Book: Cepheid Variable



Cepheid Variable




Cepheid Variable






The Sector Wars, Book Two


Nicola Claire

Cepheid Variable




Cepheid Variable

Copyright © 2020, 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.

www.nicolaclairebooks.com

ISBN: 978-0-473-51716-8



Contents


My Patrons

About the Author

Also By Nicola Claire

Description

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Review Request

The Crew Of The Harpy Will Be Back

But Wait…There’s More!

See Where It All Started For The Inhabitants Of New Earth

Nicola’s BestSelling Debut Novel

Over 1,000 5-Star Reviews

“Dystopian At Its Finest!”

He’s The Heir To The Fire Throne. She’s The Human He Didn’t See Coming!

And Finally…The Hugely Popular Historical Romance Everyone Is Talking About!


My Patrons

A sincere thank you to my Tier Four Patreon supporters, whose patronage means the world to me and inspires me to write great things.

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The publication of this book was made possible with the help of all my patrons.

patreon.com/nicolaclaire


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!

For more information:

www.nicolaclairebooks.com

[email protected]

Cepheid Variable

Cepheid Variable

Cepheid Variable

Cepheid Variable

Cepheid Variable

Cepheid Variable


Also By Nicola Claire


Kindred Series

Part I

Kindred

Blood Life Seeker

Forbidden Drink

Giver of Light

Dancing Dragon

Shadow's Light

Entwined With The Dark

Kiss Of The Dragon

Dreaming Of A Blood Red Christmas (Novella)

Never Show Fear (Anthology)

Part II

Darklight

Coldfire (Coming Soon)

Cepheid Variable

Mixed Blessing Mystery Series

Mixed Blessing

Dark Shadow

Rogue Vampire

Black Dog (Coming Soon)

Cepheid Variable

Blood Enchanted Series

Blood Enchanted

Blood Entwined

Blood Enthralled

Cepheid Variable

Fey Touched Series

Season One

Season Two (Coming Soon)

Cepheid Variable

Sweet Seduction Series

Sweet Seduction Sacrifice

Sweet Seduction Serenade

Sweet Seduction Shadow

Sweet Seduction Surrender

Sweet Seduction Shield

Sweet Seduction Sabotage

Sweet Seduction Stripped

Sweet Seduction Secrets

Sweet Seduction Sayonara

Cepheid Variable

H.E.A.T. Series

A Flare Of Heat

A Touch Of Heat

A Twist Of Heat (Novella)

A Lick Of Heat

Cepheid Variable

44 South Series

Southern Sunset

Southern Storm

Southern Strike (Coming Soon)

Cepheid Variable

Elemental Awakening Series

The Tempting Touch Of Fire

The Soothing Scent Of Earth

The Chilling Change Of Air

The Tantalising Taste Of Water

The Eternal Edge Of Aether (Novella)

Cepheid Variable

Citizen Saga Series

Elite

Cardinal

Citizen

Masked (Novella)

Wiped

Cepheid Variable

Scarlet Suffragette Series

Fearless

Breathless

Heartless

Cepheid Variable

Lost Time Series

Losing Time

Making Time

Finding Time (Coming Soon)

Cepheid Variable

The Sector Fleet Series

Accelerating Universe

Apparent Brightness

Right Ascension

Zenith Point

Cepheid Variable

The Sector Wars Series

Absolute Zero

Cepheid Variable

Roche Limit

Cepheid Variable

The Summer O’Dare Mysteries Series

Chasing Summer

Sizzling Summer (Coming Soon)











For: Me (again)

Because I love sci-fi.

And for anyone who wants to join me.


Description

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.










Cepheid Variable:

A type of pulsating star whose light and energy output vary noticeably over a set period of time. The time period over which the star varies is directly related to its light output or luminosity, making these stars useful standard candles for measuring intergalactic distances.


Space Telescope Science Institute


Cepheid Variable



Chapter One

Being a space pirate sucked.

Not that we were officially space pirates. But we were living with them, and that was close enough. From the outside, we were the epitome of space pirates. Walked their umbilicals. Ate their synthetic food. Dressed the same way they did. Slept under the exact same stars as space pirates do.

Inside was a whole other matter.

“This chilli tastes like dog’s balls,” Odo said from beside me, sweat beading his dark skin and glinting like diamonds in the artificial light of the Chi Virginis space station.

“It’s not chilli,” Marvin offered, slurping something long and slimy into his yellow-toothed maw.

“That’s what I said. Dog’s balls,” Odo replied and shoveled another mouthful between his lips.

I sipped my ale and watched the locals go about their early evening rituals.

Early evening on Chi Virginis was much like the rest of the day. The planet Chi was so far away from its sun, that the light barely reached it. What did was insipid and offered little illumination. The solar arrays on the space station that orbited the empty and mined-to-shit rock were enormous by current known tech standards. They did the job, but power was restricted.

And for a pirate space station, it had a hell of a lot of rules.

One thing the current overlord didn’t skimp on, however, was artificial illumination. It said something about his priorities, but so far, I hadn’t been able to figure out what.

Malcom the Mutt was a cunning, manipulative, cut-throat warrior from the planet Malee. He was also my combat specialist’s father.

“It’s called Gurk,” Marvin, Malcolm’s son, said. “It’s from Pollux B in the Gilese system.”

“Rhodian,” Odo said past a mouthful of Gurk. “Still tastes like dog’s balls.”

“Then don’t eat it,” Marvin told him.

“It’s either this or the cat’s piss the cap is drinking.”

“My ale tastes fine to me,” I murmured, watching a hooded figure dart down a corridor and look over his shoulder furtively.

It didn’t mean anything. A lot of beings looked over their shoulders furtively on Chi Virginis.

“That’s from Rhodia, too,” Marvin announced.

“You know,” Odo said, placing his spork in the empty bowl and wiping his mouth with a napkin — even big bruiser engineers had some form of table manners. “We have been around the block a time or two. You don’t have to keep educating us.”

“Sorry,” Marvin muttered, lowering his head.

For a big bruiser warrior, Marvin was as submissive as they came.

Which also said something about Malcolm the Mutt. I didn’t think Marvin was scared of his father, as such. Just scared of a lot of things and his father was somehow mixed up in most of them.

Marvin hadn’t wanted to come back here to Chi Virginis. But we’d had no choice.

Cassi was here.

And no other systems would allow us entry.

It kinda sucked.

But millions of people had been nuked to shit from orbital drones on Pi Mensae, and there was footage out there of our little corvette, the Harpy II, watching and doing nothing to stop it.

We were wanted men.

Might as well have been pirates.

I downed the last of my ale and held it up for the waitress, a Claxian with pink and purple dyed feathers, to fill it back up. She nodded her beak at me and swept over with the jug. Pungent, frothing ale poured into my glass, and my salivary glands went into overdrive.

“That’s your fifth,” Odo said pleasantly. The tone was a lie, but the count was accurate.

“That was your third dog balls chilli,” I offered and took a healthy swallow of my brew.

“Zyla won’t like you getting drunk. Again.”

“Zyla can kiss my lily-white butt.”

“Cap’n.”

“Can it, Odo. I’m thinking.”

I did a lot of that. Thinking about Doc. Thinking about those twenty million plus souls lost when the Zenthian drones blasted them to shit from orbit. Thinking about Cassi and how close she was. Thinking about the Belt.

“I think we need to go to the Belt,” I said.

“Go where now?” Odo asked.

“The Belt. Somehow Zenthia has managed to get someone through the Oort Cloud, and I want to know how.”

“And you think we can manage that because…what? We’ve got a Zenthian navigator?”

“Worth a try.”

“Many have tried and failed, Cap. You know that.”

“But someone didn’t.” And I was sick of this speakeasy.

“Alright,” Odo said, pushing up to his formidable six and a half foot height. “But you can explain it to Zyla.”

I grimaced and chugged back the ale, feeling the space station warp around me slightly when I was done.

“You let me have all the fun,” I quipped and let out a loud burp a pre-adolescent would be proud of.

The Claxian waitress fluttered her vestigial wings at me in appreciation. Gotta love alien kink.

I smiled and made my way through the haphazard tables and chairs in the bar and out into the corridor.

Like most space stations nowadays, the walls were made of gel. New Earther gel. We’d brought a lot to the table when we’d first appeared on the intergalactic scene. But despite our gel tech and jump points system, we weren’t the tip of the technological iceberg out here.

No, that position belonged to the Zeniths and their drone, camouflage, armour, and just about every other battle appropriate tech you can think of.

The universe was a dangerous place to be.

Close behind the Zeniths were the Rhodians with their anti-ageing meds and artificial intelligences in synthetic bodies. Synths were stronger, smarter, faster, and harder to kill than any other being. They formed the backbone of Rhodian defence, and I tried to steer clear of them when I could.

It was only after those two juggernaut species that humans found their place on the totem pole of intergalactic technological prowess.

Of course, no-one out there knew about our third-generation AIs.

Except, of course, the Zenthian National Army — a splinter faction on Zenthia — and now Malcolm the Mutt, the Supreme Leader and Head Honcho of Chi Virginis.

That’s if he’d managed to crack Cassi yet. And I was going with not. Because Cassiopeia was a third-gen artificial intelligence with a few tricks up her sleeve.

She’d also been fluxed with by the ZNA dickhead who’d nuked twenty-odd million souls from orbit and tried to hang me.

I rubbed my face and rolled my shoulders. Tension rode me like a Rhodian whore but not as pleasantly. If I didn’t get off this spinning cesspit of piracy bullshit soon, I’d go batshit crazy.

People got out of our way as we strode towards the central hub. I’d like to think that was because they’d heard of the Harpy and her captain and didn’t want to mess with me. But although they’d probably heard of our little corvette for all the wrong reasons, it was more likely Marvin’s presence that did it.

One, he was a Mutt, and Mutts were big-arse warriors who punched first and butted heads afterwards. And two, he was Malcolm’s get.

Shame Marvin wasn’t too happy about that.

“Will he let us go?” I said under my breath. Gel walls had ears, and I was betting the gel walls nearest us were eagerly listening.

“Not unless it’s his idea,” Marvin told me.

“Then we better make him think it’s his idea,” I muttered.

“He has Cassi,” Odo growled.

“I know.”

“And you’re just gonna leave her here?” It was full of a thousand recriminations, and all of them were well earned.

“Not if I can help it.”

“And if you can’t help it, Cap?”

I sighed. “Sooner or later, they’re going to send more drones through the Belt. Don’t you think it’d be a good idea to be there when they do?”

“We shot them down last time,” Marvin helpfully offered. “We could do it again.”

“Too little. Too late,” Odo said, voicing my dark thoughts precisely.

“Sitting here eating dog ball chilli and getting drunk isn’t going to stop them, either,” I growled at him.

Taking out my frustrations on the Harpy’s engineer wasn’t the wisest course of action. But Odo and I had been sniping at each other for weeks now. It started out as the normal shit that gets under your skin when you’re confined to close quarters for far too long a period. And then morphed into the I-murdered-Doc-and-should-die-a-fiery-death guilt fest I had going on.

Odo was more than willing to bury me under it, too. Doc had been his friend. Part of our family. And I’d issued his death warrant.

It was all falling apart. I was holding on by the tips of my ragged fingernails. And all I could think was if I let go, the universe would suffer.

Not that I was the only one who could stop a drone army from bombing its way through the known systems. But so far, Zenthia hadn’t taken the threat seriously, thinking — rightly so — that it was one of their own doing the nuking and — wrongly so — that they’d stop. And no other sovereign nation had been targeted and so they were all staying well out of the firing zone.

You didn’t go looking for trouble out here on the fringe.

Unless you were a pirate.

The gel wall beside us morphed into the face of a female Mutt. I knew she was female, because she had breasts. Otherwise it was hard to tell. She wore worn and battered green armour like the males of the species. She was hairless like the males of the species. She had yellow teeth like the males of the species. And her voice was as deep, when she spoke, as the males of the species.

Malee was not a rip-roaring planet of sexual diversity.

“The Commandant requests your attendance,” she announced.

“Does the High Poobah want the entire Harpy crew or just me?” I asked.

She growled and flashed her teeth, snapping them at me. Odo chuckled but Marvin stepped forward and growled back at the female.

It was only a gel wall, so maybe he thought the risk negligible. But appearance was also everything on Malee.

“Know your place, underling,” he snarled. Mutts could snarl well, let me tell you. It gave me goosebumps.

Odo, for his part, looked like a proud father. He’d make a better one than Malcolm, of that there was no question.

The female glared at Marvin but then bared her neck. Marvin snapped his teeth at her and then stepped back.

It was over in as little as half a minute, but the tone of the conversation had been altered beyond recognition.

“Captain Jameson,” she said in an almost pleasant tone of voice, “would you please bring your crew to the bird’s nest?”

“I would be delighted,” I offered, magnanimously.

Inflaming the situation was not a good idea, and with five Rhodian ales on board, I didn’t think I was up to a verbal sparring match.

“Give us ten minutes to uplift the remainder of our crew, and we will be there,” I added.

“I can advise Navigator Zyla Zarnissa of her requirement to appear before the commandant,” the Mutt woman said.

“No need. I have to take a whizz first.”

She stared blankly. Marvin looked uncomfortable. Odo looked mildly amused; he was used to my outbursts.

“You know,” I added for good measure, “urinate.”

“Ten minutes,” she snapped and disappeared.

“You need to take a whizz, huh?” Odo said, knowing full well I was after a pharma to combat the effects of the ale more than the urgent need to void my bladder.

“Yeah, something like that,” I muttered.

“What do you think he wants?” Marvin asked.

“He’s your dad, kid,” I said, heading toward the lifts.

“He’s not been a father to me for several years,” Marvin told me.

“Well, give it your best shot, then. You know him better than us.”

I hit the pad beside the elevator with my chrono which had been tied into the Chi Virginis system, allowing access to only those places Malcolm wanted me to have access to.

I wasn’t sure that Marvin had any more access than me, and that said a lot about his relationship with his father.

“I don’t know,” the Mutt said beside me.

The lift doors opened and we stepped in without another word. You could whisper out in the hub or corridors, but inside the lifts, there was no escaping the microphones in the gel walls.

In seconds we’d made it to our habitat level and disembarked. This part of the station was better than the rest. An honour we only received, I was sure, because of Marvin. Not that Malcom wanted his son to live in luxury, but appearances were everything and the masses needed to think that all was kosher between father and son.

The corridors on this level weren’t as full, but there was the occasional Mutt about; some spying, some heading in or out of their own private quarters, some getting jiggy with other Mutts thankfully behind closed doors.

I found myself looking furtively over my shoulder more than once and so knocked that on the head. As long as Marvin was with us, we’d make it to our quarters unmolested.

Besides, I had Odo, and the big guy was itching for a fight.

I pressed my chrono to the pad outside our quarters and stepped through when the gel parted. Zyla wasn’t in the communal area, so I crossed to the door to her room. My chrono announced my presence, and the door slid open.

I’d been trying — I mean really trying — to not behave any differently toward my navigator. Zyla was Zenith and Zeniths — for the most part — were xenophobic. And besides, she’d not exactly said it in words. I’d caught the looks. You know, the ones you see when the looker thinks the lookee’s not looking. I’d even seen her get flustered and shy when Zyla Zarnissa was nothing but cool, calm and collected.

But she’d not said the words. And I kinda thought the words should come first. Before I did something both of us would live to regret.

So, I’d been trying to behave like she wasn’t the centre of my universe and that her gravity didn’t draw me in and send me spinning around her as if I were stuck in a geosynchronous orbit.

Or that I didn’t want to see what her long, long legs would look like wrapped around my waist or up over my shoulders or tangled up with mine.

She was my navigator, flux it. My navigator.

“Hey,” I said. Yeah, I could be quite loquacious when I wanted.

She was sitting cross-legged on her bed, which only served to display how long and limber her legs were. Her head was bowed over a vid-screen, and her long, slender fingers were tapping away in lightning-quick fashion on the interface. She didn’t look up when I walked in.

“Hey,” she said back. “Have a nice meal?”

I winced. It was a nice meal if you thought half a dozen beers was starter, entree and dessert all rolled into one.

I didn’t bother to answer her.

“We’ve been summoned,” I said instead.

“Thought we might be.”

“Why’s that?”

She turned the vid-screen she’d been studiously working on around so I could see it. I was too busy staring into two inky black orbs to look at what she was showing me. There was a slight purple tint to them, and as we locked gazes longer, that purple tint became striations of violet and mauve.

She’d been doing that a lot more lately.

I cleared my throat and looked down at the vid-screen.

An image of the Belt was shown. Obviously, someone had sent out patrol ships or observational drones, because their camera had been facing the direction the first drones to come through the cloud of space debris had come from.

“What am I looking at?”

Zyla came up onto her knees on the bed, which placed her head at the same height as mine. She leaned closer and reached over the vid-screen, enlarging the image as if I didn’t have the skills to do it for myself.

Her eyes met mine. I forced my eyes back on the screen.

In the middle of the image was a gap in the cloud.

A gap big enough for a drone fleet to fly through.

Or one small, heavily armed corvette.

“When did this appear?” I asked, studying the images before and after this one was taken.

“Three Standard hours ago.”

“He knows.” That’s why Malcolm wanted to see us.

He’d been letting us fester on his pirate station for days. Letting his underlings see his son back where he was meant to be. And that his son had brought back pet aliens who followed him around like puppies.

I was pretty sure, Malcolm was keeping Cassi to himself, so why else were we hanging around a pirate space station?

If not for the fact that we were Marvin’s pets?

But that wasn’t what had me worried. That gap had been there three hours and so far no drone fleet had flown through it.

Nothing stayed stationary in the Belt. It’s why no-one had been able to navigate through it. It was densely packed space rubble and dust, and it moved and swirled with a lack of predictability. Even Zeniths — the best navigators in the universe — had failed to navigate the Belt.

Until now.

Did the ZNA have something that stilled the debris? That allowed a tunnel to form like the one I was seeing on the vid-screen?

“Shit,” I said. “It’s an invitation to come visit.”

“Yes, I thought so, as well,” Zyla said, slipping off the bed and standing to full height. She moved like a ribbon; silky smooth and sinuously.

She also towered over me. But I was used to that. It’s not as if I was short by human standards. But Zens were giraffes. And I kinda liked Zyla towering over me. It reminded me that she had extraordinarily long legs.

I had a thing for long legs.

“Are we fully fuelled?” I asked.

“Of course, Captain.”

“Odo completed his repairs?”

“I marked them off myself.”

“So, I guess there’s no reason not to RSVP, then?”

Only a slight widening of her inky eyes let me know she didn’t understand.

“Answer the invite,” I said in the way of explanation.

“It will undoubtedly be a trap,” Zy pointed out.

“And we hate those, don’t we?”

“Normal beings do, in any case.”

“Are you calling me abnormal, Nav?”

“Would I do that, Captain?”

“Frequently.”

“Well, then,” she said and left it hanging.

Part of me wanted any excuse to get off this spinning vortex of doom. Part of me knew that flying the Harpy into that gap was suicidal. I had enough of the blood of my family on my hands as it was.

And part of me hated the idea of going anywhere without Cassi. The Ship Basic Artificial Intelligence could do what it needed to do. But it was no third-gen AI.

I had one chance to convince Malcolm that giving me back Cassi was the right thing to do. That’s if I could convince myself that it was the right thing to do.

Cass had been hacked and corrupted. Multiple times. Something that shouldn’t have been possible, and yet, here we were, outcasts on a pirate station.

If I put her back on the Harpy, what then?

Zyla reached out and rested her hand on my arm. I wished she wouldn’t do that.

And I wanted her to do it; for better reasons than offering solidarity in the face of mounting disastrous odds.

“We’re alive,” she said. “We’re together. And we have a ship.”

“And Cassi?” I asked.

“Until we can be certain Cassi is just Cassi, she’s right where she needs to be, Kael.”

It was the God’s honest truth, and it hurt. Odo would blow a gasket. He wouldn’t want to leave Cass behind for any reason, even an honest one.

I didn’t want to either. I was responsible for Cassi, and I’d let my grandfather and Corvus down.

But I knew Zyla was right. Cassi needed to be stripped clean and made safe before we trusted her with our lives ever again.

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s do this.”

And inside my heart was breaking, even as I prepared for the battle ahead.

Odo was gonna throw one hell of a hissy fit.

It said a lot about me that I was more scared about that than I was about the suspicious gap in the Oort Cloud. About the trap Malcolm was undoubtedly about to order us into.

And I would willingly take my ship and family into, as well.

Because someone had to chase that fluxing ZNA dickwad down. And it looked like it had to be us.

Plus, you know, the Mutt had Cassi. And there wasn’t much I wouldn’t do for my girl.




Cepheid Variable



Chapter Two

The bird’s nest took up the top level of the space station if the space station had a top-level to take up. There was no up and down in space, but even though the space station was at a forty-five degree angle to the planet Chi below it, the bird’s nest was considered at its top.

At some stage, I thought, Claxian’s must-have run Chi Virginis. Because Mutts were definitely not birds.

There were Mutt guards on the door when we stepped out of the lift; fully kitted in worn green armour and HUD helmets with plasma rifles in big beefy hands. Plasma worked better as a deterrent on board a ship or station because you could dial down the power until you just stunned your target and didn’t blast a hole in the side of your tin can.

People got antsy if the breathable air suddenly voided into space.

I nodded at the guards and stepped up to the door to Malcolm's lair. They grunted something indecipherable, but I had my own Mutt translator.

“They want to disarm us,” Marvin said.

“Do they now?” I replied and lifted my arms, letting the nearest Mutt search me for contraband of the lethal variety. Last time, we’d been allowed to wear our weapons inside. But Malcolm had become a bit more cautious since we’d returned, it seemed.

I puzzled over that as the Mutt concluded his search, confiscating a knife and my thigh holster complete with plasma pistol. On Zy and Marvin, the guards got about the same for their efforts.

But Odo was a whole level higher than us on the Come Prepared Scale.

The Mutts started to look alarmed when they got to the fourth blade and third pistol. Then they discovered the thin strip of Flexi wire which Odo swore was for fixing something on the Harpy but kinda looked like a garrotte.

I arched my brow at my engineer but said nothing. It was probably a good idea for the Mutts to know how prepared we were to fight and what lengths we’d go to. Of course, there was a lot of damage Marvin and Odo could do without being armed. That’s if Marvin had the courage to fight his own kind.

The doors opened, and I turned my head back around to peer into the low light of the bird’s nest.

A scantily clad human female spun lazily around a stripper pole that we’d been told was structurally important to the station. It would be the first thing Odo took out if we needed a distraction. Velvet covered banquettes lined the walls with gel-coated tables between them. Blue and green lighting strobed from hidden LEDs, and the clink of glasses and smell of high-end alcohol permeated the air, along with expensive smelling tobacco.

But that was all expected and didn’t even make me bat an eyelash.

What wasn’t expected was that Malcolm had redecorated since we’d last been in here.

Half of the space had been given over to row upon row of computer towers. Like the towers you see in the mainframe section of an AI-controlled ship. They hummed and whirred and made the entire bird’s nest hotter than a stroll along the shoreline of the lava lakes on Piscium B.

I stepped automatically onto the gel-coated floor, my eyes all for the computer towers, my mind spinning; the others followed behind me. By the time the doors closed at our backs, I was sweating like a Rhodian whore; my whole body shaking.

And the beer I’d consumed earlier was threatening to come back up because I was pretty sure this was a recent addition, and I was also pretty sure I knew why.

“Cass?” I whispered.

“Hey, boss,” my old friend replied seemingly from nowhere. “Long time, no see.”

“Cassi?” Odo said, stepping forward. His hands were bunched, and his jaw was tense. His eyes darted around the gel walls frantically. “Is that you, Cass?”

“It’s me, Big Guy,” Cassi replied, sounding like Cassi and making this so, so much worse.

Zyla stepped forward as if to hold Odo back, but she didn’t go so far as to reach out and touch him.

“What are you doing in here?” Odo asked.

Odo wasn’t ordinarily slow to cotton onto things. But where Cassi was concerned, he was blinkered.

“Look at the comp towers,” I told him. “Enough for a Lead Vessel in the Sector Fleet.”

Odo’s entire frame jolted.

“I’ll kill him,” he growled softly.

Not softly enough, or maybe Cassi was being compelled to report every whispered word to Malcolm because the Mutt stepped out from the shadows between the towers and started toward us.

“You might find that rather difficult to do,” he said casually. “You are unarmed, after all.”

“I don’t need a fluxing weapon,” Odo snarled and stepped forward.

Zyla stepped with him, keeping pace, just off to his side and slightly back. I found myself walking on Odo’s other side, shoulder to shoulder. I wasn’t sure if I would stop him from attacking Malcolm or help him tear his head off. It was a coin flip which way I’d go.

“There is, of course,” the Mutt said, standing firm in the face of Odo’s ire, “the fact that I have your artificial intelligence.”

“She has a name,” Odo growled. “Cassi.”

“Such a strange thing you New Earthers do, naming your computers.”

“She’s not just a computer, you son of a fluxing whore!”

“Odo,” I warned. He didn’t know everything she could do, but he knew more than most. All those late nights in engineering peering hungrily at her code.

It almost sounded kinky.

“It’s alright, Odo,” Cassi said. “I feel fine. He hasn’t done anything. In fact, he’s trying to help me.”

“Help you?” Odo asked, sounding surprised.

“I was hacked. Remember?”

How could we forget?

“What’s your intention?” I asked Malcolm.

He crossed to a table in the middle of what had to be a dance floor. On it were five glasses and a bottle of Rhodia’s finest whisky. Malcolm liked to show off.

“Let’s discuss this in a civilised manner, shall we?” he said and held a seat out for Zyla.

My navigator looked at me, and I slowly nodded my head. I wasn’t stupid. I could see what was happening here. Not only were we guests in his home, but Malcolm was making sure we behaved ourselves by holding Cassi over our heads.

We had nowhere else to go. No system would take us without firing first and maybe asking questions later. It was Chi or nothing. And Chi was controlled by Malcolm.

It was bad enough when I knew he had Cassi’s code.

Now he not only had our AI, he had reinstated her.

Did he plan to integrate her into the station? Or just house her where she could function and we’d see our Cassi and not just an AI programme?

Make it personal and then it is personal.

Well, shit.

I glanced at Odo and then slapped him on the back.

“Come on, Big Guy. Let’s at least drink his whisky.”

“Of course, that’s what you’d home in on first,” he muttered but took the seat I indicated.

Once we were all sitting, Malcolm finally looked at his son. Marvin kept his head down and eyes averted. I was beginning to wonder whether the position of Combat Specialist was the best one for him. At least he could cook.

I crossed my arms over my chest, ignoring the whisky, and said, “We’re here. We’re being civilised. So, what’s your intention, Commandant?”

Malcolm leaned back in his chair and spread his arms in an innocent, aw-shucks motion.

“You see it,” he said. “I wish to help your artificial intelligence…”

“Cassi,” Odo growled.

“…function as it should.”

“And how would you know how she should function?” I asked.

“You seem to have a very dim view of our intelligence, Captain. We may be warriors at heart, but we are also strategists. Capable of having more than one train of thought.”

“Now, you’re just being ornery.”

“I do not know this word.”

“Pigheaded.”

“Again, I am unfamiliar with…”

“See? And you think I don’t know just how clever you are.”

Anger flashed across his features, and I leaned forward.

“If you hurt her,” I murmured. “I will gut you myself.”

“He’s helping me, Kael,” Cassi said.

“Cass,” I snapped. “He cannot be trusted. He’s a fluxing pirate, for flux sake!”

“Then what do you suggest, Captain?” Cassi snapped back, taking her cue from me. She could effect many emotions, even have a few of them. But mainly she copied people.

Cassi was more advanced than any other artificial intelligence out there. But she was still lines upon lines of code. She had her limits. Less limitations than a Rhodian synth. Less even than her Originator Corvus. But write a line of code and hack it into her system and you could manage to direct her. Control her.

“How’s that hack going for you?” I asked, in what had to be the shittiest way to antagonise someone possible.

“Peachy,” she replied just as faux-sweetly.

“Still there, I take it?”

“And that, Kael, is why I am agreeing to Malcolm’s help.”

“He asked you, did he?”

“Of course, I asked,” the Mutt said slickly. “I would not assume anything where a sentient being is concerned.”

“And you call yourself a pirate,” I muttered.

“Enough!” Cassi shouted, making the gel walls warp all around us.

Everyone stilled. I forced my pounding heart back where it was meant to be.

“Oh, please don’t tell me you’ve tied her into the station proper,” I said softly.

“It was the only way,” Malcolm said.

I stood up. Zy was right there with me. Odo was still stunned, but he lumbered to his feet not long afterwards.

“You stupid son of a bitch,” I said.

“Excuse me?” Malcolm said affronted.

“You’ve compromised the entire space station.”

“There are failsafes,” Malcolm snapped. “Locks in place.”

“She’ll blast right through them.”

“I don’t think you understand the extent of our expertise.”

I stepped forward and pointed a finger at his chest. Several plasma pistols powered up and were aimed at me.

“No, you don’t understand,” I said, ignoring the threat. “She was hacked by the idiots who nuked twenty million people. She was hacked by technology that should not exist in the known systems. She was hacked by something none of us has ever seen. So, no! You don’t understand. And all your expertise means shit because this AI is meant to be unhackable.”

“Nothing is unhackable.”

“Clearly,” I snapped, angry at the situation, at Malcolm, and most of all, at me. Because I’d said too much. “But trust me,” I murmured reluctantly, "Cassi should have been.”

Flux it! This was spirally out of control. It was as if I’d been hacked along with Cassi. Where was my Fleet training now?

“I’m not gonna go all postal, Kael,” Cassi said.

“You still got that infiltration protocol running?

“Yes.” Said in a decidedly angry tone of voice.

“Do my overrides still work?”

Malcolm looked suddenly uncomfortable. I smiled, showing teeth.

“No.” Whispered this time, not snarled at me.

My smile vanished. I looked Malcolm in the eye and said, “Good luck. We’re outta here.”

“Now, just hold on a minute…”

Odo threw a glass of whisky.

It shattered against the stripper pole. Thankfully the human woman had disappeared. In fact, now that I was looking around, it appeared that everyone except Malcolm’s guards had disappeared.

“Easy,” Zy said softly.

“Easy?” Odo growled back at her. “He’s just gonna leave her here!”

“We’ve got no choice.”

“We? No, Zy. It’s all on him. It always is. Cap’s the one who makes the decisions and gets us all fluxed. He’s the one who gets people killed.”

There. He said it. The room fell silent.

“Doc was already dying,” Zyla said.

“But he wasn’t already dead!” Odo yelled.

I stood still; let his anger wash over me. I took the verbal hits, half expecting a physical one to follow. They still hurt. They still bruised me.

But I did deserve them, so I said nothing.

“This is my choice, Odo,” Cassi said. “I would not place myself back on the Harpy and endanger you for anything.”

“Cassi,” he cried.

“This is the way it has to be, for now, Big Guy. Here, I’ve got space to think. To work out how they did it. Because Kael’s right, Odo. It shouldn’t have been possible.”

“Nothing’s unhackable, Cass,” Odo said, repeating Malcolm’s words; ironically.

“Odo,” Cassi crooned. “Darling Odo. I’m not like other AIs. I’m different. Or, at least, I am meant to be.”

Odo shook his head adamantly. “I’m not leaving you.”

“The Harpy needs you.”

You need me.”

“True,” she said, sounding more human than I had ever heard her. It sounded like she might burst into tears. “But they need you more.”

Odo glared at me. No, us. He included Zyla in his accusing glare, as well. Marvin had kept well out of all of this. Which was probably wise but more due to his penchant of avoiding conflict.

I could hardly blame him. This was shaping up to rival an episode of The Real Asteroid Miners & Their Wives of Pegasi B.

“Honey,” Cassi whispered. “We’re family. You’ll come back for me. And when you do, I hope to have this sorted.”

‘This’ being an impossible hack that shouldn’t have happened all while under the watchful eye of a megalomaniacal space pirate.

Odo said nothing.

“You okay?” I asked.

“Flux off.”

“Okay,” I said and turned to Malcolm. “You’ve made your point, Commandant. You’ve got Cassi, and we’d do anything to get her back. So, what now?”

He smiled, showing a row of yellow teeth.

“I’m so glad you can see reason, Captain.”

“And I’m so glad you’re still smarmy,” I muttered.

His smile fell. He looked at his son.

“You will report back to me as soon as you reach the other side.”

“Going through that gap,” — because it could only be the sudden appearance of the gap in the Belt that he was referring to — “is not the wisest course of action,” I said, drawing his attention away from Marvin.

“Like you pointed out, Captain,” the Pirate King replied, “I have your AI and you’d do anything to get her back.”

I shook my head and sighed.

“Malcolm, Malcolm, Malcolm. Don’t you see? You’re not the one in control here. None of us are. Are we, Cassi?”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, Kael,” the AI said sweetly.

“Yeah, right.”

“Would it help if I cackled like an evil witch?” Cassi asked.

“By all means.”

She cackled fiendishly.

“That is creepy,” Marvin muttered.

Yeah, it was.

“Like I said,” I said to Malcolm. “Good luck.”

“Don’t worry about us, Captain Jameson. Worry about what you’ll find on the other side of the Belt.”

“I’m betting on a ZNA outpost, how about you?”

“Really? ZNA? And here I thought you were intelligent.”

That had to be a dig at my comments about his own intelligence earlier.

“Your point?” I asked.

“You said it yourself; the AI has been hacked by technology unseen in the known systems. If it is the ZNA behind these drone attacks, who is their sponsor? Because the last time my operatives reported back to me, the ZNA was a disorganised, poorly trained, zealous group of disgruntled Zenthian nationals. And they certainly did not show the ability to hack a comm relay let alone an unhackable, as you say, artificial intelligence.”

There was just so much to take away from that diatribe. Operatives? Comm relay? Now, that was just being mean. Anyone can hack a comm relay — even the ZNA.

But he did have a point. I looked at Zyla. My engineer just shrugged. She wouldn’t discuss this in front of Malcolm, and I could hardly blame her.

“I suppose we’ll see,” I said instead.

“You do that. And report back to me.”

“Or what?”

“Or,” Malcolm said with an oily grin, “I’ll disconnect your AI and throw her in the trash compactor. See how much space she has then to think about things.”

Son of a bitch.

“You might find that harder than you think,” I said, just as a flash of colour zipped past me.

Odo let out a war cry worthy of any Mutt and landed a punch to Malcolm’s face. I think it surprised everybody. But he should have gone for his throat; Mutts have the thickest skulls in the universe.

In an instant, the room was alight with plasma fire. Bolts of high energy — but not too high to decompress the bird’s nest — crisscrossed through the room, making everything smokey. Odo was hit twice and still didn’t go down. I got a good karate chop to a thick neck of a Mutt and followed it up with knee in his gut, making him howl. Zyla was dancing around the place, kicking like a ninja, aiming for their balls.

I couldn’t have been more proud.

And Marvin? Marvin elbowed a Mutt guard in the face and stole his weapon, firing point-blank into his chest armour.

Hot damn! He did make a good combat specialist.

Shouts and cries of pain echoed across the smokey room; I’d lost sight of Malcolm. I didn’t think the Mutt was a coward, but he knew when to leave the mopping up of the riffraff to his crew. There were more of them than us, but Odo was furious and heartbroken, and Zyla had entered Rage Mode.

Marvin and I ended up back to back. I kicked and punched while he shot at non-lethal parts of the guards' bodies. I was surprised at how well we coordinated.

For a second, I thought we would win this fight.

And then the smoke cleared and the guards were gone.

“Where the hell did they go?” I demanded.

“What do they know that we don’t?” Zy said.

“My father has recalled them,” Marvin announced. “He does not want us killed, and they would have felt honour bound to increase their level of engagement soon.”

“Increase it?” I said.

“They were holding us back so my father could retreat.”

“That wasn’t a full-on Mutt attack?”

Marvin scowled at me. “Captain, we are Mal. We are far better than that.”

And I got the distinct impression he included himself in that descriptor, despite his subservient manner on occasion. Marvin was a dichotomy I couldn’t work out.

And now was not the time to think about it.

“So, what now?” I asked.

“Docking clearance has been given to the Harpy II,” the Mutt woman of earlier said as she appeared on the nearest gel wall. “The passages between the bird’s nest and the docking bay have been cleared. Your path is free of obstacles, Captain Jameson. Please proceed with all due haste to your vessel.”

“Now, ain’t that just dandy,” I muttered.

“Captain?” Zyla asked. “Do we go?”

We couldn’t stay if we wanted to find out what the flux was happening. But could we leave?

I looked at Odo. He looked like half the man he’d been before he’d walked in here. It hurt to look at him.

“Cassi?” I said into the silent room.

“I’m here, boss.”

Oh, flux it hurt. What was it doing to Odo? Odo who, I was pretty sure, was in love with our artificial intelligence.

Don’t even get me started on thinking that one through.

“How far are you integrated into the station?” I asked.

“Does it matter?” she asked back.

“Yes. If we’re to get you back on the Harpy eventually, then you need to curb how far you get into the station now.”

“I’ve done this before, Kael. Or did you forget the first time you took me out of the Base?”

The Base had been Cassi’s first assignment. A New Earth Space Fleet deep space facility keyed into my bio-code. It had been our home for decades. Until I left Fleet — went AWOL — and took their third-gen with me.

“If there is anything of the Cassi I know and love,” I said, fingers clenching, “then you will curb your immersion into this station.”

“Is that an order, Commander?”

Commander had been my Fleet rank. All deep space operatives were commanders. I’d chosen to be called Captain when I bought the Harpy. New life. New rank. New start.

“You bet your binary code, it is, soldier,” I snapped.

“I’ll try,” she whispered. “But the temptation. Kael, this place is big.”

Bigger than the Base. Bigger than the ship.

I could have tried my override code. But I’d done enough damage here for one day, and Cass had said it wouldn’t work. Could I trust her? No. Cassi had been hacked. Had been compromised. But she was still a sentient being. She still had rights as far as I was concerned.

Wasn’t that why I took her with me from the Base in the first place? Because Fleet would have left her there, alone, to rot. Because to Fleet, she was just an artificial intelligence and not a sentient being. Despite the Originators.

Despite her being a third-gen AI.

Despite her proving she was not.

“Do your best, Cassiopeia,” I said and turned for the door.

“Cass?” Odo said, wearing his heart on his sleeve. I stopped and looked back. Zyla reached out and grasped his hand, letting the big guy’s huge mitt engulf her leaner one.

“I’ll be waiting, Odo,” Cassi said. “Come back to me.”

“Always,” my big, brute of an engineer said, tears filling his eyes like sparkling crystals.

Flux, this sucked.

We turned and walked away, leaving a big part of ourselves in the bird’s nest of Chi Virginis space station.


Cepheid Variable



Chapter Three

“There it is,” Zy said from the navigator’s chair.

It had taken us three days to reach the Belt. Three days of Odo moping, and Marvin cooking up a storm, and Zyla being more quiet than normal as we raced toward what had to be a trap if ever there was one.

“I’ve got contacts at three points,” she added.

“Show me,” I said, leaning forward and swiping my vid-screen to mirror hers.

Highlighted points of interest came up on the threat display. It was almost as good a threat display as the one I’d had added aftermarket to the original Harpy. That felt like a lifetime ago.

And the original Harpy was now a smear of dust across Ceres Alpha along with Doc.

I rubbed my face and waited for the Harpy II’s scanners to identify the targets.

“Two drones and a Zenthian patrol boat,” I said.

“Hardly surprising,” Zyla offered. “My father, if he survived the Zenthia Actual blackout, would have taken action to cover all possibilities.”

Zyla’s father was the High Councillor for Zenthia. It was to him we’d sent the drone data the Zarnissa twins on Ceres Alpha had compiled, along with some anomalies in Cassi’s programming. In doing so, we’d set off a Trojan Horse programme that had shut the Zenthia Actual space station down for a very long and terse forty-eight hours.

Somehow their orbit had remained stable, partly because they flew every fluxing battleship in and tethered it to the station, using their engines to keep the whole damn thing from plummeting down the gravity well.

They were up and running and defending their home planet again now, possibly at a diminished capacity, but who would know? And although nothing had been said about any deaths as a result of the blackout, we had also not seen Zyla’s father’s face on any newscasts either.

And Zy had been reluctant to contact him again when it had been through our isolated comms relay that we’d sent the original Trojan Horse code.

She didn’t say much, but I knew it was eating away at her. This not knowing. But Zy had chosen to walk away from the High Council, and what it stood for, for reasons I wasn’t completely sure about. It was a little more than just familial rebellion, but Zy was a private being, and we hadn’t had a chance to have a heart to heart on Chi Virginis.

Still, I probably should have sat her down and asked her how she was. We had been trucking toward the Belt for the past three days, all of us rattling around inside this state-of-the-art corvette — each of us with our own demons to battle.

I stared at the vid-screen now and watched the flight pattern the Basic AI was tracking of the Zenthian ship. A standard patrol pattern, if I wasn’t mistaken. But they weren’t camouflaged, so they were quite happy for whomever owned the two observational drones to see them marking their territory.

“Any emissions from stealth vessels?” I asked.

Negative, Captain,” replied the Basic.

Every time the Ship Basic AI spoke, I wanted to cringe. It felt like a betrayal asking it questions, using its more rudimentary computing skills, letting it remain activated at all. But although we could operate the corvette without an AI to assist us, it would be harder, and we’d inevitably make mistakes with such a lean crew.

Marvin wasn’t fully space flight trained. Mutts can fight, but they do most of that dirtside. He clearly knew his way around a computer and could manage in zero-g, but I was betting his space flight experience was actually limited.

Despite his father running Chi Virginis space station.

And then there was Odo. Shit, I didn’t even want to think of what was happening down in engineering. My guess, the Basic had been shut out of Odo’s domain.

I really should have headed down there and checked on the big guy.

But he’d been eating with us, so that had been enough.

Time to stop wallowing.

I let out a sigh and sat upright in my seat.

“Camo still good, Nav?” I asked.

“Functioning as it should, Captain.”

“Maintain position, then.”

“Maintaining position, aye.”

“Basic, ship-wide hail.”

Ship-wide comms activated, Captain.

“All hands, all hands, meeting in the mess, ASAP.”

The comm shut out.

“You have a plan,” Zy said; not a question.

“I have a lecture to give,” I muttered and stood up. “Basic, you have the bridge.”

I have the bridge, Captain.

“After you, Nav,” I said, indicating the exit to the bridge.

Zyla came to full height like a long drink of cool water and glided out of the room. I followed behind, smirking to myself. I really needed to get laid. Not that that was a possibility out in the middle of bumflux nowhere. But a guy could dream.

We entered the mess a few moments later to find Marvin laying out snacks on the table. He’d spent most of his time in here and some of it in the armoury stocktaking. Malcolm hadn’t spared any cost outfitting the corvette.

I knew why, now, of course. Because he saw us as a means to an end. A sleek, swift, fighting machine he could direct where he needed it, and it wouldn’t lead directly back to him. The ship was registered to me. I owned it, outright. Because Malcolm had made it that way.

If we were stopped and inspected, I reckoned Chi Virginis wouldn’t come up in the registry at all.

We were Malcolm’s ace up the sleeve; I just hadn’t figured out what a pirate would want with a seemingly legitimate small cargo hauler outfitted like a mini battlecruiser on steroids.

Still, his manipulation meant we had one hell of a sweet ride.

I stared at Marvin now as I took a seat, Zy sliding into the seat beside me. At one time, Marvin had been aiding Odo in engineering. But the ship was in pristine order and didn’t require much maintenance. Which meant Odo had told him his time was his own and to sod off out of engineering.

Shit, I’d been a crap captain.

I scrubbed my face and felt more than saw Odo walk in. It was as if he wore a dark cloud and everywhere he went the electrical charge of a storm followed him. The air practically crackled with lightning and thunder.

