Book: The Mutineer's Daughter

The Mutineer's Daughter

The Mutineer’s Daughter

Book One of In Revolution Born


Chris Kennedy & Thomas A. Mays

PUBLISHED BY: Theogony Books

Copyright © 2018 Chris Kennedy & Thomas A. Mays

All Rights Reserved

License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only and may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

This book is a work of fiction, and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locales is purely coincidental, except for the Red Shirts, who have given me their express permission to kill them in all sorts of wicked, nasty ways. The other characters are productions of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously.

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For our Dads (Patrick Kennedy and John Mays) and our Daughters (Adrienne and Erika Kennedy; Isabel and Gabby Mays.) We love you!

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Cover Art and Design by Konstantin Kiselyov

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Table of Contents

Chapter One: Benno

Chapter Two: Mio

Chapter Three: Benno

Chapter Four: Mio

Chapter Five: Benno

Chapter Six: Mio

Chapter Seven: Benno

Chapter Eight: Mio

Chapter Nine: Benno

Chapter Ten: Mio

Chapter Eleven: Benno

Chapter Twelve: Mio

Chapter Thirteen: Benno

Chapter Fourteen: Mio

Chapter Fifteen: Benno

Chapter Sixteen: Mio

Chapter Seventeen: Benno

Chapter Eighteen: Mio

Chapter Nineteen: Benno

Chapter Twenty: Mio

Chapter Twenty-One: Adelaide

About Chris Kennedy

About Thomas A. Mays

Titles by Chris Kennedy

Titles by Thomas A. Mays

Connect with Chris Kennedy Online

Connect with Thomas A. Mays Online

Excerpt from “Cartwright’s Cavaliers:”

Excerpt from “Wraithkin:”

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Chapter One: Benno

Kenny dozed at his console again.

There he sat—as brazen as ever—strapped down, suited up, jacked in…and completely checked out. One might make allowances for an overworked man falling asleep during a dull routine, watching gauges that didn’t move or indicators that rarely indicated anything of consequence, perhaps even during a quiet moment during their ship’s long, long deployment.

But Fire Control Tech Third Class Ken Burnside was doing it—yet again—while the ship stood at General Quarters, in an unfriendly star system, while other parts of the fleet engaged the forces of the Terran Union.

Chief Warrant Officer Grade 2 (Combat Systems) Benjamin “Benno” Sanchez shook his helmeted head and narrowed his eyes at the sailor strapped in to his right. He had spoken to the young weapons engineer a number of times before, through countless drills and mock skirmishes, but the youthful idiot never retained the lesson for long.

“Benno, Bosso,” Kenny would plead, “you shouldn’t yell at me. You should have me teach others my wisdom!”

Benno would invariably frown and give his unflattering opinion of Kenny’s wisdom.

“Get it, ya?” Kenny would reply. “I’m a math guy. Probability, right Warrant? The Puller’s just a little ship, on the edge of the formation. We scan, we snipe, we mop up, we patrol. We don’t go in the middle, tube’s blazing, ya? We no tussle with the big Terrans, ya? No damage! No battle! So, something goes wrong, back-ups kick in, buzzer goes off, we mark for fix later. And when’s the only time you or the officers don’t let a man walk ‘round and don’t ask for this, don’t ask for that? When’s the only time a man can catch up on the z’s, eh? One and the same time! So I doze. Buzzer goes off, I wake, make a note, doze again till I can work, ya? Such wisdom!”

Benno usually lectured him about complacency. He asked what would happen if they were hit, if the shot was hot enough, deep enough, destructive enough to burn through the backup of the backup of the backup. What if they did have to face the Great Test, to rise and work and save the Puller themselves?

Kenny would always smile, relieved. “Well, then I be dead, ya? No more maintenance either way. Good enough reason to doze right there!”

Benno could have reported him any number of times, but he never had. Putting it on paper and sending it above them was a two-edged sword. It would solve Kenny’s sleepy disdain for order, of that Benno had no doubt, but he also knew he would lose Kenny’s trust and the vigorous drive the young ALS plebeian applied to every other task. Plus, it would signal to the officers above that Benno couldn’t handle a minor discipline problem on his own. And it would indicate to the ranks below that Benno was no longer one of their own—when he had gone from Chief to Chief Warrant Officer, he had changed his ties, forever.

So Benno growled, but he let it slide, content only he would know about Kenny’s acts of passive rebellion. No one else would ever know why the young tech kept getting extra punishment duties. Besides, it wasn’t as if Kenny was actually wrong, in the fullness of things.

Then, before Benno could check his own side of the console to verify whether things were indeed alright, his internal debate was blown away by the unforgiving, indiscriminate lance of an x-ray laser blast.

The single beam struck the Puller a glancing blow, centered on a space just beneath the outer hull and aimed outboard. Armor plate, radiation shielding, piping, wireways, conduit, decking, internal honeycombed structure, atmosphere, and people all ionized and ablated into a dense, mixed plasma. This plasma exploded outward, crushing the spaces surrounding the hit and dealing further physical and thermal damage. Combat Systems Maintenance Central, or CSMC, lay deep within the Puller’s battle hull—three spaces inward from where the x-ray laser struck—but that meant little next to the awesome destructive power of a Dauphine capital-class xaser warhead.

The forward and port bulkheads in front of them flashed white hot with near-instantaneous thermal energy transfer and peeled away, blown out by the twin shocks of the outward-expanding plasma and the snapping counterforce of explosive decompression. The double blast battered Benno in his seat and threw him against his straps to the left. As the bulkheads vanished, their departure also carried away the CSMC monitoring console the two watch standers shared with them into the black, along with Kenny’s seat, and Ken Burnside, himself.

The young engineer disappeared in an instant, lost without ever waking. Benno stared, dumbfounded, at the blank spot where he had been, and of all the possible panicked thoughts that could have come to him, only one rose to the forefront:

Does this validate Kenny’s wisdom?

Benno shook his head, dazed and in shock, knowing he had to engage his brain. Looking beyond, he could see the glowing edges of bulkheads and decks gouged out by the fast, hot knife of the nuclear-pumped xaser. Only vaguely could he recall the sudden buffeting of explosive decompression that had nearly wrenched him through the straps of his acceleration couch.

He knew he had things to do. He had to check his suit’s integrity. Was he leaking? Was he injured? And what about Kenny? Was he gone, unrecoverable? Or was he waiting for his poor, shocked-stupid boss Benno to reach out and save him?

And there was something else, something important he needed to be doing. He wasn’t supposed to just sit here and think of himself or unlucky, lazy Kenny. Oh no, thought Benno, still trying to marshal his thoughts back together, Mio is going to be so angry with me, sitting here like a fool

“CSMC, report!”

Benno shook his head against the ringing he hadn’t realized filled his ears. He reached out for the comms key on his console, swore at how futile that was, then keyed his suit mic. “Last station calling, this is CSMC. We’ve taken a hit. I lost my technician, console is…down, hard. Over.”

“CSMC, TAO,” the Puller’s Tactical Action Officer said through the suit channel, “pull it together! We just had a near miss by a capital class Dauphine warhead. The battle with the Terrans has spread out of the main body. I have missiles up but zero point-defense. I need guns and beams back, now!

“TAO, CSMC, negative, sir. Maintenance Central is no more. My console and the bulkhead it was attached to are gone, burned away. Petty Officer Burnside is dead!” Benno exclaimed. “That was no near miss. That was a hit. I have no idea how I’m alive, sir!”

“Damn, it, Warrant Sanchez, Dauphines have a hundred xaser elements per and there are dozens of them expanding out from the main battle. A glancing hit by a single beam is a near miss. Now, get off your lazy, plebeian ass and get my active defenses back online!”

Benno scowled. He knew the voice. It belonged to Lieutenant Commander Craig Johnson, ACV Puller’s Operations Officer, and a pompous ass if there ever was one. If Benno ever forgot his roots, LCDR Johnson would happily and nastily remind him. Only one thing had kept Benno from “re-training” OPS using the methods of the lower decks, and that was that the CO was a virtual twin to the man in his attitudes and manner. Benno knew it was not an argument he would win in the long run.

Still, ass or not, the man was not wrong. Something needed to be done, or one hit would be the least of their damage. The fog finally cleared from Benno’s mind, and a plan of action coalesced. He keyed his mic. “TAO, CSMC, myself and some techs will be moving about. Request you keep evasive maneuvers or thrust to one G or less while we are operating unsecured.”

“No promises, Warrant. The Damage Control teams make do. So will you. How long is this going to take?”

“TAO, unknown ETR. Recommend you have mounts go to local fire, if they’re up, until we can reintegrate the combat direction suite.”

There was a pause on the other side of the line while Benno unstrapped from his seat. “Sanchez, I am not about to turn over my point-defense mounts to the wild fire-support of a bunch of plebs, more accustomed to turning wrenches than solving defense in depth handoffs. The closest your mount techs have come to weapons direction is playing videogames on their data suites!”

Benno stood, feet firmly planted on the deck by a near gravity of constant acceleration. They must still be moving with the main body of the fleet toward the planned engagement zone. If so, how the hell had the Terrans deployed Dauphines out far enough to hit them on the fringes? If they were retreating, Benno figured they would have been thrusting a hell of a lot harder than a mere G. He keyed his mic. “TAO, right now you have jack shit for PD. It’s either trust a bunch of kids playing Space Invaders for real, or hope the Terrans know you’re in charge and, therefore, not worth wasting a missile on.”

Benno cut the channel before Johnson could respond and switched his suit radio to the Combat Systems Maintenance Net. “All stations, this is CSMC, we’ve taken a slice through our hull, and all our point-defense is offline. Assuming no mounts were hit, it means the beam cut the control runs, and we need to string emergency data lines and power. Mounts should switch to local control. Unless you’re a mount captain or a gunner/loader, I need you to unstrap and meet me outside CSMC, now. This is an all hands effort!”

No one responded.

Benno keyed his mic again. “I’m serious! Seal up and move your asses, or I am assured we’re all gonna be eating xaser rounds in about 15 minutes. Move!”

Stations began to respond in sequence, their voices sounding reluctant and uncertain. Benno took one last look at the scar of melted alloy where his console and the corner of the space had been—where Kenny had been. It was nothing now, just a dark opening leading out into open space and the other wrecked spaces on the far side of the scar. If the xaser had been aimed only a fraction of a degree further over than it had, Benno would have died too. The thought made him shudder in a shameful mix of fear and relief.

When he reached the door, he could not immediately leave. CSMC was in vacuum, while the corridor outside was still fully pressurized. Benno was loath to experience explosive decompression a second time. He forced himself to wait patiently as the damage control logics pumped the air out of the corridor and finally permitted him to open the hatch.

Once the door swung open, what few hopes he had plummeted. Every mount and several auxiliary control stations had internal communication and data techs to handle problems locally as they arose. Anything they couldn’t immediately fix in situ, they would shut down and rely on backups, or they would send out maintenance drones to repair remotely. Given the number of techs he had called down, he should have been met by at least nine people to assist.

In the airless corridor outside CSMC, there were a grand total of three workers standing by: Eric Goldman, Raoul Ortiz, and Liz Salazar.

The door shut behind him, and air immediately began backfilling loudly, but Benno did not trust it. They would remain helmeted. He spoke loudly into the suit comm over the roar of inrushing air. “I don’t know where the others are. Maybe the damage prevented them from making their way here, or maybe they’re lost—”

The large figure to Benno’s right interrupted him. “Or maybe they’re smart enough to recognize a shit sandwich, and they’re headed for the rescue pods.” Petty Officer First Class Raoul Ortiz was a great tech…but brave? Patriotic? Loyal? Hardly.

Benno glared at him. “That’s enough, Raoul. This situation is salvageable, but with so few, we have to work smart, and we have to work fast.” Benno called up the ship’s schematic on his suit’s forearm info panel and was pleased to note Damage Control had just updated it. An angry, red scar sliced through an edge of the Puller’s long, hexagonal, forward battle hull, just in front of the amidships’ radiator banks. He flipped through a number of overlays, disregarding the layers for piping, structure, ventilation, and power, and finally stopped at the Combat Systems data network overlay. He made it live and pushed it to the others.

Benno marked vital nodes and stretched out lines to note where they would string emergency fiber runs. Where the damage was too significant, they would have to work backward to a clear node and set up wireless re-transmitters to cover the gaps. Fiber would be more secure in a battle environment with electromagnetic pulses, nukes, and the electronically noisy snap of lasers going off all around them, but speed mattered more than fidelity. He hoped to be done at the same time or before the electricians finished rigging casualty power.

While he took them through the emergent repair plan, two more techs—Kim Aquino and David Webb—finally showed up. Better, Benno thought, but it’s still going to be tight. Especially if things heat up.

And, as if he had willed it, the deck beneath their feet began to thrum, sharply and rhythmically. Benno looked up, and Ortiz said what they all assumed. “Shit. Railguns are firing.”

Webb, the most naive and least experienced of the techs, smiled uncertainly. “No maneuvers though. No PD guns or lasers. That’s good!” The rest of his round, bearded face belied his hope, however, showing the fear underneath.

Ortiz scoffed. “The railguns go first, you goddamn greenhorn. Long range intercept artillery, but they ain’t hardly no good against maneuvering missiles. Warheads gonna get closer. We’re gonna start jukin’ ‘round. Then you gonna die, greenhorn.”

“Enough!” Benno shouted. “You have your assignments. Get moving, and work fast.” He made sure Ortiz and the tech he had just put fear of the Terrans into had no more words as they separated to their assignments, then he proceeded to his own tasks.

Benno depressurized the corridor and passed back through the door into what remained of CSMC. Picking up a repair pack, he approached the melted, sparking scar sliced through the side of the compartment. A stationary, quiescent star field yawned wide over the top of the cut. Across the chasm, the other side of the gash was not a clean cutaway like one would find in a virtual tour. It was melted and torn, broken and jumbled, but Benno could just make out the arrangement of decks and compartments.

He gingerly climbed down into the hellscape. His suit insulated him from the still-hot edges, but he had to be careful. The metal pieces would cool rapidly, conduction bleeding their heat into the structure of the Puller, but anything that had broken free of its mount, anything non-metallic or well-insulated, might remain white-hot for some time. Radiation into the vacuum of space was a slow method of heat transfer.

Benno reached his first objective, an operational network multiplexer hub. The fiber data trunk it fed into had been vaporized, but the yellow and red LEDs on the hub blinked merrily away, waiting for the opportunity to send their data from radars and lidars to combat direction computers, and from direction systems to illuminators and weapons mounts. The network was designed to be fault and battle damage tolerant, to automatically re-route from damaged or missing components to backup data lines and remain working. Slice out half the battle hull, however, and you would overtax even a robust system’s tolerances. The copper backup trunk running through the centerline of the Puller only had enough bandwidth to maintain essential ship systems—nothing approaching the volume of data it took to accurately aim and direct fire across hundreds and thousands of kilometers of empty space.

He worked quickly, opening the hub and replacing the existing trunk interface with a new network interface card. He clipped in an armored fiber cable, anchored it down, and began unspooling it from the reel he had brought. Stepping gingerly, he crossed the hull gash to the other side and another working hub. These components had never been directly connected before, but Benno couldn’t care less about the system’s original design. If they could jury-rig enough connections, the system would re-route itself. Satisfied, he went on to the next task on the list.

Benno passed other techs, repair drones, and damage control teams, laboring as expeditiously as he was, making temporary repairs to primary power, cooling lines, and air supplies. He could also see a couple of his techs, stringing their own data cables or replacing components battered beyond repair. They were not warriors. Others—especially the aristocrats who made up the officer ranks and the upper classes who filled the more operational war-fighting positions—would scoff at such a label. They would be equally incredulous. However, the fight could not be accomplished without them and without their courage to be out here while battle and destruction loomed. Benno felt fine with his role and that of his men and women. They served honorably. And most importantly, Mio was proud of him.

That was all that mattered.

In the middle of the gash, en route to his next task, thrust gravity cut out. Before his gorge had a chance to rise at the sudden freefall, the accelerometers in his suit detected the shift and switched on magnets in his boots, knees, elbows, and palms. Benno reached out and grabbed hold of the nearest exposed structural girder, anchoring himself with the magnets.

Usually, the massive dark matter conversion engines astern turned the long bulk of the Puller into a tower, improbably balanced upon spindles of fire, thrusting upward at a continuous Earth-normal gravity of acceleration. Cutting out meant changing vectors. Changing vectors in battle indicated violent maneuvers. Benno gripped and prayed.

The sideways acceleration hit him like a club as enormous retros wheeled the warship through a complicated arc. The star field overhead spun by as the direction of “down” changed erratically. Debris that had fallen when they were under normal thrust rose and peppered the broken pieces of the gash, some falling into the infinite oblivion beyond. Benno’s body swung out and slammed into a shattered equipment mount. Fortunately, nothing punctured his suit and sent him to join Kenny in death. He didn’t have faith that would hold true for everyone out here in the cut.

The typical “down” returned, but this time at multiple G’s, and still the vessel jerked around. Radio noise repeatedly and randomly snapped in Benno’s headset. He couldn’t see the source, and he was usually shielded within the skin of the ship when they went off, but he surmised it was the noise of pulse power supplies discharging as laser mounts fired, burning away incoming warheads as they closed upon the Puller.

Benno tried to pull himself forward, to find a more secure position past the open wound in the hull, but the G’s were too punishing. Even lying down, his vision began to black out.

An abrupt scream sounded in his helmet. In the corner of his tortured vision, a figure flashed by, drifting free from one side of the cut and zooming out into empty space as the maneuvers continued. The scream was on Benno’s working channel. That meant it was one of his techs. Guiltily, he hoped it was Ortiz, but there was no way he could be that lucky.

Just as abruptly, the scream cut off—far sooner than it should have from the ship merely leaving the tech behind. They might well have heard the unfortunate tech for hours until the Puller thrust beyond his suit’s radio range. But now there was only silence, broken by the continuing snaps of radio noise. Benno supposed the ship had carried on past the technician—exposing him to the hot particle thrust of the main engines.

Poor bastard.

The hull thrummed an extended vibration. Point-defense cannons, but Benno could see no evidence of what they were shooting at through the narrow, unenhanced perspective of the cut above him. It was not good, though. The incoming fire continued to close, fended off with railguns, maneuvers, lasers, PD, and undoubtedly electronic jamming, but none of it was aimed or coordinated centrally. The Terran weapons closed, and the Puller hardly stood a chance of destroying them until Benno and his compatriots finished their work—and they couldn’t finish until this round of defense ended!

Everything cut off. The vibrations, the radio noise, and the wild maneuvers and heavy thrust. Benno rose up again in the sudden microgravity, and he shifted his grip, anticipating the next round of punishing motion. Instead, the ship slewed over gently to a new heading and slowly brought thrust back up to a standard one gravity forward.

The Executive Officer’s strong, confident voice sounded over every channel, but without her usual ebullient surety. “Puller crew, we are in the toughest situation we’ve ever faced. The battle between our capital ships and those of the Terran Union in the central orbits has gone to hell, with no semblance of formation or structure anymore. As a result, we’re getting a lot more fire coming our way. We’ve already been wounded once, and we just shot down four more xaser heads. Another two we missed completely but were able to distract off target with EW. Others in our group fared worse, and this is just the beginning. I know you’re all working as hard as you can to restore target direction, power, and cooling, but I need you to work faster. I’ve spoken with the CO, the TAO, and the OOD. We’ll maintain a stable one-G deck as long as possible, but time is running out. If we get more than we’ve already fended off thus far, there’s no way we’ll be able to survive without coordinated fire. It’s all on you now. No pressure.”

Commander Amanda Ashton sounded weary and worried, and that did not inspire much hope in Benno. Where LCDR Johnson represented perhaps the worst aspects of the Alliance of Liberated Systems’ classist structure, CDR Ashton represented its best, viewing her aristocracy as a blessing to enable her to give back more to all. Benno wouldn’t bother pissing on Johnson if he caught fire, but for Ashton, Benjamin Sanchez would do almost anything.

Benno struggled to his feet and keyed the working channel. “Network repair team, sound off!”

Their voices came hesitantly, in no particular order. “Salazar, here.” “Aquino, present.” “Goldman, here… Umm, Warrant Sanchez?”

Benno keyed his mic and answered her. “Yes, Goldman?”

“I saw Webb fall, sir. It was him. He was that scream you heard. You think there’s any chance he… “

“No,” Benno said with finality. “I’m sorry, but no. Webb is gone. Break. Ortiz? Ortiz, sound off!”

There was no answer.

Goldman spoke the query they all must have had. “You think maybe he fell off, too?”

I’d never be that fortunate, Benno thought, uncharitably. Ortiz either had bad comms, was quietly dead…or the faithless bastard was up to something for himself. Regardless, the work had to be done, or they’d all be dead soon. Benno checked the active system diagram on his forearm. They had closed several critical loops and signals were starting to flow again in the combat direction network, but latency and bandwidth were still pitiful. The gunners did not need to shoot at where the incoming warheads had been, they needed to shoot where they were at that moment, or—better yet—extrapolate with sufficient fidelity where they would be.

Benno re-assigned a number of Webb and Ortiz’s tasks to Goldman, Salazar, and Aquino, but he took the lion’s share for himself. These kids had him beat in speed, but his experience had been twice all of theirs combined before he had left the technical enlisted side and earned his warrant. He knew tricks for accomplishing temporary battle repairs they had never even imagined.

The labors became a blur. Find a working node, strip the damage, wire in a replacement module, connector, or transceiver, and string fiber to the next station. And all the while, the Puller jinked and juked, piled on acceleration, went back into freefall, and backed at flank thrust, dodging the relatively tiny warheads and their invisible lances of ship-killing energy. The hull shuddered and vibrated with defensive fire hard enough to shake apart their repairs, but they and the damage control teams gained ground nonetheless. The work was quick and dirty, but as they toiled, the running diagnostic diagram on his forearm grew greener and greener.

Finally, the voice of the TAO cut in over every circuit, “All mounts, we show the combat direction network back online. Take your mounts out of local and shift to coordinated remote fire from CIC.”

LCDR Johnson said nothing to him directly. No gesture of thanks, no acknowledgment that Benno had been right, or that he and his plebeian techs had just saved the ship. Benno felt a distinct lack of surprise at that.

It would have been imperceptible to most, but Benno’s long experience in destroyer hulls allowed him to feel the change in maneuvering and fire. Instead of popping off randomly, the electronic noise and physical vibration of the various point-defense mounts firing transitioned to a harmonic dance of destruction, firing zones bleeding seamlessly into one another instead of overlapping desperately. The fire became surer, and the maneuvers lessened more and more until the Puller seemed not to be fighting anymore. It grew as calm and sure as a drill, far away from the Terran Union.

Time to find Ortiz.

Benno called Goldman, Salazar, and Aquino. He thanked them and dismissed them back to their usual stations. With the destroyer’s combat systems network back online, the system was able to support secondary non-defense functions, such as the bio-monitoring network the stretcher-bearer teams could use to locate and remotely triage injured crew. Ortiz was not listed among the auto-populated list of wounded, deceased, or missing crew. Using his supervisor access, Benno delved deeper and pulled up Ortiz’s name from the list of uninjured crew.

An icon appeared on his forearm display, “R. ORTIZ,” stationary and located amidships, near the dropship hangar, far from the battle damage where he should have been working. Ortiz’s vitals did not seem to indicate either unconsciousness or injury. If anything, to Benno’s untrained eye, they appeared panicked. He zeroed in on the section Ortiz’s icon populated, and his initial guess was confirmed.

Ortiz was in one of the Puller’s emergency life pods.

Benno shook his head and opened a direct line to Ortiz. No answer. Steeling his resolve, he made his way aft and down, carefully negotiating his way through the cut’s debris, still a hazard even if the ship was no longer making such extreme and violent maneuvers. He found a working compartment door and again went through the process of evacuating the air from the passage beyond and using it as an emergency airlock. Two minutes later, and he was, at last, walking around in air again. Benno left the damaged section behind and continued down the thrusting tower of the Puller’s bulk to the aft portion of the forward battle hull, where all the penetrations for hangars, work pods, and lifepods lay.

The crew of the destroyer went about the business of battle around him, but with his workstation gone, Benno had no place. Regardless, everyone else was too busy to question him or ask where he was going. He arrived at the ring of lifepod hatches without further delay and found Ortiz in seconds.

The armored hatch separating the destroyer from Lifepod 11 appeared to be sealed and locked, but Benno’s practiced, former-Chief Petty Officer’s eye for detail noted the broken tamper seal across one edge of the hatch. He looked through the small porthole into the pod beyond and found a desperate, frantic Raoul Ortiz trying like mad to escape the trap in which he had caught himself. Benno brought up the status display on one side of the hatch and saw that Lifepod 11 was rife with condition alarms.

He scrolled through and brought up an intercom window on the panel. Benno pressed the ‘talk’ icon, and his suit comm connected to the pod. “Hey, Raoul, you do know lifepods can’t function unless the bridge or the damage control system issues an ‘Abandon Ship’ alert, right?”

Ortiz first blanched, then his face turned red. Whether it was out of anger or shame, Benno could not tell. Benno pointed to the intercom on the pod’s operating panel, but Ortiz made no move toward it. He did see that the panel had been tampered with, however. Ortiz had wired his maintenance tablet into the mess of connections from a removed access plate.

He hit the icon again. “Or maybe you did know that, and you tried to spoof the system with a fake alarm. ‘Cept maybe you didn’t know you’re not the first asshole in history to try this, so that whole interchange is encrypted. If you don’t have the passcode or the right keying material, you’re just gonna make the whole thing fault and shut down hard.”

Ortiz glared at him and finally reached for the intercom. “Lemme out of here, Benno. Cut me a break.”

Benno jabbed the intercom icon harder than necessary. “That’s Chief Warrant Officer Sanchez, you cowardly, traitorous son-of-a-bitch. I’m not gonna give you a break! We needed you out there! You abandoned us to try and save your own sorry ass, and you couldn’t even do that right. No, you’re gonna stay right there until we get blown up, you starve, or the ship’s Masters at Arms show up to arrest you.”

Ortiz’s face snarled and turned red with pure, apparent rage. “You’re really gonna turn me in to those fuckin’ aristos? Let them shoot me or hang me? All because I didn’t wanna die for a bunch of arrogant assholes who don’t give a shit about us ‘plebeians’?”

Benno said nothing, but he felt his face get hot.

Ortiz yelled, “They say we gotta hate these Terran Union ‘Turds’—that the Alliance of ‘Liberated’ Systems stands for freedom against the oppression of the old worlds. But you know what I see? We just fightin’ one group of oppressive elitists for another group! I thought I could at least count on someone with my same history to have my back. But no. I don’t got two enemies—the TU and the ALS—I’ve got three, with your Uncle Tom ass! You’re gonna side with the very people who hate and dismiss us? I’m not the traitor; you’re the traitor!”

Benno shook with equal parts of anger and shame. A litany of denial and refutations went through his thoughts, but he couldn’t seem to say anything.

Ortiz continued, emboldened, jeering now. “You think you’re better than me? Better than the people of our station? You think those officer aristos respect you just because they let you have a warrant, just because you eat in the wardroom instead of the mess? You’re a fuckin’ joke, their token pleb. You think any of the rest of the crew respects you? They all think the same as me, Benno! They figure you’re a traitor. Everyone at home figures the same thing. But you do this, and they’ll know it for sure! You’re no longer one of us. Your family will know. Your own daughter will spit on you in disgust!”

Benno stabbed the talk icon. “Mio loves me! She has faith in me! She knows I do everything for her, to pay off the farm and forge us both a free life, to fulfill the dream of the ALS—a dream that includes all of us plebs. Are there some problems? Are there some asshole aristos, some people who really do think they’re better? Yeah, of course, and guess what? There’s always gonna be those people and those problems. But I don’t teach my daughter to pull back from a challenge, to turn tail and run like you’ve done. I’ve earned our land. I’m paying our debt. And my daughter will live free and proud for it!”

Before Ortiz could respond, the announcing circuit around them cut in. “All hands, secure from General Quarters. Stand down from Battle Stations. Assemble damage repair teams in Engineering Control. Now rotate the regular underway watch. On deck: Section 3 of 4.”

When Benno looked down, the color had drained from Ortiz’s skin. They both knew the time for their discussion to remain private was up. Benno smiled at him and said, “Looks like we’re not gonna blow up after all. Battle’s over. The MAAs will be along any minute.”

Ortiz’s eyes pleaded with him, his face blanched. “Please, Warrant Officer Sanchez. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I ran away. I’m sorry I yelled and insulted you. I shouldn’t have. Please, let me out and handle this below decks. Do whatever you have to, but don’t turn me over to those bastards!”

Benno leaned closer to the porthole, his faceplate touching the glass. “Goldman, Aquino, and Salazar stood their ground. I stood my ground. David Webb stood his and paid the price…and Ken Burnside did too. They made their choices. You made yours. Live with it for as long as they let you.”

Ortiz turned crimson again and screamed, but Benno killed the intercom window and cut him off mid-cry. Benno stepped back and walked away, headed for the brig to grab the Duty Master at Arms.

And the whole way back, his thoughts turned away from the events of the day, to his young daughter, Mio, light-years away on Adelaide, hopefully as proud of him as he was of her.

* * * * *

Chapter Two: Mio

“It’s not fair!” Mio Sanchez wailed. At fourteen years old, Mio exhibited characteristics from both sides of her mixed heritage. Just over five feet tall, she was average height for a Japanese girl—like her mother—but she also had the fiery Hispanic temper from her father’s side of the family.

“Mio, enough with the theatrics,” Mrs. Rogers said. “You know very well that when your mother died we promised to keep you safe until your father returned from space. The only way we can do that is if you stay here.”

“But mom didn’t know dad would be gone this long. He’s been gone four years! If I go to space, I may be able to find him.”

“Mio, you know as well as I do why your father hasn’t been back for four years,” Mr. Rogers replied. “He’ll be back when he can. Besides, space is a big place. I’ve been there; I know. Unless you somehow end up on the same ship as he, you’re never going to find him. You’re far more likely to find your father if you stay here where it’s safe and wait for his return.”

“Jimmy’s going to space. You’re letting him go.”

“That’s different,” Mr. Rogers replied. “Jimmy’s 16. He’s an adult. You’re not.”

“But it’s not fair,” she screamed. “My father is out there somewhere. Why can’t I go?” She stomped her foot to let him know she was serious. It had always worked in the past.

It didn’t this time. Mr. Rogers shook his head and simply said, “Because.”

“Because why?”

“Because I said you can’t.”

“That’s not good enough. Give me three good reasons why I can’t go.”

“First, you’re too young to go to space on your own,” he said. “Second, it’s too dangerous. And third, you’re too young, and it’s too dangerous.”

“That’s only two reasons you repeated twice. If you can’t give me a third reason, I’m going.”

“Fine,” Mr. Rogers said, his frustration beginning to show. “You want a third reason? It’s because you’re a girl. Bad things happen to young women in the dark recesses of a spaceship a long way from home, and I won’t have it happen to you.”

So there it was. She wasn’t good enough because she was a girl. Mio looked at her foster father for several long seconds, her mouth hanging open. She knew he thought it, sometimes, but she couldn’t believe he’d actually said it.

Without another word, she turned and ran, knowing Mr. Rogers would never be able to catch her with his bad knee. She hit the front door at full speed, slamming it as she passed, and kept going.

* * *

The anger began to drain away as she hit the base of Founders’ Hill, and the long climb took its toll. By the time she reached the plateau at the top, she was spent, and she sat down to catch her breath. Below her, fields and forests spread out to the horizon; the only signs of habitation were the small town of First Landing seven miles off to the left along the cliffs and the isolated farmhouses and barns of the tenant farmers who worked the fields. In front of her, the tractors worked the fields of the Rogers’ farmstead. They would have the fava beans planted before the day was done. They should; her foster family’s machinery was augmented with all of her father’s equipment. If the weather held tomorrow, all the tractors would swap over and plant the Sanchez’s fields. That was the way Mr. Rogers worked. Take care of himself first, then others afterward…if time and resources allowed.

Deep down, she knew she was being unfair. The Rogers had taken her in when her mother died; she wasn’t sure what would have become of her if they hadn’t. There weren’t any orphanages on the frontier world of Adelaide; someone else would have had to take her in. It probably would have been one of the aristos in town looking for a way to steal her family’s land and machinery.

How would her life have been different if she had been adopted by someone from the wealthier class instead of being taken in by the Rogers? She might have had access to more of the finer things in life, rather than having to get by with just the necessities…but then again, judging by the aristos she had met, most of them were even more spoiled and selfish than Mr. Rogers. She might have been consigned to work their farm all day, every day. At least Mr. Rogers made time for her to go to school with Jimmy.

Jimmy. He’d be leaving in two weeks to go to the fleet academy. He’d be out in the stars with her dad. He might even end up working alongside her dad, where he would see him every day.

It wasn’t fair.

Sure he was a couple of years older, but Mio could run the tractors and other farm equipment as well as he could. Mrs. Rogers even told Mio once that she had picked it up faster than Jimmy had. When she had asked Mr. Rogers, even he had been forced to admit Mio’s abilities were “really good.” Of course, he had then added, “especially for a girl.” He only had one child, Jimmy, and Mio knew he had wanted more. Probably even more now that Jimmy was going off to the academy.

If her dad were here, he would have made everything all right. Of course, if her dad were here, everything would have been all right. There wouldn’t be a need for her to go off planet. He had joined the navy to pay off the colonization loans that paid for their land and the tractors to work it. It seemed like he had been coming and going all her life, six months here and six months gone, but things had changed four, now almost five, years ago. She dimly remembered the conversation—he was going to be gone longer this time so he could pay off the loans quicker and come back to live with her forever. He just hadn’t said it would be this long.

Maybe he didn’t love her anymore; maybe that was why he hadn’t come back. Mr. Rogers didn’t respect her because she was a girl; maybe her dad felt the same way. Maybe he had wanted a son, too, and he hadn’t come home because she was a girl and not a boy.

Tears ran down her cheeks, and her stomach knotted at the thought. That couldn’t be it, could it? Her father hadn’t come back because he didn’t love her? Without thinking, her hand strayed to her pocket and found the one rock in her life, her memory cube.

Mio pulled the three-inch square device out of her pocket, looked at it for a second, then pushed the ‘play’ button. Three feet in front of her, a hologram of her father sprang into being. He looked at her and said, “My Mio, I am sorry I must go away. Be strong and know always that I love you and will always come back for you. I love you more than life itself.” Her lips moved along with his; she had memorized it the first day he left, and she had played it at least once every single day since.

Tears continued to spring unbidden from her eyes as the machine turned off, and a vision of Jimmy, blond head down as he worked to climb the hill, took its place.

Frantically, she wiped away the tears and composed herself. It would never do to let him see her like that; he would tell everyone at school all about it, and she would catch grief from her fellow students.

“What do you want?” Mio asked as he approached, a scowl fixed firmly on her face. “Did they send you after me?”

“Did who send me after you?” Jimmy asked, a lopsided grin on his face. “I was down working the tractors when you ran past. I shouted at you, but you didn’t stop. I figured I’d come find out what the fuss was all about.” He smiled at her, the big goofy smile he used to make her laugh, but she was too angry for it to work.

“It must be big,” he continued. “You outran me all the way here. What’s up?”

“Nothing’s up,” she spat. “You’re going up, but I’m not. I’m staying here.”

He sat down heavily next to Mio, worn out from the climb. “Missing your dad again?”

Mio shrugged, not wanting to admit any more than she had to. Although Jimmy was great at being sympathetic, he was even better at telling everyone about it later, and it never paid to reveal too much. “Maybe a little,” she finally said when it became obvious he wasn’t going to say anything else until she answered. The jerk.

“Yeah, I understand,” Jimmy said, talking softly as if his mind was somewhere else. “I’ve been thinking a lot about going to the academy, and how I’ll be away from home for years, myself. It really kind of hit me the other day.”

“Yeah, well you don’t have to go if you don’t want to. I want to go, and I can’t!

“That’s where you’re wrong. I do have to go. The last couple of crops haven’t been very good, and with the new taxes the aristos added, there hasn’t been enough to cover our colonization loans. Either my dad or I had to join the navy, and he couldn’t because of his knee, so it fell to me to do so. Mom and Dad don’t like it, but it’s the only way to save the farm. You should be happy I’m going; if we lost the farm, you’d be out sharecropping some aristo’s farm with us.”

“What? I knew the crops hadn’t done as well as your dad wanted, but I thought that since he had our crops too…”

“No, they’ve been awful, and since dad can’t run all the machinery, mom has had to help him. That’s led to other problems. Dad just didn’t want to tell you because you’re not part of the family. Well, you are, sort of, but not really. You know what I mean.”

“I know there are lots of things he doesn’t talk about with me. I always thought that was because I was a girl, and he doesn’t like girls.”

“He likes you just fine, in his own way, but he doesn’t like to share family business with anyone outside our family. ‘What’s family business stays family business,’ he always says.”

“So why are you telling me this now?”

“With me going away, Mom and Dad are going to need even more help from you. They may not say it, but they will. I wanted you to know so that maybe you could pitch in a little more and stop being so stubborn and sulky all the time.”

“I’m not stubborn and sulky!”

Jimmy chuckled, then held out both hands, indicating where they sat. “Hey, we’re here, aren’t we? I doubt you came running up here with tears streaming down your face because dad told you a good joke.”

“You saw the tears? You’re not going to tell everyone at school are you?”

“That would be pretty hard, since I’m not going back to school again.”

“You’re not?”

“Nah, what’s the point? I’m 16, so I don’t have to, and I already got into the academy. What’s the difference if I complete another week or two?”

“Maybe you’ll learn something you’ll need at the academy.”

“The academy recruiting poster says I don’t need to bring anything except a desire for hard work and the determination to see it through. I guess they’ll teach me everything I need to know there.”

“You’re not even going in to say goodbye?”

“Why bother? There are only a couple of people there I like, and I can do without the aristo kids making fun of me.” He shrugged. “I’ll see Diego before I go; that’ll be good enough.”

“You’re going to see Diego?” she asked, her head snapping up. “Is he coming by the house?”

Jimmy laughed. “Still like him, eh? Yes, he’s going to be coming by the house.”

“I do not like him. I was just…curious…if he was coming by. So I could make sure I was somewhere else when he did.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet,” Jimmy said. He reached over to tussle Mio’s hair. “That’s why we couldn’t get rid of you the last time he came over, right?”

“No, I just wanted to make sure you weren’t talking about me. You two are always so mean when you get together.”

“I’m sure that’s what it was. For your information, he is coming over one day next week, and I’ll make sure he comes over after school so you can see him.”

Really?” Mio asked. She coughed, recognizing her mistake. “I mean, really?” she asked again, less enthusiastically.

“Yes, really…” Jimmy’s eyes became distant as he looked at something over her head. “Huh. That’s odd…”

Mio spun around and looked where Jimmy pointed. A line of fire streaked across the sky. A second fireball raced across a different part of the sky.

“What’s that? A meteor shower?”

“I don’t think so. I’ve never seen meteors like that before, and I’ve never seen anything that bright.”

The pair watched the two lights streak through the sky. One vanished over the horizon, but the other continued to grow as it hurtled toward them.

“Should we—” Mio started to ask, but Jimmy grabbed her and tackled her to the ground.

“Close your eyes!” he yelled in her ear as a noise like the thunder from a thousand summer storms assaulted her ears.

Not knowing why, she shut her eyes tightly, but her eyelids weren’t proof against the flash; she could still see the bright light that followed. She squeezed her eyes shut even more tightly than before as the ground bucked and shook beneath her, tossing her into the air. She fell back, only to have the ground rise to meet her, and the breath was driven from her lungs as Jimmy slammed into her. After a subjective eternity that probably only lasted a few seconds, the ground stilled.

“Get…off,” she gasped. When Jimmy didn’t move, she struggled weakly to push him off as her vision began to gray. He finally got the hint and got up, and her vision returned as she began to breathe again.

“What…what was that?” she asked when she was able to talk again.

“An orbital bombardment,” Jimmy replied. “The Turds have come.”

* * *

“What do you mean the Turds have come?” Mio asked.

“You know, the Terran Union,” Jimmy replied. “They’re the only ones who would have bombed us.”

“I know who the Turds are. What I meant was, how could they be here? The front is hundreds of light-years from here; the war is nowhere close. How could the Turds be here?

“I don’t know, but those had to be orbital bombardment rounds. They certainly weren’t natural.”


Jimmy took Mio by the shoulders and turned her toward the south, where a large mushroom cloud was dissipating in the upper air currents.

“I don’t get it,” Mio said. “It was a meteor, wasn’t it?”

“A meteor that just happened to hit the naval reserve training base?” Sarcasm dripped from his voice. “That’s where the smoke is coming from. I’ll bet the other round hit the army training base.”

“Why wouldn’t the Turds have hit the starport at First Landing then, too?”

Jimmy looked at her, mouth open, head cocked to the side, in the look he used to make her feel stupid.

“What?” Mio asked after the silence had gone on for several seconds. She stomped her foot. “Stop doing that!”

Jimmy pointed at the city. “How close is First Landing to the starport?”

“Really close,” Mio replied. “It’s just to the south of the city.”

“Exactly.” When Mio continued to stare at him, Jimmy sighed. “You still don’t get it, do you?”

“No, I don’t, and the only thing your sigh is going to do is get you slapped. Really soon, too, if you don’t tell me what the heck is going on.”

“You’re such a girl,” Jimmy said. “Of course, you don’t get it. Did you see the cloud at the navy base? How big an explosion do you think it took to send that amount of debris into the air?”

“I’m not stupid,” Mio said; “I know it was a big explosion. That’s what I don’t understand. How come the Turds didn’t hit the starport and wipe out First Landing?”

“The only reason they’d do that was if they intended to stay here…and here they come!” he exclaimed, pointing over her shoulder.

Mio spun back to the north. Two shuttles raced toward them, and they threw themselves to the ground again as the shuttles roared past, barely clearing the top of the hill. Mio rolled over to follow their flight—they were headed for town!

“We’ve got to help them,” Mio said.

“How? The shuttles will be there in seconds. We couldn’t even get down from this hill in that time.”

The shuttles continued toward the town, and one of them landed at the starport while the other circled overhead. After several seconds, the other shuttle landed as well.

“Did you see the insignia on the shuttles?” Jimmy asked.

“No—I was too busy trying not to get hit by them as they tried to run me over.”

“I was right; they had the Terran starburst on them. They’re Turds.”

“What are we going to do?”

“I don’t know,” Jimmy said, looking down and kicking a stone. “What I do know is that it’s too late for the town. We better go tell Dad.” He looked up; Mio was already halfway down the hill and picking up speed. “Hey! Wait for me!”

* * *

“The Turds are here!” Mio yelled as she burst through the front door. “Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, the Turds are—”

She stopped as she entered the kitchen. The Rogers were wrestling over a laser rifle. Both looked up with guilty expressions. “Oh,” Mio said; “I guess you already heard.”

“Damn right we did,” Mr. Rogers said. He yanked the weapon out of his wife’s hands.

“You can’t go out with this,” Mrs. Rogers implored. “They’re professional soldiers. They’ll kill you!”

“Well, I was a professional soldier once, too.”

“Yes, but that was a long time ago when you were in much better shape. Besides, what do you hope to do against them? You’re just one man.”

“I’m just one man, aye, but if I can convince some of the others, we’ll have a force big enough to repel them. There were only two shuttles of troops; there can’t be that many of them.”

“Where is everyone?” Jimmy yelled from the front hall.

“In here,” Mio yelled back.

“What’s going on?” Jimmy asked as he entered the kitchen. “Oh,” he said when he saw his father. “Are we going to defend the farm?’

“No!” Mrs. Rogers said. “I absolutely forbid it! You’ll only get yourselves killed. They can’t be here to stay; just put the rifle away, and they’ll be gone in no time.”

“What are they here for, anyway?” Mio asked. “Are we losing the war?”

“I don’t know,” Mr. Rogers said. “This may just be a raid behind the lines. What I do know, is that they aren’t stealing our stuff. Not while my laser rifle still has juice in its battery, anyway.”

The back door crashed open, and a soldier wearing camouflage armor strode in, weapon at the ready. Seeing Mr. Rogers holding the gun, he fired without hesitation, striking the farmer in the chest. Mr. Rogers fell backward, and the rifle clattered to the tile floor.

No!” Mrs. Rogers screamed.

“Bastards!” Jimmy yelled. “I’ll kill you for that!” He dove for the rifle.

“Don’t do it, kid,” the soldier ordered in a strange accent. “I don’t want to—” He fired again as Jimmy turned with the rifle in his hands, striking Jimmy in the head. The rifle fell back to the floor.

No!” Mrs. Rogers grabbed a knife from the table and took one step toward the soldier but a second soldier shot her as he came in the door. She fell without a sound.

Both men turned toward Mio. “No!” she yelled, turning and running out the other door.

“Get her, Jones,” the newcomer yelled, and Mio heard boot falls close behind her. Jimmy had left the front door open, and she ran hard for it, pulling it shut behind her as she passed. The Terran soldier was too close behind her and couldn’t stop in time—she heard him crash into the door as it slammed shut. She didn’t turn to look; she kept going as fast as her legs could carry her.

Oh my God! The soldiers had shot Mr. Rogers…and Mrs. Rogers…and Jimmy, who had promised to bring Diego by the house. The soldiers had shot Jimmy!

A voice called her name, but her conscious mind was overcome by fear, and she only heard it in the periphery of her thoughts. She kept running, barely able to see through the tears streaming from her eyes.

* * *

When she came to her senses again, Mio found herself sitting on the ground, knees pulled up to her chest and head in her hands. Her soul was empty; she had cried more tears than she thought she had in her body. Her foster family was dead. All of them. Her mother was dead, and her father was off in the stars somewhere, fighting a war that was now going on here. Why wasn’t he here when she needed him?

Her body shuddered once as it recovered from her bout of crying, and she looked up. She was on the hill where she had first seen the Terran assault with Jimmy. Her eyes teared as she thought of her foster brother, and she fought them back. The sun was going down, and the winds were picking up. It would be a cool night; she would have to find shelter.

She couldn’t go back home. A plume of smoke showed where the Rogers’ house had been. Similar trails reached toward the sky from the Callahan farmstead and the Perry’s vineyard. Her eyes scanned the rural countryside; additional pillars dotted the landscape. Although there were a few columns of smoke in First Landing, it looked like the Turds had burned every farm in the area.

Realization dawned; the Terrans had burned her family’s house, even though no one was living there. Why would they do that?

She didn’t know…nor did she know where she was going to find shelter. The only remaining buildings were in First Landing, but so were the Terrans, and she had seen how they treated the locals. Her eyes misted over again.

No. She wasn’t going to cry again. She forced back the tears. Her father would want her to be strong. He would come back for her like he said, and his ship would blast the Turds into steaming little piles of crap.

The mental image made her smile and gave her the energy to stand. She shivered; summer hadn’t fully arrived yet, and she wasn’t properly dressed to stay out all night. She needed a blanket, but she didn’t want to return to the Rogers’ house to look for one. Not only might the soldiers still be there, but she also wasn’t sure she could stand the sight of her foster family’s corpses. Oh, and the Terrans had burned it, so there probably weren’t any blankets there, anyway.

Damn the Turds and their stupid war. Couldn’t the Terrans just leave them alone to live in peace? Why did they have to be so mean?

Okay, so she couldn’t go to First Landing, nor were there any farmhouses in the area still standing. Where would she go? She had heard there were some farmers farther north. Maybe their farms had been spared.

She nodded once; that was where she would go. She looked at the town one last time. The smoke had mostly dissipated. Apparently, they hadn’t fought as hard as Mr. Rogers had wanted everyone to, back before…

She wasn’t going to think about it. She turned on her heel and started walking. Maybe there would be some sort of resistance movement she could find up north. Surely there had to be other people like Mr. Rogers who would fight the stupid Terrans. She would find them and join up. Then she’d come back and kill them all. Yes. That’s what she was going to do.

* * *

The sun was already down by the time she reached the northern end of the plateau, and twilight was fading fast.

“Darn,” she said, gazing at the steep slope. Mio had never been this far from home before, and she hadn’t known the northern edge of the plateau was almost as steep a cliff as it was near First Landing to the south.

The cliff wasn’t that high, only a few hundred feet, but it was high enough. If she fell, she would go splat at the bottom, and no one would ever find her.

From what she could see in the gathering gloom, the bluff looked worse to the east; it was nearly vertical in that direction. To the west, it was a little better. Part of the cliff face had collapsed, leaving a steep surface, but one she might be able to slide down. There was still a drop-off of about 50 feet at the end, but it looked rough; maybe there would be enough handholds and footholds so she could climb down.

Mio couldn’t stay up on the barren plateau. There was no cover on its rocky surface, aside from a few scrawny weeds, and the breeze was picking up. She would freeze before morning. It wouldn’t do to walk around to stay warm, either. Not only didn’t she know if she could stay awake the whole night, she also didn’t want to accidentally walk off one of the cliffs in the dark.

She had to try to get down out of the wind.

Working her way along the cliffside, she reached the rock slide and sat down. Although it didn’t start out that way, the hillside rapidly became very steep, and she knew she had to go slowly to keep from losing control. At the bottom of the 50-foot drop-off was a collection of boulders and smaller rocks that had fallen when the cliff collapsed. Hitting them after that kind of fall was guaranteed to break bones and would probably save the Terrans the effort of having to kill her.

Her emotions warred with her intellect. She was cold and had to get down fast…but to go too fast meant losing control and an early date with the rocks. Just keep control, Mio repeated to herself. Stay strong and keep control. She made it past the first 60 feet then reached the area where the slope became sheerer.

She slowed fractionally, but found she was having a harder time seeing. Grabbing a weed as a handhold, she descended a little farther to where she could reach a rock that protruded from the slope. This will work, she thought. She moved a little farther, bracing a foot on the rock. A depression let her catch her breath for a couple of seconds, then she started down again.

A rock foothold led to another weed, which led to another rock handhold. It was too dark to see, though, and the first indication she had that the rock was loose and not imbedded in the slope was when she tried to brace, and it came loose in her hand as she overextended herself. She went over headfirst, sliding down the hill on a river of smaller rocks.

Panicked, she flailed, trying to catch herself on any of the rocks sticking out as she began accelerating down the slope. No luck; she was out of control. Her left hand caught a rock long enough to spin her around before it came loose, too, and she dug her feet into the slope to stop herself, but it was no use. The slope was too steep, and the surface too fractured. She couldn’t get enough purchase to slow, much less stop, and she knew the drop-off was quickly approaching.

She laid back and tried to dig her hands and feet into the scree, and a series of blows jolted her body as she hit larger rocks. The gravel on the slope was like sandpaper on her hands and back as her shirt was pulled up.

Mio screamed, her body on fire. A darker patch loomed, and she knew the fall was close. She closed her eyes, not wanting to see it coming.

Space yawned beneath her, and she was falling. She started a prayer but hit again almost immediately. Her feet dug in and her right knee erupted in pain, then she was falling again, going over backward. Her head hit something hard, and the night convulsed in stars. Stunned, she could no longer defend herself, and she rolled a long way before finally coming to a stop.

The pain was excruciating, and she passed out.

* * * * *

Chapter Three: Benno

Captain Evan Palmer sat at the head of the wardroom table and looked around at his officers, standing loosely around the periphery of the narrow dining and meeting place. He nodded at them, a measure of pride evident in his eyes. Benno was surprised to see the skipper looking upon even him with a favorable expression. Of all the aristo officers on the Puller, Captain Palmer was the haughtiest and most assured of their lot. He appreciated Benno like a stable master appreciates a venerable old workhorse doing the heavy farming, so the thoroughbreds can frolic. He tolerated Chief Warrant Officer Sanchez dining in his wardroom only because it was the custom, not because he felt Benno was an equal who deserved to be there. This attitude was not mere supposition either.

Palmer had said as much to Benno’s face.

But now he graced even Benno with a proud glance. Battle had brought them all together. Did Benno dare hope that cultural barriers had been broken down, much as the bulkheads had during the conflict?

Captain Palmer picked up the tablet from the table before him, looking at the final tally from Combat Systems and Damage Control. “By the grace of God, your leadership, and the steadfast labors of your crew, the Puller has emerged victorious. Through our efforts, the line of retreat favored by the Terran Union Navy remained closed. Forced to fight rather than run away, the TUN exacted a vicious tithe upon our forces and capital ships, but—in the end—the field belongs to the mighty men and women of the ALS!”

He scrolled through the stats and looked up again, his gaze sweeping to encompass them all. “We paid a heavy toll to take this system. We lost three of our twelve biggest combatants outright, and all the remaining battleships and carriers sustained damage, with only two remaining fully mission capable. The chase cruisers are at 45% capacity, being next in the sphere of battle and relatively unarmored. Our fellow destroyers sustained relatively light and sporadic damage. The Puller’s wounds have rendered us partially mission capable, placing us in the middle of the pack as far as damage goes. The transfer frigates and the rescue cutters survived with little damage overall, but those that did take a hit were utterly destroyed.”

Palmer stood and swiped his pad. Data instantly transmitted to all their suites. Benno’s forearm-mounted pad buzzed with the notification. The captain continued. “I have forwarded the After Action Report to you all. Please ensure my appreciation and respect are passed on to your departments and divisions. The coming days will be difficult to endure as we repair our damage, defend this system, and prepare for transit to the next objective. Your people should know both the stakes and the challenges they all must endure. Let’s get to it. Dismissed!”

They all came to rigid attention, then relaxed and moved from the periphery of the wardroom into knots of officers, grouped by department. Benno stood as Combat Systems Maintenance Officer in a loose circle with the Communications Officer, LT Evangeline Cramer; the Gunnery Officer, LT Brad Majors; the Fire Control Officer, LTJG Gwen Kurosawa; and their department head, the Weapons Officer, LCDR Peter Forrestal. As aristo officers and bosses went, they were not a bad lot. Their life experiences were utterly unlike Benno’s own—none of their families had ever farmed or struggled to pay colonization loans—but they made nothing of the different backgrounds. To them, it was just that: background. They treated Benno as a peer, and if they occasionally said something he could interpret as insulting or classist, they did it unthinkingly, with no malice he could detect.

Forrestal tapped his own pad. “Okay, folks, we have our work cut out for us, but between our maintainers and all the engineers crawling through the hull, this repair list almost looks achievable.”

Benno frowned. “Maybe that’s how it looks on paper, sir, but the reality is a bit more complicated. We really need a yard or, failing that, some time with one of the dedicated fleet tenders. We lost massive amounts of exterior structure outside the ship’s spine. If we try to complete these repairs using spinners, autoforges, and the stock we have on board, we’re going to deplete everything. I wouldn’t put those repairs on par with what we could get from a tender.”

Kurosawa, the most junior officer in Weapons Department, spoke up. “Can we request a tender?”

The COMMO laughed throatily. “Sure thing, FCO. After you get done with that, I’ll draft your request for a unicorn and universal peace, okay?”

GUNNO shook his head and laid a hand on Kurosawa’s arm. “It’s not quite as impossible as Evangeline is saying, but you gotta remember where we are in the pecking order. Operation Executive Amber is only beginning. The other half of the fleet will make the next attack to keep up the momentum this strike gives us, while we repair and prep for the assault after that, all before the Turds can re-deploy their forces and hit us while we’re down. That means we need punching power, and that means capital ships, followed by chase cruisers. They’re going to be the priority for the fleet tenders until we’re ready to go again. Given our relative impact and the fact that we weren’t hit as badly, destroyers, frigates, and corvies are going to have to make do with self-repair.”

WEPS, LCDR Forrestal nodded. “It’s like triage for the fleet. Give up on those too far gone, devote your resources to those who need the most help and have a chance of recovery, and let the walking wounded shake it off themselves.”

Benno shrugged. “I don’t disagree, just managing expectations. To that end, I’d like to farm out some of the big structural items for distance support from an open tender. Even if they’re tied alongside a carrier and putting every shop to work, there’s still downtime for their large-format fabrication pods. They can fit in automated work on a schedule, and if I can write the jobs and submit the specs with a high enough priority, there’s more than enough corvettes and frigates still running around to ferry the pieces and parts to us. That would let us focus on the most immediate repairs with our gear, get higher quality hull sections and members from the tender fab pods, and conserve some of our resources for the next engagement. If you think assets are running thin now, think about the supply situation after repairs are complete. This fleet will be running on empty once the big boats empty the cargo vessels, and we won’t be getting any new stock until they make a round trip back to ALS space. I wouldn’t project that until well after the next battle.”

WEPS narrowed his eyes as he considered Benno’s plan. “Okay, Warrant. If you can write the jobs well enough to get picked up, and you can insure delivery and installation before we transit to the next Turd system, I’ll allow it. Let me speak to the Chief Engineer to coordinate. If CHENG buys off on it, you can sit down with the Engineering Maintenance Officer to submit the work. Until then, give me two work lists: one with us doing everything in-house, and one with your plan. Proceed with Plan A until I get you a firm answer otherwise.”

The officers of the Weapons Department went around the circle again to coordinate and describe in detail their current readiness and plans for getting back up to fighting trim. There were so many things to consider. When would they reach their waiting station and lose the assistance of their steady thrust gravity? When would Benno’s tender-fabricated parts get there? How long until they could finish repairs and make themselves fully mission capable? What should they do about the crew they had lost and still needed to honor with either funerals or memorials?

And when could they expect the Terran Union Navy to make an appearance and strike back?

The other departments aboard the Puller engaged in similar discussions, from Engineering, to Operations, to Supply—and overseeing all of it were the captain and Benno’s favorite officer aboard, the Executive Officer, Commander Amanda Ashton. The two senior officers whispered to one another and nodded in concert, but Benno couldn’t tell what they agreed upon. Given how the ship and crew had fared, what their prospects currently looked like, and how even the most classist seemed to be taking on a respectable leadership role in the vein of the XO, the current state of affairs pleased and encouraged Benno.

At the end of this operation, provided they carried the day, and the state of hostilities with the TU could ramp down once more, everything would change. Benno’s rank and time-in-service would allow him to retire with not only his colonization debt paid off, but with a fair stipend saved for expanding and improving the homestead on Adelaide. He could return home and reclaim his nigh-abandoned daughter from their decent-but-humorless neighbor James Rogers. They could live the rest of their lives as masters of their own fates, rather than according to the whims of the colony aristos. Perhaps Mio’s children would even be considered aristos someday, though Benno would have to make sure his eventual grandchildren learned and practiced the humility their Papa tried to demonstrate.


Benno shook his head and turned his attention back to his department officers. Aside from WEPS, the others had pocketed their pads and begun to drift toward the exit. Benno smiled in apology at his department head. “Sorry, sir. My mind wandered a bit there. Worried about home.”

Forrestal shrugged and nodded. “I can well understand that. There is one thing I wanted to ask you about, though: Ortiz. What exactly happened there? Do you really want to go forward with Captain’s Mast on charges of cowardice and desertion?”

Benno scowled, comforting thoughts of home and the future banished. “Yes, sir, I do. I know Ortiz is popular with some of the crew, and he’s a good tech, but he’s been a cancer on morale and motivation with the junior techs. That’s not why I had him arrested, though. Even aggravating sailors have the right to free speech. What they don’t have is the right to endanger every single person aboard this ship to save their own skin. Raoul Ortiz abandoned us and bet on the Puller losing. He needs to go up to the captain because he’s guilty. If we let him off because we’re worried about losing his technical skills, or that it might anger some of the more reactionary elements among the ranks, we’re sweeping under the rug a problem that will come back to haunt us. You give him an opportunity to do this again and get it right, and he’ll try again. Hell, if you gave him a stick of dynamite and the opportunity to blow up the ship and erase his record while he escaped, he’d light that fuse in an instant.”

“Fine, but remember this, Benno: we’re underway in a time of war. The captain’s powers at CO’s Mast are much-expanded. He doesn’t have to wait and refer Ortiz to a court-martial to get the max punishment. He can find him in violation and execute him for treason right here aboard the Puller. And you know what the Skipper is like, Warrant…pretty much no love or consideration for pleb sensibilities. The captain will make sure Raoul Ortiz hangs.”

Benno considered that for a moment. If Ortiz were executed, even if the CO was the one who signed the death warrant, it would be Benno’s fault. The thought neither made him run cold nor flushed him with the heat of anger or shame. If anything, he felt mildly surprised that the thought of his responsibility did not dismay him more.

Did that mean Raoul had been right with his accusations? Had his elevation to the officer community truly changed him, made him something to be pitied and rejected, a traitor to the honorable people who had come up through the ranks with him? Was he just a token aristo, caring nothing for the plebs struggling with class aboard ship and back home?

No. None of that. Benno rejected it outright. He was who he had always been: an honorable man. If Ortiz ended up with a noose around his neck, it was one the cowardly bastard had tied, himself, through his own actions. Benno stood by the principals of the ALS and the realities of his station, just as he always had. That was something to be lauded, not cast back at him under some twisted misinterpretation.

Benno looked at Forrestal. “Yes, sir, I understand. I say we push the charges up for the CO to handle.”

The Lieutenant Commander nodded, seemingly aware of how Benno’s history and background made this problematic, and dismissed him.

Benno almost made it out of the wardroom to begin putting his people to work on repairs, but the COMMO burst back into the room. Evangeline Cramer grabbed Benno’s sleeve as she slipped by and locked gazes with him. “Wait, Warrant, you’re going to want to stay for this.”

By the look on her face, it was anything but good news.

She brushed by Forrestal, stopping her department head with a significant look, but she didn’t tell him what the issue was either. Instead, she bypassed everyone and stopped in front of the CO and XO. Benno turned and went back into the wardroom. The three of them engaged in a hushed, but frantic, conversation. Captain Palmer’s eyes narrowed, while the XO’s eyes grew as wide and round as saucers. Cramer held out a secure memory stick to the CO, which he took and inserted into his pad. He read the screen intently, while the XO leaned over and read over his shoulder. Her expression fanned through several distinct, conflicting emotions, but Benno couldn’t glean what the message might be about.

All conversation in the wardroom ceased, all eyes on the COMMO, the XO, and the captain. Except for the ever-present hum of ventilation, absolute silence reigned. Finally, the CO and XO noticed and looked up from the tablet.

Captain Palmer cleared his throat and spoke to the assembled officers. “I’m afraid I have disconcerting news to share with you. Details about conditions are…unavailable, but I’m afraid the timing of our assault and Operation Executive Amber was not completely unknown to our enemies. While they were unable to marshal sufficient strength to oppose our advance here against their front, they were able to muster enough forces to… raid some ALS worlds.”

“What worlds?” several officers asked. Benno realized he had spoken as well.

“None of the core worlds, I assure you!” Captain Palmer said hastily. “It appears they struck the smaller colonies along the rear of our space.”

“What worlds!?” Benno asked again. This time his voice was the only one.

“Warrant Officer Sanchez, please…” the XO pleaded, concern and warning in her eyes.

Palmer scowled at Benno, the earlier magnanimity of his expression toward the formerly enlisted warrant officer lost. “The TU Navy executed decisive takeover raids against Putnam, Morgan’s Rock, New Kiev, Paradiso, Trinity…and Adelaide.”

* * *

Benno stood outside the captain’s office as the CO, XO, CMC, and department heads discussed matters. He wanted to be inside, to be part of whatever action plan they were working on, privy to whatever intel the fleet had passed along with the report, but he didn’t rank high enough. Even with all his experience, he was junior to the greenest ensign aboard the Puller. He was there to lead chiefs, to maintain systems, and to carry a flavor of enlisted sentiment into the wardroom, just as the Command Master Chief was there to bring the concerns of the crew directly to the CO and vice versa. Both the CMC and Benno were essential bridges to ensure harmony throughout the ship, but the decisions that mattered were made above their station.

Thus, Benno was stuck outside the place he wanted and needed to be.

The meeting inside broke up, and personnel began to stream out. The CMC made for the ladder leading down to the crew’s mess, where no doubt he would break the news to the rest of the crew, chief petty officers first. The Chief Engineer and Supply Officer took a different path down and aft. They looked determined, but they had looked that way ever since the battle ended. Their concern was likely less about the TU incursion into ALS space and more about completing repairs, though there was probably a greater sense of urgency with the latter.

WEPS came out next, and he grabbed Benno’s arm and tried to draw him along, away from the CO’s doorway. “Warrant, this is neither the time nor the forum. We have to get on top of repairs to the combat systems. Okay? Come with me.”

Benno pulled his arm out of Forrestal’s grasp and barely stopped himself from putting a fist into the man’s chest. “No! I need to know what we’re going to do. What’s the plan!?”

Forrestal’s lips were tight over his teeth as he tried to maintain a smile over whatever expression lay beneath. “Benno, the plan isn’t finalized yet. It’s going to take a lot of brass aboard a lot of different ships in the fleet and back home to figure out the best way to respond. But the Puller can’t be part of that plan unless we’re battle-ready. So, we need to walk away—now—and get to work on repairs. You have jobs to write, remember?”

“Forget the damn jobs! What do we know!? How devastating were the raids? When are we redeploying to kick their asses out of our systems!?”

“What’s the commotion out there?” Captain Palmer came out of his office, scowling unhappily.

The XO slid past him and got in between the CO, WEPS, and Benno. “I’ve got this, sir,” she said, then turned to the other two officers. “WEPS, please take Warrant Sanchez down to your office and get to work on the repair lists. Warrant Officer Sanchez, we will brief you and the other affected crew as soon as we know something solid. Until then, we have to make progress getting the Puller back online.”

“Damn it, XO!” Benno yelled. “What do we know now? Nearly a third of the crew is from those worlds or worlds bordering them. ‘Carry on smartly’ isn’t going to work for them, and it sure isn’t gonna work for me!”

CDR Ashton shook her head. “Please, Warrant. You’re a hero. We might well have been destroyed if you hadn’t led the combat direction system repairs—”

“I don’t know about that…” OPS, the despised LCDR Johnson, said, smirking. He had come out of the captain’s office and was peeking over the CO’s shoulder.

The XO glared at the interruption, then ignored OPS to continue with Benno. “There’s sure to be commendations for your efforts, but you have to get back to work. Now!

Benno looked at all those arrayed against him, from the concerned expressions of WEPS and the XO, to the haughty, anticipatory one from OPS, and the impatient one from the CO. None of them knew what it was like to have their home, their family, and their very lives suddenly behind enemy lines, with no idea if they had survived.

His chest swelled in defiance. “No. I won’t. Not until someone gives me something. Bust me for insubordination if you must, Captain, but if it were your home, you’d demand to know too!”

Johnson’s eyes narrowed, and his mouth twisted into an enraged sneer, while the XO and WEPS appeared shame-faced. Before anyone could dress Benno down, however, the captain raised a hand to halt them. “Fine. You want to know about Adelaide; here it is: two ships invaded the system and struck the Army and Navy training bases with orbital bombardment rounds. The last thing recorded before the skip drone made the transition to report was signs of dropships burning toward First Landing. The only forces on Adelaide were reserves outfitted with old, surplus gear. It’s unlikely they can hold out against a battle-ready force of Terran Marines. And the situation was much the same on the five other planets. I’m sorry, but the outlook for all of them is bleak. There, Chief Warrant Officer Sanchez. Is that what you wanted to know? Can you kindly return to your duties now?”

WEPS nodded and tried to draw Benno back, but Benno shrugged Forrestal’s hands off. He stepped forward toward the CO, and both the XO and OPS moved to block him. “Captain, what about our response? How far out are the perimeter patrols? Are they heavy enough to interdict the invaders?”

OPS shook his head, his red-faced anger replaced with something like bemusement. Captain Palmer cleared his throat and answered. “I’m afraid there are no perimeter patrols available. When the twin prongs of Executive Amber deployed, it left our core worlds exposed. There’s too much of the ALS’ infrastructure tied up there. So, the decision was made to…draw back and concentrate a decisive force at the center of the Alliance.”

Benno felt confused until the captain’s words worked themselves out in his head. “Central command pulled the naval patrols out from the colonies and put them around the aristo enclaves?”

Palmer bristled. “No, we put in necessary defenses around the core worlds. To defend Alliance infrastructure.”

Heat bloomed in Benno’s face. “And you knew about this? Before the attacks?”

OPS nodded. “Of course.” That earned him a glare from Commander Ashton.

Benno clenched his fists to keep from using them to bash Johnson’s nose in. “You left the newer colonies exposed and neglected to tell anyone in the crew who might be affected!”

The XO spoke up. “Warrant, that’s a matter of interpretation. And ethically right or wrong, it was strategically necessary if we were going to mass a big enough punch to halt Terran encroachment on ALS space. If it affected any world other than Adelaide, you would be objective enough to recognize that. Given what this decision led to, we understand your feelings. That’s why we’ve allowed you this degree of latitude. That ends now, though. Return to work, or I’ll be forced to have WEPS write you up for insubordination.”

