Book: Captives in Obscurity



Captives in Obscurity

Sons of the Starfarers

Book V: Captives in Obscurity

by Joe Vasicek


Copyright © 2016 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.


Sign up here for updates on new releases and special offers from Joe Vasicek.

More books by Joe Vasicek.


Editing by Josh Leavitt.

Cover Design by Kalen O’Donnell.


Table of Contents


Copyright Page

Table of Contents


Captive Souls

Death and Dishonor

Intentions Revealed

Star’s End

Contact Unawares

Melded Minds

Hijacked Bodies

Birth of a Nation

Worldfire

To the Stars


Author’s Note | Acknowledgments

THERE IS NO ESCAPE BEYOND STAR’S END.


The deadliest pirates in the galaxy have stolen the technology that will transform it. Now, on the edge of known space, they are poised to start an empire of their own.

Isaac and Reva are running out of time. Neither of them knows the extent of Gulchina’s plans, or whether the madwoman will keep them both alive after she achieves them.

But an unexplored planet beyond the Far Outworlds holds an ancient alien secret that not even Gulchina has uncovered. That secret will tip the balance in


SONS OF THE STARFARERS

BOOK V: CAPTIVES IN OBSCURITY


Book V: Captives in Obscurity


Captive Souls


Reva tugged uncomfortably on her uniform as she assembled with the crew of the Temujin. The fabric was thick and itchy, the collar tight. Even so, she didn’t dare show any sign of discomfort over the way the clothes were smothering her. The pirates all around her were covered from head to toe, therefore she had to be, too.

The wall between the airlock and the cargo hold was transparent, providing a clear view inside. A barely conscious man hung from a pair of shackles bolted to the ceiling, his legs slack and his knees just above the floor. He was naked, but Reva did not envy him that—not after what he’d been through. His skin bore signs of torture: rashes and tears where the lash had struck him, blisters and scorch marks where he’d been burned. His body was not quite emaciated, but he looked so weak that he might well have been starved. With a slackened jaw and unfocused eyes, he made a pathetic sight.

The last of the crew filed into the cargo hold. Reva stood on her toes and looked for Isaac, but couldn’t see him anywhere.

A door hissed open on the other side of the chamber, and Captain Gulchina walked to the front of the room. She wore a dark blue uniform much like Reva’s, with a pistol and rapier on her belt. Her hair was as black as the void of space, and her eyes were just as cold.

“Who is this?” Gulchina asked in a loud voice as she surveyed her men.

No one answered. The silence made Reva shiver.

“Who is this man?” Gulchina repeated, her voice booming.

The second-in-command stepped forward, a stocky man with a thick black beard and a cybernetic eye implant. His only name, so far as Reva could tell, was Wolf. No one on the Temujin had ever referred to him by any other name.

“His name is Corporal Sarnai, sir.”

That wasn’t his birth name, of course. Gulchina gave a new name to everyone on her crew—it was one of the many ways she controlled them. Which made it all the more disconcerting that she still called Reva by her own name.

“Why is he here?”

Even though it was obvious that Gulchina had ordered the man’s execution, she put on a damn convincing act. It was as if she had nothing to do with the brutality of the man’s torture, and was only now learning of it.

“The corporal was planning to betray us, sir. He had prepared an outrider shuttle and hidden a month’s worth of provisions aboard.”

“He planned to betray us?”

Gulchina’s disbelief sounded absolutely genuine. Cognitively, Reva knew she was lying, but her act was so convincing that Reva felt as if she’d stepped into a parallel universe.

“Yes, Captain.”

Gulchina turned to the crowd. “Do any of you know this man?”

A low rumble spread through the crew, but no one gave her an answer. Once again, Commander Wolf spoke up.

“We all knew him, sir.”

“Was he not your friend?” Gulchina asked the room. “Did you not share the same food? Breathe the same air? In battle, did you not fight alongside him?”

The crowd fell as silent as death. Reva’s heart began to hammer.

“We are, all of us, outcasts,” Gulchina continued. “Hated by those who once loved us, hunted by those who now fear us. There is no civilized world that would welcome us, no far-flung outpost that would offer us refuge. Those who are not with us are against us, and those who will not join us are our enemies.”

She surveyed the room with a gaze stronger than steel. Reva hardly dared to breathe.

“It is a hard life we lead, here on the fringes of human space. But we are strong. We will prevail. It is the destiny of mankind to conquer the stars, to subdue the galaxy and all that may be found therein.

“Of all alive today who belong to the human race, we alone claim that destiny. We alone reach for it. The corrupt and decadent empires of the settled stars, the spineless obeisance of their planetborn subjects, and the weak-willed resistance of the so-called starfarers—none of them claim their birthright. And what is that birthright? Our birthright?”

“The stars!” someone in the back of the room shouted.

“Yes,” said Gulchina. “And not just any stars: The unknown and unexplored, the billions upon billions that have yet to be visited by man. That is our birthright. That is our inheritance. For while we, as Columbus, venture into the vast unknown, like the legendary Cortes we, too, shall conquer!”

The resounding cheer caught Reva off-guard. It was clear that Gulchina had given this speech to them many times before.

“But this man,” she said, pointing contemptuously to the corporal, “this one-time friend, has betrayed us all. For while we venture forth to claim our celestial birthright, he sought to return to our enemies, revealing to them our plans and swearing allegiance to them.

“Traitor!” someone at the back of the room shouted. The cry was taken up by a handful of others, while the rest of the crowd began to stir.

“So I ask you again,” Gulchina continued, “was this man not your friend? Did you not breathe the same air? Share the same food?”

“Traitor!” the cry went out again. This time, it was taken up by everyone.

Gulchina raised her hands, silencing them. “To you, he was a friend, but to me, he was much, much more. It was my food that I gave him, my air that I let him breathe. To me, he was like a son, and his betrayal cuts me deepest of all.”

The tension shifted, like a breath of fresh air in a stuffy room. The man to Reva’s right clenched his fists.

Gulchina reached for her holster and pulled out an energy pistol. Reva’s breath caught in her throat, and for an instant, her heart stopped. Behind the glass, the corporal’s eyes went wide.

“Mercy is for the weak,” Gulchina continued. “Victory is for the strong. Will the stars show you mercy? Will the universe hear your pleas? No! Among the spaceborn, only the strong survive.”

She turned again to the airlock, where the naked corporal now stood trembling.

“What would you have me do with this man?”

“Kill him!”

“Throw him out the airlock!”

“Let him breathe vacuum!”

Soon, the whole crew was calling for the corporal’s death. Their cries of outrage echoed across the bulkheads and caused the floor to shake. The corporal shook his head and pleaded, the word “no” on his lips, but his voice was trapped behind the glass.

Stop it, Reva thought to herself, her hands shaking. Don’t do this. Make it stop.

Gulchina stood by calmly, allowing her men to vent their rage. When she raised her hand, though, the room fell instantly silent.

“It pains me to kill one of my own,” she said. “But because of his betrayal, he is no longer worthy to be counted among my loyal sons. Those who are faithful prove themselves worthy of food and air. Those who do not shall not have place with us.

“Nevertheless, I will not condemn any of my sons to death without giving him the opportunity to die honorably.”

The door to the airlock hissed open, and Gulchina stepped inside. The corporal’s pleading cries were barely coherent, and the terror in his voice cut Reva to her core.

“Captain, please! Please forgive me! I don’t, I didn’t—no! Don’t do it! Please don’t!”

Gulchina bent down on one knee and slid the energy pistol across the floor. It came to rest at the corporal’s feet, within easy reach. Since his hands were still shackled to the ceiling, however, he couldn’t pick it up.

“Captain! Captain, listen to me! Please—Captain!

Her face still calm, she stepped back through the airlock and palmed it shut. Once the door was firmly closed, she keyed another series of commands, and the shackles came undone. The corporal fell on his hands and knees to the floor.

“Throw him out!” the man next to Reva shouted. His voice was so loud, it made her jump. Soon, the whole crew took up the chant.

“Throw him out! Throw him out!”

Reva’s breath caught in her throat, and her heart pounded so hard she thought it would explode. In the airlock, the corporal picked up the gun and rose slowly to his feet. His hands were trembling as he brought the gun to his head, but he could not bring himself to pull the trigger.

“THROW HIM OUT! THROW HIM OUT!”

Gulchina lifted a finger to her cheek and wiped away a single tear. The gesture was so perfect, so full of grace and subtlety, that Reva couldn’t help but feel her heart cry out to her. Gone was the monster who was about to commit a brutal act of murder, replaced by a goddess who meted out life and death through the almighty power she held in her hand. The loyalty that she commanded was stronger than the cords of death.

The outer door of the airlock suddenly slid open, revealing the vacuum of space. The corporal stumbled and grasped wildly for purchase at the explosive decompression. Reva gasped, and the chanting stopped. In the airlock, the corporal clutched his throat as if he were choking. His eyes bulged and the veins on his wrists and forehead stood out sharply against his skin. He staggered backward as the last of the air was sucked out, pulling him with it. With the starfield shining dimly behind him, he closed his eyes and floated out into the infinite void.

Gulchina calmly removed her gloves and placed them in her breast pocket. To Reva, it seemed as if she were washing her hands. Perhaps in some metaphorical way, she was.

“Dismissed.”

With that single word, the men who only a few moments ago had boiled with energy and rage filed out of the cargo hold. The airlock slid shut, and except for a very small bloodstain on the floor immediately below the shackles, it was as if the execution had never happened.

Reva shivered in spite of her uniform. She felt Gulchina’s eyes on her, but refused to look up for fear that those godlike eyes would penetrate her.


* * * * *


Isaac covered his face with the breathing filter and tried to ignore the stench of the septic tank as he scrubbed the walls. Black mold and fungal rot caked the sides of the chamber, necessitating a deep clean. His protective gear was worn thin and torn along the sleeves—it was only designed for single-use, but his captors had forced him to reuse it every dayshift for the past week. They claimed they didn’t have the resources to fab him a new one, but from his experience on the Medea, Isaac knew otherwise.

The Medea, his family’s starship. The one that had been handed down from father to son for generations. A lump rose in Isaac’s throat as he remembered how the pirates had sent his ship hurtling into the heart of the Ithaca system’s white dwarf binary. A part of him had died as he’d watched it fall into fiery oblivion. He was supposed to pass the Medea on to his son, after he’d settled down and a family. But now, the tradition would die with him.

He clenched his teeth and mentally kicked himself. There was no sense giving in to despair—not yet. Months had passed since the pirates had taken him captive, but sooner or later, he would have his chance to escape. All he needed was to bide his time and be ready for the opportunity when it came.

The hatch above his head swung open suddenly, coming to rest with a loud clang. Isaac paused and looked up into the masked face of Jirga, the Temujin’s chief engineer.

“You finished in there yet, Issa? Damn, that smells bad!”

Issa—the name Gulchina had given him after taking him captive. It was the name that all the men called him by, on the rare occasions when they saw fit to call him by name. They treated him as a slave more than one of the crew. In the two or three months that he’d been their prisoner, he’d scrubbed almost every deck of the ship, cleaned out the engines for all but one of the outrider shuttlecraft, done countless EVAs to patch micrometeorite pockmarks on the hull, and emptied the autocomposter at least five times, by hand. And in all that time, the only person on the ship that he knew by name was Gulchina, their heartless bitch of a captain.

Well, not just Gulchina. There was also Reva, the girl he’d rescued from the Gaian Imperials who the pirates had taken at the same time as him. But he almost never saw her.

Almost.

“Not yet,” Isaac answered, turning back to his work. He was starting to feel weak from the long work shift, but he wasn’t about to let Jirga see that. As soon as he was useless for hard labor, they had no reason to keep him at all.

Jirga cursed. “Get out of there, boy. Shift’s over.”

Thank the holy stars, Isaac thought silently. He stood up straight and stretched, cracking nearly every vertebra in his back. He’d been stooped over in the partially enclosed space for so long, he had to steady himself for a couple of minutes before climbing out.

One step at a time, he climbed the ladder and stepped into the disinfectant chamber. He lifted his hands as the foul-smelling chemicals ran across his protective gear, spilling in through the tears in the fabric. After the rinse cycle, he took his clothes off and carefully hung them inside the door, then stepped through to the second chamber where he took a lukewarm shower.

Before he had time to properly wash himself, hot air blasted down on him from above as the shower unit passed through the dry cycle. He reveled in the warm heat for a few blessed moments before the cycle ended short, leaving him damp and shivering. Still, it was better than nothing. He retrieved his oversized jumpsuit from the storage locker and silently pulled it on.

The corridor was empty when he stepped out. The Temujin was large enough that most of the ship was empty at any given time, but small enough that Isaac could find his way without difficulty. The pirates let him walk without guard, since they knew that any escape attempt in deep space would be futile. He had a few minutes before they noticed that he was missing.

Which gave him exactly as much time as he needed.

He glanced down either end of the corridor and walked as quickly as his aching feet would allow. A sudden cramp in his calf made him wince in pain. He clutched his leg and collapsed on the floor, but bit his lip to keep from crying out.

Unable to walk, he dragged himself to a side corridor that branched off from the main one. His elbows soon throbbed from the cold bare metal of the floor, but he ignored that and pulled himself up to a maintenance closet. After taking a few moments to catch his breath, he reached up with a trembling hand and knocked.

Instantly, the door swung open. A pair of small hands reached under his arms and pulled him up. He stumbled to his feet and half-fell inside. A dim green overhead light protected by a wire cage revealed the person who’d been waiting for him.

Reva.

He had only a momentary glimpse of her dark, round eyes before the door clicked shut and the light switched off. Immediately, her body was pressed against his, her arms pulling him tight in a desperate embrace. She pulled his head down and kissed him with all the passion of someone who expected to die.

“Reva—”

A wave of dizziness swept over him as he melted into her embrace. She took a quick breath and went in for another kiss, preventing him from speaking. He could feel the contours of her body against his, her full, round breasts pressing up against his chest. After slaving away for so long under such miserable conditions, it gave him a heady rush that almost made him swoon.

Careful, he thought inwardly. Control yourself.

But the longer they embraced, the harder it was to exercise self-restraint. A hunger deep within him stirred, and a host of unmet needs rose quickly to—

“Are they gone?”

Isaac took a deep breath and pressed his mouth against the smooth, warm skin of her neck. She aroused him more than he thought possible, but using all the self-control he had left, he stopped and pulled away from her.

“Yes.”

“We are alone?”

“I think so.”

Reva released him and leaned back against the equipment lockers, though in the narrow confines of the maintenance closet she was still close enough to touch.

“Today a man died,” Reva began in her sensuous foreign accent. In the last two months of their captivity, she had become surprisingly proficient at Gaian, picking up the language with relative ease. It was clear that the pirates regarded her much more highly than they did him.

“How?” he asked.

“By airlock,” she answered, clearly shaken by what she’d seen. “Gulchina spaced him in front of everyone. It was terrible.”

He put a hand on her shoulder to comfort her. Though he yearned for more physical contact than that, he was careful to keep it contained.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I—”

“How soon we can escape?” she asked.

Isaac frowned. “I don’t know. Do you know where we are?”

“In the ship Temujin, with—”

“Yes, but what’s our location? What’s the closest system?”

She sighed. “I don’t know. I am sorry.”

“It’s okay,” he told her. “If we can charge the jump drive on one of the outrider shuttles, we can jump in some random direction and triangulate from there.” The tricky part would be making sure they had enough food and provisions to make it back to civilization. The outriders weren’t equipped with food synthesizers, so if they tried to make it out that way, there was a very real chance they would starve to death before they made it to safety.

“Shh! Someone is coming!”

Without warning, Reva pulled him back into a passionate embrace. His hands migrated to her hips of their own accord, and as she lifted her chin, he buried his face against her neck.

The feminine curves of her body reminded him of how he’d found her: lying naked in a cryochamber, her dark olive skin covered in intricate henna tattoos. He and Aaron had pulled her out of a derelict space station on the fringes of settled space, the sole survivor of her people. But the Gaian Imperials had confiscated the cryotank, and he hadn’t seen her again until a chance encounter behind enemy lines, when he’d rescued her from an escape pod. He’d learned very quickly that she had no taboo against nudity. Even in the darkness of the maintenance closet, her total lack of self-consciousness made his legs go weak.

Footsteps sounded outside the door, but they gradually faded away. Once again, Reva released him.

“We need to charge outrider?” she asked.

Isaac panted heavily as his whole body throbbed with arousal. “Yes,” he answered between gasps. “It will take at least… at least three or four hours, and we have to make it… so that they won’t find out.”

“That was what the dead man tried to do. Is there no other way?”

“Not unless we can hijack the ship,” Isaac said, recovering somewhat. “But there are ways to hide the reactor’s energy signature. The harder part is obtaining supplies.”

“Supplies?”

“Yes. Food and water. It could be weeks before we make it to the nearest colony. Outriders are designed to be short-range, interplanetary shuttles. They’re not made for long-range, interstellar voyages.”

“I will take care of supplies,” she said. “How soon can we go?”

Isaac thought a moment, his heart still pounding. “Not soon. I need to get remote access to the outriders somehow, without them catching us.”

“What do you need? Can I get it for you?”

“I’m not sure,” he muttered. “If I had a wrist console, I could probably sneak off long enough to sync it with one of the outriders.” But that still left the problem of how to hide the energy signature while the jump drive charged. If the pirates detected it, they would fire almost immediately after launch.

“Good,” said Reva. “I will find and bring for you in three dayshifts.”

“And the supplies?”

“Don’t worry, I will get them. Here, three dayshifts.”

She opened the door just a crack to make sure no one was outside, making the dim green light for the closet turn on. Her black hair glistened, and then she was out, the door shutting quietly behind her.

As the darkness returned and her footsteps faded away, Isaac leaned against the wall and sank to his ankles. Did these clandestine meetings mean anything to her? While the affair was just a ruse, meant to give them both an alibi in case they were discovered, he couldn’t help but wonder if it had turned into something more.

His breathing slowed, and his heartbeat gradually returned to normal. Even so, he couldn’t tell which was worse: the way the pirates treated him, or the way Reva was screwing with his mind.




Death and Dishonor


Reva held her breath and lay perfectly still as Gulchina drew the tip of the application cone across the skin of her upper chest. The wet henna felt like the blade of a cold knife, sending chills running down her arm. She closed her eyes as Gulchina retraced the intricate tattoos.

“Thy skin is but a shade lighter than the henna,” Gulchina remarked in Reva’s native language—now as dead as the people who once had spoken it. “In places, I fear it has faded beyond mine ability to see.”

“Take your time,” Reva said softly. She sighed and stared at the featureless ceiling, doing her best not to move.

She lay face-up on a wooden table in Gulchina’s personal quarters, completely unclothed. In the presence of anyone else, even a total stranger, Reva would have felt relieved not to have her body covered. No one had worn clothes back home—they were considered obscene, since they created a sense of shame that denied the sacred nature of the human body. But beneath Gulchina’s iron gaze, she couldn’t help but wish for a way to shield herself from view.

“Thy tattoos are truly a masterpiece,” Gulchina remarked. The dialect she spoke was outdated and obscure, but Reva understood her well enough.

“It was my sister-in-law’s final creation,” Reva answered. “She put all that she had into it.”

“It wouldst truly be a tragedy should they fade. I shall endeavor to preserve them.”

“Thank you.”

“Dost thou miss her?”

Reva swallowed. “Yes,” she whispered.

Gulchina came to a stopping point and sat up. “‘Tis a harsh life we lead in the farthest reaches of space. But thou art counted amongst the strong, for where others have perished, thou hast survived.”

Only because of my father, Reva thought silently. A lump rose in her throat as she remembered the cryotank he’d secretly prepared for her—the only thing that had kept her from dying in the famine that had devastated her home. For untold ages she had slept in that cryotank, her life preserved in ice. Did that make her any stronger than those who had perished? Or did it just make her lucky?

“What thinkest thou of the execution?”

A chill ran down Reva’s back as she remembered watching the corporal get sucked out the airlock. “It was… unpleasant,” she said, understating her own horror.

“Indeed, but ‘twas also necessary,” Gulchina told her. “Mutiny is a disease which must be purged. Every soul which doth not fulfill his duty is as a scourge, for the ship must operate as a body—the many must unite as a single whole.”

“Why are you keeping me, then?” Reva asked softly.

“Because I have a use for thee, which thou shalt learn of hereafter.”

What sort of use? she thought. Fear froze her tongue, though, and she decided it would be best not to ask too many questions.

“And what did you think of my speech?” Gulchina asked, switching abruptly to her own language.

“What speech?”

“Don’t be coy with me, Reva. The speech about our celestial birthright. The speech that made the crew cry out for vengeance against the corporal’s betrayal.”

Reva’s skin tingled as Gulchina traced the designs on her neck. She tensed as the henna chilled her, gripping the edge of the table as goosebumps shot across her arms. Lifting her chin, she did her best to hide her vulnerability.

I think it makes you absolutely insane.

“I don’t think I understood it,” she said, figuring that Gulchina was really just looking for a way to lecture her on it. Better to open the door and move the discussion as far away from herself as possible.

Gulchina’s lip curled up into a sneer. “What about it don’t you understand?”

Crap, Reva thought to herself, her mind racing.

“It’s just—why this talk of a birthright among the unknown stars? What use are those stars if no one lives there?”

“Ah,” said Gulchina, her expression softening somewhat. “Reva, you must learn to expand your vision. What were greatest empires in the legendary history of Earth?”

So it’s a test now, not a lecture, Reva realized with some dismay. Gulchina was always testing her, and she never felt that she quite measured up.

“There were many great empires: the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, British, Americans—”

“And how many of these empires survived?”

Reva frowned. “What do you mean?”

“How many of those empires last to this day?”

The question was nonsensical, considering that the Earth of Legend had long since passed into the realm of myth. Ever since the ancient colonization of Gaia Nova, the location of Earth had been lost, and none had been able to rediscover it. The only evidence that it had even existed was the legendary database the colonists had carried with them, the sum of human knowledge. The histories from that database had been handed down from generation to generation, and Gulchina had collected many of them. It was from those histories that she selected passages for Reva to study.

“We don’t know,” Reva answered. “Earth has been lost to us for thousands of years.”

“Then how many empires survived long enough to reasonably still exist today?”

Is this a trick question? Reva wondered, cold sweat beginning to collect on the back of her neck. She shivered, and not just from the henna drying on her skin.

“None of them.”

“Indeed,” said Gulchina. “It is the first rule of history that every empire must fall. The Earth of Legend was littered with their bones.”

“But what does that have to do with our birthright?”

Gulchina paused in her work to look Reva in the eye. “Do you know what we are?”

“Pirates?” Reva guessed.

“No, Reva, not merely pirates. The ancient Muslims divided the world into two parts: Dar Al-Islam, the lands of submission, and Dar Al-Harb, the lands of war. They inherited this concept from the ancient Romans, who divided the world between civilization and the barbarians. We are the barbarians, Reva—or as the Muslims later called them, the “Hameji.” We are the ones who reject civilization and refuse to submit to their control. And just as the barbarians overthrew Rome and Baghdad in turn, so too shall we tear down the Gaian Empire and lay waste the Coreward Stars.

“But first,” Gulchina continued, her cold eyes aflame, “we must journey into the wilderness, build our strength, and become a mighty people. That is where the birthright comes in.”

She’s crazy, Reva thought to herself. She’s absolutely mad.

Gulchina drew the tip of the brush across Reva’s face, finishing the last details. “If you think that the stars are empty, my dear Reva, you are gravely mistaken. The near ancients realized this when they built their magnificent observatories and telescopes. As they gazed into the vastness of space, they recognized that it was the height of folly to believe that man is alone in the universe.”

“What do you mean?” Reva asked, her voice barely louder than a whisper.

“The human race is not the only intelligent race in the universe. Somewhere out among the unknown stars, there are sentient alien beings possessing intelligence like us. We do not know when or where we will find them, but if we are to claim our birthright, we cannot avoid making contact.”

Chills ran down the back of Reva’s neck. As Gulchina finished the last of the henna tattoos, Reva blinked and took a deep breath. “So our birthright is the stars?”

“Yes, Reva. But not just the stars of settled space—the unknown stars of the Outer Reaches, as well. To inherit the former, we must first conquer the latter. And we cannot conquer the Outer Reaches unless we are united as one. That is why it was necessary to make an example of the corporal.”

The door to her quarters chimed, interrupting the discussion. A scowl crossed Gulchina’s face.

“Who is it?”

“Commander Wolf, sir,” came the voice through the speaker.

“Enter.”

The door hissed open, and Commander Wolf stepped inside. The moment his eyes fell on Reva, he froze where he stood. Reva wondered why he was staring at her, until she remembered that she was unclothed.

“I trust there is a good reason for your interruption, Commander,” Gulchina said, wiping her hands nonchalantly as she rose to her feet.

“Yes, Captain. Ensign Matsuda has returned.”

“Very well. Have him report to the bridge, where I will debrief him at my leisure. Dismissed.”

Commander Wolf saluted and stepped out, though not before indulging himself in another gratuitous glance in Reva’s direction. Reva’s skin prickled.

“I apologize for the interruption,” Gulchina said nonchalantly. “The nature of the commander’s message required… discretion.”

What is she talking about? Reva wondered, though she knew better than to ask.

“I can finish curing the henna on my own,” she offered.

“Very well. I am needed elsewhere.”

With that, Gulchina walked out. Even after she was alone, however, Reva couldn’t help but feel that Gulchina’s cold eyes still followed her.