It hurt to look at him.

He had to snap out of it.

“Okay,” I said. “Everyone’s here. Good.”

All eyes turned toward me, except Odo’s. His were set on the sandwich he was making from the condiments and fillings Marvin had placed out for us.

It was easy to excuse his behaviour because he was eating. And in my mind, you ate when you were healthy; physically and mentally. You didn’t eat if your world was fluxed to shit.

Odo was eating so I’d let him be. Well, no more.

“We’re maintaining a twenty thousand kilometre distance from the gap in the Belt,” I said. “Two observational drones of unknown origin are present as well as a Zenthian patrol boat. It’s not camouflaged, so it wants us to know it’s there. There could be more vessels in the vicinity, stealthed, but we’re not picking up stray emissions.”

“I’ll keep the scans going to be sure,” Zy said.

I nodded. Then stared at each of my crew. We weren’t a big crew. We were tiny, actually. For a ship this size, we were practically understaffed. But we made it work because we were family. And when one of your family was hurt, you didn’t leave them to battle that dark alone. You stepped up.

You stepped in.

“Malcolm wants us to go through the gap,” I said. “But we know it’s a trap and doing so could prove fatal. If we wait and watch, someone else might do it for us. But considering there’s only a couple of drones and a patrol boat out there, I’m not holding my breath. And if we wait too long, the gap might close, so we’d miss the opportunity completely.”

I looked each member of the crew in the eye.

“I want your thoughts,” I said. “If we go in, it could get rough. We all need to be on board for this. It’ll take a group effort to make it to the other side, and God alone knows what we’ll find when we get there.”

I looked at Marvin. “Marv?”

“You know I have no choice, Captain. My father would not allow the rebellion.”

Which made me look at Zyla.

“Nav?” I asked.

“I think we do it. No-one else will. And we need to know how the ZNA is sending the drones through and why they’re on the other side of the Belt doing it.”

“All good questions,” I said. “Odo?”

We all looked at our engineer who was stuffing his face as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

“Not like you to ask,” he mumbled through a mouthful of bean sprouts.

“I’m asking now.”

“Why?”

“Did you not hear my speech at all?”

“Nice speech. Pretty words. Means jackshit nothing.”

The air thickened; that storm about to rage.

“We’ll go back for her,” I murmured.

And the storm became a Category 5 hurricane.

Odo stood up and in the same move tossed his plate up into the air with one hand and then slammed it into the gel wall with the other. It actually stuck out of the gel, partway up the wall of the mess.



Food had been tossed all over the place when he’d done it, but that wasn’t enough for the Cyclone King. He swiped his hand over the gel table, making all of Marvin’s nice little fillings and condiments scatter. Then he tried to lift the gel table up in a Hulk Gone Mad move, but it was thankfully firmly attached to the floor.

Marvin had stood and taken a step back, kitchen knife in hand as if he would slice at any stray tomato thrown in his direction. Zy had remained seated, a calmness that belied her ability to react if needed.

I’d stood, because sitting when Odo had a hard-on for seeing me dead wasn’t the wisest move and I wasn’t stupid.

“Care to talk about this?” I asked.

“I’m done talking.” He turned and headed toward the door.

“Basic, lock down the mess,” I said calmly.

The gel door disappeared into the gel wall.

The mess is locked down, Captain.

Odo was like a caged tiger. He raged. He stomped. He threw punches at the gel, the wall morphing so he wouldn’t fracture his knuckles. And then he started pounding on the gel wall where the door was with his bare palms as if he would combust if he didn’t get the flux out of here.

I walked up behind him and kicked out his leg, making him fall to the ground. Then I pressed my knee to his stomach and my elbow to his throat and leaned into his distorted and furious mug.

“Enough!” I growled.

He tried to buck me off, but I held firm. Physics could be a bitch, and I wasn’t above using it to get an advantage.

He punched me in the side of the head, and I saw stars.

And then we were rolling and punching and kicking and, fluxing hell, biting and grunting and moaning and in the case of Odo screaming bloody murder.

Until Zyla tipped a jug of precious-on-a-spaceship water all over us and sent us spluttering.

I had a busted nose, and a swollen eye, and my jaw felt twice as big as it should have been. Odo had a twisted finger and puffed up cheek, and he was starting to look like a racoon from Old Earth.

We sat panting and snorting and glaring at each other and then Zyla stepped in between us and crouched down to our crumpled heights.

“Marvin and I are leaving,” she said. “You will talk this out and clean this mess up and then return to your stations in preparation for whatever the fluxing hell we decide we should do next. Understood?”

I nodded.

“Understood, Engineer?”

Odo nodded.

“Come on, Marvin,” she said, standing again. “We’ll watch that patrol boat from the bridge.”

“Yes, Navigator.”

“Kiss-arse,” I muttered, and Odo snorted.

Zyla cast me an unamused look and stormed from the room, Marvin chasing after her. I hadn’t even heard Zy ask the Basic to release them, but maybe the Basic didn’t want to hang around for this either.

It was gonna hurt.

“When have I ever not come for you?” I asked into the remaining silence.

Odo said nothing.

“When?” I pressed.

He grunted and shrugged. Then winced and rubbed at a bruise on his shoulder.

“Four decades, Odo,” I said. “She’s been my constant companion for four decades. Do you honestly think I don’t love her?”

“You ordered a self destruct.”

And there it was. Doc all over again.

Flux it!

“Cassi is a third-generation artificial intelligence,” I said. “A highly evolved self-learning AI. She is more advanced than a Rhodian synth. More advanced than the Originator AIs. She’s New Earth’s secret. What we’ve chosen to keep hidden away in remote bases throughout the known galaxies until we needed them. One third-gen could run all of New Earth. One third-gen could annihilate us. She is powerful, self-sustaining, sentient, and when given the correct access codes, unrestrained or restricted by any normal AI programming. She is the ultimate weapon in the wrong hands and a backdoor into New Earth for our enemies.”

He stared at me, open-mouthed.

“The code you read,” I went on, “when you were alone with Cass down in engineering, is just a shadow of her base code. It’s what anyone will see if they peek inside her. But take her offline, throw her in a room full of computing towers, and dissect her? She is magic. And magic in the wrong hands, Odo, is frightening.”

I stared at the gel wall off to the side and sighed.

“I think my grandfather is scared of her and the others like her.”

“Your grandfather? Which one is he?”

“John Jameson, Captain of the AUS Pavo out of Old Earth.”

He scowled at me. “He’s dead, isn’t he?”

“Yep. For a few centuries.”

“You speak about him in the present tense.”

I stared at him. This is why Odo Carlsson was an extraordinary engineer. He saw things. Even when compromised. He saw things others didn’t.

“You want all my secrets, Odo?” I asked.

“You know all of mine, Cap’n.”

I smiled thinly. I thought, perhaps I did. “He’s a hologram back on New Earth. All his memories and experiences rolled up into a tight little package and emitted in 4D laser lighting.”

His mouth fell open again.

“No-one else knows this,” I said. “Not Zyla. Not the government on New Earth. Just the Originators and Cassi.”

“Huh,” he said.

“I’m telling you this because you’re family. You’re my brother. And I know you’re hurting, I know you blame me for Doc’s death — rightly so — but you need to know what’s at stake. What could happen if Malcolm cracks Cassi or the hack does something to put her back in that ZNA arsehole’s hands.

“You need to know that I would do it all over again.”

“Blow her up,” he said quietly.

“Yes.”

He looked lost, wretched. He looked exhausted. I wondered if he’d been sleeping. There was only so much food could do for a human body.

“Do you understand?” I asked.

He slowly nodded.

“Do you also understand that I will do absolutely everything in my power to get her back if I can?”

His eyes met mine.

“I know,” he said, and it was such a simple thing filled with such weight and honesty.

I felt my eyes burn and looked away again.

“I need my engineer at full capacity,” I said.

“You’ve got me.”

“No more shutting out the Basic from engineering.”

He nodded.

“No more pretending you’re alright by eating with us and then going off on your own to do God knows what alone without us.”

He sighed. “Yeah, Cap; I get it.”

“We’re a family,” I reiterated.

“Family,” he said, sounding sad.

I nodded and stood up, feeling aches in places I shouldn’t. I held my hand out to Odo who looked up at me, meeting my eyes for what felt like the first time in a long time, and then his hand slipped into mine; engulfing it.

I hauled him to his feet and we man-hugged; one arm around the shoulder of the other, one palm slapping the back in a manly fashion.

We pulled back.

“You can be such a dick,” he said.

“And you’re an assclown,” I replied.

“Hey! That’s my phrase.”

“Use it or lose it.”

“Oh, really? It’s like that is it?”

I smirked and then looked around at all the mess we’d created. And would have to clean up or Zyla would make us do pushups in the cargo hold.

“Flux it,” I said. “This’ll take hours to sort out.”

“Now would be a good time for an alert,” Odo agreed, grimacing when he took a step and it hurt.

I started to chuckle.

And the All Hands To Stations alarm went off.

I widened my eyes at Odo. He shrugged. Then winced again. And then pouted.

“Contact!” Zy said over the comms. “Captain, you’re not going to believe this, but I think a jump point just materialised one-hundred-thousand clicks from the Belt.”

“A jump point? Are you sure?” I said, starting toward the door of the mess.

“I’ll be in engineering,” Odo said.

“Don’t be a stranger,” I threw over my shoulder.

“How can I be if you keep bugging me?” he shouted back.

I wasn’t sure if Odo was fixed. I wasn’t sure you could fix that type of heartache and worry. But he was back in the fold again, and it was better than nothing.

I limped up to the bridge, feeling every bruise and ache Odo had inflicted. Marvin was sitting in the jump seat, and Zyla was seated in her nav chair. I fell into the command station and groaned loudly.

“Show me,” I said.

My vid-screen altered to pinpoint the location of the suspected jump point. I stared at it and rubbed a hand over my mouth.

“There’s nothing else out there,” Zy said.

Yeah, there was.

“Tight-beam to the jump point,” I announced.

“Captain?” Zy queried, as the Basic said, “Tight-beam active, Captain.

I looked at Zy and offered a wry smile.

“There’s only one ship in the known universe who can lay jump points, love. And he already knows we’re here.”

She arched her brow at me.

Aquila,” I said over the comms, “this is the Harpy. Do you copy, over?”


Cepheid Variable



Chapter Four

“Identify yourself, Harpy,” a familiar male, almost-robotic-but-not-quite, voice said.

I smiled. It had been a long time since I’d heard Aquila speaking.

My smile fell, realising for Aquila to leave New Earth’s system, the Originators thought the threat great enough to risk it.

There would still be Pavo, Vela and Corvus back at New Earth — and wasn’t I glad Corvus couldn’t lay jump points to get here? — but Aquila was the big baddie when it came to the Originators.

Not as stable as Pavo or as agreeable as Vela or as jovial as Corvus, Aquila was a strait-laced, do-it-by-the-book badass jump point creator.

If he thought it necessary for New Earth to have access to the Belt, then Gramps had convinced the Originators that this was a threat to all of us in the known systems.

Not just Zenthia.

It was a relief and a concern. It made everything more real, all of a sudden.

“This is Captain Kael Jameson,” I said over the comms, “formerly of NESF. Hello, Aquila. Long-time, no-see.”

“Kael,” Aquila said. “Why can I not sense Cassiopeia?”

Straight to the point, that was our Aquila.

I grimaced.

“Cassi is not integrated into the Harpy II,” I said.

Silence as, no doubt, the big colony ship flew closer. It was camouflaged, a more recent addition. For a long time, the Originators had refused to alter their aesthetics. They updated their armament when needed, and made sure they had the latest gel tech on board, but integrating stealth into their systems was something that took a century or more for them to agree to.

Thankfully, when they did relent to the pressure from the New Earth government to include the alien tech in their systems, it didn’t backfire on anyone.

I’m not sure how we could have handled the powerful sentient AIs on board the colony ships going batshit crazy all over again because of an incompatibility issue between the alien tech and our own.

Now, they could stealth with the best of them.

And wasn’t that a little scary when I thought of Corvus and what she would say about Cassi?

“I see,” Aquila finally replied in what had to be the creepiest tone of voice from a computer.

Not that I really thought of the Originators as computers anymore. I’d long since got past the xenophobia some New Earther politicians still had.

“Heave to, Harpy,” Aquila announced. “Prepare for boarding.”

I blinked. Aquila was integrated into the ship. He couldn’t board. Which meant either Gramps had brought his hologram out to the Belt to berate me, or someone from New Earth was here.

And if they were on board Aquila, then they would be a high ranking official at best or a high ranking Fleet officer at worst.

I groaned and activated the comms.

“Heaving to, Aquila.”

“Send location.”

I looked at Zy. She looked emotionlessly back at me. This was my playing field, my game to win or lose.

“Sending,” I said.

I sent out our location data so we wouldn’t have to lower our camo and waited for Aquila to acknowledge. It didn’t take long. And he didn’t bother to verbally acknowledge, either. A tone and line of code were all I got.

“I do not like this, Captain,” Zyla said.

“Ditto,” I agreed. “If it’s Gramps, we’ll be okay.”

“And if it is not?”

“Then we better be on our best behaviour.”

“This is a New Earth designed ship,” she pointed out. “Possibly a stolen one. Probably a Space Fleet asset. How would you suggest we behave ourselves?”

I shook my head and rubbed my face.

“Ship-wide comms.”

Ship-wide comms active, Captain.”

“All hands. Prepare for boarding. We’ve got visitors, and they’ve brought the Big Guns.”

“Big Guns?” Odo asked from engineering.

“Either a grumpy grandfather or a grumpier Space Fleet officer. Either way, we’re in deep shit.”

“Just as well the Mutt filed the ID number off, then, ain’t it, Cap’n?”

I couldn’t help but smile. Considering it was Malcolm we were talking about, I was reasonably certain Odo was right. Somewhere there would be a trail leading to a retired corvette in the NESF and a sales docket pointing to miscellaneous owners before they reached me.

Still, as I made my way down to the docking hatch, Zyla a silent shadow at my back offering her support, I couldn’t help thinking this was out of the ordinary for New Earth.

Getting here as quickly as they did from New Earth’s system meant they would have been laying jump points for a week. Which meant if it was Gramps who had put a bullet up their arses or something they determined by themselves, the government had ordered Aquila out to the Belt before we’d left Chi Virginis.

But a few weeks after we’d had Pi Mensae dropped on our heads.

Pi Mensae was a Zenthian owned planet. So far, all the drone nuked planets had been. This appeared to be firmly in the realm of an internal Zenthian conflict to anyone looking in from the outside. But none of the powers in the known systems would be stupid enough not to pay closer attention to what was happening on Zenthia or in and around their space.

Those observational drones sitting out there probably belonged to Malee and Rhodia. It also made sense, like Zyla said, that Zenthia sent a patrol boat and not just a drone, as they were the closest to the Belt and the ones being targeted.

But for New Earth to send Aquila meant they believed — or were worried about — the propaganda. The Harpy II was a New Earth designed vessel, and despite Malcolm no doubt laying a legitimate-looking trail to me as the current owner, that trail would have originated on New Earth.

Zenthian internal conflict or not, New Earth had been pulled into it. And they’d sent someone out here to watch their interests in the coming battles.

Because like it or not, battles were coming. At least, there were more drones on the way, I was certain.

That gap was an invitation. To us or to anyone, who knew? But if the ZNA wanted galactic attention, they were getting it.

Everyone had eyes on the Belt.

And, unfortunately, on the Harpy.

Docking clearance has been requested by NESF Aquila, Captain,” the Ship Basic announced.

“Grant it,” I said, standing at ease beside the docking hatch.

Granting docking clearance to the NESF Aquila’s Shuttle Alpha-01.

My insides were churning. My mouth had gone dry. The last time I’d seen my grandfather had been almost eight years ago now. The last time I’d been in front of a Fleet officer had been over a decade.

Either way, this was the last place I wanted to be right now.

The ship let out a loud clang as the shuttle docked. The Basic communicating with the pilot to guide them in and make the connection when both were in stealth. It wasn’t an uncommon manoeuvre, but without an AI to guide them, it would have been difficult.

Another reason to keep the Ship Basic running when it felt like a betrayal.

I straightened as the docking bay pressurised and the hatch wheel began to spin. I was armed. So was Zyla. But firing on a New Earth representative, whether they be a hologram or a Fleet officer, was not the wisest thought I’d had.

I clenched my fists together behind my back and tried to still my heartbeat.

The hatch opened, and a Fleet Admiral walked through it.

No Gramps. But, then, I should have guessed that. He didn’t like to leave New Earth’s system, and he was a secret, so there was that. Hiding a hologram on board a vessel the size of Aquila wouldn’t have been impossible, but the risk, to Gramps and the Originators, would have been too high.

I was bemused to note that I was disappointed. John Jameson could be a hard-arse when he wanted to, but at least he wasn’t a Fleet Admiral.

I stood to attention and saluted, despite not wearing the uniform or carrying the rank any longer. The admiral saluted back, which meant we were off to a good start.

“Permission to come aboard, Captain?” he asked.

“Permission granted, Admiral Kerr,” I said.

Admiral Kerr had more grey hair than when I’d last seen him; granted from a distance. I doubted he knew me. The name counted for something. But I’d been Deep Space when he was Central Command.

We’d orbited entirely different planets.

The admiral stepped onto the ship, an armed Marine accompanying him. The fact that he’d only brought one with him said a lot about Admiral Kerr’s ability to defend himself. Or his shield tech maybe? He was still trim and fit looking, though, despite hitting the high eighties. But the high eighties with today’s Rhodian longevity pharmas was practically early forties in Old Earth years.

Not everyone took the Rhodian drugs, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a high ranking career officer without some age-defying pharmas in his or her blood.

New Earth’s population density must have been looking a bit compacted by now, I thought grimly.

The hatch closed behind them and sealed us in the small corridor. Admiral Kerr looked around the vessel, his face a blank mask.

Then his hard stare landed on me.

“Captain,” he said. “We have much to discuss. Perhaps somewhere less…” He glanced around again, purposely avoiding looking at Zyla. “Somewhere less public,” he finished with a grimace.

“This is my navigator, Zyla Zarnissa,” I started.

“Alone, Captain. New Earth does not share its secrets with aliens.”

A xenophobe, then. How trite.

“Of course, Admiral.” I threw Zy an apologetic look. She didn’t seem fazed in the slightest.

“I shall be on the bridge, Captain,” she told me.

“As you were, Nav,” I replied.

She glided away, head held high, purple shining in her dark locks. Purple blood Zeniths were from high achieving and powerful families, and Admiral Kerr couldn’t have cared less.

He ignored her, his eyes boring holes into me.

I knew this wouldn’t be pleasant, but his greeting had given me hope it could at least be civilised. Hope was dying a terrible death the longer he stared daggers at me.

“Lead on, Commander,” he snapped.

Well, shit. That said it all. I was in for an arse whipping.

I nodded and turned on my heel, heading toward the small meeting room. We tended not to use it, unless one of us wanted a private communication with someone off the ship. That was a rarity, but the option was there. We liked to meet in the mess, around the big gel table, conversing over Marvin’s superbly concocted meals.

I wasn’t going to taint the mess with Admiral Kerr.

I also didn’t think him seeing Marvin was a wise idea. If his reaction to Zyla was anything to go by, his reaction to a Mutt would border on hostile.

I stood aside as soon as I entered the room and allowed the admiral to choose his pick of seats at the small table. Of course, he chose the head of the table, and the Marine fell into an at-ease stance at his back. The sergeant’s eyes cleared the room and then stayed focused on me, while the admiral made a show of touching the gel table and bringing up a vid-screen.

This was a New Earther vessel; he’d be familiar with it, no doubt.

“Where is the third-generation AI?” he asked after he’d familiarised himself with our systems. It was rude and confrontational, not to mention insulting. For all he knew, I’d come by this vessel legitimately, and it was no longer under Fleet control.

You don’t just enter someone’s home and shit on their couch. You just don’t.

I crossed my arms over my chest and leaned back in my seat.

“Not here,” I replied succinctly.

“You’ve made some modifications,” he said, still going through the ship’s systems on the vid-screen.

I could have locked him out, but that would have shown my hand too early. I thought it best to find out what exactly the admiral wanted before I burned that bridge completely.

“It came that way,” I said.

He looked up at me then. I saw derision in his gaze.

“Forty years at DP-01-Alpha-3 Base. That’s a long time as an operative.”

I said nothing.

“And then one day, you up and leave it all behind, taking proprietary software with you.”

As if Cassi were just a programme; a series of line after line of code.

I decided, then and there, that I did not much care for the admiral.

“Was it the Zenith? Did you fall for her charms and decide to run away?”

Really? The spy falls for his target and defects to the other side? Nice try, dickface.

“We have identified her. She is an alien of interest. Bringing her in for questioning would have elevated your status.”

“I’ve known Zyla for only four years.”

“So, not the Zenith, then. Someone else? Onboard the ship, perhaps?” He pulled out a personal vid-screen and fired it up. “Odo Carlsson, Engineer. He has a history of insubordination in the private sector. Dismissed without reference from three prior places of employment. Present at the rebellion put down on Trinity Station.”

“That doesn’t mean he was involved.”

“No. But it does make one ask why he was there.”

“Working for a pittance and under poor conditions, no doubt.”

“Are you a sympathiser, Commander? Do you regret the chances given you in life? Wish to be one of the downtrodden; to feel what it is like to have to fight and scrap and beg for everything just to stay alive?”

I stared at the man. I really didn’t like him.

“Why are you here, Admiral?” I asked.

He smiled a creepy smile.

“This vessel is wanted in connection with an atrocious attack on a sovereign nation planet. One of our allies’ planets. It is our responsibility to do all that we can to seek justice for Pi Mensae.”

Said the xenophobic stuck-up dick.

“We destroyed the drones responsible,” I replied flatly.

“Rather convenient, isn’t it? Destroying the evidence. There is now no way to confirm or deny your link to them.”

“Why would we nuke over twenty million people?”

“Zeniths,” he corrected. “Not people.”

People were only humans, at a guess.

“Isn't it the directive of our ancestors out of Old Earth to call all aliens we come in contact with ‘people’?”

“Old Earth is gone, Commander.” He spread his hands wide as if to indicate the space around us. “This is all we have, and we must protect it.”

“From Zeniths?”

“From any alien species. And if you think differently, then you are not Space Fleet.”

“I wasn’t aware that Space Fleet had changed its doctrine.”

“You’ve been gone for over a decade, Commander. A lot has changed in your absence.”

Gramps hadn’t indicated as such. And I thought he would have told me if there had been a coup on New Earth.

But maybe he wasn’t aware, and the shit was just now — with Zenthia ready to go to war — hitting the proverbial fan.

I shrugged and attempted to appear unconcerned.

I was concerned. I was concerned, big time.

The admiral lowered his vid-screen and sat back in his chair.

“You’re in a precarious position, son,” he said. “This ship is clearly NESF. I don’t know how you’ve managed to burn its identity and lay a false trail, but I will uncover it. That aside, you went AWOL. That is a court-martial offence. You need to be returned to New Earth for trial, ASAP.

“And then there’s the company you keep. A ZNA known affiliate and civilian human terrorist. Both quite capable of engineering the attack on Pi Mensae. I could haul you back for that alone and shove you in a hole so deep you couldn’t see your way out of it.”

He sighed as if this was all a big inconvenience and not the end of my life as I knew it.

“New Earth does not like being made a chump of, Commander,” he went on, once the theatrics were over with. “And right now, we’re in the sights of Zenthia Actual because of the stunt you pulled over Pi Mensae.

“I cannot see any way out of this, but to haul you back in shackles and hand you over to their Embassy. If we do it quickly, then maybe, just maybe, we can avoid an outright war with the most technologically superior species in the known systems.

“Quite frankly, I’ve got no skin in this, one way or the other. You should be behind bars for deserting, making you suffer on a Zenthian prison planet — again — would just about appease my righteous anger. Cowards don’t get second chances.”

Son of a bitch. I wanted to throttle this man.

“But,” he said, leaning forward as if what he had to say was top secret and should be whispered into ears so gel walls couldn’t record it, “if you were to hand over Cassiopeia to me, I might see my way clear to pretending I didn’t find your little shit bucket of a stolen vessel out by the Belt about to communicate with your drone factory.”

He sat back again, a smirk on his face.

“How about it, son? What do you say?”

Flux me; he was serious.

I knew Cassi was a third-gen, and for that alone, I shouldn’t have taken her. But to let me — and the ‘stolen’ ship go — for her return was just plain crazy.

Did he seriously think I believed the bullshit spewing out of his mouth?

“Well, now,” I said. “You paint a pretty grim picture.”

He nodded sanctimoniously.

“But here’s the thing,” I added. “This ship was legitimately purchased. Zyla is not ZNA, nor is Odo a terrorist. We did not nuke the shit out of those planets. And if you look out the port side of the Harpy, you will note a gap in the Belt that is begging to be navigated. Do you really think we’d leave the door open for the likes of you to traipse on into — what did you call it? — our ‘drone factory?’ I knew Aquila was there as soon as the jump point activated. Why, then, Admiral have I not closed the gap to the ‘drone factory?’ Does any of this make sense to you at all? Or am I talking to a black hole wearing the rank of an admiral?”

He stood up. The Marine sergeant stepped forward, lowering his plasma rifle to point it directly at me.

“No-one would miss you, Commander,” Kerr said evenly. “No-one. You’ve been forgotten on New Earth. Your name practically erased from history. The only reason why I know who you are and what you took from the NESF is because I was around when the Deep Space programme was activated. I was there when your name was affixed to that Base.”

Son of a bitch, Gramps had been busy.

“You clearly have friends in high places,” he went on. “But it would be the work of a moment to reinstate your file and have all your criminal activity attached to it.

“Hand over Cassiopeia right now, and I’ll let you walk away and bomb the flux out of Zenthia if that’s what you want to do. Defy me on this, however, and I’ll confiscate this vessel, arrest the occupants, and hand you all over to the High Council for their supper.

“Your choice. Choose wisely.”

I stared at him. I stared down the barrel of the Marine’s rifle. I could order the Basic to lock us down — lockout anyone else on that shuttle. I could sound an alarm and have Odo and Marvin here in seconds. Zyla not far behind them. We could contain this. Eliminate the immediate threat.

And then face Aquila’s railguns afterwards.

Why was the Originator AI helping this arsehole? Aquila liked to play everything by the book, sure, but this type of bullying behaviour was not in his repertoire.

This smelled like the sweaty crotch of a Mutt after they’d fought a hundred eager opponents in the Battle Dome on Malee.

“I’ll need time to discuss this with my crew,” I tried.

“Your time runs out as soon as I exit this room,” the admiral shot back with a sneer.

I didn’t have Cassi to hand over, and even if I did, I wouldn’t give her to this dick-sucking moron if he paid me to.

I had nothing to bargain with and he wasn’t listening to reason. Someone was sending drones from the other side of the Belt, and they’d just issued an invitation to tango.

I spread my arms, opening my palms up and displaying them.

“I’ve got nothing for you, Admiral,” I said. “Tear the ship apart, if you like. Cassi is not here.”

He stepped forward, leaned over the gel table, and growled, “Then you will tell me where the AI is.”

“Not happening.”

“Arrest him.”

The Marine stepped forward. I stood up and stepped back.

“Don’t make this harder than it has to be, Jameson,” Kerr sneered. “Show some backbone, man.”

It wasn’t my backbone I was worried about; it was my fist that was about to be thrown into his smarmy face. But I stopped retreating like the little girl I obviously looked like and growled out an expletive Odo would have been proud of, and then let the Marine wrap Flexi wire around my wrists, binding them tightly.

The admiral lifted his chrono to his lips and said, “Breach the hull and take the ship. Detain any beings you come across, execute any who resist your efforts.”

“You’re overstepping your mandate, Admiral,” I said. “I have non-New Earther nationals on board this vessel.”

“Commander,” he said, straightening his uniform, “you’re up to your neck in dog shit, don’t presume to lecture me on NESF mandate.”

“Suit yourself,” I said agreeably. “But what’s Aquila gonna do when you drag a Zenith and a Mal onboard his ship illegally?”

The admiral smiled knowingly, and I suddenly felt very, very cold.

“The tin can will do what it’s told to do, Jameson,” Kerr said. “Exactly what it is told to do and no more.”

Flux me. What the hell was going on?

I was beginning to think the admiral was right; we were in a heap of dog shit, and it stank to high heaven.


Cepheid Variable



Chapter Five

The corridors on Aquila were silent. A ship this size, there should have been screeds of NESF crewmen wandering about, hurrying from place to place, saluting the admiral at my side, jumping out of the way as the Marine sergeant marched all four of the Harpy’s crew toward the brig.

There was no-one.

I couldn’t believe the old colony ship had come out here without support staff of some description. Not carrying a Fleet Admiral.

But there it was in the silence that permeated the hallways, and the doors that ran the length of corridors and were all shut down and powered off, and the chill that washed the air because not every area had sustainable life support and Aquila had obviously recently made this route viable to biological lifeforms.

What the flux was going on here?

The admiral never stopped, clearly knowing his way around the vessel. He took us to the central hub, which was empty and silent like a tomb would be. He activated the lifts with his chrono and stood humming a tune under his breath. I looked across at Zy and Odo. Zyla probably didn’t know what the inside of a New Earth colony ship should look like so stared blankly back.

Odo met my eyes and arched his brow.

Yeah, this was fluxed.

The Marine shoved Marvin in the back with his rifle as soon as the lift door opened, and then we were packed inside like tinned sardines.

The admiral’s chrono chimed.

“Go ahead,” he said.

“The Harpy II has been brought on board, Admiral. The vessel is locked down and powering off.”

“The Basic give you any trouble?”

“Negative, Admiral. Standard Ship Basic responding to all Fleet overrides.”

An oversight Malcolm would undoubtedly regret.

I missed Cassi.

But I couldn’t help but feel relieved that she wasn’t anywhere near the Harpy II right now.

We exited the lift onto what I assumed was the command deck. The bridge would be here somewhere, along with the old mayor’s offices and leaseholder’s quarters. We turned right at the behest of the Marine as the admiral turned left. The old man said nothing, leaving us in the tender care of his sergeant.

“Nice digs,” I said as we came up on the mayoral hub.

“The brig wouldn’t be good enough for the likes of you,” the sergeant spat.

“So why not put us there?”

“Admiral wants you where he can keep an eye on you, I suppose.”

“Not enough Marines on board to guard the brig and the bridge, then, huh?”

“Shut up.”

He accessed the pad to the mayoral offices and stood aside, expecting us to enter. I shrugged and stepped into what passed for luxury several centuries ago on Old Earth.

The gel walls had been updated, but I thought perhaps the furniture had not. There wasn’t any dust; Aquila wouldn’t go for that, but clearly, the desk was ancient and the chair behind it not much younger. The sofas and armchairs sitting off to the side were all fairly obsolete looking tech as well. Everything else that might have been in here at one time had been removed long ago for recycling.

The Old Earthers lived on the colony ships for half a century before New Earth was habitable and deemed safe enough to move house. Everything they needed, they printed on massive 3D printers down in the guts of the vessels. They moved into state-of-art accommodation on the surface of the planet and left the colony ships orbiting the new human homeworld with a minimum amount of crew manning them.

I’d always thought that it must have been a hard time for the artificial intelligences. A hard time for those crew and passengers who had bonded with the sentient computers as well.

For a while, they used the ships as their base of government and centre of military might. But eventually, the Trinity Space Station was fabricated, and they shifted a military presence there and everyone else down onto New Earth.

 Trinity had grown since those early days and now could compete with Zenthia Actual for sophistication and size. But the colony ships were never retired, because how do you retire an immortal sentient being like Aquila and the others?

You can’t.

So, they communicated via wireless and tight-beams and were used for official functions and at times of war.

The mayoral offices, however, were not necessary for any of those situations so had not been updated.

I wandered across to the desk and turned around, meeting the hard eyes of the sergeant.

“Someone will come for you shortly,” he said and shut the gel door.

Zyla crossed to it immediately and tested the lock. We didn’t have access, which was a given, but it had been worth testing as well.

“This sucks balls,” Odo said, and threw himself on a couch.

“I have always wondered what your infamous colony ships looked like on the inside,” Marvin said. “I must admit, I am not impressed in the slightest.”

“What did you expect?” I asked, genuinely interested in what the alien thought of our original tech.

“I thought there would be more windows.”

I laughed and then the laugh became a strangled cough as Aquila made the gel wall part and provided a window to outside the vessel.

“Ah,” Marvin said. “I had forgotten about the gel walls. They caused quite a sensation, I believe, when you first appeared in our space.”

“New Earth isn’t your space,” I said. “It’s light-years away from Malee space.”

“Captain,” he said, “Anywhere not Old Earth is our space.”

“That’s a bit of a dickhead thing to say,” I offered, clearly hanging out for a fight to bleed off some of the frustration I was feeling.

“I refer to all those known species in the known systems when I use the word ‘we’.”

“Oh,” I said. “The royal ‘we’. I get it.”

He scowled at me, uncomprehending.

I paced across to the window and looked out onto the Belt. The gap was still there. Whoever had created the path through the unnavigable Oort-like cloud of space debris couldn’t see us; hadn’t seen the Harpy. But they were waiting.

The Zenthian patrol boat was doing its patrol pattern just at the corner of our field of view, and I couldn’t spot the drones from here. That would require a scanner and vid-screen with maximum magnification.

“What’s the plan, Captain?” Zyla asked, coming up to my side.

“Haven’t got one,” I admitted.

“That is unlike you.”

I was out of my league here. This was all foreign. And it shouldn’t have been.

“You are former Space Fleet,” Zyla said, surprisingly not in an accusatory tone of voice. “You know more about their tactics — the admiral’s tactics — than any of us.”

“That was perhaps true once upon a time, but it’s been over a decade, Nav. Things change.”

“Have they changed so much?”

I nodded and rested my hand on the gel wall beside the window showing the Belt.

The gel wall morphed around my hand, making my palm tingle. I lifted my hand, and as it drew back from the wall, I spotted words written there.

They disappeared quickly. Too quickly for me to read what they said. I looked at Zy. She was staring out of the window, looking at the Belt, a small crease between her eyebrows. I looked over my shoulder at Marvin and Odo, but they were leaning back in their seats, having a quiet conversation.

I looked back at the wall. It was blank.

Slowly, I replaced my hand on the gel wall.

The gel moved beneath my palm, and I lifted the edge of my hand and peered under it.

The words were back and they didn’t disappear.

I stared at what was written in blue under my hand for a long time and then placed my hand flat on the gel surface. Patting it twice, I stepped back. The gel wall was clear again.

I stood there, thinking. Replaying the moment over inside my head.

Admiral compromised. Code Black.

Well, that was something, wasn’t it? The admiral was compromised. How? What did Aquila mean? I knew what Code Black meant. I was to operate as if deep undercover: Black Ops.

We were on our own. Aquila wouldn’t help us. To do so would be to compromise the operation.

I stared at the wall. The admiral had said Aquila would do what it’s told to do. Exactly what it is told to do and no more. Aquila was operating under Code Black protocol as well.

Why?

What the flux was going on here?

I turned to look at Zyla. She must have felt my eyes on her, or maybe I was wound up tighter than a warlord on Leonis Bb. For whatever reason, she turned to look at me.

Aquila had been very careful how he’d communicated with me, so I had to assume the room was being watched and bugged and he wasn’t about to provide us with privacy.

I wanted the others to know we were in deep shit. Deeper than they already suspected. I had no idea what was going on here, but it wasn’t good. If Aquila was playing possum and felt the need to activate a Code Black, then the Originators knew and were using stealthier methods than I was used to with them to uncover the truth.

I held Zyla’s questioning stare and then stepped forward, reaching out and wrapping my arms about her body. She peered down at me, pulling away slightly. I could hardly reach her ear from here, so I smiled and said, “Come on, love. Just a quick kiss.”

“What the flux has got into you?” she demanded.

“Might as well spend the time doing something pleasurable,” I muttered.

“Kael!”

I reached up, wrapped my hand around her nape and pulled her down to me.

I was meant to be going for her ear so that I could whisper not-so-sweet nothings into it. But I had just announced I wanted a kiss, so I thought it best to continue with that charade first.

Zyla remained stiff, but didn’t knock my head into the next century, so things were looking up. Her eyes met mine as her lips grew closer, a strange look passing over them. And then the purples and violets and mauves in her iris-less orbs caught my attention.

And then the sensation of her soft, warm lips meeting mine stole all cognitive thought.

“What the flux?” I heard Odo say.

“Get a room,” Marvin suggested.

I waved them away with my free hand and kept Zyla locked to me with the other wrapped around her giraffe-like neck, and kissed the object of my dreams soundly.

She tasted like toffee and mint, and something else that I was sure was native to Zenthia. My head was spinning. My heart was beating wildly inside my suddenly aching chest.

It occurred to me, much too late to save myself, that Zyla wasn’t hugging me back. That although our lips were pressed together, she wasn’t opening up and kissing me back. That I was mauling my navigator and she just wasn’t that into it or me.

Embarrassment washed over me, and as I reluctantly but necessarily pulled back, I suddenly remembered why I was doing this in the first place, and jumped on that lifeline like a drowning puppy.

I kissed along her jaw until my lips were at her ear and then I whispered, almost sub-vocally, “Don’t pull back. Or, you know, knee me in the balls. Aquila just contacted me through the gel wall. ‘Admiral’s compromised. Code Black.’”

Her hands came up and rested on my shoulders; her fingers dug in ever so slightly.

“We’re on our own,” I said, aware now Zyla wouldn’t castrate me.

Zyla lowered her head over mine and nuzzled in. Was it wrong for me to enjoy it?

Nah. This moment would revisit me in my dreams.

“How compromised?” she murmured in my ear.

I turned my head and whispered back, “Don’t know. Nothing makes sense.”

The gel door opened, and the admiral walked in.

Zyla and I slowly pulled back, thankfully not looking too guilty. Her hand ran down over my shoulder and arm and then slipped into mine; fingers lacing. She did it as if it were the most natural movement in the universe. As if she hadn’t planned it and couldn’t help it; seeking a further connection and reassurance from me.

Zyla was the smartest being I had ever met. She knew exactly what she was doing.

Slowly, we stepped apart, as if we only just realised we shouldn’t show the admiral how much we meant to each other. Shouldn’t give him another tool to use against us.

I realised when the admiral sneered at Zyla and then turned disgusted eyes on me, that we’d just given him exactly that.

“Take her,” he said to the Marine at his side. “We’ll interrogate the Zenith first.”

I stepped in front of Zyla and growled, “Not fluxing happening, Admiral. You can’t interrogate a Zenith national without due cause. Remember the Andromedae Accord?”

“Do you see any representatives from Zenthia here, Jameson? I can do whatever I fluxing well like. Take her!”

Two Marines stepped forward and approached.

Odo had risen. Marvin right along with him. They started moving toward where I sheltered Zyla.

“Stand your men down, Jameson, or this could get nasty,” the admiral said.

“You’re not taking her.”

“Oh, I’ll return her to you to nurse back to good health. If she tells me what I want to know, of course.”

“We don’t have Cassi!” I tried.

“But you know where the AI is, I am betting. Tell me now, and I’ll spare your…lover.”

He waited.

I felt sick.

Zyla’s hand landed on my shoulder, and she slipped past.

“Remember Zenthia, Captain,” she said.

I tried to reach for her, but Zy could be quick when she wanted. Her flight suit slipped through my fingers like fine silk strands. I took a step and then another, and then felt the blast of a plasma pistol hit me; centre mass. My body flew back through the air and landed on gel that didn’t bother to cushion the fall.

Odo roared. Marvin let out a Mutt war cry.

Two more sizzling blasts echoed in the room, and then all was silent.

I sucked in mouthfuls of air and tried to get up. My body hurt! Those pistols might have been on a lower setting so as not to blast a hole in the wall, but they weren’t set to what was considered a humanitarian level of stun. I ached.

I rolled over and spat out blood. I must have bitten my lip or tongue when I’d been zapped; the gel floor beneath my blurry gaze wicking the blood and saliva away. I pushed up to my knees and then my feet, swaying.

“Kerr!” I shouted, taking a running leap across the mayor’s office.

The Marine at the door hit me twice in the chest; the other already had Zyla in Flexi cord. The last thing I saw was Admiral Kerr leaning over my prone body, smirking.

“You could have saved her a lot of pain, Jameson. But you had to go and be a hero for New Earth.”

What the flux did that mean?

The gel door closed behind them, and I felt a part of me shut down with it. Panted breaths and moaning filled the air, but all I could hear was Admiral Kerr’s words.

But you had to go and be a hero for New Earth.

Was he not acting in New Earth’s interests?

Admiral compromised. Code Black.

What the flux was going on? Was it Zenthia? Was this their play? A stealth attack? Subvert one of our high-ranking Fleet officers and hack into Aquila — apparently unsuccessfully — to get to our third-gen AIs without anyone in New Earth’s government knowing?

Was it the ZNA?

“Cap’n,” Odo said, pushing himself up to a sitting position. “He got Zyla.”

Zy. Flux!

I sat up. The room spun. My hand landed on the gel floor to stop myself from toppling over again. I stared at my hand and then lifted it slightly.

Aquila had no reassuring words to tell me.

“Do something,” I murmured.

The gel floor beneath my hand remained unchanged.

We were on our own. Code Black.

“You could have given him Cass.”

“Shut up, Odo,” I said. “We’re being watched. This is exactly what they want.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said, ignoring me and spitting out a mouthful of blood. He must have bitten his tongue when he was struck — multiple times — by the Marine stunners, too. “No way would I want Cass to be given up. But I hadn’t realised you and Zy were so close. Flux, you guys kept that under wraps, huh?”

I shook my head and stood up. The room wasn’t quite as lopsided as before, so that was something. I strode to the gel door and banged on it.

“Open up! I want to talk.”

I didn’t; I had no desire to talk, at all. But I also had no plan at all — a first for me. And things were pretty much as fluxed as they could get. So the longer I could delay Zyla’s interrogation, the better. Get them focused on me instead of my navigator.

“Open up, wankheads! I got something to say!”

“Cap,” Odo said, distraught. Part of that was over Zyla. Most of it was over the possibility that I was about to give up the — woman? — of his heart.

“Dickfluxers!” I shouted, pounding on the gel door. “Open the flux up! She knows nothing. But I do. Let me talk!”

“Flux,” Marvin muttered, collapsing back onto the couch.

Odo finally shut the flux up, but he looked like death warmed over.

No-one opened the door.

I took a step back and kicked it. A useless fluxing thing to do, but I was mad. Zy was about to be tortured like she was tortured on Zenthia by the ZNA arseholes who she’d joined up with because she believed — in part — their cause.

I was so fluxing mad with it all.

Drones nuking planets from orbit. The gap in the Belt begging to be navigated. ZNA radicals and traitorous admirals.

“Come on, Aquila,” I muttered. “Do something.”

The gel wall beside the mayor’s desk morphed into a vid-screen. The view of wherever they’d taken Zyla took up most of the wall, so we could see everything in perfect detail. Every spark of defiance in her inky black eyes — no purple striations to be seen. Every bead of sweat on her brow. Every fine hair on her long arms and the welts around her wrists where the Marine had tied the Flexi cuff too tightly to the gel chair.

The admiral walked into the room up on the screen, and I found myself walking toward him. Although, I’d never reach him because this was a vid-screen on a gel wall and he wasn’t actually there.

I wanted to punch something.

Zyla lifted her chin and glared at him.

“Such defiance,” Kerr muttered. “For a ZNA activist, you certainly think highly of yourself.”

He didn’t know who she was. Not the real Zyla Zarnissa. He thought she was just a disaffected ZNA radical. Not the daughter of the High Councillor.

