The Terra Nova Chronicles Book 2
West Virginia Hot Dogs, riding lawn movers, and homemade ice cream, I couldn’t ask for better memories
To Nathan James Fox-Daddy loves you !
Copyright © by Richard Fox
All Rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission.
Table of Contents
From the Authors
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Missiles shot through the void, weaving through red-hot particle beams and spinning wreckage of dead warships. The point defense turrets on a white-hulled alien frigate fired methodically, destroying incoming threats with measured precision. Three missiles closed on the ship and their engines flared, launching them forward like tips of a hurled trident. The target ship seemed to realize its fate and shifted its fire to missiles targeting other vessels.
Warheads exploded against the hull, sending blackened debris hurtling away. The missiles gutted the ship, leaving the keel and some of the superstructure intact. The frigate rolled over and succumbed to the gravity of the dusty red planet of Negev. The dead ship became a burning comet within minutes, joining dozens of other ships leaving smoky lines across the atmosphere.
Another salvo of missiles rippled out of the deep green Ultari ships and bore down on their foes that arrived in the Terra Nova system with glistening white hulls. The warring ships had some design elements in common; a wide centerline dotted with cannons and shuttle bays, ventral and dorsal hulls that tapered to flat ridges running the length of the ships, superstructures for the command section, though the Ultari ships had irregular clumps of antennae around their bridges.
The belligerents seemed to spring from a shared history, though what had caused the schism and subsequent hatred wasn’t written into their hulls.
Particle cannons on the white ships massed fire on an Ultari ship and hammered it into slag in less than a minute. The Ultari missiles swarmed the opposing ships, scoring hits infrequently. Two destroyer-analogs from the white fleet exploded simultaneously, and the ship at the center of the fleet—it barely half again the size of the destroyers—maneuvered away from the fight and flew toward Negev’s northern pole.
White ships pulled closer to the flagship, targeting any missile that homed in on the larger ship.
From the Ultari fleets, larger missiles launched and closed rapidly.
And then the battle froze.
“There.” Governor Hale reached into the holo tank and touched the larger missiles. “You see those? Give me a full plot trace on those and enhance.”
The holographic image flickered and zoomed away from the battle above Negev and stretched through the tank. Pulsing red dots appeared over the large missiles as they shrank from view. The Ultari ships became red diamonds, the white vessels green squares. With this god’s eye view, Chief Carson noticed the Ultari were in a loose formation, almost a mob of ships. Their enemies held a close knit formation as they attempted to escape the fight.
The governor reached into the tank and touched the torpedo icons. A solid but wavy line traced from the Ultari ships to their targets. Hale traced along the path, watching the telemetry box that popped up next to his fingertips change.
“XO,” Marie Hale said with a slight shake of her head, “scrub the data for a solid image. My husband was a Marine, never a ship driver. This isn’t his forte.”
“Aye aye,” Edison said from a workstation near the holo tank.
The tank rematerialized into a slightly pixelated image of one of the larger missiles. Measurements and more data overlays appeared.
The four thirty-meter long cylindrical tubes hung in space, seconds away from impacting the white flagship. The front ends were sharp cones of what looked like some kind of reinforced steel. Just behind the base of the cone, five large claws had folded out from recesses along the hull.
Boarding pods, Carson thought.
As if he’d read her mind, Hale said, “Ship to ship assault...risky.”
The assembled officers and colony directors nodded but remained silent. During the first few playbacks, several had made the mistake of trying to narrate the battle, which had earned them a quick rebuke from the governor.
Hale crossed his arms, staring at the image in quiet contemplation. After several moments, he sighed. “Okay, bookmark this timestamp. We’ll come back to it later. Let’s finish this last run through.”
The image zoomed back to the view of the entire battle and resumed. The battle degraded into a rout as the Ultari overwhelmed their enemies and ran them down one at a time. The Ultari vessels vanished in a flash of warp drive moments after the last enemy ship exploded into a rain of fragments that plummeted to Negev.
Murmurs went up around the table as the alien ship disappeared. That the aliens had arrived in ships equipped with faster than light engines had been a shock to Terra Nova. Such technology only existed in theory back in the Milky Way.
Carson watched in silence as data from the battle continued to trickle into the holo tank. She touched the screen built into the forearm of her Pathfinder armor and queried the computers for a body count from the battle. A graph appeared, showing 100 percent losses for the white fleet, almost sixty-four ships by the best estimate and roughly eighty vessels destroyed on the Ultari side. The Ultari had arrived with more hulls and seemingly better firepower, but the white ships fought with more cohesion and managed to inflict disproportionate losses.
A dozen Ultari ships left the system.
The playback ended and Carson breathed a sigh of relief when Hale didn’t ask for yet another replay. Catching the boarding craft had been a new development, but she wasn’t sure what more could be learned from the recording. Neither side had shown the slightest interest in the human colony on Terra Nova once they realized they shared space over Negev.
The lights inside the headquarters building brightened slightly as the hologram faded. From across the table, Carson could tell the governor wasn’t pleased. Hale’s face was frozen in a mixture of deep contemplation and frustration. Not that she could blame him. Arriving on Terra Nova to discover the first colonists were missing, the only city overrun with homicidal brutes and rescuing the first wave of settlers from alien despots had not been the plan for the Enduring Spirit or her crew. The governor bore the mantle of leadership and the knowledge that his brother had turned traitor and escaped with the Triumvirate. Carson didn’t envy Hale, but she knew he was up to the challenge. The man had fought through worse.
“All right,” Hale said finally. “What are we looking at?”
All at once, the gathered leaders of Terra Nova began speaking.
Hale put both hands up. “Wait, wait. Enough. Okay, we’ll go around the table. Commander Edison. ”
Russell Edison, Enduring Spirit ’s executive officer, the flagship of the 2nd Terra Nova Fleet, rubbed his chin. He shook his head and said, “Obviously, both sides are advanced races. I’m definitely going to have to get a look at a more detailed report of their weapon systems, but on the face of it, they are much more advanced than we are. Maybe another fifty years or so on beam weapon technology, but everything else about it seemed fairly standard.”
“Except for the faster than light travel,” Elizabeth Tanner said. The colony’s chief engineer stood a few people to Carson’s left, arms crossed, head canted to the side. “Did you forget about that, Commander?”
Edison worked his jaw, glaring at the woman. “No, Ms. Tanner, I hadn’t forgotten about that.”
“Of course you didn’t,” she said, giving him a half-smile. “I mean, I know ship drive technology is at the very bottom of the list for you navy types. They’re not as loud and shiny as those new weapon systems I saw you eyeing, but they are extremely important.”
Edison opened his mouth to answer, but Captain George Handley, the ground forces commander of the new Colonial Militia, beat him to it. “I’m actually more concerned that the Ultari commander mentioned he was part of the ‘true Ultari Empire.’ I thought the Triumvirate were Ultari. And why did they look so different? They were organic, not cybernetic like the Emperor and the other two. ”
Carson shuddered as the images of the mechanical monstrosities flashed in her mind. The skeletal aliens were creatures straight out of a nightmare, their skull-like faces and thin metallic chassis made them visually intimidating to say the least. Not to mention their speed and impressive strength.
“That’s a very good question, Captain,” Hale said. “Ms. Danielle, any insights into that?”
Danielle Scartucci, one of the original colonists Carson’s Pathfinder team had rescued from the Triumvirate, looked up at Hale’s words, seeming to shake herself from thought. “What, I’m—”
Two images flashed into existence over the holo-table; one, the robotic head of the Triumvirate leader, Emperor Kyrios, the other, the Ultari Fleet commander. The Emperor’s sleek, metallic head was featureless, save for the crown of razors surrounding the top of its skull. Its eyes glowed bright yellow, its mouth nothing more than a line set at the bottom of its face. The fleet commander’s skull looked similar to the Netherguard soldiers, only smoother, less bestial. A ridge of bone extended from above its eyes, back over the top of its skull, edges adorned with gold rings. Its eyes were sunk back into deep sockets, one glowing green, and the other orange.
Danielle stepped back from the table, wide eyes locked on to the image of the Emperor. After a moment, she looked away, obviously shaken. “I’m sorry.”
Marie Hale stepped up next to the woman, putting a hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay. Take your time.”
Danielle sniffed, pursing her lips, and lifted her eyes to the holographic image. “I’m okay.” She seemed to shake off her earlier shock, taking on an air of pure determination. “The Triumvirate are the old leaders of the Ultari. We could never figure out exactly what happened, but most of us believe the others, the ones in the white ships that mentioned a Supreme Intelligence, defeated and imprisoned them. But that’s only a theory.”
“And their robotic bodies?” Hale asked.
Danielle shook her head. “They never gave us the truth. Jared Hale may have known, as he worked with them constantly, but he never told it to us while we were there as slaves. The first sob story the Triumvirate fed us was that they were survivors from some long dead civilization. Then it became clear they were the true rulers of that civilization. It wasn’t until after we were moved to the mountain with the faces that we realized Negev was their prison. That the Supreme Intelligence fleet was so upset with us for mucking about with the Triumvirate, reinforces that those monsters were imprisoned here.”
“Why didn’t the Ultari come looking here sooner?” Marie asked. “Terra Nova is habitable. A prison without guards or walls?”
“The Ultari must not have known,” Hale said. “This dwarf galaxy is still massive, even if it’s not the Milky Way. Imagine tossing a diamond in the ocean a thousand years ago and expecting someone to find it. Thank you, Miss Scartucci,” Hale turned to Handley. “What’s the status on the security of the colony?”
“My ground forces have secured the area immediately surrounding the city, and I’ve set up round-the-clock guard posts and patrols. We’ve cleared out any and all Netherguard from the city, though a few have been seen on the outskirts. Nineteen were destroyed in the last twenty-four hours, no casualties on our side. They don’t seem to be active during the night. I’m readying sweep and clear teams for morning. As far as protection against space attack…” He shrugged.
“I understand,” Hale said.
Everyone present knew the answer to that question. If an enemy force attacked Terra Nova from orbit, the colony would have little chance of surviving. The only military ship they had was the Valiant , and even that was a little more than a fast transport with a single railgun mounted to the hull. A pea-shooter in comparison to the weapons they’d observed during the battle over Negev.
“Our first priority is to get Spirit’ s foundries spinning on components for some kind of space defense force,” Hale said. “I know whatever we manage to put together in the short-term won’t be able to stand up to those Ultari or these Supreme Intelligence ships, but something is better than nothing. Commander Edison, draw up a plan to have the Spirit re-fit for void combat. We also need to dedicate one or two printers for colony ground defense.”
“Of course, sir,” Edison said.
“I’d like to get my hands on those alien ships,” Marie said. “We could still salvage something useful from the wreckage. It’ll give us a good idea of what we’re truly dealing with.”
“There could be survivors,” Carson spoke up. “The satellites we left over Negev caught the big ships, weapons with massive energy signatures. The two fleets went at each other without mercy; they strike me as the type that would use a life pod for target practice.”
“It’ll be some time before the Valiant can reach Negev,” Hale said, nodding. “Chance of survivors is slim.”
“Search and rescue is one of our—”
“I know damn well what the Pathfinder’s mission is, Chief,” Hale snapped. He rubbed a thumb against his temple and pointed a knife hand at her. “Prep your team. Get wheels up and void borne soon as possible.”
Carson stepped up to the table. “Yes, sir.”
“Take Ms. Danielle and an engineering team with you,” Hale said. “Your primary mission is reconnaissance. I need information, not heroes.”
“Roger that, sir.”
An aide stepped up from behind Captain Handley and whispered something into Hale’s ear. He frowned as the man finished and straightened .
“Marie,” the governor said, “you have the operations center. Seems there’s a situation at one of the guard posts that needs my attention.”
“What is it?” Marie asked.
“A ghost. A ghost named Shannon Martel.”
It was slightly cooler in Valliant ’s cargo bay than usual, but Carson found it oddly comforting. She rubbed her temple, shutting her eyes against the twinge of a headache building behind them. The stims were starting to work. Even after a short nap, the effects of the alcohol she’d consumed at the welcome home party were still lingering.
I didn’t even have that much, she told herself, counting off how many drinks she’d downed before Hale had summoned her to the command post. She’d never considered herself a light-weight before, but if she felt like this after just three drinks, Carson decided that might very well be the case now.
The Valiant had broken Terra Nova orbit a few hours ago, and the ship had another day before it reached Negev. Spending transit time sitting on their hands was not the Pathfinder way. She and her team would prep constantly for the mission, and the first step was to take care of their equipment so the equipment would take care of them in the void and in combat.
But doing the inspections coming off of an alcohol buzz was not ideal. She remembered this sort of thing being a lot easier when she was in her early twenties.
She took a deep breath and considered the sealed void-suit sitting on the deck in front of her. Finding the Pathfinder’s gear, stored away in the bowels of the Enduring Spirit , hadn’t been a problem; it was clearing all the debris from the battle with the Netherguard and ensuring hull integrity before any of it could be retrieved. Now the majority of the team’s gear was scattered across the Valiant ’s cargo deck, waiting to be inventoried and sorted by her team that appeared to be in the same boat as Carson.
Senior Voidman Vishnya Popov, the junior member of Carson’s team, dropped another supply container down at the end of a short row of similar containers, the sides painted with blue and white stripes. “Eight,” she said, breathing heavily.
Staff Sergeant Jose Nunez, who’d been sitting on his blue and white striped void-suit container, his head in his hands, looked up at the commotion, glaring at Popov. “Are you serious, Cherry?”
The rookie Pathfinder straightened, hands on her hips. “Don’t call me that. And if you’d have gotten off your lazy ass and helped me, I would’ve been done already.”
Nunez grimaced. “Good luck with that; I can’t even stand straight right now. Keep it down, will ya?” He put his face back into his hands.
Across from him, Staff Sergeant Luca Moretti held up a small silver package. “Here.”
Nunez waved him off. “I already took some. Not that they helped. I’ve got a killer headache.”
“That’s just the stims working,” Moretti told him, putting the pills back into his kit. “You’ll feel great in another thirty minutes or so.”
Without lifting his face from his hands, Nunez said, “Freaking wonders of modern medicine; we’ll make you better, but kill you in the process.”
If Nunez was in that bad of a shape, Carson wondered how much he’d had to drink. The leader in her made a note to take it up with West after this mission.
As if on cue, Master Sergeant Jason West, her team’s senior non-commissioned officer, moved around the large six-wheeled rover in the center of the bay. Immediately, Popov peeled off to busy herself with something as West angled toward Nunez.
“Are you dying?” West said, stopping a few feet from Nunez, crossing his arms.
“I think I might be, Sarge.”
Carson couldn’t help the grin forming at the side of her mouth as she saw where the sergeant was going .
“In that case, I guess we ought to send you to sick call, get you checked out by the colony, the doc—oh, wait, we’re not on Terra Nova anymore. Moretti, still have those needle injectors?”
Nunez jumped to his feet. “Would you look at that, it’s a miracle! I’m healed.”
“Ah, spectacular! Glad to hear it. The Lord works in mysterious ways. Now, since you’re in much better shape, perhaps you can assist Popov here with unpacking these void-suits and seal-testing them.”
Nunez’s expression turned from one of surprised relief to utter disappointment. “Yeah, but, Sarge, I…”
“You want to do them all yourself?”
Nunez seemed to recognize the writing on the wall and cut his losses. “I’d be happy to help Cherry, Boss.”
“Don’t call me that!” Popov shouted looking up from the crate she was unpacking.
Carson turned her attention back to her own void-suit, breaking apart the factory seal and pulling back the plastic wrapping. She took a long breath, taking in the new suit smell. It’d been years since she’d worn a fresh void-suit. Not since…
“You okay, Chief?”
West bent down next to Carson’s suit, concern spread across his face.
Carson nodded. “I’m fine.” She touched her temple. “I guess I had a little too much to drink too. ”
“We all did,” West said. “But, then again, we all deserved it. Work hard, play hard, right?”
“If you say so.”
“Didn’t figure we’d be back in here so soon,” West said, looking around the Valiant’ s bay.
“We’re not setting a very promising trend, are we?”
West chuckled. “Not at all.”
“Was your wife upset?”
“Oh, she’ll be all right.”
Carson raised an eyebrow at him.
“No,” West said, smiling and shaking his head. “She knows the deal. We’ve been together longer than I’ve been a military man; she’s used to it. It’s the kids that don’t appreciate it too much.”
“Sorry we had to take you away again so soon.”
“Eh, they’ll get used to it. I did.”
“Dad joined the Strike Marines before the Ember War. He was always gone. It just becomes one of those things, I guess.”
“Well, hopefully, it doesn’t become a thing here.”
“Indeed. You need help with that?” West nodded to her void-suit.
“I think I can handle it; been a while.”
“As long as you’re not taking any wild jumps into open cargo bays, I think this trip will be relatively quiet. ”
Carson grimaced and rapped a fist on the deck. “You going to jinx us? Never say a mission’s going to be quiet.”
West grinned and waved a hand through the air. “Never believed that old-wives’ tale. If it’s going to get crazy, it’s going to get crazy. No matter what I say.”
“You know, there’s a reason why traditions become traditions, right?”
Standing, West said, “Oh, yeah, I’ve created a number of them myself. Speaking of which…” He turned back toward the team and yelled, “Pressure loss! Emergency actions!”
Amongst a chorus of curses and groans, the four other members of Carson’s Pathfinder team struggled to find their protective masks and get them in place. Nunez knocked over a supply crate in his rush for his kit, forcing Moretti to jump away, cursing. Popov struggled to get her bag open, cursing as she turned it over in her hand. Alan Birch, the team’s drone wrangler, sat back against the rover and crossed his arms, his mask already in place.
After everyone else had their masks in place and hand lifted in the air, indicating they had a good seal, West checked his watch. “Horrible. Terrible time. I’ve seen navy pukes do better, by a wide margin. Looks like we have some training to do. Let’s get these suits unpacked and checked out. Then we’re going to spend some quality time in remedial.”
The guard saluted as Hale approached.
I wish they’d stop doing that , Hale thought, returning the salute. “I’m going to meet with the prisoner.”
“Of course, sir,” the guard said, unlocking the door, then pushing it open.
The woman, Shannon Martel, looked up from her steaming mug as Hale entered the room and smiled. She lifted the mug slightly and said, “I’ll give you Strike Marines one thing, you sure do know how to make a cup of coffee. You learn this from the navy?”
Hale nodded to the guard. “Thank you, soldier, you can wait outside.”
The guard frowned but nodded. “Yes, sir.”
As the door shut behind him, Hale turned back to the new arrivals. Shannon sat nursing a cup of coffee, a plate of crumbs sitting on the table in front of her. Her graying hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail, strands of which framed her slightly Asian features. The other man lounged back in a hard-plastic chair, his leg propped up on another chair in front of him.
“And the food’s not half-bad either,” Eric Knight said around a mouth full of food.
Hale crossed his arms. “I’m glad you approve. ”
“It’s been a while since we’ve had genuine hot food in our diet,” Shannon said.
“I’m probably going to be stopped up for weeks now,” Knight said, swallowing the last of his sandwich.
Shannon rolled her eyes. “You’ll have to excuse my friend. He appears to have forgotten all his manners over the last couple of years.”
“Which is exactly why I wanted to speak with you,” Hale said. “You two are the only two adults that weren’t captured or killed when the Ultari overran Terra Nova. Why?”
Shannon shrugged. “Luck?”
Hale bit back his frustration, knowing it wouldn’t get him anywhere with these two. He nodded to Knight. “I recognize you from the Breitenfeld .”
The man smiled. “Ship’s Counter-Intelligence Officer. That was a great job.”
“You left right around the time the Toth were defeated at Earth.”
“Captain Valdar didn’t seem to care to have me onboard anymore.”
“Ibarra was involved,” Hale said, more a statement than a question.
Knight nodded. “He was the boss. ”
“I can think of several different adjectives for that traitor,” Hale said.
“His methods were unorthodox,” Shannon said. “That doesn’t make him a traitor.”
“You’ve been out here a long time. A lot has changed back on Earth.”
Shannon motioned at him with her mug. “Well, you’re here now. I’m guessing that means we beat the Xaros. Took back the galaxy and saved humanity, yeah? That was pretty much Ibarra’s life mission.”
“We won,” Hale said. “But it cost us much.”
“War’s never pretty,” Shannon said, sipping her coffee.
“No, it isn’t.”
“Looks like we’ve got some catching up to do,” Shannon said.
“You’ll have plenty of time for that later,” Hale said. “Now I want you to tell me everything you know about what happened here. Where’d the Triumvirate come from? Why did they kidnap all the colonists? Why is my brother helping them?”
Shannon sniffed, setting her mug on the table. She considered it for a moment, then said, “I told Morten to leave it alone. I knew it would only lead to trouble, but the old bastard couldn’t let sleeping dogs lie.”
“What do you mean?”
Shannon leaned back in her chair, crossing her arms. “About five years after we arrived here, some of our satellites picked up some strange signals coming from one of the outer system planets.”
“Negev,” Hale offered.
“Right. It was weak, and it was alien. We got the preliminary scans back and I could tell right away it was off.”
“What do you mean?”
Shannon shrugged. “It just did. I’ve seen plenty of prisons in my lifetime, and that damned mountain was built so that its occupants wouldn’t be able to escape, not without help. What alien race carves screaming faces into a mountain as a welcome mat? But Morten didn’t hesitate. Setting the trapped, helpless aliens free was his mantra for months. I told the council several times to leave it alone, but they wouldn’t listen.
“That I joined the mission as an education specialist and not as an agent made it hard to sell my area of expertise. They cut me out of the mission, didn’t think my negativity was good for the rest of the people working on the project. For as much good as it did.” Hale raised an eyebrow and Shannon shrugged again. “Old habits die hard, I guess. I hacked the colony’s secure system and watched the mission’s progress from my classroom. The colony’s IT guys weren’t that great at their job. Either that, or they were just naïve.”
“They were amateurs,” Knight said. “Thought just because we were alone out here there wasn’t a threat to their systems. Thank God for the dumb ones, as we used to say in the trade.”
“Yeah,” Shannon said. “They were hacks. Anyway, when I saw what they’d released from that mountain, I couldn’t just turn a lifetime of…behind-the-scenes work off and play school teacher while they set us all up for disaster.”
“You mean spying for Ibarra and assassinating innocent people,” Hale said, not bothering to keep the disgust out of his voice.
“Innocent is a relative term, Mr. Hale,” Shannon said. “Innocence really depends on who’s pulling the trigger, doesn’t it?”
“You’re a murderer, Shannon, plain and simple. I learned about all the work you did for Ibarra after you…not wasn’t you, precisely. I know what you are, a procedural, a human being grown in a tube and implanted with memories. Ibarra copied you, several times. Something he never did for anyone else, oddly enough. You may not be guilty of those crimes, but you’ve got all those memories of what you did for Ibarra. Part of me wants you to own up to those crimes. Especially after what you did to…no, wasn’t you.”
“Not much of a trial, if you’ve already determined I’m guilty,” Shannon said. She cocked her head to the side. “Incidentally, why wouldn’t you be able to have it your way? Aren’t you the one in charge of this whole damn planet now? I’d think you could do whatever you want.”
“Because I am the governor, not a dictator. And right now, I need information about what we’re dealing with out here, and right now, you’re the only person in this new galaxy that can shed any kind of light on the situation.”
“That’s got to eat at your pride a little bit, eh?” Knight said, picking up another half of a sandwich and taking an over-sized bite.
“I—” Hale caught himself. These two have made their lives deceiving and lying and conning people, Hale thought. He needed to stay on track; going down the path they were leading him would get them nowhere fast .
Hale took a deep breath. “What happened with the Triumvirate?”
Shannon considered him for a moment, then sniffed and sat up. “They’re bastards. I watched as Morten and his team opened the mountain and released the Ultari. It took a few days, but the linguists finally managed to work up an accurate translation device. That’s when the Triumvirate gave us their sob story about persecution and hundreds of years of exile and imprisonment and that they were eternally grateful for our help. Kyrios played his role perfectly, I’ll give him that.”
“The Emperor,” Knight said.
Shannon nodded. “Kyrios, Cigyd, and Zviera; Emperor, Arch Duke, and Prince. It’s what they call themselves. According to them, they were locked away by a something they called the Sacred Intelligence—which had some kind of partnership with the Triumvirate before things went south—imprisoned for violating some unknown rule set down by the SI. They were vague on that part, which was the first of many red flags to me. I mean, if you’ve been locked away by an artificial intelligence for hundreds of years, you’re going to know exactly why you’ve been put away, right?” Shannon waved her hands through the air, rolling her eyes. “Oh, of course, everyone’s innocent, right? Everyone deserves a second chance. Well, you see where that got us.”
“So,” Hale said. “A wolf in sheep’s clothing?”
“Worse. When Morten and Hale brought them back to Terra Nova, they tried to assimilate them into the colony, but there was a lot more resistance than they anticipated. Surprised the shit out of me, but there were more people apprehensive about the whole thing than weren’t. We shared information with them and eventually someone let slip we had doughboy tech with us. The Arch Duke was very interested; got into the system and made himself an army.
“They took Jared and the other leader, including their families, first, segregating them away from the rest of the population. They ran some brutal experiments, trying to find a way to make the doughboys obey the Triumvirate, but the doughboys were hard wired to obey Jared, so they bent Jared to their will and attacked the city. I took the two boys and left when the hammer dropped. Eric did too.”
“Why were the Netherguard after you?”
Shannon nodded. “Doughboy production and making procedurals have some similarities. Jared must have told the Triumvirate about the tech and they were interested. Very interested. Guess they weren’t happy with the robot bodies. But there was only one procedural on the Terra Nova mission.” She tapped her chest. “They needed my genome to recreate the process. That Arch Duke is talented, I’ll give him that. So the Netherguard were after me for a bit, but they degraded quickly and were useless trying to track me down without Jared holding the leash. Guess the Triumvirate decided to focus Jared to get their star ship built instead of finding me. They wanted to get home more than they wanted flesh and blood bodies.”
“You don’t seem too surprised that Ibarra had other copies of you.”
Shannon touched her right temple.
“I was having headaches not long after we first arrived. Docs found recording chips on my ocular and audio nerves, recording everything I saw and heard on a database implanted in my brain stem. Not great as a collection device, as it would take surgery to access. Docs did some more poking around and found that I had a good deal of plastic surgery to change my appearance that I didn’t remember and my genes matched for someone of pure Norwegian descent. I am half Korean, half Polish. At least, that’s what I remember. ”
“Only logical explanation was that Ibarra really was a mad scientist all these years,” Knight said. “Back when the Ember War began and the Xaros wiped everyone out on Earth; I thought she was in Phoenix when it happened. I was surprised to see her after we re-captured the planet, but just chalked it up as Ibarra sneaking her onto the fleet that survived at the last minute.”
“That son of a bitch Ibarra swore that this—” she traced a hasty circle around her face “—was impossible. That he’d never make a…golem, or a ghola , I guess you could call me. A knock-off of a dead person.”
“Come on,” Hale said, surprised. “Did you really trust Ibarra 100 percent? You worked with him closer than anyone else, besides maybe his granddaughter. You knew the kind of man he was.”
“Never was one to throw away a tool he liked. Are there still copies of me floating around back home?” She sighed.
“No,” Hale said. “There’s not. Your last copy was compromised in the naissance tubes by the Naroosha. That Shannon mortally wounded Ibarra’s granddaughter before it was destroyed.”
Shannon sat forward. “Stacy? She’s dead? ”
“No, not dead.” Hale hesitated. “She survived. But how she’s still alive is a bit hard to explain.”
“We leave the boss alone for ten minutes and look what happens,” Knight said.
“But that you’re a procedural was vital to the Triumvirate,” Hale said. “They captured one of my Pathfinders on Negev; seems they found what they needed from her.”
“You brought proccies?” Shannon raised an eyebrow.
“Many. Ibarra wasn’t in charge of my mission. So, you and the boys,” Hale said. “You ended up at the data farm?”
“Right. You know, for how smart the Triumvirate is, they’re pretty freaking stupid. They made a couple trips out there, searching, but gave up after coming up empty-handed. It was actually pretty peaceful out there once you got use to the incessant humming of the server racks. Drove me crazy for the first few days….”
Hale turned to Knight. “And how’d you manage to escape the attack?”
The man smiled. “Hey, she’s not the only one with a sixth sense for these things. It’s not my first rodeo. I hid out in the city for a while, before the Netherguard started locking everything down. Once they repurposed the mining freighters as prisoner transports, I beat feet. I spent a few months playing cat-and-mouse, taking out one or two here and there. We kept in pretty regular contact.” He nodded to Shannon. “But I didn’t want to take the chance I’d lead those bastards to her and the boys, so I stayed away.”
“Must’ve been rough.”
“Actually, it wasn’t that bad until I got bit by a damn scrimshaw.”
“A what?” Hale asked, frowning.
“Scrimshaw,” Knight said. “Poisonous lizard. They look like a pile of rocks right up to the point it decide to bite the shit out of you. Took a big chunk out of my leg…”
Knight pulled his right pant leg up. The lower half of his leg was gone, cut off just below the knee. Jagged scars and mutilated skin looked like it had been pulled together with no thought at all to aesthetics.
“The rest we had to get rid of later.”
“Can’t very well run when your leg is falling off,” Knight said. He nodded to Shannon. “I managed to get word out before I passed out and she found me. Saved my life.”
“And what?” Hale asked. “You just decided to leave the boys to their fate? ”
“Jesus, Hale, no, I’m not a monster,” Shannon said. “By the time I got Eric situated and stable, the feral Netherguard had wandered into Fite’s Valley and were feeding on the fish and rodents. Trying to get this gimp through that would’ve been suicide. It was shitty, I know. I felt bad about leaving them to themselves, but I couldn’t leave him to die.”
“Fortunately, they survived without you, barely,” Hale said.
“Can I see them?”
“Eventually. Right now they’re still coming to terms with everything.” Hale paused, conflicted between asking his next question and not wanting to know the answer. “What happened to my brother? Why is he working for the Triumvirate?”
“They took his family. His wife was pregnant. They locked her and their daughter into one of their stasis chambers, using them as leverage against him. He didn’t have much of a choice. I doubt he still does. Jared is their golden ticket. He’s the only thing keeping them in business right now, until they figure out another way to control their armies.”
“Jared was married…I have a niece.” Hale’s face went stoic. “Either of you know how to work the doughboy tu bes? You, Shannon, I know you have experience with procedural technology. You worked with some of my Strike Marines on the Crucible during the war.”
Shannon shot him a questioning look, “I did?”
Hale squeezed the bridge of his nose, feeling a migraine coming on. “A Shannon helped my Marines. Ibarra is still causing me headaches.”
“We know how to work the doughboy producers,” Knight said. “The boss made sure we could handle any delicate task he might need done.”
“What do you need…boss?” Shannon asked.
Valiant’ s plot cast flickering shadows across the bridge as the ship slipped through the debris field. Shattered hunks of hull plating drifted with sections of silvery-colored metal. The field of broken starships had expanded since the battle, forming a loose nebula to mark where so much death and destruction had marred the skies over Negev. Carson thought she saw a humanoid body drift between the blown out wreckage of a small destroyer.
With the rest of her interior lights off, the hologram lit the pilots’ faces with a soft orange hue. They’d gone to silent running as they’d neared the planet, just in case any active ships remained.
Carson leaned against Greer’s seat, looking though Valiant ’s front viewport, in awe at the destruction around her. A cloud of dead ships hung in the void over the red planet, an alien graveyard. According to Valiant ’s sensors, the debris field was some 200 kilometers across, the entire area filled with wrecked ships, jagged hull fragments, and alien corpses.
“Look at that one,” Greer said, pointing to one of the large ships.
The computer tagged it as an SI ship, but even without the tags, Carson would’ve been able to tell the difference. The ships belonging to the Sacred Intelligence had a streamlined look, their hulls sleek and arrow-shaped. The Ultari ships were more utilitarian, with clusters of sensors, weapons turrets, and some bulbous outcroppings that Carson couldn't identify.
The frigate-sized SI ship had a shuttle-size rent in her armor and trailed an ever-expanding cloud of debris as it slowly rotated in the void. Greer slowed the Valiant , turning it so they could get a better look at the destroyed ship.
“Those torpedoes really pack a punch, don’t they?” Greer said.
Carson counted twenty small craters where energy beams had cut through the sleek, chrome hull of the ship. “Looks like all their weapons do.”
“Guess we can count our blessings they decided to beat feet and not continue on to the colony.”
“Count your blessings all you want,” Carson said. “I have a feeling that we’re not done with either of these groups yet. It doesn’t look like the engineering section was hit badly, mark it for future investigation, we can always come back and check it out. I’m going to get suited up. Let me know if anything crazy pops up.”
“Define crazy,” Greer said.
Greer chuckled. “Well, I am a pilot, so...”
“Just keep your eyes open.”
Half an hour later, Carson was in her void suit, helmet cradled under one arm, her other arm propped on the back of Greer’s seat. West stood to her right, behind the co-pilot seat, where Oscar Lincoln was busy marking points of interest on his console for further study. The egg-heads back on Terra Nova would have months’ worth of data to pore through when they got back. Not to mention the technicians and scientists in Valiant ’s bay already going over the information in their makeshift lab.
Danielle Scartucci stood off to the side, quietly observing. From her expression, Carson gathered being back here, even if it was just in orbit of her former prison, wasn’t sitting too well with the scientist. She wore a naval hazardous duty vac suit, lightly armored to survive a ship to ship fight and work in the void, and looked uncomfortable in it. The engineer had worked extensively on Ultari technology while enslaved on Negev, building the Triumvirate’s ship. She was the closest thing Terra Nova had to an expert on the aliens’ tech.
They’d cataloged three SI ships and two Ultari that appeared to be relatively whole and another twenty-seven that were nothing more than charred and twisted metal. Deep sensor scans showed that one of the SI ships’ engines was still intact and functioning, emitting faint power levels, however they could detect no signs of life.
“That looks promising,” Lincoln said, nodding to the holo image of an SI ship rotating above the console. “The hull’s damaged in several places but should support a research team or two.”
“I’ll get my team ready,” Danielle said.
“Now hold on,” Carson said, holding up a hand. “No one goes anywhere until we’re sure the area’s clear of hostiles. Then the priority is search and rescue of any survivors. Period.”
The scientist stopped mid-turn. “Chief, everything out here is dead. Days without power. Even our life pods won’t last that long. I don’t think we have anything to worry about.”
“We shall see, Doctor,” Carson said. “We don’t know anything about either of these two races or the technology and until we’ve completed a full sweep of the area and determined that it’s safe, all civilian personnel will remain onboard the ship.”
Danielle looked like she was about to argue, then appeared to think better of it. She nodded and returned to her position next to West.
Silence fell over Valiant ’s cockpit as they floated through the debris field. Messages flashed and sensor images continued to flash on screens as Valiant ’s computers chewed through the data, tagging and identifying ships.
A red light flickered on Lincoln’s console and he sat up. “ Now that’s interesting.”
Greer leaned over. “What you got?”
“Looks like some kind of beacon,” the co-pilot said, fingers tapping. “Repeating sequence, starts over every thirty-five seconds. Computer’s still working on the translation, but I’d put money on an SOS.”
“Which ship?” Carson asked.
Lincoln tapped a button, and a sleek, arrow-shaped ship appeared, its hull drawn in orange wireframe. The large SI ship hung in the void at the outer edge of the battlefield, perilously close to Negev and its gravity well. By human standards, the ship could’ve been classified as a cruiser, and Carson wondered exactly how big the alien ships went. It didn’t matter of course; the colony fleet wouldn’t be able to stand up to even the smaller frigate-sized ships if it came to that.
A holo-image of the cruiser flickered to life above the center console in front of Carson and slowly rotated in place, giving them a better picture of the dead ship. Three large craters had torn open in the hull on the near side of the ship, exposing the cruiser’s interior to vacuum. At one end of the craters, a cylindrical ship, like a cigar, stuck out of the ship’s hull. Aside from the car-sized holes in the hull, the cruiser looked relatively intact.
“Boarding craft,” Greer said.
“Looks like four landed,” Carson said. “Only three left.”
“Doesn’t make any sense,” Greer said. “All the rest of the Ultari fleet seemed to be hell bent on destroying the SI ships, not boarding them.”
“Smash and grab?” West asked. “Strike Marines train for that. Get a team aboard a larger vessel and disable a key system, obtain intelligence, then get the hell out of there.”
Carson nodded. “Their torpedoes were doing a fine enough job of destroying the SI ships. The Ultari sent boarders, so there must have been a damn good reason for it.”
“It’s the biggest SI vessel we’ve located so far,” West said. “Might be a good place to start looking for something to salvage.”
“I’m picking up minimal power signals,” Lincoln said. “The engines are off-line, but some systems seem to still be operational. There doesn’t appear to be any signs of life, but the ol’ girl’s sensors can’t detect everything.” He gave his armrest a pat.
“At the very least, we might be able to get an idea of what the Ultari were after,” West said.
Danielle leaned forward, hands on the back of Lincoln’s chair. “If you can get me a tap-connection into the ship’s systems, I might be able to download some of the core data.”
“Its orbit is decaying,” Lincoln said, tapping on his console. “Estimate… four hours until it hits Negev’s atmosphere.”
Carson pursed her lips, considering.
“We won’t get another shot at it,” West said .
Carson put a hand on Greer’s shoulder. “Stay frosty; we call for an emergency evac that means we needed to be off that wreck five minutes before we even hit the ‘oh crap’ button. Understand?”
Greer nodded. “Got you, Chief.”
“Get us as close as you can,” Carson said. “Those breach points should make for a good entry. Should be no problem for our suits’ grapples.”
Greer looked back over her shoulder. “You sure you don’t want to Superman in again?”
Carson grinned. “Maybe next time.” Carson turned to Danielle. “You’re coming with us.”
“Sure.” Danielle frowned. “Soon as you’re sure it’s safe, I’ll bring my—”
“No time to pussyfoot around.” Carson slapped her on the shoulder. “You’re on the breach team. Don’t worry; you don’t have to be the first one inside.”
“Thank God for small favors,” Danielle muttered.
Five minutes later, Carson stood next to Valiant ’s cargo ramp, her team of Pathfinders standing a few feet away, void-suits sealed, and weapons ready. She couldn’t see their faces through the mirrored visors on their helmets, but they’d had their names stenciled to their uniforms, and after enough drills and rehearsals, she could tell her team by size and gait alone.
An alert chimed in Carson’s helmet and Greer’s voice came through the comm. “Five meters, Chief.”
“Roger that.” Carson tapped the ramp release. A flashing orange strobe changed to red and an alarm rang out as the ramp unlocked and began to lower. A force field, preventing Valiant ’s atmosphere from venting violently into the void, glowed blue around the edges of the hatch.
Exterior lights mounted on Valiant ’s hull illuminated the alien ship. The sleek gray hull floated several meters away from the end of the ramp. A large jagged hole in the otherwise smooth skin appeared as the Valiant slid down the length of the ship. Shadows danced inside the deep crater as light reflected off broken and twisted pieces of metallic alloy.
“Reminds me of the Midway ,” West said over the IR.
“The Midway ?” Nunez asked. “I heard stories about that mission; made my skin crawl. Xaros killed the whole crew, right?”
“Ship came through the Crucible, looked fine at first, then the hull broke apart into Xaros drones and wrecked the Ceres ship yards,” West said. “We would’ve lost more, but the Dotari had a fighter wing on standby that saved the jump gate and the rest of what we had on Ceres. I was on the S&R team that did the sweep of the Midway after the fight. Ghost ship. We found empty void suits, blood on the bulkheads. Not a single body. Fit with what we knew about how the Xaros fought with their disintegration technology, but knowing that didn’t take the edge off. I saw President Garrett—Admiral Garrett back then—leave the ship with his Ranger bodyguard, clutching Admiral Makarov’s empty vac suit. Never thought I’d see a flag grade officer look so…afraid.”
“Eighth Fleet was lost with all hands,” Birch said. “Lot of good men and women died to buy Earth enough time to prep for the next invasion wave.”
“Anyone have a happy story about ghost ships?” Nunez asked. “For Danielle’s sake. She looks terrified.”
“I’m fine,” the engineer said, her voice cracking.
“Okay, people,” Carson said. “We’re on the clock for this one. Search for survivors is priority one; gathering intel comes next. We’re going for the source of the energy emissions first. Anything else is a bonus. Keep your heads up and stay sharp. Pathfinders light the darkness!”
Her team snapped to attention, shouting, “We are the torch!”
Carson turned and lifted her hand. She fired the grappler, a heavy-duty magnetic piton attached to a gauntlet by a high-strength wire. It struck the alien ship’s hull and held firm, the HUD inside Carson’s helmet advising her she had a good lock.
She moved down Valiant ’s ramp, then pushed off into the void, retracting the grappler’s cable as she floated toward the gaping maw. The grav-linings in her boots adjusted her course slightly, centering her on the hole. At two meters, she fired her second grappler. It shot out from her other gauntlet, through the jagged hole, into the ship’s interior. It locked into place on the bulkhead and pulled Carson the rest of the way in, her first grappler automatically disengaging, retracting into its recess.
Carson touched down on the deck and engaged her boots. The grav-linings simulated a one-gee environment for the boots wearers, keeping her firmly attached to the deck. She unlocked her carbine from its mag-lock on her back and activated her suit’s lights. Two beams of light from emitters mounted on either side of her helmet cut through the ship’s dark corridor.
“I’m in,” Carson said.
“I’ve got a good signal on your beacon,” Greer said. “I’m getting some faint power readings from the bow; could be a containment field, might mean there is still atmo.”
“Roger that,” Carson said, sweeping her light in both directions, fore and aft. Behind her, toward the ship’s aft section, Valiant ’s lights illuminated the corridor through the two gaping holes gouged out of the ship’s hull. Shadows danced on the deck and bulkhead, revealing clusters of scorch marks along the ship’s interior.
Past the jagged opening in the hull, Carson’s light reflected off the chrome surface of the remaining boarding craft, still wedged through the hull. A hatch on the side of the craft hung open, revealing a dark interior.
Carson moved toward the craft, weapon up and ready. Her team landed one by one on the deck behind her, each acknowledging a safe landing as they touched down. She stopped a few feet away from the open hatch, lifting her weapon slightly, using the barrel light to illuminate the interior.
A single body slowly rotated just inside the hatch, surrounded by balls of maroon liquid. Blood , Carson realized. A foot connected with one of the floating orbs of blood. It splattered into several smaller orbs, splashing against the bulkhead and spinning through the void.
“Got a body,” Carson said, advancing.
The corpse was dressed in all black; what looked like a void-suit was skin-tight and had several spikes sticking out from its forearms and calves and shoulders. Symbols, painted in red, covered its armored chest. Streaks, where the paint had run before drying, ran down the length of the torso, stopping where the waist armor folded over the abdominal area.
Carson aimed her carbine’s light up as the corpse rotated, its head coming into view. The void helmet’s glass front was smashed, revealing the alien’s gray, lifeless face inside. The long, angled jaw and sunken eye sockets reminded Carson of the Netherguard.
Nunez stepped up beside her and nudged the corpse’s foot with the barrel of his carbine, making it spin slightly faster. “Creepy.”
“I’d like to take that back with us for autopsy,” Moretti said .
Carson nodded. “We’ll grab it on the way out. Greer?”
“Keep this connection open. Are you receiving the data from our suits?”
“Roger. Reading everyone’s signal five by five.”
“Good. We’re going to head toward that power source, see if you can guide us there.”
The team set off through the ship, Nunez at the point, West and Danielle bringing up the rear. As they made their way through the twisting corridors, signs of battle became more and more visible. Blast marks from energy weapons scarred the bulkheads, ceiling and deck. One section of bulkhead had been completely destroyed by an explosion, turning half of the corridor into a jumble of twisted metal.
They came to a sealed hatchway covered in blast marks. The doors had raised symbols running up and down the door seam, though Carson had no idea what they meant. Two alien bodies floated above the deck, one dressed in the same black demon-looking armor as the one in the boarding craft. The other was a distinctly robotic frame; thin metal arms and legs connected to a cylindrical chassis. Its head was little more than a metal sphere with two dark lenses that obviously served as the thing’s eyes.
“That look like a droid to anyone else?” Carson said.
“Makes sense,” West said. “They called the other aliens the Sacred Intelligence. Might suggest that it’s a race of robots. ”
“That’s…unusual,” Carson said. There had been a single recorded first contact with an artificial intelligence species in the Milky Way, a race called the Jinn that had vanished after that encounter. Pathfinders were trained in all manner of first contact, but with biological aliens, not artificial.
“Looks like the fighting was intense here,” Birch said, motioning to the bodies.
Greer’s voice came over the IR. “You’re right next to the containment field, Chief. My guess is a command center of some sort on the other side of that hatch.”
“Copy,” Carson said. “Nunez, plasma torch.”
“Roger that, Chief.”
Nunez racked his carbine on its magnetic clamps on his back and pulled the small cutting tool from a pouch on his tactical harness. West and Birch pulled the floating corpses out of the way and Nunez went to work. Sparks sprayed from where the torch cut into the metal, floating out in all directions before blinking out of existence.
“Doesn’t look too advanced,” West said, inspecting the robot’s chassis. “Matter of fact, I’d say our robotic technology is above this.”
“You’d think a race of AI droids would be top of the line,” Birch said.
“Almost through,” Nunez said.
“Greer, are you picking up any signs of life on the other side?” Carson asked .
Nunez finished cutting and put the torch away. After attaching a suction handle to the metal, he paused, looking to Carson for the go ahead.
“Standard entry maneuvers,” Carson said. “Popov left, Birch right. West, you and I have the middle. Ready? Go!”
Nunez pulled the cut section free from the rest of the door, stepping aside and letting it float down the hall. A blue shimmering light filled the open space. Popov stepped up, putting a hand against the wall of energy. It passed through, the edges of the field flaring blue-white, and without hesitation, she stepped through.
Birch followed, turning right as Popov turned left. West and Carson followed them through as Nunez secured their rear. Lights from the team’s suits cut tight beams through the space, flashing off metal rails, computer stations, and bulkheads. As they cleared the individual sectors of fire, several beams of light met in the center of the room, illuminating a circular arrangement of chairs, occupied by alien corpses. All had blast wounds to their torsos, their faces frozen mid-death scream.
“We’ve got atmosphere in here.” West tapped his foot against the deck and Carson heard the sound through her helmet. “Still no gravity.”
“Atmo’s thin,” Moretti said. “Twenty-four kPa, which is thinner than the top of Mount Everest.”
“Think that’s normal for these aliens?” Popov asked .
“No,” the medic said. “You’d see much larger ears and nasal passages. Plus any creature at that little atmosphere would encounter a lot more radiation and then—”
“You were good at ‘no’,” Popov said.
“Air’s a standard mix of oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide,” the medic said. “But what’s optimal for them is hard to gauge. I think they lost a good deal of their air pressure before the emergency force fields kicked on.”
None of the alien crew were wearing void suits, their grayish flesh rimmed with ice crystals. Despite the wires and plugs connecting them to their chairs and some plating at the back of their necks, these aliens also bore a close resemblance to the Netherguard. Several of the aliens floated above their chairs, held in place by cables.
Ultari , Carson thought. But that didn’t make any sense. Weren’t they on an SI ship?
Several humanoid-shaped droids floated around the space, charred, silver chassis punctured by some kind of beam weapon. Sparks shot out from one, causing its body to flinch.
“Cyborgs?” West asked, stepping up to the first chair.
“So much for being totally artificial,” Moretti said.
“Look at this one,” Popov said, aiming her light at one of the cyborgs. Its head was missing, cut clean from its neck. Exposed thin wires, veins, and tendons floated freely, like tiny streamers.
“Wonder who he pissed off,” Nunez said .
“Popov,” Carson said, “you and Danielle work on patching into the core.”
West paused beside Carson, his carbine’s light angled up at the ceiling. “Heads up.”
Another alien corpse, this one dressed in the same armor as the one in the boarding craft, hung against the ceiling, a severed head grasped in its hand.
Another light joined West’s and Moretti said, “He’s been hit. See there on his side, looks like he tried to patch himself up.”
Before Carson could stop him, Nunez raised a gauntlet and fired his grappler. The cable wrapped itself around the alien’s leg and Nunez pulled.
The alien jerked to life, arms and legs flailing, almost pulling Nunez off his feet. An ear-splitting scream filled the room. The Ultari scrambled for purchase on the ceiling, trying desperately to get away.
“Grab him!” Carson shouted, stepping forward to help Nunez pull.
Despite the alien’s constant flailing, they had it on the ground in a matter of seconds. Birch quickly went to work, securing its hands and feet with binder cables. The screaming continued as the alien rolled its body around, trying to break free of the Pathfinder’s restraints. In the commotion, it had lost its grip on the cybernetic head, which bounced off the bulkhead, then spun through the room.
The Ultari twisted and screamed. The force of the movement ripped the patch free and a bloody fog spewed from the opening.
“Its suit is breached,” Moretti said, rushing forward and pulling his tactical medical kit free from his belt.
Carson reached up absently and caught the spinning head, then stepped aside as the medic rummaged through his kit. “Can you patch it?”
“I can patch it,” Moretti said without looking up. He produced a roll of wide, black tape, pulled a length free, and pressed it against the opening. “Whether or not it holds or helps, that’s another story. Regardless, we need to get him back to the Valiant . I’ll need to treat him for exposure.”
“Whoa,” Nunez said. “You’re not thinking about taking that thing back with us, are you?”
“I’m not leaving him here to die,” Moretti said.
Birch used his mass to press the alien’s shoulders to the deck. The Ultari’s struggle weakened and Carson heard it speaking inside its helmet. It seemed weak, helpless.
Thoughts of the Belisarius flashed in Carson’s mind. A whirlwind of images spinning through her mind; corpses that screamed at her to leave this alien to die. Ghosts that told her not to put her ship or the lives of her people at risk. Ghosts that would never stop haunting her….
She straightened after a minute, feeling the eyes of her team members on her. This isn’t the Belisarius, she told herself. That ’s not going to happen here.
“We came out here for useful intelligence. I’d say a survivor is the best intel we could ask for, wouldn’t you say?”
Across the bridge, Popov was kneeling behind one of the chairs in the main ring. “I think I’ve found a good access point. Greer let me know if you get the feed.”
A moment later, Valiant ’s pilot said, “Got it, receiving uplink now…and we’ve got data transfer.”
“Just make sure you partition it off,” Popov said. “Best not to let alien programs play in our computer core. Of course, the chance of anything even being compatible is astronomical.”
“Techs are on it,” Greer said. “They’re high-fiving each other over an Ultari computer they built back on Negev. Nerds.”