* * * * *


Isaac leaned against the wall of the maintenance closet, fidgeting nervously as he shifted from one bone-weary foot to the other. Reva hadn’t been here when his shift had ended, and he couldn’t stay much longer without his absence being noted.

The claustrophobic darkness only heightened his anxiety. Had she been caught? Were they both as good as dead? He knew there was no sense worrying about things that were outside his control, but he couldn’t help himself. In some strange way, it gave him comfort to have something to worry about—or someone, for that matter.

Thinking about her was one of the only things keeping him sane. The pirates were sucking the life out of him, and everything from before his capture seemed to have happened in another lifetime. Reva was the bridge between the past and the present, between Isaac and—

The door abruptly opened, activating the closet light. Isaac squinted just in time to catch a glimpse of Reva, her face covered in fresh henna tattoos. Then the door quickly shut, plunging them both into darkness.

Reva wasted no time. She wrapped her arms around Isaac’s waist and pressed her body against his. Her lips were soft and warm, and his legs turn to water as she kissed him.

Does she really mean it? he couldn’t help but wonder as he ran his fingers through her hair. How much of this is real, and how much is just a ruse?

He stopped to take a much-needed breath, but she pulled him right back in. He felt his self-control beginning to slip. The soft and sensuous curves of her body, pressed against his—

“All right,” she said, pulling back abruptly. “We don’t have much time. Here is what you asked for.”

Her hand slipped into his back pocket, placing something there. He felt for it in the darkness, and after fumbling for a few moments, recognized it as a wrist console.

“Where did you get it?” he asked.

“It is mine,” Reva answered. “I told them I lost it, so they gave me another one.”

“Is it clean?” Isaac asked, trying not to think about how intoxicating her scent was. His efforts were largely in vain.

“I think so,” Reva whispered. “I cleared the memory twice and reformatted it.”

Isaac nodded. “That will do.”

“I have to go now. Meet here again in three days.”

Isaac’s heart leaped in his throat as he realized she was about to leave him. He couldn’t let that happen—couldn’t let the emotional whiplash leave him yearning for something more. The hellish cycle of captivity threatened to swallow him up, and he had to break it, had to—

“Someone’s coming,” he heard himself say.

Instantly, Reva was with him again. She threw her arms around his neck and pressed her lips firmly against his.

Something inside him snapped. His hands migrated to her waist almost of their own accord. The blouse of her uniform was untucked—it was a simple matter to hike it up. He splayed his fingers across her smooth, perfect skin, reveling in the contact.

“Isaac?” Reva asked.

He buried his face against her neck and groped downward, slipping his fingers inside her pants. A warm vitality grew within him as he realized that she wasn’t wearing anything underneath. His whole body seemed to throb with anticipation, and in his eagerness he pressed her up against the wall.

“Isaac? Ow!”

This is wrong, he realized. You should stop. But a deep and primal force had taken over, and he was long past the point of reason. There was a hunger within him that demanded to be satisfied, and he could no more deny it than—

“Isaac, stop! STOP!”

Shame flooded over him as he realized what he was doing. He released her at once.

“I’m sorry, Reva, I—”

“I have to go,” she said, groping for the door handle. “Three dayshifts. See you then.”

The door swung open and the light flashed on. In the brief moment before she slipped out, he tried again to apologize, but she was gone before the words escaped his mouth.

Stars of Earth, what have I become?


* * * * *


Reva walked quickly down the empty corridor toward her private quarters, clumsily adjusting her clothes as she did so. She didn’t know what had come over Isaac, but she had no time to think about it now. Gulchina had requested her presence in the cargo hold at 2100 hours sharp, and she was in danger of being late.

Once inside her quarters, she washed her face with cold water and checked her reflection in the mirror. The fresh henna stood out as a yellowish brown against her already dark skin. In time, it would fade and blend into her normal skin tone, but for now, the lines were sharp and distinct.

She checked the time on her new wrist console: 2056. Gulchina was no doubt expecting her—though for what, she had no idea.

Her heart beat a little faster as she hurried out the door. She passed a squad jogging for PT and stepped into the elevator at the end of the main hallway. So this isn’t a shipwide event, she thought to herself. That was good: she didn’t think she could endure another execution.

When the elevator doors opened, her suspicions were confirmed. The cargo hold was empty, except for three other people: Gulchina, Wolf, and an older man that Reva had never seen before. He had a flat nose and a square, clean-shaven face, with dark blue tattoos that stretched from the end of his chin to the top of his forehead. Her eyes widened and fixated on them.

That’s not a design I’ve ever seen before, she realized. And that’s not henna, either.

“Reva,” said Gulchina, acknowledging her with a nod. “Thank you for joining us.”

Reva’s chest clenched as she realized that Gulchina was holding a long, curved sword. It was sheathed in an intricate gold scabbard and embedded with precious gems. The blade was partially withdrawn, revealing black and silver bands: meteoric steel, of the finest quality. Reva recognized it from her uncle’s dabbling in cosmic metallurgy.

“This blade was forged from the heart of a supernova remnant,” Gulchina told her. “It was made using the ancient Earth process for Damascus steel.”

“Is it… sharp?”

“Observe and see.”

Reva’s stomach fell at Gulchina’s non-answer. She looked at the man with the facial tattoos and saw that he had a laser-knife laid out before him. He sat on his heels on a dark red mat, almost fifteen feet across on either side. For clothes, he wore a pure white robe, and apparently little else. The expression on his face was as serious as death, and he barely seemed to notice that anyone else was there.

“Who is he?” Reva asked in a hushed voice.

“This is Ensign Matsuda,” said Gulchina. “He is one of my most loyal and trusted men.”

“Where is he from?”

“From the planet Shinihon, in the New Rigel system. It lies in the Coreward Stars on the opposite side of Gaia Nova.”

He’s a long way from home, Reva thought to herself. Longer even than me.

Ensign Matsuda took a deep breath and sat up straight, with his hands palm-down on his hips. In one smooth motion, Gulchina drew her sword.

Reva’s stomach dropped. “Wha—”

“Silence!” Gulchina hissed. Instantly, Reva fell as quiet as death.

Ensign Matsuda stared, unmoving, at the opposite wall, as if he were deep in meditation. Gulchina stepped onto the mat and stood so that she faced him squarely on his side. Her feet were spread, knees slightly bent, the curved sword pointed at a forty-five degree angle towards the ground. Wolf stood behind her, another silent observer. None of them so much as twitched.

The cargo hold was so still, Reva could hear her every heartbeat. Her hands trembled and her lower lip quivered, but she swallowed hard and forced herself to stay calm.

Slowly, deliberately, Ensign Matsuda retrieved the knife. With a flick of his thumb, he activated it. The laser-enhanced edges of the blades glowed red, humming like a small, hungry animal. He held the blade in front of him, then carefully turned it into a reverse grip.

What is he doing? Reva wondered. Why is he holding it like—

Stars of Earth!

In one quick motion, Ensign Matsuda plunged the knife deep into his belly. His body quivered with the impact, and his face screwed into an awful grimace of pain.

No!

Clenching his teeth, Matsuda leaned into the blade and pulled it horizontally across his stomach. Scarlet blood spread across his pure white robes, and the smell of burning flesh made Reva choke. There could be no doubt—the self-inflicted wound was fatal.

Gulchina raised the sword high over her head and swung it in a smooth arc. It cut cleanly through the ensign’s neck and sent his severed head tumbling onto the mat. Reva’s mouth filled with vomit, and it was all she could do not to spew across the floor.

Stars, the blood! The blood!

Bright red arterial blood spouted from the severed neck like a fountain. It splattered across the mat and ran in rivulets down the pure white robes. The knife slipped from the ensign’s lifeless hands, and his corpse fell forward, spilling blood everywhere. There was so much of it that the air in the cargo hold began to take on a metallic taste.

Reva’s whole body shook in revulsion. She tried to choke down her vomit, but the taste filled her mouth and made her gag. In contrast, Gulchina calmly cleaned the blade of her sword with a rag, sheathing it when she was done.

“I know what you are thinking, Reva, but I am not a murderer.”

“No?” Reva croaked. It was the only word she could manage to force out of her mouth.

“No. The ritual suicide you just observed is an ancient tradition of his people, handed down from the ancient traditions of Earth. It is considered a great and noble act.”

What kind of a savage culture considers that a noble act? Reva wanted to scream.

Gulchina raised an eyebrow. “Does the ensign’s death unsettle you?”

This is a test, Reva realized. Gulchina brought me down here to see how I would react—and if I can’t handle it, I’ll fail.

She took a deep breath and swallowed hard, ignoring the acrid taste of vomit in her mouth.

“No,” she lied. “It merely… surprised me. I have never seen this ritual before.”

Gulchina’s cold eyes narrowed, making Reva shiver. She could tell that her lie had not gone undetected.

“Ensign Matsuda requested that I perform it at my earliest convenience. Long ago, he made a grievous error and brought dishonor upon himself. He would have killed himself then, but I forbade it until now.”

Why? Reva wanted to ask. But she was afraid that she couldn’t take the answer.

“It is done,” Gulchina said abruptly, turning to Wolf. “Recycle the ensign’s body and clean the cargo hold. I want the floor spotless within the hour.”

Wolf saluted. “I hear and obey, Captain.”

Gulchina acknowledged the salute with a nod and left the room, sword still in hand. Reva lingered, staring with morbid fascination at the decapitated corpse that lay before her. The ensign’s head had rolled to face the ceiling, the eyes closed with the mouth hanging open at an unnatural angle. The sight made her gag.

“Don’t get any ideas,” said Wolf. “Know your place, or you’ll end up just like him.”

Reva frowned. “What?”

“Don’t be coy with me, girl. I know how shrewd you are. But I’ll be damned if I let you rob me of what’s rightfully mine.”

“I-I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she stammered, backing away from him. He kept coming at her until she was pressed against the wall, his face merely inches from her own.

“Oh, yes you do.”

For several tense moments, they stared at each other. Then, without warning, Wolf stuck out his tongue and licked her across the cheek. She shuddered and drew back, shielding herself with her hands. But before she could do anything more, he let her go and turned away.

“You’re in over your head,” said Wolf as he walked calmly toward the door. “Don’t even think of trying to turn Gulchina against us.”

The hell? Reva though, wiping his nasty saliva off her face. She didn’t know whether to be disgusted, angry, or terrified. The commander’s threat made no more sense to her than the headless corpse sprawled out on the floor.


Intentions Revealed


Isaac ate his food quickly, staring down at the table so as not to attract attention. The mess hall was almost empty, but the four men in the far corner were not quite absorbed enough in their conversation to let him slip out. Ideally, he would wait for them to leave, but after the grisly scene he’d just cleaned up in the cargo hold, he didn’t know if his nerves could hold out that long.

A body—a headless corpse—dressed in ceremonial robes and lying in a pool of gore. What the hell was going on on this ship? At least they’d made him clean it up before he’d had a chance to eat, rather than after. The scene had made him retch so badly, his stomach was still turning from it.

Not that there was much to the food they gave him. Pure unflavored synthmeal—gray, tasteless, and with the consistency of mucous. Another month, and he’d likely starve on the stuff. He was already malnourished enough that his face had turned pale and gaunt. It made him avoid his reflection as much as possible.

The pirates broke into laughter and slapped each other on the back. One of them started telling a story about a girl he’d ravished in a raid. Isaac tried in vain not to overhear the details. His bowl was only half-empty, but he stood up and brought it to the cleaning racks anyway. None of the pirates noticed him slip out.

As soon as he was out of the mess hall, his hand dropped to the wrist console in his back pocket. That wrist console was perhaps their only chance of getting out of this place alive.

He turned down the next side corridor and walked quickly, his heart beginning to race. At the end of the corridor, a hatch led to the maintenance shaft for the docking bay equipment. It was the only way to get close enough to the outrider shuttles to sync with one without being seen. Isaac was pretty sure he could do it without alerting the ship’s AI, but he didn’t know the network’s architecture well enough to be sure. This was going to take some time.

After glancing behind him to make sure no one was watching, he swung the hatch open and climbed in. The only light in the place came from a single caged bulb on each level, glowing a sickly reddish orange. He ran down the stairs as quietly as he could manage and pushed into the narrow crawlspace on his knees and elbows.

Pipes and conduit ran along the walls on either side of him, some of them corroding. He slid carefully around a section of exposed and fraying wires. At length, he reached the section where he estimated the outriders to be. By pressing his face against the floor in the narrow crawlspace, he managed to reach around to his back pocket and pull out the console.

“Come on, come on,” he whispered as the device cycled out of sleep mode. Footsteps sounded through the bulkheads somewhere above him.

As soon as the console was active, he toggled through a series of menus, looking for the connectivity options. Thankfully, it didn’t automatically connect to the ship’s network—Reva must have had the foresight to turn that functionality off. But the operating system was one that he’d never seen before, and the GUI was counterintuitive and difficult to navigate. All of the options were in the wrong places, and none of the menu options made sense.

Sweat formed on his forehead as he tried to figure out how to work the damn thing. If he was gone much longer, someone was bound to get suspicious. The crawlspace was too narrow to turn around in, and he soon felt as if the walls were closing in.

Taking a deep breath, he paused for a moment to calm himself and try again. This time, things began to fall into place. He found the menu for connectivity and began cycling through the options.

At that moment, the bulkheads began to hum. Isaac ignored it at first, thinking it was just in his head, but the humming soon became too loud for him to ignore. He frowned and looked around him, only to realized that the floor grating was starting to vibrate.

We’re about to make a jump, he realized.

He paused for a few moments to wait it out. Instead of resolving, though, the humming became louder and more intense. The walls of the crawlspace seemed to collapse on him, while paradoxically growing wider at the same time. He closed his eyes, expecting it to end at any moment, but the buildup only became more intense.

Just when he thought he couldn’t possibly handle it anymore, the universe seemed to flip inside out. He gasped, and in a moment of panic thought that he was outside the ship. But when he opened his eyes again, he found himself lying in the crawlspace exactly as before.

That wasn’t a normal jump, he realized. We must have gone almost a light-year. Maybe even farther.

The thought made his heart start to pound. Normal starships never made jumps that big—it was just too dangerous. The farther one tried to travel in a single jump, the harder it was to predict where the ship would actually emerge from jumpspace. And while the likelihood of crashing into a planet or an asteroid or the heart of a star was practically infinitesimal, emerging in a high density region like a nebula or a molecular cloud could cause irreparable damage.

Not if the pirates are using the jump beacon technology they stole from us, Isaac realized. That technology would allow even a large ship like the Temujin to jump from beacon to beacon with hardly any risk. A voyage of months could be reduced to a few days.

Either way, the message was clear: He and Reva had to escape at the earliest opportunity.

“There!” he said, smiling as the wrist console connected with one of the outrider shuttles. He set the device to sync and counted down the percentage points on the loading bar. It took almost a full minute, but completed without any mishap or incident. When it was done, he closed his eyes and sighed in relief.

For all intents and purposes, the wrist console was now a remote control for the outrider. He could issue commands directly through the feeble direct connection, or he could take a risk and connect through the ship’s main network. Since the outriders were armed, he could even order it to undock and attack the Temujin at close range. The possibilities were endless.

There was still much to do. The outrider would be useless for escape until the jump drive was charged. It would take at least half an hour to get the shuttle primed for a short-range jump, and much longer for a proper long one. There was a significant risk that the pirates might detect it while it was charging, but even if they didn’t, he had no idea how he and Reva were going to sneak into the docking bay to make their escape.

But those details could be hashed out later. The outrider was no Medea, but it was their best hope for escape in months.


* * * * *


Reva hesitated outside the door to Gulchina’s personal quarters. The captain had summoned her by private message, which made Reva nervous. Normally, Gulchina sent one of her underlings to fetch her. The fact that Reva was alone was more than a little disconcerting.

Taking a deep breath, she palmed the access panel and stepped through the open door. Gulchina sat in a chair, reading from a tablet. Upon Reva’s entrance, she set the tablet down on the low table and rose to her feet.

“Hello, Reva,” she said in her own language. “Come in.”

Gulchina’s private quarters were unlike any other place on the ship. A stunningly ornate rug covered the floor, its intricate woven design mesmerizing the eye. The table that sat in the center was made from authentic wood and inlaid with mosaic patterns of burgundy, teal, and mother-of-pearl. The wallscreens were set to show planetscapes viewed from the surface, mostly of deserts with ancient ruins jutting out like the bones of long-dead civilizations. The only sign that they were still on a starship was the single porthole on the opposite wall.

The door slid shut with a faint hiss, making Reva flinch.

“You are wondering why I called you here,” Gulchina said, waiting for Reva to take the other chair before resuming her seat across the wooden table. “I have many duties to attend to, so we will not waste time with small talk.”

“Very well,” said Reva.

Gulchina tapped the keypad on the armrest of her chair, and a server bot emerged from an unseen receptacle with two glasses of hot tea. Reva accepted one of the porcelain cups and held it in her lap while Gulchina took a sip from hers.

“In the next twenty-four hours, I will leave the Temujin to oversee an operation several parsecs from here. I am leaving Commander Wolf in command.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I believe you have something to tell me—a secret you have been keeping from me for some time.”

Reva’s heart skipped a beat, and her legs went suddenly numb. “What do you mean?”



“We have already agreed not to waste each other’s time. I advise you not to test my patience.”

Sweat began to pool on the back of Reva’s neck as her mind raced for some excuse. She set her cup down carefully on the table, her hand trembling noticeably. Gulchina eyed her with all the studied patience of a cat waiting to pounce.

“I-I didn’t think you knew.”

“I make it a point to know of everything that happens on my ship.”

“It’s just an innocent fling, I swear. We had a history together, and after you took us captive, our feelings for each other—”

“I’m not talking about your bi-weekly make-out sessions in the fourth deck maintenance closet,” said Gulchina. “That was merely a cover for your true intent.”

Reva’s fear quickly turned to panic. Her clandestine meetings with Isaac, their secret plans to escape—there was nothing Gulchina didn’t know. Corporal Sarnai’s execution and Ensign Matsuda’s ritual suicide flashed across her mind, threatening to break her.

“Are you going to kill me?” she asked softly.

“If you don’t confess, I will be forced to.”

Reva hung her head. “Isaac and I—we were planning to escape.”

Gulchina rose to her feet and began to pace. The wallscreens shifted to display a panoramic deep space starfield. The room dimmed noticeably, with the milky band of the galaxy stretching all around the room.

“It was all my idea though,” Reva said quickly, surprising herself. “I was the one who initiated it. If anyone should be punished, it’s—”

“Ever since I took you on board this ship, I have been testing you,” Gulchina interrupted her. “By now, it must be obvious why.”

“Because you’ve been grooming me as your successor?” Though Reva had always suspected as much, neither of them had openly said it until now.

“Indeed. And I must confess, you’ve performed quite admirably. In only a matter of months, you’ve learned our language and become quite fluent in it. Your insights into history have been incisive, and your observations of the crew have demonstrated a remarkable understanding of the principles of leadership. You have consistently shown yourself to be resourceful, independent, adept, and intelligent.”

But what? What are you trying to get at?

“You have great potential,” Gulchina continued. “If only you had had the ambition to match it.”

“What makes you think I ever wanted any of this?” Reva cried, her heart pounding. “That I wanted to be your—your protégé?” Now that her plot with Isaac had been exposed, she had nothing left to lose. It terrified and invigorated her at the same time to speak so openly.

“Because you are alone in this universe, Reva. You are a stranger, a vagabond. Your people are extinct, their culture and language forgotten. Without me, you are lost.”

“And how can you change any of that?”

Gulchina smiled. “By making you the mother of a great nation.”

She retrieved her tablet from the table and stepped back towards the wall. A holographic projector descended from the ceiling and displayed a three-dimensional starmap in the center of the room, glowing in various shades of blue.

“These are the Coreward Stars,” Gulchina explained, indicating the blue points of light. “Every habitable-zone planet in these systems is somewhere in the process of terraforming. All but a few now belong to the Gaian Empire.”

Her fingers flew over her tablet, and the image zoomed out to reveal several new systems, each of them colored in red. They formed a shell that completely enveloped the Coreward Stars, and outnumbered them by at least ten to one.

“These are the Outworlds,” Gulchina continued. “Some of these stars have been explored, others have not. Some have been settled, others have not. A handful of terraforming projects have been attempted, but few have been successful. Traffic between stars is intermittent, and the only notable alliance is the Outworld Confederacy in the New Pleiades.”

“Why are you showing me this?” Reva asked.

“Because a great shift is about to occur, Reva—the beginning of a new era that will change the fate of humanity forever. The only reason the Outworlds exist is because of the current limitations of jump drive technology. Are you familiar with these limitations?”

“Not really.”

“A jump drive works by transporting a starship instantaneously between two points. However, the exact position of the exit point is impossible to predict with any degree of certainty. We can increase our accuracy by expending more energy, but these energy requirements increase exponentially with the mass of the ship.

“This is why the Outworlds are dominated by single-man starships,” Gulchina explained. “Light freighters are a far more efficient means of long-distance transport than bulk cargo haulers. For the same reason, Outworld settlements tend to be small and widely scattered.”

“Is this where the star wandering tradition comes from?” Reva asked, thinking of Isaac.

“Precisely. Outworld settlements need a regular influx of new blood in order to keep from becoming inbred. Therefore, when the oldest son of each family comes of age, he takes his father’s starship and becomes an itinerant merchant, or star wanderer. Eventually, he settles down and starts a family, and the cycle begins again.”

“But that didn’t happen back home,” Reva mused. “We went for years without a star wanderer coming through, sometimes even decades.”

“And that is why your people perished. Without a connection to the outside, you had nowhere to turn when disaster struck. And because your people were isolated for so long, you developed a language and culture that was alien to most other people.”

Reva tugged at her shirt and nodded. That would explain why everyone thought her lack of a nudity taboo was so strange.

“All of these traditions are about to come to an end,” Gulchina continued. “Within your lifetime, the Outworlds as we know them will cease to exist. The people of the New Pleiades have developed new FTL technology that completely eliminates the advantages of smaller starships, opening the way for a new age of empires.”

Reva frowned. “How?”

“Through the use of jump beacons. These devices create a field that pulls any ship out of jumpspace within a significant fraction of a light-year. By establishing waypoints between stars, a starship of any size can complete the voyage in the same time as a smaller one, without expending excessive amounts of energy.”

“But how will that destroy the Outworlds?”

“Because Outworld culture is merely an outgrowth of the limitations of current technology,” Gulchina explained. “The proliferation of jump beacons will have as much of a civilizing impact as the railroads had on the ancient American frontier. Even if the Confederacy somehow manages to defeat the Gaians, they will have to become an empire to do so. Either way, the Outworlds will cease to exist.”

Reva frowned. “What does that have to do with us?”

“I’m glad you asked that question, Reva. Let me show you exactly what it means.”

Her fingers flew over the tablet, and the holographic projection zoomed out until the stars began to form clouds. The red and blue points shrank until they were tiny, barely more than a blob the size of a fist. As the image zoomed out, the stars and nebulae began to form a structure that Reva recognized as one of the galactic arms.

“These are all the nearby stars that are uninhabited and unexplored. They lie in the outer reaches, beyond settled space. With the past limitations of FTL technology, they were previously inaccessible, but now they lie within our grasp.”

“Our birthright,” Reva whispered.

“Precisely. It has always been the nature of our species to expand, to explore, to conquer new ground. Civilization makes us docile and tame—only then can we be made slaves to tyrants and emperors. But out there, in the outer reaches of space, there are no empires or slaves. Only sheer strength of will.”

Gulchina’s eyes were wilder than Reva had ever seen them. A terrible fire burned within them, like the inferno at the heart of a star.

“How will we get there?” Reva asked.

“There is a star beyond the Outworlds that will serve as our staging ground. It appears in neither the Gaian Imperial Catalog nor the Starfarer Index, but it is rich in the resources we will need. Ensign Matsuda journeyed to this star in an outrider that was small enough to make the voyage alone. Along the way, he set up jump beacons and kept track of their coordinates.”

“Is that why you killed him?”

“I released him from his debt of honor by allowing him to kill himself,” Gulchina answered. “But yes, that was why I selected him for this mission. With his death, I alone know the way to this star.”

“There’s no other way in or out, then?”

Gulchina shook her head. “The voyage would take far too long for most conventional starships, including the most ambitious colony expeditions. But this is only the beginning. From there, we will establish other outposts, other secret starlanes extending to other unexplored star systems, far beyond the bounds of settled space.”

“How do I figure into all of this?” Reva asked, her voice trembling. “What do you want from me?”

Gulchina looked her squarely in the eye. “I want you to take us there, Reva. I want you to be a mother to my men. To them, I may well be a god, but I am not immortal. And my dream will take generations to be realized.”

“Your dream?”

“To found a new nation: a people who live beyond the settled stars. With me as their god and you as their mother, we will raise up a free nation beyond the reach of any empire.”

Reva didn’t know what to say. Her hands still trembled, even though her fear now seemed unfounded. She’d known for a long time that Gulchina had been grooming her for something, but to become the mother of a nation? It sounded insane.

Or was it? Gulchina was right about one thing at least: Reva was a stranger and a vagabond. Ever since she had stepped out of that cryotank, she had struggled to find a place for herself in this strange, lonely universe. To become the mother of a nation—it sounded crazy, but if there was even a chance…

“You are an orphan child of the Outworlds,” said Gulchina, breaking the pensive silence. “You have absolutely nothing to lose.”

“What difference does that make?”

“Because it frees you to pursue that which you truly desire. Tell me, is there anything you want more than a new family and a home? A place where you fully belong?”

She’s right, Reva realized. I want that more than anything.