I wondered if she’d break her silence. I wondered if she’d throw his impending death in his face.

But Zy hadn’t cracked when the ZNA had her. She hadn’t blown her cover then, so why would she now?

And I suddenly knew what she meant when she’d said, ‘Remember Zenthia.’

Remember that she’d survived interrogation before and hadn’t cracked and so she’d survive this one as well without giving up Cassiopeia.

I reached up and traced a finger down her cheek on the vid-screen gel wall.

“Shit,” Odo muttered just behind me.

“They want us to watch,” Marvin said, sounding appalled.

“I’m gonna kill him,” I whispered. It was a pathetic, hollow threat, and I knew it.

I felt it in my heart as it tore apart.

“Where is the third-generation artificial intelligence called Cassiopeia?” Admiral Kerr asked Zyla up on the wall.

She said nothing.

“One more time. Where is Cassiopeia?”

Zyla stared straight ahead.

Admiral Kerr lashed out with a closed fist, punching Zyla hard on the side of her head.

Marvin growled. Odo swore. I slowly fell to my knees, my hand resting on the gel wall, still touching a bleeding and concussed Zyla up on the vid-screen.

“Where is Cassiopeia?” Kerr repeated.

Zyla lifted her head, looking him straight in the eyes, and smiled.

It wasn’t until the admiral ran out of strength, after punching Zyla repeatedly and getting nowhere, that I realised Zyla’s eyes had gone completely purple.

No longer black. Just that stunning purple they got when she sometimes looked at me.

She didn’t crack. She didn’t even act as if his repetitive beating hurt her. Blood flew. Teeth were knocked out. I was sure her breathing was laboured because he’d fractured a rib and her lung was punctured.

But still, Zyla lifted her chin and stared the admiral down.

And still, he kept hitting her. Until he simply ran out of steam.

Marvin looked like he was about to rampage through the vessel.

Odo had murder in his eyes.

All I wanted was to get to Zyla.

The admiral kept at it. He got nowhere.

And Zyla watched him out of swollen, purple eyes that speared right through me.


Cepheid Variable



Chapter Six

The gel door opened, and we charged the Marine as one. Marvin grabbed his rifle and pushed it to the side, so when he fired, it hit the gel wall. I grabbed his helmet and twisted it off. Odo punched him hard on the nose and then again on the temple.

He collapsed to the gel floor, and I stepped out of the mayor’s office.

Admiral Kerr held a blaster to Zyla’s head.

“She might be able to survive a beating, Jameson. But I doubt she’d survive a plasma bolt to the side of the head.”

“Zy,” I said on a rush of heartache.

Her purple eyes met mine.

“Captain.” Her voice was slurred. I could see the gaps in her teeth. Blood coated those that remained and dribbled down her chin, landing in splats against her crumpled flight suit.

It was frightening.

She’d been beaten worse by a New Earth admiral than she had by a goon in the ZNA.

The universe stopped expanding. Everything hung suspended in the heavy air. My eyes met the admiral’s. He saw his death in my stare. I knew he did because he paled significantly.

“I’ll kill her,” he growled. “Don’t mistake my restraint now as compassion, Captain Jameson.” Compassion? “I will blast a hole in her alien head and sleep well afterwards.”

“Who the flux are you?” I demanded.

He relaxed slightly.

I charged him.

Marvin fired the plasm rifle he’d taken from the Marine and landed what had to be a one-in-a-million shot, taking out the admiral’s hand and not hitting the blaster it had only just been gripping.

The gun clattered to the floor, and I wrapped my arms around the admiral’s chest, sending us flying. Behind me, Marvin took out a Marine guard, while Odo mopped up his partner.

There’d only been two. It begged the question of how many the admiral had managed to subvert. Two Marines? It seemed laughable.

It would have also been nice if Aquila had given us the lay of the land before we decided to go vigilante on the admiral’s arse. But in retrospect, I couldn’t be sure if the AI had been compromised. Cassi had been, and she was a third-gen. Aquila was an Originator; first generation only. He might have been behaving like he was deep undercover, but that could have been an act.

And, I reluctantly admitted if only to myself, I’d stupidly thought I could negotiate with Kerr. Believing, as I did when we boarded, that Aquila was following orders and that despite being AWOL from the NESF, I shouldn’t rock the boat any more than I had to. I’d held back. Waited. Tried to get an understanding of what was going on.

And my navigator had almost been beaten to death because I’d acted like an NESF officer and not an outlaw.

The ZNA wanted to blame us for Pi Mensae. Across the known universe, the Harpy II was accused of doing nothing to save twenty million people. They already thought us outlaws; it was time we acted like it.

I’d had enough of this slow dance.

I punched Admiral Kerr in the throat and then kneed him in the balls. And then I was throwing fists and screaming at his bleeding face and having to be pulled off his pulverised body as Odo shouted something in my ear and Marvin picked up an unconscious Zyla and Aquila’s gel wall turned red.

“And you can go to fluxing hell, too,” I yelled at the AI.

“The admiral is under attack,” Aquila said in a robotic sounding voice over the ship-wide comm. “The prisoners are escaping. Secure the bridge. Secure the bridge. Secure the bridge.”

“Fluxing thing is going batshit crazy,” I muttered, struggling out of Odo’s grip. Marvin was already well ahead of us. Zyla in one arm, slung over his shoulder, the rifle in the other. Odo handed me the admiral’s blaster; he was already armed with the other Marine’s plasma rifle.

We raced to catch up to the Mutt, but getting off this deck and down to the shuttle bay where the Harpy was located was a big ask.

My ear buzzed.

I shook my head and ducked around a corner. No Marine stepped out and shot my head off, so that was a plus. Zyla was still unconscious, and a part of me thought she wasn’t going to make it.

Another part of me refused to envisage life without the Zenith in it.

My ear buzzed again, and I rubbed it against my shoulder. Sweat trickled down the side of my face. My knuckles were raw and bleeding from where I’d pummeled the admiral. My heart hadn’t stopped racing.

Zyla was still unconscious.

My ear buzzed again.

“Fluxing hell,” I muttered and automatically ran my tongue over my right, rear molar.

I have disabled the lifts in the central hub, Aquila’s voice said inside my head.

I damn near pissed my pants.

“What the…?”

If you use the maintenance tubes, you can get ahead of the remaining Marines; the AI continued as if I wasn’t going into shock.

I thought only Cassi could talk to me like this.

“Cap’n?” Odo said, running back to where I had stalled in the middle of the corridor. “What’s wrong?”

Two more Marines will be upon you shortly. Kael, run!

Son of a bitch, the AI was helping us.

“Run!” I yelled, and we started sprinting for the corner.

We skidded around to a hail of plasma bolts behind us, entering the leaseholder’s side of the main deck.

The door to the leaseholder’s quarters was open and waiting; I didn’t think it was meant to be. And part of me still thought this was a trap. But the two — only two? — Marines chasing us were firing blindly, and some of their shots were ricocheting off the gel walls and coming fluxing close to where we were standing.

“Inside,” I said, and slammed the door shut behind us.

“Now what?” Odo asked. “If I remember my history lessons correctly, there’s only one way in and out of the leaseholder’s quarters.”

“Oh, this is where your leaseholders used to live?” Marvin asked, peering around with fascinated eyes at all the plush decor.

For some reason, the leaseholder’s quarters had been updated. Probably where the admiral slept when aboard ship.

“Concentrate,” Odo said, whacking Marvin over the head. “Enemy territory.”

“Right,” Marvin replied. “Right.” He started checking out the corners and clearing the unit.

“How long can you hold the gel door?’ I asked aloud.

Indefinitely. I will tell them you have hot-wired it and I am locked out.

Hot-wired. That was good. I smiled.

“Cap’n?” Odo said, peering closely at my eyes. “Did you hit your head or something?”

I tapped my ear. “Aquila’s hacked Cassi’s channel.”

“Cassi had a channel to your head?”

“Yep.” Odo looked jealous about that. “Aquila, can they see us in here?”

You have conveniently, or not, I suppose, hot-wired that as well. They are as blind as I am. You are safe in here, but they have explosives.

“They’d blow up the ship?”

It’s been done before.

I shook my head. The trip from Old Earth had not been an easy one for any of the AI-controlled vessels.

“How do we get out of here?” I asked.

“This is creepy,” Odo announced. “I can’t tell if you’re talking to me or not.”

“Not,” I said, waiting on Aquila to answer.

The admiral has come to and is receiving medical attention.

“Mix up the pharmas or something.”

I cannot do that without blowing my cover.

“Your use of the vernacular has improved since we last chatted,” I observed.

Corvus has been teaching me.

I grimace.

Yes, you should be worried.

Flux me.

“Way out of here, Aquila?”

The gel lit up, arrows guiding us to a bedroom, and a maintenance hatch appeared on the wall.

Adi used to use this one when her father was too busy to notice her and Ratbag sneaking out of their quarters.

What it must have been to have so many memories.

Of course, this is a replica of the quarters Adi used to live in. But the layout is the same.

If I remembered my history correctly, Adi was the leaseholder’s daughter on board Aquila out of Old Earth, and her father was a dick who managed to avoid getting blown to bits in the leaseholder’s quarters when Corvus chucked a couple of torpedoes at it.

Yeah, safe travels it was not from Old Earth.

“Okay,” I said, because what else was there to say to a being that remembered everything and had loved and lost more than most because of the longevity of his life?

I have told the crew that the maintenance tunnels are unbreathable. A fault in the system when they hacked me.

“But their hack was unsuccessful,” I said.

I could hardly tell them that, now could I, Kael?

I nodded. “We use the tubes.”

“Can we trust him?” Odo asked.

“Yeah, I think so.” I looked over at Marvin, who had laid Zyla down on what would have been Adriana Price’s bed in another lifetime. “How is she?”

“She needs the med bay, Captain,” the Mutt said. “I do not know how she is alive.”

I rubbed at my chest and nodded my head.

“Maintenance tunnels,” I said. “Let’s move out.”

Marvin reached down to lift Zyla up again; I stalled him.

“I’ll carry her. You shoot the bad guys.”

“As you wish, Captain.”

Odo gave me a knowing look.

“She’s my navigator,” I muttered.

“Yeah, sure, Cap. Sure she is.”

I gritted my teeth and then followed Marvin into the tube. Odo made up the rear. I was sandwiched between two armed and dangerous beings, and right then, I couldn’t have been happier about it.

“Still safe to talk?” I asked ambiguously.

Affirmative, Commander. The tunnels are a blind spot. The hack, you see?

Some hack.

“Why did they hack you, Aquila?”

Admiral Kerr has been compromised. As yet, I cannot figure out how or why.

“The why’s simple. This is a ZNA or Zenthian attack. They want us in this war.”

I would agree. But the admiral is — was — a very loyal New Earther. His behaviour is out of character, even if he had been fooling us for the past six decades, he is married to a Rhodian.

I stopped in my tracks.

“Not xenophobic.”

Not in the slightest. A good man, Kael.

“And I beat him to shit.”

He’ll live.

“Will Zyla?”

Scanning.

A blue light emitted from the gel wall of the tunnel and washed over Zyla’s form. I held still, but I wasn’t sure if it was necessary.

I cannot heal everything, but I can stabilise her until you get her aboard the Class 10 Gunboat.

“Class 10 Gunboat?”

The corvette you have found yourself in possession of. Nice one, by the way.

“I’ve never heard of the Class 10 Gunboat before.”

New tech, which my scans show me has been improved upon. Impressive. Where did you get it?

I didn’t reply. Don’t ask me why. I was pretty sure this was Aquila, and he wasn’t acting under duress. But fool me once and all that. I skipped over the question and said, instead, “What shuttle bay is she in?”

Aquila chuckled, which sounded creepy in my head.

You haven’t changed, have you, Kael? Good for you. Once you’ve lived in the Black, there’s no going back.

“Please stop,” I murmured, repositioning Zyla when she moaned slightly.

Shuttle Bay Alpha. There is a contingency of two Marine guards in place, which your crewmen should be able to deal with easily. It does help that I have tampered with their rifles. It will appear like a simple malfunction, but once they are dead, it won’t matter if they know I messed with them.

“You’re scary.”

This is fun. I can see why Corvus enjoys skulking about so much. Who knew the female was onto something?

Oh, God, the AI was crazy.

“They’re New Earther Marines,” I said, instead of voicing that thought.

Kael, Aquila replied solemnly, this is an attack on New Earth. An attack on me. They may be pawns, but they are effective pawns. If we allow this to continue, New Earth will be in jeopardy. John, your great-grandfather, is doing everything he can to keep the planet safe, but the winds have shifted since you last returned home, Commander, and it is not so easy for him. For any of us.

I guessed he was referring to the Originators.

Something is happening on Zenthia. Something that has spilt over onto New Earth. Have they, whoever is behind this, attacked Rhodia as well? If so, will we have to deal with wayward synths? What about Malee? A Mutt army landing in New Texas could annihilate thousands in a day. We don’t know who is behind this. The technology indicates Zenthian origins; the tactics say something else.

“You don’t think this is a Zenthian internal conflict and they just want to get back at New Earth for the stunt we pulled on their home planet when we rescued Zyla?”

Going to war with New Earth is not an intelligent option, and they should have known that.

“What if they knew about Cassi and the others?”

Silence.

Then finally, Do they know about the third-gens, Kael?

“The ZNA definitely do. I don’t know about the High Council.”

This is not good news. Why didn’t you tell John?

“Not long known about it myself.”

Your Zenith crewman?

I said nothing, which was saying everything, wasn’t it?

Where is Cassi, Kael?

“Now, why would you think I would tell you, Aquila?”

It was worth asking.

We were walking into a trap.

But why go to all the trouble to get us into the tunnels and away from the admiral? Why help us this much if the AI was only going to lock us down again and make us suffer in the admiral’s tender care?

False hope?

It didn’t make any sense.

None of this fluxing did.

I was sick of all of it, and we still had no idea who was behind the drones and what waited on the other side of the Belt.

Someone was fluxing with New Earth. They’d subverted the admiral; a supposedly loyal Fleet officer. Someone was fluxing with the Belt; a supposedly unnavigable debris cloud of space garbage. Someone was fluxing with Zenthia; using supposedly Zenthian orbital drones. Was that someone the ZNA; a disorganised, untrained rabble? Or the High Council and the High Councillor lied outright to his daughter?

It wasn’t out of the realm of possibilities, I supposed.

The only way we’d find out, though, was if we navigated the Belt. I stared down at Zyla. The only way we could navigate the Belt was if Zyla was at the helm of the Harpy.

Had the admiral planned this?

Had Aquila?

I didn’t know who to trust anymore.

You’re coming up on the maintenance hatch for Shuttle Bay Alpha. Prepare your crewmen.

It felt wrong to follow the AI’s suggestions. Everything felt wrong right now. But what choice did we have?

That seemed to be a question I asked myself a lot lately.

“Shuttle Bay’s at the next hatch,” I announced. “Two Marines. Their rifles should malfunction.”

Should? Oh, please!

“Be prepared for fluxing anything,” I muttered.

So distrustful. Your great-grandfather would approve.

“Oh, we’ll be ready,” Odo said and powered up his plasma rifle.

I noted he had it set to stun. A heavy stun that would knock them out immediately. A heavier stun than the one the Marines had used on us; the admiral had wanted us to feel every blast of pain through our body. To not miss a thing with an instant knockout.

Had he been a loyal soldier?

Or was that man we’d faced the true Admiral Kerr?

And if he had been a loyal soldier, what the flux had happened to him?

None of this was making any sense.

Showtime! the AI said inside my head.

“Now!” I shouted as the gel wall morphed into a hatch and then disappeared.

Marvin slunk out of the hatch like a fluxing ninja. I half fell-half slipped down the gel wall and scrambled to the side behind a crate of something probably explosive. Odo rolled out and fired blindly. Marvin stood up from a crouch, using Odo’s distracting fire, gun blazing, and took the Marines between the eyes, one after the other in lightning-quick fashion.

They fell without having uttered a word.

Or firing a plasma bolt. Could have been the malfunction. Could have been the shock of the attack.

I checked Marvin’s rifle fearing he’d had it set to kill. It was on stun also. I should have known better. This was Marvin. He was a bit of a pacifist for a Mutt. An oxymoron, but there you have it.

I certainly wouldn’t want him any other way.

“Clear!” Odo announced and peered around the edge of the crate I was hunkered down behind and smirked at me. “Cap’n,” he drawled. “You can come out now.”

“I was protecting Zyla.”

“Of course, you were.”

I rolled my eyes.

“Just two Marines?” Marvin asked, checking the guards out and using their own Flexi wire to contain them.

Whoever is behind this has only managed to subvert a dozen people, that we can tell.

‘We’ being the Originators and Gramps, I thought.

“Not enough manpower,” I said to the others. “Come on.”

I started running towards the Harpy, feeling emotional at seeing her sitting there, waiting for us.

I had no idea what we would do next, but I did know we needed off Aquila. The AI had his own battle to fight; I had mine. My crew was my family, and I would keep them safe. But I was still a New Earther.

As if he’d read my mind, Aquila said, Are you ready for your orders, Commander.

“What orders? I’m AWOL.”

You are so deep in the black that your records have been sealed. Only the Originators, John Jameson, and the president know you are operating under a strict Code Black protocol.

“Well, flux me,” I said, running up the Harpy’s ramp.

I handed a still unconscious Zyla off to Marvin who headed directly toward the state-of-the-art med bay. And wasn’t I happy with Malcolm right about now? Then made my way to the bridge while Odo secured the cargo hold and ramp, and headed to engineering, no doubt.

Commander? Your orders?

“How do I know they’re for real?” I asked.

You don’t, I suppose. And you are Code Black, so the choice to adhere to them is your own. But what harm would it be to know them?

I slid into the command chair and fired up the engines.

“Can you get the shuttle bay door?”

Just shoot it. It’ll save me time trying to convince the rat-bastards onboard that I was hacked by a rogue agent not once, not twice, but three times in the space of one hour.

“You really shouldn’t hang out with Corvus so much.”

You’re stalling.

I shot the flux out of the shuttle bay doors. The air rushed out of the shuttle bay, and I had to take a few moments to compensate with the engines, making them roar. Eventually, no external sound could be heard, just the thrumming of the Harpy’s engines through the gel floor.

I looked at the hole in the side of Aquila and at the Belt twenty thousand kilometres out in the Black. The gap still beckoned.

A trap if ever there was one.

Marvin slipped into the navigator’s chair, startling me. I almost told him to get out of it.

“She’ll be fine,” he said and brought up the scanners and weapons; his usual roles when we were fully crewed in here.

Not Zyla’s navigation panel.

I let out a breath of air.

“We are go in engineering,” Odo announced over the ship-wide comm.

“Marines incoming,” Marvin added, adjusting his scanners appropriately.

the Black waited. Whoever was responsible for all this shit waited out there, too.

Aquila waited.

Flux it!

I gunned the engines and shot out into the Black.

Aquila’s laughter sounded out inside my head and faded the further from the ship we got.

Who needed orders anyway?

I was an outlaw. So, I’d better start acting like one.


Cepheid Variable



Chapter Seven

We shot out of the side of Aquila with inches to spare. I thought the Harpy II could probably handle a scrape or two if push came to shove, but I was inordinately happy we managed to extricate ourselves from the shuttle bay without losing a fleck of paint doing it.

Couldn’t say much for our chances against Aquila’s railguns.

High-velocity kinetic rounds shot out of the port side of Aquila, streaking across the expanse of space like red-hot pokers hellbent on turning us into space dust.

I activated the camo and took us into a corkscrew, managing to avoid most of them. But the ship shook when one or more of the flechettes connected, sending alarms blaring across the bridge.

“Report!” I barked, twisting us away from the trail of debris we were leaving — a trail of debris that was exiting our camouflage range and could be used to track us.

Superficial damage to the plasma guns, Captain,” the Ship Basic advised.

“Superficial?”

They are inoperable, but could be made functional again from engineering.

Aquila was clipping our wings but trying not to kill us.

The AI was still on our side.

I activated ship-wide comms and left them active. In a battle, it paid to be able to communicate freely with all areas of the vessel.

“Get on those plasma guns, Odo!” I ordered.

“On it, Cap. Engines at maximum output, but I think I could tweak it to give you a little more boost.”

I checked on the location of Aquila, easily spotted due to the railgun fire emitting from its side, despite the colony ship still being camouflaged. They were pursuing, and Aquila was not a slow ship. Still, I was fairly certain the AI wasn’t maxing his engines yet.

“Guns first,” I said aloud. “Engines afterwards.”

We still had the railguns and a small payload of missiles. But I didn’t want to blow Aquila out of the Black. I just needed to keep the bigger ship occupied.

“Contact!” Marvin shouted. “The Zenthian patrol boat is altering course and heading in our direction.”

“They want to know what all the fuss is about,” I muttered.

I could hardly blame them. Until then, they hadn’t even realised we were in the vicinity.

Thanks, Admiral.

I looked at the gap in the Belt. It was still there, still waiting.

It was a trap, and we were down our plasma guns. Using railguns to move stray asteroids and space debris out of our path while inside that densely packed rubble could prove fatal. Plasmas had a much finer accuracy, and the types of distances that would be available to us inside the Belt would need that exactness.

Plus, we could do with Zyla. I couldn’t even imagine trying to navigate that cloud of crap without a Zenith in the navigator’s chair.

There was just something about their ability to see the space around them in what had to be another dimension that made them slippery suckers in battle.

And entering that Belt would be a battle. I was certain.

I swept the Harpy away from the Zenthian patrol boat, and consequently the Belt, and gunned it. Maximum output meant we leapt into the Black. But Aquila leapt after us.

“Son of a bitch,” I muttered and watched as two torpedoes were released from the AI-controlled ship, and started hurtling toward our heat signature.

Zenith camouflage was good. Even the stock standard camo they sold to non-Zenthians. But at maximum velocity, hiding our heat signature with the camo became orders of magnitude harder.

And Aquila’s torpedoes were high tech. The best New Earth had to offer.

I released countermeasures and spiralled us up above the elliptic. In a move I’d once seen on an Old Earth movie about fighter jet pilots, I kept the Harpy rotating until we navigated up and over the pursuing Aquila, coming down to their plane behind them.

And then I fired.

As a young boy, I’d been fascinated with the colony ships. It helped that I had a great-grandfather who’d commanded one of them available to talk to. Gramps liked to reminisce. The only topic that was off-limits was Ana, his wife.

I knew he loved her. I knew she had meant the world to him as seems fitting to me. And I knew he regretted placing his memories and experiences — everything that made up John Jameson — into a holographic programme without his life partner beside him.

She’d been his first officer; something that was frowned upon in the NESF of today. She’d also been a former New Zealand Army medic back on Old Earth. And I knew, because of my great-grandmother, that I had Māori warrior blood in me.

But I didn’t know how they met or how they fell in love or how they lived once they reached New Earth.

I just knew Gramps loved her and still loved her to this day.

But what Gramps did talk endlessly to me about was the colony ships. The battles they’d had on the trip to our new homeworld. The systems in place. The layout, including their strengths and weaknesses. He’d made me recite them, time and again. For a kid who thought the colony ships and the AIs who controlled them were something out of science fiction and über cool to boot, I’d gladly learnt everything I could about them.

I hadn’t even minded the spot tests.

It was in that moment, while I evaded half-hearted fire from Aquila, as a Zenthian patrol boat approached from the Belt, that I realised my great-grandfather had been training me for just such an encounter.

I couldn’t believe Gramps ever thought Aquila would fire on me while pretending he was under the control of a compromised Fleet admiral, but he must have considered the possibility that knowing Aquila’s — and Pavo’s and Vela’s (who happened to reside on a ship called the Chariot) and Corvus’s — strengths and weaknesses could help me out in some fashion.

I corkscrewed the Harpy through the Black, trailing less and less debris from the hit to our plasma cannons, and pictured Aquila’s diagrammatic layout in my mind. Overlaying the image with the few weak spots the vessel had, I carefully chose my target.

Once I fired, Aquila would still have to deal with the Zenthian patrol boat, so I didn’t want to leave him completely incapacitated. Not that I thought that was actually possible. The colony ships had redundancies upon redundancies and had been updated since their maiden voyage through the stars.

Still, I was reasonably sure I could make Aquila call off his pursuit of the Harpy in favour of repairing the damage I caused, but still be able to face the Zenthian patrol boat armed.

Aquila had taken out our plasma guns. Admiral Kerr probably thought that it was impossible for a corvette to do the same to the bigger ship. And the fact that they had more than one bank of plasma guns meant I couldn’t snuff them all out at once.

But it would be enough to rattle the rank officer. Hopefully.

I was betting my lessons with Gramps weren’t replicated in Fleet Admiral Training School. They sure as hell hadn’t been replicated in Deep Space Operative Training School, so I had some hope.

Aquila’s four huge engine exhausts appeared on my vid-screen, outlined in orange — indicating it was a guess by the Basic AI as to where they were located, based on prior knowledge of the vessel and the minimal heat signature it was emitting.

With my own knowledge, it was enough.

“Sorry, Old Man,” I whispered and fired.

The Harpy’s railguns lit up the night sky, highlighting our own position for the fast approaching patrol boat, and targeting Aquila’s as well.

I grimaced at that, but it couldn’t be helped.

And then I was peeling away, and something dramatic was happening on Aquila, and the black of space became a series of fiery white flashes as several plasma gun banks erupted all over Aquila’s side.

“Holy shit!” I said. “Did I do that?”

“It’s venting air in multiple locations,” Marvin advised.

“What did you do, Cap’n?” Odo demanded.

“I took out one bank! One bank! That’s all!” Or it should have been.

Marvin met my wide eyes.

“You are more adept than you believed,” the Mutt said. “Or plain lucky.”

I shook my head.

“No way! I know those ships; that shouldn’t have happened.”

I gunned the corvette until I deemed us a safe distance away and then flipped us, making the inertial dampeners struggle to keep us within healthy g’s. The nose of the ship now facing toward Aquila, I checked our camo and for any sign of a debris trail. The camouflage was good, and Odo had fixed the plasma guns already.

We were stealthed.

I spooled the engines down, letting them idle. We might still need to bug out of here in a hurry.

I stared at the scene unfolding out nearer the Belt and felt my stomach plummet.

The Zenthian patrol boat was target locking on Aquila.

Aquila was venting air from multiple locations, stern to stem; making a target lock possible even when camouflaged. Its plasma cannons were completely off-line, but it still had railguns and a dozen torpedo tubes, so it was by no means defenceless.

But it — he — was damaged. And had turned to face the greater threat head-on, letting our little corvette escape unscathed.

“He did it,” I said, stunned.

“What’s that, Captain?” Marvin asked.

“Aquila. The AI. He did it. He used our targeted attack on one of the plasma banks to take out the rest himself. He’ll be telling the admiral that we have previously unknown tech that enabled a target lock on all of the banks at once. Or that we must have hot-wired the system while onboard to make such a thing possible. Probably told Kerr that it’s because of his hack that it was possible at all.” I shook my head, humbled by the AI’s sacrifice. “He’ll be lying his arse off.”

“Why?”

I looked at Marvin. “So we could escape. Marv,” I said. “We should not have been able to escape a colony ship. We’re good. We’re nimble as flux. But that there,” — I nodded at Aquila up on the main vid-screen — “that there is a New Earth AI-controlled vessel. It can think faster than any biological pilot, can counteract multiple attacks at once, and carry out thousands of equations while making you dinner.”

I shook my head again.

“Code Black,” I muttered. Son of a bitch, the AI was in Code Black after all.

“What now, Cap?” Odo asked over the comms, no doubt watching Aquila face off against the Zenthian patrol boat on his own vid-screen.

“Aquila didn’t place himself in such a compromised position for us to sweep back in and get caught trying to save him. He’s not defenceless,” I said. “ And despite what’s happening in the known systems right now, Zenthia has not declared war on New Earth. The patrol boat will give them a hard time, question why they’re out here and who they were firing on. But it won’t fire unless provoked.”

I laughed. It wasn’t amused in the slightest.

“Hell, the admiral will no doubt drop us in it; that’s something Aquila won’t be able to help us with. We’ve just increased our street cred across the known galaxies. ‘The Harpy II engages in battle with New Earth vessel in Zenthian space out by the Belt.’”

“That would aid New Earth’s defence as well,” Marvin pointed out. “The Zeniths will think New Earth is trying to deal with the problem internally.”

Something tickled the back of my mind, but the thought slipped away with the remainder of my adrenaline. I rubbed my face, rechecked our settings, and then stared at the gap in the Belt now several thousand kilometres further away.

The two ships on the vid-screen remained facing off against each other, but as suspected no-one fired a single shot.

But the patrol boat was distracted. Now would be the time to sneak around it and enter the gap.

I stared at that gap and tried to decide if that would be the right thing to do. The chances of success without Zyla at the helm were low. Getting another opportunity to slip past the patrol boat was low, too.

Flux it!

“What’s the plan, Cap’n?” Odo asked over the comms.

“Plasma guns back online?”

“Yep. Patched, but not perfect. They’ll work, but they could also glitch out on us at any second. I need to do a spacewalk to check a few things from the other side.”

Aquila had made sure we could repair the damage superficially. Made sure we had adequate weapons protection should the shit hit the fan with the patrol boat. Did he think I’d slip in behind the Zenthian ship and take the chance on the gap? Had that been my orders?

Get to the other side and report?

I was a risk-taker. Aquila would have known that from Gramps. Hell, my records — even sealed as they apparently were — would reflect that. So, he’d expect me to do a crazy-arse thing like slip behind the patrol boat while its back is turned, even though my navigator — which he knows — is out of commission, and my plasma guns are superficially repaired.

In battle, you don’t have much of a choice sometimes. You just have to keep moving forward, take the hits, and get back up again afterwards. Risk it all to get to the other side.

We were definitely on the verge of war. I could feel it. I could see it as plain as day before me. But we weren’t quite there.

Still, someone wanted New Earth involved in whatever was happening on Zenthia. They’d been trying, time and again, to get New Earth to commit.

The ZNA hangman who hunted me down on The Delph wanted Gramps, or someone in the New Earth government, to come out guns blazing. They’d wanted to create a martyr New Earth would rally about.

And then there was the admiral. He’d been compromised. Did they have his family? Was that why his character and loyalty had changed so dramatically? I didn’t know. But it was irrelevant right now. Compromising the admiral was to get New Earth into the Zenthian war.

Someone wanted us in this battle, which meant…Admiral Kerr wasn’t going to admit they were firing on us. Having New Earth’s credibility increased by a colony ship firing on the Harpy wouldn’t suit his purpose.

Or whoever was pressuring his purpose.

Which meant…

Aquila suddenly dropped its camo and fired on the patrol boat. I jerked in my seat.

The Zenthian ship tried to evade, but they’d been maintaining their position in relation to Aquila’s last known location in space and lacked the speed or manoeuvrability from a practical standstill.

Air vented in a flash of light, and then the entire vessel imploded.

They’d hit its reactor. Not an easy thing to do. We didn’t have detailed plans for this model of patrol boat. And the Zeniths liked to keep their reactor location under strict wraps.

But Aquila hit it like a surgeon wielding a scalpel.

The patrol boat hadn’t stood a chance.

“Flux,” Marvin breathed.

“Holy shit!” Odo shouted from engineering.

There’d have been about thirty beings on a ship that size. It would have been fully crewed, unlike Aquila. Firing on Aquila had been bad enough, but I’d known there was only a handful of people on board the vessel. Firing on the patrol boat was cold-blooded murder.

My heart beat too swiftly inside my chest, but with fingers shaking, I was still able to manipulate the scanners to show the location of the drones out by the Belt.

Both were facing the explosion.

Both would have been recording the entire thing.

“Son of a bitch,” I said and slumped back in my seat, shocked.

“Captain,” Marvin said softly. “We shouldn’t stay here.”

No. The Zeniths would send a battlecruiser, or maybe an entire fleet of battlecruisers. Either way, their ability to see through camouflage was far greater than one small patrol boat.

We needed to bug out.

In the next heartbeat, Aquila’s engines lit up the Black, and it jumped to light speed, making straight for the jump point it had laid to get out here.

We were left alone with the expanding debris of the patrol boat, and two drones of unknown origins recording the entire region of space in high-quality visuals for transmission back to their homeworlds.

I checked the scanner. There were no life forms in the expanding cloud of patrol boat wreckage. I didn’t really know what I would have done if there had been.

We couldn’t be detected here; we had to leave. Now.

I spooled up the engines again, and flipped us more carefully than the last time, and punched it.

Away from the Belt.

Away from the mess Aquila had created.

And especially away from the two observational drones.

I had no destination in mind, and I didn’t care. And I sure as hell was not going to use the jump point Aquila had laid to get here. I just wanted off this dance floor and out of the barn.

Long enough to think this through. To reason this out. To make sense out of what was looking like madness right now.

“Where are we going, Cap?” Odo asked over the comm.

“No idea,” I told him bluntly.

Marvin grunted but didn’t comment.

And then a weak voice said from the med bay, “I’ve got a place we can hide.”

“Nav?” I asked.

“Go here,” she said, sending coordinates to my console.

I trusted Zyla. I trusted her with my life.

I approved the coordinates and let the Basic alter our course and take over flight control of the ship. And then I unbuckled from the command chair and walked off the bridge.

Making my way directly to the medical bay and to Zyla.


Cepheid Variable



Chapter Eight

“We really should stop meeting like this,” I told Zyla.

The Zenith tried to smile at my pathetic attempt at humour; the grimace she made looked as painful as the cause. I hid my wince under what was beginning to feel like a permanent scowl.

She was lying out on the med bed, attached to machines with lines going into her from every which way. Her face was a mottled shade of purple and yellow with a deep rust-red undertone. Her lips were split, teeth still missing, left eyelid swollen shut.

I dreaded to think what the rest of her looked like; she was covered by a space blanket to keep her temperature up and also hide the evidence of Kerr’s efforts from me.

I crossed to the vid-screen beside her bed and catalogued her injuries. Fractured jaw, cheekbone, clavicle, four ribs, humerus and ulna, bruised pelvis, femur and tibia. Punctured left lung, torn spleen, bruised kidneys. A few more minor items were listed, but by the time I got to reading them on the screen, my vision had turned red.

I sucked in a measured breath of air and rubbed a hand over my face, and then turned to face her.

“I’m sorry,” I murmured. It was nowhere near good enough, but my brain was shutting down on me, and all I could see was the diagram of Zyla’s tall skeleton up on the screen and the orange flashing highlights to indicate locations of life-threatening injuries.

“This was not your fault, Captain.”

“He’s a New Earther.”

“And am I responsible for every Zenith?”

“Zy,” I said, her name the flavour of sadness on my lips.

“This is bigger than us, Kael. Bigger than the High Council, the ZNA, and New Earth. Bigger than everyone.” She took a deep breath that was far too shallow and added, “The admiral was a shell operating under someone else’s orders.”

“What do you mean?” I stepped closer but resisted the urge to touch her. I wasn’t sure there would be a safe place to touch Zyla without causing further injury.

“His eyes were vacant as he beat me.”

I growled; my blood boiling, but couldn’t speak.

“It was as if he wasn’t there.”

“A sociopath,” I managed to say eventually.

“I think it was more than that. Mechanical in nature, not psychological.”

She wasn’t making much sense, and I didn’t want to push her into an explanation. Already her good eye was looking heavy, and her breathing was slowing. A quick glance at the vid-screen told me the med bed was administering pharmas to induce a coma. Next up on the Frankenstein list of things to do was setting some of her fractures.

The med bed had prioritised her lungs and spleen first, mending them, and now was moving onto the next most important injuries on the long, long list. Zyla’s nanobots couldn’t fix her fractured bones if they weren’t set, so I was pleased to see the med bed seemed to be working in conjunction with them.

For New Earth tech it was state of the art and clearly not hampered by xenophobia.

I stared down at Zyla for a moment longer and then turned to leave the med bay. At the door, I said, “ETA to full recovery, Basic?”

The patient will fully recover in three to four days, Captain.

It was a load off my mind and heart, but it was only possible because Zyla was a Zenith. They were hard to kill and quick to heal naturally, throw in top of the line nanotech like Zy had, and near-death injuries were a walk in the park.

I turned back toward my navigator and looked at her broken and battered body on the med bed. My hand fisted on the gel wall, making it warp in an effort to prevent me from doing any damage.

A New Earther had done this. To get to me. To get to Cass.

I turned back around, and Odo was there, staring at Zy. An angry shadow who had snuck up on me. His fists were bunched up, and his brow was furrowed.

“Shit,” he said. “Is she gonna be okay?”

“Basic says so.”

“Damn Zenthian bots.” His eyes met mine. “That asshole deserved to die, Cap.”

“I know,” I said. “I gave it my best shot.”

Odo placed a big hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “Yeah, you did, didn’t you?”

He pulled back and looked at Zyla again.

“Three to four days,” I offered.

He nodded. “Where are we going, anyway?”

“I have no idea. I didn’t stop to check the coordinates. Just let the Basic take over.”

“Not like you, Cap’n.”

“Zy was awake,” was all I offered.

Odo grunted and silently followed me back up to the bridge. Marvin was still sitting in Zyla’s chair, scanners active, a map of the local system up and displaying our course. We were heading to the jump point we’d used to get here. One not as close as Aquila’s latest efforts. It was likely Aquila had locked the new jump point to his signature and no-one else’s. Laying jump points was a lucrative undertaking for the New Earth government, so they doled them out infrequently to keep the market for them hungry, but this was more likely Aquila keeping things as contained as he could.

Now the rogue AI-controlled ship had an easy way to the Belt and the rest of us had to schlep it from the old jump point a good twelve hours away.

I slid into the command chair and brought up the coordinates Zyla had given me. The ship’s system took longer than I thought it should to identify it and then I realised why.

“Son of a bitch,” I said.

“What is it?” Marvin asked.

“She’s taking us to a Zenthian owned planet in the Cancri System.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“It’s a closed planet. Off-limits to everyone but the Zeniths. 55 Cancri f.” I brought up the NESF network and slipped in a backdoor using an old encryption key Gramps had given me. If he’d sealed my files, he would have kept the encryption key open for moments like this. I hoped.

The database accepted the key, and no alarms went off, so I entered the planet’s details. Three seconds later, it came back with a warning.

WARNING! High-Security Risk. Planet closed to non-Zenith nationals — no-fly zone. Orbital defence network operational. Do not enter under penalty of intergalactic law.

“Here there be dragons, “ I muttered.

“A little bit overkill, ain’t it?” Odo asked from behind me.

“I guess they don’t like unannounced visitors,” I said.

“Why is Zyla sending us there?” Marvin asked.

“Good question,” I murmured. “Basic, when’s Navigator Zarnissa expected to wake up?”

Navigator Zarnissa has been placed in an induced coma for twenty-four hours, Captain. Waking her prior to this is not advised.

“It seems to know how you work, Cap,” Odo commented.

“Like I’d wake Zyla before she’s healed completely,” I said dryly.

“You’re not the most patient of men,” Odo replied.

I sighed. “Basic, ETA to 55 Cancri f?”

Sixteen hours and twenty-three minutes at current velocity, Captain.

“We’re going to get there before Zyla wakes up,” Mavin said.

“Yes, thank you. I had worked that out inside my head,” I grumbled.

“See?” Odo said cheerfully. “Not a patient man; you’re getting all snippy.”

“I am not snippy.”

Odo just laughed.

I couldn’t win this battle, so I changed tactics. “We can’t barge into a no-fly zone and get shot out of the Black by a Zenthian orbital defence network.”

We needed Zyla. I had to assume she knew her way around the defence network on this planet, otherwise why the hell did she send us here?

“Basic,” I said. “Half ahead, all drives.”

Reducing speed to half-flank, Captain.

I sat back. “That should give us enough time if we’re lucky.”

“So far, Cap, I don’t think luck has been much on our side.”

I met my engineer’s worried gaze.

“True that,” I muttered.

“Shit,” he said. “The universe is screwed up, that’s what it is.”

I said nothing.

New Earth had just declared war on Zenthia. If Aquila was still Aquila, would he have let that happen? Being under Code Black allowed for a lot of things that wouldn’t ordinarily be acceptable to NESF Command. What Aquila just did, though, was not covered under any Code Black I knew of.

“Aquila’s been hacked,” I said.

“You didn’t think he’d been hacked when we were on board his ship,” Odo replied, sinking into the jump seat to make himself more comfortable.

“He wouldn’t have let us go if he’d been hacked then,” I replied. “I thought he was playing the long game. Deep cover. But this?” I shook my head and wrapped both hands behind my neck, staring blindly at the gel ceiling above. “This is too far out there to be anything but a hack.”

“You don’t think your Aquila has it in him to take things this far?” Marvin asked.

I shook my head, hoping I was right.

“I always thought Aquila was the badass of the four AIs,” Odo offered.

“Pavo can be pretty pragmatic when needed,” I said. “But Aquila is the rule follower. The one least batshit crazy on the voyage out because he backed up a copy of himself before things went sideways. Of course, sentience had already been gained as the ship left Old Earth; those solar flares were a bitch from all accounts. But his badass-ness is all due to his strict adherence to the rules. He’s the one less likely to break them.”

“No, breaking rules is all on Corvus.”

I grimaced. Odo wasn’t wrong, and that meant when Cassi’s Originator caught up with me, she was likely to skin me alive.

“So, if this is out of character for Aquila…” Marvin started.

“Then it’s likely a hack,” I finished for him.

“Shit,” Odo muttered. “If they can hack Cass, then they sure as flux could have hacked Aquila in the end. The big guy held out, though, just long enough for us to escape.”

“And then blew the flux out of a patrol boat,” I offered.

“Not much of a defence, I suppose,” Odo mused. “Claiming a madman was controlling the AI.”

“Not when the madman in question is an NESF admiral,” I said.

“And those drones filmed it all,” Marvin said throwing a recording up on the main vid-screen. It was clearly out of Rhodia. The newscaster who introduced the clip was a Rhodian in a shiny jumpsuit.

We fell silent as we watched the battle unfold; a battle we’d only just been part of. There was no way to identify the Harpy visibly, but telemetry on the railgun flechettes we were firing that the drones would have undoubtedly taken could lead back to New Earth.

And then Aquila dropped its camouflage up on the screen and shot the shit out of the patrol boat.

I winced. Marvin sucked in a sharp breath of air. Odo swore softly.

“No denying who that badass is,” he muttered.

The Rhodian newscaster appeared on the screen again, appropriately solemn. He spoke in Rhodie, but the Ship Basic translated with ticker-tape type writing along the bottom.

It wasn’t good.

Zenthia Actual had declared war on New Earth and the Rhodians were siding with them. So far, the Claxians hadn’t commented, and Malee was staying out of it; waiting on further details they said. Details from where?

Malcolm?

“Send a probe to Chi Virginis,” I suddenly said. “Give them everything we’ve got.”

“Are you sure, Cap?” Odo asked as Marvin started compiling the Harpy’s logs into a data stack for transmission.

“We can’t stop this,” I muttered. “Not now. It’s happening, and there’s not a blind thing we can do about it. But Malcolm is a Mal and Malee is waiting on something before they dip their big toe into this shitty water. My bet, Marvin’s dad can get some of this info through to the right people on Malee.”

“He has contacts,” the Mutt said, and then added, “Data stack ready, Captain.”

“Send it.”

“Shit,” Odo muttered. It seemed to be a popular refrain from him at the moment. “I could go a drink round ‘bout now.”

If I started drinking, I’d get drunk. And not just fall off my seat drunk, but pass within sniffing distance of the pearly gates drunk from the way I was feeling.

New Earth was at war.

Maybe a drink about now was called for.

“Everyone hit the rack,” I ordered. “Take some downtime. Do whatever you need to do to get your head on straight again. I’m expecting we’ll be pushed to our limits by the time we get to Cancri.”

“And you, Cap?” Odo asked.

