Book: Friends in Command
Sons of the Starfarers
Book IV: Friends in Command
by Joe Vasicek
Copyright © 2015 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.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
A Bloody Burden
A Call Answered
Foes and Allies
Whispers in the Dark
Voices of the Lost
The Enemy Within
The Healing Ice
Author’s Note | Acknowledgments
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
Book IV: Friends in Command
A Bloody Burden
Mara Soladze never expected her greatest moment of triumph to feel so empty.
The SMG bucked in her hand as she sprayed bullets across the starship bunkroom. Her hand was steady, her grip firm. The three Gaian Imperial officers cried out in terror as she cut them to the floor. They fell with bright red bloodstains on their uniforms, the immaculately white fabric soaking it up like a sponge. The fat one—her father’s killer—raised his hands to plead with her, his strength quickly fading as his blood pooled at his knees.
Mara regarded him coolly, trying in vain to savor her victory. As much as she wanted to relish the moment, she found it impossible to feel anything at all.
The man’s bulging, corpulent face began to sag. She tried to remember what he looked like when he’d given the order to the firing squad that had shot her father—that awful dispassionate look, as if he were squashing a bug—but for all the stars of Earth, she couldn’t remember what he’d looked like then. All she saw was a terrified man who didn’t want to die.
Her finger squeezed the trigger, and a burst of gunfire exploded in the center of the man’s head.
The Imperial officer slumped to the floor. “That’s for my father, you son of a bitch,” she heard herself say. The words hung limp in the air, losing their force almost the moment they left her mouth.
The scene blurred before her, and her vision turned to darkness. This isn’t real, she told herself. It’s a dream—you’re dreaming this. She felt as if she had just watched the massacre through a stranger’s eyes. But, of course, it wasn’t a stranger; it was her. And the scenes playing out before her were more than just dreams. They were memories.
“I did it for you, Father,” she shouted into the void. “I paid him back for killing you. Is it enough?” Will it ever be enough?
The darkness did not grace her with an answer. She drew in a long, quivering breath and tried to focus on her father, but all she felt was an awful numbness.
“Are you happy, Father?” she asked again, her hands quivering and her eyes burning. But as much as she wanted to cry, the tears simply would not come.
Her father’s voice rang like a gunshot in her ear. She couldn’t see where he was, but she could sense his presence. She headed in that direction, and the darkness gave way to a long, upward-curving corridor.
As she walked, details began to fill in. She saw throngs of people milling about the edges, with old, clunky ventilators and icons of cyborg saints posted above each lintel. The scent of burning incense filled the air, and a brilliant blue planetscape shone up through the floor windows.
Megiddo Station, Mara realized. Home.
She broke into a run, dashing through the crowd to her family’s apartment. The way was so familiar that she could have run there with her eyes closed.
She rounded the doorway to the stairwell and took the stairs two at a time, snaking through a cluster of old women and drawing shouts from most of them. That didn’t matter, though—all that mattered was seeing her father again.
“Mara?” he called out again. She rounded the final corner and there he was—tall and handsome, with his beard as neatly trimmed as she’d ever seen it.
“Daddy!” she cried, running to embrace him.
He recoiled the moment he saw her, pushing her away. The look of horror on his face cut her to the quick.
“Who are you?”
“It’s me, Father—your little Mara. Don’t you remember?”
“Mara?” He frowned and shook his head. “No, you aren’t my Mara. Where is she?”
Mara’s stomach fell, and an awful knot tightened in her gut. “Can’t you see? I’ve changed, but I’m still… that is, I—”
“You can’t be my Mara,” he said in disgust. “Where is she? What have you done with her?”
Her vision blurred around the edges, and the darkness returned to swallow her.
“No!” she screamed, fighting against it with all of her strength. But then she saw the bodies of the men she’d killed, lying in their own blood. She looked down at her hands and saw that they were stained just as red as the officers’ white uniforms.
“What have you done?” her father shouted. “Get away from me, you monster!”
“Father, please!” she cried, but he turned away and vanished into the darkness. The emptiness returned, and she was powerless to keep it from swallowing her.
* * * * *
Mara jolted awake with a gasp. Her undershirt was soaked with sweat, and her whole body still shuddered from the nightmare.
She lay still and took deep breaths until the worst of it was past. It took her a while longer to recognize where she was; the dream had felt so real that for a moment she thought she was back home on Megiddo Station. But then, she read the troop roster on the display screen about a meter above her head, and it all came back to her in an instant.
She was in her sleepcube, at New Hope Station in the New Pleiades. A little over two standard months had passed since their narrow victory at Colkhia. Her platoon’s base ship, the Aegis, had been destroyed in the battle, so they had been stationed at headquarters until the newly formed High Command assigned them to another starship. But High Command was taking longer to reorganize the Flotilla than anyone had expected, and the Aegis platoons had yet to receive their new assignment.
That gave Mara a whole lot more time to herself than she’d ever wanted. She tried to keep herself busy with a rigorous fitness routine, but the exercise facilities on board the station were limited and she could only do so many pull-ups and sit-ups before she had to rest. Her muscles still ached from the previous dayshift, but sleep failed to refresh her.
You’re a killer, she told herself as the images of the dead Gaian officers flashed across her mind. That moment when she’d leveled the SMG at the officer’s head, just before she’d squeezed the trigger—in that moment, she’d felt alive. It was the only way to describe it.
“You’re a monster,” she said aloud, remembering her father’s words. The walls of the sleepcube were hardly soundproof, so there was a chance that someone might overhear her. Even so, it hardly mattered to her. Nothing mattered anymore—not even the cause she was fighting for. She’d only joined the Resistance to exact revenge on her father’s killer. And now that she’d succeeded, the war seemed pointless and empty.
Well, not completely empty. She still had her friends in Fourth Platoon. Jason Thetana, the star wanderer turned cybernetics expert from the Oriana Cluster not far from her home; Phoebe Trellian, the soft-spoken medic from Iayus near Imperial-controlled space; and Pallas, the deadly sharpshooter who went by a single name. She didn’t know much about him, but she knew that he was a killer, just like her.
And then there was Aaron Deltana, the platoon drop-ship pilot and only other Deltan in the fleet. Growing up at Megiddo Station, Aaron’s sister Mariya had been Mara’s best friend. They’d been separated by the famine and subsequent exodus from the system, but Mara still remembered those happy days. They stood in stark contrast to the life she lived now.
That kid is a piece of work, Mara thought, smiling to herself. He owed her for getting him as far as she had. It wasn’t like he had yet to prove himself—he’d pulled off some stunning maneuvers in the last battle, saving all their lives—but she’d saved his life back there as well.
The Aegis platoons had taken so many losses, there was a good chance they’d be disbanded, and that she’d be sent away from all her newfound friends. The thought made shivers run down her arms.
I should go back to sleep, she told herself. No sense worrying about something that’s out of my control.
But nothing was in her control anymore. She was a monster now—so much so that her own father wouldn’t recognize her. And that was what frightened her most of all.
A Call Answered
Aaron slept through his morning alarm, but not through the banging on his sleepcube door.
He groaned and lashed out with a kick, landing it squarely on the tiny hatch that was the only way in or out of the private sleepcube. The banging stopped, but the alarm was impossible to ignore. He slapped at it with a sleepy hand and only succeeded in banging his elbow against the wall. The pain was so sharp that he swore.
Through the sleepcube’s thin walls, he could hear people rushing out to the ladders. He sat up as much as he could in the narrow space and tried again with the alarm. This time, he managed to switch it off.
“All right, grunts!” he heard Mara yell in Gaian at the top of her lungs. “You know the drill. Chow’s in fifteen, and stragglers don’t eat, so line up!”
The upshift run, first exercise routine of the day. Hell, Fourth Platoon was practically on the verge of being disbanded, and she still drilled them harder than any other unit on New Hope Station. Ever since the Battle of Colkhia two standard months ago, it had been nothing but drills and exercises. She worked them so hard, it almost felt like the fighting had been half a lifetime ago.
Fortunately, he’d slept in his fatigues. All he needed to do was open the door and crawl down the ladder to line up with the rest of the platoon.
Before he did that, though, he took his portable dream monitor and stuffed it into the storage unit behind the headboard. The sleepcubes were supposed to be private, but he didn’t want to risk anyone finding it. Not that it was something he shouldn’t have—plenty of soldiers had private entertainment systems that they used in their free time. But if Mara knew he was still using… Well, he figured it was best to be safe.
He kicked open the sleepcube and dropped to the floor just as the others were almost all in line. As he hurriedly slipped his shoes on, Mara gave him a narrow glare.
“Pallas, take us out in ten. The rest of you, I want you out of this module by the time he starts running. Let’s move, boys and girls!”
The main body headed out at a brisk jog. Aaron slipped on his last shoe and took off with the rest of them, ignoring the nauseous groan in his stomach. It was only one lap—he could do this. One lap of torture this ungodly upshift hour.
The corridor was narrow and windowless, with hatchways instead of automatic doors. Even if there had been windows, though, there wouldn’t be much to look at. New Hope Station orbited an uncharted rogue planet deep within the New Pleiades. When the station was angled just right, you could sometimes see the Good Hope Nebula, but that was it besides the starfield. After spending the last few years with his older brother on the Medea, Aaron missed the view.
His older brother Isaac, who had gone missing at the Battle of Colkhia. A lump rose in Aaron’s throat, and not from the run. It had been more than two standard months since the battle, and Isaac was still missing. Everyone probably thought he was dead by now, but Aaron wouldn’t accept that. His brother was still out there somewhere—that was for sure.
“Deltana! What’s the hold up? Move it!”
He’d grossly miscalculated how much his stomach could handle, and now he felt as if he were about to throw up. Maybe he shouldn’t have spent so much time on the dream monitor last night. He clutched his gut and tried to pick up the pace, but he was definitely lagging behind.
“Why do we have to run every upshift?” he grumbled in Deltan.
“Because sitting on your ass in that simulator all day isn’t doing your body any favors, soldier,” Mara shouted at him in Gaian.
Her answer made his cheeks burn. The anger gave him added strength, and he choked down the worst of the nausea. Still, he couldn’t help but glare at her. Why did she have to land on him like that? Stars, she was worse than Isaac sometimes!
As he struggled at the rear of the pack, Mara fell into step beside him.
“Come on, Mara,” he murmured in their native Deltan. Mara was the only other Deltan on the platoon—in fact, in the entire flotilla. When they spoke in their native language, no one else could understand them.
“You know I can’t go easy on you in front of the others, Aaron,” she told him. “Can’t treat my friends any different than everyone else.”
“Yeah, but do you have to be such a prick about it?”
They slowed as the platoon reached the next hatchway. Only one person could go through at a time, so the lines had to alternate. It made for a bit of a bottleneck, but after two months of living on the station, they’d worked it down to an art. They jumped through with barely a hand’s breadth of clearance between each other and reformed the lines without stopping.
“The Resistance needs more pricks,” Mara answered. “Besides, why were you up so late anyway? Were you on that dream monitor again?”
“No,” Aaron said quickly. He paused to catch his breath. “Well, maybe a little,” he admitted. If she was onto him, there was nothing he could do to keep her from finding out everything.
“Dammit, Aaron! What did I tell you about that thing? Don’t you know it’s dangerous? I swear to Sol, that thing is going to fry your brain one of these days.”
She was right, of course. The neural stimulator program wasn’t exactly a kosher use of the dream monitor. He’d gotten it to help him learn the Gaian language faster, but now, he used it mostly just to calm his nerves. There was something immensely soothing about the program, almost like drinking a glass of wine. Surely in small doses, it couldn’t be that bad.
“I’m careful with it, Mara, I’m careful.”
He didn’t have to glance over at her to feel the full weight of her glare.
“Pick up the pace, Deltana,” she said in Gaian. “You’re lagging.”
“I’m going, I’m going.”
As she took off to the head of the pack, a buzzing on his wrist caught his attention. It was his wrist console, notifying him of an incoming message. He pulled out the earpiece and slapped it against his ear.
“Message from… central office,” the automated voice said. “Ensign Deltana, report to Major Achilles in the briefing room promptly after mess.”
Aaron’s eyes widened and his cheeks blanched. If he wasn’t awake before, he definitely was now.
* * * * *
Breakfast wasn’t anything special. Mara sat at the same table as the others, but a little ways off. The others would fill in around her—those who dressed fast enough to make it to the mess hall in time, that was. She couldn’t understand why so many of them waited until after their run to dress properly.
Two of the soldiers missed breakfast, but Aaron wasn’t one of them. He made it in just as the mess hall’s doors slit shut. His fatigues were blue, a noticeably different color from the olive green of the rest of the platoon. Technically, as a drop-ship pilot, his command chain went through Commander Noah, not her. So long as he slept and ate with the rest of the platoon, though, she wasn’t about to clarify that point.
Such a mess, she thought to herself as she stirred her bowl of gray synthmeal. It’s been that way ever since the Battle of Colkhia. Almost half of the platoon had died in that battle, and they’d been limping along ever since. If the rest of the Flotilla hadn’t been just as disorganized, they’d probably have been disbanded by now. The first campaign of the war was over, and they’d captured several Imperial warships intact. But no one knew who would command them, or whose authority they’d fall under, or even where the crews were going to come from. Some of the pilots were even starting to desert, saying that the Imperials had been beaten and that the war was as good as over. But Mara knew the truth. The Imperials wouldn’t give up so easily. They’d be back.
“Hey there,” said Aaron, sitting down across the table from her. His tray was mostly empty, except for a bowl of dried fruit and synthmeal and a protein shake. That was different—usually, Aaron piled on as much food as he could eat, which was invariably more than her.
“Where have you been, Aaron?” she asked in Gaian. Even though it was more convenient to talk in their native Deltan, he needed as much practice as he could get.
“Guess,” he said in Deltan, completely ignoring her attempt to help him practice the language. She rolled her eyes and gave up trying.
“I don’t know, Aaron. Where?”
“On my way here, I got a message from Major Achilles.” He lifted his arm and held out his wrist console so she could see. “He wants me to meet him on the command deck right after mess, in the briefing chamber.”
Mara frowned. “Why?”
“I don’t know. Am I in trouble?”
“I doubt it. If you were, they would have disciplined you through Commander Noah.” Or not. With how disorganized everything was, she could see a mid-ranking officer going over Noah’s head. But a major? Aaron would have had to have done something extreme to be disciplined by the top brass, and to her knowledge, he hadn’t done anything of the sort.
He sighed. “That’s a relief. I didn’t think so, but hey, you never know.”
“What does it say?” she asked, peering at the screen.
“Not much—just that I’m supposed to report to the briefing room promptly after mess.”
It’s a transfer, Mara thought, her gut sinking. Aaron was about to receive a new assignment.
“I hope you’ve been working hard on your language study,” she said, switching to Gaian. “I have a hunch you’re going to need it.”
Now Aaron frowned. “Why you say that?”
“Because I’m pretty sure that you’re about to be transferred.”
“Transferred, eh?” said Jason farther down the table. “What’s this I hear about our pilot being transferred?”
Instantly, every soldier in the platoon turned to Aaron and Mara. They’d been in limbo for so long, any news of an immediate change was bound to catch their attention. Better to have it all out now than to let it fester into an overblown rumor.
“Ensign Deltana has a call from Major Achilles,” Mara announced. “Three to one it’s a transfer.”
“Our pilot’s being transferred?”
“What about the rest of us?”
“No news there,” she said, shaking her head. “The call came just for Aaron. I didn’t know anything about it until he told me.”
“So it’s a commission, then?” Jason asked, his eyes gleaming.
Mara shrugged. “Could be. Don’t see why not.”
“Where do you think they’ll put him?”
“Two to one he pilots a gunship.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes captain,” said Mara. She grinned at Aaron, who was blushing deep red at all the attention. The others had gathered around him and were now slapping him heartily on the back.
“Good luck out there, Ensign.”
“Don’t forget us!”
“I-I don’t think it’s such a big deal,” Aaron stammered in Gaian, suddenly unsure of himself. Mara waved them all away.
“That’s enough. Let Deltana eat his breakfast.”
The others wandered back to the table, still buzzing with excitement at the news. Aaron sighed and rubbed his forehead.
“Do you really think it’s a commission?” he asked.
She took a bite of her food and swallowed. “What else could it be?”
His face went from red, to white, then back to normal in the space of almost a minute. During all that time, he stirred his food absent-mindedly but didn’t actually eat any of it.
Should I offer to accompany him as a translator? Mara wondered. It might make him look bad, though—like he needs me to hold his hand. Though that might have been true when he first joined the Flotilla, it certainly wasn’t anymore. He could get along fine without her. But a part of her still hoped that he’d ask. He was the only other Deltan in the Flotilla, and as for holding his hand all the time… Well, it felt good to be needed.
“Do you want me to go with you to the briefing room?”
Aaron thought about it for a moment, then shook his head. “No, you’ve got your hands full with the platoon. I can handle it myself.”
Even though she knew he was right, her heart still fell to hear him say it. “Very well,” she heard herself say. “Let us know about it as soon as you can.”
“I will. And thanks, Mara—thanks for everything.”
The words felt more like a goodbye than she cared to admit.
* * * * *
Aaron tugged at the collar of his new uniform as he waited in front of the door to the briefing room. The cut was a little tight—it would take some time to break in. The uniforms had just arrived at the commissary two weeks ago, and everyone on the command deck was wearing them. After serving on the Flotilla with pilots from all across the Outworlds, it was strange to see such uniformity all around him.
The door hissed open, and he took a tentative step inside. The circular hall had several concentric rows of seats, all directed to a large holographic projector in the center. Three podiums were spaced equally around the projector, each commanding a third of the room. When Aaron walked in, though, the place was empty except for two people: Commander Noah and Major Achilles.
The two men turned to face him. Noah, Aaron’s commanding officer from Paladin wing, was tall and thin with long blond hair tied back beneath his uniform. In contrast, Major Achilles had dark skin and a massively broad chest, with muscular arms that were at least as thick as Aaron’s legs. His wide, round face had a flat nose and lips that curled naturally into a frown. A fearsome tattoo ran from his right eye across the whole of his cheek.
Aaron swallowed. The major gave him a salute as sharp as a razor’s edge.
“Major Achilles, sir.” Aaron returned the salute as sharply as he could.
In one smooth, swift motion, the major’s hand returned to his side. “Sit down, Ensign.” His eyes never left Aaron’s.
Aaron walked to the front of the room and sat down on the first row. Noah nodded to him and smiled, relieving the tension somewhat, but the frown never left Achilles’s face. If anything, it only deepened.
“Ensign Deltana, I’ve been speaking with Commander Noah about your role in the recent battle. I understand you piloted one of the Paladin wing drop-ships in the assault on the GIS Starfire. Is that correct?”
It took Aaron a moment to process the major’s words. His command of Gaian wasn’t perfect, but thanks to the help from the neural stimulator program, he was able to catch all of it.
“Yes, Major,” he answered.
Major Achilles narrowed his eyes. “As I understand it, your ship was mangled so badly in that battle that it could not be recovered. Also, you broke formation and deployed your platoon near the main hangar bay, more than eight hundred meters from your drop target on the Starfire’s command deck. Is this also correct?”
Aaron frowned. “Uh…”
“Major Achilles,” Noah interrupted. “The fact that Fourth Platoon was deployed to our rear was the only thing that saved—”
The major raised his hand, calling for silence. He got it immediately.
“Ensign Deltana, your approach on the Starfire was one of the most reckless and foolhardy combat runs I have ever seen. Not only did you break entirely from your wing, but you came within only one stray shot of getting yourself—and your entire platoon—killed.”
A bead of sweat dribbled down Aaron’s neck. Was this a disciplinary meeting? How could it be? It had been weeks since he’d sent in his battle reports. And yet with the major bearing down on him with his contemptuous frown and terrifying gaze, he couldn’t help but feel as if he was about to be skinned alive.
“Is there anything you have to say for yourself, Ensign?”
Aaron took a deep breath. “Uh, no, sir.”
The major raised an eyebrow. “Nothing?”
“Well, uh, just that I did my best, sir.”
“Your best?” said Major Achilles, his eyes growing wide in a terrifying grimace. “You broke orders, mangled your ship beyond repair, and missed your target objective by almost an entire kilometer! How is that your best?”
“But I got them in alive,” Aaron all but whimpered.
“What was that, Ensign?”
Aaron hesitated, but the weight of Achilles’s glare forced him to continue.
“I got them in alive, sir. My platoon, I mean. I got them in.”
“And what of your drop-ship?”
“Ships can be replaced, sir. People cannot.”
He regretted the words almost the moment they left his mouth. How stupid was he to talk back to a major? He was going to get skinned for sure.
To his surprise, though, Major Achilles only nodded. “Indeed, Ensign. Ships are very replaceable.”
He turned his back on Aaron to pace for a couple of steps. Aaron’s heart raced, and his feet twitched nervously. What the hell was going on?
“The Tajjis have sent us almost a hundred and fifty brand new warships from their dockyards,” Major Achilles said. “They have not sent us the personnel to command them, though. We are to provide that. And right now, this fleet is very short on personnel.”
This “fleet”? Aaron wondered. Since when had the Flotilla become a full-fledged fleet?
“We need more than warm bodies to fill command chairs, though,” Achilles continued. “We need men and women who have proved themselves under fire, who have demonstrated ingenuity and resourcefulness and have the will to make hard decisions under pressure. Does that describe you?”
Aaron’s heart leaped, and his mouth suddenly went dry. Commander Noah gave him a knowing look.
“I-I think so, sir,” he stammered.
Major Achilles turned to face him, his dark eyes boring into him like a drill. “Your record is less than ideal, Ensign. I don’t know that you’re ready for command. But you did demonstrate a remarkable degree of innovation on your attack run. Instead of decelerating under enemy fire, you came through the danger zone at full throttle and used friction with the Starfire’s hull to reduce your speed. It tore off almost all of your docking clamps in the process, but you still managed to get your troops inside.”
Noah gave Aaron a reassuring nod. If Major Achilles noticed it at all, he made no indication.
“Commander Noah assures me that you will rise to whatever position we give you,” said Achilles. “Therefore, I am extending you a captain’s commission on the light frigate Merope-7.”
It’s true! Aaron thought excitedly, unable to suppress a grin. A captain’s commission—they’re giving me my own ship!
“You’ll need to provide a list of recommendations for your officers and crew,” Achilles continued. “I can’t promise that High Command will approve all of them, but they will certainly take your preferences into account.”
“Thank you, sir,” Aaron said enthusiastically. “It’s—it’s an honor.”
“No, Deltana. It is a responsibility. Do you understand why we are giving you this commission?”
“Uh, no, sir. Why?”
“Because we need starship captains who can do two things,” said Achilles “Think creatively under pressure, and make life and death decisions without hesitation. As captain, your decisions will determine whether those under your command live or die. You must be ready to sacrifice all of them without a moment’s hesitation. That is not a thing to be taken lightly, Deltana. You must be ready to risk all of them for the sake of the mission.”
Aaron’s cheeks blanched, but he nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“Is there anything we don’t know about that might make you unfit for this position?”
He paused a moment to think. The only thing that came to mind was the neural stimulator program. He’d been using it heavily since his brother had gone missing, so he’d definitely have to cut back, now that he had a position of responsibility. But that shouldn’t be too hard; he had it under control. Besides, it was only because of the stimulator that he was able to speak the language at all. This opportunity to be a starship captain—it wouldn’t come again. And if he could use his new position to redouble the search for his brother…
“Do you have any questions for us, Deltana?”
“No,” Aaron lied. He had so many questions he didn’t know where to start.
“Then that is all. Dismis—”
“Wait,” he blurted. “What about Fourth Platoon?”
Achilles frowned and turned to Commander Noah. “The platoons are to be disbanded with Paladin wing,” Noah said. “If you want to recommend any of them as officers on your ship, they should all be available.”
That’s a good idea.
“If we are quite finished, Deltana,” said Major Achilles. The full force of his gaze bore into Aaron.
“Yes, Major,” said Aaron giving the man a salute. “I won’t disappoint you, sir.”
Achilles returned the salute in one smooth motion. “If you do, Deltana, you had better hope you don’t live long enough to be debriefed. Dismissed!”
* * * * *
Twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six, Mara counted. Sweat dribbled down her face, and her heart pounded in her ears. This was her fourth set of pushups, and her arms and stomach burned, but she welcomed the pain, even embraced it. Now of all times, she needed the distraction.
Her wrist console buzzed. She dropped to the floor mat and lay face-down for a couple of moments before checking the call. Sure enough, it was Aaron. Her arms still quivering, she pulled the earpiece from its slot in the console and slipped it on.
“Deltana? Is that you?”
The nearest members of the platoon were looking at her, so she stood up and took her call to the corner. Besides, some of the equipment was fairly noisy. By covering one ear, though, she was able to hear him just fine.
“Yes, Mara, it is me,” said Aaron, speaking in Gaian. “I have some news!”
Whatever it was, he sounded excited.
“What is it?” Mara asked, switching to Gaian for the benefit of the rest of the platoon.
“They gave me a commission, just like you said! I’m going to command a small frigate, one of the new ones built by the Tajjis!”
His Gaian was surprisingly good—he must have been practicing. Mara smiled.
“That’s great, Aaron. I didn’t doubt you for a moment.”
“I have other news for Fourth Platoon, too.”
Her smile instantly fell as she steeled herself for the inevitable.
“Oh, yeah? What’s that?”
“High Command is dissolving Paladin wing. All of the platoons, including Fourth Platoon, are going to be disbanded.”
So it’s happening, Mara thought to herself. Her gut clenched, but she refused to let the news affect her. After all, she’d known it was coming.
“Thanks for the heads-up, Aaron. I appreciate it.”
“That’s not all, Mara. I have some very good news for you.”
“Yes. When Major Achilles gave me the frigate commission, he asked me to name my officers and crew. It’s a small ship, so there’s only room for twenty-five of us, but guess who I named as my first officer?”
Mara’s heart skipped a beat. “No way. Don’t tell me you—”
“Yes, Mara. I want you to be my second-in-command.”
The shock of the news made her blink and go rigid. It took her brain a moment to process the information. At first, she almost panicked, but then she realized that it was a good surprise rather than a bad one.
“You—you want me as your XO?”
“Yes, Mara. Is it good? Do you agree?”
“I, uh, I think so, yeah. Crew size twenty-five, small frigate…”
“It’s a brand new ship, built especially for the war. When can you come see it?”