West pressed his palm to the deck, then cocked an ear to the ceiling. “I think—”
The deck lurched under their feet. Carson dropped to a knee, grabbing the chair in front of her for support as its occupant was tossed free. The cyborg snapped back as its cables pulled tight, bring it back into the chair.
West struggled to keep hold of his captive as Nunez was thrown from the deck. Nunez twisted in midair, bringing his feet up and landing on the far wall.
Sparks shot out from ceiling panels as they buckled. Metal groaned as the ship moved around them.
“Greer, what’s going on out there?” Carson asked .
“I’m not sure,” Valiant ’s pilot answered. “It’s slipping deeper into the gravity-well; the increased pressure might be stressing the hull. I’d say you might want to think about leaving.”
“You don’t say.” Carson looked back across the alien bridge, feeling like she was forgetting something.
“Four hours,” Nunez snapped. “Never trust a pilot’s judgment.”
Another panel exploded above her, sending a spray of sparks shooting into the room. Beams of light from the team’s flashlights cut back and forth across the dark bridge.
“Pathfinders,” Carson called. “We are leaving! Popov, help West. Greer, we’re coming to you.”
“I’ve got the welcome mat rolled out for you, Chief.”
“Heads up, Chief!” Nunez said.
Already halfway to the exit, Carson turned, then immediately ducked as Nunez flew by overhead. “Sorry!” He flipped over, kicked off the deck, and shot through the hole he’d cut in the bridge hatch only minutes earlier.
Carson followed him through, then stopped, turning back to check on her team. West was through a second later, bound alien survivor clutched tightly over his shoulder. Popov, Birch, and Moretti slipped through in turn just as the ship lurched again. Watching the bulkheads around her shake but the floating debris remained in place turned her stomach slightly.
An alien body, just outside the door, bumped off the bulkhead, colliding with another, pushing both of the corpses off in different directions. Carson pushed one aside, put a boot against the bulkhead, and flashed her boot’s grav-linings. She shot away from the bulkhead, flying after her team.
At the end of the corridor, Nunez touched down and quickly kicked off again, pushing himself down another corridor. West seemed to catch on and kicked off the deck as well, using the grav-linings in his boots to propel him forward.
“Nunez, you’re a genius,” Popov said, following suit.
As they neared their exit, the ship shuddered again. The bulkheads around them warped and began breaking apart. Dust and bits of metal rained into the corridor.
“Don’t stop!” Carson ordered, pushing herself faster.
The gravitational stresses had pulled the opening in the hull to twice its original size. Jagged chunks of metal and loose cables floated everywhere, spinning endlessly, colliding with each other. Valiant’ s exterior lights lit the corridor like it was the middle of the day. Nunez and Popov shot through the growing tear in the ship’s hull, not bothering to grapple out.
Carson stopped at the hole, counting as her team left the dead ship. Birch and Danielle made up the rear. The drone wrangler had the engineer by the waist as he jumped through the gap in the hull and made for the Valiant.
The last out, Carson kicked out of the opening, flying through the void and falling into Valiant’ s cargo bay a second later. She passed through the force field, and the ship’s internal gravity immediately pulled her to the deck. She rolled with the impact, sliding several meters before coming to a stop.
“We’re in,” Carson said, propping herself up on her elbow, looking back at the alien ship as it continued to break apart.
Valiant’ s engines flared, pushing them away from the dying vessel.
“Status check,” Carson said, turning away from the destruction, standing. “Everyone all right?”
“Hundred percent, Chief,” West said.
Popov stood. “I’m good, but if we could stay out of collapsing alien ships from now on, that’d be great.”
Nunez slapped her on the shoulder. “Oh, come on now, Cherry. Where’s your sense of adventure?”
“My sense of adventure is just fine, but my sense of not wanting to die in a slow atmo burn is more important.”
Several of the scientists rushed forward, obviously eager to see what the team had brought back. They clustered around West and Moretti as they knelt over the Ultari, holding it fast against the deck.
“We need to get him secured for the flight back,” West said.
“He’s unconscious,” the medic said. “The edema on his face is—to hell with it.” He drew a gauss pistol from a thigh holster.
Before Carson could protest, Moretti flipped the pistol in his hand and hammered the grip into the Ultari’s face plate. It broke after the second strike and Moretti pried it open. The alien took in a deep breath, eyelids fluttering. It gasped for air, murmuring.
“I need to get him to sick bay,” Moretti said. “Try and stabilize him.”
“Think you can do it?” Carson asked.
“Discovery learning.” The medic shrugged. “Standing around and poking him with a stick won’t help.”
“West, help Moretti and keep our guest under guard,” Carson said.
West flashed her a thumbs-up and grabbed the alien by the ankles. He and Moretti carried the alien away, Birch following with his carbine in hand.
“Ma’am?” Danielle said from behind her.
Carson turned around and looked into the dead face of an SI head. Crystals woven into a band of hair running across the back of its otherwise bare skull chimed against each other.
“Holy shi—!” Carson flinched back.
“What?” the engineer asked. “These are data crystals.” She ran a finger through the dead alien’s weave, touching wire filaments that ran into the alien’s skin. “That Ultari pirate certainly thought it was worth leaving with this.”
Carson looked at the trophy with disgust.
Greer came out onto the landing connected to the bridge.
“Carson, you all ready to—what the hell is that? Sweet Jesus, Carson, we send you guys out for like five minutes and you come back looking like a bunch of head-hunting savages. What are you going to do next, roast the prisoner for dinner?”
“The situation was fluid,” Carson snapped at the pilot.
One of the other scientists extended two gloved hands to Danielle. His German accent was thick and he smiled as he stepped forward. “Let’s get it in quarantine, shall we?”
“I thought Pathfinders knew better than to rub their faces into any alien thing they came across,” Greer said.
Carson raised an index finger to the pilot. “We’re doing just fine. Thank you very much. You still have that ship marked with the intact propulsion systems.”
The pilot nodded.
Carson turned the finger to Danielle.
“Prep your engineers,” she said. “Now we’re on a salvage mission.”
“Finally.” Danielle looked down at her fingers and tried to shake away Ultari fluids staining her gloves, “I’ve been looking for an opportunity to rip open some authentic Ultari tech for years. Hopefully, the engines won’t be as…icky.”
“Work fast and work safe,” Carson said.
“Where’s my blow torch?” Danielle wandered away, still shaking out her hands.
Governor Hale finished his walk around one of the salvaged Ultari drives, then stopped and crossed his arms, looking at the engines that were a little bigger than a small bus, shaking his head. They were elongated tear drops of metal with cut pipes jutting out from the surface seemingly at random.
“Faster than light travel,” he said almost absently.
Elias, Hale’s teenage son, rubbed his hands together, his smile reaching from ear to ear. “Can you believe it, Dad?”
“I really can’t,” Hale said. “But we’ve seen them work with our own eyes.”
The twin drive systems the Valiant and her crew had liberated from the alien ship sat on the deck of Enduring Spirit ’s largest shuttle bay. They’d cleared out all non-essential personnel and moved all the remaining craft to other bays, giving the technicians complete control of the area. The Valiant rested twenty yards away, a group of techs crawling over her hull, already trying to figure out where they were going to cut, while Greer followed them around like a child concerned about their toy in the hands of their sibling.
“Well,” Hale said, turning to the assembled engineers. “Do you think you can do it?”
Danielle rubbed her chin, considering the alien spacecraft. After a moment, she blew out a long breath and said, “It’s definitely the same Ultari technology the Triumvirate had us build for their ship. Essentially the same, in fact.”
“Weren’t the Triumvirate imprisoned for hundreds of years on Negev?” Hale asked. “The tech you found today is identical? No design improvements?”
“I found it odd too,” Danielle said. “Five hundred years ago, humans were using wind to sail their ships and bleeding each other with leeches to cure disease. My team and I think that either the Ultari and the SI lost the tech to build new engines, which doesn’t hold with the carbon dating and metal fatigue we see on these artifacts, or they decided the tech was solved and refused to improve any further.”
Another engineer stepped up to a portside nacelle and ran a hand down its smooth casing. “We lucked out with one thing.” He pressed a hand against the surface and a panel opened up with a low hiss. Inside was a ring of pale yellow crystals resting in nests made from golden filaments.
“What is that?” Hale asked.
“We called it astranite,” Danielle said. “The Triumvirate had us digging through mines on Terra Nova and Negev for months to find any. Lost a lot of lives in the process…and in the end, we recovered enough that was barely a tenth of that. The crystals are what make FTL possible, a play on an Alcubierre drive but needing only a fraction of the power our drives use. That we found some on both Negev and Terra Nova led some of our planetologists to believe the crystals are remnants from a very old supernova, like any heavy metal. When the Ultari figured out they could be used for FTL…” She shrugged.
“And this crystal doesn’t exist back in the Milky Way,” Hale said. “Earth gets FTL tech and it would be a game changer.”
“Same as the Ultari getting the Crucible tech from us,” Elias said. “A Crucible can open up a wormhole to a spot hundreds or thousands of light years away, depending on gravity tides. The SI and Ultari can go from star to star at FTL speeds, but it takes time.”
Hale shook his head. “Have FTL engines and the Crucible gates…”
“You’d be unstoppable,” Elias said.
“Which we are not,” Hale said. “At all. We’re not on Earth with all the manpower and manufacturing resources we’d ever need. We are hanging on by our fingernails out here. How long until you can have an astranite engine outfitted on the Valiant ?” he asked Danielle.
“This is tech we know.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “Assuming there isn’t any damage we haven’t seen yet…give me three days. Then there are field tests.”
“I think you could do it in two.” Elias held up his data pad. “I worked out the structural mechanics while you were on the way back from Negev and—”
“Three days,” Hale said.
“No, Dad, I said two if—”
Hale looked at Danielle.
She rolled her eyes and held out a hand to Elias. “Let me see what you’ve got there.” She glanced over the screen, then her eyes narrowed. “Have you passed the Fundamentals of Engineering exam? You’ve labeled everything to guild standards.”
“I passed it when I was fourteen,” Elias said.
“Governor, can I keep him?” Danielle asked.
Hale put a hand on his son’s shoulder. “You cause a problem and you’ll be digging trenches.”
“Scout’s honor.” Elias nodded quickly.
“I want updates every six hours,” Hale said to Danielle. “There any resource you need, you’ll have it. Getting the Valiant ready to leave this star system is Terra Nova’s top priority.”
A plume of super-cooled vapor hissed as the coupling disengaged and the hose fell away from the generation tube. The latch clicked open and automated hinges opened the curved transparent enclosure, thick with frost. Heavy vapor rolled out of the coffin as it turned vertical, spreading out over the metal-grated deck.
Jared Hale resisted the urge to shiver as the cold reached him. He stepped forward, his footsteps creating swirls through the fog, and tapped the generation tube’s control panel. Inside the tube, the dissipating fog revealed a still form, the tall, muscular biological construct that Jared had come to dread. Long jaw, sunken eyes, and bald head visited him every night in his nightmares.
Interior lights flashed and the Netherguard’s eyes snapped open. Its first breath was long and deep. Its blood-red eyes fell on Jared .
“I serve.” Its voice was deep, raspy.
“Who do you serve?” Jared asked.
“I serve,” the Netherguard said again. “The Triumvirate.”
Jared stepped back, giving the construct room to exit the tube. This new generation, designed with the latest modifications from Arch Duke Cigyd, was a significant step forward from previous generations of the Triumvirate’s foot soldiers.
Waldo’s arms folded down from the ceiling, fitting slate-gray armor around the Netherguard’s neck and shoulders, arms and legs. The skeletal helmet and faceplate came last, locking into place with a metallic click. The Netherguard moved its arms up and down, testing the armor’s flexibility.
Another arm lowered one of the new Ultari weapons into the Netherguard’s waiting hands. The long gunmetal-gray staff, topped with an energy blaster and two scimitar-like blades sprouting from the underside of the barrel. The Netherguard spun the weapons, testing the weight, then hit the butt against the ground once, coming to attention.
“You are NG-1B,” Jared said, using the creature’s batch designation.
When it spoke next, its already deep, menacing voice came out with a digitized tone. “Designation NG-1B. I serve.”
Jared walked around the Netherguard, inspecting its armor. “Where are you? ”
“Generation Hive 1, Pod 1. Deck 12, on board the Ultar ’s Wrath .”
“Do you know where the Barracks Deck is?”
“Good,” Jared said. “Report to Bay 01 and begin your training.”
“By your will, Battle Commander.”
Fortunately, the ritual wouldn’t need to be repeated. The rest of the proccies hybrids would be directed by the ship’s computer and fall in line with their senior Netherguard. Now that the prototype had passed inspection, the rest of the tubes would begin their assembly cycles, producing a new generation Netherguard every ten minutes.
Years ago, he’d led a platoon of doughboys in combat against the reptilian Toth when they attacked Earth. His doughboys had been far simpler than these Netherguard, capable of answering only the simplest of questions and good at only one thing; combat. The Arch Duke had altered the bio-construct’s programming to the point they could operate independently, vastly improving their coding. The core limitation on the Netherguard was the same as the doughboys’; they needed a leader, direction. These new Netherguard had a tendency to freeze up if they encountered an unfamiliar situation.
Jared knew the limitations Marc Ibarra designed the battle constructs with; was likely the only reason the Triumvirate still needed him .
He waited until the Netherguard had disappeared through the hatch, then turned back to the tube and started the reset procedure. He set the automation routines, then backed away as the unit folded back together.
Lights embedded into the ceiling came on in sequence, illuminating the expansive bay nearby, then spreading out away from him. Blue lighting around the base of each tube flashed, then held steady as each unit folded together, ready to begin assembly. In ten minutes, 100 next-generation Netherguard would open their eyes, don their armor, and take their first steps in the service of the Triumvirate.
Jared’s creations had been impressive before, even by Ultari standards, but these new soldiers, with the new source material, weapons, and armor—they would be a force to be reckoned with, and that terrified him. He’d gone over the data a hundred times; looking for a way to slip a flaw in, something that would give his brother an edge in the coming battle, but the Triumvirate would be looking for that, and all the Arch Duke needed was a reason. The only thing Jared could do was bide his time and wait for Ken Hale to do what Ken Hale always did, solve problems.
The ships comms crackled and buzzed overhead and the Arch Duke’s voice, digitized and deep, came through the unseen speakers. “Servant, report to the bridge immediately.”
The comm shut off before Hale could respond. Not that Cigyd would’ve listened to his response anyway. Out of the three, Jared hated Arch Duke Cigyd the most. The Ultari cyborg never stopped plotting, never took his mind off the destruction of his foes, never stopped thinking about revenge. Had the Arch Duke been human, Jared might’ve classified the creature as insane, but he wasn’t sure that term fit in this particular instance. The Arch Duke was simply…driven.
Five minutes later, Jared stepped onto the bridge of the Ultar ’s Wrath . The ovoid-shaped command center contained little; several computer stations lined the sides of the room, and a raised dais in the center held a single, oversized chair, two meters off the ground. The top of the high-backed chair was ornamented with gold and silver artifacts Jared guessed represented the Ultari’s history, or maybe tribal affiliation. Emperor Kyrios sat, facing away from Jared, fingers tapping on the chair’s armrest.
The Prince and the Arch Duke stood to Jared’s right, discussing something on one of the monitors that he couldn’t make out. They looked up as he entered, then returned to their discussion without so much as a nod. He wasn’t worth their time.
A wide view screen wrapped around the front of the compartment, displaying visuals from the system they’d just warped into. A blue-white orb hung in against a backdrop of stars and a wide swath of orange-red nebulas. Multicolored rings wrapped around the planet, similar to Saturn. The planet’s only moon hung in high orbit, its surface cracked and broken. It looked like a huge chunk had been blown away sometime in the past, and over time, fragments had continued to break apart and drift away.
Jared stepped to the center of the bridge and waited. After several silent minutes, Emperor Kyrios turned, his chair spinning to face him.
The Ultari robot didn’t look as menacing while sitting, but Jared didn’t let his guard down. The razor-edged metal body and long three-fingered hands could cut through him in an instant. The twin yellow photocells that served as Kyrios’ eyes bore into him as the Emperor drew near. His metal face never moved as he spoke. “The Netherguard replacements?”
“They are in production, my lord,” Jared said. “I inspected the first warrior myself. Your creations are perfect. They will crush your enemies, my lord.”
“Mmmmm,” Kyrios said, long metal fingers tapping against the armrest. “Why did your Netherguard fail us on Negev? A handful of these…Pathfinders…nearly cost us everything.”
Jared went to his knees and pressed his forehead to the deck in kowtow. “The fault is mine.”
“Your brother is far more dangerous than you. A war hero. Are all human brood pairs so mismatched in ability?” The Emperor leaned forward, examining Jared.
Jared lifted his forehead an inch off the deck. A tinge of jealousy gripped his heart.
“My brother followed a different path than I. He chose to be a warrior. I was to be a builder, but the war against the Xaros changed my role.”
“The dark tide,” the Prince rumbled.
“Your service will be tested,” Emperor Kyrios said. “If you are found lacking, you will not be the first to be punished.” He gestured to a bulkhead, where Jared’s pregnant wife and daughter were held in stasis beneath several feet of crystal.
The Arch Duke looked up. “You allow him too much, Kyrios. He is nothing more than a shepherd. You must rein in the wretch.”
“A shepherd indeed, Cigyd,” the Emperor said. “He will remember his place. Will you not, servant?”
“Of course, my lord.”
“Bah,” Cigyd said, waving a hand in obvious disgust. “The Netherguard don’t need a shepherd; they should be unleashed. Let them fight wild. I will harvest any useful subroutines from their remains. Nothing will stand against our armies, Kyrios. Not even the Rightly Guided.”
Kyrios hissed, “Do not speak their name, Cigyd.”
The Arch Duke took a step forward. “I must, Emperor. You know, better than most, their scourge must be recognized. To destroy a thing, we must identify a thing.”
The Prince turned, his yellow eyes reflecting off the smooth metal surface of his featureless face. “Cigyd is right. We cannot ignore the threat. Their very existence is a bane to ours.”
This wasn’t the first time the Triumvirate had discussed the Rightly Guided, the faction that deposed the three and imprisoned them on Negev, but it was the first time they’d openly argued about them in front of Jared. He wasn’t sure if that was good or bad.
“I will not debate this,” Kyrios said, his voice never wavering. “I am well aware of who our enemies are. I will not hear their name. Only after we wipe their scourge from this galaxy, they will fade into nothing and only our glory will remain.”
The two junior members of the Triumvirate looked as though they wanted to continue arguing, but a look from the Emperor put those ambitions aside. Cygid glared at Jared for a moment, then turned back to the monitor and his conversation with the Prince.
Kyrios stood and moved down the curving stairs from his dais to the deck. His unsteady gait slowed his progress; Jared would need to run another diagnostic on the Ultari’s motor-function subroutines. It wouldn’t do to have Kyrios fall and embarrass himself in front of the other two. The Emperor would suffer a lot of things, but losing face in front of the Arch Duke and Prince was not one of them.
Kyrios moved across the deck, the clanking of his staff’s metal heel echoing around the chamber. The golden haft was smooth, ending in the same gunmetal gray energy cannon the new Netherguard were armed with, with three razor sharp blades curving up from where the head and haft met .
He stepped up beside Jared, his lanky, metal body almost two heads taller than the human. “Do you know where we are?”
Jared considered the planet on the screen for a moment, then shook his head. “I do not.”
“This is where our empire fractured. This was the first of our vassal planets to side with the traitors…from here, more worlds fell into rebellion. Many Ultari surrendered to the false promises before we showed them the error of their ways.”
Kyrios waved a hand at the screen. “But this, this is where their fall began. What you see before you is the price they paid for their arrogance. A broken world, left to die and wither. Our mighty fleets cracked their moon, their god, and rained destruction onto their world.”
Cigyd scoffed. “God indeed.”
“An unholy pagan belief,” Kyrios said. “Blasphemous. That they worshipped the very thing that ultimately destroyed them seems fitting, does it now?”
Jared nodded. “It does, my lord.”
Kyrios waved a hand and the image on the screen zoomed in on the broken moon. A massive fortress came into view, built right into the broken surface of the moon. The superstructure stood hundreds of stories tall, reaching several kilometers above the surface and spreading out into a lattice work of docking rings and massive habitat blocks. Large sections of the fortress were bathed in darkness, while smaller, seemingly random sections appeared to be powered as lights blinked on and off.
“Our home,” Kyrios said. “Impressive, is it not?”
“It is remarkable,” Jared said. The station was probably twice the size of a Crucible gate on Earth and many times larger than the star forts orbiting Earth.
“Look at it,” the Prince said, stepping closer to the screen. “It’s a travesty, a shadow of its former glory. It’s disgraceful.”
“I do not disagree,” Kyrios said. “This fortress was once the staging point for our entire armada. Now look at it.”
“We are being hailed,” the Arch Duke said, looking up from his station.
“Ah,” Kyrios said. “Our flock prepares to receive its shepherd.”
“My Emperor,” the Prince said. “I do not think our present… condition is suitable for the menials to observe. That we are in the forms the Rightly Guided—traitors—made for us will...not match expectations.”
“Hmmm, perhaps you are right,” Kyrios said. He flicked a finger and several panels slid open in the ceiling. Waldo arms descended, carrying smaller versions of the Netherguard armor.
Jared took a step back as the arms neared him, confused.
“Be still, servant,” Kyrios said. “You shall be our emissary to the faithful. A herald for your Emperor.”
Jared held his arms out to the side as the arms fitted the armor to his frame, the red and yellow segmented plates sealing together on their own. It was surprisingly light, and as he moved his arms, testing the suit, he found that it didn’t inhibit his movement at all. A yellow helmet, its face painted like a red skull, slid over Jared’s head and the face plate folded down, sealing itself into place. Pain flared through his skin as the suit adjusted to his body.
He clenched his teeth against the pain as a cable attached itself to the port at the base of his neck, just between his shoulder blades, and the interior of the faceplate came to life, becoming completely transparent. Holographic overlays hung in the air in front of him, displaying suit vitals, room temperature, locations of the three Ultari leaders, and their distances from him. His eye movement combined with his thoughts controlled the interface.
The pain slowly subsided as his nerves became accustomed to their new inputs. He felt power he’d never felt before, even in the hybrid control suit he’d worn on Negev. Strike Marine armor was the closest comparison, but next to this, the old human armor paled. He waited for the halberd to appear, but one never did.
Typical, he thought.
“You will be our emissary,” Kyrios repeated. “It has been too long since our banishment, and I fear some…encouragement of the faithful may be necessary.”
“They are disgraceful,” Prince Zviera said, his voice full of contempt. “Look at what they’ve let themselves become. The fortress is falling apart, entire hab blocks are without power.”
“We shall remind them of our glory,” Kyrios said, stepping to the side.
The central dais lowered, disappearing into the deck, and Jared stepped forward to where it had once stood. The view of the broken moon and fortress vanished, replaced by a true born Ultari. The alien’s face was lit from above. Its black hair was disheveled, small gold rings pierced into its jawline. Its clothes were tattered; a brown jacket hung up over a purple shirt. A large golden medallion hung on a chain around the Ultari’s neck was the only thing that looked like it had been cared for.
“You’re not of the clans,” the Ultari said. “I’ll give you this warning. Leave or die.”
“We will not,” Jared said, trying to sound more confident than he actually was. Text appeared on his HUD, and he spoke the words. “By the order of his Holy Emperor Kyrios, you will beg forgiveness and receive his glory.”
The alien laughed. “Holy Emperor?” He looked off screen and said, “Another emperor,” he said. There was a pause as someone off screen spoke and the Ultari laughed. He waved a dismissive hand. “You’re amusing in that get-up. Tell whoever’s playing at emperor that…Mighty Litha. Sure. I’m mighty. Mighty Litha doesn’t want to waste a torp on your ship. Piss off.”
Jared took a step toward the screen. “We will not. The Holy Emp— ”
“What emperor is this? Jahard the 18th , no? Harken the 7th ? I’m going to work up a firing solution right now. Then I’m changing my name to Annoyed Litha, Not Player of Games.”
As the Ultari spoke, words appeared on Jared’s HUD. He read them silently, then repeated them aloud. “The first and only Emperor Kyrios, High Lord of the Ultari, God of Wrath, Ancestor’s Chosen, the Face of the Spirit, the Sword of the Triumvirate. Your supreme ruler. You will submit.”
The Ultari looked off screen again, almost as if he was looking for guidance. He shook his head, then turned back to the Jared. “Your ship doesn’t match anything the clans fly...What’s your game? The Triumvirate are an old legend.”
“Legends made manifest,” Jared said. “You will receive his glory or you will be destroyed.”
After a moment, Litha said, “Your hyper vector brought you in from restricted space…I’ll call your bluff. Docking Bay 37. I’ll see you there. Save a torpedo.”
He cut the channel without waiting for Jared to answer.
“The wretch,” Cigyd said. “I will crush his unworthy skull.”
“Prepare your Netherguard,” Kyrios said to Jared. “Today our righteous crusade begins.”
Carson looked down over the maze of moveable walls and rooms below, forearms resting on the gantry’s railing. The colony records listed the building as SPWH-07, and she’d commandeered it to use as the team’s training facility. The Pathfinders simply referred to it as The Room.
Half of the 10,000-square-foot warehouse had been converted into a shoot house; a collection of moveable walls that could be arrayed in countless configurations. West had managed to secure a number of bastions filled with dirt and set up a firing range in the other half. The range wasn’t quite regulation, but they could run weapon’s qualifications with it. For now, that would have to suffice.
The team’s rover was parked near the front entrance, where a handful of engineers were outfitting it with upgraded weapons and defense systems.
Her team was assembled in the common area, inspecting their newly issued weapons. The new CL1 gauss carbines, designs for which Birch had improved upon, then stolen some printer time to manufacture, were lighter and smaller than their old carbines. Pathfinder gear was rugged by necessity, and their old carbines were for self-defense against animals on wild worlds. The feral doughboys and Netherguard they fought on Negev needed a weapon with more punch to be dealt with. The bullpup design of the new CL1s had triple the ammo capacity, capacitors that could pump out high-power shots and were akin to a snub version of the standard Strike Marine rifle.
“Love the new modular system,” Nunez said, turning the weapon over, inspecting it. He popped the holographic-sight optic from the top rail and looked through it. “Very nice.”
Popov held up one of the new jacket-less rounds. The tungsten projectile was only about the size of the end of her pinky finger. “Are you sure these will hit harder than the old 10mm rounds?”
“Those things have more penetration power than the standard Strike Marine round at close range,” Birch explained, slapping a magazine into his weapon. “Designed for close quarter’s fights. Did I mention they’re recoilless?”
Birch moved over to their small indoor range, leveled the weapon, and fired.
Instinctively, Carson covered her ears, only to realize that there was little to no sound as the rifle fired. The only thing she heard was the ting-ting-ting as the bullets hit their targets. Birch barely flinched at all as he emptied the magazine.
Impressive, Carson thought.
Birch finished, cleared the rifle, then turned back to the team, grinning.
“That’s bad ass,” Nunez said, slapping in a magazine into his own rifle and moving to the range.
“I’m curious where’d you get the plans for something like this?” Moretti said. He sat on one of the ammunition crates, inspecting his new weapon.
“I know some people,” Birch told him.
“I’m sure you do.”
“Must be some pretty important people,” Popov said.
“Must be nice,” Nunez said before firing off a few rounds. “I had to practically promise to auction off my first born for thirty minutes of production time on one of the colony’s printers….to make something. Never mind.” He fired off several more shots, laughing. “Holy shit, I love this gun, Birch.”
“What’d you need printer time for?” Moretti asked, grabbing a magazine and joining Nunez on the firing line.
Nunez ejected his mag and straightened. “Oh, you know, stuff.”
Moretti leaned into his rifle and fired. Ting! After six or seven shots, he looked over a Birch, giving him a nod of approval.
Popov stepped up next, burning through half a magazine before laughing and moving the weapon to low-ready. She stepped back off the line, shaking her head. “That’s amazing.”
Birch set his weapon down on a long table, one of several lined up between the shoot-house and range. “There’s still too much of a thermal flare on full auto. Never designed anything like this before. Comparatively speaking, building drones is a hell of a lot easier.”
The Room’s front door slammed open and Carson craned her neck to see the new arrival. West strode in, holding a cardboard box in both hands.
The sergeant looked up from his weapon and muttered something Carson couldn’t hear.
“I’ve seen a lot of dumb things in my life, Pathfinder,” West said, stopping and slamming the box down on the table in front of Nunez. “But would you care to explain to me what in the shit these are?”
Carson squinted, craning her neck to see over the Master Sergeant’s shoulder.
“What, these?” Nunez picked up a black short-sleeve shirt and held it up, looking at the front. “Oh, that came out nice.”
“Excuse me, Sergeant?”
Nunez shook himself, dropping the shirt back to the table. “Uh, it’s nothing, sir. Just something I thought the team would like, honest. It’s almost Christmas, you know.”
“Christmas?” West shouted. “Do you have any idea how long you set that foundry station back?”
Nunez shrugged. “Ah, come on, Sarge, it was only a few minutes, honest.”
“Hours, Nunez,” West corrected. “Ten hours behind.”
The mild amusement on the Pathfinder’s face was replaced by shock. “Ten hours? No way, Sarge. I was in and out of there in thirty minutes, I swear.”
“Yes, but the cartridge you supplied burst when the workers went back to replace it after you left. Gummed up the works in thick, black goo. They had to shut the entire plant down so they could clean it.”
“I…I… that’s not my fault, Sarge. I didn’t do—”
“Don’t want to hear it,” West said. “Your secondary duty from here on out is to the foundries, where you’ll do every shit job the foreman can throw at you until you’ve paid back the time lost. You can manage on four hours of sleep a night until that happens.”
The Master Sergeant finally seemed to see what Nunez had been holding. “Ah, they’re done?” He took the CL1 from Nunez’s hands, hefted the weight, then looked over at Birch. “Nice work.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Everyone had a chance to put a couple rounds down range? Good. I think some time in the Room will do Nunez some good; looks like he can use some training.”
“I’ve got training ammunition in those bins, Sarge. Figured we’d need ‘em,” Birch said, pointing.
“Excellent, gear up. Let’s get through some fam fire with these in the House.” He handed the rifle back to Nunez, scowling.
The team scrambled to gear up, cursing Nunez the entire time. Five minutes later, the team was ready, tactical harnesses on, filled with the new magazines, standing at the striped “go line” at the front of the shoot house. They wore basic ballistic helmets, without the added benefit of a visor-based HUD. West had made it a point that for every minute the team trained in the advanced gear, they’d spend two training without it.
West stepped out of the shoot-house, moving to the side of the entrance. “Okay, here’s the situation. The enemy has taken over an orbital refinery and taken several hostages. Another Pathfinder team has already been sent in to resolve the situation and they’re past the last check in time. Heads up for friendlies. Go!”
Carson moved down the catwalk above the maze as the four members of her team filed through the entrance. They moved quickly, efficiently slicing corners, covering long halls, clearing rooms. They came to a locked door, and though they had no way of knowing, Carson could see the shooting dummy in the room’s far corner. The human head and torso sat atop a wheeled platform that they could reposition in any room.
The team stacked on the door, pausing to confirm procedure, then Birch stepped up and booted the door. He mimed throwing a dazzler, then spun to the far side of the door. Popov was in first, moving left, directly away from the dummy. Nunez followed, turning left. He called out his target and squeezed off three rounds. The practice bullets slammed into the dummy’s torso, red paint splattering across its beige rubber skin. A light on the dummy’s forehead flashed red.
“Target down,” Nunez announced.
“Clear,” Popov said, finishing her sweep.
West joined Carson on the catwalk as the team proceeded to the next obstacle. Popov and Nunez both tried to exit the room at the same time and got stuck in the doorway. After a second of shoving, Popov relented, stepping back so the other Pathfinder could proceed through.
West sniffed, leaning down on the railing. “They’ve got some rough areas.”
“I have no doubt you’ll polish those out in short order, Sergeant.”
Below, the team filed through a long hall, covering their individual sections of fire. They paused at a corner while Birch slowly sliced the pie, clearing the next corridor. Birch finished clearing the corner, then quickly proceeded forward, the rest of the team falling in seamlessly behind him.
“We haven’t talked about what happened on Negev,” Carson said, feeling silly almost as soon as she’d said it. She’d already spoken with Popov and Nunez, but had no real idea on how to approach the seasoned non-com .
“Nothing to talk about, Chief. What happened, happened. It’s over now.”
Carson shot him a sidelong look. She’d expected that response, but it didn’t make it any more annoying.
West caught her gaze and shrugged, grinning. “Honest, Chief, I’m fine. Going to take more than a little captivity to get under my skin. I’m fine.”
She held his gaze for a long moment before turning back to the shoot house. A barrage of pops echoed through the air as they cleared another room. Carson stepped around West, moving down the catwalk to keep a clear view of the team as they progressed through the house. “I’m worried about Popov. I hear she’s having nightmares?”
“Stress will do that sometimes,” West said, falling into step beside her. “I’ve seen it before. From what I can tell, she’s coping, but sometimes it can take time to work out.”
“I’ll be honest, my first instinct was to bench her until she got her head straightened out. I’ve seen what PTSD can do to even some of the most seasoned operators. I’m leery about what will happen when we have to go back out.”
“Putting her on the sidelines for several months isn’t going to help her. She needs to work through it and having the team there to support her will hurry the process. We’re just going to keep an eye on her.”
Carson nodded. “Good enough. How’s your family taking all of this? ”
Another round of firing echoed around them as the team cleared another room. Shouts of “clear!” and “move!” and “check your corners!” accompanied the gunfire.
“She’s taking it in stride,” West said. “I sold Terra Nova to her as a quiet world where we wouldn’t have to worry about a Haesh raid or the Vishrakath deciding to hit our city from orbit. White picket fences…all that. We drop in here and it’s almost as bad as resettling Phoenix. I thought I’d be an instructor for a new Pathfinder Academy, not team leader for the only combat-effective unit in the galaxy.” He grinned at the last part.
Carson chuckled. “Yeah, that is kind of a big jump, isn’t it?”
“She’ll be okay. Hopefully, we can wrap this nonsense with the Ultari and Jared up and move on to living normal lives.” He caught Carson’s doubtful expression and added, “Normal might’ve been a stretch. Either way, we’ll adapt and overcome, right? It’s not the first time Karen’s been angry at the Corps, I’m sure it won’t be the last.”
“You’re probably right about that,” Carson said, turning down another catwalk, moving over the final room. “So what was the deal with Nunez and the printers?”
West scoffed, shaking his head. He held up one of the black shirts. “It’s actually pretty good quality.”
Carson raised an eyebrow, taking the shirt and holding it up. On the front was a stylized Netherguard skull, with an optical crosshair centered on its forehead, with two gauss rifles crossed beneath it. “Netherguard” was stenciled over the top of the skull, and “Hunter” under the rifles.
“He made us unit shirts?” Carson asked with a raised eyebrow. “Nunez’s idle hands are the devil’s tools.”
“I’ll keep him busy until he regains some focus, Chief,” West said.
Below, the team approached the last room. Carson stopped directly above the room, watching as the team stacked up outside. It had been arranged like a bedroom, with a dresser and bed on the door side, and two chairs on the far side. A holo-display and small entertainment center occupied the right corner, slightly concealing a target dummy behind it. The second dummy was hidden behind the dresser on the far side of the bed, and a third dummy had been set up in front of it, the Pathfinder “hostage.”
Birch stepped to the front of the stack, adjusted his footing, then kicked the final door, again miming tossing in a dazzler. Nunez was right behind him. He shouted the Pathfinder motto and combat-rolled across the threshold. He came up on one knee, sweeping his rifle across the room. He took a second to get to his feet, moving out of the way for Popov to enter the room behind him.
“Son of a bitch,” West grumbled as the rest of the team followed Nunez through.
Popov spotted the target behind the holo-display and fired, several of her rounds exploding on the display before finally getting her weapon up and connecting with the dummy’s shoulders and neck. The red light flashed.
“Target down!” she shouted, turning back to the left.
Birch and Moretti had come through the doorway almost on top of each other, both turning left. Moretti stayed close to the nearside wall. Birch angled himself toward the far wall. Birch saw the target dummy first, called it out, then sent a burst of fire downrange. Red paint exploded across the dummy’s head and the red light flashed.
“Target down,” Birch said, keeping his weapon up while still advancing.
Once the room was clear, they turned their attention to a dummy simulating an injured Pathfinder. Moretti and Nunez carried it out, with Popov and Birch covering their exfil.
“Time!” West called as the team cleared the entrance.
Breathing heavily, Moretti and Nunez dropped the dummy, letting it thud unceremoniously to the floor.
“Clear and safe,” West said. He leaned forward, his forearms against the railing. “Now, granted, it’s been a while since I’ve been through the Pathfinder Qualification Course, so I might be wrong here, but are combat rolls a thing the cadre is teaching now-a-days?”
The team groaned as one, all turning to Nunez, who held his arms out apologetically. “It felt right.”
“I’m sure it did,” West said. “And your right feeling managed to give the assailant enough time to cap your hostage. ”
The team looked down at the dummy’s head and groaned in unison.
“Your little acrobatics display looks good on the movies, but it’s a sure way to get someone killed in real life. I’d say 100 laps should be enough to bring back your training, don’t you think, Pathfinders?”
Nunez’s shoulders slumped. He finished clearing his weapon, set it on the table, then took off at a jog, moving around the perimeter of the warehouse. The rest of the team joined him.
“These are nice shirts,” Carson said, inspecting one again.
West grinned. “Yeah, I wonder if they come in my size.”
Dock 37 was one of the few areas of the massive fortress that still seemed to have power. The platform, like everything else about the Ultari station, was large, almost intimidating. It stretched out from the super-structure almost 200 meters, its surface covered with shuttles and small fighters, all in various states of disrepair. A domed energy shield covered the platform, a blue shimmer fading in and out across the surface.
A blue-white ring of energy rippled away from their shuttle as Jared piloted the ship through the shield. He angled them down toward the edge of the platform, putting down between two obviously inoperable personnel shuttles. Shadows, cast by the station’s looming structural supports and cross-beams, played over the shuttle’s cockpit. He’d known the structure was big, but up-close, the thing was downright enormous. If the Triumvirate had built this at their prime, Jared shuddered to think what they’d be capable of doing when they finally got their feet under them.
Jared killed the engines as the shuttle rocked on its landing struts, settling onto the platform. He’d had a fleeting thought of simply flying them straight into the side of the station, turning them all into so much twisted metal and flesh, but killing himself wouldn’t save Sarah and Mary. He would have to endure. For the time being, at least.
Kyrios stopped him on his way through the passenger compartment. “Do not think yourself too high, servant. You will relay my words, nothing more.”
Jared bowed his head. “Of course, master. Your words to my lips.”
The Emperor nodded his faceless, robotic head and stepped out of the way.
The shuttle’s ramp whined as it folded down, making a dull thud as it hit the platform. Without a thought, Jared closed his face shield and started down the ramp. A squad of eight new generation Netherguard followed him out, all armed with identical disruptors, twin blades pointing to the black void above.
He was halfway across the platform when the first Ultari appeared, coming out from behind one of the broken-down shuttles, weapon in hand. The alien stopped near the nose of the craft and watched Jared make his way across the platform without saying a word. Three more Ultari appeared, all holding energy rifles. They all wore old, raggedy clothes, leather vests, or coats, faces adorned with gold jewelry.
A group of ten met him in the middle of the platform. The alien at the front of the group held up a hand, the barrel of a gun it held pointed straight at Jared. Two Netherguard stepped forward, lowering their halberds. Jared stopped them with a small gesture. They stepped back, striking the deck with the spiked ends of their weapons.
The alien’s black leather jacket had seen better days, and his boots looked like they would fall apart at any moment. He wore a single gold stud in one nostril, his black hair pulled back into a mess of a ponytail. Jared had never seen an Ultari in the flesh and blood before. The Netherguard were an echo of them, the aliens’ deep set eyes, high foreheads, slick hair, and a slight mound for nose with exposed nostrils could have them pass for human at a distance. That all were over six and a half feet tall and carried themselves like brawlers made Jared wonder if the entire race was warlike, or if the station had sent thugs to greet them.
“That’s far enough,” the lead Ultari said, eyes flicking to the Netherguard as they formed up in a line on either side of Jared. “Who are you and what’s your business here? Speak quickly before I decide to end you right here and now.”
With his faceplate down, Jared’s voice came out digitized. “Are you the commander of this station?”
The Ultari laughed, as did his companions. Several of the outlying guards chuckled, shaking their heads. He let the laugher continue for several seconds, before waving a hand through the air, silencing his compatriots.
“The Founders don’t waste time playing games,” he said, canting his head to the side. “I am Pousal; I am the security commander for this station.”
“No games, Pousal,” Jared said. “I come as emissary to the true Emperor. Your disrespect here will not be forgotten.”
The alien gave a mock shudder. “Respect? You speak of respect while hiding behind a mask?”
The faceplate hissed as it unsealed and lifted out of place. His skin tingled as the visor pulled away from his skin.
Several Ultari spat at the sight of his face. “Zeis filth. You dare to come here.”
“I am not a Zeis,” Jared said, stepping forward. “I am the Herald of the one true Emperor. You will receive his glory, or you will die.”
Pousal stepped forward. “I see no Emperor here. I see only a Zeis with death wish. Leave now and I will not kill you.”
“We aren’t going anywhere,” Jared said.
The four Ultari behind Pousal stepped up next to him, readying their weapons. The Ultari looked from his compatriots back to Jared. “You see? My friends don’t like you either. Your time is running short, Zeis. Leave now, before they lose patience.”
“Unworthy!” Emperor Kyrios’s deep, mechanical voice echoed across the platform .
Jared turned as Kyrios and his two captains descended the shuttle’s ramp, their tall, razor-edged bodies glinting in the defused sunlight. The Ultari shuffled uncomfortably as the trio approached, the Emperor’s staff clinking against the deck. Jared had been with the Triumvirate for so long, that he’d forgotten just how imposing the three massive machine bodies could be.
Jared stepped to the side, allowing the Triumvirate space.
“Have I been gone so long you have forgotten your place, servant?”
Pousal looked to his gang for support, then turned back to Kyrios, obviously flustered. He swallowed, gathering his courage, and lifted his chin at the Emperor. “What is this? You think showing us some kind of Regulos droids is some kind of joke? I am going to feed you to my getall fish.”
“So much you have forgotten,” Kyrios said, his tone almost remorseful. “Your distrust and skepticism are well noted, servant. In our current form, recognition of your true gods is difficult. I understand this, which is the only reason my guard has not yet destroyed you.”
Pousal shifted again, obviously wanting to be anywhere but here.
“Have you forgotten the words of your ancestors?” Kyrios continued. “I am the return that was promised. The Triumvirate has returned to claim vengeance on the unfaithful and unholy. Do you not see?” He made a sweeping motion with his free hand, indicating his metal form and those of the Arch Duke and Prince.
“I forgive your heresy. The Abominations destroyed our bodies, but it couldn’t destroy our souls. We will sing our vengeance and lay waste to their acolytes. The true Ultari Empire is at hand, servant. You will submit and rejoice.”
Kyrios spread his arms wide, his voice booming. “You will rejoice.” His eyes burned red, thin trails of vapor curling into the air. His presence was tremendous, even Jared felt it. “You will rejoice and fear.”
“I don’t…” Pousal broke off, turning and pushing his way through the group of Ultari, running for a door at the end of the platform.
Jared waved at his guard and four Netherguard leapt into action, sprinting forward on thin, powerful legs. Two cut off Pousal’s escape, holding him at the point of their halberds. One of the outlying Ultari raised his rifle, shouting. A Netherguard to Jared’s right turned, lowered his halberd, and sent a brilliant bolt of energy into the alien’s chest, turning the Ultari into so much red mist.
Immediately, the remaining Ultari dropped their weapons, raising their hands as high as they could manage.
Pousal dropped to his knees and pressed his face into the deck. “Please! Don’t kill me!”
Jared stepped forward. “You will submit.”
“Yes! I’ll submit. I’m sorry, please!” Pousal lifted his chin, baring his throat, arms to his sides.
Kyrios stepped past Jared. The Ultari spread apart, allowing him to pass, and he stopped in front of the prostrating Ultari. The Emperor reached down and touched a claw-tipped finger to Pousal’s neck. “You will serve. Does this station still have its arena?”
Pousal nodded quickly.
“Bring your leaders to me,” the Emperor said. “I will receive them there.”
The survivor looked a lot less menacing with his dark, demon-looking armor off. In fact, he looked downright pitiful.
Carson stood behind a transparent screen, watching the alien sleep. The male Ultari lay on a hospital bed, covered by a white sheet, hooked up to a number of monitors and sensors. Wide straps secured its arms to the bed rails. A doctor was checking the biometric data on one of the displays at the head of the bed, notating the information on his data pad.
After his brief struggle on the SI ship, the Ultari had offered no resistance at all, hadn’t as much as opened an eye since they’d returned to Terra Nova. Whether or not he would wake up at all was a point of general contention among the medical staff.
The doctor finished collecting his data and left the small room, ducking through a curtain to Carson’s left.
“Oh, Chief Carson,” the doctor looked up, surprised. His name was embroidered in blue lettering on his white jacket’s breast: Dr. Alan Chu. “I didn’t know you were standing there.”
“I didn't mean to scare you,” Carson said.
“Not at all. My wife tells me I need to pay attention more to my surroundings. What with a potential hostile alien in my ward.”
The doctor nodded. “Indeed. What can I do for you, Chief?”
Carson nodded through the screen at the unconscious alien. “Is he going to make it?”
Chu pursed his lips. “I'd like to tell you yes, but honestly, I don't know. I really don't know enough about the alien physiology to make a medically informed diagnosis. I'd rather not even be treating him based on secondhand information, not to say the other doctors don't know what they're talking about, but let's be honest, it's not like they were given access to top medical equipment on Negev. I hate to say it, but we’re really working off of best guesses here.”
“Yeah,” Carson said, crossing her arms. “I’m familiar with the process.”
“I will say, however, the data does suggest the patient will survive. The primary heart has been functioning at a constant level since his arrival, which suggests it's operating in its normal capacity. What's interesting is the secondary heart, which only seems to pump every so often. It's definitely supporting the cardiovascular system in some way, but in this state, it's hard to say how the second heart benefits the body. My guess is that in times of increased stress and physical activity, the second heart kicks in to provide additional blood flow to keep the body working harder for a prolonged amount of time.”
“Wouldn’t that be nice?”
“The other interesting thing is…” The doctor paused, rifling through his pockets for his data pad. Finding it, he tapped through several files before finding the one he wanted. “Here, look at this. Now if that isn't the strangest thing to note about the species, I don't know what is.”
Carson looked at the tablet, frowning, trying to identify what she was looking at. The black-and-white x-ray showed what she thought was a spinal cord, but all the other white lines and dark spaces on the image told her nothing.
“You see?” Chu asked, an expectant look on his face, like Carson should know automatically what he was showing her.
She shook her head. “Sorry, Doc.”
“The nervous system does not connect through the spinal column to the rest of the body. And not only that…” He swiped through several more pages, bringing up a list of words that Carson wasn’t going to even try to pronounce. “Its brain is full of bacteria. In amounts almost equal to what’s in its digestive system. Such an inversion would be fatal for humans. But they don’t appear to have any negative effects on any of the patient’s sy stems. And come here, look at this.”
Chu motioned for Carson to follow him, pulling the curtain aside, stepping back into the room.
Carson started to object, then reluctantly followed. “Honestly, Doc, it's okay…”
The doctor pulled back the sheet, revealing the alien’s naked torso, its smoke-gray skin covered in jagged scars and bullet wounds. Despite having no interest in the medical physiology of the alien, Carson was impressed by the Ultari's musculature. Its upper body and arms, though slender, were covered with bulging muscles.
“Looks like he's been through a lot,” Chu said. He pointed to a particular scar on the alien’s abdomen. “That's a medical scar, too clean to be any kind of battle wound. He's had some type of surgery; however, we couldn't find any evidence of that in our deep scans. And not only that, but this—”
The Ultari's eyes snapped open. It jerked upright, pulling wires taut, snapping several others. Carson jumped back, stepping into the curtain. Chu let off a high-pitched yelp.
The alien’s eyes flicked to the doctor and it let out a guttural roar. It jerked an arm up, ripping right out of the restraint, and grabbed the doctor's jacket. He yanked Chu over the bed and into a bank of monitoring equipment. Chu collided with several of the screens, knocking them over before he came to a sudden stop against the wall. He flopped against the floor and rolled onto his back, moaning .
An alarm sounded as the alien struggled against the restraint on his other arm.
Carson shook herself free of the curtain and lunged forward, grabbing the alien’s free arm and trying to wrestle it away from the restraint.
“Stay down!” Carson said through gritted teeth, pushing with all her strength.
The Ultari pulled his arm free and backhanded Carson across the face. Stars burst across her vision and she stumbled back and fell to the ground. The back of Carson's skull bounced off the floor, disorienting her further.
The alien ripped its other arm loose and pushed himself out of the bed, the sheet falling free, revealing the alien’s body naked but for a pair of flimsy white hospital shorts. It looked at the doctor, who was struggling to extricate himself from a collection of power cords and wires on the far side of the bed.
The alien took an unsteady step toward the door, one arm held tight against its flank.
Carson shook the cobwebs from her mind and got her feet under her. She got a running start and jumped onto the Ultari’s back. His flesh felt red hot through her uniform as she wrapped her arms around his neck. She pushed his head down as he tottered forward and the front of his skull hit the door as the two left the hospital room.
The Ultari flailed back, trying to strike Carson. She held on for dear life, trying to find just where she had to squeeze on the cordlike muscle that made up its neck to manage a proper choke.
Several nurses in the hallway screamed as Carson and the alien grappled. The alien grunted what Carson assumed were expletives and backed quickly toward the wall, intent on smashing Carson.
She twisted around and lifted her feet up, catching them against the wall and pushing off with all her might. She stopped the Ultari’s backward momentum, her legs on fire as she fought against being crushed like a can beneath an iron-shod boot.
“Help!” Carson shouted as the Ultari whipped an elbow around and caught her in the ribs. She lost her footing and found herself spinning as the Ultari turned around again. Her boots whacked a cart and sent trays of steaming food crashing across the hallway.
Behind her, someone yelled, “Hold on!”
“You think?” Carson pulled herself tighter against the Ultari’s back.
A militia guard that had been posted in the clinic appeared, gauss pistol in hand. Carson saw hesitation on the man’s face as he tried to get a clean shot while the Ultari thrashed from side to side as it sought to dislodge Carson.