Benno took a deep breath and stepped back. “Insubordination? What the hell does that matter? Sorry, but I’m not done yet. When will the ships that moved to the core worlds redeploy to strike back at the invaders? With supply lines that long, I doubt the Turds could hold a siege against even a small task force.”

No one said anything. Eventually, Captain Palmer gave him a tight, uncomfortable smile and shook his head. “There will be no redeployment. The core world infrastructure remains our greatest strategic vulnerability. We cannot send any ships from there.”

Hope blossomed within Benno. “So, you’re redeploying from here? Captain, please, permit me to transfer to one of the ships going back! Everything I’ve done in the Navy has been for my daughter, to give her a life beyond what I, or anyone in my family, ever had. But because of that, I haven’t truly been there for her in years. I have to be allowed to help her now!”

Another uncomfortably long silence stretched out before Palmer answered, his voice tight and controlled, but colored by rage and frustration. “No, Sanchez, there will be no redeployment from here, either. Nor will there be one from the other prong of the attack, the other Executive Amber fleet. We cannot give up our momentum now, when we’ve got them on their heels. There will be no counterattack. Central command has decided to abandon the assaulted colony worlds temporarily. I understand your personal feelings about those worlds, but in the grand scheme of things, they simply don’t matter. They constitute acceptable collateral damage. More than that, abandoning them to the TUN ties up critical resources the Terrans cannot spare, in both assault combatants and long supply lines. Their whole operation, striking at our rear as we drive through their front, is designed to make us pause, to pull back when we have a clear path to victory. But we won’t give in. This move by the TUN reeks of desperation! If we maintain our current op-plan, there’s no reason we can’t be pulling into the Sol system and Earth in just a few months! When the Terrans capitulate and no longer threaten our core worlds or the worlds along the front, then and only then can we consider re-taking our lost worlds.”

Rage blotted out everything. Benno surged forward, but WEPS and two Masters at Arms grabbed him and held him back. When had they arrived? Who had called them to the CO’s passageway?

No matter.

“Damn you! That’s not acceptable!” Benno yelled. “We can’t let them just wither away, waiting for us to maybe come back, someday!”

OPS chuckled. “It worked well enough for MacArthur when he pulled out of the Philippines in World War II.”

Benno struggled against the three people holding him back. He glared at Johnson. “MacArthur!? What!?” Shaking his head, Benno turned back to the CO. “Damn it, sir, I’ve been loyal. I’ve served honorably and beyond the call for years. I’ve given my life to the ALS without asking for anything in return. I’m asking now! I’m demanding!! Grant me leave! Send me back with the wounded aboard the supply vessels. I can get to Adelaide from the core worlds. We can’t abandon my daughter and my people!”

“You goddamn coward!” OPS accused.

Benno snarled at Johnson and lashed out with his foot. The kick struck the man right between the legs, and the Operations department head dropped to the floor, rolling around in agony. “I’m not running! I want to go and fight, cabrón!” Benno yelled.

The people holding Benno wrestled him to the floor. Pain lanced through his shoulders as they forced his arms behind his back and snapped a thick zip-tie around his wrists.

Even tied, he was able to struggle around to face Palmer. “Please, Captain, my daughter needs me more than the Puller does. And there’s aristos on Adelaide. What about them!?”

Palmer regarded him with naked disgust. “I always knew you weren’t officer material, Sanchez. I always knew your pleb heart would betray you and all of us someday. The aristocratic class on Adelaide? They know the sacrifices that must be made. They will face their fate with grace and calm, the exact opposite of how you’re acting. And as for your spawn and the rest of the cows and sheep you call ‘family?’ They’ll either live or die as fate and Terran mercy will it. And it’s all the better if the Earthers winnow their numbers before we re-integrate them into the ALS. Have him taken to the brig, XO.”

CDR Ashton appeared grim. “Charges, sir?”

“His offenses aren’t obvious? Insubordination is too minor. Charge him with failure to obey a lawful order, cowardice before the enemy, and desertion during a time of war. Oh, and assaulting an officer as well. I’ll take care of him when I finish up with that other one, ‘Ortiz.’”

The XO closed her eyes and shook her head, but when she opened them, she gestured for the Masters at Arms to pick Benno up. The captain returned to his office without another look. Both the XO and WEPS knelt down to check on Johnson. Neither would meet Benno’s frantic gaze.

The MAAs hauled him through officer country to the ladder well leading down and aft. Benno struggled and screamed, but to no avail. In the lower passageways, as they climbed down the ladders and carried him aft to the brig, Benno yelled that they had hidden the truth from him—and everyone—for far too long.

“The ALS abandoned those worlds to protect aristo enclaves!”

“They aren’t even going to try to strike back!”

“They let the Turds in! This operation is more important to them than our families!”

“We have to stop them before more fall! We have to go back while there’s still a chance!”

Nothing. No one moved to help him, but Benno was pleased to see the MAAs go from chagrined, to uncertain, to concerned. By the time they finally reached the brig, Benno’s voice had grown hoarse with his cries, and he no longer struggled against his captors. Instead, he trudged along between them, limp and quiet.

In the brig’s first compartment, they stripped him, bagged his personal items, and dressed him in an orange shipsuit. Carefully, as if he was a pumpkin-hued bomb ready to explode, the MAAs led him to the small block of cells. They locked Benno inside one unit and left the block.

He slumped. Nothing made sense. Emotion seemed beyond his ability to understand and experience. His world was a gray void, with the barest silhouette of Mio to keep him sane. She was still alive. She had to be!

A whistle sounded, drawing his attention to the next cell over.

Raoul Ortiz watched him, a grin across half his face. “This is just… Too. Damned. Funny. BENNO!! How ya doin’!? How’s life as Mr. Loyal Trooper Extraordinaire? Ha ha ha ha ha!”

Ortiz laughed like a maniac, for so long and so enthusiastically, Benno thought he might never stop.

* * * * *

Chapter Four: Mio

Most of her body ached. The parts that didn’t ache hurt worse. Most of her joints screamed in agony, and she was cold…so very cold. Where were her blankets?

As her senses returned, Mio realized she was lying on the floor. She must have fallen out of bed. It had all been a bad dream caused by lying on the cold floor. As she became more aware, Mio realized the floor was harder than it should have been, and it felt like there was a knife in her right kidney. Without opening her eyes, she reached down with her right hand. It wasn’t a knife, just a rock. She pulled it out and felt the smallest bit better.

A rock? Why was there a rock on her bedroom floor and not the nice soft rug she sometimes fell asleep on? She shivered in the cold, and fire ignited across her body.

Opening her eyes, all she could see was rock in the dim light, and for a moment she was terrified; she had no idea where she was or how she’d gotten there.

Then memory returned, rushing in like an unwelcome flood. Terrans arriving, seemingly riding the flames of hell. The Rogers, dead. All of them, for no real reason. The slide down the mountain after she lost control, and the torture that ensued.

She rolled over slowly. The hard ground was cooler where it hadn’t been warmed by her body, and she shivered again.

“Ow!” she exclaimed as she tried to push herself up. She collapsed back to the floor and looked at her hands in the gloom. Her palms were a mess, dried blood coating a number of cuts and abrasions.

She curled her hands to protect her palms from additional abuse and pushed herself to her knees. One of her shoulders protested; she had sprained it sometime during the slide down the hill. Compared to some of her other injuries, the pain, which wouldn’t have been trivial at other times, hardly registered.

Not so her right knee as she stood and took a timid step; that pain was excruciating, and a tear rolled from the corner of her eye. She briefly remembered an explosion of pain as the knee wrenched or hyperextended, or something, during the fall; something was seriously wrong with it.

Balancing on her left foot, she looked around, expecting to see the pile of rocks at the bottom of the slope, but everything was wrong. There was a pile of rocks and dirt, but the forest she was expecting as she looked away from it was instead another rock wall. She wasn’t at the bottom of the cliff; she was somewhere else, inside a 20-foot-wide rock passageway that extended in opposite directions.

What? How did she get into a cave?

Mio looked up the steep slope, which went up about 40 feet, then reached the cave wall. Another 20 feet up the sheer side, a small hole opened to the night sky outside. The larger of Adelaide’s two moons peeked over the edge of the hole, illuminating the area in which she was standing.

She had fallen through the hole and bounced down a pile of rubble created when the cliff face caved in. Mio sighed. Even if she could make it up the pile, of which there was no guarantee in her battered state, there was no way she could climb the last 20 feet to free herself from the cave. She was trapped.

Unable to help herself or hold back the tears, she collapsed onto the floor, sobbing, wrenching her knee again in the process. The pain elicited another round of tears, and she bawled for long minutes until the cool floor chilled her again.

Drained, she rolled to her back, igniting the pain there anew. When she could see again, she looked up at the hole in the ceiling. The moon now filled the hole completely, making it easy to see just how impossible the climb would be.

No one knew she was here; no one would know to look for her. She seemed to remember a voice as she ran from the house, but she doubted whoever it was would come after her. Yelling would serve no purpose; there was no one within miles of the cave.

If she was going to get out, she would have to do it on her own, bad knee and all.

But which way to go? Although the moon illuminated the area around her, the passageway vanished into darkness in both directions. If there were other cave-ins to provide light to aid her journey, they weren’t visible. Wait! If there were other cave-ins, they also might provide another way out!

Energized by the thought, she pulled herself to her feet, temporarily ignoring the pain, but then she realized she didn’t know which way to go. Judging from the direction of the cave-in, the left passage led to the west and the end of the plateau. The plateau extended at least 10 miles to the east; she didn’t think she could make it that far.

What if neither passage extended to the end of the plateau or provided a way out?

She wasn’t going to think about that. The passage had to lead to a way out. It had to. She had never heard of tunnels beneath the plateau, but that didn’t mean anything. Humans hadn’t been on Adelaide that long—maybe in their efforts to eke out a living, there hadn’t been time for anyone to explore the plateau enough to find them.

That had to be it.

Reassured, she hobbled off to the west, staggering along next to the left wall so she could use it for support. The light dimmed the farther she traveled from the cave-in, and within 100 feet she was almost blind, struggling along with her hands on the wall to guide her.

Although she had been able to hear sounds from the outside while she was at the cave-in, the passageway was dark and as quiet as a tomb. Not a tomb! she thought hard to herself, trying to ignore the dark and the walls that seemed to press in on her.

Mio continued for another 20 steps, feeling more and more hemmed in with every step. There was no breeze; the air was still and had the faint smell of disuse and decay. The air almost smelled…dead. No, not dead! Just not used in a while. Or maybe ever. If the tunnels had been carved by water, they had to go somewhere, and they would lead her out, eventually, if she just kept walking and didn’t get too freaked out. But what if the tunnels were the result of some sort of geologic event like a lava tube? Maybe there was no exit!

Her breath came quicker and quicker, and her heart raced. Despite all the positive thinking she could muster, Mio couldn’t avoid the feeling of impending doom. She stopped, her back against the wall, and her chest heaved. She could feel danger nearby. Something in the dark waited to jump out and grab her as she passed. Her head snapped back and forth, trying to find what was hunting her, but she was unable to see it in the pitch black.

Tears flowed from the corners of her eyes. She was going to die down here in the dark, and her father would never know what had happened to her. Her heart hurt. She longed to have her father alongside her; he would have made everything all right.

With a start, she realized she did have her father with her, and her hands raced to her pockets for his memory cube. For a second, she couldn’t find it, and she was terrified she had lost it in the fall, but then her hand found its comforting presence. She pulled it from her pocket, then almost screamed in terror and frustration as she struggled to find the activating stud. Whatever was nearby was closing in on her. She only had moments to live!

She found the stud, and the image of her father sprang to life in the center of the passageway. The hologram didn’t produce much light, but it was enough in the lightless passage. Mio swept the hologram back and forth like a flashlight, looking for what had been creeping up on her, but the corridor was vacant in both directions. Nothing moved, nor was there any evidence of anyone’s passage but her own.

The hologram completed its message and turned off, and Mio’s heart rate accelerated again. She pressed the stud, and the hologram reappeared to wish her well. The hallway remained empty.

Mio took several long breaths while the message continued, periodically spinning the device to project in the opposite direction, hoping to catch whatever was terrifying her in its light. Her heart rate and breathing returned to their normal rates by the end of the cube’s third presentation, and she realized nothing was tracking her; it was all in her head.

This will never work, she thought, a wry half-smile coming to her face as she replayed the hologram. It was so dark she would miss any cross-passageways or exits if they were on the other side of the hallway. She was walking on the wrong side of the passageway; the exterior of the plateau was on the right side. If there was some sort of exit, it would have to be on that side… she needed to walk on the right or she would miss it.

She activated the message one more time and staggered across the passageway. It would be more awkward to walk on this side with her hurt knee but missing an exit in the dark would be far worse.

Mio resumed walking as the hologram disappeared, and darkness returned. The darkness no longer seemed quite so bad. Knowing she could have light whenever she needed strengthened her resolve and gave her the energy to continue.

Right hand tracing the wall as she limped along, Mio hobbled forward a while longer. How long, she didn’t know; time lost its meaning in the dark. All Mio could do was focus on putting one foot in front of the other.

Limping along, her brain in neutral as she strived to keep from dwelling on the continued pain she was in, Mio almost didn’t notice when the surface of the wall changed, and the face of the wall stuck out about six inches. The outcropping was about a foot wide with rounded corners. Mio continued on, only to find another projection about 20 feet farther down the passageway. When she reached the third one, about 20 feet past the second, it finally registered on a conscious level that the formations were strange.

Needing to take a break, she sat down on the floor next to one, careful not to damage her bad knee any further, and activated the memory cube.

Mio gasped; the rock formations weren’t rock. Well, they might have been made of rock, but they were definitely not natural; someone or something had created them. The formations appeared to be some sort of pillars or braces that extended from floor to ceiling, crossed the ceiling, and were supported by other pillars on the other side of the passage.

She reached out to touch a pillar, and her finger wiped away the coating of dust that made it appear the same color as the walls of the corridor; underneath, the rock was black and obviously not natural.

The feeling that she wasn’t alone returned, and she spun the hologram back and forth, looking for anything in the passageway with her, but the corridors remained empty.

She reactivated the hologram and pointed it at the pillar. Judging by the dust, no one had been in the tunnels in a long time. Probably a really long time, she realized. The pillars would have had to be there for years to accumulate that amount of dust. At least tens of years, if not hundreds, but that couldn’t be right—that was longer than humans had been on Adelaide.

She had no idea who had put the pillars in the tunnel, but the fact that someone had excited her; if people had walked the corridors before, they would certainly have had a way out, right?

Mio struggled to her feet and continued walking. The presence of people meant she was going to get out. Unless the previous people were from a group that dwelt beneath the earth. Weren’t there stories from Terra about dwarves or trolls who lived underground? But those were just stories…dwarves and trolls didn’t really exist, did they?

Her mind raced as Mio tried to remember all the stories she had heard about dwarves and trolls. Although they were gruff, she thought the dwarves were at least friendly to humans. Trolls, though…they were bad. Not only bad, but evil and carnivorous; they ate people. As she considered the thought, she found herself using the hologram projector to illuminate the hallway more frequently.

Subconsciously, she knew the projector had a limited number of activations, but she couldn’t help herself. Every time the hologram went out, she could hear trolls moving around, their footfalls echoing her heartbeat in the enclosed space, but when she turned it back on, there was nothing to be seen.

When the hologram began to be noticeably dimmer, she forced herself to go longer and longer between activations to save the battery. When it failed, she was going to be in big trouble. And in the dark. She would definitely be in the dark when it stopped working, and she didn’t think her heart could take another round of the terrors that waited for her when the lights went out. Just having the cube and knowing she could activate it when she wanted kept her going; not having the ability to produce light when she wanted would be…devastating.

* * *

The passage seemed to continue forever, and she had stopped using the hologram altogether. Not only did she not want to burn it out, turning it on and seeing the same passage extending into the darkness for the 100th time was becoming too discouraging. It was better not to see it.

The pillars continued to line the corridor, although the newness of them wore off rapidly. She lapsed into a rhythm. 14 dragging steps, a pillar. Another 14 steps, another pillar. On and on; over and over. She stopped paying attention to the pain in her knee and her thirst, which was becoming a serious issue. It made her want to cry, but she was so dehydrated she wasn’t sure she’d be able to produce any tears.

She sat down to rest, then jerked awake. A noise had awoken her…she was sure of it. She stood up in case she had to run, the cube in her hand so she wouldn’t run into the side of the tunnel and knock herself out.


Mio spun at the unfamiliar sound. It was the first noise she had heard in days that she hadn’t made. She listened, straining to hear, but it wasn’t repeated. She started walking again.


Now it was behind her. She turned, pointed the memory cube behind her, and activated it. The floor on the opposite side of the corridor was discolored. She hobbled over to it. Drip. A drop of water fell from the ceiling a long way above her. She began counting; at 17, another drip fell, splashing into the small puddle on the floor. It was too small to scoop up with her hands, so she laid down on the floor and slurped it up.

Although there wasn’t much, and she didn’t want to think about what might be growing in it, the water felt wonderful on her parched throat and gave her the energy to continue.

She crossed back to the other side with a smile on her face. If there was one source of water, there might be more. She just needed to listen for them. She began counting the steps between pillars again. 12 steps with her new, energized stride brought her to the next pillar. Another 12 steps, a pillar. Another 12 steps, a pillar. The monotony soon returned, and the passage seemed to go on forever. 14 steps…

She realized the next pillar was missing, and she was still trying to stop her momentum when she walked into the wall. The toe of her boot hit first, slowing her slightly, but the impact of her face into the wall hurt enough to shock her out of the fog she’d fallen back into. Unfortunately, the collision also caused her to drop the memory cube, and she was forced to get down on the floor and crawl around to find it, fearing the whole time that she might have broken it. One of her palms tore open in her haste to find it, adding another hurt to her list of woes.

After a few seconds she had it, and she anxiously pressed the activation stud. Success! The hologram’s dim illumination outlined the wall in front of her, and what had to be a door to the right. She could see its outline in the faint light, the seam where it joined the wall so tight she had missed it when her hand had gone across it. The door was at least twice her height of just over five feet; it was probably closer to 13 or 14 feet. At seven feet wide, it was also broader than a normal door, and it had some sort of mechanical devices running across it in three places. Her hand must have gone just above the lowest one when she passed it in the dark.

Above and to the right of her nose-print in the dust of the wall, a 5-inch square metallic pad projected out two inches. Success! The way out!

She reached up and pushed the pad. It didn’t move, and the door remained shut, but the pad illuminated with a five-by-five grid. Inside each of the boxes was a golden symbol, none of which looked like the letters of any language she had ever seen. “No!” Mio exclaimed, her heart sinking. “Who puts a code on the door out?” Given the number of symbols, if it was a long enough series, she wouldn’t figure it out before she died of thirst.

Maybe it would be easy. She reached up and pushed the upper left button. It glowed dimly in the darkness as the hologram extinguished. Shrugging, she pushed the rest of the buttons on the top row in order. Each glowed when she pushed it, but all of them went out when she pushed the fifth button. The door remained shut.

“Maybe they go backward.” She reversed the pattern. The door stayed shut.

She tried going up, then she tried going down. She tried going left, then right, and then diagonally. None of the patterns appeared to have any effect.

She reached up and pushed the center symbol, then four other buttons at random. Nothing.

Darn it.

She sat down on the floor to think and turned on the hologram projector. It was noticeably dimmer; she wouldn’t have many more uses before it failed. She didn’t have to check her pockets to know she didn’t have any batteries.

She sighed as she looked up at the pad. It didn’t look any differently from below, just further away. The shadow it cast in the weak light reached up to the ceiling alongside a second shadow to its right.

What? Where did that come from? She only had a second or two before she was plunged back into the darkness.

She stood back up and turned on the projector. It flickered before steadying, and she knew from past experience she’d be lucky to get two more uses out of it. She shined it up the wall; further above and to the right of the first pad, a second, smaller pad projected from the wall. She cocked her head and looked at it. It didn’t have any markings on it, but neither had the larger one until she’d activated it.

The hologram went out. She continued to stare at the place on the wall where the pad was, then reached up with her left hand to push it, but it was out of reach. She stood on her tip toes and was just able to brush the bottom of the pad with the tip of her finger.

She would have to jump, which was going to hurt. A lot.

Mio would also have to use the memory cube again, as there was no way she could jump and push the pad accurately in the dark. Mio considered her options briefly. Pushing the first pad hadn’t done her any good; it had only illuminated another pad she had no idea how to operate. If the smaller pad was similarly encoded, she would be trapped in the tunnel without any source of light beyond the dim illumination of the keys. Trying to jump was going to be difficult. Not only would the lighting be bad, her right hand and leg were her dominant ones, but because of her injuries, she would have to jump with her left leg and press the plate with her left hand.

Was it worth the risk?

Yes, she decided, and she pressed the activation stud on the memory cube before she could change her mind. For a moment, nothing happened, then the hologram flickered on as the last bit of electricity from its batteries trickled into it. Mio took a step back in the flashing light and jumped, but she misjudged her leap and fell short of the pad, landing heavily on her right leg.

Pain exploded the length of her leg, and she squeezed her eyes shut to overcome it. She opened her eyes as her father said his last, few, broken words and jumped again. The light went out as her hand extended toward the pad, and she slapped the wall at what she thought was the top of her leap. Two of her fingers hit the plate, then she landed on her right leg again. She fell to the floor as the bright light of intense pain blossomed behind her closed eyelids, before dimming to a more muted, greenish glow.

Mio lay on the floor, opening her eyes once the pain was under control again. She had fallen a couple of inches from the wall, and she watched as green-tinged dust motes drifted in front of her eyes. It took her a second, then she realized—I can see. How is that possible?

She rolled onto her back and looked up at the ceiling. Two glowing strips of jade ran the length of the passageway in two directions. She could see the way she had come, as well as the direction the tunnel continued after making the 90-degree turn to the left at the doorway. In the excitement of finding a doorway, she hadn’t noticed the passageway continued.

Although she wanted to continue pushing the buttons on the larger key pad, she knew it was probably pointless; she would likely die before she hit the right combination. With a sigh, she staggered to her feet and stumbled down the new corridor, determined to get as far as she could before the lights went out.

* * *

Mio made better time with the lights on, and she hobbled as fast as she could along the passageway. After what seemed like a long walk, a cross-passage spurred off to the left. She couldn’t see anything different along it, and she wondered where it went, but she continued straight ahead, guessing the current corridor ran along the perimeter of the underground…whatever it was.

‘City’ was the wrong word. There weren’t any signs that people (or anything else) lived there. In fact, there weren’t any signs of anything resembling civilization throughout the tunnel system, aside from the tunnels, themselves, and the lights.

After a second side-corridor, Mio began to tire. Sore, hungry, and thirstier than she had ever been in her life, she continued on, the fear the lights would go out driving her to use reserves of strength she didn’t know she had. Any other time, she might have been proud of her determination; now, she was too tired to care.

She stumbled on past a third junction and promised herself she would rest a moment if she came to a fourth, never believing she had the endurance to make it there. When she arrived at the fourth passage, she collapsed, intending to rest for just a few minutes.

* * *

Mio sprang awake, knowing something was wrong. In addition to the unintended nap, she realized the lights had dimmed significantly and were barely more than a verdant glow.

Terrified of being lost in the dark, she climbed to her feet and set off again. She passed a fifth cross-passage, then she almost fell into a crevasse which was all but invisible in the gloom. Conditioned to keep going, the disappearance of the passageway’s floor took a second to register, and she had to use her bad leg to stop her momentum, eliciting yet another hiss of agony. She fell to the ground, inches away from the yawning abyss, then rolled away from it.

When her heart slowed to a somewhat normal rhythm, she rose and inspected the giant crevice. The fissure split the tunnel from side to side and was almost 20 feet across. There was no way she was getting across it.

She sighed and looked longingly across the gap; there stood the door. It was easy to see, it was ajar, and the light from outside outlined it like a beacon of hope in the darkness of the tunnel.

It wasn’t fair! She had come so far, only to be stopped, with the end in sight, by a giant crack. Mio wailed in anguish as she fell to the floor, dry-sobbing, her body unable to produce any further tears.

When she was able to think again, she sat up. Her position wasn’t any better, as she was still on the wrong side of the crevice, but she realized that after days of stumbling around in the dark, she was finally close to an exit, and it was open! She wouldn’t have to decipher a code, if she could just figure out a way to get there.

The side tunnels, she realized. If they branched from all the perimeter tunnels, she might be able to find another way which, hopefully, wouldn’t be blocked by a giant chasm.

The light in the tunnel was barely enough to see by as she turned and started back the way she’d come; she longed for the light she had seen coming from the door and promised herself if she got out of the tunnels alive, she would never come back. Ever.

She reached the side passage and hurried down it as quickly as she could limp. After only a couple of minutes, she came to another side passage that cut across her line of travel. Success! This had to lead to the perimeter tunnels…as long as the fissure didn’t extend to this passage as well. Several minutes’ travel led her to a drop off. She peered through the gloom. The crack wasn’t a chasm like in the other tunnel; here, the shifting ground had broken the hallway and raised her side. She would have to drop and slide almost 15 feet to reach the floor on the other side of the break, but at least there wasn’t a yawning abyss like there had been earlier.

The rock thrust upward at a steep angle, but it wasn’t completely vertical; she could do this.

Mio laid down on her stomach and slid her legs over the edge, then continued to work her way backward. She dropped, hoping to catch the edge, but her shoulder couldn’t take the weight, and she fell, sliding down the rough surface faster than she had intended. Bending her right knee slightly, she took most of the impact on her left leg and fell backward into a sitting position as the lights went out. Out of habit, she pulled out her memory cube and pressed the activation stud, but nothing happened. She sniffed and put it back in her pocket.

You can do this, she urged herself. You’ve already done it once, and you’re so close to getting out. She slid over to the right-side wall and climbed to her feet. Placing her hand on the wall, she began working her way along it, praying the floor wouldn’t suddenly drop out from under her.

She reached the corner and turned toward the waiting door. Her speed increased as the urge to just get out overcame the fear of another fissure. Two minutes later, she could see a glow ahead of her. The door! Realizing it was now bright enough in the tunnel to see any drop-offs before she fell into them, she released the wall and headed straight for the light, hobbling as quickly as she could.

Unlike the previous door, this one was tucked back in a little alcove, not flush with the tunnel wall. She noticed the difference peripherally; all of her focus was on the light streaming in from the edge of the door. She reached it and pulled back as hard as her battered joints would allow. It was heavier than she was used to, and the hinges had stiffened since the last time they were used; the door emitted a squeal that could have raised the dead as she pulled it open.

Mio didn’t care. As soon as it was open wide enough for her to pass, she slid around the side and ran out…right into a firethorn bush. The plant was native to Adelaide and protected itself with a poison that oozed from thorns along its branches. While it wasn’t deadly to humans, the poison burned like fire, and Mio screamed as she went headfirst into the enormous bush that stood in front of the exit.

“Hey, what do we have here?” a voice asked.

“Sounded like a woman,” another voice answered.

As Mio backed away from the bush, she realized she had heard those voices and that accent before; it sounded like the soldiers who had killed the Rogers. The Terrans were nearby!

A whimper escaped her lips; the thorns burned her face so badly she couldn’t help it.

“Over here, somewhere,” the first voice said. It was closer.

“There’s nothing there but some of them damn thorn bushes,” the second voice replied.

“Well, she must be inside it,” the first voice said.

Mio’s back bumped into the door to the tunnel. Her teeth were locked on her lower lip to keep her from crying out again.

The muzzle of a laser rifle poked through between two bushes, and the soldier holding it used it to push back one side of the bush while he used a gloved hand to push back the other. He looked in, and his eyes met Mio’s. It was the soldier from the Rogers’ house—the one who had killed Mr. Rogers and Jimmy.

Unable to help herself, Mio screamed again. She was trapped. She didn’t want the soldiers to get her, but she also didn’t want to go back into the mountain.

“I see her!” the soldier exclaimed. “It’s the girl that got away from the farmhouse. Nubile little thing, and she’s all ours now!” He swore as some of the thorns hit his unprotected flesh. “Help me with these damn bushes, corporal!”

Another rifle poked through the bush, and the two pulled the sides far enough apart to make a passage for the soldier to squeeze through. The threat of the soldiers overcame her fear of the dark, and Mio spun and ran back through the door. Back in the tunnels, she tried to push the door shut. It squealed in protest, but it only closed back to where it had been when she found it. No matter how hard she pushed, it wouldn’t shut.

Mio knew she couldn’t outrun the soldiers, nor could she hold the door shut against them. They were stronger than she was, even if she hadn’t been exhausted and battered. She didn’t want to run down the passage in the dark, anyway. There was the one fissure nearby; who knew how many more might be close.

“Where’d she go?” the second voice asked.

“Into some door that’s back here,” the first voice replied.

“Help me through, and we’ll go find her.”

Mio knew she only had a few seconds before they came in. The soldiers were faster and stronger; they held all the advantages. The only thing Mio had going for her was that she knew where the fissure was, and the soldiers didn’t.

“All right, I’m through,” the second voice said.

“Good; let’s get her. She owes us for making us chase her.”

“Yeah, she owes both of us.”

“Probably several times,” the first voice agreed. Both men laughed.

Mio quickly pulled her shirt over her head as the men approached the door. When it started to open, she threw her shirt as hard as she could, biting her lip to keep from crying out.

The men opened the door the rest of the way, and she stepped back to the side, hiding behind it. “There she goes!” the first soldier said, his eyes catching the shirt’s movement. “Get her!”

Both men charged into the tunnel, racing after the shirt. It had fallen next to the lip of the crevice, and there was just enough light for the two men to see the abyss yawning in front of them before they fell into it. Both flailed their arms and dropped their rifles as they tried to keep from going over the edge.

Mio slammed into the first soldier from behind, and he lost his balance and went over the edge, grabbing the second soldier’s leg armor with one hand as he fell. The second soldier instinctively tried to pull back, but the first soldier’s grip was too strong. His leg went out from under him, and he went over the edge.

The second soldier turned as he fell, and he saw Mio out of the corner of his eye. He made a wild swipe to grab her, but missed, and his hand fell instead on her shirt, reflexively grabbing it as he was drug over. As it started sliding toward the edge, Mio saw the bulge in the pocket that was her father’s memory cube, and she dove forward to grab it with both hands.

The weight of the two soldiers was more than she could hold, and she was dragged toward the edge as one hand tried to work the cube out of the pocket while the other held onto the shirt. The cube sprang out of the pocket as it reached the edge of the fissure, and Mio released the shirt to try to catch the little device. Her left hand hit it, then it bounced off her right hand, falling forward over the edge. Mio dove forward again and reached over the edge to swat the cube back onto the tunnel floor.

Before she could pull back, a man’s hand reached up from the crevice, grabbed hold of her wrist, and started pulling her forward again. She struggled against his grasp, but he held on like a vice. Her head went over the edge, and she saw the second soldier. One hand held onto a rocky outcropping, and the other held onto her wrist while his legs dangled over the void.

“If I go, you’re going with me, Bitch,” the soldier said, grunting with the effort of holding himself up.

Mio twisted her arm, trying desperately to free herself, while she continued to slide forward. Her chest went over the edge, and she could feel herself about to fall. Pulling back with all her strength, she suddenly leaned forward and bit the soldier’s fingers as hard as she could. His grip loosened, and the soldier fell, unable to support himself with one hand.

Mio scrabbled back away from the edge, barely able to breathe. Finally, her heart stopped pounding, and her breath returned to normal. She climbed to her feet and walked over to pick up her cube. She didn’t have her shirt anymore, but she was still alive, and the soldiers weren’t.

As the adrenaline left her system, the fatigue hit, and she crashed, tired and sore beyond her ability to describe. All she wanted to do was lie in the sun for a year or two and drink several gallons of faux apple juice. The thought brought a smile to her weary face, and she limped to the door. She didn’t have anything to drink, but she could rest in the sun for a little while and recover some of her strength.

She walked out the door and looked at the firethorn bushes. It was obvious why no one had found the doorway; no one would have pushed past the bushes without a good reason for doing so. From experience, she knew she could slide underneath the bush’s thorns if she was careful to brush away any that had fallen to the ground. She got down onto her stomach and slid forward under the tallest bush, using a dead stick to sweep aside several branches in her path. Better to be safe than sorry, especially where the thorns were concerned.

She worked herself the rest of the way out from under the bush and was about to stand up when a boot appeared next to her face and a sack was thrown over her head. A hand as big as her head covered her mouth, while another arm looped under her arms and lifted her to her feet.

“Scream and you’re dead,” a voice whispered in her ear.

* * * * *

Chapter Five: Benno

The Puller was silent and still. Ortiz had at last grown bored with his jeering laughter and resigned himself to lying back on his cell’s cot and reading his pad. He still occasionally looked over at Benno and gave him a rueful chuckle, but that was easier to ignore than the donkey-like braying of Ortiz’s laugh. Their jailer, Master at Arms Chief Ellen Dufresne, ignored them both, doing paperwork at her desk beyond the stark cells. Aside from the changing-out of the Duty Master at Arms every four hours, no one came to check up on them.

None of his fellow officers. None of his old friends and shipmates among the Chief’s Mess or the crew. Not even WEPS or the XO, with the unlikely word that the captain had changed his mind.

Benno did not hope for word of his reprieve. No, he had damned himself as surely as anyone could. The only thing he could hope for was that either the CO or someone far, far above him in the fleet would reconsider and send a fast task unit back home to kick the Turds off Adelaide and the other worlds.

But no one came, and the silence deepened.

That silence was relative, of course, and quite noisy from an absolute perspective. From the sound of ventilation, the hum of energized components, the burble of liquids in pipes, the vibrations of nearby boost pumps and the rumble of the distant dark matter conversion engines, the destroyer was alive with activity, motion, and noise. Layered atop that noise were the sounds of human life. There were a hundred different murmured conversations, rising and falling, as people passed by the brig on duty, making repairs, or just gabbing. He could hear the ship’s general announcing circuit, or 1MC, calling out the events on the day’s schedule and the rotation of watches, or telling specific crewmembers to get in touch with other crewmembers or to go to this or that place. Footfalls walking and running over, under, and around the brig, like corpuscles passing through the body of the Puller, sounded around him.

All of them lived and worked on, heedless of Benno’s unknown fate, seemingly unconcerned about the calamity now taking place on six of their home worlds. Surely that had to have affected them as profoundly as it had Benno!? Yet, he was the only one in the brig for it.

Had they quenched their desire for action upon seeing Benno’s example?

Or did they just not give a shit?

With nothing to distract him, Benno’s mind wandered into scenes he would much rather have avoided. Unbidden, images of Adelaide flashed into his mind’s eye, of Mio, of his long-passed wife, Yume, of their land and the hearty people and rural places of their hard-scrabble colony. Adelaide was a beautiful world, with a near-circular orbit, smack dab in the center of the UV and liquid water habitable zones around HD-207129, a young sun-like star in the southern constellation Grus, the Crane, approximately 51 light-years from Earth. The oxygen-rich planet already had its own ecology, and fortunately for them, the biology there had been mostly non-reactive with Earthly biomatter. It was an easy and quick terraform job, ready for ALS habitation a mere 25 years after its discovery. Benno and Yume had been part of the third wave of colonists emigrating from the central system worlds of Beta Hydri 20 years after that. Mio had been born there less than a year later.

But pleasant memories of their start on Adelaide could not distract him for long. Too quickly, the painful memory of Yume’s death flashed before him, a horrifying bout with one of the few indigenous virus-analogs to successfully make the jump to Terran biology. He had been away on one of his required ALS Navy Reserve activations when she was struck down, along with nearly a tenth of the other colonists. Mio had been so young, not even a worldly pre-teen, an innocent kid of eleven, and suddenly she was all alone. The Rogers had watched over her and Benno’s farm until he could get the Navy to send him back, whereupon it had fallen to him to manage their homestead and raise their girl all by himself…along with producing enough to pay off their still-considerable colonization debt with one less laborer.

He and Yume had considered having him sign up for an extended active-duty stint in the ALS military. Active service offered much better colonization credit payments, but that option had always relied upon Yume being there to manage things. He was already a reserve first-class petty officer in the ALS Navy, with the occasional duty and deployments that had allowed them to start off better than most. Active service, however, offered so much more. He could advance to Chief or even to the officer ranks, plus he could pay off their debt, and with even more active time, build up the farm to the level of an aristo plantation.

With Yume gone, the need remained, but the opportunity seemed impossible. Benno had struggled along as a single dad and homesteader for a few months, simultaneously worrying about his prospects and enjoying watching Mio grow up. But the math, his limited skill as a farmer, and his lingering pain over Yume’s death made the “right” answer apparent soon enough. As soon as Mio seemed marginally recovered from the loss of her mother, he had taken the plunge and gone active. Partnered with the Rogers on the next plot over, Benno had shifted from a full-time farmer and occasional Navy tech to a full-time sailor and occasional, regretful homesteader and father.

Benno made rank, reaching Chief in two years, then making Chief Warrant Officer, while his little girl grew into a young lady under Mr. Rogers’ stern hand. The farm and Mio had grown, even as their debt shrank and vanished. He had almost reached the point of putting in his papers and going back to the reserves, the goal of retiring on the farm indefinitely in sight at last.

But Operation Executive Amber had come along, and all such retirement plans were tabled until its conclusion. The fleet had left ALS territory to thrust deep into Terran space, Benno and the Puller in tow. And while he was out here, fulfilling a job neither honor, patriotism, nor financial need made necessary, the enemy had snuck in and planted a dagger in their exposed back.

Memories and recrimination gave way to nightmarish fantasies of the present. He saw Mio dying over and over again, in a hundred different ways. Mio strolling through the farmer’s market in First Landing when the hammer of the orbital bombardment wiped the entire town off the face of the planet, her sweet, hopeful face vanishing in a flash of white light. Mio lined up with other women and children against a wall, forced to kneel, waiting as a Turd officer walked down the line, executing each of them with a single shot to the head. Mio ripped screaming out of the Rogers’ burning farmhouse and passed around the ravenous hordes of Terran marines, used as a party favor until at last, her eyes dead and her mind hollow, one of her abusers killed her. Mio, lost, starving, alone, on the run in the vast alien/Terran forest, finally giving up and taking her own life.

In each nightmare, she looked up just before the end and stared off into space. Each time she locked gazes with Benno—jailed and awaiting his own execution—and wondered where he was. Why hadn’t he been there for her? Why couldn’t he have worked his farm like Mr. Rogers? Why had he run away from her after her mother died and left her a virtual orphan? Why had he allowed the Terrans to kill her—and more importantly, why had he let their relationship die well before that?

A double high-low tone sounded once, twice, three times over the announcing circuit. Automatically, Benno reached out and grasped the side of the cot where he sat. Seconds later, the rumble of the engines and the force of gravity fell smoothly down to nothing.

The XO’s voice sounded in every space, “Warriors of the Puller, we have successfully repositioned to the interior of the system, close to the other damaged vessels, to facilitate repairs near the tenders serving our capital units. Given the deep damage we’ve suffered, we are going to hold off on reconfiguring the hull for spin-gravity until we can complete the heavy-lift portion of those repairs. The captain and chief engineer anticipate remaining at zero thrust and spin for at least 72 hours. Watch rotations and off-watch physical training should be adjusted to include at least one hour of resistance therapy each cycle. Everyone ensure your nanite infusions are set for microgravity maintenance. Work hard, work fast, and work smart, people. The ALS is counting on each of you!”

“Well,” Ortiz said from his cell, “each of you, but us two, anyway.”

Benno shook his head and let go of his cot. He reached up to his face and wiped his eyes. Tears had streamed down his cheeks as his mind dwelt on his plight and his daughter’s future. He was not ashamed to cry. His family had raised him to freely express his passions. Stoicism did not suit him. But now, in microgravity, the tears welled in his eyes, preventing him from seeing anything clearly.

Besides, tears would solve nothing.

Using controlled, practiced moves, Benno pushed up from his cot and thrust himself forward. He arrested his flight at the bars between his and Ortiz’s cell.

Ortiz looked up at him from his cot and peaked an eyebrow in question. “Yes, can I help you, Chief Warrant Officer Sanchez? Or are you just fucking Benjamin now, you traitorous piece of ass-kissing shit?”

Benno ignored the jibes. “What did they do after they brought you in? Have you seen the legal officer yet? Did they say anything about a court-martial? Or are they going to handle your case at Captain’s Mast?”

Ortiz chuckled and shook his head. “You really expect me to talk to you? To give you any assistance whatsoever, you little kiss-ass token pleb?”

“Damn it, Raoul, I can’t help the position you put yourself in! It was a betrayal of your shipmates, and you know it. I’m sorry I had to be the one to take you to task. But there are bigger issues in play now! As you’ve noticed, I’m not in a much better position. I can’t take back what either of us did, but what happens to us isn’t as important as what’s happening back home.”

“Sorry, Benno-Boyo, but I ain’t so worried about some bull at home when I’m worried about my own neck getting stretched.”

“Bull!? You might not hail from one of the six worlds hit, but not even you can just blow this off!”

Ortiz flexed off his cot and pushed over to the bars where Benno floated. If he wanted to reach out and strike at Benno in revenge, he could. Chief Dufresne looked up sharply from the files displayed on her desktop, but she made no move to intervene. Nor did Ortiz try to throttle Benno. Instead, he looked at his former boss warily. “What the hell are you talking about? What worlds were hit? When?”

Benno shook his head. It hadn’t occurred to him that Ortiz might not know yet. He had assumed when the CMC informed the crew about the Terran counter-assaults, word would have gotten to everyone. Benno looked over at the Master at Arms Chief. “The Master Chief never told him? You didn’t?”

Chief Dufresne grew red in apparent embarrassment. She could only shrug and say, “His personnel file says he wasn’t from one of the affected worlds. I guess I figured his chain of command would tell him…”

Benno chuckled without humor. “No, you just didn’t care.”

“Hey!” she responded, but at Benno’s answering glare, she backed down and turned her attention pointedly back to her desktop.

Benno turned back to Ortiz. “This is how it went…”

For the next half hour, Benno told Raoul Ortiz everything he had missed. He could not help his emotions as he spoke about the ALS Navy patrols being pulled into the established/aristo central worlds to protect infrastructure while they attacked the Terran Union. This move gave free access to the TU Navy, which was then able to attack six colony worlds in the rear, exposed areas of ALS space, with impunity. Then he went on, about how those colonies—those people—were going to be left with the Turds in control until after the operation, and how there would be no counter-attack against the incursion with the ships defending the aristo infrastructure or allowing their current operation to lose momentum.

While he spoke, the anger waxed and waned in Ortiz’s eyes. Ortiz gripped the bars as if he might be able to tear them free of their moorings. The contempt he showed toward Benno slid away, supplanted by a new rage with no clear target. And, unnoticed by either of them, Chief Dufresne rose from her seat and pushed herself to a position just outside the cells, listening closely.

Benno felt his face grow hot as he described how the captain and the ops officer seemed not to care, about how the fate of their families’ lives seemed to be of no real importance to the mission. His voice broke as he relayed how their deaths might even be of benefit if they made room for fresh batches of colonists. “I just lost it. When that kiss-ass bastard Johnson called me a coward for wanting to go back and defend Adelaide, I…went red and kicked him in the balls. Between that and cursing out the CO, I pretty much damned myself. And that’s it. You’re all up to speed.”

Ortiz shook his head, starting when he noticed Dufresne close by. He looked back to Benno. “This is bullshit. They can’t abandon people like that! They shouldn’t have started this stupid Executive Amber mierda if they couldn’t keep the Turds out of our backyard.”

Benno pushed away from the bars. “It’s not as if I don’t recognize the combat calculus. Captain Palmer is an ass, but, damn it, he’s not wrong about the strategy. I understand the ‘why’ of what they’ve done, even if the ‘how’ is reprehensible. The TU was putting military and economic pressure on every single one of the worlds along our common border. Annexation and insurgency weren’t far off, and if you let one or two worlds go without answering the challenge, the next worlds in line will give up and switch sides with far less pressure. Executive Amber is a necessity for the Alliance. We had to respond to their pressure, to show them that even if the Union is twice as broad as the Alliance, we aren’t just some pushover conglomerate of breakaway worlds. We’re an empire in our own right, with our own principles and a common, unified identity, worthy of healthy fear and respect. Where it’s all gone wrong is abandoning our own worlds out of expediency, but that’s an ass-backward military decision. It doesn’t invalidate what the ALS is or what it means. It doesn’t imply we aren’t one people.”

Ortiz chuffed a derisive laugh. “One people. That crap may have been correct 80 friggin’ years ago, but it ain’t the way of things now. When the outer worlds of the Terran Union broke away and allied into the ALS, when our grandparents fought for freedom and a say in their own destiny, we may have been one people. Back then, there weren’t no aristos and plebs. There were just fighters and loyalists, farmers and industry types, workers and wasters. They had one thing in common, though, and that was they didn’t want to be told what to do or how much to give up every year by Earth no more. So, they banded together, the whole ‘we either hang together or we’ll surely all hang separately’ thing. And it worked. We got the Earthers to leave us the hell alone so we could go our own way. Made our own constitution, ‘fixing’ things so we wouldn’t just be a copy of the TU. But equality? One system from many worlds, all on the same level playing field? That crap ended the day we called ourselves the Alliance of Liberated Systems and laid down our guns.

“You say you understand the captain’s thinking? That we have to be patriotic and defend the Alliance? Well, I say bull! If they can do this and willingly sacrifice six worlds of their own people—that they made vulnerable by choice because they ain’t worth as much yet or don’t have enough of the ‘right’ kind of people on ‘em—then there ain’t no Alliance to defend! Look at things as they really are, Benno. The Turds might threaten from the outside, but we’re also under threat from our own damn people. The aristo worlds and their enclaves on each colony think they have the right to be in charge forever, all because they put in the money to pay for the original fleet. Yeah, well who bled the most for the Liberation? Who feeds the ALS and works the most to expand it? And who always gets stuck with the shit end of the stick, working their whole lives for an unfair system with bought-and-paid-for elections and cronyism they can never escape and never break into? We do—the goddamn plebeians—every time!

“You’re a patriot for a nation that doesn’t exist, Benno. And look how you’re repaid.”

Benno hated how accurate Ortiz’s version of reality sounded, even if it was likely self-serving. He’d like nothing better than to have his act of treason somehow validated. Well, perhaps he would rather escape his approaching death sentence—as would Benno himself—but it did not mean his barbs against the unity of the Alliance were not at least partly right. And Benno recognized their truth even more today than he would have willingly done before.

The cracks and flaws in the ALS were always there, but Benno had been distracted by duty and working his own plan. Now that duty and everything he had been working for were in direct conflict with one another, he could no longer ignore what Ortiz said, even if he didn’t agree 100%.

Benno nodded, gathering his thoughts. He looked back and forth between Ortiz and Chief Dufresne. “I’ve been foolish and willfully blind, but I’m no fool. You’re right, Raoul, there’s a lot wrong in the ALS. It’s not fair…but show me any society that’s ever truly been fair to all its people all the time, at any point in history. It’s like chaotic patterns in thermodynamics. Concentrated power shifts and moves and spreads out to rise again somewhere else even hotter and brighter, continuously. It’s an artifact of any system, and ‘fairness’ has little to do with it. Still, the aristos were born to power and influence, and they’ve zealously guarded that power and gathered still more…but that doesn’t mean the ideals of the Alliance are invalid, that we cannot achieve success ourselves. I don’t want to take what the aristos or their families have. I don’t deserve anything of theirs. All I need is a chance, an opportunity, to work hard and see my own path to success. I want to earn my place and know that I’ve done it honorably for an honorable nation. What’s happened now may well tarnish that honor, but it doesn’t mean the ALS is unjust or what we’ve worked for is worthless. It only means the people in charge of it have abandoned their values.”

He closed his eyes. Two paths lay before him. One involved staying in this cell and accepting what his superiors and fate decreed for him. Along that path, he would likely end up dead and vilified. Whatever chance Mio had for survival was up to random fate, the mercies of the enemy, and the slim possibility the ALS would eventually liberate Adelaide in time to save her. What would she think of him, his memory dishonored, all his time away from her for naught?

On the other path, he would still likely end up dead and vilified, and this time it would be for deliberate actions, not just the heated passion of a terrible moment. On that path, he would engage in a crime so uncharacteristic of him, so unconscionable to the very values he said he honored, it bordered upon heresy. The only value to this other path was that it permitted him a small chance of helping Mio. He wanted to look her in the eyes again, long enough to say he was sorry for all the time apart, sorry for running from her after her mother died, sorry he had chosen an investment in an organization that might not have been worthy of either of them. He still would most likely fail and be killed in the attempt, but was there really any choice?

Benno opened his eyes and looked at Ortiz. “The actions of our superiors, their decisions to gamble on a strategic ploy rather than save their own people, show they’re no longer worthy of our Alliance. They’re no longer worthy of me, my loyalty, or my oath.”

Benno touched off the floor of the cell at an angle, rebounded off the ceiling, and brought himself to rest at the cell’s bars, but not in front of Ortiz. This time, he directly faced Chief Dufresne. “I’m not insubordinate, whatever the captain says. I’m not a coward, no matter what OPS says. And I’m not a traitor…not to our ideals or our laws…not when I’m opposing an illegal and immoral order to continue this operation and abandon my home. I want to save my daughter and my planet and the ALS, even if that means saving it from its own worst choices. Chief, I’m willing to do whatever I must to accomplish that, even if I have to put my life and honor on the line, even if everyone else aboard this ship judges it to be a crime.”

Dufresne pushed herself closer to the bars, within arm’s reach, which was entirely against protocol. “Those worlds…I have a brother on Morgan’s Rock. He, his wife…my two nieces…the CMC never said anything about there not being any rescue attempt. And he never mentioned the patrols being pulled out of their space to the central worlds either.”

Ortiz crawled along the bars and put his face out of the near corner of his cell as far as he could. “Listen to the warrant, Chief. You know he’s a straight shooter. Hell, I hate the man, but I don’t doubt him.”

Benno glared at him. “You’re helping less than you think, Raoul.” He turned back to Chief Dufresne. “I’m not asking you to believe me without proof. You have clearance, Chief. Look for the deployment orders leading up to Executive Amber. I’ll bet you’ll find the orders pulling the outer territory patrols and sending them inward, right as both prongs of the fleet were leaving. Heck, they probably didn’t even think of hiding it. To the aristos, this probably seemed like the sensible thing to do. And then wait and see. See if they prove me wrong. Goddamn, I’d love for this fleet to prove me wrong, to break off a task force and send it to rescue those planets. But you won’t see that. They’ll dodge questions, insist plans are in the works…and then they’ll start referring to those worlds in the past tense, martyred before their ends are even confirmed.”

Dufresne reached out and grasped the vertical bars just below Benno’s hands. “What are you getting at, Warrant? What are you proposing?”

Benno leaned in, pushing his face between the bars like Ortiz. “You know where I’m headed. You know what’s necessary. The answer is abhorrent. You wouldn’t be a patriot if the very thought of what we have to do now didn’t sicken you. But it has to be done, just the same. By their own actions, our leaders have made themselves unworthy of our Alliance, our oath, and our loyalty. Someone needs to take action for our people if the brass won’t. I want to take this ship home and rescue my daughter. I want to go and rescue each and every daughter and son we’ve lost, to rescue the dream of what the Alliance is supposed to be on every single blessed world the Turds took from us.”

Dufresne paused, weighing Benno’s words, considering whether to ignore him and add more specifications to the charges already hanging over him, or to throw in her lot as a co-conspirator. Looking at her, Benno couldn’t tell which way she might go.

Finally, she spoke up. “You’re talking about mutiny.”

Benno favored her with his grimmest smile. “I’m talking about doing what’s right rather than what’s expedient. But yes…I’m talking about mutiny.”

She pushed away from the bars and backed away from her two prisoners. Benno’s heart shrank. If she talked to the CO, XO, or CMC about the call to insurrection he had just made, the captain wouldn’t bother with a court-martial or CO’s Mast. Palmer and Johnson would shove him right out an airlock, themselves.

Instead, she smiled grimly and said, “If you’re really gonna mutiny, you’re gonna need some help. And I know just the people to strong-arm first.”

* * * * *

Chapter Six: Mio

Mio struggled, but the man holding her was far stronger. When she tried to elbow him, he wrapped an arm around her, pinning her arms to her sides as he lifted her from the ground in a tight hug. Her feet free, she tried to kick him in the groin.

One kick scored, eliciting a grunt. The man set her down, although the arm around her never loosened.

“I’m trying—ugh—not to hurt you,” the man whispered in her ear, “but if you do that again, I will.” He didn’t sound angry…but he also didn’t sound like he was kidding, and she was at his mercy. Mio stilled.

“Did you see where they went?” a gruff male voice asked in a stage whisper.

“Yeah, boss, they went into the same bush this girl just came out of,” another male voice answered.

“I see. So, she was cavorting with the enemy, eh? We’ll take her back to camp. Maybe she knows something about them.” The gruff voice paused, then asked, “Where did the Turds go? Are they still in the bush?”

“I never saw them come out. They must still be in there.”

“Well, check it out.”

“You want me to go through the bush?”

The man didn’t sound very excited about it, Mio thought. He obviously knew what the firethorn bush was, so he was probably a local. In fact, their voices sounded normal, not strangely accented like the Terrans. They had to be locals; she was safe. She breathed a sigh of relief. It would all work out.

“You’re about her size,” the gruff voice said. “Go under it and see.”

Sliding and scratching noises followed the command, and then several minutes passed before the noises returned.

“Well?” the gruff voice asked.

“They’re gone. There’s some sort of doorway behind the bush that goes into the side of the hill and then some tunnels. They must have known we were following them and escaped through the tunnels.”

“Well, we’ll get them when they come back. Stay here and watch for them until nightfall. If you see them, come grab us at the camp.”

“Sure thing, Boss.”

“All right,” the gruff voice said, “bring her along, and let’s go.”

“Here’s how this is going to work,” the man holding Mio said. “I’m going to pick you up and carry you. It may not be fun, but I will do the best I can. If you struggle or fight me in any way, I’m going to make you walk. Blindfolded, you’ll trip and fall. A lot. You look like you’ve already seen some abuse; I’d recommend you just let me carry you. Got it?”

“Yes.” Mio was tired of walking, anyway; if the man wanted to carry her, that was fine with her.

Until the man threw her over his shoulder, and she was forced to hang upside down as the man jogged to wherever he was going. Every step dug his shoulder into her stomach, and the bag over her head made it hard for her to breathe. Already battered and bruised, her body protested throughout the 10-minute or so journey, and she spent most of the trip gagging and trying not to throw up, even though her stomach was empty.

Finally, the man stopped and put her down. She heard activity all around her and several voices, both male and female.

“Don’t get any ideas,” the man behind her warned. He put a massive hand on her shoulder to hold her in place.

“Take the bag off her,” a female voice ordered.

The man behind her pulled the sack off Mio’s head, and she found herself in the center of some sort of camp. Many tents were scattered about the area, and a couple of tractors were on the outskirts, their motors providing electricity for some of the gear. A giant camouflage net was strung from the trees above them.

Four men and two women stood arrayed in front of her. They all looked at Mio as if trying to determine what lower form of life she was. Mio realized with a shock that she didn’t have her shirt on and folded her arms across her bra to cover herself as best she could.

“It doesn’t look like they were very gentle with her,” one of the women said. Short and dark-haired, she had the muscles and tan of a farmer and looked somewhat familiar to Mio. “Maybe she’ll be willing to tell us what she knows about them.”

“Maybe,” the tall man in the center of the group replied. Mio recognized him as the gruff-voiced man. Unlike the others in the group, he looked soft and flabby. Mio pegged him immediately from his dress and mannerisms. Aristo. The clothes had seen better days, perhaps, but they were nicer and more formal than what any farmer would have worn. “That’s why I brought her back, anyway.”

The man turned back to Mio. “We know you were servicing the Terrans. We want to know what else you gave them. Information about us, perhaps? Maybe you’ve been spying on us?”

“What?” Mio asked. “Providing services?”

“Yes, we caught you red-handed.”

Mio’s brows knit. This wasn’t going the way she expected. If they were suggesting what she thought they were…

“Come, come,” the aristo said. “We know you were having sex with them. We saw them go into the bushes, and then you came out only partially dressed. They didn’t chase you, so they were obviously satisfied with what they got.”

“That’s gross!” Mio exclaimed. “You think I had sex with… with…the Turds?

“Think? No, young lady, we know you did. We caught you. Now, things will go a lot better for you if you tell us everything you know about them.”

“I didn’t have sex with them!”

“Okay, then perhaps you…well, never mind. I am less concerned about the details of what you did or didn’t do with them than I am with finding out as much as I can about the Terran soldiers.”

I didn’t do anything with them!” Mio yelled. “I fought them, and I killed them!”

You fought them?” the aristo asked with a sneer. “Really, you expect us to believe that? You’re just a little girl.”

“She is pretty messed up,” the man behind Mio said. He turned her around so the group could see her back, and Mio got her first look at her captor. A mountain of a man, the farmer was well over six feet tall and nearly twice as wide as Mio. His arms were easily bigger around than her legs and bulged with more muscles than Mio had ever seen. If his tractor stopped working, Mio suspected he could pull the plow by himself.

“For all we know, the Terrans like it rough,” the aristo said with a shrug. “For that matter, maybe she does too.” His eyes bored into Mio’s. “Tell us, girl, where did the soldiers go when they were through with you? Somewhere down the tunnels you had sex with them in?”

“I told you, I didn’t have sex with them! They killed the foster family I was staying with. Why would I want to do anything with them?”

“Who knows?” the aristo replied. “Maybe they paid well.”

“They didn’t pay me anything!” Mio said, stomping her foot. She instantly regretted it as pain coursed through her body. Why wouldn’t he listen? Because she was a girl?

“So, you did it for free?” the aristo asked.

“No! I got trapped in the tunnels while I was running away from—”

“A likely story,” the aristo said, cutting her off.

“Let her tell her story,” the second woman, a tall blond, said. “Rushing to judgment is one thing, but let’s hear her side before you totally condemn her.” The woman turned to Mio, and her eyes hardened. “Make no mistake, young lady; you’re in a lot of trouble. Still, I would like to hear your side. I’m warning you, though, if you lie to us, your punishment will be…severe.”

A chill swept through Mio, and she shivered. The way she said it, there could only be one punishment the woman had in mind.

“Yes, ma’am,” Mio replied. “I want to tell you my story, and I’ve been telling the truth all along.”

“Why don’t you start at the beginning?”

“Okay, it all started when the Terrans arrived…” Mio told the story, or as much as she could remember. She related the death of the Rogers, her journey north and its premature ending, her trip through the tunnels, and the battle with the soldiers. “And when I finally got out of the tunnels, your men grabbed me and brought me here.”

“And that’s the whole truth?” the woman asked.

“As much as I can remember. I don’t remember what happened after I fell into the tunnels, and some of the trip is kind of hazy.”

“She’s got a lot of dried blood in her hair,” the man behind Mio said. “She probably had a concussion. May still, for that matter.”

“I don’t believe it!” the aristo said. “You aren’t seriously considering believing her. None of her story can be confirmed. It’s pretty damned convenient the soldiers she fought somehow fell into a bottomless pit.”

“They didn’t fall,” Mio corrected. “I pushed them.”

“I can think of at least one detail that can be corroborated,” the tall woman said. “What was the name of the family you were staying with?”

“The Rogers,” Mio replied.

“Do we have anyone who knows the Rogers?”

“I’ve heard the name,” one of the other men said. “Former army guy, I think. Kind of reclusive, but that’s all I know.”

“I can confirm it,” a voice behind her announced.

Mio turned, and her knees went weak. It was Diego. He was far dirtier than she had ever seen him, but it only accentuated his tan and made him even more handsome.

“You know the family?” the tall woman asked.

“Yeah, I know the Rogers. Jimmy Rogers is my best friend. I know the girl, too. Her name is Mio.”

“What kind of person is she? Do you think she’s helping the Terrans?”

“As a person, she’s a pain in the butt.” Mio’s smile wilted. “She was always following us around and wouldn’t leave us alone. But helping the Terrans? I doubt it. Her father is in the Navy and out fighting them somewhere in space.”

“Is that true?” the tall woman asked.

“Yes,” Mio said. At least Diego vouched for her, even if he said mean things about her. Mio pulled out her memory cube. “I could show you, if you happen to have batteries for this.”

“I don’t think that will be necessary.” The tall woman nodded to the man behind Mio. “You can let her go. I don’t think she’s a threat to us.”

“Seriously?” the aristo asked. “You’re going to accept that crazy story on the word of a kid? Are you out of your mind?”

“It’s decided,” the woman said.

“Well, it’s your funerals. When they come and kill you, hopefully it will happen too fast for her to mention my name.”

“I don’t know your name,” Mio said.

“Good. Keep it that way.” The aristo turned and bowed to the group. “Good luck with her. I have to return to town before I’m missed. I will come back when I can.” He turned and stalked out of the encampment.

“Um, what are you going to do with me?” Mio asked.

“Nothing,” the tall woman said. “You are free to go after you promise not to tell anyone about what you’ve seen here today.”

“I would be happy to promise that,” Mio replied, “especially since I don’t know what it is I’ve seen. I would just ask for one favor.”

“I think I can find you a new shirt,” the short woman said. She turned and began walking toward one of the tents.

“That wasn’t what I was going to ask,” Mio said, “but it would certainly be appreciated.” She turned to the tall woman and added, “I was just going to ask for directions.”

“Where is it you want to go?”

“Can you tell me where I might go to find the resistance? I want to join up.”

“Why do you want to do that?” the tall woman asked, her eyes hard again.

“The Turds killed my foster family and are keeping me from seeing my father. I’ve got nowhere else to go.”

“In that case, the directions are easy. You’re here. We’re the resistance.”

It was Mio’s turn to look skeptical as she surveyed the camp. “This is the resistance?”

“Yes, it is,” the tall woman replied. “Were you expecting something else?”

“Yes. I expected soldiers, with guns, and military stuff. No disrespect meant, since I’m one too, but most of you look like farmers.”

“Most of us are farmers, or were, anyway, before the Terrans burned our farms,” the short woman said, returning with a shirt that she handed Mio. “Many of us have military training though, and we intend to fight back.”

“Well, then I want to join. What do I do?”

The group chuckled. “She’s a real go-getter,” one of the men said.

“Yes, she is,” the tall woman said. “We need to temper her attitude with some training.” She turned to Diego. “What was your name?”

“It’s Diego, Miss Welch.”

“Diego. You said you know this young lady?”

“Yes, ma’am. Her name is Mio.”

“Great. Since you vouched for her, she’s going to be your charge. Make sure you show her the ropes and help her get trained.”


“Is there a problem with what I asked you to do?”

“Uh, no ma’am. C’mon, Mio; I’ll show you around.”

* * *

Mio followed Diego as he walked toward one of the tractors, marveling at her good luck. Well, it wasn’t all good. The Rogers getting killed was bad, as well as the whole Turd arrival, and her time in the tunnels hadn’t been very good, but now here she was with Diego in charge of training her. Things had turned out pretty well. It would be better if her father were here, but it was okay for now. Diego looked cute from behind.

“I heard your story,” Diego said, interrupting her train of thought. “I suspect you’re probably pretty hungry and thirsty, so we’ll get you fed first.”

With everything that had gone on since her capture by the resistance, Mio hadn’t had time to think about food and drink, but the mention of it brought it back to the fore. While she didn’t really want to eat in front of Diego, she needed food right now!

Diego led her to a pallet of thin boxes. He looked at the pile, pulled out one of the boxes, and handed it to her. He took a bottle of water for himself from a second pallet and sat on a nearby log. When Mio sat next to him, he slid away from her, looking annoyed. Some things never changed.

“What is this?” Mio asked, indicating the package.

“It’s one of the military’s pre-packaged meals. It’s called a Meal, Commercially and Reliably Auto-Processed. The folks that have served in the military hate ‘em. They have a saying; I’m hungry enough to eat CRAP.’”

“Well, I certainly am. I haven’t eaten in days.”

“You’ll want to be careful to eat it slowly and drink lots of water, then. It will expand in your stomach and make you puke if you eat too much, too fast.”

Diego didn’t know what he was talking about, Mio thought as she took a bite; it was the best food she’d ever eaten, and it was all she could do to force herself to eat slowly. Dehydrated to almost nothing, it didn’t seem like much until it interacted with the water she was drinking in her stomach and expanded to many times its size. In minutes, she felt overfull and was in danger of throwing up.

“How long have you been here?” Mio asked, trying not to think about the discomfort in her stomach.

“Since right after occupation. Five days.”

“What’s happened since then? I’ve kind of been in the dark.” She smiled at her pun.

Diego didn’t smile; he frowned instead. “Look, do we have to talk about it?”

“Oh, sorry. I’m sure you’ve lost friends and family.”

We’ve all lost friends and family!” Diego shouted, jumping to his feet. “How can you not understand that?”

Mio felt a flush creeping up her cheeks as everyone within earshot turned and looked at them. Even worse, she had somehow made Diego mad at her. “I do understand,” she said in a low voice, not understanding why Diego was being so hostile. She tried to defuse the sudden tension. “I lost the Rogers. Even though they weren’t my real family, I’ve lived with them most of my life.”

“I know that! Jimmy was my best friend!”

So that was it. “Are you mad at me because I remind you of him?”

“No, I’m mad at you because I was just starting to be accepted as one of the resistance, and I was looking forward to getting to pay back the Turds for killing my family and friends. Now, I have to babysit a helpless little girl.”

“I’m not helpless!” Mio exclaimed, jumping to her feet. “I survived for a bunch of days on my own and killed two of the Terrans all by myself!”

“So, you say. And even if you did, it was only because you got lucky.”

Lucky? You call falling into a cave and nearly killing myself lucky? You call wandering around in the dark by myself for five days lucky? Maybe I did get lucky in having a big hole to push the Terrans into, but I was the one who did it. Me! I was brave enough to attack them rather than just run from them. Who else can say that? What have you done that even comes close?”

Mio put her hands on her hips, daring Diego to contradict her.

Diego looked around, and Mio realized everyone was staring at them again.

“Whatever,” Diego said under his breath, as he turned to walk away. “Good luck training yourself, but then again, you’re so tough you probably don’t need it.”

He stalked off without another word.

“Fine!” Mio yelled at his back. “Like I need you to tell me what to do, anyway. How many Terrans did you say you’ve killed?”

Mio watched him leave, too angry to care that she had driven him away, and she glared at everyone who continued to stare at her until they turned away.

“Give him time,” the large man who had carried her to the camp said as he came up behind her. He took two of the meal packets and a water, and he sat down in Diego’s place on the log. “Everyone deals with loss and stress differently.”

“I don’t know,” Mio replied, the anger draining from her. She sighed. “He seemed pretty mad.” Why had she said that to Diego, she wondered, cursing her temper. Everything would have been okay if he hadn’t called her a helpless little girl. She wasn’t! Why didn’t anyone understand that?

“Mmpf,” the man mumbled around a mouthful of food. He had eaten the first meal even faster than she had and was already opening his second box.

“Is it good to eat it that fast?” Mio asked.

“I was in the ALS Marines for a few years,” the man replied. “They’re better if you don’t keep them in your mouth long enough to taste them.” He chuckled and held out a hand. “Name’s Dan by the way.”

“Hi Dan,” she said, shaking his hand. Although Dan’s enormous hand swallowed Mio’s, his grip was firm but not bone-shattering. “I’m Mio.”

“Interesting name,” he said, his voice friendly as he dove into the second meal. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone named that before.”

“My mother was Japanese. She ran away with my father because her parents wouldn’t let him marry her.”

“Where is she now?”

“Dead. She got the colony plague when I was younger.”

“Sorry,” Dan said as he popped the last bite of the second meal into his mouth.

“Me too,” Mio said. She sighed. “I miss her all the time… especially now.” She turned away, so Dan wouldn’t see the tears in her eyes.

“Oh, I nearly forgot,” he said, standing up. He reached into a pocket and pulled out two batteries. “These are for your memory cube.” He handed them to Mio.

“Thank you!” Mio cried. “How did you know what I needed?”

“I had one myself…some time ago.” He started to leave but turned back around. “I’d use it sparingly; batteries are in short supply.”

He turned to go, and Mio’s eyebrows knitted. That wasn’t a tear in his eye, was it? A big man like him cried?

“Just a second,” Mio said, not wanting to be left alone. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure,” he said, turning around. “What’s up?”

“Can you tell me what’s happened while I was walking around in the cave?”

“Sure. The Terrans invaded five days ago. When they did, they burned almost all of the nearby farms.”

“Why would they do that? Don’t they want to eat? The farms produce most of First Landing’s food.”

