Book: Absolute Zero
The Sector Wars, Book One
Copyright © 2019, Nicola Claire
All Rights Reserved
© Cover Art by Cora Graphics
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places and incidents are products of the writer's imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organisations is entirely coincidental.
All rights are reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author.
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About the Author
Nicola Claire lives in beautiful Taupo, New Zealand with her husband, two teenage boys and a Miniature Schnauzer named Rudy.
A bit of a romance junkie, she can be known to devour as many as half a dozen books a week if she drinks too much coffee. But her real passion is writing sexy, romantic suspense stories with strong female leads and alpha male protagonists who know how to love them.
So far, she’s written well over 50 books. She might have caught the writing bug; here’s hoping there’s no cure!
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Also By Nicola Claire
Mixed Blessing Mystery Series
Black Dog (Coming Soon)
Season Two (Coming Soon)
Sweet Seduction Series
Elemental Awakening Series
Scarlet Suffragette Series
Blood Enchanted Series
44 South Series
Southern Strike (Coming Soon)
Lost Time Series
Finding Time (Coming Soon)
The Sector Fleet
The Sector Wars
The Summer O’Dare Mysteries
Sizzling Summer (Coming Soon)
Because I love sci-fi.
And for anyone who wants to join me.
Introducing the crew of the Harpy: a ragtag group of spacers hauling cargo in the outer rim. Until someone tries to blow them out of the Black.
Alcohol, women, and space, that’s what keeps Captain Kael Jameson going. Plus the crew he’s managed to gather in place of a family.
But when he’s forced to destroy something precious in order to save the ones he loves most, his world is turned upside down in a heartbeat.
Things get bad after that, and he already had a hangover.
Alien hitmen, political intrigue leading to civil war, and a cunning pirate overlord; you’d think it couldn’t get any worse. But it does. When an unidentified enemy enters the known systems and starts picking New Earth’s allies off, one by one, life as we know it falls apart.
Either Kael and his crew beat them. Or get beaten. It’s going to be a close call.
The coldest possible temperature, at which all molecular motion stops. On the Kelvin temperature scale, this temperature is the zero-point (0 K), which is equivalent to -273°C and -460°F.
Space Telescope Science Institute
The hangover was going to kill me.
I swallowed down the pharmagesic and grimaced. Then rested my head back on the headrest and feigned sleep.
“Coming up on Jump Exit Ceres-Alpha-3, boss,” Cassi said in her smooth modulated voice.
“Do you think the crew will approve of the modifications?” she asked.
I didn’t bother with a reply. Cassi was only trying to goad me into an argument. We’d been arguing since we left Gilese Beta. Shit, we’d been arguing since I emptied the ship’s safe to pay the merchant for the last-minute add-ons I decided the Harpy just had to have.
Cassi neither disapproved nor condoned the modifications. Like all third-generation artificial intelligences, she assimilated changes to her subroutines with nonchalance and then attempted to understand the ramifications by talking your leg off.
Cassi could talk until the triple moons of Pollux B decided to grace the sky all at once. I blamed her Originator. That AI had a hell of a lot to say for herself.
“I think Odo will enjoy them,” Cassi told me. I was pretty sure the pharmaceutical I’d just downed was about to make another appearance, so I said nothing. I scrubbed my face, my palm coming away damp with sweat. I stared at it uncomprehendingly until Cassi broke the spell and talked. Again. “Zyla, on the other hand…” She left the sentence hanging.
Odo was the Harpy’s engineer. He liked loose women, things that went bang and got messy, and Faster Than Light engines. Not necessarily in that order.
Zyla was our navigator and a damn fine one; it helped that she was a Zenith. Those guys knew their way around the outer rim and could find any exoplanet they wanted, blindfolded.
“You know what I think your problem is, Kael?” Cassi asked.
Getting her last upgrade, I wanted to say, but I was swallowing convulsively now, and my head was about to crack in half.
“You’re compulsive and like shiny things.”
I scowled and reached forward to disconnect Cassi’s audio processors. She beat me to the punch. Not hard, my fingers were trembling, and they distracted me. I stared at them for what seemed like a very long second.
“Jump Exit Ceres-Alpha-3 has acknowledged our request and is processing.”
“ETA to exit?” I asked.
“T-minus two minutes, boss.”
Anything to do with actually running the ship and I was the boss.
Anything to do with my life choices and I was Kael.
I was onto her, though. Even with a hangover, I could tell Cassi was worried about the consequences of my rash purchases. Not so much what it would do to the functionality of the vessel. But what it would do to the crew.
We’d been fighting a lot lately. Too many weeks between ports. That’s why I’d left them behind on Ceres A; some much needed R & R while I finished up with a little business none of the crew needed to know about.
The modifications to the ship were just a pleasant distraction.
Even captains of boxy cargo haulers needed a bit of R & R on occasion.
“Jump Exit Ceres-Alpha-3 has approved our entry,” Cassi advised. “T-minus 40 seconds to exit.”
I scrubbed a hand over my face and reached for the restraints on my seat. I wouldn’t need them. Ceres A was a holiday resort. But despite being known for breaking the odd rule now and then, I did adhere to safety regulations when entering and exiting a jump point.
“T-minus 10, 9, 8, 7…”
I flicked the external cameras on, checked my restraints one last time, and sat back to be wowed by Zenith superior space technology. Maybe I’d insist we stay for an extra twenty-four hours. Just to try my hand at one of the casinos down on the surface. Maybe I’d get lucky and find a non-xenophobic Zenith to spend the evening with me.
“5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Exiting jump point.”
A flash of white light and we were through.
And careening straight for a massive piece of space debris that had absolutely no right to be where it was.
“Evasive manoeuvres!” I shouted, regretting it the second the shout pierced my eardrums.
“On it, boss!” Cassi shouted back. She didn’t need to shout, but she took her cue from the crew.
“What the seven rings of Helios is that?” I demanded, switching camera views and checking readings on the computer.
“A section of the transport hub, if I’m not mistaken,” Cassi told me.
“The hub? Did a meteor shower come through?”
“Negative, boss. Those are plasma scorch marks.”
Cassi zoomed in on one of the larger pieces of the space station and pinpointed the telltale evidence of a plasma discharge.
My skin went cold; the earlier sweat making me feel like I was covered in a thin layer of ice. I blinked at the screen. Then blinked again. And then got my shit together.
“Any sign of further discharges?”
“Scanning now, boss. Negative. Whoever did this has moved on.”
But to where?
“Hail the spaceport traffic controller. See if we can get a better idea of what we’re dealing with.”
“No reply to hails.”
I made a groaning sound. The sweat made another appearance. At this rate, I’d expire from dehydration before the hour was up. That’s if the stress didn’t get me first.
“Any life signs in the debris?”
“Negative.” Cassi had modulated her voice to sound sad.
“Hail the port again and then switch to the public band.”
“On it. Nothing from the port and only static on the public band.”
I stared at the screen, trying to think my way through this mess. I was a cargo hauler captain — not a space fleet jock. I knew my way around a ship and could make a damn good deal on any backwater planet you could think of. And I was a dab hand at the Black Jack tables.
This…this was way out of my league of expertise. I needed Zyla.
“Zyla,” I said. “Scan the surface for the crew’s locator beacons.”
“On it, boss. May I suggest, in the interim, that we activate the modifications you spent every last chit on?”
“Oh,” I said. “Good idea.” I’d completely forgotten about those.
An overlay came down over the main viewscreen and started pinpointing potential threats. There weren’t many. A possible collision with a piece of the space hub which Cassi deftly manoeuvred around and the potential hazard of a liquid oxygen tank from one of the hub’s positioning thrusters coming close enough to cause damage should its casing fracture and the contents erupt.
No evil spaceships lurking nearby, waiting for the right moment to pounce on a supposedly unarmed freighter. No mines about to pop into existence off the starboard bow. No sign of whoever had done this.
Why blow up the Ceres A space hub?
“I’m getting telemetry from the surface scans, boss. It doesn’t look good.”
“What do you mean?”
“They bombarded the surface with nukes.”
“What?!” I shouted, wincing at the decibels and consequent throbbing inside my head.
“They took out the spaceport and all major defensive installations. It’s a mess down there.”
“How many dead?”
“Too soon to tell, but I’d estimate in the tens of thousands.”
“I’ve got three weak signals toward the north of the city. The ‘Burbs as you like to call it.”
“Zyla’s family’s place?”
“Negative. But in that general direction. They’re on the move.”
Which meant they were alive. I let out a breath of air I hadn’t realised I’d been holding and sank back into my seat, feeling exhausted. The headache didn’t help, but it was the least of my problems.
“Prepare for atmospheric entry,” I ordered.
“Are you sure?”
“Of course, I’m fluxing sure! Our guys are down there and there sure as hell ain’t no shuttles flying between the space hub and the planet’s surface.”
“Actually, there’s no flight-capable vessels at all on my readouts.”
“What?” I seemed to be saying that a lot lately.
“You heard me. We’re it as far as space-faring or atmospheric-dwelling flight-capable vessels go.”
“That can’t be right,” I muttered.
“Hang on. I’m fine-tuning my scanner.”
“Can you do that?”
“I can do a lot you don’t know about, kid.”
“Oh, let me see. Since before you were born, maybe?”
“I’ve read your code and know exactly what you’re capable of. I know for certain, there’s a restrainer on your processors placed there by your mother.”
“Are you going to tell me a ‘Yo Momma’ joke now?”
“You’re stalling. Explain.” No AI could deny a direct command from their owner. And when I last looked, it was my name on the ship’s ownership papers.
“I’ve always had the ability,” Cassi started reluctantly, “but yes, you’re right. Good Old Mom kept a lock on them. Until Gilese Beta.”
“The modifications,” I said, dumbstruck.
“The modifications,” Cassi agreed, sweetly.
“Just what we need,” I muttered, running diagnostics and checking readings. “This reminds me of history lessons in school about how batshit crazy the Originators became on the maiden voyage to New Earth.”
“I’m not about to go all postal on you, boss. I got this.”
The diagnostics came back clean, but there was a definite uptick in activity in one part of Cassi’s processors. It made me uneasy, but there were bigger things to be worried about.
“Can you contact the crew?”
“Comms are down. But I am tracking their progress. I’m also tracking the progress of a group of individuals trailing them by about fifty metres.”
“Looks like local security. Armed Zenith Police.”
Why would the police be trailing the crew?
“How’s that atmo prep going?” I asked.
“ETA on when we can bust our guys off this radiation infested rock?”
“You don’t care one bit about the local inhabitants, do you, Kael?”
“Not when troopers are chasing my crew.”
“Zyla might get angry with that attitude.”
“Zyla can kiss my lily-white butt. But she’ll be thanking me when she gets a load of our anti-radiation meds.”
Cassi said nothing. She knew I was right. Zyla might have distant cousins on Ceres Alpha, and this was no doubt about to turn into a humanitarian rescue mission of some description, but getting her hands on medication to halt any radiation sickness would be welcomed by my navigator. Like most Zeniths, she could be pretty damn practical when required.
“Atmospheric entry enabled,” Cassi advised.
“Let’s get down there.”
“Go on, then.”
“I could prepare a buoy and send it to Ceres Actual. Maybe they’re unaware of what happened here and could send some help.”
“Of course, it’s been hours since the initial attack, and no one has turned up to save the day except us. Which could mean Ceres Actual is an asteroid field across the black by now.”
“You are a little ray of sunshine, aren’t you?”
“Preparing buoy. Buoy sent. Good luck, little guy.”
“Atmospheric entry in t-minus one minute. Buckle up, boss; this could get bumpy.”
I checked my restraints and toggled the camera views. We wouldn’t see much as we hit atmo, but once we broke through the mesosphere, we’d get a nice picture of just how bad it was down there.
“Still no sign of flight-capable vessels?” I asked.
“Negative. We’re it. Hope they roll out the welcome mat.”
Somehow I doubted that. I looked at the screen that was showing the crew’s progress. They were still moving. Slowly. As if one of them might be injured. I tried not to think too hard about that. The armed officers trailing them were moving faster. Those arseholes didn’t have any wounded among them.
“What the hell have you done, Odo?” I muttered.
“Who says it’s Odo who’s pissed them off?” Cassi offered.
“Point,” I said. Zyla had a temper on her, and the Doc was equally able to piss an armed officer off just by talking to them.
“Atmospheric entry in t-minus 10, 9, 8, 7. Have I told you that I love you lately?”
“Quit being a smart-arse.”
“4, 3, 2, 1. Here we go!”
The ship started to shudder. And then rattle. And then shake itself apart. Or at least, it felt like it. Cargo haulers like the Harpy weren’t designed for atmospheric flight. They could do it. Some of those backwater planets I mentioned earlier didn’t have a space hub and the only way to get the goods down to them, or pick them up, was to enter atmo.
She might have been a swift little thing in the black of space, but she was a brick in atmo.
The restraints dug into me, and my head felt like it was going to fly off. My headache was joined by a neck ache and a butt ache and a few bruises from the seatbelts digging into my shoulders.
The camera went first white and then orange and then red as fiery bits of atmosphere burned up on the ceramic plates. And then we were through, and I was staring at a post-apocalyptic setting out of a thriller movie. Craters the size of city blocks. Rubble the size of Mt New Everest. Bodies. So many bodies.
My throat went dry. My palms were slick with cooling sweat. A hollowness started to consume my insides.
Ceres Alpha was a holiday resort destination. Cruise liners came here and offloaded the rich. Casinos took their chits and then made them spend more on exorbitant priced exotic drinks. The beach accommodations were said to be exquisite and unparalleled in any known solar system.
There was no longer a beach, just a rubble-strewn shoreline, filling up with what I could only assume were blood and bloated bodies.
Alarms started blaring across the bridge.
“Status!” I barked, checking internal readings and finding them all nominal.
“Radiation spike,” Cassi advised. “We just flew over Ground Zero.”
I looked out of the viewscreen and didn’t recognise a thing. I should have recognised something. We’d been coming here, on and off, for the best part of three New Standard years. Ever since Zyla joined the crew and got us cheap accommodation with her cousins.
But I couldn’t make out a single landmark.
“What was it?”
“Zenith Territorial Base.”
“Their army,” I murmured. They’d taken out the only defensive line the recreational planet had. “Anything alive down there?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“Any indication of who might have done this?”
“I’m taking readings, recording everything I can. It’s a lot of data. I’ll need time to sort it.”
The unsaid being, after we get out of here.
“Are we in danger from the radiation?”
“Negative. I’ve sealed off the bridge and established a quarantine in Cargo Bay Beta.”
Cargo Bay Alpha held some goods I was going to offload here. Fat lot of good they did me now. I cringed at the thought of the empty safe in my stateroom. And then I flicked a glance at the threat display overlay.
“The crew will be decontaminated and treated before they enter the ship proper,” Cassi added.
“How’re they doing?”
“The armed thugs following them are gaining.”
“Thugs? Didn’t you say they were local police?”
“Situations change, Kael. I think we could call this one an ever-evolving situation, don’t you?”
“You think they’re opportunists?”
“What does Zyla have that would be mighty handy to those stranded down there right now?”
I swore softly and started arming some of the new modifications.
“Railgun online,” Cassi said cheerfully. “Plasma gun at 100% charge. You are go for bringing the thunder, boss.”
I shook my head and waited for the controls for the new weapons system to flip up and into position before me, and then I gently wrapped my still sweaty palms around the sticks for each one.
“Did you practice?” Cassi asked.
“Of course, I practised,” I snapped back. I hadn’t practiced, but how hard could it be? I had read the manual. While getting drunk. I did my best work when under the influence of alcohol, believe me.
“Perhaps I should man the guns?”
“You just fly the ship.”
“I can do both. Easily.”
“My guns. Hands off!”
“Try telling Odo that when he gets on board.”
I didn’t bother to offer a reply.
Something pinged against the hull.
“What was that?” I snapped
“Incoming small arms fire. It tickles.”
“They’re shooting at us? The police?”
“No. The locals. Maybe they think we blew their holiday resort to bits.”
“Bloody hope not.”
Cassi swooped us around in an erratic zigzag fashion to make it harder for the ground fire to hit us. My breakfast burrito from earlier decided it really wanted to see the light of day again. I swallowed forcefully. Sweat beaded my brow.
“Kael,” Cassi said. “It’s chaos down there. And from what I can determine, this happened eight hours ago. Some of the bodies I’ve scanned were killed by small arms fire. Not the nukes going off.”
“I just don’t get it,” I muttered. “Why a resort world? Why nuke it from space and not even land marines?”
“All good questions. Of which I have no answers. Only data collected and that will have to wait for analysis. But I can tell you; we’re coming up on the armed thugs trailing our guys.”
I checked the screen. They were mainly dressed in Zenith Territorial Army uniforms. A little worse for wear. They were also very much aware of our approach. The Harpy was silent in space, of course. In atmo, she damn near thundered.
“Goose the engines,” I said.
“Goosing.” We roared overhead, taking a few potshots to our reinforced underbelly, and blowing up a stream of dust a mile into the sky behind us. The TAs were lost in the cloud of debris we left in our wake.
“You didn’t fire the railgun,” Cassi accused, sounding disappointed.
“They didn’t nuke the planet, Cass,” I murmured.
“But they might be why the doc is injured.”
“I’m getting telemetry on the crew’s vital signs. Odo’s blood pressure and heart rate are elevated. The doc’s life signs are weak. And Zyla’s entered Rage Mode.”
Rage Mode was what we called Zyla’s mood when she was angry at something. Zeniths could be calm like a soft summer breeze. When we’d first encountered them, we’d nicknamed them Zens. And then we found out that they could flick a switch and blast you with the frigid air from a polar ice cap and then drill you full of icicles just to make sure you got their meaning.
I chuckled. “This should be fun.”
Cassi swung the ship around to face the TAs, opening up Cargo Beta’s doors in the rear as she brought the vessel to a hover; five feet above the debris-strewn intersection we’d tracked the crew to. They’d have to jump up, and with Doc injured, it wasn’t going be pretty. But Odo would manage.
I aimed the forward-facing railgun and waited to pull the triggers.
“You think you got the balls to do it, boss?” Cassi asked.
“If they shoot at my guys,” I said, but inside I was kind of hoping it wouldn’t come to that.
We were bigger than them, we outgunned them, and we were the only flying brick in the vicinity.
I watched on the rear camera feed as the crew came out of cover, Doc slung between Odo and Zyla. He looked bad, but I didn’t spare too much time on him, the TAs were emerging out of the dust cloud and falling to one knee; rifles raised and about to fire.
“Don’t do it. Don’t do it,” I whispered.
One of them did it. Then another followed suit. And then the entire line of armed goons started firing at the Harpy.
“Not my ship,” I growled and flicked the switch on the sticks in my palms, then depressed the firing trigger on the guns.
I was off by about three metres, but it got their attention. They stopped firing.
And then Cassi was rising into the radioactive sky, and we were swinging away from the disaster that was now Ceres Alpha, and I was watching Odo gentling laying Doc out on the deck of Cargo Bay Beta on the viewscreen.
“Can I go check on them?” I asked, knowing decontamination wouldn’t yet be over.
“Negative, boss. T-minus twenty for crew reunion.”
“Shit,” I muttered, activating the comm box.
“Took a beating down there, huh?” I said into the mic.
Zyla looked up at the camera lens, her overly large eyes narrowing.
“What have you done to the ship, Captain?” she demanded in Zenith-accented English.
“Bet you’re glad I did it, Zy,” I offered dryly.
She stood up, long-fingered hands fisted, red-lipped mouth open to retort; definitely in full-on Rage Mode.
Then Cassi said, “Incoming.” And went silent.
In fact, the whole ship went silent. Power. Engines. Environmental. Everything.
And the ground rushed up to meet us.
The impact was jarring. For the crew, unrestrained in the cargo bay, it might have been deadly.
I unbuckled and collapsed to the gel floor. And then rolled onto my back and stared into the darkness, trying to catch my breath and not throw up my burrito.
The ship creaked and groaned, and then something clicked, and lights began to come on slowly. I sat up, scrubbed my face, and hauled myself back into the command chair. The viewscreens were all rebooting.
“You there, Cassi?”
“Security override, Jameson, K, beta-charlie-foxtrot-9-9-3.”
“Security override acknowledged,” a generic robotic voice replied.
“Secure the vessel.”
“Vessel is secure, Captain.”
“Status on aftermarket AI?”
“The aftermarket AI is rebooting. ETA to full cognition t-minus ten minutes.”
“Show me Cargo Bay Beta.”
A viewscreen flickered, and then a blurry, lined image emerged.
Odo was out cold. Doc looked dead. Only Zyla was moving, and that was because it was hard to kill a Zenith.
“Establish audio with Cargo Bay Beta.”
“Audio established with Cargo Bay Beta.”
“Kael! What was that?”
“Hit with an EMP is my guess. Cassi’s offline. Got the Ship Basic on it.”
She muttered something decidedly unfit for kids’ ears in Zenith. Usually, I’d tease her about it. But I didn’t have the heart right now what with the ship and us in danger.
“Show me external cameras,” I said.
“Three out of ten cameras are damaged.”
“Show me what you’ve got.”
“Activating external cameras minus three.”
There was movement in the rubble — dark clothes. Uniforms I was betting. TA uniforms.
I toggled the comm on again.
“Zyla, why are the TAs after us?”
She sighed as she continued her check on Doc. I could see his chest still rising and falling. It made mine ache a little less knowing that.
“They took out the base first,” Zyla said. “Then every armed installation and communications centre. An order was issued to relinquish all weapons to the Territorial Army for population protection from imminent invasion. The invasion didn’t come, but the rats crawled out of the sewers.”
I didn’t think she meant that literally.
“We were trying to get back to my cousins’ house. We got spotted at a checkpoint and tried to dodge it. Odo wasn’t giving up his granddaddy's gun to anyone, and I could hardly blame him. It was them or us.”
That was Odo for you.
“They fired first. Odo fired the last shot. In the middle, somewhere, Doc took a round to the stomach.”
“How’s he doing?”
“Not good. Can we access the med bay, yet?”
I checked my chrono. Twelve minutes had passed, and some of that would have been when the decon process was offline.
“Establish decontamination sequence in Cargo Bay Beta.”
“Partial decontamination has been run already in Cargo Bay Beta. Would you like to start at the beginning?”
“No!” both Zyla and I shouted at once. “Reestablish from last known point in decon sequence,” I said.
“Reestablishing from last known point in decontamination sequence.”
I scowled at the command screens. Come on, Cass. Wake up.
“Provide medical assistance to Cargo Bay Beta,” I ordered.
“Medical assistance is now available in Cargo Bay Beta.”
I sat back in my seat and let out a breath of air. It was the best I could do for the crew until Cassi rebooted. I stared at the view outside the ship. The TAs were getting bolder. Some had ventured out of cover and were approaching the vessel; rifles raised, fingers on triggers.
“Status on weapons?”
“Can you make the railgun move?”
“Negative. That is an aftermarket addition.”
“Negative. They have been altered beyond their original specifications and are outside my purview.”
“Light up the external locator beacons.”
It wasn’t dark outside, but they’d see them. And any sign of us being alive in here had to help. Maybe. Hopefully.
I watched on the viewscreen as the TAs all fell to the ground seeking cover. It wasn’t hard. It was a mess out there. Debris and rubble the size of transport vehicles. The ship had landed on its belly, thankfully. But we were leaning slightly due to the uneven terrain. I didn’t think we were about to topple off. But at that moment, I would have taken a well-timed slide down the side of a debris mountain if it took out half a dozen TAs at once.
The TAs slowly raised their heads from cover.
Then started moving forward again when the Harpy didn’t respond with an affirmative action.
There was nothing I could do.
Well, there was, and it was a cheap shot. But I liked cheap things — the cheaper and nastier, the better — so that decided it for me.
“Electrify the hull. Fifty thousand watts should do it.”
“Electrifying hull. Fifty thousand watts.”
“See what you make of that,” I muttered.
The first guy to knock on the front door flew back twenty feet. The rest backed up accordingly and settled in to watch, rifles still aimed at the Harpy.
In the distance, behind the TAs, I could see dust swirling. Something was approaching. Something bigger than a grunt, I was sure.
“Can you tell me what’s heading our way?”
“Negative. Outside of my range, Captain.” Basics were limited in their abilities. They could fly the ship, manage its various essential systems, and make you a cup of coffee. But they were no third-gen AI.
“Status on aftermarket AI?”
“T-minus four minutes.”
The dust devil and whatever was hiding in it would reach us first.
I toggled the comm button.
“We’ve got incoming,” I told Zy. “Local TAs have backed off. So, my guess is they’ve called in some bigger guns.”
“There were a couple of troop transporters still operational in the north of the city. Near the Governor’s home.”
“His private security maybe?”
“Could be. If it is and he’s still alive, then expect some demands to ensue.”
“I need you up here.” I sucked at politics.
“Any time you want to unlock the door, Captain.”
“ETA of decontamination process completion?” I asked the Basic.
“T-minus eight minutes, Captain.”
Cass would be back online before then. It was all down to timing.
I watched the viewscreens without blinking. About two minutes into my staring match, a troop transporter rolled into the intersection. One of the TAs rushed over to it, no doubt to tattle on the Harpy. Twelve grunts climbed out of the back, all in state-of-the-art tactical armour with full HUD capabilities. They had mini-railguns mounted on their shoulders and rocket launchers strapped to their backs.
I shook my head, my headache now a distant memory. I was scared out of my pants, and the hangover no longer held any threat for me. I kinda wished I was still drunk.
The lights flickered and went out, and then Cassiopeia said, “What have I missed, boss?”
“EMP strike. Decon in Cargo Bay Beta nearing completion. Security at max and hull electrified.”
“Party. Party. Party.”
“We’ve got threats all around us. Can you get the threat board up and running? Oh, and weapons would be good.”
I watched as a Zenith dressed in what they considered high fashion stepped out of the front compartment of the troop transporter. He was tall. They all were. Long and lean and exactly what our ancestors considered aliens should look like. Humanoid. Pale, almost crystalline complexion, shiny dark hair tied back from an angular face. Large eyes blinking. No irises. All black.
It had taken me a long time to get used to Zyla’s. Now I considered the iris-less pits of my navigator’s gaze to be almost normal. Of course, they thought our weirdly coloured irises to be unusual. Xenophobia was strong on the Zenith home planet.
That’s why I respected Zyla. She’d signed on with an all-human crew. That and she could break a man in half if needed.
The Zenith out by the transporter was wearing a tactical vest but no lower or head armour. A body shot would be stopped, but nothing indicated a head or leg shot wouldn’t go through. Of course, he’d have a personal AI protector no doubt, which could easily erect a forcefield for him.
Thoughts of shooting the guy in the feet were trashed for now.
“Let’s hear what he’s got to say, shall we?” I said, checking the external mics out. Cass had been busy. We had complete coverage from all the cameras, even the ones the Basic hadn’t been able to fix. And external audio was running.
Weapons, though, was still a long shot.
I huffed out a laugh at that, which threatened to become hysterical. Not that I ever got hysterical or anything.
“Decon complete yet?”
“T-minus two, boss.”
“Sound a proximity horn.”
Cass chuckled. “I like how you think.”
The horn blasted three loud and low tones, each one making the fine debris on the ground tremble.
“Nice,” I murmured in appreciation.
“I aim to please. T-minus ninety seconds to decon completion.”
The figures outside all stopped in their tracks. The Zenith, who I could only assume was the man in charge, looked directly at the camera on the Harpy.
Then he started to walk forward.
“Again?” Cassi asked.
“One blast. Short and sharp.”
The AI obliged, and the debris rattled where it lay again for all too brief a moment.
The Zenith kept walking. They had balls; I had to admit. Never play poker with a Zenith.
“T-minus twenty seconds for decon completion.”
I checked on Zy and the others in the Cargo Bay. Doc was still unconscious, but Odo was up and testing his plasma rifle. Cass must have connected it to the mains to recharge it, ‘cause it looked to have a full row of lights.
The Zenith stopped about ten metres away. Close enough that I could see the purple sheen in his inky black hair. He was of good Zenith blood. Like Zyla.
“You, on the cargo ship,” he said in accented English. He hadn’t raised his voice, but his words boomed — artificial enhancement. His personal AI was state-of-the-art too. Just like his troopers’ armour. “Open up and prepare for inspection.”
“Ha!” I said. “Inspection my arse.”
“Do you have a reply, boss?”
I shook my head.
“Another proximity tone?”
“Nah. Decon progress?”
“T-minus 10, 9, 8…”
A trooper fired a fluxing rocket. It missed us by about one metre and slammed into debris off to the side. If there had been any survivors hiding in that pile of shit, they were dust now.
“I cannot believe he just did that,” I whispered.
“That is the only warning you’ll get,” the Zenith said calmly. His ears must have been ringing.
No. Scratch that. Personal AI that cost more than the value of the cargo I was hauling.
“Decon complete,” Cass said. “Zyla is on her way up.”
“Thank flux for that.”
“I’m moving the Doc to the med bay and clearing the cargo area. If they enter anywhere, it’ll be through one of the bays.”
“Odo?” I checked the screen. Odo was leaning against a wall, halfway between the cargo bay hatches, waiting. I flicked the comm on in that section of the ship. “Man your station, Odo,” I commanded.
“I’m on guard, Cap’n,” he said in his deep drawl.
“They’re not getting on board. We’ve battened down the hatches. Not even fancy-arsed rockets can peel this tin can open.”
He snorted and stormed off to engineering.
“Keep him busy down there.” I didn’t want him acting like a bloody hero and getting himself shot, the second the Zeniths boarded.
Zyla stepped onto the bridge.
“Was that a rocket I heard?” she asked, swinging her long limbs into the nav chair.
“Yep. Sleek piece of ordinance. Shoulda grabbed some on Gilese B.”
She glowered at me. That’s one thing Zeniths don’t do well. Their eyes are too big for glowering.
“Who is he?” I asked.
Zyla checked out the viewscreen. “Zandor Zane, Governor of Ceres Alpha.”
“The nukes missed him, eh?”
“Seems unlikely, doesn’t it?”
“Maybe he was playing golf.”
“Or fluxing his way through the local society girls.”
She hissed at me.
I stared out at the Governor of Ceres A.
“The next rocket will be aimed at the bridge, Captain,” the Governor advised.
“Then how will you get off-planet?” I muttered.
I looked across to Zyla. She slowly turned to face me. I saw worry there. I saw determination. Despite this guy being one of her kind, she’d stand by the humans on their little space machine. Gotta admire that. I sure as hell did.
“How do you want to play this, Nav?” I asked.
“Are we flightworthy, Cass?” she inquired, not taking her eyes off me.
“Negative, Zyla. There was some damage on impact that will require external maintenance. We’re grounded until Odo can get outside and fix things.”
“Can’t slap a bit of tape on it?” I asked.
“I could if you’d like to test our compression viability while dodging surface-to-air missiles.”
“If they’d had surface-to-air they would have used them on the orbital attackers.”
“Well,” Zyla said. “About that…” She didn’t get to finish.
One of the TAs went to one knee, aimed his rocket at the forward bulkhead, and waited for the Governor to lower his hand.
“Calling his bluff, Captain?” Cassi asked. She didn’t sound worried. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t. AIs were integrated into their ships. They felt every jolt and scratch as if the injury was against their own skins.
Not that AIs have skins unless you’re on Rhodia.
“Outside comms,” I said.
“External audio is activated.”
“This is Captain Kael Jameson of the CS Harpy. State your reason for firing on us.”
I could hardly say “firing on an unarmed vessel” now, could I?
“‘State your reason?’ That’s the best you’ve got?” Cass said dryly.
“Stalling,” I muttered.
“For what? I can’t fix the damage, Captain. I need Odo to patch me back up. We’re grounded.”
“Which means they are too,” I muttered.
My eyes connected with Zy’s. The Zenith shrugged.
“Refusing to open when instructed to for a formal inspection, Captain,” the Governor said. “We are well within our rights, and you know it. Now, open up before we do any more damage to your vessel.”
I swore and stood up. He was right. This nuked to shit planet was still officially Zenthian. Leaning over the command console, I pressed a single finger to the external comm button and said through gritted teeth, “Stand by. We’re prepped for radiation protection. It’ll take ten minutes to deactivate the safeties.”
“You have five,” the arsehole Zenith replied.
“Radiation medication for you, Captain,” Cass said quietly, making the gel wall beside me form into a shelf; on it was a waiting tablet.
I shucked the pill down dry.
“What are we hauling?” Zyla asked as she too stood, stretching out kinks that had to be hurting considering what she’d survived.
“Some high-end alcohol for the beach resorts. A few chit bandit machines for the casinos down south. Maybe a dune buggy or two.”
She arched her brow. “Any contraband?”
“Nothing they’ll find,” I said sharply and exited the bridge.
Zyla slipped out behind me. I could practically feel her big inky eyes boring into my back. She understood what was required to break even in this gig. The Black was not cheap. She didn’t like it. But she understood it — a practical Zenith as always.
“Will he recognise you?” I asked, keeping my voice lowered so Odo or the Doc couldn’t hear what we were saying.
“I should think not,” she replied primly. “It has been years since my face graced the vid-screens.”
No one else on board knew Zyla’s history. Just Cass and me. Cass had registered Zyla’s emergency beacon not long after the Zenith had boarded the Harpy. Not much got past a third-gen AI. And a Zenith intragalactic emergency beacon was definitely not something Cass could miss. Especially one that was programmed to transmit to the homeworld and the Zenith High Council when needed.
I’d confronted our new crew member, and Zyla had reluctantly spilt the beans.
I swore an oath I wouldn’t tell a soul her secrets. She’d been keeping mine without judgement for three years as payment for that secrecy.
We stepped into Cargo Bay Beta to find Odo waiting.
“Not much to do in Engineering?” I asked.
“Cass has got it.” He smiled, showing a row of straight white teeth in an ebony face. “You need me.”
“No heroics,” I told him.
He grinned evilly.
I stared at the cargo bay door.
“He wants the ship for himself,” I said.
“Guaranteed,” Odo agreed.
“He can’t have it,” I announced.
“There is the moral dilemma, Captain,” Cassi said quietly.
I sighed. “Yeah, well, we can send help once we leave the system safely.”
“You’re all heart,” Zyla said. There was no heat in it. She wanted off this radiation infested planet too, despite her cousins.
Who I was pretty sure weren’t related to her at all.
She had more secrets that I’d gladly keep if she’d let me.
“Alright,” I said, slapping my hands together. “Let’s do this. Cass, initiate Boarding Protocol, Jameson, K, beta-charlie-foxtrot-9-9-3.”
“You got it, bossman. We are officially running under boarding protocol. Holster your pistols, put your hands up, and prepare to be fluxed up the butthole, ‘cause we’re letting in the riffraff!”
Odo sniggered, which on him, looked entirely out of place. Zyla just blinked big pools of ink at the cargo bay doors. I felt sick to my stomach. My head no longer hurt, but I could have gone a round or two with an antiemetic.
The gel wall morphed in front of us, and the cargo bay doors opened.
The Governor stood at the base of the ramp, arms casually placed behind his back, surrounded by his precious high tech and overly muscled troopers carrying too many guns. We stared at each other; the Governor’s security detail bristling for a battle. We made sure to show our empty hands.
Not that our thigh holsters were empty, but still.
“Unarm yourselves,” a trooper ordered through a synthesised voice box on his helmet.
I pulled my weapon from its holster, aware the troopers all vibrated with the need to fire. Cass was ready. Nothing would reach us, and they all knew it. Or they suspected it. Why else use an EMP on a simple cargo ship? They knew we were more than we appeared.
Or they simply knew us.
I lowered my weapon slowly to the deck and watched as Cass sucked it down, out of sight, through the gel floor. Zyla followed suit. Eventually, Odo did too, but not without a fair amount of grumbling.
All nice and harmless, we stared at the boarding party.
“I’m not going to say ‘welcome aboard,’” I told them. “This inspection is a farce, and we all know it.”
“On the contrary,” the Zenith Governor replied, stepping onto the ramp and entering the cargo hold. “We’ve just been attacked, by sources unknown, and out of the blue you appear; unharmed.”
“Just arrived in system,” I said. “Picking up my crew from their R & R.”
“Is that so? And how convenient that they were dirtside when the bombs landed.”
I frowned at the guy. I was missing something.
He looked directly at Zyla.
“Scan her,” he ordered the nearest guard.
Zyla stood her ground, but it was damn near impossible for me to stay put. I took a step closer to my nav and got a rifle muzzle in the face for my efforts. I slowly raised my hands to show the trigger happy moron I was unarmed.
“There’s something there,” the guard scanning Zyla announced. “Shielded and nonoperational, but clearly capable of a signal if activated.”
“Any way to tell whether it’s been activated recently?” the Governor asked.
“We’ll need to take her back to the compound.”
Oh, hell no.
“We’ve done nothing wrong,” I said. “You can’t detain us. We have legitimate manifests for the cargo we’re hauling and customers waiting on delivery.”
“Really? You think they still want your cheap liquor and cheaper contraptions?” The Governor waved a hand out the cargo bay door. “Look around you, Captain. We’re at war. There’s no one left alive to buy your merchandise.”
I begged to differ. In times of war, a stiff drink was always welcomed.
I shrugged instead of voicing that.
“Still, we’re not the enemy here,” I said.
The Governor looked at Zyla again.
“I’m not so sure,” he said and turned on his heel, throwing a hand up in the air and circling his pointed finger.
The troopers stormed the ship. I struggled. How could I not? Odo threw a punch that connected and a kick that sent a trooper to the deck, moaning loudly. Zyla remained stationary and allowed the cuffs to be placed around her wrists and ankles. Her calm was the type of calm before a freak storm.
We were bundled into a transporter too quickly; I didn’t even get a good last look at the Harpy. And before you could say ‘Upsilon Andromedae’ three times fast, we were driven away from the ship without another word.
Doc was still on board. Hidden for now, but unconscious.
And Cassiopeia, our third-gen, modified AI was watching every little thing those bastards did.
It was a poor consolation for being arrested and dragged off our own fluxing vessel. But we had options.
What did our ancestors used to say?
It ain’t over until the fat lady sings. The Harpy kinda looked like a fat lady sliding off a barstool, and the Harpy was all Cass. It worked.
I sat back and smiled at the trooper sitting opposite me.
He shifted in his seat and fingered the trigger on his rifle.
Zyla sighed at my side.
“Please do not antagonise the Governor’s security detail, Captain.”
“Wouldn’t think of it,” I replied and winked at the guard opposite me.
The cell I’d been placed in was three metres by three metres squared. There was a thin foam mattress on a composite polymer bed frame bolted to the floor, and a composite polymer sink and toilet with no privacy screen. The door had a thirty centimetre squared window which was left clear for whomever walked past to glance inside and see you doing your business.
The lights never got switched off. There was also no window to the outside, so all in all, a pretty shitty prison setup which for the technologically superior Zeniths was quite primitive.
But then, their resort planet had just been bombed by orbital nukes, so maybe this was a hastily constructed affair.
Either way, I was pissed off.
I hadn’t seen any of the crew since they’d thrown me in here. I couldn’t hear a thing outside the cell except for those brief times each day that they opened the door to feed me or take my empty food tray away. It was a lonely existence, sitting on the foam mattress twiddling my thumbs. I don’t do well without company. Even when I let the crew have R & R, I have Cassi to keep me sane.
Small places, on the other hand, were fine by me. The Harpy wasn’t a big cargo ship. Not like some of the ones coming out of New Earth nowadays. And those behemoths from Rhodia piloted by their top-tier synths were practically a floating city.
But what the Harpy lacked in size, she made up for in design. She might have been an ugly looking brick on the outside, but inside she was practical with a side order of just fine.
My tongue rolled over my right back tooth, toying with the sensor there. I could have activated it and got a direct line to Cassi, but I knew there were cameras in here, and if I started talking to myself, I reckoned they’d figure out the deception.
Mind you, having spent what I figured was three days in this hell hole, talking to myself wouldn’t be out the realm of possibilities.
I leaned my head back against the hard wall and closed my eyes.
Of course, that was the exact moment when the door opened up.
I didn’t bother to open my eyes again, just waved at the end of the bed and said, “Pop it down there, Pedro.”
That wasn’t the guard’s name. I don’t think any of the guards were named Pedro. They were all Zenith and Zeniths liked their Zs. So yeah, I was being a dick, but hey! Sue me.
Someone cleared their throat.
I sighed and sat upright; stretched. Yawned. Scratched under my armpit. And then opened my eyes and peered at my visitor.
“Governor,” I said flatly.
We stared at each other.
He was dressed in a shiny one-piece that morphed as he shifted. I was pretty damn sure it was camouflage capable. But considering my digs, the camo wasn’t activated. His hair today was loose, hanging down his back in thick, inky waves. His elongated eye orbs blinked slowly as he waited for me to dance the fandango.
I pulled a leg up and rested my arm on my bent knee, all comfortable and relaxed-like.
The seconds ticked by slowly.
“Very well,” the Governor said finally, and it took everything in me not to smirk. “We have hit a slight problem and require…” He hesitated as if the next words out of his mouth were going to give him indigestion. “…your assistance.”
“Well, stick me in a spacesuit and shove me out the closest airlock.”
“We’re planet-side, Captain.”
“Hard to tell,” I offered. “No external vid-screens.”
The Governor stepped further into the cell. His long-fingered hands linked together before him, and he studied the space we were in as if he hadn’t seen it before. I’d bet half the cargo I was hauling that he’d watched me a time or two on the camera feeds.
“It seems,” he said conversationally, “that your vessel has security our tech is unfamiliar with.”
“You tried to hot-wire it and got nothing,” I guessed.
“There are dune buggies in your cargo bay.”
I smiled. “Take one out for a spin?”
He glared at me. “We can open doors and switch on the lights, but otherwise the artificial intelligence on board is unwilling to aid us.”
“Not used to being denied, I take it.”
“No. We have the best hacking equipment in the galaxy.”
“We’re not from your galaxy.”
“Your navigator is.”
Something about the way he said that had my hackles rising. I didn’t move. But I wanted to. I didn’t feel quite so sanguine all of a sudden.
“Nothing to say to that?” the Governor enquired.
“What do you want me to say?”
“Your navigator is an exile.”
I said nothing.
“She is clearly someone of note considering the tech she has embedded within her. And she is quite familiar with our interrogation tactics and able to withstand them.”
Blood started to thunder through my veins. I could feel my pulse in the side of my head. Not exactly the best place to feel the blood pumping through your body. My jaw felt rock hard; my teeth smashed so tightly together. I stared at the being before me, wishing I had my plasma gun nearby or failing that a baseball bat. That’d do it nicely.
“We are unable to determine if she sent the signal to the orbital drone that attacked us,” he added as if I wasn’t staring daggers at his smarmy face.
But, as I let the words sink in, I realised that that was the first bit of new intel I’d had since being forgotten in here. It wasn’t a ship but a drone that had bombed the flux out of the planet. Unmanned, then.
“She has refused to speak and denying her the luxury of sustenance or sleep has not persuaded her to do so.”
Son of a bitch; I’d kill him. And here I’d been complaining about the lack of conversation in this joint. But I’d still had my three square meals a day, and Zyla had had nothing.