“The legs!” Carson shouted. “Shoot the legs!”
The Ultari froze, its gaze locked on the militiaman, and charged with a roar.
Carson bounced against the Ultari as it ran .
The militiaman sidestepped the charging Ultari and shot a kick into the alien’s crotch.
Carson heard a sharp intake of breath and the alien went to its knees. Its skin flushed purple and it let out a low groan.
“Move!” Dr. Chu shouted.
Carson slid off the Ultari and Chu stabbed an injector into the alien’s back. Chu jumped back as the Ultari swiped at him. The Ultari got to one foot and looked at the doctor, eyes filled with hate and nostril slits flaring.
A computer monitor smashed against the side of the alien’s face. It wavered for a moment, then went down like a puppet with its strings cut.
Carson froze, holding the dented monitor over her head, then slowly let it drop to the floor, never taking her eyes off the Ultari. It lay on its chest, breathing shallow, but alive, though at that moment, Carson thought she would’ve preferred the thing to be dead. “That’s one tough son of a bitch, Doc. What’d you shoot it with?”
“Enough sedative to put a horse on its ass.”
Carson shook her head. “I think we found out what that second heart is for.”
The militiaman spoke quickly into a mic attached to his uniform.
“Got handcuffs and chains coming,” he said.
“You went for his balls?” Carson asked.
“Saw them bouncing in his skivvies, figured they looked vulnerable,” he said with a shrug.
“I’ll talk to the governor about getting you transferred. This guy sees you again and I don’t think he’ll like you,” Carson said.
“Kicking a guy in the huevos will do that. Don’t care what species you are.”
Nunez touched the glass separating him and the cybernetic Ultari head they’d recovered from the dying ship over Negev with a finger and shivered. “God, that’s so creepy.”
Moretti stood next to him, shaking his head. “It’s just a head.”
“A head in a box! Plugged into your science stuff. You don’t find that the least bit creepy? I feel like it’s about to wake up and tell me I just made his shit list.”
“It’s just a head,” the medic repeated, not taking his eyes away from the alien. Several wires and sensor leads had been attached to the various points along the skull and face. Monitors surrounded the small table in the middle of room, displaying medical and technical data gathered from the embedded sensors. “A head with Ultari data crystals incorporated into its brain.”
They stood in the middle of Terra Nova’s main research laboratory, surrounded by humming computers, glowing holo-displays, and lab techs moving back and forth between them. The scientists had been working around the clock to get the skull loaded into the containment chamber and hooked up to their computers. Moretti was no scientist, but the buzz around the lab seemed positive.
As they watched, a message panel flashed on one of the display screens and the Ultari’s eyes blinked.
“The hell!” Nunez shouted, jumping back. “Did you see that? What the hell was that?”
Before Moretti could answer, one of the technicians peered over one of the terminals, a sheepish grin on his face.
“Ah, sorry about that, my friends,” the man said in a thick German accent.
“What the…did you see that?” Nunez asked through deep, focused breaths. “Its eyes… they blinked.”
“Ya, and it’s a good thing too, otherwise, I would have had to run a diagnostic on the entire system and that would set me back several hours. The electro stimulators took almost thirty minutes to calibrate.”
Moretti wiped the grin from his face and asked, “Have you made any progress, Doctor Schneider?”
Doctor Detrick Schneider grinned, stepping around his terminal and Moretti heard Nunez give a quiet groan. The man was a tall, lean with messy white hair and angled jaw.
“Ah, I’m glad you asked that,” Schneider said. “Yes, some. We’ve had the specimen scanned and quarantined, for obvious reasons, and we’ve been running scans of its biology since it was brought on board the Valiant . So far, Project Diamond is moving along steadily, considering we have almost no knowledge of Ultari physiology. Not to mention that my true talent lies in positronic and cybernetic systems, not bio-mechanical synchronous communication interface systems.”
“Project Diamond?” Nunez asked.
Schneider nodded. “That’s right. And I don’t think I have to tell you the hazards of sorting out the non-linear architecture of alien neural connections and synapse mapping. Geez, what a hassle.”
Nunez gave the scientist a blank stare. “Yeah.”
Moretti suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. “So, no luck in extracting any useable data?”
“Actually,” Schneider said, motioning them over to one of the holo-displays. Glowing orange and blue fractals scrolled across the rectangular display as lines of white text scrolled through several boxes along the side. “We were able to use one of the logic cluster emulators, brought back from Negev to filter out some of the erroneous code and thanks to the notes from Jared Hale’s personal computer; we were able to crack the first layer of digital encryption.”
“So you are making progress.”
“A little. Like I was saying, we are extremely close to accessing the specimen’s neural network. After that, we should have all the data we need and more.”
“Doc, what’s this freak show even for?” Nunez asked .
“The Ultari went aboard that ship specifically for this.” Moretti tapped on the glass. “They didn’t take a head from the other, less augmented Ultari. There’s too much data in there, accessible data, that they wanted it just for a trophy.”
“We cross the void between galaxies and meet alien head hunters,” Nunez said. “I knew I should’ve put in for an archaeotech hunting team instead of Terra Nova. My fault for believing the recruiter!”
Greer checked Valiant ’s displays for the fifth time, taking a long breath as her gaze passed over the readouts in front of her. They all read green, everything in functional or optimal range. And that both excited and terrified her.
“Looks like everything’s good to go,” Lincoln said, leaning back in his seat to her right.
“Yeah,” Greer said.
Her co-pilot shot her a worried look. “You okay, Rachel? Not having second thoughts, are you?”
“No…” She paused, trying to think of the right words. “It’s just the whole ideal of it is… a bit much to take in.”
“Greer, come on, we’re about to be the first two human beings to go faster than the speed of light. We’ll be like the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk. Yuri Gagarin in space. Fredrickson in the first Alcubierre drive that made the Mars run in less than a week.”
“You left out Harrison and the Alcubierre drive that exploded before Fredrickson made his run.”
They’d just passed Terra Nova’s second moon, heading out system, to the area mapped out by the techs and scientists back on the planet as the least likely to cause negative effects on their jump. They’d told her everything was working properly, and there wouldn’t be any issues at all, but they weren’t out here, were they? They were still back in their comfortable, air-conditioned, laboratory, waiting to see the results of their two-week, round-the-clock refit of Valiant ’s main drive system.
She’d sat in on a number of their computer simulations and knew they’d had at least 100 successful test runs, but theoretical test runs were completely different than actually doing something.
The ship’s IR buzzed and Commander Edison’s voice came through the cockpit speakers. “Terra Nova Control to Valiant , sensors indicate you are entering Test Grid 1A, how are you looking up there, Lieutenant Greer?”
Greer shook herself. “Everything is green across the board, Terra Nova. We are good to go up here.”
“Roger that, Valiant ,” Edison said. “Give us another minute for last-minute pre-flight and drive check.”
“Copy that.” Greer muted the IR and gave Lincoln a sidelong look. “If we blow up, I’ll get the first round in heaven.”
Lincoln snorted. “Oh yeah, so what, does that mean I have to buy the beer if we don’t blow up? That doesn’t seem like a fair bet. What if they don’t serve beer in the afterlife?”
“Beer is the nectar of the Gods, Lincoln. Of course they’re going to serve it in the afterlife.”
“I still say it’s a sucker’s bet.”
Greer leaned over and held out her hand.
“Ugh, fine.” Lincoln gave her hand a good squeeze and smiled. “Worst that can happen is I’m out a couple of credits, right?”
“See, happy thoughts.”
Edison’s voice came back over the IR. “Okay, Valiant , connection status and computer link-up confirmed. All systems within safe parameters. You are clear for FTL drive activation.”
“Roger, that, Terra Nova Control, go for FTL.”
Greer’s finger hovered over the screen, centimeters from the drive control. She gave Lincoln one last look and he nodded. She let out a long breath and said, “One small step…”
A high-pitched thrumming reverberated through the hull as the drives spun up. System messages flashed across her displays and the cabin’s interior lights dimmed. A countdown on the main screen ticked off five seconds. The low tone rumbled inside Greer’s chest and the stars outside her cockpit began to move.
She sat, mouth open, but not speaking, as the stars began to stretch away, forming a pointing somewhere in the infinite space ahead of her. Lights flashed, and she felt her skin begin to tingle. A second later, there was a flash of brilliant light and the stars vanished, replaced by several moments of swirling blue and white lines.
Greer brought her hand up to block the light, squinting against the glare. A moment later, the blue-white light flashed away, leaving behind an ocean of black, sprinkled with white stars. Message panels flashed on her displays and alarms sounded as the FTL engines wound down.
“We didn’t die!” Lincoln cheered, laughing and slapping the console in front of him.
Greer’s one-sided smile turned into a full grin, then finally laughter. “We did it.”
The computer calculated their position and she clapped her hands as she read the data. “We came out…the wrong place. Way wrong.”
“How…oh, would you look at that?” Lincoln pointed out the front windows as an azure-colored gas giant with wide rings came into view.
“That’s not Negev. We were supposed to come out of FTL over Negev. That’s Janus, right? One of the gas giants in the Terra Nova system,” Greer said as she tapped at her astrogation controls. “Please be Janus. Please oh please oh please.”
“It is.” Lincoln sighed with relief. “Just made contact with some of our data collection satellites. We may have overshot Negev by a bit.”
“Ready a data transmission back to Terra Nova. I’m going to strangle those pencil neck engineers that screwed this up.”
“Let’s not spoil our big moment with homicide, yeah?” Lincoln said. “We need those pencil necks to get us back in one jump too.”
“At least the damn thing almost works as intended,” Greer muttered.
The Valiant dropped through the clouds above Terra Nova’s spaceport to a chorus of cheers and applause. Carson, despite herself, couldn’t help but smile and soon found herself cheering and clapping along with the rest of them.
A stage had been erected on the tarmac, just in front of the crowd, filled with the team of engineers that had worked on the project. They shook hands, laughed, and slapped each other on the back as the Valiant flew overhead, its engines thrumming with energy.
The FTL drives were bulky things and looked out of place on the sprinter. Carson was surprised the ship could still handle flight in atmosphere. The fact that the Valiant was flying at all impressed Carson even more. The entire refit had only taken a week, practically an eye blink in terms of normal ship construction. Not to mention, the engineers were integrating alien technology into components and no one really knew if they’d be able to handle the load.
As the clapping and cheering continued, Carson scanned the crowd. Almost the entire colony had shown up for the event, spread out down both sides of the runway. Several rows of bleachers were filled with colonial leaders and section heads; the rest of the colony had filled in wherever there was space. On top of cars, on warehouse roofs, even several Mule shuttles parked on the far side of the runway.
Hale, however, was notably absent from the festivities. As was his wife. Elias and Jerry stood near the main stage, laughing and pointing as the Valiant slowed and flared for landing. Carson scanned the crowd as the clapping died down, wondering if she’d just missed them in the celebrations.
What could be more important than this? Carson thought, slipping her hands into the pockets of her camouflaged overalls. As far as she knew, this was the first human ship to ever travel FTL and was a major milestone, even if the vast majority of the species back in the Milky Way might never know of it.
Birch stepped up beside Carson, nodding to the Valiant as it settled onto its landing struts. “Greer’s one lucky bastard, eh, Chief?”
Carson chuckled. “Probably won’t ever have to buy drinks again.”
“Eh, it’ll wear off. Even I have to buy drinks occasionally. ”
Carson raised her eyebrow at him. He’d never talked about his Medal of Honor, usually shying away from the topic as soon as possible. She hoped that merely mentioning it meant that he was warming up to her.
“A joke,” he said, grinning. “I buy drinks all the time.”
“Well, regardless, I’m sure this will make her even that much more insufferable. Pilots are bad enough as it is; give them dibs on something noteworthy like this and you’ll never hear the end of it.”
“Where’s the rest of the team?” Carson asked, checking behind her.
“Watching from the Room.”
“Let me guess, Nunez is going to need some stims.”
Birch smiled. “His supply of Standish Reserve is bound to run out sooner or later.”
“At the rate he’s going, it’ll be sooner,” Carson said. “Decided not to join them?”
“Are you kidding? This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, Chief. I wanted to get as close as possible. Faster than light travel? Something special. Even if it did take the original colonists to be enslaved and learn the systems. That stain will never go away.”
“I’m going to have to sneak a look at the new drives once the festivities die down a bit. I tried to get some inside looks during construction, but you know how engineers are. ”
Carson sniffed. “Probably a lot like pilots.”
A loud cheer rose from the crowd, accompanied by whistles and shouting, as Rachel Greer and her copilot, Oscar Lincoln, walked down Valiant’ s cargo ramp. They waved to the crowd, broad smiles plastered on their faces.
Several of the engineers descended the stairs from the stage to meet them on the tarmac, shaking hands and hugging the two pilots.
Birch scoffed and Carson gave him a quizzical look.
“Just glad it’s not me out there,” he explained, nodding to the growing group around the pilots. People were leaving the stands and flowing through the barricades at the edge of the tarmac to congratulate and shake hands with the two heroes of the hour.
“You and me both,” Carson said. “I’d much rather be—”
Her wrist unit chimed, interrupting her. She pulled back her sleeve and read the message. “Huh,” she said, reading the message again.
“What’s up, Chief?”
Carson dismissed the message with a flick of her finger. “Come on; apparently, we have work to do.”
West jogged up to them as they approached the Command Post ten minutes later. “Chief,” he said, falling into step beside Carson.
“Sorry to interrupt family time, Sergeant. ”
“When duty calls…” West shrugged. “Do we know what it’s about?”
Carson shook her head. “Message said it was priority, that’s I all know.”
“I have a feeling every message we get from here on out will be priority,” West said.
“You’re probably right.”
“I have the team prepping for dust-off just in case,” West said, opening the door.
“Good,” Carson said.
Hale looked up from the far end of the holo-table as Carson and her two Pathfinders entered the Command Post. Marie turned from one of the side stations, holding out a data pad for her husband, smiling at Carson as she stepped around the table.
Several of the displays were showing replays of Valiant ’s landing at the spaceport. While others showed multiple exterior feeds from the ships in orbit, showing the sprinter actually going to warp; a flash of light and the ship simply vanished. Data from the event streamed into several stations, the technicians frantically making notes and recording the information.
“Chief,” Hale said, accepting the proffered pad. “Thank you for coming so quickly.”
He tapped a command into the pad and the holographic image of the severed alien head Carson had brought back from the skies over Negev appeared above the table. It rotated slowly, eyes closed, the wires and cables attached to the back of its head disappearing into the air below.
Carson had a feeling she knew where this briefing was going to lead.
“We’ve been able to extract some data from the cyborg device you recovered,” Hale said. “Most of it is corrupted, and what information we did manage to decrypt seems to be incomplete, but it’s a start. We’re hoping that the Ultari survivor will be able to fill in the gaps, but I’m not hinging any bets on that.”
“Any information on why these two factions look so much alike? They seemed to be at odds almost immediately,” Carson said.
“None. Again, we’re hoping the survivor can shed some light on that.”
He tapped the pad and a star field appeared next to the floating head. “As you can see, this map is only a fragment. The rest of the data was corrupted; however, we’ve been able to piece it together with our own stellar data and came up with this.”
The alien head disappeared and the map fragment shrank as additional stars came into focus around it. A red line drew itself around a star on the right side of the map and a panel appeared identifying the system as Terra Nova. Another circle appeared around a star near the top of the map, the words “ UNKNOWN” appearing in a panel above it.
“This appears to be a system controlled by the Sacred Intelligence. The data doesn’t give us any more than that, only that it’s the closest settlement to Terra Nova, at seven light years away. Doctor Schneider tells me that according to their simulations, with the new warp engines, Valiant should be able to make the trip in just over a week.”
Carson felt a chill run down her back. She tried to keep the uncertainty out of her voice and failed. “You want us to make first contact with the cyborgs, sir?”
“That’s right, Chief Carson. I need your team to do just that.”
“I just—” Carson started, but Hale interrupted.
“I understand your reservations, even better than you know. However, I don’t have any other options. We’re alone out here, Chief, and if we’re going to survive, we’re going to need allies. I don't believe for a minute that we’re done with the Ultari or the Triumvirate.”
“And you think this other faction will help us, sir?”
“That is what all the information we’ve seen so far suggests, Chief,” Marie Hale said, stepping up beside her husband. “The two sides went to blows as soon as they knew the other was there. If they’re at war with each other, then we can leverage that in our favor. The Triumvirate knows what we’ve got, Crucible technology. They made a try for it once. They’ll come back and if they bring another fleet like the one that fought over Negev…it won’t end well for us. We don’t have the time or manpower right now to beat a threat that strong.”
Carson’s stomach turned at the thought as the three hundred and twelve dead aboard the Belisarius reasons to not go on this mission flooded her mind.
“Do we know anything about the world?” West asked. “Is it habitable?”
“All the data we’ve seen suggests that its atmosphere would be,” Marie said, then shrugged. “Our satellites have had their telescopes on that system for days. But this planet seems to be on the wrong side of its system primary star for us to see it. Our bad luck. But by the orbit of the other planets and the wobble of the primary, the planet is there and in the Goldilocks’ Zone of habitability.”
“Regardless,” Hale said. “We need to make contact and ascertain whether or not this faction can help us.”
“And if they can’t, or won’t?” Carson asked.
“We’ll have to cross that bridge when we get to it,” Hale said. “Take advantage of Valiant’ s stealth systems. Ghost into the system and surveil them prior to making contact. If you determine their intentions to be hostile, back out and return to Terra Nova. However, I want that to be your last option. If we can persuade them to join our side, or at least provide us with the information we need to fight against the Ultari, I want you to make every effort to turn them into an ally. Can your team handle that, Chief? ”
Carson let out a long breath, careful to hide her frustration. “Pathfinders light the darkness, sir. We’re trained for first contact missions.”
Hale nodded. “Good.”
Marie tossed a small leather pouch onto the table. It slid across the surface, stopping several inches from Carson. “We took these off the survivor.”
Carson picked up the bag, loosened the knot, and poured the contents into her hand. Small golden pyramids, each facet inlaid with what looked like circuitry, tumbled out of the pouch.
“Ultari money,” Marie explained. “We think. Ms. Scartucci was able to translate the markings and found they’re in round numbers. If that’s enough for lunch or a new starship is anyone’s guess.”
Carson turned one of pyramids over, holding it between her thumb and forefinger. Human society hadn’t used physical money since the start of the Xaros war. It seemed strange that a race with the capability to travel faster than light would still resort to such a primitive concept as coinage.
“Don’t spend it all in one place,” Marie added.
Carson considered the star chart for a moment, mind racing with excuses of why they shouldn’t be going on this mission. Why she wouldn’t be going on this mission. After several silent moments, she dropped the pyramids back into the pouch and pulled the opening shut. “When do we leave?”
Jerry Hale ducked down as another shadow passed by overhead, the hint of warm engine wash blasting him from above. He kept moving, crouched over, even though the large cargo containers around him were at least twice his size. Ahead of him, Elias stopped at the corner of one of the containers, dropping to a knee before turning back and holding a finger to his lips.
“Where are we going?” Jerry asked.
“Shh,” Elias said, frowning. “You'll see.”
Jerry crossed his arms. “If this is something like that stupid head Mom and Dad have been talking about, I'm going to punch you right in the face.”
“It's not, I promise. You're going to love this.”
The long lines of cargo containers flanked the colony’s spaceport, where shuttle crews had been ferrying them down from the second colony fleet in orbit. Far ahead, at the end of the row, large sections taken from Enduring Spirit’ s hull were arranged for inspection to be turned into prefabricated buildings.
“We just have to make sure the coast is clear,” Elias whispered, keeping his attention focused ahead of them.
Jerry leaned over his brother, putting a hand on Elias's shoulder and craning his neck to look around the edge of the container. His eyes went wide. “No freaking way.”
“I told you,” Elias said .
On the other side of the container, Valiant sat at the edge of the tarmac, facing away from them, her cargo ramp down. Clouds of vapor streamed from two conical drive nacelles atop the aft section of the ship, pouring down, spreading across the tarmac. A handful of technicians worked beneath the ship's underbelly, near the bow; detaching large cables that ran to a small work area they’d set up just off the starboard wing.
A single militia guard stood near the bow of the ship, looking bored. The soldier was dressed in multi-cam fatigues and had a gauss rifle slung across his back. He didn’t seem to be focused on anything but one of the female technicians, an attractive brunette that occasionally flashed the guard a smile and flicked her hair.
Jerry could just see the Pathfinder’s rover, secured inside the cargo bay. He ducked back as one of the crew jogged down the ramp and said something Jerry couldn’t hear to the technicians. Slowly, he peered around the crate again. The crewman had hopped onto one of the many motor carts that littered the spaceport and sped off across the tarmac.
“I think that’s the last of them,” Elias said.
“What are you talking about?” Jerry asked.
“Of the crew. The rest were called off about twenty minutes ago.”
“So what? Look, we saw the ship up close, great. Can we go now? Dad will kill us if he finds out we snuck inside the restricted area. ”
“That’s insane. Where are they going to go?”
“What are you talking about?” Elias asked him, crossing his arms. “I figured you’d jump at the chance to see where your heroes sleep.”
“They’re not my heroes!” Jerry blurted out, then immediately regretted it and covered his mouth, looking around to see if anyone had heard.
“Keep it down!” Elias told him. “Geez. Okay, whatever. They’re not your heroes. But still, you’re telling me you don’t want to see inside that ship? It’s one of a kind. The only human ship to ever go FTL.”
Jerry growled, turning back to get another look at the ship. Elias was right; he did want to see it, and not just the sanitized civilian tour that most people were sure to get. “Okay, yeah, sure, I want to see it. But how do you suggest we do that? We can’t just walk right up like we own the place. Wait…since when have you had a rebellious streak?”
Elias’ mouth worked into a sneer.
“Since I helped design most of the engine interface and that Scartucci jerk left my name off all the designs, that’s why. So I want to get in there, take a couple pics to show that it’s my work that was part of all that…and get some credit.”
“Oh my god, you’re jealous. Like it matters who gets their name on a plaque?”
“You tell that to Tesla, and Lovelace.”
Elias rolled his eyes.
“Such a meathead…here’s our chance.”
The female technician moved away from the ship and the militia soldier followed. She laughed at something he said and sat down at one of the computers in their temporary work station. The guard sat on the edge of the table next to her, saying something else that made her laugh. She slapped his knee as a wide grin spread across his face.
Jerry leaned forward, straining to hear what the guard was saying.
Elias pulled a data pad from his pocket and began tapping on the screen. “All I have to do is disable the ship’s external security feed and the drone network, and no one will ever know we were here. Trust me.”
“I don’t know about this…”
“Come on,” Elias said, slipping the data pad back into his pocket.
“What the hell are—Elias.” Jerry hissed his brother’s name as Elias stood and walked around the crate, walking straight for Valiant’ s cargo ramp. “Elias! Son of a bitch. Wait. I didn’t mean that.”
Jerry hesitated for a second, then reluctantly followed his brother. He caught up to Elias about halfway to the ramp, keeping his eyes locked on the guard, still flirting with the technician. He glanced at the two technicians still working under the bow, then back to the female sitting at the work station .
“You’ve got to be shitting me right now,” Jerry whispered.
“Shhhh,” Elias said, holding a finger to his lips again. “Relax. Just keep moving.”
“Dad is going to freaking kill us. Then Mom will kill us again.”
Without hesitation, Elias led them up the ramp and into the belly of the Pathfinders’ ship. Rows of hard plastic cases were stacked on either side of the bay, secured with anchor straps in ordered rows. The rover looked like it had just been washed. Water still dripped from its matte black chassis.
Jerry paused to look inside the armored ground transport. There was a row of empty seats and empty weapons racks on either side of the vehicles main passenger cabin. A small open hatch led to the driver’s compartment at the front. What he wouldn’t give to drive this thing.
“Come on,” Elias whispered, moving to the metal staircase at the front of the bay.
“Where are we going?” Jerry asked, jogging to catch up.
“The engine room,” Elias said, smiling from ear to ear.
Jerry groaned. He didn't want to see the engines; he wanted to see the weapons racks, maybe even the controls for the railgun mounted of the hull outside. Now that would be cool.
He followed his brother up the stairs to a short corridor that led to a closed hatch marked ENGINEERING. Elias tried the door; locked .
“Well, it’s locked,” Jerry said, half-turning to leave. “Looks like it’s time to go.”
Elias rolled his eyes, producing a tablet from a cargo pocket. “Just hold on a second.” He tapped on the screen, and a few seconds later, Jerry heard the lock click and Elias pulled the door open.
Jerry stood there for a second, eyebrows raised. “But you can’t throw a football.”
Elias shot him a dirty look. “I focus on what’s important. Come on.”
Jerry pulled the hatch shut behind him and found himself in Valiant ’s main engine room. A walkway ran down the center of the space, separating blocks of machinery, which hummed incessantly. Round silver conduits ran the length of the ceiling, some occasionally venting white clouds of steam. A large compressor on the right thumped rhythmically, as something next to it clacked in time with the thumping.
Despite himself, Jerry was impressed.
Elias turned to Jerry, grinning from ear to ear. “Isn't this so cool?”
Jerry crossed his arms, forcing himself to look neutral. It wouldn’t do to give Elias anything he’d be able to hang over his head later. “Yeah, it’s great.”
Elias rolled his eyes. “Come on.” He turned and led his brother through the maze of humming machinery and conduits, to the back of the compartment. Even as ignorant about technology as Jerry was, there was no missing the differences between the human drive components and the alien ones.
Large sections of discolored components were bolted to the ceiling and on top of already installed machinery. Cables and wires hung loose, connecting different pieces of equipment. Handwritten notes in permanent marker alerted technicians to “not touch” or “do not disconnect” and “biohazard.”
The last one made Jerry’s skin crawl.
Elias ran a hand over one of the freshly welded casings and stopped, inspecting the equipment. He took out his data slate and began filming video of the device.
“That conniving bastard. I knew it!”
Jerry stopped short, stunned at his brother’s words. He couldn’t think of a time when Elias had ever cursed. “You okay?”
His brother traced a cluster of cables back to another metal component, shaking his head. “They stole my design!”
“What are you talking about?” Jerry asked, craning his neck to see what Elias was touching.
“I submitted designs for reinforcing the primacy quantum phase inducers that would help reduce the wear and tear on the containment field for the astranite! Scartucci used my work and didn’t bother to tell anyone!”
Jerry frowned. “So you’re mad she used your suggestion?”
“No, I’m…” Elias took a breath, glaring at his brother. “I’ m mad because she didn’t give me credit for the idea.”
“That’s fine, I’m sure Dad remembers. He’ll set that Scartucci creep straight!”
“Oh, yeah, I’m sure he will,” Jerry said, gazing around the compartment.
Elias stopped at a computer terminal and started tapping in commands.
“What are you doing? Don’t touch anything!” Jerry said, leaning over his brother’s shoulder to see what he was typing.
“Bah, I’m not doing anything; I just want to get a look at the specs, that’s all. See if my code for regulating the plasma manifolds was pirated too. Trust me.”
“Trust you, right.” Jerry leaned back against a large conduit and looked back down the walkway. “Just don’t break anything, okay? Getting caught in here is one thing; breaking it is another.” He shuddered at the thought of how their parents would react. Being the governor and lieutenant governor’s children meant they could either get away with nothing or everything. But with his parents, it would definitely be the former.
“I’m almost in,” Elias said as his fingers typed away. “And I’m going to look and see if they stole my torsion compensator design too.”
Jerry shook his head and slid down the conduit to sit on the metal grating that served as the deck. He blew out a long breath. Knowing his brother, they’d be here awhile. He pulled out a data pad, loaded up the game Xaros Elites 2 , and settled in for the wait.
Two minutes later, an alarm sounded, sending a jolting of fear through Jerry’s body. He jumped to his feet, dropping his data pad. “What the hell did you do?”
Elias stepped back from the terminal, hands up, eyes wide. “I didn’t do anything!”
The humming around them increased as more and more energy flowed into the machines. The hair on Jerry’s arms stood on end as the engine spun up, as a whine reverberated through the compartment.
“You had to do something,” Jerry said. “Those things aren’t just going to start up on their own!”
“I’m telling you, I didn’t touch anything.”
The deck moved under them. Jerry reached out, bracing himself against the railing, a terrifying realization hitting him. “We’re taking off!”
Jerry bolted for the hatch.
“It’s not my fault!” Elias shouted.
Jerry pulled on the hatch; it didn’t open. “Can you unlock this door?”
Elias stood there, rubbing his hands together. “I… uh… I don’t know.” He fumbled with his tablet.
“Come on, hotshot, work your magic.”
Jerry stepped out of the way, grabbing the railing again as the ship rocked around them.
Elias’s fingers danced furiously on his tablet for several seconds before stopping. He looked up, terror filling his eyes. “The ship’s on lockdown. We’re stuck in here.”
Hale pressed two fingers into his temple, trying to work the tension headache away as the assembled colonial leaders bickered back and forth like children. He would’ve rather been locked in hand-to-hand combat with a Toth warrior than endure one more minute in this living torture chamber. At least then the punishment would end here, though he didn’t see an end in sight.
A mixture of original colonial council members and program directors from 2nd Fleet sat behind a horseshoe dais at the front of the room, looking out over an auditorium filled with colonists, both old and new. Captain Handley, sitting at one end of the dais, was doing his best to keep order, but Hale could feel the meeting beginning to spiral out of control. They always did.
Elizabeth Tanner leaned forward; hands clasped together under her chin, and eyed Hale with an icy stare. “You still have not given an adequate explanation of why you sent our only space-born asset off on a diplomatic mission and left us virtually unguarded from orbit attack.”
Hale made another mental tick mark. Was that eight or nine now? He couldn’t remember. “Ms. Tanner, as I have explained several times, the Valiant is the only way we have of contacting potential allies, allies we desperately need. Not to mention, that if the Ultari Fleet were to return and engage us, one ship would do little to repel them.”
“But it would be something,” Tanner said.
“And what about the bunkers you promised?” one of the original colonists asked from the auditorium. “If they do come back, how are you going to protect us?”
Captain Handley answered for Hale. “We have already discussed this as well; the bunker sites have already been identified and construction is in progress. Several are finished already. We cannot move any faster than we already are. We have a finite amount of resources to work with; prioritizing those resources is one of our main challenges.”
“Coming from the one person who already has everything he asked for,” another citizen blurted out.
“Defensive emplacements and perimeter security are a priority for the entire colony, not just me. If we can’t defend ourselves, then everything else is meaningless.”
“And yet, he sent our only warship away,” Tanner said, pointing.
“When are you going to start building residential blocks?” another citizen asked. “There’s mold growing where you have us living now!”
Handley started to answer, but Hale held up a hand. “Plans for those structures are being finalized and should be ready to begin construction next week. We should be able to get everyone out of the temporary shelters in a matter of months.”
“Months?” several people shouted at the same time.
An uproar of angry shouts, curses, and accusations flowed out from the assembled crowd, echoing loudly around the chamber.
Hale stood, holding his hands up. “Enough!”
His order quieted the crowd. Several immediately dropped back into their seats, as if they were trying to hide from Hale’s wrath. “This constant bickering and arguing will get us nowhere. Unless you all have forgotten, we aren’t going to get any help out here. No one from Earth is coming to save us at the last minute. We don’t have the luxury of debate. We don’t have time, manpower, or resources to make everyone happy here. Not right away, at least. That’s something all of you need to understand right here and now.”
The rest of the audience took their seats as Hale continued.
“Our situation is critical, ladies and gentlemen. If we don’t establish allies and build up our defenses, our survival here is in jeopardy. I’m sorry not everyone is able to sleep on a nice comfortable mattress at night or eat warm meals. We need air defense rail gun batteries. We need hardened structures. We need fighter squadrons and a wall around this city. Our militia is sustaining themselves on ration bars straight off the production lines as they sweep and clear feral doughboys from the surrounding area. They need proper Strike Marine armor right now. Terra Nova’s survival is my only priority, nothing else. We are all working as hard as we can to ensure our survival, but nothing is going to slow us down more than this constant bickering amongst ourselves. Hell, at this rate, the Triumvirate won’t have to defeat us; we’re doing a pretty good job of that ourselves.”
A silence fell over the assembled colonists, none daring to argue Hale’s points. He was right, and he knew they all knew it. He glared at Tanner, who simply glared at him right back. He forced himself to remember that for all her flaws, she was extremely smart, and one of the only human beings, literally in the entire galaxy, that knew enough about Crucible gates to build one and make it work. That, however, was a conversation for another day.
“Now,” Hale said, finally. “You all have a choice to make, and I’m sorry, this is going to sound harsh, but it’s a fact and it’s something that I think you all need to hear.” He looked to Tanner for the last part. “I need everyone single one of you to make this colony succeed. There’s no other way to put it. So you can set your personal ambitions aside for the time being and help improve this foxhole we call Terra Nova.”
He stood and left without another word.
Marie met him in the hall outside the auditorium. She opened her mouth to speak and Hale raised a hand. “I know what you’re going to say, and yes, it was a bit melodramatic. But it’s the truth, Marie, and these people need to understand it. There’s no other way to put it. It’s life or death out here, and somehow, I have to make them all see it.”
Hale continued, cutting her off. “And I think we’re going to have to have another sit down with Elizabeth. First it was the tenement conditions, then it was the bunkers, next she’s going to be bitching about not having any new socks. If she’s going to continue to stir the pot, we’re going to have to find a way to put an end to that. I’m all about free expression, but if it’s going to affect the overall progress of the colony, I’m not going to allow that.”
He moved past her and she fell into step beside him.
“It’s bad enough original colonists are pushing back—at least I can understand their frustrations—but now it’s coming from our people as well. I just don’t—” Hale shook his head.
Marie grabbed his arm. “Ken.”
The sternness of his wife’s tone pulled him out of his rant. “Sorry, what?”
“The boys are missing.”
Hale frowned. “What are you talking about?”
She held out a data pad. “They didn’t come back to our quarters last night. I didn’t even realize it until this morning as I was in the foundries working on the fighter designs. Damn these twenty-hour days. I pinged them when I got home and they didn’t answer, so I used the colony’s security network to track them down.”
She touched the screen and played a video, looking down at far end of the row of containers, played. At the bottom of the screen, Jerry and Elias weaved through the mass of multi-colored, truck-size containers. Valiant’ s aft section was clearly visible in the distance at the top left corner of the screen. After a few seconds, the boys disappeared from view.
Hale raised an eyebrow at his wife, who held up a finger.
“Another view of the Valiant ’s loading ramp,” she said, tapping the pad.
The view changed, then a second later, vanished in a snowstorm of static.
“What happened?” Hale asked.
“Your son happened.” Marie tapped on the pad a third time. “It took me a few minutes to find a camera with a good angle. It’s not great, but…”
Another camera view appeared on the pad; a shot of the starboard fuselage from a few hundred feet away. At the edge of the screen, two figures emerged from the containers, running across the open tarmac and into the Valiant’ s cargo bay. The guards never even looked up.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Hale muttered as the boys disappeared inside the ship. “The Valiant left hours ago. We can—”
Marie shook her head. “We can’t. There’s no way to communicate with them while they’re in FTL.”
“I’m going to kill them,” Hale said through gritted teeth. “No, first I’m going to ground them for the rest of their lives, then I’m going to kill them. They know better than that. What were they thinking?”
“Carson will protect them.”
“Carson!” Hale spat the name. “That’s what I’m afraid of. Anyone but her.”
Marie frowned at him. “She is doing good work out here, Ken. You know that. We’ve all done things we’re not proud of. You can’t keep holding that over her head. At some point, you’re going to have to let it go.”
Hale sighed. “She’s managed well enough since we made the jump to Terra Nova. But she’s made bad decisions in the past that got people killed.”
“People can learn from their mistakes,” Marie said.
Hale glared at her. “Lessons learned don’t bring the dead back.” He rapped his knuckles against a railing.
“I know what you’re doing,” Marie said. “You’re debating what you’d do if you could contact the Valiant. Tell them to turn around and bring our boys back ASAP or let them continue the mission for the good of the colony.”
“There’s not a right answer,” Hale grumbled.
“Then don’t kick yourself over a decision you’re not going to make. Carson and the ship’s crew know who the boys are. They’re not going to put them in any danger…any more da nger than any first contact situation. Ugh. I wish I hadn’t given up smoking.”
“Let’s keep this quiet,” Hale said. “Last thing we need is for the civilians to use this against me. Being a colonel is easier than being a governor,” he said. “Rank gives an order and you don’t get ‘but why’ from Strike Marines.”
“Quiet until the boys come back,” Marie said. “Then when I scream at them, they’ll hear it back on Earth!”
Jared led the Triumvirate into the expansive arena through a corridor at ground level. A shimmering force field 300 meters above protected them from the void and gave a spectacular view of the blue-white planet. Bits of rock and stone floated above the shield, aimlessly spinning through the void.
Jared was surprised at how much the place reminded him of a sports stadium on Earth, with the exception of the blood-stained sand covering the floor. Rows of seating rose up around them, all empty now, but Jared could imagine the crowds and wondered what kinds of horrors played out on the sand that he worked beneath his boots.
Two more shuttles had arrived, each carrying freshly grown Netherguard, all fully armored and armed. The Netherguard spread out around the circumference of the stadium.
A group of Ultari were waiting in the center of the stadium, thirteen figures, dressed in clean, obviously well-kept clothes; most wore a combination of black and red leather, others wore dark robes that flowed down towards their ankles. All wore holstered weapons, either on their hips or thighs; all had an entourage of security behind them, carrying rifles. Despite Pousal’s warning, the Ultari still seemed to be trying to intimidate their new guests.
He stepped forward as Jared’s group neared, opening his mouth to speak. Without waiting for the Ultari’s words, Jared stepped aside, giving the leaders their first up-close and personal view of the Emperor. Their eyes went wide with fear. Some dropped to their knees, pressing their faces into the rough sand, while four at the front remained on their feet.
“Yes,” Kyrios said, robotic arms outstretched. “Some of you remember how to respect your emperor.”
One of the captains looked up. “Please, Holy One, forgive.”
Still standing, one of the captains turned and tried to pull another to his feet. “Get up!”
“Forgiveness is for those that deserve it,” Kyrios said. “Look at what you have allowed yourselves to become. What you have allowed my people to become. Your very weakness offends me.”
The Prince stepped forward. “This was once the pinnacle of our empire, look at it now. It’s but a shadow of its former glory. You have disgraced your empire.”
“Get up!” the Ultari shouted again, pulling harder. “Do not bow to these imposters. They are false. Look, they are the Rightly Guided’s frauds.”
The Arch Duke growled, stepping forward. “You dare speak their name?”
“I will peel your flesh from your bones,” the Prince said, pointing.
“I am Jur,” the Ultari said. “And I do not fear Regulos puppets.”
“No!” Jared yelled, but the alien was already in motion.
Three Netherguard stepped forward in a flash, moving in front of the Triumvirate, as the Ultari drew his pistol and fired. A loud twang echoed around the arena as a bullet slammed into the Netherguard, knocking it off its feet. Blood sprayed from the wound as it hit the ground, never once crying out in pain. The other two charged, bring their halberd disrupter blades down, cutting through the scrambling captains.
Screams and blood filled the air. The four standing captains were cut down in less than five seconds, their bodies shredded by the long, razor-sharp twin-bladed weapons. Jared shouted the command to halt, reinforcing it with a pulse from his armors command network that linked him to all the Netherguard.
The hybrid proccies warriors froze in place, weapons raised, ready to cut through the rest of the Ultari. They stood there like statues of death, waiting to be released to finish the executions.
Jur, who’d been the first to fall victim to the Netherguard’s attack, scrambled away from the deadly Netherguard, blood pumping from his wrist, now just a stump. His hand, still clutching the pistol, lay in a bloody puddle, several meters away.
“Please,” he cried. “No!”
Kyrios stepped forward, walking through the group of captains, who backed away, heads bowed. The Netherguard stood down from their attacks, standing at attention on either side of the Emperor.
“Your fear has destroyed you,” Kyrios said, stopping in front of the bleeding Ultari. “Your transgressions are many, servant. However, I am not an unmerciful god. Seek forgiveness and it shall be granted.”
Jur struggled to his knees. “I…I was wrong.”
“Good.” Kyrios placed a hand on the Ultari’s bowed head, his long fingers stretching across the alien’s entire skull. “You are forgiven.”
The Emperor crushed the Ultari’s skull with a wet crack. The alien barked a brief cry of pain, then went silent, his body going limp, hanging upright in the Emperor’s grip.
Kyrios turned back to the Ultari captains, now all on their knees, terrified eyes locked on Jur’s twitching body. “We would’ve bore witness to the rebirth of my Grand Empire, but I will not abide weakness or dissent. I require unquestioning loyalty and total—”
Jared turned, seeing a new group of Ultari walking across the floor of the coliseum, led by a female dressed in shoulder pauldrons of red, scaled armor, a black leather jacket buttoned up the front, its collar folded up, black leather pants, and a pistol strapped to her thigh. Her long black hair was tied into a ponytail, and unlike the males around her, she wore no jewelry.
Her vanguard had formed a V behind their leader; all armed with large energy rifles. Ten in all, they ignored the sixty Netherguard surrounding them, eyes locked on the Triumvirate as they neared.
“Ah,” Kyrios said. “The Thareos Clan, one of the most loyal in my empire. You seem to have done well for yourself, despite your failures. The Thareos were some of my most honored warriors. Warriors who knew how to show fealty and honor.”
The female stopped several meters away, hand on her pistol, surveying the damage wrought by the Netherguard. “I owe no fealty to a dead crown. I will pay you no honor, and neither shall my captains. The true Emperor is long dead, his empire dust and ash.”
Jared frowned. This female was definitely more articulate than the rest of them, and if he had to guess, she looked more like their leader than any one of these creatures.
“Allow me to show her the way,” the Arch Duke said.
Kyrios held up a hand. “No, Cigyd, this one intrigues me. What is your name?”
“I am Captain Kailani, of the Star Breakers. The Thareos are long dead. Like our Ancestors and their Spirits.”
“You are a believer, then?”
“I believe that when our true Emperor was taken from us, the Ultari people fell into chaos. A long and deadly cycle of civil war destroyed the true Ultari while the Regulos pretenders burrowed into the home worlds. It took centuries before we stopped fighting ourselves and accepted the council. We will never bow to pretender kings again.” She kept one hand on her pistol, and Jared realized, by the way she carried herself, that she was not a person to be trifled with.
Kyrios stood silent for a moment, seeming to consider the female’s words. “You are right to be weary of false gods and those seeking to usurp my rightful throne. Your words are true; however, your understanding is not.
“Does your clan still practice the Blood Oath, Kailani? Or have you devolved so far as to forget your roots? The words of Thar, your clan patriarch?”
“You are close to blasphemy,” Kailani said, unclasping the thumb break on her holster. “I will not let you stain the sacred words.”
Two Netherguard moved to stop her, but Kyrios raised a hand, stopping them. “Thar promised his people to me hundreds of years ago. Said the words that became law. The words that bind his soul to my will. Thar’s will committed his people to the first light of the morning as it strikes the place of your birth.”
Kailani’s eyes widened. “You cannot…”
“I am the heart of the people and the savior of Thar. I am the one true Emperor, High Lord of the Ultari, God of Wrath, Ancestor’s Chosen, the Face of the Spirit, the Sword of the Triumvirate. You will submit. You will serve.” The Emperor spoke alien words that hissed and popped in Jared’s ears as he completed the ritual.
Kailani dropped to one knee, raising her chin, exposing her neck. “The words have been spoken. You are my Emperor.”
“Yes,” Kyrios said. “I am.”
“Three tens,” Nunez said, grinning. “Beats that two pair you have, Moretti, and the nothing that Cherry has.”
“Don’t call me that!”
Laughing, Moretti didn’t bother waiting to see Popov’s cards. “I’ll admit, that’s a good one, Nunez, but I’m fairly certain four of a kind beats three.”
Nunez sat stunned, mouth open as Moretti tossed his cards onto the table.
“That big enough for you, dog?” He reached forward to pull the chips in close.
Nunez moved his lips, but no words came out.
To Moretti’s right, Holloman leaned forward, pointing at Popov. “What’d you have?”
Popov held her cards up. “Well, it’s not a four of a kind, that’s for sure. But all the numbers are in a row.”
“A straight?” Moretti asked. “Four of a kind beats a straight.”
Popov laid the cards down. “Even if they’re all the same kind?”
Moretti froze, eyes locked on Popov’s cards.
Nunez clapped his hands together once and laughed. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
Birch leaned in between Holloman and Popov. “That’s called a straight flush.”
“And that’s good?” Popov asked.
“It’s the second-best hand in the game.”
Nunez threw up his hands in disgust. “Oh, come on! Stop screwing around.” He pointed at her. “You’re a ringer. I see it.”
“Whatever do you mean?” Popov asked.
“You’ve played before.”
“I never said I hadn’t,” Popov said. “You just assumed I hadn’t. I was okay with that assumption.”
“You’re a shark.”
Popov pulled a small pouch from inside her black Pathfinder overalls and started filling it with chits. “But really, all in with trips? That’s a rookie move, especially without anything else showing on the board.”
Nunez stuttered, “I—”
The hatch at the front of the bay opened and Lincoln poked his head through. “Hey, Roy, we’re getting that alarm on drive. ”
Roy Torgeson, Valiant ’s crew chief, looked up from the game and waved at Lincoln. “I’ll check it out.”
“Take Moretti and Nunez,” Sergeant West said, walking up to the group. “Looks like they could use some exercise.”
“Straight flush,” Nunez said, ducking through the hatch separating the bay and Valiant ’s main corridor. “The hell kind of luck is that?”
“I kind of like her,” Holloman said.
Nunez glared at him.
“Matter of fact,” Holloman said, pausing at the hatch, “I need to hit the head. You guys go ahead, and I’ll meet you back there in a minute.”
The two Pathfinders waved him off, then continued down the corridor.
They came to Valiant ’s portside stairwell and ascended the stairs to the next deck.
“You think these cyborged aliens are going to actually help us?” Nunez asked.
“No idea. But I tell you what, I’m not too excited that Hale didn’t send someone else to deal with them, other than the Chief,” the medic said.
“What’s your beef with her anyway? She seems pretty cool to me. Hell of a fighter. ”
“You mean to tell me you’ve never heard about the Belisarius ?”
“Yeah, course I have, so—ooooh.”
Nunez stopped, frowning. “Wait, and Hale thinks it’s a good idea for her to lead another first contact mission out here in the middle of nowhere?”
Moretti snapped his fingers. “Now you’re catching on. Most anyone screws up that bad and their career ends right then and there. What did Carson do that let her hang on to her Pathfinder wings, then gave her the chance to join this mission?”
Shaking his head, Nunez turned and continued down the corridor. “Doesn’t matter. Here we are and she’s with us.”
“She screws up again and gets us all killed, then it’ll matter.”
They passed through two more hatches before coming to the engineering entrance. Nunez tapped a code into the panel beside the door and the hatch unlocked. The thrumming of Valiant’ s engines seemed to penetrate to Moretti’s bones as the hatch opened. Inside, rows of thumping pistons, hissing air scrubbers, and pounding regulators created a chorus of maddening sound.
No wonder engineers are all crazy, Moretti thought.
“I still don’t understand why Greer didn’t send Lincoln back here. It’s not like we know what to look for,” Nunez said, pushing the hatch open .
Moretti shrugged. “Eh, you know pilots. Everything is an emergency, and they’re always more important than everyone else on board.”
“Well,” Nunez said, stopping on the other side. “They kind of are.”
Moretti snorted. “Why? Because they can pilot the ship?” He slapped a palm against a machine’s metal skin to his right. “These things are so advanced a three-year-old could fly them. Hell, they can fly themselves if they need to.”
“Yeah, well, I’d rather have a human pilot behind the wheel than a robot any day.”
Nunez led the way down the walkway, craning his neck to look over some machines and bending over to look under others. He laughed.
Moretti climbed onto the bottom rung of the railing, lifting himself up to look down the length of the compartment. He had to duck under a hanging cluster of cables to get a good view. “What’s so funny?”
“I just don’t have any idea what I’m looking at him. Like I’m supposed to know why the motion sensors are going off.”
Something clattered across the deck. Moretti looked down just in time to see something slide off the walkway, underneath one of the large condenser units. “What was that?”
“Don’t know. I think I kicked something.”
Moretti hopped off the railing, shaking his head. “If it was a snake, it would’ve bit you. ”
Nunez bent down, reaching underneath the machine, grunting as he stretched his arm out. “Almost got it… there!”
He came back up with a small data pad in his hand. “Just looks like a personal pad. You think one of the engineers left it behind?”
“Not likely,” Moretti said, holding out his hand. “Let me see it.”
Moretti took the pad, inspected it, then powered it up. The loading image faded a second later, replaced with a view of Earth’s Crucible gate. He looked over several of the icons, frowning. “Xaros Elites ?”
“Really, one or two?” Nunez asked, snatching the pad back, flipping it around to read. “Two? Man, I’ve been wanting to play this one forever.”
Moretti arched an eyebrow. “It’s a game?”
“It’s not just a game,” Nunez said, shooting Moretti a glare. “It’s the number one RTS on the market right now. Well, back home on Earth anyway. I doubt these guys out here even have Xaros Elites 1 .”
“Okay, so what’s it doing here? I doubt any of those engineers play a stupid game.”
“It’s not stupid.”
A metallic clang came from the far end of the compartment, and on instinct, Moretti drew his pistol. “What the hell?”
Nunez dropped the pad, drawing his own gun and backing up beside Moretti. “Who’s there?”
“If there’s anyone back there, you need to come out now. I promise it will be better for you in the long term. You don’t want to get shot.”
A high-pitched, almost whiny voice answered, “P-p-please, don’t shoot. We didn’t do it.”
“Come out!” Moretti shouted. “Keep your hands in the air.”
“Okay, okay, we’re coming out,” another voice said. “Ouch, careful.”
Nunez and Moretti exchanged looks.
A second later, Elias Hale emerged from behind one of the large coolant tanks near the back of the compartment. His brother, Jerry, followed him out.
“I swear, it’s not my fault,” Elias said. “I was just looking at the specs. I didn’t do anything. I’m sorry!”
“Aren’t they…” Moretti holstered his pistol.
“They are.” Nunez shook his head.
“It was his fault!” Jerry punched his brother in the shoulder.
“Times like this,” Nunez said, “I’m glad I’m not the officer in charge.”
The two Hale boys sat next to each other on benches bolted to the cargo bay bulkheads, looking like their world was about to end.
And they probably aren’t too far off , Carson thought. She stood in the middle of the bay, trying to figure out what they were going to do next. Either way, she was going to have one hell of a time explaining this one to Hale, something she wasn’t looking forward to at all.