“I reckon they want everyone in the city where they can watch and control them. If they allow people to live in the countryside, they might start some sort of resistance movement.” Dan turned and winked at her.

“Did it work?”

“Sort of. Most people moved into town, although some of us,” he indicated the people in the camp, “stayed to fight.”

“Are we winning?”

“Not yet,” he replied with a crooked smile. “But there’s always hope.”

“Why aren’t we winning?”

“The problem is the destroyer in orbit. That’s what fired the bombardment rounds that wiped out the military bases. They’d kill us too, if they ever found us. Until we get help from off planet, all we can really do is be a nuisance. If we do anything more than that, we risk having them drop things on our heads.”

“When are we going to get help?”

The crooked smile returned. “We probably won’t. Not for some time, anyway. First, I doubt anyone knows the Terrans are here. Somehow, they got behind our lines; no one probably knows we need help. Also, in addition to the destroyer in orbit, the Terrans landed a missile system in First Landing. Even if a ship somehow came to our aid and defeated the destroyer, it would be destroyed by the missile system when it tried to land, and there isn’t much we can do to stop it.”

“So why doesn’t everyone give up and move into town if the Turds can’t be beat? Wouldn’t it be better to live in town than in a tent? More comfortable and less of a chance of dying?”

“Probably,” the man allowed.

“So why do you stay here?”

Dan shrugged. “My wife always said I was hard-headed. This is my planet, not theirs, and I’m a former marine. How could I not fight?”

* * * * *

Chapter Seven: Benno

“You’ve had three days, LCDR Forrestal, yet my combat systems still rely on the system that plebeian traitor jury-rigged with no adherence to standards whatsoever. My reports to our immediate superior-in-command continue to show our offensive and defensive capabilities as marginal at best, alongside an estimated time to repair that seems to stretch further and further into the future with every passing hour. You are aware you’re aboard a warship performing combat operations, are you not?” asked Captain Palmer.

The XO, Command Master Chief, and each of the department heads surrounded the long wardroom table, but only the captain sat, strapped into place in his usual spot at the head of the table. The others “stood” behind their seats, oriented as they would be in thrust gravity, but floating stationary, their feet anchored by stiction pads to the deck. They all had looks of discomfort and shame on their faces, while the CO looked both superior and profoundly disappointed.

WEPS cleared his throat and answered. “Captain, all my materials are in place, ready for installation, but we can’t proceed until the Damage Control crews finish the girder replacements.”

His answer perversely seemed to delight LCDR Johnson, the Puller’s OPS officer and the CO’s lickspittle lackey and valued right hand. “Nice stab in the back there, Peter!” OPS turned and looked at the Chief Engineer. “And what do you have to say to that, CHENG?”

While the CHENG, LCDR Aaron Garvey, fumed and turned red, the XO interrupted. She glared at Johnson. “OPS, I’ll thank you kindly to stay in your own lane and stop making trouble. Or, perhaps next, you could share the reasons for your lack of progress setting up an interim cryptologic processing space, or explain why I’m missing so many of your operations specialists and boatswains from our all-hands repair parties?”

OPS opened his mouth to say something but thought better of it. Instead, he looked over at the CO, saw his patron’s annoyed expression, and closed his trap with an audible click of his teeth. He looked down at his feet, chagrined.

All eyes turned to LCDR Garvey. The CHENG shrugged. “We’re working as fast as materials come in, but it takes time to repair a hull gash that big. Remember, my folks are patching up a cut from a goddamned anti-capital ship xaser-head. A couple of degrees over and that son of a bitch woulda’ cored us like an apple, and we wouldn’t be able to bitch about how long it’s taking. I gotta say, though, we’re doing better than I originally figured. Sanchez may have gone nuts over his home world’s situation, but he was right on target with that advice about farming large-scale work to the tender’s fab-pods. If my Maintenance Officer had to work with just our own makers, forges, and on-hand materials, we wouldn’t even be half as far along. As it is, yes, we’re behind what I originally told you, Captain, but we’re in sight of being a full-up round, and a damn sight sooner than other units in the same situation. I won’t be able to hit the 72 hours in free-fall mark, but the hull will be buttoned up and ready for full combat maneuvers in another six hours, okay? Then we can separate the hull sections, bring up some spin, and at least get some weight on our feet again. That should make each of your repair lists go quicker, right? That work for everybody?”

There were nods all around, even from the CO. Reports continued around the table from the supply officer and OPS, while the CMC and the XO finished up with how the crew was doing. When Command Master Chief Kapoor mentioned Ortiz’s and Sanchez’s upcoming Mast cases, however, Palmer held up a hand, pausing her.

“Thank you all,” the captain said, “that will be it. Department heads are dismissed. XO, you and Master Chief remain behind, please. Keep me updated on your status. And CHENG, advise me immediately when we’re ready to spin the ship.”

WEPS looked as if he wanted to stay, knowing they would be talking about his people, but a sharp look from the CO sent him packing. Palmer waited for the four officers to depart, leaving just his command triad in the wardroom. He motioned for them to sit in the seats to either side of him. They each pulled their feet up from the deck, slid the chairs out, and pulled their bodies into them. The XO and CMC strapped in and turned back toward Palmer.

The CO spoke in a low voice, even though they were alone in the wardroom. “I have concerns about Ortiz and Sanchez. About the crew as well. XO, have you finished your legal review? Can I indeed execute them after Mast?”

CDR Ashton looked uncomfortable, but she answered. “It is…seldom used, but during combat ops, you have expanded powers at CO’s Non-Judicial Punishment. The last time anyone did this, though, was 25 years ago, aboard a ship operating independently. We’re part of a fleet, and the argument could be made that charges of treason should at least go up to the admiral or the task force commander on the carrier. I really would like to consult with the strike group’s Judge Advocate General on this.”

“No!” Palmer yelled. “This is an internal matter until it either becomes too big for us to resolve, or it’s finished. There’s no need to give task force command any reason to doubt my command climate or the discipline on this ship. If I’m allowed to execute these traitors at Mast, then I want to do it. Only when that task is complete shall I report it to the commodore and the admiral. This legal kerfuffle would have been far easier if you’d just allowed me to space the pair of them out an airlock.”

The CMC glowered. “Sir, as I said before, spacing is considered a war-crime. The crew would react…negatively to that, especially with one of their own, and an officer who was one of their own. There’s already a great deal of grumbling regarding the circumstances of Warrant Officer Sanchez’s arrest, as well as the status of the Lost Six Worlds. If you insist on handling this in-house, I advise you to treat it in the accepted manner.”

Palmer sneered at her. “Yes, because hanging from a rope until you die and then getting dumped out an airlock is soooo much more humane than going out an airlock still alive. Fine then. Within an hour of this ship spinning up for gravity, I want them here for Mast, and the crew assembled in the hangar to witness both of those traitorous plebs dying for their betrayal.”

Both the XO and the CMC’s eyes widened in alarm. They spoke over one another, “An hour?” “A public execution?”

Palmer held up a hand to forestall their arguments. “Yes, within an hour of spin, and yes, a public hanging. This problem has already festered too long, and the crew needs to understand the consequences of treason. The will of the Alliance is paramount, and aboard my ship, that will is my will.”

They both appeared taken aback by that, but they did not argue. Instead, CDR Ashton cleared her throat and countered Palmer calmly. “Sir, there are a couple of issues to consider. First, while Ortiz’s case is open-and-shut attempted desertion, Chief Warrant Officer Sanchez’s case is a bit more…subjective. He was flat-out insubordinate, but he was also dealing with the loss of his world and the loss of his daughter. Calling that cowardice and treason is debatable. Executing him for it after NJP is even more debatable. Executing him for it publicly after NJP is very likely going too far. The crew is already grumbling. There’s rampant scuttlebutt and rumor about what went down outside your office. And it appears they have pieced together the fact that you haven’t informed higher authority of your intentions yet.”

“How would they know that? Are my communiques to the commodore unsecured?”

The XO held up her hands. “No, sir! But word has gotten out that Warrant Sanchez requested an audience with the admiral for a review of charges and redress of grievance, with no action being taken. Those issues, coupled with some of the rumors about how the Alliance is handling the Lost Six, have led to a perception of…a cover-up and an aristo double-standard on the Puller.”

CDR Palmer turned red with rage. “There is no double-standard! These men broke the law during a time of war, thinking of themselves rather than the Alliance! They have distracted this ship during its moment of greatest need and adversity. I am under no obligation to allow Sanchez’s crimes to percolate up to higher authority during this critical time, and I am under no obligation to allow wild crew ‘perceptions’ to define my reality. I will dispose of this matter in the manner I see fit, and only then shall I inform my superiors. The admiralty will know that when tough decisions need to be made, I can and will make them. And, if the crew disagrees with how I exercise my authority, please let them know it does not matter to me whether I eventually report two justified executions to the admiralty or twenty. Do I make myself clear, XO?”

CDR Ashton nodded.


Master Chief Kapoor nodded.

“Fine then.” Palmer took a breath and looked at them pensively. Nodding to himself, he released his straps and swam up out of his seat in one smooth, practiced motion. He stood behind his chair and looked down upon his senior-most advisors.

“I have no desire to disregard your council, so I won’t force the crew to witness the executions. And I’ll wait for a day after we attain spin so things can settle onboard, but we shall conduct Mast. And I shall find them in violation of capital crimes during a time of war. And I damn well will hang the pair of them and toss their dishonorable bodies into the void. And whoever gets in the way of that process will soon enough see the same process applied to them.”

* * *

ACV Puller (DA 207) slowly returned to normal, basking in the hot, blue-ish light of an alien sun. Though dwarfed by the capital ships closer to the system center, she was much larger than the frigates and cutters transiting to and fro, ferrying personnel and materiel as the fleet put itself back together, preparing for the next incursion into Terran Union space. But though they differed in size, they were all similar in shape and construction. Their purpose defined their form.

The Puller, as a warship, would have been recognizable to navy sailors of any era: sail, steam, gas turbine, rocket, or DMC drive. Long, narrow, sleek, and bristling with antennas and weapons, her form presented the smallest possible cross-section as she thrust into battle, while still bringing her biggest guns to bear. When under thrust, with her many decks laid out perpendicular to the thrust axis, the Puller became a tall tower rocketing ever upward into the heavens.

Her forward half was surmounted by an irregular hexagonal prism, topped by a lightly sloping faceted cap bringing the bow to a single sharp line, like the business edge of a splitting maul. This, her forward battle hull, was dotted by weapons emplacements, groups of missile hatches, and sensor blisters. A large hangar for a single-stage-to-orbit dropship or shuttle claimed one long, hexagonal facet and somewhat ruined the regularity of her lines, but it also added an air of lethality the armored caps covering the weapons could not match (though those caps held weapons capable of destroying entire asteroids if needed).

Further aft, below the battle hull were thruster pylons; armored tanks for her metallic deuterium reactor fuel; long, golden, glowing radiator panels and armored reserve radiators; more fuel tanks and thrust pylons; and then the reactor/engineering hull. This was also a hexagonal prism, but squatter than the elongated battle hull, and it ended in the four wide, still-hot bells of the dark matter conversion drives.

Up forward, a long, deep scar had cut through the battle hull nearly to the centerline, but that wound was mostly gone now. Its presence was still apparent, given away by the fresh metallic glint of the new pressure hull skin, but as form and function went, the Puller seemed ready to return to operations.

As if to prove she lived once more, the Alliance destroyer began to blossom like a flower. Broad sections on the battle hull split off from the prism-form and angled outward, pivoting on a forward hinge. Once fully extended, the hull sections locked into place, exposing six rectangular petals, and the Puller began to spin about her central axis. As speed built up, the opened hull sections came free of the forward battle hull and started to stretch out, like a child plucking petals from a flower in some cosmic game of “He loves me, He loves me not.” The hull sections, hung from taut cables buried within the destroyer, slowly paid out until they were like six charms upon a webbed bracelet and spun out in a ring to encircle the long lines of the ship. Swung out, extended, and joined together by a ring of scaffolds and pressurized transit tubes, the crew in these sections could experience an average of a half g’s worth of centrifugal gravity, just enough to stave off the deleterious effects of extended time in zero-g. That alone was worth the pain of reconfiguring the ship every single time they stopped thrusting.

Microgravity was very relaxing in the short term, after one recovered from the initial bout of nausea. No one slept more comfortably than they did in freefall, but men and women had not evolved for weightlessness. The harmful effects upon the body—redistribution of fluids, difficulty focusing, weakening of the immune system, loss of muscle mass, and the leaching of calcium from the bones—all commenced immediately and grew progressively worse with time. Even with daily effort on extra exercise and cellular nanomachinery working to limit the damage, it still took a toll.

Not to mention how difficult freefall made work. Anyone could move any mass with ease, but people forgot that gravity helps as much as it hinders. Freefall might allow one to set a large mass in motion with a small push, but it was much harder to establish the leverage necessary for that push, and at the end of the movement, gravity would not bring the mass to a halt via friction. The same effort expended to put a mass in motion had to be expended to stop it, lest it crash into a bulkhead or crush an unsuspecting shipmate. After three-plus days of weightlessness, they all very much needed the respite spin gravity would give them.

The officers and the crew of the Puller would have no relaxation this night, however.

* * *

The digital clock on the bridge ticked over to 0300 ship-time, just as the XO closed her eyes and fell into a forbidden doze in her seat. Amanda Ashton had been awake and on the move for nearly 36 hours. Getting the ship sealed and aired, bringing the systems online, and configuring for spin were ultimately too much. The bridge was one of the spaces that remained centerline rather than sliding into the ring configuration, but the spin nonetheless pulled her into the cushions of her seat, even if no one could call it “gravity.” The pull was just enough to settle her in one place with no effort exerted on her part. Thus, her fatigue finally caught up with her.

The other watch standers on the bridge had witnessed the work she put in, so they said nothing. The XO was far too often on the receiving end of the CO’s wrath, and too many times she had taken the heat for their errors. Therefore, they felt she more than deserved a quick cat nap, counter to proper standards or not.

Her rest was short-lived.

LCDR Craig Johnson entered the bridge and shut the hatch behind him. His eyes darted to take in each of the watch standers, his expression agitated, but he said nothing. OPS saw the XO in her seat, and he went to her, using the long, loping jump one had to in the not-quite microgravity of a spinning, centerline compartment. With a slight wince at the impropriety of it, Johnson tapped her on the shoulder.

Ashton’s eyes snapped open and focused on him instantly, as if she had just been resting them instead of snoozing. “What, Craig?”

OPS hesitated. “I’m sorry to bother you so late, but, uh, I didn’t want to take this to the CO until I was sure.”

“It’s so late, it’s early, and I should have gone to my stateroom. Skip the apologies and the preface. What is it?”

“Something is going on with Sanchez and the crew.”

The XO shook her head. “Ugh. Get on with it already.”

Johnson gave her an exasperated look. “They’re planning something, maybe something to interfere with the Mast or his punishment.”

“Okay. What exactly? What gives you the impression something’s up?”

“I saw them plotting!” OPS whispered in a harsh tone. “I hadn’t heard from Chief Dufresne all day, so I went down to the brig to look for her. When I went in, though, there were a bunch of enlisted down there, talking with Sanchez and Ortiz. There were nine or ten people, and not just Weapons Department folks they worked with regularly. Every department had someone down there, engineers, boatswains, comms techs, gunners! Why would they all be meeting in the brig like that?”

Ashton shrugged and rubbed a hand over her face. “I have no idea, but it’s a big leap from meeting to armed rebellion. Did this just happen?”

“It was earlier this evening, before Taps. I know a single meeting isn’t enough to get upset about. I’m not paranoid. But after I saw that, I went and reviewed the visitation logs. This wasn’t the only meeting! People have been in and out of the brig all day. Ortiz is an asshole to everyone he meets. How many visitors could he possibly expect? And Sanchez may be marginally more well-liked and respected, but he was never a driving force in the Chief’s Mess or the wardroom. No big crowd is going to rally around him unless there’s something else going on!”

The XO frowned, considering his charges. It was hard to separate Johnson’s prejudices and his tendency to kiss the CO’s ass from his competency as an officer. How much of this was his and the captain’s disdain for a pleb infiltrating their privileged officer ranks, and how much was genuinely of concern? She knew Johnson and Captain Palmer would see eye to eye, their suspicions validated by their biases. But did that make him wrong? “Have you spoken to anyone else? Has anyone else had similar concerns?”

“No! Not that I know. I figured I’d go to the CO directly, but…”

“You didn’t want to look like an alarmist aristo asshole, so you decided to use me as a sounding board. Fine. It’s of concern, but I’m not quite prepared to go to General Quarters over it. Normally I’d tell you to have Chief Dufresne look into it, but since she seems to be a part of the issue, that’s out. Gimme a minute.”

Ashton pulled her chair’s touchscreen in front of her. She looked around to see if anyone else was watching, then used her access to bring up the Puller’s internal security feed. The computer lagged, still at the mercy of a compromised data trunk, but it did finally scroll through dozens of video windows. The scenes were ones of relative tranquility, though—exactly what one would expect from an overworked ship’s crew at 0300 when gravity finally returned. The only ones on the move were a couple of roving watch standers taking readings on operational equipment, using their feet and their five senses to augment the hundreds of electronic sensors monitoring the ship.

“I don’t see anything here, OPS. These meetings may well be a bad sign for things to come—politicking and the trading of conspiracy theories among the lower ranks are never good things to leave unchecked—but I’m not prepared to wake everyone and lock the ship down for an investigation. Until there’s something more concrete, I say we leave things be. We can take it to the CO in the morning, then talk directly with the CMC and Chief Dufresne. See what they have to say for themselves. Chances are, this is just the crew rallying around a couple of ne’er-do-wells and rebels, bitching about aristos and the Turds. These people have lives and careers invested in the ALS Navy. They’re not going to throw all of that away on the words of two jailed hot-heads who won’t be around much longer, justified or not.”

Her last comment caused Johnson to raise an eyebrow, but he appeared to agree, mostly. He nodded.

The security displays cut out on her screen, replaced by a terse “Loss of Signal” in each window. Almost simultaneously, low-level alarms sounded from every console on the Bridge. The watch standers at those stations raised their hands and looked around at one another, then at the XO.

Ashton stood, arresting her inadvertent flight across the bridge with a grip on her screen. “Report!” she demanded from the Officer of the Deck.

The young ensign standing OOD shrugged as she tried to ascertain what was going on. She checked with her watch standers and turned to the XO. “Umm, ma’am? We appear to have lost the whole network. We have no space monitoring, system statuses, controls, or comms. The adjunct CSMC in the Combat Information Center did say they would begin work on full restoration of the network this shift, but we weren’t supposed to lose anything. Shall I—”

“Don’t ask me, Ensign Csubak!” Ashton upbraided automatically. “It’s your watch. Take charge and tell me what you’re going to do. If I don’t agree, believe me, I’ll set you straight.”

“Yes, ma’am! XO, comms are down, so I’ll send a runner down to CIC/CSMC. We’ll find out what’s wrong and what the ETR is for the network.”

Ashton nodded. “Very well.” She gave OPS a meaningful look. “But send a second runner to wake up the CO and have him escorted to the bridge immediately. And seal the door. No one comes or goes without my specific authorization!”

“Aye aye, ma’am!” The OOD looked at the XO oddly, but she acted immediately. She ordered the astrogation watch and the bosun’s mate of the watch to carry out both tasks, then she disabled the hatch keypad and manually shut it behind them.

OPS and the XO waited awkwardly among the blank screens and idle watch standers, both wondering what would happen next. The XO could not imagine anything as dire as OPS’ suspicions actually coming to pass, but she could not disregard her sense of unease. A mutiny was unthinkable. At best, some of the crew might register a grievance with higher authority, perhaps attempt to have the CO removed, or write their representatives about the injustice of the fleet response to the Lost Six. More likely, they would carry on as she had—accepting the situation and the reality of life in the ALS fleet—as unfair as that might seem to those directly affected by the unchallenged takeovers of their most vulnerable systems.

She empathized with Sanchez. Were it up to her, she would have sent back a task force to free those worlds and prevent any further incursions, or better yet, maintained the system patrols and gone with a single thrust to their operation, via the two prongs of Executive Amber. But it was not up to her, and though she might not feel the loss of those worlds as sharply as he had, she felt it nonetheless. Still, it was not enough to justify what the warrant had done, nor would it remotely be enough to justify what OPS suspected.

A knock sounded at the hatch. All eyes turned to it as the OOD verified who was on the other side and undogged it. CDR Palmer entered, along with the nav watch. The OOD secured the door behind them.

The CO loped up to Ashton and Johnson. “Report, XO.”

“We’ve suffered the loss of the ship-wide network, or at least connectivity on the bridge. A runner’s been sent to CIC to investigate, but we wanted to inform you.”

Palmer frowned. “That’s it?”

OPS could barely contain himself. “No, sir, that’s not it!”

Ashton held up a hand, staying Johnson. “Captain, LCDR Johnson is concerned this may be tied to a potential mutiny masterminded by Chief Warrant Officer Sanchez. His information is very tenuous, very circumstantial, and—frankly, sir—somewhat paranoid, but Sanchez has had some suspicious meetings with various members of the crew down in the brig. I was going to investi—”

Ashton stopped speaking as she saw Palmer reach into his uniform pocket and pull out a small, black pistol. Using their backs to hide his actions from the rest of the bridge crew, he pulled back the slide and chambered a round. The XO’s train of thought derailed at the sight of the weapon. She looked up at him. “Where the hell did you get a pistol, sir?”

“I’ve kept one in my safe for years, my one little violation of regs. I’m no fool, XO. While we may all see the ALS as a meritocracy, one that quite rightly elevates those whose families have invested the most in its forms and structures, I know most plebs think the system is unfair. Our culture has been far too permissive of their pettiness and their lack of gratitude for freeing them from the Terrans. Such indulgence merely emboldens them. It was only a matter of time before one of them decided revolution was the way to go. And I’ve always known that fate would put me into a place to do something about it when it happened.”

He looked at OPS and nodded in appreciation. “Think of it. Under cover of night, with the ship damaged and comms unreliable, the crew fatigued from trying to save it and worried about their homes and the whole Alliance? And now with the main hull split up into six sections for spin gravity, making it easier for a small force of radicals to hold the chokepoints and prevent the loyal members of the crew from rallying? Sanchez may be an uneducated pleb, but he knew this would be the right time to strike. I knew something like this was eventually coming, Johnson. I felt it. And now it’s up to us to save this ship.”

Ashton felt her small measure of control over the situation slipping away. “Captain, we still have nothing more to go on than some suspicious meetings and a network under repair. Are you certain you want to react overtly to something that may not even be happening?”

He frowned at her indecision, disappointed. Before he could respond to her, however, the comms panel briefly lit up, and the speakers crackled to life. They could hear muffled shouting in the background, as well as the crack of gunfire. The panicked voice of LCDR Forrestal, cried out, “Bridge, CIC, Security Alert! The crew is—”

The circuit cut out as the network went dead again. Palmer glared at the XO, and her gaze fell, unable to meet his eyes. The CO turned, and several crew members jumped when they saw his gun. He looked at each of them in turn, as if daring them to step out of line.

With the bridge crew cowed, Palmer turned to the OOD, Ensign Grace Csubak. “Officer of the Deck, the ship is under attack by traitors to the Alliance from our own crew. Sound General Quarters! Not all the crew can be involved. Let’s wake the faithful and get them on station to face down these cowards!”

She hesitated. “But Captain, the network—”

“Is of no concern for this!” he interrupted. “The general alarms are hard-wired. Sound General Quarters!”

The OOD leaped to obey. The strident electronic bong of the General Quarters alarm sounded on the bridge speakers and all over the Puller. But without the comms networks, they could not make a follow-up announcement to tell anyone why they were going to GQ. That was enough to set off a Security Alert, requiring the Masters at Arms and the Defense Reaction Force members to arm themselves at the armory and ready service lockers around the ship. Were this an external incursion or a boarding, the teams would then go space by space, corridor by corridor, deck by deck, sweeping for hostiles until the ship was certified safe and under control. Crew members they came across would either hug the deck in submission or risk getting shot. No centralized command was necessary. When all was verified secure, the Chief Master at Arms would fetch the CO or XO, who would then be escorted to each team-member to order them to stand down in person.

Given the CMAA might well be involved, not to mention an unknown number of her armed enforcers, it was likely to come down to close quarters battle, space to space, crew person to crew person, with no way to tell who was on each side until someone shot at you. They would be forced to stay on the bridge, cut off from any information about what was happening below until someone showed up at the door and demanded entry.

Palmer glared at the enlisted watch standers sitting at their consoles, then turned to his two known-loyal senior officers. “We have no idea which side will show up on the other side of the hatch, but I’ll be damned if I’ll allow possible traitors to remain unchallenged on this side of our only defense. We need to ascertain the loyalty of these plebs while we have the chance.”

The XO looked at him, then at each of the enlisted crew on the bridge. “Sir, one, we have no way of knowing for certain. And two, you are currently in control of the situation in here. We should avoid publicizing this further if we don’t have to.”

OPS stared. “But don’t we have to? I don’t have access to any of those visitation logs, so I can’t be sure if any of these…people were down there today. And we can’t know how they spread the word after that. The entire crew could be disloyal!”

“And it’s possible only a handful are!” Ashton countered. “The only reason you’re suspicious of them and not the OOD or me is that they’re plebs! Don’t fall into that trap! This situation weighs on every one of us; the choices the Alliance made and keep making cause us all to question events. Give these people the respect they earned by taking the oath, born to a high station or not. Until they demonstrate disloyalty, don’t assume it!”

Palmer raised his pistol toward the crew, to one side of Ashton, but the sweep of his aim looked as if it might very well include her, too. “You’ve grown up in a very sheltered, benign reality, Amanda. I know you think your heart is in the right place, but a mutiny is not the time for platitudes of patriotism. Now, either help me…or make me question whether this corrosive disloyalty extends into my own wardroom.”

She said nothing. Instead, her gaze fell toward the deck.

The captain gestured with his pistol at the watch standers. “All of you, up out of your seats and move over here, away from the door.”

They did as he asked, some immediately, others with more uncertainty. The helmsman, Ops Specialist Third Class Malik Kassem, the young technician who carried out the navigation orders and actually maneuvered the Puller, hesitated and stuck to his watch station. When it was apparent he would not move, the CO’s aim firmed upon him.

Ashton saw the helmsman’s face frozen, terrified with indecision. She warned in a low tone. “Petty Officer Kassem…Malik…it’s okay. Leave your post. Do as the CO directs. We can’t maneuver the ship right now, anyway. Step away.”

Kassem began to step away, but he stopped again, panicked and uncertain. Palmer’s eyes grew hard, but it was OPS who took action. “Move, you ignorant dog!” Johnson crossed the space in a single loping step and shoved the helmsman over to the others. They caught him and held onto the sobbing man. Palmer tracked him the whole way and only then let his aim slip down to point at their feet.

He addressed them with contempt. “From a loyal crew, I expect immediate compliance! I don’t care about the station to which you were born. I don’t care if you blame the Alliance or the Terrans for the Lost Six. But I do care, and I do demand, that you follow my orders and my orders alone! You must stand with me and defend this ship and our Alliance Navy with your lives, if necessary. It’s the price I swore to pay, and I expect no less from each of you!”

He pointed the pistol at the enlisted crew again. “So, what is it to be? Your oath and your Alliance? Or do you stand with the coward Sanchez?”

Behind him, Amanda Ashton’s eyes narrowed. Without real thought or volition, she began moving slowly toward the CO.

The destroyer’s announcing circuit came to life then, and a man’s voice filled the bridge. “Attention ACV Puller, this is Warrant Benno Sanchez. To those fighting in my name, I ask that you pause. For those of you fighting against us, whether you know why or not, please listen for a moment. We will make no move upon you while I speak. And for those uncertain, those who are standing by at their GQ station with no idea about what is going on, please listen to me.”

Palmer lowered his pistol, his expression shifting between interest and rage. He kept his eyes on the crew. Ashton stopped moving toward him and caught OPS looking at her, his expression one of disgust.

Benno continued. “Puller crew, I am a traitor and a mutineer. I escaped from the brig and moved to take this ship for my own purposes. I deserve the execution that inevitably awaits me when this is over. But I want you to know why. I want you to ask yourself, ‘What would I have done?’ ‘What should I do next?’ I can’t answer for you, but before you take up arms again, either for the Alliance or for me, I ask that you listen, and decide for yourself if you’re sure they’re not both the same thing.

“We all know about the Lost Six, our homestead worlds seized by the Terran Union while we engaged in this major offensive into Turd territory. My family is on one of those worlds. Many of you know this. Many of you have been affected in the same way. But what you may not know is why I was thrown into the brig and likely sentenced to death. I discovered our six worlds were knowingly given up by the Alliance military. The Navy abandoned them on purpose and pulled back their patrols to defend high-value aristo real estate. And rather than detail a task force to free them now, the decision was made to cede them to the Terrans until some point when we accomplish whatever the hell our raids are supposed to accomplish here.”

At that, several of the crew bristled. They looked at the three senior officers in front of them, searching their faces for some sign of denial or confirmation. What they saw appeared to fill each of them with varying degrees of dismay, anger, or pity, depending on the person. Even the young Officer of the Deck looked sick.

The CO let his gun hand drop to his side.

Puller crew: officer, chief, or enlisted tech, I’m not asking that anyone follow me into treason or mutiny. But if you feel as I do, that the ALS’s actions betray our oath and the principles of our Alliance, I ask that you allow me and the others affected, those who demand action, to take this ship. My intention is to take the Puller, maintain a front of loyalty until repairs and reload are complete, then depart the fleet and make our way to the Lost Six. There, we will work to free our worlds from Terran aggression and see to our families’ welfare. After that, assuming we survive, I will surrender myself to the Alliance Navy and alone accept responsibility for these acts. If you go back to the Navy, I will swear you were a loyalist, forced to act against your will. And if you want to go home, I will have records made, certifying your deaths in combat.”

Palmer snarled at the crew on the bridge. “Don’t you fucking believe it! If you join him, you will surely hang! There is no court-martial that will ever believe his word or those records. If you become a traitor, you shall be known Alliance-wide for your cowardice.”

“We have taken Engineering, Comms Central, the hangar, the armory, CSMC, and CIC. The network is ours. The Puller is ours. I ask that you search your hearts and decide if the Alliance, in its current state, is worthy of your blood. Or, do you believe the Alliance is more than its current misguided policies and illegal orders? Please, lay down your arms and allow us to defend our homes. Even if you won’t fight for us, please don’t fight against us. Don’t fight your own shipmates and countrymen, not over honor versus duty, when the path of neither is clear. Please.”

The announcing circuit cut off, followed immediately by a pounding on the door from the outside. Palmer whirled around to face the door, his pistol sweeping over them. “Who is it? Who’s out there, Ensign?”

The OOD carefully moved to the door, wary of the CO’s wild aim. She looked through the porthole, but someone had blocked the view. All she could do was look back at the CO and shrug.

Palmer’s face grew red. He screamed, “You’ll never take this ship! The fleet will figure out what you’ve done, and they’ll blow her to atoms!”

Benno’s voice sounded, muffled, from the other side. If he was in CIC before, he must have made his announcement on the general announcing circuit from his personal comm on his way up. “None of us wants anyone to die, Captain. There have been some deaths and injuries on both sides, but very few. It’s almost a bloodless coup, because nearly everyone but you has figured out the Navy is wrong on this one. Please, sir, surrender and unseal the bridge. If we have to, we’ll cut off your air, then cut off the door. Don’t make us.”

Palmer looked around wildly and even took a step away from the XO. “Not a chance! You take our air away, and you risk murdering your compatriots.”

“I don’t have anyone on the bridge, sir. Please. Those people are innocent.”

Palmer laughed. “I haven’t taken you for a fool, Sanchez. Don’t assume I’m one! You wouldn’t kick off a mutiny without a contact on the bridge. Which of these worthless traitors is yours?”

“No one. This was far more by-the-seat-of-our-pants than you might think. Time was of the essence. There’s a great deal of discontent aboard, sir, or we wouldn’t have made it this far, but that doesn’t mean traitors fill your ship. If anything, it’s just the opposite. I’d say this crew is filled with patriots; patriots pushed too far, asked to accept too much. Your crew only needed a bit of convincing to do the unthinkable in the face of illegal orders and an indifferent chain of command.” Sanchez’s voice was louder now, as if he was right up against the door. The captain’s aim settled on it, and his trigger finger twitched. If a ship-safe round could have penetrated the armored hatch, Ashton guessed the CO might have tried for a shot.

“You tell yourself whatever you damn well please, whatever your conscience requires. But I’ll be damned if I’ll let you and your rabble take this bridge!”

Instead of wasting a round on the bridge door, CDR Palmer swept his gun to the opposite side where he had corralled the crew against the bulkhead. He settled the pistol on the cowering, young form of the helmsman, Petty Officer Third Class Kassem. “When you know what’s right and wrong, all you need is the courage to act.”

He pulled the trigger. The crack of the pistol rendered everything else into a shocked silence, broken only when Malik Kassem sputtered blood and spasmed up off the deck. He thrashed in midair, spewing blood outward in a dozen lazy arcs toward the bulkheads.

No longer caring about their own safety, several of the crew acted. Those closest grabbed Kassem to stabilize him and assess the wet hole in his chest.

Palmer’s eyes and his aim were wild, switching from target to target with no discrimination. “Let him go! Let that little pleb traitor die! You help him, and you’ll be ne—”

His voice cut off mid-rant as Amanda Ashton grabbed the wrist of his hand holding the pistol and jerked it toward the deck. Palmer grappled with her, but neither had any leverage in the low spin. They left the deck and bounced about the bridge.

Behind them, the crew not seeing to Kassem scrambled. If they had been uncertain about which side they stood on in the mutiny, the captain’s executive action had decided for them. They rushed OPS and the OOD. Fighting in low-g was a different sort of exercise than what instinct advised, and none but Marines and Masters at Arms received more than a smattering of training. But it was still four on two, and only Johnson honestly resisted. They had the pair of them secured in less than a minute, then turned their attention to the scramble between the CO and XO.

Amanda had Palmer’s arm pinned behind his back and her legs braced between a seat and the bulkhead. Palmer could only flail though he was stronger than her. The pistol bounced freely through the middle of the space.

They all felt a short pulse of pressure as someone unsealed the hatch and swung it open. Benno Sanchez led a team of six chiefs and petty officers—all armed with ship-safe carbines—onto the bridge. Benno’s rifle was slung across his shoulders, and a pistol rested in a holster on his hip. He looked around the space, nodding at the sailors holding the hatch, those who had secured Ensign Csubak and LCDR Johnson, and those who labored in vain to save the doomed Petty Officer Kassem. Benno finally looked at Ashton and Palmer.

He pushed further into the space and jumped directly at the captain’s pistol, snatching it from midair. He looked at the XO, holding the CO down and assisting their mutiny, whether that had been her intent or not. His expression inscrutable, Benno turned his gaze and attention to Palmer.

The CO sputtered. “Give up! End this mutiny before it goes too far, and I promise you you’ll only receive life in prison. None of your compatriots need to die. None of your families need to suffer for your mistakes. I give you my word!”

Benno’s face turned bright red. “Your word? Is that the same word the Alliance gave me when I joined? The one that said it valued me and mine? The one that said we were citizens just like any other, not just cannon fodder for aristos? The same one that gave up on our families and told us to ‘suck it up’ when we took issue with it?”

Palmer said nothing.

“Commander Palmer, you are at this moment relieved of your command for violations of articles 81, 88, 93, 118, 133, and 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.”

“You dare quote statutes at me, you mutineering piece of shit!”

“We are taking this vessel in honor of all the abandoned souls on the Lost Six. I’m taking your ship in my daughter’s name, for Mio Elizabeta Sanchez, and you deserve all hell holds for you.” Benno brought the pistol to bear and—with no pause whatsoever—shot Palmer in the chest. The captain spasmed and stilled after a few weak jerks. Amanda Ashton stared at the body in her hands, not feeling the blood that now spattered her face and arms.

OPS cried out. “Damn you, you pleb bas—”

Benno turned and shot Craig Johnson in the head. The three technicians holding him in place jumped back, shocked and worried.

Benno looked back at CDR Ashton, his face no more troubled than if he had squashed a pair of bugs. Out-of-touch aristos or not, assholes or not, the XO didn’t think they’d deserved to die. She wondered what that meant for her and the rest of the wardroom.

She took a deep, cleansing breath, just in case it was her last. “Well, Benno, the Puller is yours, if you can keep her. What next?”

The look of cold resolution on Benno’s face remained, but she could see hints of uncertainty and incipient panic cast the first shadows of doubt.

* * * * *

Chapter Eight: Mio

“Hey Mio,” Dan said as he passed by, “there’s going to be a meeting of everyone in the assembly area. Finish what you’re doing there and come on over.”

Mio looked down at the soapy water in distaste. Since she’d joined up, her only contributions to the cause had been washing dishes and toting water. While the older men and women planned, she washed dishes. When they went on reconnaissance missions, she hauled water from the nearby stream.

She was completely unenthused with her lot in life.

It was the Rogers’ house all over again. She wanted to help and knew she could do more than she was allowed, but she was never given the chance because she was ‘just a girl.’ While Jimmy had operated the tractors, she did dishes. When will someone take me seriously?

She hurriedly dried off the last knife and went to join the group. Although she had met everyone, it was the first time she had seen them all in one place, and it gave her hope—they had almost 100 people; they ought to be able to do something big to the Terrans with that many folks.

The same five people who had interviewed her when she was brought to camp were talking in a knot at the center of the group. Although she saw most of the resistance people daily, she realized she hadn’t seen any of them since the day she arrived.

“Who are those people in the center?” Mio whispered to Dan.

“They are our leadership council,” Dan whispered back. “The man in the center and the tall woman are from First Landing; that’s all I know about them. The others are local farmers.”

Before he could say any more, the man in the center stepped toward the assembled group and raised his voice. “If I could have everyone’s attention!” he yelled.

The condescending tone of voice and accent confirmed what Mio already knew. Aristo.

“I don’t have a lot of time here today,” the man continued, pitching his voice so the crowd could hear him. “My name is Fernando Garcia, and I am from First Landing.”

“Big surprise,” Mio heard someone mutter. Apparently, she wasn’t the only person who didn’t like aristos.

“With me today are Tim Miller, Ben Santiago, Ashley Beaufort, and Louisa Decker. Together, we are your ruling council.”

“Rulers, eh?” A man in the back yelled. “Well, I didn’t vote fer you!”

“No, you did not,” Garcia replied. “Perhaps there will be time in the future for voting, but for now, we are the ones with the talent and resources necessary to lead the resistance. The other members of the council have military service time under their belts, and I bring the connections and financing required to make it happen.” He pointed to the pallets of meal packets. “Do you like eating those military meals?”

“Hell, no!” the man in the back yelled back, eliciting several chuckles from the group. “That stuff tastes like crap!”

“Well, it beats an empty stomach,” Garcia replied.

“Not by much.”

“Regardless,” Garcia said, his eyes sweeping the group, “it is food, and it is better than having to live off the land, especially after the Terrans laid waste to our crops. I purchased those packets and got them here with my resources. I also made sure the transaction was wiped out of the books, so no one would come looking for them. Because I am providing for the group, I will continue speaking for the group. After our current…situation…has been taken care of, there will be time to do things more democratically.”

He paused to see if the heckler had anything else to say; when the man was silent, Garcia continued, “We are here today to discuss our goals and plans for the campaign. Ashley Beaufort is our head military planner. Ashley?”

The tall woman stepped to the front, and Garcia stepped back.

“Good afternoon,” Beaufort said.

Mio could hear the same tone and condescending attitude in her voice, but it was less noticeable. She had obviously been off-planet, probably for a long period of time.

“Guerilla campaigns are some of the hardest ones to wage successfully,” Beaufort said. “Usually, the insurgents are under-equipped or under-manned, which is why they are guerillas in the first place. Our situation is consistent with this in that the Terrans can bring more power to bear on us than we will ever be able to bring on them. Their destroyer in orbit is out of our reach and is a sword of Damocles hanging over our heads.”

Mio nudged Dan. “Whose sword is hanging over us?”

“It’s just an expression that means you can’t be happy if there is something you fear always hanging over you. In this case, quite literally.”

“I’m sure you’re wondering why we should even fight back,” Beaufort continued. “If we can’t get to the destroyer that can obliterate us if we make the Terrans angry, why should we take the chance of being annihilated? There are several reasons I believe this to be the best course of action. First, help will arrive at some point in the future. When it does, we want to be in a position to assist them in retaking our planet, and hopefully we will have weakened the Terran force enough so our forces can be victorious. The only way this will happen is if we continue the struggle against our oppressors.

“Second, it is possible that if we bleed them enough, we may actually hurt them enough so that they leave on their own. Let’s face it, they only have a destroyer in orbit, so the number of people they have available isn’t overwhelming. If we continue to whittle them down, they may decide it isn’t worthwhile to continue their occupation, and they may leave on their own.”

“Yeah? And what if they decide to bomb us before they go?” the man in the back shouted.

“I’m not going to lie to you,” Beaufort replied. “That is always a possibility, as is the chance that if they find out where we are, they may well start dropping rounds on us. In fact, I can guarantee they will kill every member of the resistance they find.”

“Kill us?” a woman holding a baby asked. “Don’t you mean capture us?”

“No, I mean they will kill us. All of us, if they find us.”

“How do you know that?” the woman asked.

“It’s what I would do if our roles were reversed,” Beaufort replied. “It’s what I have done.”

Beaufort gave the statement a moment to sink in, and a hush went over the crowd as the gravity of their situation was brought home to them. Although her time in camp had seemed like a game, even if it wasn’t a very fun one, Mio was forced to consider the seriousness of their venture.

“Now, having said that,” Beaufort continued, “there’s nothing to say they won’t kill us all when they leave anyway. The longer a war goes on, the worse the atrocities seem to get. That’s why I left the military and came here to retire; I wanted to get away from it.”

“And now it’s followed you here,” someone up front said.

“It has,” Beaufort confirmed. “But I, for one, don’t intend to take this lying down. This is my planet we’re talking about. It’s our planet, and I don’t intend to give it up easily. I intend to fight!” Mio could see the woman was breathing hard, her eyes fierce.

The other woman stepped forward and put a hand on Beaufort’s shoulder. “We’re all here to fight,” she said. “You don’t have to convince us to join; we already have.” She paused a second then continued, “You mentioned three reasons. Why don’t you tell them the third?”

Beaufort took a deep breath and blew it out. “Right. The third reason is my favorite of all. We have enough talent in the resistance groups that I think it may even be possible to go for the big win.”

“What’s that?” asked someone in the first row.

“I’m glad you asked,” Beaufort said. “We’ve got leaders and we’ve got fighters, but better yet, we have several people that can fly shuttles.” A feral grin suffused her face. “If we do this right, maybe we can take the fight to them.”

“Okay,” Garcia said, stepping forward again. “That’s something for the future; at the moment, we need to concentrate on what’s possible now. Our largest problem is that we are under-armed to go up against the Terran forces. We’ve had a few successes, but we’ve also had a few setbacks. Most of these were because the Terrans have better weapons.”

“Well, of course they do!” the man in the back exclaimed. “They’re professional soldiers.”

“Yes, but many of us were once professional soldiers, and we live on the frontier. Nearly everyone has a personal weapon.”

“I used to,” someone called. “Damn Turds took ‘em from me!”

“Indeed,” Garcia said. “They have collected all the weapons they were able to, as well as all the ammunition and weapons’ batteries they could get their hands on. However, they were nice enough to put it all in a single warehouse on the outskirts of town. A warehouse that, if we are quiet and fast enough, should prove a treasure trove of weapons for us.”

Garcia scanned the audience, then added, “That’s our next target. Tonight, we’re going to hit the warehouse and take back our weapons.”

Chaos threatened to overwhelm the group as many people shouted their thoughts and suggestions. Mio learned a couple of new swear words and shook her head. If this was how adults planned things, the resistance was in trouble. She nudged Dan. “Are meetings always like this?”

Dan shrugged. “Sometimes. We’re a large group and most people don’t really know each other, much less trust them. If you add in that most of us farmers don’t trust the city aristos very much, there’s usually a…wide variety of opinions.” He nodded at Garcia, who was holding up his hands for silence. “He’ll get control of the group, and he’ll have his way in the end. He always does…it’s just we farmers like to be heard, I guess. We’ll hit the warehouse tonight; you can count on it.”

* * *

“Oh, stars!” Mio exclaimed as the plate slipped from her hands and slapped into the soapy water, spraying suds up her front. She drew her hand back to slap the suds in the wash basin, but a stranger stepped in front of her.

“Careful,” the man said. “There’s no need to splash me with that; I’ve already had my bath this week.”

Mio could feel her cheeks ignite, and she looked down. “Sorry,” she mumbled.

“That’s fine,” the man said. “I always like to beat up inanimate objects when I do something clumsy.”

“It’s not because I was clumsy,” Mio said without looking up, “it’s just that…oh, never mind; you wouldn’t understand.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” the man said in a slow drawl. “I may have been frustrated a time or two in my life.”

“No, you wouldn’t understand because you’re a guy, and you’re old,” Mio said, a fierce expression on her face as she looked up at the stranger.

The man raised his eyebrows. “I’m old, am I? Shoot, I never considered myself over the hill, but I reckon I’m now beginning to see where that hill is.”

He really didn’t seem that old, Mio thought as she looked him over; he was probably no more than 40 standard years. His face had a number of scars, though, and, on first glance, they made him appear older than he really was. Her cheeks grew hotter still.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean old, old,” Mio replied, “just that you’re an adult. People listen to you.”

“Sometimes,” the man allowed, “other times, not so much. Are you having a hard time getting your opinions heard?”

“Yes,” Mio said, her shoulders slumping. “I want to go on the raid tonight, but no one will listen to me. They think I’m too young to go. Or that I’m just a girl, which is even worse.”

“Hmm…” the man said. “Well, the age thing’s gonna fix itself if you’re patient. The girl thing, though, you’re kind of stuck with that.”

“Yeah, I know. I’ll never be taken seriously because of it.”

“That’s not true,” the man said. “Were you at the meeting today?”


“So, you heard Ashley Beaufort talk?”


“Well, once upon a time, Miss Ashley Beaufort was known by another name, Admiral Ashley Beaufort, and she was one of the most respected admirals in the Terran Fleet.”

“Really?” Mio asked, excitement in her eyes. Then it faded. “Well, that was the Turds; they must be different.”

“No, it’s no different. If you work hard, people will come to respect your opinions, just like anyone else’s.”

“Not here they don’t. Here, if you’re not a guy or can’t pull a plow, you’re not worth listening to. Women are second-class citizens.”

“Admiral Beaufort is second in command of the resistance,” the man remarked. “I think her opinion is very valued.”

“Well, she’s old; of course, people listen to her. And the admiral thing helps, too, I guess.”

“She wouldn’t have ever become an admiral if people didn’t listen to, and respect, her opinions,” the man argued. “And it can be the same for you. You just have to be patient and wait for your chance.”

“Patient? I’ve waited here two whole weeks! In that time, I’ve done nothing but wash dishes and carry water. When am I going to get my chance to do something important?”

The man smiled. “Two weeks can seem like an eternity, sometimes, I know. And yet, at other times, it’s a flash in the pan. Besides, washing dishes and carrying water are both important things, too. Right now, you don’t have any experience with warfare, but by carrying water, you allow the people who do have that experience to continue with their jobs of planning operations, without having to stop and go to the creek to get their own water. See? What you’re doing is important. Everyone here helps out in the manner they’re best suited to.”

“I can see that carrying water is important, but I don’t want that to always be my job. I want to help on the raids. I can do things too, and I’m a quick thinker.”

“Those are both good qualities,” the man said. “Keep working on your abilities, and I’m sure you’ll get your chance to contribute in other ways. Until then, though, would you mind…” he looked down at the plate in his hand.

Mio sighed. “Sure, I’ll do it,” she replied. She took the plate and submerged it in the soapy water.

“Thanks,” the man said. “Think about what I said. Everyone has a part to play in everything we do, whether it seems like it’s important or not. Just be patient, and you’ll get your chance.”

“I’ll try.”

The man nodded and turned to leave. “Hey, just a second, mister,” Mio called. The man looked back over his shoulder. “Are you new here?” she asked.

“Yes, I am,” the man said. “My name’s Harry. I think I’ll be here…probably for a while.”

“My name’s Mio.”

“Nice talking with you, Mio. Remember what I said.” The man turned and left.

* * *

Mio watched through half-closed eyes as the resistance members gathered their things and melted away into the forest. Throwing off the blankets, she scampered out of her tent, already clothed, stopping only to pick up her backpack along the way.

She had no problem following the raiders in the dark; not only was the larger moon up to light her path, but she had also marked out the likely route they would take earlier in the day. As expected, they headed out to the south before looping around to the east. She knew her woodcraft skills weren’t the best, but some of the raiders’ skills weren’t much better, and she was able to follow along behind them using the sounds of broken branches to guide her, while allowing her to keep her distance from the main body.

The raiders stopped once as they approached their target, and Mio almost walked into their midst before she realized they had halted. A brief snatch of whispered conversation, barely heard but far too close, caused her to freeze alongside a large tree.

“Did you hear that?” a voice whispered.

“No, and I can’t hear anything with you running your mouth,” another whisper replied. “Shut the hell up, before you give us away.”

Mio leaned against the tree, not moving, and prayed to anyone who would listen they wouldn’t come looking for the source of the twig she had inadvertently snapped. The tree had a number of large branches and would be easy to climb if she needed to hide herself, although they might hear her climbing. She decided against it and pressed herself tighter against the trunk.

After an eternity that probably only lasted five minutes, a third voice whispered, “Are you guys ready?” When it received two affirmative replies, it continued, “The edge of the forest is only another 20 yards in front of us, and the warehouse is another 40 yards beyond that. Move up and wait for the signal.”

Sounds of movement followed, then faded away.

Only 20 yards from the edge of the forest? She looked up into the tree and could see branches that continued on above the height of its neighbors. Deciding she might be able to see better from higher up, and knowing she’d be less likely to be found, she began climbing.

Within a couple of minutes, she was above the trees that separated her from the warehouse, just in time to see the attack begin. The warehouse grounds were lit, and she could see two guards at the warehouse entrance on the north end of the building. Private guards, not Terran soldiers, they were dressed in some security outfit’s uniforms, not those of the Terran Army. Mio smiled; they must be resistance fighters who were going to look the other way while the raiders liberated the weapons inside the building.

Two shadows detached themselves from the forest and ran to the west side of the structure. Although both were big men, they flowed silently like wraiths as they moved along the side of the building toward where the guards waited. Mio tried to identify who they were, but both men had hoods over their heads, and their faces were lost in the darkened interiors. Mio couldn’t figure out how they’d be able to get close to the guards without being seen; the entrance lay halfway along the next side once they turned the corner, and they would have to cross 50 feet of lit space to get to it. The men reached the corner of the building then paused, out of sight of the guards. Three more raiders ran from the forest to the building moments later, then another five.

Mio’s eyes went back and forth between the guards at the door and the raiders along the wall, waiting for something to happen. Without warning, one of the guards dropped his rifle and clutched his stomach, where something black was sticking out. An arrow, but Mio couldn’t see where it had come from. The other guard drew a breath to yell, but a second arrow appeared, piercing his throat and pinning him to the wooden door. The arrow must have nicked an artery, because blood sprayed in all directions, coating him and the door. The man struggled weakly a moment or two, then went limp. The weight of his body pulled the arrow down, and he slid off it and collapsed in a heap. Mio’s stomach roiled at the vision; she had never seen so much blood.

The raiders sprinted around the corner and ran to the second guard, who was struggling toward his rifle. The leader of the raiders kicked the weapon away from his grasping fingers, then drew a large hunting knife and stabbed him in the chest twice. More blood. Mio was repulsed by how easily the leader killed his victim, quickly, with little apparent remorse.

One of the raiders held up something from where he was searching the other guard. The leader took it, then made a shooing motion with his other hand. Four of the raiders grabbed the dead guards and took them to the forest. The leader took the object, a key, and opened the door. Light from the interior lit his face. Dan. Dan had been the one to kill the guard so casually. Mio felt tears well in her eyes. Kind, gentle Dan was a killer.

The raiders poured into the warehouse. After a few moments, a shot rang out, and a siren began wailing. Seconds later, the raiders began appearing, heavily laden with weapons and large, bulging packs on their backs. One man and two women. Wait, there were women participating after all! The raiders loped back to the forest, much slower due to the weight they were carrying.

Mio heard a yell from the south as two more raiders appeared, and she turned on her perch. Terran troopers were on the way! A group of three soldiers was sprinting toward the warehouse, followed by a second group of three; all of them wore helmets and armor, and they looked ready for battle.

Five of the raiders had already fled the building, and three more appeared as her eyes flicked back to the warehouse. Two men, a third man supported between them. The third raider was wounded; a large bloodstain coated the right side of his chest. The other two men struggled under his weight and several weapons they carried over their opposite shoulders. They made it to the safety of the forest as the first group of Terran troopers reached the warehouse. They came up the side of the building closest to Mio, while the second group angled to approach from the east.

Where was Dan?

The first group of troopers raced along the side of the warehouse, and Mio was sure Dan was going to get caught. At the last moment, though, Dan and another raider left the warehouse and sprinted for the safety of the forest. They reached the corner of the building at the same time as the troopers.

“Look out!” Mio shouted, unable to stop herself.

The raiders crashed into the troopers, and both sides recoiled from the collision. Although both groups were obviously surprised by the appearance of the other, the raiders were quicker to recover. Dan had two rifles slung over each shoulder, but they didn’t keep him from using the one he held in his hands. Reaching out, he swung the butt of his rifle in an uppercut, knocking the rifle from one of the Terrans’ hands. Spinning to the right, he drove the butt into the jaw of a second soldier. Mio could hear the impact from the tree; the soldier dropped, unconscious.

Turning back to the left, Dan found the first Terran retrieving his weapon. He slammed the butt of his rifle into the back of the soldier’s head, and the soldier collapsed. Dan spun around to find his companion and the third soldier wrestling over a rifle. The soldier won, breaking the weapon free from the raider’s hands. The trooper stepped back and leveled it at the raider, only to be shot in the face by Dan. The Terran fell backward, the rifle falling from his senseless hands.

The raider scooped up the rifle, and the two men broke for the trees. As they sped for the safety of the forest, movement caught Mio’s eyes—the second soldier rose from the ground, grabbed his rifle, and turned to aim at the fleeing men.

“Look out!” Mio yelled again.

This time, Dan heard her and shoved the other man to the right while diving to the left. The soldier fired, aimed, and fired again. A return shot from Dan struck the Terran, and he went back down.

Dan started to run, then turned and came back to the other man, who lay at the edge of the forest. The man waved him off, but Dan grabbed him under his armpits and lifted him so he could stand on one leg. He’d been shot! Dan threw the man’s left arm over his shoulder, and they hobbled off into the forest. As the man turned, Mio could see what looked like a stain on his left leg.

The raiders crashed into the forest, giving up stealth to put some distance between them and their target. They passed Mio’s observation post without looking up, and Mio could see Dan carrying most of the other man’s weight. The other man’s hood had fallen back, and Mio caught a glimpse of him in the moonlight as they passed. It’s Harry! Harry’s been shot!

She stood up to climb down the tree but froze at the sound of metal on plastic. Her eyes snapped to the warehouse—the other three Terrans had arrived! Each of them went to check out one of the soldiers lying on the ground, and Mio could see the soldier that shot Harry point toward the forest. His finger pointed almost exactly at her, and her breathing stopped as the troopers all looked in her direction. She had moved away from the tree trunk and was completely exposed! Mio wanted nothing more than to move back to the trunk and hide, but knew the movement might catch the soldiers’ eyes, so she remained where she was, petrified.

After a moment, she decided the troopers were looking lower, along the ground, and she began to breathe again. Slowly she eased herself over to the trunk, and a huge sigh escaped her as her chest met its bark. She was safe.

No sooner had the thought crossed her mind then one of the troopers raced off in the direction from which the soldiers had come...and the other two turned and entered the woods, coming right toward her!

Mio wanted to jump from the tree and run, but she was too high; she knew she couldn’t escape with a broken leg. She plastered herself to the trunk and tried to still her breath as the men drew near. Maybe they hadn’t seen her. She was afraid to look down and have the moonlight reflect off her face, so she was forced to gauge their approach by listening to the sticks the soldiers broke as they walked through the trees. The soldiers weren’t very good woodsmen; Mio was able to tell where they were…and when they stopped right underneath her tree! A light snapped on.

“You see?” she heard through the blood pounding in her ears. “Right there.”

“Sure do,” a second voice said. “Just like Jenkins said.”

Oh, no! They were looking for her and had found her! Mio flinched and started to turn. Better to climb down then have the soldiers shoot her out of the tree. She started to sigh.

“Yeah,” she heard from below. “That’s definitely blood. Jenkins must have hit one of them.”

Blood? Although she had picked up a few scrapes going up the tree in the dark, she wasn’t bleeding. They weren’t looking for her, after all; they were looking for the raiders, especially Harry. Her sigh froze in her throat. Too late.

“Shh!” the first voice said. “Did you hear that?”

“What? I didn’t hear anything.”

“I swear I heard a noise.”

“Well, I didn’t hear anything.”

“That’s probably because you breathe like a horse.”

“It was just the wind through the trees. Are we going to go after these guys or not? I mean, I’m okay with waiting until morning when we have backup, if that’s what you want to do…”

“No, if this is anything like the other thefts, they’ll have disappeared by morning. If we don’t catch them now, they’ll get away again. This is the closest we’ve come to nabbing them. Come on; let’s go.”

The light went out, and the men moved off in the direction the raiders had taken. After a couple of minutes, Mio turned around, but the men had vanished into the night. She took a deep breath and let it all out. She was safe.

As she started climbing down the tree, she realized she had a problem—the men were between her and the camp. She jumped the last couple of feet to the forest floor and shrugged. She would circle around to the north and come in from a different direction. That way, she wouldn’t have to worry about running into the Terran soldiers.

She smiled as she started walking to the north. At least she was quieter in the forest than the Terrans. If there were more of them, she ought to hear them coming.

She had only taken a few steps when the realization hit her—the Terran soldiers were following Dan and Harry back to the camp. Her friends would lead the enemy right to it! Worse, with Harry hurt, the Terrans were able to make better time than Dan and Harry; they would probably catch her friends before they made it back! She had to…she needed to…Crap! She wasn’t sure what she either could, or should, do.

Mio wasn’t even supposed to be on the raid, and she was only armed with a knife and her memory cube. Although the knife was sharp, it wasn’t very big, and the memory cube was even less useful; even at its highest setting, she wouldn’t be able to blind the soldiers with it.

She had to do something to keep the Terrans from finding Dan and Harry, though. They wouldn’t be able to defend themselves. Harry couldn’t walk on his own, and Dan had to carry him. As much as they were crashing through the forest, even the Terran soldiers might be able to sneak up on them. She had to help them, but how?

Mio knew she didn’t have Dan’s training, nor the size and muscle required to knock someone out with the butt of a rifle. She could pull a trigger, but she didn’t have a weapon. There might be some on the troops near the armory, but she couldn’t go back and get them. Not only didn’t she have the time, but more troops could show up at any time and catch her. That was out.

What could she do?

She stopped, torn by conflicting desires. It was dangerous to go after the Terran troops, especially since she didn’t have any tools or training. Still, her friends were in danger, and she needed to help them. She could hear her father’s voice, “We always help our friends when they’re in need.” Well, Dan and Harry were in need; there was no doubt about that. She had to help them.

With that settled, she turned to the west and headed in the direction Dan and Harry had taken. Maybe the Terrans would get turned around in the forest and lose their way. Then she could catch up with Dan and help him get Harry back to the camp. She was less sure what she would do if she ended up having to fight the Terrans, but she’d had fewer things going for her the first time she’d fought Terran troopers than she did now, and that had turned out all right; she would have to figure it out when it happened.

That settled, she broke into a quiet jog to chase down the adults. Light on her feet, she hoped she would see the Terrans before they saw her…but either way, Dan and Harry were her friends, and you didn’t let down your friends. She never had before, and she had no intention of doing it this time.

* * * * *

Chapter Nine: Benno

“Okay, okay! Everybody pipe the hell down!” Benno shook his head and looked at the mob assembled in the crew’s mess before him. A comfortable half-g of spin gravity held his feet to the deck, but there was no hint of relaxation about him. They might have won the ship in the mutiny, but they were nowhere close to safety or the achievement of their goals. The Puller lay in enemy territory twice over: as part of a fleet deep in hostile TU space, and now as a rebellious member of that fleet, only safe because no one knew they had gone rogue.

Then there were the threats within the skin of the ship. There were, of course, the loyalists, locked up and carefully watched in the brig and one of the six spin sections, waiting for any break to retake the destroyer or inform the fleet. And now Benno realized there was a whole other issue to deal with: his fellow mutineers.

“Why don’t you pipe down, Warrant!?” shouted Senior Chief Fusion Tech Gerald Ludovic. Ludovic was a huge man with an impressive girth, and though he was no longer the strapping wrench-turner he’d been as a youth, he still was more hulking muscle than fat. He had proven to be an imposing ally when they had taken the ship, with his roar, stature, and chiefly his air of infallibility doing more to convert techs to their cause than any number of impassioned speeches by Benno. “You had your chance to make your case to the whole goddamn ship over the 1MC. How about you let somebody else talk for a minute?”

“Yeah! Who made you boss, Benno?” someone shouted from the back.

Benno gritted his teeth. Every minute they argued was another minute for the fleet to query them, or for the Turds to arrive, or for the loyalists to get a message out, or… But there was no way to do this without them. And, freed from the oath they had all taken to the Navy, there was nothing to keep them in check except their good will. Finally, he nodded. “No one made me boss. All I did was get angry enough to get us started. Where we go from here is whatever we decide as a group. You all know my case. We finish repairs, rearm and resupply, transit out, and get to work freeing the Lost Six. Senior Chief Ludovic, I take it you don’t agree?”

All eyes turned toward the senior chief. He started and paled somewhat under the expectant weight of their gazes. The command master chief had sided with the loyalists and was locked up with the XO in the brig. And even if the military hierarchy was obsolete aboard a lawless vessel, his experience and demeanor still carried authority. He was the de facto senior enlisted man of the mutiny, and that fact only then seemed to become apparent to him. “I don’t totally disagree. We’re all on board with helping the Lost Six, but waiting around here to complete repairs and resupply is goddamn suicide. That fleet out there figures out we aren’t part of it anymore, and we are frickin’ vaporized! From a hundred different directions. I say we button up and get outta this system right the hell now! Stop jackin’ our jaws and work on the plan to help our home worlds after we aren’t surrounded.”

Several in the crowd murmured assent. Ludovic spoke to the fears each of them felt, now that the fighting was over, and their self-doubt and guilt had begun to gnaw at their resolve. But they did not see the bigger picture.

Benno nodded. “You’re right. We’re a lot more precarious right here than we would be anywhere else. All it’ll take is a single visit or inspection, or even some admiral wanting to speak to the CO, to give our status away to the fleet. Then there are the loyalists. They don’t have access to comms or weapons, but I wouldn’t put it past any of them to try and rig a spark-gap transmitter to get a signal out, even as unlikely as that would be for the fleet to receive. Hell, it’s what I would do. The safe bet is for us to go and go now. But we can’t, not and still achieve our goals.

“Here’s how it is. We won’t be able to keep our mutiny a secret forever. The time will come when our people will hunt us, but for right now, we’re all right. Right now, we’re just another fleet unit in need of repairs and support. If we leave here unscheduled, we instantly become a target to be tracked down. We might not even make two transits before they catch up to us, or those patrol units they left behind for the aristos come after us. That’s the first flaw with your plan, Senior.”

“First flaw?”

“There’s also our objectives. We agree. We all want to help the Lost Six—and soon! We can’t give them the help they need if we’re not in fighting trim, though. At the moment, all we can do is hold in our own air. We’ve only repaired about 60% of the damage we took from that missile hit, and the 40% remaining is time and resource intensive. Plus, we need food, fuel, and ammo now, while it’s being offered, or we won’t be able to take down a single TU force, much less six of them.”

There was murmuring from the assembled mutineers, not all of it in assent or disagreement. Discussions cropped up between friends and shipmates until the sidebars threatened to overwhelm anything those at the head of the mess were saying.

“Shut up!” Senior Chief Ludovic shouted. “Unless one o’ y’all thinks they got something more important than what me and the warrant are already considering, stow it!” The massive man turned back to Benno after the crowd settled. “Fine, say I agree that we can’t run now without shooting ourselves in the foot. It’s been six days since we struck this system, five since we took it and word began to spread. The plan was to give the Turds enough time to assemble their fleet to respond, then kick ‘em again with the other half of Executive Amber to keep ‘em off kilter. That means, if our other fleet hasn’t struck yet, they probably will soon. Either way, if the plan holds, we should be getting movement orders in less than 48 hours. How do you figure to keep us on the side of the friendlies for 2–3 more days, and receive re-supply, and skip out without making ourselves a target?”

Benno fought down an urge to shrug. Show anything other than firm resolve to this bunch, and he would find himself either in the brig or dead, even if he still had a lot of details to work out. “This mutiny will be borne by boldness or not at all. It won’t be easy, but it’s not as hard as you make out. Fleets stay spread out. It’s safer and more efficient that way. We connect with comms and regular status reports 90% of the time. Even personal communiques from the captain are mostly via email and CO’s comments on our daily SITREP. We can maintain the illusion that Palmer is still in charge and everything is going well for quite some time.”

Senior Chief Ludovic nodded to concede the point, not to express uncertainty about their course. “Okay. Granted. But what about when we resupply? What about when the commodore’s ship swings by for an inspection or a conference?”

Benno smiled. On this, he was even more uncertain. He knew that someone would call him out, but he had no choice but to bull on. “Same difference on resupply. We don’t connect face-to-face. It’s all via umbilicals and drone ferries. Now, the CO usually does exchange pleasantries with the supply ship’s master, but we can bull our way through that. Come up with any plausible excuse you like. If we act like everything is routine and all the crypto, codes, and accounting data work out, everyone is worried enough about the future to accept what’s happening and keep going.”

While senior chief and the crew mulled that over, another, more hated voice piped up. “And the whole commodore conference thing? What about that, Benno?” Ortiz asked.

Benno grimaced and turned to face Raoul, at the front of the crowd. Circumstances had made them allies in the mutiny, but it had not made them any friendlier or more trusting of one another. Benno had no idea what Ortiz’s endgame might be. They were both undoubtedly traitors, but Ortiz had given up his sacred honor for his own skin, not the threat to family and home that had sent Benno over the edge. What he wanted now and where he stood with Benno were a mystery to all.

“Petty Officer Ortiz, that situation is a bit trickier. We cannot keep up pretenses if the commodore or his staff come over physically from the cruiser New London. But if they request a teleconference, there may be some tricks we can play. We can claim unresolved damage to our teleconferencing capability; we can claim the CO is in the infirmary—”

Ortiz scoffed. “And put that bitch Ashton on a live feed? Yeah, I’m sure we can count on her not to rat us out.”

A voice called out from the assembled crew. “I got an app that can ape anybody’s voice.” Benno looked and saw he was one of the junior information techs. “All you need is enough clips of them talking, and you can make ‘em say anything!”

Someone else chuffed in derision. “People can tell those are fake!”

Regardless,” Benno said, loudly, retaking control of the room, “we have options.” He gestured to Ludovic. “And should it look like we’re no longer able to keep suspicions off us, we transit out and make a run for it. Until then, though, staying here and getting fixed up is our best bet. Personally, I think it’s unlikely anyone will have time for conferences with us. We’re a little fish. We receive and carry out orders. As long as we make the appropriate noises and reports, no one is going to look too closely. When transition day comes, we transit out too…but to a different system, then work our way back to the Lost Six. They’ll think we either failed to translate or mistranslated. Even if they have the resources to spare to look for us, they probably won’t. They’ll wait for us to fix ourselves and join back up. After enough time, and after the next battle, they’ll either give us up as lost or send a unit to look for us. By the time some transit counter records us passing through headed to the Lost Six, and they mark us as rogue, we’ll be well into taking back our worlds. To catch and punish us, they’ll be forced to send resources to the Lost Six, which accomplishes our objective, even if we can’t finish the fight ourselves.”

The crew began murmuring again, but this time they seemed to be won over. Benno smiled for real.

Then Ortiz began to clap, slowly, sarcastically. “My, my, Benno, you’ve got this all thought out.”

Benno narrowed his eyes at him. “Not really. There’s a lot more we need to do, and we can’t anticipate everything, but it’s a good starting point. Do you have something to add?”