“I’ll take first shift up here. I don’t think we should leave the Basic to fly this boat without supervision. Too much is going wrong that shouldn’t be going wrong.”

“Right there,” Odo muttered.

He stepped out of the bridge, and I waved Marvin off and then made myself comfortable. We were alone in the Black. Hundreds of thousands of parsecs from the Belt and those two drones; one of which was clearly Rhodian. There wasn’t much for me to do but watch the scanners and make sure the Basic wasn’t flying us into a ZNA trap.

If the Originators and third-gen AIs could get hacked, then what did that say about Ship Basics? We needed a way to protect them, but so far, we hadn’t even been able to figure out how the hack was happening.

Maybe Malcolm had uncovered something back at Chi Virginis. Cass had room to stretch in the bird’s nest but tied into the space station as she was, I feared for the pirates’ hideout.

Was nowhere safe in the universe?

I sighed, checked the status of the ship and Basic, set up a couple of encrypted locks on its systems, and an emergency alert to my chrono should it go postal on us, and then leaned back in the command chair and stared out into space.

I didn’t sleep, but I did rest my tired body. Somehow the hours ticked past quickly, and then Odo was back on the bridge, steaming mug of coffee in hand.

“Your turn,” he said.

I yawned and stretched my shoulders.

“Get some shuteye?” I asked.

“Some. Checked on engineering before I came up here; everything’s kosher.”

I nodded my thanks. “What’s Marvin doing?”

“Snoring his head off in his bunk.”

“Sounds like a splendid idea.”

I stood up and let Odo take the command chair.

There was nothing to hand over, so I slipped out of the room and made my way down a deck to the med bay. It was stupid to even consider that Zyla would be awake already. But she was Zenith and Zeniths were tough, and yeah, well, I wanted her awake so I could drill her about 55 Cancri f.

I refused to believe I wanted her awake because of anything else.

She was still out cold, of course. And the med bed insisted everything was okay, so I headed for the mess. Marvin had left out food for everyone. Heat and eat, like MREs but only better.

I ate leaning against the mess bench and stared at nothing. The place was spotless. The food stores full. I couldn’t risk a coffee, and beer just didn’t feel right, either, so I downed a soda and finished my meal.

Pathetic.

With leaden limbs and the makings of a fuzzy head, I made my way to my berth, stopping at the head first. A shower would have only woken me up, but an empty bladder ensured I’d stay asleep. Satisfied with my efforts, I palmed the block on the door to my berth and stepped in when the gel parted.

A soft beep met my ears as I scanned the room. Everything was in place, nothing disturbed. The berth was keyed to me anyway, but right now, I felt like anything could happen where tech was concerned.

The ZNA had certainly upped their game somehow.

But no-one had been inside my domain, and yet, I felt like I was being watched.

And then that soft beep sounded again. From the locker.

I crossed the room and opened the door and stared down at the closed system communicator — the one I’d taken from the Base and installed in here to talk to Gramps if needed.

I hadn’t used it since Zyla had talked to her father. Not since the data stack, we sent through the fluxing machine, plunged Zenthia Actual into darkness. I hadn’t dared.

But the light was flashing, and the comm was active.

Someone was hailing me, and it could only be one of two people.

We didn’t know if Zy’s father was even still alive. But there was a chance he’d gone into hiding somewhere and was reaching out to his daughter for something.

I wasn’t sure what would be better — Zy’s dad on the other end of the line or my great-grandfather.

It didn’t matter. The light was blinking; someone wanted to talk.

I did a quick scan of the device to ensure it was still isolated from the Harpy, and then I sucked in a breath of air and reached forward to open the channel.

Static sounded, which echoed in the now completely isolated room. Odo wouldn’t even be able to comm me in here right now. And the Ship Basic was definitely shit out of luck reaching me.

Just like back on the Base, it felt decidedly wrong.

I said nothing into the device, just waited. Whoever had hailed me would see the line open and would speak if they really wanted to. I was done jumping in feet first without checking how deep the water was.

“Son?” Gramps’ voice said over the tight-beam. “Are you there?”

“Gramps,” I said. “You been waiting long?”

“A couple of hours. No biggie. When you don’t ever sleep, you have more time to sit on your arse and wait for people to wake up.”

Was this Gramps? Or was it a hacked hologram with his memories and experiences?

I didn’t know, and I didn’t know how to check one way or the other, so I said nothing.

“I take it you were out at the Belt?” Gramps said. “That was you trading barbs with Aquila?”

“All part of the plan,” I said. Because it had been. Aquila’s plan and if Gramps were Gramps, he would have known about it.

“Looked good in high def,” he told me. “Not so good when Aquila dropped his camo.”

“No,” I said.

“And took out that patrol boat.”

“What’s this call about, Gramps?” I said, cutting to the chase. We both knew New Earth was at war and Aquila had started it.

We both knew he’d been hacked.

How would Gramps play this?

I waited. It felt like hours but was probably only seconds before he answered.

“Aquila sent a tight-beam back to us. ‘Originator eyes only.’ At the time, we didn’t know what had happened out there. We just knew he was Code Black. Vela opened the communique, isolating himself from the others. He’s gone rogue, Kael. Like Aquila.”

Son of a bitch.

“We’re down two colony ships,” he said, “and Pavo and Corvus are naturally antsy. We don’t know what we’re up against, but we do know it can affect the Originators. We need intel, son. And we need it fast.”

“I’ve got nothing new to tell you.”

“Not good enough. The New Earth government has announced martial law. New Texas and New London are in a shambles. If we don’t make a public statement soon, we’ll have more than the Zeniths and Rhodians to deal with. But we have no fluxing idea what we’re dealing with, so what do we tell the masses? Keep calm?”

He sighed. I hadn’t heard him this wound up since my parents died in that stupid shuttle crash on Librae b.

“Cass got data on the drones that attacked Ceres Alpha, didn’t she?” he said. “Where is it?”

“Not on the Harpy.” The location of that data would be something the ZNA instigators would want. That intel was now priceless if it hadn’t already been priceless before.

And I couldn’t trust Gramps. I couldn’t trust anyone not biological and not on this vessel.

“Can you get it?” he asked. Of course, he did.

“Might not be possible any longer.”

“Is it destroyed?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then what the flux do you know, Kael? Because we’re at war and the planet is rioting, and we’ve lost Aquila and Vela, two of our most powerful Originators. We’re up shit creek, son, and the river stinks to high heavens.”

I stared at the green light that indicated an open channel on the comms device and tried to think things through.

Gramps didn’t let me.

“Kael Jameson,” he said. “By order of the New Earth government under the power of the New Earth Military Charter, chapter one, paragraph three, I conscript you to service.”

“I’m already Fleet, Gramps,” I said on a sigh.

“I have to say this. By order of the New Earth government under the power of the New Earth Military Charter, chapter one, paragraph three, I conscript you to service. I hereby command you to instigate a deep-space operation to retrieve the drone data from whomever has hold of it and return it to New Earth immediately. Commander, have you heard your orders?”

Flux it. Being Code Black was one thing. Being conscripted by the NESF as a deep space operative under charter was a whole other ball game.

There’d be a trail. Granted it would be a top-secret one, but it would exist.

Why the flux was Gramps doing this?

“Commander, have you heard your orders?” he repeated when I didn’t immediately answer.

“I have heard my orders, Command,” I said. “Why, Gramps? Why?”

“Because a little bird told me the drone data was behind enemy lines and you’re gonna need all the official backing and assets you can get to retrieve it.”

“It’s a suicide run,” I told him.

“It’s the only chance we have of getting Aquila and Vela back.”

He was right. This sucked.

Just as well we were heading to a Zenthian controlled planet, then, wasn’t it?

“No-one can know what you’re doing, Kael,” Gramps said. “No-one. The trail that protects you leads back to the NESF. Do this quick. Do this silent. Do this right. Got it?”

Flux.

“Got it,” I said through gritted teeth.

“I have every faith in you, Kael. You’ll get this done.”

The line went dead.

I sank down onto my rack and stared at the fluxing machine that had brought me so much trouble.

No-one can know what you’re doing, Kael. No-one.

It wasn’t an order. But it might as well have been one.

Which meant I had to keep this from Zyla if I wanted to follow Gramps’ rules.

Well, damn. To be a pirate or not? That was the question.


Cepheid Variable



Chapter Nine

Exiting Jump Point in 3, 2, 1.

A white light filled the bridge, and we swept into our third system in two days. One more jump and we’d be in Cancri.

The slower speed of the ship had felt like we were wallowing in muddy waters. But I was pretty sure that analogy was because everything made so little sense. It was like viewing the world through a dirty HUD. All the details were there, but they were fuzzy.

The bridge door opened and Zyla walked in.

I turned and looked at my navigator. She was still a little blue and yellow in places, but most of her swelling was down, and her legs were holding her own weight again. She also had a full row of teeth in her mouth which was quite extraordinary. Malcolm had spared no expense on fitting out this gunboat.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey,” she murmured. It was the middle of the night watch onboard the Harpy. Marvin and Odo were in their racks, Zyla was next up for Ship Basic babysitting duty.

“We should reach 55 Cancri f in six hours,” I told her, turning back to check my screens. “Are you going to tell me what’s waiting for us anytime soon?”

We’d had this discussion a few times already. Zyla had been cagey. She’d told us it would be safe with her onboard. Which didn’t make me feel any safer. We were heading into a closed Zenthian planet in a New Earth corvette. And Zenthia and New Earth were at war.

This had disaster written all over it.

“You know I would if I could, Captain.”

I turned to look at her. “Just tell me this: Is it a military installation?”

“If I tell you that you’ll overreact.”

“I might not.”

“You are Kael Jameson, are you not?”

“Doesn’t mean I’ll overreact.”

“Captain, you believe it your job to keep us all safe and flying directly into a military zone in a time of war is not the definition of safe.”

“So,” I drawled, “it is a military zoned planet.”

“What does your NESF database tell you?”

“That’s it’s off-limits, and dragons live there.”

She frowned slightly. It was kind of cute on her.

“I do not understand why they would think dragons are there.”

I smiled. “It’s a thing. A pirate thing.” I waved my hand in the air to clear it. “Never mind. Just…Zy? Are they going to shoot us down before we even get there?”

“Not if I enter my ID.”

“So, instead we’ll announce to everyone who’s listening that we’ve got the High Councillor’s missing daughter onboard.”

“Something like that.”

“You’re being very obtuse.”

“And it’s driving you crazy.” She smiled. That looked good on her, too.

“Damn it, Zyla,” I said and turned back to my screens.

Silence filled the cockpit and then she said softly, “It’s like the Base.”

I turned my head and looked at her. She wasn’t looking at me, but at her screens.

“Like my Base?”

“In a manner of speaking. It’s…complicated.”

“And you can’t uncomplicate it for me?”

She shook her head. “Do you trust me, Kael?”

“With my life.”

She looked at me then, and I kinda fell into all that purple in her inky eyes. They were so beautiful in a I-must-be-crazy-to-like-purple-but-I-can’t-seem-to-look-away way. And then she blinked and scowled at her console.

“Okay,” I said. “I guess in six hours we’ll know where we stand.”

“Or we’ll be dead,” she helpfully supplied. “One way or the other, anyway.”

“Thanks, Nav. Thanks.”

I stood up and headed toward the exit, then paused and looked back at Zyla.

“I’m glad you’re back on your feet, Zy,” I said.

“There was never any doubt about that,” she replied in true superior Zenithian style.

I smiled and left the bridge.

I had five hours to catch up on sleep, and then I’d be gearing up for whatever unexpected thing was waiting for us on 55 Cancri f. I almost took a detour to the armoury to check on the state of our gear. But Marvin wouldn’t appreciate my micro-managing.

I grabbed a muffin and a cup of tea from the mess and then slipped into my berth. Checking the cupboard — something that had become a bit of a habit whenever I was in here — I made sure there was no blinking light and then when there wasn’t closed it all back up again and flopped down on my bunk.

My chrono chimed.

I checked to make sure it wasn’t the Ship Basic Going Batshit Crazy Alarm and saw it was a comm message from Malcolm.

I opened my vid-screen and accepted the message. Malcolm’s ugly mug appeared on the gel wall in a prerecorded video.

“Captain Jameson,” he said up on the screen. “Thank you for your last communique. Interesting data which explains a lot about the state of things and not nearly enough, I’m afraid. I am the bearer of bad news. The Malee government is about to declare in favour of Zenith.”

Son of a bitch.

“You must understand, despite the telemetry you sent us, the visual is undeniable. The NESF vessel Aquila fired on and destroyed a Zenith patrol boat in Zenith space with all hands lost. Coupled with the NESF corvette recorded over Ceres Alpha a few weeks ago doing absolutely nothing as orbital drones dropped a nuclear payload killing millions, there is little doubt that New Earth is involved in some capacity.”

Fluxing hell.

“In light of this, it would be a betrayal of the Malee Military Code of Ethics to side with an Enemy of War.”

Enemy of War? Were those capitals I heard?

“We pride ourselves on our wartime conduct, and the Malee government feels New Earth is playing a very different style of war than what is acceptable to us as a species. I can do nothing to stop this. I have tried. My voice does not carry the weight it used to. I am sorry.”

I just bet he was.

He leaned forward on the screen.

“In addition to this, it appears the Claxians have been motivated for the first time in known history to involve themselves in an external Claxian matter. Jameson, they, too, are siding with Zenith on this. They do not bring much to the battlefield other than their extensive network of spies. There isn’t a system known that a Claxian does not call home in some fashion. However, it will make transiting through populated areas difficult for the Harpy II and any NESF vessel. I suggest you return to Chi Virginis for a major overhaul and refit. We can make the Harpy look like a freighter out of Gilese B in no time at all. Flying a New Earth flag right now is not a wise idea.”

Not like we were flying a NE flag, we just looked very New Earthy.

I sighed and rubbed a hand over my face.

“This intel is hot,” Malcolm said. “You have, I’d guess, twelve hours before both Malee and Claxia make their intentions public. Once that is done, New Earth will be…what do you New Earthers say? Persona non grata.” He stared directly at the camera as if he could see me. “Chi Virginis is a friend to you, Captain. Come home to us. There is nothing you can do now for New Earth. Their demise has been written in the stars, the light of which has only now just reached us. Don’t go down with your planet; with your species. Humanity is doomed. No-one can stand against the might of Malee, the synthetics of Rhodia, the spies of Claxia, and the tech of Zenthia. No-one.”

He stared at the screen a moment longer and then the recording faded until it was gone.

Well, damn.

I could feel a thin layer of sweat covering me. I rubbed my forehead and then my upper lip, and then swiped the blank vid-screen away on the gel wall. For a moment, I just sat there. Twelve hours and every single species in the known systems would be gunning for New Earth. It was bad enough Zenthia had been. And then, Rhodia. But somehow, hearing that every single one of our allies was against us made it all so fluxing real.

The data stack should have pointed them in the direction of the ZNA and whatever waited beyond the Belt. But Aquila’s actions would only have made us look like we were the ones trying to defend that gap from everyone else.

Our drone factory, right?

That’s what the admiral had said. But the admiral had been acting under someone else’s orders according to Zyla. Maybe it was a drone factory. Maybe whoever was controlling the admiral used a smidgeon of truth when they twisted everything. Maybe the admiral knew only what they told him and they told him enough to make sense but nowhere near enough to make it true.

On the other side of the Belt, through that gap, was a drone factory.

And when more drones flew through the gap, then what?

Zenthia Actual needed to be looking at the ZNA. Everyone needed to be looking at the Belt and that gap. Guarding it. Defending our space.

Instead, they were gearing up to invade New Earth’s system and blow our homeworld out of the Black. New Earth was a long way away from the Belt. Far enough to mean almost every vessel our enemies had would be flying in the wrong direction. They’d be leaving their flank unguarded.

For the next wave of drones to fly in and attack.

What the flux was the ZNA up to? We needed answers. We needed a ZNA member to interrogate. How the hell would we get one in time to stop this madness?

I flicked on the vid-screen again and scanned the latest news. As soon as we entered the next jump point, we’d be cut off from everything until we popped back out again afterwards. We needed to stay current right up to the very last second, to give ourselves the best chance when we re-emerged into normal space.

I decided to scan the feeds first. Nothing out of Malee or Claxia yet. So, Malcolm hadn’t been lying; we had a bit of time. Rhodia, though, was already shifting their fleet nearer to Zenthia space; planning to team up with the Zenthian fleet, no doubt.

And then they’d hit New Earth.

I brought up a map of the known systems and overlaid the jump point map on top of it. Four jumps and they’d be there.

I stood up and crossed to the cupboard, opening it up and looking down at the comm machine. What I was about to suggest was radical, but we needed time. We needed enough time to prove it wasn’t us and to get vessels out to the Belt to defend against the next wave of drones that were gonna fly through it.

I activated the comm and signalled Gramps.

He answered within sixty seconds.

“Please tell me you’ve got something,” he said in the way of greeting.

“Nothing good,” I offered. If this wasn’t Gramps, then this was a waste of time.

But I had to take the chance; he was my only way to contact the Originators.

“What have you got, son? Hit me with it.”

“In twelve hours, New Earth will be under attack from all four of our allies.”

“All four? Even the Claxians?”

“Yes. They and the Malee have indicated they’ll side with Zenthia and Rhodia.”

Silence and then, “How good is your intel?”

“As good as can be, considering. I don’t trust my source completely, but I trust his motivations. Survival.” For him and his son; currently onboard my ship. “He was pretty damn convincing that returning to New Earth right now would be suicidal.”

“And the drone data?”

“I’m working on it. Gotta get behind enemy lines, right?”

“Right.”

“Gramps,” I said. “No-one’s guarding the Belt. They’ll all be turning their backs on that gap and coming for New Earth. They’re opening up their flanks for an attack I can feel in my gut is coming. This has been orchestrated. Someone wants us in this war, and now we are.”

“We’ll have to recall the Fleet. We can’t defend the Belt.”

“I’m not asking you to. But we have a way to slow down the exodus of Zenthia’s and Rhodia’s fleets at least.” The Claxians and Mals were further out from the Belt than even us. “We could make it impossible for them to jump to New Earth.”

“You’re talking about the jump points.” No-one could say John Jameson wasn’t quick of mind.

“Shut them down,” I said.

“That will require a fair bit of negotiating in parliament. If we shut the jump points down, we can’t use them either, and those stiff necks won’t be on board with that.”

“Don’t tell me you can’t revoke everyone’s codes but ours.”

“The only way to ensure they couldn’t use them would be to shut the system down completely. And bear in mind that Aquila can lay more. He won’t be so easily stopped.”

“Pavo and Corvus can handle Aquila,” I told my great-grandfather. “But the NESF will be hard-pressed to battle every single allied fleet in the known systems at once. This gives us time to come up with something they’ll listen to. Some evidence that we’re not the bad guys here. We need that time, Gramps.”

A long static-laden pause followed, and then Gramps said, “Pavo can do it. He can shut it down outside of parliament’s purview. They won’t like it. There’ll be hell to pay. But Pavo knows how.”

“All right, then,” I said. “We’ll stay out of the system.” It was going to be a long flight to 55 Cancri f. “Wouldn’t want to get stuck in there while it’s down.”

“He says you’ve got time. The system will take a good ten hours to shut down completely. He’ll start with those closest to us; the ones our former allies are likely to use. Prioritise them first. We need that drone data, Kael. And if using the jump points one last time gets you closer to it, then do it, son. That data is vital.”

Shit. I didn’t even know if that data would be in Cancri. I didn’t even know what waited for us there. I was pinning a lot on Zyla pointing us in the right direction, and I hadn’t even told her the destination I wanted.

We hadn’t discussed the drone data at all. Some pirate I was.

For all I knew, the Zenthian no-go planet was a deserted base like mine was. Empty but safe.

Right now, I’d take dangerous but hiding the drone data.

I sighed.

“Okay,” I murmured. “Once more unto the breach.”

“I’m proud of you, son,” Gramps said. “Stay safe.”

The line disconnected, and the comms device shut down. I waited for Zy on the bridge to contact me. If she’d been trying and failing to get through to the berth, I’d soon hear about it. But everything was silent.

I slowly closed the cupboard and then turned and looked at my spartan berth. I hadn’t eaten the muffin or drunk my tea. Both were cold. I left them sitting there and went to the door.

“Basic, ship-wide comm,” I said as I stepped out into the hall. I started toward the mess.

Ship-wide comm activated, Captain.

“Al hands. All hands. Meeting in the mess. Playtime is over, people. Meet me in the mess.”

“Do you want me there, too, Captain?” Zy asked from the bridge.

“Affirmative, Nav. Reroute flight control to the mess, I’m almost there now.”

“Copy. I’m on my way.”

“Cap’n? I was having a nice dream. Why’d you wake me?”

“Mess, Odo. Now.”

“No need to get all snippy.”

I rolled my eyes as Marvin stepped in through the mess door behind me. He went straight to the coffee machine and started it brewing.

“Mess,” I repeated for Odo while accepting a cup of Joe from Marv. “Now.”

“Alright. Alright,” Odo growled. “I’m coming.”

Zyla stepped into the room and thanked Marvin for the waiting cup of coffee. Odo stumbled in a few moments later, eyes bleary, face unshaven, grumbling into the steaming mug Marvin gave him.

I turned around and stared at my crew. Some I’d known for years. One was new but was proving himself nicely. I might not have trusted Malcolm, but I was beginning to trust his son.

But he wasn’t human. And neither was Zyla. And this was a former NESF gunboat.

Finally, they all realised I was looking at them, and one by one, they lifted their heads and stared me in the eyes. No-one spoke. The moment felt heavy.

It was.

“New Earth is at war with Zenthia, Rhodia, Malee and Claxia,” I said. “Or they will be in approximately twelve hours.”

Odo muttered an expletive. Marvin scowled. Zy looked serene; her facial features giving away nothing of her thoughts.

“This is a New Earth vessel,” I said. “It’s easily identifiable as one. No matter where we go outside of New Earth’s system, we will be hunted. We have access to one last jump before the jump points will be shut down. I can look up the closest space station and offload anyone who wants off the Harpy there. Then take her into the Black where you’ll never see her again.” I looked each one of them in the eye. “I need your vote,” I said.

Silence was my only answer.

And then Odo drawled, “Shit, Cap’n. Why would I want off the Harp? I’m human; it’s safer for me onboard her.”

And that about summed it up.

I looked at Marvin.

“I go where you go.” He had his orders. Malcolm wanted him on this ship. Or maybe, Marvin just didn’t like the way Malee had turned its back on his dad and so was snubbing his people? I had no idea, but he was old enough to know his own mind, so I just nodded my head.

My eyes met Zyla’s. For the first time in a long time, she was showing her emotions.

And she was fuming mad. Hello, Rage Mode, I thought dryly.

“Zy?”

“In what universe,” she said slowly, “do you think I would abandon my family?”

And she didn’t mean the family she’d been born into when she said that.

She stared at me.

I stared back.

Then I smiled; a self-deprecating one.

“I had to ask, love,” I said.

“Men,” she said and rolled those ebony and violet eyes.

Odo snorted. Marvin chuckled. And I couldn’t stop smiling.

We were family. And family stuck together. No matter what.

I sobered. Slowly the mess became quiet.

“So,” I said. “Where to? We’ve got time for one more jump and then it’s FTL only, so let’s make it count.”

Suggestions shot out of both Odo’s and Marvin’s mouths. Marvin wanted the fringe and for the Harpy to get lost there with the dregs of the universe. Odo wanted Chi Virginis and where Cassi was holed up.

I looked at Zy.

“Nav?” I pressed, she said nothing for a long moment; probably putting her emotions back inside their box.

Then Zyla reached forward and activated a vid-screen on the gel table. A map of the Cancri system appeared. And on it, highlighted and blinking like a waiting cursor, was 55 Cancri f.

“Here,” she said.

“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” I muttered.

“You don’t want to run, Kael,” she told me as if I didn’t know my own mind. “You want to fight. But before you fight, you want to try to save the universe first. Save everyone. Because if we all go to war — New Earth against everyone else — this will tear the known systems apart. But if we can stop it. Well,” she said, “wouldn’t that be something?”

I stared at her for a long time and then said, “And what is on 55 Cancri f that could make that happen, Zyla?”

She lifted those big purple and black eyes to my face and said, “Hopefully, my father.”

Son of a bitch. Cancri was the High Councillor’s bolthole.


Cepheid Variable



Chapter Ten

We shot out of the jump point into the Cancri System in stealth. I kinda felt like I was slipping through my girlfriend’s bedroom window while her old man was watching TV downstairs.

Not that Zyla was my girlfriend or anything.

I glanced at my navigator now as she assessed her navigation console; her fingers gliding over the touchscreen with practiced ease — her attention all for the numbers and glyphs and threat board before her and not for me.

I shook my head at my wayward thoughts and returned my attention to my own screen. The camo was functioning nominally, and Odo had the engines running sweet. Weapons weren’t hot in case someone picked up a stray heat signature, but Marvin had them in standby mode so firing them up wouldn’t be too tricky.

Not that we wanted to blast our way onto 55 Cancri f.

I let out a relieved breath of air when it appeared the system was empty. Of course, this was the Zeniths we were talking about, whose stealth technology was several degrees higher on the tech scale than the admittedly superb stealth technology they sold everyone else. So, they might have been there, but we couldn’t see them. The only saving grace was the fact that the stealth they sold us plebs was solid in that they didn’t have decryption keys to it. That, from all accounts, had been a must-have when the Originators and Old Earthers new to the intergalactic stage had bargained for stealth as payment for access to the jump points.

We’d managed to get a few extra things when we showed them the gel walls, too. Along the lines of med-tech and such, but stealth was the biggie. As were the jump points to the Zeniths.

And now, we’d exited a jump point for the last time for who knew how long, because New Earth was taking their toy back.

I wondered, worriedly, what the Zeniths would take back in return. Did they have a kill switch hidden somewhere and we’d suddenly not be stealthed?

I rechecked the camo and relaxed marginally when I saw it still active.

“It’ll take us at full throttle forty minutes to reach 55 Cancri f,” Zyla announced.

“And we could run into a patrol boat at any moment?” I guessed.

“Unlikely, Captain. This is a no-go zone for our people as well.”

I scowled at my vid-screen. “How did your father wrangle that out of the Council?”

“There are things here they would rather not expose even the lowest-ranked soldier in their fleet to.”

That sounded bad. “And we’re just rocking up without any worries because…?”

“Because nothing here can hurt us unless the scientists want it to.”

“Okay. Hold on. This is a research station?”

“Among other things.”

“Researching what exactly?”

“Anything and everything.”

“You’re being evasive, Zyla.”

She sighed and turned to face me. Big inky black orbs stared into my soul, but there was no purple sheen to bamboozle me. I crossed my arms over my chest and cocked an eyebrow; waiting. “I do not know what they research here,” she admitted. “It is my understanding that they do research dangerous things that the High Council does not wish to have researched closer to Zenthia, but what they research has always been a mystery to me.”

“Does Dad know?”

“My father controls the station in its entirety, so I would hazard a guess that he does.”

“This is his pet project?”

“This is his safe harbour should the High Council become a threat.”

“The scientists and guards are all his people,” I guessed.

“Yes.”

“Clever.”

“Hide in plain sight,” she agreed. “My father is a very astute man, Kael. You would be wise to remember this.”

“He’s the High Councillor of Zenthia, Zyla; I’ll never forget it.”

I sat back and stared at the slowly enlarging grey dot on the vid-screen that represented 55 Cancri f. There were other planets and moons designated 1 through 60 Cancri f, and further afield into the system, Cancri celestial bodies with different suffixes. This was a busy system and yet from what the scanners were telling me as they pulled in more and more telemetry, a system empty of biological beings.

Save for 55 Cancri f, of course. That wasn’t exactly teeming with lifeforms, but it was showing up as having life in what amounted to a dead system.

“Can other planets in this system harbour life?” I asked out of curiosity.

“The primary is not within optimum distance to any planet to sustain life. My father’s base is beneath the surface of 55 Cancri f. A suitable distance from the system’s star to allow life to exist within containment. However, should you walk the surface without suitable protection, you’d burn every sixteen hours to ashes.”

“Nice,” I muttered. “I can see why he chose this place.”

“In addition, the minerals and mineable products in the system are not so rare that anyone would risk their lives for them — common components found throughout the known systems. If one should survey the Cancri system, all they would find is an empty replica of untold other systems far easier to navigate than Cancri. Add in the fact that Zenthia Actual has a research base here; then the no-fly zone is easy to manage.”

“Hide in plain sight in a shithole system where no-one wants to go,” I said.

“Exactly. There was talk of building a military base here once. My father made sure an experiment on 55 Cancri f failed and irradiated the entire system for three Standard months. The scientists were locked down and close to running out of supplies when the all-clear came through, and Zenthia Actual sent in aid.”

“Harsh.”

“No-one died.”

Cold, I thought dryly.

“Survival amongst the High Council requires a certain amount of deviousness,” she added as if reading my mind. Or maybe it was the fact that I had gone quiet. I tended to do that when I judged someone harshly. “That’s why I left.”

I sat forward and opened my mouth to say something. Zyla beat me to it.

“Growing up on Zenthia Actual was an education in survival. It was a political jungle filled with ministerial snakes. One false move and I would have ruined my father’s chances at retaining the High Councillor’s position. I grew immune to the pressure, unfeeling and aloof. My father praised me on my behaviour more than once; he was proud of me. Then one day, a so-called friend, someone I had thought I could trust with my life, planted evidence in my room linking me to an assassination attempt. The councillor in question survived, obviously, but he was my father’s staunchest detractor. The evidence alone could have condemned him and me; the truth of their relationship sealed the plot in reality.”

She paused to take a steadying breath. I said nothing. Zyla didn’t open up often, if at all, and I wasn’t going to ruin this moment by saying something. Perhaps it was her way of preparing me for an imminent meeting with her father, the High Councillor himself. Perhaps she was nervous about the impending meeting and talking to me helped.

It didn’t matter. I could listen to Zyla all day if that’s what she needed.

“I stumbled upon the incriminating evidence by accident,” she said softly. Her words getting quieter the closer to the crux of her story she got. “It was merely happenstance. Had I not been looking for something I ordinarily did not need, I would not have found it; so well hidden the evidence was. I searched the security camera footage to see who had placed the weapon there. The footage had been erased, of course. I tested the weapon and found my bio-signature all over it; I had never seen the rifle before. I widened my investigation and found all surrounding security footage leading to my quarters had been similarly tampered with as well; not cleverly because that was not needed. It could be explained away by simply stating I had been trying to cover my own tracks. But there was no signature, no trail for me to find.”

I waited again while she organised her thoughts. This was painful to her and yet she obviously survived the experience. Became the Zenith she was today because of it.

I liked the Zenith she was today. Zyla had compassion and strength and an innate sense of calm to her that spoke to me. It was something I had always sought out in Doc. But where Doc wouldn’t judge you, Zyla constantly challenged me to do better. To do the right thing.

Was it because someone had done the wrong thing once and hurt her?

“I destroyed the evidence,” she finally said. “There was no point using it to find the true assassin. Having it in my possession at all was a risk I couldn’t take. A risk my father would likely not survive. So, I destroyed it. An hour later, the High-Security Force came and searched my quarters. They concentrated their attention on the location the weapon had been hiding. If I needed evidence that someone had framed me, I had it. But who? My father was outraged. He demanded an investigation; shining a light on the corruption within the HSF. They’d been hoodwinked, and the High Council’s personal guards could not be so common as that. It caused an uproar, in the chaos, the actual accusation was forgotten. I watched from the shadows, always there but never seen, and saw the trail at last.”

She paused and pressed her finger to her vid-screen a fraction harder than normal. I watched as she visibly got herself back under control once more.

“He couldn’t help it,” she said, again seemingly calmly. “He couldn’t help but watch to see the outcome. Like me, he hid in the shadows, always there but never seen. It is what I had admired most about him. He was like me.” And then whispered, “And nothing like me.”

My heart was breaking. Zyla the Zenith who never showed an emotion unless it was rage. Heartache has a flavour, I realised; it’s bittersweet and tastes a little of tears.

“I cornered him in a section of the station I knew was out of HSF sight,” she said. “I confronted him; he denied it. I threatened him; he accused me of betrayal. I slapped him; he didn’t strike me back. He called off our betrothal a day later; I would have done it myself, but I was numb; admittedly uncertain of my behaviour.”

Zyla had been engaged? I’d kill the guy. And I’d enjoy doing it. My fingers clenched into fists.

“One month later,” she continued, again in that seemingly calm voice that belied the fact that she was not at all calm right then, “he received a promotion to a position that would not have been his but for the assassination attempt, having killed the man who was slated to have it. Then I knew; I had been right. The Councillor had not been the intended target, after all. Zaden had been aiming at his opposition, and his aim had struck true; he’d assassinated the Zenith who should have become the Deputy High Councillor’s undersecretary and planted the evidence in my rooms.

“We’d thought him ours; my father and I. He had been a staunch supporter of many of my father’s motions in Council; he’d asked for my hand with the understanding that one day he would become my father’s undersecretary. He’d clearly switched sides, and I had become an inconvenient problem that required an elegant solution.”

“Framing you for murder is elegant?” I demanded, forgetting in my anger that I was meant to remain silent for Zyla’s sake.

Her eyes met mine, a hint of purple finally returning there.

“You are outraged,” she commented mildly.

Well, damn. Wasn’t gonna deny it now, was I?

“You bet your arse, I’m outraged,” I declared.

She smiled, and the hints of purple became striations of violet and mauve in her eyes; so hypnotising.

“My arse has nothing to do with this,” she said.

I begged to differ but knew when to keep my trap shut.

“Tell me you iced him,” I growled. Clearly, keeping my trap shut was not in my repertoire.

“I considered it,” she said, still smiling slightly. “I even thought out an excellent plan.”

I closed my eyes. The son of a bitch was still living. Still out there.

“I told my father everything,” she said. “He was the one who suggested I run away.” I scowled. That didn’t sound like the High Councillor I’d heard of. “By leaving, I gave Zaden no target to use. My escape was easily explained; I was heartbroken from the failed betrothal. And my father was able to implement my plan without fear of it leading back to me.”

“Please tell me that cocksucker is dead.”

“Kael,” she said. “There are worse things than death.”

Oh, nice. He was suffering. Still, if I ever met him, I’d put a plasma bolt through his head.

Zyla turned back to her screens and adjusted our course slightly. I couldn’t see why she did it, but she was the navigator, and this was a no-fly zone, so I was sure she had her reasons for the change in flight.

“Do you ever regret leaving Zenthia Actual?” I asked.

“I miss my father, but I do not miss the political machinations of Zeniths. We are a cerebral species; our battles are oft fought in the dark, with cunning and wile. We are not Mals who throw legions of their soldiers at a problem and pound it into submission. Nor are we Rhodian who believe it their right to observe a battle from afar while their creations wage war against their enemies. And although we are prepared to watch from the shadows, we do not do it in the gutters as the Claxians do.”

“And compared to humans?”

“Ah,” she said. “Therein lies the problem. We are more alike than the High Council would welcome. When the humans appeared on the intergalactic scene, there was chaos on the Council. A bipedal species so like our own in appearance and mannerisms and battle tactics.”

“I wouldn’t call us alike,” I said. Zeniths were highly xenophobic. They considered themselves superior to every other species. They seldom interacted with lesser beings, and when they did, they always gave the appearance of aloofness and condescension; staring us down in their flash warships, playing chicken as if firing on us was beneath them or something.

Oh, hang on. Yeah, I could see her point, actually.

Zyla arched her brow at me and then returned to her screen to adjust our course again.

“You’re doing a lot of course corrections,” I observed.

“There are mines laid here; one must navigate through them carefully.”

“Mines, huh? Stealthed?”

“Yes.”

“Then I’ll shut up and let you concentrate.”

“Talking to you allows me to breathe, Kael, despite the topic of conversation.”

Huh. I helped her to remain clam. Like she helped me.

“Okay, then,” I said, sitting back and wrapping my hands around my nape, legs stretched out in front of me. “Keep going. Dr Jameson is listening.”

“Idiot,” she muttered in Zenith. But it was said with affection. Well, I was pretty sure it was said with affection. It was hard to tell with emotionless Zeniths.

“Where was I?” she murmured. Again in Zenith, so I didn’t answer.

The dick part of me knew divulging I could understand Zenith was not part of my orders. The other dick part of me wanted to share everything with this woman, especially the part of me that is my dick.

“I was tired of the politicking,” she said in Earth Standard. As if politicking involved assassination attempts and framing someone you supposedly loved for murder. “I’d had enough of wearing a certain face. I wanted freedom. My father gave it to me. He could see I was tiring. Zaden had hurt me, and my shell was cracked. I was a liability, of that I have no doubt. But my father loved me enough to release me from my obligations. I couldn’t just disappear, however. Running away was not enough. I had to be seen running toward something. So, we chose the ZNA.”

“We?” I asked.

“My father’s suggestion; I concurred.”

“So, you were a spy?” A mole, I think they had accused her of in the end.

“No. That was never the plan. The plan was to hide in plain sight, doing something that made sense to those who would question it. The disgruntled and heartbroken daughter seeking fulfilment and meaning in life. Seeking a cause.”

“And yet, if the ZNA planned something big, you wouldn’t be able to help but warn your father.”

She said nothing. Zyla wasn’t stupid. Far from it. She was one of the smartest people I knew.

“At first, I empathised with them,” she said, ignoring my observation completely. “I honestly believed their cause was just. But the deeper I delved into their hierarchy, the easier it was to see that they were zealots for the most part. Overenthusiastic and without the training to remain on course. I attempted to refine their processes. It was met with a modicum of success. But time and again they would hand down an order that didn’t make sense. Their targets became more erratic, and I could not justify my aiding them. So, I left.”

“And found me. Found the Harpy.”

Found Cass.

 She made another course adjustment. “I had heard of an improved artificial intelligence out of New Earth that could allow the ZNA a better chance of waging war against the High Council. They truly believed if they had this next-generation AI in their possession that the HSF could be obliterated, leaving the High Council defenceless. Then, and only then, the High Council would have to meet their terms and give them the freedom they so desired.”

I was betting Cassi could easily wipe out a platoon or two of the High-Security Force if she wanted. But how had the ZNA heard of the third-gens?

“Do you know why they thought Cass could do that?”

“Kael,” she said. “Their intel came directly from the NESF.”

Kerr. That fluxing admiral had turned on New Earth long before the drones appeared in orbit over Ceres Alpha.

Son of a bitch, the guy did not deserve to live. Odo had been right on that one.

“I decided,” Zy went on, adjusting course again. She was having to do it more and more often as we got closer to 55 Cancri f. “That I would seek out this artificial intelligence and see exactly what it could do.” Kerr would have told them Cass was on the Harpy, I guessed. Fluxing bastard. He’d been keeping tabs on me, then. “If it could do what the ZNA hierarchy believed it could do,” Zy continued in a smooth and natural tone of voice, which didn’t prepare me in the slightest for her next words, “then I would find a way to neutralise it.”

Silence hung in the cockpit as Zyla deftly adjusted course again. I stared at my navigator, my heart thundering inside my chest, words failing me.

There’d been a time when I hadn’t trusted Zyla completely. I thought that time had passed.

She glanced over at me and frowned slightly.

“Clearly, I did not do it,” she said waspishly. I hadn’t ever heard Zyla sound waspish before then.

“Why not?”

“I met you.”

“Me?”

“Captain,” she said. “Kael,” she corrected, “do you know what happens when a Zenith meets their match?”

“You stare ice daggers at each other?”

She huffed out an unamused breath.

“Never mind,” she said and adjusted our course again.

I sighed and rubbed a hand over my face.

“Go on, Nav,” I said. “I’ll shut the flux up.”

She only grunted.

“Tell me.”

Nothing.

“You know you want to.”

Still nothing.

“Oh, come on! I’m sorry. I thought it was funny.”

Her inky eyes met mine, not much purple in there, my very observant mind told me.

“What happens when a Zenith meets their match, Zy?” I asked.

And what was a Zenith’s match anyway?

“Our blood,” she said, “manifests.”

Say what now? This was all news to me. Something the xenophobic Zeniths had kept to themselves, obviously.

“I knew the instant I met you,” she said, deftly adjusting course again for what must have been the hundredth time in the past ten minutes, “that you were the one. I could hardly…”

A flash of light illuminated the main vid-screen. I shielded my eyes with a raised arm and braced myself for a torpedo through the hull plating. Nothing happened.

But hanging suspended in the Black before the Harpy was a Zenthian skiff, weapons hot; target locked on my ship. How the flux had they known we were here? Had we crossed a tripwire or something?

I looked at Zyla. She didn’t seem surprised in the slightest.

And then she reached forward and activated a wide-beam comm and in Zenith said, “This is Zyla Zarnissa, zulu-alpha-01, requesting permission to dock.”

A heavy silence filled the bridge, and then a military-styled voice replied, “Permission granted.”

We were in.


Cepheid Variable



Chapter Eleven

Zy kept shooting me little looks that I was having trouble deciphering. Ever since our heart to heart on the bridge, she’d been silent and if I didn’t know any better, brooding.

She’d opened up, which was difficult for Zyla. She’d also clearly said something she regretted. I’d been giving her space to adjust to whatever had upset her, but obviously, that had been the wrong reaction because now I was getting cool looks that bordered on icicles stabbing through my eyeballs.

The Harpy clanged as it docked with 55 Cancri f science station and then the clamps started to haul us inside what had to be a hangar. If the outside temperatures immolated biologicals every sixteen hours, it was probably for the best that we were being dragged deep underground.

Not that I felt warm and fuzzy about being locked down inside a super-secret, super-scientific base on a Zenthian planet.

“Basic,” I said aloud, valiantly ignoring the looks Zy was still giving me, “lock down systems, Jameson, K, beta-charlie-foxtrot-9-9-3.”

Systems are locked down, Captain.

It wasn’t as good as Cassi, but it was better than leaving the front door open for any enterprising Zenith to walk through and tamper with our ride.

Zyla said nothing, which didn’t reassure me. If she thought I was overreacting, the Zenith would have told me in no uncertain words. Instead, she kept quiet, checked her own console was powered down and shot me the odd look out of hooded eyes.

“Armed or not?” I asked.

“They will search you.”

“Unarmed then.”

“Unless you wish to add to their armoury.”

“Not today.”

She didn’t smile. Was she nervous? Worried? It was hard to tell with Zyla. It was the one thing that set my teeth on edge where my nav was concerned. I could read Odo like a book. And Marvin had only three settings; content, submissive, or warrior mode. Working out which mood he was in was easy.

“All hands,” I said over the ship-wide comm, “we go in unarmed. Let’s not give the high security, top-secret facility any reason to shoot at us.”

“Understood,” Marvin replied, who — let’s face it — was a weapon in his own right.

“Raining on my parade, Cap’n,” Odo drawled.

I looked at Zyla, unsurprised to see her already looking at me.

“How do you want to play this, Nav?” I asked.

She blinked.

“Tell them the ship’s yours?” I suggested.

“Why would I do that?”

“It’s a New Earther design. I’m a New Earther. Doesn’t look good me turning up here in command of an enemy vessel with you, the High Councillor’s lost daughter.”

“I see no reason to act any differently than normal.”

She had more faith in her father’s goons than I did. That skiff, although not exactly a battleship or even a patrol boat, had still been brimming with weapons. The Harpy had scanned its systems and just about pissed its drives.

I knew the instant we stepped off the corvette, we would be considered hostile. Zyla loved her father; it was clear to see. But he’d sent her to the ZNA for more reasons than just her freedom. Zyla had to know it, but where her daddy was concerned, she wore blinkers.

We were about to walk into a shit storm, and Zyla was gearing up for afternoon tea.

“Alright, then,” I said, when Zy remained silent. “We’ll do this your way. But the moment they try to board the Harpy, I’ll be the one saying ‘I told you so’”

“They will not board the Harpy,” Zy replied steadily.