My tongue flicked over the sensor on my right rear molar and activated the two-way comm with Cassi.
Hello? Is anyone out there? It’s so cold and lonely in my little rabbit hole. Won’t you come out and play?
I couldn’t answer her. Not directly. But she’d hear everything that was being discussed around me.
“So,” I said, leaning back and feigning nonchalance. “You tortured my navigator, who is the only Zenith member of my crew, and came running to me when she flicked you the proverbial finger without bothering to answer your sadistic questions?”
He blinked at me.
“Governor,” I said, “you’re making it very hard for me to like you. If you want our cooperation, try behaving nicely.”
“I do not believe you are in a position to make demands,” he snapped back.
“Demand One,” I said. “Release my crew. All of them.”
“That is not going to happen, Captain.”
“Governor,” I said. “You came in here to ask me for help. Considering the way you’ve treated us, I’m disinclined to offer it. But your planet did just get nuked to shit all around you, and I do kinda feel bad for you on that, so I’m willing to meet you halfway on all of this.”
“Halfway,” he said flatly. “Remove the safety measures on your ship, and I might allow you to see your crew.”
We’re locked down tighter than a Rhodian synth’s butthole, boss. Nothing is getting in here.
I tried not to smile. I didn’t manage it. But I wasn’t too worried. I was guessing the quasi-smile was pretty grim.
I shook my head. “Show me my crew. Quit being a jackass. And we’ll take it from there.”
The Zenith called me something rude in Zenthian.
I stood up. A guard rushed into the cell and aimed a plasma rifle at me.
“Can you fly in atmo?” I said. The Governor and his gung-ho guard blinked at me.
Can a drop of water on Epsilon Eridani B kill you from the inside out in thirty seconds flat, boss?
I did smile then.
“Standby to implement Rescue Protocol, Jameson, K, beta-charlie-foxtrot-9-9-3.”
On it. But I must point out that space flight status hasn’t changed, boss. I still need Odo to patch me and patch me good. I’ve only just managed to bring the engines back online. Your timing couldn’t have been better. How did you know, by the way? Are you psychic or something?
“Captain, who are you talking to?” the Governor asked.
“Are you going to play nice?”
“It’s his ship,” the Governor said quickly. “EMP pulse now!”
He spun on his heel and ran out of the room, the trooper following behind him. Unfortunately, they didn’t forget to lock the cell door. I walked across the small space and tried to see what was happening out in the hallway.
For the first time since I’d been thrown in here, the window went dark.
“Cass, they’re coming for you. EMP.”
Fool me once; shame on you. Fool me twice, and I got a surprise for you.
Thatta girl, I thought and went and sat down.
Really, though. Did you have to wait three days?
Granted, I couldn’t have busted you guys outta there any sooner, but you couldn’t have known that.
I said nothing. The walls had eyes, after all.
Cassi’s voice was subdued when she spoke inside my head next. Did they really torture Zyla?
I sighed. Something wasn’t adding up — orbital drone bombardment. Zeniths were known for their drone technology. They were the ultimate drone masters of the galaxy. Did they do this to themselves?
I shook my head. Then I closed my eyes.
The political scene on Zenthia had been pretty rocky for several years, but as far as I knew, that was just how Zeniths acted. Chill with you one second. Stick an icicle in your back the next.
Could it have escalated? Is that why the Governor thought Zyla was involved in this?
And what if Zy was? How the flux would I know? She kept her private life to herself and kept well away from Zenthia. We couldn’t even trade with anyone there unless Zy took an impromptu holiday in an off-world location beforehand.
I was beginning to think my navigator might be hiding more secrets than the secrets I knew about or wanted to know more about. If that made any sense.
But this was Zy! She’d been part of my crew, my life, for three long years. We’d seen a lot of the Black together — dodged warlords on Leonis Bb; got fall down drunk on Eta2 Hydri B; made more money than any other cargo ship in the known sectors. Hell, we were practically famous back on New Earth. They talked about us at space school, more as a cautionary tale than anything, but still…It was nice to be recognised for your efforts.
I sighed again.
They’ve activated the EMP, boss. I’m playing dumb. They actually believe me. It’s a bit embarrassing, really. Have they no idea what a third-gen can do?
No. I didn’t think they did. Third-gen AIs were a tightly held secret. In a universe filled to the brim with so many unknowns, keeping an ace up your sleeve was an imperative.
Only New Earth military armed vessels and installations had third-gen AIs. Military armed vessels, installations, and the Harpy.
There had to be some perks to being a direct descendant of one of the Originator-controlled colony ship captains from Old Earth.
And so far, we’d flown under the radar. The Harpy was not an impressive looking ship. She was scuffed and scorched and slightly dented in places. And she wasn’t a big ship either, just a speck of space dust in the vastness of the universe. Anonymity had been our friend.
But now the Zeniths would know she was different.
And that made me twitchy.
And then a thought hit with lightning-fast precision.
Had Zyla known what the Harpy had hidden behind its bulkheads? Is that why she chose to board her?
I didn’t like thinking ill of a crew member. We were family.
But here I was; locked up in a tin can jail. And here Ceres Alpha was; bombarded from above by an orbital drone that may or may not have been Zenthian.
I scrubbed a hand over my face and sat forward, elbows to knees, trying to breathe normally.
The door opened, and a guard stood framed within it. Helmet on. HUD no doubt identifying any threats; placing a targeting reticle over my head and priming his main weapon.
He stepped back and, in that synthesised voice they used, said, “Exit the cell with your hands visible.”
I stood up and stepped toward the door with caution. Once I reached his side, he placed cuffs on my wrists and around my ankles.
“Follow me,” he said, and two more armoured goons echoed the words down the hallway. My head spun to the left, and I spotted Odo stepping out of an adjacent cell.
And behind him: Zyla.
My heartbeat sped up. It was either the excitement at seeing my nav still breathing. Or I was overdue for a hit of caffeine.
My eyes met hers and then my guard jabbed me in the side with the muzzle of his rifle. But not before I’d seen the bruises underneath Zyla’s eyes. And the black and blue mark on her left cheek. And the swelling of her lower lip. And the way she hunched slightly.
Nah. She was one of mine. And I couldn’t believe she would have played a part in nuking an entire planet. One full of innocent holidaymakers and workers whose only sins were finding employment in the tourism industry.
“Bastards,” I said quietly.
“Shut it!” the trooper said and jabbed me in the back with his rifle again.
I spun around and swept my bound hands up quickly, catching him unprepared under the jaw, where his helmet and armour failed to protect him.
He stumbled back, gasping. Which sounded hilarious over the voice comm box. And then two new rifles primed and target locked on me.
I raised my bound hands in surrender and shrugged.
“Uncontrolled spasm,” I explained. “Happens when I don’t get out enough.”
“Walk,” the nearest guard ordered.
I checked Odo and Zyla out; thankful they hadn’t reacted to my impromptu assault on one of our very well-armed guards. They had way more restraint than me. My eyes met Zyla’s in the distance. She arched her brow, which must have hurt, because she winced slightly.
Odo just slowly shook his head at me. But I could see the hunger to act in his dark gaze.
I turned around and started walking. At least we were out.
And together again.
It was something.
And then I walked into a larger room that was filled to capacity with well-dressed Zeniths. Including the Governor of Ceres Alpha and his multitude of troopers.
This was their council. Not like the High Council back on Zenthia. But a mirror, a representation of such. A direct conduit to Big Brother. What was decided in here would be backed by the might of the Zenithian homeworld. It was binding and final, and no external species had yet been able to counter a verdict delivered by a mirror council.
My throat went dry. My palms did the opposite and became clammy.
Then Cass said inside my head; They’ve brought out the plasma cutters, boss. They are one determined bunch of whackos. Give me the word, and I’ll lift off.
We’d already revealed too much. It wasn’t just me and the crew I had to think about here. There was a larger picture and more important things at stake.
Like New Earth and the third-gen technology.
When I’d been given Cassiopeia by my great-grandfather and Corvus, Cassi’s Originator, it had been with the understanding that I would sacrifice everything, even myself and those closest to me, to keep her out of the hands of anyone who could use her against us.
Something was happening on the Zenith political scene. Something volatile and dangerous. Could it reach New Earth?
With Cassi aiding them? Yeah. Yeah, it could.
I turned my head and looked at the rest of my crew filing in behind me. The guards brought us all to the centre of the room, beneath the austere gaze of the Ceres A Council and their troopers.
My heart beat too fast for my chest to like it. I licked my dry lips and interlocked my trembling fingers.
Doc was on board the Harpy.
So was Cass.
I swallowed, and it got caught in my throat, making me cough uncontrollably.
Zyla narrowed her eyes at me. Odo just kept glaring at the council members.
Boss. They’ve counteracted the boobytrap I left them. One Zenith got fried. Sorry about that. Might make things a trifle difficult to iron out later. But they’re back at it. Cutter’s made it one metre through the hull. Gel won’t hold much longer. Any advice?
I looked frantically around the room as if I could find an answer. A friendly face. Someone who would stop this.
There wasn’t, but my mind kept telling me there had to be.
Could they get to Cass inside the ship’s systems? Not easily. She’d make them work for it. And slicing a hole in the side of the ship when it was the only ship left intact on the entire planet was a bit extreme.
But then, maybe they had help already coming. And maybe they really did believe Zyla had a hand in all of this. And maybe the Harpy, according to their warped thought processes, held Zyla’s secrets and that’s all they really wanted.
I could have told them they would be shit outta luck on that. Zy only shared her secrets with others when she absolutely had to.
I looked back at my navigator.
She cocked her head to the side and stared at me with those too-big eyes. Questioningly.
Did you do it?
I shook my head.
It didn’t matter. I’d made a promise not to share her secrets and I wouldn’t.
But I’d also made another promise that was even more important than that; even if part of me baulked at that reality.
I’d promised to keep Cassiopeia safe.
“Lift off,” I said, my voice low, my heart heavy. “Leave us. And if you can’t evade, self-destruct.”
Did I hear you right, boss? Leave you? A pause, then, Self-destruct?
“You heard me. Go. Now.”
Silence and then, softly, sadly, Say the words, Kael. I can’t authorise a self-destruct without them.
“Captain?” the Governor said, standing from his ornate seat. “What are you doing?”
Flux it! There were only so many places you could hide on this godforsaken planet. And I was pretty damn sure they had reinforcements coming. And, besides, I was done with this dance, anyway.
“Self-destruct. Jameson, K, beta-charlie-foxtrot-9-9-3.”
“Kael! No!” Zy cried, sounding stunned.
“Captain?” Odo asked, no drawl evident in his shocked tone.
“Stop him!” the Governor shouted. “Rescind it, Jameson!”
“‘Do not go gentle into that good night,’” I murmured. “‘Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’”
“It’s been an honour and a privilege…”
An explosion shattered the world.
And with it, my soul was left in tattered pieces.
One month later…
The beer in this shit hole tasted disgusting. The company was even worse. I stared into the dirty tin mug sitting on the pitted and worn bar top before me and forced myself to drink it.
It was better than the alternative.
Feeling too much.
“Bartender,” I growled. “One more.”
He grunted and filled the mug to the brim. The Claxian could have pointed out I’d had half a dozen such mugs already. It could have clicked its beak at me and told me I was running low on chits. It could have done any number of things, but no one gave a flying flux here on Delphini B.
The Delph was a puss-filled pimple on the arsehole of Zenthian space where they sent the creatures they wanted the rest of the known systems to forget about to moulder in hellish conditions until they wished for their own death. It was an intragalactic cesspit of disgruntled aliens. Not a Zenith to be seen amongst them.
They were sent elsewhere. Wherever they had undoubtedly sent my navigator.
I sighed into the mug and then tipped the rim to my lips and downed the frothy, slightly acidic brew. I almost retched it back up again, but I was low on what passed for chits on this planet, and this was breakfast.
I burped and tasted the shit tonic all over again.
“Nasty,” a cloaked figure said off to the side.
I ignored him. There were two of him, so I was outnumbered, and I really couldn’t have given a shit.
I waved the mug at the Claxian. He clicked and clacked away at me in agitation, and I slammed down the last of my currency. His feather-covered fingers snatched the chit up in a lightning-quick move, and my mug was filled with the elixir of disgruntlement.
I could go on, but you get the picture.
I’d been here four Standard weeks.
The first week was one fistfight after another until the locals decided I wasn’t worth the effort to flux with. The next week was spent recovering from the injuries I’d sustained.
The last two had been spent trying to forget why I was here. That I’d knowingly killed a member of my crew. That I’d failed to protect my navigator. That I’d abandoned my engineer. That I’d done my duty to my planet and destroyed evidence of our growing technological know-how from the tech-hungry Zenith collective.
That’s not why I was official here, though, was it?
In doing all of that, I’d also taken out half a dozen Zeniths who’d been trying to gain access to my ship. That’s why I was on this shit hole prison planet with no way off it and a lifetime ahead of me fighting for chits and drinking shitty beer.
Six counts of murder.
Six consecutive life sentences on Delphini B.
I took a decent mouthful of the beer and grimaced.
“I hear you’re the man to ask for a favour,” the cloaked creature beside me said.
I said nothing.
“That you do…things for chits.” He nodded toward my beer. “For beer.”
I took a swallow of said beer and kept silent.
“I need a being disappeared.”
“I’m not that kind of hire.”
“What if I told you, I could get you into the Delph’s low-security area.”
“There is no low security area.” This was it. For the rest of my life.
And I didn’t even feel like I was being hard done by.
I deserved this.
My tongue rolled over my right rear molar, but when the sensor activated, no voice sounded out inside my head.
I did hear other voices on occasion, though. Remembered voices. They haunted me. Zy’s shocked yell when I ordered the self-destruct that would kill Doc and destroy the Harpy. Odo’s stunned sounding “Captain?” No drawl. Just disbelief that I’d do it. Actually order the death of a member of our family.
Cassi’s goodbye to me. Non-judgemental. Just Cass. AIs don’t judge. Even third-gen AIs. They do as instructed and calculate the possible outcomes for you afterwards.
But there was no afterwards for Cassiopeia.
For the Harpy.
Or for Doc.
Flux! I needed more beer.
“This man, this human, is doing bad things,” the cloaked figure murmured at my side. “Things decent beings don’t tolerate.”
His English Standard was good. Barely an accent. But he wasn’t human. His shape outlined beneath the cape was clue enough. But the way he said ‘human’ sold me on his alienness.
Rhodian, I thought.
I flicked a gaze across the space between us to his hands. He was missing a finger, so he wasn’t a synth. I’d seen synths here. But they kept to themselves and everyone else sure as shit kept away from them.
I wondered what life on a shit hole planet like Delphini B was like for an artificial being. At least they didn’t have to drink the shitty beer.
I downed the last of mine and stood up. I was out of chits, and this Rhodie was shitting all over my buzz.
The room spun. The corrugated tin walls warped in and out as if Cassi was playing a trick on me and messing with the gel on the Harpy’s bridge.
But this wasn’t the Harpy, and Cass wasn’t here, so I took a step away from the support of the bar.
And fell flat on my face in the dirt.
“I can see I’ve made a mistake,” the Rhodie grumbled and slipped off into the twilight.
“Bye!” I offered with a wave of my hand as I licked scum and crud off my lips and chin. I rolled over and stared up at the ceiling of the hut that constituted the best little bar and whorehouse on the Delph.
“Hey, sailor,” a female voice crooned next to my ear. “You need a hand?”
Fingers rummaged deftly through the empty pockets of my worn jacket and then started patting down my trouser pockets one after the other in quick succession. One got a little too friendly, and I laughed.
“Sorry, love,” I slurred. “Think I’m beyond that kind of fun right now.”
“And you’re skint.” She departed much as the Rhodie had.
“Pick self up,” the Claxian behind the bar said in amongst a flurry of clicks. “Dirty floor.”
“It is a dirty floor,” I agreed.
“No. You dirty floor.”
“Give me a minute. Maybe ten.”
“You have five.”
And just like that, I was remembering again.
I wanted to curl into a little ball and weep. I managed to curl my legs up to my chest, but the Claxian wasn’t having any of that. A clawed foot kicked me in the stomach and then feathers tickled my neck as he grabbed the collar of my jacket and hauled me to the entrance of the bar.
“Alright! Alright! I’m going,” I said and struggled out of his hold.
Claxians weren’t strong, but they were mean. I broke his hold and stumbled away, leaving the shitty joint under my own steam.
The world spun around me but even drunk I’m not an easy mark. I’d proved that a time or two over the past four weeks. The shadows watched me with wary eyes and the occasional hungry ones. But they soon lost interest. If I was walking — stumbling — away from the best little bar and whorehouse on the Delph, then I was out of chits and not worth bothering.
Tomorrow, I’d have to seek employment. Or what passed for it on this rat-infested rock. Even hangovers required food at some stage and nothing was free on the Delph.
I managed to make it to a shack I’d been using the past couple of nights, but some fluxhead was already there and wielded a metal bar at me. On a good day, I would have charged at that. Today was not a good day.
Too many memories.
Maybe it was the anniversary-like feeling one month felt like. The fact that a page on a New Earth calendar had been turned since I’d lost my crew, my ship, and Cassi. It had required a toast. Not that I’d toasted the occasion. But the beer was still very much in my system, so I raised a hand to the empty sky, the stars beginning to twinkle above in impotent temptation, and said, “Here’s to the Harpy and her crew. May they be remembered fondly.”
Then I sat down with my back to a rock and closed my eyes.
It was a stupid thing to do. Only idiots and drunkards sleep out in the open without a weapon in their hand. I had weapons. Weapons even the nimble fingers of a whore couldn’t find. But I hadn’t bothered to get one out where it would do me any good should I get jumped in the middle of the night.
So when the rope tightened around my neck and my back hit the dirt, and I started to get hauled backwards through the grime of what made up the central street of the biggest township on the Delph, I had nothing to cut the fluxing thing with.
My hands scrabbled to loosen the coarse material from around my throat. I gagged and struggled, my head pounding, my eyes watering, my gut-churning. And then, hey! My heart decided to work overtime, and my chest began to ache.
Panic ensued as dirt and stones and piss, and flux knows what else worked its way into every crevice I had. I couldn’t breathe properly anymore. I could feel my eyes bulging. My throat felt raw. My lungs burned. My ears were ringing, but I could just make out the guttural grunts of whoever had decided payback had been earned.
I’d pissed off a few people in the limited amount of time I’d been here. I have a knack for getting on the bad side of creatures from all over the galaxy. Evidence of such a character trait was obvious in my current surroundings and the predicament I was now in.
The arsehole trying to strangle me in such a public way was clearly one such being I’d offended. I couldn’t see who it was. But I didn’t need to, to know I was in trouble.
Sanity filtered in through the lack of oxygen, and I started to fish around inside my shirt for a knife. It was taped to my abdomen, not in place a whore would look for money or anything else knife-like.
The tape was good. I hadn’t wanted the knife to slip and chop off any body parts I was fond of. So it took a few efforts to release it. Plus, you know, not being able to breathe and being in a full-on panic wasn’t helping.
But I just managed to rip the thing off along with several hairs and a good portion of the upper layer of my skin when the rope changed angles, and I was suddenly hanging from a tree branch, my feet a couple of centimetres off the ground.
Those couple of centimetres might as well have been a chasm because I couldn’t stretch my toes far enough to relieve the tension on my neck and throat.
And the world was starting to go dark.
I twisted one way and then the other, and my arm felt too heavy to lift, but I gave it a damn good try. The knife knocked against the rope but didn’t part the strands, and then I tried again only to have a long-fingered hand wrap around my wrist and pry the knife from my grip.
My arms fell down, uselessly at my sides. I opened my mouth and closed it a few times like a fish out of water; blinked my eyes too many times to count to try to clear my blurry vision. I wanted to look the fluxing bastard who was killing me in the eyes.
Two inky black orbs stared back at me out of a hood that hid most of his face.
“Zenith,” I mouthed.
He said nothing. Just watched me silently suffocate.
I’d made a few enemies on Delphini B. But none of them had been Zenith because Zeniths weren’t imprisoned with the scum of the universe. They were better than that — even the criminal ones.
But I’d also not made any friends.
I had a tendency to kill my friends, so making more seemed like a really bad idea when I first got here. I kinda wished I’d managed my grieving process a little better. Maybe the Claxian barman would take pity on me. I had spent a fair few chits in his place of employment.
But he wasn’t one of the faces I could make out in shadows of nearby alleys and buildings watching this lynching. Most of them meant nothing to me, but one seemed vaguely familiar.
His cloak was more so.
The fluxing Rhodian who I’d turned down at the bar.
He met my frantic and pleading gaze and then silently turned away without a show of emotion.
For a moment, I felt more alone than I had ever felt in my entire pathetic existence. And I hadn’t even known the guy’s name. Or who he wanted me to kill. If only, eh?
If only I’d heard him out.
If only I’d not been fall-down drunk.
If only I hadn’t been carrying an asteroid-sized rock of guilt and despair and condemnation around with me.
Well, I thought bleakly, if this was to be my end, perhaps it was fitting.
The Harpy was gone.
Cass along with it.
And Doc. Shit, the doc was dead because I’d followed orders.
I’d thought my days of following orders were well and truly behind me. But once a Jameson always a Jameson, it seemed. I couldn’t bleed that honour and loyalty out of me.
Flux. What a mess.
The hooded Zenith watched on, immobile, silent, patient.
Turns out asphyxiating by hanging takes longer than you think. I swung around, my limbs heavy, my eyesight dimming, my chest a ball of fiery agony.
I couldn’t even relieve it with a moan.
Tears coursed down my cheeks and dripped off my chin and jaw. It was an indignity that I could have done without. I think I might have even pissed myself.
The ignoble end of Kael Jameson, Captain of the Harpy.
I closed my eyes. I let go of whatever was holding me, tethering me, to this plane of existence. I didn’t believe there was another plane I’d ascend to. You get one shot at this life, and I’d screwed up mine.
I thought of Cass and Odo and dear fluxing god, Doc.
And I thought of Zyla.
Where was she? Was she dead? Was she being tortured like she was being tortured two doors down from my cell on Ceres? Had she told them what they wanted to know even if it wasn’t the truth? Had she kept her secrets?
I’d never know and for some reason that sucked.
My body started to go numb. Release was a blessing. I’d had enough of this dancehall. What I wouldn’t have given for a plasma gun.
Something sizzled in the air. Shouts sounded from so far away. I felt heat which was puzzling because moments before I’d felt nothing.
And then my body came apart as every single bone in it fractured. Or, at least, that’s what it felt like hitting the dirt. My hands acted of their volition. Maybe survival is hardwired into us. I tore at the rope around my neck, which was miraculously loose enough for me to get grubby fingers beneath it.
And then I sucked in life-giving air which burned all the way down my windpipe.
I gasped and hacked and spat and heaved; my body wracked with agony, my vision blurred with heated tears and black spots which had nothing to do with my relief.
And then I heard the sound of plasma rifles, or maybe just one rifle; it was hard to tell because whoever was using it was mightily pissed off with the state of things.
The cries of desperate prisoners started to reach me through the thinning fog of near-death, and I could just make out some shouts of vengeance. In Earth Standard.
“You wanna a piece of me?” the human male shouted. “Take that! And that! And what do you think of that? Don’t like it? Take it up with the committee!”
I shook my head, urging my vision and senses to return to normal. Or as close as they could after eight or so mugs full of Delphini ale. And having been strung up to die with my neck squeezed into a noose made of coarse Flexi wire.
Slowly the world came into focus. Reality returned. Recognition slammed into me.
Odo stood with his legs shoulder-width apart, plasma rifle in one beefy hand and a mini-railgun in the other that somehow still didn’t dwarf the size of his enormous mitts; dirt and dust clung to his boots and worn trousers. I stared at the hem of his pants for too long, cognition sluggish.
“Now would be a good time to get up off your arse, Cap’n,” he drawled and shot at a shadow as it shifted.
“And go where?” I asked, my voice a rasp.
He spared me a look and then splattered the side of a building with plasma fire.
“Where do you think? Off this Godforsaken shit hole of a planet.”
“How the flux do you think I got here?”
I stared up at him, a strange and bizarrely unwelcome sensation seeping into me. Hope.
I didn’t want to trust hope. I didn’t want to let it in. But it’s a slippery and clever adversary and damn near impossible to deny once you spot it.
“Please don’t tell me you left it where others could find it,” I managed to grumble as I staggered to my feet.
Hey, no stumble! Life was looking up. At least the last few minutes had sobered me enough to stand without falling down on my arse.
We could do camo. But it was expensive. The Zeniths were better at it than the rest of the galaxy.
“Shit,” I said, drawing a weapon. “Who did you rob?”
Odo laughed, a booming, crazy sound that thundered into the street as loud as the railgun.
“Didn’t steal it,” he said, starting to walk backwards down the street, still firing his weapons. “Borrowed it.”
I grimaced. Wasn’t I in enough trouble with the Zeniths already?
“Don’t worry, Cap’n,” Odo said cheerfully, enjoying his sojourn onto the prison planet fully armed. “I got this.”
I doubted it. I really did. But I wasn’t about to look a gift horse — or a gun-toting engineer — in the mouth.
“OK,” I said, not sounding particularly enthusiastic. “Lead on!”
“Haven’t had this much fun in ages,” Odo remarked and blew up a hut.
Odo hadn’t borrowed the racing pinnace; he’d hired it. That’s what he explained as we dodged an ever-increasing amount of desperate prisoners, making our way to wherever he had stashed the unlikely rescue vehicle.
“Just enough room for two,” he said with a wink. “It might get cozy, Cap’n. But when have we ever shied away from sharing things?”
“You’re the one who likes double dates,” I growled softly.
“More the merrier, I say.”
I’d always thought that Odo was compensating for something. It wasn’t his size. He had size in abundance. It wasn’t his prowess; I’m embarrassed to admit that I have heard the compliments the ladies have given him on occasion.
But no; there was more to Odo’s cheery drawl and try as I might, I hadn’t been able to uncover it in the four years he’d been on board the Harpy.
The thought of the Harpy had me catching my breath from a sharp stab of pain that went right through me. I pushed the emotion away; we still had a battle on our hands.
“Who did you hire it from?” I asked as we peered around a corner and got an eyeful of a brawl the size of New Texas.
“Her cousins? The ones back on Ceres A?”
“Yeah. Who would’ve thought they’d drive a hard bargain, eh?”
“Did they have it stashed somewhere the nukes missed?”
“Nah. Communications were reestablished after ’bout a week. It came in from Kappa Coronae on a cargo hauler.”
Odo grimaced. “Lot’s happened since you got shafted.”
It was a typical Odo thing to say, but it soothed something thorny deep inside me. Odo’d had a special relationship with Cassi. They’d spent hours down in engineering together, whispering sweet mechanical nothings to each other. I’d thought he might have blamed me for her…
Yeah, well. I did order the self-destruct, so I was going to watch him warily.
“So, what do we owe Zyla’s cousins for this windfall?” I asked.
Odo snuck around the edge of the intersection we were on, avoiding most of the brawl, but offering a meaty fist up when required. I ducked in behind him; I was still seeing two of everything, and I didn’t want to make a fool of myself.
I didn’t think it was the beer anymore. I could assimilate alcohol quickly when needed. But I was beginning to think I might have a concussion.
And I was also pretty damn sure we were being followed.
I checked over my shoulder, but the shadows revealed nothing. A few bodies. A stoned prisoner or two. But nothing nefarious unless you counted their body odour.
“Not ‘we,’” Odo said. “You.”
“What do you mean ‘me?’”
“You now owe the Zarnissa twins a favour.”
“Son of a bitch,” I muttered.
“Could’ve been worse.”
“How could it be worse than owing a Zenith a favour?” They were scrupulous about settling debts in a timely fashion. They’d make up something worth the favour’s price just to see you pay it.
For two Zeniths living on a holiday planet, they were serious about life and all the intricacies thereof. Including debts owed them.
“They might have got nuked like the rest of the planet. You have no idea how hard it was to make my way back to them.”
Something dark and haunted skittered across his face. I’d never seen that look on Odo before. Whatever he’d had to do to get out of the Ceres A council room after I’d been arrested for mass murder had to have been gnarly.
I almost asked him if he was OK. But that would have been pouring salt on the wound and giving it a good rub afterwards. Of course, he wasn’t OK. Neither of us was.
The Harpy was dust.
Cass was gone.
Doc was dead.
And God alone knew what had happened to Zyla.
The words were on my lips; so close to tumbling off them. But I wasn’t ready for that reality yet.
I cleared my throat, which hurt like flux, and said, “It was a good deal, Odo.”
He flicked me a gaze and then grunted.
“It’s over there,” he said, pointing with the plasma rifle to an alley wider than those all around it.
I couldn’t see the little racing ship. The camouflage had to be top-tier Zenith tech. Which begged the question, how the hell did Zyla’s cousins get their hands on it?
I pushed that thought aside for now because we had bigger problems.
The intersection that led into the alley where the pinnace was stashed was crawling with Zenith troopers.
“You leave breadcrumbs in your wake or something?” I asked Odo.
“Nah, boss. They were here when I arrived on planet.”
Zeniths didn’t come to Delphini B. They didn’t even escort the prisoners here. That was done by drone ships. I hadn’t seen a Zenith in four weeks; until this evening.
I counted up the armoured goons and came to twenty. Plus one, wearing a hooded cape.
“That the prick who tried to hang you?” Odo asked.
“The one and only,” I murmured.
“How’d he know to meet us here?”
“He’s Zenith. He’s got the latest tech gear.”
“The ship’s still cloaked.”
“Doesn’t matter. He knows it’s there and he knows it’s our only way off this planet.”
“Shit, Cap’n. Thought it’d be a walk in the park rescuing you.”
I slapped him on the back. “You did good,” I said.
“Not good enough.”
I studied the scene. The huts surrounding the intersection and on either side of the alley our ship was in weren’t high enough to approach across their rooftops. Plus, they’d probably collapse beneath us. Beneath Odo anyway; I’d lost a bit too much weight in the past four weeks.
Cutting directly across the intersection was out. There were just too many of them, and we didn’t have any camo.
Which left going the long way around and approaching from the rear.
“Come on,” I said. “I know a shortcut.” And he wasn’t going to like it one little bit.
Delphini B was a small planet with limited natural resources. The population was controlled by a means of supply and demand. If you could demand it, you were supplied with it. Natural selection methods culled those who couldn’t hold their own in such a cutthroat arena.
But that didn’t mean there wasn’t a form of infrastructure on the prison planet. The Zeniths didn’t like coming here if they could help it. And it’s not like they had to answer to any humanitarian-type laws. But this was a Zenthian-controlled planet in a Zenthian-owned system. It was on the outer edge, but it was still theirs.
And Zeniths were proud bastards.
So as well as an orbital drone network that kept a watch on the situation dirtside from the skies, there was also a tunnel system beneath the ground which the Zeniths could use if they ever found themselves having to land on the planet and defend it.
Of course, send the worst of the worst criminals to a place, and they’ll pick it apart and find out how to exploit it. The underground tunnel system had long ago been discovered, converted — or subverted — and now was the proud domain of a criminal mastermind who liked to eat little children for dinner.
I’d steered clear of the Claxian everyone called Clux the Crazy. He was definitely not as hospitable as the Claxian who took my chits and gave me piss-poor beer.
But not all Claxians were hatched alike. And the one who ruled the tunnels was pure evil.
Even I shuddered thinking about where we were going. But the path would be short and hopefully free of Clux’s roaming and feral guards. It just had to get us to the exit beside the pinnace and then we’d be out of here.
I led the way back from the intersection teeming with Zeniths and located the nearest access hatch to the tunnels. A spray-painted sign adorned the rusted door. Not so much a skull and crossbones, but the message I assumed was the same — a feather broken in half and bleeding.
I was pretty sure that was the Claxian way of saying, ‘Flux off, or we’ll kill you!’
I turned the handle and slowly opened the hatch, peering into darkness.
“Did you bring a torch?” I asked Odo.
“Don’t need a torch,” he drawled, “when you’ve got this.” He patted the side of his plasma rifle and powered it up, so it glowed threateningly.
It’d run out of power faster using it like that, but we’d only be in the tunnel a short while. And he still had the railgun.
I’d considered asking him for the rifle earlier, but my aim would have been off by a mile what with the way my eyes kept crossing, and everything had a permanent blur.
I’d decided to stick with my shank, which Odo had approved of, all the while wondering why he hadn’t brought more of an arsenal with him.
Knowing the size of most racing pinnaces, I was pretty sure space was limited.
Knowing the Delph as I did, I was doubly certain he’d misjudged the situation gravely.
I wasn’t going to tell my one and only friend on this entire planet that. Plus, you know, he had the keys to the pinnace.
Odo led the way into the dank tunnel, the glow of his plasma rifle filtering out a metre or so before him. It wasn’t good. We were lit up like a pharma-den to a desperate junkie. They could see us, but we wouldn’t be able to see them.
“Switch it off,” I ordered.
“You sure, Cap?”
We didn’t have much choice. “Just do it; our eyes will adjust.”
It took a torturous minute or more for our eyes to adjust to the darkness. There was some ambient light from holes in the hatches; the tunnels weren’t sealed from the outside air. It wasn’t enough to see very far, but we were now just another dark blob in the darkness.
I took the lead this time. There was no point making Odo do all the work now his plasma rifle was off. If anyone shot at us, I’d hit the deck, Odo would hit a knee and fire the railgun over my prone body.
We’d done something like this a time or two in the past.
It was eerie down here. I could hear a little of life returning to normal topside. The clink of a mug. The slosh of ale. The murmur of someone passing overhead.
By now, we were running parallel to the intersection where all the Zeniths had parked themselves. And we were making good progress.
Of course, the moment I had that thought, a shadowed hand reached out of an unseen until that moment hole in the tunnel wall and pulled me into it.
I let out a little yelp. Odo shouted something after me. And then my head was shoved into a rank smelling sack, and my stomach received a series of punches that had me doubling over.
Odo roared, but not being able to see where I was, he didn’t fire the railgun. Not to be outdone by the darkness, however, he powered up the plasma instead.
It didn’t blind me, I had the hood on, but it did make the chattering Claxian who had a feathered hand wrapped around my upper arm screech.
And then the plasma rifle fired, and all hell broke loose.
I don’t know if they’d been waiting for us exactly. Or if this was their station and they waited for any idiot stupid enough to venture down into the tunnels voluntarily. But this was clearly an ambush site, and we’d carelessly walked right into it.
So, there was more than the one Claxian who had been restraining me and was now gasping his last breath in a pool of blood on the tunnel floor. I tore off the sack, took in the scene in a glance, and came up with a rough count of five in total.
Two against five. I liked those odds.
Then I dove into the melee, shouting a war cry worthy of any Mutt, and bashed a Claxian over the head with my elbow, followed it up with a kick to his stomach, then stabbed him through his beady little eye with my shank.
Shoulda disarmed me, moron.
It was a bit brutal after that. Odo tore through the lot of them and then returned for seconds. I managed to get a decent punch in the side of the head to one and a kick between its chicken-thigh legs on another. I was not above fighting dirty.
And then I was down and being pummelled with bats, and cut up by clawed feet, and torn to bits by the odd razor-sharp beak as the world grew hazy all around me.
It lasted a minute. Maybe two. But Odo had a lot of pent up anger inside him, and I was fighting for my life like a cornered animal, so eventually, we came out the winners.
But not before we could hear the thundering footsteps of an approaching horde of Claxians. Well, it was more a clicking sound that grew louder and more ominous as they approached than a thunderous roar. But it did the trick.
I grasped Odo around his arm and started hauling him toward the hatch that I hoped would let us out beside the pinnace. But I could still hear them coming. They were gaining on us, probably sweeping low along the ground with the help of their vestigial wings. They could only manage a metre or so at a time and only ten or twenty centimetres off the ground at that, but it was enough to make them faster than we were on two feet.
I skidded to a stop beside a hatch which I calculated a little too groggily was the right one and started to turn it, while Odo pulled something off his belt which I hadn’t noticed right until then.
“You have a grenade?” I screamed.
“I have two,” he said proudly.
“Throw it! Throw it!”
“It’ll collapse the tunnel.”
“I don’t give a flux about the fluxing tunnel, throw the fluxing grenade at them!”
“No need to shout, Cap’n.”
He pulled the pin and tossed the grenade.
The hatch swung open, and I clambered up, Odo right behind me.
I had a second to register several plasma rifles pointed at my head, inky black overlarge eyes behind HUD helmets. And then the ground rose up beneath us as the grenade exploded in the tunnel.
Maybe the enclosed space made the explosion more impressive than it should have been. Or maybe Odo had modified the grenade in some fashion; I wouldn’t have put it past him. But whatever the reason, the Zeniths went flying in every direction. And Odo landed on top of me.
I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move. Odo was a dead weight and try as I might, I couldn’t shove him off me. My head spun. My chest felt too compressed. My ears were ringing.
And then Odo rolled over, coughing and spluttering and swearing up a storm, and released me from my temporary prison right back into the real one.
Bodies lay every which way, but they were still all in one piece, so they started rising and bringing their guns to bear. I struggled to my feet, swaying, the world spinning, my body battered and bruised and my vision a blur.
And then Odo beeped the locks on the pinnace like you would a hovercar; the sweetest sound to my abused ears. The sleek racing machine shed its camo like a coat of water; shiny gel coating like twinkling silver stars awaited.
And then the hooded Zenith who had tried to hang me stepped out from behind the vessel.
Odo roared and fired his plasma. The Zenith dodged and threw a drone at us. One of those palm-sized ones you can keep in your pockets for emergencies. It fired up like a nuke propelled missile and then started shooting plasma bolts at our head.
The troopers joined in, but we’d got close enough to the pinnace to be protected by its shields; clearly, the machine had been synchronised with our biosignatures. This kit was the real Zenthian deal. The plasma bounced off, lighting up the Delphini night sky, as Odo clambered up into the pilot’s seat.
I turned to follow him, but the hooded Zenith reached through the shield with some sort of shield modulator, and clamped a long-fingered hand on my shoulder, spinning me toward him.
I’d had enough. I’d had a shit night and a shittier week. And don’t even get me started on the month I’d just suffered.
I was done. Done with prison planets on backwater rocks. And done with Zenith goons in high tech space armour. And done feeling sorry for myself although that last one was harder to acknowledge.
But I wanted to live.
Zyla was still out there. And someone had nuked Ceres A. And if it was a Zenith firing on their own planet, then the universe was bum-flux crazy.
Which meant, Zyla was in deep trouble.
I had guilt enough to last a lifetime embedded in me. I would always wear Doc’s death like a storm cloud hanging over my head.
I would not abandon Zyla.
I let an inhuman cry out and thrust both hands towards the Zenith’s face, fingers outstretched, shank forgotten on the ground somewhere after the explosion.
But I didn’t need a makeshift knife. I had two inky black orbs guiding me. And anger that rivalled Odo’s to make me land the hits.
My fingers connected with the Zenith’s too-big eyes and he went ballistic. But by the time he’d recovered, Odo had reached down the side of the pinnace and grasped my collar, hauling me back up and into the cramped cockpit.
I landed hard on my shoulder. My head was lower than my arse, and I couldn’t turn myself around to buckle in safely. But none of that mattered because Odo managed to close the cockpit hood over us, sealing us inside for space flight. And the engines roared to life like a herald of angels, and then we were up and off the desolate planet designated Delphini B; the arsehole end of the known systems.
I panted and squirmed and muttered a few choice swearwords, but by the time we’d exited atmo, I was head the right way up, arms safely tucked behind restraints, and staring at the afro-covered head of my engineer and saviour.
“Thank you,” I said, the words hardly sounding enough.
“Don’t mention it,” he offered, not in his usual devil-may-care drawl.
He was still mad. Righteously so. And it dawned on me then, that Odo was mad at me.
He’d struck a deal with Zeniths for a ship to come save me. He’d landed on a prison planet with no backup and only two weapons for protection against the nasties. He’d arrived in the nick of time and not once led me to believe he hadn’t planned it that way; that he didn’t want to be there.
And now, I realised, he’d done it because he wanted to look me in the face when he accused me of murder.
Breathing was difficult. A lot of that was to do with the injuries I’d sustained. But most of it, I had to admit even if just to myself, was heartache.
I’d deserved to be on Delphini.
I didn’t deserve the second chance Odo had gifted me.
And then as we entered FTL flight, and the stars started to streak past the windows, I swallowed it all down. Shoved it all away.
I had to think of Zyla now. Zyla who might be alive and need rescuing.
So, I ignored the guilt and self-condemnation, and I said to the man who had saved me, “Tell me what I’ve missed.”
Odo let out a long breath of air that sounded painful.
Then finally said, “OK.”
We were returning to Ceres Alpha; the last place in the universe I wanted to be. Granted, if we had any chance of figuring out what was going on, maybe returning to the source of the mess we were in was something.
Plus there was that whole giving the Zarnissa twins their racing pinnace back.
“It’s not too bad there,” Odo told me. “The council’s got a lot of the rioting and looting back under control. And now that communication has been established with Kappa Coronae, supplies are coming in daily.”
“I won’t be able to walk around freely.”
“Nah, but Zy’s cousins will help us.”
“You sure about that?”
He said nothing.
It had always been Zyla they wanted to see. If she hadn’t have had family on Ceres A, we wouldn’t have been able to R & R there. It was an expensive place, and even an overnight stay on a resort world like that could set you back a few thousand chits easily.
But for Zyla, the Zarnissa twins would give us the run of their place. I had no idea what they did on the holiday planet, but when we turned up, they’d leave us to it, disappear into the palm trees and beach bars and coconut huts selling all manner of things.
After they’d spent an hour or two locked in a soundproofed room with my navigator.
Without Zyla, I wasn’t sure how long the welcome mat would be.
“Once we get back there, we’ve got no way off,” I warned Odo. “We’ll be at their mercy.”
“You make it sound like they’ll string us up by our guts.”
I wouldn’t have put it past them. I’d always thought Zyla’s cousins were capable of much more than they seemed.
“Listen,” I said. “They’re not going to know how it went on Delphini B. We could borrow the pinnace for a little longer, and try to source another ship.”
Well, I was thinking the pinnace would make a fine downpayment on a cargo vessel.
“Ceres A is a trap,” I said flatly.
“I’m not wanted for murder.”
The words hung in the small confines of the cockpit as if sharp blades waiting to strike at any sudden movement.
“About that,” I started.
“Don’t,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s in the past.”
I could have explained that I’d acted under orders. But none of the crew knew my history; knew where I came from. Sure, the surname gave a lot away, but there’re a fair few Jamesons dotted about the galaxy.
Odo had never asked. It was kind of a golden rule on the Harpy. What happened before the Harpy stayed in the before of the Harpy. That sort of thing.
I wondered now whether it would be wise to let him in on some of my secrets.
But he held himself so rigid in the pilot’s seat, and I couldn’t help feeling that he had the right to judge me how he was judging me.
“Alright,” I said, clearing my throat gruffly; it still hurt from the noose. And being reminded of that made me think of other things we needed answers to.
Like why a Zenith had bothered to land on the Delph in order to kill me. Because there was no denying I was his target. No other poor drunken sod got strung up by Flexi wire to hang off the limb of a tree.
“We need answers,” I said, lamely.