Ortiz stepped forward and turned slightly to face the assembled crew as well as Benno and Ludovic. “I just wanted to point out that aside from a couple of small issues, you and Senior Chief seem to be on the same page. That’s very reassuring! I’d like to think the two of you had some grand plan when…you know, you committed capital crimes like mutiny, assault, several counts of murder, and imprisoning all the officers and a fifth of the crew.”

“I know what I’ve done—what we’ve all done,” Benno responded, his fists clenching at his side. “And when it comes time to do so, I’ll face the consequences for that, but this needed doing. Our families, our worlds…they needed someone to stand for them.”

Ortiz held up his hands, placating. “No doubt! But I think as a group we need to consider all the alternatives, especially given our resources and the stakes involved.”

Ludovic spoke up, his voice rumbling. “What other alternatives?”

“The choice between hitting the Lost Six before resupply or hitting them after resupply. How about we don’t hit those worlds at all? We just take the Puller and get gone.”

Both Benno and Ludovic bristled at that, along with a majority of the crew…but not everyone.

Ludovic gave voice to their mutual contempt. “You goddamn coward! Why am I not surprised you want to turn tail and run? All you’ve ever been interested in is your own neck!”

Ortiz shrugged. “I won’t apologize for having an oversized sense of self-preservation, but hear me out. You guys got together in your righteous anger and took this destroyer, with the intention to liberate your families from the Terrans. Great. Awesome accomplishment. But what about the fact that your plan is batshit crazy and has absolutely no chance of success?”

Someone new called out from the crowd. “Whatchoo mean, Raoul?”

He turned and addressed the crew, making his case. “The Puller is a single, light combatant, designed to screen capital ships from attack by missiles, drones, mines, and smaller warships. As far as independent ops, maybe you can do some flag-waving, piracy-screening, and limited head-to-head combat, but she only shines as part of a squadron. This is the ship you plan on using in head-to-head combat with six different, dug-in Terran Union forces of unknown size and make-up? With all our trained tactical officers locked up or dead? Maybe I’ll be generous and say the Turds only have a single destroyer-sized ship at each system and a junior, untested crew on each. How many times do you figure you’ll come out on top? Even with 50/50 odds each time, we’d only have a 1.5% chance of surviving and freeing all six worlds. And I’ll guarantee our odds are gonna go down as we take damage, lose crew, and go without resupply. That’s not to mention the certainty that the Turds will redeploy to face us in force, and our own Alliance ships will come for us.

“No,” Ortiz said, shaking his head over-dramatically. “I’m sorry. Your hearts are in the right place, but the mission you’ve planned is suicide. I, for one, don’t feel like offering my life for a bunch of Alliance worlds I can’t free. Not when the payoff is death. I either fail and die or succeed against all the odds and die anyway when the Alliance catches up with me.”

For the first time since they gathered, there was no murmuring. The crew merely stood by, looking at one another or at the floor uncomfortably. No one would meet Benno’s eyes, not even Ludovic or his first co-mutineer, Master at Arms Chief Dufresne.

Benno had no idea how he would win them back from this injection of cold, hard reality. Especially when, twisted purpose or no, Ortiz wasn’t wrong. No words came to mind, and he felt his own despair and doubt rise within him.

Then Ortiz glanced at him and offered him a subtle half smile.

Benno felt his collar grow hot, and it was fortunate he didn’t have his pistol drawn. Instead of murdering Ortiz, however, he channeled the anger into resolve. Benno looked at his suddenly unsure shipmates and spoke from the heart. “It might not make sense to many of you, but I consider myself a patriot. I think many of you probably think of yourselves the same way, despite what circumstances forced upon us. I joined because I believe in the Alliance and I wanted to make my daughter proud of me. And now she’s under threat and the only way I could save her—and save the soul of the Alliance—was to commit this heinous act of mutiny and treason. Now that I’m committed to that path, though, I mean to see it through.”

He looked pointedly at Ortiz but spoke to everyone. “We could run. Hell, that’s probably the smartest move. We’d surely survive longer, but it wouldn’t change the fact that we’d always be on the run. As for our families, for the reasons we took the Puller? They’d still be at the mercy of the Terran Union occupiers. Maybe someday the Alliance will get around to freeing them! How do you think our families will fare once they discover we mutinied while they endured, then didn’t come for them? To realize the Alliance only freed them to make them into pariahs, the only known families of treacherous mutineers, cowards who wasted the one chance they fought for?”

He looked at everyone and received a nod of silent encouragement from Ludovic. “I joined because I’m a patriot, willing to die for my family and the Alliance. Now that I find myself at odds with my own Navy, that hasn’t changed. I will take this ship to Adelaide and our other five lost worlds. I will fight to free them, even if my final odds of success are no better than 1%, because it’s the fight that I have to fight. And I, for one, don’t think our odds are that bad. We don’t have our trained tactical officers, like Ortiz said. True, but who actually does the fighting? I’d bet on enlisted watch standers, chiefs, and some well-crafted doctrine in any stand-up fight. And I’ve received the same tactical training other officers have, but with a more technical focus.

“As for the enemy, intel says the Turd invasion force was light and fast. They don’t have the logistics train to sustain a protracted siege. Plus, we’re not their only opposition! Does anyone else think their families, their neighbors, and all those retired, cranky-ass veterans we left behind on our colonies are going to sit still and allow a bunch of Earther Turds to enslave them without some payback?”

That got a rise out of his fellow mutineers. Several crew raised their fists in defiant affirmation, cheering, “Hell no, Benno!”

“Hell yes,” he smiled back. “So, here it is, my compromise. I’m no Captain Palmer. I’m not going to force you to do anything. Military authority and rank went out the window as soon as we took up arms against our own, so I’m not in charge unless you want me to be. But I say we finish repair and resupply, mistransit out of here when the rest of the fleet moves on, and head back to Alliance space. First populated place we hit, we let off anyone who wants to leave. We’ll probably let off the Loyalists too, at some point, as long as we can be sure they don’t call the rest of the Alliance down upon us too soon. The rest of us, the ones with something invested in this fight, will take the Puller and get to the business of freeing our homes.”

Benno looked back at Ortiz. “Do we all find this compromise acceptable?”

The crowd fell into discussions again. It could go either way. Benno had no idea what he would do if they were swayed to Ortiz’s way of thinking. He supposed he would have to go someplace along the Alliance frontier, drum up some ground level support, and charter as much of a civilian navy as he could, then take it to Adelaide to augment whatever resistance network already existed.

Damn, things would be a lot easier if he had the Puller to back him. Goddamn Ortiz…

Nodding overtook the shrugs of uncertainty and the head shaking of negativity and doubt. A murmur rose from the crowd, becoming a fervor and a mandate for action. Dufresne and Ludovic looked at Benno, smiling.

Finally, the burly engineer stomped over and clapped him on the back. “I know you’re just a damned twidget and an abandoner of the Chief’s Mess besides, but damn it if you don’t talk good.” Ludovic looked to the crowd. “I’m on board with that! How about you lot!?”

“Yes, Senior Chief!!” the crowd roared back. If it was not quite everyone, it was at least the lion’s share. It was enough to fly and fight at any rate. If Ortiz’s compatriots were out there, they were wisely keeping silent.

As for Ortiz, he kept that sly smile of his, as if the crew’s outright rejection of his motion did not faze him in the least. He waited for the crowd to settle down, then spoke again. “Roger that, de facto Captain Sanchez. But one little operational question; what world are we going to try to free first?”

Benno allowed himself a shrug this time. It seemed less dangerous than before. “I intend to keep fighting until either we or the Alliance free all of them, but my motion is to make for Adelaide first. Of the six, it has one of the largest populations and an Army base which will help with resupply.”

Ortiz nodded. “And it’s where your daughter’s been growing up with some other family.”

Benno’s eyes narrowed, and he briefly considered using his pistol again. “Yes. Mio is there, along with a lot of other families. I’m not the only one here with family there.”

“Yeah, but operationally, how much sense does that make?” Ortiz looked over to one of the Astro-Nav techs. “Lawton, what was it you were telling me earlier? What order are the Lost Six in? In terms of transit distance?”

The petty officer looked startled, but brought up an image of the Alliance systems on his forearm-mounted data screen. “Umm, regarding least-time visits to each world, minimizing transits to other systems for repairs or as waypoints, Adelaide comes in third. Paradiso and Morgan’s Rock are first, with Putnam, Trinity, and New Kiev all further down the line.”

Ortiz smiled and shrugged at the crowd. “And, if I’m not mistaken, Morgan’s Rock has a full shipyard in orbit. That’s more useful as a way-station after we free up a couple of worlds. Sooo, unless this is all about you, Boss, shouldn’t we be aiming for either Paradiso or Morgan’s Rock before Adelaide?”

The crowd waited silently to hear what he would say. Would Benno be a self-interested hypocrite, a new dictator? Or did he have the courage of his convictions, to keep the Alliance and all their fates foremost in his mind, above his own desires?

Benno glared at Ortiz. Forget the pistol. He wanted to choke the life out of the bastard.

Turning away from him, Benno addressed the crowd. “I’m not going to hide it—I wanted to be on Adelaide yesterday. My little girl is there, and I have no idea what’s happened to her or to all the people I relied on to care for her. Everything I fight for is there, so yeah, Petty Officer Ortiz, I want to go there first. But I’m no fool. This isn’t about just me. This is about the Lost Six, and I won’t be stopping until they’re all free, no matter what order Adelaide is in that process. So, I’ll admit to you all, I thoroughly anticipated going there first. It’s selfish, but it’s natural.

“And now? Raoul, you make a valid point, though you might well have some shitty, equally selfish or petty reasons for making it. Adelaide will be no sooner than third. My Mio will have to survive on her own until then. And given the resources and threats, I’d propose the following order: Paradiso first. It’s the closest, but it’s also the most remote in terms of surrounding Alliance transit systems. Therefore, I think it’ll have the least TU Navy enforcement. They’ll feel more comfortable with a small, light force there, something we can take on our own. After that, Morgan’s Rock. It’s a bigger world with more resources. The Turds are going to put a heavy force there, no doubt.”

Someone called out from the crowd, “And how are we gonna face that down?”

Benno raised his hands high. “I don’t know yet. I’ve got an idea, but it depends on how well we handle our departure from the fleet. Either way, if we succeed there, we’ll have the full resources of that shipyard at our disposal before we hit Adelaide and the other three worlds.” He grew silent and looked down, no longer able to face the mutinous crew he had led to this point, which had seen it fit to delay him from immediately going to help his daughter as he had intended.

Damn you, Ortiz. I’m so sorry, Mio. Just survive, survive a little bit longer. Daddy’s coming.

“So, there is my proposal. We’ve all violated our oaths, but I make a new one to you now. I promise to lead you all straight and true, to the best of my abilities. I will see my home free. I will see all your homes free, and damn every Turd that gets in my way. And goddamn every Alliance aristo who’s lost sight of our Constitution and opposes us! Are you with me!? Are you ready to get this done!?”

His mutineers, his countrymen, his crew, cheered, pumping their fists up and down. Ludovic and Dufresne rushed up and shook his hand. Almost to a person, they were aligned with him. Now it was up to him to lead them in the face of all that stood in their way.

Ortiz looked on and gave him a sly grin and a nod.

* * * * *

Chapter Ten: Mio

Laser fire and the sounds of men shouting alerted Mio she was close. Fear of running into a fight warred with the feeling of being too late. She wanted to charge in and do something, but knew she needed to find out what was happening first. The moon had gone behind a cloud, which didn’t help. She slowed to a walk and approached as quietly as she could.

As she snuck closer to the battle, she tripped over an unseen object and fell hard to the ground. The object was large and squishy. She reached behind her…stars! It was a body! The shape was wrong for it to be Harry, and she panicked; Dan was dead!

After a couple of long, gut-wrenching and tear-filled seconds, the moon came out and washed across the person’s face. The face had a mustache. It wasn’t Dan; it was one of the Terrans, and it was wearing one of their camouflage suits, which is why she hadn’t seen it in the dark.

She took a couple of deep breaths to get her heart under control. The laser fire ahead of her had stopped, and she could hear voices, but couldn’t tell what they were saying. Dan could still be in trouble; she had to help.

Mio climbed to her feet, then immediately stepped on something hard. She bent down to pick it up—it was the soldier’s rifle! Her heart raced, and her spirits soared—she was finally armed!

Rifle in her hands, Mio crept up on the men, hoping Dan had prevailed. The voices got closer, and she could finally make out words. Her spirits, so high a moment ago, came crashing back down again. An unknown voice was asking questions in an angry voice; the Terrans had won. “Where is your camp?” the voice asked. “How many people are there in your group?”

Using the voice as her guide, she approached a small clearing. The sky was graying in the east, and there was already more light to help her see. She reached the edge of a small open area and saw Dan sitting next to Harry, who was lying on the ground. The remaining Terran soldier stood about 10 feet away from them with his back to Mio, sighting down his rifle at Dan.

Mio couldn’t see Harry’s eyes, but he looked awfully still.

“Your friend isn’t in very good shape,” the Terran said, confirming her worst fears, “and the longer we sit here, the worse his odds are. Tell me where the camp is, and I’ll make sure he gets medical treatment.”

“You’ll probably just shoot him once he’s got no value to you,” Dan replied.

“Maybe,” the soldier allowed, “but I could also go ahead and kill him now to show you how serious I am.” He turned slightly and pointed his rifle at the other man.

Kill Harry? Mio couldn’t allow that. Even though she hadn’t known him that long, he had been nice to her, and he believed girls could do important things. Maybe saving his life would be Mio’s important thing.

She put the rifle up to her shoulder like she had seen the men do and looked down the barrel at the Terran. There was a little dot sticking up at the end of the barrel and a small circle at the end closest to her, and it seemed obvious to her—put the dot on the target and in the center of the circle. That was easy. She looked through the sights at the man, then paused.

Shooting a man in the back was ‘bad,’ wasn’t it? Wasn’t that murder? Could she really murder someone? Maybe she should give him a chance to surrender before shooting him. As soon as she had the thought, she dismissed it. The man was a soldier, a trained killer. If she gave him a chance, he might very well dive out of the way and shoot her instead. He had gotten the better of Dan, who also seemed to have excellent warfare skills.

“On second thought,” the Terran said, “I think I will kill him. He looks too heavy to carry, and you killed my squadmate. What’s it going to be? Are you going to talk? You have five seconds to decide.”

Dan looked around wildly, as if searching for help, and his eyes alighted on Mio. Seeing her with the rifle aimed at the soldier, he glanced back to the soldier and nodded.

“Five…” the soldier said.

Did the nod mean Dan wanted Mio to shoot the soldier? She thought so but wasn’t sure.


Dan looked back at her, then at the soldier, then nodded again. He obviously did want her to shoot the soldier. Okay, if Dan agreed, it was obviously necessary.


Mio gathered all her courage. She could do this. She would do it. She would kill the Terran soldier.


Wincing, Mio pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. The trigger wouldn’t move! It was stuck! She took the rifle from her shoulder and looked at it, her brows knitting. What had happened? Had it broken when it fell?


Despairing, Mio looked at Dan and shrugged her shoulders, her confusion apparent.

“Okay,” Dan said to the soldier. “I’ll tell you what I know.”

“About time,” the Terran said. “You better have some good info for me, or your friend is going to die. The first time I think you’re lying to me, I’m going to shoot him.”

“Okay, okay,” Dan said. “Just take your finger off the trigger. I don’t want the rifle to go off accidentally.” He looked at Mio again. Was he talking to her? She realized her finger was on the trigger, and the rifle was pointed in his general direction. Oops. Both her dad and Mr. Rogers had always said never to point a gun at something unless you intended to kill it, and she definitely didn’t want to kill Dan. She removed her finger from the trigger.

“Good,” Dan said, his gaze returning to the soldier. “Wouldn’t you also feel more comfortable if you safed the weapon?”

“No, I wouldn’t,” the soldier said. “I’ve seen you in action, and I want to be able to kill you at a moment’s notice. Now, where’s the camp?”

Dan looked back at Mio, and she feigned incomprehension. If the last thing Dan had said was also for her, she had no idea what he meant. Dan sighed, his eyes returning to the soldier. “Okay, I’ll tell you all about it. But first, are you sure you don’t want to turn on the safety on the right side of your rifle?

“No, I don’t,” the soldier replied, “and I’m done playing games. Last chance, or your friend dies.”

The safety? She looked at the right side of the rifle and saw a small lever. It was currently pointing to “Safe” but looked like it could be rotated to “Armed” and “Burst.” Mio looked up and nodded, a smile on her face. She understood! She needed to rotate the lever. But which position? She wasn’t sure what “Burst” meant, and it sounded bad, but there was no doubt about “Armed.”

Slowly, to keep from making any noise, she rotated the lever to the “Armed” position.

Immediately, the rifle made a high-pitched whine as it powered up. Mio winced as she quickly put the rifle back to her shoulder. Hopefully, the noise couldn’t be heard where the men were.

Dan jumped; obviously it could. “Okay, I’ll tell you,” Dan said in a loud voice, trying to keep the soldier’s attention. “The camp is only a few minutes from here…”

Mio looked through the sights at the soldier. The ring now had a small yellow glow to it. What did that mean? She’d have to ask Dan later. She sighted on the soldier and pulled the trigger. It was still stuck; it wouldn’t move.

She removed the weapon from her shoulder again and looked at Dan, her head cocked to the side and shoulders raised in incomprehension.

Dan’s eyes rolled, and he sighed. “The camp is in a group of green trees, and usually has a campfire going in it.”

Mio put the rifle back to her shoulder. Green? Fire? She sighted down the barrel and noticed the light on the ring was now green. Oh! She had to wait for it to go green to fire! It should now be ready.

Mio looked through the sights and saw the soldier looking at her, his mouth open. He must have finally turned to see what Dan was looking at. His rifle snapped up to his shoulder, faster than Mio would have thought possible. Mio closed her eyes and pulled the trigger. This time, the trigger wasn’t stuck, and she pulled it all the way back.

The rifle fired once, and she opened her eyes. The Terran soldier was down, and Dan was on top of him. A knife appeared in Dan’s hand, and he drew it across the soldier’s throat. Mio looked away, nauseous, as blood fountained from the soldier.

“Mio, come here!” Dan called, and she looked up again. Thankfully, there wasn’t blood spraying anymore. “Quickly!” he exclaimed.

She jogged over to where he was inspecting Harry, careful not to look at the soldier.

“He’s unconscious,” Dan explained. “I’m going to have to carry him.” He pointed to a pile of rifles she hadn’t noticed before. “Grab as many of those as you can and follow me.”

Mio walked over to the pile. They looked like the one she had in her hands, so they must be laser rifles, too, she decided. Each of them had a strap running from one end to the other; that was how Dan had been carrying them. She put her arm through the strap of the one in her hands and positioned it on her shoulder.

“Hey,” Dan said; “you did put the rifle on safe again, right?”

Mio had no idea; she honestly couldn’t remember anything about killing the man besides the fountain of blood. So much blood. She had to bend over a couple of seconds as her stomach threatened to revolt.

She stood back up when she was sure she wasn’t going to throw up and took the rifle off her shoulder. The lever still pointed to “Armed.” She flipped it to “Safe” and felt the small vibrations from the rifle cease.

“It’s on “Safe” now,” she said in a small voice.

“Don’t worry about it,” Dan said. “Not your fault. We should have taught you more about operating a weapon sooner.” Mio heard a grunt. “Grab what you can,” Dan added. “We’ve got to go.”

Mio put the rifle back on her shoulder, then another from the pile. She could hear Dan moving off as she picked up a third. Although one didn’t seem heavy, three was a load, especially after a night of stress and exertion. She thought about trying to pick up one more, but when she bent over, the ones she already had shifted and threatened to pull her over. She decided three was enough and turned to follow Dan. She caught a glimpse of him as he disappeared into the forest, and she hurried to catch up.

* * *

“Mio…hey, Mio. Wake up.”

Mio tried to pull away from the hand shaking her, but it was strong, and she was forced into wakefulness. She had been tossing and turning all day as she slept, her dreams haunted by Terran soldiers chasing after her on a blood-red river. She woke and blinked several times, struggling to separate reality from the nightmares of her dreams. She remembered the raid, the chase, and the fight in the clearing. Well, at least she knew where the river in her dreams had come from. Then she had struggled to carry the rifles and keep up with Dan as he hurried through the forest, before reaching the camp. She had remained awake long enough to see that someone was going to attend to Harry, had turned in the rifles she carried (all on “Safe”), and had fallen into an exhausted sleep.

She stretched and found she had a number of sore muscles and strained tendons, but she couldn’t be sure which ones had been damaged when. The previous night was sort of a blur, except for when Dan killed the last soldier. That was horrifically clear and made her stomach turn just thinking about it.

She turned to find Dan on one knee beside her sleeping bag. “Hey, Sleepy Head,” he said. “You going to sleep the whole day away?”

“Um, what time is it?” Mio asked, stretching again. The muscles weren’t quite as sore the second time.

“Well, let me put it to you this way. You’re going to have dinner for breakfast.”

“Oh, stars,” she said, crawling out of bed, a look of panic on her face. “I missed doing the lunch clean-up; people are going to be pissed!”

“Relax,” Dan said. “I took care of it. Doing dishes sometimes can be good for you; it gives you time to contemplate.”

“Too much time,” Mio grumbled, then realized what he had done. “Oh! I mean, thanks for taking my place. Why didn’t you come get me?”

“You had a big night,” Dan said with a shrug. “Also, you saved my life, so it was the least I could do.”

“Saved your life?” Mio asked. “How did I do that? I thought he was going to kill Harry, not you.”

“Well, he was, but he would have killed me too, at some point. I killed some of their troops; he would have had to.” He shrugged again. “Besides, I was just about to rush the last one when you showed up. I knew Harry didn’t have much longer, so I was about to make a play to take the soldier out. It’s unlikely I would have survived it…but then again, I don’t think I would have lasted long in Terran captivity.”

“Um…so, how is Harry?” Mio asked. Even she could hear the dread in her voice.

“He’ll be fine,” Dan said. “The wounds weren’t quite as bad as I thought, and he responded well to medical treatment. He should be up and around in a few days.” He paused, then asked, “Speaking of which, he’s only alive because I pushed him out of the way when the soldier shot at him at the warehouse. Are you the one that yelled the warning?”

“Yeah, I am,” Mio said. She felt her face getting hot. “Look,” she said, her words coming quickly, “I know I wasn’t supposed to be there, but I got tired of not being helpful to the cause. The Terrans killed my foster family, and I wanted to help, but no one thinks I can do anything because I’m a girl or because I’m too young, but I can! I know I wasn’t supposed to come on the raid, but I had to. So, I followed you guys, and I was just going to watch, but I couldn’t let the Turd shoot you in the back! I had to yell!”

She finally ran out of words, and Dan smiled. “I’m glad you were there, and Harry is really glad you were there. He’d probably be dead right now if you hadn’t been. What I don’t get, though, is who shot him? I thought all of the Terrans were down when we left.”

“The one you hit in the back of the head with your rifle got back up and shot at you.”

“Huh, good to know,” Dan said. “I guess the helmets they were wearing are pretty good, because I hit him pretty hard. I should have killed him, I guess; my mistake.”

“Why didn’t you kill him?” Mio asked. “I mean, it didn’t look like you had a problem killing the rest of them.” Mio hadn’t meant for her tone to sound so disgusted, but somehow it came out that way.

Dan sighed. “First time you ever saw anyone get killed?” he asked.

“No. I saw the Rogers get killed by the Turds, but that’s the only other time.”

“In combat, sometimes you have to do things quickly that you might have done differently if you’d had time to think about it. In combat, there isn’t time to think; you have to react, immediately, and use enough force to make sure the other side doesn’t do it to you. Usually, there is only one winner, and you want that to be you. As you saw at the warehouse, if you don’t make sure the bad guys are dead, you risk having them shoot you in the back as you leave.”

“I understand that, but was it necessary to cut the last soldier’s throat?”

“Necessary? Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know. At the time, I just reacted. I needed him dead, so I could get Harry and you to safety. That seemed like the fastest, most permanent solution. Certainly, he didn’t get up and shoot us in the back. Besides, I’m not the one who went to someone else’s planet to force them to follow my wishes; they came to ours and killed our people without warning. They deserve to die.

“That’s true…” Mio replied. Her voice didn’t sound completely convinced, and she wasn’t, but there was no point in arguing it. “So, what’s going on now?”

“Well, while you were sleeping, the council had a big meeting, where I told them about how Harry and I would be dead without your assistance, and how it almost didn’t happen because you didn’t know how to fire a rifle. Although they weren’t particularly happy about it, they made you a full member of the resistance, including going on raids when your skill set is appropriate.”

“My skill set?” Mio asked. “What’s my skill set?”

Dan smiled. “Unfortunately, your skill set is pretty small. You’re obviously brave enough to act, which many people aren’t.” Mio smiled at the compliment. “However,” Dan continued, “that’s about the end of it. You don’t know how to operate a rifle or do most of the other things raiders are supposed to do.”

Mio’s smile faded.

“Happily,” Dan said with a smile, “those are all things that can be taught.” He moved aside so Mio could see the other person with him. Diego. In addition to his pack, he had a rifle over his shoulder and did not look happy to see her. “When you first got here,” Dan continued, “Diego was supposed to train you. He failed in that task, but he’s going to remedy that now, aren’t you, Diego?

“Yes, I am,” Diego said. He tried to smile but was only able to force a pained expression to his face. Mio hoped he would actually train her with the rifle, not shoot her with it when Dan left them alone.

“Good, then be about it,” Dan said. He stood up. “The resistance needs brave, trained fighters to reclaim our planet. You’re already brave; Diego is going to ensure you’re trained as well.” He winked at her. “Learn all you can, so I can take you along next time.”

“I will,” Mio replied.

Dan nodded once, turned, and walked off.

“So,” Diego said, “I’m here to train you.”

“Look Diego, before you say anything else, I just want to say I’m sorry for what I said to you when I first came to the camp. I was—”

“Don’t worry about it,” Diego interrupted. “I probably said some things I shouldn’t have, too. It was a really hard time for everyone. Let’s just start over, okay?”

“Sure,” Mio replied, her heart trying to beat its way out of her chest. She didn’t say anything else for a moment, because she was sure she was going to giggle, and she really didn’t want to do that in front of Diego. She had a hard time trying to keep her smile under control.

“Do you want to get something to eat first?” Diego asked. He cared enough about her to ask her if she needed food! That was surely a step in the right direction.

“Uh, no, that’s all right,” Mio replied. “I’d rather get started while there’s still some light left.”

“Good call. We can’t fire the laser rifles after dark, so that’ll give us some time to practice.” They walked across the camp to the rifle range, and Diego pulled a number of meal packet boxes out of his pack.

“Can you hold this?” he asked, handing her the rifle. “It’s on safe, but please keep it pointed at the ground.”

“Got it,” Mio said, taking the weapon. She watched him walk downrange and put the meal boxes into clips that had been set up at various distances. He looked back once and caught her staring, and she could feel her face flush; happily, she had the rifle pointed at the ground like she’d been told. At least she had that going for her. After that, she tried to watch him without being totally obvious about it…but it was hard. He was just that cute.

After setting up the boxes, he returned and took back the rifle. “Nice job last night,” he said. “I heard you saved Dan’s and Harry’s lives.”

“Sort of,” Mio replied. “I shot one of the Terrans, but I was really pretty lucky since I didn’t know what I was doing.”

“Yeah, I heard you shot one of the Terrans in the leg, and Dan finished him off.”

“Really? I thought I put him down…but I may have closed my eyes when I shot. Everything is kind of blurry now.”

“Even though you didn’t kill him, you at least distracted him, so Dan could get him. You’re lucky he didn’t shoot you back. I’m supposed to train you, so you can put them down yourself…and have them stay down. Any questions before we start?”

“Just one,” Mio said. “Does the setting ‘Burst’ make the rifle blow up?”

* * *

An hour and a half later, Mio knew all the settings on the rifle, how to hold and fire it, and that “Burst” meant it would fire three shots instead of one. When she had burned up all the meal boxes in their holders, Diego proclaimed her “Qualified” on the M27C2 Laser Rifle. Mio could barely contain herself; she was now the youngest qualified raider…and the only female under 25. She was gracious in thanking Diego, but one question continued to run through her head. Now that I’m a qualified raider, when will I get my chance to finally prove myself?

* * * * *

Chapter Eleven: Benno

“Warships of the Alliance Navy, you have proven yourselves first in war, and now in sustainment! I see by the status reports before me that all of the squadrons have been reconstituted, repaired, and, at last, report fully mission capable for battle. Bravo Zulu! We are ready to assault the next system on our list of objectives. And I am proud to report that the other arm of Operation Executive Amber made its own successful strike upon the Aleph system three days ago. Intelligence shows the alerted Terran Navy, gathered to strike back against us, has instead transited to strike our other fleet, freeing us to wreak havoc upon our next objective with absolute impunity. Prepare, Allies! We transit within the hour, back into glorious battle!”

“Glorious battle? Where do they get these guys, Chief Dufresne?” asked the young helmsman, standing watch on the bridge of ACV Puller.

Dufresne shrugged. “Technician Avera, the basic requirements for being an officer are A) a somewhat functional brain, B) a giant prolapsed asshole, and C) an inability to know which is which.”

Benno fought back a grin and walked over to stand beside her in the continuous one-G of thrust gravity. He cleared his throat and received a panicked look from the helmsman, while Ellen Dufresne rolled her eyes at him. She patted Drew Avera on his shoulder and clarified. “That’s for aristo officers. It doesn’t apply to our current leadership. Probably.”

Benno shook his head and released the grin. “Avera, aristo or pleb, officers are mostly just like you or me. They just have different responsibilities and duties. Now, admirals on the other hand…”

The Puller thrust along in formation with the other ships of Destroyer Squadron 32, as one quadrant of a vast, globular screen around their fleet’s remaining capital ships. Were one to somehow look upon the Alpha fleet of Operation Executive Amber from the outside, it would be challenging to see them all as a single, unified assemblage, moving together as one. The ships were so spread out from one another—light seconds lying between each—and they were so small relative to the space the group took up, this hypothetical observer would likely see only emptiness.

It was only with the god-like perception of the tactical data plot that one could observe the fleet in its totality. In the 3-D plot, the 127 remaining ships blazed with radar energy, communications broadcasts, beam casts, and infrared radiance, the hottest things in the system aside from the blue-white star at the system-center—and the ships rivaled even that behemoth for sheer intensity. Waste heat poured into space from radiators glowing red at the centerline of each vessel, but that was nothing compared to the torches at each ship’s stern. Here, particles of nothingness were plucked from the dark matter field that permeated all of space, wrenched torturously into the objective, baryonic reality of quarks, leptons, and photons, and released to flee astern at nearly the speed of light.

The vaunted Tsiolkovsky rocket equation, which reasoned that a spaceship had to carry and accelerate its reaction mass to make a change in velocity, resulted in a ship that was 99% sacrificial fuel and only 1% payload and structure…or worse. Humanity would have never tamed space with that sort of limitation, but the dark matter conversion drive neatly avoided the issue. Instead, their torch “created” reaction mass as it thrust along.

The forward momentum stolen from such an impossible exchange would have been seen as a violation of the conservation of mass, energy, and momentum only 200 years before––but now it was so familiar, it elicited no wonder at all from the spacers within each ship. Indeed, most viewed it as a deadly annoyance, forcing each ship in the formation to carefully align itself so it did not run into the exhaust trail of another ship further up in the formation, thereby avoiding an act of mass immolation that would kill every soul on board. Still, the dark matter conversion drives were relatively mundane.

What they thrust toward, what they were about to do, that remained so mind-boggling it bordered on magic.

The Puller had been restored to fighting trim, if not returned to a completely pristine state. Per the plan, the mutinous crew had received all their parts, stores, fuel, supplies, and ammunition via either automated transfer or through an enlisted-to-enlisted hand-off, with no one the wiser. Visiting repair crews from the tender that could not be dissuaded had entered the destroyer and completed their jobs without ever realizing they had encountered no officers but one—Benno. As long as their work did not take them into the brig or the one hull section of the spin ring in which the loyalists were sequestered, the repair crews remained oblivious.

As for interacting with the fleet, that proved even more straightforward. Status reports, repair logs, and maneuvering coordination boards often happened at the chief petty officer level, and, when they didn’t, no one thought it odd when a chief or a chief warrant officer participated in their department head’s stead. As for personal communiques to and from the destroyer squadron commodore, a mutinous information tech had easily broken the password to Captain Palmer’s and Commander Ashton’s server accounts and given them to Benno.

Palmer had been a man devoted to formality, the “book,” and self-aggrandizement, and had a nasty habit of blaming any and all problems on his “faithless and incompetent pleb crew.” Though it pained him to do so, it took no time at all for Benno to ape the captain’s style. If anything, he worried that his e-mails and messages to the commodore might drift into the realm of over-the-top parody, but the squadron commander never said anything. Benno wondered if the commodore thought Palmer had been as much of an utter ass as he had.

As for the XO? Out of respect, Benno refused to break into her account.

So, they had done it. The ship was ready and on the move. The imprisoned loyalists were either placid, or the reactionaries among them were contained. They had sold the fiction of steadfast loyalty and preparedness to the rest of the fleet. Now the whole fleet prepared to depart, unaware that one of their number intended to slip away.

Still, Benno waited for it all to go wrong.

Dufresne looked at Benno while the bridge crew strapped into their seats for the transit. She frowned at the way his lips squeezed themselves into a tight line and the muscles in his jaws clenched. “You okay, Boss?”

He looked over and nodded once. “I’m fine. Just waiting for the other shoe to drop. I can’t believe we made it this far without anyone asking to speak directly to Palmer or the XO.” Benno pointed at the comms display panel at one side of his—the Commanding Officer’s—acceleration couch. “I keep expecting the commodore or the admiral to call the ship directly and demand to hash out something with Palmer face-to-face. Then the jig will be up.”

She smiled sadly. “Benno, don’t let a little mutiny make you completely paranoid. You were right. We’re three light-seconds from the nearest ship. The commodore’s destroyer is over 12 light-seconds away. Everyone is gearing up for transit. Nobody has the time or inclination to talk with massive half-minute delays right now. Okay? Let’s just get through this and worry about the next, harder part—taking Paradiso back.”

He nodded again but still could not quiet the worries in his mind. Benno forced his eyes away from the comms screen and looked around the bridge as he sat in the captain’s chair and secured himself. Every department was represented by junior techs and petty officers who had thrown their lot in with his—even though, at their age, they could hardly know all the complications and consequences of their traitorous actions. Still, they stood with him now in Engineering, in Ops, in Combat Systems, and in Supply, manning their stations and preparing for the transit with the same sober professionalism they had provided Palmer.

But—Benno hoped—they stood their watch with a bit more pride now.

The fleet, as a group, adjusted and jockeyed for exact positions and vectors relative to one another. Thrusters fired, tapping massive ships out and in, forward and back, and from side to side until each was precisely aligned, with all units still and stationary relative to the fleet’s central position, every warship moving at the exact same velocity and acceleration. That velocity, directly out from their current system’s barycenter and straight toward the next target star, well beyond their present sun’s escape velocity, was the sacrificial lamb the universe required for transit.

“Warrant, we’ve received the first transit synch signal. Group thrust cuts off in three, two, one…” the helmsman, Technician Avera, said.

As he trailed off, the dark matter conversion drives on each fleet ship shut down simultaneously, though they were all many light-seconds apart. Thrust gravity vanished, and Benno felt his body surge against his tightened seat straps in response. He nodded and checked their alignment. The last thing they needed now was for the fleet to abort its transit for one misaligned unit, not when they had other places to go, other missions to accomplish.

Lasers scintillated throughout the group as position sensors re-verified the relative position and motion for each unit. In moments, the final calculations were complete. The fleet moved as one, slowed only slightly by the gravitational pull of the system they were leaving behind, and that was but a slight tug along a single vector directly astern. It was important that none of the fleet ships pick up an errant side vector. When their transit drives reached out and tried to connect with the dark energy field, all motion and unresolved forces between ships would become magnified. Precision mattered more than anything else.

Dark matter and dark energy were the names of the two different types of nothingness people utilized for interplanetary and interstellar travel and were, in fact, the predominant “stuff” of the universe. All the matter and energy that could be seen and touched and interacted with was nothing but the pond scum atop a mighty reservoir of mass and potential. They were labeled “dark” as a synonym for “not-understood” and had only been discovered through inference.

Dark matter was theorized first as a means of explaining the excessive spin rates of galaxies. Given the amount of mass proposed for a particular galaxy, based upon the number, type, and size of stars it contained, each should have a specific rate of spin where the aggregate gravitational pull and the inertia of its components balanced out. Except they did not balance. Galaxies spun much more rapidly than their apparent mass should be able to counteract. But rather than fly apart, they remained stable. Even allowing for cold baryonic matter that might hold a lot of mass but not emit, reflect, or occlude light—like brown dwarfs or massive compact halo objects—there was still not enough mass for the spin observed. Something else held things together, some unknown force, or some “extra” mass and gravity from some unseen “dark” matter that could be all around everything, yet not interact except through gravity.

Dark energy was even more esoteric. Based on the mass of the universe, its age and size, and its rate of expansion since the Big Bang, three cases were possible: A) expansion would eventually slow, stop, and reverse itself, leading to a Big Crunch and a potential rebound into another Big Bang and the birth of a new universe; B) the universe was in a steady state and would continue to expand at its current rate, forever; or C) the gravity of the universe was insufficient to halt expansion, and while it might slow over time, it would never reverse and collapse into a Big Crunch. This headlong expansion would lead to an ever-larger universe, growing colder and more distant as the fusion within stars eventually burnt out all available fuel and entropy reached a maximum: the Heat Death, where even protons had decayed.

Instead, and despite the presence of dark matter, the universe’s expansion rate was increasing through some unknown mechanism, perhaps related to the phenomenon of inflation that had occurred in the early universe, expanding space itself faster than the speed of light. This all-powerful repulsive force was said to be due to “dark energy,” though no one knew what form that energy might take, just as they had no idea what dark matter was.

But humanity was a resourceful lot. Tell an engineer that visible matter and energy only made up 5% of the known universe, with another 20% comprised of invisible dark matter, and a whopping 75% wrapped up in some inexplicable force due to dark energy, and she will find a way to tap into those two deep wells of potential. Thus, the smartest of Earth’s apes provided the dark matter conversion drive, ripping hot reaction mass from nothingness to circumvent the rocket equation. It gave humanity the solar system.

And the smartest of the smartest apes then peered into the vast, empty deserts between the stars, went mad, and created the dark energy transit drive, giving Homo Sapiens the galaxy and beyond.

“Second synch signal received,” Avera said. “Transit in three, two, one…”

As the helmsman trailed off, the ships of the Alliance Navy fleet flashed into non-existence, presumably to reappear light-years distant in the next target system. There, the fleet vessels would find themselves drawn closer to one another, their exit vectors and exit orientations essentially random, due to the magnification effect the transit produced, as real matter and energy briefly tried to exist in the same continuum as dark energy. They might well find one or more of their number missing, victims of a mis-jump from some unknown side vector or force upon the ship before the transition. No ship had ever returned from a mis-jump, and it was theorized they might be in some distant, other galaxy altogether.

What the fleet would not find in the next system was one ACV Puller.

Because they had not transited at all.

At the same synchronized moment, all the ships but the Puller transited out. Due to their extreme distance from one another, however, the signatures of the other units transiting simultaneously came to the Puller staggered over the span of many seconds. The concentric globes of vessels winked out of existence in flashes of blue Cerenkov radiation and pulses of gravity waves, one by one, starting with the closest and ending nearly two minutes later, like some rupturing soap bubble against the dark firmament.

Upon seeing the last flash from the opposite side of the formation, Benno checked his displays and breathed a sigh of relief. The last thing they needed was another ship to have failed to transit. Benno was uncertain how they would have explained the subsequent maneuvers they would have to make.

He keyed his comm. “CIC, Bridge, I’m seeing zero radar returns and no thermal signatures from the fleet. Do you concur?”

The senior chief standing Tactical Action Officer in the Combat Information Center answered. “Bridge, TAO, CIC concurs. It looks like the rest of the fleet made the transit together. We are alone and unafraid.”

“Roger that, TAO. We’re going to spin the ship and reverse thrust, back into the system. Please coordinate with ASTRO/NAV and give me your recommendations for our first transit toward Paradiso. We want to be out of this system before anyone from the fleet decides to come back looking for us.”

“Aye aye, Bridge.” The voice cut off.

Dufresne peaked an eyebrow in question. “You think that’s likely? Fleet sending a rescue cutter back this way?”

Benno shook his head. “No. Better safe than sorry, though. Besides, it’ll get everybody motivated and focused if an external threat’s hanging over them.”

Soon enough, CIC and the bridge settled upon a recommended vector for their first transit in a series of four jumps back into Alliance space and toward Paradiso, all through vacant or under-populated star systems where they would be able to stay out of the central system while moving from transit vector to transit vector.

 The Puller’s dark matter conversion drive, or DMC torch, lit up again and they made for their first entrance at a comfortable one g. The dark energy coupling transit drive, or DEC, could be activated at any time, but alignment, course, velocity, and position mattered. Every unbalanced force and errant motion upon the ship would be magnified a thousand-fold by the transit. Unless they were aligned along the proper vector, heading straight toward the target system’s current location, directly out from the barycenter or gravitational balance point of the current system, and proceeding above the current system’s escape velocity, the geodesic path inscribed by the ship’s faster-than-light transit would be thrown off and miss the target system entirely. They would not re-enter objective reality until their skewed path did intersect another solar system, perhaps in another galaxy…or else if they failed to achieve escape velocity, they would be sucked into the heart of their departure system’s star. Much closer, perhaps…but just as dead.

Thus, it would take slightly more than a standard day to move from their original transit vector out to the one for their new target system, on the other side of this Terran Union system. The Puller did not need Benno on the bridge for routine travel from transit position to transit position. The ship could get back to routine…and he could evaluate the mood of the mutinous crew. He unstrapped, nodded to Chief Dufresne, and left.

As Benno walked aft and down through the mighty tower of the ship, the crew he passed smiled back at him and went about their labors with—to his eye—a little extra spring in their steps. No longer upon the mission handed down to them from central Alliance world aristos, no longer flung at the massive empire of the Terran Union, and no longer just a tiny cog in an enormous fleet, his fellow mutineers seemed to have a renewed sense of purpose and pride.

He had seen little of that during his many years climbing the ranks. Benno had always before considered himself a patriot. Looking back now, however, all he had been loyal to was what the Alliance Navy could give him, the leg up it would provide to his homestead, and the life it might grant his daughter.

Pride in the Alliance of Liberated Systems though? No. Not that. Not now.

And he could finally admit that now that he could see the things he felt on the faces of these young spacers. Benno squared his shoulders, nodded back at his compatriots, and stepped forward smartly.

It was not long before he neared the mess decks where the crew dined…and heard angry shouts, cruel jeers, and apparent shouts of agony. He picked up speed, first a trot, then a run. Faces flashed by as he passed, and he saw expressions of confusion, dismay, and horror on most…but there were more than a few who looked satisfied and proud. About what, he had no idea.

The mess decks were the central hub of enlisted life aboard the Puller. Here, crew from all departments mixed and socialized between shifts and sleep. Designed by committee to exude both relaxation and fun, and with one corner dedicated as a memorial to one Chesty Puller, the ancient Marine commandant namesake of their destroyer, the mess decks always represented a low-key, controlled chaos.

That chaos had been amped now, though. Once Benno burst through the gathered, shouting crowd, the scene took him a moment to parse. He saw Ortiz and a few of his hangers-on sitting at the head of one bolted-down mess table, now draped in a green cloth. Before them stood several of the imprisoned loyalists from the brig, held in place by several angry-looking toughs. The prisoners looked haggard after several days in the overcrowded cells, but it was not just incarceration that had affected them. Several sported wounds, not only crusted-over scabs and bruises from the original mutinous clashes…but fresh marks as well.

At their feet and immediately before the tribunal table where Ortiz ruled lay the crumpled form of Commander Ashton, the Executive Officer, breathing heavily.

Benno’s eyes flared. He turned his face away before anyone noticed him and pulled up the data suite on his forearm. Benno quickly shot a text to Dufresne on the bridge: KANGAROO COURT ON MESSDECK. SEND HELP NOW. ARMED. TRUSTED AGENTS ONLY.

He turned back to the scene and stepped forward, out of the crowd. Ortiz noticed him, smiled, and nodded. He said nothing to Benno, however. Instead, he gestured to CDR Ashton with a dismissive wave and looked at one of the toughs surrounding the embattled officers. “Next!” he shouted.

They pushed the Chief Engineer, LCDR Garvey, forward, but Benno jumped in front of him and locked gazes with Ortiz. “Hey, Raoul. What’s going on here?”

Ortiz spread his hands. “Just doing my part, Benno. You’ve been so busy making sure we looked legit and could make our get-away, you neglected to handle the genuine security threat we have on board. That’s no criticism, mind you! No, not at all, but now that we’re free of…scrutiny, this business is long overdue.”

“And what business is that?”

“Well, trials, of course. We need to ascertain which of these here loyalists are planning to act against the interests of your—I’m sorry—our mission of liberation.”

Benno looked around the messdeck. The compartment was full, and all the nearest mutineers seemed quite bloodthirsty and satisfied with the proceedings. It was not until he went back a few layers in the crowd that he could see faces registering shock or guilt. He had to tread carefully here, lest he find himself the next case on their docket.

He looked back at Ortiz and the two other “judges” next to him, Logistics Specialist Chief Douglas Wan and Electrician’s Mate Petty Officer First Class Stephanie Johnson. Benno knew them both, but not well. Still, he was surprised to find them at Ortiz’s side in this matter. There was no telling the number of different opinions and attitudes that had been set free by their mutiny, by the removal of all social and military restrictions upon their actions. Benno realized he had no way of knowing which way any of them leaned until they voiced their opinions. And though they might be 100% behind his plan to free the Lost Six, it did not mean they were on his side on any number of other issues.

Benno nodded and gave Ortiz a tight smile. “Thank you, Raoul. I hadn’t realized how pressing the matter of these trials was to the mission. I truly wish you’d mentioned it before. It almost feels like you’re doing this on the sly, like you thought it was something you shouldn’t be doing.”

Ortiz shrugged. “I’ve got no secrets. Hell, we’re doing this on the messdeck, right in front of everyone. And if I didn’t mention it before…eh, you’ve been busy.”

“Yes. I’ve been busy, but I’m never too busy for you. Nonetheless, I thought the plan we were going with was to keep the loyalists on board, then dump them somewhere remote in Alliance space.”

“That was your plan, maybe, but how good a plan is that? Lots of technicians in with those aristo-lovers, lots of mayhem they can cause before we finish our mission or find a place to dump them safely. Maybe they might call the fleet in on us. No, I got to talking to Chief Wan and EM1 Johnson, and we all agreed it’s better to separate the safe from the dangerous now, before any…shenanigans occur.”

Benno nodded. “And once you figure out the dangerous elements…?”

Ortiz chuckled to himself. “That’s why we’re doing this now. Lots of Alliance bodies already floating through this system. A few more won’t strike anyone as odd. And tossing the more reactionary types out an airlock could…have a cooling effect upon the ones we let live, convince them to keep playing nice.”

Benno’s eyes narrowed, and he looked back at the crowd. While a few people blanched at the talk of casual spacings as a form of execution, most seemed unperturbed. He turned back around to look down at CDR Ashton. She stirred on the deck, beginning to recover from whatever they had done to her. A trickle of blood oozed from her temple where she had been struck. Benno gestured to her and looked at EM1 Johnson. “I take it you all found the XO guilty of being ‘potentially dangerous?’ Is that when you knocked the shit out of her? Is that how you’re running your court?”

EM1 opened and closed her mouth, but her cheeks flushed red, and no sound emerged. Ortiz spoke up in her stead. “She was found guilty of collusion in action against the Lost Six. She overreacted to her sentence, and she was disciplined for it. Sorry if we didn’t observe all the niceties of how you’d run things, Benno. The decision stands.”

Benno felt the heat rise in him. “On whose authority?”

Ortiz rose. “On mine! On the will of all those like-minded souls gathered here! You won, Benno. We’re all going with you on your fool’s crusade, but don’t for one moment think you have some mandate to lead us. You’re not Captain here! So, I’ll thank you to run off, back to your bridge. Keep your hands clean and kindly allow us to clear out some of these enemies to our cause! Unless, perhaps, you identify more with our former CO and XO than you do us?”

Benno clenched his fists and stepped forward. Ortiz put a foot on the table, preparing to leap out. The crowd bristled, but Benno had no idea if they would help or attack him.

The ozone-laced snap and crackle of a charge-lance sounded, interrupting the clash. MAC Dufresne’s voice blared out from one side of the messdeck, amplified to an excruciating volume in the enclosed space. “STAND DOWN! Anyone who makes a move wakes up in the brig or the airlock!”

All eyes turned toward the starboard doorway. Chief Dufresne stood there in full riot gear, her charge-lance—a three-foot combination nightstick and taser—lit by a violet nimbus of St. Elmo’s fire. At the other three doorways, other masters-at-arms stood, similarly armed. Many on the mess decks still carried their sidearms and rifles from the mutiny, but in the close quarters, with the bodies packed in, the advantage would be to the melee-armed and armored masters-at-arms.

“Ortiz, you asshole, these are my prisoners, not yours. There’ll be no kangaroo courts on my watch. We decide to space these loyalists, it’ll be a group decision, not your ramrodding through some executions just because you’re a dick.”

Ortiz smiled tightly and took his foot off the table, but he remained standing. “Okay. Fine. We got a whole lot of us on these mess decks. I doubt you could take more than ten or so before we make you eat that stick, Chief. But I’m no rabble-rouser. I’m a man of our people.” He looked around him. “I figure we have a quorum here. Who votes we continue and finish this thing?”

Hands shot up, but Benno waved them down. “Wait a minute! Everybody! Just wait, okay? Listen to me first. Please?”

He stared down the crowd until they lowered their hands and their weapons. They grumbled, but Benno still waited. At last, only the hum of the ventilation and the buzz of the charge-lances sounded. He nodded and turned his back on Ortiz to look at the prisoners and the crowd threatening to condemn them.

“We’re not different people now than we were before all this. And just because we’ve been driven to extremes, doesn’t mean we need to embrace every other extreme. We did something unconscionable, mutinying against our own. We did it for the right reasons, and we have to defend our case and bear the consequences of it, but that doesn’t mean the next step is killing every person who doesn’t agree with us. These officers and the other loyalists were our shipmates only a few days ago. We fought alongside one another! Don’t throw that away if you don’t have to!”

The crowd rumbled. “You shot the CO and Ops in cold blood, Benno!” one voice shouted back. “Damn hypocrite!” shouted another.

Benno’s face flushed with anger and shame. “You’re right. I took out the skipper and that asshole Johnson. We also killed others in the takeover, but that was out of necessity. It was part of the mutiny. Was there some payback there? Did I pass a snap judgment on them and execute them out of nothing more than anger? Yeah. Okay, I did. They were going to have me killed and let god-knows-what happen to my little girl…and they taunted me about it. So, yes, I succumbed to my demons at that moment, and I’ll eventually accept the cost for that. But this isn’t that moment anymore. And the XO isn’t the CO. She isn’t OPS either. We all know her. We know her and the CHENG, and WEPS, and SUPPO, and CMC, and everybody else you might be planning to bring up here. They may have pissed you off in the past. They undoubtedly do condemn you and me for the course we’ve taken, and they may well try to stop us if we give them half a chance, but they are not our enemies. They’re not the ones who invaded the Lost Six, and they’re not the ones who abandoned them. They’re caught up in this just like you and I.”

The crowd was silent. Some still appeared angry and dissatisfied, but the tide had turned. The vast majority looked shame-faced and could not look Benno in the eye. Benno turned and looked behind him. Chief Wan appeared angry, but he said nothing. Instead, he stood, left the table, and pushed through the crowd, refusing to take part anymore. Petty Officer Johnson appeared embarrassed and lost.

Ortiz just gave him a smirk, a nod, and sat down at last.

Benno exhaled loudly and turned back to the crowd. “Let’s get these people back to the brig. All of you, please go back to your duties. We have to get out of this system, today, in case the fleet sends a cutter or a frigate back to check on us. After that, we’re system hopping and getting ready for battle with almost zero intel. We should be transitioning into Paradiso and fighting for our lives in less than a week.”

The crowd broke up, the cooler heads taking the line of prisoners back to the brig, and the angriest among them storming away, most headed off in Chief Wan’s wake. Benno wondered if that might become a problem later, but before he could ponder it for long, a more immediate problem presented itself.

Ortiz stepped in front of him, so close their noses almost touched. Benno stood his ground, though, and they glared at one another in tense silence, until both heard the slow approach of MAC Dufresne and her charge-lance.

Raoul smiled and rocked back slightly. “You’re a lucky penny, Warrant. Heads-up every time. That can’t last though. Sooner or later, that luck’s gonna flip.”

“Will it now?” Benno growled.

Ortiz stepped backward and clapped Benno on the shoulder in mock friendship. Grasping Benno’s arm, he squeezed tight, digging his fingernails into the chief warrant officer’s flesh. “You can’t have it both ways, Benno. You and I? When we took this ship, we opened a box that can’t be shut. We released all sorts of demons, and they won’t be satisfied until there’s blood. Too many years of too much mistreatment, these folks want payback. And if one of your loyalists does manage to set us back, or even if you can’t do all you’ve promised…it won’t matter how many pretty speeches about tolerance you give. These aristos will pay, and it may not stop there.”

Ortiz released Benno’s arm and turned. He nodded to Chief Dufresne and left the messdeck, destination unknown. Benno shook his head and looked after him. Saying nothing, Dufresne nodded at Benno, then followed Ortiz.

Benno looked around the messdeck. A few hangers-on and a single dressed-out master-at-arms remained, along with one other person: the XO. Commander Ashton had pulled herself up to a sitting position and looked at Benno with a wry half-smile. Fresh bruises bloomed across her face, and it pained Benno to see how she had been treated. She did not deserve this.

He approached and held out a hand to her. She reached up, in evident pain, but took his hand anyway. He pulled her to her feet, throwing his arm behind her to help support her weight. Some of the others left on the messdeck looked at the pair of them, but no one made a move to stop him or help her.

Benno angled the XO toward one of the compartment’s doorways and helped her walk out slowly. Once they were clear of possible eavesdroppers, he leaned toward her and said, “I’m sorry this happened, ma’am. This was never what I wanted.”

Commander Ashton chuckled with no discernible humor whatsoever. “You broke it, you bought it, Benjamin. All that follows from that first act of treason is on you.”

Benno grimaced. “I know, I know, but it’s still not what I want. You may not believe it, but I’m trying to defend the Alliance, to save my home and my family. I don’t want to see it fall, nor its people killed, and I don’t want my people to lose any more of their souls than they have to. I stopped your lynching.”

“If you expect me to thank you, you’re in for a long, long wait.”

He nodded. “I don’t blame you. In the fullness of time, though, I hope you’ll look back on this and see that I was right, that we had no other real choice. Besides, I didn’t just save you out of altruism. You all represent a great resource. If you do finally realize what we’ve done was necessary, I hope you’ll help us free our people. They’re your fellow citizens, too. They matter just as much as aristos do.”

She stopped in the empty passageway and looked at him, her eyes narrowed. “Did you ever, for one instant, pause and think that the situation with the Lost Six didn’t sit well with us either? You hurl ‘aristo’ like an epithet, as if how or where we were born is all that we are, like we’re not just other people. No sane person wanted to abandon those worlds. There are things we can do something about, and things that we hate but still have to accept! This fleet can’t just stop its offensive into Terran territory. We went on the offensive because it’s the only way to stop their encroachment upon the Alliance, an encroachment that’s affected a hell of a lot more than six colony worlds and their relatively low populations. So, yeah, it sucks, but we accept our mission, we soldier on, and we take faith in the humanity of our fellow officers and leaders that they won’t allow this situation to stand for long. Did the Navy screw up by not patrolling those systems? Hell, yes, but you don’t see whole squadrons going rogue and turning their backs on their obligations.”

Benno nodded, but the argument was not done. “Those are nice platitudes, and I don’t disagree entirely, but what about me in that brig? What about the sentence on my head that was about to be carried out? Look at me and think about what I was facing, what the rest of this crew and I were put through, knowing our families had been left to rot…and then remember the man you served. Think of all of that and tell me you wouldn’t have done exactly what I did!”

The XO looked at him, her expression unreadable, and let the question rest. She began walking again. “Take me back to the brig, Warrant.”

They walked on, this time in silence, though he still supported her weight. They passed many crew members as they walked aft and down to the deck the brig was on. Some stared, and some glared, but no one interrupted them.

As they rounded a corner on the brig’s deck, the secure doorway loomed. Commander Ashton suddenly reached out and grabbed Benno’s uniform collar. He jerked back and put his hand up to ward off a blow, but she was not trying to escape. Instead, she tugged him over to the side of the passageway, still weak, and pulled his ear down to her lips.

She whispered urgently. “I have to put my faith in you now, Benno, and hope that you do plan to release us. And if that’s your plan, it behooves me to make sure we survive this assault on Paradiso. I’ve got a husband and a couple of brats on Centralis that I want desperately to see again.”

He nodded. “Okay. What are you offering?”

“Two pieces of advice,” she whispered. “First, you may be the de facto captain around here, but you’re just a techie. You qualified Tactical Action Officer in order to stay competitive for advancement, but your knowledge of how to fight this ship is rudimentary at best. I’m not sure who all is on your side or who stayed loyal, and you’ve got em locked up in that hull section, but if you have senior enlisteds from the Ops, Intel, or Fire Control rates, leave the warfighting and tactics to them. Hold a war council and get their help planning your attack right. Delegate to the people that know what they’re doing.”

His inadequacies called out, Benno’s cheeks grew red in embarrassment, but he urged her on. “Fine. Good idea. What’s the second piece of wisdom?”

“Kill Ortiz.”

He jumped in surprise, but she drew him back and continued. “You have an enemy on board, but it’s not those you’ve locked up. It’s him, and you better believe he’s gunning for you. After all, once you put mutiny on the table as a viable option, how far off can the next one be?”

“Raoul and I disagree—vehemently—but I don’t think we’re to that point yet.”

“No? Well, you were late to the party. He was doing a pretty good job of campaigning for the position of Commanding Officer before you showed, and your leadership was absolutely a subject under discussion. He’s drawing together the like-minded, and once there’s enough confusion, enough plausible deniability, or enough overt support, he’s going to stab you in the back—both figuratively and literally. You have to get him first.”

Benno shook his head. “I kill Ortiz, and I invalidate every single principle I’ve been preaching to these crewmen. What do ‘shipmate’ or ‘honor’ mean if I straight up murder a rival?! It doesn’t matter how I justify it, I’ll still be seen as a dictator abusing my power. And there’s no guarantee his cronies would shape up after I martyred him.”

Amanda Ashton shrugged. “Yeah, because cutting the head off a snake has never been a valid method of pest control. I don’t give a shit how, when, or why you do it. Just get it done, and don’t let indecision be a weapon against you. Hell, make it look like an accident. An unfortunate casualty of the upcoming battle, maybe? That’s likely what he has planned for you, though I wouldn’t put it past the son-of-a-bitch to shoot you right in front of everyone. He’s bold and reckless.”

Benno frowned. “And you could be advising this to undermine the mutiny…”

She nodded. “Yeah. It’s a real bitch when you can’t trust the people under your command. Do what you will…it’s just that I’d like to be breathing on the other end of this journey. My chances are better with you in charge.”

With that, she walked forward and staggered into the brig under her own power, with no further assistance from Benno.

He looked at the empty doorway, and he thought, long and hard.

* * * * *

Chapter Twelve: Mio

Mio dropped the cup into the soapy water, and a splash of suds shot straight up, hitting her in the face and getting into both eyes. The homemade soap was enormously caustic, and her eyes were immediately on fire. Tears poured down her face as her body tried to get the burning to stop. That’s just perfect, she thought, I can’t even do dishes anymore without hurting myself. No wonder they won’t let me go on a raid.

Two weeks had passed since she had qualified as a raider, but still, no one took her seriously. Would she ever get her chance?

“I don’t like doing dishes, either,” a male voice said, “but it surely ain’t worth crying over.”

Mio opened one eye a crack. Harry stood in front of her smiling warmly.

“It’s not the dishes,” Mio said; “I just splashed soap in my eyes.” Blinking rapidly, she finally cleared the soapy residue and was able to open her eyes again. She did her best to smile. “Not that I like doing dishes, because I don’t.”

Mio took a closer look at the man. Where he had been thin before, he was now gaunt and looked like he might fall over at any moment…and there was no chance of him surviving a stiff breeze. “Should you be up?” she asked.

“The medic said I could move around a little if I didn’t overextend myself,” Harry replied. “I wanted to come say thanks for saving my life.”

“Sure,” Mio said. “I was just trying to do my part like you told me to…although I ended up back here again, anyway.”

“I know it’s hard on you, but you shouldn’t get upset about being back on dish duty.”

“Oh, yeah?” Mio asked, putting her hands on her hips and looking up defiantly at the taller man. “Why not? I got qualified to raid, but I never get to go with the rest of the folks.”

“Because everyone needs to do what they can do to help the group. Most of our missions right now are scouting. What do you know about scouting?”

“Well, not much,” Mio admitted, looking at the ground.

“See? So let the people who know how to scout do the scouting, and you do what you know how to do, which is the dishes.”

“But that’s not fair!” Mio exclaimed. “Someone could train me to be a scout—I’m a fast learner—and then I could do that, too.”

“True…but you won’t have the experience of the professional trackers…just like they don’t have your experience with dishes.” Harry smiled. “I know it’s hard to be patient, but you never know who’s watching you or why.”

“What do you mean?” Mio asked, her brows knitting.

“I mean that our leaders need people who are disciplined. When you followed our group to the warehouse, you disobeyed an order to stay at the camp.”

He held up his hands to forestall the argument he saw coming. “Trust me, there’s no one happier than me that you did. If the stories are true, you saved my life not once, but twice. But—and here’s a big but—you violated orders. It turned out well, but it might not have. What if you’d been caught, then been forced to give away the location of the camp? Since no one knew you were at the warehouse, we wouldn’t have known the Terrans were coming and would have been unprepared when they attacked the camp.”

Harry sighed, then continued, “It wasn’t such a big deal then because you weren’t trained and didn’t know much, but now that you’re a qualified raider, people expect you to follow the rules.”

“What does that mean?”

“I suspect you’ve been put back on dish duty to see whether you’ll follow orders and do it, or whether you’ll disobey again and follow another patrol.”

“So I’m being tested?” Mio asked, a small smile on her face. “I may get to do more of the big things if I show I can follow the rules on the little things?”

“Exactly,” Harry said. “Don’t let it get you down. Show the leaders you can excel at any task they give you; do your best in all things, and you’ll move up…even if it might not be as fast as you’d like.” Harry met her eyes. “Can you do that?”

“Yes, I can,” Mio said, attacking the dishes with a renewed vengeance. She had a hard time controlling her eyes; she wanted to look around and see who was watching her. “Thanks,” she added in a conspiratorial tone. “Thanks for explaining it to me.”

“My pleasure,” Harry replied. “It’s the least I could do. You really did save my life.”

“I don’t know about that,” Mio said, thinking back to that night. “The Terran trooper might not have killed you; he might have taken you back to their base instead.”

“If he’d taken me back, I’d certainly be dead now!” Harry exclaimed with a level of vehemence Mio had never heard from him before. He took a deep breath and blew it out, and his eyes took on a faraway look, as if watching something only he could see. After a couple of seconds, he shook his head. “Sorry, there’s no way you could have known.”

“Known what?”

“That I used to be a Terran trooper myself.”

Mio dropped the cup she was holding and jumped back in alarm. “You’re a Terran spy?” she asked loudly as the cup splashed into the soapy water.

“Easy, easy,” Harry replied, making a patting motion with his hands. “I’m not one now, nor did I ever want to be one. I grew up on a planet in the Terran Union, and all I ever wanted was to be a farmer.” He sighed. “That didn’t happen.”

“Why not?”

“The Terran Army showed up at the farm one day and said that I’d been drafted. They said they’d put my wife in jail and my daughter in an orphanage if I didn’t go with them. So I went to space and became a Terran Union missile tech.”

“You used to work on missiles?” Mio asked. “Like the ones they brought down to Adelaide to shoot down our ships?”

“Not quite like those,” Harry said. “It was some time ago, and I worked on an older system. This system replaced the one I used to work on, so it’s similar…but different.”

“Did you like being a missile tech?”

Harry shook his head. “I told you; I never wanted to be in the Army. When my wife and daughter were killed in a food riot while I was gone, I decided it was time to leave the military…so I did. The Terran Union considers me a deserter, which I am, and being a deserter warrants the death penalty. If they ever catch me, they will kill me.”

“Well…wow,” Mio said. “I would never have guessed you were a Tur…I mean, a Terran Union soldier.”

“Most people don’t know,” Harry said, a wry grin on his face. “It isn’t something I’m proud of, nor something I want to advertise. People might wonder about my loyalties. Let’s just keep it our little secret, okay?”

“Sure thing.”

“Thanks,” Harry said as he hobbled off. “Now, I better go back and lie down before I fall down.”

* * *

Mio eyed the small brown box critically, disdain and disgust written all over her face. With a shudder, she finally tossed the meal packet back onto the pallet, to join the 10 or 12 remaining boxes there.

“If you don’t eat, you’re never going to grow up to be a big, strong raider like me,” Dan said from behind her. He reached down and picked up the packet Mio had dropped as well as the one next to it.

Dan turned the first packet over. “Spinach, egg, and cheese omelet? Bah, you can’t go wrong with that!” He sat down on a nearby log and broke it open with apparent gusto.

“If eating that crap is what it takes to be a raider, then I’m not sure I want to be one.”

“Mrffy?” Dan asked through a mouthful of food. He swallowed, then said, “That’s too bad. I’m leading a mission this evening, and I was going to make sure I brought you along. If you’ve given up on being a raider, though, I guess I’ll have to do without.”

Really?” Mio cried, her eyes opening wide. “I get to come tonight? What are we doing?”

“Well, not everybody likes these things,” he said, nodding to the second meal pack as he tore it open, “and we’re almost out of them, so we’re going to hit one of the food storage facilities in town.”

“You’re going to take me on a raid in town?” Mio asked. All the Terran soldiers were in town. “Seriously?”

“Yeah, I know it’s dangerous,” Dan said, shrugging, “but we have to eat, and that’s where the food is.”

They need me, and I can do this. Dad would want me to be strong. “Okay,” Mio said after a pause. “What can I do?”

Dan smiled. “I’m glad you asked, because I have something only you can do…”

* * *

Mio’s eyes darted from side to side as she crept along the wall of the building. Although terrifyingly nerve-wracking, the raiders’ approach to the town had gone smoothly. The guards and patrols had been where Dan had briefed the group they would be, based on his reconnaissance of the town over the last several nights.

When the expected gap in the sentry coverage had appeared, the group had run from the cover of the trees to the first buildings, and they were now working their way further into the town. Every step took them closer to the Terran soldiers—and their deaths, if they were caught.

Mio’s eyes paused as they drifted past the hooded figure in front of her, drawing strength from Diego’s presence. She would be strong, if for no other reason than to show Diego that she was more than just a little girl; she was a raider, worthy of his notice. He stopped suddenly, and she almost ran into him, her arm scraping along the building they were passing as she tried to stop.

Diego spun at the noise her arm made with a finger over his lips. “Can’t you be quiet?” he mouthed. “There’s something up front.”

Mio looked past Diego and saw Dan with his hand up in a fist. She knew it was Dan; he had a large coil of rope over his shoulder. She looked back at Diego and nodded silently, not wanting to make any more noise. Diego turned around, and Mio focused her attention on Dan, who she realized she should have been focused on all along. He remained frozen, watching something only he could see. Mio thought she could hear a pounding nearby, but realized it was only her heart, and she tried to take some deep breaths to calm herself. It wasn’t that hot out, but sweat matted her hair and ran down her back.

After a couple of seconds more, Dan waved them forward again, and the procession began moving. In addition to Dan and Diego, three more men followed Mio, and she looked back to see if they were coming. She couldn’t see the third man, but the two right behind her were close by, carrying the gigantic ladder they would need once they arrived at the target.

Mio’s legs were unsteady as she sprinted across the next street, and she had to force herself to concentrate for fear of falling face-first when she reached the curb on the other side. Somehow she kept her legs moving and made it to where Diego waited at the next building. She hadn’t seen a Terran yet, but her eyes shifted about wildly, looking for the troopers she knew were nearby.