She barely heard him, her mind was such a blur. “When can I see it? Soon, I think. Yeah, very soon. A frigate…”
Aaron chuckled. “Okay, I’ll send you the information. I look forward to seeing you on board, Mara.”
The call ended, and Mara replaced the earpiece in its slot. She walked through the exercise room in a daze, barely noticing the stares that were now directed at her.
“Hey, Soladze? What’s going on?”
“Huh?” she said, turning to the soldier who’d addressed her. Her mind was so blown, she barely recognized him.
“Yeah? What’s the matter?”
“The matter? Oh—nothing’s the matter.”
“Then what’s the news?”
She took a deep breath and gave up trying to collect her thoughts. “A frigate—I’m going to be first officer on a frigate.”
More questions flooded her, but she ignored them and walked straight out the door.
Mara didn’t know what to expect when she met back up with Aaron, now her commanding officer. She dressed in her crisp new uniform, ignoring the stiff starchiness of the fabric. She’d break it in with time, just like the war would break in the newly organized battle fleet.
The dockyards for the new starships were at a higher orbit than New Hope Station, so Mara had to take a shuttle ferry. The ride lasted a little over an hour, but the shuttle was crammed so full of people that felt more like ten. Fortunately, she had a window seat that gave her an excellent view. The darkness of deep space made it impossible to see the new ships until they were right on top of them, but by then, the sight was grand enough to make her gasp.
All along the long, narrow docking arm, dozens of sleek, silvery starships sat parked in perfectly aligned rows. Yellow light spilled out from the tiny portholes along their sides, illuminating their incredibly smooth hulls. Unlike the volunteer ships of the Flotilla, these Tajji warships were all new, without any pock-marks from micro-meteorites or darkening from long exposure to cosmic rays. They weren’t particularly large, but what they lacked in size they more than made up for in sleekness and form factor. The smaller ones were shaped like darts and missiles, the larger ones like elongated diamonds. The bulky engines were set off in nacelles, no doubt giving them extra maneuverability. Missile bays and weapons systems were tucked seamlessly inside the smooth, silvery hulls.
One of those ships is going to be my home for the next few years, Mara thought to herself. With twenty-four other people on board, the frigate was bound to be a little world all to itself. She just hoped that her old friends from Fourth Platoon would be a part of it.
The ferry docked, and she disembarked with the rest of the passengers. The terminal was almost as crowded as the ferry, but she managed to elbow her way through.
Aaron was waiting near one of the large fishbowl windows that overlooked the fleet. As the view rotated due to the spinning of the station’s hab modules, the starlight glistened and twinkled off the surfaces of the new ships. He was so entranced by the sight that he didn’t notice her until she was standing right next to him.
“Oh! There you are, Mara. Good to see you!”
“You too, Aaron,” she said in their native Deltan. The place was so new and unfamiliar that it felt comforting to talk in the language she’d grown up speaking.
“Can you believe it? A whole fleet of brand new warships out there, and soon we’ll be commanding one of them!”
“You’re the one in command,” she said. “I’m just your executive officer.”
“Yeah, but still… Honestly, is this a dream? How did this happen? When Major Achilles called me in, I thought I was in trouble or something—I never thought it would be something like this.”
“Well, the Resistance is short on officers right now, and you really proved yourself in the last campaign.”
“I still can’t believe it,” he said, shaking his head. “They made me captain. Captain. Skipped right over the lower ranks. I wonder what Isaac would think if he could see me now.”
His excitement dimmed, and his expression became clouded, making Mara frown. For the last two months, the two of them had scoured every database and ship log for information that would help him locate his brother, or at least find out what had happened. From the records at Colkhia, they’d discovered that the Medea had arrived at the system under the alias Medusa and had jumped out shortly after the battle had begun. But they hadn’t found anything else for the last two months, and Aaron was starting to get desperate.
“Hey,” said Mara, putting a hand on his arm. “At least you were already an officer when they promoted you. How do you think it is for me, commissioned an officer and promoted to lieutenant commander all in one go?”
Aaron’s smile returned, though subdued. “Yes, well, when they asked who I wanted as my executive officer, there was never any question. Besides, it shouldn’t be too much different from what you’ve done taking over for Lieutenant Castor over in the platoon.”
Mara smiled. “Thank you, Aaron.” You have a lot more confidence in me than I have in myself.
“Don’t mention it. Here, let me show you our new ship.”
The Merope-7 was a short tram ride away. Designed by a Tajji shipwright and built in the shipyards of New Sirius three light-years from Tajjur itself, she measured two hundred meters from bow to stern—only a tenth of the length of the captured Imperial battleship GIS Starfire. Still, as they admired her through the windows of the docking node, Mara had to admit that she cut an impressive sight.
Her hull was long and smooth, widening near the middle and tapering toward the front where the guns were placed. The only breaks in the hull were the bridge, protruding from the topside just in front of the airlock, and a row of narrow portholes running lengthwise on either side. The wings were angled forward, ending in the massive engine nacelles. Put together, both nacelles were almost the size of the whole ship.
“Isn’t she gorgeous?” said Aaron, a boyish grin plastered across his face. There wasn’t any gravity in the docking arm, so he gripped the railing with one foot hooked under a hand-hold.
“Let’s go,” said Mara.
She palmed open the airlock, then pulled herself through to the opposite door. When it opened to reveal the shipside airlock, she was surprised to see herself looking horizontally into the ship rather than down at the floor through the ceiling.
“That’s a design feature,” Aaron explained as he pulled up alongside her. “The decks are stacked vertically along the length of the ship, so that the engines face below us instead of behind us.”
“Interesting,” said Mara. She went through the doorway feet-first, and the artificial gravity field immediately set her down to the floor.
“It saves space, and makes things more efficient when we’re doing sublight maneuvers. Instead of having to compensate for horizontal acceleration, the gravitational field projectors can just let the engines do their work.”
“Efficient,” she agreed.
The airlock opened to a locker room for the EVA suits. Beyond that was a long row of chutes for the escape pods, and beyond that was a doorway that opened onto a small command center. There were only four seats, but each of them had half a dozen holoscreen monitors and just as many control panels. A young woman with short brown hair sat at one of the stations.
“Who do we have here?” Aaron asked, frowning. The young woman looked up immediately.
“Oh, you must be Captain Deltana,” she said, rising to her feet. “I’m Lieutenant Katya Nova, one of the intelligence officers assigned to this vessel.”
“What are you doing?” he asked, switching rather awkwardly to Gaian. “I was under the impression that the crew wasn’t supposed to board until I gave the order.”
“Well, sir, technically I’m not under the fleet command structure. As an intelligence officer, I report to my superiors in the intelligence community. Of course, I’ll do my best to co-ordinate my activities with your command.”
Mara regarded the lieutenant coolly. She was about the same age as her, with a round face and eyes that were slightly slanted. It was hard to place her system origin—she didn’t look like she was from the south second quadrant, or the north second quadrant either for that matter.
“I see,” said Aaron. “Welcome to the Merope-7, Lieutenant Nova. This is my first officer, Lieutenant Commander Soladze.”
“Sir,” said Katya, saluting sharply. Mara returned the salute.
“I’m sure we will be working together closely in the future.”
“I look forward to it, Commander.”
Mara nodded and followed Aaron through the command center to the elevator. There was only one for the whole ship, with a hatch beside it that opened to a steep, narrow stairwell. Because they were only going up one floor, Aaron opted to take the stairs.
“I don’t like how the fleet let her board my ship without telling me first,” Aaron grumbled in Deltan.
“The fleet is extremely disorganized right now. She probably saw an opportunity to get a head start on her work and decided to take advantage of it.”
“Maybe so, but how am I supposed to command this ship if there are things going on that I don’t know about?”
“That won’t be the case in the future,” Mara promised. “I’ll see to that.”
They stepped through the hatchway into a short and rather odd-looking chamber. The wall in front of them was angled at nearly forty-five degrees, with a narrow hatchway and a ladder running below it on the floor. Railings ran along either side of the ladder, as if to help people climb up or down.
“This part is tricky,” Aaron explained. “From what they told me you have to get down on your hands and knees, then turn around…”
Mara watched as he crawled backwards along the ladder, then gasped in surprise as he stepped through the hatch as easily as if he were walking up the wall. She bent over and peered through it, and felt a weird dizzying sensation that made her pull back almost at once. It was almost as if the floor itself had turned, and her body had been pulled against the wall instead of down.
“Come on,” Aaron said. “Don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe. You’ll get used to it before you know it.”
Mara took a deep breath and did as he had done, crawling backwards along the floor on her hands and knees. As she did so, the floor itself seemed to turn, so that she was no longer crawling but climbing down a ladder. She turned around and saw to her astonishment that the hatch opened up to a new deck, one that ran perpendicular to the others.
“Wow,” she said, stopping for a moment to still her beating heart. “I’ve never seen a design like that.”
“Isn’t it awesome?” Aaron said, grinning from ear to ear like a little boy. “Come on, let’s check out the bridge.”
The bridge was surprisingly wide and spacious. The forward window stretched almost 180 degrees around the whole room and rose at a shallow gradient all the way to the ceiling, giving them an unparalleled view. The captain’s chair was in the center, with three chairs in front and two behind. Mara recognized the controls for helm and astrogation immediately in front of the captain, and guessed that weapons and science were on either side. That meant that she was in the back, probably next to the chief engineer.
“This is your seat,” Aaron said, confirming her suspicion by pointing to the chair in the back right corner. “You’ll be on my right, and have access to the same controls and displays I do. I’ll rely on you to check my decisions and let me know if I’m missing anything.”
“Right.” I’m probably the only one you’ll take criticism from anyway.
“Let’s take some time to run over the crew roster,” he said, bringing it up on her display. “Did you get a chance to look over it before coming here?”
“Yes,” she answered. “And I have a few suggestions.”
“Yeah. First, I think it’s a mistake to assign Pallas to weapons and tactical. He’s a sharpshooter, not a tactician. If you put him in a position where he can’t use his gun, he’s going to go crazy. Better to make Jason your tactical officer—he’s better at that than piloting anyway.”
Aaron frowned. “Then who do we put on the helm?”
“Can you think of anyone else from Paladin wing you can request? Someone who you think you’ll work well with?”
He screwed his eyes up in thought for a moment, then nodded. “Apollo could work. He piloted Paladin-3. We were never really all that close, but we got along well enough.”
“That’s all that matters. Apollo hasn’t received a starship commission, so I think we can get him without too much difficulty.”
“All right. What about the other assignments?”
She looked over the list. “You’ve got Phoebe on comms and medical, which is good; I think she’ll do well there. The chief engineer slot is open, but I can’t think of anyone to fill it so let’s just see who they give us. As for our commando team, I think Pallas would make an excellent team leader.”
“That’s great. The more people from Fourth Platoon we can get on this ship, the better.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Right,” said Aaron. “So we’ve got six officers and nineteen crew. Of those six, we’ve got me as captain, you as executive officer, Apollo on helm and astrogation, Jason on weapons and tactical, Phoebe on comms and medical, and an open post for chief engineer. Am I missing anything?”
“Nope. Sounds good to me.”
“As for the rest of the crew, we’ve got an intelligence officer and five commandos, leaving four on engineering, six on weapons and countermeasures, and two on medical.”
“Don’t forget the quartermaster and morale officer,” said Mara. “It’s not a command position, but it’s still very important.”
“Right. Who do you think we should request for quartermaster?”
She took a moment to think. “How about Lieutenant Castor? He always was good at rallying morale. Had a good eye for detail, too.”
Aaron frowned “But wouldn’t that be a demotion?”
“Not at all. Quartermaster is on an entirely different career track. Besides, the Battle of Colkhia shook him up pretty bad, and he doesn’t think he can go back to leading troops in close combat. This post might be just what he needs to bounce back.”
“Excellent!” said Aaron. “Then we’re just about ready to embark.”
He stood up and walked over to the command chair, running his fingers lightly over the top. For several moments, he hesitated, as if sitting down would change the course of his life forever. Perhaps it would.
Mara waited patiently, recognizing the personal significance of this moment. After taking a deep breath, he sat down, the boyish grin still beaming from his face.
“You don’t know how long I’ve waited for something like this,” he said softly. “The chance to lead my own life, to make a name for myself and not be under anyone else’s shadow. Now that it’s here…” His voice drifted off.
He sighed and shook his head. “Now that it’s here, frankly, I’m terrified.”
“May I speak freely, Captain?”
“Of course, Mara. You can always speak freely with me.”
Not in front of the others, she thought to herself. But since Aaron would soon figure that out, she ignored the point and went on.
“I’m glad that you’re terrified. It shows that you care about the people who will serve under you and that you take responsibility for leading them. There’s nothing more terrifying than knowing that people you care about may die because of your decisions.”
“That’s right,” he agreed.
“But Aaron, your duty as captain is to make sure that no one sees that. The captain is the one who holds us together. If anyone thinks—for a second—that you’re losing your nerve, they’re liable to lose theirs as well. No matter how much you feel like you’re going to break under the pressure, you have to hold it together so that we will, too. Understand?”
His cheeks blanched, but he nodded. “I think so.”
She rose to her feet and put a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t worry about it too much. You’re not the only one carrying the weight around here. My job is to help you do your job and to be the best captain that you possibly can. I’ve never been one to shirk my duty, and I don’t plan to start now.”
“Of course,” he said, grinning once again. “I knew I could count on you, Mara. Thanks.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” she muttered. Thank me when the war is over and we’re both still alive.
* * * * *
Aaron wasn’t sure which was worse: not knowing how long he had to wait for something, or knowing exactly how much time he still had. He’d received his commission as captain of the Merope-7, but a lot still had to be done before they could depart. If it weren’t for how much he looked forward to commanding his own ship, Aaron would have thrown up his hands at all the tedious paperwork that stood in the way.
He clenched a fist and strode onward toward the commissary. It was his fifth time visiting the place in the last two days, when all he really wanted was to get on his damn ship and—
Something caught his attention out of the corner of his eye. He turned and saw a man not in uniform—a recent volunteer, by the looks of it—carrying a large duffel bag hooked casually under one arm. He was a big, broad-shouldered man, with a thick black beard that stretched almost halfway down his chest. A name was on the tip of Aaron’s tongue, but he couldn’t quite place it.
“Matt?” he said aloud, testing his memory. “Matthias? Mattheiu? Ma-Mathusael!”
The man stopped midstride as if shot. He turned slowly in Aaron’s direction, searching for the one who had called out his name. As their eyes met, a wide grin spread across his face.
“Well, if it isn’t my old friend Aaron!” he said—in Deltan, much to Aaron’s delight. He dropped his heavy duffel bag on the floor, and the two of them clasped arms and gave each other a warm shoulder hug.
“What are you doing here? I thought you said you didn’t want anything to do with this war?”
“Yeah, well, seeing the stars sure beats working a deadbeat job at Alahambara Station,” Mathusael replied. “If I have to be away from my wife and kids for nine months, I figure why not have a little excitement in the process?”
Aaron could tell there was more to it than that, but he figured they’d have time enough to discuss it later. Mathusael was an old friend from home, back before they set out for the stars. He’d settled in the Esperanzia system near the Coreward front, on the near side of the New Pleiades. He had a wife and child, but he was still the same old rogue that the Aaron and Isaac had always known.
“Looking mighty fine in that officer’s uniform,” said Mathusael, stepping back to admire him. “It suits you well.”
Aaron beamed. “Oh, yeah! Didn’t you hear? I just made captain.”
“That’s right! They gave me my own ship, too: the Merope-7, out in the dockyards right now. She’s one of the new ships that just came in from Tajjur.”
Mathusael whistled in admiration. “Hot damn, son. That’s impressive.”
“When did you join the Resistance? Last I heard, you boys were trying to save some girl in a cryotank.”
“Oh, yeah,” said Aaron, remembering the girl they’d picked up from the derelict space station on the edge of the Far Outworlds. For a long time, he’d been obsessed with rescuing her, trying to find some way to wake her from the ice. He still thought of her from time to time, but ever since his brother had gone missing, finding him had dominated all of his thoughts.
“Yeah? What about her?”
“Well,” said Aaron, “It’s kind of a long story, but… we lost her.”
Mathusael frowned. “Lost her? How?”
“The Imperials confiscated her. That’s how we got caught up in this war. It was the only way to rescue her.” And now my brother is gone because of it.
“Have you got her back?”
Aaron shook his head. With Isaac missing, finding the girl seemed a lot less important.
Mathusael grinned and slapped him on the back. “Well, I’m sure we’ll find her yet. And even if we don’t, it looks like you’ve made quite a name for yourself. I’ll bet your brother would be proud—where is he?”
The question stung like a blow to the stomach. Aaron took a deep breath.
“He’s, ah, MIA.”
“Missing in action? Good lord, Aaron, I’m sorry to hear that. What happened?”
“It was the Battle of Colkhia,” Aaron said, the words spilling out of him. “He was one of the secret operatives sent ahead of us to… Well, it’s classified, but he went in first. The surprise attack didn’t go off like we thought it would, and before we could regroup, everything went all to hell. Somehow, we managed to pull off a victory, but when we tried to pick up the pieces, Isaac…”
He bit his lip and shook his head. Mathusael clasped a reassuring hand on his shoulder.
“Well, the war isn’t over yet. I’m sure you’ll do all you can to get him back.”
Damn right I will.
“So what have you been up to? How did a slacker like you get a commission?”
Aaron brightened at the change in subject. “Well, like you said, I’ve been making a name for myself. Fought in all three battles of the first campaign and helped capture the Starfire, which turned the tide of battle. They made me a drop-ship pilot, and I guess I impressed them enough that they wanted to give me something bigger.”
“I’ll say. At the rate you’re going, I expect you’ll make admiral before the end of this war.”
“Yeah,” said Aaron. “What’s your assignment?”
A knowing grin spread across Mathusael’s face. “Funny you should ask, Captain Deltana. I’ve been given the post of chief engineer on a certain light frigate: the Merope-7.”
Aaron was stunned. “Ch-chief engineer? No way!”
“Yes way. When I saw they made you captain, I asked to be assigned to your ship. Wanted to give you a little surprise when I came on board.”
Spontaneously, Aaron gave him another hug. A couple of people passing them in the hallway turned their heads at his reaction, but he didn’t care.
“That’s the best news I’ve heard since the war started! It’s so great to have you with us, Mathusael! I can hardly wait!”
“I’m glad, too,” Mathusael said, returning the embrace. “It’s gonna be one hell of a ride.”
* * * * *
For Mara, the next few days were mostly taken up with desk work. The platoon disbanded and the members went their various ways, but she was so caught up with her duties that she barely registered it. She went down to the station bar with her old platoon-mates and wished them luck with their new assignments, but her mind was on her upcoming tour.
It took a lot of wrangling to get Castor, Pallas, and Apollo assigned to the Merope-7, but she was so persistent that Major Achilles eventually gave them to her just to make her relent. For a while, she was worried that Apollo would view his assignment to the helm as a demotion, since Aaron and him had both been equals in Paladin wing and Aaron had risen to captain. But if he felt any resentment, he was careful not to show it. In fact, he was careful not to show much of anything.
Castor, on the other hand, seemed all too eager to accept his post as the ship’s quartermaster. He’d trimmed his mustache and grown a goatee, making him look like a new man. From the enthusiastic way he carried himself as he took up his new berth, it was clear that he felt like one as well.
“Lieutenant Castor, reporting for duty,” he said, giving her a sharp salute at the airlock.
“Welcome aboard, Lieutenant. How are your wounds treating you?”
“Healing well, thank you. They told me I need a bit more care, but since we’ve got medical facilities on board here, I decided to switch berths as soon as I could. Besides, it’s not like anyone’s going to be shooting at me anytime soon, right?”
“Right,” she said. Her face fell a little, and she lowered her voice. “Lieutenant Castor, it was an honor serving under you in Fourth Platoon. I know we’ve swapped places in the command chain, but I just wanted to say—”
“Mara,” he said, putting a hand on her arm, “let me assure you, I have nothing against serving under you. Things were pretty dark for me after the last battle, and I was just about ready to quit and go home. When you put my name in for quartermaster, it gave me the chance I needed to get out and save face. But you knew that, didn’t you?”
“Well,” she said, smiling ever so slightly, “the decision was Captain Deltana’s, but I played an advisory role.”
“Thank you, Commander. Thank you very much.”
He drew back his hand and gave her a salute, which she returned. With a quickened step, he picked up his bags and carried them to the freight lift for transport down to his quarters.
The last officer to join the crew was their chief engineer. Since the higher-ups in the new fleet were the ones who made the decision, he was nothing to her at first but a name on a screen. But to Aaron, he was much more than that.
“Mara!” he shouted, bursting into her quarters. “Guess what—Mathusael’s joining us!”
Mara frowned. “Who’s Mathusael?”
“Don’t you remember? Well, maybe not—he was a bit on the older side for you. Not that I’d put it past the folks back home to match you up with him.”
“Wait, there’s another Deltan on the crew?”
“That’s right,” he said, grinning from ear to ear.
“But it says here that he’s from the Esperanzia system. It’s right there in his name: Mathusael Esperanz.”
“Well, he might not claim Delta Oriana, but he grew up on Megiddo Station just like us. Isaac and I paid him a visit just before we joined up with the Resistance. He’s married now, working a year-long shift at Alahambara Station on the outer edge of the system. I’m surprised he signed up for the war at all—it seemed like he wanted to avoid it.”
“It’s hard to run away from war when it comes after you.” Or when it transforms you, for that matter.
“I suppose,” said Aaron. “I met him at the commissary. He’s supposed to come in on the next ferry shuttle. Let’s go meet him!”
Mara knew it was futile to dissuade him, so she went along. She had to admit she was curious, though. She hadn’t met another Deltan since Aaron had joined the platoon, so she definitely wanted to meet this fellow refugee from the Deltan diaspora.
He wasn’t anything like she’d pictured him to be. In fact, if it weren’t for the way that he and Aaron talked excitedly in Deltan, she would never have guessed that he was one of them. He was short and heavyset, with stringy black hair and an enormous beard. For a uniform, he wore a gray engineer’s jumpsuit with a sash instead of a utility belt. His eyes were bright and jovial, but his smile was buried so deep in his beard that she could only see it when he laughed, which he did frequently.
“Aaron, my boy! So good to see you again!”
“You too, Mathusael,” said Aaron. They gave each other a brotherly hug.
“Look at you—a captain!” said Mathusael with a wink. “I’ll bet the ladies can’t keep their hands off you now, eh?”
“You know what they say: it’s not how pretty your ship is on the outside, but the size of your gun that counts. Am I right, eh? Am I right?”
And I could have been married off to this man, Mara thought to herself. She’d been in the platoon for so long that she’d forgotten her old life—the one that she would still be living as a refugee if her father’s murder hadn’t wrenched her so violently from it.
“Chief, allow me to introduce you to my first officer, Lieutenant Commander Soladze. Mara, this is Chief Mathusael Esperanz.”
Mara shook Mathusael’s hand. “Well met, Chief Esperanz. Welcome to the Merope-7.”
“Soladze,” said Mathusael, stroking his voluminous beard. “I remember you. Your father was a poet and a writer, wasn’t he?”
Mara’s gut clenched. “That’s correct.”
“He was one of the few people back on Megiddo Station that I considered a friend. We used to swap stories and bounce ideas off of each other. A couple of his poems were translated and became quite popular among the starfarers in the south second quadrant. How is he doing these days?”
An uncomfortable silence fell over the three of them, in which even the bustling activity of the docking terminal seemed distant and lifeless.
“Well, it’s good to have you with us,” said Aaron at length. He slapped his friend on the back. “Welcome aboard.”
* * * * *
After what felt like a brief eternity, the day to embark finally arrived.
Aaron was the first officer to enter the bridge. He stood at the center of the room in front of his command chair, surveying what was now his domain. The equipment all around him was so incredibly new, the view out the forward window all the more stunning for the fact that it was his. The window, the ship, the crew that now called him captain—it all felt like a crazy dream. Never in his wildest imaginations had he thought it would happen like this. But here he was, standing on the bridge of his own sleek warship, about to take her out on her first voyage.
The officers came in one by one. Mara was first, followed by Lieutenant Apollo Vulcana. Lieutenants Phoebe Trellian and Jason Thetana were next, both of them old buddies from Fourth Platoon. Mathusael came last, dressed not in uniform but in a jumpsuit and utility belt. Just like the rest of them, he was ready to get to work.
“All stations, report,” said Aaron once they were all gathered. Though he did his best to hide it, his hands twitched with nervousness and excitement.
“Helm and astrogation is ready,” Apollo reported. “The coordinates are plugged into the nav-computer and we are good for jump.”
“Engineering is a go,” said Mathusael.
“Comms is ready at your orders,” said Phoebe. She looked almost as excited as Aaron.
“Weapons and countermeasures fully online,” said Jason.
“All systems and crew are accounted for, Captain,” Mara reported last. “We are ready to embark.”
Aaron lowered himself slowly to the captain’s chair, his eyes fixated on the starry vista like a laser. “Take us out, Apollo. And may the stars of our homeworlds shine favorably upon us.”
“Amen,” said Apollo.
He pulled back on the lever to engage the jump drive, and the bulkheads began to hum. Aaron gripped his armrests as the hum grew to a steady throb. His stomach turned as the hum rose in pitch, then flipped as the throbbing reached its climax. For the briefest of seconds, he felt as if he were on the outside of the ship looking in at the stars, rather than on the inside looking out. But then, the sensation passed, and the humming returned to silence.
Aaron released his grip on the armrests and let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. The Merope-7’s first tour of duty had begun.
Foes and Allies
The gray-brown protoplanetary disk of Vulcana gleamed with flecks of silver in the bluish-white light of its system sun. The main planet, Hephesteron, sat like a golden-black eye in the midst of a swirling vortex, disrupting the disk as it gobbled up gas and dust. At any time, fusion could ignite in the planet’s white-hot core, turning it into a star for a few thousand years. Until then, half of the people at Vulcana made their fortunes harvesting planetoidal ores in the vortex, and the other half brokering trades in the bustling orbital marketplace the ores had attracted.
Mara eyed the scene coolly and recalled what little she’d managed to read about the system before their arrival. Located less than two light-years from Troya in the heart of the New Pleiades, Vulcana was a major trading port and Outworld hub. Hephesteron Station trailed the planet in an elliptical orbit that brought it outside of the protoplanetary disk for three standard years at a time, during which it serviced most of the interstellar commerce in the New Pleiades. In the brief periods when it dipped back into the protoplanetary disk and was inaccessible to most starships, the merchant activity shifted to the neighboring Troya system. Thus, the people of the two stars were locked in a heated rivalry, with Troya trying to set itself up as a more permanent center of influence and Vulcana continually winning back market share with its abundant harvest of ores. Hephesteron Station’s periodic isolation made it a poor choice for the capital system of the Outworld Confederacy, though, so Troya had won that honor.