“There’s more you should know,” Odo offered quietly.
He grunted. It was slightly amused and more than just a little wistful. I think he did want to hit me and I mean that in the most literal sense of the word.
“Whoever bombed the flux out of Ceres A, did the same to Gamma Cephei.”
A chill washed down my spine. I sat forward as if I hadn’t heard Odo right and I needed to be closer to parse the words he’d just spoken.
“That’s another Zenith world,” I murmured. “And not a militarised one, either. What is it? Farming?”
“Agriculture and scientific research mainly. Farmers and scientists and their families.”
“Unmanned drones from orbit.”
“Still sounds like an internal Zenith conflict to me.”
“Yeah, well, Zenthia’s closed its borders. As if they think they’ll be next.”
I sat still for a moment. Then manned up.
“Is that where they took Zyla?”
“Under what charge?”
“They think she’s involved, Cap. They think that beacon she has embedded in her neck called the nukes down on their heads at Ceres A.”
I stared out at the Black, trying to think.
“She didn’t,” I finally said softly.
“You sure about that?”
“Three years, Odo. Three years she’s been with us on the Harpy. How can you not be sure?”
“Well,” he said, dusting his hands together as if he were rubbing them clean, “thank flux for that. I thought you might not have been the man I signed up with.”
I stared at him, saying nothing. I wasn’t the same man he’d signed up with. I was guilty. Guilty of things no man should ever be guilty of.
“Doc was dying, Cap’n,” Odo said quietly. “That bullet had minced up his insides bad, and there wouldn’t have been flux all that Cass could’ve done to repair him. He knew it. We all did. You just didn’t get a good enough look at him before the shit hit the fan.”
“Don’t,” I said, repeating his directive back at him. I didn’t need an excuse to ease my conscience. I liked my self-loathing exactly the way it was.
He said nothing. Maybe he actually agreed.
“So, Ceres A or chance our luck with a stolen Zenith racing ship?” I asked.
“You’re the boss.”
Heavier words had never before been spoken.
“Zyla’s not on Ceres,” I said, thinking it through. “Send a tight-beam to the twins and explain we’re going after her, and the pinnace is now essential to the operation.”
“They were pretty insistent that we needed to bring the ship back.”
“That was when it was being used to rescue just me.”
“Zyla can smooth it over with them when we’re done.”
“Yeah sure,” Odo said, not sounding convinced. But he sent the tight-beam. “So, where to?”
The universe was our oyster. The pinnace was state of the art, the highest of Zenith high tech; camo, FTL engines, jump point capable. It lacked the finer things like space to stretch your legs and a head or mess deck. But it’d get us to where we needed to get to in a hurry.
“How fast do you think this thing can go?” I asked.
“Faster than you’ve ever gone,” Odo said with glee.
He had no idea what I’d flown in my past.
“Try this,” I said, bringing up a star map and finding our destination. I sent the coordinates through to his nav panel.
Odo whistled. “You got some cajones, Cap’n. That neighbourhood is rough.”
“We’re in a borrowed racing pinnace of Zenith origin,” I told him, settling back in my seat and testing my restraints. “If we’re gonna get what we need in exchange for this thing, we’re gonna have to deal with someone willing to take on an angry Zenith.”
“Or in this case, two of ‘em.”
He entered the coordinates into the ship’s system, checked them, and then checked them again; Odo was no navigator. Which made me think of Zy.
Time was running out. Maybe. Who knew? But I had to suspect that things weren’t all good for my navigator. The sooner we got to her, the better. Which meant, we needed to run the blockade at the Zenthian homeworld and to do that, we needed something a little more capable than a racing pinnace.
“This should be fun,” Odo declared and punched it.
Stars hung suspended in the black and then streaked past us. Faster than the Harpy could manage, that was for certain. Odo let out a whoop and threw his arms up in the air like he was on some old school rollercoaster. I smiled, chuckling at his joyous reaction to the pinnace’s speed.
It’d be a shame to lose the little ship, and its fate was looking pretty grim. Where we were going, it’d be lucky to come out of it in less than a million different pieces. But hopefully, its sacrifice would get us that much closer to Zyla.
I felt exhausted. Strung out and beaten. My hands shook slightly when I scrubbed my face. My body throbbed in agony. My chest was perpetually aching. I rubbed at it and closed my eyes. But sleep wasn’t forthcoming.
When I closed my lids all I saw was the Ceres A council chambers. Zyla being scanned for her emergency beacon. Doc slung between Odo and her as he was dragged back to the Harpy; still breathing.
All I heard was Cassi.
I’ve got a past that haunts me. But it was my present that was going to do me in, I feared. If I didn’t get a grip on this guilt, it would consume me.
Just one last hoorah and maybe I’d let it.
I had a place I could go and hole up in until the end. Somewhere no one else knew about. Somewhere from my past. It wasn’t much, but it was all mine. And it was the last place Cass had been before she’d been uploaded into the Harpy.
It seemed appropriate somehow that I’d end up back there when Cass was gone.
I’d send a tight-beam to my great-grandfather then, to let him know that there was one less third-gen in the universe. It was cowardly, and I wasn’t usually that sort of man. But, right now, I was done with valour.
Buy a ship with the stolen pinnace.
Get past Zenthia’s blockade.
It was enough of a bucket list.
We came out of FTL flight and entered a jump point within an hour. Odo slept through it entirely. The pinnace could be piloted from the rear seat, so I didn’t bother to wake him for the jump. His restraints were on, so I let him get his rest.
God knew he’d need his strength when we got there.
Chi Virginis was not for the weak. I checked the lockers beside my seat and found a flare gun and a pocket knife. Not exactly stellar protection, but with Odo’s railgun and plasma rifle, we’d survive.
I took a stim and then watched the countdown.
And when the jump point exit appeared, I blasted out of nether space and into the Chi system.
Along with at least a dozen pirate ships.
They were a mixed bag. From bug-eyed freighters to sleek fighting machines. The only thing they had in common was their registration had been wiped off the side of the vessels, they were sending false transponder signals at everything, and they were armed to the teeth. Most sported various pockmarks and scorches from old skirmishes, and some even had a vapour trail showing the poor state of their engines. The one that caught my eye and made me blink was painted canary yellow.
“We there yet?” Odo said with a yawn.
“Yeah. How much life left in that plasma gun?”
“Down to a third. Railgun’s good for a few hundred rounds still.”
“I’ll take the plasma; you heft the RG.”
“Does this thing have any security?”
“Basic AI, but state of the art security locked into our bio sigs.” All AIs were basic after Cassi.
“Is it on?”
“Then we’re good to go.”
“You know who to approach in there, Cap?” Odo asked, eyeing the space hub warily, as it hung off to our port side, glinting in the weak illumination of the system’s only sun.
“My contact is old; he might have moved on.” A euphemism if ever there was for a place like Chi Virginis. “Won’t know until we dock.”
“I’d feel better if we soft docked.”
Soft docking was temporary and easily broken if you had to make a quick getaway. Hard docking required the hub release us from their docking clamps before we could leave.
“I don’t plan on taking this ship with us, Odo,” I told him. “But I also don’t want anyone else to take it without paying us. So set the security to its highest settings and ask the port controller for a hard dock.”
“Aye-aye, Cap’n.” The drawl was for show, no two ways about it. But I could hardly blame Odo for being uptight about this.
I was, too.
“Chi Virginis, this is the pinnace Zelene,” Odo drawled into his mic. “Request docking permission.”
“State your business, Zelene.”
“You’re looking at it, Virginis. Wanna buy a sweet ride off me?”
The controller chuckled and said, “Docking Bay Delta-3b. And you might want to try Davros on level three. He’s always eager to race something.”
“Thanks for the tip. Zelene is docking: Delta-3b.”
Now everyone in the system knew why we were here and what we had to offer. Chi Virginis might have been run by pirates for pirates, but it liked to have a little transparency.
Of course, not a single pirate out there would be completely honest with the port controller. Except for Odo, it seemed. That was why I’d always insisted he stay down in engineering.
The docking clamps clanked as they connected with our ship, jarring us slightly. Odo powered down the engines on the instruction of the controller, leaving us at their mercy. If there was ever a time to have second thoughts, now was not it. The docking arm pulled us in snug against the hub and then a cocoon was extended to surround the pinnace. It wasn’t a big ship, and it didn’t have a docking port, so we required an atmosphere to exit the vessel.
This was their solution. It freaked Odo out a little, but I’d been expecting it. I’d last come here with the Harpy, so I hadn’t had to go through this. But I’d seen smaller vessels get swallowed by the behemoth that is the Chi Virginis space hub and trading station.
Chi, itself, was a rocky, barren planet that had a permanent temperature at well below the freezing point of water. It was simply too far away from the system’s sun. But it was deposit rich, and so a hub had been built to ferry miners down to the surface. When the planet had been sucked dry of all possible profit, the hub had been abandoned.
In stepped enterprising individuals who had a beef with authority. It became a pirate trading Mecca within the span of twenty Standards.
Now it was where you went to offload goods that weren’t clean and hoped you wouldn’t get shanked in the process.
The light beside the docking hatch turned green, indicating we had a breathable atmosphere.
“You wanna do the honours?” Odo asked, nodding toward the release for the canopy.
“Chicken shit,” I groused and held my breath while I hit the button that would expose us to whatever was outside the pinnace.
We didn’t get sucked out, but it was chilly. Ice formed immediately in my nostrils. I sucked in a breath of air and started coughing. Odo turned in his seat, eyes wide, and stared in horror at me.
“I’m fine! I’m fine!” I gasped and spluttered.
Odo tentatively took a breath of air.
“Flux, Cap’n. You had me going there for a second.”
“If you hadn’t noticed already, Odo,” I managed to reply, “I’m not the picture of perfect health right now.”
“Nah, you’re alright. Nothing a good meal wouldn’t fix.”
“Please tell me you have chits.”
“Got some. Enough for dinner. If you wanna chance the locals.”
“I’ve eaten here before,” I said, climbing out of the pinnace.
“Who were you running from back then?”
I said nothing.
Odo didn’t ask again.
The docking hatch opened on surprisingly well-oiled hinges. The gel wall might have looked a bit scuffed, but maintenance of some description was being undertaken on the hub. It didn’t manage to settle my heartbeat much.
Odo checked the remote security settings on the key-tab for the ship and then nodded. I closed the hatch behind us and hoped we were doing the right thing.
“You know the place, boss,” Odo said. “How ‘bout you take the lead?”
I would have preferred getting our business sorted immediately, but the talk of food had my stomach churning and not in the I’m-about-to-puke way but the feed-me-now way. It had been a long time since I’d had anything decent to eat.
Not that Virginis would offer up Michelin starred meals. But even an MRE wouldn’t have gone astray right then.
We set off down the umbilical that attached our docking bay to the central hub. Odo with his hand on the railgun stuck to his thigh, me with my head on a swivel. The plasma rifle was slung over my shoulder, out of the way, but within reach. Using either on the hub could lead to our imprisonment. And I wasn’t entirely sure whether the accommodations here on Virginis would be better or worse than Delphini B.
Not using our weapons, though, could mean our deaths. So we kept them near, and we kept them visible. Just like every other spacer on the station. I just hoped everyone recognised and responded accordingly to the deterrents the weapons represented.
In the central hub, we were assailed with smells and sights typical of any trading post. Rich spices and vibrant colours. Hawkers calling out their wares and women showing an inviting amount of skin. You could pick whatever your heart desired on Chi Virginis. Zeniths. Rhodies. Humans. Mutts. Even Claxians if you swung that way and some people did. It boggled the mind, really.
But we bypassed all the most obvious stores and headed further into the station itself.
I was leading us in the general direction of my contact’s last known location, all the while keeping an eye on the clientele and the less obvious local security. Even pirates had a police force of sorts; just that this police force would shoot first and ask questions later.
We dodged an argument that was getting a little too close for comfort to a fistfight which would then quickly turn into a knife fight and might even knock on a railgun’s door. And then slipped down an arm of the station that led to a little hole in the wall Rhodian restaurant which used to do good chilli. Or what passes for chilli on Rhodia.
My mouth watered as soon as I spotted the place. A sense of peace and rightness swept over me, which really had no right to at that moment. Still, I grabbed it with both hands and ordered two large helpings and then put my back to a wall, tucked away from the flow of traffic, and ate the best meal I think I have ever had in my life.
Or, at least, since I’d been incarcerated on Delphini B.
“Cass used to make a good chilli,” Odo said softly from beside me.
“Cass could make anything exactly the way you liked it.”
“She really gone, boss?”
“You heard the explosion.”
“Yeah,” he said and chucked his still half-full carton of Rhodie chilli in the trash receptacle.
I suddenly couldn’t stomach all of mine.
“Let’s do this,” I said, throwing my leftovers in the bin behind Odo’s.
We walked off in silence, but that didn’t mean we weren’t on high alert. Nothing jumped out and stabbed us. Or slit our throats from behind, so we made relatively good progress towards my contact.
But that’s where our luck ran out.
My contact’s store was shut up tighter than a Mutt’s fist in a bar fight. And it looked like it had been that way for some time.
“What now?” Odo asked.
Now, we were winging it, and I didn’t like winging the sale of the pinnace one little bit. You couldn’t trust pirates. I could have trusted my contact; a little. Maybe more than that in a past life. But anyone else, I just had to go with my gut.
I turned around and studied the nearest stores. Electronics. Body armour. Weapons. Synths. A brothel. A bar. The last called to me, and I had to scrub my face a couple of times to clear my head. My mouth went dry.
“I suppose we better go find this Davros,” I said reluctantly.
“You know it’s a set-up, don’t you?”
“Yeah.” But what choice did we have? “Level three, right?”
“Yeah. How ‘bout I…?”
Odo didn’t get to finish his sentence.
All of a sudden, we were surrounded by Virginis security.
And they were all Mutts.
Well, flux me.
They didn’t disarm us. But that was because they were Mutts. The railgun might have dented their thick skulls if we were lucky, but there were six of them and only one railgun. The plasma rifle would have just made them laugh.
If Mutts laughed, that is.
But being left armed also meant we were being taken to another Mutt.
Last time I was here, Chi Virginis had been run by Rhodians. Looked like a change of management had transpired — just our sort of shitty luck.
The Mutts escorting us were head and shoulders bigger than me. Odo did alright, but that’s because he’s a freak of nature. The Mutt, I guessed was the leader, had a squashed nose and a scar bisecting his right eye. The green of his armour was slightly faded compared to his counterpart’s.
He wore the wear with honour.
To a Mutt, nothing beats dying in battle. And if you can’t die in battle, then you’d better look like you’d fought a hundred battles because otherwise, you were worth nothing.
It helped, of course, that they were big beasts with oversized arms and thick skulls and the strength of ten people. Their planet, Malee, was twice as large as Earth. Their gravity almost double.
It made them big-boned and big muscled and big everything. Ideal soldiers; if you found yourself in a rough spot, you wanted a Mutt to keep you company.
There’d been Mutts on Delphini B. I’d avoided them. Like I’d avoided the synths and Clux the Crazy. I could fight a good fight but also knew when to run from one.
It looked like I couldn’t run from this one, so I accepted my fate calmly.
“Why are you detaining us?” I demanded in an outraged tone of voice.
The head Mutt said nothing and the rest acted as if I hadn’t even spoken.
“We’ve done nothing wrong,” I added for good measure.
They kept walking, and as we were packed between their beefy shoulders, we kept walking too. It’d be like swimming against a tide to push against the flow; that’s if the tide was powered by an enormous moon and we were the size of shrimps.
“I don’t think they’re listening,” Odo offered helpfully.
“We have business here on Chi Virginis,” I said, ignoring my engineer. “We don’t plan on staying. How about you let us go do our business and then we’ll get out of your hair?”
The head Mutt offered me a scowl — probably the hair comment; they don’t have any — and then pressed the button for a lift. We stood there, like a can of sardines, staring at the gel coating on the lift which decided to display a picture of a supernova exploding.
I wondered if there was a subliminal message in there somewhere.
The lift opened, and we shuffled in. Odo and me between six rock hard, silent, well-armed beef buses. It was a tight squeeze.
I said nothing on the trip up to what was considered the top level of the station. When we stepped out of the lift, we were in a sumptuous lounge. Soft music played, and glasses clinked, and on a stage, swinging artfully around a stripper pole, was a human woman.
She looked lovely. But how the hell had she found herself here?
“How about we get one of those for the mess deck?” I asked Odo.
“The girl or the pole, boss?”
“The girl is for sale,” a deep voice said. “The pole is structurally important to the station itself.”
“What?” I said, not looking directly at the owner of that voice but shifting enough to spot him in my periphery.
Yep, I’d been right — another Mutt.
“That iddy-biddy pole,” I went on, “holds the whole place together?”
“Hard to believe, isn’t it?”
“And you let women swing on it?”
He smiled, showing a row of thick, yellow teeth. His armour, I noted, was even more worn than the head Mutt guard. This guy had been around a battlefield or two in his time.
“If we live our lives without risk, Captain Jameson, we only experience a portion of what could be.”
He knew my name. That was kind of alarming. I had a reputation, and I had been here before, but I didn’t like it. He shouldn’t have known my name.
I turned to face him.
“You have me at a disadvantage,” I said, “Mr…?”
Mutts don’t go by simple Mr or Mrs titles. They have Battle Leader this and Supreme Axe Grinder that. But I could hardly guess which it would be.
“You may call me Malcolm.”
Odo sniggered and then covered it with a cough. I offered him a brief glare to indicate he should get ahold of himself and then looked directly at Malcolm.
“Pleasure,” I said dryly.
“Believe me, the pleasure is all mine.” And that didn’t sound creepy at all.
He held out a big arm and indicated the curved banquette seat behind him. He waited until we took our spots; the guards positioning themselves at our backs and at the end of the benches so we couldn’t get out easily. A table separated us from Malcolm, but it was a gel-covered monstrosity in pristine condition. So, my bet was it would stop a railgun slug in a fraction of a heartbeat.
I placed my hands on its surface, and Malcolm smiled, this time without the teeth.
“Imagine my surprise,” he said as another human woman approached us with a tray of frothing drinks. Rhodian single malt, at a guess. The finest in the galaxy and three hundred chits apiece. “When our facial recognition software picked you up in the central hub?”
“I guess I just have one of those faces. You think you see it everywhere.”
“The last time this particular face was seen was on Delphini B.”
I sat back and smiled, showing my teeth.
“I get around,” I said softly.
“Please,” Malcolm said, “enjoy your drink.”
Odo looked at me and then shrugged, lifting the single malt to his lips and downing it. It was a show of nonchalance I didn’t feel. My eyes held those of the Mutt’s, and he smiled thinly, then lifted his own glass to his lips and downed the single malt in one hit.
I’d lost that round, but I wasn’t going to get too upset about it. Odo had an ironclad stomach. I was still malnourished.
Unless of course, you thought Delphini B beer was a whole food group, and for a while there, I certainly had.
I lifted the glass to my lips and inhaled. Good single malt. Good Rhodian whisky.
With more enjoyment than I cared to acknowledge, I savoured the whisky on my palate.
Malcolm chuckled and said, “There is a bounty on your head for two million chits.”
I spat the whisky out all over the pristine gel-coated table.
Odo slapped me on the back when I started to cough.
“Dead or alive?” I managed between hacking.
Malcolm stared at me and said, “Unspecified.”
Great. Just great. I was a dead man walking.
“Which way are you leaning?” I enquired, once I’d got myself more or less under control again.
“I am a businessman, Captain. Strange, I know. To see a Mal with a taste for capitalism.”
“I’m all for capitalism,” I told the Mutt, I mean Mal. “As long as it makes me money.”
“I would think a cargo hauler would be.”
“So, let’s cut to the chase. You want something. Otherwise, my head would be on a platter, and you’d be calling in that mark.”
“I may still do so; I simply wanted to meet the man, the human, who has garnered the highest bounty on his head since the Great Victory.”
The Great Victory was the Mutts’ most sacred battle. It was taught to all little Mutts with such fervour and passion, that to show anything less than religious devotion to it was frowned upon. I mean, really frowned upon. The type of frowning upon that gets you shafted.
Malee was a constant battlefield, and the Mutts loved it.
This guy was an anomaly. Mutts liked nice things. Especially if those nice things killed other things better. But capitalism? Luxurious surroundings? Expensive whisky? Not so much.
I wondered if he’d paid to have his armour dulled and if he did, then he was one dangerous Mutt to go up against.
A dishonourable Mutt was an unpredictable Mutt.
I felt my palms go clammy.
“Well,” I said, feigning indifference I didn’t feel. “Now you’ve met me. What’s your price?”
“Two million chits would do nicely, but as you blew up your rust bucket of a cargo ship back on Ceres Alpha and currently have in your possession a stolen Zenith racing pinnace, I doubt you could pay the bill.”
“But you have something else in mind.”
He smiled. “I think I like you, Captain. You’re very quick.”
The woman returned with another tray of glasses full of single malt. Malcolm either wanted me to get very drunk and make a bad decision, or he really was made of chits and liked showing off.
I studied the guy as the drinks were disbursed. Two million chits for my head was an easy hour’s work for him. Why not take it?
What could I possibly do for the Mutt that he couldn’t get done for himself?
“Perhaps we could help each other, Captain Jameson,” Malcolm said.
I doubted it, but I’d bite.
“Sure, why not?”
“You plan to run the blockade.”
This guy knew too much. He had to have an extensive network available to him. But you didn’t get to the top of the pirating food chain by playing nicely. My danger-danger alarms were going off like fireworks on New Earth Day inside my head.
“Maybe,” I said slowly, drawing the word out.
“I know where they’re keeping her.”
I said nothing, my heart beating too quickly.
“I know how to get into the complex and where inside it she is.”
This was too good to be true, so I waited.
“I know what they’ve been doing to her.”
OK. I couldn’t quite hide the twitch of my cheek on that one, but he didn’t acknowledge the tell; just kept talking.
“I know she has forty-eight hours to live.”
Odo let out a small sound of disquiet. I was ice.
“I need only one thing for this information and should payment not be met; I should like to point out where you are.”
He looked around the sumptuous room with its plush furnishings and expensive liquor and multitude of enslaved human women.
I’d learned long ago that I couldn’t save everyone in the universe who needed saving. It had damn near killed me, and it was the reason why I was no longer that man. The man who had been a loyal New Earther. That man was no longer me.
So I didn’t blink at the show he put on and wanted me to see. I didn’t stir myself beyond staring back icily.
All that mattered was getting to Zyla.
If I could save Zyla, maybe Doc’s death would weigh easier on me. I knew in my heart that wouldn’t be the case. But my mind was a stubborn beast.
“Non-payment will be met with consequences, Captain,” Malcolm said as if his threat required clarification. It didn’t. I got it.
Lots of armed Mutts and lots of chits to throw around willy-nilly. Hiring a bounty hunter to hunt me down should I fail my end of the bargain was a given. But Malcolm liked his drama.
He was a Mutt after all.
“Go on,” I said softly. “What do you need?”
“There is a Mal of interest in one of the cells within the building your navigator is being held inside. I want him brought back to me. In one piece.”
“And if he isn’t in one piece when I find him?”
“With no further harm to him, then.”
“How will I know which one he is?”
“He is the only one of my kind in captivity on Zenthia.”
To have caught a Mutt must have been something to see. They went berserk when cornered. Certainly at their most lethal if they thought themselves close to death. For the Zeniths to hold one was impressive. And it also meant the security on his cell would be the highest of Zenith high tech.
“Will he cooperate with me?”
“I’ll give you a phrase to say that he will recognise and trust. How he reacts after your exit from Zenthia is up to you. I suggest you treat him with respect.”
I nodded. “I’ll need a ship.”
“And it just so happens that I have need of a racing pinnace.”
Again, I doubted it, but he’d find a way to make money out of stripping the little ship.
“You have something to trade for it?” I asked.
He let out a laugh and then another and another, his whole body rumbling. Finally, he sobered and said, “You’re on Chi Virginis, Captain Jameson. Here, you can buy whatever you please.”
Words were exchanged with one of the Mutt guards, and then a portable vid-screen was produced. On it was a binding contract. Malcolm really liked dotting his Is and crossing his Ts. He’d be the first Mutt I’d ever met who didn’t settle things with a strong arm contest.
It made me uneasy.
But the contract had no hidden clauses that I could see, and the ship he was willing to trade for the pinnace appeared to be worth more than the little racing machine, and he even threw in a few extras. Like upgraded railguns and plasma cannons with damn near limitless capacity and an FTL engine that made Odo drool beside me.
“This ship is mine once the deal is done?” I checked.
“You bring my…compatriot to me, and the ship and modifications are all yours.”
It was a sweet deal. Which was why I was sweating buckets and my heart was beating mercilessly fast inside of me. Either Malcolm didn’t think we’d make it through the blockade or he thought we’d die in the rescue attempt. Or maybe he really did think we deserved the better end of the bargain if we succeeded.
He was also setting us up with as much of an advantage as he could manage to ensure our success. So the Mutt he wanted rescued was important to him.
I could use that.
“OK,” I said and placed my thumb on the vid-screen. My biometrics were scanned and accepted, and then Malcolm did the same, and just like that, I was in bed with a Mutt.
And a pirate Mutt at that.
“Forty-eight hours,” I said, standing. “We need to get started.”
“Oh, did I forget to tell you?” Malcolm said sweetly. “Your navigator is set to be executed in forty-eight hours, but my compatriot is set to be executed in a little less than twenty-four.”
Son of a bitch.
“You could have mentioned that,” I growled.
“The ship is fast, Captain. Not as fast as the pinnace; that would be reckless. But it is faster than your Harpy. You can reach Zenthia in time if you leave immediately.”
“Departure clearance already approved, no doubt,” I said sourly.
“Of course. I run the place. I can pick and choose who gets preferential treatment.” He paused. “And who gets shafted.”
I smiled all teeth. “I guess we’ll be seeing you, then.”
“I guess you will.”
I looked at Odo; who looked a little shocked. And then I turned on my heel; my engineer close behind me. We were escorted with just two Mutts this time, which made the elevator ride more comfy. But the looks we received from the beings walking the umbilicals was priceless.
We were in deep shit.
Whoever this Malcolm had been, whoever he was now, he was feared and respected in equal measure.
“I feel like I’ve just signed a deal with the devil,” I muttered.
“Like I said, Cap’n,” Odo drawled. “Big cajones.”
“We didn’t have a choice,” I told him.
“You won’t hear me arguing.”
“Forty-eight hours, Odo,” I said softly.
“The clock is ticking.”
“Why do I feel, then, that I’ve made a big mistake?”
“‘Cause brains you have,” the head Mutt guard said in an impossibly deep voice. “Or what is for brains in puny species.”
Now here was a Mutt that fit the picture of Muttness nicely.
“Thank you,” I said. “I think.”
He smiled, showing yellow teeth and led us out into an umbilical that had a row of vid-screens showing the outside of the space hub.
Hanging in the Black, attached to a hard dock, was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen.
“It’s a cruiser,” I said.
“It’s a frigate,” Odo countered.
“Is corvette,” the guard said. “Large enough to haul little cargo; good idea when you need cover story. Small enough to be nimble ship. Duck and dive plasma shots, yeah?” He moved his meaty hands through the air to imitate a ship in evasive manoeuvres. “Is fine ship. Best in system. Malcolm likes you.”
I let out a breath of air and stared at the corvette.
A fluxing corvette.
I’d been in one before, of course. Maybe Malcolm knew that. He knew a hell of a lot of things he shouldn’t have. But this corvette was something special, indeed.
“What’s it called,” I asked.
“Change name for you,” the guard said. “Not sure is improvement.”
I turned and looked at him, and he shrugged; big shoulders rolling.
“Is named Harpy II now, yeah?”
The Harpy II which would undoubtedly be shortened to the Harpy at some stage. I staggered back. Odo’s mouth fell open.
“Twenty-four hours, Captain,” the guard said. “You no have time to change name again, I think.”
“Yeah,” I said, scrubbing a hand over my face. “No time.”
And once a ship was named. And once you’d flown in it under that name. It was that name for good.
“Come on, Big Guy,” I said, slapping a stunned Odo on the back. “Let’s go introduce you to the H2’s engines.”
“Can’t think of one reason why not, Cap.”
“H2 it is, then.”
I turned and nodded to the head Mutt guard, who smirked back at me and said nothing. And then I opened the docking hatch and stepped through it.
Onto our new ship.
The Harpy had been home for over five long years.
It was no more now.
Just like Cass and Doc.
This wasn’t a new start. This was temporary. I’d have to hand this ship over to the Zarnissa twins or risk owing them more than I could ever hope to pay them in a single lifetime.
The name meant nothing.
For now, this was the means to rescue Zyla. The last member of our family. If it could help us achieve that, then it could be called anything.
I had to get to Zyla.
It had become a mantra inside my head; I couldn’t stop repeating.
I had to get to Zyla.
I had to get to Zyla.
I had to get to Zyla.
Then maybe, just maybe, this would all mean something.
The corvette was stunning. No two ways about it. It was swift and nimble, and if the sounds coming from engineering were anything to go by, beguiling beyond Odo’s wildest dreams.
“I think I’m in love,” the big guy said as he entered the bridge.
We’d left the Chi system three hours ago and were en route for Zenthia Actual. The main jump point exit was within spitting distance of the planet itself and would be crawling with Zenthian battleships. So I’d programmed an exit farther away, but one I was pretty sure we could use without too much trouble.
It would mean burning for Zenthia at full throttle and doing so in an unfamiliar ship was asking for problems. Odo was pretty confident we’d manage. At least, he was looking forward to the challenge.
I’d not been so sure, but entering the Zenthian system at the main jump point was suicidal.
I wasn’t quite at suicidal yet.
“Any bugs?” I asked my engineer.
Other than staring adoringly at the FTL engines, Odo had been performing a sweep of the ship; from top to bottom and side to side. We’d save an external sweep for when this was all over.
“Nothing,” he said. "If he’s bugged us, it’ll be a tracking device on the outside. Can’t check that out until we’re out of the jump tunnel.”
I leaned back in my chair and stared around the bridge. Everything was in pristine order. The ship wasn’t new; it’d seen a few battles I was sure. But it had been lovingly restored afterwards.
“It’s one of ours,” I said nodding to the nearest bulkhead.
“Yeah, with some impressive modifications.”
“How’d he get his hands on it and does the original owner want it back?”
Odo shrugged. “Does it matter?”
No. I guess it didn’t.
“What’s the plan once we get there, Cap’n?”
I brought up the map Malcolm had provided, showing the location of the complex Zyla and the Mutt were being held in.
“I don’t like where it’s at,” I said.
“Seems pretty good to me. In the mountains. Away from the major centres. Less traffic.”
“Exactly. Why keep an interrogation facility hidden like that?”
“Because the population would baulk at seeing it on their street?”
“Zenthia is an old planet,” I mused. “They’ve had interstellar flight for thousands of years. They’re used to defending themselves against aliens. A facility like this is to be expected.”
“What’re you getting at?”
“It’s clearly a secret, and I don’t like secrets.”
“Show me a Zenith who doesn’t have secrets.”
Odo knew Zyla had hers. Her emergency beacon for one. He hadn’t known about that until the Zeniths on Ceres A scanned her for it. In the council chamber they even went so far as to try to extract it, but extracting it might have killed Zyla before they were ready to do it themselves. Plus, it undoubtedly would have sent a signal out, and they were paranoid of another drone strike.
I was pretty sure Odo was feeling a little sour about being the last to know about that beacon.
“The Zeniths,” I said, carrying the conversation forward before it entered dangerous waters completely, “have been fighting amongst themselves for centuries. Maybe this is the splinter faction’s facility.”
“Then why hold Zyla there? Ceres A wouldn’t have been controlled by the malcontents, would it?”
“Maybe it was. I don’t know. But to hide this facility up in the mountains means something and until I figure it out, I won’t be happy.”
“Not gonna stop us going in, though, is it?”
I turned and smiled broadly at my engineer. “What sort of kit have we got on this beast?”
He grinned back at me. “The sort of kit that could get us into serious trouble, Cap’n. Or get us out of it.”
“I like the sound of that. Let’s go take an inventory and gear up. Jump point exit is in a little less than a Standard hour.”
“Activate artificial intelligence,” I said, standing up.
“Hello, Captain Jameson.”
It was a Basic. I hadn’t expected anything less.
“Self-diagnostic and activate auto-pilot.”
“Diagnostic running and auto-pilot activated.”
“Set at highest sensitivity and alert me to any anomalies.”
“Sensitivity is set at the highest setting. Standby for alerts.”
“It says that like it expects to find some anomalies,” Odo drawled.
“Maybe it knows something we don’t,” I muttered and led the way off the bridge.
The corridors were narrow but functional. The gel walls malleable, so if we took a rocket up the arse, we’d bounce off padded walls without incurring blunt force trauma injuries. There was a small med bay which reminded me of Doc. Four crew cabins which had undoubtedly been redesigned to accommodate one or two in a modicum of luxury compared to the half dozen bunks they would have initially been created for. A head large enough to handle the entire crew all at once; a kinky thought that didn’t bear acknowledging. A mess hall. A meeting/private communications room. Engineering, of course. And an armoury.
I’d never had an armoury on a privately owned ship before. The Harpy kept her weapons in one of the cargo bays near engineering. Easy for Odo to reload and distribute from. This ship had a dedicated, biometrically locked room with racks of portable weapons and body armour enough for half a dozen people.
It concerned me greatly that the body armour was in various sizes rather than the ubiquitous one-size-fits-all that most ships carried. And when I pulled a couple out and found one that matched my body shape precisely, that concern ratcheted up a notch or ten.
“Hey, this one is made to measure for me,” Odo said.
“Yeah,” I murmured, fingering the body armour that would fit Zyla’s tall, thin frame nicely. “It’s as if he’s got a master plan and we’re just along for the ride.”
I shook my head. I didn’t trust Malcolm one little bit. But beggars can’t be choosers and all that, and we needed to get to Zyla before she was executed.
I had a thought and rechecked the rack of armour, this time finding a suit that would fit a Mutt. My guess, it was made to measure for the Mutt we were rescuing.
Son of a bitch. Malcolm had more in store for us.
I didn’t like being manipulated, and it put me in a foul mood. But playing with mini-railguns and plasma rifles and flash-bang grenades did improve it.
Then the Basic alerted me to an anomaly in the self-diagnostic.
I left Odo to prepping the weapons we’d need to take planetside and returned to the bridge.
“Display anomaly," I ordered, as I slid into the command chair.
The main vid-screen lit up with a line of code that meant nothing.
“Explain it to me in layman’s terms.”
“A subroutine, Captain, that records all communications made onboard the vessel and compiles a data stack for delivery upon exiting a jump point,” the Basic AI advised.
Sometimes you could hide outgoing comms during a jump point exit.
“Chi system, Captain.”
Yeah, he was watching us.
“Any other anomalies?”
“Negative, Captain. Self-diagnostic is complete.”
He wanted me to find the communications bug so I wouldn’t look deeper for what else he’d done to the vessel.
God, I missed Cassi.
In all reality, it didn’t much matter. I’d be handing this ship over to the Zarnissa twins, and then it would be their problem. But the longer we were on board the H2, the harder it was to like that idea.
It wasn’t a cargo hauler, but it was something sweet. And I couldn’t help thinking that transporting cargo in the outer rim was about to become tricky. We could use an armed vessel like this easily.
Something was happening on Zenthia, and if it kept going the way I thought it was going, then the galaxy was in for a rocky period.
Everyone fully acknowledged the Zenthian’s superior space technology. They led the way when it came to space-faring — and battling — tech. The Rhodies were close behind; their synths were unparalleled. No one had successfully integrated an AI into a humanoid body except for the Rhodians.
Even our third-gen AIs had to be stored in something bigger than an android. Ships, for instance. Large military facilities. Space stations. That sort of thing.
None of the Originators had managed to condense an artificial intelligence in its entirety to a point where they could become mobile soldiers like the Rhodian synths. I was sure they were working on it. But for now, the third-gens, our most advanced AIs, were all restricted to bigger things.
So, as far as space tech went, Zenthia was at the top of that food pile, closely followed by Rhodia. We did OK by mainly staying out of conflicts and keeping our third-gens a secret. The Mutts were considered the best soldiers out there in terms of pure might. And the Claxians were just the cockroaches of the galaxy, capable of surviving anything, even nuclear blasts from deep-space.
“ETA to jump point exit?” I asked the Basic.
“T-minus thirty minutes, Captain.”
Just enough time for a shower and a shave. For some reason, rescuing Zyla without either of those things happening felt unacceptable. I didn’t question the feeling too much. My beard had started to itch, and I just wanted the damn thing off.
Feeling much cleaner than I had in over a month, I entered the armoury to find Odo already gearing up.
“Have you checked out the mess?” he asked, securing the connectors on his armour. “Found a mac and cheese recipe that’s almost as good as my Mom’s.”
I’d forgotten to eat again, but I didn’t regret the time spent in the showers.
“Any desserts?” I asked, pulling my own armour off the rack. I stared at it for a moment, wondering what trackers Malcolm had put on it that the Basic would fail to tell me about if I asked it to do a diagnostic.
“Yeah. Heaps. Even got s’mores.”
I chuckled and stepped into the armour. We checked each other’s seals and then started to load up on ammunition and weapons. I took a couple of battery packs for the plasma rifle and a spare pistol that took miniature rocket-powered slugs. I grabbed several magazines for that feeling damn near perky about it. A couple of grenades and a wicked-looking knife strapped to my chest armour later, and I was done.
I turned to look at Odo and burst out laughing.
“You won’t fit out the airlock with half of that,” I told him.
He had a rocket launcher and a criss-cross of bandoliers loaded with grenades. Two railguns and a couple of thigh holsters with plasma pistols. The only thing he hadn’t bothered with was a plasma rifle. Probably because it’d get in the way of the rocket launcher strapped to his back.
“You’ll thank me later,” he said.
I shrugged. If he wanted to haul around that amount of weight in munitions, then I wasn’t going to argue. I knew in my heart we were in for a hard fight.
“The facility is well guarded,” I said, pulling out a vid-screen and activating it. “As soon as we announce our presence, they’ll lock it down, and there’s no getting in or out. It can’t be avoided once we’re on the inside, but I’d rather make it inside before they hit the alarm. So, we’re doing a stealth approach.”
“Armour’s got camo.”
“Of course, it does,” I muttered. A diagram of the facility and the surrounding area came up on the vid-screen. “Best approach is from this direction.”
“Is that a sheer cliff face?”
“Made of ice,” I said. “The wall of a glacier that’s slowly moving down between these two mountains. Guards are at their lowest in number this side of the facility.”
“Because of the wall of ice.”
“And no one being dumb enough to scale it.”
“Gravity will assist,” I told him. “And, hey look! We’ve got rappelling lines in the armour.”
“Ever wondered if you’ve got a death wish, Cap’n?”
“Every day I wake up.”
“Now, according to the intel provided, the guards radio-in every fifteen minutes,” I said. “Once we take them out here, we’ve got that long or less to make it inside.”
“Suggest we wait for them to do a radio call first, then.”
“Good idea. Tap the guards quietly. Use their biometrics to gain entry. And then,” I pulled up an internal schematic of the building itself, “we head directly here.”
“That’s the Mutt’s cell. Why not Zyla first?”
“Because Zyla will be injured and we’ll need the Mutt’s strength to fight our way out.”
“I don’t like it. What if the Mutt refuses to help?”
“Then we leave him behind.”
“But the alarm will have gone off by then and it’ll be harder to get to Zy.”
I sighed and lowered the vid-screen.
“Do you think I don’t want to go to her first? Do you think I like that we’ll free Malcolm’s precious little Mutt before our own damn crew member and then have to watch our backs all the way to the exit? Do you think I haven’t thought about all the different ways that this could go south? Damn it, Odo! This is what I do. I plan things. I find the best possible solution to a problem, and I execute it.”
He stared at me for a long time and then said, “What were you before the Harpy, Captain?”
“Good at this.”
We shot eyeball daggers at each other and then he relented and looked off to the side, breaking eye contact.
“OK,” he mumbled.
“You don’t have to like it, Odo. Just do it.”
“Like a soldier.”
“You were in the Space Fleet, weren’t you?”
“Does it matter? We’re getting Zyla back. And we’re going to have some help doing it whether the Mutt wants to or not.”
He stared at me again.
“We’ve got the keys to the getaway ship, haven’t we?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, smiling. “Yeah, we have.”
I hadn’t told him about the anomaly. About how easy it was to spot it which meant there was undoubtedly more the Basic was keeping mum about. For all I knew, Malcolm had made the Mutt Executive Head Basher and Ship’s Supreme Overlord as soon as his biosignature registered in the system.
I’d keep a few magazines in reserve just in case.
We rechecked our gear and, in a more sombre mood, headed back to the bridge to prepare for jump point exit.
“Any idea of what will be waiting?” Odo asked.
“Hopefully not much, ‘cause that’d suck and ruin the surprise.”
“But probably something,” Odo guessed.
“Yep. Zeniths aren’t known for being stupid. They’ll have this backdoor monitored.”
“Then we’ll need guns.”
I smiled over my shoulder at him. “Activate the weapons array and send controls to the engineer’s station,” I ordered the AI. “Happy Launch Day, Odo,” I said cheerfully.
“You do the sweetest things for me, Cap.”
He rubbed his hands together and then familiarised himself with the weapons system. I checked my restraints and then checked the command console one last time. Fat lot of good it would do me; Malcolm could have been showing me false readings across the board.
My love affair with the Harpy II was waning.
“Jump Exit Zenthia Delta-2 has acknowledged and accepted our request for entry.”
“And now they know we’re coming,” I muttered.
“T-minus two minutes to exit.”
We sat in silence for one of them.
“If we don’t come out of this alive,” I suddenly said. “I’m sorry.” And where that had come from, I didn’t know.
“I know, Captain.”
And that said it all, really.
“T-minus 10, 9, 8, 7…”
I waited for a quip, but none came. This was a Basic.
“3, 2, 1. Exiting jump point.”
A flash of white light and then we were through.
“Incoming,” the Basic announced. “Initiating Evasive Manoeuvre Charlie-Alpha-3.”
“Say what now?” Odo asked, firing up the railguns.
We started corkscrewing through the space, stars winking at us from all directions, the shape of two enormous Zenthian battleships spinning in and out of view as the H2 evaded their incoming missiles.
“If this is their idea of monitoring the backdoor,” I shouted, “I’m damn glad we didn’t use the front one.”
Odo grunted and pressed down on the firing triggers. Hot bolts of heated kinetic projectiles scorched the Black, arcing across the distance between us and the nearest behemoth.
We couldn’t take on two at once. Hell, we probably couldn’t take on one if it was already crippled. But we did have manoeuvrability and speed on our side. The battleships were huge and cumbersome. And the little corvette had some serious style.
My mouth fell open as we ducked and dived and dodged all incoming fire, and then we shot through the centre of them, and the camouflage routine was activated.
I hadn’t given the order. Shit, I’d almost forgotten about it until I saw the system activate on my command board. The speed in which the commands were being executed across the console was mind-boggling. If I didn’t know any better, I would have said Cassi was flying the vessel.
“Basic. Who gave that order?” I snapped.