“Easy,” Diego whispered, putting a hand on her arm. “We’re almost there.”

Mio drew strength from the contact and nodded once, trying to hide her fear. Did the rest of the men feel as scared as she did? If so, they didn’t show it. Perhaps they had done this more often and were more accustomed to it. Mio didn’t know how they could be so alert; it seemed like she had to concentrate on all her body’s functions, just to keep them working properly. Breathe in. Breathe out. She was afraid she’d pass out if she didn’t keep remembering to tell herself that.

They raced across two more side streets, then Dan stopped again. Mio saw his hand go up this time and stopped on her own, without running into Diego. Progress, she thought with a small smile.

She looked around. Although most of the first buildings they had passed looked like houses, they had now entered a more industrial area where the buildings were bigger. The lights on the street were further apart, and the only illumination on the side of the building was from the smaller moon which was less than half full.

“This is the place,” Dan said as he walked past her. Dan brought the men with the ladder forward and had them set it up against the side of the building. Each of them stepped to the side to help hold it in place.

Mio looked up; the side of the building rose over forty feet into the darkness. She pressed her knees together to keep them from knocking.

“Ready?” Dan whispered.

Mio nodded, not sure she could reply in a steady voice.

“Okay, follow me, but not too close.” Dan turned and went up the ladder, which creaked ominously in the silent night. Once he was five steps up, one of the men holding the ladder nodded to her.

Mio didn’t think she wanted to be on the ladder at the same time as Dan; it continued to groan as it flexed under his weight, and she wasn’t sure it would hold them both. The man nodded again, more urgently this time, so she set her rifle against the wall, stepped up to the ladder, and put her hand on one of the rungs.

“Good luck!” Diego whispered from the side.

An unbidden smile crossed her face. “Thanks,” she whispered back, glad he couldn’t see her face redden in the dark.

The smile came back as she climbed the ladder. Diego had wished her luck. Her eyes darted back down to see if he was watching, and she had to lean forward to embrace the ladder; she hadn’t realized how far up she was!

She didn’t want to let go of the ladder to keep climbing but realized that staying there didn’t do anyone any good, especially her, so she concentrated on looking up, only up, and began climbing again. She reached the top without falling off, and Dan’s strong hand was there to help guide her off the ladder onto the roof.

Mildly inclined, the surface was flat with no tiles, so her footing was secure. She took a deep breath and let it out through her mouth; she had been worried about falling off.

“Come on,” Dan said, and he led her across the roof to the other side. He took the rope off his shoulder, wrapped it around her and through her legs, fashioning a seat for her, then knotted it off. “Ready?” he asked.

Mio looked up and gave him a thin smile. “What if I said, ‘not really’?” she asked.

“I’d say, ‘we don’t have time for you to not be ready.’”

Mio nodded. “I was afraid of that,” she replied. She sighed and stood a little straighter. Her dad would be proud of her for this later. “Okay. I’m ready.”

Dan guided her to sit on the edge of the roof, with her feet dangling into the darkness. She couldn’t see the ground below. Even though she knew it was a long way down and would have been scary to see, it would have been better than hanging over the blackness.

“N-now what?” Mio asked.

“Now roll onto your stomach and slide off.”

“I…I don’t think I can,” Mio said looking down. She was unable to take her eyes off the blackness and could feel it seeping into her heart, pulling her down to her death. If she went off the edge, she would fall! She laid back on the roof, paralyzed.

With a shock, she felt her hips lift off the roof—Dan was lifting her up with the rope! She had to untie herself! Her hands went reflexively to the rope, and she sat up, but her legs didn’t touch anywhere—they dangled into the nothingness that waited past the edge. Mio looked around wildly and realized Dan had stepped forward; she was now dangling over the edge. She froze, not wanting to do anything to make Dan lose his grip on the rope.

Dan began lowering her, and she squeezed her eyes shut.

“How’s that?” Dan asked in a whisper.

Mio opened one eye halfway. A small grate waited in front of her, about eight inches away.

“Are you close?”

Mio closed her eye and nodded.

“Are you close?” Dan asked again, a more urgent tone to his voice. “I can’t hold you forever.”

Both of Mio’s eye sprang open. Couldn’t hold her? Dan wouldn’t drop her, would he? Not intentionally, she realized, but he was holding all her weight as she dangled next to the building. If she didn’t do what she was supposed to, he would either have to pull her up soon or drop her. She didn’t think she could let go of the rope, but she didn’t want to be a failure in her first mission, and she certainly didn’t want to fall to her death.

Her dad would want her to try. Tentatively, she released the rope with one of her hands. She didn’t fall.

“Last chance,” Dan said. “Are you close?”

“Yes,” she said. “I’m working on it.”

Keeping one hand securely on the rope, Mio opened the cargo pocket on her hip, pulled out the screwdriver and started unscrewing the screw on the right. It backed out easily, and she released a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. Now that she was doing something, hanging in midair didn’t seem so bad. Not that she was going to look down again any time soon.

Once the screw was wiggling, she put the screwdriver back in her pocket and finished removing it by hand. Putting it in the same pocket, she used the motion to pull the screwdriver back out again. She couldn’t reach the left screw with her right hand, though, so she placed it between her teeth while she changed hands.

The rope secure in her right hand, she started on the left screw. It was a little harder to withdraw, and she almost dropped the screwdriver once, but she finally got it started.

“Can you hurry?” Dan asked.

Mio was already going as fast as she safely could, but when she realized the rope was starting to shake, she leaned forward, released her right hand, and began turning the screwdriver with both hands.

She made it two more revolutions before the screwdriver slipped out of the slot and fell out of her hands. She made a grab for it, then grabbed back onto the rope as she almost fell forward and out of her rope “seat.” The screwdriver made a dull thud as it hit the dirt below her.

“What was that?” Dan asked.

“I dropped the screwdriver.”

“Can you still get it?”

“I think so.” Mio reached out and began turning the screw by hand. It backed out the rest of the way, and she put it in her pocket.

Now came the hard part. She had to wiggle the grate out without making enough noise to draw attention to herself. Mio stuck her fingers into the grating; they were just small enough to fit between the louvers. It was stuck. She really needed the screwdriver to get it out far enough to get any purchase on it. Maybe if she was on the ground and could brace herself, she might have enough strength to remove it, but here?

No way.

Unless…unless she let go of the rope with both hands and used her legs to brace herself on the building’s wall while she did it. The rope was twitching harder now; it wouldn’t be long before Dan had to pull her up or let her go.

She had to do this. For the other members of the resistance counting on her, as well as for her dad. And especially for Diego, who had wished her luck. She let go with both hands and stuck her fingers into the louvers. Trusting Dan to hold her, she pulled her legs over to the wall and walked them up to where they were just outside the vent on both sides.

Summoning her strength, she pulled as hard as she could. The vent pulled out! Well, not all the way, but it came out at least half an inch. She could do this. Bracing herself again, she pulled, and the grate came out another inch. One more try, she thought. She got her legs positioned, but before she could pull, the vibrations in the rope stopped.

Dan was going to pull her up! She would be a failure. Before he could bring her back up, she yanked on the grate again. Her fear gave her extra strength, and the grate came off in her hands, along with the mechanism that ran the vent attached to the back of it. Unready for it to pop off so easily, and not expecting the extra weight of the machinery attached, she went over backwards. I’m going to fall!

Reflexively, her knees grabbed hold of the rope, keeping her from sliding out of the seat, but the weight and the bulk of the machinery in her hands was too much for her to hold in one hand—she couldn’t use her hands to pull herself back up, and was left dangling, nearly upside down, with the vent mechanism held to her chest. She couldn’t grab the rope with her hand, nor were her stomach muscles strong enough to right her.

Help!” she whispered.

The rope was pulled up a little, and two hands grabbed onto her legs. They didn’t pull her up but helped guide them as the rope lifted her higher. Another pull and the feeling of sideways motion, and the roof came up under her back. Dan lowered her until she was flat on her back.

“Wow,” Diego said in a whisper. “That had to be scary.”

Mio opened her eyes. Diego was in front of her; it had been his hands on her legs that guided her back up.

The presence of Diego and the close contact with him didn’t help slow her hammering heartbeat, and all she could do was nod silently.

“I mean, hanging upside down like that? That would have scared the crap out of me,” Diego continued. “I would’ve dropped the vent; I know I would.”

Mio heard a different note in Diego’s voice—admiration. She had done something worthy in his sights! She smiled and ventured a word. “Thanks.” It almost came out with a giggle, but whether the giggle was from fear or excitement, she wasn’t sure.

“I’ll take that,” Dan said, reaching for the vent.

Mio didn’t say anything, nor did she release the vent. She was too caught up the in the look of respect in Diego’s eyes.

“Really, I’ll take that,” Dan repeated. “We need to be going.”

Mio shook her head to clear it. “Okay,” she said, letting go. Her eyes returned to Diego’s. “How did you get here?” she asked.

“I heard the screwdriver you dropped hit the ground, and I thought you might need it.” He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out the tool. Handing it to her, he added, “That was kind of clumsy.”

“Yeah,” she replied. “Dan told me to hurry, and I went too fast. I thought he was going to drop me.”

“I just might have dropped you when you pushed off like that,” Dan said. “I wasn’t expecting that big pull and was almost out of strength. Luckily, Diego showed up right before that and helped me hold the rope; together we were able to keep from going over the side.”

“Oops, sorry,” Mio said. Then it dawned on her. “You saved my life,” she said to Diego.

“Well, if you look at it like that, maybe I did,” Diego replied, “but I was really just helping out where I could.”

“Harry told me that one time,” Mio said. “Everything everyone does to help is important…I think I get it now.” She nodded; it all made sense. Even pitching in on small things could have big consequences.

“Good,” Dan said, “because I need you to go back down there and finish what we came here to do. We’re running out of time.” He looked into the street, and Mio followed his eyes. A truck waited on the other side where there hadn’t been one before, it’s lights out. “We’re behind schedule,” he added. “We’re running out of time—our ride is here, and it won’t be long until they’re noticed.”

“Okay,” Mio said, sitting up. “I’m ready to go. Lower me down.”

“All right,” Dan said, “but I won’t be able to hold you as long this time; my arms are about shot, and Diego has to go rejoin his group.”

“I know,” Mio said. “I’ll be faster.”

“Aren’t you scared to go back over the edge?” Diego asked. “Especially after you almost fell last time?”

“A little,” Mio admitted. “But this is my part to play, and I can do it. Go back to your group; I’ll have the door open soon.”

Diego smiled. “Good luck—no, better luck this time,” he said. Without waiting for a response, he turned and headed for the ladder.

“Ready,” Mio said. “Lower away.”

“It would be better if you could just slide off,” Dan said. “That way I don’t have to move around while I’m holding your weight. It would be safer that way.”

Slide off? Into the dark? Every fiber of her being said no, but Mio nodded. “Okay,” she said.

She pulled up her rope harness, making sure everything was properly positioned, then flipped onto her stomach. “Here I go.”

Her toes went over the ledge, then her legs. It was almost like being in the tunnels and hanging over the abyss again. She paused to take a breath when she got to her waist. “Got me?” she asked.

Dan took up some of the tension, so she could feel the pull. “I’ve got you,” he said. “Go fast, but be careful.”

“Got it.” Mio grabbed the rope in her left hand and slid backward into a seated position in the rope chair, holding on with one hand while she guided herself down with the other. It was easier this time. After being upside down in the dark, being right-side up was a lot more comfortable.

Dan lowered her to the vent, but she realized she had a problem; there was no way for her to turn around and go through feet first; she would have to go head first, which would entail dangling upside-down again.

That position was not one she favored, but at least she didn’t have the heavy vent in her hands; she would be able to turn and grab the rope when needed. Steeling herself, she reached out, grabbed the lip of the hole, and pulled herself over to it. She stuck her head through but couldn’t see anything below in the dark. She started to pull herself through, but her shoulders wouldn’t fit. She pulled harder, but only succeeded in getting herself stuck.

After a second or two of panic, she was finally able to free herself by pushing back out. She looked at the vent for a second as she dangled; it was almost exactly the same width as her shoulders. Dan had been right—none of the men would have been able to do this, and probably none of the women either. She was the smallest person in the resistance; if she couldn’t do it, it couldn’t be done.

What if she went through like she was diving into the lake over at the Cartwright’s farm, she wondered. Would that make her shoulders smaller? She held up her arms and watched as her shoulders rotated in. Maybe. Without pausing to think about it, she pulled herself back to the gap and reached inside the opening with both hands. It was awkward struggling through, but eventually she got enough of her arms through to pull back down with her elbows. Her shoulders were through!

Placing her palms on the wall, she pushed off, getting her torso through to her waist. Hanging upside down, she reached back to grab the rope while her other hand pushed off the wall. Her hips were tight and her pistol holster caught at first, but she snaked her way back and forth, finally freeing them. Her legs slid into the building, and Mio pulled herself upright.

She smiled. If this weren’t so dangerous, it might almost be fun!

The rope started twitching again, and she knew she needed to go. Grabbing the rope with both hands, she gave two tugs, careful not to use her legs and upset Dan’s balance.

She immediately started down. Her eyes adjusted to the gloom as she descended, and she could see individual boxes and pallets of crates stacked throughout the structure in rows wide enough to get a small forklift through.

She also heard a small noise that grew as she neared the floor. A rumbling that would pause momentarily and start back up again. Snoring. There was someone in the building!

Mio made it to the floor and stepped out of the rope. She gave three tugs and the rope retracted back through the vent hole.

She began sneaking toward the front door, using the snoring as a guide. She had been wrong when she first looked in; there was enough light to see by—barely—and she was able to navigate the rows of boxes. She crept toward the front, staying next to one of the rows so she could stay ‘in cover’ like the raiders did. She reached the end of the row and could see the dim outline of the man 15 feet away; he had pulled a large crate over to the door and was sleeping on it. No one could enter without waking him!

In the dim light, she couldn’t tell if the man was just a guard or a Terran.

She approached the man, carefully lifting and placing each step as she advanced. At five feet, she stopped, as she was able to see the man’s clothes more clearly. The man was facing her and had a uniform on; he was a Terran soldier!

Mio was going to have to do something about him.

Darn it.

At least knowing he was a Terran soldier made the ‘what to do’ with him question much easier. He was part of the unit that had killed her foster family and many of her friends; he would die. She popped the snap on her pistol holster without thinking.

It didn’t make much noise, but it was enough to disturb the soldier. The snoring stopped, and he mumbled something. Mio froze, five feet away, with nothing to hide behind, praying he’d go back to sleep. He rolled over away from her. Mio breathed through her mouth, trying hard not to make a single sound, but her heart was beating so hard, she wasn’t sure how he couldn’t hear it.

After the longest 30 seconds of her life, he began snoring again.

Mio knew she had to hurry; at any moment, Dan might knock on the door and wake him up. She had to kill him now. She eased the laser pistol from the holster, holding the flap with her left hand to keep it from slapping. The man continued snoring, and she aimed it at his back.

Like the first time she had aimed a weapon at a man, though, she couldn’t pull the trigger; this time, however, it wasn’t the safety’s fault. As she sighted down her pistol at the snoring man’s back, she realized she just couldn’t do it. Last time had been in combat, and she had shot the soldier to save Dan and Harry; this time, she was shooting a sleeping man in the back. It was murder, plain and simple, and she just couldn’t do it.

But she needed to do something about him, quietly and immediately.

She looked around but couldn’t see anything except crates and boxes. While she might have found a box light enough to lift, she didn’t know what she could do with it to improve her situation, other than hit him in the head with it and try to knock him out. Of course, if she was going to do that, she might as well just hit the soldier in the temple with her pistol and try to knock him out that way. It would probably be easier, and she could be surer of hitting him where she wanted. That would work. She would knock him out, then pull the crate away from the door. If one of the men wanted to kill the soldier, they could, and it wouldn’t be her fault.

She took two silent steps closer and realized she couldn’t hit the man with the pistol. Not only was the angle wrong, but she wasn’t sure precisely where she needed to hit him, or how hard she needed to do it, to knock him out. Odds were, she would probably just make him mad and be within reach of him.

Darn it, that wouldn’t work either.

She was out of options. It was either shoot him or try to knock him out; anything else was going to end poorly, with the man grabbing her and preventing her from opening the door for her friends. She didn’t know what to do—she couldn’t shoot him, she really couldn’t, and she knew the odds of knocking him out were extremely low.

Maybe she could just quickly pull on the crate, slide it from the door, then unlock it for her friends. That would work if the man was a heavy sleeper…but he had already shown he wasn’t. That probably wouldn’t work either, then.

She was out of ideas, and she needed to let her friends in. They were just a few feet away, yet she had no way of contacting them. In horror, she watched as the doorknob turned slightly as someone tested it.

That was it! She could just unlock the door, then step back. The resistance fighters could enter while she held the pistol on the sleeping soldier. If he woke up, she could shoot him; otherwise, Dan could deal with him. She wouldn’t even have to climb on the crate; she could reach it from the end.

Slowly, she crept to the end of the crate, pistol in her right hand, while the man continued to snore. She could see his face now. His eyes were shut, and he looked as peaceful as a man sleeping on a crate could be. She could also see his rifle and helmet, which were on the far side from her. Should she try to take his rifle?

No, it was too dangerous. She decided to continue with her plan. The door looked easy enough to open, but there were two locks, not one. She stretched out her left hand toward the door handle, her hand shaking with the tension. All she needed was a simple twist of the mechanism on the doorknob and another of the bolt above it. Her fingertip touched the lock on the doorknob. Darn it—it was further than she’d thought; she’d misjudged the distance in the gloom. She stretched, then leaned in, her arm not more than six inches from the man’s face, and was able to get a good enough grip to turn the lock. It moved silently; the door was unlocked. Now for the bolt.

She was reaching for the bolt lever when the handle turned, and someone outside tried to open the door. It rattled in its frame, and the soldier was instantly awake. Like a snake striking, his hand shot up and grabbed her arm. She tried to reach the bolt, but his grip was like iron; she couldn’t move.

“Heh, heh, what have we got here?” he asked, rolling onto his back and leaning back so he could see her. “Ooh, something pretty has come to visit me.”

Mio tried to pull away, but there was no way she could break his grasp. He started pulling her down, bringing her face closer to his. She could smell his breath. Putrid. He had been drinking something, which is probably why he had the crate by the door, so no one would sneak up on him.

“How about a little kiss?” he asked.

“No!” Mio screamed, slamming the butt of her pistol down on his forehead as hard as she could. The soldier tried to get away, but only succeeded in changing the impact point from his temple to his mouth. Mio drove the butt into his lower lip and chin and heard the sounds of shattering teeth.

“Mmpf!” the man exclaimed, both his hands going to his face.

Mio wasn’t ready for the sudden release and fell backward to the floor. The man rolled off the crate, blood pouring from his mouth, and turned toward Mio.

“I was just going to have a little fun with you,” the soldier said. He spat out part of a tooth. “But now I’m going to kill you.”

Mio skittered back on her hands and feet until she ran into a crate. She was trapped. To her right, the wall. The crates ran from behind her to her left. She couldn’t escape.

She raised the pistol in her shaking hand. “Stay back,” she warned. “I don’t want to kill you, but I will.”

“You? Kill me? I don’t think you have it in you.”

“I’ve already killed three Turds just like you,” Mio replied. She brought up her left hand to help hold the pistol, and the shaking became less pronounced. With many hours on the range, she didn’t have to look; she flipped the safety off with a finger. “Don’t make me kill you.”

The man took a step toward her, and then another. “See now,” he said, “maybe I got you wrong. You’ve got fire in you. I like fire.” He took another step. “We could probably be friends.” Another step.

The man was only a couple of steps from grabbing her. “If you come any closer, I’ll shoot!” Mio warned.

With a roar, the man dove for her. Mio had been aiming at his chest; when he dove, his head came down, and the beam intercepted the top, drilling into it. The man crashed into Mio, slamming her head against the crates. Everything went black.

* * *

A rattling noise woke her, and she struggled to remember where she was and why she was being squashed. She opened one eye—the other seemed to be glued shut—and she remembered. Warehouse. Dead man lying on her. She pushed the corpse off and crab-walked to the right. The wall and an object on the floor stopped her.

She picked up the object; it was her pistol, but she didn’t remember dropping it.

The rattling sounded again. Someone was trying to get in. Not someone, her friends. She looked at the pistol and flipped the safety on before putting it in her holster, then she struggled to her feet and walked drunkenly to the door. Weird. Someone had put a crate in front of it. She paused to look at the crate in confusion, and the rattling sounded again. “Mio!” a voice called. “Let us in!”

Oh. They wanted in. She pulled the crate out of the way, but no one came in. “Come in,” she called.

“It’s locked,” the same voice said. She recognized the voice. Dan.

She turned the lock on the door and tried the handle. It didn’t work. Silly Dan, the door hadn’t been locked. She turned the lock back off and tried the handle. Now the door was unlocked, but it was bolted. She turned the bolt lever and was almost knocked over as a group of men rushed into the warehouse.

“Mio!” Dan exclaimed. “You’re alive! We thought something had happened to you.” He held her in front of him, both hands on her shoulders. A glimmer of light from outside reflected from her chest, and Dan recognized the sticky feel under one of his hands. “You’re bleeding!” he exclaimed. “Where are you hit?”

“I don’t think I’m hit,” Mio replied. Some of the cobwebs in her head seemed to be clearing. “At least I don’t remember being shot.”

“I’ve got a dead Turd over here,” one of the men called.

“Yeah, shot him,” Mio mumbled. “Then he ran my head into the crates.”

Dan felt the back of her head. “Yeah, there’s a big knot there. You’ve probably got a concussion.” He sat her down by the door. “Stay there,” he said. “Everyone else, let’s get what we came for as quickly as possible.” He looked at his watch. “There are going to be random patrols soon; we need to get out of here.”

Mio watched as the men took boxes and crates to the truck, seemingly at twice their normal speed, including one man she recognized. “Hi Diego,” she called.

“Shhhhh,” he replied. “Keep your voice down!”

“Right,” she said. “We don’t want anyone to know I like you.”

He looked confused but continued out the door with the box he was carrying.

The men continued taking things outside and Mio smiled at them as they passed her. They looked like ants, scurrying about.

“Okay,” Dan said, magically appeared in front of her. “Time to go.”

“Time to go where?” Mio asked.

Dan lifted her to her feet. “Home,” he said.

“I like home,” Mio agreed. She took a step toward Dan and collapsed.

* * * * *

Chapter Thirteen: Benno

Once upon a time, the Earth nurtured all known life. Humanity, ingenious, ever expanding, ever hungry for the next frontier, pushed outward, bending materials and science to its will. The solar system became its new playground, and all was good…for a time. Eventually, the pressures and tensions of life made that expanded disk of potential habitats too small to bear, and humanity thrust out again, this time into interstellar space.

The empire of man expanded outward in an oddly amorphous blob, reaching out to the closest stars in a roughly spherical shell, until it reached a G-type star system with habitable, terraformable planets. It would then establish a new node for another spherical expansion, as expansion around the first star became less economically viable. After two hundred years, the populated Terran Union comprised a volume 40 light-years across, containing 6 G-type nodes and dozens of K- and M-type systems with habitable, terraformable, Earth-like worlds. Hundreds of population centers sprang up with millions upon millions of humans—though none of Sol’s daughters ever reached the massive population density of Earth.

This ungainly mass of humanity was virtually ungovernable, but that didn’t stop the Union from trying. Close to Earth and the first few populated nodes, planetary governments took direction from the Union with little complaint. Further out, however, the Union grew more and more domineering and oppressive. Eventually, two nodes in the southern hemisphere of the celestial globe—Delta Pavonis and Beta Hydri—along with the ten inhabited systems around them rebelled and formed the Alliance of Liberated Systems, successfully throwing off the shackles of Earth and the Terran Union. The arm of expansion south was cut off from the Terran Union, and the Alliance struck outward on its own.

New nodes were formed, new colonies were built, and one day…Paradiso.

As one of the Lost Six colonies, it was small and out of the way, a far reach from the nearest node of Zeta Tucanae. It was a lovely world—a shockingly Earth-like planet that had hardly needed any terraforming, which orbited the cooler orange K-type dwarf star of Gliese 902, 37 light-years from Sol. Given enough time, it might well become the jewel of the Alliance, rivaling even Centralis in its abundance of life, resources, and inhabitants.

Paradiso sat nearly alone in space, a blue, white, green, and tan marble, 0.8 astronomical units out from Gliese 902. The world was slightly larger than Earth, but not quite as dense, so it had roughly the same mass and gravity. On the surface, technology was only sustainable by local industry to the level of 1800s farm country. Its inhabitants lived bucolic lives of contented toil, not dissimilar to what Mennonites or the Amish still practiced on Terra. They were playing a long game toward development, trying to get right what so many others had gotten wrong by rushing and spoiling their natural worlds.

They were quickly overrun by the assault company of modern Terran troops.

There was no way-station in orbit to stand as a port or sentinel. Paradiso was too young and too small to justify the construction and manning of a space station for the little bit of transiting traffic the world received. Perhaps one day it would play host to any number of produce carriers and tourist jaunts, but for now, the world’s skies were gloriously empty.

Except for one ominous, unwelcome presence—the Terran Union Navy destroyer Annapolis. This vessel resembled Alliance warships as form followed the function and tech-base. The destroyer was elongated and angular, roughly divided into thirds, with a faceted cylindrical battle hull forward—bristling with lasers, point-defense cannons, missile hatches, and railgun mounts. Then came long banks of dully-glowing radiator panels flush to the ship’s narrow waist amidships, and finally a reactor-drive section aft.

Aboard the Annapolis, the crew split its attention in two directions. First, they kept their eyes on the planet, ever watchful of the independent-natured settlers, looking for any hint of counterattack or rebellion, ready to rain down orbital hellfire as necessary. Second, they looked outward, awaiting the eventual arrival of the Alliance Navy. That was why they were there, after all. The TUN had never imagined taking these worlds would be permanent or uncontested. The lines of communication and supply were simply too long. They snaked through too much enemy space to make these invasions anything more than the gambit they were always meant to be: an attempt to halt the ALS encroachment into Terran space.

The only problem was no one had shown up. Not one frigate, not one rescue cutter, not even a curious merchant, much less the squadron or strike group they expected. After their carrier dropped off the ground assault company and left the Annapolis behind to oversee and help with fire support, their orders had been clear: take the colony and hold it as long as possible, but be ready to pull out quickly when the inevitable Alliance force appeared.

After more than a month in operation, though, their ground troops began wondering if the assault was going to become a full-on occupation. They had sufficient firepower and supplies to sustain a long siege, and the colonists were mostly passive rather than rebellious. In orbit, the crew of the Annapolis had a running pool on who would arrive first: an Alliance Navy fleet, their own resupply forces, or a government bean-counter trying to collect taxes after they established a permanent residence.

Their answer finally appeared in a burst of blue Cerenkov radiation and gravity waves—but it was not what any of them anticipated.

It was a lone Alliance destroyer, the ACV Puller.

* * *

The Puller returned to ordinary baryonic reality an instant after leaving it in its previous system 6.2 light-years away. In the intervening moment of non-time, the destroyer had picked up a slow yaw, pitch, and roll, which caused them to feel a sudden jerk and increasing nausea. On their screens, the static star field of one firmament was instantly replaced by a freewheeling, unknown starscape.

“Stabilizing,” the helmsman announced from the bridge, unbidden.

Benno nodded, realized the helmsman could not see him with his full vacuum suit helmet on, and keyed his mic. “Roger. Navigation, report when you get our fix.”

“Calculating nav fix now, Skipper,” the young quartermaster third class answered.

Benno looked around the bridge. Like him, they were all dressed in full vac armor, tied into ship’s air, but otherwise isolated from each other. This was not the norm. The chances of a bad jump were significantly higher than the possibility they would re-enter normality inside another significant mass. Thus, most times when ships activated their DEC drives, they did so in regular shipboard attire.

But this time was different. This time they were dropping into unknown enemy territory.

The chances of an enemy being in weapons range when they re-emerged were extremely small but, depending on how many ships the Terrans had, the odds couldn’t be ignored. So, for this transit, they had weapons hot, passive sensors at max sensitivity, and active sensors at the ready. They were prepared for their hulls to be pierced and evacuated of all air.

On the central, shared display screen, the now-static, unfamiliar star field began to fill in with pale, white constellation lines. Other colored vectors appeared, swooping through the compressed 360-degree view, signifying moving objects and celestial orbits. Electromagnetic energy sources were highlighted, along with counter-detection ranges and possible threat sectors around each one. Until the computers figured out what might be a threat or what was likely benign, it all shone in shades of lurid, ‘hostile’ red.

“Sir, we have a fix. We are in the Gliese 902 system, positioned 47 degrees above the ecliptic, near the orbit of and preceding the third planet by approximately 55 degrees, 0.4 AU from the central star. We have an inward-falling vector aimed toward Gliese at 7 kilometers per second, no orbital component yet. Paradiso is the fourth planet out from Gliese and is currently 0.6 AU from us.”

Benno nodded. In their transit, they had re-emerged in the inner system, one planet in from Paradiso, headed toward the star—a not-uncommon result during medium distance transits, though being so far above the plane in which the planets revolved was unusual. “Very well. Give me course options: one for a least-time fast fly-by of Paradiso, and one for a zero-relative-velocity/zero-distance arrival in low orbit around the world. Coordinate with CIC and brief me.”

He turned in his seat, still restrained by a harness so he would not float out. It was the CO’s old acceleration couch. He felt like a fraud in that role, but someone had to sit there… “Combat, Bridge,” he said into his suit mic, automatically connecting him with the Combat Information Center. “I need course options for getting to Paradiso. Break. Also waiting for a tactical report. We only have a few minutes before anything in orbit over Paradiso picks up our transit signature.”

When they transitioned from faster than light travel, there was a signature burst of blue Cerenkov radiation—the shockwave effect produced by any object moving faster than the speed of light through a medium—and a sharp, distinct pulse of gravity waves, both of which propagated outward at the speed of light to announce that something had transited. It was impossible to mask. Thus, no ship could arrive by DEC transit stealthily. Sensors would key on their emergence point, followed immediately by infrared finger-printing and electro-optical passive targeting. There was almost no hiding in space, especially not for an invading party.

Their only advantage was that their signature appeared in one spot, then moved outward to alert the rest of the system, light speed lag growing more significant as the distance increased. But the photons emitted or reflected by defenders already in the system had already been propagating outward before the invaders’ arrival and were there regardless, available for view and analysis immediately. Not that it mattered much when detection ranges were likely to be far, far beyond weapons range, but the Puller would have a few minutes warning of where the Terrans were before the Turds knew they had arrived in the system.

“Bridge, CIC, you should see recommended courses on the fusion plot now,” Operations Specialist Chief Amir Rajput, the Tactical Action Officer in CIC, said over the comm. Indeed, an array of labeled, blue, dashed lines appeared on the central screen. Some made a long, looping curve around the system, halting in orbit around Paradiso. Others looked almost straight at this scale, turning sharply at the planet, then zooming off past it. At the same time, many of the emission sources went from red to yellow, minimizing on the screen. Two contacts remained an angry, pulsing red, however. “Sir, we’ve also characterized the emitters in the system. We’ve declared commercial or Alliance emitters as unknown, assumed neutral. We have also fingerprinted two likely Terran sources, but only in the vicinity of Paradiso.”

“Bridge, aye. Yes, we see them. It looks like one is on the planet and one is up in orbit. Any details?” Benno asked. The system had found no threat emitters near them. That was a relief, but it was too early to remove their helmets. One never knew what surprises might lay in waiting, cold and dormant until they set them off inadvertently.

The TAO answered, “On the planet, we see Turd air & space defense radar, but no targeting sensors yet. If they have an anti-orbit missile battery, it’s in passive mode right now. We’re too far out to discriminate between small IR contacts in the air or orbit and the heat load in the atmosphere, but they could be there. We’re picking up encrypted comms and data chatter on known Terran freqs.”

Benno nodded. “Roger. And their ship?”

“Yes, sir. We can’t confirm who or what it is via IR or sensors right now. They aren’t maneuvering, so there’s no way to get kinematics, and they likely have a low waste-heat load, with their reactor in a housekeeping power state. But they have long-range search radar equipped on their frigates, destroyers, and light cruisers. It’s probably somebody like us.”

“Okay, Chief Rajput,” Benno replied. “The lighter and smaller, the better. At least it’s the only one we see. Even if it’s a half-again or double-our-size light cruiser, we still have a shot at winning. If it was a squadron, I don’t know what we’d do.”

Benno had spent the last week studying as they moved from system to system, skirting the major Alliance worlds where their presence might lead to too many questions. Pained by his lack of preparedness to direct the upcoming battle, he dove head first into the tactical employment library maintained in the XO’s stateroom, studying everything he could get his hands on and role-playing engagements in his head.

Of course, the more he learned, the more apparent it was that he was out of his depth. He had therefore stacked the deck as much as he could, putting Chief Rajput in charge in CIC, along with other tactical employment heavy hitters. The Officer of the Deck’s chair on one side of the CO’s chair was empty. Benno had taken the Deck as OOD, and the ship answered to him directly. Chief Dufresne was in her now usual spot at his side in the XO’s seat. The Master at Arms chief would have little to add to their success in the battle, given her training, but she was a reliable and loyal presence, and that counted for a lot. Still, even with the right people supporting him, as the XO had advised, Benno knew he was operating at a disadvantage.

Most aristos entering the military via the Academy on Centralis, or one of the many university training cadres, were steeped in tactical training, history, and logistics. They were brought up from nothing to become the paragons of academic tactical know-how and zero actual experience that typified your average ensign. Later, as they got to know and lead their enlisted crews, and they learned the real depth of complexity, insane perversity, and bloody-minded oddity of reality, they remolded their book learning and naiveté into something resembling wisdom and competence. This was just in time to take command themselves and realize they still did not know everything. Benno imagined it was much the same in the Terran Union Navy.

He was a different case. He came up in the service from nothing, learning the lessons about the strangeness and irregularities of the Navy. He learned there were standard operating procedures that had to be followed to keep from damaging equipment or injuring people worth much more than their sorry necks. SOPs were written in the blood of past mistakes, but they were edited to apply broadly to more than the specific circumstances they had been written to avoid. Then, they were rewritten by civilians and retirees much removed from the original problem, overwritten to conform to and incorporate other lessons learned, then tailored so they—maybe—applied to you and your ship. SOPs were the starting point from which every sailor deviated, even though they were never, ever, ever supposed to deviate from them. Over time, he had learned tactics and plans were developed much the same way.

Aristo cadets and ensigns learned Sun Tzu and Von Clausewitz, formations and weapons employment first, then they learned how to make them work. Benno had learned early how to make things work, then discovered later why they were designed the way they were and how they were intended to be employed. Essentially, he had developed wisdom before knowledge, rather than the other way around. He was a generalist now applying himself to a set of specifics with which he had little experience, going against masters of the details that might or might not have the battle experience to inform and shape their competence.

Only time would tell which method would be victorious.

* * *

“Transit alert!” the Terran destroyer sensor operator cried. Moments later, the General Quarters alarm sounded throughout the ship.

Within 60 seconds, Commander Steve Rzasa—captain of TNV Annapolis—flew into the bridge and went straight to his seat in front of the shared data tank. A single orange triangle pulsed in the inner system. “Report!” he demanded.

His Officer of the Deck, Lieutenant Junior Grade Ted Nulty, spoke up. “Sir, we have a single, point-source emergence in-system. Nothing else has shown since we picked up the Cerenkov pulse. Grav burst analysis indicates we’re dealing with a vessel near our own mass, with a slight red-shift, heading away from us. The ship has come about and stabilized, but we haven’t been able to capture enough data for kinematics yet.”

“Caught you napping, Ted?”

“No, sir! We slewed sensors in time, but their position didn’t let us get a down-the-throat image of their thrusters. We picked up their spin rates, but don’t have enough IR or thrust data to go with it to calculate their mass distribution or agility.”

Rzasa smiled to soften his inadvertent chastisement. “I was mostly kidding, OOD. So, we don’t know who or what it is yet. Roger. We’ll stay at GQ for now. It’ll at least wake everyone up. Call down to the garrison and tell them to stand by for possible incursion, but I’m less worried about one ship. Probably a merchant or supply vessel. When the Apes do show, it won’t be anything less than a full squadron.”

“What if this is a scout, though?”

His captain shrugged. “Not much we can do about that. We don’t have enough assets in system to stop any scout outside our immediate vicinity. They could maneuver for jump long before we got to them. Let’s just wait and see. We have our orders. Just getting the Apes to respond to all our incursions is enough to weaken their numbers, brunt their assault, and sow sufficient discord at home. If they show with sufficient force to overwhelm us, we pull chocks and get out of here. We who flee may fight again another day.”

“Yes, sir.”

* * *

“No movement yet, Benno,” Chief Rajput called up from CIC.

There had been sufficient time for the Terran destroyer to see them. The ship in orbit around Paradiso had not left orbit, though they had brought their reactor up from maintenance state to full power. They took a bit longer to accomplish that than the Puller crew might have, but whether that meant they were less practiced, less capable, or just more relaxed and assured, Benno didn’t know.

He nodded and keyed his mic. “Roger that, TAO. Guess we’ll make the first move. Let’s start off with the orbital Paradiso intercept trajectory with full burn. We can alter as they react.” That maneuver would have them apply a full gravity of thrust the entire way, with maximum velocity at the midpoint, whereupon they would turn about and accelerate in the opposite direction for the rest of the trip, at essentially “zero” range, “zero” velocity, in low orbit over the planet.

“Zero/zero Paradiso, standard burn, aye aye, Bridge.” Instantly, they felt their normal weight return as the drives expended energy to turn dark matter to hot reaction mass. “Bridge, estimate making orbit over Paradiso in approximately 43 hours.”

Ellen Dufresne laid her hand on his arm. “Sir, we have time. Recommend securing from GQ, rotating everyone out for chow and sleep, and getting back on station tomorrow. Unless and until the situation changes, the Terrans won’t be able to touch us for another 21 hours, near the max-speed turnover point.”

She was right. “Okay, Chief. Let’s start normal watch rotations and return to GQ in approximately 18 hours, after third section comes off. Unless something changes.” It felt odd to be forced to relax the crew when everyone could see where they were going and knew where the fight would go down long before it happened, but that was the nature of space warfare at such extreme ranges. No one could maintain perfect vigilance for so long before a battle.

Benno unstrapped, removed his helmet, and turned the deck over to Chief Dufresne. As he left the bridge, he jumped slightly. Outside the door, Ortiz waited in his own space suit, helmet held at his side, exuding an air of nonchalance. Benno nodded to him. “Raoul, how are you?”

Ortiz shrugged. “I’m good enough. I’ll be better if we survive this battle with the Turds.”

Benno scowled and stomped past him.

Ortiz followed along, pleading. “Wait, wait, wait. Just hold on, Benno. That wasn’t a dig on you. Okay, we keep on clashing, and, I’ll admit, I’ve been a thorn in your side. That’s because you and I have a fundamental disagreement on how we should be approaching this. But I lost that battle, Benno, and here we are, and it’s in my own best interests to make sure we make it out alive. So, I’m offering up my services.”

Benno stopped. He turned and looked at Ortiz, an incredulous look on his face. “Your services? What services would those be, exactly?”

“Next to you, I’m the best Fire Controlman on this here tub. Plus, the crew talks. We notice. Everyone has seen you walking around the ship reading those tactical doctrine books. And now we’re about to walk into battle with you holding down the deck, directing the battle, and trying not to shit your own pants. You’ve been surrounding yourself with talent, so I should be on that list. I’m OOD qualified, so give me the Deck when we go back on.”

“You’re a good FC1, Raoul, but you’re also a pain in my ass. Why wouldn’t I just have you run maintenance, where your current GQ station is?”

Ortiz smiled. “Last time I was on battle maintenance, I ducked out and tried to steal an escape pod. This way you get my skills, and you can keep an eye on me.”

“And you get to tell your cronies that, assuming we survive, you led the battle and you’re who should be in charge.”

“C’mon, Benno. Not everything I do is some calculation or power-play. I want to survive. That’s always been my only motivator. And you need someone assisting you directly who knows weapons employment. You’ve stocked CIC, but on the bridge, you just have junior watches and Chief Dufresne. She’s an excellent, loyal chief petty officer, but she can’t do squat for fighting this ship. I can. Take my offer, sir.”

Benno looked at him, his eyes narrowing.

* * *

“They’re coming at us, sir, thrusting at one g. Based on the course, I’d say they intend to flip at the halfway point and make orbit. Still no comms and passive sensors only, so no fingerprinting the unit, but based on kinematics, thrust-to-acceleration profile, heat load, and what we can see of her aspect, I’d say it was an Alliance Navy destroyer.”

Commander Rzasa shook his head. “No scout would do that. They’d stay as far out as possible. But I can’t imagine the Apes sending just one ship in after us. It makes no sense, especially not with parity in hulls or size. That’s just a bad strategy. Too much of a crap-shoot.”

“Maybe one ship is all they could spare to send for the liberation? Maybe their attacks into our space went badly, and this is all they could afford!”

“Don’t get your hopes up, Ted. This could be a feint. It could mean they have something new. Or it could be as desperate as it appears. But we don’t deal in could-be’s or maybes. We have to handle what we face. One ship is not an overwhelming force. Our orders are clear: we repel and defend our claim. Pass to the garrison: Dig in and beware of coordination between the incoming destroyer and any rebels on the ground. We’ll be back soon.”

“Yes, sir,” the LTJG answered.

* * *

Annapolis and Puller closed on one another, each at a comfortable one g, on an almost direct glancing course. As Benno had read, and as he recalled from his education in ship tactics back when he was a chief making the transition to warrant officer, maneuver was almost all important—even over the kinetic satisfaction and finality of actual weapons employment. Weapons development and the methods of employing them were mostly equivalent between the two navies. At the ranges and speeds their weapons would be deployed, computers aboard the two ships would conduct the engagements anyway. Effectiveness would be a matter of probability and efficiency.

But maneuver? That was in the hands of the commanders themselves.

Maneuver, or getting your weapons into position in order to employ them most effectively, while simultaneously positioning the engagement to your opponent’s disadvantage, involved engineering, environmental factors, orbital dynamics, intelligence—both innate smarts as well as analysis over one another’s intentions and capabilities. It was a long game of chess, especially in an environment as vast and open as space.

The parameters of the engagement were usually more complicated than this, involving entire squadrons, different types of ships, fixed emplacements around a defended objective, et cetera. This engagement was almost too simple. In open space, with movement unconstrained, and with no other units to consider or a horizon to interfere, combat essentially became one dimensional, even with all three directions out to infinity available to them.

Each ship was a single point in space. Two points formed a line. Thus, a line of action existed between the two opposing parties, and all direct fire that connected and did damage to the other would exist upon that line. The endpoints of the line might move about in the larger volume of space, accelerating and decelerating, jinking and weaving. The line might spin and turn about like mad in the larger space, but the battle would be confined to that single line, shrinking in length as they continued to close on one another.

Such a visualization was a useful mental exercise in focusing one’s attention. The rest of the universe fell away, leaving only that single line. The winner would be determined solely by the ratio and rapidity of successful hits along it. That was a matter of hit probability and the ability to absorb damage, and neither CO would deign to play such a straight hand of attrition.

So they each endeavored to muck things up a bit.

“Sir! I’m picking up weapons fire from the Terran destroyer,” a young petty officer’s voice cried out from the combat coordinator station on the Puller’s bridge, their in-person link to CIC, augmenting the comm link between the TAO and the OOD.

Benno nodded. He had gotten in about four hours of sleep in the last 16 hours, and now he rode atop a tsunami of strong, bitter coffee. He was as alert and prepared as he could be, but slightly on edge.

Of course, that nervous edge might be due to the man strapped into the seat to his right. Ortiz had come on watch as Officer of the Deck about half an hour before. He had done nothing to anger Benno, however. If anything, he had been focused and professional, standing the sort of watch that a pre-mutiny Commander Palmer would have given a grudging degree of respect.

Benno turned to him with an eyebrow raised.

Ortiz nodded and answered the watch stander. “OOD, weapons fire, aye.” He keyed his mic. “TAO, OOD, roger on weapons fire. Do we have a classification and trajectory?”

The line to CIC answered back with Chief Rajput’s voice. “Affirm, OOD. Heat bloom and pattern confirms it as decimeter railgun fire. We’ve lost track of the rounds, so we’re guessing expanding sabot cluster shells. The sabots are cold, no IR signature, and too low a mass to have much divert capability. We figure they’re either trying to get us to light off our radar for fingerprinting or get us to adjust course. Or both.”

“Roger, TAO.” Ortiz turned to Benno. “Orders, sir?”

Benno tried to look confident, when in truth he was anything but. This was it, the culmination of the actions he had begun: the first tactical engagement with him in command. If he ever hoped to see Mio again to free her, he had to get this right, starting now.

In the last 16-plus hours of one g acceleration, they had achieved a 580 kilometers-per-second delta-v, or change in velocity. They had traveled a bit over a quarter of the 0.6 astronomical unit distance they needed to go to reach Paradiso. The Turds had done much the same, and they were now closing with each other at 4 thousandths of the speed of light, but even then, they still had a fifth of an AU between them. The cloud of small sabot rounds would not reach them for hours yet, so they were not a threat worth panicking over. But they did need to be answered with action, lest their incredible kinetic energy destroy the Puller.

An expanding cone of red light appeared on the central screen, intersecting their trajectory in just over five hours, the anticipated threat volume of the fired rounds. If he turned on their radar, the better resolution would allow them to narrow the uncertainty inherent in the projected cone. They could develop targeting solutions for eliminating the sabots, but it would provide emitter data to the enemy, enabling them to better tailor their electronic warfare response, thus increasing the Turd’s ability to jam or spoof their sensors. If they merely maneuvered to avoid the larger, more uncertain cloud, the Turds could dictate where they could go, corralling them with bracketing fire, and altering the terrain of the battlespace to the Terran’s own advantage.

But then, one also had to consider the intelligence environment and the matter of logistics. The Turds were cut off in Alliance space, even if the Alliance had not been actively protecting it. Their supply lines were worse than uncertain; they were virtually non-existent. They could not count on resupply, and with a force of only one ship, they would never have been expected to hold onto Paradiso for long. Thus, they could be expected to conserve their fire and be ready to pull out if it looked like they were expending too much effort to continue the occupation.

The Puller, on the other hand, and as far as the Terrans were concerned, was in its home space, with access to nearly unlimited resources. Even if that were not true, it would not be expected to reserve fire. And it would be expected to act boldly, even if it were but one ship on a virtually even footing.

Benno keyed his mic, realizing he had allowed Ortiz to go unanswered for far too long. “TAO, Captain, they fired five rounds in our path, correct?”

“Yes, sir. That equates to about 95 sabots if their rod cluster rounds are like ours.”

“Understood. Bring our dorsal decimeter railgun online. Bracket the Turds and their path with 20 sabot cluster rounds, a full magazine, but at half of the max rate. Also, increase thrust to 1.2 gravities and hold. That’ll put us out of their rounds’ projected volume and close us even faster for engagement. Agreed?”

Chief Rajput and Ortiz answered simultaneously, “Yes, sir!”

Benno nodded. “Very well. TAO, batteries released, Mount DR1, 20 rounds. OOD, execute maneuvers.”

“TAO, aye!”

“OOD, aye!” Chief Rajput went off the comm to oversee the gunfire, while Ortiz translated Benno’s order to the helmsman. Benno felt their weight increase by a fifth, pressing him further into his seat. Then the hull shook slightly, pulsing twenty times in succession in just over a minute as the ship’s dorsal railgun spat out bundles of tungsten sabots. The long, dense rods, 400 in total, would expand out into clouds of kinetic lethality, forcing the Terrans to think through the same considerations Benno had faced…but they also signaled something more.

We shall not be moved, and we shall not fail to answer your challenge.

Ortiz looked at the green volume of fire moving out in front of them. “That’s a healthy dose of ordnance, Benno. And sabots are cheap, as far as ordnance goes, but not when trying to replenish them will get you shot for treason.”

Chief Dufresne answered from Benno’s other side. “The Turds don’t know that. And right now is not the time to be questioning the skipper.”

“No questioning here, Chief. Just observing.” Ortiz smiled.

Benno said nothing. He purposefully stayed focused on the two patterns of fire. Over the next five hours, clouds of sabots closed, spreading out to fill a greater and greater area, but with so much time and range, both ships could make minor corrections and avoid even vast danger zones. They did succeed in forcing each other to adjust course, giving away potentially critical data about the fidelity of their sensors, the agility of their maneuvers, and the distribution of their mass. They also closed off certain potential diversions, but with the sheer amount of space and nearly infinite approach angles, that amounted to no more than questing jabs between two prize fighters, ploys to test their opponent’s mettle.

The imaginary line of action between them shifted and twisted, but it continued to close, tighter and tighter.

At hour six, the situation changed. “Bridge, Combat. We’re showing a large reorientation of the Terran vessel. We’re looking up her skirt now, and they’ve boosted to flank thrust.”

“Bridge, aye,” Benno responded. He looked away from the status board he was perusing and peered closely at the main screen. The fusion plot showed a new acceleration vector for the enemy vessel. The data block next to it had been calculating the closest point of approach as 45 minutes later, but that number crept up. Accelerating almost directly at one another at +1 gravities for nearly 20 hours, they had been ready to flash by at knife-fighting range. But the velocity between them would have been so high the engagement window—the amount of time they would actually be in effective range of one another’s weapons—would have been just as narrow. Now?

The TAO called up. “They’re committing, sir. This won’t be a one-salvo-and-done sort of fight. They plan to stick with us and pound us until we’re dead, or they are.”

Benno keyed his mic and replied. “We’re due to flip soon if we still plan on doing a zero/zero intercept at Paradiso. Concur. Them flipping early means we have to continue accelerating in this direction and flash by them and Paradiso too, forcing us to backtrack and maybe give them a second pass closer in—”

“Where whatever planetary defenses they have set up can join in,” Ortiz interrupted.

Benno nodded. “Or we flip as planned and get ready to slog it out. They’ve committed. We have to as well.”

Dufresne spoke up. “This was never going to be a quick strike. They were never going to put up a token resistance, then flee. We knew going in freeing the planet was going to suck. Time to stop dancing. Time to start slugging.”

“Roger that.” Benno turned to Ortiz. “OOD, set General Quarters; all hands rig for battle.”

Ortiz nodded and keyed several buttons. Alarms bonged across the Puller, and watch standers moved to replace those on watch with the personnel assigned to fight the ship during GQ. Within three minutes, all stations were manned, and the Puller was ready.

Benno felt a fear and dread he had never experienced during GQ before. Last time he had stood GQ in CSMC, bored but wary. Then had come the hit, the battle, and the news that had changed his life and set him upon this desperate course. Now he was responsible for all these people’s lives. More than that, he was responsible for every colonist on Paradiso and, by extension, all those on the other five of the Lost Six. And Mio. Mio depended upon his untested and late-acquired tactical capability, upon the team and course he directed. It was impossible. It wasn’t fair! It was—

“Flipping ship for deceleration burn,” the helmsman announced, breaking the spiral of Benno’s thoughts.

Now, at the midway point and their highest velocity through the system, the Puller fired attitude thrusters and tumbled the ship through 180 degrees, end over end. Thrust now stabbed out in the opposite direction, slowing them down. The distance between them and the Annapolis still fell, but the engagement window opened wider and wider…

Until it was upon them.

“Turds are firing!” chirped an unannounced voice on the net. The two railgun turrets on the Annapolis blazed with blasts of white hot plasma, hot metal ablating off the sliding armatures each round rode upon, coursing through megajoules of electrical energy. Ten rounds per minute from each mount lanced out into the darkness. The distance was still too far away to be much of a direct danger to the Puller. Time for the rounds to reach them would no longer be measured in hours, but they could still be measured in terms of a minute or two, giving them sufficient time to maneuver. However, they again closed off avenues of escape.

As the threat vectors reached out and red clouds of hit probability blossomed on the screen, a terrain began to form in the void, regions where travel was safe and areas where travel meant certain death. Benno would be damned if he allowed the Terrans to dictate the battlespace to him. “OOD, maneuver to avoid rounds but continue to close Paradiso and the enemy destroyer. Combat, Bridge, let’s add to the mix. Batteries released, mount DR1. Commence regular salvos on a single railgun mount, half of the max rate. Conserve ammo until you have a good shot at making a direct hit but push the Turds out from us and off the direct line of our approach to the planet. Spin up missiles in all cells. Prepare an initial EW solution and stand by to jam. Confirm all point-defense stations at the ready.”

“OOD, aye!”

“TAO, aye!”

The Puller answered Annapolis less stridently, with fewer rounds, but their placement was good. The vectors of each destroyer’s salvos intersected and passed through one another. On the screens, it was like two 3D topological maps crashing into one another in a miscued slide show. As each destroyer entered the threat regions, they turned and diverted, bobbing and weaving faster. Not one round hit, but as they both altered course into valleys of safety between each volley, the shots went off nonetheless.

The Puller’s railgun fire had been designed to move the Terran Navy off their path toward Paradiso and to upset whatever the Terrans planned to do next. It was too late for that, however. The more experienced Terran CO had already made the next move. As the Puller became surrounded by missed railgun salvos, several of the rounds activated…not into clouds of tungsten rods like they had used before, but into electronic warfare barrage jammers.

Globes of atomic plasma erupted into existence around the Puller. These small yield devices were too tiny to power a nuclear-pumped laser or to do direct radiation damage to the Alliance destroyer, but they did provide sufficient electronic noise to nearly overload the passive sensor queues on the mutineers’ ship.

Whole sections of the fusion plot seen by the bridge and CIC crews filled with spurious tracks and static. “Damn it!” Chief Rajput yelled over the net. “Sorry, Bridge. I either have to dial back passive sensitivity or go active early. Activating track discriminators now, but it’ll slow down our detection-to-engagement processing.”

“Roger, TAO. Go active now,” Benno replied. It felt like everyone on the bridge was glaring at him, judging him, even though all eyes remained on their own screens. “Should we seed our counter-fire with barrage jamming rounds now?”

“No, sir. They’d be expecting that and will probably already have filters and discriminators up. Let’s save them for later.”

“Bridge, aye.”

Small radar antennas seeded all over the Puller’s surface stabbed outward with encoded microwave energy. The individual wave fronts of energy from each antenna melded a few tens of meters from the hull and interfered constructively and destructively until they formed a powerful beam of scanning radar energy. This swept around the total volume of space, feeding cleaner, higher resolution encrypted data to the destroyer’s combat computers, combining with the passive data from the IR, UV, and visual spectrum cameras.

The track queues cleaned up in seconds—and revealed missiles already launched.

“Vampires! Vampires inbound!” the CIC liaison on the bridge yelled into the space. Down in CIC, no one said anything. Each of the enlisted watch standers was too busy to talk, going into automatic mode.

The tactical fusion plot devolved into an impossibly complex scene of overlaying and intersecting cones of light. Typically, the well-trained aristo officers would step back and interpret the chaos before them while the enlisted combat techs dealt with the smaller, less-confusing, more limited sections of it. Benno could only look on, his eyes agog, hardly able to interpret the data, much less find some brilliant tactical ploy to avoid the death coming for them.

In the battlespace between the two destroyers, the problem expanded out from a merely linear one. Now instead of a single line of action between two points, each enemy missile and warhead formed a new line of action along an entirely different vector. Two lines created a plane of action, three or more a volume, each complicating the tactical environment more and more until it was beyond what any single human mind could comprehend. Automated systems helped where possible—the speed and degree of aiming precision necessary to hit back, skin upon skin, across such vast distances were beyond what any person could hope to direct manually—but men and women were still needed to control the aim and priorities of the weapons’ computers. They could only handle that by chunking, by ignoring anything but what threatened in their limited sector, paring down the different lines of action until it was once again a more or less linear problem. Identify a threat, assign a defense, fire, assess damage, re-attack or move to the next in the queue, repeat again and again and again.

It became a matter of attention attrition. Which ship could overwhelm or trick the defenses of the other first and thus carry the day? Here the Turds had emphatically taken the upper hand.

Missiles streaked in, disgorging separable warheads with their smaller divert drives. Threat tracks blossomed and closed. The Puller responded, spinning out of the way, subjecting her crew to stresses strong enough to black them out. Combat meds flooded their bodies, inuring them to the stress. Electronic warfare dwells blasted at the individual threat tracks, scrambling warhead sensors and leading them astray or causing them to trigger early, exploding harmlessly and adding to the complex terrain forming between the two destroyers.

Lasers speared outward from the Puller to slag the incoming warheads, but they could only burn so fast, and there were only so many mounts, far fewer than what approached. As some of the missile bodies and warheads vaporized, others jetted aside and continued to close into the next defensive perimeter.

Point-defense cannons lit off, casting out multiple grams of hardened metal into the predicted paths of the warheads that made it past the laser defense line. Shooting like brilliant firehoses of BB pellets, the PDCs shredded the threats with blunt trauma, using the targets’ insane velocities against them. A glancing, momentary blow was effective here, not like the comparatively longer burn time required by the laser defenses. They could thus move from target to target much more rapidly, but they were physical rounds nonetheless. Even at their railgun-like velocities, it took time for the PDC pellets to cross the void, shred the target, assess it as a kill, and move on. All the while that target closed, and still other targets moved in, not to mention the occasional need for each PDC’s finite magazine to be reloaded, unlike the infinite depth of the lasers’ power.

Pellets, slag, and hot metal debris multiplied exponentially in the shrinking space between the ships, each particle of which had to be tracked, dopplered, and verified as no longer a threat before it could be ignored. Clutter tracks filled the already jammed sensor queues, slowing response times, complicating the tactical problem, and potentially allowing something less innocuous to sneak in.

No matter how well the crew, systems, and Benno parsed the tactical problem, warheads would make it past their defenses, especially as the clutter grew. The goal of any anti-ship space weapon was to hit and do as much damage as possible in the least amount of time. The most effective way to do that was to penetrate a ship somewhere with a tactical nuclear device, exploding it within the target ship, where lethal radiation would be absorbed and converted into thermal expansion and outward crushing force. But penetration was difficult, stymied by active defenses and the warships’ double-layer, anti-kinetic, armored glacis across its bow. Blow a nuke outside a ship in space, even very close aboard, and only a small portion of its energy was incident upon the target to do damage. Plus, there was no overpressure blast in the vacuum of space, unlike within an atmosphere.

Thus, if a warhead could not get close enough to administer the penetrative coup de grace or a highly destructive skin-on-skin blast, they were all designed to orient themselves and explode well outside the hull. The massive energy of the pure fusion explosion would mostly be wasted, but a certain percentage of it could be converted into another mode of destruction: a bomb-pumped laser.

The first separable warhead from the Annapolis to survive the ruinous flood of defensive fire reached initial engagement range and exploded in full thermonuclear glory twenty kilometers from the Puller. In the microseconds before thermal dissolution of the entire device into plasma, x-rays from the fusion reaction inundated the cylindrical casing of the warhead, pumping thin rods of lasing medium to high excitation. This population inversion then collapsed, releasing new x-rays preferentially along the axis of the rod, stimulating other atoms to emit their energy as well, with multi-layer x-ray mirrors collimating the energy into a coherent x-ray laser beam.

The bomb-pumped laser from the warhead only carried about 5% of the original ten terajoule weapon’s yield, but that was still enough to cause massive damage to the destroyer, perhaps enough to allow the next warhead or the next after that to penetrate and kill the Puller. But 20 kilometers was still a significant distance, even against a target as large as the continually maneuvering destroyer. That first beam missed and expended its 500 gigajoules of x-ray energy harmlessly into space, mere meters from the Puller’s skin.

The next warhead to make it through connected with the ship, however.

The coherent x-rays incident upon the destroyer’s outer skin vaporized the metal straight down, through surface after surface, deck after deck, with an approximate half-meter diameter. Scattered x-rays and thermal transfer energy propagated outward from this cylinder of destruction until it blew out the opposite side and dissipated into infinity. The beam cut through hull, struts, equipment, water-filled heat sinks, and people, while the blast spreading outward from it wrecked anyone in the same compartment as if grenades had gone off all along its path.

The Puller shuddered, and alarms sprang up as first one, two, and then three beams holed her. A bright flash blinded everything on the starboard side. The Annapolis had fired eight missiles in its initial surprise salvo, each of which had separated into five warheads when its carriers had burned out. Of the 40 weapons arrayed against them, fifteen had been distracted or destroyed by EW, ten more by defensive lasers, and eight by PDCs. Of the seven remaining, two had missed in lasing mode, three had hit, one was a dud, and the last exploded close aboard in proximity mode. The hull glowed a dull red along that side and sensors and weapons were either destroyed or sent offline by the massive pulse of nuclear radiation.

Unable to speak during the violent defensive maneuvers, Benno’s fingers spoke for him, sending shorthand, computer-translated text messages to the other stations on the net.







The Puller rolled over to present her port bow to the Annapolis and boosted to flank thrust, accelerating at a crushing, unsustainable three gravities toward the Terran ship. Changing tactics so completely caused the second salvo from the Terrans to go far afield, mostly outside the divert capability of the missile bodies. The smaller number that remained engageable were more easily handled by the EW, lasers, and PDCs, such that no more warheads were able to come close enough for another strike.

As they dove in, the Puller's crew poured on their own fire, shifting the offensive initiative to their side. Missile hatches sprang open on either side of the Puller, disgorging ten missiles—the maximum number her fire control could support at once. They could fire more, but anything above that would rely only upon sensor data integral to the missile and was thus more susceptible to electronic distraction. The Alliance missiles had four separable warheads on each, but the individual bombs and their pumped lasers were correspondingly larger than the Terran weapons.

Missiles spiraled toward the Annapolis, and she fought back much as the Puller had, playing off maneuver, EW, lasers, and PDCs, with largely the same level of effectiveness. But into this engagement, the Puller also tacked on continuous streams of rounds from both of her railguns at their full firing rate.

The Annapolis then had to make the call: maneuver to unmask the maximum number of defensive mounts to wither down the incoming warheads, or maneuver to avoid the incoming railgun rounds, tracking along that single ruinous line of action. It was impossible to do both effectively at the same time. By changing tactics and diving in, answering the Terran CO’s maneuvers in kind, Benno and the Puller had retaken the initiative. For the Annapolis’ captain, the choice was no contest. One type of fire would be devastating to endure. The other type of fire was unendurable.

The Terran destroyer rolled perpendicular to most of the warhead vectors and laid on with all defensive mounts. Ignored for the most part, the half-meter-long, decimeter-wide railgun rounds sped in unopposed. Expanding out into a cluster of rods immediately before impact, hundreds of tungsten penetrators peppered the Annapolis’ port side. First striking the outer layer of the hull’s armored Whipple shield at orbital speeds, the rods fractured and converted most of their kinetic energy into fine sprays of hot shards.  These jets expanded out in the narrow gap between layers until they struck the second, thicker armored hull, which absorbed them handily. Meanwhile, warhead after warhead died, victims of the well-trained mount captains controlling the Terrans’ defensive fire.

But damage and its effects were cumulative. Not every rod could be stopped by the double layer of armor, not once the outer layer was degraded enough, and not where there was no double layer present. Kinetic rods shattered radiator panels and opened cooling lines to space. Hot coolant sprayed out into vacuum like arterial blood, and the multiple heat engines driving the complex machinery aboard the Annapolis spiked in temperature and shut down. Laser focusing mirrors and drive coils on the defensive turrets, mounted outside the double hull, were ripped apart and went silent. White-hot venturi nozzles for the destroyer’s maneuvering engines were holed and mangled, sending the still-operable jets’ thrust into new vectors, imparting uncertain roll moments upon the ship.

And as maneuvering, control systems, and defenses fell offline, the ship was less able to ward off incoming warheads. In the Puller’s first missile salvo, only two warheads were able to lase and hole the Annapolis. As each missile discharged its independent warheads and entered terminal range, the Puller fired another, keeping their fire control queue maxed out, and added a constant mortal threat against the Terrans so they would ignore the ever closing, ever more efficient direct railgun fire. As the rounds had more effect and their hit percentage increased, the mount crews and the gunnery operators in the Puller’s CIC shifted from expanding sabot rounds to unitary penetrators and high explosive shells, both of which could now fully penetrate both hulls and deal significantly more damage to the Terran destroyer’s interior.

* * *

Commander Rzasa swore through teeth gritted against the shifting acceleration as yet another subsystem went red in the data tank. The Alliance commander’s change in tactics still seemed nonsensical to him. By diving in to close the range further, then focusing on cheap-yet-effective direct fire instead of longer range, indirect, mass missile attacks, it was like the man was willing to sacrifice his whole ship in an all or nothing duel but still wanted to conserve ammo. Unless the ALS was seriously lacking missile stores to resupply for their own defense, it was a stupid plan.

Except he could see the balance of attrition shifting in the enemy’s favor. If a plan is stupid, but it works, it’s not stupid…

Answering them in kind only kept the Annapolis in second place. In a two-ship battle, that meant losing even more of his crew and potentially his ship—it wasn’t worth it for a simple distraction gambit, one that had arguably failed, as the cold-hearted Alliance aristos refused to be distracted.

Commander Rzasa began to send out the order to break off and pull out. Perhaps they could still repair themselves enough to retrieve the Terran Marine company garrisoned down on the surface of Paradiso.

Just before he hit SEND, a unitary penetrator shot through the weakened double hull, straight down an athwartships passageway, through the thin, unarmored metal of the ventilation duct servicing the bridge, and through Steve Rzasa. Friction and penetration trauma had transferred some of the tungsten spear’s incredible kinetic energy into heat, sheathing it in a thin layer of brilliant white plasma. It passed through the ship and Commander Rzasa’s head and torso so unerringly, so violently, it was like a bolt of lightning from a vengeful god, fed up with whatever transgression he had committed.

LTJG Nulty, his OOD, could only stare agog at his suddenly decapitated commanding officer. With a shaking hand fighting against the erratic and crushing accelerations the ship endured, he tapped out: XO, OOD—CO KIA. YOU IN COMMAND. ORDERS?

The pause as the XO and the rest of the tactical crew absorbed the message and scrambled to carry on as their CO had last ordered seemed to stretch into infinity.

* * *

Without countervailing instructions regarding a change of course and objectives, the Terran destroyer pressed on. They did swing the ship, but not away from the battle. Instead, they spun around until they were bow on to the Puller, interposing their most massive armor between themselves and the enemy, and thrusting at their full military power to close and bring their two railguns into a more direct fire role. It mimicked the actions of the Puller, but came too late, after too much damage had already been meted out.

Missiles, warheads, shells, and PDC bullets raced across the shrinking void. Encoded streams of active electronic countermeasure radiance and beams of high-UV laser light stabbed out between the two closing combatants. Damage accrued in a punishing trade-off that eschewed tactics and cleverness for pure brute force. As they closed, with range falling and damage accumulating, PK—probability of a “kill” or a successful strike—increased, while PS—probability of survival in the barrage of ever more accurate fire—fell. It was a matter of numbers. Which weapon systems were more efficient? Which crews were more invested, more dedicated, more prepared? Which ship was built tougher? And which captain had set them up better to take these punishing body blows?

The Puller withered under the onslaught. Status displays of individual spaces and systems glared an angry, accusatory red, a cry from the people manning those sections that Benno’s shortcomings had failed them. His people died, and his ship was slowly rendered nonfunctional, but still, they persisted. They wore on, closing with the enemy and disgorging round after round, missile after missile, until…

A section of sensors along the Annapolis’ starboard hull in her forward battle section went blind, the victim of too much cumulative damage. An incoming warhead that had been about to lase saw the cut-off of incident radar and lidar energy, consulted its combat logics, and canceled the initial alignment and detonation. Instead, it pulsed its engines to focus on that section of the target and continued its thrust inward. No defensive lasers scorched it. No PDC rounds peppered its thin, unarmored shell. Instead, it proceeded unseen until its dull metallic nose punched through the outer hull of the Terran destroyer and survived to punch through the pressure hull as well. Within the warhead, the logics met all needed criteria and triggered.

Inertial fusors detonated, compressing a small ball of lithium deuteride and a neutron source within an imploding spherical wave of x-ray light, concentrated enough to cause a physical shock front. The sphere squeezed and collapsed to the density of the sun’s core, until heavy hydrogen nuclei of deuterium and newly formed tritium fused into helium, releasing an uncontainable force upon the destroyer. A wash of radiation exploded outward—gammas, neutrons, alphas, x-rays, UV, and infrared—and fell upon every surrounding material. The blast of energy ionized and burned, shattered and exploded, turning every substance into pure plasma to explode outward, re-radiating and crushing every gram of matter in its way, all at nearly the speed of light.