The Merope-7 was one of several ships heading to Troya by way of Vulcana. The view outside the forward window was filled with dozens of starships, almost all of them belonging to the new Outworld fleet. Mara knew that it should have heartened her to see the Outworld forces grow in strength so quickly. Instead, all she could think about was how none of their new warships was even half the size of an Imperial battlecruiser.
“Chief, how much longer until the jump drive is charged?”
“About half an hour, though we could leave now without much trouble. The reserves are at eighty percent, plenty to reach the next jump beacon.”
“We’re not going to make the final jump until the captain is on the bridge,” said Mara. She gripped the command chair’s armrest with all the frustration that she wouldn’t allow to show in her face. “Vulcana, how’s our jump trajectory?”
“Co-ordinates are locked in, Commander,” said Apollo. “We’re ready to jump on your—I mean, on the captain’s command.”
“Very good. Inform me if anything changes while I find out what’s keeping him.”
She rose from the command chair and left the bridge before letting any more of her anger show. To Aaron’s credit, it wasn’t like anyone else was on the bridge yet—Phoebe was in her quarters, and Jason was in the officers’ mess. They only needed a skeleton crew while flying in friendly territory, which gave them all a chance to get used to the ship. But Aaron should have reported to the bridge before now, and the fact that he was still in his quarters didn’t bode well at all.
She stepped out of the elevator onto the officers’ deck and stopped at Aaron’s door. When he didn’t answer the chime right away, she used her authorization code to open the door. What she saw made her freeze mid-step.
Aaron lay limp on his bed, dressed in his uniform but completely unconscious. On his head, he wore a dream monitor. The visor was down, covering his face, and the lights on the side panel showed that the machine was active.
Clenching her teeth, Mara walked over to the computer terminal where the monitor was plugged in and shut the thing off. For a moment, Aaron lay still. Then, his arms twitched, and he began to stir. Mara folded her arms and resisted the urge to wrench the thing off of his head.
“Deltana!” she yelled the moment he took it off. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
He blinked and stared at her, uncomprehending, for a few seconds. Then, his eyes lit up with understanding, and he frowned.
“What are you doing here, Mara? What’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong? I’ll tell you what’s wrong. We’re half an hour from our final jump and our captain is locked in his quarters playing on a dream machine!”
“Dream machine? What are you talking about? I was using the monitor to run the—”
“—the neural stimulator program? Stars, Aaron, that’s even worse!”
“Why? How long was I under?” His eyes widened as he checked his wrist console. “Two hours? I’m sorry, Mara—I was only supposed to be in for half an hour, I swear.”
Hot blood rushed to Mara’s cheeks. “Half an hour? You’re not supposed to be using that thing at all!”
“But—but I need it,” Aaron stammered. “How else am I going to learn Gaian?”
“The same way anyone masters a language,” said Mara. “By study and hard work. If you keep using that neural stimulator program, it’s going to fry your brain so bad—”
“I know, Mara. I know. But I have it under control. I can stop at any time.”
“Oh, really? Then why aren’t you on the bridge right now, where you belong?”
Instead of answering, he gave her a guilty pleading look, imploring her to understand. She rolled her eyes.
“Aaron, you don’t need that program to do your job. You’ve mastered Gaian well enough already, and if you have any problems with it, you can always rely on me.”
“I know,” he said softly, unable to meet her eyes. She took him by the shoulders and forced him to look straight at her.
“You need to take care of yourself, Aaron. Understand? As the captain, you’re the one who holds this ship together. For all our sakes, you need to keep your body healthy and your mind sound. This addiction of yours—”
“Do you doubt me, Mara?”
She took a deep breath. There were things that she wanted to say to him that would do more harm than good. For all that they were friends, she didn’t know that an honest answer was the best thing to give him right now.
“Don’t be a fool, Captain. We’ve passed through the jaws of death together, and I’m sure we’ll pass through them again.”
While not exactly reassuring, her answer seemed to satisfy him. “Thanks, Mara. I’ll see you on the bridge.”
Mara drew herself up and saluted before returning to the hall without a word. But when the door hissed shut behind her, her hands were clenched tightly into fists.
How the hell was Aaron still using that damn thing? Didn’t he know the damage it could cause? He could lose his brain—turn into a vegetable. At all costs, she could not allow that to happen. It was her job to look out for him, after all—not just as his second-in-command, but as his friend. If she failed him, she didn’t know if she’d ever forgive herself.
* * * * *
Troya Station orbited New Constantine, the fourth planet of its blue-white system sun. New Constantine was far too young to have either a breathable atmosphere or indigenous life, but since it was a terrestrial world in its sun’s habitable zone, most of the system’s inhabitants lived on domes on the surface. A terraforming project was in the early stages of development, but the war had tabled those plans for at least another generation.
It’s a shame, Mara thought as she briefed herself on the latest political developments that could affect their mission. We’re spending all our resources to fight a war that we’re almost certainly going to lose, instead of investing in our future.
“Commander?” came a voice behind her. It was Mathusael. “Hey, Mara, what are you still doing aboard?”
She sighed and turned away from the command center terminal to face him. I should have known better than to do my work on the same deck as the docking node, she thought to herself. Next time, I’ll take my work to my quarters.
“Is there a problem, Chief?”
“The only problem I see is you working on your R&R time. There’s a shuttle leaving for the surface in half an hour, and a bunch of us are going down to find a decent bar. Why don’t you come with us? The first round’s on me.”
Mara didn’t know much about military life beyond her time in Fourth Platoon, but she doubted it was a good idea for commanding officers to get too casual with those they were supposed to command. Still, snubbing his offer would make it difficult to work together in the future, and with the Merope-7 at port, she didn’t have a good excuse for staying on the ship.
“Is the captain coming with you?”
“You mean Aaron? No, he’s busy meeting with High Command. I’m sure he’ll brief us on it when he gets back.”
So he isn’t skipping out to join us, Mara thought. That was a relief. It would be awkward if she went only to find him there, shirking his duties as captain to join his friends. Perhaps he was learning to take responsibility after all.
“All right, Chief. If you twist my arm…”
Mathusael laughed and patted her back good-naturedly. “That’s the spirit. And please, call me Mathusael.”
“If you say so.” She shrugged and followed him through the airlock onto the station.
“You’re new to this command thing, aren’t you?”
“Is it really that obvious?”
“Only because you’re not the only one,” he said, leading her up the main rimside corridor toward the nearest concourse. The trams there led up to the central station hub, where the shuttles departed. With all the bustling activity on the station, the shuttles were doing double duty. The crowd was so thick, Mara had to walk behind Mathusael instead of beside him.
“The captain and I were in the Flotilla together during the first campaign of the war,” she said, switching to Deltan to preserve at least some degree of privacy. “I was a sergeant in one of the platoons assigned to the Aegis, and he was our drop-ship pilot.”
“So I’ve heard. He’s come a long way, from star wanderer to frigate captain.”
“We’ve all come a long way from who we were before.” Not all in good ways, either.
“Fair enough, fair enough,” he said as they boarded the tram. All but two rear-facing seats were taken. They sat and pulled down the bulky shoulder restraints from the ceiling, fastening themselves in.
ENTERING LOW GRAVITY ZONE, the screen at the front of the car flashed as the tram began to move. It brought back memories of other trams Mara had ridden, on far-off stations her father had taken them to after leaving as refugees from their famine-stricken home. Life had been a struggle, but somehow they’d managed to stay together through all the hardships of refugee life. Then his death had shattered her world forever.
“I’m sorry to hear about your father,” Mathusael said in a hushed voice. “He was a good man, and a very close friend.”
“When was the last time you saw him?”
“I left Megiddo Station years before the food crisis. You could say I didn’t really fit in there. But your father was very kind to me. I guess we were kindred spirits of a sort. He was one of the only reasons I regretted leaving. Now, I regret it more.”
Mara frowned and looked over at him. “Wait a minute—I think I remember you.”
“You were one of his writer friends he invited over to dinner from time to time. You didn’t have a beard back then, though.”
Mathusael chuckled. “That’s right. Social proprieties on Megiddo Station being what they were, I didn’t acquire this luscious facial accessory until after I left.”
The tram turned upward and begat to accelerate, pushing them against their shoulder restraints. For a few moments, it felt as if they were dangling face down, with nothing but the restraints to keep them from falling the length of the tram. The sensation soon passed, though. As they reached cruising speeds and ascended further from the rim of the station wheel, it felt less like they were dangling and more like they were floating up through a deep pool.
“Did my father ever try to marry me off to you?”
The question surprised them both. Mara’s cheeks reddened, but she couldn’t take it back, so she decided to go through with it.
“What?” said Mathusael. He made such a bizarre look of disgust that for several moments, she didn’t know what to say.
“I mean, you were over so often, surely—”
“No, he didn’t. That was a big reason why we got along so well.”
Would it really have been that bad if he had set us up? Mara almost asked. Instead, she held her tongue.
“I left because of all the pressure to get married and start a family,” Mathusael explained. “Back there, if you were twenty-five standard years and unmarried, you were either a menace or a failure.”
“Oh, come on,” said Mara, rolling her eyes. “Maybe it was like that for the girls, but surely not for the guys.”
“No, it really was. And I was sick of it. So in my late twenties, I hitched a ride on a passing starship and never looked back.”
“So you never married?”
He shook his head. “I didn’t say that. After a few years, I decided I’d had enough starfaring. Found myself a nice woman in the Esperanzia system and settled down, just like the folks back home expected me to. But I had to see the stars first, and they never did respect that.”
Several moments passed in silence. The hum of the tram as it passed through the tube was the only sound between them.
“Forgive me,” Mara said. “I didn’t mean to get so personal.”
“Hey, it’s all right,” said Mathusael. “I’m not angry. Though I have to wonder, do you wish your father had set you up with me?”
She gave him a good, long look. “I’m not sure,” she said honestly. “I don’t know you well enough.”
“But you wish he’d married you off to someone, right?”
“I suppose,” she sighed. Now that the questions were about her, it was her turn to feel uncomfortable.
“That’s the way things were back home,” Mathusael continued. “A woman’s purpose in life was to get married and start a family. What was that saying? ‘A strong family shines brighter than all the stars.’”
“There are worse things to live for,” she muttered under her breath.
“So it’s true, then—you do wish he’d married you off.”
“All I’m saying is that I’d be a hell of a lot happier as a wife and a mother than I am as a soldier in this war.”
His question made her wonder, though: Would she have been happier? Or was she just speaking from a place of regret? Back home, she hadn’t felt much of a drive to settle down and start a family. She could sympathize with the restlessness that had driven Mathusael away. But if the war had never happened—if the famine had never driven them out, or if the Imperials had never killed her father—she wouldn’t be in the mess she was in today. When she thought of the life she could have lived, had none of this happened, a part of her couldn’t help but yearn for it. Surrounded by family, at least she would never have felt alone.
“Somehow I doubt that,” said Mathusael. “You don’t seem to me like the homemaking type.”
His words stung her more than she was prepared to admit. She took a deep breath.
“I’ve got to be straight with you, Chief. I only signed up for this war to avenge my father’s death. I never thought it would consume my life the way it has.”
“How did he die?”
“Imperial firing squad,” she said flatly. “After the famine at Megiddo Station, we fled as refugees to the Bacca system. We were there when the Imperials took over. The colonists protested hard against the occupation, and after a particularly nasty riot, the Imperials rounded a bunch of them up and had them shot. My father was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Mathusael said softly. “Really, I am.”
“I don’t doubt that, Chief.”
“Then you’ll accept my apology for being hard on you?”
She glanced at him and narrowed her eyes. “I suppose it makes us even. No hard feelings, if that’s what you mean.”
The tram slowed, pushing them up against their seat backs. Out the windows on either side, the narrow station wheels stretched from one end of the view to the other. The planet was out of view, but the stars shone like crystalline points on velvet, showing that they were on the night side of the world. It was a beautiful sight, but Mara didn’t feel like dwelling on it.
“I could use a stiff drink,” she said. “When is that ferry shuttle supposed to leave?”
Mathusael grinned. “Not soon enough.”
* * * * *
Aaron tried very hard not to feel like an imposter as he stepped into the main briefing room. The place was packed, with only standing room left in the rear. The crisp, white uniforms bore the insignia of captains, commanders, and admirals. He caught a glimpse of Major Achilles on the front row, with Admiral Tully sitting next to him. It felt strange to have so many high-ranking officers in the audience, but considering how High Command itself had ordered the briefing, it was to be expected.
“Attention, please,” said the speaker at the front, a middle-aged man in an intelligence officer’s gray uniform. Aaron wasn’t familiar with the insignia, but it was safe to assume he was near the top of the organization.
The room immediately came to order. All eyes turned to the speaker.
“I am Colonel Romanov of fleet intelligence. High Command has called this general briefing so that I can bring you up to speed. After that, we will give you your assignments.”
It’s a good thing I used the neural stimulator before coming here, Aaron thought to himself. With the colonel’s thick accent, the words would have passed right over his head otherwise. Mara said he didn’t need it, but that simply wasn’t true. He needed it now more than ever.
As the colonel laid out the starmap on the holo-projector he wondered what he should tell her when he got back to the ship. He’d tried to keep it a secret from her, but now that she knew he was using, he would have to address her concerns. Or would he? She wasn’t his commanding officer anymore; she couldn’t just order him to stop. Maybe if he was discreet enough, she would drop the issue on her own.
“After the Battle of Colkhia,” Colonel Romanov explained, “the remnants of the Imperial expeditionary force retreated in disarray. Our agents followed them as far as Esperanzia before letting them go.”
He tapped his keypad, and the starmap rotated and panned to a familiar cluster of stars. Aaron recognized it right away as the Oriana Cluster.
“Five standard weeks ago,” Romanov continued, “we detected some major jumpspace activity in the vicinity of Alpha Oriana.” Three red arrows flashed into existence, on the Coreward side of the star cluster. “We believe that a major Imperial force is headed toward us from that direction. We don’t know the exact disposition of their forces, but we suspect them to be at least five times as great as the expeditionary force that invaded the frontier stars.”
The room buzzed with nervous energy. Colonel Romanov waited for the noise to settle down.
“We followed them up to a brown dwarf star about fifteen parsecs from Colkhia, at which point they began to aggressively screen their movements. We suspect that their force has split into two main battle fleets, but we do not have any reliable intelligence on either fleet’s location.”
“What are their targets?” someone asked.
“Unknown,” Romanov answered. “Presumably, their objective is to crush the Resistance and consolidate the New Pleiades under their rule, but we do not know where they’ll strike first.”
One of the chief admirals sitting behind the colonel rose to his feet. Colonel Romanov nodded and deferred to him.
“High Command has determined that our best course of action is to fight defensively, rather than offensively,” the admiral explained. “The Imperials may outnumber and outgun us, but with the jump beacon network established throughout the New Pleiades, we can concentrate our forces quickly enough to give us an advantage. We can also defend a much wider area of space than the Imperials realize.”
Major Achilles raised his hand. “With all due respect, Admiral Ulysses, we’ve used the jump beacons offensively before. Why not do it again?”
“After the Battle of Colkhia, we decided to scale back our use of such tactics. The jump beacon network is much more reliable, and we cannot afford to let this technology fall into enemy hands.”
Aaron’s heart fell. He’s talking about my brother, he realized. When Isaac had failed to activate the jump beacon on the enemy’s position, it had thrown the Flotilla into chaos. No wonder High Command didn’t want to try that again.
“In the meantime,” Admiral Ulysses said, “we will deploy our forces across every possible point of attack. You will each be receiving your assignment in the next few days, and some of them may surprise you. However, each assignment represents a possible strategic flashpoint that could easily become an invasion route.”
When the fighting starts, I won’t be able to look for my brother, Aaron realized. This may be my last real chance to find him. God knows what a mess this sector will be after the war.
“We’ve fought off the Imperials once, my friends,” Ulysses continued. “But they’re coming back, and this time they’ll be in force. I expect all of you to put forward everything you have, because it will take nothing less for us to win this war. Understood?”
“Yes, sir!” the room echoed. But Aaron was too busy thinking about his brother to answer.
* * * * *
The space under the dome was wide—so wide that it gave Mara a sense of vertigo looking up at it. She had lived all her life on starships and space stations, where ceilings were low and space was tight. Fortunately, the settlement beneath the spaceport was crowded enough that the feeling soon passed.
They found Phoebe and Apollo in a smoky cantina that was packed with other officers from the fleet. Space was so tight that they had to shoulder their way through, and from the loud laughter and the stench of alcohol in the air, it was clear that they weren’t the only ones who had come down for some R&R.
“Apollo, my friend,” said Mathusael, slapping him on the back as he sat down. “And Phoebe, too. I see you’ve got a head start on us!”
Apollo smiled and nodded, though it was clear he was much more subdued than his bearded companion.
“I see we’re not the only ones who thought this was a good idea,” said Mara. She glanced behind her as she sat down, subconsciously making sure she knew where all the exits were.
“I hope we’re not in trouble,” said Phoebe, her eyes as wide as a new recruit’s.
Mara snorted. “Trouble? What do I look like, your mother?”
“I found Soladze hard at work getting us ready for our first tour of duty,” said Mathusael, “so of course I did the irresponsible thing and brought her down here.”
“You really twisted my arm, too,” said Mara. Even she couldn’t tell whether or not she was joking.
“Well,” said Apollo, “welcome planetside, Commander. Glad you could join us.”
Mathusael opened the tap from the dispenser at the center of the table and pulled out a couple of shot glasses. “What’ll it be?”
“A stiff drink for a stiff first officer,” he said as he poured her a shot.
“And don’t you forget it. What is this stuff?”
“Tajji vodka—the hardest stuff this side of Gaia Nova. First one’s on me.”
Mara threw her head back and swallowed the whole thing in one gulp. Phoebe gasped, but Apollo and Mathusael were both impressed.
“Looks like our XO can hold her liquor,” said Apollo.
Mathusael laughed. “Are you sure you’ll be saying that in an hour?”
“He’ll be saying it,” said Mara, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “I could outdrink anyone in Fourth Platoon—isn’t that right, Phoebe?”
“That stuff kills your brain cells so fast it might as well be poison,” Phoebe muttered. Her voice was so soft, she seemed as if she were speaking to herself. Mara had been around her long enough to know that was how she always talked.
“Thank you, Lieutenant. By the way, where are the others from the platoon?”
“Jason and Pallas?” She went silent for a moment, just long enough to be awkward. “Pallas is training with his commando squad, and Jason is on a special assignment for the captain.”
“Training, training, training,” said Mathusael, shaking his head. “Why work so hard when we’ve got the whole voyage ahead of us for that?”
“Because they don’t have the whole voyage, Chief,” said Mara. The alcohol gave her mind a sudden rush of clarity, with few inhibitions holding it back. “Our commando team is training so they can go into cryo when they’re at peak performance. Didn’t you notice the cryotanks on level six?”
“I didn’t, actually,” he admitted. “Haven’t had a chance to go through all the equipment yet.”
“Well, the sooner you familiarize yourself with the ship, the better. And for your information, once the commandos go into cryo, they’ll be under for most of the voyage. If things go well, that is.”
“And what if things go poorly?”
She shrugged. “The only reason for waking them is if they’re needed for close combat. If we wake them at all, it’ll be to defend ourselves from boarders. So I hope you familiarize yourself with that particular equipment very well, because if something goes wrong once our friends go into cryo, we might not have them when we need them.”
A somber silence fell over the table, contrasting sharply with the noise and laughter all around them.
“That would be a good reason to check the equipment, now, wouldn’t it?” said Mathusael. He tried to smile, but it was hard to bring back the collegial atmosphere after her somber reality check.
“Pour me another one, Chief.” She slid her glass over, and he complied without a word.
“I doubt it’ll come down to that with Deltana as our captain,” said Apollo. “He seems to have a knack for getting out of tight spots.”
“That’s not how I remember it,” said Phoebe. “I don’t think there was a single time he flew us on that drop-ship that I didn’t throw up all over the place.”
“Well, he had a knack for getting into them, too. But he always managed to pull out somehow, which is probably why they made him captain.”
A loud noise at the rear of the cantina made them all turn. It sounded like a brawl in the direction of the door. A silence fell on the room as someone in a flight suit tumbled over a table and fell to the other side.
“Damn pirates!” someone shouted. He raised a drunken fist, but the sharp crack of a blow to the face sent him spinning to the floor.
Mara narrowed her eyes. The alcohol was starting to blur her peripheral vision, but she saw a group of five or six men clustered around a man in a faded gray uniform. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with a square chin and a prominent nose. His eyes were like twin laser sights, which he pointed coolly at everyone.
“G-Gulchina,” the drunken man stammered from the floor. “Gulchina’s Marauders.”
The cantina was deathly silent now, with all eyes on the men. The name Gulchina was feared throughout the Outworlds—even at Megiddo Station, Mara had heard tales of their cruel exploits. It was because of pirates like them that the Outworlds had any sort of military to speak of. Every system had at least a modest defense force, if for no other reason than to make the pirates move on and seek easier prey. There was no law in the Outworlds, after all—no law except a white-hot plasma cannon.
“At your service,” said the man in uniform, bowing in mock salutation. His men chuckled. Most of them wore black synthleather vests, though their jumpsuits didn’t look all that different from those worn by the other pilots and starfarers in the cantina. On their belts, though, they all carried knives—some as long as her forearm. She tensed a little as the bouncer stepped forward to disarm them.
“No weapons,” said the man, a burly cyborg with a durasteel prosthetic arm that gleamed in the dim, smoky light. “You’ll have to leave them with me.”
The men drew themselves up in defiance, their hands slipping to their guns and knives as if in preparation to draw. The pirates and the bouncer sized each other up, neither side giving any ground. One wrong twitch, and blood would surely flow.
“You heard him, boys,” said the man in the gray uniform. “Offload.”
He pulled out a gold-plated pistol and handed it to the bouncer. One by one, the other pirates took out their weapons and followed suit. Pretty soon, the man had a small arsenal—more than he could possibly carry. He transferred them to the bar, where the barkeep stowed them out of sight with trembling hands.
“What the hell is this?” Mara muttered under her breath.
“Those are Gulchina’s men,” Mathusael answered, his voice low enough not to carry beyond the table. “The one in gray is Aslan, captain of the Tamerlane. I have no idea what they’re doing here.”
The last pirate had no sooner disarmed than the men at the nearest table rose up and rushed them. The sharp crack of blows filled the smoky cantina. Phoebe screamed, and both Mathusael and Apollo rose to their feet.
“Enough!” Aslan shouted. He raised his fist, and his men pulled back. Only then did Mara see how badly they’d wasted the men who’d rushed them. The outworlders lay heaped on the floor or moaning beneath the metal tables. The bouncer stood off to one side as if unsure what had just happened, and the barkeep was still shouting frantically for everyone to stop. But from the way the others in the cantina kept their distance, it was clear enough that the confrontation was over.
“My friends,” said Aslan, addressing the whole cantina. “Is this any way to treat your fellow comrades?”
“You’re no friends of ours!” someone shouted.
“Yeah! You’re just a pack of murderous bastards!”
“Certainly,” said Aslan, “but we’re your murderous bastards now. Haven’t you seen the new fleet roster? Check, and you’ll find a certain Tamerlane.”
A sinking feeling grew in Mara’s gut. No, she thought, her head spinning.
“Stars of Earth,” Apollo said, looking up from his wrist console. “He’s right.”
“But—but that’s impossible,” someone said nearby as the crowd began to rumble. “We don’t need pirates to fight the Imperials.”
“Your beloved High Command seems to differ,” said Aslan, grinning. “We received our commission just a few standard days ago. It will be our pleasure to fight alongside you.”
With that, he walked over to the bar as the whole cantina stared at him in shocked silence. His men joined him, watching the crowd with shifty eyes, but for his part, Aslan seemed completely unconcerned. Mara returned shakily to her seat, and the others joined her.
“So we’re making alliances with pirates now,” she muttered.
“High Command must really be desperate,” Mathusael agreed. “But what else could you expect? With the way they’re commissioning officers left and right, this was something we should have seen coming.”
Apollo nodded. “It was only a matter of time.”
“Just like the next Imperial offensive,” Mara added. “And when things get really desperate, who do you think will be the first to turn on us?”
No one cared to give her an answer.
“It’s true,” said Katya. “High Command has enlisted a number of private military organizations, including Gulchina’s Marauders.”
“But why?” Mara asked. Her head still rang from the drinks she’d had the night before—she could put them down without too much trouble, but dealing with the hangover was another matter entirely. At least most of the others were still down on New Constantine.
“Because frankly, Commander, the Imperial threat is so great that we need all the help we can get.”
Mara frowned. “Help? What makes High Command think it’s a good idea to trust someone like Gulchina?”
“We don’t have a choice,” said Katya. “But let me assure you, Commander, High Command is being very careful about how they integrate Gulchina’s forces into the fleet. The Tamerlane will play a mostly auxiliary role, and won’t be in direct contact with most of the rest of us. As for Gulchina’s troops, we’ve put them on the Starfire, where they make up no more than ten percent of the total crew complement.”
“That’s still enough to take control of a starship,” said Mara. She thought back to the Battle of Colkhia, where Fourth Platoon had managed to take control of the Starfire almost single-handedly by turning off the artificial gravity and venting most of the Imperial soldiers into space.
“Again, High Command has already taken measures to prevent that. Gulchina’s men are going into cryo even as we speak. They will not be revived until needed.”
I very much doubt that, Mara thought.
* * * * *
“Ithaca!” Aaron shouted, not caring who else on the ship heard him. “Of all the places to send us—Ithaca!”
Mara frowned. “Ithaca, sir?”
“Yes. The most insignificant system on the far side of the star cluster. They want us to secure it, in case the Imperials take the scenic route.”
He flung up his hands and fell back onto his bed. Mara shifted uneasily.
“Well, that’s still an important route into the New Pleiades.” she said. “It’s a little out of the way, but the Imperials could still—”
“It would take an Imperial battle fleet half a year to navigate through the rifts in that sector, and we’d discover them long before they reached us. The system is practically in the Far Outworlds! Why the hell would the Imperials strike us there?”