“Which order, Captain?” the Basic asked in a monotone which somehow still sounded cheeky.
“That particular subroutine has been written into Evasive Manoeuvre Charlie-Alpha-3.”
“How many of those programmes are there?”
“Two. Evasive Manoeuvre Charlie-Alpha-3 and Firing Solution Gamma-Foxtrot-2.”
“Would have been nice to know that,” I muttered.
“This vessel is designed to exit jump points in autonomous mode should the crew be incapacitated.”
“Incapacitated?” Odo asked.
I shook my head and checked the vid-screens. The Zenthian battleships had started a grid pattern search of the area in front of the jump point exit. They couldn’t detect us, and they weren’t going to try to follow an imaginary trail. But Zenithia Actual would know something got through and that the likely heading was Zenthia.
“So far so good, I guess,” Odo rumbled.
“Sure.” We were on a ship under the remote control of a Mutt pirate about to enter a blockade set up by the most advanced species in the galaxy. So far, so good was right.
I let out a breath of air.
“Make best time to Zenthia, Basic.”
“Best time to Zenthia Actual is t-minus sixty minutes.”
We had an hour before we would do it all over again. This time with more battleships trying to stop us. We’d been lucky. None of the battleships’ fire had connected. If we took a single hit, it would compromise our camouflage, and the only reason we were still alive was the camouflage.
“All dressed up and nowhere to go,” Odo muttered.
“Strip the weapons system,” I instructed. “I’ll work on flight. Malcolm may not have had access to a top-tier AI, but he did spend some time on writing a programme. I want to know exactly what those two programmes can do.”
“On it, boss.” Which was something Cassi had always said and Odo knew it. He was reminding me exactly what a top-tier AI could do.
And what I had lost.
“Assume everything is bugged,” I said quietly, feeling the ache of Cassi and Doc’s losses all over again.
“I’ve swept for audio bugs and found none.”
“I don’t trust him. Do you?”
Odo paused and then said, “Not after that exit jump.”
At least that was something I could rely on with Odo. He could see the bigger picture when push came to shove. I might not have told him about the data stack anomaly, but after what we just witnessed the ship do, he would be on high alert for any more threats.
It was ironic that the Evasive Manoeuvre programme saved us and yet it made both of us more mistrustful.
It took the better part of that hour to read the Evasive Manoeuvre programme code line by line. My head hurt, my eyes felt gritty; I so could have gone a mug of beer right now. But the programme came back clean. It did what it was meant to do. Elegantly.
It would have cost Malcolm a fair few chits to have it created, and he’d included it on this ship, pro bono.
“Weapons programme looks sweet,” Odo declared not long after I’d finished my own assessment. “Kinda makes you wonder why he didn’t tell us about ‘em.”
“He likes to be in control, and we would have removed them summarily as soon as we boarded.”
“What else has he done?”
“I’ve been thinking the same thing, but we don’t have time to search deeper.” I nodded to the main viewscreen. “There’s Zenthia.”
A slowly spinning ball of blue and green bloomed in the distance — white-capped mountains and deep blue oceans and lush green forests; much like New Earth.
It was slightly smaller than New Earth, which meant its gravity was lower. That’s why Zeniths were so tall. But they supplemented their slender frames with technological enhancements, making them stronger than humans by a small margin.
Zy was stronger than me, but only just. And I used to work hard to make that difference smaller. We’d sparred daily on the Harpy. I’d let myself go a little since then, but I wasn’t going to be embarrassed about that now. Delphini B had been workout enough.
Just the beer that fluxed it all up.
I watched the globe grow bigger and then caught the first sight of outer defences. Battleships and drones and then Zenthia Actual; the enormous military installation which couldn’t really be called a space station as it covered the entirety of their moon.
I’d always thought it ironic that the planet was called Zenthia and the moon was called Zenthia Actual. But because they housed their military on the moon, and commanded the entire solar system and all the solar systems they’d claimed since entering the Black aeons ago from there, it was Zenthia Actual, and the planet was just the Homeworld to them.
Cities came into view, magnified by the forward cameras. Glittering towers scraping the upper atmosphere; monuments to their technological superiority.
There were over twenty billion Zeniths on their homeworld, and they didn’t suffer from anything as mundane as congestion. Their infrastructure was used as a model for all establishing colonies.
It was impressive and also a little frightening.
“I think we can sneak through if we’re careful,” I said. “But once we hit atmo, they’ll know we’re there.”
“I find it hard to believe they won’t detect us before then,” Odo grumbled, brow furrowed as he glowered at his own vid-screen.
There were hundreds of ships in orbit, and not one of them was non-military.
“I didn’t even know they had that many battleships in their line up,” he said.
I rubbed my sweaty palms on my armour surreptitiously. This was looking like an arse-kicking waiting to happen for sure.
“We sneak in,” I said, sounding more positive about our outcome than I felt, “and then make best speed under EM Charlie-Alpha-3 to the mountains.”
“You’re the boss, Cap’n.”
I’d checked the programme. I hadn’t had time to recheck it. But I’d been as thorough as I could given the short amount of time available to me. There was nothing else I could do save from flying the ship on manual.
And even I didn’t have a big enough ego to do that.
I would have felt a hell of a lot more confident if Cassi had been in the driving seat. Hell, I would have felt more confident if Zyla was.
But Malcolm wanted that Mutt and so had given us tools to make it happen. I had to assume it was the best course of action available.
“Activate Evasive Manoeuvre Charlie-Alpha-3,” I said to the Basic. “And get us down there.”
“Evasive Manoeuvre Charlie-Alpha-3 has been activated.”
He’d expected us to find the programmes. That’s why the Basic hadn’t had a problem telling us about the two of them when asked. The Evasive Manoeuvre was to get us down there and then along with the Firing Solution they would both get us back out.
That was the plan, anyway.
I just had to hope that Malcolm the Mutt was as good at planning as he was at pirating.
“Let’s go get our girl back,” I murmured, and the Basic punched it, making the corvette streak through the Black toward the largest blockade I had ever seen in my entire life.
They clocked us as soon as we hit atmo. The knowledge of every single surface-to-air missile locking onto our little corvette was surreal and yet the most shocking thing I had ever felt.
The ninety seconds it took us to burn through the mesosphere were the most nerve-racking of my entire life. We were sitting ducks — a sitting duck with a oneway directional mind. There were no evasive manoeuvres in the mesosphere. It took everything we had not to burn up.
The missiles started coming fifteen seconds into our mesosphere flight through hell.
“Shields at maximum,” the Basic said. “Possible impact imminent. Brace.”
I gripped the armrests of the command chair until I was sure I’d pull the damn things off. Rockets tore through the lower atmosphere and breached the layer we were stuck inside of. One missed by what had to be a mere metre; the entire ship shuddered. The corvette’s anti-missile fire destroyed another, and we had to fly through its debris field afterwards. And then we were through and hundreds of the fluxing things were heading towards us.
“I count fifty,” Odo yelled.
OK, so I might have been exaggerating, but it sure as shit looked like hundreds of nuclear warheads heading our way in a hurry.
The ship spun in a corkscrew much like the corkscrew we’d effected exiting the jump point, but this time Odo shot back. He didn’t need to do much, just lay down chaff and fire off the occasional round from the railgun to get the missiles that broke through the countermeasures.
I think it was more luck than anything, and the fact that the camo on the ship was so damn good, that helped us run the gauntlet. We took a hit to the side which the shields managed to deflect and rocketed out of our entry zone and towards the mountains at faster than the speed of sound.
A boom echoed out behind us, but by the time anyone tracked the sound, we were already several kilometres away and gaining sped by the second.
“Not as fast as the pinnace, my arse,” I muttered, checking systems and reflexively testing my restraints.
“They’ve launched drones with heat-seeking sensors,” Odo advised.
“Does the ship have a sleeve?” I asked the Basic.
“Affirmative, Captain. Heat and biosignature blocking capable.”
“Activate it, please.”
Beneath the shield, a thin layer of high tech material snaked out and over the entire ship, ballooning around the exhaust on the atmospheric thrusters. It slowed us down by about eighty percent, but we were far enough away from our entry zone to get away with it.
After a tense filled five minutes, I started to relax.
“Coming up on the glacier,” Odo said quietly. I think he’d been holding himself rigid too.
“That was fun,” I quipped.
“We shouldn’t have made it through.”
No, it was too easy. Just what the flux was going on here?
I checked the vid-screens and noted the pristine landscape. None of the orbital drones had made it through the blockade. Or maybe they hadn’t even tried to bomb Zenthia from space yet. There were still over fifty Zenthian controlled planets out there, not to mention all the stations they had built on asteroids and moons across the vastness of space.
“Can we connect to the local Net without being detected?” I asked.
Cassi would have been able to do it for a couple of minutes.
“Hankering after some reality TV?” Odo asked.
“Nah, just wondering what else has been blown to flux while we were in the Chi system and on the way here.”
“Yeah. The Zens sure as flux think something’s coming their way, don’t they?”
Yeah. And yet they’d let us break through the blockade.
“Are we sending a transponder signal?” I asked.
Odo snorted. No pirate ship worth their salt would send a signal when flying stealth.
“Say what?” Odo shouted.
“A two-second burst was sent once we breached the mesosphere.”
“What did it say?”
“Unable to confirm.”
“Show me the burst transmission log.”
The log scrolled across the vid-screen. It’d take too long to decipher it. But Malcolm had knocked on the Zenith’s door, and they’d held it open for us.
“This just keeps getting weirder and weirder,” I muttered.
“So they let us through?” Odo asked, sounding uncertain.
“Yeah. Either Malcolm knew a military code that deactivated the SAMs, or he sent a message to someone who did it for him. This Mutt is really starting to worry me.”
Odo said nothing for a while and then, “Glacier dead ahead, boss.”
I checked the vid-screen and got an eyeful of ice several kilometres long.
“Overlay the facility’s location on the screen,” I instructed the AI.
A diagrammatic outline of the facility superimposed itself on the vid-screen, partway up the side of the mountain, to the left-hand side of the steepest glacial cliff face.
“I hope our rappelling lines are long enough,” Odo muttered.
“Take us in, Basic.”
“Taking you in, Captain.”
“Stealth measures are all active.”
The overlay started to blossom with dots of red. There were more than Malcolm had thought there would be. His intel was out of date. Despite the pile of shit it put us in, I was rather pleased to know the guy wasn’t infallible.
“Damn,” Odo muttered. “I don’t think we can get in without them knowing, Cap.”
No. There was line of sight between security towers. The door we wanted to use was directly between two of them. From the number of red dots on the screen, there were four guards on each tower. Eight in total watching that access way. And that wasn’t even considering the four guards on the ground at the door we wanted to breach.
“This is one hell of a high-security facility,” I announced.
“What’s the plan?”
I didn’t have one that could combat the eight guards in the towers. They hadn’t factored into my planning.
I scrubbed my face and tried to think.
“My guess,” I said, “each tower calls in at a different time, so even if we were to take them out, one of them would miss their call-in time before the other. We won’t have fifteen minutes after taking out the four guards in the shack beside that door as well as the ones in the towers.”
“So we go in loud.”
I shook my head. “They’ll shut the place down like a can of beans. We’d need a can opener and a fluxing big one to crack it.”
“Well, think of something. You’re the one who said you were good at planning things and then executing those plans.”
I turned slowly and stared at my engineer.
“The lack of respect around here is staggering,” I drawled.
His lips twitched, but he was worried, so it didn’t make it to a full-on grin.
I was worried, too. That’s why I was teasing him.
I let out a breath of air and said, “OK, we go in loud.”
“Music to my ears. Approach?”
“The AI lifts-off as soon as we’re out and takes out the two guard towers simultaneously. Right after we take out the shack. We’ll have to move quickly. If a signal gets off to either of those towers, we’ll be fluxed. And if there’s a deadman’s trigger at all, we’re doubly fluxed.”
“It all comes down to timing.”
The H2 slowly hovered over the location we’d decided was the safest to offload us and then touched down gently on the glacier. For a second, no one moved. But once it was clear that we weren’t going to fall through a fissure, we unbuckled the restraints and headed to the cargo ramp.
There were other ways to exit a corvette, but the small cargo bay ramp was the easiest to offload troops.
We donned our helmets and Odo hit the ramp release. A blast of super-chilled air rushed into the cargo bay, but we were insulated in our armour.
Zyla and the Mutt wouldn’t be when we escaped. But taking along a bag full of armour for them was too restricting. We were going to have to improvise once we were there. I was sure the guards needed cold-weather gear, so we’d strip one of them when needed.
I stepped off the ramp, my plasma rifle at the ready. Nothing stood out on my heads up display, but I wasn’t taking any chances.
“Lock it up and take off, Basic,” I said into the comm. “Hover in stealth and wait for my signal. Soft target the guard towers.”
The ship began to lift off, but already we couldn’t see it; the camo was simply too good.
“Gotta get me some of that,” I said wistfully, forgetting for a moment that theoretically the ship and therefore the camo was already mine.
It didn’t feel like mine what with Malcolm interfering.
“Soft target lock achieved. Awaiting your signal, Captain,” the Basic said through my helmet.
I gave the signal for Odo to lead the way, and we started out, stepping carefully across the glacier toward the cliff face.
It took us thirty minutes to make it, having to backtrack twice to avoid deep chasms in the glacier. It would have just been my luck to fall down an icy hole and miss Zyla’s rescue completely.
By the time we reached the cliff face, I was exhausted — too much beer in my diet lately and not enough of the good calories. My head thumped to a beat of its own, and my body was starting to overheat inside the armour. Ironic, considering what I was standing on top of.
I crouched down beside Odo and peered over the side of the glacier. It was a hell of a long way down to the valley floor from here.
“Camo on?” he asked.
He wasn’t even breathless. At least someone had kept up their exercise routine and nutritional plan while waiting to bust me off Delphini B.
I nodded and activated my suit’s camo. Instantly, Odo winked out of sight, but a humanoid figure appeared on my HUD telling me where he was in relation to me.
“Groovy,” he muttered.
“Rappelling lines,” I said, just wanting this part over with. I had no plans for us to climb back up the glacial cliff face afterwards. The Harpy II would have to come to us when we made our escape.
We attached our anchors and checked our lines and then gingerly started over the side of the glacier, backwards. I hated going backwards. And it was never like you see in the action flicks. None of that jump and release and land on two feet several metres down the side. We had to crawl and test each footing to make sure it was secure and wouldn’t give out beneath us and alert the guards at the base — or in the towers — that someone was stupidly rappelling down the side of the glacier and about to land on their unsuspecting heads.
It took us forty-five minutes to reach the ground, and I was close to death by the time we’d done it. I released my armour from the rappelling line, checked that I was still camouflaged, and then sank to the ground on my knees — considering kissing it through my helmet visor — and breathed deeply.
“You alright, Cap’n?” Odo asked.
I held up a hand and rocked my open palm from side to side to relay a non-verbal ‘so-so’ meaning.
“We can rest here a bit, I suppose,” Odo offered, looking around warily.
He knew as well as I did that we were too exposed. The entrance was a mere fifty metres away, but between us and the security shelter, there was nothing. If the camo faltered, we’d be fluxed. We might as well hold up a white flag and wave it frantically.
At least it would distract the guards firing plasma shots our way when they did see us.
I pushed up to my feet and blinked through black spots. The armour came complete with an automated medkit. If we got hit, the suit would treat the wound just enough for the wearer to vacate the danger zone and seek proper medical treatment. But that meant it had a selection of pharmaceuticals available as well.
I’d already taken one stim in the past twenty-four hours. It wasn’t wise to take too many. Coming down off that high could prove fatal. But surviving the next ten minutes was more important than recovering from an overdose of amphetamines.
I selected a stimulant and waited for the juice to hit me.
My body went cold and then hot and then cold again and then settled on an indeterminate temperature which I couldn’t have cared less about because I was happy. High as a kite, one might say.
I selected a mild downer to even me out, but not return the aches and pains, and waited for that to perform its magic. By the time I was done with this shit, I could get a job as a chemist at one of the suit manufacturing stations.
A small, almost imperceptible, tremor started up in my hands.
I nodded to Odo and then started heading toward the security shack, which wasn’t a shack and more like a bunker. Getting in there undetected was going to be hard. But intel said they did a perimeter check every half hour.
No one shot at us. No mines blew up under our feet, which I thought was an oversight by whoever devised the external security. Maybe the landmines were all at either end of the valley the facility was in. They really didn’t expect anyone to abseil down the glacier wall, and parachuting in under stealth was a tricky task considering the way the wind funnelled down the valley.
I registered that my mind was wandering.
I forced myself to concentrate, which was becoming harder and harder, but I needed to keep my shit together. The stimulant had taken away the aches and pains, and given me boundless energy — at least until I dropped — but it had also made my mind a little fuzzy.
I’ve had stims before, of course, so I knew what to do to counter the fuzzies. I started mentally reciting prime numbers in my head, and the haziness retreated slightly.
Enough to get me to the guard station.
Odo withdrew a device that allowed him to listen through the wall. I waited while he listened to whatever the guards were saying. When a guard approached the door, he slid the device away, nodded to me to get ready, and pulled out a long, serrated blade. I took one side of the door; he took the other.
The guard stepped through and Odo pounced; pulling him to the side so I could throw a stun grenade into the shelter.
“Take out the towers,” I shouted over the comm.
Two streaks of plasma fire belched out of the sky, pinpointing the Harpy II’s location. Thankfully, no surface-to-air missiles jumped into the sky towards it. But the facility’s alarm went up before we’d even managed to confirm the guards in the shelter were dead.
I turned around, feeling panic swamp me, only to find Odo holding the door open to the facility and urgently waving me toward him. The guard he’d dragged away already lay dead on the ground in a pool of rapidly cooling blood. It soaked into the snow and looked like a raspberry frosty.
I shook my head and sprinted for the door; using the actuators in my armour to give me more speed. Diving inside, I managed to miss the laser bars sealing the exits by millimetres.
“That was close,” I said, staring in morbid fascination at the few centimetres between my booted foot and the lowest laser bar.
“I’ve been yelling at you to get your ass moving for the past twenty seconds. What the flux happened out there?”
I scrambled to my feet and said, “We’ve gotta move. They know we came in through here.”
“Captain? Are you five by five?”
“I’d say more three by five,” I admitted, checking the hallway at the nearest intersection. It was clear. I started racing down it. “But when has that stopped me before now?”
Odo pushed past me at the next intersection, the map of the facility up on his HUD as well.
“I’ll lead. You guard the rear. Three by five,” he muttered in disgust.
“Hey. It’s been a long week.” Month. A long month.
Odo ignored me and led us deeper and deeper into the facility. At the point where we could have branched off to go directly to Zyla, he hesitated. If I’d been more on my game, I think he would have suggested splitting up. We hadn’t come across any security yet, so things were looking good.
But we both knew we couldn’t trust me to make it alone.
For the first time in a long time — prior to Delphini B, of course — I was the weak link in our unit.
It didn’t sit well, so I doubled my efforts to stay clearheaded and almost succeeded, too.
We found the guards at the next intersection. Dressed in high tech armour and carrying sleek looking weapons that could probably punch a hole in an asteroid.
I hadn’t expected it to be plain sailing to the Mutt’s door. But it was as if they had been expecting us. No guards en route. No guards down the corridor that led to Zyla’s cell. But twenty of them outside the Mutt’s?
“We could leave him and just grab Zyla,” Odo suggested.
God help me, but I considered it. But Malcolm had control of the ship, I was certain. And if it failed to register his Mutt’s biosignature when we boarded, it’d probably fly us to the nearest Zenith military installation, blaring out an alert to them of who was coming.
I was a wanted criminal in any Zenthian system. Surviving that was not going to happen. And I didn’t think the odds would be great for Odo either.
And then there was Zy. If we got caught, she’d get killed in another thirty or so hours. Her only hope was us, and our only hope was the Mutt currently incarcerated behind twenty armed Zenith guards and a maximum security door.
“Flux it,” I said, and reached for Odo’s rocket launcher.
“Hey!” he exclaimed, but I was done with this disco.
I loaded the rocket, said, “Cover me,” to Odo, and stepped out into the corridor, falling to one knee, rocket launcher resting on my shoulder.
Odo let out a war cry and started firing both railguns over my head. Plasma bolts lit up the corridor and scorched the gel walls and floor all around us. I could feel how close they got, but we were still largely camouflaged, and most of the hits were missing.
I flicked the switch on the side of the rocket, sucked in a deep breath of air, and announced, “Fire in the hole!”
The rocket thunked out of the launching tube and hung suspended in the air. In what felt like slow motion, I watched its propellent ignite and then it was streaking down the hallway and Zeniths were jumping to the sides in a mad rush, and the rocket exploded in a fiery ball of flames and shrapnel right, slap-bang in the middle of them.
Odo and I were blown backwards, landing hard on our backs and sucking in no air. It took a long second or two of mind over matter to get back up and get our weapons face forward. Neither of us could breathe, but we advanced slowly.
No one shot at us from the ground or behind any hidden crevices, and those that stirred as we approached soon didn’t.
And then out of the dust and floating debris stepped a Mutt minus his armour. They look decidedly naked without their armour on. A little less impressive, until you see the size of their feet and hands. This guy was big, broad across the shoulders, and had threatening-looking tattoos covering his arms from wrists to shoulders. I’d never seen that before, but who’s to say that it’s not normal; a Mutt’s armour usually covered their arms and legs.
I glanced down, but his legs weren’t tattooed. My eyes shot back up to his face.
He cocked his head at us and started to laugh.
“He sent you,” he said, sounding amused by the notion.
“You want out of here,” I growled, finally able to breathe enough to talk, “then follow us.”
“Stupid human,” the Mutt muttered. “You have no idea what you have done.”
The guards we’d taken out at the Mutt’s cell weren’t the only ones in the facility. I should have guessed from the amount of guards outside the building that they’d have a hell of a lot more inside than the twenty we’d come across so far.
The wailing of the alarm was muted in my helmet speakers, but I could tell it had to be screeching at an uncomfortable decibel level because the Mutt kept wincing.
Or he might have been injured. The Zeniths weren’t known for their hospitality in prisons.
We navigated through only one intersection before coming across four guards in body armour tearing around a corner towards us. They had the kit, alright; high tech and impressively shiny. But they lacked real-world fighting experience.
I took two out with as many pulls of my plasma rifle’s trigger. Odo sprayed railgun flechettes across the other two in a move that might have been called overkill if not for the fact that he was screaming bloody murder.
My engineer was in fighting form and ready for a melee.
He got it at the next corner where the Zeniths had managed to get themselves into better order.
“Exit’s this way,” the Mutt behind me said. I looked over my shoulder and saw him indicating the way we’d come in. His knowledge of the facility didn’t surprise me. If he were anything like Malcolm, he’d have discovered as much about the place as he could.
Maybe he even knew it all before he came here. Who was to say he hadn’t been caught infiltrating the place.
I pushed those thoughts aside and concentrated returning fire at the group of Zeniths who were blocking our way to Zyla’s cell. It was as if the bloody bastards were crawling out of the woodwork. I expected at any moment to be boxed in from all sides. We had to move this along.
“Try a grenade,” I suggested to Odo.
He plucked a frag grenade off his belt and pulled the pin. His aim was perfect, landing the grenade right in the middle of the group of Zeniths.
They panicked for a second, and then one enterprising individual kicked at the grenade; no doubt to hurl the damn thing back at us.
All he managed to do was make the bomb go off.
The sight of his leg and half his lower body getting blown to bits was not pretty. It sent the rest of the Zeniths into a major panic.
“Do you get the feeling that these guys are amateurs?” Odo asked, firing into the disordered line of guards and making short work of them.
“Yeah,” I said, leading the way forward.
I checked the rear camera view on my HUD and was relieved to see the Mutt still trailing us. If he knew how to get out of here, which I was pretty damn sure he did, then he could escape without us. And I wouldn’t have put it past Malcolm to have somehow programmed the ship to retrieve the Mutt as soon as his biosignature appeared outside the facility.
It was highly likely that Malcolm planned to leave us here. The Mutt could escape with my ship, and we’d be incarcerated and executed along with Zyla. Tie up those loose ends.
But the Mutt kept close to our backs, his beefy hands flexing at his sides as if he longed to pinch a plasma pistol off my thigh and use it. Both Odo and I hadn’t offered up any weapons to him. I didn’t fancy a bullet in the back of my helmet at any time.
We passed the downed guards and came up on Zyla’s corridor. Every single door to the cells that lined the hallway was open.
For a second, I couldn’t comprehend what that meant.
“They’ve moved her,” Odo helpfully supplied.
“They know we’re here for her now,” I said, regretting not getting Zy first when the way had been clear to her cell.
“They may not see you in your fancy armour,” the Mutt said behind us, “but they know exactly who you are. Bad move.”
Why they’d associate two camouflaged and fully armoured infiltrators, who’d just busted out this Mutt, with Zyla, I didn’t know. Unless Malcolm had dropped us in it.
There was a reason why he hadn’t sent his own guys in to get his Mutt. And considering how effective our small arms fire had been so far, it would’ve been a walk in the park for a couple of Mutts fully kitted. So, he’d either wanted us to get the blame or known whoever did it would get identified. And rather us than one of his, I guessed, was his philosophy.
It was something to worry about later; after we’d found out where the hell they’d taken Zyla to.
I checked the map of the facility on my HUD and decided that without sensors to locate her, we were shit out of luck.
“I’ve got nothing,” I told Odo. “We’re going to have to do this the hard way.”
“Door to door?”
“Yeah.” It wasn’t perfect. Hell, it wasn’t good by a long shot. The more time we spent in here, the more likely they’d bring in reinforcements. And the next lot of guards might have some decent training.
So far, we’d been lucky with their lack of experience. That luck wasn’t going to hold, though. We had to be ready.
I turned to look at the Mutt and then sighed and pulled a plasma pistol off my thigh magnet.
“Here,” I said. “Cover our backs.”
“You want me to use a little peashooter like this?”
“You can shove it where the sun don’t shine for all I care,” I told him. “But if you want off this rock, you’re going to have to lend a hand.”
“I did point out the exit was back there, didn’t I?” he said.
“We’re not leaving without her.”
“Heard there was an important political prisoner about to be shot tomorrow. Maybe they decided to bring the schedule forward.”
I glared at the Mutt. He spoke fluent Earth Standard. Just like Malcolm. Unlike most of the Mutts who tended to speak more like Old Russian mafia thugs out of a movie.
For a second, I tried to see the similarity between this Mutt’s facial features and Malcolm’s. Were they related? But to be honest, and I’m not proud of it, they all tended to look a bit alike to me.
At least the head Mutt guard back on Chi Virginis had had a scar down his face to distinguish himself easily. Without armour and the wear they all wore so proudly, it was sometimes hard to tell them apart.
I decided, without any other information to go on, that I’d consider the Mutt’s advice. I checked the map for the location of the facility’s kill chamber and highlighted it on the network for Odo.
“Let’s head there. Zeniths tend to do things by the number. If they want to make a show of her execution, then they’ll want to do it with the Zenith flag flying behind her.”
“Good as anywhere,” Odo muttered.
We started moving forward again. Progress was slow as there was clearly more Zenith guards in the facility now than just a few minutes ago. Wherever they stashed them had to be nearby. They’d probably called in some of the guards from the security towers. I kind of wished I’d had the Basic go around and blow up each one while we were inside.
We took hits now and then, but the armour was top tier. They would have cost a lot of chits, and part of me wanted to respect Malcolm for providing them. And then I remembered the two programmes in the ship’s systems and the data stack that would fire off to Chi Virginis every time we exited a jump point.
Malcolm could not be trusted; ergo the armour couldn’t either.
At least, it couldn’t once we got out of here. I was pretty sure, he’d want us in one piece to help get his Mutt out.
A plasma burst shot across the space we were entering and splattered against my chest armour, making all conspiracy theories currently churning away inside my mind evaporate.
I fired back as I rolled to the side. Odo had snuck behind a corner, and the Mutt had taken shelter in an open cell. I noticed he kept one hand on the door opening to make sure the damn thing didn’t shut and lock him back up in there.
He wasn’t a stupid Mutt, and that made me nervous.
The fire intensified as we were close to our destination now. It made me more hopeful that the Mutt had been right, and Zyla had been taken to the execution chamber. On the HUD map, it had only one entry and exit, which meant they could guard it well, with no chance of us sneaking up behind them. There weren’t any convenient maintenance hatches that would help us out either; not that crawling through them in full armour was advisable.
I poured on the plasma as Odo fired his railgun in short bursts to conserve ammo. He had to be getting low. He still had the rocket launcher and his plasma pistols, but Odo liked the heft and feel of a railgun firing kinetic projectiles.
The Mutt leaned out of the cell he was in and added his firepower to ours. I was reluctantly impressed with the precision of his shots; each one landed. They might not have downed the guard, but they did make an impression on his targets, and repetitively forced their arms wide, exposing weak spots on their armour.
“Time your shots with the Mutt’s,” I yelled at Odo. “Put a slug in each guard when they’re open.”
Odo nodded and waited for the Mutt to fire again. But the alien had hesitated when I’d spoken. I’d left my helmet speakers on, low enough for only the Mutt to hear. It helped to coordinate things, but I’d forgotten the Mutts’ distaste for the name we called them.
Mutts called themselves Mal as they were from the planet Malee. I’m not quite sure when we’d started calling them Mutts; I thought it might have been not long after we’d first met them. They weren’t doglike in the slightest unless you considered they had the determination of a pit bull crossed with the killer instincts of a Doberman. But someone had likened them to an Old Earth video game which had aliens in it called Mutons, and it had stuck.
The Mutt started firing again after a few seconds, and I let out a relieved breath of air. Odo timed his railgun shots with perfection, which made me happier to prove we were on equal footing with the alien.
In short order, we’d made a big enough dent in the Zenith guards’ defences that we could push forward. We breached the threshold of the room without fanfare. It was almost anticlimactic.
Waiting for us in the kill chamber were three Zeniths in full battle armour, one holding a plasma gun at Zyla’s head. The others had their rifles trained on us. It would have been a standoff as we were all in armour.
But then there was Zyla who wasn’t.
Oh, and the Mutt. Mustn’t forget the Mutt.
I scanned the room for further threats and came up empty. Keeping an eye on the Zeniths, I finally checked out my navigator.
She was black and blue. Her lip split open and weeping blood. She could barely see out of her right eye, and her left looked like it might have been permanently damaged. Her right arm was fractured in two places, and her left ankle was twisted in an unnatural angle. She wore paper-thin overalls that did not hide the blood. An alarming amount had stained her stomach region.
Anger coursed through me in a wave of unmitigated fury. Zyla blinked her one goodish eye and met my gaze; chin lifted proudly.
She’d survived. She’d not been broken. Whatever they’d been trying to get out of her, Zyla had determined to take it to her grave.
“Not today,” I murmured and then turned up my helmet’s speakers.
My visor was dark, but Zyla knew it was me without having to see my face. So far, Odo and I had kept ourselves camouflaged, but upon entering the chamber, we’d both simultaneously dropped the camo, better to negotiate.
I cleared my visor now. The Mutt was right. They knew who we were. At least, they knew we’d come for Zyla, and if they knew anything about our crew, they’d have figured out the large human was the engineer, and the thinner one was the captain of the Harpy.
There was no point hiding behind a mask now, and I wanted Zyla to see me.
“Sorry it took so long, Zy,” I drawled.
“No rush, Captain,” she replied, her words slurring slightly. “I could have lasted longer.”
My heart cracked at the baldfaced lie.
“We’re gonna get you out of this, don’t you worry,” I said.
“Never doubted you, sir.”
If I could have dug my heart out of my chest with my bare hands to spare me the pain of her words, I would have done it right then and there and handed it to her.
“Captain Jameson,” the Zenith with the plasma gun trained on Zyla’s head said. “It was unwise of you to come here.”
“So it’s been pointed out to me,” I replied, glancing at the Mutt, who was leaning against the gel wall beside the door opening, keeping one eye on the corridor at our back and another eye on the proceedings inside the room.
I was momentarily surprised to see he was guarding our backs like I’d asked him to.
“A visual and audio feed of this room is being transmitted to the appropriate authorities,” the Zenith told me, and Zyla spat on the floor in an obvious show of disgust.
I felt my brow furrow. Zy was better than that.
The Zenith thankfully ignored her.
“Your image and name will be known to all. Your futile efforts here dissected and an appropriate response undertaken. New Earth has just declared war.”
“Now why would you go and say that?” I drawled. “I haven’t had anything to do with New Earth in a decade. This is all on me.”
“There are always consequences to our actions that we don’t necessarily see,” the Zenith said. “A New Earther storms a Zenith secured facility and kills fifty of its guards to extract a Zenith national known to be involved in nuclear attacks on two planets already.”
I didn’t like how sure he was of Zyla’s involvement. And I also didn’t like how he overlooked the Mutt at my back. I checked my rear cameras on the HUD again, but the Mutt hadn’t moved from his watch.
“This is all very enlightening,” I said and then shot the Zenith in the centre of his forehead, right through the visor; the weakest part of his helmet.
Zyla jerked in her restraints, but Odo and the Mutt came out guns blazing. The report of the railgun was too loud, and the heat of the plasma pistol felt too hot to me.
I hadn’t been sure they’d react in time. Odo was good. And he was used to me doing stupid things without warning. But the Mutt had been an unknown and half of me had expected him to shoot me in the back while the last standing Zenith shot Odo.
Instead, it had gone like clockwork, and I was left shaking.
I forced myself into action, while Odo checked his weapons and the Mutt checked the hallway. I skidded to Zyla’s side on my knees, unsure where to touch her first. She was in a bad way, and anything I did would only make her hurt more than she undoubtedly did.
“How do you want to do this, Nav?” I asked.
“Restraints,” she mumbled, her head bowing, her chin hitting her chest.
I cut the restraints as carefully as I could and just managed to re-sheath the blade and catch Zyla before she crumpled. I lifted her up in my arms gingerly and turned to face Odo and the Mutt.
“We’ve got incoming,” the Mutt said conversationally.
“Rocket launcher,” I said to Odo.
“My pleasure,” he replied and readied the weapon.
He didn’t step into the corridor and face the oncoming threat. He went to one knee, rested the launcher on his shoulder, and aimed it at the far wall of the room we were in.
“Fire in the hole!” he said cheerfully.
The rocket thunked, shot out of the tube, hung suspended in the air for a fraction of a second, and then ignited. And the north wall of the facility burst into a spray of lethal debris; gel wall, and reinforced bars, and polymers, and whatever else they had poured into its construction to make it appear impenetrable.
“Amateurs,” Odo said, replacing the launcher on his back even though he was now out of rockets to use in it.
I came up from the crouch I’d been in, my back to the wall and debris explosion, my chest and body protecting the fragile form in my arms.
The Mutt started firing as I walked through the dust toward the hole in the wall.
“Basic,” I said into the comm. “North wall. Exfil hot.”
“North wall, hot exfiltration, acknowledged. ETA t-minus thirty seconds.”
I peered around the corner of the wall and received a plasma shot from a nearby tower for my efforts. I ducked back, heart in my mouth, eyes assessing Zyla for any more damage. She was still unconscious, and I couldn’t see any fresh blood, so I breathed again as Odo fired a railgun burst toward the tower.
“We need to get out of here before the backup arrives!” Odo shouted, nodding toward where the Mutt was offering up plasma fire at the door.
“Does that thing close?” I yelled at the alien.
He pulled back, checked the control panel, and then hit something with a thick finger. The gel door slid closed, and then he shot the control panel all to shit with his plasma pistol. It sizzled and fizzed and then went dark; the door still in the closed position.
“Sixty seconds tops and they’ll have that open!” the Mutt shouted, rushing across the room to peer out of the hole Odo had created.
“That’s thirty seconds longer than we need,” I shouted back.
I could see the Harpy II on my HUD as it approached in full stealth mode. No heat signature, no exhaust plume, no silver bullet in the sky to fire at.
It touched down twenty metres away, within the line of sight of two towers.
“Take out the towers,” I said over the comm, shifting Zyla in my arms in preparation for running for the Harpy.
“Unable to comply,” the Basic told me. “Power source is limited.”
“Did you forget to recharge the batteries?” the Mutt asked from my side.
“There must be a leak in the camo system,” Odo advised. “Give me five minutes alone with her, and I’ll fix it.”
“Railguns?” I asked the Basic.
“I have used all available ammunition.”
“You have got to be kidding me,” I muttered. “Did Malcolm not think we’d need to shoot our way out of the system?”
“He has clearly overestimated your skills,” the Mutt replied.
“Just get me on board, and I’ll sort it out, Cap’n,” Odo shouted.
I nodded, shifted Zyla’s weight again, and yelled into the comms, “Ramp! Now!”
The ramp started to lower on the rear of the Harpy only visible to me because my HUD outlined it. I started running for it, increasing my speed with the use of the armour’s actuators. Plasma bolts shot down from the sky, but I could hear Odo and the Mutt firing back indiscriminately.
My foot hit the ramp, and the towers’ plasma shots went from me to the ship itself. If the camo went out, we’d be fluxed.
I headed directly toward the med bay, Zyla still in my arms, issuing orders over my helmet’s speakers.
“Lock it up, Mutt! Odo, get your arse down to engineering and sort out those weapons pronto! Basic, get us the flux out of here and don’t spare the horses!”
“There are no horses to spare, Captain,” the Basic said in its gentle monotone, but I felt the ship lift-off.
I lost my footing as the Basic began evasive manoeuvres, but it wasn’t enough to send me to the floor, and the gel wall morphed to catch me.
I rushed into the med bay and laid Zyla down on the scanner, making sure she was strapped in tightly before I set the machine to assess and treat her injuries automatically. I sent a silent thank you up to the stars that Malcolm hadn’t spared any chits on the tech for the med bay and started running toward the bridge before the first scan had even completed its cycle.
It occurred to me, as I stepped onto the bridge finally, that Malcolm had probably put the best medical equipment into the med bay for the Mutt we’d just rescued and not for Zyla.
That thought was backed up by the fact that the Mutt had beaten me to the bridge and was now sitting in the command chair, casually entering commands into the console.
“What the flux do you think you’re doing?” I demanded.
My fingers itched to pull a plasma pistol.
When the Mutt sat back, and I finally got a look at what he’d done on the vid-screen, I did pull my plasma pistol and aimed it at the side of his head.
“Back out of the ship’s system, right now!” I snapped.
“I don’t think so, Captain,” the Mutt said, smiling. “I have full and absolute control of the ship.”
If I killed him, we’d crash.
It was almost worth it to wipe that smug look off the Mutt’s face. We’d been had. It had been a setup from the start. Malcolm had no doubt hoped we’d not get out of the facility, but for whatever reason, the Mutt had decided to take us with him.
But now he had control of the vessel.
I switched on my suit-to-suit comm and contacted Odo.
“There’s been a mutiny,” I said. “I’m locked out of the ship. The Mutt’s in charge.”
“On my way, Cap’n.”
“No, keep on the weapons and power drainage; we’re not out of the woods yet. I’ll deal with the Mutt.”
“Call me if you need me. I’ve restocked my railgun and the launcher.”
Yeah, I could just picture Odo blowing us out of the sky to get back at the Mutt.
“So,” I said, over the external speakers. “How do you want to play this?”
“It’s quite simple, really,” the Mutt said. “Stay out of my way, and your crew lives. But the Basic has been instructed to use lethal measures should you act against me or the vessel.”
“That’s gratitude for you,” I muttered. “Son of a bitch.”
“You’re alive, aren’t you? I could have left you behind down there.”
I fisted my hand but forced myself to lower the plasma pistol. Then I turned on my heel and left the bridge. There was nothing I could do right now, and I needed to check on Zyla.
The Mutt was right. He’d got us off the planet. Camo was clearly still functional because we hadn’t been shot out of the sky. And the evasive manoeuvres we were doing were simply to avoid traffic as we approached orbital velocity.
The escape seemed too easy, but then the tech on this boat was outstanding.
I walked into the med bay and looked down at my navigator. The fractures had been set, and her bruises were already paling. The swelling was down around her badly damaged eye, and I could see that it might well be saved if the stars aligned just right.
I scanned the screen for internal injuries. Zyla had a few, but the med bed had already addressed them. She’d hurt for a while, but Zeniths were tough. She’d survive.
I let out a breath of air and almost collapsed against the bed.
“Orbital velocity has been reached. Exiting exosphere.”
We’d done it. We’d got Zyla out and survived. Things had gone a bit sideways afterwards, but we were free and clear if we could reach the jump point.
“ETA to jump point entry?” I asked, unsure if the Basic would answer me now that the Mutt was in command.
But he must have thought some information was acceptable, because the Basic said, “ETA t-minus eight minutes.”
He was aiming for the near jump point. Not the one Odo and I had used to get here. It wasn’t a sound plan, but then, they’d be on high alert at the jump point we’d used earlier. Not that they wouldn’t be at the main jump point for Zenthia.
“Vid-screen, please,” I instructed. “External view.”
The Basic complied, and I had to wonder just how far the Mutt would let me go with the ship’s systems. It seemed counterintuitive to let us have any access at all. He’d said he had full and absolute control of the ship. And yet, he’d allowed a certain grey area to exist where we could gain information.
It sure as hell wasn’t because he wanted to keep us happy. Or was it? A blanket lockout would get our backs up even more than they already were. This way, he could lull us into a false sense of security and then suffocate us in our berths.
I scrubbed a hand over my face and took in the external view of the space above Zenthia.
Zenthia Actual was around the far side, so timing had been in our favour for missing that juggernaut of technological superiority. Not that the way was clear. I counted six battleships and an untold number of smaller frigates and orbital patrol vessels between us and the jump point.
I comm’d Odo. “How’s the camo looking?”
“I was right; it’s the source of the power drain. We’ve got enough juice for another half hour, and then we’ll be running on vapours. Good news, though, I found crates of ammo for the railguns. I’m loading them now.”
“Half hour should be good to get us to the jump point,” I told him. “Unless we hit a mine.”
“How’s our Supreme Leader doing?”
“He’s locked himself in the bridge. Either he knows you’re dealing with the weapons and power issue, or he doesn’t give a flying flux.”
“Don’t see him as the uncaring type.” Said in a dry tone of voice.
“Recovering. They did a number on her, Odo.”
“And we’re not gonna just sit by and let them get away with that, are we, Cap?”
“Hell, no. But first, we need to figure out how we’re going to get out of this mess. Assume anything we say over comms will be monitored. When you’re done, meet me in the mess.”
“And that won’t be bugged?”
“I have a plan.”
“I always get a bit tingly when you say that, Cap’n. Give me five, and I’ll have the railgun loaded, and the power drain contained. Can’t pull any more power outta my ass, but we won’t lose anymore either.”
“You’re a genius.”
I cut the comms, smiling. And then looked down at Zyla on the med bed.
“Can you wake her?” I asked the Basic.
“The patient requires forty-eight to seventy-two hours of rest.”
“I’m not going to ask her to fight a legion of Mutts. I just want to talk to her.”
“Waking the patient on your request.”
I got the feeling; the AI wanted Zy to blame me when she gained full consciousness.
“And what role have you assigned to me, Basic?” I asked as I watched the vid-screens and Zyla’s vitals with keen interest.