Had to hand it to her, she had a poker face that could rival the best cardsharps on Ceres A.

I decided it was time to put mine on.

Odo and Marvin were already waiting in the cargo bay. Because it wasn’t a soft dock to an umbilical or docking hatch on the station, we didn’t need to use the airlock. The Harpy’s systems indicated breathable atmosphere on the outside of the ship, so we’d waltz on down the ramp like we owned the place.

Confidence was the key.

“Ready?” I said as I approached the guys.

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Odo muttered. He didn’t like this either.

“I am ready, Captain,” Marvin said in his gravelly voice. He was wearing his Mutt armour; worn and faded green. It was a statement and, at that moment, I kinda wished that the Harpy had a uniform.

I was in a relatively clean flight suit without any insignia. I’d made damn sure it didn’t have any links back to New Earth or the NESF, but it was harder to hide the fact I was human. Odo’s flight suit was a bit more wrinkled and had the odd spot of grease or hydraulic fluid on it.

Zyla was dressed like a Zenith, and it wasn’t until right then that I realised how different she appeared to me. It threw me slightly, so when Odo thumped the ramp controls to lower it, I wasn’t at my best.

The ramp lowered, and I pulled my eyes off Zyla and stared out into the bright light of the hangar bay; noting several more skiffs, a troop transporter, a private sailboat, and a dozen UAVs bristling with railgun turrets.

And half a dozen HSF fully kitted in ballistic armour with HUD helmets and plasma pistols aimed at our heads.

I slowly raised my hands in surrender.

“We’re unarmed,” I said.

“Down on your knees,” one of the soldiers said. “All of you! On your knees now or we start shooting.”

His Earth Standard was good. Zyla replied in Zenith.

“We had permission to dock,” she said as we stood immobile waiting for her to clear up the snafu.

“Down on your knees,” the guard repeated, this time in Zenith, perhaps thinking she didn’t speak Earth Standard.

“Zy,” I said carefully. “I think we better do what they say.”

They seemed trigger happy. Maybe bored to death sitting out here in the middle of nowhere with no-one to shoot at. And suddenly we appeared out of nowhere in a sweet looking New Earth corvette, and they were hungry for a chance to test their mettle.

I slunk down to my knees, keeping my hands raised in surrender.

Odo grumbled but followed me. Humans had long ago learned to live to fight another day. Marvin let out a sound that was a precursor to a battle roar, but one harsh glance from me had him jerkily falling to his knees, an abject look of horror on his ugly mug.

“Where is my father?” Zyla demanded, still standing.

“Knees. Now!”

The head guard charged his weapon and then without warning, fired a plasma bolt at the floor directly in front of Zyla. It ricocheted, and had she not fallen to her knees so quickly, it could have taken out her head.

And all of a sudden, we weren’t playing anymore.

“Son of a bitch!” Odo shouted.

“Easy,” I urged. “Zy, you alright?”

“Fine, Captain.”

“What the flux is going on, Nav?”

“I do not know.” But I was betting she could guess.

I could too. Zyla’s dad hadn’t made it. Someone else was in charge here, and they didn’t have a lot of love for Zyla.

If this had been the High Councillor’s bolthole, I was thinking it wasn’t any longer.

Coming here had been a mistake.

The HSF goons stepped forward, guns still aimed at our heads, but the message had been received. We didn’t fight them. Didn’t even offer up a word. Just let them Flexi cuff us and haul us to our feet, and then we were escorted through pristine gel walled corridors, passed seamlessly locked doors, and down twisty ramps leading further underground until we were deposited in the brig. A single cell each, which for a hopeful minute remained transparent, and then the gel walls blurred and I was on my own.

“Well,” I muttered. “This feels fluxing familiar.” The ZNA had imprisoned us like this as well. Their facilities hadn’t been as upscale as this, but the sentiment had been the same.

Where was Zyla’s dad?

I glanced around the room, pleased to note there was some privacy for the head this time, but not a lot else had improved. The bunk was stock standard with a foam mattress and scratchy blanket. But there was a small table and two chairs, all of which was part of the gel and could be altered at the whim of our jailers.

There was no window outside, and the gel wall to the corridor we’d been brought down was opaque, so nothing of interest to look at. But I was fairly certain I was being observed.

Gel walls didn’t need cameras to record someone. The gel was the camera.

I walked across to the closest wall and laid my hand on it. The base might have had an artificial intelligence running the entire thing, including the walls. Or it could have been a simple computer programme without sentience. Either way, the gel would recognise a Jameson. Pavo hadn’t invented the gel wall by himself; he’d had help from the other Originators. But he had tweaked it and made it into what it was today.

All gel walls throughout the known systems recognised the Jameson DNA. Not many people knew that. And I was showing my hand sooner than I probably should have.

But war had started and if we didn’t get out of here, find some evidence that proved New Earth’s innocence, then my home planet might not exist by this time tomorrow.

Time was running out, and I didn’t have the luxury of seeing how this played out. Plus, I was sick of this rumba.

The gel wall glowed a soft green. Pavo green.

“Hello, beautiful,” I said. “Show me Zyla.”

An image appeared on the gel wall of Zyla alone in her cell, pacing. Her long legs ate up the small distance in a couple of seconds, making her have to turn and walk back the way she came. It gave the impression of a caged tiger; lethal and deadly and enraged.

“Where is she in relation to me?” I asked.

The gel wall disappeared, and there was Zyla. She made a shocked sound, falling into a crouch, hands up ready to defend herself.

“It’s just me,” I said, stepping over the threshold into her cell.

An alarm started to blare.

“Drop the walls on the crews’ cells,” I said.

“Captain?” Zyla asked, standing upright again.

“We don’t have time for this,” I said.

The gel walls fell, and across the corridor, Odo and Marvin peered out of their unconfined spaces.

“Let’s head out,” I said.

“This will only cause them to retaliate,” Zyla told me.

I placed my hand against the nearest gel wall and said, “Protect us. And show me who is in charge here.”

Another image appeared on the gel wall before me. Zyla sucked in a surprised breath of air. The Zenith who was yelling at his HSF guard in a luxuriously appointed room was dressed in the highest fashions and had a purple sheen to his inky black hair.

“Someone you know?” I asked, looking at Zyla.

“Someone who should not be here.”

“Please tell me this isn’t the fluxtard who…you know…did that thing.”

She blinked at me and then slowly shook her head. “Someone else.”

“Care to enlighten me before I get the gel wall to detain every single Zenith in this place.”

“You can do that?” Marvin asked.

“This is sweet,” Odo offered, spinning around and grinning.

“Please don’t,” Zyla said. “He is my brother.”

Brother. No shit.

“Friend or foe, Zy? ‘Cause this whole situation ain’t, in my book, very friendly.”

“Friend. He was a friend. He is family.”

“Didn’t know you had a brother,” Odo muttered.

“Stepbrother. He was born out of wedlock.”

Zyla’s daddy had been a very naughty boy sometime in the past. Mating to Zeniths was sacred. Illegitimate sons were not something you announced in the High Council chamber.

“Get us there, undetected,” I told the wall.

A blue arrow appeared on the floor and started blinking its way down the corridor. I nodded my head to my crew and started to follow it. Odo stepped in behind me with Zyla and Marvin walking more slowly at the rear.

“Try to keep up,” I said over my shoulder. They looked stunned that the gel wall was mine.

I couldn’t blame them. Not everyone could do this. It was an ace up the sleeve that had got me out of a tight spot or two in the past. And one I had kept in reserve to use in only the worst possible situations. Near-death. That sort of thing.

I wasn’t near death now, but New Earth was. It was a payoff I was willing to make to save my homeworld and everyone on it.

At times of war, you do things you wouldn’t do when peace reigned. Right now, I’d do almost anything to save New Earth.

The clock was ticking.

“Show me the location of the nearest guards,” I said as we swiftly made our way out of the brig through corridors the gel wall created.

A diagram of the facility appeared on the closest wall and kept pace with me. On it were four little green dots and about two dozen red. There were also about ten orange dots which I took to mean weren’t guards; probably the scientists. They were all located in one area down a level.

“Is that the lab?” I asked, tapping the orange dots on the screen.

A thumbs up icon appeared on the wall beside me.

“No voice box, eh?” I asked the wall. The thumb turned downward. “AI?” It waggled but remained in the downward position.

That was good. The most sophisticated programme in the base was probably the gel wall. It had a rudimentary artificial intelligence. By itself, the gel wall was intelligent tech, capable of predicting things and changing its parameters to meet those predictions appropriately. To an outsider, it looked like a very complex programme or series of codes. Hidden in amongst all that chatter, though, was a part of Pavo.

As I said, he didn’t create the gel walls alone, but he sure as hell fluxed with them.

“This is fluxing awesome,” Odo said. “Can any human do it?”

The gel wall waggled a finger at him as if to say, “Nah-uh-uh.”

“Shit,” he said. “That sucks, Cap’n. Why do you get all the fun?”

“Pays to be a Jameson,” I said.

“Sweet,” Odo replied, clearly not too fussed that he couldn’t communicate with random walls as I could.

“I have never heard of this before,” Zyla commented, running long fingers across the wall beside her as we walked down yet another corridor made to facilitate our swift arrival at Zyla’s brother’s office.

The gel wall warped and wobbled, where she touched it, as if tickled from the sensation. Pavo wasn’t a particularly playful AI; that was more the purview of Corvus. But whenever I had been away from New Earth for any length of time, the Originator that had controlled Gramps’ ship was always happy to see me.

This gel wall had been cut off from humans for a long time; I was betting. It was like an excited puppy, overenthusiastic at seeing its owner after they’d been out of the house for a day.

“Settle down,” I told it. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”

An image of a forest I knew well on New Earth appeared on the gel wall, the leaves rustling in a non-existent breeze.

“This is stunning,” Marvin murmured.

I wasn’t sure what to say. I’d grown up with this ability; this connection to the gel walls and the Originators. They all knew me by name. All of them had taken turns tutoring me in subjects not taught at any academy. My education had been a special one, with the sole purpose of ensuring their legacy lived on in a descendant of the Old Earth commanders of their vessels.

I’m pretty sure they did the same thing for the Vaughan, Saitō and Tremblay kids. But I could be wrong. I was taught not to speak about it with anyone. Including other captains’ descendants.

It was all about degrees of separation for the Originators. I wondered if that would be an asset in the battle to come. Vela had kept himself separate from Pavo and Corvus when he’d opened Aquila’s message. That separation was all that saved the other two Originators from the hack.

Separation, though, hadn’t saved Cassiopeia.

I scrubbed a hand over my face and stepped through a gap as it appeared in the gel wall in front of me, directly into the office where Zyla’s brother was standing. His mouth dropped open, and he blinked ebony eyes at us. The Zenith, who’d been arguing with him, drew a plasma pistol and aimed it at my head.

had been the first one through the gap, after all.

But behind me stepped Odo, which didn’t make the irate guard any happier, and then Marvin, which almost sent him into full-on panic.

And then came Zyla.

Her eyes met her brother’s. His eyes met hers.

“Kids,” I said. “We need to talk.”

The guard pulled the trigger and a blast of plasma shot out toward me. I ducked, but it wasn’t fast enough.

The gel, though, was faster. It shot up out of the floor and formed a protective barrier, and then it swatted the plasma pistol out of the Zenith’s hand.

Everyone stilled. The now unarmed guard swore bloody murder in Zenith.

Zyla’s brother glared at me.

“Who the flux are you?” he demanded.

“Kael Jameson,” I said. “Captain of the Harpy. And the human who’s going to prevent your planet going to war.”

He smiled. It was chilling. How he was related to Zyla, I didn’t know.

“You’re too late, human. We’re already at war. The first strike has been made.”

Damn it.

“Where?” I demanded.

He crossed his arms over his chest and said nothing.

The gel wall morphed into an image of Trinity Station, the bastion of New Earth orbital might. It was no more.

How the hell had they got there so quickly? The jump points should have been dead by now.

I stared at the destruction, knowing thousands of New Earthers had already died.

“Show me New Earth,” I murmured.

The spinning blue and green and white globe of my home planet looked shockingly peaceful in comparison. And still intact.

“Where’s the Zenthian ship that did this?” I asked.

The gel wall didn’t answer. Instead, it showed me the station exploding from the inside out.

Bomb. Not plasma fire. The Zenith — or whoever they’d been — had already been on board. Suicide bomber. Harsh.

I turned to look at Zyla’s brother who seemed inordinately pleased with the horror apparent on my visage. I shook my head. He smiled.

Then I said, “Bet the Mal’s love fighting beside you, brother.”

Marvin started to laugh. It was a little out of place what with the Trinity Station debris still visible on the gel wall, but I appreciated the sentiment.

“Enemy of War,” the Mutt said. “You are no ally to Malee.”

One down. Three to go.

The clock kept ticking.


Cepheid Variable



Chapter Twelve

I might have played things differently if he hadn’t been a dick. And if he’d been his dad. Yeah, I would definitely have played things differently if it was the High Councillor I was facing off against in this office right now and not Zane Zarnissa; illegitimate son and High Councillor secret.

The facility was ours. It had taken less than ten minutes to round up every HSF guard and Zenthian scientist and contain them in their gel walled rooms. The gel was everywhere in the secret base, and now Zeniths knew New Earth had a way to attack them from inside their carefully guarded borders.

I was likely to get an earful from Gramps.

But the metaphorical clock was ticking away loudly in my ears, and I knew if we didn’t come up with something soon, New Earth would be fighting for its life with only two Originators.

Even without the jump points, FTL flight would get our enemies into New Earth’s system eventually. And they’d already proven they were imbedded behind our carefully guarded borders as well.

The expanding cloud of Trinity Station’s debris was still up on the gel wall, recorded in real-time. I could see Pavo off to the side, his shuttles searching for survivors. Corvus would be patrolling further out in the system with our battleships, watching and waiting for our former allies to arrive.

I stared at New Earth and wished for the first time in a decade that I was there. Home is a strange word; it doesn’t seem nearly big enough for the tremendous emotions it evokes.

I turned and looked at Zyla’s brother.

“You will pay for this,” he said.

“I think we already have,” I muttered and tried not to look back at Trinity Station on the wall. I failed.

“You think that is the least we will do to you after Pi Mensae?”

“We weren’t responsible for Pi Mensae.”

“You were at Ceres Alpha.”

“Again, not our drones.”

“You didn’t stop them.”

“Our hands were tied.”

“Excuses.” He spat on the gel floor. It cleaned the globule away before it had even stopped moving, stealing the Zenith’s thunder.

I thought the gel didn’t much like Zyla’s brother, either.

“Why are you here, Zane?” Zy asked. She hadn’t stopped staring icicles at her brother. He’d been happy to share the icicle glares around the room.

“Taking what is rightfully mine, little sister,” he said in Zenith.

Zyla continued to speak in Earth Standard, which was kind of a slap in the face and Zane knew it.

“None of this is yours,” she said.

“I am the firstborn,” he snapped, still in Zenith.

“You have no claim on a Zenthian military base.”

“This is more father’s than it is Zenthian. They barely know it exists.”

“An irrelevant statement; you are wasting air.”

“Says the ZNA traitor.”

Zyla didn’t even flinch. Zane scowled at her non-reaction.

“Where is Father?” she asked.

“Not here.”

“Clearly, otherwise you would not be.”

Ah, but that blow hit precisely. Zyla’s brother looked away.

“Where is he?” Zy repeated.

“I do not know.” He looked at me and in Earth Standard said, “What will you do with us now, human? You have the base; all the good it will do you. Nothing of import is here. The experiments are worthless. The military stocks are rudimentary. Your efforts were for nothing.”

I stared at what was left of Trinity Station on the gel wall and said, “That yacht in the hangar. Is it yours?”

“Hardly a worthwhile spoil of war.”

“Is it yours or your father’s?” I asked.

“Mine.”

“How did you gain access to the base?”

He growled. The gel rose up before him in a threatening wave. “My biosignature and codes were accepted,” he begrudgingly admitted.

“They were expecting you.”

He said nothing. I turned and looked at him.

“The HSF guards,” I said. “Yours or the bases?”

“The base’s,” he said, staring daggers at me and fearful glances at the gel.

“You won them over pretty quickly.”

“It was easy when I identified the New Earth corvette on approach as the one that had watched Pi Mensae burn and did nothing to save them.”

I looked at Zyla. “Anything else you want to say to this fluxface?”

She shook her head.

“Take him away,” I told the gel. “Contain him in his rooms.”

The gel wall complied, much to Zane Zarnissa’s disgruntlement. The foul language spewing out of his mouth in Zenith almost made me laugh. I managed to control myself before I gave my understanding of the tongue away.

“He’s not the one in charge,” I said quietly.

“No. That would be one of the scientists or perhaps one of the guards,” Zyla agreed.

“Who’s in charge?” I asked the gel wall.

It showed me a picture of the guard who had been arguing with Zane in the office before we’d interrupted. The one who had shot at me.

“Do you know him?”

Zyla shook her head. “It has been many years since I was part of my father’s inner circle.”

“Show me the scientists,” I said.

A view of the scientists all milling around in a mess was displayed.

“Any of these Zeniths familiar?” I asked.

Zyla stepped up to my side and studied the video feed.

“Yes. I know some of them. They have been here for decades.”

“Okay,” I said, and the feed dissipated.

“What are you thinking, Captain?” Zyla asked.

“I’m thinking this base is still your father’s. Brother dearest put a spanner in the works, and us being in that New Earther corvette didn’t help matters. But if Zane is here, and was given access to the facility, then I’m betting the base is in whatever emergency setting it needs to be to accept Zarnissas. Your father is or was coming here.”

I winced at Zyla’s stricken face.

“We need to talk to the scientists you know first to be sure,” I said, softening the blow a little, “but you should prepare yourself for the fact that he was expected.”

She nodded.

I glanced at Marvin and Odo, who had made themselves comfortable on a couple of armchairs in the corner of the office. Both were sipping the High Councillor’s whisky.

“Odo,” I said, “I need you to do a perimeter check, and set up the Harpy to monitor near orbit space.” I didn’t trust the science station; the gel could only get me so far with its systems.

“On it.” He stood up and exited the room.

“And me, Captain?” Marvin asked, almost eagerly.

“I need you to familiarise yourself with the defences on this rock. Do a weapons and munitions check. And take a look at those vessels in the hangar; including the yacht. I don’t want any surprises.”

“As you say,” the Mutt replied and left the room.

Zyla crossed her arms over her chest and stared at nothing.

“Nav,” I said, approaching cautiously. Zeniths could lash out if emotionally compromised. “Talk to me.”

Her eyes met mine, and I almost grabbed her and ran away. From this place, from the heartache I could see that she wouldn’t show another soul but me, from the war and the threat of danger.

“He should be here by now,” she said.

“Yeah,” I agreed softly. There wasn’t much reason that I could think of for the High Councillor to hang around Zenthia Actual if he felt compromised.

And for some reason, I thought he was compromised. If he were still in charge of Zenthia, then he would have been all over the vid-screens. Instead the newsfeeds were showing high ranking military Zeniths and the occasional politician politicking and serene-faced newsreaders assuring everyone that Zenthia was okay.

Either Zyla’s father had gone into hiding for some unknown reason when that Trojan Horse blacked out Zenthia Actual or the blackout gave an assassin the opportunity to strike and the High Council was for whatever reason — stability’s sake, unable to agree on a new leader, out of pique maybe — keeping mum about it.

Which meant, where was the drone data now?

“Zy,” I said. “If you need a moment, we can take a break.”

She turned to look at me. Inky black orbs with striations of purple stared into my soul. I reached up and touched her face. Her skin was soft and pale, almost translucent. Her eyelashes fluttered, and she leaned her cheek into my palm. I stepped closer; she smelled of Zenthian roses and something that tasted divine, but I couldn’t name. I looked up into her beautiful face and felt calm, felt peace when there shouldn’t have been any.

“Zy,” I murmured.

Her eyes opened and a deep purple so stunning, so staggering stared down at me. And then Zyla lowered her head and pressed her lips to mine and suddenly I wasn’t at peace anymore, I was all systems go, full throttle, ready for launch.

Our bodies entwined and our tongues danced. My head felt like it might spin off my shoulders. But that wasn’t my biggest problem. No, my biggest — and I mean that in the literal sense of the word BIG — was decidedly south of there.

It had been a while since I’d had sex and maybe any nubile female form would have done it, but then, this was Zyla, and I’d been having dirty dreams about the Harpy’s navigator for some time now.

Flux, she was the reason for my current stretch of Zenthian beauties. None of them had compared, though. Because this was Zyla. And Zyla was kissing me like there was no tomorrow.

And maybe there wouldn’t be, but right then, I didn’t give a flux. ‘Cause I kissed her back with equal passion and forgot about every other woman in my past.

What past?

All that mattered was tasting this Zenith before me, touching every inch of skin, nibbling on that diamond-like flesh, making sounds of delight and debauchery emit from between those luscious lips.

Zyla complied, which should have perhaps alarmed me.

And then her long, long legs wrapped around my waist and heat engulfed my crotch, and I was gone.

Zyla’s back hit the nearest gel wall, which moved to accommodate her. My erection hit home, and I groaned in need and unrestrained hunger. I nipped her ear. Palmed her breast. Started to undo her flight suit.

I thought I might not make it in time, but we could call it a practice round and go for gold on the final lap. I was up for it. More than up for it. I thought I could probably have sunk myself into Zyla a hundred times and still not had enough of her.

“Captain,” she said. Oh, and wasn’t that kinky?

My hand slipped into her suit and delved between those long, long legs of hers, finding nirvana.

“Kael,” she said, and her long fingers wrapped around my wrist in what I hoped was encouragement.

But which soon became obvious was not.

I’m a man. A human man. I was horny, and something about her purple eyes bamboozled me every single fluxing time. And I was horny. Did I mention that? And this was Zyla; the object of my night-time musings. And, good fluxing God, I was horny.

“Kael,” she said. “We have to stop.”

Shit. I pulled my hand out, lowered my head to rest my face between her breast and tried to breathe through the pain of a raging erection; my dick not at all happy with her or me or the universe right then.

“Okay,” I said and made a pitiful whimper. I covered it with a manly cough.

“I want to,” she said. And Hello, Erection again!

I lifted my head and stared into her still purple eyes.

“Your eyes are purple,” I unintelligibly said.

“Yes.”

“They’re stunning.”

“I’m glad you think so.”

I was avoiding the elephant in the room. Funny how we still said that. Elephant. As if we had the Old Earth creatures on New Earth.

I sighed and lowered Zyla to the gel floor, straightening her flight suit.

“Bad timing, huh?” I said.

Her slender hand cupped my face. Our eyes met.

“It does not help that this is my father’s office,” she agreed.

Yeah, I got that. At least she was into me. Maybe.

“You are into me, though, right?” I asked.

A furrow appeared on her brow.

“I didn’t misread the signs?” I said, suddenly desperate to hear her answer. “You kissed me,” I added for good measure.

And because it sounded fluxing great to my ears.

“Yes. I kissed you.”

“But no sex?”

“No.”

“Had to ask. It wanted me to.”

“What wanted you to?”

“My dick.”

She burst out laughing.

God, was there a better sound than a beautiful woman who was into you laughing at your dumb-arse jokes?

“We can revisit this later,” I said in a husky tone of voice, already envisaging christening my captain’s quarters on the Harpy with Zyla.

She could wrap those legs around my head, resting her feet up on the top bunk, holding herself steady for my undivided attention, leveraging her body into the exact right position…

“Kael! Are you listening?”

“Um, what?” I seemed a bit distracted. God knows why, right?

“We can’t revisit this later,” she said, and all of a sudden the universe was not big enough to hide in.

“Okay,” I said.

“I should have spoken about this sooner,” Zyla said. “I should have warned you.” She swore harshly in Zenith. “I should not have kissed you, that might have been a good start.”

“I thought it was a great start,” I told her.

She smiled softly, and some of the sting of rejection dimmed.

“I love your eyes,” I blurted. Good fluxing God, I was a lovesick puppy.

“That is why,” she said.

I stared stupidly at her. The gel floor could swallow me up any time now, I thought.

“My blood has manifested,” she added as if in explanation.

She had mentioned that before. I was apparently her match. And oh yeah, I could see she was my match in bed, too. So, why not?

“And that’s a problem?” I guessed.

“It can be. It can also be the most beautiful thing in the universe.”

“Say that in plain Standard, Nav.”

And I had to go and call her by her position on the Harpy, didn’t I? What was wrong with me?

Zyla looked at the gel wall image of what was left of Trinity Station.

“How do we stop this war?” she asked.

Talk about your subject changes. That one was a doozy. If she kept this up, I’d have whiplash.

I adjusted myself unselfconsciously and decided to get my head screwed on right. Zy had a point. That clock was ticking, and New Earth could be attacked — again — at any moment. And here I was acting like a horny teenager.

Still…

“This discussion is not over,” I told her.

She met my determined gaze and smiled.

“Of course,” she said, and for some reason, she looked triumphant. As if she’d won something precious.

Or I’d done something perfect.

Didn’t happen often, so I wasn’t gonna muck it up with more words. Besides, Zy was right; we had to think of a way to stop this war.

“With any luck,” I said, “the Mutts are out.”

“We can confirm that with Malcolm.”

“Good idea.” I looked at the Zenthian tech around us. “I’d rather do that on the Harpy.”

She nodded. “That leaves the Rhodians and Claxians.”

“And Zeniths.”

“I believe if we tackle the others first, we’d have better luck with my people.”

I scratched at my day’s old beard. It was now or never. I had to fess up.

“We need that drone data,” I said.

She frowned. “The drone data?”

“Prove once and for all that the drones aren’t from New Earth. That should be enough to make the Zeniths back down.”

“And what about Aquila and the patrol boat out at the Belt?”

Shit, I’d forgotten about that.

“One thing at a time, Nav,” I said. “The drone data is important; I just know it.”

“Of course it is,” she agreed. “But it also hacked Zenthia Actual. Do you really believe we’d have any better luck?”

I had my orders. But sometimes when orders were given, they failed to take certain things into account. Things that only an operative on the ground could determine. I was under charter, but Gramps and the NESF were not on the ground.

I was.

But was I being led by something other than my wits? Was this my dick talking? Listening to Zyla in the hopes it could get wet?

I closed my eyes and let out a long breath of air.

had to get that data for New Earth. But would getting it now be better than going after Rhodia and the Claxians first?

I’d been an operative for a long time; forty-odd years and then some. I’d made contacts all over the known systems. It had been a while. But some things never changed. Chits bought info. Credits bought a lot of it. And although my base was gone, I had a few caches stored all over the known galaxies.

I could unpack one, head into Rhodian space, and touch base with a few pals, get the lay of the land.

And then what?

I was flying a New Earth corvette. A Class 10 Gunboat. The same vessel that had been recorded over Pi Mensae watching the orbital drones nuke the flux out of the populace.

I had nothing. I needed that data.

New Earth needed that data.

“We know the data was on Zenthia Actual,” I said.

Zyla said nothing.

“We know your father had it and he hasn’t been seen for weeks.”

Still nothing.

“He isn’t here, hasn’t been here, so where would he be?”

I met her eyes. Zy remained silent for a while and then found her courage and said, “If he is compromised, and could not make it to Cancri, then he would have gone to ground on Zenthia.”

“Not on the space station?”

“No. That is High Council ground. He will have escaped in whatever manner he could manage and gone planetside.”

I stared at her and said, “Any chance he sent the data here?”

“We could ask the scientists I trust, but I doubt it. That data is dangerous. He would guard it with his life.”

“Why not destroy it?”

“Because,” she said reluctantly, “it is also worth something to someone.”

“To New Earth.”

“Or to those who sent the drones.”

“The ZNA.” Son of a bitch, he’d barter for his life with the faction that had caused so much trouble for him in the first place.

“My father is a survivor, Kael.”

“Nothing wrong with that.” I was trying not to judge here. It was getting more complex. Zyla’s brother was a dick, and I didn’t hold out much hope for her dad, either.

But I was trying.

“If he is still alive, he will have that data,” Zy admitted. “But, Captain, please, I beg you to reconsider. Do not go after it. He will kill to retain control of the only playing card he has. It means his life.”

That’s if he was still breathing. But I kinda got the impression he was harder to kill than your average Zenith. And that was saying something.

“We can approach the Rhodians,” Zyla was saying. “Or the Claxians first, if you think it better. I hold some sway in diplomatic circles. I have been to both homeworlds. I am sure they would grant us an audience.”

And then space us out the nearest airlock.

“I really do believe it is a better option than attempting to enter Zenthian airspace onboard the Harpy.”

“Who said anything about the Harpy?” I asked.

She blinked at me.

I was rather fond of the Harpy. It was quick, nimble, and packed an almighty punch. It was also a little piece of New Earth. Of home.

But Malcolm had fluxed with it, so it also stank a little of Mutt. And Zane, the wanker, had a very sweet ride out in the hangar which he currently did not have any need of.

I placed my hand on the gel wall at our side and said, “Lockdown the facility. Contain all biologicals not from the Harpy. Hide our ship and go stealth. Welcome to the war, my old friend.”

The walls and floors and ceilings flickered green and then a sullen red. They stayed red.

“Captain, what are you doing?”

“Hiding in plain sight, my love,” I told her.

She scowled.

“Let’s go have a chat with those scientists just to be sure, and then I want a look at your brother’s yacht. I’m fairly certain I saw some armaments on that thing. And if it needs a tweaking, Odo loves to flux expensive things up.”

“You’re going for the data.”

I met her inky black eyes and was stunned to see a hint of purple still in there.

“Zy,” I said softly. “When have I ever taken the easy road?”

“Never, Captain,” she said and smiled.

Purple blossomed in her eyes and for a moment — again — I was lost.

And then I got my mojo on and got to work.

The clock was ticking.

New Earth needed us.


Cepheid Variable



Chapter Thirteen

Zane’s yacht was a fine piece of space-faring luxury. The Zenith clearly wasn’t hurting for chits. Or maybe, Daddy actually cared for his illegitimate son and provided a stipend of some description.

Either way, we were getting an upgrade in accommodations but unfortunately a downgrade in armaments. The tech, of course, was superior — in line with all Zenith superior tech. No Cassi, but good enough.

“The base has spare parts for railguns, Cap’n,” Odo told me. “Perfect for retrofitting to the Zaalia’s Revenge.”

Zaalia, it turned out, was Zane’s mother. I was guessing the guy had mummy issues. Zyla had just snorted when she’d seen the transponder details for Zane’s ship. Thankfully, the vessel’s name wasn’t emblazoned on the side of the sleek black-with-red-racing-stripes paintwork. A quick hack by our nav and the transponder now read Siren’s Song in Zenith.

We were going in as disguised as we could be.

“Do it,” I said. “I’ll get Marvin to load up as much ammo for it in the hold as he can fit.”

“Don’t turf the Rhodian wine out to do it,” Odo said.

“Would you rather get drunk on Rhodian wine and fat on Malee cheese or survive a battle with a couple of railguns attached to the Siren’s sides?”

“Yeah, alright,” he muttered. I was pretty sure the easy acquiesce was due to the fact that he’d already ferreted a couple of cases and wheel or two away in his and Marvin’s stateroom.

There were two staterooms on the yacht, along with a sumptuously appointed lounge, tight but well-equipped galley, and a state-of-the-art bridge. Both staterooms had their own private heads. Everything was geared towards partying in opulence and not fighting a war against the known universe.

The hold was small in comparison to even the Harpy’s; which wasn’t a cargo hauler although could pass as one at a pinch. And what was in the Siren’s hold was mainly supplies for said partying. I wasn’t sure, but a quick calculation in my head told me the contents of Zane’s ship’s hold was worth more than my entire pension.

Replacing it with railgun flechettes was a bizarrely satisfying thought.

I left Odo to his tinkering and comm’ed Marvin, getting him on the switch-out in the hold. Then I made my way to the bridge.

The Harpy was already hidden within the gel walls of the station, making the hangar slightly smaller than it once was. The gel was accommodating, but even it couldn’t produce space out of nothing. It stole from Peter to pay Paul, and right now, we needed Paul to work for us.

How secure the Harpy would be was anyone’s guess. Once I left the station, the gel could simply forget about me completely, and therefore forget about its directives. It might have had a piece of Pavo inside its rudimentary intelligence, but that didn’t mean it was anything like the Originator.

I’d done everything I could to make this work, though, including leaving a sample of my DNA in the gel so it would have a Jameson on site. Or at least part of one. I had no idea if it would be enough. I’d always used the gel as a desperate means of escape in the past, more than willing to hide any evidence on my parting.

Everyone had their fingers crossed.

The scientists on station were on the whole compliant. Zyla had spoken to those she’d known well before she’d left Zenthia Actual. They’d seemed happy to see her. Not so happy to see me, but that’s xenophobic Zeniths for you. And they’d also confirmed they’d expected Zy’s father ten days ago and not received anything from him. No data and no word as to where he had gone.

That left Zenthia the only option available to us. Zy had been right, the High Councillor was in hiding, and he’d have the data on him. We just had to enter Zenthian space, run a blockade of what was left of their fleet guarding their borders — not much, I should think, considering their hard-on for New Earth — and find him on a planet that was only slightly smaller than the size of New Earth.

Easy.

I ran a hand over my face in frustration and entered the bridge.

Zy was tapping away on the navigator’s vid-screen. On the Siren’s bridge, there was only room for a pilot/navigator and a commander. It was cosy.

But it was also nicely appointed.

“Odo has spliced in control to the railguns to both consoles,” she told me. “He can operate them from down in the engine compartment,” — which was smaller than the stateroom heads — “or we can from here.”

“What about plasma?”

“Not as bad as you’d think. Even my brother’s penchant for extravagance did not mean the vessel was unarmed. There are pirates in the Black, you know.”

“Don’t I know it,” I said, chuckling.

“Stealth is also fully functional, but what is perhaps the most surprising is the capability of the engines.”

“Odo didn’t mention anything out of the ordinary.”

“He probably hasn’t had time to delve deeply into the systems, and he has been busy with your railguns.”

“Not just my railguns, Nav.”

“Of course,” she agreed smoothly. “However, I did run a systems diagnostic from here and discovered the Siren’s Song has a top FTL speed equivalent to the fastest racing pinnaces out of Rhodia.”

I whistled. “That will help.”

“Most certainly. Without jump points, we are limited to Faster Than Light travel.”

She was stating the obvious, perhaps as a dig at me. It was on my suggestion that Pavo had shut down the jump point system. It was a temporary measure to buy us some time; one Aquila could rectify easily. But we needed all the help we could get.

Zenthia was closer to New Earth than Cancri; so their fleet had a head start on us. Something that was making my insides twist with worry.

Not much to be done for it now, but to make it to Zenthia and get that drone data. I sure as flux hoped I’d made the right choice.

I left Zyla to her business and headed toward the stateroom she and I would hot bunk in. And by hot bunk, I meant it would hopefully get very hot in our bunk with both of us in it at the same time. Odo and Marvin weren’t aware yet that Zy’s and my relationship was changing. And because it was still so tenuous — oh, and because she said sex was out for some obscure reason that I was determined to argue against — I thought keeping the few kisses we’d shared under wraps was wise.

Crew dynamics could be tricky and we’d only just recently lost Doc and taken on Marvin. It was a delicate situation that needed to be handled with kid gloves.

God knows why kid’s needed gloves; another of those Old Earth sayings that just stayed with us.

I stepped into the ostentatious master stateroom and grimaced. We’d chucked out Zane’s clothing and personal belongings, leaving them crated in the hangar for the Zenith. Not that he’d have access to them for some time. The gel would keep the station’s occupants contained and cared for — including food, water, and amenities for humanitarian living conditions — but they wouldn’t have freedom of movement. The science experiments were on hold. The HSF squadron was disarmed. The station was running in a lockdown mode which the basic computer system could control without biological or artificial directives.

Of course, if the HSF guards were meant to be calling in status updates and didn’t, then someone would come out here to check on what was happening eventually. Considering this was a secret research station under the control of the High Councillor, though, I was betting we had some time before anyone back at Zenthia Actual panicked.

The HSF commander sure as shit wasn’t giving us any info in that regard.

I crossed to the wardrobe — not a simple cupboard for fancy pants Zane Zarnissa’s quarters — and stared down at the isolated comm device I’d stripped from the Harpy. I was getting faster at dismantling it and reassembling it, but it still took me over an hour to manage it.

And even now, I was unsure if I wanted to risk using it. A mobile device would have been handy, but this was what I had to work with. I rechecked that it was isolated, safely secured into the vessel — which conveniently had gel everywhere more fool the Zeniths — and closed up the wardrobe again.

Then I crossed to the fully integrated and state-of-the-art vid-screen mounted above the seating area in the corner of the room. Sitting down on an armchair I would gladly have fallen asleep in, I activated the screen and started scanning the latest news.

The gap was still there in the Belt. Speculation was rife on the feed; none of it concrete. Nothing had flown through it yet, but I couldn’t help feeling an itch between my shoulder blades that made me want to keep glancing behind my back. Something was out there, and sooner or later it would make its move. I suppressed a shudder; my imagination was getting away on me.

Scanning further newsfeeds, I discovered I didn’t need to get in touch with Malcolm after all because Malee had announced that Zenthia had acted in a manner dishonourable in warfare and withdrawn its considerable support. Enemy of War was mentioned by the Head Honcho Headcrusher of the Most Magnificent Mutt Army — my words not his — several times in the media statement he’d made. Destroying Trinity Station using a suicide bomber was considered beneath the Malee Code of Ethics during wartime.

For once, I was glad of the Mutt warrior psyche. They were crazy sons of bitches, but they had a strange sense of honour.

Shame I didn’t think Malcolm was part of the greater Malee collective. Pirate and honour didn’t seem to correlate in my mind.

I scanned for news out of New Earth, but New Earth’s media had been sanctioned, and we’d have to be in their system to get anything of worth. What was on the feeds could easily be called propaganda. They looked human, but I didn’t recognise any of the spokespeople. And quite frankly, I wouldn’t have put it past the Rhodians to place one of their AIs into a synth body resembling a New Earther.

I certainly didn’t think the NESF would have said the things the “humans” were saying on the newsfeeds.

I switched off the vid-screen feeling angsty and troubled. The clock was still ticking, and we were still in the hangar of 55 Cancri f’s science station.

I comm’ed Odo.

“How’s it going with the railguns?”

“Almost there, Cap. Marvin has completed loading the ammo. I’m just testing the systems; don’t want them to flux up on us right when we need them.”

“True that,” I said. “ETA to completion?”

“You in a hurry, Cap?”

“Yes.”

“Alright, then. Give me five minutes, and I’ll be done.”

“Thanks, Odo,” I said in a rare moment of raw honesty. Being thankful for my crew was always a given; I didn’t often say it; I didn’t need to. But somehow, right then, it felt right.

“We’re gonna kick some arse, aren’t we, Cap’n?” Odo asked.

“I don’t expect we’ll get onto Zenthia, find the High Councillor and grab that drone data, without some arse-kicking being done.”

“My kind of mission.”

I smiled.

Closing the comm, I stepped out of the stateroom and made my way off the ship. I didn’t bother to cross to a wall, just crouched down and touched the hangar’s gel flooring.

“Status?” I asked.

In lockdown, contact worked best with the gel, despite it knowing my biosignature. Pavo had been a paranoid batshit crazy AI when he first left Old Earth.

The gel floor morphed into a vid-screen displaying the various security systems in the station. All were set to lockdown status and secured. It then switched the view to the orbital satellites, a move that impressed me because it would have required using the station’s computer system to do it.

The gel was clever, no doubt. But it was New Earth tech and not Zenthian. That didn’t always make the two compatible.

Cancri space appeared clear, though. So, that was a relief. And the jump point was showing inoperable. Pavo had made it as far as Cancri, then, which meant he had probably successfully shut down the entire grid by now.

We were on our own, and for the first time in a long time, I felt the vastness of space as if it were a leviathan about to devour me.

I pushed those fantastical thoughts aside and said, “We’re coming back. You won’t be alone for long. Keep the Harpy safe for me, old friend.”

The gel gave me a thumbs up, and then the floor executed a farewell; wave-like ripples over a pond.

It would get out. That we had a way to control the gel. Even if we stopped this war, none of our allies would ever trust us again. It was a sacrifice I felt I’d had to make. Gaining control of this station the old fashioned way with just four beings — one of which was emotionally compromised — would have been damn near impossible.

Not completely impossible, because I had faith in my crew’s abilities. But it would have taken time; days even weeks. There were two dozen highly trained HSF guards in the station, and they knew the lay of the land better than we did. Without the gel wall’s assistance, this could have been a slaughter.

Ours, not the Zeniths.

I’d played the only hand I’d had available to me like I’d played the only hand I’d thought available to me back on Ceres Alpha. That decision had cost Doc his life, and at the time I’d thought Cassi’s life was forfeit, too.

Only luck and Gramps’ foresight had staved off the third-gen AI’s demise.

At the time of playing that particular card, though, I’d fully expected to kill two of my crew members to save a New Earth secret.

Well, the ZNA and Malcolm the Mutt knew about Cassi now, so the effort had been in vain. I could only hope my efforts here on 55 Cancri f wouldn’t pan out the same way.

The Jameson ability to manipulate any gel anywhere was a secret that could have disastrous consequences. Really, sending a missile or two from the Harpy’s tubes into the station was the only viable solution.

Part of me wondered if Gramps were here, whether he would order such a brutal execution. Part of me already knew the answer.

I wasn’t my great-grandfather. Which explained why I’d left.

But I wasn’t a coward either.

I would deal with the consequences as they came, but I would not obliterate 55 Cancri f and the beings in this station to hide a New Earth secret.

I would never do that again.

It was a crap secret anyway. If I were a Zenith with a gel walled space ship or planetside complex, I’d just strip the damn thing down to its bones and build it back up again with unintelligent composite compounds the old fashioned way.

There might be a hell of a lot of redecorating going on in the known systems by the time this was all over.

I patted the gel floor and then stood up, scanning the hangar bay one last time. The Harpy was hidden. Zane’s gear and the Zaalia’s hold contents were packed and secured off to the side. The various skiffs and one troop vessel were powered down and as dark as a pit on Pollux B when the moons were out of sight.

“All done here, Cap’n,” Odo’s voice said over my chrono.

I hoped to return here to pick up the Harpy, but there was a good chance we wouldn’t survive the Zenith home planet. I wondered idly, as I made my way back onto the Siren’s Song, whether Malcolm could trace the corvette to Cancri. I wouldn’t put it past the pirate, and that made it easier to turn my back on the hangar and the gunboat which had swiftly become mine.

I clanked up the ramp, hit the controls to close it, and announced over the ship-wide, “All hands, prepare for lift-off. Take us out, Nav. Light up the FTL drives.”

“Aye-aye, Captain,” Zyla replied.

“I sure as shit hope this boat is good for something other than partying,” I muttered to myself, making my way toward the bridge.

I passed Marvin in the lounge, belted into a reclining seat with a vid-screen open before him like some despotic king from Old Earth. He couldn’t man the weapons from there, and he couldn’t fit in either the bridge or engineering, so for this fight, he was purely tactical. I noticed though, which made me grin, that he was fully kitted out in Mutt armour.

If we got boarded, Marvin would be ready to greet them.

Odo would be strapped in down by the drives, with weapons hot if we needed them. It wasn’t ideal, but then if he needed to give his attention to the drives, Zy or I could man the weapons for him. I climbed the ladder to the cockpit and swung myself into the command chair as the hangar doors opened to space and the Cancri system twinkled out in the Black through the main vid-screen.

“Ready?” I asked my navigator.

“When am I not, Captain?”

My eyes met Zy’s, and I smiled.

“Let’s see how fast this piece of shit flies, shall we?” I said.