“So you want to be on the front when the fighting starts?”
“No,” he said. “That doesn’t matter. With the jump beacon network, I’m sure they’ll get us there as soon as they need us.”
“Then why are you so upset?”
He sighed and sat up, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. “How am I supposed to find my brother from Ithaca?”
“You were hoping we’d be sent to the frontier systems so you’d be able to look for him there,” Mara stated, more as a fact than a question. “That’s been your priority ever since you got this commission.”
“Of course it has! What do you expect me to do? Forget about him?”
From the look on her face, he could tell she wasn’t pleased.
“Aaron, this isn’t just about you. There are people depending on you now, not just to get them across the battle zone on a drop-ship, but to get them through this war. You have to look to your command.”
“I know, I know.” But finding my brother is important, too.
Mara took a deep breath and stared out the porthole window. The planetscape glowed yellowish-red as their orbit gradually took them into the shadow zone of the planet’s night side.
“Aaron, I hate to say this, but if we haven’t heard from him by now he’s probably dead. We know the Imperials didn’t take him prisoner, because he managed to jump out before the fighting began. His ship probably broke down and stranded him somewhere in space, and if no one’s picked up his distress signal by now—”
“No!” Aaron shouted, leaping to his feet. “My brother isn’t dead—I know he isn’t!”
“But what if you’re wrong? Aaron, we have to look to the ones who are living—the ones whose lives depend on us now.”
“You only say that because your father is dead. If he were alive and missing right now, you’d do exactly the same as me.”
He regretted his words the moment they left his mouth. Mara drew in a sharp breath, as if he’d punched her in the gut. In some ways, perhaps he had.
“Look, I’m not saying you should stop looking for him. Everyone hopes you find him, myself included. I’m just saying that we have other duties now—duties that have to come first. It’s great to hold onto that hope that he’s still alive, but that can’t define everything you do.”
“What do you know about hope?” he muttered, turning his back to her. “You’re such a staunch pessimist, it’s practically your religion.”
Once again, Aaron regretted his words. He rubbed his eyes and tried to calm down.
“This bickering is getting us nowhere,” said Mara. “You said you’ve received our assignment?”
“Yes. They’re sending us to Ithaca, practically on the other side of the star cluster from where we ought to be.”
“Did they brief you on what we’re supposed to do there?”
Aaron sighed. “Just patrol the local sector for Imperial activity. There’s a rift in the dust clouds nearby that serves as a major trade corridor. The Imperials might send a smaller strike force and try to hit us on two fronts simultaneously.”
“That makes sense,” said Mara. “So we’re supposed to patrol the rift and make sure that doesn’t happen?”
“That, or wait for High Command to order us back when the real fighting begins. Honestly, I think the only danger in that sector is the pirates—and from what I understand, even they’re on our side now.”
“Or so they would have us believe,” she muttered. “You heard about Gulchina’s Marauders?”
“Yeah. Mathusael messaged me about it. Said it caused a fistfight in that planetside cantina you guys went to.” I wish I could have seen that.
Mara nodded and rubbed her head. He realized that her eyes were bloodshot.
“Got a bit of a hangover, eh? I was wondering why you looked like you made planetfall face-first without a heat shield. Not that I can blame you—I doubt there’ll be anything to drink at Ithaca except the local moonshine.”
“I knew going down there was a mistake.”
“Nonsense,” he said, chuckling. “It’s good to spend a little down time with the crew. I almost went down there with you.”
“Yeah, well, I’m glad you did the responsible thing and stayed for your briefing.”
“No, I mean after the briefing. That only lasted about an hour.”
Mara frowned. “If the briefing only kept you for a few hours, what else were you doing?”
“What do you think? I was combing the local database with Lieutenant Thetana for any sign of my brother. We managed to get through most of it yesterday, and I finished the rest on my own this upshift.”
From the expression on Mara’s face, her headache seemed to be getting worse.
“Do you really have to keep looking for him, Aaron? Is there no way you’ll accept that he’s gone?”
Aaron took a deep breath before answering. “Let me put it this way, Mara: If I had to give up my rank, my command, and everything else this war has given me, I would do it in a heartbeat just to hear his voice and know that he’s still alive.”
She nodded. For a long moment they stood together in silence, staring at the darkening planetscape below.
“Well,” said Mara, “I’d better see to my duties, then. I take it we’re leaving for Ithaca at the earliest opportunity?”
“That’s right. There’s nothing else for us here.”
Mara nodded and left. At least they could agree on that.
* * * * *
It didn’t take more than a standard week to get from Troya to Ithaca, even though it lay on the far side of the New Pleiades. The jump beacon network allowed them to hop from star to star without any of the unpredictable drift that came from normal FTL travel. That was the only real advantage that the outworlders had over the Imperials, though Mara doubted it would be enough to turn the tide of the war. At Colkhia, she’d seen what could happen when a jump beacon failed, and she was sure that it was only a matter of time before one of them failed again.
Aaron was right about Ithaca being practically in the middle of nowhere. The system’s sole station orbited a crater-marred world so unremarkable that there were more defense satellites in orbit than starships, nav-buoys, and sublight haulers combined. The station itself was small enough to qualify as an outpost rather than a colony. Even though the Merope-7 was only a light frigate, it took up all the space on the station’s tiny docking arm.
“The edge of civilization isn’t too far from here,” Mathusael mused as they finished their docking maneuvers. “Just the other side of that cloud, and it’s a whole lot of uncharted nothing, with an occasional forgotten colony.”
“There’s not much on this side of the cloud either, Chief,” said Mara. “Not unless living on that rock appeals to you.”
The groan of metal on metal through the bulkheads announced that the docking clamps had latched on. A moment later, Apollo confirmed as much.
“We’re docked, Captain.”
“Very good, Vulcana. Power down sublight engines, but keep the jump drives on reserve. I want enough charge to jump out in a hurry if we need to.”
The only way that’s going to happen is if the fleet calls us out to the front, Mara thought silently. For the Imperials to strike us this far out, they would really have to be desperate.
With their work done, most of the crew disembarked. It wasn’t long before they started trickling back, though, bored by the station’s meager recreational options. Several of them went to the Merope-7’s dream center to entertain themselves with the simulators. Mara herself didn’t have the neural jacks or implants necessary to plug in, but most of the crew had been starfarers and star wanderers before enlisting, so they were all experienced with dream worlds.
This created a problem, though, when Pallas and his commando team needed to use the dream center for their training. They came to her after running laps around Ithaca Station’s rimside corridor, still sweaty from the exercise.
“Who let the engineering crew into the dream center?” Pallas asked in his characteristically terse fashion.
Tall and dark-skinned, he wore a black beret with a pair of cybernetic shades. As a sharpshooter, he kept his eyes protected as much as possible. Mara understood why, but it still aggravated her whenever she had to talk with him.
“Sorry, Sergeant,” she said, rising to her feet. “I’ll clear the deck immediately.”
Pallas and his commandos followed her without a word. Their faces were either guarded or expressionless, or perhaps both—it was difficult to tell. Mara didn’t envy them their job. They trained almost twenty-four hours a day, doing military exercises in the dream simulators while their bodies slept. Out of curiosity, Mara had watched some of the footage from the exercises, and what she’d seen had been sobering. The simulators were so realistic, she doubted that the commandos would be able to tell the difference if they were ever called on.
That could have been me, she thought as the commandos settled into the ergonomic seats and slid the dream monitors over their heads. A few moments later, their bodies went eerily unconscious as the simulations began. Mara could only imagine what violent acts they were doing in the simulated reality as their bodies lay limp and unresponsive in the physical one.
Would it have given her more satisfaction to be one of them, tasked with killing the Imperials in close combat? She didn’t doubt that she’d be very good at it. But then she thought of her father and put it out of her mind.
On her way back to the bridge, she stopped at the command center to see if Katya was there. Instead, she found Jason.
“Why aren’t you on leave?” she asked. “Is this another assignment from the captain?”
“You could say that,” he answered, not looking up from the screen. “Though it’s more of a commission than an assignment.”
“What do you mean?”
He grinned. “Aaron’s offered me a full six months of his pay as captain if I can find his brother. He’ll pay me in trade goods, too, since stars know what the local currency will be worth after this war.”
“He agreed to that?”
“But do you really think you’ll find anything this far out from the rest of the star cluster?”
He shrugged. “Who knows? It’s certainly better than doing whatever else passes for fun in this starforsaken system.”
“Yeah. Well, good luck with that. I doubt very much you’ll find what you’re looking for in this place.”
Jason’s eyes lit up, and his grin broadened to an outright smile. “Funny you should say that,” he said, leaning back and cracking his knuckles triumphantly. “I believe I just have.”
Mara frowned and peered at the screen. It showed the raw data from the docking control registry for the past three months. It took her a moment to find what Jason was referring to, but there in the center, next to a local date from about two months ago, she saw it:
ASSN: 7S9 MEDEA 07:49
“Stars of Earth,” said Mara, her eyes widening. “The Medea—that’s the Deltana brothers’ starship, isn’t it?”
“That’s right. I’m running the transponder codes right now, just in case this is a different Medea on the docking record. If the codes check out, though, then this is proof that Aaron’s brother was here.”
This complicates everything, Mara thought, wondering how they were going to break the news to Aaron. She could guess how he would take it—and more importantly, what he would want to do with the information.
“Let’s tell him together, in private. I’ll let him know we’re coming.”
Jason shrugged. “Makes no difference to me.”
You’re wrong, Mara thought. It makes a very big difference indeed.
“You found him?” Aaron asked, perking up. In a single instant, all of his apprehensions about his assignment to Ithaca evaporated.
“Not exactly,” said Jason, speaking in Deltan for Aaron’s benefit. “What I found is record his ship came through this system and docked at main station here.”
“When? Where did he go?”
“That last question I cannot answer. But I can say when he was here. According to station registry, it was little less than two months ago, about ten standard days after Battle of Colkhia.”
“Stars of Holy Earth—he was really here.” Aaron rose to his feet and began to pace the narrow space of his quarters.
“‘Was’ being the operative word, sir,” said Mara. “Wherever your brother went, he isn’t here now.”
“It doesn’t make sense,” Aaron mused, too caught up to hear her. “He should have headed for New Hope Station as soon as he got here. What happened?”
“The records do not say,” Jason answered.
“There’s no sense in going after him if we don’t know where he went,” said Mara. “We need more information.”
Aaron shook his head. “No, we won’t find anything else by sitting here. Isaac is too cautious to leave a trail that we could follow.”
“But he did use true name of his starship,” said Jason. “Not an alias.”
“That’s because he knew it wouldn’t match the alias he gave the Imperials. He thought the danger was from them—that’s why he went so far out of his way after fleeing Colkhia. The rift…”
His mind raced as he processed this new information. A light freighter calling itself the Medea had passed through the Ithaca system shortly after the Battle of Colkhia. The data from the station records showed that it was indeed Isaac and Aaron’s starship. That meant that Isaac had fled from Colkhia through the Shiloh Rift—but why had he gone missing after he’d made it safely here? Ithaca was on the jump beacon network, which meant he should have had a straight shot to New Hope Station as soon as he’d arrived. He’d evaded the Imperials, only to fall to something else.
“The trail is cold,” said Mara. “The best we can do is notify the fleet commanders and have them run a search of all the nearby systems.”
“No,” said Aaron, shaking his head. “Isaac would have headed back to headquarters immediately, without stopping at any of the nearby systems. Something happened to him here—something that kept him from returning to New Hope Station.”
He put a hand on his chin and turned to face the window. Was Isaac out there somewhere, waiting for Aaron to save him? Was he in danger? The Imperial battle fleets were still months away, and almost certainly wouldn’t strike them here. Isaac needed his help more urgently than anyone else.
“Jason,” said Aaron, “were there any other ships that came in around the same time as the Medea?”
“I do not remember, sir. I will check.”
“Do that. And Mara?”
“Raise the alert and make sure the crew is ready to leave on a moment’s notice. With the way things are going, I don’t think we’ll be in port much longer.”
Jason saluted and left the room. Mara, however, stayed until the door hissed shut.
“Sir, what are you thinking?”
“I think that Isaac never made it back to headquarters because he was being hunted,” said Aaron.
“That’s what I intend to find out.”
She folded her arms and stared at him. “Does that mean you intend to abandon your post?”
“Not ‘abandon,’” he said, waving his hand. “We were sent here to secure the local sector. If this is where my brother went missing, then clearly the sector is not secure.”
“You don’t know that for certain.”
“No, but I can feel it. Something’s wrong here—something’s very wrong.”
“And what do you intend to do exactly?”
He turned and looked out at the beckoning starfield. “The person who was chasing my brother must have come through the Shiloh Rift. If Jason doesn’t come up with anything, that’s the best place to look for clues. I don’t think Isaac would have stopped at any of the systems along the way, so we’ll have to head for Bethel on the other side.”
“Bethel?” said Mara. “For a ship our size, that’s at least a two-week journey from here!”
“If he came through Ithaca, then he came through Bethel. And Bethel isn’t that far from Colkhia, so it’s not like we’ll be out of touch with the fleet for long.”
“And what if we find nothing?” she asked, her tone rising. “What if we get to Bethel, and the trail is just as cold there as it is here? If we leave, we won’t be getting any closer to him—we’ll only be going further.”
“Yes, but we might find something that will lead us to him.”
“But you don’t know that. And meanwhile, we know that the Imperials are on their way to invade us again—and this time they’ll be a whole lot stronger than they were before. When they do, the fleet is going to need every ship they can get. Aaron, they put you in command of this ship because they trusted you to do your duty. But running off after your brother’s ghost isn’t serving anyone—it’s only serving yourself.”
Aaron bit his lip. Was Mara right? Was he doing this for himself? No—his brother was still out there somewhere, in need of his help. The selfish thing would be to stand by and do nothing.
“Thank you for your opinion, Commander. You’re dismissed.”
“I said, you’re dismissed,” Aaron repeated. “I’ll let you know when I have further orders for you.”
Mara gritted her teeth, but gave him a stiff salute. Without a word, she turned and left.
* * * * *
The cryotanks radiated out from the center of the deck like guns stacked barrel-up. In many ways, it was an apt comparison. The tanks were designed for rapid thawing, using a specially formulated cocktail of stims to bring the commandos up to combat readiness within ten minutes of cryothaw. They were not merely soldiers, but assets honed to peak performance and frozen in that state to be unleashed on command.
Mara oversaw the process from behind the main console, where Mathusael controlled the equipment and Phoebe directed the two medical assistants under her command. One by one, the commandos stepped naked from the decanting chamber after receiving the requisite injections for the stims. The medical assistants directed them to the coffin-like tanks, where they lay back to await the descent into cold sleep.
“Let’s take it nice and easy, one at a time,” said Phoebe. “Pallas, we’ll start with you.”
“Affirmative,” he said, staring expressionlessly at the ceiling.
Before this war, I would have blushed to see a man naked like that, Mara thought to herself. Now, it’s no big deal. In Fourth Platoon, everyone had seen each other naked at one point or another—there hadn’t been much privacy on board the Aegis. Besides, after fighting in close combat together and witnessing so much carnage and death, a little bit of skin didn’t seem all that shocking.
Pallas lay against the inclined chamber with his eyes closed and his hands by his side. Phoebe keyed the start code, and the glass front slid shut with a hiss.
“Rachel, Paris, how are we looking?”
“Vital signs are all nominal. I’m not seeing any red flags.”
“Good,” said Phoebe. “Inject the catalyst and start the flash freezing process.”
The two medical assistants turned to their consoles and keyed in a series of commands. Inside the cryotank, a syringe attached to a robotic arm inserted itself into Pallas’s vein. As the dark gray liquid pumped into his blood, the chamber filled with a cloudy gas. His body tensed, and his skin went red and blotchy before turning a pale blue. On Phoebe’s monitor, the line representing his heartbeat grew faster and shallower until it began to flatline.
“Rachel, what are you seeing?”
“We’ve just crossed into the safe zone, Lieutenant. He should be going into cryosleep now.”
“Sensors show an even temperature distribution. Core body temperature is dropping at an acceptable rate. It looks like everything’s by the book—the automated systems should be able to take over from here.”
Phoebe sighed in relief. “Good. Set the tank to full automation and move on to the next one.”
As the medical assistants finished with Pallas and moved to the next cryotank, Mathusael leaned over to Mara.
“I heard you spoke with Aaron about Jason’s discovery in the station registry.”
Mara turned and stared at him. “Don’t you have work to do, Chief?”
He shrugged. “Phoebe’s the one operating the equipment. She only needs me to be here in case something goes wrong.”
“Be sure to double-check those injections against the subject’s body weight,” Phoebe was saying. “This one’s got a higher body mass, so we’ll have to flash freeze him about five degrees lower.” If she noticed Mara and Mathusael, she was too focused on her work to care what they were talking about.
“Yes, I spoke with him,” Mara admitted. “Did you?”
“Briefly. He told me he’s confirmed that his brother came through this system before he disappeared.”
“From what I’ve heard, that’s the first sign he’s had since Colkhia. It means a lot to him—finding his brother, I mean.”
Mara nodded but said nothing.
“Listen, Commander, I know that you technically outrank me, but I’ve been around a bit longer than you and I feel that I should give you some advice.”
“What sort of advice?”
“Aaron told me how adamant you were with him about not leaving our post,” said Mathusael, looking her in the eye. “I know you only have his interests at heart, but I think that you’re trying to control him a bit too much. The fleet didn’t put you in command of the Merope-7. They gave that responsibility to Aaron.”
“I’m fully aware of that, Chief,” said Mara. “But the fleet gave me a responsibility to the crew of this ship as well.”
“The fleet didn’t give you that position—Aaron did. The fleet wanted to make me second-in-command.”
Mara frowned. “Really?”
“When I enlisted, I saw that they’d given Aaron a commission and requested a position on his ship. They knew he was a loose cannon, so they wanted someone older to keep an eye on him—someone that he already looked up to. I declined, so they granted his first choice instead, which was you.”
“But you were the last one they assigned to us—how did that happen?”
Mathusael shrugged. “It took a while for me to navigate the bureaucracy. I’ve been to the Coreward Stars, so they wanted to put me in a more forward position where my knowledge would be useful. But once I’d learned that Aaron had his own ship, I had to find a way to get assigned to it.”
“I didn’t realize that they almost made you the first officer,” Mara said. “If you feel I haven’t been doing as—”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, waving his hand. “Rank and position don’t matter to me. What matters are my friends.”
The medical assistants finished and moved on to the next cryotank. Phoebe looked up from her work long enough to give Mara a puzzled look, but it was clear that she didn’t know what they were talking about. They waited until Phoebe was busy with the next soldier, then returned to their conversation.
“Do you feel that I’m smothering him?”
“A little bit, yeah,” Mathusael admitted. “But I also think that you’re a bit overwhelmed yourself right now. Am I right?”
Mara frowned. What was he getting at?
“I don’t mean to get too personal,” Mathusael continued, “but I can see that your father’s death has been hard on you. Do you blame yourself for what happened to him?”
So we’re back to this again, Mara thought to herself, her hands twitching. She stared straight ahead at the cryotanks and didn’t answer for a long while.
“You can be straight with me, Mara,” said Mathusael. “I’m here for you.”
“No, I don’t blame myself for his death,” she said at length. I blame myself for what I did about it.
“That’s good,” he said. “I’ve seen far too many people beat themselves up over things that were not in their control.”
“Yeah, so have I.”
Mathusael nodded. “You seem to be doing really well for yourself, considering what you’ve been through. I’m impressed. You’re a strong woman.”
“Well, I have to be, considering all the people who depend on me.”
“That’s right. And I take back what I said before about not being able to see you as a homemaker. I have no doubt that if life had turned out differently, you would have been a fine wife and mother. Hell—when this war is over, you may still yet.”
His words touched her more than she expected. Still, a nagging voice of self-doubt made her cock her head.
“What makes you say that?”
“Because it takes a strong woman to raise a family—or a man, too, for that matter,” he explained. “I don’t mean someone who’s tough. This war has made a lot of people tough, including you, but strength is something different.”
“Different how?” she asked.
“Strength is an inner quality that takes time to nurture and grow. A war like this won’t make you any stronger—if anything, it’ll sap your strength until you’ve got none left. That’s why so many people come back from wars feeling like hollow shells: The experience made them tougher, but it took away all their strength.”
“And you don’t think this war has made me hollow?”
“Not at all,” he said, shaking his head. “I’ve seen how much you give of yourself for your friends. You’ve got a lot of strength left in you, Mara, and I don’t think this war will drain it out of you.”
She took a deep breath and nodded. “Thanks, Chief. That’s good to hear.”
“Call me Mathusael. And about Aaron, can I give you some advice?”
Mathusael put a hand on her arm and looked her in the eye. “I know you care about him, but it’s not a good idea to try and control him. He’s already had enough of that from his brother.”
“Yeah, really. You want to help him, take the soft approach. He’s going to make mistakes, but he needs to be in charge for once in his life. And don’t worry, he’ll learn to live up to the responsibility that’s been placed upon him.”
He’d better, Mara thought.
“Thanks for your advice, Mathusael. I’ll see what I can do about it.”
“Sure thing, Commander,” he said, grinning as he patted her on the shoulder.
They said nothing else for the remainder of the cryofreezing process, but the silence didn’t feel cold—at least, not to Mara. As for Mathusael, she doubted he ever felt cold about anyone. Perhaps that was why High Command had wanted to make him first officer.
I need to be more like that, she decided. It’s what the men and women of this ship need of me.
* * * * *
Colors splashed across Aaron’s field of view. They exploded outward like droplets in an oily puddle, or fractal petals of a hundred flowers opening up all at once. Greens and reds, blues and yellows—the contrast was sharp, yet it soothed him like a shot of hard liquor. The best part was that there would be no hangover afterward.
As the shapes unfolded around a vertical line of symmetry, he thought he saw them condensing into something. He peered a little closer, and without warning they collapsed into darkness, making his eyes shiver. When the shapes returned, it wasn’t fractals he saw but an actual physical object. He recognized it at once as a cryotank.
Come for me.
He thought at once of the girl he and Isaac had rescued at Nova Alnilam, the last survivor of a derelict station lost to the depths of space. Her call for help startled him—it had been months since he’d dreamed of her. Until the Battle of Colkhia, he’d thought of her day and night. But ever since his brother had gone missing, he’d all but forgotten her.
Come for me.
He stepped tentatively forward and peered into the glass, expecting to see her peaceful sleeping form. Instead, what he saw made him gasp.
It wasn’t the girl in the tank—it was his brother, frozen with his eyes wide open. His hands reached up as if to claw at the glass from inside, and his body was contorted in awful pain.
Come for me.
A buzzing in his ear snapped him into consciousness. The dream collapsed, leaving him with a splitting headache. It cleared quickly, though, returning strength to his exhausted limbs. From somewhere off to his left, a door chime sounded. He tore off the dream monitor with trembling hands.
“Isaac,” he groaned, rubbing his head. He recognized his quarters, with some half-eaten food on a plate lying next to him on the bed. Other than that, it was clean enough. He set the plate on his desk table and slipped into his uniform.
Someone’s at the door, he realized as the door chime sounded again. It’s probably Mara, come to chastise me about something or other.
To his surprise, it was Lieutenant Nova.
“Captain Deltana, sir” she said, giving him a crisp salute. He returned the salute with one hand while buttoning himself hastily with the other.
“Lieutenant—what a surprise. Uh, come in.”
If she noticed his state of dishabille, she made no visible sign of it. He finished buttoning his shirt and motioned for her to sit down on the chair.
“Captain, I heard that you recently discovered evidence that one of our missing operatives came through this system.”
Aaron frowned. “Missing operatives?”
“An agent of the Resistance piloting the ship known as the Medea.
Isaac. She means Isaac.
“Yes, Lieutenant, that’s correct.”
“Are you aware of the significance of this discovery?” she asked, her voice nearly breathless. “That operative was carrying a top-secret jump beacon device that we cannot allow to fall into the wrong hands. My superiors in the intelligence community have put out a top-level alert to find him and retrieve the device, or at least confirm that it was destroyed.”
“What are you saying, Lieutenant?”
“Captain, what I’m saying is that finding this operative should be our top priority. The technology he’s carrying could cost us the war if it falls into the wrong hands. If we know that he came through this system, we should pursue him with all possible haste.”
Aaron’s heart leaped in his chest. A top-level alert—this was exactly the green light he needed to go ahead. Even as his enthusiasm surged, though, he could hear Mara’s voice in the back of his head telling him not to go.
“What about our orders?” he asked. “We’re supposed to patrol the local sector until the fleet calls us elsewhere.”
“Yes, but Captain, this changes everything. No one in High Command could have known that we’d make this discovery—if they had, they would have told us to pursue it. You have to make your decisions based on conditions in the field.”
You have no idea how much I want to believe you.
“What if we informed High Command of this discovery and waited for orders?” he asked, knowing that Mara would ask exactly the same thing.
Katya scooted to the edge of her seat. “We don’t have time, sir. The Imperials will be upon us in just a matter of weeks. By the time High Command gets back to us, it may be too late.”
“I hope you’re right, Lieutenant,” he muttered under his breath.
“What was that, sir?”
He looked at her and took a deep breath. “Who else have you told about this?”
“No one, sir. When I learned about it, I came straight to you.”
“That’s good—very good.” He smiled and rose to his feet. “Thank you very much, Lieutenant. You are dismissed.”
“I appreciate you informing me about the situation, but I must confer with my first officer before making a decision. I’m sure you understand.”
Katya gave him a puzzled look, but she nodded as she stood up. “Of course, sir. Though if you want me to brief her first, I—”
“That won’t be necessary, Lieutenant. Dismissed.”
As the door hissed shut behind her, Aaron collapsed into his chair. He could hardly believe it was all happening—everything was finally starting to come together. The only thing left was to convince Mara to come on board.
Though with her tendency to nag him, he doubted she ever would.
* * * **
Mara wasn’t expecting a call from Aaron, but as soon as she got it, she left her bridge duty to go see him. It wasn’t urgent, but knowing him, if he didn’t have her brain to pick he’d go on ahead without thinking at all.
“Captain,” she said, saluting as she stepped into his quarters. He was already in uniform, staring out the porthole window with his hands clasped comfortably behind his back. She waited for him to turn and acknowledge her.
“Thank you for coming, Mara,” he said. “Please, have a seat.”
“I’d prefer to stand.”
He shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
“You called for me, sir?” she asked.