“I don’t know,” she said. “The things I’ve seen you do, I… I don’t know if I could do that.”

Gulchina tapped her tablet and returned to her chair. The holographic projector switched off, and the lights faded back on.

“We have been over this before, Reva. Corporal Sarnai’s execution was unfortunate, but necessary.”

“But making it into a spectacle—don’t you think that was a little excessive?”

“Nations can only be born in blood, Reva. And if I am cruel, it because the stars themselves are cruel. On a starship such as ours, every duty is of critical importance. A failure at any point could lead to catastrophe, and in the outer reaches of space, there is no one who will come to our rescue. And so I must maintain discipline at all costs.”

“But still—”

“Do you think I took pleasure in his death?” Gulchina asked. “Do you think I enjoyed watching his corpse drift out into the empty void? There may have been an element of spectacle to the execution, but I assure you, Reva, my tears were real.”

“They were?”

Gulchina leaned forward and put a hand on Reva’s knee. At her touch, Reva’s legs went weak, and her hands stopped trembling.

“Yes, Reva. I love my men—all of them. That is why I push them so hard. I want them to become something greater than any of them could be apart.”

“And what about me?” Reva asked, her voice barely louder than a whisper.

“I believe that you are capable of far more than you realize. When I first took you onto this ship, I could see it in your eyes. You may not fully believe in yourself, Reva, but I do. And I am ready to share all that I have with you.”

She means it, Reva realized. She really does.

“You’re not going to punish me for plotting to escape?”

“What would that accomplish? Would it serve to unite the men? No. I hold the power of life and death on this ship, and if I see fit to show you mercy, that is what I shall do.”

Reva took a deep breath. “You really think I can do all this?”

“Yes, I do. The only obstacle in your way is your own self-doubt and fear.”

There’s no turning back, Reva realized. If I say yes, she’ll hold me to it on pain of death. But the things she was offering: A chance to start over. A chance to be great.

A chance to belong.

Reva didn’t know if she was really capable of becoming all that Gulchina expected of her, but she knew that Gulchina wouldn’t punish her for failure if she gave it all that she could.

“What about Isaac?” she asked.

Gulchina shrugged. “My men know nothing about your plot to escape. If you can convince him to stay, then I see no need to punish him.”

“And what will become of him?”

“When you have risen to command of the Temujin, you may do with him as you will.”

Reva’s heart leaped. That was more than she had dared to hope for.

“Thank you, Gulchina. I won’t disappoint you.”

Gulchina smiled. “In time, Reva, I believe you will exceed all of my expectations—and your own, as well.”

They rose to their feet and clasped arms. Through the bulkheads, the ship’s jump drive began to hum.


* * * * *


Where is she? Isaac wondered as he waited in the darkened maintenance closet. She should have been here by now. Did they catch her? If they had, he didn’t know what he’d do.

Three days had passed—three miserable, soul-sucking days of hard labor. The only thing that had kept him going was the hope that soon, he and Reva would be able to make their escape. Without that, he would have given up long ago.

His stomach still churned from the last jump. They happened at regular intervals now: three times a double dayshift, or once every eight hours. Each jump took them farther and farther from safety. If they didn’t leave soon, they might be too far to make it back, even if they did manage to escape.

Footsteps sounded on the floor—Reva’s footsteps. Isaac’s heart skipped a beat. They paused just outside, then the light turned on and the door swung open.

Isaac caught the briefest glimpse of Reva’s face, glancing over her shoulder. The tattoos on her cheek curled into fractal patterns that enhanced her feminine grace. She stepped quickly inside, and the light shut out, leaving them both in darkness.

He took her by the waist and angled his chin to kiss her, but his lips pressed against her bangs, not her mouth. Her body was pressed against his, but she made no move to embrace him.

“Reva?”

She took a deep breath and put a hand on his chest, as if telling him to keep his distance. Isaac’s stomach fell. Was this about his attempt to force himself on her?

“How are you, Isaac?” she asked softly.

“Not well,” he admitted. “I need—I need to get out of here.”

“Gulchina’s men aren’t treating you well?”

“They’re killing me.”

Reva paused. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

Where is she going with this? he wondered. She was acting strangely, and he didn’t know why.

“Yeah, well, in just a couple hours we’ll be out of here,” he said, pulling the wrist console out of his back pocket. “I managed to sync this with one of the outriders, and—”

“I’m so sorry, Isaac. So, so sorry.”

Isaac frowned in the darkness. A deeply uneasy feeling began to grow in his gut.

“Why do you say that, Reva?”

“Because I can’t go through with this. And for your sake, I can’t let you go either.”

Isaac’s blood turned to ice. His stomach felt weak, and for a moment, he felt as if he were about to throw up.

“But Reva—”

“Gulchina’s on to us,” Reva blurted. “She knows everything—our secret meetings, our plans to escape—everything. She pulled me into her quarters and made me confess. And Isaac, if we don’t abandon our plans, she’s going to kill us.”

The news hit Isaac like a blow to the face. He leaned back against the wall and tried in vain to process what he’d just heard.

“But Isaac, I have good news, too. Gulchina is grooming me to be her successor and wants me to take over command of the Temujin. When I do, I can order the men to treat you better. I can—”

“You’re not even going to try?”

“I can’t,” she said. “It—it would be suicide. Besides, if we hold out just a little while longer, Gulchina is going to give us so much more.”

“Us? Or just you?”

“Us, me—what difference does it make? Just a little longer, Isaac. Can you do that for me?”

You’re one of them now, Isaac realized. Tears came to his eyes—bitter tears.

“I saved you, Reva,” he said, his voice trembling. “When my brother and I found you in that cryotank—”

“Shh, someone’s coming!”

Without warning, she pulled him down and pressed her lips against his. The kiss was so unexpected it practically made him gag. Anger and hatred seized him, but the burning sensation of arousal was inevitable and unstoppable. Her lips gravitated to his neck, and she held him in an embrace until the footsteps passed away.

“Gulchina is the only one who knows,” she explained. “For the others, we have to keep up the ruse.”

“Get off of me,” he said, pushing her back. She struck the door a little harder than he had expected and made a loud noise.

“Ow!” she said, clearly hurt.

Panic cut through him as sharp as a knife, followed by the stinging throb of shame. “Sorry,” he muttered, then stopped himself. Why am I apologizing to her when she’s the one who betrayed me?

“It’s all right,” she said. “I’m fine.”

“What about me?” he said, his voice tinged with desperation. “What am I supposed to do? I need to get out of here, Reva, and not just for myself. My brother—”

“I’m sorry, Isaac, but this is the best I can do.”

His jaw trembled, and his legs went weak. His anger passed out of him, leaving him deflated. With his back against the compartment wall, he slowly slid to his knees.

The light in the maintenance closet switched on, blinding him. He squinted in pain, tears spilling out of his eyes, and Reva slipped out as suddenly as she’d come.

Why? he wanted to scream. Why? It was the only thought he had left. All his hopes had betrayed him.


Star’s End


Reva took a deep breath and palmed the access panel for the bridge of the Temujin. As the door slid open, she stood up straight and adopted an impassive expression, much like Captain Gulchina.

I’m not betraying you, Isaac, she told herself. I’ll make it all up to you—I promise.

Gulchina sat in the command chair at the center of the bridge, with most of her senior officers assembled at their stations. Wolf stood by her side, and glanced at Reva as she entered. His eyes narrowed, and the edges of his mouth turned up in the beginnings of a sneer.

“Captain,” he said, “Reva is here.”

“Excellent,” said Gulchina, motioning for her to come forward. Reva took her place on the opposite side of the command chair from Wolf, trying very hard not to acknowledge him. She could feel his angry glare, though.

He knows.

“Captain,” said the ship’s pilot, “our jump drive is fully primed, and the target coordinates for our final destination have been set. We await your orders, sir.”

“Excellent work,” said Gulchina. “Charge weapons and initiate jump.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Why charge weapons?” Reva asked.

“We never know what to expect when arriving in a new system. We must always be prepared.”

Reva frowned. But if this star is uninhabited, who could possibly attack us? Then she remembered what Gulchina had told her about intelligent non-human life. It had sounded insane to her back then, but out here beyond even the Outworlds themselves, it no longer seemed so crazy.

“Plasma cannons charged and hot,” said the weapons officer.

“Coordinates set, beginning jump now,” said the pilot. “Brace yourselves.”

The bulkheads began to hum and vibrate. Reva held her breath and gripped the back of Gulchina’s chair for support. The starfield out the forward window seemed to simultaneously grow larger and farther away as the vertigo of jumpspace seized her. She closed her eyes as the nausea began to grow in her stomach, and the humming grew loud enough to fill her ears. Just when she didn’t think she could take it anymore, everything flipped like a mirror, and the nausea abruptly went away. They were through.

She opened her eyes and saw a glowing yellow crescent filling the forward window. It was a large terrestrial planet, shrouded in a yellowish-orange cloud canopy. As she watched, lightning briefly illuminated wisps of high-altitude clouds on the night side before returning to utter blackness.

“We’re in a gravity well! Repeat, we’re in a gravity well!

“Can you get our position? Stars of Earth!”

“Triangulation failed, searching for new star. Do we have a lock on the system sun?”

“I said, can you get our—”

“There is no cause for panic,” Gulchina said calmly. “The jump beacon for this system is located securely in orbit. We should be in parallel orbit with it.”

The men worked furiously at their consoles. Eventually, the head astrogator looked up.

“You’re right, sir. We’re safely in orbit.”

“Close-range scanners, report,” said Gulchina.

“Nothing on the scanners except the beacon,” the officer reported. “According to the beacon’s telemetry, the supply cache should be on the opposite side of the planet, about a hundred klicks above us.”

“Good. Stand down to alert level four and maintain our current position.”

Gulchina rose to her feet and straightened out her uniform. She nodded to Wolf and faced Reva.

“Now I must depart,” she said in Reva’s language. “Carry on well, and upon my return, thou shalt be richly rewarded.”

What is that supposed to mean?

Gulchina turned to the rest of the bridge. “Excellent work, men. I expected nothing less than the best from you, and it gratifies me to see it.”

The officers sat a little taller at the compliment. All eyes were on her now.

“There are matters with the rest of the fleet that I must see to at once,” she continued. “I will take one of the outriders and return in approximately two weeks, if all goes well.”

“Does this have to do with the Starfire, Captain?” Wolf asked.

“Indeed, it does. When I return, the fleet will be reunited. Until then, you are to wait here and guard the rendezvous point. Understand?”

“Yes, sir,” the officers said with one voice.

“I am leaving Commander Wolf in command,” Gulchina said. “You are to obey his orders as if they came from me. If I do not return, you will not attempt to follow. The route to this system has been expunged from the nav-computer, and the distance to the nearest inhabited star is too great for you to make on your own.”

“Then what are we supposed to do if you fail to return?” one of the officers asked.

Gulchina eyed him for an uncomfortable few seconds. “I will not fail. Understand?”

“Yes, sir,” the men chorused.

“When I return,” she said, sensing their uncertainty, “it will be with the spoils of Aslan’s victory. Our fleet will be strengthened a hundredfold, and we will use this planet as a base to raid every star from here to the Good Hope Nebula.”

Her words elicited a hearty cheer from the men, who clearly preferred raiding and pillaging to guarding a place that no one else knew existed. Amid their cheers, Gulchina stepped out.

Reva turned to Wolf, who eyed her contemptuously. She smiled and gave him a nod, but his expression did not change.

“What is the name of this place?” she asked.

“Star’s End.”

An ominous name.

She opened her mouth to speak, but the coldness in his eyes sent shivers down her spine. Instead, she decided that the best thing to do was leave.

It was almost as if he knew exactly what she and Gulchina had been talking about.


* * * * *


Isaac woke from sleep to find rough hands dragging him from his bunk. His eyes jolted open and he struggled to break free, but their grip was too strong for him. A blow struck him in the cheek, stunning him as he gradually came to his senses.

“Who’s that?” he screamed. “What’s going on?”

For an answer he received another blow, this one to his side. He gasped for breath and tried to nurse the wound, but the edge of a boot struck him in his back, sending pain across his side.

“Ow!” he cried.

Blow after blow rained down on him, some with fists, others with boots, and still others with what felt like rods or batons. He screamed and curled up into a ball, his heart racing so fast he felt as if he were choking.

Everything was a blur, and the only thing he could perceive with any sharpness was the pain. It was the pain that told him that this was real, that he was awake—though why the pirates were beating him, he had no idea.

“Stop!” he begged. “Please, stop!”

After a few more blows, hands took him by the arms and pulled him to his feet. He was too weak to stand, so they dragged him through the heavy-grated door of his cell.

“Strip him down,” someone ordered.

“What?” Isaac cried. “Please, I—”

A hard slap to the face made his head spin. The hum of a laser-knife sounded near his collar, followed by the smell of something burning. He held still, his body trembling with terror, and the hands ripped off his clothes, leaving him naked.

“Wrists on the bulkheads.”

Panic filled Isaac’s veins with adrenaline, giving him renewed strength. He had no idea what was happening, but he knew that he had to get out before these people hurt him. As they lifted his hands up in the air, he squirmed out of their grasp and broke free.

“Bastard! Stop him!”

Run! Isaac told himself, forcing his groggy legs to move. He made it only a few steps, however, before a sharp electric sizzle and the crack of a whip sent him to the floor.

For a split second, he lay stunned, his body unresponsive. Then the pain filled his senses—pain unlike anything he’d ever felt before. It was as if every nerve across the small of his back had simultaneously caught fire. He gasped and opened his mouth, but could not scream. All he could do was surrender to the agony and hope that it all passed soon.

Before it did, hands grabbed him again and pulled him to his feet. They fastened his wrists into shackles and dragged him above the floor.

“Stupid bastard,” someone said. “Where are you going to run? Who’s going to save you now?”

Reva, Isaac thought as the men began to laugh. He closed his eyes and forced his panicked mind to think. Where was she? Had she sold him out? Was this the final act of her betrayal?

The whip cracked again, lashing against his side this time. His back arched, and the muscles in his arms and legs went tight.

“Aeeiii!” he screamed. The whip cracked and lashed him again.


* * * * *


Reva checked her wrist console and frowned. Barely a few hours had passed since Gulchina had left, and Commander Wolf was already asserting his authority. His message was terse and direct; he had summoned her to the cargo hold. Exactly what for, he didn’t say.

That man is going to be a problem, Reva thought as she dropped her wrist console on the side table and lay back on her cot. She was alone in her quarters, and therefore free to be unclothed. Did Wolf know that? Was this a deliberate attempt to off-balance her? She knew that he saw her as a threat to his ambitions, and perhaps rightly so. With Gulchina gone, she would have to tread carefully and watch her back.

At length, she rose to her feet and withdrew her uniform from the closet compartment. She hated the feel of the synthetic fabric against her skin, but put it on anyway, ignoring her discomfort. If this was indeed a ploy to upset her, Wolf would soon learn that it would take more than that.

His choice of location disturbed her, however. The last time she’d been summoned to the cargo hold, Ensign Matsuda had committed his ritual suicide. And before that had been the execution of Corporal Sarnai.

Just to be safe, she used her console to check the ship’s roster. Everyone was on duty, exactly as scheduled. Whatever Wolf had planned for her, it was planned for her alone.

Should I take a weapon? Reva wondered. Even if she should, Gulchina hadn’t issued her one, and Reva doubted the armory would open for her. For all the freedom that Gulchina had given her, she was still a captive.

He wouldn’t kill me outright, she told herself. If he did, Gulchina would skin him alive when she returns. The realization calmed her somewhat, but not enough to set her at ease.

When she finished dressing herself, she took a moment to look in the mirror. The tattoos on her face and hands were still dark and fresh, a testament to the quality of Gulchina’s work. It looked odd to have the majority of the tattoos covered by the bland dark-blue fabric of her clothes, but that was how it had to be. She adjusted her belt to rest loosely on her hips and left for the cargo hold.

As she stepped into the elevator, she received another message from Wolf via her wrist console. It was even more terse than before, ordering her to come at once. She chose to ignore it.

The elevator reached the level of the cargo hold, and the doors swung open. Reva stepped into the main bay and froze.

Three men were present: Wolf and two armed guards. They were large, thuggish men that Reva did not recognize. One of them carried an assault rifle, while the other held a shock prod. A drone bot hovered in the corner, no doubt recording everything.

But the sight that made Reva’s blood run cold was the scene in the airlock. Isaac hung from his wrists, his jaw slack and his head dangling over his chest. His eyes were open, but his body was limp, and there were bright red welts and streaks of blood across his skin. He was naked, just like Corporal Sarnai before his execution.

“Ah, Reva,” said Wolf. “I see you did receive my summons after all. I was just about to send my men to collect you.”

“What is this?” Reva asked, her voice low and tense.

“This man, a one-time colleague of yours, was found plotting to escape. As you well know, the punishment for such an act is death. Normally, the execution would be carried out in full view of the crew, but since you are the only one on the ship who has any connection with him, I have decided to proceed with more… discretion in this case.”

What is your game, you sick bastard? Reva wondered frantically. Behind the glass, Isaac lifted his head and began to stir.

“Is that all?” she asked, clenching her fists.

“No, it is not,” said Wolf. He stepped forward, his small dark eyes never leaving hers. “During our interrogation of the prisoner, he implicated you as an accessory. Based on his confession, we believe that you were planning to escape together.”

Sweat began to form on the back of Reva’s neck. “That’s a lie.”

“You deny it, then?”

“Gulchina and I have already discussed this matter and have come to… an understanding. If you kill me with him, you will have to answer to her.”

“Your threats do not intimidate me,” said Wolf, standing less than a hand’s breadth away from her. “But if you wish to prove your innocence, then do it by carrying out the execution yourself.”

Reva’s gut clenched, and her heart leaped in her throat. She glanced at Isaac, who was fully awake now and struggling against the shackles in spite of his wounds. There was fear and desperation in his eyes, and a deep sense of hurt as well.

He thinks that I betrayed him, Reva realized. Maybe he’s right.

“Gulchina and I have already discussed this,” she said. “We should wait until—”

“Captain Gulchina has left me in full command, and I see no reason to wait for her to return.”

“But—you can’t kill him.”

Wolf raised an eyebrow. “Why not?”

“Because…” Reva said, her mind racing. “Because he’s a valuable bargaining chip.”

“We need no bargaining chips in our dealings with the Outworld Confederacy. When Gulchina returns with the Starfire, our forces will be unstoppable. Why, then, should I save this pitiful excuse for a man?”

“Please,” Reva pleaded. “Please, don’t kill him.”

“I’m not going to kill him. You are.”

He took her by the arm and dragged her to the control board just to the side of the airlock. On the other side of the glass, Isaac’s eyes went wide.

“This is the switch to release the shackles, and these are the controls to operate the airlock. You will release the prisoner and vent him into space, or we will drag you in there to die with him.”

“You wouldn’t dare!”

“I don’t know what sort of arrangement you worked out with the captain,” Wolf said, “but she left command to me.”

“It’s still her ship!”

He drew a pistol from the holster at his waist and jabbed it into Reva’s side. “Do you think that I’m bluffing? Go ahead, try me.”

Reva gripped the edges of the control panel and drew a sharp breath. As she stared at Isaac, images from the execution flashed before her mind. The corporal, weak and filled with terror. The rabid chanting of the crew. The body, floating out into the eternal void of space.

“Well?”

“You haven’t given the prisoner a chance to save his honor,” she said, her voice surprisingly calm. “I can’t reasonably execute him until you do.”

Wolf frowned. “What are you talking about?”

“Whenever Gulchina conducts an execution, she gives the condemned prisoner a chance to take his own life first. That’s what the shackles are for. She places the gun on the floor, releases the shackles, and gives him a chance to redeem his honor.”

“She’s right, sir,” one of the guards said.

Wolf scowled. “This is not a formal execution.”

“But you are conducting it in your capacity as captain,” said Reva. “And I assume that bot is meant to record it for her. What will she say when she reviews what you’ve done?”

Wolf’s grip on her arm tensed. For a moment, she wondered if he’d kill her for speaking out of turn. Instead, he released her.

“Give the whore an energy pistol,” he ordered the guard on his right.

The man stepped forward and withdrew a small gun from the holster at his side. He flicked a switch and flipped it expertly in his hand, extending it grip-first to Reva. It hummed as she took it from him.

“It’s charged for a single shot,” said the guard. “That’s all he needs.”

Not if I have anything to do with it.

She turned to Wolf. “Did Gulchina put you up to this? Is this her final test?”

“Give the prisoner the gun.”

“I demand to know. Are you doing this under her orders, or are you acting on your own?”

He leveled his pistol at her. “Do it!”

Reva took a moment to glare at him before turning and walking to the airlock. His weapon still in hand, Wolf keyed the control panel, and the transparent door slid open.

“Reva!” Isaac cried. “Reva, what’s going on?”

“I’m sorry,” she said, loud enough that Wolf could hear. Her thumb flicked over the switch on the energy pistol, and it hummed as it rose to full charge.

Isaac’s eyes widened. “Reva? Please, I—”

“Are you ready to go?” she whispered as she knelt to place the gun at his feet. Her eyes never left his.

He stared at her a moment, then gave her a knowing nod. “Yes,” he said softly.

“Then I’m ready, too.”

She rose to her feet and returned to the control panel. Wolf stepped aside as the door slid shut.

“There,” he said. “Now vent him.”

Reva’s hands shook, and her knees felt weak. She glanced at Wolf, who jabbed the gun into her side, and at the two guards who flanked him on either side. She felt as if she were going to throw up.

“Do it.”

She turned to the airlock and carefully flipped the switch. The shackles opened, releasing Isaac from his bonds. He fell to his knees and stayed there for a moment before rising with the pistol in his hands.

“You have five seconds,” said Wolf. “One. Two…”

Isaac gripped the gun with both hands and nodded at her. Her heart hammered.

“Three—”

Her hand flew across the control panel and opened the airlock door—not the one facing out into space, but the one that faced the cargo hold. The moment it slid open, Isaac raised his pistol and started firing.

The next few moments passed in a blur. Reva spun and grabbed Wolf’s arm, pushing his gun aside. It discharged in the struggle, but somehow she managed to pull him back and slam him against the control panel. The shots from Isaac’s energy pistol sizzled off to her side. She pulled Wolf’s arm behind him and frantically grabbed for his gun.

“Bitch!” he screamed, thrashing out against her.

The pistol fell to the ground, and the nearest guard dropped to his knee. As he leveled his rifle at Isaac, Reva kicked him with all her strength. Wolf threw a punch at her, but she ducked. The air sizzled and flashed as a shot passed only inches from her face.

“Watch out!” Isaac shouted.

The other guard was down, and the smell of burning flesh told her that he was dead. Isaac ran forward, screaming as he fired, but the other guard tackled him to the floor. At the same time, Wolf lunged for the gun.

Thinking quickly, Reva scooped up the guard’s assault rifle. She turned on Wolf just as he turned on her, but her finger was faster on the trigger. The rifle bucked and recoiled in her grip, and she dropped it after just a couple rounds.

That was enough, though.

Wolf landed against the wall and looked down at his chest, now gushing blood through a hole the size of Reva’s fist. His eyes rolled back, and he slumped to the floor.

“Reva!”

Isaac and the second guard were struggling for the energy pistol. With Isaac sprawled helpless on the floor, Reva picked up the rifle and took careful aim. She fired, and the guard fell off to one side, his body twitching.

“Stars of Holy Earth,” she said, her heart racing. The stench of burning flesh filled the cargo hold, and blood started to pool beneath the bodies of the three men.

“Are you all right?” said Isaac. He tried to stand up, but fell down again, clearly hurt.

“I’m fine,” she said, dropping the rifle as she rushed to his side. “How about you?”

“Just weak from the torture, that’s all. Stars, it hurts.”

“I’ll get you out of here,” she said, pulling his arm over her shoulder. As they both stood, the drone bot sped out of the room. Moments later, an alarm began to sound.

“Uh-oh.”

“Do you have the wrist console?” Isaac asked.

“The one I gave you?”

“Any console.”

She took hers off and gave it to him. “Is the ship ready? Can we leave?”

“I think I remember the codes,” he muttered as he accessed it with one hand. “Just give me a minute.”

“We can’t stay here,” she said. “The others will be here any moment.”

“Then use the maintenance shaft to get us to the shuttle bay. I’ll have the outrider ready when we get there.”

Strength born of adrenaline flowed through her arms and legs. She picked up the rifle and half-led, half-carried Isaac away from the grisly scene. Whatever Gulchina had promised her, there was only one path left to them now.


Contact Unawares


Isaac stumbled with Reva through the maintenance corridor as quickly as his battered body could manage. The floor grating cut his bare feet, and the cool air from the cargo bay nipped at his skin, but none of that mattered. All that mattered was getting to the outrider shuttle before the pirates cut them off. At best, they only had minutes, and at worst, they were already dead.

He leaned on Reva’s shoulder as he toggled through the menus on her wrist console with his free hand. The outriders were small boarding vessels and designed to launch quickly, so if he could—

There. The codes took, and the passwords cleared. The wrist console was synced.

“We’ve gotta move,” he said. The console was connected though the ship’s network, which meant that anyone could see what they were doing.

“I’m moving, I’m moving,” Reva snapped at him.

Before Isaac could answer, shouts sounded behind them. Reva broke into a run, and Isaac limped alongside her as well as he could. Somehow, they managed to get through the door without tripping. The moment it shut, Reva fired a round into the access panel.

“That won’t hold them for long.”

“Long enough,” she muttered. “Which way to the shuttles?”

They were in one of the side corridors just off of the main one. It was risky, but speed was more important than stealth.