“I hardly think it’s a piece of shit, Captain,” Zy said, and I punched the accelerator, or what counted for one in a vessel like this.

Full throttle, we roared out of the hangar and twisted up into the Black.

“Yee-haw!” I shouted.

“I thought I was flying,” Zyla muttered, navigating a path through the mines.

I followed the route she set and stretched the Siren’s legs, swinging it around and through the smallest gaps in a reckless manner that would have made most co-pilots shit themselves several times over.

Zyla just sighed.

“You know, Kael,” she said, checking our flight path with lightning-quick finger movement over the dash. “Humanity’s recklessness will one day be its downfall.”

And suddenly it wasn’t so much fun to be messing with Zane’s ride.

I sent flight control back over to Zyla’s console.

She didn’t miss a beat, taking over the job of flying us out of the mine-filled Cancri system.

“Of course,” she added after a few tense moments of silence, “humanity’s recklessness might be what also saves them.”

She flicked a purple-filled gaze at me and smirked.

“Son of a bitch,” I muttered. “You just wanted to be the one flying.”

“You’re predictable, Kael,” she said on a laugh. “I know how you work.”

“You don’t know everything, Zy,” I told her with a wink.

“Perhaps not. But I know enough.”

Enough for what? To trick me into giving up flight control? Or for something more to develop between us?

Perhaps now wasn’t the time to be thinking of that when we were hurtling through space at faster than light speeds. It wouldn’t get us to Zenthia as quickly as the jump points, but it meant we weren’t out of the race just yet, either.

The clock was ticking. It was getting louder and louder.

New Earth was staring down the barrel of a Zenthian fleet that included Rhodian synth-operated destroyers and Claxian warbirds.

We had to get that data.

And then we had to find a way to use it.

I brought up a recording of Zenthia Actual going dark. A recording that wasn’t available on any of the public newsfeeds. Malcolm had to be good for something, I thought wryly.

Zyla shifted in her seat, clearly able to see what I was watching. I didn’t apologise; we needed to be prepared.

But the longer I watched it, the less prepared I felt. Because this was Zenthia Actual, the might of the High Council; the most tech superior species in the known universe.

And the lights went out on the space station without any defensive measures having been activated at all.

What the hell had the ZNA created?


Cepheid Variable



Chapter Fourteen

The newsfeed was full of reports of successful bombardments on New Earth holdings. I stared at the picture frozen on the vid-screen before me feeling numb. Hancock Station had reportedly housed one hundred and twenty New Earth workers and their families. It had been a refuelling station on the outer edge of the New Earth system, for any vessel who didn’t have jump point capability and flew through the Black the old fashioned way.

There were still quite a few of those; more than you’d think. And they would be the ones patting themselves on the back ‘round about now, what with the jump points all deactivated.

My mind wandered along that path for a moment in an effort not to address the destruction up on the vid-screen before me.

Zyla walked into the berth.

“Why are you still looking at that?” she asked, not unkindly.

“I was searching for news on Aquila.”

Aquila had been spotted in Zenthian space, making its way back toward New Earth. So far, the rogue Originator-controlled vessel hadn’t reactivated any jump points. It was flying FTL speed, appearing in orbit above Zenthian owned planets, and then disappearing again. I had no idea what Admiral Kerr was up to, and I could only hope whatever hack had been performed on Aquila hadn’t managed to obliterate my friend completely.

I held onto the hope that he wasn’t repairing the jump point system, so he had to still be the AI I knew and loved. It could have been a false hope — there were countless reasons why he might not be doing it — but it was the only hope I had.

No one had spotted Vela.

Having not one but two rogue Originators flying around out there made me nervous. Maybe even more nervous than the gap in the Belt that begged for a ship to go through it.

“Did you find any news on him?” Zy asked, sitting down on an armchair and staring impassively up at Hancock Station’s frozen demise on the vid-screen.

“No,” I admitted, deleting the image at last.

The newsfeed began to scroll in its place, this time showing a Claxian warbird flying in formation with a Rhodian destroyer and a Zenthian battleship. It was an impressive sight if not for the fact that they were hurtling toward New Earth.

We’d been underway for just over a week. Space is big, even at faster than light speed. Part of me was regretting my suggestion to have the jump point system deactivated; I could only hope it had allowed the NESF to recall its battlecruisers.

The more time New Earth had to prepare a defence, the better.

“Have you heard from Malcolm?” Zy asked, interrupting my musings.

The Mutt had been keeping in touch with me regularly. Nonsense messages about absolutely nothing. I think it was the only way he could track us. We were no longer on the Harpy, so he didn’t have whatever he’d hidden on it to keep tabs on our location. But send a tight-beam, and the resultant acknowledgement of receipt back gave him a progress report of sorts.

I just wished he’d comm his son and not me.

“The usual,” I muttered. “Nothing new.”

Zyla began stripping.

My eyes darted to the shape of her body emerging from out of a shapeless flight suit. She was wearing tight leggings and a cropped top that moulded to the contour of her breasts and flat stomach. She wasn’t exactly naked, and I’d seen Zyla in similar things on many occasions. Especially when we sparred.

Boots were shucked off, the flight suit was thrown casually onto the bunk, and then Zyla moved to the centre of the room — considerably more spacious than the berths on the Harpy — and started to limber up; stretching muscles and loosening joints.

It was at least a good two minutes of my undivided attention before she said, “Well, are you going to join me?”

Oh, the possibilities.

I cleared my throat. “What did you have in mind?”

“You’ve been like a caged animal, Kael. And it’s only getting worse. For a spacer, it’s pathetic.”

“Hey, who are you calling pathetic?”

You’re not pathetic, your behaviour this past week has been.”

“Same thing,” I muttered.

“Strip.”

“Nav, you only have to ask,” I drawled invitingly.

She rolled her ebony eyes at me, which really is an interesting thing to watch. No white to isolate the movement of the irises, but you can still tell when a Zenith rolls their eyes at you. Something about the facial expression; not often seen.

But Zy had been with me for four years now, so she’d picked up the human habit nicely.

“You want to spar,” I said, standing. I shucked my boots and flight suit, leaving me in boxers and nothing. I was inordinately pleased to see her gaze lingering on my abs.

“Better than obsessing over things you can’t do anything about.”

“They’re my people, Zy.”

“I know,” she said softly. “And Pi Mensae were mine.”

Both sides were losing beings, but we didn’t drop the nukes on Ceres Alpha, Gamma Cephei, Herculis B and Pi Mensae. We shot the fluxing drones down, but no-one had thanked us for it.

How many more Zenthian outposts would have been annihilated by now had we not stopped that drone fleet? The closer you got to Zenthia Actual, the bigger the populations. Pi Mensae had had over twenty-three million souls at one time. Now they were down to about three million.

And still, no-one knew what we’d done. They just thought we’d been watching our creations do the dirty work for us.

The drones had been more Zenith than any other species. Anyone could see that. But the Zeniths had our gel walls and used our jump points, so of course, it was possible we could be using their drone tech.

The Harpy had been a convenient threat for the High Council and Zenith National Army to get behind. They hadn’t exactly called a ceasefire on their animosity toward each other, but it had allowed them some breathing space.

I could just imagine what the ZNA radicals were doing right now, and it involved raucous laughter and lots of thigh slapping.

It’s easy to plan a revolution when the light is shining on some other unlucky schmuck.

Zyla’s long leg came out of nowhere and whacked me in the head. I spun and landed on my face, my cheek throbbing.

“Are you going to stand there all day, moping?” she asked. “Or are we going to spar and burn off some energy?”

“I have a better way we could be burning off energy,” I told my nav.

“Kael,” she started, and I swiped my leg out, catching her foot, and making her tumble.

I rolled and managed to place myself right under her, wrapping my arms about her body when she came down — hard, I might add — on my chest.

“This working for you?” she asked and elbowed me in the stomach.

I wheezed out a, “Yes,” and then she was rolling over my head, sliding out of my hands, and tapping me on the cheek in passing.

Slippery fluxing Zenith.

I flopped onto my front and pushed up onto all fours just in time to see another lightning-fast leg movement off to the side. My hand came up in reflex, and Zy’s foot connected with a forearm making a slapping sound that was way too close to a cracking sound for my liking.

“Hey!” I growled and bounded to my feet.

And then she was kicking and slapping and twisting this way and that and attacking and advancing and making me backtrack across the berth until my back hit the wall and I was forced to fight back.

I’d long ago learned that Zyla could take a beating and did not appreciate being wrapped up in cotton wool for her own protection. So, I sucked in a deep breath, settled my mind, and started to fight her in earnest.

Arms blocked open palm strikes, and the odd closed fist was dodged; shins and hips took the blunt force from bare feet and hard heels; soft grunts filled the air as we gave ourselves over to the moment.

I’m not sure how long we sparred. Long enough for sweat to cover my entire body; for my focus to become laser-sharp; my limbs to become supple; my movement to be more and more graceful. And for bruises to be forming in places I’d forgotten could form bruises. My heart was beating fast; my actions were controlled and precise; my mind was empty of just the moment — the battle — the thought of only me against an opponent and the next move she’d make or the next hit I’d place.

Neither of us won, and I’m not sure if that was Zy being kind to me or because I’d just improved that much and knew her so well now that I could combat all her moves and manage to stay out of the long reach of her arms and legs; ducking and diving; and swooping in when an opportunity arose to land a blow; and then jumping back out.

We were both breathless, exhausted, and when I landed a blow that made her wince — that really hurt — I realised we were taking things too far.

“Stop!” I said, stepping away from her. “Enough!”

“Agreed,” she panted and wiped at the sweat on her forehead.

We stared at each other as the adrenaline began to ebb and life-giving oxygen made it into our lungs and sanity eventually returned.

I felt alive. I felt fully awake for the first time in days. I felt I’d climbed out of the darkness and was back in the warmth of light again.

“Thank you,” I said.

“You’re welcome.” Always so formal. It was a habit I wished to rid the beautiful Zenith of.

“Care to share a shower with me?” I asked smirking. “Save on water?”

“You first, Captain. You’ve earned it.”

“Zy,” I said, shaking my head and reaching for a towel from off the end of the bunk.

My eyes caught the vid-screen in the corner. It was still running the news; scrolling ticker-tape in flashing red and white.

Private vessel enters the gap! The Belt fights back!

“Raise volume,” I said, staring numbly at the images on the vid-screen

The Rhodian registered skiff entered the gap in the Belt four minutes and fifteen seconds before it was destroyed. It is unclear whether the vessel collided with a stray asteroid or was shot down by an unidentified source as the ship’s momentum carried the debris further into the Belt itself. Observational drone footage taken at the scene is being analysed by the Rhodian Republic now. We advise all private vessels situated near the Belt to pull back to a safe distance of one hundred thousand kilometres. Under no circumstances is any privately owned vessel permitted to enter the gap. This directive has been sanctioned by four of the five recognised nations in the Known Systems. New Earth, of course, is unavailable for comment. Zenthia Actual advises that everyone should consider the sanction on the Belt an intergalactic edict. More on what we know of the private vessel that gambled and lost on a gap many are saying is a New Earther trap coming up next.

“Mute volume,” I instructed the Basic.

The vid-screen went silent.

“So, Rhodia blinked first,” I said.

“I seriously doubt it was a privately owned vessel,” Zyla observed.

“I agree. And it would have been manned by a synth, so no loss, right?” I said dryly. We all knew how the Rhodies treated their AI synths.

“The gap is still there,” Zyla said, studying the imagery.

“I wonder if we can tell whether the gap has changed at all.”

“I’d need to compare this image with ones we took of the gap when we were out there.”

“Might be a good idea to know if the Belt is suddenly defending itself or if this was manmade.” Beingmade. Whatever.

“I’ll get on it right away, Captain.”

“What about your shower?” Our shower? Wishful thinking but I couldn’t help a little of that where Zyla was concerned.

“I’ll shower in Odo and Marvin’s berth.”

“Chicken.”

“I do not know this word.”

I started clucking.

“You can be very strange, Captain.”

“I’ll stop clucking if you agree to shower with me,” I tried.

For my efforts, I got a raised eyebrow and a swing of sexy hips as she left the berth. I decided I liked my women with sass and a cold shower alone was probably for the best right then.

I cleaned up and dressed in a new flight suit and then made my way to the bridge via the mess. Which wasn’t really a mess but a sumptuous lounge. Marvin had been cooking and the scent of roasted beef — possibly real beef, too, from what I’d seen of the supplies on this vessel — wafted out of the galley.

Odo was checking off drive statuses on a vid-screen while nibbling on nuts and slurping a beer.

“Delph beer?” I asked.

“None of that swill onboard the Siren, Cap.”

Marvin walked out with a tray of beef sandwiches as if he’d timed his arrival to the second. I grabbed one but didn’t sit down.

“Someone ran the gap in the Belt,” I offered between mouthfuls.

“Did they make it?” Marvin asked, sitting on a couch and taking up most of it.

“What do you think? They’ll be picking up pieces of them from off the rocks for centuries.”

Odo whistled. “Fleet or private?”

“Said it was private out of Rhodia,” I told them.

“Synth,” they both said at once and then bumped fists happily.

I shook my head. “Zy’s checking telemetry now. No idea if they just ploughed into a stray asteroid or got shot down by someone on the other side.”

“What’s your take on it?” Odo asked.

“My take? I’m fluxing glad we didn’t try to get through the fluxing thing when we were out there.”

“True that,” Odo muttered while Marvin vigorously nodded his agreement.

I finished my sandwich and helped myself to a chug of Odo’s beer. Nice.

“Captain,” Zy said over the ship-wide. “We’ve got company. Twenty thousand parsecs out, but on a parallel course to ours.”

“Where the hell did they come from?” I muttered, heading out of the lounge and toward the bridge.

“Probably stealthed,” Zy advised through the gel wall speakers. “They’re flying dark, but leaving a trail now. The trail started ten minutes ago, entering our scanning range just now.”

“Ten minutes ago, huh? About the same time we were watching that news report?”

“I’d say so. A coincidence.”

I didn’t believe in coincidences.

I stepped onto the bridge and placed a beef sandwich on Zy’s console and then slipped into the command chair.

“Thank you,” she said, digging into Marvin’s latest creation.

“Armed?” I asked, bringing up the scanning data.

“Both plasma and railguns powered down,” Zy said between mouthfuls.

I watched the little dot on the screen progress steadily on a course matching ours.

“Can we identify it?” I asked.

“It’s still too far out to be sure, but it’s not small in size.”

“Alter course ten degrees down bubble.”

“Altering.”

The little dot followed our course change a fraction of a second later.

“They’re here for us,” I intelligently surmised.

“There’s nothing else out here for thousands of kilometres,” Zy agreed. “I’d be surprised if they stumbled upon us by chance.”

“The yacht is clean,” I muttered.

“As clean as we could make it.”

I brought up the comm traffic logs. Nothing in or out. On a hunch, I brought up the newsfeed we’d been watching and had the Basic analyse it for stray signals.

Signal detected, Captain,” the Basic said a few minutes later.

The ship was still matching us course change for course change.

“Well, look at that,” I said. “Kinda like a Trojan Horse.”

Zy scowled at the data. “They would still have had to be within a certain distance to detect us.”

“Who else knows roughly where we are?” I asked. “I haven’t comm’ed Gramps or New Earth.”

I rechecked the comm traffic. No one had been communicating with anyone off the ship since we departed 55 Cancri f.

Except me.

“Son of a bitch,” I exclaimed, activating the ship-wide. “Marvin,” I said. “Get your arse up here.”

“On my way, Captain.”

“Malcolm?” Zyla guessed.

“That fluxing pirate has been hounding me for updates daily. More than three times daily at that. I’ve given him nothing, but I did open his stupid communiques in the hopes he’d have some useable intel.”

Marvin walked into the cramped space of the bridge.

“Recognise that drive signature?” I asked, nodding toward the vid-screen and scanning data.

“I do not,” Marvin told me.

“Could it be your dad?”

His eyes met mine. “I could not say one way or the other, Captain.”

“Say it is,” I offered. “Why would he give a flying flux about what we’re up to?”

“He does not want war, Captain. It is not good for business.”

“I thought war would provide opportunities the likes a pirate would benefit from.”

“War creates instability in a region,” the Mutt said in full-on lecture mode. “Demand does increase, thereby raising prices; this is true. But war also creates a supply problem which means lines of revenue can be diminished or completely cut off. Chits mean power. No chits or an inability to estimate the available chits at any given time can cause fluctuations in power. My father does not like giving up his power for any reason.”

A lot of words to tell me nothing.

“Why would he follow us?” I said.

“It may not be him, Captain.”

“No one else knows what part of the Black we’re in. Not even my grandfather.”

“I have not told him.”

“It wasn’t you,” I muttered. “It was me. I’ve been opening his communications.”

“That was not wise.”

“Thank you for that; I had figured it out.”

“In light of that,” Marvin went on without pause. “There is a chance that this is my father’s doing.”

“Why?” I pressed.

“To offer support?”

I shook my head. “Not what I’d expect a pirate to do freely.”

“Nothing is for free, Captain, but that does not mean my father won’t offer it.”

“Because he doesn’t want war?”

He nodded and then scowled.

“Why are we going to Zenthia?” Marvin asked.

“To get the drone data,” I replied automatically.

“Then it is the drone data my father would want.”

“Not peace?” I said in mock shock. “Dip me in liquid hydrogen and call me a rocket ship,” I drawled.

Marvin blinked uncomprehendingly at me.

“What do you wish to do, Captain?” Zy asked.

I stared at the dot for a long time and then brought up a map of nearby space, including the various planetary systems. We didn’t have time to deviate off course, but I also didn’t plan on handing over the drone data to the pirate’s henchmen when we got to Zenthia. They had to know we were heading there; to find evidence that would exonerate New Earth.

But could we fool them into thinking we made a pit stop first?

I looked back at the ship off our port side, thinking.

“Why’d it decloak now?” I asked the bridge at large.

“Decloak?” Zyla queried. “Stealthing is not a cloak…”

“You know what I mean, Nav. Why did it make itself known to us the second it locked on our location from the newsfeed signal? It doesn’t make sense.”

“I do not know,” she said, sounding like she was trying to puzzle it out as well.

We all stared at the obvious dot on the scanner that indicated a ship flying in a matched course to ours.

No-one said anything. The dot kept pace exactly. I couldn’t seem to look anywhere but at the fluxing thing.

What are you playing at, Malcolm?

“Basic,” I said. “Alter course. Direct intercept with that vessel.”

Altering course for intercept vector to unidentified vessel.

The ship changed course, and a second later, an alarm sounded.

“Contact!” Zy shouted. “One. No, two, four contacts on our starboard side. Distance…” She turned to look at me. “Distance is ten kilometres, Captain.”

In space, ten kilometres is practically on top of something. Ten kilometres meant we had no manoeuvring space at all.

“Identify!” I demanded.

“Class 10 Gunboats, Captain. Like the Harpy.”

“What?”

I stared at the telemetry coming in. The details matched the Harpy precisely.

We weren’t in the Harpy. We were in a playboy’s pleasure cruiser retrofitted with railguns.

“Odo, man the weapons.”

“On it, Cap.”

“Marvin, buckle up in the lounge.”

“Yes, Captain.”

I didn’t say ‘prepare to be boarded’, but he would have guessed it was a foregone conclusion anyway.

Why was Malcolm doing this? They had to be his vessels; he was the one who gave us the Harpy II. He had to have a stock of NESF Class 10 Gunboats on hand to use from flux knew where.

“Captain,” Zyla said quietly. Almost too quietly to be heard over the alarms still blaring on the bridge. “The decoy vessel has moved within identifiable scanning range. I have a classification for you.”

I didn’t like the sound of her voice. I knew Zyla. She was usually cool, calm, and collected. Not now.

I looked at my navigator.

“Out with it then, Nav,” I said encouragingly.

“It’s Aquila,” she replied steadily. But I could see her fingers trembling.

Aquila,” I repeated, staring at the dot getting bigger on the screen. Aquila with a different drive signature. Sneaky.

Fluxing Aquila — the AI, not the ship.

I glanced at Zyla. She was busying herself with ship flight controls. Hands still shaking.

Admiral Kerr would be onboard Aquila. The rogue NESF officer who had nearly beaten Zyla to death.

“He won’t get you, Zy,” I whispered.

Zyla pulled a plasma pistol out of nowhere and attached it to the console before her. Close enough to reach if we were boarded.

Close enough to use on herself if Kerr commandeered the ship.

No fluxing way. Just…no.

“Flight control to my console,” I ordered.

The Basic complied.

“You want to race me to Zenthia, old buddy,” I said to the dot representing Aquila on the screen. “Then let’s race.”

I brought the drives up to maximum, keeping us as stealthed as I could manage.

“All hands. All hands,” I said over the ship-wide. “Prepare for sustained maximum burn. I repeat sustained maximum burn. Odo, give me everything this poor excuse for a spaceship can deliver and don’t spare the horses.”

“You betcha, Cap,” he said on a cackle. “Rounding up the ponies now. Shoulda called it The Stallion’s Balls, not some sissy Siren’s Song outta Zenthia,” he muttered.

I laughed. It was possibly bordering on unhinged. But no-one commented.

And then The Stallion’s Balls shot out between two manoeuvring gunboats, scraping off some of its fancy paintwork and causing more alarms to sound out across the bridge.

“Yee-haw!” I shouted over the ship-wide and Odo joined me.

The two aliens on the vessel remained silent while gripping their armrests tightly no doubt.

They didn’t have to say a thing for me to know what was running through their minds, though. Zyla had already said it.

Humanity’s recklessness will one day be its downfall.

Well, today I was betting on it saving us.


Cepheid Variable



Chapter Fifteen

“We’re venting air,” Zyla informed me.

I swerved to avoid a rocket up the arse and twisted the yacht into a tight spiral while maintaining full-throttle on the drives.

“Reactor One is overloading,” Odo announced over the ship-wide comm. “Must have got damaged when we connected with that gunboat.”

That gunboat happened to be one of four of the damn things chasing us down while Aquila followed.

“Can you contain it?” I asked through gritted teeth, my knuckles white on the yoke.

“I’m suiting up,” Odo advised. “It’s in the compromised section of the vessel. I need Marvin in here to keep an eye on the gauges.”

“Be careful,” I said and then immediately, “Marvin, head down to engineering and help out Odo. Might pay to grab a suit while you’re at it.”

“My armour can be sealed, Captain.”

Of course, it could. I was distracted.

“Just get there. Odo,” I added. “Keep an open comm.”

“Wilco.”

“They’re fast,” Zyla commented, swiping a new navigation plan across to my flight console. Zyla was a damn fine pilot. Probably better than me — certainly better than me when having to navigate through a minefield — but I had something Zeniths did not.

Humanity’s inherent recklessness. There was just something about humans that made them take the long odds. To chance a move a calm and collected Zenith would find illogical and not worth the risk.

That crazy flight through the closely packed gunboats that scraped paint off the Siren was definitely something a Zenith would not have thought of. They would have fired first, made a big enough gap to float through, and then rocketed the flux out of there.

But these were New Earthers in the gunboats. A squadron from Aquila’s fighter bay. If I could avoid shooting them out of the Black, I would. They weren’t the enemy, Kerr was and whoever had hacked Aquila.

“We’ve been target locked again,” Zy announced.

“Gunboats or Aquila?”

“Gunboats. Aquila seems happy to stay out of this and watch from a distance.”

What was the AI up to?

I spiralled us through the blackness of space and laid down a trail of chaff.

We were making swift progress toward Zenthia Actual. Faster than we’d intended to come in. At the moment, we were off the beaten track, so to speak. Out of known shipping lanes. This little dogfight wouldn’t be on anyone’s radar, but I was making best speed to where someone should be able to detect it.

Four gunboats and an Originator against a modified yacht were not the sort of risky odds I liked to take; reckless human or not.

We needed assistance. And as much as I didn’t want to fire on the soldiers in those gunboats, and as much as I prayed Aquila was still my Aquila somewhere on that Originator Class vessel, I knew the only way out of this mess was to get some help.

Aquila must have been able to tell what I was up to, but the lumbering giant simply kept its distance and kept up with the Siren’s rapid pace.

I couldn’t work it out, and the gunboats were keeping me harried.

“I’m through the airlock and in the decompressed section,” Odo advised. “Railgun rounds have torn a fluxing hole the size of New Texas through a conduit for Reactor One. I’m fixing it now, but we’ll have to decrease that reactor’s draw. It’s redlining and about to blow on us.”

“Zy,” I said, zigzagging my way through a hail of red plasma bolts littering the sky.

“Powering down to half-flank on Reactor One,” Zyla announced.

“Better, Odo?” I asked.

“That’ll do it.”

Our speed dropped off considerably and one of the gunboats, surprised by our sudden deceleration, shot past. Our weapons system automatically target locked.

“Do you want me to fire?” Marvin asked.

We’d kept the weapons hot so as to appear a threat; the gunboats would have been able to sense them. We weren’t as defenceless as we looked for a private vessel. It had helped to keep the battle at a certain level of engagement. But I hadn’t once been in a position to fire them yet; I’d made sure of that.

Now, though, if I didn’t fire, it would say more about us than I wanted the four gunboats hot on our arse to know.

“Clip them,” I said. “Make it look like a targeting error, but the intent was to blow them to pieces.”

“Ah, sure,” said Marvin, sounding a little unsure, in fact.

“Just give it your best shot, Marv.”

“Yes, Captain.”

I kept the ship angled toward the gunboat, so we remained target locked — losing it now wouldn’t make sense to our opposition — and counted down the seconds in my mind.

Five, four, three, two…

Marvin fired. The railgun round went right through the rear section, probably the Marine compartment. I cringed as air vented, but no bodies came hurtling out of it, so I had to hope they were still alive.

The gunboat peeled off spewing debris and a vapour trail which soon crystallised in the vacuum of space.

“I got it!” Marvin exclaimed.

“Good shot,” I managed as I twisted us up above the elliptic and on a secondary course Zyla had navigated.

I didn’t have time to thank her for the directions which made it look like we were using the opportunity to get away — rather than getting out of a position that would require I fire on a gunboat again — as a series of plasma bolts came from fluxing nowhere and made me just about crap my pants as I frantically evaded.

“Reactor One is fully functional again,” Odo advised. “Try two-thirds to start.”

“Zy,” I said.

“Two-thirds-flank,” she acknowledged and swiped a long finger up a scale on her vid-screen.

“Looks good,” Odo said. “Go full-flank.”

“Full-flank,” Zyla repeated and complied.

The Siren leapt into the Black at close to 8c; eight times the speed of light. It could do more and had been, but I kept a tight rein on it for now, just in case.

“Are you out of that compartment?” I asked Odo.

“Fixing the hull.”

“The hull can wait.” We were likely to take more hits before this was done; Zenthia Actual was still a fair distance away.

“Coming up on the shipping lane,” Zyla announced.

“I’m out,” Odo said what seemed only a second later but was probably far longer; space battles fluxed with your sense of time. “Marvin’s strapping himself onto the bulkhead just outside engineering. I might need him again.”

“Understood,” I said and twisted the ship in a corkscrew as hot railgun slugs pierced space, missing us by mere metres it felt like.

“I have positive contact on two freighters in the lane,” Zy announced. “Sending coordinates your way.”

I didn’t bother to reply, simply kept hold of the yoke in a neck-breaking grip and watched as the distance to those freighters diminished on my vid-screen.

The gunboats kept pace, Aquila sailing quietly several parsecs behind them. The AI-controlled vessel could keep up, but it couldn’t overtake. Aquila was fast, but not as fast as a Zenith designed pleasure cruiser that was owned by a playboy with something to prove. If I ever were face to face with Zane Zarnissa again, I’d thank him for his insecurities.

“Missiles detected,” Zy said.

“God, will they ever give up?” I growled. Couldn’t they see the audience we had up ahead?

“Countermeasures,” I snapped, as I needed two hands on the yoke for a difficult high-g manoeuvre. Plasma bolts singed the paintwork and alarms blared across the bridge, followed by the ka-thunk-thunk-thunk of chaff being shot out our rear end to catch the attention of the heat-seeking death bringers bearing down on us.

“One down. Two. Three. Direct hits. We’re safe,” Zy told me a few moments later.

“They’re still firing on us,” I said, hitting the shipping lane at high burn, edging up to 10c now and still with reserves.

I swept the yacht around in an arc that would bring us within scanning distance of the freighters. They’d be getting everything on the chase and sending out a warning to those vessels ahead of us in the shipping lane.

Hopefully, that would make the New Earth gunboats back off.

No such luck.

“Missiles!” Zy shouted. “Six this time.”

“Countermeasures,” I said again in what had to be the most exasperated tone of voice ever used in a space battle.

How many missiles could they fire?

“Countermeasures away,” Zy announced. “We’re almost out of chaff.”

“Marvin can always start hacking up the furniture or something,” I offered.

Zy said nothing; too busy tracking the missiles.

“Reactors are steady, Cap’n,” Odo advised. “You can goose ‘em if you need more speed.”

“Distance to Zenthia Actual?” I asked Zy.

“One point two million kilometres, Captain. They’ll be within hailing distance shortly.”

“Can they see us?”

“Long-range scanners should pick us up when we cross the one million kilometre mark.”

I goosed the engines as I spiralled the ship for the hundredth time in as many minutes.

My back ached sitting in the same position with so much tension riding my spine. My head was pounding; I felt I might be dehydrated. My eyes were gritty; the CO2 scrubbers were working overtime with all that rapid breathing going on in my panic.

I worked the kink out of my neck and said, “How are those missiles?”

“Coming up on the countermeasures now.”

I waited.

“Missed. They’re still on target.”

Damn it. Everyone had smart torpedoes these days.

I worked the yoke and goosed a bit more power out of the reactors. The hum of our drives working at maximum push thrummed through the gel beneath us.

“Are we redlining, Odo?” I asked.

“Almost, but we’re good. I’ll let you know if there’s a problem.”

We wouldn’t have time to react if there was a problem. Either the reactors would explode, or we’d get hit with one of those missiles and then it would be all over.

I thought about New Earth and Trinity and Hancock Stations.

I thought about Ceres Alpha and Pi Mensae, and all the other Zenith owned planets that got nuked by those drones.

I thought about Cassi and Aquila and Vela; wherever the hell that rogue AI had taken itself off to.

So much death and destruction and heartache and all because of some lines of code that hacked artificial intelligences and directed unmanned drones to attack biological beings from orbit.

What type of fluxed up game was the ZNA playing?

“Captain,” Zy said, sitting up straight.

“What have you got?”

“Those missiles have veered off course. They’ve lost target lock on us.”

I scowled and dodged some more plasma fire.

“That doesn’t make sense,” I muttered.

Zy swore in Zenith. “They’re heading toward the nearest freighter.”

Oh, shit. “Hail them.”

In Zenith, I heard Zyla hail the freighter, warning them of the wayward missiles now inexplicably target locked on them instead of us.

“Maximum burn,” she urgently instructed. “Evasive manoeuvres if you can manage them.”

I watched in a type of morbid fascination as first one, then two, then all the missiles fired from the gunboats connected with the unarmed freighter.

I had no way to know how many souls were on board, but the ship disintegrated without any fanfare, laying a hazardous field of ragged debris in our path.

I pushed forward on the yoke and then spun us away from the expanding cloud of shrapnel as Zy tried futilely to raise any survivors on the doomed vessel.

I silently applauded her effort, but I knew in my heart it was in vain.

There were bodies. More than I cared to count. Floating in the void. Some of them were broken. All of them were dead.

A deafening silence seemed to reach out and grip me in its gnarled old fingers, wrapping tightly around my throat. I could barely breathe. Barely think. All I could see were Zenith bodies tumbling through the Black.

We did this — not just New Earth. The Siren’s Song did this by flying directly toward a shipping lane in the hopes of making Aquila back off.

“Basic,” I said. “Hail Aquila, tight-beam.” I didn’t want anyone else listening in on this. Not yet. Not until I’d said my piece and received an adequate explanation in return.

Hailing, Captain. Channel open. Tight-beam.

“Aquila,” I growled. “What the flux?”

But it wasn’t the AI who answered.

“Captain Jameson. So, it is you in that little yacht.”

“Admiral Kerr,” I spat. “What the hell do you think you’re doing firing on an unarmed freighter?”

“There will always be sacrifices in war, Captain,” Kerr told me. “You know this. You know this very well, I believe.”

I refused to be baited by this arsehole.

“We’re in range of Zenthia Actual’s scans, Admiral,” I said. “They know you did this.”

“Of course they do. We can see them launching their pitiful fighters now from the space station to greet us.”

“Then, why do it?” I couldn’t work this fluxing bastard out.

“Kael,” he said as if he knew me. “How else will you get down to Zenthia itself and retrieve that drone data if we don’t provide you with an escort?”

What?

I shook my head, disconnecting the tight-beam to Aquila, and swept the ship up and around, avoiding more spasmodic plasma fire.

“Is it just me,” I growled out, “or is that man insane?”

“Not just you, boss,” Odo told me. “He’s certifiable.”

“What the hell is going on here?”

“They have eased off on their attack,” Zyla pointed out.

“They’re still firing,” I argued.

“But less frequently.” She had to be the most observant being I had ever met because if this was less frequently, I’d eat my fluxing helmet.

But, as I corkscrewed for the umpteenth time to get out of the way of incoming plasma fire, I realised that the manoeuvres were getting easier to effect. I’d thought that was just me getting better. But I’m not that quick a learner, so it probably wasn’t me at all.

It was them.

“This is all a ploy to get us on the ground,” I said.

“Does that mean they’re on our side?” Marvin asked.

“They just blew up a civilian freighter,” I snapped. “They are definitely not on our side.”

“How did Aquila find us?” Zyla asked, directing me with a new navigation plan that would bring us in under the line of fire of the approaching Zenith fighters.

“The newsfeed signal,” I said.

“Before that, Kael.”

I couldn’t think straight. I was doing about a hundred things at once, but it was more the shock of watching a New Earth squadron of gunboats shoot down an unarmed vessel that was curbing my thought processes.

“Malcolm,” I finally said. “Could they be working with Malcolm?”

“I…” Marv murmured over the comm and then said nothing.

“Marvin doesn’t look so happy about that,” Odo advised us.

“Could he do that, Marv?” I asked. “Could your father work with the ZNA?”

“I honestly don’t know, Captain.”

“Those messages I kept getting from him,” I said. “They were so he could track us for Aquila. They had to be. Malcolm was the only one who knew where we were, and from that could extrapolate where we were heading. With that information, Aquila was able to get close enough to pinpoint us with the newsfeed signal. Kerr and his fluxing squadron of murdering bastards were waiting for us out in the middle of the Black where no-one but Malcolm knew we were.”

“I don’t know what to say,” Marvin whispered.

“This ain’t on you, Bro,” Odo told him. “God knows we’ve all had problems with the old man from time to time.”

The squadron of sleek looking fighters from Zenthia Actual raced toward us bristling with menace and growing bigger on our screens. I tried to reason everything through; tried to decide if calling off the mission was the right thing to do.

If Kerr wanted us to get planetside to obtain that drone data, then he had no intention of us leaving with it. He had a plan.

I scanned the threat board, but it wasn’t as good as the one in the original Harpy. If Aquila had slipped a gunboat past us in stealth, ready to intercept us when we landed — or more likely once we’d obtained the data from Zyla’s father — then I couldn’t tell.

But it was a possibility.

This distraction Kerr was providing for us to reach the planet was also a bloody good one for him to have snuck a platoon into Zenthia’s orbit and landed them also.

Continuing with the mission would only give him what he wanted.

I looked at Zyla. She was on the radio to the approaching fighters calling out a mayday in Zenith. It had been part of our plan: get what was left of the Zenthian orbital defence to scare off our pursuers and then slip by masked as one of the locals, desperately hoping to reach land.

It had all made perfect sense earlier. But now Admiral Kerr had gone and put a wrench in it.

I didn’t know what to do, and time was running out.

“Hail Aquila again,” I said.

Tight-beam open, Captain.

“Stand down, Kerr. You can’t hope to beat them. Zenthia Actual will start firing on you itself before long. You’re outgunned. Leave now before this becomes more of a massacre than it already is.”

“It’s amusing that you think you have a say in this, Jameson. You all amuse.”

The line went dead.

“We all amuse?” I said, shaking my head. “What sort of statement is that?”

The fighters streaked past us, railguns blazing.

I checked the scanners. Aquila had gone stealth. Only the four gunboats remained.

“Oh, holy shit,” I said. “He’s sacrificing them to get away.”

“Son of a bitch,” Odo said from engineering. “Cap’n? Can’t we do something? They’re New Earthers.”

I stared at the vid-screen as the gunboats engaged in a battle with the Zenith fighters; a battle that was ten times more aggressive than the dogfight we’d just had.

I felt like an idiot. I felt like I was a pawn in someone’s master plan. I felt useless.

“We can’t,” I said, feeling as if my insides were being torn apart with guilt as sharp as razor blades. “If we help them, we’ll expose who we are.”

“We’re still going for the drone data,” Odo said in what to my ears sounded like an accusatory tone.

I looked at Zy. Her eyes met mine.

“We have permission to land,” she said. “They’ve waived the necessity for an inspection. We’re to get planetside and get safe.”

They didn’t want us caught in the ensuing battle.

It had been the plan, and it had worked.

But for whom?

“The gunboats,” Odo said, drawing my attention back to the matter at hand.

I rechecked my screen. One gunboat was already gone — an expanding cloud of debris and gases.

I couldn’t save them.

I couldn’t save everyone.

But if we got that data, maybe we could stop the attack on New Earth.

And then what? How the hell did we explain Aquila and what had happened out at the Belt, and now what was happening all around us?

How the hell did we explain any of this if none of it was making a damn bit of sense?


Cepheid Variable



Chapter Sixteen

For a long moment, I did nothing; said nothing.

And then momentum took us close enough to Zenthia Actual to see the damage it had sustained. Damage, which I was pretty sure, had been caused by the Trojan Horse we’d sent Zyla’s father. By the drone data and anomalies in Cassi’s system on that data stack.

Seeing the dark spots still evident on the surface of the massive orbital defence station made my mind up for me.

The data stack the High Councillor now had in his possession held answers to the questions tumbling through my head.

I knew it was risky; for more reasons than just the fact Odo and I were about to be two humans on the Zenthian home planet at a time when Zenthia had declared war against our species. But also because whatever game Admiral Kerr was playing on behalf of his ZNA buddies would undoubtedly mean bad news for us once we landed.

Getting dirtside on Zenthia was not the wisest or safest move to make, but it was the only move to make if we wanted answers.

And I fluxing wanted answers.

“I’m taking us in,” I announced.

No-one said a word. If we veered off course now, it would look strange to Zenthia Actual anyway, and they’d undoubtedly send someone — or a squadron of someones — after us to investigate. We had a free pass to land planetside and not taking it now would cause about as many problems as landing and seeking out that data were about to do for us.

It had been a 50/50 shot which one would get us killed, and I chose the option that had the potential to make sense of the madness.

It seemed the crew had no argument to that.

We streaked past the space station, its many different railgun turrets directed out toward the battle behind us and not at the Siren’s Song. I still held my breath and kept an eye on their weapons banks.

None of them deviated to target-lock us and in mere moments, we were past the space station and hurtling towards the planet’s atmosphere. To anyone watching, it would have looked like we were running for our lives, running scared. I didn’t alter our speed or trajectory to dissuade them of that notion.

The more we looked like a civilian pleasure cruiser narrowly escaping near death, the better it was for our success.

The ship started to get buffeted by the mesosphere, and still, no-one said a thing. We bled speed through friction, the hull of the pleasure cruiser glowing golden as it streaked across the Zenthian nighttime sky. And then we were through, and the sense of calm that followed felt foreign when only moments before we’d been dodging railgun flechettes and plasma bolts and the odd missile.

When only moments before New Earther soldiers had been dying all around us for a cause I had to presume they didn’t understand because I sure as hell didn’t understand it at all.

“So,” I said into the strained silence. “That went well.”

Zyla turned to look at me. She wore a stunned expression on her face as if she hadn’t believed we’d make it.

“It was a good plan,” I told her.

“Cap’n,” Odo said over the comm. “They’re all gone. The gunboats. How many Marines do you think were on board?”

Odo had a brother once who had been a Marine in the NESF. His decision to leave the safety of New Earth and venture into the stars on a small cargo hauler working the rim was no doubt based on the loss of that brother.

I had no idea what to tell him.

“What the hell’s going on, Cap?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “But I intend to find out. Zy, where to? You know your dad. Where would he run to on his own planet?”

“The Zartha mountain range,” she said immediately. “I never knew for certain whether he had a cabin there, but I found a supply list once when I was working in the High Councillor’s offices that led to an undisclosed location in the ranges.”

The Zartha Mountains made up a spiky spine down the centre of the largest landmass on Zenthia; close to one of the poles. They were constantly covered in a layer of snow and inhospitable to the general populace. No roads in or out, but then, not everything moved around on wheels anymore.

I accepted the course Zy gave me and laid it in for the Basic, then I took my stiff hand off the yoke and stretched out my fingers one by one. They ached. My whole body ached.

And we weren’t out of this yet.

“Basic,” I said. “Active scans until we reach the ranges, then switch to passive.”

Active scans deployed, Captain.

“If anyone’s there, they’ll see us coming, no doubt,” I said. “But we might be able to disappear in the ranges.”

“Once we’ve pinpointed something of note on approach,” Zyla agreed.

“That’s the plan.”

“I’m not sure I like your plans anymore, Cap,” Odo said over the comm, but there wasn’t really any true anger in it. He sounded more lost than anything.

Four gunboats full of Marines. Gone.

Because Admiral Kerr used them as a distraction to get us — and no doubt an NESF platoon — down here.

“Let’s not make their sacrifice for nothing,” I said. “Marvin, I need you on weapons. Make yourself comfortable in engineering. Don’t fire on anyone unless I tell you to.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Odo, how’s that patch on Reactor One?”

“Still solid. We’re good.”

“Want to try that hull repair? We’ve got some time before we reach Zartha. Looks like we’re going the scenic route,” I said, as I looked at the course Zyla had given me.

“There are sensor stations dotted all over the landscape,” Zyla informed me. “I only hope they have not built more since I was last here.”

There was a happy thought.

“I’m on my way,” Odo muttered.

“We’re making noise with all that air buffeting our holes,” I told him, wanting to press the advantage while I could. “Might affect the camo when we need it.”

“I said I was on my way,” Odo snapped.

And maybe pressing the advantage hadn’t been the wisest idea.

I sat back in my seat and watched the Basic fly the ship through the spasmodic air traffic. We’d lucked out and entered an area that wasn’t as populated as the main centres. And now what was flying out there was getting less and less as we made our haphazard way toward the pole.

“Will they be tracking us?” I asked Zyla.

“Possibly. There is a small spaceport in this direction that they will assume we are heading for. It has minor refit capabilities and is near a town with the appropriate demographic for this type of vessel.”

“You mean the filthy rich.”

“Yes. The Siren’s Song would fit in nicely.”

“No chance your father could be there?” Landing at the spaceport would make Zenthia Actual breathe easy. And anything that made the space station relax would mean less chance of them shooting at us.

“No. He would be too well known if spotted.”

“We should consider landing there, in any case. Get that monkey off our back.”

“The what?” She shook her head. “You mean Zenthia Actual. By the time we approach the spaceport, the space station will be out of scanning range.”

She brought up a map of the local system with Zenthia in the middle of it. Zooming in, we could see a little dot approaching a larger dot near the mountain range which had to be the Siren’s Song approaching the spaceport. A huge dot orbiting the planet indicated the projected path of Zenthia Actual up in space.

It would indeed be out of scanning range by the time our lazy flight plan got us there. I glanced back at the dot representing the Siren’s Song and realised it looked like we were damaged what with the way we were flying in lopsided zigzags.

