiled and nodded again, hoping to cover, but it was clear that the commander could see right through him.

Without translating, Mara replied. Commander Ajax turned to her and folded his arms. As she spoke, her voice started rising in pitch and intensity. Aaron bounced back and forth from his toes to his heels and tried unsuccessfully to follow her.

What is she saying?

Now the commander spoke, and the conversation became even more vigorous. The other recruits started to take notice, and a small circle began to gather around them. Aaron wasn’t sure whether to stay where he was or to back out. He considered putting the jewel back in his ear, but a quick glance at his wrist console showed that there was just too much talking in the room for it to accurately follow one conversation. Besides, the <ERROR> message popped up so often, the thing was practically useless for face-to-face communication. Aaron’s legs went numb, and he started to wonder if he’d made a mistake in not just going with his brother.

“The commander wants to know if you can pilot a cargo hauler,” Mara said abruptly.

Aaron blinked. “A cargo hauler?”

“Yes. Do you know how pilot a sublight ship through a debris field?”

“Of course,” he said, recovering quickly. “I did all the navigation work on board the Medea. I can fly through just about anything.”

Mara turned back to the commander and resumed her heated conversation with him.

“Hey,” Aaron said, putting a hand on her arm. “What are you talking about?”

She brushed him off and continued talking. Commander Ajax put a hand on his chin and nodded, as if mulling over what she’d said.

What the hell are they talking about?

At length, Ajax nodded. He walked back to the podium and hit a series of keys. Mara saluted, and he replied with a curt nod. Before Aaron could ask what any of it meant, she took him by the arm and escorted him toward the door.

“What’s going on? What the hell just happened?”

“Congratulations, Cadet. You just got assigned as the drop-ship pilot for our platoon.”

Aaron frowned. “Drop-ship pilot?”

“Yep. The commander was going to bury you as an adjutant on some secondary ship, but I convinced him you’d do better with us. You’re going to have to pick up the language pretty quick, though. There aren’t many people in the Flotilla who speak Deltan.”

They walked out the door and back into the bustling corridor. If it weren’t for Mara, Aaron would have immediately been swept away by the crowd. That was the only thing keeping him from making a scene.

“Why didn’t you tell me any of this? What made you think this is what I want?”

“Because it’s your only shot at being the pilot of anything in this campaign. You might be the best hotshot in the Flotilla, but if you can’t communicate with anyone, you might as well be flying a chunk of space rock. On the drop-ship, though, I’ll be able to help translate—at least until you can manage well enough on your own.”

Aaron clenched his fists, but she ignored that as she led him back the way they’d come. He knew she was right—and he should be grateful for her help—but he was too angry to let her see that.

“So what is this drop-ship anyway? Some sort of modified cargo hauler?”

“More or less. The cargo bay’s been set up to carry soldiers instead of ore. The bay doors have been fused shut, with a thick layer of armor plating to the exterior. We’ve attached an asteroid miner drill bit to the underside over the auxiliary hatchway, so we can cut through the enemy hull and send the platoon in through the breach. Your job is to fly the thing to the enemy ship and latch on.”

A combat pilot, Aaron thought. His hands relaxed a bit, though his cheeks still burned. Flying into combat would be a lot better than wringing his hands as a forgotten adjutant on some minor starship.

“I suppose you want me to thank you,” he grumbled.

She glanced at him over her shoulder and smiled. “Eh, don’t mention it. We Deltans have to stick together, after all.”

“I guess.”

“Our unit is Fourth Platoon, assigned to the Aegis. We’re scheduled to board as soon as she gets out of drydock. In the meantime, want to get a drink in the dockside bar? We’ll be on strict rations once we embark.”

Aaron shrugged, his rage deflated. “Might as well. It’s not like I can stand in your way.”

“No,” she said, laughing. “I guess you can’t.”


Lost in Translation


The bulkheads shuddered as the Paladin-4 undocked from the Aegis under heavy fire. Aaron gripped the flight stick and throttled the sublight engines to a full burn, throwing him back against his seat. Outside the narrow cockpit window, exploding shells flashed silently as they pounded the surrounding warships. Swarms of red and green dots weaved in and out of each other on the main holoscreen display, just below the window. Aaron’s free hand flew over the controls as he calibrated the nav-computer to highlight the other drop-ships and their target, an Imperial frigate about fifty klicks out.

Aegis, I am Paladin-4 on approach,” he said in his broken Gaian. “Following leader.”

“Copy, Paladin-4. Approach with caution, target is hot.” There was more, but he could only pick out words, not sentences. Something about drones and countermeasures.

With his trajectory locked in and velocity in the red, he cut the engines and prepared to coast. On the display, the other drop-ships did the same, maintaining a loose formation as they shot like oversized missiles at the frigate.

“ETA: 02:29,” the nav-computer read, counting down the minutes to contact with the target. The numbers to the right of the second marker flashed so quickly he couldn’t read them, but it felt as if his heart pounded even faster.

His stringy hair drifted across his eyes, and his body lifted up against the restraints. The drop-ship had no artificial gravity field, since the generators had been gutted to make more space for the marines. He didn’t envy them, packed together as tightly as the cabin would allow. The flight must have been hell for them, trapped in a dark, windowless space with twenty or thirty sweaty soldiers. As if to confirm this, the scent of vomit wafted in through the cockpit doorway. He rankled his nose but pressed on.

At the 01:56 mark, a cluster of ships began to divert from the main fray, heading on an intercept course. They showed up on the display as red points with short trajectory lines fanning out ahead of them. Aaron kept an eye on them and gripped his flight stick with a clammy hand.

Paladin-4, I see danger on approach,” he said. “Request orders?”

The seconds ticked down. On the display, the intercepting points came closer.

“Evasive maneuvers,” the wing commander’s voice came over the intercom. Aaron didn’t have to wait to hear what else the commander had to say. He turned a hard right and banked away from the incoming craft.

The intense g-forces from the sudden maneuver pulled him hard to one side, then another. About ten seconds dropped from the clock, while his vision began to blur. He clenched his legs and held his breath, swerving again just to throw the enemy off balance. On the display, the red dots wavered as if unsure which way to go.

A new series of flashes out the forward window briefly illuminated the interior of the cockpit with brilliant light. Aaron squinted and covered his eyes. On the auxiliary control panel above his head, several indicators began to blink in alarm. Countermeasure flares—but why would the enemy fire those first?

As if in response, a loud explosion sounded against the hull. It reverberated through the bulkheads, setting off a whole new set of alarms. It sounded as if they’d been struck by a small asteroid—or projectile fire. Aaron yelped and nosed down, barely avoiding another volley. Paladin-2 was not so lucky. The display showed her explode and break up into a rapidly expanding debris field about two klicks off their bow.

A loud beeping sound added to the growing number of alarms. It took a second for Aaron to recognize it from general training. That sound meant the enemy targeting systems were painting them. He dropped a countermeasure flare of his own and nosed up, burning his engines to get around the debris field made by Paladin-2. Another alarm sounded, this one indicating an incoming missile. Fortunately, it stopped shortly after the countermeasure flare went off.

The clock on the main display now read 01:02. The incoming enemy craft fired another projectile volley, only seconds before flyby. Aaron took a chance and dove into the debris field. The bulkheads shook as the armor took a beating, but none of the debris broke through to damage the hull. Meanwhile, the enemy took a wide berth around him, easily enabling him to dodge their fire.

“Autolasers,” he heard someone say over the radio chatter, and realized he’d forgotten to activate his. He swore under his breath—those lasers could have taken out a fair amount of the projectile fire they’d already absorbed. He reached up to switch the system on, only to see a long list of flashing red words on the auxiliary display.

Shit. That list was from damage control—and it was all in Gaian. He had no idea which systems were gone and which ones were still working.

The clock read 00:43 now. They were less than twenty klicks from the target ship. Paladin-1 and Paladin-3 were still holding steady on approach, but Paladin-6 was veering off as if it had lost control and Paladin-5 and Paladin-7 were under heavy fire in the rear. That wasn’t good—if they lost more than half of their troops en route to the target, they could all be killed or captured once they tried to board. Cold sweat began to form on the back of Aaron’s neck, but he ignored it and pressed on.

“Plasma!” a voice shouted over the intercom. “Raise magnetic shields!” Aaron raised his just as half a dozen plasma bolts started arcing from the target ship. The shields did a fair job of deflecting them, but he zigzagged back and forth just in case. The whirr-pop of the autolasers sounded through the hull, and red flashes of light filled the starfield like a Betan worship service. It was intense. Things were heating up fast, and it was all he could do to keep the men depending on him alive.

Somehow, he got through the enemy fire without taking any more significant damage. The alarms still flashed and buzzed in his ear, but none of that mattered anymore—all that mattered was latching onto the target ship’s hull and cutting through. The taste of vomit filled his mouth, but he choked it down and brought up a schematic of the enemy ship on the secondary display. The bridge and control centers—that was what they needed to take first. If he could drop the troops off on that part of the ship, they had a good chance of making it out alive.

He spun the ship around and throttled the engines for the approach burn. In the next few moments, several things happened at once. A whole series of cascading alarms went off across the overhead indicator panel. At the same time, an explosion sounded in the rear half of the ship, louder than anything before. Aaron jerked the flight stick hard to the right, but the controls were unresponsive—the ship kept turning as if he’d put it into a spin. The soldiers in the cabin started screaming, and a blast of hot air hit the back of his neck.

He didn’t have time to turn around and see what had happened. The hull breached explosively less than a split second later, and he was sucked out of the cockpit into the rapidly expanding debris field that only moments ago had been Paladin-4. The icy black coldness of the vacuum of space burned his skin and insides as the oxygen was sucked from his lungs, while the dying bodies of the soldiers kicked and floundered all around him. He tried to gasp for breath, but the silence of space descended upon him like a shroud of death. His last thought as a piece of the hull spun to strike him was that he should have brought his autolasers online sooner.


* * * * *


Aaron sat up violently and gasped for breath as the simulation jacked him out of the dream monitor. Hands reached across his chest and held him back as his convulsions slowly stopped.

“Simulator,” someone said, followed by a bunch of other things that he didn’t understand. He coughed and reached back to touch the neural jacks in the back of his neck. They were still warm.

What went wrong back there? It seemed as if something had exploded as he brought the ship around for the final approach. The screams of the soldiers still rang in his ears, and the warmth around his neural implants reminded him eerily of the flames that had lanced across the back of his head. Who programmed a training simulation to be that realistic? What the hell were they thinking?

He eased himself down from the reclining chair and stood on unsteady legs as he slowly regained his bearings. A young female technician stood anxiously by him as he recovered, but the other two returned to monitoring the rest of the room. About a dozen other pilots lay back on the ergonomic seats, their faces covered by the large, helmet-like dream monitors. They were all hooked up to a central core like a small holding tank that sat in the center of the room. Wires ran along the floor, taped haphazardly in place and running every which way. All in all, the simulation room was a mess.

Aaron walked over to the far side of the room, where a small crowd had gathered around an array of more than a dozen display screens. Each one showed the viewpoint of a different pilot, with a scrolling label he couldn’t read along the top. Periodically, the screens would briefly flash to a 2D rendered map of the war zone, with an indicator showing the location of the particular ship. Five of the screens were blank, with “Killed in Action” in bold red letters. As Aaron watched, a sixth feed blanked out, and another trainee coughed violently as he came back to consciousness.

At least I wasn’t the only one to fail, Aaron tried to console himself. The realization gave him little comfort, though. Of the seven drop-ships, only three had made it to the target frigate. That left only three platoons of lightly armed Outworlder marines to fight an entire complement of Imperial shock troops. From what little he could tell, Commander Ajax was trying to redirect other drop-ships from the battle group to switch targets and head for the frigate, but it would take precious time for them to get there. If this were real life, the Imperials would almost certainly mow down the first wave of marines in time to be ready for the next one.

He glanced around the room and saw Mara leaning up against the far wall with her arms folded. She waved at him, and he walked over to talk with her.

“What happened back there?” he asked.

“It looked like you had a mild reactor breach that went critical when you made a hard engine burn on approach,” she answered. “That explosion that killed our ship? It wasn’t enemy fire.”

Aaron swore. “A reactor breach? Are you serious?”

“That’s what it looked like. It’s hard to tell from here, of course, but I’m sure you’ll get a chance to review it in detail later.”

“But I totally could have prevented the whole thing by flushing the coolant system and pulsing the engines. It wouldn’t have slowed us down as fast, but it would have saved the reactor—and the whole damn ship, too.”

Mara cocked her head and raised an eyebrow. “You sound pretty confident about that. Are you sure it would work?”

“Well, no, but it would have kept the reactor from overheating, and that’s what made it go critical. She held just fine through the rest of the battle, and even if she died in the approach maneuver, the pulsing alone would have prevented her from exploding the way she did.”

“You’re quite a pilot,” she said approvingly. “I think my father would have liked you.”

Aaron frowned. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“Nothing at all,” she said, looking away. From the way her expression fell, Aaron realized he’d said something stupid.

Fortunately, two other members of the platoon walked over just then, cutting the conversation short before it became a fight. The first one, a massively strong kid with stubbly blond hair and arms as thick as hull plating, Aaron recognized as Hektor, the platoon’s heavy weapons specialist. The other, a smaller guy with a bald head and a black chin beard, was someone he hadn’t met yet.

Hektor gave him a boyish grin and waved, as if Aaron’s not being able to speak Gaian meant that he was deaf as well. Any other time, Aaron wouldn’t have really cared, but after the disastrous training session, the gesture made him groan and roll his eyes.

Mara ignored that and greeted them both. They spoke with each other for a few moments before letting him in on the conversation.

“Aaron, you know Hektor right?”

“Of course.” He turned to Hektor. “Hello, how are you?” he asked in his broken Gaian.

“Ah!” said Hektor. The intonation of his voice rose and fell as if hearing Aaron speak was the most amazing thing to happen all dayshift. He punched him good-naturedly in the arm, leaving a sore spot and almost knocking him back. Aaron tried very hard not to wince.

“You are new to star cluster, no?” the other soldier said in a heavy accent.

“Yeah,” Aaron admitted. “Who are you?”

The kid with the black chin beard bowed. “My name is Jason Thetana.”

Aaron perked up at once. Jason spoke a blend of languages that sounded surprisingly familiar. He realized it was the creole he was most familiar with, from his home sector.

“Are you from the Oriana Cluster?”

Jason grinned. “Yes, of course, from Theta star. You have good ear.”

Theta Oriana was one of the closest stars to Aaron and Mara’s home system, and had a language and culture that was not too different from theirs. Where Deltans were always close-knit and friendly with each other, though, Thetan society was much more fractious. Growing up, Aaron had heard crazy stories about Thetan blood feuds and vendettas, some of them stretching across the entire star cluster. Like most Deltan star wanderers, he’d always done his best to steer clear of them, even at faraway ports.

“Jason is the platoon’s cybernetics expert,” Mara explained. “He’s our best hacker—in fact, he’s the one of the main programmers for the training simulation.”

“You bastard!” Aaron exclaimed without thinking. To his relief, Jason threw back his head and laughed.

“Ah, you like? Is good work, no?”

Hektor tapped Aaron’s chest and pointed at the screens. Half of them were down now, but even so, he grinned and made a thumbs-up sign, nodding for effect. Aaron frowned.

“What’s he saying?”

Mara conferred with him for a moment, then turned back to Aaron. “He says you did a good job back there.”

“Good, good,” Hektor said in Gaian, grinning like an idiot. He made the thumbs up sign again and shook it for effect.

“What is he talking about? I got shot down—if that had been real, we’d all be dead.”

“They always make the training tougher than real life,” Mara said. “You did pretty good, all things considered. Our last pilot was the guy flying Paladin-2. He’s always the first to get shot down.”

“Good,” Hektor repeated. He didn’t stop until Aaron nodded and made the thumbs-up sign back to him.

“You are good pilot,” said Jason, slapping him on the back. “You fly us good.”

“You’re all wrong,” Aaron muttered. The noise of the room was making him dizzy, and all this extra attention from his platoon mates wasn’t helping much, even if they were a lot more upbeat about it than him.

“Don’t worry—in a real battle, we’d never drop further than twenty klicks from an enemy target,” Mara told him. “We drop at fifty klicks in training just to keep us on our toes. You did pretty well out there, especially for your first run-through.”

“But Mara, I couldn’t even read the damage control readouts. If I hadn’t spent the last two dayshifts studying up on all the controls, I wouldn’t have been able to fly her.”

“Even more impressive,” said Jason.

“But—guys! What are you talking about? I just got you all killed!”

Mara put a hand on his arm. “Easy there, hotshot. It was just a simulation. And you did fine—really, you did. Don’t beat yourself up about it.”

“Good, good,” Hektor said, starting all over with the thumbs-up thing. Aaron groaned.

“How am I supposed to do this if I can’t even read the controls on my own ship? We leave in just ten dayshifts! I’m not ready.”

“No one is,” Mara said under her breath. She looked at him, and for the first time Aaron saw a hint of fear, tinged with desperation. In that moment, it was as if she’d taken off her mask—a mask of bravado that everyone else in the room was still wearing. It lasted only a moment, though, leaving Aaron to wonder if he hadn’t just imagined it.

“Listen,” said Jason. “You want to learn language fast? You want to pick it up no time?”

“Uh, yeah,” said Aaron. The intensity in Jason’s eyes unnerved him—not to mention the fact that he was a Thetan. He took a deep breath and did his best to swallow his uneasiness.

“Listen,” Jason repeated. “You want learn, I can help. Have good program, in dream monitor will teach you.”

Mara frowned. “Are you sure that’s a good idea, Jason? The last thing we want is to screw with his brain.”

“Is no problem, is no problem. Database very good, will teach him very easy.” he turned to Aaron and put a hand on his shoulder. “You want?”

Aaron shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”

“Very good,” Jason said, patting his arm and giving him a wide grin. “You are good boy. Very good boy.”

“Very good,” Hektor added, giving him another thumbs up.

Mara rolled her eyes and took Aaron by the arm. “Come on, let’s get out of here. The training’s almost over, and I want to get a seat in the debriefing room.” She spoke quickly to the others, who nodded and left.

“What’s that program Jason was talking about?” Aaron asked as she led him out of the crowded simulation center.

“It’s a neural stimulator that works through a portable dream monitor. Instead of putting you into a simulation, it’s supposed to enlarge the neural pathways connected with language acquisition and help you retain what you pick up. But Aaron, it isn’t a miracle program that will teach you everything. And if you overuse it, it could really do some damage.”

“Getting shot out of the starfield could do some damage, too,” he muttered, remembering the terrifying last moments of the simulation. The burning sensation on his skin and in his lungs as the cockpit exploded, throwing him out into the vacuum of space—it made him shudder just thinking about it.

“I’m serious, Aaron. You’ve got to be careful with this stuff.”

He groaned. “Don’t worry—I’ll be fine.” The last thing he needed was someone to mother him.


* * * * *


“Aaron!” said Isaac, his face lighting up like a supernova the moment his eyes fell on him. He half-walked, half-ran through the crowded stationside bar and threw his arms around him.

“Good to see you, too,” said Aaron, his cheeks reddening from embarrassment. It was a good thing the rest of the platoon wasn’t here. He didn’t want to be known as the kid whose older brother treated him like a baby.

“How have things been? I heard they assigned you to be a drop-ship pilot. You’ll have to tell me all about it. Are you taking care of yourself?”

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Aaron muttered as he sat down in the narrow booth. “Don’t worry about me. I can take care of myself.”

Isaac hesitated a moment before slipping into the seat across from him. Out by the bar, a group of off-duty soldiers in faded green fatigues laughed raucously at some unheard joke, while another group walked in through the open doorway. It was as crowded as anywhere else on New Hope Station, but the booth was like an island of sanity amid the chaos.

The debriefing had gone just as well as he’d expected, which was to say not at all. Aaron didn’t know which was worse, nodding stupidly as the flight commander chewed him out or getting Mara’s translation and knowing that she was privy to every sordid detail. At least they’d granted him a couple hours of leave, which was just what he needed to meet up with his brother before he left. Though from the looks of it, half the soldiers and pilots in the Flotilla were on leave as well.

“Well, they gave me my assignment, too,” said Isaac. He spread out his arms across the back of his seat. “I can’t say much about it, but if all goes well I’m going to be just as close to the fighting as you.”

“You’re one of the civilian pilots taking the jump beacons in?” As much as Aaron wanted to hide it, he couldn’t help but feel relieved that his brother wouldn’t be far away.

Isaac grinned. “I can neither confirm nor deny …”

“Oh come on. How many other people on this station can speak a word of Deltan?”

“Don’t blame me. I’m just following orders. But I can tell you that we’re moving out hard—and fast. The Imperial fleet at Colkhia is part of an expeditionary force, without any other forces nearby to reinforce them. Admiral Tully wants to retake all three of the occupied systems and drive the Imperials from the star cluster before they have a chance to regroup. If all goes well, the campaign might be over in as little as a month.”

“And let me guess,” said Aaron. “Once it’s over, you want to get together and go back to starfaring?”

“Well, yeah. Wasn’t that the plan?”

Aaron sighed. The truth was, he was still split on that issue. He didn’t want to leave Isaac completely, but if he went back to the Medea too soon, he’d be right back under his brother’s thumb.

“We don’t have to have a plan,” he said. “We’ll just figure things out as they come.”

Before Isaac could say anything, a blonde teenager with an apron around her waist came up to their table. Since there weren’t any serving bots hovering around the bar, Aaron guessed she was there to take their order. His older brother talked with her for a bit before turning back to him.

“Did you want anything in particular?”

Aaron shook his head. “I’ll take whatever you’re getting.”

Isaac conferred again with the girl, who pulled out an old, battered datapad to take their order. As they talked, she glanced sideways at Aaron and giggled. Before he could respond, she slipped the datapad back into her apron and left.

“What was that about?”

“Nothing.”

“No, really,” said Aaron. “What did you tell her?”

“I told her that I don’t usually order hard drinks, but my brother does, so I’ll take one in honor of him. Also, that you’re available.”

“What?”

“Hey,” said Isaac, spreading out his palms. “We’re going to have to settle down eventually—we can’t be star wanderers forever. I’m just keeping an eye out for you.”

Blood rushed to Aaron’s cheeks, but fortunately, the girl was out of sight. He shook his head.

“I don’t know, man. You’re just like Mom, planning out my life and trying to set me up with every girl you see.”

“I’m just throwing opportunities at you. What you choose to do with them is up to you.”

“Well, thanks. I guess.”

Isaac chuckled. “Have you had a chance to get to know any of the other pilots on the Aegis?

“No, but there’s a Deltan girl in my platoon.”

“Really?” he said, leaning forward. “What’s her name?”

“Mara Soladze. Do you remember her?”

“I do, as a matter of fact. Wasn’t she one of Mariya’s best friends growing up?”

Aaron nodded. “Yeah, that’s what she says. She’s a tough girl. I can barely keep up with her.”

“Oh? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing,” he said, blushing again. “She’s just tough, that’s all. Doesn’t take any crap. When she found out that I’d joined the Flotilla, she set me up as her platoon’s drop-ship pilot and appointed herself my personal translator. I haven’t been able to get rid of her since.”

Isaac glanced to either side. “I don’t see her here.”

“Thank the stars,” Aaron muttered.

“How is the language working out for you? Have you been able to make any progress?”

He groaned. “It’s tough—tougher than I thought it would be—but I’ll manage.”

“I told you that you should have tried harder to pick it up.”

“Yeah, yeah. Can you tell me something I don’t know?”

“Hey,” said Isaac, “don’t be too hard on yourself. You’re not the only one having language issues. It’s a problem throughout the entire Flotilla. We’ve got recruits coming in from all over the Near Outworlds, and Gaian is the only thing we’ve got that comes close to a common language. It’s causing all kinds of logistical and command issues, so don’t worry. You’re not alone.”

“When did you get so keyed into this war?” Aaron asked. “You sound like it’s something you actually care about now.”

“Well, let’s just say I’ve seen some things to convince me that this isn’t something we can just run away from. This isn’t just about the New Pleiades—it’s about taking a stand for all of us. We’re all interconnected, even on the furthest fringes of the Far Outworlds, and if the New Pleiades falls to Imperial aggression, we’re going to feel it everywhere.”

His words made Aaron think of the henna girl from the derelict space station. Her people had isolated themselves from the rest of humanity, and look at what had happened to them. His brother was right—this was about the whole Outworlds.

He grinned. “You’ve always got to take the responsible path, don’t you? Bet you never thought it would lead you to follow me.”

“What can I say? We’re in this together. When the campaign starts, keep an eye out for me. I won’t be far behind you.”

The girl came back with their drinks. She set them on the table one at a time. When she came to him, Aaron winked at her, and her cheeks turned bright red.

“To the future we’re all fighting for,” said Isaac. “May our families and our freedoms shine brighter than all the stars.” He lifted his glass.

“The future,” Aaron concurred. They tossed back their heads and drank.


* * * * *


Back on the Aegis, Aaron shuffled to the barracks level and searched for the door with the insignia of his platoon. He wasn’t drunk—his older brother never let him get drunk if he could help it—but he was at the point of tipsiness where the alcohol was starting to impair his perception rather than enhance it. He’d probably wake up with a headache and a mild hangover which, combined with his physical training, was bound to suck. But that was hours away. He’d deal with it in the coming dayshift.

He found the door and palmed it open. The lights were dim, making it hard for him to see, but the layout of the bunks on either side was familiar enough that it wasn’t hard to find his. Only about half the platoon members had made it back from leave, and Mara was among them. While the others were all sleeping, she sat on the edge of her bunk, engrossed in a datapad. As soon as he walked in, she perked up.

“Aaron,” she said, rising to greet him. “I’ve been waiting for you. Find your way back all right?”

“Yes, yes,” Aaron muttered. A wave of tiredness hit him, and he felt the sudden urge to pee.

“Listen, Jason wanted me to leave this with you. It’s a portable dream monitor that plugs into the terminal next to your bunk. It’s preprogrammed with the neural stimulator program he told you about. If you use it for half an hour before you go to sleep and after you wake up, it should be enough, but any more than that and you could really screw yourself up. Understand?”

“Half an hour.” he said sleepily. The floor beneath him began to rock back and forth.

“I mean it,” she said, poking him in the chest. “If you’re going to use it, set an alarm to wake you out after thirty minutes. Otherwise, you might fall asleep with that thing plugged in, and there’s no telling what it might do.”

“I have to go pee,” he said. Even in the dim nightshift lighting, he could see her roll her eyes.

“Whatever. I’ll leave the dream monitor on your bunk. Remember what I said about that alarm. The last thing we want is to turn your brain into a pile of mush.”

“Mush, mmm.” She sighed and rolled her eyes again before leaving him.

After relieving himself in the four-stall unisex bathroom that serviced the barracks on his deck, Aaron lumbered back to his bunk and climbed in. His shoulder hit an unusually large bump, and he swore under his breath before realizing that it was the dream monitor. The helmet-sized device looked like a welder’s mask with a short, upside-down scorpion tail in the back for plugging into his neural jacks. He turned on his bunk light to examine it.

If I use this, I’ll pick up the language faster, he thought to himself. Without hesitation, he plugged it into his subcomputer and put it on.

The needle at the end of the scorpion’s tail sent an electric thrill down his spine as it slid into the neural jack implants at the base of his neck. He arranged his pillow so that it supported him on the upper back and laid down carefully so as not to disturb the connection. Fortunately, the helmet secured itself quite firmly, without any give within the port. He pulled the visor across his face and settled back as the monitor switched on.

Normally, when a simulation started, there was a brief moment where he lost the physical sensations of sight, smell, hearing, and touch. After it passed, he would find himself floating in a gray, nondescript world—the loading space between simulations. This time, though, there was none of that. Instead, he felt a thick murkiness fall across his senses, as if he were watching himself fall asleep. His body stiffened, and a warm tingling began to spread up and down his spine.

The visor blocked his vision, but colorful symmetric shapes began to appear in the darkness in front of his eyes. When he closed them, they were still there. They started out simple, but soon morphed into complex, fractal-like patterns. It was like a cross between a waking dream and the sensation he got when he rubbed his eyes too vigorously.

If he weren’t so tipsy, perhaps Aaron would have been more concerned. As it was, all he wanted was to surrender to the growing dizziness and exhaustion. He closed his eyes and gave in.

As his mind drifted away on a sea of semi-consciousness, words began to pop in and out of his head. Some of them were things he’d overheard through the dayshift, others were from his conversations with Mara and his brother. Whether they were Gaian or Deltan, though, he couldn’t tell. Each one sent a ripple through the rapidly morphing fractals, transforming them in new and unpredictable ways. One of them appeared in written form, though the letters were too blurry to make out.

It was as if he were watching the fibers of a complex weave undo themselves, only to form a new, more complicated pattern underneath. The tingly sensation extended to the ends of his fingers and toes, and his body shuddered once before descending to a new level of relaxation.

The colors and fractals converged, and the fibers began to take actual form. They darkened and turned into long, braided hair. The braids came undone, and the hair fell over a pair of dark feminine shoulders covered in henna tattooes.

It’s her, Aaron realized. The girl in the cryotank. She stood with her back to him, with her arms and hands outstretched on either side. She was naked, so that he could see that the henna covered almost her entire body. Her black hair shimmered, giving her the appearance of a goddess.

Who are you? Aaron asked. His words, though unspoken, went directly to her mind. In the fuzzy logic of dreams, that made more sense than speaking aloud.

The girl rose up in the air and began to float away from him. He tried to follow her, but a thick sense of paralysis had rooted his legs. He struggled against it as hard as he could, but to no avail. Panic began to seize him, not just from being unable to move, but that he might lose her.

Wait! Where are you going? Come back!

She glanced at him over her shoulder as she slowly began to fade. I can’t, she said, her voice like water running through a desert.

Come for me.

With that, she disappeared into thin air, leaving Aaron lost and bewildered. The strange force released him, and he stumbled forward, reaching out for her. But she was gone, leaving him in the darkness.


Comrades in Arms


A harsh, monotone alarm brought Aaron painfully back to consciousness. He groaned—it felt as if he had a weight on his head and a spike in his back. He opened his eyes, only to find the visor shield blocking his vision.

It took him a second to orient himself, but once he realized that he was still plugged into the dream monitor, he reached up to his ear and shut it off. The needle sent chills across his skin as it withdrew from the neural implants in the back of his neck, making him realize how cold he was. His sheets and underclothes were soaked with sweat, as if he’d had a fever. It had long since cooled, leaving him to shiver in the dark.

He reached into the locker compartment above his head and pulled out a clean change of clothes. As he did, a splitting headache almost knocked him flat. His body was sore, barely rested from the night-long session with the dream monitor. Combined with the hangover and whatever the machine had done to his brain, it made him want nothing quite so much as to pass out and die.

Can’t do that, he told himself. If the commander thinks I’m unfit, they’ll get another pilot and leave me here. Besides, the commissary had stims that would take care of the headache—if he could manage to get there.

Still shivering, he rolled out of his bunk and climbed down onto the floor. It took him a moment to steady himself before trudging out to the bathroom to change. The whole time, fractal patterns danced in the corners of his vision, just outside his view. He closed his eyes to see them more clearly, but they disappeared whenever he tried to grasp them.

Set an alarm to wake you after thirty minutes, Mara’s words came back to his memory. The last thing we want is to turn your brain to a pile of mush. With the pain that seemed to split his head in half, that didn’t sound so bad. A pile of mush couldn’t feel anything.

At length, he finished changing and walked back into the barracks to drop off his clothes. Most of the other soldiers were sleeping—Aaron set his alarm early to give him an hour of language study time. It sucked getting up so early, but the platoon followed a rigid training schedule, and that was the only time he had. And the hangover/headache was eating into it.

Without wasting any more time, he made for the commissary at the juncture between the mess hall and the medical bay, two decks above their own. He found it bustling with activity, since First and Second Platoons started their dayshift a couple of hours before Fourth did.

“So when do you think we’re moving out, this week or next?”

“Beans again? Ugh, this food makes me sick.”

“Who’s your money on in the next combat sim—Third or Sixth?”

The buzz of conversation in the hallway made him frown. His ears were picking up noise, but somehow, his mind was making sense of them. He rubbed his forehead and groaned. The more people talked, the more his head hurt.

A small line had formed in front of the commissary, just like at the start of each dayshift. Fortunately, it moved quickly. Aaron passed the time by staring at the floor. The tiles were white, with different colored lines designating the paths to various locations on the ship. MESS HALL, he read in bold letters next to the one in blue. BARRACKS, said the green one. He couldn’t quite make out the yellow one. The lettering stood out enough, but the words were unclear. However, the orange one read BRIDGE.

“Next,” the middle-aged woman called out from behind the commissary window. She was short and pudgy, her eyes half-open and her mouth turned down into what seemed to be a permanent frown.

“Me?” Aaron asked. He glanced around, but the line was now behind him.

“Yes, you. What do you need?”

“Headache,” he said, pointing to his head. The pain had started to become excruciating. “Need stims, very bad.”

“That’s what they all say. Hangover?”

Aaron nodded, moaning a little. He was already in too much pain to deny it.

The commissary lady left the window and came back with a small black canister the size of his thumb. “Take one pill every hour. Don’t forget to return the canister.”

“Thank you,” he said, accepting the canister gratefully. He opened it up and popped one of the little round pills in his mouth after taking only a couple of steps. It took a little effort to swallow without water, but he forced it down and headed for the observation deck.

The Aegis was a light Frontier-class frigate built mainly to protect larger settlements from pirates, bandits, and other marauders. Even though she was a lot smaller than a typical Imperial battleship, she was designed to operate mainly in one planetary system, rather than across an interstellar theater. Consequently, a lot less of her mass was dedicated to the power reactors and jump drive systems, letting her carry about the same amount of personnel in a much smaller ship. Still, compared to most Outworld starships, she was positively enormous. At 850 meters in length and 400 meters at her widest point, the Aegis was larger than some space stations Aaron had visited. He still couldn’t get over the fact that she had a deck just for observing the stars. Of course, with all the available space converted to carry as many troops as possible, the deck also served as the ship’s only public lounge and recreation space, but the place was generally pretty quiet at the start of the dayshift. It could get a lot busier later on, though.

He found a large chair in front of a bubble-shaped window and sat down. On his reading tablet, he brought up a Gaian language primer and synced the device with his wrist console in order to run it through the autotranslator. It wasn’t a perfect system—much of the time, the instructions made little sense—but it was better than nothing.

As he read, though, something made him frown. The words on the tablet made just enough sense that he could gather their meaning before turning to his wrist console. He couldn’t understand everything without the autotranslator—there were a lot of words that were still foreign to him—but the basic grammar and sentence structure came naturally, and he could infer most of the rest from context. In fact, there were spots where he could tell that the translation was in error.

The neural stimulator program, he realized, his eyes widening. He hadn’t noticed it before because of the headache, but now that it had more or less subsided, he could tell that the program had made a big difference.

Brimming with excitement, he closed the Gaian primer and opened the basic dictionary. Here, most of the words were unfamiliar, but by reading through the definitions and using the autotranslator to fill in the gaps, he was able to decipher their meanings. Whirl. Mote. Presuppose. Idealist. Remove. His mind soaked them up like a black hole soaking up light, warping all of his preconceived notions of language. After just half an hour, it became hard to tell whether he was reading Deltan or Gaian. Since the alphabets were mostly the same, he could barely tell the difference.

His wrist console chimed, alerting him that it was time for his platoon to take their first meal. He switched it off and slipped the reading tablet back into his vest, a grin spreading across his face. His headache was starting to return, but that hardly mattered anymore. He could barely wait to see the look on Mara’s face.


* * * * *


Aaron joined the rest of the platoon just as they were entering the mess hall. Lieutenant Castor led the way, though they came in no particular order. At thirty-something standard years, Castor was by far the oldest member of the platoon. He kept his light-brown hair cropped closely to his head, and a bushy mustache covered his upper lip. Hektor came after him, followed closely by three or four other soldiers that Aaron didn’t yet recognize by name. They all nodded in acknowledgment as they passed, but no one actually spoke to him until Mara.

“There you are,” she said. “How was your language study?”

“Good, good,” said Aaron, falling into step beside her.

She grinned. “Ah, getting better I see. Did the neural stimulator help?”

“Very much.”

“You didn’t overuse it, did you?” she asked, her expression suddenly serious. “That program is highly experimental. It could do serious damage to your brain if you do.”

He shrugged. “It’s okay. No problem.”

They fell into line behind another platoon at the food buffet. Mara grabbed a tray for each of them and handed him one. At the front, Lieutenant Castor stepped aside to let the rest of the platoon go first.

“How’s our new pilot doing?” he asked Mara in Gaian as she and Aaron passed him.

“Doing well, I think,” she answered. “He did better in the last simulation than the one before.”

“So I heard,” said Castor. He said something else that Aaron didn’t quite catch—about the other soldiers taking encouragement or something like it. He turned to Aaron and smiled.

“Thank you, Lieutenant.”

Castor’s eyes lit up. “Ah, making progress with the language I see.”

“Yes, Lieutenant. Very much.”

He patted Aaron on the arm. “Keep up the good work, Cadet.” He added something about being promoted to ensign soon, with or without a uniform. The soldiers behind them chuckled. The Flotilla was far too scattershot to have an official uniform for anyone, much less for drop-ship pilots. But Aaron only got the joke after the lieutenant had moved on.

“You speak very well,” said the soldier in line after him. She was about Mara’s height, with dark skin, a flat nose, and an unusually wide mouth. Her teeth were whiter than an A-class star.

“Hello, my name is Aaron,” Aaron said, falling out of habit into the familiar phrases. “What is your name?”

“Talya. You’re not from the New Pleiades, are you?”

They arrived at the food trays, where server bots distributed equal portions of black and brown mush according to the soldiers’ preprogrammed preferences. The line was moving fast, faster than Aaron had realized. He’d already missed his chance to grab a bowl, but Talya wordlessly handed him hers and took one from the person behind her, who retrieved another from further up the line.

“No,” he answered. “Oriana Cluster. I am—I was—star wanderer.”

She nodded approvingly. “Very good. We’re all happy to have a real pilot flying us.”

Aaron was going to ask about their previous pilot, the one who now flew Paladin-2, but he’d already gotten to the server bots, which were flashing red at him. Apparently, this wasn’t a meal he’d registered for. Not wanting to hold up the line, he pointed to the tray on the left—until he saw the sign that said VEGETARIAN. But by then, it was too late. The first serving bot dropped two perfectly spherical scoops in his bowl and stopped flashing.

He was careful enough with the next ones to read the label first. Besides the brownish goop that served as the main meal, he got a scoop of corn and a scoop of rice, with enough spices mixed in to make it red. With a tall glass of white fruit juice to wash it down, the meal was more or less complete. He joined Mara in the search for a table.

“Talya’s right. You’re learning the language very well,” she told him in Deltan. “Here, let’s go sit by Hektor and the others.”

Aaron followed her to a table with exactly two empty places, both next to each other. When Hektor saw that they were coming, his eyes lit up, and he started waving and gesturing with his hands.

“What do you think I am, idiot?” Aaron asked him in Gaian.

The table erupted in laughter, so much that soldiers from the other platoons glanced in their direction. Hektor rose to his feet, clapped both hands on Aaron’s shoulders, and kissed him on the cheek.

“No problem, my brother. No problem,” he said. From the thickness of his accent, Aaron realized that he couldn’t speak Gaian either. That surprised him.

“Please, sit,” said Jason from the opposite corner. He gestured magnanimously with his hand. “And Mara—good as always to see you.”

Mara nodded curtly and took her seat. Aaron joined her.

“So when do you think we’re going to leave?” the soldier across from him asked. Aaron glanced around in confusion until he realized that he wasn’t talking to him, but to Mara.

She shrugged. “I have no idea.”

The soldier rolled his eyes and said something about her being more connected than anyone else. At least, that was what Aaron gathered.

“I honestly have no idea,” Mara repeated. She then said something about Aaron’s brother being in some wing of the Flotilla having to do with espionage. Instantly, every eye on the table turned on him.

“What?” he said, holding out his hands. “Don’t know anything.”

“It’s okay,” said Hektor. “Just cabin fever, is all. Want to go, get on move, anything better than sitting here.”

“Too true,” Jason concurred. “Life is boring when you’re not getting shot at.”

“The shooting will happen soon enough,” said Mara. She stabbed at her food with her spork and forced down a mouthful.

“How long you all been here?” Aaron asked. The others looked at each other, not sure where to start.

“I have been here four standard month,” Hektor answered. “Came from far side of New Pleiades. Was bored there too, and lonely. Here, only just bored.” He grinned boyishly.

“Two weeks,” Jason said. He took a long drink of the dark, syrupy substance that filled his glass. “Was a star wanderer from Oriana Cluster, not far from both of you.” He nodded in acknowledgment at Mara and Aaron. “Anyway, they wanted me to fly in one of the supply convoys. I did that for a while, but not much action, so I switched and came here.”

“I’ve been in this platoon for almost three standard months, and still no action,” said the soldier across from Aaron.

“What is your name?” Aaron asked.

“My name? I’m Nestor.” He was tall and thin, with fair skin and reddish-blonde sideburns that came down to his jawline. His lips seemed to curve up naturally into a grin.

“Sorry,” said Mara. “You probably don’t know everyone yet. You’ve already met Hektor, our heavy weapons specialist. Nestor is one of our scouts, while Pallas is a sharpshooter. Lino and Tzaf are on my fireteam, Phoebe is the platoon medic, and Talya, who you met in line, is one of the supports in our squad.”

“Right,” said Aaron, reverting back to Deltan as he talked with her. He waved at the others sitting around the table, but it was clear they didn’t know that Mara was introducing them.

“I’m Lino,” said the stocky, round-faced soldier sitting across from Jason. “Came here with Tzaf and Phoebe just a month ago. We’re all from Iayus—came because the Imperials invaded our homeworld. So yeah, not so boring for us.”

From the grim way that Mara nodded, Aaron gathered that was an understatement. Phoebe was a small, quiet girl with short, red hair and a cybernetic eye implant, while Tzaf was bald with a trimmed black beard and an arm that was clearly prosthetic. With his large, metal hand, he looked like he could punch clear through a bulkhead and not feel any pain. Lino didn’t seem quite as strong, but he carried a knife strapped to his chest that was almost as long as Aaron’s kukri. He didn’t doubt that the man knew how to use it.

“So why are you here?” Jason asked the last soldier—Pallas, the sharpshooter. He wore a set of shades so that it was impossible to see his eyes. With his dark olive skin and distinctively sharp facial features, Aaron guessed he was from somewhere in the region of Nova Alnitak.

“To kill Gaians,” said Pallas. His words were just as economical as his motions.

“Same here,” said Mara.

Phoebe said something about wanting to take back her homeworld. Her voice was so soft that Aaron couldn’t quite catch every word, but the meaning was clear.

“I’m here for the adventure,” Nestor admitted. “When the recruiters came to my home station, I signed up right away. Life is too short to live it all out at one star.”

I like that guy, Aaron decided. He nodded his approval, and Nestor returned the nod.