“Up a level,” he said. “The combat suiting rooms should be just above us.”

Reva led him to the nearest emergency stairwell and let go to open the hatch. Isaac leaned against the wall for support, but there was enough adrenaline in his system that he hardly felt any of his wounds. While Reva opened the hatch, he used her console to begin the launch sequence and warm up the outrider’s jump drive.

Twenty minutes, he told himself. That’s all we need to charge the drive.

“Go!” Reva shouted. Together, they dashed up the stairs. When they reached the hatch, they both threw their weight against it, so it swung open almost immediately.

There were two men in the corridor outside the stairwell. Reva blew them away without a moment’s hesitation. The crack of gunfire resounded loudly in the narrow space, making Isaac cover his ears. He was so on-edge, he almost ran back the way they’d come.

“Quick!” Reva shouted. “Which way?”

He took a moment to regain his bearings, then pointed past the twitching body of one of the men.

“There, through that door.”

Reva grabbed his arm and took off, pointing the gun ahead of her. Shouts sounded off to their right just as they passed through the door. They ran through the suiting room, Isaac stumbling as best as he could, and made it to the launch bay.

“Which one?” Reva asked breathlessly.

A long walkway with identical docking nodes on either side stretched out in front of them. The only markings were the numbers stenciled on each airlock door, with no other way to tell which outriders were docked where. Isaac cycled frantically through the menus on the wrist console.

“Number seven,” he said. “But—”

Shouts and heavy footsteps sounded in the fitting room. Reva grabbed him and dove into the shallow inset of the nearest docking node. With Isaac pressed up against the door—shuttle number three—she fired in the direction of the oncoming pirates.

“Which one?” she asked again. The air around them sizzled as the pirates returned fire.

“Opposite side, two doors down,” said Isaac.

She raised the gun to fire again, but it only made a hollow clicking sound. Her eyes widened and her face fell.

“Shit. I’m out.”

The pirates ceased their fire. Moments later, a canister hit the floor and rolled a short distance away from them. A dark green gas began to issue from it, quickly spreading across the narrow space.

“Let’s move!” Isaac shouted.

He pushed off the wall and sprinted for the number seven airlock, holding his breath as he did. Reva covered her mouth and followed him. It took a moment to open the airlock, but as soon as they did, they stumbled inside and quickly palmed it shut. Only then did they gasp for breath.

“Quick,” said Reva. “The cockpit.”

Isaac nodded and opened the inner airlock door that led to the interior of the shuttle. Fold-down seats lined the walls, enough for almost twenty shock troops. There were a few compartments near the ceiling and floors, with weapon racks designed to collapse into the ceiling. No time to check for supplies—he dashed into the cockpit and sat down in the pilot’s chair.

The smooth, synthetic fabric clung to his bare skin. The air in the outrider was cool enough to give him shivers, but he ignored that as he surveyed the ship’s controls. Everything seemed to be in an unfamiliar and completely unintuitive place. Fortunately, the screens and indicators showed that the systems were all powered up and ready to go.

Reva dropped the gun on the floor and took the copilot’s seat next to him. “What’s the matter? Can’t you fly this thing?”

“Just a second,” said Isaac. If the stick was there, and the throttle was to his right…

“We don’t have a second, Isaac! When the pirates find out where we’ve—”

“Strap in.”

Without waiting for her to do so, he grasped one of the handles above him and pulled. The docking clamps popped, and the floor shuddered. Reva grabbed her armrests for support while the bay doors irised open, revealing a black starfield outside the cockpit window.

Moments later, an invisible hand pushed them both against their seats as the magnetic rails shot them out of the bay. Isaac strapped himself in and gripped the flight stick, with the throttle in his other hand.

I’m free, he told himself. I’m finally free. With the controls of a starship firmly in his hands, he felt more alive than he had in months.

An explosion rocked the ship, reverberating through the bulkheads and nearly sending Reva to the floor. She cried out in shock as alarms began to sound.

“What’s going on? What are you doing?”

“Strap in,” Isaac repeated. This time, she obeyed. The moment she was in, he threw the ship into a barrel roll and dove hard to the right. The yellow haze of the planet filled the window, spinning wildly with the stars. Through the bulkheads behind them, the engines roared to life.

Seventeen minutes, he thought, reading the charge time on the reactor. We’re not going to make it.

“They’re shooting at us!” Reva screamed as a bright burst of plasma arced past them toward the planet below. “They’re trying to kill us!”

“I know. Hang on!”

Isaac pulled back on the stick—hard. His vision blacked out for a moment as the blood rushed out of his head. By tensing his legs and breathing in short bursts, he was able to keep from losing consciousness.

The Temujin was in front of them now, guns blazing as a swarm of fighter drones deployed. That was bad—very bad. Isaac made a hard left and buzzed the bridge, taking fire from one of the laser stars. Thankfully, the outrider’s armor seemed to absorb the worst of it.

“What the hell are you doing?

“Throwing them off,” Isaac answered. He nosed down and threw the outrider into a dive.

This time, his vision turned crimson as the blood rushed up to his head. Reva made a sound between a gasp and a croak. He closed his eyes and counted to five, the roar of the engine filling his ears. When he opened them, the thick yellow clouds of the planet filled their view.

“Pull up!” Reva shouted. “You’re going to crash!”

“It’s the only way to avoid those drones,” Isaac answered. “Can you get our countermeasures online?”

“Our what?”

He scanned the instrument panel, looking for the controls to the outrider’s laser star. An explosion in the rear of the ship told him he was too late.

“Dammit,” he swore. “Those drones are going to tear us apart!”

“What are we going to do?”

He checked the jump drive. Fifteen minutes.

Flames began to lick the sides of the window—the flames of atmospheric reentry. The drones increased their fire, rocking the ship with each shot. Alarms blared across the ship, and the display panels went red.

“We’re crashing!” Reva shouted.

It’s too late, Isaac realized. The ship is gone.

He unstrapped himself from his chair and stood up, grabbing a ceiling handhold to steady himself. Reva looked at him as if he were crazy.

“The escape pods,” he told her. “Hurry!”

She threw off her seat restraints and followed him out of the cockpit. An explosion sent her reeling to the floor.

“Are you okay?” Isaac asked, helping her to her feet.

She nodded and climbed up, using one of the wall handholds for support.

The roar of the engines turned to a high-pitched whine, and the floor tilted as the ship began to spin. Isaac looked frantically for the escape pods and found the chute just to his right.

“Get in!” he shouted. The torque grew stronger, making him strain to hold on.

Reva pulled herself over to the chute and hesitated. “What about—”

He kicked her, and she fell in headfirst with a scream. A popping sound told him the pod had detached.

The whine of the engines reached a climax, and the acrid smell of smoke filled the ship. Isaac threw himself into the chute just as the cabin burst into flames. Somewhere behind him, he heard the howl of an explosive decompression, but then he landed securely in the escape pod. The hatch behind him closed shut, and with a loud and forceful pop, he shot away.


* * * * *


Is this the end? Reva wondered as she gripped the controls and stared into the tiny little screen that was her only connection with the outside universe.

The pod was tight, with barely room enough for her to lift her elbows. The foam siding on the walls and floor had conformed to the shape of her body almost the instant she’d fallen inside, leaving just a little space by her head near the controls. She was spinning fast enough to black out, and all her efforts to right the tiny pod only seemed to make it worse.

Everything had passed in such a blur that she felt as if she were trapped in a dream—or perhaps a nightmare. Isaac, tortured and beaten, hanging by his wrists in the execution airlock. Commander Wolf and the two guards lying dead in pools of their own blood. Alarms on the outrider screaming as they were shot out of the sky. And now this.

Her head drooped and her arms went limp. Somewhere far away, she heard Isaac’s voice. The spinning gradually slowed, and her ears began to buzz. She slowly came back to herself, fighting back the dizziness to come back awake.

“Reva? Are you there? Reva, can you hear me?”

She fumbled for the comm system and turned it on. “I’m here, Isaac. Are you all right?”

“Fine, Reva, just fine. I need you to do a couple of things for me before we make planetfall.”

On the monitor, everything was an orange blur. The sides of the escape pod were growing rapidly hot, and the buzz in her ears gave way to a growing roar.

“Is your parachute activated, Reva? Can you check that for me?”

“I don’t know,” she said. More than anything else, she wanted to close her eyes and sleep.

“Stay with me, Reva. You can do this.”

“All right,” she said, taking a deep breath. “What do I do?”

“Check your systems menu—and hurry.”

She cycled through the menus and found what appeared to be a checklist. The bullet point labeled EMERGENCY PARACHUTE DEPLOY was listed as green.

“I’ve found it,” she said. “It’s on.”

“Excellent. Is your distress beacon activated?”

The bulkheads began to shake as she scrolled down the list.

“Yes.”

“Deactivate it. We don’t want the pirates following us.”

The pod was definitely falling through atmosphere, and there was nothing she could do to control it. Still, she fought back the panic and did as Isaac had told her.

“What’s going on, Isaac? Am I going to die?”

“You’re going to be fine, Reva. We both are. Is the distress beacon off?”

She swallowed and gripped her controls. “Yes.”

“Good. Now, the next part is very important. In the next few seconds, you’re going to crash.”

Sweat ran across her forehead and pooled in her elbows and neck. The pod was heating up so much, she was sure she was going to die.

“Don’t panic. Your pod’s autopilot will take care of everything.”

“Where are you?”

“I’m coming in right behind you, Reva. We’re going down in a rocky desert, in what appears to be a large canyon.”

She closed her eyes and tried very hard not to panic.

“Whatever you do, Reva, do not open your hatch unless the onboard computer tells you the air outside is breathable. Do you understand me?”

“Yes.”

“When you land, what are you going to do?”

“I’m going to—”

A sharp puff sounded behind her, followed by a message that flashed red across her display: PARACHUTE DEPLOYED. Moments later, the interior of the pod filled up with a sticky foam. Reva barely had time to gasp before she was entirely encased in the stuff, which hardened almost instantly. She tried to scream, but with her whole body encased, she could only squeal.

It soon became apparent why the pod had filled with foam. A powerful force yanked the capsule backward, throwing Reva forward so hard that her guts were almost squeezed up through her throat. Impact came a moment later, the shock reverberating through her bones like a blow from the hammer of a god. Her teeth chattered, and she fought back the urge to vomit as the pod hit a second time, then rolled end over end before coming to an abrupt and bone-chilling stop.

As quickly as the foam had hardened, it turned mushy and began to recede. It had a sickly sweet smell to it, and covered her so thoroughly that every inch of her body was soaked. She coughed, then gagged, then vomited all over the monitor and controls.

I have to get out of here, she thought, grasping frantically for some way out. If I stay, I’m going to die!

She found a lever somewhere above her and pulled it. The hatch blew off, revealing a hazy yellow sky. She climbed out of her would-be coffin and stumbled out onto the rocky earth, sand blowing in her eyes and noxious sulfur fumes filling her nose.

She no sooner took her first breath of the thick, yellow air than her lungs began to burn. She coughed to get it out, but it only grew worse. Isaac’s words came forcefully to her mind, and she realized that she’d made a terrible mistake.

Thrashing about wildly with her arms, she stumbled back to the pod, where the soupy pink foam residue spilled out of the open hatch. She searched in vain for some kind of mask or oxygen tank before falling on her face. Her limbs went weak, and every muscle in her body seemed to burn.

At that moment, she saw Isaac scrambling over the nearest ridge. He was still naked, but his face was covered in a mask, and he carried a small oxygen tank in his hand. She didn’t know how long it took him to get to her, but when the mask was pressed to her mouth and her lungs filled with blessedly clean air, she felt as if life itself had been breathed back into her.

The next few moments passed in a blur. Isaac carried her away from the sticky pink mess of the crashed pod, alternating the mask between the two of them. A short while later, she heard an explosion. It was impossible to tell where it had come from.

They climbed down the rocky ridge to a gully, where a natural cave had formed. Here, the winds weren’t nearly so powerful. The air was cooler too, and moist. They climbed in far enough that the entrance was just a light in the distance and sat down.

Isaac laid her gently on the ground, which felt surprisingly cool. “Are you all right?” he asked.

She took a breath without the mask and found that the air in the cave didn’t burn her at all. In fact, it was almost soothing.

“I think so,” she said, coughing some more. She reached for the mask, but Isaac kept it from her.

“We need to conserve as much as we can,” he explained. “The atmosphere on this planet has enough oxygen to be breathable, but that sulfurous haze is dangerously thick. Without oxygen, we can’t go out.”

“How long have you been here?” she asked.

“I landed only seconds after you.”

She rolled onto her side and coughed until her lungs felt clear and the burning stopped. Isaac rubbed her back, helping her to recover her strength.

“What is this place?”

“I don’t know,” he answered. “And unfortunately, we don’t have much in the way of supplies. All I could grab was a medkit, a couple of meal bars, a glowlamp, and the oxygen mask.”

He activated the glowlamp, giving them just enough light to see by. Only then did Reva see that his feet were cut and bleeding, no doubt from the rocky canyon floor.

“Stars,” she said. “Are you all right?”

“I’ll be fine,” he said, wincing a little as he lifted his foot. “There’s some fast-acting healant in the medkit that should work.”

“Here, let me get it for you.”

She opened the box and pulled out a tube of the stuff. After squeezing a generous helping into the palm of her left hand, she applied it liberally to both of his feet. He clenched his teeth and winced, but his face soon relaxed as the healant did its work.

In the moment of relative calm as she tended to his wounds, she had the oddest sensation. Nothing around her really changed at all, but she suddenly felt alive with the realization of her own consciousness. It was as if her whole life up until that moment had been a dream, and she’d suddenly woken from it. An awareness of her surroundings filled her: the smooth, muddy earth; the cool, wet air; the stalactites and stalagmites casting shadows just beyond her field of vision; and Isaac sitting wounded and naked in front of her.

“How does that feel?” she asked.

“Better.”

He carefully crossed his legs and folded his arms over his lap. From the blush in his cheeks, it was clear that he was embarrassed to be naked.

Wait a minute, she thought to herself. Why am I the only one wearing clothes? The collar around her neck began to feel suffocating, her sweat-stained uniform heavy and oppressive. She couldn’t bear wearing them for a moment longer.

“Uh… Reva?”

Her fingers flew across the buttons of her uniform, nearly ripping them out in her haste to undo them. She pulled the blouse over her head and threw it on the ground.

“What are you doing, Reva?”

“Damned clothes,” she muttered. “If you’re not wearing any, then why should I?”

“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea. The cold—”

“To hell with it.”

She stood up and dropped her pants, nearly tripping over them as they caught on her boots. Swearing again, she bent over and unclasped them, pulling her feet free. With all of her clothes gone, she lifted her arms and arched her back in a glorious stretch.

After the harrowing events of the last few minutes, it felt tremendously liberating to be back in the nude. The tension and stress began to ease out of her, and in spite of the futility of their situation, she felt more relaxed than she had in a long time.

Strangely, Isaac seemed even more tense than before.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” he said quickly. “Let’s go.”

Reva frowned. “But what about your feet? Don’t you need to—”

“I’ll be fine.”

He stood up and gathered their supplies, walking some distance before waiting for her to catch up.

“Where are we going?” she asked as she hurried after him.

“Who knows? Down, I guess.”

Her gut clenched as she realized that there was nowhere else left for them to go. The outrider was gone, and they were stranded alone on this desolate alien world. Their only hope for rescue was the pirates, but it was far more likely that they would just leave the two of them to die. They had some supplies, but not enough to last more than a few days.

There was a very real chance that this cave would be their tomb.


* * * * *


Isaac’s cheeks burned as he walked hurriedly down the tunnel of the cave. His feet still hurt, but the cuts were mostly shallow and the healant had sealed them up quite well. Besides, the floor was mostly mud and clay, much easier on his feet than the sharp rocks of the canyon outside.

“Hey,” Reva called after him. “Wait up!”

He slowed his pace somewhat but kept moving. Up ahead, the tunnel narrowed.

“I said, wait!”

There was a sharpness in her voice that made him stop in spite of himself. They were far enough from the entrance now that the glowlamp was the only significant light source.

“What’s the matter, Isaac?” Reva asked as she caught up. “Tell me.”

“It’s nothing,” he muttered.

“That’s not true. Why are you acting so strange? We need to stay together.”

He said nothing.

“Isaac? Look at me, Isaac.”

That was exactly the thing that he didn’t want to do. It was bad enough that he was naked, but the two of them? He—

Isaac!

He took a deep breath and turned to face her, carefully averting his eyes. Of course, she made no move to cover herself, which made it all the more awkward.

“What?” he asked.

“Are you all right? What’s the matter?”

“It’s nothing,” he repeated. “Now can we keep moving?”

“Is it this?” she asked, motioning to her naked breasts. “Is that what’s bothering you?”

“We should keep moving,” he muttered, turning to stare at the cave wall.

“What’s the matter with you people?” she asked, her voice rising. “The least bit of skin, and everyone gets all weird. Is there really that much body shame in your culture? Or are you all just pervy?”

His hands began to shake as he remembered their meeting in the maintenance closet where he had nearly forced himself on her. He didn’t answer her, but instead picked up the supplies and kept moving.

“Oh, so now you’re going to turn your back on me? That’s just great. I only saved your life.”

“You call this saving my life? We’re going to die here, you know.”

“No thanks to you. What kind of an escape was that?”

He clenched his fists. “It was the best I could do, given the circumstances.”

“Yeah, well, if you had just laid low and not gotten caught, Gulchina would have named me her successor, and I could have freed you.”

“Sorry to ruin your ambitions!”

He stormed off deeper into the cavern, away from the entrance, which was now little more than a distant light. After rounding a corner and ducking beneath a large overhang, it was no longer in view at all.

“Wait up,” Reva called after him. “You’re leaving me in the dark.”

Isaac said nothing, but slowed enough that she could catch up. They walked in uneasy silence for some time, passing through one small cavern to the next.

“I’m sorry,” she said at length. “I shouldn’t have lashed out at you like that. I was just angry, and scared, and frustrated. Aren’t you?”

Isaac sighed. “Whatever.”

“Is there anything I can do to make it better? I didn’t mean to—”

“I honestly don’t care anymore.”

They pressed on, passing stalactites and stalagmites dripping in the cool cave air. It wasn’t quite chilly enough to make him shiver, but he wouldn’t be surprised if the cold got to them before the hunger did. Moving seemed to help, so he pressed on, passing from one small cavern to the next.

“Is that running water?” she asked.

“Where?”

She pointed down a shallow slope, past some round-tipped rock formations and a series of circular pools.

“There.”

He handed her the glowlamp and stepped carefully, minding his tender feet. She held it aloft and followed close behind him, reaching out to help him through the more difficult parts.

They soon came to a small underground river. Even though it was only knee-deep, it flowed at a good rate from a hole in the far end of the cavern.

“Do you suppose it’s drinkable?” Reva asked, kneeling on the bank.

“I don’t know,” said Isaac. “I—Reva!”

Before he could stop her, she got on her knees and lifted some of the water to her mouth. He watched her uneasily, half-expecting her to keel over from something poisonous. Instead, she reached down eagerly and scooped up another.

“It’s clean,” she said. “Thirsty?”

Isaac had to admit that he could use a good drink. Even if it did kill him, that was a better way to go than freezing or starving to death. He knelt beside her and drank a handful. It tasted slightly bitter, but was otherwise just fine.

“Hang on,” she said, stepping into the water.

After walking downstream of him, she began to wash herself, dousing her hair to use it as a scrub. Though Isaac tried to avert his eyes, he couldn’t help but watch. It didn’t seem to bother her, though. In fact, she didn’t seem to mind him watching her at all. Was that because she trusted him? Or did she honestly have no concept of voyeurism?

“The water’s great,” she said. “You sure you don’t want to take a dip?”

“No, thanks,” he muttered, looking away quickly.

“Suit yourself.”

When she came out, her arms were folded across her chest. At first he thought it was because she didn’t want him to stare, but then he realized that she was shivering.

“So c-c-cold,” she stammered as she sat down next to him. “Can you help?”

He frowned. “Help how?”

“Here—rub my back while I rub my arms. Help me get warm.”

Isaac’s heart leaped in his throat. He opened his mouth to object, but stopped when he realized just dangerous it would be for her if she didn’t get warm again. The cave air got cooler the deeper they went, and hypothermia was a very real danger.

Without a word, he crawled behind her and did as she asked. As he rubbed her back, she rolled her henna-tattooed shoulders, running her arms back and forth across her chest.

“Mmm,” she moaned as she stopped shivering. “Thanks.”

He felt a sudden urge to kiss her. His arms locked up, and he took a deep breath to suppress it.

“Better?” he asked, cold sweat forming on the back of his neck.

“Much better.”

He stopped and pulled back. “We need to be more careful next time. If we don’t, the cold is going to kill us.”

“It’s worth it, though. It feels so good to be clean.”

He rose to his feet before the urge came over him again.

“Let’s keep moving.”

They followed the river beneath another overhang and into a cavern larger than any they’d yet seen. The ceiling rose almost twenty meters above them, the stalactites giving the appearance of a great cathedral. On the far side, a formation like a magnificent stone waterfall ran down from the ceiling, shimmering as if it were made of gold. Stalagmites rose from the muddy stone floor like spikes, while other strange formations took shape in the many eddies formed by the dripping water.

“It’s beautiful,” Reva said softly.

The river flowed down to a series of pools, many of which were steaming. The air in the cavern smelled slightly sulfurous, though not so much as to be unbreathable.

“Are those hot springs?” Isaac asked.

Reva peered forward, and her eyes slowly widened. “Not just springs. It looks like there’s something growing in them!”

She hurried forward, Isaac close behind. Together, they climbed around the rock formations to the steaming pools. As they drew closer, the air became noticeably warmer.

“It is!” she said excitedly, pointing to the wall. “See? Lichen!”

Isaac scraped off some of it with his fingernail. It was surprisingly soft, and came away easily.

“If there’s life down here,” Reva said, “then maybe we can find some way to survive.”

“Are you kidding?” said Isaac, frowning at her. “What are we supposed to eat? Lichen?”

“It’s better than starving to death. And if we manage to survive long enough, maybe we can figure out how to get off this planet.”

I doubt it, Isaac thought silently. Still, there was a chance she was right.

He turned his attention to the hot springs. The largest pools were just shallow enough to sit down in and have the water come just above his lap. He knelt down beside one and tested the water. It was comfortably warm.

“Looks like we found a way to keep from freezing to death,” said Reva. She eased herself into the pool across from him. “Aren’t you going to come in?”

“Uh, sure,” said Isaac. He lowered himself into the pool, the water rising midway up his chest. It felt surprisingly good.

He glanced at Reva, who sat with her arms spread out across the back of the ridge. The pool was a little shallower on her end, so that her breasts were completely exposed. They were larger and rounder than he remembered. If anything, the henna only accentuated her curves.

“You all right?” she asked, giving him a puzzled look.

“Yeah,” said Isaac, feeling an erection coming on. Thank goodness the water was deep enough to hide that.

Reva sighed. “If only Gulchina hadn’t left Wolf in charge the way she did. I can’t tell whether she didn’t know he was a threat or she did and left him in charge anyway as another test.”

“Wait, Gulchina isn’t on the Temujin?

“No. She left in an outrider to rendezvous with the rest of the fleet. Something about a ship called the Starfire.

Isaac frowned. “The Gaian Imperial flagship?”

“I don’t know. But she wants to use this planet as a base for expansion into the Outer Reaches, as well as a staging area for raids on the Outworlds.”

“What planet is this? Where are we?”

“A system they call ‘Star’s End,’” Reva answered him. “I don’t think it’s on any of the charts. Gulchina said it lay beyond the farthest Outworld colony.”

Isaac’s stomach fell. “Beyond the Outworlds?”

“Yeah. But don’t worry,” Reva assured him. “If we can hold out until Gulchina comes back, we can activate the distress beacon and let her know we’re still alive. I don’t think she’ll leave us here to die like the others would.”

“Are you sure she won’t rescue us just to have us tortured and executed? She’s not exactly merciful, you know.”

“I know, but it’s still our best chance. If we can…”

Her voice trailed off. Isaac frowned.

“If we can what?”

“Hold on,” she said, peering past him. “I thought I saw something.”

Isaac turned and looked in the direction she was staring. The sharply pointed stalagmites stretched out past the edge of the light like giant teeth, casting long, ominous shadows in all directions.

“What did you see?”

“I don’t know. Some kind of movement. Here, turn off the glowlamp.”

“What?”

“Turn it off, just for a minute or two. Maybe it will come back.”

The last thing Isaac wanted to do was turn off the light in the middle of an alien cave. Still, he did as Reva asked.

At first, he could see nothing but darkness. The quiet hissing of the steam in the hot springs mingled with the gurgling of the small cave river. As he listened more intently, however, he could hear the stalactites dripping as well. All these noises reverberated off the unseen cavern walls, as if they were in an alien temple.

Then he saw it: a dim blue light, like a distant nebula in a starless sky. He blinked and rubbed his eyes.

“Do you see it?” Reva whispered.

“Yeah. What is it?”

“I don’t know.”

As his eyes slowly adjusted, he saw another one, and another. They seemed to be clustered along the floor, where the lichen was thickest. As he watched, one of them moved from one cluster to another.

“It’s moving,” he said, chills running down his spine. “We shouldn’t—”

“Shh!”

He turned and saw a cluster of lights not an arm’s breadth away from him. They glowed brightly enough that he could make out Reva’s silhouette by the light. Both of them sat as still as statues, hardly daring to breathe.