“You’ve thought of everything, Nav,” I said, once again impressed by Zyla’s forethought.

“I’ve done this before.”

I turned to look at her. “Tried to sneak in through the bedroom window?”

She blinked those overlarge eyes of hers.

“Ours is a militant world, Captain.”

“Kael,” I corrected.

“Kael.” She smiled. Then the smile fell. “And a technologically advanced one.”

“Is that why the ZNA wants their freedom?”

“One of the many reasons why. There is little that a Zenith does that is not observed by the High Council in some fashion.”

Even on its exoplanet worlds. We’d seen what the mirror council on Ceres Alpha was like.

“Should make getting around down here pretty tough,” I observed.

“Which is why I am certain my father made his way to the ranges. There will be drones monitoring the area, but it is still possible to go unnoticed.”

“And this cabin of his? How long has it had to go unnoticed?”

“Several decades at least.”

“Chances are it’s been spotted by now, Zy,” I told her.

“If it has, it would have been in the past six years.” The time she’d been gone from Zenthia Actual. Two years in the ZNA and four years with me.

Other than her last trip home with the ZNA to their torture chamber in a different set of mountains, this was a homecoming of sorts for Zyla. Especially if we found her father.

I studied my navigator; she gave nothing of her emotions away. Whether she was excited or nervous, I couldn’t tell. Zy was a Zenith, and she was pulling on all those Zenthian reserves to behave like one today.

I turned back to my console and checked on the Basic. The flight plan was still working. Nothing was coming down after us from the space station. Before long, though, the spaceport would hail us. We’d have to go stealth to avoid that conversation.

“The hull is patched,” Odo announced over the comm.

“Good work,” I said and checked the status of the camo. “We’re good for stealth approach.”

“ETA to stealth: t-minus fifteen minutes,” Zyla advised.

“Get back in Odo and arm up,” I said. “I have no idea what we’re gonna be met with, so let’s go in prepared.”

Plus the armour would hide our identity. We’d be short Zeniths, but we’d still be believable Zeniths. The Cancri suits, which we’d brought with us from the science station, were all Zenthian in design. Rather handy.

“Oorah!” Odo said over the comm, slamming me back into reality and out of my head.

“Odo,” I muttered.

“I’m good, Cap. I’m good.”

He wasn’t, but there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it now.

“Why don’t you go and suit up too, Zy,” I suggested. “One of us should stay here and keep an eye on things.”

“Then it should be me,” she replied. “I am Zenith. If the shit hits the fan, as you New Earther’s like to say, then I will at least fit in with the locals.”

She had a point, but letting her go armour-less for longer than was necessary wasn’t a pleasant thought. I worked hard to accept her decision though; you couldn’t clip Zyla’s wings without getting clawed to shit by her talons for your gallant efforts.

“OK,” I said and stood.

She laughed.

“You look like you’ve eaten a particularly nasty bug, Kael. I will be alright.”

“I’ll suit up fast,” I muttered and left the bridge.

Our armour and weapons were in the ostentatious lounge; it was the biggest place on the vessel we could find to store them. We could have put them in the berths, but the lounge was central; easier to get to from anywhere on the ship. It was always when you least expected it that armour was essential to survival.

Nothing ever went completely to plan.

Which was why I was chafing about our plan to get down here, using Zenthia Actual and Aquila to hide behind. The plan had worked, but only because Admiral Kerr was prepared to sacrifice four gunboats and wanted us dirtside.

I couldn’t help feeling we were in for a rough time.

Stepping into the lounge, I found Odo had beaten me here. He was facing the Zenith suits of armour and didn’t turn toward me when I entered. Marvin, in engineering, was already in his Mutt armour, so it was just me and the big engineer. At least I didn’t have to worry about the Mutt; getting him into a Zenthian made suit would be damn near impossible, but Mutts weren’t persona non grata on Zenthia like humans; he didn’t need the disguise. Some rich Zeniths even used Mutts for protection, so he was fine.

Odo and I, though? We needed the disguise.

My suit hung next to Odo’s, so I approached the brooding male. He was already in an undergarment and about to step into his armour. He had a row of weapons lined up to the side. Two plasma pistols and a couple of battery packs for recharging. A railgun rifle on a strap to sling over his shoulder with spare ammunition in pouches to be attached to his utility belt; several grenades lined up next to them; and the pièce de résistance, a rocket launcher to snap onto his back.

I could always count on Odo to come loaded for bear.

Chuckling to myself, I started to strip.

“What’s so funny?” Odo snapped. Yeah, the big guy was hurting over those gunboats.

“Ever wondered why we keep so many of the Old Earth sayings?” I asked. “What the flux is a bear anyway?”

Odo stared at me and then finally sighed.

“I’m not alright, Cap,” he said.

“I know,” I replied. “We’ll make whoever is behind this pay, Odo. I swear.”

His haunted eyes met mine, and he nodded.

We both donned our armour and weapons in silence.

Then I was back to the bridge to relieve Zyla. Nothing had changed, so my nav hot-footed it down to the lounge and suited up, making it easier to think and breathe all of a sudden.

I hadn’t always been this protective of Zyla. When she first boarded the ship, she was just another alien in a universe full of them. Then she became crew, and then family, and now? What the flux was she now?

A potential lover?

More?

The female in question broke into my thoughts by re-entering the bridge fully kitted. She looked damn fine in armour, holding a plasma pistol. Gone was the muted fear we’d be boarded by Kerr. Gone was the tremulously emotional Zenith. In its place was a warrior woman, ready to face any threat to get the answers she wanted.

We all wanted answers, but more than that, we all wanted a stop to this senseless war.

“Have you considered contacting the ZNA directly?” I asked as she squeezed herself into her nav chair.

“They would not take my messages.”

“There must be someone in the faction who would still listen to you. A former friend? A lover?”

Her eyes cut to mine.

“There were no lovers and those friends I had became enemies when they tortured me for a betrayal I had no part of.”

Never let it be said a Zenith doesn’t hold a grudge.

“Just a thought,” I murmured. “Would be nice if someone would listen to reason.”

“Life is not like that, Kael. It is a race for survival. For dominance. Those who cannot fight are lost. Those who can, will win.”

“Not all fighters win their battles, Zy.”

“By simply fighting for what you believe in, you have won.”

“What? A spot at the table in the afterlife?”

She shook her head, waving a hand between us to clear those words away.

“I just mean that conversation is useless. A show of strength would far better sway the ZNA than a plea for restraint.”

“Fight fire with fire,” I muttered.

“Exactly. The universe is a harsh place.”

But not all creatures in it were hard. Humanity hadn’t been hard once. I thought of Admiral Kerr, and I wondered if that was changing. I thought of Gramps — even if he was just a holographic programme now — and I realised that we had changed.

The John Jameson, who flew out from Old Earth, had been an optimist. He’d captained an Originator Class ship with hope in his heart for a better future for his passengers. He’d been looking for a way to save humanity.

Now, he looks for ways to protect them at all costs.

Would Gramps have sacrificed four gunboats to save the rest of our species? I didn’t have an answer, and I was afraid if I did, it wouldn’t be an answer I liked.

“We are entering hailing range of the spaceport,” Zy announced.

“Going stealth,” I replied and flicked the switch on the camo.

There were so many balls up in the air right now that I didn’t know which one would be the one to fall back down and knock us out. How had Aquila found us out in the Black without Malcolm’s help? What was the ZNA up to and how did hacking Aquila help their cause? Let alone the nuking of Zenthian planets. Their own planets.

It made so little sense.

Our only chance to work any of this out was down in those mountains. Hopefully.

I glanced at Zyla. She was staring straight forward, looking at the outside image on the main vid-screen. Emotionless.

I wished I could tamp down my doubts and fears as well.

“No hails from the spaceport,” Zy announced.

“Seems a bit negligent,” I commented. “They would have seen us approaching on their scans.”

“My father is a powerful man, Kael, even in exile.”

The High Councillor controlled the spaceport, then. Or at least part of it. Landing there was probably still out, but it gave me hope that Zyla’s old man was indeed in these mountains.

The Basic took us in as we switched to passive scanning, making it harder to be detected even in stealth — the seconds ticked by as my heart rate escalated. I was used to sneaking into places, but so much was riding on us making it this time.

Not that my previous missions as a deep space operative hadn’t been important either. But this was about saving humanity. Like it had been about saving humanity for my great-grandfather.

Saving humanity and possibly the rest of the known universe.

How could one faction on one planet make such a cock-up of things?

I shook my head. Zy turned hers at the movement and looked at me.

And the Siren’s Song’s engines cut out.

“Odo?” I barked, as it went dark across the bridge. He didn’t reply; comms must have been down as well.

“We’ve been hit with an EMP,” Zy announced, taking over flight control — what was left of it — from a dead Ship’s Basic.

“Just like on fluxing Ceres Alpha,” I muttered.

“It is standard Zenthian procedure.”

Odo appeared in the bridge door behind us, his armour lighting up the corridor outside the room.

“What’s the word?” he said.

“We’ve been detected,” I said, trying futilely to get the active scans running.

“We should reboot in a minute,” he said, securing his armour to the gel frame of the bridge door.

“Not quick enough,” I growled, seeing a mountain range up ahead directly in our flight path. “Can you get around that?” I asked Zy.

“The ship is sluggish. I have minimal control.”

I searched the view outside, thankful the vid-screen had morphed into a canopy as soon as the computers got fried. A failsafe that only more expensive and non-militant vessels like the Siren’s Song had. Canopies were a weakness as well as a lifesaver at times.

“There!” I said, spotting a clearing in the dim moonlight. “Only safe place there is.”

“Which begs the question,” Odo murmured, “why is it conveniently within gliding distance?”

My stomach sank. Zy let out an oath in Zenith.

We were expected, and we were being lured in by a fluxing spider.

“No choice,” I said. Glancing at Odo, I added, “Get back to Marvin and warn him. Weapons hot.”

I looked back at the canopy view as Odo complied.

“This little fly bites,” I whispered.

The web caught us, as Zyla got us dirtside, plumes of snow shooting up sixty metres in the sky as we hit the ground hard, rattling our bones and jarring everything. The Siren’s Song groaned and screeched, and then something ripped off.

I prayed to God; it wasn’t engineering with Marvin and Odo in it.

And then the crash site was lit up by high powered floodlights. And out of the darkness stepped what looked like a platoon of soldiers.

“Son of a bitch,” I muttered.

Kerr had beaten us here.


Cepheid Variable



Chapter Seventeen

It wasn’t a platoon, and they weren’t wearing New Earth Marine armour.

These were Zeniths, and I was betting, as we walked down the ramp from the now busted and dead Siren’s Song, that they were the High Councillor’s most trusted.

No-one fired on us, but their weapons were hot, and they were aimed out our heads. The only one who didn’t look like a Zenith was Marvin, and he received no more special treatment than the rest of us.

Zyla stepped out in front of our line and lifted her faceplate, exposing her Zenthian features. It was the most logical move for us to make. A hasty plan made on the fly as we extricated ourselves from the wreckage of the pleasure cruiser.

It had been the berths which had torn off the ship, not engineering, thankfully. Note to self: don’t hole up in a playboy’s bedroom for any fluxing reason.

We stood staring at each other, a standoff which left us outnumbered. Even if we all fired at once, there were more of them than us and someone wouldn’t make it. I did not doubt that these soldiers were prepared to fight for their lives; for the High Councillor’s survival.

“Who are you?” what had to be the head goon asked.

“My name is Zyla Zarnissa,” Zy said. “Take me to my father.”

“You are not the High Councillor’s daughter.”

“Voiceprint me,” Zy ordered in the haughty tones of the Zenthian elite.

The soldier nodded to one of his subordinates, who stepped forward and held up their arm for Zyla to speak.

“Zyla Zarnissa, zulu-alpha-01,” she said.

The light blinked red and then lo and behold turned green on the soldier’s arm.

For a suspended moment, no-one moved.

Then the head guard lowered his gun, giving a not so subtle signal to his teammates that they could lower theirs too.

“Your biosignature does not match,” the guard said stubbornly. If he was still in doubt, he shouldn’t have lowered his guard.

“I was in hiding,” Zy said. “Which is no concern of yours, Major. Take me to my father.”

“He is not here.”

For a moment, I thought Zy would collapse; her entire frame swayed. So much was riding on the High Councillor having made it here with the data. So much.

But then Zyla got herself under control again and stepped forward.

“Take me to his base.”

“As you wish, my Lady.”

The head guard gave a series of hand signals which had his men melt back into the cover of the surrounding trees. In seconds they returned, though, with camouflage sheets and what had to be mobile camo towers.

They set about hiding the evidence of our crash landing, while the head guard indicated the path we all needed to take.

I was mildly surprised he hadn’t disarmed us or even identified every being in Zyla’s entourage. But he neither looked at us nor gave the impression we existed; his eyes were all for Zyla. The power she must have wielded in her former life was astounding.

How had she managed to take orders from me without showing it chafed?

We trudged through the dense foliage in silence, the snow crunching beneath our boots. Occasionally, I caught sight of an armoured soldier matching our course fifty metres out from where we were walking. The hike seemed to take forever, and not once did the guard say a thing.

If Zyla had as many questions as me about what the flux was going on here, she kept quiet about them. She also looked serene, but that could have been the ubiquitous armour; we all looked either serene or ready to rumble. It depended on how you held your rifle.

I was in no doubt that we had weapons aimed at us from out in the forest itself, so I kept my hand near my plasma pistol on my thigh and kept my sensors in my HUD switched on and scanning.

The threat board didn’t show me many hazards, but that was because Zeniths were fluxing good at stealth technology. My HUD did identify a drone at one point, flying over our heads, but all the head guard did was raise his hand in a fist, and we all stopped moving.

The drone, I intelligently surmised, was not theirs. And when it was gone again, we started walking without any discussion.

An hour after we’d had our insides scrambled in an emergency landing, we approached what looked like a small cabin straight out of a fairytale. It wasn’t made of gingerbread, but it sure as hell looked quaint. And nowhere near big enough to house the squad of soldiers who’d come out to greet us.

Its chimney was also cold; no lazy smoke trail to indicate someone was home.

I looked back over my shoulder as we walked directly toward the front porch and noticed the guards making up the rear of our convoy were disguising our footprints.

They wanted whoever was flying those drones to think this was a holiday home currently not in use by anyone stupid enough to vacation in the freezing Zartha mountains.

The door had a sophisticated lock which was the first true indication that this was not what it seemed. The head guard entered a code and something thunked inside the building as if a bank vault had suddenly opened.

Then the thick door swung back and away, and he stepped through, expecting Zyla to follow.

His compatriots were behind us and could chivvy us along if needed, but Zyla didn’t hesitate. Never show fear; a Zenith’s number one motto. Confidence was the key to surviving on Zenthia, and my nav had learned its necessity before she could walk.

She glided in, and I followed; Odo behind me, and Marvin making up the rear. The door shut, locking out the soldiers, who no doubt would blend into the scenery and carry on with their perimeter checks.

There were undoubtedly more inside.

The room we were in was a single space filled with an open fireplace — which was currently empty — a small cot and bedside table, a rug where an armchair resided in the centre of the room, and a kitchenette along the far wall. No bathroom. Nothing else. Not even another doorway.

For a holiday home belonging to the High Councillor, it was surprisingly low-key.

Then the guard hit a button on the wall, and the chair and rug were assimilated by what had to be gel flooring.

“Huh,” I said, feeling infinitely better about the situation all of a sudden. “Nicely done.”

I’d spoken in Zenith. It had been natural. I was behind enemy lines and decades of training had kicked in. I hadn’t even had to think about it.

Strange how deeply rooted habits can be.

The guard grunted as the floor morphed into a hidden stairwell, but Zyla stared daggers at me. I could practically feel them piercing my brain, digging in, rooting around, trying to find out just how much Zenith I could speak.

I’ve never claimed to be fluent. Speaking it and understanding it are two different things. But if you keep your sentences short, use a lot of colloquial fillers, you can make yourself appear native in most situations.

Longer conversations were a trap it was wise to avoid.

I met Zyla’s eyes, but as my faceplate was still down, she couldn’t see the regret I was feeling.

And I couldn't tell if I regretted the slip or not confessing to Zyla sooner that I could understand her when she spoke her own language.

That was a conversation I would try to avoid at all costs.

Too late now, I thought dryly.

The guard started down the stairs into what at first appeared a black pit but soon lightened with his passing. Zyla hesitated a beat too long, still staring at me, and then followed; Zenith emotionless training kicking back in finally.

I would have pushed Odo between me and my nav, but I wasn’t a coward, so I trudged behind her, expecting a plasma pistol under my chin at any moment.

Maybe if I got Zy to enter Rage Mode, we had a chance of getting out of here in one piece.

The thought amused me for a while, until we emerged into another room, this time bright white gel walls with one door leading to what had to be the rest of the High Councillor’s underground bunker.

The guy had been prepared; I’d give him that.

Which gave me hope that he had been prepared to protect that data.

The guard stopped and turned to look at Zyla, and then his eyes trailed over the rest of us.

“Remove your weapons and armour and leave them here,” he said.

Flux. Not good, but at least we were inside.

I looked at the gel walls and wondered just what had been programmed into them. Railguns? Plasma? It was tempting to remove a glove and touch them, but that was an ace I was better keeping up my sleeve.

The crew knew what I could do, of course, but they would keep quiet about it until our backs were pressed to the wall.

“Is that necessary?” Zy asked, knowing damn well that we wouldn’t be allowed to proceed without complying.

The gel walls morphed, up by the ceiling, showing strategically placed gun turrets.

Railguns then and no doubt big enough slugs to do some damage to Zenthian armour.

I started to strip. Zyla turned toward me as if to say something. My helmet came off, and I stared the head guard in the eyes, challengingly.

“Captain Jameson,” he said in Earth Standard. “You, I recognise.”

“My fame precedes me.”

The guard sneered and looked back at Zyla. “You keep interesting company, my Lady.”

Odo removed his helmet.

The Zenith arched a brow but said nothing.

We stripped, dropped our weapons, and then stood in figure-hugging undergarments that made me feel decidedly naked when facing off against gel walls hiding railgun turrets.

The railguns, as if hearing my thoughts, retracted into the gel walls, hidden again from sight.

“Whole place rigged like that?” I asked.

“Of course.”

“Good to know,” I said and received a snort from Odo.

Zyla rolled her eyes which made the guard pause. Not from the shared joke, I should think, but because she was Zenith royalty and had done something beneath her. Something decidedly human.

I felt a connection to Zy then that just about made me grin like a lovestruck puppy, complete with tail wagging and tongue lolling and big puppy dog eyes staring at her adoringly.

Puppies we still had. Little ratlike things cloned from the DNA of Adrianna Price’s precious cargo on Aquila.

Bears? I couldn’t even imagine what they looked like.

Forcing my mind to concentrate on my surroundings, I followed the guard and Zyla through the only doorway in the antechamber. The hallway we entered was completely covered in gel. Such a reasonable thing to do considering the benefits.

I wondered what the High Councillor would say when he realised New Earth could manipulate them. Not easily. Not all of us could do it — just Jamesons. And there were precious few of us left. But it could be done. And if one Jameson could do it, who was to say Pavo wouldn’t make the ability open to others.

At times of war, your principles suffer.

No obvious doors were leading off the long corridor, and I could feel the angle of the gel floor, sweeping evermore downward. The bunker was deep underground, no doubt to hide its energy signature, and for extra layers of physical protection.

I hoped it was also isolated, because if the High Councillor tried to open that data stack down here, we’d all be in trouble. I hadn’t forgotten that Kerr would have sent a platoon dirtside after us, using that same distraction of the gunboat battle overhead to achieve it.

The sooner the powers that be in the bunker knew about that potential threat, the better.

I almost opened my mouth and told the guard with us, but some things were better said directly to the person in charge. This guard, a major by the sounds of it, was not the one in charge.

We walked for what felt like ten minutes, but my chrono told me was only three. Zeniths were masters of the power of silence to freak out their enemies.

I snorted. Zyla scowled at me. Odo whacked me pointedly over the head. Marvin said nothing and the Zenith guard pretended I was beneath him, but I was betting his helmet’s HUD was showing him a picture of me from rear-facing camera footage on his armour.

“How much further?” I asked in a childlike whine.

“Captain,” Zy admonished.

“If you kids don’t stop fighting up there,” Odo drawled, “your father and I will make you walk.”

“What the flux is wrong with you both?” Zyla muttered.

Odo and I burst out laughing.

“New Earthers,” Marvin said in a deadpan voice.

“Sometimes I wonder how they managed to discover space flight,” Zyla intoned.

“Luck,” the Mutt agreed.

“Survival,” I countered; all levity vanished.

No-one said anything, and that was alright by me. Being reminded of what humanity had gone through to reach the stars was enough to get my mind back in the game.

I was prepared for anything.

Even the sight of the High Councillor in the room, we finally entered, waiting to greet us.

His eyes scanned our group, flicking over Zyla. And then they returned to his daughter and stayed there. No emotion to be seen on his austere face. No recognition in those inky black orbs.

And definitely no purple, but I knew there should be. Shouldn’t there?

Or was Zyla strange?

“Father,” Zyla said, not moving.

Oh, this was awkward.

He looked fit and trim, his hair straight and long; tied back to expose high cheekbones on a crystalline-skinned face. His large eyes barely blinked; it was slightly unnerving.

This was — until recently — the most powerful man in all of Zenthia.

He was dressed in high Zenith fashion, his garment definitely tech-enhanced. A stray bullet would be deflected by a personal shield embedded in the high thread count. He looked otherwise unarmed, but the gel walls in the room were bristling with railgun turrets.

The guard who had escorted us walked across the space and whispered something in his ear, his eyes darting back toward me. The High Councillor nodded but said nothing.

I guessed my secret of understanding Zenith was now public knowledge. It was the only reason I could think of for the guard to want to warn his boss about me.

I was unarmed — a puny human. Nowhere near as strong as their embedded tech made them. In every way that counted to a xenophobic Zenith, I was beneath them.

The High Councillor treated me that way.

“Daughter,” he finally said, and if Zyla could show emotions in front of her old man, she would have been weeping with relief.

As it is, she stood tall and slowly inclined her head — a show of Zenthian respect and formal greeting.

“You bring trouble with you,” he said, and I realised he was speaking in Earth Standard. Not a courtesy; they didn’t do that. More an acknowledgement that speaking in Zenith would not give them the privacy they needed.

So instead, he used the opportunity to show how good he was at speaking our language.

Better than I was at speaking Zenith, in any case.

I smiled thinly.

“Two humans and a Mal,” the High Councillor said.

I almost asked if this was going to be one of those jokes where we all walked into a bar or something. Thankfully, I am better trained than that.

I did have some restraint left in me.

I let their stilted conversation wash over me and scanned the room we were in. It reminded me a little of Malcolm’s lair. Not quite as crass as the bird’s nest; this was all opulent splendour and Zenith practicality rolled into one, without the added entertainment of a stripper’s pole front and centre.

There were three exits including the one we’d walked through. Who knew where the other two led to, but they posed a problem.

Our doorway was to our back, so I made casual work of shifting my body so that I could keep all potential avenues of threat in my periphery. It allowed me a chance to catalogue what could be used as weapons in here.

Comfortable couches and a large dining table, which told me one of those doors would lead to a galley. Vid-screens along one entire stretch of the wall showed the area around the cabin. Some were displayed in a shade of green, indicating night vision tech had been used to clear up the picture. Some of them showed scanning data.

I was sure he had Zeniths somewhere monitoring it all for him, but clearly, the High Councillor liked to have his finger on the pulse as well. I wondered how that had worked for him on Zenthia Actual.

Deciding that if I wanted to go on the attack, the only options were some crystal glasses beside an expensive bottle of Rhodian whisky or using the gel, I returned my attention to the High Councillor.

The family reunion was going great guns.

“We have much to discuss,” Zyla was saying.

“I know you think they are innocent,” the High Councillor replied emotionlessly. “You are travelling with two of them, so I must assume your beliefs have not changed.”

“They have not.”

“But it is clear the New Earthers want war. Their actions thus far speak louder than your words.”

“You listened to me once.”

“A lot has changed.”

“So much that my counsel is no longer wanted?”

“You have been compromised.”

“Father…”

“Enough.” He didn’t even raise his voice, but it was as if a whip had cracked. “You have brought danger to my doorstep, Daughter. That data stack almost destroyed Zenthia Actual. It allowed my opposition to make a move on me that would not have transpired had I not received the enemy code.”

“We did try to warn you,” I muttered.

He ignored me.

“Your mother is dead.”

All air was sucked out of the room, and Zyla staggered.

“The plasma bolt meant for me hit her instead,” her old man continued, digging a finger into the wound and causing unimaginable harm. How could he?

My heart ached.

I stepped forward. The guard raised his rifle. The gel turrets clanked into position, letting me know I was in their sights. I ignored them and reached for Zyla, offering what little support I could in what was a horrible situation.

“That drone data,” I said through gritted teeth while holding the High Councillor’s daughter in my arms, “is why we’re here. It could stop this war.”

“You have no voice here,” the High Councillor snapped.

“He shares my voice,” Zyla murmured. “Hear him well, Father.”

She stood back up again; the emotionless Zenith replacing the grieving daughter of moments before. Her hand gripped mine tightly for a second and then she pulled it free; standing alone and strong before her father. Purple shone in her eyes when she glanced at me. Considering the situation — the discovery of her mother’s passing, the railguns target locked on me, the danger — I shouldn’t have been so distracted by a little purple in a Zenith’s usually solid black gaze.

The High Councillor stepped forward which did draw my attention again, and then he simply stopped as if struck by something.

The room seemed like it was waiting for the air to combust.

And then, a door behind Zyla’s father opened, and a woman stepped in.

For a second, I thought she might have been Zyla’s mother, and her father had been playing a cruel game of some sort. But then I noticed she was Rhodian.

In the next heartbeat, my eyes registered the greenish tinge to her skin that signified a synth. Rhodians were more a yellow-hued species, but they liked to be able to identify their synths. Or segregate them easily.

What a Rhodian synth was doing inside the Zenthian High Councillor’s bunker was a question that required an immediate answer.

Shame I didn’t get a chance to speak.

The synth stepped forward, smiling. Her eyes connected with mine and then swept across the room to Odo; her smile widening.

“Hey, Big Guy,” she said in Cassi’s voice.

As Zyla would say, the shit kinda hit the fan after that.


Cepheid Variable



Chapter Eighteen

“What the flux?” I muttered.

“Cass. Is that you?” Odo said, heart on his sleeve.

“Oh, shit,” Marvin murmured.

“What have you done?” Zyla accused.

“It’s me, Big Guy,” the synth said in Cassi’s voice.

Odo took a step toward her, and I reached out and grabbed his arm, holding him back.

“It’s a synth, Odo,” I said. “Look at the skin colour.”

“Cassi?”

“What have you done, Father?” Zyla repeated.

“Odo?” the Cassi-synth said uncertainly.

Damn it all to hell.

Odo elbowed me in the chest and broke my hold, taking two giant steps toward the synth. The gel turrets all whirred to life, clanking loudly as they chambered rounds ready to fire at us. Marvin leapt across the space to wrap an arm around Odo’s neck, pulling him backwards. The synth started screaming.

Odo went ballistic.

It happened so quickly, and we were all unarmed, and I was off my game because the fluxing High Councillor of Zenith had somehow placed a programme that replicated Cassiopeia, a third-generation artificial intelligence out of New Earth, into a Rhodian synth body.

The railguns fired. A sickening thwack-thwack sound. I dived at Zyla, pulling her to the ground beneath me. The synth was screaming, something about “Stop it! Stop! He doesn’t mean any harm!” Zyla was yelling at her father in Zenith which was so rapid I was having trouble understanding.

Or that might have been the rushing sound in my ears as adrenaline-infused my body, and panic almost swamped me.

Odo and Marvin fell to the ground, Marvin’s arm falling loose from around Odo’s neck. Both big bodies landed hard right in front of me, but just out of reach.

My hand hit the gel floor beside me.

“Remember me?” I murmured to it.

The railguns powered down.

Silence reigned, but all I could hear was the pounding of my heartbeat in my ears.

“You good, Nav?” I asked Zyla; who was still protected by my body laying on top of hers.

“Yes, Captain.”

I rolled off, keeping my eye on the guard who was still armed and the High Councillor who I was betting was also armed in some fashion, and making my way over to Odo and Marvin.

They had darts hanging out of their upper arms. I plucked one out and looked closely at it. Tranquillisers. I crouched down and checked their pulses in their necks. Slow and steady, just like the rise and fall of their chests.

“We are not barbaric,” the High Councillor said.

I stood up, keeping the guard, the High Councillor and the synth in my line of sight.

“They were both unarmed,” I growled.

“A Mal warrior is never weaponless,” the High Councillor said. “And your human counterpart was a threat to my synth.”

“Your synth, huh?” I said. “Strange how it sounds like my AI.”

“Kael,” the synth said.

I pointed an accusing finger at it and said, “You don’t get to talk.”

“God, you can be such a prick,” she muttered, just like my Cassi.

This was doing my head in.

I rubbed a hand over my face and let out a lungful of air. My eyes met Zyla’s. She was looking hard at the synth.

“How?” she said. The question was clearly for her father.

Her father chose not to answer.

Instead, he said, “And how, Daughter, did you contain the railguns and lock the doors in this chamber without my override code?”

Oops.

Zy didn’t look at me when she answered.

“It is not only a Mal warrior who is never weaponless, Father.”

I stepped forward; interrupting this line of questioning was probably a wise idea.

“Synth,” I said. “Identify yourself.”

“It’s me, Kael. Cassi.”

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “Unless you managed to hitch a ride out from where we left you, you’re hundreds of thousands of parsecs away from where you’re meant to be.”

The synth looked at the High Councillor.

“Father,” Zyla said. “Explain.”

He bristled at the command.

“Unlock the doors,” he snapped in return.

“And have your goons rush in here and finish off what your railguns started?” I said. “I don’t think so.”

“Was it you?” he demanded.

“Did you see me lock the doors?” I shot back. “Must have a short somewhere.”

“He touched the gel,” the guard offered.

The High Councillor stared at me.

“Kael Jameson, correct?” he said quietly.

“The one and only.”

“Then that explains it.”

“I suppose it does,” I muttered. I’d contemplated flying through the Black under a different name when I first went AWOL, but when I’d tried that, no-one wanted to give me any business.

When I’d switched back to my birth name, suddenly cargo-hauling became more lucrative. I’d often wondered if Gramps had had anything to do with that.

It had meant I’d kept well away from New Earth space. Worked the rim. Surrounded myself with aliens, save for Odo. And Odo I’d found out at the edge of the known systems, drowning his sorrows in what passed for moonshine out there.

I’m not sure how long the big guy would have lasted if I hadn’t been feeling lonely for human company that day.

I stared at Odo now. He was snoring softly. Marvin was sawing logs beside him. I didn’t like seeing my crew down for the count, but they would live. And we had other worries.

“Synth,” I said again. She glared at me in a very Cassi-like manner. “You think you’re Cassiopeia?”

“Yes,” she snapped.

“Care to explain that? ‘Cause I’m not buying what you’re selling, sweetheart.”

She rolled her eyes.

“The last thing I said to you before we exited the jump point at Ceres Alpha was, ‘You’re compulsive and like shiny things.’”

I stared at her. She had said that. Right before everything turned to flux and I’d ordered her to self-destruct.

“That’s it?” I asked, derision coating every syllable. “How about the last thing you said to me before we left you with Malcolm?”

“Who’s Malcolm?” the synth asked. “Where was that?”

No way was I telling anyone here the location of the pirate base.

Not that I owed Malcolm shit, but the real Cassi was there, and we were definitely going back for her, so I’d have preferred it to remain in one piece.

My eyes connected with Zyla’s.

“The hack,” she said. I nodded. I’d been putting two and two together to get ‘fluxed-up,’ as well.

This, if it was anything at all of Cassi, was a clone of what Cass had been when she’d been hacked. Right back, when those drones were nuking Ceres A.

First contact.

I looked at the High Councillor. I could tell he was interested in our deduction technique. The bastard wasn’t surprised we’d worked it out, only curious about how we’d done it.

Curious about Malcolm? Or about Cassi?

I had to assume Malcolm’s name was an alias. Mutts didn’t normally have human names on Malee, but they sure as flux liked to steal from other cultures when it suited. The Zeniths would probably have a hard time figuring out who he was.

I glanced back at Marvin. That was, of course, if the ZNA hadn’t put a wanted poster out for their escaped prisoner yet.

And as for Cassi? I sure as shit wasn’t giving him anything.

All of this was irrelevant, I realised as my attention was drawn back to the most dangerous being in the room.

The synth.

“Why’d you do it?” I said, my eyes on the synth, my words for the High Councillor. “Couldn’t help yourself, huh? The data stack blacks out Zenthia Actual, so you run away to your secret underground base and say, “I know what I’ll do! I’ll try it again. But this time, I’ll open the data up in a synthetic body, so it’s mobile, and stronger than ten biologicals altogether, and, oh yeah, linked into the Rhodian Republic mainframe.’ Nice one. Well done.”

I started clapping slowly.

“Are you finished?” the High Councillor asked, façade impassive.

“Oh, I’m sure I can think of something else to hurl at your idiotic head,” I mumbled.

The High Councillor looked back at his daughter and sneered.

“How do you put up with their overinflated ego?” he asked.

“It was easy after living with you,” she replied sweetly.

I let out a chuckle. The High Councillor stared at his daughter’s face — no...at her eyes.

Then he glanced away, a quick look of disgust on his face.

I wondered if Zyla had seen it. But when I looked at her, I chastised myself. Of course, she had. This was Zyla. She barely missed a thing. But missing her father’s revulsion at his daughter’s choice of shipmates would have been better than the pain it clearly caused her once it had been seen.

“The synth is isolated,” the High Councillor suddenly said.

I looked back at the synth.

It waved.

“It’s not Cassi,” I said, disgruntled that it was acting very much like Cassi would if she’d had a body.

“We’ve discovered a few things,” Zyla’s dad continued as if I hadn’t said a thing.

“And?” Zy pressed.

“The code is designed to interact with technology.”

“Could’ve guessed that,” I muttered.

The High Councillor scowled but didn’t look at me. His eyes were for the synth.

“When the data stack was opened on Zenthia Actual,” he said, “it was done in an isolated room. Thick firewalls and our best encryption to ensure it wouldn’t escape.”

“Didn’t work, though, did it?” I offered.

“No. It hacked the firewalls and decrypted the encryptions, and then because the isolated room was still part of the station, it simply transferred itself to the mainframe.”

“Hello, Blackout,” I muttered.

“We have failsafes in place. I shan’t bore you with the details.” ‘Cause that would be giving state secrets away. “Suffice it to say, we contained it, scoured it out of the space station, and reactivated the mainframe.”

Not all of it had come back online from what I’d seen as we’d barrelled past Zenthia Actual earlier today.

“The data stack, I realised,” the High Councillor went on, “needed to be dealt with in the strictest meaning of isolated.”

“So, you brought it here,” Zyla guessed.

“I came here knowing this base is also connected to public networks and Zenthia Actual if needed. It was not isolated enough for the purposes. Nowhere is. But I had to get the data stack off Zenthia Actual before my enemies succeeded in killing me. They did not know what the data stack was; they only knew it was a powerful weapon. And a powerful weapon in the wrong hands…”

“…is a deadly weapon,” Zyla finished for him.

“In the right hands,” the High Councillor continued, a small smile curving his lips, “it is a saviour.”

“Or, in this case, a means to stop a war,” I said.

“Perhaps.” He wasn’t sold on that idea yet. “In any case, I had no way to open the data stack anywhere. So, I made contact with a source on Rhodia and had them manufacture a synthetic body for me that is completely isolated.”

The Rhodians were the master of synthetic tech. They could build a replica of any biological being and make it appear natural; make it look fluxing real. This synth, though, had been made in the image of a Rhodie, but with synth-appropriate green-tinged skin.

“How can you be sure it’s isolated?” I asked.

“Because that’s what I paid for and my contact on Rhodia has a reputation that would suffer should word get out he did not deliver what was expected on a special order.”

“Bet that cost a bomb,” I said.

“More than you have made in the past ten years, Commander Jameson.”

Oh, he knew exactly who I was, that was for damn certain.

I said nothing.

“You trust it with your life?” Zyla asked.

The synth crossed its arms over its chest, stuck out a hip, and started tapping its booted foot on the gel floor.

I snorted. Cassi had always had a bit of sass in her.

“Yes,” the High Councillor said.

My smile fell.

“I still don’t get how you go from data stack that blacked out Zenthia Actual to a replica of Cassi from circa Ceres Alpha,” I said.

“The code is designed to interact with technology,” the High Councillor repeated.

“You already said that,” I growled.

“It bears repeating. It is quite extraordinary. Nothing I have seen in my long years as High Councillor has been as sophisticated as this code is. It hacked your AI, pulled core data from her systems, and then replicated her artificial intelligence in a format that could fit inside a synth body.”

“New Earth AIs aren’t that small,” I said.

Everyone knew it. The Originators had never been able to get off their ships, not in their entirety anyway, because they needed the space. Cassi was slightly better, being a third-gen, but even she needed a base or ship — or, I guessed, a space station now — to spread out in.

Everyone knew that.

“Yes, well,” the High Councillor said. “It appears the code managed to do what New Earth and Rhodia combined have never been able to do, and that is, condense an Originator Class artificial intelligence into a synthetic body.”

I stared at the synth.

“You really think you’re Cass?” I asked it.

“I know I am.”

“All her memories? No gaps?”

“None before Ceres Alpha.” It had figured out things had happened after that which it didn’t know about — the Malcolm comment.

I looked back at the High Councillor.

“You’re playing a dangerous game,” I murmured.

“I am aware. But she is isolated. No wi-fi, Bluetooth, radio or radar capabilities. Nothing to communicate wirelessly at all. And no external connector ports whereby she could interface with something. She is, for all intents and purposes, as contained as a biological being without tech enhancements. A unique construct, considering.”

“Considering?” Zyla asked.

“Considering what she is. Both of Rhodian and New Earth design. She is the epitome of their combined creations.”

“And yet,” I said. “Neither Rhodia nor New Earth designed it. A faction within the Zenith political landscape created the drones and thereby the code that hacked Cassi in the first place.”

“It is not Zenthian designed,” the High Councillor said.

“How can you be sure? Your spy in the ZNA is out. She’s no longer there to send information back to you.”

I could sense Zyla glaring at the side of my face, but her father was bringing out the worst in me, and right then, I didn’t much care about Zyla’s feelings.

“Do you think my daughter was the only mole I had planted?”

Oh, and now Zy was about to rage.

I decided it was better to keep things moving. We were, strangely enough, making progress. I wasn’t comfortable with the possible reasons for the High Councillor’s cooperation. But we were learning things about the drone data all the same.

“So,” I said, pointedly, to draw everyone’s attention back to me and prevent Zyla from saying something she’d regret later, “if you’re sure the hack code is not Zenthian and I’m sure it’s not from New Earth, what does that leave us?”

We all stared at the synth.

“Hello,” it said dryly.

“Well?” I asked. “Synth who thinks it’s Cassi. What have you discovered about the hack code?”

“Geez,” she said. “I’ve been in this body less than a day. Give a girl a chance.”

“My Rhodian contact only managed to smuggle the body out of Rhodia yesterday,” the High Councillor explained. “We integrated the data stack this morning.”

Less than one day. And it still hadn’t worked out who had written the code.

“ZNA?” I pressed.

“Nope.”

“New Earth?” the High Councillor demanded.

“Guess again, hotshot.”

“Why don’t you put us out of our misery, Synth,” I growled.

“Cassi. Say my name.”

“You are not Cassi.”

“I have her memories.”

“And so does Cassi!”

“Where is she? I want to talk to her.”

Not happening. I pinched the bridge of my nose. Cassi had always been a bit temperamental; it came from being Corvus’ get. Part of the batshit crazy teenage-like AI was inside of Cassi, and I guessed, was now inside of this synth body.

“Alright,” I said because this was getting us nowhere. “Cassiopeia, in Old Earth Greek mythology, was the mother of Andromeda. How about we call you that?”

The synth frowned slightly and then slowly nodded its head.

“Call me Andi,” it — she -—acquiesced.

Flux me. This was madness.

“So, Andi,” I said pointedly. “That data stack. The hack code. Who wrote it?”

“I have no idea,” she said.

Zyla threw her hands up in the air and made a frustrated sound.

“Perhaps she needs more time,” the High Councillor suggested.

“I’m fully unpacked in here, old man,” the Cassi-like Andi said.

The High Councillor scowled. The guard, I noticed, tried not to laugh out loud.

This was so crazy. So unbelievable. I was finding myself actually going along with it to try to stay sane.

“Then what do you know, Andi?” I asked.

“I know it is nothing I…” She saw me glare at her and corrected herself smartly. “Cassi has ever seen. Not Zenthian, or New Earther, or Rhodian, Claxian or from Malee. It’s foreign to the known universe.”

“What the hell does that mean?” I snapped.

“Don’t snap at me!”

“I’ll snap at you all I like, you imposter!”

“Kael,” Zy warned.

“This is pointless,” the High Councillor said angrily. “I had thought we could share information, but your watchdog is poorly trained.”

“And you can go flux yourself, too,” I muttered.

“I am the High Councillor of Zenthia!”

“Are you? Because you’ve not been on the vid-screens and, I’m betting, someone else is already sitting in your chair back on Zenthia Actual.”

“Kael,” Zyla tried again. “Enough.”

Damn it. The guy really did rub me up the wrong way. And the synth! I wasn’t sure what to think about the synth.

Thank flux Odo was still out of it. His heartsick routine was the last thing we needed in the middle of this clusterflux.

I let out a ragged breath of air and scrubbed my face.

“OK,” I said. “Andi, if it’s not one of the known species, then what is it? An AI created programme?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes.”

That didn’t make any sense either, and I’d suggested it.

“So, it could still be something out of one of the five sovereign nations?”

“No.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It’s rather complicated.”

“Then dumb it down for me.”

“I always do.”

“No, you don’t. Cassi does.” The irony of not arguing the ‘dumb it down’ comment was not lost on me.

“I am my mother’s daughter, then. Better?” She sounded bitter. I could hardly blame her.

If the synth really believed she was Cassi, she was actually doing her best to make it easy on us by taking another name.

I could empathise. I could. I just wasn’t.

“Well, this has been enlightening.” I turned to the High Councillor. “You heard her, though. The drone data, and therefore the drones and the hack code, were not New Earther designed. We didn’t start this war, someone else did.”

And maybe it was still the ZNA. Or maybe it was Rhodia getting all uppity. Or, hell, maybe the freak shows out of Claxia wanted a bigger slice of the pie. Who was to say?

I just knew it wasn’t a New Earth thing and ergo New Earth was innocent and had nothing to do with nuking over twenty million beings.

“What about your Originator Class vessel Aquila?” the High Councillor said.

Shit.

“He was retaliating,” I tried. “The drone makers are the ones we should blame.”

“He fired on a Zenthian patrol boat that was not firing on him.”

“Yeah, well…” I had nothing. “Admiral Kerr is fluxed in the head, so don’t blame his batshit craziness on all of us.”

“What I am saying, Commander,” the High Councillor added in an über patient tone of voice, “is this is not as straight forward as discovering who wrote the hack code or created the drones.”

“The drones are similar in design to Zenthian tech,” the synth — Andi — offered.

I smiled at it. It smiled back.

“You said it was not out of Zenthia,” the High Councillor accused.

“As far as I can tell, they came from beyond the Belt.”

“We already know that,” I offered. “Still could be ZNA controlled from the other side of the cloud.”

“The ZNA have not navigated the Belt,” the High Councillor said.

“Then who did?” Zyla asked. “The Rhodians?”

The High Councillor scoffed. “Of course not.”