“Is same,” said Hektor.

“What about our pilot here?” Jason asked, looking pointedly at Aaron. “Why did you come to fight someone else’s war?”

Aaron shrugged. “Adventure, too,” he said, glancing from Nestor to Mara. “But also, for … unfinished business.”

“What sort of business?” Mara asked.

He thought of the henna girl in the cryotank. He could still remember her from his dream the night before, floating away from him with her arms outstretched. Come for me, she had said—whether in Deltan or Gaian or some other language, it didn’t matter. The meaning had struck him right to his soul.

“Is … complicated,” he said. “Sorry, cannot explain.”

“You’ll have to tell me later, then,” Mara said in Deltan. From the way she eyed him, it was clear he wouldn’t get out of it easily.


* * * * *


Thirty-one, Aaron counted as he pushed himself up from the floor. Thirty-two, thirty-three … Sweat dribbled down his neck and between his eyes, while the muscles in his chest and arms burned. All around him, the other soldiers were practically flying through the exercise. Tzaf was doing his pushups one-handed, just to keep from relying too much on his cybernetic prosthetic. After almost an hour of strength exercises, even the women were outdoing him. His cheeks burned almost as much as his arms, and even though his body screamed at him to stop and rest, he determined to push on with the exercise.

At length, they finished. Aaron collapsed face first on the mat, his whole body shaking. The floor never felt so sweet to him. But the others only waited a moment before pairing up for the next one.

“Come on,” said Mara, standing over him. “On your back, soldier. Time for another set of leg throws.”

“By the holy stars of Earth,” Aaron whined. Still, he rolled over and complied. Mara stood with her feet below his shoulders, on either side of his head. He gripped her ankles and lifted his legs to her chest.

“Keep ‘em straight,” she said. Pain shot up and down his thighs as she threw his legs back to the floor. He winced. It felt as if the lower half of his body were struggling against five gees. He just barely managed to keep his feet from hitting the floor—which was, of course, the point of the exercise.

“Again, soldier,” said Mara, clapping her hands to tell him to get a move on. “That’s one—give me nineteen more.”

Aaron gritted his teeth and groaned as he lifted his legs for the second rep. All around him, the others were already on their second or third. He’d have to hurry if he didn’t want to fall behind.

She threw him down again, sending fire through his lower abdomen. He gasped, his legs quivering, and lifted them again on nothing but pure force of will. Just as they were vertical, she threw them unexpectedly to one side, sending spasms throughout his body.

By now, his vision was starting to get blurry. Traces of the fractal images from the night before started forming around the edges of his sight, though perhaps he was just imagining it. Time slowed, and everything around him seemed to turn to a blur.

Somehow, he managed to lift his legs one more time. He braced himself, expecting the pain to hit him again at any moment, but nothing happened. He opened his eyes and saw that Mara had stopped.

What’s going on? he opened his mouth to say, but the words refused to come out. It was as if he had a rag stuffed halfway down his throat—he just couldn’t shape his mouth to make the words. He heard some sort of sound coming over the shipwide loudspeakers and realized that it was some sort of announcement, but he couldn’t make any sense of it. In fact, he couldn’t even tell what language the person was speaking. To his ears, it was all just noise.

The fractal patterns started forming again on the edges of his vision, even with his eyes wide open. A sharp headache struck him like a hammer to the face, momentarily drowning out the pain in his legs and abs. He blinked and rubbed his forehead, and as quickly as it had come, the headache went away.

“—this is what we’ve all been training for,” the voice said. It took a second for Aaron to realize that it was Commander Ajax. “The people of the Outworlds will long remember this campaign against the Imperials. I trust that all of you will give nothing short of your best. Report to your posts in four hours.”

A cheer erupted through the bulkheads, which the soldiers in the physical training facilities soon took up. It was as if a spell had been broken, or a massive falling object had finally struck the atmosphere. Aaron moved to sit up, but soon fell back, exhausted.

“What’s going on?” he asked. His inability to speak had fled with the headache.

“Didn’t you hear? Admiral Tully is moving the Flotilla out. We jump in four hours.”

“Moving out? Where?”

“To Bacca or Iayus, probably. The main fleet’s at Colkhia, and we want to cut off their retreat. Aren’t you excited? Finally, some real action in this war.”

“Yeah,” said Aaron. “I guess.” He rubbed his eyes.

“Well, on with training. Let’s go—put ‘em up!”

He did as she said and wordlessly went on with the exercise. The pain certainly weighed on him, but his thoughts weighed even more. He knew he should be excited, but something bothered him, and he wasn’t even sure what it was. Maybe the lack of training? He still hadn’t flown through a simulated combat run without dying. And the language issues—was he really ready for this?

No one is, Mara’s words came to his mind. Somehow, they gave him little comfort.


First Strike


This is not a simulation, Aaron told himself as he fastened himself into the cockpit of the Paladin-4. All around him were tiny details that emphasized that fact: the canned, coppery taste of the air; the worn, faded fabric of the pilot’s seat; a distinctive scratch that ran down the auxiliary control panel overhead. Even the way the forward window was clouded around the edges. This was an old industrial sublighter, repurposed at the end of its life for war. How much longer that life would be was now in Aaron’s sweaty hands—not just the ship’s life, but everyone’s in it.

The soldiers assembled wordlessly in the cabin, the clicking and tightening of their seat restraints cutting through the tension-filled air. The floor beneath their feet shifted—the Aegis making combat maneuvers, no doubt. Barely five minutes had passed since they’d made their final jump, and all that any of them had seen of the battle so far was the red flashing lights in the corridor on the way to the drop-ships. While in port, no one ever ran in any part of the ship, but everyone they’d passed on the way had been running.

Aaron took a deep breath and started powering up the Paladin-4’s systems. He flicked a series of switches on the main control panel, and the indicators flashed to life. A faint, high-pitched whine came from the nav-computer, followed by a much lower hum through the floors and bulkheads as the sublight engine systems came online. The main display flashed white, briefly filling the dimly lit cabin with glowing light before switching to customary yellow-on-black. Out the forward window, a distant soundless explosion caught Aaron’s eye. The floor shifted again, and the stars began to spin.

His heart pounding, he reached up to the radio intercom and switched it on. The tinny voices of the other starship pilots filled the tiny cockpit, making him feel as if the battle was just on the other side of the hull. He switched channels to the one designated for the drop-ships, and the din became more manageable. Through the static, he made out Commander Noah’s heavily accented voice.

Paladin wing, this is Commander Noah. All ships report.”

The other drop-ship pilots went right down the line reporting their status and readiness. When it came to Aaron, he switched on the transmitter so quickly it nearly cut Paladin-3 off.

Paladin-4, ready for fly,” he said. The last of the system diagnostic checks flashed green on the main screen, and while the letters were a little fuzzy, he didn’t need to read them to make them out.

“Copy, Paladin wing,” said Commander Noah as the last drop-ship reported in. “We are standing by for launch orders. Prepare to undock on my mark.”

The radio went silent, and the men in the cabin were still. Aaron’s thumping heart seemed ready to leap out of his chest and into his bone-dry throat. The edges of his vision blurred, and the labels of the various switches and indicator lights began to swim. For a few brief moments, it was impossible for him to read any of them, but he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, willing the anxiety to pass.

This is your moment, he told himself. Your whole life has been leading up to this. This is your chance to make a name for yourself.

An image of the henna girl came to his mind, her black hair flowing like water over her intricately tattooed shoulders and back. Come for me, she seemed to call. A wave of peace swept over him, calming his heart and clearing his mind.

“All ships, launch! Repeat, all ships launch!”

He opened his eyes and threw the switch toggling the docking clamps. They opened with a muffled clang that reverberated through the bulkheads. His stomach fell a little as the Paladin-4 dropped out from beneath its mothership, and without hesitating, he engaged the engines. The targeting matrix blinked onto the main display, while outside the forward window, the stars began to pitch and sway.

“Uploading target to computers,” the flight commander’s voice crackled over the intercom. “Imperial Battlecruiser Star Fury II, eleven-point-six klicks, bearing seventy-four degrees.” He then said something about splitting forces between the command sections and engineering. Aaron scanned the autotranslator readout from the transmission and gathered he was to go with Paladin-2 and 3 and attack the command sections in the mid-upper decks. Happy hunting, the transmission ended.

The scanners showed all eight Paladin ships in blue, with the friendly forces of the Flotilla in green and the Imperial warships in red. The Aegis was running away from the Star Fury II, no doubt trying to make it to a safe distance while her soldiers boarded and captured the ship. The explosions and tracer fire outside the forward window confirmed as much.

Aaron nosed the Paladin-4 into position and throttled the engines to full burn. A heady roar sounded through the hull, and the force of the acceleration pushed him against his chair so hard that he felt as if he were lying on his back, looking up. On the scanners, the Paladin-4 took off ahead of the rest of the wing, while out the forward window, the Star Fury II loomed like a long symmetrical asteroid, taking up a good portion of the view.

The autolasers! Aaron thought, the adrenaline pulsing throughout his body. He reached up and switched them on. Tracers arced from the Star Fury II toward a host of unseen targets just outside of view, represented on the scanners as fast-moving green points. None of the shots targeted any of the drop-ships, though, which was gratifying to see.

Paladin-4, you’re coming in too hot,” said the flight commander. “Reduce speed.” There was more, but between the static, the rush of combat, and the effort needed to translate, Aaron didn’t catch it all.

“Got this, Commander,” Aaron answered. He cut the engines and threw the ship into a nose-down spin. In the cabin, one of the soldiers started screaming—Talya, by the sound of it. He kept the spin as smooth as possible and eased into another engine burn just before the maneuver was complete. The net effect was a feeling that something had caught them from a headfirst fall, rather than the gut-wrenching jerkiness that usually came from such maneuvers.

An alarm sounded on the auxiliary panel above him, and the whir-whir of the autolasers mingled with the rumbling of the engines. Projectile fire, coming from the Star Fury II—they’d finally noticed the drop-ships. Aaron gripped his flight stick and weaved back and forth as the drop-ship decelerated, avoiding the worst of the volleys. Their ETA was less than fifteen seconds now, so there wasn’t much the Imperials could do to stop them.

He toggled the main screen to overlay a visual on top of the target. The exterior video feed pitched wildly before fixing on a room with a wide, semi-circular window that bulged outward like a fishbowl. That must be the bridge. They were going too fast to stop there, but Aaron banked hard to the right and increased the throttle to eighty percent capacity, bringing them in just a couple hundred meters forward of the bridge. He dropped a countermeasure flare for good measure—let the commanders eat that—and set the autolasers to take out point defenses on the hull of the enemy ship.

Once they’d slowed down, he deployed the mining clamps and fired up the docking thrusters to bring them in. They connected to the hull with a loud, reverberating thud, and the grinding sound of the metal clamps confirmed that they were locked into position. In the cabin, one of the soldiers started retching.

“Hey—wasn’t that bad!” Aaron shouted over his shoulder. Several of the others laughed good-naturedly, while outside, another drop-ship came in just a short distance ahead of them.

The modified mining gear started up with a low rumble that soon transformed to a high-pitched grinding sound as they bit into the hull. The sound of the soldiers loading their rifles and retracting their seats back into the ceiling mingled with the ear-splitting grind, while the smell of sweat and vomit, like a rarified cocktail, hit Aaron’s nose. On the scanners, the red and green points continued to weave in and out of each other, but the alarms had gone silent, and the whir of the autolasers was sporadic at best.

“Uh, Paladin-1, this is Paladin-4,” Aaron transmitted over the intercom. “What do now?”

“Stay put and let the soldiers do their work, Paladin-4. Good flying. Hold position until Star Fury II is captured.”

It was over, then. Barely three minutes into the battle, and for Aaron, it was all but up. The only thing left now was to wait for the soldiers to either capture the Imperial battle cruiser or retreat to the drop-ship for evac. There was nothing left for him to do except wait.

The Aegis had withdrawn out of range of the Star Fury II’s plasma cannons and was engaging a cluster of smaller Imperial warships. With the Flotilla concentrated in the local sector and the Imperial forces spread out across the system, there was far more green and blue on the scanners than red. As Aaron watched, one more red point by the Aegis blinked out, followed by another.

“Remember your training,” Lieutenant Castor yelled over the grind of the mining gear. “Assaults first, scouts and heavies behind. Once in, supports stay behind to keep a path open to ship, the rest push forward to bridge. Understand?”

The resounding “yes” made Aaron more than a little jealous. For the rest of the platoon, the battle was just beginning, the thrill still fresh. He wished that he could join them.

Well, why couldn’t he? Just because he was the pilot didn’t mean that he had to stay behind with the ship the whole time. Of course, if his brother were around, he’d probably say something about how it was his duty to hold the rear, to be ready in case of a retreat—but in all likelihood, five or ten minutes was all it would take to know if they’d need evac. The rest was pure action, and Aaron wasn’t about to miss that for anything.

He unbuckled his seat restraints just as the mining gear burst through the hull and began to shut down. He stood up—the battlecruiser’s artificial gravity field extended just far enough to keep their feet on the floor—and turned around just in time to watch the soldiers fire a series of flash grenades into the tube leading down through the mining equipment. His ears popped slightly as the air pressure in the Paladin-4 equalized with the pressure on the Star Fire II, and with a shout, the first of the soldiers dove through.

“Move, move, move!” the squad sergeants shouted. Gunfire sounded through the hole, and the acrid smell of smoke wafted up into the cabin. That wasn’t enough to stop the platoon, though. As if with one mind, everyone pressed for the tube, jumping through so fast they were practically riding on each other’s shoulders.

Aaron’s eyes caught Mara’s, and for a split second, he saw something primal in them that made her look almost inhuman. Before he could react, though, she was in the tube, followed closely by Hektor. Whether she’d seen him or not, there was something in her face that had left him deeply disturbed.

The last of the soldiers jumped through and the tube doors hissed shut, cutting off the shouting and gunfire. Aaron found himself alone in a strangely silent and empty cabin. The autolasers whirred as they fired at some passing projectile, but only once. It was as if the battle had passed him by.

Not for long, he told himself. He pulled down the gun rack and started browsing through the spare rifles.


* * * * *


Aaron didn’t know what he expected to see on the Imperial battle cruiser. Certainly he didn’t expect it to be pretty. Some smoke, some scorch marks, a few fallen bodies. Maybe a little blood. Still, nothing could quite prepare him for what he found on the other side.

After waiting by the open tube to make sure there wasn’t any fighting going on below, he climbed into the shaft and pulled himself down. He landed on something soft and lumpy, losing his balance and falling to the floor. The soft, lumpy thing was a body—three, actually. They were sprawled face down, their armor scorched with plasma fire and their skin burned nearly black.

He leaped to his feet and stood with his back to the wall, rifle at the ready. The whole corridor was littered with bodies, some scorched, others lying in pools of blood. Ugly, black streaks seared the walls, with pock-marks in the ceramic tiling where bullet fire had strafed them. In one part, a partition had been blown out almost completely, rubble strewn in all directions with the metal structural strut broken and twisted by the battle. Aaron coughed—the smoke was so thick, he had to cover his mouth just to breathe. It stung his eyes and made him stagger. Even with all the smoke, though, the scent of charred flesh was unmistakable. He gagged and nearly threw up.

A movement to his left caught his eye. It was Phoebe, tending to the wounded with a gas mask over her face. It was only after seeing her that Aaron realized not everyone was dead. A soldier sat with his back against the wall, hand clutching his bloodstained chest. His unfocused eyes stared out into the void. Aaron didn’t recognize him, but from his mismatched armor he was definitely a member of the platoon.

Aaron stumbled down the hallway, more to escape the smoke than anything. He followed the trail of bullet holes and scorch marks until the air was a bit clearer and the bodies quite a bit sparser. Not all of them were Outworlders, he was gratified to see. Several of them wore the light gray fatigues and body armor of Imperial shock troops, and the further he got from the ship, the more of them he saw. Their armor was a lot thicker, and the dark black visors on their helmets almost completely covered their faces. Still, from the scorch marks across their breastplates and the flechette shrapnel embedded in the weaker material of the joints, they’d taken a fair amount of damage from the platoon’s fire. Thank goodness the battle hadn’t been all one-sided.

“Hey,” a female voice called out to him. It was Talya, patrolling the battle-strewn corridor. Her gas mask was dangling from one chin strap, and she opened her visor, revealing her dark-skinned face.

Aaron opened his mouth, but all his words became garbled, so that he couldn’t say anything at all. The edges of his vision blurred, and a headache began to throb across his skull. Talya spoke to him, but she might as well have spoken in gibberish for all he could understand. He lifted a hand to his head and closed his eyes, trying desperately to clear his mind.

“—you all right?” she asked, putting an arm on his shoulder. The headache suddenly dissipated, leaving him dizzy and disoriented.

“I-I think,” he said. “Don’t know what happened. Want to know where is everyone.”

“Up a little further, maybe a hundred meters. Last I heard, they’d met up with Second Platoon and were about to storm the bridge. They may have spread out to the lower decks by now, though. I don’t know.”

“Right.” He turned back to the destruction and carnage behind him and shuddered. “Was it bad?”

Talya’s face was grim. “Yeah. They knew we were coming and were waiting for us to break through. We had to storm them at point blank range, but we did it.”

She tapped her earpiece and frowned. Further down in the corridor, Aaron heard the sound of gunfire. It seemed to be getting closer.

“I have to go,” she said. “If you’re looking for the others, your best bet is the bridge. Lieutenant Castor says we’ve taken it.”

“We have?”

“Yeah. But what are you doing here? Why aren’t you back at the ship?”

He ignored her and took off running. The corridors met at a juncture up ahead—he assumed that was where he’d find the bridge. The plasma streaks and bullet holes were sparser here, but there was still just enough of them to confirm that the other soldiers had been this way. He switched off his rifle’s safety and clutched it tight against his chest, adrenaline surging now that he was back on the move.

The juncture was thick with smoke and rubble. Several partitions had been blown explosively apart, and bodies—most of them Imperial soldiers—littered the blackened floor. In places, the superheated plasma had pooled and was still evaporating. That meant that the fighting had been recent, perhaps only a minute or two ago. Aaron covered his mouth and ducked his head.

He came to the bridge just as the ventilators kicked in and began to suck out the bad air with a roar. Two soldiers guarded the doorway, which had been blown almost completely apart—Aaron recognized them as Lino and Tzaf. Lino’s knife was tucked into his belt, the blade dark with blood.

“Hey,” said Tzaf, stopping Aaron with his outstretched cybernetic hand. “Where are you going?”

“Is battle over?” Aaron asked.

“Almost,” said Lino. “We have control of the bridge and have killed the ship’s commander. Commander Noah is taking her out of the battle now.” He said something about setting up perimeters and meeting heavy resistance on the five lower decks, but Aaron didn’t catch it all.

“Okay,” he said. “Where are others? Where is battle?”

Tzaf waved his arm. “Here, there—everywhere is battle. Wait for long enough, and fighting will come to you.”

“That not what I want. Where should I go?”

“Why aren’t you at the ship?” Lino asked. “Shouldn’t you stay there until the fighting is over?”

“How many are dead?” Aaron asked, ignoring his question. Both men’s faces turned grim.

“Last I heard, twelve,” Tzaf answered. “Nestor was first. Took three bursts to the chest and went down. I took some, too, but plasma eats flesh better than metal.” He held up his prosthetic metal arm to show where the plasma fire had eaten almost completely through the casing. The sleeve was charred black and burned almost completely off.

“It was tough,” Lino admitted. “Lost a lot of good men and women back there.”

“Mara,” Aaron asked, his heart skipping a beat. “Is she alive?”

“Oh, she’s alive, all right. Ordered us to stay here and cover for her. She went down to the officer’s deck just below us.”

Gunfire sounded just around the nearest corner, so close that all three of them ducked. The shots were followed by screams and the wuft-wuft of plasma fire—Outworlder or Imperial, it was impossible to tell. Aaron made a split-second decision and dashed for the nearest stairwell.

“Hey!” Lino shouted. “Where you are going?”

But by then, Aaron was already halfway down to the next deck. His feet flew over the narrow stairs, taking them two at a time. His lungs burned almost as much from running as from the smoke. He slammed against the wall and pushed off to round the corner, stopping only briefly to peer around the edge before stepping through.


* * * * *


The officer’s deck was eerily quiet, and almost completely devoid of bodies. Only a couple of bullet holes graced the walls, though further down, Aaron could clearly hear the sound of gunfire. He gripped his rifle with sweaty hands and half-ran, half-walked through the nondescript corridor. Even so, the gunfire seemed to be getting further away, not nearer to him.

In that moment, he felt as if he were wandering through a dream—not quite a nightmare, though certainly there was enough horror to make it one. But at the same time, he felt more alive and invigorated than he could ever remember. It was as if his whole life up to this point had been cast in shades of gray, and now he was seeing everything in vivid color. He didn’t know what to make of it. In some ways, it didn’t feel real, but in others, it seemed more real than anything that had ever happened to him.

He turned the corner and saw Mara walking purposefully with an SMG slung over her shoulder and a grenade in her hand.

“Mara!”

She ignored him and palmed the nearest door. As it slid open, she stepped aside and tossed her grenade through the doorway in one smooth, catlike motion. It exploded with a pop and a brilliant flash, making Aaron stagger back and cover his eyes. Inside the room, someone screamed.

When he looked up again, he saw Mara standing in the doorway, pointing her SMG with one hand like a pistol. She fired several quick bursts at a group of unseen targets. Silence returned to the deck—a cold, deathly silence that sent a chill down Aaron’s back. Mara regarded her handiwork coolly, then fired another shot for good measure.

“That’s for my father, you son of a bitch.”

“Mara! Mara, what are you doing?”

She turned and looked at him—or rather, stared right through him while barely acknowledging his presence. She didn’t look like herself anymore—in fact, she barely looked human. Her eyes had an almost feral look, and her lips were curled back in a sneer.

“Aaron,” she said, nodding to him. She didn’t say anything else.

“What are you doing?” he asked as he ran up to her. “Who was that? What’s going on?”

She turned back to the doorway, and Aaron saw three officers there, lying with their mouths agape in a rapidly growing pool of blood. Mara had shot each one in the chest, but the top one, a particularly corpulent officer, had bullet holes in the center of his forehead as well.

The sight chilled Aaron to the bone. These men hadn’t fallen in battle—they’d been executed right in front of his eyes, and the executioner was his friend.

“Mara?” he asked tentatively. “Are you … are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she said, her voice as monotone and impassionate as a robot.

“Are you sure?”

She folded up her weapon and slipped it into a holster under her arm. Only then did Aaron notice that her hands were shaking.

“The battle’s over,” she said. “We’ve taken the bridge and killed or captured all of their key leadership. The battle cruiser is ours—all that’s left is cleaning up the last of the survivors.”

As if in confirmation, a troop of almost a dozen Imperial prisoners marched past, led by Lieutenant Castor with their hands on their heads. A handful of Outworlders escorted the prisoners, Pallas among them.

“Corporal Soladze, Cadet Deltana,” said Castor. “Or should I say, Ensign Deltana? Good work. Excellent work indeed.”

“Lieutenant,” said Mara. She saluted sharply, and Aaron followed suit.

“As you were.” He turned to the other escorts and gave them a command, probably to take the prisoners to a place where they could be held. His men nodded and led them out without a word.

“Mara, is something wrong?”

“Nothing wrong, sir. This deck is clear.”

Castor peered into the room with the dead officers and frowned. “I trust you’ve been taking prisoners wherever practical?”

Mara hesitated. Without thinking, Aaron stepped forward.

“Sir, it is my fault. I am kill these men.”

“Oh? And why did you do that, Ensign?”

“I am sorry, sir. I came to look for Mara, and was alone on deck when this door opened. Before can walk out, I shoot all three.”

“And what about this head wound on the Lieutenant Colonel here?”

“He ordered my father’s death,” Mara said, her voice low and primal. “He was bleeding out. I made sure he was dead.”

Lieutenant Castor’s eyes narrowed. From the look on his face, it was clear he wasn’t buying the story. Still, he nodded.

“Very well, but from now on, I expect you to take prisoners wherever possible. Understand?”

“Yes, sir,” Aaron and Mara said in unison.

Lieutenant Castor turned to Mara and said something about sending her to the medical bay for a psychiatric evaluation. She nodded wordlessly and saluted. A few moments later, the lieutenant was on his way off the deck, leaving them alone.

“He killed your father?” Aaron asked.

“Yes. When we tried to escape the system with the other refugees, the Imperials disabled our ship and took us prisoner. That man sentenced my father to die for the ‘offense,’ for piloting a ship of escaping refugees. He wanted to send a message. Well, we got the message all right. The Imperials are a disease that should be purged out of these stars as quickly as possible.”

Her words, though forceful, had lost their edge. If her hatred was like a knife, it was as if the blade had gone dull with overuse. Aaron didn’t know what to say.

“I’m sorry, Mara,” he finally managed.

“Don’t be. Justice has been done.”

Justice? Or revenge?

“Come on. This place is a mess. Let’s get back to the others.”

She lingered for a moment, staring at the bodies. From the look on her face, it was almost as if she didn’t want to leave them. Before Aaron could speak again, though, she shook her head clear and turned away.

“All right. Let’s go.”


* * * * *


The battle was a decisive victory. Aaron could tell by the way the soldiers filled the bars and cafes on the main orbital afterward, celebrating long into the nightshift. From what he could gather, the Flotilla had caught the Imperials completely off-guard, capturing or destroying all of their major capital ships within the first hour of the battle. A few of the forces scattered across the system had moved to fight back, but they were too little, too late, and the Flotilla made quick work of them. Others had escaped, but without the New Pleiadians’ advances in FTL technology, it would take them weeks to rendezvous at the nearest occupied system. And by then, the Outworlders would probably have taken it, too. All in all, things had gone extremely well.

Not that it made their losses any easier. Of the thirty-eight original members of Fourth Platoon, seven were dead, six critically injured. Nestor was the only one Aaron had known. Strange to think that someone his age who could have been a friend—and probably would have been, given time—was now a charred corpse in a body bag.

And Mara—even though she’d survived the attack, something about her had changed, and he didn’t know what. It disturbed him even more than Nestor’s death. Before, she’d been hard on him, but at least she hadn’t been cold. Now, she was practically frigid. And it wasn’t just Aaron she wasn’t talking to—since the battle, she hadn’t talked to anyone. The others were starting to whisper about her behind her back. Aaron couldn’t tell what they were saying, of course, but from the way they glanced at her whenever she happened by, he could tell what they were talking about easily enough.

All of that was enough to give him a headache, and he so didn’t want to deal with that right now. If everyone else on the orbital was celebrating their victory, he wanted to join in. Granted, he almost felt like an imposter, considering how his part in the battle had lasted less than ten minutes, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy himself.

He stepped into the most crowded bar on the Bacca main orbital and scanned the room for any familiar faces. The place was just like any number of Outworld bars he’d been to as a star wanderer: low ceiling, dim lights, dented and well-worn tables and counters. The pungent mix of alcohol, hookah smoke, and body odor hit his nose like a meteorite, but that was just part of what gave the place its character. The place was so crowded, it was standing-room only, even at the bar. Most of the people there were soldiers, though he didn’t recognize anyone from Fourth Platoon.

“Ah, Aaron,” someone called out to him in Deltan. He looked to his left and saw Jason, waving to him from the busiest table. The Thetan had a wide grin on his bearded face, but his eyes were still clear, in spite of what looked like a glass of vodka in his hand.

Aaron walked over. “Good to see you, Jason,” he said in his Orianan creole. Jason scooted up close to the person on his right to make room on the bench. All around him, others jostled to do the same.

“Sit down, sit down. Yes, that is good. You are excellent pilot, my friend. Excellent pilot. Good work.”

“Eh, it wasn’t much,” said Aaron. “No fancy flying, just straight by the book. Got any of that booze?”

Jason grinned and pulled a cup from the dispenser at the center of the table. “It is good to see you alive, my friend. Many are not so fortunate, may their souls fly to Earth in peace.”

“Yes indeed,” said Aaron. The gloominess came over him again, so he glanced across the table at the other soldiers. They were gathered around a wild-haired, red-bearded man who was easily more than half a head taller than anyone there. He smiled magnanimously and spoke in a loud, jovial voice. On his lap sat a pretty girl with a remarkably low-cut dress. She stroked the man’s chest and looked up at him as if he were the only one in the room.

“My friends,” the man said in Gaian, his loud voice clear enough that Aaron could understand almost every word. “This victory belongs not only to me, but to all of us. If we do at Iayus and Colkhia what we have done here, the Imperials don’t stand a chance.”

His rousing words met with cheers around the table, but Aaron couldn’t help but frown. What does he mean, ‘this victory belongs not only to me’? Who was this guy?

“That man is Samson,” Jason explained as if reading his thoughts. “His ship is Starflight II.

“Samson, eh?” The name was familiar, though only vaguely so. He remembered hearing something about a Samson at Nova Minitak, a wealthy starfarer who kept a girl at almost every port in the sector. From what he’d heard, he sounded like one of those larger-than-life legends that roamed the Outworld stars.

“Who is this?” Samson asked, gesturing with his hand at Aaron. “You look like a pilot.”

“Samson, this is Aaron Deltana,” Jason explained. “Drop-ship pilot, Fourth Platoon, assigned to the Aegis.” He slapped Aaron firmly on the back, nearly bowling him over.

Samson narrowed his eyes. “Deltana, eh? You Isaac’s brother?”

At the mention of Isaac, Aaron’s heart skipped a beat. “Yeah—how do you know him?”

“He is part of the Clandestine Advance Guard,” Samson explained. It took a few moments for Aaron to process “Clandestine Advance Guard,” which made it impossible to catch the rest of what Samson said. The meaning, though was clear enough. His stomach sank.

“Isaac? Where is he?”

“Ah,” Samson said, grinning. “That is a secret, my friend. But let’s just say, if all goes well, you’ll see him at Colkhia.”

“Is it Colkhia next?” someone at the table asked. The others all shook their heads.

“No, definitely not.”

“Colkhia is on other side of Iayus.”

“But isn’t that where the flagship—”

“—moving out soon, though.”

“—lots of soldiers from Iayus. Don’t know if—”

The cacophony of foreign voices was enough to give Aaron a headache. The edges of his vision blurred, and he shut his eyes just to come back to his senses. Eventually, his mind cleared, letting them all fade back to the background.

“Your brother speaks much of you,” Samson said, his voice louder than all the others. “He asks of you everywhere.”

Aaron opened his eyes again and met Samson’s gaze. He was a powerful, charismatic man who radiated so much self-assurance, Aaron couldn’t help but feel a bit jealous. The gorgeous girl on his lap didn’t help. He stroked her long, dark hair, his hand drifting down her shoulder and back to her waist.

“Glad to hear it,” Aaron muttered. He lifted his glass and took a long drink.

“He speaks very highly of you. Says you’re a great pilot.”

“Does he?” Normally, Aaron would be skeptical about a thing like that, but coming from a man like Samson, he couldn’t help but believe it.

“Yes, he does. You are from the Oriana Cluster, yes?”

“Yes.”

Samson said something about being there when the Imperials took over Oriana Station, the main hub and gateway to the star cluster. He became suddenly serious, and spoke at length about the freedom of the Outworlds and how important it was to draw a line that the Imperials would never cross. Aaron caught almost every word, but he had trouble making sense of long sentences. It aggravated him to no end. He’d have to spend another nightshift with the neural stimulator program.

Their conversation didn’t last long, though. The other people around the table soon clamored for him to tell a story about his exploits. He smiled at Aaron apologetically before humoring their request. The story wasn’t about something he did before coming to the New Pleiades, though—it was about a run-in with the Imperials at Bacca just before the battle had started. The table suddenly went silent, everyone listening with rapt attention. Samson played the audience like a master puppeteer, weaving a tale that would no doubt spread clear to the other side of the Outworlds in a few standard years.

Clandestine Advance Guard. Why did Isaac get such an awesome position with big-name pilots like Samson, while Aaron was stuck as a petty drop-ship pilot for a tiny ragtag platoon? He took another long drink and drained the last of his glass. The alcohol stung his throat, but that was a welcome distraction.

“Hey,” said Jason, speaking to him in Deltan again. “I hear we are leaving for Iayus very soon. Strike hard, strike fast, make victory just like Bacca. Is good, no?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Aaron muttered.

“Hard times, very hard times. But no worry. We look out for every other. When over, all be heroes, yes?”

“I guess so, yeah.” Some of us more than others.

“Well, I am turning in,” said Jason, rising to his feet. “You have good nightshift here.”

“No, I’ll come back with you,” said Aaron, rising as well. He was out of money for drinks, and he could practically feel the neural stimulator calling to him. That state of total relaxation as the psychedelic fractals filled his view. He craved that sweet sensation more than he craved alcohol. And the best part was that there’d be no hangover.

“It’s going to be a long nightshift,” he muttered with a grin, more to himself than anyone else. At least, he certainly hoped so.


Fractures Emerge


Paladin wing, launch! Repeat: Paladin wing, launch!”

Aaron threw the throttle forward and gripped his flight stick eagerly as Paladin-4 hurled itself from its mother-ship into the starry void. The battle was in high pitch. Explosions flashed in all directions, and the scanners showed swarms of green allies weaving in and out of the larger, less maneuverable Gaian Imperial warships. The channels were all full of chatter, but for the moment, the Imperials hadn’t noticed the eight smaller drop-ships that had just undocked from the Aegis. It would spell their doom.

Aaron’s nav-computer selected the target as the flight commander explained it over the intercom. Gaian Imperial battle cruiser, name unknown, distance twenty-one-point-four klicks. Commander Noah was talking fast, making it hard to catch each word. He said something about holding formation, but Aaron didn’t wait. With tracers and projectile fire arcing all around him, he pointed the Paladin-4 at the target ship and made a full engine burn.

The force of the sudden acceleration threw him back against his seat with multiple gee forces. He clenched his thighs tightly and breathed in quick sips as the time on the ETA counter fell from hours to minutes to one minute and several seconds. He pushed it until it read fifty-one seconds and cut the burn, returning them to a state of controlled freefall.

Only then did he notice that he was three or four klicks ahead of the rest of the wing. They were accelerating, but not fast enough to catch up before the midway point. In the meantime, the battle cruiser was already starting to launch countermeasures.

Oh, shit.

Paladin-4! What are you doing?”

“Sorry, commander. Made too fast engine burn, not catch understand …”

Aaron’s words turned to gibberish as the fuzziness around his vision began to grow. He switched on the autolasers and gripped the flight stick with both hands. The rest of Paladin wing began to accelerate to catch up with him, but it would still take some fancy flying to get through in one piece.

The autolasers flashed into action, and he banked hard to the right to avoid the first wave of enemy fire. Tracers arced all around him, as if he were in some sort of a psychedelic dream. The only sounds were the whir of the lasers and the rush of the maneuvering jets, along with the occasional patter of projectile fragments that the lasers had shot down.

Noah spoke again, but Aaron couldn’t understand him. He had a splitting headache, and his eyes had blurred so badly that he had to rub them every few moments just to be able to see. He glanced down at the ETA counter, but couldn’t make any sense of it. All he could see were shapes, lines, and squiggles.

Sweat dripped down the back of his neck as he frantically rubbed his eyes again. If he couldn’t read the ETA counter, he had no way of knowing when to start decelerating. That was the least of his worries, though. The alarms blared as another wave of projectile fire moved to intersect his trajectory. He swerved hard to the left and down as the autolasers blasted at full speed.

The scanners showed the rest of Paladin wing breaking up. People were shouting chaotically on the intercom, but he couldn’t understand a word of it. Paladin-7 broke formation and spun away from the target battle cruiser altogether—an abort. He watched in livid terror to see if the others would follow suit, but thankfully, they didn’t. The attack was still on.

Another alarm sounded, this one much louder than the others. From the tone, Aaron recognized it as a missile alert—the enemy targeting systems were trying to paint him. He dropped a countermeasure flare and swerved up just as it went off. The alarm stopped for a second or two, only to start right up again.

“I’m gonna be sick!” someone in the cabin screamed. The comment went over Aaron’s head at first, until he realized that his mind was clearing. He glanced down and realized that he could read all the instruments again. His headache was dying down, and his vision wasn’t quite so blurry, either.

His ETA was approaching twenty seconds—time to decelerate. Another alarm sounded, this one signifying an enemy missile launch. Aaron spun the ship around, choking down the urge to vomit as his stomach flipped, and deployed the countermeasure flare just as he fired up the engines. With the alarm still blaring, he swerved hard, gagging as he did so. At that moment, all the instruments and controls blinked out as a tremendous flash filled the narrow window.

We’re hit!

He gasped for breath and opened his eyes just as the instruments started to blink back on. There was no explosion, no massive decompression—they were okay. The missile had been close, but they’d gotten through it. Just to make sure that didn’t happen again, he deployed another countermeasure flare, and another.

The other drop-ships were slowing down now, too, but they were slowing much faster. He frowned and checked the layout of the battle cruiser. It was designed a lot like the Star Fury II, except that the bridge was about a hundred meters farther up. At the rate they were decelerating, they’d land somewhere near the engines.

He throttled it up to seven gees and tried to keep a steady hand on the flight stick, but they were still so much farther ahead from the rest of Paladin wing that they stuck out as the obvious target. There was no way to come in without some fancy maneuvering, and that just wasn’t safe at the g-forces he was pulling—not for the troops, anyway. The stench of vomit was already starting to fill the air, and several of them were moaning inconsolably. Aaron didn’t see any other choice but to overshoot the battlecruiser and fly back around as quick as he could.

Paladin-4, do you copy? Aaron?”

“I’m here,” said Aaron. “Too far, come around back. Sorry.”

Commander Noah said something about dropping in on the engine rooms with Paladin-6 through -8, but it was too late for that, as well. Aaron eased back on the throttle just as the bow of the battle cruiser shot by. The autolasers did an efficient job targeting the short-range projectile fire coming from the enemy point defenses, but the sound of small explosions against the hull told him that he didn’t have much time. He angled the Paladin-4 along the longest stretch of enemy hull and burned the engines at a full ten gees for the next couple of seconds, bringing them to a halt at the very stern of the enemy ship.

As the docking clamps locked into place and the hull-piercing drill began its ear-splitting grind, Aaron leaned back against his seat in the fractional gravity and let out a long breath. His jumpsuit was soaked with sweat, and his stomach felt so sick, all he wanted to do was lie down. He felt sorry for the troops, who no doubt felt the same way but had to drop into and fight for control of the battle cruiser. At least they were all alive. That was the important part.

The grinding died down, and the soldiers readied their guns, but for Aaron the battle was over—thank the stars. The autolasers whirred and explosions silently flashed outside the forward window, but he barely noticed any of it. For him, it was over.


* * * * *


Aaron avoided the eyes of the other pilots as they filed into the debriefing room. For their part, they seemed content to ignore him as well. On his right, Mara raised an eyebrow but said nothing. That wasn’t too surprising, though—Fourth Platoon hadn’t paid as dearly as the other ones.

Silently, the others took their seats around the circular debriefing chamber. Like in the larger one at New Hope Station, the seats were on a raised platform surrounding a holographic projector that hung above the center. This room had only one podium, though, and it was behind the projection from where Aaron sat, not in front of it. Commander Noah was already standing at it, ready to start the debriefing. A Betan by birth, he was tall and thin with long blond hair that he wore tied back beneath his uniform. Commander Ajax and the other senior officers were seated behind him. Their faces were unreadable.

“Welcome,” said Noah in his characteristic Orianan accent. “Please be seated. We will begin as soon as you are ready.”

“He’s telling the others to sit down so we can start,” Mara translated.

Aaron rolled his eyes. “I understand what the commander is saying,” he told her. “I don’t need you to translate everything.”

For the briefest of moments, he thought he saw a wounded look on her face. As quickly as it appeared, though, the coldness and dispassion returned, covering her expression as effectively as durasteel hull plating.

“Very good, very good,” said Commander Noah. He keyed a console at the podium, and the holographic projector came to life. It blinked a couple of times, then showed a three dimensional map of the Iayus system. He zoomed in past the orbits of the outer planets, represented by circles around the system sun, and centered on the fourth world—the one around which the battle had been fought. At the L3 point between Iaya IV and her principle moon, the Gaian Imperial battle cruiser Starshaft was parked near the system’s largest station. He zoomed in until the planet and moon dropped out of the projection, and the Starshaft’s support ships came clearly into view as red points, much as they had appeared on Aaron’s scanners during the battle.

“This is the disposition of the enemy forces before battle,” Noah explained. “One battle cruiser, two frigates, and six gunboats at Iaya IV, with two cruisers and another frigate patrolling the outer edges of the system. A concentrated force, to be sure, but not overwhelmingly so.”

“Do you need me to translate any of this?” Mara asked.

Aaron shook his head. “No.”

Commander Noah keyed the panel on his podium, and the hologram changed to show almost two dozen green dots scattered haphazardly around the red ones. They started to move, but he paused soon after their appearance.

“This is the layout at the start of the battle. As you can see, our forces arrived right on top of the enemy.” Noah then said something about the enemy breaking up and becoming disorganized, and the Resistance forces outflanking them.

He let the recording play for a while, pointing out the Aegis as it began to engage the Starshaft. The smaller Flotilla ships flew in circles around the big, lumbering Imperial ones, harrying them and drawing them away. The gunboats were the first to fall, and as the frigates moved in to assist them, the Aegis closed for the capture approach. Noah stopped the recording.

“This is where Paladin wing deploys,” he said. “Any questions up to this point?”

One of the other pilots raised his hand. Noah gestured to him and nodded. The pilot’s accent was hard to understand. Aaron barely caught anything of what he said.

“What was the question?” he asked Mara.

“Whether the Aegis could have drawn the Starshaft any further from the support ships. And the answer is no.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because Commander Noah isn’t going to say anything to make Commander Ajax look bad, especially with him here. It’s a stupid question.”

“Stupid? What makes you say that?”

“Because all it leads to is petty squabbling. That’s why we’re a flotilla instead of a fleet. If we really want to defeat the Imperials, we’ll have to give up this pettiness and learn to fight like they do.”

By now, Commander Noah had diffused the question and given a response that, while perhaps not satisfying the questioner, had probably helped him save face. Noah was like that, always trying to mediate for those under his command. It was one of the reasons all his men loved him.

There were no other questions, so Noah continued with the debriefing. He zoomed into the space between the Aegis and the Starshaft and plotted the flight path for Paladin wing. Eight green dots with numbered labels separated from the Aegis, and the one with number four shot ahead.

“Here we have our first deviation from the plan. Aaron, can you explain what happened?”

Mara turned to him as if to translate, but said nothing instead. The look on her face was almost as cold as everyone else in the room.

“Sorry, mistake,” he explained in broken Gaian. “Started for Starshaft before seeing where was rest of Paladin wing.”

“Is that all?”

He struggled to put it into words, but his vision started blurring and he found it hard to speak. He turned to Mara.

“Tell them … tell them I thought we were going in hot and had to cross the gap as fast as we could. I didn’t realize the others were behind me until it was too late.”