“Can’t we just take them back?” Popov asked.
“That’ll put us a week behind schedule, at least,” West said.
“We’re already putting a pretty good strain on the FTL drives going as far as we are,” Greer said. “I’d hate to see what happens to the astranite if we just abruptly drop out of hyperspace and jump back in. Specs call for a 72-hour turnaround at a minimum, to let the drives reset. Otherwise, you run the risk of cracking the crystals and let’s assume that’s a very bad thing to do light years from any help.”
Carson thought about that for a moment, shaking her head. “We have a mission. Governor Hale gave me a few conditions to return before the mission’s complete, and stowaways wasn’t one of them.”
“We won’t be in the way, honest,” Elias said.
Jerry shoved an elbow into his brother’s side. “Shut up!”
“Ow! Stop that.”
“Well, it’s your fault we’re here. If you hadn’t wanted to see those damn engines so bad, we wouldn’t be in this shit. ”
“Language,” Elias warned, rubbing his side.
Jerry rolled his eyes. “I’m sorry, Chief Carson. I told him it wasn’t a good idea.”
Carson held up a hand. “Enough.” All the possible stowaways in the galaxy and I get stuck with Ken Hale’s kids? “So, what, we just confine them to quarters? I’m not sure how feasible that is, or if we even have the space to board them.”
“We can make some space in the crew berths,” Petty Officer Roy Torgeson, Valiant ’s crew chief, said. “Though there isn’t any way to secure the compartment.”
“We won’t cause any trouble,” Elias said.
“Chief Carson,” Jerry said. “I know this looks bad, but I promise we won’t cause any problems.”
“Any more problems, you mean?” Carson said.
Jerry looked away. “Yes, ma’am.”
“You know,” West said, giving Carson a sidelong look. “I was checking the head just before coming up here. It could use a really good cleaning. I was going to save it for Nunez, but it seems as though we have two better qualified individuals here that could do the job.”
Carson suppressed a grin. “I think that’s a great idea.”
The brothers groaned.
Carson pointed a finger. “You’ll report to Petty Officer Torgeson. You’ll do what he says, no matter what. If you cause any issues whatsoever, I’ll have you locked in a closet for the remainder of the mission. Understood?”
Both boys nodded and said in unison, “Yes, ma’am.”
“They’re all yours, PO,” Carson said.
“Right,” Torgeson said. “You boys come with me. I trust you know what a mop is. If you don’t, you’ll be experts by the time this voyage is over.”
Reluctantly, Elias and Jerry stood and followed the crew chief to the front of the bay, up the stairs, and through the hatch to the main crew deck.
Carson waited for the hatch to shut, then said, “Son of a bitch.”
West crossed his arms. “This complicates things a little.”
“A little? Sergeant, we’re royally screwed here. Hale already barely trusts me. The only reason he sent me on this mission is because I’m literally the only thing he has.” Carson paused, chewing on her lip. “And to be honest, I can’t blame him. Add this to the equation and I’m in a lose-lose spot any way you look at it.”
“It’s not your fault, Chief. They chose to sneak on board.”
“It might not be my fault, but it’s sure as hell my responsibility. If anything happens to those boys…”
“Nothing will happen to them,” West told her.
“I still can’t believe they were able to sneak aboard in the first place.”
“What?” West asked. “That they outsmarted every security system we had in place and snuck aboard the most advanced ship in the fleet? Seems kind of par for the course for a descendant of Ken Hale.”
Carson grunted. “Right.”
Jared stood at the end of a long row of half-finished Netherguard assembly tubes, inspecting the cables and wires that connected the string of tubes to the central computer core. Several Ultari workers rushed past, carrying equipment for the tubes further down the line, keeping their eyes hidden from him.
Word had spread quickly that Kyrios had returned and his power was unquestionable. Kailani had to go so far as to make a station wide broadcast informing all its occupants as much. She’d sent a wideband FTL blast recalling all their deployed forces, and if Jared was being honest with himself, he was glad she’d appeared; otherwise, Kyrios would have surely torn apart the entire station.
He finished adjusting a metal coupling, then moved to the next. The Ultari fortress, which Kyrios had renamed to its first designation, the Hand of God, for all its failings had provided them with six times as many 3D printers as they’d had on their ship and on Negev. It had only taken a few days for Jared to configure them to produce additional tubes. In this line alone, they had more than a hundred construction stations. So far, they’d produced five lines of a tube, which, combined with the ones they’d brought on the Ultar ’s Wrath , brought their total capacity to almost 60 tubes. Once they were all up and running, they’d be capable of producing upwards of 360 Netherguard an hour.
A battalion of troops just like that , Jared thought. This can be ramped up even further. The emperor will have an army in no time.
Jared felt someone step up behind him and turned to find the Arch Duke standing there, looking over the tubes. He bowed his head. “Arch Duke Cigyd.”
Without looking at Jared, the Arch Duke said, “How is the construction proceeding?”
“We are on schedule, master.”
“As soon as this line is ready, I want you to move into full production.”
“Of course, master,” Jared said, bowing his head again. “I must report, however, that we are having a slight issue with linking the existing Ultari technology with our own. I believe we will solve this problem quickly, but it is causing some system errors in the new generation of Netherguard; they become largely unstable when injured. If you’ll give me a few days—”
Cigyd waved a dismissive hand through the air. “They are meat only. We can always grow more once we correct the issue. Full production, servant, do you understand?”
The Arch Duke stood there, silent for a long moment. Finally, Jared said, “Is there something else I might assist you with?”
“I have another project for you.”
The Arch Duke led Jared back to their ship, to the bridge, now empty. The Emperor and Prince were busy assessing what resources the Fortress could provide. Cigyd moved to one side, and a panel slid aside, disappearing into the bulkhead, revealing a small room Jared hadn’t known existed.
Inside were three large tanks, all painted matte black, all sealed shut but not running. Cables hung from the ceiling, running to each tank and banks of displays formed a semi-circle around each tank, near their heads.
He frowned. “Master?”
The Arch Duke ignored him and stepped up beside the far-left tank, wiping a metallic hand across the transparent domed lid. Jared moved closer, his breath catching in his throat when he saw what was inside.
An Ultari body with golden skin lay inside, eyes closed as if it was sleeping. The ridged protrusions on its forehead were less pronounced than the Ultari here on the station and its skin was supple, not pulled tight across its face. Its sunken eye sockets and long jaw were still the most identifiable feature, though on this unconscious alien, it didn’t look nearly as threatening.
“You’re growing your own bodies?” He leaned forward, peering through the film of frost and condensation. “That’s not a Netherguard at all.”
“These captains might be cowed for the time being, but if we are ever going to regain our command over our people, they will have to see us for who we really are. Our original bodies were destroyed when the Abomination locked us away and dismantled everything we’d built. Our once glorious empire is in decay, not even a shadow of what it once was.”
Jared couldn’t take his eyes away from the alien body. What possibilities would be available to him if the Triumvirate was merely flesh and blood, and not the mechanically constructs they were now?
“We have much work to do,” the Arch Duke continued. “The information Captain Kailani has provided is nothing short of disturbing. It seems that not only did the Abomination destroy our legacy, but the Faithful have abandoned our ancestors and now fight amongst themselves for scraps from the Abomination’s table. It is a disgrace. What was once the greatest empire in the galaxy has been reduced to broken bands of pirates, traders, and thieves, all living under the heel of the Regulos?” He spat the last word.
“But according to the captains, the Abomination…these Regulos haven’t made any further moves to attack Ultari worlds si nce you were deposed. Like it just stopped after imprisoning the three of you.”
“The Abomination is flawed,” Cigyd said. “Even so many hundreds of years ago, we understood this. It doesn’t wish for domination over all; it strives for order and consistency. A constant state of perfection. Only when that objective is threatened does the Abomination that controls the Regulos act. There is no one now that has the strength or will to challenge its power, no matter how stagnant it’s become. We are too close to fulfillment to allow anything to hinder our progress. Now that our Netherguard facilities are coming on-line, your task will be to oversee this project.”
“Growing these bodies?”
“This body…failed. Unfortunately. This program will be the key to our success in reestablishing the Ultari Empire. They must be nothing short of perfect. You, and your loved ones, will be held personally responsible should these constructs fail.”
“Master,” Jared said. “I’m not a geneticist. I know the assembly tech well enough to control the dough boys and Netherguard, but I’m no doctor.”
“You are more capable than you let others believe, Jared Hale. You fool no one with your ignorant veneer,” Cigyd said. “I, for one, was against involving you in this project, but the Emperor insisted, despite my misgivings. I will, however, be the one to dispense punishment should the project fail. Now that I’ve been able to collect genetic data from Ultari, we can use your human procedural technology to create proper vessels for the Triumvirate’s spirits.”
If the Arch Duke’s face would have been able to render a smile, Jared imagined he would be at this very moment. Instead, the black metal face stared at him, as if waiting for an answer.
Jared nodded. “Yes, master. I understand.”
“Good.” Cigyd moved out of the hidden alcove. “We are expecting the remaining fleet captains to arrive any day now. When they do, they will be met by the herald. After we have the opportunity to integrate them into our new battle fleet, we will begin planning our attack.”
Jared looked up. “Attack?”
“We must strike the Regulos and their Abomination masters hard and fast. A decisive victory will not only show that we aren’t a trivial force, it will call the other clans to our banner.”
“What if the captains don’t want to fight for you?” Jared asked.
“They will either submit, or they will be destroyed."
“How long has he been like that?” Shannon asked, looking at the Ultari through the two-way glass window separating them and the alien’s cell.
The Ultari prisoner sat, secured to a stainless-steel chair on one side of a matching square table, both of which were bolted to the floor. After what had happened in the clinic, Hale had decided they weren’t going to take any chances. The prisoner wore a simple hospital gown and Hale kept the cell purposely cool.
The walls of the cell were dull gray, the room lit by a single photocell on the ceiling. A metal slab extended out from the back wall, topped with a thin mattress and a single blanket.
“Ever since Dr. Chu released him,” Hale said.
“And he hasn’t said anything?”
“Nothing at all. Not even when the guards moved him from the bed to the chair. Are you sure you’re up for this? ”
Knight hobbled closer to the window. “All interviews are the same: gain their confidence, keep them on their toes, then break them.”
“Interrogation, you mean,” Marie said.
“Interrogation sounds too harsh,” Knight said, looking back over his shoulder. “We’re the kinder, gentler military. I was counter-intelligence way back when, even before the Ember War. Got picked up for some special programs, most of which I’m sure are still classified. Suffice it to say, I never walked out of an interview without the information I needed.”
“With humans maybe.”
“Potato, potahto,” Knight said. “I’ve got a few techniques in my back pocket. He can’t be immune to them all. We just have to find out which buttons he’s got and push them.”
“What kind of techniques?” Hale asked.
“Oh, you know, cold exposure, sleep deprivation, hunger, sound amplification, waterboarding; you know, the basics.”
“That’s torture,” Marie said, crossing her arms.
“I prefer the term ‘enhanced interrogation’.”
“Doesn’t matter what you call it,” Marie said. “It’s torture.”
Knight toddled around, pain on his face as he had to keep weight on his injured leg so he could face Marie. “Let me get this straight. This asshole in there captured, enslaved, and killed thousands of our people, and you’re defending his civil rights?”
“This individual didn’t kill thousands.”
“How do you know that?” Knight asked. “If I understand it correctly, this guy was found with a severed alien head in his hand. I don’t know about you, but I’d say that’s a pretty clear indication he’s not one of the good guys.”
“You don’t even know if he’ll answer questions at all, regardless of whether or not you torture him ,” Marie said, putting an emphasis on the last words.
Knight held up his hands. “Hey, I’m all for a calm, relaxing, civil conversation. Wouldn’t be as fun, but if he’s up for it, I’m okay with it. But I’ve met my fair share of interviewees, and I can say with almost 100 percent certainty that this guy isn’t going to just open up and share his life story with me.”
Marie turned to Hale. “I want to be in there with him.”
“Absolutely not,” Hale said. “There’s no way I’m putting you in a room with that thing.”
“He’s secured to a chair,” Marie said. “He’s not going anywhere. Besides, there’s a team of armed guards waiting on the other side of the door just in case.”
“Marie,” Hale started.
She looked at him sternly. “I’m going in there.”
Hale held her gaze for a time, then looked away, sighing. It was useless to argue with the woman and he knew it.
Knight clapped his hands together. “Great. So you want to be good cop and I’ll be bad?”
Marie glared at Knight. “You’ll do nothing unless I give the okay.”
Knight shrugged. “You’re the boss.”
The Ultari snarled at them as Marie and Knight entered the room a few minutes later, lips curling back, revealing jagged, discolored teeth. Marie sat in the chair opposite and Knight floated up to the side of the table. The alien glared at his two captors but didn’t speak.
Marie removed a small speaker from her pocket and set it on the table between her and the alien. A green light blinked on and off and she heard a crackling in the air.
“Before we get off on the wrong foot here,” Marie said, the speaker translating her words into Ultari, broadcasting them in a cone towards the alien. “Do you need anything, any water or food or anything?”
The alien turned his gaze to her but remained silent.
“My name’s Marie Hale. This is Mr. Knight. We’d like to ask you a few questions, if that’s all right.”
“You’re Ultari,” Marie asked. “The other aliens you were fighting, above Negev, they’re from the Sacred Intelligence? We’d like to talk to you about that.”
“Zeis filth,” the alien said through gritted teeth, then spat on the floor. Marie heard the words faintly from his mouth, but the speaker cancelled most of his volume out and replaced it with the English translation. “Ultari Empire crush your worlds. Praise the Ancestor’s Spirit.”
Marie and Knight exchanged glanced. “Zeis?” Marie asked.
The alien growled, clenching his fists, his chains clinking against the table.
“I think you might be mistaking us for someone else,” Knight said, leaning forward. “We’re human, not Zeis.”
The prisoner glared at Knight for several seconds, seeming to study the man’s features. “No Zeis.”
“That’s right,” Marie said, wanting to keep the Ultari focused on her. “We’re human. We’re what you might call the new kids on the block.”
The alien didn’t respond.
“These Zeis that you mentioned, are you at war with them too? You’re fighting the Zeis and the Sacred Intelligence?”
The Ultari spat on the floor. “Don’t speak their name. They claim they are rightly guided. We spit on them, slander them with the name Regulos. You humans would serve them? Make the Ultari your slaves too?”
“Oh, like your people did to ours on Negev, right?” Knight said before Marie could respond.
Marie glared at him. A look Marie thought was confusion spread across the alien’s face, but without knowing more about it, she couldn’t be sure. It considered Knight for several moments, then turned back to Marie .
“Gragar know nothing of what this man speaks,” the Ultari growled.
“The Sacred Intelligence,” Marie prodded and worked to control her emotions as the Ultari spit again. “The Regulos, you said they would make you slaves?”
The alien lifted his arms, pulling his chains tight. “Slaves.”
“No, absolutely not. Our people don’t believe in slavery. You attacked our people; those are for our safety and yours.”
He relaxed, setting his forearms against the edge of the table. “Gragar hungry.”
“Well,” Knight said, leaning forward. “Tell us what we want to know—”
Marie cut him off. “We’ll look into getting you something to eat. But first, if you could tell us anything about the Regulos or the Triumvirate, that would be extremely helpful. Gragar, is that your name?”
After a moment, the Ultari said, “Gragar. The old gods are legend.”
“Triumvirate. Rulers of Old Empire, before the Regulos and their abomination betrayed the empire. The Triumvirate vanished after they lost the final battle of the war. With the Emperor gone, the true Ultari clans fought for the throne and crown. The clans were weak, couldn’t beat the Regulos, and fled to the conquered worlds. Clans shed their blood for too long, had too many emperors. Stopped caring about the first. The Triumvirate became fodder for children’s night tales.”
“Bedtime stories?” Knight asked.
Gragar glared at Knight but ignored him. “The Triumvirate bent the Abomination to their will, used it to expand the empire beyond the home world and across the stars. They led us to greatness. Then the Abomination found traitors, weaklings, and used them to defeat the Emperor.” The alien seemed genuinely sad as it related the story.
“Why did this…Abomination turn on the emperor?” Marie asked.
“You ask a rock why the wind blows. The Regulos abandoned the expanded empire and retreated to the home worlds. Left the true Ultari with the planets we’d burnt clean of lesser races. Now the Regulos are too strong to fight. They sit in their palaces and deny any who come to take a piece of their riches.” Gragar spat.
“The Regulos shut off all their worlds?” Marie asked. That the Valiant and her children were on the way to one of these planets filled her with dread.
“The first worlds are theirs and theirs alone,” the Ultari said. “Outer systems are there for trade, to buffer against the rest of the galaxy while the Abomination seeks perfection.”
Gragar shook his head. “Because they hate what isn’t perfect. There is a forbidden zone around the first empire. This world is in that zone, too close to Regulos territory for us to care. But there was a hyperspace signature...the clan lord thought it was another faction poaching our territory.”
“Forbidden zone?” Marie asked.
“If you were Zeis you’d know,” Gragar worked his jaw from side to side. “How you not-Zeis get here?”
“This world is habitable,” Knight said. “Why isn’t it settled? Why is it forbidden?”
“Artifact world,” the Ultari said. “The first empire killed off some primitive species during the expansion. The Abomination kept it off limits to everyone. It is far too close to Regulos space for a mining raid. Nothing else for us to take.”
“What do you know about the Milky Way?” Knight asked. “The big galaxy you can see in the sky.”
“Too far for hyper drives,” the Ultari said. “Legend says some great darkness is there. We’re safe in our stars. But only children’s night tales.” He sat back. “No true. Like Triumvirate.”
“Ever heard of the Qa’resh?” Marie asked.
Gragar’s face snapped to one side like he had a tick.
“Gragar do not know Qa’resh,” the Ultari said, taking care to pronounce the name.
“The Triumvirate is real,” Knight said. “We got to know the Emperor, Arch-Duke, and Prince very well.”
“Lies!” Gragar shouted, lunging toward Knight, pulling against his restraints.
Knight tottered back and pointed his cane at the alien.
“No more talk. When the true Ultari return, Gragar will be rewarded. Will destroy humans. The old gods are dead.”
“Explain this, then,” Knight said, sliding a data pad with an image of the Triumvirate’s prison on Negev, the three screaming faces carved into the mountainside. Then he swiped the image to show the robotic bodies of the three rulers.
Gragar roared, lunging again, shaking the chair’s arms and back as he struggled against his restraints. Marie jumped from her chair, backing away, moving closer to the two-way mirror behind her. Knight remained oddly calm.
“LIES!” Gragar bellowed. “You speak heresy! Holy Ones Spirits gone! Ancestors gone!”
Marie held out her hands. “Okay, let’s bring it back down. Relax, we won’t—”
The Ultari struggled against his chains, baring his ugly, jagged teeth, growling.
“Alright, we’re done,” Marie said, motioning for Knight to leave.
A soldier opened the door from the outside and Marie followed Knight from the room. Gragar’s shouts were muted as the door shut behind them.
“You let him have too much control,” Knight said.
“You pushed him and there was no reason for it. He was talking.”
Knight laughed. “And he told us a great deal, but not enough.”
“We were in the same room. What did I miss? ”
“The Triumvirate told us they were the rulers of a benevolent empire and were overthrown by traitors and the last governor bought it. That one in there’s telling us the Emperor and the others were taken out in a coup and vanished, then their empire split. Whoever of the Ultari wasn’t loyal to the Regulos and that Abomination became little better than pirate bands. But what should scare the hell out of us is that we planted our flag on Terra Nova, which both the Ultari and these Regulos won’t stand for. We’re squatting in two back yards.”
“Then let’s hope Carson can convince these Regulos to cut us a break,” Marie said, stepping around him.
Knight rapped his cane against the floor. “He knows more. A lot more about the strength of the Ultari and the Regulos. Let me start working on him. Hours long interrogations, asking him the same questions over and over again to see if his story ever changes. I’ll need some white noise generators and we need to remove the bed from his cell. He clams up, then a couple guards in power armor with shock prods will—”
“No.” Marie spun on him, pointing. “Out of the question.” She looked up at the soldier still standing guard outside the door. “No one gets in, unless expressly permitted by me or Governor Hale, is that understood?”
“And under no circumstances will Mr. Knight be allowed access without me. ”
“Yes, ma’am,” the soldier repeated, giving Knight a stern glare.
Knight threw his hands up. “Oh, come on, you want answers or not?”
“I’m very serious, Mr. Knight. And let’s get one thing straight here; you’re a guest, nothing more. I’m well aware of your history and that of Ms. Shannon’s. Push me, and you’ll find yourself in a cell right next to our friend.” She nodded to Gragar’s room.
Marie returned thirty minutes later with a tray of food. The guard nodded at her and opened the door without a word.
Gragar looked up as Marie entered and snarled.
Marie held out the tray. “I’m not here to ask you any questions. I brought you some food.”
She set the tray down in front of the Ultari, silverware clinking. Without knowing more, she’d thrown several different entrees together: steak, chicken, salad, broccoli, even a slice of pizza. She motioned to the guard and he released one of the Ultari’s hands from the restraints.
“Hopefully something here will be acceptable,” she said, stepping back.
The Ultari examined the plate. He leaned forward and sniffed a few of the portions, then picked up the slice of pizza. He ate half the slice in one bite, and a moment later, his eyes went wide, flicking up to Marie.
“Is good,” he said. “Is very good.”
Marie nodded. “Pepperoni is my favorite too.”
Gragar finished the rest of the pizza in one bite, then moved on to the rest without slowing to swallow. He ripped off a bite of steak, then switched to the chicken, growling as he chewed.
“I’ll leave you to it, then,” Marie said. “I’ll come back and check on you later.”
Carson and West stood behind the pilot’s couches, looking out into the black nothingness that was FTL space. After almost a week cooped up on the Valiant , Carson was ready to step foot on solid ground again. Not to mention returning to real space, where there wasn’t a threat of becoming some infinite cluster of matter stretched through the universe in some kind of weird human/quantum rift.
Greer tapped a command into her terminal, then grabbed the controls with both hands. “Okay, dropping out of FTL in five, four, three…”
The all-encompassing blackness vanished in a flash of light, and the Valiant re-entered normal space. Carson had never been so happy to see the stars.
“Stealth systems active,” Lincoln said. “All systems nominal, FTL drives are winding down.”
“Where are we?” Carson asked .
Greer checked her console. “Data is still coming in, but it looks like we’re in the L2 Lagrange point, above the third planet in the system. Right where we wanted to be.”
“Look at that,” West said, pointing.
Ahead of them, a massive space station hung in the void above an alien world, hanging against the backdrop of stars. The spherical structure dwarfed anything Carson had ever seen. Several segmented layers seemed to float over the surface of the behemoth, rotating slowly around its circumference. Long pylons connected these segments to several large docking rings orbiting the station, some at distances of up to a kilometer.
It was night on the planet below. Clusters of lights spread across the dark surface of the world, covering what looked like the entire globe. Strings of lights, hundreds, perhaps thousands of ships, stretched between the station and planet and to a moon orbiting the planet.
“That thing’s almost as big as the Crucible,” Lincoln said, reading the data on this console.
“That’s got to be hell on traffic control,” Carson said, shaking her head at the incredible sight.
As they watched, several ships dropped out of warp in flashes of light above the station. The new arrivals moved away from each other, some heading for the planet, others to the station. Ships warped away at random intervals, their hulls stretching away briefly before vanishing into the void.
“Not just warships that have FTL, then,” West said .
“It also begs even more questions,” Carson said, watching rectangular-shaped hauler stretch off into warp.
“Which is?” West prodded.
“Where are they all going? How many worlds like this are there? This galaxy was supposed to be empty, well, it’s most definitely not. I mean, there are probably billions and billions of people down there, I find it hard to believe the Qa’resh’s probe missed all this. I mean, a civilization like this didn’t just pop up overnight.”
“You think the Qa’resh lied to us? Or Ibarra lied when he put together the first colony mission? Who didn’t want to get away from the war back then?”
Carson shrugged. “The Qa’resh are gone. Ibarra’s a long way from here.”
“I’m picking up some system chatter,” Greer said. “But most of it is scrambled or alien. The translator nodes are scrubbing the data, but who knows how long it will take to…”
A flash of light cut across space, meters from the Valiant’ s bow. Alarms sounded and tactical warning panels flashed on both pilot’s consoles.
Greer jumped. “What the hell?”
Lincoln tapped furiously. “I don’t know.”
Two ships, decidedly smaller than Valiant herself, zipped past the bow at an angle, showing off clusters of ordinance attached to their underbellies. They flipped over, reversing course to intercept them again .
“Fighters,” Greer said.
A holo-image of one of the ships appeared over the console, markers’ indication hard points, engine placements and a cockpit mounted along the dorsal spine, at the front of the aft section.
“Were they just shooting at us?” West asked.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Greer told him. She shot Lincoln a quick glance. “Status?”
He shook his head. “Active sensor dampening is active and functioning to specs. Drives are at standby. They shouldn’t have been able to spot us. Our stealth is at a hundred percent.”
Something, about the size of a trashcan, smacked against Valiant ’s hull, a few meters in front of the cockpit’s viewport and stuck there. Almost immediately, panels along its sides and top began unfolding, exposing clusters of antennas, conical commination dishes, and manipulator arms that folded down and clamped onto the Valiant ’s hull.
“The hell?” Lincoln said. “Something’s tapping into our computers. Valiant ’s systems are being accessed.”
“Shut it down!” Greer shouted.
“I can’t. It’s locked me out of the system. Whatever it is, it’s moving extremely fast.”
Carson tapped her wrist computer. “Birch, Nunez, suit up ASAP. We’ve got—”
“Wait,” Lincoln said. “Wait, I don’t think it’s malicious. ”
“Explain,” Carson said, leaning forward to look at the screen.
“Whatever it is, it’s accessing all of our communication protocols and reading the core data. It’s not copying, deleting, or transferring anyth… there, it’s done.”
A light flashed on Greer’s console, and before she had time to react, a holographic collage of fractals appeared above the main console between the two pilots, filling Valiant ’s cockpit with flickering orange light.
The image pulsed as a deep, masculine voice said, “You are in violation of Diasore System Traffic Regulations 3.206f, 12.02, 17.41a, 18.7b1 and 49. DIN Adjudication has assessed a fine of 7,000 astruals against this vessel. Any further violations will result in fines and/or detainment. You are—”
Carson raised a hand. “Hello, can you hear me—”
“An additional fine of 100 astruals has been assessed to your account. Any further violations will result in fines and/or detainment.”
Carson turned to West, confused. He shook his head and mouthed, “Wait.”
The voice continued, “Your vessel is hereby slaved and will proceed to Diasore Station, Dock 56, Pad 109 for processing. Do not attempt to deviate from your assigned approach vector, as any violation of your instructions will result in additional fines and/or detainment.”
The image vanished as abruptly as it had appeared, leaving the four humans in stunned silence. The two fighters ahead of them turned, thrusters flaring, putting them on course for the station.
“What the hell was that?” Greer asked.
“I think we just got grounded,” West said.
“Yeah,” Carson said. “But grounded by who?”
“We’re getting flightpath information,” Greer said. “Looks like they’re sending us to the planet’s surface. Northern hemisphere, looks like a continent on the far side…and the engines are firing without any input from my controls. They really did slave this ship. Want me to find a workaround?”
“You can get back control?” Carson asked.
Greer and Lincoln tapped at their control panels and received angry beeps from the speakers.
“Not right now,” Greer said.
“They said we’re to land for ‘processing’.” Carson crossed her arms. “Which means we should meet some sort of official. First contact protocols call for determining an alien culture’s hierarchy, then negotiate from there.”
The Valiant angled down towards the planet and accelerated forwards.
“Protocol doesn’t encourage putting the ship or crew in danger,” West said.
“They saw right through our stealth systems and could’ve blown us to pieces,” Carson said. “We’d be in a good deal more danger if we try and break loose. Let’s see how this plays out. Greer, Lincoln, figure out some way to dump that parking boot on us and have course set back to Terra Nova should the immediate need arise.”
“That kind of defeats the purpose of why we came out here in the first place.”
“Roger that,” Greer said, punching the data into Valiant ’s computer.
Carson turned to West. “Shall we get dressed for the party?”
As the lift chimed, slowing and settling into position at the indicated level, Marie ran through her list of questions again, hoping the whole pizza she held would be enough to encourage Gragar to be more helpful. The doors opened, revealing a long corridor. Marie stepped from the lift and stopped short at the sight of Knight waiting outside the prisoner’s door.
He held out his hands to the side. “Look, I’m sorry, I—”
“Mr. Knight. What are you doing here?”
“I thought I could help. I know my methods aren’t orthodox, but they work, and they’re proven techniques, especially when you’re looking for truth.”
Marie stepped around him, lifting the pizza box over his head. “I believe he was telling the truth.”
Knight took a long whiff as she passed. “Pepperoni, huh? Well, it’s not a T-bone, but it’s something.”
“He likes it. ”
“Wait, he likes it? How do you know that?”
“I gave him some yesterday,” Marie explained.
“You fed him?”
“Yes,” Marie said, stopping in front of the door. “I fed him. A fact I’m hoping he’ll remember while we’re talking today.”
“Vous obtenez plus de mouches avec du miel,” Knight said.
Marie paused. “Your French is merde .”
“Can’t speak it unless you’re a snob about it, savvy,” Knight winked.
She shook her head, then nodded at the guard. It was a different soldier today. He turned and entered a code on the wall panel. The lock clicked, and he pulled the door open and stepped out of the way.
“He’s not to enter,” Marie said, motioning to Knight.
“Yes, ma’am,” the soldier said.
“Good cop needs a bad cop,” Knight said.
Marie ignored him.
Inside, Gragar still sat behind the table, hands in his lap. The empty tray now pushed to the side, the only thing remaining were a few stems of broccoli. He looked up at her, his nostrils flaring as she neared.
“Didn’t like the broccoli, huh?” Marie asked.
“Is garbage,” Gragar said.
Marie chuckled. “Yeah, it’s kind of an acquired taste for some people.” She set the box down and opened the lid, revealing the whole pepperoni pizza inside. “I figured thi—”
In a flash of motion, Gragar leapt from his chair, grabbing Marie from behind. She screamed but cut it short as he pressed something sharp against her neck. The door snapped open. The guard stood in the corridor, hand on his holstered pistol, eyes wide with fear.
“Get back!” Gragar yelled, grabbing the pizza box and throwing it into the hallway. The guard jumped out of the way and it smacked against the wall, opening and spilling pizza slices everywhere. He picked up the translation box and clenched it in the fist holding Marie fast.
“Gragar wants ship,” the Ultari shouted, pulling Marie out into the hallway. “Gragar will be free.”
“Don’t shoot,” Marie stammered, her fingers wrapping around Gragar’s thick arms.
The Ultari stepped through the door, keeping Marie between him and the guard. “You will free Gragar.”
The guard backed away, keeping his hand on his pistol. “I can’t let you do that,” he said, voice trembling. “Put the weapon down. I’ve hit the alarm; this place will be crawling with soldiers any second now.”
“Gragar, please,” Marie pleaded. “It doesn’t have to be like this. We’re not looking for enemies here.”
“The clan does not allow the weak to survive. I will return with honor or die. ”
“Stop,” the guard said, keeping two meters between them as they moved through the corridor.
Knight kept pace behind the guard while leaning heavily on his cane. He leaned around to make eye contact with Marie. “It’s going to be okay.”
“Shut up!” the guard shouted, half turning.
“Easy, Gaul,” Knight said, calling Marie by her old pilot call sign. He worked the grip of his cane from side to side. “It’s going to be fine. Just everyone relax and don’t do anything stupid. S e déplacer vers la gauche .”
Marie frowned, eyeing Knight, trying to decide if she’d heard him correctly. Knight nodded again.
“Gragar will have ship!” the Ultari shouted, pushing Marie forward. “Gragar will kill this human!”
“Please,” Marie repeated. “Gragar, it doesn’t have to be this way.”
“Get on floor!” Gragar shouted, motioning with his free hand. He tightened his arm around Marie’s neck and she gasped for air. “Give me weapon!”
“Okay,” the guard said, slowly reaching for his pistol. “I’m going to put it down.”
Gragar loosened his hold enough for Marie to breathe. “No tricks.”
Slowly, using only the tips of his fingers, the guard pulled the pistol from its holster. “No tricks.” He set it down carefully and stepped away .
“On the floor!”
The man lowered himself to the floor, spreading his arms out above his head.
Gragar pointed at Knight. “You too!”
“Hey,” Knight said. “I’m a crusty old man. What am I going to do?”
The lift chimed at the end of the corridor. The doors opened and Hale stepped out. “Johnson, what in the— Marie!”
“Ken!” Marie shouted.
“Stay back!” the Ultari growled. “Gragar kill human.”
Hale stepped forward, hands palms out in front of him. “Let’s all just take a step back here and calm down. We can figure this out. Marie, are you all right?”
Marie nodded but felt Gragar’s grasp tighten around her throat. Her gaze flicked from Hale to Knight, who nodded slightly.
Hale stopped beside Knight, hands still up. “Listen, Gragar, we aren’t here to hurt you, I promise you. We just want to talk.”
“No more talk. Gragar goes now.”
“I don’t want you to do something that we’d all regret. Now if you can just let her go, we can—”
“Not let go! The clan will take me back!”
Marie saw Knight’s hand twist his cane’s handle, his eyes locked on Gragar’s.
“Ultari destroy— ”
“Déplacer!” Knight shouted.
In one move, Marie threw herself down and to the left, pushing up on Gragar’s arm. The sudden movement cut the Ultari off guard and he let out a cry of surprise as Marie dropped from his grasp.
The cry was cut short as Knight raised his cane tip off the ground and aimed it at the alien’s head. There was a gun shot and Marie felt a searing pain tear through her shoulder. She screamed, covering her shoulder as she hit the floor. She rolled away from the Ultari and heard a body hit the floor.
Gragar lay face down, a wet hole the size of a palm in his back and a pool of maroon blood spreading around him.
“Marie!” Hale moved past Knight, kneeling Marie’s side.
“I’m fine,” Marie told him through gritted teeth. She pulled her fingers away from her shoulder, warm with blood.
“What the hell were you thinking?” Hale shouted at Knight. “You could’ve killed her.”
“I was saving her life,” Knight said, tossing his cane aside and walking toward Marie with ease.
Marie turned, grimacing. “Is he…”
Knight kicked the alien. “Looks like I hit him in a major artery. Oops.”
“Goddamn it,” Hale said, helping Marie to her feet. “You didn’t need to kill him. There goes all our inside knowledge of the galaxy. ”
“Well, I wasn’t trying to kill him,” Knight kicked the body again. “These Ultari are built a bit differently than us.”
“This part of your grand interrogation methods?” Marie dabbed at the bullet wound on her shoulder. The round had split her skin but managed little more than a flesh wound.
“You would’ve rather I let him kill you? Eventually, he would’ve figured out that we didn’t have another ship for him and I doubt he would’ve let you go with an ‘aww shucks’.”
“You never needed that cane…” Hale said.
“Sometimes these old bones creek when the weather gets cold,” Knight said. “Had to sell that I needed it to you all. None of you can act to save your lives.”
“You’re under arrest until I can figure out what to do with you,” Hale said. “Hand over your other weapons.”
Knight stared at Hale for a long moment, jaw muscles flexing. Finally, he removed a fighting knife from a sheath strapped to his ankle. He spun the knife around in his grip and handed it hilt first to Hale. The blade had a faded inscription: CRY HAVOC.
“I have a sentimental attachment to that,” Knight said.
“Corporal Johnson,” Hale said. “Take Mr. Knight into custody and escort him to his residence. You’re to remain there until relieved, understood?”
“Yes, sir.” Johnson stepped behind Knight and grabbed him by the wrist and shoulder, then led him away.
“We need to get you to the infirmary,” Hale said, turning to inspect his wife’s wound as the lift doors closed.
The blood had stopped seeping through her fingers, but the pain still pulsed. “I think it looks worse that it is.”
Hale led her to the lift, pressed the call button, and waited for it to return. He looked back over her shoulder. “Did you really bring him pizza?”
Marie grimaced as pain radiated out from her shoulder. She looked back at the Ultari’s body.
“It’s not like I put pineapple on it.”
“NG-2F, reporting,” a Netherguard said, snapping to attention. It tapped the butt of its disrupter halberd on the metal deck.
Jared looked up from the middle of the procedural growth tank’s display screens. “At ease.”
The Netherguard spread its feet, tilting its halberd forward. Two blue stripes had been painted onto the chest of the soldier’s slate-gray armor, identifying it as a field sergeant. Its mental processes slightly more enhanced than the rest of its brothers. It held its helmet under the crook of his free arm, faceplate folded up.
Implanting the Netherguard with human military customs and courtesies had been unavoidable. The care programming from the older doughboy models took too long to adjust. The Prince, by far the most militant of the Triumvirate, had seethed while watching the Netherguard march to human specifications, but hadn’t insisted on any changes. Yet.
Jared finished reviewing the daily report, then moved around the tank to address the new arrival. “Report.”
“Emperor Kyrios requests your presences on the Command Deck, Battle Commander.”
Of course, he does, Jared thought, wiping his hands with a rag. “Thank you, 2F. You may report back to your station.”
The soldier snapped back to attention, clicking its heels together. “By your will, Battle Commander.”
It turned and left Jared alone with the growth tank. He considered the bodies inside for a long moment, wishing nothing more than to pull the plug of the whole damn thing. Flash growing Ultari bodies was difficult enough; incorporating the many aesthetic changes the Triumvirate insisted on made it even more challenging. Golden skin was a rare mutation in the Ultari genome, and forming the face to match grainy pics was a chore.
But there was no choice. He had to obey. He hadn’t been able to locate Sarah and Mary since they’d arrived at the Ultari Fortress. Kyrios and the Arch Duke had hidden the stasis containers well.
The thought of his wife being held in that damn pod forever turned Jared’s stomach, more than once bringing the man to his knees with regret and anguish. He should’ve killed them when he had the chance, should have never allowed the damn Triumvirate to return to Terra Nova, should have never freed them from their prison. This was his entire fault. The blood of every human, Ultari, and whatever else lived in this galaxy would be on his hands. All that suffering would trace back to his weakness.
He sealed the restricted alcove and gave the instructions for his armor to be attached. Panels retracted from the walls and ceiling and skinny waldo arms extended, each holding a segment of armor. The process took just under a minute and as the helmet came down, thoughts of smashing through the cloning tanks with his armored gauntlet flashed through his mind.
Jared stepped into the Command Center, now fully powered and operational. Teams of Ultari technicians operated the hundreds of stations on every level. Ultari captains stood in an unorganized group to one side of the lowered command deck, all keeping wary eyes on the Netherguard stationed strategically around the room. An entire company had been assigned to sentry duty here, with other companies patrolling the rest of the fortress.
The Emperor stood in center of the command deck, speaking to the holo-image of an Ultari captain. “…and you will submit to my rule, Captain. The Ultari Empire will no longer be relegated to piracy and simple trading. That is beneath us.”
The captain canted his head to the side. The life-size projection flicked orange-white, the alien’s audio slightly distorted. “You’re extremely convincing, but just because you say you are the Emperor, Ancestors bless him, that doesn’t mean that you are. Just because some of the clans support your claim doesn’t mean the rest of us will follow in their footsteps. The Ultari have played this game before.”
Kailani, in her black and red garb, stepped forward. “Tral, he speaks the truth. The Triumvirate survived their exile.”
“Survived ,” the captain said, sneering. “I see nothing more than a machine. You are a fool for believing his lies, Kailani. Were it not for you, I would destroy this imposter right here and now. If Kyrios’s consciousness did, in fact, survive and is now contained in that…thing, he is no different from the Abomination. He is no longer a true Ultari.”
“I believe him, Tral,” Kailani said. “We have seen the reports from Negev. Captain Devril returned just three days ago and confirmed the Emperor’s account of the story. They crushed the Regulos in space. Saw the Emperor’s prison.”
“Devril?” Tral looked away for a moment, then said, “I have seen no such evidence.”
Using the armor’s connection to the station’s systems, Jared found the relevant files and forwarded them on. A second later, Tral looked away again as someone reported the data transmission. “What is this?”
“Your evidence,” Jared said.
Kyrios turned. “My herald has arrived.”
Jared bowed his head. “Master.” He stepped past Kyrios and addressed the Ultari captain. “You can witness the Triumvirate’s glorious return with your own eyes. See the power and majesty. The True Ultari Empire will rise again. You can either walk with us or be crushed under our boots. You and your people have lived under the lies and false promises of the Abomination for too long. The galaxy will burn, and the Ultari will arise from the ashes.”
Tral stood silent for several moments, either watching the video feeds from Negev or contemplating Jared’s words, or both. Captain Devril, one of the only surviving captains from the Negev expeditionary fleet, had returned with the news that indeed the Triumvirate had escaped and verified the Regulos’ involvement. His report had swayed most of the reluctant few that had remained unconvinced.
“And what could the old emperor do?” Tral asked. “The Regulos command a massive fleet. We’ve managed little more than raids against their trade worlds since the coup. No other race comes close to matching its power, much less having the ability to defeat it.”
The Emperor’s words appeared on Jared’s HUD. “Nothing will be able to stand against the power of the united Ultari. We will crush the Abomination and wipe its memory from existence. You have arrived at a most opportune time, Captain.” Jared’s blood ran cold as he read the next words. “Our preparations for our initial attack are complete and our armies are ready. We will add your vessels and crews to the might of our armada and send a message across the galaxy with one blow. You need only submit to the one True Emperor, beg forgiveness, and witness the coming glory of the Ultari. ”
At the side of the command deck, the other Ultari captains murmured their assent. Jared could practically feel their excitement build as he spoke.
“Glory to the Emperor!” one of the captains shouted.
“Glory to the Emperor!” echoed another.
Soon the entire group was chanting, fists raised high. As the intensity of their chorus grew, the remaining Ultari crew throughout the command center joined in, and the entire chamber reverberated with their voices.
Jared couldn’t hear what the holo-image of the Ultari captain said, but the alien nodded and Jared knew what had just happened. The Ultari were now of singular purpose, and that purpose was the Emperor’s will.
Diasore Station wasn’t just a spaceport, it was an entire city. A city that stretched from horizon to horizon in the biggest metropolitan area Carson had ever seen. Skyscrapers, three times the size of the largest buildings ever to grace Earth’s skyline, dominated the landscape. Smaller ones, these still hundreds of stories tall, rose from the city every few blocks.
Most of the buildings appeared completely utilitarian: steel frames, mirrored windows, dark gray concrete corner pylons. Every ten or twenty floors, wide landing platforms sprouted from the buildings, most serving as landing pads for shuttles or smaller flyers. A few had what appeared to be company logos affixed near the top floors.
Smoke poured from industrial factories, placed in the city in seemingly random locations, with no thought to aesthetics or modern zoning requirements. Several blocks’ worth of warehouses, manufacturing planets, and refineries sat south of the spaceport, all feeding a constant line of massive box haulers, delivering or picking up freight .
The skies above the city were filled with traffic, from small personal shuttles to lumbering flatbed barges, hauling stacks of multicolored cargo containers. A group of ships carrying large spherical containers cut through Valiant ’s indicated flightpath, forcing the ship to slow to avoid a collision.
Several kilometer-wide platforms floated above the city, throwing wide swaths of the metropolis in shadow as they moved slowly across the landscape. More buildings, though considerably smaller than their brothers on the surface, sprouted from these platforms. They seemed to be less industrial and more like they were used as residential towers. Gardens, parks, even pools surrounded them, some extending right up to the edges of the platform. Several pools stretched into the sky, beyond the platform’s edge, giving swimmers a terrific view of the cityscape below.
The Valiant descended past one of these platforms, giving Carson and the others a good view of the aliens inhabiting the complexes. Several insect-like creatures, with several sets of spiny legs, moved—almost glided—across a swatch of bright purple grass, without giving the human ship so much as a cursory glance. Two sets of pincers, the size of a human arm, extended out from a bulbous head at the front of its long body, opening and shutting in rhythm with its steps.
Lincoln shuddered. “Holy shit, those things are creepy.”
“Let’s hope we don’t have to deal with those,” Greer said. “They don’t much look like the forgiving sort. ”
“That’s two,” West said.
“What do you mean?” Carson asked.
“Two different species of alien, counting the Ultari. Well, three, I guess, if you count the cyborgs. I wonder how many we’re going to encounter. It’s actually kind of intriguing, this whole setup,” West said.
“Because there could be potentially hundreds of species living together on this planet?” Carson asked.
“Exactly. I mean, think about it. Humans have been trying to figure out how to coexist for thousands of years—unsuccessfully, I might add—and that’s just one species. The multi-species city back on New Bastion runs into all sorts of issues. If this galaxy’s managed to figure out a way for races to live and work together…it bodes well for our mission, at least.”
Carson considered his logic and nodded. “Because if they can coexist with others, they’ll probably do the same with us.”
“Maybe even provide support,” West said.
“Let’s not put the cart before the horse just yet. We still have to actually meet them.”
“Translation protocols,” Lincoln said, looking up from his console.
“Excuse me?” Carson asked.
“That’s what that probe was doing.” Lincoln pointed to the cluster of alien sensors still mounted on Valiant’ s hull. “It accessed out computer data and worked up translation protocols based on our programing language and stored data. Looks like it’s some kind of universal translation program.”
“Impressive,” West said.
“Looks like its open source,” Lincoln said. “The program is transferable. The Qa’resh used a similar system on Bastion for interspecies communication. I can link it to your personal IR systems.”
“Do it,” Carson said.
A panel flashed on Greer’s console, indicating their course to their landing pad. Plotlines appeared, leading them on a curved trajectory, to a semi-enclosed structure in the middle of a wide spaceport. They passed over several other alien ships, all arranged in orderly rows. Pulsing lines drew a square around their pad, situated between a large, dilapidated-looking hauler and sleek, streamlined ship about the size of Valiant herself.
“That ship looks fast as shit,” Lincoln said.
West frowned, pointing at the hauler. “That thing? It doesn’t even look like it could get off the ground.”
“Not that one, that one.” Lincoln pointed to the smaller vessel.
Carson put a hand on West’s shoulder. “Come on, let’s get the team prepped.”
Carson shook her head. “I don’t think off-loading a fully armed combat team would be appropriate just yet.”
“You’re probably right about that,” West said .
“Light kit, camo cloaks, maybe some ponchos so we don’t look as conspicuous,” Carson said. “No weapons on the contact team. Have an over watch element just out of sight that’s armed. Wouldn’t want to get another fine.”
Valiant’ s landing struts groaned as the sprinter ship settled onto the landing pad. Pistons hissed and pressurized gas blew out from relief valves along the underside of her hull.
Carson stood at the top of the ramp, looking out over the expansive spaceport. There must have been hundreds of ships, from tiny personal craft to large haulers like the ship on the pad to their left.
A small triangular craft zipped down out of the sky, flared briefly, then touched down on the tarmac, thirty meters away from Valiant’ s cargo ramp. Hinged doors folded up from either side of the craft, coming together at the top, and several figures stepped out.
Carson took a long breath. This time, it’s going to be different , she told herself, and started down the ramp. She’d made it two steps across the tarmac when she froze, eyes locked on the figure at the front of the approaching group.
The leader was Ultari, similar to the one they’d brought back to Terra Nova, but with orange skin and a sleeker build and not as cyborged as the ones they’d found on the bridge of the dying ship. A silvery mechanical implant sprouted about an inch from the side of his head at the temple, cables connecting it to something underneath its long, flowing purple robes. The robes were tucked behind a mechanical chest piece that wrapped around its body.
Four robot attendants followed, each walking on two thin, double-jointed legs, which bent opposite of human legs. Their arms were overly long, stretching down past the first knee joint. The spherical torso was dull, gray metal, adorned with several groups of indicator lights and closed access panels. Their heads, like reversed arrow heads with three red orbs for eyes, sat on thin, segmented necks that constantly twisted around, obviously searching for threats.
Maybe this isn’t a utopia after all, Carson thought, stepping onto the tarmac. She stopped a few feet away, giving her team enough space to fill in behind her, but putting her close enough to the ship that they could still make a hasty exit if need be.
The group stopped three meters away, the orange-skinned alien visually inspecting Valiant’ s hull. He produced a data slate and stylus from somewhere inside his robes and started making notes without taking his eyes away from the ship, saying nothing.
Carson waited. First contact meant approaching aliens on their own terms. Only when the safety of her team or their ship was in danger would she act on her own.
After several awkward minutes, the alien stopped writing and looked down at his pad, seeming to review the data he’d just entered. Without looking up from the pad, it spoke, its voice coming out almost like a croaking sound a frog would make. Caron’s earbud translated the alien’s words to English in almost real time.
“I am Adjudicator Malistar. This vessel is not registered with DIN or any of its subsidiaries, it is also bearing non-approved external components, not registered with DIN Compliance, and additional fines may be added to your citation. Please present your identification chips and transit authority warrant.”
Carson hesitated. “My name is Warrant Officer Katherine Carson, Terra Nova Pathfinder Corps. We’re here to establish—”
“Improper protocol,” the envoy said, interrupting her with a wave. “You will present your Transit Warrant or we will notify your consulate of the violation. You will be held in contempt of Regulation 1.703, Transit Warrant Required. Present your warrant, please.”
“I don’t have a—”
“Improper protocol.” The data slate appeared in Malistar’s hand again, and he made additional notes.
“Wait,” Carson said. “What do you mean ‘our consulate’?”
“The Zeis Consulate, of course,” the envoy said, without looking up. “They will have the opportunity to provide valid information to rectify this situation. Until then, this vessel is under the jurisdiction of DIN Compliance, to be released upon verification of warrant status. Additional fines may apply.”
Another droid appeared, flying out of the back of the envoy’s shuttle. It zipped past both parties, attaching itself to Valiant ’s hull. There was a series of clanks and whirling of gears as the droid clamped on to the drive chassis.
“Now, hold on just a second,” Carson said, stepping forward.
Two of the robot sentries stepped up on either side of the envoy. Carson stopped mid-step, then backed up. The sentries watched her for a moment, then stepped back out of the way.
Malistar stepped forward, holding out a small data chip. “Your temporary DIN account.”
“Look,” Carson said, taking the chip and trying to keep the frustration out of her tone. “I was just trying to say that I’m not sure who these Zeis are, but we’re not them.” She motioned to the assembled team behind her. “We’re human. We came here from Terra Nova to contact something called the Sacred Intelligence.”
“We are the Rightly Guided,” the alien said. “Use of the previous title is only for internal communications during declared emergency. Diasore is under heightened alert condition four.”
Great, language games, Carson thought.