Aboard the Annapolis, everything ended. Their deaths and disassociation into plasma occurred faster than the speed of thought or sensation. There was no time for doubt, fear, hate, self-recrimination, or regret. Ted Nulty and every other crewperson simply vaporized.

Aboard the Puller, the only thing faster than the speed at which the enemy destroyer vanished into an expanding ball of light, gas, and debris was their sudden sense of relief and victory. On the bridge, several watch standers cheered. Down in CIC, Chief Rajput, the TAO, sighed and relaxed slightly, still tensed against the acceleration of defensive maneuvers. Elsewhere throughout the ship, the word spread, not at the speed of light, but at the speed of gossip.

Everyone relaxed—too soon.

The orphaned missiles, warheads, and railgun rounds already fired by the Annapolis continued inbound, not overly concerned with the destruction of their mothership. Even without the highly accurate tracking data the ship had been feeding them, they were still able to execute their last instructions. With the inexperienced crew aboard the Puller, and without the dour, steadying hand of Captain Palmer, the automatic reaction of relief proved to be damning.

Without direct intervention and frenzied monitoring by the crew, the defensive systems aboard the ship continued on automatic, allowing the equally undirected enemy ordnance to get closer than it otherwise might. Multiple warheads jinked and wove through the infinite black, dodging the defensive fire incident upon them. They flew in closer and closer…and detonated.

Three bomb-pumped lasers cored the Puller almost simultaneously. Taken by surprise and shocked out of their revelry, the crew rocked as sections burned and exploded. On the bridge, the damage finally came to them as one corner of the space vaporized and blew out. Shrapnel lanced through the compartment and sparks flew. One particularly wicked, long piece speared through the helmsman, pinning him through the chest to his seat. Young Technician Drew Avera died in agony on a spear of shattered hull metal. No one on the bridge was prepared for the violence, suddenness, and capriciousness of such a death after the battle was over.

One person aboard the Puller had been waiting for such a moment, however.

Benno, eyes wide as he realized his failure to keep everyone on task, reached over against the acceleration to swat Chief Dufresne’s spacesuited arm. It was a reflex, a wordless chastisement to them both to back him up and get the crew back on task.

That automatic action interrupted the killing blow.

As he shifted his body to the left to reach out to her, a chunk of jagged hull metal pierced his suit above his right collarbone and stabbed into his flesh. Had he been centered in his seat, it would have driven right through his throat. As it was, the white-hot pain was unimaginable. Perhaps even more incredible, this blackened and twisted shard of metal was not shrapnel and had not been driven into him by the force of the explosion. Benno looked over, aghast at the metal protruding from his collarbone, then up at the hand wielding it.

Raoul stared back at him, halfway out of his seat, hate glaring from his eyes.

This was why he wanted to be on the bridge as OOD. There was no truce, no settling of disputes. This was, and had always been, a power play, a ploy to take out his opposition and put him back in ideological charge of the Puller. Had he bided his time until the battle was over, or was he just waiting for the first believable excuse to employ his weapon? If the bridge had sustained damage before the Annapolis died, would Ortiz still have tried to kill him?

The questions and confusion jumbled in his mind, straining his ability to react to Ortiz’s treachery. Benno’s gaze swept the bridge, looking for help, any witness to this assault. All eyes were on the displays, however, doing their jobs, whether he provided direction to them or not. No one saw what transpired—not even Dufresne, to his immediate left. The edge of her helmet visor blocked her peripheral vision as she focused all her attention on poor, dead Technician Avera. Unless she looked over, away from her duties and the battle, Benno might well bleed out and die, killed by “shrapnel” with none but his own murderer the wiser.

The low oxygen and low-pressure alarms sounded in his helmet and flashed in his visor display. The suit was designed to re-seal itself automatically against penetrations, but not when whatever object it was moved and torqued inside the gash—and Ortiz began to do just that. Seeing he had missed his mark, he leaned over further and sawed the shard of hull steel back and forth.

Pain overwhelmed Benno. He could not breathe, could not act except to bat weakly at Raoul’s grip with his left hand. The jagged wound rent wider, spilling blood onto the airless bridge, spraying out in strangely arcing gouts as the ship’s acceleration continued to shift. Dufresne finally looked over, and her eyes bugged out as she saw what was happening. She could do nothing, firmly strapped in, too far from Ortiz to intervene.

Benno breathed vacuum, and he could feel himself passing out, withdrawing—but whether from the lack of air or the unrelenting agony, he did not know. A picture of Mio flashed through his mind—Ortiz was not just attacking him, not only committing a second-order mutiny atop Benno’s own—he was killing Mio, killing any chance they might have of rescuing her and the others under Terran subjugation.

Raoul leaned in further, trying to ratchet the shard of steel into something, anything vital within Benno’s chest or throat. He held himself against the shifting acceleration with one hand and two of the straps of his five-point harness.

Not enough.

Benno did the only thing he could. Flipping a pair of switches on his left armrest, he shifted to Command Override and Battleshort. Instantly, control of all maneuvering transferred to the small joystick beneath his right palm and all engineered safeties on ship’s systems were disabled—including those of the reaction thrusters.

Benno jammed the joystick hard to the right. The Puller suddenly yawed about its center of mass, crossing through 90 degrees of travel in less than a second and ceasing all forward thrust. Inertia pulled everything forward of the spin axis to the left and everything behind it to the right. Everyone was wrenched to the side, the sudden ten-gravity jerk no doubt injuring many and ruining all firing control solutions CIC was preparing in their defense. It ripped at the shard in his collar with merciless violence.

It also ripped Ortiz out of his acceleration couch and threw him into the portside bulkhead.

Benno flipped the joystick to the other side, and the motion reversed itself. The arms and legs of every person on the bridge flopped to the right like the limbs of rag dolls. But it also rocketed Raoul Ortiz from port to starboard. He struck the opposite bulkhead with a thunk Benno could feel through his own seat. Had there been air in the bridge, Benno wondered if he would have heard the treacherous bastard’s scream or his choking gurgles after Ortiz’s neck broke and his ribs were crushed.

But it was enough to see Raoul rebound off the bulkhead and float, limbs akimbo, head lolling to one side as if nothing but loose flesh connected it to his body.

Almost enough. Benno jerked the small joystick right and left once more. It felt tremendously satisfying to see Raoul rendered into a boneless, man-shaped bag of stew, bouncing between bulkheads.

At peace and losing any semblance of consciousness, Benno flipped the switches off Command Override and Battleshort, then promptly passed out.

* * * * *

Chapter Fourteen: Mio

“Mio…Mio,” a voice from the depths of her consciousness called. Someone was gently shaking her. “Wake up, honey.”

The voice sounded like her mother’s, and for a moment Mio had the fleeting notion her mother was still alive, and the last three years of her life were a dream. A bad dream, to be sure, but one that could be easily forgotten with her mother’s love.

Mio opened her eyes and found a white woman with red hair and blue eyes looking anxiously into her eyes. She sighed; it wasn’t her mother, who’d been Asian and had dark hair and dark eyes. Unfortunately, her mother was the dream, and the hell of her last three years was the reality.

“I’m awake,” Mio said, her voice sad.

“I’m glad you are,” the woman said, much more upbeat; “you gave us quite a scare.”

“What happened?” Mio asked. “I remember going into the warehouse…and then fighting a Terran soldier…and then everything gets kind of cloudy.”

“Apparently, he shoved your head into a crate or something,” the woman said, “and gave you quite the concussion. You don’t appear to have any long-term damage, though, so I think you’ll be fine.”

“That’s good, I guess,” Mio said, “but I don’t remember coming here.” She looked around. She was lying on a cot in a tent, but it was a bigger tent than they had at the resistance camp. She had never seen the place before. “Where am I? Who are you?”

“My name is Cindy, and I’m a medic of sorts. You’re in the clinic at a different resistance camp than the one you’re normally a part of. Dan brought you here after the raid because it was closer. He was worried about you.”

“He was worried? Why?”

“Well, when you came in, you had a lot of blood all over you, as well as a huge bump on the back of your head. Happily, the blood wasn’t yours, except for a little bit where your scalp split around the bump.”

There was a commotion behind the woman, who turned and looked. She turned back to Mio and smiled. “Here he is now, as a matter of fact. He’s been by your cot most of the time since he brought you in. I have some other things to do, so I’ll let you talk a bit. Don’t wear yourself out too much, okay?”


The medic got up, and Dan sat down.

“Hi, Mio,” Dan said. “How are you feeling?”

“Not too bad,” Mio replied. “My head hurts a little, but aside from that, I’m fine. Thanks for bringing me here.”

“You’re welcome. Thanks for everything you did at the warehouse. You certainly have a knack for getting into trouble.”

“Trouble? I wasn’t even going to wake the trooper up, but someone jiggled the handle while I was unlocking the bolt, and he grabbed me.”

“Oops,” Dan said, “I’m sorry, that was probably me. We were really worried about you, so I kept trying the handle, and then when we finally got in, I was even more worried about you after I saw you. It turns out you could handle yourself though, like you keep trying to tell everyone.”

“Yes, but I couldn’t,” Mio said, tears dripping from the corners of her eyes. “I couldn’t do it. I came up to the soldier, and he was sleeping, and I just couldn’t shoot him in the back. It just didn’t seem right!” She rolled over, putting her face into the pillow, and sobbed.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Dan said. “You have to do what you feel is right, and there are many people who wouldn’t have shot an unarmed man in his sleep. I wouldn’t have.”

“Rea—” hiccup! “Really?” Mio asked, one eye peeking out.

“That’s the truth,” Dan said. “How much do you remember after we got into the room?”

“Not much. I think I was kind of out of it.”

“You were, but it’s totally understandable; you had a concussion.”

Mio thought back and had a terrifying thought. “Did I really tell Diego I liked him?”

“Yes, you did,” Dan replied, “but—”

“Oh my God!” Mio exclaimed. “I’ll never be able to show my face around him again.”

“Well, that’s something I have to talk to you about…” Dan’s voice trailed off and he looked away. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Diego didn’t make it back.”

“Didn’t make it back?” Mio repeated. “You mean the Terrans caught him?”

“No, I’m sorry, he was killed. He tried to slow down a squad of Terran troopers, so we could escape.”


“I’m afraid so,” Dan said. “I know he was your friend, and I’m really sorry.”

Mio cried for a long time. At some point, Dan got up and left her to her sorrow.

* * *

“Welcome back,” Harry said three days later when she returned to her original camp. “It’s good to see you again.”

“It’s good to be back, I guess,” Mio replied.

“You guess?”

“Yeah.” Mio sighed, looking at the ground. “I don’t expect the place will be the same without Diego.”

“I’m sorry. I know he was your friend.”

“Of all the people, though, why did he have to be the one to not come back?”

“I’m sorry, Mio, but haven’t you heard?”

“Heard what?”

“Diego wasn’t the only one killed on your raid. Everyone except Dan and you died. We did get the truck carrying the food, but we lost four people doing it.”

“No, I didn’t know that,” Mio said, a tear forming in the corner of an eye. She hadn’t really known the other men very well, but she had seen them, and they were part of her group. It wasn’t fair that four men had to die just so they could eat. It wasn’t fair!

Mio shook her head. “I don’t get it,” she finally said when she was calm enough to talk again.

“You don’t get what?”

“I don’t understand why the Terrans had to come here in the first place. What did we ever do to them? All we do here is farm! It’s not like we’re producing rifles or spaceships or anything important. Why did they have to come here and kill everyone I care about?”

“Well, they haven’t killed me yet,” Harry said, “and I’d like to think I’m your friend.”

Mio gave him a wry grin. “You know what I mean.”

“I do,” Harry said, “and I think the real answer to your question is a lot more complicated than what I can explain. The bottom line, though, is that some people want power, and they can’t bear to have any slip away from them.”

“You mean like the aristos in First Landing?”

“Something like that, yes,” Harry replied. “When the Alliance of Liberated Systems broke away from the Terran Union, the people in power could see they’d have less power without those systems, so they wanted them back. Not just some of them, but all of them. It doesn’t matter what we produce here; they want us back.”

“And they’re willing to kill everyone to make us return?”

Harry chuckled. “It doesn’t seem like a very good bargain to get the planet back if you have to kill all of the people on it, does it?”

“Not from where I’m standing, it doesn’t.”

“You see, that’s just it; the TU rulers aren’t standing where you are. They don’t see the death and destruction, aside from a few lines on a monitor somewhere. In their minds, if they kill everyone, they can always send new colonists to take over and continue on. It isn’t as efficient that way, so they’d rather we just accepted their rule, but they’ll do what it takes to keep us under their thumb.”

Mio frowned, working the thought through to its logical conclusion. “How do we get out from under their thumbs, then? It seems like the only way we could do it would be to kill all the rulers, but they’ll be hard to get at, since they’ll use all their people to defend them from us. We would almost have to kill all of them…which would make us just as bad as them.”

“Unfortunately, that’s true,” Harry said with a sad smile, “and that’s why I left the service of the Union. It was either kill or be killed, and I couldn’t take the killing anymore. I had no desire to go to other planets to kill their people just because they wanted to be able to control their lives.”

“War is stupid,” Mio said, kicking the dirt in frustration.

“Especially for those of us who have to fight it so other people can satisfy their childish needs and desires.”

“So, what do we do?”

“You either decide you can accept being ruled by someone and try to live your life the best you can under their direction, or you fight them, like we’ve been doing.”

Mio was quiet for a few moments, then asked, “So, why are you here? If you didn’t like fighting and killing, why are you part of the resistance, which is sure to make you do just that?”

“Like everything else in life,” Harry said, “it’s complicated, although I think the reason I joined the resistance is the same reason I left the Terran Union army; I got tired of having someone tell me what to do.”

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Mio, you ask lots of questions.”

“Sometimes,” she admitted. “Especially when I’m trying to figure things out.”

“What’s your question?”

“What do you think my father would do if he was here?”

Harry sighed. “That’s a tough one, since I didn’t know your father. Based on what I know about you and your upbringing, though, I would bet that he’d do everything possible to shield you from the Terran Union.”

“That isn’t what I meant. I was asking if you thought he would fight.”

“I know you were, Mio, and I was coming to that. I think I can answer this, because I was a father, too, once upon a time. I have a feeling if your father were here, he would do everything he could to shield you from the Terran Union. He wouldn’t want to join the resistance, because that would be dangerous to you, but I don’t think he could live under their yoke. At some point, he would see something that pushed him too far, or something that went so far beyond his beliefs he felt he had to rebel, and then he would have joined the resistance.”

“That’s what I think, too,” Mio replied. “He would have joined the resistance because it’s the right thing to do, and that’s why I’m staying.”

“Even though it’s dangerous and could get you killed?”

“Even so,” Mio said. “He always said anything good is worth fighting for.”

“I doubt he really meant fighting with rifles and grenades,” Harry objected.

“True, but I think this would apply, too. Freedom is worth fighting for.”

Harry didn’t reply, and Mio could see he was thinking about something. When the silence got too long for her, she asked, “Can I ask one more question?”

“Sure,” Harry said with a benevolent smile. “As long as it’s just one.”

“Can we win?”

When Harry didn’t immediately answer, Mio added, “I’m not a child. I’ve killed four of the Turds, but they’re still here. I want, no, I deserve an honest answer. Can we win?”

“I don’t know, Mio. Right now, they have all the advantages. Even if we kill all the soldiers on the planet, they may still bomb us out of existence from space out of spite.”

“So, we need something to drive them away…something that will make them want to leave…”

“Is that another question?”

“No,” Mio said. “I’m just thinking out loud.”

* * *

Mio went for a walk outside the camp and spent the rest of the afternoon thinking about what Harry said, finally realizing he was right. Her father would probably have reacted the same way Mr. Rogers had when the Turds arrived; he would have wanted to get a weapon and fight off the invaders. It was a good thing he had been off-planet then, as he would probably have come to the same end as Mr. Rogers and the rest of his family.

Looking back at her time in the resistance, Mio also realized that, although she’d come a long way as a contributing member, she’d been awfully lucky in the process. She could have…no, she probably should have died on several occasions. If things continued the way they were, there was no way the resistance could be successful. They needed an edge over the Turds, who currently had all the advantages. They had better weapons and supplies…not to mention the spaceship that could kill everyone on the planet if its crew decided it wanted to.

No one knew about Adelaide’s plight, and anyone who stumbled in would be shot down by the missile system before they could help the colony. That system alone guaranteed she would never see her father again. Even if he returned as promised, the missile system would kill him before they could be reunited.

The more she thought about it, the more she realized the missile system was the key to the entire occupation. The spaceship above them could only stay there because it was protected by the missile system, and the Terran troops on the planet could only remain because they were backed by the ship in orbit. It was a house of cards; if someone removed the missile system, everything else might fall. Maybe they could even take Adelaide back and force the Turds to leave.

They might still bomb the colony out of existence out of spite, like Harry had said, but maybe they wouldn’t. Even if another ship came in and destroyed them, they still might bomb the colony out of existence before they died. Again, just for spite. There really wasn’t any way for the colonists to be sure they could survive, aside from doing what the invaders said. Even then, the Terrans had shown they could be ruthless and would kill whoever they wanted. There really was no good answer. Regardless of what they did, they could be bombed out of existence at any moment.

But the missile system was the key to it all. The Turds had no reason to leave while the missiles were still able to ‘defend’ the colony from the ALS forces who might come to take it back.

The resistance needed a way to destroy the missile system…but how? It was guarded by lots of Terran troops. The scouts that had surveyed the Terran site talked about “fixed defenses,” “fortified positions,” and “remote-operated sentry guns.” She wasn’t sure exactly what all those terms meant, but the scouts had been impressed enough that they said it would be a slaughter to try to capture or destroy the missile system. It was located at the bottom of a line of cliffs, with a large cleared area surrounding it. The scouts couldn’t even get close to it, due to all the sensors.

It had to be destroyed for the Terrans to leave…but it couldn’t be destroyed. What could they do?

Mio looked up and realized she was at the firethorn bush where she had been captured by the resistance. That was it! Without thinking about it, her subconscious had solved the riddle. The resistance couldn’t attack the missile system from the front, but what if there was a secret back way through the plateau that led to the missile system? She had to find out!

Except, having drawn the conclusion, she couldn’t make her feet move another step closer to the firethorn bushes that guarded the entrance to the secret tunnels. She couldn’t go back into the tunnels. She couldn’t. What if she got trapped in there again? What if she couldn’t get back out?

She had to go, if the resistance was to have any chance at reclaiming the planet. She took a step closer.

All she had was half a flask of water, her laser pistol, and the memory cube. Maybe she should go back to camp and get some supplies. Some more water, if nothing else. That way, if she got lost, she would have time to work out how to get back out again. Yeah, that was a good idea; she should do that.

Mio started to turn, then realized if she walked away, she might never come back. She still had nightmares about being lost in the dark, and the thought of going into the mountain terrified her. If there was any other way…but there wasn’t. She took another step and found herself face-to-face with the bush.

She couldn’t go any farther without having a painful experience, and she couldn’t go back, so she got down on her stomach and looked under the bush. There was no one there and nothing to stop her from continuing. Darn it.

She pushed aside one branch and slithered under the bush. Standing up, she found the door closed. She shrugged her shoulders. The resistance fighter must have closed it. Oh well, she didn’t know how to open it, so she’d have to go back to camp. She turned to leave, but a flash caught her eye. The door wasn’t shut, just pulled until it was almost closed; there was still a small gap.

Mio walked over to inspect the door. She sighed. It was still open. The door was still sticky and squeaked loudly enough to be heard in First Landing, but when she pushed on it, it opened all the way. She waited to see if someone would come to investigate the noise, praying someone would, but no one did. The blackness inside loomed, brooding, like an enormous monster just out of sight. It waited, baiting her to come in, so it could pounce on her when she least expected it. She could almost feel the creature’s breath across her feet…then she realized it was just the cooler air of the cave escaping.

She took one step inside the passageway, then another. Nothing attacked her, nor was there anything to be seen.

Mio sighed. She had to do this. It was the only way Adelaide would ever be free. She turned to the right to follow the passage that led along the cliff face and walked three steps into the gathering gloom before stopping and spinning around. There was some kind of light switch at the other door, she remembered; was there one here, too?

Her heart soared when she saw the metal plate sticking out of the wall. There it was! This time, healthier and in better shape, she was able to jump up and slap the plate on the first try. Dim green light illuminated the passageways. Hurray! She wouldn’t have to expend any of the memory cube’s batteries, at least for a while, and she wouldn’t have to worry about falling into a ten-thousand-foot crevasse.

She set off, hoping to get as far as she could while she still had light. She came to the first cross passage and saw the upheaval; she might be able to get up it with a running start (and some light to see by), but a ladder would make it a lot easier.

Mio passed four cross passages and came to a fifth. Looking down the passage, she realized she couldn’t see very far; the light was getting dimmer. She broke into a jog; when she had started the journey, she figured she had about seven miles to go. It ought to take about two and a half hours to get there, a half hour inspection, and two and a half hours back. She would be home by dinner…or at least before the sun completely set. That was in the light, though; she had forgotten about how slowly she had to go in the dark.

It would take a lot longer to get there once the lights went out, and even longer to return. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, after all.

The lights went out, and Mio took a break to catch her breath and evaluate her options. She had been traveling for over an hour and was probably halfway to where the missile site was…if indeed there was a door there. She didn’t know if there would be, and if there wasn’t, this was going to be a long, lonely, dark trip.

What had she been thinking? She should have at least gotten Harry to come. She hadn’t though, and now she was by herself in the dark. Somehow, having survived the last trip, this time didn’t seem so bad. Perhaps that was because she knew she could retrace her steps and get out? She wasn’t sure, but the knowledge did make her feel better about continuing. If she ever decided to turn around, there weren’t any dangerous areas she’d have to traverse in the dark.

She decided to continue. Even though she would have to go more slowly, she could use the memory cube to help light her way, at least for a while, which would help.

With the cube providing its limited light, she continued on for another hour. Although she couldn’t go as quickly as when the lights were on, she still made reasonable time. She had just stopped to rest when the green lights in the passage came on.

Now she could make up some time!

As soon as the thought went through her mind, a second one joined it. Why had the lights come on? There were only two times the lights had come on, and both of them were when she had pushed a plate to turn them on.

She wasn’t alone in the tunnels.

She figured she still had about 45 more minutes of travel time remaining, but this changed everything. While she could go more quickly with the lights on, she would have to restrain herself; the worst thing she could do would be to go charging headlong into a Turd ambush.

It seemed obvious the other person/people in the tunnel must be Turds. If anyone from Adelaide knew about the tunnels, she was sure she would have heard about it.

She put away her pistol and took off her boots, trying to tread as lightly as she could. The stone of the passageway was cool on her feet, but the surface was smooth. If she could hear the Turds coming before they saw her, she could still get away. She was almost at her target; better to complete the mission, if possible, than to have to come back another time. Breathing through her mouth to remain as silent as she could, she continued down the passageway, staying against the right wall.

Mio traveled another half hour before she heard them. At least two men and a woman, talking as they walked. Mio couldn’t hear them very well; the echoes of their voices made the words indistinct, but they sounded like soldiers from the gruff tone they used.

She withdrew slowly down the passageway before them, trying to keep their voices at the same level. Periodically, she would catch words like “attack” and “killed,” usually from the woman’s voice, which seemed to travel better, but never enough to be able to decipher what they were discussing.

After about five minutes, Mio noticed the voices were fading; the people had turned around and were going the other way. She hurried to catch up with them, listening as the men continued to talk. Mio froze suddenly. There were only men talking; what happened to the woman’s voice?

Leaning against the wall, Mio waited for a few minutes, her time measured by her panicked heartbeats. Had the woman gone into a side passage to wait and see if they were being followed? Mio couldn’t remember if there had even been a side passage. She didn’t think so, but she couldn’t be sure.

Mio’s eyes scanned the passageway, and she realized the light was fading. The patrol had probably turned around to make sure they didn’t end up walking through the tunnels in the dark. Mio waited another minute, and her patience was rewarded. A shadow detached itself from the left and flowed quickly, wraithlike, down the hallway after the troopers. The woman who had been with them.

Hurrying to keep up with the woman, Mio passed the cross-passage where she had been hiding. Someone had written “Turn around here” on the floor. Stupid Turds.

The lights went out before Mio could catch up with the soldiers, and she was forced to slow down again. At least she didn’t have to worry about a giant hole in the passageway…did she? If the Terrans were walking down the corridor, that must mean it was safe, right? Mio didn’t want to take anything the Terrans did for granted, but she couldn’t use the memory cube with the enemy nearby, so she continued down the tunnel slowly with one hand on the right wall. After 10 minutes, Mio realized she could see; the passage was getting lighter.

If there was light, natural light, then there was a door close, and it was open. It also meant there were probably Terrans nearby, so she crept down the passageway, going even slower than before.

She heard the voices at the same time she saw the door.

“I still don’t understand why we have to patrol those tunnels, Sarge,” a man’s voice said. “Damn things are creepy. And to be in them when the lights go out? No way. It feels like something’s sneaking up behind me the whole time.”

“We have to patrol them,” a woman’s voice replied, “because if we found the passages, the stupid resistance fighters may find them, too, and use them to sneak up on us. That wouldn’t be much fun, now would it?”

“I don’t see what the big deal is,” a second man grumbled. “Don’t we have a spy in their organization? One of their leaders? Won’t he tell us before that happens?”

“He ought to,” the woman replied, “but I don’t want to put my life in the hands of someone who’s willing to betray his own people, do you?”

“Not really, no.”

“Well then, quit complaining,” the woman said. “Besides, they should have a camera up in the tunnels soon; after that, we won’t have to patrol them anymore.”

“I can’t wait,” the first voice muttered.

The voices grew fainter; the soldiers were walking away. Now was Mio’s chance—she had to find out where she was. She set her boots down and drew her pistol. Keeping to the side of the passage, she crept toward the door. It was still light out, and the sunlight was hard on her eyes after the darkness of the tunnels.

Mio listened for several seconds at the side of the door. When she didn’t hear the voices anymore, she eased her head around to where she could look out. Just like the other doorway, there had been a stand of firethorn bushes that blocked access to it, but it looked like a vehicle had knocked some of it down, then someone had cut a path through it. Unfortunately, they had cut the hole over to the side, and the only direction Mio could see was to the left along the side of the cliff; she couldn’t see anything straight out.

Without more information, the trip was worthless, so she got down on her belly and slid forward, using the rest of the bushes as cover. Like most firethorns, there was a low gap at the bottom. She could see something black, but she couldn’t tell what it was, so she continued forward. The gap under this bush was a little shorter than the one at the other door, and she was forced to drag herself through the dirt to stay underneath the menacing thorns.

She pulled herself forward and was almost to the edge when someone walked past. The soldier’s boots passed within a foot of her nose, but the man didn’t see her. He continued in the direction he was heading. With the man gone, Mio could see what the black things were. Tires. Big tires. She pulled herself another few inches forward, and her arm contacted a firethorn.

Pain exploded through her arm and into her body as if she had stuck her arm into a vat of acid. She bit her lip to keep from crying out, and all that escaped was a small whimper. When the bright light cleared from her eyes, she could see the vehicle. It was an enormous truck, far larger and longer than anything she had ever seen before. On top of it, at the front end of the vehicle, she could see the pointy nose of what had to be a gigantic missile. She was inside the missile launcher camp!

She scanned slowly back and forth, but the missile truck was so massive it blocked most of her view. She could see another truck to the left down the cliff line; the man that had passed by her was talking to someone there. With a little better angle, she could see the thing on top was definitely a missile. There was another vehicle to the right, but it looked unlike anything she had ever seen. It was shorter than the missile trucks, but boxy, and had a lot of metal poles sticking up from it. Weird. Beyond it, it looked like there were some tents, but she couldn’t be sure.

Having seen everything she needed to, Mio slid back through the bush, got up, and ran back into the tunnel. She ran down the tunnel until she could barely see, put on her boots, and vanished into the darkness, skipping as she went. She had the edge the resistance was looking for!

* * * * *

Chapter Fifteen: Benno

Benno came to in fits and flashes of consciousness, slowly knitting together until they formed a skein of wakefulness. Sensation returned. At first, all he could feel was a dull ache centering on his shoulder and a detached numbness everywhere else. Then more input crept up and defined itself. The wound below his right collarbone burned with low heat, but it was bearable. What annoyed him the most was the soreness he felt everywhere else, as if he had been whipped back and forth like a toy in the clutches of some irate toddler.

When Benno realized he had been that toddler, he groaned and cracked his eyes open.

He recognized the Puller’s sickbay. The space was entirely too clean and bright, its antiseptic smell clashing with the smell of ozone and oil that usually defined shipboard air. Wires and IV lines trailed away from his arms and torso to monitoring gear and bottles of fluid, pressurized to maintain flow, even in microgravity. He lifted one aching arm and felt it tugged insistently downward, but whether they were under thrust or spin, he could not tell.

“Ah. Back among the living, I see, Skipper.”

Benno turned his head, his neck stiff and sore, and saw the Puller’s independent duty hospital corpsman, Chief Tony “Doc” Kramer. The man had been a vocal non-supporter and non-participant in the mutiny, but he had been allowed to stay out of the brig or the detention section because of his skills and an oath of non-interference. Benno nodded and tried to speak. After clearing his throat, which set both his wound and his chest afire, he croaked out, “How long down?”

Chief Kramer went about checking Benno’s monitors. “Since you got injured and punked out on us? Or since you tried to kill the whole crew with your little ‘victory maneuvers’ there at the end? Either way, it’s been almost 36 hours.”

Benno croaked again, but more firmly this time. “SITREP?”

“I nearly broke my goddamned neck! Did you bother to consider that not everyone might have been strapped in? If sickbay wasn’t near the ship’s center of rotation, you might very well have killed me and the other corpsmen. Who, I’ll add, can’t exactly stay in acceleration couches and still render medical aid! It’s not all ‘bots down here!”

“Doc, I’m sorry about banging you or anyone else around, but do you have a report on the current situation or not?”

The chief corpsman relented. “I don’t know the full situation, just the medical piece. Eight persons killed, 24 injured enough to seek care, but only six of those need further treatment at a dedicated medical facility. Fourteen might not seem an excessive butcher bill to you, but considering you have a fifth of the crew locked up, that’s nearly ten percent of the remainder. You’re going to have to get better at this combat stuff if you want any chance of rescuing all the Lost Six. Well, Lost Five now, I suppose.”

Benno’s eyes widened. “The Terrans aren’t in control of Paradiso anymore?”

Kramer shrugged. “We’re over the planet now, in orbit, and split open like a daisy for spin gravity. I sure as hell hope we aren’t still worried about Turd troops down on the surface.”

Benno struggled upward in the half-g of spin. Kramer shook his head but did not try to hold him down. Instead, he reached for the comm attached to his forearm and said, “Hold on. You can’t go anywhere until you get some clothes. I’ll get the others down here instead.”

Minutes later Benno was sitting up, a fresh blanket on his lap, waiting while Kramer disconnected him from the monitoring gear and IVs. Senior Chief Ludovic, the giant engineer, and Chief Dufresne entered. Both looked relieved to see Benno conscious, though Ellen Dufresne’s smile was the only one that might count as warm.

Benno wasted no time on platitudes or small talk. “SITREP,” he ordered.

Ludovic led off. “Repairs are in progress, ship-wide. It was a good thing we used external resources after the Terran system battle, because we’re going to eat up most of our onboard stock getting ready for the next mission. Damage was extensive and ship-wide. Lots of penetrations from warhead lasers, lots of beam-path damage, but nothing as big or as devastating as that capital-ship-killer we took last battle. A bunch of outer hull armor damage and out-of-commission antennas from the railgun hits and the close-aboard nuke strikes, but we have sufficient materiel to get us to over 95% on emitter coverage and to put the Whipple shield back into some semblance of total coverage. I need a couple of days with no thrust, but we can cope with spin. Might need to go to zero-g for maybe half a day before we finally depart. Otherwise, propulsion, life support, thermal management, and data systems are all 70% or better and improving.”

Benno nodded as Kramer finished and left the compartment. “Okay. And tactically?”

Chief Dufresne answered. “We’re around 45% on railgun rounds, 60% on PDC stock, but we still have 75% of our missile stores. We lost three laser emplacements and two PDCs, but only the dorsal engineering hull laser is a complete loss, beyond repair or replacement anywhere short of a shipyard. At these usage rates, we’ll have to resupply at least once before we can free all five of the other worlds, but we should be able to make it at least to Adelaide.”

“Assuming we survive trying to take Morgan’s Rock, and that’s a much tougher nut to crack,” Ludovic added.

Benno nodded. “Okay, I get where we are and where we’re still short, but you both skipped over how we got here. We’re in orbit around Paradiso, and nobody is shooting at us?”

Ludovic and Dufresne chuckled, while Kramer just shook his head. Ludovic rumbled an answer. “Sorry, Benno, old news for us. Yeah. Locals rose up and took on the Terran marines as soon as they got intel the Annapolis wasn’t coming back. By themselves, the local Paradisan farmers weren’t enough to overcome dug-in troops, but the marines knew their position was untenable against any opposing warship in orbit. They surrendered and demanded POW status after a token resistance.”

Benno’s eyes narrowed. “They didn’t bring anything to counter an orbital threat? I would have thought that would be standard.”

Dufresne answered. “It is, but that requires it to be working. Apparently, the drop-pod carrying their anti-orbit battery broke up on re-entry. The only big guns in-system this time were on the Turd destroyer. Without it, and against an orbital threat, they knew their defeat was inevitable. It looks like they were prepared to pull out off-planet at a moment’s notice. Maybe they would have fled if we’d shown up with a bigger force. The theory the Turds are only here to distract our ops in their space carries more weight now.”

“That’s a good thing,” Benno replied. “If they’d rather give up a place than dig in, maybe that means we have an actual shot at freeing the rest of the five.”

Ludovic shook his head. “We lucked out here. Don’t overextend a single data point into a trend. If that defense system had been set up and we had to overcome an anti-orbit missile system or a surface railgun battery—like we can assume we’ll have to every time from here on out—I guarantee they would have generated a bigger butcher bill. We’d have taken more damage, maybe even been taken out completely. And shooting back to take them out? We’d end up causing collateral damage to the surrounding area. That means casualties among the very people we’re trying to free. The Paradisans are looking at us as Alliance heroes right now, no questions asked. They might be looking at us a little more critically if this had turned out differently, or did you forget we’re all traitors to most of those loyal farmers?”

“Maybe traitors,” Dufresne insisted. “But these people were abandoned by the Alliance as well. If they knew that, they might be willing to overlook our…extra-legal status.”

Benno shrugged—and tried not to wince at the pain it caused. “Either way, Senior Chief has a point. Best we don’t share too much about our current level of rapport with the Navy chain of command.”

The two others nodded. At that point, Kramer re-entered carrying a fresh uniform for Benno. He handed it over and said, “You’re released, Fearless Leader. Try not to get yourself ‘injured by shrapnel’ in the future.” As if to ensure they all took it as sarcastically as intended, the chief Corpsman even used air quotes. On his way out, he gestured to the other two senior enlisted. “Let’s go, you two. Give the CO his privacy. You can tell him the rest on the bridge.”

The senior engineer and Doc departed, but Ellen Dufresne tarried. Benno decided not to let that stop him, even temporarily. Gingerly, he pulled the sheets and blanket aside and swung his legs over the side of the hospital cot. He at least wore some compression shorts to preserve his modesty. Dufresne said nothing, so Benno spoke as he slowly put on his uniform. “Sooo…at the very least, Doc knows something about what went down on the bridge. How bad is it?”

She shrugged. “Not as bad as it might be had Ortiz killed you. People suspect things. There are rumors, but people are towing the line, even those in Raoul’s camp.”

“What is the line?”

“That Petty Officer First Class Raoul Ortiz, standing watch as Officer of the Deck during the battle to liberate Paradiso, served honorably and admirably but was killed during the encounter as a consequence of combat maneuvers and battle damage to the bridge. The commanding officer was also injured in that incident, but not before securing our victory.”

Benno shook his head and stood, pulling up the legs of his ship-suit coveralls. “Well, I’m sure that plays better than, ‘Selfish, mutinous shit murdered after attempted murder of slightly less selfish mutinous shit.’”

Dufresne frowned. “You’re not allowed to beat yourself up over this, Benno. Ortiz was a snake. He tried to murder you in the most cowardly, calculating way I’ve ever heard of. I mean, there was still ordnance flying. He endangered all of us and the whole mission. Not that there would be much of a mission if Ortiz had killed you. With you dead, he and his fellow cowards would have taken over. They’d have persuaded the rest of the crew that we couldn’t win this mission. They’d have taken us to god knows where outside the reach of both the Alliance and the Terran Union, to some backwater pirate hellhole to try to eke out a life on the fringes. And our families? To hell with them.”

She approached as he finished zipping his coveralls. Benno had been looking down, overly focused on his uniform. She forced him to look her in the eyes. “Benno, we did it. With you in charge, we freed our people, people the Alliance simply abandoned. If we did it once, we can do it again. And again, and again. We can free the Lost Six. We can free your Mio.”

Benno’s eyes misted over. There was nothing he could say. The worry about whether or not this was all fruitless had hung in the background of his thoughts like the specter of death, ready to kill his last bit of hope. To know they had a chance, to have it validated by someone who had risked just as much…it was such a relief Benno almost felt like the spin had cut out, leaving him weightless.

He nodded to her and squeezed her arm. “Thanks, but before Mio and the others on Adelaide, we have to take care of Morgan’s Rock. You have family there, right?”

She nodded, tears welling at the corners of her eyes. “My brother. My nieces. He works at the orbital shipyard there. He, his wife, and his kids have a nice little cottage with some fields on the main continent in the temperate zone. It’s the closest thing to perfection I’ve ever seen.”

Benno stood straight, confidence and resolve puffing out his chest. “We’re going to save them, Chief. No problem.”

* * *

“Morgan’s Rock is gonna be a real problem, Benno.” Chief Amar Rajput rarely left CIC, but with so much happening and so much for their CO to catch up on, the bridge was the most convenient place for everyone to report to Benno. Therefore, he had made the arduous four-whole-decks journey. He always seemed to squint when he was outside his domain, as if his eyes could no longer tolerate normal levels of illumination after so much time spent in the dimly-lit Combat Information Center—the better for watch standers to see their combat displays.

But he had made the trip. Whatever he had to say must be significant enough to report in person, so Benno allowed his tablet to float down to his lap and gave Rajput his full attention. “We knew with the resources and infrastructure in the Morgana system, the Turds would devote more of their forces to secure it, but they only left one ship here in Paradiso. That tells me they haven’t got a tremendous amount of assets in their distraction fleet. How much worse do you think it is?”

Rajput looked over his shoulder at the central display, where the vector image of orbits, trajectories, and weapon and sensor arcs had been replaced by the broad, curved wedge of the planet below them. The partial hemisphere they could see proved that Paradiso had been appropriately named. On the dawn side of the rapidly-moving terminator, the world glowed with green and blue vitality, hidden only by drifting white clouds. From this distance, the pain and scars of the recent occupation were invisible. The chief gestured to the Alliance planet. “I don’t have to speculate much. The locals were fairly…zealous in their interrogation of the captured Terran marine POWs. They got several people to spill on the force distribution around each of the rest of the Lost Six. Enough of them corresponded to one another to give it credence.”

Benno exchanged a look with Chief Dufresne, seated next to him in the XO chair, then went back to Rajput. “What are we looking at?”

“Opinion is mixed on what the heavy unit is, whether it’s a battlecruiser, a heavy cruiser, or a light lancer carrier, but the majority say a heavy cruiser, and that would align well with what you’d figure they could spare for a distraction force so deep into our territory. All agree, however, the cruiser has a screen of three destroyers and three frigates, with a resupply collier in company. Seven warships, relatively light, but 8 to 10 times our throw weight and enough resources to sustain them for a long while. It’s beyond our capability to dislodge them. Hell, I doubt we could even successfully pull off a lightning raid or a scouting run without them eating our lunch.”

The oppressive weight of doubt climbed atop Benno’s spirit again. With Ortiz dead and their first victory secured, he thought they might have a shot. Now? Looking at Ellen Dufresne, who had much more invested in Morgan’s Rock than he did, he could see the fear evident on her face. He did not want to ask the next question, not with her standing next to him, but he could not avoid it. Nor did he think she would want him to.

“Okay, Chief Rajput. I know it’s not what we briefed originally, but what about bypassing Morgan’s Rock? What if we moved on to Adelaide immediately, or one of the other three systems?” Benno felt the sudden heat of shame over his anticipation. What if he could go straight to Mio and not violate his principles or betray the crew’s trust? What if circumstances forced him to rescue his daughter next? Surely people would understand that.

Rajput shrugged, which caused him to bounce slightly in the near-microgravity. “According to the marine prisoners, the others all have similar force laydowns to what we saw here, in Paradiso. One destroyer and a garrison company. There’s also a marine dropship carrier out there somewhere, but they’re not so tough when it comes to ship-to-ship combat. If we skip Morgan’s Rock, we could face each of the others on more or less equal footing.”

Benno refused to look toward Dufresne. “Okay. What’s the viability of that course of action?”

The Ops Specialist chief shook his head. “Zero. You might take the next planet or two if nothing goes wrong, but not all four. Even footing means a 50/50 flip of the coin in our favor four more times. You think we’re that lucky? And that doesn’t take into account a working anti-orbit battery on the ground at each location, nor does it consider our attrition and cumulative battle damage. It’s a one in a million shot at best.”

Chief Dufresne, her eyes red but dry, spoke up. “How are those odds improved by attacking Morgan’s Rock next? It seems to me it makes it even worse. At the very least, we could free Adelaide and one additional system.” Her voice was a dull monotone, purposefully stripped of emotion.

Rajput nodded carefully. “Okay. Yeah, our odds aren’t improved if we get killed taking on a bigger force first, but that’s not exactly what we—what you, Benno—promised the crew. To skip Morgana…that ain’t gonna sit too well with the Rockers aboard, whether it makes sense or not.”

“Even if we can’t possibly win? Even if there’s nothing there to be gained?” Benno asked. He hated the pleading tone of his voice. To be so close to having a clear path to rescue Mio next, even if it meant casting aside Dufresne and the other Morgan’s Rock crewpersons’ loved ones…it felt maddening.

“I didn’t say there was nothing there to be gained, just that we couldn’t possibly survive a move there on our own. But gains? Yeah, there are gains. We take Morgan’s Rock, and we have access to a shipyard, access to a naval weapons store—the only real store outside the central aristo worlds. Taking Morgan’s Rock allows us to take Adelaide, Putnam, Trinity, and New Kiev. Benno, correct me if I’m wrong, but you originally said you had a plan for the Rock and firmer resistance, way back when you, Ortiz, and Ludovic were all debating on what we were going to do. Were you lying then?”

Benno shook his head. “No, I wasn’t lying. There were a couple of options, but I’ll admit, I wasn’t anticipating anything like seven to one odds. One thought was that we might carry in some patrol craft from the worlds we hit, use those as force multipliers and decoys. But that won’t play against a full screen and a big hitter like a heavy cruiser. The other possibility was just…too outlandish.”

Chief Rajput shrugged again. “Well, outlandish might have to be back on the table. Hitting the Rock by ourselves is suicide, but without the resources the Morgana yards give us, we might liberate only half of the Lost Six at most. So not only are you skipping the Rockers’ families, you’re skipping the families of half the crew. Hello, second mutiny.”

Benno finally looked at Chief Dufresne, locking his gaze with hers. What he saw there was both pathetic and damning. He knew she would go along with him if he insisted on skipping Morgan’s Rock and making immediately for Mio and the colony on Adelaide. He knew she would back him even if he stopped there and did not bother with the other three worlds. She might hate him, but Dufresne would support him for the sake of those they could free—at least until she could wrest control from him and go back to do what he should have done in the first place. She would back him because even though they were all mutineers, they were still honorable, still loyal to the Alliance.

This was not about Mio or any one person’s family. It was about them all, about every pleb and every aristo.

Benno remained quiet for nearly a minute as he thought and weighed options. Finally, he sighed and brought up his forearm tablet, scrolling through the stellar catalog. With a few deft taps, he found the system he sought. Benno swiped the screen and forwarded the location to both Rajput and Dufresne.

Looking down, they each saw the system he had targeted, and their eyes bugged out. Rajput looked confused. “Ummm, skipper? This isn’t Morgan’s Rock or Adelaide.”

“No, it’s not. Talk to Senior Chief Ludovic. As soon as we can button up and get underway, set course for that DEC jump. Make sure IFF is up and ready to broadcast before we transit.” Benno pushed off carefully toward the bridge hatch.

“Wait!” Rajput pleaded.

Chief Dufresne pushed over after Benno. “Why would we go to Magi? It’s a central system. The goddamn Navy is there! Just because the old plan, the old order won’t work, that’s no reason to do this!”

Benno paused at the hatch edge. “We’re not going to give up on any of the Lost Six…and we’ll survive Morgan’s Rock, too. To do that, though, you have to follow my orders…and I have to take a big gamble.”

* * *

Benno stood up when they brought her into the interrogation/meeting room next to the brig. Old habits die hard, he supposed.

The XO smirked when she saw him. The second-class master-at-arms escorting her took no notice of either of them. He merely sat CDR Ashton down and handcuffed her to the room’s table. As he left them alone, Benno sat down, too, and looked at his old superior officer and current prisoner.

“I suppose congratulations are in order, Captain Sanchez,” she said.

Benno shrugged. “The crew performed well. Part of it was your training. The other part was their investment in the outcome. They were fighting for their families and the Alliance. They’re patriots that way.”

Amanda Ashton smiled. The wounds she had received in Ortiz’s kangaroo court were healing well. There was no sign of further abuse. “Well, I’m sure it’s nice to have that sort of rationalization to fall back on. And I’m glad the Puller achieved victory. For one, I’m alive. That’s somewhat better than the alternative. But I’m also glad you and your crew were able to free our citizens on Paradiso from the Terran Union. I said it before: no one wanted those worlds subjugated. We’re patriots too, on the other side of this mutiny. It’s just that other, broader concerns over the future of the Alliance as a whole took precedence.”

He smiled back. “I’m sure it’s nice to have your own rationalizations like that to fall back on.”

CDR Ashton nodded to him, conceding. “That wasn’t exactly what I was congratulating you on, however, Benno. I was referring to the consolidation of your authority. I hope you’re recovering from your battle wounds well. How unfortunate Petty Officer Ortiz won’t. He and the others killed are immense losses to the Navy.”

“It was a tragedy.” Benno leaned closer to her, over the table. “I want you to know, XO, I appreciated the wisdom of your advice, but I didn’t try to take Ortiz out. He attacked me. I defended myself.”

“That may be true. This one necessary murder might not stain your soul, but it’s still fruit of the poisoned tree. All these deaths, whether in battle or self-defense, are a direct consequence of your decision to rebel and take over this ship. You can’t escape that, no matter what you do.”

Benno nodded. “Okay, but by that same token, I’m also responsible for the lives saved by the decisions I made. If I hadn’t mutinied, I for one would be dead by execution on a trumped-up charge. An unknowable number of us might be dead as well, killed off in Operation Executive Amber’s subsequent battles. And then there’s the entire population of Paradiso, rescued from occupation by foreign troops and whatever crimes they may have perpetrated. Rapes. Tortures. The decimation of locals to quell dissent. Maybe even complete genocide by orbital bombardment if the Terrans were forced to retreat. At what point does the number I’ve saved overcome how many I’ve been forced to kill?”

Ashton frowned. “Unfortunately, I’m not sure that’s how it works. I think we have to carry the full weight of our sins, no matter how many we save in the end.” They both maintained a silence between them for a long measure, but the silence felt meaningful, not awkward. Eventually, though, she continued. “For what it’s worth, Benno, I’m glad Paradiso is free. I’m glad the burden of their souls can’t weigh me down…like they might have through my or the Alliance’s inaction. I hope for the best with the other five worlds. Even if you end up burning for it, as you should, I’m hoping you can still do some good.”

Benno stood and began to pace, keeping the XO in his peripheral vision. Nervous energy suffused him, and only movement could relieve it. So much rode upon this next moment. “That’s why I wanted to see you, Commander. Circumstances and our own interpretations of duty have made enemies of us here…but we’re also allies in wanting to defend the Alliance. I need your help.”

She laughed once, incredulous. “I like you, Benno. I can even respect why you did what you did, but I can’t excuse the act. You’re a mutinous traitor. You killed your CO, other officers, your own shipmates. You stole our ship. And you imprisoned me. No. No, I won’t help you. Not ever.”

He returned to his seat and locked gazes with the XO. “Ma’am, I have to take Morgan’s Rock back from the Terrans. It’s the key to the other four systems, but I can’t take it alone. The TUN put an entire screening squadron and a heavy cruiser in there. I need more assets, assets that I couldn’t possibly get released legally, even if I weren’t a traitor. That’s where you come in.”

She slapped a palm down on the table. Her face reddened as she growled out, “I don’t come in anywhere. I won’t help you. Ever!

Benno ignored her rejection. Instead, he a slid a tablet over to her. She looked down and saw a stellar system map for one of the central worlds displayed. He continued. “According to the CO’s briefings, many of the patrol units and garrison vessels normally assigned to the less fashionable parts of the Alliance were forwarded here, to the Magi system. That includes the squadron that used to cover the Morgana system, the Rock, the yards, and the depot there. I imagine those units were none too pleased when they found out they were pulled back to cover a central system that was never attacked, while the enemy captured the areas where they had just come from. I imagine they’re just waiting for an excuse to get back in there and get some pay-back.”

CDR Ashton looked back up at him, her eyes wide. Her face had gone from red to pale in the span of a single breath. “You can’t be serious. You can’t expect to just waltz into Magi, then demand those ships follow you back to Morgan’s Rock.”

“I can if you help me. There’s actual fleet hierarchy in Magi. They would never buy me as the CO. But you’re the XO. They’ll accept you as the new CO after the loss of our original Captain in a heroic clash against Terran forces. We sell our battle damage and loss of personnel as a result of combat action in Executive Amber. We make up some fake situation reports and new orders from deployed fleet command, detaching them from duty in Magi and sending them back to Morgan’s Rock.”

“You don’t think they’ll try to authenticate such a drastic change in tasking?”

Benno shook his head. “No, I don’t, because this isn’t drastic. This is a return to the status quo, to where those units should have always been. It’s what they’re likely already anticipating. Authentication would take several days, setting up courier transits into and out of Centralis. They won’t want to wait. Believe me, with urgent enough orders from high enough up, and with someone as trustworthy and solid as you, we can get them moving immediately.”

She slid the tablet back to him. “It’s audacious. I’ll grant you that. And if they already have intel on Executive Amber? Or they’re already on the lookout for missing fleet unit ACV Puller?”

“Then we die. But if we don’t get those ships to link up with us, we’d die trying to take Morgan’s Rock anyway. This is the only shot we have of surviving and of freeing the rest of the Lost Six.”

Ashton pushed away from the table as much as the cuffs would allow her. She looked disappointed. “It’s a pretty plan. It might even work if you get the encoding, tone, and format of the orders right. But, as I said, I will never help you.”

Benno nodded. “You say that, but I think that’s the pat, easy answer, the one your sense of integrity is forcing out of you. You say no because I’m a traitor and a mutineer, or because I killed a shitty CO and put you in the brig.”

“It’s neither pat nor easy. It’s just no…but yeah, those ‘trivial things’ do factor into my choice.”

“Well, I think you should perhaps reconsider with all facts in evidence. You don’t want to aid and abet a mutiny. Okay, I get that…but the truth is you’re not. The mutiny is done, it’s over with. You’re not going to regain control of the ship, and we won’t consider turning ourselves in until the mission is complete—a mission you should agree with in principle, even if you can’t endorse our methods. Ideologically though, you should be willing to help free these systems, despite who it means you’re working with. And if you’re worried about the consequences to your career for deigning to help us after our takeover, you have an automatic out. You’re a prisoner acting under duress. Anything you do has complete deniability, and I will create affidavits and log entries to that effect.

“And all that we’re asking you to do? We’re asking you to follow the spirit of your oath. We’re asking you to stand up as a figurehead while the deception goes on around you. All you have to do is stand there, nod, and not give us away. The result of your complicity is that we kick a bunch of Terran Turds out of another of our systems. We free an Alliance world—hell, we free five more Alliance worlds.

“Think of all the plusses that’ll put in your karmic balance, all the sins it might help negate…perhaps even the sin of helping us. And all because it’s the right thing to do.”

The commander gave him a tight smile. “Very inspiring, Benno. Okay, that’s the carrot. What’s the stick?”

He shook his head. “There’s no stick.”

“Really? I can settle on ‘No, not buying it,’ and you’ll just put me back in my cell?”

Benno looked at her, looked into the heart of one of the few aristos he had ever truly respected—and he understood her resolve. He realized rationalization alone would never be enough. Even threatening her would likely not be enough. No, with her it would have to be everything or nothing, even if he genuinely damned his own soul in the process. To get her to the point where his reasoning could sway her, he would have to back her into a corner with no other way out—not just for her own sake. For everyone’s.

He leaned forward. Benno could not pull off menacing, so he didn’t even try. Instead, he opted to mirror her own steadfast resolve, and he could feel the sincerity of what he was prepared to do chill him to the core.

“You insist on a stick? Here it is: I can’t rescue my daughter unless we take Morgan’s Rock. My best shot at taking Morgan’s Rock is to have you play your role in Magi and play it well. Understand one thing, ma’am: I committed mutiny to save all I could of the Lost Six because what the Alliance did to them was wrong. But the only one who truly matters to me is my Mio. If it came down to a choice between her or every single other person on this ship, every single other person in the Alliance, I would choose her and damn you all. If you don’t do what’s right and help me, you’re forcing me to make that choice.

“Refuse to play CO to the forces in Magi, and I will start ending the lives of each and every loyalist you still command. Betray me, and before anyone can take this ship, I’ll space them all en masse. Even as the rest of the Alliance Navy tries to force us to surrender, I’ll ensure the brig and Section Four are sealed off and opened to vacuum. Their lungs will boil, and with their last breath they may well curse me, but I guarantee with their next to last, they’ll curse you.”

Amanda Ashton regarded Benno, but not in fear or horror or shock. If anything, she just appeared sad. “Ruthless. I wonder if I can believe you’d do it. You didn’t seem the type before all this.”

“I doubt I seemed the type to commit a mutiny either. Please don’t test me. Don’t force me to force you.” His lips pressed together into a thin line as he awaited her answer.

Her eyes narrowed. “This whole thing’s changed you, Warrant. I wonder what you might have been if this hadn’t come up, and we’d still seen and nurtured your full potential…instead of suppressing you out of some sort of misplaced classism.”

Benno smiled bitterly back at her. “If this hadn’t come up, I wouldn’t have had any potential to nurture. I’d have just gone on to be a crappy, inexperienced farmer, on my own land, trying to raise a daughter who might respect me if I worked hard enough. But that’s not possible anymore. No use dwelling on it.”

They glared at one another over the interrogation room table.

“I need your answer, XO. Will you help save us, help save your crew, and help save these worlds? Or are you going to make me prove my resolve?”

* * * * *

Chapter Sixteen: Mio

Mio arrived back at camp after night had fallen, to find the resistance members celebrating. She saw Harry standing on the outskirts of the group watching the revelry with a frown and went over to him.

“What’s going on?” Mio asked.

“We’re celebrating,” he replied.

“You don’t look like you’re celebrating,” Mio noted. “Not only that, you don’t sound very happy.”

“Yeah, well I think they’re making a big mistake.”

“What do you mean?”

“They had a raid today that was supposed to capture the Terran’s operations officer, so we could get information from him we could use to plan our upcoming raids. Unfortunately, he died in the assault.”

“That doesn’t seem worthy of a celebration to me,” Mio said with a sniff.

“No, that isn’t what they’re celebrating. While they were in his office, someone found the shuttle schedule for the next few days. They’re going to attack the starport tomorrow and try to capture a shuttle. If they can, they’re going to fly a big load of bombs up to the ship in orbit and blow it up.”

“Can they do that?”

“I guess it’s theoretically possible,” Harry said. “The problem is the plan is way too complicated and relies on too many variables going their way. Can we assault the spaceport? Sure. We could probably take it, although we couldn’t hold it for long. Do we have pilots that could fly the shuttle? I heard we do. The problem is getting the shuttle up to the destroyer and then getting back off once the bombs are placed. I think it’s a fool’s mission.”

“Why is everyone celebrating then?”

“It’s our first real chance to win. If we can destroy their ship, then they have nowhere to go and nothing to deter us with anymore. We can pick them off at our leisure. We win.”

“What about the missile system?”

“They could use the missiles in a surface-to-surface mode and shoot them at First Landing if they wanted, but I don’t know why they’d do that. The only chance they’d really have of survival is to surrender and throw themselves on our mercy.”

“Is this party going to go on long?” Mio asked. “I have important information.”

“No, it’s supposed to be over soon, since there’s a big meeting tomorrow morning to plan the attack. What’s your big info?”

“I’ll wait until tomorrow; I don’t want to spoil the surprise. It’s even better than the stupid old attack they’re planning. Everyone is going to love it.”

“Well, I can’t wait,” Harry said. “Anything is better than what they’re planning to do. Their attack would make a great fairy tale ending, but there are too many ways this can go wrong for it to be successful.”

* * *

The meeting the next morning was packed. In addition to everyone left in their camp, the aristo, Fernando Garcia, had brought in the members from one of the other resistance camps, and they had over 80 people waiting for the big attack.

This will be perfect, Mio thought. With surprise we can do this and win the war today.

“Welcome, everyone,” Garcia said from the center of the group where he stood with the other members of the ruling council. “This is a big day in Adelaide’s history; today we are going to take back our colony from the Terran invaders.”

He paused for a round of applause, then continued. “Today, we are going to assault the starport, steal a shuttle, and blow up the destroyer that has terrorized our people and killed so many of us with its orbital weapons. Today, we strike back!

Another round of applause. “This opportunity is only possible because of your tireless efforts to resist. I know there have been many days where you were cold or tired, and you wanted nothing more than to end the resistance and go back to a nice clean bed with all the amenities of home. You have suffered through it, and you have made the necessary sacrifices to be victorious. Today, we regain our freedom!

More applause. “Now, I know some of you are worried we risk too much, or we’re taking too big a gamble. To you I would say, ‘Yes.’ It is a gamble, but it is a necessary one. When this attack succeeds, we will throw off the yoke of the oppressors for all time. We will be free once more!”

Enthusiastic applause filled the meeting area. Garcia smiled and nodded throughout, basking in the glory of his potential victory. Finally, he waved at everyone for quiet. “Now,” he said, “before we break up into our strike teams to discuss individual targets and missions, does anyone have any questions?”

“I do, Mr. Garcia,” Mio called, standing up on the bench and waving her hand to get noticed.

Garcia rolled his eyes. “Thank you for your enthusiasm,” he replied, “but we don’t need any comments from the kiddy gallery.” Several people laughed.

“No!” Mio yelled. “I have something important to say!”

“Can someone find me a babysitter?” Garcia asked in a stage whisper, drawing more laughs.

“I’m as much of a fighter as anyone else!” Mio yelled. “I’ve killed four of the Terran troops. How many have you killed, Mr. Garcia? I haven’t even seen you on a raid.”

All the members of Mio’s camp knew this to be true, and they knew the food they ate daily was only through Mio’s efforts at the warehouse. Muttering broke out among the audience.

“Hey, Garcia!” one man yelled. “Let her talk. She’s got more backbone than I’ve ever seen from you.”

“Yeah, let her talk!” another yelled. “She is a warrior, despite her size.”

“Okay,” Garcia said with an audible sigh. “Go ahead, little one.”

“I may be smaller than you, but unlike you, I listen,” Mio said, drawing chuckles from the audience. “All along, we’ve been looking for a way to cause sufficient harm to the Terrans that they will leave of their own free will rather than bomb us from orbit.”

“Yes, yes,” Garcia said, flicking his wrist as if to brush her off. “Thank you for your analysis.”

“I agree that we need a big victory, but you’re making a mistake.”

Me?” Garcia roared. “You have the temerity to tell me I am making a mistake? Go back to your dollies, little girl, and leave the attack planning to your elders.”

I will not!” Mio insisted. “I have something better. Yes, your attack would be great if it works, but I don’t think it’s likely it will. I found a secret way into the missile system base we can use to get in and attack. If we capture the missiles, we can shoot down the ship. Even if we just destroy them, they can no longer be used to shield the planet from our forces. The Terran destroyer will have to leave, and we’ll all be free again.”

“You have a secret entrance?” Garcia asked, sarcasm heavy in his voice. “Did this come to you in a vision?”

“No, I found it going through some tunnels.”

“Uh, huh,” Garcia said. “Well play time is over, and we are going to do what we need to do to regain our independence. We are going through with our attack on the starport.”

“Really?” Mio yelled. “While I was at the Terran base, I heard three soldiers talking, and they said one of our leaders is a traitor. That wouldn’t happen to be you, would it?”

All eyes turned to stare at Garcia, who looked uncomfortable at the accusation. “I am no traitor!” Garcia exclaimed. “I have done nothing but support our cause. If anyone is a traitor, it is you, young lady. We don’t need you making up stories right before we go off to battle, then have you slandering your leaders when you don’t get your way. One more word out of you, and I will have you taken into custody. I do not believe we need you in this assault if this is how you intend to behave.”

Mio stepped down from the bench, her face redder than an overripe gleppa fruit. It wasn’t fair—this wasn’t how it was supposed to go at all! She had the right plan. It was easy and could be conducted with little loss of life, but Garcia didn’t believe her. He probably was the traitor. If so, the attack was unlikely to succeed, but getting thrown into jail, or whatever the resistance equivalent of jail was, definitely wouldn’t help her cause. Besides, if there was an assault today that might end up winning the war, she wanted in.

The meeting went on for a few minutes more, then broke up. Harry was at her side immediately. “Is that all true?” he asked.

Yes!” Mio exclaimed, trying to hold back the tears that had suddenly come to her eyes. “Why would I lie about it? What do I have to do to get people to take me seriously?”

Harry gave her a sad smile. “Age ten years overnight?” he asked. “Twenty would probably be better though.”

“But I can’t do that!”

“I know,” Harry said. “How about this. When we get back from the assault today, you can take me and show me what you’re talking about.”

“Fine!” Mio said with some vehemence. “But it’s still not fair,” she added under her breath as she walked away.

* * *

“Thanks for coming with me,” Mio said. She looked around their position to the east of the starport. They were well away from anything that would be attacked; they were there ‘in case an easterly withdrawal was necessary,’ even though an easterly withdrawal wasn’t listed in any of the assault plan’s options. “There’s nothing like proposing the best idea in the world, then getting punished for it.”

“No problem,” Harry replied. “Trust me, I don’t think you’re going to want to be part of this attack. First, it’s dumb. It’s betting everything on this one throw of the dice, even though we’ve been doing okay. Also, if what you say is true, and we do have a traitor in our midst, this may very well be the safest place to be.”

“Hurray, safety,” Mio said bitterly. “I would much rather they had listened to me and done the smart thing. I don’t want to be proved right by having something bad happen. That would be even worse than being proven wrong.”

“Looks like the attack is commencing,” Harry said, staring at something through the one pair of binoculars they had been given. He handed them to Mio.

Mio put them up to her eyes, adjusted them, and could just barely see explosions at the edge of sight. “Yeah, looks like it is,” she agreed. “I really do hope they get the shuttle and are successful.”

“Me too.”

The two resistance fighters took turns with the binoculars, even though neither could see very much.

“I think our forces are advancing,” Mio said as she handed the binoculars over. “It looks like they may make it to the shuttle.”

Harry sighed. “I don’t think so Mio. Unfortunately, I think you’re about to be proven right.”

He pointed at the sky to the west of the spaceport. Two burning lines were streaking across the sky toward the starport.

“Oh, no!” Mio cried. “We have to warn the others!”

“How?” Harry asked. “We don’t have a radio, and they’re going to impact long before we can get there. All we can do is find shelter quickly from the blast wave that’ll roll through.”

* * *

Dawn had nearly broken by the time Harry and Mio made it back to the base. They stumbled into the central area to find 20 people conversing.

“There she is,” Garcia said, pointing at Mio. “See, I told you she would make it back; she’s probably the one who told the Terrans we were coming. Any time one of our groups runs into Terrans, she’s around. First, when we raided the arms warehouse, then the food warehouse, and now at the starport. We’ve taken massive casualties during all these operations, yet she’s come through with nothing more than a bump on the head. She’s a traitor!

“Me?” Mio squealed. “I’m the one who first told you there was a traitor. If you’d listened to me, everything would have turned out fine.”

“Exactly,” Garcia agreed. “She was the one who told us there was a traitor, and then she proved it by selling us out to the Terrans. Tell me, child, how much did you get for the 60 people who were killed today?”

“I was with Harry the whole time,” Mio countered. “How could I have told the Terrans we were coming?”

“Is that true?” Ashley Beaufort, the tall woman on the ruling council, asked.

“Indeed it is, ma’am,” Harry replied. “Ever since the plan was first briefed, she’s been with me. Even if she had a radio, which she doesn’t, there’s no way she could have called them without me knowing.”

“Which leaves him!” Mio exclaimed, pointing at Garcia. “See? He’s the traitor.”

“I am not the traitor!” Garcia said.

“That is true,” Beaufort added. “I have been with him ever since we devised the plan. There is no way he could have told anyone, either.”

“Well, I heard the Terran soldiers talking,” Mio said, “and they said we had a traitor.”

“We may never know who the traitor was,” Garcia noted. “They may have gone up in the ball of fire the Terrans sent…just like our hopes and dreams. Go to bed everyone; we will reassess once we’ve all gotten some rest.”

* * *

The camp was quiet when Mio woke up. Although she was still tired, she knew she couldn’t go back to sleep. Not only was the midday sun shining down, but she also felt the need to do something. Garcia was the traitor, of that she was sure, but he had obviously covered his tracks well to keep from getting caught.

She needed more information on him if she was going to expose him for what he was. She’d probably need a lot of it, too, since everyone would take his word over hers. Mio would find it, though. She had to; it was the only way she could get the rest of the resistance fighters—those that were left, anyway—to listen to her plan.

Harry was already up when she went to get something to eat. He was sitting on the ground with his back against a log, staring into space.

“Good morning,” Mio said, startling him.

“Oh, hi,” Harry replied. “Couldn’t sleep?”

“No,” Mio replied, opening a meal pack. “Too much on my mind.”

“Me too.” He continued to watch something only he could see for another fifteen seconds but finally said, “I think I know how he did it.”

“How who did what?”

Harry looked over both shoulders to see if anyone was nearby, then lowered his voice and said, “How Garcia told the Terrans our plan. It’s pretty ingenious, really.”

“Why’s that?” Mio asked.

“If I’m right, the whole setup was his plan, beginning with the raid to capture the operations officer. That was his idea. He led the attack, something he normally doesn’t do, and he was the one to find the shuttle schedule. Convenient, eh? Then he immediately turned that into an attack on the starport.”

“I don’t get it,” Mio said, her brows knitting. “That tall woman said she was with him the whole time. Is she in on it, too?”

“I don’t know,” Harry said. “I kind of doubt it. It doesn’t matter, either way; I suspect when he planted the shuttle schedule, he also left behind what our plans would be. Heck, for that matter, he may have coordinated with the Terrans long before that. They may have left the schedule in plain sight for someone to find, knowing Garcia had told them they would attack the next day.”

“Why would they do that?”

“It was a great way to gather up a bunch of our fighters, so they could all be killed at once. Your friend Dan made it back last night after you went to bed. He said the second bombardment round hit the other resistance group’s main camp, where the attack was staged. Their entire group is gone, as well as their supplies, including the main food and arms stockpiles.”


“Most of the food from your warehouse raid was being stored at the other camp,” Harry explained, “as well as the extra weapons the resistance had. That’s all gone.”

The color drained from Mio’s face, and her jaw dropped.

“What’s wrong?” Harry asked.

“I’ve been to that camp.” She remembered the nice medic with the red hair. She was dead now, like most of the other people Mio had come into contact with.


“They’re going to blame me for that, too. Everywhere I go, people die.”

Harry gave her a crooked smile. “You’re not the traitor, are you?”

“No!” Mio exclaimed. “Never! I want them off this planet, so my father can come home. The longer they stay, the more likely he’ll be killed by them.”

“I know that,” Harry said, “just like I know you’re not the traitor, and I’ll stand by you. The problem, though, is figuring out how to expose Garcia as the traitor.”

“Yeah, that’s a problem. I was thinking about it, too, and could only come up with one plan.”

“What was your plan?”

“Well, we need more information on him,” Mio explained. “We need something that’s going to prove he’s the traitor. I could only think of two places. The first is to follow him back to the city and watch what he does there. We can’t do that; it’s far too dangerous, and we’d surely be caught.”