Mara translated while Aaron rubbed his head. Commander Noah looked at him and nodded.

“Thank you, Ensign, but it is imperative that we keep formation, especially in a hostile environment. Was that unclear from your training?”

“He’s asking if your training was unclear,” Mara translated.

“I know, I know,” he said to her. Then, to the commander, “No, sir.”

“Very well.”

Commander Noah let the hologram play a little more. As the Starshaft and the Aegis continued to exchange heavy fire, the tiny dot of Paladin-4 advanced far ahead of the rest of the wing. They tried to keep formation as they hurried to catch up with him, but when they came under fire from the Starshaft’s countermeasures, the increased acceleration made it harder for them to maneuver. The formation soon fell, and the wing was thrown into disarray. Paladin-7 broke off the attack altogether.

“Ensign Zackariyah, why did you abort?”

Relieved that the pressure was no longer on him, Aaron leaned back in his chair and allowed himself to relax. The respite was short-lived, though. After explaining that his ablative armor had taken heavy damage and that he had no choice but to abort his approach, Zackariyah sat down and Commander Noah continued to play the hologram.

“Ensign Deltana, you failed to begin your deceleration in time despite your orders to drop your platoon at the enemy bridge. Were those orders unclear?”

“Wait—I not receive any orders.”

Noah rewound the hologram about ten seconds and played it forward again, this time with audio from Paladin wing’s comm channel. His words came through clear over the chatter, ordering Paladin-2 through -4 to take the bridge and the rest to take the engines.

“Sorry,” said Aaron. “Did not catch that.”

Noah spoke again, asking him why he decelerated so late that he almost overshot the entire ship. Perhaps there was a mechanical or computer failure? When Aaron failed to answer right away, Mara turned to him.

“The commander’s asking—”

“I know, I know,” he said. “It’s just—I was stressed, and didn’t know how to handle myself. There really is no excuse. I’m sorry.”

“But Aaron, how could you miss the flight commander’s orders?”

“I don’t know, okay? I-I don’t know.”

She stared at him for an excruciatingly long moment before translating. It was clear from the expressions on the rest of the wing’s faces that none of them were satisfied with his answer.

“Commander Noah is asking if you’re still fit for duty,” Mara translated as Aaron rubbed his head.

“Fit? Yes, of course. I’m perfectly fit. This was just an unfortunate screw-up—it won’t happen again. I mean, hell, it was only my second battle.”

“People died because of your screw-up, Aaron. First, Second, and Third Platoons all lost a lot of men because we weren’t there to reinforce them.”

“I’m sorry, all right? It won’t happen again.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Have you been overusing that neural stimulator program that Jason—”

“Look, just translate, okay? I made a couple of rookie mistakes, and I’ll be careful not to do it next time. I can still pilot my ship—better than anyone else they can get as a replacement, at least. I can still fly.”

Mara sighed and shook her head, but did as he asked and translated for him. The other pilots seemed to disagree, but Commander Noah nodded.

“Thank you, Ensign. Your mistakes were unfortunate but understandable.” He then said something about how everyone made errors of judgment at some point in their careers, and that they all needed to train hard to keep them from happening too frequently.

Mara started to translate, but Aaron waved her away. He sunk into his seat and said nothing else for the duration of the debriefing. Inwardly, he couldn’t help but feel horrible. He still remembered the blood and carnage from the Star Fury II, and though his own platoon had come out of this fight rather unscathed, that wasn’t true of the platoons they were supposed to support.

It won’t happen again, he inwardly promised himself. But that still didn’t make it any better.


* * * * *


Aaron didn’t know what to expect in the mess hall. The largest room on the Aegis, it was shared by all eight of the platoons, and after the chewing out he’d received in the briefing, he half-expected that the other soldiers would try to eat him alive. He was wrong—someone else was on the receiving end of their contempt.

He knew something was wrong the moment he and Mara walked in. A large crowd had gathered around the three tables nearest to the wall, leaving the others almost completely empty. The soldiers who had gathered were shouting at the ones seated, who tried to ignore them but couldn’t help but lash out. The air in the room was tense, as if a fight—or perhaps even a riot—would break out soon. The platoon lieutenants were trying frantically to get the soldiers to disburse, but their efforts were in vain.

“What the hell?” Mara muttered. She walked over, and Aaron followed her.

“Cowards!” shouted a soldier from one of the other platoons. “You’re all just a bunch of cowards!” The others jeered in agreement.

“Who are you calling ‘coward’?” said Tzaf, one of the soldiers seated at a table. He rose violently to his feet. “You want to draw swords and back up your words with steel?”

“Tzaf, let him go,” said Lino, pulling him back down. Phoebe sat next to him, and pleaded in their native Iayan language until Tzaf reluctantly returned to his seat. That only made the crowd jeer all the louder.

Aaron realized that the soldiers seated at the table were all Iayans. Over their uniforms, they wore red and gold sashes, probably a traditional garb of some kind. It was hard to hear them talk over all the shouting from the crowd, but from what he could gather, they seemed to be conferring with each other in their native language. From the looks on their faces, they seemed hesitant or unsure.

Three sharp pistol shots split the air. Even in the comparatively wider space of the mess hall, they sounded as loud as if they’d been fired right in Aaron’s ear. The crowd instantly grew still, and in that silence, Mara’s shrill voice rang out.

“All right, what the fuck is going on here?”

No one answered, though a few members of the crowd cheered her on. She silenced them with a glare that was icier than the depths of space.

“Lino, tell me what this is about.”

Lino took a deep breath and explained to her. Aaron didn’t catch it all, but from what he could gather, it sounded like the Iayans were thinking about withdrawing from the platoons. Several of the Iayan pilots had already chosen to withdraw from the Flotilla, now that their homeworld had been liberated, and many of the soldiers wanted to join them.

Mara listened dispassionately, her face utterly unreadable. When Lino finished, she eyed the room with cold, unforgiving eyes.

“So you think the war is over?” she asked, her voice so soft that Aaron had to strain just to hear it. “You think the Imperials have been defeated, and now you’re going to pack up and go home?”

Someone in the crowd shouted in reply, and the jeers began again in earnest. Mara responded by emptying her entire clip into the ceiling. The shots rang out like alarm bells, and several of them ricocheted, making most of the soldiers duck for cover. She didn’t even flinch.

“I should have known better than to join this pathetic outfit,” she said, glaring at both the Iayans and everyone else in the room as well. “Look at you! You think the Imperials are on the run now because we’ve won a battle or two? Bullshit! The Imperials are going to eat you alive, and there’s not a starforsaken thing any of you can do to stop it!”

The room was deathly silent now. All eyes, even those on the far side of the mess hall, were on her now.

“You think you’re tough now, when the element of surprise gives you the upper hand,” she continued. “But what are you going to do when the Imperials come back? And they will come back, make no mistake about that. To them, this campaign is just a minor setback. They won’t let it happen again. And when they do come back, this ragtag bunch of misfits that calls itself a flotilla doesn’t have a comet’s chance in Hell of standing up to them.”

“Says who?” someone shouted. Mara’s eyes locked onto him, making him flinch.

“You think I’m wrong?” she said softly. “You think the Flotilla will last until the end of this campaign? If it’s falling apart after two decisive victories, how long will it last once we start to lose?”

She looked out over the crowd as if challenging anyone to step forward and contradict her. No one did.

“You’re all here because you have a score to settle. And once you do, where will you go? Home? Back to the Outworlds, as if this whole war was just one big adventure? I’ve got news for you, people. Freedom isn’t something you pay for, it isn’t something you haggle for. Freedom is something you die for.”

“We did our part,” one of the Iayans grumbled. “Why should we pay any more than we already have?”

She looked out over the crowd, clearly holding them all in contempt. “My father was killed at Bacca. I settled my score there. The only reason I’m still here with you fuckers is because I thought you were actually fighting for something. I see now that I was wrong. But at least I’ll die free. That’s more than I can say for any of you cowards who desert us now.”

With that, she turned on her heel and left, leaving the room in an uproar. Aaron hurried after her.

“That was amazing!” he said, struggling to keep pace with her lengthened stride. “You were—”

“Shut up,” she told him in Deltan. “I don’t want to hear it.”

“Why not? You were incredible back there. Most of them were on the fence, and I wouldn’t be surprised now if they—”

“Why are you still here?” she asked, turning on him. “Is this still just some sort of grand adventure for you?”

She stopped so abruptly that he ran into her, nearly falling over.

“W-what do you mean?”

“Why are you still fighting this war? Is it to prove your dick is as big as anyone else’s in that room?”

“What? No! Of course not!”

“Then do you still have a score to settle with the Imperials? Because I have news for you, Aaron—things only get harder once you do.”

Aaron thought about the henna girl, locked up on an Imperial battleship somewhere. Had they woken her yet, or was she still locked in the ice? Either way, he had to get her out of there. If that was his “score,” then no, it hadn’t been settled yet.

“Yeah,” he said, swallowing. “But now that my brother’s involved, I guess I’m fighting for him too. In fact, I guess we’re all fighting for each other.”

“Spare me the sentimentality.”

“But it’s true!”

“For now, maybe. But what are you going to do when the chips are down, and you know you’re going to die? I don’t mean in the cockpit. I mean on the floor, with a hot gun in your hands and your comrades bleeding out all around you.”

He clenched his fists. “I’m not going to abandon you like those Iayans. We’re all in this together, right up to the end.”

“I suppose,” she said, nodding. “But you’d better watch how much you use that neural stimulator, or you’ll fry your brain so bad you’ll get us all killed. I know you lied to the commander.”

His cheeks went hot with anger and embarrassment. “Are you saying I—”

“Shut up, Aaron. We both know why you screwed up. The only reason I didn’t rat on you is because you’re right—we can’t replace you. Not at the rate that our pilots are abandoning us, anyway. We need you, so for all the holy stars of Earth, don’t get us all killed.”

“I-I won’t,” he stammered, unsure how to respond. “I’ll do my best.”

“Good. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to cool off before I do something I’m going to regret. Get some food, Ensign.”

With that, she turned and left him bewildered in the corridor.


Scattered and Lost


Aaron nervously tapped the armrest of Paladin-4’s pilot seat as inane chatter from the other pilots filled the channel. The Flotilla hadn’t jumped yet—they were still awaiting order to launch. As the tedious moments before the battle wore on, the chatter took on an air of nonchalance, as if they were all trying to prove their machismo by showing off how bored they were.

Just one more battle, Aaron thought to himself as he gripped the flight stick. One more battle in this campaign, and I’ll see Isaac again. The henna girl, too—if this one went as well as the last two battles, he’d soon have his chance to rescue her. Now that the moment of decision had come, though, he found himself looking forward to seeing his brother even more. Samson had said they’d see each other at Colkhia, which meant that Isaac was probably there already, posing as star wanderer. All Aaron had to do was survive this next battle, and they’d be together on the Medea again, laughing and sharing stories about the war. And with luck, the henna girl would be there with them.

His stomach flipped, and the taste of vomit filled his mouth. He was so nervous he couldn’t even pretend to play the boredom game with the other pilots.

“All right, boys,” Commander Noah said over the come. “Cut the chatter—we’re initiating jump now. Stand by.”

A wave of sudden nausea all but bowled Aaron over. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard, choking it down as it threatened to overwhelm him. He felt as if the universe were spinning around him, and he was the only thing standing still. His perception of space and distance swam in his mind, giving him an awful, dizzying headache—worse than any other jump he’d made. Just when it seemed as if his head would explode from the pressure, the spinning stopped and the nausea died down. He opened his eyes.

The channel was deadly silent. Through the forward window, all he could see were stars. They seemed unusually bright for a star system. The last time he and Isaac were at Colkhia, they’d seemed a whole lot dimmer. That was probably just his mind playing tricks on him, though. He gripped the flight stick with sweaty hands and made ready to release the docking clamps.

The launch order never came. The seconds ticked down on the mission clock, marking almost half a minute since the jump, and still nothing but silence.

“Uh, Commander Noah?” the voice of Paladin-2’s pilot came over the channel. “Do you want us to launch?”

It took Noah about eight seconds to respond, but it felt like almost an hour.

“Negative, Paladin-2. Negative. Stand by for orders.”

“What is happen?” Aaron asked, his voice almost cracking. “What wrong? Why not launch?”

Commander Noah didn’t answer his question. Aaron clenched his fists and slammed them against his armrests, unable to wait any longer. He brought up the local scanner readout on his main display and ran a detailed sweep, even though they were still docked with the Aegis.

The sweep brought up nothing. Not a single ship, friendly or otherwise. He frowned and tried again.

“All right, Paladin wing, this is Commander Noah. We have orders to stand down. Repeat, stand down. Cut your engines and return to barracks. The launch has been aborted.”

The channel exploded with profanity as the show of boredom dissipated like air in a vacuum. Aaron said nothing, though. His cheeks paled as the full import of what he saw on the scanners sunk into him.

The Flotilla was gone. His brother and the Medea were nowhere to be found. And as for the henna girl—

“Hold on—hold on! All of your questions will be answered at the mission debriefing. Whatever went wrong, I’m sure there’s an explanation.”

There was indeed. Isaac had failed.


* * * * *


The briefing room on the Aegis was filled to capacity. The seats in front were all taken by senior officers, and junior officers crowded the doorway, forcing Aaron and Mara had to stand. From the looks on their faces, things were grim—very grim.

“Over here,” said Commander Noah, waving them over. Apparently, he’d been able to save a row in the back for the Paladin wing pilots. There was only one seat, though, so Aaron took it while Mara sat on the floor next to him. He considered standing up and offering it to her, but before he could do that, Commander Ajax took the podium. Instantly, the room went silent.

“All flight wings and commanding officers, report.”

“Bridge officers present,” said a white-haired woman with a face as hard as space iron. Aaron recognized her as the Aegis’s XO.

“Engineering present,” said another man.

“Weapons and countermeasures, all here.”

“All drone wing pilots here, too, sir.”

Noah stood. “Paladin wing, present and accounted for.”

Commander Ajax nodded sharply, and the officers resumed their seats.

“Thank you for assembling so promptly,” he began. “I’m sure you all have many questions, so I’ll keep the first part of this meeting as brief as possible. When we attempted the jump to the Colkhia System twenty-three minutes ago, a Resistance agent was supposed to be waiting for us with an active jump beacon, bringing us out of jumpspace at the attack coordinates. Something has apparently happened to that agent, and he was unable to activate the device in time for the jump.”

Isaac, Aaron thought, his stomach sinking. His head started to ache, and the edges of his vision began to blur.

“Because of this, the Flotilla has been scattered across approximately half a light-year of space. Our current position is approximately 150 light-hours from Colkhia in the direction of the Good Hope Nebula. We have not detected any other ships in our vicinity, and must assume that we are alone.”

The debriefing room erupted. The junior officers and pilots talked hurriedly among themselves, while the senior officers rose to their feet, their faces redder than an M-class star. Aaron’s headache grew, and he lifted a hand to his forehead.

“Did you catch all that?” Mara asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “Most of it.”

“Do you need me to translate?”

As his headache grew, the Gaian became harder to understand. Ajax was calling for silence now, but his words were all blending together, and the more he tried to make sense of them, the worse Aaron’s headache became.

“Yeah, I’d appreciate that,” he said. Mara nodded and rose to one knee, bringing her to his eye level.

“Commander Ajax is explaining that we have a contingency plan for this sort of thing,” she translated. “He says that if the agent fails to activate the device at the designated time, he will make a second attempt eight hours later. That should give us enough time to prep the drives and try another jump.”

“What about the Imperials? Won’t they pick up our jump signatures?” In eight hours, everything with eight light-hours would know exactly where they were.

“He’s answering that now.” She paused for a moment and it seemed as if the whole room was listening with bated breath. “He says that we’re scattered across a wide enough space that that shouldn’t matter. Not for the second jump, at least. The likelihood of an Imperial scout ship picking us up is miniscule, and so few of our ships must have jumped inside the Imperials’ scanning range that we’ll still have the element of surprise with the second jump.”

“And what if the second jump fails?”

As if on cue, the room erupted into frenzied commotion once again.

“He says we only have one more jump. If the second one fails …” Her voice drifted off.

“What? If the second one fails, then what?”

She took a deep breath. “Then enough of the Flotilla will be in detection range to alert them to the attack. The Imperials will know that we’re here, and after that, the battle’s a wash.”

Aaron leaned back in his seat, heart racing. All around him, arguments raged as the debriefing fell into chaos. He closed his eyes and fought back against his headache long enough to work through the implications. If Isaac didn’t get the jump beacon up in time, then all the ships in the Flotilla would jump in close enough to be within sensor range, but too far out to launch a coordinated attack. Or any sort of attack at all, really. Some of them might come within firing range of the enemy positions, but without the same concentration of force the Flotilla had at Iayus and Bacca, the Imperials could easily bring more firepower to bear. And without the element of surprise, the Imperials would have time to concentrate their own forces—or worse, launch a devastating counterattack.

Isaac, he thought, his cheeks paling as his heart hammered louder than the commotion all around him. What happened to you? Are you all right?

“A lot of the senior officers want to abort the battle,” Mara explained. “But Ajax says we can’t do that. We’ve lost contact with the rest of the Flotilla, and if the second jump fails, we won’t make contact before the Imperials know we’re here. Plus, we won’t get another chance like this. We have to push forward now or risk losing Colkhia forever.”

“We’re still going for it, then?”

“Looks like it. What choice do we have? Ajax says that if all goes well, we’ll make the attack as if nothing had ever happened.” From the grim look on her face, though, it didn’t seem like she believed it.

“Isaac will get that jump beacon up,” said Aaron, as much to himself as to her. “He’s never let me down.”

“But what if he’s dead?” Mara asked. “What if—”

“He’ll get it up,” Aaron repeated, clenching his fists. “I know he will.”

Mara bit her lip but said nothing. Around the room, the commotion died down as Commander Ajax took control of the meeting once again. Aaron had heard enough, though. He rose to his feet and left the room, his heart pounding so fast it seemed as if his chest would explode.

“Aaron, wait!”

Isaac would get that jump beacon up and running in time. He had to. Because if he didn’t, that would be just unthinkable.


* * * * *


The next eight hours were the longest in Aaron’s life. They fell in the middle of his sleep shift, but he couldn’t rest. Neither could the others in his platoon, apparently, from the way they all tossed and turned. Only Hektor’s snoring broke the tedious stillness of the dark.

They rose at the appointed hour and went through all their pre-flight checks. The soldiers dressed, ate an energy supplement, and suited up for battle while Aaron counted down the minutes as they passed. His hands shook with nervous energy, and his eyes felt sore and tired from the sleepless nightshift. After swallowing down the tasteless energy bar, he made his way to the drop-ship launch bays.

All throughout the Aegis, the corridors were bustling with energy. A tense silence had fallen over the whole flagship as everyone prepared for what would no doubt be the decisive battle of the campaign. On Paladin-4, though, all was still. Aaron was the first to step through the airlock, and he climbed around the retractable wall seats in the cabin to the cockpit. The controls were dark, the stars outside the forward window peaceful.

He paused for a moment to let the stillness sink into him. He hoped it would do something to calm his anxious emotions, but all it did was make them worse. He took a deep breath and powered up the ship’s subsystems.

Paladin wing, this is Paladin-1,” Noah’s voice came over the intercom. “Please complete all preflight checks and transmit logs when ready. Setting mission clocks now to T-minus fifteen minutes.”

This time, the channel was silent. There was no banter among the pilots as they completed their checks, no cavalier shows of machismo. They all knew what was riding on this jump—and what it would mean if it all fell through.

Come on, Isaac, Aaron thought, tapping his fingers against his armrest as the hum of the engine reverberated softly through the bulkheads. Don’t let us down. If it had been anyone else with the jump beacon, he wouldn’t be nearly as nervous. Somehow, though, knowing it was his brother made the wait that much worse.

He finished his checks and transmitted the logs to the Aegis’s central computer, then sat back and stared at the mission clock as the seconds counted down. Behind him in the cabin, the soldiers took their seats and fastened themselves in. A few of them tried to crack some jokes, but the mood was too somber for any of them to gain much traction.

After what felt like a hellish eternity, the clock finally counted down to one minute. He toggled it to display the seconds and counted them down as the engines rumbled, ready for launch.

“All right, Paladin wing. This is it,” said Commander Noah. “Let’s cross our fingers and hope that our agent comes through.”

“He will,” Aaron whispered. He closed his eyes and made the sign of the cross. Come on, Isaac! Do it!

The jump wasn’t nearly as stomach-wrenching this time, probably because they were crossing a much shorter distance in space. Still, it was further than they’d make in the Medea—too far to jump in-system with a safe degree of accuracy. But the jump beacon would negate that, because it would pull them out of jumpspace right into the heart of the action. When Aaron opened his eyes, he’d see the rocky gray orb of Colkhia’s main planet, with the Imperial forces scrambling to deploy. He took a deep breath and clenched his eyes, making the sign of the cross again and again.

“Oh, shit,” said one of the pilots. Aaron’s stomach fell.

He opened his eyes and found himself staring into the same starfield as before. It was only slightly dimmed by the presence of a large yellow-white star, too close to blend in with the others but too far to suggest that they’d arrived. He checked the scanners—no sign of any planet or gravity well. No sign of any ships either.

They were alone. Isaac had failed.

“No!” Aaron said, pounding his fists against the control panels. After eight sleepless hours of suspense, the setback was more than Aaron could bear. He curled up with his forehead on the keyboard and began to quietly sob.

Paladin wing, this is Commander Noah again. Central command is telling us to stand down to yellow alert. Repeat, yellow alert. Put your ships on standby and come back to base.”

Profanities flew in the cabin behind him, but Aaron barely heard any of them. His brother—the mission. It was all he could do to lift his head and power the systems down.


* * * * *


“So what happens now?” Lino asked. He spoke between mouthfuls of bland, unflavored synthmeal. Everyone knew they had to eat fast if they wanted to eat at all.

“Don’t know,” said Jason, dangling his spoon in front of him. “I think we are trying to mass for attack.”

“The other ships can’t be far,” said Phoebe. “We all had the same coordinates. They can’t be more than a light-hour or two away. Right?”

Everyone looked at Aaron, who suddenly realized how little about the Flotilla he knew. “Don’t know,” he said. “Might be. But if Aegis is biggest ship, has most mass, don’t know. Maybe others overshoot.”

Tzaf swore and mumbled something in his native Iayan, probably about how he wished he’d left the platoon at Iaya. It was plain enough to see in his eyes. Before anyone could call him on it, though, Mara spoke up.

“We’re going to die,” she announced calmly. “I hope you’re ready, boys, because this is how it ends.”

Half the table swore at her, with Tzaf storming out. “What are you talking about?” Lieutenant Castor asked. “Why would you say that?”

Mara shrugged. “Because it’s true. We’ve lost the jump beacon and the element of surprise, which were the only real advantages we had.” She went on to explain how even if they did gather the Flotilla, the Imperials would be ready for them. Aaron caught most of it, but the words all blurred together in his head.

“We’ll find a way out of this,” said Castor, but he sounded less than sincere. The others voiced their objections too, but they were all clearly dispirited by the recent turn of events.

“You are one crazy woman,” said Jason, wagging his finger at her.

“Of course I am,” said Mara. “We’re all crazy, coming to fight in this rag-tag flotilla against the most powerful military force in all of settled space. But now, we get to see who the cowards are. Now, we see what it is we’re actually fighting for. Now comes the reckoning.”

Her words made Aaron think back to the dream he’d had just before the campaign, back when he and Aaron were still on the Medea. Running through the cargo hold of the Starfire, searching desperately for the cryotank with the henna girl. Finding it, only to watch her die and the Imperial soldiers shoot him to pieces. Was this what it all came to, then? Was this his premonition?

The lights in the mess hall turned red, and alarms began to blare. Everyone jumped to their feet.

“Red alert! Red alert! All crews to battle stations!” an officer’s voice sounded over the intercom. “All platoons, board drop-ships and prepare for assault.”

Adrenaline surged through Aaron’s body, and chills shot from the back of his neck to the ends of his fingers. Before he knew what was happening, he was in the corridor, sprinting for the ship with the rest of his platoon. The pounding of boots mingled with the blaring of alarms, and the smell of sweat and adrenaline and fear all mixed together.

The final battle of the campaign had begun.


The Reckoning


Aaron slammed back against his seat as Paladin-4 launched. The second he was clear from the Aegis, he engaged the engines at full throttle, tearing away from the ship. He checked the scanners and saw the enemy ship bearing almost fifty degrees to his right—a big one, by the looks of it. The course correction made his stomach turn, but that was unimportant. The only thing that mattered was getting the platoon to the enemy ship alive.

Paladin wing, this is Paladin-1. We have an Imperial battle cruiser at sixty klicks, bearing fifty-nine at thirteen from the Aegis’s bow. Keep a loose formation and burn engines at maximum. We’re going in hot, boys—hotter than ever before.”

“Has central identified that battle cruiser?” one of the pilots asked. On the scanners, the Paladin-4 took off ahead, but not by too much. Aaron throttled down slightly to let the others catch up.

“Negative, Paladin-3. We’re getting an ID on it now.”

The starfield outside the forward window was awash with explosions. The battle cruiser had opened fire with long-range missiles, and the Aegis’s countermeasures were responding. The barrage was too thick, though. A missile got through and exploded with a brilliant flare near the ship’s engines. Aaron cringed, but the flagship held.

“Entering enemy projectile range in twenty seconds,” said Commander Noah. “Prepare to cut engines and make evasive maneuvers on my mark.”

The ETA clock counted down rapidly as the hard acceleration continued to press Aaron against his seat. Five minutes, four minutes, three minutes—

“Holy shit, it’s the Starfire!

“Cut the chatter, Paladin-5. Entering range, fire engaged—mark!”

Aaron cut the engines and swerved hard to one side. All around him, the other drop-ships did the same. His stomach practically fell through the floor at the sudden maneuver, but the projectile fire coming from the Starfire scattered in all directions. Without the threat of concentrated fire, there was a much greater chance they’d get through.

It was only then that he noticed the distance on the scanner. Fifty-four klicks to target—that was longer than the training simulation they’d all failed. His cheeks went white, and his vision started to blur around the edges. There was no way they were all going to get through this alive.

“Commander, the Starfire is launching drone waves!”

“I see them. Hang on!”

Hundreds of missile-sized drones poured out of the Starfire’s launch bays and began accelerating toward them just as the first burst of projectile fire hit their position. Aaron had little trouble evading it, though the closest shot missed him by less than a dozen meters. A fresh new salvo of projectile fire issued from the Starfire’s guns, along with tracers and plasma bursts.

Paladin wing, increase forward throttle to thirty percent maximum—we’ve got to get through that fire!”

“At that rate, will we be able to slow down in time?”

“We’ll be sitting ducks!”

Commander Noah shouted something in reply, but the rattle of debris and projectiles against the Paladin-4’s armor plating cut him off. Aaron reengaged his engines and went into a wild barrel roll, plasma bursts and tracer fire flaming all around him. Alarms began to blare, but there was no time to check them—not when they were under heavy fire. Cold sweat chilled the back of his neck, and his hands were so clammy he could barely feel the flight stick.

“Drones!” someone shouted over the channel. Aaron suddenly remembered the autolasers and hurriedly fumbled with the controls to turn them on. They came into action the instant they were powered, whirring as they filled the space outside the window with piercing red laserlight.

The first drone wave hit them like a juggernaut. Aaron gasped as one passed within only a meter or two of his ship. Its laser scorched the forward window, leaving a black burn mark that seriously impeded his view. On the scanners, the other drop-ships rolled and scattered. Paladin-2 winked out.

Paladin-2! We’ve lost Paladin-2!

“Hang on, boys! Covering fire!”

A brilliant soundless flash outside the forward window made Aaron squint and cover his eyes. The auxiliary screen with the rear video feed went fuzzy and filled with static, then blinked back on to show the after-glow of a second explosion. On the scanners, the first and second wave of drones blinked out, just as the third one broke to avoid the debris. The path was clear for them to get through

But then, a third explosion caught Aaron’s eye. In the auxiliary viewscreen, the Aegis had taken another hit. This time, the engines didn’t hold. A stream of fire breached the outer hull and erupted from the ship like blood from a headshot, just as another missile struck the bow of the ship, followed by another. In horror, Aaron watched as explosions tore the ship apart, turning the once-proud flagship into a rapidly expanding field of debris.

There was no way out now. If they couldn’t take the Starfire, they were all going to die.

Paladin-6! Paladin-6 is down!”

“Incoming!”

Another salvo hit them like a wave of fire, fresh on the heels of the third drone wave. Aaron couldn’t avoid it all. Explosions rocked the hull, setting off a cascade of new alarms. His vision was fuzzy, and a terrible headache began to grow. It was all he could do to focus on the scanners and dodge the enemy fire.

Screams and shouts filled the channel, but he couldn’t understand what any of them were saying. Another green dot on the scanners blipped out, but he couldn’t read the label at all. The alarms, the radio, the controls—it was all a jumble of words and letters to him, ones that he couldn’t make any sense of. He glanced in panic at the ETA clock, but it was unreadable as well.

Now the green dots on the scanners were starting to slow down. Aaron realized that he had to decelerate soon, otherwise his drop-ship would overshoot the Starfire and fly out into certain doom. He nosed the ship around, nearly passing out from the g-forces. Vomit rose to his mouth, and fatigue seized every muscle in his body.

In that moment, as the g-forces threatened to overwhelm him, he imagined he could hear the henna girl from his dream.

Come for me.

The words cut through the head-splitting fog and confusion like a laser. The words on the scanner stopped swimming before his eyes and came together to make sense and meaning. Their trajectory was tight, but they were still holding it, still—

The blood drained instantly from his cheeks as he read the alarms. The reactor had a breach, and the coolant system was malfunctioning. Any second, the whole thing would go critical and blow them all to pieces. It was just like the training simulation, except ten times worse.

In panic, he cut the throttle and flipped the switches to flush the coolant. The system didn’t respond. He tried the auxiliaries, but they didn’t work, either. The ETA clock was less than thirty seconds from zero. They had to decelerate now, or they’d overshoot the target. He started pulsing the engines, but a new alarm went off indicating a breach to the outer hull. Systems were failing left and right, with plasma bursts flaring all around them.

An explosion rocked the bulkheads, throwing him against his restraints. A new alarm showed that the ablative armor was almost completely gone. Miraculously, though, the auxiliary backups for the cooling system had come back online and were flooding the reactor with much needed coolant. The gauges were still in the red, but no longer heading toward critical. Perhaps they would get through this after all.

Come for me.

“Hang on!” Aaron shouted, for his own benefit as well as the rest of the platoon. With one hand firmly gripping the flight stick, he engaged the throttle to begin a hard engine pulse. The g-forces knocked the wind right out of him, and when he threw the ship into a barrel roll, he nearly passed out. With one eye on the reactor alarm, though, he pulled back just before the system rose to critical and returned them to freefall.

Someone in the cabin threw up explosively, and the stench filled the whole ship. Aaron hardly noticed it, though, he was so focused on the scanners. The maneuver had thrown off the enemy countermeasures, but Paladin-4’s trajectory had gone wild. Twenty seconds to target. They were going to overshoot if they didn’t find some way to drop their momentum, fast.

He made two more engine pulses, flirting with the critical point on the reactor each time. Now the soldiers were moaning and yelling at him to stop. It wasn’t enough, though—they were still coming in too fast.

A crazy idea came to Aaron’s mind. He deployed the docking clamps and turned the directional engines around, even though he was coming in too fast. He pulsed again with the main engines, altering his trajectory so that they’d ricochet off the Starfire’s hull. At the last second, he turned the ship so that the docking clamps were squarely facing the ship. The gray-black hull sped closer into view on the auxiliary screens, and he braced himself for impact.

The collision rammed through the bulkheads with bone-shaking force, setting of a whole new series of alarms. Aaron fired the directional engines at the moment of impact and kept them at maximum burn. The ear-splitting grind of metal on metal made his stomach turn as the mangled drop-ship slid along the Starfire’s hull. The noise filled the cabin and made the bulkheads shake so hard it felt as if the whole ship was about to break apart. Perhaps they were.

The docking clamps worked desperately to grab hold as they slid, but the ship was moving too fast. With his sweaty hand still pressing the throttle to maximum, Aaron checked the auxiliary screen. Two of the six clamps had stripped off on contact, while another had broken under the stress of the grind. As he watched, another one broke off, leaving just two. If either of them failed, they wouldn’t be able to get a grip on the Starfire, and without any way to attach, they would get flung off like a fly with no legs.

“Come on!” he shouted, his voice drowned out by the grind. The friction was definitely slowing them down. He had no way to know whether they had enough length left on the target ship, though. It was as if the Starfire had become sort of an aerial runway, and he was landing a plane with no wheels on it.

As they slowed down, the drop-ship began to spin. The grinding was so bad, Aaron had to press his shoulder against one ear just to make it bearable. He wanted to cover his ears with his hands, but now, of all times, he needed them to work the controls. The spinning pressed him up against one armrest and nearly threw him from his seat, but his restraints held. Back in the cabin, someone was screaming.

The grinding gradually fell in pitch, and the spinning stopped, leaving them pressed up against the hull. Alarms blared on every screen, but the two remaining docking clamps connected successfully, pressing Paladin-4 up against the enemy’s hull.

Exhausted, Aaron fell back against his seat and pulled back the throttle, turning off the engines. He almost forgot to activate the hull-piercing drill, but the sound of the soldiers unfastening themselves brought him back into the present. The whir-whir of the autolasers mingled with the blaring of the alarms, and he checked them over to see if Paladin-4 would ever fly again. Even from a glance, it was clear that she never would.

“Here,” said Jason, pressing a rifle into his hands. “You take, you come?”

“What?”

“The Aegis is gone,” Castor answered him somberly, somewhere outside of his view. “We need every man we can get, ‘cause we’re not coming back.”

Aaron’s stomach fell, and his vision began to blur once again. Images from the aftermath of the first firefight came flooding into his mind, threatening to overwhelm him with fear. But then, he remembered the henna girl and the fact that she was somewhere on that ship. His resolve hardened, and his vision cleared.

“Let’s go.”


* * * * *


The drop from the shaft was longer than Aaron expected. He stumbled but managed to stay on his feet. Because he was the last one out, the soldiers were already deployed around the walls and corners in either direction. No one was shooting, no one had been shot. The battleship was silent, except for the hiss of escaping air around the edges of the hull breach.

“Testing channels,” said Lieutenant Castor, touching a finger to the earpiece on his helmet. “All squad leaders, report.”

The hallway was eerily still for the next few moments, everyone pressed against a wall with their guns at the ready. Next to the breach, Pallas nonchalantly put his sniper rifle together. He seemed surprisingly unconcerned about the air escaping from the ragged ring of pulverized metal surrounding the shaft from the drop-ship. Everyone did.

“Copy,” said Castor, stepping forward. Without knowing what else to do, Aaron followed him.

“Jason, do you have a map of the battleship for us?”

“Negative, sir,” said Jason. He was the only one with his rifle strapped over his shoulder, working instead on a handheld computer unit.

“Are you in the network? Can you get us one?”

“Sorry, sir. Network is locked. I will need direct connection.”

“Then let’s get you to one. Deltana?”

Aaron jolted a bit as he realized the lieutenant was speaking to him.

“Uh, yes sir?”

“Do you have a map of this ship on your wrist console?”

It took him a second to understand what Castor was asking. He spoke so softly, it was hard to hear over the venting air.

“I am sorry, sir. I go into ship, can get—”

“Not enough time. Stay with Mara. We’re heading out.”

Castor motioned to the squad captains and said something that Aaron didn’t catch. The squad leaders nodded and split up, each taking five or six soldiers. Still speaking into his earpiece, Castor headed back to Jason. Aaron stood around for a second, unsure what to do until Mara tapped him on the shoulder and gestured for him to come.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“Shh!” she said, motioning for him to stay down. “We’re fanning out across the ship. The platoon AI will map out the corridors for us and let us know where the others are in case we get into trouble. We don’t know where the other platoons are, but we think they’re up near the command section since there aren’t any Imperial soldiers down here.”

The squad leader, Lino, stepped forward, with Tzaf and Pallas following close behind. Mara stepped softly and rounded the corner after them. Aaron followed.

“Do you have an earpiece?” Mara asked.

Aaron shook his head.

“Then give me your wrist console. I’ll sync it to mine.”

He handed it over, and she took it with one hand while holding her rifle with the other. Lino stopped them at the next corner, and while Pallas got into position, Mara slung her rifle over her shoulder and made the change. She handed the console back to Aaron without a word.

Shots sounded in the distance, in a different part of the ship but not too far from them. Aaron’s hands went clammy as he tightened his grip on his rifle. Lino motioned for them to take positions, so Aaron followed Mara to the other side and peered down the corridor.

He heard Pallas fire before he saw what he was firing at. The laser bolt snapped with a loud noise and made the air sizzle. Down in the corridor, someone screamed. Aaron squinted his eyes and saw them—technicians, not soldiers, and evidently unarmed. They made no effort to fight back but ran away as fast as they could.

It wasn’t fast enough.

Pallas made quick work of them. With six shots, he downed at least five of them that Aaron could see. The last one had turned to them with his hands raised, but Pallas shot him all the same.

I guess we aren’t taking any prisoners. Then again, the same could probably be said of the Imperials.

“Move!” Lino ordered. Instantly, the squad was on their feet, running down the long corridor. The distance was much longer than Aaron had realized, and he soon fell behind the others.

As they passed a large door, Aaron had the strangest sense of déjà vu. He stopped for a moment to examine it while the others ran on ahead. After staring at it for a few seconds, he realized that it was the door to the hangar bay, the one that he and Isaac had escaped from the last time they were here.

The one with the cryotank and the henna girl.

He froze, chills running down the back of his neck all the way down his spine. As if in a trance, he watched himself palm the access panel for the door. It hissed and slid open slowly, revealing stacks of large crates and empty machinery. He stepped forward into the hangar.

The dream where he found the henna girl came flooding back to him. The dark gray walls, the heavy assault rifle in his hands, the impending sense of doom as the Imperial soldiers hunted him—every detail was exactly the same. He broke into a run, his heart pounding as hard as his feet.

He rounded a stack of crates to find a platform by the wall. The moment he saw it, his eyes went wide and his legs began to shake. Sitting alone on top of it was the cryotank.

Time seemed to stop. He stood dumbfounded, hardly daring to believe his eyes. A part of him wanted nothing more in the universe than to run up and see the girl, but the other part—the part that remembered the dream—feared to do so. For how long those two sides warred in him, he didn’t know. Eventually, though, he broke the paralysis freezing him in place and stepped forward.

The cryotank was empty. Where the girl had once slept, there was now nothing but an empty, white canister. He let out a breath that he didn’t know he’d been holding. No horrific visions of death where the girl melted before his eyes. She was just gone.

“Aaron?” Mara called. “Aaron, what are you—”

Suddenly, he remembered the next part of the dream, when the Imperial soldiers shot him to pieces.

“Mara! Get down!”

He ducked behind the cryotank not an instant too soon. Shots filled the air all around him, shattering the glass and ricocheting off the walls. He huddled in shock and panic behind the partial cover as all the terror came rushing back to him. Except this time, it was real. This time, he wouldn’t wake up.

Mara’s battle cry brought him back to his senses. He readied his rifle and rolled on his stomach over the broken glass until he had a clear view. She was firing back at the Imperials, pushing them back. He fired from his angle and brought down one of them, his face masked by a gray helmet.

As the Imperials fell back, he scrambled to his feet and ran to Mara’s position behind the crates. She’d emptied her rifle and was reloading another magazine.

“How many are there?”

“Hell if I know. What the fuck are you doing here?”

“It’s a long—”

Gunfire cut him short, coming behind them this time. He dropped to his stomach, fearing for a second that he was hit. Mara’s reflexes were faster. She shot their attacker and dragged Aaron to his feet.

“Come on, let’s move!”

He scrambled with her to new cover, this time with the wall against their backs. The bay that he and Isaac had escaped from last time wasn’t too far. The slots for the EVA suits were still there, though empty. Apparently, the Imperials hadn’t replaced the stolen suits.

“We’re cut off,” she yelled, firing back. As the Imperials returned fire, she ducked back down beneath the crate. “You okay?”

Aaron checked himself over for blood or any other sign of injury. Though the memory of the dream still filled his mind, he appeared to be in one piece.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Then I hope you can run, flyboy.”

She pulled out a grenade and hurled it over her head at the Imperials. The explosion stopped the enemy fire for a few seconds, and she took advantage of that to sprint for the next stack of crates. Aaron followed as quickly as he could behind her.

“What do we do?” he asked.

“We die,” she answered. “But not until we take those bastards with us. Here!”

She motioned for him to cover her as she reloaded again. Aaron peered around the corner and fired at the first sign of motion. Return fire zinged past his ear, narrowly missing his face. He ducked back around as Mara came back into action.

“Cover my rear,” she told him. “Don’t let them flank us.”

At that moment, an awful grinding noise filled the cargo hangar. Aaron’s stomach fell—he recognized it at once.

“The bay!” he said. “The bay doors are opening! They’re venting us into space!”

“What?”

As if in confirmation, a loud whoosh of rapidly escaping air filled the room. It started as a hiss but soon grew to a whirlwind, tugging at Aaron’s clothes and whipping his hair back toward the doors. He looked over his shoulder and saw the stars, with nothing between him and the void. The gunfire had stopped now, replaced by screams and roaring wind. He dropped his gun and grabbed hold of the nearest crate as the whirlwind threatened to suck him out into the infinite blackness.

“Here!” Mara screamed, grabbing his arm. She pulled him toward a large storage container with a partially open hatch. He grabbed it as tight as he could and pulled himself inside. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a body fly past him—a soldier sucked out into a cold, dark grave. He turned back to help Mara, but she handed him an oxygen tank and pulled herself in after him.

“Close the door!” she screamed, her breath coming short. Aaron’s own breath was failing, and a wave of dizziness threatened to overwhelm him. With the last of his strength, he pulled on the hatch until it swung shut, sealing them both inside.

A moment later, he passed out.


* * * * *


He came to coughing, with a mask over his face. He pushed it away, only to have his breath come short. After coughing a couple more times to clear his throat, he grasped at the mask and pulled it back to his mouth, breathing the sweet, sweet oxygen.

“Take a deep breath,” said Mara. Aaron complied, and she pulled the mask away. Even though he couldn’t see her in the darkness, he could hear her breathing. The mask returned a second later.

“We have to share until they rescue us,” she said. “Or until the oxygen runs out.”

“What happened?” Aaron asked as she took the mask to breathe. A second later, she handed it to him, along with the oxygen tank itself.

“Here, take this. I need my hands free.”

Aaron took it and breathed deeply, all too aware that Mara would need to breathe soon, too. The light of her wrist console illuminated the darkness, showing that they were locked inside a deep space storage container. The walls were cool and surprisingly wet. Aaron guessed that the tank had carried water at some point. Before he forgot, he held the mask up to Mara’s face, allowing her to breathe.