“Yes. Lieutenant Nova has brought some information to my attention that may change the nature of our mission. I wanted to hear your input before I make my decision.”
Dammit, Mara thought to herself. Knowing Aaron, he’d already made his decision and was now hoping to justify it to her.
“What did she tell you?”
“Fleet intelligence has put out a top-level alert on any information regarding my brother. Finding and recovering him is a top priority. Apparently, the equipment he was carrying is highly classified, and cannot be allowed to fall into the wrong hands.”
Mara frowned. “Did these orders come through our command chain?”
“No. But Mara, the fleet was just organized a couple of months ago—it didn’t even exist when Isaac went MIA. With how messy things are administratively, we have to take the initiative on our own.”
“Then why did you call me here?”
“Because I didn’t want to go ahead with this without getting your opinion. What do you think, Mara?”
She looked into Aaron’s eyes and saw a fire that she knew all too well. He wanted more than anything to go after his brother—his mind was set, and there was nothing she could do to persuade him to change his mind. She could fight him on it, of course, and perhaps she was even stubborn enough to win, but was that really a good idea? She thought of Mathusael’s advice in the cryochamber, and knew that it wasn’t.
“We can’t ask High Command for clarification of our orders?”
“We can,” said Aaron, “but it would take weeks to hear back from them, and by the time we did, the trail would be even colder. Plus, the Imperials might already be on top of us. Our window of opportunity for this is pretty small.”
“Then it’s your decision, Captain,” she said with some reluctance. “Personally, I think it’s a mistake to abandon our post, but if we’re going to follow up this lead, we should do it now.”
“My thoughts exactly,” Aaron said, clearly relieved to hear her answer. “Whether our lead is cold or not, we only have a short time to pursue it.”
“You’re really going to go for this, then?”
He stared out the porthole window without answering her. It was as if he were searching for something, or perhaps listening to the whispers of the stars. The starfarers claimed that the stars called out to them, beckoning to be explored, but Mara knew it wasn’t just that. It was his brother.
“Raise the alert,” he said. “I want all hands on deck within the hour. Have the officers report directly to the bridge.”
Mara sighed and nodded. “When do we leave?”
“As soon as possible.”
Whispers in the Dark
“All stations, report.”
The officers of the Merope-7 looked at each other with puzzled glances. Aaron couldn’t blame them—until just a couple dayshifts ago, he hadn’t expected to leave Ithaca so soon himself. But the important thing was that they were here, ready to obey his commands.
“Helm and astrogation, ready.”
“Engineering reports all systems green.”
“Comms and medical, ready at your orders.”
“Weapons and countermeasures, online.”
Mara took a deep breath. “All crew are on board and accounted for. Ready at your orders, sir.”
“Excellent,” said Aaron. He stood up from his command chair and stared out the forward window for several moments with his hands clasped behind his back.
“Phoebe, open up a shipwide channel.”
“Yes, Captain,” she said, keying in the command on her console. “Channel is open.”
He nodded and turned to face them, looking them each in the eye as he spoke.
“This is the captain speaking,” he began. “As all of you have noticed, I have raised the alert level and ordered all crew to their posts. I want you to know that this is not a drill. We are making preparations to embark and will leave the system imminently.”
The tension in the room rose a notch, and the puzzlement on their faces turned to open surprise. He went on.
“Some of you may be wondering how this fits in with our mission. When High Command sent us to Ithaca, they ordered us to patrol the local sector as part of the rearguard to the rest of the fleet. We are not abandoning that mission. However, we recently obtained information that has changed the scope of our mission, and I have decided to take the initiative rather than wait for new orders from High Command.”
He paused. The bridge was as silent as the void of space. His officers were listening with rapt attention—as was the rest of the crew, no doubt.
“About two standard months ago, a Resistance operative in possession of a top-secret military device went MIA near the Colkhia system. We learned that he passed through Ithaca sometime after he disappeared. It’s unclear what happened next, but we know that he must have passed through the Shiloh Rift, so we’re going there to hunt for any clue as to where he was going and who was following him.
“That missing operative is my brother. Our primary objective is to make sure that the device doesn’t fall into enemy hands, but if there is any chance we can recover him, I expect all of you to do everything you can to make that happen. If it does, I will personally be very grateful.”
He nodded to Phoebe, who cut the transmission. “Channel is closed, sir,” she said softly.
“Thank you, Phoebe.” He turned to the bridge. “Before we embark, are there any objections? They will be noted in the log.”
The bridge was silent. If anyone objected to his plans, they didn’t have the courage to speak up. On the contrary, as he looked into each of their faces, he saw a heartening solidarity. Even Mara was fully behind him.
“Very well,” he said, taking his seat in the command chair. “Jason, charge weapons. Apollo, set the jump coordinates for the rift, about half a light-year in.”
“Captain,” said Apollo, “at that distance, we won’t be able to pinpoint our exit point. Our ship’s mass allotment only allows for a safe jump distance of point two light-years.”
“Pinpoint accuracy isn’t important,” said Aaron. “Just make sure we don’t come out in the middle of the nebula.”
“Plasma cannons charged and ready,” said Jason. He leaned back and grinned. “Are we hunting for anything in particular, Captain?”
“We’ll find out soon enough. Mathusael, optimize the scanners for a detailed analysis across all spectra. Mara, sync our scanners with the command center and make sure Lieutenant Nova can see what we’re seeing.”
“Understood,” said Mara. She was already at work.
“Target co-ordinates set, Captain Deltana,” said Apollo. “We’re ready to jump.”
Aaron gripped the armrests of his command chair and stared out the forward window at the starfield beyond. “Take us out, Apollo.”
A low hum sounded beneath the floor and through the bulkheads. He closed his eyes and held his breath as the hum grew in pitch and intensity. He felt a strange rising sensation, as if the space all around him was shrinking and he was getting pulled out of it. It grew until his stomach flipped and his heart leaped into his throat, but just when he thought he couldn’t take it anymore, the feeling passed.
Those long jumps are the worst, he thought silently as he opened his eyes. Especially when there isn’t a jump beacon on the other end.
“Jason, what do you see?”
“Initial scanner reports coming in now, Captain,” Jason reported. “I’m not seeing anything in our immediate vicinity. Particle density is in the yellow, but still within acceptable limits.”
“Triangulating position,” said Apollo. “Looks like that jump took us a little farther than we expected.”
“But we’re in the rift?” Aaron asked.
Apollo nodded. “Yes, sir. Just barely in the safe zone, but still in the rift and not in the nebula.”
“Initial scan complete,” said Jason. “Commencing deep field scan.”
The main bridge display just below the forward window flashed to show the local area. Except for a green dot in the middle, it was completely empty.
“Looks like we’re alone,” Aaron mused aloud. “Jason, power down weapons to standby.”
“Are we picking up any comms signals?”
“Nothing but dust and silence,” said Phoebe. She did a double-take and frowned. “Wait… There’s something strange going on here.”
“I’m picking up a faint transmission—no, make that three. The interference from the nebula is garbling them pretty badly, though.”
Aaron frowned. “How far out are they?”
“Impossible to say,” she said. “At standard broadcast frequency strength, though, I’d say—stars of Earth.”
Her face went white, making Aaron’s blood turn cold. “What is it, Lieutenant?”
“More signals. The deep field is picking up at least a hundred of them, with more coming in every moment. It’s as if… as if there’s hundreds of different voices all echoing at once.”
“Triangulation is complete, Captain,” said Apollo. “If you’d like us to locate the source of some of those transmissions, we can do so now.”
“But the redshifts…” Phoebe muttered, clearly engrossed by what she saw on her display. “Captain, these signals can’t be coming from any nearby settlement. They’re coming from all directions—some of them even from deep space.”
“Then they must have originated from passing starships,” said Mara.
“Starships?” said Aaron, turning to frown at her. “What makes you think that?”
“Because the only thing in deep space that can emit this kind of a signal is a starship,” she answered. “This rift is a major corridor between the Far Outworlds and the Coreward Frontier, so there are ships coming through here all the time.”
“But why would so many of them transmit signals like this?” Apollo asked. “There’s no need.”
Or was there?
“Maybe there was a need,” Aaron mused, scratching his chin. “Maybe they needed to transmit their positions, because of…”
“Because of what?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. But Mara’s right—those have to be coming from starships.”
“Phoebe, how far is the nearest signal?” Mara asked.
Phoebe peered at her display and toggled a few keys on her console. “It looks like the nearest one is about point one two light-years away.”
“Point one two,” said Mara. “That means the last transmission happened a little less than two months ago. Whatever made them transmit these signals, it stopped shortly after the Battle of Colkhia.”
The Battle of Colkhia, Aaron thought, his mind racing. That’s when my brother went missing. There had to be a connection, but what was it?
His eyes widened as realization struck him. “Pirates.”
“Pirates?” Mara asked.
“Yes. Back at Ithaca, the station master told us that the rift was swarming with pirates until just a couple of months ago.”
“But why would any starfarer transmit his position when the sector is swarming with pirates?”
An alarm sounded at Jason’s console. Aaron frowned and turned to face him.
“What is it, Jason?”
“I’m picking up an emergency beacon,” he said, peering at his screen. “It’s a non-military signal about point one eight light-years out. Someone’s calling for help.”
A tense silence descended on them, punctuated only by the beeping of the alarm. In the silence, Aaron quickly reviewed his options. It could be a trap meant to lure them into an ambush, but the Merope-7 had more than enough firepower to deal with any pirate threat. If it wasn’t a trap, the survivors were almost certainly dead by now, but their derelict ship might hold some sort of clue.
“Let’s go after it,” he said. “Apollo, how long until we’re ready to jump?”
“After the last one, it’s going to take some time to fully recharge our drives. We probably won’t be able to make it this—”
“We don’t need a full charge, we just need enough to get us to that signal. How long do you think it will take.”
Apollo’s lips narrowed. “I’m sorry, Captain, but if we’re going to pinpoint those coordinates, we need at least eight hours for the jump drives to charge.”
“It’s not like there’s a hurry, Captain,” said Mara. “Whoever activated that distress beacon did so almost three months ago. We’re not going to save anyone by now.”
Aaron sighed and sank back into his chair. “You’re right, Mara,” he said. “Let’s stand down to alert level three. Mathusael and Phoebe, keep watch on the bridge. The rest of you get some rest before we investigate that distress signal. Report back here in eight hours.”
* * * * *
The nebulous clouds surrounding the rift glowed a dull blue through the porthole windows of the mess deck. Mara idly admired the view as she sat at one of the tables, nursing a hot cup of reconstituted tomato soup. She was one of the lucky ones—her sleeping shift more or less aligned with the downtime as the Merope-7’s jump drive recharged, but most of the other officers were not so fortunate. The dream center was full of people resting their bodies by plugging their minds into the simulators—a stop-gap measure at best, since simulated dream consciousness wasn’t nearly as restful as natural sleep. All the same, the mess deck was empty, except for Lieutenant Castor.
“Good downshift, Mara,” said Castor, slipping into the seat across from her. “How are things with you?”
“I’ve been worse,” she said, sipping a spoonful of the soup. It tasted a bit salty, but considering that all the Merope-7’s fruit and vegetable stores were all either on ice or reduced to powder, she had no complaints.
“So there’s been a change in the mission. We’re searching for a missing operative now?”
“Yeah. Aaron’s brother—the guy who almost got everyone killed at the Battle of Colkhia.”
“Ah,” said Castor, his good-natured smile waning. The Battle at Colkhia had almost been a disaster because the beacon that was supposed to pull the Flotilla out of jumpspace hadn’t gone up in time. Instead of jumping together in unison, concentrating their forces in a surprise attack, the Flotilla had been scattered all throughout the system, making it easy for the Imperials to pick them off one at a time with their superior firepower. If the Aegis platoons hadn’t captured the Starfire, the largest battleship in the Imperial expeditionary fleet, the battle would have ended in disaster. As the former commander of Fourth Platoon, Castor knew that all too well.
“So what system are we putting into next?” he asked.
Mara shrugged. “Don’t know yet. Aaron hasn’t decided. We just found an emergency beacon, though, so it looks like we’ll be investigating that first.”
“An emergency beacon?”
Castor shrugged. “Well, that’s something to do at least. Up until now, things have been exceptionally quiet.”
“I wouldn’t count on that lasting much longer, Lieutenant,” said Mara. “There’s something very creepy about this rift. We’re picking up hundreds of deep space transmissions, echoing through space like whispers in the dark.”
Castor pulled out a rag from his apron and rubbed down the smartglass surface of the table, even though it was already clean.
“Sounds like a protection racket.”
Mara frowned. “A protection racket?”
“Sure. Pirates don’t take everything by force. If you can get your victims to pay you without firing a shot, it’s a whole lot better than risking your ship in a raid. But it only works in certain regions, like a rift in a nebula where everyone has to pass through a narrow bottleneck to get through to the other side.”
“Interesting,” said Mara, stroking her chin. “But why the transmissions?”
“That’s the linchpin of the whole operation,” said Castor. He finished with the table and stuffed the rag back into his apron. “Every time a starship enters or exits jumpspace, it emits an electromagnetic signal. If you know approximately where a starship is going to come through, you can wait around nearby until you pick up that signal. Since it takes ten to twelve hours for most jump drives to recharge, that gives you enough of a window to hit anyone within ten to twelve light-hours of you. The transmission lets you know who has and hasn’t paid. If a ship comes through without transmitting, then you go after them.”
“Oh come on,” said Mara. “The Shiloh Rift is a lot wider than ten or twelve light-hours across, even at its narrowest point. How could one pirate ship stop even a fraction of the traffic that comes through?”
“Because it’s not just one pirate ship—it’s as many as twenty or thirty. Most pirate fleets have outriders equipped with jump drives for this very sort of thing. And no, they won’t catch everyone who comes through, but they will catch enough to make most starfarers pay the protection fee.”
Mara swallowed another spoonful of soup and stared out the nearest porthole as she thought about it. It made sense, in a perverse sort of way. The Outworlds were lawless enough that it wouldn’t be hard for a group of pirates to get away with something like that. She’d have to mention it to Aaron.
“How do you like your new position?” she asked, changing the subject.
Castor’s smile returned. “I like it a lot, actually. It’s a nice change not to have people’s lives depend on me. I get to see the crew and talk with them about whatever’s on their minds, without the burden of command.”
“So you wouldn’t want to go back to commanding troops again?”
“Not at all. Understand, I never really cared about moving up the ranks. I was a star wanderer for five years before I settled down, and station life never really suited me. This war was my chance to get out and see the stars again. Does that make sense?”
“Not really,” Mara admitted. “But I grew up never thinking I’d leave my home station, so it was a lot different for me.”
“Once you’ve wandered the stars, it gets into your blood,” said Castor, leaning forward with his hands on the table. “They call out to you—the stars, I mean—and sometimes you can’t help but answer.”
A star wanderer, she thought to herself. If her life had turned out differently, she might have been married to a man like Castor. It was an Outworld tradition for the oldest son of most families to take his father’s starship and seek his fortune among the stars. It kept the far-off colonies from becoming too inbred—colonies like Megiddo Station.
Would she have been happy with that, though? She thought of what Mathusael had said about strength and toughness. The war had made Castor tough, but it had drained a great deal of his strength, some even visibly. If it weren’t for her intercession to bring him on as the Merope-7’s quartermaster and morale officer, he probably would have been lost.
“Are you holding up all right?” she asked.
“Very well,” he said, nodding. “I love serving and being part of life on a ship like this. When you’re a star wanderer, you spend a lot of time by yourself, and it can get very lonely on some of the long voyages.”
“I’ll bet,” said Mara. She took a sip of her soup.
“In any case, I was never really suited for command. All those soldiers in Fourth Platoon who died… it’s hard not to blame myself for their loss.”
Mara nodded. “I know how you feel.”
“That’s why it’s so much better to be in a supporting role rather than a command one. I can share in all the camaraderie of serving with you guys, but without all the burden.”
He takes the strength he needs from us, Mara realized. The thought gave her pause. Was that true of everyone else on the crew? She knew that Aaron relied on her, but she didn’t realize it was the same with everyone else—or that she could rely on them.
She finished up the last of her soup and set the bowl down on the table. Castor took it from her and stood up to return it to the washer unit behind the counter. While he did that, she rose to her feet and checked the duty roster on her wrist console.
“I don’t know what to do about Aaron,” she muttered. “It’s like he’s chasing ghosts, taking us out into the rift like this. His brother’s probably dead, and we’re not going to find him out here.”
“Always the pessimist, aren’t you?” Castor called out over his shoulder.
“Yes, and for good reason.”
“A pessimist is never disappointed. If you turn out to be wrong, it’s a pleasant surprise.”
“Perhaps,” said Castor. “But sometimes you’ve got to lighten up. If all you can see is the worst in everything, you’ll always miss the good.”
“Maybe. In any case, I should be going. I’m needed on the bridge in seven hours, and between now and then, I’d better get some shut-eye.”
“Of course. Sweet dreams, Commander.”
I’d rather have no dreams at all, she thought silently. With so many people depending on her, the last thing she needed was a reminder of how much of a monster she was.
* * * * *
“Target coordinates set, Captain,” said Apollo. “We’re ready to go on your mark.”
“Take us out, then,” said Aaron. “Alert level two. We don’t know what’s at this distress beacon, so I want to be ready for anything.”
The hum of the jump drives reverberated once again through the floors and bulkheads. Aaron closed his eyes and held his breath. The hum grew in pitch until it was almost a whine. His stomach flipped, though not as hard as the first jump into the rift. He opened his eyes, and a temporary wave of dizziness swept over him as the whine of the jump drives died back down.
“Status report,” he said, gripping the armrests of the command chair with white knuckles.
“All systems are in the green,” said Mathusael. “Reactor looks good, jump drives are charging. Diverting power to scanners and weapons.”
“Good. Jason, what do you see?”
“The distress signal is coming from an unidentified object about six thousand klicks off our bow,” said Jason. “I’m picking up heat signatures consistent with the reactor of a light freighter.”
“Can you get us a visual?”
“Of course, sir. Scanning now.”
The main screen below the forward window blinked on. It showed a grainy image of a dark object superimposed on the dim blue background light of the nebula. The image brightened, and a set of green grid lines superimposed itself onto the foreground object to enhance it. Aaron narrowed his eyes; it looked like a small- to medium-sized civilian freighter.
A light freighter like the Medea.
“Is there anything else on the scanners?” he asked.
“Negative, sir. Scanners aren’t picking up anything else within sensor range.”
“Good. Phoebe, can you hail them?”
“Hailing,” said Phoebe.
Several tense moments passed in silence. Phoebe frowned and looked up.
“Sorry, sir. They’re not responding.”
“Captain,” said Jason, “the interior temperature of that ship is only two kelvins warmer than the background temperature of the rift. I’m also not picking up any sort of artificial gravity field. I don’t know for sure, but it looks like—”
“Like it’s a derelict,” said Aaron. He leaned forward with his fingertips pressed together, resting his chin on his thumbs, and let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding.
“Captain,” said Apollo, “if you want to send out a team to investigate, I can get us close enough in about forty-five minutes.”
Aaron took a moment to think. On the scanners, the derelict starship looked almost exactly like the Medea. The only reason he knew it wasn’t was because there was record of it coming through Ithaca. Still, his heart couldn’t help but beat a little faster knowing that his brother could have been on the other side of that emergency beacon. Whoever had done this, whatever they had done, he had to see it with his own eyes.
“Sir,” said Mara, breaking the silence that had descended on the bridge. “Your orders?”
Aaron blinked and realized that everyone was looking at him intently. He drew in a sharp breath.
“Yes, Lieutenant, that sounds like a good idea. Mathusael, how many EVA suits do we have?”
“Five, Captain—eight, counting the spares.”
“We won’t need that many. Apollo, take us within a hundred meters of that ship, but don’t dock. Mathusael, grab two of your men and come down with me to suit up. We’ll use tethers and rocket-packs to board. Mara, take the bridge.”
“Sir,” Mara said in Deltan as Aaron rose to his feet. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
“To investigate that emergency beacon?”
“No—to leave your post and risk your life boarding that derelict. What if something happens while you’re gone? Frankly, sir, this is something you should delegate to an away team.”
The other officers stared at them with puzzled eyes. Even though no one else could understand them (with the possible exception of Jason), he felt a need to keep them aware of what was going on.
“Thank you for your concern, Commander,” he answered in Gaian, “but this is something I have to oversee myself. I’m sure you’ll be able to cover for us if anything goes wrong.”
Mara’s cheeks reddened, but she nodded in deference to his command. “Very well, sir. We’ll keep a channel open.”
She saluted him with a shaky hand. He returned the gesture and nodded to Mathusael, who followed him out the hatchway.
“Take care of yourself, sir” Mara blurted as he swung his feet perpendicular to the wall.
“Of course,” he said in Deltan, giving her a boyish grin. “That’s what I do best, after all.”
Though he tried to put a good face on it, something told him she was not convinced.
* * * * *
Mara rose slowly to her feet and assumed the captain’s chair, her legs feeling wooden. She had a very bad feeling about Aaron leading the away team, though of course she couldn’t countermand his orders.
Apollo gave her a questioning glance, bringing her back to the present. “Commander Soladze?”
“You heard the captain. Get us to that ship as soon as you reasonably can.”
“Understood, Commander. Moving out.”
Mara stared out the forward window as the sublight engines engaged, pressing her into her seat as the ship accelerated. The bridge dampers compensated for most of the acceleration, but she still felt as if she were lying slightly on her back. That didn’t bother her nearly as much, though, as not knowing what lay on the other side of the glass.
All they knew was that the signal they were investigating looked like it came from the wreckage of a typical Outworld starship. It had been transmitting for at least several months, so there was little chance that anyone on board was still alive. But what had caused them to activate their distress signal in the first place? They were close enough to the nebula that the ship’s hull integrity might have been compromised by the high particulate density. On the other hand, it could easily have been pirates. And if that was indeed the case, she had every reason to believe that they could be using the beacon as some sort of trap.
“Lieutenant Thetana, how are our weapons systems looking?”
“Plasma cannons are charged, and drones are in the chute, Commander. The moment something shows up, we’ll be ready to blast it out of the sky.”
“Good. Keep it that way. I want your itchiest finger on the trigger.”
Jason grinned. “Understood, Commander.”
I almost wish those pirates would show up, Mara thought to herself. We’d sure give them a nasty surprise.
She settled back for the wait. The officers had their orders, so there wasn’t much for her to do except watch them do their work and be ready for when things went crazy. That was the thing about military life: All the excitement was concentrated into a few brief moments of absolute panic, so the rest of the time was filled with utter boredom. Rarely—if ever—was there anything in the middle.
As she waited, the wreckage slowly getting closer on the scanners, the hatch to the bridge hissed open behind her. She turned and saw Katya step inside.
“Lieutenant Nova. What can I do for you?”
“Commander, I’ve found something that I think you and the captain might want to know about.”
“Is it something you can tell me now?” Mara asked
Katya glanced around the room before answering. “I think so. It has to do with the signals we’ve been picking up all over the rift.”
“What is it?”
“They’re designed to look like ordinary navigational signals, but they’re actually much more,” said Katya. “Each transmission contains a packet of encrypted data disguised to look like an ordinary beacon. I’ve managed to crack the encryption, though, and found that the packet is an audio recording.”
Mara frowned. “An audio recording?”
“Yes. Every signal contains an audio recording disguised to look like a navigational beacon.”
Why the hell would the pirates make everyone do that? Mara wondered. What exactly has been going on in this sector for the past few months?
“Good work, Lieutenant. Crack a few more of those transmissions and see if you can find any pattern in what they say.”
“Right, Commander. I’m on it.”
Katya saluted, and Mara returned it. As the hatchway door hissed shut behind her, Jason chuckled to himself.
“And I thought this post would be boring.”
“Just keep your finger on that trigger, Thetana.”
At length, the wreckage of the distressed ship came into view. With the engines burning to give them a gradual stop, it grew from a tiny black point amid clouds of blue to a ghostly shape, almost like a hole in the starfield. Jason swung the high-beams onto it, illuminating the dark gray hull.
“On screen,” Mara ordered.
The main screen lit up to show a magnified image of the wreckage. It was clearly a starship of some kind—or at least, it had been. The whole right side of it had been blown away, so that half of the cargo hold was exposed to hard vacuum. Black scorch marks and misshapen, twisted metal showed that the ship had been painted with plasma fire. The forward cockpit window was shattered, the bulkheads riddled with holes from projectile cannons and flechettes. Little pieces of scrap flashed in the beam of light, revealing a wide field of debris.
“Stars of Earth,” Mara whispered. It’s a wonder there’s anything left at all.
“We see it, Mara,” Aaron’s voice came over the bridge loudspeaker. “It looks pretty bad.”
“That reactor could be highly unstable,” said Mathusael. “Can you run a scan to make sure there isn’t a leak?”
Mara nodded to Phoebe, who got to work on it right away. “It looks fine from here, Chief. We’re not picking up any unusual radiation signatures or other signs of reactor failure.”
“Is there anything else on the scanners?” Aaron asked. “Escape pods? Signs that anyone made it out of that thing alive?”
“We’ll keep an eye out for any pirates,” said Mara. “There’s a good chance that if they’re still in the area, they’re using this wreckage as a trap.”
“Sounds good, Commander. We’ll be in and out as quickly as we can. Let us know when we’re good to disembark.”
Mara glanced at Apollo, whose eyes were locked on his screen. “Just a few minutes,” he muttered. “Bringing her in nice and easy.”
As the Merope-7 crept closer to the derelict, the debris made little pinging noises as it struck the hull of the ship. The cloud shimmered and began to shift, as if a light wind had just blown through. It briefly lifted the stillness of the scene, but did little to diffuse the aura of death.
“We’re at one hundred meters now,” said Apollo as the Merope-7 stopped just short of docking range.
“Did you hear that, Captain?”
“We heard it, Commander. Disembarking now.”
Was that a hint of anxiety in his voice? Mara wondered. Whatever it was, he wasn’t his usual boyish self. He hadn’t seemed worried about investigating the ship before, so she didn’t think it was fear, but there was definitely something unusual.
“Thetana, put the captain’s HUD on the main display,” she ordered.
“Got it. Displaying now.”
The image on the main screen blanked, then changed to show the view from Aaron’s helmet as he walked into the airlock. He glanced over his shoulder, and Mara caught a glimpse of Mathusael—or what she assumed was Mathusael—behind him. The dark orange EVA suits made everyone look the same, and the gold faceplates were far too reflective to see through.