“In all likelihood, yes.”

“The other place is even more dangerous; it’s the same one where I got the information in the first place.”

“The tunnels.” Harry didn’t sound thrilled.

“Well, the missile system at the end of the tunnels, but yes, we’d have to go through the tunnels. It’s going to be dangerous.”

“If we’re going to win this fight and drive the Terrans out,” Harry said, “we have to expose the traitor. If the only way to do that is to go through these tunnels you keep telling me about, that’s what we have to do. Besides, I told you I’d go with you to see them when we got back.” He stood up.

“Are you ready to go right now?” Mio asked.

“Just let me get my flashlight and a rifle.”

* * *

“Behind the bush, huh?” Harry asked. He didn’t sound enthused. “Guess that’s why no one ever found it.”

“I wouldn’t have found it either,” Mio replied with a shrug, “if I hadn’t fallen into one of the tunnels. Don’t worry, though, you can get under it without getting zapped.”

Mio got down on her stomach and slid through after removing a firethorn branch that had fallen. “See?” she asked. “It’s easy.”

“Yeah, for you, but you’re a good deal smaller,” Harry said as he slid the rifles under the bush. “Just wait until you get older and put on some weight.”

Harry was indeed thicker, Mio saw; it wouldn’t be as easy for him. “Wait!” she ordered. She slid one of the rifles back under the branches and lifted, making more room. “Try it now.”

Harry made it under the bush and stood up. “I never would have found this on my own, because I never would have come that close to a firethorn.”

He walked to the door. “This is…odd.”

“I know,” Mio agreed. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Mio, I’ve been to a lot more planets than you, and I’ve never seen anything like it, either. I don’t know what kind of metal this is, but it doesn’t look like any I know of. The workings of the door are…incomprehensible. And the shape? It’s all wrong. This door wasn’t made by humans, nor was it meant to be used by them. Whoever built this was taller and wider, I’m guessing.”

Mio walked past the door and into the tunnel. “The light switch is higher, too.” She pointed to the metal plate. “If you push that, we’ll get light.”

Harry pushed the plate and the green lights illuminated. “Interesting…” He looked down the passageways. “I’m guessing we’re not going that way,” he said, pointing to the chasm down the left passage.

“No. We could go around that crevasse, but I didn’t see much that way. Of course, I was kind of messed up and didn’t have much light, so I might have missed something. Besides, the other door is locked.”


“Yeah—that other pad near the light switch is how you unlock the door. I didn’t know the code, though, so I couldn’t get it to open. Also, it’s in a foreign language, which didn’t help.”


“Yep,” Mio said. She pointed at the pad near the light switch. “Press one of those buttons.”

“Interesting…” Harry said again as he cycled through the buttons. He looked back at Mio. “No one knew about these tunnels?”

“Not that I’m aware. Well, not before the Turds got here, anyway. They found another door, so they know about them.”

“Well, this is a very intriguing puzzle, but we’ll have to save it for another day. Why don’t you lead on to where we need to go?”

* * *

Harry followed Mio down the passageway for as long as the light lasted, then he turned on his flashlight.

“This is a lot better with light,” Mio noted.

“We’re creatures of the light,” Harry replied. “We have thousands of years of evolution that tell us terrible things exist in the dark, and they’ll grab us if we’re not careful.”

“Umm…sort of, but sort of not. There is something that is…worse, somehow, in the dark here. You can almost feel something sneaking up on you in here. I think there are ghosts.”

“Ghosts, eh?” Harry asked with a chuckle. “Hang on; let me check this out.”

They stopped, and Harry turned off the light. Mio didn’t feel as scared this time; she was sure having Harry helped.

“That’s weird,” Harry said, turning the flashlight back on. “I don’t think I felt any sort of ‘presence’ but it did feel like the walls were pressing in on me. I’m not sure; it could just be that I’ve never been in a tunnel in the dark.”

“Try being lost in here for several days with no light,” Mio suggested. “You’ll feel it then.”

“No thanks.”

The pair continued for another hour, and Harry’s flashlight started to dim. “Are we almost there?” Harry asked. “All things considered, I’d rather not walk through here in the dark.”

“I thought you said it wasn’t so bad.”

“I’ve changed my mind.”

“You’re in luck,” Mio said as they came to a cross-passage. She pointed to some words written on the floor. “We’re almost there. This marks the end of where the Terrans patrol. You should probably turn off the flashlight, so they don’t see us coming.” She put one hand on the wall and held out the other to Harry. “Hold my hand so we stay together.”

Harry took her hand and turned out the light, and she led him further down the passageway. They continued that way in silence until the passageway grew brighter, and they could see again.

“We’re almost there,” Mio whispered. She put a finger over her lips. “Shh.”

The pair continued on, creeping along the passage as the light grew brighter. They reached the door, and Mio set her rifle down on the floor. “There’s a firethorn bush, but part of it has been cut away,” she mouthed. “Follow me.”

She laid down and crawled to where she could see out. The missile system in front of her still blocked most of the view. Crawling further, she looked to the left. The other truck was still there, although there wasn’t anyone around it. She slid to the left and motioned for Harry to join her.

He crawled out next to her. “Missile truck,” she whispered pointing at the one in front of them. She pointed to the left. “Another one.” She pointed to the right. “Something else.”

Harry pulled himself forward to get a better look at the vehicle to the right, then turned and whispered, “That’s the command and control vehicle. That’s what runs the system. Those things on top are radio antennas.” He looked back, studying the vehicle. After a few moments, he turned back to Mio with a frown on his face. “I found your traitor,” he said. “He just walked out of the command vehicle.”

“Garcia’s here?” Mio asked, excited to get the confirmation.

“No,” Harry said simply. “Look.”

Harry slid back so Mio could get a better look. Three people stood next to the command vehicle. Two were wearing Terran Union uniforms, and the third was…Dan.

* * * * *

Chapter Seventeen: Benno

Commodore Ethan Carter looked around the damage to the Puller’s bridge and shook his head. “I can’t believe the things you say you’ve gone through to get here, Captain.”

Benno bristled. As casually as he could, he put his hand near the pocket of his uniform. Below the cloth of his shipsuit, he could feel the rigid outline of the small pistol Captain Palmer had once carried. He looked over at CDR Ashton, floating a few feet away, facing the commodore. Her poker face stayed strong, betraying nothing.

Entropy was a law of the universe. All systems tend to disorder in time, and it seemed the more complicated or delicate something was, the more precarious its position, the more likely it was to crash and burn as soon as possible. Scientists thought of it in terms of impersonal mathematics. The military, however, had a very personal relationship with things going to hell at the worst moment possible. And that person was named Murphy.

Every service laid claim to Murphy. He was a soldier, a sailor, a spacer, and a marine. He was the silent partner of every plot, of every plan, no matter how intricate, no matter how many back-ups or alternate courses of action. Eventually, Murphy and his Law would get a buy-in. The only unknown was when it would happen and how catastrophic the damage would be when it did.

That uncertainty tended to keep plotters nervous, especially when things went too smoothly, too well. And thus far, Benno’s plot to bring the Puller into the central Alliance worlds and the heart of the displaced fleet, to try and trick that fleet into going with them to free Morgan’s Rock, had gone well.

The Puller had transited into the Magi system—home to the outermost central ALS world—and was immediately targeted by several Alliance Navy ships. Her Identification-Friend-or-Foe interrogation had gone off flawlessly, however. The encrypted IFF codes had not been changed, nor had the Puller been listed as lost, a deserter, or a mutineer. The first wicket passed.

Once they had been able to maneuver into orbit to rejoin the fleet, the second test had begun: acceptance of the narrative. Between the work of the information technology techs, the operations specialists, and the intel and cryptology types—and with the begrudging, reluctant assistance of CDR Ashton—they had crafted a variety of documents. They created nothing from whole cloth. Instead, they spun lies out of re-arranged snippets of the truth, using past documents and log and sensor data to generate situation reports, battle damage assessments, casualty reports, and—most importantly—new operational tasking orders. These fit what they said they had been doing and what they now wanted the displaced defense fleet to do.

And everything had worked out fine…at least until Murphy raised his hand and asked if the squadron commodore could come over and visit the Puller personally.

Commodore Carter looked back at CDR Ashton and Benno. “I can’t believe it. But then to see it…My God. Your ship and your crew are a wonder, Captain Ashton. To lose most of your officers and nearly a fifth of your crew in a single combat action? Well, it would have broken most. That’s the sort of thing you imagine leading to a damned revolt, but instead, you held it all together. You persevered, and not only do you bring us word that we’re finally released from this damn fool system coverage, so we can get back to freeing our poorest citizens, but you take on an enemy along the way and free one of the Lost Six systems by yourselves!”

Benno released his held breath, slowly, and moved his hand away from his hidden pistol.

The commodore pushed himself closer to the two Puller officers and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Now, I can’t fully condone what you did, Skipper. Chief Warrant Officer Sanchez here knows it’s not the best example to make to your crew, going off half-cocked like that. But damn, woman! Nicely done. It was a bold risk. However, just think if we’d never received your copy of fleet command’s new orders? It might have been weeks longer before a cutter or a skip drone got another copy of the orders to us. I shudder to think about even more lost time with Terran Marines subjugating the unfortunate souls of Morgan’s Rock. That’s not a risk I want any of my XOs or COs taking on themselves, trained for the position or not.”

Ashton’s poker face broke and she looked to Commodore Carter with a bleak, pleading expression, a flash of warning in her eyes. She opened her mouth to say—

Benno reached out and took her arm. He squeezed it firmly and her eyes cut over to him. Between them, their expressions and eyes communicated volumes. Benno knew she could end this charade with a single word and have them all either dead or in custody. True, he might carry out his threat to murder her, the commodore, the gathering of staff officers the commodore had brought over with him to assist the crew, and all of those captured members of the Puller crew sequestered in the “radioactive” section of the hull. But nothing was certain. Did she think him capable of such butchery once the secret was out and there was no escape?

Did he think he was capable of that?

For his part, he tried to will his prior arguments to her: whether she agreed with the mutiny or opposed it, if they failed to engage the fleet here and get them to follow, Morgan’s Rock, Adelaide, New Kiev, Putnam, and Trinity would all remain subjugated that much longer. At that point, whatever happened to them would be on her, if only indirectly. Ashton’s eyes flared, then went blank.

Benno had no idea what she was thinking, or if he had conveyed anything of reason over threat, but she smiled at him and turned to Commodore Carter, who seemed to have no reaction to the brief pause between them. “Sir, I understand. A lot of poor decisions and rash reactions have led us to this place, but I hope, in the end, we do more good than harm. And if that’s going to happen, we all need to get moving.”

“Right you are, Captain!” He pushed off from the deck briskly, arrow-straight toward the bridge hatch. They followed in his wake through free-fall, Ashton first, then Benno. As they maneuvered past crew, repair teams, stevedores, and drones reloading stock in compartment after compartment, deck after deck, the commodore chatted up the crew in passing, greeting them and offering words of encouragement. Most of the crew—mutineers all—jumped in shock but managed a hasty return greeting or a mumbled acknowledgment. None of them overreacted, fled, or struck the man.

As they moved through the ship, back to the SSTOD hangar where the single-stage-to-orbit dropship was kept, and where the commodore’s shuttle was moored, Benno saw one of Ortiz’s compatriots in the passageway ahead. Supply and Logistics Specialist Chief Douglas Wan, one of the men who had aided Ortiz and others in the kangaroo court that had nearly spaced the XO, stood to one side of the passageway. His left hand and feet braced him in place, but his right hand stayed hidden behind his back.

What, in the name of Murphy, is this idiot planning to do? wondered Benno, alarmed.

Wan looked at both the commodore and the XO/CO, a broad grin on his face. Ashton saw him, too. She changed her angle as she pushed off on the next handhold, so she opened the gap between them to the opposite side of the passageway as they continued to close on Wan’s spot. Benno pulled harder on the same handhold as he slid past it, maneuvering himself into the position Commander Ashton had just vacated.

The distance narrowed. Benno would be between Ashton and Wan when they reached his position, but he could not get to Wan before he and the commodore met up.

Commodore Carter saw LSC Wan’s welcoming smile and came to a halt beside him. Benno placed the free hand he was not maneuvering with into his pocket. His fingers closed around the cold, knurled grip of the ship-safe pistol.

If he had to shoot Wan, how the hell would they be able to explain it away? How would they remain on track to free Morgan’s Rock? Had Ortiz indeed engendered that much loyalty, that one of his own would just give it all away for a stupid shot at revenge against Benno and the fleet?

The commodore reached out a hand to Wan. Chief Wan pulled his own hand out from behind his back. In it he held…nothing. Their fingers came together in a firm grasp and a hearty shake. The two men smiled at one another.

Commodore Carter looked back at Ashton and Benno, who came to a halt in the passageway as well. “It’s a small fleet, Captain! Never burn bridges, because you never know who you’re going to run into.” He looked back at Wan, who merely nodded his head and smiled, though now that smile had an evil, ironic cast as he looked at Benno.

Carter spoke to the chief. “Where were we together last, Chief? The Decatur?”

Wan nodded. “Yes, sir, during your XO ride. I was just an LS2 at the time.”

Benno shook his head, glaring at his fellow mutineer. He slowly removed his hand from his pocket, leaving the pistol hidden inside.

“Well, it’s good to see you still progressing, and it’s good to see you in this fight. You take care of yourself and best of luck in the coming battle. Keep the faith, Chief!”

“Thank you, Commodore.” Instead of releasing the other man’s grip, however, he pulled the destroyer squadron commander in closer. “I’m glad you’re with us, sir. Sometimes we lose sight of who and what really matters. Sometimes it feels like there’s betrayal around every corner, but we just gotta press on, doing what we think is right, even if we’re uncertain of the folks in charge.”

The commodore’s eyes narrowed as he saw Wan looking at Benno and not him. “Riiiight…”

Wan smiled warmly, his eyes back on his old shipmate. “Not that I’ve got any doubts about the team on the Puller, or you, sir. Nah, this is a good crew. You be safe in Morgana, Commodore.” He released Carter’s hand and braced himself against the passageway again.

The commodore nodded, smiled uncertainly, then pulled himself back down the passageway aft. Wan, Benno, and Ashton exchanged looks, then the latter two pulled themselves away, as well. After they passed, Wan set off in the opposite direction.

Benno heard a muttered, “Bitch…” from the chief, but whether he meant that for him or the XO, Benno had no idea. Either way, Commodore Carter appeared not to have heard it, and they all moved on. It was not worth pursuing at the moment.

Outside the hangar, the commodore paused again. His staff and officers had assembled there. They all appeared relaxed, with no hint of alarm or concern the situation aboard the Puller was anything other than what they had presented. Carter nodded to his people and turned around.

“Captain, we’ve restocked you, gotten you in the best shape we can outside of a yard availability, and took off your injured crew. Are you positive you won’t allow us to augment your crew complement, pull a few from each of the other ships?”

Ashton shook her head. “I’m sure that won’t be necessary, Commodore. We’re down a few slots, but the crew has learned to adapt and overcome. The last thing I want is to draw from other ships and leave them short as we go into this next battle.”

Benno nodded and thought, especially if every single extra crew you put on board is immediately going into isolation as non-mutineers.

“Not even some tactical officers?”

“Especially not tactical officers. Commodore, we’re just going to be providing a rear echelon screen for the main body in Morgan’s Rock. Those officers are needed more on the front-line ships. Besides, it would take too long to qualify them for the workarounds we’ve had to install due to our battle damage. What we have is working. Please allow us to maintain that.” CDR Ashton sounded resolute, firm. Benno strained to hear any warning there, but she seemed to be playing her role well.

Commodore Carter frowned, but he gave her a nod. “Very well. After Morgan’s Rock, we will be augmenting you, however. I’m sending a request for additional crew and officers to Centralis along with our current SITREP and acknowledgment of the new orders. I’ll also be sending a confirmation of your current status as CO.”

“Thank you, sir,” Ashton answered.

His attention shifted to Benno. “Warrant, I’ll be getting a new XO to relieve you as well, so you won’t have that burden on top of everything else. You’ve done right by your former XO, but I’m sure you’d like to get back to managing systems rather than the entire crew.”

“Yes, sir!” Benno said. He smiled, faking relief on the outside, but internally? He dreaded those communiques to Centralis. Adept though their fakery had been, it would never pass muster with Headquarters, especially not if the Operation Executive Amber fleet had reported back that the Puller had vanished after their jump to the next Terran system.

Whatever axe was doomed to fall upon them had already begun to swing. Benno only hoped it would swing slowly enough to let them free Adelaide and Mio first.

Carter looked around again at the vestibule outside the hangar. “You’ve done all right here, Amanda. I knew Evan Palmer well. He had his faults. He could be an arrogant ass, if you’ll allow me to be blunt, but he was also pure Navy through and through. I think he’d be proud of the work you all have done in his name.”

Maybe less proud than you think, Benno considered. Looking over at CDR Ashton, she said nothing. She just gave the commodore a curt, stoic nod, before glancing back at Benno with a significant look.

* * *

Once the group achieved a mutual escape velocity along the appropriate vector, the squadron of Alliance Navy warships departed the Magi system in an orderly globe several light seconds across, with near-zero relative motion between them. Vanishing in a pulse of gravity waves and blue Cerenkov radiation, they coupled to the tenuous, mysterious enormity of dark energy, and traveled near-instantaneously down a light-years-long geodesic path. They re-emerged into normality together as gravity finally sapped them of transition energy, and they were captured by Nu Phoenicis, a bluish-white F-type, metal-rich star in the constellation of the Phoenix, 49 light-years from Earth.

The people of the Alliance of Liberated Systems called it Morgana.

The squadron did not emerge in their large, orderly globe. Mutual gravitational attraction between ships as they zipped over the geodesic conspired to draw them in close to one another, but the shrinking of the formation was not uniform. Minute variations in position, rotation, relative velocity, and mass between each ship caused different degrees of attraction, and thus different exit positions and velocities. None of them closed enough to collide upon emergence—a primary factor in how they had set up the globe formation in the first place—but they did close enough to find themselves within extreme visual range of one another. Their careful formation had near-instantly devolved into a chaotic cloud of ships, all moving at different velocities, with different, near-random facings. It was a confusing mess, as it always was, but their immediate focus was not upon their fellow units.

Instead, they each steadied themselves and searched outward, weapons and active sensors at the ready. Morgana system, though part of the Alliance, was enemy territory now.

Aboard the Puller, the scene was much as it had been when they transitioned into Paradiso. Benno, suited up with helmet on, sat in the captain’s seat on the bridge, with MAC Dufresne to his left in the XO’s position. Aft and below them, OSC Rajput stood as Tactical Action Officer in CIC and FTCS Ludovic stood in as the Chief Engineer in Central Control. The only real difference in the destroyer’s General Quarters manning was in the seat to Benno’s right, the Officer of the Deck’s station.

Rather than not-so-dearly-departed Petty Officer Raoul Ortiz, CDR Amanda Ashton sat in the OOD position, strapped in, her sealed vacuum suit handcuffed to the seat. Her seat controls were locked out, except for one comm channel to the fleet, which remained under Benno’s control.

Benno wondered if it meant anything that the literal right-hand man/person in his last three battles had been someone he had not fully trusted—with Ortiz last time, and poor, lazy Kenny before that. He hoped for CDR Ashton’s sake it was merely coincidence. In the previous two battles, the person to his right had died.

The petty officer at the bridge tactical workstation sat upright and pointed to the central screen at the same moment Chief Rajput spoke up on the net. “Bridge, TAO, fusion plot updated. We have the disposition of our squadron in green, disposition of the Terran Navy in red. Closest Turd is three light-minutes out, will pick us up in approximately 110 seconds. Looks like a frigate on inner system patrol, with low thrust and sensors active. There’s a single reactor heat source at low power over Morgan’s Rock, seven light minutes away, suspected destroyer, same duty as at Paradiso perhaps?”

Benno keyed the net. “TAO, Bridge, understood. What about the yards? And the rest of the squadron intel said was here?”

“Yes, sir. Still trying to parse that out. The orbital shipyard at the Rock’s leading Trojan point is a mess of structures, asteroids, and small vehicles. It appears to be active still, no damage that I can see. Therefore, I’ve got multiple fusion plant heat signatures sufficiently hot enough for a warship on steady state or low power, but nothing thrusting, nothing active, so nothing I can fingerprint. We’re missing four ships, one of them an unidentified capital unit. But they’re only five light minutes out. As soon as they pick up our transition signature, I’m bettin’ they’re going to get a might bit more active.”

As he finished, the external comms spoke up. Commodore Carter, aboard the Libertad, broadcast, “All units in Task Force 757, this is 757 Actual. We hold one unit underway in near space, one unit over the colony, and likely the remainder of enemy units protecting or offering threat to the orbital yards. Assume form Echo, standard spacing, in last assigned positions. Set course at 1.5 gravities continuous to overtake the underway unit, then proceed to the main force at the yards with a zero/zero intercept. Forward elements, you may have the honor of taking the frigate when within range, but you are not to break formation except for defensive maneuver. Over.”

“Uh, OOD, Comms, tactical commands from the squadron commander,” said an uncomfortable bridge watch stander.

CDR Ashton laughed. “Roger, Comms.” She turned to Benno. “You may want to clarify my role here, Warrant. I’ll be your parrot, and I’ll advise as necessary to save my own bacon and that of the loyalists, but I’ll be damned if I act as your OOD, no matter what chair I occupy. Hell, I qualified you as a deck officer.”

Benno shook his head. “Commander, I’ll act as OOD. No worries.” He addressed the bridge, “All watch standers, I have the deck. Make all OOD reports to me.”

He turned back to Ashton. “Clarified, ma’am?”

“Crystal clear, Warrant.”

He nodded. “Very well, then. Please roger up to the commodore for the tactical orders.”

She did so, without issue or subterfuge. On the screen, thrusting Alliance warship icons altered their random facings and vectors to assume a bird-claw-like formation aligned along the group thrust vector. At the center lay the Libertad, a battlecruiser easily two and a half times the mass of the Puller. Along three branches, 120 degrees apart and radiating forward and out from the battlecruiser’s position, were the “digits,” with a frigate and a destroyer each. The three smaller frigates lay in closer to the more massive combatant vessel at one to one-half light-seconds, screening it from any inbound threats from the forward position. Debate raged whether they were positioned that way because their nimble, mutual, defense batteries were best suited for that role—or they were just there to be missile sponges. The three destroyers formed the sharp ends of the three talons, furthest out from the Libertad at a distance of several light-seconds, the first to hit and the first to screen.

None of these were the Puller, however.

The Puller and a rescue cutter completed the eight-ship Alliance squadron. If the six destroyers and frigates and the Libertad formed an eagle’s talons, these two ships formed spurs, radiating aft by one and a half light seconds to either side, screening the rest of the formation from attack from behind. Publicly, CDR Ashton had groused about the assignment, respectfully disagreeing they were not in the best shape to lead the battle. Privately, Benno thrilled over the rear echelon role. They had places to go, worlds to free, and a near certainty this would be the only engagement for which they could expect backup. He needed to conserve their limited ammunition and crew.

As they achieved formation and pushed to group over-thrust, the opposing picket frigate received their transition signature and appropriately freaked out. The Terran ship immediately went to full active sensors on their threat bearing and broadcast the received tactical data full bore back to their other ships. As the situation and relative disparity of forces became more evident, the frigate’s crew decisively turned tail and ran, spinning ship and thrusting toward the shipyards at a flank thrust of a sustained three gravities, burning dark matter as fast as it could pull it out of the aether.

The destroyers at the talon tips would be denied their first easy meal.

Within 15 minutes, all the Terran ships were aware of them, and the Alliance forces finally had their first look at the full opposing TUN squadron. The destroyer hovering over the aptly named Morgan’s Rock—an ugly but resource-rich reddish world—came up to full power and broke orbit to range closer to their threat bearing and the shipyards at the planet’s leading Trojan point. At the yards, two frigates and two destroyers lit off and pushed out to meet them…along with the last mystery ship they had all fretted over—not another battlecruiser as they had assumed, but a fast lancer carrier instead.

This was both a boon and a worry. The carrier was armed only slightly heavier than a destroyer, while having three times or more its mass. The remaining two destroyers’ worth of mass was taken up by lancers, individual ships smaller than rescue cutters but bristling with weaponry. In space, fighters made little sense, too small to carry weapons heavy or fast enough to be decisive in the long range, but too large to be nimble against drones or missiles unburdened by the acceleration limits imposed by a biological crew.

Lancers were an attempt to hedge that bet. Larger than anything that could legitimately be called a fighter, they filled a similar role as a fighter/bomber. They were a crewed vessel but lacked almost every amenity needed to sustain a crew beyond a single mission. Instead, all their mass and space was given over to armor, engines, and a grotesque number of weapons—very nearly the equivalent of frigates in their throw weight, all of which could be employed faster and along many more axes in order to overwhelm the opposition’s ability to cope with incoming fire. Where Commodore Carter had entered the system with a decisive edge in assets, this mix turned that situation very nearly upon its head.

The Puller would not be sitting this battle out after all.

Where the eight Alliance ships formed an out-stretched claw, the five Terran ships pushing outward from the shipyard blossomed into a fleet of 17 units as the carrier’s dozen lancers launched. Together they formed a wall of battle, arranged in cells like a hexagonal lattice, the entire formation many light seconds across. Broader, but shallower, than the Alliance squadron, their deployment offered less in defense-in-depth and mutual self-protection but did set them up to envelop the now smaller claw arrangement and attack from all sides.

Commodore Carter’s voice sounded across the void to his units as they closed toward the inevitable clash over the course of hours. “They’ll seek to overwhelm us through attack on multiple axes. Their now greater numbers will multiply still more as they pour in missiles all around us. Do not be distracted! Defend your sectors zealously. Trust that your fellow ships will defend your flanks as planned, so you don’t have to worry overmuch about it. And yes, we will take hits. We will be bloodied. But mutual defense-in-depth allows us an advantage they do not have. It gives us both a punch and a block, whereas they can only punch with no real defensive cover. And those tiny, fast units cannot long survive without cover. We have focus where they have only chaos. Coordinate and work as a squadron to concentrate fire on individual units. Chew them up methodically, and our small bites will soon enough devour the entire elephant!”

As the two squadrons closed, the differences between leading the last battle as a singular unit and carrying out orders as part of a coordinated whole became more apparent. Where before, Benno and the bridge and CIC staff had relied only upon their training and instincts to guide them in a reasonably straightforward closing situation, this time their instincts had to take a back seat to the group maneuvering orders and decisions made by people on an entirely different ship. The Puller was only a secondary element in their overall plan. It was both a relief and an altogether new worry. It required a level of trust that none of the mutineers were sure they could afford.

For their part, the tactical officers aboard the Libertad deciding things were determined to earn their pay. The group vector around which the claw formation oriented was continually adjusted. The hexagonal, flat, disk-like formation of the TUN units’ wall of battle tried to keep their wall perpendicular and centered against the claw as they approached, to better facilitate their eventual envelopment. The Alliance claw formation, on the other hand, kept adjusting so they could come around to approach the edge, to “cross the T” in the age-of-sail parlance. If they achieved that position, they could concentrate their fire on a few of the Terran ships, while those vessels blocked the fire from of the rest of the Terran fleet.

Coupled with the dynamics and kinematics of the TUN squadron’s initial orbital position, and their own starting position deep within the system, with virtually no orbital component, the two groups had started off flying directly at one another. In the battle for Paradiso where the planet was the objective, this had resulted in a massive mutual closing velocity, which had required the opposing destroyer to flip around and counter-thrust so they didn’t pass one another in a flash. Here, with both formations maneuvering to gain positional advantage over the other and without a fixed locale as either fleet’s destination, their closure became more and more oblique…and more and more likely to result in an extended slugfest, with neither squadron’s elements breaking free until the opposition was annihilated.

There would be no escape here, no clever breaking free once they came together to rally and try for round two. This could only end in absolute victory for one force or the other.

Range finally decreased to engagement level. As if synchronized, railgun fire and initial missile salvos flashed out from both squadrons. Each tested the other’s mettle, trying to force a break in the opposing formation or reveal a weakness in one of the other’s squadrons’ units, to see who might flinch.

Neither did. Auto defenses and coordinated maneuvering answered each salvo from both sides. The unremitting emptiness and darkness of the Morgana system lit in staccato flashes of nuclear fire, the flare of kinetic impacts, and the strobes of electronic warfare pulses.

The three destroyers at the tips of the claw formation’s talons took the brunt of the assault, as designed, but they also provided better remote sensor data for the battlecruiser at the heart of the array. The Libertad and the destroyers fired as if there was no end, even as they continued to move in a coordinated fashion. The Puller, for her part, did not need to expend a single round. Benno and the crew watched and prepared as their tactical screens flared and fuzzed with both real and spurious sensor data.

Looking at the impossibly confounding mess, Benno did not envy the engagement coordinators on the commodore’s staff.

CDR Ashton shook her head. “You think this is bad. Just wait till we intersperse, and the formation finally breaks. It’ll be pure anarchy.”

“The crew will hold. We have to,” he answered.

She shrugged. “Yeah. He may have been an ass, but it’d be mighty nice to have LCDR Johnson here about now.”

Benno said nothing.

Trajectories of railgun rounds, cones of probable shrapnel position, and corkscrewing paths of missiles and warheads leaped out from either side’s formation on the tactical screen. Where before there had been only a vacuum fraught with deadly potential, there now emerged a treacherous landscape that threatened to chew them all up and leave none alive.

The landscape rotated as the groups continued to jockey for position. Now, with the oblique approach and lack of sufficient space to maneuver without either encountering the volumes of fire already bounding them or giving up the advantages of their formations entirely, the two squadrons came within actual striking range. The Terran Navy’s wall would neither be encountered edge on or at the center. Instead, they would come together at an angle to one side of the wall, with the majority of TUN ships having to cross further to engage or envelop. The Alliance claw would not be able to rend its way through the most vulnerable area of the formation’s fabric as planned, but their smaller, tighter formation would achieve its initial maneuvering objectives better than the Terrans could.

The three destroyers at the talon tips concentrated their fire on the biggest Terran ship in the wall’s edge: a destroyer. The three frigates right behind them spread their fire to the lancers slightly further across the wall. The Libertad set up billowing waves of missile and railgun fire even further out, trying to force the wall to break or to prevent it from curving around and enveloping them.

Benno and the Puller held fast, watching to see how things developed, as did the rescue cutter at the claw’s other spur.

Missiles, warheads, and railgun rounds flashed out. Defensive UV laser beams and point-defense cannon chatter answered from both sides. Sparks of white lit the night as rounds and weapons died in mid-flight, taken out by the opposing squadron, though it was impossible for anyone unaided to make sense of the chaos that materialized in the rapidly shrinking space between the fleets. But not all the weapons died unspent, sacrificed to no avail.

Blue-white, globular explosions of fusion plasma and smaller, yellow-orange blasts of stabilized octaazacubane chemical explosives bloomed into existence, expanding out and fading away, leaving behind wisps of incandescence and pulses of microwave and radio noise. Unseen, but sorely felt, these blasts also drove invisible shafts of x-ray laser light and wave fronts of shrapnel moving at meteoric velocities. The xaser beams took their toll first, moving at the speed of light, but the shrapnel and unitary warheads were not far behind.

Gouts of vaporized hull alloy erupted from two of the Alliance destroyers, peppering all three ships’ Whipple shields, but they kept on. A telescopic view showed the Terran destroyer they first targeted several light seconds away as it flashed and split in two, both halves rotating away from the other, then all was lost in a brilliant globe of escaping fusion reactor plasma.

Ever nimble, the lancers used their higher thrust-to-weight ratio to generate transient forces of 10-12 gravities, punishing their crews, but that was sufficient to avoid the vast majority of the long-range fire from the three Alliance frigates. Two of the five lancers first targeted ganged up on the nearest destroyer and attacked it from two sides. The other three lancers broke ranks, eschewed both the Alliance destroyers and frigates, and dove after the sole high-value unit—the commodore’s battlecruiser.

The Puller and the rescue cutter answered this threat, along with the formidable secondary batteries of the Libertad. Railgun rounds and missiles leaped toward the three smaller fighter-like craft. And while they were nimble and closed in tighter than a destroyer might, employing their weapons like sharp knives in a back-alley fight…as single units, they were weak. Without coordination with other units of their kind, gathered in separate claw formations of their own, they could not stand toe-to-toe. A lucky bomb-pumped laser or unitary railgun round obliterated them one-by-one.

While one edge of the Terran wall of battle crumbled, the other finally caught up and curved around, arcing in fire on the flanks and rear of the Alliance formation. Commodore Carter had anticipated this, however. The fire they had earlier deployed met the curving, enveloping wall of the Terran formation and gave it pause. They could not sustain their formation and the strength it offered without first succumbing to the ordnance laid out. And while larger capital ships might slog through, accepting the cost to maintain their wall, the lancers could not, and the destroyers and frigates were loath to.

The wall of battle collapsed, and each Terran ship maneuvered independently. While they could then avoid the trap laid for them, it dramatically complicated their mutual self-defense. Chaos reigned, and the outcome hinged on a roll of the dice.

* * *

With five main enemy units and a total of 17 enemy warships to eight friendlies, the odds were a coin toss until one considered discipline, the strength of the units involved, and one side’s righteous fury versus the other side’s knowledge that the venture was only a gambit. After that, the outcome quickly became inevitable.

The TUN wall of battle broke, their envelopment never came to fruition, and it quickly came down to individual ships versus one squadron. The commodore’s formation inevitably broke, too, once they had no coordinated mass into which to vector the claw. But the added time in formation attack allowed them to concentrate fire and provide defense for each other long enough to chew through the side of the collapsing wall’s center. They ultimately divided the Terran forces so they could be mopped up with relative ease. From 17 units, to 15, then 10, 8, 6, 3, and finally one.

The lancer carrier was the last in contact, and the Libertad’s crew took its time ripping it apart, round by round, before mercifully administering the coup de grace with a capital-sized xaser. Seeing the collapse of their main strength, the remaining destroyer and the frigate that had first run from them pulled up their Marine contingent and hightailed it out of the system. They worked their way along the periphery and jumped back to Terran Union space, long before the Alliance squadron could re-orient and come after them.

After long weeks of abandonment by their own, the Morgana system was free. The Battle of Morgan’s Rock was over, all at a cost of one Alliance destroyer, one frigate, and a smattering of damage throughout the rest of Task Force 757.

The Puller didn’t suffer a single hit and expended only a bare fraction of her restocked ammunition. It could not have been in a better position to make for Adelaide and the rest of the Lost Six. Benno smiled at the cheers erupting on the bridge and echoing up from the passageways and the rest of the ship. Even CDR Ashton grinned.

Despite some initial scares, Murphy appeared to have slept through the day.

While the rest of the squadron performed mop-up and scoured the battlespace for escape pods, survivors, and intel, CDR Ashton asked for and received permission to proceed directly to the planet of Morgan’s Rock. And, inevitably, just as they had before at Paradiso, several of the crew—those from or with family upon the austere, rocky world—requested to be left on the planet.

Including one Master at Arms Chief Ellen Dufresne.

Benno held his tongue when he saw her pre-packed spacer’s bag, standing in line at the dropship hangar. She and five others waited patiently for the word to board. Chief Dufresne pointedly and purposefully refused to look at him. Finally, he sighed. “Chief, I know you feel an obligation to your brother and his kids; I know you want to check up on them, and I’d be the last to keep you from it. I’m going to have a tough decision of my own after we take Adelaide, but I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t speak to you.”

Dufresne said nothing.

He shook his head. “We wouldn’t have gotten here without you. And no matter what anyone decides about us in time, you are honorable, and you’ve been invaluable. But this fight isn’t over, and I can demonstrate quite readily this is not a unified crew. I need you, Chief, but I’m not prepared to pull you off that dropship. Is there any way you would reconsider? Can we get hold of your brother on comms, make sure he’s okay, and continue from there?”

She chuckled and looked at Benno finally. “Tell me honestly; do you have any damn intention of continuing to lead this ship after you get ahold of Mio?”

“I…” He frowned. “I don’t know. I’m committed to this mission. Maybe I’ll take a break to find her, ensure she’s okay…”

Dufresne put out a hand and squeezed his shoulder. “Skipper, you’ve been straight with me from moment one when you first came into my cell, but that’s a goddamn lie and I think you realize it. I don’t hold it against you, though, because I think you’re lying to yourself more than you are to me.” She gestured at the passageway in which they stood. The mutinous crew walked about with purpose under a half gravity of acceleration toward the planet.

She continued. “This lot has thrown in with you; they depend on you, and not even they’ll begrudge you bailing for Adelaide once it’s freed. Are Ortiz’s compatriots still looking for their shot? Sure, and that might be it. Will the loyalists be looking for any opportunity your carelessness might give them? Hell, yes, I’d expect nothing less. But do you think for one second that I or anyone else would honestly expect you to continue after you fetch Mio? Hell, no. We’re living on borrowed time, Benno. All of us. And if we don’t disappear at our first opportunity…we may never get another chance. I’m taking mine. You take yours.”

Benno shook his head. He still was not certain of the truth behind her statements, but he’d be damned if he would put doubt or guilt in her heart now, not when she had been so steadfast. Instead, seeing the pilot, Jason Pierce—a limited duty flight officer who had remained aloof of the mutiny—approach to prep the dropship, Benno extended a hand. Dufresne shook it solemnly, then returned to the line, ready to board.

Calling out to him with a sad smile, Chief Dufresne said, “Hey, you’re going to have your Mio soon. I know it. You hug her for me, right! Make sure she knows what a good dad she has.”

Benno nodded and felt tears welling in his eyes, and he saluted her smartly. She returned it, then faced the bulkhead to hide her equally wet eyes from him. He turned and left.

Walking up and forward toward the bridge, the first people he ran into were CDR Ashton and an uncomfortable-looking Master at Arms petty officer. It seemed clear the old XO was in charge of this detail, not the mutinous enlisted man who escorted her.

“Commander, I let you out of the brig for your help with the battle, not for you to have free reign of the ship.”

“Screw that and screw you too, Benno,” she answered, her commanding voice firm. “I didn’t ask you after Paradiso, but I’m damn sure I’ll ask now. I want you to release the other loyalists and me on Morgan’s Rock.”

“No. Absolutely not.”

She threw up her hands. “Why the hell not!? We’re not assets in your fight. If anything, we remain a threat to everything you still plan to do, or have you forgotten you’ve locked away a bunch of comms and systems engineers in one section of your ship?”

“You all are contained, and we’ve been able to keep you in check thus far.”

“Benno, that’s because they made the assumption you’d free them when the opportunity arose, and maybe—maybe—because not all of them completely disagree with why you did what you did. But if you don’t let them go now? I guarantee their faith in your kindness to prisoners of war will be mighty short-lived.”

“No.” Benno gave her as firm and steady a look as he could muster. “If I let you go, the first thing you’ll do is alert the Navy and the central worlds. If we don’t already have the fleet after us, we absolutely will after that! Besides, you’re still a resource we can use.”

“Keep me then! Let the others go! You have more than enough room on that dropship.”


“Put us down somewhere out of comms! Find us a deserted island or something.”

He shook his head. “No. Besides, Morgan’s Rock has a low habitability rating. Living outside a dome would be a death sentence. On Paradiso, there were plenty of places, but we failed to have this conversation then.”

“God damn it, Benno!”

He raised his hands, trying to placate her. “Adelaide has remote, livable locales. We could safely put you on the surface there without unduly endangering the rest of our mission. And there’s some question about whether I’ll continue to be in charge after we free that planet. I absolutely won’t leave you to the mercies of some other person in charge, okay? Adelaide. One more battle, and we’ll let the loyalists off. I promise.”

She glared at him, but her shoulders slumped. “Fine.”

Benno glanced at the second-class petty officer. “Please escort the XO back to the brig, MA2.”

The enlisted man complied and firmly led a now unresisting CDR Ashton back to her cell. Benno continued to the bridge.

When he arrived, Petty Officer Bailey, a first-class navigator/quartermaster, held the deck as OOD. The young woman turned to him. “Sir, SSTOD 2 is away, on approach to a re-entry over the capitol dome, ummm, Lost Vegas?”

“Yes, QM1 Bailey,” he answered, smiling. “The Rockers have an odd sense of humor. If you ever get a chance, you should visit “What the Hell Did We Just Do.” It’s a fun town, for a dome.”

“Ummm, aye aye, sir.”

A voice on the space comm interrupted their reveries. “OOD, TAO. Superluminal emergence, one ship, near the center of the system. Small gravity pulse. Looks like a courier vessel or a rescue cutter.”

“OOD, aye. Let me know when you fingerprint it.”

The hairs rose on the back of Benno’s neck. There was no reason for it, but he suddenly felt as if someone had entered the room, glaring at him.

“TAO, OOD, roger. Looks like an ALS Navy fast courier, but registry transponder and current comms are encrypted.”

Bailey frowned. “So, unencrypt it, CIC.”

“Roger that, OOD. The problem is we don’t have the key. They may be transmitting on a key specific to home fleet. I can’t unencrypt their comms to see what they’re passing. We don’t carry that one. The Libertad is answering in kind, though.”

Benno sat down and strapped in. “OOD, go to General Quarters! Navigator and CIC, plot a course for transit to the nearest system that doesn’t require us to pass close to the Libertad or the other ships. Work on a new transit chain after that to get us to Adelaide.”

The General Quarters alarm sounded. The OOD moved to strap into her seat, but a look of confusion covered her face. “Sir?”

“A naval courier, specifically transmitting so we alone can’t see what they’re saying? We need to go! And transmit to the dropship! Tell Pilot Pierce what’s going on. We can’t wait, and they need to be prepared to either turn around and catch us or put in for an opposed landing!”

“Ummm, aye aye, sir…”

“Skipper,” the tech at the bridge comms station turned to him. “Sir, we’ve got a broadcast in the clear from the commodore’s ship.”

Benno bit his lip. Everyone was moving so slowly! Was it just his adrenaline, or were they all in denial, reluctant to let go of the false sense of normalcy being back with the fleet permitted them? “Put it on speaker, Comms.”

Puller, this is 757 Actual on Libertad,” Commodore Carter said. “You are to heave to and go to zero thrust. Prepare to be boarded for possible inquiry into your status. You are directed to have CDR Ashton reply on a separate, encrypted tight beam transmission immediately.”

That feeling of someone entering the bridge, of someone glaring at him? Benno knew now who it was. Murphy had finally arrived to enforce his law.

Benno yelled, “Navigation, CIC, this is the CO! Where is that solution?! What is the status of the dropship?”

He wondered what had exposed them in the end. Was it their fake fleet orders to Commodore Carter and his squadron? Was it a lost vessel report from the Executive Amber fleet, in far distant Terran Union space? Was it something they had missed from the imprisoned loyalists? Something else entirely?

“Sir, the dropship has been ordered to halt their approach to Morgan’s Rock. They’ve gone to zero thrust but have not yet changed course. No reply to us,” the Comms watch stander said.

The TAO in CIC answered on the heels of the last report. “Sir, all our transit vectors in this area, and from this orbit, are either deeper into the Alliance, or are too far of a jump. If we try to transit across a geodesic path more than 15 light-years in length without extensive prep, we could miss-aim and wind up shooting past the target star and end up thousands or millions of light years away. We could be lost, sir. No one has ever returned from a mis-jump.”

Benno slammed his palm down on his armrest. “Fine. Find me a drive destination that, at the very least, skirts the fleet’s position and is within appropriate range, with further access to Adelaide.”

While he waited, Condition One watch standers assumed their General Quarters positions. The only ones missing were Chief Dufresne from her XO’s seat and CDR Ashton from the OOD position. The QM1 held onto OOD but did not take her place next to the seething Benno.

So close. He had been so very, very close.

“CO, TAO, we can try for HD 4391, uninhabited, about 6 light years away. It’s a trinary system, so the geodesics get a little weird, but it’s our best bet. It’ll take us within engagement range of the fleet, but north of the ecliptic. That close, though, I can make a jump that will get us in the ballpark after we get past system escape velocity.”

Benno could hardly think. The longer he waited, the quicker his options lessened, and the closer he was to losing any chance of rescuing Mio.

They could not wait for the dropship, whether it decided to turn around or not.

“Navigator, TAO, this is the CO. Maneuver for jump to HD 4391. Keep us slightly off vector for as long as you can. I don’t want to give away where we’re going if I can avoid it. They’ll jump after us as soon as they can. Find options for working our way to Adelaide immediately after that. Execute!”

They all jumped to the task. For his part, Benno’s eyes stayed glued to the tactical screen, splitting the difference between the dropship, near the orbit of Morgan’s Rock, no longer closing but not yet turning around, and the rest of their former squadron, approaching their position.

Acceleration pushed him down into his seat, one gravity, two gravities, three…

Puller, this is 757 Actual, Commodore Carter. Heave to and cut thrust. Power down all weapons systems and explain yourselves! When and why did you detach from Executive Amber? Why are you here? Why did you bring us here? What happened to Captain Palmer? Answer me, damn you, or be destroyed!”

The Puller thrust on, and no one said anything.

On the tactical screen, he saw their dropship with Chief Dufresne come back up to power and boost its acceleration to five Gs, then 10. Its acceleration vector became erratic, jinking back and forth, but the ship was too far away, and they didn’t have enough sensors aimed behind them to see much of what was going on.

The single-stage-to-orbit dropship had an enormous amount of residual delta-v and a combat-worthy thrust to weight ratio. And Jason Pierce used every bit of it. Their instantaneous acceleration shifted around wildly, reversing, changing direction, then going off on another vector entirely. The jerks they felt must have been terrifying, unless they had passed out under the extreme forces. The evasive maneuvers had to be algorithmic and under autopilot control at this point. No living pilot could still have been conscious by then.

And neither could any of the passengers. Benno took solace in that.

The dropship suddenly fell to zero acceleration, and the sensors lost tracking on them. Instead, a multitude of new debris tracks blossomed from their last position. Something from Morgan’s Rock had shot them down. They were gone.

Master at Arms Chief Ellen Dufresne would never see her brother and his kids again.

Benno closed the window tracking her and turned his full attention to their own escape vector. Their path toward the HD 4391 transit entry lay before them like an angry red road. On the screen, five other tracks closed on theirs with furious intent. Those ships had relied upon them for defense only a few minutes ago. Now, they were the enemy. Or rather, Benno and his crew had been revealed as their enemy.

None of the ships would reach them. They were too far out of position, caught unaware. But their weapons? Their combat reach? The math for that was unassailable. If the Puller was to escape, they would have to fly through space at the extreme edge of their former compatriots’ engagement envelopes. They could all see the cones of probable fire intersecting their path.

They either had to surrender or make a run through the crucible.

Eventually, the commodore stopped calling. Benno never answered. It was quiet on the bridge. They were accelerating too fast to make speech comfortable, and what was there to say? For everything to fail so quickly, so severely, when a smooth progression to victory had been right in their grasp…

No one wanted to speak to him. Benno did not even want to speak to himself. He just wanted to wallow in self-recrimination, in doubts over Mio and Adelaide and the other worlds, in guilt over Dufresne, and even over the loyalists.

As if operating on a timer, as soon as the engagement cones flashed green for permissive range, the other ships fired. Benno did not bother to order fire upon the shooters. Not only did he not want to shoot them, the Puller did not have enough ammo to fight the fleet and the incoming rounds, and still have some left for their actual mission. They could only defend and run.

Missile hatches opened and disgorged a string of missiles at no set targets. They merely lanced out and exploded in maximal fusion fury, not bothering to convert their energy into xasers. Instead, they filled the engagement cones with active plasma and hard particle debris, fuzzing and cluttering tactical screens just as the opposing ships’ warheads passed through the chaff. The Puller maneuvered as much as she could, while staying within her entry vectors for transit.

Some warheads died, others activated and exploded, wasting their radiation or their xaser beams on empty space. But not all, not when every other Alliance ship poured all their remaining fire into the Puller’s path.

Laser mounts snapped and PDCs chattered. Railgun mounts jumped again and again and again, chewing apart the torrent inbound to them. The TAO even activated their IFF transponder, desperately trying to convince the hastily-fired weapons they were friendly, but they took out only the smallest portion.

Railgun rounds hit first, their straight trajectories outpacing the maneuvering missile warheads, even if those weapons operated at the speed of light once within terminal engagement range. The Puller shook as fragmentary rounds exploded and peppered her forward and aft hulls, her radiators, and her antennas and weapons. The destroyer shuddered as unitary penetrators tore apart the double hull and breached the pressure hull. Unlike the previous General Quarters, there had been little time to prep. Not all the crew was in their vacuum armor.

Benno was not. He just waited for a breach in the pressure boundary of the bridge. If that happened, all he had done for Mio was for nothing.

Fusion explosions rippled again and again in the spaces between the Puller and the Libertad and her escort ships. This time, they were for their intended purpose. Fusion energy channeled down into lasing media and created coherent laser light just before the lasing medium vaporized. Shafts of x-ray laser light speared outward. Not all intersected with the Puller, but enough did.

The ship shuddered, leaped, and shook as perfect cylinders of invisible brilliance burned themselves straight through the ship, before excitation energy, thermal shock, plasma, and scattered x-ray photons exploded outward from each path of penetration. Some were like those the Annapolis used on them—narrow but devastating. Others, however, were like the Dauphine capital-class warhead that had first cored them, back before everything fell apart.

Entire spaces were vaporized, along with their equipment, their personnel, their cableways, and their data trunks. Explosions rocked the Puller, as if she was inundated by continuous nuclear torches. System statuses leaped right past yellow or orange, straight to red, then flashed, undefined, as they no longer registered.

At last, the engines cut out. All acceleration vanished. The ship was in freefall. The only boon was that the rounds aimed further along their predicted path, which assumed their acceleration remained high, all missed.

The ship became deceptively quiet. No more explosions or rounds battered the ship. Even the various urgent alarms had been squelched.

Benno looked to his screens. Their images fuzzed and leaped, flashing into and out of existence, but when they briefly stabilized, he saw they were aligned, vector achieved. Did that assessment include all the side vectors and pushes the attacks upon them imparted? Were the astrometrics even accurate after taking so much damage? If he hit initiate, would they wind up in trinary system HD 4391, or would they wind up far, far away, in another system, in another galaxy, lost forever?

“CO, TAO, sir, the Libertad is adjusting fire. Weapons inbound in thirty-seven seconds.”

Benno pressed the icon on his screen.

The Puller vanished in a flash of gravity waves and blue Cerenkov radiation, destination unknown.

* * * * *

Chapter Eighteen: Mio

Mio couldn’t believe her eyes. There stood Dan, talking with the Terran soldiers like they were the best of friends. Dan was the traitor. After several seconds of contemplation, though, it made sense. Dan had been on all the missions that had gone badly, and even though he’d been hurt, he was the only other person to survive the food warehouse raid besides Mio. It all made perfect sense, in retrospect.

She slid away from the firethorn bush and crawled back into the tunnel. Harry was already there, picking up his rifle.

“I can’t believe it,” Mio muttered, gathering her gear, “and yet I can. He was perfectly placed to do the most damage to our cause. I just don’t understand why he would do it, though.”

“No way to tell without asking him,” Harry said. “I’m sure he’s got his reasons, and they must be good ones if they were important enough to lead his friends to their deaths.”

“And what could those possibly be?”

“No idea.”

Mio shook her head, trying to get rid of the image of Dan talking to the troopers. “Are you ready to go?” she asked. “We have to get back with the news.”

“I am,” Harry replied. “I saw everything I needed. That’s a BF-19 Sky Shrike surface-to-space missile system, which is the follow-on system to the BF-17 system I used to operate. It’s an extremely capable system, a fleet-killer. While the Terrans have access to it, your father doesn’t have a chance of returning to the planet. Not alive, anyway.”

“So, we have to do something about it if I ever want to see my father again.”


“What do we need to do?”

“Missile systems are tricky,” Harry said. “They have a lot of components, and all of them have to work right for the system to function as planned. The key to it all, though, is the command van. That’s what controls the missiles and passes them the information their guidance systems need to hit their targets. Without the guidance info, the missiles are just rockets that are going to go somewhere and blow up, but they’re far more likely to miss than they are to hit. If you can get me into the command and control vehicle, I might be able to make it work. Might.

“Why wouldn’t you be able to?”

“Any number of reasons. Maybe the radars aren’t working. Maybe the orbital datalinks are bad. Maybe the controls will be damaged in the fighting. Who knows? Maybe it’s as simple as whether they’ve changed the password.”

“The password?”

“Sure, you need a password to operate the system. The thing is, the system comes with a default password, and most crews never change it.”

“Really? That sounds dumb.”

“Well, look at it this way. Why would you expect an enemy to capture it? Besides, there are several people who need access to the system. Every time you change the password, you need to make sure everyone knows, which can be a hassle.”

“Okay, so if you have the password, and if everything is working correctly, could you operate the system and fire a missile at the ship in orbit?”


“You aren’t confident you can?”

“Mio, I’ve never seen this system before. I trained on an earlier version. It probably works similarly to the ones I used, but it may take some time to figure out. I can’t promise I’ll know how to use something I’ve never seen.

“But there’s a chance?” Mio asked.

“Yeah, assuming Dan doesn’t kill the rest of the resistance before we get back to camp.”

“You’re right; we need to stop talking and get back. Let’s go!”

* * *

Harry and Mio returned to camp after dusk to find several new people there.

Mio pulled one of the newcomers, a tall woman with dark hair, aside. “What’s going on?” she asked.

“We’re moving in,” the woman said. “We’ve all experienced some pretty heavy losses, and we’re consolidating our supplies. I think there’s going to be a meeting in a few minutes.”

“Let’s go see what’s going on,” Harry said. “There’ll be time to discuss our information once we get the lay of the land.”

The pair walked over to the meeting area, and Mio began counting. There were only about 80 people in attendance. If that was the entire resistance effort, they were going to have a tough time conducting any other major operations.

Garcia and Beaufort were waiting in front of the group, as usual, but they were alone there. Mio had heard the other three leaders were killed in the assault on the starport, but she hadn’t believed it until now.

“Welcome, everyone,” Garcia said a couple of minutes later, once everyone was there. “As everyone can see, we are consolidating our forces and supplies. We have sustained a number of major setbacks recently, and our situation has become somewhat grim.”

“That’s what happens when your leader is a traitor,” one of the newcomers said loudly.

Garcia’s face reddened. “I am not a traitor!”

Other people in the audience began hurling insults, while Garcia tried to regain control. Mio knew Garcia wasn’t the traitor; she had to help. She jumped up on the bench and waved her arms, yelling as piercingly as she could, “Hey, be quiet! Hey, be quiet!”

The crowd stopped yelling and Garcia looked annoyed as he recognized the source of his aid in regaining control. “Yes?” Garcia asked. “Do you have some more accusations to throw around about my leadership?”

“No,” Mio said. “I just wanted to say I am sorry for calling you a traitor. I found some new information, and I know you aren’t the traitor.”

“Well isn’t that comforting,” Garcia said sarcastically, receiving a few laughs from the crowd. Several faces turned to look at Mio. They didn’t look happy. “Now that I have your vote of approval, may I continue?”

“Sure,” Mio said in a small voice, climbing back down.

Garcia cleared his throat. “Now, as I was saying, we have sustained a number of setbacks recently that have caused us to consolidate our forces. We have also had some losses at the leadership level that need to be filled. We will still have a council of five members; the first person who will be added is Dan Sotherby, who will oversee our tactical actions and raids. I suspect most people already know him; he has steadfastly led our troops into battle and has killed more Terran troops than anyone else.”

Dan stepped forward from the front row to a thunderous ovation as almost everyone in the crowd roared their approval. He turned, blushing, and waved to the crowd.

The color drained from Mio’s face as she turned to Harry.

“Well, that should just about finish off the resistance,” he noted.

“We have to do something,” Mio said.

“Yeah, we do,” Harry said. He sighed. “Just don’t do it now, in front of the group again, okay?”


“No, it didn’t turn out well last time, and I suspect it will turn out worse this time. We’ll do something…but not now.”

Mio watched impatiently as Garcia introduced the other two new members of the ruling council, Amelia Lopez and Trevor Werner. Both were from the other group, so Mio didn’t know them, but they must have been popular there as they received big rounds of applause. Jason was kind of cute in a boyish way, and looked almost as young as she did.

Of course, Dan also received great support…and he was a traitor. Mio shook her head. What they didn’t know could hurt them. Badly. She needed to tell someone soon, even though Harry said to wait.

Mio lost track of the meeting as the voices droned on until a phrase caught her attention. Dan was talking, and he had said, “…missile system.”

“What did he just say?” Mio asked.

“He said that we have to do something about the Terran missile system. No, hush; I want to hear what he says.”

Dan continued, “It has to be our first priority. I know some of you have looked at it, and I know it’s going to be a tough nut to crack. Still, we’re going to have to destroy it, as there’s no way we can survive with it here. Its presence allows the destroyer in orbit to command our skies, dropping orbital bombardment rounds whenever it wants to. Even if one of our fleets were to show up here, they wouldn’t want to come to the planet because of the missile system. If a lone ship shows up, it’s either going to quickly leave again, or it’s going to be destroyed. Getting rid of the missile system is the only way we can ensure our safety. Once it’s gone, our fleet will be able to easily chase the ship off; heck, it may even leave on its own once it doesn’t have the missile system to reinforce its authority. Either way, with it gone, we are well on our way to freedom.”

* * *

The meeting broke up soon after that, and Mio chased after Garcia and Amelia Lopez who were leaving together. She looked over her shoulder to see if Harry was coming and ran full force into Garcia, who had stopped to talk to someone.

“Is it not enough that you besmirch my name in our meetings? Now you have to physically assault me, too? What’s next? Laser pistols at 10 paces?”

“What? Uh, no. I’m really sorry for running into you, sir. I was trying to catch up to you to talk to you.”

“Let me guess. Now that you don’t think I’m the traitor, you have new information that someone else is.”

“How did—”

“Hi, Mr. Garcia,” Harry said, interrupting her as he arrived. “Mio was just telling me that you made some really great picks for the ruling council.”

“I think they were the most qualified,” Garcia said with a nod. He turned back to Mio. “Now, if there’s nothing else?”

“Actually,” Harry said, “We’d kind of like to talk to you about the plan to attack the Terran missile system.”

“You should talk with Dan Sotherby,” Garcia said; “he’s our tactical operations planner. Now, I am late and must be going.” He turned and started to walk off.

“Well, see, there’s a problem with that,” Harry said, “and I think you’ll want to hear what it is.”

“Okay,” Garcia said. He turned and looked at his chrono. “You have three minutes. What is the problem?”

Mio knew this was the chance she had been looking for. Garcia appeared to be willing to listen for once, but was he really? Only one way to find out.

She took a deep breath and said, “I think the problem is that you are looking at the whole missile system situation wrong.”

“Little girl, I let you attend our meetings against my better judgment so you could hopefully learn something you can use when you grow up. That’s when you grow up, not today. For now, you will help us the most if you keep your eyes open and your mouth closed.”

Mio felt her cheeks go red, and tears brimmed at the corners of her eyes. Despite everything she had done for them, they still insisted on treating her like a baby. It’s not fair. More importantly, she knew this time she was right.

No!” she exclaimed, stomping her foot. “You’re wrong! We shouldn’t destroy the missile system. And you need to listen to me as to why that is!”

“No?” Garcia asked, raising his eyebrows. “Then what exactly should we do? Please wow me with the depth of your 13-year-old insight.” Sarcasm dripped from every word to puddle around her.

“First of all, I’m almost 15,” Mio replied, “which makes me almost old enough to serve. Second of all, I’ve been part of the resistance since the beginning. I’ve seen assaults, both good and bad, and I’ve learned an awful lot along the way. But more importantly, unlike you, I can think more than one step ahead.”

Garcia’s face turned an equal shade of red to hers, then went on to purple. He sputtered several times at her impertinence, looking for the words to dismiss her, and she knew she had to follow through, or her opportunity would be lost…perhaps for all time.

“We don’t want to destroy the missile system,” Mio said, “because that’s not in our best interest. If we destroy it, what happens if another of their ships comes and decides to kill us? For that matter, what if the one currently in orbit decides it wants to bomb us out of existence? We don’t have any way of defending ourselves. Until now, we’ve gotten away with our attacks because they haven’t been destructive enough to really worry the Terrans. Sure, we destroyed some things and killed some people, but we haven’t done enough to make ourselves worth their time to chase down. If we blow up the missile system, we will be seen as a big enough threat to come after, and they will send their ship after us. If we blow up the missile system, we’re all going to die.”

“But Mio, you don’t understand,” Amelia Lopez said, waving a hand at Garcia to let her handle it. “If we don’t destroy it, no one will ever be able to come help us or bring us supplies. They won’t be able to get past the missile system.”

“I understand all that—” Mio said.

“Then there’s nothing more to discuss,” Garcia interrupted.

“—but you’re not looking at the benefits of the missile system,” Mio concluded.

“Honey, there aren’t any benefits to having the missile system here,” Lopez replied. “It will kill every ship the ALS sends.”

Mio smiled. “Not if it belongs to us.”

Garcia’s eyebrows knit. “What do you mean? It’s a piece of Terran Union gear. It doesn’t belong to us.”

“It would if we took it from them. What if, instead of destroying it, we attack the missile system and take it for ourselves? Then we could use it against the destroyer in orbit, opening the way for aid to get here.”

“That’s stupid,” Dan said, as he joined the group, coming from behind Mio. “First of all, nobody here knows how to operate the system, so even if we took it, we couldn’t use it against the destroyer in orbit. More importantly, though, there’s no way to approach it. The TU troops have a 500-meter killing zone around it. I’ve seen it! Anybody who tries to approach it will be slaughtered. It would be much easier to destroy it from afar than risk everyone’s lives trying to get close enough to capture it.”

Mio saw the other leaders nodding; her time was running out. “What if I told you we have someone who can operate the system? Would that help?”

“And who would that be?”

Mio looked at Harry, who shook his head. She pressed on, anyway. “Harry is a former Terran Union soldier,” she said. “He operated one of their missile systems. He could probably figure this one out.”

All eyes turned to Harry. “Is that true?” Garcia asked.

Harry scanned their faces and cleared his throat. “Yeah, it’s true,” he said with a sigh. “I’m former TU, but only because I was forced to join, and I did work on a similar system.”

“And you think you can operate it?” Lopez asked.

“I can’t tell you for sure without seeing it, but the system I worked on was very similar to the one the TU forces have here.”

Garcia turned back to Mio. “So, we have someone with experience, even though I don’t know if I trust him. How are you going to get him to the missile system without getting him or the rest of us killed?”

“Remember where you first found me?” Mio asked. “There is a system of tunnels in the plateau there that leads right up to where the missile system is stationed. A smaller group could sneak up on the Turds and hit them from behind while the majority of the forces keep their attention.”

“I still say trying to capture it is crazy,” Dan said. “What if they’re waiting for you in the tunnels? Well-armed soldiers could easily wipe out our group in the tight confines of a tunnel. All it would take is a couple of grenades, and we’re all dead.”

“I like the idea of capturing it,” Garcia said, “but I think Dan is right. It’s a lot safer if we destroy it and be done with it.”

“Well, there is one other reason for capturing it…” Mio said, allowing her voice to trail off as she drew her laser pistol.

“What’s that?” Garcia asked. Having made the decision, he appeared impatient to be on his way.

“The other reason for capturing it rather than destroying it, and perhaps the best reason of all, is that Dan wants you to destroy it.” She raised her pistol, pointed it at Dan, and saw out of the corner of her eye that Harry had drawn and pointed his pistol as well. “I suspect that’s something he discussed with the Terran forces when he was at the missile system talking with them today.

“What’s this?” Garcia asked.

“I don’t know what she’s talking about,” Dan said.

“She’s right,” Harry said. “Mio took me through the tunnels today, and I saw Dan exit the missile command vehicle and speak with several of their soldiers, just as plain as day. He’s your traitor, folks. You may remember he was also on all of the raids that went bad…and he also seemed to come away without a scratch.”

Mio could see Dan looking back and forth between her pistol and Harry’s, his body tense and ready to spring. “Please don’t do it,” she begged. “I don’t want to shoot you, but I’ll kill you deader than the Terrans I shot.”

“I’m prior Terran Army,” Harry added, his voice level. “She may flinch ’cause she likes you, but I won’t.”

Dan sagged, the tension leaving his body. “Okay, you got me,” he said. He looked at Mio. “I was sure you wouldn’t go back into those tunnels ever again.”

“I wouldn’t have, for anyone other than my father,” Mio replied. “But right now, those missiles are keeping him away, and we need to do something about them.”

“More so than you know,” Dan said. “You’ll never be able to take back the city, because the missile troops will blow it up. They have orders to hit the city if the ship in orbit is destroyed.”

“Can they do that?” Garcia asked. “How much damage would they do?”

“Those missiles are meant for combat in outer space,” Harry said. “The warheads on them are nothing more than glorified 50 megaton nuclear bombs. Could they use them in a surface-to-surface mode? They could, and just one of them would destroy the entire town.”

“So, if a ship showed up and destroyed the Terran spaceship?” Lopez asked.

“You might as well attack the missiles, as you’d have nothing to lose. They’re going to nuke the town in any event.”

“That’s horrific!” Lopez exclaimed.

“I don’t understand,” Mio said. “Why would you do that?”

“I got caught the night of the raid on the food warehouse. I was carrying Mio and it became a matter of being captured or leaving her behind…and I couldn’t leave her behind in the condition she was in. When the Terrans found out I was prior ALS Special Forces, they captured my wife and took her up to the spaceship. They’ve been holding her there and forcing me to do what they wanted. I’ve killed an awful lot of them…but I’ve also led our folks into a lot of bad situations for her sake.” Dan looked up into the sky. “No!” he exclaimed. “Not now! No, no, no!”

Harry’s eyes flinched upward, and Dan sprang. Before Harry could fire, Dan slapped away the pistol and punched him in the face. Harry fell backward, and Dan turned. The laser bolt from Mio’s pistol struck him in the chest. He took another step toward her, and she shot him a second time. Dan fell to his knees, then collapsed to the ground.

He twitched on the ground, his hand fumbling with the button on one of the cargo pockets on his pants.

“Easy with that,” Harry said, grabbing his pistol and aiming it at the fallen man.

“Just…want…to see…” Dan said, his motions becoming slower.

Mio stepped forward and opened the button with her free hand. Inside the pocket was a memory cube, an almost exact replica of the one in her own pocket. She put it in Dan’s hand, and he triggered it.

A hologram of a beautiful blond woman appeared. “I love you Dan,” she said. “No matter what they do to me, even if they kill me, I will always love you.” Dan smiled, then the light went out of his eyes.

“I didn’t want to kill him,” Mio said, looking at Dan’s body, tears already streaming from her eyes; “he made me do it.”

When no one said anything, she looked up to find all three adults staring at the heavens.

“Call everyone together, right now!” Garcia ordered. “We don’t have a second to waste!”

* * * * *

Chapter Nineteen: Benno

Commander Howard Beam, the commanding officer of TNV Mare Crisium, sipped a bulb of hot, black coffee and regarded the beautiful world below him. Whorls of green, brown, and black, vast seas of the deepest violet blue, all wrapped in white wisps of brilliant cloud—these defined the loveliness that was Adelaide. It was among the prettiest and most well-disposed to earthly life of all the many worlds he had visited. It was arguably a more beautiful, more hospitable planet than Earth had ever been.

He’d had plenty of time to look at the view and plenty of time to ponder. Perhaps he had looked upon it for too long, because he could not quite explain why Adelaide unsettled him so, and why his dread had grown so much of late. The situation on the ground, apart from some particularly tenacious insurgent action, was soon to come under their complete control. And as for the security situation in space? Aside from the mind-boggling logic of the Alliance to apparently abdicate the entire world, things up here were great.

So why did he feel death stalking so closely? Why did he have the urge to point every battery at that gem of a world and wipe away all human life from its surface? What unexplained aspect of their occupation made him seriously consider preemptive genocide?

LCDR Kortney “K.K.” Kropp, his XO, interrupted his ever-darkening thoughts by bringing herself to a stop next to him on Mare Crisium’s bridge. “Captain, I have the latest daily reports from the Marine contingent,” she said, holding out a tablet.

He did not bother to take it or to look away from Adelaide. “Summarize, K.K.”

This was not unexpected with Beam. She cleared her throat and began. “Yes, sir. The Marines report the orbital bombardment of the two insurgent groups was successful. Except for a smattering of malcontents, camp followers, and a few stragglers, the insurgency is pretty much done for. We have a spy highly placed in the resistance network, a local we managed to turn, and he’ll lead them into an ambush tomorrow. Things should get calmer once we do that.”

Beam squinted and looked at Kropp with a questioningly. “The local traitor? Was that the one whose wife we were holding or something?”