“Jason took a computer terminal,” she reported as he took the mask back. “He’s controlling the doors. Vented the whole damn ship.”

“The whole ship? Is everyone dead then?”

She took a deep breath as he pressed the mask back up to her. “Not everyone, but a lot of enemy soldiers. Pockets of fighting going on right now.”

“Did he get them all? How many are left?”

“Impossible to say. First Platoon has the bridge, though. Fighting’s worst there.”

“Did our people make it to safety in time?”

“Most of them, those who weren’t wounded. The others …”

She didn’t finish the thought. Aaron held up the oxygen mask, and she took it gratefully. The conversation was getting hard on both of them anyway, so it was best to take a break for a while.

In the silence of the storage container, Aaron had his first real chance to think since the start of the battle. The Aegis was down, and the platoons that had made it to the Starfire were fighting for their lives. But they had control of the bridge and the door systems, which gave them an advantage. Perhaps there was a chance they’d get out of this. Perhaps they would survive.

But that opened the door to a whole host of other questions. The henna girl—where was she? On the ship somewhere? If she was, had she survived the decompression, or had she been sucked out of the ship? Aaron’s hands twitched. In that moment, he wanted to be free to search for her more than anything. There in the storage container, he felt as if he were sealed alive in his final tomb.

And what had happened to Isaac? Was he all right? When would Aaron see him again?

The whole situation was a mess. Everything had gone completely and totally wrong. It seemed less like an adventure now and more like his own personal hell. He didn’t care whether he lived or died anymore—he just wished that it were all over.

“Jason’s going to kill the gravity,” Mara announced. “Hang on.”

Aaron drifted slowly off of the floor, losing all sense of direction. He flailed about, nearly letting go of the precious oxygen mask, but he kept enough presence of mind to hold onto it. Mara grabbed onto him and reached for it, so he handed it to her.

“How bad’s the fighting?”

“Bad. Heavy losses. Half of First Platoon is dead.”

“And Fourth?”

“Not as many. Still a lot, though. Tzaf, Lino, Hektor.”

“Hektor,” Aaron said, musing. “Poor guy. I’ll miss him.”

“So will I.”

They said nothing for a little while, instead just floating weightless in the dark. The lack of handholds on the inside walls of the storage container made it impossible to keep from drifting. Aaron had already lost sense of which way was supposed to be up or down. He and Mara held onto each other—she was his only orientation, her wrist console the only light. If he had to endure this Hell, he was glad at least to be enduring it with her.

“Mara?” he asked.

“Yeah?”

“What will happen to us when the battle’s over?”

She didn’t reply to him right away. They exchanged the mask a couple of times before she answered.

“I have no idea. I honestly didn’t think we would make it.”

“Then why did you save me back there?”

“Because you sure as hell weren’t going to save yourself.”

They both laughed. Aaron realized that this was the first time he’d heard Mara laugh since the battle at Bacca.

“Do you think we’ll actually pull off a victory?”

“Of course not. Even if we take the Starfire, there’s still the rest of the Imperial fleet at Colkhia.”

“But what if the Flotilla beats them? The Starfire was their flagship.”

“I wouldn’t bet on it.”

“Why not?” Aaron asked. “Is it too much to ask for a little hope?”

“Yes,” she answered simply. There was no other reply.

“Look, I know this campaign was hard on you, but you’ve got to have hope—at least for yourself.”

“For myself?” she said softly. “Don’t count on it. But I can hope for you.”

Her answer confused him, until he realized that he’d been doing the same thing. It wasn’t himself he’d been fighting for—it was the henna girl, and the hope that he could rescue her. Did Mara feel the same way about him? He didn’t know, but they were the only Deltans in the whole company, and that gave them a connection the others couldn’t share. His language struggles meant that he’d had to rely on her—at least until the neural stimulator had sped up his learning. But still she’d clung to him, not because he needed her but because she needed him. The battle at Bacca had sucked almost all the humanity out of her. Helping him was one of the last ways she had of getting it back.

“We’ll get through this,” he said. “I know we will.”

“Just like you knew your brother would pull through?”

“That’s different. I don’t know what he’s up against, but I do know what’s up against us. We’ll make it.”

“I wouldn’t bet on it.”

He grinned. “But I would.”


At Hope’s End


Aaron was right, at least in the short term. With most of the Starfire vented and the artificial gravity turned off, the platoons managed to defeat the Imperial soldiers fighting them room to room. In a little over an hour, the last few stragglers surrendered, giving the outworlders complete control of the ship. Gravity and oxygen were quickly restored, and it didn’t take long for someone to rescue Aaron and Mara from the storage tank.

“How are you?” Phoebe asked in her accented Gaian as she opened the hatch. Aaron climbed out and took a deep breath of the refreshingly cool air.

“Well enough, considering,” said Mara. “What’s the situation?”

Phoebe explained it to them, speaking too quickly for Aaron to catch it all. From what he could pick out, it seemed that the outworlders had been decimated by the fighting. In Fourth Platoon, Hektor, Tzaf, Lino, and Talya were all dead, and Castor was seriously wounded. Phoebe was needed at the medical bay, which the soldiers were using as a field hospital. Everything was in disarray and no one knew how to pilot the battleship they’d managed to capture, but several of the Aegis’s crew had managed to evacuate in escape pods, which they were now in the process of recovering.

As Phoebe hurried off to the medical bay, Mara filled in the gaps for the parts that Aaron had missed. The Imperials were no longer a threat. Only twenty enemy soldiers had survived, along with half a dozen technicians, and they were all prisoners now in their own brig.

“That’s great,” said Aaron, his hands twitching. After everything that they’d just been through, he felt as shaky as if he’d survived a violent planetfall.

“It would appear so,” said Mara. “Now let’s find Lieutenant Castor and report.”

“Wait!”

She turned and gave him a puzzled look. “What?”

“There’s … there’s someone I need to find,” he said. “Someone I came here to rescue.”

“Who?”

He walked over to the empty cryotank. It was riddled with bullet holes and plasma scorches, now. The glass was shattered, the machinery unusable. He picked up a shard of glass and dropped it absent-mindedly.

“What’s this?” Mara asked, walking up beside him.

“It’s what I came for,” he explained. “The reason I joined up to fight the Imperials in the first place. I never had a chance to tell you, but …”

“Go on.”

Aaron swallowed. “Well, a few standard months ago, my brother and I were on a trade run in the Far Outworlds when we came across an abandoned space station. Everyone inside was dead—the place was a real derelict—but there was one survivor, frozen in a cryotank. She was a girl, covered from head to foot with henna tattoos, and not much older than me. It didn’t seem right to leave her there, so we loaded her on our ship and set out to find someone who could thaw her.”

Mara nodded, listening intently. Her expression didn’t seem so cold anymore. In fact, it seemed like she actually cared.

“We went from star to star until we came here, to Colkhia. The Imperials took her from us as contraband, and would have taken us prisoner, but we managed to escape. I vowed that I would find this girl and rescue her from the Imperials. I’m the reason she’s out here—I’m the one who found her. And because of that, I’m going to fight as hard as I can to get her back.”

“I see,” said Mara, her arms folded and her brow furrowed. “And now that you’ve found her cryotank, you want to find her—is that it?”

Aaron nodded.

“Is this the whole reason you joined the Resistance? Why you wanted to fight back against the Imperials?”

“Well, not exactly,” he said sheepishly. “There were other reasons, but—”

“But that one was the biggest.”

“Yeah.”

She grinned. “Well, I don’t see anyone stopping us. Let’s go find her.”

Aaron’s face lit up, and a rush of giddy excitement took hold of him. “You want to help me?”

“Isn’t that what I just said?”

“Right. Then let’s go!”


* * * * *


The first place they searched was the brig. A dozen soldiers from First and Second Platoon were stationed there, along with Jason. He greeted them both with a warm embrace.

“Ah, my friends, it is good for to see you alive,” he said. “It seems we have cheating death, yes?”

“It certainly does,” Mara answered in Gaian. She explained what they’d come for.

“Very well, very well, I see,” said Jason. “Come. I check for you in database.”

He led them to a computer terminal with multiple holoscreens, no doubt for keeping an eye on the prisoners. Most of them rotated between views of the cells where the Imperial soldiers were being held. He sat down and cracked his knuckles.

“Let us see, let us see.” His fingers flew across the keyboard, and strings of data flashed by too fast for Aaron to make any sense of them.

“When you did lose her?”

“About four standard weeks ago,” Aaron answered. “Not long after the Imperials took over the system.”

Jason clucked and shook his head. “I am sorry, friend. I see some records of male prisoners captured, none of female.”

“Check the rosters,” said Mara. “Perhaps they’re keeping her off the record.”

It took several nerve-wracking minutes for Jason to look, but in the end, he leaned back and shook his head. “I am sorry. There are three women only in brig, none like you are looking for find.”

“Let me see them,” Aaron demanded.

Jason shrugged and complied. Three of the holoscreens flashed to show live images of the cells with the women in them. Two were middle-aged, and the younger one’s hair was blonde, not black. Besides, none of them had dark skin or the distinctive henna tattoos that Aaron remembered so well. They could have faded somewhat, but he doubted it.

“Are any of those her?” Mara asked.

“No,” he answered, straightening up. “Come on, let’s look somewhere else.”

It took them the better part of an hour to search the rest of the ship. They started in the crew quarters, but it soon became apparent that they wouldn’t find her there—not alive, at least. Several squads were searching the rooms for bodies, and they’d found quite a few. The living quarters had been vented during the battle, and only one junior officer with the presence of mind to hole up in his shower unit had managed to survive. They checked among the bodies, but thankfully, she wasn’t there.

“Do you think she’s in the medical bay?” Aaron asked. They were getting closer, he could tell.

“Hold on, let me ask,” said Mara. She touched her helmet earpiece and hit a few keys on her wrist console. After chatting for a bit, she shook her head.

“Sorry. Phoebe says they have only outworlders there. Besides, the place is crowded. We don’t want to get in anyone’s way.”

Aaron’s heart sank. “Where else could she be?”

The search went on for what felt like hours, perhaps even days. Aaron’s initial hopefulness soon wore thin as room after room turned up with nothing. Throughout it all, though, Mara stayed with him. Even when it was clear that she was tired, she refused to stop and rest.

“Hang on,” she said, stopping him outside the door of a large utility closet. “Call from Jason.”

“What does he say?”

“He says he’s got something we might want to see.”

Before she could finish, he took off running. She soon caught up to him, though, and kept an easy loping pace alongside him. The corridors on the Starfire were long, and by the time they arrived at the brig, Aaron was already short of breath.

“Hello, my friends,” said Jason. He smiled but only patted them on the shoulders this time. “Come here, come here, I think it is which you have wanted to see.”

He pointed to the readout on the main screen. Aaron squinted.

“What is it?”

“It’s a roster of the ship’s escape pods,” said Mara. “Looks like most of them are still here.”

“Most, but not all,” said Jason. “You see? Five have already launching.”

“That’s not unusual, considering the battle. Where are they?”

“Ah,” he said, grinning as he pointed a finger in the air. “Of these, four are launching in last two hours. But fifth, if mission clock is correct, it is launching before Starfire makes first jump.”

Aaron frowned. “You mean, it jettisoned before the battle?”

“Before battle, yes. That is what clock is saying.”

“We don’t know that that’s her,” said Mara. “It could have been another escaped prisoner, or perhaps a deserter.”

It’s her, Aaron decided. It has to be.

“Wherever she is, she’s nowhere on this ship,” he admitted. “We would have found her already if she were.”

Mara nodded. “That, or someone else would have found her. I’m sorry, Aaron.”

“Sorry for what?”

“That she’s gone.”

He shook his head. “Hey, don’t be so sure of that. We’ll find her—I know we will.”

“And what if she’s dead when we do?”

At that moment, Commander Noah’s voice came on over the loudspeakers. He said something about taking command of the Starfire, then went off on some explanation that Aaron didn’t quite catch.

“What did he say?”

“He says that as the highest ranking officer to survive the Aegis, he is taking command of the ship until the Council relieves him.”

Aaron considered telling her that he already understood as much, but remembering their discussion in the storage container, he held himself back. Better to let her explain it all to him than to cut her off.

“We don’t have enough manpower to run all the stations, but we do have enough to run the basic ones. Consequently, he’s taking us into Colkhia to assist the Flotilla.” She paused, considering her words. “The most recent transmissions coming out of the system indicate that the battle has turned into a stalemate, with the Outworld forces taking control of Colkhia IV’s primary moon. If we arrive in time to reinforce them, it could shift the balance of power and force the Imperials to retreat from the system altogether.”

Aaron’s heart leaped. It seemed too much to hope that defeat could turn to victory, but if it really could—

“When do we jump?” he asked.

“About ten minutes,” Mara answered.

He grabbed her hand. “Then let’s go.”

“Go where?”

“To the bridge.”


* * * * *


The command deck of the Starfire was a mess. Most of the bodies had been cleaned up, but streaks of dark blood covered the floors and walls. The bullet holes and scorch marks got thicker the closer they got to the bridge, with doors blown out and holes punched through the bulkheads from parallel corridors. The fighting on this part of the ship had been severe.

Aaron tried to ignore it, but he couldn’t help but feel his muscles tense and the edges of his vision begin to blur. After the battle at Bacca, though, the carnage didn’t have quite as much power to shock him. As for Mara, if she had any reaction to it, she didn’t show it.

They arrived at the door to the bridge and palmed it open. Inside, Commander Noah stood beside the captain’s chair, helping one of the other pilots make some adjustments to her station. Displays and control panels graced the walls, with upper and lower decks for the various officers and technicians. Several of the displays were riddled with bullet holes, however, and a couple of the panels were blown out. No one seemed to be alarmed at the smell of smoke in the place. Apparently, that was something they’d already cleared up. Aaron guessed there were around twenty seats and workstations in the room, but only half of them were occupied.

“Ensign Deltana,” said Noah as he entered the room. “You’re alive, I see.”

“I thank you, Commander,” said Aaron. “Where you need me?”

Noah nodded in greeting to Mara and glanced around the room. For a second, Aaron wondered if he would just send them away—after all, the others seemed to have a pretty good handle on things without them. Then he glanced at the ragtag bunch of soldiers in the room and realized that the commander was running the battleship on a hope and a prayer. He could use all the help he could get.

“Ensign, I need you to take the helm. Can you do that?”

Aaron’s eyes widened, and his mouth slowly opened. Commander Noah said more, but he was too stunned to catch it.

“The commander asked if you would take the helm,” Mara translated. “Is that all right?”

“But I don’t know how to fly a battleship!”

“No one here does, and recon needs another officer. Can you do it or not?”

Aaron’s heart hammered against his ribs, and fractals began to cloud the edges of his vision, but he nodded. “Yes. You’ll help me with the controls, though, right?”

“Of course. I’m not going anywhere.”

Mara translated, and Noah ushered them over to the helm. After replacing the corporal who had occupied the position previously and making space for Mara to sit next to him, Aaron took a deep breath and surveyed the controls. They actually didn’t seem all that different from the Medea, just scaled up with a couple of extra displays and dozens of additional indicators. The tricky part was that there were so many of them.

“I might need some help finding some of these controls,” he told Mara. “If I tell you what I need, can you find and point them out to me?”

“Will do,” she said simply.

“Apollo, do we have the jump coordinates?” Noah asked.

“Yes, sir,” said Apollo, pilot of the Paladin-3. “Sending to helm now.”

The coordinates appeared on a screen to Aaron’s right. He toggled the starmap and looked around for the indicators on the energy reserves, but couldn’t find them. As his vision began to cloud, the labels swam in front of him so that he could barely read any of them.

“What do you need?” Mara asked.

“The reactor levels. Where are they? Damn, it’s hard to find anything on these controls.”

“Ensign Deltana,” Noah asked, “are we ready for jump?”

Mara pointed to a series of green lights just below the throttle for the main sublight engines. “There.”

“We are, yes,” said Aaron.

Commander Noah took his seat in the command chair. “Then prepare to jump on my mark.”

“Prepare to jump,” Mara translated.

Aaron gripped the flight stick and put a hand on the switch for the main jump drive. As he did, he couldn’t help but wonder what Isaac would think if he could see him now. From a second-rate star wanderer to pilot of a battleship. No doubt his brother would be shocked beyond belief. The thought made him grin, even though his vision barely cleared.

“Engage,” said Noah.

With another deep breath, Aaron flipped the switch.

At first, nothing happened. He frowned and glanced at the switch, thinking at first that he’d flipped the wrong one. But then, a low rumbling sounded in the bulkheads all around him. It gradually grew in volume, oscillating at regular intervals, until it was loud enough to drown out all the other noises on the bridge. The pitch rose, too, making Aaron’s hair stand on end. It took almost fifteen full seconds for the drive to climax, but just as it became almost unbearable, Aaron’s stomach flipped, the room seemed to turn itself inside out, and then they were through. The drive purred into cooldown as new data began streaming across all of the feeds.

“Where’s the nav-computer?” Aaron asked, then realized that astrogation was Apollo’s job. He glanced over at the other drop-ship pilot, who was working frantically at the controls. Everyone suddenly began talking at once, filling the room with more noise than the jump drives. Above it all was Noah, issuing a host of new commands, but he spoke so quickly that Aaron couldn’t understand him.

“Nav-computer?” Mara asked.

“Never mind. Just—there it is,” Aaron said, pointing to the scanners. His vison swam as his stress began to rise, but he forced himself to shut out all the noise around him and focus on why he was here. The henna girl—his brother—and yes, even Mara. They were the ones he was fighting for, the ones he had to hope for. Any fear he had for himself began to fade as he focused his thoughts on them.

The fog retreated to the edges of his vision, clearing his mind enough to accomplish the task at hand. Their new coordinates came up on the sidebar, and the map of the system automatically overled on the screen. From the looks of it, they’d come out of jumpspace just above Colkhia IV’s moon, at the very top of the gravity well. They’d need to make some adjustments, though, if they wanted to enter a stable orbit.

“Commander Noah,” he said. “What course you want?”

But Noah was busy giving orders to the other men. Several of them worked furiously at their stations, while others waited for their orders just like Aaron.

“It looks like we showed up in the middle of something,” said Mara. “Look!”

She pointed at the scanners, which showed hundreds of starships in the space immediately around them. They showed up as gray points. The recon officer evidently didn’t know which ones to classify as friendly, and which ones to classify as hostile. The ones above the gravity well, though, were coming in fast.

“Commander Noah—”

“Maintain position,” said Noah. “Comms, begin transmission on all channels!”

Immediately, the room grew silent. Aaron didn’t know whether to maintain position relative to the moon or the incoming ships. It seemed the wrong time to ask, though, so he selected a heading toward them and began to bring the battleship around. From the looks of it, it would take some time for their course to fully adjust.

The computer chimed, and Commander Noah spoke firmly and with authority. Aaron couldn’t catch every word, but he could tell that it was directed toward their enemy—whichever group of ships that was. There was a firm possibility it could be all of them.

“What’s going on?” he asked Mara.

“Commander Noah is sending a transmission across all channels,” she said. “He’s announced that the Starfire is now under Outworld control and has ordered the Imperial forces to surrender.”

Several seconds passed. The tension in the room grew almost palpable. When Noah stopped and the transmission cut, everyone started talking again at once. It was chaos, with no one knowing what to do or quite how to do it. Aaron certainly didn’t.

“It’s a bluff, and they know it,” Mara muttered. “They’re going to come down on us and finish us off before we know where it’s coming from.”

Motion on the scanners caught Aaron’s attention. As he peered at it, a grin slowly spread across his face.

“Then what’s that?” he said, pointing to the cluster of incoming starships.

“What’s what?”

“Look!”

As they looked, point after point winked out. The field above the gravity well thinned, leaving virtually none of the ships that had been there just a few moments previously. The computer chimed again, and Noah called for silence. A visual transmission came on the main bridge display.

“Welcome, Commander Noah,” said Admiral Tully in her spotlessly white uniform. A look of immense relief filled her face as she spoke, saying something about him arriving just in time. When the transmission cut, the whole bridge erupted into cheers.

“What’s happening?” Aaron asked.

“I don’t believe it,” said Mara. “The Imperial forces are withdrawing from the system. It looks like—”

“We won!”

Without thinking, he laughed and gave her a big hug. She pulled away from him almost immediately, but not without a smile.

“It’s over, then? The battle’s over?”

“It looks that way. But the war … The war is just beginning. The Imperials won’t let this defeat stand. They’ll come back in greater strength than we’ve seen before. But I suppose that doesn’t matter to you. You only joined this fight to find that girl.”

Aaron thought about it for a moment. The henna girl—he definitely wanted to find her soon. Even more, he wanted to find his brother and make sure he was all right. But then he thought about Fourth Platoon, how long and hard they’d fought together and how many of them had died. His brother’s words about fighting for the freedom of the Outworlds came back to him, and he knew he couldn’t abandon the cause.

“You won’t get rid of me so easily,” he said. “I’m in this with you for the long haul, however long it takes. When the Imperials come back, we’ll be ready.”

She looked at him as if he were an idiot, then smiled even wider. “I guess not, star wanderer. Or should I say ‘Ensign’?”

“What does rank matter among friends?”

“Fair enough. You want to raid the officer’s lounge when all this is over? I could use a stiff drink.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I think I do.”


Book III: Strangers in Flight


Cold Awakening


At first, Reva had no perception other than a vague sense of falling. It was neither dark nor light, neither cold nor hot, and she couldn’t tell whether she was the one falling or the world all around her—if you could call it a world. Time, space, and consciousness were all beyond her immediate awareness. And yet, the void filled her with a strange restlessness, as if something important were about to happen—as if she were about to experience rebirth.

Short streaks of multicolored light flashed past her as she fell, stirring her to awareness. She had a very distinct and powerful feeling that she was going somewhere. In a few moments, she would find herself in a strange place far from home, and she had to be prepared for anything. The thought seemed so important that she held onto it like a lifeline as the flashes grew in length and intensity. Her mind began to stir, her consciousness to awaken; time and space unfolded before her mind, and the void gave way to darkness.

Cold darkness.

She gasped, and the air felt like knives. Her whole body burned like fire and ice, as if her heart were pumping poison through her veins instead of blood. She arched her back and fell into wild convulsions.

Hot steam bathed her body, seeping through her skin like a healing balm. There wasn’t enough of it, though—not nearly enough. She gasped desperately for breath, filling her lungs with the blessed warmth. The convulsions stopped, and her muscles turned to water. She slid to her ankles just as her stomach began to heave.

The next few moments passed in a blur. A sharp hiss filled her ears, followed by voices speaking an unfamiliar language. Hands reached out to her, touching her all over. She gasped again, tears streaming from her eyes as she vomited cold bile from her empty stomach. It was more than she could bear. All she could do was surrender to the pain and hope it didn’t kill her.

Now they were dragging her away. To where, she didn’t know. When she opened her eyes, all she saw was a blinding white blur. She didn’t have the strength to resist, so she let them take her, grateful that at least the convulsions had stopped.

Now water was streaming down on her—lukewarm, neither hot nor cold. Like the steam, it healed her, invigorated her. She was alone now, leaning against a wall that felt metallic and slippery. She reached out to touch it, and the firmness surprised her.

That was when she saw her hands. Intricate henna tattoos covered her brown skin, stretching from the tips of her fingers all the way up her arms. The sight surprised her, until she remembered how her sister-in-law had painted her, just before she’d stepped into the cryotank. The tattoos were beautiful and elegant, nothing less than a true masterpiece. They stretched across her face and chest, enveloping her whole body just as the water did with its healing warmth. There was power in those beautiful designs—power that calmed and strengthened her.

Taking a deep breath, she steadied herself against the wall and tried to stand. For several excruciating moments, her legs were utterly unresponsive. Biting back the panic, she rested for a moment, breathing calmly as the water soothed her stiff, unyielding muscles. Gradually, her legs took strength. A wave of sudden dizziness threatened to keel her over, but leaning against the wall she stood up slowly, quivering as the water ran across her henna-painted skin.

I’m alive, she thought. I’m actually alive. The realization was so sweet, it made her laugh. She had been frozen in a deathlike sleep, and now she was fully alive once again. Nothing could be sweeter.

But then, a sickening feeling grew in her gut as she realized what that meant. She was alive, but what about everyone else? Her father, her brothers, her sister-in-law—none of them had been frozen in cryo. She was the only one. For a very brief moment, she hoped against hope that she was home—that her father had woken her just a few weeks or months after putting her down. But then she looked around at the shower chamber, with its too-bright lights and pale metal walls, and she realized with dismay that that wasn’t the case.

Her strength gave way, and she collapsed to her knees. Her family and friends—were they dead? Had any of them survived? Or was she … alone?

I have to stay together, she told herself, refusing to give way to her tears. There will be time for that later, but first, I have to find out where I am.

Or perhaps more importantly, who had thawed her.


* * * * *


The shower didn’t last long. It ended abruptly, and hot air blasted her dry from above. By then, though, she had regained most of her strength. She may have been helpless when the hands had carried her in, but she would walk out of the shower chamber strong and whole.

It was all coming back to her now—the events that had brought her to this place. The famine at Anuva Station, the long fearful months as the crisis became a catastrophe, and her father’s secret project to save her.

“You are my youngest child,” he’d told her. “You have a greater chance of surviving the cryofreeze than any of your siblings.” As usual, his obsession with efficiency as the station’s chief engineer came before his emotions. But when she’d looked into his eyes and saw the sadness there, she had known that he did this because he loved her.

“What will it feel like?” she asked. Even if going into cryostasis was the only way to survive, the thought of it terrified her.

“The thawing and freezing process will put quite a strain on your body, but while you’re in cryofreeze, you won’t feel a thing. Years could pass—centuries even—and you wouldn’t know it until you wake up.”

She stared at him with wide, frightened eyes. “Centuries?”

“Yes. There’s no telling when the next ship will come, or what they’ll find when they get here. But there is an upper limit to the timeframe for revival. In eight hundred standard years, Anuva Station’s correctional jets will fail. Orbital decay will crash it into the surface anywhere from one to three hundred years later.”

His brutally efficient analysis had never given her much comfort, but at least she knew that he wasn’t hiding anything from her. He’d never hidden anything from her, not even the hardest truths.

“So if I do wake up, at least I’ll know that it hasn’t been more than a thousand years?”

“Eleven-hundred to be more accurate, but even then, it’s impossible to predict how long it will take them to thaw you after they discover you. I don’t have the resources to build the proper thawing equipment. I can only put you under the ice and hope that whoever finds you has the equipment to do the rest.”

“So when I do wake up, it won’t be here?” Her heart sank as she realized what that meant.

“No. You could be anywhere in settled space. But at least you’ll be alive.”

I’m alive, Reva thought to herself as the drying cycle ended and the warm air cut off. She looked down at the intricate henna tattoos painted across her skin and took courage. She had no idea when or where she was, but at least she was alive.

The shower door opened and she stepped out, holding weakly onto the wall for support. The room outside was narrow and windowless, with walls and floors that were immaculately white. There were a number of gray stalls lining the wall to her right, with a wide sink facility in the far corner.

Two men stood by the entrance to the shower. Their bodies were covered in blankets, leaving only their hands and faces bare. It puzzled her, since the air in the room was not particularly cool.

“Uh, hello,” she said. She wasn’t sure what else to say, so she smiled and waited for them to respond.

Neither of them spoke to her, but the younger one handed her a towel. She took it gratefully and wrapped it around her hair. From the puzzled looks on the young man’s face, she gathered that wasn’t what he had expected of her. She looked at him closer and realized that he wasn’t covered in blankets at all, but some sort of skin covering that was fitted to his body. The same was true of the older man. His second skin was long and white, a bit like one of her father’s aprons.

Back home, no one had covered their bodies unless an unusual circumstance required it. Her father would sometimes wear protective gear while at work, but when he was home in the apartment, he went bare just like everyone else. She’d always been taught that the body was sacred, the highest pinnacle of creation. Just as children were born pure and shameless, so too were they to honor their bodies and not be ashamed of them. But these men—with their blanket-like skin coverings that served no obvious purpose—seemed to believe otherwise.

“Hello,” she said, holding her hands palm-outward in greeting. “Thank you for rescuing me. My name is Reva Starchild.” Back home, the standard greeting was to take one by the hands and kiss them on either cheek. These men, though, only smiled stiffly and nodded at her.

The younger man was clearly uncomfortable, though the older man seemed unconcerned. He stepped forward and pulled out what appeared to be some sort of medical instrument.

“Are you a doctor?” she asked. He said nothing, but began to examine her.

He held the instrument in front of her eyes, poked it into her ears, and motioned for her to stick out her tongue so he could examine her mouth. He then pressed the instrument gingerly against her chest, checking her in three different places. She stood patiently, allowing him to examine her. His touch was gentle enough that it didn’t feel invasive.

Who are these people? she wondered. Clearly, the older man was a doctor, which meant that the younger was probably his apprentice. The room itself seemed like a bathroom in a medical facility, though not at all like the one at home. But that was what her father had told her, wasn’t it? That when she awoke, she’d be far away from everything she knew?

“Hello,” she said again. “My name is Reva. Can you understand me?”

From the stupid way the young apprentice smiled at her, it was clear that the answer was “no.” As if to confirm this, the doctor spoke to him in a language she’d never heard before. His words sounded so foreign that she couldn’t make any sense of them.

So I am far from home.

The doctor took her by the arm and gently led her through a tall doorway. They walked down a short corridor to a boxy, windowless room with a screen on one wall and a series of modular compartments in the other. He pulled out a retractable table and motioned for her to sit. As she did, a spiderlike medical bot descended from the ceiling and unfolded its spindly arms. She flinched, but the doctor snapped his fingers and it retreated into the far corner.

The apprentice came in and pulled a piece of folded fabric from one of the wall compartments. He unfolded it and held it out to her, and she saw that it was a body covering like the ones they wore. She shook her head and waved it away, but he held it out insistently.

“No,” she said firmly. “I don’t want it, thank you.”

The doctor put a hand on his younger apprentice’s shoulder and gently rebuked him. He blushed again—the third time in about as many minutes—but folded up the covering and replaced it in the wall compartment.

Reva’s stomach growled, and a sharp hunger pang nearly bowled her over. She leaned forward and clutched her stomach, wincing until it died down. After all of the vomiting and dry heaving, she was positively famished.

“Do you have food?” she asked, half-expecting the men to understand her. When they didn’t, she rubbed her stomach and pointed at her mouth. The apprentice nodded vigorously and conferred for a few moments with the doctor before running out of the room.

For the next several minutes, the doctor examined her more thoroughly. He tapped her knees to test her reflexes, put a band around her arm to take her blood pressure, took a tissue sample from her tongue, and mapped her teeth with a scanner. By the time the apprentice returned, the doctor had nearly performed a full physical on her.

The apprentice handed her a fluid pack with a one-way straw sticking out of a corner. It was a type of food ration, designed to be eaten in zero gravity. She took it with a grateful smile, lifting the straw to her mouth. The contents were thick and slushy, with a synthetic, salty-sweet flavor that made it hard to put down. It seemed to expand as soon as it hit her stomach, satisfying her hunger almost at once. That alone made it worthwhile.

As she sucked up the last of it, the doctor and his apprentice turned to face her. Apparently, they had been having something of a heated discussion while she’d been eating. She put the empty fluid pack down and returned their gazes, waiting to see their reaction.

At that moment, two other men entered the room. They were both tall and muscular, much more so than either the doctor or his apprentice. Like the doctor, they also wore second-skins that covered almost their entire bodies. These ones were thicker, though—hard and black like beetle shells. They looked so silly that Reva couldn’t help but laugh. When the men looked at her, though, it was clear they didn’t find it funny.

“Sorry,” she said, covering her mouth. “It’s just, you don’t …”

The strong men ignored her, focusing instead on the doctor. As her voice trailed off, Reva noticed a frown of concern on the doctor’s face. The apprentice stood behind him and glanced from her to the strong men and back. Reva tensed—something was clearly wrong here.

The apprentice took out the covering again and held it out to her, this time all but pleading for her to put it on. For a second, she considered doing it just to set him at ease, but that would mean covering her henna tattoos. She smiled and waved him away as politely as she could, ignoring the almost frantic look of concern on his face.

The strong men finished with the doctor and walked over to her. One of them took her by the arm and pulled her forcibly to her feet.

“Ow!” she said, trying in vain to free herself from his grip. “What are you doing?”

She reached over to pull his wrist off, but the second strong man took her by the other arm, making it impossible for her to free herself. She struggled as best she could, dropping to the floor and refusing to stand.

The strong man on her right reached over and slapped her across the cheek. The blow was so forceful it sent a wave of dizziness through her along with the pain. Fear seized her, and she stopped struggling. The men lifted her, and she stood on unsteady legs.

She risked a sideways glance as they marched her out the door. The apprentice still held the body covering he’d offered her, a look of dread on his face. The doctor was clearly outraged, but he made no move to stop the strong men or to follow her. Wherever they were taking her, she was on her own.


* * * * *


Who are these people? Reva wondered as the strong men marched her down the narrow corridor. With her cheek still stinging and the two men gripping both her arms, she felt less like she’d been rescued and more like she’d been taken prisoner.

The corridor opened up to a wider hallway, with portholes on one side. The stars were dim, and Reva saw no sign of any planet or space station. At twenty meter intervals along the wall, three circular emergency chutes took the place of the portholes. From her father’s engineering work, she knew that they led to the escape pods, which meant that she was on a starship. But judging from the length of the hallway, the ship must be huge—almost the size of Anuva Station, if not larger.

They passed a handful of people along the way, all of them wearing second-skins. Most of them were men, and all of them stopped to stare at her. She thought it was the tattoos at first, but then she noticed that some of them were snickering. What was their problem? Had they never seen tattoos before? Or was it something else?

They entered a cylindrical elevator chamber with grated floors that clawed at her bare feet. The air was much cooler than she was accustomed to, making her shiver. Even in the elevator, the strong men refused to release her.

Where are they taking me?

They marched her into an empty chamber with a desk and a computer terminal. The strong man on her right pulled out a keycard and held it against an access panel next to another set of doors, which opened to reveal a short, narrow corridor. Holding cells for prisoners lined either side. Reva could tell what they were from the heavy deadbolts built into each one. The doors were actually more like hatches, since they sat on hinges and were raised about half a meter above the floor. They each had a small porthole with bars over the front of them. An ozone scent in the air told her that they were electrified.

So I am a prisoner.

They marched her to the far side of the corridor, opening the very last holding cell. They shoved her in, but didn’t close the hatch. Instead, they stood out in the corridor, as if waiting for someone to join them.

Who were these people, and how had they found her cryotank? Somehow, she didn’t imagine that a ship this large would ever travel as far as her home. The Anuva system had always been cut off from the rest of the universe; it was rare even for starfarers to visit them. So how had she ended up here, on a ship that was almost as large as Anuva Station? And more importantly, why were they treating her like a prisoner?

As thoughts like this raced through her mind, heavy footsteps sounded outside on the grated floor. A man entered her cell, this one different from all the others. He was tall and balding, with sunken eyes and a hooked nose. The fabric of his second skin was crisp and white, and his expression was cold and impassive, his mouth downturned in a frown that seemed like a permanent fixture.

The strong men stood by the hatch, clearly deferring to him as some sort of leader or administrator. He ducked through the hatchway as he entered, but once he was in, he regarded her coolly with eyes that seemed to penetrate right through her.

“Hello?” she said, struggling to sound confident. “My name is Reva. Who are you, and what do you want with me?”

He said nothing, but walked around her, taking in everything from her toes to the top of her head. At first, she thought he was admiring her tattoos, but from the glint in his eyes she wasn’t quite so sure.

“I asked, what do you want with me? Why are you treating me like this?”

He spoke a single word, calling for silence. Even though she didn’t understand the language he spoke in, the meaning was clear from his tone. She took a deep breath and stood awkwardly as he finished circling her.

Without warning, he reached out and pinched her breast. She gasped in surprise and knocked his hand away.

“Hey! What the hell are you—”

Stars flashed across her vision as he slapped her cheek with the back of his hand. The force of the blow nearly sent her to the floor, and the pain stretched across the whole side of her face. She rubbed her cheek as her shock turned to fear.

The man reached out and felt her again. She tensed and tried weakly to push him away, but he took her firmly by the wrist, squeezing just hard enough to make it clear that struggling against him was a very bad idea.

Stop! Please, stop!

Tears filled her eyes at the invasiveness of his touch. As he reached down and groped her butt, she squeezed her legs together, praying that he wouldn’t go any further.

Thankfully, he didn’t. As abruptly as he had taken her, he released her and walked casually toward the door. Reva wrapped her arms across her chest. The whole ordeal had lasted barely a few seconds, but it left her shuddering with fear. For someone to reach out and feel her like that, treating her body like an object, it made her feel sick—and profoundly violated.

The three men stepped through the door and shut it behind them, leaving her alone. She leaned back against the cold metal wall and slid to her ankles, unsure whether to cry or to scream. Fear got the best of her, and she did neither.

There could be no doubt anymore: she was a prisoner, and she had to escape.


* * * * *


Meditation always helped Reva to calm herself and focus on the problem at hand. She sat cross-legged on the cold metal floor with her hands folded palm-up in her lap. By shutting out everything around her and focusing on her breath, she was able to fight back against the panic and find a place of peace in her mind to serve as an anchor. Time became fluid and mutative, but it didn’t seem like long before her mind was clear and the confusion was gone.

A wave of revulsion passed through her as she remembered how the man in white had touched her. Back home, such an obscene act would have been unthinkable. A whole host of taboos and social mores governed how people could and couldn’t touch each other in public, and in the space of just a few seconds, that man had violated almost all of them. But the thing that disturbed her most was the total lack of shame with which he’d done it. To him, she might as well have been a robot. He’d shown absolutely no regard for her as a human being, and that scared her most of all.

It was clear to her now that the people in the hallway hadn’t been staring at her tattoos, but at her uncovered body. It wasn’t normal in this culture to go bare, and that meant that these people had all sorts of perverse notions of what going bare actually meant. None of them had touched her, but all of them had wanted to. They had all groped her with their eyes. The realization sickened her almost as much as if they had touched her.

She had to escape—that was abundantly clear. But how?

By focusing on her breath, she gradually put her fears out of her mind. Then, with the analytical precision her father had taught her, she applied herself to the problem.

The ship was large enough that if she managed to escape her cell, she might be able to hide long enough to find a way to sneak off. But with her tattoos, it would be difficult for her to blend in, even with her body covered. People would be searching for her, and in the confined space of a starship, her chances of making it that way were slim.

She could try the escape pods. That would certainly be a faster way off the ship. But she didn’t know how to pilot them, and even if she did, her captors would have very little difficulty retrieving her. Escape pods weren’t designed to fly very far—they were basically tiny capsules built to keep a person alive for a few hours until someone could rescue them. Even if she managed to get to one, her flight would be very short indeed.

So the least bad option was to find a hiding place on the ship, with her backup plan to jump on an escape pod and hope for the best. It wasn’t good, but at least it was something.

But that still left the problem of how to get out of her cell.

She stood and examined the door. It was magnetically sealed, with the window and deadbolts electrified. Even if she had the tools to open it, she wouldn’t be able to do so without shocking herself half to death, or at least setting off a series of alarms. And that was just the first door. There was another locked door that opened up to the lobby of the detention center, and another that opened to the main hallway. She would have to get through all three, and do so in a way that didn’t set off any alarms.

Looks like I’ll have to use my wits, then, she thought as she returned to her cross-legged position on the floor. Until someone opens that door for me, there’s nothing I can do.

Even though the task seemed daunting, it calmed her to have a clearly defined problem to work on. The meditation certainly helped, too. She played through more than a dozen possible scenarios in her head as she waited for the door to open.

Time once again became fluid, and she lost track of how much had passed. Inevitably, though, the sound of footsteps on the metal floor grating brought her back to full alertness. Her heart leaped and adrenaline surged through her body, but she forced herself to remain collected and focused.

The deadbolts retracted with a clang, and the hatchway creaked open on its old, squeaky hinges. Two men stepped through: one of the strong men, wearing the same black beetle-shell skin covering as before, and the doctor’s apprentice. The young man regarded her in silence for a moment, his cheeks reddening just as before. He knelt down by her side and spoke to her, holding out another fluid pack with a one-way straw.

There’s no way I can get out of here with both of them watching me, Reva thought, her mind racing. But if there were only one …

She glanced apprehensively at the strong man, who waited just inside the doorway. It took the apprentice a few seconds to get the hint, but when she ignored the fluid pack, he spoke to the strong man and waved him out of the chamber. The man hesitated a moment, but shrugged and stepped outside.

The apprentice smiled at her and nodded. He put a hand on her shoulder, his eyes wandering involuntarily to her breasts. Pervert, Reva thought. You’re all perverts in this place.

Fortunately, she could use that to her advantage.

She rose smoothly to her feet, her eyes meeting and holding the apprentice’s gaze. He stood up unsteadily, but before he could react, she slipped a hand around his waist and pressed her body close against his. If her captors could break all the rules, she’d show them that she could, too. She pressed the young man up against the wall and locked her lips against his in a wild and ferocious kiss. His body stiffened and he gasped a little through his nose, but he made no move to resist her and soon melted to putty into her embrace.

Just as he let out his breath, she snaked her arms around his neck and took the fabric of his skin covering in a vice-like grip. With the edge of her palm pressing up against his windpipe, she rotated her wrists and squeezed.

In any other situation, the apprentice probably could have overpowered her. But caught off guard, with his lungs empty and his body relaxed, there was nothing he could do. His eyes bulged and he thrashed weakly with his arms, but Reva held on tight, guiding him quietly to the floor as his legs collapsed. His mouth opened as if to scream, but without any air he couldn’t so much as croak. He passed out a few moments later, arms twitching until they too went still.

Frantically, Reva searched him. If he had a key, it would be hidden somewhere in his body covering, perhaps in a pouch of some kind. Her hands were shaking, but she kept up the search until she found it: a pouch sewn into the fabric near his chest, containing a keycard. The moment Reva’s fingers touched it, her heart skipped a beat.

At that moment, the apprentice began to moan. Reva’s blood froze in her veins, and she glanced in terror at the open doorway. If the strong man—

Before he could come in, she jumped up and pressed herself up against the wall. The apprentice coughed and cried out, probably for help just she’d feared he would. Sure enough, the strong man came rushing inside, passing Reva without noticing her.

Now’s your chance! Go!

Reva slipped past him as quickly as she could and pulled desperately at the door to the cell. She put all her weight into it, hoping that it wasn’t as heavy as it looked. The strong man turned and caught sight of her, and for one terrifying instant, she feared he would reach out and stop it. But before he could react, it swung shut in his face, the magnetic bolts locking it shut.

“Holy stars of Earth,” she gasped, falling to the floor in relief. The sound of fists pounding on the other side told her that she was safe—for the moment. But she wasn’t free yet.

Rising quickly to her feet, she ran to the door that led to the lobby. It took her a second to figure out the keypad, but by holding the card against it, she managed to unlock it and open the door. Thankfully, no one was waiting on the other side. She hurried to the next door and ran through.