“Keep an eye on the captain’s vitals, Phoebe,” Mara said softly. “Mirror them to the screen at my chair and let me know if you see anything worrisome.”
On the main display, Aaron keyed the access panel to the exterior airlock doors. The lights flashed red three times before the door hissed open, revealing the blackness of space and the shimmering debris field outside.
“Jacob, Penelope, Mathusael, let’s go out one at a time,” said Aaron. “I’ll go first. When I fire my rockets, count to two and follow me out. We’ll meet up on the derelict.”
Aaron took a deep breath, which was amplified significantly by his EVA suit’s mic. With one hand gripping the nearest hand-hold, he leaned back and threw himself forward out of the ship. The camera went shaky for several moments, but the rockets fired almost immediately and the view soon stabilized. As soon as it did, the roar died down as Aaron coasted the rest of the way.
He flipped himself around just before he hit the derelict and landed his magnetic boots with a solid thud. Mara caught her breath and swore at his recklessness. The mic picked up a chuckle, suggesting he’d done it to get a rise out of her.
Dammit, Aaron, she thought to herself. When are you going to grow up and stop dicking around?
The others soon assembled on the hull around him. They turned on their helmet lights for illumination, though the high beams of the Merope-7 were more than enough to see by.
“Mara, are you getting our video feeds?”
“Crisp and clear,” said Mara. “We can hear every breath.”
“Good. Jacob, I want you to walk around the outside of the ship to get a visual record of it. Keep the channel open, though, and only tell us what you see if it looks immediately dangerous.”
“Got it, Captain.”
“Penelope, hang a tether on him and fly out a bit to spot for him. His magnetic boots should keep you both secure, and you’ve got plenty of rocket fuel left to get you back home.”
Aaron paused for a moment. On Mara’s screen, his heartbeat began to speed up.
“Mathusael, come with me. Let’s check the inside.”
“I’m right behind you,” said Mathusael. “Let’s go.”
They walked down the side of the derelict’s hull toward what was left of the airlock. The cargo hold had been blown open by plasma fire, with sharp, ragged edges of twisted metal wherever the hull had taken damage. They stepped carefully to avoid that, until they came to the airlock door itself.
To Mara’s surprise, it was already open.
“Looks like we weren’t the first to come in through here,” said Mathusael. “And these scoring marks look like they were made by asteroidal docking clamps.”
“Just like the Paladin-4,” Aaron muttered.
The drop-ship from Fourth Platoon.
“So you think they were boarded before they were destroyed?” Mara asked.
“Probably,” said Aaron. “Jacob, Penelope, what do you see?”
“The damage is consistent with ship-to-ship weapons fire, Captain,” said Penelope. “At the same time, there are signs that the hull was breached from a blast that originated within.”
“How can that be?” said Phoebe. “The reactor is still intact.”
“Only one way to find out,” said Mathusael. He pulled out a laser cutter from his suit’s belt and climbed down through the airlock.
Aaron followed, and for several moments, the camera view was too shaky or too dim to make out much of anything. His breathing started to sound louder, and his heartbeat continued to accelerate.
“Phoebe, what’s wrong with the captain?” Mara asked, quietly enough that only the officers of the bridge could hear her.
“I don’t know,” said Phoebe. “He’s—maybe he’s having a panic attack?”
Mara frowned. “Captain, are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” said Aaron, a little too quickly. From the medical readouts, though, it was clear that something was wrong.
The view stabilized, and the camera adjusted for the change in the light. The image on screen was of a short corridor, with lockers and wall compartments on either side. Black scorch marks scarred the walls, with gruesome bloodstains kept red by prolonged exposure to vacuum. With the artificial gravity gone, though, the whole thing looked as if it were underwater—or perhaps like something out of a dream.
“Looks like there was some heavy fighting here,” said Mathusael. “Whoever commanded this ship didn’t give up without a fight.”
“Or perhaps they were executed,” said Mara. She remembered all too well the feel of the gun in her hand as she shot her father’s killer.
“I doubt it,” said Mathusael. “Aaron, what’s wrong?”
Aaron said nothing, but his breath was coming short and fast now—much too fast to be mere nervousness. His heartbeat went erratic, and alarms began to sound on Mara’s console.
“Phoebe!” she shouted. “What the hell is going on?”
“I don’t know, Commander! He’s having some sort of… seizure?”
“You’re the medic, dammit! What’s wrong?”
The view on the main screen went shaky again as Aaron began to spasm uncontrollably. His hand hit the wall, and he went spinning out of control in the microgravity. Mathusael tried to reach for him, but he was knocked aside.
“It’s not completely involuntary,” said Phoebe. “He still has motor control, but his frontal lobe is spiking like crazy.”
Sweat began to form on the back of Mara’s neck. She gripped the command chair with white-knuckled hands and leaned forward.
“Is there anything you can do? Any way we can help him?”
“Not while he’s off-ship.”
“Then get him back here, dammit! You hear me, Mathusael? We need to get him to medical on the double!”
“It’s possible to override his EVA suit manually,” said Mathusael. “If you lock him down, I can carry him out.”
Mara stared at the spinning view on the display screen. Aaron’s panicked breathing filled the channel, making her hands shake. If he’s gone, she realized, then all the responsibility for command falls to me. The thought made her head swim and her knees go weak.
“What’s the override? How do we lock him down?”
Phoebe cheeks paled. “I don’t know, Commander, I’ve never—”
“I have it, Mara,” said Jason. “Shall I?”
“Yes! Lock down that EVA suit and bring him home!”
Jason’s fingers raced over his control console. On the main display, Aaron’s flailing hands suddenly froze in place, though he continued to spin end over end. Mathusael pinned him against the wall, stopping him before he collided with anything dangerous. His breathing was still ragged, though, and his heart rate was still much too fast.
“Hang on, Aaron,” Mathusael said in a soothing voice. “You’re gonna be all right. I’m just going to tether us together and bring us back to the ship, nice and easy.”
Mara collapsed back into the command chair. What the hell is going on?
“His brain activity is returning to normal,” said Phoebe. “Heart rate slowing, normal functions resuming. It looks like he’s going to be okay.”
“Isaac?” Aaron muttered. “Isaac, is that you?”
“Isaac’s not here, Aaron. It’s me, Mathusael.”
“Mathusael? Why can’t I move? What’s going on?”
“We’re bringing you back to the Merope-7,” said Mara. “We’re sending you straight to medical to find out what the hell just happened to you.”
“What happened? What’s—what’s going on?”
“Never mind that,” said Mathusael as he guided Aaron’s frozen body gently out the airlock. “Everything’s going to be fine, Aaron. Just relax.”
“Commander,” said Phoebe. “Are you okay?”
Mara glanced around the bridge and realized that all the officers were staring at her. Her hands were shaking and she felt dizzy—she must have had a panic attack of her own without realizing it.
“I’m fine, Lieutenant,” she said, straightening her back. “Get down to medical to receive the captain. We’ll finish investigating the distress beacon later. Everyone else, abort and return to ship.”
“What?” said Aaron. “I’m feeling fine now—it’s not a big deal.”
“Like hell it isn’t,” Mara muttered, her relief giving way to anger. She clenched her fists and looked out at the cold, white stars.
Voices of the Lost
Mara stormed into the medical bay, her blood boiling. Aaron was just inside the door, fitting his uniform back on. She stepped inside and grabbed him by the arm.
“Going somewhere, Captain?”
“Mara, I—Ow! What are you doing?”
Phoebe looked up from her console and stood immediately. Her two medical assistants edged toward the walls, careful to keep their distance from the captain and commander.
“What’s the big idea, checking yourself out of medical before you’ve had a full brain-scan?” said Mara. “You’re not stepping back on the bridge until Phoebe has had a good look inside your head and can tell us what’s going on in there.”
“Mara, I’m fine. What happened on the derelict, that was just… an accident.”
“Like hell it was. You freaked out so hard we had to lock down your suit and pull you out like so much dead weight.”
“But I’m fine, now. Really, I am.”
“Take the brain-scan and prove it.”
Aaron glanced around the room. All eyes were fixed on him. Phoebe stood by the examining table, her hand on the large U-shaped brain-scanner that folded down from the wall. The medibots were already hovering next to her.
“All right,” he said, “but Phoebe, I need you to dismiss your assistants.”
“Why?” asked Mara.
“It’s okay,” Phoebe said quietly. She nodded to her assistants, who left the medical bay without a word.
Aaron sat down on the examining table and lay back against the cushions. He fiddled nervously with his hands as Phoebe pulled the scanner down and fit his head between the two prongs. He closed his eyes as the machine lit up and began to operate.
“Stay still,” said Phoebe. “This will take a few seconds.”
Mara glanced from Aaron to the holoscreen at Phoebe’s console. The image of his brain was fuzzy at first, but quickly resolved into a far more detailed picture. Lights lit up in various places, with labels as the computer identified the relevant parts. It was all too complicated for Mara to understand, so she looked at Phoebe to gauge her reaction.
“That’s not good,” said Phoebe, frowning at the picture. “Very not good.”
“What do you see, Lieutenant.”
“The neural pathways in his frontal lobe are skewed all out of proportion. I’m seeing connections where there shouldn’t be any, and nothing where there should. The damage is so severe, it’s a wonder his brain is still working at all.”
Mara frowned. “Damage?”
“That’s what it looks like. The signs are consistent with an advanced dream simulator addiction, but the effects are more severe than anything I’ve ever seen.”
The neural stimulator program.
“Am I going to be all right?” Aaron asked. He sounded scared.
“I honestly don’t know,” said Phoebe. “With therapy and medication, it might be reversible, but it’s going to take a long time.”
“You’ve been using that neural stimulator program, haven’t you?” Mara said.
Aaron cringed. “I thought I had it under control. Honest.”
Mara sighed and covered her face with her hand. Her legs went weak, and she suddenly felt powerless. It was as if she were drowning, and no matter how hard she flailed, she couldn’t get to safety.
“You told me you’d give it up.”
“I know, and I tried Mara—I honestly tried. But after using it for so long, I… I just couldn’t.”
He bit his lip and nodded.
Mara’s anger and frustration came back, renewing her strength. “Why didn’t you tell us?” she asked, throwing up her arms.
“Because I couldn’t let anyone know.”
“Why the hell not?”
“They’d take my command away from me,” he said, sitting up. “And if it were just a matter of that, then yeah, I would have told you, but my brother is out there. This is the only chance I’ve got to find him.”
“Captain,” said Phoebe, “you’re not completely lost. There’s a chance we can fix this, but I need you to be absolutely honest. Can you promise me that?”
Mara folded her arms and glared at him. He sighed and nodded.
“All right, Phoebe. What do you need to know?”
“First, how long have you been using this neural stimulator program?”
“About six months. I started using it to help me learn the language, but after my brother went missing…” He glanced at Mara and took a deep breath. “Well, that’s when I started using it like a drug.”
“How long and how often did you use it?”
“About six hours every dayshift, in two- and three-hour sessions.”
“Holy shit.” Mara’s jaw dropped. “That was practically all your free time.”
“It’s all right,” said Phoebe, putting a hand on Aaron’s arm. “We can still fix this. Are you still using it that frequently?”
Aaron looked up at Mara and shook his head. “No. When they made me captain, I tried to cut back. I got to the point where I could go for two or three days without it. But then the cravings would hit, and I couldn’t help myself.”
“Describe the cravings.”
“It’s like… it’s like there’s an itch inside my brain,” he said. “I try to ignore it, but it keeps getting worse. The only way to make it go away is to plug in and use.”
He looked at them both, his cheeks reddening. “Look, I’d appreciate it if this doesn’t leave the room. This isn’t exactly something I’m proud of.”
You shouldn’t be.
“You do realize that if you have one of these episodes in combat, you could get us all killed,” Mara said, barely able to contain her fury. “Frankly, I doubt you’re fit to command this ship at all.”
Aaron’s face turned white. “I’m sorry, Mara. I thought—”
“You thought wrong, sir,” she said, clenching her fists. “I can’t allow you to endanger this crew any longer. That damn neural stimulator program has got to go.”
“I’ll delete it right away,” he said, staring at the floor.
“That’s not enough. I want you to give me root access to your personal dream monitor so that I can make absolutely sure it’s gone. If you won’t trust me to do that, then I can’t trust you with the command of this ship.”
Her words were harsh, but he closed his eyes and nodded. “Yeah, I can do that. I suppose I should.”
“We’ll synthesize the medications and put you on the therapy at once,” said Phoebe. “But Captain, you need to be careful. If you have another breakdown, I’m not sure we’ll be able to pull you out of it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your last breakdown was caused by a high level of stress combined with a memory flashback. Was there something about the derelict that seemed familiar to you?”
“Yeah,” he said softly. “It looked just like the Medea.”
Phoebe nodded. “That’s what triggered your neural pathways to lock up. The stress was what broke them down. My guess is that it affected your language abilities hardest, so that you were no longer able to think in terms of anything but raw emotions.”
“That sounds about right. What do you mean about not being able to pull me out of it?”
“Well,” said Phoebe, “your brain is so damaged, another one of these breakdowns could make it irreversible. You came out of the last one on your own, but next time, I doubt it’s going to be that easy.”
Aaron nodded. “Thank you, Phoebe. I’ll be going now.”
He rose to his feet and walked slowly out of the medical bay. Clearly, the news had had a sobering effect. Mara just hoped that it had been sobering enough.
“How much of that did you tone down?” she asked once Aaron was gone.
“Most of it,” Phoebe admitted. “The therapy might reverse some of the damage, but when it’s this far advanced, there’s not a lot we can do.”
“What if we get him to a proper hospital? Will they be able to fix it?”
Phoebe shook her head. “I doubt it. You’re just going to have to look out for him.”
Mara bit her lip and struggled not to have a breakdown herself. That was what I was afraid of.
* * * * *
I can’t believe what a fool I am, Aaron thought as he sat on the edge of his cot. He buried his face in his hands as he replayed the events of the last few hours over and over in his head. The derelict starship, sitting in the midst of the debris field; the open airlock door; the corridor streaked with bullet holes and blood. The edges of his vision had blurred, and then, without warning, he’d lost it.
Was Mara right? Had he endangered the lives of everyone on the ship with his addiction to the neural stimulator program? If it were just his own life in danger, it wouldn’t be such a big deal. But the thought that others might die because of his mistakes was absolutely terrifying. He’d thought that he had things under control, but clearly, he’d been wrong.
There was only one thing to do for it. He had to destroy the program.
He took a deep breath and sat the helmet-sized dream monitor on his lap. The neural stimulator program was stored in a datachip that fit into a slot in the back. He pulled it out and held it between his thumb and forefinger. It was small, barely larger than his thumbnail. Strange to think that such a small object could have so much control over his life.
With a deep breath, he dropped the datachip onto the floor and stomped on it with the heel of his boot. It shattered instantly. He rose to his feet and hit it again and again, until it was ground to powder. Only then did he fall back to his cot.
“It’s done,” he said aloud. His heart was racing so fast it surprised him, and his arms and legs felt weak. At the same time, he felt a thrill of exhilaration down to the ends of his toes. The program was gone. He was free.
The intercom chimed. “Captain,” said Mara, “your presence is requested in the command center.”
Aaron groaned. “What is it, Commander?”
“Something important that Lieutenant Nova wants to brief us on. She thinks it could be the key to finding your brother.”
He sat up wearily and rubbed his head. “All right. I’m on my way.”
Two minutes later, he stepped out of the elevator and onto the command deck just below the bridge. Katya, Mara, and Mathusael were all waiting for him.
“Captain,” said Lieutenant Nova. “I’m glad you could come so soon. Are you feeling better?”
“I’m fine,” Aaron said gruffly. “Let’s get on with the briefing,” said Mara.
Katya nodded and keyed a series of commands into the console at the nearest work station. A map of the rift came up on the screen, with a cluster of points around their current position.
“These are all the signals we’ve picked up so far,” said Katya. “It’s not a comprehensive list by any means, but it’s pretty close.”
“Are any of them from my brother?”
“Not that we’ve been able to pick up so far,” she said. “The distance between jump points is so long, it would take us several months to pick up his signal. However, Mathusael and I have been working on that problem, and we’ve found a way to cut that time down significantly.”
Aaron glanced over at Mathusael, who nodded. “Go on, Lieutenant.”
“The Merope-7 carries a number of relay sats which we can easily repurpose into listening devices. By placing half a dozen of them along a line at relatively short intervals—say, five or six light-days—we could cover a wide enough area of space to pick up the signals from all of the ships that passed through the rift in the last two months.”
“Good thinking,” said Aaron. “How long would it take to repurpose them?”
“Not more than a few hours,” said Mathusael. “It’s a pretty simple job. My engineers are on it already.”
“That’s not all, Captain,” said Katya. She glanced at Mara.
“What is it, Lieutenant?”
“We’ve analyzed the signals, and found something interesting that they all share,” Katya continued. “They’re disguised to look like normal navigational signals, but there’s far too much data being transmitted for that to be the case.”
Aaron frowned. “What are you saying?”
“Each signal contain a secret encrypted message. When I cracked the encryption, I found something interesting.”
She keyed the console, and the speakers in the room buzzed with static. There was a loud tapping noise, and the static fell away.
“—chip will transmit a signal that will tell my brothers that you’ve paid for your passage,” came a heavy voice. “Keep it active at all times.”
“All right,” came the voice of a young man, probably a star wanderer like Isaac. “What do you want for it?”
“Depends on what you’re carrying. But first, I have some questions for you.”
“First,” said the heavy voice, “your name is Moses, and your ship is the Esther?”
“Th-that’s right,” said the young man. He sounded nervous and uncomfortable.
“What is your intended destination.”
“I’m headed for the Far Outworlds, sir.”
“And what do you plan to do there?”
There was a long, uncomfortable pause.
“I don’t know yet,” said the young man. “Make some trades, check out the markets.”
“Do you have any connection with the resistance movement against the Imperials in the New Pleiades?”
“No, sir. Not at all.”
“Good. It would be unfortunate for you if you did.”
The comment was followed by muffled laughter, making Aaron’s skin crawl. It was clear enough that man with the heavy voice was a pirate.
“Y-you don’t have to worry about me,” the young man stammered.
“No, we don’t.”
The recording cut off abruptly. Aaron leaned heavily on the console with his hands clenched tightly into fists.
“Every signal has a recording like this?” he asked at length.
Katya nodded. “Every signal that we’ve decrypted, without fail.”
“But why attach a secret message like this?”
“For the benefit of the pirates on the other end of the rift,” Katya said. “An operation of this magnitude would require all of Gulchina’s resources, so she had her subordinates conduct the interrogations at the head of the rift while she decided what to do with them on the other. Attaching the recording of each interrogation to the signal for the protection fee was brilliant.”
“In other words,” said Mara, “Gulchina could check to see who was lying about their destination and who wasn’t. Or who seemed interesting enough to take out.”
“They were looking for something,” said Aaron. “That’s why they took my brother.”
Mara frowned. “We don’t know that for sure. We don’t even know if Isaac made contact with these pirates.”
“He did—I’m sure of it. He would never have entered the rift without paying the protection money. It would be too reckless for him not to.”
“Be that as it may, we still don’t have proof of anything.”
“Not yet,” said Mathusael. “But once we’ve got those relays set up, we can find out exactly what happened with the pirates and your brother.”
“Let’s do it,” said Aaron. “Let’s do it at once.
* * * * *
“How are we looking, Apollo?”
“Ready to jump on your orders, sir.”
“All systems are in the green, and the sat is standing by for launch.”
“Scanners are empty, Captain. We’re good to go.”
“Excellent. Apollo, take us out.”
Mara closed her eyes as the humming grew and resounded in her ears. This time, though, the buildup was brief—much briefer than any of the jumps before. Her stomach fluttered a little, but other than that, she felt almost nothing.
“Energy reserves are depleted to fifty percent, and the jump drive is on cooldown. Triangulating position now.”
“Scanners are still empty. Nothing to report.”
“Very well. Mathusael, how’s our sat looking?”
“Ready for launch on your orders.”
“Good. Deploy it now.”
There was a short, muffled noise through the bulkheads as the repurposed relay sat launched from its chute. On the main screen beneath the window, the video feed showed its nav light blinking red as it drifted slowly away from the Merope-7.
“Looks good, Captain. Sat reports all systems operational, and it’s picking up the signals exactly as programmed.”
“Excellent. Jason, get our exact coordinates from the nav-computer and mark the sat on the map. Apollo, how much longer until the next jump?”
“About ninety standard minutes, sir.”
“Then we have an hour and a half until the next deployment. Mara, I believe it’s your turn for bridge duty. The rest of you are free to go.”
One by one, the officers filed out of the bridge. Aaron let the others go before him, but Mathusael lingered as if working on something. Soon, he and Mara were alone.
“How are you holding together, Mara?”
“I’m fine,” she said, not looking up from her screen. She wasn’t really in the mood to talk and hoped Mathusael would get the hint. Instead, he walked over to her and leaned on the wall in front of her console.
“Is something bothering you? You seem a little tense.”
Mara sighed. “I doubt it’s anything you can help me with.”
“Technically, I’ve already promised not to tell you.”
“Is it about Aaron?” he asked. “Does it have to do with the way he freaked out back on the derelict?”
She looked up at him and narrowed her eyes. “Nosy much?”
“Don’t worry, I’m not about to spread any rumors. But it’s not exactly hard to see that something is bothering you.”
He’s not going to let me off, Mara realized. She took a deep breath and leaned back in her chair.
“Yes, it’s about Aaron.”
“Do you want to talk?” Mathusael asked. Mara couldn’t help but laugh. “I’m serious, Mara. If you want to talk, I’m here.”
Mathusael walked over from the wall and sat down in his chair, turning it to face her. “Your father was a close friend of mine. The least I can do for him is to look out for his daughter.”
Right, Mara thought. She turned to face her screen, more to hide her eyes than anything else.
“You left Megiddo Station before the famine got really bad, didn’t you?”
“I did,” he said. “But I heard all about it after I settled down at Esperanzia. It sounded bad.”
Mara nodded. “My family left for Bacca when we realized we couldn’t stay any longer. My father had some old friends there from his days as a star wanderer and thought they could help us get back on our feet again. Instead, the Imperials came and took over the system.”
She looked up at Mathusael to gauge his reaction. He was listening intently—much more intently than she’d expected. His face was a picture of grief and anxiety, as much for her as for her father. It caught her a little off guard.
“As for the rest, well, you already know. My mother and I managed to escape to Vulcana, which is where I joined the Resistance. I’ve been fighting ever since.”
“Yeah, pretty much,” she said. For a moment, she considered telling him more, but decided against it. The memories were just too painful.
“You never thought you’d find yourself in this situation, did you?”
“No,” she admitted.
“When your father died, it shattered all your hopes and dreams for the life you expected to live. Even after the famine, you still had your family, but without that…” He left the thought unfinished.
Mara bit her lip and nodded. “Yeah,” she said, her voice between a croak and a whisper.
“I never had it nearly as hard as you, but getting along without family, that was tough. I know what it’s like to feel alone.”
Do you know what it’s like to feel like your own father wouldn’t recognize you? Mara almost asked. She held her tongue, though, and kept the thought to herself. Some questions were better left unasked.
As if in answer to her unspoken question, Mathusael rose to his feet and put a hand on her shoulder. “If it makes you feel better, Mara, I think your father would be proud of you.”
“I doubt that very much,” Mara said softly. A lump rose in her throat, and she choked it down, making her jaw quiver.
“You’ve got friends here, Mara. You’re not alone.”
“Not yet,” she muttered low enough that he couldn’t hear her.
Mathusael turned and walked to the hatchway, pausing for a moment before he left. “Your father was a good man,” he said over his shoulder. “He always had a talent for seeing past the superficialities. If he could see you now, I know that he’d be proud of you.”
I doubt that very much.
Mara’s vision began to blur as tears stung her eyes. She didn’t dare speak for fear that her voice would crack and betray her. Only after Mathusael left did she wipe her eyes with her trembling hands.
* * * * *
Aaron’s hands shook as he gripped Paladin-4’s flight stick. It was the Battle of Colkhia, and explosions and plasma fire flashed all around him. On his rear scanners, the Aegis disintegrated before his very eyes, torn apart by the larger and more powerful Starfire. The other drop-ships of Paladin wing sped as fast as they could to their target, but they were already under heavy fire and chances were slim that anyone was going to get there alive.
Aaron dodged and weaved, avoiding the rain of projectile fire by mere yards. Over the intercom, Commander Noah frantically issued commands, but for some reason Aaron couldn’t understand him. The edges of his vision blurred, and he began to lose his grip on reality.
The neural stimulator program, he realized. The brain damage—it’s killing me!
He floundered about in a panic, unable to make sense of anything. It was as if he were trapped in the body of an animal, or perhaps a small infant, seeing and yet not comprehending, grasping and yet losing all coordination. The scene swam before him, until he could no longer make any sense of it. He felt as if he were trapped.
Then he was lying on his back, his hands pressed flat against glass. He tried to sit up, but there wasn’t enough space to move. He was encased in a coffin of glass and metal, with no way to open it or release himself. He shivered and realized that he was naked.
What is this place?
The explosions were gone, along with the excitement and panic of battle. Three people looked down on him with somber faces. The first was Mara, wearing her dress uniform with the insignia of a captain on her shoulder. The second was Mathusael, dressed in the same grubby outfit he’d worn when Aaron and Isaac had visited him at Esperanzia. The third was his brother.
“Isaac?” Aaron cried, his heart skipping a beat. “Is that you, Isaac? What are you—let me out of here!”
He pounded on the glass with his fists, but his friends only stared at him with somber, grieving faces. It was as if they couldn’t see or hear him. He screamed at the top of his lungs and pounded on the glass so hard it almost broke, but nothing changed. He was trapped.
This place is a cryochamber, he realized with a start. I’m trapped in a cryochamber just like the one we found with that girl!
“Please!” he cried, tears streaming down his face. “Please, let me out! I’m okay—I’m okay!”
Mara turned to a nearby control panel and keyed in a series of commands. For a second, hope swelled in Aaron’s heart that they’d heard him, that they were going to let him go. But then, cold green gas filled the chamber, making him cough and shiver.
“No!” he screamed, his vision darkening. “No!”
He bolted upright, gasping for breath as he glanced around his quarters. He was alive—he was fine. It was all a dream. Still, it had seemed so real that he couldn’t help but shudder. His heart pounded, and his undershirt was drenched in sweat. He took a deep breath and rubbed his eyes.