More lights appeared, gliding slowly to the edge of the pool. Some of them pulsated, while others waned and faded. As more of them came close, however, their collective light grew increasingly bright.

“It’s so beautiful,” Reva said softly. She reached out to touch the nearest light with her hand.

“Reva, no!”

He was too late. Half the alien lights scattered at his shout, but the one that Reva had touched ran onto her hand and darted into her chest. She gasped and fell back.

“Reva!”

Her eyes were closed, and her body had gone limp. Isaac held onto her to prevent her from drowning in the shallow pool. The eerie blue light in the cavern gave her tattoos a strange appearance, as if they were all that was left of her.

The lights were gathering again, this time around him. He shouted and tried to splash them away, but there was nowhere to go—he was surrounded. He tried to stand up, but one caught him in the ankle. A cold, electric chill shot up his leg, making for his heart. He collapsed on the bank and promptly passed out.

Reva’s eyes opened, and her heart fluttered as if she’d woken up from a long sleep. She groaned and sat up, only to find Isaac lying on his stomach by the side of the pool. The lights were beginning to disperse, so she fumbled for the glowlamp and turned it on.

“Isaac? Are you all right?”

Isaac groaned and rolled over. He opened his eyes and saw Reva leaning over him, while at the same time seeing himself lying in the mud. His arms stiffened, and he slipped back into the pool.

“I’m fine,” he muttered, feeling anything but fine.

Reva frowned. What was going on? She could see herself through Isaac’s eyes just as clearly as she saw him through her own. She could even follow his thoughts, as if she were inside his head.

“Something is very wrong,” she said slowly.

She can hear my thoughts, too? Isaac thought to himself. Panic swept over him as he realized what that meant.

What is he so afraid of? Reva wondered. But then, she felt his arousal and realized exactly what he was so embarrassed about.

Isaac slumped down in the water and wished that he could die.

Reva was shocked, too, but it soon gave way to curiosity. She’d never seen herself through a man’s eyes before, much less experienced that sort of attraction to a woman. It was… different. Which raised the question, was this the way he always saw her?

“It’s not what you think,” said Isaac. “It’s just, um…”

“Just when I’m naked?”

She remembered waking from cryo on board the Imperial battleship, how everyone had been all weird and pervy around her. When she’d escaped, Isaac had rescued her, and for several days it had been just the two of them on board his starship. She’d refused to wear clothes for most of that voyage. Was this how he’d seen her all that time?

“No!” he said quickly. “Not at all. I mean, yes, it was awkward at first, but I eventually got used to it.” I’m not like the men who mistreated you.

She looked into his mind to confirm what he had told her. Instead of their long voyage together, though, she saw the time in the maintenance closet when he’d lost control and nearly raped her.

“No,” Isaac whispered, covering his face with his hands. His shame was so heavy, it felt as if it were crushing him.

Reva recoiled from the visceral strength of his self-loathing. The shame and guilt was so overwhelming, it made her heart cry out for him. She looked deeper into his mind, and saw what she’d been for him these past few months: a ray of light, a reason to keep living, a bridge between all that he’d lost and his hope for the future. A lump rose in her throat as she realized just how broken he was.

“It’s all right,” she said, putting a hand on his knee.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he repeated over and over.

“No, don’t be sorry. I believe you.”

He looked up at her and realized that she was telling the truth. He could see it in her eyes just as clearly as he saw it in her mind.

There had to be something she could do to make it better. He was such a tangled mess of unmet needs, some of them buried so deeply that he couldn’t even recognize them. The more she looked into his memories, the more she saw how thoroughly he’d denied himself.

Isaac tensed. “Uh, Reva—”

“It’s all right,” she said softly. “Don’t be afraid.”

She rose onto her knees and came forward until she was nearly leaning over him. He tried to back away, but there was nowhere to go short of climbing out of the pool.

Touch me.

His forehead began to sweat. “What?”

“It won’t hurt,” she whispered. “I promise.”

She could feel his pent-up vitality practically bursting at the seams. A part of that sexual energy carried over to her, stirring similar passions. She wanted to see what happened when all that pressure was released.

“Reva, I don’t—”

“Shh,” she said, pressing a finger against his lips. Don’t talk.

She took both his hands by the wrists and pressed them against her breasts. Isaac’s whole body stiffened, and his heart began to race. His legs turned to water as hot blood rushed to his loins.

Reva gasped at the sudden urgency of his passion. She’d expected it to be strong, but she had no idea it would come on so fast.

“Please stop,” he whispered, trying weakly to pull his hands away. She held them there, though, and like magnets they seemed to stay of their own accord.

“Why?” she asked.

“It—it shouldn’t be like this.”

It’s been too long since either of us had a good lay. A release would do us good.

She let go of his wrists and leaned onto his chest, pressing her lips against his. His resistance fell away as his hands migrated to her hips almost of their own accord. It was just like all those times in the maintenance closet, except that the ruse was over.

This is wrong, a nagging voice whispered in the back of his head. His lips ran down her neck as she parted her legs to straddle him.

It’s not wrong if I want it, too.

Not now, though. Not like this.

Then when? If we’re going to die here, let’s make the most of what little time we have.

In a semi-dreamlike state, he yielded to her as their lovemaking began. Their passion overwhelmed all rational thought, to the point that he could no longer tell Reva’s thoughts from his own. But there were other minds mingled with hers—other streams of consciousness that belonged to neither of them. And as their passion reached its climax, an otherworldly sensation swept over him, as if millions of silent voices had suddenly become self-aware.


Melded Minds


When Isaac woke up, he was covered in mud. His arms were wrapped around Reva’s waist, who lay on the ground with her back to him. He yawned and began to run his hands along her side.

Realization struck him like a laser bolt. He let go of her and sat upright, his heart pounding as a wave of dizziness swept over him. What had he done? What had they both done? He felt filthy all over, and not just from the mud.

As he stumbled to the pool to wash himself, Reva stirred and came awake. A warm and pleasant afterglow still lingered with her. It had been a fantastic night, and she hoped that Isaac could say the same.

Isaac recoiled in horror as Reva’s memories were confirmed by his own. He stumbled to the river and splashed his face with cold water, purging away his sleepfulness and numbing himself with the cold.

Reva sat up and frowned. What was he doing? He seemed upset, but she didn’t know why.

“What’s wrong?” she called out.

He ignored her and waded out into the river, dropping to his knees and doused his head.

Reva rose to her feet and walked over to the pool, trying to think what she could do to calm him.

“Isaac,” she called.

Isaac turned to face her, quickly averted his eyes, then decided to look at her anyway. The sight of her body no longer aroused him as much, either because he was angry or because there was nothing left to the imagination.

“What have we done?” he asked.

Reva shrugged. “We made love. What’s wrong with that?”

He stared at her incredulously, as if she’d casually admitted to murder. It was clear that he had an unhealthy view of sex—but why? Almost immediately, she found the answer.

“Stars of Earth,” she said, her eyes widening. “That was your first time?”

“Yes, it was,” Isaac admitted.

Reva frowned. “But why? Who were you saving yourself for?”

Blood rushed to Isaac’s cheeks. He didn’t know what violated him more: the way that Reva had stolen his virginity, or the way that she now poked through his mind.

“For my future wife,” he told her. “That was always the plan. I’d save myself until I met the right girl, and we’d settle down together and start a family together.”

“But why was it so important for your first time to be with her?”

Reva regretted the question almost the moment she asked it. Now it was Isaac’s turn to rummage through her mind, just as she had poked through his.

“Holy shit,” he exclaimed. “Your first time was with a fifty-year-old man?”

“Hey!” said Reva. “It’s not what you think. He was everyone’s first time. He was the teacher!”

“You were only thirteen? Stars and constellations of Earth!”

Reva didn’t know what to say. She felt profoundly embarrassed and didn’t know why. Gilgamesh had been the sex-ed teacher on Anuva Station. Every girl’s first time had been with him. It was perfectly normal and natural that hers had been, too.

Or was it?

“Sex really means nothing to you, does it?” Isaac stated more than asked. “It’s just another bodily function, like sneezing or taking a piss.”

“At least I’m open about it,” she retorted. “You, on the other hand, repress it so hard that you can’t help but get all pervy.”

“That’s not true,” Isaac muttered, though inwardly he knew she had a point.

“Sex is a perfectly normal part of healthy living,” she continued. “Too much can be unhealthy, but so can too little. And getting none at all is like starving yourself when you’re hungry.”

Reva stared at Isaac, hoping her argument would get through to him. Instead, he pushed back all the more.

“No, it’s not like that at all.”

“We did nothing wrong,” she said. “I gave myself to you willingly.”

“But I didn’t.”

Reva’s gut clenched as she remembered how he had asked her to stop. In the heat of the moment, she had ignored him.

Did that make it rape?

“You still enjoyed it,” she said defensively.

Isaac stared at her, speechless. Her self-rationalization was so twisted that he didn’t know how to respond.

Reva knew she was wrong even as the words escaped her lips. She tried to put on a stoic face, but it didn’t matter because Isaac could see into her mind—could even hear her thoughts as she groped frantically for some plausible-sounding excuse.

“You—you came on to me first,” she stammered.

“I kept my hands off of you until you forced me to grope you.”

“But you were thinking about it.”

“So?” Isaac said. “I didn’t act on that thought, did I?”

“Don’t pretend to be a gentleman. You wanted that—you needed it. I did you a favor.”

“Listen to yourself, Reva. Can you even hear what you’re saying?”

A dozen hurtful comments came to Reva’s mind, but she resisted the temptation to lash out. None of them could do anything to help.

“Can—can we just pretend like this never happened?”

I doubt it, Isaac thought. He didn’t mean to say it, but Reva picked it up as if he had.

“What is wrong with you?” she cried, clenching her fists. “It was one time!”

Isaac turned his back to her and sat on the bank of the river, hugging his knees to his chest. The whole thing was a mess, and he didn’t know how to fix it. He just wished it would all go away.


* * * * *


Reva stormed off, taking the glowlamp with her. When Isaac protested, she threw it back at him, not even caring that it left her in the dark. She could see the glowing blue lights off around the corner and knew that her eyes would soon adjust anyway.

What was Isaac’s problem? Why did he have to take things so hard? Yes, she had technically raped him, but could he really blame her? She had only wanted to help him, to satisfy his unmet needs. Couldn’t he see that?

Where are you going?

It was Isaac, poking around in her mind again. She groaned and rolled her eyes.

I just need some space.

Yeah. Me too.

But no matter how hard she tried to shut him out of her mind, he was always there, in the background of her thoughts. It was starting to creep her out.

What the hell had happened to them, anyway? Why could they read each other’s thoughts? It had something to do with those blue alien lights, clustering among the lichen and darting across the cave. She remembered the cold chills as she’d touched one of them, only to see it shoot across her skin and sink into her chest. After that, her memories started to get fuzzy.

The air was a lot cooler away from the hot springs. She shivered and hugged her chest. As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she saw hundreds of little blue lights clustered around a particularly large rock formation, illuminating a mass of lichen near the base. They spread out and slowly began to circle her.

“Go away,” she said, but the fear soon left her. The lights didn’t mean her any harm. If anything, they were curious.

Isaac shivered as he saw the lights approach her. How did she know that they didn’t mean to harm her? How could they “mean” anything at all? It was ridiculous to ascribe human emotion to these… these…

“I just know,” Reva answered him, squatting on her ankles to reach out to the nearest one. It darted away, but another one tentatively approached her.

Reva—

The light touched the tip of her finger, sending a mild electric shock up her arm. She shivered and drew back, but the unpleasant feeling soon left her. When she looked at her hand, she saw that she held the light in her palm.

A strange sensation of awareness came over her, as if she were viewing her own body from the inside out. Every bone, every muscle, every tendon of her hand was laid out clearly before her. It was as if her body were a piece of hardware that she could open up and examine, tracing every wire and following every connection.

Uh, Reva?

But she was too fascinated with the light to pay Isaac any mind. It almost seemed like a living creature, though it lacked a physical form. As she felt it interact with her hand, she wondered if she’d developed the same telepathic connection to it that she and Isaac now shared. Or maybe the lights were the telepathic connection, these alien beings of energy. If that was true, then by melding with them she and Isaac had melded with each other.

Isaac frowned and stood up, pacing in thought. If Reva was right… But how could she be? They were just lights, as lifeless and inanimate as electricity or plasma. It was absurd to think of them as sentient beings.

How else would you explain it? Reva thought to him. It’s the only explanation that makes sense.

Nothing makes sense anymore.

She touched her hand to the lichen on the side of the stalagmite. The light flowed off of her and back to the cluster of its friends. As it did so, Reva could sense the composition of the rock formation as clearly as if it were a book, each mineral layer laid down by the steady drip, drip, drip of the cave.

She closed her eyes and reached out further, focusing her mental energy. As she did, she sensed not only the stalagmite, but the lichen as well. Each alien cell unfolded to her, with all of their complex biochemical processes.

Reva, are you there? I can barely sense you.

“I’m here,” Reva said. Her voice was so loud that it made her jump. I’m here, she repeated, this time in her mind.

You’re drifting off on me. What are you doing?

Reaching out, she answered, closing her eyes to refocus.

She reached out until her awareness encompassed the cavern in which she stood. Every stalagmite and every stalactite, every pool of water and patch of lichen—her awareness encompassed it all. Her head began to ache, but she reached out still further, until she could see (or rather, feel) the adjacent cavern, where Isaac stood frozen in fear. She saw him not only through his own eyes, but from other perspectives as well.

Reva!

She gasped and clutched her head as the aching grew worse. Still, something told her that she wasn’t finished, that she had to go still further.

I’m all right, she told Isaac. Stay there.

With that, she took a deep breath and pushed herself to the extent of her limits. Her awareness stretched to other caverns, first a dozen, then a hundred, then well over a thousand—a vast underground network that encompassed a significant fraction of the planet. As her awareness spread to each one, the lights began to respond, examining her the same way that she examined them. It was as if she were standing in front of an auditorium of more than a million people, each of them perfectly silent as they waited for her to speak.

Can you see this, Isaac?

See what? Isaac asked. The words no sooner formed in his consciousness than he felt as if he were being watched. A shiver ran down his back, giving him goosebumps.

Come back, Reva. I’m scared.

Scared of what? she asked. They mean us no harm. We’re as alien to them as they are to us.

How do you know that?

Reva thought for a moment.

Because I can see into them the same way that I can see into you.

A word suddenly came to her, starting in the deepest recesses of the caves and reverberating inward until it found her. Shivers ran down her spine, an electric tingle from the back of her neck to the ends of her toes. It didn’t come from her or from Isaac, but from the vast alien network that she and Isaac had tapped.

MOTHER.

Isaac frowned. What was that?

Reva took a deep breath of the cool cave air. She reached out and heard it again.

MOTHER.

Please come back, Isaac plead with her. In the shadows cast by the glowlamp, he saw a sudden flurry of motion.

Reva saw it too: hundreds of blue lights streaming across the floor and walls, rushing toward her like an unstoppable flood. When they reached her feet, they shone brightly enough that she could see the tattoos on her legs. One by one, they climbed onto her body and ran across her skin, making it glow.

Isaac ran as fast as his legs could carry him, stumbling on the slippery mud floor. When he reached the other cavern, the blue lights were so dense that they nearly drowned out his glowlamp. Reva stood in the midst of them, her skin illuminated so clearly that he could see all of the details in her henna tattoos.

“Reva!”

Isaac’s voice sounded simultaneously loud and distant. It pulled Reva out of her trancelike state and forced her to confront the physical reality around her. Through Isaac’s eyes, she saw her body shimmering with energy, but his alarm was completely unwarranted.

“Don’t be afraid, Isaac,” she told him. “Everything is fine.”

Like hell it is, Isaac thought as he ran toward her. He had to get her away from this place. If he didn’t, the lights—

Reva held up her hand, gesturing for him to stop. Almost immediately, his legs seized up, and he stood rooted to the floor. She could feel him straining to move his unresponsive legs, but his body was no longer under his control.

It was under hers.

Dammit! Isaac thought, feeling completely helpless. It was as if he were in a dream where he knew he had to run to safety, but his body wouldn’t respond. Panic rose in his chest, and his heart began to pound.

Don’t panic, Reva said to him—but it was too late. He opened his mouth to scream, but he couldn’t so much as make a sound.

Reva released him, and he fell gasping to the floor. “Stars of Earth,” she exclaimed, running to his side. The blue lights scattered, and her skin ceased to glow.

“What the hell was that?” Isaac asked between gasps. He fell into a coughing fit as she helped him up.

“It’s the telepathic connection,” she said. “The alien collective. Can you feel it?”

“Feel what?”

“That sense that we’re being watched. It’s because we are, though not in the conventional sense. The energy beings are all tied to each other, in one great collective. And now that we’re connected with them, they can see into our minds just as we can see into each other’s.”

A thought came to Reva’s mind, making both their eyes go wide. She turned to Isaac.

“I know how we can get out of here.”


* * * * *


Timur clutched his seat restraints as the engines of the outrider shuttle roared through the bulkheads. His stomach fell as the shuttle dropped, shaking him to the bone.

“First combat drop, eh?” Sergeant Jebe asked beside him. “Just be sure to aim for the floor if you’re going to puke.” He chuckled and patted Timur on the knee.

“Hey, Naran!” one of the soldiers shouted toward the cockpit. “Why you take us in so hard?”

“Yeah,” another one added. “Are you afraid they’re going to throw rocks at us?”

The comment elicited a laugh from the rest of the men. They faced each other along the walls, suited in combat armor and strapped into the fold-down seats. Half of them were empty, though, with only Jebe’s squad making the drop. It was unusual for an outrider to carry only a dozen people.

“How much you wanna bet it was the bitch who sent that distress call?” Olug asked. An older veteran of the Marauders, he had a salt-and-pepper beard and a cybernetic eye implant.

“It sure as hell wasn’t Issa.”

“Think she killed him?”

“Wouldn’t surprise me,” said Jebe. “Not after how she killed Wolf.”

The roar of the engines began to subside, and the rattling of the bulkheads died down. “ETA in five,” said Naran from the cockpit. “Atmo is borderline toxic, so you’d better use your oxygen masks.”

“Right. Olug, Levan, Timur, Batar: I want you out first. Secure the LZ and wait for the rest of us, then we’ll spread out and perform a sweep.”

Since the airlock only held four people at a time, the squad would have to exit in groups of four while the toxic air was purged. Even with his full body armor and plasma assault rifle, Timur didn’t like the thought of being the first one out the door. He’d seen what the bitch had done to Wolf in her escape.

“That sweep won’t be necessary,” said Naran. “Looks like our friends dropped a flare.”

Olug laughed. “That stupid bitch.”

“This isn’t a rescue, is it, Sarge?”

“Nope,” said Jebe. “The bitch sealed her fate when she shot Wolf. Orders from the top are to keep her alive until Gulchina comes back, but no one cares what we do to her in the meantime.”

The men grinned and snickered. “Who gets her first?” Levan asked.

“Don’t worry. Everyone will get a turn.”

Timur’s palms went clammy as Naran made a tight circle for the final approach. He’d only joined the Marauders a few months ago, after his ship had been lost at Colkhia and the Confederacy had failed to reimburse him. “Timur” wasn’t even his proper name—it was one Gulchina had given him, just as she’d given them all new names and identities. But with all that he’d seen since throwing in with the pirates, he knew better than to defy Gulchina’s orders. The woman was batshit crazy, and most of her men were so hardened that they wouldn’t think twice about slitting his throat.

What if this is a trap? he wondered. The girl’s not stupid. She’s got to know that we’re not here to rescue her. What if she’s more dangerous than we think?

The outrider shuddered as it made its final landing. The engines cycled down, and the pirates unstrapped their seat restraints as the gun racks opened from the ceiling.

“Masks up, grunts!” Olug shouted as he grabbed his plasma rifle. Timur flipped his visor down and pulled the oxygen mask over his mouth, taking a couple breaths to make sure it was functioning properly. He then took his plasma rifle from the rack and followed Levan and Batar into the airlock.

“Three, two, one, check,” came Jebe’s voice over the helmet comm, followed by heavy breathing.

“Olug here.”

“Levan here.”

“Batar here.”

“Timur here,” he said, swallowing.

The door to the cabin slid shut, and the lights on the access panel went red, indicating that the airlock was sealed. Timur gripped his rifle.

“Look sharp, boys,” came Jebe’s voice. “We’ll be with you in five.”

The main airlock door cracked open, followed by the sharp hiss of decompression. Compared to the cabin, the light outside was blindingly bright, but Timur’s visor soon adjusted for it. The planetscape was sharp and rocky, with a deep yellow haze.

“All right, grunts, let’s MOVE!” said Olug. “Move, move, move!”

Timur ran out with his gun pointed straight ahead of him, sweeping from one side of the horizon to the next. Olug and Batar went right, while he and Levan went left. They were at the base of a small, rocky canyon, the wreckage of a crashed escape pod about a hundred yards out. The signal flare cast up its tail of red smoke not too far from there, but with all the haze, it was difficult to see any farther.

“Clear,” came Olug’s voice over the comm.

“Clear here, too,” said Levan. “No sign of the bitch.”

“Keep your eyes peeled.”

Levan lowered his gun and casually leaned against the hull of the outrider. Timur walked over to him and switched off his comm. “Hey! What are you doing?”

“Relax,” said Levan, his mask partially obscuring his voice. “There’s nothing to worry about. We’re both in full armor, and all she’s got is rocks and maybe an energy pistol.”

“What if this is a trap?”

Levan threw back his head and laughed. “You see that laser star on the nose? There are two more just like it on the tips of each wing. Trust me, kid. There’s no way she’s getting the drop on us, so relax and enjoy the scenery.”

Timur shook his head and walked back to the airlock, switching on his comm again. The flare was starting to die, the reddish smoke turning orange as it blended with the toxic haze. Even with his mask, he could taste sulfur in the air. The sooner they got off this rock, the better.

Off in the distance, he thought he saw movement. He squinted and set his helmet visor to show heat signatures. The shapes weren’t conclusively human, but there were two of them, not just one.

“Hey, Olug,” he said, raising his rifle. “I’ve got something.”

“Where?”

“Coming down the ridge at five o’clock.”

The figures were coming closer. He tapped his helmet and zoomed in on them, switching to the visual spectrum. The glow from the infrared lingered unusually long, but when it faded, he saw that they were clearly human.

“It’s them,” he reported. “What should I do?”

“Stay there.”

They were close enough now for him to see that they were naked. They shared a mask, which they passed between each other. He recognized the girl from her full-body tattoos, though he didn’t recognize the man. From the way they kept their hands raised, though, it was clear they were both unarmed.

“There she is,” said Levan from behind him. “And would you look at those titties.”

“Hold the squad, Sarge,” said Olug. “The bitch is surrendering, and it looks like her partner is, too.”

“Excellent. Take them both into custody and get back on the ship.”

“With pleasure,” said Levan.

When the prisoners were just a few paces from the ramp, Timur and Levan took them by the arms and pulled them into the airlock. Timur passed their mask between the two of them as the onboard atmosphere recalibrated. They coughed a bit, but otherwise remained silent.

As soon as the door to the cabin slid open, the masks came off and the jeering began.

“Take a look at what we have here,” said Olug. He took the girl by both arms and held her out like a trophy, which the men heartily approved.

“Damn, would you look at that pussy.”

“I’m gonna take that bitch in the ass.”

The other prisoner, Issa, struggled against Levan and Batar’s grip, but Levan socked him in the kidney and made him bowl over. Issa cried out and fell to the floor, making the men laugh. One of them kicked him in the side, and the force of the blow made Timur wince.

I didn’t sign up for this.

“Hold her down,” said Jebe as he unclasped his armor. “I’m taking her first.”

To Timur’s surprise, she didn’t struggle or resist at all. In fact, she hardly seemed concerned. As Olug threw her down to the floor, she looked up at him and smiled.

“Hey, look! I think she likes it.”

“Stupid bitch. I’m gonna take her so rough she’ll—AIEE!”

The girl slapped the wall with one hand, and a dozen bright blue lights shot out of it like plasma bursts from a gun. They ran along the bulkheads and down to the floors, until they connected with the pirates’ boots and ran up their legs. It happened so fast that no one had time to react. Jeers quickly turned to screams as Jebe, Olug, Levan, and several others went down to the floor as if hit by a stunner.

“Look out!” Timur shouted, raising his rifle. Before he could pull the trigger, Issa grabbed him by the back of his neck. A sharp electric shock ran down his spine to the ends of his toes and fingers, and he lost all feeling in his legs. The last thing he saw before the darkness enveloped him was the girl, standing in the midst of them with eyes that burned with blue fire.


Hijacked Bodies


“Are you all right?” Isaac asked, ignoring the pain in his side as he rushed to Reva’s aid. She stood up without his help, though, and surveyed the fallen pirates with no small satisfaction. It was abundantly clear that his help was unnecessary.

The dark, wild thoughts of the unconscious pirates pulsated through both of them, making Isaac clench and unclench his fists. As the last of the pirates stopped twitching, those thoughts died down to a low rumble just below the surface of conscious thought, like a presence just outside the edge of his peripheral vision. He could choose to ignore it, but it was always there.

Are they going to stay down? he couldn’t help but wonder.

Yes, Reva thought to him.

He drew in a sharp breath. “They were going to rape you.”

“I know.”

Another presence rose in his mind, like the tide of an alien ocean. It filled all the pirates and lapped at the edges of his consciousness, churning and boiling with unstoppable force.

TO THE STARS.

Isaac frowned. What was that?