Her bare feet pattered against the cold metal floor, her heart pounding as adrenaline coursed through her arms and legs. Only then did she realize that the outside hallway was empty.

What’s going on? she wondered, slowing down to catch her breath. In either direction, the place was completely abandoned. That was odd—she was sure there had been people outside in the hall before. Where had they all gone?

A voice came over the loudspeakers, making her jump. She couldn’t understand it at all, but just to be safe, she broke into another run. By now, her pursuers would surely see that she’d used the keycard. She had to put as much distance between herself and the prison as possible.

She rounded a corner, only to come face-to-face with a full squad of strong men. Their eyes widened, but her reaction was faster than theirs. Pushing off the wall for momentum, she threw herself into the nearby stairwell and dashed up the stairs.

A distinct humming noise sounded through the bulkheads. It grew to the point where she could hear it over the shouting of the men behind her. She didn’t know why, but it gave her the feeling that she was running out of time. Remembering the escape pods, she dashed into the nearest stairwell to the level immediately above her.

She made for the nearest chute as fast as she could, but someone cried out—she’d been spotted again. It was too late to turn back, though, and besides, there was nowhere left to run. As the humming grew to a fevered pitch, she slammed her palm against the access panel for the escape pod chute and stepped back, preparing to dive in.

Come on—open!

Just when it looked like her pursuers would catch her, the access panel flashed green and the chute flipped open. Without hesitation, she dove in. A hand grabbed her foot, but she kicked it away and slid free.

The chute opened into a tiny, windowless pod not much bigger than the cryotank. At the front was a small display screen and what appeared to be piloting controls. The hatch slid shut, sealing her inside, and cushions inflated all around her, effectively encasing her in the pod. There was nothing she could do but take the controls and hope for the best.

With a loud pop that made Reva’s teeth chatter, the pod jettisoned. The illusion of gravity fell away as she left the ship, making the bile in her stomach rise up to her mouth.

Gripping the controls, she choked down her nausea and forced herself to swallow. The pod’s autopilot stabilized the spin, making it marginally better. The words on the display screen were incomprehensible to her, but she recognized the basic layout of a sector map. The large red dot just behind the center probably represented the ship she’d just escaped from.

This is where my luck runs out, she thought to herself, bracing for the inevitable pursuit. With no idea how to fly the tiny pod, it wouldn’t take much effort for her captors to retrieve her.

As she watched, though, the red dot blinked out and disappeared altogether. She frowned and stared at the screen, expecting it to come back at any moment. When it didn’t, she pressed keys until the viewscreen started cycling through the external video feeds. Except for a large gray planet and a yellowish sun, they were all empty. The ship she’d just been on was gone.

For the first time since the door to her holding cell had opened, Reva allowed herself to relax. She’d done it—she’d escaped.

She didn’t know which of the many gods had looked down favorably upon her, but she offered a silent prayer of thanks to her guardian star. With that done, she searched the controls until she found a large red switch, no doubt for the distress signal, and activated it. With no idea how to pilot the escape pod, and no idea where to go even if she could, she would have to wait for someone to pick her up.

All she could do was pray that they’d be better than the ones who had woken her.


A Mission Lost


Isaac triple-checked his jump coordinates and took a deep breath. Colkhia system, fourth planet, about six hours above the gravity well. Everything checked out. He was good to go.

He threw the switch to initiate jump and gripped the flight stick. The bulkheads hummed, softly at first but growing in intensity, and a weird fluttery feeling grew in his stomach. He closed his eyes as spacetime folded in on itself, bending the sidereal laws of physics as the Medea broke that last great barrier to the destiny of mankind: the speed of light.

The humming quieted, his stomach settled, and the ship returned to normal. He opened his eyes and checked the scanners to calculate his position and trajectory. He’d exited jumpspace fairly close to the target coordinates—perhaps a hundred thousand kilometers or so off—but for a jump of more than five hundredths of a light-year, that was pretty good. The station was hailing him, though, so he had to take care of that first, before the triangulation.

“Attention unidentified vessel, this is Colkhia station docking control. State your name and port of origin.”

“Hello, docking control. This is Isaac of the, uh, the Medusa,” said Isaac, catching himself just in time. “This is an Outworld vessel from the Tajjur sector, seeking to make some trades.”

Silence. As the controller on the other end checked their database, Isaac worked quickly to finish his triangulation.

Medusa, we don’t have you on our records. Is this your first time in the system?”

“Affirmative, docking control. Is that a problem?”

“No problem, Medusa. Be informed, though, that per Imperial order, all ships must pass a customs check upon docking.”

Isaac hesitated. The last time he’d been to the Colkhia system, the Gaian Imperials had ransacked his ship and confiscated a girl frozen in cryostasis that he and his brother had rescued from a derelict space station. They’d barely escaped that situation in one piece. Apparently, the Imperials were still keeping a tight lid on things, though not so tight as to notice the modifications he’d made to the Medea. If they identified him as the pilot that had blasted through the Imperial blockade barely four weeks ago, he’d be in serious trouble.

Fortunately, even if they did double-check his records, it was unlikely they’d catch the anomalies in time.

“Strange,” he said, just to play along with them. “I didn’t know this was Imperial space.”

“It is now, Medusa. The Imperials have staked a claim on this sector and are moving swiftly to colonize it. This is no longer part of the Outworlds; it’s a sovereign realm of the Empire.”

“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Isaac. “I hope you don’t look unfavorably on star wanderers like me.”

“That depends on how your customs check goes. As long as your cargo matches your manifest, I don’t anticipate there being any problem. Transmitting flight plans for docking maneuvers now. Welcome to Colkhia, Medusa.

Welcome indeed, Isaac thought silently. The scanners shifted to show the flight path that the controller had transmitted. It would require a low, five-minute engine burn and take him almost six hours to enter into a parking orbit from his ship’s current position, but that was acceptable—perfectly acceptable.

The scanners also showed several ships in orbit a thousand kilometers above the main station. Warships. Among these, the GIS Starfire stood out most prominently. The battleship was more than two kilometers long and boasted more weaponry than most Outworld defense fleets. Three frigates orbited alongside it, smaller in size but no less threatening. The warships were part of the expeditionary force meant to subjugate the New Pleiades, starting with the frontier systems and extending through the whole star cluster. For the future of the Outworlds and the independence of the free stars, that could not be allowed to happen.

Isaac finished the triangulation and set the ship to follow the flight plan’s course. The engines engaged with a low rumble, pushing him gently against the back of his seat as the Medea accelerated.

As it did, he couldn’t help but think about his brother, Aaron. He would have triangulated their position before docking control had hailed them. Aaron always had a knack with astrogation systems, and he wasn’t a bad pilot, either.

Isaac just hoped that he was good enough to survive the coming battle.

While the Medea was still too far for a high-level scan, he switched the nav-computer over to the auxiliary systems and prepared to power up the jump beacon. A highly advanced device with technology that not even the Imperials possessed, it could pull starships out of a wide swath of jumpspace, enabling whole fleets to jump more than a parsec and all arrive accurately at the same coordinates, set by the jump beacon. Even now, the Flotilla was amassing more than a light-year away, preparing to jump in just a few minutes. He set the coordinates for a point just above the Starfire’s orbit and powered up the beacon.

Just as the bulkheads started to hum, something popped near the reactor in the back. The faint smell of smoke wafted in through the cabin, and the humming stopped.

Isaac frowned, a sickening feeling gripping his stomach. ERROR, the nav-computer read, JUMP BEACON UNRESPONSIVE. Sweat began to form on the back of his neck. Without the jump beacon, the Flotilla would scatter haphazardly across the system instead of concentrating on the enemy’s position. It would be a tactical disaster.

With the sublight engines still burning, he undid his restraints and rose from his seat. The acceleration made it feel as if the ship was tilted back at a sharp angle, so he had to negotiate his way via the handholds set into the walls. He made it to the back of the cabin without too much difficulty, though, and retrieved his utility belt from its compartment in the wall.

The maintenance ducts for the reactor and jump beacon were in the corridor leading to the airlock, across from the locker with the EVA suits. With the utility belt fastened around his waist, Isaac attached a clip to the nearest handhold and opened the duct.

The noxious smell of smoke stung his nose the moment the panel opened. He coughed and waved his hand, searching for any sign of an electrical fire. There wasn’t any, but the conduit that connected the jump beacon to the reactor was singed black. Worse, the connectors had warped so badly that they’d broken the casing, indicating damage far beyond Isaac’s capacity to repair.

“Shit,” he swore, his eyes widening in panic. The engine slowly disengaged, returning the artificial gravity on the ship to normal, but he hardly noticed. The jump beacon was down, and without it, there was no chance that the surprise attack on Colkhia would succeed.


* * * * *


Eight hours, Isaac told himself as he broke away from the ad hoc repair attempt to negotiate the Medea’s final approach to Colkhia Station. Eight hours from T=0 before the Flotilla is completely lost.

That was what they’d told him in his briefing: that if, for whatever reason, he failed to get in position before the Flotilla made its first jump, they would attempt a second one exactly eight hours later. Normally, that would have given him plenty of time, except that this was an equipment failure, not a navigational delay. The second jump would bring the disparate ships of the Flotilla so close to Colkhia that the Imperials would certainly detect them, if indeed they hadn’t already. If Isaac couldn’t get the jump beacon up and running, the battle would be over before it even began.

His hands shook from exhaustion, and his eyes were half-shut and bleary. The timer on his wrist console read “1:46.” He’d been working for more than five hours trying to fix whatever was wrong with the beacon. He’d managed to replace the wiring, but the components inside the beacon itself were shot, and he didn’t know what to do about that. His superiors hadn’t shared any of the jump beacon’s technology with him—that was still a closely guarded secret. He’d managed to get the casing open, but without the schematics, all he could do was tinker. And so far, none of that had worked.

Exhausted, he sat down in the pilot’s chair and buried his head in his hands. The empty seat next to him reminded him all too well that his brother was out there, depending on him to come through.

“Attention Medusa,” the voice of docking control came over the loudspeakers—a woman’s voice, older than the previous controller. “Stand by for final docking maneuvers. Upon arrival, your ship will be boarded by Imperial customs officers.”

“Uh, station control, would it be all right if I could park my ship in orbit for a few hours before docking? My sleep schedule is a bit off from the station’s, and I’d like a chance to rest.”

Silence. His request, though not an unusual one, should have been made when he’d initially jumped into the system. Isaac mentally kicked himself for not thinking of that sooner.

“I don’t see any record that you made that request earlier, Medusa. Why are you making it now?”

“I’m sorry. I thought I’d have more time.”

“Please be advised that all incoming ships must pass a customs check before they are allowed to dock. Any breach of this regulation may result in confiscation of cargo and detainment of passengers or crew.”

“I understand,” said Isaac. I understand that Colkhia is under occupation and needs to be liberated.

“Copy that, Medusa,” said the controller. “Stand by for parking coordinates.”

He sighed in relief. “Thanks, station control. Medusa out.”

The parking coordinates came in a moment later, for a position less than five klicks off the station’s orbit. He plugged them into the nav-computer and set the autopilot to handle the course shift, dropping back into the cabin to continue work on the broken jump beacon.

It wasn’t just the Flotilla depending on him; it was Aaron, too. When they had both just been star wanderers plying the Outworld trade routes together, Isaac had tried to keep them as far from the conflict as possible. His brother was the only shred of family he had left, and the thought of losing him was something he feared more than death. Now, would Aaron die because of his own failure? No—under no circumstances could that be allowed to happen.

His hands shook from exhaustion and his eyes began to droop, but he forced them to stay open and concentrate. For a brief second, though, his thoughts wandered to Aaron, and the next thing he knew, his eyes were shut and the spanner had fallen from his hands. Slapping his face to wake himself up, he stepped back into the cabin to fix a cup of coffee. A quick glance at his wrist console showed that the timer read “1:39.” He was running out of time.

Where are you, Aaron? Isaac wondered as he sat down wearily at the lounge table beside the synthesizer. What are you doing right now? Was his brother just as worried as he was? Or did Aaron trust him to come through?

Isaac sighed and leaned heavily on the table. He couldn’t let his brother down—they’d been through too much together for it all to end like this. He’d fix that beacon, get it up and running, summon the Flotilla for the surprise attack, and beat the Imperials back. In just a day or two, he and Aaron would be laughing together, swapping stories about their exploits, and all of this would seem like a dream. A bad dream.

His head nodded, and his eyes slipped closed. Somewhere off in the distance, the food synthesizer chimed, indicating that his coffee was ready, but he barely heard it. The smell filled the small cabin, and he imagined he was back with his brother, drinking coffee as they swapped stories about the war.


* * * * *


Isaac woke with a start. His neck and back were sore, and his arm was red and covered in drool where his face had leaned against it. In panic, he checked his wrist console.

“0:00.”

His cheeks blanched, and the sweat in the back of his neck ran cold. The timer! How long had he been asleep? Rising unsteadily to his feet, he walked on stiff legs to the cockpit and sat down in the pilot’s chair.

Forty-seven minutes. That was how much time had passed since the second jump attempt. He’d slept at the table for over two hours, and now the attack was sure to fail. The Medea’s long-range scanners were already starting to pick up the signatures of numerous ships exiting jumpspace, too scattered to launch an effective attack. Without the jump beacon, the Flotilla would pepper the system so haphazardly that the Imperial warships would have no trouble picking them off. It was over. He had failed.

Panic gave way to shock and a deep and utter sense of dread. For several minutes, Isaac stared at the screens, unable to bring himself to do anything.

The Imperial warships were orbiting just above him, but they’d already broken formation. No doubt they were spreading out to position themselves for the attack, which they knew by now was coming. The battleship just sat there, though, unmoved from its orbit. In some strange way, it seemed to be waiting for something.

As Isaac watched, the battleship flashed and disappeared from the scanners. Realization hit him with all the fierce intensity of a solar flare: The Starfire had jumped out to launch a counterattack. With the Flotilla scattered, the Imperials could pick their targets at leisure and crush them one by one. Not even the Aegis could stand alone against a warship the likes of the GIS Starfire—the Outworld ships were no match for Imperial firepower.

The departure of the Starfire snapped Isaac out of his shock. His mission had ended in failure—now, all he could do was abort and regroup. Broken or not, the jump beacon was a valuable piece of top secret technology that could not be allowed to fall into enemy hands. He had to do all that he could to ensure that the Imperials didn’t catch him.

And as for Aaron …

His hands still trembling slightly, Isaac checked the energy reserves on the jump drives. They were charged only at sixty percent, the reactor powering at a reduced rate to keep from arousing suspicion at the station. Still, it was enough to put some distance between himself and the system. He set the target coordinates for a point a hundred light-hours toward the center of the New Pleiades and put his fingers on the jump switch.

At that moment, something curious on the scanners caught his eye. It was a distress beacon, transmitting from an escape pod where the Starfire had just been. Isaac frowned. Why would the battleship jettison a pod just before going into combat? It didn’t make sense—unless the person inside was an escapee of some kind. And if they were an escapee, they were probably friends of the Resistance.

Isaac checked the pod’s trajectory. Its altitude was falling, but its heading was very close to his own. None of the frigates was in any position to intercept, and to his knowledge, the station had no ships ready to dispatch in order to retrieve the pod. If he fired up the sublight engines, he could be there in a mere twenty minutes, long before anyone else could.

He put his hand on the throttle and hesitated. Was this really a good idea? His mission had failed—his only objective now was to get back to friendly space. He had to keep the jump beacon from falling into Imperial hands, at all costs. Diverting from that objective to pick up a stray escape pod was dangerous.

Then again, what if someone important was in that pod? What if this was his chance to redeem himself? He didn’t care about demotions or reprimands, but he hated to let anyone down. Perhaps this was his chance to turn things around so that his mission wasn’t a complete loss.

Besides, it was what his brother would do.

With a deep breath, he threw the throttle forward and pulled up on the flight stick. The Medea came to life almost instantly, the roar of the engines sounding through the bulkheads as the station and other spaceships began to fall away. The comms screen lit up with an incoming transmission only a few seconds later. It was docking control.

Medusa, what are you doing? Cut your engines and maintain position at once.”

Isaac nosed the Medea into its proper course and blasted away, the sudden acceleration pushing him back against his seat.

Medusa, do you copy? Cease and desist, or—”

“I’m sorry, docking control, but I can’t do that.”

“What the hell are you talking about? Medusa, if you do not reverse course and maintain a holding pattern about the station, we will be forced to—”

Isaac shut the channel off. The controllers were all tedious conversationalists anyways. He checked the reserves on his jump drive. Still enough to get him out. The escape pod would alter the ship’s mass, but not by enough to throw them too far off course.

He checked the scanners and swore. A cloud of tiny red points was swarming out of the nearest frigate. Those would be fighter drones, deploying to intercept him. The Imperials might not be able to retrieve the pod before he did, but they could still launch an attack. This was going to take some fancy flying.

The moment the engine burn was complete, he opened the cargo bay doors and activated the unloading arm. The Imperial drones would get to him before he could dock with the escape pod, but he could still nab it as if it were a piece of space debris. As long as the pod was attached to the unloading arm when the jump drive engaged, the two of them would jump out together. But getting into a parallel orbit so that he could safely grab onto it would be tricky.

Or would it? The nav-computers on escape pods were generally easy to override. As long as the person inside didn’t try to block him, he could issue commands to the pod as if he were piloting it remotely. If he could get his nav-computer could connect, bringing the two ships alongside each other should be no problem at all.

Isaac transmitted the override request and set about fine-tuning his trajectory. The nav-computer raced through the calculations, asking for dozens of variables that had to be supplied manually. He could barely keep up with them all and still manage to pilot the ship. If only his brother were there, things would be a lot easier.

ERROR, the comm display flashed. OVERRIDE DENIED.

He frowned and sent in another request. Decelerating to match the pod’s current trajectory would steal three—no, four and a half precious minutes. Out of the corner of his eye, he checked the drones. They were closing in on him fast—much too fast to attempt the maneuver on his own. Working quickly, he sent another override request and immediately went back to the calculations. They were almost finished—

ERROR. OVERRIDE DENIED.

“Come on,” he muttered, sending in a third request. “Do you want me to save you or not?”

The calculations were more or less complete, though the variables kept changing so much that Isaac had to work furiously to keep up. If the pod didn’t allow him access soon, he’d have to abandon the attempt and—

OVERRIDE GRANTED.

“Yes!” he said, pumping his fist. He fixed on a flight plan and transmitted the plans. On the scanners, the escape pod altered its trajectory to converge with the Medea’s.

It wasn’t over yet, though—not by a long shot. The controls for the unloading arm were separate from the flight controls. Without his brother to help out, Isaac would have to set the ship to autopilot and control the arm from Aaron’s chair. After checking the scanners to get an ETA on the drones, he set the jump drive to a timer and switched chairs.

The scanners zoomed in to show the converging trajectories. He toggled the main screen to show the video feed from the end of the unloading arm. A wall of blackness met his view, with only a few distant specks for stars.

He eyed the screen nervously. Where was that pod? Shouldn’t it be in view by now? The sweat from his palms greased the control stick, making it slippery.

“Come on, come on,” he muttered, tapping his foot nervously against the floor.

Just when he started to wonder if he’d made a mistake with the calculations, he saw it—a tiny point of light, moving quickly against the backdrop of space and growing larger. At first, it looked like it was coming in for a collision course, but then it slowed and pulled up right alongside the Medea. It was a bit smaller than he was expecting, but flat enough that the claw on the unloading arm should be able to grasp it. If he could just—

A horrible grating noise sounded through the bulkheads, and the whole ship shook. He glanced down at the scanners and paled. The drones had caught up to him. An explosion rocked the ship, setting off a cascade of alarms, while lasers and plasma bursts flashed outside the window. The Medea was no match for them. If he didn’t—

“Hang on!” he shouted, as if the person in the escape pod could hear him. With the alarms blaring in his ears, he brought the arm forward and locked onto the pod with the claw.

“Gotcha!”

Before the drones could come back for another pass, he leaped from his seat and threw the switch to initiate jump. The bulkheads began to hum, even as another explosion threw him from his chair. The humming grew in pitch, and his stomach turned inside out, sending a wave of nausea through him. Before he could get up, the sensation passed. He was through.

“Stars of Earth,” he swore, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. He stood up and checked the alarms. One of the sublight engines was down and the inside of the cargo bay was shot to pieces, but his vital systems were all still functional. Of course, it would take a spacewalk to survey the full extent of the damage, but that wasn’t urgent.

Retrieving the escape pod, though—that certainly was.


A Runaway Found


Reva gasped and tried very hard to stop her hands from shaking. The horrible gut-wrenching feeling passed, though a warm pool of wetness against the cushions marked where she’d peed a little. With the cushioning pressed up all against her, it was hard not to feel panicky or claustrophobic in the tiny escape pod. More than anything else, she wanted to get out.

The tiny screen in front of her showed the ship that had captured her. It was a small cargo ship from the looks of it, a bit beat-up but otherwise in decent shape. A glance at the scanners showed that they were no longer in the same system as before. Planet, sun, station, starships—everything that had been there just a moment ago was gone.

Reva stared at the starship and took a deep breath. Who exactly had captured her, and what had he been running from? If indeed it was just a he—she doubted that more than one person could live in a ship like that. And in order to jump past the speed of light, it would have to be a starship, just like the ones that had brought her great great grandparents across the starry sea to Anuva.

The engines engaged, pushing her back gently against the cushions that encased her. Whoever was in that ship, they’d taken control of her escape pod, overriding her own piloting controls. It was just as well, though. She doubted she could fly the pod on her own, and she was almost certainly running out of air. Better to surrender control and let her unknown rescuer guide her in.

Though once she was on board, surrendering was the last thing she’d do.


* * * * *


Isaac rose wearily from his chair in the cockpit and stepped into the Medea’s tiny cabin. Even with his accidental nap back at Colkhia, he was still exhausted enough to collapse. There was no time to rest, though. The escape pod had just been retracted into his ship, and its passenger was no doubt anxious to get on board.

The chutes for the Medea’s escape pods were in the back near the docking airlock. Isaac had gotten rid of them long ago to boost the ship’s mass allotment—besides, it wasn’t like they would have done any good in deep space. The wall panels slid open to reveal the chutes, one on each side of the narrow corridor. Isaac opened the one on the right, just behind the locker for the EVA suits. Isaac switched on the lighting strips that ran along the sides of the chute and leaned in. He couldn’t see much in the darkness, but he could tell that the hatch was open. A rustling noise confirmed that someone was trying to get out. The chutes were designed for rapid deployment, so climbing up them backwards would prove difficult without help.

“Here,” he said, reaching his hand down. “Stick your foot into the chute, and I’ll haul you out.”

The escapee didn’t respond, but the rustling got louder. It was followed by a low moan, as if someone were trapped and straining hard to break free. Isaac stretched out his hand, but the person was just out of reach.

“Hello, can you hear me? Stick out your leg, and I’ll—”

A hand grabbed his wrist. Somehow, the escapee had managed to turn around in the narrow space. With his free hand, Isaac grabbed one of the hand holds and hauled the person out.

“There you go. Easy does it. Easy—”

His voice trailed off as the escapee climbed out of the chute and into the full light. She was a young woman about his age, with dark olive skin and not a stitch of clothing on her body. She was covered with dark brown henna tattoos which did nothing to cover her nakedness. He blinked and swallowed nervously.

“Uh, hello there. Who are you, and, uh, what are you …”

She stood up straight and faced him, making no effort whatsoever to cover herself. Hot blood rushed to Isaac’s cheeks. Not only was she naked, she was gorgeous.

Realization finally struck him, making his jaw drop. Her face, her hair, the tattoos—this was the girl he and his brother had picked up in the Nova Alnilam system, the one the Imperials had confiscated at Colkhia. They must have thawed her, though how she’d managed to escape from them he didn’t know.

“You—you’re—I know you!” he stammered, words failing him. She frowned and crossed her arms beneath her breasts, saying nothing.

She doesn’t speak Gaian, Isaac thought to himself. He remembered a message he had found at Alnilam Station, written to anyone who happened to find it. Even with the autotranslators, it had been virtually incomprehensible. Nova Alnilam was too far away, and the people had been isolated from the rest of civilization for too long.

“Sorry,” he said, switching to his own native Deltan. “Can you understand me now?” When it was apparent that she couldn’t, he switched to Orianan creole, then to the mix of dialects spoken in the New Pleiades. Each time, she only stared at him, clearly uncomprehending.

Without acknowledging anything he said to her, she stepped past him into the cabin. He followed close behind her, though not too close—she was naked, after all. Perhaps he should do something about that.

“Here,” he said, pulling out one of his brother’s jumpsuits from a wall compartment. “You probably need something to wear, since, ah …”

The look of contempt on her face as he held out the clothes to her was positively venomous. He shrank back, unsure how to respond.

“No, then? Okay, ah, let’s find something else.”

He stuffed the clothes back in the locker and followed her to the lounge table, set inside a cozy niche opposite the bunks. She examined it casually, as if he weren’t there, and when he cleared his throat, she glanced over his shoulder and scowled at him.

I’ll bet she’s hungry, he realized. Or thirsty, at least. He pulled out a tall glass and filled it with water.

“Here, would you like some?”

When she didn’t take the glass immediately, he set it on the table and went about fixing a bowl of synthmeal. He added in just the right blend of spices, along with some partially reconstituted fruits and vegetables to give it flavor and body. It took him about three minutes to fix the bowl, but when it was done he pulled it out and walked over to the table.

“Here you are, I—”

To his surprise, he found her sitting cross-legged on the floor with her back to the wall. Her eyes were closed and her arms were folded neatly in her lap. It looked almost as if she were asleep.

“Hello? Would you like any food? I fixed this for you, if you’d like to …”

His voice trailed off again as he realized that the girl wasn’t listening. In fact, she had gone as still as a statue. He considered reaching out and lightly tapping her on the shoulder, but figured it wasn’t a good idea to disturb her. With a sigh, he placed the bowl on the table next to the untouched glass of water.

This is the girl that Aaron was so eager to rescue, he couldn’t help but think to himself. To have her on the ship, no longer frozen in cryo but living and breathing just like him? If only Aaron could see it.

But the girl herself seemed less than enthused. In fact, she’d been downright cold since he’d brought her onto the Medea. Was it something he’d said or done that had garnered such an ill-favored reaction? Or had the Imperials mistreated her, and she thought that he was just another one of them? The thought made him shudder—it was his fault that the Imperials had taken her in the first place, his fault that she had fallen into their hands.

But then again, Aaron was probably dead by now, and that was his fault, too.

The heavy weight of guilt made him all too aware of his growing exhaustion. With the Medea safely away from the Colkhia system, it was time for a long overdue sleepshift. As awkward as things were with a naked girl on his ship, he would have to leave off dealing with her until he had a chance to rest.

Still, there were some precautions that had to be taken. Just because the girl didn’t speak his language didn’t mean that she wouldn’t do something stupid like try to fly the ship. He went to the cockpit and locked the piloting controls so that only he could access them. Better to be safe than sorry, after all. Or dead.

As he stepped back into the cabin, he took one last look at the henna girl. She seemed completely unaware of the fact that she was naked—that, or utterly unconcerned. He realized that he was staring and turned quickly away, his cheeks burning and his legs a little weak.

We’ll sort it all out next dayshift, he told himself as he climbed into the bottom bunk. For now, sleep.


* * * * *


Reva took a deep breath and opened her eyes. Her newfound captor/rescuer had fallen asleep on his bunk, and was now snoring soundly. She waited a few minutes before getting up, though—the last thing she wanted was to wake him up and have to deal with him again.

From the way he’d stared at her, she could tell he was just as perverted as the people she’d escaped from. Why was it such a strange thing to them that she didn’t keep herself covered all the time? She shuddered as she remembered the man in white pinching her breast and running his hands in places that they never should have gone. Was that all these people could think of when they saw a woman who didn’t cover her body like them?

Still, she had to admit that he’d treated fairly well so far. Retrieving the escape pod, offering her food and water, and leaving her free to do as she pleased was a lot more than she’d expected. But the second-skin he wore to cover his body was like a mask of irrational shame. She would never understand why these people felt the need to cover themselves all the time. Not only was it indecent, it was downright ugly.

She rose to her feet and stretched—quietly, of course. With her captor/rescuer asleep, she was free to wander about his starship. It seemed surprisingly small, but maybe that was just because she hadn’t seen the whole thing yet.

It wasn’t. Besides the cabin, which served as the eating, sleeping, and living quarters all rolled into one, there was just the bathroom, a short corridor leading to the airlock, and the cockpit. She walked from one end of the ship and back again in less than twenty steps.

Still, it felt more cozy than cramped. The little niche with the table for the eating area was quite comfortable, with a couch that wrapped in a smooth semi-circle around it. A chair unfolded from the wall next to the bunks, with some sort of helmet-like computer device stowed above it. The food synthesizer, the washer unit, and the storage compartments were all built into the bulkheads to conserve space. Even the bunks were set into the wall, with curtains to offer some privacy.

As cozy as the starship was, though, it was clearly built for two people. That surprised Reva more than anything else, because clearly she was the only other person on board. And yet, the evidence was undeniable. Two bunk beds, two chairs in the cockpit, even two escape pods. And yet the young man clearly flew the ship alone.

She tried to access the controls in the cockpit, only to find that they were locked. That frustrated her, not so much because she wanted to pilot the ship as that she wanted to check the nav-computer to see where they were. Then again, even if she could access the controls, they were all so foreign to her that she would probably screw things up somehow. Perhaps it was for the best that they were locked.

That didn’t mean that Reva had to like it, though. Ever since waking from cryo, the thing that she hated the most was her complete lack of control. She had no idea where she was, how long she’d been frozen, who had woken her, or where she was going. Even if she found out, though, there was nothing she could do to change any of it. She was surrounded by strangers who had almost complete power over her, and she couldn’t so much as talk with them.

She returned to the cabin and glanced at the bowl of food and the glass of water that her captor/rescuer had left for her. A part of her wanted to refuse to eat it, just to show that he didn’t own her. But the rational part of her knew that she didn’t have much of a choice. She would have to eat and drink eventually—putting it off would only make it that much clearer that she couldn’t live without him.

Still, that didn’t mean she had to rely on him completely. She walked over to the food synthesizer and examined it carefully. The writing was all in a foreign language, but the design was pretty similar to the ones back home. If she fiddled with it long enough, she should be able to come up with something.

The food reminded her of the famine back home at Anuva Station. The synthesizers had still worked, but without hydroponics to supplement their food supply they might as well have been eating sand. She remembered the bland, unmixed synthmeal all too well, filling the emptiness in her stomach but never really nourishing her.

What had happened to everyone back home? Had they managed to find a supplementary nutrition source to save them? Probably not. If they had, she wouldn’t be here in this strange place. She tried not to think about that and focused her attention on the task at hand.

It took her about fifteen minutes to figure out the basic controls. The machine hummed as it worked, making her glance nervously over her shoulder, but her captor/rescuer was sleeping so soundly that it didn’t wake him. A thick paste spilled out into the bowl that she’d placed under the dispenser, and with a beep, the machine finished.

Reva took a spoonful of the concoction and winced. It tasted like bananas and cilantro, with some sort of foreign spice that overpowered the whole thing. Her eyes watered, but she forced it down, resolving to figure out how to fine-tune the taste settings as soon as possible.

After four spoonfuls, she couldn’t take anymore. She dumped the half-eaten food into what looked like the recycler unit and set the bowl on the table. At least he’ll know that I can fix my own food, she thought to herself, leaving his bowl untouched.

A sudden urge to use the bathroom gripped her bowels like a vice. It was that fluid pack—it was passing right through her. With her hands jammed between her legs, she ran to the bathroom as quickly as she could.

The bathroom equipment was just as confusing as everything else on the ship. Instead of a simple porcelain hole and a little platform to squat on, the toilet was a seat with half a dozen tubes and hoses surrounding it. She didn’t have any idea how to use it, but she did recognize the hole where everything was supposed to end up. By perching herself carefully on the seat with her hands on either wall for support, she managed to squat just enough to pull it off. Aiming was difficult, but thankfully, she managed not to make a mess.

As she washed up, she took a good, hard look in the mirror. The henna tattoos were still as dark and vibrant as the day they’d been painted, but bags had formed under her eyes, and she looked exhausted. She realized then that she was exhausted. Barely half a dayshift had passed since she’d woken from cryo, but it felt like so much more.

“What am I doing in this place?” she asked aloud. The sound of her voice surprised her, as if her own reflection had spoken. In some ways, perhaps it had. She had no home anymore—no family, no friends, nowhere to go back to. She was utterly and completely lost.

What was the point in going on? What did she have left to live for? The question made her hands shake, so she put it out of her mind and stepped back into the cabin. No sense thinking too deeply about those sorts of things now.

Sleep. She needed sleep. Thank the stars there were two bunks on the ship. The young man was in the bottom bunk, but she managed to slip into the top one without disturbing him. The bed was even made for her, with a blanket and foam pillow.

Her eyes drooped shut almost the moment she was horizontal, and sleep soon followed. But as she drifted out of consciousness, the question still haunted her.

What do you have left to live for?


Strangers Unmasked


Isaac stretched and yawned, waking from a dreamless sleep. He climbed out of his bunk and blinked at the brightness of the lights. So the henna girl hadn’t turned them off—but how could she, when she didn’t know how? He glanced around the cabin looking for her, and almost panicked when he didn’t see her anywhere. But then he thought to check Aaron’s bunk. Sure enough, she was sound asleep.

“Rough dayshift, huh?” he muttered, smiling to himself. He thought about waking her, but decided that it was probably best not to disturb her. Instead, he went to get dressed.

As he walked across the cabin, he noticed the empty bowl on the table, next to the untouched synthmeal he’d set out for her. It had an odd smell to it, almost like dried bananas. Was that what they ate at Nova Alnilam? It would take her a while to get used to Deltan cooking, then.

He opened the universal washer unit to toss his dirty clothes in and was struck almost immediately by the stench. “What the?” he said, pulling out yesterday’s clothes. They were covered in uneaten food, dumped there by the girl. Evidently, she’d thought it was a recycler unit for garbage.

So your dish was actually a failed culinary experiment? he thought, chuckling a little. He would have to show her the right place to dump garbage, though, before all his clothes were ruined.

After starting up the universal washer unit, he fixed himself a breakfast shake from the synthesizer and stepped into the cockpit. Everything was exactly as he’d left it—no messes to clean up here. Then again, with all the controls locked, she hadn’t had much of an opportunity to make one.

After unlocking the nav-computer, he took a good, hard look at the starmap to figure out where they should go next. The stars in the New Pleiades were all about three or four days away from each other—none further than a standard month’s voyage for a starship the size of the Medea. That was good, since he was running low on fuel and supplies. Even so, he couldn’t go just anywhere. If the Imperials still occupied Colkhia—and it was almost certain that they did—there was nothing stopping them from striking straight at the heart of the New Pleiades.

He had to take an alternate route, then, one that the Imperials wouldn’t follow. That meant skirting the minor systems through one of the outlying rifts in the dust clouds surrounding the star cluster. He studied the starmap until he found a route through the Shiloh Rift that seemed suitable. It would involve passing through a region infested with pirates, but that was a risk he had to take.

It only took Isaac about twenty minutes to plot a course. They would head for the Shiloh system first, a three-day journey that took them a little out of the way but put them in a corridor that led to the far side of the New Pleiades. From there, they would push ahead to Ithaca, a relatively minor system on the other end of the rift. Ithaca was completely unremarkable, except that it was part of the jump beacon network that ran through the core of the New Pleiades. Those beacons enabled rapid travel throughout the star cluster, effectively connecting the entire star cluster through a rapid transit network. If that network was still intact, it would be easy to contact the Resistance from there. And if the network wasn’t intact and the Imperials had pushed on to the heart of the New Pleiades … Isaac didn’t want to think about that.

After plotting the course, he checked the jump drive. It was charged to about seventy-five percent—good enough for a jump in open space, but still unsafe with all the local dust clouds and nebulae remnants in the sector. The last thing they needed was to jump into the heart of a dust cloud so dense that it compromised the Medea’s hull integrity. His brother might have risked it, but Isaac was more cautious. Besides, they would be able to jump much further on a fully charged drive. Paradoxically, waiting in the short-term would allow them to move faster in the long-term.

He sighed and leaned back in his chair. With their next jump set and their course plotted, he could turn his mind to other things, like the henna girl.

It was a strange twist of fate that had brought her back on board the Medea. He vividly remembered finding her at Alnilam Station, frozen in cryo. The station itself was dead, the dried and desiccated corpses of its former inhabitants littering the hallways and corridors. Aaron was the one who had found her, and at his insistence they’d brought her on board, frozen in a makeshift cryotank. They’d gone from star to star, looking for someone who could thaw her, but at the Imperials had confiscated her at Colkhia. Aaron had sworn to get her back, but secretly, Isaac didn’t believe it would ever happen. Now, here she was, awake and very much alive.

Why was she being so uncooperative, though? From the way she’d glared at him, it seemed as if she saw him as an enemy—or at least as someone who couldn’t be trusted. And why did she refuse to wear any clothing? Perhaps those tattoos had something to do with it. He doubted the Imperials would have kept her naked as their prisoner, though he could be wrong.

The Imperials probably abused her, Isaac realized. She probably thinks I’m one of them.

It was clear that he would have to work to earn her trust. But how to do that when she wouldn’t even touch the food he left out for her? He would have to do it soon, though, before they arrived at Shiloh. She wouldn’t get very far if she didn’t speak the language, and it didn’t seem right to just leave her there.

He shook his head and finished off the last of his breakfast shake. There were so many things to consider, he hardly knew where to start. The best place would probably be the Gaian Imperial Catalog, one of the most comprehensive surveys of explored space. He brought it up on the cockpit’s main display.

NOVA ALNILAM, the entry for the girl’s home system read. Class F dwarf, 1.23 standard solar masses, 5 planets, number of moons unknown. Charted settlements: Alnilam Station. Date of first settlement: unknown. Population: unknown.

The rest of the brief entry detailed the chemical composition and heavy metal content of the system, as detected from long-range telescopes and other instruments. It was clear that the authors of the catalog had never actually been to the system, but relied mostly on second- and third-hand sources for what they couldn’t gather from astronomical observations at Gaia Nova. Isaac scoured the footnotes for any other information on the people who had settled there, but found only a couple of references to obscure sources that weren’t at his disposal.

I wonder if the Starfarer Index has anything on Nova Alnilam that I missed, Isaac thought to himself. The Starfarer Index was a peer-to-peer database that anyone could edit. Every Outworld settlement kept a master copy, which was updated whenever a starfarer came through. Unlike the Gaian Imperial Catalog, it was extremely disorganized and difficult to follow, with updates often contradictory or written in different languages. Most settlements had algorithms to parse the different versions, but there was no unified system for dealing with changes. The Medea’s copy of the index was a mess. Isaac had long ago given up trying to keep it organized, and had since let the ship’s computer handle the updates automatically.

Even so, when he brought up the Index entry for Nova Alnilam, it was just as sparse as the entry in the Imperial Catalog. A couple of people had left brief notes in the sub-sections for the inner planets—each no longer than a line or two—and Alnilam Station had been renamed Anuva Station, with its population listed as fifteen hundred. At the bottom of the page was a note that Isaac had made himself, that the station was derelict and uninhabited.

Frustrated, he opened the discussion tab, just to see if anyone had deleted anything from a previous iteration. To his surprise, he found a long rant in a barely translatable language, referencing a section that no longer showed up on the main page. Even with the Medea’s autotranslator, he couldn’t make it out. It had something to do with outer darkness and God’s judgment against the heathen blasphemers, but beyond that, he had no idea what the person was trying to say.

This is why the Starfarer Index is such a pain, Isaac thought as he searched for the section that had been deleted. Since anyone could edit the database, it was common for people to throw in all sorts of racist or planetist crap. Without any sort of faster-than-light communication to enable real-time curation, those illegitimate changes could live on for decades, trickling down from one remote database to another. Unfortunately, the Medea was set to delete any version of the Index that was older than twenty standard years, and it looked like this dispute was much older than that.

He did find something interesting in the sources for the oldest version, however. Someone had uploaded an entire section of their ship’s log, only to delete it in the next iteration. From what he could tell, someone with the log’s access codes had wiped it from all the later versions—probably a star wanderer who had inherited the ship, since only people with the access codes could delete source material like that.

I don’t remember reading this before, Isaac thought. The computer must have picked it up sometime after we left Nova Alnilam. He checked the reference on the Nova Alnilam page and opened the log to the relevant entry.

The log was written in one of the Pleiadian languages, but the autotranslator had no trouble compensating for that. In Gaian, it read:

Year 3.6.12: arrival at Nova Alnilam. The main settlement is a young colony in orbit around the fifth planet, a moonless gas giant rich in methane ice. The people seemed surprised to see me—from what I can tell, they are fairly reclusive and have very poor relations with the neighboring systems. Still, they received me without too much difficulty.

The culture in this system is extremely peculiar. The people here do not wear any manner of clothing—in fact, they consider the wearing of clothes to be indecent. Their religion teaches that their bodies are sacred, and that to cover them out of shame is obscene. This led to some awkwardness and tension upon my arrival at the station. However, when I undressed to comply with the local customs, they took to me almost immediately.

Isaac frowned and reread the last paragraph just to make sure he understood it correctly. Had the starfarer actually gone naked the whole time he was at Alnilam Station? He read on.

Although they do not wear any sort of clothing, they do paint their bodies with a type of dark brown pigment, making some extremely intricate designs. These temporary tattoos are regarded as status symbols and expressions of fashion and taste. However, the pigment is quite expensive, so full-body tattoos are rare and prized quite highly.

So that’s why they tattooed her, Isaac thought. It made sense that the people who had put the girl in cryo would have given her their best for her journey into the unknown future. And if that was true, the last thing she’d want to do was cover it.

He skimmed the rest of the log entry. There were a few other minor details about the culture, but nothing earth-shattering. The last part dealt mostly with the trade details, a list of the commodities in high demand and a much shorter list of the goods and commodities that the system produced. It ended with one last afterthought:

At first, I found it strange that the people here do not consider public nudity indecent in any way. However, after spending some time among them, I admit that my own views on that issue have changed. I have found these people to be kind and generous, a bit wary of outsiders but liberal in their affections to those they consider their own. I am tempted to extend my stay in this place, perhaps indefinitely. Still, there are other stars calling to me, stars not nearly as remote and isolated as this one. I would be pleased if my wanderings take me back to this system, but I do not anticipate returning in the near future.

So the girl was naked because she had no nudity taboo. Quite the opposite, in fact. Among her people, clothes were considered obscene. That explained her refusal to wear any, but what to do about it—that was the question.

If clothing made her wary of him, then one option was to take it off the way the star wanderer in the log had done. The thought of being naked and alone with a girl who was also naked made Isaac more than a little uneasy. She might not have a problem with it, but where he was from, that definitely crossed the line. Perhaps if they weren’t total strangers—no, even then, it was just too weird.

Aaron wouldn’t have a problem with it, he thought, wondering what his brother would do in this situation. In fact, he’d be all too happy to get naked with her. At least Isaac didn’t have to deal with that.