“Why the heightened alert condition?” Carson asked.
The envoy canted its head to the side, large round eyes squinting at the humans, as if seeing them for the first time. Its head tilted to the other side, like a dog might tilt its head at a strange sound. Lights began to flash on the mechanical harness and his mouth opened and closed, though no words come out.
He looked down at his slate, mumbling to himself, as if trying to gather his thoughts. “No existing information for a Terra Nova located within DIN Registrant. No existing information for a human located within DIN Registrant. Negative compliance will result in a fine.”
“If I’m not in your system, then that proves we’re new to this galaxy and don’t know your rules,” Carson said, stepping forward again.
All four sentries stepped forward this time, forming a protective line in front of the envoy. Their lanky arms came up, forearm panels folding back, revealing some kind of weapons, aiming straight at the humans. “Cease hostile action immediately,” the sentry directly to Malistar’s right said, its voice tinny and mechanical.
“Chief,” West warned, putting a hand on her arm.
Carson stopped; shrugging West’s hand off, putting her hands in the air. “I am not being hostile. I’m merely trying to figure out what is going on here. Look, if I could just talk to someone in charge, we’d just like to introduce ourselves and—”
Malistar leaned to the side, looking between two of the sentries. “DIN Governance is not available through this Node. I am not authorized to conduct initial contact protocols. This is a violation of procedure. I must report this to DIN Central immediately. Further guidance is required.”
Malistar turned and began walking back to the shuttle.
“Wait,” Carson said.
A whine came from the sentries, their weapons warming up. “Cease hostile action immediately.”
“I’m not hostile, you stupid tin can,” Carson said.
West took her arm again. “Chief, there isn’t anything you can do now.”
Carson allowed him to pull her back, glaring at the envoy as he climbed into his shuttle.
The sentries kept their weapons trained on Carson and her team for several seconds, then without a word, their forearm panels folded back into place, hiding their weapons. They turned and made their way back to the shuttle.
“Son of a bitch,” Carson said as the shuttle lifted into the air. She turned, eyeing the droid that had attached itself to Valiant’ s hull. Keying her IR, she said, “Greer, any idea what that thing is on the hull?”
“Some kind of drive inhibiter, Chief. I don’t have any control of the engines or navigational systems, almost like I’ve been locked out.”
“Are any other systems affected?”
There was a pause, then Greer said, “No, just engineering and navigation. I have full access to everything else.”
“Well,” Nunez said. “That could’ve gone worse.” Carson shot him a raised eyebrow and he shrugged. “I mean, they could’ve thrown us in jail. Those droids didn’t seem to have any problems with blowing us away if it came to that.”
“Not how I wanted our first meeting to go,” Carson said. “Greer, see if you can figure out a way to get that damn thing off the ship.”
“Roger that, Chief.”
“What now?” West said.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Carson said. She nodded at Nunez. “Like he said, they didn’t put any restrictions on us, just the Valiant , which suggests that we’re free to explore the city. But without any knowledge about this place, I don’t have the slightest idea on where to go. We need to get the lay of the land. Birch, you have a spare drone?”
“Let’s at least get a scout of the surrounding area. It might give us an idea of where to start.”
Birch nodded and jogged up the ramp, into Valiant’ s bay. He reappeared a few seconds later, one of his newer smaller drones in his hand. He tapped a few commands into his wrist computer, then tossed the drone into the air.
It zipped away, stopping twenty meters above the tarmac to get an initial scan of the area. It rotated there for a moment, then turned to start its scouting run.
“I’ve got a good connection,” Birch reported. “Setting up its… what the—? ”
A large flying droid dropped out of the sky, stopping mere inches from Birch’s drone. Two half-domes, attached to a rectangular body, rotated opposite each other. Clusters of antennas extended out from the sides of each dome and each held a sensor dish, which spun constantly. A red sensor eye, above a cluster of antennas on the front of the main, rectangular body, focused on Birch’s little drone.
“You are in violation of DIN Compliance Code 11.231a,” a robotic voice announced as an arm extended out from the bottom of the droid and swatted Birch’s drone out of the air. It fell to the ground in pieces. “A fine has been assessed to your account. Failure to comply will result in additional fines.”
The police drone swooped over the Pathfinders and dropped a plastic chit at Birch’s feet.
Carson threw her arms up in frustration. “Are you kidding us!”
“Um, excuse me,” an unfamiliar voice said.
Carson turned and saw a short, tan-skinned alien, standing several meters away. It was humanoid, bipedal, hands pressed together in front of its chest as if it was praying. Large ears, which were almost the same size as its head, stuck out on either side of its head and flapped slowly. Gold and silver jewelry adorned the outer and middle lobes of each ear, some attached to other rings with small gold chains. Its skin seemed to sag slightly. Its small round eyes, set close together, seemed almost abnormally small when compared to the rest of its features. Its nose and mouth were elongated like a canine’s.
It wore a blue shirt, smoke-gray jacket, open at the front, and black trousers, which were tucked into tan boots. A large pistol was secured in a holster on its right thigh.
“Yes, yes, yes, I am Abendu Strace,” the alien said. “I wonder if I might be of assistance.”
Carson considered the mouse-eared alien for a several moments. “And you are a…?”
The alien bowed. “Abendu, fair traveler. Humble Pindiki trader from the non-aligned worlds, at your service.”
Carson frowned. “And why would you want to help us? You don’t even know who we are.”
Abendu stepped forward, spreading his arms. “No, no, no, fair traveler, I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation with the envoy, vile thing Adjudicators are.” He shuddered. “Simply vile. And they’ve put a restraining droid on your ship…” He made several clicking noises with his tongue. “DIN Central should really ought to rein Adjudication in. I mean, the Node thinks it can just walk over anyone it wants to.” Abendu stopped and straightened. “Oh, where are my manners? I have neglected to ask for your name. Please, forgive.” He bowed at the waist, head down .
“No apologies necessary. My name is Warrant Officer Kit Carson, 1st Terra Nova Pathfinders.”
“Yes, yes, yes, of course… wait.” The alien tilted its head to the side. “But… but, you are not Zeis?”
Carson exchanged confused looks with West, who stepped up beside her. Turning back to Abendu, she said, “We’ve been getting that a lot lately.”
“Oh my, oh my,” Abendu said, clapping his hands together. “My apologies, I meant no offense.” He stepped closer, inspecting Carson’s face. “Your similarities to the Zeis are impressive, but I see it now, you are definitely not. But what…”
“We’re called human,” Carson said.
“Yoo-maan,” Abendu repeated, exaggerating the pronunciation. He nodded. “And where do you hail from, Yoo-maan Carson?”
“It’s just Carson. Our home world is a place called Earth.”
Abendu frowned, canting his head slightly to the side. “You name your world for dirt?”
“Well…” Carson grinned. “Yeah, I guess we do.”
“Yes, yes, yes, such a momentous occasion. I’ve never met anyone from dirt before.”
“You probably wouldn’t have,” West said. “We’re not from this galaxy.”
Abendu’s ears perked up slightly. “Not from Kabeetha, you say?” He clicked with his tongue again. “Very interesting indeed. Yes, yes, yes. Even more impressive that you made it all the way to Diasore in that thing.” He nodded to their ship.
“The Valiant? ” Carson asked. “Why do you say that?”
“Is not looking like it could make such a journey.”
“Well, no, not from Earth, but—”
West cleared his throat, giving Carson a knowing look as if to say, careful what you say .
“Look, we’re obviously new here,” Carson said. “Any assistance you can provide would be much appreciated. Right now, we need to meet with the DIN, a representative of the Rightly Guided…then get our ship out of impound.”
Abendu clapped his hands together again. “Ah, you see, that I can most definitely assist with. You need to just need to talk to a Regulos—no one calls them the Rightly Guided but as a joke—Node. Yes, yes, yes, I can show you where to go, but forgive me…” He bowed his head in supplication. “I regret that the Pindiki way forbids me from giving of my time without some form of compensation.”
West crossed his arms, frowning. “So, tell me this, Mister Abendu…”
“Apologies, fair traveler, I know not this, ‘mister.’ My name is simply Abendu.”
“Abendu,” West corrected. “But I’m curious, why are you so interested in helping us? Other than compensation. You know nothing about us.”
“Ah, but I do,” Abendu said, raising a finger. “I know you are being subjected to DIN Adjudication without just cause. Those damnable Nodes and their Regulations. It’s a wonder this whole planet isn’t fined for some violation or another. No, no. no, I first thought that you were Zeis traders, who I happened to do a great deal of business with. The fact that you’re not intrigues me. So, I help you.”
“If you’ll just give us a few minutes,” Carson said.
“Most certainly.” Abendu bowed yet again and backed away from the group.
Carson led them back up the ramp into Valiant ’s cargo bay. They were joined by Jerry, Elias, and Greer, who didn’t look happy at all.
“Who the hell do they think they are putting that shit on my ship?” Greer asked, tapping her foot on the deck.
“Doesn’t matter,” Carson said. She turned to West. “Do you think we can trust this guy?”
“Honestly, I don’t have any idea, Chief. Typically, I’d consider myself an excellent judge of character, and I’d like to say that I think he’s being straight with us, but I just don’t know.”
“I don’t trust him,” Nunez said. “Anyone that bows and apologizes as much as that guy does definitely has something to hide.”
Carson shook her head. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of options here. Either we trust this guy is going to get us to the right place or we sit here and wait for Ol’ Additional Fine Boy to come back, and who knows how long that’ll take.”
“I’d like to meet this DIN character,” Birch said. “Figure out why he broke my beautiful drone.”
“One step at a time,” Carson said. “First contact with these Regulos, then we need to get the Valiant out of lockdown. Elias?”
The youngest brother looked up, eyes wide. “Y—yes?”
“Do you think you can help Greer get that restraining droid off the hull?”
Elias shrugged. “I’m not sure, but I can give it a try.”
“Good. That’s your mission.” She pointed at Greer and Elias in turn. “We need our ship free. Popov, you and Jerry have security duty. Don’t let anyone on or off without my say-so.”
“Roger that, Chief,” Popov said.
A wide grin spread across Jerry’s face. “Yes, ma’am!”
Caron pointed at him. “Don’t let it go to your head. You listen to Popov and you do exactly what she says. You don’t leave the ship for any reason. Is that understood?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jerry said, the smile slowly fading.
“Pretty sure we’ll find something else for you to clean,” Popov said.
“And if this guy turns out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing?” West asked, giving the alien, who now stood several feet from the base of the ramp, a sidelong glance.
“Uh, pardon me, fair travelers,” Abendu called up from the tarmac, flapping his elephantine ears. “Might I suggest to bring weapons, if you have some. If you don’t, I have a friend who can provide you with some at fairly reasonable prices.”
“We’ll deal with that if and when it does,” Carson said under her breath. She gave the alien a wave. “Okay, the rest of you, gear up. Light kit. Have your active camo ready and keep your faces covered; we don’t need any more attention than we already have. If this guy can get us to DIN, we just might be able to get the answers we need.”
Carson couldn’t help but feel naked as they left the spaceport. Their “light kit” consisted of lightweight tactical vests over their multi-cam duty overalls and brown ponchos, partially concealing their new CL1 gauss carbines. Carson’s vest held several spare magazines, her IR gear, and two frag grenades. The rest of her team was outfitted in similar fashion, with the exception of Moretti, who carried medical gear, and Birch, who’d had drones attached to his back and beneath his cloak.
Abendu led the Pathfinders along an elevated walkway that looked down over a lush park, fifty meters below, to their left. A glass railing protected travelers from toppling over the side. To their right, they passed several rows of warehouses and shuttle hangars, most closed and patrolled by security droids identical to the envoy’s guards.
They entered a circular park, filled with odd, thin trees with round, translucent bulbs hanging from the limbs like leaves. A fountain in the center of the park was surrounded by life-size marble statues of various aliens, all appearing to be in the middle of some scholarly pursuits. Several held books, others pointed at the sky, holding telescopes; the one closest to their group looked like he was opening some kind of round mechanical device.
Abendu cut through the park, taking another pathway to their right, leading the team into a large open-air bazaar.
“Wow,” Nunez said, echoing Carson’s own thoughts. “Now that’s impressive.”
A wide concourse stretched out in front of them, seeming to continue on forever. On either side of the causeway, levels stacked on top of each other, extending up almost two hundred meters. Every level was open on the concourse side, filled with a mixture of open market stalls and decorative store fronts. Music filtered down from various bars, and scents from food vendors filled the air.
The afternoon sun cast long shadows across the concourse as hundreds, if not thousands of beings moved through the expansive market, stopping to browse, haggle prices with merchants, or sell their own wares. Occasionally, the thumping of shuttles passing overhead reverberated through the bazaar, downing out the music and cacophony of conversation around them.
“Oh, nice,” Moretti said pointing.
What looked like an Old Earth motorcycle without wheels descended into the bazaar, its rider wearing large goggles and flowing robes that whipped in the air behind it. The airbike rotated around and landed on the second level, in front of what looked like a large casino, parking next to a line of similar craft.
“I need to get my hands on one of those,” Moretti said.
Nunez slapped a hand on the medic’s shoulder. “This place has a little something for everyone, doesn’t it? I like it here already.”
A group of the insectoid aliens passed Carson’s group, on their way out of the bazaar. None seemed to notice the human newcomers.
Nunez inhaled deeply. “Damn, whatever that is, it smells phenomenal.”
Abendu turned, smiling. “Ah, you like the caucarant? Is a delicacy for the Lincheeny.”
The trader nodded at the insectoids. “The Lincheeny; they eat the caucarant alive. They prefer their food still moving when they eat it.” He shuddered. “Intolerable species. No one likes them, but…” He shrugged and kept walking. “They pay astronomical fees for the food, so…”
“The people running New Bastion could take a lesson from this place,” West said. “Even with no Xaros around to scare them into compliance, none of the races trust each other, they can barely figure out how to keep the station functioning, much less an entire planet. ”
“Abendu, why did Malistar say the planet is on alert condition four?” Carson asked.
“The pirate Ultari,” Abendu shuddered. “There were rumors of a raid. The Regulos sent their alert fleet to respond, but no one knows where the Ultari attacked. Strange strange.”
Carson and West traded a look. Carson swiped her fingers across her throat and the topic died.
As they continued through the concourse, Carson couldn’t help but feel slightly overwhelmed at everything going on around them. She saw several shops selling what looked like high-end tech, food venders cooked food fresh right in front of their customers, and there seemed to be a weapons vendor almost every other stall.
At one of the weapons merchants, a tall, furry creature that looked eerily similar to an upright bear with a lizard-like snout, picked up a long rifle and inspected it. The merchant began pointing to different features on the weapons, obviously running through his pitch, but the bear kept interrupting him and motioning to other features.
Finally, the bear waved the merchant away with a loud bellowing roar and pointed the rifle straight up into the sky. The merchant realized what the bear was going to do and began to panic, shouting and waving his arms around. The bear ignored the merchant’s warning and fired off a blast of energy into the air.
Crowds in all directions ducked at the blast, and even Carson, who’d known what was coming, couldn’t help but flinch at the loud report.
“Holy shit,” Nunez said, taking a step back.
The merchant snatched the bear and proceeded to chastise the larger creature, waving an aggravated finger. Carson couldn’t help but smile at the ridiculous scene.
“Bah, Burathi,” Abendu said, shaking his head. “Think they can just do whatever they want.”
A droid dropped out of the sky and addressed the bear. They were too far away for Carson to make out the words, but when the Burathi threw up its muscular, furry arms and bellowed at the droid, she knew what had happened.
“Let me guess,” Carson said. “Fines.”
Abendu nodded. “Yes, yes, this is how DIN Central maintains order. Tries to anyway.”
The adjudicator droid finished admonishing the Burathi and lifted back into the sky. One by one, the surrounding crowds went back to their own business and soon everyone seemed to have forgotten about the incident, barely paying the arguing duo any mind.
“This isn’t a Regulos planet?” Birch asked.
“Ha!” Abendu shook his head, chuckling. “Not one of their core worlds. Those are forbidden. This is a trading world. Commerce!” He raised his arms up. “Regulos provide structure, enforce contracts. Keep wars between other races to a minimum. They never go beyond these outposts. Even though they could smash the Ultari pirates easily. But don’t try to make sense of the ‘rightly guided’. My pockmarked ass they’re ‘rightly guided’.”
The trader pointed. “Spinsor’s weapons are all overpriced; everyone knows this. The Burathi would be better off going elsewhere. I have a friend, gives good, fair price for good product. If you’re in the market, I can—”
“No,” Carson said, shaking her head. “Thanks, but no. I am curious about something though. Are fines the only form of punishment here? It doesn’t seem like a very effective way to maintain law and order.”
Abendu laughed. “Law and order, you say? No, no, no, is not. DIN Governance is extremely lax on enforcing its will on non-Regulos dealing with non-Regulos. Short of murder or endangering others, DIN allows the members to police themselves. Especially if they are in areas DIN Central does not maintain. Now, you use the Regulos to arbitrate a business deal and they care. A lot.”
“Okay,” West said. “What the hell is this ‘DIN’ thing you keep talking about and why does it have so many different designations?”
“Diasore Intelligence Nexus,” Abendu explained. “Is the avatar of the Regulos that inhabits this system.”
“So, there is more than one DIN?” Carson asked.
“Is not technically accurate. There is only one DIN, but is many parts. Nodes, if you like. Those Nodes are separated into operating functions, Central, Governance, Compliance, Registrant, Adjudication. Is more, but you understand, yes?”
West crossed his arms. “So, outside of DIN-controlled parts of the city, it’s just a free-for-all?”
“No, no, no, is not free-for-all. Affiliate rules apply to all members and reflect on their representative worlds. But,” Abendu shrugged, “is not hard and fast.”
“Feels like we’ve travelled into the Wild West,” West said.
Carson nodded. “We need to be careful.”
Nunez tapped Moretti on the arm. “Hey, check that out.”
Carson turned, following Nunez’s pointing finger to a group of bronze-skinned humanoids standing at the edge of the third level, looking down over the concourse. Surprisingly enough, they looked almost human, save for their bronze-colored skin, which had a metallic sheen to it. Two had long red hair that hung down to the small of their backs; another had short green hair that was spiked up in all directions. They all had a series of pronounced ridges that ran along their cheekbones, then back over the top of their ears. And their eyes…
Carson squinted, trying to make sure her own eyes weren’t playing tricks on her.
“They have goat eyes,” Nunez said.
As soon as he said it, Carson saw it. Their round eyes were about the same size as human eyes, set above a small nose and mouth, both extremely similar to their human counterparts. But instead of round pupils, theirs were horizontal rectangles that stretched across almost the entire surface of the eye.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Moretti said. “They do look like goat eyes.”
Abendu looked up to the group and nodded. “Ah, yes, Zeis You can see why the confusion. Very similar.”
The two with red hair had notably feminine features, wearing sheer silk wraps around their slender frames. The third appeared to be male, wearing leather armor, a pistol on his hip and what looked like a sword strapped to his back.
“You know, if you can get past the eyes, they’re actually not bad-looking,” Nunez said. “I wonder if they’re… you know, compatible.”
Carson shot him a look.
“What?” he asked, holding his arms out. “It was just a question. Maybe they’re related to those long-lost Acadian people Hale found on Nibiru.”
Popov shook her head. “Haven’t been on planet five minutes and you’re already thinking like a sailor.”
Carson took a deep breath. “This is all very educational, Abendu, but we really need to get these fines taken care of.”
“Yes, yes, apologies. It’s just this way.” The trader motioned for them to follow, leading them deeper into the bazaar.
Ten minutes later, they came to a large glass building in the middle of the bazaar, easily four or five times the size of the largest storefront they’d seen so far. Two enormous slate-gray pillars flanked two sets of double glass doors, stretching up four levels.
Two security droids flanked the doors, their reversed arrow-shaped heads continuously scanning the passing crowds with their three glowing red eyes. Through the glass windows, Carson could see people standing in long lines inside, all apparently waiting to see an adjudicator.
Nunez put both hands on his hips, shaking his head. “That looks like the worst DMV in the history of driver’s licenses.”
“DIN Adjudication is not known for its timely customer service,” Abendu said. “Then again, what does it need to be in a rush for? It’s not going anywhere, right?”
Carson sighed. She was not looking forward to standing in line for hours to deal with these ridiculous fines, but she couldn’t see any other way around it. “Come on.”
An alarm sounded as their group neared the entrance. The two sentry droids straightened, bringing arms up, weapons already exposed.
“Halt,” one of the droids said. “Contraband detected. Entry unauthorized. Weapons not permitted.”
Carson stopped short, then turned to Abendu for guidance. The trader shrugged.
“Your identity chit has been assessed a fine for violation of Regulation 6.432. Further violations may result in additional fines. ”
“For shit’s sake,” Carson said, moving away from the building. “Here.” She handed her gauss carbine to West, then her pistol.
“Don’t lose ‘em,” Birch told Nunez, handing his weapons over.
Abendu stepped close to the group, speaking in hushed tones. “I do have to ask, fair traveler, and forgive me please, but how were you planning on paying the fines?”
Carson produced the pouch of Ultari currency from underneath her vest, opened the top, and showed him. “This is all we have.”
Carson thought his eyes bulged briefly at the sight of the money, but the expression quickly changed to one of anxiousness.
“No, no,” Abendu said, shaking his head. “That will be no use here. I’m sorry, my friend.” He pushed the pouch back, wrapping Carson’s hands around it. “Please, put this away.”
“Why, what’s wrong? This isn’t money?”
“Oh, no, no, no, it’s money, indeed it is,” Abendu said, then shot the sentry droids a look over his shoulder. “But Ultari money is no good here. Is illegal on all Regulos worlds.”
“But is okay.”
West leaned in. “What do you mean it’s okay. Didn’t you just say the stuff’s illegal?”
Abendu nodded. “Yes, yes, yes, very bad. ”
“So how is that okay?”
“I have a friend,” Abendu said with a smile.
Carson turned back to the Adjudication building, looking at the mass of customers waiting to be seen. The sentry droids had returned to their observation positions, red eyes scanning.
“We’re wasting a lot of time here,” Carson said. “Birch, you and I will get in line, West, take Moretti and Nunez, see if you can get the money exchanged into something usable. If we can’t pay the fines, then I’m not sure what options we have left but to just bust out of this place by force, but I want that to be our very last option.”
West took the bag of Ultari money from Carson and stuffed it into a pouch on his vest. He nodded to the Adjudication building. “Good luck.”
Hesitantly, Carson approached the entrance again, waiting for the alarm to sound again. She let out a sigh of relief as she reached the doors and pulled one open without so much as a peep from the sentries.
Inside was an open room, filled with droids and aliens, either standing in line waiting or using one of the side terminals along the sides and back walls of the room.
“We’re going to be in here forever,” Birch said.
A chrome-plated, bipedal droid with a thin body and oversized cylindrical head stepped up to the pair of humans. “Welcome to DIN Adjudication. I am Servitor G18-37. How may I assist you today? ”
“We need to talk to someone about some fines we’ve recently received,” Carson said, holding up the data chip Envoy Malistar had given her.
“Of course. Current Adjudicator wait time is seven cycles, or if you prefer not to wait, you may use one to the available kiosk stations.”
Carson sighed, looking at the line of waiting customers. “Sure would like to know how long a cycle is.”
“May I see your identification slate, please?”
“Okay,” Carson said, readying herself to for another fine. “I’ve already tried this line before, but it’s the only one I’ve got. We’re new here and we don’t have a Warrant of whatever and we don’t have any identification. And before you say anything, we’ve already been fined for that. That’s what we’re here to talk with an adjudicator about. This is the only thing I’ve got.” She pulled out the chip the envoy had given her.
The droid held out a finger. A red light scanned the chip. “Thank you. Your temporary account information has been accepted. You may now enter the queue.”
The droid stepped out of the way, waving a hand at the long line of aliens waiting for their turn.
“Here we are 25,000 light years away from Earth’s bureaucracy, only to find ourselves in another,” Birch said.
Carson nodded, stepping into line. “And I’m not sure which is worse.”
The procession was terrifying. Jared stood on a raised platform in the middle of the Hand of God’s main hangar bay, watching battalions of Netherguard troops march past in formation. Over 10,000 soldiers, all ready to fight and die at his command.
He wore his battle armor and stood with his face shield down. Relays from the Netherguard sergeants fed data to his HUD, giving him status updates on the army in real time. This wasn’t the first time he would command troops in battle, but it was the first time he’d commanded so many troops, and done so in a war that he didn’t believe in, for a ruler whose only ambition was to conquer and destroy.
The Netherguard filed into waiting transports at the far end of the hangar, large square-shaped vessels that would transport them to the assault ships. Several large trade haulers had been repurposed after their captains had sworn fealty to the Triumvirate, and now served as the launch platforms for the first wave of assault forces.
Jared looked up as a counter-grav tug flew past, hauling another string of drop pods. He’d seen the first one come off the assembly line days ago and tried to imagine what it would be like to be crammed into one of the teardrop-shaped containers, launched out of a perfectly good spacecraft, then slam into the ground with only minimal relief from the retro-rockets. He doubted the Netherguard would have anything to say about it, but he couldn’t help feeling a small bit of regret at forcing these creatures to do something he wasn’t willing to do.
At least with the doughboys back on Earth, he could identify with them and could see their courage and determination and eagerness to fight. With the Netherguard, he only saw silent killers, whose only thought was to serve his will…and by extension, the Emperor’s.
What would Ken say when he found out he was a participant in the creation of thousands of mindless killing machines? What would his wife say? And even though they most definitely were not human, Jared couldn’t help but feel a connection between himself and the Netherguard. On some level, he didn’t want them to be sacrificed.
“The Herald watches,” the Prince said, climbing the platform’s stairs to Jared’s right.
Jared turned slightly, bowing his head. “My Prince.”
“Your false courtesies are not necessary, servant. The others may have convinced themselves that you’re one of us, but I see through your façade. I see the lies in your heart.”
Jared straightened. “I am loyal to the Triumvirate, my Prince. Glory to the Emperor.”
“Glory to the Emperor,” Zviera repeated. “Until it suits your purposes to do otherwise.”
“My purpose is the Emperor’s will, my lord. Nothing short of it.”
Zviera’s blank metal face and glowing yellow eyes seemed to consider Jared for a time, then the Prince turned his gaze to the procession of Netherguard below. “We shall see.”
Jared didn’t respond. Arguing with this creature would get him nowhere. The Prince wasn’t as responsive as the Arch Duke, and getting on his bad side wouldn’t do him any favors.
“The Emperor believes that your allegiance will be proven through the success of this invasion,” Zviera finally said.
“I will show myself a loyal and faithful servant, my lord. The attack plan I have—”
“We will not be following your attack plan.”
“What do you mean?” Jared asked. “These are my troops, this will be my—”
The Prince laughed. “Your troops? You have nothing. You are nothing. A servant only. A herald that speaks only what his God instructs him to say to those unworthy of speaking directly to him. You would be wise not to forget your place, human, or your… motivation. ”
Jared said nothing, eyes locked on the Prince’s glowing yellow eyes, wanting nothing more than to drive his gauntleted first straight through the alien’s face.
“Your anger will serve you well,” the Prince said. “Perhaps it will help you on the battlefield. You will lead our Netherguard to victory or suffer the consequences.”
“And how am I to lead the battle when I don’t know the battle plans?”
The Prince waved a metal hand at the passing troops. “Our numbers will overwhelm the enemy. We will pound against their defenses until they crumble. You will land where you’re told and you will fight where you are told. We will continue to overwhelm the enemy with the Netherguard until they submit.”
“We will lose many Netherguard that way. The planet might be difficult to hold if we don’t have the forces to tamp down any rebellion.”
“Inconsequential. They will be replaced. They are nothing, much like yourself. You are all tools, nothing more. Regardless, this is not an occupation, this is a raid, and when the streets run red with Regulos blood, we will take what is ours.”
The line actually was much faster than it’d first appeared, and forty-five minutes later, Carson and Birch stood at the front of the line. Carson was surprised at how orderly the entire experience was; there had been very little arguing by customers, and what disagreements there had been were handled swiftly and quietly.
An alien that looked like a two-foot tall wasp that walked on four legs and had two sets of arms on its upper half had been the loudest of the day. Long, black antennas on top of its head thrashed back and forth as it chirped angrily with the SI servitor, who sat calmly behind a clear glass partition.
The servitor droid waited for the wasp to finish its rant, then went into a long dissertation and only served to enrage the alien even further. It pounded one of its claw-like hands against the partition, screeching. The glass immediately turned opaque and two security droids stepped up beside the wasp, forearm weapons out and ready.
The wasp’s antennae thrashed again, and it waved all four arms at the droids, chirping out a string of unintelligible words Carson was sure were curses, then it turned and the droids escorted it from the building.
“Wonder what its problem was,” Birch said.
“Note to self, keep temper under control,” Carson said.
Birch laughed. “You can say that again. You know, for not having very many rules, those droids seem to be extremely well armed.”
“Maybe, but I doubt they’d hold a candle next to one of our armor soldiers. They seem kind of outdated, I mean, especially for a society with faster than light travel. Don’t you think?”
“There are a lot of strange things about this place that don’t make a lot of sense, Chief.”
A green light flashed on the posts marking the end of the line, and a small screen mounted on the wall ahead of them displayed the number for the next available servitor.
“Pretty sure this is the same window Ol’ Waspy was at,” Birch said as they followed a pulsing line on the floor, directing them where to go.
“Let’s hope it’s not in a bad mood,” Carson said.
They reached the indicated window and stopped, waiting for the glass to change from opaque to clear. When it didn’t, Birch put a hand on Carson’s shoulder and said, “Try the chip. ”
Carson slid the small chip the envoy had given her into a small slot at the base of the glass, and a second later, the window became clear. The servitor droid behind the glass had an oval-shaped head, with two glowing orbs for eyes, no nose, and an open horizontal slit where his mouth should have been.
Its voice was mechanical and tinny. “Your temporary identification has been accepted. Reviewing your account.”
“Yes, I—” Carson started, but the droid interrupted her, continuing unabated.
“Records indicate violations of DIN Compliance and Registrant Regulations. A fine of 10,862 accruals has been assessed to your account. In accordance with DIN Adjudication Procedure 1.1, you will need to submit a permanent warrant application and render successful payment of your account balance to bring your account into compliance.”
“Okay, like I was trying to say,” Carson said, “I’m not here to just pay these fines. I’d like to talk to someone about the validity of them and see about getting them waived. We didn’t even know about the violations until after we were fined.”
“A Waiver of Fees application must be submitted to DIN Adjudication within ten working cycles of receipt of said fines,” the droid said, its monotone voice never changing. “The standard Zeis template is on file at any DIN Compliance office.”
“First of all, we’re not Zeis,” Carson said, removing her mask, revealing her face to the droid. “We’re human. Second of all, I don’t want to fill out any forms. I want to speak to someone that can make a decision, at the very least someone who’s not a machine. I want to talk to whoever’s in charge of this place.”
“DIN Governance is unavailable through this Node,” the droid said.
Carson’s lips pressed into a thin line. “Listen here, you oversized toaster, forget the fines. I have information about the Triumvirate that I’m sure this DIN Central will want to know about. So why don’t you use your little computer there and let the big Regulos know.”
“I have no information regarding a ‘Triumvirate’ in this node. Such a reference does not exist.”
“Oh, believe you me,” Carson said, stepping closer to the glass. “They exist alright. They are very real and extremely dangerous. They kidnapped and enslaved my people. Hell, we saw the Ultari fleet engaging your ships above Negev not three weeks ago.”
“This node has no information about such action. If you would like assistance with addressing the fines on your account, I would be happy to assist you.”
“Are you kidding me right now? I want to talk to a Regulos right now.”
“DIN Governance is unavailable through—”
Carson gritted her teeth, raising a fist to punch the glass. Birch put a hand on her arm, gently pushing it back down. Carson took a long breath, then spoke, lips barely moving. “I got that part already. Can you please point me in the right direction so that I can speak with Governance?”
There was a brief pause, as lights on the droid’s torso flashed and its eyes blinked on and off. Carson and Birch exchanged glances.
Finally, the droid said, “Your ticket has been transferred to DIN Governance for further review. Please follow the directional bot to the closest DIN Governance Node.”
A small metal orb zipped up next to the two humans, spinning in the air, lights blinking.
Carson looked at the orb, then back at the servitor. She jabbed her thumb at the bot. “We follow that? I can’t just talk to someone here?”
“Please follow the directional bot to the closest DIN Governance Node,” the droid repeated.
The clear glass flowed back to opaque without so much as a “have a nice day,” leaving Carson and Birch staring at the little bot.
“Bastard,” Carson muttered, slapping the opaque glass.
A warning tone buzzed, and a robotic voice said, “Cease hostile actions. You have been fined for violation of DIN Compliance Regulation 471.1.”
“You’ve got to be shitting me,” Carson said.
“Come on,” Birch said, motioning toward the bot. “Let’s go.”
Hale paused, his hand on the door’s handle, and took a deep breath. There was no going back from this. There was no turning off the faucet, no putting the rabbit back in the hat. Once he opened this Pandora’s Box, it would change him forever.
Is this how you felt, Ibarra? Hale wondered, though he doubted Mark Ibarra would’ve had any conflicts of character. The man’s moral compass never seemed to point anywhere other than toward humanity’s survival, no matter the cost.
The irony of the whole thing was enough to turn Hale’s stomach. He’d all but condemned Ibarra for his continued, and radical, use of biotechnology, and now faced with possible annihilation; he would go against his own beliefs and convictions.
For the greater good.
He turned the handle and pushed open the door.
Shannon Martel sat behind a bank of computers, arranged in a semi-circle in front of the two doughboy construction tubes they’d recovered from Negev. She looked over her shoulder, nodding as Hale shut the door behind him. “Morning.”
“It’s afternoon actually,” Hale told her, eyes scanning over the data displayed on the six screens, arranged in two rows of three, one row per tube.
Shannon arched her back and spread her arms out to the side in a long stretch. She rolled her head around, vertebra popping. “I really lose track of time down here.”
“How’s it coming?”
“I was actually just getting ready to call you.”
Shannon tapped a series of keys and the data on the upper right screen changed, showing lines of scrolling letters and numbers. Hale understood none of it. “I was able to salvage some of the original doughboy code from the databanks. I cleared out all the Ultari changes, now the system is running a final code diagnostic.”
“In English perhaps,” Hale said.
“We’re about five minutes away from being able to start the construction process.”
Hale watched the unreadable data scroll down the screen, shaking his head. Are you really doing this, Ken?
“Are you sure all the Netherguard code is cleared out?” Hale asked .
“Have you even told anyone else about our little secret project? I’m sure there’ll be a few on the council that won’t like what we’re doing at all.”
“I can keep a secret, Governor.” Shannon turned, raising an eyebrow at him. “Have you told your wife?”
Hale considered her for a moment, then turned and walked around the computers to the tubes. “How are we going to control them without Jared?”
“Doughboys will follow any lawful order from a human; they just need to be properly imprinted into their command programming, which takes time. Ibarra made a shortcut by replicating…seasoned code in doughboys attuned to Jared Hale. He just did a shake and bake of procedurals that came out of the tube looking and sounding like your brother and married them up to ready doughboys. Lazy or efficient, who knows. Bet it made a difference when the Xaros invaded a second time.”
“You have no idea. Wait, are you telling me we need Jared here to control them?”
“No. I wasn’t able to clear all of Jared’s control data from the DNA sequences, there’s just too much, but I was able to code their compliance sequence to the next best person.”
“You. You and your brother are twins, not identical but still close enough. The hard-coded doughboys will accept you as their leader. You can get them to follow another human with enough time and interaction. Like someone adopting a grown dog. They’ll do their tricks and be loyal, but if the first master comes back…”
Hale’s stomach turned. It was the most logical answer, and if he was being honest with himself, he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
“As soon as the diagnostic is complete, I can start pushing them out,” Shannon said.
Hale shook his head. “Not yet.”
“But I thought—”
Hale’s IR link chimed. Captain Handley’s name appeared on his wrist screen. “What now?” He tapped the display, accepting the call. “Hale here.”
“Governor Hale, Captain Handley, sir.”
“Yes, Captain, what can I do for you?”
“I know you said you didn’t want to be disturbed, sir, but I think you might want to come to the council chambers. We’re having a bit of situation here.”
“I’ll be right there.” Hale killed the connection, shaking his head. “It never ends.”
Shannon grinned at him. “Why I didn’t get into politics? I prefer to kill people quietly and without attribution.”
“It wasn’t by choice, believe me.” He glanced down at the tube, putting a hand on the cool metal.
“So,” Shannon said, leaning back in her chair. “What do you want me to do? ”
“Run one. No more. I want to make sure it’s a viable…product before we move into full production. How long will it take?”
“Five minutes per, as long as the amino-composite generation tanks can keep pace. Once we get the process down, you’re looking at about 150 doughboys a day. A thousand a week, easy. Unless, of course, we run into any snags along the way. Then there’s also the problem of housing and feeding them. Have you figured that out yet?”
“It’s a work in progress,” Hale admitted.
“You’re the boss.”
“That’s right, we’re enroute to another station,” Carson told West over the IR. “Apparently this all-powerful DIN doesn’t multitask very well.”
They’d followed the directional bot to the DIN Governance Node and were waiting in yet another line. The line was marked by red ropes, held up by chrome poles. This Node only had one kiosk, only one teller. There were only thirteen customers ahead of them, but the line wasn’t moving nearly as fast as the one at DIN Adjudication had.
West laughed through the connection. “According to Abendu, we should be at his friend’s place in a few minutes.”
Carson looked over the line again and shook her head. “Well, there’s definitely no rush. We’re not going anywhere. Do you know how much we’re going to get?”
“That’s the million-dollar question,” West said. “Abendu keeps telling us his friend has the best rates in town. Says we’re getting a good deal, not like I’d know if we weren’t.”
“So, how much?”
“According to Abendu, about 37,000 accruals. Now, whether that is a lot of money or not, your guess is as good as mine. Hell, they could be giving us two cents on the dollar and I wouldn’t have any idea. We’ll see after we get there, I guess.”
“I hear you,” Carson said. “Regardless, it will cover our fines at least. According to the idiot droid I talked to, we owe around 11,000.”
“Well, there is that. Any progress getting that pardoned?”
“We’re at a DIN Governance Node now, about ten minutes north of the bazaar. But I have a feeling we’re going to be here a while. See if you can scrounge up some edible food and I’ll contact you if anything changes.”
“Roger that, Chief. West out.”
“Progress?” Birch asked.
Carson nodded. “Well, we’ll be able to get the Valiant out of hock at least. It’s a step.”
“Now we just have to take the next one.”
“And who knows how long that’ll take,” Carson said, blowing out a frustrated breath.
The line moved three spaces over the next ten minutes and Carson felt herself growing more and more frustrated at the painfully slow bureaucracy that was the DIN.
“You know, for what basically amounts to the most advanced artificial intelligence I’ve ever seen, this place doesn’t seem to operate very efficiently,” Birch said.
“That’s the understatement of the century,” Carson said. “You’d think—”
“Excuse me,” a robotic voice said.
Carson turned to see a servitor droid standing beside them. The chrome plating covering his torso and shoulders was trimmed with red. Like the droid in Adjudication, its face was devoid of features, save for two eyes and a horizontal slit for its mouth. This droid, though, had a wide stripe of red and ran right to left, diagonally down its face.
“Yes?” Carson asked.
“May I see your identification and transit warrant, please?”
Here we go again, Carson thought with a sigh. “This is all I have.” She held up their temporary account chip.
The droid scanned the chip with a long four-jointed finger, a blue light sweeping back and forth. “Identification confirmed. Please step out of line and accompany me.”
“What do you mean, step out of line?” Carson asked. “I’m here to see the Nexus. Someone in charge.”
“Your request has been processed,” the droid said. “Please, step out of line and accompany me.”
“This is really starting to get on my nerves,” Carson said, ducking under the rope.
Birch followed, and the droid led them toward the front of the Nexus. A hidden door slid open in the wall to their right and the servitor droid led them through it.
The corridor on the other side stretched away from them as far as Carson could see. It was lit by red recessed lighting along the ceiling, bathing the corridor in an ominous red hue. They passed doors marked with alien lettering every few meters, and several minutes later, came to an intersection where the droid turned left and continued down an identical corridor.
“Where are you taking us?” Carson asked.
“Your request has been processed. Please accompany me.”
Carson groaned but let the matter drop. She doubted she’d get a straight answer, if any. It seemed the servitors, like everything else associated with the SI, operated within a very slim set of parameters.
“Well,” Birch said, beside her. “At least this place isn’t foreboding at all.”
Carson chuckled. “Yeah, not at all. Seems a little over-dramatic, don’t you think?”
“A little?” Birch asked, eyebrows raised. “What the hell does an advanced artificial intelligence have to be dramatic about?”
Two corridors, and five minutes later, they came to a dead end. A lone door, marked with the triple-triangle symbol, slid open as the servitor droid neared. Carson and Birch followed, stepping into a large circular room with a high domed ceiling.
The scent of burning incense was almost overwhelming. Bundles of multicolored flowers and gifts of all shapes and sizes littered the ground around a raised center dais that rose a meter off the floor.
“DIN Governance will be with you shortly,” the droid said, then backed out of the room. The door slid shut before Carson could ask anything further, leaving them alone in the strange room.
“Great,” Birch said. “It’s an AI temple. I hope we weren’t expected to bring offerings.”
Carson stepped into the room, moving around the dais. “What, do they treat them like gods or something?”
Before Birch could respond, the lights above dimmed and a separate beam of light shone down from an emitter in the middle of the ceiling, bathing the dais in soft blue-white light. The outline of an Ultari appeared, cybernetic enhancements covering half of its long face. Its right arm was completely robotic. A long red cloak, draped over its shoulder, clasped with the triple triangle pin, covered its loose-fitting black clothing, hanging almost to the ground.
The image flickered slightly as the Ultari looked down at the two humans, regarding them silently for several moments.
Carson cleared her throat. “DIN Governance, I presume?”
“I am the voice of Governance.” A glowing crystal tree materialized as the Ultari raised its holographic hand. The trunk floated off the ground and tendrils of roots swayed in an unfelt breeze. Branches veered into leaves that rippled with fractal patterns. The tree pulsed as the alien spoke. “Your account information has not been previously recorded. Please state your identification.”
Carson took a deep breath. Finally, progress. “I’m Warrant Officer Katherine Carson, 1st Terra Nova Pathfinders Group. I represent the human colonists on the planet of Terra Nova and Earth.”
“Location designations not previously recorded. Human species designation not previously recorded.”
“Of course they’re not,” Carson said. “That’s because this is the first time our species have met. Well, technically.”
“Data recorded. Human designation logged. Please confirm location designation and coordinates.”
“Terra Nova; that’s where our colony is. I don’t know what you call it. It’s in the same system as Negev. Does that help?”
“Location designation and coordinates logged and accepted. Human Carson, your account information has been updated with all appropriate data.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere.”
“Premise warning advisory, indicated coordinates inside restricted space. Level 3 exclusionary quarantine in place in Segamos system. Violation of this advisory will result in confinement and or termination.”
“Now wait just a damned minute,” Carson said, stepping up to the base of the dais. “We didn’t know there was a restriction on that system when we came here. Hell, we didn’t even know you existed. We were told this galaxy was devoid of intelligent life. That’s why we came here in the first place.”
“Your information was incorrect,” DIN Governance said.
“Yeah, obviously the Qa’resh didn’t know what they were talking about.”
The image flickered, lines of distortion cutting through the Regulos’ holographic body. Several of the room’s recessed lighting above flickered on and off, dimming slightly before returning to their previous levels.
“Qa’resh,” DIN Governance repeated. “Species designation…” It paused, as if thinking of the right words. “…incorrect.”
Carson frowned at Birch, who shrugged, slowly shaking his head. She turned back to the hologram as the flickering ceased and the image stabilized. Is it defective? Carson thought.
“Records indicate you would like to submit an appeal to your violations.”
“Yes, like I said, we only came here after learning of your existence. But your ships were destroyed before we had the opportunity to effectively communicate with them.”
“Records indicate Protectorate Fleet 21-A-74 was sent to investigate an unauthorized warp signature from the Segamos system. The fleet has not returned from its investigation. Attacking a Protectorate vessel is grounds for expulsion from the Collective and punitive action.”
“No, we didn’t attack your fleet,” Carson explained. “The Ultari did. They were trying to find the Triumvirate.”
DIN Governance’s image flickered again but returned to normal almost immediately. “Incorrect. Violation of restricted space is grounds for immediate sanctions.”
Carson folded her hands over her waist. “The Triumvirate was there on Negev. We found them and then they kidnapped and enslaved some of my people. They built a ship and left the system several weeks ago. My guess is that was the warp signature you detected. Feel free to go out there and see for yourself.”
“Protectorate forces are still waiting for the fleet to return and report their findings.”
“I’m telling you, they’re not going to come back. The Ultari showed up and destroyed that fleet. No survivors. Why don’t you just send another fleet out there and verify for yourself?”
“Protectorate procedure requires 67 cycles before secondary fleets will be dispatched.”
“How long is that?”
“By the time pieces inside your equipment…45 of your days. ”
“Forty-five days? The Triumvirate could return by then. We don’t have time to wait 45 days, we need your fleets to help us now. To protect us. The Ultari will return and…we need your help.”
“Access to the Segamos system is restricted. External colonization of the Segamos system must be approved by the Prime Intelligence.”
“Approved?” Carson asked. “We’re there already. We have a colony established and thousands of humans are living there now. If we’d have known we needed to get permission before establishing a colony in Terra Nova, we would’ve, but we didn’t. We’re past that now. I’m here to ask for your help in protecting us against the Ultari and the Triumvirate.”
“Protectorate command will require confirmation of your status prior to the dispatch of any additional units. Additional: no Protectorate forces have left our space since the Prime Intelligence assumed control of the Ultari Empire.”
“How long ago was that?”
“By your time pieces…1,833 years.”
“But Terra Nova is within your sphere of influence. You sent a fleet there to investigate the hyperspace signature. You can send another fleet to Terra Nova to protect us.”
“Unauthorized colonization activity must be investigated. A compliance envoy must be sent to the indicated system.”
“Great,” Carson said. “When can one be sent? ”
Carson let out a frustrated sigh. She paced around the room for several minutes, working out the problem in her mind. Finally, she said, “Okay, what about this? What if we take an envoy back with us on our ship? I can guarantee their safety and it could verify everything we’re saying and gather even more data on our species in the process. How about that?”
“Your proposal has merit,” DIN Governance said.
“Well, thank you. Now all you need to do is release my ship from holding and we can get going.”
“DIN Compliance records indicate several violations logged against your temporary account.”
Carson sighed. “Yes, I know. Like I said, we didn’t know we were violating any laws.”
“DIN Governance will dismiss your transit warrant fines, and issue you the required documentation. You are hereby granted temporary Collective status, pending a full investigation of the Terra Nova system and human colony therein. However, you will be required to pay fines garnered from violations at the Adjudication Node. DIN Adjudication is not as forgiving as DIN Governance.”
“Thank you. When can you bring a…compliance envoy to my ship?”
“This nexus does not have sufficient permissions. A request has been forwarded to the Prime Intelligence.”
“How long will that— ”
“The Prime Intelligence answers when the Prime Intelligence answers. This session is terminated.”
The hologram faded away and the room lights returned to full brightness. The door opened behind them and the servitor droid stepped back into the room. “Please accompany me to the exit.”
They followed the droid back to the main room, where it stopped and bowed its head. “Have a pleasant day.”
“Thanks,” Carson said, already heading for the exit.
“I think that went well,” Birch said. “Managed to leave with a promise of diplomatic connections and some of our fines were waived.”
“But how patient can we be until they send an envoy?” Her wrist computer beeped as soon as she stepped onto the concourse, its message icon flashing. “Message from West.”
Birch rubbed his hands together. “God, I hope he found some decent food. I’m starving.”
West couldn’t remember the last time he’d been excited to step foot on an alien world, and despite the strangeness of this place, he was intrigued by it. He kept wanting to stop and browse, taste the food vendors offered, maybe find some delicacy to take home to his wife, but they had a job to do.
Abendu led them through the busy marketplace, into an alley that ran between several large tenement buildings directly off the bazaar. The alley was filled with piles of trash, discarded mechanical equipment, even two ground transports, stripped to the frame. Halfway down, a tall, barrel-chested Pindiki man stood by an unmarked door, watching their group intently.
“Wait here,” Abendu said under his breath, then went and spoke with the guard.
“Kind of a shitty part of town, Sarge,” Nunez whispered.
West nodded. “Keep your eyes open.”
After a short exchange, Abendu waved them over. “Come, my friends. We see Raamin now.”
“Fantastic,” West muttered.
A short trip through two dimly lit corridors brought them to a large square room, with a lowered section in the center, surrounded by sheer curtains. The room was furnished with plush couches and over-sized pillows and a low table where another Pindiki sat, counting stacks of what appeared to be money.
“Raamin!” Abendu said, pulling one of the curtains aside. “My friend.”
The three Pathfinders stopped just outside the curtains. On the far wall, several Zeis females sat, huddled together on a couch against the wall, staring back at the humans, looking somewhat confused. Their sheer wrappings hung loose around their bodies, exposing bronze flesh underneath, very human-like breasts exposed .
Raamin didn’t look up. “What do you want, Abendu?”
“I have brought you some business, my friend. Off-worlders, needing to exchange some… particular currency.”
“I’m not taking on new clients now. Go see Protta; she’s low-born enough. You two would get along just fine, I think.”
“I think, my friend, that you’ll want to see what they have to exchange first. You won’t be disappointed, I promise.”
Raamin sighed and looked up at the Pathfinders. He frowned. “Zeis?”
Abendu held up a finger. “Hoomans, not Zeis. As I said, they are new to Diasore.”
West stepped forward, offering a hand. “Master Sergeant Jason West.”
Raamin made no move to take the Pathfinder’s hand. “New, eh? What is it you’re wanting to exchange? And mind, I don’t have time for games, so if you’re going to try and trick me…”
“No tricks,” West said, holding out the pouch of Ultari money.
Raamin hesitated for a moment, then took the pouch and poured the contents on the table in front of him.
Abendu’s friend Raamin sat, inspecting their Ultari currency one pyramid at a time.
“Ah, yes,” the money exchanger said, turning one of the Ultari pyramids over in his fingers. He closed one eye, holding a scope to the other, and leaned in close for a better look. “Very nice, indeed. Non-conflict even.”
“Is that good?” Nunez asked, then grunted as West shoved an elbow into his side.
Raamin made several clicking sounds with his tongue but didn’t answer. He set the pyramid down and picked up the final piece, holding it up to his scope.