“When is it going to end?” he groaned, more to himself than to anyone else. This was the sixth nightmare in as many sleep shifts. Ever since he’d destroyed the neural stimulator program, he hadn’t been able to sleep. He stared at his hands and tried to hold them still, but they wouldn’t stop trembling. The withdrawal was making his life a living hell.
The nightmares always ended with him trapped in a cryotank. He didn’t know why that was, though he had a vague idea. At the Battle of Colkhia, it was his dream about the girl in the cryotank that had snapped him out of the mental haze brought on by the neural stimulator. Ever since his brother Isaac had gone missing, he’d replaced her in those dreams, locked in the coffin-like cryotank. And now the roles were reversed.
This can’t go on much longer, he thought, rubbing his eyes. If it does, I may just lose it.
On the table next to his bed, his wrist console chimed. He frowned and picked it up. It was a call from Lieutenant Nova, the intelligence officer. Didn’t she know it was the middle of his sleep shift? Still, no sense in refusing her if he was already awake.
“Captain Deltana?” her voice rang on the console’s speakers. “We’ve found something that I think you’ll want to see.”
“Can it wait, Lieutenant? It’s the middle of my sleep shift.”
“Sorry, sir, but I think you’ll want to see this.”
“Why?” he groaned.
“Because it’s your brother.”
Aaron’s eyes flew open, and his heart skipped a beat. “I’ll be right down, Lieutenant. Thank you.”
* * * * *
Mara woke up to the chime of an incoming call. She groaned and rubbed her eyes as she sat up in her small cot. The screen on the computer terminal showed that it was from Aaron. She strapped on her wrist console and transferred it there.
“Mara, I need you in the command center immediately. How soon can you get here?”
She checked the clock in the upper right corner of the terminal display. It read 22:43.
“Stars, Aaron. What’s so urgent that you’d wake me in the middle of my sleep shift?”
“We found the Medea.”
At the mention of his brother’s ship, she perked up at once. “All right. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
What rash and crazy thing is he going to do now? she wondered as she splashed water on her face. She probably wouldn’t be able to get there before he made up his mind about what to do next. Then again, he was the captain, not her. At least he’d gotten rid of that damn neural stimulator program—thank the stars for that.
She dressed quickly in the narrow confines of her quarters, pulling her hair back without bothering to check herself in the mirror. As soon as her uniform was on, she palmed the door open and stepped out.
When she reached the command center, she found Aaron, Katya, and Mathusael already there. Mathusael’s face was grim, while Aaron’s was as pale as a ghost’s.
“Captain,” she said, saluting. “You called for me?”
Aaron looked up suddenly, as if he’d just noticed her. “Oh, Mara, there you are.” He returned the salute, but his hand was more than a little shaky.
“What is it?” she asked.
“We found a transmission with a transponder code matching the Medea,” said Katya, her face beaming. Unlike Aaron, she was practically bursting with excitement. “It’s got an audio recording, too, and we just confirmed that the person on the recording is our missing operative.”
Oh, no, Mara thought. She turned back to Aaron.
“Are you all right, Captain?”
“Let’s play it for you,” said Mathusael. He reached over and hit a key on the console.
The room filled briefly with static, followed by the sharp sound of fingers running over the recording equipment made Mara cringe. The console adjusted for the sharp change in volume, but it still grated on her ears.
“This chip will program your transmitters to emit a distinctive signal that the others have been told to watch for,” came a voice—Aslan’s voice. “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.”
After a brief pause, a second voice came on, this one much quieter than the first.
“Very well. So now we haggle over the price?”
That’s Aaron’s brother, Mara realized. She glanced over at Aaron, who stood as still as a statue. His hands were clenched tightly by his side.
“Not quite. First, I want to ask you some questions.”
There was a brief pause. “What sort of questions?”
“Your name is Isaac Deltana, and your ship is the Medea, yes?”
“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?”
The recording picked up Aslan rubbing his hands together. “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?”
Aaron drew in a sharp breath in the pause that followed. He stood so straight, it was almost as if someone had shocked him with a jolt of electricity.
“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. The situation is just too tense out here.”
He’s lying, Mara realized. He’s lying, and Aslan knows it.
“One last question,” said Aslan. “Are you affiliated with the Resistance?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Isaac with all the guile of a saint. “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.”
There was a long, uncomfortable pause, both in the recording and among those gathered in the command center. Mara couldn’t help but bury her face in her palm.
“Very well,” said Aslan. There was a loud click, and the recording ended.
“Well,” said Katya, “what do you make of that, Commander?”
Mara folded her arms. “I can’t believe it.”
“Can’t believe what?”
“That we’ve actually picked up the trail. Not only does this prove that Isaac came through the Shiloh Rift, it also tells us that he had a run-in with Gulchina’s Marauders before he disappeared. And if her agents were waiting for him at Ithaca, when he told them he was heading to the Far Outworlds…” her voice trailed off.
Mathusael nodded grimly. “I gathered as much as well.”
“This is a valuable piece of intelligence,” said Katya. “We—”
“We should head for the fleet as soon as possible,” said Aaron, his voice low.
Mara frowned. “You mean the main fleet stationed at the frontier worlds? Head there instead of returning to our post?”
“It’s the fastest way to get this information to the people who need it. If Gulchina’s men have Isaac, they’re probably planning to sell us out. We need to warn the rest of the fleet immediately.”
“I agree,” said Katya. “This new intelligence changes our mission entirely.”
Mara thought of how Gulchina’s Marauders had integrated with the Outworld forces along the frontier systems where the Imperials would strike first. If they were responsible for the disappearance of Isaac Deltana and the Medea, that meant they were hiding something—potentially something big. And even though the transmission wasn’t proof that Gulchina’s men had captured Isaac, it certainly raised some disturbing questions.
“I didn’t think I’d say this, Lieutenant Nova, but I agree with you. We need to alert the fleet at once.”
“The Starfire is currently stationed at Bacca,” said Mathusael. “If we pump everything we’ve got into the jump drives, I can get us there in about four or five days.”
“Then let’s go,” said Aaron. “And may the stars of Earth speed us on our way.”
The Enemy Within
Aaron tensed his arms and gripped his armrests as the hum of the jump drives grew to a high-pitched whine. One more, he told himself. Just one more jump, and we’re there.
A surge of almost reverse-claustrophobia—the fear of being in an open, unconfined space—swept over him as the butterflies in his stomach became agitated. He felt as if he were shrinking, while the room around him expanded at an exponential rate. Then, without warning, it flipped inside out, leaving him on the outside, falling. He gasped and forced his eyes open, but the feeling quickly passed. Except for a few lingering butterflies in his stomach, everything was normal.
“We’re just inside the Bacca V gravity well, sir. Calculating trajectory and possible orbits.”
“Good,” said Aaron. “Mara, bring the scanners up on the main screen and give me a picture of the fleet. Feed that to Apollo to help him calculate an orbit.”
“Captain,” said Phoebe, “we’re receiving a hail from the Starfire.”
“Put it on.”
She switched the signal over to the bridge speakers. A moment later, a man’s voice came through.
“Merope-7, this is Admiral Ulysses of the Outworld Confederacy. Why are you in the Bacca System? We issued no orders for you to come here.”
Aaron rose to his feet and began to pace. “Admiral, this is Captain Deltana of the Merope-7. We’ve discovered some important information regarding a missing high-level operative and need to meet with you at once.”
There was a long pause, during which the nervous silence on the bridge was almost palpable.
“Deltana? Weren’t you supposed to be stationed at Ithaca?”
Aaron clenched his fists. “I told you, Admiral. We have intelligence on a missing high-level operative. We’ll explain everything once we’re on board.”
There was another pause, this one a little more tense than the first. Aaron glanced at Mathusael, who was staring intently at the main screen.
“All right, Deltana. My men have been notified. You’re cleared to dock at your earliest convenience. Major Achilles will meet you at the airlock.”
The signal cut out. On the main screen, the green marker representing the Merope-7 began to alter its trajectory, moving to match orbits with the Starfire.
“Apollo,” said Aaron, “bring us in to dock as soon as you can.”
“Already on it, sir.”
A muffled roar sounded through the bulkheads somewhere behind them. Aaron returned to his seat just as the force of the acceleration hit him. Fortunately, the artificial gravity projectors were compensating just like they were supposed to.
“Mara,” said Aaron, “I want you and Katya to accompany me to the briefing on the Starfire. I’ll leave Mathusael in command of the bridge.”
“Understood, sir,” said Mara with a nod. Aaron turned to his other officers.
“Apollo and Phoebe, make sure to sync our scanners with the orbital nav relays. Once we’re docked, see what you can do to catch up on what we’ve missed. Jason, I want you to stay on the bridge and assist them as much as possible.”
The others nodded, but Jason stared at his screen as if he wasn’t listening.
“Lieutenant Thetana? Did you hear me?”
“Sorry, Captain. Something strange is developing with the fleet. I’ll sync with those nav-buoys right now.”
Aaron frowned. “‘Something strange’? What do you mean?”
“Well… the Tamerlane is behaving erratically. They’re altering their trajectory to match the Starfire’s.”
“Are they charging weapons?” Mara asked.
“Not that I can tell, Commander. But they’re too far out for our scanners to pick that up.”
Aslan is on that ship, Aaron thought, hot blood rising to his cheeks. The bastard that’s responsible for my brother’s disappearance. And if Aslan had listened in on their conversation with Admiral Ulysses, he probably suspected why they were there. Aaron took a deep breath.
“Charge weapons, Jason,” he said. “Keep a sharp eye on those pirate bastards. Apollo, how soon until we dock?”
“About half an hour, sir. We’ll be docked long before the Tamerlane catches up to us.”
Aaron nodded. “Good. Proceed as normal, but stay alert.”
“Alert for what, sir?” Mara asked.
He checked the holster at his hip for his energy pistol, just to make sure it was there. “For anything, Mara.” There’s no telling what those bastards might do.
* * * * *
The airlock doors hissed open, revealing a tall, broad-shouldered man with a salt-and-pepper goatee in an immaculately clean gray uniform. His arm bore the rank of a major, and the name ACHILLES was printed above his left breast pocket. He saluted sharply, and Mara, Aaron, and Katya each returned it.
“Captain, Commander, Lieutenant,” said Achilles, nodding to each of them in turn. “Come with me.”
He doesn’t seem happy to see us, Mara thought as they followed him at a brisk pace through the Starfire’s main corridor. Not that she blamed him. In the first place, Aaron had blatantly abandoned his post in the Ithaca system, and in the second, he’d interrupted the fleet’s normal routine to call an emergency briefing. Their information was good, but it would have to be really good to get them off the hook for this.
As she walked down the long corridor, she couldn’t help but remember the last time she had been on this ship—at the Battle of Colkhia, where Fourth Platoon had captured it after a desperate, bloody gunfight. This corridor was not one of the ones they’d fought on, but it brought flashbacks all the same. The glassy floors and walls, the bright white lights—she blinked hard and forced herself not to think about it.
“I see you’ve cleaned this place up,” said Aaron. Though he tried to sound casual, there was a tremor in his voice that told her he was having the same flashbacks.
“The Starfire has been renovated considerably since you were last here,” said Achilles, both his voice and face unreadable. “Capturing her was a great boon for the Confederacy. There is a reason we station our most powerful capital ships on the frontier, and our smaller frigates to guard the rear.”
That doesn’t bode well.
“Major,” said Katya, “have all the top ranking officers in the fleet been assembled? Our intelligence is of vital strategic importance.”
Achilles glanced over his shoulder at her and raised a gnarly eyebrow. “I assure you, Lieutenant, the highest ranking officers of the fleet are waiting quite impatiently to examine your intelligence.”
They passed a group of technicians walking hurriedly in the other direction. Mara frowned—something about them didn’t seem right. They all had earpieces, and they were walking in the opposite direction of the bridge. She glanced back at them, but they soon disappeared around a corner out of sight.
“If you’ll come this way,” said Major Achilles.
He ushered them into a circular chamber just off the main corridor, with seats around the edges and a holographic projector in the center. The room was half full with other senior officers in gray uniforms. None of them looked pleased to be there.
“Attention,” Achilles said, addressing the room. “We have here Captain Deltana and Commander Soladze of the Third Fleet, commanding officers on the light frigate Merope-7, and Lieutenant Nova of Military Intelligence.”
The room quickly grew silent as the officers took their seats. More than a dozen eyes leveled like laser cannons at Mara and her comrades.
“Thank you, Major,” said Aaron in his thick Deltan accent. “I know you are probably all wondering why we are here—”
“That’s putting it lightly,” said a gruff old colonel from the doorway.
“—but I assure you, we have brought you information that is absolutely vital.”
He turned and nodded to Katya, who stepped forward. “At the Battle of Colkhia,” she began, “we sent a covert operative ahead of the Flotilla to infiltrate the system and activate a jump beacon, which would have allowed our forces to launch a surprise attack. That operative failed in his mission, and when the battle was over, he was missing, along with the jump beacon technology he carried.”
Heavy footsteps sounded outside in the corridor, then faded away into the distance. Mara frowned, but no one else in the room seemed to notice.
“While patrolling the sector surrounding Ithaca,” Katya continued, “we learned that the missing operative passed through the Shiloh Rift. Consequently, we went into the rift to search for his trail. We found strong evidence that our operative was molested—and quite possibly captured—by pirates belonging to the band known as Gulchina’s Marauders.”
“What sort of evidence?” a dark-skinned major asked. She frowned and lifted a hand to her chin.
“We found an audio recording of Captain Aslan interrogating him,” Aaron said. “Katya, let’s play it for them.”
Before they could, an explosion sounded somewhere off down the corridor. Heads turned, and a few of the senior officers began to rise. Mara definitely wasn’t the only one who noticed it now. More footsteps sounded in the corridor, followed by gunfire.
Mara’s hand gravitated to her pistol as the briefing room buzzed with confusion. Aaron and Katya, who had held their attention just a few moments before, now stood disoriented.
“What’s happening?” Aaron asked—in Deltan, not in Gaian.
“I don’t know,” Mara answered. “But it sounds bad.”
Just like the fighting from the last time we were here.
At that moment, a squad of lightly armored soldiers and security personnel entered the room. They carried stun guns and assault rifles, and kept a guard on the door.
“What the hell is going on out there, Sergeant?” Major Achilles asked.
“We’re not sure,” said the squad leader. “From what little we can gather, it sounds like there’s a mutiny. But don’t worry, sir, we’ll have it under control soon.”
Achilles frowned as the room buzzed with commotion. “A mutiny? On this ship?”
“It’s Gulchina’s men, Major,” blurted a corporal. “They’ve taken control of engineering and are trying to fight their way to the bridge.”
“Gulchina!” said Katya, her eyes widening. “Major, Gulchina’s men must have gotten wind of our briefing. If they—”
“Thank you, Lieutenant, but we’ll handle things from here. Wake every soldier from the cryotanks and have them rush to engineering to put down this so-called mutiny.”
“But most of the soldiers in the cryotanks are Gulchina’s men!”
Alarms sounded overhead, and the lights flashed red.
“What the hell?” said Achilles. He lifted his wrist console to his mouth. “Captain Noah, what’s going on?”
“We have incoming warships, sir,” Noah’s tinny voice said over the wrist console speaker. “Eight ships, unknown class. They’re launching boarding craft and charging weapons.”
“Major,” said the sergeant, “we have to get you and the other senior officers to safety. If you please, follow me.”
The squad led the stunned officers out of the briefing room. Mara drew her energy pistol and set the charge to maximum. It hummed and throbbed in her hand.
You’re going to kill someone today, she told herself. Few thoughts could make her heart pound so hard.
* * * * *
Aaron followed Katya and Mara with the rest of the officers out of the briefing room and into the hall. Chills ran up and down his arms as they walked quickly down the corridor. He knew this place—he had been here before. And last time, he’d been lucky to escape with his life.
Shots rang out from a side corridor, making several people scream and drop to the floor. Mara lifted her pistol while the soldiers escorting them hugged the wall and fired around the corner. It was just like the Battle of Colkhia, where they’d boarded this very ship. Flashbacks came to him, flooding his mind with images of plasma-scorched hallways and bodies lying in blood. The soldiers opened fire around the corner, and he froze where he stood.
“Come on,” said Mara, grabbing him by the arm. He was too stunned to resist as she dragged him off in the opposite direction.
“Where are you going?” Katya screamed behind him.
“To the ship, you idiot. Let’s get the hell out of here!”
The ship, Aaron thought, his mind suddenly sluggish. We have to get back… to the ship… or else…
The edges of his vision began to grow foggy, and his response time began to slow. He heard gunfire again, though whether it was coming from nearby or from one of his flashbacks, he couldn’t tell. Panic and fear rose, drowning out rational thought.
Katya yelled at Mara, but he couldn’t comprehend what she was saying. Something about death? Or was it a dead end? He understood the words, but they didn’t make any sense to him. Mara understood, though, because she darted down another side corridor and pulled him through as quickly as he could run.
At that moment, two men in dark clothing rounded the corner right in front of them. Aaron didn’t know who they were or what they wanted, but he saw their knives almost the moment they came into view. A shot sizzled through the air, and the man on the right fell back against the wall. The other one lunged at Mara, but she threw him over her back and leveled her pistol at his head.
The man’s face melted to blackened hole, blood and brains spurting out from the back of his head. Aaron gasped in shock and horror at the sight. The smell of burnt flesh filled his nostrils, making his mind swim.
At that moment, the fog on the edges of his vision swept over him. Images of death and destruction flooded his mind, drowning out all rational thought. Nothing made sense any more—he couldn’t tell the difference between dream and reality. He reached out and tried to scream, but the words would not come.
Isaac! he cried out in his mind. Isaac, don’t let me fail you!
But then the panic overwhelmed him, and his thoughts became an incomprehensible mass of scrambled words.
* * * * *
Mara stood up, her heart pounding. Only when she saw the two dead bodies did she realize what she’d done. The smell of burnt hair and flesh filled the narrow corridor, while the second soldier twitched in the last of his death throes.
You’re a monster, the voice from her nightmares told her.
“Stars of Earth!” Katya exclaimed. She stared in shock and covered her mouth with both hands.
“We need to get out here,” said Mara, holstering her energy pistol. “Pick up that gun and let’s go.”
She took Aaron by the arm again, but he shrugged her off and fell to the floor. His eyes rolled back in their sockets, and he started convulsing.
“Aaron? Are you…”
Her voice trailed off as she remembered what Phoebe had told her about his brain damage. Her stomach sank, and her knees began to shake.
“Captain!” Katya yelled, kneeling down beside him. “Can you hear me? It’s me, Lieu—”
“He’s out of it,” said Mara. “Here, help me lift him.”
They took him under the arm on either side. He shuddered and tried to shake them off, but they held him tightly enough that he couldn’t break free. Still, with how much he was struggling, there was no way they could hold him and keep their guns free at the same time.
This isn’t going to work, Mara realized with dismay. She reached for her wrist console.
“Mathusael, can you hear me?”
“I hear you, Commander. What’s your status?”
“It’s pretty bad, Chief. Aaron’s had a relapse and gone completely out of commission. What’s the situation topside?”
Down the corridor, the sound of gunfire started to get closer. Katya let go of Aaron to keep a nervous watch by the corner.
“Gulchina’s ships have surrounded us, and their launching outriders to board the Starfire. The other ships are responding, but shots have already been fired and it looks like there’s going to be a nasty fight.”
Mara’s heart sank. “You’d better head out then, Mathusael. The way to the ship is blocked, and I don’t think we can make it.”
“Bullshit, Commander. Pallas and his squad are on their way to get you. Keep the captain safe, and we’ll get him to the medical bay as soon as you’re on board.”
“What?” she said, her breath catching in her throat. “Pallas? When did you—”
“As soon as the Tamerlane matched orbits with ours,” said Mathusael. “I figured something fishy was going on and gave the green light to thaw them.”
“They’re coming!” said Katya. “I can see them coming now!” The relief in her voice was as bright as a supernova.
“I can’t believe it,” said Mara, utterly dumbfounded. “I thought we were toast.”
“What?” said Mathusael, chuckling a little. “You didn’t think I’d run off without you, did you? I want you back on the bridge so I’m not the one who gets blamed when everything goes to hell.”
She grinned. “Thanks, Mathusael. We’ll get back as soon as we can.”
Pallas rounded the corner, dressed in heavy black armor and carrying his laser rifle. His visor covered his eyes, and the mask on his helmet gave him a fearsome look. He motioned with his hand, and his commandos set up watch on either side of the corridor.
“We’re here to get you back to the ship,” he said. The mask on his helmet modulated his voice, making it sound robotic.
“So we heard.”
Aaron yelped like a frightened animal and tried to run away. It was all Mara and Katya could do to grab him and hold him down.
“Steady there, Aaron,” she said in the most soothing tone of voice she could manage. “It’s going to be okay.” No matter how much she tried to calm him, though, he refused to stop struggling.
Pallas reached into a pocket on his arm and pulled out a syringe. In a single deft motion, he plunged the needle into Aaron’s side.
“What the hell was that?” Mara screamed.
“A tranquilizer,” said Pallas. “That should make him easier to handle. Come on.”
With gunfire and explosions sounding closer behind them, there was no time to argue. Mara and Katya hefted Aaron’s limp, unconscious body between them and followed Pallas out.
* * * * *
Alarms greeted Mara as she stepped through the airlock onto the Merope-7. The commandos who guarded the door grabbed Aaron’s limp body and pulled him forcefully inside. Moments later, the door hissed shut, sealing them off from the chaos and fighting on the Starfire.
“We’re on, Mathusael,” Mara said into her wrist console. “We’re all here.”
The floor shuddered, and the grind of the docking clamps resounded through the bulkheads. Mara and Katya stumbled against the wall. For a very brief moment, the whole ship seemed to wobble, but then the gravitics kicked in and restabilized.
“Mathusael, what’s going on?”
“Sorry, Mara. Gulchina’s ships are closing in—we’re accelerating to a higher orbit.”
“Sounds like you’re needed on the bridge,” said Katya. After all that they’d been through, those words hit Mara the heaviest.
“Get the captain to the medical bay immediately,” she ordered the commandos. “Katya, come up to the bridge with me.”
“We’re short on officers, Lieutenant, and you’re no good to me in the command center. I need you with the rest of us on the bridge.”
Without waiting to see if Katya would follow her, she left the airlock for the elevator. Fortunately, Katya ran after her, catching up before the doors closed.
“What do you need from me, Commander?”
“I’m not sure yet,” Mara admitted, “but you’re not the kind of person who needs orders to figure things out. Keep your eyes open, and if you see something I don’t, let me know.”
“Thanks. I’m on it.”
The floor shook, making them both stumble. Somewhere down below them, Mara heard what sounded like an explosion.
“We might not even make it to the bridge,” she muttered.
Katya frowned at her. “That’s the most pessimistic thing I think I’ve ever heard from you, Commander.”
I wasn’t being pessimistic.
Another explosion sounded through the bulkheads, but they made it to the bridge without further incident. Mara hurried in to the sound of ringing alarms. Flashes of light from countermeasure flares and plasma bursts filled the view outside the window, and the stars reeled ever so slightly as Apollo pulled them clear of the fray.
“Thank God you’re safe,” said Mathusael. He rose, yielding the command chair to her.
“I wish we could say the same about Captain Deltana,” said Mara as she seated herself. “What’s our status?”
“Every damn one of Gulchina’s ships is here, and they’re sending outriders to board the Starfire. For a while, we were afraid they’d board us, but they seem content just to shoot us instead.”
“Jason, how are our countermeasures holding?”
“For the most part, very good,” said Jason. “A couple of shots got through, but nothing the ablative armor couldn’t handle.”
“Hang on,” said Mathusael as he hurriedly accessed his console. “We have some light damage to the starboard nacelle, but nothing too critical—for now.”
“How’s the captain?” Phoebe asked. Her face was white.
“Your people are caring for him as we speak,” said Mara. “I want updates from them as soon as we’re out of this mess. In the meantime, let’s focus on the matter at hand.”
“Commander, where do you want me?” asked Katya.
“Just—just have a seat at my station,” said Mara. Her ears were starting to buzz, and the commotion all around her was making her dizzy. There was so much going on that she hardly knew what to do.
“One klick above the Starfire and rising,” said Apollo. “Our new orbit looks clear to the horizon.” Outside the forward window, the flashes became increasingly sparse.
“Commander,” said Jason, “we’re out of the combat zone, and Gulchina’s ships are not pursing.”
“Your orders, Commander?” Apollo asked.
Mara took a deep breath and forced herself to stay calm. “Give me an image of the Starfire on the main screen,” she ordered.
After a brief moment, the main screen flashed, showing the Starfire superimposed over the white and yellow clouds of the planet below. Explosions flared all around it, while a number of smaller craft circled around the edges just outside of plasma range. A number of smaller outriders zipped in closer, though, and those were under heavy fire from the Confederate flagship.
“They’re trying to capture it,” Mara mused. “It’s just like Colkhia, where we took it from the Imperials.”
“Your orders, Mara?” Mathusael asked, repeating Apollo’s request.
She blinked and came back to the present. “Hold our orbit, and open the fleet channel—I want to hear what they’re saying.”
“Opening channel,” said Phoebe. A moment later, the bridge was filled with radio chatter and busts of static.
“Merope-2! Merope-3! Get in there!”
“They’re putting up a heavy masking fire—we can’t get through.”
“We’re hit! Asterope-5 is hit!”
“How soon can we get another battle group into their orbit?”
“Dammit! New wave of outriders launching from the Ogedei!”
On the screen, the battle drifted out toward the horizon as their orbit drew them farther away. Tracers arced from half a dozen different directions, no doubt from ships whose orbits crossed the fray but could not effectively maneuver into it. Engines flared in eerie silence, while explosions rocked one of the light frigates trying to intercept the outriders. It broke apart in a deceptively peaceful fall toward the planet below.
What am I supposed to do? Mara thought to herself, fighting back the urge to panic. She glanced around the bridge and realized that everyone on the bridge was staring expectantly at her.
“Mathusael, what’s your take on the situation?”
“Frankly, Commander, the fleet needs us,” he said. “We’re the only ones who can reinforce the Starfire now.”
“Yeah, but the guns just stopped firing,” said Jason. “Whatever’s going on over there, it looks like the pirates are getting the upper hand.”
“Then we need to get down there and kick some serious ass.”