Reva heard it, too: the voice of the alien consciousness that now ran through her and Isaac. It elicited a sharp fear from him that puzzled her.

“We can’t let them off this planet,” he explained.

Reva gave him a puzzled look. “Why?”

“As soon as they get off this world, they’re going to infect every human that they—that we—come into contact with.”

“That’s not true,” said Reva. But inwardly, she wasn’t so sure.

“Look at what they did,” said Isaac, pointing to the fallen pirates. “To them—to us. There’s something very dangerous about this—this alien monstrosity.”

Reva stepped over to him and put a hand on his arm. You’re afraid of it, aren’t you?

Of course I am.

Don’t be. Embrace it. The collective consciousness is part of you, now—it’s part of both of us. It isn’t going to harm you.

“How can you say that?” Isaac asked, shrugging her off.

“Are you afraid that you’ll lose your individuality?” Reva asked. To her credit, she didn’t probe into his mind to find the answer.

“Among other things.”

“Don’t be. It’s possible to create a space in your mind where your thoughts only belong to you.”

Isaac paused. “How do you know that?”

“Because ‘they’ told me.”

He took a deep breath and closed his eyes to concentrate. The alien consciousness was like the pounding surf of a stormy ocean, but if he imagined a levy, he could shut it out. He expanded on the levy to create a wall, massive and thick, running not only from the shores of the ocean but around the landward side as well. It soon turned into a mighty fortress that completely encompassed him, with enough spare room to fit a small city. The storm wailed against the walls and battlements, but inside he was secure.

Reva tried to reach out to his mind, but found that she could no longer see into it. He was blocking her out somehow, though she could still perceive his physical senses as if they were her own. And since she hadn’t walled herself out, she realized that he could still see into her mind.

“You figured it out,” she said. “Good for you.”

Isaac sighed in relief. For the first time since their escape from the Temujin, he felt like himself again.

The next thing to do was to find some clothes. He stepped over the fallen pirates and opened the compartment next to the closet for the EVA suits. Sure enough, there were a couple of spare flight suits and undergarments inside. He pulled them out and held them up for size.

Reva bit her lip as she watched Isaac dress himself. She knew he meant nothing personal by it, but she couldn’t help but feel as if he were cutting her off. Was he still upset with her? Since she couldn’t see into his mind anymore, she watched him closely, trying to read his body language.

“Do you mind?” said Isaac, giving her a sharp look.

“Sorry,” she said, turning to face the opposite wall.

Don’t take it personally, Reva. I just need my privacy.

“You don’t have to shut yourself off from me, Isaac. If you need your space, all you need to do is ask.”

“How do I know you’ll give it to me?”

“Of course I’ll give it to you,” she said, becoming exasperated. “Why wouldn’t I?”

“Look around you. Do you plan on giving it to them?”

Reva glanced down at the unconscious pirates and realized that he had a point. As strong as his telepathic shield was, she had no doubt that she—or rather, the alien consciousness—could penetrate it. In fact, she was counting on that. If the pirates who were now part of the collective could shut themselves out from her influence, then her plans would all fall apart.

“You can turn around now,” said Isaac once he had dressed himself. And honestly, you should put some clothes on, too.

Why?

Because—didn’t you hear what the pirates were going to do to you? Can’t you tell what goes through their heads when they see you naked like this?

Reva folded her arms and turned to face him, not a hint of self-consciousness in her posture. “I’ll be fine,” she said.

“In any case, what do we do now?” Isaac asked. “I know you wanted to take over the Temujin, but—”

“But what?”

He grit his teeth. “Are you sure that’s still a good idea?”

Outside the mental fortress Isaac had erected, he could feel the ocean churning, the waves rising ever higher as they broke against the wall. The winds and waves pulsated with a singular desire, a furious yearning that could not be held back.

TO THE STARS.

“Get to the cockpit,” Reva ordered. “Take us to the Temujin.

“But—”

“Do it.”

There was no denying her. With the alien collective on her side, he had no doubt that she could throw down his telepathic shield. She didn’t even need to mind control him—with telepathic access to his mind, she could probably pilot the outrider herself.

He stepped into the cockpit and took the pilot’s seat. Next to him, Reva sat down in the copilot’s chair. His fingers flew across the controls, and the engines rumbled to life.

“Are you sure you’re the one in control?” he asked.

“Of course,” said Reva. “Who do you think is keeping the pirates from waking up and killing us both?”

“I wasn’t talking about the pirates.”

The bulkheads shook as the shuttle rose slowly from the ground. As they built up speed and began to climb through the hazy yellow sky, the engines roared too loudly for either of them to speak.

I won’t keep them under my control forever, she thought to him. Once the Temujin has been secured, I’ll let them go.

How do you know that we’re not the ones being controlled?

Because that’s not what the collective wants. They’re not parasites, Isaac—they’re symbionts. The only reason they can think or feel or experience anything at all is because of us. Without that telepathic connection, they’re just pulses of energy floating through the primordial slime.

The clouds began to thin as the outrider ascended through the atmosphere. As they accelerated into orbit, the system sun passed beneath the horizon, revealing the myriad stars in their unfamiliar constellations.

“What do they want?” Isaac asked over the roar of the engines.

“I don’t know,” Reva admitted. “Whatever we want, I guess.”

“And what do you want?”

An image of Gulchina’s quarters came immediately to Reva’s mind, with the holographic display of the concentric rings of stars. The Coreward Stars were at the center, with the Outworlds forming a shell around them, but the uninhabited stars of the Outer Reaches were far more numerous than both of them combined. She remembered how Gulchina had spoken of those stars as the destiny of mankind, and how she intended to forge a new nation beyond the reaches of any human empire.

Isaac’s eyes widened. “Are you insane? You can’t be—”

“Just fly.”


* * * * *


Reva was the first to spot the Temujin over the horizon. It appeared as a tiny point of light that hovered over the red-green curtains of the aurora. She pointed it out to Isaac, who nodded.

“I see it. They’re going to hail us in a few moments. What should I do?”

“Ignore them and start the autodocking procedure.”

He frowned. “Are you sure that’s a good idea? When we don’t respond, it’s bound to raise suspicion.”

“Not as much as saying the wrong thing will. This was supposed to be a simple retrieval, with no real chance of going wrong. For all they know, you and I are prisoners now, and the others don’t feel especially chatty.”

“All right, but when we dock, they—”

“Leave that to me.”

She rose from her chair and walked back into the cabin, where the dozen or so pirates still lay sprawled across the floor. Their thoughts were choppy and incoherent, their unconscious minds misfiring as the collective consciousness held them down.

Awake, she ordered.

Immediately, the pirates began to stir. Some moaned in pain as they worked out their aching limbs. Others froze in panic as they struggled to orient themselves. Their jumbled thoughts grew from a tiny trickle to a roaring cascade.

Who is that inside my head?

The bitch—what did she do to us?

The hell is going on?

“Listen to me,” she said, reaching out her hand. Listen with your minds as well as your ears.

That got their attention. Their heads all turned to face her, and their churning, confused thoughts became punctuated with violence and rage.

It’s the bitch! She’s the one who did this to us!

Did what? What’s going on?

It’s her—kill her!

The young man known as Levan stood up and attempted to draw his pistol. Reva gave him a sharp look, and he froze like a statue. His eyes widened as he realized that she had complete control over him, and his thoughts turned from rage to panic.

What is she doing? Why can’t I move my arms?

She’s got Levan!

No, she’s got all of us!

“Calm yourselves,” she ordered. “I have no desire to use force on you, but I will if I must.”

ETA in five minutes, Isaac thought to her. She didn’t know if the pirates could hear him.

What do you want? the one known as Jebe asked telepathically. He stared at her with dark, vicious eyes that would have concealed his terror if she hadn’t been able to see right through him.

“I am Reva,” she answered. “I am the rightful captain of the Temujin. Wolf was a traitor who sought in his jealousy to destroy me. Gulchina always intended for me to be her heir.”

She felt the men probe into her mind, examining her memories. It made her cringe to have her deepest thoughts exposed to so many strangers, but if she tried to shut them out, it would compromise her ability to control them. The vast alien consciousness flowed through them like a river, and she intuitively knew that obstructing any part of it would cause that power to withdraw.

She’s right, Jebe thought. Wolf betrayed her.

No, he didn’t, the one known as Olug remarked. I know Gulchina. I’ve served under her for fifteen standard years. This has all of the hallmarks of one of her tests.

“And have I failed?” Reva asked.

Not all of the pirates were interested in reasoning with her. Many of them struggled as hard as they could against Reva’s control. It took great effort for her to stop them—effort that only encouraged them to try harder. Like men who wake suddenly only to find themselves caught in temporary sleep paralysis, their panic and terror gave them strength.

Two minutes to docking, Isaac told her.

“I don’t care what you intended to do with me,” Reva said aloud. “All that is in the past. You are mine now. Gulchina may be your god, but I am your mother.” And I take care of my own.

What do you intend?

She searched their minds until she had a complete floor plan of the Temujin. Each deck had its entrances and exits, its nooks and hidden spaces, its choke points and defenses against boarders. In the space of three seconds, she also compiled a complete list of the Temujin’s crew and the locations where they were most likely to be found.

Holy shit! Levan exclaimed telepathically, his heartbeat accelerating. She’s going to take over the whole damn ship!

“Either you are with me or you are not,” Reva said as the docking clamps attached to the hull with a muffled clang. “Those who are with me will be free to act for themselves. Those who are not…”

She left the thought unspoken.

I am with you, Jebe said. His turn of allegiance was unexpected, not only to Reva, but to the others as well.

The hell are you doing? Levan all but mentally screamed. How can you side with that bitch?

Because she’s going to win, said Jebe.

Good point, Olug thought. I’m with you as well.

I never signed up for any of this, the one known as Timur said, his resolve surprisingly strong. If it means being free of Gulchina, I swear I’ll serve under you for the rest of my days.

Reva took a deep breath and let the three of them go. Their arms and legs twitched, and they staggered to their feet.

Traitors! Levan screamed at them.

“I don’t know how you’re controlling my men,” said Jebe, “but if you want to accomplish this takeover without bloodshed, I’m going to need my squad.”

Reva nodded. Arise.

The other pirates stood up like puppets, slack-jawed and stiff. Their movements were not quite natural, as if their arms and legs were attached to strings. Against their protestations, Reva moved them into a line according to rank, exactly as if Jebe had ordered them to.

“Hot damn,” said Olug, as much out of admiration as anything else.

Isaac stepped in from the cockpit. “We’re docked,” he said. “They’re expecting us on the other side, and I think they’ve assembled a team to meet us.” It won’t take them long to realize that something is wrong.

“Bind us,” Reva ordered. She held out her wrists, and motioned for Isaac to do the same.

“You’ve got some balls,” Olug muttered as he took out the prisoner restraints. He gave one to Timur, who clasped them on Isaac’s wrists while Olug did the same to Reva. When they were done, it looked as if the two of them had been taken prisoner.

“Now clasp your hands on me.”

The three men hesitated, so Reva ordered the other pirates to step forward. They pressed their hands on her shoulders, her arms, her chest and back—anywhere they could make direct physical contact. As soon as they touched her, the blue alien lights pulsated up their arms until each man had absorbed almost a dozen of them.

Get them off of me! Levan telepathically screamed. He wasn’t the only one who was terrified by what he saw.

“It is not with weapons that we fight, but with the link that binds us together,” Reva explained. “We do not seek to kill our enemies, but to make them our brothers.”

She’s gone batshit crazy!

“No, she hasn’t,” said Jebe. “I’d much rather do it her way than turn on my own friends.”

He placed his hand on Reva’s chest and received the light. It made his skin tingle as the little blue flashes ran up into his chest, but he held his breath until they were fully absorbed.

“To hell with it,” said Olug. He did the same, though Reva could tell he dreaded it more.

Timur was the last. He touched the tips of his fingers to her shoulder as the others began to withdraw. The alien lights flew up his arm, giving him chills that shot to the tips of his toes. Still, he stayed in contact with her until the job was done.

I won’t fail you, he promised.

“We’d better get moving,” said Isaac.

Jebe nodded and turned to Reva. “Have the men assemble an escort for each of you.” In his mind, he showed her how it was to be done.

The men assembled on either side of her and Isaac, exactly as Jebe had instructed. A few still tried to resist, though most of them had given up. Their bodies were like marionettes, and though she could feel her control over them slipping, they were hers to command for at least the next few minutes.

That was all the time she needed.


* * * * *


Isaac watched through Jebe’s eyes as the airlock hissed open. A squad of soldiers waited for them on the other side, dressed in light armor but still ready for combat. It was clear that their radio silence had raised suspicions on board the Temujin.

“Commander Sartaq,” said Jebe as he stepped through the airlock. “You’ve assembled quite a welcoming party, I see.”

“Why didn’t you respond to our hails?”

“You’ll have to ask Naran,” said Jebe as the mind-controlled soldiers began to file out. “Said we had something of a malfunction.”

Sartaq sighed and holstered his weapon. “You got off lucky, Sergeant. When you didn’t answer us, some of the officers wanted to blow you out of the sky.”

How are you holding up? Isaac asked Reva as she walked through just ahead of him. He could feel how much of a strain the mind control was putting on her, and knew that she couldn’t hold out much longer.

Sweat ran down the back of Reva’s neck as she struggled to maintain concentration. The minds of the soldiers rebelled against her every command, but through the sheer strength of the alien collective, she was able to compel them forward.

I’m holding just fine, she told Isaac. It won’t be much longer.

“Well, well, well,” said Commander Sartaq, grinning from ear to ear as Reva stepped aboard. “Looks like your squad has been busy.”

Jebe laughed, clasping a hand on Sartaq’s shoulder. “You have no idea.”

In less than a second, a blue light pulsed down the length of Jebe’s arm and into Sartaq’s armor. His eyes went wide, and he opened his mouth to scream, but before he could make any noise he collapsed to the floor.

The other men shouted and raised their weapons, but the mind-controlled squad was already upon them. Alien lights flashed throughout the hold, some darting across the floor, others passing straight to their targets through direct physical contact. Like the mechanical jaws of a powerful steel trap, the mind-controlled soldiers fell upon their designated targets and made quick work of them. The entire pirate squad was knocked unconscious in seconds, without a single weapon discharged.

“Good work,” Reva said. “Now move!”

The mind controlled soldiers quickly dispersed to every hatchway and door that led out of the main shuttle bay. Isaac, Jebe, Olug, and Timur followed as well, though voluntarily and not out of force. It was strange: Isaac could simultaneously “see” through all of their eyes at once, yet his mind still processed it just fine. It was as if he were a combat drone operator, surrounded by numerous displays showing the perspective of each drone in the swarm.

Except he wasn’t the operator—Reva was.

The first of the mind-controlled soldiers made contact with the pirates in the lower level engine room. The ship’s engineer opened his mouth to speak, but the soldier grabbed his face. He fell to the ground twitching as the alien energy embedded itself in his body.

Spread out, Reva’s orders came into his mind. Take every corner of the ship. Let no one pass you by.

In the main hallway, three men stopped about ten paces down from the nearest of Reva’s men. At her command, he slapped his hand against the bulkhead, and three lights darted across the floor. The men screamed as the lights traveled up their legs and into their chests, knocking them unconscious to the floor as they tried to run.

Reva was getting desperate. With each successful capture, the pirates were catching on to them. Those screams in the hallway alone may have cost them the element of surprise. They would have to move quickly—as quickly as they possibly could.

I must get to the bridge, she thought. Take me there.

At least a dozen pirates were in the mess hall. Isaac watched through Timur’s eyes as he and three of Reva’s soldiers burst upon them.

The men were already on their feet. They were all from the second shift—Timur didn’t recognize any of them. When he saw that one of them had a knife, though, his eyes went wide.

“The hell?” one of them said. “What’s the new guy doing—”

His words were cut short as the blue lights shot across the floor and up the men’s boots. Screaming broke out, and the man with the knife dove onto a nearby table. He rolled and leaped to his feet, slashing wildly. Timur leaped back, barely out of reach.

I’m going to die, I’m going to die, Timur thought. Then he saw the man’s face, and realized that the man was just as afraid as he was.

Something within him snapped. He shouted and charged, catching his assailant completely by surprise. They tumbled to the ground, just as the lights came darting back. Dari’s body went stiff, and his knife fell from rigid hands. He was down.

Isaac hurried back toward the shuttle bay just in time to catch Reva walking out the door. The blood had drained from her dark olive cheeks, leaving them a sickly gray. There was more color in her henna tattoos than in her skin.

“Reva,” said Isaac, rushing to her side. “Are you—”

The strain was too much for her. The ship wasn’t clear yet, but she was quickly losing her grip on the men. Levan was the worst, so she guided him to the nearest corner and knocked him out. Inadvertently, she also brought down two of the other soldiers, one of them clear on the other side of the ship.

Reva staggered and fell to the floor. Isaac barely caught her.

“Whoa there! Stay with me, Reva.”

“The bridge,” she muttered, partially regaining her strength. “Take me… to the bridge.”

Alarms sounded all around them—the pirates knew they were here. Isaac shuffled as quickly as he could with Reva in tow, unsure what they would do now that the element of surprise was gone.

Jebe knew exactly where to find most of the crew—the ones who were awake at any rate. He burst into the lounge just as the alarms went off.

“Hurry!” he shouted. “They’re in the shuttle bay!”

The men jumped to their feet and ran to the door, eager for a good fight. As they ran past him, he put his hand against the bulkhead and let the lights shoot out. The men fell screaming in a heap in the hall, never knowing what hit them.

“How many left?” Isaac asked.

“Ten,” Reva answered. “Three in the bridge, seven in the bunkrooms.”

Isaac was about to ask how she knew, but then he remembered that she’d orchestrated it all. With a map of the ship’s layout and a list of all their targets in her head, she was playing the men as if they were pieces in a game of chess.

As they rounded the last corner with the door to the bridge in sight, Isaac watched as the mind-controlled soldiers burst into the bunkrooms. The pirates were stumbling from their bunks in response to the alarms, and in no position to put up a fight. When it was over, Reva ordered her men to go to sleep, lifting the heavy burden of controlling them against their wills. As the last of them went down, she took a deep breath and stood up straight.

“Let me take the bridge, ma’am,” Olug said as he walked up behind them.

“No,” said Reva, shaking her head. “It should be me.”

She strode to the door and palmed the access panel. When it refused to open, she entered Gulchina’s keycode and tried again.

“Wait!” said Isaac, running after her. “You can’t just walk in if they know you’re—”

Three pirate officers were waiting behind the doors. They had taken cover behind the chairs, their energy pistols drawn. Reva walked in as confidently as if she were the captain of the Temujin herself—which, of course, she now was.

“The hell?” the nearest one said, staring at her from behind his cover. He and the others hesitated just long enough for her to send the lights out and take them down.

From the looks on their faces, Isaac could tell that they’d expected a forced entry, not someone with Gulchina’s keycodes to unlock the door. And of all the threats they’d expected to face, a fully-nude woman with no visible weapon was certainly not on the list.

That was when he heard the hum of an energy pistol charging.

“Stupid bitch,” said Olug. He raised his gun and leveled it at Reva.

The crack of the shot split the air in the narrow hallway, followed closely by the sizzle of the energy bolt. Timur held his pistol steady and watched as Olug collapsed to the floor, his own shot glancing off a bulkhead. The ozone smell of electric energy was soon replaced by the odor of burnt flesh.

“You,” said Olug, his eyes almost as wide as Reva’s. He struggled to rise, but the hole from Timur’s shot had burned clean through his chest. He glanced up at Isaac as if to beg for help, then fell on his face and died.

In that instant, Isaac’s vision telescoped outward until he felt as if he were falling backwards through a long tunnel. His head buzzed, and sweat began to pool behind his ears. His legs went numb and his muscles turned to water, and for a while he felt as if he couldn’t breathe.

So this is what death feels like.

Reva felt it, too. The only thing that kept her standing was the sudden adrenaline rush of having a gun pulled on her. She glanced at Timur, still holding the energy pistol in his shaky hands, and realized that he’d saved her life.

Still, it was all too much for her. As she tottered on the edge of consciousness, her body weak and her mind lightheaded, she issued a final order:

Sleep.

“Wait!” said Isaac, lifting a hand.

But it was too late. The churning ocean of the alien consciousness surged over the walls of his mental fortress, completely overwhelming him. He was already weak from experiencing Olug’s death, and didn’t have the strength to resist. With Jebe and Timur, he collapsed to the floor.

The last thing he saw before passing out was Reva, standing like a goddess in all her terrible glory.


Birth of a Nation


Reva surveyed the scene around her. The alarms still blared, but every living soul on the ship besides herself was unconscious and under her control. No, that wasn’t quite right—they were under the collective’s control. She could feel the telepathic awareness that bound them all together, and above all else, the presence of the immense alien consciousness that saw her as its mother. That consciousness spoke with a single thought, as urgent and powerful as the drive for life itself:

TAKE US TO THE STARS.

She stepped carefully over Olug’s body, lying in a pool of rapidly darkening blood. Someone would have to clean up that mess before too long. Isaac lay a short distance away, with Timur farther down the hall. She would have to reward the young man for saving her life. But those things could wait—there were other tasks that needed to be done first.

“Isaac.”

She knelt by his side and touched him on the shoulder. Instantly, his eyes fluttered, and he began to stir. At first, he scrambled wildly, but soon he regained his bearings and sat up.

Where am I? What happened?

“You’re all right,” said Reva, smiling as she put a hand on his arm. “It’s over. We won.”

For the briefest moment, she felt in his mind a touch of the same desire that had consumed them both when the alien consciousness had first entered them. He suppressed it quickly, though, and blocked her from seeing into his mind any further.

“You’ve assimilated them all,” he stated flatly.

“Not just me, Isaac—we all have. They’re part of us now.”

He blinked and rubbed his eyes. “Stars of Holy Earth.”

“First things first,” she said, rising to her feet. “You’re half-starved from the way the pirates treated you. Let’s get you something to eat.”

He followed her to the mess hall, where the pirates were still lying after Timur had taken them down. Reva remembered the brief knife fight that had spurred Timur to action. The knife still lay where it had been knocked from the pirate’s hand, a wicked blade with a ring at the end that was designed to fit onto the little finger. With her telepathic abilities, she could tell that Timur had gotten off lucky.

“Have a seat,” she said, motioning to the nearest table. “What can I get for you?”

Isaac eyed the unconscious pirates as if unwilling to sit down anywhere near them.

Don’t worry. They won’t be waking up soon. Not until I allow it.

That’s even worse.

Reva frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Nothing,” he said quickly. He sat down at the table and leaned heavily on his elbows.

“We have as much time as we need,” she explained. “Eventually, we’ll have to wake them, but for now it’s just the two of us. So what do you want?”

“Something warm,” he said, thinking of vegetable soup. Even through his telepathic shield, his hunger gave her a clear picture of exactly what he wanted.

“On it,” she said. “Make yourself comfortable.”

As she turned her back to him, she felt another desire emanating from his mind—one that had little to do with food. The moment she noticed, Isaac blocked it off.

“It’s okay,” she said as she toggled the food synthesizer. “You can stare at me all you want. I don’t mind.”

Isaac’s cheeks turned bright red. “Aren’t you going to put on some clothes?”

“Why should I?”

“But the way the men—”

“If they can see into my mind, what’s the point of covering my body?” she said. “Don’t worry, they’ll come around. When they can see my thoughts and memories, they’ll stop looking at me as an object and see me as a human being.”

“Are you sure?”

“It’s already started with Jebe and Timur. Once I gain the crew’s respect, it’s only a matter of time before they come along as well.”

She retrieved the bowl of steaming soup and carried it to the table in both hands. From the look on Isaac’s face, though, he still didn’t seem convinced.

“I still think it would be better if you put on some clothes.”

“There’s nothing inherently sexual about the naked human body,” she said, sitting down in front of him. “The only reason you think otherwise is because you aren’t used to seeing people unclothed. I grew up in a culture where nudity was the norm, and we weren’t nearly as sex-obsessed as you people.”

Then why were you the one who couldn’t control herself?

“That was different,” she said quickly. “We both got carried away. The telepathic bond was new to us, and your needs were so strong that I—”

“No, Reva. What happened was rape, pure and simple.”

She sighed. “I don’t know why you’re making such a big deal out of it, Isaac. I mean, yes, it was wrong, but—”

“But now you’ve gone and raped every person on this ship. That mind-control thing you did, knocking everyone unconscious and binding them to the collective—that’s mind rape, Reva. When are you going to take responsibility for your own actions?”

He stared her in the eye, the anger in his gaze burning like fire. It took her aback, not the least because there had been no telepathic warning. Then again, he’d cut himself off from her almost entirely. She’d lost his trust, and it was going to be difficult to earn it back.

“I’m sorry, Isaac.” Really, I am.

“Are you?”

“What can I do to show it to you?” she asked, her hands palm up.

Isaac took a spoonful of the soup and savored it. His telepathic wall was so strong, though, that Reva couldn’t feel any of it.

Take responsibility for what you’ve done.

She rolled her eyes. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“How do I know that you’re not just going to keep controlling us the way you have been? That you’re not going to use this alien collective to turn us into a hive mind without any individual consciousness?”

She realized that he had a point. It was difficult to telepathically control the pirates against their will, but it was possible to turn them into drones by erasing their individuality. That would be tantamount to murder, though.

“I would never do that,” she said, horrified. “What makes you think I would?”

“Because you’ve already crossed the line, Reva. If right and wrong mean anything to you, you need to step back over that line and promise never to cross it again.”

“All right,” she said. “You’re right. I mind-raped the pirates because it was the only way to save our lives, and it was wrong, even though it still saved us.”