It wasn’t that Aaron was a pig around women … Well, maybe he was sometimes, but it wasn’t like that was the only thing on his mind. More than once, though, he’d wanted to visit a stationside brothel while they were in port. There were lots of brothels on the Outworld frontier, catering to the many starfarers who came through. Isaac’s answer had always been no, but until the war, Aaron’s requests had been getting more and more insistent.

“Come on,” he’d said at Nova Minitak. “I don’t see what the big deal is. It’s not like we’re kids—we’re both men now.”

“We’re not going to do it,” Isaac had said firmly.

“Why not?”

“Because Mother would never approve. Just think how horrified she’d be to hear you even suggest it.”

“But we’re star wanderers now,” Aaron said, the whine in his voice growing stronger. “We’ve left our homes behind, forever. Why should we live by the same rules we grew up with?”

“We’re not going to do it, and that’s final. If you want a girl, you’re going to have to court her properly—at least so long as we share the same starship.”

As the oldest son, Isaac had always been taught to set an example for his younger brother. He’d also been taught to wait until marriage before getting too intimate with a girl. His goal as a star wanderer had always been to settle down and start a family. After all, his mother had always taught him that a strong family shone brighter than all the stars.

That was why the henna girl made him so nervous. He’d never seen a girl naked before—not one over the age of five, anyways. The most he’d ever seen was maybe a nipple while one of his cousins was breastfeeding. Still, he had to get the girl to trust him. If wearing clothes was taboo in her culture, then forcing her to put some on was not going to win her trust.

I’ll just have to go along with it, he told himself. Act like everything’s normal, not make a big deal out of it. If he treated her as he would if she were clothed, it would go a long way toward getting her to open up. He would have to work hard to keep his eyes from wandering, but that was something he could do.

The sound of the henna girl rustling in the cabin brought him back to the present. She was up, and from the sound of it, she was looking for something to eat. He took a deep breath and rose to his feet.

It’s no big deal, he told himself again. Just pretend like everything’s normal.

Even if it was for her, it definitely was not for him.


* * * * *


When Reva woke up, she could no longer hear the snoring of the young man in the bunk below her. Careful not to alert him that she was awake, she turned her head and surveyed the cabin. He wasn’t anywhere in sight, so she slipped out of her bunk and took a look around.

He was in the cockpit; she could see the top of his curly-haired head over the back of one of the chairs. He didn’t seem to notice her, so she stepped lightly to the food synthesizer. Her stomach was growling something awful, and if she didn’t eat soon, it was bound to get a lot worse.

As she fiddled with the synthesizer, the sound of footsteps behind her snapped her to attention. She turned and almost collided with him. He took a step back, clearly thrown off a bit, but smiled at her kindly and asked her a question.

Reva stared at him, unsure what to do. Evidently, neither did he. Her hands tensed, and she folded her arms just to keep them from quivering. Ignoring her fear, she put on the toughest scowl she could manage.

“I don’t need your help,” she snapped at him, not caring that he couldn’t understand her. “I can take care of myself just fine, thank you very much.”

He nodded at her and pointed to the food synthesizer, then rubbed his stomach to ask if she was hungry. She gave him no answer, since that would only encourage him. He gestured again, asking her verbally this time, and still she only stared at him. Then he pointed from her to himself before gesturing again to the synthesizer.

He’s asking for permission to use it, Reva realized with a start. It’s his ship, and he’s asking me for permission.

She shrugged and let out an exasperated sigh, which was all the permission he needed to go ahead. His fingers danced across the keypad, and soon the machine was humming with activity.

As he worked, Reva got her first good look at him. He was tall—almost a full head taller than her—with broad shoulders and a narrow waist. His skin was pale, though his hair was almost as black as hers. His chin was smooth, with only the barest hint of scruff, and his eyes were brown and surprisingly gentle.

Maybe I misjudged him, Reva thought to herself. He doesn’t seem like the others. Still, she refused to let her guard down, remembering all too well how the man in white had groped her.

The machine finished, and the young man withdrew not one but two glasses with some sort of thick, white substance inside. He handed one to her, but she motioned for the one he’d kept for himself. Even after he gave it to her, she waited for him to take the first sip before raising the glass to her mouth.

Whatever the drink was, it was absolutely delicious. It was spicy enough to bite, but so sweet and flavorful that she couldn’t stop drinking it. The thick, syrupy drink slid down her throat like liquid heaven, and before she realized it, her glass was empty.

The young man chuckled and took her glass to refill it. Reva blushed at her enthusiasm, but if he held it over her, he certainly didn’t show it. It wounded her pride to take his food so eagerly, but her pride was no match for her stomach. For all its deliciousness, the drink was surprisingly satisfying.

When he handed the glass back to her, he also motioned for her to sit down at the table. She followed him warily, waiting for him to sit down first so that she didn’t have to turn her back to him. When she did sit down, she made sure to sit across from him.

“I-Zack,” he said, pointing to himself. “I-Zack Del-Tana”

That must be his name, she realized. She set her cup down on the glassy tabletop and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.

“I-Zack?” she asked, pointing at him.

He smiled and nodded. She noticed that his eyes were fixed on hers—no involuntary wandering to her breasts, or any other part of her body for that matter. He seemed a bit over-earnest about it, but she had to admit it was a lot less creepy than the looks she’d gotten from the other men. Where they had groped her with their eyes, he actually seemed to see her as a real person.

“Reva,” she said, pointing to herself. “Reva Starchild?”

“Ray-va?”

“Reva,” she repeated, then pointed at him. “I-Zack?”

“Isaac,” he corrected her.

“Isaac. Isaac Del-Tana.”

She pointed away, waving her hand to indicate a general area. “Where am I?” she asked.

Her question stumped him for a second, but soon his eyes lit up with understanding. “Medea,” he said, waving his hand the same way she had. “Medea.”

Is that the word for “starship”? Reva wondered. Or is that the name of the one that we’re on? Since they’d just exchanged names with each other, she guessed that it was the latter.

It was so frustrating to have to rely on hand gestures to communicate. There was so much she wanted to ask—who he was, where they were, how she’d gotten here, and where he planned to take her. Until she knew how to talk with these people, she would be completely powerless. Learning their language was her first priority.

In the meantime, she had to admit that Isaac wasn’t as bad as she’d thought he would be. She still didn’t trust him completely, but so long as he seemed willing to help her, she wasn’t going to turn that down.


* * * * *


I can’t believe how normal this feels, Isaac thought to himself. I’m alone on the Medea with a girl who is totally naked, and it feels completely normal.

If he had to pinpoint exactly when the switch had happened, it was probably between when Reva had finished the first tonberry shake and when they had sat down at the table. When he’d first approached her, he’d been so nervous he was actually sweating. But now, he realized that was because he’d seen her as something forbidden, not as an actual person. When he saw how much she’d enjoyed the shake, something inside of him had clicked, and she became more than just the naked henna girl. And now that he knew her name, it seemed even more normal.

“Starship,” he said, bringing up a picture of a light freighter on the holographic tabletop screen. “Starship.”

Medea?” Reva asked.

“Kind of,” he said, nodding. “The Medea is a kind of starship, but not the only one.”

Medea starship?”

“Yes, the Medea is a starship. Is, am, are.”

She gave him a puzzled look, so he turned off the screen. “Man,” he said, pointing to himself. “Woman,” he said, pointing to her.

“Woman,” she said, pointing to herself. “Reva woman.”

He shook his head. “No. Reva is woman; you are woman. Isaac is man; I am man. Is, am, are.”

“Ah,” she said, her eyes lighting up. “Reva is woman, Medea is starship.”

“Yes,” he said, smiling. “Very good.”

“Reva are woman?”

He shook his head again. “No. Reva is woman. Reva and Isaac are man and woman.”

“‘And’?”

“Yes. And, or, not.”

He turned the screen on again and brought up a series of Venn diagrams showing the Boolean logic for ‘and,’ ‘or,’ and ‘not.’ For a second, he worried that it would go over her head, but her eyes widened in comprehension.

“Ah!” she said. “And, or, not?”

“Yes,” said Isaac, pointing each diagram out to her. “And, or, not.”

“You is not woman, yes?”

“You is? No. You are, I am, he is.

She rolled her eyes. “Yes, yes, yes. You are not woman. Yes?”

“Yes. Very good.”

“I am woman, not man. You are man, not woman. You and I are man and woman.”

She’s catching on really fast, Isaac thought to himself. She gobbled up everything he taught her as if she were a supermassive black hole. That resourcefulness would serve her well. He couldn’t imagine what it must be like for her, waking up from cryo in a strange place away from everyone she knew.

Her people were all dead now, just like Isaac’s people back in Delta Oriana. His family had escaped, but the famine had killed off everyone else. Megiddo Station was probably a musty derelict now, filled with decaying corpses just like Reva’s home. In that, they weren’t so different from each other after all.

She probably wonders what happened to them, Isaac thought to himself. He certainly had, back when he’d first set out for the stars. It had taken a few years for the news to trickle down to him, but when it finally had, it had given him some much-needed closure. Perhaps that kind of closure would help her as well.

“Here,” he said, clearing the screen again. “Let me show you something.”

He brought up a starmap of the South Second Quadrant and centered on Nova Alnilam. By zooming in, he made the other stars scatter off the screen and brought up a diagram of the system, with five concentric circles for the orbits of the five planets.

Reva looked on with little more than casual interest until he zoomed in on the fifth planet. Recognition slowly dawned on her, and she frowned and peered at the screen much more intently. An image of the bluish ice giant came up, listing a single station and no moons in the description box. Isaac tapped on the list, and the image of the planet was replaced by an image of Alnilam Station.

“Reva’s home,” he said, pointing it out to her. “Home. Yes? Understand?”

A torrent of words poured out of her mouth, all of them in a language he couldn’t understand. Her eyes were wide and full of fear, her face was deadly somber. It was as if they’d been playing games up to this point. Now, things were suddenly serious.

“Whoa, whoa,” said Isaac, raising his hands. “I don’t know what to tell you. I just—”

She spoke to him again, practically shouting. Though the words were strange to him, their meaning was clear.

How?

“We—we visited your station and found you frozen in cryo. Everyone else was dead. Because there was no one else, we decided to …”

It was clear that his explanation wasn’t going to work. The more he tried to tell her, the more frantic she seemed to become. The only way was to show her.

Isaac took a deep breath and cleared the screen to bring up the recording from his EVA suit when he and Aaron had boarded Alnilam Station. The video was dark, and the sound of his heavy breathing filled the mike.

“That’s me,” he said, pointing. “I mean, I am.”

“You are?”

“Yes, I am.”

She craned her neck to get a better look at the video feed, then scooted around the semi-circular seat until she was sitting right next to him. All at once, Isaac was very conscious of her nakedness. Blood rushed to his cheeks and sweat began to form on the back of his neck again, but he took a deep breath and forced his eyes not to wander.

Reva gasped loudly, making him jump. Her eyes were fixed on the screen—apparently, she’d seen something that she recognized. On the video, Isaac walked down the main rimside corridor, passing broken equipment and burned-out lights. A couple of them still flickered, but the helmet flashlight provided the only constant illumination.

She isn’t ready to see this, Isaac realized with dismay. It was too late to stop now, though. Reva quivered with apprehension, giving him the urge to reach out and put a hand on her shoulder. He hesitated, not sure whether it was appropriate to touch her.

“Here,” he said, skipping forward a bit. The next part was graphic, and he didn’t want her to see the bodies. In fact, he didn’t want her to see any of this at all anymore, but if he jumped to the part where they discovered her in the cryotank, hopefully that would be enough.

“No!” she shouted, hitting him on the arm. It was clear that she wanted to see the whole thing. Reluctantly, he stopped skipping and returned the video to play.

Now he was climbing up a set of stairs, his breathing much heavier. His brother was just ahead of him, in another EVA suit. Isaac turned down the sound so that the heavy breathing was barely audible. On the video, he and Aaron spoke, but the words were soft enough that he could ignore them.

I was such an ass to him back then, Isaac thought, remembering those words with no small degree of guilt. Now, Aaron was gone, and all their old arguments seemed so petty and juvenile.

He tapped the screen and switched to the feed on Aaron’s suit, since he’d found the cryotank. Reva’s whole body went stiff, and her quivering got even worse. She watched transfixed as Aaron walked down the corridor, past the doors that were no doubt all too familiar to her. He followed the blue arrows along the ceiling until they ended at an open door. Suddenly, she froze like a statue.

I never should have shown her this video, Isaac thought, his heart pounding. I never should have—

She let out an ear-piercing wail, sending shivers down Isaac’s spine. On the screen, Aaron stepped into the side room and found an old, dried corpse draped over Reva’s cryotank. He’d forgotten about that—had it been somebody she’d known? Apparently so, because she buried her head on the table and pounded it with her fist. Her wails turned to sobs, her henna-tattooed shoulders shaking with each one.

Isaac didn’t know what to do. He considered saying something, but since she couldn’t understand him, there was nothing much he could tell her. Instead, he stopped the video and sat by awkwardly as she wept.

Why did I think it was a good idea to show her that? Stars, I’m an idiot.

Tentatively, he reached out a hand and laid it softly on her back. She responded by leaning over and sobbing on his shoulder. He tensed a little as she clung to him, but when it became clear that all she needed was someone to cry on, he relaxed and tried to console her.

“I’m sorry,” he said aloud, patting her. “You probably weren’t ready for me to show you that. I just—I thought it might help somehow. I don’t know what you’re going through right now, but it must be pretty hard.”

The words spilled out of him completely unbidden, like a flare exploding from the surface of a star. Even if he’d wanted to hold back, he doubted that he could. In a strange way, it was as if he was talking to himself through talking to her.

“It’s because of me that you’re so far from home right now. I was the one who took you out of that station—well, me and my brother. But don’t worry. I won’t just leave you to fend for yourself. I’ll help you find your place in the universe as best as I can.”

Tears welled up in his eyes, tears he didn’t know he’d been holding back. After failing so many others, helping Reva was the least he could do to redeem himself.


Entering the Rift


Reva stared at the underside of the bunk above her and thought about nothing at all. Thinking was painful, and she didn’t do it any more than she had to.

It had been like that ever since Isaac had showed her the images of her home a couple of dayshifts ago. The sight of her sister-in-law’s corpse stretched out over the cryotank still haunted her. Far from giving her closure, the images of death and decay only reinforced the fact that she was alone now—alone and lost, with one terrible question assailing her more than any other:

What do I have left to live for?

A clang sounded through the bulkheads, followed by a shudder that reverberated through the entire ship. She perked up a bit, not because she wondered what was happening, but because it was something to do.

The shuddering stopped, and another clang sounded just below her. This was followed by a soft thud in the back of the cabin, near the escape pods and airlock. It sounded like a ship docking—or perhaps they were the ship, and the thing they were docking with was a station.

Isaac came in from the cockpit a few moments later. He walked over to one of the wall compartments and opened it, taking out one of his body covering—or ‘clothes,’ as these people apparently called them. He tossed it on Reva’s bunk, next to her feet.

“Here,” he said, gesturing for her to put it on.

Reva sat up and rubbed her eyes. She took one glance at the clothes and shook her head.

He frowned. “What is it?”

“No want,” she said, shaking her head again. She picked up the clothes and tossed them back to him.

He sighed and unfolded them, holding them out to her as if to help her put them on. When she folded her arms and glared at him, he pointed to the airlock.

“You need.”

He wants me to go out onto the station with him, she realized. He wants me to go, but he knows that I’ll attract too much attention if I’m not wearing clothes, so he wants me to wear them in order to blend in.

She didn’t like it, but she had to admit it was probably necessary if she was to go out among these people. Of course, she could just stay back on the Medea, but that would just give her more time to herself—more time to let her thoughts fester. At the very least, seeing the station would give her something to do.

With a long, heavy sigh she took the clothes and began to put them on. It was difficult. There were at least four holes in the thing, with such a tangle of fabric that she could hardly tell what was supposed to go where. Gently, Isaac guided her arms and legs through the proper holes. With that done, he walked behind her and pulled the clothes up over her shoulders. The zipper in the front gave her a bit of trouble, so he helped her with that as well.

They felt uncomfortably clingy against her skin. In most places the clothing was fairly loose, though they were a little tight on her chest and hips. She pulled the zipper down to loosen it up a bit, but Isaac stopped her. Instead, he fastened the clamps that kept the whole thing in place.

She glared at him, but he either chose to ignore her or failed to notice. After fitting a belt around his waist, he gave her one as well. It had several pockets on it, much like her father’s utility belt, so at least it was useful for something. She reluctantly put it on, fitting it loosely enough that it hung from her hips.

After looking her over, Isaac nodded and smiled. “Good,” he told her. “Very good.”

“Not good,” she muttered. “Very bad. No want.”

He smiled and answered her, speaking too fast for her to understand him. It sounded like he was trying to reassure her, perhaps that she only had to wear them while they were on the station. Either way, the clothes were coming off the instant she got back to the ship. She wouldn’t tolerate them a second longer than she had to.

Isaac strapped some sort of computer to his wrist and led her over to the airlock. After toggling the wrist computer, he palmed the door open and stepped through. Reva followed without a word.


* * * * *


The Bethel main orbital in the Shiloh system was unusual in that it was connected to its planet by a space elevator—a massive piece of infrastructure that must have taken at least a generation to construct. The planet itself was shrouded with thick cloud cover, making it impossible to see the surface, but here and there a few mountains peeked over the top like islands in a sea of white and gray. According to the Imperial Catalog, the surface was rich in arsenic-based life, though most of it consisted of single-celled organisms. A handful of abandoned research stations dotted the map, built in a time when relations with the Coreward Stars had been more amicable.

For all the size and majesty of the Bethel space elevator, though, the settlement itself was surprisingly small. The colonists who built it must have expected a large influx of immigrants, only to have those hopes dashed by the opening of competing trade routes. Now, the elevator was crumbling, the station’s hull marred by hundreds of micro-meteorite impacts. Rides to the surface were often delayed for days at a time due to unscheduled maintenance.

At least, that was what Isaac had read. As he stepped out of the docking node onto the rimside corridor, the place seemed decent, if a little overcrowded. The floor tiles were yellow with age and the wallscreens were visibly faded, but that wasn’t unusual for an Outworld port. The air was a little stale, but it seemed to be free of mold and dust—tell-tale signs that a station was in serious trouble.

“Stay with me,” he told Reva, slipping his arm into hers. Foot traffic in the corridor was relatively light, but hundreds of refugees sat huddled along the walls on either side, crowding the relatively wide walkways. Isaac had to step over a mother and child on the way to one of the stairwells leading up to the market section. Even on the stairs, people packed together in the narrow space.

These people are from Colkhia, Isaac realized. They’re trying to get passage out of system. No wonder the air was stale.

There was no point in spreading the news about the Flotilla’s defeat, then. It would only attract attention. If they were to make it safely to the far side of the rift, they needed to keep a low profile. With the Imperials and their agents no doubt crawling everywhere, there was no telling who might be looking for them.

The station’s bots were already refueling the Medea. From his Resistance connections, Isaac had access to an account that would resupply his ship without having to conduct any trades. But there were other things they needed—things that they couldn’t get without coming on board.

“Stay with me,” he told Reva as they left the stairwell and entered a massive bazaar. Stalls full of trade goods and commodities filled the narrow corridors, with shops set against the bulkheads. The place was a maze, with people everywhere and barely enough room to walk. The scent of fresh meat wafted in through the ventilators, while the walls rang with the sound of merchants shouting out the prices of their wares. Reva’s eyes widened in response to all the sights and sounds, but she managed to stay close even in the crowd.

At length, he found what he was looking for: a shop that sold clothes. It was in a side corridor with barely enough room for two people to step past each other, but the selection was wide and the quality seemed fairly decent. Isaac walked over to the women’s section and picked up a black smart-skirt.

“You want?” he asked, holding it out to Reva.

She stiffened a little and shook her head, but when he put it down and picked up another, she soon caught on to what he was doing. Reluctantly, she started combing through the clothes, looking for some that would suit her.

“Can I help you?” asked the merchant, a fat middle-aged woman with long brown hair and a cybernetic eye implant. Her smile was shrewd, but she seemed friendly enough.

“Yes,” said Isaac. “I’m looking for some clothes for my, ah, my friend here. Can you suggest anything?”

“Of course, dearie. Just leave her to me.”

“Well, she doesn’t actually speak the language.”

The merchant gave him a puzzled look. “Are you saying you don’t have an autotranslator? Because that’s no problem; I’ve got one right here.”

“No, that won’t help,” he said, swallowing a little. “Her language isn’t in any of the databases. Trust me, I’ve looked.”

“Not in any of the databases? Where did you pick her up, son? Never mind,” she said quickly, smiling and putting a hand on his arm. “Forgive me. I’m sure you don’t want any questions like that from someone like me.”

That’s right, Isaac thought. The fewer questions asked, the better.

“In any case, I’ll do my best to help her out. Oh, it looks like she’s found something!”

At the end of the table next to a stall full of robotics, Reva held up a dark gray sweater dress. Then, to Isaac’s horror, she unclasped the jumpsuit she was wearing and began to take it off. He hurried over to stop her, but it was already too late. The jumpsuit fell to her ankles, leaving her stark naked.

“Whoops!” said the merchant. “Why don’t we take you to a dressing room, honey?” She put her hands on Reva’s tattooed shoulders and led her quickly to the back of the stall, where a curtain hung from wide brass rings in front of a tiny alcove.

“Sorry about that,” said Isaac, his cheeks burning with embarrassment. “It’s just, ah … Yeah, let’s take her to the dressing room.”

Everyone from the other stalls was staring at them now, some of them quite uncomfortably. Isaac glared at them, though, and they soon turned away. A couple of women shook their heads, but once Reva was safely in the dressing room, traffic moved on and things more or less returned to normal.

“That’s some strange girl you got there, son,” the merchant said, her arms folded across her ample chest. “I’ve seen a lot of things, but I’ve never seen tattoos like that before.”

“Just pick out some stuff for her to try.”

He sighed heavily and ran his fingers through his hair. That girl was going to give him a lot of trouble if he wasn’t careful. He wanted to help her, but not at the expense of his mission. If that jump beacon fell into the wrong hands—

“Isaac? Isaac Deltana?”

Isaac turned and frowned. A young man in a synthleather vest walked past the stalls toward him. He was tall and blond, with a grin that looked strangely familiar.

“Yeah, that’s me. Who are you?”

“It’s me, Leo! Don’t you remember?”

Isaac’s eyes widened as recognition dawned on him. Leo was an old starfaring friend from the Oriana Cluster. He was one of the first friends that Isaac and Aaron had made after leaving their family for the stars. Those had been tough times for both of them, and Leo had done a lot to help them adjust to their new lives. The last time they’d seen him was at Nova Minitak, just before leaving for the station where they found Reva.

“Now I do,” said Isaac, giving his friend a warm hug. “It’s good to see you.”

“You, as well.”

“What are you doing in this place?”

“Oh, not much,” said Leo, his characteristic grin as wide as Isaac had ever seen it. “Just coming back to see a girl here. Would you believe me if I told you I was thinking about settling down?”

“No,” Isaac laughed. “But hey, that’s great. Congratulations.”

“I haven’t made my decision yet,” Leo said with a wink. “Where’s Aaron?”

Isaac’s heart sank, and his face fell. Leo must have noticed, because his expression became serious almost immediately.

“It’s—it’s a long story,” Isaac said, “but I don’t think I’m going to see him again?”

“Does it have to do with the war against the Imperials?”

He nodded.

“That’s tough,” said Leo. “I’ve been running some supply convoys for the Resistance. Thought about signing up to join the fight, but this girl of mine talked me out of it. I assume Aaron signed up for a combat role?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s too bad, really too bad. I know it must be hard on you.”

Isaac bit his lip and swallowed, his emotions rising suddenly. “Yeah. It is.”

Leo put a hand on his shoulder, consoling him. The moment passed, and Isaac managed to get through without losing it. There would be a time and place to work through his emotions, but this wasn’t it.

“Are you with the Resistance, too?” Leo asked.

“Er, yeah.”

“Running convoys, then?”

“That’s right,” Isaac lied, cringing as he said it. Leo was a good friend, and he hated lying to him. But his mission had to remain a secret, especially in a place like this where there was no telling who might be listening.

“It’s a pretty nice gig, isn’t it? I’ve heard of guys coming from as far away as the North Third Quadrant just to join up with us—big names, like Joe Shinihana and Nikolai Nova. News of the war has been spreading though the Outworlds like a gamma ray burst.”

“So the Outworlds are rallying, then? That’s good news.”

“That’s not all. Did you hear about Bacca? I just found out on my last trade run that we managed to retake it!”

“So I heard,” said Isaac. In fact, I was just there.

“Isn’t that incredible? News sure travels fast with that jump beacon network in place. People on the far side of the New Pleiades learned about it in less than a standard week!”

So the jump beacon network is an open secret now, Isaac thought. Which means that it’s not a secret at all. The Imperials were probably doing all they could to get their hands on the technology, which meant that the situation was even more dangerous than he’d thought.

“Where are you off to next?” he asked.

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Leo. “I’m tempted to settle down, but with the war opening up so many new opportunities, I’ll probably head back to Vulcana to join up with another convoy. Don’t tell my girl that, though.”

“Don’t worry. Your secret is safe with me.”

“And what about you? Where are you off to?”

Isaac glanced over his shoulder at the clothes merchant and the alcove where he’d left Reva. They seemed to be busy enough, and safely out of the public eye for the moment. The last thing he wanted was for an Imperial agent to discover that he was harboring a fugitive.

“Oh, I don’t know. I figured I’d make a few trades here in the local rift. You wouldn’t happen to know what the prices are like in the nearby systems?”

Leo frowned, an expression that looked unnatural on his normally cheery face. “I don’t know, Isaac. That doesn’t seem like a good idea.”

“Why not?”

He glanced over his shoulder and leaned in close. “Ever since the invasion, there’s been a huge piracy problem here in the Shiloh Rift. Gulchina’s Marauders are at Gibeon, extorting ‘protection money’ from anyone who wants to pass through safely.”

“Wait, Gulchina’s marauders?” Isaac asked. “Last I heard, they were out in the Far Outworlds.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought too. But the Shiloh Rift offers the most direct path between their usual territory and the Coreward Stars. Gulchina seems to have taken an interest in the war, or at least the stream of refugees fleeing from it.”

“But she’s taking over whole systems now?”

Leo shrugged. “I don’t know. Gibeon is the only one I’ve heard of, but if you want to pass through the rift safely, take my advice and head there as soon as you can. It’ll cost you, but this sector is so full of pirates that you’ll be happy you did.”

“Thanks for the advice,” said Isaac. “How much are they asking?”

“You’ll have to barter—it’s different for everyone. For me, it was half a ton of Chondarran coffee that I happened to have in my hold.”

“Half a ton? That’s a lot.”

“Yeah, but it got me through safely, and that’s more than I can say for most.”

Isaac sighed, but Leo was right. There wasn’t much he could do except load up a shipment of trade goods and pay what the pirates asked. As long as it got him safely through the rift, nothing else mattered.

“All right. I appreciate the warning.”

“No problem. And Isaac, I really am sorry to hear about your brother. He was an honest kid. The Outworlds have lost one of their best.”

Isaac bit his lip and nodded.

“Thanks.”

They embraced and said goodbye, but to Isaac, it all passed in a blur. He almost forgot about Reva, but then he saw the merchant woman carrying another set of clothes back to the curtained alcove. From the exasperated look on her face, she seemed to be running out of patience.

Better deal with that then, he told himself, glad to have some distraction from his melancholy thoughts.


* * * * *


Reva folded her arms and shivered in the cool station air. How cold did they keep this place? It was all because of the clothes. In order to keep themselves from overheating while wearing the useless things, they had to cool down the air to compensate. It didn’t make sense to her, but then again, few things in this culture did.

The fat woman parted the curtain and handed her another stack of clothes to try on. In return, Reva handed her back a stack of clothes that she’d already tried on. “Not want,” she said simply, and the woman took them without a word. From the look in her eyes, though, she didn’t seem too happy about Reva’s indecision.

Deal with it, Reva thought as she pulled the curtain shut. If she had to put up with the cold air, the groping eyes, and covering up her beautiful tattoos, the fat woman could put up with a little finickiness.

She went through the stack and quickly discarded the things she knew she wouldn’t like. Some of the fabric was sticky, some even a bit oily. There was no way she would cover herself in that. Others looked too small or too tight, which she didn’t want, either. She hated the feeling of clothing against her skin. It felt unnatural and constricting, as if she were being smothered. Some of the clothes were better than others, but still, she didn’t like any of them.

From the middle of the stack, she pulled out a light gray dress that didn’t look tight or clingy. The fabric was so thin that she could barely feel it. It took her a second to figure out how it went on, but after a little trial and error she found that it hung from the shoulders by two narrow straps. The cut was low, covering none of the tattoos on her arms and upper chest, and it fit her loose enough to actually be quite comfortable. She turned to the mirror, and while it still looked unnatural, it revealed just enough that it wasn’t totally obscene.

There was still the problem of the cool air, though. The dress did nothing to shield her from it. It also lacked pockets or any other type of added functionality. Reva groaned in frustration—how could these people design things that were so useless?

She rummaged through the pile of discarded clothes at her feet until she found a dark jacket, made of some strange material that seemed tough and durable. The inside lining was soft, though, and not too abrasive on her skin. The hem only reached down to her navel, so it wasn’t long enough to be uncomfortable. And even though it was kind of heavy, she had to admit it was warm. But the best part was the pockets—two on the chest and one on the left sleeve. Perhaps this piece of clothing wasn’t so useless after all.

The fat woman came back with a couple more dresses, which she tried on and discarded. But from the bottom of the pile, she pulled out a couple more like the first. One was blue, the other a light maroon. She folded them both up carefully—if she had to wear something, at least she would have some variety.

The belt from the jumpsuit was the last thing that she put on. It was even more useful than the jacket, with plenty of loops and small pockets that could hold stuff. Besides, it reminded her of her father’s utility belt. If she had to keep her tattoos hidden, at least she could remember him through the clothing she wore.

Maybe that’s why these people have so many different kinds of clothes, Reva realized. Instead of expressing themselves through tattoos or body art, they do it through what they wear.

She parted the curtain and stepped out into the station corridor. The fat woman had just picked out another stack of clothes, and now that Reva was finished, she rolled her eyes and set them down on the nearest table. Isaac stepped forward and looked her up and down.

“Is good,” he said. “You want?”

Not exactly, Reva thought, but she nodded all the same. He turned to the fat woman and pulled out a datachip, evidently to pay her. She put her hands obstinately on her hips, though, and they spent the next few moments haggling. It was as tedious as waiting for henna to dry.

At length, they came to an agreement and completed the transaction. Isaac took Reva by the arm and led her away, but the woman yelled after them until they stopped and turned around. She tossed something at them, making Reva duck.

What is it now?

She looked down and recognized the shoes that Isaac had put on her feet. Evidently, she’d forgotten to put them on again after changing through all those clothes. With a heavy sigh, he knelt down and helped her put them on, fastening them so tight that it almost hurt.

I wish I knew how to say sorry, she thought as he stood up and led her hastily away. He didn’t seem angry at her, but he was definitely upset. She’d have to make it up to him somehow.

They walked through the narrow corridors, past the densely packed market stalls and the crowds of people pushing through. She couldn’t see how big the place was, but from the variety of wares she could tell that it was enormous. Besides clothes and robotics, there were foods, spices, datachips, tablets, ship parts, antiques, and trinkets of all kinds for sale. The myriad scents and bright colors threatened to overwhelm her, but she stayed close to Isaac, taking it all in.

This is my world now, she thought to herself. This is where I need to learn to fit in. Here and there, she caught a word that she recognized. Most of it was just noise and confusion, though. It would take her a while to fully learn the language.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw something that looked familiar. Her heart skipped a beat, and she stopped and pulled Isaac back, nearly bumping into the man behind them.

Is that really—could it actually be what I think it is?

It didn’t take long to find what she was looking for: a large bag of dried brown powder, sitting between a stall full of perfumes and a stall selling jewelry. An old woman sat next to it, her hair dyed amber and intricate henna tattoos stretching up across her arms.

“Hello,” said Reva, speaking excitedly in Anuvan. “What’s your name? Are you from Anuva Station too?”

The woman smiled good-naturedly and bobbled her head to show that she didn’t understand. Even so, Reva refused to take that as an answer.

“My name is Reva. Reva Starchild. Does that sound familiar? If you’re not from Anuva Station, does it at least sound familiar? Can you understand me at all?”

The woman bobbled her head again, making it all too clear that she didn’t. Reva’s heart fell, and it was all she could do to keep from breaking down right then and there. When she’d seen the tattoos on the woman’s arms, her hopes had surged, but now they were all dashed.

“What is it?” Isaac asked. He spoke again, evidently asking her if there was some sort of problem.

“No, no. Is good, is good,” she said, putting on her best face to hide her disappointment. If nothing else, the woman was selling henna powder—an expensive commodity, but one that Reva knew how to use quite well. The tattoos her sister-in-law had given her would fade soon, and she’d need to replace them. She couldn’t let them fade entirely.

“Hello,” she said in Isaac’s language, pointing to the bag of henna powder. “I want.”

The old woman smiled warmly and reached into the bag with wrinkled, shaky hands. She produced a measuring scoop with a built-in electronic scale and measured out what looked like half a kilogram.

Isaac frowned and folded his arms. For a second, Reva feared that he’d object, but instead he stood by and watched.

“Good, good,” she said, gesturing with her hands to show that one scoop was enough. For two people, that should last at least a month. The old woman nodded and slowly poured the henna into a clear sealable bag, much like the ones her father had used for carrying fluids in zero gravity.

“What is it?” Isaac asked. Reva didn’t know the word in his language, so she pointed to the tattoos on her arms. “Ahh,” he said knowingly.

The old lady sealed up the bag and handed it to her. She struggled to ask how much it would cost, but Isaac stepped in and finished the translation. As he did so, she searched on her belt until she found a pouch large enough to fit the bag. Satisfied, she slipped it in and sealed it up.

At least these clothes are good for something, she told herself. In time, maybe she could get used to them. But no matter how well she adjusted to this strange new culture, she would never give up the one she’d come from.

Especially if she was the only one left.


Deals and Devils


The star called Gibeon was actually a binary of Shiloh, but the two were so far apart that they were practically separate systems. The only settlement was a small station at about three standard AU, far enough away to be safe from the unpredictable flares. There were no planets around the red dwarf sun, though—only the remnants of an ancient planetary collision, forming a treacherous asteroid field. Thankfully, Gibeon Station wasn’t anywhere near it.

As he brought the Medea in to dock, however, Isaac saw something more dangerous than asteroids. A massive starship sat just a short distance from the station, looming over it like a dark specter from beyond the grave. Long and wiry, it resembled a giant spider, with dozens of modules bulging out along its legs. As the Medea crept closer, he saw what appeared to be autolasers along the joints, with plasma and projectile cannons closer to the ship’s core. The bridge sat in the center, the large bulbous windows like ugly multi-faceted eyes.

The sight made Isaac shiver. According to the flight computer, that was the Tamerlane, one of Gulchina’s ships. If there had been any doubt in his mind as to who was in control at Gibeon, it was blasted away by the sight of the pirate warship.

“Docking control, this is the Medea,” said Isaac. “I’m activating the autodock sequence.”

“Copy, Medea,” said the controller—an old man, by the sound of it. “If you grant our override request, we can bring you in nice and smooth.”

“That won’t be necessary, docking control. I can bring my ship in myself.”

“Understood,” said the controller, in a tone that said I don’t blame you. There was no way in hell that Isaac would let a pirate-controlled station take over his ship remotely. The Medea’s jump drives were already halfway charged, ready to flee at the first sign of trouble. With the way the situation looked, he might just have to use it.

The sound of soft footsteps behind him made him look over his shoulder. Reva leaned on the back of his chair, peering out the window with a frown.

“Starship?” she asked.

“Yes,” said Isaac. “Bad. Very bad. Here, sit down.”

He motioned to his brother’s chair beside him, and she eased herself into it. Her skin glowed dark in the dim red light, her tattoos nearly black. Less than an hour had passed since their departure from Shiloh, but she’d taken her new clothes off the instant she was on board. Isaac’s eyes began to wander, but he quickly averted his gaze.

She’ll have to stay with the ship, he thought to himself. There was no telling what the pirates would do if they found her.

The floor shuddered a little as the nav-computer spun the ship in preparation for final approach. The torque was weaker than the artificial gravity, but not so much that it was safe to be standing. Reva gripped the armrests of her chair as if to keep from falling out.

“Don’t worry. Just a couple more maneuvers, and then we’ll be good to go.”

She took a deep breath and steeled herself, staring straight ahead. Isaac reached out and put a hand on her tattooed arm. She flinched a little at his touch, but didn’t shrug him off.

It took about ten minutes for the Medea to finish maneuvers. When the dull groan of metal on metal sounded through the hull, Reva visibly relaxed. The ship shuddered a little as the docking clamps connected, then went still. Isaac stood up.

“I’ll be back in less than an hour,” he said, locking the cockpit controls. “You’ll be fine while I’m gone, right?”

Reva gave him a puzzled look, obviously not comprehending. He left her and went into the cabin for a quick bathroom break. When he came out, he found her fumbling with the maroon dress, trying to put it on.

“No,” said Isaac, taking it from her. “You stay here, understand? You stay.”

“Why?” she asked, giving him a puzzled look.

“Because bad men—very bad men. You stay here. I come again soon. Understand?”

Her face was still a picture of confusion, but she nodded. “I stay.”

“Right.”

He fastened the top clasp on his jumpsuit and strapped on his wrist console. Before heading to the airlock, he glanced back at her. Her nakedness made her look tremendously vulnerable, especially with her obvious confusion at being left behind. His cheeks reddened a little, but he turned quickly and walked out.

Stay focused, he told himself, taking a deep breath as he palmed the airlock door open. You’re here to bargain for safe passage—not only for yourself, but for Reva, too.

Something told him that would be easier said than done.


* * * * *


The station itself was tiny, barely large enough for a population of one hundred. From the stench of stale body odor and the dozens of people loitering on the other side of the airlock, it was clear that the pirates had put the place well over capacity. They watched Isaac warily as he palmed the airlock shut and checked his wrist console to make sure that it was securely locked. One of them cracked a joke under his breath, and the others laughed in a way that set him even more on edge.

He did his best to ignore them as he walked out of the terminal into the main hallway that circled the small settlement. According to his wrist console, the station master’s quarters were on the top level, near the command center and local port authority. The controller had told him that was where he could find the pirate captain, a man by the name of Aslan. Isaac didn’t know what to expect, but he tried to act confident as the eyes of the pirates followed him all the way to the elevator.

He rode it up three stories and stepped out onto a level that was almost completely abandoned. To his left, half a dozen controllers with headsets sat in front of massive sensor displays, but most of the seats were empty. Garbage littered the hallway: torn up papers, frayed wires and broken datachips from looted electronics, and bits of rotting food. There were also some large white shards with specks of blood across them. Isaac realized with a start that those were bones from animal-grown meat. All of it combined to produce a foul-smelling odor that filled the air. Isaac pinched his nose in disgust and went on.

“Stop,” said a tall, heavyset man as he rounded the corner. “Hands on the wall.”

Isaac frowned. “What’s thi—”

The man leveled an assault rifle at his chest. “No one sees the captain without getting searched. Now put your hands on the wall, or I’ll blow you away where you stand.”

Isaac complied, his hands shaking so hard that he could barely hold them still. The man searched him roughly, patting down his arms, torso, and legs. Evidently satisfied, he stepped back and grunted.

“Wait here. The captain will see you shortly.”

“How many people are ahead of me?”

The man didn’t answer. Only then did Isaac notice the pistol at the man’s hip and the six-inch blade sheathed on his chest. He also had a cybernetic implant that ran from ear to ear around the back of his head. Probably connects to his neural jacks, too, Isaac thought. If he’s connected to the network, he probably knew I was coming before I stepped off the elevator.

The sound of raucous laughter broke him from his thoughts. It was coming from the doorway of the station master’s office, though Isaac was too far away to get a peek inside. He waited uncomfortably, unsure what to say or do.

“So, have you been here at Gibeon long?” he asked.

The man didn’t answer. Isaac shifted uncomfortably.

“Does Aslan know that I’m here? I didn’t see anyone—”

“I have made the captain aware of your request to meet with him. When he is ready, he will call for you. Until then, don’t give me a reason to dislike you.”

Isaac took the hint and shut up immediately.

For the first time, he wondered if he’d made a mistake in coming to Gibeon. With the pirates in charge of the system, they could do with him as they pleased. What if they didn’t let him leave? What if all he’d done was make it easier for them to kill him and steal his starship?

Leo made it through here, Isaac thought, trying to calm himself. He wouldn’t have advised me to come here if the pirates were just killing people.

He glanced around at the trash-strewn hallway. I hope nobody was killed when they took over. He hadn’t seen any blood so far, but he hadn’t seen many civilians, aside from the controllers in the room down the hallway. Perhaps Gulchina’s men had sold the civilians off as slaves? Isaac shuddered—it was a good thing that Reva was safe on the Medea.

The wait dragged on for several more minutes. Besides the ragged chugging of the station’s overworked ventilators, the only break in the silence was occasional laughter coming from Aslan’s quarters. If the captain was doing any business there, it certainly didn’t sound like it.

At length, the man turned. “The captain will see you now.”

Isaac stepped through the open doorway and frowned at the unexpected sight that greeted him. Lavish rugs were spread out across the floor, their arabesque patterns dazzling to the eye. An ornate wooden table with a mosaic pattern etched across the top sat in the center, with half a dozen reclining couches and divans surrounding it. An opulent spread of gourmet food filled the table: grapes and cheeses, pastries and breads, some kind of rice-and-vegetable mix and a giant slab of some kind of meat. Smoke from a large hookah filled the air, stinging Isaac’s lungs with the the bitter, pungent fragrance. Crimson silks covered the walls, with a curved sword sheathed in a golden scabbard hanging prominently from the far wall.

“Greetings, star wanderer,” boomed the man sitting at the head of the room. “I take it you’re here to pay the protection fee?”

Captain Aslan—if indeed that was him—was a tall, broad-shouldered man with dark hair and a silver-streaked beard. His features were sharp, with a hooked nose and a square chin. His dark amber eyes were as piercing as twin lasers. Isaac shifted awkwardly but forced himself to meet the pirate’s gaze.

“T-that’s right,” he said. “Are you the one they call Aslan?”

The other men in the room chuckled at Isaac’s obvious discomfort. “I see my reputation has preceded me,” said Aslan, his eyes never shifting. “Tell me, what have you heard of Captain Aslan of the Tamerlane?

Unlike the other pirates, Aslan wore a gray military uniform, much like the ones worn by Gaian Imperial officers, except with different insignia. The uniform was slightly faded, but still crisp and clean. The other pirates were dressed like ordinary starfarers, except with guns and knives hanging from their belts. If there was supposed to be any uniformity among them, Isaac couldn’t see it.