West fought the urge to sigh. He looked over at Nunez, who was grinning and winking at the Zeis females. He seemed to sense West’s gaze and turned away from the alien women, sliding his lower lip over his upper in an effort to hide his grin. Their eyes met and West shook his head.
“36,582,” Raamin said, setting the final pyramid down. “I wish I could do more, they are non-conflict after all, but registry numbers will have to be reassigned, cuts down on rate. Is number satisfactory?”
“Is a very good rate,” Abendu said. “Thank you, my friend.” The alien nodded at West, grinning. “Yes?”
“It’s satisfactory,” West said, though he wasn’t completely sure it was.
“Excellent,” Raamin said, sweeping the pyramids back into the pouch. He pulled the draw string tight and slid the pouch inside his robes. He snapped his fingers and a servant appeared through the curtains behind him, holding out a small chip, the size of a finger.
“You can transfer this to any account you want,” Raamin explained, taking the chip and handing it to West. “Don’t worry, DIN Compliance won’t know the difference. The accruals on that chip are untraceable. You trust Raamin, yes?”
“Thank you,” West said, tucking the chip away.
“Are you sure I can’t interest you in some Dalarian wine or Pindiki ale, my friends?” Raamin asked, standing. “I have best years. No better vintage. You trust Raamin.”
“No, thank you,” West said, interrupting Nunez and giving him a sidelong warning look. “We appreciate it, but we really do have to be going.”
Raamin nodded, his earrings clinking together. “Of course. I understand.”
Abendu bowed to his friend. “Yes, yes, yes, thank you again, my friend. I wonder if a finder’s fee would be appropriate.”
Raamin glared at Abendu. “You are taaje and this doesn’t absolve you completely.”
“No, no, no, certainly not,” Abendu said, bowing lower. “Thank you, my friend.”
Raamin turned to West and smiled. “It was nice doing business with you.”
Abendu led them back out into the alley where Raamin’s security guard held the door for them. After closing the door, the sentry resumed his post, arms clasped in front of him, glaring at the Pathfinder s
“So, fair travelers,” Abendu said, taking the lead down the alley toward the main street. “I take you back to the bazaar, yes?”
“Hold on just a minute,” West said, tapping his wrist computer. He frowned, the connection to Carson’s IR failing. A message panel read OUT OF RANGE. “That’s strange.”
“What’s up, Sarge?” Nunez asked.
“Computer says the Chief’s out of range. Maybe we’re getting some interference from these buildings.”
“I’m sure she’s fine,” Nunez said. “Chief knows how to take care of herself. I tell you what we need to do; we need to find some food.”
Moretti nodded, rubbing his stomach. “I second that.”
West considered the request. There wasn’t any reason to think the Chief was in any trouble as yet. It had only been fifteen minutes since he’d last spoke with her. And, if he was being honest with himself, he was hungry as well. “Abendu, know any good restaurants around here?”
The Pindiki’s grin spread across his face. “Ah, yes, yes, yes, Blue Haven, great food, good drink. Service is good. My friend is chef there, no better food in Diasore.”
West chuckled, shaking his head. Of course, he had a friend . “Lead the way.”
Ten minutes later, Abendu led them into the Blue Haven, a restaurant on the outskirts of the bazaar district. A servitor droid, dressed in a haggard waiter’s uniform, greeted them and took them to a table near the back.
“Doesn’t seem like much of a haven,” Moretti said, sliding across the bench seat along the back wall.
“Definitely shady,” Nunez said, sliding in next to him. “Back home, you could get some great food in a place like this…if you didn’t get a side of salmonella in the process.”
The restaurant was nearly empty, with a few patrons at the bar, a few groups sitting at tables. The wallpaper was peeling, the leather was cracked and split, and some of the tables and chairs looked like they had been repaired several times. Their own table had several long scratches across its surface. A chunk had been taken out of a corner.
Abendu waved a dismissive hand through the air as he sat opposite them. “Is good, you trust Abendu.”
West took a seat next to the alien. The waiter took their drink order, such as it was. They ended up taking what the waiter droid suggested for non-alcoholic drinks, not knowing anything about the drinks they ordered.
“Is good food,” Abendu said again. “I go see my friend, tell him to give us special attention, yes?”
Before any of them could object, Abendu slipped out of the booth. He stopped at a door along the back wall and spoke with a tall security droid. The droid held a short metal rod in one hand, with two thin prongs extending from the tips. After a moment, the droid opened the door, and Abendu turned, giving the humans one last smile before disappearing through the doorway.
“I hope this food is better than that stuff we had on Jalaskian-Two,” Nunez said, unfolding a cloth napkin.
Moretti shuddered. “Nothing but slimy okra and cabbage. If I never had to go back to that planet, it’ll be too soon.”
West tapped his wrist computer; still no signal to Carson. He told himself not to worry, but the anxiety didn’t fade.
The waiter droid returned with their drinks, glasses filled with a deep blue liquid, and asked for their order.
West jabbed a thumb to the door by the bar. “Our friend said he was going to talk to the chef about it.”
The droid turned its head to the indicated door, then back to its guests. “Of course, sir,” it said, nodding. It left without another word.
Moretti held his medi-gauntlet above his glass, scanning the liquid inside. “Not poisonous…lots of glucose and some sort of amino acid that reads similar to ginger.”
“That’s not exactly reassuring,” West said.
“Hey,” Nunez said, glass tilted to his lips. “This isn’t half bad.”
West lifted the glass to his nose and sniffed. A sweet, almost candy-like aroma filled his nostrils. He grunted approval, then tasted it. The liquid was sweet, thick, and creamy. He wiped a line of the drink from his upper lip and said, “Damn, that is good. ”
Two figures appeared in West’s peripheral vision, just to the right of their table. He looked up and to find two Zeis women and a man standing there, appearing slightly confused.
“Hi,” Nunez said, smiling.
“Can we help you?” West asked.
One of the females bent at the waist, leaning close to examine the humans with her odd goat eyes. After a moment, she canted her head to one side and said, “I didn’t believe it at first, but I see now that they were right. The resemblance is astonishing, even with your strange-shaped eyes and lack of proper bone structure.”
West ignored the slight and extended a hand. “Sergeant Jason West, Terra Nova Pathfinders.”
The woman’s odd rectangular pupils flicked to West’s hand, then back again. When she made no attempt to take it, he pulled his hand back, smiling. “Guess your greetings are different.”
She touched her forehead with the tips of her fingers, then touched West’s. “May the Brightness guide you. I am Jena.”
Forcing himself not to recoil at her touch, West smiled. “Thank you, it’s nice to meet you.”
“You are new to the Diasore,” Jena said, more of a statement than a question.
Nunez chuckled. “Hell, we’re new to this whole galaxy, sweetheart.” He winked at the second female, still standing behind Jena.
To West’s surprise, the alien smiled and winked back. He made a mental note to arrange some extra PT for the sergeant when they got back to the Valiant . “Yes,” he said. “We’re very new here. Actually, you’re only the second species we’ve met so far.”
“And your first stop was this place?”
“Well, no,” West said. “We we’re brought here by someone else. A trader named Abendu.”
Jena spit on the floor, uttering several words that West guessed were curses. “That Pindiki bastard. He is a snake.”
“I don’t know,” Nunez said, taking another drink. When he pulled the glass away, a line of blue liquid stuck to his upper lip. “He didn’t seem too bad.”
“He is a thief and a liar, and worse,” Jena said, lips curling into a sneer. “Trader, you say? Did he tell you what he barters in?”
West shook his head. “No.”
“Slaves. He is known for kidnapping young woman, especially Zeis women, and forcing them into service aboard Pindiki sex cruisers.”
The image of those three Zeis woman back in Raamin’s shop flashed into West’s mind, a hot wave of anger flowing through his chest. “That son of a bitch.”
“Hey,” a deep, gravelly voice said behind them.
West turned to see two Burathi, dressed in black and brown coveralls, staring down at them. One was taller than the other, its brown fur tinged with white. The sleeves on its coveralls were rolled up past the elbow, revealing bulging, furry, muscular arms. Both were easily two heads taller than the humans at the table and the Zeis standing next to them.
The taller Burathi sneered, “Dis Munak’s table.”
West held up an apologetic hand. “Hey, sorry, we didn’t know this was—”
The Burathi roared, swinging one of its large brown paws down against the side of West’s booth. Wood cracked and splintered. The force of the blow sent West flying sideways, out of the booth, onto the floor. He tucked into a ball, rolling away from the scattering wood, coming up on a knee.
Nunez shouted several curses as he stood, flipping the table off its stand, then charging forward, ramming it into the two aliens. He pressed forward, knocking the smaller alien off its feet before the larger Burathi got its footing and stopped him cold. The Burathi ripped the table in half like it was made of paper.
Moretti was on his feet, swinging his gauss carbine up on its harness.
The Burathi threw the table back at Nunez. It slammed into the two Pathfinders, knocking them back against the wall.
One of the security droids appeared next to the Burathi, holding the rod in one robotic hand. “Excuse me, sir, but—”
The Burathi roared, grabbing the droid by the head in one massive paw and ramming it up into the ceiling. Sparks erupted from the impact, spraying in all directions, singeing the alien’s fur, sending curls of smoke rising into the air. The Burathi roared, ripping the droid free, then tossing it to the floor.
The droid crashed into a chair, sliding across the cheap, carpeted floor, coming to a rest near one of the square structural beams that were scattered around the restaurant.
The Burathi started for Nunez and Moretti again, wide jaws open, exposing rows of sharp, jagged teeth.
“Hey, Yogi!” West shouted, grabbing another chair, holding it out to the side. “I’m not done with you yet!”
The larger alien’s head snapped to the side, blazing yellow eyes locked onto West. It let out another roar, dropped to all fours, and moved toward the Pathfinder. It roared, canting its head to the side. The smell of dead fish and rotten fruit reached West, making his eyes water and stomach turn. He had to focus not to vomit.
“Great idea, Jason,” West muttered to himself as the alien approached. He crouched down, reaching for the carbine strapped under his arm.
Moretti pushed himself to his feet, bringing his carbine up. As the barrel came level with the Burathi, a blue goo spat out of nowhere, covering the weapon.
Another security droid appeared, holding a snub-nosed weapon in one hand. “Discharging a projectile weapon on these premises— ”
“Count my time!” Nunez shouted, leaping through the air, landing on the Burathi’s back. He grabbed hold of the alien’s leather shirt with one hand and a clump of fur with the other. “Come on you overgrown grizzly, gimmie some!”
“Nunez, what the hell?” West shouted.
Munak roared, rising to stand on its back legs, twisting at the waist, trying to get at the Pathfinder. It twisted back and forth, attempting to throw Nunez off, but he held fast.
“Sarge, I got ‘em right where I want him! Ugh!”
The Burathi lunged backward, slamming Nunez into the wall of the restaurant. Nunez grunted and fell to the floor as the bear stepped forward again.
“Munak mad!” the alien bellowed, flipping another table over.
Moretti dove out of the way, then scrambled away from the second Burathi as it reached for him. A second bouncer droid appeared and drove its shock baton into the alien’s side. The bear shrieked, rising up on its back legs, as electricity arched across its body. It twisted around, connecting a backhanded blow to the droid’s midsection, sending it flying.
The shock-rod appeared to have done something; the bear slumped down on all fours, wobbling slightly, looking confused and dazed.
Munak pulled a blade from its belt. The thing was easily the size of a regular human sword, but in the Burathi’s hands looked more like a knife .
What had Abendu said about these things? West asked himself, backing away as the bear-alien approached. Lots of strength, not too smart.
West’s eyes darted to the sparking light panel hanging from the ceiling, then to the bouncer droid still lying on the ground, just a few feet behind him.
Pulling his own tactical blade from its sheath on his vest, West muttered, “Here goes nothing.”
He assumed a combat stance, balancing lightly on the balls of his feet, knees slightly bent, hunched over, holding the knife in a reverse grip, blade down. He lunged forward, swiping at the Munak, missing by a wide margin.
The Burathi stepped back, growling. It canted its head to the side and smiled. “Finally,” Munak said.
West took a step back and to the left as Munak advanced, hoping his mental map of the restaurant was accurate.
Munak lunged forward, swinging his blade in a wide horizontal arc. West ducked back, not bothering to block the blow. The blade missed him by several inches, but he could feel the air against his face as it passed.
“That all you got?” West shouted, taking another step back. His right shoulder brushed against the vertical beam, right where he thought it would be.
Munak roared and charged again, bringing the knife back in a reverse swing. The Burathi’s blade slammed into the beam with a loud crack, splintering the wood, embedding three- quarters of the blade into the dark wood. The alien bellowed in frustration, trying to yank the blade free. It held fast.
West rolled to his right, stopping next to the first fallen security droid and grabbing its shock-rod. He leapt forward and jammed it into the Burathi’s forearm.
Blue streaks of electricity arced up and down the alien’s furry arm, singeing hair. The Burathi’s entire body trembled as the rod sent pulses of energy through its muscles. Munak’s voice cracked halfway through his painful roar, as the alien ran out of breath.
West pulled the wand away and Munak immediately lost his grip on his sword/knife, slumping back, dazed. He shook his head, fur and loose skin flapping back and forth, and roared. Sparks from the dangling light panel arced behind him.
“Shit,” West said, dropping the rod. He took a step back, bumping into a chair. He lifted it off the ground, holding it feet first toward the Burathi.
“Have a seat!” West shouted, charging the alien. The chair’s legs cracked as West slammed it into the Burathi’s barrel-like chest, and with a savage cry of strength, the Pathfinder pushed.
Munak held his ground, roaring as he planted his feet, arms reaching for the Pathfinder. West felt a presence next to him, then hands joining his. Moretti gritted his teeth, grunting with the effort, as both men pushed the alien back.
The Burathi collided with the exposed panel and electricity lashed out, arcing around the alien’s body. Sparks erupted from the mass of frayed wires and damaged photocells. Munak’s body jerked upright, back arching, limbs locked out. A painful cry died in the alien’s throat as its eyes rolled back into its head.
Other lights flickered as the restaurant’s power grid struggled to maintain. Several surrounding panels burst, spraying shards of glass and sparks in all directions.
Moretti put a hand on West’s shoulder. “Sarge, come on, let’s go!”
“Where’s Nunez?” West said, pulling his attention away from the trembling alien.
The Pathfinder was sitting on his knees, grimacing, obviously taking painful breaths. West and Moretti helped Nunez to his feet and started for the exit, passing the second Burathi, who was now more concerned with helping its companion than attacking the three humans.
They found the three Zeis waiting for them outside the restaurant, appearing surprised that the Pathfinders walked away from the encounter.
“You are very accomplished fighters,” Jena said.
“Yeah,” West said, adjusting Nunez’s arm around his shoulder. “Thanks for the help.”
“We apologize, but the Zeis have a non-aggression pact with the Burathi. Our laws would not allow us to assist you in your fight against them. ”
“Great.” West tapped his wrist comm. “Now let’s find the Chief and get the hell out of here.”
Hale could hear the uproar before he’d even reached the chambers. The muffled shouting and cursing behind the closed doors didn’t bode well. He’d expected it, but he hadn’t thought the backlash would’ve happened so quickly.
He opened the door and stepped into the council chambers. Several of the occupants near the back turned, saw him, and started pointing.
“There he is!”
“We aren’t your personal army!”
“Who do you think you are?”
“Where’s my home?”
He ignored the constant string of demands and questions and made his way to the dais at the back of the room. Captain Handley stood from the seat in the center of the platform, the seat Hale normally occupied, and Hale waved him down.
“Just hand me the mic,” Hale said. Handley handed it down and Hale turned to face the audience.
“I’ll wait,” Hale told the assembled crowd.
Several more people shouted questions about housing and food. One demanded he step down from his director’s position so someone more qualified could take over. It took several minutes for the audience to quiet, and Hale waited.
“This isn’t going to get us anywhere,” Hale said after the silence had held for a few seconds. “Is our situation really that difficult to understand? I thought we were past this.”
Elizabeth Tanner, sitting on the far-left end of the dais, leaned forward. “That was before you diverted the foundries from our housing and bunker projects to making components for tanks and fighter planes and rail gun parts. Without advising the council beforehand, I might add.”
“I made an executive decision based on new information about our situation,” Hale said.
“Governor Hale,” Tanner said. “You aren’t running your own little dictatorship here, sir, despite what you might think. And you are not the only person responsible for the success and survival of the colony. We,” she gestured to the rest of the senior members of the council sitting on the dais with her, “are all part of the leadership of Terra Nova, not just you.”
“I am in charge of the defense of this world and I’m the commander of 2nd Colonial fleet. We are in a time of war. This isn’t the time to be playing politics. There are tough decisions that have to be made, decisions that can’t be bounced around by committee after committee.”
“Do you think we aren’t aware of the gravity of our situation, Governor Hale?” Tanner asked him. “But building a military force isn’t the only thing our colony needs.”
“What is this new information you’ve come into?” Allison Trumble, one of the remaining leaders from the original colony, asked.
“I can’t say.”
“You can’t be serious,” Tanner said, throwing her hands up. “Keeping secrets from the council, Governor Hale?”
“No secrets,” Hale said. “Unfortunately, ma’am, this isn’t the venue to discuss that information.”
Tanner leaned back in her chair. “This is ridiculous. And what about the diverted printers? You’re building fighters and tanks and weapons that don’t even have the manpower to operate them.”
“We have identified over 100 potential pilots and over 200 former mechanized soldiers who possess the requisite skills to operate the vehicles,” Hale said. “And we’ve already started the process of training more.”
“It doesn’t matter,” a woman in the crowd said. “The Triumvirate will come back here, and we won’t be able to fight them. It’s impossible.”
“It’s not impossible.”
A man near the edge of the room stood up. “I didn’t come all the way out here to fight another war. That’s why I left Earth.”
A round of agreements echoed around the chamber.
“So, what would you rather us do?” Hale asked. “Surrender? Just give up? Let the Ultari and Triumvirate or these Regulos come back, enslave us again? Is that what you want? Because that’s what’ll happen if we don’t stand up and fight.”
“Why haven’t we started building another Crucible?” someone shouted.
Hale turned and glared at Tanner.
“A very good question,” the woman said, locking eyes with Hale. “Why haven’t we? Or is that something else you’d rather keep from the people?”
“Let’s go home!” someone shouted.
“Is it true?”
“Why haven’t you told us this before?”
“Why fight if we can just leave?”
Hale turned back to the crowd. “Yes,” Hale said, turning back to the crowd. “It is true, we do have the components to build a Crucible Gate. However—”
“How long will it take?”
“Why haven’t we started already?”
“Enough!” Hale kicked the base of the dais, his outburst silencing the audience. He fought hard to keep his anger under control. “Yes, we could start building a gateway, but what everyone needs to understand is, that even if we build it, we have no idea when another transit window will open. Even if we did, Keeper wouldn’t be connected to this Crucible and we don’t have the specialized knowledge about the gate system to make the necessary calculations needed for such a long jump.”
Hale paused, waiting for anyone to contest his assessment. When no one did, he continued, “This is our home. We all knew the risks when we signed up for this mission. We can’t just pack up and decide to go home because things didn’t go the way we expected them to go. There is no going home. There are no reinforcements; it’s just us. If we are going to survive, it’s going to be because we all came together and made it happen.”
Hale looked over the faces of the audience, all of which were now solely focused on him. His gaze traced up the crowd and fell on Marie, standing by one of the exits. She stood, arms crossed, and smiled at him, the reassuring smile he’d come to love so much. A smile he wasn’t about to let anyone, or anything take away from him.
“There is a war coming,” Hale said. “A war that we are all going to have to fight. A war we must win. There is no other option. Either we stand together and win, or we stand alone and die. I leave that decision up to you.”
“Finally,” Carson said, reading the identifier on her incoming call. “West?”
“Chief, are you okay?”
“Fine. Did you get the money?”
“Got it. What’s your location?”
Carson looked up at the large orange and black feline head rotating on a pedestal, two levels above. “We’re in front of a casino, big cat head, by the Governance Node. Can’t miss it.”
“Roger that, we’re enroute.”
“Ask him if they found any food,” Birch said, not looking up from the directory board he’d been studying.
Carson ignored him. “Are you all right, Sergeant? You sound a little out of breath.”
“Fine, ma’am. Will fill you in when we link up.”
“Roger that, Carson out.” Carson terminated the link. “Huh. ”
Birch turned away from the directory. “What’s up?”
“He sounded like he’d just run a marathon.”
“Ah, I’m sure he’s fine. I think I’ve figured out how to read this.” Birch pointed to the directory. “It’s a map of the bazaar. The different colors indicate what level the store is on. I’d really like to get a look into one of those tech shops. Looks like there’s one not too far from here, if we had some extra—”
“There they are,” Carson said, cutting him off. She pointed, then waved a hand at West and the others, just coming out of a side alley, forty or fifty meters away.
They met in the middle. Carson frowned, seeing Moretti helping Nunez along, all three of the Pathfinders still trying to catch their breath. Three Zeis followed close behind.
“What the hell happened?” Carson asked. “Are you okay?”
“Fine, Chief,” Nunez said through gritted teeth. “Just a little sore.”
“Had a little run in with Yogi and Boo Boo,” West said. “They got the worst of it. Here.”
He held out her gauss carbine. She looped the strap over her shoulder, then took her pistol back, shoving it back into her thigh holster. “We need to get back to the Adjudication building. They with you?”
West nodded, falling into step beside Carson. As they walked, West relayed what had happened after leaving the money exchanger’s shop .
Floating orbs of light began to appear over the concourse as the sun dipped below the horizon. Colored lights and signs flashed and glowed, reminding Carson of pictures she’d seen of the old city of Las Vegas back on Earth.
They reached the Adjudication Node just as he’d finished his rundown of the restaurant fight. “My guess is that bastard Abendu set us up in the restaurant,” West said. “Not that I’ll be able to prove it. Burathi don’t seem to be the talkative type.”
Carson looked over West’s shoulder. “Should we be worried?”
“No,” West said. “I don’t think they’ll be in the mood for a rematch anytime soon.”
“And your new friends,” Carson said, nodding at the three Zeis.
One of the females stepped forward, bowing her head slightly, touching her forehead. “I am Jena. These are my companions, Sheena and Kin.” The other two aliens nodded in turn.
Carson nodded. “Nice to meet you.” She turned, letting out a long, frustrated breath at the lines inside the Adjudication Node. It didn’t look like they’d moved at all. “I don’t know if I have the patience to sit through that line again. I’ll kill someone.”
“Don’t forget about the additional fines,” Birch said, giving her a mischievous grin .
Carson glared at him. “The next droid to give me that spiel gets a tungsten round through its chrome-plated dome.”
“Forgive me for asking, but do you have a grievance to file with DIN Adjudication?” Jena asked.
“No, we already took care of that,” Carson told her.
“Then why wouldn’t you not just pay your fine over the local network?”
“Generally speaking, the only beings that use the nodes to take care of their fines are low-functioning races or beings with grievances. If you are just wanting to clear your fines, you can use any network connected device to pay them.”
The Zeis woman produced a palm-sized data pad from a pack on her hip. “Do you have your account chip?”
“This would have been nice to know beforehand,” Carson said, holding up her chip.
Jena pointed to a slot on the top of her pad and Carson inserted her chip. A moment later, account information began populating on the pad’s screen.
“Ah,” Jena said. “Balai has smiled on you today.”
Carson frowned, leaning in to get a better look at the information. “What do you mean?”
“It seems your fines have already been taken care of,” Jena said. “According to your account records, your account has been settled.”
“That can’t be right. Governance said we’d still be responsible for some of the violations.”
Jena pointed to a line of text. “An anonymous benefactor has cleared all your remaining fines.”
“Who would pay our—” The thought hit her like a sledgehammer.
“Abendu,” she and West said in unison.
“Shit,” Carson said, tapping her IR, trying to open a connection to the Valiant . “No dice.”
“I had problems reaching you earlier,” West said. “Maybe some local interfere?”
“That is highly unlikely,” Jena said. “DIN Central doesn’t allow for unwarranted signal disruption in or around incorporated areas of the city. The fines for such action are quite substantial.”
Carson pulled her chip out of Jena’s pad. “Let’s go.”
Jerry Hale stepped closer to the edge, craning his head to look out from Valiant’ s open rear hatch. The enormous spaceport stretched out before him, surrounded by skyscrapers that reached through the clouds. Light from the setting sun cut through the buildings, casting long shadows across the tarmac.
Watching the endless stream of air traffic flying above the city, Jerry couldn’t help but wonder what the Pathfinders were doing and what he should be doing to help them. He felt like such a child, being left behind while the grown-ups went out and handled all the adult stuff. He should’ve have been with them, not stuck back here babysitting.
He clutched his shoulder bag tighter, gathering his courage, the weight of the pistol and extra magazines it held reassuring him. They should’ve been back by now, he thought. Greer and Popov didn’t seem to be worried about it, but Jerry felt it. Something was wrong.
Elias’s voice behind him made Jerry jump. “You’re not seriously thinking about going out there, are you?”
Jerry’s stomach turned. He looked over his shoulder at his brother. “Damn it, Elias, what the hell is wrong with you? What are you talking about?”
Elias nodded to the bag. “You’re not fooling anyone, you know. And when she finds out you’re gone, she’s going to be pissed. She’ll do more than just yell at you this time.”
Jerry rolled his eyes. “No she won’t. Besides, I’m not doing anything. I’m just looking. There’s no harm in that. It’s not like I’m leaving the ship or anything.”
“Cause you weren’t planning on it?”
“I wasn’t.” Jerry turning back to the sunset.
“And you’re one to talk,” Jerry said. “Weren’t you the one who got us into this mess in the first place?”
“I said I was sorry!” Elias said. “How was I supposed to know? I didn’t know! ”
Jerry sighed, holding up a hand. “You didn’t, I know you didn’t.”
“Are you going to stay? Please. I’d rather not have the chief pissed off at us any more than she already is.”
“She wasn’t pissed,” Jerry said. “That’s just how she has to act. When you’re in charge, you have to put on your command face. You remember what Dad always used to say: ‘At home, I’m your dad, but at work, I’m Colonel Hale’.”
“I’m not sure it’s the same thing.”
“I’m telling you, Carson wasn’t upset.” He looked, eyes following a conduit running along the ceiling. “At least, not very.”
“Could’ve fooled me,” Elias said.
Jerry put a foot on a crate. “Trust me. I bet she’s thrilled to have us on board. Hell, with your computer skills and my marksmanship skills, she should be glad we’re here to help.”
“I wouldn’t let the chief hear you talking like that,” Popov said, stepping out from behind the rover in the middle of Valiant’ s deck.
Jerry felt his face flush. “I didn’t mean...”
Popov smiled, waving a hand through the air. “Forget about it, kid, I’m not going to tell the chief. Besides, I’m sure she’s got much bigger things to worry about right about now. Just do me a solid, and at least try not to take me down with you. Carson made me responsible. If you go down, I’ll be right there with you.”
Jerry looked down at his feet, embarrassed. “I was just trying to help.”
“Hey, I know you were,” Popov said. “You’ve got no complaints from me, I promise.”
Jerry looked up at the ceiling. “Did you guys hear that?”
“I—” Popov started. She bent over, looking at something out on the tarmac. “Shit. Jerry, Elias, with me now.”
Jerry turned. “What’s—”
Outside, nine figures were running across the tarmac, charging toward Valiant’ s ramp. They had masks covering the lower halves of their faces, and large, almost elephantine ears flapping as they ran. The rifles they all carried gave Jerry no doubt as to their intentions.
“Jerry!” Popov hissed. “Come on!”
Jerry turned, pulling his bag from his shoulder, fishing inside for the pistol as he followed Popov and Elias.
“Greer!” Popov shouted. “Greer, the ramp! Close it now!”
Jerry couldn’t hear the pilot’s response. Popov led them up the stairs at the front of the bay.
Torgeson stepped out of the crew section, frowning. “What the hell are you yelling about?”
“Pirates,” Popov said, breathing heavying. “On the tarmac. ”
Torgeson slammed his palm onto the ship’s internal comm. “All hands, prepare to repel boarders!” He said and nodded to the two Hale boys. “Get them somewhere safe.”
“What about the ship?”
Jerry slapped a magazine into the grip of his pistol. “I can help.”
Torgeson looked at Jerry, then back to Popov. “We’ll take care of the ship. You take care of the boys. Go!”
He pushed past them, heading down the stairs. Several crew emerged from the crew berths behind him, throwing tactical vests on over their flight suits. The boots clanged down the ramp as Torgeson shouted instructions.
Jerry could hear yelling now, shouts from outside the ship. The ramp unlocked and started closing, compressed gas from the pistols on either side spraying out in long streams.
“I know where we can go,” Elias said. “The maintenance passages.”
All three flinched as the first round fired, echoing through the bay.
Popov nodded. “Go. Hurry.”
Elias led them up the stairs to Valiant’ s top deck, then turned toward engineering. He stopped at the hatch, fingers flying over the security panel on the bulkhead next to it.
More shots rang out below them, followed by shouting, then more gunfire.
Jerry took a step back toward the stairs. “We should be helping them.”
No,” Popov said, grabbing his arm. “There’s nothing we can do. They’re already inside the ship.” She keyed her IR. “Greer… lock out the nav… okay… roger that.”
“Got it,” Elias said, pushing the hatch open.
“Go,” Popov hissed.
“Crawlways are this way,” Elias said.
Jerry knew where his brother was taking them and wasn’t thrilled about it. The confined space was cramped with just him and his brother; how small was it going to be with Popov in there with them? Reluctantly, he followed.
A string of gunshots echoed through the ship, accompanied by shouting from both sides. Jerry couldn’t make out what the attackers were saying, their words a jumble of vowels. He felt his frustration growing as the shouting and gunfire grew in intensity. He should be out there helping, not hiding in here like a scared little kid.
Elias twisted underneath a large, round conduit, turning into a small access way between two thumping compressors. Jerry ducked under the conduit, turning sideways to squeeze into the access way. Elias dropped to his knees and started working on a rectangular access panel.
He pulled the panel back, revealing one of the meter-wide maintenance tunnels that ran through Valiant ’s interior hull. Elias slid through, immediately crawling to the side, making room for them .
“You’re next,” Popov said, putting a hand on his shoulder.
“Son of a bitch,” Jerry said through gritted teeth.
He dropped to his knees and crawled through the hatch. The tunnel floor was a metal grating, the walls and ceiling were a collection of conduits, bundles of cables and wires and bare sections of Valiant’ s frame. Recessed lighting in the floor and ceiling provided some light, but it wasn’t much.
Popov climbed in behind them and pulled the panel closed. Elias told her how to lock it, then flipped down a small flap on another panel on the side of the tunnel. “I might be able to patch into the…” He trailed off, fingers tapping on the small terminal. “…there.”
Jerry craned his neck and saw several video panels open up on the screen, all showing different sections of Valiant’ s interior. The pirates had already taken the bay. Three of the masked attackers were securing the crew’s hands behind their backs in the middle of the bay, by the rover. On another screen, three more attackers had reached the cockpit and were slamming fists into the hatch.
“They can’t get in?” Elias asked.
Popov scooted closer to the panel, looking over Jerry’s shoulder. “For now, but I doubt that hatch will hold them back for—”
On the screen, one of the pirates had some kind of electronic device attached to the security panel next to the cockpit’s hatch, tapping keys. A second later, the hatch popped open, and his companions shouldered their way through.
Almost immediately, one jerked back, twisting and falling back through the hatch, grabbing his shoulder. The other two stepped over him, charging in. They disappeared from the feed for several minutes, and the only thing they could see was the lone pirate, pushing himself up into a seated position, grimacing in pain at his shoulder wound. Finally, someone appeared at the hatch.
“Oh, no,” Elias said.
One of the pirates gave Greer a hard shove, pushing her through the hatch, into the bulkhead opposite. Her hands were bound behind her back, blood streaming down the side of her face from a wound concealed by her thick hair.
Lincoln came next, escorted by the second pirate, who paused briefly to speak with his wounded companion, then continued on to the bay where they gathered the rest of the prisoners next to the rover.
“Can you pick up any audio?” Popov asked.
Elias tapped on the screen. “I’m not sure. Hold on. Yeah, here.”
“…and no one will get hurt,” one of the pirates was saying. “You all are valuable, yes? Your leaders will pay much for your return. Is only proper way.”
Greer spat on the deck at the alien’s feet. “You’re not going to get any ransom for us. ”
The alien squatted down in front of Greer, arms clasped behind his back. “No, no, no, I’m hoping you are incorrect, yes? Is Pindiki way.”
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
“Maybe the Zeis, yes? They are your cousins? Yes, yes, yes, they pay for you, Abendu is sure of that.”
Jerry frowned. “They’re kidnapping us?”
Abendu stood, holding his arms out to either side. “And this ship? She is worth much, yes? Maybe, Abendu is keeping for himself?”
One of the other pirates turned to Abendu. “Raamin said—”
“Yes, yes, yes,” Abendu said, waving a dismissive hand at the pirate. “Raamin say many things. Take Klaka and search rest of ship.” He turned to Greer. “Is all your crew, yes?”
Greer stared at the alien for several seconds, eyes filled with hatred. “Yes.”
Abendu clapped his hands together. “Ah, good. Yes, yes, yes. We search.”
Klaka slapped the chest of the pirate standing next to him and motioned for him to follow.
“What are we going to do?” Elias asked, turning away from the feed.
Popov was silent for a moment, considering the panel. “We’re going to stay out of sight.”
“We can’t just sit back and do nothing,” Jerry said. “ We’re Pathfinders; we have to help them.”
“No, I’m a Pathfinder,” Popov told him. “You’re just a kid in the wrong place at the wrong time. You’re going to do what I tell you to do, and you’re going to do it without arguing. We are going to stay hidden as long as we can and wait for an opening. Once those bastards get settled in and relax, we’ll make them pay for ever stepping aboard the Valiant .”
They watched as the aliens combed over the rest of the ship and removed the restraining bolt from Valiant ’s hull. It took five minutes of beating the crew to convince Greer to show them how to fly the ship, and ten minutes later, they were in the air.
“That son of a bitch!” Carson shouted, resisting the urge to stomp her boot into the tarmac.
The Valiant was gone. The only thing still on the landing pad was the restraining droid the envoy had attached when they’d first arrived.
Nunez let go of Moretti and limped forward. “First that bastard tries to have us killed, then he steals our ship. I ever see that little shit again, I’ll kill him.”
“Not if I get to him first,” West said.
Think, Carson told herself. The situation was unraveling quickly, she needed to regain some element of control before it spiraled completely out of control. “Options, people. We need to track Abendu down before he gets off planet if he hasn’t already.”
Carson turned to the Zeis. “You’re from here. Any thoughts?”
“Pindiki snake,” Jena said, spitting. “If he doesn’t want to be found, he won’t be. He’s been hiding from our retribution squads for years.”
“I know right where to start,” West said. “And if we hurry, we might be able to kill two birds with one stone.”
“Lead the way,” Carson said.
West led the team and three Zeis back through the bazaar, pausing every so often to get his bearings. Fifteen minutes later, they were hunkered at the entrance to the alley, trying to catch their breath. The Zeis, despite their apparent lack of training, had managed to keep up surprisingly well.
Carson was just behind West at the front of the stack, with Moretti and Nunez behind her, and Birch bringing up the rear. The three Zeis companions stood behind the Pathfinders. After hearing what West had said about the Zeis women, the companions were eager to help.
Carson shot Nunez a questioning glance. “You sure you’re okay?”
“A few broken ribs never hurt anyone,” Nunez said, though the grimace on his face told a different story. He patted Moretti on the shoulder. “Besides, the pain killers he gave me are starting to kick in. ”
“Birch, you ready?” West asked, peering around the corner. “Still only one door guard.”
The mini-propellers on Birch’s gremlin drone flipped down and whirred to life. It hovered just over his palm as he checked the readings on his wrist computer. “Ready.”
Carson checked her gauss carbine’s optics, confirming a full 75 round magazines was loaded and ready to fire. “Standard clearing,” she said. “Don’t get any stupid ideas or try to be a hero. Remember, we need information. Dead men tell no tales, right? Right.” She gave Birch the go-ahead nod.
The drone zipped off Birch’s hand and disappeared around the corner, into the alley. The team waited silently and a moment later heard an abrupt, painful cry, and a second later the thump of a body hitting the concrete.
“Go,” Carson said.
They filed around the corner, making straight for the entrance to Raamin’s shop. West rushed ahead, reaching the unconscious guard and quickly pulled him out of the way as the rest of the team advanced.
Without pausing, Carson lunged forward, slamming a boot into the door. The door snapped open with a loud crack, flying back and crashing into the wall behind. Carson sidestepped to allow Moretti and Nunez through. Having prior knowledge of the layout put them in a superior position to make the initial entry.
Carson fell into line behind them, stepping into a dark hallway, lined with closed doors. Moretti and Nunez ignored the doors, continuing down the hall, where it emptied out into a large square living area.
Moretti cut left, Nunez took right, both yelling for everyone to get down on the ground and get their hands in the air. Carson moved straight out of the hall, pulling down a sheer curtain off its rings, exposing a lowered area filled with plush couches and pillows. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Nunez ushering some Zeis woman toward him, telling them to keep low.
Across the room, Moretti yelled for two more guards to drop their weapons.
The alien she presumed to be Raamin sat behind a small table filled with small stacks of money. A terrified expression covered his face as Carson leveled her carbine at his head.
West stepped past Carson, moving his carbine behind him, letting it hang on its sling. He kicked the table away. Gold and silver coins went flying. He grabbed the alien by his shirt, lifting him off the floor as the coins pinged on the floor around them.
“Where is he?” West shouted, pulling him close.
“P-p-please,” Raamin stammered. “I…I don’t know what you speak of. I’m just a humble t-t-trader.” He tried, unsuccessfully, to pry West’s grip free of his shirt,
“Bullshit,” West growled. “You’re nothing but a piece of shit slaver. You’re lucky I don’t blow you away right now.”
Raamin screamed as West pressed the barrel of his pistol into the alien’s forehead. “Please! I swear!”
“I don’t, I don’t know who—”
West lowered his pistol and shot the slaver in the knee. Raamin’s screams filled the room, hands slapping against West’s iron grip.
“Where is Abendu?” West shouted, pointing this pistol as the other knee.
“His tower! He went to his tower! Please!”
West dropped the alien to the floor. Raamin screamed again, curling into a ball, cradling his destroyed knee. Blood seeped through his fingers, staining his pale-yellow pants. He rocked back and forth, wailing, shaking his head. Earrings clinked together as his over-sized ears flapped back and forth.
He kicked out in obvious frustration, hitting nothing but air. A small, rectangular remote spun across the floor, hitting one of the table legs and spinning away.
The Zeis women were screaming, scrambling to get away from the wailing Pindiki.
“Get them out of here,” Carson yelled, motioning for Nunez. “Moretti, Birch, secure your prisoners and sweep for more.”
Jena appeared in the doorway, motioning for the girls to come with her. At the sight of another Zeis, all three girls broke into sobs and ran for the hallway.
Moretti knocked both guards unconscious with the butt of his carbine, then slipped into the far corridor with Birch. Commands to “come out with hands up”, and “don’t move” faded as they moved further away, deeper into the lair.
“Where is the tower?” West repeated, leaning closer the wounded Pindiki.
The alien’s face flushed, his pained expression turning to one of anger. He spit, aiming for West’s face, but only managing to hit his tactical vest. “You burn in the fires of Kaza!”
“Okay,” West said, stepping to the side, aiming at the uninjured leg. “Remember that you could’ve prevented this.”
Raamin held out a hand. “No, wait!”
West hesitated. “Speak.”
“You plan to kill him, yes?”
“What do you care?”
“He is taaje,” Raamin said. He groaned, seeming to swallow some of his pain, obviously trying to clear his mind to make a decent argument in his favor.
“Okay? You’re going to have to give me more,” West said. “That doesn’t mean anything do me.”
“Yes, yes, yes, is taaje. Indebted to me, you understand this? I have been allowing him to pay his debt to me by installments. He does not wish to go back to Pindiki to face the taaje, would certainly mean death.”
West brought his pistol back up. “You’re starting to wear my patience thin, slaver.”
“No, no, no, yes, please. Is reward. Pay maybe 500,000 accruals for his taaje on Pindik. My Consortium will pay much. I split taaje with you, yes? Sixty, forty.”
“Are you kidding me?” West said.
“We don’t have time for this,” Carson said, stepping around West. She grabbed hold of one of the gold loops dangling from the outermost earlobe. “Are you going to tell us or not?”
Raamin tried to back away from Carson, wailing as she slid a finger through the loop and held fast, pulling his ear tight. The alien screamed, one hand grabbing Carson’s, holding it close.”
Outside, an alarm started, distant, but audible. Then another.
“What is that?” Carson said, giving the earring a tug.
Raamin flinched and spoke through his whimpers. “I… I don’t… wait.” He cocked his head slightly, careful not to pull against Carson’s grip. He frowned. “Air raid?”
Carson’s IR chirped. It was Nunez. “Go,” she said.
“Chief, you’re going to want to see this.”
“I’m kind of busy right now, Nunez,” Carson said, glaring down at the Pindiki, earring still firmly in her fingers.
“No, I get that, Chief, but I’m pretty sure the city is under attack.”
“Attack by whom?”
“Hey, your guess is good as mine, Chief. I just work here. ”
“Shit,” Carson said. “Stand by.” She killed the link.
Moretti and Birch appeared from the back corridor, two more Zeis females in tow. The aliens saw Raamin lying on the floor and screamed.
Moretti jabbed a thumb back at the corridor. “These two are all that’s left, but looks like there was a lot more.”
“Get them outside. We’ll be right there,” Carson said, then turned back to Raamin. “Who’s attacking Diasore?”
“No, no, no, is not right,” Raamin said. “Is not possible.”
“What? An attack? What’s not possible?”
Somewhere outside, something exploded. The building vibrated under Carson’s feet. The deep thud of impacts grew in intensity.
A second later, Nunez appeared in the corridor, a worried expression on his face. “Chief?”
“We’re running out of time,” West said.
Carson yanked the earring out of Raamin’s ear. He flung himself down onto the pillows, hands clamping down over his torn flesh.
“This is your last chance, Raamin,” Carson told him, leaning in close. “You can tell us where to find Abendu, or you can die.”
“Yes, yes, yes, okay, I tell you. I show you. I show you and you go. Please, you have map of Diasore?”
“Does it look like I have a damn map, Raamin?” Carson asked .
The alien recoiled at Carson’s outburst, scooting away, grimacing in pain and fear. “I… I…”
“I don’t care how you do it, you piece of shit,” Carson shouted, kicking a pillow by Raamin’s leg, sending it flipping through the air, into the sheer curtains. “But you better start talking!”
“Map?” Nunez asked. “You need a map, Chief?”
Carson froze, her fingers inches away from another one of Raamin’s earrings and looked back at the Pathfinder.
“I’ve got one,” Nunez said, pulling a gray tablet from his tactical vest. “Boosted it off that Burathi son of a bitch back at the restaurant,” he explained, bringing it to Carson.
“Nice work,” Carson said, taking the pad. She held it out to Raamin. “Show me.”
“It is glorious, isn’t it?” Kyrios asked, turning away from the view of his fleet. Beyond the wrap-around viewport of the Ultari station’s observation deck, forty ships were arranged in a loose formation, awaiting orders from the Emperor. “For over a thousand years, we waited. Preparing for this moment. For our revenge.”
Jared felt the press of his armor against his body. Wearing the mantle of the Emperor’s herald felt particularly heavy at this moment.
“It is, indeed, my Emperor,” Arch Duke Cigyd said. “However, I must, once again, present my argument that we should attack the human colony first. They must be dealt with. If word spreads of their actions on Negev…”
“Word?” Kyrios almost seemed amused by the Arch Duke’s statement. “To whom will they speak, Cigyd? They know no one in this galaxy that would listen. And even if they did, they are inconsequential to our end goals. The Abomination’s contingent in this sector must be neutralized before they realize that we have escaped their prison. They must not be allowed to organize an offense against us.”
“But the Crucible? The jump gate technology the humans possess will—”
“Will still be there after we have finished with the Regulos. In one terrible blow, we will crush their world and make known to the rest of the galaxy that we are not to be underestimated. The humans and their technology can wait, Cigyd. They are not going anywhere.”
The Arch Duke hesitated for a moment, then bowed. “Of course. By your will, master.”
Deep inside Jared’s mind, in a section of his brain he still wasn’t completely sure wasn’t visible to Kyrios, he was thankful for the Emperor’s decision. He refused to allow the thought to overtake him, however, there was much that needed to be done between now and then, and he wasn’t completely sure if he’d be able to accomplish it all.
The Prince looked up from his terminal. “All ships report ready for hyperspace jump, master. The target is Diasore.”
“They will wait for us. With me, Prince Zviera,” Kyrios said. “Let us board a warship worthy of our presence. Arch Duke, you have your mission.”
“Yes, my emperor,” he bowed deeply at the waist.
“Jared, you as well,” Kyrios flicked a claw at the human .
“I can handle the netherguard,” Zviera protested, “do you think some Regulos filth can—”
“Your talents will be used elsewhere,” the emperor said. “Come. It’s been too long since we’ve shed blood for our cause.”
“I think we’re landing,” Popov said as the confined space of the maintenance tunnel shook around them.
Jerry held on to the thick, black cable above him, steadying himself. They’d been airborne for the better part of thirty minutes. The flight had been a little bumpy. It was obvious that Abendu’s pilot wasn’t familiar with flying human craft. But then again, how could he be? They hadn’t gone FTL, he knew that. They were still on the SI planet at least. He hoped.
“Where’d they take us?” Elias asked.
“No way of knowing,” Popov told him.
The hissing of pistons sounded at the far end of the tunnel as Valiant’ s landing struts absorbed her weight. Jerry scooted down to the display panel and saw the cargo ramp already folding down, the pirates waving to the crew to stand.
The pirates had done a horrible search of the ship. They’d followed the aliens on the ship’s internal feeds, watching as they ransacked the crew cabins, gone through the galley and reserve food stores, even the head. They passed through engineering, without so much as giving the maintenance tunnels a glance. Jerry doubted they even knew the panel was there. Two of the pirates had been more focused on arguing over Jerry’s data pad and playing Xaros Elites 2 than actually finding any more crew members.
“IR is still down,” Popov said, looking at her wrist computer.
Jerry turned away from the display. “Now what?”
Popov frowned. “What do you mean?”
“We’re on the ground now. We need to find a way to help the crew and save the ship. Get back to Carson. That’s what my dad would do.”
Popov glanced over her shoulder, eyes wide. “Is Colonel Hale here? How’d I miss that?”
Jerry opened his mouth to argue, but Popov cut him off.
“Listen, kid. I’m glad you want to help, but we need to handle this very carefully.”
“Carefully?” Jerry asked, trying and failing to keep the frustration out of his voice. “What do you mean, carefully ? They’ve stolen our ship and kidnapped our people. Careful went out the window an hour ago.”
“Yes, carefully ,” Popov repeated, holding Jerry’s gaze. “We need to understand what’s going on before we can do something about it. First things first.” She turned to Elias. “ You’re the computer guru, right? You know your way around the ship’s systems?’
Elias glanced at his brother, then back to the Pathfinder. “Yeah, I know a little.”
“Can you lock down the engines so they can’t take off again?”
“Uh…I think so, yeah, I can probably do that. But I’ll need to get into the engine room to do it.”
Popov nodded. “Okay, that’s a start. What about comms? What do you need to fix those?”
Elias was silent for a minute, obviously working the problem out in his mind. “I’d need to be in the cockpit for that. The communications subsystems all run through the co-pilot’s station.”
Three of Abendu’s men stayed behind in the bay, another in the cockpit, the pilot who seemed to be going through Valiant ’s systems. In the bay, one of the pirates motioned to the other two, saying something Jerry didn’t understand. They responded with angry-sounding curses, then turned and headed for different sections of the ship.
Patrols, Jerry thought, watching them separate.
“What do you want me to do? I can take out those guards easy,” Jerry stated, tightening his grip on the pistol.
“The first thing I want you to do is make sure that thing is on safe,” Popov said, eyeing the weapon in Jerry’s hand.
“It is. ”
Nodding, Popov said, “The second thing is to keep quiet. I don’t know who these guys are, but they’re professionals. They’ve done this before, so don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re smarter, just because they’re alien or are unfamiliar with our technology. A bullet doesn’t care what species you are.”
Jerry felt his face flush. “I know that.”
“Good, then we’re on the same page. Elias, where’s that terminal you need in engineering?”
“Near the back. Right next to the back-up temporal particle inhibitor and FTL wave containment field generator.”
“And how long will you need?”
Elias shrugged. “I don’t know, five, ten minutes.”
“Okay. We’re going to get you to the terminal. Jerry, your job is to keep an eye on the guards.” Popov pointed to the video feeds.
Jerry couldn’t stop the groan. “You’re making me stay in here?”
Popov nodded. “We need to keep track of where these guys are. We can’t do that if we’re all out there. Can you hack Valiant’ s computer systems?”
“Well, then, I guess he has to do it then. Which means you’re on overwatch. You think all Pathfinder missions are filled with glorious combat and gun battles? Most of what we do is look and listen. If the enemy discovers we’ve been there, our mission is a failure. ”
Jerry wanted to argue, wanted to tell her that she wasn’t thinking clearly, that she needed him out there. He could protect them. He could fight. Instead, he nodded and said, “Okay. I’ll keep an eye on them.”
“Good. Elias, you ready?”
The younger boy swallowed hard. “Yes.”
Elias unsealed the maintenance hatch and pulled it open, folding it down and carefully setting it on the deck. Popov crawled through first. Jerry watched her on the cameras making a quick check of the compartment, then whispered for Elias to follow.
The input terminal Elias needed was near the aft part of the compartment, on the opposite side of the only entrance. They crept to the main walkway, then made their way aft, ducking under conduits and over clusters of thick, black cables. They reached the terminal and Elias went to work, Popov standing protectively behind him, watching.
Jerry cycled through the internal feeds, tracking the four guards. One was still in the cockpit, sitting in Greer’s seat, working on the computer. One was leaning back against one of the rover’s tires, smoking an odd twisting pipe, seemingly obviously to everything else around him. Another had started rummaging through the crew berths, looking for keepsakes, and the fourth had…
Jerry frowned. Where’d the fourth go ?
Frantically, he started cycling through all the cameras. He hadn’t left the ship, had he?
The mechanical clank of a hatch unlocking gave Jerry his answer.
He’s in engineering.
He found the camera and watched as the big-eared alien stepped cautiously through the hatch. He wore all black, had a black tactical vest strapped around his torso, and carried a heavy-looking rifle. He’d removed his facemask, revealing a wide mouth and one jagged bottom tooth that stuck out in front of his upper lip.