This isn’t taking responsibility, Reva.

“The hell it isn’t. What do you expect from me? An apology for saving you?”

I expect to see a little remorse.

“Whatever,” she said, throwing her hands up in the air. “I’m just going to shut up, because in your eyes I obviously can’t do anything right.”

Isaac stared at her as if trying to come up with a retort. Then he sighed and shook his head, the anger leaking out of him.

“Would you like to know why I was saving myself?”

“Sure,” she said, giving him a shrug. “Why not?”

He returned to the soup and ate another spoonful, closing his eyes. His telepathic shield lifted, revealing faces that Reva had only briefly glimpsed from his memory. Now, they were more clear to her, with a host of associations bound up with each one.

The first was Isaac’s father, tall and proud, a star wanderer like his father before him. The second was Isaac’s mother, shrewd but tender, a strong woman who cared fiercely for the ones she loved. She saw Isaac’s younger brother, carefree and reckless, and his sister, the baby of the family, with a warm smile and a cheery disposition.

Tears came to Reva’s eyes from the depth of the emotions that Isaac felt for them. She felt love that burned brighter than any star, and loyalty that was stronger than the bonds of death. There was acceptance and belonging, too, but more than that a sense of meaning—a purpose that drove everything he did. Even though many of these were people that he’d never see again, Isaac still felt bound to them, and would for the rest of his life.

This is your family?

Some of them, yes. But not all.

The vision in Reva’s mind expanded, until she saw dozens of similar faces. Some of them had faded more than the others, but they were all part of the extended family network that Isaac still called his own. She saw his memories of the famine at his home, how his father had been forced to take their family across the stars, and how they had lived as poor refugees in the face of hatred and prejudice. Yet through it all, the family had stayed together, cramped together in a tiny apartment, yet full love and life.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “Why are you showing me this?”

Isaac set his spoon down and wiped his mouth. “Because this is what I hope to have someday.”

“A place to belong?”

“A family,” he said. “A wife and children, not half a dozen women scattered across the Outworlds.”

“And that’s what you feel I took from you?”

“The responsible way to have a family is to wait to have sex until you’re married. That’s why I was waiting.”

“But what about your needs?” she asked. “We all have needs.”

“Sex is more than just a bodily need,” he answered. “It’s the power to bring life into existence, and to create a deep emotional bond with another human being. When misused, it can be one of the most destructive forces in human society.”

Reva paused. “Do you feel we misused it?”

“Of course! Did we make any commitment to each other before we did it? Was there any thought of the possible consequences? What am I supposed to do if you get pregnant? And even if you don’t, there’s no other woman I can share that kind of intimacy with and know that she’s the only one.”

“I had no idea that’s what it meant to you, Isaac. I’m sorry.”

In that moment, Reva saw just how much the guilt would pile up on him if she did become pregnant. To bring another life into existence, without a strong family to belong to—he would never be able to forgive himself. That was why he he’d so adamantly denied himself, because he valued the needs of his future family above his own. It still wasn’t healthy to suppress his own needs, but neither was her misguided attempt to satisfy them.

What have I done? she thought, the guilt starting to rack her. I’m a monster.

Now do you feel remorse?

Yes, she thought to him. Yes, I do. I’m sorry, Isaac. This time, I really am.

He took a deep breath. “I believe you.”

“So what do we do, now?” she asked, her hands trembling. She closed her eyes and rested her forehead on her fingertips.

“We fix our mistakes,” he said. “Step back over the line we crossed and promise not to cross back over it.”

“But we can’t remove the telepathic link. You felt it when Olug died, didn’t you? The energy being that was bound to him, it died with him.”

Isaac frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Can’t you feel it? These alien energy beings are symbionts. Once they’ve bonded with us, they can only be separated by death.”

As she explained it to him, she could feel the alien collective confirm that it was true. Half a dozen of the energy beings still brooded inside of her, eager for a chance to meld with a human and establish the telepathic bond. Together, they were neither fully human nor fully alien, but a complex blending of the two.

“Then I don’t know,” Isaac admitted. “If we’re inseparably bound to these pirates, we’re kind of screwed.”

“No,” said Reva, remembering Gulchina’s words. You can become the mother of a great nation.

A nation of thugs and criminals?

Leave that to me.


* * * * *


Timur slept fitfully, his mind awake but his body unconscious. He felt as if he were drowning just beneath the surface of an ocean, but every time he tried to get some air, an invisible force pushed him down. Beneath the water, the darkness of the abyss threatened to swallow him, and it was all he could do not to panic.

From the depths of the abyss, he heard voices calling out to him. Some of them were voices he knew, members of the Temujin crew. Others seemed strangely inhuman. Above them all, resounding with a low, rhythmic hum, he heard a voice as alien as any creature of the deep:

TO THE STARS.

Without warning, he felt a hand reach out to him, pulling him up. He rose above the water and gasped for air, only to find himself lying on the floor of the Temujin, soaked in his own sweat.

“You’re okay,” came a man’s voice. He looked up and recognized the prisoner they’d picked up on the planet, the man who had been with Reva.

My name is Isaac, the man’s voice came into his head.

“How did you do that?” Timur asked. Then he remembered the takeover of the Temujin. Reva’s voice had spoken in his head just like Isaac’s, and he had seen through both of their eyes throughout the whole thing.

In fact, he could see himself in Isaac’s eyes, lying frightened on the floor. At the same time, he saw through Reva’s eyes as well, down in Gulchina’s luxurious quarters, browsing through her records. It seemed impossible that he could see simultaneously through multiple sets of eyes, but somehow his mind was processing it all without confusion. He set the other views in the back of his mind and looked up at Isaac.

“We’re not here to hurt you,” said Isaac. “We’re here to help.”

“How?”

He reached down and helped Timur to his feet. Timur’s panic slowly subsided, though he could still feel the abyss in the back of his thoughts.

“You’ve been assimilated into a collective consciousness,” Isaac explained. “That collective now includes everyone on board the Temujin.You can see through their eyes and speak to them through thoughts, just like we are doing right now.

“Was that what the battle was all about?”

Isaac nodded.

The voice from the deep came back into his mind. It came from the black abyss, which still threatened to swallow him.

TO THE STARS.

“What was that?”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Isaac, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Listen, if the voices bother you, it’s possible to block them off.”

“Really?”

“Yes. It will also prevent other members of the collective from reading your thoughts.”

Timur frowned. What’s that supposed to mean?

As if in response, he felt a presence in his mind, poking around in his memories. He shoved it out, but it came again, like a nosy unwanted visitor trying to step past him through a door. He pushed it out and shut the door, palming the keypad to lock out the prodding presence.

“Good work,” said Isaac. “You’re catching on fast.”

Timur looked at himself through Isaac’s eyes and tried to read his thoughts, but found that he was blocked. When he entered Reva’s mind, however, he met with surprisingly little resistance.

Reva closed her eyes as Timur dug through in her mind. He seemed reluctant to go very far, so she brought up some memories to help him. Her father, the chief engineer, secretly building the cryochamber that would preserve her life after all her people were dead. Her sister-in-law, painting the intricate henna tattoos across her skin. Their last tearful conversation together. Hugging her father and lying down in the chamber, to sleep in the ice for decades or perhaps even centuries.

Timur started. “What the hell was that?”

“What did you see?”

“I saw a bunch of naked people, painting my body and putting me to sleep in a cryotank. One of them was my father, though not at all like I remember him.”

“Reva’s memories,” Isaac told him. “She doesn’t close her mind off like the rest of us.” Thinks it’s a better way to lead.

Timur frowned again. What do you mean “us”?

A new voice entered his mind, this time from the girl.

We are all telepathically connected, she explained to him. We are neither fully human, nor fully alien. We maintain our individual agency, but also possess the capability to join minds.

Timur didn’t know what to think. He could feel the abyss rising up again, threatening to overwhelm him.

“One thing at a time,” said Isaac. “First, what’s your name?”

“Timur,” he answered. But that wasn’t the first name that came to his mind.

“That’s the name that Gulchina gave you. Do you still want to use it?”

No.

“Then tell us your real name.”

It had been so long since Timur had dared to use his real name, he was still a bit reluctant to speak it. But taking a deep breath, he set his apprehensions aside.

“My name is Tomas.”

Immediately, he felt relief wash over him. It was as if he had been liberated from an invisible chain. Gulchina had taken his name from him, and with it his old life, but now that he was free to be Tomas again he no longer felt bound to her.

“Very well, Tomas. Where are you from, and how did you join Gulchina’s Marauders?”

“It was after the Battle of Colkhia,” he explained, the memories flooding back to him. “I was a star wanderer before the war, and joined because it seemed like the right thing to do. But I lost my father’s starship at Colkhia, and the Confederacy refused to replace it. They wanted me to join their battle fleet as a control tech, but I didn’t think that was good enough. Then Gulchina allied with the Confederacy, and I decided to throw in with her Marauders. Instead of fighting the Imperials, though, they put me on the Temujin and dragged me way the hell out here.”

“Gulchina is a traitor to the Confederacy,” Isaac said in disgust. “But that’s beside the point. Do you know why we woke you first?”

Reva smiled to see Tomas coming along so well. She remembered how he’d saved her life, and knew that she could trust him.

“It’s because I saved Reva,” Tomas said. “Olug was going to shoot her, so I shot him before he could.”

Isaac nodded and glanced across the bridge. Olug’s still body lay in a pool of dark blood, exactly where Tomas had shot him. The events seemed fuzzy to him, like something from a half-remembered dream, but the evidence was all around him, as if he’d never woken up. And as he looked around, his memories became clearer, until he remembered exactly what he’d done.

That was the first man I’d ever killed, he realized. It felt… satisfying somehow. Terrible, but satisfying.

Before they’d boarded the Temujin, Reva had made a promise to take care of her own. She’d also shown him her vision for the future, one that he still didn’t fully understand. At the very least, however, he knew it would free him from Gulchina’s cruelty.

Did I make that promise? I guess I did.

That was how he understood it. Is he wrong?

No, he’s right. Gulchina is a monster—I would never want to be like her.

Tomas pounded his chest with his fist and raised his hand in salute. “I pledged my loyalty once to you, Reva, and I pledge it to you again.”

Isaac smiled and put a hand on his shoulder. “Then welcome, brother.”


* * * * *


Reva stepped into the cargo hold, flanked on either side by Isaac and Tomas. They were dressed in light armor and carried assault rifles from the Temujin’s armory. The extra firepower was probably more than she needed to guard her, but the show of strength was necessary to earn the pirates’ respect. She hoped to earn a lot more than that before the dayshift was over.

“Here,” she said, stopping in front of the freight airlock where Corporal Sarnai had been executed. There were still a few bloodstains on the floor where Wolf had died—or was that from Matsuda’s ritual suicide? So many people had died in this room, it was difficult to tell.

Don’t worry, Isaac thought to her. We’re here if you need us.

I’ll be fine.

She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. In her mind, she could visualize every fallen pirate—all of the new members of the collective. She could feel their distress and fear, fleeting remnants from the takeover.

Awake, and arise.

One by one, they flitted into consciousness. Some of them started, others woke up groggily as if from a long nap. As they discovered the telepathic connection, they reached out with their minds, testing the boundaries of their newfound abilities. They saw through each other’s eyes and heard through each other’s’ ears, including her own.

“To me,” she ordered, though not compelling them to obey. They all heard her voice and recognized it, but were surprised that it no longer controlled them.

Get ready, Tomas thought to her and Isaac, checking his weapon. He seemed anxious.

Be calm, she told him. These are our brothers now, not our enemies.

The pirates gradually began to assemble in the cargo hold, the one place on the ship large enough to accommodate the entire crew. They entered as reverently as if they were walking into a cathedral. The telepathic connection had sobered them, and Reva could feel that many of them had concerns. When they saw her standing at the head of the hold, flanked by Tomas and Isaac, they quietly took their positions as if Gulchina herself had ordered them to assembly.

Not all of them came to her, however. Some huddled where they had lain, watching instead through the eyes of the others. Reva could feel their terror at suddenly being part of the collective, and she tried to reach out and assuage them.

When she reached into Levan’s mind, however, he responded by drawing his energy pistol and running down the hall.

Careful, said Tomas, fingering his trigger. We’ve got a loose cannon.

Stay where you are, Reva ordered him.

He glanced at her nervously, but held his ground.

If you try to mind control him again, the others will see you for a tyrant, Isaac privately confided in her. Better to wait and see what he does.

Fortunately, Levan ran away from the vital control points of the ship. He ducked into an EVA suit closet on the same level as the shuttle bays and took cover in the far corner. His heart pounded, and his panic was like a drug. It started to infect the others, until Levan figured out how to shut them out of his mind. As soon as he had, his panic receded into the background.

“Men,” Reva stated, both telepathically and with the spoken word. The men looked to her at once, both in the cargo hold and across the ship.

“I am Reva, heir of Gulchina and mother-queen of Star’s End. I am the voice of the many, the one who commands by the power of her mind. Look upon me and tell me, is it not so?”

Don’t get any delusions of grandeur, Isaac privately counselled. Reva ignored him.

The men looked at her, and as they saw into her mind, their fear and confusion began to be dispelled. They saw how Gulchina had blessed her to be the mother of a great nation in the Outer Reaches, and how Wolf, in his jealousy, had betrayed her. They saw how she and Isaac had fled to the surface of the planet below and been assimilated together in the cave. She held back nothing, letting them gaze as freely upon her mind as they did upon her naked form.

“What have you done to us?” one of the men called out. He read her a lot more skeptically than the others.

“I have gathered you into a single collective, through an alien symbiont that has melded with your minds. You are more than what you were and together, are far more powerful.”

Powerful? More like we’re your slaves.

Didn’t she control Jebe’s squad like puppets? That’s why Levan is off in the corner, babbling like a madman.

What’s to keep her from controlling us?

Listen to her, Jebe’s voice sounded in the cacophony. She’s our captain now.

Says who?

“I am the one who has brought you together,” said Reva. “I am the one the collective obeys. Listen to the voice that speaks from Star’s End.”

From the depths of the alien collective, a rhythmic pounding grew louder and louder in each man’s head. It drowned out the chaos of their unfiltered thoughts and spoke with the sound of thunder:

LISTEN TO YOUR MOTHER-QUEEN. TAKE US TO THE STARS.

Several of the men fell to the floor as if stricken. Others covered their ears with their hands, trying in vain to block out the voice. In his corner of the EVA closet, Levan began to whimper.

Holy shit, Isaac remarked.

“Do not fear,” said Reva. At her words, the voice of the alien collective subsided, but did not fully depart.

The hell was that?

I didn’t sign up for this.

What does she want from us?

“Look on me,” Reva repeated. “If you doubt my intentions, look into my mind and verify the truth of what I say. I have no desire for power or dominion. I do not seek to subvert your free will. To the extent that I have done these things, it was to avoid needless bloodshed. If you will have me as your captain, I will exercise this power no more.”

She’s telling the truth, said Jebe.

Truth? What is truth?

She’s crazy, but so was Gulchina. I say we give her a shot.

I don’t know, man. Better the devil you know.

Is it like we have a choice?

The debate raged on. Tomas glanced nervously at Reva, wondering whether it was safe, but she gestured at him to wait and stay calm. Isaac wasn’t quite so twitchy, but his eyes still flitted across the crowd.

That’s as much of an apology as I can afford to give, she told him. Anything more, and they’ll take it as a sign of weakness.

Isaac nodded. Like her, he could surely sense how violent and unstable the men were. Now she knew why Gulchina had ruled over them so harshly: It was the only way to bring them into line. Many of them were wanted criminals, wolves driven out of civil society by force. Others were sociopaths who saw their fellow men as tools for their own ends. Few of them came from healthy families. Many had suffered severe abuse. There were still some who had it together, most of them in the middle ranks, but the grunts were almost all unstable, to the point where they would only answer to force.

“Sergeants and chief petty officers,” said Reva. “I give you stewardship over your men. Listen to their concerns, and answer them as best you can. I will support you as needed.”

Are we keeping our ranks, then?

And what about this “mother-queen” business? Is she our new captain?

“We will maintain the organization of this ship exactly as it was before, only with me in command.”

What about Gulchina?

Yeah. Do we still answer to her?

“You answer to me,” said Reva, “but only as the crew of the Temujin. As a collective, we will decide together how to answer Gulchina.”

Her response didn’t satisfy everyone, but it seemed to be enough for the grunts, who for the most part were taking the new leadership in stride. A large part of it was Reva’s display of power, though she could sense that it helped that she was easy on the eyes.

Pigs, Isaac thought. Reva brushed him off with a wave of her hand.

“Gulchina was your god,” said Reva, “but I am your mother-queen. Gulchina ruled with an iron fist, but I have united you without the shedding of blood.

What about Olug?

Reva bit her lip. They were right—she’d forgotten about Olug.

“I killed him,” said Tomas. “Just as I would kill any who threatens my mother-queen!”

So the kid’s finally grown a pair.

He’s right. Olug had it coming.

So that’s what it feels like when one of us dies?

Reva’s hands shook, and her knees felt weak. She hadn’t realized how emotionally draining it would be to stand before these men and offer herself as their leader. The cacophony of their unfiltered thoughts was more than she could bear, though thankfully, the middle officers had begun mediating on her behalf.

This isn’t working, Tomas thought to her.

“Give it time,” she whispered. “I have faith in them.”

In them? Are you kidding me?

Before she could answer, alarms began to sound on the bridge. The comms officer ran to his post, in time to see a massive new ship on the scanners, larger than anything he or anyone else on the Temujin had ever seen.

“What’s that?” Isaac asked, his face etched with concern.

“Gulchina,” Reva whispered. “She’s back.”


Worldfire


Tomas jumped into action along with the rest of the crew. The officers and control techs hurried to their posts, while the grunts ran to the high-gee coffins that would protect them during combat maneuvers. They moved with surprising efficiency, though Tomas could still sense their lingering doubts. This wasn’t an enemy they were facing off against, after all. This was Gulchina herself.

She may yet prove to be an enemy, Reva whispered.

He escorted her to the bridge, where the Temujin’s chief officers had already gathered. One of the squad leaders had sent a few of his men to retrieve Olug’s body and clean the floor where he had died; Reva, Isaac, and Tomas stepped carefully around the mess.

“What are your orders, Captain?” the lieutenant at the helm asked.

Reva sat down in the command chair, back straight and hands clasped firmly on the armrests. Even unclothed, she carried an air of majesty that Tomas and the others found striking. The full-body henna tattoos certainly added to the effect.

“Begin charging the jump drives,” she ordered. “Adjust our orbit to keep us as far away from Gulchina as possible.”

“Should we arm the missile pods?”

“No. Take no aggressive actions.” If this is to end in bloodshed, let her be the one who escalates it.

She glanced at Isaac, who had assumed the astrogator’s chair. His face was pale, but he keyed quickly through the controls to carry out Reva’s orders. As the other officers went to work, she subconsciously guided them to accomplish their tasks as quickly and efficiently as possible.

“The fleet has passed over the horizon,” said the officer at comms. “Our orbits will intersect again in twenty-five minutes. Sensors show Gulchina is moving to match orbits with us.”

Questions swam beneath the surface of Tomas’s conscious mind—questions from the other members of the crew. How many of the Marauders’ ships had returned? Had Gulchina really captured a battle cruiser? Her ship was more than ten times as large as the Temujin, and there were at least a dozen escort vessels as well.

That’s the GIS Starfire, Isaac answered telepathically. The Outworlders must have captured it at Colkhia—and now it’s Gulchina’s flagship.

Tomas’s stomach sank. He remembered the Battle of Colkhia, where he had faced the Starfire and lost his father’s ship. He’d known that the Outworlders had been refitting it for their own use, but he’d had no idea Gulchina had her eyes on it. He searched the minds of his fellow pirates to gauge their reaction. Some were undeniably gratified to see Gulchina triumphant, but most of them were just as surprised at the news as he was.

Then he came to Levan, and realized that his former squadmate had left his hiding place in the EVA closet. The loose cannon was on the move.

“What are you doing?” Isaac asked as Tomas dashed out of the bridge.

Levan, Tomas thought to him. There was no time to answer with words.

Don’t hurt him, Reva ordered him. Let me try to persuade him first.

Tomas knew there was little chance of success, however. He could tell Levan was past listening to anything Reva had to say.

He sprinted down the main corridor and ducked through a hatchway to the stairs leading down to the shuttle bay level. As he ran, he drew his energy pistol and set the charge. He didn’t know what Levan had planned, but he could see through his eyes that he was armed.

Levan didn’t go for any of the control points of the ship, though. He went straight to the docking bays and ran to the nearest outrider.

“No!” Tomas shouted, arriving just in time to see him duck through an airlock. He sprinted up the steps and slammed his palm against the access panel, but the door was already locked.

Levan’s trying to escape! he told Reva. What should I do?

Can you stop him?

If I had the codes, maybe.

A quick telepathic query gave him what he was looking for.

He tried to override the lock, but Levan had already powered up the engines and started the undocking procedure. The ship’s safety protocols made it impossible to get through—and even if he could, there was a good chance Levan would undock anyway and expose them both to vacuum.

Tomas kicked the airlock door as hard as he could. “What the hell are you doing, Levan?” he shouted. “Can you hear me? Yeah, I know you can hear me!”

Be calm, Reva commanded. Leave him to me.

But as the outrider departed the docking bay with a low rumble and a metallic groan, Tomas knew that Levan would die before he ever listened to her.


* * * * *


Reva took a deep breath as the outrider departed from the docking bay. The officers on the bridge paused what they were doing and looked at her, uncertainty written on their faces.

He’s going to betray us!

We should take him down.

Why isn’t she stopping him?

“Captain,” said the lieutenant at the helm. “Your orders, sir?”

“Maintain course,” said Reva.

She tried to peer into Levan’s mind, but all of his telepathic energy was focused on blocking her out. She could sense his fear, though—and his desperation.

Levan, she whispered to him. Levan, please. You don’t have to do this.

“Fifteen minutes until the Starfire is in comms range,” said the officer at sensors and comms. His voice sounded distant, as if it were coming to her through a long, dark tunnel.

“Should we charge weapons, sir?”

She realized that they were staring at her—and through them, everyone else on the ship. A telepathic debate was starting to emerge about what they should do with Levan. Many of them favored killing him outright, but she could sense some apprehension as well. Gulchina would have killed him without a second thought, but if Reva proved to be no different than her, some of the men were bound to want out. And undergirding it all was a deep sense of uncertainty—not only about the immediate future, but also about the ultimate fate of the collective.

You’ve raped every person on this ship, Isaac’s words came to her mind. She realized that killing Levan wasn’t an option.

“No,” she ordered. “Levan is one of us. We don’t do that to our own.”

But what if he betrays us?

“I am not going to compel him or anyone else. I did that once when I took over this ship, and that was once too many. You are all free agents to do as you will. This is not a hive-mind where I speak and you mindlessly obey. Is that clear?”

The anxiety about Levan did not subside, though some of the deeper apprehensions did. She looked her men in the eye until they nodded to her.

“Yes, Captain.”

“Isaac,” said Reva. “How are our jump drives looking?”

“We’re only eight percent charged,” said Isaac. “It’ll take a good twenty minutes before we can make even a short-range jump.”

“Then charge those jump drives at maximum rate. I want to be ready to leave on a moment’s notice.”

“Where?” the lieutenant at the helm asked.

Reva glanced from him to the sensors and back again. The implication was clear—no decisions until the situation with Levan was resolved.

Stars of Earth. She expects him to betray us.

Why doesn’t she do something?

Levan, she thought, closing her eyes as she reached out to him again. Levan, can you hear me? I’m sorry for how I treated you. It won’t happen again.

Careful, Isaac reached out to her. The men can overhear you. If they think—

“I don’t care if it looks like an admission of weakness,” Reva shot back at him. “Gulchina was all about strength and intimidation, but I am not. What I say to one of you, I say to all.”

She turned her attention back to Levan, whose hands were shaking as he burned the engine at full throttle.

Levan, come back. It’s not too late. Come back to us, and all will be forgiven.

Listen to her, Jebe reached out with her. You’re a fool if you think Gulchina will show you mercy.

We know you can hear us, Tomas added. Turn the ship around and—

Levan screamed and pounded his head against the bulkheads. The pain jolted Reva out of her trancelike state, even though she could only feel a fraction of it through the link. She rubbed her head and prepared to try again.

“Captain,” said the lieutenant. “Gulchina is coming over the horizon.”

Reva peered at the holographic viewscreen just below the forward window. It showed them coming up on the Starfire’s orbit, with the Starfire itself cresting the horizon.

“I’m getting a signal from them,” reported the comms officer. “They’re hailing us.”

Don’t worry, Jebe thought to her. We’ll keep trying with Levan.

Reva nodded and sat up with her back straight. “Put it on-screen.”

The viewscreen flickered and showed an image of Gulchina, sitting in the command chair on a bridge that was at least twice as large as the Temujin’s. She stared at Reva and narrowed her eyes.

“Reva Starchild,” she said, her voice low and dangerous. “I don’t remember leaving you in command. Where is Commander Wolf?”

“He’s dead,” said Reva matter-of-factly. “He betrayed us both. In the conflict that ensued, I killed him and assumed command of the Temujin.

Gulchina narrowed her eyes. “Why did you alter your orbit to evade us?”

Sweat began to form on the back of Reva’s neck, but she did her best to ignore it.

“When you arrived, it wasn’t clear that it was you. We took evasive maneuvers to—”

“Don’t lie to me, girl. The only fleet capable of flying to this system is mine.”