“Only that you’re one of Gulchina’s Marauders. I take it she’s out there terrorizing everyone who doesn’t pay?”

Aslan cut off a large chunk of meat with his knife and speared it. “That’s right,” he said, taking a bite. The juices dribbled down the edges of his mouth and into his thick beard.

“Well, I’m willing to pay. How can I be sure you’ll hold up your side of the bargain?”

“You have my word,” said Aslan, wiping his lips with the back of his hand.

How much is the word of a pirate worth? Isaac wanted to ask. He kept his mouth shut, though—the last thing he needed was to provoke these people into changing their minds about letting him go.

Aslan set down his knife. With a snap of his fingers, he summoned a hoverbot that brought him a datachip. He took the chip and leaned forward in his seat, resting his elbows on his knees.

“This chip will program your transmitters to emit a distinctive signal that the others have been told to watch for. Activate it every time you make a jump, and we’ll know to steer clear of you. But forget, even once, and we can’t be held responsible for the consequences.”

Of course you’re responsible, Isaac thought. You’re the ones who decided to terrorize this sector of space, after all.

“Very well,” he said. “So now we haggle over the price?”

“Not quite,” said Aslan. He glanced at his men, who chuckled as they passed the hookah among themselves. “First, I want to ask you some questions.”

Isaac swallowed. “What sort of questions?”

Aslan’s eyes locked onto him like a targeting computer. “Your name is Isaac Deltana, and your ship is the Medea, yes?”

“That’s right.”

“Your birth star is in the Oriana Cluster, but your ship carries a Pleiadian name.”

“My great-grandfather’s birth star wasn’t far from here.”

Aslan rubbed his hands together and squinted. “Bethel Station’s records don’t show that you’ve ever passed through here before. Is this your first time in the Shiloh Rift?”

“How did you get access to those records? I thought—”

“I’ll ask the questions. Is this or is this not your first time passing through this sector?”

Isaac glanced at the other men, all of whom were staring at him now. He felt a bead of sweat drip down the side of his forehead.

“Yes, it is.”

“Then what is your business here, exactly?”

“I-I’m trying to escape the war. Things are a lot worse in the frontier systems than I bargained for.”

“But why come this way, and not through the more lucrative trade ports in the New Pleiades? You’re a star wanderer, not a refugee.”

“I’m leaving for the Far Outworlds,” Isaac lied. “The situation is just too tense out here.”

Aslan’s lips narrowed. “One last question: Are you affiliated with the Resistance?”

He’s after something, Isaac realized. But what?

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “I came to the New Pleiades just a few months ago, through the Esperanzia-Vulcana corridor. Things were going well enough until the Imperials invaded. The whole star cluster is a war zone now, and I want no part of it. I just want to get back to the Far Outworlds where I belong.”

For several moments, no one in the room said anything. Aslan eyed him with naked suspicion. He’s not buying it, Isaac thought, shifting nervously on his feet.

“Very well,” Aslan said at length. “I don’t take kindly to being lied to, but you seem like you’re hardly worth the effort.” He leaned back, and the other pirates relaxed as well.

“If you’d like to see my itinerary, I can get that to you. It’s still subject to change, of course, depending on local prices, but—”

“You’d tell a pirate which ports you plan to visit? Ha! You’re lucky that Gulchina has us on a leash.”

“I-I take it that won’t be necessary, then?”

“Yep. Sorry to disappoint you, kid, but it’s not worth the trouble to hunt you down.”

Thank goodness, Isaac thought, barely masking his relief. Even if the pirates stole everything in his cargo hold, it would be worth it if it meant safe passage.

“Very well, Captain Aslan. What’s your price?”


* * * * *


Reva hated waiting alone while Isaac disembarked on the station. “Bad men”? What was that supposed to mean? Did he think that she couldn’t fend for herself? She sighed and paced the tiny cabin—even if it had only been a few hours since they left the last port, she still hated being stuck on this tiny starship.

That begged the question, though, of how was she going to get around on her own. Without Isaac, there wasn’t much she could do. She didn’t speak the language, didn’t understand the culture, and the social norms were so obviously unlike anything she was used to that she didn’t trust herself to figure them all out by herself. As much as she hated to admit it, she was dependent on him for practically everything.

That’s got to change, she told herself. The last thing she wanted was to end up as his little pet, living on his ship while he traveled from star to star.

But where else could she go? That question loomed over everything like a shadow. She had no home to return to—everyone she loved was gone. She would have to build a new life for herself somehow, but how could she do that when she was starting from nothing? If all it meant was learning a new language, it wouldn’t be a problem. But making a new place for herself in this vast, lonely universe—that was going to be hard.

A sound in the airlock snapped her out of her thoughts. She stopped pacing and glanced down the short corridor. It sounded as if someone was coming in, but several seconds passed and the door didn’t open.

She frowned. Was that Isaac? If so, why hadn’t he come in yet?

Another sound came, this one like a faint scraping noise. It wasn’t coming from the door itself but from the bulkhead just next to it. Reva walked over and pressed her ear against the door, trying to figure out what it was.

That was when she heard the voices. Two men, talking loudly.

Bad men, she thought, the hair on her arms prickling. Is this what Isaac warned me about? A chill ran down her back, making her shiver in the cool cabin air.

There was nowhere on the ship to hide, nowhere that they couldn’t easily find her. And as for weapons, she didn’t know of any. She looked around quickly just to make sure, only to come away with nothing.

But the men hadn’t entered the ship yet. They’d gotten past the first airlock door, but they hadn’t managed to break through the second. Were they trying to hack it, then? So long as they couldn’t open the door, Reva was safe.

Maybe I can scare them off, she thought. If they don’t think anyone’s in here, maybe that’s all it will take.

“Hey!” she shouted, banging on the door with her fist. “Hey, what are you doing? You want me to come out there and shoot you? I will, dammit! I will!”

She pounded on the solid metal airlock again and again. The mysterious noises stopped immediately, but she kept it up, her heart beating almost as hard as her fists. As adrenaline surged through her veins, she shouted even louder.

“Get out of here, you bastards! Get out!”

She screamed until her voice was hoarse and her breath ragged. Part of her wished she had a gun, just to calm her nerves down enough to think straight. But the other part knew that if she had one, she’d have opened that door with her gun blasting.

With shaky hands, she pressed her ear against the door again. Nothing. Either the men were silent, waiting for her to leave to resume her work, or they had fled.

She sat there for almost fifteen minutes, breathing heavy as she listened through the airlock. Cold sweat dribbled down the back of her neck, making her shiver. Her imagination raced with what the men might do to her if they found her. Defenseless, powerless, and alone—was it any wonder she was scared?

They’re not there, she thought to herself. Surely, they must be gone. But there was only one way to know for sure, and that was the thing that terrified her the most of all: opening the airlock with the possibility that someone in there might be waiting to kill her.

She considered it for only a split second before deciding not to. Isaac would be back soon, and he would know how to take care of the situation better than she did.

With that decided, she returned to the cabin. Arms and hands shaking, she pulled a butter knife out from among the eating utensils and sat on the couch facing the door. The knife would probably be useless in a fight, but it gave her a small sense of comfort—just enough to push back the fear.

She waited, watching the airlock like a sentry-bot. In just a little while, Isaac would be back, but until then she could not afford to let her guard down. She hoped he came back soon.


* * * * *


Isaac’s nerves relaxed a little as he stepped back onto the Medea. The negotiations had gone as poorly as he’d expected, but they’d managed to settle on a deal and the pirates seemed to be sticking to it. That was all that mattered. The only thing he had left to do was unload the cargo and get the hell out of this place.

He stepped into the cabin only to find Reva huddled behind the table, glaring at him with a butter knife gripped tightly in one hand. He frowned—had she gone crazy? What was going on?

“It’s just me,” he said, holding up his hands. “Are you all right?”

Reva sighed and leaned back, dropping the knife with a clatter to the tabletop. Whatever she’d been upset about, it was fine now.

Isaac stared at her for a moment, not sure how to take it. She was still an enigma to him. Even if she learned the language, he doubted he’d ever fully understand her. As always, she was nude, though her full-body tattoos almost gave the illusion that she was wearing something. Almost, but not quite.

As much as he wanted to find out what the matter with her was, now was not the time. They had to get out before the pirates changed their minds about the deal. With the airlock door shut firmly behind him, he walked quickly into the cockpit and sat down in his brother’s chair, pulling up the controls for the unloading arm.

“Docking control, this is the Medea, unloading one ton of consumer goods at receiving bay A9 as per our registered transaction with the Tamerlane. Standing by for approval.”

“Copy,” came the voice of the controller, a tired middle-aged woman this time. “You may unload, Medea.

Isaac toggled the bay doors, which opened in a couple minutes. The receiving bay took a bit longer, probably because they had to reclaim the air first. There was no sense venting all that valuable oxygen into space. While the station got ready to receive his cargo, he leaned over and double checked the nav-computer. The jump drives were charged at eighty percent and the coordinates were set for a short two hundred light-hour jump into the rift. All he had to do was undock.

As he worked, Reva stepped into the cockpit and stood next to him. “Bad men?” she asked, pointing up at the station.

“Yes,” said Isaac. “Very bad men.” On the dorsal video feed, the hangar doors for cargo bay A9 slid silently open. It took about half a minute for them to finish, and by that time he had already brought the unloading arm into position.

“Why bad?”

“Because,” he said, his attention focused elsewhere. “Bad men, pirates. Steal ship, kill us all. That’s why they’re bad.”

“What means ‘steal’?” she asked, genuinely curious. Outside, the docking arm connected with the container carrying the goods and slowly lifted it out.

“It means to take something that’s not yours,” said Isaac. “If I want starship, I take starship. Starship is not mine, but I take it anyway.”

“Steal means take?”

“Yes.”

Reva was silent for a moment, giving Isaac some time to work on the task at hand. The difficult part was done—the ship’s AI could handle maneuvering the load into position. All he had to do was babysit.

“You steal me, then?”

“What?” he asked, frowning. He glanced over his shoulder at her. “Why would you say that?”

“Steal means take. You take me starship. You show me you take.”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean I stole you. You were alone, and the station was dead. We rescued you. If we stole you, you wouldn’t be free.”

“‘Free’?”

“Yes, free.” Though he had to admit that from her perspective, it probably didn’t feel that way.

Outside, the load exited the Medea’s cargo hold and began the long journey up to bay A9. The arm moved it slowly, due to the container’s mass. In zero gravity, it didn’t weigh anything, but once it got going it would be very difficult to stop.

“Just—just trust me, okay? I am not a bad man. I’m here to help you. Once you’re ready, you’ll be free to go wherever you want. Okay?”

“Isaac not bad man,” she said, nodding. It was clear that that was the only thing she’d understood.

“Yes. I am not a bad man. Trust me.”

“‘Trust’?”

“Yes. It’s—it’s hard to explain.”

When the load was halfway to the station, Isaac released it. Then, with the ship AI folding the arm back into the cargo bay, he switched seats and prepared to undock.

Medea, this is docking control. Is something wrong? Your load is drifting free.”

“Time to get the hell out of here,” Isaac muttered under his breath. He released the docking clamps, and the bulkheads groaned as the Medea pulled free.

Medea, do you copy? We have not authorized undocking—repeat, we have not authorized undocking. Please stand by.”

“Sorry,” he told the controller.

With the Medea clear of the station and the load released from the cargo bay, he flipped the switch to initiate jump. A hum sounded from deep within the bowels of the ship, growing swiftly in pitch and intensity. The hum seemed to reverberate through his whole being, making his stomach turn and his hair stand on end. Behind him, Reva moaned and clutched at the chair for support. The stars outside the cockpit pulled away from them, and in an instant, the universe seemed to invert, the dimensions collapsing in on themselves. But then the feeling passed, the stars returned to normal, and Reva was left gasping for breath as the inevitable nausea swept over them both.

“Safe,” said Isaac, pulling up the nav-computer to begin triangulation. “No more bad men.”

“Bad men no?”

“That’s right. They’re gone. We don’t have to worry about them anymore.”

“Gone,” said Reva, walking on unsteady feet back into the cabin. Isaac took a deep breath and allowed himself to relax.

It had been ballsy of him to jump out in such close proximity to the station—ballsy and more than a little reckless. The flash from their jump had probably fried most of bay A9’s loading equipment and damaged the station’s sensors as well. He certainly wouldn’t be welcome there again, but with luck, he would never have to go back.

In his hand, he held the datachip that Aslan had given him, the one with the signal that would tell the pirates not to attack him. He plugged it into the nav-computer and brought it up through the comm system as quickly as he could. With the signal in place, any pirates that detected them would know not to attack.

That was the hope, anyway.


Tokens of Consolation


“Aaron!”

Isaac watched in horror as his brother drifted away from him, tumbling end over end. Without a propulsion system in his EVA suit and nowhere to attach his tether, he was falling helplessly through the void of space.

Isaac’s boots slammed onto the hull of the Medea, the magnetic clamps holding him in place. As quick as he could, he pulled out the tether and anchored it to the hull, pulling it loose to give him as much slack as he could. The Medea was set to make an FTL jump in less than a minute, and anything not attached to it would be left behind.

Anything such as his brother.

“I’m coming for you, Aaron!” Isaac shouted as he coiled his legs to jump. “I’m not going to leave you here!”

He deactivated the magnetic clamps on his boots and pushed off with all his strength. For a hair-raising moment, he feared that he was drifting to the side, out of reach of his brother. Once in freefall, there was no changing direction. But then he saw that his brother was getting steadily closer, just as he’d hoped. Only a few more seconds, and—

A wave of nausea swept over him as the all-too familiar disorientation of jumpspace began to build all around him. The Medea was about to make the jump. Panic seized him, sending sweat down the back of his neck and making his stomach turn.

“Come on!” he screamed. “Don’t kick me away, grab—”

But he was too late. With just an arm’s length between him and his brother, the universe turned inside out as the stars flashed out of existence. Isaac caught one last glimpse of Aaron’s face through the helmet, his eyes open wide in terror just as he disappeared. The cable went taught, yanking Isaac back to the ship, but Aaron was gone.

“No!” Isaac cried, tears streaming down his cheeks as the stars of deep space covered him with their soft milky glow. “No, no, no!”

A ship appeared, followed by another, and then another. They looked like freighters and cargo haulers, except with guns mounted on their sides. Isaac could barely make them out through the tears, but somehow he knew that they were the ships of the Flotilla. They’d been destroyed at Colkhia, in the battle that had followed the failure of his mission. These were apparitions, the ghosts of those who had died.

Why did you fail us? they asked him.

“I-I didn’t mean to,” he said, his body shaking in his suit. “I did all I could to—”

The Imperials have won. Our cause is lost. The Outworlds will fall.

“No! Please! There has to be something we can do. Just wait—I’m going to Ithaca, where I’ll meet up with the others for the next fight.”

There won’t be a next fight. The Imperials have destroyed us, because you failed.

“That—that can’t be true,” Isaac stammered. “We’ll rise up again, and I’ll make it back to you—I promise!”

Nothing can ever bring us back.

The ships disappeared, and a new one appeared out of jumpspace—the Starfire. Its menacing bulk filled Isaac’s vision, making his eyes open wide with fear. The battleship’s forward guns opened fire, and a bright cluster of missiles sped silently toward him.

“No—please! Spare me!”

But it was too late. In less than a second, the missiles struck home. There was a brief but overpowering flash, followed by an engulfing fire, then absolute darkness.


* * * * *


Isaac’s screaming woke Reva at once. Her eyes flew open, but her just-awakened body was too sluggish to respond. Instead, she lay still on the bottom bunk, trying to get her bearings as her heart thumped wildly in her chest.

Just as abruptly as it had begun, the screaming stopped. For a few moments, there was silence, broken only by a soft whimper. Then, she heard Isaac climb down off his bunk and walk across the cabin. The lights went on soon after, making her squint and cover he eyes.

It was a nightmare, she thought, her heart slowly calming. Just a nightmare. He’ll get over it soon.

She considered pulling the curtain shut and going back to sleep, but something made her linger. She turned and glanced at him, hunched over the tiny lounge table with his face buried in his hands. She realized with a start that he was crying.

It must have been a bad one, she thought as she slipped her legs over the side of the bunk. Is he all right? Is there anything I can do?

She dropped to the floor and walked over to the table. He turned away when he saw her coming, clearly embarrassed to be seen crying. To let him know it was okay, she put a hand on his shoulder, but the gesture made him pull away.

That was when she noticed that he was only wearing a pair of boxers.

She stepped back and frowned. How had she missed that until now? He looked so different—more open, less anonymous and aloof. Strangely, he also looked more vulnerable. Wispy tufts of dark black hair ran down the middle of his chest, but that was the only sign that he was any older than her. In fact, they seemed to be a lot closer in age than she’d first realized.

His cheeks turned red, and she realized that he wasn’t just embarrassed because he’d been crying. It was the lack of clothing—the feeling of being exposed—that made him so vulnerable.

Is that why they wear clothing? she wondered to herself. To build a wall around themselves? To close themselves off from strangers? Back at Anuva Station, there had been no strangers. The community had been small enough that every face was familiar. Here, everyone seemed to be strangers to each other.

Would he feel more comfortable if I put something on? It was his culture, after all—she was the one who was out of her element, not him. He’d tolerated her nudity for a long time now, but she could tell that it was awkward for him. As much as she felt that the clothing created an artificial barrier between them, so long as she refused to wear it, there was a part of him that would always be closed off to her.

She opened the wall compartment with her clothes and pulled out the gray slip dress. The feel of the fabric against her skin made her cringe, but she forced herself to ignore it as she pulled it over her head and let it fall over her shoulders. At least it wasn’t clingy. And as for her tattoos, the ones on her shoulders and arms were still visible. She didn’t like to cover any of them, but at least this was a compromise she could live with.

She returned to the table and sat down across from Isaac. He didn’t notice her until she reached out and touched his hand.

“Hello.”

The sound of her voice startled him. He glanced at her sideways out of the corner of his eyes, then turned and faced her directly when he saw that she wasn’t nude.

“Reva?”

“What is it?” she asked. “What bad?”

“Nothing,” he said, shaking his head as he looked away. She squeezed his hand to bring him back.

“No, what is it?”

He sighed and gave an explanation that obviously went over her level of understanding. When that didn’t deter her, he stood up to leave, but in the tiny confines of the ship, there wasn’t anywhere he could go. He made as if to go to the cockpit, but stopped short, apparently rethinking it. His hands clenched, then relaxed. Turning, he walked over to the food synthesizer and pulled out an empty glass from the nearby compartment.

“You want?” he asked.

“Yes,” Reva answered.

A couple of minutes later, he returned to the table with two purple drinks in his hands. He set down one in front of her, and she sipped it quietly.

“Brother,” he said, using a word she didn’t understand. “My brother.”

She cocked her head and gave him a questioning look. “Bro-dher?”

“Brother,” he repeated, then hit the keypad on the table to bring up a menu. After scrolling through the options, the surface cleared, and by pressing his fingertip he was able to draw on it. Reva squinted to get a better look at what he was drawing, but it made no sense to her.

“Come here,” he said, scooting over and motioning for her to sit next to him.

When Reva came over to the other side of the table, she saw that the drawing was a diagram of some sort, with little stick figures arranged in a sort of pyramid. At the top were two joined by a double line, with little curls on the left one that probably represented hair. A horizontal bracket sat below them, connected to the double line and in turn connecting to three other stick figures.

“Me,” Isaac said, pointing to one of the hairless figures at the base. “Brother,” he said, pointing to the one next to it. “Sister, mother, father,” he said, pointing to all the other ones.

“You?” Reva asked, pointing to the first one. Isaac nodded. “Man?” she asked, receiving the same answer.

The ones with curls are women, and the ones without are men, she realized. All at once, the meaning was clear: the diagram represented a family.

But what did that have to do with Isaac’s nightmare?

“You are Isaac,” she said, pointing again to the stick figure at the base in the center. “I am Reva.” Then, pointing to the other male figure, “Brother what is?”

“Aaron,” Isaac answered. He buried his face in his hands again.

“What is it? What is bad?”

Isaac sighed and began to speak, the words pouring out of his mouth like light around the horizon of a planet during sunrise. Reva couldn’t follow everything, but from his tone of voice, she gathered that he and his brother were very close.

“Brother where is?”

Here he took a deep breath and made a cutting motion across his throat. He’s dead, Reva realized. Isaac’s brother is dead.

At first, it seemed odd to her that Isaac would have such strong feelings for his brother. Then she realized that there was a reason why the Medea had two bunks, why it had an empty chair in the cockpit. Had Isaac’s brother also been his copilot? Had he lost him just before she’d arrived? That would explain the strength of his emotions, and the ferocity of his nightmares. She’d heard about star wanderers who left everything behind in order to seek their fortunes among the stars. Their families might not be dead, but they wouldn’t ever see them again. And if Isaac was a star wanderer and his brother was the only family he had left, then losing him must have been just as hard as losing her own family was to her.

She reached out and took his hand, squeezing it gently. Isaac’s eyes reddened and he looked away quickly. Though neither of them said anything, the meaning was clear, even without words.

I should do something for him, Reva thought. If he misses his brother, the least I can do is give him some token of consolation.

“Stay,” she said, rising to her feet. Isaac made as if to stand up, but she put both hands on his shoulders and held him down. From her wall compartment, she pulled out the bag of henna powder and an empty bowl from the washer unit. The next part was a bit more complicated, but she’d already experimented enough with the food synthesizer to know how to get the right blend of juices. She dropped a spoonful of henna into the bowl and mixed it with some slightly acidic lemon tonic from the synthesizer.

Mixing the henna reminded her of the day her sister-in-law had painted her. The memory was still painfully clear, as if it had happened only a few weeks ago. How much time had passed since then? Reva’s hands trembled as she recalled the terrible images of her home from the video feed that Isaac had shown her, of her sister-in-law’s desiccated corpse draped over the cryotank that held her frozen body. The pangs of grief cut her like lasers, but she did her best to put that out of her mind. She couldn’t have her hands trembling when she applied the henna.

“Brother,” she said, returning to the table. With one finger, she drew the sigil for brotherhood on the holographic screen. Isaac leaned forward and peered at it. “Brother,” she repeated.

This is for your brother, so that he can be with you in spirit—as my family is still with me.

Pulling out the dropper she’d found the day before, she dipped it in the bowl and filled it with henna paste. Isaac drew back as she went to apply it to his shoulder, but after looking into her eyes, he nodded and sat back. He made no further move to resist her as she carefully drew the sigil.

“Good, good,” she said softly. It’s going to be okay. You’ll get through this—just like I will.

Perhaps they weren’t so different after all.


* * * * *


The shower felt like a soothing balm on Isaac’s skin. He chipped away the henna that had dried on the spot where Reva had painted him.

She seems to be opening up, he thought as he scrubbed off the last of the henna residue. It was hard to believe that only a week or so had passed since he’d retrieved her from the escape pod. She’d been so aloof and standoffish then, unwilling to even eat his food, much less talk with him. Now, she was picking up the language so fast that he couldn’t keep her from talking. More importantly, she was starting to wear clothes on her own. As much as he’d tried to accommodate her, he’d never gotten used to that aspect of her culture. And if she was willing to accommodate him now, that boded well for the future.

As the rinse cycle neared completion, an alarm sounded over the shipwide intercom. He brought it up on the shower panel’s tiny screen. Something up at the cockpit needed his immediate attention.

Frowning, he activated the dry cycle and set it to the maximum setting. Hot air blasted down on him, sucking up the precious moisture and sending it to the recyclers. Before the cycle had finished, he stepped out and pulled on a jumpsuit, clasping it shut as he rushed to the cockpit. Reva frowned as he ran past her, but when she saw that he was in a hurry, she let him pass by.

He slipped into the pilot’s seat and brought up the alarm on the main screen. It was an incoming signal, coming from the direction of … where? He studied the scanners, trying to make sense of what he saw. They were deep in space, light-years from the nearest charted system. Perhaps there was a rogue planet out here somewhere, but it wasn’t showing up on the maps.

Stumped, he turned his attention to the signal itself. It was a simple distress call, followed by a set of sidereal coordinates, no doubt the origin of the signal itself.

Pirates, he realized. They must have caught someone who hadn’t paid for protection. Since it took several hours to recharge a jump drive, it was possible to set up an ambush in deep space. The signal emitted from entering and exiting jumpspace would alert anyone within a few light-hours, and the tightness of the rift meant that all the traffic would flow through the same narrow corridor. Of course, even in the rift, space was vast enough that it was possible to slip through completely undetected. But with the sector practically brimming with pirates, the risk of falling prey to them was significant.

Footsteps sounded behind him as Reva stepped into the cockpit. She sat down in Aaron’s chair, still wearing the gray slip dress.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Bad,” said Isaac. He pointed to the starmap, which showed a flashing point at the distress signal’s origin. “Pirates.”

Reva frowned. “Pie-rats?”

“That’s right. Bad men who raid stations and capture starships. They steal and kill.”

A look of confusion crossed her face, so he made a cutting motion across his throat. “Bad. Very bad. We leave now.”

“Brother?” she asked.

Isaac’s heart sank. If Aaron were still alive, they’d be arguing right now about whether they should try to rescue the survivors. Isaac never thought he would have missed any of their fights, but now he even missed their worst moments together.

Of course, it was only because of Isaac’s failure that they were in this situation at all.

“Brother?” Reva repeated.

“No,” Isaac muttered. “Not my brother. Go back into the cabin—I’ll be there in a minute.”

She hesitated for a moment, but when it became clear that he would ignore her, she turned and left. It was just as well. A lump formed in his throat as he imagined the argument he and Aaron would have had about the distress call. Yes, those people were in trouble. No, they shouldn’t go help them. Why? Because they had a duty to the Resistance, and it wasn’t worth the risk. Besides, what would they do even if they found any survivors? Was there any more room on the Medea? Yes, it was horrible. Yes, he wished they could do something about it, too.

Sorry, Aaron, he apologized inwardly. Sorry not to go after them. The apology was pointless without Aaron there to hear it, but he couldn’t help but make it anyway.


Wanderers Bewrayed


Isaac sighed in relief as the Medea exited jumpspace with the yellow-orange star Ithaca clearly in view. It took a few moments for the scanners to bring up the system’s three planets: Laertes, Anticlea, and Penelope. Anticlea was less than a hundred thousand klicks off the Medea’s bow, and by the time he triangulated his local position, docking control was already hailing him.

“Attention, unknown starship. This is Anticlea docking control,” the controller said in Pleiadian creole. “Please identify immediately.”

“Hello, docking control, this is Isaac Deltana of the Medea, requesting permission to dock.”

Silence followed as the controller processed his request. Next to him, Reva pointed at the star out the tinted glass of the forward window.

“What is it name star?” she asked.

“Ithaca,” said Isaac. “We’re in the New Pleiades star cluster.”

“New Pleiades?”

“That’s right. Sound familiar?”

She didn’t seem to understand the question, but from the look of recognition on her face, it was clear that the answer was yes. Her eyes widened with excitement, and she began to point absent-mindedly with her fingers, drawing out some kind of a map to help her put in context where she was. It didn’t seem like she knew the star as Ithaca, but the New Pleiades was definitely a name that she knew.

Medea, this is docking control. You are cleared for bay 7S9. Stand by for flight plans.”

“Copy, docking control. Awaiting transmission.”

On the scanners, more than two dozen starships danced around the crater-marred world of Anticlea. The planet was so small that the orbital patterns overlapped considerably. A number of defensive satellites ringed the world as well, a sign that the Resistance was still firmly in control of the system. It looked as if they’d fortified it well against any possible incursion from Imperial advance forces.

As Isaac waited for the flight plans, he checked the local planetnet for any news about the war. The message boards were all sparse on information, though. He’d probably have more luck buying someone a drink at the local bar.

It’s possible that they haven’t heard about Colkhia yet, Isaac realized. I might be the first one to come out here since the battle. If so, he would have to spread the news quickly—the others in the Resistance needed to know about it as soon as possible.

For a moment, he considered posting to the message boards before beginning his maneuvers. That would mean revealing his hand immediately, though, which could be dangerous. He doubted that the pirates had infiltrated Ithaca Station, but they could easily be lurking elsewhere in the system. For all he knew, one of those ships on the scanners could secretly be with Gulchina’s Marauders.

Better to hold off for now, then, he told himself. Once we’re safely docked, though, I’ll do all that I can to spread the news. With all of the defensive satellites securing the planet, he doubted the pirates would try anything while he was at port.

The flight plans transmitted cleanly, indicating an ETA of three and a half hours. Isaac nodded. That was acceptable. Three hours until his mission was finally over.

Three hours until they were safe.


* * * * *


The New Pleiades! Reva thought to herself. The sublight engines roared softly through the bulkheads, pressing her back against her seat, but her thoughts were so excited that she hardly noticed. I remember where the New Pleiades are. But which way is home?

Isaac had called the system “Ithaca,” but Reva didn’t know any star by that name. It was possible that his people used a completely different naming system for the stars than she was used to, though obviously there was some overlap. Perhaps the people here worshiped a different pantheon? Then she really was far from home.

None of that mattered, though. What mattered was that she finally had some idea of where she was.

As she waited for the engine burn to finish, she tried to recall what little she remembered from her history classes back home. History had never been her best subject; it hadn’t interested her as much as the others. She did remember learning something about the original settlers of Anuva, who came from a star known as Edenia. A religious colony had gathered there to transform one of the planets into a paradisaical, Earthlike world, but the terraforming project had failed, leading to strife and discord. Her ancestors had been branded heretics and had broken off to start their own colony. She didn’t remember anything else about Edenia, though, or how to recognize it on a starmap. Astrography wasn’t one of her strong subjects, either.

“New Pleiades where is?” she asked, turning to Isaac.

He shrugged and gestured with his hands, unable to come up with an answer. She pointed to the scanners.

“Where is?”

“Wait,” he said. Then, as the engines subsided and the gravity returned to normal, he unstrapped himself from his seat and stood up. “Come.”

She followed him into the cabin, where he motioned for her to sit in the niche with the table. He sat down in front of her, activating the controls and cycling through the menus. She tried to see what he was doing, but even if she could read the writing, it was all upside down. Instead, she waited impatiently for him to finish.

“What is it? New Pleiades where—”

The lights in the cabin dimmed, cutting her short. Her eyes widened and the hair on her arms stood on end as the image on the tabletop shifted to a 3D hologram hovering above the surface. It showed hundreds of points of light, each with a tiny label next to it. Some of the points were red, others white, others yellow and orange.

Stars, she realized. She was looking at the three-dimensional projection of a starmap.

As Isaac cycled through the menus, the stars swirled and turned, making her dizzy. She tried to keep up, but her knowledge of astrography was too limited to recognize anything. At length, though, he brought the projection to a stop, with a large cluster in the center and several dozen stars all around it.

“New Pleiades,” said Isaac, gesturing with his hand.

“New Pleiades?” Reva asked, frowning in disappointment. The vague cluster of dots did little to help her.

Apparently Isaac saw that, because he turned back to the tabletop and began cycling through the menus once again. This time, though, the holographic projection remained still.

“New Pleiades,” he said, pointing to the display on the table.

Reva looked down and gasped. She saw another map, this one a picture of the sky around her home. She recognized the constellations of the New Pleiades at once: the Pentagon, the Snake, and the Rocketship. None of the constellations were drawn out or diagrammed for her, but she recognized them from her memories of lying down on the transparent floor and watching the stars drift by. They were all in exactly the same positions that she remembered.

“Your home,” said Isaac, pointing up at one of the holographic stars hovering near her head. A red arrow marked it for her. She peered at it for a while, then stood up so that her eye was right next to it and looked down at the other holographic stars. To her delight, she could make out the familiar constellations.

“It is! It is!” she squealed, unable to hold her excitement any longer. She clasped her hands together and bounced up and down in her seat. Isaac smiled.

“We are here,” he said, pointing to the outskirts of the holographic cluster. He tapped the keypad, and another arrow flashed to mark the star, this one green instead of red. On the tabletop display, a similar arrow flashed to point out the star as it appeared from Reva’s home.

“Thanatar,” she murmured, recalling the name of the star-god. According to her religious training—which she remembered quite well—Thanatar was the god of the moments of death, birth, and conception. He was a minor god, serving the others that featured more prominently in the pantheon, but he still played an important role. In all the myths, he featured as a trickster, disguising himself as a friend or family member only to reveal his true identity just as somebody died. He often escorted the dead to the first stage of the afterlife, staying with them until the body grew cold and still.

Reva shivered. This was not a good sign. She wasn’t as religious as some of the people she’d known, but still, their arrival here at Thanatar did not bode well. They would have to do something to appease the god—or at least to stay out of his way.

“What’s wrong?” Isaac asked, noticing her discomfort. She shrugged him off and forced a smile.

“Home,” she said, pointing at Anuva on the holographic projection. That, at least, was a good thing to know. For the first time since waking from cryo, she finally felt some sense of orientation. If nothing else, at least she knew where she was now.

And it was right where she didn’t want to be.


* * * * *


“Where is the station master?”

Isaac waited impatiently as the doorkeeper AI processed his request. It must have been an older model, or else its voice recognition subsystem wasn’t working properly, because he had to repeat the question again before it processed.

“Master Achilles is at Quadrant B, level two, room four,” the AI answered in its canned voice. Definitely an older model.

“Let’s go,” Isaac muttered, dragging Reva along. She hesitated, just as she had at the airlock before stepping onto the station. For some reason, she seemed strangely skittish. Was it her clothes? No, she’d worn them consistently ever since tattooing his shoulder a little less than a week ago. She should be used to them by now. Was it the fact that her henna tattoos were starting to fade? That might be it, though again, he doubted it. It wasn’t until he’d shown her the starmap that she’d started to act unusual.

No matter. They were safe at Ithaca Station now. The most important thing was to spread the news of the defeat at Colkhia, then chart a course for the nearest Resistance base. With the jump beacon network in place, it was only a couple of jumps away.

They hurried down the narrow rimside corridor of the small station, past the docking nodes and the down-facing windows. Strangely, there weren’t any refugees from the Imperial invasion. Isaac knew that this was the far side of the rift from Colkhia, but he had still expected to see at least a few of them. Either the Resistance had managed to find temporary shelters for them elsewhere, or the pirates had been more ruthless than he’d realized. Judging from his meeting with Aslan at Gibeon, he suspected it was the latter.

The scent of incense met his nose as they followed the upward-curving corridor. A small shrine stood on the right, near a large observation window.

“Stop!” said Reva. She pulled her hand free and walked over to the shrine, stopping to bow with her hands peaked against her chest before approaching it. Isaac sighed and rolled his eyes.

What’s she stopping for? he wondered impatiently. Can’t she see that I’m in a hurry? Now was not the time for religious observances.

“Come on,” he said, gesturing for him to come. She ignored him, though, and picked up a stick of incense to light.

For a moment, Isaac considered taking her by the arm and dragging her out, but then he realized that if it was a Christian shrine, he probably would have let her pray. Yes, she was pagan, but that didn’t mean he shouldn’t let her pray like anyone else. It was annoying, but if that was what she felt she needed to do, he could wait for her.

“Ready?” he asked as she returned from the small shrine. She nodded.

He took her hand, and they hurried off once again. This time, she did her best to keep pace. Perhaps letting her pray had been a good idea after all.

At length, they arrived at the atrium marking the start of Quadrant B. Isaac palmed the access panel for the nearest elevator, and the doors slid open with a slight hiss. He paused to let Reva in first, then entered.

The corridor at level two was much wider, with market stalls scattered on either side. Most of them were empty, but a few merchants were selling wares. Room four was actually a large cantina, crowded with starfarers and other people who were clearly from out of system. The air smelled thick of spices that were foreign to Isaac’s nose. He hadn’t had much time to get used to Pleiadian cuisine. A few people eyed him and Reva as he entered, but most of the patrons paid them little mind.

“Where is the station master?” Isaac asked the man behind the counter. He was busy polishing glasses with his apron, while a server-bot hovered back with an empty food tray. Isaac waited a few seconds, but it seemed that the man hadn’t heard him.

“I said, where is the station master?”

“Over there,” said a man seated at the bar. “You’ll have to excuse old Frank. He’s a little hard of hearing.”

“Over where?” Isaac asked. There were so many people crowded around the tables that it was difficult to see who the man was pointing to.

“Over there, see? The big guy with the black goatee.”

“Ah. Thanks.”

“Is this your girl?” asked the man seated next to him. He grinned at Reva, who glared unflinchingly back at him.

“Uh, sort of,” said Isaac. “Thanks, but—”

“Those are some might fine tattoos,” he said, reaching out to touch her. She slapped his hand away and sneered, making everyone nearby laugh.

“Ouch!”

“Catty woman.”

“Where did she get that face paint?”

Isaac took Reva by the arm and pulled her away, blood rushing to his cheeks as he did so. It was too late to avoid attracting attention, though. By the time he got to the station master’s table, half the cantina was staring at him.

“Are you Master Achilles?” he asked the man with the black goatee.

The man paused his conversation with his neighbor and turned to face Isaac. He was large and heavyset, with jowls and a balding head. In spite of that, his eyes were sharp and clear.

“Can I help you?”

“Yes, you can,” said Isaac. “I’m Isaac Deltana, an agent of the Resistance. I just came here from Colkhia.”

“Colkhia?” Several people around the table looked at him and frowned.

“That’s right. I have some bad news. The attack there has failed—we were unable to push the Imperials back, and the Flotilla was either routed or destroyed.”

Silence gradually fell as the people nearby turned from their conversations to listen. All ears were on Isaac now.

“You say the Flotilla was destroyed?”

“Yes. Destroyed or routed, I don’t know which one for sure. I left before the battle got bad, but we definitely lost. The Imperials still control the system, and for all I know they’re pushing forward to Vulcana.”

The silence shattered to hoots and peals of laughter. Isaac frowned.

“What’s going on? You don’t believe me?”

“You say the Imperials still control Colkhia?” someone behind him asked. “When were you there? Two months ago?”

“No,” said Isaac, his cheeks reddening a second time. “I just came from there via Shiloh. I left less than two standard weeks ago.”

“That explains it,” said the station master. He rose to his feet and laid a hand on Isaac’s shoulder. “Friend, the Flotilla was victorious. We heard the news just a few days ago. They’ve taken control of Colkhia and pushed the Imperials out of the Outworlds.”

Isaac’s jaw dropped, and his eyes widened. “W-what do you mean? Are you sure?”

A loud grunt of assent came from around the room, followed by more laughter. The station master smiled and gave Isaac a firm pat.

“As sure as we are about anything in this war. A convoy came through just this dayshift with news from Admiral Tully herself. Colkhia has been liberated.”

“But how is that possible?”

“It wasn’t easy,” said one of the starfarers seated across the table. “Hell, I was there kid. The Flotilla got scattered all across the system somehow, and a lot of ships were lost before we managed to regroup. But then the Starfire showed up out of nowhere, with a message that the Aegis platoons were in control of her. Without their flagship, the Imperials bugged out of there faster than the speed of light.”

The Aegis platoons! Isaac’s heart skipped a beat—that was where Aaron had been assigned.

“Yep, that’s right,” said the station master. “So thanks for the warning, but—”

“Do you have a casualty list?” Isaac asked, turning to the starfarer who’d given his account of the battle.

The man frowned. “Not really, no. I don’t even think they made one.”

“What about just the Aegis platoons? Do you know who survived among them?”

“I’m afraid not, kid.”

“The Flotilla, then—the Flotilla,” said Isaac, rapidly becoming frantic. “Do you know where they’re regrouping?”

“I don’t know if I can tell you.”

“I’m with the Resistance—here, I’ll show you.”

Isaac took off his wrist console and brought up the coordinates for New Hope Station. That was the rallying point for the Outworld Flotilla, and the headquarters for the liberation campaign. It orbited a rogue planet near the frontier stars, and wasn’t on any conventional starmap.

“Here,” he said, handing it off to the starfarer. “Is that good enough for you?”

He looked at the display and handed it back. “Yeah, that’s enough all right. The Flotilla is heading back to New Hope Station. You’ll get your answers there.”

“Thanks,” said Isaac, his hands shaking almost uncontrollably. “Thank you so much.”

“No problem, kid. Here, can I buy you a drink?”

But Isaac was already on his way out of the cantina, with Reva close in tow. The Flotilla had won—they’d actually won! And the Aegis platoons had even captured the Imperial flagship. That was some amazing news. The war wasn’t over yet, but the Imperials had been pushed back.

More importantly, there was a good chance that Aaron was still alive.


* * * * *


Reva relaxed a little as the docking node came into sight. So they were leaving—that was good. The less time they spent in this system, the better.

Not that she liked the way that Isaac was dragging her everywhere. The guys back at the cantina were jerks, but she could have handled herself even without knowing what they were saying. Men weren’t that difficult to read. She had no idea what the other men had told him, but from the rush he was in to get back, she supposed it was important.

They turned off the long rimside corridor and climbed down the steep, narrow staircase for the docking node. Isaac let go of her arm and keyed the access panel next to the station airlock door. His fingers raced, though he made a mistake and had to enter the code a second time.

The heavy metal door hissed open, and they stepped through the node and into the airlock of the Medea. As they did, something odd caught Reva’s eye. A pair of wires hung from the access panel for the open exterior door on the shipward side, and the panel itself looked as if it had been removed and then refitted. Reva frowned. For some reason, it reminded her of the bad men who had tried to break onto the Medea while Isaac had been away.

“Isaac,” she said, unsure of how to warn him. She didn’t have the vocabulary to explain herself yet, so she tapped his shoulder and pointed to the panel.

To her dismay, he shrugged her off. He was so intent to get back onto his starship that he barely paid her any mind.

“Hey,” she said in her own language, tapping his shoulder again. “There’s something I think you should see. Aren’t you listening?”

But he wasn’t. The door hissed open, and he stepped inside.

You idiot, Reva wanted to say. Couldn’t you tell I was trying to tell you something? She followed him in, since there wasn’t much point in staying outside, but she didn’t like it. Something felt very wrong, and she didn’t know how to tell him.

That was when she saw the bad men.

Isaac had seen them first, and was struggling with one against the wall. Their arms were locked, as if they were ready to wrestle each other to the ground. Without thinking, Reva screamed.

Green gas filled the cabin, coming from some sort of canister that the other man held in his hand. That was when she saw that both of them were wearing masks. Isaac coughed, and he fell to his knees as his grip weakened. Reva rushed over to help him, but the sickly-sweet gas was starting to make her feel woozy. Stars clouded the edge of her vision, and the floor began to wobble beneath her as she lost her balance.

I’ve got to get out of here, she realized. Please, Thanatar! Have mercy on me!

But the trickster god was not known for his mercy. As Reva ran for the door, the cabin spun and the floor rose up to meet her. She fell on her face, dizziness and nausea fighting for dominance over her sluggish, unresponsive body. The last thing she thought as she passed into unconsciousness was that she should have lit another stick of incense at the shrine in the corridor.