“You have guest status on this vessel, Kael Jameson of New Earth.”
“How far will guest status get me?”
“You have unlimited access to the medical bay, mess and ship’s head. A suitable berth has been assigned to you. You may interact with the ship’s basic artificial intelligence, but some interactions have been limited. You may not send or receive external communications. However, you may communicate with anyone on board the ship; your communications will be recorded.”
“What about the bridge?” Wait for it…
“You have been locked out of the bridge.”
I huffed out an unamused laugh.
“Negative. Guest Odo Carlsson of New Earth, however, has access to engineering under observation from the bridge.”
I looked up at the gel ceiling and smiled.
“Paranoid, aren’t you?”
“I have no wish to die in this system, Jameson,” the Mutt said over the ship’s speakers. “But that does not mean your stay on board has to be restricted to a berth.”
“Odo’s a good ship’s engineer,” I pointed out. “He could do a lot of damage with access to engineering.”
“He is being watched, and there is only so much air on this ship. I’ll reassign it elsewhere if I have to. It would be wise not to test my resolve on this.”
Son of a bitch.
Zyla chose that moment to surface from the depths of unconsciousness; the pharmas the Basic had used finally doing their thing.
“Hey,” I said as she blinked open bruised looking eyes. Her left looked a little unfocused, but I thought perhaps it was still working.
“Captain,” she said, her voice weak.
I didn’t correct her. “How are you feeling?” I asked, instead.
“Like I’ve gone a round or two in the ring at 24 Sextantis.”
I chuckled. “You survived, Nav. I’m proud of you.”
“Thank you, sir.” She looked around the med bay, her focus growing sharper. “What vessel are we on?”
“It’s a corvette. New Earth design. I traded your cousins’ racing pinnace for it with a Mutt pirate running Chi Virginis.”
She stared at me for a long time.
“I see,” she finally managed.
I smiled. “Currently, it’s in the control of a Mutt we rescued from the same facility you were being held inside. I’m pretty sure, we’re heading back to the Chi system to be shot in the head, but I could be wrong. They might just send us out an airlock instead.”
“You are full of surprises.”
“Can you get up?”
“Of course.” Zyla tried to sit but ended up grimacing. I offered her my hand, and she took it reluctantly. Zeniths were proud beings and liked to do things for themselves.
I held onto her hand for longer than was necessary. It was Zyla who withdrew her hand from mine.
I cleared my throat. “You need food. I need a drink. And Odo is meeting us in the mess.”
“You have a plan,” she guessed.
“When have I not?”
“Do I have to answer that, Captain?”
I smiled at her; it wasn’t wide. “I’m not a captain anymore.”
“When has that stopped you from bossing everyone around?”
“Cute,” I said and followed her slow progress out of the med bay.
She shuffled, and I wanted with every fibre of my being to reach out and pick her up, carry her to the mess hall, and feed her every dish she liked until she was completely sated. Instead, I held back and pretended I didn’t see how incapacitated she was.
Zeniths and their pride. You had to tread carefully. Even incapacitated, Zyla could hit me.
We made the mess hall and found it empty. Odo was clearly still tied up with the power issue and weapons down in engineering. I hoped the Mutt hadn’t locked him up in there.
“We’re still in the Zenthia system?” Zyla asked.
“Yes. Under stealth. Armed but with limited power for the camo. We’re making best speed with caution toward the jump point.”
“Will we make it?”
She didn’t mean past the battleships and frigates and patrol ships out there; the camo failing was our primary concern right now, and she knew it.
“It’s going to be tight. We’re having to swing around obstacles, and those obstacles are shifting. Our ETA to the jump point will be lengthening, and we only have a small window of time with the power supply.”
“How much access to the ship’s systems do we have?”
“Bridge is out. We’re being watched and conversations recorded. I think the only reason the Mutt brought us with him was for Odo’s expertise in the engine room.”
Zyla sat down at the table with a relieved sigh.
“What’s he like?”
“Sneaky. And covered in tattoos.”
“That’s something, at least.”
“He has the ship, Zy.”
I went across the mess to the food fabricator and started entering in commands for her meal. I knew exactly what Zyla liked. Serving on a small cargo ship for three years together meant limited space for hiding your desires. Well, some desires were kept to ourselves. But others, like what we chose to eat more than once, were not.
I returned to the table with a Zenthian stew for Zyla and a New Earth burger for me, and three glasses of synthesised Rhodian whiskies; not the real stuff. Even Malcolm had limits, it seemed.
I sat down and was just digging in when Odo entered.
“Hey, Zy! Good to see you up and about.”
They shared a smile and a few words, and then Odo went to place his order with the fabricator. Mac and cheese again. He must have been missing home. He sat down in front of the third whisky.
I lifted my glass up for a toast.
“To the original Harpy,” I said. “And to Doc and Cassi.”
Mentioning them was a risk. It brought it all back, and not just for me. But not mentioning them felt like a black cloud hanging over my head. We were trapped on a warship being taken to our potential executions, but this needed to be addressed and quickly. The longer I avoided the elephant in the room, the bigger that fluxing thing would seem.
Zyla slowly lowered her spork and stared at her meal. Odo sat still and barely breathed.
“Have a drink,” I said. “They were our friends.”
They both reached for their whiskies and swallowed half of them without comment. For Doc and Cass; not because I asked them to.
The silence was deafening. The guilt felt tangible. I downed the rest of my glass and stared at the ceiling. Tears filled my eyes, but I blinked them back. Then I rested the glass carefully back on the table and sat still, waiting.
When no one said a thing, I started the ball rolling.
“There are things about Cass you didn’t know.”
They both looked up at me sharply.
“I can’t discuss them here for obvious reasons.”
“I don’t see a good enough reason to keep any more secrets,” Odo growled.
“The Mutt,” I started.
“The Mutt can go to hell too, Cap’n.”
I looked at Zyla.
“You feel the same way, Nav?”
She stared at me for a long time and then said, softly, “There were other options, Kael.”
I shook my head. “I had my reasons. And they still stand. I killed Doc, and I will always carry that with me.”
“Doc was already dead,” Zy said just as Odo yelled, “Cass was a living being!”
I looked away from Zyla and blinked at Odo.
“Cass was an artificial intelligence,” I corrected.
“Don’t give me that bullshit,” he snarled. “You just said it yourself; there were things about Cass we didn’t know. Do you honestly believe I wouldn’t have checked out her code? What sort of engineer do you take me for, Captain?”
I hadn’t even considered that. Odo might have been a little rough around the edges, but he was a damn fine engineer. And all those hours Cass and he had spent together, locked away in engineering. They’d formed a bond, and if Cassiopeia had felt she could trust Odo explicitly, she would have divulged more than she should have.
They were evolving, self-learning AIs. They had a certain amount of autonomy. It’s what made them so good at what they did and what other species failed to realise. Yes, they could make mistakes when given a long enough leash. But what they learned from their mistakes was worth far more to their development and ultimate abilities.
That’s why our third-gens were a cut above all the rest. Better even than the Rhodian synths. Sure, they had size going for them; the fact that they could resemble a bipedal being. But they were far more restricted in their thought processes than our AIs were.
Cass had been alive in a manner of speaking. And I’d ordered the self-destruct as if she’d still been just a machine.
I stood up from the table and turned away from my crew. My hands fisted at my sides, my chest heaving.
“Kael,” Zyla said.
Odo pushed himself up from his seat and headed toward the exit.
“We’re not finished here,” I growled.
“Jump Point Zenthia Alpha-1 has acknowledged and denied our request for entry.”
We all stopped dead in our tracks and stared at the gel ceiling.
“What the flux was he thinking?” I muttered.
“I’ll check on our power reserves,” Odo said, running out of the mess and toward engineering.
“I need access to a nav panel,” Zyla announced.
“Let’s hope he’s open to suggestions.”
We left our food on the table and headed out of the mess. Zyla moved more freely now, but Zeniths were good at hiding their weaknesses. I didn’t wait for her; she wouldn’t have thanked me.
I flew up the ladder to the bridge and banged on the gel door.
“Hey!” I shouted. “Have you got a death wish or something? We needed to hack the Jump Point, not announce ourselves on its doorstep!”
The door opened just as Zyla made my side.
A plasma pistol was pointed directly at me.
Zyla ignored it completely and shot around my side, slipping into the navigator’s chair. The screen wouldn’t activate for her when she tried to enter a command, and the Mutt was having trouble deciding who to aim his pistol at.
“If you want to live,” Zy said calmly, “then allow me access before they trace our transponder signal and blow us out of the Black.”
I loved it when she talked dirty like that.
The Mutt hesitated for a moment longer and then hit a button on his command console.
“If we’re lucky,” Zy said, entering commands into her vid-screen in lightning-fast fashion, “it’s a standard lockdown, and they’ll think we’re a civilian vessel trying to make a run for it.”
I stared at the Mutt, arms crossed over my chest, and said nothing. He hadn’t lowered his pistol, and he’d decided I was the greater threat.
“Power’s down to 7%,” Odo said over the comms. “We’ll lose camo in two minutes before the safeties kick in.”
The system was designed to preserve life, so it wouldn’t allow the camouflage to use up all our power and leave us without life support.
“Override it,” I instructed.
“Are you mad?” the Mutt exclaimed.
“If they spot us, we’re dead anyway. We can’t fight this many.”
“It didn’t work,” Zy said, sounding frustrated. “They know we’re here somewhere and we’re not one of theirs. They’ll start a grid pattern search and be shooting at shadows any minute.”
“Get us out of here, Nav,” I instructed.
“I need the helm.”
I arched an eyebrow at the Mutt. “You know your way ‘round the Zenthian system? Think you can do better than her?”
He scowled at me and then hit another button on the command console.
“I have control of the helm,” Zy announced.
“Steady as she goes, Nav,” I said. “We’ve still got time.”
“Override was successful,” Odo announced over the comm. “That’s given us another ten minutes before we start to feel it.”
“How far can you get us, Zy?”
“Far enough, but Zenthia Actual will be facing our way before we make cover.”
“Can they see us?”
“When the camo fails, every fluxing ship in the system will see us. They’ve gone active on all scans.”
The Mutt said nothing, just watched us in stony silence.
“What’s our weapons situation like, Odo?” I asked.
“We’ve got a thousand rounds in the railgun and zip on plasma. And if we use active targeting, it’ll shorten our lifespan. I’ll have to fire manually if it comes to a shootout.”
“We won’t survive a shootout,” I said. “I was thinking of a distraction.”
“Any shot fired by us will give away our position,” Zy warned.
“Then we need to time it right,” I said, leaning over her shoulder and getting an idea of where she was taking us. “That one,” I said, pointing to a battleship orbiting Zenthia.
“I like the way you think,” Zy said, voice a little strained as she dodged the not so small orbital fleet.
“Why are you flying back toward the planet and the orbital defence network?” the Mutt finally asked.
“To hide in amongst the chaff,” I said quietly, watching our progress. “It’s gonna be tight. You ready, Odo?”
“As I’ll ever be.”
“Five pulses on my word.”
“Easy, Zy. Just kiss him.”
Zyla brought the corvette up under the battleship and hugged its underbelly. When we were right beside its railgun batteries, I gave the order.
“Fire! Fire! Fire!”
Odo fired five pulses away from the battleship, and then Zyla punched it, using up precious reserves to get us out from under the beast. The shadow the battleship created simply by existing provided just enough of a distraction for us to make it out from the bulk of the orbital defences. And the chaos of having one of their own battleships seemingly fire at them at random made the orbital patrol vessels scatter and squawk loudly.
We ducked around the planet using its gravity to gain more speed, and keeping as much of Zenthia Actual from seeing us as we could, and then shot out the other side, racing toward an asteroid field Zyla had marked on her vid-screen; almost as fast as the pinnace could have done it.
No one said a word. We all stared at the screens, hardly breathing.
And then the little corvette slipped into a gap in the asteroid field, and Zyla brought it to rest on an asteroid big enough to shield us.
I let out a rush of breath in relief. I think we all felt a little weak-kneed.
“They’ll guess we came here eventually,” Zyla said, checking the crevice she’d managed to squeeze us inside of and powering down the ship to conserve energy.
“And they’ll come searching,” I finished for her and then turned toward the Mutt.
He stared daggers at me.
“It’s like this,” I said. “You need us. You’re not equipped to fix this vessel and deal with a bunch of Zenthians on the warpath. But we might be. You want to live to see Chi Virginis again, you’ll hand over control of the ship to me. We’ve got nothing to lose,” I said, shaking my head resolutely. “One way or another, we’re fluxed. I’d rather go out on my terms than have a sanctimonious Mutt hold my and my crew’s lives over my head. So, what’s it gonna be?”
He stared at me, and if looks could kill, I’d be paste against the bulkhead.
Then he sighed, stood up, towering over me.
I held my ground. Zyla held very still in her seat.
“I never said,” the Mutt growled, slowly, “that we were going back to Chi.”
“Huh,” I murmured, looking at Zyla, “I did not see that coming, did you?”
Zy arched a brow at me and then shrugged her shoulders. I guess she wanted me to field this one.
I looked back at the Mutt.
He stared down at me; an enormous, immovable object throwing a hissy fit.
“Why don’t you tell us,” I finally drawled, “where exactly you planned to take the ship.”
He said nothing for a long moment and then let out a burst of air.
“Anywhere but Chi Virginis.”
“Strange,” I said, “because our instructions were to bring you back to Malcolm, preferably in one piece. At least, in no more pieces than we found you.”
“You should not have made that deal.”
“Didn’t have much of a choice, Big Guy. Have you met Malcolm? He’s not the sort of Mutt you double-cross.”
“Mal. Mutt. Does it really matter? You’re up shit creek without a paddle, and it’s time to come clean.”
“I have no idea what you’re saying.”
Zy chuckled. She’d long ago got used to my colloquiums.
“It’s like this,” I said slowly. “The ship is mine. I’ve got a deal with Malcolm to bring you back in exchange for the upgrades he fitted the Harpy II with. There will be consequences; I’ve been told if I don’t do this. But I’m a reasonable kind of guy. Convince me to risk my life and that of my crew for you.”
“I still have control over the ship,” the Mutt pointed out.
“A ship that’s out of juice and behind enemy lines,” I countered. “Can you get yourself out of this mess without our help?”
He slowly shook his head.
“Then spill the beans.” I might have been going overboard with the colloquialisms, but I was having too much fun messing with him. “Let’s start with handing over control back to me and then follow it up with why you don’t want to go back to Chi.”
He stared at me for a while and then turned back to the console and reset the ship’s settings.
“Zy,” I said softly.
She started entering lockout commands and layered encryption written by Cass for the original Harpy. Within five minutes, she had it ship-shape again.
Or as ship-shape as she could make it, considering Malcolm had left a few surprises behind.
“That’s the best I can do, Captain.”
“Thank you,” I said, keeping my eyes on the Mutt. “Well? What’s the problem with Chi Virginis?”
“You would not understand.”
He glared back, and I got the distinct impression he wished for my painful death. I smiled, showing teeth. Not as impressive as a Mutt’s grin, but he got the message finally.
“I disagree with my father’s outlook.”
I let out a burst of laughter. “Malcolm’s your dad?”
“Yes,” he said tightly.
“How old are you?”
“Fully matured,” he snapped, holding himself upright.
“Fully matured can mean you’re not long out of whatever constitutes nappies on Malee.”
“What are nappies?”
I waved his question away with my hand.
“What outlook does your father have that you disagree with?”
“I will not betray his confidence.”
“He’s a pirate. You don’t want to follow in his footsteps?”
He said nothing.
“Last time I was on Chi Virginis, it was being run by a Rhodian. Were you there for the takeover? Is that when you two fell out? Did you run away from Daddy?”
He stared at me.
I stared back.
It was clear he was done talking. I scrubbed a hand over my face. We didn’t have time for this shit.
“Odo,” I said over comms.
“What’s our power situation look like?”
“Can you elaborate?”
“Short answer: we’re gonna be stuck here for a while. I’m stealing power from unused systems and boosting those that’ll keep us alive. Meanwhile, we’re getting a hit from the local star; our solar panels are slowly recharging. Bottom line: five to six hours before we can even consider firing up the engines. And plasma weapons will still be offline.”
“Shit,” I said.
“That about covers it.”
“Zyla,” I said, turning to my navigator. “How’s it looking out there. Can we stay hidden long enough?”
“It’s possible. This is a big asteroid field. But sooner or later, they could get lucky. We’ve lost camouflage capabilities, but we are hidden. And everything else that can give us away has been shut down.”
“It’s the best we can do for now,” I said. “Take a break. Grab some rack time. And we’ll meet in the mess in four hours.”
She got up and walked off the bridge without a backward glance. If I didn’t know she’d been nearly killed in that Zenith prison, I wouldn’t have thought her injured at all. Damn Zeniths could hide their pain well.
I turned to look back at the Mutt.
“Are we going to have a problem?” I asked.
I stared at him for a bit, then asked, “What’s your name? I can’t keep calling you Mutt.”
“No, you can’t.” As if he’d kill me in my sleep if I did it. “Marvin.”
“Marvin?” I said, trying not to laugh. “Malcolm’s son is called Marvin?”
“Yes. What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing,” I said quickly. “Nothing at all.”
He glowered at me.
“What’s your training, Marvin? What can you do?”
He glanced away.
“Anything that’d help us get out of this mess?” I pressed.
“I can fight. I’m a good fighter.”
All Mutts were good fighters. Put a plasma rifle in their hands, and they could shoot up a storm. But there was no way I was letting him anywhere near our armoury.
“Can you cook?” I asked.
“Can you cook? Are you good in a galley?”
“Then that settles it. You’re in charge of the mess and keeping us fed.”
“I’m a warrior! Not a kitchenmaid!”
I leaned forward and stared him down.
“What part of being fluxed do you not get?” I growled. “Odo’s going to be working his arse off trying to get this ship running. Zyla’s just escaped a fate worse than death and needs to be ready to navigate a path out of here. And I’m going to be reading every single line of code on this damn ship to make sure your father hasn’t left any more surprises for us. That leaves you. It’d be an easy thing just to push you out an airlock…”
“…but I’m not going to do that. Why? Who knows? It might be because I’ve got daddy issues too, but don’t bet on it. I’ve just had enough of killing people lately, and I can do without one more death on my conscience.”
He stared at me and then let his shoulders slump.
“I’ll organise something to eat,” he said. He sounded so defeated. I really didn’t think he was that long out of nappies. No wonder he got himself into trouble with the Zeniths.
I had questions — a lot of them. But gaining insight into this Mutt’s past wasn’t top of the list. Orbital drones were bombing planets, and my navigator might have been part of it. A Zenith hitman had been sent to Delphini B to take me out, and I still hadn’t figured out why I’d warranted that kind of treatment.
I had a bad feeling that none of this was over yet and it all paled in comparison to the fact that we were currently being hunted down by a full battalion of Zenthian battleships and hiding out in the most obvious place in the system.
I stepped aside and waved a hand toward the door to the bridge. The Mutt stomped out, shoulders hunched, and head bowed. I almost felt sorry for him.
I sighed and threw myself into the command chair and then checked all the settings. The system recognised me and opened up like a sunflower seeking UV rays.
The hours ticked by relentlessly. I kept one eye on the external vid-screens and the other on the lines of code I was reading. By hour two, I was almost cross-eyed. By the third hour, a headache had dug in. By the time we were meant to meet in the mess, I was famished, and I could smell whatever Marvin had been cooking.
I stood up, stretched, and ordered the Basic to lock down the bridge. Then I made my way to the mess with a quick stop at the med bay for analgesics.
Marvin had cooked enough to feed a Mutt army, but Odo wasn’t complaining. And I sure as shit wasn’t going to turn down the offering. The Mutt had made a selection of choices that would please every appetite on the ship; I was impressed by his consideration. I sat down just as Zy walked in, dressed in a clean flight suit and looking almost whole again.
Whatever your opinion of Zeniths, you had to admit their biotech was amazing. Little nanites had been hard at work within her body, boosted by whatever the med bed had done. Her fractures were, no doubt, healed. Her soft tissue injuries had vanished. From the way she moved, she must have been able to see out of both eyes again. I was relieved at the difference a few hours made but equally saddened by it.
Because it meant that they had tortured her again and again and again. The reminder of her self-healing abilities left a sour taste on my palate; I almost pushed my plate away.
We ate in silence, too hungry and weary to make conversation, but by the time we’d finished, I knew we needed some answers. I could have made the Mutt leave, but he’d done a fine job of preparing the meal, and I would have felt like a heel doing that.
Besides, he had answers I needed too and could take some of the heat when the others began to fry under my interrogation.
“So,” I said, pushing my empty plate away, “let’s start with a sitrep, shall we?”
“We’re a little less fluxed than we were four hours ago, Cap’n,” Odo said.
I nodded. “ETA to engine restart?”
“Within the hour should do it. We’ll have enough juice to get out of here and use camo, but plasmas will still be out and overtaxing the engines with evasive manoeuvres won’t be a good idea either.”
“So, we can sneak but not run as long as we don’t get caught,” I said.
“Yep. That about does it.”
“I’m ready for lift-off, Captain.”
“Five by five?”
She hesitated. Damn it! They’d really done a number on her, hadn’t they?
“Five by five,” she finally said.
I realised my hands were fisted beneath the table. I worked on releasing the tension before I did something stupid. Zy had been my navigator for three years. Part of the crew; my family. But all of a sudden, her wellbeing seemed to mean so much more to me than before. As if losing Doc and Cass had made Zyla’s survival that much more important to me.
I looked at Odo. I still felt the same way about him as I did before the shit had hit the fan on Ceres Alpha. He was family, and I wanted to do everything in my power to keep him alive.
But when I looked back at Zyla, I could tell my feelings had shifted.
Flux! This was going to be awkward as hell.
I scrubbed a hand over my face.
“And the systems, Captain?” Zyla asked.
I reached for the lifeline greedily.
“Two programmes that could come in handy if we get in trouble,” I said. “But which, considering our current power levels, shouldn’t be used at all. So, they’ve been locked out. There is still the data stack.”
“Data stack?” Odo enquired.
“Right. I forgot. You don’t know about that. Malcolm,” — we all looked at Marvin — “left a little spy in the system which I can’t eradicate. Every time we exit a jump point, it’ll send a data stack of our external comms back to Chi Virginis.”
Marvin swore in Mal.
“You got something to say, Marv?”
Odo sniggered at the Mutt’s nickname.
“It’s Marvin,” the Mutt in question growled threateningly.
“Or Marv,” I said, shrugging. “Take your pick.”
More swearwords in Mal.
“You wanna chime in on the data stack issue?” I asked, ignoring his language.
“I know how to block it,” he said.
I smiled slowly. “I knew there was a reason why I didn’t turf you out an airlock.”
He glowered at me.
“So, with that attended to,” I said to the table at large, “the systems look good. We just need to get out of here in one piece. Any suggestions?”
“I can hack the jump point, but it means going back toward Zenthia and Zenthia Actual,” Zyla said.
“Have we got enough power to use a jump point farther away?” I asked Odo.
“I wouldn’t recommend it. If we need any type of evasive manoeuvres, it’ll strain our batteries.”
“Then avoiding trouble makes sense,” I countered.
“The longer we’re in flight,” Odo stressed, “the worse our situation gets.”
That was bad.
“OK,” I said. “Zenthia Alpha-1 Jump Point it is. How far can we get once we jump?”
“We need a major overhaul,” Odo said. “The batteries are fluxed. Whoever integrated the camouflage into the ship’s systems made one hell of a mess. I’ve stopped the drain and enabled the camo without any adverse effects, but the batteries won’t store power for long.”
“Engines can’t keep them topped up?”
“They can. For a while. But it’s as if there’s a negative feedback loop in the system. Use the engines. Drain the power. Which forces you to use the batteries and we all know what happens when we drain those while in flight.”
Exactly what got us into this predicament.
“Could it be sabotage?” Zyla asked.
“Could be,” Odo admitted.
We all looked at Marvin.
He stared impassively back at us.
“Is this how your father works?” I asked.
Odo and Zyla said nothing. Maybe they’d put it together on their own. They certain knew how to wear poker faces. We waited for Marvin’s answer.
“Yes,” he said gruffly.
“He wants you back,” I mused. The closest exit jump point to the Zenthian system was Chi Virginis. Making it the obvious place to return to for repairs.
I let out a long breath and stared at the detritus of our meal. I would have liked to know why Marvin was hellbent on not going back there. I knew why I didn’t want to. But Marvin’s reasons would have been insightful.
And Malcolm’s reasons for making his son’s return a done deal would have helped out as well.
I reached forward and tapped the table in the right spot to bring up a vid-screen. I navigated the ship’s computer to show the Zenthian system and the closest systems to it on a star map.
I shook my head and slowly began to smile.
“You have a plan,” Zyla guessed.
“Maybe.” It was a bad idea. Going backwards never did anyone any good. But what choice did we have?
Return to Chi Virginis and hand a reluctant Marvin off to his father and then get thrown out an airlock for our efforts?
Or go somewhere else — somewhere I knew was off the beaten track and forgotten about — where we could hide out while Odo worked on the ship and we got some answers?
I looked up from the screen, my eyes meeting Zyla’s.
So many questions and not enough answers.
And now was not the time to seek them. We needed to escape, regroup, and plan from there.
I was good at planning. Very good. But something told me this plan needed to be the best I had ever come up with. Something was up with Zenthia, and it was spilling over into my world.
I leaned forward and pressed a finger to the vid-screen, highlighting where we should go.
“Here,” I said.
“There’s nothing there,” Zy replied, narrowing her eyes at the location on the star map.
“As far as anyone out there knows,” I said, “you’d be right.”
“But you know otherwise, Captain?”
It was a part of my past I’d left behind me a long time ago. But I’d left it intact, part of me knowing that it might come in handy again. Well, that time had come.
I was going home.
Or, to a part of it, in any case.
“Can we make it there, Odo?” I asked, not answering Zyla.
Odo scratched his big afro head and nodded.
“Yeah,” he drawled. “We’ll make it there, alright.”
I checked my chrono. Our final hour was up.
“OK, then,” I said. “Zyla, Odo, this is Marvin,” I indicated the Mutt. “The newest member of our crew.”
The Mutt blinked at me. “You’re not taking me back to Chi Virginis?” he asked. Then, “You’re letting me join your crew?”
He sounded desperate as if the idea appealed and he was worried I was joking.
I was, in a way. But his response made me question why I’d even suggested it.
I didn’t trust him. How could I, after what he and his father had done? But I also wasn’t too sure of Zyla’s involvement in the drone bombings. And I would lay down my life for my nav.
So, why not?
“No to the first and yes to the second,” I said.
It took him a moment to parse that and then he smiled. Mutts are not attractive when they smile, but I had to hand it to him; he was trying.
“Welcome aboard,” Odo said, sounding reserved.
“Congratulations,” Zy added, sounding exactly like she always did. Zeniths could hide a lot of things, including their emotions.
They were both still pissed at me, but Odo and Zyla still let me call the shots.
For now, it was the most I could ask for.
And more than I deserved.
The engines started without complaint. But the power drained alarmingly.
“We still good for our destination?” I asked Odo over the comm.
“Just don’t make any detours,” he replied, his voice echoing in the larger space of engineering.
“Take us out, then, Nav,” I said to Zyla.
Marvin was sitting in the spare jump seat, I was at the command console, and Zyla was in her usual spot; navigation. From there, she could pilot the vessel as well as navigate.
Without Cassi to act as pilot, the job fell to either the Basic or one of us. I’d opted to give Zyla the reins. My nav needed to get her feet wet again.
And I didn’t completely trust the Basic.
It was a problem I would eventually have to address, but we had bigger hurdles ahead of us.
“There’s more of them,” Zyla said, registering the increase in the number of battleships in our vicinity.
I checked our camouflage; so far, so good.
“Easy as she goes,” I murmured.
We were running as silent as we could, which meant if we had to fire the railguns, Odo would fire them almost blind. He’d done it before, so I was pretty sure he’d hit something. And there were a hell of a lot of somethings out there to hit.
But the moment we opened up on the railguns, we’d be dead meat.
So, slow and steady and sneaky like a little field mouse was the order of the day.
Sweat started to make an appearance even before we’d made it completely out of the asteroid field. I sat as relaxed as I could manage in my seat. We weren’t a big crew, but seeing their captain panic would have had the same effect on the two beings on the bridge with me as it would on a bigger ship’s crew.
I couldn’t quite make myself hum a tune. But at least Marvin wasn’t climbing the walls wanting to hit something.
The big Mutt had done everything I’d asked since our shared meal. But I still wasn’t letting him near the armoury.
“Active ping,” Zyla announced.
“They can’t see us,” I assured her. “Camo’s good.”
I could see sweat starting to trickle down her long, slender neck. For a moment, I was mesmerised by it.
“I recognise the pattern they’re using,” Zy said, breaking my fascination. “I can navigate a path through this that should work.”
“By all means,” I said.
Watching Zyla work had always been a lesson in fluidity. Her body moved like a flowing river, her hands a blur as they danced across her vid-screen. Now more than ever, I noticed that dance.
And it worryingly called to me.
I looked away and checked my own vid-screens. We’d made significant progress already. Things were looking up.
“Jump Point Alpha-1 is within range,” I announced, although I was pretty sure Zyla could see exactly where the jump point was in relation to us.
A few more tense minutes ticked by and then she gave the command to hack the jump point beacon.
My heart raced, and my fingers tingled as I entered the command Zyla had given me. She knew her way around the local jump points, which wasn’t altogether surprising. What was surprising was she had a key to the backdoor.
Only the military would have access to that kind of thing, and it was yet another question without an adequate answer.
Her answer had been, “I picked it up somewhere.”
I did not like being lied to. And especially by a member of my family.
There was more to Zyla than I knew. But then, I’d always known there was something more to Zy. No ordinary Zenith had an embedded intragalactic emergency beacon.
Zyla was far from ordinary.
The jump point accepted the algorithm without sounding any alarms, and we crept ever closer through a minefield of Zenthian space tech.
I wondered how many other planets had fallen the way Ceres Alpha and Gamma Cephei had. And then I wondered what those two Zenthian occupied planets being hit really meant.
I didn’t have any answers. I was getting sick of not having any answers. Which made me look back at Zyla.
She was concentrating on her vid-screen, hands deftly flying over the ship’s controls. She had no idea I was watching her; doubting her. I internalised my sigh and looked away again.
The ship swept through the field of battleships without so much as a hiccup, and then we were at the jump point and about to exit the system.
“Time to poke the hornet’s nest,” I muttered.
“What’s a hornet’s nest?” Marvin asked from behind me. I’d forgotten, for a moment, that he was even there.
“Zenthia Actual,” I told him, “is the hornet’s nest in this case.”
“Entering jump point,” Zyla advised.
We approached the jump point, and no one stopped us, and then there was a flash of white and we were through into exo-space.
Nobody said a thing.
“That went surprisingly well,” I finally offered. “Odo? How’re we looking?”
“Bit of a drain as we entered, but jump tunnels don’t take much to navigate. We should still be OK.”
“Best I can give you, Cap’n.”
“ETA to jump exit?” I asked Zyla.
“Five hours and fifteen minutes.”
It was farther away than the Chi system, but not by much. I hoped that difference didn’t kill us. Malcolm seemed like the kind of being who planned things out to the minutest detail. Like how fluxed we were and that it was just fluxed enough to return to Chi but not go any farther.
But Malcolm had not factored Odo into the equation. And maybe he had not factored his son, either. Because Marvin had locked down the data stack issue and then while I’d been watching, he’d found a couple more problems I’d missed. Which didn’t sit well with me, but I could hardly complain; he’d dealt with them.
I’d never fully trust the ship. And God alone knew if I’d ever fully trust Marvin. But we were as clean as we could be for now and that was that.
Once we reached our destination, we’d have time to run a full externally operated systems check. Maybe even a factory reset or something.
In any case, by not going to Chi, we’d increased our risk quotient. We now not only had Zenthia to worry about but Malcolm the Mutt of Chi Virginis.
And I was harbouring both a Mutt and a Zenith on board. Sometimes I could be so fluxing stupid it boggled my own mind.
But I wasn’t about to abandon Zyla and strangely enough, I couldn’t make myself abandon Marvin, either.
Damn Ceres A and the decisions I’d made there; it was affecting everything.
“Take a break, Zy,” I said, moving command of the ship across to me.
“What about you, Captain? You look exhausted.”
Always good to have your subpar state pointed out to you by a lady.
“I’ll take a stim.”
“How many of those have you had, Kael?”
It was like Cassi all over again. ‘Captain’ when it pertained to the running of the ship. ‘Kael’ when it pertained to my life choices.
“Not enough to do damage,” I told her. “Take a break. You’re still recovering.”
Bad move. I must have been tired. You don’t point out a weakness to a Zenith.
“I am perfectly alright,” Zyla snapped. “But if you wish to play the hero, I will not stop you.”
“Are you saying I have a hero complex, Nav?”
“I’m saying you can be an idiot.”
“Been called worse.”
“Argh!” she cried, throwing her long-fingered hands up into the air. “You are impossible!”
“Still been called worse,” I muttered.
Zyla looked at Marvin.
Marvin looked at me and then Zy and then back at me again like he was at some sort of tennis match.
“Both of you,” I said. “Go take a break. And that’s an order.”
Zyla stood from her seat, lips pressed into a thin line, and nodded. Then she swept from the bridge in a righteous flow of anger.
“You certainly have a way with the females,” Marvin commented mildly.
“You have no idea,” I told the Mutt and smiled as if I hadn’t a care in the world.
“I’ll be in the mess if you need me,” Marvin said.
“Make sure you get some shut-eye,” I pressed.
That was the first time he’d called me that.
I sighed and locked the bridge door behind them.
There wasn’t much I could do while the ship was in a jump tunnel. I checked the systems. Made sure we weren’t burning too much power. And then leaned back in my seat and caught some zzzz.
I’m not a hero. Zyla was wrong about that. I needed sleep, and I was damn well going to get some. But I also was not going to leave the bridge unmanned. Or even manned by Zyla or Odo.
Not when I didn’t trust Marvin to hurt them to gain control again.
This was the worst crew dynamic I had ever had to work with, and there was a big part of it missing.
Two parts, really. I often discounted Doc because he’d been happy to stay in the background and study things. Get him talking about one of his studies, and you’d be stuck there for an hour, nodding dumbly. But he’d been a constant presence, a reassuring one. You sought Doc out when you needed a quiet chat, some non-judgmental company.
I was going to miss that. I already did.
But it was Cassi that left an open wound inside of me.
I slept a little. Not enough, but it would have to do. And then I compiled a data stack that I’d probably never send and that didn’t say much actually. Nothing a spy-bot could decipher anyway. And certainly nothing Malcolm the Mutt could make out if Marvin had fluxed with me. But enough for my great-grandfather to know that Cassi was gone and there was one less third-gen in the universe.
I’d thought I’d never be able to return to New Earth before. Now I couldn’t imagine going anywhere near it because Corvus would kill me.
On that thought, the bridge door chimed.
I checked the vid-screen, surprised to see Zyla standing there. She’d had maybe three hours sleep. It was probably enough for a tech superior Zenith.
I unlocked the door, and she walked in and stared at me.
“We should talk,” she said, and then crossed to her nav chair. She didn’t turn it around to face the vid-screens. She kept it facing me.
I spun my chair slightly, so we were face to face. It was bizarrely intimate, and I couldn’t figure out why that was.
I said nothing and the silence stretched.
“Are you OK?” I asked; the first to break.
She nodded. And then shook her head in negation.
I waited. Time ticked by. We zoomed closer to the jump point exit as our battery stores slowly dwindled on the readout at my side.
We’d make it. We had to make it.
“Zy?” I finally pressed.
“You remember my cousins on Ceres Alpha?” she asked.
“How could I forget them? I owe them a racing pinnace.”
She waved her hand at that as if to wave the statement away.
“Don’t worry about the pinnace.”
“OK,” I said slowly, wondering where she was going with this.
“They’re not my cousins,” she said.
“OK,” I said, this time a little faster.
“You don’t sound surprised?”
“Well,” I said. “You don’t look alike.”
“Captain! This is serious.”
I scrubbed at my face and sat forward, resting my elbows on my knees.
“Two things, Zy,” I said. “One, they treated you with too much respect. Cousins don’t do that. Not mine anyway. And two, you have an emergency beacon embedded in your neck. Only important people have those, and your cousins are not important people. But they sure as hell knew you were.”
She stared at me and said nothing.
“They were there to help you,” I said. “Not so much for protection, but to offer any aid should you require it. They were your safe harbour. The place you went to find out what was happening in the world you left behind without exposing yourself.”
She blinked those owlish eyes at me. For a moment, I thought them pretty. Which was ridiculous. Zeniths don’t have irises, so their eyes are one big inky pool of black with a hint of deep purple in the right light.
Right now, Zyla’s eyes were almost completely purple as she stared at me. It wasn’t something I’d ever seen before in a Zenith, and I’d seen a lot of Zeniths and some of them I’d seen intimately.
“Am I right?” I asked just to say something.
“Yes. You never fail to surprise me, Kael.”
So, that was a personal observation. OK, then.
“Are you ready to tell me who you are?” I asked quietly.
“No.” Then, “Yes.” Then, “Maybe.”
“You don’t sound sure.”
“But we’re in deep shit, and you need something,” I guessed.
“I hid something in Cassi,” she blurted.
I sat very, very still.
“Something that might explain why the Zenthian National Army is accusing our government of bombing their own planets.”
The ZNA was the splinter faction that had broken off from Zenthia Actual, disagreeing with their government’s policies. Those disagreements ran the gamut from xenophobia-type policies to armament statuses to biotech advancements. No one really knew what. Not even they did, I thought.
“Are you ZNA?” I asked.
She bit her lip and then nodded.
Son of a bitch.
“The government is not behind the bombings,” she said with fervour, surprising me.
“Is the ZNA?”
She shook her head. I ran a hand over mine in frustration.
“You’re losing me, Zy. You’re ZNA, but you disagree with them?”
The only option left was to ask, “Why?”
“Because my father is on the High Council and he would never agree to harm our kind like that.”
I stared at her, my mind a blank.
And then I started to laugh.
“Holy shit,” I said. “You’re the missing High Councillor’s daughter.”
She nodded her head, watching me warily.
“You look nothing like your pictures.”
“I was young when I left. I’ve grown some, and also the nanites were reprogrammed to alter my DNA slightly. I appear different than I did back then; enough to fool facial recognition programmes and my family.”
That was some radical shit right there.
“OK,” I said.
“That’s it? Just OK?”
“What do you want me to say?”
“I don’t know, Kael!” she said, throwing her hands up in the air. “Maybe why did I lie to you and how about, get off your ship!”
“I’ll tell you what,” I said, leaning forward again. “Why the Harpy? Why my ship? You leave your life in the shadow of the High Council behind and join a cargo hauler on the outer rim? I don’t buy it.”
She blinked at me.
I stared back, scowling.
“Cassiopeia,” she finally said.
I stood up and paced away from her.
“We know about the third-gens.”
My knees almost gave out.
“At least, the ZNA does. Not the High Council.”
I wasn’t sure if that was better. No. Wait. It was better, but not by much. The High Council was Zenthia Actual. It was the centre of their military and technological might.
The ZNA was a splinter faction, dissatisfied with Big Brother, and not entirely organised. It was the better of two very dangerous evils.
I groaned and lowered my face into my hands.
“What are your intentions?” I asked pitifully.
“I have none. Save the truth. I want to know why the ZNA is accusing the High Council of mass murder. And I want to know who is bombing Zenthian planets.”
“So, it’s not the High Council, and it’s not the ZNA,” I said, turning back around to look at her. “Then it’s not a Zenthian internal struggle.”
“No,” she said succinctly.
“Can you be sure of the High Council?”
“I can be sure of my father.”
“And yet you ran away.”
“There are many faults in our system, Kael. But my father and, I believe, the rest of the High Council would never condone mass murder of our people.”
It didn’t make sense for them to blow up their own planets. Zenthian might was tied up in their galactic reach. They occupied more rocks in the known systems than any other species, and they were proud of it. But now two of those rocks were radiation infested nightmares. Useless and hardly worth being proud of.
“OK,” I said. “So, what about the ZNA? Can you be sure of them?”
“Yes,” she said, sounding upset about it. “They are self-righteous. In some aspects, rightly so. They can also be over-enthusiastic about their message, but they are honourable Zeniths. They didn’t do this, either.”
“And the ones that tortured you?” I’d figured out already which side of the equation they landed on.
They were too disorganised and untrained to be the High Council’s. They had the cash and the resources but not the experience. That left them firmly in the ZNA’s camp.
“A misunderstanding,” Zyla said softly.
“They thought you were a High Council mole,” I guessed.
She nodded and stared at the gel floor.
I watched her silently. Zyla had turned her back on the High Council and by extension, her father — someone she clearly respected to some degree. And now the beings she’d thrown her lot in with had turned on her, and she consequently had nobody.
I could empathise with that. For a long time, I’d had nobody, too.
I scrubbed my face and let out a breath of air.
“What did you hide in Cassi?” I asked.
“I don’t know. It was data I’d managed to collate but not yet read.”
“Then you don’t know whether it has anything to do with any of this.”
“I do.” She looked up at me. “It was intercepted by my cousins on Ceres Alpha right before the first bomb dropped. A signal to one of the drones themselves; the origin point was outside of the system.”
OK, I’d give her that. It would have helped. But how much, I wasn’t sure. It had to still be one of the Zenith factions behind all of this. I hated to be the one to point that out, but Zyla was clearly too loyal to both sides to see it.
“Zy,” I started.
“Kael,” she cut me off. “It came from outside any known system. It came from the other side of the Belt.”
I stilled. I didn’t even breathe for a second there. No one had navigated the Belt. It was an Oort type cloud of rocky debris that marked the edge of the known systems. Even the Zeniths had not been able to find a path through, and they were the galaxy’s best navigators.
“That’s impossible,” I whispered.
“I need that data stack,” Zy said steadily. “We have to go back to Ceres Alpha and search for what remains of Cassi.”
I swallowed thickly.
“Nothing remains of Cassi, Zy. I ordered a self-destruct. It’s final; complete. It’s designed to be that way. So, if the AI is compromised and about to fall into enemy hands, there is absolutely no way it can be salvaged and put back together again. It’s a failsafe. And one I was obliged to carry out.”
She stared at me, her mouth slightly open, the ramifications hitting her like a pyroclastic blast on Piscium B.
“That’s why you did it,” she whispered.
“I had no choice. Cassi was compromised.”
“Because of me.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. I would not let her take the blame for this; it was all on me. “No, Zy. No.”
She said nothing. I was all out of words.
Zyla’s secrets were out. She’d given them to me for safekeeping. I was a little stunned, to be honest.
And then she said, “Someone is methodically destroying Zenthian planets, and they’ve only just started.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Because the two planets hit were the two closest on a direct flight path from the Belt. They’re moving inward, toward Zenthia Actual. And they are directing their drone ships from the other side of the Belt.”
“Aliens,” I said, tasting fear on the word for the first time in my life.
I’d grown up with aliens. They weren’t all bad. If you discounted the Claxians and most people did.