Shit! Reva thought. She’s catching on.

“As for Commander Wolf,” she said, ignoring Gulchina’s point. “I regret to inform you that the commander instigated a mutiny. He tried to have me executed, but I managed to convince those still loyal to you to accept my command.”

“Lies!” Levan screamed. He stopped banging his head against the bulkhead and furiously worked the controls on the outrider’s comms system.

“It appears that not all of my men share your view of events,” said Gulchina. “One of your outriders is trying to hail me. What can I expect them to say?”

Reva’s stomach fell. “I honestly don’t know,” she admitted. “But Gulchina, I—”

The transmission abruptly cut. Panic began to grow in Reva’s mind, amplified by the fears and apprehensions of her men.

“What do you want us to do?” Isaac asked.

“Levan will come around,” Reva whispered. If he doesn’t…

“Captain!” Levan shouted as Gulchina’s image flickered across his screen. “Captain Gulchina, it’s you—thank the stars!”

“Give me a full report, Private. What has the imposter done?”

“She’s gone crazy, Captain! Absolutely crazy! We tried to capture her, but—”

“Calm yourself,” Gulchina ordered. “Start at the mutiny with Commander Wolf.”

“There was no mutiny, captain! The bitch killed Commander Wolf and hijacked one of the outriders, with some help from Issa. We shot them down, but not two dayshifts later we got a distress signal from the crash site on the planet. Went down to capture them, and that’s when it all went wrong!”

Reva bit her lip, her heart racing and her hands trembling. Levan, she cried out telepathically. Please don’t do this, Levan.

“Aagh!” Levan shouted, clutching his head.

“What is it, Private?”

“It’s the bitch—she’s in my head! She’s in all of our heads! She’s infected us with something, some kind of alien mind control. I can’t get her out!”

Gulchina raised an eyebrow. “Mind control?”

“Yes, Captain—yes! Blue lights, voices in the dark, mother-queens, and TAKE US TO THE STARS. She took over the whole ship. There’s not a single soul who isn’t under her control.”

“Are you quite sure of this?”

“Yes,” Levan cried, tears streaming down his cheeks. “Please, Captain, make it stop! Make it stop!”

For several moments, Gulchina said nothing. Levan broke down like a child, falling to his knees in front of the display.

“Thank you, Private,” Gulchina said. “You have been most helpful.”

The transmission broke.

“Captain!” said the officer at sensors and comms. “I have a missile launch from the Starfire!

“No,” Reva whispered, tears coming to her eyes. She stared at the orbital map on the main display, which showed Levan’s outrider advancing several klicks ahead of them.

“Prepare for evasive maneuvers,” Isaac interjected. “Arm the countermeasures and get ready to run.”

The men looked from her to him and back again, confused at the sudden change in command. Do as he says, Reva ordered.

Levan stared at the screen, all but weeping. The voices from the Temujin had stopped, but he could still sense them watching him, judging him, condemning him. Above all the rest, he could feel the sad disappointment of the mother-queen, Reva. Well, Gulchina would soon show that bitch! The first missile was already away, and—

Alarms blared, and the lights flashed red. Levan glanced at the screen, and his eyes went wide.

“Cap—”

Levan’s outrider exploded with a brilliant, soundless flash. The shock of his death hit Reva like a blow to the stomach. She slumped back in her chair, while all around the Temujin, men staggered and fell. It took them several moments to recover—precious moments that they didn’t have to spare.

“Captain!” the comms officer shouted. “Gulchina is launching missiles—dozens of them!”

“Activate weapons and countermeasures,” Reva ordered. “Evasive maneuvers—get us as far from the Starfire as you can.”

The men were still winded from Levan’s death, but they recovered quickly and turned into an efficient fighting machine. Individually, each one only knew how to accomplish a handful of tasks, but by working telepathically, they were able to bring the Temujin’s weapons and countermeasures online faster than they ever had before. With an efficiency born of experience, all Reva had to do was point them in the right direction and let them take care of the rest.

Your orders, sir?

“There’s no way we can go up against the Starfire and win,” she said. “Keep your distance and buy us enough time to get away.”

“Captain, Gulchina is hailing us again.”

Reva swallowed. “Put it on screen.”

The viewscreen flickered, and Gulchina’s face appeared. Her eyes were colder than Reva had ever seen them.

“What have you done to my men?”

What’s our ETA on the jump drives?

ETA is zero. We’re already at minimum charge.

“What are you talking about?”

“Don’t play games with me,” said Gulchina. “I have my entire corsair fleet and the most powerful battlecruiser this side of the Coreward Stars. Stall for time, and I’ll scatter your ashes across the surface of this world.”

The jump beacon projects a wide enough bubble that we have to jump at least .2 light-hours to escape.

Damn! That means we need at least another… let’s see…

Forty-five minutes?

At least that long.

A new volley launched from the Starfire—far more than was necessary to destroy them. On the sensors, the missiles arcs began to separate into multiple trajectories. A new volley launched from the Starfire—far more than was necessary to destroy them. Reva gripped her armrests and tried not to count down the seconds until the first wave reached them.

“Levan told you I was controlling him, but that isn’t true. What is true, and what drove him to madness, was the telepathic link that we all now share.”

“How do you know what Levan told me before he died?”

You mean before you murdered him.

“I have the capacity to see through the eyes of all my men,” Reva answered. “And they can see through mine. We can also share our thoughts, because we are telepathically linked into a single collective consciousness.”

Gulchina’s nostrils flared, her rage seething beneath her carefully controlled countenance.

“Explain.”

“The birthright, Gulchina. Do you remember your own words about our destiny among the stars? On the surface of this world, I made contact with an alien intelligence, exactly as you said we one day would. That intelligence has melded with me, and with the minds of all of my men. They have accepted me as their captain and their mother-queen.”

Wait, those missiles aren’t targeting us.

No? Then what’s the target?

Several of them have separated, and are arcing toward the planet. Judging from the trajectories—

Reva’s eyes widened, and her heart skipped a beat. “Stars of Holy Earth,” she exclaimed. “You’re carpet-nuking the planet!”

“Indeed,” said Gulchina, her expression dangerously cool. “Levan warned me of this alien intelligence that has corrupted you. By your own admission, this is the source of your power.”

“Gulchina, you can’t,” Reva begged. “There is life down there—intelligent life! If you destroy it—”

“You are my greatest disappointment, Reva. I had hoped to share everything I had with you, but instead, you stole it from me. That will never happen again.”

The transmission cut. On the screen, the ships in Gulchina’s fleet spread out into an attack formation, moving to intercept the Temujin. The first of the nuclear missiles detonated, flashing as it sent a silent shock wave rippling across the surface. Sweat pooled on the back of Reva’s neck, and her arms began to shake.

“Your orders, captain?” said the lieutenant. He and other men looked to her expectantly, their attention focused. Her next decision was a matter of life and death.

“Can we stop those nukes?” she asked. Even as the question escaped her lips, she already knew the answer.

“Unlikely, sir,” said the weapons officer. “We might be able to intercept a few, but not enough to make a difference.”

“The Starfire and Tamerlane are launching drones. Repeat, the Starfire and Tamerlane are launching drones!”

“We have thirty-five minutes to jump.” Any less, and the jump beacon will suck us back.

“We don’t have that much time,” said Isaac.

An idea occurred to him. Reva, if we destroy the jump beacon, we can jump out immediately.

“Where is the beacon?” Reva asked, sitting up at once.

“It’s about a thousand klicks away, just cresting the horizon,” said the comms officer. “But Captain, if we target it, what’s to stop Gulchina from activating another one?”

“We’ll have to make it look like we aren’t targeting it,” said Reva. “Evasive maneuvers, but bring us within projectile range as quickly as you can.”

“Got it!”

On-screen, the drone swarms raced to intercept their trajectory. The Temujin pitched wildly, and the bulkheads shook as the engines came to life. The g-forces pressed Reva against her seat, but the dampers absorbed the worst of the sudden acceleration. With the enlisted men safely in their high-gee coffins down below, there was little risk of their maneuvers causing injury.

“Engaging countermeasures,” said the weapons officer. The wuft-wuft of plasma-fire mingled with the engines’ roar.

The drones are almost in range. Shouldn’t we launch our own?

If we do, they’ll be left behind when we jump out.

But if we don’t, we’re going to get thrashed.

Out the forward window, Star’s End filled the view as the Temujin nosed down, dropping to a lower orbit to accelerate. Missiles arced below the horizon and exploded in brilliant, silent flashes. The fireballs were magnificent, the shock waves tremendous. They lit the world with a hellish orange glow as if it were on fire.

MOTHER?

Reva could feel the alien consciousness pulsating with an emotion somewhere between fear and sadness. She tried to reach out to it, but it was like trying to embrace the wind. What had once been a single monolithic entity had shattered into a thousand disparate fragments. And at the edges of the collective, she could sense the coming worldfire.

Pain stabbed at her mind like the edge of a red-hot knife. She gasped and buried her head in her hands, but it struck her again moments later. Her men staggered, and the comms officer fell to the floor. Outside the forward window, the worldfire continued to rain down on the planet below.

MOTHER.

“Stop!” Reva screamed, but the pain was too much for her. She fell from her chair and curled into a ball, trying in vain to make it stop. As the agony of the worldfire swallowed her, the voice of the alien consciousness grew fainter and fainter. She reached out to it one last time before the darkness swallowed her.


* * * * *


“Hold your course!” said Isaac. “Stay strong!”

Reva collapsed onto the floor, but there was nothing he could do to help her now. The drones were already upon them, lighting up the sky with laser-fire. Surprisingly, the countermeasures were holding quite well, though it was only a matter of time before they were completely overwhelmed. Whether they could hold until the jump beacon was within weapons range was anyone’s guess.

The greater threat was the worldfire burning the planet—and with it, the alien collective that bound them all together. All around the ship, men staggered and fell unconscious like Reva. Isaac himself could feel the pain as it threatened to overwhelm him. Only by sheer force of will was he able to hold on.

“The Tamerlane and Ogedei have launched missiles! Repeat, the Tamerlane and the Ogedei have—”

“Our aft laser-star has taken a critical hit. We have a breach in our defenses!”

“Hull breaches imminent on decks one, three, and—”

The surface of the planet lit up with nuclear fire from one end of the horizon to the other. Shock waves propagated through the cloud layers like ripples in a pond, and the shock of the destruction hit them all like a sledgehammer to the skull.

Isaac fell to his knees, clutching his temples. The churning of the ocean against the fortress of his mind suddenly began to boil with fervent heat as the sky turned to fire. Great clouds of steam rose all around him, instantly scalding everything it touched. As the outer walls of his fortress began to crack, he exerted all his strength to build them thicker, bury himself deeper, keep himself as far from the raging inferno as possible.

What’s happening?

Stars of Earth—

Help us!

Closing his eyes, Isaac reached out to those still holding onto consciousness and extended his telepathic defenses to them. The worldfire burned like the surface of the sun, but deep inside his fortress, the last few members of the crew were able to hold on.

We’re running out of time. The countermeasures can’t hold.

Where is the jump beacon? Is it in—

There it is!

In the control room just below the bridge, Tomas assumed the weapon controller’s station and got a targeting lock on the beacon. He cleared a path through the drone swarm with a burst of plasma-fire and launched a missile.

It’s away!

Jump now! Jump now!

No, we have to—

We have a hull breach on deck three and an incoming missile barrage in five seconds! JUMP!

Somewhere outside of his mind, Isaac felt his stomach fall as the bulkheads of the Temujin began to close in on him. A wave of nausea passed through all of the remaining crew, and perspective shifted as the universe seemed to turn inside out. The humming of the engines rose sharply in pitch and intensity until the ship itself seemed ready to burst, and then their stomachs settled, perspective returned, and the engines settled back to normal.

Isaac responded by vomiting across the floor. Alarms still blared in his ears, and the worldfire still burned in his mind. Somewhere, he could see Tomas and the others responding to the hull breach on deck three, but that meant very little to him. The scanners were empty—he’d seen that through the eyes of the comms officer just as he passed out—and that meant they were safely away from Star’s End.

As the worldfire cooled and the assault on his mental fortress began to subside, he could hear the fading cries of the alien collective. Instead of speaking with the roar of a mighty ocean, its voice was barely louder than the whisper of the wind. It was dying, and Isaac knew that this request would be its last:

Take our children to the stars.

As the voice faded into the silence of eternal sleep, strength returned to Isaac’s mind. He reached out through his telepathic defenses, opening the door to his mental fortress to see what was outside. Instead of an ocean, there was now a desert—a vast empty wasteland devoid of life or moisture. The lonely wind howled off in the distance, and the skies were devoid of clouds.

Reva?

He blinked and opened his eyes, snapping out of the desolation in his mind. The alien collective was gone, burned in the terrible worldfire, but he was still connected to the others—could still see through their eyes, and feel their thoughts and emotions resonating through his own. Reva was unconscious but still alive, as were the others who had fallen when the worldfire had begun. He knelt by her side and laid his hand on her shoulder.

“We’re alive,” he said. “We’re safe—at least for now.”

But even if she were able to hear him, he knew that the words would bring her little comfort.


To the Stars


They’re gone, Reva thought, hardly able to believe it. An entire alien race destroyed by one madwoman’s rage.

Even so, she knew that that wasn’t entirely true. The consciousness’s last request still echoed through Isaac’s mind, and through his into her own: Take our children to the stars. She was one of those children, as was everyone on the Temujin. Through the symbiotic melding that they all now shared, they were the last surviving remnant of that extinct alien race.

Nations can only be born in blood, Reva remembered from Gulchina’s lecture. And that was what they were now: a new nation, a collective gestalt of human and alien.

She took a deep breath and gazed upon the antique fixtures of Gulchina’s personal quarters, now her own. The antique wooden table and intricately woven floor rug were undeniably rich, but they offered no warmth or comfort. On the contrary, the place felt more like a museum than a place Reva could call her own. The vintage décor and trappings of old wealth were constant reminders of Gulchina’s cruel austerity and obsession with power.

Elsewhere on the Temujin, the men busied themselves with preparations for the long voyage ahead. The damage sustained in the battle had been fairly severe, especially on deck three, but the breached segment had been sealed off and the vital systems were all in working order. They might not survive another fight against Gulchina, but once they were back in the Outworlds, that would be less of a problem.

Still, it would take them a long time to get anywhere. They were at least a year’s journey away from the nearest Outworld colony, even with the Temujin’s substantial FTL augments. Their food stores would only last for two months, so everyone except a bare skeleton crew would have to go down in cryo.

What level of battle readiness do we need to maintain? Isaac asked her telepathically.

He was on the bridge, directing the repairs and preparations of the crew. Ever since the Battle of Star’s End, the men seemed to naturally accept him as their new XO. Some of them were more than a little surprised that their former prisoner had risen so far so quickly, but Wolf’s death had left a power vacuum in the command structure and Isaac plugged it quite effectively.

“The automated defenses should be sufficient in deep space,” she answered him aloud. “Even with the jump beacons, space is wide enough that Gulchina will never find us.”

And when do we want to start putting the men into cryo?

He was understandably anxious. The crew had more or less unified after Gulchina had betrayed them, but there were still a host of unresolved tensions. Reva could never rule over them the same way Gulchina had, and the only real way to keep things from spiraling out of control was to put them under as quickly as possible.

Besides, she still needed time to figure out exactly what they were going to do, now that they were all telepathically bound to each other.

“Let those who wish to sleep through the long voyage be allowed to go into the ice as soon as possible,” she answered, speaking as much to the entire collective as to Isaac. “We will wake you when we return to human space.”

One by one, the men paused what they were doing to listen to her. Questions began to arise in their hearts.

What will we do once we get there?

Yeah. What’s in it for us?

Are we going to start a new pirate fleet like the Marauders?

“No,” Reva answered. “We are going to mingle with the humans in a way that they will not be able to recognize us. We will spread ourselves out across all of their colony worlds, keeping ourselves secret except to a trusted few whom we will invite to join us.”

In this way, I will take your children to the stars.

She could tell that Isaac didn’t like the idea. What about the unstable ones? he asked her secretly. Most of these men are sociopaths—they wouldn’t last five days in civilization.

“We will start new lives together,” she explained. “Whatever your faults or handicaps, I will do all I can to help you start over with a clean slate. When you wake up, you will be new men.”

Several of the men approved of her plan, but others were confused. They missed the structure that Gulchina’s rigid discipline had given to their lives.

Reva sighed and rubbed her forehead. Her self-doubts were as bare to the men as her henna-tattooed skin, which in some ways made it impossible for her to be the leader that they wanted. At the same time, though, they could see her perfectly for who she was: the sole survivor of a forgotten people, lost in a time that was not her own. And she could tell that they respected her for her strength in the face of her challenges.

“It will be okay,” she promised. “Everything will be all right.”

Somehow, that was enough. Those who still had doubts were willing to suspend them long enough to go down in the ice. Unlike Gulchina, whose face had been a cold, impassive wall, they could see into Reva’s soul and knew that she was being truthful. They would never follow her into battle, but they trusted her to keep her promise.

She leaned back on the couch and stared out the single porthole in Gulchina’s former quarters. The stars were jumbled in unfamiliar constellations, the clouds of the Good Hope Nebula twisted into unrecognizable shapes. But even though their light was cold, it was also peaceful. And even though the alien consciousness was gone, its final request echoed on:

Take our children to the stars.


* * * * *


Isaac dismissed the officers to the cryo chamber and oversaw the last of the preparations himself. The Temujin was much larger than his old ship, the Medea, but the systems operated along the same principles. The bridge felt empty with just one person, but then again, so had the Medea.

Aaron, he thought. Where are you now?

Whatever else had happened over the past few days, Isaac was no longer Gulchina’s prisoner. That period of his life was over. A lot had changed, but his desire to be reunited with his younger brother was no less diminished. If there was any chance that Aaron had survived the Battle of Colkhia, Isaac would not rest until he’d tracked him down.

So you want to find your brother? Tomas whispered to him telepathically.

Isaac bit his lip and stared at the deep space starfield outside the forward window.

Yes.

There isn’t much time. When I joined Gulchina’s Marauders, the Outworlders were forming a massive battle fleet to prepare for an impending invasion. It may have already happened.

His words made Isaac’s gut clench. What can we do?

If we fly on our own jump drives, we’re more than a year away from the nearest Outworld colony. But if we can find the jump beacons that Gulchina dropped between here and there, we can get there much faster.

Are you sure that’s a good idea?

You have anything better in mind? Tomas asked.

Isaac had to admit that he had a point.

What do you propose?

Only Gulchina knows the location of all the beacons, right? But many of the officers were with her on the bridge when she navigated us through them. By piecing together their memories, I can recreate the voyage and perhaps find a way to bring us through.

Isaac checked to see if Reva was getting any of this, but she wasn’t. Tomas had figured out how to block her from overhearing telepathic conversations. The men were learning to hide more and more of their minds from each other, increasingly keeping their thoughts and feelings to themselves. Without the sheer power of the alien collective, there were limits to what Reva could do to control them.

You want me to keep you awake for the voyage? he asked Tomas.

Surely you trust me more than the rest of these pirates. And even for a skeleton crew, you’re going to need a third person.

Fair enough. I’ll run it by Reva.

Don’t tell her about our plan to find the jump beacons just yet, said Tomas. Let me reach out to each of the men myself. If there’s a way to do it, I’ll put it together.

Isaac frowned. Just what did Tomas have in mind, exactly? He didn’t like keeping secrets from Reva, but his trust for her had certainly fallen. Not that he thought she was lying to them, of course—he could see into her mind well enough to know that she wasn’t—but she’d raped him once before. How did he know she wouldn’t do something similar again?

The prospect of spending a year alone with her didn’t exactly appeal to him, so he’d be happy to keep Tomas out of cryo. And if they could cut that year down to months or even weeks, so much the better.

Deal.

Good, Tomas whispered to him. I’ll get on it right away.

Isaac nodded and brushed his fingers absent-mindedly across the control console at the helm. The purple-blue clouds of the Good Hope Nebula stared down at him, far brighter here in deep space than they were in close proximity to a system sun. He and his brother had often stared out at those clouds as they’d navigated their way across the stars.

I’m coming for you, Aaron, Isaac swore to himself as he clenched his fists. I’m not going to let you go.


Author’s Note


In some ways, this was the most difficult book in the Sons of the Starfarers series to write so far. In other ways, it practically wrote itself.

The storyline for Captives in Obscurity first came to me while I was writing the second book in the series, Comrades in Hope. It was also during this time that I worked out most of the series arc, including the conclusion in book nine. Without giving away any spoilers, the events in Captives are going to prove pivotal, not only for Sons of the Starfarers but for the Gaia Nova books set in this universe as well.

That wasn’t what made this book so difficult to write, though. It was the fallout after the rape scene between Isaac and Reva. In a lot of ways, Isaac is the character that I can relate to the most: the dependable older brother who always does the responsible thing and tends to blame himself when things go wrong.

In 2012, I wrote a blog post deconstructing the “A Man is Not a Virgin” trope that got some traction on Reddit and quickly racked up more than 2,000 views. In some ways, I think that Captives in Obscurity was an answer to that discussion. We seem to have this idea in our culture that it isn’t rape if a woman does it, which of course is absolutely wrong. There are so many double standards when it comes to sex and waiting until marriage that I guess I felt compelled to write about it.

It’s not like Reva was trying to hurt him, but they come from such different cultures and belief systems that the potential for conflict was too great to be ignored. The rape scene was absolutely essential to the wider story arc for the series, as I think you’ll see in later books. That didn’t make it easy, though. It also didn’t make it easy that I like Reva as a character almost as much as Isaac. For all she did to hurt him, she isn’t a depraved monster or an obvious bad guy. That’s part of what made things so complicated.

It wasn’t easy, but I hope I managed to pull it off and still make for an interesting story. The part that wrote itself was basically everything else, and I think it all came together quite nicely. The idea for the telepathic alien consciousness originally came from the Trill in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but quickly morphed into something else. From a purely craft perspective, the point of view changes within the collective consciousness were a lot of fun to write. The idea for the execution scene in the first chapter came to me back in 2014 when I wrote Strangers in Flight, which is why in that book Gulchina holds Isaac prisoner in an airlock.

Gulchina is another fascinating character who was a lot of fun to write. If you’ve read any of the Gaia Nova books, which take place in this same universe 1,000 years later, you probably made the connection between Gulchina and the Hameji. One of the things I wanted to do with Sons of the Starfarers was bridge the gap between Star Wanderers and Gaia Nova, telling the origin story of the Hameji in the process. The next four books will, among other things, flesh out that story.

If you’ve enjoyed this book, I hope you’ll take the time to post an honest review. Not only does that help me out as an indie writer, but it also helps other readers to find what may be their new favorite book. You can also check out, One Thousand and One Parsecs, where you can sign up for my email list, which is the best way to be informed whenever I have a new release. As of this writing, I don’t know when the Sons of the Starfarers series will be complete, but I do know that there will be no more than nine books, and that the next one, Patriots in Retreat, will almost certainly come out before the end of 2016.

Thanks for reading!


Acknowledgments


Thanks to my first readers, Benjamin Keeley and Logan Kearsley, for their feedback on this book, and also to Erin Kearsley and Scott Bascom for being a sounding board for some of my ideas with this book. We have a lot of interesting conversations, so it’s hard to tell which ones were the most influential in the writing of this book, but there definitely were quite a few. Thanks also to Josh Leavitt for his editing services and Karen O’Donnell for the cover design.


The war for the Outworlds continues in Patriots in Retreat!


Captives in Obscurity


NO LEADER IS EVER FULLY PREPARED TO ORDER THE DEATHS OF THOSE THEY LOVE.


It is the Outworld’s darkest hour. Gulchina’s betrayal has eliminated the Outworlder’s only strategic advantage. As the full force of the Gaian Imperial Navy bears down on them, defeat is all but inevitable.

Mara is no stranger to lost causes. It is not her own life that she fears for, however, but the lives of her men. As world after world falls before the Imperial onslaught, her greatest fear may soon be realized.

No commander is ever fully prepared to watch their men make the ultimate sacrifice, but that may no longer be avoidable in


SONS OF THE STARFARERS

BOOK VI: PATRIOTS IN RETREAT

A frontier space opera saga one thousand years before the events of Bringing Stella Home.


Captives in Obscurity


HE WANDERS THE STARS IN SEARCH OF A HOME. INSTEAD, HE GOT A GIRL WITHOUT ONE.


When Jeremiah arrived at Megiddo Station, all he wanted was to make some trades and resupply his starship. He never thought he’d come away with a wife.

Before he knows it, he’s back on his ship, alone with his accidental bride. Since neither of them speak the same language, he has no way to tell her there’s been a terrible mistake. And because of the deadly famine ravaging her home, there’s no going back. She’s entirely at his mercy, and that terrifies him more than anything.

Jeremiah isn’t ready to take responsibility for anyone. He’s a star wanderer, roaming the Outworld frontier in search of his fortune. Someday he’ll settle down, but for now, he just wants to drop the girl off at the next port and move on.

As he soon finds out, though, she has other plans.


CLICK HERE TO BUY STAR WANDERERS: OUTWORLDER (PART I)

A grand space opera adventure from the author of Star Wanderers.


Captives in Obscurity


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


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

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


CLICK HERE TO BUY BRINGING STELLA HOME


Captives in Obscurity


Created with Writer2ePub

by Luca Calcinai



home | my bookshelf | | Captives in Obscurity |     цвет текста   цвет фона   размер шрифта   сохранить книгу

Текст книги загружен, загружаются изображения



Оцените эту книгу