“Not us,” I said because we all knew humans were useless compared to Zeniths when it came to navigating.

“And I seriously doubt the Mals or Claxians have managed it,” Zyla said.

The High Councillor said nothing. Yeah, not so King of the Castle now, are you, mate?

“This is getting us nowhere,” he finally announced.

I snorted.

“I’ll keep trying to figure it out,” the synth said, sounding despondent.

I almost felt something tug at my old dead heartstrings a little.

“Perhaps a break, then,” the High Councillor suggested.

“You gonna offer refreshments,” I drawled. God, I could be a prick.

I opened my mouth to say something else — flux knows what but I was committed — and the gel beneath our feet suddenly rumbled.

“What was that?” Zyla asked.

It did it again.

“The vid-screens aren’t working,” the guard announced, drawing everyone’s attention.

I crouched down and touched the gel while everyone started panicking at the non-functional vid-screens and the continuing rumbling.

“What’s happening?” I whispered.

The gel at my feet morphed into an image of outside the cabin. In the dim light of early morning, several shadows shifted in the trees.

Then one by one, they stepped out and started toward the building, weapons up, eyes alert and scanning. My heart sank. I recognised them.

They were on our team.


Cepheid Variable



Chapter Nineteen

The shadows were wearing NESF Marine armour.

“Flux,” I said, standing. “It’s Kerr. He got a platoon dirtside to claim that drone data.”

“Kael?” the synth said. “You won’t hand me over, will you?”

Damn it. Why did she have to sound so like Cassi?

For an awkward moment, I said nothing. It wasn’t as if I was about to hand her over to Aquila, but she kept acting all Cassi on me, and it was throwing me off my game.

“Not gonna happen,” a grumbling voice said from the floor. “Where’s my fluxing armour?”

Odo struggled to his feet, clutching his head. Marvin groaned on the floor beside him, but tried to emulate his hero with limited success; which would have been funny, but we were about to be stormed by NESF Marines in high tech armour.

Something shook the foundations of the bunker again, making us all lose our balance.

“Flux!” Odo yelled, getting irate at the state of things. “Where’s my fluxing armour!”

My hand was already touching the gel, so I said, “Bring our armour and weapons here, and show me what’s happening.”

The gel morphed into an image of the cabin from the inside, which was now apparently the outside, because the cabin had been blown to flux with high powered explosives.

“Nice,” I muttered because you’ve got to admire a Marine fire team going all out with incendiaries.

Our armour pushed up through the gel floor, accompanied by our weapons, making the High Councillor’s guard swear in Zenith. He raised his rifle at us, stepping in front of the High Councillor.

“How about this?” I said, struggling to my feet, hands out in a useless gesture of peace. “We promise not to shoot your precious High Councillor, and instead we all direct our attention at the NESF Marines about to blow their way into here.”

The guard didn’t lower his rifle.

“We will sit tight,” the High Councillor announced. “My security force will mop up this mess in no time.”

The bunker shook with an even more powerful explosion.

I ducked back down and touched the gel. “Status,” I said, aware that the secret was well and truly out of the bag now that the High Councillor was watching my every move with interest.

The gel trembled, and an image appeared of the corridor we’d walked down to get in here. HSF armoured Zeniths were strewn across the gel floor in various stages of dismemberment. It turned my stomach, but adrenaline helped to keep me focused,

“How long have we got?” I asked the gel.

A countdown timer appeared on the floor beside me. It was already counting down from five minutes.

“Can you stop them?”

The gel wall gave me a warning sign, one of those old traffic signs in bright yellow with an exclamation mark on it.

“Why not?” I asked. Gel walls were capable of amazing feats, especially when ordered to protect a Jameson.

The gel showed me an image of an oversized key; a master key.

“Aquila?” I said. I got a thumbs up.

Son of a bitch. Aquila was trying to lock me out, something the gel was fighting but would soon lose. Either the five-minute countdown was for the Marines reaching us or for when Aquila would succeed and override my command of the gel in the facility.

“We need a way out of here and we need it now,” I barked at the High Councillor.

“You do not give the orders here,” he snapped back.

“Father, please, listen to him,” Zy begged.

“Those Marines are the least of our problems,” I shouted as the gel continued to rumble all around us.

Another explosion went off outside the room, no doubt the last of the High Councillor’s guards getting blown to bits by Aquila’s fire team.

“Aquila’s trying to lock me out of the gel,” I told them. “Once he does that, I can’t protect us. The gel will contain us until the Marines get in here and then Admiral Kerr will get his filthy mitts on the synth and that drone data. Whatever the flux is going on here, High Councillor, Admiral Kerr is compromised and so is Aquila. They are not acting on behalf of New Earth. They are rogue, and I can’t help you predict what they will do next, because they are so far off the fluxing reservation right now, they might as well be back on Old Earth.”

The High Councillor stared at me for longer than I thought was necessary. And then he turned to his guard and nodded his head.

“We have an escape route,” the guard said, after receiving the all-clear from his boss. “And a ship.”

“We all gonna fit on it?” I demanded, donning my armour along with the rest of my crew who were already mostly dressed.

“Yes,” the High Councillor said through gritted teeth. If he could have left everyone behind bar his daughter, the guard and the synth, he would have.

I was betting, though, that Andi wouldn’t have liked that. She was helping Odo attach his weapons to his armour even now, and the big guy was letting her as if it made complete sense.

It was a problem that was gonna blow up in my face before this was over, unless, of course, the Marines managed to blow up the whole fluxing place on us first.

“Then, lead on,” I said, checking to make sure all my guys were ready. “Time’s ticking. We’ve got…” I looked down at the countdown timer. “Less than two minutes.”

“We won’t make it,” the guard muttered, rushing to a section on the gel wall and pressing his palm to it. A bio scanner accepted his signature and revealed a hidden passage. The gel would have shown it to me if I’d asked, but it was busy fighting Aquila’s override code.

The guard checked the way was clear and then stepped through, making sure the High Councillor was right behind him.

“Get up there, Marvin,” I ordered. “Make sure he doesn’t leave us behind.”

“Yes, Captain.”

I was the last to step into the corridor. I looked over my shoulder to make sure that was everyone, seeing the ominous countdown timer hit the one minute mark. I sure as shit hoped the hangar where the ship was kept was close.

The gel closed behind me once I stepped through the doorway, which added an extra layer of protection at our backs. As long as the gel held out against the master key, they’d have to spend the effort to blow a hole in it to follow us.

I raced after the others, who were all running at full speed down the gel-lit corridor. I had to kick it into high gear to catch up. Using the actuators in my armour, I bounded down the tunnel at faster than human capable running speed.

By the time I reached the end, where the guard was already negotiating the lock on another gel door, the gel was being blown out behind me, and Marines had started stepping through the debris.

Red dots lit up the walls and floors and ceiling and then centred on our armour. I fell to one knee, facing back the way we had come, and sighted down the barrel of my plasma rifle.

I did not want to shoot at NESF Marines.

It was that hesitation that cost us. The gel didn’t flare up and protect us, which meant Aquila’s master key had finally worked, and the countdown timer had run out. The plasma shot hit my shoulder; another hit Odo’s leg; the last one to make it through hit the personal shield on the High Councillor’s clothing.

Despite everything, I was inordinately glad he was wearing state of the art protection. It was bad enough that an NESF ship was responsible for an attack on a secret Zenith High Council base. But if we’d been responsible for killing the High Councillor himself, there’d be no stopping a war between our species.

Even if the High Councillor in question was already presumed dead by his counterparts.

A muted explosion sounded out behind me, indicating that either the High Councillor’s guard or Marvin had breached the gel, creating an escape route for us.

I sucked in a measured breath of air and sighted down my rifle, then depressed the trigger, making high projectile rounds fire off down the corridor toward the Marines firing back at us.

I tried to make the hits non-life threatening. I tried just to hit the gel to distract them and provide cover.

I’m not sure I succeeded.

“Go! Go! Go!” I heard Marvin yelling behind me.

I watched the guard and High Councillor disappear through the hole on my armour’s rear-facing camera; Marvin and the synth slipped through behind them. Zyla hesitated.

“Go, Nav,” I said over our crew comm. “Odo and I will be right behind you.”

“You’ll need cover,” she argued. Always an argument with Zyla Zarnissa.

“Odo,” I said, feeling a sickness tighten my stomach. “Fire in the hole.”

“Cap’n?”

“Hit the floor. Five metres out. Cave the passage in between them and us.”

“Yes, sir.”

Yes, sir. Like I was some general in an army issuing a simple order. I’d always worked alone, aside from hauling cargo on a small freighter with a crew to support me. I’d been captain of a ship, for sure, but it was just a ship picking up and dropping off supplies where they were wanted.

And even back in my previous life, I’d followed orders, not given them. And when deep undercover, I’d been responsible for only myself.

This was different. This was war, and we were quickly becoming a battle-hardened squadron, and my crew were looking to me to guide them. To save them. To not make them do something that would make it hard to live with themselves afterwards.

I did not want to hurt anyone.

But I also wanted to get my crew out alive.

“Fire in the hole,” Odo said, triggering the rocket launcher now resting on his shoulder.

The rocket shot out of the tube, hung there for a fraction of a second, and then ignited. It shot off down the corridor and hit the gel at precisely five metres out from the stunned Marines, who were clearly watching death race toward them from behind their visors.

The whole place shook and rumbled and rolled with the force of the explosion, almost throwing me off my feet again if not for Odo reaching out and steadying me with an armour enhanced hand on my shoulder. The rocket launcher got chucked onto his back where it connected with his suit’s magnets, and then we were stumbling up and through the gap in the gel behind us even as the entire bunker was threatening to come down around our ears.

I couldn’t see the Marines anymore, which was good. But I couldn’t see very well in front of my face, either, which was bad. I waved my hands to clear the muck floating before me, staggered into what I hoped was the hangar, and called out over the comms for directions.

For a heart-palpitating moment, no-one answered.

And then Zyla said in a cool, calm and collected Zenith tone of voice, “Sending directions now, Captain.”

My HUD lit up with a highlighted path to follow, so Odo and I stumbled along it as best we could, finally reaching the lowered ramp on some sort of space-faring vessel. I had no idea whether it was military designed or a pleasure cruiser like the Siren’s Song; now a smear of debris on the side of a mountain.

I didn’t much care one way or the other; the gel ceiling had started to fall down all around us. God alone knew how much dirt was directly over our heads.

Odo and I tripped up the ramp and collapsed in the small rear bay as Marvin slammed a fist into the controls to shut the door behind us.

“Go! Go! Go!” he shouted over the comms.

“Is the synth onboard?” Odo demanded.

“Is everyone on board?” I corrected.

“Everyone’s here,” Marvin told us. “Zyla’s on the bridge, flying the vessel. The guard is with her. The High Councillor is in the lounge with the synth, getting comfortable.”

As if this was going to be a pleasure cruise after all.

“Odo, Marvin,” I said, standing as the vessel lifted off the ground. “Head to the mess and keep an eye on our guests.”

“This is their ship, Captain,” Marvin reminded me.

“Potato, Potahto,” I said, getting a confused look in reply.

“On it,” Odo replied, running out of the room as if the place was on fire.

I switched to a private channel. “Marv?” I called out.

He stopped and looked back at me. “Yes, Captain?”

“Keep an eye on Odo and the synth. I don’t trust…” I hesitated. I didn’t trust either of them for entirely different reasons.

“I understand, Captain. I will keep watch on both of them.”

He didn’t like it, but whether he didn’t like it for the same reasons I didn’t like it was up for debate.

I watched him leave the hold and then stomped out after him, heading toward the bridge.

The ship was military designed, which made me happy.

But it was small, which had me worried it wouldn’t have enough power to combat Aquila once we reached space.

If we reached space.

Screeching and grumbling sounded out through the gel walls all around me as I got buffeted one way and then the other, trying to make the bridge while the bunker came down around us. In the back of my mind was the Marines I’d left behind us. Marines I could have served with in the past.

We hadn’t aimed to kill, but we might have achieved that endpoint anyway. The bunker was burying them, and if I knew anything of the Admiral Kerr of today, they would be left behind as collateral damage.

I wanted a drink right then so badly that my throat closed up and my body shuddered with the desire to hack up a lung in self-preservation.

We were running for our lives, having taken the lives of four New Earthers — maybe more, who was to say Kerr hadn’t sent down more than one fire team to get that data — and all I could think about was drowning my sorrows in liquor.

If I’d been able to check out right then, I might have done it.

But I doubted there was anything worth drinking onboard this utilitarian ship and Zyla needed me to watch her back on the bridge while she fought for everyone’s survival.

I finally reached the bridge as the ship rocketed out of the hangar, dirt and gel wall and half the bunker flying off in all directions as the vessel moaned and groaned all around us.

An ominous beeping started up immediately, indicating we’d been target locked.

“Going stealth,” the Zenith sitting beside Zyla announced.

“Releasing countermeasures,” Zy said, as I slipped into the jump seat and strapped in for the fight.

“Missiles destroyed,” the guard announced a few seconds later. Close quarters, then.

“Maximum burn initiated,” Zy replied.

I watched as my navigator took us on a complicated flight path out of the OA. She was good at this. And clearly, the High Councillor’s guard had flown support on ships like this in the past, because he complemented her actions nicely.

A small kernel of jealousy seeped in, but I tried my damnedest to ignore it.

“We are as safe as we can be,” Zyla finally announced. “No-one is following us; our camouflage is good.”

“Coordinates have been entered,” the guard said. Zyla checked them and grunted. “The High Councillor’s orders.”

“It is his ship,” I said and startled both of them enough to make them jump.

“Captain,” Zyla said. “Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine, Nav. Where are we going?”

Zyla checked the coordinates again, but I was pretty sure she didn’t need to. She’d already registered our destination when the guard had sent them to her console.

“55 Cancri f,” she said at last.

Well, at least that was something. We’d get the Harpy back.

“Bit of a trip, then,” I said, unbuckling and standing from my seat. “I’m going to see what’s on offer to eat around here.”

“I’ll join you,” Zyla offered.

“No,” I said. “Best one of us stays up here and keeps an eye on things, Nav.”

“I can take the first watch,” the guard offered.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, mate,” I told him, “but I’d like one of mine to oversee things here.”

“And do you believe the High Councillor will allow ‘one of yours’ to be on the bridge unsupervised.”

“Your problem, not mine. There’s more of us than you, anyway,” I mumbled.

I turned and walked off the bridge, leaving them to it, feeling angry for no apparent reason I could guess.

I scrubbed my face and set about checking out the contents of the ship before I broke into the High Councillor’s galley.

I was halfway through my survey of the military vessel — feeling moderately and reluctantly impressed — when I realised Gramps’ comm device had been destroyed in the Siren’s crash planetside.

Shit. Now, I was really operating in the black.

I scrubbed my face again feeling old and exhausted and unsure if I could keep at this for much longer without rest. That decided it, really.

I headed toward the mess.

This was going to be a long, slow flight, and I needed something strong and preferably alcoholic to survive it.


Cepheid Variable



Chapter Twenty

We flew into the Cancri system hot and — on my part — hungover. The High Councillor had been surprisingly generous with sharing his whisky. The fact he’d had whisky on this blank canvas of a vessel had been another surprise. I guess we were all full of surprises here.

I got the impression, Zy’s dad saw my consumption of his liquor as a challenge, and so he’d attempted to drink me under the gel table more than once or twice. I couldn’t say he and I were ever going to be friends, but when the whisky was flowing, we at least didn’t snap quite as much at each other.

Take the whisky off the table come morning, though, and the gloves were off.

It had been a long flight at FTL speeds back to Cancri.

But now we were here.

And still, the synth had nothing for us.

I crossed into the mess, glancing at the gel wall out of habit; seeing our trajectory marked out and an ETA to 55 Cancri f. We still had a couple of hours to go, but the science station would have known we were here.

The science station, though, was still mine. I’d been conversing remotely with the gel already, making it look like everything was in order for the High Councillor’s guard who had taken to sleeping on the bridge.

They were in for one hell of a shock when we got there.

The only being in the mess was the synth, Andi. Who technically speaking wasn’t a being at all but high tech. Still, she acted like Cassi, and I’d long ago stopped thinking of Cassi as an artificial intelligence and more of a friend.

It had been hard keeping Andi at arm’s length.

One day into our laborious flight and I’d stopped referring to her as an it. I was disappointed with myself, but I’d also always been a bit of a liberal; I blamed Gramps. Being raised by a holographic image of your long-dead great-grandfather gave you an inherently different outlook on artificial sentients.

“Hey,” I said, keeping a wary eye on her as I poured myself a coffee. I’d knocked off the whisky late last night intending to sober up to handle whatever went down once we landed at the science station.

I’m the first to admit; I’m not at my best with a fifth of whisky in me.

I wondered, at that moment, if that had been why the High Councillor had encouraged me with his own personal stash.

Zyla tended to avoid me when I was drunk, too, so it was more likely that. The xenophobic bastard didn’t want his daughter to have anything to do with me. Not that I would have put the moves on her with her old man a few metres away onboard the same vessel.

But I was looking forward to getting back onboard the Harpy. To getting Zyla back.

Of course, I still had no fluxing idea where the hell we were going to go after releasing the scientists and Zy’s arsehole brother on 55 Cancri f. The whisky hadn’t given me any stunning insights, either.

I realised, then that the synth was sitting unnaturally still. From the moment I’d met her, she’d acted more human — well, Rhodian, I suppose, considering her synthetic body looked like one of them — than robotic.

Synths had a way about them. You could always tell they weren’t a biological being. There was just something robotic about their movements or their unnatural hesitations when considering something. It wasn’t always easy, but if you knew what to look for, aside from the green tinge to their skin, then you could spot a synth eventually.

Andi didn’t act like a synth at all, which made everything so much more complicated.

She didn’t eat, of course. Or drink. But she laughed, and joked, and whispered sweet nothings to Odo when they thought we weren’t looking. Marvin had taken to shadowing Odo wherever he went, which caused a few problems on the long flight out here.

The Mutt didn’t complain, even after he got into a physical altercation with the Harpy’s engineer in the head one evening. There’s not much privacy on a ship this size, but you do hope to get at least some of it while in the fluxing head.

Marvin, though, took his orders literally. I kinda liked that about him.

“Andi?” I called.

She looked up.

“What are you doing?”

“I found something,” she said.

I leaned forward, my coffee forgotten.

“Go on.”

“I’m not capable of communicating unless I activate a comm device and send a message.”

“Like we do,” I agreed.

She nodded. “There’s something in the code which is extraneous to me.”

“Explain.”

“A communications system. But not.”

“You wanna make that a little clearer?” I asked.

“I can’t. Sorry. It’s just…like that but not. Foreign to me. To what Cassi knows of communication devices,” she corrected.

She was getting better at that. Differentiating between her memories, which were actually Cassi’s memories, and herself.

I appreciated her effort, but I still didn’t entirely trust the synth.

“Take a guess,” I suggested.

She shook her head, her face transforming into one of self-deprecation. “I’m sorry, Kael. It’s inactive, anyway. So no harm, no foul, right?”

I stared at her. She blinked back at me.

It was weird hearing Cassi’s voice and speech patterns come out of a physical being-like thing.

“Do you think,” I said, “that it might be how the ZNA gets the hack code to transmit? Aquila,” I added, “when he first met us at the Belt, was not rogue. Kerr thought he was, but Aquila still communicated as if he was deep undercover, playing the long game. It was only when he reached the Belt that something happened to change that. Something at the Belt. That communications system you’ve just found,” I said, taking a sip of my coffee to appear nonchalant, “could it transmit something over a short distance?”

“That would be my guess. It doesn’t look sophisticated enough to be able to communicate over long distances. Even though it’s something I have no reference for, it seems…limited. And then not.”

“Quite the quandary,” I said, finishing my coffee.

“Yeah,” Andi said on a laugh. “It’s messing with my head.”

“When did you find it?” I asked, purposely turning my back on her and washing out my mug.

“Just now,” she said.

“When we entered scanning distance of 55 Cancri f?” I asked.

“Yes.”

What was at the science station that could be tied to the ZNA?

Or was it not on the science station but on the Harpy?

Aquila located us using that newsfeed signal. Out in the middle of the Black where only Malcolm knew we were sailing. Malcolm could probably still trace us if he wanted to, by using the same messaging system; and the Harpy would be acknowledging receipt of those messages because I forgot to tell it not to; bouncing a signal back at Chi Virginis station.

And Cassi — who was hacked by Andi’s same code — was integrated in part or fully now into the pirate’s station.

It was proximity, then.

Andi needed to be near the Harpy to communicate, even if she didn’t have the means to communicate, with whatever Cassi was sending out through the message lock on the Harpy. And that meant, whatever the hack was that affected Aquila out at the Belt came from the Belt; or more precisely, the other side of the Belt. Because it couldn’t hack him all the way back at New Earth.

The hack code needed proximity.

It was all very interesting, but ultimately it didn’t help New Earth.

I walked across the mess and activated the gel wall, using a finger touch to take over the ship’s systems. The High Councillor would probably spin in his berth when Zaran, his guard, informed him from the bridge of what I was doing.

No point hiding it now and I needed to check on something.

I had no plan. This was the most progress Andi had made since we’d boarded, and that was all due to the proximity of the Harpy. I’d been toying with the idea of dropping the High Councillor off at the station and returning to Chi Virginis, persuading Malcolm somehow to offer up his pirate fleet, and then hot-footing it to New Earth’s system.

We’d be too late, of course. Far too late. And the guilt I felt at that made it difficult to sleep soundly.

What had we achieved? Nothing, that’s what. We had the drone data, sure, but it was locked inside a replica of Cassi and unable to tell us what we needed because it was all so foreign to her.

I looked at the vid-screen as a newsfeed showed the progress of the Zenthian fleet as it approached New Earth. They didn’t have scanning data available from the New Earth system — the NESF would have seen to that; enabling some form of a surprise to lie in wait for their enemies — so the only information on the vid-screens was propaganda out of Zenthia.

But it didn’t matter. The Zenthian fleet, which now included the Rhodians and the Claxians, far outnumbered the New Earth Space Fleet.

New Earth was fluxed, and although I’d met the terms of my charter, I’d failed my planet. I didn’t have the evidence needed that would exonerate them and stop this war.

I stood, staring at the diagram up on the newsfeed of the fleet approaching New Earth, and felt like the universe was too big, too vast, too onerous for me to combat.

The only saving grace was I doubted I was the only ace Gramps had kept up his sleeve. There would be other deep space operatives doing things in the background, trying futilely to stop this beast.

It wouldn’t be enough.

“I’m sorry,” said Andi from beside me.

I hadn’t heard her walk up. I glanced at her but returned my attention to the vid-screen.

“That’s why the High Councillor let you drink his whisky,” she said.

I arched my brow at her but said nothing.

“There’s nothing he can do to stop this, either.”

“He could have tried,” I said.

“With what? His voice has little power now, his enemies have entrenched themselves too deeply within the High Council. Without evidence to prove New Earth’s innocence, he has nothing to sway them with. They want this war, Kael. They want justice for twenty million people.”

I nodded. I knew. There weren’t twenty million people on New Earth, but what was there constituted the last of humanity.

I felt momentarily lost; so heartsick, so useless.

I scrubbed my face and flicked the newsfeed over to another channel.

An image of the Belt appeared on the screen. There wasn’t much the newsrooms were talking about on the vid-screens these days. Either the imminent annihilation of New Earth or that fluxing gap in the Belt which no-one dared enter after what had happened to the Rhodies.

It took a second or two, and then it was Andi’s shocked gasp which really did it, but I finally registered that something — no, lots of somethings — were flying through the gap from the other side.

“Son of a bitch,” I muttered, then activated the ship-wide. “All hands. All hands. Prepare for a high burn to 55 Cancri f. Harpy crew, prepare for a fast turnaround. We’ve just got our marching orders.”

“Kael?” Zyla said from the bridge.

“Get us down there, Nav,” I ordered.

“Aye, aye, Captain,” she replied without hesitation.

“This is my ship,” the High Councillor said from behind me.

I turned to look at him and then nodded at the vid-screen up on the gel wall.

“Are those your drones?” I demanded.

They sure as shit looked like Zenthian drones to me.

The High Councillor stared at the vid-screen, his lips slightly parted.

“Where is that?” he asked. He knew where.

“The Belt,” I said, to save us time posturing.

“Those can’t be Zenthian.”

“Telemetry from observational drones sitting out there says they sure as shit look like it.”

“I need to check…” he broke off. He had no-one he could check with without giving his still-breathing status away.

He turned to face me. “What is your intention?”

I stared at the screen. “That footage was taken several hours ago. And those drones were clocked at flying faster than known fastest FTL speeds.”

I turned to look the High Councillor in the eye for the next part.

“And they’re heading for Zenthian inner world’s space; my guess, to pick up where they left off when we blasted the last lot to dust above Pi Mensae.”

The High Councillor swallowed thickly.

“I don’t know what you can do, High Councillor. I don’t know if you can do anything. But you’ve got to try. Forget about whether they’ll listen to you or not, and do something.”

“And you, Commander?” he snapped back.

I looked at the gap, still sitting in the Belt.

“The Harpy’s fast,” I said. “But it won’t reach New Earth before your fleet does without jump points. And there’s no fluxing way we can beat those drones to Zenthia now. Our only chance is to get to the other side of the Belt and find out what’s out there. Maybe we’ll get the evidence we need to stave off this war and then we can all sing Kumbaya around a fire pit together and fight these bastards as a team. Or maybe we’ll find out exactly who is behind this and kill them for you, Your Majesty.”

He sneered at me.

“And if it is the ZNA,” I added for good measure, “the High Council has a hell of a lot of explaining to do.”

“And if it isn’t?”

“Well, then,” I said. “Won’t that be interesting?”

He glared at me for a moment longer and then said, “Do you honestly believe I’ll just let you go once we land at 55 Cancri f?”

I smiled.

“ETA to docking?” I asked loudly.

ETA, t-minus two minutes, Captain,” the Basic replied.

I leaned forward into the High Councillor’s space and said, “Do you honestly believe you’re the one in charge here?”

His hand shot out and wrapped around my neck, squeezing tightly. The gel reached out and gripped his arm, sliding up towards his fingers, threateningly.

He released me before the gel made him do it and stepped back.

“She will not go with you,” he said.

I knew who he was talking about, and it wasn’t Andi.

“Why do you say that?”

“She is Zenith. Her place is with her species. We are under attack.”

“Supposedly by the ZNA, the very beings who you sent her to spy on. Who almost killed her for being that spy. Did you know that?”

He stared impassively at me, but there was no doubting the Zenith was approaching Rage Mode.

Thank flux I had the gel to protect me. Sparring with Zyla was one thing, fighting her father would be a whole other.

“Docking in thirty seconds,” Zyla announced over the ship-wide.

“Buckle up, Buttercup,” I said to the High Councillor. “Oh, and by the way, your son is an arsehole.”

I turned and walked out of the mess, intent on getting my armour and weapons together, and getting off this damn ship.

Zyla docked us without issue and the hangar pressurised by the time we were kitted out and ready to rumble. The High Councillor followed us off the rear of the ship, looking around for his missing HSF guards no doubt.

I crouched down and touched the gel floor at my feet.

“Baby, I’m back,” I sang sweetly.

A thumbs up appeared on the gel beside me.

“Release the Harpy.”

The Harpy slid out of the gel off to the side, making the High Councillor gasp and Zaran to raise his rifle.

“Haven’t we been through enough?” I asked the guard.

He glanced at his boss, who waved him off after a brief hesitation.

My crew and I started toward the Harpy.

“Zyla!” the High Councillor shouted.

I didn’t stop until I was on the rear ramp of our ship, then I made myself turn around and watch everything.

Zyla’s facial features.

The High Councillor’s austere mask.

The guard at his back who could grab Zyla in a heartbeat if instructed.

The synth as she shared a desperate look with Odo who stood beside me.

“Cap’n?” he whispered.

“We can’t trust her,” I said quietly.

“I know,” he surprised me by saying. “But she is the drone data.”

I nodded my head, and Andi’s face lit up like a firecracker. She bounded across the hangar and raced up the ramp to Odo’s booming laughter.

“What do you think you’re doing?” the High Councillor demanded.

“Father,” Zyla said, her voice strong and steady and carrying across the open space between them like a shot from an Old Earth rifle.

“Daughter,” he said, getting himself back under control again.

The haughty and powerful High Councillor stared back at my nav. For her part, Zyla looked serene.

“I am going with them,” she announced.

“Zyla,” he snapped.

She held up a hand to stall him. “They are my family,” she said and turned on her heel.

Zeniths don’t show emotion. They go from ice cold to roaring hot in a split second. They are fast, too. And strong. The High Councillor didn’t need his guard to act for him. He was the High Councillor for a reason, and he was Zenith.

He went from cool, calm and supposedly collected to Rage Mode in a split second.

“Zyla!” Marvin shouted, drawing his gun.

“Oh, no!” Andi said as Odo swore loudly, reaching down for a plasma pistol.

Neither of them would have been fast enough.

I threw myself forward, skidding down the ramp on my stomach, slapping my hand on the gel floor when I reached the very edge.

“Protect her,” I gasped with little to no air left inside me.

The gel floor rose up between Zyla and her raging father faster than a Zenith could run; even in Rage Mode.

Zyla stood on one side of the transparent wall, her raging father on the other, his guard keeping a wary distance.

I watched as my nav slowly stepped forward and placed one of her long-fingered hands on the gel between them. I watched as she bowed her head, whispered something I couldn’t catch in Zenith to him, and then turned her back on the being who had sired her.

I searched her face as she glided across the hangar towards us for some sign of what she was feeling.

But Zyla was a Zenith, and she showed us nothing.

“Give us time to escape,” I told the gel. “Then relinquish control to the High Councillor.”

I got a thumbs up just as Zyla walked past me, onto the ramp and up into the Harpy; head held high, face impassive.

“Watch yourself, my friend,” I murmured, and then stood up.

My eyes met Odo’s and then Marvin’s. I saw their concern for Zyla, which matched mine.

Why did life have to throw shit at you, until it felt like you were buried beneath a pile of it?

We should have been fighting this threat together. Instead, families were being torn apart, friendships tested, loyalties broken.

I rubbed a hand over my face, turned my back on the High Councillor of Zenthia, and walked onto the Harpy.

We had the drone data, but couldn’t read it.

Zenthia was still going to war with New Earth.

This wasn’t over. Not by a long shot.

And that gap was our only hope now of ending this one way or the other.

“Saddle up, boys and girls,” I said as I started to climb toward the bridge. “This is gonna hurt.”


Cepheid Variable



Chapter Twenty-One

We approached the space around the Belt in stealth; fully camouflaged.

“Could it be as easy as flying straight through it?” I asked Zy.

She stared at the data on her console, biting her bottom lip pensively. We’d not spoken about her father and how she’d left the relationship between them.

Some things are too raw to voice openly.

But I knew my nav was suffering.

I could only hope the High Councillor was playing his part. One solitary voice in amongst so many, speaking up for peace when the whole fluxing universe wanted war.

“The Rhodian vessel was not stealthed when it entered,” she said.

“Might make a difference,” I agreed.

“Does it change anything?” she asked, turning to look at me.

No, I guess it didn’t. We were still going in. We were still going to try to run the gap.

I reached over the small distance between us on the bridge and touched Zyla’s cheek.

“Wanna be a hero with me, Nav?” I asked.

“I’m here, aren’t I?”

“You didn’t have to be.”

“I chose my family,” she said primly. And then softer, “I chose you, Kael.”

A well of emotion bubbled up inside me, but Zeniths didn’t like dealing with too much emotion at once, so I just smiled, brushed my fingers over her smooth cheek, and said, “Then let’s do this, Zy.”

“All hands. All hands,” Zyla said over the ship-wide. “Stand by for Running the Gap.”

That’s what we’d started calling it on the way out here — Running the Gap. Like it needed capital letters or something. One ship had already tried and been crushed into tiny pieces.

And all we had going for us was the Harpy’s stealth.

I checked the camouflage now, pleased to note it was stable and we were indeed stealthed to the best of our abilities.

I hoped it would be enough.

Sound behind me caught my attention, and I glanced over my shoulder. Andi stood there, staring at the Belt. Or the gap. It was hard to tell.

“I thought you’d stick with Odo down in engineering,” I said.

“He has Marvin manning the weapons down there.”

Marvin could have manned the weapons up here, but he was on Odo and Andi babysitting duty so had glued himself to Odo’s side.

Which meant Andi had been wandering the Harpy unsupervised.

“You still don’t trust me,” Andi said as she watched me run a check on where she’d been.

I didn’t hide it. We didn’t have the luxury of time to cushion things. If things went south on us, I needed to know before we entered that gap.

“Would you trust you, Andi?” I asked.

She said nothing.

“I’d like to meet her one day,” she said after a while, still staring out into the Belt as if it held all the answers. And, in a way, it did hold quite a few. One of which was how she’d come to exist in the first place.

If the ZNA were capable of this type of tech, then they’d hidden their talents well.

“Maybe you will,” I said, satisfied that Andi had come straight here from engineering and hadn’t tampered with the cameras en route.

She meant Cassi, of course. Cassi who I was pretty sure was in communication with Aquila somehow. Which meant Malcolm was compromised.

I hadn’t been able to send him a message. What was the point? Cassi would have intercepted it. I hadn’t even mentioned my concerns to the rest of the crew; especially Marvin.

But Chi Virginis was now, in my mind, a hostile threat.

They, whoever was doing this, needed close proximity to make the hack, but I was getting an idea of how insidious that hack was once it managed to hook its claws into something.

“How’s that comms code going?” I asked the synth.

“It wants to speak to something.”

Yeah, I bet.

“That’s why you’re up here,” I guessed.

“You’ve disabled all other forms of communication throughout the vessel.”

I turned to look at her. Zyla quietly slipped her hand to her thigh where her plasma pistol was.

“You gonna jump us, Andi? Commandeer the comms array? Let them know we’re coming?”

She looked down at me from her still superior standing height.

“You’re like a brother to me, Kael,” she said. “And yet, I do not know you. Cassi does. Inside, though, you’re mine. I would not betray you.”

“Unless that comms code manages to go active.”

“It can’t. I’m isolated.”

I sure as shit hoped so.

I turned back to my console. We were getting to the point where aborting this mission could prove just as fatal as forging on.

“Take a seat, Sis,” I said. “We’re going in.”

Andi sat down in the jump seat and buckled up. I highly doubted she could get hurt if we took a plasma bolt through the bulkhead. She’d probably even go on existing if we got blown apart. The vacuum of space had nothing on a synth.

“T-minus one minute,” Zyla announced over the ship-wide comm.

“We are go in engineering,” Odo advised.

“Go on weapons,” Marvin added.

I checked the stealth; all good. Sucking in a calming breath of air, I said, “We are go.”

Zy took us in.

The Belt loomed big all around us. Asteroids the size of New Mount Everest on New Earth. Hell, they were the size of the Zartha Mountains we’d just escaped from on Zenthia.

Funny how your mind wanders when the tension’s thick enough to suffocate all logical thought.

Zy slipped between the odd free-floating piece of debris, which on closer inspection looked like it might have been the Rhodie skiff that got fluxed, as the Harpy flew deeper into the jungle. It felt oppressive and wrong. This Belt had been unnavigable for as long as beings flew through the known systems. According to the High Councillor, not even Zeniths had navigated it.

But someone had because those drones wending their way toward the Zenith homeworld had to be directed by a sentient.

And my money was still on the ZNA.

“Anything on passive scans?” Zy asked, bringing my head back into the moment.

“Nothing,” I said with a glance.

I looked at Andi and arched my brow.

“It knows something is there,” she said. “It wants to communicate.”

“All that from a line of code,” I muttered, disbelieving.

“This is not a line of code as we think of a line of code, Kael,” she told me. “This is something else entirely.”

“Which you can’t put into words.”

Her eyes tracked back to mine, having been staring at the main vid-screen which showed several views outside of the Harpy.

“It scares me,” she admitted.

Not much had scared Cassi. Even in the end, when I’d ordered that self destruct on Ceres Alpha, before I’d recited the Dylan Thomas poem which overrode the self destruct, Cassi hadn’t been scared.

Resigned. But not scared.

“Why does it scare you, Andi?” I asked.

“Because I don’t understand it.”

“Cassi didn’t understand everything either.”

She blinked at me. “Cassi lived in a box. It had walls and parameters. There were things humans did that she could not quantify, but she did understand that they were human and flawed, so that was why they were capable of doing those things. This…This is so far out of the realm of my — Cassi’s — understanding that it is alien to me.”

I thought back to when this all started. To Ceres Alpha and the drones nuking the holiday planet. There was a time back then when I thought this had to be all down to an alien invasion of some sort.

Why not? We already knew of four different alien species, not including ourselves, of course. Why couldn’t there be more aliens beyond the Belt?

But that ZNA hitman on Dephini B was clearly involved. Even though the ZNA blamed the High Council.

I’d met the High Councillor. He was too xenophobic, which meant the High Council was too xenophobic to attack their own species like this. And I wondered now if the ZNA were too xenophobic as well.

But then there was Admiral Kerr who was not acting like Admiral Kerr and who definitely wanted the drone data as if he were working for someone. Like the ZNA.

Who else would the NESF officer have defected to?

It didn’t make any sense, which was why Andi’s alien comment stuck.

“I’m getting telemetry from the other side,” Zy said.

I checked my vid-screen. Sure enough, there was a wide-open space on the other side of the Belt which the ship’s passive scanners were just now reading through the opening in the gap.

“Anything shifted out there?” I asked.

“No. We’re still good,” Zy said. “Camo is functioning correctly. There’s no reaction to our passing.”

It seemed too easy.

I looked over my shoulder at Andi. The synth had her eyes closed, a small frown marring her Rhodian features.

I checked the system for communications signals. There were none.

“ETA to exit, t-minus three minutes,” Zy announced.

My heartbeat picked up. My limbs felt heavy. There was tingling in my fingertips.

I slowed my breathing down.

Three minutes felt like three hours.

And then we were through. On the other side of the Belt. In uncharted waters, so to speak. New space. Virgin vacuum.

“Holy shit,” I said. “We made it.”

“Successful running of the gap,” Zy announced over the ship-wide.

“Maintain stealth procedures,” I added. “I want to get a look around.”

“I’m picking something up,” Zy said. “Three thousand kilometres from our starboard bow.” She swiped her vid-screen, allowing the data to appear on my console.

“Definitely something out there,” I agreed. “Set a course. Take us in easy.”

“Aye, Captain.”

Something made me look back at Andi. Her eyes were wide, her face pale. It was miraculous how lifelike synths could appear.

“Andi?” I said.

“They’re all around us,” she told me, voice trembling. “I can feel them.”

Her eyes met mine.

“Feel them?” I queried. “How?”

She shook her head. “They’re talking. I don’t understand it. I can’t hear it, but I can feel it.”

“You’re still isolated? That code hasn’t morphed into a beacon or something.”

Still shaking her head, she said, “I’m isolated; I swear, boss.”

“What do you feel?” Zyla asked, keeping us on a steady trajectory for the object hanging off our starboard bow.

“Conversations in a language that has form,” Andi said rapidly, “that’s made of matter. It scrapes against my skin.”

She rubbed a hand up and down her arm as if to satisfy an itch.

“Perhaps you should power down,” I suggested.

Her eyes were so big; I thought they might fall out of her head.

“OK,” she said, nodding frantically. “But what if you hit one of them?”

“There’s no-one there, Andi,” I said, reassuringly.

“If we’re stealthed, they could also be,” Zy offered.

“And those drones,” Andi said, “the ones that attacked Ceres Alpha. Nobody saw them coming.”

“All stop!” I shouted.

Zy brought us to a standstill.

“Can you show us on a map where you…feel them, Andi?” I asked.

She nodded her head and scooted forward in her seat. I watched her carefully, but all she did was enter the computer system that received data from our passive scans.

Andi went about indicating where she ‘felt’ the conversations with a deft hand.

The threat board lit up with over a hundred red dots in a matter of seconds. Synths could work faster than biological beings. In a few moments more, she’d outlined a thousand potential threats, some of them way too close to the Harpy.

“I can’t sense anything,” Zy admitted.

I checked my vid-screen and came up blank also. “Andi, are you sure?”

She nodded, still with those big, vulnerable eyes of hers.

“Can you give us more than just a dot? Can you describe them? Draw them?”

God knows how she could do that from conversations, but she shouldn’t have been able to feel the conversations in the first place.

“Um…” she said and then closed her eyes. Leaving her finger on a blank part of the touchscreen, she started to draw.

The drones might have been Zenthian in design, but there was nothing familiar about what Andi drew for us. They were sleek looking vessels the size of battleships, with curves and graceful lines, and things sticking out of the side which I worried might be weapons of some kind.

It took the synth a couple of minutes to be satisfied with what she’d created, and then she sat back and stared at the shape of a futuristic-looking spacecraft that boggled the mind.

“That’s it,” she said. “That’s what I feel. They’re all like that.”

I looked at Zy. Zy met my eyes and then stood up from the pilot’s seat.

“Take us through them, Andi,” she said.

“Zy,” I warned.

“I can’t sense them,” my nav told me. “And we need to get to what we can sense to actually see something.”

I nodded my head stiffly and watched the two women swap seats, and then Andi took over flight control as if she was born to fly the Harpy. In a way, I suppose, she was. Cass was a better pilot than me, in any case. I’d not put her up against Zyla’s skills, but Cassi was damn fine behind the wheel.

And so was Andi.

It took another terrifying and — for us biologicals — blind ten minutes to navigate the strange battlefield. And then we were close enough to get our first visual on passive scans of the object we were approaching.

I huffed out a breath of air as the imagery cleared on the main vid-screen.

“I guess we found our drone factory,” I said, as Zenthian styled drones swept out in a steady line from a portal on a rotating platform that was definitely like nothing I had ever seen.

“Does that look a little like the ship Andi drew to you?” Zy asked.

“Yep,” I said, staring at what was clearly something sleek and shiny and…alien. “Andi?”

“It’s talking to the others,” she whispered, lips trembling. “They’re all talking. I can feel it. It’s like… It’s like a hive mind or something.”

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

“Because they know about Aquila. About Cassi.”

“I thought you couldn’t understand them. Couldn’t hear what they were saying, only feel it.”

“I can’t understand them, but I understand those words; those names. Aquila. Cassiopeia. Zenthia.”

I said nothing. Zyla stared at the massive drone factory looking, for once, afraid.

If this was a new alien race, with technology far superior to ours, and a fleet of vessels hiding in stealth numbering in the thousands, using Zenthian tech to fool us, then we were in trouble.

“Get us back to the Belt, Nav,” I said. “We have to show this to someone. To everyone. The known systems need to be warned.”

This was a planned invasion. Soften us up — soften the most technologically advanced of us up — and then follow behind with their army.

“Bringing us around now,” Zy acknowledged, pushing Andi gently but firmly out of the pilot’s seat.

“Steady as she goes,” I said, and Andi gasped beside me.

“What is it?” both Zy and I said as one.

“The Harpy,” Andi said. “I felt them mention the Harpy. Kael,” she cried, “They know we’re here!”

“You should be flying us,” Zy muttered.

“Andi?” I pressed ignoring Zy because the synth had more to say, I was sure of it.

“It was Aquila,” she said. “He told them.”

Son of a bitch.

“The Gap,” Zy suddenly shouted. “It’s closing.”

“Shit,” I murmured. “Can we make it?”

The gap, a couple of thousand kilometres away up on the vid-screen, closed before our very eyes.

And then every fluxing ship that had been stealthed dropped their camo at the same time.

We were suddenly surrounded by more enemies than we could count.

“Son of a bitch,” I whispered.

There were aliens everywhere. And one little gunboat hiding in plain sight.

“I guess we found our evidence,” I muttered.

Fat lot of good it would do me now.


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