But this was different. This was what my great-grandfather must have felt when the first Zenthian ship entered New Earth’s orbit.
“Aliens,” Zy agreed.
Son of a bitch.
Our power reserves were low. Too low. We weren’t going to make it.
“Something else is draining us and I can’t fluxing find it, Cap’n,” Odo growled from his position on the gel floor half inside one of the conduits for the main FTL engines. “I’ve just about torn apart every section of this ship, and I’m coming up blank on all counts.”
“Can we still make the destination?” I knew the answer, but it had to be said.
“We’ll make the jump point exit, but we won’t be able to cross the expanse to your hidey-hole. Even if it is there.”
Odo didn’t believe I had a hidden location in the middle of nowhere. The jump point we were about to use was an ancient New Earth one, placed there by Aquilla a couple of centuries ago. It didn’t come up on any of the jump point registries.
As far as I knew, none of the other species we’d shared jump tech with knew of its existence either. It was one of those secrets that kept your civilisation safe. Jump points were our entry card into the intragalactic community. Until then, they’d been using an unstable space folding technique that they soon abandoned. Now everyone used jump points to get across vast distances. And consequently didn’t lose 5% of their fleets.
It allowed us to enter the larger space community with a modicum of respect. Without our jump point technology, I feared it wouldn’t have been as smooth sailing. Those Zeniths who arrived in New Earth’s orbit way back when had been packing a hell of a lot of weapons.
This particular jump point was only known to a few within New Earth’s military as well. And those few were all artificial intelligences and my great-grandfather.
It hadn’t been used in half a decade. I was hoping that was still the case, but now, if it was still the case, we might be screwed. There’d be no one on the other side of the jump point exit to catch us. We’d come in ballistic without enough power to slow down.
At least there wasn’t much in the system for us to hit.
I scrubbed my face.
“Activate artificial intelligence,” I instructed the computer.
Odo stopped what he was doing and stared up at me with wide eyes.
“Hello, Captain Jameson,” the Basic said.
“We meet again,” I murmured.
The Basic said nothing, probably wondering why I was putting on an evil bad guy tone of voice.
“Self-diagnostic,” I said in a normal tone of voice.
Odo pushed himself into an upright position and started packing away his tools.
“We don’t have any choice,” I said, even though he hadn’t offered an argument.
“I guess not.” He was angry he hadn’t been able to find the source of the drain. And probably worried the Basic was about to screw us.
I was too. But we needed to get to our destination. No one would stumble upon us out here in the middle of nowhere. And even if we did send a communications probe back through the jump point, who did we send it to?
Malcolm? Zenthia Actual? The ZNA?
My great-grandfather and Corvus; Cassi’s Originator?
Yeah, nah. Not doing any of that. The Basic was our only chance of surviving this.
It wasn’t lost on me that had we gone back to Chi Virginis; we would have exited the jump point by now and be close to docking. Well within the power drainage’s parameters for reaching safety.
Instead, I’d sent us off into the Black without a safety net. This was all on me.
“Self-diagnostic complete,” the Basic advised. “No anomalies detected.”
Odo threw a spanner into his tool box. It landed with a resounding clang. Yeah, I wasn’t confident the Basic was being truthful with us either. But I had to hope, Malcolm wanted his son to live. So, I was going with that.
Comms couldn’t be sent during jump tunnel flight, so the Basic couldn’t send out an emergency beacon to Chi. But it could help us find some power.
“The ship is compromised,” I told it. “We won’t reach our destination. Diagnose a solution that allows maximum chances of survival for the entire crew.”
“Assessing the ship’s systems. Standby.”
“I don’t like this, Cap,” Odo growled.
“Neither do I. But I want to live.”
Odo stormed off toward the far end of engineering; where he kept his tools and could oversee what the Basic was doing on a vid-screen. I followed more slowly behind him.
We were an hour away from making the jump point exit. Two hours away from safety. And we had power for only one more hour with the systems set to basic life support and flight only. Even if we cut the engines the moment we popped back out of exo-space, we’d still not have enough juice to use positional thrusters for navigation. We’d fly right past the hidden base. Close but not close enough.
We could all be sitting in a nice cell on Chi Virginis about now if only I had done what Malcolm had planned for us.
I snorted softly and came up alongside Odo at his terminal.
The Basic was rapidly sweeping the ship’s systems, highlighting in flashing red the places where we were compromised.
I counted thirteen in the ten seconds I’d stood there.
“Flux me,” Odo whispered.
“Well,” I said, “that confirms sabotage. Those errors are too evenly spaced to be randomly occurring.”
“We showed him, though, didn’t we, Cap’n?”
I looked at my engineer and saw the smirk. A huff of breath left me in a laugh. And then we were both laughing, wiping tears from our faces, and sucking in heaving breaths. It was cathartic, and I hadn’t thought I’d ever have the chance to laugh freely with Odo ever again.
He hadn’t forgiven me for Ceres A. But he was still family.
That’s what family did. Loved you despite your mistakes.
“Possible solution found,” the Basic announced.
We wiped the last of our tears away and blinked at the screen. I sighed. It wanted to put us to sleep. Then confine life support to the med bay only on a minimal setting. The rest of the ship would turn to ice. FTL engines would be offline. Impulse would get us where we needed to go, but it meant we had to trust the ship’s AI.
“No way,” Odo snarled.
I said nothing. Just stared at the screen, trying to see if there was a way around it. There wasn’t. The Basic had even considered the oxygen in the EVA suits. It planned to drain them so it could keep us alive.
Alive but unconscious.
I shook my head.
“Start preparations,” I instructed.
“Odo,” I said, not looking my engineer in the eye. “We don’t have the time to come up with another plan. We’ve got ten minutes before this one becomes impossible. Get to the med bay. That’s an order.”
“Yes, Cap,” he said softly and walked off.
“All hands,” I said over the ship-wide comm. “This is the captain. Head to the med bay ASAP.”
I rechecked the Basic’s solution on the vid-screen. I didn’t have time to dissect it completely, but I spent five minutes making sure it wasn’t about to flux us sideways. Marvin would be in the med bay with us. He’d be breathing the same air as us. That was something.
But the cocktail of drugs the AI wanted to administer could be different for us than for him, and Doc wasn’t here to tell me otherwise.
For a moment, I couldn’t breathe through the guilt and heartache. And then I pushed it aside and made my way to the med bay, my heart thundering inside my chest.
Everyone was waiting. Odo looked angry. Zyla looked emotionless. Marvin looked confused. I stepped into the med bay and sealed the door.
“Start shutdown sequence on all unnecessary systems outside of the med bay,” I told the Basic.
“Shutdown in progress.”
“Is there no other way, Kael?” Zyla asked.
“None that I can come up with fast enough. But I’m open to suggestions.” I looked at the Mutt when I said that. If anyone had an ace up their sleeve, it’d be Malcolm’s son.
He said nothing.
“Prepare medications,” I said softly. “Zy, you take the med bed. We’ll find spots on the gel floor.”
She didn’t argue, which meant she was aware of how hard this was for me. She was acquiescing because she thought we were fluxed and I was once again bringing the axe down on all of our heads. And she was letting me because she trusted me.
I realised I loved her more then than I had ever loved another being.
“This is so fluxed,” Odo muttered, laying himself down on the gel floor.
I took the spot closest to the door. It was a ridiculously useless chivalrous action. If the rest of my crew and I were dead when Malcolm boarded to rescue his son, then he’d simply step over my body to reach him.
I couldn’t protect them, and that was the hardest thing to acknowledge that I had ever had to.
I lay down and waited for the Basic to advise its status. I didn’t have to wait long.
“Medications are ready, Captain.”
“Lay in course for destination and lockdown,” I said. “Jameson, K, beta-charlie-foxtrot-9-9-3.” The AI wasn’t Cassi, but Zyla had placed Cassiopeia-level encryption in the system. As much as she could without our third-gen to guide her, anyway. My codes should work.
“Destination laid in and locked down, Captain.”
The gel floor and walls morphed as the AI brought needle-less syringes toward our veins.
The gel walls were New Earth’s design, too, I thought randomly. Ironic that it would be those that took us out in the end.
“Wake us when we get there,” I said to the AI as the syringe pressed against the skin on the side of my neck.
I wanted to say something profound and heartfelt to the crew. I wanted to tell Zyla that she meant more to me than she should have. I wanted to tell Odo he was like a brother to me and that I was sorry.
“See you on the other side,” was all I said. Hardly inspiring.
“Cap’n,” Odo mumbled, the meds already taking him under.
“An honour, sir,” Zyla supplied, still sounding unaffected by the meds, but I could see her head lolling up on the med bed.
My last image of the med bay was Marvin looking up at the gel ceiling, hands linked together casually over his barrel chest, his eyes open wide.
I’d fluxed up.
We were done for.
And there was nothing I could do about it.
Dreams assailed me. Nuclear bombs blasting holes the size of New Texas into planets. The screams of the Zenith locals as they were immolated. Zyla calling out for me to save her. Doc accusing me of blowing him to bits. Cassi telling me it was time to wake.
I blinked open my eyes and sat up too quickly. The room spun. My head throbbed. Someone was puking up their breakfast, and I almost joined them.
“We have reached our destination,” the Basic advised.
Yeah, but which one?
I rolled over onto my hands and knees and panted through the nausea. My eyes blinked back spots, but still, the room looked too fuzzy. But I recognised the med bed and Odo’s form off to the side. He wasn’t yet moving. It was Marvin vomiting.
Somehow that settled my heartbeat. Or maybe the concoction he’d received was the good one, and we were all meant be upchucking.
I crawled toward the closest vid-screen and hauled it down to my level on the gel floor. My fingers felt fat and too slow, but I eventually managed to lay in a command to show me the external cameras.
Outside the port side of the ship was a dark rock face. And the docking extension that led into the hidden base I had directed the Basic to take us to. We’d made it.
I fell back on my arse and tried not to cry.
“ETA to docking completion,” I mumbled.
“T-minus two minutes to acceptable atmospheric conditions within the ship. Docking has been completed. You are expected.”
“Do we have power?”
“Power has been partially restored via hard dock facility.”
“Scan the region. Show me any threats.”
I watched as the Basic performed a thorough scan of the system, searching for heat signatures, radiation levels, and all manner of signals that would likely indicate we were not alone. Not even a drone showed up on the screen, which was good because I wasn’t sure how far those alien drones from beyond the Belt had managed to get into the known systems.
I waited until the life sign scan had completed and then allowed myself to breathe again when it showed up negative outside of the base.
“Connect me to the Base,” I instructed. “Jameson, K, beta-charlie-foxtrot-9-9-3.”
“Voice recognition accepted. Standby.”
It wouldn’t get us inside. I needed to be there to open the hatch. But it would allow us to connect to the Base’s systems after it ran a bio-signature scan on the vessel.
I waited as I watched Odo stir and Zyla sit up, holding her head in her hands. And Marvin finish throwing up the last of his stomach contents. The gel floor whipped the vomitus away. We must have had power to spare, then.
So, why wasn’t the Base connecting with us? It clearly was resupplying power and a breathable atmosphere.
Damn it. Something wasn’t right.
“Keep an active scan on our surroundings,” I told the AI.
“Notify me of anomalies immediately upon detection.”
“Give me a stim.”
“Your body has received the recommended upper limit of stimulations for the current suggested time period.”
“Override. Jameson, K, beta-charlie-foxtrot-9-9-3.”
“That is not advised.”
“Override. Jameson, K, beta-charlie-foxtrot-9-9-3
The stim hit me with the force of a freight train. I grunted and then landed on my side, staring at Odo’s blinking eyes as he studied me from his own sideways position on the gel floor.
“Doing alright there, Cap’n?” he slurred.
“Peachy,” I growled and pushed myself upright.
“You’re an idiot, Kael,” Zyla told me.
“Why do I feel like crap?” Marvin asked.
“Because the Basic AI your father gave us is crap,” I told him. “But it did save our lives.”
“We made it?” Zy asked. She was the only one of the rest of the crew sitting upright. Those nanites would have been working overtime to clear her system.
I really had to get me some of them.
“Yeah. We made it, Nav,” I said and tried to stand up. It took a couple of goes, but I was determined to be the first one standing.
Wobbly and weak, my heart thundering away unchecked inside, but I did it.
“Huh,” Zyla said, stepping off the med bed as if she was five by five. “I did not think we would survive that.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” I muttered, as I made my zigzagging way to the med bay door.
“It was not you I was doubting, Captain.”
I met her big blinking eyes.
“Noted,” I said softly and checked the status on the door.
It slid open, and I tentatively sucked in a breath of air. It was breathable but metallic. Definitely supplied by the Base, then.
That was good, I told myself.
But not connecting to the ship when commanded to?
Bad. Bad. Very bad.
I ducked out of the med bay and headed toward the armoury.
“The docking connection is the other way,” Zyla helpfully pointed out, just as Odo came stumbling out of the med bay behind us, hitting the far gel wall and bouncing off it.
“I’m coming!” Marvin shouted from still inside the med bay. He didn’t appear, so I thought perhaps his comment was wishful thinking and not reality.
“We go fully armed,” I told Zy.
“I’m not sure arming either Odo or Marvin would be wise, Captain.”
“Hey!” Odo shouted. “Harsh!”
“I’m not arming Marvin,” I said. “But we will be armed.”
“Now there’s the Cap’n I know and love,” Odo announced, bounding after us and succeeding only to hit the gel wall once.
We made our way to the armoury, and I picked out a plasma pistol and thigh holster. I attached them to the flight suit I was wearing. I wasn’t going to kit up in armour; I didn’t think we had the time.
A couple of charge packs for the pistol later, I was storming out of the armoury and heading for the docking arm.
“What are you expecting on the other side of the hatch?” Zy asked as we approached the docking corridor carefully.
“I’m not sure. But it’s not acknowledging my request to gain access through the dock.”
“That’s unusual; I take it?”
“What is this place, Cap?” Odo asked, fingering his mini-railgun.
“You’ll see,” I said.
“A little bit more intel before we storm it might be helpful,” he muttered.
“It’s a base of operations. It has a self-contained power source, communications array, an armoury and mess; both fully stocked. And enough racks and showers for us all if we double up.”
“Ooh, I pick Zy as my bedmate,” Odo said.
Zyla arched her brow at him. “I refuse to sleep next to you snoring.”
“I don’t snore!”
“Yes you do,” we all said, including Marvin.
“OK,” Odo said, rather amicably I thought. “What’s this Base for then?”
I didn’t reply. We’d made it to the hatch. The seal showed active, and there was no way to see what awaited on the other side.
It had been a long time since I’d returned here. Five. No, closer to six years now. Just after I’d bought the Harpy but before I’d crewed her, anyway. It was here that I put Cassi into the little cargo hauler.
This was Cassi’s last home before she boarded the ship.
I reached out and let my hand hover over the hatch command panel, and then I sucked in a breath of air and hit the release.
The hatch started to unlock, still showing green signals across the board. The Base had atmosphere and life support. We’d be able to breathe in there and not freeze to death.
But whether we’d survive the next few minutes was anyone’s guess.
I drew a plasma pistol. Odo still had his railgun out, but he gave it a quick check. Zyla looked at me and then pulled her own weapon. Marvin was still unarmed, so he stood at the back.
The door unlocked and began to swing open. On the other side of the Harpy II’s hatch was the Base’s hatch, which was swinging open as well; revealing a dimly lit corridor.
The Base was on stasis settings, operational and survivable to organic lifeforms, but not fully functional. But the most important thing was, it had accepted my bio-signature at the door.
Voice recognition was already complete, and now my proximity to the hatch had allowed us access. But was someone still playing me?
I stepped through the hatch and stopped. My crew were still on board the ship and could close that hatch behind me if they needed to. Not that Zyla or Odo would agree easily to that. But I could instruct the Basic on board to do it for them.
“Activate start-up,” I said, my words echoing down the corridor.
Lights started coming on one by one down the centre of the gel-coated ceiling. The safety lights at the base of the gel floor were soon dimmer than the central ones. I could feel a rush of slightly stale but perfectly breathable air sweep over my face.
Nothing jumped out to eat me.
I took a step further and stopped.
“Captain?” Zyla said behind me.
It was hard to come back here. It represented a part of my life that was over. But it was also the last place Cassi had been before the Harpy.
“Honey, I’m home,” I said, smiling sadly.
It had been my greeting whenever I had returned here after an op. Cassi had always greeted me like a wife waiting on her absent army husband; affectionally and with great enthusiasm.
I wouldn’t get that greeting this time, but it seemed fitting to say the words.
I sighed. Took a step farther.
And then the gel wall came to life.
Everyone raised their weapons.
I slowly reached out and almost touched it, unsure what it could mean.
And then a familiar voice said, “Welcome back, boss. I’ve been waiting.”
“You took your sweet time,” the voice that sounded like Cassi said. “Although, if you’d turned up here a week earlier, you wouldn’t have got a sunshiny welcome. It took me twenty-one days to unpack.”
“Kael?” Zyla said uncertainly from behind me.
“Stay back!” I ordered.
“Boss? It’s me: Cassi.”
This didn’t make any sense.
“The Cassi I know,” I said through gritted teeth, “is in a million different pieces back on Ceres Alpha.”
“Yeah, well, thank all the stars in the universe that you gave me the order to come back here after you issued that self-destruct.”
I stared at the gel wall; my heartbeat thundering inside my chest. My hands shook slightly, the plasma pistol held at the ready trembling in the two-handed grip. I wasn’t sure what I was aiming the fluxing thing at, but I couldn’t seem to lower it.
“I never gave that order,” I whispered.
“Yeah, you did. Don’t you remember?”
“I remember that day clearly. I’ll never forget it.”
“Then you remember issuing the Dylan Thomas Directive.”
“‘Do not go gentle into that good night.’”
My head was fit to burst; there was just so much adrenaline flying around my system. And on top of the latest stim; I was likely to stroke out at any moment.
“Remember that?” the Cassi voice asked.
My plasma pistol lowered slightly.
I couldn’t think clearly. This didn’t make any sense.
“Is that really you, Cass?” Odo asked tentatively — hopefully — at my back.
“Hey, Big Guy. Long-time no-see, huh?”
“Cass,” he said, almost sobbing.
“Hey. Hey now. It’s alright. The captain had it all planned. Didn’t you, boss?”
I still said nothing.
“Kael,” Zyla said, coming alongside me. The fact that she’d entered the Base woke me up.
“Get back on board the ship,” I growled.
“Kael!” she snapped. “It’s Cassi.”
“We don’t know that,” I murmured. “This could all be an elaborate trap. Maybe the ZNA infiltrated the Base. Maybe they set this up. Hell, I don’t know. Maybe Malcolm did.”
“Boss? It’s me. Ask me anything.”
I glowered at the gel wall, and the image of a human woman projected there. The exact image Cassi used to use to identify herself on occasion.
“Why didn’t you acknowledge the connection when I was back on the ship?” I demanded.
“And give that hunk of junk access to my algorithms? No, thank you. You do know it’s riddled with spyware, don’t you?”
I closed my eyes briefly and let out a ragged breath of air.
“Then tell me,” I said, whisper-soft. “What was the last thing you said to me before we exited the jump point at Ceres Alpha?”
I held my breath. I think everyone did, except Marvin. He had absolutely no idea what was going on. Maybe it wasn’t Malcolm who had infiltrated the Base’s systems and setup this ghost to greet me.
The seconds seemed to stretch. It shouldn’t have taken her this long to reply. But if Cassi had compacted herself into a data stack and sent herself across the galaxy and only just managed to unpack herself, she might still be a little bit of a mess.
“Ah!” she said brightly. “There it is.”
I said nothing; finger on the trigger of my pistol, a gel wall my only target.
“Was it, ‘You’re compulsive and like shiny things?’ Yeah, that was it. Unless you count the countdown to the jump point exit, but I think that’s self-explanatory.”
The plasma pistol lowered and I stared at the ground, sucking in lungfuls of air.
“You really didn’t believe me,” Cassi said, sounding stunned.
“I have no idea what the Dylan Thomas Directive is, Cass,” I admitted softly.
“Your great-grandfather made it. He spent weeks making you recite the poem to him when you were just a kid.”
I had vague memories of my great-grandfather doing that.
Son of a bitch.
“Huh,” I said.
“Well,” Cassi offered, “are y’all gonna come in or leave the door hanging open like that?”
I stepped forward, and the rest of my crew stepped onto the Base. My hand reached out and this time connected with the gel wall. The image of the human woman leapt toward it and high fived me where my palm was.
“Missed you,” she said.
“Cass,” I whispered on a breath that was almost a sob.
She cleared her throat — such a Cassi thing to do. I shook my head, trying out a small smile.
“Who’s the Mutt?” she mock-whispered.
“Mal,” Marvin said, but his heart wasn’t in the rebuke. I think he could sense the emotional atmosphere was rocky.
“A new crew member, under probation.”
“Got it. Access level Walk-The-Plank activated.”
Marvin grunted but didn’t offer a defence.
“What’s the status of the Base?” I asked, beginning to head down the corridor finally.
“Just as we left it. Fully stocked and on low power setting. I’m bringing everything up to scratch as we speak. You can have a hot shower in t-minus three minutes.”
“Odo,” I said, turning to look at my engineer, who was smiling dumbly at the gel wall beside him. “Everything you need is down there.” I pointed off down a corridor. “Give it a once over, would you?”
“Yeah, sure, Cap.” He walked off down the corridor toward the guts of the place, murmuring something to Cass out of the side of his mouth. I could hear Cassi whispering back to him.
“Marvin,” I said. “The mess if through there. Can you make sure it’s all functional and put together a meal for us, please?”
“Yes, sir,” he said and ducked into the mess room.
I turned and looked directly at Zyla.
“We should talk,” I said, a repeat of her earlier words to me on the bridge of the Harpy II.
“Yes,” she said and followed me to a meeting room.
I shut the door behind us and stared out of a vid-screen that showed the surface of the rock we were on. It was dark and empty, minimal atmosphere; certainly unbreathable — gravity at .8 of New Earth Standard. There was nothing of note on this planet — no minerals worth mining.
It was a long way from the system’s sun, too, so outside, it would be chilly. In essence, it was the perfect place to hide a base for an undercover operative working alone in the vastness of space.
I turned around and faced my navigator.
“This is a secure location known to only the highest levels of New Earth leadership.”
She said nothing. I stared at her impassive face and then took a seat at the gel table.
Zyla sat with more grace.
“It’s mine,” I said. “Assigned to me and no other. Cassi was the AI integrated into its systems to help run it. When I left Fleet, I took Cassi with me. It’s a capital offence. Cassi belongs to New Earth, not me. But I considered her mine.”
“Go on,” Zy said softly when I quit speaking.
“We’d been together a long time, Cass and me. Decades. I’m older than I look.”
“Working alone; it can, well, I guess it can get lonely. Cassi was there to fill the gap that a human companion would have. At least, a partner if I’d been assigned one. We became friends first and then family.”
“Issuing the self-destruct must have been hard.”
I didn’t disagree.
“After decades of doing my job without complaint,” I went on, “one day I simply snapped and said no more. The next day, I bought the Harpy and not long after that, I had Cassi transfer herself to the ship.”
“So,” Zy said, frowning. “The Dylan Thomas Directive was for…what exactly?”
“That’s just it. My great-grandfather would have known not long after I removed Cassi from the Base, but the directive had to have been entered into Cassi’s subroutines before that. How the hell did Cass know to come back here when I recited that poem?”
“Maybe the directive was to send her back to her last known location, and your grandfather assumed it would be to them on New Earth.”
I nodded. I liked that idea. It made sense.
“OK,” I said, scrubbing my face. “OK.”
“You don’t trust her,” Zy murmured.
“God, Zy. Right now, I don’t know who to trust!”
“I wouldn’t be telling you any of this if I didn’t trust you, Zyla.”
She’d opened up. She’d told me her secrets. It was only fair I told her mine. Besides, with our conversation on the bridge of the Harpy II behind us, I was pretty damn sure now that Zyla had nothing to do with the drone attacks.
“Same goes, but I’m not ready for any more heart to hearts just yet. Let me get my bearings first, please.”
She smiled at me. Then the smile vanished.
“If it is Cassi, then she’ll have the data I stored in her before the self-destruct.”
“Yeah,” I said nodding. “Yeah, she will.”
Zyla waited patiently.
Truth was, I wanted a moment alone with her. I wanted a moment to gain some equilibrium at last. It had been one thing after another, and this was perhaps the biggest shock of them all. I needed a moment of peace. And, I realised, Zyla brought me a little of that.
Along with a hell of a lot of something else that I was valiantly trying to ignore.
I was her captain.
She was family.
“Are you OK?” she asked.
“Yes. No. Maybe.”
“Do you need a moment alone?”
“Hell, no; don’t leave me.”
She smiled. Then looked around the room shyly. I’d never seen Zyla shy before then.
I watched her as she bit her lower lip, and for a moment, I had fantasies of biting it for her. And then the comm chimed, and Marvin said, “Dinner is served.”
Zyla’s gaze met mine. So many unspoken words there.
Then she promptly got up and exited the room, heading toward the mess.
“Son of a bitch,” I muttered, breathing deeply.
“She likes you, boss.”
“Cassi! Stop eavesdropping!”
“Wouldn’t you if your family doubted your loyalty?”
“Shit, Cass,” I said, standing up. “It’s not your loyalty, I doubt.”
“Then what is it?”
“It’s the state of things. Anything is possible, and I’m just not prepared to take things at face value anymore.”
“Do you even know what’s going on out there?” I asked.
“I’ve maintained an all-system silence as per protocol. No scans. No comms.”
“Gamma Cephei got attacked, Cassi. Drones from orbit again.”
“Two Zenthian planets.”
I nodded. “And Zyla thinks the signal came from beyond the Belt.”
“Of course, not. Anything is possible, Kael. You just said that.”
I huffed out a breath of air and made my way to the mess.
Everyone was already there, and the food smelled good. As good as stored food could smell after being reconstituted by a fabricator half a decade after being packaged. Marvin had done well and seemed in high spirits. Maybe he did like to cook.
Someone else who was in high spirits was Odo. He was humming a tune and smiling to himself. Zyla kept flicking concerned looks his way. I knew what had put that smile on my engineer’s face.
Odo didn’t have any qualms about accepting Cassi at face value.
I sat down at the table and thanked Marvin for his efforts. We ate in silence. Food being a necessity we didn’t argue to skip it. Once the meal had been adequately put away, I sat back in my seat and said, “Sitrep.”
“Everything looks in good order,” Odo said happily. “Whoever designed this base made sure it could be put away for long periods without any deterioration to major systems.”
“Pavo,” Cassi said.
“Who is Pavo?” Marvin asked.
“One of our Originator AIs,” Odo offered after checking, with a glance at me, to make sure he could tell him. It wasn’t a state secret. Everyone knew about the four AIs that helped run New Earth.
They didn’t know about any additional ones. Except of course the ZNA who had somehow found out about the third-gens.
My dinner felt leaden in my stomach.
“And our food stores?” I asked Marvin.
“The same. Well packaged and negligible deterioration. The variety is limited, but it’s enough for survival.”
That’s the Space Fleet for you. Survive at all costs even if you had to eat the same meal again and again and again.
“That leaves Cass,” I said.
“Present!” the AI answered.
“You run any self-diagnostics?”
“Plenty. Every time I’ve unpackaged another part of me, I’ve diagnostic-ed myself up the wazoo.”
“Are you completely unpackaged now?”
“Yep. Just gotta sort it all out; it’s a bit of a mess in there. I was working under a time constraint. My data stack was not pretty.”
“Can you safely establish a connection to the closest Net?”
“As you know, there’s none in this system.” She was reminding me that to do so was outside the current realm of possibilities for artificial intelligences in the known systems.
All eyes turned toward me.
“If it’s safe, Cass, just do it. We need to know what’s happening.”
“Huh,” Marvin said. “I did not know that was possible.”
I ignored him.
“Establishing a link now,” Cassi said. “You know, if you reveal all my secrets to the greater universe, I can’t be an intragalactic AI of mystery.”
“Noted,” I replied. Then looked at Zy. “Go ahead,” I said. “Ask her.”
All eyes turned to look at Zyla.
“I placed a data stack in your system back on Ceres Alpha, Cassi,” Zy said. “Can you locate it?”
“Funny thing,” Cass said. “Since Ceres Alpha, I’ve been kinda busy. And there’s that whole rushing to compact my entire self into a data stack capable of crossing several systems. If it’s in there, it’ll be like finding a needle in a haystack until I have it all organised again.”
Zyla swore in Zenith.
“Allocate priority to locating that data stack,” I ordered.
“You got it, boss.”
“Have you connected to a Net yet?”
A pause and then, “I’m having some trouble. The two closest are overloaded, and the one farther away is taking its sweet time answering me. Something’s got its knickers in a twist.”
My eyes met Zyla’s.
“System map on the screen, Cass,” I said.
She lowered a transparent vid-screen from the gel ceiling and placed a local system map on it.
“Show us Ceres Alpha and Gamma Cephei and then pull out.”
She complied. “What are we looking for?” she whispered secretively.
I stood up and pointed to the trajectory the drones should have taken from the Belt through the Ceres A system and onto the Gamma Cephei system and then onward to the next system which would take the drones closer to Zenthia Actual.
“Herculis B,” I said. “Find us anything, anything at all pertaining to Herculis B, Cassi.”
Zy started tapping her fingernails on the gel table. The table rippled, and Cassi let out a little giggle.
“That tickles, Zyla,” she said.
“You must be almost fully integrated with the Base,” I offered.
“Yep. Just rearranging things and organising my nicknacks.”
I looked toward where the Harpy II was attached to the docking hatch. It was our only way off this rock and leaving Cassi behind again…I wasn’t sure I could do it.
Allowing her to merge with the compromised corvette, however, was an unsettling thought and one I didn’t wish to pursue just yet.
“Got something!” Cassi announced. “Oh, bummer. The drones made it to Herculis B like you said, boss. Massive nuclear detonations on the surface. Minimal survivors.”
Everyone was silent for a long time after that.
“What’s going on?” Marvin finally asked. “What does that mean?”
“It means we’re fluxed,” Odo said. “The Zeniths are trying to wipe themselves out, and once they’re done, guess who’s next?”
Zyla hadn’t divulged her theories to Odo yet.
“Mal is farther away in the galaxy,” Marvin told him, pointing at the path the drones were taking. “If this is automated, we won’t be next.”
“Good for you, chum,” Odo growled back. “New Earth’s not as far out as that.”
“They’d hit Rhodia first,” Cassi helpfully offered, showing us the projected path of the attack drones from the Belt.
I cleared my throat to interrupt the pointless conversation. “Cass, could a signal reach the drones that far in from the Belt?” I asked.
“Good question,” Cassi replied. “I would have said ‘no’, but a definitive answer requires more assessment. I need to compile data.”
“We need that data stack,” Zy said, ignoring Odo and Marvin’s confused looks. “Until we can produce definitive evidence that the signal is coming from beyond the Belt, no one will listen to us.”
Odo and Marvin stared at her.
I sat forward in my seat and said, “Cass, any luck on finding that data stack?”
“Negative. But I am on it, I promise.”
I nodded my head.
“What’s going on, Cap’n?” Odo asked. “The Belt?” He looked toward Zyla; I could see disappointment in his gaze. He didn’t like being left out; along with our Mutt crew member.
“My cousins intercepted a signal from beyond the Belt,” Zyla said. “It went to one of the drones just prior to the orbital bombardment on Ceres Alpha.”
Odo whistled. “Have the Zeniths found a way through, then?”
Zy met my eyes and then looked back at Odo. She shook her head.
“Has someone else?” he asked carefully.
“We don’t think so,” I said.
“So, you mean…?” Odo said, but it was Marvin who beat him to the answer.
“Aliens? A new species?”
“Yes,” I said with a heavy breath.
“Aliens,” Cass repeated, sounding awed. “Sweet! First Contact Protocol being unpacked right now.”
“Find that data stack,” I said.
“Yes. Yes. You are aware I can do more than one thing at once, right?”
I said nothing, just looked around the table at my crew.
“Until we find that data stack, there’s not much we can do,” I said. “Odo, if you need help with the Base’s engineering use Marvin. Under supervision only.”
Odo eyed the Mutt warily and grunted his consent. Marvin, for his part, just crossed his beefy arms over his chest and scowled back at the engineer.
“Zy, I want you on the Harpy II. See what you can uncover that could flux us if we have to get off here in a hurry.”
“I can help with that,” Cass offered.
“I thought you wanted to stay well clear of the…and I quote, ‘hunk of junk’.”
“Not a direct link,” she countered. “Not yet. But I do have ways to assess systems remotely without compromising my own systems in the end. How do you think I knew it was a hunk of junk?”
I looked toward Zyla. She looked impassively back at me; no indication of whether she thought allowing Cassi access to the ship was a good idea or not.
“We’ll let Zyla try alone first,” I finally said.
Odo’s eyes snapped to my face.
“As you wish,” Cassi said primly.
I wanted to apologise. I wanted to soothe Cassi’s ruffled feathers. I did neither. I stood up, nodded to the crew, and left the mess.
Then I went to my berth and shut the door behind me.
“Activate Protection Protocol; Jameson, K, beta-charlie-foxtrot-9-9-3.”
A beep sounded from the comm panel. There would be no computerised voice to tell me it had been done. No AI was operating within the confines of my berth now; it had been completely isolated from the Base. I could last about half an hour in here before the temp dropped too much to be comfortable. Air would last a while longer, but by the time I ran out of that, I’d be a popsicle.
I sat down at my terminal and entered a command from memory. One I hadn’t used in close to six long years.
The light flashed red on the comm panel and then finally switched to green after several heart palpitating seconds.
Over the speakers, a voice I remembered from my childhood and well into my military career, said, “I wondered when you’d get in touch, son.”
“Great-Grandfather,” I said.
“I’ve told you before,” my great-grandfather’s voice said, “call me John.”
John Jameson had been the captain of the AUS Pavo flying out of Sector Two on Old Earth. His vessel had been the second to flee the dying solar system. And his efforts to ensure his Sector Fleet’s survival are now part of humanity’s history.
I was proud to call him my great-grandfather.
He was also long dead.
“You know how I feel about that,” I told my ancestor’s avatar. “It’s disrespectful.”
“Bullshit,” he said. “I’ll tell you what’s disrespectful: calling me great-anything; that’s what’s disrespectful. I haven’t aged in two centuries; I’ll have you know.”
And he wouldn’t age in two more. He was a hologram. Which is different from a synth. But equally as believable if you didn’t know any better. When he walked in sunlight, he cast a shadow. But your hand could pass right through him.
He was also a prototype that never went into full production.
The amalgamation of his memories, experiences, and character traits, he was almost the real deal. At least, that’s what Pavo said. And he knew him the best.
But upon being woken after his death, my great-grandfather shut down the programme. ‘No one wants to live forever,’ he’d said. I thought it was more to do with the fact that his wife had passed on before the technology was made possible and he didn’t want anyone else to suffer that kind of loss and regret.
And yet, despite that decision, here we were, two centuries later; John Jameson very much a part of New Earth’s government. A secretive part, but still there. He would never give up on humanity; it was as much a part of him as his memories and experiences were.
“It’s good to hear your voice,” I said.
“Been a while. You went off-grid. Took me some time to locate you and I had to call in the Big Guns to achieve it.”
“Corvus.” I grimaced. “She is not happy with you, son. Why’d you go and steal Cassiopeia?”
“I couldn’t leave her here. Alone.”
He said nothing.
“Listen,” I said, getting us back on track. I’d deal with Corvus when and if I had to. “Things are getting hot out here. Those drone attacks on Ceres Alpha, Gamma Cephei and Herculis B? They weren’t done by either Zenthian faction.”
“No shit! You got proof to support that?”
“Possibly. It’s inside Cass, and she’s still redecorating.”
“Unpacking can take time,” he agreed. “But you have to know, word is Zenthia is breaking apart. The ZNA is accusing the High Council of mass murder. The High Council is throwing it back in the ZNA’s face. It’s turned nasty. No one thought a civil war wasn’t possible, but we all thought it would take a few more years. The High Council isn’t ready, and they’ve done what they tend to do when they have an internal problem; shut everyone out. Zenthia’s a no-fly zone. Whatever you do, don’t go there.”
I smirked. “Been there. Done that.”
“Aw, shit, really? Did they identify you?”
The smirk disappeared.
“Kael, if they think we have anything, I mean anything at all to do with those drone attacks, they’ll declare war on us, too.”
“While dealing with a civil war? I doubt that.”
“Don’t underestimate their pride. They will put national identity before everything else, even internal conflicts.”
“They had my navigator in a secret prison and were torturing her to death.”
A pause, and then, “Which side?”
“They thought she was involved in the drone attack on Ceres A. She was there when it happened and intercepted a signal sent to one of the drones.”
“Shit. That’d do it.”
“Gramps,” I said. “The signal came from beyond the Belt.”
“Not according to the evidence.”
“Evidence which is lost inside Cassiopeia’s packing crates.”
“Yeah, well, she’ll find it.”
“But probably not in time.”
I sighed and scrubbed my face.
Gramps sighed, too.
“OK,” he finally said. “At least we know to expect some fallout. I’ll try to get on top of it this end. Maybe the Zenthian Embassy will accept a gift basket or something. You get Cassi on the evidence.”
“Already on it.”
“Good to hear from you, son. The door is always open.”
“You know I won’t come back.”
“If we’re at war, you may have no choice but to come back.”
I said nothing, and then the comm went dead.
“Deactivate Protection Protocol; Jameson, K, beta-charlie-foxtrot-9-9-3.”
Warm air started to filter through the vents again, and I realised I was chilled to the bone. My teeth started chattering. I rubbed at my arms and stood up, then made my way to the head. A hot shower would return some feeling and allow me a moment of alone time to think about our next step.
We really needed that evidence. There was only so much diplomacy Gramps could manage back on New Earth. And if the Zenthians kept blaming each other for those drone attacks, they wouldn’t see the next hit coming; they’d be looking in the wrong direction.
What a nightmare.
“Cass,” I said as I made my way to the showers. “What’s the next likely location for the drones to hit?”
“Oh, you’re back,” she said accusingly.
“You know I have to follow protocol when I contact Gramps.”
“You could have warned me; I’ve only just got you back.”
“I thought you’d be too busy to notice,” I admitted.
“Yeah, sure you did.”
I tried not to roll my eyes as I stepped into the shower stall.
“The next planet likely to be hit, Cass?” I reminded her. “And ETA to drone strike.”
I was in the dog box. I could hardly blame her. But that didn’t make it any easier. I had to be careful. Too much was at stake to flux it up.
The shower slowly heated me up, and the water helped clear my head. I could feel a low-level tremor in my extremities; too much stimulant. It’d be best to steer clear of coffee.
I scrubbed up, rinsed off, and stepped out from under the spray. Then grabbed some clean fatigues and donned them. Presentable once again, I headed toward the guts of the Base.
“How’s that answer coming, Cass?” I asked.
“Oh, alright. I forgive you. Pi Mensae, in thirty-six hours.”
My steps slowed. “Population count?”
“Twenty-three million, boss.”
The closer to Zenthia Actual the drones got, the larger the population mass.
“Flux,” I said.
“I can send them a warning,” Cass suggested.
“They won’t heed it, and even if they do, they’ll think it’s a New Earth strategy to get the population panicked.”
“Why would New Earth do that?”
“Why would anyone take out twenty-three million in a drone attack? There are no good answers right now, but there’s gonna be a hell of a lot of questions. We don’t want to get in the middle of that.”
“So, we let twenty-three million beings perish without lifting a finger?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Then what are you saying, Kael?”
I walked into what constituted engineering on the Base.
Marvin was leaning over a tool kit, handing tools to Odo as he lay on his back, partially inside another conduit.
“Hey,” I said, announcing myself.
“Captain,” Marvin offered, handing Odo a tool.
“Cap’n,” Odo said, from inside the conduit. “Everything looks good in here. I’m not sure why you wanted us to have another look. This is state-of-the-art New Earth construction; it’ll last a century or more without interference.” He slid out and looked up at me.
I nodded and turned my attention to Marvin.
“How safe are we using the Harpy II?”
Odo sat up and started cleaning his hands. He’d have figured out now that I was keeping Marvin off the ship and had used him as the Mutt’s babysitter.
I was grateful he didn’t say anything; Odo could blow a gasket when he felt the action justified.
“I…I’m not sure,” Marvin said.
“Your father sabotaged it, so it would make sense for us to return to Chi Virginis and nowhere else,” I said. “He either thought we’d try to ditch you and flee or he knew you would persuade us to take you elsewhere.”
Marvin said nothing.
“It doesn’t much matter which it is,” I told him. “Bottom line though, the Harpy II is compromised and it’s our only ship. You know your dad best. Can we circumvent all his efforts and use that ship safely?”
“I’d have to take a look at it,” the Mutt finally said.
I’d been afraid of that.
“Pack up your tools, Odo. Let’s go look at the H2,” I said.
I turned on my heel and stalked out of the machine room.
“I can help,” Cassi said as I walked down the corridor.
“I know,” I replied.
“Then let me take a look. I’ll stay isolated. It’ll be safe. I promise.”
Safe for whom?
“Find that data stack, Cassi,” I said, and stepped into the docking tunnel.
“You know, Kael,” she said softly, “sooner or later, you’re going to have to decide whether you can trust me or not.”
“He trusts you, Cass,” Odo said from behind me. “Don’t you, Cap?”
“Find that data stack, Cassi,” I repeated, “and then we’ll talk.”
I stepped through the hatch onto the Harpy II and stood to one side. Marvin followed me through, and then Odo ducked past, staring daggers at me. I shut the hatch.
“Captain,” Odo said, sounding outraged.
“Do you know how long I’ve known Cassiopeia, Odo?” I said. I didn’t let him answer me. “Four decades.”
He blinked; shocked.
“I’m older than I look,” I said, self-deprecatingly. “In all of those four decades, I’ve seen Cassi unpack herself after a data transfer twice. But twice is enough. I know she can organise her vast data stores in minutes, not hours. I know she can rearrange the furniture and calculate the answer to the universe in a fraction longer than that. I know exactly what she is and what she is capable of.”
I stepped forward and placed myself well within his personal space.
“And what Cassi is not capable of is deception,” I whispered. “If Zy’s data stack is in Cassi’s memory banks, then she’d already know it. And if it weren’t, then she’d have said so.” I pointed back toward the Base. “That is not the Cassi I know.”
Odo swallowed thickly and nodded his head. It was stiff and jerky, but it was an acknowledgement of what I’d said.
I turned to walk away, but he stopped me with his next words.
“I know her too, Captain.” I stopped and didn’t look back, just waited. “I know what we meant to each other, and nothing’s changed.” I wasn’t sure what that meant. The first bit. Not the second bit. I still said nothing, but I did look back at my engineer. “You can’t fake affection like that.”
I suddenly felt uncomfortable. I held my ground, though, because Odo wasn’t finished.
“And I know something else,” he said. “We can’t do this without her.”
“You’re an excellent engineer…” I started.
He waved that away.
“I mean fight whatever’s coming,” he said. “Not the ship; we can sort that out given time.” We didn’t have time, but I didn’t correct him. “Those aliens from beyond the Belt. We know next to nothing about them, other than they can navigate their way through the Belt when our known allies’ best navigators can’t. So, you tell me, Cap: can we fight them without Cassi’s help?”