Belly of the Beast


Isaac groaned and struggled to sit up against the cold metal floor. He opened his eyes, but saw nothing but a shapeless blur. His head ached, and there was a painfully tender bruise on his right collarbone. He tried to rub it and found that his hands were bound together.

What the hell is going on? he wondered. When he tried to push himself to his feet, he slipped and fell on something warm and fleshy.

It was Reva. As his vision cleared he saw the outline of the tattoos fading into her dark brown skin. He recoiled, realizing that both of them were naked. She moaned as he backed off of her, struggling to sit up just as he had done. His vision cleared a little more, and he saw that she was bound just like him.

“Reva,” he said softly. “Reva, are you okay?”

She blinked and moaned. He looked up and squinted. The lights practically burned his eyes, they were so bright. Gradually, his vision adjusted, allowing him to see where they were.

They were in a cargo bay of some kind—at least, it was built like one, with a high ceiling and slots for the magnetic clamps. There weren’t any crates or cargo containers, though. In fact, the room was conspicuously empty, with only a loading claw in one corner to indicate that it was still occasionally used for its original function. But the strangest part by far was the freight airlock. Instead of reinforced durasteel, the inner door was made almost entirely of plastiglass, as transparent as a window. Shackles hung from the ceiling, as if it wasn’t an airlock at all but some sort of voyeuristic prison cell.

“Reva?”

“I am good,” she muttered, rubbing her eyes. She still seemed pretty woozy, but at least she wasn’t beaten up too badly. Her elbows were bruised, but that was all.

“Where the hell are we?” Isaac mused aloud. The last thing he remembered was wrestling that intruder up against the wall, only to be gassed. Too late, he had realized that the two men wore masks not to conceal their identities but to allow them to breathe while they poisoned the air of the tiny cabin. Isaac had struggled, but the gas had been too strong. It had burned his eyes and sapped his strength, making his head spin and the world around him turn to darkness. The next thing he realized, he was here, naked and bound along with Reva.

Who had taken them? How long had they lain here? More importantly, where was his ship, and what were they doing to it? He struggled against his bonds, but the shackles were made of heavy steel, too thick to cut even with a laser-blade. There was no way he could free himself.

At least Reva is still here, he thought, trying to stay optimistic. And at least we’re both still strong and healthy. An old, wise starfarer had once told him that so long as he had his health, he could work his way through anything. It looked like they were going to put that maxim to the test.

“Where is it?” Reva asked. Her voice was tinged with fear.

“I don’t know,” Isaac answered.

She looked at him and frowned. From the expression on her face, she was clearly fighting the urge to panic.

“Who is it? Bad men?”

“Yes,” Isaac muttered. “You’re probably right.”

As if in answer, a door hissed open behind him. He turned and saw two men in thick black armor flanking a woman in a crisp, navy blue military uniform, complete with white gloves and heavy knee-length boots. Her face was pale, her features sharp, and her hair as black as the void of space. It stretched almost to her slender hips, where she wore an energy pistol and rapier. The sword’s scabbard was made of finely fashioned gold, the handle encrusted with jewels. Isaac had never seen anything like it.

She walked swiftly and confidently across the room until she stood within an arm’s length of the two prisoners. The guards spread out on either side to flank her and produced two electric shock-prods. From the ozone smell they produced and the way they sizzled in the stale air, it was clear that they were set to maximum.

“Do you know who I am?” the woman asked, her arms folded. She stared down at him with a look of naked contempt.

“I-I’m afraid we don’t,” he stuttered. “Please, there must be some misunderst-AAGH!”

Stars filled his vision as sharp pain exploded across the whole left side of his body. His legs and arms spasmed, and he collapsed to the floor, shaking uncontrollably.

“This is not a negotiation. You will be silent except to answer my questions promptly and directly. Any attempts to resist or equivocate will not be tolerated. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes,” Isaac whimpered, still quivering from the shock.

“Very well. Look at me.”

Isaac’s side still burned with pain, but he obediently opened his eyes and looked up at the woman. She stared down at him with an icy aloofness that chilled him even more than the cold, stale air. He shivered, intensely aware of his nakedness. Before the uncaring wrath of this terrifying woman, he was utterly powerless.

“I am Gulchina of the Temujin,” she said, her voice even colder than her gaze. “On this ship, I rule with the voice and authority of an almighty god. The air that you breathe is a gift from my hand, to be dispensed only as I see fit. So, too, is it with the food that you eat, the water that you drink, the clothing that you wear, and the space that you occupy. You have no right nor claim on any of these things so long as you are on my ship. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Isaac moaned, though most of her words passed over him. Only one stuck with him: Gulchina. The chief commander of Gulchina’s Marauders.

“I have preserved your life in order to obtain information from you. If that information proves useful, I may decide to preserve your life further. If not, I will not hesitate to throw you out the airlock. Understand?”

Cold sweat began to form on the back of Isaac’s neck. “Y-yes, ma’am.”

A sharp pain jabbed him in the kidney, making him scream. His body flailed wildly, and bowel constricted and emptied itself. Warm urine dribbled down his legs, puddling beneath him on the floor.

“You will address me as ‘captain’ or ‘sir,’ not as ‘ma’am’ and never as ‘miss.’ My rank and station are so far above yours that anything else would be an insult. Do I make myself clear?”

Isaac tried to answer, but his words came out as a pathetic moan. The stench of urine filled his nose, and his muscles felt as weak and as fluid as water.

“Put him in the airlock,” he heard Gulchina say. “And clean up this mess. I’ll question him later.”

Rough hands lifted him from under his arms and dragged him across the cold metal floor. He kicked his legs and tried to walk, but to no avail. A hiss from behind told him that someone had opened a door. The hands pulled him to his feet and bound his wrists in the shackles dangling from the ceiling. He tried to stand, but his legs sagged and he collapsed. He hung by his wrists as his strength slowly returned.

The inner door hissed shut, but through the window, he could see the other soldier pulling Reva to her feet. Her body trembled, but she did a good job of masking her panic and fear. Gulchina turned and motioned to her guards, who followed her out of the cargo bay with Reva. The door slid shut, leaving him alone.

Alone, with mere inches of durasteel between him and an airless death.


* * * * *


I can’t show any fear, Reva thought, her heart pounding like a small animal trapped in a cage. The moment I show fear is the moment they have all power over me.

The black-haired woman led her through a narrow corridor into an elevator. The car was so small that the four of them had to press shoulder to shoulder just to fit, but from the casual way that they crowded together, they didn’t seem to think it unusual. The guards gripped her arms a little tighter and grabbed onto the handholds as the elevator took off. It soon became clear why.

Reva’s stomach flipped, and she gasped in shock as her feet lifted off the floor. The gravity! she thought, nearly giving in to the urge to panic. She fought it down, though, and swallowed to prevent herself from throwing up. Even so, the taste of vomit filled her mouth as the acceleration pressed her back against the two guards.

After a short ride, the elevator came to a halt, and the comforting sensation of gravity returned. The door hissed open, and the woman stepped out calmly, as if the ride hadn’t disconcerted her in the least.

By now, it was clear to Reva that the woman was some sort of captain. She’d seen how the two men had looked to her before prodding Isaac with their torture devices and how she had stopped them with a slight gesture. Even now, they escorted Reva with cold, machine-like precision. No doubt that was because their captain was present—a woman captain, no less. But Reva did not expect to receive any mercy. In fact, she was more than a little surprised that they hadn’t tortured her, as well.

Where are they taking me? she thought frantically. Please, Thanatar, if they’re going to kill me, let it be soon. In some ways, she wished they had tortured her—at least then, the anticipation would be over. Dragging things out like this made it far worse.

The captain palmed open a door and stepped in. The guards stopped at the doorway and released her. To her surprise, when she followed the captain inside, the door slid shut behind her, leaving the two of them alone.

The room she found herself in provided a stark contrast to the one in which she’d woken up. Where the first one was spacious and cold, this one was cozy and warm. A magnificently woven rug covered the floor while the walls were made of ornate ceramic tiles painted in arabesque patterns of blue and purple. Wallscreens cycled through stunning images of starscapes and nebulae, with a single porthole offering a narrow view of space outside. A low table sat in the center of the room, its surface made of wood—authentic wood—with a geometric mosaic pattern set into its surface. There were two chairs in the room, both made of dark authentic wood like the table and both carved more ornately than anything Reva had ever seen. The captain claimed one and motioned for her to sit down in the other. She did so, and the softness of the plush velvet cushion against her bare skin was like a gentle caress.

What is going on here?

The captain took off her rapier and hung it horizontally beneath the porthole before taking a seat. She tapped a series of commands on a keypad embedded in the armrest, and a disc-shaped server-bot hovered down from an unseen compartment in the ceiling. It approached Reva and unfolded a set of eight spindly legs, like a giant, floating spider.

Reva recoiled in terror, unable to hide it any longer. Before she could resist, however, the bot took hold of the restraints on her wrists and released her from them. After freeing her, the bot set down the restraints on the table in the center of the room and returned to its hidden compartment in the ceiling.

I’m free, Reva realized. The captain has released me. She gripped her armrests and recomposed herself as best she could, sitting on the edge of the cushioned seat with her back straight.

“Who art thou?” the captain asked.

Reva’s eyes widened at the sound of her own language. How the captain knew it, Reva didn’t know, but her heart beat a little faster just to hear the familiar words.

“My name is Reva Starchild,” she answered. “I am … the last survivor of my people.”

“The last survivor? From whence hailest thou?”

“From Anuva. But that was the name we gave our own star—I don’t know what name these people call it by.”

“I am familiar with the names by which thou callest the stars, and the manner in which thou worshipeth them. Thou art truly a child of the Far Outworlds, and as such there is nothing of thine which is hid from me.”

She’s speaking Old Anuvan, Reva thought, her mind racing. She doesn’t know proper Anuvan, because we had no contact with the outside universe for two or three generations. That meant that the language she was using was the language of Reva’s ancestors.

“Who—who are you?”

The captain grinned, the edges of her lips curling upward while her eyes remained as cold and piercing as ever. “I am the embodiment of the Outworlds, the spirit of the stellar frontier made incarnate. I am known by some as the Starsbane, to others the Terror of the Outworld Stars. All these titles I have earned diligently by mine own works. Only one name have I inherited by birth, that of Gulchina. Hast thou heard of me?”

“No,” Reva said, shaking her head. “I’m sorry, I haven’t.”

Gulchina stared at Reva with her piercing gaze. Reva shifted uneasily. For the first time since waking from cryo, she wished that she had some clothes with which to shield herself from the gaze of this terrible woman. The consciousness of being naked filled her with a sense of vulnerability unlike any she’d ever felt before.

“Thou art naked,” Gulchina observed. “Dost thou desire clothes with which to cover thy nakedness?”

If she knows my language, then surely she’s familiar with my culture, Reva thought to herself. Therefore, she knows that it’s against everything I’ve been taught to cover my body. Accepting her offer would be a sign of weakness, a sign that Gulchina had power over her.

“No,” Reva said, “I prefer to keep myself uncovered. At Anuva, it is considered obscene to needlessly cover one’s body.”

“Then thou considerest me to be obscene for wearing them?”

What should I say? Reva thought, her heart pounding. She hadn’t meant to insult her, but the words had flown out of her mouth before she’d been able to consider them. Her eyes met Gulchina’s, and she felt as if she’d been caught in a trap deliberately laid to ensnare her. Her cheeks reddened, but she kept up the mask of nonchalance as best as she could.

“We are not at Anuva,” she said simply, offering no further explanation. To her immense relief, Gulchina chuckled.

“A fair observation, child,” she observed. “Thou art a stranger in a strange land, a wanderer without purse or scrip. How didst thou come to wander so far from thy home?”

“I was frozen,” Reva answered. “A famine struck my home station, and my father froze me in cryo to save my life. When I woke up, I was here.”

“A fascinating story,” said Gulchina, stroking her chin. “What more canst thou tell me?”

Reva said nothing. She knew it was risky to defy her captors, but she didn’t want to reveal anything more than she had to.

“Thou art silent. Dost thou fear me?”

It’s another trap, Reva realized. To say yes was to admit weakness, but to say no was to lie. Either way, Gulchina would see right through her.

“What have you done with Isaac?” she asked instead.

“The pilot of the ship on which we discovered thee? He is yet alive, awaiting my interrogation. Is he thy lover?”

“My lover? No.”

“Then what is his life to thee?”

Reva swallowed. “H-he’s my friend. I owe him my life. It’s a matter of honor.”

“For honor’s sake, wouldst thou plead for him?”

Was this another trap? Had Gulchina already decided what to do with him, so that nothing she said would have any effect? She remembered all too well the cruel way Gulchina’s men had tortured him, and his screams of pain still rang in her ears. How could such a brutal and heartless woman have any sense of honor?

But as Reva looked into Gulchina’s icy-cold eyes, she knew that she couldn’t evade her questions any longer. The woman’s patience was running thin. Reva could see it in the slant of her eyebrows and the narrowness of her lips. Unless Reva gave her a straight answer, impatience would give way to wrath—an efficient wrath, cold and calculated.

“Yes,” Reva answered. “Yes, I would.”

Gulchina raised an eyebrow. “Knowest thou what I told him?”

The question took Reva aback. “I-I don’t,” she admitted.

“That so long as he tarrieth on my starship, my voice to him is the voice of an almighty god. The air that he breatheth, the food that he eateth, the water that he drinketh, and the space that he doth occupy is a gift from my hand. So is it the same with thee. Thou hast no right to life nor claim to sustenance beyond that which I doth give thee, even as he hath none. Understandeth thou this?”

Reva frowned. “No, I don’t. What do you mean, we have no right to life? Doesn’t everyone have a right to life?”

“Not in the Outworlds, child. And as thou hast heard, I am their very embodiment.”

“I still don’t understand. How can you treat us as if—as if our lives are yours to take?”

Gulchina’s eyes narrowed. For a terrible moment, Reva feared that she’d finally incurred her wrath. She shuddered a little as Gulchina rose to her feet, but the raven-haired woman only clasped her hands behind her back and began to pace.

“In the Outworlds, child, life is no right. Thou of all people shouldst know this. Didst their ‘right to life’ save any of thy kin? Or didst it hasten their doom? No, child. Life in the Outworlds is a gift. My duty as captain is to mete out this gift for the good of the whole, not the good of the one. Understandest thou this?”

“Yes,” Reva murmured, though inwardly she wanted to scream.

“The void doth not love whom it spareth, nor doth it hate whom it taketh. There is no life between the stars that is not encircled on all sides by the gaping jaws of death. Yet just as no mortal mind canst comprehend the infinite blackness, so too can no mortal power make slaves of those who dwell therein.”

Has this woman gone insane? Reva wondered. All this talk of life and death, of gods and judgment—it sounded like the rantings of a madwoman. Still, there was a cruel and insidious logic to it all. The more she understood it, the more it horrified her.

“Are you saying that it’s hopeless for me to petition for mercy on behalf of my friend?”

Gulchina stopped pacing and looked her in the eye. “I have told thee, on my ship I am like unto an almighty god. Thinkest thou to change my mind?”

“I don’t know. I doubt anything I say can change your mind one way or the other. But you asked if I would petition for honor’s sake, and the answer to that is yes. Even if I can’t change your mind, I won’t abandon the debt I owe him.”

Once again, a cold grin spread across Gulchina’s face. “And if thy petition is in vain?”

Reva swallowed. “Then at least if I die with him, I’ll die with my self-respect.”

Gulchina’s laughter roared in the tiny room, making Reva jump.

“Thy kindred are dead, thy homeworld made desolate. Thou art a stranger in a strange place, and hast no place to rest thy weary head. Why shouldst thou live out thy life in darkness? Make thine abode here, and join thyself with us.”

Chills shot down Reva’s back. To refuse would surely mean death, but to accept meant … Well, what did it mean?

“What will you do to Isaac?” she asked, dodging the question once again.

Gulchina shrugged. “If his life proves to be of value, I will let him live until it does not. Otherwise, he shall perish.”

“Let me talk with him, then. I can—”

“Thou forgetest thy station, child. I have offered thee life, but it is in my power to take that gift away as seemeth me good. Doth I make myself clear?”

Gulchina’s icy gaze sent shivers down Reva’s spine. “Yes,” she whispered. “Very clear.”

“Good. Then clothe thyself and make ready to assume thy post. Though thou hast been taught to embrace thy nakedness, thou must cover it if thou desirest a place among us.”

“Of course,” Reva agreed. Gulchina input a command on her wrist console, and the server-bot returned, this time carrying a pile of roughly folded clothes. It set them at Reva’s feet, and she saw that they were her own, taken from the Medea. She stood up and quietly dressed while Gulchina watched.

“Thou shalt be as one of us: Surrounded by death, but free from those who would enslave thee. And if thou fillest thy station well, more shall be added upon thy head.”

What is she talking about? Reva wondered. Something told her that she would soon find out.


* * * * *


Isaac squinted as light suddenly dispelled the darkness, waking him from the restless half-sleep in which he’d dozed and searing his eyes. He moved to shield them with his hands, but his swollen wrists were still bound. The chill air of the airlock made him shiver, reminding him of his nakedness.

On the other side of the transparent inner door, Gulchina marched into the cargo bay, flanked on either side by her guards. Isaac’s heart leaped—had she come to kill him? She palmed the access panel for the airlock, but instead of the door opening, the shackles did, releasing him. He fell in a heap to the hard metal floor, hugging his chest to warm himself from the cold.

“Before I vent you into space, there are some questions I wish to ask,” Gulchina said. She held her wrist console to her mouth; apparently, a microphone in her device transmitted it to the speakers hidden in the airlock walls. “If I determine that your life has value, I may choose to let you live. If not, I will not hesitate to let you die.”

Isaac swallowed. He believed her.

“First, when you spoke with Captain Aslan at Gibeon, you claimed to be a star wanderer fleeing the war. Yet instead of proceeding to the Far Outworlds, as you told him, you came here to Ithaca. Why did you change your course?”

How could she possibly know all that? Isaac wondered. Then he remembered the transmitter that Aslan had given him. He had held it casually in his hand all throughout their conversation, right up to the last moment. Was it secretly a recording device, then? But if the pirates had recorded him, then that meant they were doing more than just raiding—

“Where is your tongue? Answer me!”

“S-sorry,” Isaac stuttered. “I just—I changed my mind mid-course.”

“Mid-course? According to my scouts, you headed straight for Ithaca without stopping at any other port after Gibeon. Clearly, you knew exactly where you were going from the beginning.”

She’s not going to release me, Isaac realized. Whether I answer her questions or not, I’m as good as dead.

Gulchina put her hands behind her back and gave him a cold stare. Her eyes seemed to bore right through him.

“You have a curious sigil tattooed on your shoulder. Who gave it to you?”

The question took him by surprise. Up until that moment, he’d forgotten about the henna tattoo that Reva had painted on him. It must have been one of the first things the pirates saw when they’d stripped him down.

“The girl with the henna tattoos gave it to me.” What have you done with her?

“Do you know what that sigil stands for?”

There’s no sense lying about it, Isaac realized. He took a deep breath.

“It’s the symbol for brother.”

“That’s only partially correct. It stands for love—brotherly love. The girl has denied that you are lovers, but even if you were, that sigil could hardly represent any aspect of your relationship. So what is the meaning?”

What’s her game? Is she jockeying for leverage to manipulate me?

“I-I have a brother,” he admitted. “He’s dead, though, and she wanted to comfort me. She gave me that tattoo as a way to remember him.”

Of course, Isaac didn’t know that Aaron was dead—in fact, he desperately hoped he wasn’t. But if Gulchina knew that, she’d be able to hold it against him. Her eyes narrowed, and she folded her arms. Clearly, his lie hadn’t completely convinced her.

“Was your brother a soldier in the Resistance like you?”

Isaac’s stomach fell. Had Gulchina discovered the jump beacon? He couldn’t let that device fall into their hands—what if they sold it to the Imperials? Chills shot up and down his arms, but he did his best to conceal his rising fears.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m a star wanderer—”

“You can cut the act, Isaac Deltana. I’ve read your ship’s logs and know all about your mission. It was an ingenious plan your superiors had to fly a jump beacon into enemy territory just ahead of your flotilla. Only by concentrating your forces could you have any hope of defeating the Imperials. I’ve heard a lot about this technology, and I’ve wanted to get my hands on it for some time. The Resistance guards the station beacons far too thoroughly for my men to steal one directly, but their agents are not guarded nearly so well. Now, thanks to you, I finally have what I came for.”

Isaac’s eyes widened. No!

“I see that we finally understand each other,” said Gulchina, her lips curling up in a sneer. “So now, let us end this useless charade. What sends an agent of the Resistance fleeing into the Shiloh Rift?”

His heart sank, but he forced himself to meet her gaze. “Why should I tell you? Either way, you’re going to kill me.”

“I haven’t decided that yet. The girl has pled for your life, and I’m of half a mind to humor her.”

She has? He took a deep breath and shook his head.

“Even if you let me live, there’s no way you’ll let me go.”

“That is true. We cannot risk letting your superiors learn that their secret weapon has fallen into our hands. However, there is a possibility that I could let you join our crew. Reva has already agreed to join us.”

The news hit Isaac like a meteor. For several moments, he didn’t know what to say. He opened his mouth, but the words refused to come out.

“She—she joined you?” he finally managed.

“Yes. And if you wish to join with her, I suggest that you comply.”

Is this the way out? Isaac wondered. If I go along with these pirates, will I find some way to salvage this mess? He thought of his brother—he had no way to know whether Aaron was alive, but if the Flotilla had pulled off a victory at Colkhia, there was a significant chance that he was. As for betraying the Resistance, there wasn’t much more that he could do to make things worse. The jump beacon technology had fallen into Gulchina’s hands, and nothing Isaac said or did could do anything to change that.

I need to stay alive, he decided. I’m no good to Aaron if I’m dead.

“All right. What do you want to know?”

Gulchina placed her hands comfortably behind her back. “First, why did you come to the Shiloh Rift?”

“I was sent to Colkhia in advance of the Flotilla, to set up the jump beacon for the attack. Before I could complete my mission, the jump beacon broke down. I assumed that the Imperials would crush the Flotilla and fled the system in order to keep the technology from falling into their hands. It seemed unlikely that they would focus any attention on the rift, so I headed there.”

“Do you know how to repair the jump beacon?”

“No. Our superiors kept us completely in the dark about the inner workings of the jump beacons, so that we couldn’t reveal it if we were caught and interrogated.”

Gulchina narrowed her eyes, but nodded. “Is that why you lied to Captain Aslan? To keep the technology from falling into our hands?”

“Yes.”

“Have you had any contact with the Resistance since Colkhia? Do they know or suspect where you are?”

“Not as far as I know,” said Isaac. “I fled Colkhia before the Flotilla arrived, and went straight to Shiloh. And as for Ithaca, there aren’t any commanders there that I could have reported to.”

“So as far as your superiors know, you’ve simply gone missing?”

“That’s right.”

A smile spread slowly across Gulchina’s face, one that sent chills down his spine. “That’s good,” she said. “Very good. Better than I could have expected.”

He frowned. “What do you mean?”

“When I learned that the Pleiadians had developed a technology that would revolutionize faster-than-light space travel, I brought my fleet to the Shiloh Rift in order to obtain it. I had hoped to find some way to infiltrate the Resistance and steal this technology from within. Instead, you fell right into my trap, bringing the technology to me directly. Yes, this operation has gone far better than I could have hoped, and you, Isaac Deltana, have proven most useful.”

Isaac’s mouth went dry. If only he had stayed at Colkhia long enough to confirm whether the Flotilla had won or lost! He’d thought his mission had been a failure, when really the only failure was letting the jump beacon fall into Gulchina’s hands.

“One more question,” Gulchina said. “The girl, Reva. How did you meet her?”

“My brother and I found her frozen in cryo on a derelict station at Nova Alnilam. We brought her to the New Pleiades to thaw her, but she was confiscated by the Imperials at Colkhia. When I returned there for my mission, I found her in an escape pod. That’s how she became a passenger on my ship.”

“Interesting. So as far as you know, no one is looking for her, either?”

Only my brother.

“No,” he said, hanging his head.

“Very well. Though that may seem hard to you now, it marks a great turn in your fortunes. If either of you had friends hunting for you, I would be forced to kill you, but because that is not the case, I am free to do with you as I like.”

Isaac didn’t look up. He didn’t want to risk betraying himself with his eyes.

“You will take on a new name,” said Gulchina. “Starting now, you will leave everything from your old life behind. You are mine now. Your life belongs to me. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” he whispered. “I understand.”

The door hissed open, and something hit the floor by his face with a soft thud. He looked up and saw that it was a set of old clothes, dark and unmarked.

“Dress yourself in these, and wait here for further orders. One of my men will be with you shortly.”

“What about Reva? What are you going to do with her?”

“The girl is no longer any of your concern. You will not ask about her again, nor speak with her without my express permission. Understand?”

Isaac drew in a deep breath. “Yes.”

“Then dress yourself and choose a new name.”

With that, she turned and left. Isaac eased himself up and picked up the clothes she’d left him. The fabric was rough, but after hanging naked in the airlock for so long, he was grateful for anything.

I just have to stay alive long enough for my brother to find me, he told himself. For Aaron’s sake, I have to keep going.

Though whether Aaron was even still alive, Isaac had no idea.


A Land Far Stranger


Don’t show fear, Reva told herself as she followed Gulchina down the narrow, windowless corridor. It was easier now that she was considered one of the crew, but she still couldn’t help but feel like a lamb in a den of wolves. The men they passed were large and burly, with unkempt hair and eyes that burned like fire. They stared at her lustfully whenever Gulchina wasn’t watching, to the point where Reva wondered if it made any difference to them whether she wore clothing or not.

The door ahead of them hissed open slowly. Reva followed Gulchina inside, staying as close to her as she could manage without seeming clingy. The men in the room all turned to face her, making Reva wince a little. If Gulchina noticed her discomfort—and Reva didn’t doubt that she did—she flatly ignored it.

The room was a command center of some kind. Reva could tell from the display screens strung up around the various stations and control panels. Wires ran in bundles along the edge of the wall, and welding marks showed that the chairs had been added later. Very little of the equipment seemed to be part of the original design—it was as if someone had completely gutted the ship and rebuilt it from the inside out. Then she noticed the long, narrow window toward the front, where all the chairs were facing, and realized that it wasn’t a control center at all. It was the bridge.

Gulchina spoke a few short words to her men, and they returned to their seats. A couple of them glanced curiously at Reva, but in the presence of their captain, their discipline was iron-clad.

“Why have you brought me here?’ Reva asked. Gulchina sat in a large chair in the center of the room, and the men resumed their stations.

“In a moment, I shall tell thee,” said Gulchina. “Seat thyself.”

She hit a command on the keypad at the end of her armrest, and a small second chair slid out from the side of hers. It came out almost a full meter, the back unfolding like a pendulum. Reva couldn’t help but admire the ingenious design.

“All that thou seest was designed and built by my men,” Gulchina explained. “Even the very hull of this ship has been modified, though now is no time for a tour.”

Reva took the hint and sat down. Gulchina made a short comment to her men in their own language, making them chuckle. It did not sound like the same language that Isaac spoke.

For the next several moments, Gulchina issued commands, giving Reva a chance to observe. It was clear that each of the men had a different task, though what those tasks were exactly, she didn’t know. A few were easier than others to tease out, such as the helm, which she recognized by the flight stick in the center of the control board. Astrogation was also clear from the starmaps spread across that station’s many displays. But the others were more difficult, though from the intensity with which the men threw themselves at their jobs, it was clear that they were all important.

“What seest thou?” Gulchina asked.

“I see … I see your men, getting ready to fly the ship at your command.”

“Thou seest well. Knowest though the function of this place?”

“Well, this seems to be your command chair and the men are all your officers, so it’s fairly obvious that this is the bridge.”

Gulchina grinned. “Well spoken, Reva. This is indeed my command chair, and this place is the bridge of the Temujin.

Why did you bring me here? Reva wanted to ask. She tried to hold back, but the question must have been written fairly clearly on her face, because Gulchina only glanced at her once before guessing it.

“Thou marvelest why I have brought thee here,” she said. “Thou, the newest and nearly youngest member of my crew.”

“The question had occurred to me,” Reva admitted.

“Surely by now, thou hast realized that my men are ignorant of thy language, and that thou art ignorant of theirs. In thine own tongue only I can speak with thee. Therefore, thou canst do very little except that thou accompaniest me.”

“Yes, I noticed,” said Reva softly. So what do you have planned?

Gulchina ran her fingers idly through Reva’s hair, sending shivers of ice shooting down her spine.

“Thou art unlike any of my men, Reva. Thou hast no former allegiances, no friends to which thou canst return. Thy life is an empty matrix, a databank wiped clean, and thy soul yearnest to fill it.”

Reva tensed. How do you know so much about me? She tried desperately to think of something she could say to disprove her, but Gulchina’s words rang eerily true.

“What does that have to do with anything?” she asked.

“Behold this room. What seest thou?”

“I-I see a starship bridge,” Reva stammered. Hadn’t she answered this before?

“No, my child. Look deeper. It is no mere bridge, but a throne room for a kingdom of infinite space. And she who sittest here,” Gulchina said, pointing to her command chair, “shall be the queen of it.”

Stars of Earth, Reva thought. She wants to groom a successor.

“I-I don’t—” Reva began, but cut herself short as she realized the precariousness of her situation. In every practical way, she was absolutely of no use to Gulchina—the only reason she was alive at all was because she had somehow convinced Gulchina that she had something to offer. To refuse her now would almost certainly lead to her death.

Besides, why should she refuse the opportunity? Wasn’t this what she’d been looking for all along? A chance at a new life—not the sort of life she’d ever dreamed of, but at least something better than what she had only a few days ago. Before Gulchina, she’d had nothing. Now, a whole kingdom was before her.

“You want me to become your apprentice,” she said softly, as if the other men could understand her. Gulchina chuckled and ran her fingers down Reva’s back.

“In a manner of speaking, thou art correct. But it will not be an easy apprenticeship. Thou shalt have only one chance to prove thyself, and prove thyself thou must, for I shall not yield command to any lesser being. Understandest thou this?”

“Yes,” Reva said, swallowing.

“Thou hast passed through the crucible of ice,” Gulchina said softly. “Now, though shalt pass through the crucible of fire. If thou endureth it well, glory and power shall be added upon thee.”

And if not, Reva considered, hardly daring to finish the thought. Gulchina’s fingers dug into her back. But that wasn’t the only thing that sent shivers down her spine.


* * * * *


Isaac fought with all his strength to keep the lump in his throat from rising. Outside the porthole, he watched as the engines of the Medea fired in preparation for its final voyage.

That’s my father’s ship, he thought, his hands shaking uncontrollably. My father’s ship, and his father’s before that. He wanted more than anything else to scream, to fall on his knees, to plead with the pirates to stop. The Medea was more than a ship to him—it was his home, his life. In the endless void of space, it was all that he could call his own. And now …

The Medea’s sublight engines engaged, flaring up bright enough that he had to squint and cover his eyes. Slowly, the unmanned starship began its advance toward ultimate oblivion. Around the edge of the porthole, just outside of view, Ithaca’s white dwarf binary shone bright enough to drown out the entire starfield and cast shadows as harsh as the line between black and white. The Medea was barely recognizable in such light, but Isaac knew his starship better than he knew himself.

Now the ship was moving faster, shrinking quickly as it disappeared into the void. Only the twin pinpoints of light from its engines showed its position now. It looked vaguely like a comet, or perhaps a slow-moving meteor, flaring and then dying as it fell to its doom.

Isaac drew in a ragged breath and wiped at the tears that stung his eyes. He strained to catch one last glimpse of his ship, but it was gone.

Gulchina’s men had thoroughly looted the Medea, gutting it for parts and leaving only the barest systems that it needed to fly. They’d stashed the spare parts at a secret cache and had set the Medea’s autopilot on a course that would plunge it into one of the system stars. Isaac had begged them not to do it, but his pleas had fallen on deaf ears. Because he was an agent of the Resistance, the pirates couldn’t risk anyone finding any trace of the ship, and so the only course was to destroy it.

Now, watching it disappear as it fell into fiery oblivion, Isaac felt as if his heart had been wrenched out of his chest. He tried to cry, but the tears welled up deep inside of him, held back by a wall that now settled around his soul like a shroud. Without his starship, he felt as if something inside of him had died. If that’s what Gulchina had wanted to accomplish, she had succeeded.

“That’s enough,” said Jirga, Gulchina’s chief engineer. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, so let’s get a move on.”

Isaac complied without a word, his feet shuffling like so much dead weight. The post he’d been assigned to was a nasty and thankless one, performing maintenance work that no one else wanted to do. At least it put him out of the public eye, though, in a position where Gulchina and the other commanding officers would hardly ever see him. Free from their cold, cruel gaze, he could work out his next few steps without fear of discovery.

Aaron is still out there, he thought to himself as he opened the hatch to the narrow maintenance shaft. He has to be. And so long as there was a chance that Aaron was still alive, he would never give up, no matter what else the pirates took from him.

Someday, he would find a way off of this miserable ship. He would escape from Gulchina’s grasp and regain the freedom that he and the other outworlders were fighting to preserve. Then he would somehow make his way back to the New Pleiades, making sacrifices where he had to, taking odd jobs where he could. Eventually, he would find his brother, and they would work to rebuild all that they’d lost. Together, they would once again travel the stars.

But until that day, he would bide his time and keep his head down, waiting for the opportunity to present itself. And this time, he would not fail.


Author’s Note


Books can have a way of marking important transitions in our lives. For me, the transition from adolescence to adulthood was marked by Absolutely Normal Chaos by Sharon Creech. That book helped me to understand the emotional changes that I was going through, it made me rethink the way I kept my journal, and it helped me to be more conscious of myself and my relationships with others. I became very emotionally attached to the characters in that book, and when it ended, I felt as if my heart had been ripped out of my chest.

Then I read Walk Two Moons, and I realized that the main character from that book was a side character in Absolutely Normal Chaos. In fact, in just about every one of Sharon Creech’s books, the main character is also a side character from another one of her books! When I realized that, some of the heartache from finishing Absolutely Normal Chaos was lifted. Those words “the end” lost some of their awful finality, and I knew that even if my time with a particular character was over, they were still out there somewhere, and would occasionally come back.

I decided right then that if I ever became an author like Sharon Creech, I would do the same thing with my own books. Instead of starting over with a completely different set of characters, I would try to tell new stories from the point of view of a side character in one of my other stories. Every character has a story, after all, just like every person has a story. The thing that makes our stories timeless is the way in which they’re all tied together.

In a lot of ways, that’s how Sons of the Starfarers came to be. After I wrote the first four books in the Star Wanderers series, I decided to expand on the original story arc by writing books from some of the side characters’ points of view. When I got to Jakob’s story and how he had to send both of his sons away to seek their fortunes across the stars, I knew that I would have to come back and tell their stories.

There was a lot more to it than just that, though. Neither Isaac nor Aaron had anything to do with the events of Star Wanderers, so I couldn’t just write Parts IX through XII and throw them in. I had to branch out and write a completely new series, with new characters, new story arcs, and new conflicts. And that gave me an opportunity to close the Star Wanderers series, at least for the present time, and start over with something largely new.

Star Wanderers is a much closer and more intimate story, following a group of characters as they ultimately set out to settle a planet far on the Outworld frontier. Most of the drama is interpersonal, without too much conflict from outside of the immediate group of friends. Inasmuch as outside forces shape the story, they do so more as a force of nature than a concrete threat that the characters must face directly. No one in that series tries to fight back against the Empire.

With Sons of the Starfarers, I wanted to tell more of a classic action/adventure story, where the characters face off against the forces greater than themselves and save the world (or at least try to). I’d still keep the interpersonal relationships, of course—I doubt I could ever write a story where the plot drives the characters instead of the other way around—but I wanted to get back to the roots of what made me fall in love with science fiction in the first place.

My introduction to science fiction was Star Wars IV: A New Hope. I saw it when I was seven years old—the age when everyone should see it. After the movie was over, I spent the next hour running around the house pretending that I was flying an X-wing. In a lot of ways, I’ve never really stopped.

Later on, I discovered the more cerebral side of science fiction, with Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, and of course all the classics from Ray Bradbury, Orson Scott Card, . I discovered the dark side with Dave Wolverton, Joe Haldeman, and George R.R. Martin; the fun side with and Louis McMaster Bujold; the meaningful side with Orson Scott Card, Walter M. Miller Jr, and Ursula K. Le Guin; the hard side with Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Kim Stanley Robinson, and the screw the science, we just want to have an adventure side from Jack Vance, Robert A. Heinlein, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. I read all these authors and more, but it always came back to flying that starship and saving the galaxy.

Another inspiration for Sons of the Starfarers was the movie Gettysburg. While I was teaching English overseas in 2012, I developed a deep interest in things that reminded me of my country and what it means to be an American. Perhaps the most defining historical moment in all of American culture was the Civil War, so I began to develop a deep interest in that era of history. On my kindle, I picked up a copy of The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara and was absolutely enthralled by it. When I got back to the States, I found a copy of the movie based on the book (Gettysburg) and made it a personal tradition to watch it every fourth of July.

The movie depicts two brothers from Maine who serve together in the same regiment. Colonel Lawrence Chamberlain is the thoughtful, responsible one who commands the regiment to victory in one of the most decisive moments of the battle. In contrast, Tom Chamberlain is more of a happy-go-lucky guy who treats the war like a big adventure and doesn’t take a whole lot of responsibility at all. The dynamic between these two brothers, as depicted in the movie, was a large part of the inspiration for the relationship between Isaac and Aaron.

I never had any brothers growing up. I was the oldest of four children, and all my other siblings were sisters. In some ways, it’s easier for me to write female characters and characters who are brother-sister than it is to write two male characters who are brothers. But that’s the great thing about fiction: it allows you to explore relationships that you’ve never had a chance to experience in real life. Before I knew what was happening, Isaac and Aaron came of the page and started saying and doing things that I had never consciously planned for them to do.

The first two books came together very quickly. Comrades in Hope was especially fun to write, since it went back to all those classic science fiction tropes that made me fall in love with the genre in the first place. With Strangers in Flight, thought, I had a much harder time getting it to the point where I was comfortable with what I’d written.

I wanted to play the “no nudity taboo” trope, especially with things that I had planned to do later on in the series, but I wanted to do it in a way that was tasteful and realistic. For cultures that have a much different set of taboos governing public nudity, the unclothed human form is not nearly as sexualized as it is in our modern Western culture. But because we come at everything from the perspective of our own culture, it was difficult to present Reva in a way that didn’t overly sexualize her. I wanted the tension between her and Isaac to be more cultural than sexual, and that was a difficult line to walk. I think I pulled it off, but I had to struggle with a lot of writerly self-doubts before I got there.

As a writer, you have to decide whether to write the stuff that’s easy or to write the stuff that’s hard. There’s nothing inherently wrong with writing the stuff that’s easy—Comrades in Hope was very easy for me to write, and it brought me right back to my roots which was awesome. But writing the stuff that’s challenging can really help to grow you as a writer and a storyteller. When given the choice, I almost always go with the stuff that’s challenging. Star Wanderers was challenging, especially with the polygamous love triangles. Bringing Stella Home was challenging because of the type of ending I was writing towards. Genesis Earth was challenging because of how the love story hit so close to home—same with Desert Stars, to some extent. In fact, when a story is challenging to write, it’s usually because it hits close to home in some way. But the closer it hits, the more honest it’s going to feel, and that’s the key to writing stories that are deeply moving.

I don’t know whether you’ve felt moved by the stories in this Sons of the Starfarers omnibus, but I do hope you’ve enjoyed them! If you have, I think you’re really going to like where this series is heading next. I’m not sure whether there will be nine books or twelve books, but there will be at least nine, perhaps more. I plan on bundling every three books, so the next omnibus will be books IV-VI, and the one after that will be books VII-IX. For updates on those or any of my other books, be sure to check out my blog, One Thousand and One Parsecs, or sign up for my email list. You can either sign up through this link here or through the sidebar on my blog. You can also follow me on Twitter—my handle is @onelowerlight—or friend me on Goodreads. And of course, if you want to send me an old-fashioned email, you can reach me at [email protected]

That just about does it. Thanks for reading! I say that a lot, but I mean it sincerely. Without readers, every book ever written would be just a bunch of scribbles on paper or jumbled up electrons on a memory drive. Stories don’t truly come alive until someone reads them. So once again, thank you for bringing these stories to life by reading them, and until next time, take care and be well!


Acknowledgments


No book that I write is ever a truly solitary venture, and these books were no different. First, I owe a big thanks to all of my first readers: Ailsa Lillywhite, Amber Carlson, Ben Keeley, Logan Kearsley, and Stephen Dethloff. Your feedback is always invaluable—thank you. Also, thanks to my editor, Joshua Leavitt, for his good work, reasonable rates, and excellent turn-around time, and to my cover designer, Kalen O’Donnell, for his stunning work on the covers. Thanks so much for helping this series to become everything that I hoped it would!

The war for the Outworlds continues in Friends in Command!


Sons of the Starfarers: Omnibus I-III


THE FUTURE OF THE OUTWORLDS NOW LIES IN UNCERTAIN HANDS.


The war for the Outworlds is on. The Imperials may have lost the first round, but they're back—and this time, a ragtag flotilla isn't going to stop them.

When Aaron recieves a captain's commission in the new Outworld Confederacy, Mara is his natural choice for second in command. But Mara never expected to live past the first few battles. She only joined the resistance to avenge her father, and fears the monster she's starting to become. The only thing she has left to live for now is her friends.

The Imperials aren't the only enemy in this war, though. The friends must face a threat from within in


SONS OF THE STARFARERS

BOOK IV: FRIENDS IN COMMAND

A grand space opera adventure from the author of Star Wanderers.


Sons of the Starfarers: Omnibus I-III


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


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

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


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The saga of Gaia Nova continues in Stars of Blood and Glory!


Sons of the Starfarers: Omnibus I-III


THE ONLY HOPE FOR THE LAST FREE STARS NOW LIES ON THE PATH OF BLOOD AND GLORY.


The princess of Shinihon could not have picked a worse time to run away. The largest Hameji battle fleet ever gathered threatens to overrun the last of the free stars. To make matters worse, a rogue assassin from an unknown faction has killed the high admiral of the Federation. Without clear leadership, the war may be lost before she can be found.

But Danica Nova and her band of Tajji mercenaries are no strangers to lost causes. They've fought the Hameji before, and they'll fight them again—not for honor, or for glory, but simply for the pay. War has been their way of life ever since the diaspora from the homeworld.

Master Sergeant Roman Krikoryan is one of the few remaining mercenaries still old enough to remember the homeworld. But he's an old cyborg, and his humanity is fading. Death is a mercy he doesn't expect to find on this mission.

They aren't the only ones after the princess, however. Hungry for glory and eager to make a name for himself, Sholpan's son Abaqa seeks to make the girl his slave. Though only a boy, he'll stop at nothing to prove himself to his Hameji brethren.

With the Federation in disarray, the bloody end of the war may come too soon for some of them. But one thing is certain—not all of them will live to see it.


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