Jerry checked Elias and Popov and the cameras and bit back a curse. Popov was gone. Where did you go? Jerry thought, eyes darting back and forth between his brother and the approaching alien pirate.
He didn’t have any way to warn his brother without giving away his own position and potentially letting the rest of the guards know they were on board. He still had his pistol, but that would be too loud, and he wasn’t sure he’d be able to knock the alien out before it could turn on him. He’d been in a few hand-to-hand fights, but after the Battle of the Spirit, he’d realized that alien physiology was nothing like humans, and they might not react the way a human would.
Popov still hadn’t appeared as the pirate reached the small side walkway to the maintenance tunnel hatch. Fortunately, he seemed to be focusing on something else, and not on the access panel, lying open on the deck. He was focused on Elias.
I have to do something, Jerry told himself. If he could catch the pirate off-guard, maybe that would be enough.
He crawled to the access hatch and peered out. He couldn’t see the pirate; he’d already passed. Jerry got to his feet outside the tunnel, keeping low and moving carefully to the edge of the small path, gun held by the barrel in one hand.
He turned out into the main walkway, breath catching in his chest as he saw the pirate standing there, facing him.
“A boy?” the pirate asked, looking confused. “No, no, no, Abendu will no—”
The pirate’s body shuddered, back arching, eyes bulging. He rose up on his toes, dropping the rifle as his hands shot up to his neck. His mouth opened to scream, but only managed a wet gurgle as blood sprayed out and flowed over his gloves’ fingers.
“What?” Jerry said, shaking his head, confused.
The pirate’s body began to twitch. He made several abrupt, guttural gasps, spraying blood with every breath. After a moment, his hands went limp, falling to his sides. That was when Jerry saw the third hand under the alien’s jaw, and the hilt of a knife sticking out of its throat.
A shadowy hand pulled the knife free and the pirate’s body dropped to the deck with a thud.
Popov wiped her blade on the pirate’s clothing, then slid it back into its sheath on her belt. She made a cursory check of the pirate, obviously making sure he was dead, then looked up at Jerry, frowning. “Aren’t you supposed to be watching the cameras?”
“I—” Jerry started, his remaining words catching in his throat.
Popov raised an eyebrow at him. “You?”
Shaking himself, Jerry said, “I thought… I thought you’d gone somewhere. I thought Elias was in danger. I was trying to help him.”
“Popov,” Elias said, coming up behind her. “I think… oh my god!”
Elias covered his mouth, eyes wide in terror at the sight of the dead alien’s blood everywhere. He swallowed hard, eyes locked on the pirate’s corpse.
“It’s all right, Elias,” Popov said, standing. “You don’t have to look at it.”
“He’s… he’s dead?”
Elias pulled his hand away from his mouth. “I’ve never seen a dead body before. Look at all the blood.”
“Stabbing people tends to do that,” Popov said. “Did you find anything out about the engines?”
“I… yeah…” Elias said, obviously transfixed.
Popov snapped her fingers at the boy. “Hey, Earth to Elias, did you find anything out about the engines?”
“Sorry, yeah,” Elias said. “I can’t complete the shutdown from here. Not by myself anyway. There is a secondary command that has to be entered from the bridge to complete the shutdown, and they have to be entered in sequence.”
“Okay, so we have to get you to the bridge?”
Elias nodded, then shook his head. “No, I mean, I have to enter a code up here, then someone else has to enter the code in the bridge right after me. It’s a timed event, to prevent tampering.”
Popov grunted. “Of course it is.”
She looked down at the corpse for several long moments, considering their options.
“I can do it,” Jerry said. “I can enter the second code. You just have to tell me what it is.”
Elias held up a small pad. “I’ve already written it down for you, here.”
“Wait a minute,” Popov hissed, motioning for them to keep it down. “It’s not as simple as just walking down there and typing in a code. There are still three pirates out there, all as heavily armed as this guy.” She prodded the corpse with the toe of her boot. “And there’s no telling how many others are close by. For all we know, there could be hundreds.”
“Yeah, but they’re not here now,” Jerry said. “All we have to worry about now is the three on board the Valiant . If we can take those out like this guy, then the others won’t know anything’s wrong until it’s too late.”
“It’s not that simple,” Popov repeated. “I doubt I’ll have another opportunity like I had here to ambush all three. Especially the one still in the cargo bay; there’s no way I’ll be able to approach him without him spotting me first.”
“We can do it,” Jerry said, reaching down and picking up the pirate’s rifle. It was heavy, heavier than the gauss rifles he’d used during the Battle of the Spirit. “We can do this together. I mean, it’s not like we have much of a choice, right? If we don’t, the entire mission will be a failure. Without the Valiant , we have no way of getting back to Terra Nova.”
Popov clenched her jaw and took a deep breath. “Give me your pistol.”
The Pathfinder held out her hand and repeated, “Give me your pistol.”
Jerry frowned, reluctantly pulling the pistol from his waistband and handing it over.
Popov took it and turned to Elias. “Here.”
Elias’s eyes went wide, darting between the gun and Popov. “What? No… I don’t know how to use that. I can’t…”
“You can,” Popov said, pushing the weapons closer. “And you will. Your brother’s right, if we don’t save the Valiant , our mission here is a failure, no matter how much progress Carson and the others have made. We don’t have a choice. And you need something to defend yourself with if it comes to that. Take it.”
Reluctantly, Elias reached out and took the pistol awkwardly in both hands.
“You hold it like this,” Popov said, moving his hands and fingers into position around the grip. “Safety off, pull the trigger. Don’t point it at anything you’re not willing to destroy. But, by God, if someone’s trying to kill you, you kill them first. Understand?”
“Hey,” Popov said, bending down to look into Elias’s eyes. “Understand?”
“Good. We’re going to get out of this, I promise.” She turned back to Jerry. “Okay, snake-eater, here’s the plan.”
Jerry bared his teeth as he pulled open engineering’s main hatch, willing the door not to make a sound.
The second pirate was still rummaging through the personnel cabins on Valiant ’s crew deck. He’d gotten lazy, and left his rifle propped against the bulkhead just inside Petty Officer Torgeson’s berth.
After checking the positions of the remaining three guards, Popov had led Jerry out of engineering, down the short corridor to the portside stairwell, and onto the crew deck. Jerry could hear the pirate rummaging around inside one of the berths, several cabins down. The hatches on the cabins nearest them were all hanging open, making it easy for them to clear as they advanced.
Popov slowed as she neared the final open hatch, pressing herself against the bulkhead next to it. She had her knife out again; the plan was to dispatch this pirate just like she’d done before—quickly and quietly.
Jerry held the rifle ready, turned slightly so he could watch Popov and the deck’s entry hatch behind them. Slowly, he side-stepped toward Popov as she rotated her knife to hold it in a reverse grip. Their eyes met and she held up three fingers. Jerry nodded and she counted down.
At one, she flipped around the hatch and charged into the room.
There was a grunt, then what sounded like an alien curse, followed by more grunting.
Jerry stepped up to the door and froze.
Popov and the pirate were locked together, the alien’s back pressed against the far bulkhead, hands wrapped around Popov’s, holding the knife away from his throat. Popov drove a knee into the pirate’s chest, but the alien twisted away from the blow, using Popov’s momentum against her, twisting her so her back was against the bulkhead.
Popov gritted her teeth and shoved against him. She managed to get a boot behind her and pushed off the bulkhead, sending them both staggering across the cabin.
Jerry didn’t hesitate. He stepped through the hatch and swung the butt of the rifle in a downward arc, catching the pirate by his ankles, knocking him off his feet. Pathfinder and alien landed with a crash.
The pirate growled, twisting his body and heaving up with his hips, launching Popov off, sending her falling back into the small bed against the cabin’s side bulkhead.
Jerry stepped forward as the pirate scrambled to his feet, swinging the rifle around again. The alien caught it mid-swing, side-stepping the blow, and twisting the weapon free of Jerry’s grasp, pulling him off balance. Jerry brought a boot up, stopping himself from slamming into the bulkhead, then twisted back, lunging for the alien.
He wrapped an arm around the alien’s throat and squeezed with everything he had. The pirate’s hands clamped down on Jerry’s and the boy felt every muscle in the alien’s body clench. Popov appeared next to them, slamming fist after fist into the alien’s face, each impact a dull thud accompanied by a metallic jingle as the alien’s earrings clanged together.
Jerry held on.
The alien’s fingers dug into Jerry’s skin, drawing blood that streamed down his arms. Jerry gritted his teeth against the pain, a part of him screaming at him not to let go. And he held on. Pain flared down both arms and the alien thrashed; nevertheless, he persisted.
After several excruciating seconds, Jerry felt the alien’s body slump and weight increase as the pirate’s legs began to give out. He pressed his back against the bulkhead and slid to the ground, never loosening his grip. Jerry felt the alien take a final breath, then go completely limp, head canting over, ears drooping.
Popov squatted in front of him, putting a hand on his bleeding arm. “Hey, it’s okay.”
Jerry didn’t let go. Part of him knew Popov was telling the truth, but another part of him, a part driving by sheer rage and primal instinct, told him not to let go. If he let go, the alien would break free and kill them both.
He met Popov’s eyes, her expression softening. “Really,” she said. “It’s okay. He’s gone. Let go.”
Jerry looked down at the alien’s lifeless head, its weight sagging against his arm. Blood pounded in his ears. He realized he’d been holding his breath, blowing it out in relieved gasps.
He unclenched his fists, his fingers aching, and let the alien slide to the deck. Jerry pushed himself away, eyes locked on the alien. He’d killed Netherguard during the Battle of the Spirit, but never anything like this. This was a completely different experience. This was something personal.
“You okay?” Popov asked.
Jerry took a deep breath, trying to clear his mind, and met her eyes again. “Yeah, I’m okay.”
Popov nodded. “Good, we still have work to do. Come on. There’s two more left.”
She helped him to his feet, then turned back to the cabin’s hatch.
Jerry brushed himself off, looking down again at the alien’s corpse, wondering if his father had ever killed anything like that before. He shook the ache from his fingers and turned to follow Popov. He’d have plenty of time to—
Popov gasped, stumbling back into the cabin, tripping over the alien’s legs. She landed on the cabin’s deck, a pained expression on her face, looking up at Jerry as if she was asking him what had happened. Her hands pressed against her abdomen, bright-red blood seeping between her fingers.
“Oh, shit!” Jerry hissed, dropping to a knee, putting his hands over of hers.
Popov grunted, shaking her head. “No…” Her words were hoarse and pained. “No, I’ll be okay—"
Footsteps echoed in the corridor. Jerry spun, bringing his pistol up just as one of the pirates came into view. He screamed and squeezed the trigger.
The pistol bucked hard, but he heard nothing, barely saw the alien jerk back, falling into the bulkhead. Blood pounded in Jerry’s ears as he got to his feet, keeping the pistol trained on the alien as he slid down to the deck.
The pirate locked his hate-filled eyes on Jerry’s, growling through clenched teeth. His hand reached for something on his hip.
“No!” Jerry shouted, pulling the trigger three times .
The Pindiki shuddered with each impact, his arms falling to his side, his head dropping forward. He took several ragged breaths, then lay still, blood pooling beneath him.
Jerry held the pistol on the pirate for several long moments, trying to comprehend what had just happened. He couldn’t remember thinking about firing, couldn’t even remember pulling the trigger or hearing the blast, but the alien was dead all the same.
“Popov!” Jerry said, remembering the wounded Pathfinder behind him.
Popov sat on the floor, propped against the bed, rifle lying across her lap. The color had started to drain from her face; her hair was soaked through with sweat and matted to her face. Blood had soaked the front of her suit.
“I’m okay,” she said, voice weak.
“I’m going to finish this.”
Jerry stepped out into Valiant’ s bay and came face to face with another alien pirate. The alien curled its lips up in a sneer, beady eyes narrowing. Jerry brought the pistol up, hoping to get a shot off before the pirate realized what was happening.
With a growl of anger, the pirate knocked the pistol away with the back of his hand, sending it twirling into the cargo bay. It bounced and slid across the deck before glancing off one of the rover’s back tires.
The pirate lunged, light flashing off a twisted blade in his hand. Jerry stepped forward, bringing his hands up, blocking the side-arm thrust. He spun to the side, grabbing the alien’s arm and using his momentum against him, pulling the pirate off balance. The pirate bounced off the railing, crying out as Jerry let go, flinging him back along the walkway.
Frantically, Jerry looked around for something, anything, to use as a weapon. Nothing. The pirate regained his footing and charged, knife held out in from of him like a spear. Jerry backpedaled, hand sliding across the rail for guidance. There wasn’t anywhere to go except…
The pirate roared as it closed on Jerry, bringing the knife back, preparing to ram it into the boy’s chest. Jerry clamped his fingers around the rail, halting his backward progress, then pulled himself forward again. He kicked off the deck, launching himself into the air, driving a booted foot into the alien’s chest. The impact sent the pirate stumbling back as Jerry continued through the air, over the rail and down onto Valiant’ s cargo deck.
A metallic clang echoed through the bay when he landed, the impact jarring his bones. He’d landed near some of the Pathfinder supply crates, most of which had been rummaged through and were scattered haphazardly across the deck.
Jerry saw the rover ten meters away, his eyes drawn to the pistol lying on the deck to one side. He took off at a sprint, knowing his only hope was to reach that pistol before the pirate reached him .
The pirate landed awkwardly behind him, knocking over several crates and bellowing out angry curses Jerry didn’t understand. More crates tumbled across the deck as the alien got to his feet, footsteps echoing behind him as he gave chase.
I’m going to make it, Jerry told himself as he closed on the pistol. I have to make it. He could dive for the weapon, grab it, turn, and fire before the alien got to him. He’d empty the magazine. He would—
The alien crashed into Jerry’s back, sending the teen tumbling forward. The impact knocked Jerry off-course, sending him away from the pistol. Jerry landed face-first on the deck, the alien falling on top of him, knocking the air from his lungs.
Jerry grunted, feeling the alien move behind him. Panic flashed in his mind. He needed to get off his cheek. He thrust his rear up, bringing his knees to his chest, then pushing up. The move launched the alien over Jerry’s head, flipping him through the air. The pirate crashed into another row of supply crates, scattering the stack across the deck.
Jerry caught one of the smaller plastics cases, about the size of a shoebox, and raised it high as he pushed himself to his feet. He ignored the pain in his lungs, forgot the pain throbbing up and down his arms, and pushed aside his exhaustion. If he didn’t stop this now, he would lose, he knew it. He would lose, and he would fail every human on this mission.
Jerry Hale would not fail.
With a roar, Jerry fell on the pirate as he struggled to climb out of the mess of crates and slammed the case into his face. It hit with a wet crunch, and Jerry felt bone snap. The alien’s body jerked in shock and fell back, knocking several more crates aside. Jerry didn’t stop. As he cocked back for another blow, he drove his knee into the pirate’s chest, pinning him to the deck. He brought the case down again, rage driving it hard into the alien’s face. Jerry’s face contorted with anger and fear and fury as he slammed the case down a third time, and a fourth, and a fifth.
He screamed as alien blood splattered, spraying up every time Jerry pulled the case away. He rammed it down again and again and again. He hammered it down until his arm hurt and his voice was raw from yelling.
Finally, his fingers let go of the crate, letting it fall to the deck. It splashed in a growing pool of blood, spraying droplets all over. He sat back on the balls of his feet, breath coming in hurried, ragged gasps. Blood covered his hands. He felt warmth on his face, alien blood running down his skin. He was covered in it.
The pirate lay still on the deck, his face a broken mess of gore. Blood gurgled from his mouth and eyes and countless cuts on his face. One of the alien’s fingers twitched, a dying spasm, nothing to be afraid of.
Jerry took one last look at the alien, then pushed himself to his feet. He felt like he’d been hit by a truck. He leaned back against one of the rover’s over-sized tires, steadying himself. He found the pistol, tucked it into his waistband, and headed for the bridge. He still had work to do.
Another explosion ripped through a something in the distance. Carson ducked as she stepped out into the alley. Several fighters flew past in the night sky above, cannons spitting out streams of energy at unseen enemies. A sporadic thumping of impact tremors echoed in all directions.
Several blocks away, an explosion ripped apart a high-rise office building. Large pieces of twisted steel beams, thousands of shards of glass and flame rained down on the streets below. A deep groaning noise rolled down the street as the top section began to lean over. Support beams snapped and concrete crumbled as the tower collapsed, finally breaking free of the bottom half and slamming into the street below. A massive cloud of dust and debris sprayed into the air in all directions, moving down the street like a charging hurricane.
Aliens of all shapes, sizes, and colors fled through the streets, some carrying armloads of belongings, others simply running for their lives. Drop pods slammed into buildings, the street and crowds indiscriminately, disgorging squads of Netherguard that immediately began cutting down any survivors in their wake.
“Chief!” Nunez called, stepping around her, motioning to an open parking garage across the alley.
The slate-gray door had been rolled up; the frightened Zeis prisoners huddled near the back behind a six-wheeled ground car and three air bikes. Moretti and Birch were helping Jena to calm the freed prisoners.
“On me,” Carson said, stepping inside the garage. She held up the pad. “We’ve got a possible location on the Valiant . Only problem is, it’s halfway across the city. And we’re going to have a hell of a time getting there with all this going on.” She motioned to the sky with a finger.
Another explosion sounded in the distance, followed by screams of pain and gunfire.
“We can take these,” Moretti offered, patting the front faring on one of the airbikes. “Controls look basic enough and it’d be safer than using anything on the ground.” He swung a leg over the bike, settling onto the padded seat. The small craft had sleek lines, silver and orange painted side fairings and a clear windshield. Each bike was set up to carry two.
“I don’t like the idea of using unfamiliar equipment, especially when we’re in a hurry and there’s an invasion going on.” She turned to the Zeis. “Do you have any idea who might be attacking?”
“They are Ultari,” Jena said, holding out her pad. “We’ve been getting updates from DIN Central ever since the attack began. But they’ve never made an attack like this before. Never against a Regulos outpost this size. ”
Carson took the pad, her blood running cold as she watched the video on the screen. The video was shaking and unfocused, but the image was unmistakable. “Netherguard,” she said through clenched teeth, watching one of the creatures climb out of a drop pod.
“Shit,” Nunez said, walking to the front of the garage, checking the alley. “What’d they do, follow us here?”
Carson shook her head. “Doesn’t matter. Right now, we need to get our ship back and find our people. Jena, do you have a ship?”
The woman nodded. “It’s hidden at our compound six blocks from here.”
“Okay, take your people to safety. We’ll—”
“No,” Jena said, interrupting Carson.
“I’m going with you to find Abendu.”
“Listen, I understand—”
“It’s not up for discussion. I’ve been searching for him a long time. He took something that belongs to me and I mean to have it back,” the Zeis said.
The whine of an engine spinning up filled the garage and the bike Moretti was on lifted off the ground. He grinned, balancing the bike under him, one booted toe on the ground. He thumbed the throttle, revving the engine.
Carson knew she was out of options. “Son of a bitch.”
A flight of fighters screamed past overhead, cannons blazing, energy bolts chewing through a cluster of Ultari drop pods, but even as six exploded, twenty more appeared to replace them in wave after wave.
“We don’t have much time,” Birch said.
“Can your people make it back to your ship?” Carson asked Jena.
“Kin will get them to safety,” Jena said, putting a hand on the only Zeis male in the group.
“We have a ship ready to leave,” Kin said.
Moretti worked the controls, turning the bike, testing the accelerator. “Oh, yeah, this is nice.”
Carson turned to Nunez. “I really hope you know how to fly one of these.”
Nunez laughed, waving a dismissive hand through the air. “Oh, yeah,” he said, holding out his rifle for Carson. “Piece of cake.”
He slid one leg over and adjusted himself on the seat. Moretti pointed to the starter and Nunez pushed it without hesitation. The engine whined, spinning up. It lifted off the ground slightly and Nunez laughed, adjusting his position on the seat.
West climbed onto the last bike and held it steady as Jena got on behind him.
“Throttle, brake,” Moretti said, pointing.
“Got it.” Nunez thumbed the throttle and the bike lurched forward. Carson had to jump out of the way to keep from getting run over.
“Damn it, Nunez!” Carson shouted, slapping the front of the bike.
“Heh, she’s a little touchy.”
Another explosion echoed in the distance.
“They’re getting closer,” West said.
Carson climbed on behind Nunez, wrapping her arms around his waist. “If you kill us, Nunez, I will haunt you ‘til the end of time.”
Moretti walked his bike into the alley. The engine revved and the bike lifted into the air slightly, then drifted back down, hovering about a foot off the ground. “Ready.”
Carson’s IR chimed. Her eyes widened as she saw who was calling. “It’s the Valiant .”
“Chief Carson, its Jerry Hale,” Jerry said, leaning forward in Valiant’ s pilot seat, adjusting the headset over his ears.
“Jerry?" Carson asked. “What happened? Where are you?”
Jerry tried to rub some of the blood from around his mouth. “I don’t know. Some big, mouse-eared-looking guys hijacked the ship, took the crew hostage. They missed us. I think we have the ship secure now, but I don’t have any idea where we are. And Popov’s hurt pretty bad.”
“What’s wrong with her? Who’s us?”
“Me and Elias. Popov got shot while we were taking back the ship. We patched her up the best we could, but she’s not looking too good.” Jerry looked down at the wounded Pathfinder, slumped over in the co-pilot’s chair to his right. “We need to get her some help.”
“Okay,” Carson said. “Try to stay calm. We’re on our way to you. Do you have access to the ship’s systems?”
“Yes,” Jerry said.
“Find the emergency beacon protocols in the ship’s security systems and activate it. We think we have a good idea of where you are, but it doesn’t hurt to be sure.”
Elias went to work on the terminal, fingers dancing over the keys.
“Do you know where the rest of the crew is?” Carson asked.
“No,” Jerry said, shaking his head. “They took them off the ship as soon as we landed. We haven’t seen them since.”
“Okay, that’s priority number one. We need to patch into the buildings’ systems and try to locate our people.”
“How do we do that?”
“I’ve got a local tech expert collocated with me. She says there’s a direct interface to the building’s computer core near the landing pad. You need to bridge a data link from the Valiant to me and she’ll hack in. The bridge is in one of our supply crates in the bay,” Carson said. “It’s marked Tactical Communication Equipment. Go see if you can find it.”
“Go,” Elias said to his brother. “I got the bridge.” He adjusted the mic near his mouth. “Say, Chief, how we going to tap the aliens’ computers? These Mickey-looking aliens don’t strike me as technological peers with the Ultari.”
“My tech expert says the whole galaxy runs off of Ultari computer code. We integrated with it for the engines, should work.”
“Should work, she says.” Elias shrugged.
The smell of blood was thick in Valiant’ s cargo bay. Jerry sorted through several crates, trying hard to ignore the destroyed alien corpse. He finally found it and opened the lid. He found the small hard-plastic case marked “DIB.”
“Okay,” Jerry said, popping the locking clamps open. “I found it. Now what?”
“All you have to do is find a system interface panel and hardwire in.”
A loud bang echoed through Valiant ’s bay. Jerry jumped, almost dropping the device. “Oh, shit.”
“What’s wrong?” Carson asked.
Elias’s voice came over the ship’s IR. “I think they’re trying to force their way inside.”
“We don’t have a lot of time,” Jerry said. “Is there another way off this ship? The cargo ramp isn’t an option. ”
“There should be a small access hatch at the nose of the ship,” Carson said. “Should be just big enough for you to fit through. You’ll have to use the ship’s maintenance corridors to get there. To get to those, you—”
“I know where they are,” Jerry said, interrupting her.
“Okay, we’re heading your way. Get that patch installed and find the crew. We’re about fifteen minutes out.”
“Roger that, Chief,” Jerry said, feeling like a true Pathfinder.
Several more vibrating bangs echoed through Valiant ’s hull as Jerry found his way to the access panel at the far end of the central tunnel. The hatch was at the bottom of a short tube extending down to the underside of the ship. Elias opened the hatch from the bridge and Jerry climbed down the ladder, stopping just inside the opening.
He adjusted the small tool kit he’d found and keyed his throat mic. “Are they all still near the ramp?”
“Yes, most of them. A couple are standing out under the starboard wing,” Elias answered. “They’re getting pretty pissed off, I think.”
“I think I found where you can patch in though.”
Finally, Jerry thought. Some good news.
“There are several junction access boxes on the east side of the roof, off to our port side, about twenty meters away. You should be able to patch the bridge there.”
“Great, how do I get there without getting shot at?”
“I think… yeah, I can vent some exhaust from the engines and give you a little bit of cover. Won’t be much, but it’s something.”
“Better than nothing,” Jerry said. He took a deep breath. “I’m going left out of the hatch, yeah?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
Jerry froze. “Right? Not left?”
“No, sorry, left. Left is correct.”
Jerry shook his head. “Okay, I’m ready when you are.”
Jerry heard the hiss as super-hot steam blasted out of Valiant ’s exhaust ports on either side of the ship, creating two large clouds of vapor. He dropped to the roof and ran to his left, keeping low, praying the ship’s exhaust would shield his movements long enough to get to cover.
The building’s power junction boxes were gray metal, clustered together near two large cooling fans, which thrummed with power. Jerry ducked behind the first box just as the venting stopped. Carefully, he peered around the side and saw the pirates moving away from the dissipating clouds of exhaust, cursing and shouting at the ship. None appeared to have noticed him.
“Okay, I’m here,” Jerry said.
He went to work on the access panel covering the junction box, and a few seconds later, had it off. Inside, he found clusters of circuits and wires, none of which made any sense to him at all.
He keyed his throat mic. “How the hell am I supposed to know where to plug this damn thing in at?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Elias said. “Just attach it; the bridge should do all the work.”
Jerry pulled the small electronic device out of the case. It was slightly larger than his palm. One side was smooth, black plastic; the other was covered in small pins with two clamps on two sides. He pressed it against the largest circuit board until it clamped down, securing itself to the electronics.
Several lights appeared on the back side, blinking red and green.
Jerry looked up as one of the aliens near the Valiant ’s ramp started screaming. He pushed one of the other pirates, pointing to the ship and shouting words that Jerry couldn’t understand. The underling cringed and backed away, hands up in supplication.
Two more big-eared aliens ran up to the group, carrying a large case between them. They set it down in front of the leader and opened the lid. The leader laughed, producing a large cylindrical tool. He flicked a switch and a blue flame erupted from the tip.
Plasma torch, Jerry thought. They’re going to cut through the hull.
He keyed his throat mic. “Are you getting anything? ”
“No, I… wait, yes, I have something,” Elias said. “Yes, we’re in! Nice work!”
“Great. Can you vent more exhaust? I’m ready to come back in.”
“Hold on. Yeah, you ready?”
Jerry got to his feet, bending his knees slightly, ready to run. “Ready.”
Exhaust blasted from the vents and Jerry launched himself forward. He’d only made it about three steps before the venting cut short. Shouts rang out as the exhaust dissipated. Three aliens in the main group pointed at Jerry as he crossed the halfway mark.
Gunshots rang out. Jerry ducked and heard several bullets zip past him. He pushed harder, reaching the access tunnel and jumping for the rungs. Bullets ricocheted off the ship’s hull and ground underneath him as he pulled his feet inside. Jerry pulled himself up the ladder and rolled into the tunnel above.
“Close it! Shut the hatch!” he shouted.
This was a terrible idea, Carson thought, focusing on not vomiting all over Nunez’s back. She squeezed him tighter as another wave of nausea hit her.
“You doing all right back there, Chief?” Nunez asked, looking back over his shoulder.
“I’m fine. Just get us there, and hurry.”
“I’m giving her hell, Chief. It’s all she’s got.”
Even with the wind whipping around them like a hurricane, Carson could hear the sounds of battle below. Gunfire and explosions echoed through the air from every part of the city.
Another drop pod erupted into flame off to their left as the Diasore anti-aircraft guns tore through it. Bright bolts of energy filled the night sky around them, taking out drop pods every few minutes, but the defenses weren’t enough. The Netherguard assault continued unabated, as hundreds of the cylindrical containers plummeted from orbit, ferrying squads of foot soldiers to the city below.
Fires billowed up from destroyed buildings, and smoke rose into the air from a thousand fires littered throughout the city. Platoons of combat droids engaged the Netherguard in every section of the city, but with a seemingly endless supply of enemy soldiers, Carson wasn’t sure if they’d succeed in repelling the invaders. After experiencing how the local Intelligence Node operated and knowing how aggressive and powerful the Netherguard were, she doubted it.
“There is it,” Moretti said over the IR.
Carson looked over Nunez’s shoulder and saw a 100-story skyscraper rising out of the city ahead of them. Interior lights created a mosaic of pale orange, yellow and white lights up and down the entire height of the building. It looked relatively untouched by the Ultari attack, but Carson knew that probably wouldn’t last long.
Carson keyed her IR link to the Valiant .
“Hello?” Elias said.
“Any luck on that patch, Elias?”
“Jerry’s outside right now trying to get the link connected. I’m a little worried. The pirates were banging on the cargo ramp a few minutes ago, but they’ve stopped now.”
“We’re almost there. Is the ship locked up?”
“As far as I can tell, all the hatches are shut and locked. ”
“Good,” Carson said. “Keep it that way. How’s Popov?”
“Her breathing’s slowed. I… I don’t think…”
“Just hold on, Elias. We’re coming. Let me know as soon as you get that connection patched in.”
“What do you think?” Nunez asked.
Landing platforms stretched out from the side of the building ever thirty or forty levels. She could just see the Valiant , sitting on a wide landing pad on the building’s roof. She could see faint outlines of figures surrounding the ship but couldn’t tell if any of them were Abendu or not.
“There’s no way of telling how many people Abendu’s got guarding the ship or the prisoners. If we attack the ones guarding the roof, they'd be able to warn the ones guarding the prisoners.”
“We can take the ship,” Birch said.
“Yes,” Moretti said. “If Popov’s as bad as those boys say she is, I need to get to her sooner than later.”
“I don’t like the idea of splitting up,” Carson said.
“It’s not a great play,” Birch admitted. “But I don’t think we have a lot of choice.”
Carson’s IR chimed. It was Elias. “Go ahead, Elias.”
“We’re connected,” Elias said. “I'm searching for the crew now. Looks like there is a lot of extra security somewhere between the landing pad on the 80 th level and the roof, they’ve got some video feeds running back to the mainframe. Checking them now.” He paused briefly. “Yeah, 89.”
Carson tapped Nunez on the shoulder. “Platform on the 80th level, put us down.”
“Got it.” Nunez worked the controls and Carson felt the bike dip. Her stomach turned around.
“And Chief Carson,” Elias said. “I’d hurry. Popov looks real bad.”
“Understood,” Carson said. “Moretti, Birch, you have the Valiant . Wait until I give the signal before you attack.”
“Roger that,” Moretti said, gunning the bike shooting up through the air.
Nunez maneuvered his airbike around the edge of the building, coming up on the side of the platform. He flared the airbike briefly as he crossed the threshold, bringing them to a crawl. Carson jumped off the bike before Nunez came to a complete stop.
The view out to the city was breath-taking, even amidst the fierce battle filling the sky above. A drop pod crashed into a building several blocks away, exploding in a brilliant fireball, sending chunks of building raining down.
West and Jena set down as Nunez stepped up beside her. West waited for the Zeis to climb off, then followed.
“We’re going to need to move fast,” Carson said. She checked the magazine count in her gauss carbine’s optics, then let it hang from its sling around her shoulder. She drew her pistol, flipped it around to hold it by the barrel, then held it out for Jena. “Your friend said he knew how to handle guns. I assume you do as well.”
Jena took the weapon, inspected it for a second, then ejected the magazine, racked the slide, and snatched the ejected cartridge out of the air as it spun out of the chamber. Without hesitation, she slid the bullet back into the chamber, sent the slide forward again, and slapped the magazine back into the pistol’s grip. She brought it up in both hands, checking the sights, then lowered it to her chest and nodded. “I’m familiar.”
Carson couldn’t help but grin. “I see. Here’s a couple extra magazines.”
Carson led her team to the building’s entrance, double glass doors set into a wall of windows that wrapped around the building. Inside, there was a small atrium, with four banks of elevators at the far end. Nunez pulled on the door, locked.
“I think I can pick this,” Nunez said, kneeling down in front of the door’s panel.
“Elias,” Carson said, keying her IR.
“Can you unlock some doors for us? Platform access, 80th floor?”
“Just a second. ”
The door clicked. Nunez grunted and pulled it open, nodding his approval.
“Nice work,” Carson said. “Stand by, we may need some more help.”
They filled into a small lobby, footsteps muted by the carpeted floor. A small end table next to an uncomfortable-looking chair was the only furniture. A door to their right was marked with words that Carson couldn’t read, but the small image told her everything she needed to know: stairs.
“Nunez.” Carson nodded to the stairwell entrance.
He paused briefly at the door, then slowly pulled it open. West moved in, his pistol up, sweeping the interior. He moved to the base of the stairs leading up and paused, scanning the landing above. “Clear.”
“Move,” Carson said. “Jena, follow Nunez. I’ll cover the rear.”
West led their group up, carefully clearing each landing as they ascended the stairs. He stopped on the landing between the 80th and 81st levels, weapon trained on the exit door above.
Carson keyed her IR. “Birch, Moretti, we’re in position. What’s your status?”
Birch answered. “We’re hovering about 200 feet above the Valiant , looks like Abendu’s men are trying to cut through the rear cargo hatch. I don’t see any sign of the little bastard with them, though my guess is he’s still in the building somewhere. I count six hostiles up here. Shouldn’t be an issue. Wait… shit, they’re bringing in a plasma ram. Chief, we need to move now.”
“Shit,” Carson said.
Elias’s panicked voice came over her comms. “Chief! Chief, I think they’re going to get through!”
In the background, Carson heard a loud metallic thunk and Elias screamed. “We’re coming, Elias. Stay where you are.”
West glanced over his shoulder at the chief. “We go?”
West stepped forward, starting up the stairs to the final landing. When he was halfway up, the door on the landing above opened. A Pindiki pirate stepped into the stairwell, dressed all in black, rifle held across his chest, muzzle down. A matte back helmet covered the alien’s head. Two round domes, obviously covering his ears, gave the alien an almost comical look. His eyes swept down, immediately growing wide with shock. He opened his mouth to raise the alarm, body twisting to bring his rifle to bear.
Without a word, West fired. His pistol barked twice and two 10mm rounds slammed into the Pindiki’s chest. He cried out in surprise as his body jerked at the impact. He stumbled back in the corridor, dropping his rifle.
“Move,” Carson said, charging up.
West shouldered the door aside and stepped into the corridor .
Carson practically shoved Nunez through, as two more gunshots echoed down the long corridor. Two more rounds from West’s pistol caught the alien in the back, sending him sprawling forward, landing face down on the floor.
“Nice sh—” Nunez started, but was cut off by three rapid fire shots going off directly behind them.
All three Pathfinders turned to see Jena standing, pistol extended, smoke curling up from the barrel. Ten feet away, another pirate was sliding down the wall, his blood smearing a trail through the tan paint.
“Which way?” West asked.
Carson shook her head. “We need to—”
Shouts came from where the first dead pirate lay. A door opened, and another pirate stepped out, firing. His shots were wild, punching through the wall just in front of the Pathfinders. Nunez dropped the alien with a single burst from his gauss carbine.
“That way, move!” Carson shouted.
West and Nunez split, moving up opposite sides of the corridor. Carson and Jena followed West, keeping a few feet separation so they wouldn’t get bogged down should they have to change directions or move unexpectedly.
Gunshots rang out and the right side of the wall ahead exploded, spraying the corridor with plaster and dust. The volley ceased and someone shouted, “Don’t come any closer or we’ll kill the hostages! ”
Nunez took a knee. “Frag and clear?”
Carson shook her head. “Not with the hostages in there. Do we have any dazzlers?”
“I’ve got one,” West said. “We can use it, but in those tight conditions, I’d worry about blinding our people.”
“It’s better than being dead,” Carson said.
“Stay back,” the Pindiki yelled, voice cracking, punctuating his words with gunfire. “We kill them all!”
“Damn,” Carson said, pressing herself into the wall.
“Do we negotiate?” Nunez asked.
Carson shook her head. “We don’t have the time for that. We are going to have to go in fast and strong.”
They stacked up and moved down the corridor, hugging the right side, Carson in the lead. She stopped two meters away from the damaged wall. Sparks shot out from fist-sized holes in the plaster, the interior flashing with every shower. A cloud of white dust filled the corridor, tiny particles floating down through the air.
She could hear movement inside and one of the guards telling the hostages to stay quiet. Carson glanced back over her shoulder and held her hand out for West’s dazzler. She pulled the safety pin, keeping her thumb off the trigger button, and mouthed her countdown.
At one, she jammed the button down, activating the grenade, then shoved it through one of the holes in the wall .
The guards shouted, footsteps pounding as they ran for cover. One of the guards opened fire, bullets tearing through the wall, filling the corridor with more debris and dust into the air.
A second later, the dazzler went off. Beams of light shot out through the holes in the wall, light refracting through the dust and bouncing off twirling particles in the air. The air pulsed as the device blasted the room with an earsplitting boom.
Carson stepped back and slammed a boot into the door. The lock snapped, and the door swung back, bouncing off the wall behind it. She charged in, stepping to her left, eyes scanning the room.
Valiant ’s seven crewmembers were arranged in a small cluster near the back of the room, in front of a wall of windows looking down over the city. They sat cross-legged, hands tied behind their backs, a few lying on their side, trying to bury their heads in the carpet, shielding themselves from the effects of the dazzler. Carson picked out Greer near the back of the group, already picking herself back up.
Carson’s first target was doubled over behind an upended table, hands covering both oversized ears. Two shots sent him reeling back, tripping over a lamp. He landed on his back, hands struggling to bring his rifle up. Carson fired again, the round slamming into his forehead, snapping it back. The guard’s head bounced off the floor, then he went limp.
The guard who’d been standing beside him looked up at the shots, then watched, frozen in terror, as Carson dropped him. He screamed guttural alien words, eyes locking on Carson as he brought his rifle up. Carson dropped and rolled to the left as he fired, the shot going wide, slamming into the front wall of the room. She came up on one knee, found her target, and fired, the pistol jerking twice in her hands.
The rounds took the guard in the waist. He spun away, screaming in pain, dropping his rifle as his legs tripped over an overturned chair behind him. Wood shattered as he landed; his back hit the edge of the seat and snapped back in a blood-curdling crack. His scream died on his lips and his corpse hung there, balanced awkwardly on the broken chair.
To her right, Nunez stepped through the door, moving to the far wall, searching for a shot on the guard by Valiant ’s crew. The Pindiki had stepped back toward the middle of the group, shouting alien commands as his two friends were shot down. He fired from the hip, sweeping his rifle back and forth, apparently unsure which Pathfinder he wanted to target first.
Bullets tore through the carpet to Carson’s right, then stitched across the room toward Nunez. Carson dove behind a lounge chair as bits of carpet and flooring sprayed into the air. Nunez dove for a small wooden dresser, but landed short, rolling to his knees inches away from cover.
Lying on her side, behind the chair, Carson saw Greer move, the pilot pushing herself to her knees, then getting her feet under her.
“Rachel, no!” Carson yelled, bringing her pistol up .
With a cry of pure rage, Greer launched herself into the guard, driving her shoulder into his back. The guard’s hail of gunfire cut off abruptly, the impact knocking him off balance, slumping forward.
The guard by the window finally seemed to gather his bearings. Backpedaling, trying to create space between him and the Pathfinders, he shouted something and brought his rifle up. Two shots rang out and the Pindiki jerked back just before he fired. The impact of two tungsten slugs knocked the guard back. He slammed into the floor-to-ceiling window, shattering the glass and screamed as his momentum carried him out of the building, into the night air outside.
Greer cried out, falling to the ground, bound hands reaching for a wound in her thigh, blood already staining her jumpsuit.
The final guard struggled to his knees, cursing and shouting, trying to get a hand on his rifle. Nunez was on his feet. He crossed the two meters between them and drove a booted foot into the alien’s face, snapping his head back. The Pindiki grunted, body twisting back from the impact, then fell to the floor, unmoving.
Carson got to her feet. “Check the crew!” she shouted over the howling winds. She knelt beside Greer, cutting her restraints with her tac-knife. “Are you okay?”
Greer groaned, rubbing her wrists where the restraints had dug into her skin. “I’m fine. ”
“Where’s Abendu?” Jena asked, stepping up behind Carson.
Greer frowned. “Who’s this?”
“Jena’s with us,” Carson said.
“Abendu left about ten minutes ago to check on another set of prisoners,” Greer said. “They’ve got another set of secure rooms one floor up. We passed them on the way down.”
Jena turned to leave.
“Wait,” Carson said, getting to her feet. “You can’t take on Abendu by yourself.” She turned to West and Nunez. “Get them to the Valiant .”
Carson and Jena took the stairs two at a time, pausing briefly at the stairwell access door. Jena pulled the door open before Carson could stop her and moved into the corridor beyond.
“Jena, wait!” Carson said, following the Zeis woman through the door.
The two pushed down the corridor, clearing open doorways and rooms as they went. At a T-intersection, Carson grabbed Jena’s shoulder, pulling her to a stop. Jena shrugged off Carson’s hand, glaring back at her.
“We don’t have time to wait,” Jena said. “Abendu will get away. ”
“If he gets away, he gets away,” Carson said between breaths. “We can’t just keep—"
Movement from the corridor to her left caught Carson’s eye.
“Down!” Carson shouted, pushing Jena aside while simultaneously bringing her rifle up.
The Pindiki, not the one Carson and the Zeis were searching for, was shirtless and he looked like he was in the process of fastening his pants. His eyes bulged at the sight of the two women.
“Abendu!” Jena called out and fired, sending a burst almost point-blank in the alien’s bare chest. The bullets knocked the Pindiki back, his skull smacking against the wall. His scream of pain was cut short as he died, collapsing to the floor.
“Move!” Jena shouted. She dropped to a knee, pulled the Pindiki’s sidearm free of the holster on his hip, and continued around the corner.
Two fully clothed Pindiki charged out of an open door on the left side of the hall, both pulling pistols from holsters. Jena brought both pistols up, one in each hand, and fired without stopping. The first Pindiki screamed as a bullet caught him in the shoulder, spinning him backward through the corridor. The second doubled over, the rounds landing low in his pelvis. He collapsed into a screaming ball on the floor.
Jena never stopped moving, Carson pushed hard, staying on her heels. There was no stopping her now .
They entered a long room filled with partitioned cubicles on either side of a wide aisle that ran the length of the space. As Jena reached the first cubicle, another Pindiki emerged, wearing only shorts, and lunged for the woman. Jena ducked, swatting away the alien’s arms, spun around him, and pressed the barrel of one of her pistols into his side. She fired twice. His head erupted in a mist of blood and gore, splattering the wall behind him.
Two cubicles down, a second Pindiki emerged. Carson found his face in her optics and squeezed the trigger. The alien’s head snapped back as the round slammed home, knocking him off his feet.
“Abendu!” Jena shouted, letting the first alien collapse to the floor and turning to continue down the aisle.
Carson hesitated briefly as she passed the open cubicle, and felt bile rise at the back of her throat when she looked inside. A Zeis female lay on a cheap bed, her hands bound to ropes anchored into the wall above her head. Her entire body was bruised and beaten. Her eyes were wide with horror and pain.
Carson gritted her teeth and continued on. “Stay to the right, Jena. I’ve got—”
Three cubicles down, a Pindiki wearing only pants darted out of the opening and down the aisle, sprinting away from them. He looked over his shoulder briefly as he turned a corner at the far end.
“Abendu!” Jena shouted, sprinting after him, not bothering to clear the remaining cubicles, as he disappeared around the corner.
Carson followed, making sure to clear the cubicles as she charged past. As she reached the fourth opening, she heard a woman’s voice shout, “Careful!”
Carson slowed, clearing the opening as she approached, one eye looking through the optic, the other watching her background. Three gunshots rang out, followed by a grunt of pain and something clattering across the floor. A pistol slid out of the opening.
Inside, a Zeis male was struggling to keep his bare legs wrapped around a Pindiki, screaming as he punched at his face. Carson grabbed the alien by his long black hair and yanked back. The Pindiki grunted as Carson pulled him free of the Zeis man’s grasp.
He stumbled back, swinging wildly with both hands. Carson dodged the blows and resisted the urge to send a burst of fire into the alien’s naked torso. She didn’t want to risk hitting the man with her rounds. She let her gauss rifle hang and drew her tac knife. The Pindiki lunged, oblivious to the knife, reaching for Carson’s throat with both hands. She batted them away while stepping to the side and brought the knife up, slamming it into the alien’s sternum.
The alien screamed in pain, hands grasping for the knife as Carson shoved the blade in deep. She drove her knee into the Pindiki’s chest, knocking the wind from his lungs, cutting off his cries of pain. She pulled the knife free, only to slam it home again. The blade hit bone and the alien’s body convulsed under the impact, arms falling limply to his side as his knees gave out.
Carson pulled her blade free as the alien collapsed to the floor and looked to the Zeis man still bound to the wall. She stepped forward and cut both ropes, then flipped the knife over, grabbing it by the blade and holding it out. “Get the others free.”
The man nodded and hesitantly took the blade.
“I’ll be back,” Carson said, then charged after Jena.
The Zeis woman was just pushing through a door at the far end of the room when Carson caught up to her. “He’s this way!”
The two women charged into a large open garage on the back side of the tower. Rows of small personal transports lined both sides of the space. Orange lines drawn on the dark gray floor marked parking stalls and drive lanes through the garage.
Abendu was racing down the right-side aisle.
“Abendu, stop!” Jena shouted.
Carson fired a single shot, hitting one of the light panels that hung from the ceiling. Sparks erupted from the fixture and the light blinked out.
Abendu’s hands shot into the air as he came to an abrupt stop. “Please, don’t shoot!”
“Turn around!” Carson shouted. “Slowly!”
Abendu turned, eyes filled with fright. “Please, don’t, I— ”
Jena raised her pistol without a word and fired. Abendu’s head snapped back as the round slammed into his forehead. He stumbled back, arms flailing, then fell to the ground, his naked back smacking against the hard concrete.
“What the hell, Jena? He was giving up!”
The Zeis woman lowered her weapon and turned to Carson. “That thing doesn’t get to just give up. He deserved no quarter or pity. He deserved to die.”
Carson wanted to argue, but no words came.
Jena looked over Carson’s shoulder. “Jor!”
Carson turned to see the man she’d freed standing with a group of Zeis women.
“Come to take me home, Jena?” the Zeis man said.
“Yes, Jor. I have.”
“Come on, we need to get to the ship,” Carson said. She keyed her IR. “West, where are you at?”
“Just about to the platform, Chief.”
“We’ll meet you there. Moretti, Birch, what’s your status?”
“We’re good, Chief,” Birch said. “Valiant is back under our control. Name one and we’ll come get you.”
“Pick us up on the platform on 80. We’ll be down there in five.”
The Valiant wobbled in the air slightly, then seemed to over correct and the unfolded ramp knocked one of the airbikes clean off the ramp. Jerry grabbed the support rail by the opening, as the wind outside and his brother’s flying threatened to knock him over.
“Hey, easy!” Greer yelled, hobbling back. “Who the hell is driving my ship?”
Jerry started to answer, but the pilot was already gone, sprinting for the bridge.
The Valiant leveled out, holding steady a few centimeters off the platform.
Jerry moved down the ramp to help some of the injured crew members. He took one man’s arm around his shoulders and walked him up into the bay.
Carson jogged up the ramp and put a hand on his shoulder. “You look like you’ve been through hell. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Jerry said. “I’m worried about Popov.”
“If anyone can do anything for her, Moretti can.” Carson turned to Valiant ’s co-pilot, being helped up the ramp by Nunez. She nodded to his bandaged leg. “Can you fly with that thing?”
Lincoln nodded, grimacing as he put weight on it. “No problem. Who needs a leg to fly, right? Shit!”
“What’s your ship’s name?” the Zeis male asked, inspecting the ship’s bay .
“The Fartknocker ,” Nunez said, waving a hand around.
“The Valiant ,” Carson snapped, glaring at the sergeant, who gave her a sheepish look.
He ran a hand over one of the rover’s tires. “The accommodations seem… sparse.”
“Sit,” Jena told Jor, pointing to the benches.
The building shook as a drop pod slammed into it somewhere above. Glass and chunks of debris rained down on the platform behind Valiant as the last of the Zeis climbed aboard.
“Might be good to have someone in the turret,” Lincoln said.
Carson turned to Jerry. “Can you handle that?”
Jerry felt a swelling of pride and couldn’t help grinning. He nodded. “I can handle that.”
Streams of information—visual, audible, even physical—flowed into the tank, giving Jared the sensation that he was in ten thousand different places at once and found the experience was overwhelming. Jared focused on closing off elements of the data that he didn’t need; the new model Netherguard could manage on their own without any direct control from him. It was the sergeants and company commanders that he needed to remain connected to, and even that data was almost too much.
The holo-tank, located in the main hangar bay of the lead assault ship, was surrounded by server stacks, cooling vessels, redundant display panels, and cables connecting the mass of technology together. The subdued orange glow of the images around him flickered off his battle armor. The recessed ceiling lights glowed at half strength, reducing the amount of outside sensory interference .
The room was empty, sealed off from the rest of the ship. That lone concession had surprised Jared when he’d announced it to the Emperor. But logically, it made the most sense; you don’t want to interfere with the one person controlling your invasion from beginning to end.
Holographic panels of data, feeds from helmet cams, and streams of radio communication rotated around him, just outside of arm’s length. The orb of data surrounded him completely; every movement he made manipulated the data in some way. Fingers flicked, sending data panels to the background, spread hands enlarged specific feeds, and thoughts opened radio connections.
A drop pod exploded on a feed in front of him, the image shaking with the turbulence of re-entry. Streams of debris, fire, and smoke trailed through the sky. On a display, relegated to the background, the Netherguard casualty list grew by twenty. More pods exploded as a flight of Regulos fighters tore through the cluster.
The planet’s anti-aircraft emplacements kept up a constant barrage of fire, sending streams of tracers into the air. During the first ten minutes of the invasion, two in three drop pods were either completely destroyed or fatally damaged before they reached 5000 above ground level. He attempted to re-task some of their fighters to engage the AA turrets, but his request was denied by the Arch Duke without explanation.