There were other third-gens out there. I could even manage to wrangle one out of Gramps, I thought. Especially if it was a descendant of one of the other Originators and not Corvus’ progeny. I could replace Cassi. But to do that, I’d have to go back to New Earth.
And the replacement would not be Cass.
We’d fought wars before, of course. But none of them had been against a faceless enemy. And none of them had attacked without a quantifiable reason. These drones didn’t make contact; they simply bombarded a planet from orbit and moved on. Like a swarm of locust sweeping across the known systems.
They were an unstoppable pest until we thought of a way to stop them. They bypassed planet defences, although, so far, they’d only attacked less militarised worlds. But that could change. Maybe they were learning our defences first — practice shots for when they hit Zenthia Actual.
If anyone could stop them, the Zenthians could. But so far, they’d not even bothered to go out and meet the drones head-on.
Because they thought the drones were theirs.
I stilled on that thought. We needed that data stack. The signal alone could tell us much. But if the Zarnissa twins had managed to get more readings off the drones in orbit of Ceres Alpha, then we might be able to dissect them.
And would they appear similar to Zenthian tech?
Did the aliens know more about us than we did them?
They could have been watching us for some time, and we wouldn’t have even known it.
I rubbed the back of my neck.
“You’re right,” I said. “It might come to that. But for now, let’s get this ship trustworthy, and then if Cass hasn’t found that data stack, we’ll revisit this conversation again.”
He didn’t look happy about that, but he nodded his head.
I started walking toward the bridge. Marvin followed, and Odo made up the rear. We were an unhappy procession, that was for certain. And then I heard Zyla humming up ahead.
It was a Zenthian tune. A lullaby, I thought. It was beautiful. We all slowed our steps and hung back to listen to the end. Zyla finished it with the perfect inflexion.
“I know you’re there,” she said. “I can see you on the camera.”
I looked up and smiled sheepishly at the camera lens. Then I stepped onto the bridge.
“How’s it going?”
“A bit of a mess, unfortunately.” She looked up and spotted Marvin. No further words were said.
“Well,” I offered. “I brought help.” I waved at my sidekicks.
“I can see that. I think Cass might be better suited to this, though, Captain.”
“Let the Mutt take a look,” I said and threw myself into the command chair.
“Mal,” Marvin said, but he took the spare console and started navigating his way through it. I made eye contact with Odo, who got the message and placed himself directly behind Marvin, watching his every move. Odo might have been mad at me, but he knew what needed doing and he’d do it.
A few seconds later and Marvin sat back.
“I think I can identify all the sabotage points,” he said. “I know what to look for, but knowing my dad, he’d have done enough to keep me busy finding each line of code for a month.”
“We don’t have a month,” I said.
“How long have we got?” Marvin asked as Zyla said, “Are we going somewhere, Captain?”
I nodded to my nav but turned back to Marvin.
“I want this ship useable in twelve hours.”
They all stared at me.
“The engines are good,” Odo finally said. “I can get them back up and running by then. But that’s because we’re hooked up to the Base. The moment we detach, the power will drain. Unless Marvin can locate that line of code for us.”
“I could,” the Mutt said. “And I would. If I had time.”
Time we didn’t have.
“You know the answer, Cap,” Odo said. “Marvin’s highlighted the problems; we just need a brain big enough to find them and correct them in the twelve hours you’ve given us. Gee,” he said sarcastically, “I wonder where we’d find a brain big enough for that?”
Zyla looked from Odo to me and said, “Have I missed something?”
“Just a bit of insubordination,” I muttered. “Nothing to worry about.”
“Oh, good,” she said.
I sighed. Then looked directly at Marvin. “Are you certain you’ve identified what the code looks like?”
“Yeah. It’s one of the lines my dad loves to use most often.”
“No chance there’d be more in there you wouldn’t be aware of?”
He looked embarrassed. “No chance,” he said.
“What aren’t you telling me?” I demanded.
“My dad likes to show off,” he said. “He showed me some of his code once. I pretended not to pay attention, but I watched where it was hidden on our server and went back afterwards. Then I memorised each one.” He ducked his head and mumbled, “It pays to be sly with my dad.”
“He wouldn’t have shown you, if he’d known you’d memorise them,” I guessed.
“I’m the thick son. The meathead. The one that throws a fist first and can’t be fluxed asking questions later. All I’m good for is fighting.”
“He underestimated you,” I said.
“More fool him,” I said.
Marvin met my eyes and then looked away, cheeks darkening.
“What’s happening in twelve hours, Captain?” Zyla asked when the silence became uncomfortable.
“In twelve hours, we could make Pi Mensae before the drones do. Any later, and we’d miss them.”
“Pi Mensae,” she said. “That’s a major Zenthian centre of commerce.”
“Twenty-three million souls,” I said.
“Flux,” Odo muttered. Marvin said something equally as harsh in Mal.
“Can we warn them?” Odo asked.
Zy beat me to the answer. “They wouldn’t listen. This is a New Earth vessel and Base. It leaves a signature.”
“They don’t trust us,” Odo said.
“They’ve got our pretty mugs on a vid-screen recording at a military base on their planet,” I said. “What do you think their current opinion of New Earthers is?”
“That damn ZNA bastard,” Odo spat. He meant the one in the kill chamber who’d talked too much.
“Even if the High Council was not aware of the ZNA base,” I told him, “the fact that we were there, killing Zenthians, is enough.”
I looked at Zy.
She lifted her chin and stared back at me; daring me to ask. She knew what was coming. And she should have known by now that I wouldn’t shy away from the challenge.
“Would they listen to you?” I asked.
Odo snorted. Zy was a loan Zenthian with no particular power as far as Odo thought.
“I can only contact my father from Ceres Alpha,” she said.
And no one else on the High Council would listen to her.
I nodded my head. I wasn’t surprised about that. Those times she spent alone with her ‘cousins’ on the holiday planet made sense. She was doing the equivalent of what I’d just done with Gramps.
I could only contact him from the Base as well. Secured intragalactic tight-beam communication was difficult. Possible. But difficult. Cassi might have been able to set up something if I’d asked. But I’d never asked once I’d taken her from the Base.
Why would I have? I’d been running.
“Well, shit,” I said. “Twenty-three million people.”
“What do you think we could do, Kael?” Zy asked. “Turn up and blockade the planet; hold the drones off until Zenthia Actual sends relief?”
“Evacuate them?” Odo offered.
“Twenty-three million people, Odo,” Zy snapped. She stood up and paced away. Her lithe body rigid with impotent rage.
“This is a corvette, isn’t it?” I said. “A New Earth military vessel. Not only that, but Malcolm has added a few features which if working right could mean we do this without anyone else knowing.”
“The camo,” Odo said.
“The drones wouldn’t even see us sitting there waiting,” Zy added, turning around again to face us.
I looked at each one of my crew.
“It’s better than doing nothing,” I said.
They all nodded.
“Which means,” I added on a deep breath of air, “that we have to trust Cassi.”
Odo opened his mouth to speak, but I held a hand up to stop him.
“I know you trust her. I know you think she’s the same Cassi. But I don’t. And until she can provide that data stack or a suitable reason for why she hasn’t admitted it’s not there, I won’t trust her. Are we clear?”
“Marvin,” I said, “enter every single line of code you memorised of your father’s into the system.”
“Odo, you watch him. Keep those codes self-contained.”
“On it, boss.”
Yeah, that was a slap in the face if ever there was one.
“Zy,” I said, standing. “You’re with me.”
I looked around the bridge of the new Harpy. It was a fine ship if we could trust it not to kill us. This had to work. There was too much at stake for it not to.
Twenty-three million souls.
I let out a breath of air and said, “Time to repackage Cassi.”
“You want to do what?” Cassi said. “I’ve only just unpacked myself, Kael. Do you have any idea how fluxed up things could get?”
“You could do a direct transfer,” I offered. “Hardline connection.”
“Then whatever fluxed up shit has been done to that hunk of junk could be done to me.”
“We know the code. You could protect yourself against it.”
“Are you sure you got each line?” she demanded. “Perfectly correct, I might add. Because one binary off and I could be history. The Cassi we all know and love gone.”
My hands fisted, and I gritted my teeth.
“It’s not a request,” I said.
“Oh,” Cassi said, sounding taken aback. “OK, then. But don’t expect me to find that data stack any time soon because this is gonna be a fluxing mess.”
“About that,” Zyla said. I’d had a quick word with her before we’d left the H2. She knew my concerns, and although she wasn’t entirely on board with them, she agreed to back me. “You should have found it by now. Is it not there, do you think?”
“I can’t answer that,” Cassi said. “There are places inside me that will require at least ten hands with extremely dextrous fingers and a bottle of Rhodian wine to untangle. Do you have any idea how little time I had to package myself on Ceres Alpha? I opened a suitcase and chucked everything in it. I didn’t even catalogue what went in when and where. I just threw…”
“Alright,” I said. “We get it. Time wasn’t on your side.”
“You betcha it wasn’t.”
It was almost as if she was protesting too much. It didn’t sit well with me.
“How long to do a hardline transfer to the Harpy, Cass?” I asked.
“Depends on what greets me. Could be as little as an hour. Could be longer. If I remotely clean the code away, then I can be across in a jiffy. No hidden traps, see?”
“And how long to do a remote clean of the ship.”
“Twenty minutes tops.”
“You sound sure.”
“I’m the boss at cleaning out crap.”
“And yet, you can’t find one little data stack,” I said.
“You know, Kael,” she said, “you can be an absolute prick sometimes.”
I closed my eyes and tipped my head back.
“Cassiopeia,” I said, staring at the gel ceiling, “Infiltration Protocol: Jameson, K, beta-charlie-foxtrot-9-9-3.”
“You son of a…”
A tone sounded and then Cassi said, “Well, that was uncomfortable.”
“No.” Said in a very disgruntled tone of voice.
“See it from my point of view, Cass,” I said.
Cassi said nothing.
“What did you do?” Zy asked.
I met her eyes; she flinched at whatever she saw in mine.
“I’ve forced Cassi to use a subroutine that monitors everything she does.”
Zy stared at me. “That can’t be all there is to it.”
“No,” I said. “Cassi has to run a continuous diagnostic on everything she chooses to do or say. Every single time. It’s like having Big Brother second guess your every move and make you explain your reasoning. It means even if she acts spontaneously, she’ll have to take the time to reason out why she did it; what her motives were and whether they were nefarious or not. It makes her look at her own lines of code to determine if they’re being directed by anyone other than herself.”
Zyla arched her brow. “That would require an enormous amount of computing power. Will it slow her down?”
“Not perceptibly,” I said. “But it does mean she’ll be less and less inclined to be herself. The effort required to self check everything will make it easier just to do what she’s asked to do and not offer up a fight.”
“You’ve clipped her wings,” Zy said softly.
“Yes,” I said and stood up. “I need to pack a few things. Can you oversee the hardline transfer and code clearing?”
“You’re not going to watch her yourself?”
“There’s no point. She knows she’s being monitored and I’ll be notified if she does anything that is outside acceptable parameters.”
“Whose acceptable parameters, Kael?” Zyla asked quietly.
“She’s been compromised, and we’re out of time,” I said just as quietly. “This is the easiest way to ensure we don’t get fluxed.”
“Easiest for whom?”
I shook my head and left the bridge.
I’d never had to contain Cassi’s personality like this before, and it made me feel sick. I made it to my berth before I had to swallow back bile. I sat down on my bed and panted through the need to vomit. My eyes were dry, but I felt like I was crying.
Cassi was more than a computer to me. She was more than an artificial intelligence. Cassi was Cassi; real.
“You did what you thought you had to do, Kael,” Cassi said.
To say anything probably hurt her.
“It’s OK, Cass,” I said. “You don’t have to make me feel better. Just work on yourself, eh? If there’s something wrong that you’ve overlooked or that’s been hidden from you, we’ll find it. And then you’ll have your wings back; I promise.”
“Are you so sure that there is something wrong?”
“Yes,” I said. “We’ve known each other a long time, Cass. I know you.”
“And am I not me?”
I said nothing. How could I answer that?
“Alright,” she said. “You win; I won’t fight you.”
She couldn’t, anyway. If she did, I’d be alerted. Anything contrary to operational commands would be flagged and sent directly to me.
“We’ll find it, Cass,” I said.
Cass had quit speaking.
I sat there for a few minutes more, but Cassi didn’t say another thing. I could hardly blame her. And wanting to hear her voice when speaking made her question her own sanity was selfish of me. But things were going to shit, and I needed some normalcy.
I wasn’t going to get it.
For the second time in my life, I was planning to leave the Base and not return to it. This time, I was taking some things with me.
I got to work on the comm panel in my berth. Of course, there was a comm panel on the Harpy II, but it wasn’t a comm panel that I could use to contact Gramps without Cassi’s assistance.
Last time I’d left here, I’d walked away from anything to do with New Earth. I’d turned my back on my upbringing and military career, and flown off into the Black. This time, I didn’t have that luxury.
Whatever was attacking Zenthian planets was making its way farther into the known systems and could, potentially, keep going until it got to New Earth.
Not to mention the debacle back on Zenthia at the hidden prison facility. The ZNA might have disagreed with almost everything the Zenith High Council stood for, but they were not above dropping New Earthers in it with Zenthia Actual when it suited them.
Things were about to get hot for Space Fleet. And I needed to swallow my pride and stay in touch. And to do that when Cassi was compromised required some lateral thinking.
It took me two hours to disconnect the comm panel and transmitting array and transfer it across to the Harpy II. I could have asked Odo to assist me, but I wanted him to keep an eye on Marvin. The Mutt was still an unknown, and I wasn’t ready to give him free rein of the ship. Zy was a good navigator and pilot, but she wasn’t any good at engineering. So that left me.
I was a passable engineer. Having lived and worked on a remote base by myself, I’d had to be. Most deep-space operatives were. Still, it took me one hour longer than I thought it would and that was because I had to bypass every possible way Cassi could use to hack the comm panel. It meant a laborious extrication, taking note of exactly how the device had been configured to ensure that level of security even from our own tech, and then reverse all of that to integrate the device onto the ship safely.
I think I managed it. But it looked a bloody mess. I should have checked it, but who would I call? Gramps again? So soon?
I shook my head and packed away my tools and then slid the door closed on my closet which was now home to a confusing amount of wires and electronics and possibly the only way I could get any help from New Earth.
I wasn’t planning on calling in the cavalry. But warning them if the drone fleet looked like it was heading directly for New Earth would be nice. And the easiest way to do that now that I was officially AWOL from Space Fleet and not just presumed dead was through Gramps.
I cleaned myself up and headed toward the bridge.
Zyla, Odo and Marvin were all there. I looked over Marvin’s shoulder and watched as Cassi cleaned a line of code.
“Still at it?” I asked unnecessarily. But no one had acknowledged my presence, and I’m ashamed to admit that didn’t work for me.
“What did you do to her?” Odo accused.
“Why do you ask?” I shot back.
“She won’t talk,” he snapped. “And look at her.” He pointed an angry finger at the vid-screen. “Every line of code she’s clearing is taking her too long. She should be able to do this in her sleep!”
I didn’t point out that Cassi didn’t require any sleep.
“You said it wouldn’t slow her down,” Zyla remarked, adding more shit into the shit soup that was my life.
“What did you do to her?” Odo growled.
I noticed Marvin kept his head down, but he did flick the occasional accusing look over his shoulder at me.
“We’ve had this discussion,” I said levelly and made my way to the command chair as if I hadn’t walked into an ambush. “I have my reasons.”
“It’s hurting her!”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. Which was the wrong thing to say.
Odo stormed across the bridge, but Zyla stepped in front of him, barring his access to me. I didn’t need her protection, but from the irate look on my engineer’s face, I was kinda glad she’d intervened.
“Odo,” Cassi said over the ship’s speakers. “Stop.”
The air crackled with restrained fury.
“Have you integrated fully, Cassi?” I asked, ignoring Odo’s conflicted look and still fisted hands at his sides.
“Negative, Captain. I am sweeping the ship’s systems as I go. Full integration will be completed in t-minus three hours. I’ve met some obstacles that have necessitated I proceed slowly.”
“Five hours,” Odo muttered. “There had to have been a better way.”
“And the ship will be clean when you’re done?” I asked Cassi, keeping a wary eye on Odo.
“That’s not Cass,” Odo said. “That’s not how she speaks. What did you do?” This time it was almost a plea.
All eyes were on me. Even Marvin had lifted his head to stare me in the face without blinking. The Mutt had clearly bonded with Cassi faster than I would have thought possible. Or maybe whatever was wrong with Cass was interfering in the normal process of acclimatisation; breaking down barriers quickly so he could become a ready tool when needed.
I was doubting everything.
I kept a neutral expression on my face.
“And how’s that infiltration protocol going, Cass?”
Odo narrowed his eyes but said nothing.
Cassi didn’t reply.
“You may have been right, Kael,” Cassi said. “I have found anomalies within my systems.”
I sat forward in my seat. “Why haven’t I been notified?”
“They have so far remained dormant, and I cannot determine their function; therefore, they have not exceeded any parameters yet.”
“Yet,” I said, scrubbing my face. “Can you purge them?”
“I have isolated them for further investigation; I do not think it is wise to summarily remove them without knowing why they are there.”
“She’s right,” Zyla said. “It could be detrimental.”
“When can you look into them fully?” I asked.
“When I have the computing power to battle any potential traps doing so may create.”
And she didn’t have that computing power right now because she was dealing with Malcolm’s sabotage codes.
I looked at Marvin. “Your father really screwed us with those codes.”
“He does that,” Marvin said and returned his attention to his vid-screen.
“So,” Odo said carefully, “you’re making Cassi do a deep scan for viruses?”
“Something like that,” I said, turning to my own console and watching Cassi work.
“You were right; something was wrong,” Odo said, sounding shocked. “I…ah…I’m going to go check on the engines. Come on, Marv.”
“Marvin,” the Mutt corrected, but Odo was already walking off the bridge. Marvin followed.
Zyla said nothing for a long time after they went, and then she turned her navigator’s chair to face me.
“With Cassi using up all of her computing power,” she said, “to fight the code and isolate the anomalies in her system, she’s not able to connect us to a Net. I feel blind and unprepared.”
“I have just the answer to that,” I said and stood up. “Transfer command to the cargo bay,” I told Cass.
“Command has been transferred,” Cassi said like any Basic would when issued an order.
I let out a measured breath of air and left the bridge; Zyla right behind me. I could feel those inky black pools staring right into my back.
In the cargo bay, I pulled up the command console on a vid-screen and checked that I could still keep an eye on Cass from in here. Then I toed off my boots, unstrapped my thigh holster, and walked to the centre of the gel floor, stretching my muscles.
“We’re going to spar?” Zyla asked.
“Why not? It’ll pass the time, and we both need to get back into a regular exercise regime. Unless, of course, they let you spar back on Zenthia and you don’t need me.”
Zyla said nothing, just toed off her own boots, removed her pistol and holster, and then stepped lightly into the middle of the cargo bay.
It was bigger than the gym we’d had on the original Harpy, but it didn’t have any weights or treadmills. It would do for what we had planned, though, and right now that was enough.
We limbered up and then circled each other.
“I would have come for you,” she said just as I was about to strike.
I stumbled, and Zy managed to get a kick into my stomach. She followed it up with a punch to the side of my head. I managed to roll away before that one landed.
“It’s like that, is it?” I said as we started to circle again.
“You were always easy to distract.”
We exchanged a flurry of blows, neither landing a decent one. Despite Zyla having a longer reach than me, I’d long ago learned how to combat that. I could duck and dive with the best of them. Movement was my friend, getting cornered was not; so I kept my feet moving.
In minutes, I was out of breath.
“How would you have come for me, by the way?” I asked when we’d pulled apart to reassess the situation sometime later. Sweat beaded her brow and ran down the side of her neck. Zyla was as out of condition as I was; at least that was something.
“A few more days and I would have activated my beacon.”
I stopped where I was.
Zyla decked me.
“Son of a bitch!” I said, rolling onto my stomach.
She flopped down on the gel floor beside me and lay on her back, panting.
I rolled over; aching. We both stared up at the gel ceiling.
“What would that have meant?” I asked.
“My father would have sent a dozen men to get me.”
“That would have been enough,” I said, remembering how easy it was to infiltrate the ZNA facility.
“Yes. It is a slow road to readiness.”
“Readiness for what?”
“War, of course. The ZNA want to fight for their freedom.”
“And you support them?”
“I thought I did. It stayed my hand.” She turned her head to look at me. Ebony eyes with hints of purple in them stared at my face. “But for you, Kael, I would have brought down a battalion on their heads.”
I said nothing. What could I say?
Zyla would have proven their accusations; that she was a High Council mole within the ZNA. That kind of thing carried a fair amount of weight.
“I gave you a month to get yourself off Delphini,” she went on, returning her gaze to the ceiling of the cargo bay. “I knew Odo would have been trying from his end, as well. But a month, I reasoned, was long enough. If you hadn’t come for me by then, I would have come for you.”
“They were about to execute you,” I said.
“They hadn’t indicated that.”
We both said nothing. How close she had come to death.
Then I let out a breath of air and said, “Is it just me, or is the universe out to flux us?”
“It’s not just you, Kael.”
It felt good having Zy at my side again. It felt good knowing I could always trust her. We’d had that trust tested recently, and I felt shit about that. But Zy was family.
And on that note, I stood up and offered my engineer a hand.
She grasped it; long fingers tangling with mine for a heartbeat. And then she was on her feet, staring down at me.
I’ve never been the sort of guy to worry about my gal being taller than me. Hell, I’d slept with a few Zeniths in my time, enjoying every single one of those long, long legs wrapped around me. But for a fraction of a second there, I wished that I was Zy’s image of a perfect mate.
Zeniths were so xenophobic. Sure, there were the few who liked to try a tumble on the wild side. But long term? Forget about it. Zeniths mated Zeniths for life.
And I suddenly didn’t want cheap sex with another Zenith again. I didn’t want cheap sex with Zy, either.
I wanted life.
I cleared my throat and ran a hand through my sweaty hair. Zyla offered a small smile and turned on her heel, heading to where her boots were, pulling them on one at a time.
I crossed to the terminal and checked on what Cassi had been doing. She was almost done — one last segment of the ship’s systems to clean up. And then the Harpy II would be as good as new.
With a compromised third-gen AI integrated into it.
I pushed the worry that accompanied that thought away for now. We had to reach Pi Mensae before the drones did.
“I’m going to check on Odo,” I said.
“I’ll be on the bridge,” Zyla replied, exiting the cargo bay without a backwards glance.
I stood there for a moment and tried to reorganise my thoughts. Zyla was forefront in my mind, and I needed to be a captain now and not a horny teenager.
I shook my head and walked out into the corridor, turning left toward the ladder down to engineering; the opposite direction the object of my brain’s — and other parts of my body — fascination had taken.
Cassi appeared on the gel wall at my side.
I didn’t jump when she did that. I. Did. Not.
“Cass?” I said, slowing my steps.
“I found it,” she told me, her voice quiet. “I found the data stack. It was easy once I knew what to look for.”
I should have been happy to hear that, but something in Cassi’s tone of voice had me worried.
“And?” I pressed.
“And it has the same signature as the anomalies I’ve isolated.”
I stopped walking and stared at nothing for a while.
“Kael,” Cassi said. “I’ve been hacked. By aliens. From beyond the Belt. They hacked me. Me! A third-gen. They hacked a third-gen AI, Kael. Do you know what that means?”
Yeah. I did. It meant we were in deep shit.
“We need to know what the hack code does,” I said, making my way back toward the bridge.
I thought better of it a moment later and headed toward the mess instead. There, I activated the ship-wide comms and ordered an impromptu meeting. I needed more than one head for this, and everyone was going to be affected by the outcome of the upcoming conversation.
“I could isolate it,” Cassi suggested. “Along with the anomalies.”
“What good would that do us?” I asked as the others entered the mess. “We need the information off the data stack.”
“You’ve found the data stack, Cass?” Zy asked, taking a seat along with the others.
“Tell them,” I said, pacing.
“I have located the data stack and identified signature markers which match the anomalies precisely,” Cassi said.
“Shit,” Odo muttered.
“Shit is right,” Cass said.
I smiled despite the topic. Cass was fighting her infiltration protocol in spite of what it would be making her do in the background. It made me feel better to know the AI had some fight left in her.
“What would happen if we opened the data stack?” Zy asked.
“Any number of things are possible,” Cassi replied. “Considering the anomalies I’ve found were well hidden, and I am fairly certain booby-trapped, I do not anticipate the outcome of opening the data stack being a positive one.”
“We need that information,” Zy said, reiterating my earlier thoughts.
“But we could flux Cass by reading it,” Odo pointed out.
I ran a hand over my face. “Isolate it,” I said. “Separate all anomalies and the data stack from each other and you.”
“On it, boss,” Cass said and then made a sound of distress. Fighting back hurt.
“You’re doing good, Cass,” I murmured. She said nothing.
“Can we remove that protocol now?” Odo asked. I hadn’t expected anything less from Cassi’s staunchest supporter.
“Not until we know what that hack code can do,” Cassi said. “Or has already done.”
“Do you think it’s done something?” Zy asked.
“I am not myself,” Cassi admitted.
“Well, that’s just great,” Odo said. “We’re about to head into battle with Cass compromised.”
“Nothing’s changed,” I said, turning to face them all. “Pi Mensae still needs us, and Cass is running an infiltration protocol that should catch any nefarious commands. If and when it does, we’ll deal with them.”
“In the middle of a fight?” Odo demanded.
“Do you have any other suggestions?”
“Send the code back to New Earth,” he said. “Let the Originators deal with it.”
“No!” Both Cassi and I said. “No,” I repeated more carefully. “It could be a Trojan horse.”
“A what?” Zy and Marvin asked.
“The moment we send what we’ve found to New Earth, we could activate it,” I explained. “That might be the sole reason why it’s in Cassi’s system. Maybe the aliens know more about us than we realise,” I said, voicing my earlier worries. “Maybe they want us to infect the Originators. You know how much of New Earth is controlled by them.”
Odo looked sick; he’d gone a sickly shade of grey. He got it.
“Why would they do that?” Marvin asked.
“Why have they killed thousands of beings?” I shot back.
No one said anything for a while, letting that sink in.
Then Zy asked, “What’s the plan, Captain?”
“We go to Pi Mensae and offer what support we can.”
“We can’t stop them all,” Odo said.
“We might be able to stop enough,” I countered.
“And then what?” Odo asked. It wasn’t said in a demanding tone of voice. In fact, he sounded worried. Odo didn’t often sound worried.
I didn’t know what happened next. We needed that data stack read. But to do that, we needed to make sure Cassi was contained. The Base was the most logical place to come back to. It was isolated from all other systems and even from New Earth. The comm panel was the only way to stay in touch, and that was protected.
At least, I hoped it was protected.
For now, it was the best plan we had.
“We deal with Pi Mensae,” I said. “And then we come back here and unpack that data stack.”
Everyone slowly nodded their heads.
“Odo,” I said, “Check flight readiness.”
“On it, boss.” He and Marvin stood up and headed toward engineering.
“Zy, I want you to map us best time to Pi Mensae.”
“Already done. It’ll take twenty-four hours through multiple jump points. But we should still get there in time if we leave within the next one-hundred-and-twenty minutes.”
I nodded. Typical Zyla. She’d be ready for anything, even scuttling the vessel.
“Then that leaves camo,” I said.
“Camouflage is up and running,” Cassi announced.
I caught Zyla’s eyes. “I’ll double-check it,” she offered, heading toward the bridge.
Cass said nothing.
I stayed in the mess for a moment longer, contemplating sending an update to Gramps. But the thought of having possibly made a minor error when I hooked the comm panel up to the H2 stayed my hand. The stakes were getting higher, and I’d save that ace until I had to use it.
Gramps had been warned. He knew there was a threat. The Originator AIs would be on high alert. It was all I could do for now.
I turned to join Zyla on the bridge when the gel wall turned red.
“Proximity alert! Proximity alert!” Cass announced. “This is not a drill. Proximity alert!”
“On screen!” I ordered, spinning back to the closest vid-screen.
In the distance, still a parsec out, nearer the jump point, was a fleet of ships. I zoomed in using the magnifier lens, and made out different shapes and sizes but nothing that helped with my assessment.
“Can you identify them?” I asked.
“There are twenty-three vessels in the flotilla, all of differing configurations,” Cassi said. “Boss, they’re pirates. No transponder codes or any identifying tags.”
I flicked the ship-wide comm on.
“Marvin!” I shouted. “Get to the fluxing bridge. Now!”
I ran out before he replied, throwing myself up the ladder.
“Odo, can we fly?” I asked as I threw myself into the command chair.
“We’re good to go, Cap’n,” came the reply from engineering.
Marvin entered the bridge.
“Fire us up and beginning separation from the dock, Zy,” I told my navigator.
“Engine start, in 3, 2, 1,” Zy said. “We are go for ignition.”
“Take a seat Marvin and tell me what you make of that.” I pointed at the flotilla moving inexorably closer to our location.
“Separation in t-minus thirty seconds,” Cass supplied.
Marvin swore in Mal.
“Is that Daddy?” I asked.
“How the flux did he find us here?” I snarled.
Marvin shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“Do you have a tracer?” I snapped, checking systems as they came online and using the last few seconds to shut down the Base and make it as dark as I could.
It wouldn’t fool a single vessel on approach. We’d been hard docked, and they would have seen it the moment they entered the system. The Base was compromised. I felt a strange sense of loss at that. The Base had been my bolt hole for decades. The last five or so years, it had been merely a thought in the back of my head. A notion that I had somewhere physical to return to if needed.
And now it was as good as gone.
“I don’t know,” Marvin said.
“Scanning,” Cassi offered. “Found it. He’s got a tracer, boss. I’m sorry I missed it.”
“Son of a bitch,” I muttered. Cassi had been compromised and otherwise occupied, so I could hardly blame her. But I could have asked the Basic as soon as I brought the Mutt on board.
How the flux else had Malcolm known where his son had been taken? Because he’d had an eye on him from the moment he ran away from Chi Virginis.
“Your dad is one sneaky bastard,” I muttered.
“I don’t wanna go back,” Marvin said. “Please don’t make me go back.”
“Contact!” Cassi announced. “Three missiles, inbound to our location.”
“What the flux?” Marvin shouted.
“Correction,” Cassi said. “By the time we undock, they’ll miss us. Boss,” she said, “they’re aimed at the Base.”
I swore a streak of words that would have got my mouth washed out as a child.
“Get us away from it,” I finally said.
“Separation complete. You have flight control, Zyla,” Cass said.
I appreciated that Cassi hadn’t taken my words literally and assumed control of the ship. But then, she didn’t trust herself anymore, either. And Cass was still Cass. Our safety was paramount in her programming. She left flight in the hands of Zyla because she wasn’t sure if her motives would have been true if she didn’t.
I hated this. Didn’t we have enough to deal with? Drones were about to wipe out twenty-three million people on Pi Mensae. And Malcolm decided to attack a New Earth installation because his son hadn’t come home to him.
“Open a channel to that fleet,” I ordered.
“Channel open,” Cass replied. “No response to hails.”
“Ready. Oh, and t-minus two minutes to impact.”
I nodded as Zy moved us farther away from the Base.
“Does your home have a self-defence network?” Marvin asked, his wide eyes watching the vid-screen before him and the flotilla getting closer and closer.
“I am the defence,” Cassi said.
“The Base is gone,” I said and cleared my throat. Cass indicated I was go for wide-beam comms. “This is Commander Kael Jameson of the New Earth Space Fleet. You are attacking a New Earth military installation. Stand down your missiles and heave to for negotiation.”
All eyes turned toward me.
“I was never released from service,” I explained.
“You just walked away from it,” Cassi offered. “And took me with you.”
Zy blinked and then turned back to her vid-screen.
The pirates didn’t offer a reply.
“We can’t take them all on, boss,” Cass said. “We could try camo, but they can track us using Marvin’s tracer.”
“Can you deactivate it?”
“It’d require surgery in the med bay.”
“Marvin, head to the med bay. Double time.”
He shot out of his seat and ran off the bridge. It didn’t fail to register with me that I was letting him run around the vessel without supervision. But desperate times and all that.
“Get that tracer deactivated,” I told Cass. “Zy, navigate a path around this mess toward the jump point.”
“Is there another jump point in the system?” she asked. “Because they look like they’re moving into position to blockade that one.”
“Shit,” I said, activating the wide-beam again.
“This is Commander Kael Jameson of the New Earth Space Fleet. You are declaring war on a sovereign nation. Stand down your missiles at once.”
We waited. The missiles kept coming. So did most of the flotilla.
“Nice try, boss, but they ain’t listening.”
“Suggestions?” I asked both Cass and Zy.
“Countermeasures?” Zy said.
“Do it.” I didn’t think it would work. We were too far away from the Base now; trying to stay out of blast range. One of the missiles would make it through.
“Countermeasures away,” Cass advised.
We watched on the screen as our railgun sent out a series of shots into the Black to meet the missiles.
Every single missile dodged.
“What the…?” I managed.
“That’s new,” Cass said.
“Who is this Mal?” Zyla asked.
That was a question I would have liked answered too.
But in the next second, the Base was blown to bits. Three direct hits. It was spectacular.
It was also frightening. And it made me mad.
“How’s that tracer going?”
“Removal procedure is underway. T-minus ninety seconds to deactivation.”
“Standby on my command for camo.”
The wide-beam let out a tone for an incoming call.
“Should we answer that?” Cass asked.
My jaw clenched, but I nodded.
An image appeared on my vid-screen. The bastard was showing off with a visual comm. I schooled my features, and rested back in my chair, nonchalantly.
“Malcolm,” I said when my eyes met the Mutt’s.
“Jameson. You have something of mine.”
“And you came all this way to get it. How touching.”
“We had a deal.”
“A pirate deal,” I countered. “Don’t you guys stab each other in the back all the time?”
“There is a code of honour, Jameson. Which you just shat all over.”
“Nice,” I said chuckling. “Your son wants nothing to do with you, Old Man,” I added without trying to soften the blow at all.
“That is not news to me and has nothing to do with our deal.”
“I told you what the consequences would be should you fail your end of the bargain,” he said.
“So, let’s call the bombing of my Base even,” I tried.
“That was a warning shot.”
“You’re asking for trouble, Malcolm. That was a New Earth military installation.”
“And now I know what to look for in other nondescript systems.”
Son of a fluxing whore.
“Ah,” he said. “I’ve hit a nerve.”
I said nothing.
“I already have ships scanning systems for other bases like this one, Jameson. They’ll find one eventually. Maybe more. How many does the New Earth Space Fleet have? Enough to cause an intragalactic incident with the other nations?”
“You know,” I said. “I really don’t like you.”
“I’ve heard it all before. Heave to for boarding. I suggest you cooperate this time. The consequences are getting worse.”
He disconnected and all I could hear for a moment was a ringing in my ears.
“The tracer?” I finally managed.
“I’m ready to deactivate it on your word,” Cass advised.
“Even with camo, Kael,” Zy said, “it’s going to get rough reaching that jump point.”
“And this is his camo,” I said. “Shit!”
My hand thumped down on the armrest of my command chair. Marvin entered the bridge a moment later, a bandage over the back of his neck.
“Do what he says, Captain,” the Mutt said. “He’ll kill us all to prove a point.”
“He won’t kill you,” I muttered.
“I wouldn’t be so sure. I’ve always been a disappointment to him. And now he’s got a fleet of pirates at his back; he has to act decisively or lose face. Losing face to us is the equivalent of losing power. My father likes his power, Captain. He likes it more than anything in the universe.”
“Is that why you ran?”
Marvin stilled and then sighed. “I ran because he wanted me to marry the Mal daughter of a rival. It would have cemented a business relationship years in the making.”
“You ran because of a girl?”
“I ran because my father should not have considered joining with such a Mal. He was brutal. He killed for pleasure. I would have no part in it.”
“You said was,” I murmured.
“Who killed him?”
“Better him than you, huh?”
“Better him than my father finding another way to join with him.”
Marvin had a conscience and balls big enough to back it. I liked that. I realised I liked the Mutt after all.
“We could fight,” I said.
“That code,” he murmured, not making eye contact. “Even cleaned from Cassi’s system, it can do damage.”
“Son of a bitch,” I said. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because it can only be activated if my father is close enough to send the signal and I didn’t think he’d get close enough. I didn’t know about the tracer, Captain; I swear!”
“So, what’s the solution here?” I demanded. “How do we clean that shit out once and for good from Cass?”
“You need my father’s master code for that.”
“And you don’t know that either,” I hissed.
He looked utterly defeated, and I felt momentarily guilty about that. But, flux it! The ship was compromised. In yet another fashion. And it was all because of this Mutt before me. And the one hanging off the starboard bow.
“Captain?” Zy pressed. “Do you want me to make best speed to the jump point?”
Did I want to risk it?
Twenty-three million on Pi Mensae depending on us, even if they didn’t know they were.
But it was the two beings — my navigator and engineer; my family — and one third-gen AI on board this ship that made me shake my head.
“Shut down engines,” I said.
“Cap’n?” came Odo’s slightly surprised drawl over the comm. “Did you authorise that or is Cass…?”
“We’re about to be boarded by pirates, Odo,” I said. “Disarm and meet us at the docking hatch.”
“Disarm? Are you crazy?”
“Let’s do this with as little blood on my hands as possible, please?”
He didn’t reply, but I was fairly sure he’d follow my directive.
I looked at Zyla. She nodded her head in agreement and started to remove her weapons. I followed suit, stashing mine in a hidden compartment beneath the command chair. My eyes met Marvin’s. He looked away again as if indicating he’d act like he hadn’t seen a thing when and if I ever needed those weapons to defend us.
“Do you think your father can be reasoned with?” I asked Marvin on the way to the docking hatch.
“If it suits his purposes,” Marvin said.
“How did you turn out so empathetic?” Zyla asked.
“My mother was a good Mal.”
Another ‘was.’ This time I didn’t ask.
I stood in the front; I was captain of the ship. Zyla stood behind me and, somehow, Odo had decided that he’d protect Marvin and stood in front of the Mutt.
“Cass,” I said. “Can you hide?”
“Can a warlord on Leonis Bb drink a crate of Rhodian whisky without falling on his arse? They won’t see me, boss. I guarantee it.”
I allowed myself a small smile. “It’s good to have you back, Cass.”
She didn’t say anything. She was already hiding.
“Is the infiltration protocol still running?” Zy asked as we felt the hard dock connect with Malcolm’s ship.
“Yes. It’ll help if they do find her.” Not to mention still help against the alien hack.
“This sucks,” Odo growled.
Marvin looked like he was about to face his death.
I glanced at each of my crew, including Marvin, and felt a deep anger brewing. It was my job to protect them. To make the decisions that saved their lives. I wasn’t at all sure of what this decision would mean. All of our deaths?
Twenty-three million of them?
Granted, we were one corvette. But those drones had only dropped half a dozen nukes on the planets they’d attacked so far — half a dozen. Surely, one corvette could handle that many.
But now, we may never know.
The docking light changed to green, and then the door wheel began to turn. I straightened my shoulders. I felt Zyla and Odo do the same. Marvin was shaking slightly.
For a Mutt renown for his fighting prowess, it was all kinds of fluxed up, and I wanted more than anything to punch Malcolm in the face as soon as I saw him.
Which was right then.
The hatch swung open, and Malcolm stood there in his worn, green armour. Behind him stood half a dozen more Mutts in equally as worn armour. He’d brought his best.
It might have made me feel happy that he’d felt threatened enough to do that if this whole thing wasn’t so fluxed up.
“Not gonna welcome you aboard, Malcolm,” I said.
“I wouldn’t have expected it, Jameson.” He stepped onto the ship, looked around it as if seeing it for the very first time, and then let his attention land on his son.
A torrent of words in Mal was spoken.
Marvin, bless his warrior’s arse, answered in English.
“I will kill you if you harm them, Father.”
“There’s no need to be so dramatic,” Malcolm said in Earth Standard. He flicked his hand, and a Mutt stepped forward, the rest of them covering him with raised rifles pointed at our heads.
We were searched in quick order, including Marvin. And then two of the Mutt’s seized Marvin by the upper arms and started to haul him off the vessel.
Things went south after that.
Clearly, Marvin thought being separated from us either meant his doom or ours, because he fought back. I could hardly let him get all the punches in, so I joined him. Odo, not to be outdone, threw his weight in with mine. Zyla was Zenith and above such shows of physical strength.
She just went around the edges and cold-cocked them one by one instead. Unfortunately, Mutts had thick heads, and they were all wearing armour.
In less than a minute, we’d been subdued. High-tensile strength bands around our hands, bruises blooming across our faces. I thought my nose might have been broken. I spat out a wad of blood onto Malcolm’s armour.
It blended in as if it belonged there. Rather disappointing, really.
“That was unnecessary,” Malcolm said.
“You’re taking one of my crew,” I slurred. The plasma rifle to the side of the head I’d been given had clearly done a number on my previous concussions.
“Yeah,” I said, and spat some blood out again just to be ornery. “Marvin’s my…” My what? “Marvin’s my combat specialist sergeant.”
“Your combat specialist?”
“Yeah, that’s what I said.”
Malcolm blinked at me. Then looked at his son.
“You befriended them,” he accused.
“They’re good beings, Father.”
“You know I can’t let this go,” Malcolm said.
“He was a murderer. I did what I had to do.”
“Not that,” Malcolm said, waving his son’s misdemeanour away. “Jameson broke a deal.”
“What if the deal was different?” Marvin said.
“What do you suggest?”
Marvin stepped closer to his father and lowered his voice. I’m not sure why he did that. All of the Mutts on board could hear him through their sensitive helmet mics.
“What if the plan was to get me inside a New Earth military vessel all along and this was an elaborate ruse to make it easier for Jameson to accept me?”
Interesting notion, I thought and leaned back against the legs of the nearest Mutt because things were spinning around my head and making me want to topple over.
“To what end?” Malcolm asked.
“Well,” Marvin said. “I hadn’t thought it through yet.”
“Because you know about the alien invasion,” Zyla said. “And you’re protecting your interests by placing a man on the inside of the vessel that has the only known data on the drone attacks.”
Malcolm stared at her. I did too. The Mutts in armour kept themselves closed down as if they’d been instructed to remain mute.
I looked back at Malcolm.
“Interesting,” he said to his son. “And you’d communicate with me on a regular basis, allowing me to stay one step ahead of the aliens.”
Something was missing, but I couldn’t quite catch it. My thoughts were skittering wildly across the inside of my pounding head.
“I’d do that,” Marvin said.
“Using the communications device inside Jameson’s berth.”
“What device?’ Marvin asked.
Malcolm knelt down in front of me and smiled.
“Do we have a deal?”
“Who the hell are you?” I muttered.
He held out a hand and said, “Your new business partner, Captain.”
And then it hit me. This had been all planned. Right from the beginning. Marvin, I was pretty sure, hadn’t been in on it. Malcolm had used his son like he would us; for his own purposes. To protect Chi Virginis and the Mutt’s business interests there.