“We don’t have the firepower, Chief! Did you see how the Merope-3 just got shot down? That could have been us!”
“Enough!” said Mara. “Apollo, bring us closer but keep us just out of the fray.”
“Understood, Commander.” said Apollo. The gravitics tilted ever so slightly, and the view out the forward window began to pitch as he brought the ship around.
“What’s going on here?” Mara mused, leaning forward in her seat. “Why would the pirates choose now to strike?”
“It must have been us,” said Mathusael. “The Tamerlane didn’t start acting suspiciously until after we dropped in—and we did reveal our hand on a public channel.”
“But what did we find that would set them off like this?”
Katya gasped. “Stars and constellations of Earth!”
“The jump beacon—that’s what the pirates were after! They’re going to capture the Starfire and use the jump beacon they stole from our operative to get away!”
Mara’s gut clenched. “Are you sure about that?”
“It’s the only explanation that makes any sense. Gulchina didn’t join the fleet until after the operative went missing. Her plan must have been to capture one of our capital ships and use the jump beacon to get away.”
“If that’s true,” said Mathusael, “the moment those pirates storm the bridge of the Starfire, this whole thing is over.”
“Not if we can stop it first,” said Mara. “Jason, target the engineering wing of the Starfire, just above the reactors. Apollo, bring us in hard and fast.”
“Are you crazy?” said Jason. “Do you see how bad the fighting is? If—”
“Just do it. If this works, we’ll be out of there before they can hit us.” And if it doesn’t…
The planet came into view, with the flashes and explosions of the battle just a few hundred klicks away. The Starfire was just a speck from their distance, but it was clear enough from the tracers and scattered fields of debris that the battle was going in the pirates’ favor. In ten or fifteen minutes, the rest of the fleet would be ready to intercept on parallel orbits, but if Katya was right, they didn’t have that much time.
“Phoebe, bring up the full sector map.”
“Got it, Commander. Just a second.”
The main screen switched to an elliptical grid representing the orbital coordinates along the Bacca V gravity well. Green and red dots marked the various ships, with short lines representing their calculated trajectories. The trajectory lines of the smallest ships were shorter than all the others, with those of the outriders shortest of all. It made sense, considering that the maneuverability of those ships made them the most unpredictable.
Mara examined the map as the battle grew closer. The outriders showed up as a swarm of red specks immediately around the Starfire, with Gulchina’s seven ships establishing a perimeter. The few Outworld ships in the fray were mostly firing on the outriders, but the larger pirate ships were intercepting most of their shots. The cross-orbital broadsides seemed to be more effective at dealing damage, but far too many of those shots fell short of their intended targets.
“The Starfire is launching escape pods,” said Phoebe. “Some of the shuttles are pulling out, too. It looks—it looks like they’re abandoning ship.”
“Or trying to escape from the boarders,” said Mara. “Open a channel to the rest of the fleet.”
Phoebe nodded, and the computer chimed. Mara took a deep breath.
“Attention all vessels, this is acting-captain Soladze of the Merope-7. We have reason to believe the pirate forces have possession of a jump beacon. I suggest we concentrate fire on the Starfire’s engineering wing to disable them and prevent them from jumping out.”
She cut the transmission. If anyone had heard her, though, they didn’t respond.
“Starfire is dropping from orbit,” said Apollo.
“How’s our ETA?”
“A little under two minutes.”
“Commander,” said Jason, “the Tamerlane and Hulagu are opening fire on us. I’m launching countermeasures, but it’s going to be hot.”
Mara nodded. “Make evasive maneuvers and get us to the Starfire as quick as you can, Thetana. Can you get a targeting lock on the engineering wing from this distance?”
“Commander,” said Phoebe, “we’re receiving orders to stand down and target the outriders.”
“Admiral Paris of the Maia-1.”
Dammit! Mara swore silently. Couldn’t the other commanders see what the pirates were up to? They didn’t want to fight—they just wanted to nab the Starfire and bug out. But if the rest of the fleet wouldn’t listen, then it was up to her and the crew of the Merope-7 to disable the Starfire on their own.
“Ignore him and stay the course. We’ll sort out the court-martials later.”
A series of explosions rocked the ship, nearly throwing her from her seat. Plasma fire flashed outside the window, while inside, alarms began to blare.
“Our starboard nacelle has taken heavy damage,” said Mathusael, “but the repair bots are on the scene and containing it before it spreads. Armor has been weakened all along the starboard side.”
“There’s too much fire for our countermeasures,” yelled Jason.
“Punch it, Apollo! Get us to the Starfire now!”
Outside the forward window, the massive bulk of the Starfire began to fill the view. Another explosion sounded, this one much closer.
“Hit on decks eleven and twelve,” said Mathusael. “Hull is damaged, but no breach.”
“Hang on,” said Apollo.
The outside view spun as he threw them into a gradual barrel roll. The planet was close enough that Mara couldn’t help but feel disoriented by the maneuver. The wreckage of the Merope-3 had just hit the upper atmosphere, and was starting to streak as meteoric debris. She couldn’t tell how close they were to making planetfall themselves, but definitely too close for comfort.
“Thetana, can you get that targeting lock already?”
“On it, Commander. Just give me—there! Targeting lock acquired!”
“Fire!” Mara shouted.
A loud wuft-wuft sounded through the bulkheads as streams of plasma fire streaked from the Merope-7’s guns toward the Starfire. They were followed up seconds later by a barrage of missiles. The roar of the rockets died back down to silence as the missiles blasted off through the vacuum of space.
The plasma shots hit first, scorching the armor just behind the battleship’s main reactor. They didn’t do much damage, but with luck, they would melt the structural integrity enough to allow the missiles to get through. The missiles sped toward the target, guided by the nav-computer—
—then, with a sudden flash of light, the Starfire vanished.
“No!” Mara screamed, slamming her fist against the armrest. “No, no, no!”
On the main screen, the red dots disappeared one by one. Gulchina’s men had succeeded in capturing the Starfire, and there was no reason for the other ships to stay. They jumped out along with the outriders, leaving the Merope-7’s missiles to fall uselessly to the planet below.
“Commander,” said Apollo, “if we stay on our present course, we’ll hit the atmosphere in three minutes. Shall I stabilize our orbit?”
“Do it,” Mara said, leaning back in her chair. She covered her face with her hands.
“There’s a lot of debris at our current altitude. Should I—”
“Do whatever you have to, Lieutenant,” she snapped. “Take us to a higher orbit and park us wherever you can.”
Silence fell over the bridge. The alarms continued to blink, but the only sound was the patter of small debris as it bounced harmlessly off the hull.
“It’s not your fault, Mara,” Mathusael said softly. “You did your best.”
She rose to her feet on shaking legs. “Maybe,” she allowed. “But it wasn’t enough, was it?”
No one had an answer to that.
The Healing Ice
Mara lay back in her cot and stared at the featureless ceiling. The whisper of the ventilators and the hum of the Merope-7’s systems through the bulkheads was all that broke the silence for her. Outside her tiny porthole, the planetscape shone white and yellow, but it held no interest for her—nothing did. All she wanted was to be left alone.
We were so close, she thought to herself. And yet, we were always one step behind. Now Gulchina had the flagship of the Confederate fleet as well as their most closely guarded military secret, with nothing to stop them from selling out to the Imperials. Aaron was a babbling wreck, the Merope-7 was a ship without a captain, and the burden of command fell to Mara, along with all the blame for how badly things had gone.
I never should have joined the Resistance. The only reason she had was to avenge her father, and look where that had gotten her. Now, it was too late to leave—and even if she could, it wouldn’t turn her back from the monster she’d become.
The faces of the officers she’d executed mingled with the faces of the pirates she’d shot while escaping from the Starfire. Why was it so easy to kill them? Why did she find it so damn satisfying to pull the trigger? She was never supposed to be a killer—she was supposed to be a wife and mother, raising a family somewhere beyond the reach of this damn war. The old Deltan saying came readily to her mind: A strong family shines brighter than all the stars. Well, if that was true, then her life was as dark as a black hole.
The computer terminal chimed, indicating a private call. It was Jason, calling from the bridge. She reached over and switched it on.
“Commander Soladze here. What’s going on?”
“We have a transmission from Admiral Tully, Commander. She wishes to speak with you.”
Mara sat up slowly and ran a hand through her hair. “Very well, Thetana. Send it here.”
The holoscreen monitor flickered on, revealing a short, elderly woman with wispy gray hair and a cybernetic implant that covered her ears and ran across the back of her head. She nodded to Mara and saluted.
“Greetings, Commander Soladze. I hope I did not catch you at an inconvenient time?”
“Not at all,” said Mara, cursing herself for looking like such a wreck. It was too late to do anything about it now, though.
“I’ve reviewed your battle report, Commander. In addition, I’ve read over Lieutenant Nova’s brief on your operations in the Shiloh Rift and found it… enlightening.”
“I’m sorry we didn’t get here sooner, Admiral. Gulchina—”
“It was a mistake for High Command to enlist her support. That mistake does not lie with you, Commander. After reading both reports, I find no reason to censure you. On the contrary, I believe your decisions were laudable and exemplary—both yours and Captain Deltana’s.”
Mara nodded, biting her lip.
“Of course,” Admiral Tully continued, “there are those in the fleet who would have you court martialed. I have no doubt that given a proper hearing, both you and the captain would be exonerated, but the loss of the Starfire has put us in an extremely delicate position. We cannot afford to lose any officers now, either to the enemy or to our own internal politics. Therefore, since Captain Deltana is unable to assume his post, I am promoting you and making you captain of the Merope-7, effective immediately.”
“Thank you, Admiral,” said Mara. She let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding.
“I don’t want to spread rumors, Captain, so I trust you will hold what I am about to tell you in confidence.”
“I have just learned that Imperial advance fleet is significantly closer than we expected them to be. If our latest intelligence is correct, the Imperials’ first strike is imminent. I doubt we’ll be ready for them when they do, but I don’t want it to come as a surprise.”
A chill shot down Mara’s spine. The weight of her newfound command now seemed almost unbearable.
“I understand, Admiral. I’ll do my best to not disappoint you.”
“I trust that you will, Captain. Do you need any replacement personnel for your crew?”
Mara thought for a moment. With Aaron gone and her serving as captain in his place, she would have to choose a new first officer to replace herself. Katya would be a good fit for that position, but as an intelligence officer she fell outside of the fleet command structure. Everyone else seemed to work well together, and she didn’t want to upset that dynamic. Although, if she had to choose one of them to be her second-in-command, she knew exactly who it would be.
“With your permission, Admiral, I’d like to make our chief engineer my executive officer. I suspect he’ll advance one of his subordinates to fill his current position, in which case we’ll need another engineer.”
“Understood. And Captain Soladze, if I may speak personally for a moment, I think you’ve made an excellent choice.”
Mara nodded. “Thank you, Admiral. I hope you’re right.”
* * * * *
Mara didn’t expect much when she stepped into the medical bay. Even so, she couldn’t help but feel a knot in her stomach as the doors hissed shut behind her.
Pallas and his commandos were sitting on the examining tables near the front of the room. They were dressed in light fatigues and receiving their shots in preparation to go back down into cryo. As always, Pallas’s eyes were covered, but he still recognized her and nodded silently as she entered.
“Hello, Sergeant. How are your men?”
“Doing well, Commander. Or should I say, Captain?”
Mara smiled humorlessly. “News gets around fast, doesn’t it?”
“If I don’t keep up with it now, I’ll have that much more to catch up on when you wake me again. Congratulations, Captain.”
That’s right, Mara thought. He doesn’t remember anything from the last few weeks, because he and his men were in cryo. It was strange how cryofreeze could alter a person’s perceptions of time and space.
Phoebe stepped out from the quarantine section and motioned for Mara to enter. Mara saluted Pallas and followed Phoebe into the secluded space.
“Not very well, I’m afraid,” said Phoebe. “Here, take a look.”
She motioned to the bed where Aaron was strapped in. He wore only a thin patient’s gown, and was clearly unconscious. Even so, his fingers still twitched, and his face ticked every so often, making Mara cringe. Dozens of wires were plugged into his body, connecting to a suite of instruments above him. His head was tilted forward ever so slightly to allow a massive tube to plug into the neural jacks in the back of his head. It looked as if he were slowly being assimilated by the computer and turned into a machine.
“How bad is it?” Mara asked.
“I hate to say this, but the damage is irreversible. His neural pathways are so frayed and tangled that he’s lost almost all of his higher brain function. He’s getting worse, too. It takes almost everything we have just to keep him from deteriorating further.”
Mara’s stomach tightened. She drew in a sharp breath and struggled to remain composed. Dammit, Aaron! Why did you have to do this to yourself?
“Is there any chance you can stabilize him?”
“We could, but it would turn him into a vegetable. He’d need medical care for the rest of his life.”
“Shit,” Mara said under her breath. She clenched both hands tightly into fists.
“I’m sorry, but that’s the best we can do.”
“Don’t tell me that,” she said. “There’s got to be something else—there has to be.”
“I don’t know what to tell you,” said Phoebe. “Maybe the Imperials have some cutting-edge treatment that could save him, but I’ve never seen—”
“Just shut up and let me think!” Mara snapped.
She regretted the outburst almost immediately. Phoebe jumped back as if stung. Her eyes widened, and she looked less like a military officer and more like a frightened little girl.
“I’m sorry, Lieutenant,” Mara apologized. “I was out of line.”
“No, that’s fine. I—”
“It was not fine, Lieutenant. I was out of line and I’m sorry.”
“Y-yes, Captain. Of course, Captain.”
Mara sighed and stared through the large plexiglass window of the quarantine area at the rest of the medical bay. Phoebe’s assistants were checking over Pallas and the other commandos, making sure that everything was in order to administer the chemical cocktail that would allow them to revive from cryofreeze quickly. A part of her envied them. In cryo, they would sleep for weeks or months, perhaps even years. Mara wished that she could join them—it was the only sure escape from the mess she was in right now.
Something in her mind clicked. She stood up a little straighter as realization struck her.
“Can you freeze him, Phoebe?”
Phoebe frowned. “Freeze him?”
“Yes, freeze him in cryo. Will that stabilize him?”
“I think so, Captain. But it won’t fix anything.”
“It won’t cause any further damage, though, either,” said Mara. “And if there’s a cure for his condition, it will buy us the time we need to find it.”
“How soon can you do it?”
Phoebe checked her wrist console. “The commandos aren’t scheduled to go down for another hour. If it’s just a simple matter of putting him under, we can do that now while the commandos are getting prepped.”
“But Mara,” said Phoebe, “you do realize that we’ll probably never find a cure. I don’t see how—the damage is too severe.”
“Perhaps,” said Mara, putting a hand on Aaron’s arm. “I’m certainly not getting my hopes up. But I’m not going to give up on him, either. We don’t have the time or the resources to deal with him now, so putting him in cryo is the best we can do.”
And if our best isn’t good enough…
“I understand,” said Phoebe. “I’ll have my people get on it right away.”
Mara stared at Aaron’s twitching face and took a long, deep breath. “We won’t give up on you, Aaron,” she whispered. “Not on my watch.”
She wished she could say more, but that was the best she could promise him.
* * * * *
The cryotanks had never looked more to Mara like coffins than they did as she watched Phoebe and Rachel guide Aaron’s limp, unconscious form into one with the help of a pair of medibots. Unlike the commandos, Aaron wasn’t prepped for rapid resuscitation, and would be kept in long-term storage outside of the cryodeck. This was the last time Mara would see him for a while—possibly the last time she’d ever see him.
“You blame yourself for this, don’t you?” Mathusael asked beside her.
“What makes you say that?” Mara asked.
Mathusael shrugged. “Just an observation. It’s obvious the two of you were close, since you were the only Deltans in your platoon.”
“We were the only two Deltans in the Flotilla, Mathusael.”
Mara turned back to the cryofreeze procedure. As Rachel finished laying Aaron’s naked body into the tank, Phoebe walked back to the console and toggled the freezing process to begin. The glass face of the cryotank slid shut and sealed with a sharp hiss.
“He was my chance to redeem myself,” Mara said quietly. “I’ve done things that I’m not very proud of. As long as I could keep him from coming to harm, I figured I wasn’t a total monster.”
“Sometimes you have to be a monster to protect the ones you love.”
She thought of the men she’d killed to get Aaron off of the Starfire. It wasn’t quite the same as executing the Imperial officers in cold blood, but it had still given her the same satisfaction. She clenched her fists by her side.
“What am I becoming, Mathusael? What is this war turning us into?”
“I don’t know. I doubt it’s possible for us to know until all this is over. But they say that wars make bad people worse and good people better.”
“Then I must be a lost cause.”
He looked at her and frowned. “Why would you say that?”
The cryotank filled with a dark green gas, obscuring Aaron from sight. Mara took a deep breath. Should I tell him? Ever since they’d joined the Merope-7, she’d carefully kept that part of her past from him, but now she couldn’t bear to hide it any longer.
“There’s something I need to tell you.”
He turned to her and frowned. “What is it?”
“When the Imperials slaughtered my father, I vowed to avenge his death,” Mara began. “That was the only reason I joined the Resistance. When we retook Bacca, my opportunity came a lot sooner than I’d expected. After we captured the Imperial flagship, I slipped onto the officers’ deck and hunted down the man who gave the kill order for my father. I shot him and his subordinates in cold blood.”
Mathusael nodded slowly. Condensation began to form on the inside of the cryotank as the interior temperature dropped. On the console, the line indicating Aaron’s heartbeat began to flatten.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t see the faces of those men as I killed them,” Mara said, her chest tightening. “And when I try to imagine what my father would think—”
Mathusael laid both of his hands on her shoulders, turning her to face him. “Do you remember when I told you that your father would be proud of you?”
“Yes, I do.”
“I didn’t mean that lightly. Even with what you’ve told me, I still think he would be proud of the woman you’ve become.”
She turned away. When he gently put a hand on her arm, though, she didn’t shrug him off.
“We all have things we aren’t proud of, Mara. But you’re not a lost cause—not yet. And no matter what you’ve done, I know that you aren’t a complete monster.”
“Because you’re still true and loyal to your friends. No true friend can ever be totally evil.”
His words gave her pause. Is that true? As hard as it was to forgive herself, she had to admit that they rang true. And if he was right, then there was hope for her yet. She would never be able to undo what she had done, but it didn’t have to define who she was.
Aaron’s heartbeat flatlined as he went into hibernation. Phoebe adjusted a few switches on her console, and the cryotank began to clear.
“The cryofreezing process is complete,” she announced. “Everything looks long-term stable. He’ll stay in exactly the same condition he is now until we thaw him.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” said Mara. “Withdraw the tank from the machine and put it into storage.”
“Already on it, Captain.”
As Phoebe went back to work, Mara turned back to Mathusael. He stared at the cryotank as if lost in thought, but when he realized that she was staring at him, he turned to her and smiled.
“Do you remember how I told you that I could see you making a strong wife and mother someday?” he asked.
“I do indeed.”
“Well,” he continued, “it occurs to me that this ship is a family of sorts. We’re all responsible for each other, and we work together to achieve our best potential. So now that you’re in command, in a certain sense that makes you like a mother to us.”
She cocked her head at him. “A family, you say?”
“Not in the traditional sense, but the comparison still holds. And for that alone, I think your father would be proud.”
His reassuring words made her smile. She took a long breath and stood a little straighter.
“Well then, if this ship is my family now, I expect nothing but the best from them.”
“Of course, Captain.”
“That goes for you too, Commander. Stars know we’re going to need all the help we can get.”
“Of course,” he said, grinning. “Nothing but the best for my friends.”
Sometimes when you write a book, the story just comes to you, and the first draft comes out with everything where it needs to be and nothing missing that needs to be there. It might need a little editing just to clean things up and make the writing tighter, but the story itself is solid and hardly needs any work at all. Other times, the first draft comes out rather messy, and it takes a couple of iterations to even figure out what’s wrong with it, much less to fix it.
Comrades in Hope was a lot more like the former. I wrote it in a white-hot creative heat over the course of just a month or so, and the final published book is more or less a polished up version of the first draft. But Comrades in Hope was also a straightforward adventure story, at the beginning of the series arc, so the character relationships were a lot less complex and there were a lot fewer plot threads to tie together. With Friends in Command, things were a lot more complicated.
In a lot of ways, Friends in Command is a bridge story, weaving out the threads from the first few books and setting things up for the later ones. The thing about bridge stories, though, is that they’re really hard to pull off right. You can’t have too much of a payoff, otherwise the later books will feel too anticlimactic, but you don’t give enough payoff, then readers get bored or upset and drop the series. It’s a difficult balancing act, which is made even harder if you’re trying to write a complete, self-contained story that is also part of a larger whole.
In my opinion, one of the best bridge stories ever written was Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back. Not only does it set things up magnificently for the ultimate payoff in Return of the Jedi, but it gives the main hero a character arc and punctuates that arc with some jaw-dropping reveals. Instead of following out the arc to its conclusion, it cuts when the hero hits his ultimate lowest point, allowing the movie to stand on its own as a self-contained story. And because that story is essentially a tragedy, it provides enough contrast with the other two parts to add some serious depth and emotion to the whole series. For all of these reasons, The Empire Strikes Back is my favorite movie in the whole Star Wars franchise.
I wanted to do something similar with Friends in Command, and to do that, I had to make it more about the characters. Since Brothers in Exile was mostly about Isaac, Comrades in Hope was mostly about Aaron, and Strangers in Flight was mostly about Reva, it only made sense that Friends in Command would be about Mara. When I wrote the first draft, though, I made it all from her point of view. That proved to be a mistake, because in certain parts of the story, she’s not the most interesting person to follow. When I tried to adjust things so that that wasn’t the case, it led to plot holes and other nonsense. The story was all there, and I knew what had to happen, but it wasn’t coming together the way it needed to.
Right in the middle of writing Friends in Command, I broke up with my girlfriend of six or seven months. It wasn’t a particularly messy breakup, but these sorts of things are almost never pleasant. I had also moved apartments to the other side of Provo, which ended up being a good move, but it turned life upside down for a little while. At some point, I think I just wanted to power through the book and get it done with.
When I got back the comments from my first readers, the feedback was mixed. There was a lot about it that they liked, but other things that didn’t seem to work. I could also tell that there were things they weren’t telling me, either because they weren’t exactly sure what was wrong, or they didn’t know how to come out and say it. I had a choice to make: I could either put out Friends in Command on schedule, setting it up to release over Christmas, or I could push back the publication date and fix what was wrong. In other words, I could publish something that was good enough but probably flawed, or I could try to make it better.
I decided to push back the publication date and make sure the book was as good as I could make it. But instead of diving back into it, though, I took a break to work on some other unfinished projects in order to approach it with fresh eyes. When I came back, I saw the problem quite clearly: I was missing a vital viewpoint character. That character was clearly Aaron, so I went back and added him in.
It didn’t take very long to write the second draft, and I had high hopes that this would be the final version. Just to be safe, though, I sent it through another round of test readers (different from the first ones) and waited for their feedback. They told me that something was missing—that it felt too much like a bridge, and not a complete story in itself. I realized that the second draft had fixed most of the plot problems but left out the focus on the characters, which was what I really needed for the whole thing to come together.
So I reluctantly went back to do another revision, this time for consistency with the characters, particularly Mara and Mathusael. Where before I’d focused mostly on how she was haunted by the killing of the Imperial officers, this time I focused on the life that she’d been wrenched from, and how she still held on to a vestige of it. Since Mathusael came from the same cultural background, it was natural that this tension would come out in their relationship with each other.
The culture of the Deltans is a lot like the culture of the place where I currently live. Here in Utah, people tend to be conservative, religious, and place a lot of emphasis on families. There’s certainly a lot of pressure for single people like me to get married, and I think that’s reflected in some ways with Mara. When writing her character, I tried to imagine what it would feel like to be torn out of that set of cultural expectations by war.
Out of all the characters in the Sons of the Starfarers series, Mathusael is probably the one who is most like me. It’s actually a toss-up between him and Isaac, but regardless, I really enjoyed writing him into it. I wasn’t originally planning to, but when I hit a block in the first draft, it seemed natural to throw him in. In fact, throwing him in was what allowed me to power through and write the book. I will definitely throw him into a later book as a point of view character.
If you’ve been waiting for Friends in Command for the last nine months or so, I apologize. Hopefully, the finished product was worth the wait. And while I can’t yet say exactly when Captives in Obscurity is going to come out, I can say definitively that Sons of the Starfarers will not go longer than nine books. Each book that comes out has been longer than the last one, so the last few books may be mid- to long-sized novels, but there will only be nine of them—that I can promise. And for those of you who are interested in my other books, they will tie in with my Gaia Nova novels in ways that you might find interesting. So definitely keep an eye out for that!
I hope you enjoyed Friends in Command! If you did, I hope you’ll consider posting a review of it so that others can find and enjoy it too. If you’d like to keep up with my books, you can sign up for my mailing list on my blog, One Thousand and One Parsecs (onelowerlight.com/writing). That’s also the best place to follow me online, since I post updates fairly regularly. I’m also on Twitter, Wattpad, and Goodreads. I used to be on Facebook, but I got off for a variety of reasons, mostly due to privacy concerns. The best way to make sure you don’t miss any of my books is to sign up for my mailing list or to follow my blog.
Take care, and as always, thanks for reading!
There are so many people to thank with their help with this book that it’s hard to keep track of them all! First, I’d like to thank all of my first readers, many of whom agreed to help out on short notice: Amber Carlson, Benjamin Keeley, Logan Kearsley, Erin Kearsley, and Mykle Law. Thanks also to Scott Bascom and Ailsa Lillywhite for helping me to bounce off ideas that would later be incorporated into the book. I also owe a thank you to Kalen O’Donnell for the cover design and Josh Leavitt for the editing. Thanks so much guys! Because of your help, I now have another book that I can be proud of.
ON THE EDGE OF KNOWN SPACE, THERE IS NOWHERE TO ESCAPE.
The deadliest pirates in the galaxy have stolen the technology that will transform it. After betraying the Outworld Confederacy and seizing the most powerful battleship in the fleet, they are now poised to set up an empire of their own.
Isaac and Reva know that they are running out of time. When the pirates holding them captive reach the Far Outworlds, there will be nowhere for them to run. But Gulchina, the madwoman in charge, seems to be grooming Reva as an heir. And in the outer reaches beyond known space, a planet holds a secret that will change their lives forever in
SONS OF THE STARFARERS
BOOK V: CAPTIVES IN OBSCURITY