The complete waste of troops, regardless of how easy it was to replace them, made no sense. Why not plan a strategy that didn’t involve the loss of almost 60 percent of your forces? He had to keep reminding himself, the part of himself he kept hidden from the Triumvirate, that he didn’t care about how many Netherguard were lost. It was that many more soldiers that his people wouldn’t have to face when the Triumvirate moved on to Terra Nova. But another part of him, a part he wished would remain quiet, felt regret at sending so many warriors to their death, without even a shred of hope for surviving. The Netherguard were the very definition of meat for the grinder.
Two full companies advanced through the spaceport, the first location on his priority target list. Several squads, armed with shoulder-mounted rockets, destroyed ship after ship as they worked their way through the massive complex. Several transports took hits as they lifted off, crashing down into the tarmac in brilliant fireballs. Explosions send debris and flames into nearby craft, damaging still more ships.
Several bands of resistance attempted to repel the Netherguard but were quickly quelled. Jared saw the flanking maneuver from the air as another flight of drop pods descended on the spaceport and redirected three squads to intercept.
It took almost five minutes for the Regulos to deploy their ground defense forces. Battle droids emerged from underground storehouses and bunkers, moved to engage the Netherguard throughout the city. Jared recognized the action of a cautious commander, waiting to see where the Netherguard would be committed to before launching a counter attack. The droids weren’t well equipped. Though their weapons could drop a Netherguard with a single well-placed shot, their rate of fire was too slow. A droid might get off a shot, and then be overwhelmed before it could fire again. The math seemed to be working in Jared’s favor, until he realized that the stream of battle droids wasn’t stemming, and their numbers were steadily growing.
A squadron of Ultari fighters swooped down across the spaceport, raking the tarmac with cannon fire. Several ships, whose transponder information identified them as Burathi, Lincheeny, and several others, lifted away from the spaceport, immediately making for orbit.
He established a link to the nearest Netherguard unit. “NG198-H23, shift fire to cut off the escaping ships in Sector 26.”
“By your will, Battle Commander,” the Netherguard responded.
Jared watched as the company charged deeper into the spaceport, bringing a maelstrom of fire with them.
An alert chime sounded and a panel filled with Prince Zviera’s face appeared. “Why is 9th company diverging from their established protocols?”
“There are several vessels escaping the perimeter around the spaceport, master. I was—”
“The spaceport is not priority, herald. Your only priority is the destruction of the Abomination’s units and the area surrounding the primary target. You will not deviate from established protocol. Do you understand?”
“Reassign those units to their original route immediately.”
The panel vanished, and with a flick of his finger, a top-down map of the city appeared. Diasore proper stretched for hundreds of miles, but the core was only about twenty miles wide. A building near the center flashed red, arrows indicating potential landing zones.
Using arm and hand commands, Jared redirected 9th company to the target, joining some 2000 other Netherguard converging on DIN Governance building. As his battle lines advanced, they received fire from a force three times greater, taking losses in numbers that he would have never accepted while he commanded doughboys. He watched the battle for several minutes, that hidden part of himself hoping the droids would push the Triumvirate’s forces back. They put up a decent defense, but despite their superior numbers, the battle droids were outgunned.
Jared couldn’t help but wonder how an artificial intelligence as vast and powerful as the SI could allow something like this to happen. The level of technology needed to create a viable AI should have been able to mount a significant defense against their attack, especially one as clumsy as the Prince’s.
Another alert panel appeared, the holo-tank’s secondary routines bringing what it thought was important information to Jared’s attention. Elements of 31st Company had encountered heavy pockets of resistance in Sector 871. It looked like several platoons had been separated near one of the city’s commercial districts, engaging battle droids and armed civilians. Three platoons of battle droids were moving to engage from the far end.
DIN Governance was the more important target now. I’ll come back to it, Jared thought; raising his hand to dismiss the visual feed, then froze.
A ship rose up from one of the tall towers, moving fast. It wasn’t Ultari or Regulos. He zoomed in and his breath caught in his chest as he recognized the Terran military markings on the hull.
Ken, what the hell are you doing here? Jared asked silently.
He watched it climb, evading attacks from Ultari fighters, none of which were actually focused on bring it down. Many broke off to engage the remaining Regulos fighters.
As it broke atmosphere, Jared said a silent prayer, willing the ship to get away, but instead of immediately breaking for warp, it continued to fly away from the planet.
What are you doing? Jared wanted to shout at them. Get the hell out of here !
Fingers danced and flicked across the display, bringing up information from the rest of the Triumvirate fleet. He’d been so focused on the ground assault he hadn’t thought to see what the battle fleet in orbit was doing.
The Ultari captains had managed a fleet of thirty warships, including two fighter carriers, plus over a hundred troop transport ships. They’d sat in high orbit, anchored a few thousand kilometers off the now destroyed SI space station. Compared to the Ultari fortress, the SI’s station had been unimpressive, but compared to anything humanity had ever built, the thing was still enormous. Fragments as big as frigates spun lazily through the void in an ever-expanding cloud of debris.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands of ships were rising up from the surface, but none of them were jumping away. Jared turned, working the tank’s controls. One of the warships was emitting a localized warp inhibitor. No one was going anywhere. A data panel appeared, giving him the pertinent information to the field and something caught his eye.
The holo-tank required huge amounts of computing power and sensor information to operate and give Jared effective control over thousands of ground assault troops. But to facilitate that amount of raw data, the tank was tied into the fleet’s local network, giving him access to almost every communication and sensor node the Ultari had available.
He selected one of the smaller transports, one which had taken damage in the initial assault, and tapped into one of its communication nodes. He segregated it off from the rest of the ship by tricking the local computers to think the node had been damaged during the battle and secured it from the rest of the network.
I hope this works, Jared thought, activating the node.
The railgun continued to thump as they lifted into the air.
Carson and West reached the cockpit and had to shield her eyes as something exploded a hundred meters off their bow. Two Netherguard fighters zipped through the dissipating fireball, turning their cannons on their next target, a small shuttle lifting off from a raised landing pad.
“Get us the hell out of here,” Carson said.
“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Greer said.
Carson held onto the back of the chair as the ship sped forward. Several fighters broke formation from a passing wave, opening up with their energy cannons. Valiant ’s shields flared blue-white.
Carson tapped her throat mic. “Jerry!”
“I see them!”
West shot her a confused look. “The Hale boys in the turret?”
One of the Netherguard fighters exploded, its wing shearing off and slamming into its wingman. The second fighter flipped over and plummeted to the ground, smoke and flame pouring from the wound on its side.
Greer banked the ship around a cluster of tall towers, coming up behind another group of fighters. The turret thumped, and all four fighters exploded in turn.
“He’s good,” West said.
“Don’t tell him that,” Carson said. “He’s a big enough pain in my ass already without a getting a big head.”
The view shifted upward as Greer angled them away from the city, flying hard for space. The glow of the planet faded beneath them and they reached orbit several minutes later. The massive space station came into view, the behemoth venting atmosphere from hundreds of fractures across its surface. Several of the docking rings had broken away from the main structure and were slowly descending toward the planet below.
Space was littered with dead ships, large haulers that had been torn apart, shuttles twirled through the void, transports exploded and blew apart. Ultari fighters zipped in and out of the wreckage, searching for new targets.
“They never had a chance,” West said.
A warning chimed as message panels flashed to life on Greer’s console. “Oh, shit,” she said. “They’ve got capitol ships. ”
Several holographic ships appeared, miniature models of the larger vessels in high Diasore orbit. Lines pointing to offensive hard-points appeared as Valiant ’s computer digested the data from her sensors.
“Get us out of here, Greer,” Carson said.
“They’re armed to the teeth,” Lincoln said, zooming in on one of them. “I read at least twenty energy turret batteries on that one.”
“I’m having trouble locking in coordinates for Terra Nova. Something’s fouling the hyperspace calculations,” Greer said. “Whatever is causing the disruption, it’s coming from those capitol ships.”
“Jamming?” West asked.
Greer nodded, fingers dancing furiously over her console. “Definitely a disruption field, I’m not finding a way through it.”
“Plot us a high-speed course away from the Ultari and punch it with everything you’ve got.”
One of the Zeis appeared behind West, craning around him to see what the humans were looking at. “Those are Ultari ships,” Jena said.
Carson turned to her. “You sound surprised.”
“More than one clan. I can tell by the markings,” the Zeis said. “They never work together. They hate each other almost as much as they hate the Regulos. How is this possible?”
“Hard to say what the Triumvirate wants,” Carson said .
Jena looked at her, eyes wide. “What did you say?”
“Uh, Chief,” Greer said, looking over her shoulder. “We’re getting a tight-beam transmission from one of the Ultari ships.”
Carson and West exchanged a look. “Put it through.”
The image of Jared Hale’s head and shoulders flickered into existence above the center console. He was wearing some kind of battle armor, though the face shield on his helmet was up.
“What the hell do you want?” Carson asked.
“Please,” Jared said. “I don’t have much time. There is a hyperspace disruption field in effect around the planet. I’m sending you the field modulation frequency, which should negate the field’s effect and allow you to escape.”
A panel appeared on Greer’s console. She opened the message and a second later nodded at Carson.
“Why are you helping us?” Carson asked.
“I’ve done a lot of bad things, Chief,” Jared said. “Things I don’t even want to remember. I just—” He looked away for a moment, then turned back. “I have to go; get out of here. Don’t go directly back to the colony. If the Triumvirate detects your warp signature, they’ll know I helped you…”
“Warp drives are spinning up,” Greer said.
“Hurry,” Jared said. “They’ll be coming for the colony soon. I’ll do what I can to stall, but you need to be ready. Tell my brother I love him. ”
The transmission cut off.
“Several fighters are moving to intercept,” Lincoln said.
“Get us out of here!”
Greer threw her hands up. “Where?”
“Here.” Jena leaned forward, working the controls on Lincoln’s computer with one hand.
“Hey!” Lincoln shouted, looking to Greer.
Carson was about to pull the woman back when West held up a hand.
“It’s okay,” he said.
A star field appeared on the display, numbers and letters flashing beside it. “Our home world,” Jena explained.
West gave Carson a sidelong glance and nodded.
“Try it,” Carson said, curious as to what had happened between the two.
The railgun fired, each shot reverberating through the hull.
Jerry’s voice came through the ship’s IR. “I don’t know what you guys are doing down there, but whatever you’re going to do, can you do it fast? We’ve got a shit-ton of incoming out here!”
Greer punched in the coordinates and the screen flashed green. “We’re good!”
Carson leaned forward. “Hit it!”
Netherguard tossed aside wrecked cars and debris from a pulverized high-rise to clear a landing zone near the Governance Nexus building. The outer walls of the structure had been ravage by gunfire and the remains of battle drones and Regulos civilians were piled like cordwood. All around the Nexus, structures had been razed from orbital bombardments, creating a halo of devastation with the Nexus at the center. Prince Zviera’s shuttle came in to land moments later, engines kicking clouds of dust and debris through the ranks of the Netherguard. Jared watched through hundreds of feeds, as the shuttle touched down and the ramp underneath the nose extended to the ground.
The Prince emerged a second later, ducking under the belly of the craft. Netherguard formed up on his flanks as he moved toward the entrance to the Governance building. That the robot Prince marched past the destroyed droids littering the streets was not lost on Jared.
Several unarmed servitors had been lined up inside the lobby of the building, all standing in a row. None seemed fazed by the carnage surrounding them. The Prince stopped at the front of the row, inspecting the droids.
“Abominations,” Zviera said.
“You are not authorized access to this facility,” the servitor droid said, its voice calm and matter-of-fact. “Depart immediately or additional fines may be levied against your account. ”
The Prince grabbed the droid by its head and ripped it free from its shoulders. Sparks shot out and electricity flashed as the cluster of cables and its segmented spinal column pulled free of the main chassis. The body remained standing, seemingly unaware that it was not missing its head.
The next droid in the row turned to face Zviera. “Damage to DIN Governance property will result in additional fines, forfeiture of travel warrants, and possible seizure of assets. Please—”
Zviera ripped its head off and tossed it aside. “Destroy these Abominations.”
A squad of Netherguard stepped up, lowered their disruption halberds, and reduced the remaining servitors to slag.
“We shall cleanse the scourge from the galaxy,” the Prince said.
He moved on, following four bodyguards through a maze of corridors, before coming to a set of doors that had been blown apart, their twisted and charred remains barely hanging on to their hinges.
He stepped into the massive chamber and stopped to look up at the holo-image of DIN Governance. The image flickered, then solidified once more. The glowing tree in the center of the room spun slowly.
“You are not in your assigned detention facility,” the Governance holo said as it appeared. “This is a breach of protocol. ”
“Your protocols are coming to an end,” Zviera said, moving to the raised plinth in the center of the chamber and ignoring the hologram. “You still have some contact with your abomination on the Throne World? Tell it the Triumvirate has returned and our empire will be ours again.”
“Your presence is not authorized at this location, addition—”
The Prince smashed a fist into the crystal tree, tearing through the glass panels, exposing the interior circuitry. Governance’s image flickered, blinking in and out of existence as it rattled off static-filled warnings.
“Alert. Leve… three… otocols active… igher comman… ority notified.”
Zviera ignored the hologram. He pulled back the panels, then began ripping out the electronics inside, throwing chunks of cable and circuity in all directions as he dug further inside the plinth.
Governance issued one final, broken warning. “Malfunction de—”
Jared watched as the Prince reached deep inside, tore another cluster of cables free, and the holo flashed from existence. A moment later, the Prince pulled his arm clear of the tree, a glowing needle, about the size of the Prince’s robotic fingers.
He held the needle up to his optics.
“Can you hear me, abomination? Did you see what we did to your sycophants? To your traitors? You should have killed us when you had the chance. Now the true Ultari will burn your worlds until the Triumvirate rules again.”
A panel slid open on Zviera’s chest and he slipped the needle inside. “Now we will be whole.”
Emperor Kyrios stood on the bridge of the Starbreaker’s Wrath, Captain Kailani’s ship. He sat in the captain’s chair as if made for the role, a dozen holo screens of the fighting around Diasore played out in front of him.
He raised a hand next to his head and clicked his metal fingers twice.
“My lord?” Kailani asked from the tactical control station.
“The Prince’s mission is successful,” he said. “Pull our ships back from low orbit and end the interdiction field.”
“By your word,” the clan lord said.
Kyrios swiped his hand across the screens and they coalesced into a single image of the planet. His spike tipped fingers stabbed at a command screen.
“My emperor,” Kailani’s face grew dark, “you’ve activated the fleet’s nuclear weapons.”
“I have,” the emperor said slowly. “This planet serves the abomination. The Ultari in its thrall are beyond redemption. The slave races need to be taught a lesson: the Triumvirate has returned. The true Ultari will rule again.”
He swept up to his feet with a whine of servos and went to the forward viewport and looked down upon Diasore, his hands clasped behind his back.
“Full bombardment,” Kyrios said. “Announce to the galaxy what happens to those who stand against the Ultari Empire…against me.”
Kailani hesitated for a moment, then turned to her station.
The emperor watched as ships emerged from the planet, fleeing toward hyper space and safety. Crossing paths with fusion tipped missiles launched by the Ultari fleet. Kyrios regretted that he lacked a mouth to smile with.
Pinpricks of light appeared over the main city. Speckles of destruction that annihilated the city. More clusters of nuclear explosions pummeled the planet’s other cities, eruptions on the world’s night side illuminated cities before their lights went out forever.
Alien ships—having just witnessed the destruction—went to hyperspace, escaping the Ultari’s wrath. The fear they would spread across the galaxy was worth a thousand ships to the emperor’s efforts.
The old legends would come back to haunt the once conquered races. Memories of when the Ultari and the Triumvirate ruled them, and they would know that time was upon them again.
“Return us to the station,” Kyrios said. “My work here is done.”
Valiant ’s main cargo bay had been turned into a shelter for their guests and an impromptu medical bay for Moretti. An air of weariness filled the space, as the group recovered and reflected.
The crew had managed to put together some rations the Zeis could stomach, their diet predominantly vegetarian. There weren’t any greens on board, but a couple of the protein bars could be flattened into a thin pastry and digested. They’d arranged a small dining area near the front of the rover, using crates as tables and chairs, and were busy eating, wooden jewelry clunking together, creating an almost musical sound.
The Zeis consoled themselves near the back of the bay, holding each other close. West’s report of their bravery and tenacity during their final battle had been humbling to say the least. She wanted to talk with them about the SI and the galaxy at large, to fill in the blanks, but Carson knew that even the bravest soul needed time to decompress.
The Pathfinders stood near the back of the rover, around two crates they’d pushed together with a mattress on top as a bed for Popov. Several IV bags hung from the rover’s rear hatch, disappearing under the sheet covering the woman. A second bed had been set up at the head of Popov’s, forming a tee. Elias lay on the second bed, an IV running from his arm to one of Moretti’s med-carts.
Popov was still pale, but she was getting better. Moretti had worked on her for the better part of four hours before he’d been satisfied. She was still unconscious, but her vitals had stabilized and were trending upward.
Moretti sat on a crate next to Elias, holding his medi-gauntlet over the boy’s chest, red and orange beams of light sweeping over his body. The youngest Hale hadn’t thought twice about the opportunity to help the Pathfinder. He’d practically shoved the IV in his arm himself.
Carson stepped up behind Moretti, looking down at the boy. “How are you doing?”
Elias smiled. “I’m okay.” He frowned, glancing at Moretti. “I’m okay, right?”
“You’re fine,” the medic said without looking up.
“That’s a very brave thing you’re doing,” Carson said.
“I have to do something. If it wouldn’t have been for me, Popov wouldn’t have been shot,” Elias said. “She wouldn’t have had to stay behind to protect us. It’s my fault she’s hurt. ”
“If you hadn’t been here, she would have been captured as well,” Carson said. “The ship would still be in Abendu’s hands, and everyone here would still be back on Diasore, fighting the Ultari. If you hadn’t been here, our mission would have failed.”
Elias looked away, cheeks reddening. “I don’t know. I didn’t do much, Jerry did most of it. I didn’t even fire a gun.”
Birch, standing with his back against the rover’s rear wheel, propped a foot back on the tire’s rim. “Not all warriors carry guns, Elias. And people do some of the most heroic things when they’re not trying to.”
“I guess…” Elias started. “I guess… I just don’t feel… I mean, I hid most of the time. That doesn’t feel very heroic to me.”
“What you did saved the lives of everyone on board,” Carson said. “And don’t let anyone tell you any different.”
“Call it what you want,” Birch said. “But I think you’ve found your iron today.”
“You can say that again,” West said, stepping up to the group.
Elias flashed a wide smile.
“How are your friends doing?” Carson said, nodding to the eight Zeis at the end of the bay.
“They’ll be all right, I think,” West said. “Jena seems to have everything under control. Jor’s a fighter. Reeka, she’s a little shook up, but nothing a few nights’ rest won’t cure. I tell you, Chief, they might not look it, but they’re tough as nails.”
“I hope that trait extends to the rest of their race,” Carson said.
“When it was time to act, Jena didn’t hesitate once, not even in the thick of everything. I’ve seen some Strike Marines that you couldn’t say the same for.”
“Let’s pray their leaders aren’t as reluctant to help as the Regulos were,” Carson said. “I mean, I’ve seen some pretty ridiculous bureaucracies in my time—our own government is guilty too—but the Regulos didn’t even seem capable of bending the rules just a little bit. No independent decision making.”
West shrugged. “Makes sense in a way. It’s been running things the same way for hundreds of years probably. Why should it deviate from its established protocols for a race it’s never encountered before?”
“Well, now that they’ve got their asses kicked by the Ultari, maybe they’ll be a little more accommodating.”
“Even if they are,” West said, “it didn’t seem like they were equipped to mount an effective defense against the Ultari. Or anyone, for that matter. Those battle droids of theirs didn’t stand up very well at fall to the Netherguard’s attacks. Hell, compared to everything else I saw, they were downright primitive. I mean, if you’re going to make autonomous battle robots, why not make them brutally effective, like Armor? Why restrict yourself to smaller, ineffective machines a strong wind would knock over? ”
“Maybe they can tell us,” Carson said, again nodding to the Zeis.
“Maybe,” West said. “But I’d definitely give them some time before approaching them about it.”
Popov groaned. Her eyes opened, groggily taking in her surroundings. She tried to lift a hand from under the sheet, but Moretti gently pushed it back down.
“Try to be still,” Moretti said, leaning in close. “Don’t want you to pull any of these IVs out.”
Popov frowned, eyeing the lines hanging from the rover’s hatch. “What?”
“You took a pretty substantial bullet wound to your abdomen. It tore your large intestine and punctured your liver. I was able to patch you up, but you lost a lot of blood. Elias,” Moretti said, nodding to the boy. “He volunteered to be your blood bank.”
Popov craned her head up to see the boy. Elias smiled and waved.
“You’ll be under the weather for a few days,” Moretti continued. “But after that, you’ll be back on your feet.”
“Oh, shit,” Popov said, eyes widening, darting around the room. “The ship, pirates! I’ve got to—” She tried to sit, then stopped, gasping in pain, grimacing.
Carson stepped up, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Easy. It’s okay. They’re gone.”
“Lie down,” Moretti said, sounding slightly irritated. He put a hand on Popov’s other shoulder and they both pressed her back down. “If you rip my sutures, I swear to God.”
“So,” Popov said, straining against obvious pain. “We won?”
“We’re alive,” Carson said. “But I’m not sure ‘we won’ is the proper way to describe it.”
“Next time you take an alien rifle round, you might want to think about taking it in the leg or something,” Moretti said, smiling. “You know, somewhere a little less… vital.”
Popov groaned, hands moving under the sheet, touching her bandaged wounds. “Shit, that hurts.”
Carson chuckled. “Getting shot has that effect.”
“Goddamn Mickey Mouse sons of bitches. Bastard caught me totally by surprise.”
“I know,” Carson said. “Jerry told us.”
“Jerry, is he okay?”
“He’s fine.” Carson looked across the bay to where the older Hale boy was sitting, elbows on his knees, eyes locked on the floor. “He’s a little shell-shocked, but he’ll be okay.”
Popov let out a sigh. “He’s a hell of a fighter.”
“He is that.”
“We’ll have to put in a good word for him when we get home,” Popov said. “You know, so Governor Hale doesn’t string him up.”
“I think the governor has bigger things to worry about at the moment. ”
“Damn, Sarge,” Nunez said, joining the group. He held one of the CL1 gauss carbines in his hand, running a dirty rag over the barrel. “You really worked the hell out of this gun.”
“Her name’s Grace,” West said, holding out his hand for the weapon.
Nunez raised an eyebrow at him. “Grace?”
West took the rifle, turning it over to inspect Nunez’s work. “She was my dog as a kid, tore up everything. Chewed through one of the legs on our dining room table, almost shit herself when the damn thing toppled over on her.”
Nunez laughed. “So you going to reconsider?”
“Yeah,” Nunez said, crossing his arms. “You know, my shirts.”
“Chief, do you mind?” West asked, handing off his rifle to Carson.
Carson took it with a grin. “Sure.”
“Nunez,” West said, unbuttoning the top buttons on his jumpsuit. “Your shenanigans are really going to get you hemmed up one day.” He pulled open the suit, revealing the Netherguard Hunter shirt underneath with a grin.
Nunez’s eyes bulged. “Hey, well played, Sarge, well played.” He glanced over to the Zeis. “I wonder what size they are. We could start a trend here.”
Carson slipped a hand in her pocket, feeling the pin there. “Excuse me. ”
The older Hale boy hadn’t said much since he’d come down out of the turret. When she’d first seen him, she’d thought he looked like some kind of crazed primitive warrior, his clothes battered and torn, his body covered almost entirely in blood. It looked like he’d taken a shower in the stuff. He’d spent almost an hour in the shower, cleansing himself, and when he’d come out, Carson thought he’d come out a different person.
He wouldn’t talk about what he’d done, but Carson had seen the alien corpse and had put it together pretty easily. Elias had filled in the bits she hadn’t already gleaned from the obvious clues. The young man had wanted action, and he’d gotten more than his fair share of it. Carson remembered her first combat mission, and it hadn’t been nearly as chaotic as their time on Diasore had been.
Jerry looked up as she approached, nodded, then turned back to the deck.
“Can I sit?” Carson asked.
“You know,” Carson said, taking a seat on the bench next to him. “Despite what you may think, you did exceptionally well. You and your brother both. Your actions were integral to the success of our mission here.”
Jerry shook his head, spreading his hands. “The things I did…”
“War isn’t pretty sometimes,” Carson said. “Actually, it’s not pretty most of the time. But as soldiers, it’s our job to press on and fight the fight. If you hadn’t done what you’d done, that alien would’ve killed you and your brother and Popov, don’t forget that. What you did saved lives. It might not’ve been pretty, but you did what needed to be done.”
“I can still smell the blood.”
“I expect you will for a long time,” Carson said.
She pulled her knife from its sheath at the small of her back, then extended it to Jerry, hilt first. Jerry looked at the knife, then up to Carson, confused.
“I’m the highest-ranking member of this expedition. By the regs, I can, if the need arises, recruit civilians into the militia as field commander in times of war. Now, unless you interpret this whole thing differently, we’re at war and we damn sure have the need.”
Jerry cautiously wrapped his fingers around the knife’s hilt, then lifted it up, inspecting it.
“You’ll still have to go through regular indoc when we get back home, and of course, the enlistment is subject to your father giving his blessing, but the position is yours if you want it.”
Jerry looked from the knife to Carson. “A Pathfinder?”
Carson smiled. “Well, let’s not get too carried away just yet. Combat militia is a start. If you accept, you’ll report to Sergeant West for your duty assignments. And I’ll warn you ahead of time, a lot of them aren’t going to be glamorous. The military isn’t all shiny battles and shooting big guns. There’s a lot of grunt work that comes along with it. You’ll be expected to carry your weight. Just because your father’s the governor won’t give you any extra points. Understood?”
Jerry nodded. “I understand.”
“So,” Carson said, pulling her hand out of her pocket, holding the pin in her fist. “You up for it?”
Jerry straightened. “Yes.”
Carson turned her hand over, opening her fist. A small, silver pin, a single chevron, lay on her upturned palm. Jerry took it, smiling.
“Voidman 2nd Class Hale,” Carson said. “Welcome to the team.”
Jared watched the celebration through video feeds from his netherguard stationed around the Hand of God’s coliseum. Hundreds and hundreds of Ultari, captain and crew alike, had packed the stadium to celebrate their total victory on Diasore. He blinked and the feeds vanished from his HUD, allowing his eyes to focus on his actual surroundings.
He stood on the bridge of Ultar ’s Wrath waiting for the Arch Duke to arrive. The chronometer on his HUD told him he’d been waiting ten minutes already. He might have been irritated, but the more time he spent here, the less time he would have to spend at the celebration.
To his right, the bridge’s main hatch slid open. Kyrios and Zviera stepped through, followed by an entourage of Netherguard. These new elite guards wore matte black armor, with two red stripes drawn vertically down their faces. Their red eyes exuded hate and malice, just the kind of thing the Emperor would appreciate.
“What are you doing here, servant?” Kyrios asked.
“My lord,” Jared said, bowing his head. “The Arch Duke requested my presence.” With a thought, the faceplate slid up over his forehead, revealing his face to the Emperor.
“What is Cigyd up to?” the Prince asked.
“I do not know, my lord,” Jared half-lied. He resisted the urge to look at the hidden alcove at the side of the bridge, apprehensive about what he suspected what lay behind the bulkhead. There was only one reason why Cigyd would’ve summoned them all here.
“Where is he?” Kyrios asked. “His flair for the dramatic is extremely irritating.”
As if on cue, the bulkhead began to move aside, revealing the hidden chamber beyond.
“Ah,” the Arch Duke said, stepping past the door as it disappeared into the bulkhead. “But what is art without some dramatic flair?”
“What is it, Cigyd,” Kyrios said, sounding slightly annoyed.
“I have a gift for you, my Emperor.” Cigyd motioned to the three stasis tanks behind him, their front glass panels frosted over.
Exhaust vapor from the far-left tank sprayed out of vents on the backside. The white cloud rolled across the deck as the hydraulics whined, pushing the tank into its vertical position. There was a hiss of pressurized gas as the panel unlocked and folded open. More vapor from inside the tank spilled out over the deck, combining with the dissipating cloud from the vents.
Kyrios and Zviera stepped forward as a tank rolled through the fog, a hidden figure within.
“By the ancestors,” Kyrios said.
“Not quite.” Cigyd touched the tank glass, running his sharp fingers down the length. A naked Ultari male was within. It stood, eyes closed, as if it was asleep and was almost as tall as their robotic bodies. Its bald head was slightly bigger than the average Ultari, its shoulders slightly broader. The frame was muscular, but still seemed too thin for its height. The bony ridges that stretched over its skull from its eye sockets were not as pronounced as the older Ultari captains, and the skin was smooth and supple. The eye sockets weren’t as deep, but were still ringed in thin bone protrusions.
“What is this?” Kyrios asked, walking around the Arch Duke’s creation. “An upgraded Netherguard?”
“Do you not recognize my former glory, my Emperor? It has been some time since we were of the flesh. I had to sculpt this form from memory. These are not for combat, my Emperor. They will be our new vessels. We will be flesh and blood once more. Once we have shed these monstrous metal shells. With these, the Ultari will never doubt our place as their lords and masters.”
Cigyd nodded to Prince Zviera. “The data core you extracted from the Abomination was the key to the success of this project. Without it, the transference would not be possible.”
“Transference? You mean to transfer your consciousness into that?”
“A back-up copy will be kept in our secure storage, obviously, and with the new data I’ve been able to gather from the core, growing additional bodies will not be difficult. In fact, I have no doubt that we will be producing more improved Netherguard by the time we move on Ultar.”
“You have done all this without consulting us?” the Prince asked.
“I wanted to ensure the procedure would work before I presented it to the Emperor.”
“And does it?” Kyrios asked.
Cigyd moved to stand beside the open tank and pulled a cable down from a rig above his head. He attached it to a coupling on his chest and let his arms all to his side. Data flashed on the screens behind him, and a second later, the glowing yellow eyes faded to black.
Kyrios leaned forward, inspecting the naked body. “How do you feel?”
After taking another long breath, Cigyd spoke. It was odd hearing him speaking without the deep, digitized tone Jared had grown accustomed to. His voice was soft, almost childlike, young and fresh. His eyes, one green, one yellow, met the Emperor’s and he said, “Alive.”
An hour later, the Triumvirate stepped out onto the stadium floor, all three dressed in red and black robes, trimmed in gold. Jared followed several paces behind, still in his herald’s armor, his faceplate down. Twenty Netherguard Elites accompanied them out to the middle of the arena, forming a protective half-circle around them.
Silence fell across the stadium as the masses slowly began to comprehend exactly what they were seeing. Several of the captains in the lower tiers pointed and whispered amongst themselves as Kyrios stepped onto a small platform, the other two taking up positions on either side. A black cloak, trimmed in gold, hung from his shoulders, his loose-fitting robes flowing around his ankles.
Jared stopped at the base of the short flight of stairs leading up to the platform and waited for his cue.
Kyrios lifted his arms, quieting the remnants of conversation in the crowd. He waited until everyone had given him their undivided attention, then began.
“Ultari! We are victorious!” he shouted, voice amplified by unseen speakers throughout the arena.
The crowd erupted in shouts and cheers. Jared’s stomach turned, remembering the plumes of fire rising off Diasore as the nukes went off, obliterating everything living thing remaining on the planet. How many men, women, and children had he just destroyed? How many millions of people had he killed with a simple flick of his finger? Simply defeating the SI hadn’t been enough for Kyrios; he wanted to make a statement, and Jared was disgusted by it.
The Emperor allowed the cheers to continue for several minutes before lifting his hands to quiet them again.
“You are right to rejoice,” Kyrios continued. “You have handed the Abomination a crippling blow. The eradication of the scourge has begun.”
“Your loyalty and faithfulness will be rewarded, but we have much work to do. We must remove all doubt from those who would preach against us. Ultar must be reclaimed and the unfaithful must be shown the light. Our righteous cause must prevail!”
The crowd erupted again.
Jared took his cue and started up the stairs. He took his place to the right of the Emperor, kneeling before him.
“I am Kyrios,” the Emperor said as the crowd quieted. “I am Ultar’s vengeance. I am Ultar’s wrath. The Ancestors themselves proclaimed this day as the day when the entire galaxy would weep at our ascension.”
Jared stood and held up the golden crown. He stepped before Kyrios, who bowed his head slightly. The crowd quieted as Jared placed the crown on the Emperor’s head.
Jared backed away, kneeling again as the crowd erupted in cheers, their voices shaking the arena .
“I am your Emperor!” Kyrios shouted. “Follow me and you will never again be forced to live under the Abomination’s heel. Rejoice in me, and you will find glory! Worship me, and I will lead our people to victory!”
Carson’s stomach turned as the Valiant dropped out of FTL and the kaleidoscope of blue-white light vanished. “Ugh, I don’t like that at all.”
“You’re telling me,” Nunez said. “Feels like I just had a double helping of my aunt’s chicken surprise.”
“What’s the surprise?” Birch asked.
Nunez laughed. “It’s not chicken.”
The Pathfinders, save Moretti, who was still attending to Popov’s wounds, stood in Valiant ’s cockpit, along with Jena and Jor, scanning the backdrop of stars outside the main viewport.
“FTL drive shutdown successful,” Greer advised, tapping on her console. “Receiving external sensor data now. Is this where we want to be?”
Jena leaned forward. A globe of green and blue hung in the void ahead of them, the colors vibrant and deep, almost like Earth. Several blips of light flew through the ocean of blackness, vessels of all shapes and sizes.
“Yes,” the Zeis woman said. “This is home.”
“Wow, check this out,” Lincoln said, running a finger across his screen, reading the sensor data. “The entire world is surrounded by a warp induction field and thousands of defensive platforms. That’s impressive.”
“We are a private people,” Jena said.
“I’ll say,” Lincoln said. “We’re being hailed.”
“Open a channel,” Carson told him.
A holo image of a Zeis male appeared above the center console. His hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail, his angled face clean shaven. He wore a high-collared jacket; open at the top, revealing a bare chest underneath. His goat-like eyes glared back at them with suspicion and contempt.
“I am Warrant Officer Kit Carson, of the—”
“You are not permitted to enter Zeis space. Leave immediately or face sanctions.”
“Ta’mor,” Jena said, leaning forward.
“Cleric Jena, I… I didn’t know…my apologies, mistress.”
“Disregard sanction protocols and clear me a path to the port.”
“At once, mistress.”
The image vanished and everyone in Valiant ’s cockpit turned to Jena.
“On my world, my position is… respected. ”
“I’ll say,” Lincoln said.
“So, out of curiosity,” Carson said. “What exactly would the sanctions have been?”
Nunez laughed, shaking his head. “Geez, Chief, everywhere we go, we’re getting fired at or put in jail.”
“The Regulos’ idea of enforcement is somewhat different than ours,” Jena explained. “If I had not intervened and you had continued on, you would have been destroyed.”
“Well, if that doesn’t give us the warm-fuzzies about this place, I don’t know what will,” Nunez said.
Tiny needles spun fine polymer thread over the face of what could be mistaken for a brutish looking man. His skin was mottled in hues of green and brown, laden down with muscles that didn’t match a human physique.
Hale leaned closer to the glass between him and the thing under construction and squinted.
“No bellybutton,” Hale said to Shannon sitting in the midst of computers and workstations.
“Doesn’t need one,” she said. “The design is more about social acceptance. A number of human…evolutionary hold overs were edited out.”
“Is it ready?”
“He’s booting up,” Shannon smirked. “‘He’, all the units were ‘male’. Men fighting and dying on the front lines is the norm for society. The boss did simulations, studies on making ‘female’ versions. Unacceptable for those to be cannon fodder, no matter how tough and ugly he designed them.”
“Male privilege,” Hale said.
“Same as it ever was,” Shannon stood and pressed her hands against the small of her back and stretched.
Lights flashed above the glass on the tube and Hale stepped back, one hand going to a pistol holstered on his hip.
The doughboy opened his eyes and steam filled his assembly chamber. The glass slide aside and the construct stepped out, barefoot and wearing shorts. He came to the position of attention, heels and knees locked together, fists along an imaginary line running down his legs.
“Designation,” Hale said.
“Unit Agate 1-1-1 reporting for duty,” the doughboy said, his voice low and gravelly. “Systems online.”
“He seems a bit more coherent than doughboys I’ve come across,” Hale looked over his shoulder at Shannon.
“The root systems answer status questions. You ask anything requiring higher functions and they’re less…robust,” Shannon said while looking at a screen, lines of code projecting on her face.
“What are your duties?” Hale asked the doughboy.
“Agate 1-1-1 protects humans. Agate 1-1-1 obeys all orders to protect humans against threats. Agate 1-1-1 will maintain system integrity unless prior orders are in danger of being violated.”
“We can imprint further,” Shannon said. “But he’s as close to the original design as I can manage.”
Hale nodded at her then turned back to the doughboy. He pulled a fist back and punched the doughboy in the stomach. The doughboy grunted as the blow knocked air from his lungs. Hale planted his front foot and delivered a kick to the doughboy’s thigh that would have felled a normal man. The blow landed with a smack, but the doughboy didn’t waver.
The governor stepped back and drew his pistol.
“Woah, what the hell!” Shannon shouted and tried to move out of her computer banks.
Hale leveled the muzzle between the doughboys eyes. The construct didn’t blink. He swung the pistol toward Shannon and flipped the safety off.
Agate snapped forward and clamped his meaty hand over the pistol and yanked Hale’s arm upwards. Hale fired, blowing a hole through Agate’s palm and another through the ceiling.
Hale looked at the doughboy, his face a mask of calm.
“No. Hurt.” Agate said.
Shannon leveled a finger at Hale.
“You are a son of a bitch,” she said.
“Had to test the programming,” Hale said. He pulled his pistol free and holstered it.
Pale green fluid dripped from the bullet wound in Agate’s hand.
“Repair yourself,” Hale said and Agate went back to the assembly tube and reached inside. Silver waldos tipped with spindle work arms began reknitting the doughboys flesh.
“You going to do that to every single one?” Shannon set her hands on her hips.
“How long to produce more?”
“Five minutes each,” she said with a sigh. “Longer if you want any modifications. Want me to get started?”
“Not yet,” Hale said. “Someone with my last name walks through the streets of Terra Nova with a dozen doughboys behind me and it won’t end well. I have to sell Agate, and all the Agates after him, as our best hope of defending this city when the Ultari return.”
Agate pulled his hands out of the tube and did a neat about face.
“Agate 1-1-1 ready,” he said.
“Come with me, doughboy,” Hale said. “You’ve got to win a battle of hearts and minds.”
The story continues in REDEMPTION’S SHADOW, coming early 2019!
From the Authors
Hello Dear and Gentle Reader,
Thank you for reading Bloodlines. We hope you enjoyed your time with this new galaxy of heroes and villains, much more on the way!
Please leave a review on Amazon and let us know how we’ve done as storytellers, as your feedback is very important to us.
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Also By Richard Fox:
The Ember War Saga:
8. The Crucible
Terran Armor Corps:
4. A House Divided (Coming Spring 2018!)
The Exiled Fleet Series:
1. Albion Lost
3. Their Finest Hour (Coming 2018!)
Read THE EMBER WAR for FREE
The Earth is doomed. Humanity has a chance. Read where the saga began!
In the near future, an alien probe arrives on Earth with a pivotal mission—determine if humanity has what it takes to survive the impending invasion by a merciless armada.
The probe discovers Marc Ibarra, a young inventor, who holds the key to a daring gambit that could save a fraction of Earth's population. Humanity's only chance lies with Ibarra's ability to keep a terrible secret and engineer the planet down the narrow path to survival.
Earth will need a fleet. One with a hidden purpose. One strong enough to fight a battle against annihilation.
The Ember War is the first installment in an epic military sci-fi series. If you like A Hymn Before Battle by John Ringo and The Last Starship by Vaughn Heppner, then you'll love this explosive adventure with constant thrills and high stakes from cover to cover.
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Here’s a sample for you:
THE NEAR FUTURE
Humanity’s only hope of survival entered the solar system at nearly the speed of light. The probe slowed as the sun’s heliosphere disrupted the graviton wave it rode in on from the abyss of deep space. Awakened by the sudden deceleration, the probe absorbed the electromagnetic spectrum utilized by its target species and assessed the technological sophistication of the sole sentient species on Earth.
The probe adjusted its course to take it into the system’s star. If the humans couldn’t survive—with its help—what was to come, then the probe would annihilate itself. There would be no trace of it for the enemy, and no chance of humanity’s existence beyond the time it had until the enemy arrived. The probe analyzed filed patents, military expenditures, birth rates, mathematical advancement and space exploration.
The first assessment fell within the margin of error of survival and extinction for humanity. The probe’s programming allowed for limited autonomous decision making (choice being a rare luxury for the probe’s class of artificial intelligence). The probe found itself in a position to choose between ending its mission in the sun’s fire and a mathematically improbable defense of humanity—and the potential compromise of its much larger mission.
Given the rare opportunity to make its own decision, the probe opted to dither. In the week it took to pass into Jupiter’s orbit, the probe took in more data. It scoured the Internet for factors to add to the assessment, but the assessment remained the same: unlikely, but possible. By the time it shot past Mars, the probe still hadn’t made a decision.
As the time to adjust course for Earth or continue into the sun approached, the probe conducted a final scan of cloud storage servers for any new information…and found something interesting.
While the new information made only a negligible impact on the assessment, the probe adjusted course to Earth. It hadn’t traveled all this way for nothing.
In the desert south of Phoenix, Arizona, it landed with no more fanfare than a slight thump and a few startled cows. Then it broke into the local cell network and made a call.
Marc Ibarra awoke to his phone ringing at max volume, playing a pop ditty that he hated with vehemence. He rolled off the mattress that lay on the floor and crawled on his hands and knees to where his cell was recharging. His roommate, who paid the majority of their rent and got to sleep on an actual bed, grumbled and let off a slew of slurred insults.
Marc reached his cell and slapped at it until the offending music ended. He blinked sleep from his eyes and tried to focus on the caller’s name on the screen. The only people who’d call at this ungodly hour were his family in Basque country…or maybe Jessica in his applied robotics course wanted a late-night study break.
The name on the screen was “ANSWER ME”.
He closed an eye and reread the name. It was way too early—or too late, depending on one’s point of view—for this nonsense. He turned the ringer off and went back to bed. Sleep was about to claim him when the phone rang again, just as loudly as last time but now with a disco anthem.
“Seriously?” his roommate slurred.
Marc declined the call and powered the phone off. He flopped back on his bed and curled into his blanket. To hell with my first class, he thought. Arizona State University had a lax attendance policy, one which he’d abuse for nights like this.
The cell erupted with big-band music. Marc took his head out from beneath the covers and looked at his phone like it was a thing possessed. The phone vibrated so hard that it practically danced a jig on the floor and the screen flashed “ANSWER ME” over and over again as music blared.
“Dude?” said his roommate, now sitting up in his bed.
Marc swiped the phone off the charging cord and the music stopped. The caller’s name undulated with a rainbow of colors and an arrow appeared on the screen pointing to the button he had to press to answer the call. When did I get this app? he thought.
Marc sighed and left the bedroom, meandering into the hallway bathroom with the grace of a zombie. The battered mattress he slept on played hell with his back and left him stiff every morning. Dropping his boxers, he took a seat on the toilet and answered the call, determined to return this caller’s civility with some interesting background noise.
“What?” he murmured.
“Marc Ibarra. I need to see you.” The voice was mechanical, asexual in its monotone.
“Do you have any frigging idea what time it is? Wait, who the hell is this?”
“You must come to me immediately. We must discuss the mathematical proof you have stored in document title ‘thiscantberight.doc.’”
Marc shot to his feet. The boxers around his ankles tripped him up and he stumbled out of the bathroom and fell against the wall. His elbow punched a hole in the drywall and the cell clattered to the floor.
He scooped the phone back up and struggled to breathe as a sudden asthma attack came over him.
“How…how…?” He couldn’t finish his question until he found his inhaler in the kitchen, mere steps away in the tiny apartment. He took a deep breath from the inhaler and felt the tightness leave his lungs.
That someone knew of his proof was impossible. He’d finished it earlier that night and had encrypted it several times before loading it into a cloud file that shouldn’t have been linked to him in any way.
“How do you know about that?” he asked.
“You must come to me immediately. There is little time. Look at your screen,” the robotic voice said. His screen changed to a map program, displaying a pin in an open field just off the highway connecting Phoenix to the suburb of Maricopa.
Marc grabbed his keys.
An hour later, his jeans ripped from scaling a barbed-wire fence, Marc was surrounded by desert scrub. The blue of the morning rose behind him, where his beat-up Honda waited on the side of the highway.
With his cell to his ear, Marc stopped and looked around before deciding how to continue. Spiked ocotillo plants looked a lot like benign mesquite trees in the darkness. A Native American casino in the distance served as his North Star, helping him keep his bearings.
“You’re not out here, are you? I’m being punked, aren’t I?” he asked the mysterious caller.
“You are nine point two six meters to my east south east. Punk: decayed wood, used as tinder. Are you on fire?” the caller said.
Marc rolled his eyes. This wasn’t the first time the caller had used the nonstandard meanings of words during what passed as conversation between the two. Marc had tried to get the caller to explain how he knew about his theorem and why they had to meet in the middle of the desert. The caller had refused to say anything. He would only reiterate that Marc had to come quickly to see him, chiding him every time Marc deviated from the provided driving directions.
“If you’re so close, why can’t I see you?” he asked. He took a few steps in what he thought was a northwesterly direction and squished into a cow patty.
“Continue,” the caller said.
Marc shook his foot loose and tried to kick the cow leavings from his sneakers.
“You know what this is? This is exactly what’s all over my shoes, you monotone bastard. Forget it!” Marc shoved his phone into his back pocket and limped back toward his car, his right foot squishing with each step.
The route back to his car was comparatively easy; he just had to walk toward his headlights. That was the plan, anyway, until the lights on his car shut off.
“Marc, this is important.” The muffled words came from his pocketed cell.
“How are you doing this?” Marc shouted into the night.
“Turn around, please.”
Marc did as asked and a silver light like the snap of a reflection from a fish twisting just beneath the water flared on the ground ahead of him. No one was there a moment ago and Marc hadn’t heard any movement.
“I swear if I get my kidneys cut out I will be so pissed about this,” Marc said as he made his way to where he saw the light. He stood for a moment, then flopped his arms against his sides. “I’m here.”
“You’re standing on me.” The voice came from beneath Marc’s feet.
Marc skipped aside like he’d just heard a rattlesnake’s warning.
“Holy—did someone bury you? Why didn’t you tell me to bring a shovel?” Marc went to his knees and poked at the ground, which felt solid. “How deep are you? Do you have enough air?” Marc asked, using both hands to shove earth aside.
“Two inches ahead and three down.”
Marc’s face contorted in confusion as he kept digging. He moved a mound of gray dirt and pebbles aside and a silver light washed over his face.
A silver needle no more than three inches long rested in the dirt. Tiny filaments of lambent energy crept from the needle and undulated through the air like a snake in the ocean. Marc was frozen in place, his jaw slack as the filaments extended away from the needle, shades of white swimming in and around it.
“We don’t have much time.” The words came from the needle in the same mechanical voice as his mysterious caller. A point of light appeared in the air above the needle, sparked, and then lit into a flame no bigger than he’d seen on a match head. The white flame, which gave off no heat, rose and grew in size. A flame the size of Marc’s head came to a stop a few feet in the air.
Marc, transfixed by the flame until now, got to his feet. The filaments from the needle had extended past him and formed a perimeter ten yards in diameter. Tendrils of energy writhed against each other and against an invisible boundary. His heart pounded in his ears and his innate fight-or-flight instinct made a decision.
“This is a different experience for you. Let me—”
Marc turned and ran away. He got to where the tendrils had stopped and ran into what felt like a wall of water. Air thickened around him as he tried to push through and find purchase on the ground ahead. It felt like he was moving through clay.
“Marc, you’re being ridiculous.” The air hardened and spat him back toward the flame. Marc tripped over his own feet and tumbled to the ground. He snapped back to his feet and looked for a way, anyway, to put some distance between him and the flame.
The flame, white on silver or silver on white—Marc couldn’t tell as it morphed in the air—floated toward him slowly.
Marc made the sign of the cross with two fingers and looked away. He heard a sigh.
“Look at me.” The flame, again.
Marc opened an eye. The flame was a few inches from his hands but he still felt no heat.
“I’m not here to hurt you. I’m here to help you. Understand?” The flame bobbed in the air gently until Marc nodded. “I am an emissary from an alien intelligence sent to save your species from extinction and I need your help to do it.”
Marc pointed a finger at the flame and tried to touch it. His fingertip passed into the flame’s surface without sensation.
“I thought unsolicited physical contact was against your species’ norms,” said the flame, the tendrils rustling with the words.
Marc snapped his hand back.
“Did you say something about…extinction?” The flame bobbed in the air. “How? Why?”
“An armada is coming.” The flame morphed into an oblong shape with a half dozen tendrils sticking from it, like a misshapen spider. “They are the Xaros and they will annihilate your species with ease. Unless you and I work together, your extinction is assured,” the flame said, floating closer to Marc, who stood dumbfounded. The flame came so close that he could see his reflection on it. Deep blue motes of light sprang from the flame and evaporated in the air.
“Why me? What am I supposed to do about an alien armada? I’m a B-minus grad student with a mountain of student loans, not some…some world leader!”
The probe returned to flames and a hologram of a white paper popped into the air next to it. Pages flipped open from the book, the mathematical proof he’d finished the night before.
“We expected that your species would have progressed to the edge of your solar system by now. To see such potential squandered on wars and Internet cat videos was disheartening, but this is well beyond what you should be capable of. The advancements you discovered in material science and energy storage are a springboard to technological advancement that will give you a 27 percent chance of survival, provided everything goes as planned. We can start here.” The proof stopped with the picture of a lattice of carbon atoms. The last page had the words “No way!!!!” scrawled next to the diagram.
“I don’t understand,” Marc said.
“You will, but we need to get started right away.”
“How much time do we have?”
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Read BREAKING THROUGH for FREE
This is not a fairy tale.
Sixty-six days is all fighter pilot John McNeal has left on his service contract, after that his combat days will be over for good.
If he survives that long.
After a mysterious rift in the fabric of spacetime strands him on an alien world John must join forces with some unlikely heroes to have a chance of surviving. He soon discovers that this strange new world isn't alien at all, but this is not the land of pixies, pirates or boys who don't grow old.
There is hope, however, someone has been here before and returned to tell about it, all John has to do is figure out how they got back home. It won't be easy; this world is not the fairy tale he remembers and he will have to fight to get home.