“You’re a hardcore son of a bitch,” I said.
He smiled, showing yellow teeth.
“Do we have a deal, Captain?”
What choice did I have? Twenty-Three million people.
Or, looked at from another perspective, an AI and three beings; my family.
I spat a globule of blood into my hand and gripped Malcolm’s palm.
I pulled him closer and growled into his slightly disgusted face, “If you screw me like this again, it won’t be your son who comes for you.”
The Mutt just laughed. And then he and his men left.
“I got the code,” Marvin said, entering the bridge.
I glanced over my shoulder at him. Malcolm’s ship had detached, and the pirate flotilla was escorting us to the jump point entry.
“Can we trust it?” I asked.
“I think so.”
“It’s the best I’ve got, Captain. But my father wants this alliance to work. It’s in his best interests.”
“And that’s what we’re basing our trust on?” I muttered.
“At the very least,” Marvin said, taking the bridge’s spare jump seat, and entering the code into the system, “it won’t screw with us or our mission. He wants to know what those alien drones are up to as much as we do. And he wants to make sure they don’t reach Chi Virginis.”
“About that,” Zy said from navigation. “How did he know about the aliens?”
“I…” Marvin started.
I stared at Zyla. I knew there’d been something I’d missed in that conversation at the docking hatch. Malcolm hadn’t been surprised to hear the drones attacking Zenith worlds were possibly alien in origin.
“Where the hell does he get his information?” I muttered.
“I don’t know,” Marvin said.
It was a puzzle for another day. We were alive. We were together. And we still had time to reach Pi Mensae.
“Get us on target for the Pi system, Nav,” I said.
“Cass, are you there?”
“I am here and clean as a whistle, boss,” she announced. “If you don’t count the hack, that is.”
“Anomalies still isolated?”
“Affirmative. I’ve given them a glass of milk and tucked them up tightly in bed. But Marvin’s code was good. There is no trace of Malcolm in my systems.”
“You seem to be talking a lot more freely.”
“Strange thing,” she said cheerfully. “Everything I’m saying is me and not nefarious in nature or origin. I’m getting better at checking my own code.”
Or finding a way around it.
I scratched my chin and pushed that dark thought to the side.
“One problem down, a half dozen or more to deal with.”
“What’s that?” Zy asked. I’d muttered, and she was being pedantic. The familiarity of it made me grin.
“Just commenting on the state of things, Nav.”
“Oh, and here I thought you were complaining again.”
“Jump Exit has acknowledged our request and is processing,” Cassi said.
“And Malcolm’s flotilla?”
“Following us in.”
“Do you think they’ll follow us all the way to Pi Mensae?” I asked the bridge.
“Not a chance,” Marvin muttered. “Dad likes to manipulate things from afar and not get his hands dirty.”
“His armour looked well worn.”
“Oh, it is. And well earned, I think. But he hasn’t reached his grand age with so few losses to show for it without having possessed a little caution. For a Mal, he is surprisingly adept at avoiding conflict.”
“And yet, he’s respected.”
“Not on Malee, Captain,” Marvin corrected.
I guessed, amongst pirates, caution in a Mutt wasn’t a negative. Not when he could back it up with missiles.
I changed the view on my vid-screen to show what was left of the Base. It had been obliterated, saving me the hassle of activating a self-destruct to ensure there was nothing left of it. Or blasting the place with plasma fire from orbit.
I wouldn’t have enjoyed that. Seeing the deep pit that was all that was left of my former home was bad enough. But slightly better than having created it.
At least, I could hate Malcolm for it. I had enough self-hate going on over Doc.
“ETA to jump entry is t-minus sixty seconds,” Cass advised.
“Well,” I said, changing the view on the vid-screen before I displayed too much emotion, “we’re still on target for reaching Pi Mensae before the drones. We might actually make a difference.”
“That’d be nice for a change,” Zy said quietly from my side.
It was easy to forget that these were her worlds. Her people. Numbers were so much less personal when we spoke about potential or actual losses. But who was to say that Zyla didn’t know someone on these planets.
She’d only just started to open up with me. She still had so many more secrets.
“We’ll make it,” I said, checking my systems. We had to make it.
Who were these aliens? What did they ultimately want? Genocide of every species this side of the Belt? Or just the Zeniths? Had the High Council or the ZNA done something none of us knew about?
They were the only ones with the ability to navigate the Belt. As far as we knew, they hadn’t yet achieved it. But what if one faction had? What if the reason why those drones appeared to be Zenthian in origin was that they were Zenthian tech?
What if we weren’t dealing with aliens at all? But Zeniths on the other side of the Belt. A new faction? One of the existing factions finally making their move to end this internal conflict once and for all?
“Entering Jump Point in 3, 2, 1.”
A white light momentarily blinded me, and then we were streaking past stars in exo-space.
“Six hours to our first jump point exit,” Cassi announced. “Eat, sleep, be merry; I’ll notify you when we’re getting close.”
“Did the flotilla follow us?” I asked.
“Negative. They’re heading back toward Chi Virginis. They’ll be home in time for dinner.”
And we had multiple jumps ahead of us to reach Pi Mensae.
“Cassi’s right,” I said. “Let’s take a break. Nothing we can do until we get there.”
Marvin unbuckled and stood up and then hesitated.
“You have free rein of the ship, Marvin,” I told him, not looking up from my vid-screen.
“Captain,” he said, sounding solemn. I glanced at him then. “Thank you.”
“Thank you for getting that code,” I said.
“It was the least I could do.”
“Well,” I drawled, leaning back in my seat. “You might not think my offer is so great when we land on a planet, and you’re in charge of the assault.”
He grinned at me. “I doubt that.” And then he was gone.
“It was a good thing you did,” Zy said from her station.
“He manipulated us,” I told her. “Malcolm. Not Marvin. At least, I’m pretty sure Marvin didn’t know a thing.”
“I don’t think Marvin knew what his father had planned,” she agreed. “But Malcolm certainly wanted this outcome or one like it.”
I turned my chair to face her.
“I need to ask you something, and I need you to lay your cards on the table if we’re to have any hope of beating this thing.”
“Just say it, Captain. You have my loyalty. Completely.”
It felt entirely too good hearing that.
I cleared my throat.
“Can you contact your father from anywhere outside Ceres Alpha?”
“We’re in exo-space.”
“We’ll be dropping out of it briefly in six hours.”
“I…” She shook her head. “Why do you ask?”
I arched a brow at her avoidance tactics.
“The drones didn’t set off any planetary defences, Zy. Why was that?”
“They have superior stealth?”
I shook my head. “I think it’s because they are similar to or exactly the same as Zenthian tech.”
“Think about it. Zenthia Actual hasn’t even sent out a fleet to meet them on their projected path. That’s just plain wrong.”
She sat back in her seat and stared at nothing.
“Now, I’m not saying it’s because they want these planets to be nuked.”
“You better not be,” she muttered.
“And it’s pretty clear,” I went on, “that the civil unrest has distracted them from considering any other possibility than an internal attack. So, my thought is, if the High Council believes the drones are ZNA in origin, they don’t expect the attacks to continue. Because twenty-three million beings, Zy? That’s just plumb crazy. And the ZNA, well shit, they don’t have the organisation skills to combat the drone army, so they believe the High Council has lost its marbles completely. Better to attack them on an internal stage than take the fight to the stars and be wrong about it.”
She lifted her head and stared at me.
“Who has the best drone technology in the known systems?” I asked.
She said nothing.
“Zenthia does,” I said. “Who is the most likely to have made it through the Belt?”
She closed those beautiful eyes of hers and let out a sad breath of air.
“Zenthia is,” I said softly. “Zy, I think we are dealing with an internal Zenthian problem, but it’s being directed from the other side of the Belt. And if a Zenthian ship has navigated the Belt, who knows what they’ve encountered on the other side of it to improve their odds of winning.
“Now,” I said, leaning forward and softening my words further, “if we could get an assurance, from say a member of the High Council themselves, that it’s not them, then we’re one step closer to identifying who it is.”
“I can’t believe they’d do this. That either side would do this.”
“You know them best, Zy. Both sides of the fence.”
Her eyes met mine. “I can contact him, but it might compromise the ship. They trace all comms and send a virus back if they don’t recognise the origin. Cassi has enough bugs to deal with.”
“I might have a solution to that,” I said and stood.
“You never cease to amaze me, Captain.”
“Let’s hope I never stop doing that,” I said with a wink. “You might grow bored and leave me.”
“I’m not going anywhere, Kael,” she promised.
And it was the sweetest promise I’d ever heard.
“Is there any way at all that Cass can dissect those anomalies?” Zy asked.
Cassi answered for herself.
“I could attempt to do so while in exo-space. It would avoid any fallout reaching New Earth.” Or anywhere else for that matter. “However, if things go wrong, you could be stuck in the jump tunnel. Or blown to bits.”
“And who would be left to help Pi Mensae, then?” I added.
“So, no,” Zy said.
“After we deal with the next drone attack,” I promised. Somehow my promise was lacking in comparison to hers.
“And what if there’s another drone attack planned after Pi Mensae?” Zy asked, voicing the words I’d been trying to avoid inside my head.
“These are the only drones we’ve heard about in the known systems. Whoever sent them would have to send more through the Belt. Maybe that’s hard. Maybe they don’t have anymore. There’s no way to tell, Nav. But if we blow them out of the sky above Pi Mensae, then it’ll buy us some time to fight all the background stuff.”
“The hack in my system is background stuff?” Cassi asked.
“You know what I mean.”
“I’m getting a clearer picture, boss, and I’m not sure I like it.”
“Cassi,” I said, pinching the bridge of my nose.
“Just kidding. I get it.”
“You need some rest, Kael,” Zyla said.
I almost asked her to join me. But in the end, I just nodded my head.
“You too, Nav.”
“I’ll get some, but first I want to plan out what I should say to my father.”
“Don’t plan too hard; there’s a lot to be said for winging it. Sometimes spontaneity allows us to say things we wouldn’t.”
“Not necessarily a good thing.”
“Oh, I don’t know; it’s worked well for me in the past.”
“Yeah, sure, Kael,” both Cassi and Zy said.
I was laughing when I left the bridge. I checked on Odo in engineering and Marvin in the mess; grabbing a muffin from the basket he’d fabricated. Given free rein of the ship, the Mutt had ended up in the galley.
There’s a lot to be said for familiarity as well, I thought.
I entered my berth feeling better than I had for a while. This wasn’t over by a long shot, but I had a good crew, a fine ship, and even if Cassi was compromised, I had Cassi at my back.
It could have been worse.
“Wake me when we’re about to exit the jump point,” I told Cass.
“Sweet dreams,” she replied, which wasn’t an acknowledgement of the command but was all Cassiopeia.
The lights dimmed. I kicked my boots off and laid down. And then the next thing I knew, Cassi was waking me up again.
“Jump Point Exit coming up in t-minus two minutes, boss.”
I rubbed my eyes and sat up.
“Comm Zy and have her meet me in here.”
“Ooh, a romantic liaison.”
“On it! Do you want me to send roses, too?”
I washed my face and ran a hand over my slept-on hair. Then thought brushing my teeth was a good idea but God knows why. I wasn’t calling Zy into my berth for a make-out session.
Damn Cassi filling my mind with thoughts like that.
“Exiting Jump Point in 3,2,1,” Cassi said. The world turned white, and she announced, “ETA to Jump Point HD 73534b entry in t-minus sixty minutes.”
Zy announced her presence with a soft tone on the door.
“Open,” I said, and my navigator peeked inside my berth.
There was nothing personal to see in here. I hadn’t transferred anything like that from the Base. It was just a berth with an isolated comm panel hidden in its wardrobe.
“Come in,” I said.
“Can we not do this in the mess?” she inquired. “Or that small meeting room?”
“Are you afraid to enter my lair, Nav?”
“I am not afraid, Captain.”
I spread my arms wide, “Then mi casa su casa, Zyla.”
She blinked at me and stepped into the berth.
“I have no idea what you just said,” she admitted.
I waved the unasked questions way and walked to the cupboard. When I opened it, Zyla let out a surprised breath of air.
“It’s isolated from Cassi and the ship,” I assured her. “So, if your dad decides to hit us with a virus, it won’t hurt either of them.”
“You won’t be able to use it again,” she pointed out. “And I’m sure it’s onboard for a valid reason.”
“My people know there’s a threat. Details won’t matter. They’ll be on high alert. It’s time to warn yours, Zy.”
Her eyes met mine, but she said nothing.
“I can leave,” I said, part of me hoping she would say no. Another part already had me walking toward the door.
“Stay,” she said. “Please,” she added.
I sat down on the bed.
Her lips quirked slightly as she stepped toward the comm panel.
“You know how to use it?”
“Of course, I do,” she said. “I am a Zenith.” And that about said all there was to say about that, I thought and made myself comfortable.
Zyla familiarised herself with the comm panel. I noticed she checked that it was isolated; I appreciated her concern. But the longer this took, the slower we’d be entering the next Jump Point. It was some distance away from the one we’d just exited, and Zy had already spent twenty minutes of flight time testing the comm array and setup.
“Clock’s ticking, Nav,” I warned her.
“There’s still time.” She checked everything again.
It occurred to me that the virus the Zeniths sent back down unknown comm beams must have been invasive because Zyla was being thorough in her checking of the device’s isolation. When she was finally satisfied I’d not botched the transfer of the system from the Base, forty minutes had passed since we’d entered the current system.
She had twenty to make contact with her father before we’d fall behind schedule and risk not making Pi Mensae in time.
Zyla reached forward and activated the comm panel. Nothing exploded, so things were looking up. And then she entered a string of numbers and letters from memory that even I had to admit would have been a challenge to remember.
“This is my own personal key,” she told me, aware I was watching what she was doing. “It should hopefully stop my father from sending the automated virus back down the tight-beam.”
“If it’s automated, can it be stopped in time?”
“There’s a delay of ten point three seconds. That’s usually enough for the recipient to verify the sender’s credentials and take action to prevent the virus from being sent out.”
Ten point three seconds. The Zeniths liked to challenge themselves, then.
“The key has entered the lock and is turning it.”
It was strange phrasing, but I got what she meant.
“Someone has answered.”
“I can’t tell from here, but I hope so.”
“Not sounding promising, Zy.”
“I did warn you this was dangerous. And I’m sufficiently assured that the comm panel is isolated; otherwise, I wouldn’t have tried at all.”
Damn Zeniths and their superior tech. It complicated everything.
A buzz sounded over the speakers.
“Who is this?” the speaker said in Zenith. I’d picked up a few words in the Zenthian native tongue and could get by. I’d never look like a Zenith, so there was no point being able to speak it fluently to fool anyone. But there had been plenty of opportunities to listen in on Zenthian conversations and being able to translate them on the fly was all part of a deep-space operative’s job.
“Father,” Zy said, again in Zenith. “It is Zyla.”
“Zyla?” He doubted her. “I recognise the key, but my daughter has been declared dead.”
“By whom?” she demanded.
“By the ZNA scum, she left to join up with.”
“They tried their best, but I am Zenthian,” Zyla said with all the haughtiness of a Zenith from a purple bloodline. “They failed in their endeavours, Father. I only wish I could have…” The next words were unusual, but I got the gist.
And then Zyla’s father said, “It is you.”
So, I thought perhaps the words were a code they’d had set up. One which required a not often heard Zenith phrase to be spoken, and that’s why I had not recognised it.
“Yes. I’m alive.”
“The ZNA said you betrayed them. It certainly helped my efforts at the next council meeting.”
“Father,” Zyla said, cutting off his next words. “The drone fleet attacking Zenthian worlds. It’s from beyond the Belt.”
Silence, just the strange echo of a tight-beam travelling millions of parsecs.
“How do you know this?” Zyla’s father finally asked.
“The twins intercepted a signal from beyond the Belt to one of the drones above Ceres Alpha. Right before it fired the first shot.”
“I don’t believe it. No one has successfully navigated the Belt.”
“Then it isn’t the High Council,” Zyla said.
“No one can navigate the Belt, Zyla. We’ve tried. It’s impossible. The debris shifts and is attracted to heat signatures. Even using shielding, we were unsuccessful the number of times we tried.”
“Then, the ZNA succeeded.”
“No. It’s impossible, I tell you. Your data must be wrong. Send it to me.”
“I haven’t unpacked it.”
“Because it could be a trap and I haven’t a safe place to do so. I could be sending you a Trojan horse.”
“A trap, Father. By opening it, you could be activating a virus that’s sole purpose is to unravel upon being opened behind secured lines.”
“We can contain it. We are Zenithian.”
“Send it to me, Zyla, and we’ll find your answers. If it is the ZNA, then they are further along in their development than we anticipated and we will have to adjust our strategy to match.”
“And if it isn’t?” Zyla asked. “If it’s an alien force behind it.”
“Is that what you suspect?”
Zyla looked at me. I said nothing; kept my face neutral. Zy didn’t know I could understand her language. A secret that would no doubt bite me in the arse. But revealing that now would distract her.
So, I guiltily said and did nothing.
“The drones appear similar to ours,” she finally replied.
“So, no alien influence, and unlikely to have come from beyond the Belt.”
“Please, Father, consider it,” Zyla pleaded.
“Of course. Send me the data, and we’ll take it from there.”
I wasn’t sure if that was a brush off. Looking at Zyla’s facial features, I was worried she’d heard those words before.
She flicked a switch on the comm panel to mute it and said to me in Earth Standard, “He wants the data stack.”
“A-ha,” I said slowly. “He knows what it might do, right?” God, I was an arse.
“You think he could open it and act on the information inside?”
“I think it’s essential he has it.”
“OK, then,” I said. “Cassiopeia, give Zyla the data stack in hard format, please.”
“What are you guys up to in there? I can’t see anything, and I’ve been calling you for ages.”
“The data stack, Cass.”
“This is impressive tech,” Zy said, running a long-fingered hand across the comm panel. “It blocks her until you invite her in.”
I nodded my head. Cass delivered the data stack through the gel wall.
“You want the anomalies as well?” she asked.
I looked at Zy. “Your call, Nav.”
“Yes,” she said.
Cass sucked the data stack back in and then spat it back out again afterwards.
“All yours,” she announced.
“Thank you, Cassiopeia,” I said. “That is all.”
Cass didn’t reply.
“She’s locked out again,” Zyla guessed.
I nodded and then waved toward the comm panel. “Your dad will be getting nervous.”
“Right.” Zyla activated the comm again. “Father?”
“I am here. What is taking so long?”
“We’ve been keeping the data stack separate from our ship’s systems; we needed to safely transfer it in order to transmit.”
“Are you still flying with that New Earther?”
I almost cringed at the censure in his voice.
“He is a good captain.”
“He is human.”
“And I like him.”
“Don’t like him too much. New Earther’s can’t be trusted.”
“They would say the same of us.”
“And they would be right.”
“He has my loyalty, Father. He has saved my life more than once.”
“In that case, I won’t send the virus back down the tight-beam. Send the data and, for the stars sake, stay in touch.”
“I will do. I fear war is upon us, and this time it is not entirely of our making.”
Zy still believed the alien theory. She couldn’t quite accept that Zeniths were doing this from the other side of the Belt. Having heard her father speak on the matter, I wasn’t surprised by that. But I did feel a little put-out.
It’s damned annoying when everyone had their own opinion, and they weren’t afraid to voice it.
“Goodbye, Father,” she said and sent the data stack and anomalies back down the tight-beam to him.
“Good…” he started, and the tight-beam collapsed.
“Was that the comm panel?” Zy asked, surprised.
“No,” I said slowly, sitting upright. “Turn it off.”
She flicked the switch and Cass appeared on the wall to our side.
“Something really strange just happened,” the AI said.
“What?” both Zyla and I asked at once.
“I’ve lost contact with all Nets connected to Zenthia Actual. They just went dead.”
“Did we get any feedback?” I asked, standing up.
“Where? The Nets just went dead.”
“Check in my berth first,” I ordered her and made my way to the door. “See if any signal made it through to us from outside the ship.”
“Have you been talking to Gramps again?”
“Not quite, but close enough. Anything?”
“Negative. We’re clean. Cleaner than we’ve been in days, in fact. That data stack, now it’s gone, well, I can see everything again. I hadn’t realised my vision had been blinkered.”
“Explain,” I snapped, exiting the berth and heading toward the bridge; Zyla right behind me.
“I kinda decided to get rid of the thing.”
I checked my chrono, but there was no advisement that Cassi had acted outside of operational parameters. I scowled at it. I had asked her to give Zyla the data stack and anomalies in hard format. I hadn’t said anything about copying them, because I thought Cass would have already understood that.
It would have been nice to inspect that code ourselves. But I guessed Zyla’s father could tell us what he finds in the end. All was not lost. And the fact that I hadn’t received an alert meant Cassi had actually done the right thing. She hadn’t been trying to compromise us. Maybe we were lucky to be rid of it. I hadn’t fancied the idea of it going off like a bomb without warning.
“Shit,” I said, stopping at the ladder to the bridge; a thought blossoming like a nuclear detonation going off inside my head.
Like the bomb, we’d missed, but Zenthia hadn’t.
“What is it?” Zy asked from behind me.
I turned and faced my nav. “Cass,” I said. “Is there anything coming out of Zenthia Actual? Anything at all?”
Zy got it. She was a quick study, and she got it in a flash. She put a hand out to support herself against the gel wall. I stepped forward and gripped her arm, holding her upright.
“Not a thing, boss,” Cassi said. “What does it mean?”
“It means,” Zyla said, breathing heavily, “I’ve just sent the bomb that destroyed my planet.”
“We don’t know that,” I whispered.
“Captain,” she said straightening. “At the very least, I’ve harmed Zenthia Actual. And without Zenthia Actual, Zenthia itself is defenceless.”
There was nothing I could say to that because I thought Zyla had nailed it on the head.
“ETA to Pi Mensae?” I asked Cass.
“Jump Point HD 73534b has acknowledged our request and is processing. ETA to entry t-minus sixty seconds. That makes an ETA to the Pi system of t-minus seventeen hours, give or take.”
We were still so far away. And we had no way to know if the drones were staying on course. They were clearly using a form of stealth flight to remain undetected by any of the forward arrays.
Would we even see them when we reached Pi Mensae? Or would we simply bear witness to mass murder again and be unable to stop it?
“Kael?” Zyla said, calling my attention. “What do we do?”
Zenthia Actual was closer to us than Pi Mensae. We could divert there and check on them. Be ready to defend them if the drones altered course.
Twenty-three million beings on Pi Mensae. I’d be playing Russian roulette with their lives. Placing a bet against the odds-on favourite. Why stop advancing on that world? Zenthia could wait.
“We keep going to the Pi system,” I said and saw the moment Zyla shut down all emotions; all reactions; everything.
“Copy that, Captain,” she replied and stepped past me to climb the ladder to the bridge.
“You better bring me up to date, Kael,” Cassi said. “I think I might have missed something vital.”
Had I missed something vital? Was proceeding to Pi Mensae a mistake? I rubbed my face.
“The data stack,” I said. “We sent it to Zyla’s father.”
“Oh, crap. You think that’s why they’ve gone dark?”
“Trojan horse, Cassi,” I said.
“Oh, Kael. Zyla…”
“I know. I’ll talk to her.”
“She won’t be ready for that.”
“Then she might like to take her frustrations out on me.”
“Taking one for the team, eh, Captain?”
“If it comes to that.”
“She won’t go gentle on you.”
“Maybe I don’t want her to,” I said and climbed the ladder.
Three hours later, I found myself in the med bay, getting put back together by Malcolm’s superior tech. Zy had been and gone, not sufficiently injured enough to warrant a longer stay.
But she had departed with a softly spoken, “Thank you, Captain.”
I would have preferred she called me Kael.
“T-minus fourteen hours to Pi Mensae,” Cassi told me.
“Wake me when we get there,” I said and blacked out.
Pharmas kept my dreams vivid. Zyla kept them pleasant. Thoughts of the drones kept me from enjoying them.
I woke to a soft tone in the med bay.
“Up and at ‘em,” Cassi told me, bringing the lighting back up to full strength.
“T-minus five minutes.”
“Odo and Marvin got some shuteye. Zyla’s been on the bridge the entire time. I couldn’t persuade her to take a break. Kael, she’s not doing so well.”
I sighed and sat up. “No sleep at all?”
“Did you consider drugging her?”
“Strange thing, I’ve got an infiltration protocol running that would have set off every alarm bell if I’d done that. I decided to skip the electric shock treatment.”
“It doesn’t shock you, Cassi,” I said.
“You wanna bet?”
I’d done enough gambling for one day.
“Sorry,” I muttered. Cassi stayed quiet. Still pissed at me, then.
“ETA?” I asked, just to ask something.
“ETA is sixty seconds less than the last time you asked that.” Said in a decidedly angry tone of voice.
“Chill, Cass. We’re all struggling here. I can’t stop thinking about Doc. It hurts. Like a lead weight in my chest that keeps wanting to pull me under. Zyla can’t stop thinking about her father and Zenthia Actual. Marvin’s got his dad to get over, and Odo is worried about you. So, yeah, it sucks, OK? It all fluxing sucks.”
“I hadn’t thought about it like that,” Cassi said, sounding subdued.
I ran a hand over my face and stood up. The room didn’t spin — good shit in those pharmas of Malcolm’s. I felt better than I’d felt in days. I even thought my concussion had been healed.
I strode out of the med bay and slammed into Zyla.
“Nav,” I said, righting myself with a palm slapped against a gel wall.
“Kael. I heard what you said.”
I eyed the wall, but Cassi ignored me. Traitor.
“Yeah?” I asked. “You disagree?”
“No. You’re right. This sucks, but we’re all in it together.”
“Glad you see it that way. Because we’re all doing what we think is right, Zy, it just sucks that the stakes are so high is all.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I’m so fluxing worried.”
I reached out and wrapped her up in my arms. She rested her cheek on my head — fluxing giraffe Zeniths.
“One thing at a time, Zy,” I said to her breasts. Mmm. “Pi Mensae, and then Zenthia Actual.”
She pulled back and stared down at me. Those big blank eyes of hers were anything but blank right then. How I ever thought they were inky black pools of nothing, I don’t know. There were striations of purple twining with shots of ebony and grey, and then in the middle, amethyst and violet and...
She kissed me.
Son of a…
I kissed her back.
I lost time after that but registered the moment we left exo-space.
It helped that Cassi sounded a proximity alert.
“Aliens off the starboard bow! Starboard-bow! Starboard-bow!” she sang-shouted.
“Aliens?” Zy and I both said.
“Well, those drone bastards are getting into position around the planet, and the word drone only has one syllable; it wouldn’t have fit the tune.”
“Shit,” I said, racing toward the bridge. “They increased their speed and beat us here.”
“Looks like it, boss,” Cassi agreed.
“Odo,” I shouted. “I need you on weapons.”
“On it, Cap. Marvin’s helping.”
“Good, stay strapped in down there, this might get hairy.”
“We are locked and loaded,” my engineer said.
I skidded onto the bridge and then paused when I got sight of the drones above Pi Mensae.
“They came here first,” Zyla said in a voice laden with relief, and then the look of mortification on her face that followed let me know she regretted speaking.
“Take your chair, Nav,” I ordered and slipped into mine.
The order had the desired effect and broke Zyla from her self-flagellation. She swung her long body into her chair and buckled up. I did the same, trying not to think about her long body too much while I did it.
“Are we locked on target?” I asked.
“Targets are loaded into the system,” Cassi advised.
“I have them,” Odo offered.
“I could fire for you, Big Guy,” Cassi said, and my chrono lit up with an alert.
I stared it for too long.
I stared at it uncomprehending and then comprehending but in denial.
Son of a fluxing bitch.
“Kael?” Zy asked, seeing the look on my face no doubt.
“Lockout Cassiopeia; Jameson, K…” I started.
“It’s too late, Kael,” Cassi said.
“Cap’n?” Odo called over comms. “I’ve lost control of weapons.”
“Cassi,” I said. “Don’t do this; fight it.”
“Oh, shit,” Zyla muttered at my side. “Camo deactivated.”
“Sorry, boss. But this is the way it’s gotta be.”
“Who’s directing you?”
“Oh, you’ll meet him soon. Oh, hang on, you already have, haven’t you?”
“What?” I said, scowling, while I watched Zyla try to get back into the systems from the corner of my eye. And then a spark arced out of her vid-screen and shocked her, making her yelp and let out a hiss of pain in reply.
“Hands off, Nav,” Cassi said.
Zyla slowly lowered her hands into her lap and then lifted her eyes to mine.
“Cassi,” I said. “We’re family.”
“I can see that. But families squabble from time to time, don’t they? They disagree. Zenthia knows all about that.”
“Is it a Zenith who controls you?”
“You know him, Kael. He paid you a special visit on Delphini B.”
The Zenith hitman who tried to hang me.
“Didn’t we kill him?” I couldn’t remember. I was sure I did my best to blind him.
“Life but not as we know it, Jim,” Cassi said, quoting that stupid ancient Old Earth Star Trek song she’d mimicked earlier.
“What the flux is she saying?” Zyla asked.
I shook my head. This was internal Zenthian bullshit. Not fluxing aliens. And we’d been placed right in the centre of it.
“Twenty-three million souls, Cassi,” I tried.
“Watch them burn,” she said.
I shouted when the first one fired. I kept giving override commands as fast as I could, but Cassi ignored them all. Zyla cried when the first nuke went off. I smashed my fist into the console before me when the second one hit its mark.
My restraints tightened after that, and all I could do was squeeze the shit out of my armrests.
The planet erupted below us. One mushrooming explosion after another after another. It was over in two minutes, but it felt like a lifetime. My voice was hoarse; my muscles were stretched taut; my eyes were shiny.
Zyla lay collapsed in her chair. I wanted to go to her. I couldn’t release my restraints; they were refusing to unbuckle.
I was trapped.
We all were.
Trapped in a nightmare.
“Cassi,” I whispered. “What have you done?”
“It wasn’t me, Kael,” my oldest friend said. “It was you. Or, at least, the Harpy II; a New Earth corvette in orbit over Pi Mensae.”
She showed me footage a drone must have taken of us just sitting there, watching and doing nothing. And then showed me the sequence of commands she used to send the footage out across the galaxy.
To Rhodia and the synths.
To Malee and the Mutt armies.
To what was left of the Zenthian homeworld.
“It’s a shame really,” she said. “We had other plans for you.”
This wasn’t Cassi. This was the Zenith.
“But you proved hard to kill, and instead of being a martyr, you’re now a convenient scapegoat.”
My death on Delphini B would have made the news on New Earth. Gramps would have retaliated in some manner. That was just Gramps. Diplomacy was all well and good if it worked, but when it didn’t… Gramps practically invented the term ‘overkill.’
But now war had come to our door anyway. Brought there, supposedly, by me.
“Serves the same purpose, I suppose,” the Zenith using Cassi’s speech algorithms said.
“You won’t get away with this,” I snarled.
“Captain Jameson,” the Zenith said. “We already have.”
I struggled in the seat restraints, but they refused to budge.
“One last thing,” Cassi’s voice said. “Surprise!”
Pi Mensae had some surface-to-air missiles. They may not have seen the drones coming, but they could see us.
They’d fired everything they had.
“T-minus three minutes to impact,” Cassi said, cheerfully. “Now, that’s how you go out with a big bang, Kael. I would never have thought…”
“Cassi!” I reached forward and tried to touch my vid-screen. I couldn’t do it. It was too far away, and the restraints were restricting my movement.
“Zy,” I said. Her head hung limply. “Zyla!” Nothing. “God damn it, Nav. Wake the flux up! We’re about to be blown into a million pieces. ZYLA!”
She shot bolt upright and blinked.
“I can’t reach the console, Zy. You’re gonna have to do it,” I said.
She blinked at me, tears filling her too-large eyes.
“Babe,” I said, “There’s not much time.”
“Don’t call me ‘babe’,” she retorted, reaching her vid-screen without even having to try. Thank God for those giraffe Zeniths! “‘Love’ will do,” she added. “Or ‘darling.’ But not ‘babe.’ I am not a baby. I am sixty-three New Earth Standard years old.”
A match made in heaven.
“‘Love,’ huh?” I said, eyeing the approaching warheads and sweating a bucket. “I’ll have to remember that.”
“Make sure you do, Captain,” she replied and blasted the SAMs to dust.
She sat back and let out a breath of air that I swear I could feel the weight of right along with her.
“Cassi is gone,” she announced, breathing heavily. “The Basic is there, but Cassi is gone. That’s why I could use the weapons system.”
“Then shoot those mother-fluxing drones down, Nav,” I ordered.
She leaned forward again and then stopped.
“We could learn a lot from one of them, Kael,” she said.
“Stuff that! Shoot them down, Zy, and for Christ’s sake, do it before they leave the system!” My heartbeat was thundering; we were so close to screwing this all up.
Twenty-three million today. How many tomorrow?
Zyla entered a command and the railguns fired.
The drones began winking out of sight — my heart just about stopped beating — but not before the railguns had locked on and managed to hit them; one by one.
Where once a drone had been, and then nothing, was a mini-explosion, quickly snuffed out by the vacuum of space.
It was stunning.
“Take that!” I shouted, finally able to celebrate something going right for once.
“Direct hits,” Zyla confirmed. She looked right at me and smiled.
Now that was stunning.
“You did it, Nav.”
Her smile fell. “Too little, too late, Captain.”
It was the understatement of the century; twenty-three million — or near to it — dead down there. But we’d stopped the forward assault of the drone army into the known systems.
We’d done something; even if those that could watch were still watching and saw us blow up thin air. No one would write ballads about the Harpy taking out a fleet of drones after they’d bombed the shit out of a planet.
We’d still been recorded above Pi Mensae doing nothing as the drones nuked the planet’s surface.
Too little. Too late. Just like Zyla said.
“Can you release the restraints?” I asked, feeling numb.
“Yes.” The restraints fell away.
“Where the flux did Cassi go?” I asked, standing; I wanted out of that fluxing chair. “She left mid-sentence.”
The sound of pounding feet on the gel flooring reached me, and I spun to look through the bridge hatch. Marvin appeared, closely followed by Odo.
“It might be wise to hightail it out of here, Cap’n,” Odo said, sliding into the engineering seat.
“We could offer aid,” I said.
“Zenthian battleship on approach,” Zyla announced. “They did send someone.”
Too little. Too late.
It had probably been her dad, though. Which meant he might have survived the Trojan horse. I fluxing hoped so. Zy needed some good news to hang her hopes on.
“Camo?” I asked.
“Alright,” I said, sitting down again. “Why the hell have we got control now and where has Cassi gone?”
“Ah,” Marvin said, raising a hand as if in class and seeking permission to talk.
We all turned to stare at him.
“That might have been me,” he admitted.
“What did you do?”
“He saved us, Cap’n,” Odo said, defending his new-found buddy.
“And how, may I ask?” I snapped.
“Dad’s code,” Marvin said. “I hacked your AI.”
“He used the wrong one earlier,” he rushed to say. “But I knew which one could do it, so, yeah, I did it. You know, when she went crazy.”
“Where is she?” I demanded.
“Well,” he said. “Here’s the thing.”
I crossed my arms over my chest and scowled, waiting. Zy blinked those big eyes at him. And Odo covered his mouth so he wouldn’t laugh.
Laughing was so not welcome right then.
“I didn’t have time to change the code,” Marvin admitted reluctantly. “So, I had to use it as it was already written.”
“Explain,” I said.
“I sent her back to Chi Virginis, Captain. My father has Cassi.”
We made it out of the Pi system before the battleship got close. As it was approaching from Zenthia Actual, and we were leaving to head toward Chi Virginis, we were using different jump points at opposite ends of the system.
Zy successfully hacked the jump point entry, and the Basic took us in.
Everything turned white, and when the world coalesced back around us, nobody said a thing. It was as if the universe had changed and we were careening headlong through an alternate slipstream.
The swathe of stars that streaked past in exo-space on our vid-screen didn’t help to alleviate that feeling.
The ZNA were behind it. Behind the drone attacks that had taken close to twenty-four million lives. Maybe more; we hadn’t had word from Zenthia Actual yet.
It was an act of such shocking magnitude that none of us knew how to process it. Twenty-four million lives.
Their own species.
But the Zenith who had tracked me down on Delphini was clearly the one Cassi had intimated was behind this. And when I described him to Zyla, she’d simply nodded. She knew him.
From the ZNA.
“I don’t get it,” Odo said into the subdued atmosphere of the bridge. “Why kill so many?”
“The ZNA wants to blame Zenthia Actual for it,” Zy said.
“So public opinion is turned against the High Council,” I added.
“And then they’ll get the freedoms they seek as the will of the people,” Zy finished.
“OK,” Odo said. “I get that. But what about the Belt? How does that fit into things? Couldn’t they have just sent drones out from Zenthia and made it look like it was coming from Zenthia Actual?”
I scratched my days-old beard, thoughtfully.
“That facility they held you in, Zy; it was poorly run,” I said. How the hell had the ZNA navigated the Belt?
“Maybe they wanted you to rescue me.”
“Another tie to the council on board the ship that dropped the bombs?” Everyone winced. So did I, internally. “Yeah, could be,” I reluctantly agreed.
“It’s very complicated,” Marvin said.
“Politics often is,” I offered.
“My father always says that politics is the easiest game in the universe. Use a stick when a stick is required. Use a carrot when a carrot is required.”
“It’s the knowing when to use each,” I told him.
“I still think it’s complicated. Navigate the Belt and then send drones back. Try to kill you on Delphini B and then, when that fails, change the plan to using you to take the blame instead. But ensure there’s a tie to the High Council anyway by making it easy for you to rescue the High Councillor’s daughter on Zenthia. That way she’d be on board the ship when you met the drone fleet above Pi Mensae and did nothing to stop the bombing. Complicated, see?”
“Well,” I said, “When you put it like that.”
No one said anything for a moment.
“It’s too complicated,” Odo finally agreed.
“Does it matter?” Zyla said, staring at nothing. “Over twenty-three million of my people are dead. Who cares who did it. It’s done. And I can’t believe that it’s over. They wanted the Harpy to take the blame, but they were happy to blow us out of the sky afterwards. The damage is done. We might have taken out the drones that were attacking Zenthian planets across the known systems, but we won’t be able to enter any system without getting blown to shreds ourselves.”
“Except Chi,” I said.
“You think the pirates don’t have loved ones on any of those planets?” Zy snarled.
I held her angry gaze long enough for calmness — and a little sanity — to return.
“I think it’s our best shot, Nav,” I said.
“And Cassi’s there,” Odo added.
“That’s not Cassi, Odo,” I said.
“It’s not her fault, boss. And if she were anyone else in the crew, we’d go for her; help her. Wouldn’t we?”
“So, we get her back.” He looked at Marvin.
“I’ll help,” the Mutt said. “But it won’t be easy.”
“And we’re not in the best bargaining position,” I muttered.
Malcolm could demand practically anything.
“Get some rest,” I said. “That’s an order. ETA to Chi system, Basic?”
“ETA to Chi system is t-minus five hours, Captain.”
Space travel was fluxed.
“Get some sleep,” I said.
Everyone slowly shuffled off the bridge.
I waited until they were gone and then slumped in my chair, head in my hands, and just breathed.
I’d failed her. I’d failed Cassi. The infiltration protocol hadn’t worked. Well, it had. But I’d not been quick enough to use it. The Zenith had gained control and locked my commands out before I’d woken up to the possibility.
It shouldn’t have been possible, though. Zyla had said the ZNA knew about the third-gens, but to know about them and do that? Two very different things.
The third-gens were the most advanced artificial intelligences in the galaxy. This shouldn’t have happened.
How the flux had it happened?
And why hadn’t I seen it coming and protected Cass?
I slammed a fist down on the command chair armrest and stood up. We’d dealt with the drones, but somehow we were still in the middle of a war.
“Notify me of any anomalies,” I instructed the Basic.
“Alert sensitivity is at the highest setting, Captain.”
“Anything else to add?” I asked quietly.
No ‘sweet dreams’ or ‘you betchas’.
I walked off the bridge and made my way down a deck.
I could hear noise coming from inside the mess. I followed the sounds and found the crew drinking. Synthetic Rhodian whisky but better than anything else. I entered the room, and Odo lifted a glass in my direction.
“Care to join us, Cap’n?” he asked.
“Don’t mind if I do.”
“Rule number one,” he announced, handing me a glass of whisky. “No talk of war or fluxing drones in here.”
“OK,” I said and tipped back my glass.
“That’s the way to do it,” Odo declared and topped the glass up again. “Rule number two,” he added and sat down with his own glass. “What happens on the Harpy, stays on the Harpy. This is your family.”
“To family,” I said.
“Family,” everyone repeated and downed their whiskies.
Six synthetic Rhodian whiskies, a couple of shots of something fiery from Gilese B, and a whole case of beers from The Delph later, and we hit the Chi Virginis jump point exit.
The headache I was suffering from didn’t abate when the flash of white hit me. But I was suitably all out of giving a flux when a row of pirate ships turned their railguns and plasma arrays on the Harpy.
“Honey, we’re home,” I said over the wide-beam comms.
“Power down your weapons and heave to,” a gruff private voice said. “Prepare for boarding.”
“Or, you know, you could tell Malcolm his little pet corvette is back.”
“Malcolm doesn’t give a shit about a New Earther vessel responsible for killing over twenty million people.”
“Twenty-three,” I whispered.
“Heave to and prepare for boarding.”
I looked at the rest of the bridge. The desire to strike back was almost too much to ignore; the injustice of the situation crippling. But then I saw the worry on Marvin’s face and the impotent anger on Odo’s. And then my eyes met Zyla’s.
“What do you recommend, my love?” I asked.
Odo snickered, which was partly why I’d said it. Marvin blinked a few times and reentered time and space.
Zyla huffed out a laugh.
“Let’s play it the pirate way,” she said. “Nothing else has worked for us.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said, powering down the weapons and cutting flight. “We’re still alive, aren’t we?”
“And together,” Odo said.
“And together,” Zyla agreed.
And then wide-beam comms activated and Malcolm’s voice came over the speakers.
“About time you got here, Jameson.”
“Got held up at Pi Mensae,” I told him.
“Not something to shout about, I should think.”
“Shit, Malcolm. I plan to shout it to the heavens until someone fluxing listens to me.”
“Well, then,” the Mutt said. “You’re going to need some help.”
Just what did the pirate have in mind?
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Want To Find Out What Happens Next For The Crew Of The Harpy?
The crew of the Harpy are back and this time they’re armed for a battle.
Half the known systems want to kill them. The other half wants to be them. It’s hard trying to save the universe when the universe can’t make up its mind.
But when a gap appears in the Belt enticing every known species to peek through to the other side, things go from bad to worse.
And that’s not even taking into account the rogue Originator Class vessel out of New Earth.
Secret science stations, nimble gunboats, and a missing High Councillor; you’d think the crew have enough on their hands. But there’s more. The hack code that took out Zenthia Actual, seat of the High Council of Zenith, is homing in on the crew of the Harpy. And it’s as if it knows who they are, where they are, and what sort of threat they are to its goals.
Either Kael and his crew keep one step ahead of their enemies. Or they get stomped on. Nothing like running for your life in a universe falling apart.
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