“Yes, sir. Daniel and Astrid Sotherby.”

The CO turned back to the planet. “He’s going to be very disappointed with us when he comes to fetch his wife and finds her a frozen corpse.”

“The traitor’s wage, sir. We’ll handle it if the Marines don’t do it for us.”

They were both quiet until CDR Beam broke the silence. “K.K., have you ever thought about why we’re out here?”

She shrugged. “Orders, sir. We’re here to distract the ALS and split their forces, to show them the Union is more than capable of striking them with impunity no matter how independent and mighty they consider themselves, and—I suppose—eventually return the ALS worlds to the Union.”

He smiled, turned from the view, and pushed his way back to his seat. LCDR Kropp followed and took her seat next to him. He answered her as they moved. “A serviceable answer, but not really what I meant. Before our tech enabled the first diaspora, the population of Earth was 8 billion people. And after our first expansion into the solar system, and then into the star systems of nearly 100 worlds? The population of our home world remains between 8 and 9 billion. Offworld? The population in aggregate is barely over a tenth of that. One hundred worlds and two hundred years, and we’ve expanded into a population that could easily have fit onto a single extra planet. What is it that drives us to continue our expansion, then to so zealously defend new territory that we don’t need, to the point of outright war? And not just once, but over and over again?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know, sir. I’m sticking with ‘orders’ for my answer.”

He smiled, but he could feel it was a bitter, jagged smile, frightening rather than reassuring. “In fifteen minutes, we could render Adelaide uninhabited, and do you know how much it would matter? Who would care? The answers are ‘not at all’ and ‘no one.’”

Beam could see his XO growing uncomfortable. She stammered, “I—I imagine it might matter to the people we’re bombing. Or to their families. If it were me or mine, I know I’d be pretty damn upset about it.”

“Fret not, Commander. I am prepared for it, some parts of me even relish the thought…but I don’t plan to commit genocide today. You have to be honest, though. This lovely, perfect little colony doesn’t matter, except as a throwaway gambit between two indifferent empires. It does not even matter overmuch to the Alliance. I mean, how well have they guarded it in all this time?”

Before she could answer or argue, the technician at Sensors—a junior spacer named Pitzer—cried out, “Emergence! Captain, I have a single ship emergence about two light minutes away. Looks like a destroyer-sized target, fingerprinting in progress.”

K.K. nodded at the highlighted icon on the display tank. “Looks like it might matter to somebody. They finally showed up.”

Beam grunted but did not comment.

Petty Officer Pitzer spoke up again, but this time he sounded confused. “Sir, it appears to be an Alliance destroyer all right, but it is…seriously messed up. I’m showing severe hull damage, radiation leaks, atmosphere leaks, and only one of four main drives operational. Limited sensor dwells detected, all low-power, dumb beams instead of encrypted dwells. It looks like someone patched together a scrap heap.”

“Mmm-hmmm. And what is this scrap heap doing?”

“It’s calling us, sir.”

* * *

“Unidentified Terran Union Navy destroyer, this is the warship Puller, formerly of the Alliance Navy. Please respond. We are seriously damaged and have no hostile intent.” Benno sat strapped into his seat, his face drawn and haggard, leaning forward in nervous anticipation.

He was here. He was finally home. But the prize seemed that much further away.

The last two days had been harrowing. After successfully making the jump to the trinary system, they had not been able to rest or repair. It would not take long for the rest of Task Force 757 to determine where they likely went and pursue. So, with the ship on fire, 75% of the systems non-operational, many crew dead or dying, they had been forced to get the engines back online, reorient, and jump, and jump again. Each transit had strained systems that might not take another strain, but they had no choice. Only distance and unobserved transits might keep their own people from a fruitful pursuit.

After the third transit, Benno finally felt safe enough to address the viability of the Puller.

It was not a good story.

Thirty-six of his fellow mutineers were gone. Another ten were in Medical, not expected to survive, and most of the rest had some form of injury but soldiered on nonetheless. Of the 27 loyalist hostages in the hull section, only seven survived the xaser beam that had pierced it. The ten people in the brig survived, including the XO. The Puller had begun with just under 200 crew. After losses in Executive Amber, the mutiny, Paradiso, and now Morgan’s Rock, Benno had only 77 crew upon which he could count.

With so few, to even attempt to make the ship spaceworthy—much less put her back to some semblance of her fighting trim—he had been required to do the near unthinkable: release the loyalists. He had been judicious. Only those that earned a unanimous vote of confidence from his de facto department heads were let out—including CDR Ashton, the real Chief Engineer, and Benno’s old boss, the Weapons Officer LCDR Forrestal. In the end, every able body labored to clear a never-ending repair list. Benno had worked continuously for 28 hours, restringing cable and setting up data networks to route around the pervasive battle damage.

He imagined the only reason there had not been another mutiny against him was that the survivors were too damned tired and beat down to bother trying.

When it was all said and done though, the ship was operational—but just operational and barely so at that. There would be no fighting and winning in Adelaide or against the squadron still most likely pursuing them. They were doomed and so were Mio and everyone else on Adelaide.

It had warranted a change in tactics.

After a two-minute light speed lag back and forth, with a little extra time to decide how to respond, a man’s voice crackled out of the void. “Alliance destroyer Puller, this is the Terran Union Naval Vessel Mare Crisium. We are in complete possession of the Adelaide system and will defend our occupation with maximum force. You are ordered not to attempt to flee and to make no attempt at a combat approach. You are to heave to and surrender as prisoners of war…or be destroyed.”

Benno shook his head and smiled. He pushed the transmit stud on his seat. “Mare Crisium, we have no intention of challenging you for the system. That might have been why we started all of this, but we no longer possess the means, and we have run out of choices. You need to understand something—we are no longer an Alliance warship. After we found out about your occupation and discovered the Alliance intended to let it go unanswered…we mutinied and abandoned our fleet. The damage you see to my vessel was done by our own fellow Alliance forces. We can no longer fight them or you. All that matters to us is the safety of our families on the planet below.

“To that end, we surrender to you and seek asylum from the Alliance through service and loyalty to the Terran Union.”

* * *

CDR Beam and LCDR Kropp stared warily at one another. She shook her head. “It has to be a trap.”

“Of course, it’s a trap. But look at that ship. If that’s deception, they’re really overselling it. Why would they need to do that? We’re the ones deep in someone else’s territory with no supply lines. If they wanted to dislodge us, all they have to do is bring in a squadron. Yes, we’d likely annihilate the population before we left, but still. This seems…too desperate.”

With no answer in the last few minutes, Benno transmitted again. “We are prepared to back up our story with proof, Mare Crisium. With your permission, we can transfer security footage of the mutiny, automated deck logs, and tactical feeds from the last squadron’s attack upon us.”

K.K. chuffed a laugh. “As if we would just plug any recording they sent us into our network. That’s like inviting them to send us a system worm.”

Beam shrugged. “We could always download it to a stand-alone tablet and watch it from there.”

The voice sounded again. “And could we please approach? I don’t know if the light speed lag is super long, or I’m too impatient, or you just don’t feel like talking, but this five-minute pause between responses is killing me. Sorry.”

The Terran CO and XO looked at one another again, weighing options. Eventually, Kropp said, “If they are defecting as mutineers, we can demand unconditional surrender, require them to turn over all files, encryption keys, software, weapons, etc. They might have decent intel on their fleet objectives, make-up, plans, and comms. It’s not like they could take us in a fight anyway, but it would be nice to pull stuff from an operational ship, rather than sifting through a debris cloud.”

Beam nodded. “It’s win-win…until one betrays the other. Okay. They want to see their families. Allow them to approach, all weapon systems powered down and monitored remotely. They light off anything, and we finish the seemingly easy job of destroying them. Bring them into shuttle range so their long-range weapons are useless, then we board and take what we want.”

She nodded back. “And what about bringing them down to Adelaide?”

He smiled. “You said it before—Traitor’s Wages. I’ve got no obligation to a bunch of deserters and mutineers. We get what we need from them, then we destroy their ship.”

“Aye aye, sir. I’ll contact the surface and put them on high alert. We’ll move out to rendezvous with this Puller, but we’ll stay within the coverage range of the anti-orbit missile battery.”

CDR Beam steepled his fingers and grinned. “Very well, carry on.”

* * *

Benno nodded as the instructions came to them. He looked over at CDR Ashton, strapped in next to him, suited up, but no longer shackled to her seat. And this time, she sat in her traditional spot, the XO’s chair.

He shrugged. “Better than them shooting first. Reasonably cautious.”

She shook her head. “And it still requires us to casually put our heads right into the lion’s mouth. This is a shit plan, Warrant.”

“Agreed. Its one and only virtue is that it’s the only one we’ve got. Have faith.”

“Faith isn’t going to keep us from turning into a disassociated cloud of plasma!”

“I promise the cloud of plasma that was you can tell the cloud of plasma that was me, ‘I told you so,’ when this is all over. Until then, Commander, more do, less talk.”

She frowned and glared but got to work, ordering the bridge and CIC crews around.

The Puller thrust in on her one working dark matter drive, crabbing the ship to keep their off-center thrust vector aligned with the ship’s center of mass. Even then, they babied the engine, pushing the destroyer forward at only one quarter gravity of acceleration.

Mare Crisium suffered no such limitations. The Terran warship thrust to the rendezvous point at an unnecessary two Gs and prowled the position like a cat too long caged, eager for blood. They scanned Puller and the surrounding space, keen to find even a single cold, dark, quiet weapon the disabled enemy might try to swim out, powered down, to act as a mine. The ship’s crew kept the Puller locked in the fire control solutions of their twin railgun mounts and ten laser emitters. Their weapons were set on automatic and ready to fire at the first provocation.

The distance between the ships closed as they maneuvered and flipped-ship to achieve a stationary rendezvous. The gap fell to one light minute. Then thirty light-seconds. Ten light-seconds. One second. A hundred thousand kilometers. A thousand kilometers. A hundred. Ten.

One kilometer.

* * *

“Very well, sir. We’ve closed to mutual suicide pact distance,” K.K. announced, dryly.

Captain Beam chuffed an appreciative laugh. He looked over and could plainly see the Puller’s damaged hull. He had never been this close to an enemy ship. Engagements were carried out too fast and too far away to ever actually see the opposition. He rarely even saw ships from his own Navy.

Shaking himself from his thoughts, he replied to her. “Very droll, XO. Your objections have been noted. We both know they are probably planning something, but unless they don’t plan on surviving, getting this close cuts any nukes out of the equation. We’re inside their initiation range. Safeties won’t allow them to blow.”

“Which limits ours as well, sir.”

“Yes, but we have both our railguns powered up and trained on them. We’ve verified their railguns are both down. Same with laser mounts. Their missile hatches are open and unshielded. As soon as we see a single erg of waste heat from any of their weapons, our railguns will cut them in half. And given their current condition, it won’t be too difficult a task.” He gestured at the data tank. “Now, any more skirt-holding required, or may we continue with the fleecing of these poor, dumb, trusting morons?”

Her eyes turned dark, but she answered with a clipped, precise, “No, sir.”

“Very well, XO.” He turned from her and flipped a switch on his seat. “Puller, this is Mare Crisium Actual. We are ready on our end. Ready to receive our shuttle?”

Benno came back immediately. “Yes, Mare Crisium. You reviewed the files we sent you?”

“Yes, Mister Sanchez. Either you have a very skilled videographer capable of Hollywood-level special effects, or you are indeed a murderous, mutinous, honorless bastard. But since you only murdered Alliance personnel, you have my tentative word that we will give you asylum and access to your families on the surface. Sufficient?”

There was a pause they could no longer attribute to light-speed lag. “It’ll have to be, Mare Crisium. Note, your shuttle will have to dock at our EVA hatch. The dropship hangar doors are dead. Unless you want us to cut them off?”

“Noted and not necessary. Stand by to receive us. Mare Crisium out,” Beam answered, then unkeyed the comm. He looked at LCDR Kropp. “You’re up. Remember, if needed, shoot first, shoot early, and shoot often. Don’t let them lull you into complacency. Play nice only if playing nice gets you what you want. Whether they end up dead under you and your Marines, or when I put a nuke into them, they are already corpses.”

She nodded but appeared distinctly uncomfortable.

No matter, Beam thought. She’ll do her duty, even if she might not do it as readily as I would.

His XO departed, and he smiled at the targeting reticles that swept over the broken Alliance ship.

* * *

“Turd shuttle inbound, Skipper,” the TAO said over the comm.

“Roger, CIC,” Benno answered. “Standby to initiate charges.”

“Charges standing by, Bridge.”

Benno looked at CDR Ashton, but she did not look back at him, engrossed in her own screens. Turning his helmeted head, he shifted his gaze to an inset window on his display panels. Adelaide turned serenely below them. Only one icon was lit up on the planet—that of the Terran Marines’ anti-orbit missile battery. Unlike their previous two battles, this weapon system would come into play. It was up and radiating. Just one of the 100 Dauphine 500-kiloton, fusion-pumped, independent xaser warheads was more than enough to core out a full dreadnought. Altogether, they added up to 50 megatons of directed energy, capable of taking out an entire fleet, much less their little, damaged destroyer.

Of course, Benno did not honestly care. He could only look at that icon as yet another obstacle in an interminable series of them. The only thing he could see on that inset of the planet was an icon that existed only in his mind’s eye. It was the icon marking Mio Sanchez. In his most fervent hopes, it blazed green and vibrant, signaling her safety and health. In his worst fears, it pulsed dark and red, an epitaph to his failures as a father.

He was so close. Only a couple more hurdles now…

“Shuttle’s at the midpoint,” CDR Ashton interjected. “It’s not bothering to flip, though. Coming in slow and careful on positioning rockets only, guns trained.”

Benno nodded. “Sure. It’s only a kilometer.”

“Yeah, it’s only a kilometer, you crazy bastard.” She shook her head. Her arguments did not need another airing.

Benno keyed his comm. “Terran shuttle, this is Puller. Stand by. We got the hangar doors unstuck. Why don’t you come in there instead?”

The shuttle did not pause, and inertia carried it on, but he could almost feel their momentary confusion, could picture them questioning whether to continue to the EVA hatch, or go to the hangar. It was not excessive, not a complete breakdown in their observation-decision loop, but it was doubt, new information to be processed and accepted, rejected, or wondered at. Perhaps it would be enough to slow their reaction time…

Unbidden, but according to plan, micro-charges at each attachment point for the hangar doors blew. There was no fire or fury, but rather than clamshell apart, the hangar doors separated and spread out, leaving the hangar open.

More confusion, more questions, more wasted thought cycles to consider this…

And then realization, that the not-quite-empty hangar did not contain a dropship or a spot for their shuttle, but instead contained warhead after warhead, split from their missile busses, with only their hot, ready, powered up divert motors to launch them across the narrow void.

Before either side could react, the Puller’s point-defense cannons lit off, coming to an operational state from a complete power-down instantly, a necessary feature for any quick reaction defense weapon, and one not usually considered when assessing the tactical threat of an opposing vessel. Usually, PDCs would be no threat. Distances between ships were too great, and their multitudes of rounds were too small to ever employ them effectively across such vast battlespaces. But over a mere kilometer? That was point blank range.

Tungsten BBs leaped across the void between the ships, chewing apart Terran Navy hull metal, sensors, antennas, railgun mounts, lenses, and armor. They did to the Mare Crisium and her shuttle what they usually did to railgun rounds and enemy missiles.

The shuttle split apart, flayed by a million and one tiny cuts. LCDR Kortney Kropp, her pilot, and her Marines never knew what struck them, still trying to answer the question of where to dock.

The Terran Navy destroyer, however, was made of sterner stuff. Automated systems might not have reacted instantly, still intent on monitoring the Puller’s offensive weapons for signs of power-up, but their operators were good. Half a second after having their sides chewed by a cheese grater, Mare Crisium’s railguns and lasers poured out their own fire. Almost as an afterthought, her PDCs joined the fight a few seconds later.

Their fire passed through the dead shuttle without care, ripping it and its former occupants apart in the opposite direction. The Terran PDC fire had a more significant effect upon the Puller, given her armor was torn apart already and her pressure hull exposed. Tungsten shot chewed into every exposed element—and a great deal was exposed.

That damage paled, however, in comparison to that inflicted by the point-blank laser and railgun fire. Unitary rounds shot entirely through the Puller, entering one side and exiting the other, carrying a torrent of destruction. UV lasers, usually dedicated to burning through and vaporizing railgun rounds and missiles before they could initiate or hit their targets, now left glowing trails of molten metal in the hull. Where the outer shell had been torn away, they cut through and incinerated whatever fell beneath their beams, whether that be component or flesh. The horror of their damage was second only to that inflicted by a missile’s x-ray laser fire.

There was no maneuver here, no tactical cleverness. There was only an unremitting exchange of fire, as each ship stood still and slugged it out, the flares of their combat apparent to anyone on the planet below. It was a fight the Puller would have been at a disadvantage in on any day, but especially today, when she was so severely damaged before the battle began.

She and Benno only had one possible hope.

By the dozens, individual missile warheads sprang out from the hangar on their diminutive divert engines, which were usually only used for evasive maneuvering during the terminal phase. The warheads were designed to pick up most of their speed from the missile bodies that carried them.

But it was only a kilometer.

* * *

Captain Howard Beam’s eyes bugged out. On the screen, he saw the respective streams of PDC, railgun, and laser fire chew apart the Alliance destroyer and his shuttle. K.K., his XO, was dead. His ship shuddered under the onslaught of surprisingly effective PDC fire at point blank range.

What filled him with dismay, however, was the cloud of fusion warheads zipping toward him. Surely not, his mind screamed. The mutinous bastard can’t be that crazy! We’re only half a mile away! He can’t set off a nuke this close!

Even then, Beam knew he was wrong. He could not. But this jumped up pleb could and had…

“Target the warheads! Target the warheads!” Beam screamed at his crew.

But it was only a kilometer.

Warheads died, too slow, too dumb, too out of their element to do any good. But there were many crowded in the hangar.

A warhead was most effective in three roles: at an outer range, as a driver for a xaser weapon; in close proximity, to explode and irradiate a hull sufficiently to vaporize significant portions; and after penetration of a ship’s hull, to explode within and deliver the final coup de grace. Outside an atmosphere, they were not the awesome weapons of ultimate destruction they were upon a planet—the blasts of radiation lacked any real concussive element—but they were still the lords of the battle.

The first—and last—warhead to survive the gauntlet of two-way fire contacted the battle hull of the Mare Crisium, just forward of the radiator spine, but only penetrated the Swiss-cheese-hole-ridden armor hole halfway.

That seemed to be enough.

The fusion warhead exploded with the equivalent of two kilotons of TNT, or 10 terajoules of energy. This was smaller than the relatively minuscule size of the weapon expended against Hiroshima, but it was still more than 20 times the inundating energy of a standard xaser beam. The energy vaporized space after space of the Terran destroyer, splitting the hull in two. Plasma and thermal transfer energy exploded out from the penetration point, burning, crushing, and shattering all that stood in front of that wave front. The two glowing, outgassing segments of the hull—what remained of half the forward battle hull and the forlorn engineering hull, with only a couple of spars from the radiator spine left—shot away from one another, tumbling uncontrolled, burning even in the absence of oxygen.

Captain Beam’s life and his plans ended in an instant, both unfinished.

With only a kilometer separating them, the Puller absorbed a significant amount of energy from the blast. However, it was prepared. All but the most essential personnel had moved to the opposite side of the hull from the one facing the Terran ship. And, it had immediately lit off engines and begun opening the gap as soon as the warheads were away.

That side of the Puller fumed and glowed, its damage as extensive as it could be while remaining relatively intact. And intact it was. Of the two ships, only one survived…battered and broken, but victorious.

The skies over Adelaide were clear.

* * *

Alarms and claxons on the bridge were silenced, and everyone watched the remaining sections of TNV Mare Crisium tumble away from one another. Only half the systems on the bridge worked, and a litany of damage along the Puller’s port side streamed in, almost without end. But they lived.

With the inclusion of half the surviving loyalists, Benno’s cut-down crew had expanded to 85 people. He wondered how many he had lost. How many of them had families on Putnam, New Kiev, or Trinity? How many had families on Adelaide and would never get to see them, after coming so far and getting so close? How much more death, blame, and loss did he have to endure?

Would Mio be able to stand looking at him, knowing that even though he had freed three worlds, he would be hunted as a traitor and a mutineer? Would it turn her heart to know he had lost so many of the people who had put themselves in his charge?

Benno felt a hand close over his own. He looked over. CDR Ashton looked at him through her faceplate with a knowing expression.

She nodded sadly. “It’s over, Benno. You survived for your daughter. You saved her, and you’ll get to see her. But now the pressure’s off, now those sins we talked about before, those finally have a chance to come to roost. And you may be a mutineer, but you’re also a warrior, and I can respect at least part of what you did. Take some advice from your former prisoner. You can’t just focus on the failures. That will drive you mad. You have to focus on what you achieved.”

Benno looked at her and realized that while she might be right, he did not know if he could. For that, only time would—

“Bridge, TAO! Vampire, vampire! Missile alert from the anti-orbit battery below! The battery has fired, and we are within engagement range!”

Benno banished his misery and guilt to the back of his mind. The Puller was wrecked. There was no way they could maneuver in time, no way they could ever hope to shoot the smart, fast, massive missile down before any one of its 100 warheads obliterated them.

They were doomed.

* * * * *

Chapter Twenty: Mio

“I’m going to make this quick,” Garcia said to the assembled resistance fighters. “You’ve all seen the drive flares in orbit. The Terran Navy destroyer overhead has lit off its engines, and it’s moving out. There’s another ship inbound, but it looks a lot smaller, with fewer engines and less thrust. Communications chatter indicates it’s an Alliance warship, but there is something wrong with it. Either way, you can bet there will be a battle. And, regardless of the outcome, we will all soon be dead if we don’t act.”

“What do you mean?” one voice called.

“Why are we going to be dead?” asked another.

“I don’t have a lot of time to talk,” Garcia said, holding up his hands to forestall any further questions. “If the Turds win, they’ll have a chance to act on whatever intel that traitor gave them. They’ll bombard us just like before, then mop up the rest with ground forces. If our ship wins, then we know for a fact the missile system is going to launch nukes, first at the Alliance ship and then at First Landing, and everyone you know—everyone you love—is going to die!”

“That’s crazy!” someone yelled. “The Terrans will be burned up too.”

“No, they won’t,” Harry said. “I used to be a missileer. I can tell you their vehicles will protect them. They’re far enough away that the protection systems in their vehicles won’t let a single rad get to them. They’ll be fine, but we’ll all be dead.”

“We have to stop them!” several people yelled.

“Yes, we have to stop them,” Garcia said. “Everyone here, as well as everyone we find on the way, will attack them as soon as we get there. We must attack, and we must attack now!

“But that’s suicide!” someone yelled. “There’s no way we can get close to it. They’ll kill us all!”

“Some may die,” Garcia said with a nod, “but that is a sacrifice that must be made so that we hold their attention while a second force sneaks through a back way to hit them from behind. That force will also have a man with it who knows the missile system; that way, if the Terran ship wins, we can shoot it down. If we do this right, we will end the day as free men and women.”

“Who’s going to lead the second group?” a woman asked.

“This girl right here,” Garcia said, pointing to Mio in the front row.

“Her? She’s too young!”

“She might be a traitor!”

“Can we trust her?”

“We can trust her,” Garcia said. “She has brought many things to light that no one else saw, and she has saved the resistance from being undermined by a traitor. She has my complete confidence. She may be young, but she is experienced, and she has been to the missile base at least twice, so she knows the way. We can all trust her to get the job done.”

“What’s all this ‘we’ stuff?” a voice yelled. “Where are you gonna be?”

“I will be right alongside you, leading the first wave,” Garcia replied. “If today is my appointed time, I will die alongside you, but I will die striving to make my planet free! There is no more noble cause than the one on which we embark, and I am proud to lead you into it. Grab your weapons; we leave in five minutes!”

The group broke up as everyone scattered to retrieve their gear, leaving Mio and Harry with the ruling council, who already had their weapons.

“Do you really believe all those things you just said?” Mio asked.

“Absolutely!” Garcia said. “If we can do this, we will be free within a matter of hours.”

“No, I meant do you mean the things you said about me?”

“Yes, little one, although I did not trust you initially, you have proven your worth so many times you have removed all doubt from my mind. Were it not for you, Dan would be getting ready right now to lead an assault that would have ended in all our deaths. Not only do you deserve my trust, you deserve my respect and my thanks. Thank you, Miss Sanchez, for giving us a chance to win today.”

Mio nearly glowed with pride. “Come on,” Harry said, before she could think up a suitable reply; “we have to get going, since we have the farthest to go.”

“You’re right,” Mio said. She started to go, then turned around. “Thanks for your trust, Mr. Garcia. I will do my best.” That would have to do for now.

* * *

In addition to Harry, Mio led Amelia Lopez, Trevor Werner, and three of the other camp’s best fighters, including one with a backpack full of explosives, back to the tunnels in a race against time. When would the ships above start trading fire? How long would the space battle take to end? No one knew, nor could anyone know the outcome of the fight. Even worse than not knowing the outcome was knowing their friends and fellow resistance members were on their way to the missile system and would begin the attack along the timeline they had set…and there was no way to tell them to stop if something caused a delay.

No delays could be permitted.

They ran all the way to the tunnel entrance, leaving Mio and Harry winded.

“How far from here?” Trevor Werner asked as Harry turned on the light.

“About seven miles,” Mio said, “but it’s pretty much a straight line, with no ups or downs.”

The freedom fighter looked at his chrono. “It’s going to be tight. We don’t have much time to stop and rest. Can you do it?”

“Yes, I can,” Mio replied, although every muscle in her body was already fatigued. She hadn’t trained to run distances with her gear and rifle, and it showed. “Let’s go,” she added, setting out at a brisk walk to catch her breath.

The group alternately ran and fast-walked until the lights went out, and then took up a forced march pace. Everyone had flashlights…but no one wanted to run into an ambush. Even though their pace was a “walk” and not a “trot,” it was at a brutal pace, and it wasn’t long until Mio’s shins were hurting.

Consoling herself with the memory that she had hurt worse in the tunnels and had still made it out, she pressed on, biting her lip to deal with the pain. Although not an experience she would want to remember, she knew this was her chance to prove herself, and the group made good time through the dark passageway.

Until the lights came on.

Mio immediately froze, holding up a hand with her fist closed like she had seen Dan do. She shook her head. She wished Dan hadn’t been a traitor; she would feel a lot more comfortable with him at her side than these people she didn’t know. She looked at Harry walking beside her. At least she had him.

“Why’d you stop?” Jason asked. “We need to get there before the attack starts.”

“I know,” Mio replied, “but there’s a problem.”

“What do you mean?”

“This is only the second time I’ve seen the lights on here,” Mio replied, “and the first time, there were Terran soldiers.”

“Want me to lead, then?” Jason asked. “I’ll deal with any troops we come upon.”

“That’s all right,” Mio said. “We need to be quiet, and I know the tunnels. I may be able to avoid them.”

“Okay,” Jason said, “but we don’t have any time to waste.”

“I’m not trying to waste time,” Mio said, fighting the urge to stomp her foot; “I’m trying to do this the way I was told so we can surprise the Turds.”

“All right, press on then. Just let me know if you see anything different.”

Mio continued to lead them down the tunnel, being especially alert for Terran troopers. The group had almost reached the Terran soldiers’ turnaround when she came to a small rock on the side of the passageway. Not much bigger than a silver dollar, Mio started to walk past it, but then stopped as she came even with it. Aside from the cave-in, she hadn’t seen any rocks in the passageways. Why would there be one here?

She grabbed Harry’s arm as he started to go around her. He paused to glare at her. “What?” he mouthed.

Mio held up a finger to silence him and led the group back the way they had come. “That rock wasn’t there the last time we were here,” she said once they had withdrawn a little way down the passage. “Trevor told me to watch for anything out of the ordinary; that’s different.”

Harry’s glare softened, then his brows knitted together. “Hmm…” he said, looking back up the passage to where the rock lay. “Stay here a sec,” he added a couple of moments later as he came to a decision. He walked up to the rock and looked down on it before coming back to where Mio waited.

“Good job,” he said. “That’s a Terran camera, disguised to look like a rock. The lens faces up the passageway where you can’t see it until you’re past it, and it’s seen you. If we’d gone past, they would have known we were coming.”

“So how do we get past it?” Trevor asked.

“I don’t know…I’m working on it. We can’t move it, or they’ll know someone’s here. We also can’t go by it—the way it’s sitting, there’s no blind spot. It can see the whole passage, from side to side.”

“How about running and jumping over it?”

“That won’t work,” Harry said, shaking his head, “not unless you can fly down the passage; it’ll see you when you come down.”

“We’ve got to hurry; they’re counting on us!”

“I know,” Harry said. “Don’t bug me; I’m thinking…”

Mio looked at her chrono. If he didn’t come up with something right now, they were going to be late, and she was going to get even more people killed. The resistance fighters would never trust her again…assuming any of them survived the attack. She had to get Harry through to the missile system.

“We’re out of time,” Jason said, when no decision seemed to be forthcoming. “We’ve got to go. We’ll just have to try running past it on the sides of the passage; maybe they won’t notice.”

Harry looked into Mio’s eyes. “They’re probably going to see us, so they’ll be expecting us. One of us has to make it to the command vehicle. If they kill me, you’ve got to get to the command vehicle and blow it up!”

Mio nodded. “Got it,” she said. “We have to destroy the command vehicle.” She turned and looked down the passageway. If only there was another way, she thought. Mio took a deep breath. She would make her father proud of her.

“Okay; here we go,” Jason said. “We’ll all go on ‘three.’”

Her father? Something about her father tugged at the corners of her consciousness.


She could see his smile, almost as if he were standing next to her…


Next to her? That’s it! “Wait a second!” she exclaimed, grabbing Jason’s arm before he could go charging off. “I’ve got it!”

“Got what?” Jason asked. “We don’t have time for this. We have to go!”

“We have to get there without being seen,” Mio said, “and I know how to do it. I’ve got a holo-projector. If I project a picture of the tunnel in front of the camera, we ought to be able to get past it.”

She pulled the projector out of her pocket and looked at the little device. Inside it was the only memento she had of her father…and she had to erase it. It was the only contact she had to her family. As her father was probably dead now, there would never be a chance to get another one. Before she could talk herself out of it, she pressed the ‘Erase’ stud.

“Okay,” Mio said, blinking back a tear as she thought of her father. “I just have to set it up. It will only take a second.” She set the cube next to the rock and recorded as much as the cube would hold.

“When I give the signal,” she said, returning to the group, “run down the left side of the passageway single file. I think it will work, but it’s better if we go quickly to minimize our exposure.”

She returned to the cube, nodded to the group, and pressed the ‘Play’ button. A hologram of the passageway sprang into view that blocked most, but not all, of the other side. The group ran past on the far side.

“Did it work?” Jason asked.

“I don’t know,” Mio replied. “It all depends on how closely they were watching.”

“So, they may know we’re coming,” Jason said with a nod. It wasn’t a question. “I’ve got the lead from here to the door. You and Harry are our high value units because you know the way; I want you in the back from here on out. Stop me before I take a wrong turn.”

He broke into a run, and the rest of the group hurried after him. Mio checked her chrono; even at the punishing pace Jason set, she could tell they would be late.

They were still a short distance from the door when the sounds of gunfire reached their ears.

“Jason!” Harry called. “Hold up!”

“What?” the resistance fighter asked. “Are you deaf? The attack has already started.”

“I can hear just fine, thanks,” Harry replied. “I know the attack has started.”

“What is it, then?” Jason asked. “We need to be there now!”

“We do no one any good if we arrive out of breath or run into a trap,” Harry said as he resumed a brisk walk. “We still have a few minutes before the missiles are ready for launch. And they won’t shoot unless their ship is destroyed, so we’ve got until the space battle is done.”

The group reached the doorway a couple of minutes later; the gunfire was much closer and distinct. Several explosions also sounded. That was trouble—only the Terrans had grenades or missiles.

Mio put a hand on Jason before he could step through the doorway. “Let me look,” she said. “I know where everything was earlier.”

“Hurry!” he ordered.

Mio lay down and crawled forward. No one waited in front of the door. That wasn’t the case outside the tunnels, though; ground lighting around the prepped missile vehicles and the first hints of pre-dawn light lit everything well enough to see. She could tell there were more Terrans running about than she had ever seen in one place. Most were farther away than the command vehicle, and all seemed to be running toward the firefight.

Except for the two soldiers posted outside the door to the command vehicle. She scanned the panorama one more time, then scurried back.

“Most of the soldiers are going toward the battle,” she reported, “but there are two Turds guarding the door to the command vehicle. Also, is it bad that the missiles on the trucks are now pointed straight up?”

“Very bad,” Harry replied. “They’re within minutes of launching.”

“We’ve got to stop them!” Jason exclaimed. “Is there any way to sneak up on the soldiers? We have to get this done, and if the rest of the army is alerted, we don’t have enough people to hold them off.”

“There’s no way to sneak up on them,” Mio said. “It’s all in the open.”

“Crap,” Jason said. “I don’t want to give them the opportunity to call for help, but we’ll have to chance it. We don’t have time.” As if to underscore his statement, there was a roar from outside as one of the missiles launched. There was no way to tell if its target was the ships in orbit or First Landing, but their minutes to act had just become seconds.

If the Terrans called for reinforcement, the resistance fighters would probably have to blow up the vehicle, Mio realized, rather than capture it. But that would ruin her plan! She thought furiously. How could they get to the command vehicle? It was in the open…that’s it!

“I have an idea,” Mio said, taking off her pistol belt quickly, before she could change her mind.

What now?” Jason exclaimed. Mio could see her window of opportunity was infinitesimally small.

“No time to explain.” She jammed her pistol in the waistband at the small of her back. “Cover me,” she added, “and kill them if I don’t.”

Mio sprinted from the tunnel and raced through the gap in the bushes like something horrible was chasing her. Throwing her empty hands up, she made a beeline toward the command vehicle yelling, “Help! Help!”

The soldiers raised and aimed their rifles at her, but she didn’t stop. Looking down the barrels of their rifles, she found it easy to look panicked. “Don’t shoot!” she cried. “I’m unarmed! Don’t shoot!”

The soldiers held their fire, and she ran up to them, panting hard.

“What’s the problem, little girl?” the one on the left asked, lowering his rifle.

“Resistance fighters!” she exclaimed, gasping for breath. “In the tunnels…” she said, pointing behind her. “Lots of them!”

“Go tell the lieutenant,” the one on the left said, glancing toward the tunnel entrance, then turning toward the other soldier. “Bring help!”

The man on the right started to go. Mio reached behind her and grabbed her pistol. In one fluid motion, she aimed and fired at the man on the left, striking him twice in the chest. At the sound of the weapon firing, the other man turned. Mio spun and fired, but the man threw himself to the ground and rolled. The shot missed.

The man continued moving, and Mio fired several more times, the laser bolts fusing the sand next to the man to glass as she continued to miss.

Mio pulled the trigger again, and the weapon clicked, out of power. She pressed the battery release button with her finger, while her other hand groped for a replacement from her pocket. She found the battery and yanked it out, but the soldier was already up on one knee, raising his rifle. Mio had time to realize she would be too late; she was going to die.

The man’s head exploded as at least two laser bolts hit him. A third struck him in the chest as he fell over.

Harry ran up and shot the trooper one more time, while Jason did the same with the other soldier she shot. Neither was necessary; they were both dead.

Jason and Amelia sprinted to the door of the vehicle, and Jason yanked it open. They fired their rifles several times as they advanced into the vehicle, then Amelia turned and waved her men forward. “Get the explosives in here!” she ordered.

Without a word, the man with the backpack charged toward the vehicle.

Mio could see her plan evaporating. “Wait!” she yelled. “We don’t have to blow it up; we can still capture it.”

“We don’t have time,” Amelia said. “They already launched one of their missiles.”

Mio looked frantically to Harry. “Isn’t there something we can do?” she asked.

Harry’s face scrunched up in thought. “I might be able to recall it, or terminate it in flight,” he said, “but I’d have to do that from inside the vehicle.”

“Please!” Mio begged. “Let him have a try. It’s the only way we can win!”

Amelia thought for a second, then waved them forward. “You don’t have long,” she said. “If you can’t do something immediately, we’re going to have to blow up the vehicle.” She turned to talk to someone inside the vehicle. “Set the charges, but don’t initiate the fuse until I tell you.”

Harry ran forward and up the stairs, with Mio close behind.

“Hey! Who are you?” a voice yelled from behind her. “Stop and be recognized.”

Amelia fired as they ran past her. “Hurry,” she said. “Looks like reinforcements are coming!”

Mio followed Harry into the vehicle and was immediately assaulted by the smell of death. Four Terran soldiers lay on the left side of the vehicle, slumped on the keyboards in front of them, and blood was spattered throughout the interior. Harry ran to the first chair and yanked the soldier from the chair. Sliding into position, he scanned the board once, taking in the displays. He pulled the headset from the dead man’s body, placed it on his head, and began manipulating some of the dials and buttons.

“Can you do it?” Jason asked.

“Maybe,” he said, flipping a switch. “On second thought, yes. Yes, I think I can. It’s a little different, but it looks like it has most of the same functionality.” He pointed to the chair next to him. “Mio! Take that position. Quickly!”

Mio ran to the chair and shoved the dead body, but it didn’t move. Her hands came away red and sticky. No time for grossing out. Mio moved to the side of the position and saw the man’s seat belt. She pushed the button, and the belt retracted, allowing the dead man to slump farther forward. She shoved him again, and his body fell to the floor on the other side, leaving a headset dangling from the dash and a red smear down the panel in front of her. The body left a small red puddle in the plastic seat.

“Take the seat!” Harry ordered with a new, very military, tone in his voice.

“It’s…uh…” Mio said looking at the puddle.

“Sit down!” Harry yelled. “I need your help now!

Mio slid into the seat, closing her eyes and shuddering as the wetness soaked through her pants. She put the headset on like Harry had done.

Harry reached over and grabbed a handset from where it dangled on a cord in front of her panel. “Take this,” he said, handing her the device. He twisted a knob on the dash in front of her to “Guard.”

“Talk to them!” Harry said.

“Talk to who?” Mio asked.

“There’s a ship coming. I’m trying to stop the missile; tell them not to shoot us!”

“Quickly!” Amelia said, slamming the door of the vehicle. “We’re surrounded and trapped!”

Mio put the device to her lips, not knowing what to say. “Uh…ship that’s coming…”

“Push the button first, Mio,” Harry said, “and tell them who you are.”

Mio saw the button on the handset and pushed it. A new tone sounded in her ears as the radio began transmitting. “Uh, ship attacking the planet, this is, uh, Mio Sanchez. Please don’t blow us up.”

“Station calling, this is the Alliance Combatant Vessel Puller,” a voice said in the headset. “Please identify yourself!”

The Puller? That was her father’s ship! “Hi Puller,” she said. “This is Mio Sanchez. We just captured their missile system, and we’re trying to stop the missile the Turds launched at you. Oh, can you say ‘hi’ to my dad for me, too?”

“Got it!” Harry exclaimed. “Command destruct. The missile is destroyed.”

A wave of relief threatened to overwhelm Mio. The Alliance was finally here. Her father—no, her Daddy—was finally here, and they had just saved him and his ship. Her long nightmare was over. She was finally safe. “Great!” Mio said. “We’re saved!”

The vehicle rocked. “Not really,” Amelia said. “The Terrans are trying to break in. If they recapture this vehicle, they can use the missile system against the ship and our town. Nothing’s over until we own the ground, or this weapon is taken out. We’re going to have to destroy it, rather than let it fall into their hands.” She nodded to her explosives expert. “Trigger the detonator,” she said; “we’re blowing it up.”

Mio!” Her father’s voice said over the radio. “Oh, my God! I’m so happy you’re okay!

Realization dawned on Mio. It was all so stupid. To have fought so long, to have seen and done so much, and to have her father finally here…all to lose it in the final moments. But she had learned in her growth from kid to rebel. And she knew the difference between harsh truths and forlorn hopes. Fooling yourself or avoiding the issue only increased the pain.

Tears blurred her vision. She hoped Daddy would understand.

Mio keyed the mic and answered him, trying to sound brave. “I’m okay now, Dad. I love you, and I’m so glad you’re here, but we can’t let the Turds shoot at you or the town. We’re going to have to blow ourselves up. I’m sorry, Dad, I really wanted to see you again.”

* * * * *

Chapter Twenty-One: Adelaide

Mio’s words—her final words!?—echoed across the bridge and reverberated in Benno’s helmet. To come this far, to have endured and inflicted this much horror, and to finally hear her voice and KNOW she’d survived…only to listen to her say she was about to blow herself up.

It was too much to comprehend, too much to feel. Benno’s mind and soul stretched to their breaking points. He could almost hear their final crack…

When the planet-side anti-orbit missile battery launched on them, they all knew they were doomed. The Puller was broken. She may have outlasted Mare Crisium, but that did not mean their destroyer was “victorious.” There was no way they could defend themselves against what was coming. With so many casualties, so much hull penetration, so many damaged systems, they only had half their reaction control thrusters, one of four engines, and a quarter of their radiators intact. As for weapons, a single railgun, two PDCs, and one laser functioned, and those only in local control. There was no way they could have taken out gunnery rounds, much less a missile bus with a hundred Dauphine xaser warheads.

Benno and the crew had long since come to terms with their odds and their probable fates. One can look only so long into the abyss before it ceases to generate much fear. Those moments as they watched the missile climb toward them were not as panicked as the uninitiated might assume. They had engaged in their limited available maneuvers and defenses, but it was more out of habit than any real hope they might work.

However, when the missile annihilated itself in the inner exosphere, it had been a miracle. No one expected it. It had in fact angered CDR Ashton, who thought it must have been a screw-up by the sensor operators, that what they had seen was the missile disgorging its warheads. But soon enough, they were able to verify the fleet killer was dead.

And then Mio’s voice had called out to them, to him. So much had seemingly changed in the 37 days since the invasion, in the months since Benno had last seen her. Would he recognize her? Would she recognize him?

Would they ever have the chance to find out?

Benno stabbed down on the transmit icon linked to her frequency. “No! Belay that order! Mio, do not blow yourselves up. Repeat, do not blow up or detonate your location! We understand your position may be compromised, but please don’t do anything rash. Hold on! We are inbound to render assistance.”

All eyes on the bridge turned to stare agog at Benno.

He nodded. “Close over their position, as fast and as low as this tin can will go. Prepare for planetary bombardment.”

* * *

Mio clutched the mic, joyful, frightened, hopeful, worried, and confused. She looked wildly around at the others in the Terran Marine missile command and control van. Harry grinned wide and nodded. Amelia Lopez looked doubtful. Trevor Werner, detonator in his hand, shrugged, unsure what the others would have him do.

Amelia spoke up first. “I don’t want to give up my life for the cause, but our options aren’t great. We can’t hold this door shut for long. They’ll start blasting the van until they finally punch through, and we’ll be dead anyway. The only way to keep them from taking back control of this battery is to blow it up. Jason, do it.”

“No!” Mio yelled. “My Dad is here. We have to give him a chance. He will make it through!”

“Before the Terrans do?” Amelia pleaded. “You’re willing to bet his life and the lives of everyone in First Landing on that?”

Mio cast a pleading gaze at Harry. Harry got up from the missile control console and nodded back at her. He turned to Amelia and Jason. “This entire resistance has had a tendency to back the wrong horse. This girl has been disregarded too often but has hit the mark every time. I say we bet on her.”

The missile control van rocked again as more Terrans joined the crew trying to batter the door open. A gap began to show between the door edge and the jamb. Outside light and angry voices streamed in.

Amelia sneered. “Yeah, but we’re not betting on her! We’re betting on her absentee old man and an Alliance that left us swinging in the wind for over a month! We’re out of time for maybes and hope-fors! Jason, blow it!”

Mio and Harry both started forward. Eyes wide, Trevor Werner flipped up the safety cover on the detonator’s trigger.

* * *

The Puller began to close on Adelaide, arrowing straight for the terminator between night and dawn, where Mio’s transmission had come from.

Not everyone was on board with this plan, however.

Amanda Ashton stared wide-eyed at Benno. “Benno, I know this is hard to take, but this may not be the best call.”

“It’s my daughter.”

“Yes. Yes, I know that. But she’s not the only daughter on that planet. There are a lot more souls than hers at stake. If she says the Terrans are going to retake control of that battery, and our only chance is for them to blow themselves up, we may have to accept that. We’re crippled. We’re very nearly disarmed. We might not be able to stop them in time, even if we were in fighting shape. And if they wrest control back, going in closer just guarantees we’ll die.”

Benno ignored her. “Time to fire Mount DR2?”

The petty officer at the weapons monitoring station tied into CIC answered. “Approximately three minutes, sir!”

“The mount is in local, but they should have a tactical feed. Pass to DR2’s mount captain, ‘Batteries release as soon as targets can be discriminated at the position surrounding the missile control station. Danger close, friendlies in possession of the central vehicle. Use kinetic rounds only, no area effect rounds.’”

“Aye aye, sir!”

Ashton kept trying. “Our best bet for survival is to pull back until that control van is destroyed. Then we can attack it from beyond range, or from the other side of the planet, or in any number of other ways. It’s how we save the whole colony, Benno, and not just one person—if we’re lucky. Doing this, though, assumes they can hold out, assumes the Terrans don’t have a backup control station, and assumes we can survive close in. I hate to be the one to say this. It reminds me too much of something Captain Palmer would have said, but this mission is not this one battle. It’s not all about you, Benno.” She looked at him, but he refused to look back at her. “Or is it?”

He turned to the XO, rage heating his cheeks. “You’re not part of this mutiny, Commander! You remain alive and outside the brig on my authority! I suggest you remember that!”

“And I suggest you remember you’re not the only one listening on this circuit.”

Benno paused. Forcing his voice to remain calm, he nodded and keyed his mic for the internal net. “CIC, Chief Rajput, and Engineering Control, Senior Chief Ludovic, this is the bridge. I assume you’ve heard the XO’s argument?”

There was a long pause before Rajput’s voice came back. “That’s affirmative, Bridge.”

Ludovic’s much gruffer voice was unmistakable. “No one wants your kid to die, Benno. But we lack sufficient options to burn in hot and low if it means we’re all done for.”

Benno shook his head. He took a breath and spoke to them. “Either of your stations can cut out the bridge at any time. The fact that you haven’t done it, and the fact the XO hasn’t tried to countermand my orders directly… it means that deep down, you don’t want to. Logic is not on my side here, folks. We should turn tail, get outside range, and fix ourselves before we try this. But I don’t have time for logic. I can’t just sit up here and let her sacrifice herself. She’s my little girl. She shouldn’t have to fight our fight. I’m supposed to. We’re supposed to, even if it means we die…even if it means we fail. There are no guarantees. Down there, they can blow themselves up at any point, render this final run moot. Until that happens, though, I mean to gamble everything I can. I know any of you would too.”

No one said anything.

Finally, the XO gestured to the tactical screen. “Passing inner exosphere. Going to start getting drag from the atmosphere, especially in our current state. May need to reverse thrust if we want to sit over the target site.”

“Combat concurs.”

“Yeah, Bridge. Engineering concurs. Let’s slow our roll and get ready to pound those bastards into oblivion.”

Benno smiled, nodded, and narrowed his eyes at the screen and the icons beginning to discriminate into separate forces on it. “Bridge, aye. Stand by to fire.”

* * *

Jason’s finger hovered over the detonator trigger. Sweat beaded on his brow. They could all tell he was struggling with the decision to commit suicide for the greater good.

Everyone else stayed frozen in place. The van rocked and sounded as the Terrans tried to break in.

Amelia yelled. “Trevor! Now!”

At that, Jason closed his eyes. As he did, Harry surged forward and planted one meaty, iron-hard fist in his face. The slimmer man’s head snapped backward. His hand spasmed open, dropping the detonator, trigger guard still flipped open.

Harry dove, fumbled with the falling detonator, and managed to keep it from hitting the ground or from accidentally triggering it himself.

Jason’s back bounced off the control van’s wall, and he blinked rapidly. He shook his head back and forth, trying to clear it. “Owww, Harry…”

“Damn it,” Amelia cursed and glared at Mio. “This planet dies, and I’m blaming you, little brat.”

Mio, her eyes wide as saucers, could only nod. “Okay.”

Harry carefully closed the trigger guard and put the detonator on the far side of the van, away from Jason and Amelia. He glanced at the control station he had been seated at before. The icons and lines were only gobbledygook to Mio, but Harry nodded and said, “That ship is burning in from extremely high orbit pretty hard, but not as fast as we might hope. She might have been damaged in the fight with the Turd ship.”

Mio moved closer and stood in front of the door. “So, what should we do until they get here?”

In answer, the door wrenched open as the latch gave way. It stopped on the security catch, two inches open to the early morning light outside and the angry face of a Terran Marine just beyond it. Mio yelped, raised her laser pistol and shot a bolt of energy by reflex. It missed the Marine, reflected at an angle off the inner surface of the door, and sprayed hot slag and metal vapor all over the Terran’s face. He screamed and fell away.

Harry maneuvered in front of her and stuck his laser rifle through the gap. “We fight!” he roared.

Amelia and Jason, earlier arguments forgotten, closed in on either side of Harry and aimed their weapons through the gap as well. Shot after shot blazed through the partially open doorway, setting up a wedge of death for any Terran foolish enough to try to cross or take advantage of the opening.

Still, they could not shoot anywhere else. The door shielded the Terrans just as it shielded them. The force outside continued trying to break in through the sides and the door.

There was no room for Mio, who had been shouldered out of the way. Instead, she looked back at the control station. It made no more sense now than it had before. The highlighted icon closed in as slowly as molasses but, given that the screen represented orbital distances, it must have been moving very, very fast.

Mio wondered if she should call her dad again, let him know they were going to try and hold out, but she did not want to distract him or cause him more worry. She had grown so much during this. She wanted her father to be proud of her, not to disregard her like everyone except Harry seemed to do.

Someone outside finally realized trying the door was a losing proposition. A muted whine rose in the background, far different from the pounding of fists or the snap of laser rifles. Harry’s eyes went wide as he recognized the sound. He screamed to Mio, “Down!”

Where before, Old Mio might have thought about it, questioned it, or failed to react, New Mio dropped instantly. Harry and Amelia fell almost as fast.

The whine became a roar, a series of explosions fired so tightly together, in a string so long, they failed to register as individual shots. Lasers were a boon to infantry: light, powerful, very nearly ammo-independent. But they sometimes lacked the punch of physical rounds. For anti-materiel fire, a bullet was hard to beat. And a magnetic accelerator Gatling cannon, a MAGiC, firing tungsten shot, was most terrible of all.

The continuous stream of penetrators ripped through the armored walls of the control van like they were made of tissue paper, fired so fast they left behind a trail of ionized air torn into plasma. It looked like straight white lightning bolts cutting through both sides of the van. The line of fire swept through the control van in just over a second, passing chest-high through the space Mio, Harry, and Amelia had just occupied.

Trevor Werner, so intent on keeping the Marines at bay from the little gap, did not drop with them. MAGiC fire lanced through his chest. He separated, shoulders up and chest down, as violently as if someone had lassoed him with detonation cord. Blood sprayed all over the interior of the control van. Jason did not yell or cry out. He made a wet splashing noise as his legs and torso collapsed and then a second as his head and shoulders slapped wetly against the opposite wall and slid down to the floor.

It was the worst thing Mio had ever seen. And if she did not stand and act, it would not be the last.

She leaped to her feet as the roar vanished, and the whine wound down. A line of glowing orange holes, each one an inch and a half wide, perforated the control van all around them. There was less metal between the neatly spaced holes than there was open space. She could see straight out all around her. The Turd Marines had thrown themselves to the ground as the MAGiC mount took over. Now that it had stopped, they were prone and less quick to rise than she was.

The mount was too far off, and armored, but that did not hold true for the Marines who had clustered behind the opposite side of the door. Harry had called this sort of thing a target rich environment. Mio raised her pistol, aimed, and fired…then moved her aim a fraction of a degree, and shot again. And again. And again.

Harry and Amelia rose and joined her. The Marines dodged, rolled and fired back, but it was easier to fire out of a narrow gap than it was to fire into one. Medieval arrow slits had worked for a reason. The MAGiC mount may have pierced the van like a tin can, but it had given them a momentary advantage as well.

They could not let the Marines approach, could not allow them to wrench open the laughably weakened door and retake the control van, even if the cable runs to the antennas were severed. Anything broken could be fixed with a splice in minutes. The Puller would not survive that. First Landing would not survive that.

Mio could not allow it, even if it meant she would not survive it.

The Marines quickly figured out the length of time and the butcher’s bill necessary to retake the van partly intact were too great. Instead of continuing their headlong assault, they went into full retreat and pulled back behind cover.

The MAGiC mount whined again as its smoothly-greased cylinder of coilgun barrels began to spin. The mount re-oriented, aiming lower for another sweep across the van’s side. There would be no ducking beneath this barrage.

Mio stopped firing. Desperate and bereft, she wished for her Mom. She cried for her Dad. With one hand, she reached out and took hold of Harry’s hand as she picked up the detonator and flipped up the cover with her other. The old fighter looked at her and nodded once, knowing it had to be done.

Against MAGiC, only the finger of God was paramount. The mount’s whine failed to ratchet up into a roar. Instead, a shaft of light reached down and obliterated the mount, leaving a huge crater and a crack of sound louder and sharper than lightning. The deck of the van pulsed beneath Mio’s feet. Three seconds later, another shaft of light, another crack, and a knot of Terran Marines exploded. Three seconds and an armored truck vanished into a fireball.

Railgun unitary penetrators fired down from the heavens, bracketing either side of the control van, boom, boom, boom, over and over again, leaving behind craters and destruction. The shots surrounded them, encircled them, and moved out from them. Wherever a cluster of Marines or a piece of military equipment stood exposed to the sky, the rapid strike of a lance of hardened metal moving at meteoric velocities ended it, converting orbital kinetic energy into heat, light, and carnage. The Puller’s orbital bombardment was not the apocalyptic devastation that had taken out the Army and Navy bases, or that had decisively dealt with most of the resistance after Dan’s betrayal, but that was only an issue of ammunition choice.

This remained just as insurmountable and unopposable, though. Artillery was often referred to as the “king of battle.” But orbital artillery was the ultimate ruler over all the lesser lords. Mio’s final stand had permitted their approach. And in return, they had saved Mio, her friends, her fellow citizens, and had given her back her family and her planet. Mio flipped the cover back down on the detonator.

All hail the king.

* * *

The single-stage-to-orbit dropship that touched down in the field across from Mio carried the markings of the Terran Union Armed Services, but those symbols offered nothing more for her to fear. Not today. Today they represented hope, because the Turds no longer flew them. Today, loyal Alliance Navy pilots and her fellow partisans manned that cockpit.

It was utterly unsafe to approach until the ground crew chief waved her forward, but that did not stop her from running up as soon as the dropship ramp cracked open. It similarly did not prevent her father from jumping out and running for her as soon as it dropped down enough for him to do so. They came together, and Benno crushed his daughter in his encircling arms before the ramp finally settled upon the ground. Mio hugged him back just as fiercely.

They both stood there, breathing in choking gulps, crying as ugly and unashamedly as any two people could, without saying a word. Others milled past them, either to unload personnel and gear from the Puller or to load it up for the return to space. The stricken destroyer needed materiel of every kind, and lots and lots of time, before she would ever fly out of orbit again, not to mention her need for personnel, supplies, repairs…and a good deal of discussion and frank re-evaluation regarding her status, her mission, and her future.

But that was for another day.

Today, there was only time for reunion and reconnection.

Finally, the tears, the sobs, and the embrace cooled themselves. Benno held his daughter out from him and laughed, embarrassed. Mio laughed too, awkwardly, and both of them took a moment to wipe their eyes and compose themselves.

Benno spoke first. “Oh, my mija Mio. I’ve missed you so much, Love. I’ve been so worried about you! You have no idea.”

“I have no idea? Daddy, this has been so crazy! So much has happened, so much has gone wrong, and I’ve been so scared. I missed you soooo, so much, Dad,” she answered.

Without a hint of shame, he searched her face and began to look her over, attempting to find any blemish, any mark, any sign of injury. Mio tolerated it for a count of ten before she finally raised her hands and pushed him away, gently but insistently.

A new, more exasperated, more prideful look was on her face.

Benno scowled. “What?”

Mio set her mouth in a firm line. “I’ve been scared, Dad. I thought I’d go insane. But I’ve been brave, too.”

“I know that, Sweetie—”

“No, Dad. You say you know it, but I don’t know if you understand. This has been hard. I’ve seen death. I’ve experienced pain, and misery, and fear. I’ve killed people and fought for others. I’m not the same girl you left behind. I’m not just your little ‘mija Mio.’” She paused for a minute. She felt both proud and afraid. She did not want to push her father away, not when she had needed him for so long, but she also could not just tuck herself under his wing and wish away all that had happened to her. If she did, it was as if she rejected all she had fought for and had slowly become.

Mio tried to continue, but she didn’t know where to start. Should she tell him about the Rogers? About the horrors she had experienced or about how she had grown into something hard and sharp, like a knife? What about Dan and how she had uncovered his treason? Or about Harry and all he had taught her, things that she perhaps should never have learned or should have learned only from her father? What about Diego, or about the first Terran she had killed? Should she tell him about the strange, hidden tunnels that still had no explanation?

Benno saw the struggle on her face, and it broke his heart. It had saved him, to know that she had survived, that she had endured, but knowing it had affected her—and knowing and not knowing exactly how it had—filled him with trepidation. “Mio. I know. You’re right. I’m sorry this whole ordeal forced these changes on you, but it doesn’t matter how they’ve changed you, not to me. I love you. I’m proud of you and your strength. Damn, girl, I’ve already heard some things transmitted up to the Puller, and believe me, you’ve done nothing you need forgiveness for, nothing you need to be ashamed of or fearful of how I might react.”

Inside, Benno winced. The same was not true of him. The word had not spread yet, but the colonists—both plebs and aristos alike—knew something was up with their saviors. He would have to face it, here, on Adelaide. They were traitors and mutineers, but with the Puller in her current state, they could not proceed on to free Putnam, Trinity, or New Kiev…not yet. Nor could they hold off the Alliance if, or when, they finally came after them. Similarly, if the Terrans returned to augment their forces or to pull their Marines out, the Puller had no chance of defending herself or the planet.

And even if they did get away, even if they used every resource on Adelaide or what remained up in orbit with the wreckage of the Mare Crisium to return to fighting form and rescue the other three worlds, what then? What would they do with CDR Ashton and the loyalists? Would he be forced to remain on the run forever, or would he turn himself in to face his crimes? Was there a third option that would not schism the Alliance completely?

And how would Mio see him? How would she think of her father once she knew all he had done? How could he justify his cold-blooded murders, his mutiny, his lies? Would she ever speak to him again once she had absorbed the fullness of his sins?

But that was for another day.

For now, he had his little girl, and she needed her father, whether she could admit that to herself or not.

“Mio, you are my daughter. You always will be, and I couldn’t be prouder of that. But it’s okay to lay down your burdens with your dad. That’s what we’re here for. It doesn’t lessen you, and sometimes, no matter how strong you are, it’s okay to let someone else face down the monsters for you.”

She might have bristled for a moment under his hands holding her shoulders, but it passed. Finally, Mio looked up at him and smiled, relieved. “Thank you, Daddy.”

Benno nodded. It might only be for a moment, but looking into her eyes, he saw a hint of the innocent daughter he had left behind so long ago, with whom he was now reunited. He smiled. “For now, let’s allow ourselves a moment. Let’s take some time and get to know each other as we are, and remember that no matter what, what matters is that we have each other.”

“I love you, Daddy.”

“I love you, Mio.”

She came into his arms again, but their hug was not as desperate this time.

Now it just felt like home.

# # # # #

About Chris Kennedy

A bestselling Science Fiction/Fantasy author, speaker, and publisher, Chris Kennedy is a former naval aviator and elementary school principal. Chris' stories include the "Theogony" and "Codex Regius" science fiction trilogies and stories in the "Four Horsemen" military scifi series. Get his free book, "Shattered Crucible," at his website,

Chris is the author of the award-winning #1 bestseller, "Self-Publishing for Profit: How to Get Your Book Out of Your Head and Into the Stores." Called "fantastic" and "a great speaker," he has coached hundreds of beginning authors and budding novelists on how to self-publish their stories at a variety of conferences, conventions, and writing guild presentations, and he is publishing fifteen authors under various imprints of his Chris Kennedy Publishing small press.

Chris lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and is the holder of a doctorate in educational leadership. Follow Chris on Facebook at

About Thomas A. Mays

Thomas A. Mays (Tom) is the author of the hard SF/military sci-fi space opera A Sword Into Darkness and its upcoming sequel Lancers Into The Light, as well as his military AI short story collection REMO. His stories have appeared in The Four Horsemen Universe anthology For a Few Credits More, in Castalia House's Riding The Red Horse, in Daily Science Fiction, Jim Baen's Universe, and The Grantville Gazette Universe Annex. His short story "The Commuter" was nominated for a Hugo Award in 2016…and the story about THAT requires the liberal application of beer and/or whisky to be told properly.

Tom is a 23-years-and-counting active duty service member and veteran of the United States Navy, currently at the rank of Commander, at least until his Uncle Sam discovers how he spends his evenings writing trashy sci-fi. He has a couple of degrees in Applied Physics, has had command, and has served aboard destroyers, carriers, amphibious ships, and landing craft, worked with the Marines, the Army, the Air Force, and the Coast Guard alike. He has played with electromagnetic railguns and lasers, fired missiles, shot down missiles, and blown up stuff in space and on the water. Everything he writes about is REAL, except for the stuff that might get him in trouble, and that stuff is DEFINITELY FAKE. He tries not to let what he actually knows get in the way of a good story. Tom has three great kids, an awesome dog, and a really, really cool girlfriend. Tom lives wherever the Navy sends him, but his heart and his future remain in Texas.

Tom hopes y'all enjoyed The Mutineer's Daughter and looks forward to reading your reviews on Amazon, Audible, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Goodreads, Smashwords, Google or Apple Books, or the bookseller and/or blog/site of your choice. If you want to find out more or drop Tom a line, visit him at, @ImprobablAuthor on Twitter, or at The Improbable Author on Facebook.

* * * * *

Titles by Chris Kennedy

Red Tide: The Chinese Invasion of Seattle” – Available Now

Occupied Seattle” – Available Now

Janissaries: Book One of The Theogony” – Available Now

When the Gods Aren’t Gods: Book Two of The Theogony” – Available Now

Terra Stands Alone: Book Three of The Theogony” – Available Now

Can’t Look Back: Book One of the War for Dominance” – Available Now

The Search for Gram: Book One of the Codex Regius” – Available Now

Beyond the Shroud of the Universe: Book Two of the Codex Regius” – Available Now

The Dark Star War: Book Three of the Codex Regius” – Available Now

Self-Publishing for Profit” – Available Now

Leadership from the Darkside” – Available Now

Asbaran Solutions” – Available Now

The Golden Horde” – Available Now

Alpha Contracts” – Available Now

A Fistful of Credits” – Available Now

For a Few Credits More” – Available Now

The Good, The Bad, And The Merc” – Available Now

Titles by Thomas A. Mays

A Sword Into Darkness” – Available Now

REMO” – Available Now

* * * * *

Connect with Thomas A. Mays Online



Twitter: @ImprobablAuthor

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The following is an

Excerpt from Book One of the Four Horsemen Cycle:

Cartwright’s Cavaliers


Mark Wandrey

Now Available from Seventh Seal Press

eBook, Paperback and Audio

Excerpt from “Cartwright’s Cavaliers:”

The last two operational tanks were trapped on their chosen path. Faced with destroyed vehicles front and back, they cut sideways to the edge of the dry river bed they’d been moving along and found several large boulders to maneuver around that allowed them to present a hull-down defensive position. Their troopers rallied on that position. It was starting to look like they’d dig in when Phoenix 1 screamed over and strafed them with dual streams of railgun rounds. A split second later, Phoenix 2 followed on a parallel path. Jim was just cheering the air attack when he saw it. The sixth damned tank, and it was a heavy.

“I got that last tank,” Jim said over the command net.

“Observe and stand by,” Murdock said.

“We’ll have these in hand shortly,” Buddha agreed, his transmission interspersed with the thudding of his CASPer firing its magnet accelerator. “We can be there in a few minutes.”

Jim examined his battlespace. The tank was massive. It had to be one of the fusion-powered beasts he’d read about. Which meant shields and energy weapons. It was heading down the same gap the APC had taken, so it was heading right towards that APC and Second Squad, and fast.

“Shit,” he said.

“Jim,” Hargrave said, “we’re in position. What are you doing?”

“Leading,” Jim said as he jumped out from the rock wall.

* * * * *

Get “Cartwright’s Cavaliers” now at:

Find out more about Mark Wandrey and “Cartwright’s Cavaliers” at:

The following is an

Excerpt from Book One of the Kin Wars Saga:



Jason Cordova

Available Now from Theogony Books

eBook, Paperback, and Audio Book

Excerpt from “Wraithkin:”


The lifeless body of his fellow agent on the bed confirmed the undercover operation was thoroughly busted.

“Crap,” Agent Andrew Espinoza, Dominion Intelligence Bureau, said as he stepped fully into the dimly lit room and carefully made his way to the filthy bed in which his fellow agent lay. He turned away from the ruined body of his friend and scanned the room for any sign of danger. Seeing none, he quickly walked back out of the room to where the slaves he had rescued earlier were waiting.

“Okay, let’s keep quiet now,” he reminded them. “I’ll go first, and you follow me. I don’t think there are any more slavers in the warehouse. Understand?”

They all nodded. He offered them a smile of confidence, though he had lied. He knew there was one more slaver in the warehouse, hiding near the side exit they were about to use. He had a plan to deal with that person, however. First he had to get the slaves to safety.

He led the way, his pistol up and ready as he guided the women through the dank and musty halls of the old, rundown building. It had been abandoned years before, and the slaver ring had managed to get it for a song. In fact, they had even qualified for a tax-exempt purchase due to the condition of the neighborhood around it. The local constable had wanted the property sold, and the slaver ring had stepped in and offered him a cut if he gave it to them. The constable had readily agreed, and the slavers had turned the warehouse into the processing plant for the sex slaves they sold throughout the Dominion. Andrew knew all this because he had been the one to help set up the purchase in the first place.

Now, though, he wished he had chosen another locale.

He stopped the following slaves as he came to the opening which led into one of the warehouse’s spacious storage areas. Beyond that lay their final destination, and he was dreading the confrontation with the last slaver. He checked his gun and grunted in surprise as he saw he had two fewer rounds left than he had thought. He shook his head and charged the pistol.

“Stay here and wait for my signal,” he told the rescued slaves. They nodded in unison.

He took a deep, calming breath. No matter what happened, he had to get the slaves to safety. He owed them that much. His sworn duty was to protect the Dominion from people like the slavers, and someone along the way had failed these poor women. He exhaled slowly, crossed himself and prayed to God, the Emperor and any other person who might have been paying attention.

He charged into the room, his footsteps loud on the concrete flooring. He had his gun up as he ducked behind a small, empty crate. He peeked over the top and snarled; he had been hoping against hope the slaver was facing the other direction.

Apparently Murphy is still a stronger presence in my life than God, he thought as he locked eyes with the last slaver. The woman’s eyes widened in recognition and shock, and he knew he would only have one chance before she killed them all.

He dove to the right of the crate and rolled, letting his momentum drag him out of the slaver’s immediate line of fire. He struggled to his feet as her gun swung up and began to track him, but he was already moving, sprinting back to the left while closing in on her. She fired twice, both shots ricocheting off the floor and embedding themselves in the wall behind him.

Andrew skid to a stop and took careful aim. It was a race, the slaver bringing her gun around as his own came to bear upon her. The muzzles of both guns flashed simultaneously, and Andrew grunted as pain flared in his shoulder.

A second shot punched him in the gut and he fell, shocked the woman had managed to get him. He lifted his head and saw that while he had hit her, her wound wasn’t nearly as bad as his. He had merely clipped her collarbone and, while it would smart, it was in no way fatal. She took aim on him and smiled coldly.

Andrew swiftly brought his gun up with his working arm and fired one final time. The round struck true, burrowing itself right between the slaver’s eyes. She fell backwards and lay still, dead. He groaned and dropped the gun, pain blossoming in his stomach. He rolled onto his back and stared at the old warehouse’s ceiling.

That sucked, he groused. He closed his eyes and let out a long, painful breath.

* * * * *

Get “Wraithkin” now at:

Find out more about Jason Cordova and “Wraithkin” at:

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